This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
First published in SEEDS, T. Wood – Wild Wood Books, 2021
It wasn’t the clack of her designer heels drumming the hardwood floor that alerted Marian to her boss’ presence, but the unusual, slightly musky aroma that always heralded her arrival. She could never place exactly what it was; maybe the scent of the hand cream Phyllis was always rubbing into her palms, or perhaps the remnants of an expensive, favourite perfume bought so many years ago that it had degraded and expired. Whatever it was, it made her sinuses ache like a rotten tooth might throb with decay.
The smell grew stronger as Phyllis entered the tiny office and paused in front of Marian’s desk.
“How are you getting on?” she asked.
Marian gave a despondent wave at the cardboard files piled around her. “There’s still a heck of a lot to do.”
Phyllis tutted in commiseration. “These last-minute accounts always come flooding in before the new tax year begins. I don’t know why people never learn.”
Marian grimaced. It wasn’t simply the clients who left things to the last minute; Phyllis did a lot of that herself. Fourteen years in this role and not much had improved from the very first year she had begun. Names and faces and roles had changed, as people had come and gone, but the systemic disorganisation stayed the same. Despite that, the job was decent, and the pay was satisfactory.
Better the devil you know, Marian thought, than trying to find something new at my age.
“Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Phyllis asked.
“I doubt it,” she replied.
Phyllis cleared her throat and perched gingerly on the only available free space on the desk. Marian knew immediately what was coming.
“Rupert is back in the country with his family—that’s my eldest son, you know—and Patricia, his eldest, is going to study Anthropology at the university here. Can you imagine? Anyway, I thought we might all go out for dinner…”
“Do you want me to stay later?”
Phyllis let out a sigh of relief. “Would you, Marian? I’d appreciate that a great deal. If you can get the Avalon account in order, it would help us out a lot.”
Marian checked her wristwatch and chewed the inside of her lip. There were three invoice-stuffed box files set aside for Avalon. It meant another couple of hours of work, at least.
She looked up at Phyllis’s hopeful face. Her smell was almost overpowering.
“Sure, I can do that. But you owe me,” she said with a forced, jovial smile, trying to mask her frustration.
“Thank you, Marian,” Phyllis said, rising and straightening her blouse. “You’ll be paid overtime, of course!”
Like that’ll ever happen, Marian thought, but she kept smiling until her cheeks began to hurt.
Phyllis said goodbye and swept out of the office, leaving her scent to linger. Marian switched on her desktop fan and ushered the cloying odour out the door. She tapped a message on her phone to George, her husband, telling him she would be home late, then scrolled through her favourite playlist and turned up the volume full blast. The small speaker blared electro-industrial music around the beige, bland office, and she sang along as the lyrics began. What would Phyllis think?she wondered. A respectable accountant in a dress suit and blonde bob, rocking out to the goth bands of her youth.
It was past nine o’clock when she rubbed the crick out of her neck and stretched the tension from her shoulders. If she locked up now, she could catch the 9:20 bus home. If she missed that, it would be a half-hour walk.
She’d dealt with the Avalon account as best as she could, but it had raised questions only Phyllis could answer. She powered down her laptop and tidied her desk. The rest was a job for Future Marian to deal with on Monday morning.
The sky was dark and the air thick with drizzle as she stepped out into the alley. The premises were a far cry from the image used on the firm’s website, one that depicted an impressive redbrick facade. With the bulk of their clients finding them online, a classy website and PO Box was all that was needed. The offices themselves were above a Chinese takeaway, and the delicious smell of fresh noodles and stir-fried meat made her stomach grumble in yearning.
No time for that if she wanted to catch the bus. She locked the door and slipped the keys into her bag.
