The little girl woke up in the darkness, swaddled in her creaky overlarge bed, doused in sweat. Fear pulsed through her tiny body as she trembled under her blankets. The images of her nightmare were already quickly fading, but the thick pungent fear was still strong at the back of her throat, like sticky treacle. Saffy whimpered, needing someone to hold her and tell her it was alright. Serge, her usual first choice when battling nightmares, was staying over at her Grandparent's house. When Serge had nightmares, he would go to Saffy first as well. But he wasn't here and she wanted her mother. She wanted her now.
She was stumbling through the room and out into the bright corridor at once, her curly hair puffing around her flushed little face in a tangled mess. She toddled over towards the staircase in her nightie (the one Gran had got her after she had expressed embarrassment over the lacy, zebra-print one that had been given to her by her mother). Scared and watery eyed, she called out; "h-hello? Mummy?"
Sitting sprawled out at the bottom of the stairs with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette hanging from the other, was Patsy. She was dressed in something that Saffy thought only belonged in music videos; a purple mini-dress with blue spots, a black leather jacket and high heels. Her hair was teased to heights that she found rather intimidating, although the girl found everything about her mother's fashionable friend intimidating really. She trotted down the steps, avoiding eye contact and the woman jerked about, startled, clutching her bottle to her chest, staring over at the girl with wary suspicion.
Saffy checked in the living room first, finding it empty as usual. She went down the stairs to check the kitchen and was shocked to find nobody there. Panic was starting to bloom in her chest and she bit back the fresh tears bubbling in her eyes. She went running up the stairs again, trying to hold back a sob of terror. Where was her mother?
"Mummy?" she squeaked plaintively, running into the foyer. "Mummy?"
She turned around and spotted the terrifying specter lounging about on the stairs. She was steadily chugging down her drink, taking a few deep inhales from her fag in between gulps. If someone was to know where her mother was, it'd be her.
"Uh..." she breathed out, half-shrinking away, having been smacked upside the head with a rolled up magazine the last time they'd spoken. "Miss...Miss Patsy?"
The woman jumped violently again, heavily outlined eyes flicking around. Her nails clasped even more tightly around her drink, as though she thought the girl was going to steal it from her.
"What did you call me?" she croaked up at her, face twisting into a vicious mask of outrage.
"I'm...I'm s-sorry..." Saffy blubbered, pressing the heel of her palm into her soggy eye and taking a few steps backwards. The woman had been a constant looming figure in her life for as long as she could remember, lurking in corners, trailing by her mother's side, full of sneers and disdainful looks. Her overwhelming stench of perfume, hairspray, stale smoke and alcohol fumes lingered in every room even long after she'd left, making sure the girl never forgot that she was never very far away. Her earliest memories was of a deep-seated unease she couldn't quite explain whenever she was around, clacking around in her heels, filling up her little head with cigarette smoke. She was not quite the bogeyman or an evil stepmother, but something worse. Because unlike the fairytales her Gran read to her, Patsy Stone was completely real and there was no happily ever after that was going to get rid of her anytime soon.
Suppressing these thoughts deep down into her subconscious, she wiped at her runny nose even more furiously, blinking up at her with red eyes.
"Wh-where's my mother?"
"That's none of your business," Patsy snapped back, looking down her nose at her. Her bony shoulders seemed to unfurl, the grip on her bottle loosening as she realized it wasn't going to be snatched from her hands anytime soon. They both stared at each other, the little girl feeling like a mouse in front of a hungry cat, the woman staring at her with a mixture of distrust and contempt.
"What on earth are you sniveling about?"
"I want my mother," Saffy replied, voice high and whining. "I had a nightmare."
At all of eight years old, she had not yet learnt that admitting something like this to a person like Patsy was not very clever at all. In that moment, she was just a naive little figure of innocence, desperately seeking comfort. The woman sniggered immediately, taking another deep drag of smoke into her lungs.
"Oh mummy-wummy, I had a scawy dweam, aw waaaaah..."
