THE RED UMBRELLA
The red umbrella was leaning against a tree, and despite the snow and frost and wetness of the morning it was bone dry to the touch.
Kate retracted her hand quickly, overcome by apprehension.
“Go on. Pick it up,” Aaron said.
Kate looked back at her group of friends standing a few metres away, stamping their booted feet, arms crossed over their chests to hold in the heat.
Around them the forest was ominously silent, the tweet and chirrup of the birds, the scurry and scratch of woodland creatures, all gone, as if someone had pressed pause on the background audio.
Ben absently tugged on the flaps of his winter hat, his eyes reflecting her unease. “You don’t have to, it’s stupid. We should just go.”
Bless him, forever the peace maker, the smoother of ruffled feathers and best hot chocolate maker on the planet. Kate exhaled in relief, grateful for the get-out-of-dare-free card he was handing her.
“It’s not stupid, it’s a dare, and if she doesn’t do it then she forfeits.” Fred, short for Frederica, slid a coy glance in Owen’s direction.
Owen, the love of Kate’s life, the man she hoped one day to marry and Fred’s not so secret obsession, studiously avoided Fred’s gaze. It had come as little surprise when Fred had set the task and forfeit. Aaron had made claws of his hands, pawing at the air behind Fred’s back. They all knew how superstitious Kate was. They all knew Fred fancied the pants off Owen.
“It’s just a peck babe, come on, leave the damn umbrella and lets go get some lunch.” Owen called.
Sod that! There was no way she was letting Fred anywhere near Owen’s luscious lips. Steeling herself she reached out and grabbed the warm handle. Her toes curled in her boots, stomach churning as if in revolt, but she held firm, lifting it into the air and plastering a cocky grin on her face.
There were whoops and cheers from her comrades and then Fred, the sly cow, had to go and spoil it.
“Open it then.”
Her grin wavered, slipped, vanished. “What?”
“Oh, come on Fred!” Ben said.
“What? The task was to use it, not just pick it up,” Fred pouted in Owen’s direction.
Kate locked eyes with her boyfriend who shifted uncomfortably on the spot before shrugging his huge shoulders.
She bit back her annoyance covering it with a shrug of her own. If she didn’t know better she would think that he wanted her to lose the challenge.
“Fine!” She flipped the umbrella and grasped the slider pushing it up quickly until it clicked.
She stared at it, open and bright; the red material seemed to pulsate, thin crimson veins radiating outward from the stem. She blinked, almost dropping it, and then let out a short breathy laugh. It was nothing, just a trick of the light.
Just a red umbrella.
She turned to the group twirling the handle, lifting it up to rest the stem on her shoulder, her face painted pink from its shade.
The gathering laughed and clapped and Fred laughed along with them, the mirth never reaching her eyes.
The fire crackled and popped, flames performing a sinuous primitive dance. Kate absently rubbed her hands on her jeans over and over.
Ben sat curled up on the sofa with a book, his glasses at half mast, pale blue eyes moving back and forth across the page. Aaron was sketching furiously in his sketchpad, tongue peeking out of the side of his mouth.
Owen and Fred were on kitchen duty. She could hear the clatter and clang of pots as they washed up and dried.
Everything was as it should be, and yet her scalp continued to prickle, her heart continued to race. They had left the umbrella in the woods by the tree. It was over, so why did it feel like it had just begun? She didn’t even know what it was. Her emotions were a tangled mess. She wished now that she had never told her friends about the damn umbrella.
It was silly, just an object. But was it, really? She recalled the first time she had seen it. Her first winter spent at the cottage. She had been thirteen and sulking because her parents had dragged her out of the city into the middle of nowhere for the holidays. All her friends would be getting together, going ice skating, bowling, cinema, and she was stuck in a cottage with her loved up parents who urged her to drink cocoa and play scrabble marathons. It was so unfair! She had been crunching through the woods, not going too far despite her desire to piss her parents off , when she had seen it; bright red against a clean white backdrop of snow. She recalled the immediate prickle on the nape of her neck as the hairs stood to attention. She had been wise then, she had turned and run home.
That was the first time, and every winter after, it was there, waiting, but never in the same spot. It became a game, searching for it each year, as if knowing where it was would keep her safe, but never once had she dared touch it. Not until Fred and her stupid dare.
She scraped her hand across the rough rug, relishing the sting.
“You okay?” Ben was watching her with narrowed eyes, his book forgotten.
Kate nodded, shook her head, and then nodded again.
Ben closed the book and set it to one side. “The umbrella?”
