Runner up

I am a 19-year-old theology student. I publish under the pen name ‘Agrippina Domanski’, ideally writing it alongside my real name. My work has been published in The Lampeter Review (The Bosnian War), Current Accounts, Dumas de Demain (in French, twice: La Guerre en Bosnie, Rachelle), On Religion, and 34th Parallel, as well as 'Audio Arcadia'. I speak fluent French and am a film studies and psychology enthusiast.

The Truffle Box

by Polina Simakova

(Pen name Agrippina Domanski)

Edda had grown up knowing there was no such thing as ‘space’.

Edda’s universe, though painfully temporal, was aspatial. She could not take a breath without inhaling someone else’s air, which was no longer fresh. The way she thought of it, all oxygen at her disposal was second-hand; regurgitated.

Like the heroine of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Edda’s family had lived all over the place – in Milan, Tallin, Athens, Geneva, Nice. They had even lived in Crimea, in seemingly prehistoric times from which Edda only remembered the smell of goat’s milk and a vague notion of hills, covered by sunburnt grass.

Her mother worked in what used to be called ‘regeneration industry’, and had become ‘happiness business’, in the turn-of-the-century terms. The organization was globally spread, rather than based in UK; a kind of a lesser-known sibling of Amnesty International. Every few years, Helen would move, taking her children with her. She had explained to Edda that people who reached the top in ‘happiness business’ needed to be grasshoppers, prepared to embrace regeneration circuits. The family had been moving around for years before that, so Helen’s experience sufficed. So now they were in Britain.

But never before had grandma been so close.

The rotten, sickly sweet smell of age was everywhere. It always had Edda thinking of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. It’s almost been four years that they’d not been on the move, but Edda was still conscious of the stench, as if they had moved in yesterday. It couldn’t be any different, if grandma kept ‘popping in’. It was only in Britain that they’d managed to get to get two adjacent flats – with Simon’s help. Simon owned the apartment they occupied now. Before him, there had never been any men. But grandma was a constant. And with every year going by, it was harder and harder not to notice her.

Before Simon, there had been just them girls, and grandma. They were always stifling each other. Of course, there was Jack, too, but Edda didn’t mind Jack. She didn’t know why the cheerleaders at school were so down on kid brothers. Jack was fine. Jack knew his boundaries. Jack knew the word ‘respect’.

Jack didn’t come into the kitchen from the adjoining flat, leaving both front doors open, so that gusts of wind chilled Edda’s bones. Jack didn’t take Edda’s CDs or books without asking, like grandma. Jack was one of ‘Edda’s people’.

Grandma was not.

A family should stick together, her mother said. Sure.

Edda loved her mother, but she thought she could stick her ‘sticking together’ up her ass.

It was almost nighttime, and in the afternoon, Edda had had a fight with grandma. They had not fought physically, though sometimes Edda felt she could hit the old bitch over the head with a frying pan. It would be the same white stainless steel frying pan grandma was so fond of ‘borrowing’. Or perhaps, Edda could even hit her across the face; across her throat, knocking her teeth out.

In the afternoon, just after teatime, grandma had turned up to take something again – it didn’t matter what she took, at that stage, the Chris Rea disk, milk, or the fluffy yellow towel. She raided the fridge as if it was hers, taking the yogurt Edda had bought for herself, the chocolates she had brought for Jack. Grandma thought she could have anything.

But Edda hadn’t hit her. Instead, she had shouted at grandma to ‘get the hell out’, to ‘stop taking other people’s stuff’. Edda had wanted to say ‘shit’, but the word had never come out in grandma’s presence. Edda had not been intimidated or embarrassed. She had been… Disgusted. Her circumstances had conditioned her to feel some arrogant pity in grandma’s presence, as if she was the hunter, and grandma was a lame hound dog that needed shooting down.

Edda had slammed the door shut so hard and fast that grandma’s hand had nearly been caught in the doorway.

