The Sheridan Women

The women of the Sheridan family always disappeared at some point in their lives, normally before fifty but at least once at seventy-two. (She was a powerful old woman called Ma Sheridan, who ruled her henhouse with an iron claw.) Eleanor became dimly aware of this truth when she was seven years old, and overheard her mother explaining family photographs to her grandfather, already short of memory at sixty-eight. His name was Granddad Chips and it would take another twelve years for the old boy to require hospitalisation, by which time Eleanor would have made her disappearance, the youngest of her family. A blessing for him, perhaps, that his dementia was so strong by that point. Eleanor was a treasured grandchild.

'And that's Margaret, with me and your son' said Mrs Whitney. 'She left us at forty-two, bless her...' The remarkable disappearances were never, in fact, remarked upon, by "Chips" Whitney or anyone else. Occasionally, when an outsider asks, vague reference might be made to living in Australia. But even seven-year-old Eleanor knew that Australia was like the farm that children were told that their dogs had gone to.

Only one Sheridan woman had been found after her disappearance. That was poor Maggie O'Rourke, who married an Irishman in the '60s and was found strangled in their cottage after workmates reported her missing. It appeared that he had strangled her during an argument and subsequently vanished. The locals had it that he'd thrown himself into a nearby abandoned coal mine, the yawning mouth of which emitted no entrants.

The case's one peculiarity was that a frog had been found hopping about Maggie's corpse, madly and constantly so, as if enraged. When a policeman tried to remove it, the little green creature thrashed in his hands and seemed even to be trying to bite him, until it was flung unceremoniously into the unkempt front garden. Maggie, for her part, appeared to have died with an enigmatic smile on her face and eyes wide open. The crime was subsequently referred to as the Princess and the Frog Murder.

'Who's this, then?' asked Chips. Eleanor lay on her belly in her room, half-listening while she played Super Princess Peach on a Nintendo DS and reflected scornfully that a ball gown and heels were no good for adventuring in. 'You know who that is, Granddad' replied Mrs Whitney, 'that's our Ellie. Granted, she was just a baby then. That was her first birthday, in fact...'

Everyone secretly hoped that Ellie would be at least middle-aged before her own disappearance. Perhaps she'd be the next Ma Sheridan, eschewing flowers from her housecoat in the front room in the '20s when she gave seances. Her "flora of the spirit world" routine was said to have drawn Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it wasn't long after an especially draining performance, during which much ectoplasm was expelled, that the old girl finally did her vanishing act.

Alas, it was not to be so for Eleanor, but rather the exact opposite in terms of age…

She grew into a physically awkward, gangling adolescent nicknamed “giraffe” by Chips. Her bony limbs and long, brown, curly hair set her out from her peers almost as much as her enigmatic, self-contained persona. She dressed and behaved like a teenage Wiccan, wore crescent moon earrings, and more than once was seen chanting inaudibly to trees. A peer compared her unfavourably to the “I’m not like the other girls” meme, suggesting that her pose was for the benefit of boys, but Eleanor Sheridan evinced little interest in either her own or the opposite sex.

‘You’re not lonely, are you?’ asked her mother Mrs Whitney one day while making dinner.

‘Of course not, mum’ said Eleanor, and turning from the stove to look at her, her mother saw that she was telling the truth. She didn’t know whether this made her happy or sad. ‘You’re so much like me at your age’ was what she said, and Eleanor glanced at a black-and-white picture on the windowsill. It was of her mother in a lawn chair, aged seventeen, wearing a floppy sun hat and flowing hippy blouse. ‘I hope I don’t have your fashion sense’ she said.

‘Saucy girl’ said Mrs Whitney, and flicked some vegetable water at her.

‘When do you think you’ll disappear?’

The question pulled Mrs Whitney up short. She didn’t recall anyone, let alone her daughter, addressing the curiosity so baldly. She turned the stovetop to a mild flame, knelt before Eleanor, took her hands, and replied: ‘I thought I would when you were born, and it nearly broke my heart. You were so perfect, I didn’t think I’d ever again make anything as good as you, and the idea that I’d soon be leaving you motherless… well, I suppose every Sheridan woman who gives birth feels that way.’

