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The Unwish

One step inside and Amy knew there was something she’d forgotten. She heaved her rucksack over the threshold and counted the carrier bags she’d lugged up from the Co-op in the town. Four, which was right. There might not be enough wine, though. With the front door key between her teeth—metallic tang on her tongue—she dragged the bags inside and stopped. The room hadn’t changed at all. She’d been eleven when they last stayed here. She’d never been back. How could it have changed so little in twenty years? She placed the key on the table and heaped the bags beneath it. Her boots were caked with mud. She tiptoed towards the kettle rather than battle with the filthy laces to get them off.

She cradled her tea on the bench by the front door. The river was insistent in her ears, though it was hidden by the trees. The opposite valley-side shifted with the wind, the trees forming an agitated creature that could not rest. The wood of the bench had warmed in the spring sunshine, but clouds were collecting now. A narrow path beside the cottage climbed to the road. She watched for the arrival of her sister and parents. They’d have to leave their cars further up the hill and carry everything down. A goldfinch perched on the gate for just a breath before lifting off again. She’d reached for her phone to take a picture, but the moment had gone. She couldn’t get a signal to send it to him anyway. And he’d be here before too long. They could sit on the bench together. The goldfinch might return.

Her cup was empty but still warm. She let it rest against her collarbone. She picked up her phone again and read through their last messages: “Can’t wait to see you tomorrow x,” she’d sent from the village. “See you soon,” he’d replied. No kiss. She tackled her laces and dirt powdered the flagstones. There was a hole in her left sock. It was a good job she’d worn that pair today. She left her boots beneath the bench and headed inside to unpack.

Her parents would take the main bedroom in the front. Should she claim the other decent-sized one? Sara had it when they’d stayed here as kids. They’d fought over it but Sara won, as always. Amy had ended up in the tiny room off the kitchen downstairs. Dad said it was like having her own den. But there was another room upstairs, she realised now. She pushed open the door at the end of the hall. How had she forgotten it? It was single-sized, but a double bed and narrow set of drawers had been squeezed in. Blue blankets on the bed lapped against the window wall. Beech leaves pressed against the glass and green light filled the room. She climbed up onto the bed and unlatched the window, letting the sounds of leaves and the river into the room. Sara could keep the big room. It would be cosy in here when he arrived. She emptied all her clothes out of her rucksack onto the bed. Ordinarily, she’d leave them balled inside her bag and extract them as she needed them, but she didn’t want him to see she was messy. She folded her creased T-shirts and the two lace nighties she’d brought. Maybe she should have brought pyjamas as well. She’d be cold that night in bed alone. She kept her stuff to one side in the drawers, leaving space for him. She put her washbag on top and then hid it back in her rucksack. He didn’t need to see all that crap. Lying on the bed she tried to imagine him into the room. His arms around her. She read his last text over and over. Why had there been no kiss?

“Bolognese, really?” Sara set her grey leather weekend bag down on the table.

“Nice to see you too,” Amy said.

“Is that mince organic at least? You know, turkey mince is so much better for you.” Sara leaned over the pan and sniffed. “I’ll cook tomorrow night. Are Mum and Dad here yet? Mum, Dad, hellooo!”

Amy stabbed the mince with the spatula, trying to separate the claggy brown clumps. “They’re not here yet,” she said.

“And when’s what’s-he-called-again arriving?”

“Aidan will be here tomorrow night. He couldn’t get time off today.”

Sara raised her eyebrows and lifted her bag off the table. “I really don’t know why we had to come back here.”

“Dad wanted to come. Mum said he was insistent about it.” Amy turned back to the mince as her sister pounded up the stairs. She tipped a tin of tomatoes into the pan and attempted to liquidise them with a potato masher. She sloshed a little red wine into the pan and more into her glass.

When her parents finally burst through the door in a flurry of bags and arms and kisses, the bottle was empty.

Sara picked it up. “Do we have recycling here?” she said.

“Sorry we’re late,” Mum said. “Your Dad got us lost.”

“I didn’t get us lost. They’ve changed the road layout up in the village.”

“You got us lost.” Mum upended her handbag on the table and retrieved her tablets from a mound of tissues.

“Let us get the bags for you,” said Sara. “Let’s go and get comfy and light a fire. Do you remember how Amy used to hide the wood so we couldn’t burn it? She said it screamed. Amy, can you take all the bags upstairs?”

Amy hadn’t bought dessert. She never had dessert at home. Didn’t wine count as dessert? Apparently not. They were already dangerously close to the end of the second bottle and Sara had barely touched her glass.