Edda was sixteen. She had no skills, no talents; she was just an evil, tired girl with a Nordic name. She didn’t need anyone to tell her that. Luckily, she had understood what she was early enough to resist teachers’ attempts to make her think she was special. She had been fourteen when she had consciously applied the word ‘bitch’ to her grandmother. She had always been disgusted by age, ever since she was a toddler expected to respect it.

Edda’s mind was often guided by strange impulses. More often than not, she couldn’t tell why she was acting the way she was. But she was a rationalist at heart; it was just that her reasons might reveal themselves later than she’d like them to.

It was quarter past nine in the evening, and blackness outside was enhanced by the dim light of the flat’s gas lamps. They were probably almost the last in the whole of Britain, but the family had been using them everywhere they’d lived, so the habit stuck.

Edda stood by the window, staring into the glassy darkness. She was uneasy. Sooner or later, it seemed, the darkness would start looking into her.  She wasn’t psychic or anything, but she had the kind of intuition that always activated a moment too late. She watched a disaster happen, thinking:

But surely I’d known? Surely I’d felt that? It couldn’t have turned out otherwise.

Edda’s mother had just come back from visiting Simon at the hospital. She had taken a seat in the faded velvet armchair. Then, she leaned forward and rested her elbows on the plastic table, and her head on her elbows. Sometimes Helen looked younger than forty-two. Tonight, she looked just her age, full of some sombre, melancholic beauty.

‘Is he better?’ Edda asked.

She was condescendingly benevolent towards her mother. And for Simon – he was the best thing that had ever happened to their pathetic matriarchal household. Edda thanked the stars Jack wouldn’t have to grow up in that reality.

At the thought that her mother had a lover – not a husband, but a lover, just like all the Shakespeare people – Edda felt a hot tingling in her throat. To her, Simon was the main attraction of Britain.

‘Yeah. Wound’s almost closed.’ Her mother said, and poured herself some cold tea from the teapot on the table. ‘Said his commander visited him today. He may not be going off again – sure hope not.’

Edda imagined them kissing on the moist, weak hospital mattress, which sunk in at their joint weight as Helen lay down on top of him. Edda imagined Simon’s electric-white bandage against the messy fitted sheets of a darker shade. Perhaps if his wound had closed, his ribs weren’t in too much pain, and they had done more than kiss. After all, Simon had been through Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely he wouldn’t mind a bit of pain for the sake of pleasure. So maybe, they had…

Edda stood motionless, looking at the grim reality outside, lest she should forget it was there. She was licking her lips. They were starting to feel bruised.

The phone rang. She picked it up.

‘Coming...’ Grandma’s voice, repellently intimate and wheezy, panted into her ear. The connection was bad. Wants something again, Edda thought. This much was obvious. It seemed to her that she had heard a stifled scream. The phone had a gothic metallic smell.

Grandma was still saying talking.

‘’re… Coming… Girls… You…’

A week before, when she had turned up on a Sunday morning – Edda’s mother had been out, and Jack had been asleep – she had started coughing. It had been a sort of spasmodic, dry cough, and it wouldn’t stop. Edda had thought it was annoyingly loud.

Grandma had started making gestures for Edda to pat her on the back, and Edda had obeyed unwillingly. She had ended up beating her on the back and shoulders really hard, even though they were thin, transparent shoulders with blue veins. Landing hard, justified blows on the frail bones, Edda had felt some dark, hot satisfaction, luxurious, like Belgian hot chocolate with a trace of Brandy. No one could say she had done something wrong.

She had wished grandma never stopped coughing.

Edda’s dirty, miserable soul was pulsing somewhere around her throat, like a ball of fur she had accidentally swallowed.

All Edda could hear against her cheek was heavy breathing and odd cracking. Maybe grandma was out of breath.

Edda hung up, dropping the phone with a ‘bang’.

‘She’s coming.’ She announced flatly, and rolled her eyes. ‘How exciting.’

Her mother said nothing. Edda was thinking of Simon’s cigarettes.

