Hayden Robinson

Ashes

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Short Story
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7 min read

The boy is small for his age and he wears the new skull shirt that Mum got for him and also having his golden Five Nights at Freddy’s Security Guard badge pinned to it. He looks around at all his friends, dancing like mad, running around and stuffing themselves silly with fairy cakes and potato crisps. Stacks of presents sit on a table in the corner. His family, made up of bank managers and computer experts who are so out of place in his suburban home, chat away with each other about boring stuff. All the windows and doors are open, filling the house with a cool breeze and happy sunshine. Mum comes over, snuggles him up like a fluffy teddy bear, and bends down to kiss him on the cheek. She smiles, her bright green eyes wide, and her hair down and flowing. She looks so strange, a horrible kind of strange, but he tries in vain to smile too.

His eleventh birthday is going great, and everyone is having a good time, but all the boy wants to do is run up to his bedroom.

Everyone runs outside through the conservatory door into the hot summer day. Games had set up for the kids and they were eager to play in the bright sun. Mum follows behind them; the boy sees the sunshine glow on her face, and he is reminded of how much she looks like Grandma from old photographs.

When he knows for sure everyone has gone outside and he is safe, the boy creeps away up the stairs. The haunting light fades from downstairs, and the dark landing welcomes him. He tiptoes to his room, opens the door, and shuts it behind him. Posters and figures of Freddy Fazbear and his crew of animatronics seem to track him as he approaches the wardrobe.

The dirt-brown louvre door towers over him. He is tall for his age, but he seems so small and helpless. He looks at his new watch. It is now twelve o’clock, midday. He takes a deep breath. He places his hand on the door. It’s cold and damp like weeds on a grave. Taking hold of it, the boy pushes it open and steps inside.

Inside, there are stacks of shoeboxes, dusty toys, and hanging clothes. The boy shuts the door and shivers, immediately rubbing his arms. Despite the warmth of the clothes around him, the wardrobe feels like the North Pole. The boy looks around and finds who he is looking for.

Photo of an attic. There are chests and antiqu furniture in the room. A stack of playing cards are on a chest on the floor in the middle of the room.

“Hi, Grandma,” the boy says, smiling with relief.

Grandma smiles. “Hello, darling.” She sits cross-legged, a stack of playing cards in front of her. The boy sits down opposite her. She wasn’t much taller than him, but when they sat down together, Grandma was a giant.

Time for their ritual: a game of Go Fish.

They both take their share of cards and hold them up to their own eye lines. The boy slides his fingers through his ruffled black hair.

He asks, “Grandma, do you have any queens?”

Grandma hands over a card. He sees that it is a Queen of Hearts and grins in triumph. Picking out the queen from his own hand, he places the pair at his feet. First card down. They smile at each other, and the boy’s cheeks are warm against the frightful cold.

They play their game for the better part of an hour. It seems luck was on his side today. The boy had barely said "go fish" more than six times, but Grandma had said it so many times that he could see her twinge with annoyance. Usually, Grandma wins. Not today.

“You’re getting better,” Grandma says, scratching the penny-sized scab at the top right of her jaw. “Do you have any aces?”

The boy observes his hand. “Go fish.”

Grandma shakes her head, picks up a card, and adds it to her deck. As she does so, the boy hears unpleasant sounds from downstairs. Kids laughing and stomping their feet; a rubbish party song blasting; Mum calling his name. The boy groans. His party is breaking the spell.

“You better be running along, dear,” Grandma mutters. The boy thinks that she sounds sad. He turns and catches her growing paler and more melancholy, as if losing him to something she no longer was a part of. Mum was like that on some days, looking out the window, her eyes looking sadly at nothing in particular.

The boy is about to reply when he notices the scab again. He squints it. Had it brightened over the last minute?

“Two more go’s, Grandma,” the boy begs. “Please.”

Twirling her blood-caked white hair with her forefinger, Grandma ponders. The boy examines her, up and down, hoping she says yes, but also hoping she says no. Grandma is the same as she always was, yet she also isn’t. She hadn’t recognized the security badge she bought for him last Christmas. All she seems to remember is that they loved to play Go Fish together.

