Charming

Jenny Bowers never thought she would be the type of person to freak out over a sock. But sure enough, she was paralysed with fear when it appeared during the tidy up of her messy bedroom. A man’s black sock that had been sitting, hidden, for over two months while she passed by it obliviously.

It was one of the souvenirs that Mark had left behind during his many night visits into Jenny’s room. She had sometimes found herself pondering if Mark saw her the same way, as a discarded item not worth a second thought before sneaking out. He would always be gone by morning, probably minutes after Jenny fell into post coital sleep.

Though she had a nice-looking face, no-one could picture Jenny with the handsome neighbourhood charmer. With her pale skin, dirty blonde hair and permanent pudginess, Jenny was not one of the conventionally gorgeous girls. Plus her wardrobe choices were borderline tomboyish, usually consisting of baggy sundresses topped off with a hoodie.

There was a time she was overjoyed that Mark Keating had chosen her. It was hard not to admire his movie star looks to the point of hypnosis. She loved feeling his sun kissed athletic body up against her, looking into his chocolate brown eyes and playing with his dark hair. Now she couldn’t even look at his sock without feeling nauseated.

Jenny threw an overnight bag at it, as though hoping to scare it away like a cockroach. If she didn’t have to look at the sock, then it didn’t exist and it wouldn’t bring up the thoughts that had plagued her since that fateful night.

In a desperate need for air, she ran to her window and flung it open. While gasping wildly and trying not to be sick on the roof tiles, her face flushed with a burning heat. Her gaze fell upon the houses of Sila Street, a neighbourhood that had once been so lively now seemed so haunted.

From her window, she could just make out the Keating’s red brick house. For the last two months Joshua and Roberta Keating had been on a desperate search for their son. They held on to the firm yet futile belief that Mark would come home someday, in the process becoming ghosts of their former selves. It was easy enough for Jenny to avoid them since they never went out anymore.

At first, the neighbourhood had come together with gestures of support and comfort, assisting the investigations where they could. Mark’s disappearance had attracted public attention for a little while, as missing popular teenagers did, before being buried by the wave of new stories. As the weeks passed with no development, even the neighbourhood hope began to dwindle. Though they wouldn’t dare voice it aloud, after New Year most started to believe that Mark wasn’t coming home.

Only three people knew the truth. None of them saying a word.

Jenny watched as her older sister Sara walked out the mail box. The weeks following her graduation Sara had acted a little too serenely, only playing the concerned part when required. What went on seemed to have no genuine effect on Sara, a fact that made Jenny admire and loathe her simultaneously. It was not a new feeling. Despite being younger, too often Jenny had felt like the rough draft to her sister’s masterpiece.

As her breathing returned to normal, Jenny dared a glance across the street. There was the white timber house where Michelle Hayne’s parents still lived out their daily routines. They had no idea what happened that evening in their very house, in the now tainted cellar which had once been Michelle’s special private room.

Jenny let out a scream of frustration that she had bottled up for too long. She grabbed the offending sock, stormed downstairs and right out the front door. Not content with just throwing it in the bin, she walked a few houses down and shoved the sock through a drain vent to wash away.

It was crazy to think this gesture would help her forget what happened.

Two months ago…

Normally on Saturdays Jenny could barely contain her excitement. Due to her mother, Dina Bowers, constantly working at the hospital and Sara at her usual dance class, Jenny and Mark would take advantage of the chance to have alone time. They would share a six pack of beers between them, snuggle up on the couch to watch a movie and then inevitably go to Jenny’s room to fool around.

However, this Saturday saw Jenny sitting alone in her living room with a bag of microwave popcorn, watching TV game shows. She loudly shouted the answers at the screen and insults at the contestants who were wrong. A crossword puzzle book lay forgotten on the floor beside her, frustrated scribble on the front cover.

This was her way of coping, a way to feel smarter in her blatant stupidity. She had predicted that Mark was going to dump her when something better came along, a cynical belief she’d held about every man after her father left. Mark had insisted on keeping their relationship a secret and Jenny knew she would never truly be his girlfriend. Though she couldn’t stop falling for his sweet words, the sales pitch that made her give him everything. It was Mark’s special talent, making you feel like the only one that mattered.

But never could she have imagined that his new flame would be on the same street. Specifically, Mark felt the need to admit he had fallen for Michelle, the artsy girl across the road. There was no shame as he confessed it, with a tone voicing more affection than he had ever expressed to Jenny. Mark was clearly too infatuated by the short but cute redhead to express the appropriate amount of guilt.