The food smells faded, replaced by something putrid; an acrid mixture like stale urine mixed with rotten tomatoes. She turned to the dumpster at the back of the alley, expecting to see its lid left open, but it was firmly closed. Besides, the stench seemed to emanate from somewhere behind her. Somewhere near her right shoulder…
The leather straps cut into the top of her arm as her handbag was yanked from her grasp. She yelped and tried to stop it, catching a strap in one hand. The smell was so powerful it made her eyes water, and she could barely see her assailant through her tears. It was a man, she could determine that much; early twenties, slightly built, shaved head, and matching chin. Jeans, T-shirt, casual but plain. A regular, normal guy.
“Give me the fucking bag!” he demanded. “Come on, you stupid bitch. I’ve got a knife!”
She had no reason to doubt him, but despite her fear, she couldn’t bear to let go. The bag contained many irreplaceable items that she always carried around with her. Photos, notes, little trinkets and favours, even her powder compact had a story. She couldn’t let this foul-smelling thief get his hands all over them. Things he would tip into the filthy gutter as he searched for her cash and phone. Her shock and fear turned to anger. Indignation that he’d thought she was an easy mark.
“No! Leave me alone!” she yelled back at him and wrenched the bag from his hands. The force made him stumble. She was far stronger than he expected, and he almost slipped on the damp concrete floor. He rallied and came back swinging, burying his fist into her stomach. She groaned and recoiled in agony, but the pain made her even angrier.
She dropped the bag to the floor and grabbed his throat in her fist, forcing him back against the wall. He squirmed and scrabbled, desperate to get free, as she curled her fingers on either side of his trachea and squeezed as hard as she could. His face flushed purple and his eyeballs bulged as he fought for every breath.
“How dare you,” she hissed at him, her arm locked and outstretched, his toes barely grazing the floor. “How very fucking dare you!”
The bus had long gone by the time she’d reached the stop. She’d had little choice but to take a sodden walk home. She heard raised voices as she put her key in the lock. Emma and Paul, her two teenaged children, were arguing at the other end of the house. George was fast asleep in front of the TV, mouth agape and snoring, oblivious to the aggravation. She hung her coat and handbag on a hook by the door, kicked off her shoes and called out a greeting. No one bothered to reply.
There was a pile of used dishes dumped in the kitchen sink, the remnants of a frozen pizza abandoned on the hob. An open bottle of cola was going flat on the worktop, two dirty glasses by its side. She sighed and began loading plates into the dishwasher. George ambled into the kitchen, yawning and wiping drool from his chin. She leaned in towards him and he kissed her on the cheek.
“Hello, love,” he said sleepily. “You’re late back.”
“I texted you to let you know.”
“You did, even so, it’s…” he glanced at the kitchen clock, “almost half-past ten. Have you been working all this time?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but Paul cut her off before she could answer.
“Mom! Emma has been using my X-Box without asking and she’s deleted all of my saved games!”
“It’s not just yours!” Emma shouted from the hallway. “It’s both of ours! Mum, tell him!”
“Kids, please,” George intervened. “Your mum’s had a long day. Leave her alone.”
“Yes, I’ve had a very long day and you two need to get in here and clean up this mess. I want a shower and I want to go to bed.”
“What about dinner?” George asked and picked up the cold pizza tray. “You want to heat this in the microwave?”
Marian baulked as her stomach lurched. “No. I’m okay. I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve already eaten?”
“I… I’m just not hungry. Emma, get your butt in here and help your brother! Any more arguing and the X-Box goes on eBay.”
She padded down the hall to the bathroom, closed the door and undressed. A livid, purple bruise blossomed beneath her ribcage, and she grimaced both in pain and at the memory. She stripped out of her blouse and saw a dark stain on the cuff, tutted and ran it under the cold tap.
Sara pressed the button with a pink polished fingernail and the espresso machine gurgled into life. The smell of finely ground and over-priced organic coffee wafted through the impeccable kitchen.
“So, how are you?” Sara asked, placing a full mug on the breakfast bar. “It feels like weeks since I’ve last seen you.”
