The Deep

I shouldn’t have gone home that night.
The party would have trailed on for at least another three hours; drinks were still flowing copiously, and as I attempted an Irish exit through the front door half a dozen hands caught me in an attempt to coax me back into their raucous company, all present red-faced with blown-pupilled love.

God knows, I wanted to stay. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed so hard, or for so long; I’d missed it far more than I’d known. But I peeled myself from every embrace, shaking my head, promising that there would be other nights like this, soon enough.

One by one my friends let me go, called back to the booze, and the warmth. The host was the last to leave, lighting up a cigarette with difficulty against the breeze.

“So you’re really off, are you?”

“Afraid so, Viv” I said, laughing slightly. “Past my bedtime, and all that.”

We both laughed, at that, with the ease that came with a decade of similar mirth behind us.

Then, with a coy look, the host made another enquiry: “One last bump for the road?”

Although I knew I’d likely regret it, thrumming, starkly awake, in my bed well into the night there was an implicit rudeness in declining such generosity.

“Go on then, Viv,” I said, grinning. “Give me your key; my nails are no good. I’m still keeping them short for the Mrs.”

There was a rattle of keys, throaty sniffs as we shared the dregs of a bag of a cocaine, and then the inevitable beginnings of conversation again, catching up the way there’d been no chance to in the chaos of the house.

Gossip about which old school friend had been caught with someone else’s husband, titbits of current news: the public smoking ban, another recession, some new form of sea life that marine biologists had found in the deep.

Then, at last, the question I’d known would come.

“How’s your Ann, then?”

I shrugged. The past six months seemed to have been solely spent dodging the subject, but I’d known Viv too long for any of that. I could feel her brown eyes on me, sensed the quirk of an eyebrow in the dark.

“She’s not so good,” I said, at last. “Hard to get her out of bed these days. Keeps saying she’ll sort it, see a doctor. But I dunno.”

I chewed the inside of my mouth, almost wishing I’d thought of some vague and inarguable lie.

“I feel terrible saying it, but I don’t know how I feel about us anymore. Me and her, I mean. I feel like a wanker just for thinking it. I love her, you know I do, better than anyone— but how long can it go on? I’m just tired.”

“Maybe tell her that,” Viv suggested. “Sometimes people need a kick up the arse, don’t they? Might be what she needs to hear to get it together.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t fucking know anymore.”

Viv tapped her cigarette against the wall and reached for my hand, squeezing it tight. We stood there for a moment in silence, unable to see each other’s faces, and glad of it.

“You can stay here a bit longer, you know,” said Viv. “If you need to. Not just tonight.”

I shook my head.

“I’ve got to go. I’ll be alright. Just needed to get that out to someone, I suppose.”

“Alright, then. Look after yourself, kid.”

At last, the door closed behind me, muffling yet another chorus of Fairy-tale of New York to an incoherent drone. I stood there for a beat or two, half-contemplating knocking to be let back in.

But in the end I swallowed my loneliness and trudged away down the road, boot heels slipping precariously on the icy tarmac.

The air that night was particularly cold, working its way down my jacket collar and sleeve cuffs with a maddening persistence. In spite of this I decided to make a detour by the harbour, eager to extend the last few minutes away from home. The view from the pier had an extra-terrestrial prettiness, the ocean stretching flat, and clear, and black as some half-remembered dreamscape.

If you ignored the dishevelled boats moored up here and there you could almost believe that you were lost at sea, detached from any sort of human life.

Staring out, I was struck by my mistake in coming here, strangled by so sore a reminder that I was entirely alone. A masochist, I wandered further along the harbour, and soon realised that I couldn’t see much of anything, let alone the water.

The streetlamps on that side of town were poorly maintained, guttering spasmodically, or else completely out; all I could discern in front of me were the solid humps of stone bollards squatting like washerwomen along the quay. I leaned against one of them, only realising as I lurched sideways how drunk I was, after all.

An acid swill of mulled wine hit the back of my throat. Grimacing, I turned to spit into the sea.

Something splashed wildly to my left, startling me so much that I nearly slipped a second time.

A seal?

It wasn’t unusual for them to mill around the harbour, hoping to be thrown a fish or two, but there was little to attract them at night when there were no people around. Besides, there was an urgency to the splashing that seemed unlike an animal, having in its frantic strokes a kind of purpose.

