We all had different names for the woman who lived in next door’s garden. My parents called her Mrs Poppyseed, though I never knew if this was what she was called, by marriage or by birth. My sister, older than me by two full years, called her Widow Weeds for the way long hair hung lank down her face, whether the sky was heavy with rain or crackling with sunlight.
Me? I named her White Lips for the way she scrunched her mouth shut until tiny cracks crazed her cheeks.
She never spoke, holding her words deep in her throat. Sometimes we’d hide in the long grass by the hedge dividing our garden from hers and listen to the sentences try to escape. She clamped her jaws and kept them in.
The adults thought her rude. Us? We just thought it was sad in the way children do. A simple sadness with no edges or complications.
The house between the garden and street was as big as ours, bigger where the holes in the walls and roof let the world in. White Lips never slept in there. At night I watched through my curtains as she sat on the back steps, mouth tightly closed, words screeching to escape, then walked down the garden path to where the hollyhocks and magnolia choked out the light. I often stayed up far beyond the grasp of sleep to see if she returned up the narrow path to the house. If she did it was long after exhaustion claimed me.
Through the window I watched her make her way over the lawn, unkempt grass brushing her waist.
“Dad says the house will collapse one day,” Shawna said, leaning over my shoulder, her breath sweetened and sugared. With a blue biro she found patterns in the cloud like freckles on her skin. A boat, and a crooked smiley face. Two fish locked mouth to tail. A single winged bird circling an uneven sun.
“Dad’s never been in,” I said. My breath joined hers to steam the glass.
“He has. A long time ago. Back before she became Widow Weeds.”
I turned on my bed, barely keeping my balance.
“Don’t call her that,” I said.
Shawna smiled like her tongue was salted.
“Because we’ve never seen a husband for her to lose, and if she had and heard us, imagine how that would feel.”
“I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten. Look she’s going in.”
We watched her climb the steps, opening the warped door that never locked, just pulled fast against the night.
I sat back with the sill against my shoulder-blades.
“Dad says she chisels away the brick from the walls, waiting for the roof to soften above her.”
All that day I sat with my duvet wrapped around me, window open, and listened and watched. The only noises to reach me were the warring sounds of traffic beyond the hedge, and Shawna’s stereo against the wall dividing our rooms from each other. Every hour or so White Lips walked from the house, her feet grinding cowslips into the dirt. She stayed at the bottom of the garden, out of sight, then walked back, up the steps and pulled the door behind her.
Night was not my natural place. Most days I slept early and rose late. The effort to stay awake as the light was dragged behind the horizon turned my skin sallow and widen my jaw into a permanent yawn.
Only when rest companioned the rest of the family did I climb out of bed, slide on my jacket and leave our house for the one where White Lips spent her day.
The door made no sound as I let myself in, though the hinges were old and rusted under the paint. My
torch was plastic and not designed for looking, barely casting enough light to see beyond the toes of my school shoes. Just enough to tread with care, but not to see the wider world. To lift the light upward meant to stay still. I moved in stop motion. Step and pause. Step and pause. Walk and see. Walk and see.
The house was moth-torn. Curtains little more than rags, no furniture to clutter up the rooms. Most floorboards were missing. I let gravity take light from my torch to see below the floor, but the house was too hungry, swallowing all and showing nothing.
My hands saw more than my eyes. Scraping along the walls my fingers found the holes. The gaps where none should be, worn through brick and plasterboard, only stopping when they stroked cabling, unsure whether power still flowed inside the frayed insulation.
I could have hidden in White Lips house. Secreted myself in one of the bedrooms, or slid into the gaps below my feet, but my bed was the only place I wanted to be. Not amongst the webs and chatters of the derelict house.
“However she makes the holes it’s not with a chisel,” I said.
Both Shawna and I reached for the same piece of toast from the plate, her winning through the strength and intimidation of those two extra years. We watched our neighbour walk up through the garden to the house and open the door to go inside, her hands pushed deep into her pockets.
“And you would know, in your many years of demolishing houses, would you?”
I pulled a face until Shawna stuffed the slice of toast into her mouth and chewed herself to silence.
“Chisels are too heavy for plaster. Not sharp enough to sever cables.”
“And that’s what you found?”
“That’s what I found.”
Food mulched and swallowed, Shawna smiled.
“Next time I’m coming with you.”
I shook my head, but it would have stopped the sun before it stopped Shawna.
She came just before dawn and shook me awake, Dad’s torch on the edge of my bed. I swung my legs out and dressed. Shawna stared out of the window.
“You worried?” I said, pulling a second jumper over my head.
“You did it, so it can’t be that hard,” she said in sibling words that dripped with a child’s fear.
We let ourselves out of one house and into another, dressed in darkness’s disguise.
“Where did you go last time?” Shawna said, struggling to get her fingers to work the rubber coated switch.
“I didn’t leave this room,” I said. “Kept near the door just in case.” Sibling words worked both ways.