Marian took a careful sip before replying. The coffee was strong and very hot. “I think it has been weeks. I’ve been so busy lately. Work, home, the kids, you know? Well, not the kids.”
Sara was, as she had once put it, ‘deliciously child and husband-free, and absolutely zero regrets.’ Marian wondered if that was why, at fifty-two and almost ten years older than her, her friend still frequently looked ten years younger. Far fewer wrinkles for a start. Not a hint of any grey hairs.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
Sara peered at her over the top of her mug. “Of course you can, darling. Ask away.”
“How old were you when you started going through the change?”
“The change? You mean menopause?”
“It’s not a dirty word you know, darling.”
“I know. Sorry. Silly of me.”
Sara put down her mug and knitted her fingers in her lap. “I was forty-six when I first noticed it. My God, I was so tired and slow all the time, I felt like a bloody slug.” She chuckled. “I must have gone through seven or eight cups of coffee a day and I was still utterly exhausted. Then the insomnia hit around the same time and I was lucky if I got four hours of good sleep a night. I think the hot flashes were a comfort, to be honest; I’d convinced myself there must be something terribly wrong with me, that maybe I was dying, but my doctor said it was all perfectly normal.
“Why do you ask? You’re not there already, are you? You’re only, what? Forty-one?”
“Forty-three,” Marian corrected. “I’m not sure. I definitely feel different.”
“That seems rather early, but then I knew a girl at university who started in her twenties. Mother Nature can be so unkind to some of us. So, what is it? Irregular periods? Boobs hurting more? Oh no, you’re not leaking when you sneeze, are you? ‘Squat, not bend,’ is what I tell all my lady friends. You want to keep your pelvic floor in good shape.”
“No. This is more…” Marian paused, unsure how much to admit. “Well, hair changes, for one.”
“Going grey, you mean?”
“Hair in unusual places, mostly. And a lot of it.”
Sara sipped coffee and nodded sagely. “That’s normal. You should see the length of the ones I pluck out of my chin. It’s like a magician’s handkerchief trick. They just keep on coming!”
“Umm, I can smell things a lot more strongly than I used to. Perfume. Cutlery. People smell different.”
“Also, not unusual. That’s hormones for you.”
“I suppose. But I get so angry sometimes. I mean, irrationally so. Little things set me off and I can’t control myself. And then after, it’s like I can’t even remember what got me so worked up.”
Sara reached out and patted her arm. “Darling, you have to think of this as a second puberty. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but your body is going through some massive changes and not all of them are fun. But think of the freedom you’ll have afterwards.” She wriggled in her seat and grew suddenly animated. “Do you know the best thing about being a woman over forty, Marian?”
“Umm… Better life stability?”
“No! You have no more fucks left to give!” Marian laughed despite herself. It was hard to imagine Sara ever giving any fucks unless she chose to.
“You can be yourself, Marian,” Sara continued. “Unapologetically. No more squeezing yourself into boxes that don’t fit that someone else has built for you. No more caring if you’re too fat or too thin or if you’re ‘pretty’ enough. You can stop doing all that pointless, time-consuming grooming that society says you should, just so you can be seen as ‘desirable’. Fuck it, I say! Let it all hang out and who cares what anyone else thinks!” Sara pointed at her excitedly. “Let me tell you, darling, women over forty are terrifying. In a good way! We are fierce and vibrant, and we don’t worry about taking up space. Embrace that! Believe me, it’s refreshing.
“Not to mention, sex is so much better when you don’t have to worry about pregnancy anymore.” She winked and Marian blushed.
“I just have no frame of reference for this stuff.”
“What about your mother? When did she go through it?”
“I’ve no idea. My parents split up around that time and she took herself solo around the world on ‘a journey of self-discovery,’ as she called it.”
“Good for her,” Sara said, and raised her mug as if making a toast. “And what about Grandma?”
“Similar sort of story. She left Grandpa on his own and went away to take care of her sick sister. I know it’s strange, but I don’t know what experiences they had.”
