Her Dark Heart – Carla Kovach

The car door creaked open and a knot formed in the pit of Susan’s churning stomach. Ryan, her husband – the man who was supposed to love and trust her – had a stark look in his eyes, one which she’d only experienced on a few occasions, one which made her whole body tremble because she knew what was coming. She could see the raging fire within him that was about to explode. She wanted to run from her house back to the pub, back to Dale, with her three children in tow. ‘Please, Ryan – I didn’t do anything wrong. I love you, I’m sorry.’ She knew he could sense that their marriage was over. It had been coming for a long time; she’d been preparing for the day and had even seen a solicitor. There was a bank account, one in which she’d saved a bit of money to tide her over. Had he come across it? He’d followed her to the Angel Arms, it wouldn’t surprise her one bit if he’d been rooting through her office. He stared, searching for a reaction, and she looked away, not wanting to antagonise him further. At times like this, he made her wait, made her anticipate when he would strike. She swallowed as she thought back to how things had been in the early days. After meeting they’d become inseparable, staying in for shared romantic evenings. Snuggling up in front of the television with a takeaway and a glass of wine had seemed like everything she’d dreamed of.

A man who wanted to be with her, who loved her intensely, who desired her immensely – that was what her dreams had been made of back then. At twenty-two she’d been struggling to make ends meet while working as an office junior and he’d stepped into her life, taking her into his beautiful little house. Within months she’d fallen pregnant with Phoebe, their first, and she’d been the happiest woman alive. After they’d moved into their new house and Jasmine had been born a year after Phoebe, she knew things felt different. The children had spelled the end of her freedom and a change in Ryan. Now at thirty-four, her desire to break out of her marriage, regardless of the consequences, filled her every thought. A tremble ran through her body. If he knew she’d been preparing for their divorce, he was now one step ahead of her. Like a snake releasing its venom, he reached into the car, digging his fingers into her arm as he dragged her towards their house. She stared up at the closed curtains hoping that the neighbours wouldn’t see what was happening.

No one was looking. A bedroom light flickered on and their eldest, Phoebe, stared out of the window as a piercing cry filled the house. Her youngest had woken up. Her heart hammered harder every time he cried. She wanted to hold him, hug him closely and take away his fear. Blood dripped down her cheek from the trail that seeped from his knuckles. It wasn’t his blood and it wasn’t hers. She shivered as she wondered if her blood was next on his agenda. As she gasped for breath, she fought back the sobs that were begging to be released. She batted his arm away as he fumbled with his key in the front door.

‘Ryan, stop. You’re hurting me. You’ve got it all wrong, he’s just a friend.’ Her eyes began to fill. Again, he ignored her. Throwing his keys onto the console table, he hurried to the kitchen and slammed his fists into the door several times, the blood on his knuckles creating a painting, similar to that which two-year-old Rory was capable of. The sourness of the wine had set on her tongue and continued down her throat causing her to gag. An unsettled feeling began to churn in her stomach as she listened to the patter of feet above. The children couldn’t see their father like this. She wouldn’t allow it.

‘Go back to bed,’ she yelled as a tear slid down her cheek. Ryan began pacing silently, once again making her wait for him to strike. The sound of her own heart beating filled her head as blood pumped around her body. Her locked gaze shifted from the blood on the door to her feet. She couldn’t look at him. Maybe he would calm down if she remained silent and looked down. Her thoughts flashed back to Dale, the gentlest man she’d ever known, left standing in the Angel Arms with a bloodied nose. They’d had so much to talk about even though she’d been apprehensive about the meeting. She shouldn’t have gone – big mistake. She hadn’t really wanted to meet up with him and Steph, she didn’t want to go to the reunion, but they’d insisted.

Something big was about to happen and it would blow her life apart. They had an agenda, one that Susan was a part of. Her own words came back to haunt her. A secret becomes a secret, not by making a vow that it will remain a secret; it’s more of a subtle process. It’s unwritten, unspoken – a memory buried in the deepest recesses of one’s mind. They’d promised to keep her secret. So much for promises. Her life would be ruined when everything came out. She closed her eyes, picturing Steph’s long black hair and pale face. Snow White – that had been her nickname years ago.

Dale, with his chocolate brown eyes and pink cheeks had barely changed and still looked younger than his years. His acne had long since cleared but she had still spotted a faded line of pockmarks along his cheek. She trembled as she pictured the other guests at the reunion; one whose face she’d hoped never to see again. The box had been opened and there was no going back. ‘Mum,’ Phoebe called from the top of the stairs. ‘Phoebe, please go back to bed.’ The quiver in her voice made her wonder if Phoebe had understood. Rory screamed for her from his room. ‘Please go and look after your brother. He’s scared.

