The Story Trap: A Sample

 

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Written and illustrated by Masha du Toit

Copyright 2012 Masha du Toit

The Bookshop

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Rebecca hitched the box higher in her arms and hoped its base would hold. She’d insisted on carrying it herself, having forgotten just how heavy a box full of books could be. The stairs creaked as she climbed. That was part of the charm of the Mowbray Charity Bookshop: the sheer age of the place and the way the rooms were connected seemingly at random by narrow passages and noisy wooden stairs. She reached the top just in time to see her youngest sister Pippa disappear up another set of stairs, up to the attic where the children’s books were kept.

“Don’t worry, Bekkie,” Pippa called over her shoulder. “I’ll find you something special.”

“I thought we were here to get rid of books, not get more of them,” said Rebecca.

Anmarie, the middle sister, held up her phone and took a picture of Rebecca as she stood framed against the doorway. “Well,” she said, “you are going to need something to read in that new place of yours. Can’t have the shelves standing empty.”

She angled her phone up to the ceiling to catch the way the sunlight reflected on the white board, then took a shot of the plants on the windowsill. Still absorbed, she moved out of sight through the door to the next room.

Rebecca wanted to dump her box on the counter, but there was already somebody there: a tall woman unpacking books from a box of her own. Rebecca leaned back against the wall and smiled to herself. It was good to see Pippa so lively again. In the long years of their mother’s illness, Pippa had often seemed more like a worried little grandmother than a teenage school-girl. The trip to the bookshop had been Pippa’s idea and Rebecca had to admit that it had a satisfying symbolism. Getting rid of old books and choosing new ones to go with her new life and her new home.

Her new life. She felt a sense of vertigo, as though she was standing at the top of a cliff with the future sucking at her, urging her to step forward. Life went on. Now that her mother no longer needed her, she had to find a new purpose and plan her own life. It was like enduring the pin-tingling pain of blood flowing back into a sleeping limb.

Rebecca became aware that the woman at the counter had stopped unpacking her books and was turning towards her with an intent tilt to her head as though she was trying to locate a sound. Her eyes met Rebecca’s just as the box slipped in Rebecca’s arms. Rebecca gathered it up as it tore, trapped sliding books with her chin and with an “Excuse me!” knelt, and deposited the books at the woman’s feet.

There she knelt, catching her breath. Then she looked up, past the neat shoes and grey skirt, up to the impassive face of the woman standing over her. A strong face, cold, looking down at her as though she were a dog, less than a dog, a thing.

“Just leave those down there, deary” said the sales assistant from behind the counter. “I’ll get round to sorting them as soon as I’m done with these.”

Rebecca got to her feet, feeling the old woman’s eyes on her. She felt uncomfortably aware of her untidy hair and scruffy jeans and glanced down at the books on the counter.

“Oh!”

On top of the pile was a small book with a brightly coloured cover. Thorn Rose, illustrated by Errol le Cain, a childhood favourite. Rebecca looked at the woman for permission and picked it up.

“My mother used to love this book,” she said.

“Doesn’t she love it any more?” The woman’s voice was clipped and formal.

“Well, she’s, um, dead now,” said Rebecca, turning a page and forgetting, for a moment, where she was or whom she was speaking to. How strange to see these images again after so many years. Then Pippa was at her elbow and snatched the book from her hands.

“Wow!I remember this!”

Rebecca bit back an irritated comment and pretended not to see the woman’s knowing look. She turned back to the other books while Pippa paged avidly and exclaimed over the well remembered illustrations.

“Are you moving house?” The woman indicated the box of books at their feet.

Rebecca wondered why she felt so reluctant to respond, but Pippa got in before she could frame her answer.

“Yes, she’s leaving home. Leaving us! Got her own flat. Hey, Rebecca, look.”

Pippa reached between them and took more books from the pile. “That book about the robot dogs. And these folk tales look cool too. These are great! We can buy these, right? You can price them now?” she asked the assistant, who nodded assent.

“Aren’t we supposed to be buying books for Rebecca, not for ourselves?” Anmarie was leaning against the door as she looked at the scene through her phone’s camera. Pippa did not even look up.

“Oh shut up. You’re just jealous you didn’t spot these first.”

She piled the books she had chosen on the counter and was off again to another part of the shop. Rebecca wanted to follow, but felt a hand on her arm.

