One thing that Gina Beckett had learnt in the past two hours trawling shops, was that perfect birthday presents for a pernickety sister were atrociously hard to find. She sighed, tapping her foot on the sidewalk. Shoppers enthralled by the Halloween decorations scurried past her, intent on their destinations, packages tucked under their arms.
Gina sighed again. Perhaps she’d have to resign herself to the fact that her sister was getting another spooky pumpkin this year.
She started off towards one of the glowing orange shops, muttering Scrooge-y comments under her breath, wondering if her day could get any more disheartening-
She banged into an open shop door.
Gina groaned and kicked it out of pure spite. What sort of shopkeeper let their doors open onto the street?
Gina readjusted her handbag and stalked inside.
The shop was a void of darkness and silence in the busy street. As soon as Gina’s body fully entered it, a blanket of dust seemed to muffle any sound from outside. She gave a smile. Charity shops had always creeped her out- how ironic that it was nearly Halloween.
Gina walked forwards slowly, her heels clacking on the wooden floor. The shop seemed to be split up by shelves that were scattered haphazardly around, skeins of cloth trailing out of some, unidentifiable objects teetering on others. She ran a hand over a shelf, and it came back covered in dust.
“May I help you?”
Gina jumped, heart in her mouth. A voice, youthful and bright had spoken from behind her. Calming down, she smiled and turned.
The shop assistant was young, blond, and had the goodwill-to-all aura of a volunteer. He seemed filled with cheer- whether at her or the holiday, Gina didn’t know. She nodded.
“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for a present for my sister. And please-“ She cut off whatever he had been about to say with a wave of her hand. “Nothing to do with Halloween.” The boy closed his mouth a little sheepishly. His face creased in thought.
“What does she like?”
Gina pursed her lips. “Her children, her cat, cooking… oh! Violins. She’s crazy about them.” Gina gave a grin. “Plays them, collects them, names them…”
The boy looked more energetic suddenly. “Perfect! Here.” He scuttled behind his desk and scrabbled around, finally emerging covered in dust, brandishing a case. “New in today- a violin! Came from one of those deceased estate sales.”
Gina reached out and laid a hand on the case.
She felt cold suddenly- the sort of cold that gripped you late at night when you heard a noise in the house. She wished she’d closed the door behind her.
The case was bound shut by shining buckles- a rather unnecessary way to keep it closed, but they sprung apart under her fingers. She opened the lid, but before she could even see the violin, the door to the shop swung closed with a sharp bang.
She jumped, stomach twisting. The boy gave her a look. “You okay?”
Gina gave a forced smile. “I’m just amazed at the quality of this violin.” For in truth, it was beautiful. The wood was polished to a gleaming red, and the bow was strung with unusual black hair. She ran a hand over the golden strings.
It came away feeling sore and cold.
“So… d’ya wanna buy it?” The boy raised his eyebrows.
Gina almost said no. She almost flung the door open and ran out of the shop onto the street to never come back.
She rummaged in her purse. “Yes. I do.”
The violin gleamed brighter.
Gina was greeted by Hollie’s frantic barking. She struggled up to her door, heaving the violin on her back. It was unusually heavy.
She elbowed the door open, a smile already gracing her face. Hollie barked still louder at the sight of her owner, pawing at Gina’s skirt with her tongue hanging out.
Gina dumped the violin on the table and knelt in front of Hollie. “Good girl! Hey girl! Good girl! Good girl! Want some food? Do you? Do you? Come on!” Gina headed towards the kitchen, dancing around Hollie, who seemed equally enthusiastic to settle in for a cosy evening.
Gina fed her quickly, murmuring under her breath.
She talked to Hollie a lot- she seemed to truly listen, eyes bright, ears cocked, tail wagging like an electric fan. Hollie had been a constant companion to Gina for years, and to lose her would break her heart.
Gina gave Hollie a last pat on the head before leaving to run her bath.
On the way, she passed the violin case. She stopped, letting her eyes roam over it.
She could have sworn she hadn’t put it quite so close to the edge of the table.
