As we walk to my house after school, I try to focus on the few positive features of Jennifer’s appearance. Blonde curly locks, decent bone structure, sharp cheekbones and strong legs – probably from being in the hockey team. Her shrill laugh prevents me from finding any more, and I can’t help feeling she uses plurals far too often for someone with a lisp. We approach what I consider to be the walk’s halfway point; a large oak tree growing from Mr Wesham’s garden, its wiry branches curling over his fence and casting shadows onto the pavement like talons. I groan at how lengthy the journey is. When my parents are in a good mood, they drive me to and from school. For the past few years, I’ve walked every day. We cross the street and I catch myself checking behind me, wary of bullies who frequently ambush me around this point. Jennifer looks as though she might ask about my nervousness, so I steady my breath and try to ignore the pain in my side from yesterday’s beating. She’s now talking about the rock patterns she learned in geography, and I’m so disinterested I pretend to see a squirrel.
At the front door, I notice Jennifer’s arms fold around her small chest. I try my best to smile encouragingly, but she is looking through me, biting her nails like a rat. I’m aware my parent’s house isn’t overly impressive, but it’s better than the majority of dumps in this neighbourhood. I consider the possibility that her parents own a mansion, in which case entering our house could be an intimidating step down for her. It dawns on me that I don’t know anything about Jennifer, apart from we have science together and she always offers to do my homework. I cough to get her attention and she looks up pathetically, swooning. Jennifer is quite possibly the least popular person in our secondary school, but given my own social standing isn’t much higher, she was the only classmate I was confident wouldn’t refuse coming over for dinner. She’s also fancied me since we were pre-pubescent. Before we go inside, I insist she takes her glasses off.
The first guest I remember was a boy, seventeen maybe. I was just a child, watching him enter our house wrapped around my mother. They were both stumbling, bellowing an old rock song while my father entered behind them and locked the door. Mum got the guest comfortable in the living room, while Dad took me upstairs and instructed that I was to stay in my room for the night. After he left, I pressed my ear to the dirty carpet and listened to laughter for hours, until all went silent.
I take Jennifer to the kitchen where Dad is chopping vegetables. His beard is unshaven and the bags under his eyes tell me he probably spent the night on the sofa. Jennifer introduces herself awkwardly, and Dad waves without letting go of the knife. I explain that Jennifer will be staying for dinner and his shoulders immediately tense. The chopping stops and he faces me, slowly. My cheeks heat up. I love my father, but his violent outbursts have kept me terrified of him from a young age. Fear wraps around my throat, keeping me silent. The knife glinting in his hand, Dad speaks through gritted teeth:
“I haven’t made enough.”
Jennifer takes a step back. The awkwardness seems to suck all oxygen from the air. I suggest tentatively to my father that as the classmate I’ve brought home is ungodly skinny, half of my portion should be enough to satiate her needs. I’m also fully prepared to spend the remainder of the evening hungry, if needs be. The oven suddenly beeps, dissolving some of the tension. Dad’s cold eyes hold my gaze as he mutters, “Fine.”
He turns round and continues chopping. I’m not sure if I expected more resistance to the suggestion, but Jennifer looks as though her heart is clawing out of her chest, so I invite her to come upstairs.
As we proceed to the second floor, I run the plan over in my head. It is essential that when my mother meets Jennifer, she likes her, if there’s not an immediate spark between the two females, then I am sceptical tonight’s events will even be possible. I approach her bedroom door and hear crying emanating from inside. Dad’s demeanour makes more sense – they’ve been fighting again. Jennifer asks if everything is alright. I ignore her and knock, pretend the sobbing is inaudible. Mum disregards the rap on the door, so I reach out verbally instead.
“What is it boy?” she shouts through the wood.
Jennifer is going at her fingernails again. I respond that I’ve got a visitor with me, a girl from class and, in quickly describing her, even opt to use the word cute, which makes Jennifer pick at her nail polish. There is a beat of silence, after which my mother demands me to leave with the use of several expletives. She also states that she will not be down for dinner, as a sort of rotten cherry on top. I expected more surprise from my parents that I’d brought home a friend, a girl no less, for the first time in my life, but they both seem intensely indifferent, which frustrates me. I retreat from the door and feel my arm touched without consent. Jennifer suggests she go home, maybe we try dinner another time, her house perhaps. My anger is quickly directed towards her, and I speak through gritted teeth that it has to be here, and it has to be tonight. I take her wrist and give a quick tour of the rooms she hasn’t seen, concluding in the living room. I get her comfortable, turn on the TV, and instruct her to watch while I get some things ready.
