Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Dying Season

At dawn, the leisure resort was still and quiet, prefab cabins and trailers jumbled together and sleeping soundly, and along the harbour all was peaceful. The peace would not last; the unseasonably warm and sunny weather so late in the year as October, and particularly for an English seaside village, meant that soon it would be jammed with dog-walkers and families and couples strolling up and down the concrete seafront, taking in the last of the light and the warmth before winter closed in altogether. It was, on the face of it, an unbeautiful shoreline: massive concrete steps leading in low tide to piles of dead black seaweed washed up between large wooden groynes. But the dawn’s high tide meant that now the sea lapped the steps, while the colourful sailboats glistened in their moorings, the rows of pastel bathing huts were washed in the morning sun, and the sky was a skein of impossible blue with strips torn for clouds.

Sylvia headed up and away from the concrete harbour and to the nature trail that ran above the estuary. The horizon opened before her as she jogged along the scrubby grasses. Gulls wheeled overhead and the shore below was a wash of late-season pink thrift and purple sea lavender. The sea beyond sparkled.

The wind was stronger here and whipped her hair in her face. There was just the wind and the sound of her own breath, and that was a good thing, the tension that still clutched her body from the previous night draining out of her. Big gulps of the fresh salt air. She could run forever. She ought to run forever. She could do it, just vanish away; wasn’t the seaside magical enough for that? An Anglophiliac childhood in America, raised by an English mother, had taught her as much. Viking longships churn across the waters waiting to attack; Jamaica Inn shutters itself to guests and hides its secrets; Merriman Lyon waits by the standing stones, gazing out to sea. There might still be magic here to spirit her away. There might. If only she could run fast enough to catch hold of it.

“Goddammit,” John had said the previous night, shoving his plate away. “Why are you bringing that up again?” Today, she couldn’t even remember what that had been.

“I wasn’t,” she said. “I didn’t mean—,” but of course, she did mean, or he said she had, so what did any of it matter?

She ran harder. The tears leaked out the corners of her eyes and were lost on the wind. Now the rhythm of her run beat out two phrases. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Over and over, spoiling the morning, spoiling everything. Just like she always did.

“I’m trying to fix things here,” said John’s voice in her head. “I’m trying to make it up to you. Why won’t you work with me a little bit? Why won’t you help me out? What’s wrong with you?”

She wheeled round, heading back. She wasn’t alone on the trail anymore; as she ran, she drew even with and passed a couple. They both had jet-black hair, were thin and slight and poorly dressed for the weather, the girl in a filmy dress with bare arms, and her companion in an equally diaphanous shirt and thin trousers. Perhaps, she thought, they were tourists from someplace much warmer, tricked by the brightness of the day. The wind must have felt cutting to them, and she made a grimace of solidarity in their direction as she passed, but they ignored her.

Back at the leisure park, all of the cabins and trailers looked the same. John had been coming here with his parents since he was a child, so he knew exactly which one was theirs, but she’d had to memorize the twists and turns on the gravel pathway in order to find her way back, and even so, she found herself standing for a long time deciding between two cabins, unable to identify which was the right one. For a moment she had the mad idea that both were, or that she was choosing a destiny: walk into one, make the right choice, walk into the other, make the wrong one. But then she thought she heard music coming through the window of one, something classical that John listened to a lot, and what sounded like a child’s voice drifted from the window of the other.

“You’re just in time,” John said as she stepped in. He was wearing an apron and piling up food on a plate: bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes, a fried egg, a mound of toast. Her stomach clenched. She wasn’t hungry; she hated a large breakfast anyway. He knew that. But she couldn’t say. She couldn’t be difficult. Not now.

“Thought I’d walk up to the harbour in a bit myself,” he said, with what she told herself was not a forced casualness as she chewed her way methodically through meat, bread, more meat. “I need to check my email and I can’t get a signal in here. The signal’s better there.”

She was glad her mouth was full because it prevented her saying all the things she wanted to say: That’s funny my signal’s fine. Why are you really going to the harbour? Who are you phoning? I’ll come with you.

She ate as much as she could, but still knew he was going to be angry at her because it wasn’t enough and so despite everything she was relieved when he pushed his own plate away and said, “Right, back in a bit,” and headed out. She dumped what was left on her plate in the trash and washed the dishes, then sat for a while on the sofa listening to her stomach rumble unpleasantly.

