Leaving Home: Literary Thriller Short Fiction By JW Langley
JW Langley, author of Leaving Home, is a former theology magazine editor and Goth club DJ. He’s written poetry in The Rialto, blogged religious and political commentary on Huffington Post UK and has an Afrocentric urban fantasy novel coming out with Montag Press in 2021.
Wednesday morning, five o’clock.
As the day begins, Martha is already dressed, a small, green canvas bag zipped up at her feet, a little brown bottle wrapped in a handkerchief in her pocket. Today is the day, one way or another.
She moves slowly, careful not to let the floorboards creak, holding her breath, willing away gravity and sound. One step, two, stop. Breathe. Listen. She holds her breath again, trying to make out footsteps, trying to assure herself nobody will be there when she opens the door. Two more steps then stop. Breathe. Listen.
She leans towards the bars, trying to see around corners. Trying to peer into the gloom of the corridor, trying to be invisible. Her heart is hammering on her ribs and her head feels too full of blood. Her hands are shaking so much she has to crunch her fingers into fists before she can hold the loop of wire steady. She lifts it to the lock.
As she slides the twisted wire into the darkness of the keyhole and jiggles and twists the loop, a cymbal crashes. A clang from the kitchen downstairs. The noise sends a shock of fear radiating from her chest into her fingers and she drops the lock pick, the dull clatter-tap of light metal on the floor sounding like a window smashing in Martha’s head. Like a gun.
Martha is a statue. A marble study in damn damn DAMNATION. She holds completely still, only her eyes swiveling, waiting for the thunder of boots, the safety brothers.
Nothing. She exhales a little, steadying herself, and slowly bends to get the pick.
As she slides the twisted wire into the darkness of the keyhole and jiggles and twists the loop, a cymbal crashes.
The voice is male and high, obsequious and terrible, the way some children can be terrible. Martha jolts and steadies herself, forcing her head to stay down while she folds the wire into her palm and fastens her shoe.
Breathe. Relax your face. Look up.
“Paul,” she says. “You startled me.”
Paul has the face of a Doberman. Pointed and thin-lipped and always on the verge of baring teeth. He is one of the Twelve.
“You’re up early,” he says, peering into her room, his gaze lingering on the crumpled sheets.
“Just… excited,” she says, and forces a smile, trying to push some warmth into her eyes.
Paul looks back at her face, his expression softening. It doesn’t improve him. Big, wet, brown eyes. The expectation of a treat.
“We all are,” he smiles. “Sacrifice.”
He says the word like a name, like a prayer, rather than a death sentence. “I’ll leave you to prepare,” he says.
“Blessings,” she says, as steadily as she can, but he stopped hearing her a long time ago.
Martha listens to his footsteps ticking quietly along the corridor and up the stairs. She breathes safely again, trying not to cry. Crying makes the breathing loud. She is good at not crying. Crying is the fruit of rotten faith.Crying is for the world and the flames. The true Lamb does not cry. Martha traces her finger along a trail of burn scars on her arm. She has to leave. There is so little time. Once the Ascension begins, it is already the end.
The metal pulls and scratches in the mechanism and she must try three times before the bolts turn and click. The door unlocks.
Martha stops. If she pushes the bars, she cannot turn back. If the safety brother finds her, there will be punishment. She winces at the thought, touching her arm again, standing like an altar stone in front of the metal gate she calls a door. She’s not worried about the safety brother with the attack dog face. She is thinking of Daddy. Of what he’ll do if he catches her. She turns to go back to her bed when she hears Paul’s voice in her head. Sacrifice.
She pushes at the iron bars and the door squeals on its hinge. She doesn’t stop to think, she picks up her bag with her things and she pads down the stairs. The dawn light is already creeping through the windows, filling Home with shrinking shadows and hungry eyes.
Martha stops. If she pushes the bars, she cannot turn back. If the safety brother finds her, there will be punishment.
Her feet slow as she reaches the bottom. She tries to walk confidently across the hall but her legs are dragging as if in icy water. She stops, stranded on the edge of the large, empty room. Ahead of her, the pantry door, the kitchen and the path outside. Behind her, all of Home waking up. And here she is, a statue marked in light, a beacon. An island surrounded by sharks. She is floating, paralyzed.
The hall is exposed and overlooked by all the landings. Six seconds to cross to the pantry. Six seconds for a sister coming out of her room to see her, call out, wake Daddy, and then… And then. Martha winces as a sudden pain she knows cannot be real begins to stab in her arm, a hot needle of doubt in her plan.
The front door is closer. She could still turn back. But Home is waking. Stretching and creaking. Growing louder. An ant colony fidgeting into life. No-one will be late today.
The front door is barred and locked in three places. Above it, a banner in red letters reads: FATHER LOVES YOU. ALWAYS. It hangs like a promise that work will make her free.
