Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Owl

Walk continuously around a tree with an owl in it: the owl will keep its eye on you until it has wrenched off its own head.

He couldn’t remember where the words had come from, but he knew they were old and the last time he had heard them he could have been little more than five years of age.

Luc, the estate agent, turned the stiff corpse of the barn owl over with his foot so that they could all get a better view. “Hibou,” he said, and smiled, almost apologetically. “This place, they have lots of owl.”

“One less, now,” Ian said.

“Yes, well,” Molly said, giving him a look. “No need to go stating the obvious, is there? Poor thing. It’s beautiful.”

“It won’t be for long,” Ian said, and wished he’d kept his mouth shut. She was right: the bird was beautiful. He had never been this close to an owl before, and was struck by the size of its head, how round it was. Luc shuffled, clearly indicating that they should move on. There was much more of the house to see and dusk was pouring oil over the garden; soon it would be too dark to see anything.

“I forget my torch,” he said, and shrugged. “This house has good electric. But not switched on at present. Come.”

They proceeded up a makeshift wooden staircase that would not be safe for too much longer; tiny holes were scattered across the grain, fresh frass on the floorboards. Ian felt his wallet wince. He plucked at Molly’s sleeve. “This whole house . . . you know, we’re going to have to get it all treated for woodworm.”

She moved away from him, clearly annoyed by his pettifogging. “I’ll wait here. I’m not going up there, not in my condition.”

Ian followed Luc up into the attic. He couldn’t speak much French, beyond Bonjour, ça va? Au revoir, so the atmosphere grew slightly strained, despite his liking the estate agent. Luc was pointing at the curious circular windows low on the wall, a peculiarity of the Charente region. “Très jolie, non?”

“Like portholes,” Ian said.

Luc smiled, frowned, shook his head.

“Never mind.” There wasn’t much else to see in the attic, except for the awkward, low beams and a few rotting batons that would need to be tackled quickly if they weren’t to deteriorate further over the coming winter.

“Good space for children,” Ian said to Molly as he carefully returned down the stairs. He pressed his hand against the firm swell of her belly, and kissed her cheek.

The storms in the Charente were spectacular affairs, Ian had been promised. He had always fancied himself as a stormchaser, and harbored a wish to one day visit Tornado Alley, go in search for some big game like the guys he saw on the Discovery Channel. There was something about lightning and the brightness in the sky turned right down that appealed to a raw and ancient part of him. The lowing of thunder, miles away, getting closer. The air pressure, grinding down on you.

In the Charente, the flat countryside offered nothing upon which the storms might spend themselves. They drifted away but then they might come back again. On very rare occasions, two storms might gather in the same area, and revolve around each other. One of these broke the first night they spent in the house, after the contracts had been signed in the presence of the solicitor in Matha, the nearest town to their little village.

“It’s a double-yolker,” Ian said, face pressed against the window of what they had chosen for their bedroom, a ridiculously large room that could have easily accommodated a walk-in wardrobe and an en suite bathroom and still left them with more space than they had known in their one-bedroom flat in London. “Listen to that thunder. It’s practically on top of us.”

Molly was lying on the inflatable bed, watching the steam rise from her mug of raspberry leaf tea. She was trying to read a book about herbal remedies especially aimed at pregnant women but the candlelight was too faint, or too agitated for her to concentrate properly, because she gave up after only a short while, tossing the book to the side of the bed. She ran a hand through her hair. The fingers of her other hand were absently toying with her belly button, which had recently become convex. Ian had altered the depth of his focus so that he could watch her reflection in the window, her transparent face blitzed by raindrops. He liked the way she always seemed to be able to find the most comfortable position with apparently minimum effort. In this way, she reminded him of a cat. She could fall asleep anywhere. There was a photograph of her as a young girl, half hanging out of a wicker chair, her head almost touching the floor, as content in sleep as she might have been in a deluxe bed.