Saffy just crossed her arms under her chin and looked down at the floor, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Boo bloody hoo," Patsy jeered, rolling her eyes and fiddling with her cigarette. "Life's a big nightmare sweetie, get used to it."
The little girl's hands curled into fists by her sides and she looked up, glowering at her. She stamped an angry foot at the ground and tried to make herself authoritative as possible, so this madwoman would finally listen to her.
"Where's my mother! Where's my mother! Where's my..."
"Shut up you little troll!" the woman growled, her voice going low and gruff as she glared just as furiously back at her.
"Oh piss off!"
The eight year old stared up at her scornful face, and her eyes filled up again. She turned on her heel and stormed down the corridor and into the lounge. She didn't want to go back into her room. She was too scared. Curling up onto the couch, she pushed her head into a cushion. Maybe she could just go to sleep here until her mother got back from where ever she'd disappeared to.
She was still at an age where she thought her mother was...well...a mother that would protect and nurture her unconditionally. That she wouldn't ever let her down.
She couldn't hold back the cracking dam, sobbing into the cushion, a loud, hysterical child with snot all down her face and hair stuck in her mouth. Sure, she couldn't even remember the nightmare anymore, had forgotten it in about a second. But it had frightened her nonetheless and it wasn't too much to ask, was it, for a little girl to want to be comforted after a bad dream?
Crying even louder, she stuck her thumb into her mouth and curled up into an even tighter ball against the cushions. Maybe Serge would come home...maybe she should ring her Dad or her Grandparents. Her father had taught her how to use the telephone from a very young age, saying it was "essential to your survival, Saff."
Whatever the heck that meant.
Clambering clumsily to her feet again, she stumbled across the room where the phone sat on a table. Before she could think to drag something over to reach it, she heard the familiar clatter of heels against the floor that always filled her with a crawling sense of dread.
"For Christ's sake..." Patsy grumbled around the fag between her lips, a new bottle in her hand, wobbling into the room in that hunched over, crooked legged way that always faintly reminded Saffy of a spider. She went crashing into the couch, head lolling against the cushions, eyes half-shut with drunkenness. Saffy just stared at her from the corner of the room for a few seconds and the woman stared hawkishly back at her.
"C'mere," she finally muttered, crooking a finger at her. She felt her little shoulders rise up under her ears, shrinking back on the spot. She didn't want to. She was going to get smacked across the head again.
"Why?" she squeaked, wrapping her arms protectively around her head.
"Don't question me," Patsy spat, cigarette still dangling from the corner of her mouth. Saffy walked slowly over, like she was approaching the den of a hungry lioness. As soon as she was close enough, she felt the woman's razor sharp nails dig into the soft flesh of her forearm as she was dragged unceremoniously over towards her, closer then she'd ever been to her in her entire eight years of life.
Her aroma nearly made her suffocate and she felt far too uncomfortably close, the woman's eyes glazed over, the alcohol heavy and stinking on her breath.
"What're you doing?"
"Geddin' you to sleep," she slurred back and before Saffy could think twice, a strong hand was clasped against the back of her head and the bottle was pressed forcefully through her lips.
"No bad dreams now," she burst into laughter as the little girl choked, trying to squirm away. But Patsy was too strong and the grasp at the back of her skull didn't waver, the liquid burning down her throat.
She finally sprung away when Patsy took the bottle from out between her lips again. The little girl felt herself stumbling to the ground, coughing and retching and choking, her stomach on fire, her entire body tingling with agony.
"Don't cough up on me," the woman told her sharply, pulling away from her. "Aim it over there."
Saffy clenched at her stomach, bent over double, heaving and gasping. How could anyone drink that poison? She felt like she was dying...
"P-Patsy?" she whimpered, kneeling over on the floor at her feet.
"I feel really sick...I don't want...I don't want to die...!"
The world was rapidly growing blurry around her and she felt dizzy, felt like she was going to vomit all over herself, like she was going to collapse in a dead faint against the floor...