Mum started to clear the plates. “It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t eat another thing anyway.”

“Pasta can sit so heavily, can’t it, Mum?” Sara said. “I’ll go out in the car and find the nearest Waitrose tomorrow. Get us properly stocked up.”

“Shall we play a game?” Dad headed off into the snug as Mum began to clear the plates.

The Scrabble set still had old score sheets inside. People had made a palimpsest of them over the years. Sara pored over them. “See I won,” she said finally. “I always got the triple word scores.”

“You were older than me,” Amy said, looking over her shoulder at the sheet.

“I’m still older than you. It’s not an excuse for losing.”

“Actually, who’s K? It looks like they won,” Amy said.

“That’s someone else’s game.”

Amy lifted a battered Trivial Pursuit box down from the shelf. “There were pieces of pie missing when we last played this.”

“You replaced them with beech nuts you’d all collected,” Dad said.

Now there were just the empty pies. Amy put the lid back on the box.

“So you’ll have to face me at Scrabble,” Sara said, dishing out the tiles on the coffee table.

Dad pushed his back. “Actually, just you two play. I’m happier watching.”

Mum came through from the kitchen, glass in hand, and pulled a Danielle Steel novel from the shelf. She crumpled into the armchair and took another of her tablets with the last of the wine. “I probably read this last time,” she said. “Good job I never remember how things end.”

There were other books on the shelf: a Ruth Rendell, some hardbacked Dickens, a couple of Catherine Cooksons. “Do you remember that book that was here, full of weird fairy tales?” Amy said. “It was small, had a brown cover. There was that horrible story about the cat mother in it and—”

“No,” Sara said as she placed five tiles on the board. “T.R.I.C.K., with the K on a double letter score. That makes sixteen.”

Amy placed an O beneath the C. If only she had a W. She added a D instead. “C.O.D. That’s six,” she said.

Dad stood up. “I’ve left the map in the car.”

“Well, you don’t need it now,” Mum said without looking up from her book. “We’re here.”

“I’d like to have a look at it. See what’s going on with those roads in the village.”

“Get it in the morning.”

“It’ll only take a minute.” He was already getting his boots on.

“D.E.U.X.” Sara placed each tile with emphasis.

“You can’t have that,” Amy said.

“Of course I can. And the X is on a triple letter score, so that’s twenty-eight for me.”

Amy shuffled her tiles about as though it would make a difference to how useless she was at seeing words in the random letters. The fire guttered as cold air flooded the room. Dad mustn’t have shut the door properly. Amy shuffled her tiles again. What was she going to do with two Fs? “I’ll go with Dad,” she said.

“Thanks, sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Well, I’ll come too then,” Sara said.

“Good girls.” Mum sipped her wine and went back to her book.

Bluebells held on to the twilight. Tree branches reached up into the falling dark. Amy walked quickly, until the air was sharp in her chest, but there was no sign of Dad.

“So are you sure it’s going to work out with this one?” Sara said from behind her.

Amy focused on trying to follow the lighter stones that made the path.

“Because you’re not getting any younger. And after Gareth . . . ” Sara let the memories out in a studied exhalation. The same way she used to blow smoke rings when they were teenagers and leave them to hang in the air.

“Mum said he’s married,” she said.

“He’s been separated for a long time. They’re getting a divorce.”

“But he’s still married?”

The stones were all mud-slick now. Amy stopped looking for the path and just kept heading upwards. They had to reach the road at some point. And Dad. How could he have got ahead so fast?

“So what is it he’s doing that couldn’t be put off?”

“He had to work. I already told you that. Where’s Richard anyway?”

“Closing a deal. The partners needed him there. Anyway, he’s arranged a special meal for Mum and Dad at The Cottingdale when they come to stay with us at the end of the month. We’ll have a lot to celebrate.”

“Great,” Amy said. There was a scuttering overhead as birds swapped places on the branches. She stopped.

“It’s only the birds, Amy. God you’re still scared of everything.”

“In that fairy tale book there was a story where all the leaves were really birds and they flew down all at once and trapped the children. And they had to live for years in a house of wings. Do you remember?”

Sara overtook her. “Come on, we’re never going to catch up with Dad.”

“And there was that story about the sisters. They were trying to collect wishes from . . . was it from a tree? Do you remember?”

“No. I don’t.”

“But that one was your favourite. You made us act it out. There was a hollow tree down by the river . . . I’d completely forgotten about it until now, but there was a tree down there that we used to hide things in.”

“I don’t remember.”

“There were three sisters and the eldest—”

“You’re making things up again,” Sara said.