The second guest arrived a few months after the first, whilst I was asleep. Their drunken debauchery woke me, and I laid in bed listening to muffled sounds of merriment until all went silent like last time. I crawled out of my room and peeked down the stairs, just in time to see my father, shirtless and red, pouring himself a drink in the kitchen.
I head upstairs to the bathroom and raid the medicine cabinet, finding multiple brands of opioids, anti-depressants and muscle relaxers. Some cases are nearly empty, while others still have the plastic wrapped round them. I was hoping it would be obvious which pills were used, perhaps they would be labelled or marked, but it seems I’m going to have to guess. I play it safe and gather several from each case before going downstairs. Dad has left the lasagne cooking in the oven, so the kitchen is clear. I empty the stolen pills onto the worktop, the dozen or so tablets rattling against the marble like Skittles. Attempting to mash them, I grab a fork from the cutlery drawer, and push the metal prongs into the pills. This technique fails, making several shoot across the worktop and fall to the floor. I search the kitchen further and find a rolling pin, and with a bit of force, crush them to a fine powder.
In my peripheral, I note Jennifer watching me from across the hall. I pay her no attention, hoping she’ll lose interest, but her damn curiosity compels her to get up from the sofa and head towards me. She is dangerously close to spoiling everything so, turning my back to her, I quickly shuffle the powder into a pile, and push it towards my cupped hand waiting at the counter’s edge. I feel Jennifer behind me and, in my frantic haste, miss my palm, spilling most of the powder on the floor, right in front of Jennifer’s shoes. Looking up at her, I laugh, in a way I think sounds normal, and am relieved to find naive Jennifer is laughing back.
“Need some help?”
It takes everything in my power not to roll my eyes. I thank her, but insist she stay in the living room. Reluctantly, she obliges, and after she turns, I collect as much of the scattered powder as possible and store it in a drinking glass.
I put the spiked glass back in the cupboard, tucked behind the others. Jennifer is still glancing at me from the other room with a puzzled expression, so I grin and shoot her my first ever wink. Mr Mitchell, the PE teacher, winks at girl students a lot and they seem to like it. Her acne-riddled cheeks turn slightly rosy, and a feeling of panic smothers me like a wet bedsheet as I consider the possibility Jennifer is too ugly for the game. The removal of her glasses was definitely an improvement, but her pointed nose and oily skin is something that can’t be fixed as easily. I think about doing all this for nothing and the pain in my side flares up again.
The third guest I watched arrive from my bedroom window. Dad parked the car while Mum escorted her to the front door. Though it was dark, and rain smeared the glass, I could tell this guest was particularly beautiful. I waited until the silence came, at which point I crept downstairs and peeked into the living room. The guest looked a similar age to the first, sporting luscious blonde hair that looked like it would fall between your fingers like sand. I watched in awe as she moaned and curled her toes, intensely pleasured by something. It turned out that something was my mother, kissing her neck and fondling underneath her shirt. My Dad, sitting on the armchair with a tumbler of whiskey, was too engrossed in the eroticism to notice me. I was nine years old and stupid, so I spoke up, startling all three of them. My Dad didn’t hesitate. He dragged me upstairs and beat me senseless.
Dad, Jennifer, and I are sat around the table eating lasagne in painful silence. Dinners have been like this for months, but a guest being present makes me aware just how awkward the environment really is. Typically, when Mum cooks, Dad doesn’t attend dinner, and vice versa. Normally, I don’t mind their absence, as on the rare occasion they both sit down together, the fighting gets so vitriolic I completely lose my appetite. Tonight however, the three of us were supposed to eat together as a family and marvel at the guest I had brought home. Mum staying upstairs does mean Jennifer and I both get full portions, but the lasagne is poorly made, and I find myself picking at it with my fork.
Jennifer compliments Dad on the meal and he thanks her half-heartedly with no eye contact. I look at the oven clock: 18:30. Jennifer will head home soon. I put my cutlery down and take a gamble, suggest fetching Mum from upstairs. Dad instructs me not to, but I am already on my feet, rambling about leftovers. Dad slams his fist on the table, sending a loud crash throughout the house and knocking over Jennifer’s cup of water.
My cheeks get hot again. I inch back to my chair, too frightened to even glance at him. I briefly consider how uncomfortable Jennifer must be feeling amongst all this, before reminding myself I’m not supposed to care how the guest feels.
As we clear our plates, Dad departs to the living room without a word, leaving me to clean up. It’s now 18:45 and I can read Jennifer’s mind through her expression, as though I’m predicting her words before they destroy the evening. Before she has a chance, I propose she wash the dishes while I make us a special beverage. She looks irritated, but runs the hot tap anyway, enquiring as to what’s so special about the drink. A warm feeling develops in my stomach and spreads through my limbs. The game isn’t over yet. Attempting to come off as suave, I ask her if she’s ever tasted alcohol before, knowing full well the answer is no.
