Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Featherweight

He thought at first that she was dead. And that was terrible, of course — but what shocked him most was how dispassionate that made him feel. There was no anguish, no horror, he should be crying but clearly no tears were fighting to get out — and instead all there was was this almost sick fascination. He’d never seen a corpse before. His mother had asked if he’d wanted to see his grandfather, all laid out for the funeral, and he was only twelve, and he really really didn’t — and his father said that was okay, it was probably best Harry remembered Grandad the way he had been, funny and full of life, better not to spoil the memory — and Harry had quickly agreed, yes, that was the reason — but it wasn’t that at all, it was a bloody dead body, and he worried that if he got too close it might wake up and say hello.

And now here there was a corpse, and it was less than three feet away, in the passenger seat behind him. And it was his wife, for God’s sake, someone he knew so well — or, at least, better than anyone else in the world could, he could say that at least. And her head was twisted oddly, he’d never seen her quite at that angle before and she looked like someone he’d never really known at all, he’d never seen her face in a profile where her nose looked quite that enormous. And there was all the blood, of course. He wondered whether the tears were starting to come after all, he could sense a pricking at his eyes, and he thought it’d be such a relief if he could feel grief or shock or hysteria or something . . . when she swivelled that neck a little towards him, and out from a mouth thick with that blood came “Hello.”

He was so astonished that for a moment he didn’t reply, just goggled at her. She frowned.

“There’s a funny taste in my mouth,” she said.

“The blood,” he suggested.

“What’s that, darling?”

“There’s a lot of blood,” he said.

“Oh,” she said. “Yes, that would make sense. Oh dear. I don’t feel I’m in any pain, though. Are you in any pain?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I haven’t tried to . . . move much, I . . .” He struggled for words. “I didn’t get round to trying, actually. Actually, I thought you were dead.”

“And I can’t see very well either,” she said.

“Oh,” he said.

She blinked. Then blinked again. “No, won’t go away. It’s all very red.”

“That’ll be the blood,” he said. “Again.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course, the blood.” She thought for a moment. “I’d wipe my eyes, but I can’t seem to move my arms at all. I have still got arms, haven’t I, darling?”

“I think so. I can see the right one, in any case.”

“That’s good. I do wonder, shouldn’t I be a little more scared than this?”

“I was trying to work that out too. Why I wasn’t more scared. Especially when I thought you were dead.”

“Right . . . ?”

“And I concluded. That it was probably the shock.”

“That could be it.” She nodded, and that enormous nose nodded too, and so did the twisted neck, there they were, all nodding, it looked grotesque — “Still. All that blood! I must look a sight!”

She did, but he didn’t care, Harry was just so relieved she was all right after all, and he didn’t want to tell her that her little spate of nodding seemed to have left her head somewhat back to front. She yawned. “Well,” she said. “I think I might take a little nap.”

He wasn’t sure that was a good idea, he thought that he should probably persuade her to stay awake. But she yawned again, and look! — she was perfectly all right, wasn’t she, there was no pain, there was a lot of blood, yes, but no pain. “Just a little nap,” she said. “I’ll be with you again in a bit.” She frowned. “Could you scratch my back for me, darling? It’s itchy.”

“I can’t move.”

“Oh, right. Okay. It’s itchy, though. I’m allergic to feathers.”

“To what, darling?”

“To feathers,” she said. “The feathers are tickling me.” And she nodded off.

• • • •

His first plan had been to take her back to Venice. Venice had been where they’d honeymooned. And he thought that would be so romantic, one year on exactly, to return to Venice for their first anniversary. They could do everything they had before — hold hands in St Mark’s Square, hold hands on board the vaporetti, toast each other with champagne in one of those restaurants by the Rialto. He was excited by the idea, and he was going to keep it a secret from Esther, surprise her on the day with plane tickets — but he never kept secrets from Esther, they told each other everything, it would just have seemed weird. And thank God he had told her, as it turned out. Because she said that although it was a lovely idea, and yes, it was very romantic, she didn’t want to go back to Venice at all. Truth to tell, she’d found it a bit smelly, and very crowded, and very expensive; they’d done it once, why not see somewhere else? He felt a little hurt at first — hadn’t she enjoyed the honeymoon then? She’d never said she hadn’t at the time — and she reassured him, she’d adored the honeymoon. But not because of Venice, because of him, she’d adore any holiday anywhere, so long as he was part of the package. He liked that. She had a knack for saying the right thing, smoothing everything over.