Hug him for me.’ ‘What about you, Mum?’ Phoebe sucked on the end of her hair, her skinny legs standing stork-like on the top step. Susan spotted a tremor in her knee. Phoebe was her sensitive child. She absorbed the anxiety of others with ease, not like Jasmine who seemed to exist in her own bubble. ‘Mum, you’re bleeding.’ ‘It’s not mine. Look.’ She forced a smile and wiped Dale’s blood from her cheek. ‘There was just an accident while I was out and your dad came to pick me up.

’ Ryan stomped into the hallway. ‘Get to bed now. You heard your mother. Shut your brother up too.’ Phoebe didn’t need telling twice. She scarpered along the landing into her brother’s room and slammed the door. Susan imagined the children all huddled together as they rowed beneath them. ‘And you, get in that kitchen now.’ She whimpered as he nudged her from behind, eventually backing her into a corner. Gently, he closed the door and pulled the blind down.

She crouched to the floor and placed her shaking hands over her head and shuffled into the tiniest ball she could make with her body, waiting for what was to come. ‘If I ever find out you’ve been cheating on me, I’ll kill you. That’s a promise.’ ONE TUESDAY, 12 NOVEMBER 2019 Sebastian wailed as Megan fed his chunky jumper-covered arms through his coat sleeves. The last but one of the children to be going home and Megan hated to admit it, but she thought Sebastian was a brat. Is it wrong to admit that you don’t like one of the kids you look after? She never would, but thinking it was okay. It’s what kept her sane. His mother was late to collect him, again, and no apology was made – which was no surprise. The life of a nursery nurse mostly involved being taken advantage of as if it was part of the job. Most of the parents didn’t apologise for being late or inconveniencing her or the other staff, which only irked her more.

Sebastian’s mother strolled through the door and strapped the toddler into the cruddy food-laden pushchair, his back arched with every scream, upping the battle between toddler and mother. Just hurry and go, taking your wailing banshee with you. ‘Bye,’ the woman called back as she left the playroom, the wheels of the pushchair getting quieter until the front door slammed. Megan picked up the last of the toys, wondering where the last mother of the day was. Six fifteen and still no word from Susan. The nursery officially closed at six. They didn’t work long or unsociable hours, not like some. That was the main reason she stayed at Bluebells Day Care Nursery. Susan had always arrived before six. There was one time when she’d had a bump in her car where someone took her wing mirror off.

She’d called them straight away to say she’d be late. Little Rory began to stretch and yawn, his blinking gaze scanning the room for the other children that had long since been collected by their parents. His fingers searched for the picture of his mother that he’d painted earlier. He smiled and gripped it, crumpling the edges in his balled fist, excited to give it to her. Megan was surprised that Sebastian hadn’t woken him but Rory had been in a deep sleep. The children had learned to nap over the noise. His bottom lip began to tremble then a high-pitched scream pierced the silence. ‘Mummy.’ Megan scooped him up off the beanbag where he’d fallen asleep with his painting in his hand, just over an hour ago. She wasn’t supposed to let him sleep so close to home time but then again, she was now doing overtime.

‘You still here?’ Mrs Andrews, her manager, walked by with the large bunch of keys, ready to lock up for the night. Her little round spectacles almost bounced on her nose as she spoke. Megan wondered if Mrs Andrews’s scoop cut had ever been in fashion. If she curled it slightly, like the curls they had in the fifties, just maybe it would look good. Second thoughts, she should let it grow and go for a side parting just like Megan had done. The children loved her pink wavy hair. ‘Susan hasn’t come to pick this little man up yet, has she, Rory?’ She popped the toddler on her knee and soothed him as his shrieks simmered into occasional whimpers. ‘He’s missing his mummy, aren’t you?’ ‘I should give her a call. It’s not like her to be late.’ Mrs Andrews pulled out her old Nokia, the type of phone that did nothing more than make phone calls.

A few seconds later, she shrugged and hung up. ‘No answer. She must be driving.’ She walked over to the window as she placed the phone into her deep cardigan pocket and gazed out through the smeared glass. Megan checked her own phone. There was a message from Danny. She needed to be out of here and on her way to Redditch for their cinema night. She’d hoped to be able to pop home and change but that wasn’t going to happen. She sniffed her jumper – aroma of biscuit and baby sick. It was Susan’s fault she’d end up going out that night stinking like crèche.

Danny had promised her something scary to watch after they’d been for a nosh-up. ‘I really have to get out of here soon, Mrs Andrews. I have to get to Redditch for seven, I’ve not even changed, I stink and I’m already late.’ ‘I’m sorry, Megan. I need you here until she arrives.’ ‘But—’ ‘But nothing. Your contract states that this can happen sometimes. You’ll get overtime. I’ll keep calling her.’ The woman turned on her ballet pumps before Megan could reply.