“Wait. Your locket. It’s about to come loose.”

The woman was peering at the silver chain Rebecca wore around her neck. “I believe the catch is broken. You could easily lose it. Hold still.”

Rebecca felt cold fingers brush her skin and then a pain in the nape of her neck. The woman had the locket draped over her fingers. A few strands of Rebecca’s hair curled around the silver chain.

“I can fix it for you,” said the woman. “I always carry some small tools with me in my handbag. You go ahead and browse; I’ll have this done in a moment.”

Her eyes were disconcertingly sharp. Owl’s eyes, thought Rebecca, rubbing her neck where the hair had been pulled. She wanted to snatch back her locket and run out of the shop. Not knowing what else to do, she went to the shelves at the far side of the room, reluctant to let the woman out of her sight. What had gotten her so stirred up?She shuddered and scanned the books, but was too distracted to focus on their titles. Silly to get so worked up about nothing. She’s just a harmless old woman.

Where were her sisters?She could not leave without them. At last, she saw Anmarie again making her way to the counter with Pippa in tow.

“Better pick your books, and then let’s go,” said Anmarie “Rush-hour traffic’s no joke.”

“’Specially not with you driving,” grinned Pippa.

Anmarie looked at her blandly. “At least I can drive, snotling. Pick your books and let’s go.”

Pippa quickly piled her books on the counter while Anmarie waved off Rebecca’s attempt to pay.

“Dad gave me something extra for getting my licence,” she said. “And Pippa’s got pocket money saved up. This is our treat.”

Pippa nodded. “Yep. You can pay us back by inviting us over for tea and cake at your new digs.”

Rebecca felt a touch on her arm and turned to find the old woman holding out her locket.

“Hold still and I’ll fasten it for you.”

Rebecca held her hair so that the woman could pass the chain around her neck. She tried not to shrink from her touch.

“Thank you,” she said and tried not to breathe as the woman fastened the locket. She was standing a little too close and Rebecca could smell her. A whiff of surgical spirits and, beneath that, something else: an odour like a fridge that had been closed for too long.

“That should do it.” The woman stepped away — to Rebecca’s relief.

“Thanks,” she said again and made for the door, aware that she was being rude, but unable to resist the urge to leave. Her sisters followed her downstairs, and though she did not look back, Rebecca was sure that the old woman watched them all the way to the curve in the stairs, where they were finally out of sight of the entrance to the shop.

They stood for a while on the pavement outside, not quite ready to part. This would be the first time that Rebecca went off to her new flat by herself. Anmarie played with her car keys and Rebecca half listened as Pippa described a book about genetically engineered robot dogs.

“And they’ve been programmed to be super loyal, to the death, really. But I won’t tell you more, that would give away the good bits.”

Rebecca smiled at her youngest sister and felt the worry surface again. Would her father check that Pippa ate properly, not just slap-chips and two minute noodles? And Anmarie would probably stay out late even on school nights, now that there was no one at home who would check up on her. Not that Anmarie ever listened to her in any case. But that was no longer her problem, was it? She drew a deep breath and hitched her bag higher up on her shoulder.

“Okay guys, got to go catch my train. Look after Dad, will you?”

Then Pippa’s arms were wrapped around her.

“Oh Bekkie, I’ll miss you!”

Rebecca hugged her back, feeling the skinny body pressed tight against her. Anmarie was regarding them sardonically.

“Such a drama queen. Pippa, she’s not even leaving the city. Admit it; you’re really just glad that you’re not going to have to share a room with me any more.”

Anmarie side-stepped Rebecca’s attempt at a hug.

“Off you go, big sister. Enjoy your new home. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

She grinned at Rebecca, took Pippa’s arm and steered her towards the parked car. Rebecca watched them go. Then she turned and walked towards Mowbray station.

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The train, when it came, was standing room only. Rebecca squeezed through the usual crush near the doors and looked for a pole she could hold on to. Luckily Woodstock was not far, so she would be getting off soon.

“Hey.”

Somebody touched her shoulder and she saw a young man indicating that she should take his seat. He blinked at her, half smiling. Where did she know him from? She remembered that look, like a cat curled in a patch of sunlight. Of course. He had been standing in line with her, waiting with her to register for the sound engineering course at CPUT. She had felt remarkably conspicuous, the only girl in the line. He had stood out too. She remembered wondering what he was thinking about, standing there so dreamily while the other boys fidgeted and joked.

