Black Petals Issue #95 Spring, 2021

Things That Happen
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Scalp Cleanse-Fiction by Kajetan Kwiatkowski
The Muscus-Fiction by Alice Stone
The Wrong Place-Fiction by Ante Caleta
Things That Happen-Fiction by Guido Eekhaut
Tidal Horror-Fiction by Sal Braden
Two Martinis In-Fiction by Hillary Lyon
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Occupational Hazard-Flash Fiction by Doug Hawley
The Definition of Crash-Poems by Paul David Adkins
Ghost: A Working Definition-Poem by Carl E. Reed
Vampiric Threnody-Poem by Carl E. Reed
Leelanau Lake Monster-Poems by Richard Stevenson
Ballast-2 Poems by Angelo Letizia
Pit Bull-3 Poems by Pete Mladinic
Shadow of Sleep-Poem by Teresa Ann Frazee
Microcosmus-3 Poems by Daniel Snethen
The Higher Dimensions-Poem by David C. Kopaska- Merkel

95_bp_thingthathppn_nrichardson.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2021

Things That Happen

 

Guido Eekhaut

 

  

I don't know she looks sixteen or so, but it's so hard to guess the age of girls, so I am careful and assume she's fourteen, to be on the safe side. Or younger. As long as there is a margin of safety.

          Yes,” she says, I'm Daphne.”

          Your mother asked me to give you some help with your French lessons. My name is John. ”

          Well, John,” she says in an overly grown-up way, I really don't know if I need any tutoring.

          Her mother insisted and was even willing to pay me a little extra if I took the job. I need the money. You can't get by with writing books, not today. And her family lives in a nice neighborhood. They probably have plenty of money to afford them a private teacher.

          Let's try it, I say. Then we'll see where this leads to.”

          She opens the front door completely. Well, come on in then. It sounds resigned. She doesn't quite like the idea, but is willing to try.

          The house is typical upper middle class: a ten year old, white villa (fiscal sins have to be blotted out by all that whiteness), there are no more than twenty books in what passes for the library (all relevant books, so none of mine), and the only real color is of a huge bouquet of flowers in a glass vase on the coffee table.

          My mother's lover,” she explains when she sees I've noticed the bouquet. Daphne, maybe just twelve, but not fourteen. Very short jeans shorts, muscular but pale calves and thighs, a yellow T-shirt (just a little too tight, small breasts), dark blond hair, bright eyes, no make-up.

          So her mother has a lover? And where does her father fit anywhere in the picture? Is he perhaps no longer around? Dead, or are her parents divorced?

          Daphne makes coffee for us and there are even chocolade chips cookies, so I don't have to complain about not being treated properly. We are all alone in the house, and around us the world seems to have fallen silent. I wonder about the situation, and about her mother admitting an unknown man into the house, alone with her definitely underage daughter.

          Anyway, here we are, dedicating ourselves to the French language, of which she seems to know the basics all too well. We sit at the large table downstairs in the living room (which is a good idea, because I prefer not to venture into her bedroom). Her textbooks are more worn than I expected. She uses an Atoma notebook for her exercises. I let irregular verbs start their satanic dance. Language often defies logic, and each language does so in its own, particular way. Students are often left with no other option than memorization. And discipline, actually. Precisely the sort of thing I myself need in my profession as a writer. Discipline.

          Still the work is hard, as French has never been an easy language to learn for a foreigner. Such irregularities, such nuances. And we haven’t even started with the spoken version yet.

          I notice how peaceful the house and the surrounding garden are. There is no movement outside, except for swaying tree branches. They have something hypnotic about them.

          A large white cat is slowly walking through the living room. So there’s at least one other resident in the house. Daphne ignores her.

          Do you have more examples for me?” she inquires. She means the irregular verbs.

          And then, without any logical transition: “Last week the next door neighbor was murdered.”

          She makes it sound so trite, as if it were an everyday occurrence. A neighbor has been murdered. Why? And what was the motive? And was the murderer found? Can’t remember having read about this case. Not many murders happen over here, I’m sure. At least an echo would have reached me.

          The police doesn’t seem to have a clue, she says. The subject hardly interests her. Still, she brings it up, so she wants to tell me something.