She shrugged and went to the bathroom, throwing her jacket over the chair as she went.
She had a sudden desire to fill the house with the noise of running water.
Gina knelt on the floor, swirling her hand around in her bath water. It was deep, just how she liked it, filled with bubbles. She gave a smile.
Gina jerked her hand out of the water, heart beating like a bird’s. Something had fallen.
She stood and rushed into the living room, tying her dressing gown as she went.
The violin had tipped off the table, and it lay on the floor, burst out of its case, gleaming a bright, bright red.
Gina’s skin felt clammy with cold sweat. She seemed unable to move, paralysed, rooted to the spot.
Only Hollie, sleeping soundly in her tartan basket, gave her the courage to move.
Gina padded across the floor and knelt by the violin. She didn’t want to touch it, but forced her hand forwards, mentally chiding her own terror.
The violin was cold, but then the room was cold too. That was to be expected.
Gina lifted it by the neck. She’d never been a musician, gravitating more towards the sciences, but her sister had been music crazy, often trying to teach her how to play, or recognise notes, or look after the delicate instrument.
Gina raised it to her shoulder and scrabbled in the case for the bow. She tightened the hairs and drew it firmly across each string. Granddad. Dad. Aunty. Edna. The notes sung in her head.
The violin was perfectly tuned.
Gina gave an impressed nod, laying the instrument back in its case.
She left it on the floor and went to have her bath.
It was the barking, then the silence, that first alerted Gina to the fact that something was wrong. She sat up, shaking the water out of her ears and listening.
The faint strains of a song drifted under the bathroom door.
Gina was gripped by an all paralysing fear. Her blood ran cold, and the heat of the bath changed from comforting to sickly in an instant. She reached a shaking hand out for her robe, standing on equally shaky legs.
The music played on, its pure, yet ever so slightly off-pitch notes floating like some invisible sceptre.
Gina laid a hand on the doorknob and inched the door open.
Her gaze fell on the first thing that caught her eye- Hollie, on the floor, all too obviously dead.
Gina let out a strangled cry, deaf to all the world in the one blind desire to reach her dog- her only companion. She lunged for her, but something seized her from behind.
Gina screamed, falling to the floor. She turned, but through her tear-filled eyes she could see nothing but blurs of light.
Her cheek stung suddenly, as though a razor had been drawn across it. She screamed again, the sound wrenched out of her as again and again a stabbing pain attacked her. She swatted, writhing, but the onslaught did not cease.
The music had stopped.
Gina opened her eyes, a trembling hand shielding her face.
A single red blob like a drop of blood on snow filled her vision. It seemed to draw her eyes to it like a blackhole, a void in the light, draining everything of its colour and filling itself with the vibrant glow.
The violin floated silently, strings still streaked with Gina’s blood coiling and uncoiling around it like snakes.
She let out a sob and rolled sideways, throwing herself into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. She kicked it, then threw herself into the bath, discarding her robe and hiding under the bubbles like some troll under a bridge.
There was a deathly silence.
Gina’s blood thudded in her head.
Everything stilled, waiting.
Then- a scrabbling. It was like mice in a cupboard, birds in an attic. Gina moaned, unable to control her own voice in her terror.
The violin strings slithered under the door, edging their way up into the air, almost as though they were looking for her.
Then they saw her.
Tracey Beckett, the sister of the late Gina Beckett, mounted the stage and rifled her cue cards. She swept her gaze over the crowd of mourners, finally letting her eyes rest on her sister’s casket.
She cleared her throat and began to speak.
“My sister was a light that went out too soon.” Silence. “They say she fell asleep in her bath. I suppose she went out happy.” Titters. “Hollie, her beloved dog, died the same hour. I guess-“ Tracey had to clear her throat again. “I guess they’re playing fetch in Heaven now.” Some sobbing. Some sad nodding.
Tracey continued. “On the day she died, Gina bought me a birthday present which I shall treasure in her memory.” She held the present up for the crowd to see.
It gleamed red in the midday sun.