They had met on Brighton beach, a little over two years previously. She had been kneeling on the shingle in such a bizarre way—her almost supernaturally long legs somehow splayed out and tucked beneath each other—that it seemed more like a torture than a position of rest. The first time they made love, she had hooked her legs over his shoulders and then, hushing his protests, detached herself from him, lifted herself up on her neck muscles alone, twisted around and lowered herself slowly into a new position, presenting her rear to him, laughing deeply in the dark. She seemed double-jointed, treble-jointed. She folded herself around him like strange origami.

“I love you,” he said, the words falling out of him, coming from somewhere beyond his control, fuelled by the sentiment in his memories. Rain, like buckshot, scattered across the glass. The sky was so alive with pulses of lightning now, constant, random, that it could pass for day.

Molly laughed and reached out her hand to him. He could not remember the last time he had told her he loved her, and didn’t know whether that was a good thing. He joined her on the inflatable bed and she pressed his hand against her stomach, the skin as tight as that on a drum. “Say hello to the baby,” she whispered. He did so, touching his lips to that warm curve, passing on a message of love, of hope.

“Hello, baby . . . Daddy here . . .”

Molly moved against the tickle of his mouth, gently touching his face with her fingers, nudging him lower.

Some time later, the storm having finally tired itself out, they lay awake, listening to each other breathing in the dark, and the beat of water as it leaked from the roof onto the attic floor above them.

“I wonder if all the houses, even the ones in good order, have leaks?” Ian said.

“This house is in good order,” Molly said. “Or it will be soon. There’s a lot of work needs doing, but we knew that at the start, when we first talked about this, remember?”

He remembered, but their moving here seemed to have come around so quickly. Too quickly, for him. He had been happy in their one bedroom flat, even though the space seemed to shrink around them by the day. “I’m a DIY dunce, Mol,” he said. “I see a claw hammer, I don’t know if I should hit something with it, or pick my teeth.”

“So you keep saying. But nobody is born with that kind of knowledge. You’ll learn. You’ll have to. We’ll have to.”

Sleep drew them down. Ian was on the edge of it, his thoughts deepening, fracturing into nonsense, into dreams, when the shriek slapped them both awake.

“What in Christ . . .” Molly was already up, standing at the window. Her naked body didn’t appear pregnant from behind. A boy, that means, she had said. A bulge out in front, that’s a boy. Light from the floods trained on the church outlined her. From where he lay, perched on one elbow, he could see a great sweep of stars spraying out across the sky, like spilled sugar on a dark tablecloth.

“Bats?” Ian asked.

“Maybe. Maybe owls.”

“Owls make that kind of noise? I thought they hooted. It sounds like someone being torn apart.”

He saw her shrug. “Maybe it was. I’m no wildlife expert. Maybe it was a rabbit or a mouse being killed. Maybe it was the local cat being fucked. Maybe it was somebody’s hinges need oiling.”

He could never tell, when Molly was in this mood, whether she was merely teasing him or being more aggressively dismissive. He was aware that his questions tended to be on the pointless side, begging, for the most part, confirmation of something already said. It needled him that, two years on—married, with a kid on the way—he still did not know his wife as well as he felt he ought to.

The noise came again, a truly creepy rasp vented somewhere from the lime trees that shivered outside their window, and Ian saw how it could not possibly belong to an animal being hunted. It was a predator’s cry. It was what bloodlust sounded like.

“Come back to bed,” he said.

He dreamed of climbing the church tower from within. It was an old building—thirteenth century—and the interior stone, though initially pale and attractive, was, up close, failing rapidly. A wooden staircase took him only so far. He had to ascend the remaining darkness by a rickety ladder, some of the rungs of which had rotted away and been replaced by lengths of rusting iron, or sawn-off shafts of broom handles. The smell of bird shit was intense; it burned his nostrils. The netting, hung over the open arches to prevent the belltower from being invaded by wildlife, had decayed badly. It flapped ineffectually in the breeze. Night shifted beyond it like something that could be touched. As he reached the landing, a group of pigeons leapt nervously away from him, heads cocked, eyeing him with suspicion. He paused for a moment, the shape of the great bell within arm’s reach. Its stillness was all wrong. Its size and silence seemed to go in direct contradiction of all that was meant for it. As if in acknowledgment of his thoughts, the bell began to move. Slowly at first, the sound of the cord as it was tugged fizzed lightly against the chamfered apertures of the landing. The bell tipped this way and that, gathering pace, and fear tipped with it, filling the gaps in his body with cold until his temperature had dropped so drastically it seemed he could be nothing but vacuum. He didn’t want the bell to swing so violently. Not because of the immense sound that it would generate, but because it would mean he would be able to see through to the other side of the landing, and what waited there for him. He could not escape quickly enough. The pendulous slices showed him a scattering of picked corpses. The owl moved out of the shadows. It carried a dead rat in its beak. The owl’s eyes held Ian like the headlights of a car will trap a rabbit. With a claw, the bird raked open the rat’s stomach and half a dozen hairless, blind babies spilled from it.