A shuffling and cracking ahead announced their father. In the last light he could have been a badger, stooped in his worn grey coat.

“I left a . . . I left something in the car. Went up to get it,” he said. He didn’t have anything in his hands.

The morning was cold against her shoulder. Amy huddled under the blankets and watched shadow leaves flitter on the wall. Tomorrow she’d get to wake up beside him. It was worth having to put up with a few days of Sara for that. She hadn’t actually spent a whole night with him yet. He said it was too difficult to get to work from her house. When he rolled out of her bed before midnight to retrieve his clothes the extra space was crushing. The smell of him never lasted long enough on her pillows.

She couldn’t hear anyone else up. She dressed and crept downstairs. The front door was wide open. Dad’s boots were gone. She headed out down the hill. The bluebells were still the colour of twilight. The river sounded heavy and urgent in the trees, drowning out any birdsong.

Dad was on the small stone bridge, curled over its side, staring down into the water. She watched as he turned, then crouched to the ground, crossed to the other side of the bridge and rushed back to his starting position like a creaky old automaton.

“Morning, Dad,” she said. The dank mouth of the bridge held ferns and boulders and old bricks tumbled until their corners were gone. The water that frothed through it all looked more like bitter. She pressed her fingers into the moss growing on the stone, expecting it to be cool and damp, but it was warm and dry.

Dad scrabbled for more leaves. One, two, three, he let them go. “You always enjoyed playing this with your sisters,” he said.

Sister, she corrected in her head, but she let it go. He seemed fragile. Something wasn’t right.

Two oak leaves raced through. The third must have got caught. “Are you coming back to the cottage, Dad? I can make you some breakfast.”

“I’m waiting,” he said, “for the other one.”

“It’s got stuck, Dad, come on.”

Sara had already laid the table for breakfast and arranged several pans on the hob, but she’d disappeared upstairs to the bathroom. Amy took over and had served a full fry-up to Mum and Dad before Sara came down.

“Would you like some?” Amy asked.

“No, thanks.” Sara sat at the far end of the table.

Amy filled her own plate and sat right next to her.

“What’s the plan today then?” Sara got up and leaned against the sink.

“I don’t want to go out there,” Mum said. “I mean, I would like to stay here and finish that book by the fire.”

“I need to go food shopping, of course,” Sara said. “What time’s your new boyfriend arriving, Amy?”

“Sixish. Although he said it could get to seven.”

“I’ll do a late dinner then, if he can’t be sure.”

“I’m going to go for a walk today,” Amy said.

“You’ve just been for a walk,” Sara said.

“A longer one. Maybe cross the river and climb the hill on the other side.”

“There’s a good view from the top,” Dad said. “You all loved it up there when you were younger.”

Each barely-there filament of the feather added to its delicate Rorschach pattern. Amy twirled it between finger and thumb as she set off down the hill. She might give it to him when he arrived. What would he do with it, though? Would he keep it because she’d given it to him? What if he just discarded it? She wanted to tell him she loved him when they went to bed that night. The words had been in her mouth so many times, but she’d been too nervous to let them out. What if he didn’t say it back? He’d said he needed to take things slowly after his marriage. Did the fact he’d already been married mean he wouldn’t want to do all that again? She’d never fantasised about a big fancy wedding like Sara’s, but still. She let the feather fall back to the ground.

He didn’t like to hold her hand. He’d never said that, but she could feel it when she let hers touch his as they walked. He never took it. It was a small thing really. But did it mean he didn’t like her enough, or that he was still in love with his ex? Maybe he would never want to hold her hand. Would that matter? As she stumbled down the slope she couldn’t pull apart the rush of wind in the leaves from the sound of the water. For a moment she felt as though she was walking beneath the water, and its surface was up above the branches. She might drown in the trees. She had to stop. She leaned against a tree and then sank to the ground between its roots. He thought it was fine for them to not see each other all week. She felt a longing for him that scared her. She checked her phone for him constantly. Every message from friends and every marketing email she’d never signed up for hurt, because she believed for a split second it was going to be from him.

