Even though it was dusk, Alice easily found the squeaky green iron gate that led into her back garden. She brushed aside a branch of the thick privet hedge overhanging it, trying to disentangle her long silver hair but snapping off a couple of strands which hung there fluttering in the slight breeze.
Flakes of paint and rust from the handle crumbled in her hand as she took hold of the twisted metal and pushed it open. A little perplexed, she grumbled to herself; her father would usually come charging out of his shed with a pair of shears at the first sign of an errant twig spoiling the obsessively tidy arch.
As she walked slowly out onto the lawn and towards the ancient thatched cottage, the wet grass soothed her grazed and blistered feet and moisture soaked up the hem of her nightdress. Alice knew her brothers and sister would have missed her by now — they always played together — Ben, the eldest, all gangly limbs and tousled brown hair taking charge. She thought about his most notorious idea for a game; the one inspired by the book he’d borrowed from the library on tying knots.
“I can’t get it undone!” He was struggling with the rope that bound eight-year-old Molly from next door — the poor conscripted ‘Cowboy’ — to a tree, as the other three stood wide-eyed, aware that they were miles from anywhere and it was already getting dark.
“Can’t we just leave her there?” Tommy, his second in command piped up. “Surely someone will find her eventually…”
But it wasn’t Alice’s fault she was so long. She’d been so frightened when she woke up in that strange bungalow; in a strange bed that smelled of perspiration and a slight hint of urine, with a mug of cold cocoa on the cabinet beside her. It was obviously her home now and yet not her home; the pictures in the living room of her standing arm in arm with a handsome young sailor were her but not her; the ginger plaits having been replaced by a 1960s style beehive haircut — the peaks of high breasts bulging under her cream blouse.
As she passed the old chestnut tree, Alice noticed that the swing which hung from one of the lower boughs was missing. She moved closer to investigate, calling out when she trod on something prickly and hard. The nuts had fallen already. If she bent low and squinted, in the gloaming she could just make out the thick, spiky shell casings split open like cracked eyelids exposing the shiny conkers inside. Tommy had usually gathered them up by now to be carefully arranged in neat rows on his windowsill. An image of a coffin draped with a Union Jack flag and carried by six men in uniform came into her mind. She shook the thought away. No; she was one of four and always would be.
She headed to the back door which led to the hallway where they always stowed their muddy boots, finding it not only locked but having been replaced with sturdy new oak. Frowning, she made her way round the side of the building; a climbing rose crawling up a trellis attached to the wall nodding droplets onto her bare arm as she brushed past.
Soon the lawn turned to gravel beneath her feet, making her wince with every step. She stopped suddenly when she saw that where her father’s battered pick-up should have been stood one of those new SUVs. Alice crept further forward and looked up to her right, seeing Lily’s bedroom sash pushed open to the chilly night air. Her breaths became short and shallow as she prayed she’d see her plump little sister resting her head on her folded arms and gazing up at the moon as it emerged from behind the veils of shifting cloud like an erotic dancer. She thought she recalled going to a nursing home last week — or maybe it was the week before — and seeing an elderly lady who looked a bit like Lily but couldn’t have been because she was all wrinkly and didn’t even recognise her.
Alice turned her gaze to the light flooding out of the kitchen window. Her stomach knotted. She knew Ben’s chair would be empty and her mother’s eyes would be red and puffy again; the simple meal of meat and potatoes untouched and cooling on the carefully polished wooden table and the memory of her father shouting “stop flicking peas now or you’ll go to bed without dinner!” fading like the chalk squares of a hop-scotch court being washed away by rain. But none of that mattered because they were still four.
Alice peered inside to see bright lamps hanging from the kitchen ceiling and illuminating a family of three; a mother and a father and a small blond boy sat eating round a rectangular grey marble centrepiece. Tears gathered in her eyes; everyone must have abandoned her. Or maybe — hopefully — her siblings would be hiding in the orchard as a prank.
She crept over to the pond through the grasping silhouettes of the old apple trees and looked down at the pitch black surface below. In the moonlight Alice saw her solemn reflection looking back at her; an image of age and vacant weariness that made her want to cry.
“Hey Dad!” The voice of a child carried towards her. “I told you I saw her standing outside!”
She heard the sound of jogging steps scuff from behind along the stone path, but didn’t turn or take her eyes off the inky pool — her shrivelled lips parting in a gasp and a joyous smile as gradually, the faces of three more beaming children took form in the water beside her. She was right — they were four. The insufferable, inseparable, Robinson Four.
Having worked as a freelance journalist and photographer, Serena Shores has been writing short fiction for a couple of years now as a way of developing different skills from the often dry technical style of her articles. She has had stories published or forthcoming in Spinetinglers and Dark Edifice magazines.