Ian’s laboring breath wakened him, more so than the dream. He lay listening to Molly sleep and tried to unpick the dream of its threat before his discomfort grew to the extent that he would have to get up, switch on some lights, make tea.

Owls don’t leave bodies lying around like that. And not so big, either. The bones of their prey were evacuated in their spoors. Owl shit wasn’t scary. Christ, owls weren’t scary.

Before breakfast, still feeling jittery but much happier now that the night was over, Ian spent some time in the garden, acquainting himself with the flowers and shrubs as they solidified in the early morning mist. The field across the way was a featureless gray screen. The church tower was soft, like something captured out of focus on a camera. He paid it scant attention.

The hibiscus, the geranium, the hazel tree were known to him; pretty much everything else was not. Ivy scarred the walls and inserted damaging fingers under the pan tiles that protected them. The ground was covered with what seemed like thick grass, but it came away in great swatches when he pulled at it, like hair from the head of a person suffering from alopecia. The soil was stony, uncooperative. A tree had collapsed, possibly during one of the great storms, and a riot of ivy and convolvulus had knotted around it, anchoring it to the ground. The only tool he owned was a rusty scythe he had found lying in the grass. His own teeth were sharper. There was so much work, everywhere he looked, that it appeared insurmountable. He didn’t know where to begin.

And then Molly was at the window, pushing back the shutters, smiling down at him above that splendidly proud stomach, and he realized that it didn’t matter where he began. They had all the time in the world.

“What does a sodding starter motor look like, anyway?” he said, leaning over the Xantia’s engine, trying to find some sense in its weird steel and plastic codes. “Have a look at the manual.”

By the time they fired the engine up it was gone ten and the pleasant morning they had envisaged pottering around the market stalls of Saintes was steadily being eaten away. The N10, usually so quiet, a pleasure to drive along, was congested with great lorries. Added to that, the radio was asking him to input the security code and neither of them had noted down what it was when they picked the car up from the garage in Oxford.

“The guy who sold us this Shitroën, I’m taking a contract out on the bastard.”

Molly ignored him. She was leafing through a baby catalogue, marking items they needed with a red highlighter pen. More money they didn’t have. It didn’t seem to make things any better to consider these things essentials: a car seat, a travel cot, changing mats; at least he hadn’t yet bothered to work out how to convert Euros to Sterling. This way, the total would just be so many figures that he didn’t understand; it might make the pain of unfolding his wallet that bit more bearable.

They arrived in Saintes as the stallholders were in the process of packing away their produce. Hastily, Molly hurried to buy vegetables and a few cuts of meat for that evening’s meal, her easy way with the language never failing to impress Ian.

“Look at the cheeses,” he said. “My God. Look at what we’ve missed.”

“We can come again,” Molly said. “There’s always the market in Cognac we can go to. There’s even one in Matha, although I’ll have to find out when it’s on.”

The baby shop was on the other side of the market, on a one-way street. They passed the remaining few stalls, and their owners, who were hosing down their pitches and loading the last trays and cartons into their vans. A butcher wiped down his chopping blocks. Steel glinted. A pile of skinned rabbits gritted their teeth at Ian as they were tipped into a thick polythene bag. Their eyes seemed too big for the heads that contained them. Molly was hurrying on, aiming for a gap in the traffic. In the instant that Ian’s attention swung back to his wife, he saw another pile of peeled bodies being swept into storage. When he checked himself and stepped back to have another look, to confirm they were what he thought they were, the butcher flipped the latch off the awning and drew it across the service hatch.

