Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Replacements

Walking through gray north London to the tube station, feeling guilty that he hadn’t let Jenny drive him to work and yet relieved to have escaped another pointless argument, Stuart Holder glanced down at a pavement covered in a leaf-fall of fast-food cartons and white paper bags, and saw, amid the dog turds, beer cans, and dead cigarettes, something horrible.

It was about the size of a cat, naked-looking, with leathery, hairless skin and thin, spiky limbs that seemed too frail to support the bulbous, ill-proportioned body. The face, with tiny bright eyes and a wet slit of a mouth, was like an evil monkey’s. It saw him and moved in a crippled, spasmodic way. Reaching up, it made a clotted, strangled noise. The sound touched a nerve, like metal between the teeth, and the sight of it, mewling and choking and scrabbling, scaly claws flexing and wriggling, made him feel sick and terrified. He had no phobias; he found insects fascinating, not frightening, and regularly removed, unharmed, the spiders, wasps, and mayflies which made Jenny squeal or shudder helplessly.

But this was different. This wasn’t some rare species of wingless bat escaped from a zoo, it wasn’t something he would find pictured in any reference book. It was something that should not exist, a mistake, something alien. It did not belong in his world.

A little snarl escaped him, and he took a step forward and brought his foot down hard.

The small, shrill scream lanced through him as he crushed it beneath his shoe and ground it into the road.

Afterward, as he scraped the sole of his shoe against the curb to clean it, nausea overwhelmed him. He leaned over and vomited helplessly into a red-and-white-striped box of chicken bones and crumpled paper.

He straightened up, shaking, and wiped his mouth again and again with his pocket handkerchief. He wondered if anyone had seen, and had a furtive look around. Cars passed at a steady crawl. Across the road a cluster of schoolgirls dawdled near a man smoking in front of a newsagent’s, but on this side of the road, the fried chicken franchise and bathroom suppliers had yet to open for the day, and the nearest pedestrians were more than a hundred yards away.

Until that moment, Stuart had never killed anything in his life. Mosquitoes and flies, of course, other insects probably, a nest of hornets once, that was all. He had never liked the idea of hunting, never lived in the country. He remembered his father putting out poisoned bait for rats, and he remembered shying bricks at those same vermin on a bit of waste ground where he had played as a boy. But rats weren’t like other animals; they elicited no sympathy. Some things had to be killed if they would not be driven away.

He made himself look to make sure the thing was not still alive. Nothing should be left to suffer. But his heel had crushed the thing’s face out of recognition, and it was unmistakably dead. He felt a cool tide of relief and satisfaction, followed at once, as he walked away, by a nagging uncertainty, the imminence of guilt. Was he right to have killed it, to have acted on violent, irrational impulse? He didn’t even know what it was. It might have been somebody’s pet.

He went hot and cold with shame and self-disgust. At the corner he stopped with five or six others waiting to cross the road, and because he didn’t want to look at them, he looked down.

And there it was, alive again.

He stifled a scream. No, of course it was not the same one, but another. His leg twitched; he felt frantic with the desire to kill it, and the terror of his desire. The thin wet mouth was moving as if it wanted to speak.

As the crossing-signal began its nagging blare, he tore his eyes away from the creature squirming at his feet. Everyone else had started to cross the street, their eyes, like their thoughts, directed ahead. All except one. A woman in a smart business suit was standing still on the pavement, looking down, a sick fascination on her face.

As he looked at her looking at it, the idea crossed his mind that he should kill it for her, as a chivalric, protective act. But she wouldn’t see it that way. She would be repulsed by his violence. He didn’t want her to think he was a monster. He didn’t want to be the monster who had exulted in the crunch of fragile bones, the flesh and viscera merging pulpily beneath his shoe.

He forced himself to look away, to cross the road, to spare the alien life. But he wondered, as he did so, if he had been right to spare it.