The unpredictability of what came with the job had ruined her plans on a few occasions. She grabbed her phone and messaged her boyfriend. She cuddled Rory as he began to suck his thumb and close his eyes. The painting of Susan dropped to the floor. It was true that the job wasn’t all she wanted it to be, but holding Rory in her arms as she soothed him made everything feel a little better. If only all the children were as lovely as he was. ‘You’re tired still, aren’t you, little man?’ Wisps of dark curls covered his olive-skinned forehead; he looked so much like his mother. His cheeks, red from crying, had puffed out more prominently than usual. Mrs Andrews hurried back in, making sure all the windows were locked. Megan imagined Susan hurrying through the door, apologising and flapping as she tried to balance everything in her arms.

She always looked stressed, that would be nothing new. ‘Still no word, I’m afraid.’ Mrs Andrews bustled past and began closing the curtains, before looping her scarf around her neck. ‘There’s a heavy frost building up out there tonight.’ She shivered. ‘Do you think she’s okay?’ Megan placed the now sleeping toddler back on the beanbag. He stirred and grimaced as she moved her arm from under his neck. He nestled his head deeper into the material as Megan covered him with his favourite blanket. She loved to see the children sleeping, that’s when they were at their quietest. Parents didn’t like it.

They expected nursery staff like her to spend all day in the fast lane, wearing their little ones out, ready for them to be taken home and put straight to bed. Mrs Andrews tutted and lifted the curtain slightly, gazing at every car that passed. ‘I don’t know, it’s not like her though. I’ll go and check out her file. I think we have the grandmother’s number. I’m so sorry about this.’ Megan sighed, knowing that her evening was now a write-off. She wished Mrs Andrews had been more hands-on with the kids but she stayed in her office, penned up behind a closed door; all day, every day. Megan grabbed the last crayon, threw it in the box and placed the lid on it, hoping that Rory’s grandmother would hurry up. Rory made a cute sucking noise as he fell deeper into slumber.

She checked her watch again. She knew Susan was going through a lot, her divorce wasn’t a secret, but something didn’t sit well with Megan. Susan always held Rory like he was fragile. The way she smiled when he called her from the other end of the nursery really gave her a fuzzy feel. Now she thought about it, Susan hadn’t called for a couple of hours. Susan always called, fussing about how her son was, wanting to know that he was happy. She shrugged, maybe it was nothing. Maybe Susan was simply running late. She shivered as she stroked the little boy’s head. ‘Mummy will be here soon.

’ TWO WEDNESDAY, 13 NOVEMBER 2019 Mary walked her crying grandson around the small cottage to the background tones of ‘Baby Shark’ – a song that was increasingly getting on her nerves. ‘Shush, Rory. Mummy will be back soon.’ She wished she believed what she was saying. Since the phone call from Rory’s nursery last night, she’d been looking after her grandson and calling Susan on constant redial. Her stomach fluttered just like back then, all those years ago. Toys littered every room, toys that she and Howard really had no room for after downsizing. She noticed that the front door was open. Mary picked up Rory and ran into the hallway. It had to be Susan.

‘Oh, it’s you.’ Howard popped his head around the corner of his study, threw a few computer leads onto his desk and came back out. His mop of grey hair flopped forward over his eyes as he rubbed his stubbly chin. ‘You alright, love? I had to grab a few cables for one of my jobs.’ He smiled at Rory and pinched his chubby cheek. ‘Heard anything yet?’ Tears slid down Rory’s red cheeks, his curls sodden and stuck to his face. Howard stuck his tongue out and crossed his eyes and Rory broke into a chuckle. ‘No. I’m worried about her.’ Mary stared at the top of the little boy’s head and hugged him closely as once again he began to cry.

‘I know you are, love. Let’s just try not to jump to conclusions though. We know how stressed she’s been. Shall I take him while you try to call her again?’ He took the crying toddler from her and set him on his feet, pulling another face. Rory tried to hide his smile, tears instantly forgotten. Mary loved how the grandchildren’s faces always lit up when they saw Howard pulling one of his many silly faces. ‘I tell you what, I’ll pour us a glass of wine, shall I? Shall we get Nanny a glass of red?’ Rory nodded and dragged Howard towards the kitchen as he sucked on his knuckle. She shook her head. ‘Best not. Just take him to the kitchen for a minute.

I’m calling the police.’ ‘We’ve been through this, Mum,’ Clare said as she breezed past, holding a tub of ice cream with a spoon sticking out of the top. ‘It’s only been a day and it’s not like this is a first, remember.’ The lounge door burst open and Mary felt as though her head might explode as ‘Baby Shark’ could be heard at full volume. Clare’s toddler, Harrison, danced and screamed. ‘Ice cream, ice cream. I want some. Mummy, ice cream!’ He reached up to grab the spoon, knocking it flying across the hallway, splattering a dollop up the magnolia wall. As the song came to an end, Harrison turned back to the lounge, staring at the television. ‘Again, Mummy.