“You’ve never talked about it?”
“No. We’re not that kind of family.”
Sara fiddled with her necklace absentmindedly. “Well, maybe it’s time you are. You never know, Mum might have some useful insights.”
Marian stared at the words on her mobile, trying to make sense of what they said. She’d thought it best to try sending a text first. Her mother had a habit of manipulating telephone calls and steering the conversation how she wanted it. A text had seemed easier. More to the point.
“Hi Mum. How are you? Sorry it’s been a while,” she’d typed. “I was wondering, can I talk to you about what you went through with the change? I think I might have started it myself.”
She hadn’t expected such a speedy reply, and certainly not such an odd one.
“Oh, dear. I’d hoped it would skip you.”
She’d replied straight away, “What do you mean?”
Five minutes passed, but no response. With shaking hands, although she wasn’t sure why, she pulled up her mother’s number and pressed dial. The line rang and rang but remained unanswered.
“Damn it! What are you playing at, Mum?”
“Call me, please,” she messaged back, before tucking the phone into a sports belt at her waist and pushing her headphones into her ears. It was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon. A run would help clear her mind.
She pulled on her sneakers, tied the laces tight and adjusted the hems of her leggings. The local park was only ten minutes away; she could take a brisk walk through suburbia and then run laps on the green. Five K to begin, maybe push it to ten if she still had something left in the tank. Her usual weekend exercise.
Lately, though, even ten K had felt easy. Her body felt stronger and more capable of being pushed to harder limits. She was curious just how long could she keep going. Before it felt even close to a challenge.
She called out a goodbye to Emma and Paul and pulled the front door closed. All she had seen of George since she’d returned from Sara’s was his feet underneath the family SUV. He had grunted a half-hearted greeting and then sworn as he dropped his spanner. It had seemed best to leave him to it.
Her walk had warmed her body up nicely by the time she reached the park gates. Surprisingly for such a lovely day, the green was almost empty. An older couple were walking together, and a young woman was doing timed sprints. She chose her favourite playlist on her phone, hit play, and began to run.
She was three laps down when she noticed him. A movement in the corner of her left eye.
He was running, not quite beside her, trying to match her pace. She was faster than he was with an easy rhythm, but him being so close made her wary. She sped up to increase the distance between them. He faltered for a second before doing the same, and she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. As she ran, she scanned the park for other people. The older couple were over on the other side now, and the woman appeared to have left. She glanced to her side to see his mouth move and realised he was trying to talk to her. She gestured to her headphones and shook her head, not even breaking her stride. Even this didn’t dissuade him.
He was younger than her, mid-thirties, she supposed. Stocky and broad-shouldered, with long, blonde hair scraped back into a messy topknot. He wore a black singlet and baggy shorts, both of which showed off his impressive physique.
A gym rat, she guessed, from his bulging muscles. Biceps and quadriceps gained from lifting weights, not from running laps. Nonetheless, he was clearly a capable runner, and eager to make her acquaintance.
A few meters from the gate, she slowed and stopped, hoping he would carry on without her. Instead, he stopped too and carried on talking, standing far closer than she was comfortable. She yanked the headphones from her ears, felt her body tremble with adrenaline.
“Step back!” she ordered him.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “—because your form is amazing and—”
“I said, step back!” she repeated, holding out her arm. This time he reacted.
“Woah, hold on. I was just…”
“I don’t care what you were doing. I was running and you got in my space. This park is massive, and you had no reason to do that. Now leave me alone and let me run in peace.”
“Jesus, lady. What’s wrong with you? I was complimenting you.”
“Yeah. I don’t need your compliments, thanks.”
She saw the change in his eyes, in his posture.
“Whatever. Fucking bitch.” He leaned forward and spat a glob of white foam. She watched as it arced, almost in slow motion, before coming to rest on her shoe.
She couldn’t hear what it was he said after that over the shrill ringing that filled her ears.