Kate sighed. “Stupid, huh?”
Ben frowned. “Not really, to be honest…I wish you hadn’t touched it. It’s just…weird.”
Did he feel it too? She shuffled closer to the sofa. “You feel it?”
He dropped his gaze and tilted his head lifting his shoulder in a half shrug. “It just felt…creepy. I don’t know. I mean woods are creepy anyway.”
“No they’re not!” Aaron said. “Woods are beautiful, filled with wondrous nature.” He flipped his sketchbook to show them what he had been working on. A huge black bird, a raven stared at them, its beady eye gleaming greedily.
“Seriously? How is that beautiful?” Ben asked. “It’s creepy.” He shuddered.
Aaron turned the sketch book to look at the drawing. “I think he’s magnificent.”
“There’s no accounting for taste,” Ben said.
“That’s rich coming from you, the guy with a thousand sweater vests.”
“What’s wrong with sweater vests?”
“Nothing if you’re in your forties.”
Kate slipped away, leaving them to their banter. She needed a hug, she needed Owen. Being in his arms always chased the doubts away. She paused outside the kitchen door. Something was off, and then she realised what it was. Silence, there was nothing but silence coming from the kitchen.
Her hand trembled as she pushed the door open. It swung inwards to reveal a pristine and empty kitchen.
The frown deepened. Where could they be? He gaze travelled to the window. It was snowing again, soft large flakes that would settle.
She went into the hallway and donned her boots, scarf and coat.
Ben and Aaron paused in their debate, their heads swivelling to pin her to the spot.
“Just gonna get some air.” She smiled and lifted the latch, slipping out before one of them could offer to go with her.
The snow hand covered any tracks but she knew where they would be. The knowledge was an icy fist in her chest, tightly closed but thrumming in anticipation. Her eyes felt hot in her head as if in preparation, but she had to see. She followed the path through the woods, the path that would take her back to the umbrella and sure enough there she found them. She heard the sounds first, primitive grunts and moans, but she had to see.
Owen’s jeans were around his knees, ass obscured from view by his long cashmere coat. Fred was up against the tree her lips parted in ecstasy, fingers buried in Owens glorious blonde waves. A slash of crimson lay against the tree, pulsing softly.
The fist inside her unfurled, a scream bubbling and rushing up her throat, and then Fred tipped her head forward to stare right at her. Her moist lips curved in a satisfied smile.
The scream exploded from Kate’s lips shattering the silence, shaking the birds from their perches and forcing them into flight.
Owen stumbled back, tripping over his own feet and landing on his ass.
“Fuck, Kate, Fuck!”
The world shimmered and blurred and a dark figure appeared from between the trees, she blinked to clear the mist of tears and screamed.
She slammed through the door of the cottage locking and bolting it behind her. Her heart was in her mouth, and her chest ached with fear and exertion.
“What the hell, Kate?” Aaron rushed in from the kitchen, coffee sloshing out of his cup and over his hand. “Shit!” He switched hands shaking the fluid off the scalded one.
She couldn’t speak; her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, frozen.
“Kate?” Ben wrapped his arm around her shoulder and led her to the sofa. “Kate, what happened? Where’s Owen? Fred?”
She locked eyes with him and he flinched.
“That bitch!” He shook his head. “Where are they? I’m gonna have words with them. He released her, moving toward the door and that’s when her verbal paralysis broke.
“NO!” The word was a minor explosion that shook her shoulders and made her eyes water.
“Kate?” Ben studied her, uncertain now. His slim face a map of concern. He traded glances with Aaron communicating silently.
They didn’t understand, they didn’t understand, they didn’t… “They’re dead! It killed them!” She rushed forward grabbing at Ben’s arms. “We have to go, we have to go now!”
The boys stared at her in horror as if she had grown two heads and spoken in tongues.
Aaron put his cup down on the side board. “I’m going to check on them.” He grabbed his coat slamming out the house before she could stop him.
“Oh, my god! It’s going to get him! It’s going to kill him too!” Then she was wrestling with Ben, or he was wrestling with her, she wasn’t sure which, didn’t care, all that mattered was getting away.
She could hear Ben trying to sooth her, his hands on her shoulders and then her face exploded in pain.
“I’m sorry, sorry, shit you’re bleeding.” He fumbled in his pocket for a tissue dabbing the corner of her mouth.
He had hit her! Ben had hit her, and Owen and Fred were dead, torn to shreds by that…that thing in the woods.