• • • •

Stuart Holder worked as an editor for a publishing company with offices an easy walk from St. Paul’s. Jenny had worked there, too, as a secretary, when they met five years ago. Now, though, she had quite a senior position with another publishing house, south of the river, and recently, they had given her a car. He had been supportive of her ambitions, supportive of her learning to drive, and proud of her on all fronts when she succeeded, yet he was aware, although he never spoke of it, that something about her success made him uneasy. One small, niggling, insecure part of himself was afraid that one day she would realize she didn’t need him anymore. That was why he picked at her, and second-guessed her decisions when she was behind the wheel and he was in the passenger seat. He recognized this as he walked briskly through more crowded streets toward his office, and he told himself he would do better. He would have to. If anything drove them apart it was more likely to be his behavior than her career. He wished he had accepted her offer of a ride today. Better any amount of petty irritation between husband and wife than to be haunted by the memory of that tiny face, distorted in the death he had inflicted. Entering the building, he surreptitiously scraped the sole of his shoe against the carpet.

Upstairs two editors and one of the publicity girls were in a huddle around his secretary’s desk; they turned on him the guilty-defensive faces of women who have been discussing secrets men aren’t supposed to know.

He felt his own defensiveness rising to meet theirs as he smiled. “Can I get any of you chaps a cup of coffee?”

“I’m sorry, Stuart, did you want . . . ?” As the others faded away, his secretary removed a stiff white paper bag with the NEXT logo printed on it from her desktop.

“Joke, Frankie, joke.” He always got his own coffee because he liked the excuse to wander, and he was always having to reassure her that she was not failing in her secretarial duties. He wondered if Next sold sexy underwear, decided it would be unkind to tease her further.

He felt a strong urge to call Jenny and tell her what had happened, although he knew he wouldn’t be able to explain, especially not over the phone. Just hearing her voice, the sound of sanity, would be a comfort, but he restrained himself until just after noon, when he made the call he made every day.

Her secretary told him she was in a meeting. “Tell her Stuart rang,” he said, knowing she would call him back as always.

But that day she didn’t. Finally, at five minutes to five, Stuart rang his wife’s office and was told she had left for the day.

It was unthinkable for Jenny to leave work early, as unthinkable as for her not to return his call. He wondered if she was ill. Although he usually stayed in the office until well after six, now he shoved a manuscript in his briefcase and went out to brave the rush hour.

He wondered if she was mad at him. But Jenny didn’t sulk. If she was angry, she said so. They didn’t lie or play those sorts of games with each other, pretending not to be in, “forgetting” to return calls.

As he emerged from his local underground station, Stuart felt apprehensive. His eyes scanned the pavement and the gutters, and once or twice, the flutter of paper made him jump, but of the creatures he had seen that morning, there were no signs. The body of the one he had killed was gone, perhaps eaten by a passing dog, perhaps returned to whatever strange dimension had spawned it. He noticed, before he turned off the high street, that other pedestrians were also taking a keener-than-usual interest in the pavement and the edge of the road, and that made him feel vindicated, somehow.

London traffic being what it was, he was home before Jenny. While he waited for the sound of her key in the lock, he made himself a cup of tea, cursed, poured it down the sink, and had a stiff whiskey instead. He had just finished it and was feeling much better when he heard the street door open.

“Oh!” The look on her face reminded him unpleasantly of those women in the office this morning, making him feel like an intruder in his own place. Now Jenny smiled, but it was too late. “I didn’t expect you to be here so early.”

“Nor me. I tried to call you, but they said you’d left already. I wondered if you were feeling all right.”

“I’m fine!”

“You look fine.” The familiar sight of her melted away his irritation. He loved the way she looked: her slender, boyish figure, her close-cropped, curly hair, her pale complexion and bright blue eyes.

Her cheeks now had a slight hectic flush. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth and gave him an assessing look before coming straight out with it. “How would you feel about keeping a pet?”

Stuart felt a horrible conviction that she was not talking about a dog or a cat. He wondered if it was the whiskey on an empty stomach which made him feel dizzy.

“It was under my car. If I hadn’t happened to notice something moving down there, I could have run over it.” She lifted her shoulders in a delicate shudder.

“Oh, God, Jenny, you haven’t brought it home!”