The boy gasps. There is a gaping hole in her chest, crusted with dry blood. Had it been there the whole time? Surely not, although he hadn’t been looking there through their game. Her heart sits there and it has a slit from top to bottom. It isn’t a Valentine’s Day heart, but a red apple decorated with veins and tubes. It isn’t beating.

He looks up. Grandma is raising her left eyebrow. She tilts her head down to the hole in her chest and sees her own heart peering out. She bites her bottom lip, giving a sheepish grin. Then, with the palm of her wrinkled hand, she presses the heart inward. To the boy’s morbid fascination, the heart slots back into place, or at least he hopes it has.

Her warm smile widens. “Your turn, darling,” her voice croaks.

Trembling, the boy asks, “Got any jacks, Grandma?”

The warm smile turns to a long, thin grin. She leans in.

“Go fish,” she whispers.

A sunroof window in an attic provides a beam of light into a dark room. There is a form materializing faintly.

Gulping an apricot pit-sized lump, he takes a card from the pile. He turns it over. Two black diamonds. He prevents himself from shaking his head in disappointment as he lines it up with the others.

“Do you have any jacks?” Grandma asks, her croaky voice playful.

His jaw drops. “You just said---”

“Do you have any jacks?” Grandma asks again. She always cheats when he starts winning.

He glares at her and hands over his jack. Grandma takes it, giggles like a schoolgirl and, taking another card, slams her pair of knaves down.

In his ear, the boy hears the party outside getting louder. Hyperactive foot stomps dance out of time to the song "Where Did You Go?" by Jax Jones and MNEK. Mum is calling for him again. A moment ago, it was frustrating. Now he craves being outside.

Over the top of his cards, he notices that Grandma is still sporting her horrible grin. It isn’t like the gentle smile she has when they’re together, playing cards or baking gingerbread men for Christmas. This grin is cold, distant, inhuman.

It’s only now that the boy notices that Grandma isn’t breathing.

Just one more go.

Beads of ice cold sweat trickle over him, but the boy holds his deck, which feels like invisible paper now; there but not quite there.

“Do you have any sixes?” he asks.

Grandma snarls, but hands a card over. He takes it and puts his pair down.

“Do you remember the crash, Grandma?” the boy asks.

She opens her mouth to speak. But as she does so, the scab tears open her skin and her jaw swooshes down, hanging by its hinge. Her tongue slithers like a crimson cobra. The boy covers his mouth to stop himself from screaming. Staring at him with milk-glazed eyes, Grandma takes her jaw and snaps it back into place. Then her loving smile appears as if nothing happened. The boy lowers his hand and, seeing no danger now, he sighs with relief.

“I got you that shirt for Christmas,” she says, pointing at him. Her voice is croakier than ever. Then after hesitation, she asks, “Do you have any nines?”

The boy looks at his deck. He has one nine of hearts. He frowns at her, then he becomes saddened. Grandma’s skin turns into cracked diamonds of grey and black, then the skin peels and turns to ashes. He remembers that her urn sits on the mantelpiece next to her last photograph. Does she return to it after every game? Does she know Mum talks to her every day?

Feeling both relief and pain, he mutters, “Go fish.”

Grandma lets go of the cards and they all disappear.

“Please don’t go, Grandma,” he whimpers, unsure of whether or not he really wants her to stay.

He swears, just for a second, that he can hear Grandma whisper, “I'm always here.”

The door swings open. Mum looks down at him and asks what he’s doing. The boy, wiping away his tears, stands and hugs her. Her warmth embraces him like a blanket. She asks why he’s crying, but he doesn’t tell her. He never will. She says nothing else, but wipes his tears away. She smiles and this time, he decides it’s beautiful.

Mum takes his hand and leads him out, saying his friends have been worried. The room suddenly looks and feels brighter and happier: the windows are open to let the summer air into the room.

The boy turns his head to the cupboard. It’s empty. It’s okay, though. She’ll be back tomorrow, around midday, when they’ll play their game again.

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Short Story
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7 min read
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August 16, 2023
Hayden Robinson

Writer | Author | Horror Fan | NaNoWriMo 2022 Winner