          But for the time being we leave the dead neighbor to his own devices in favor of French grammar. She is making steady progress. Now and then she seems distracted by something in the garden, although I don't see anything there. Her parents are clearly adepts of the wild, French garden. A horror to some people, who need their garden to be kept under human control. Personally I don’t care either way. I live in a flat and don't need a garden. I don't even have houseplants. If I want nature, I will find a park or a forest.

          After little over an hour I close the books again. She is making progress, but there is still a long way to go. When will I introduce her to Proust or Gracq? Certainly not in the near future. Within a couple of years perhaps. Proust, I suspect, will be forever out of her reach.

          When I leave, the white cat shows up next to her. Together they stand on the porch and watch me while I walk down the street towards my car.

 

 

I only know her mother from our conversation over the phone. We have never met in person. She pays me cash in an envelope, which almost mysteriously ends up in my letterbox. The instructions are clear: I teach Daphne twice a week, for a total of eight weeks. After that, the girl is back on her own.

          It's hard for me to understand what Daphne is telling me. Was the neighbor murdered, or did he just die? Did he die, or did he disappear? The situation isn't clear to me at all. Its as if Daphne herself is not a master of her own language.

          We are getting along well with French. It takes effort, but she is willing to work hard.

          The house and garden remain incredibly quiet. It’s as if Daphne lives here on her own, with just the nameless cat as company. Large white flowers of a kind unknown to me grow in the garden. I am no expert on flowers, so I have no idea what they are. I didn’t notice them a week earlier. Remarkable how fast they seem to be growing. And they all face the house, as if observing it.

          The white cat appears again, moving almost imperceptibly from one room to another.

          Has your neighbor been found already? I ask, in between exercises.

          No. He did not return. And he's not the only one,” says Daphne.

          Not the only one? What does that mean?

          The neighbor on the other side has also left,” she says, almost carelessly. “She’s been missing for a while.”

          Left? It's a strange choice of words. Are you saying she's dead too? Was she murdered?”

          Daphne purses her lips. All kinds of claims are made.” And leaves it at that.

          But if she's dead, or murdered, or if she just left, wouldn’t the neighbors know about that?”

          People don't know anything, John,” she says, and suddenly she sounds tired. I check my watch. Our time is up. It doesn't look like I'm going to unravel the neighbor's riddle today.

 

 

The following days I look for items on the news feeds. There is nothing. There is no mention of Daphne's dead, murdered or disappeared neighbors. I know what it is: she's bored, she wants to impress me, she is trying to give meaning to her life with improbable fantasies. She's merely an adolescent with too much imagination. An imagination that may require too much of her, as pale and delicate as she already is. She imagines dead people and then has to share those stories with me. I have to tell her this has to stop. That she only torments herself and gains nothing.

          But I don’t bring up the subject during our next session. Neither does she mention new dramatic events. She focuses on the lessons. She seems to be losing weight, and I urge her to eat some biscuits with the coffee. This is the least I can do for her.

          Her knowledge of the French language is progressing steadily. In the garden I see more and more of those white flowers. The white cat sneaks through the house but never seems to leave. Every week an envelope with money ends up in my letterbox.

 

 

Sometimes I want an omelet for breakfast, sometimes a plain boiled egg, with a slice of bread and some butter. I am a man of simple habits. I still haven’t found out the name of Daphne' s cat. Sometimes I have the impression that she already mentioned the name of the animal but I can’t remember it. The cat as such remains anonymous.

          In the street a black van with two men in the front seats passes by. They stop at a house down the road and walk in. Apparently they have a key. Maybe they live there. When I leave, the van has gone.

          Nor do I know the name of those white flowers. Daphne might be able to help me with that, but I'm not asking. She tells me that a young man disappeared two houses over. Or maybe he's dead. Again, his fate is unclear, as far as Daphne is concerned. People are disappearing, something is clearly wrong. I could ask around the neighborhood about what happened to those people, but whenever I arrive here, there’s nobody around. Daphne is wrong: everyone is dead or gone. The whole neighborhood.

          Don’t you have any birds in the garden? She has successfully completed her exercises. Soon enough the French language will have few secrets for her.

          I glance at the garden, at the overwhelming white flowers.

          It's not really a garden,” Daphne says.