The door slammed open and Aaron crashed through. His eyes were wild, his hair streaked with crimson. He held out his hands, scarlet fingers.
Ben shook his head in disbelief.
“Get the bags. I’m bringing the car round.” Aaron rushed back out, and she caught a glimpse of the rapidly darkening sky.
“It’s too late.” She slumped to the floor. Ben stared at her in horror and then moved as if in a daze toward the stairs.
Kate shook her head.
“Get up!” Ben pulled her to her feet. “Listen to me, if…if what you say is true then we need to pull our shit together. I refuse to die out here like some extra in a slasher movie. I need you Kate, please.” He shook her gently this time.
The crimson haze retreated and her head was suddenly as clear as a bell. “I’ve seen it before.”
“The thing, I’ve seen it, in books, but I can’t remember what it is. It’s not supposed to be real.”
“What does it look like?”
A man, but not a man with…antlers, long… impossibly long arms…it can’t be real.”
Ben pulled on his coat. “We’re getting out of here.” He turned toward the door and yelped “What the fuck is that doing here?”
They both stared at the red umbrella leaning casually against the doorjamb.
“Fuck this!” Ben grabbed her hand and threw open the door pulling her into the night. They ran around the cottage toward the trail where they had parked the SUV. The final rays of sunlight slipped below the horizon and it was as if someone had flicked a switch. They stopped, uncertain, surrounded by absolute darkness, inky and viscous.
A low moan, a wail and a howl cut through the night air.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. We just need to keep going. It’s straight ahead, okay. You with me?”
Kate nodded and then realising he probably couldn’t see the gesture she cleared her throat and said, “Yes, yes I’m with you.”
They kept moving, slow at first then faster. Ben cursed and then there was a metallic clang.
They were at the car.
The moon had crept out, and here on the trail its weak rays provided enough light to activate her night vision.
The SUV sat on the trail like a grey beacon of hope. Kate pulled open the passenger door and Ben ran around and climbed in the driver’s side. Neither of them mentioned Aaron and what may have become of him. Ben popped the glove compartment retrieving the keys. Kate’s shoulders relaxed.
He fumbled with the ignition cursing softly under his breath. Kate reached up with trembling fingers, turning on the door light.
“Fuck!” Ben slammed his hands against the steering wheel, pressing his body as far back into his seat, as far away from the windscreen as he could. He stared at it in horror.
Streaks or scarlet, a pattern made of hand prints.
The earth rumbled. Kate turned her head slowly to look at Ben.
But he was staring down at her lap. “Kate? Why have you got that?”
Kate’s brow crinkled in confusion. She followed his gaze.
The red umbrella sat on her lap, innocuous and forbidding.
Kate’s breath caught painfully, the earth rumbled, the car shook and then there was nothing but darkness and pain.
“Senseless, bleedin senseless,” Police Constable Pierce said.
Sergeant June watched them load up the bodies. He was already composing his speech to the parents, five speeches for five lots of distraught parents. This was the part he hated the most. He sighed and wandered back into the house for one last walk through. They’d pieced together the events from rough time of deaths, blood trails, tracks and footprints.
It made no sense, what would cause a young girl to snap like that? Maybe the two in the woods, the one with his pecker hacked off…maybe that was a clue.
He did a sweep of the top floor, careful not to touch anything and then climbed wearily down the stairs.
He was halfway out the door when something caught his eye. He paused, boot midair and stepped back into the house. The red umbrella glared at him accusingly from its perch by the fireplace.
Had it been there on his first sweep?
“Sarge!” Pierce called from outside. “All loaded!”
With one last glance around the cottage he stepped out and closed the door.
He hated it here. It was boring, boring, boring! He hated dad for bringing him and he hated Melanie with her fake tits and fat arse! He missed mum, slightly overweight, smiling mum with her sad eyes. But it was mum who told him to come, so small now in her hospital bed.
Fear struck like a snake and he bit it in half. He wouldn’t think about that. The sound of his boots was muffled by the fresh snow. He would stay out till supper, as long as he could. Let them snog each other’s faces off, it made him sick the way they were always pawing at each other. He would be a good boy like he had promised mum and when he got back they would celebrate his thirteenth birthday, just the two of them.
The wind picked up and he pulled his jacket tighter about him. Maybe he should head back; it was beginning to get dark, and the woods would be plain creepy in the dark.
He made to turn and caught a flash of colour through the trees. A few more moments wouldn’t hurt. He moved between rough trunks toward the splash of crimson. It came into view and he stopped.
What the hell was an umbrella doing out here?
It began to rain.