A few months ago, she had found a long rectangular box of several Marlboro cigarette cases, bound by a red ribbon. She had only seen her mother smoke once or twice, and never a whole cigarette. But Edda had been disturbed. So she had hidden the box in the kitchen cupboard, far behind granulated sugar bags and cardboard envelops with ground Brazilian coffee. Helen had spent a while looking, and, of course, found it eventually.

As it turned out, Edda’s mother had bought the cigarettes for Simon. In Edda’s mind, they were still ‘Simon’s cigarettes’. So much for ownership. She granted Simon the right to his Marlboro – or anything else he wanted, anything that belonged to him. So why couldn’t Edda be granted her freedom from grandma?

Edda remembered the way grandpa had died. In a way, it had been a murder.

Helen had killed him.

It had been a steamy December night, just like this one, cold and cloudy. Once they had moved in, Helen had brought a box of expensive truffle chocolates for Christmas in a box of golden cardboard. Edda had thought even the box was perfect. The truffles had been tiny and exquisite, covered with light-brown cinnamon dust at the top, and almost black at the bottom. Edda’s eyes had watered at the sight of them. But her mother had said they were ‘for the old guys’, and wouldn’t let her try even one.

Edda had watched grandpa eat the truffles in awed silence. He’d had seven or eight with his tea. She had watched the cinnamon dust fall as he lifted one and carried it slowly to his mouth with his shaking, big-knuckled fingers. She remembered that cinnamon dust so well. Back then, Edda had licked her index finger, collected every trace off the sleek grey plastic, and brought it to her mouth. She no longer remembered the taste.

After grandpa had been finished with the truffles, she had no longer wanted to touch them. His fingers had been all over the chocolate.

A day later, he had been hospitalized with sudden stomach problems and an appendix suspicion.  He had never come back. Edda remembered her mother sobbing in Simon's arms that night, and the weird, counter-intuitive feeling of intimacy they had emanated.

Grandpa hadn’t been to blame, she didn’t think. He hadn’t known she had wanted the truffles. None of them thought Edda wanted anything.  

The day after the funeral, which she hadn’t attended – she had been deemed too young, to her satisfaction – Edda had been alone with Jack. She had gone into the kitchen, and picked up the truffle box from the shelf, just to smell it. There had only been four left. As Edda’s fingers travelled to unbend the edges, and then down the golden cardboard walls, one truffle fell apart, and a worm crawled out slowly, like a baby bird hatching. She had tilted the box and seen more, of a smaller size, infesting the truffles.

Edda had thought they were white worms back then. Later, she had read in Metro that no worms lived in chocolate. Those things were caterpillars. Indian mealmoth caterpillars, or maggots. That’s why they were so fat. But to Edda, they had looked like sticky white worms, their bodies shaking with every move. She imagined grandpa eating them – imagined that his digestive track was transparent – and felt sick.

Edda had dropped the entire box into the bin. In her grief, her mother had not noticed.

In the present, Edda became conscious of the noise coming out of grandma’s flat. Something was falling in there. She could hear something like heavy steps.

‘Are coming’, grandma had said. Edda was processing her words backwards.

Somebody was in grandma’s flat.

The door slammed. Now they were out, seconds away. So much for close proximity.

Because grandma could turn up any minute, the front door was never locked. Jack had once said that even though she sucked the energy out of them all, grandma couldn’t be a vampire, because she never knocked. But the intruders couldn’t be expected to know that. They were operating on the assumption that this was an ordinary Western family with a sense of personal borders.

Edda rushed to lock the door, but the doors were so weak. They couldn't run; there was nowhere to go. They couldn't jump from the fourth floor. The door was blocked, but wouldn't last. Her mother seemed narcoleptic. Chances were high that Jack had isolated himself, so he didn't know what was going on. There was no time.

Edda ran into the bedroom past Jack.

Sure enough, he was sitting on the bed in his big old headphones. He pushed them down as she dashed past him.