Indeed, in one year of marriage they’d never yet had an argument.

He sometimes wondered whether this were some kind of a record. He wanted to ask all his other married friends, how often do you argue, do you even argue at all? — just to see whether what he’d got with Esther was something really special. But he never did, he didn’t want to rub anyone’s noses in how happy he was, and besides, he didn’t have the sorts of friends he could be that personal with. He didn’t need to, he had Esther. Both he and Esther had developed a way in which they’d avoid confrontation — if a conversation was taking a wrong turning, Esther would usually send it on a detour without any apparent effort. Yes, he could find her irritating at times, and he was certain then that she must find him irritating too — and they could both give the odd warning growl if either were tired or stressed — but they’d never had anything close to a full blown row. That was something to be proud of. He called her his little diplomat! He said that she should be employed by the UN, she’d soon sort out all these conflicts they heard about on the news! And she’d laugh, and say that he clearly hadn’t seen what she was like in the shop, she could really snap at some of those customers sometimes — she was only perfect around him. And he’d seen evidence of that, hadn’t he? For example — on their wedding morning, when he wanted to see her, and all the bridesmaids were telling him not to go into the bedroom, don’t, Harry, she’s in a filthy temper! — but he went in anyway, and there she was in her dress, she was so beautiful, and she just beamed at him, and kissed him, and told him that she loved him, oh, how she loved him. She wasn’t angry. She wasn’t ever going to be angry with him. And that night they’d flown off to Venice, and they’d had a wonderful time.

So, not Venice then. (Maybe some other year. She nodded at that, said, “Maybe.”) Where else should they spend their anniversary then? Esther suggested Scotland. Harry didn’t much like the sound of that, it didn’t sound particularly romantic, especially not compared to Venice. But she managed to persuade him. How about a holiday where they properly explored somewhere? Just took the car, and drove — a different hotel each night, free and easy, and whenever they wanted they could stop off at a little pub, or go for a ramble on the moors, or pop into a stately home? It’d be an adventure. The Watkins family had put their footprints in Italy, she said, and now they could leave them all over the Highlands! That did sound rather fun. He didn’t want it to be too free and easy, mind you, they might end up with nowhere to stay for the night — but he did a lot of homework, booked them into seven different places in seven different parts of Scotland. The most they’d ever have to drive between them was eighty miles, he was sure they could manage that, and he showed her an itinerary he’d marked out on his atlas. She kissed him and told him how clever he was.

And especially for the holiday he decided to buy a satnav. He’d always rather fancied one, but couldn’t justify it before — he knew his drive into work so well he could have done it with his eyes closed. He tried out the gadget, he put in the postcode of his office, and let it direct him there. It wasn’t the route he’d have chosen, he was quite certain it was better to avoid the ring road altogether, but he loved that satnav voice, so gentle and yet so authoritative. “You have reached your destination,” it’d say, and they’d chosen a funny way of getting there, but yes, they certainly had — and all told to him in a voice good enough to be off the telly. The first day of the holiday he set in the postcode to their first Scottish hotel; he packed the car with the suitcases; Esther sat in beside him on the passenger seat, smiled, and said, “Let’s go.” “The Watkinses are going to leave their footprints all over the Highlands!” he announced, and laughed. “Happy anniversary,” said Esther. “I love you.”

On the fourth day they stayed at their fourth stately home of the holiday a little too long, maybe; it was in the middle of nowhere, and their next hotel was also in the middle of nowhere, but it was in a completely different middle of nowhere. It was already getting dark, and there weren’t many streetlights on those empty roads. Esther got a little drowsy, and said she was going to take a nap. And the satnav man hadn’t said anything for a good fifteen minutes, so Harry knew he must be going in the right direction, and maybe Esther sleeping was making him a little drowsy too — but suddenly he realised that the smoothness of the road beneath him had gone, this was grass and field and bushes, for God’s sake, and they were going down, and it was quite steep, and he kept thinking that they had to stop soon surely, he hadn’t realised they were so high up in the first place! — and there were now branches whipping past the windows, and actual trees, and the car wasn’t slowing down at all, and it only dawned on him then that they might really be in trouble. He had time to say “Esther,” because stupidly he thought she might want to be awake to see all this, and then the mass of branches got denser still, and they came to a very abrupt halt. It flung him forward towards the steering wheel, and then the seatbelt flung him right back where he had come from — and that was when he heard a snap, but he wasn’t sure if it came from him, or from Esther, or just from the branches outside. And it was dark, but not yet dark enough that he couldn’t see Esther still hadn’t woken up, and that there was all that blood.