I wished that I wasn’t so tipsy. The gloom seemed to throb around me, swelling my thoughts and fears in their flow. Sober, I might have laughed, waved the sounds away as the fussy motions of some stray gull, and wandered on home. Instead I stayed where I was, straining to listen over the wind.

It was a person in the water, I was sure of it. But where had they come from? I hadn’t seen or heard anyone fall from the quay, and if for some mad reason someone had been night-swimming the cold would have killed them or sent them into shock long ago.

The splashing continued, nearing the dock. Suddenly there was a smack of dead weight against stone, the scrambling of hands struggling for purchase, to pull whoever they belonged to out of the water. It was a human being after all, and they needed my help; that much was obvious. But I stood rigid, arms clamped to my sides, too drunk and too cowardly to approach the water.

A sick, crawling dread occurred to me, the niggling suggestion that perhaps the thing in the water wasn’t a person, but some sinister unknown. As the streetlights fluttered I saw an outline hoisting itself up onto the harbour, and I recoiled further back along the boardwalk.

The figure was thin, strange, wavering without discernible edges. I blinked hard, willing myself to sober up.

The shape rolled forward. I heard it breathing heavily, hoarsely, with an asthmatic cadence.

Pity softened my nerves. I cleared my throat and called out uncertainly.

“Hey! Are you alright? Do you need me to call you an ambulance or something?”

The coarse breaths quietened, and the figure twisted towards me.

It said nothing.

Searching my jacket pockets I pulled out my mobile phone, hoping that there was enough battery left to use the torch. There was, just about; I flashed it sideways, the white beam falling across the stranger’s face. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, perhaps not, but for a moment I saw something unnatural there I’ll never forget: a single eye, milky black, like that of an eel, buried in features made up of red, writhing filaments.

Letting out a scream I almost dropped my phone, then forced myself to hold it up again with shaking hands.

This time a human face stared back at me, a young woman’s, pale, and framed in dripping red hair. It was an odd face, nose small, upturned, the jaw a little too sharp, giving her an elfish look.

It was a face I recognised even better than my own.

“Ann?” I cried, aghast. “What the fuck? What were you doing in the water?”

A suicide attempt, I thought, dully, though I dared not speak the words aloud, as though, like a curse, they might be made true.

My wife only stared back. Her blue eyes looked oddly black in the dark, but they were human, and dull with shock. A second later and I realised, with a stab of horror, that she was naked, seaweed clinging to her skin, her bare feet cut to shreds and bleeding from scrambling up onto the dock.

“What happened to your clothes?” I asked. “Did someone hurt you?”

Ann shook her head. I could still barely believe what I was seeing, still shook from the flash of monstrosity I’d briefly thought I had seen in her place.

“Right,” I said. “I’m calling an ambulance, the police. You need help.”

I started fumbling with my phone, my fingers too numb to navigate the screen.

“Don’t,” Ann murmured.

Her voice— there was something wrong about that, too, as if her mouth was unused to forming words.

“What do you mean, don’t?” I demanded. “What do you expect me to do? You could die of hypothermia, frostbite. Are you mad?”

No answer.

Somehow amidst my confusion I had the sense to shrug off my jacket and hold it out to her, draping it across her shoulders when she didn’t take it from me. The fabric fell shut over her full breasts, the hem barely dusting her groin.

A guilty, bewildering spark of arousal swilled like bile in my stomach. It was all too much. I was too tired, too tipsy to make any sense of the situation, of what I had seen.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. No hospital. But we need to get you home. Then you’re going to tell me what the hell you’re doing out here.”

“Alright,” said Ann.

She remained crouching, reluctant to move. A white flake brushed her eyelid, and I realised that it was snowing again.

“Come on,” I said, in a gentler voice. “It’s okay.”

Blinking rivulets of salt water out of her eyes, Ann nodded, and finally got to her feet. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t have hyperthermia already; her lips and fingers were pink, her body only shaking a little, the picture of health, despite her ordeal.

“Hold my arm,” I said. “Let’s get you back.”

We walked down the street together at an uneven pace, me still mostly drunk, Ann limping with pain, and the cold.
I tried to ask her questions, to understand what would possess her to leave the house, to abandon her clothes, and jump into the sea in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, but each time I opened my mouth she only looked at me with those unreadable eyes, without reply.

I knew, at least, she had set out on her senseless quest alone. Apart from the scrapes her skin was unmarred, no track marks, no bruises, nothing to suggest foul play, or anything more sinister than whatever idea she’d gotten into her head to send her out there.

She was too calm, I thought, her sense of inner stillness unlike Ann’s perpetual sticky melancholy.

