Andrew Openshaw is a copywriter from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. An avid reader of fantasy and horror, he is now taking tentative steps into the world of speculative fiction. To date, his work can be found in Palm-Sized Prompts, Schlock! Webzine, The Dirty Pool, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories and The Scarlett Leaf Review. Always keen to connect with other writers, he can be reached via Twitter: @moriskarass and at his website http://www.andrewopenshaw.com. Married to Josephine, he is a proud parent to the world's noisiest cats: Maxwell, Molko & Bodhi.
A KNIFE AND COPPER TALE
Angela was sure this could be the answer to her problem. If she’d read it right, the message was clear — remove an unwanted friend. They’d be no mess, no tears, no cruel words spoken. With the head girl election in less than three weeks, finding the book amongst Grandma’s belongings couldn’t have come at a better time. In fact, Angela pondered in one of her more morbid moments, Grandma’s death couldn’t have come too soon. Her problem was Carla, an unwanted but now necessary friend who clung to her like a sea anemone. About as attractive as one too.
Last term, in assembly, Angela had accidentally winked at this freak. A cursed speck of dust drifting up from the cold dirty floor had got caught in her eye. It caused a muscle twitch, a fleeting blink. When Angela reached up to dislodge the unwelcome particle, she noticed this sorry sack of shit ‘winking’ back her. Carla Cassidy - a name she wasn’t even familiar with back then — was just another invisible dot of dirt floating alone in the vacuous assembly hall. Some brace wearing berk, smiling away at Angela like the two of them shared a secret code.
The incident changed everything. Carla started standing with Angela at break times; sitting next to her in the classes they shared, joining her after school in the café and on Saturday trips to the mall. Angela’s reputation meant she couldn’t do anything about it. She was an upstanding pupil who had to lead by example. Favourite to win the head girl election, the school expected her to show compassion and respect; treat everyone as equal regardless of their race, religion, gender or complete and utter loser-iness.
Left with no choice, and hopeful to turn this unfortunate event in her favour, Angela welcomed Carla into her gang, or her coven as she liked to call it. It helped consolidate her lead in the polls, she told the other girls. They would just have to put up with it/her. After all, she reminded them, the perks of being besties with the head girl are abundant. A few months pretending to like this loser would be easy if they just focused on the year of social enrichment which lay ahead. The faithful, she promised, would be rewarded.
Then Shirley Simpson went and scuppered the plan, pouncing on an opportunity to destabilise Angela’s election campaign.
Shirley was also running for the head girl position but lagged in the polls. She started spreading it around that Angela only befriended Carla to win votes. According to Shirley, it proved Angela’s falseness, her untrustworthy nature, and warned of more unscrupulous behaviour ahead if Angela won.
It worked too. Angela’s lead in the polls shortened as the weeks passed by.
To counter her decline in popularity, Angela ramped up her Carla-affection. She made the friendship appear more genuine, authentic. Beyond reproach. She invited Carla to sleep-overs and birthday parties; held her hand in the common room and whispered in her ear. High-fives, selfies — Angela utilised all the political tools at her disposal.
She was so convincing, however, that the coven started to question Angela’s loyalty… and her sanity. Although the girls promised to still vote for Angela, they said they couldn’t match her cunning and skill in perpetuating the Carla-friend-lie. In fact, they were worried they may give the game away, and figured it best to stay away from Angela and her ‘friend’ until after the election was over.
Thus, Angela was left alone with Carla. Her frustration mounted. This simple creature hadn’t even noticed the other girls drifting out of her life; nor did she show any awareness of the controversy surrounding their friendship. Carla was just glad to have a friend. Angela so wanted to tell this moron to leave her alone, but she couldn’t. That could also play into her rival’s hands and destroy her chances of winning.
Carla had become an unpredictable element in this election; something which had to be managed delicately, and which required all of Angela’s deceitful talents. There was no room for error.
Yet despite her efforts, the polls remained too close. Each passing day, as the election loomed larger, Angela cursed her impossible situation. To lose would mean her life was ruined.