The only solace in the painful break up that made her whole body hurt, was that Jenny didn’t give Mark the satisfaction of crying. Even now she forced the floods back and turned it into competitive aggression towards The Price is Right.

“Okay, what’s happened?”

Jenny jolted at hearing Sara’s voice invade the room. She turned towards her sister and tried her best attempt at a smile. Even as she did it, Jenny knew it was pointless as Sara could sense lies from a mile away.

“Don’t even begin to deny that something is up.” Sara demanded as she stood in front of the television, hands on hips. “You always do this when you’re upset about something. You bury yourself in work, logic puzzles and denial.”

Jenny tried to turn up the volume on the TV but Sara turned it off. Even with her petite frame, Barbie blonde hair and figure fitting dance class attire, Sara somehow radiated the strength of a steroid powered bouncer. Beautiful and fierce like a lioness.

“I just don’t want to talk about it. I was naive and should have seen this coming,” Jenny clarified, finding it harder to hold back her rogue tears. “Just let me watch my shows.”

Sara sat down on the couch beside Jenny and placed a calm hand on her shoulder. “This is about Mark, isn’t it, and that bitch Michelle?”

Jenny let out a guttural sob, turning to her sister with a glare. “How did you know that?”

“We do live under the same roof, Jen. You think I didn’t hear the stuff going on in your room. I warned him if he ever hurt you, there would be trouble.” Sara shook her head in disbelief. “He and Michelle were just making out on her doorstep. You think he would have grown out of that dickhead stage by now.”

“Please just stop!” Jenny shouted, throwing her popcorn across the room as she began to cry openly.

“Look, Jen, you have to stop blaming yourself. He’s a slimy jerk.” Sara was now rubbing comforting circles into Jenny’s back, “Mark’s always been this way, even when we were kids. One smile and he could get away with anything. Why don’t we go do something about it, instead of sitting here moping around? You know he has it coming.”

Jenny had to admit that Sara had a point. She definitely had the desire to slash Mark’s car tyres or burn his beloved soccer memorabilia. Punch him in the chest to make him feel what she did. What Mark did required some kind of karmic retribution. But deep down, Jenny knew she wouldn’t go through with it. The last thing she wanted was to be viewed as some crazy girl with an unrequited crush, which was how Mark and his clique would spin the story.

“You know what, why don’t you let me handle Mark? He’ll be at the graduation party tonight.” Sara suggested, her blue eyes lighting up as the gears in her brain were turning. She smiled briefly as the pieces began falling into place.

“He’ll probably bring Michelle.” Jenny added, wiping her face to hide in her hands.

“Why can’t she find a guy her own age Instead of playing the deep, artsy, older woman card? She’s not even that pretty. Plus she’s weird.” Sara knew that Jenny was due for a reality check and a kick up the butt. It was up to her to get her sister fighting fit and back in the game. “Remember that housewarming party the Hayne’s threw when they moved here two years ago. Do you remember how Michelle went beyond mental when the Anderson kids tried to kick in the cellar door?”

Jenny scoffed out a laugh and shook her head. “So she’s high strung, big deal. She’ll be gone soon, to graduate art school or whatever.”

“All the more reason to get your revenge on the weirdo now.” Sara turned Jenny to face her so their eyes met. It was clear she had some kind of plan in motion. “My point is, there is clearly something in the cellar she doesn’t want people to see. I say you break the lock, go in the cellar and take some pictures or trash it – get creative with what you find because it’s clearly going to be good. For all you know she’s stashing dead bodies or voodoo dolls down there.”

“Dead bodies? Are you kidding me?” Jenny exclaimed, hoping that Sara was actually joking. “I’m not going to get arrested from break-in entering the Hayne’s creepy cellar. No matter how much I hate Michelle right now.”

“Look, if you keep letting people walk all over you, girls like Michelle are going to keep taking your boyfriends. Maybe in this case she did us a favour but still, she can’t get away with this crap. Nor should you let her.” Sara stated bluntly, face stern with earnestness. “She’ll be at the party and her parents are away, which is why Mark went over and hit that.”

“Just leave me alone!”

Jenny folded her arms and turned the TV back on. She couldn’t believe her own sister was being so insensitive. Maybe she was a little timid but that didn’t mean that breaking Michelle’s things, not to mention the law, was going to fix it.

Sara stood up and began walking from the room, no doubt to get ready for the upcoming party. Before she left, she decided to get one final thought in. “You know you want to do it.”