Now she smiled her thanks and took the offered seat. Seeing him was a reminder that soon she would be studying again. Sound engineering. Or maybe not. There had been posters for other courses. Oceanography, or nature conservation. That sounded fascinating. Was it too late to change her mind? She felt a surge of pure excitement. It felt good just having a choice — all those possibilities waiting for her.

She pulled one of the books from her bag. The cover showed a dog silhouetted against a futuristic city-scape with embossed letters that spelt out the title: Gardag. This must be the book that Pippa had been talking about. The train jerked as it pulled away and she braced herself so that she would not lean too heavily on the woman sitting next to her. She opened the book and started reading.

Gardag

Chapter 1

Dark. It was dark now, and he was hungry. He had long since stopped struggling. The collar and chain bit into his neck just below the gap in his armour, pulling his head awkwardly down. The night breeze curled around him, teasing him with impossible scents. Food. Home. Master.

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A Call from a Stranger

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“What’s Dad going on about?” said Pippa.

Anmarie concentrated on steering the car up to the pavement. Her hands shook a little from the stress of negotiating the rush hour traffic and she was afraid she might drive into the kerb.

“What?”

“Dad. He’s shouting about something.”

Anmarie looked over to see her father standing on the steps leading to their house. He was alternately holding his phone up to his ear and gesturing urgently at them.

“Oh, go see what it is, will you? I’ve still got to lock up here.”

Pippa was out of the car before it stopped. By the time Anmarie put on the hand-break and gear-lock, locked the wheel, and checked that all the doors were secured, Pippa had taken over her father’s phone. When Anmarie reached them, she could see something was wrong. Her father was staring at Pippa, who was licking her lips nervously and speaking very loudly into the phone.

“Yes. Her name is Rebecca. That’s right. What do you mean?”

Anmarie touched her father’s arm to attract his attention. “What’s going on?”

“It’s Rebecca,” he said, still looking at Pippa. “Someone got her phone. I don’t really understand. Something about a train.”

Pippa was talking again. “Okay, thank you. We’ll meet you there. Please wait there for us; we’ll be as fast as we can.”

She disconnected the call and stared at her father. “Dad, we’ve got to get to Cape Town station fast. I’ll explain on the way.”

Wordlessly, Anmarie handed her father the keys and they went back to the car. Pippa got in the back seat and Anmarie was still bucking her safety belt on the passenger side as her father disengaged the gear lock and started the car.

“Cape Town station?” He chose a gap in the traffic and pulled off with a squeal of tires.

“Yes,” said Pippa. Anmarie noticed that she was grabbing the seat back so hard that her fingers were white.

“Okay,” asked Anmarie. “Anyone going to tell me what is going on?”

“It was this guy on the phone,” said Pippa. “And a woman too. They’ve got Rebecca’s phone. They were calling us from it. She — I don’t know, I think she sort of collapsed or fainted or something. On the train.”

Pippa was staring straight ahead. “They said they carried her out onto the platform. At the station. They must have got her phone out of her pocket and got Dad’s number from it.”

“She fainted?” asked her father.

Anmarie closed her eyes as he ran a red robot.

“I think so. They said they would wait there with her. Dad, should we maybe phone an ambulance already?”

Her father glanced back at her.

“Good thinking, Pippa. Anmarie, can you do that?”

Anmarie dug her phone out of her pocket and looked for the emergency number. Not so soon after Mom. Please God. Not again.

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The train was slowing again, so this must be her stop: Woodstock Station. Rebecca reluctantly closed her book and looked around her. That was odd. The carriage was empty. The lights were on, and she could see the faint blur of her reflection in the window opposite. She frowned. How had it gotten dark so suddenly? She turned and looked out the window she had been leaning against and felt a lurch of unease. This was not the familiar approach to Woodstock station. Had she got on the wrong train?

There should have been a stretch of scraggy grass and palm trees, low brick walls topped with barbed wire, and maybe a glimpse of the Woodstock Fisheries just as they pulled into the station. Instead, her view was blocked by a row of tall buildings. Great slabs of brick and concrete that stretched up towards the sky, lit by rows and rows of windows. Up and up they went, the highest windows just bright pips against the night sky. She found herself picturing what the train must look like from those upper windows: a glowing worm winding along the track far below.

