April Showers, by Eric Nash, will appear in the upcoming Aggregate anthology.
Eric Nash lives in south west England and writes fiction, mainly speculative and often dark. His work has been published by Alban Lake, Demain Publishing, Daily Nightmare, Firbolg Publishing, Great Old Ones Fiction, HellBound Books, Horla Horror, Horrified Press, Indie Authors Press, JWK Fiction, Mythic Magazine, Oscillate Wildly Press, and Sekhmet Press. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association. His website is https://eric-nash-inked-up-and-earthbound.com/
As my dad remembers it, he was walking with my sister Anna along the lane, returning from the little shop at the cove. It was Easter, and my family was holidaying in Devon as usual. The wholesome smell of cowshit surrounded them both as he blocked the sun’s glare with his hand. Those hands: the mountainous knuckles, ridge-like tendons, and valleys of wrinkles and creases were landscapes promising adventure to me.
He called to Anna, hurrying her along. They had been sent on an errand by Mum and had to return with supplies. “Come on, Glitterbug.” The timbre of his voice had always been resoundingly reassuring, even during the frequent fights between my sister and I.
Cola-coloured rivulets raced jagged down her shiny yellow raincoat and dripped into the Dunlop wellies that shattered rainbow-slick puddles with splashes. The eight powder-blue segments of Anna’s parasol were spattered with muck.
She carried that thing everywhere like some security blanket, although you can’t jab someone in the ribs with woven bedding. I was always caught when I retaliated, it was as if my own bruises didn’t exist. Like everyone, he was charmed by the smile which bloomed from her chubby little face, whatever the adversity. This perceived positivity and the supposed selfless demeanour always distracted him. My smile was as fleeting as the attention he paid me.
She beamed. I studied and excelled, only for my father to say, “You can do better.” If my father’s pride swelled at my own achievements, its warmth did not melt away his frown, nor did it crack his determination.
The excuse for all of this? The curse of the first born or, as he called me, the experiment. I had been brand-new, their chance to get it right, and as he told himself, failure is not an option for a first-time parent. I guess that by the time the second one comes along success has been redefined, and out come the excuses. People are good at that.
He outstretched his left hand, the one reserved for her, as she galloped between the hawthorn hedges, wellies scuffing up stones to have them chase higgledy after her. “Let’s get back to the cottage, Glitterbug. Your mum and sis are waiting.”
Glitterbug. A play on words to indicate that he thought her a cute and shiny thing rather than some lout who chucks McDonalds wrappers out of car windows. She did that once along the M3 when we were coming back from Legoland and blamed it on me. He always believed her. His bug wouldn’t do anything other than sparkle. Anna always won.
It had been my idea to go the cove. I’d said, “We could go.” I meant me, us, together. I was in the garden when they left, snipping rosemary for dinner. I expect they called to me, but I must not have heard. I’ve never learned to stop making excuses for everyone.
In the lane, his arm trailed as he turned away, a gesture that I always took to indicate help would be there whenever she needed it. Her cool, clammy hand fed into his. One day, she’d reach an age when she’d refuse to take his hand. He knew it’d come and it frightened him nearly as much as he welcomed it. He told me this later. I assumed he meant both of us.
When they reached the stile at the field where the cattle grazed they heard the swash of water. Both father and daughter looked back along the narrow lane to see the water that Anna had been splashing in dance and jump, leap and spray. “Like a sparrow in a bird bath,” Anna said.
“More like a buzzard in a puddle,” replied Dad.
Intrigued by the possible sight of a raptor taking a bath, the pair returned to the puddle using the high grass verge to quieten their approach. As they neared they hesitated, not from the terrain’s difficulty, but because they couldn’t distinguish what they were witnessing. No flapping wings slapped the surface nor was any ducking avian skull visible. Nothing at all appeared to be causing the violent commotion.
Eventually, less and less water was fueled into propulsion until the motion became a gentle rocking like one achieves immersing into a full bathtub. Side by side, Dad and Anna studied the undulations and attempted to decipher what bobbed underneath the gentle sway of the water. The hand of a child, he told Mum and I later, a small pale shape that began to sink… and fade… until gone. Visible upon the puddle’s surface were only the parasol, his looming shadow, and the blue sky reflected brown.