A hammering at the door startled her so much that she simply stared through the glass for a moment or two at the girl on the other side of it. It was the girl from the nature trail. She’d changed into a shapeless hoodie over leggings, and her stringy dark hair framed a pale narrow face. She smiled in a way Sylvia thought was meant to be encouraging and friendly. It reminded her instead of the bared teeth of a monkey.

“I—hi, can I help you?” Sylvia said through the door, which felt standoffish but the girl gave her the creeps.

“We’re just in the cabin over there,” the girl said, nodding her head in a vague direction, and Sylvia detected what John would call a posh accent, “and we’re wondering if you’ve any milk we can borrow? Just for coffee.”

“Oh! Of course!” She still didn’t ask the girl in. She opened the door just enough to pass the mug of milk through, keeping the glass between them, then felt a rush of guilt for being so unfriendly and added, “My name’s Sylvia. I think I saw you up on the nature trail? Do you spend a lot of time here?”

But the girl was already turning away, saying something about family friends of her boyfriend. Sylvia watched her walk away up the gravel path but couldn’t see what cabin she went into.

She’d had time to shower and do her makeup by the time John returned. She resisted the urge to ask him something leading like, “Anything good in your email?” but she couldn’t help saying, “Something weird happened while you were gone.”

“Oh?” He was only half-listening, had picked up the remote and was flicking through a series of unpromising-looking programs.

“This girl came by to borrow some milk, but something about her bothered me.”

“Bothered you?” He finally looked over at her. “Did you say someone was bothering you?”

“No, I just mean there was something off about her I couldn’t put my finger on. She said she and her boyfriend were staying somewhere over that way—” waving her hand as vaguely as the girl had— “and that the place belonged to some family friends of her boyfriend, or something. But you know what I kept thinking? About those horror movies, you know, like the home invasion ones?” John loved horror movies, the more violent and gory the better. Sylvia hated them but watched them with him to appease him. “The ones where they go in and kill all the people and then act like they’re the ones who live in the house? I kept thinking the girl reminded me of one of those people.”

John kept channel surfing. After a moment he said distractedly, “That’s a bit mad.”

She said, “I know. I mean, I didn’t really think it. It’s just what it reminded me of. She seemed weird.”

John threw down the remote. “Fuck all on the telly as usual. I’m going to do some work and then let’s walk into the village. Get out a little bit.”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s where we went wrong yesterday. Too much time sitting around here getting on each others’ nerves.”

John said, “What are you talking about? Yesterday was fine.” Then he was gone, out of the room, and she heard the shower come on. While she waited for him, she went out on the porch to see if she could see the girl again, or anyone else, but there were no signs of life at the leisure resort at all. Even the child who’d been shouting from the nearby window had fallen silent. They might have been all alone there.

• • • •

John often worked remotely from his London office, and it allowed them the leisure to take off midweek from the city occasionally, just as they’d done this time. Sylvia lay in the bedroom and tried to read while he worked, but she couldn’t seem to focus on either of the books she’d brought.

She dozed off, and next thing she knew John was shaking her awake and saying they ought to take that walk. As they wandered up into the village and round a few indifferent shops she couldn’t get over the feeling that she was still dreaming. There wasn’t much to do in town, and she said they ought to pop into the Tesco and pick up something for dinner and head back, but John suggested they stop off at a pub. It was nice enough to sit outside even though the sun was setting. A group of men had commandeered the bar inside, but they were alone in the grassy garden.

“Funny listening to the conversations in there,” she said. “The one man was bragging, saying his missus had her own money and he had his, and they went out with their friends as they liked when they liked, and it wasn’t like before with Yvonne.”

“It’s just local people talking.”

“I know,” she said. “I didn’t mean anything—”

He said, “I know it’s not as witty and sophisticated as the things your artist friends talk about, but then maybe if you paid a little more attention to what people are really like you’d sell something.”

Once she would have bitten back at him in defense, but she had long since learned that such an exchange would be futile. Something passed between them. She thought, I’m going to leave him. She wasn’t sure yet when or how, but in that moment she knew it in her bones, and the knowledge was as irrevocable as knowing you had cancer or that it was raining outside or that you were another year older. As soon as she thought it, it became immutable truth.