The front of the car had buckled. The satnav said, “Turn around when possible.” Still clinging on to the crushed dashboard. Just the once, then it gave up the ghost.

He couldn’t feel his legs. They were trapped under the dashboard. He hoped that was the reason. He tried to open the door, pushed against it hard, and the pain of the attempt nearly made him pass out. The door had been staved in. It was wrecked. He thought about the seatbelt. The pain that reaching it would cause. Later. He’d do that later. Getting out the mobile phone from his inside jacket pocket — not even the coat pocket, he’d have to bend his arm and get into the coat first and then into the jacket . . . Later, later. Once the pain had stopped. Please, God, then.

Harry wished they’d gone to Venice. He was sure Venice had its own dangers. He supposed tourists were always drowning themselves in gondola related accidents. But there were no roads to drive off in Venice.

• • • •

He was woken by the sound of tapping at the window.

It wasn’t so much the tapping that startled him. He’d assumed they’d be rescued sooner or later — it was true, they hadn’t come off a main road, but someone would drive along it sooner or later, wouldn’t they? It was on the satnav route, for God’s sake.

What startled him was the realisation he’d been asleep in the first place. The last thing he remembered was his misgivings about letting Esther nod off. And some valiant decision he’d made that whatever happened he wouldn’t nod off, he’d watch over her, stand guard over her — sit guard over her, he’d protect her as best he could. As best he could when he himself couldn’t move, when he hadn’t yet dared worry about what might damage might have been done to him. What if he’d broken his legs? (What if he’d broken his spine?) And as soon as these thoughts swam into his head, he batted them out again — or at least buried them beneath the guilt (some valiant effort to protect Esther that had been, falling asleep like that!) and the relief that someone was there and he wouldn’t need to feel guilt much longer. Someone was out there, tapping away at the window.

“Hey!” he called out. “Yes, we’re in here! Yes, we’re all right!” Though he didn’t really know about that last bit.

It was now pitch black. He couldn’t see Esther at all. He couldn’t see whether she was even breathing. “It’s all right, darling,” he told her. “They’ve found us. We’re safe now.” Not thinking about that strange twisted neck she’d had, not about spines.

Another tattoo against the glass — tap, tap, tap. And he strained his head in the direction of the window, and it hurt, and he thought he heard something pop. But there was no one to be seen. Just a mass of branches, and the overwhelming night. Clearly the tapping was at the passenger window behind him.

It then occurred to him, in a flash of warm fear, that it was so dark that maybe their rescuer couldn’t see in. That for all his tapping he might think the car was empty. That he might just give up tapping altogether, and disappear into the blackness. “We’re in here!” he called out, louder. “We can’t move! Don’t go! Don’t go!”

He knew immediately that he shouldn’t have said don’t go, have tempted fate like that. Because that’s when the tapping stopped. “No!” he shouted. “Come back!” But there was no more; he heard something that might have been a giggle, and that was it.

Maybe there hadn’t been tapping at all. Maybe it was just the branches in the wind.

Maybe he was sleeping through the whole thing.

No, he decided forcefully, and he even said it out loud, “No.” There had been a rhythm to the tapping; it had been someone trying to get his attention. And he wasn’t asleep, he was in too much pain for that. His neck still screamed at him because of the strain of turning to the window. He chose to disregard the giggling.

The window tapper had gone to get help. He’d found the car, and couldn’t do anything by himself. And quite right too, this tapper wasn’t a doctor, was he? He could now picture who this tapper was, some sort of farmer probably, a Scottish farmer out walking his dog — and good for him, he wasn’t trying to be heroic, he was going to call the experts in, if he’d tried to pull them out of the car without knowing what he was about he might have done more harm than good. Especially if there was something wrong with the spine (forget about the spine). Good for you, farmer, thought Harry, you very sensible Scotsman, you. Before too long there’d be an ambulance, and stretchers, and safety. If Harry closed his eyes now, and blocked out the pain — he could do it, it was just a matter of not thinking about it — if he went back to sleep, he wouldn’t have to wait so long for them to arrive.

So he closed his eyes, and drifted away. And dreamed about farmers. And why farmers would giggle so shrilly like that.

• • • •

The next time he opened his eyes there was sunlight. And Esther was awake, and staring straight at him.