This was not Woodstock.

This was not even Cape Town. Where was she? It did not look like anywhere she’d ever been before. Then there was a gap between the buildings and she saw the unmistakable domed roof of Good Hope Centre. She relaxed a little. So this was Cape Town after all. That had most certainly been the Good Hope Centre, which meant that she had missed her stop at Woodstock station and the train would be pulling into Cape Town Central any moment.

Those buildings must have seemed taller than they actually were. Probably some new development she had not noticed before. Still, strange that it got dark so suddenly. What was the time? She patted her pocket for her phone and, not finding it, looked down for her bag. She swore. Her bag was gone. No wallet, no way of calling home. Even her book was gone and she had been holding that a moment ago. It must have fallen behind the seat.

She looked around the carriage once more, making double sure that there was nobody she could ask for help. Then she knelt and peered under the seat. No. Nothing there after all. Somebody must have snatched her bag while she was reading. Which did not explain why the book was gone as well. As she thought about this, she noticed the graffiti on the back of the seat. Not the usual tag scrawled in fat black marker-pen, but words scratched into the grubby plastic. The dogs of war infect me, she read and just under that, a crude heart inscribed with the words True Mutant.

Rebecca got up and walked unsteadily down the swaying carriage. She looked under the other seats and even tried the door that led to the next compartment. A light swept by outside. The steady rattle of the train slowed down to a series of thumps and groans and the brakes screeched as they engaged. The train was pulling up to a platform. She saw a series of blue columns and a yellow sign with the platform number. It certainly looked like Cape Town station.

The train hissed to a stop and the doors opened with a rattle and thump. She stood in the door and looked out warily. The platform was empty; no sign of other passengers or guards. Okay. Time to take stock. What had her mother always said?

“No point in scaring up maybe and might have been. Deal with what you know and go on from there.”

She had lost her bag, so no phone and no wallet. Rebecca checked her pockets again and found a single five-rand coin and the key to her new flat in Woodstock. Five rand was not enough for a ticket back to Woodstock, but she might find a pay-phone somewhere. She did not like the thought of walking out into that empty station at night, but as far as she could see, she was in no immediate danger.

More troubling thoughts surfaced. How had it gotten dark so suddenly and why had she never noticed those tall buildings before? They were so unlike anything she had seen anywhere in Cape Town. She forced the thoughts away. Deal with that later. Right now the important thing was to get home. Maybe she could get help from station security. The plan steadied her. She took a deep breath and stepped out onto the platform.

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Driving Home

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Anmarie startled awake. It was dark. There was something pressing into her side and something cold against her forehead. Oh. Right. She was in the car, in the parking lot of Groote Schuur Hospital. She had been asleep, curled up against back passenger door. Pippa was tapping impatiently at the window. She sat up and opened the door.

“You drive, please Anmarie.”

Her father held out the keys. She started to protest, then saw his face. She took the keys and moved over into the driver’s seat. Pippa got in on the passenger side and her father was already sitting in the back, his knees drawn up in the cramped space. Anmarie waited a moment, and then when neither of them spoke, she started the car and backed out of the parking space. This was the first time she had driven the car with her father as a passenger and it was oddly unnerving.

“Well, is anyone going to tell me what happened?” she asked.

She glanced in the rear-view mirror. Her father was staring out of the window. Pippa was still fastening her seatbelt.

“You should have come with us,” she said.

That again. They knew she did not do hospitals. She had never gone into the hospital through all the years her mother had been ill and she was not going in there now, even if it was for Rebecca. She had watched from the car as her father and sister had followed the stretcher trolley through the doors to the emergency section. They must have stayed in there for hours. No wonder she fell asleep.

Pippa sighed, relenting. “She’s in a coma. That’s what the doctor said. A coma.”

Anmarie eased the car into the flow of traffic down Main Road. “A coma?” she asked. “But how? I mean — we just saw her. She was fine at the bookshop. “

She fought down the memory of Rebecca as she had been when they found her at Cape Town station, lying like a discarded doll on the dirty concrete of the station platform, her hair straggling and her rolled back eyes showing white slivers. Pippa was speaking again.

“They did a bunch of tests, but they didn’t really tell us anything. She’s in intensive care now. We can go see her tomorrow. The doctor said they would be able to tell us more tomorrow.”

Anmarie heard her father move in the back-seat.

“Poplap.”

