Helen watched her daughter’s birthday party from the bedroom window. The old panic prickled at the edges of her mind when she watched the fireworks lighting up the sky, but she tried to rationalise her fear. Fireworks were not what caused her nightmares all those years ago. Fireworks had nothing to do with Courtney’s horrifying origins, but the lights in the sky were reminders of the more insidious lights that had everything to do with her daughter’s conception. The memories of lights in the sky would always haunt Helen’s mind and fill her nightmares. Janine had buried those same memories so deep that she didn’t remember them at all. Helen’s sister was lucky.
Helen shivered and pulled her cardigan closer around her shoulders. Janine was not so lucky when her two boys were taken from her before the eldest had his fifth birthday. Terry, her brother-in-law was distraught to learn that the abduction of his two little blond boys didn’t even get a mention on the local news programme. It was as if they had never existed. The police made sympathetic noises and said they were doing everything they could to follow the few leads they had, but now, more than seventeen years had passed since their disappearance, and nothing had been seen or heard of them since that day. The boys had vanished without trace from the face of the earth, and Helen knew that statement was closer to the truth than anything the police could possibly imagine.
Losing the boys was Janine and Terry’s constant nightmare, though none would guess they suffered so deeply to watch them outside this evening. Janine was laughing with some teenagers, and Terry was busy lighting the fireworks. Anyone walking by would see nothing extraordinary. The garden held a normal family who were having fun at a birthday party. Helen knew that the image was skewed. Her family was nothing like normal, and even though fun was on the agenda today, she wondered how much longer she could control her rage and her terror for the future.
The velvet black of the night sky became the backdrop for the brilliant and shimmering display of colour, as one by one, they rocketed upwards, becoming tiny specks before exploding into bright cascades of light.
‘Wow!’ Courtney leaned closer to her father. ‘This is brilliant, Dad. Look at that one!’ She brought her hands up to shield her ears from the huge explosion that ricocheted around the dark sky.
Gavin looked down at her unusually flushed face. Her pale eyes were bright with excitement. Placing an arm around her narrow shoulders, he squeezed her gently, and shivered, despite the warmth of the late summer evening.
‘Feeling the cold in your old bones, Dad?’ Courtney hugged him, and smiled up into his freckled face. ‘I’ll get you a sweater.’ She scampered off toward the house, long white-blonde hair streaming out behind her, leaving her father shaking his head, smiling at her words, “Old bones”. He chuckled, thinking that perhaps fifty-five did seem old when you were celebrating your sixteenth birthday.
‘She’s enjoying the party, then?’ Gavin’s father-in-law, George, approached. He was leaning heavily on his stick. He smiled in the direction of the house, watching the slim figure of his granddaughter disappearing through the open doorway.
‘It was a great idea of yours, Pop, to give her a fireworks party, though Helen did no’ seem too keen.’ Gavin’s smile disappeared, remembering the harsh words he and his wife had exchanged over her father’s suggestion.
‘Some folks are like that.’ George shook his bald head, making his heavy jowls wobble, and looked up at the continuing fireworks display. ‘You can’t please all the people, all the time. You’d wear yourself out if you tried.’
‘I would with this family.’ Gavin grinned at his portly father in law. ‘How’d you all get to be so different?’
George brought his gaze back to earth, shrugged his shoulders, and made a non-committal grunt. ‘It must be something in the water round these parts.’ He raised his eyebrows, and let his mouth curve into a smile, but Gavin could see the old man’s heart wasn’t in it. ‘Where’s our Helen?’ George changed the subject. ‘She should be out here playing the part of proud hostess.’
‘You know what she’s like.’ Gavin glanced toward the house. ‘She’ll be cowering in a corner ’till the fireworks are over. You know how she hates them.’ Gavin looked thoughtful for a moment, then seeing his daughter striding across the lawn carrying a huge woollen sweater, he smiled, his face lighting up at the sight of his child.
‘Hi, Pops, you warm enough?’ Courtney grinned mischievously at her grandfather and then nodded toward her father. ‘This old timer complained of being cold! Can you believe it?’ She handed Gavin the sweater. ‘I brought you the green one, ‘cos it sets off your hazel eyes perfectly.’
‘How very considerate of you.’ Gavin turned to George. ‘Did you hear what this cheeky young imp called me? Old timer, indeed!’