By the time he opened the baby shop door, and navigated a path through the prams and buggies, Molly had already gathered a number of items under her arm that hadn’t been on the original list.

“What, do you want the baby to have nothing?” she asked, when he pointed out that their budget might not be sturdy enough to factor in these items.

“I didn’t say that,” he said. “But come on. Toys, nightlights. A bean bag. Hardly essentials, are they?”

She dropped the things at his feet. “You sort it out, then,” she said. He shrugged at the shop assistant as Molly slammed her way out of the shop.

“Je suis desolé,” he said, haltingly, and then paid for everything. He found her sitting outside a café on the Cours Reverseaux. She was sipping a latté and flicking through a magazine at speed. Not reading anything, hardly looking at the pictures, just needing something to do with her fingers to deal with her anger. Her left foot bounced against her right. He watched it. He watched the sun glinting on the silver ring that encircled her little toe, a present he had given her on their honeymoon in Bali.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but he had uttered the words too often for them to have any meaning.

She thawed a little, on the way back. It helped that he had bought something that wasn’t on the list either: a small toy owl. It had seemed fitting, somehow. A tribute to the dead creature.

The traffic had dispersed for the legendary French lunch; they made good time going back, and could enjoy more of the scenery now that there were no tailgating Renault drivers, or swerving HGVs to keep an eye on. Crumbling farmhouses; fields freshly opened by the tractors, the soil dark and dense, brown as wet leather; long gray roads. They turned on to one now, flanked by elm trees, an object lesson in perspective.

“Now there’s pretty for you,” Molly said.

“There are moves to pull trees like that down,” Ian said, and then mentally kicked himself for once again putting a downer on things. Why couldn’t he just agree occasionally? It was what she wanted to hear.

“Why?”

“Too dangerous. They hide the junctions joining the main road. So if a car comes out and you swerve so as not to hit it, there’s a tree waiting for you to wrap yourself around.”

Silence.

“But you’re right. Pretty. Reminds me of the opening titles to Secret Army.”

Molly returned to her baby magazines and her yoga manuals. Ian switched on the radio. Normally he could not stomach the inane Euro- pop that tumbled from the speakers, but anything was better than this atmosphere. But then, a few minutes later, the signal faded, replaced by a wall of static so dense that Ian had to lash out at the volume control.

“Jesus,” Molly said. “Do you mind?”

“It wasn’t my fault,” he said, but she had blanked him again. Ian swallowed against his rising anger—he didn’t want to get into a fight with Molly in her state—and tried tuning the radio to a different station. Static followed him, wherever he sent the dial.

“This bastard car,” he said. When he returned his full attention to the road, snapping off the radio with a curse, he flinched. A shaded figure was standing inches away from the Tarmac, a red fracture splitting his head. The fact that it was only a cardboard cut-out was no relief.

“Did you see that?” Ian asked. “Look, there’s some more.”

Single black figures, or pairs, were positioned by the road; they marched off into the distance, provocative, ineluctable, all of them with the same crude head injuries. Molly seemed unimpressed.

“They’re fantômes,” she said. “They’re a warning to drivers. They signify that there have been deaths on these roads. Violent deaths. So slow down and watch what you’re doing.”

Ian said nothing more on the drive home. He stopped off in Matha and bought an English newspaper, then popped into the local Bricomarché and bought a garden fork, a spade, some secateurs, a machete, and a pair of gloves.

“Ian,” Molly said, as he got back behind the wheel, “Look, I know we’re not going through the best of patches at the moment, but things will get better. What might help is if you lay off buying things that we don’t need.”

“The garden is in a mess, Molly. We need gardening equipment. What do you expect me to do? Kick the weeds into submission? Talk to them in a stern manner?”

“Darling, there’s no need to be facetious. The garden can wait. We need to sort out a room for the baby.”