He said, “Shall we have another?” like nothing was wrong, and she agreed. She could do this, she could play this agreeable part as long as she needed to. It was almost liberating, like being somebody else entirely. Send the real Sylvia away for a time and let some acquiescent creature take her place. Then behind her she heard someone say, “Oh, look, it’s our neighbours,” and she turned and it was the couple again. The girl was back in an unsuitable dress, this time a thin white one far too insubstantial for the chill edging in along with the dark. She had combed her dark hair and made up her pale face so that it was even paler, save for the dark smudge of her eyes and ruby lips. The two of them looked like a pair of vaguely out-of-date and out-of-place goths, slumming it.

The girl said, “I’m Lynne and this is Gabriel. Mind if we join you?” Of course they minded, but what on earth was there to say? And then Gabriel bought a round, so they were trapped. Still, Lynne and John appeared to be hitting it off, and John rarely hit it off with anyone. Sylvia leaned forward to Gabriel, who seemed always on the verge of smiling contemptuously at a joke only he was in on, and said, “Lynne was saying something about your cabin belonging to family friends—”

Lynne and John stopped the conversation they were having and fell silent, and Gabriel shrugged and said, “People Lynne’s parents know,” and Lynne turned that bared-tooth grin on her and nodded. “Just some people,” she said. “People we know.”

“I was asking,” Sylvia said, “because John’s been coming here since he was a little boy and it’s my first time and I keep getting lost. Do you have that problem? I guess at least if you walk into someone’s house around here, they’re not likely to shoot you like in America.”

Gabriel said, “Well, there are a lot of hunters and fishermen around here. Our cabin’s full of books about it, and trophies.” Was that the hint of a foreign accent she detected in his speech? She couldn’t tell. Anyway, they could go now, they’d had their pints, but John wouldn’t hear of leaving, he had to get the next round, and the evening passed into a haze just like that, two more pints turning into four more pints turning into who knew how many. Lynne said she was a clothing designer and Gabriel was—what was Gabriel? At first Sylvia thought it was something to do with new media, some kind of managing editor for a music publication online, but later there was something about his recording studio, so she wasn’t sure. She thought their circles in London must overlap someplace but when she threw out a handful of likely names they both shook their heads, looking bemused, smiles playing at the corners of their mouths. She was drunk. Why was she trying to make sense of anything?

Then it was last orders and she was laughing and leaning on John and the stars reeled overhead and it was just like things used to be and what had she been so upset about anyway? They should eat something, the four of them, and a Chinese takeaway across the street was still open. They ordered spring rolls and chicken with oyster sauce and chips and staggered back down through the town. John was walking up ahead with Lynne and she was lagging behind with Gabriel but she couldn’t think of anything to say to him and then the sea was off to their left and she could hear it, sighing softly, washing up against the shore. She wanted to run away from the three of them and toward it. She imagined it, black and cold and endless under the night sky, unpierced by the sliver of moon high above. Secretive. Safe.

“Aren’t you cold?” she called to Lynne up ahead of her, but Lynne didn’t seem to hear her, and Gabriel said, “She’s just like that, she doesn’t feel the cold. She doesn’t feel many things, really.”

“That’s a really odd thing to say,” Sylvia said, feeling suddenly much more sober. They turned right into the leisure park, into the maze, and Lynne and Gabriel made noises about inviting them over for a nightcap but John said no, he had a conference call early in the morning. She followed John to their cabin but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was leading them back to the wrong one. He went right at a point where she was sure he should have gone left, and she nearly said something. As he fumbled for the keys, she could see the living room through the glass sliding door just as they’d left it. It looked the same, but something was off about it, she was sure of it, something just outside her conscious memory: a piece of furniture moved a foot this way, a nearly-imperceptibly different shade of carpet. Of course that was silly. Even if she’d been correct about turning left, this place was such a maze that there was probably more than one way to get back to where you’d come from.

Inside, they set the takeaway on the counter and John kissed her hard and then he was pushing up her skirt and pushing aside her underwear and shoving himself inside her, there in the kitchen with the counter hard against her back. She gasped and lifted her head and that was when she saw Lynne, from the window over the sink, standing some yards away but staring in at them through the window, her pale face ghostly in the dark. Sylvia cried out and shoved him away, and he stumbled back, and it would have been comical if he weren’t so angry, but now there was no Lynne to be seen out there. Of course there was not. “What the hell?” John said, and she said, “I’m sorry. I thought I saw someone.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he said, and she said, “I know, I’m sorry,” but she’d set off another argument as usual, and then next thing she knew she was waking stiff and sore and tangled in bed sheets. Her head was pounding and for a few awful moments she could not remember where she was. The previous evening after the kitchen was nearly a blank: she could remember arguing, and trying to apologize—her, not John—and then not much after. She went into the kitchen for a drink of water and the plastic bag of Chinese food was still sitting there on the counter, untouched.