She looked indignant. “Well, of course I did! I couldn’t just leave it in the street — somebody else might have run it over.”

Or stepped on it, he thought, realizing now that he could never tell Jenny what he had done. That made him feel even worse, but maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was just a cat she’d rescued. “What is it?”

She gave a strange, excited laugh. “I don’t know. Something very rare, I think. Here, look.” She slipped the large, woven bag off her shoulder, opening it, holding it out to him. “Look. Isn’t it the sweetest thing?”

How could two people who were so close, so alike in so many ways, see something so differently? He only wanted to kill it, even now, while she had obviously fallen in love. He kept his face carefully neutral, although he couldn’t help flinching from her description. “Sweet?”

It gave him a pang to see how she pulled back, holding the bag protectively close as she said, “Well, I know it’s not pretty, but so what? I thought it was horrible, too, at first sight . . .” Her face clouded, as if she found her first impression difficult to remember, or to credit, and her voice faltered a little. “But then, then I realized how helpless it was. It needed me. It can’t help how it looks. Anyway, doesn’t it kind of remind you of the Psammead?”

“The what?”

“Psammead. You know, The Five Children and It?”

He recognized the title, but her passion for old-fashioned children’s books was something he didn’t share. He shook his head impatiently. “That thing didn’t come out of a book, Jen. You found it in the street, and you don’t know what it is or where it came from. It could be dangerous, it could be diseased.”

“Dangerous,” she said in a withering tone.

“You don’t know.”

“I’ve been with him all day, and he hasn’t hurt me or anybody else at the office, he’s perfectly happy being held, and he likes being scratched behind the ears.”

He did not miss the pronoun shift. “It might have rabies.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Don’t you be silly; it’s not exactly native, is it? It might be carrying all sorts of foul parasites from South America or Africa or wherever.”

“Now you’re being racist. I’m not going to listen to you. And you’ve been drinking.” She flounced out of the room.

If he’d been holding his glass still, he might have thrown it. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing in and out slowly. This was worse than any argument they’d ever had, the only crucial disagreement of their marriage. Jenny had stronger views about many things than he did, so her wishes usually prevailed. He didn’t mind that. But this was different. He wasn’t having that creature in his home. He had to make her agree.

Necessity cooled his blood. He had his temper under control when his wife returned. “I’m sorry,” he said, although she was the one who should have apologized. Still looking prickly, she shrugged and would not meet his eyes. “Want to go out to dinner tonight?”

She shook her head. “I’d rather not. I’ve got some work to do.”

“Can I get you something to drink? I’m only one whiskey ahead of you, honest.”

Her shoulders relaxed. “I’m sorry. Low blow. Yeah, pour me one. And one for yourself.” She sat down on the couch, her bag by her feet. Leaning over, reaching inside, she cooed, “Who’s my little sweetheart, then?”

Normally he would have taken a seat beside her. Now, though, he eyed the pale, misshapen bundle on her lap and, after handing her a glass, retreated across the room. “Don’t get mad, but isn’t having a pet one of those things we discuss and agree on beforehand?”

He saw the tension come back into her shoulders, but she went on stroking the thing, keeping herself calm. “Normally, yes. But this is special. I didn’t plan it. It happened, and now I’ve got a responsibility to him. Or her.” She giggled. “We don’t even know what sex you are, do we, my precious?”

He said carefully, “I can see that you had to do something when you found it, but keeping it might not be the best thing.”

“I’m not going to put it out in the street.”

“No, no, but . . . don’t you think it would make sense to let a professional have a look at it? Take it to a vet, get it checked out . . . maybe it needs shots or something.”

She gave him a withering look and for a moment he faltered, but then he rallied. “Come on, Jenny, be reasonable! You can’t just drag some strange animal in off the street and keep it, just like that. You don’t even know what it eats.”

“I gave it some fruit at lunch. It ate that. Well, it sucked out the juice. I don’t think it can chew.”

“But you don’t know, do you? Maybe the fruit juice was just an aperitif, maybe it needs half its weight in live insects every day, or a couple of small, live mammals. Do you really think you could cope with feeding it mice or rabbits fresh from the pet shop every week?”