When the fourth guest arrived, I had already hidden myself at the top of the stairs to watch events unfold from the beginning. My parents stumbled inside, manhandling a boy this time, muscular, with a leather jacket. I noticed Mum immediately head to the kitchen and return with drinks for everyone. They had their usual party, filled with dancing, laughing, and kissing, until the muscular guest began getting sleepy and eventually collapsed. My parent’s drunken manner disappeared as though it had never been real, and together they carried him to the dining room, out of view. I sought to follow, but my father’s beatings kept me paralysed at the top of the stairs, where I could only listen to strange sounds echo through the house.
Jennifer is doing her best to scrub old grease from the baking tray, whilst I am standing on a chair in order to reach the top shelf alcohol. So far, my parents have shown no interest in the game I have attempted to set up for them. However, there is still one more opportunity to set affairs in motion: the drinks. The strange purple drinks my mother concocts, are a staple of every rowdy game my parents have played. It seems to awaken something within them, as well as make the guest more visually appealing. From the slits of the banister, I have watched the back of my mother make this drink many times, always with an extra ingredient in the guest’s glass.
Grabbing random bottles, I’m hit with the realisation that I’ve never observed closely enough to learn how the drink is made, I don’t even know what it should taste like. I clamber down, take two glasses, and set about pouring, guessing at the measurements. If the drink isn’t flavoured correctly, will the game still be the same? Mum and Dad may simply roll their eyes if I offer them swill. I open a bottle labelled tequila and am assaulted by its vile smell. Jennifer is now washing her hands behind me. Acting fast, I pour some but not too much. The schnapps isn’t much better, so I add even less. I know Mum uses grape juice to get the purple shade, so I grab it from the fridge and pour a generous amount. My parents’ drinks completed, I grab the glass placed behind the others and make a similar beverage for Jennifer. I learned in school that alcohol dulls your senses, and since that’s more important for the guest, I double the amount of tequila and schnapps.
Jennifer is drying her hands with a ratty dishcloth as I place her drink on the table. Hesitantly, she brings it to her nose, and I watch as she tries her best not to grimace. Jennifer is too naive to realise that her overly polite nature is now putting her in danger, and I decide, definitively, that she was a good choice. She asks what’s in it and I respond that it’s a secret, though I can sense her patience is wearing thin. I take my parents’ drinks in each hand and leave the kitchen, yelling that I’ll be right back. Entering the living room first, I place Dad’s drink on the coffee table. I try get his attention, in the hopes he’ll notice the colour of the beverage, but he ignores me, engrossed in the TV. My dad will only watch films featuring topics he is fanatical over, Formula 1 or gambling usually. Tonight, he is watching Saw. I cut my losses.
Heading upstairs, I decide I have been too coy regarding my intentions and it’s time to enact an alternative approach. Once I present the drink to my mother, I will reveal all of what I have planned and pray, finally, the evening will begin. However, upon approaching my parent’s room, I hear the shower running from the bathroom across the hall. My heart shatters like stain glass. I can’t help but feel Mum’s impromptu shower is the final nail in this plan sized coffin. Jennifer will head home any moment, and I will be left alone, like always. The prelude to the game was an opportunity to bring my parent’s closer together, yet they haven’t said a single word to each other all evening. I trudge down the stairs, still carrying my mother’s poorly made beverage.
I enter the kitchen and am unsurprised to find Jennifer wearing her coat, arms folded and foot tapping impatiently. I shoot her my second ever wink, but her frustration has created a forcefield around her, and she appears to no longer be endeared to my awkwardness. I expect her to shout at me, possibly hit me, but her facade softens, and she thanks me for the evening. I must hide my surprise poorly as whatever my expression becomes causes her to giggle. I laugh back, more normal than last time, and thank her for coming. She invites me over to her house for dinner next week, and as she talks, I notice her teeth are so white and straight, yet she doesn’t wear braces. She strokes her undeniably nice hair behind her ear and for some reason I accept her invitation. There is a loud visceral splat from the TV behind me as someone’s head is crushed between the jaws of a homemade bear trap, yet I find myself disinterested. Jennifer reaches into her coat pocket and puts on her glasses, which magnify her eyes comically. I am about to compliment their deep shade of blue, when I see her pupils have dilated to roughly three times their original size. Alarmed, I look past her and notice the glass on the table is empty.