He flinched at that. And then winced at his flinching, it sent a tremor of pain right through him. He was glad to see she was alive, of course. And conscious was a bonus. He just hadn’t expected the full ugly reality of it.

He could now see her neck properly. And that in its contorted position all the wrinkles had all bunched up tight against each other, thick and wormy; it looked a little as if she were wearing an Elizabethan ruff. And there was blood, so much of it. It had dried now. He supposed that was a good sign, that the flow had been staunched somehow, that it wasn’t still pumping out all over the Mini Metro. The dried blood cracked around the mouth and chin as she spoke.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning,” he replied, and then automatically, ridiculously, “Did you sleep well?”

She smirked at this, treated it as a deliberate joke. “Well, I’m sure the hotel would have been nicer.”

“Yes,” he said. And then, still being ridiculous, “I think we nearly got there, though. The satnav said we were about three miles off.”

She didn’t smirk this time. “I’m hungry,” she said.

“We’ll get out of this soon,” he said.

“All right.”

“Are you in pain?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Just the itching. The itching is horrible. You know.”

“Yes,” he said, although he didn’t. “I’m in a fair amount of pain,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “I don’t think I can move.”

“Not much point bothering with that hotel now,” said Esther. “I say we move right on to the next, put it down as a bad lot.”

He smiled. “Yes, all right.”

“And I don’t think we’ll be doing a stately home today. Not like this. Besides, I think I’ve had my fill of stately homes. They’re just houses, aren’t they, with better furniture in? I don’t care about any of that. I don’t need better furniture, so long as I have you. Our own house, as simple as it might be, does me fine, darling. With you in it, darling.”

“Yes,” he said. “Darling, you do know we’ve been in a car crash. Don’t you?” (And that you’re covered in blood.)

“Of course I do,” she said, and she sounded a bit testy. “I’m itchy, aren’t I? I’m itching all over. The feathers.” And then she smiled at him, a confrontation neatly avoided. Everything smoothed over. “You couldn’t scratch my back, could you, darling? Really, the itching is terrible.”

“No,” he reminded her. “I can’t move, can I?”

“Oh yes,” she said.

“And I’m in pain.”

“You said,” she snapped, and she stuck out her bottom lip in something of a sulk. He wished she hadn’t, it distorted her face all the more.

“I’m really sorry about all this,” he said. “Driving us off the road. Getting us into all this. Ruining the holiday.”

“Oh, darling,” she said, and the lip was back in, and the sulk was gone. “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”

“I don’t know what happened.”

“I’m sure the holiday isn’t ruined.”

Harry laughed. “Well, it’s not going too well! The car’s a write-off!” He didn’t like laughing. He stopped. “I’ll get you out of this. I promise.” He decided he wouldn’t tell Esther about the rescue attempt, just in case it wasn’t real, he couldn’t entirely be sure what had actually happened back there in the pitch black. But he couldn’t keep anything from Esther, it’d have been wrong, it’d have felt wrong. “Help is on its way. I saw a farmer last night. He went to get an ambulance.”

If the Scottish farmer were real, then he wouldn’t ever need to bend his arm to reach his mobile phone. The thought of his mobile phone suddenly made him sick with fear. His arm would snap. His arm would snap right off.

“A farmer?” she asked.

“A Scottish farmer,” he said. “With a dog,” he added.

“Oh.”

They didn’t say anything for a while. He smiled at her, she smiled at him. He felt a little embarrassed doing this after a minute or two — which was absurd, she was his wife, he shouldn’t feel awkward around his wife. After a little while her eyes wandered away, began looking through him, behind him, for something which might be more interesting — and he was stung by that, just a little, as if he’d been dismissed somehow. And he was just about to turn his head away from her anyway, no matter how much it hurt, when he saw her suddenly shudder.

“The itch,” she said. “Oh God!” And she tried to rub herself against the back of the seat, but she couldn’t really do it, she could barely move. The most she could do was spasm a bit. Like a broken puppet trying to jerk itself into life — she looked pathetic, he actually wanted to laugh at the sight of her writhing there, he nearly did, and yet he felt such a pang of sympathy for her, his heart went out to her at that moment like no other. On her face was such childlike despair, help me, it said. And then: “Can’t you scratch my fucking back?” she screamed. “What fucking use are you?”

He didn’t think he’d ever heard her swear before. Not serious swears. Not “fucking.” No. No, he hadn’t. “Frigging” a few times. That was it. Oh dear. Oh dear.