“Oh, Stuart.”

“Well? Will you just take it to a vet? Make sure it’s healthy? Will you do that much?”

“And then I can keep it? If the vet says there’s nothing wrong with it, and it doesn’t need to eat anything too impossible?”

“Then we can talk about it. Hey, don’t pout at me; I’m not your father, I’m not telling you what to do. We’re partners, and partners don’t make unilateral decisions about things that affect them both; partners discuss things, and reach compromises, and . . .”

“There can’t be any compromise about this.”

He felt as if she’d doused him with ice water. “What?”

“Either I win and I keep him, or you win and I give him up. Where’s the compromise?”

This was why wars were fought, thought Stuart, but he didn’t say it. He was the picture of sweet reason, explaining as if he meant it: “The compromise is that we each try to see the other person’s point. You get the animal checked out, make sure it’s healthy, and I, I’ll keep an open mind about having a pet, and see if I might start liking . . . him. Does he have a name yet?”

Her eyes flickered. “No . . . we can choose one later, together. If we keep him.”

He still felt cold and, although he could think of no reason for it, he was certain she was lying to him.

• • • •

In bed that night as he groped for sleep, Stuart kept seeing the tiny, hideous face of the thing screaming as his foot came down on it. That moment of blind, killing rage was not like him. He couldn’t deny he had done it, or how he had felt, but now, as Jenny slept innocently beside him, as the creature she had rescued, a twin to his victim, crouched alive in the bathroom, he tried to remember it differently.

In fantasy, he stopped his foot, he controlled his rage, and, staring at the memory of the alien animal, he struggled to see past his anger and his fear, to see through those fiercer masculine emotions and find his way to Jenny’s feminine pity. Maybe his intuition had been wrong, and hers was right. Maybe, if he had waited a little longer, instead of lashing out, he would have seen how unnecessary his fear was.

Poor little thing, poor little thing. It’s helpless, it needs me, it’s harmless so I won’t harm it.

Slowly, in imagination, he worked toward that feeling, her feeling, and then, suddenly, he was there, through the anger, through the fear, through the hate to . . . not love, he couldn’t say that, but compassion. Glowing and warm, compassion filled his heart and flooded his veins, melting the ice there and washing him out into the sea of sleep, and dreams where Jenny smiled and loved him, and there was no space between them for misunderstanding.

• • • •

He woke in the middle of the night with a desperate urge to pee. He was out of bed in the dark hallway when he remembered what was waiting in the bathroom. He couldn’t go back to bed with the need unsatisfied, but he stood outside the bathroom door, hand hovering over the light switch on this side, afraid to turn it on, open the door, go in.

It wasn’t, he realized, that he was afraid of a creature no bigger than a football and less likely to hurt him; rather, he was afraid that he might hurt it. It was a stronger variant of that reckless vertigo he had felt sometimes in high places, the fear, not of falling, but of throwing oneself off, of losing control and giving in to self-destructive urges. He didn’t want to kill the thing — had his own feelings not undergone a sea change, Jenny’s love for it would have been enough to stop him — but something, some dark urge stronger than himself, might make him.

Finally, he went down to the end of the hall and outside to the weedy, muddy little area which passed for the communal front garden and in which the rubbish bins, of necessity, were kept, and, shivering in his thin cotton pajamas in the damp, chilly air, he watered the sickly forsythia, or whatever it was that Jenny had planted so optimistically last winter.

When he went back inside, more uncomfortable than when he had gone out, he saw the light was on in the bathroom, and as he approached the half-open door, he heard Jenny’s voice, low and soothing. “There, there. Nobody’s going to hurt you, I promise. You’re safe here. Go to sleep now. Go to sleep.”

He went past without pausing, knowing he would be viewed as an intruder, and got back into bed. He fell asleep, lulled by the meaningless murmur of her voice, still waiting for her to join him.

• • • •

Stuart was not used to doubting Jenny, but when she told him she had visited a veterinarian who had given her new pet a clean bill of health, he did not believe her.

