Jock’s folding his pyjamas back under his pillow when he hears it. A low, growling hiss. His twin daughters are elsewhere, probably playing in the walls, so it’s just him and the mannequin dressed as his wife in the bedroom. He’s searching for the source of the noise when the duvet shifts on the bed. It’s a slight movement, like wind-ruffled marram grass, but it’s something. Carefully, he pulls back the covers, revealing the green and yellow-chevroned scales of a king cobra.
“Girls,” he says. “Stay out of the bedroom for the moment, will you?”
The cobra tastes the air with a flick of its tongue. Rising up, it flares its hood and bares its fangs. Jock holds his arms up defensively, level with his jaw. His skin is bullet proof but he has soft spots, same as everyone else. And those fangs look like they might hurt.
“What are you doing, Daddy?” asks Maggie. His daughter steps out of the wall between their bedrooms as if it weren’t there, her chin bearded with chocolate mousse. “What are you doing with my toy snake?”
Jock lowers his arms and blinks twice. Lying on his bed, partially hidden between the rumples in the sheets, is Maggie’s rubber python. The one her grandmother bought for her after a visit to the zoo.
Maggie’s twin sister, Mathilda, giggles as she dances through the wall to join them. And then they both flee the room, squealing “Don’t tickle us, Daddy!” Which means, of course, there’s nothing they want more.
After their mother died, Jock moved the twins to the Hebrides to keep them out of trouble until their powers settled. He’d spent much of his own childhood on the islands for the same reason. Flaming tantrums and crawling up the walls. Sleeping exactly like the dead. One day he told his girls off for standing too close to the television and the next day he found them standing inside it. And then they started to explore their newest power. In a copse of sessile oak, he closed his eyes and counted to ten while they skipped away and hid. When he opened his eyes, the trees were flexing their branches and stretching their roots as if waking up from a hundred-year nap.
Then they came for him.
He’d ripped off half a dozen gnarly limbs before the girls appeared, giggling, saying it was “only pretend”.
Outside his bedroom window, the sun sinks into a smoky haze, sucking the light from the sky as another day sheds its skin. A coal fire crackles in the lounge and the whole cottage smells of griddled sausages and baked beans. In his bedroom, the twins help him sit the mannequin on his bed so they can all have a story. Wrapped in matching dressing gowns, they cuddle into him while he reads. Anyone glancing in from the outside would see a family of four, all cosied up at bedtime. But if they looked closer, they’d realise one member of the family is made of plastic.
When he’s finished the story, Jock shows the girls some old family photos. Pictures of their mum trying on her superhero costume for the first time when she thought no one was looking. In a hospital gown with a chubby-faced twin in each arm. Pushing the double buggy around the pond and feeding the cygnets and swans.
Life is easier now they’ve stopped expecting their mum to come home but he wishes they could remember her. How she was before sepsis did what their enemies couldn’t. How she was before she was poisoned by her own immune system.
“She was always the strong one,” he says when it’s time for bed. His daughters sag in his arms as he carries them through to their room. “Now don’t you two go turning that mannequin into your mummy, okay?”
“Goodnight, Daddy,” they say between yawns, and he pulls their duvet covers up tight around their shoulders.
Back in his room, he lies down next to the mannequin and imagines having one more moment with his wife. One more cuddle, one more kiss.
A chance to say: “I’m sorry.
“I’m doing my best.
“I love you.
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