Sara’s words lingered long after she’d left the house. Jenny tried to shut out the voice, wanting only to absorb herself in game shows. Still, the suggestion kept tempting her like a drug. Even after Sara had left the house, her words lingered long after. It brought up images of Michelle and Mark laughing at her.

You know you want to do it. You know you want to do it. You know you want to do it.

Unable to take it anymore, she switched off the TV and headed upstairs. After washing her face, she pushed open her bedroom door and stepped in to the room where Mark had screwed her, literally and metaphorically. It amazed Jenny how rotten she could feel in her own space. The doubt inside her was replaced with a Sara-like determination for justice.

On her desk were a pair of large bolt cutters that Jenny didn’t recognise. Next to them was a note written on Sara’s favoured daffodil stationary.

I told Mum we were going to the movies together. The hospital wants her on until midnight, so do it! XOXO Sara.

Jenny couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Leave it to Sara to plan absolutely everything, including an alibi, so she had no excuses to back out. Just this once she appreciated the fact that Sara had stuck her nose in. It was about time for Jenny to harden up before the world took advantage.

She slipped on one of Mark’s large black hoodies, something he had left behind one night in his rush to bail out. It was the perfect size under which to hide the bolt cutters, along with being dark to not draw attention. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Jenny thought she looked pretty intimidating for once.

She grabbed her camera phone for potential incriminating pictures before casually making her way across the street. There was no car in the Hayne’s driveway, as to be expected. No lights appeared to be on inside the house either, so she was unlikely to get caught.

Jenny slipped around to the side of the house. In the dim light she spotted the cellar door with the peeling red paint and lock only Michelle could open. Already the door was looking like a bad omen warning her not to enter. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she really wanted to know what was down there.

“Stop being an idiot. Just do it.” Jenny whispered to herself. Using her phone as a torch, Jenny steadied the bolt cutters around the lock. It took a lot of strength but she finally managed to snap it and throw it into the bushes.

Jenny gingerly opened the door and peered down the stairs which led to only darkness. It truly looked like the beginning of a horror movie, causing her to once again shake the illogical scenarios from her mind. She sneaked down slowly with the cutters tucked under one arm and her phone lit up in her hand. She fumbled along the wall and managed to find a light switch halfway down the stairs, illuminating the grey room below.

As the cellar came fully into view, Jenny found herself surprised by what she discovered. Nothing news worthy at all but an art studio of all things. Michelle works of colours and creativity filled the room, whether it be painting or sculpture.

Jenny was almost disappointed but that soon gave way to disgust. It wasn’t fair that Michelle was this talented. She would get everything she wanted, the guy and the fancy art school. Enraged, Jenny swung the bolt cutters and knocked over an abstract clay sculpture which broke on impact with the floor. Loving how the destruction felt, the release of her fury, Jenny proceeded to stab the tool through a canvas multiple times, destroying the colourful painting upon it.

Suddenly, the door banged open and snapped her into alert. Jenny squeaked and ducked into the nearest corner, hiding herself from view of the stairs. Clutching her only potential weapon she mentally prepared herself to escape whatever the cost.

“Jenny, are you down there?”

Jenny gasped as she heard Mark’s voice, freezing in fear as his work boots stomped down the stairs and he came into view. His dark eyes turned to her, blazing like she had never seen them before. Jenny tried to threaten him with her weapon but the panic in her eyes gave away her bluff.

“You come to trash Michelle’s stuff because I like her? You wanted to ruin my graduation party over a crush?” Mark stormed over, his regular charm replaced with anger. He ripped the tool from her hand and threw them on the floor. “It’s just lucky Sara phoned to tell me what you were up to.”

“Sara told you?” Jenny whimpered, feeling the cold brick wall against her back through the jumper. For the second time that day she felt completely betrayed.

Sara stepped down the last few cellar stairs, revealing she was there. Her sporty attire indicating that she clearly hadn’t gone to the party. “I’m just doing what I have to do, Jen. You know I can’t bear to see you get in trouble. I brought Mark here to help you.”

“I told you to let me handle this Sara.” Mark snapped at the blonde behind him with uncharacteristic rage then turned back to the one before him.

“You told me you wouldn’t hurt her.” Sara warned, her tone was one Jenny recognised as the calm before the storm.

Mark ignored Sara, keeping his back to her and closing in on Jenny. “Who does this, Jenny? You’re acting like a little psycho. We didn’t work out and I like someone else. Get over it!”

Mark’s last angry word ended with his mouth open and his eyes filled with painful shock. A sickening smack followed, ringing out through the air as bolt cutters connected with skull. Mark dropped to the ground right after with blood flowing into his hair. Jenny cried out in horror as she noticed a handle sticking out of Mark’s back, the tool attached still inside him.

