Short Fiction - Wanton Anne

Benjamin Britworth

The storm scattered rain across the plains. The climate, though mild, had a slight chill of winter, as though the seasons were preparing to turn. The weather is always a sign of things to come, Anne-Marie thought, Always has been, always will be. 
She sat on the porch, a cup of tea clutched in one hand. The cup was held in a delicate balance, somewhere between standing upright and spilling out. As her aged nerves fought to keep control of her fingers, the murky liquid shivered within.
Her pallid face fixated through the screen mesh at an approaching carriage. No-one ever came out this way, not since the new road was opened on the other side of town. There was no reason to take the old road, unless of course someone intended on visiting her daughter, Janey, the Sanderson couple, or her. And considering the Sandersons were both six feet under, and her daughter worked all day, there was even less reason. The world had forgotten her little house, and left her to enjoy the peace of her old age in private. It suited her just fine.
Anne-Marie eased out of her chair, feeling as though she should get a closer look at the unexpected approaching party. Her bones creaked something awful. Life out in the wilds had been tough on her. It had scarred and battered her body over time. Nonetheless she was pugnacious, and had risen to overcome all such inconsequential pains to meet the merits of old age. Such is life: it giveth and taketh in equal measure. She was happy in this latter stage, if not for want of some well earned rest.
She breathed steady, moved forward and pressed one hand against the mesh. The teacup hung forgotten in the other, the majority of its contents having made the inevitable journey to the decking. Who could this be? She thought, The post has already been. Perhaps it's someone to see Janey?
She cricked her neck, and croaked into the house, “Janey? Someone's a coming...”
Silence echoed back, and she remembered Janey had gone to work in Main Street. Whoever this unexpected caller was she would have to greet them herself.
Anne-Marie squinted her eyes as the carriage approached, all the better to see it. It was painted black, besides from a gold floral carved into the wood. Four black horses, their eyes blinkered, were harnessed before it. She recognised it as similar to carriages from her youth; the sort of four-in-handers that had been popular before cars came into their own.
Despite the familiarity of the carriage Anne-Marie sensed there was something off about it, and, while musing what this peculiarity might be, she stumbled across the realisation that there was no driver dictating from the perch. There was empty space where he should have been sitting. As such the horses' reins lay loose and disregarded, tangling and bouncing off-of the bridleway below. The horses, it seemed, were leading themselves. Anne-Marie found her eyes widen at this unusual vision and, in doing so, noticed the carriage weave as it drove, almost as though it could fall at any moment. It's a wonder it doesn't upend itself, She thought irritably, So irresponsible of the owner to let the horses wander by themselves. I should really try to stop it, I'm sure they'd thank me.
With the intention of going down to the road in her mind, she edged her way along the porch and pushed the net door open. She touched the netting, about to open it wide, when the carriage pulled to an abrupt stop outside the white picket marking the perimeter of her property.
The dust settled.
One of the horses bayed and tossed its blinkered head, its pearly teeth visible as it whinnied.
Anne-Marie blinked. Her lip faltered, and she called out, “Hullo...? Can I help you?”
She waited for a reply, A customary return greeting perhaps?
Several long beats passed and then, as if in answer, the carriage door pinged open. The rain abated, quite as if it had been commanded to do so, and a pearl of thunder sailed across the plains. The thunder curtailed, and a severe man stepped from the carriage's dim interior.
Anne-Marie looked over this shadowy figure, and felt herself shiver; yet it was not an uncomfortable shiver. No, to be true, it was a shiver more like those experienced in the lustful nights of her youth: nights of passion, pleasure and wanting. That feeling, that she long believed dead, was suddenly re-ignited and she inhaled sharply. Her hand, that had already been lax on the tea cup, dropped it altogether. The china hit the decking and shattered.
The man who stood on the step of the carriage wore a thick black coat, while a pair of twisted old spectacles rested on the bridge of his pointed nose. Dense black hair fell in curled rat tails about his chiseled face and his lips were drawn tight. Anne-Marie, standing in her nighty, felt under dressed in comparison.
In one move, he alighted from the coach, opened the white gate and started up the house's pathway, his boots biting the gravel with every step.