          I could ask her what it is, if not a garden — but the world is already too complex, and I feel I’d better avoid being too intrusive. It’s not my garden, after all.

          The cat meows at me, defiantly. It will not allow too much curiosity from me.

          Does anyone have any idea why all those people are vanishing?

          Probably because they are no longer needed,” she says, without passion, as if it were obvious. No longer needed.

          There are another eight billion left on the planet,” she says.

          She has merely made a simple calculation. Eight billion people, given a dozen or so. These won’t be missed. Not in the grander scale of things.

          What if soon the entire street disappeared all of the residents? What happens then? Someone somewhere must be getting suspicious. There will be police involved, and a judicial investigation will follow. The newspapers will have a field day. There is a weird mystery going on, and newspapers love that.

          When can I talk to your parents?

          She frowns at me. Why do you want to talk to my parents?”

          Because they pay me for teaching you, and so maybe they want to know if you're making progress.”

          Maybe they don't care if I make any progress. It sounds as if she doesn’t care either, and again this does not match her age.

          I am sure, Daphne,” I sternly say, that they are very concerned about you. Otherwise, they wouldn't bother to hire me.”

          It's just money, she says. It doesn't matter to them.

          You didn't have to work for it,” I say, and it sounds uselessly reproachful. The cat is watching me from a distance. The cat, which is exactly the same color as those abundant flowers outside. They want you to succeed in life. That is the concern of parents.”

          But what do I know? I have no children myself.

 

 

Sometimes I have the impression that my function in this house is not to teach Daphne French. However, the true meaning of my presence escapes me. Does she need company during her parents' long absences? Do they need someone to check up on her, for a couple of times a week, in their prolonged absence?

          None of this makes any sense.

          All this time the vase with flowers has been on the coffee table. I suspect that they are not always the same flowers, but that new ones occasionally take their place, because they always look fresh. What did Daphne say that first time? That the flowers come from her mother's lover?

          A lover. That is interesting. Invisible parents, invisible neighbors, and an equally invisible lover. But they all undoubtedly play a role somewhere in the background.

          Maybe I should be more critical of what Daphne is telling me. Every word might be a lie. Every utterance a fantasy.

          I try to find the number that called me, her mother's number, to sort out the details and make arrangements. A beautiful voice, someone who got straight to the point, who didn't need frills. I want to call her again, to find out more about Daphne and about the family situation, their absence, and what is required of me. However, the number has vanished from my phone’s memory. That's strange. That is also unusual. But there we are. I can’t phone her.

 

 

We are near the end of our collaboration. I can teach you a lot more, but you can get started with this,” I tell her. This is the last session. Her mother hasn’t called me. So this will be goodbye, for Daphne and me. Strangely enough, I still didn't find out how old she really is.

          There is still a lot to learn,” she says.

          Today again when I arrived I noticed how deserted the whole street is. Even the neighboring streets were totally devoid of life. No cars, no pedestrians. However, Daphne no longer reports disappearances or murders. The phenomenon has become self-evident.

          In the garden, the white flowers have whipped out almost all other plants. They are parasites, that much is clear. They take up all the space, and the rest of the plants and flowers wither away.

          So you won't come back, she says.

          The cat looks at me, expectantly. Have no idea what exactly it expects of me.

          Unless your parents want to,” I say.

          She looks towards the garden for a moment, as if someone were standing there. I follow her gaze, but the garden is empty. There is nobody. The whole house is empty, except for us and the cat.

          You will be back soon,” she promises.

          Nothing more is being said between us, not even when she holds the door open for me. I step outside and into my car, and drive off.

          As before, the streets are deserted. A quiet and deserted neighborhood. Would not want to live here.

          I drive on and reach the Central Business District. That too is deserted. No vehicles, no pedestrians. It is the busiest time of the day, when most commuters return home. But there is no one to be seen.

          I stop the car in the middle of an intersection and get out.

          The whole city seems evacuated. It is utterly silent. No sound can be heard.

          Large clusters of white flowers crawl up the facade of apartment buildings.

Guido Eekhaut is a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, fantastic and speculative fiction and books for young adults. He came to genre literature after discovering the work of Jack Vance at age fifteen, and that of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, J. G. Ballard, Thomas Disch and many others.

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