IN A POOL OF BLOOD

The room flashed white, then blackness descended. Karla jumped, dropping the papers she’d been reading. Less than a breath later the sonic boom rattled the windows. She rose from the settee and stumbled over the ottoman, fumbling for the light switch inside the door, flicked it off then on again. Nothing. Blast. Her nerves jangled at each scrape of branch against the house. All she needed tonight was a blackout on top of this storm. Her fingers trailed along the hallway wall towards the bedrooms.

Candles. She knew she had some. Her sister, Ruth, had given her some thick white vanilla-scented ones for her birthday a couple of years ago. They were in the bedroom cupboard waiting until Karla felt she could give them to someone else. And matches were with them. Perfect Ruth always thought of everything.

Karla squashed the unkind thought. That was in the past now. They had all moved on. Except Karla. She was back here, in this house, reliving the loss, reading about the past. Feeling it seep back inside her, squashing all the progress she’d made towards a normal life.

Her fumbling fingers found the thick plastic-wrapped candles. She pulled one out, jumping and knocking the box of matches to the floor when something crashed into the roof. She looked at the ceiling. Still there. The gum tree. It must have dropped a branch. Thank God it wasn’t more than that.

The matches had landed against her toes with a soft thunk and a rattle and she crouched to pick them up. As she stood again her head banged against the shelf, shooting pain from her temple down her neck. The sound echoed through the inky air. She stripped the crinkly plastic from the candle, the sound loud in the empty room. The match flared then settled as she brought it to the new wick and she watched the flame bite through the wax coating and consume it.

Just like …

Karla shook the thoughts from her head. Would one candle be enough? She looked through the doorway, the hall ebony beyond it. Maybe two. She grabbed another candle, then another. OK, three. Hot wax dribbled over her fingers and she jumped, nearly dropping the candle then gripping it hard. Tilting the candle away from her, she made her slow way to the kitchen in search of plates to put under them.

The fridge was off of course, and the electric clock on the oven. The hum of modern life was gone, replaced by the savage howl and vibration of the storm outside. Yet, even with the storm, inside was silence.

Karla took her candles back to the living room, to the newspaper cuttings and photographs spread over the coffee table. She was missing something. She knew it. The answer had to be there. Something happened the night her mother d-died. Even her mind fumbled over the word. A shock still, disbelief feeding her bewilderment.

She picked up the clipping that disturbed her most although she didn’t know why. The candle light flickered, wavering in an imaginary breeze forced through the house by the storm raging outside. The photo had been taken the night her mother died. It showed the house, she and her sisters huddled on the footpath with two police officers. And a large stain on the garden path, glistening wetly in the light streaming from the front door. It had been red-brown. Blood. Wet. New.

Her mother’s blood.

But that’s all there was. Her mother had been found in that pool of blood but there was nothing else. No footprints, or splash patterns telling anything more than where the murderer stood. Just her mother with half her head missing. And the pool of blood.

There were other photos like this so why was it this one in particular that disturbed her? A floorboard creaked down the hall near the bedrooms. Karla stopped breathing, her heart pounding as she strained to listen. It was the storm. And an old house. There were bound to be creaks. She drew a slow breath, turning away from the door. Then snapped back as the sound repeated.

Karla dropped the clipping onto the sofa beside her and picked up a candle. As she stood, glass shattered and blinds rattled. Her hands trembled in time with the frantic thudding of her heart. One of the bedrooms. Crack. Glass tinkled to the floor and wooden blinds slammed back against the window frame again. The light from the candles flickered, the flame bent. Wind. More than there had been a few minutes ago. She swallowed the whimper in her throat.

The wind howled outside, laughing at her fear. It was just a storm. Just a storm. That’s all. She crept from the room, the candlelight jumping, chasing long shadows around her head.

One step into the hallway, the front door flew open. Rain and wind screeched around the dark shadow framed in the gaping hole where the door should be and snuffed her candles.

Karla screamed, tilted the plate the candle sat on, dropping it with a thud and sharp crack of breaking china when hot wax ran over her finger. She stumbled backwards, ramming into the wall, hands out, warding off the intruder.

The front door slammed shut, muting the violence of the storm. The hall became almost silent but for Karla’s breath rasping in her throat, catching her vocal chords, silencing the screams clambering for release.

Light flashed in her eyes, blinding her.

“For goodness’ sake, Karla. What are you doing creeping around in the dark?”

“Ruth.” Her sister’s name was barely audible, fear still strangled her.

“Of course me.” Ruth walked into the living room, setting the torch she held on the table and deftly re-lighting the candles. “Bring that one, will you?” She flicked a look at the candle on the floor, cooling wax whitening the polished wood. She shook her head. Karla could almost hear what was going through her sister’s mind, she’d heard it so often. ‘Silly Karla can’t do anything right.’

Karla bent to pick up the candle, her hands still shaking from the fright. “What are you doing here, Ruth?” she asked as she rose.

Ruth froze, her gaze captured by the newspaper clipping on the couch. “What are you doing with this, Karla?” Her voice had lost that mocking tone and was now deeper and very, very serious.

Karla stood, still as stone, in the doorway and stared at her sister. The other woman stood by the couch, newspaper clipping in her hand, her liquid blue eyes hard in her face, a half smile on her lips. Almost exactly the same expression she wore in the photograph. That’s what was wrong with that photo. She and Aimee looked stunned and afraid. Ruth didn’t.

Ruth looked just as she did now. Curious but a little angry too. Karla looked closer. It was almost calculating.

“You were so calm after Mum died,” Karla murmured. “The rock for Aimee and me to lean on.” She didn’t think Ruth heard her over the fury of the storm outside. The branches of the trees thrashed the side of the house, scraping against the windows, rattling the pains of glass. The air inside was heavy, energy-charged, trying to join the rage outside but not able to escape.

