Rachel McLean

Author of Twisted Realities

Susan – A Short Story

This is another of my interconnected stories set on the opening day of my novel A House Divided.

You can read two more of the stories right here on my blog:

You can also buy the complete set of stories on Amazon.


Susan

The sound was like nothing she’d heard before. 

Lower than a rumble, louder than a crash. More alarming than either.

Susan gripped the back of a chair and stared out of the window. In the garden, a group of pigeons that had been squabbling in her apple tree took flight, their wings beating in what looked like panic.

The mugs hanging over the sink began to rattle. Susan felt a tremor travel up her legs, through her body and into the chair. It clattered against the table.

There was a clapping sound, unlike any thunder Susan had ever heard. She placed a steadying hand on her stomach and moved towards the window. The sun was slanting across the garden, picking out the shrivelled leaves that still clung to the trees. Everything looked the same as it had yesterday morning.

She opened the back door and stepped outside, shivering in her thin sweater. Out here, the noise was unmistakable. A low roar coming from down the hill, and the distant blast of car horns.

She turned in the direction of the city centre. She couldn’t see anything over the privet that separated her garden from Emily’s next door.

Susan waited for the noise to stop. Instead, it was joined by the wail of sirens behind her back fence, in the direction of the main road. She listened: police, ambulance. Followed moments later by a fire engine.

She felt something inside her dip, like the feeling you get when speeding over a humpback bridge or in an aeroplane sinking in turbulence. She put her hand on her chest. It felt tight.

She stumbled back into the house.

“Tom?”

She hadn’t heard her son moving around the house this morning, didn’t know if he had work today. If he did, he’d have left hours ago. If not, he’d still be in bed. He worked shifts as a hospital porter and she’d long since given up keeping track.

There was no response. She went to the front door. The deadbolt had been opened. So Tom had gone out, then.

Outside, the street was already filling up. People stumbled out of their houses, staring at each other, then turning to face down the hill.

Susan turned with them and drew a breath. Her stomach somersaulted again.

Beyond the rooftops at the borrow of the street, engulfing the motorway and Spaghetti Junction, was a dense cloud of smoke. It was a dull purple colour, like a four day old bruise. Deep within it she could make out flickers of red and orange.

There was a splintering sound. She span round to see a hole in a window opposite. The Taylors’ house. Something had gone straight into their front room.

She held her breath and picked her way across the road. Her legs were heavy and the tarmac felt warm. 

The roar to her left suddenly stopped. The blaze erupted outwards, twin booms replacing the quiet and sending pale clouds of debris high into the sky.

She turned at the sound of shouting. Celeste Taylor was running out of her house, her eyes wide. Susan hurried towards her.

“Are you alright? I saw your window. What happened?”

Celeste shook her head and pulled away. “Is Tyrone out here?”

“Who?”

“My son. Where is he?”

Susan looked over Celeste’s shoulder towards the house. A burglar alarm was going off, its incessant wail fighting with the approaching sirens.

“Oh God.” Susan put a hand on her neighbour’s shoulder. “Is he in there?”

“I don’t know. He told me he was going to school  but—”

“Well that’s alright then, isn’t it? He won’t be at  home.”

Celeste looked at Susan like she was crazy. The way Susan sometimes found herself looking at Tom.

“I didn’t hear the door,” she said.

“But it was your window. Something went through your window.”

“No. The door. I didn’t hear him. Normally he calls out. When he leaves.”

Susan looked at her watch. 9.15 am. School would have started by now. “I’m sure he’s—”

Celeste pulled away. “I’m going back in.”

She turned back to the house, Susan tried to remember what it was that had hit the window but it had all happened so fast.

“Be careful,” she called.

“Mum? Mum!”

A teenage boy was running towards them from the direction of the main road. Tyrone.

“Son! Oh, sweet Jesus. You gave me a shock.”

The boy ran to his mother and they fell into each other, He was at least three inches taller than her and it was he who wrapped his arms around her rather than the other way round. Susan wondered when she’d last looked at this boy and if she’d recognise him if she saw him in town. Then she tried to remember when Tim had last hugged her like that. Or even his big sister Izzy. Izzy gave good hugs, or at least she had before leaving for London.

Celeste turned to her and wiped her eyes. “Thanks.”

Susan shrugged.

Celeste grabbed her son’s arm and dragged him towards the house. Susan retreated towards her own front door. Tim would be busy, but it would be good to speak to him, to check he was OK. He might answer, if she was lucky. And then she’d call Izzy, let her know they were safe.

There was a crack. Susan heard a cry and turned back to the street. Mr Peters, the retired headteacher who lived next door to the Taylors, was in the middle of the road. He was kneeling, his hands in front of him on the tarmac. Susan hurried towards him and spotted Celeste doing the same.

When they reached him, he pushed them away.

“Nothing broken. Leave me.”

Susan drew back. She knew better than to anger Mr Peters. He was one of those neighbours who was perfectly harmless until you annoyed him with something trivial; a badly parked car, guests leaving noisily too late at night. A son who dropped litter on the pavement.

He sat down in the road, shaking his head to ward them off. “What the bugger’s going on?”

“It’s Spaghetti Junction. A crash, I think,” said Susan.

“Doesn’t sound like a bloody crash to me. More like a bomb.”

Susan felt her stomach drop again. She swallowed. Celeste looked up, towards the flames.

Tyrone was with them now, his hand on his mum’s shoulder. He gave Mr Peters a wary look and avoided his eye.

“Come on Mum.”

Celeste shook him off. Her hand went to her mouth.

“Please, Mum. Come inside.”

Celeste frowned and turned to him. She nodded.

Susan threw her a nervous smile and drew back towards her house. Mr Peters pushed himself up, muttering under his breath, and stood staring downhill. He had his hands on his back and looked as if it would take some effort to  get back into his house. Susan considered offering to help but then decided against it. She pushed her front door open, relieved it hadn’t slammed shut.

“Susan!”

Celeste was facing the blaze still, not looking at her. She raised a trembling arm and pointed towards the shifting clouds of smoke.

“Robert. Lavonia,” she croaked. “They’re in there.”


Torn in Two by Rachel McLeanFind out what happens to Susan, Izzy, Lavonia and Robert by downloading the full set of stories from Amazon.

Terror attacks have devastated London and Birmingham.

Seven people’s lives are torn apart. Seven people’s worlds will never be the same again.

Read about the events on the opening day of the novel A House Divided and meet some of the characters appearing in the Division Bell trilogy in this set of interwoven companion stories.

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