‘I wonder if I’ll live long enough to feel anything like that.’

‘Are you afraid of disappearing?’

Eleanor thought about that. ‘No’ she said. ‘I’ll be with the other Sheridan women, at least.’

The town that Eleanor was raised in was rural, in the modern way of things. It had its high street, bus shelters, and signage exhorting the dangers of youths that carry knives. But walk a little way beyond the supermarket and the betting holes and you'd end up in ramblers' country, with turnstiles punctuating the leafy walkways.

The high school Casanova took advantage of this and well-advised girls knew to not accept invites to walk home with him. Eleanor, being "weird", was not well-advised. And so, soon enough, the young Marquis de Sade - a lad called Derek whose dad owned a scrapyard and leafletted for the far right - set his sights on the one girl who hadn't yet reported him to the website Everyday Sexism.

She didn’t know why she accepted his offer to walk home with her. She’d told her mother the truth when she said that she wasn’t lonely, but Derek’s offer drew her curiosity, a yearning to know what human friendship was if only to have that knowledge. He told her of a picturesque shortcut and she blindly followed him. When they reached the opposite side of the woods behind the high street, he let her walk ahead then called her name. She turned and saw him posed like the man on the Captain Morgan bottle, looking resolutely away from her, but with genitals exposed through the fly of his black trousers.

She burst out laughing, which clearly wasn’t the reaction he’d wanted. He started stuffing himself back into his pants. ‘Fucking bitch’ he spat. ‘I’m going to tell everyone you’re a fucking slut who did it right here, and they’ll believe me! You think they won’t? Huh?’

This excited Eleanor’s anger, her sense of injustice at this cheap little incel being able to smear her reputation. Before she had time to reconsider, she uttered an imprecation in a language she didn’t recognise, but which seemed to reach her brain from some bottomless trove of heritage.

Derek screamed and clutched at his crotch. He fell to his knees and stared at her through eyes wide with stunned, confused apology. Beneath his hands he felt his penis shrinking and splitting in two, his testicles subjected to a reverse puberty. He bit his lower lip and thrashed about by the line of the woods, his pain unrelieved by the knowledge now of what was happening: he stuffed a hand in his pants and felt there what he’d been craving to feel on a woman for years.

‘You should have walked home alone’ said Eleanor, and started back through the woods.

That night she spent lying on her bed in fits of hysterical giggles, and as she drifted off she felt the souls of all the missing Sheridan women clustered about her like schoolgirls in conspiracy. The next day Derek ignored her entirely, and over the coming months his attitude changed to everyone. Or girls at least, and for whom he seemed to hold a newfound respect in that he avoided them altogether, in the manner of a peasant shrinking away from his lady’s attention.

Following his release from state education, he’d die in a car accident, having wrapped his vehicle around a telephone poll while racing drunk one night. The amount of alcohol sent him and his chromium coffin up in a blaze. ‘He provided his own cremation…’ his stupefied father replied.

And once eighteen, Eleanor Sheridan too left this world. Her mother never knew what had passed between her and Derek, but with heart slowly breaking she saw in her daughter the quality that precedes all Sheridan vanishings. An ethereal glow, and a sense of having made peace with the world. So when she came to wake her up with breakfast in bed one day, she wasn’t surprised to find the room empty, nor the peculiar magic of forgetting that settled on the hearts of her friends and neighbours. ‘She’s awfully young, of course’ said the neighbour, ‘but smart enough to make her way, once she’s set up over there. The Australian weather’ll take some getting used to…’

Mrs Whitney didn’t forget, but she took comfort in one thing: her picture on the windowsill, dated 1994, taken with a camera that was ancient even then, now had a second person in the frame. A curly-haired girl of about the same age, leaning over from behind and kissing her on the cheek.
Written by Casted_Runes (Mr Karswell)
All writing remains the property of the author. Don't use it for any purpose without their permission.
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