A run might clear her head. She headed out into a bright cold morning. This time the wind whipping across the sea had an icy quality to it, more so than the day before. It felt like an abrupt shift in the weather and the season, just as something had shifted in her the previous day. Across the water black storm clouds gathered.

As she ran up beyond the harbour to the nature trail the wind intensified, biting at her face, tearing the moisture from her eyes. It was too much. She turned, cutting the run short.

Back in the leisure village, she tried to retrace their steps from the previous night, turning right where John had when she thought he should have turned left. She ended up in front of a cabin that looked like theirs, but it couldn’t be; the way hadn’t circled round, it had gone off in the opposite direction, and so she went back the way she’d come. This time she went right. Once again, the cabin looked the same, but now she must have been mistaken, there was something taped to the glass of the front door and there hadn’t been before. No, she couldn’t be wrong; she had followed this path every morning for the last three after her run.

The thing taped to their door was a note, written in an angry scrawl.

We could hear you last night, everybody could all around with your sex noises, and it was disgusting, this is a family place and we are here with our families not like you filthy people and your fucking. What are we supposed to tell our children.

Sylvia stood stunned, frozen, awash in a stew of emotions: shame, humiliation, fury, despair. She looked all around, as though whoever had delivered the note would be lurking nearby. The cabins all appeared deserted as ever. She went over to the one where she thought she’d heard the child’s voice from the window the previous day. Curtains were drawn across the glass door so she could not see inside, and she knocked tentatively. What she would say when someone answered she had no idea, but there was no response. She peeked through a window, which was uncurtained, and jumped back, startled.

The place was a tip; it appeared to have been ransacked, clothing and other items strewn across the floor, plates of rotting food stacked about. It looked as though no one had been in there for a long time.

It also looked much the same as their own cabin, from what she could tell under all the mess: roughly the same furniture layout, the same furniture even. Maybe all the cabins came furnished the same way and people didn’t bother to change them around.

Sylvia stumbled back. She ran back to their cabin and burst through the door calling, “John!” only to be confronted by a thunderous look; he was on the phone. Of course, the conference call. He made “go away” gestures to her like she was an unruly pet. She dropped the note on the carpet and fled into the shower, fled him, fled everything. She turned on the water as hot as she could stand and scrubbed till her skin was raw and it still wasn’t enough. Then John was hammering at the door. She cried, “Hang on!” but he shoved it open anyway, shouting, “What the hell is this?” and when she peeked round the shower curtain he was waving the note at her like it was her fault.

She shut the water off and grabbed her towel, winding it round. “It was on the door. Someone had taped it to the door when I came back from my run. And John, I think there’s something wrong in the cabin beside us—”

“What the hell? Who the hell did this?” John rubbed his hand over his face. “How am I supposed to—I know the people here. They know my family. They’ve known me since I was a child. What am I supposed to do? How am I going to face them?”

She was aghast. “How are they going to face you, more like—John, that note’s insane. Who would do something like that? What’s wrong with people?”

She didn’t want to add that she couldn’t remember the previous night at all, after the argument in the kitchen; had they gone straight to bed? Had they been loud? Had they been so loud that people in other cabins could hear them? Her memory was clear, featureless blank, undisturbed even by fitful dreams.

John slammed the bathroom door, shaking the entire cabin. She waited there for several minutes and then crept out. She scurried across the hall to the bedroom and shut the door where she dressed quickly and began shoving things in her bag, her mind racing. She did not want to spend one more moment in his presence. She could push the bag out the window, stroll past John in the living room and say she was going for a walk, circle round and grab her things, walk into town, bus, train, home, back to their flat before he’d worked out she was truly gone as opposed to vanishing in a sulk for a few hours. She could then get anything important she needed and stay with a friend while she figured out what to do next.