The slam of a door in the back of the house shakes her like a corrective slap, and she is suddenly hyper-aware that she is standing completely exposed, far away from her cell, on the day of Ascension. The workers are moving, Home is a buzz of murmurs and creaking and clangs, getting louder.
She walks it in under six seconds, steps into the pantry and presses her back to the wall in the shadow, listening.
No shouting. No questions, no alarm.
She breathes. She feels like a child about to cross the street. A small memory of another life. She cranes her neck and looks right, into the entrance hall, then left, beyond the gloom into the brightness of the kitchen, framed in the arch of the pantry door. A shadow crosses the doorway, shocking her heart and pressing her back against the wall. But it disappears. She can hear the kitchen sister washing up, making the porridge.
She holds her breath and waits. The house is getting louder. Father is awake by now. She can feel it. Soon the sisters and the brothers will file down for breakfast and for prayers. Some of them will come this way. The kitchen sister potters and whistles a happy tune. Martha feels a nest of fire-ants crawling on her skin, swarming on her arm. Has she already missed the sister opening the door to make the walk out to the compost pit?
She listens so hard she can hear the blood in her head. It sounds like huge doors slamming. It sounds like tidal waves gnawing on jagged rocks. It feels like the blood in her neck and the blood in her head and all the blood in the world is pulsing in her ears. She is deaf amid roaring waters. She has missed the window. She will be caught. She will sacrifice. She will be—
And then release.
The door whumps open and cold and freshness steal past Martha through the pantry and into the hall. She waits a second, two, until the kitchen echoes with birdsong. Martha takes a breath and rounds the corner, almost praying.
It is empty. Bright. The smell of oats and milk and butter churning. She walks slower than she wants to, approaching the stove. She unfolds the handkerchief and takes out the little bottle. Opens the black lid with the fabric, avoiding its mouth and what’s inside. Martha lifts the bottle over the huge porridge pot on the hob and begins to tilt it. Willing gravity to do the hard work.
Thinks about Mary. Her kindness. The way she always salved her burns. Maybe, maybe… Martha thinks about picture Mary gave her of her parents. Of her stories, of Mary’s strong fingers combing and soothing through her hair in bed, of the time she took to teach her things. Held Martha’s small hand in hers and made her feel safe. In the grip of something strong. Mary gave her most of her life. Sacrificed most of her life…
A black hole opens inside Martha’s stomach at the word. At the thought of the altar, of Daddy’s eyes, his soft, fat hands. Of the way everyone in Home looks at him when he speaks and when he punishes.
They will never stop coming for her.
She tips the liquid in and replaces the cap, wraps the bottle in the handkerchief and puts it in her pocket. She stirs the porridge. It looks wholesome and warm, almost white as snow. She walks quickly to the door and stands on the threshold. The kitchen sister, Ringa, is round the corner somewhere, still out at the pit, and the path to the woods is sunny and broad.
A voice in her head, Mary’s voice, is pleading with her. How could you treat us so thoughtlessly? How could you do this to Him? Mary is her Mother as she is all of Home’s Mother, but she has been more to her. Deserves more. Something.
Martha can hear doors slamming and the laugher of people on the landings. The sun outside is bright and she knows that Ringa will be back soon.
Go, you should go, you should run for your life while you can. The path and the forest beyond, the road, are calling her.
Martha turns her back on the doorway and faces the kitchen to listen. No ringing footsteps on the stairs just yet. She pulls a page from the pad stuck to the freezer door and writes the words DON’T EAT on the little scrap of yellow paper. She crosses the kitchen past the pantry and into the dining room. Empty.
At the foot of the main table, where Mary sits and gazes at the Father, at their Daddy, she drops the note, folded small, into the bowl. It bounces and tumbles like a pair of dice. Like an offering.
The stairs begin to ring with footfall and voices echo in the chapel, unhurried but unslowing.
Martha sprints through the kitchen and into the sunlight, onto the grass and through the icy air. She keeps sprinting, her lungs burning. All she can hear is the sound of her breathing. All she can see is the dark heart of the forest in a sea of light, growing and yawning to take her in. When her foot crunches softly on a carpet of needles and the smell of pine fills her thirsty lungs, she slows down. And stops. Leans against a tree and closes her eyes. Listens.
Blood roars in her ears. The wind in the boughs above her seems to whistle and scream like a partisan crowd. But when she turns around and looks down to the stone house and the outbuildings and yurts of Home, there are no brothers advancing, no sisters loosing the dogs. As the wind stirs the needles to a contented sigh, she hears the strains of the holy day hymn, and she knows they will start eating soon.
She turns her back on the building and springs off again, head bowed, breaking into a run. She is smiling. She is free.
Wednesday morning, six o’clock.
After the hymn, Mother Mary watches Daddy grow more agitated every minute that his Martha doesn’t come. In the night he had dreams and woke in a sweat, weeping. He whispered to her breast that he was weak and that he could not bear to do it, and she soothed him. Gave him comfort. Told him that the spirits had never lied to him before. Told him he was Father to a new age. That birth required blood, and to be strong.