“Baby Shark”!’ Mary shook her head. After coming back to the family home a year earlier, her oldest daughter had turned her peaceful haven upside down. Harrison never slept or settled and the noise was constant, even leading to her neighbours complaining. Mary slammed the lounge door as Harrison stepped back into the room. ‘She’s not answering her phone and she hasn’t been in touch for a whole day. She wouldn’t abandon Rory. I should have called them yesterday. What the hell was I thinking?’ ‘You know her. She’s struggling at the moment. Susan copes by having time out.

Do you really think we should call the police yet?’ Clare casually leaned against the wall. ‘That was a long time ago! I know Susan. Yes. I do think we should call the police. She would never leave Rory at nursery. I can’t believe I let you and Howard persuade me to wait this long.’ Mary looked sternly at her daughter. Even though the sisters had had their major differences, she thought that Clare would see how unusual this was and worry. ‘Can you keep the noise down while I phone them? Turn that flipping racket off before I lose it.’ Rory ran up to her and began to sob again.

‘Want. Mummy. Where Mummy?’ Mary held him close and stroked his hair. ‘Mummy loves you and she’ll be home soon. Nanny promises.’ Harrison burst through the door. ‘Mummy, look. I’m a car. Brum, brum.’ ‘Harrison, get your pyjamas on.

It’s bedtime,’ Mary snapped. Harrison needed discipline and her daughter wasn’t giving him any. ‘But I want ice cream, Nanny.’ Mary snatched the ice cream from Clare’s hand and thrust it at Howard’s chest. Her husband looked away, trying not to get in the middle of one of their arguments. He left them in the hallway, only popping back to pass his wife the phone. Harrison cried like it was the end of the world. ‘Now get him ready for bed, Clare. He’s two, for heaven’s sake.’ She knew full well that getting Harrison into bed would be near impossible but she needed to see that her daughter was making an effort.

Clare tutted and picked up her screaming son. The boy began to pound his halfclenched fists into her back as he resisted bedtime. ‘Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream…’ ‘Here, can you take Rory? I’ll put him to bed after I call the police.’ Mary passed Rory to Howard. Rory was her little angel, always a delight to look after. ‘Come on, little man. Do you want to watch something on the TV?’ Rory snuggled into Howard’s chest as they went into the lounge. Mary hurried to the kitchen, fingers hovering over the number pad on the phone. Just one more time. She had to try Susan again.

As she went to call, her phone lit up. ‘Ryan? Is everything okay?’ ‘Yes. I still have the girls. Can I speak to her? She isn’t answering her phone. Phoebe is getting tired and they both have school tomorrow. They want to go home.’ Mary’s heart skipped a beat as her soon-to-be ex-son-in-law awaited her reply. ‘Have you heard from her at all today?’ ‘No. Like I told you last night. I heard from her yesterday when she said she had to visit a client in the afternoon and she asked me to pick the girls up from school and take them back to my place.

I’ve heard nothing more. You mean she isn’t with you?’ Mary took a deep breath. She should’ve called Ryan to keep him updated but she didn’t want him to know that Susan had been struggling to cope, especially as things were getting nasty between Susan and Ryan after Susan told him she wanted a divorce. She didn’t need to give him any more ammunition and had hoped that this little incident would have blown over by today. ‘Ryan, Susan didn’t pick Rory up from nursery, you know that. I haven’t heard from her. I am calling the police.’ ‘Dammit. What’s up with her? I could do without this. I suppose I best come and get Rory? It’s not fair on you and Howard.

’ Mary listened at the lounge door and all had gone quiet. She hoped that Rory had settled so that she could pop him straight into the travel cot. ‘He’s more than welcome to stay. I think he’s asleep.’ ‘Unlike the other?’ Ryan said as Harrison’s yells boomed through the building. ‘We’ll be fine. That’s unless you want to collect him. He’s more than welcome to stay though. I know you probably have work in the morning. You just concentrate on the girls and let me know if you hear anything from Susan.

I’ll keep you updated.’ ‘Thanks, Mary. Let me know if you hear anything. I’ll keep trying her too.’ As he ended the call she walked over to the sink and poured a glass of water. Since Susan’s split from Ryan, she had gone a little off the rails. She’d gone out drinking more, taken quite a few liberties when it came to babysitting and she had been a little late at times and not answered her phone. But she had never abandoned her children; she loved them more than anything. Mary pressed the buttons on the phone. If she didn’t call the police and something had happened, she’d never forgive herself.

‘Hello, I’d like to report a missing person.

.

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