She was still throwing things into her bag when John came in the room. “What are you doing?” he said. “Why are you packing? We’re not going to be driven out of here by anyone. We have just as much right to be here as anyone else.” She said, “I’m just trying to get organized,” but his questions deflated her. She thought of what it would take to run away from him, to leave him. Her head hurt and her body was exhausted and she just wanted to curl up and sleep for a very long time. She said, “Anyway, we need to get back to London soon,” and he said, “What for? Some dilettante friend of yours smearing herself with mud and writhing around on stage again?”

“Sarah’s not a dilettante,” she said, “and anyway it wasn’t mud it was—never mind.” She shoved the bag off the bed. There were better ways to leave him, better ways to make that plan once they’d returned to London. At the moment she needed sleep. The hangover she’d hoped to clear out with the run had taken hold with a vengeance. She crawled into bed and slipped almost immediately into a dream in which she was running along the shoreline, only instead of bathing huts it was lined with the leisure park’s cabins and trailers. All of them had fallen into disrepair. Some had their fronts torn off and the furniture inside was rotting and falling through floorboards. She kept thinking she just needed to get past them and up to the nature trail but she seemed to be running in circles, or they were just endless, and something was pacing her, just at her heels, though when she turned her head she couldn’t see anything. Then whatever the thing was grabbed her and started shaking her roughly, and John’s voice said, “Wake up. We’ve got a dinner invitation from Lynne and Gabriel,” and she swam groggily to the surface. Had she really slept the entire day away? She was starving, and realized she hadn’t eaten anything since the unwelcome breakfast the previous morning.

She crawled back out of bed and ran a comb through her hair. She looked terrible, puffy and worn. She was making herself a cup of tea in the kitchen when John came in and said they were already running late and had to go. “Five minutes,” she pleaded. “What, do we have a booking they’re going to give away if we aren’t punctual enough?” But he kicked up such a fuss that in the end she left her tea there cooling in its mug and followed him out.

She said, “How do you know which one is theirs anyway? I can barely find ours,” and he said, “They told me, they stopped by while you were sleeping.” She supposed that if you knew the leisure village well enough that certain things must serve as landmarks, but as far as she could tell, they were just walking in circles past the same cabins. John came up in front of one that was exactly like all of the others and said in a satisfied voice, “Here we are!”

“Welcome!” Lynne said, opening the door to them, and as they went inside she felt vaguely disappointed at how ordinary this cabin was too. Table, chairs, a couple of sofas, a television, a gas fire flickering warmly and a kitchenette off the one side.

She said, “It looks almost exactly like ours.”

“Oh, yes, they’re all the same,” Lynne said vaguely, but there were some differences. Gabriel had mentioned hunting but not taxidermy though it, too, was clearly a hobby of the owner as evidenced by several somewhat worn-looking birds—she identified a pheasant, a mallard—mounted on solid bases on the mantle. A shelf near the fireplace held books on the topic along with manuals about angling and hunting.

“Hope you like curry,” Gabriel said from the kitchen, and they all agreed that yes, they liked curry, and Lynne brought them wine and they sat on the sofa and Sylvia drank the first glass much too fast, but afterward she felt calmer. Lynne poured her a second and she sat back. The room was warm and the curry smelled so good and maybe John was right. Maybe she needed to relax. Maybe things were in her head. Maybe she was the problem after all.

She was lost in thought and paying no attention to the conversation around her—this was another thing that drove John mad—when she realized John was reading something. It was the note that had been taped to their door.

She said, “John, don’t!” but it was too late, and no one was paying attention to her anyway. Her face flamed at hearing the words spoken, and remembering the shock she’d felt on first seeing it, but the other three did not seem to share her sense of humiliation and outrage, least of all John who’d been so angry in front of her. Lynne turned toward her while they were all still laughing and it occurred to her that what bothered her about Lynne’s smile was that all of her teeth were too small. They looked like two tiny, even rows of baby teeth in an adult mouth, an adult face.

She murmured, “Sorry, where’s your bathroom?” even though she knew based on the identical layout of their own cabin, but they didn’t hear her anyway, so she got up and slipped into the hallway and tried the first door, the one that was the main bathroom in their cabin. It appeared to be locked. Out of curiosity she tried another door, one she knew must lead to a bedroom, and it was locked as well. She stood indecisively for a moment or two in the hallway until their laughter reached her again, and then she tried the third door. She knew from the layout of their own place that it would be a bedroom with a half bath just off of it.