‘She’s entitled to her opinion, though I think with that head of Celtic hair, you’ll get away with looking younger than you are for some years to come.’ George scratched his own bald pate ruefully.
‘You’re only jealous, Pops, like me. I’d just die to have inherited Dad’s thick red curls.’ Courtney reached up to ruffle her father’s ginger tresses.
‘Nonsense, you have a grand head of hair, child.’ George gently lifted a lock of silky platinum-blonde hair from her shoulders.
‘It’s boring, everyone wants to be blonde. I think redheads are much more interesting.’ Courtney kissed her father’s freckled cheek.
‘Go on with you, back to your friends, young lassie, you’re getting too sassy by far.’ Gavin playfully pushed her away.
‘I can’t help it. I’m at that awkward age.’ Courtney fluttered her eyelashes with exaggeration. ‘Didn’t you hear mother telling Gran all about me earlier?’
‘And your grandma said we should all be patient with your cheekiness.’ George lifted his stick and aimed it at her like a gun. ‘You’re a mischievous young madam!’
‘But you can’t help loving me, can you!’ She grinned back over her shoulder at them both as she turned away and blew them a kiss before she skipped back to her friends.
‘Do you think we spoiled her?’ Gavin frowned, watching Courtney as she joined the other youngsters.
‘How could we not?’ George watched his granddaughter laughing and screaming with her friends as they continued to watch the multi-coloured sky. ‘She came to us after we’d lost our Janine’s two boys.’ He paused, lost in thought for a moment. ‘Well, I reckon it’s understandable isn’t it? She is special, and there’s no getting away from it.’ The old man hobbled away to join his wife who was sitting on a garden bench watching the youngsters.
Gavin thought he’d heard more in the words of his father-in-law than the old man intended. Yes, Courtney was special. You only had to look at her to know that. He wished her mother could see it too. He tried to suppress his anger at Helen, who even now, on Courtney’s sixteenth birthday, was nowhere in sight. He knew she didn’t like fireworks, but the last one had just been sent skyward. Janine and Terry had now switched on the music and the youngsters were dancing and fooling around. Helen should be out here with their friends, and with her family. He watched as Janine and her husband, Terry, began to dance a jive. They were rock and rolling, and making the youngsters scream with laughter as Terry struggled to lift his overweight wife in a move that could have given the slightly built man a hernia.
George laughed at the antics from the garden bench, wiping his eyes with his shirtsleeve, the other hand firmly clasping the hand of his wife, Mary. Together they watched the spectacle performed by their youngest daughter and her husband, chuckling with delight as the couple encouraged the youngsters to join them in the old fashioned gyrations of the dance.
Mary glanced over to Gavin, and the smile flickered from her face to be replaced by her usual frown. Quietly she let go of George’s hand and side-stepped the dancers, picking her way through the friends and neighbours who were watching the group.
‘You should go find her, Gavin.’ Mary put her wrinkled, age marked hand on his arm. ‘If anyone can get her to come and join in, you can.’ She encouraged him with a raise of her eyebrows and a squeeze on his arm. ‘Go on, love. For our Courtney’s sake. Go find her mum.’
‘Okay, Mum, you’re right. I’ll see where she is.’ Gavin sighed heavily and turned toward the house.
‘Be patient with her, Gavin. Fireworks always upset her.’ Mary added as he walked away.
Gavin didn’t need to be reminded of his wife’s irrational fear. He found it difficult to understand Helen’s family sometimes. He certainly found it hard to believe that her father had suggested the fireworks in the first place, knowing how his eldest child hated and feared them.
George had always insisted that his children faced their fears, making the girls confront them in order to defeat them. Helen even admitted that his way worked too, most of the time. She had explained that neither she nor her sister was frightened of spiders since he gave them both a glass box full of the creatures to study one summer. He showed the girls that spiders were just another of God’s creatures, and were nothing to be afraid of.
He had never been able to conquer Helen’s fear of lights in the night sky, though. The fear stemmed from a series of nightmares she’d had as a teenager. Gavin knew it was ridiculous for Helen to still get so upset over a few bad dreams as a child, but had learned to accept her eccentricities. Janine had suffered similar nightmares too, but she had got over them. Helen was different. She couldn’t seem to shake the legacy of the night terrors, as the doctor had called them. He had advised the family to be patient with her, and they were still being patient more than thirty years on.