Her hand on my arm was impossibly light, as though she had a bird’s hollow bones.

When we arrived at the house there was light still on in my bedroom window; Ann must had sat up awake, waiting for me to come home.

“I’m sorry I was out for so long,” I said, scrambling to pull out my keys. “If you came looking for me… well. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

For the first time I noted emotion—a quick stirring of it—in her eyes.

Moving quickly to avoid Ann dripping all over the carpet I led her through to the kitchen, switching on the light. She looked even stranger in the garish tungsten glow, blue veins outlined under the thin skin of her face.

I tugged open the tumble dryer to find a clean towel.

Again Ann wouldn’t take it, or couldn’t, her arms clamped stiffly tight to her body under the borrowed jacket.

Shock, I told myself. That’s all it is.

Gently, I took the sodden jacket from Ann’s shoulders and draped the towel in its place. Even the briefest glimpse of her nudity appalled me; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my wife unclothed, or touched her body in any intimate way.

I turned my back on her to make us both a cup of tea, desperate for the distraction.

Turning around again I saw that Ann had made no attempt to dry herself, although her hands at least held the towel shut. It occurred to me that she expected me to help her, and I felt embarrassed, barely knowing where to begin.

Like a stranger, I stammered, “Is it okay if I…?”


Still the halting cadence to her voice, the vowel split into two.

Carefully I began to chafe her sopping hair and upper body with the towel. Doing so without directly looking at or touching her proved difficult, but I tried my best, committed to her comfort, to my own.

As I moved down towards her thighs Ann caught my wrist and bent towards me, her face so close to mine that I could smell the sea on her breath.

Flinching away from her, I said, “I’ll go and get you something to put on. You need to get warm.”

I left her in the kitchen with a cup of tea in her hands, feeling her dark eyes on me even as I turned to head upstairs.
By now I’d sobered enough to wonder if Ann had experienced a mental break, something far more serious than her depression. People with early onset dementia began to talk strangely, walked about at nonsensical times, removed their clothes. My mother had gone that way; I despaired to think that I might know that long sorrow again.

I had no idea how I’d manage if it were the case. We hadn’t the money for around the clock care, for a start. But that problem could wait a few hours; I shook my troubled thoughts away and headed up to our bedroom.

Pushing open the door I found the lights off— odd, I thought, considering I’d noticed them on as we’d approached the house. Frowning, I fumbled for the switch and headed for the chest of drawers.


I jumped so hard that I banged my knuckles on the inside of the pyjama drawer. Ann was lying in bed, propped up on her pillows, as though she’d never left. Her face— I’d seen her sad, in a rage, and tired, many a time. But I’d never seen her look as she did now, the whites of her eyes rolling like a sick mare, sweat pealing down her forehead.

Fearful, I realise, in hindsight, the kind of fear that comes when waking from a terrible dream you immediately forget.

“How on earth did you get upstairs so fast?” I asked, clutching my chest. “I nearly had a heart attack there.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ann, in a tone of weary bewilderment. “I’ve been here, waiting for you to come home.”

“Don’t wind me up, now,” I snapped. “I just left you downstairs. I made you tea.”

Ann stared at me, her wan face nonplussed.

“Did you take something at Viv’s? I did say you shouldn’t go. I don’t know what you’re on about.”

She wasn’t lying. Her hair was bone dry, and the look of quiet accusation in her gaze was stark and honest.

Disquiet gripped me with a sour nausea.

“Don’t go anywhere,” I said. “I’ll be back in a sec.”

I ran downstairs, my heart in my throat, hoping that Ann was right, that I’d hallucinated, or that it was all some weird kind of joke. But as I turned into the kitchen she was still there, the woman that looked like my wife, staring over the rim of her mug with those dark, flat eyes.

“Who the hell are you?” I whispered.

I felt like I was going mad, like I might laugh or scream at any moment. The woman tilted her head, damp red hair sticking to her skin like the algae I’d often seen while rock pooling on the beach.

“I’m Ann,” she said. “My name is Ann.”

“My wife’s name is Ann,” I said, through gritted teeth. “My wife, who’s upstairs, in bed. You— I don’t know who you are. You’re just some stranger that I let in thinking it was her. I… what the fuck is going on?”

“It’s alright,” the woman said, and smiled.

It had been so long since I’d seen Ann herself smile that the expression was immediately wrong on that face, the creases either side of her full mouth harsh and deep.