Dad glanced at Anna before searching the reflection again. He raised his hand and felt his palm rest on the coolness of her hair, yet upon the dirty water the hand wavered in mid-air.
“Dad? Why aren’t I reflected in the puddle?”
Reconciling the fact that sometimes parents don’t have answers for a child’s many questions had always been hard for him. There was such a huge weight upon his chest to fulfil the expectations of a father, many of which were manifested by his own self. Although he doubted even physicists at science museums capturing space particles in metal boxes would have had an answer for what he confronted in that water. That thought hadn’t reassured him, he said.
“Trick of the light, Glitterbug.”
Dad still believes that he lost his Gli… Anna, my sister, to a puddle down a country lane.
Puddle, according to the OED:
1. A small pool of liquid, especially of rainwater on the ground. ‘splashing through deep puddles’
figurative ‘a little puddle of light’
2. [mass noun] Clay and sand mixed with water and used as a watertight covering for embankments.
3. Rowing A circular patch of disturbed water made by the blade of an oar at each stroke.
He’s right in some twisted way, I suppose. We did lose her to the puddle, or rather, what was in the water.
Anna had caught measles before the holiday. There was some talk about cancelling, but the decision was that the annual Spring break at my parents’ little piece of paradise would help their daughter recuperate. It must have registered with them that her immune system would be low, but sea air invigorates, they said. If they had known one could get E. coli O157 from the cowshit in puddles, they’d forgotten it. They certainly had no idea that the infection could develop into Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome. Anna was admitted to hospital with a suspected acute appendicitis, and two weeks later she died of a stroke.
That was ten years ago. As a child, you don’t realise how precious time is. Back then, it felt like I was going to be a kid forever, but my youth concluded with my sister’s death. Many people’s view of their childhood is funneled through a kaleidoscope. Mine is a refraction in a puddle.
We mourn the loss of others like we mourn time. We say goodbye. Yet it could be said that after a duration our grief becomes a selfish act. I mean, how long do you want to stand on the doorstep waving farewell? Chances are we are sorry our loved ones are gone not because they are unable to experience life anymore, but because we are unable to experience them. Inevitably, there’ll be room for guilt too. I often wonder what Dad would be like if it were me that died. At least he would have Anna, I say, then force myself to forget I asked the question. I could say that my grief is a reflection. I could say I’m mourning the loss of somebody else by proxy.
Even though we could never stand being within a mile of each other (that mile barbed with sisterly resentment), despite the constant battle I still have to keep my head above the surface and be noticed, despite knowing what she has done to my dad. All I want is one simple embrace with Anna. And every time I imagine us close my arms collapse and I trip over my heart. I always thought it would become easier to get back up.
Dad returned to find the puddle the following Easter while Mum and I went to the New Forest. That’s how family holidays were after Anna: broken. Life between them similar to swollen storm clouds rumbling like tanks. The arguments were unleashed rain that lashed against my bedroom window, while I lay staring up at the slats of my sister’s bunk bed expecting to see the mattress bulge from the weight of a shifting body.
I left home after my A levels and went to study Education with Psychology at Bath. I met Matt, slightly older and employed, who brought me flowers. I moved in with him the same time Mum died of cancer. When I quit school at the end of the second year and returned home, Matt promised to follow. He didn’t. I realised that I was glad; my hands were full cooking Dad’s meals and ironing his shirts. It may be true that the parent/child relationship sometimes blossoms into friendship, but it can also wither.
These days, I keep to my room. I hear the ting of the microwave and the pedal bin clatter, and the telly, which he turns on for company, pounds my floorboards and shouts through the carpet. When I come home from work, I tidy his shoes in case we trip over them.
He doesn’t go to Devon any more. On rainy days he visits the places she liked to go. He takes the other water butt—the one with carrying straps—that he stores in the garage. When I’m not working, I sometimes follow. I want to understand.