Gavin raised his eyes to heaven, sending a prayer skyward, ‘Please don’t let her spoil things for Courtney. Please, God, not tonight.’
He walked slowly through the house, checking every room. The kitchen was a mess. Every surface was covered with leftover food, dirty plates, and empty glasses. He disturbed a young couple in the living room. Both blushed furiously as he backed out apologising, smiling to himself, and thanking God that Courtney didn’t seem interested in boys yet, but knowing he still had that interesting stage of her life to come.
He eventually found Helen in the bedroom. She was perched on a stool at the window in the darkness, looking out at the scene in the garden below.
‘Why don’t you come and join us, Helen?’ Gavin crossed the room, and knelt when he reached her side. ‘You’re being missed, you know.’ He touched her arm gently, bracing himself for the flinch of her muscles that always accompanied his display of affection.
‘I’d rather stay here, Gavin. They seem to be having a good time without me.’ She continued to watch the dancing children, not even glancing away from the window.
‘I need you down there. Please, Helen,’ he begged her, appealing to her feelings for him, knowing they were stronger than her feelings for their child. ‘Won’t you come downstairs for me, hen?’ He used his native form of endearment, hoping to stir some response in her.
‘Look at her, Gavin,’ Helen whispered, her eyes fixed on Courtney’s almost luminous white hair swirling among the dancers in the darkness. ‘Don’t you see it?’ she asked, her voice becoming urgent. ‘Doesn’t anybody see it but me?’
‘Helen, please, not tonight!’ Gavin groaned and closed his eyes against what he knew was coming.
‘She is so like Janine’s children, she could have been my sister’s child,’ Helen went on, ignoring her husband’s plea.
‘Helen, she is yours. She is ours!’ Gavin tried to stop her flow of words with reassurances he had used hundreds of times before. ‘I saw you give birth to her. Courtney came out of your womb! Your body!’ He gripped her shoulders and turned her to face him. ‘Not tonight, Helen! I won’t have you spoil this with your paranoia. D’you hear me!’ Gavin shook his wife gently, and then pulled her close, enfolding her in his arms, stroking her hair. He felt her body stiffen, but only held her tighter, forcing himself to be patient with her as he always did. ‘Don’t talk about Sam and Chris tonight, not in front of Janine. Promise me?’ He pulled back and looked into her pale face.
Helen looked away, her eyes turning to gaze through the window, up at the clear night sky. ‘You don’t understand do you?’ she spoke softly, as her expression glazed over. ‘How could you, how could anybody?’
‘Maybe if you would talk about it. Tell me what you are afraid of...’
‘Do you think I haven’t tried?’ Helen swung round to face him, eyes blazing. ‘You don’t want to hear it!’ She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth, stopping the words that threatened to spill out.
‘Helen, please!’ Gavin had been here so many times before. ‘Try to stay calm. We can talk about this.’
‘No, Gavin, this is something I can never talk about. You’d have me locked up. Put in an institution.’
‘Helen, you know that’s not true.’ He gazed into her face. ‘I love you, more than anything in the world, don’t you know that?’
‘More than her?’ Helen half turned toward the window. ‘More than that monster we created! She should never have been born!’
‘Helen!’ Gavin was shocked. ‘What are you saying?’
Helen’s eyes were fixed beyond him. Fear and loathing filled her face. Gavin turned quickly and saw Courtney standing in the doorway, her pale face translucent, and her eyes brimming with tears. In seconds, Courtney turned and began to stumble down the stairs.
‘Helen?’ Gavin’s voice caught in his throat. He backed away from his wife, watching in disbelief as Helen coldly turned back to the window. ‘My God, woman! What have you done?’ Gavin looked to the open doorway. His mind could still see the stricken face of his daughter. He heard her footsteps clattering along the hallway and shook himself.
‘Courtney!’ he shouted, knowing he should go to her. He turned to the door, and began striding from the room. As he reached the top of the stairs, he glanced back at Helen’s hunched and shaking body. He was unsure which of his women he should be supporting, but hesitated only a second before continuing down the stairs, his feet gathering momentum as he descended.
Reaching the open front door he looked up and down the quiet street. There was no sign of his daughter. He ran to the gate.
‘Courtney!’ His big booming voice reverberated round the close-set houses, bouncing emptily back at him, the echoes filling him with dread.