She breathed heavily, glaring at him. “Sorry,” she said at last. But she didn’t seem sorry. And then she closed her eyes.

And at last he could turn from her, without guilt, he hadn’t looked away, he hadn’t given up on her, in spite of everything he was still watching over her. And then he saw what Esther had been looking at behind his shoulder all that time.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the wings that caught his attention at first. Because you’d have thought the wings were the strangest thing. But no, it was the face, just the face. So round, so perfectly round, no, like a sphere, the head a complete sphere. You could have cut off that head and played football with it. And there was no blemish to the face, it was like this had come straight from the factory, newly minted, and every other face you had ever seen was like a crude copy of it, some cheap hack knock-off. The eyes were bright and large and very very deep, the nose a cute little pug. The cheeks were full and fat and fleshy, all puffed out.

But then Harry’s eyes, of course, were drawn to the wings. There was only so long he could deny they were there. Large and white and jutting out of the shoulder blades. They gave occasional little flaps, as the perfect child bobbed about idly outside the car window. Creamy pale skin, a shock of bright yellow hair, and a bright yellow halo hovering above it — there was nothing to keep it there, it tilted independently of the head, sometimes at a rather rakish angle — it looked like someone had hammered a dinner tray into the skull with invisible nails. Little toes. Little fingers. Babies’ fingers. And (because, yes, Harry did steal a look) there was nothing between the legs at all, the child’s genitals had been smoothed out like it was a naked Action Man toy.

The little child smiled amiably at him. Then raised a knuckle. And tapped three times against the glass.

“What are you?” — which Harry knew was a pointless question, it was pretty bloody obvious what it was — and even the cherub rolled his eyes at that, but then smiled back as if to say, just kidding, no offence, no hard feelings.

The child seemed to imitate Harry’s expressions, maybe he was sending him up a little — he’d put his head to one side like he did, he’d frown just the same, blink in astonishment, the whole parade. When Harry put his face close to the window it hurt, but he did it anyway — and the child put its head as close as it could too. There was just a sheet of glass between them. They could have puckered up, they could almost have kissed had they wanted! And at one point it seemed to Harry the child did pucker up those lips, but no, it was just taking in a breath, like a sigh, a hiss. “Can you understand me? Can you hear what I’m saying?” The child blinked in astonishment again, fluttered its wings a bit. “Can you get help?” And what did he expect, that it’d find a phone box and ring the emergency services, that it’d fly into the nearest police station? “Are you here to watch over us?”

And then the cherub opened its mouth. And it wasn’t a sigh, it was a hiss. Hot breath stained the glass; Harry recoiled from it. And the teeth were so sharp, and there were so many, how could so many teeth fit into such a small mouth? And hiding such a dainty tongue too, just a little tongue, a baby’s tongue. The child attacked the window, it gnawed on the glass with its fangs. Desperately, hungrily, the wings now flapping wild. It couldn’t break through. It glared, those bright eyes now blazing with fury, and the hissing became seething, and then it was gone — with a screech it had flown away.

There was a scratch left streaked across the pane.

Harry sat back, hard, his heart thumping. It didn’t hurt to do so. There was pain, but it was something distant now, his body had other things to worry about. And whilst it was still confused, before it could catch up — and before he could change his mind — he was lifting his arm, he was bending it, and twisting it back on itself (and it didn’t snap, not at all), he was going for his coat, pulling at the zip, pulling it down hard, he was reaching inside the coat, reaching inside the jacket inside the coat, reaching inside the pocket inside the jacket inside the — and he had it, his fingers were brushing it, his fingers were gripping it, the phone, the mobile phone.

By the time he pulled it out his body had woken up to what he was trying to do. Oh no, it said, not allowed, and told him off with a flush of hot agony — but he was having none of that, not now. The phone was turned off. Of course it was. He stabbed at the pin number, got it right second time. “Come on, come on,” he said. The phone gave a merry little tune as it lit up. He just hoped there was enough battery power.

There was enough battery power. What it didn’t have was any network coverage. Not this far out in the Highlands! Not in one of the many middles of nowhere that Scotland seemed to offer. The signal bar was down to zero.

“No, “he insisted, “no.” And the body really didn’t want him to do this, it was telling him it was a very bad idea, but Harry began to wave the phone about, trying to pick up any signal he could. By the time a bar showed, he was raising the phone above his head, and he was crying.