Anmarie met Pippa’s eye. Their father had not called Pippa that baby name for years.

“Yes, Dad?”

“That doctor. He said. I did not understand. What was he saying about drugs? Why did he keep asking about drugs?”

Anmarie looked at her father’s reflection in the rear-view mirror and felt a rush of irritation. Why was he being like this? Just look at him sitting there with his hands in a knot.

Pippa turned in her seat. “I suppose they’re trying to find out what caused the coma.”

“But Rebecca does not take drugs.”Then more softly, “Does she?”

“No Dad, of course not. But she’s not diabetic and there’s no head injury, so they don’t know what caused this. So they have to ask.”

Her father hardly seemed to be listening.

“And they kept pinching her,” he said. “That nurse pinched her fingernails so hard, she must have bruised her.”

For long minutes nobody said anything. Anmarie tried to focus on her driving. Everything seemed unnaturally bright and sharp, the car engine too loud. She switched on the indicator to signal a lane change, then winced in shock as a car flashed by on her left. She glanced at her father again, but he had not even noticed. He was frowning and rubbing his hands over his face. Then he leaned forward so she could no longer see him in the mirror. His voice spoke close behind her.

“I don’t understand. Can’t they just — I don’t know, just give her something? To wake her. A stimulant or something?”

Pippa did not answer. At last they drew up in front of their house. Nobody spoke as they locked up the car and climbed the steps to the front door. Anmarie stepped into the familiar, bright hallway. Rebecca’s old raincoat on the coat-rack. The space where the small table used to be, the one that now stood in the Rebecca’s Woodstock flat.

Their father disappeared through the door to his workroom and Anmarie made her way to the bathroom and turned the taps on full, finding comfort in the warm thunder of the water in the bath. She stripped off her clothes and stepped into the too hot water. Somebody was knocking. She closed the taps and heard Pippa’s voice at the door.

“Come in!” she shouted. “It’s not locked.”

She ducked her head under. When she came up again, Pippa was crouched next to the bath. She was still in her school uniform, but her hair was half undone and straggling over her shoulders.

Anmarie sighed.

“Want to come in with me?”

Pippa nodded. She took off her clothes and got into the tub, sitting in front of Anmarie’s drawn up knees, facing away from her as she always had when she was a little girl. Anmarie regarded the skinny white back.

“A lot less room in here, these days.”

She was relieved to see Pippa’s shoulders lift in a reluctant laugh. She scooped up a handful of warm water and poured it over her sister’s back.

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Youth is Wasted on the Young

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You are born falling, and all your life you fall towards death. At first, being young, you do not feel the pull of death’s gravity. But the moment will come when you realise that life does not bear you up. That even if you cannot see the rocks below, you are plunging towards that final impact. It may be years away, or seconds. You may spread your arms in the rushing air of your descent and believe you are flying. But all your life, you are falling towards death.

 

The old woman lowered the glass container gently into the tank and watched the fish swim out into its new home.

What a difference a few hours could make. Just this morning, she had hardly been able to bear looking at the tanks. There had been another death during the night, another little body to scoop out and dissect. She had done what she could with the power she had, but her failing strength was just not up to the task any more. She was old. She had been battling against the inevitable, using various temporary fixes and props, but there was no way around it. This new phase of the project required more power.

And was it luck, or chance, or fate that had taken her to that bookshop? The girl was perfect. Young, strong, and yet damaged enough to leave a chink in her defences. Some kind of emotional trauma had left her vulnerable to attention. No doubt she suffered from unrequited love. She looked the type.

She rinsed and dried the container and placed it on a drying rack. It had been a long night’s work. She did not know how much longer she would have access to this power source and had pushed through faster than she usually liked to work.

It had taken some quick thinking to set up the link with the locket. As it was, she had only been able to establish a tenuous connection and had to activate the spell almost immediately. And yet it was more potent than she had dared to believe. What were the odds that she would find a power source that was open to her influence as well as being compatible? When the connection was made and she first sensed the energy flowing towards her, she had nearly lost control. The temptation to let it gush and bubble into all corners of her mind and body had been nearly impossible to resist. But drawing too much at once would kill the girl, and that was not the plan.

She felt the slow surge of it now, strong and warm in her veins. She could access it whenever she chose, and even a few hours of it had already made the difference to her experiments. Youth was wasted on the young.

 

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