On Friday, I enjoyed an Americano brewed with ‘Lusty Gibbon’ in one of those trendy artisan coffee houses in town, the kind that indicates rising house prices. I took my preferred seat by the window and wiped away the condensation to look past the driving rain. On the bridge across the road stood a battered North Sea trawlerman—my dad. He peered into his water butt. Rain raced jagged over his hat and collar, and dripped into the container, but most splashed the concrete and skated drainward. I knew he’d stay like that until the rain stopped. I heard he’d once stood in the park for five and a half hours. He was bed-ridden with flu for a week after that.
A rainbow’s diluted strips of aquarelle arced over St John’s spire as the mass of cloud broke. The sun radiated its brilliance while the rain continued to batter the streets. The townscape was shrouded in a storm-bruised light much like it was forty-five minutes after school finished on the Thursday after my tenth birthday. Then, I’d sat on the pavement along Matravers Street, my coat scratching against the wall while my torn, wet exercise books lay tarmac-stamped by tyres. My dad had been driving between jobs when he saw me. He parked up, gave my ruined school stuff a shake and returned them to my bag, then squatted next to me, his knees clicking in protest. He ignored my torn jumper – that Mum would find in the wash basket and berate me for – and instead told me a story of how he was bullied at school until he gave his tormentor a black eye that bloomed an iridescent purple then yellow for days to come.
Standing on that bridge in the storm’s stained illumination, I no longer saw a father who couldn’t accept the loss of his child. I saw the man who had raised me. I remembered how he showed me to ride and swim and build a fire, and that he taught his daughters that it’s okay to be wrong, just as much as it’s okay to be right. I realised then, with a red-faced awkwardness that made me clench my jaw, that blame is a blanket for a bed of fear and anger.
I swirled the last dregs of cold coffee around my mouth and grimaced. My cake fork clattered on my plate when I knocked it with my bag as I stood. Outside, the rain splashed on my face and washed away any nervousness related to embarking on something I’d never done before.
I didn’t expect him to acknowledge my presence as my fingers curled over the hard plastic of the water container, nor did he. Rain from my wet hair threaded into the corner of my eyes; it wobbled along the tightrope of my nose to dangle. After a time, I did not notice. I stared at him and me, side by side, then at the surface. Stems of splashes separated into more splashes, becoming circles within more perfect circles spreading, merging annuli with curves unending, all within a cylinder. I saw me and him and thought of palindromes upon a page.
“She’ll come when the sun shines,” he said to himself. All the while persistent rain sounded like the crinkling of paper. The fleshy side of my hand nudged the grained skin of his, those hands that promised adventure. I wanted to believe what he believed; maybe then he would see me.
The last of the clouds rolled across the surface of the small reservoir.
“There. There’s my daughter.”
I knew he didn’t mean me. It wasn’t a revelation for me either.
I sighed, knowing I couldn’t deal with this situation any longer and had to walk away. I stared at his reflection one last time and raised my hand. “Goodbye, Dad.”
I mistook Anna for another cloud, then realised that it wasn’t moving across the water like the others, but underneath. The small pale shape became five fingers rising toward us until the surface rippled. Her outstretched digits reached for the reflection of my own hand. I never believed I would feel them on my flesh, but it was like I had dipped my fingers into the cold clear liquid. The chill rushed up my arm, a grasp tightened on my elbow, fingers froze onto the joint, using it as leverage. A burning collar about my neck contracted the skin over my skull. My head pounded, penetrated by the coldness that congealed my blood and stiffened my marrow. I could do nothing but bow under the weight and be seared by Anna’s multiple grasps as she clambered out, and pulled me in. The tinkling sound of falling water was her soundtrack, as mine were the splashes of my struggles.
I couldn’t argue with him. This time, it was not futility that muted me, but rainwater flowing down my throat. I spluttered, but still it gushed through my tubes to fill my belly, like salt water charging through the corridors of a sinking vessel before it settles submerged.
Yet again, my sister has won. The waves have calmed above me, the curves and annuli that had disrupted the surface a second time have ceased. No-one searches for me, and only the sun peers over the rim.