He stabbed at 999. The phone was too far away for him to hear whether there was any response. “Hello!” he shouted. “There’s been a car crash! We’ve crashed the car. Help us! We’re in . . . I don’t know where we are. We’re in Scotland. Scotland! Find us! Help!” And his arm was shaking with the pain, and he couldn’t hold on any longer, and he dropped it, it clattered behind his seat to the floor. And at last he allowed himself a scream as he lowered his arm, and that scream felt good.

The scream didn’t wake Esther. That was a good thing. At least she was sleeping soundly.

For a few minutes he let himself believe his message had been heard. That he’d held on to a signal for long enough. That the police had taken notice if he had. That they’d be able to track his position from the few seconds he’d given them. And then he just cried again, because really, why the hell shouldn’t he?

He was interrupted by a voice. “Turn around when possible.” His heart thumped again, and then he realised it was the satnav. It was that nice man from the satnav, the one who spoke well enough for telly. The display had lit up, and there was some attempt at finding a road, but they weren’t on a road, were they? And Satnav was confused, poor thing, it couldn’t work out what on earth was going on. “Turn around when possible,” the satnav suggested again.

Harry had to laugh, really. He spoke to the satnav. It made him feel better to speak to someone. “I thought I’d heard the last of you!”

And then the satnav said, “Daddy.”

And nothing else. Not for a while.

• • • •

For the rest of the day he didn’t see anything else of the child. He didn’t see much else of Esther either; once in a while she seemed to surface from a sleep, and he’d ask her if she were all right. And sometimes she’d glare at him, and sometimes she’d smile kindly, and most often she wouldn’t seem to know who he was at all. And he’d doze fitfully. At one point he jerked bolt upright in the night when he thought he heard tapping against the window — ”No, go away!” — but he decided this time it really was the wind, because it soon stopped. Yes, the wind. Or the branches. Or a Scottish farmer this time, who can tell? Who can tell?

In the morning he woke to find, once again, Esther was looking straight at him. She was smiling. This was one of her smiling times.

“Good morning!” she said.

“Good morning,” he replied. “How are you feeling?”

“I feel hungry,” she said.

“I’m sure,” he said. “We haven’t eaten in ages.”

She nodded at that.

Harry said, “The last time would have been at that stately home. You know, we had the cream tea. You gave me one of your scones.”

She nodded at that.

Harry said, “I bet you regret that now. Eh? Giving me one of your scones!”

She nodded at that. Grinned.

“The itching’s stopped,” she declared. “Do you know, there was a time back there that I really thought it might drive me mad. Really, utterly loop the loop. But it’s stopped now. Everything’s okay.”

“That’s nice,” he said. “I’m going to get you out of here, I promise.”

“I don’t care about that anymore,” she said. “I’m very comfortable, thanks.” She grinned again. He saw how puffed her cheeks were. He supposed her face had been bruised; he supposed there was a lot of dried blood in the mouth, distorting her features like that. “In fact,” she said, “I feel as light as a feather.”

“You’re feeling all right?”

She nodded at that.

“Can you open the door?” he asked. She looked at him stupidly. “The door on your side. Can you open it? I can’t open mine.”

She shrugged, turned a little to the left, pulled at the handle. The door swung open. The air outside was cold and delicious.

“Can you go and get help?” he asked. She turned back to him, frowned. “I can’t move,” he said. “I can’t get out. Can you get out?”

“Why would I want to do that?” she asked.

He didn’t know what to say. She tilted her head to one side, waiting for an answer.

“Because you’re hungry,” he said.

She considered this. Then tutted. “I’m sure I’ll find something in here,” she said. “If I put my mind to it.” And she reached for the door, reached right outside for it, then slammed it shut. And as she did so, Harry saw how his wife’s back bulged. That there was a lump underneath her blouse, and it was moving, it rippled. And he saw where some of it had pushed a hole through the blouse, and he saw white, he saw feathers.

“Still a bit of growing to do, but the itching has stopped,” she said. “But don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine.” She grinned again, and there were lots of teeth, there were too many teeth, weren’t there? And then she yawned, and then she went back to sleep.