Then Grandma died and a glimmer of hope appeared.
Angela arranged to meet Carla after school at the café. It was where she and her coven had always met, but now it was only her and Carla who went there.
She approached from an adjacent street and smiled to see through the window that the place was deserted. Apart from Carla, who sat hunched over her phone. Angela grimaced at the girl’s posture. Soon it would all be over and hideous sights like this would be a thing of the past.
Carla no doubt monitored Angela’s approach using one of those creepy location apps, such was her apparent determination to never let Angela out of her sight. Sure enough, when Angela reached the road to cross over to the café, Carla’s gormless gaze darted up to meet hers. Carla waved frantically, but Angela couldn’t bring herself to wave back. Instead, she pretended to watch for traffic, even though the road was completely clear.
After making a conscientious consideration for her safety Angela finally strode across the road; back straight, nose held high, unsmiling. She paused briefly to acknowledge the still waving Carla with a small nod, just as she entered.
Jumping up, Carla beckoned Angela over to her table. Angela did a quick bag check to make sure the box containing the knife was still there. In bestowing her gracious gift, she would sever, forever, her friendship with Carla Cassidy.
The realisation that her plan was almost complete sank in and Angela transformed into super-gushing mode. “Carla, darling, good to see you! Have you changed your hair? Looks fab babe!”
“Thanks, Ange,” said Carla. The words crushed by her demonic front braces. They hugged and Angela tried to stop a little bit of sick from coming up.
Carla ordered a pot of tea and the two girls settled down to chat. Only half listening, Angela strained to keep her expression neutral. But it didn’t take long for her to feel her perfectly plucked eyebrows twitching and forming into an expression of pity for this pathetic, soon to be friendless, creature.
The tea arrived and Angela decided she couldn’t wait any longer. “I’ve brought you a gift.”
“A gift!” exclaimed Carla. “For me?”
“Yes, for you” replied Angela. “To thank you for being such a good friend these last few months.” She reached into her bag and brought out the long thin box where she placed the carving knife, stolen from the kitchen at home. For extra effect, Angela wrapped the box in dazzling gold paper.
Carla gasped, “What is it?”
“Open it and see” said Angela, practically salivating with anticipation.
She wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen. Skimmed rather than read would be a better description of the attention she’d given to the instructions in the ancient hand-written book found among now-deceased Grandma’s possessions.
The basic gist was that giving someone a knife represented the severing of the bonds of friendship. To avoid this happening, the giver of the knife must first attach a piece of copper to it. That way, when the recipient receives the knife, they can give the copper back to the gift-giver and essentially ‘pay’ for their gift, avoiding the severance occurring.
Grandma’s old book ‘Myths and Superstitions Unsealed, Vol I’ revealed, however, that the ‘knife and copper myth’ wasn’t a myth at all. It worked… ‘If there was intent behind the giving.’
It worked if you meant it. The words Angela clung too, as she hurled the sticky old book back towards the box from which she’d retrieved it, to dash downstairs and fetch herself a nice sharp blade. Assuming, as she did, that Carla would just drift out of her life, until it seemed like she’d never been part of it in the first place.
Simple, clean, no drama. Reputation intact, the perfect solution.
Carla took the box off Angela and placed it on the table in front of her. She ran her hands up and down the wrapping paper, before picking the box up again and turning it around with her hands.
Angela had to tense every muscle in her body to stop herself from tutting. This overbearing demonstration of gratitude made her stomach churn. Angela screamed inside her head: Fucking open it, you stupid bitch.
Eventually, Carla started peeling off the paper, giggling as she did so. Saliva bubbled through gaps in the metal abominations that surrounded her front teeth. “This is so exciting, no one ever gets me presents!” The wrapper came off and was placed to the side. Each strip of Sellotape peeled away, without leaving a single tear in the paper.
Angela disguised a retch as a cough and knocked their table causing the tea to jump out of the teapot. She grabbed a napkin to mop up the mess. “Hurry up Carla, this tea is getting cold.” Spoken in her most affected voice.