Ruth smiled. It was the same smile she usually had but, for the first time, Karla noticed it didn’t reach her eyes. When did that happen? When did Ruth become so cold? Karla’s gaze flickered over the square of newspaper in her sister’s hand, the corner crumpling in her tight grip. It did affect her but she wouldn’t show it. “Why is it so hard for you to miss Mum the way Aimee and I do, Ruth?” She wasn’t sure where the question came from but she knew, down to her gut, that it was true. Her heart pounded, a different rhythm from before. Not brought by the storm, but by the realisation that Ruth didn’t miss their mother. She never had.

“Why should I miss her? She was the one stopping me from moving forward. Without her, I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to.”

Karla’s jaw dropped. “Stopping you?” She shook her head, not believing she was hearing this. “Mum didn’t want to release the trust fund until you finished uni. She wasn’t stopping you, just asking you to finish uni.” It had been a sensible suggestion.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re still sweet, biddable Karla, doing whatever you’re told to do, aren’t you?” her sister sneered. “If I’d done what she wanted I’d have missed the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“But …” Karla began then clamped her mouth close. It didn’t matter. Ruth wouldn’t listen anyway.

The opportunity of a lifetime. The huge property deal that fell through when subsidence destroyed the development. Ruth must have lost a lot of money when that happened. Karla didn’t know. She never saw Ruth anymore. This was only the third time she’d seen her older sister since their mother died three years ago. The first time was the day of the funeral. The second was the day their trust funds had been released and they signed the papers.

She and Aimee had dinner together once a week but Ruth never came.

“Why don’t you come to dinner tomorrow night?” Karla blurted, cringing at the impulse. Did she really want to spend time with Ruth and her criticism? Was she just grasping at some nebulous dream of happy families?

Ruth stared at her. “Why?”

What’s in it for me? Ruth’s catch-cry from their childhood echoed silently through the dark house.

Karla shrugged. “Aimee will be here. We could just get together.”

“Like old times?” Ruth sneered, then crumpled the newspaper in her hand.

No, not just like old times. Ruth never spoke to them unless she wanted something. Karla’s breath hitched. What did she want this time?

“Why are you here, Ruth?” She shuffled on her feet, moving closer to the doorway, although she couldn’t have said why. The room was suddenly cold, Ruth’s eyes hard. Calculating. “Why tonight?”

Ruth’s lips curled and she chuckled. “Because I don’t usually visit my little sister?” She stepped toward Karla, Karla shuffled back again. “Don’t you think I might just want to see how you are?”

Karla’s head began shaking before the thought gelled in her mind. No, Ruth wouldn’t just come to visit. She wanted something. But what?

“I heard that property development collapsed.” She sucked in a shocked breath. What had prompted her to say that? God, Ruth was going to kill her.

Ruth shrugged. “These things happen,” she said, her voice light but controlled. “I suppose you invested your fund in something solid and boring.”

Karla watched her sister’s thin eyebrows rise in question. She nodded, swallowing against the bile rising in her throat. This is what Ruth wanted. This was her focus. The money. Always the money.

“It’s all gone, isn’t it Ruth?” she asked quietly, barely daring to voice the question.

Harsh, bitter laughter exploded in the room, a sharp contrast to the now dying storm outside. “Of course it’s all gone,” Ruth spat. “But I know where to get some more. I’ll start again.” She stepped forward again. “And this time I’ll be rich.”

“Rich? You were rich to start with, Ruth. We had almost a million each in that fund.”

“Ha! That’s nothing to what I’ll have by the time I’ve finished.” Another step forward.

Karla felt the edge of the door at her back. She could swing around and be through the front door in seconds, but why should she feel so threatened. This was Ruth. Her sister.

Then it struck her. Their mother. The newspaper clipping. The visit tonight. Ruth’s eyes hard and relentless. Greedy. Grasping.

“You did it, didn’t you?” she gasped. “You killed Mum to get the money.”

Ruth stopped moving. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She held her hand out. “Now come and sit down and we’ll talk.”

“It’s about money, isn’t it?” Karla edged out the doorway into the hall. “Now you want mine as well.”

Ruth surged forward and Karla turned and ran, wrenching the door open and flying down the steps to the garden path. She could hear her sister’s harsh breathing directly behind her, felt a hand brush and grab her long hair. Grasp it, tear it from her scalp. Tears started in her eyes. From the pain. From her hair being pulled out. For her mother. Her sister’s betrayal.

She slammed into the garden gate, fumbled with the catch, turned to look at Ruth, slowing now, smiling. Pulling something from her pocket and pointing it at her. A gun? Where had Ruth got a gun? She was going to die. She saw it clearly, even in the blackness of the night. Her hands shook, the cold of expectant death stiffening them. She didn’t want to die.

“No!” she wailed.

Crack! The sound split the night, hurting her ears. Karla fell to the ground, hands over her head, tears smarting her eyes, waiting for the killing blow.

Only silence came. Silence and a soft rustling of leaves in the breeze. The sound was close. Very close.

Karla raised her head and looked up. Directly into the branches of the gum tree, less than a foot from her. They waved with residual movement, astringent eucalyptus wafting in the air. The huge gum tree lay at her feet, wrenched from the soil by the ferocity of the storm. She rose to her feet, pushed back against the garden gate by the reaching branches.

“Ruth?” She peered through the branches, unable to see anything in the darkness. “Ruth? Where are you?”

The streetlights flickered, then came on, the glow brightening as they warmed. Karla edged forward, pushing the wet branches aside, then stopped, her heart thundering in her chest.

There, pinned beneath the tree, on the garden path, almost exactly where her mother had been found, was her sister. She was still. Eyes open, arms reaching towards Karla.

Her head was resting in a pool of blood.

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