“Which will be done.”

“I know it will, but not if you’re out in the garden all day.”

He swallowed, counted to ten. There was no question of him returning the gardening tools. Just let her have her moment. Let it slide over you.

“And those newspapers. They’re so expensive for what they are. Why don’t you just check out the Beeb’s website?”

Back home, he unloaded the car and made tea for them both. Molly watched him and then said she didn’t want any tea when he handed her a cup. Ian stared at her, but kept his mouth shut. He emptied the cup, rinsed it, grabbed his paper and his own tea, and headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I’m going for a shit. Is that okay with you?”

There were a couple of owl droppings on the cement floor of the hangar, he saw, as he was returning from the outhouse. He poked at them with his boot and they disintegrated: a tiny mandible, ribs like fishbones, half a skull, the size of a pistachio nut. Above him, a beam was spattered with white bird shit, like pointless graffiti. He suddenly found himself thinking of his child, safe and warm inside Molly. It had been this size once, smaller, even, and just as fragile. Its own bones as thin as an eyelash. A heart beating, the size of a pinhead. He entered the house determined to make things better. Molly was in the room they had chosen for the baby, chosen for its lack of a window, painting the roughly plastered walls.

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” Ian said. “The fumes. Here, let me—”

“Get away from me!” Molly’s eyes, in the gloom, glinted like scratched coal. The paint brush had become a weapon she held out in front of her. “Just leave me alone. I’ll have the baby without you, if that’s what it takes to be happy. I’m sick of doing everything around here while you swan off buying garden tools. I’m the only one preparing for this child. You haven’t even talked to me about what names you like.”

He was too taken aback to retaliate, or to reason with her. He moved away from her as she returned to the wall, streaking the plaster with fiercely applied strokes.

Crazed thoughts descended on him as he stepped into the garden, like the leaves that spiraled down from the disrobing trees. Leave now. Take the car and go. Fuck it. But the baby. The baby. Fuck it. She’ll leave you in the end and take the baby with her. Stick around for the birth and it will only be worse. It will be impossible to leave once you’ve held the child in your arms. Leave. Leave now.

An agonized cry caught in his throat. Tears of impotent rage made further nonsense of the wild garden. He stalked to the barn where he had stored his equipment and rammed his fingers into the gloves. He took the machete and walked around the house to the fallen bough. She couldn’t let go of anything he said; nothing he could do was good enough. Even this, trying to clear the garden of obstacles, she’d criticize. I’m stuck here toiling and you’re outside doing all the lovely creative stuff. Great. Thanks.

He attacked the naked limbs of the tree almost in a panic, shaking from the absurd interior arguments he was fashioning. Jesus, she wasn’t even around and he could get into a row with her. What did that mean? Nothing good, nothing good. The virgin blade chewed into the damp wood, squealing as he recovered it. The shocks that flew up his arm were welcome distractions. After a couple of minutes of senseless hewing, he stopped, exhausted. Despite the cold, sweat coated his forehead and steam was rising from his muscles.

At the point where the tree had split from its roots, a great mass of stinging nettles had sprouted. Thick climbers and thorny vines moved through it, reminding him of Walt Disney scenes of enchanted castles guarded by menacing flora. He snorted and lifted the blade again. And they lived happily ever after. This time he worked more systematically, lopping off the branches close to the trunk and stacking them in a pile to be either burnt on the spot once it had dried, or to be stored as kindling. He thrashed at the nettles until enough of the climbers and vines had been exposed to be able to get at them. After half an hour he had cleared a goodly portion of the tangle, and the underlying shape of the garden was coming through.

He felt calmer, and was beginning to enjoy himself, the sense of achievement as it grew, but the air was changing, deteriorating. The sky to the east was leaden, sucking all of the light into it. The hairs on Ian’s arms shifted slowly, like the legs of a cautious spider making itself known to something it hasn’t yet recognized on the web. A rumble shifted across the horizon.