Carla apologised and without a further moment’s hesitation lifted the lid. Her eager face soon crumpled into a confused frown.
It was Angela’s turn to play up a bit now. She gazed back at Carla, big wide eyes, huge smile.
Seeing this air of expectancy in her best friend, Carla, as ever, sought to please. “Oh, a knife. Gosh. It's lovely Ange.” She reached into the box and lifted it out by the handle, holding it away from her like she feared it might suddenly animate and slash her face. Stumbling for words, she continued in her pleasant tone. “It's heavy, must have been expensive eh?”
A breeze caught Angela’s hair. Glancing over her shoulder, she noted the door to the café wasn’t open. She shivered as goose bumps formed on her bare arms. Carla’s thick greasy hair was also blown around. The wind seemed to circle the girls’ table, leaving the rest of the empty café undisturbed. The waitress behind the counter appeared unaware of this phantom draught. Something wasn’t right.
Angela’s attention switched back to Carla, still holding the knife. She stared back at Angela with wide worried eyes.
The wind gusted, its full force now centred on Carla, causing Angela’s hair to blow forward over her eyes. Blinded, Angela flailed, trying to pull her hair back into a bun. Carla shrieked, her form swirling into the wind. Round and round, she went, like a tumble dryer in its last spin.
A popping noise, like lips smacking together, announced the end of the mini-storm. Angela, head buried in her arms, eyes fastened shut, felt her goose bumps fading. She heard a voice and slowly lifted her head up from the table, bleary eyed and all tensed up. “Is everything alright with your tea?” the waitress said, staring down at Angela’s crumpled self.
“Yes, thanks” croaked Angela. “Drank too quickly, burnt my mouth.”
The woman’s eyes moved from Angela to the table. “Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to have given you two cups. How silly of me! Yes, do be careful, the tea will be hot.” She picked up Carla’s cup and returned to the counter.
On the floor lay the gold wrapping paper, which had blown off the table and up against the wall. The knife and box, however, which Carla had been holding, had vanished. Along with Carla.
After the initial shock of the events in the café faded, Angela settled back into a normal routine. She’d achieved what she set out to achieve, there was no doubt about that. There was no Carla Cassidy in her life anymore. There was no Carla Cassidy. The knife stunt, if you could call it that, had removed her from all existence.
Everything returned to pre-Carla days. Angela was Little Miss Popular again. She had her gang back, who both admired and feared her. The awkwardness was gone. No one stared or whispered about her hanging around with loser Carla; questioned her loyalties, or accused her of foul play. Being way ahead in the head girl polls also meant Angela’s rival, Shirley Simpson, all but conceded defeat. In fact, Shirley became super-nice to Angela. Building bridges in the hope of securing a place on the student council. The selection of which was a privilege afforded to the eventual winner of the contest.
Angela admired herself. She’d stayed strong in the face of adversity. A mixture of resilience and cunning, she’d found a way to outmanoeuvre her enemies and secure a clear victory. Affirmation. Her ability to outsmart everyone demonstrated that she was the best candidate for the job. Slick, cool, unperturbed.
The only problem was nobody knew what she’d done. She couldn’t share her story, not even with her coven, because only she had retained the memory. To everyone else, Carla Cassidy had never existed.
She tested this of course. Said things like, “Imagine what Carla would have done.” But when the girls all looked at her like she was mad, she’d correct herself. Say, “Oops, I meant Sarah.” Call herself a scatter brain, say she was working too hard.
There were other reminders too. A photograph in the ice cream parlour, taken at Angela’s birthday party the previous year, no longer featured Carla. Rubbed out, leaving a gap which made it look like the person taking it hadn’t lined everyone up properly.
Angela even went over to Carla’s house. A person who wasn’t Carla’s mum answered the door, told her she had the wrong address.
Election day approached. Each morning in assembly, headmistress Brady reminded everyone how important it was to respect and love others, regardless of their differences. The head girl must demonstrate these qualities and lead by example at school and elsewhere.