And then, this morning, as she sat down to the Table, she found the note.
She hasn’t said anything.
When Ringa wheels the porridge urn to her, Mother waves her on with an apologetic smile, her long, strong fingers patting her tummy. The kitchen sister says “Blessings” and makes her way down the trestle, filling bowl after bowl with steaming, snow-white oats. Before she reaches Daddy, Paul runs up to him half cringing, like a mongrel. He bends and whispers in their Father’s ear. He is shaking.
Mother watches Daddy’s face turn to ash and she knows. They have weathered everything. Weathered hardship and resisted ‘de-programmers’ and unbelieving families. Even committed what would have been sins had the spirits not commanded them. Struggled hard all these years to get by. And now this.
He looks at her and she stands up. Raising a hand to share a word of prophecy.
“Daddy,” she says, “our Baby’s gone.”
The dining hall falls silent.
“It is true,” he says. “I… I…” he mutters, staring blankly at the faces of the Twelve and the Many. Nobody speaks. Nobody raises a hand to help him.
Mother pushes her chair back and goes to him, kneeling by his side.
“What did we do that was wrong?” he whispers. He looks so old.
“Sshhh, my love,” Mother says. “Pray. Eat.”
She stands, resting a hand on his shoulder and says to the Twelve and to the Many: “Eat, brothers and sisters. Pray.”
And even in this, she must wait. Her face burns in the silence that follows.
Every face watches Daddy. He seems to be folding in upon himself and Mother wills the gravity of what has happened to release him, if only for a minute.
Daddy takes a breath. He looks up, lifts his hand to her hand and squeezes it warmly, as his eyes focus again on his children. He nods and picks up his spoon.
Everyone begins to eat. Mother Mary motions Ringa to return and fill her bowl, and watches as the scrap of paper drowns in the thick, ambiguous warmth of the food. She doesn’t touch her spoon. She waits until the first of them have started to cry out and vomit blood before she makes her decision.
Friday morning, nine o’clock.
Martha climbs out of the beetle and waves as she closes the door. She doesn’t look back at the face of the driver. She is far away.
The air is chilly, even at this time, but the sun is bright and the air feels gentle in her lungs. Clean.
Gorgeous George’s Pre-Loved Cars is out of place in the quiet and peaceful countryside. Flanked by trees and surrounded by pastures that run as far along the road as she can see. The rows of cars shine in the thickening light, all the colors of a good day.
Sunshine is making faces hard to see already as the morning warms and promises a scorcher. A salesman in a red shirt is showing a woman in a black dress around a pickup in the far corner of the lot. A door opens in the glass frontage and John bounds out, grabbing her and spinning Martha around.
“You came!” he says between kisses. “I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t sure!”
“I did,” she smiles. She has no idea what is next and she is happy. She feels free.
“Let’s go!” he says, and pulls her to a white convertible near the road.
“What about work?” she laughs.
“I’ll find other work,” he says.
“Where are we going?” she says, her eyes filling with the whole blue of a clear sky.
John hands her the keys.
“Wherever you like!”
She grins and tries to hold his hand as she skips round to the driver’s door, stretching giddily and laughing over the car, breaking apart only to open the door and get in.
“Martha, Martha,” he repeats, kissing her hands. “My dear Martha. Beautiful Martha. Strange…”
“Please don’t call me that,” she says, suddenly small. “Whose car is this?”
“Okay, it’s mine,” he says, leaning over to kiss her hard, his mouth hot and new and like a place she’s never been before.
Beep beep! He honks the horn a few times, still kissing her, and she pushes him away, laughing and out of breath.
“What do you want me to call you, baby?”
“Yeah!” she smiles, stretching her arms above her head and closing her eyes in the sun.
“I can really drive your car?” she asks, mock-serious, frowning.
“Baby, you can drive my car forever if you like.”
“I like!” she says and turns away from him to peer down the road. Long, and winding and to a whole new universe. She doesn’t look back. Just turns the key in the ignition and revs the motor hard and loud and begins to turn the wheel. She feels like she could burst with all the joy of being alive. Like there’s a thousand blackbirds in her chest, like Creation has been waiting for this day. She gives a little squeal as she shifts it into gear but when she tries to look through the windshield it’s suddenly hazy. Strange.
The car makes a popping sound and the cover of the steering wheel is suddenly soft and wet. Confusing. The hood through the windshield looks pink. Everything looks pink, and all the birds have stopped singing.
She doesn’t understand.
She turns to ask John what’s going on, but she can’t seem to form his face in her mind. He looks different. She looks up at the figure standing next to the passenger door. The black dress. The small gun in a long, strong-fingered hand. And suddenly she knows.
Baby starts saying “No, no, no, no…” and shaking John’s shoulder, her eyes full of red clouds.
Mother says: “Sshh, Martha. Let it be.”
Today is the day. One way or another.
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