by David McDonald
Paul’s heart hammered in his chest, his mouth dry, as he leant on the fence and watched the wet laundry flap in the wind. At first glance he had been terribly disappointed to see that the lady of the house had, perhaps deliberately, hung all her sheets on the outside of the line. It served to hide whatever other clothes might have been pegged out to dry on the warm summer day in the suburbs.
He almost turned to walk away, fisted clenched with the effort, when one of the sheets flapped in a gust of wind. Like a curtain twitching to reveal actors getting ready for a show, it lifted just enough for him to see a hint of lacy white, then dropped back into place. His fingers digging painfully into the splintered pine of the railing, Paul waited, hoping for another glimpse.
He made a low, guttural noise in the back of his throat, watching the line begin to turn, the sheets flapping, revealing the clothes behind them. Scattered amongst blouses and slacks were bras, some utilitarian, some lacy and alluring – panties, briefs, G-strings and stockings. Paul’s eyes fixed on them with a fevered intensity, enraptured by the way the garments seemed to dance to their own music, music that the motionless leaves on the surrounding trees couldn’t hear.
The familiar desire rose, and the shame it brought with it, the need to bury his face in the material, to feel soft fabric against his skin. Pleasure and pain mixed as his erection strained against the rough fabric of his jeans, as if struggling to free itself. He looked guiltily around, cringing in anticipation of shouts of outrage, but he was alone. He relaxed, if only slightly.
He still remembered the look of shock and disgust on his mother’s face when she had come home from her weekly shopping unexpectedly and caught him in her room. He stood in front of the mirror, running his hands over the silky fabric of her bra and panties and stockings, admiring how they looked on him. The sound of breaking jars as she dropped her bags of shopping frightened him so badly his bladder let go.
They stood there for a moment, Paul trying to ignore the trickle of piss dribbling down the inside of his leg, forming a puddle on the ground, his mother’s cow-like eyes welling with tears. She hadn’t said a word, and somehow the silence was worse than any words of recrimination. She turned, shoulders slumping as she walked away.
The silences endured for weeks. She still did all the things for him that she always had. She made his bed, changed his sheets, washed his clothes, packed his lunch and sent him off to his job at the workshop. But she would no longer meet his eye and the shadow of his humiliation hung over every moment. Still, she was his Mum and she had started to warm up to him again. Things had almost returned to normal. Then the cops knocked on the door.
The older one barely even spared Paul a glance, crafty glimpses taking in the room as he talked softly to his mum, thumbs hooked casually in the loops that held his straining belt in place under a round belly. The younger one stared at him; big blue eyes fixed on his face as if trying to work him out. She was cute, and Paul licked his lips as he wondered what sort of bra she was wearing. Something plain and boring? Or something lacy and sexy, black maybe, hidden from the world? Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because she shot him a look of pure revulsion.
There had been complaints from the neighbours, the old cop was saying. Washing missing from lines. Did Paul’s mum know anything about it? Was Paul to blame? No, no she said, not my Paul, he was a good boy. He would never do such a thing.
Paul’s nails dug into the skin of his palms. He stopped thinking about what was under the policewoman’s blouse and started considering the things under his mattress. Unable to speak, he could only stand gaping as his Mum agreed to let the police search his room. The older cop pulled it to pieces with a brutal efficiency, its familiarity seeming to shield him from the pitiful sound of maternal sobbing. The younger one never stopped staring at Paul, eyes unblinking even when the mattress fell to the floor and revealed a tangled mess of silk and lace and nylon. She only moved when Paul took a helpless step forward, stopping him as he leaned forward to bury his hands in his treasure.
Paul watched his mother uneasily. He told himself she must have stopped crying, even for a little while, but she was making the same hitching noises that he’d heard as they had dragged him out the front door and he couldn’t shake the thought that she’d never stopped. She’d been waiting, sitting on the benches of the courthouse trying to muffle her sniffles in a plain handkerchief. No lace at all, Paul noticed, disappointed. The judge read out his verdict, using terms like “mild retardation” and “child-like intellect” and “no idea of right and wrong”, words that washed over him, blending into his Mum’s crying.
They let him go, but he didn’t need to understand all the fancy words they yelled at him, like “suspended sentence” or “involuntary commitment”, to realise that if he played with any more of his neighbour’s underwear he would be in big trouble. And there was the look in his Mum’s eyes, the way her mouth pursed shut when she thought he wasn’t looking. He decided he would never go hunting for his treasures again, and maybe things would go back to how they had been before.
But here he was, watching and waiting and imagining how that material would feel on his skin. At least he remembered to go far away from his house, where no one knew him.
Paul looked around again, checking that no one was watching, and began to poke and prod at one of the boards. It seemed looser than the others and he managed to work it out of place. Breathing heavily, he forced his narrow shoulder through the gap, almost panicking when a nail caught his top, ripping it and leaving a long, shallow scratch along his protruding ribs. With a mighty wrench he was through, tumbling into the yard and landing in touching distance of one of the sheets, blue flowers hanging in front of his wide eyes.
Almost as if it was teasing him, the edge of the sheet fluttered, and he could see beyond it. He moaned softly at the sight. More underwear than he had ever seen in one place hung there, all sizes and shapes and styles, some light enough to move back and forth, others held still by their weight. He ignored the little voice that was asking why one household would have so much laundry, the time for even the little reasoning he was capable of was long gone.
He stood, pulled the sheet aside and stepped into the cool shadows under the wires, let the linen fall back into place, hiding him from view. It reminded him of the tent he played in as a child, before his Dad was sent away for doing things no one would talk about, except in muttered whispers. It made him feel safe, secure, hidden from unfriendly eyes and the names people would yell at him if they saw what he was doing.