I eventually lost count of how many guests my parents brought home. Instead, throughout my upbringing I sat at the top of the stairs and paid attention to the constants. The guests were always teenagers. They were always beautiful. Dad always showed them around the house while Mum made drinks comprised of alcohol, grape juice and, for the guest, crushed pills. Dad always sat in the armchair, whereas Mum shared the sofa with them so she could get nice and close. Depending on how long it took for the pills to take effect, my mother’s playful kissing with the teenager sometimes evolved to intensive dry humping. After the guest fell unconscious, they were always carried to the dining room where the game proceeded out of my view. I never saw any of these beautiful guests again, and as I grew older, rumours surrounding disappearing teenagers became more frequent around town. However, I paid little attention to these rumblings and focused on the one constant that mattered to me: for the few days that proceeded the game, my parents were nothing like their usual selves. They smiled for no discernible reasons, included me in their conversations, and rarely laid a finger on me. In those fleeting moments of post-game bliss, I tasted the nectar of a happy childhood, and the more games they played, the more I hungered for the next one.
Jennifer’s face has changed to one of worry. She is speaking directly to me, but her words are so mumbled and gravelly I can’t understand her. I hold her by the shoulders, lie that she’ll be fine, but I can see how scared she is by her trembling lips. She pushes past me and begins stumbling her way out of the kitchen, leaning against walls for support. I follow closely, racking my brain to come up with a solution, a cure, but all I can think is the purpose of the guest’s drink is to knock them unconscious, and I’ve never seen anyone wake back up. She climbs the stairs, heading for the bathroom I presume, clutching at her neck like she’s gasping for breath whilst also trying not to vomit. I watch from below as she ascends the steps like they’re a stormy mountain ridge, clinging to the banister for dear life. Just as she nears the landing, her muscles give out from under her and, in what feels like slow motion, she tumbles backwards, falling heavy through the air until her spine collides with the bottom steps and her head splits open like a melon.
She’s still alive. I think. Her eyes are closed, but the index finger of her left hand is twitching like a panicked family member trying to wake her. A small pool of blood begins to form around her head, dyeing her nice blonde hair a sticky, unpleasant orange. In this lighting, I see Jennifer is prettier than I originally thought. Mum appears first, fresh out the shower and only wearing a towel. She gasps upon seeing the blood and starts shouting to me about Jennifer’s parents, though I’m not really listening. Mum’s raised voice brings Dad through from his film. Like me, he stares at Jennifer’s body as though he’s seeing her for the first time. I’m suddenly aware of Mum watching me, my hand specifically, still holding the purple drink I made her. Her words begin to trail off until we are left with silence. There is an energy in the air, fizzing between the three of us, and it’s not an awkward feeling like the dinners we’ve grown used to. It’s something instinctual, an unspoken understanding between kin. Mum looks down at Jennifer and then turns to Dad, gazes at him in a way I haven’t seen since I was a boy. She descends the remaining steps, crouches, and runs her right hand through the pool of Jennifer’s blood before standing back up and caressing the liquid across his cheek. My Dad tenses up and shuts his eyes, shuddering as the blood-soaked hand is caressed across his body. I stand there, chewing my fingernails like a rat and longing to be on the upstairs landing, out of sight. I consider calling an ambulance for Jennifer, but the way my parents are connecting paralyses me. This was the plan, wasn’t it? Mum remembers me and halts her passionate movements. She takes the beverage from my hand and drinks, scowling at the taste. Her voice now smooth as lustrous silk, she asks my father:
“Do you think he’s old enough?”
My dad looks into my eyes in the same terrifying way he does before he hits me.
Before Jennifer, it had been years since my parents had brought a guest home. I know now that’s why their marriage was failing. It wasn’t about the killing or the mutilation, it was about the pleasure of experiencing those thrills together. Re-living their youth through these teenagers while indulging in the power of robbing it from them. That night, my Mum made us all purple drinks which tasted infinitely better than mine. Afterwards, as a team, Mum and I carried Jennifer to the dining room, while Dad brought up a large sheet of tarpaulin from the cellar to lay her on. Jennifer woke up briefly, giving me an opportunity to thank her for everything she was about to do for our family, at which point, the game began. For the first time, I was more than an observer, I was a participant. My parents were happy and more in love than I had ever seen. My mother’s natural beauty radiated, and was brought out all the more by the blood smeared across her face. While my father, who had always been an aggressive man, showed a softer hand to both women than I knew he was capable of.
Matt Anderson graduated from Falmouth University with a First Class Honours in Creative Writing in 2023. He has written and directed two well-received plays: Shotgunned (2023) and Diagnosed (2018). He has enjoyed writing short horror stories for several years and is yet to be published.