Rust – Part One

body of water under fog

Story by Rosie Etheridge

They were watching her, eyes glassy with death. Writhing, she held one still in her bloodied hands and slipped the knife from top to bottom. Into the belly. Her hands scooped out the warm insides, pulling them out onto the table. Each fish took her only a matter of seconds. In those seconds they went from the furtive brink of life, to being tossed onto a mass grave. When she reached the end of the crate she stopped, hands on hips, surveying her work.

The door to the wooden hut slammed open. Her uncle, laden with crates, stumbled into the room.

“Last of the day.” He dropped the crates down in front of her. The clock mounted on the wall, shaped like a whale, showed just past three.

“Slow again?”

“Slow again.” His rough hands began rolling a cigarette.

The first fish she took up was still mostly alive. Its body flailed around in the guts on the table like a pig in mud. They only stopped twitching when she tore out the heart.

He used a match to light up and exhaled exultingly. “Might pick up in Spring.”

“Could do.” She was already halfway through the first crate.

“Will have to.” He held the cigarette out to her. She eyed it; shook her head. He raised a brow.

“School starts again soon-”


“I can gut in the evenings.” She stopped her work now and held his gaze.
Her uncle Steve was the tallest in the town. Most nights he could be found staring silently into the bottom of his glass at The Gull, the only pub that survived. On Fridays he usually drank more pints than he said total words. Lila knew he brushed his teeth before he got home most nights. She could see through the excuses he told her and her father like they were tissue paper against the sun. She also knew that come the month of her birthday he would drink only halfs so he could hand her something shoddily-lovingly wrapped on that June morning.

“I can’t take you. We need the van.”

“I can cycle.”

“With those books?”

“Please.” Putting the knife down, she stepped closer. There was a moment in which the only sound was the flapping of the suffocating fish against the wooden floor, beating their own deathly tune. “Please, you know I can do it.”

“I don’t doubt it.” He smiled like someone who had forgotten how, put his feet up on the desk covered in papers. “You know, it’s not me you have to convince.”
Sighing, she returned to the fish. “My dad-”

“Your dad is a good man. Just-” He paused, tapped his fingers on his teeth in the way he did when he was searching for words. “He thinks you’ll never come back.”

“Like my mum.”

“He’s just scared.”

“Me too.”

Steve stood, lifted the crates of dried dead, gutless fish with a familiar ease. At the door he lingered a moment, his eyes fixed on a girl just like her mother. Then he was stooping out of the door, loading the van and driving away. By the time Lila looked up he was a dusty red dot in the distance. She pierced the hooks through their flesh. They hung in the smoking room with their heads down. The windowless room, caked with layers of grime from years of smoking fish, housed row upon row. When Lila was done with her work, she removed the blood-laden apron that reminded her of the school production of Sweeney Todd. She washed her hands, scrubbed them with a delicate brutality. Under the nails. In between the fingers. Woven into the cracks on her palms. The blood seemed to have a remarkable ability for drying just about everywhere. The stench was something she usually was numb to but today it was cloying, nauseating.

The walk back to their house was arduous. This was a town that barely sputtered with life. Once, when fishing had been a thriving business, the town was too. Now almost every boat sat rusted upon the banks, their carcasses serving only as a playground for bored children. The boards along the walk were rotted, palled in algae. Peeled paint from boarded shut buildings fell, snowflakes, upon the pavement of the one main street. Lila passed The Gull. The sign squeaked against the wind, heard just above the sound of the gulls squawking above. Even the pub’s windows were hazy, mismatching. The name above the door read ‘The Ull’, the ‘g’ lost also to time’s decay. The carpets were sticky, thick with smoke, a faded, unrecognizable paisley red. The chairs and tables were held together with replacement boards or tape. Distant, ancient soft rock trickled out from a smashed jukebox in the corner. The pub was usually quiet enough for all to discern that the jukebox was only able to play the same song over and over.
Lila walked along the seafront, kicking stones down onto the shore. Most Fridays she would go to The Gull on her way back, meet the few loose friends she had and drink until the edges blurred slightly. Not today. Their house was set back from the main road. It was once white but now was a faded, sickly grey the same as the skies above always seemed to be. The garden was a mangled mess of weeds and dead branches from an old blackberry bush. On the flaking red front door was a muted sticker that proclaimed ‘NO trespassers NO cold callers NO time wasters’. Lila slipped off her shoes.

“Da- I’m home.” She shouted up the stairs. The decor hadn’t been updated since the 70s when Lila’s grandparents had lived there. Throughout the brothers’ lives and Lila’s, the house had remained suspended in time. There was a great number of chunky stone fireplaces throughout the house all covered with her grandmother’s various ornaments. There were no pictures aside from one of Lila’s grandparents on their wedding day.

“DA-,” she called again.

“I hear you. I hear you. Good work.” Her father appeared in the doorway of the kitchen holding a whisk. She raised a brow.

Lila’s father was the human embodiment of a chunky sweater. However, she tried, she could never quite imagine him hauling giant catches on board, extinguishing the life from a creature, even though she’d seen him do just that. He was a half a foot shorter than his brother, his hands just as scarred and his nails bitten all the way down. She followed him into the kitchen.

“You want to go back to school.”

She hadn’t even finished pouring her orange juice. “I do.” She took a sip and winced.
He tipped the eggs into the pan.

“You should.”


“You should. You’re smart. Smarter than fish.”

He turned to her. His gaze made her feel like stained glass. She felt he knew then. Knew exactly what she was hiding. Knew what was already growing, already forming inside her and in just months would surely tear them apart. She had the overwhelming sense she was sinking.

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