Right before him was a black, lacy bra, exactly what he imagined that policewoman might have been wearing. For a moment he could almost reach out and touch her, seeing her standing in front of him, that look wiped off her face and replaced by the respect he deserved. He reached out a shaking hand, fingers closing on the soft fabric, groaning deep in his throat as he rubbed it gently. With a shake of his head, he stopped himself. There were so many others to touch, to feel, and he reluctantly started to relax his grip.
He frowned. His fingers wouldn’t come free. It wasn’t as if they weren’t moving, he could see the tendons flexing and his knuckles whitening. The fabric would not let him go. He tugged and pulled, beginning to panic.
As he struggled to free himself, he staggered into a plain pair of white cotton briefs, the material wrapping around his forearm. He shrieked as pain raced up his veins, sinking deep as if needles were burying themselves into his flesh, each flare of agony a step ahead of the flowers of blood blooming on the material. He lurched to his right and there was a hissing noise as a pair of red lacy suspender stockings entwined themselves around his waist, smoke rising as the bottom of his t-shirt dropped away from the rest, ending up around his ankles.
Fresh agony erupted where the stockings gripped him, and Paul threw back his head to scream. The last sight that filled his despairing eyes was a multitude of red glowing eyes and a forest of gleaming, razor sharp teeth.
If anyone had been paying attention, they might have been able to keep a count of the endless days that guttered out into night with nothing to set them apart, no sign that there had ever been anything more to see than just another unremarkable clothesline standing in an unremarkable backyard. No one gave a second glance to a sight indistinguishable from a hundred others all around it.
Long years had made it cunning and honed its instincts for the hunt. It had hoarded an endless array of tricks and mastered the art of knowing which one to use in any situation. Such was its deadly artistry that even the most observant quarry would only ever see what it allowed them to. The moment it had taken its prey it settled into a state of statue like immobility, its only movements a natural swaying in the wind.
Even the insolence of unwary birds, oblivious to the danger beneath them, perching on its wires and daubing them with their droppings could pass by unanswered. The illusion was impenetrable, and day after day it gave not a single sign of being anything other than what it seemed. The change, when it came, came without warning.
Despite the overcast sky, the metal wires and frame began to sag as if melting under a thousand summer suns. Within minutes all that remained was a puddle of thick, grey liquid that rippled sluggishly as it slowly moved across the patchy lawn towards the welcoming darkness below the weatherboard house.
In what passed for its mind it savoured the memory of the rich stew of the prey’s emotions, first the aching need and anticipation, then the fear and terror and pain. It had been a rich feast, but it could already feel the first stirrings of hunger. Soon, it would need to feed.
Delicately, it began to weave an intricate net of mental energy, opening itself to the constant ebb and flow of human thought and emotion that throbbed and resonated around it. Filaments of thought extended in an ever-widening web, searching for the right mix of need and vulnerability.
There. It shuddered with delight as it took in a very different flavour to its last meal, with none of heady carnal impulses that had seasoned that prey’s compulsion. But what it lacked in complexity it made up for in sheer unblinking focus. The purity of it was intoxicating, and it took a deliberate effort of will to find the focus it needed. Slowly, but surely, it began to explore the shape of this new desire, its body already beginning the slow process of moulding itself into the image of the irresistible lure that would deliver its next feast.
The sound of tinkling music filled the air and Marie dropped her doll on the freshly cut lawn, leaping to her feet in excitement.
“Ice cream, Mommy!” she yelled, voice shrill with excitement. “Ice cream.”
No answer came from the house, and Marie pouted. By the time her mother came out the ice cream truck might be gone. It wasn’t fair.
Marie’s eyes gleamed as a thought came to her. She had her pocket money and she was a big girl now. She could get her ice cream herself and be back before Mommy could even yell at her. She skipped down the driveway and out into the street, stopping with a frown.
Where were all the other children? The ice cream truck sat alone, engine idling, “Greensleeves” pumping from its speakers. But, no one else was in sight, not even a smiling old man behind the window. Marie pushed aside her unease, it just meant more for her! She crossed the road, looking both ways like Mommy had told her and stepped up to the counter.
As she was about to count out her coins a splash of colour glimpsed out the corner of her eye captured her attention. Magpie-like she forgot everything else for a moment, turning to follow the shiny banner dancing playfully in the wind. She stared at it for a moment before she was able to make sense of what was tied to the antennae. Marie giggled at the sight of one of the funny things Mummy wore under her clothes, knowing that it was vaguely naughty but not exactly why. She remembered how Mummy had told her that you shouldn’t let people see them, that they were private, but here one was where everyone could see it.
She would worry about the puzzle later, but it was already being pushed to the back of her mind by thoughts of ice cream. Grinning happily in anticipation of the cold sweet taste explosion she loved more than anything, Marie placed her hand on the bell, ringing it once like she’d been taught before reaching for her money. She barely had time to wonder why her hand wouldn’t come unstuck before the pain began.
About the Author
David McDonald is a mild mannered editor by day, and a wild eyed writer by night. Based in Melbourne, Australia, he works for an international welfare organisation, and divides his spare time between playing cricket and writing.
In 2013 he won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent, and in 2014 won the William J. Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review and was shortlisted for the WSFA Small Press Award. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from publishers such as Moonstone Books, Crazy 8 Press and Fablecroft Publishing. In 2015, his first movie novelisation, Backcountry, was released by Harper Collins, and his first Marvel novel—Guardians of the Galaxy:Castaways—was published in August 2016.
David is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and of the Melbourne based writers group, SuperNOVA.