We concealed ourselves in the kitchen, above a clutch of pipes wrenched free of their appliances. We hid and we listened.
I guess I expected White Lips to speak when she was cocooned in the privacy of her house, no matter how worn the walls, but still any words stayed squirming below her tongue.
We could not see her, just heard her steps around the floors, until we could not.
When the sound of her chewing reached us my first thought was, how did she cook? No power entered the house, and anyway my sister and I crouched over the spot where the cooker once fed families. No smoke ever rose from the end of her garden where she spent her nights.
“Grind their bones to make her bread,” Shawna whispered and I shuddered. She leant forward to glance around the doorframe, sat back, mouth clamped shut with her fingers.
“What?” I whispered. She shook her head, her eyes flicking between me and the doorway. I went to move, and she gripped my sleeve, still shaking her head. I wasn’t used to Shawna being scared. As she had taken my place, I took hers.
White Lips crouched beside the wall. A blaze of sunlight from above robed her, enough for me to see.
Her face was turned toward the wall, mouth clamped against the lath and plaster. As she chewed, a powder of whitened splinters shook away to her knees. Still the trapped words squirmed inside her.
At some moment I could not separate from all the others she stood and left the house. Shawna gripped her knees, knuckles stretching her skin to parchment. I stood, ignoring the cramp in my legs, and walked across to the wall. The place White Lips had most recently gnawed was easy to spot, edges sodden and streaked in red. I wondered if the grinding of the house loosened her teeth in their sockets. I ran a finger across the scar in the wall and stared at the stain across my skin until I heard her returning up the stairs.
Shawna had not moved, arms around her knees, hand holding in her own words.
With not enough time to return to my sister I found a new hiding place behind a warped door. From there I had a better view when White Lips resumed her gluttony.
The red stains were not blood but rust. Flakes fell from her teeth as she gnawed, exposing the bare steel underneath that clattered and sparked before her spit crusted them once more. Even when her incisors separated to worry at the walls the sentences she held on her tongue squealed and squirmed, but did not taste the air. With her mouth shut, lips turned white once more, she stood up and left the house.
From my concealment behind the warped wooden door I watched her three times in total. The second time she lay flat on the ground to gnaw at the trusses running under the floor, the third at the very bricks themselves.
Sure that her feet were crushing the flowers as she made her way down the garden I ran over to Shawna and grabbed her arm, smudging the scribbles with my sweat.
“Come on. We need to find out where she’s going.”
Shawna shook her head, but I gave her no choice. I may have been younger, but my grip was tighter and by the sun through the cracks in the roof, we followed White Lips out.
Hiding in the garden was not hard, but following her was. For a moment I considered dragging Shawna through the hedge into our own pristine garden, but we had no time before White Lips was walking back toward us. I dragged my reluctant sibling underneath a close-branched magnolia, ignoring her shuddering as we stayed silent. When our neighbour passed us once more we fell in behind and watched.
The area was cleared of weeds and shrubs, in the centre of the flattened grass two pods of mulch, hollow and spherical. While we stared, White Lips leant over and opened her mouth. First, the dampened plaster dripped out to fall into them. I moved closer, staying in the cover of the flowerbeds, gripping Shawna’s arm so I would not see it alone. In the heart of each pod lay a tiny curled figure with bones of brickdust. White Lips kept her mouth open. Fibrous sentences tumbled out to muscle the reddened bones. Each one was a memory of her children before she put them in the ground. Her voice was sonorous and deep, syllables as heavy and grey as lead.
I was so transfixed by her speech I didn’t notice Shawna step out into the path. Did not notice the creaking behind us getting louder over the distant sound of the traffic.
White Lips did. White Lips noticed. She noticed the house cleaving itself in two. She noticed Shawna stood staring at her. She noticed me try to drag my sister with me away from those two nests of spit and plaster.
Shawna would not move, no matter how hard I wrenched. The gnawed house was collapsing, White Lips coming closer, and any courage I had fled as White Lips spoke once more.
“Skin. My children have no skin, and they need skin to hold all my gifts inside.”
Afterwards, I told myself Shawna slid my grip, twisted away, but the memory is one I skirt around.
Taste the edges of, like a battery against my tongue. I escaped with nothing but a smudge of blue ink on my fingers, and hair powdered white by plaster as the beams behind me no longer supported the walls.
My parents mourned my sister as lost in the collapse of the neighbouring house, though no body was found. The council re-housed White Lips and her two daughters.
I see them around town sometimes. Lips no longer held tight, she speaks to no-one but those two girls with their freckled skin, faint blue veins between, that look, in the right light, like a boat and a crooked smiley face.
Steve Toase is from North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany.
His work has appeared in Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Cabinet des Feés and Pantheon Magazine amongst others. In 2014 Call Out (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6.
Recently, he worked with Becky Cherriman and Imove on Haunt. The Saboteur Award shortlisted project was about Harrogate’s haunting presence in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the town. The project was inspired by Steve’s own teenage experiences.