A red wave of rage rose and surged, filling her every muscle and sinew. Her heart boomed a heavy, hollow echo, deep inside her chest. She clenched her fists and tensed her jaw. All involuntary, uncontrollable reactions. Her skin felt taut, like a too-small jacket, restricting her every move. She longed to peel it off.
She could smell the stink of him filling the air, a heady mixture of musk and sweat. And something else, something rancid and overpowering. A scent that triggered startling emotions. Urges that she didn’t expect.
“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” she growled, trying to keep her voice steady. There was no one else in the park now. Only him and her, alone. “I wish you’d just stepped back.”
George and Paul had gone out to the hardware store by the time Marian returned home. Emma was engrossed in a teen drama on the TV and hardly bothered to acknowledge her presence. She hurried to the kitchen and flung open the fridge, ripping at the first packet she found. The cellophane tore and she bit into the contents; the juices dribbling down her chin. She sank to her knees and sprawled on the floor, chewing loudly, and groaning with pleasure. A noise from the doorway made her jump.
“Mum? Are you okay? Is that…?”
She realised, as if for the first time, what she was holding. Beefsteak. Bloody and completely raw, almost entirely devoured.
“Don’t worry, Emma,” she replied, her mouth crammed with chunks of unswallowed meat. “This happened when I was pregnant too. It’s just the change, you know? It’s just hormones.”
The alley by her office was cordoned off with yellow police tape when she arrived at work on Monday. Phyllis had texted to warn her, to tell her to use the back entrance through the takeaway. She held her breath as she walked; the stench of old oil made her feel sick. Phyllis greeted her at the door to the office. Her boss smelled even stronger than usual.
“What happened out there?” Marian asked.
“Oh, it’s terrible. They found a body in the dumpster in the alley. The Sergeant said they’d probably been there all weekend. He wants us to make a statement in case we saw anything.” She paused, peering intently at Marian. “Did you see anything? When you left on Friday?”
“No. Nothing,” Marian lied, feeling the guilt rush to her cheeks. “So, what do they think? Drug addict? Homeless person? There’s a lot of both in this area.”
Phyllis’ face fell deadly serious. “They think it’s a murder.”
“A murder?” Marian put her handbag on the edge of her desk. “Gosh. What makes them think that?”
“Whoever it was, had been ripped to shreds. Deep cuts all over their face and neck. Their throat torn out as if by a wild animal. I saw fingers on the floor, bitten off at the knuckles. Black holes where their eyes should have been.”
Marian squirmed uncomfortably. “How do you know all this?”
“I found the remains of them earlier this morning before I called it in. Anonymously, of course.”
“Oh, Phyllis! That must have been awful. Are you alright?”
“Of course I am. I’ve seen far worse.”
“You’ve seen…” Marian trailed off as Phyllis took her hand in hers.
“It’s okay, Marian. Whatever it was he did to you, I’m sure he deserved everything he got.”
“I don’t understand…” Marian began.
“Believe me, it took me by surprise too when it happened, but I can assure you, it gets better.”
“What gets better?”
“The change, Marian! It happens to us all one way or another. Just for some of us, it’s a little more intense.” Phyllis stared at her. “Didn’t your mother talk to you about all this?”
Marian sighed. “No. She won’t even talk to me about it now.”
“Fourteen years you’ve been here, Marian, and I have loved every single moment of working with you. I suspected, of course, when I first met you. Your distinctive smell for a start.”
“My smell?” Marian parroted, incredulously.
Phyllis smiled slowly and wafted a hand under her nose. “Breath in,” she said. Marian inhaled. There was that unmistakable musky aroma that she always noticed when Phyllis was around. Only now she recognised what it was. What it meant to her.
“Oh. You’re…” Marian began, and Phyllis nodded.
“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s sit down together and have a nice cup of tea. It can be so difficult, going through this stage of life. Especially alone. I think it’s time someone told you the truth.”