In a neutral tone, he asked, “Did he say what kind of animal it was?”

“He didn’t know.”

“He didn’t know what it was, but he was sure it was perfectly healthy.”

“God, Stuart, what do you want? It’s obvious to everybody but you that my little friend is healthy and happy. What do you want, a birth certificate?”

He looked at her “friend,” held close against her side, looking squashed and miserable. “What do you mean, ʻeverybody’?”

She shrugged. “Everybody at work. They’re all jealous as anything.” She planted a kiss on the thing’s pointy head. Then she looked at him, and he realized that she had not kissed him, as she usually did, when he came in. She’d been clutching that thing the whole time. “I’m going to keep him,” she said quietly. “If you don’t like it, then . . .” Her pause seemed to pile up in solid, transparent blocks between them. “Then, I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”

So much for an equal relationship, he thought. So much for sharing. Mortally wounded, he decided to pretend it hadn’t happened.

“Want to go out for Indian tonight?”

She shook her head, turning away. “I want to stay in. There’s something on telly. You go on. You could bring me something back, if you wouldn’t mind. A spinach bhaji and a couple of naans would do me.”

“And what about . . . something for your little friend?”

She smiled a private smile. “He’s all right. I’ve fed him already.”

Then she raised her eyes to his and acknowledged his effort. “Thanks.”

He went out and got take-away for them both, and stopped at the off-license for the Mexican beer Jenny favored. A radio in the off-license was playing a sentimental song about love that Stuart remembered from his earliest childhood: his mother used to sing it. He was shocked to realize he had tears in his eyes.

That night Jenny made up the sofa bed in the spare room, explaining, “He can’t stay in the bathroom; it’s just not satisfactory, you know it’s not.”

“He needs the bed?”

“I do. He’s confused, everything is new and different, I’m the one thing he can count on. I have to stay with him. He needs me.”

“He needs you? What about me?”

“Oh, Stuart,” she said impatiently. “You’re a grown man. You can sleep by yourself for a night or two.”

“And that thing can’t?”

“Don’t call him a thing.”

“What am I supposed to call it? Look, you’re not its mother — it doesn’t need you as much as you’d like to think. It was perfectly all right in the bathroom last night — it’ll be fine in here on its own.”

“Oh? And what do you know about it? You’d like to kill him, wouldn’t you? Admit it.”

“No,” he said, terrified that she had guessed the truth. If she knew how he had killed one of those things, she would never forgive him. “It’s not true, I don’t — I couldn’t hurt it any more than I could hurt you.”

Her face softened. She believed him. It didn’t matter how he felt about the creature. Hurting it, knowing how she felt, would be like committing an act of violence against her, and they both knew he wouldn’t do that. “Just for a few nights, Stuart. Just until he settles in.”

He had to accept that. All he could do was hang on, hope that she still loved him and that this wouldn’t be forever.

• • • •

The days passed. Jenny no longer offered to drive him to work. When he asked her, she said it was out of her way and with traffic so bad a detour would make her late. She said it was silly to take him the short distance to the station, especially as there was nowhere she could safely stop to let him out, and anyway, the walk would do him good. They were all good reasons, which he had used in the old days himself, but her excuses struck him painfully when he remembered how eager she had once been for his company, how ready to make any detour for his sake. Her new pet accompanied her everywhere, even to work, snug in the little nest she had made for it in a woven carrier bag.

“Of course things are different now. But I haven’t stopped loving you,” she said when he tried to talk to her about the breakdown of their marriage. “It’s not like I’ve found another man. This is something completely different. It doesn’t threaten you; you’re still my husband.”

But it was obvious to him that a husband was no longer something she particularly valued. He began to have fantasies about killing it. Not, this time, in a blind rage, but as part of a carefully thought-out plan. He might poison it, or spirit it away somehow and pretend it had run away. Once it was gone, he hoped Jenny would forget it, and be his again.

But he never had a chance. Jenny was quite obsessive about the thing, as if it was too valuable to be left unguarded for a single minute. Even when she took a bath, or went to the toilet, the creature was with her, behind the locked door of the bathroom. When he offered to look after it for her for a few minutes, she just smiled, as if the idea was manifestly ridiculous, and he didn’t dare insist.

