by Paul Nevin
Somebody had vandalised the fence. A segment of sun had been daubed in the corner of one panel, thick yellow rays beaming off. A strip of blue sky at the top. A strip of green grass at the bottom. Two stick figures in the middle, and a black and white cat sat between them. It was the cat that made the picture click for Geoff, because the distinct white patch over one of its eyes showed that the cat was supposed to be Roland, and that meant that the smiling stick figures either side of the cat were him and Frances.
‘Who’s done that then?’ Frances said. She’d shuffled up the lawn, wringing her hands in a tea towel, breath coming in desperate little gasps from the effort of walking perhaps fifteen feet. She looked from side to side, like she was crossing the road, as if the culprit might still be lurking in their little garden.
Geoff stared at the childish painting scrawled on the fence that separated their garden from the Maguire’s. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. He stepped forward and ran a finger over the sunbeams. The paint was wet. Now he looked around too, because whoever had done this had done it just now.
‘Sammy?’ Frances said, and she gestured with a flap of the tea towel towards the Maguire’s house.
Geoff turned to her. ‘Sam is thirty, Frances,’ he said. But Frances just gave a familiar blank stare in response, because she was fifty years older than Sam Maguire, and now had what Geoff thought of as a kind of obstructive disease of the mind as well as the body. Episodes like this were the new normal, so common these days that it was the lucid moments that stood out instead.
He took one of her bone-white hands in his. ‘Sam is too old to have done this, love,’ he said. He held his other hand at his hip, palm down. ‘This was a little kid.’ Frances nodded, the wheezing down to a soft hitch in her breathing, but Geoff wasn’t sure if she understood.
He peered over the fence at the other gardens in Endsleigh Road. Theirs was in the middle, and whoever had done this would have had to clamber through ten gardens to get here. But he couldn’t see any other painted fences.
He looked back at their fence. The stick man was little more than a hangman figure, but the woman was more detailed, wearing a blue triangle of skirt like the long denim skirt that Frances was wearing today. And it held something in the claw of its right hand—a little blob of red and white. A little tea towel.
Geoff threw a bucket of water onto the fence and stood back, poised to scrub. But the paint was so fresh that it ran down the fence at the touch of hot water. The figures’ smiles melted into frowns, the thin black sticks of their arms dissolving into faint grey lines, until only ghosts remained. Geoff scrubbed what was left, until the fence was clean, until the only trace of paint was in the grass, from where Roland watched him work.
The next morning the picture was back, but Frances was painted in the clothes she was now wearing—a maroon dress, with a white apron over it—and there was no drawing of Roland sat between them.
‘Kids again, is it?’ Frances said.
Geoff shook his head. He looked from his wife to the painting. Frances’s arms were folded across her chest, and so were those of her picture on the fence, like a surreal mirror image. Her apron was old, once white, but now a creamy yellow, a large hole worn through the front pocket. The painting was rudimentary, a child’s effort, but one detail had been included that a child might miss—a large black mark on the pocket of the apron.
‘This is someone playing silly games,’ Geoff said. He leaned forward, hands on hips, matching the stance of his likeness on the fence. The hole was just a knot in the wood, a coincidence. But it was harder to explain away the matching clothes, or dismiss details like the tea towel and the cat on yesterday’s picture.
Frances leaned in too. ‘No cat today, though’ she said.
Geoff scanned the garden, but Roland was in none of his usual sunspots. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No cat.’
‘Because he’s gone?’ Frances said. She seemed alert, the fog lifted. Her old self, if only for a moment.
Geoff tried to remember when he’d last seen the cat. The previous day maybe, when Roland had watched, as Geoff had cleaned the first painting from the fence.
Geoff woke early the next morning. He stood at the window of the spare room that overlooked the garden. It was still so dark that at first he could see only his reflection in the dark mirror of the glass, hands on hips, like the stick man on the fence the day before.
He listened to Frances, heavy breathing in the next room, and then silence as she slipped into deeper sleep, the passing time now marked only by the steady, distant tick of the kitchen clock. Soon he heard birdsong, and he could see the outline of the houses opposite as the night sky turned from black to purple.
The shape of the fence started to emerge through the pre-dawn gloom. There was only one figure today, but it was still too dark to make out who it depicted. Geoff considered going down with a torch, and shining a light on what was scrawled on the fence—a triangle of dress or two sticks for trousered legs. But instead he stayed at the window, and waited for the morning light to reveal a simple sketch of either him or Frances. He waited too for Frances to wake up and join him, to rise up from the sound sleep she had fallen into.
Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short fiction about ghosts, monsters, and the horror of attending a party on your own. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.