They were banging at the door now, banging with something heavy. There was a roaring sound. Edda’s mother screamed. They were making progress, then.

Panic choked Edda. It felt that her stomach would burst into pieces, as if it had been blown up. She looked around for red dangling threads of her guts. She grabbed her mother’s phone. Simon’s number was on speed dial.

‘Hey baby, I’m just–’

Gun and cartridges, where?

‘Top bedroom drawer, Helen what–’

Edda had seen Haute Tension, naturally, like a good twisted aesthete, but she thought it was trash. According to cinematographic terminology, the genre and this situation were called ‘home invasion’. But Edda could not connect with the term. Her home had been invaded every day, every few hours for the last four years. As for her privacy, she knew of no such thing. The home, the CDs, the privacy – none of these were hers.

Wherever her gaze fell, everything belonged to her mother. Everything was her Helen’s and Edda didn't have anything to do with it.

Her mind was being exfoliated; scrubbed with a coarse, hard brush.

            As she was loading the gun the way Simon had showed her, Jack was staring at her in confused annoyance. Vestiges of comprehension were showing deep in his eyes, but there was no time. Jack was a philosopher; Jack was slow.

            Edda heard her mother’s scream, turned around, like an electric ballet dancer, took the safety off and ran back. It had all taken her less than thirty seconds.

Finally, they had burst in. Edda found herself standing with the gun between her mother and the dark tall figures she couldn’t see clearly at first. She was so scared she couldn't breathe, but adrenalin was pumping her veins. She was seeing everything in bright colours – especially pink. Leaking, steamy, bright pink, as if someone had spilt permanganic acid all over reality.

Edda didn’t have a good aim, but she was fast. Besides, they were very close to her. She had seen Haute Tension, and remembered thinking it was trash. Plagiarized, too. The men weren't holding chainsaws or even axes, just long-nosed sniper rifles. Sorry, Haute Tension. Edda fired six shots in a row, until there were no bullets left. She was faster, maybe because she was a kid, and not supposed to murder.

They dropped onto the floor with the ‘bang’ that was too soft – even though there wasn’t a carpet. Edda realized that was because her ears were blocked.

Now that the intruders were dead, she could hear her heartbeat. It was blaming her for what she had done. She would never know who they were, or what they had wanted. But she was glad she had not let her instinctive curiosity override her instinct for survival.

The unknown man's blood was tricking down her bare leg, as if in a parody of the iconic Carrie scene. Everything smelt like copper, even her own sweat. She hated it that there was no space in this shoebox of a flat. She felt as if a gallon of cement had solidified in her throat.

It struck her that she had never disconnected the call – in her paralyzing, liquid shock it was unsurprising. The gun was suddenly heavy in her hand, and she let it drop onto the cool linoleum.

She could hear her mother sobbing in the kitchen. When Helen walked in, sort of rocking from side to side, hitting walls and never looking at the floor, she picked up the phone. Simon’s urgent voice was saying:

‘Nell? Nell? What the hell was that noise?

Helen said:

‘I.’ As if it was a complete sentence.

Then there was a pause, and she said something else, incongruously.

Finally, she was talking at Simon, rather than to him, or so it sounded. Edda wasn’t listening.

‘It’s alright Jackie.’ Edda told her brother absently, putting a cool hand on his shoulder. ‘Ever’thin’s fine.’

Saying that hadn’t made her feel particularly strong, or, as it were, like a feminist. She chuckled. She suddenly knew they had killed grandma to get into here. Of course they had killed grandma. Edda had seen Dante' Peak, too, but she hadn't read any Dante.

She knew she was an awful person. Immoral, ungrateful, maybe even insane. She liked to imagine her mother having sex with a convalescing soldier. She didn’t feel what people were supposed to feel.

But the old bitch wasn’t there to shame her any longer. That was the main thing. The realization sent a waterfall of warm, eggnog down Edda’s throat, washing the cement off.

The police would ask some questions, but she didn’t mind about them. It was self-defence.

‘Clear as mud, of’cer.’