“You’ve got to go,” I said, stepping back from her, wishing I had a weapon. “You have to get out of my house.”

“And go where?” the woman asked. “In the cold, in the night? I could get hypothermia, you said, didn’t you?”

The words should have sounded taunting, but they didn’t. They were only dull, cold, and strange, so strange.
The sense in them was undeniable, however.

I didn’t know what to do. I could make her get dressed, ship her off to a hospital or the police station but then what? Explain that I’d rescued her and taken her home, thinking she was my wife? I supposed I could, but anyone in town who knew me knew Ann, and what she looked like. They’d have more questions than my tired and still-drunk mind had the presence to answer.

“I’m going to speak to my wife,” I said. “If she says you can stay the night then you can. Just the night. And tomorrow you’re going to tell me who you really are, and what’s going on here. Do you understand me?”

The woman nodded, her dark eyes sliding away from mine. I went back upstairs on shaking legs, trying to make sense of the situation anew.

How could it be that a woman who looked exactly like Ann had been thrashing by the quay, at the very moment I’d been standing there? Was it possible that they did know each other, were perhaps even related, and that this was some crazed game, punishment for my having stayed out for so long?

Every option I considered seemed even more illogical and ridiculous than the last.

In the privacy of our bedroom I tried to press Ann on the subject as best I could, knowing that I was wasting my time.

“Let her stay,” she said, simply. “Just let her stay. It’s all we can do.”

I was bowled over by the listlessness of her answer.

“You’re not worried at all?” I asked.

She looked at me with the same dull, yet somehow stricken expression, an apocalyptic helplessness in her eyes.

“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m so tired. Let me be.”

She turned on her side and pretended to sleep. Her shoulders were stiff, and when I tried to shake her she cringed away from me.

Defeated, I spent the night lying rigidly awake, thinking about the woman downstairs. Again I considered what I’d seen in the stranger’s face, the single wet, black, eye, the writhing fronds— a drunken hallucination, maybe, or my vision trying to make sense of shapes with insufficient light.

It couldn’t have been anything else, I knew, and still it kept me awake.

I must have fallen asleep at some point, for I rose the next morning to find myself alone. It was out of character for Ann to rise before me, with her penchant for 4pm slumber. I got up at once, dragging on a clean pair of clothes, half-blind with exhaustion.

Somehow I knew that Ann was with the woman, knew, and feared what it meant.

Scrubbing sleep from my eyes I lurched out onto the landing. Down the hallway the bathroom door was open, the shower on full blast. I thought of Ann’s musky smell, the oily stain her hair left on the pillowcases. How little she rose to do anything but eat and make shuffling toilet visits, and rarely either, now, as if depression had sucked such necessities away.

It was the woman, then, I reasoned, taking further liberties of my home, and the facilities. I approached the open door, knocking on the frame to announce myself. As I’d expected there was no reply, but above the hammering of water in the bathtub I heard something else: soft, pulpy, unplaceable.

A sound more solid than water, yet just as wet, somehow.

Perhaps the woman was hurt, I thought, sprawled bleeding at the bottom of the tub.

I stepped into the room, squinting as white stream gusted into my eyes. Fanning the air to clear it I saw that the shower curtain was drawn shut across the tub, parted at one end by Ann’s lower half, leaning in towards the water. No, not leaning— her bare feet barely skimmed the floor, as if something behind the curtain was holding her aloft. With ease, too, not the wavering clumsiness of human strength.

Above her a shape was backlit against the white curtain, many shapes, lashing and curling in reflexive motions. I thought of that tendrilous vision I’d seen in the torchlight and my knees buckled, only the dumb luck of one hand catching the sink preventing my fall.

What I was seeing couldn’t be real, wasn’t possible.

Ann’s left foot twitched against the rim of the bath, again, again. The plastic curtain rippled and seethed, and despite the heat of the shower I felt something cold behind it.

Shaking violently, I looked around for something heavy, a weapon. The soap dish was porcelain, vintage, solid enough to knock a person out cold. I raised the dish above my head and yanked the shower curtain hard enough to rip it from the rail.

Then I stopped. The dish dropped from my hand, shattering across the bathmat.
In the tub the woman stood with her back to me, her red hair almost black with the water cascading around her. Ann’s hands were plunged deep within it almost to the elbow— I couldn’t imagine how anyone could have so much hair, being that it only reached her mid-back, after all.

Twisting round in response to my presence Ann’s face was wrought, bloodless, her eyes like sinkholes, like open graves, dug down deep.