The engine fired first time, thank God. He didn’t relish the prospect of asking Molly to help him start the car, and the inevitable queries. He didn’t bother closing the gates in case she was already on her way down to see where he was going. The country lane to the main road was less than a mile long; by the time he had covered it, rain was spitting against the windscreen. There was nothing else on the road. The countryside opened up around him. A village a couple of miles to his left was painted momentarily with gold through a rent in the black sheet. Rain hung like fishermen’s nets, trawling the skies in great swathes. It must be ten miles across. Beyond it, or within it—Ian couldn’t tell—a sudden trigger of lightning burnt everything onto his retina. It was followed almost immediately by the crash of thunder, so close it seemed it must split the sky above him. Ian heard it despite the protesting engine.

He pushed the car hard, hoping to intercept the storm as it passed over the N939. If he missed it, it would mean a pursuit along the smaller country thoroughfares, which would be impossible, especially if he had to slow down to fifty kph every time he hit a village. He wound down the window and was assaulted by the chill wind, the almost horizontal slanting of rain.

“Come on!” he screamed. “Come on!”

He took the car off the road at the top of a slight rise and parked without caring if he had spoiled the plowed patterns of the field, or whether he would be able to drive out of the mud when his adventure was over. He stumbled out of the car, unconsciously stooped because of the closeness of the sky. The darkness was alive. At its edges it trembled, where real light still existed, somehow compacted and intensified at the horizon, as if the pressure of the storm was affecting it. He could still make out the soft, black ribbons of rain as they approached, before they engulfed him and he became a part of their pattern. The howling of the wind went away as the storm’s heart settled over him and for a moment he could hear nothing, except for the beating in his own chest. It felt as though something invisible was being drawn up from the ground. He felt his testicles contract; the hairs on his nape standing to attention. He felt as if the sky was breathing him in. And then the sky opened under a brilliant slash of a knife that drove the grim colors away for a beat. Thunder collapsed around him, shaking him. Again he screamed, as hard as he could, but the sound was lost; his was a tiny voice, an insignificance. He slumped back against the car as the storm left him, now one, now three, now five miles further west, still violent, but already sounding weak to Ian’s ears. Rain continued to batter down, but he barely felt it. The sharp, almost sour taste of ozone flooded him. He felt alive for the first time in his thirty-odd years. He felt, somehow, defined. He watched the storm recede until it disappeared, and yet he stayed on, willing it to return, until the darkness around him no longer had anything to do with the weather.

When he arrived at the house, he found he could not remember his return journey. Maybe the electrical play had done something to his mind, short-circuited him, thrown a few switches. Maybe pure elation had wiped a little bit of him out. The clock on the dashboard read a quarter to midnight. He eased himself out of the car and trudged in the dark around to the front of the house. What he’d give for a hot, deep bath now, instead of the cold shower that was their only means of keeping clean. A cognac then, and a piece of last year’s Christmas cake. He’d take some tea up to Molly and tell her about the storm. He would apologize, and promise to make things right between them. The storm had scored a line beneath him. Things could change. He wanted the best possible start for their baby.

His clothes were strewn about the garden like the remains of bodies that had decomposed into the grass. The photograph of him and Molly on their wedding day was hidden behind a white star in the glass. His love letters to her were torn and discarded, fluttering at his feet. The front door was locked. He rapped on it, but Molly was either asleep, or ignoring him. He moved back from the door and looked up at the bedroom window. The shutters had been closed.

“Molly? Molly, please?” he hated the wheedling tone that edged his voice. But she wasn’t giving way this time.

Ian picked up his sopping clothes and the disintegrating cards and notes and dumped them in the outbuilding they were using for storage. He briefly considered spending the night in there, but it was cold, and there was an unpleasant smell of bleach from a sink where they washed their clothes. He went back to the car, shivering now. The storm had scoured the sky and it was eerily clean; there seemed to be more stars than the space they were studded into. Cold filled the gaps. Inside the car he started the engine and turned on the heating. It didn’t take long to warm up. He dragged a blanket from the boot through the access hatch in the back seat and wrapped it around him. He tried the radio. No static this time. There was a faint classical music station and he felt himself drifting as a soft, soothing piece played. He wondered vaguely who might have composed it, and what had driven him to do so.

