Cold meeting: a short story

I can get away tonight. 8pm. Robinson’s, Boundary Lane. You know it?

You shiver at the text, read it three times. Part of you wants to reply Robinson’s! Are you sure? but instead you send Yes. Yes and he replies Good girl. Can’t wait x

Everyone knows the old house as Robinson’s even though it’s been abandoned for decades. You worry that local kids might be hanging out there, but you also know that few dare after dark because the place has a reputation. And so does he, but it’s been so long and you are already flushed at the thought of seeing him again.

A little before 8 you announce, brightly, that you’re going for a night walk for some fresh air, knowing no one will join you. They barely look up as you step out and make your way past the edge of the village, a just-waning February moon and a sharp peppering of stars throwing a blue glow past the shadows of the hedges. The worn red brick of the house comes into view, flat and lifeless in the moonlight, ivy rampant across the frontage. There’s no sign of his car: he’ll have parked somewhere a safe distance away.

You approach the peeling, partially-open front door with knots in your stomach, wondering whether you should step in, when out of nowhere a hand covers your mouth and pulls you backwards. Hello, he growls in your ear, and the momentary terror transforms into a thud of arousal in your belly. He spins you round to face him. Jesus, you gasp as his hand frees your mouth, of all the places! He just grins, and says I know you like to be scared. Just warming you up. Now to business.

He pulls you into the house with a firm grip on your wrist, flicking on a tiny LED light for a moment to pick a way carefully around the debris and clutter, the few meagre pieces of decaying furniture that remain. He leads you to the wall by an old fireplace, furthest away from the corner of the room where the hole in the ceiling lets in a thin stream of moonlight and a trail of dark, slimy mould betrays where the rain comes in. He kills the light again and you shudder, thinking it’s no wonder there are rumours about this place, it feels so dead.

But you forget that as his mouth meets yours and he is all over you, pinning you to the wall, ravenous. Put your hands behind your head, close your eyes and don’t say a word, he hisses, and when you do as you’re told he says good girl in the way he knows will send you to that hazy place where you can barely focus on anything but the sensations, the feel of him. How you’ve missed this, how good it feels.

As your mind drifts, eyes closed, you are dimly aware of what sounds like him reaching to unbuckle his belt, and then hands on you again, your body, your face, fingers in your mouth: but they feel so cool – no, cold, they feel cold. A cold that begins to nudge at your consciousness, pulling you back from the warm stupor of excitement, making you wonder why his fingers taste somehow different on your tongue, and before you know it you find that your mind clicks back into place and you feel suddenly uneasy.

You open your eyes. He told you not to, but you snap them open instinctively and in front of you is only dense blackness. It isn’t the darkness of the room, because in the corner the thin moonlight is still pooling. It’s blacker – dense, thick space, cold and heavy – and whatever it is it’s this that’s in your mouth, because he is gone, nowhere to be seen, disappeared.

You try to cry out but the cold, dark matter in your mouth muffles the sound and you dare not move. What feels like an eternity passes in a few seconds, until there is a low voice, unmistakably not his, in your ear, dank breath against your neck. You should not be here. Leave now. Good girl. Your mouth is suddenly empty, hanging open.

Good girl.

Gasping, you find yourself propelled towards the door, limbs suddenly and violently kinetic in your scrabble to get out, wracking your lungs for air. You stumble through the door into the moonlight and on towards the glowing windows at the far end of the lane, not looking back.

There are dark mutterings in the neighbouring village a few days later, when they find his car parked by the gate half a mile from Robinson’s. Probably ran off with some woman or other. Would be like him to just up and vanish.

They don’t seem to notice how pale you are when you read about his disappearance in the local paper, or that you have lost all enthusiasm for your night walks: at least, if they do, they put it down to the cold.

One for Sorrow

[content warning: reference to domestic abuse]

It begins with an itch.