“What is this?” I breathed.

I could barely hear myself speak.

“It’s nothing,” said Ann. “She said needed my help, that’s all.”

She was lying, so very obviously. Why wasn’t she begging for help? Why wasn’t she screaming?

“Let us alone,” said Ann. “I’ll be fine.”

“Are you insane?” I snapped. “Come away from her, for God’s sake.”

As I reached across to yank Anne’s shoulder I half-thought that the strange woman would snap at me like a bedlamite, or else pull me in to that boiling forest of hair. She only shuddered, her tresses slithering loose of my wife’s arms. Ann staggered across the room, her hands coated in coiled, leech-like strands.

I was appalled by how gaunt she looked, her skin drawn tight across jutting bone. When had this happened? Had it come about so slowly as to occur unnoticed before my eyes?

“Go,” I said to Ann. “Get out of here. Jesus Christ.”

At last she fled the room, slamming the door behind her.

I was alone with the woman again, wet, and naked, and unknowable as we had met. Standing with her back to me I got the unpleasant sense that she had no face at all, only masses and masses of that foul hair.

“What were you doing to her?” I snarled.

“Nothing,” said the woman, slowly. “She came to me.”

I took on a defence of blustering anger to smother my fear.

“Oh, I’m sure she did. Who even are you? What’s your name? I know it’s not Ann, for fuck’s sake. Where did you come from?”

“You saw where I came from,” the woman replied, in a tone of mild surprise.

“Don’t play around with me. I mean before that. Listen, you need to give me something, because all I want to do right now is put you back out there in the snow.”

“I don’t know what to tell you that you’ll understand.”

I smacked my hand against the wall, making the curtain rail jounce in its socket.

“Well, try me. Am I supposed to believe that you just came out of the sea like some fucking fairy-tale princess? Come on now.”

A muscle twitched in the woman’s shoulder.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, again.

“For crying out loud,” I said, throwing up my hands. “You’re lucky I’ve not beat the living daylights out of you. Who are you? What are you doing in my house?”

The woman didn’t answer; I hadn’t expected her to, but her silence infuriated me. I seized hold of her, not thinking long enough to care how she’d react. The woman burst into a flurry of movement, her small shape seeming to surge towards me. Yelping I stepped back, cutting my foot on the broken soap dish. My back struck the sink hard, a blaze of agony setting my spine alight.

With both arms I fought to keep the woman at arm’s length, but she twisted like a silverfish, forcing herself flat against my torso. I convulsed. Her touch sickened me.

Up close I saw that she was more beautiful than Ann had ever been, and that frightened me in a way that I can barely describe.

Her mouth opened, and she kissed me. I tasted lingering saltwater, felt her teeth sharp as broken shells on my tongue. In some awful way it was erotic, abrupt and exciting.

I thought: She’s not human. This thing I’ve let into my home— it’s some kind of creature, pretending.

An image filled my mind, as sharp as if it were playing out in front of me on a screen. A dark, squirming mass at the depths of the ocean, red, and black, and impossibly huge, bellowing deep, like a woman in childbirth. I couldn’t tell whether it was a plant or an animal, or some impossible mixture of both, long filaments thrashing around a body that was pale and abstractly female.

A vast black eye marked its centre, staring at nothing.

I saw the creature inhale, exhale, each breath ejecting a part of itself as easily as a lizard might drop its tail. Each piece began to change shape, spiralling upwards, becoming more and more humanoid as it moved towards the surface.

I remembered something I’d seen on the news, a creature discovered in the unexplored deep. In that moment I knew the vision to be truth, some sense beyond sight or hearing having unfurled inside me, against my will.

I’d never felt more helpless, more powerless.

“What do you want?” I choked out. “Why do you look like Ann?”

“Because you want me,” said the woman, against my cheek. “That’s why I came to you.”

I was so tired of asking questions, of receiving pointless, intelligible answers. But I couldn’t stop myself, wanting to scrape back some semblance so control.

“What does that mean? I don’t want you.”

“You do. That’s why you didn’t send me away.”

The woman shook her sopping hair forward, cloaking us both in its crimson darkness. I could see nothing but her strange, murky eyes, blurred into one.

“Alright,” I said, weakly; what choice did I have? “You can stay. There’s a spare room across the hall; it never gets used anymore. You can take it. Is that enough?”

I felt a movement on my shoulder. A frond of the woman’s red hair coiled, of its own accord, and slipped around my neck like a lover’s hand. There was no energy left in me to scream. I collapsed sideways across the wall, and the woman fell with me, her beautiful body cleft to mine.

