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The Burnt Stump

Copyright Joe Petersburger, 2015

Allie watched as the piercing darkness of night creep over the distant hazy outline of the French coast, shooting towards him over the brown seaweed- ridden channel. He turned his head as the last seconds of sunlight tiptoed away, bidding their farewells to the white cliffs. They had outstayed their welcome, and the sight of him staring now warranted them to find a more joyful, appropriate setting. Allie sat down on the grass, the North Sea breeze blowing over his skin, down his neck and into his wet, sweaty clothes. He let his mind wander, his uncertainty unnerving him like the silence before a storm, as the young playful maiden of night welcomed herself to the shores of Dover.


I feel myself coming back to life. My eyes open. The sky is a dark and sickening purple, it makes me want to wrench with disgust. I sit up; I’m lying in a field of brown grass. I can see a tree on the horizon; looks dead, so I get on my feet, brush off the grass seeds from where I lay, and make my way towards it, cutting a patch as I move.

I can see a few leaves moving in a breeze jerkily on the tree’s highest branches, and there’s a swing hanging down from a branch. Watching the swing shudder around in the wind so lifelessly makes me look away, even though I’m walking towards it. I don’t even know how the tree is moving like that, I can feel no wind. It must just be a dead wind. I look back to the sky, but it makes me feel sick again. There is nothing save for the tree here, I can’t see a road, a fence line; not even the slightest sound of a rabbit or sheep, or anything. Just brown grass stretching into the horizon. I squint. Is there even a horizon?

The grass has just blended with the sky and I can see no end. I look back towards the tree, and I can see a figure sitting in the swing, staring back at me.

They look young from here. I can see they have long black hair, and what looks like a tattered dress they’re wearing. Young girl, I’m guessing? She gestures me to come closer. I have no idea what to do or anywhere to go, so what choice do I have?

I look at the tree and see its twigs jagging out everywhere. I touch one; it’s so weak and nimble that I pull away, but as I do the twig comes off in my hand, crumbling away, brittle in my fingers. The figure hops out of the swing, turning to me. Now we’re closer I can see it’s a ripped ballerina dress she’s wearing.

There are scratches all over it; and blood stains all down the dress. Her neck and arms are black from bruising. Oh my god! This girl doesn’t even look six or seven, whose done this to her?! Holy shit!

“Are you okay?” I come towards her, trying to look at her scars. She just stares back at me. Her face is blank. Expressionless, staring into nothing. Her mouth opens and instantly I want to get away, it’s a black void I can’t stare at for the fear of being sucked into it.

“You always heard that when you were younger, everyone always asked the same question” she said. She speaks like a robot, except her voice is husky, almost broken-like, like it’s been split. Jesus!

“What?!” I don’t know what–

“You never like people asking you that. Always made you think there was someone else always watching you. Especially after what your Dad did…” she wheezes at me.

She turns around and starts walking. I can’t believe it. I can’t just leave her so I try to pick her up and reassure her that I’ll get her to a hospital; but she just keeps walking lifelessly.

“You remember being back home?” she asked. “Your Mum wasn’t around, off fucking other men; and so your Dad just slaved away; you tried more than ever to please him, you wanted to be a big boy for dada, didn’t you?”

I can’t believe what I was hearing— she said what?! I look ahead and can see a cliff, and beyond it a blood-orange sun, shining above the horizon. The girl isn’t stopping.

“Dada couldn’t cope though, could he? You tried your best to be his special boy, but you couldn’t help him. Every time he shouted at you? Every time he beat you? You just knew your Dad wasn’t that man that hurt you, you just hoped that one day he would stop”

I can feel heat on my neck. I turn around; the tree is on fire. All the leaves burning, the swing ropes melting and it the swing falls from its tether tumultuously. My concern for the girl suddenly feels like fear. I look at her; she keeps walking.

“You came home one day, determined to make Dada happy. You drew him a drawing in your school diary of you both walking to your favourite spot. The tree in the field with the swing, you don’t remember? And there at home you found him, on the purple carpet play area he bought for you, surrounded by red, wet stuff. You could’ve saved him, but you didn’t”

I feel like I’m burning! I feel like my skin is on fire! I look at the sky, its shining red now. And the tree?! It’s a smoking stump of burning ashes.

“You always wondered why he snapped that day. Why you let him down. You grew up, wondering when you would do that. What day would you snap, because everybody snaps, everybody goes crazy don’t they? That’s what you thought”. The cliff is so close.

“Stop” I shout, I grab her arm; she turns her head and looks at me, her wide eyes bloodshot and raw. Holy fuck! What is this?!

“You were always waiting, waiting to snap at someone. And then one day, on your housing estate; where you lived, remember? You saw a girl in a pretty ballerina dress coming home from class. She never made it home. They never found her, and you thought you’d snapped.

“You would always write away in your diary, wouldn’t you? ‘I killed her’, you wrote. ‘She was looking so pretty in that white dress and I killed her’, because that is what you always thought”

She yanks her arm out of my grasp and keeps walking. “No” I scream, my eyes are flooding with tears, I can’t even see her now.

“And so they’ll come for you, won’t they? They’ll say you’re mentally disturbed, that you suffered from severe childhood trauma. They send you to a dark place, and you forever wonder why you let Dada down and why you snapped that little girl”

She looks over the cliff’s edge. I move forward to snap her out of jumping, the light and tears blinding me. “Come back,- ppppleaase”

I can see she is looking at me, smiling. “Eventually they release you because you were innocent, you made it up. The girl that disappeared was taken by someone else…

“But to you… it will always be you. She will always be falling, because you pushed her… because one day, you snapped”

“PLLLLEAAASEE!” I scream; I lurch for her, but I head hits the ground, and pain shoots around my mind. I look up, she’s gone! Oh god no! I look over the edge and watch my tears fall down the cliff side. Oh fuck!

I recognise this place! What would Dad say if he saw me now?


Allie was screaming before he woke up. He jerked up and looked around, gasping heavily; there was nobody he could see. He felt his heart leaping through his ribcage and he clutched it, like he was almost ready to rip it out of his body. His sweaty clothes were numb with cold, and he shivered before letting his eyes wander. The French coastline was bathed in glorious morning sunshine, the sun rising over the channel; it looked like the start of a clear-sky day. Allie fell back and found solace in the sky, it was such a relief to see a calming blue.

Then he remembered what he was doing there. It’d been here all these years ago, where he did it. He couldn’t remember doing it, but he remembered the girl in the white dress: it was him… He’d snapped that day.

Why her? He couldn’t remember. All he knew was that it was his fault she was dead. It was always his fault. The details; the where, the why? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t even remember how he even got here now, but it didn’t matter.

He walked up to the edge and stared over, down onto the white, broken lumps of stone below. “I killed her” he wept. “I killed her”.

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