• • • •

She didn’t stir, not for hours. Not until the child came back. “Daddy,” said the satnav, and it wasn’t a child’s voice, it was still the cultured man, calm and collected, as if he were about to navigate Harry over a roundabout. And there was the cherub! — all smiles, all teeth, his temper tantrum forgotten, bobbing about the window, even waving at Harry as if greeting an old friend. And, indeed, he’d brought friends with him, a whole party of them! Lots of little cherubs, it was impossible to tell how many, they would keep on bobbing so! — a dozen, maybe two dozen, who knows? And each of them had the same perfect face, the same spherical head, the same halos listing off the same gleaming hair. Tapping at the window for play, beating on the roof, beating at the door — laughing, mostly laughing, they wanted to get in but this was a game, they liked a challenge! Mostly laughing, though there was the odd shriek of frustration, the odd hiss, lots more scratches on the glass. One little cherub did something very bad-tempered with the radio aerial. Another little cherub punched an identical brother in the face in a dispute over the rear view mirror. They scampered all over the car, but there was no way in. It all reminded Harry of monkeys at a safari park. He’d never taken Esther to a safari park. He never would now. “Daddy Daddy,” said the satnav. “Daddy Daddy,” it kept on saying, emotionless, even cold — and the little children danced merrily outside.

“Oh, aren’t they beautiful!” cooed Esther. She reached for the door. “Shall we let them in?”

“Please,” said Harry. “Please. Don’t.”

“No. All right.” And she closed her eyes again. “Just leaves more for me,” she said.

• • • •

For the first few days he was very hungry. Then one day he found he wasn’t hungry at all. He doubted that was a good thing.

He understood that the cherubs were hungry too. Most of them had flown away, they’d decided that they weren’t going to get into this particular sardine tin — but there were always one or two about, tapping away, ever more forlorn. Once in a while a cherub would turn to Harry, and pull its most innocent face, eyes all wide and Disney-dewed, it’d look so sad. It’d beg, it’d rub its naked belly with its baby fingers, and it’d cry. “Daddy,” the satnav would say at such moments. But however winning their performance, the cherubs still looked fat and oily, and their puffy cheeks were glowing.

Harry supposed they probably were starving to death. But not before he would.

One day Harry woke up to find Esther was on top of him. “Good morning,” she said to him, brightly. It should have been agony she was there, but she was as light as air, as light as a feather.

Her face was so very close to his, it was her hot breath that had roused him. Now unfurled, the wings stretched the breadth of the entire car. Her halo was grazing the roof. The wings twitched a little as she smiled down at him and bared her teeth.

“I love you,” she said.

“I know you do.”

“I want you to know that.”

“I do know it.”

“Do you love me too?”

“Yes,” he said.

And she brought that head towards his — that now spherical head, he could still recognise Esther in the features, but this was probably Esther as a child, as a darling baby girl — she brought down that head, and he couldn’t move from it, she could do whatever she wanted. She opened her mouth. She kissed the tip of his nose.

She sighed. “I’m so sorry, darling,” she said.

“I’m sorry too.”

“All the things we could have done together,” she said. “All the places we could have been. Where would we have gone, darling?”

“I was thinking of Venice,” said Harry. “We’d probably have gone back there one day.”

“Yes,” said Esther doubtfully.

“And we never saw Paris. Paris is lovely. We could have gone up the Eiffel Tower. And that’s just Europe. We could have gone to America too.”

“I didn’t need to go anywhere,” Esther told him. “You know that, don’t you? I’d have been just as happy at home, so long as you were there with me.”

“I know,” he said.

“There’s so much I wanted to share with you,” she said. “My whole life. My whole life. When I was working at the shop, if anything funny happened during the day, I’d store it up to tell you. I’d just think, I can share that now. Share it with my hubby. And we’ve been robbed. We were given one year. Just one year. And I wanted forever.”

“Safari parks,” remembered Harry.

“What?”

“We never did a safari park either.

“I love you,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

Her eyes watered, they were all wide and Disney-dewed. “I want you to remember me the right way,” she said. “Not covered with blood. Not mangled in a car crash. Remember me the way I was. Funny, I hope. Full of life. I don’t want you to spoil the memory.”

“Yes.”

“I want you to move on. Live your life without me. Have the courage to do that.”

“Yes. You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”

She didn’t deny it. “All the things we could have done together. All the children we could have had.” And she gestured towards the single cherub now bobbing weakly against the window. “All the children.”

“Our children,” said Harry.

“Heaven is filled with our unborn children,” said Esther. “Yours and mine. Yours and mine. Darling. Didn’t you know that?” And her wings quivered at the thought.

She bent her head towards him again — but not yet, still not yet, another kiss, that’s all, a loving kiss. “It won’t be so bad,” she said. “I promise. It itches at first, it itches like hell. But it stops. And then you’ll be as light as air. As light as feathers.”