Damp was seeping through her jeans, but the leaves around her felt dry beneath her hands. She stood up and looked at where she’d been sitting. There was a deep crevice, not much more than a hand’s width, in the trunk. It was the hollow tree. She slipped her hand inside and pulled out mounds of desiccated leaves. With her face against the bark she reached in further. There was a smell of wet soil and something sickly. She dislodged an object deep inside the tree. Twisting her wrist, she managed to pull out an old ice cream tub. The label on the lid had disintegrated but there were initials scratched into its sky-blue plastic sides, SP, AP, KP. Inside there were seven ring pulls tied to a length of string, a rusty needle and the book. The fairy tale book they’d taken from the cottage. The text block came away from its sodden cover in her hands. The page edges were mildewed and it was difficult to prise them apart with her nails, but when she did, the printed words were remarkably intact. “The Cat Mother”, “The Bird House”, “Devil’s Bridge”, “Three Green Baskets”, “The Fox and the Leaf”. There were pages missing where the final story should have been; only its last page remained:

The last wish, the un—, had to be hidden from the world. The good sister folded it up and asked me to put it into this story. And a fine story it makes too, but, dear child, take heed; it must never be taken from here.

Amy shoved the book back into the tree. She stuffed the tub and lid after it, scraping her arm on unseen ridges. She remembered finding a tiny bone in the tree and pretending it was a key from one of the stories. Was that before, or after? They’d been playing in the woods. She remembered being piggy in the middle. She was always piggy in the middle. She remembered following a tangle of red thread through the trees. That was after. They found a little cairn of white pick-up sticks by the river. Sara threw stones at it. There were other parts, not attached to their names, that lay swollen and shining like jewels in the mud. There had been three of them. But by the time Dad had called them back for lunch they were two. There had been nothing left of her little sister: no bones, no eyes, no heart. The woods were empty of her. Before she was gone it was like her body had tried to hold on to the world, to make itself so viciously present they could never forget it. Forget her. But they had forgotten. What was her name?

Sara was making the dessert, stirring a thick chocolatey mess in a bowl. Mum and Dad were sitting at the table drinking tea in silence. They all looked so normal.

“Your boots are filthy,” Sara said.

It was you, Amy thought. It was you, it was you, it was you. You unwished her.

“Cup of tea, love?”

“No, thanks, Mum.”

She sat and fought with her mud-thick laces. We had a sister. We had a sister. We had a sister. Maybe if she kept saying it to herself she could stop it falling out of her mind again. She tried to picture her, but couldn’t see her for the river water and leaves.

“Look at the state of me!” Sara laughed and wiggled her chocolatey fingers.

Amy watched Sara wash her hands and pat them dry on a towel before letting them rest lightly on her belly. A baby, Amy thought. Sara’s going to have a baby. Of course she was. She always had to be the centre of attention.

“Are you okay, love?” Mum asked.

“I’m going to have a bath,” Amy said.

“Yes, best to make yourself presentable for your new boyfriend.” Sara’s hand remained on her belly.

The water ran in a scorching stream. She tried to imagine her little sister into being, but every time her thoughts got close to the edge of her, her mind pulled away. She wiped the steamed-up mirror with her sleeve. Her face was streaked with tears, eyelids thickening. She’d look a mess when he arrived. She needed him to arrive. To hold her. Things would feel okay in his arms.

She folded her clothes neatly in a pile on the floor. How would she explain all this to him? Would he think she was mad? Would he let her cry? Gareth had always hated it when she cried, said she should go on tablets like her mum. Sara was having a baby. A baby. She shouldn’t think about the baby. She couldn’t breathe. Her skin was burning. She added more cold. What would he think of her, a beetroot with puffy eyes? He’d never seen her like this, or first thing in the morning, or kissed her morning mouth. Would she be what he wanted? Maybe he’d leave her too. She remembered the pages of the book washing under the bridge. Was that before, or after? She tried to imagine he was with her. Why wouldn’t he hold her hand? Did he still love his wife? It was all her fault. How could she think he’d love her?

There were candles and napkins on the table. “We waited,” Sara said.


It was raining outside. They ate their lamb steaks in silence. Sara made no pretence with the wine and poured herself a glass of orange juice instead. After dinner, Amy washed up. In Scrabble she got F.O.U.N.D. on a triple word score and wondered why it made her want to cry.

Green light leaked into the room. Amy shivered and hugged the blankets around herself. At least she was going home today. Stuffing her clothes back into her rucksack she wondered why she’d bothered unpacking in the first place. She had so little stuff with her that it only took up half the space in each drawer.

Originally published in chapbook form as The Unwish, Nightjar Press, 2017.

About the Author

Claire Dean is a writer, lecturer, and researcher living in the north of England. Her short stories have been widely published and are included in Best British Short Stories 2011, 2014 & 2017 (Salt). Bremen, The Unwish, Marionettes, and Into the Penny Arcade are published as chapbooks by Nightjar Press. Her first collection, The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, was published by Unsettling Wonder in 2016.