In which there are no monsters, and nobody dies.
Auntie Linda likes to tell stories.
Her husband died before you were born and her arthritis means that she doesn't get out much, these days. Instead she sits in her living room watching gameshows and documentaries on the ancient telly she refuses to replace even though she could afford a better one. You visit her maybe once or twice a month, whenever you remember and feel guilty enough about forgetting her for the last few weeks to give up a Sunday afternoon to keep her company.
When you were younger and Mum was working full time at the Safeway Auntie Linda used to pick you up from school and you'd walk down the road to her house where she would ply you with chocolate biscuits and Angel Delight and talk. Talk and talk and-
You think maybe she doesn't speak at all when you're not there to listen. With nobody to speak to then why bother opening your mouth? If an old lady talks and there's nobody around to hear it, does she make a sound? Ha. That's a good one. Maybe she talks to the telly like Mum does sometimes, or maybe she sits there on her own and tells her stories to the walls. The thought makes you feel itchy-uncomfortable and you do your best to forget about it.
When you were younger it used to be ghost stories. Tales that frightened and thrilled in equal measure, sent you home for supper both excited and too scared to sleep. It was after one such story (the dark spaces in the corners of a room where the light doesn't reach and the things that shift and crawl and slither there), when you went home and refused to turn off any of the lights, that Mum discovered the stories that Auntie Linda had been telling you and went just a little bit mental. She told Auntie Linda that she was being irresponsible, that you were an impressionable little girl and didn't need to be scared out of your wits. After that the stories stopped.
For a few weeks your afternoons at her house were spent watching some godawful sheepherding programme on the TV, which you think may be the most boring thing televised, ever. Then the Safeway became a Sainsburys and despite the company's reassurances that it was going to look after all the old supermarket's employees, Mum got laid off. Then your afternoons were spent at your own house, lying on the carpet in the living room doing your homework while Mum sat on the sofa and wrote out cover letter after cover letter to companies that never seemed to want to employ her.
You get older, finish secondary school and start sixth form and then university and your visits to Auntie Linda are infrequent at best, because you think that Mum secretly finds visiting her a bit of a chore. Then, when you are twenty one and newly graduated, the old woman has a health scare, a "mini stroke" which leaves her in the hospital for three nights before she comes home, and the thought that you almost lost her frightens you into starting up the once or twice-monthly visits again.
When you visit her you bring her a bunch of flowers, or a tin of biscuits, and one of those trashy Real People magazines (Real People, honestly. What are the rest of the magazines about? Robots?) and Auntie Linda clucks her tongue and tells you that you shouldn't have while you bite your tongue and think 'maybe I won't then, next time'.
"I'll tell you a story," Auntie Linda says, once you have presented her with a bunch of petrol station lilies and her magazine. The lilies were a bit of a mistake, really. It was them or some very brown, very dead carnations and you only realised after you'd paid that they're the flower of death, or something. But still. You doubt Auntie Linda will notice, anyway.
You smile a little bit. "A scary one, just like you used to tell me?"
Because all of Auntie Linda's stories lately have been about the nice young man who picked up her handbag for her when she dropped it in the corner shop and her neighbour, who's house was broken into a few weeks back and feels unsafe in her own home, the poor dear. I tell you, this country's not what it used to be and, to be honest, they sort of bore you to tears.
Auntie Linda looks thoughtful for a moment, and then she smiles back at you and nods. "The scariest story you will ever hear, my dear."
You laugh a little, both at the boast and the unintended rhyme. "Go on, then."
The curious tilt of your head is a challenge and Auntie Linda meets it with an appraising look. Her expression is surprisingly clear, cognizant, as she eyes you up and down and then nods, like she has decided something.
"Alright, my dear. But don't say I didn't warn you. There are no monsters in this tale. Just the truth, which is sometimes worse."
You nod slowly, indulging her. She had started stories similarly in your childhood – "everything that I am about to tell you is true, my love," and you had believed her when she had gone on to tell you about disappearing children and the things that live in the walls. Hence the whole no sleeping, keeping all the lights on, Mum getting pissed off deal.
"You're twenty one, aren't you?" she asks, and for a moment you frown because that's not part of a story and god, is she starting to lose her marbles or something? You nod slowly, resist the urge to say something patronising, and Auntie Linda nods back at you. "Then let me tell you this. You're going to meet a man. Maybe you've even met him already."
You can't quite meet her eyes then because yeah, you've met a lot of men in your time.
"He won't quite be your dream man. He'll be a little too short, or a little chubby, or not intelligent or exciting enough. But he will be, all in all, a nice guy. And he will like you."
Auntie Linda paused for breath. She swallowed audibly, a vaguely irritating little sound.
"He will pursue you. You might turn him down the first time, because he isn't really what you're looking for. But he'll ask you again. Maybe you'll give him your phone number, maybe you'll agree to meet him for lunch, or maybe you'll get drunk enough that you kiss him on the dancefloor at a party."
Definitely not meeting her eyes now.
"And when you do go out with him, he's nice and he's quite sweet so you go out with him again. And, over time, you get used to having him around. It wasn't love at first sight and you are not crazy about this man, but he has never done anything to hurt you. He never hits you and he doesn't cheat on you, and you can never find any good reason to break up with him.
Then, dear. Then you blink and the two of you have been together for years. He asks you to marry him and you've been with him for such a long time and you can't see any real reason to say no so you say yes. It's not quite the dream wedding you've been imagining ever since you were a little girl, but it's not bad either. It doesn't rain. Your friends and family are there. Your dress and the cake are beautiful. Then come children, which seems natural.
You will buy a house, if you have not bought one already. It will be in the suburbs, a half an hour train ride from the centre of London, or Liverpool, or Edinburgh with three bedrooms and a patch of lawn at the back. It will be an okay house, just like the hundreds of identical houses in the same estate.
You will work in an office, perhaps as a receptionist or a PA or a proofreader. It's not a career and you will never save a life, or make an amazing discovery, or really change much at all, but it will be a good enough job in a nice enough area with friendly enough co-workers.
You and your husband, who may also work in an office, or in a factory, or maybe even as a doctor, will grow old and retire. And then, when you get to my age and all you have to do is babysit grandchildren and look back on your life, you will realise that you never really loved him at all. You just got used to having him around. Then that's your whole life pissed down the drain and all the words you have to describe it are "good enough" and "not bad" and, worst of all, "okay"."
Auntie Linda dips her chin then and falls silent. You blink at her and cannot think of anything to say.
Her lips, thin and coated in too much lipstick, curve into a small smile. "I warned you that it was frightening."