So he went to work, and went out for drinks with colleagues, and spent what time he could with Jenny, although they were never alone. He didn’t argue with her, although he wasn’t above trying to move her to pity if he could. He made seemingly casual comments designed to convince her of his change of heart, so that eventually, weeks or months from now, she would trust him and leave the creature with him — and then, later, perhaps, they could put their marriage back together.

One afternoon, after an extended lunch break, Stuart returned to the office to find one of the senior editors crouched on the floor beside his secretary’s empty desk, whispering and chuckling to herself.

He cleared his throat nervously. “Linda?”

She lurched back on her heels and got up awkwardly. She blushed and ducked her head as she turned, looking very unlike her usual high-powered self. “Oh, uh, Stuart, I was just — ”

Frankie came in with a pile of photocopying. “Uh-huh,” she said loudly.

Linda’s face got even redder. “Just going,” she mumbled, and fled.

Before he could ask, Stuart saw the creature, another crippled bat-without-wings, on the floor beside the open bottom drawer of Frankie’s desk. It looked up at him, opened its slit of a mouth and gave a sad little hiss. Around one matchstick-thin leg it wore a fine golden chain which was fastened at the other end to the drawer.

“Some people would steal anything that’s not chained down,” said Frankie darkly. “People you wouldn’t suspect.”

He stared at her, letting her see his disapproval, his annoyance, disgust, even. “Animals in the office aren’t part of the contract, Frankie.”

“It’s not an animal.”

“What is it, then?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“It doesn’t matter what it is, you can’t have it here.”

“I can’t leave it at home.”

“Why not?”

She turned away from him, busying herself with her stacks of paper. “I can’t leave it alone. It might get hurt. It might escape.”

“Chance would be a fine thing.”

She shot him a look, and he was certain she knew he wasn’t talking about her pet. He said, “What does your boyfriend think about it?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend.” She sounded angry but then, abruptly, the anger dissipated, and she smirked. “I don’t have to have one, do I?”

“You can’t have that animal here. Whatever it is. You’ll have to take it home.”

She raised her fuzzy eyebrows. “Right now?”

He was tempted to say yes, but thought of the manuscripts that wouldn’t be sent out, the letters that wouldn’t be typed, the delays and confusions, and he sighed. “Just don’t bring it back again. All right?”

“Yowza.”

He felt very tired. He could tell her what to do but she would no more obey than would his wife. She would bring it back the next day and keep bringing it back, maybe keeping it hidden, maybe not, until he either gave in or was forced into firing her. He went into his office, closed the door, and put his head down on his desk.

That evening he walked in on his wife feeding the creature with her blood.

It was immediately obvious that it was that way round. The creature might be a vampire — it obviously was — but his wife was no helpless victim. She was wide-awake and in control, holding the creature firmly, letting it feed from a vein in her arm.

She flinched as if anticipating a shout, but he couldn’t speak. He watched what was happening without attempting to interfere, and gradually she relaxed again, as if he wasn’t there.

When the creature, sated, fell off, she kept it cradled on her lap and reached with her other hand for the surgical spirit and cotton wool on the table, moistened a piece of cotton wool, and tamped it to the tiny wound. Then, finally, she met her husband’s eyes.

“He has to eat,” she said reasonably. “He can’t chew. He needs blood. Not very much, but . . .”

“And he needs it from you? You can’t . . . ?”

“I can’t hold down some poor, scared rabbit or dog for him, no.” She made a shuddering face. “Well, really, think about it. You know how squeamish I am. This is so much easier. It doesn’t hurt.”

It hurts me, he thought, but couldn’t say it. “Jenny . . .”

“Oh, don’t start,” she said crossly. “I’m not going to get any disease from it, and he doesn’t take enough to make any difference. Actually, I like it. We both do.”

“Jenny, please don’t. Please. For me. Give it up.”

“No.” She held the scraggy, ugly thing close and gazed at Stuart like a dispassionate executioner. “I’m sorry, Stuart, I really am, but this is nonnegotiable. If you can’t accept that, you’d better leave.”