This door opened, and the light switch illuminated a plain room that appeared unused. Just a bed, a bureau and no personal items. There was a shelf above the bed with more books on it about hunting and mounted on the wall above that, dominating the room, the pale skull of something with enormous antlers. It must have been a stag, she thought, with its hollow eyes and jagged opening that she guessed must be the snout, the nasal cavity, but which looked like a shrieking mouth.

Imagine how restful a night you’d have with that over your head. In the bathroom, she washed her face and hands and looked at herself in the mirror for a long time. She didn’t recognize the face that looked back; her eyes looked as hollow as those of the poor dead stag. The wine and heat had flushed her cheeks, but it was an unhealthy, feverish flush. She shouldn’t drink any more, certainly not before eating something.

She deliberately did not look in the direction of the skull again, and back in the living room, no one seemed to have even noticed she’d left. Gabriel was dishing up dinner at last, heaps of basmati rice and rich yellow curry, and she fell on it ravenously.

“Easy,” John said to her, “it’s not going anywhere,” and she stopped, embarrassed, and Gabriel tried to smooth it over by saying, “It’s nice when someone appreciates your cooking” but that only made her feel more self-conscious. Lynne, poking in a desultory way at her plate with one fork and twirling a wine glass with her other hand, said, “You must not look at goblin men, you must not buy their fruit.”

Sylvia said, “What?”

“It’s from the Rossetti poem,” Gabriel said. “You know, you aren’t supposed to eat fairy food or you’ll be trapped with them forever. Lynne and I were working on a project a while ago based around it.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean we’re stuck here at the leisure park for the rest of our days,” Sylvia said, and they all laughed. It must have been too much wine on an empty stomach that made her add, “You know, I had the funniest thought when I first saw Lynne. That you two didn’t belong here. That you’d done something with the people who really lived here and just made yourselves at home.”

As soon as it was out she regretted it, but they were laughing again, thank goodness they all laughed, and Gabriel said, “Not sure you’d have to kill anyone to move into one of the cabins this time of year, it’s all pretty easy pickings,” and they all laughed more. She joined them, though she didn’t even know why.

“That reminds me,” she said. “One of the trailers near us, I think someone might have broken into it actually. It looks like it was ransacked or something. Is there some kind of security here?”

“The Liddells,” said Lynne, and nodded solemnly. “There was some trouble there, actually.”

Gabriel nodded. “The father. He went a bit mad—it was awful, the police came and everything. They took him away.”

“That surprises me,” John said. “I’ve known the Liddells for years. I’d never imagine something like that from them.”

“Well, you know,” Lynne said solemnly. “They say you just can’t tell with families.”

They all sat silently for an appropriate moment or two contemplating the sad fate of the Liddells, and Sylvia said, “What about these people, John?”

“What about them?”

“You know just about everyone around here—do you know Gabriel and Lynne’s friends, that this cabin belongs to?”

John looked blank for a moment, then shook his head. “It’s a big place. A lot of people are transient. I don’t know everyone, just the regulars right around my family’s cabin.”

“You weren’t kidding about the enthusiastic hunting,” Sylvia said. “That’s quite a trophy, the stag back there,” and she inclined her head in the direction of the rest of the cabin.

“Oh, yes, that,” Lynne said.

“It’s kind of creepy,” Sylvia said, and John said, “A stag?” and Lynne said, “You should see it, John. Come on back, I’ll show it to you.”

Sylvia and Gabriel sat in silence after they had gone. Finally Gabriel broke it by asking if she wanted more curry and she said no, she’d had enough, and they continued to sit there.

“Taking their time,” she said with a nervous laugh, “it’s not that much to look at,” and, “I’m going to see what they’re up to” and Gabriel said, “I really wouldn’t if I were you.”

“What do you mean by that?” It felt like the first honest thing she’d said to anyone in days.

“It makes you look clingy and suspicious,” Gabriel said. “I don’t think John would like that. I know Lynne wouldn’t.”

She thought then of all the things she ought to say. Things prefaced by arch remarks like I beg your pardon or even a properly-inflected excuse me? She did not say anything. She and Gabriel sat there and waited and they looked at each other, and she thought how small and strange he was, imagined his pale face a mask to hide a hideous creature beneath it.

Gabriel said, “What do you think they’re doing back there anyway? It’s not what you think.”