Anne-Marie stumbled backwards. She was suddenly nervous, unsure what this visitor wanted. What could he need from me or this house? She thought, Why is he here? Now? One of her feet pressed down onto a fragment of the china tea cup. A heavy crunch was met with a quick glisten of red. For some reason she didn't feel the pain. It was as if it were irrelevant in the presence of this figure.
A fat thought bled into her mind: This man is trouble. In that she feared him.
Rocking on her feet she started forward again. More china cracked beneath her, followed by further crimson rubies erupting from her skin. She fumbled with the door's catch whilst hearing herself speak in a crackling tone, “Go away. There ain't nobody home!”
The man was on the other side of the netting now, his face close, separated only by the translucent fabric. She stopped scrabbling, her hands hanging mid-motion, and looked at him. His eyes... His beautiful blue eyes. She had not seen them clear until now, not with his glasses and hair masking them. Yet now they radiated, and she saw the irises were fresh and cleansing as rain. She breathed, a faint whisper of that shivering lust creeping back into her thigh.
The man spoke silkily, his accent uncommon. It sounded distant and elusive, “May I come in? I won't be here for long, of that I can promise you.”
He was requesting, not demanding, entry...
“Yes, I guess...” she replied. Her hand slid from the catch and she backed off.
Sickening crunches squealed from her feet.
“You seem to have injured yourself?” he inquired, concerned.
The mesh door clinked, and he stepped through.
“I... Oh, yes,” she said, looking down at the bloody footprints staining the deck.
The man bit his lip, like a kid when worried, then brought his brilliant blue gaze back to hers.
“Would it be alright if I fetched a glass of water?” he asked, his accent dry, “I'm awful thirsty.”
Anne-Marie smiled, “Why yes... that'd be just fine. I could fetch it for you, if you liked?”
She turned to head into the house when the man clapped a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“There's no need. Really, I can assure you. I'll be able to manage myself,” he said, stepping past her and through the front door.
Her eyes followed him as he went. She was transfixed.
Anne-Marie didn't move from the spot the entire time the man was inside. Her feet were damp and sticky with the blood, but she didn't mind, she was enamored. Her world had become light, its edges hazed.
In a dreamlike passing, her line of sight was drawn out in the direction of the carriage. One of the horses stubbed the ground with its hoof. A stranger sight as any, she thought, and chuckled.
The man reappeared with a glass of water in one hand. In the other was a bowl filled with water, while a towel draped over his arm. Neither the glass, nor the bowl, shed a drop of water as he moved. This feat, though trivial, displayed the man's immeasurable pensivity, and Anne-Marie was soothed to see it.
“Would you care to sit down?” he said.
“Who, me?” she replied, “That'd be lovely. My feet do seem to be aching an awful much. Things get like that when you're old, but you just got to carry on as best you can.”
She made her way across the porch and slowly reclined in her cosy chair. The man seemed unperturbed by her ignorance, almost as though he had seen such inertia a thousand times before.
Without so much as a raised eyebrow he brought over the bowl of water and set it down on the decking. With one long gulp he swallowed the glass of water, and breathed a rattled gasp, “I do so like water. It clears all the senses. Don't you think?”
“Hmm...?” Anne-Marie mumbled, she had gone back to watching the horses.
The animals' heads hung low, as if they were very tired. It almost looked as if they were about to kneel down.
The man cleared his throat, and said, “Considering your service to me, by permitting me this glass of water, may I return the favor by washing and binding your feet?”
“Wash my feet? Why would you want'a do a thing like that?”
The wounds dripped on.
“Returning a favor is the done thing, is it not?”
Anne-Marie thought, What a strange request...? But it would be nice to be touched by him, before saying, “Oh, I suppose if you must, you must. They don't half ache.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” he said with a nod.
Right away, he knelt down and handled her bloodied feet with his bare hands, beginning the cleaning process by removing the broken china. After pulling out a piece he would drop it, with a small plop, in the bowl of water. Drops of blood dispersed out across the water and dissolved.
Anne-Marie closed her eyes and lent her head back. Maybe she had been wrong about this man being bad, maybe he's just another wilding?
Once he cleared all visible china, he cupped his hands under the water, brought them up, and let flow over each foot. Slowly, through this process, he washed away the bloodied dirt caking her toes.