Right between your shoulder blades, that part where it’s hardest for you to reach and scratch. You fidget for a while, trying to get to it, but he frowns in annoyance soon enough and pushes your hand away, roughly, tells you to leave it alone. So you stop, but the itch keeps coming back.

After a few days, you learn that you can get a little relief if you rub your back up and down against the door frames just so. When he’s out and can’t see, you stand there, grinding your spine over the wooden frame, sighing contentedly. It’s more difficult when he’s at home, and one evening you risk a scratch in the kitchen doorway while you should be making his tea; but he catches you in the act. You should have known better than to give his requirements anything but your undivided attention. You pick yourself up from where he threw you down with a roar, noting the places where the new bruises will join the existing ones. Black and blue.

Your arms have started itching too.

The first signs appear soon after. He drags you out of the shower cubicle one morning, shoves you in front of the mirror. “What do you call this?” You can just make them out, straining to see over your shoulder: two rows of spiky, keratinous lumps bordering either side of your spine. Apart from the itching, you had no idea they were there. More appear over the next week or so, rows of them, radiating out towards your arms. When he forces you to undress, instead of using you in the usual way he now takes off his leather belt and lashes your back until it feels raw. “What the hell do you think you are? Who else would want you looking like this, freak?” You know better than to say anything, and besides, you don’t understand where the lumps have come from. Curiously though, the harder he lashes the more you identify with the strange, spiky landscape forming on your body. Here is something that he can’t control.

The spikes start to get longer and your whole body itches. 

You have always shrunk from him when he is violent, but now you are visibly, physically shrinking. Your clothes begin to sag on you, even as they catch on the ever-lengthening growths that have now spread further: down your arms to the backs of your hands, up your neck to your cheeks, along your torso, elongating and protruding from your coccyx. They have begun to darken wherever the skin was not already the shade of ripe bruising, slowly blackening you all over – except your chest, still as pale as your skin and gradually becoming softer, downy. You feel weaker, clumsier, and he grows more impatient with your faltering body. You find it harder and harder to speak, as if your lips themselves were stiffening, sealing in the protests you dare not utter.

One day, when you have failed to complete some barked instruction or other, he snaps and drags you into the spare room. “I can’t bear to look at you any more, you filthy little freak. You can stay in here till I decide what to do with you.” You realise through the blur that behind the disgust in his eyes is fear. He is afraid of you. After he hurls you to the floor, you hear the door lock behind you and the front door slam. You are tired, so tired, so you huddle into a corner and close your eyes.

You aren’t sure how long you are locked inside, but you find yourself awakened by dawn light through the blind slats one morning and you feel… different. Tentatively you stretch out your arms, but where there were hands are now wingtips. Your arms are a span of black feathers, glossy and new. You walk gingerly towards the mirror on the far wall, but it’s too high for you unless you hop up onto a nearby stack of boxes. From there, you survey yourself in the glass. Smooth white belly, eyes dark and glinting, blue-green flashes on your black body catching in the morning light. This new version of you feels lighter, slicker. With your long beak you reach to preen a feather or two into place. Black and blue.

Your skin is no longer itching.

As you preen, the front door slams and you hear his footsteps climbing the stairs. Little time to think, but it’s now or never, and you are ready. When he opens the door you fly straight for his face, beating into him with wings and beak. Cursing, he raises his arms and as he staggers backwards, loses footing: the crack of his head on the banister is audible.

You head straight for the tiny bathroom window he never bothers to close. You don’t look back. Outside, you fly for a minute or two, marvelling at how it feels, before alighting on an old oak in the centre of a field.

You are alone for only a few moments before another of your kind appears, alighting at your side. We’re so glad you made it, she says happily, and somehow you know that she knows, and you say thank you. The two of you sit for a while before others begin to arrive, to add their own welcome, to show their solidarity. And if anyone were to walk by they would see the seven magpies in the old oak, hear you chattering in chorus to each other, but they would never know the truths of which you spoke.