Jenny turned to Sara, who once again brought down the bolt cutters on Mark’s neck, a precaution in case he dared move again. Jenny’s snivelled helplessly at the scene, mouth wide open in disbelief, shutting her eyes to try and block it out only to open them again and find that the whole thing was reality.

“I did tell him what would happen.” A coolly offered explanation from Sara. She bent down and, with a gloved hand, pulled the barbeque fork from Mark’s back like he was a ham. “Serves him right for being so arrogant all these years.”

“Screw you.” Mark was amazingly still conscious and weakly holding the back of his wounded head. His teal button up shirt was staining an ugly brown.

“You still can’t help yourself.” Sara kicked him hard in the throat, making him gurgle. Turning back to Jenny, she continued to justify herself. “He hurt you and god knows how many other girls. You know it’s for the best, Jen. I told you this would help you stand up for yourself.”

Jenny felt herself sinking to the ground beside Mark, she reached out to touch him but recoiled as more blood flowed from the stab wound in his back. “You stabbed a guy! How the hell is this going to help anyone? What the hell have you done? We have to call someone to help him.”

With a shaky hand, Jenny pulled her phone from her pocket. She could barely hold the phone, let alone push the buttons. This made it very easy for Sara to calmly snatch the phone from her. For the first time in her life, Jenny was truly scared of her sister and of what she was capable.

“It’s what you should have done the first time he used you, cheated on you. Guys have been getting away with this charming stuff and all these girls blame themselves. Even our own father ran off and left us.” Sara reached out a hand to hoist the frightened Jenny off the floor. “Not anymore. You have to stop whining.”

Another interruption came as footsteps sounded through the studio. Jenny froze and Sara smirked as someone was making their way down the stairs.

“Mark I can’t believe you left me at the party. Now you come down here. I told you-”

Within seconds, Michelle appeared. Her eyes fell upon the scene in her art room. It took only a moment to register Mark bleeding on the floor and Sara with the weapon. She let out a series of deafening screams and turned to run back to the entrance. The escape attempt was thwarted very quickly by Sara, who managed to trip Michelle on the stairs and pull her violently by the hair. The hysterical artist clawed at Sara, calling out for help to no avail.

Jenny sunk back down quietly, watching the two, knowing by this point to keep her mouth shut. With their interactions few and far between, it had been easy not to think of Michelle as human. But at that moment it was hard to separate her image of a giggling boyfriend stealer from the real Michelle in front of her.

In her intention to gain some kind of power back, Jenny now found herself completely defenceless. She felt indescribably cold, even with the think jumper on. Michelle was clearly terrified and didn’t deserve any of this. Sara had assumed control like she planned wasn’t going to let anyone help Mark, a fact made abundantly clear as she slapped Michelle hard across the face.

“What are you going to do Michelle? Let’s think about it logically for a second here, you’re a smart girl.” Sara stated, still surprisingly unaffected by everything around her. “This is your boyfriend, stabbed with your family barbecue fork in your secret art studio which you don’t let anyone into. What do you think is the most likely conclusion to this?”

Michelle turned to look at a bleeding Mark, who let out the tiniest moan to let the girls know he was still alive. She wanted to run to him but Sara was almost supernaturally strong. It was then Michelle finally noticed Jenny, back to the wall and hands by her side, face an impossible shade of white.

“Jenny, come on. You liked Mark, remember. I’m sorry that he liked me, really sorry for that now, but it’s not too late to help him.” Michelle pleaded as she made a quick move towards her boyfriend before being pinned to the wall by Sara, a forearm to the throat.

“Go ahead Jenny.” Sara held out the mobile phone towards her sister with her free hand, daring her to take it. “Help Mark live his perfect life with his trash-bag girlfriend while we both get arrested for this whole thing. Let him walk all over you once again. Let him keep treating women like prostitutes.”

Jenny looked to Sara, who made a valid, if twisted and evil, point. Then to Michelle, who continued to softly beg for help, with her sweet face twisted in panic. Jenny yelped and backed further into the corner when Mark, using all remaining strength, touched her knee.

“Jenny, please.” Mark pitifully reached out for her but gave up after a few seconds. “I’m sorry.”

Teary-eyed Michelle gestured to the fallen Mark in between gulps of air. “See, he’s sorry for what he’s done. You’re not like Sara, it’s not too late to help him. Please, if not for me then for your own soul, Jenny.”

