A knot gathered in my throat. It held me there motionless as my eyes bulged with an intense heat. Threatening to burst all I saw was my body hover over the cobbled ground. All I felt was cloth and rope. I had been hung. But it wasn’t me. No. I was somewhere else in a car. This was another person and I was merely inside. Shallow enough to feel just an echo of the throbbing violent pain. A passerby watching, with chin tucked to chest, as urine sprayed out across the rocks. A great shift and I felt myself slipping through the folds of skin. Falling out. My vision covered in a wet red and purple smear until light breached and I was free. Ejected, I looked up at the hung woman I was once inside. I knew those swollen blue eyes were vacant, but the feeling of her watching was so powerful I wanted to just weep there in the pool of blood and juices. A clacking of shoes approached.
A buzzer scraped through my head jolting me up. A large gate to the front of a property was retracting back automatically.
‘Play that song again Mum.’ Cora said from the back seat. I wondered just how long had I drifted off for.
‘No I can’t listen to it for a third time. We’re almost there so just let the next track come on.’
‘Come on, it’s my weekend. Let’s arrive there upbeat. I don’t want to listen to this old stuff.’ Cora continued as I pressed my temple against the cold glass of the door just waiting for it to end. If I could sleep in the car I would.
‘Let Aspen choose. You there Aspen?’ Mum waved her hand towards me but I barely moved. I grunted to show I was awake. My body body felt off. It was tight like breaking in a smaller pair of gloves. You could feel the second skin stretch.
‘What are the choices?’ I asked.
‘I want Spice Up Your Life but mum wants some Talking Heads old thing.’
‘It came out in the eighties. It’s not old at all. You know it Aspen, it’s Road to Nowhere.’
‘You know Spice Up Your Life is about crack right?’
‘Shut up!’ Cora shouted.
‘You and your friends all dressed up and sang it all the time. You made us watch you perform it.’
‘Yeah it’s got instructions on cooking meth.’
‘You’re talking shit Aspen.’ Cora said as mum beeped the horn.
‘No arguments. Okay. Aspen you’ve ruined it so we’ll just press random and listen to whatever comes on the playlist next.’ Mum fiddled with the buttons as I spotted another car approaching the gate too.
‘Here, I’ll sort that out while you drive.’ I clicked the small skip track button as we ventured onto the private land. As the gospel singing of mums choice ran through the car I stared out the window. Past the gate yellowing trees were fat and heavy with clusters of red berries. Like a pox the berries had filled the entire woods with a bloody sheen. And just as I began to wonder what they were the trees parted and the spa house stood proud over the trimmed green grass.
‘You used to live here?’Cora asked as she stuck her head forward to get a better look. I was surprised she could move so well considering she was as swollen as a gourd. I couldn’t believe a person could live in a place that large. You could house a small convent inside. It was amazing we had never heard of it let alone visited it.
‘The family still owns it. We rent it out mostly for private events.’
‘How come this is the first time we’re visiting it? I’d come here every summer if I had the chance.’ Cora said as she stroked her belly.
‘Because I like our space.’ Mum said. I could see on her face that there was more to it. We rarely saw our family except for Christmas when our Aunt Janet and her kids would visit. Janet was the youngest and was quite care free. Her two kids on the other hand were spoiled rotten. Maybe that was why Mum kept us removed from this side of the family, to protect us from becoming self-entitled brats. But there was a moment when I spied on Janet and mum talking about the past. Everyone except those two had gone to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I had caught sight of them on the decking in the back garden stood in the snow as Janet pressed her hand on our tree. As steam rose from their mouths I heard them speak about another sister called Lana. It was the first time I had seen my mother cry as she flung the last glass of red wine over the snow like a blood spatter. After that I rooted through all the house to find anything related to Lana but there was nothing.
The manor house turned spa stood proud over the gravel entrance and surrounding twice a week trimmed grass. A red streak of ivy ran across the front like a deep cut across the face that had been wrenched open and left to bleed down across the yellowing stone. The front of the building reminded me of the Jane Austen films Cora would make us watch when we were hungover in our teens. The clacking of the horse-drawn carriage and Cora’s deep sighs at those being the better times. I twisted my head and Cora was wide-eyed and dreaming. I had to check where her hands were to see if she was pinching herself. It made me happy to see her forget everything for even just a second. To not have to delve deep back into that hole filled with missing posters and baby worries.
‘Can we live here?’ Cora asked but Mum said nothing. She kept her eyes on the end of the road where the other cars had parked. There were six parked and one behind us. I had always wanted to ask her why she never spoke of her dead sister. But then she would change again. Further turning inward on herself until all we saw of our mum was this hard shell. My mum turned into the closest spot on the driveway and I went to the boot as her and Cora gathered their things. Just stepping down on the ground filled me with this overwhelming sense of comfort. If there was anything stressing me out or I needed healing then I would slide my shoes off and step barefoot onto the ground. It was electric.
‘Put your shoes back on.’ Mum said as she helped Cora wrangle herself and the belly full of baby out the car.
‘No need for shoes here. Hey there!’ A ladies voice bellowed out from the concrete steps leading to the large door. To call her an old lady was a disservice. She was the woman from the denture commercials, the actress who grew old with grace, those yogi woman who lived her life one pose at a time. She was definitely the right person to run a spa hotel. Turning to greet her too quickly I felt Cora’s suitcase slip from the boot. Suddenly I was not all smiles as the reinforced hard shell suitcase corner cracked my big toe.
‘Fuck,’ I shouted as the suitcase tumbled onto it’s side and I reeled back.
‘Jesus Christ Aspen,’ Mum spat out without even craning her neck around to check on me. I stared down in disbelief as my throbbing toe began to bleed out like a burst zit.
‘Are you okay there?’ The spa lady said as I continued to stare down. My face tingled and began to chill as the cracked half-open nail started to drain me like I had sprung a leak. Almost a perfect split across the top half of my toe nail. It reminded me of the hard boiled egg I had had for breakfast. The tip of the shell had been botched open you could see the cracks and runny yolk. It all went white.