“How do you know what I think?” she said, but even as the words were out she felt like she knew his answer, that he knew exactly what she thought, that he knew everything about her, and John too, that they both did and had since their encounter on the nature trail the previous morning. That she ought never to have looked upon them in the first place, or given them something of hers and John’s—the mug, the milk—or eaten their goblin fruit. As soon as John came back they would leave. She would make sure of it. Even if she had to make a scene, a terrible embarrassing scene no one would ever forgive her for, and what did she care what any of the other three thought about her anyway?

She said, “I hate this time of year. Everything coming to an end. It depresses me.”

“I guess it all depends on how you look at things.”

“What other way is there?”

He shrugged. She guessed that he wasn’t really in the mood for conversation.

An unsettling chill had settled over the cabin despite the merrily burning gas fire. Any moment now John would emerge with Lynne and she would insist that they go home. Not just back to the cabin, but home-home, all the way back to London; there was still time to catch the last bus and the last train if they were quick about it. Or—she could just leave.

“I feel sick,” she said, and set her wine glass down. “I have to go. Tell John I’ll see him back at the cabin.” She was entirely done with social niceties, and without another word she stepped out the door into a night so black and cold that it momentarily seized her breath. The moon sliver from the previous night had been swallowed up by clouds, and she was forced to make her way nearly blind. She knew she was on the path because she felt its gravel under her feet, but then there was grass, so now she must be wandering between cabins. Then she no longer cared about finding her way back to the cabin at all, only out of the leisure park. If she could get to the main road, and the harbour, and into town, she had her purse with her and she could buy a ticket or even thumb a lift if it came to that.

She dug her phone from her pocket so she could use its light, but the battery icon was red and draining fast. On impulse she thumbed John’s number, but his phone simply rang and rang and his voice told her to leave a message or send a text if it was urgent. Then the screen went black. She could hear the sea nearby, and she moved toward the sound with the certainty that if she could get near enough to the sea, she would be safe, but the sound, or her ears, deceived her, shifting, now behind her, now before her.

When the clouds above parted at last, the feeble light of the faraway moon revealed that she was at the edge of the leisure park. The cabins behind her waited, and across the black strip of road the sea would be surging against the concrete steps of the harbour. She had the idea that she had emerged into some kind of purgatory, that she might wander an eternity among the empty cabins, but then a car’s oncoming lights loomed up ahead and she stepped to the roadside and put out her thumb. To her surprise, the car came to a stop. A worried-looking middle-aged woman popped her head out of the window. “You lost, love?” she asked. Sylvia said, “I don’t know, I need to get to the train station,” and the woman said she was on her way to Colchester and would that do? Sylvia said yes, of course it would.

As they sped away, she imagined John might have gone to look for her by now, might have discovered she was not back at the cabin. She felt she owed the woman some explanation, so she said, “Thank you. I had a fight with my partner. I just want to go home now and talk it over with him later,” and the woman said, “You don’t need to explain, love, these things happen.” Sylvia pulled out her dead phone again and looked at it, wishing she could ring John and make sure he was okay. The woman commented that it was very late in the year and hadn’t the leisure park shut down for the winter? Sylvia found she could not answer her. She could not speak again at all, except to thank the woman who drove her right up to the station, where she bought a ticket with minutes to spare. She ran down the platform to her train, dodging other travellers and their piles of luggage, but she could not shake the feeling that she was no longer real, that if she touched anyone, she would vanish like the mist rising off the pavement. She leapt aboard her train and was still making her way down the aisle as it eased out of the station.

Then the lights of the station were behind them, and the sound of the engine was the sound of the sea, and they were gliding into a night that was dark, and secret, and uncharted.

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Lynda E. Rucker

Lynda Rucker

Lynda E. Rucker grew up in a house in the woods in Georgia full of books, cats and typewriters, so naturally, she had little choice but to become a writer. She has sold more than 30 short stories to various magazines and anthologies including F&SF, Nightmare Magazine, The Year’s Best Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Year’s Best Horror and Dark Fantasy, Supernatural Tales, and Postscripts among others and has had a short play produced as part of an anthology of horror plays on London’s West End. She won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story and is a regular columnist for UK horror magazine Black Static. Her first collection, The Moon Will Look Strange, was released in 2013 from Karōshi Books, and her second, You’ll Know When You Get There, was published by Ireland’s Swan River Press in 2016.