“Do you know,” Anne-Marie said, with her eyes still closed, “It has been a long time since I was last bathed by another. It must have been when I was a little girl, and my mother gave me baths by the hearth in an old tin tub.”
“That was before you had running water, I'd imagine?”
“Yes, you know, it was. We had no plumbing in this house until I was married, the fitting was a wedding present from my husband's folks. Fine people they were, fine people...” she whiled, giving a reflective grin of the past, “My husband was a serious man. Never a toe out of line. He worked hard all of his life.”
“I'm sure he did.”
The blood drained through the cracks in the decking, while her feet slowed their bleeding to an unsteady drip.
A roll of thunder grumbled from far off.
Anne-Marie bent forward in the chair. Her wispy hair, having fallen from its bun, now laid about her face. Intent charm flooded her face, and she asked the man, “Do I know you? I feel as if we've been friends for years?”
He, having finished washing her feet, peered up. A small smile inclined his lips. His white teeth glowed, and he replied, “Oh Anne, you've known me your whole life.” His head shook as he spoke, as if the question she asked was one of foolish innocence.
She lent back again, resting against the pillowed folds of the chair, her expression turned to certainty. “I thought I knew you,” she said, Strange, I don't remember meeting before.”
“Not many remember me. I usually go forgotten, hidden out of plain sight. My life is easier that way,” he said, pulling a roll of clean bandages from his jacket and winding them round each of Anne-Marie's swollen feet. He smiled, adding, “I do remember seeing you though. You used to play in this garden as a child. I remember your first kiss... and your first loss. I remember your wedding, your daughter's birth, and your husband's death. I remember your prom, that day the roof leaked, the miscarriage... You just don't remember me.”
Anne-Marie was perplexed. She frowned, and asked, “So why am I seeing you now?”
He grinned, saying, “I needed a glass of water, that was all.”
Anne-Marie was dissatisfied with this response but didn't feel it would be polite to ask further questions. Instead she gazed out at the carriage. The horses had lain down, stretching their tethers to breaking point. They hung like puppets from the wooden beam, or more rather dead men from the noose.
While Anne-Marie was preoccupied watching the horses, the man tied small knots in each of the bandages so they wouldn't slip off her ankles. He finished, and washed his hands in the bowl of red-tainted water, drying them on the towel.
“Your horses don't look so good,” Anne-Marie said, tapping him on the shoulder.
He stood up, whilst still drying his hands, and peered out at the horses. When he replied his tone was relaxed, almost uncaring, “No, I don't suppose they are all that well. I doubt they'll be alive much longer.”
“Is there anything we can do? What's the matter with them?”
The man didn't reply.
A breeze caught the long grasses, bowing them on their side, and the clouds cleared to let the sun glint through onto the plains.
After a long pause the man spoke, “Not long left now.”
“Till what?”
“Until I have to leave.”
Quite like his words were a signal, the carriage began to smoke and flames licked from inside it. The horses did not respond to the fire. They did not jump or frenzy. Instead they hung from their haunches and were consumed.
“I'll be leaving now,” the man said, “It was nice to have finally met you.”
“You're going so soon...? But I don't even know your name, or who you are-?”
“Names are not important. What's important is that you acknowledged me,” he replied and moved towards the screen door.
“Please, don't go!” she whined, feeling a sense of true lose slip through her.
It was as if to loose this man would be to wrench out her heart.
“But I have to go,” he laughed, “Don't despair, I'll still see you now and then.”
“-Will I see you?”
“I doubt it,” he replied, and exited.
The screen door pinged closed, and he walked down the path.
Once more Anne-Marie tried to stand, yet her feet were still too painful. Darn this old age! she thought in anger.
The carriage burned something ferocious. She tried to keep sight of him as he walked away, and managed to do so until he came abreast of the carriage. Here black smoke engulfed him and, like some magic trick, he disappeared. She watched until the carriage'd burned to ash. With a strong gust of wind, the ash blew into the stratosphere, all sign of it ever being there obliterated.
Only after this final stage did Anne-Marie see her daughter's car, way off in the distance. What will Janey make of this? she wondered, and tried to stand one last time.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means – graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems – without the prior permission in writing of the Author. This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.