Angela took the hint. To consolidate her support with the staff, she arranged various staged events during the final week before the election. One was to spend a day with a class of disabled children, helping their teacher with various activities during lessons. On another day, she arranged a lunchtime meet up with some Muslim girls, to learn about their culture and religion. She even agreed to attend an after hours Games Workshop Club, hanging out with a group of nerdy smelly boys.
It was at these events, however, that Angela began to experience something she’d never experienced before. A physical sensation that seemed to rise from her stomach and spread out across her chest, leaving her short of breath and anxious.
Helping in the disabled class had been awful. The teacher was clearly overworked; fraught with stress, unable to cope with her high-pressure role. Angela’s inexperience dealing with disabilities only seemed to exasperate things. It was a long hard day. When she asked if she could get a photograph of herself with the children at the end, the look of contempt on the teacher’s face shot through Angela like a poisoned arrow. The teacher, whose name was Ms McMichael, said in a mocking tone, “Of course, we’ll pop it up on the wall with the others.”
When Angela looked at the wall of photographs, she noticed they all showed a similar scene. The children sat huddled together, smiling and happy. Ms McMichael stood behind them, exuding a joyful expression. The stress lines which marked her face now were nowhere to be seen. There was a noticeable gap, though, like the one in the ice cream parlour. A person was missing from these snapshots; there was a space at the front which shouldn’t be there.
The lunchtime meet-up with the Muslims went badly too. Rather than welcoming Angela’s attention, the girls acted defensive and suspicious. No one had bothered to take an interest in their ways and beliefs before. Not even in the current ‘anti-Islamic’ climate. Instead, they were ridiculed for how they dressed. Accused of despicable things which had nothing to do with their religion. They told Angela she was too late in reaching out to them; isolation was the best thing for them moving forward. They didn’t need girls like Angela prying into their lives, pretending to be interested when they clearly weren’t.
The meeting lasted only twenty minutes. Angela grabbed a sly selfie before being shepherded out into the corridor.
Worried and wracked with guilt, Angela searched for the Muslim girls on Facebook. She found one of them, Fatima, and trawled through her pictures looking for obvious gaps.
Evidence that Carla had been part of their lives. A vital part that had helped them feel accepted and safe. Of course, there were pictures. As recent as two months ago, all five sat together in the canteen smiling at the camera. A chair in the middle of their table was left empty, surrounded by a faint shimmer.
Angela dreaded attending Games Workshop Club. She knew to expect an awkward reception and wasn’t surprised when not even one of the boys dared speak to her. For the whole hour, she spent trying to engage with the group they couldn’t even look her in the eye. She gave up eventually, got her picture and left. Glancing at the collection of photographs on the wall on her way out, and mentally confirming the missing presence amongst them.
The day before the head girl election, on her way to hand in her campaign portfolio which including her essay on why she should be head girl and the photographs she’d taken with the different minority groups, Angela hung heavy with shame. Those disabled kids and their poor teacher were helpless without their star classroom assistant. The Muslim girls craved invisibility without their valued bridge with the rest of the school. And the socially awkward boys risked a lifetime of loneliness without their regular female visitor there helping them gain confidence.
Angela had been wrong about Carla. She wasn’t a lonely loser at all. Carla had friends, lots of different friends, from all walks of life. She didn’t care who they were, what they did, how they dressed or what they believed. The only thing that was important to her was that they liked her, valued her company. Angela had been another one of those people; so convincing in her affection toward Carla that Carla had stuck by her. She’d been a genuine friend when others had drifted away.
Angela came over in a cold sweat, her stomach cramped, and her legs turned to jelly. Fearing she would faint at any moment, she dropped to her knees, discarding her portfolio onto the floor of the corridor. Oh God, Carla, she thought. What has happened? Where have you gone? What terrible things are being done to you? What if someone had done this to her? Wiped her away like an unwelcome stain, then returned to their lives. Head held high, the path to victory secured.
It was then that Angela decided she couldn’t go through with the election. She needed to find her friend. She got back to her feet, wiped dust from her skirt and ran out the nearest door towards home.
TO BE CONTINUED