As sleep came, he recalled the tableau from the road as the lightning’s flash photography trapped it in his mind. The village, the black wet strip of Tarmac, the sheets of rain, the trees like shocked things staggering back from the ghastly breath of the weather. There was something else there, something, in his excitement, that he had missed the first time. A fat cuneiform shape, arresting itself against the thermals, talons outstretched in a classic pose of predation.

A shriek startled him out of a dream that he could not fully recall, other than that it involved the machete, and dark parts of the garden that became more, not less, tangled as he scythed through to them. He moved in the seat and pain ricocheted through him like a hard steel ball in a game of bagatelle. His arms felt as if they had been wrenched into impossible positions, forced to do things beyond what human physicality ought to be able to achieve. They felt tenderized. His hands were raw and itchy, as they were when he washed lots of dishes in detergent without moisturizing them afterwards. Gingerly, he straightened and his gaze fell upon the rear-view mirror. In it he saw three figures reduced by the night to faceless mannequins: two close to the rear of the car, one further behind, almost at the great arched gate. All of them approached stiffly, incrementally, their outlines filled in with a black that was deeper than their surroundings. They seemed, somehow, damaged. The click that jerked him from his paralysis was his throat reacting as he tried to swallow.

He got out of the car. He got out of the car and he did not look back because to do that was to confirm his own madness. He would not allow that. There was nobody else in the grounds of his house. Ian stood by the car long enough for them to be able to touch him, if that was what they wanted, and then, feeling vindicated, walked to the front of the house. Dawn light had set fire to the lowest edge of the gloom, but it was damp and it burned slowly, coming on with the same terrible slowness as the figures he had seen. Thought he had seen. He tried the door and felt a bitter victory to find that it was unlocked. Molly had capitulated. He was being offered an unspoken invitation to return to the fold.

He passed through the kitchen, which smelled faintly of the previous night’s casserole, and he broke off a piece of stale baguette to take the edge from his enormous hunger. Food could wait. At the top of the stairs he smelled the fresh paint in the nursery and felt cold fingers of rooms seldom used reaching out to him. In the bedroom he switched on the light and was greeted by an empty bed, the covers torn away from it, lying in a pile in the middle of the floor.

“Molly,” he said, and his voice fell flat. Had she gone into labor while he was sleeping? Why didn’t she come to him in the car? Surely her troubles with him could be forgotten if their baby were on the way. She wouldn’t go to a neighbor for help instead, would she? Their first baby. How could she not want him with her?

He hurried downstairs, feverishly patting his pockets for the car keys. Presumably she would have been taken to Saintes to give birth. He ought to ring ahead, but he didn’t have the number, and anyway, he was reluctant to talk to a voice that couldn’t understand his urgency, and time was precious to him now.

All that was forgotten when he stepped into the cold mist of morning and saw the figures again, shifting slowly around the corner of the house— two walking abreast, the other still lagging behind—the jagged wounds in their heads clearly visible, shining wetly in the embryonic light.

He stepped away from them, into the shade thrown by the canopy of trees. He heard the ticking of long gone rain on a carpet of dead leaves as the branches gave up the water they had gathered the previous night. The owl landed on the wall and began to clean its bloodied beak.

The light’s slow accretion, so subtle that it couldn’t be measured.

Ian turned to look up at the crooks of the branches and waited for her wrenched shape to assume there, and that of the strange pendulum that swung bloodily from her guts. He retrieved his machete from the foot of the tree at the same moment that the third figure joined its companions. Ian rejoined his own moments later.

Originally published in Use Once, Then Destroy.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Conrad Williams

Conrad WilliamsConrad Williams is the author of seven novels, four novellas and over 100 short stories, some of which are collected in Use Once, Then Destroy and Born with Teeth. In addition to his International Horror Guild Award for his novel The Unblemished, he is a three-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award, including Best Novel for One. His debut anthology, Gutshot, was shortlisted at both the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. He is currently working on a novel that will act as the prequel to a major video game from Sony, as well as a novel of supernatural horror.