This was the showdown he had been avoiding, the end of it all. He tried to rally his arguments, and then he realized he had none. She had said it. She had made her choice, and it was nonnegotiable. And he realized, looking at her now, that although she reminded him of the woman he loved, he didn’t want to live with what she had become.

He could have refused to leave. After all, he had done nothing wrong. Why should he give up his home, this flat which was half his? But he could not force Jenny out onto the streets with nowhere to go; he still felt responsible for her.

“I’ll pack a bag, and make a few phone calls,” he said quietly. He knew someone from work who was looking for a lodger, and if all else failed, his brother had a spare room. Already, in his thoughts, he had left.

• • • •

He ended up, once they’d sorted out their finances and formally separated, in a flat just off the Holloway Road, near Archway. It was not too far to walk if Jenny cared to visit, which she never did. Sometimes he called on her, but it was painful to feel himself an unwelcome visitor in the home they once had shared.

He never had to fire Frankie; she handed in her notice a week later, telling him she’d been offered an editorial job at The Women’s Press. He wondered if pets in the office were part of the contract over there.

He never learned if the creatures had names. He never knew where they had come from, or how many there were. Had they fallen only in Islington? (Frankie had a flat somewhere off Upper Street.) He never saw anything on the news about them, or read any official confirmation of their existence, but he was aware of occasional oblique references to them in other contexts, occasional glimpses.

One evening, coming home on the tube, he found himself looking at the woman sitting opposite. She was about his own age, probably in her early thirties, with strawberry-blond hair, greenish eyes, and an almost translucent complexion. She was strikingly dressed in high, soft-leather boots, a long, black woolen skirt, and an enveloping cashmere cloak of cranberry red. High on the cloak, below and to the right of the fastening at the neck, was a simple, gold circle brooch. Attached to it, he noticed a very fine golden chain, which vanished inside the cloak, like the end of a watch fob.

He looked at it idly, certain he had seen something like it before, on other women, knowing it reminded him of something. The train arrived at Archway, and as he rose to leave the train, so did the attractive woman. Her stride matched his. They might well leave the station together. He tried to think of something to say to her, some pretext for striking up a conversation. He was, after all, a single man again now, and she might be a single woman. He had forgotten how single people in London contrived to meet.

He looked at her again, sidelong, hoping she would turn her head and look at him. With one slender hand she toyed with her gold chain. Her cloak fell open slightly as she walked, and he caught a glimpse of the creature she carried beneath it, close to her body, attached by a slender golden chain.

He stopped walking and let her get away from him. He had to rest for a little while before he felt able to climb the stairs to the street.

By then he was wondering if he had really seen what he thought he had seen. The glimpse had been so brief. But he had been deeply shaken by what he saw or imagined, and he turned the wrong way outside the station. When he finally realized, he was at the corner of Jenny’s road, which had once also been his. Rather than retrace his steps, he decided to take the turning and walk past her house.

Lights were on in the front room, the curtains drawn against the early winter dark. His footsteps slowed as he drew nearer. He felt such a longing to be inside, back home, belonging. He wondered if she would be pleased at all to see him. He wondered if she ever felt lonely, as he did.

Then he saw the tiny, dark figure between the curtains and the window. It was spread-eagled against the glass, scrabbling uselessly; inside, longing to be out.

As he stared, feeling its pain as his own, the curtains swayed and opened slightly as a human figure moved between them. He saw the woman reach out and pull the creature away from the glass, back into the warm, lighted room with her, and the curtains fell again, shutting him out.

Lisa Tuttle

Lisa TuttleLisa Tuttle was born and raised in the United States, spent ten years in London, and now lives in a remote part of the Scottish highlands. She began writing while still at school, sold her first stories at university, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer of the year in 1974. Her first novel, Windhaven, was a collaboration with George R. R. Martin published in 1981; her most recent is the contemporary fantasy The Silver Bough, and she has written at least a hundred short stories, as well as essays, reviews, non-fiction, and books for children.