Jenny stared at the pathetic Mark, his appeal now dissolved, unable to fathom how she had come to love such a creature. One moment he was holding her close, the next sneaking out to meet another woman. However, she couldn’t deny the part that did care for him and believed he was a good person. Carefully, Jenny took Mark’s arm and rolled him onto his back. She sat close so their eyes were locked, ignoring the other two girls nearby.

“I did care about you, Jenny.” Mark managed to choke out softly before succumbing to the searing pain. It was clear from his eyes rolling he was straddling the line between life and death.

Jenny’s icy blue eyes filled up with a genuine concern as the listened to Mark’s words. She would never know if Mark was actually telling the truth. With the internal bleeding, there was only one choice left.

“I cared about you, too.” Jenny explained with a voice laced in guilt, reaching over and grasping the barbeque fork and making sure the jumper sleeve covered the handle. “It doesn’t change the fact you’re going to die down here.”

Jenny shut her eyes and with a war cry, plunged the sharpness deep into Mark’s chest. One strike, then another and then a third through the heart to make sure he would die. Her skin crawled as blood seeped through the hoodie sleeves. Jenny couldn’t let him die slowly, prompting the decision to put poor Mark out of his misery. It was not intended as a heartless act of murder, but she killed him all the same.

Michelle was sobbing riotously, which echoed through the cellar. Tears running dark purple mascara all down her cheeks. She dived to Mark’s side and clutched his red stained hand, hopelessly wishing he would squeeze back. Another scream escaped her before she vomited beside his corpse, shaking uncontrollably.

“He wasn’t going to make it. I just did what I had to.” Jenny stood up and walked over to Sara, staring into the familial features. “I didn’t want any of this to happen.”

Sara nodded almost sarcastically in response and took the fork from Jenny’s grip. “Whatever you say.”

Michelle turned back to the sisters, weakly trying to stand up. “You two are sick! Get the hell out of here. Get out! Now!”

Jenny headed towards the stairs, eager to leave it all behind physically, since the mental anguish would never cease. Sara could deal with the body since it was her plan. However, Sara grabbed her arm, gently halting her. The older Bowers sister then walked over to Michelle and stood her ground.

“I could leave but, as I’ve said before, that would be a really bad idea. Everything about this points to you. I mean, Jenny and I were at the movies when this whole thing went down, weren’t we sister?” It was unbelievable how nonchalant she sounded.

Michelle shoved Sara roughly before lunging at her in a full-on attack. Sara regained her footing quickly, avoiding an incoming blow and punching Michelle in the chest to wind her. She pointed the fork towards the redhead’s throat, who swiftly backed off in fear of her life.

Michelle cowered as she gained her breath back. “Please, just go. I won’t tell anyone.”

Sara gave a little scoff before continuing to manipulate the room. “That’s what I’m here to ensure. Before you tried to attack me, stupid move since I do Tae-Bo regularly, I was going to offer to help. Who’s to say you weren’t with us at the movies?”

Michelle blinked in confusion, looking like a feral animal with her ruined makeup. “What are you talking about?”

“We help you clean this up. You say you were at the movies with us. I just happen to have an extra stub I can give you as proof.” Sara reached into her jacket pocket, showing off three movie tickets before tucking them away. ”Girls night out, watching an Italian romance film down at the alternative cinema.”

“Why would you help me? Why the hell would I trust you?” Michelle asked through gritted teeth. She felt a sense of relief when Sara lowered her arm but not enough to let her guard down completely.

“Because deep down you’re always going to know what you did. Plus insurance to cover my own tracks.” Sara explained everything with such apathy, it was as though the three weren’t currently standing over a dead body. “You get to go to your fancy art school instead of prison, Jenny and I go on with our lives knowing you won’t tell. As for Mark, well he’ll just disappear. So what do you say?”

Jenny knew it was hopeless. At this point Michelle was lucky that Sara didn’t kill her, a conclusion that Michelle herself was clearly reaching. Any attempts to bring Sara down would result badly for the others. All three would live with the knowledge of this night either way but only one way allowed them to have a life after taking Mark’s.

“We were at the movies.” Jenny spoke up weakly. Her statement now was a subtle way of telling Michelle what to do. Jenny had known there was no other way out, hence the decision to kill Mark quickly.

Michelle took a second and then nodded almost involuntarily. Her body switched on to auto-pilot due to shock. She slowly walked over to grab some tarp. What was supposed to cover a sculpture would now wrap Mark’s cold lifeless body.

“Yeah. A beautiful film with nice Italian scenery.” Michelle replied defeated, her voice quivering. She had tried to fight and lost, badly. “It gave me a great idea for a painting.”