She folded her wings with a tight snap. “I’m still getting used to that,” she smiled. And she climbed off him, and sprawled back in her seat. The neck twisted, the limbs every which way — really, so ungainly. And she went to sleep. She’d taken to sleeping with her eyes open. Harry really wished she wouldn’t, it gave him the creeps.

Another set of tappings at the window. Harry looked around in irritation. There was the last cherub. Mewling at him, rubbing his belly. Harry liked to think it was the same cherub that he’d first seen, that it had been loyal to him somehow. But of course, there was really no way to tell. Tapping again, begging. So hungry. “Daddy,” said the satnav. “My son,” said Harry. “Daddy.” “My son.”

Harry wound down the window a little way. And immediately the little boy got excited, started scrabbling through the gap with his fingers. “Just a minute,” said Harry, and he laughed even — and he gave the handle another turn, and the effort made him wince with the pain, but what was that, he was used to that. “Easy does it,” he said to the hungry child. “Easy does it.” And he stuck his hand out of the car.

The first instinct of his baby son was not to bite, it was to nuzzle. It rubbed its face against Harry’s hand, and it even purred, it was something like a purr. It was a good five seconds at least before it sank its fangs into flesh.

And then Harry had his hand around its throat. The cherub gave a little gulp of surprise. “Daddy?” asked the satnav. It blinked with astonishment, just as it had echoed Harry’s own expressions when they’d first met, and Harry thought, I taught him that, I taught my little boy. And he squeezed hard. The fat little cheeks bulged even fatter, it looked as if the whole head was now a balloon about to pop. And then he pulled that little child to him as fast as he could — banging his head against the glass, thump, thump, thump, and the pain in his arm was appalling, but that was good, he liked the pain, he wanted it — thump one more time, and there was a crack, something broke, and the satnav said “Daddy,” so calm, so matter-of-fact — and then never spoke again.

He wound the window down further. He pulled in his broken baby boy.

He discovered that its entire back was covered with the same feathers that made up the wings. So for the next half hour he had to pluck it.

The first bite was the hardest. Then it all got a lot easier.

“Darling,” he said to Esther, but she wouldn’t wake up. “Darling, I’ve got dinner for you.” He hated the way she slept with her eyes open, just staring out sightless like that. And it wasn’t her face any more, it was the face of a cherub, of their dead son. “Please, you must eat this,” he said, and put a little of the creamy white meat between her lips; it just fell out on to her chin. “Please,” he said again, and this time it worked, it stayed in, she didn’t wake up, but it stayed in, she was eating, that was the main thing.

He kissed her then, on the lips. And he tasted what would have been. And yes, they would have gone to a safari park, and no, they wouldn’t have gone back to Venice, she’d have talked him out of it, but yes, America would have been all right. And yes, they would have had rows, real rows, once in a while, but that would have been okay, the marriage would have survived, it would all have been okay. And yes, children, yes.

When he pulled his lips from hers she’d been given her old face back. He was so relieved he felt like crying. Then he realised he already was.

The meat had revived him. Raw as it was, it was the best he had ever tasted. He could do anything. Nothing could stop him now.

He forced his legs free from under the dashboard, it hurt a lot. And then he undid his seatbelt, and that hurt too. He climbed his way to Esther’s door, he had to climb over Esther, “sorry, darling,” he said, as he accidentally kicked her head. He opened the door. He fell outside. He took in breaths of air.

“I’m not leaving you,” he said to Esther. “I can see the life we’re going to have together.” And yes, the head was on a bit funny, but he could live with that. And she had wings, but he could pluck them. He could pluck them as he had his son’s.

He probably had some broken bones, he’d have to find out. So he shouldn’t have been able to pick up his wife in his arms. But her wings helped, she was so light.

And it was carrying Esther that he made his way up the embankment, up through the bushes and brambles, up towards the road. And it was easy, it was as if he were floating — he was with the woman he loved, and he always would be, he’d never let her go, and she was so light, she was as light as feathers, she was as light as air.

Robert Shearman

Robert Shearman, photo by Ellen Datlow

Robert Shearman has written five short story collections, and collectively they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize and three British Fantasy Awards. He began his career in theatre, both as playwright and director, and his work has won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award, and the Guinness Award for Ingenuity in association with the Royal National Theatre. His interactive series for BBC Radio Four, The Chain Gang, ran for three seasons and won two Sony Awards. However, he may be best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA winning first series in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award.