"Pfft," the woman snorted, delicately edging her shoes away. "Lightweight."
Saffy could only manage a wretched, half-sob in reply. Her sneering face was the last thing she saw before the world went steadily black around her and her body shut down into unconsciousness.
The morning light shone through the room, making her eyes spring open, immediately clenching shut again as she grimaced with pain. Her mouth felt dry and her head was pounding behind her eyeballs, her stomach clenching and unclenching in a never-ending wave of cramps. She got up slowly, pressing her forehead into her hands, whimpering. She tried to get up and immediately stumbled to the ground again. She had never felt this sick in her life.
Curled up on the floor, clutching her stomach, she heard the sounds of concerned footsteps outside in the corridor. A surge of hope went through her. Lifting her throbbing head, she croaked out; "Mummy?"
"It's me, Saff," came the voice of her brother instead. Walking into the room, he knelt down beside her, looking down at with worried owlish eyes. "What's wrong with you? Are you sick?"
"Yes," she moaned back, licking at her cracked lips. "Patsy gave me her drink..."
He stared at her, mouth falling open, absolutely horrified.
"Where's Mum?" she demanded, trying to fight through the pain. "Where's Mum, Serge?"
"In the kitchen," he breathed rapidly back. "She was on a date with a new guy last night and I heard Patsy yelling...yelling...when Gran was taking me out, cause Mum didn't want her to go on the date too..."
"W-w-why...why would Patsy go on a date with Mum and her new boyfriend?" Saffy asked confusedly. The other boy shrugged, shaking his head. A frown was crossing his solemn little face.
"Cause she's jealous. Cause she's awful and if it wasn't for her, Mum wouldn't ignore us all the time and would love us like she's supposed to."
Saffy nodded, face just as creased and serious. They'd both come to the conclusion early on in their lives that their mother was completely innocent in the situation, that Patsy was the vampire sucking away her blood, that all the blame was to sit squarely on her shoulders. Another mistake they would regret later on when they were older – the blind devotion to a mother who barely deserved it.
"I'll take you to bed," said Serge, helping her up to her feet. The girl leaned heavily against the little boy's side, feeling wobbly and uncoordinated.
"Mum takes aspirin when she gets sick off her drinks. I'll get you one..."
"Don't get a Patsy pill," she said as her brother helped her stumble painfully out of the room. "It makes Mum and her go mental..."
The trip up the stairs was long, with many trip ups from Saffy and soothing words from her brother. Then she was climbing into bed and Serge was bounding away to get her a drink of water and an aspirin from the bathroom. She took them without complaint.
"One day," he promised as he tucked the blankets in around her, peering at the girl with his wide earnest eyes. "Patsy will go away and me and you and Mum will be a normal family without her."
Saffy smiled. It was a story they both repeated to each other whenever one was upset about something.
"Thank you Serge," she said sleepily. "I hope it happens soon."
He smiled back and with that, he left the room again. The little girl turned over onto her side, trying to get to sleep. From somewhere downstairs, she heard her mother's cooing voice and in a strange way, it comforted her.
"My son...my son, my son Serge...hello, hello, hello...you're my son yesyesyes come to Mumma, come to Mumma...the old hag tried to take you away didn't she, but now you're here, now you're here with me...me and Patsy weren't even fighting sweetie, no fighting, no grr-grr fighting, no darling, sweetie, sweetie-darling...just a silly little...just a silly little...y'know...not even...not even a real fight really, all good, all nice, all lovely..."
"...pass me the Stoli, Eddie..."
"Of course darling..."
"Mum, Patsy gave Saffy her drink and..."
"...it knocked her out like a light."
She frowned, pulling her pillow over her head as the two women burst into hysterical laughter from downstairs. It would take her many hard years to learn how things worked in her household, but right now she was just a little girl, wanting a normal loving mother and knowing in her heart that if she was good, it would happen for her. That the scary blonde woman would go away and leave her family alone.
And they'd be a happy family, like they were supposed to be.
Like she so desperately wanted them to be.