She didn’t hurt me; she didn’t even try to touch me, not at first. But there was something about the familiar weight of that form that made me forget, for a minute, what she was, and who she was not.

We fucked, I suppose, if you could call it that. I kept my eyes closed so that I couldn’t see the parts of her that didn’t behave like a human woman. But it didn’t stop me from feeling them; in between every touch, every lap of the tongue, there was a strange sensation, flesh falling away into a formless mass of hair.

I wished then and after that she’d forced me; that would have been easier for me to take. But I lay there, accepting it, tears falling on either side of my cheeks as I thought of Ann, or a version of Ann I’d known, years ago.

Afterwards the woman rose quietly, even gently, plucking a bathrobe from the back of the door. Then she was gone, padding away down the hallway.

For a while I lay on the bathroom floor, listening to the shower running. In the corner of my eye I noticed the broken soap dish, and considered dragging the shards across my wrists, my throat. But the impulse passed, just like any other sensible thought I’d had in a long time.

I was trapped with this creature now. I didn’t know if I could kill it, doubted I even had the guts to do it. Briefly I considered calling Viv, the only friend I thought might believe even a fraction of the story. I pictured where she’d be: in bed with a guest from the night before, joint in one hand, breast in another, blissed out.

Little chance she’d pick up the phone, if she even heard it ringing.

What to do, then? What to do?

The rest of the day rolled by like an old memory; I only seemed conscious of fleeting parts of it, even as they occurred. I tried to check on Ann, from time to time, but she wouldn’t let me into our bedroom or even speak through the door. Her low, tired cries were constant, rising into painful keens whenever I knocked.

Perhaps she, too, had seen that creeping vision, and thus knew that the woman, that thing, was inescapable. Maybe she knew I’d betrayed her. I could only guess how much deeper her inner darkness ran than mine.

At last I went downstairs and lay on the couch, beyond exhausted. My hangover made it so much harder to think, to plan. Creaking floorboards above further distracted me, knowing the woman was in the room directly above. I found myself obsessing over what she might be doing. What was she thinking? What did she—it—feel?

At some point I slept, dropping with a sheer, agonised weariness. I’m not sure if awoke during the night, or if I dreamed, but I recall thinking my eyes had opened, and that rather than strung-up Christmas cards and paper chains on the walls there was something wet and dark, swaying like grass blades in the wind.

When I awoke the next morning the room was as it should have been, but that false normality only made me feel more penned in. I was struck by the sudden urge to get out of the house, get air, see people that weren’t tainted by the unexplainable weirdness under my own roof. But there was no way I could leave Ann alone in the house with the woman. She would have to come with me.

I went up to the spare room, finding the door open. Imagining the woman pacing freely about the house at night made me want to scream, but instead I forced myself to step through the door, my eyes scanning the room.


The woman was standing by the window, the light falling through the glass showing the coiling bones through its pale skin. I wondered, then, how this being had ever passed as human, how I’d ever thought that it looked like Ann.

“I told you to stay in this room,” I said.

The stranger looked on, blandly cordial.

“I did.”

“The door was open. And last night—”

“Last night? What happened last night?”

The reply came quickly, almost playfully despite its lack of inflection. In the space of a day she had changed, passive watchfulness replaced by something sharp and alert.

It was getting far too comfortable in Ann’s shape, in my company, in my home.

“I have to leave the house today,” I said, in a desperate rush. “Can you promise me you’ll stay right here? I know I can’t force you, so I’m asking. It’s not much.”

I didn’t bother to asks its needs. If it wanted food it could starve, and piss on the floor for all I cared.

“Tell me you understand,” I said, attempting firmness, and sounding only frail and tremulous.

My hand quivered on the edge of the door, ready to slam it shut if the woman made any move towards me. My mouth dried up thinking about what we’d done the day before, how she had touched me, that she could exert such influence over me again.

But the woman only smiled and nodded, then turned placidly to the window again, as though absorbed by the December weather beyond.

Unsettled, I closed the door, not wanting to look at the creature any longer. I thought about wedging it shut, then decided against it, suspecting it would do little good.

Not knowing what else to do I moved on to the bedroom and began to quickly dress. Ann stared with tear-reddened eyes as I got changed, not bothering to lift her head from her pillows.

“Come with me,” I said to her. “I can drop you off somewhere, a hotel or someone’s house, anything. I don’t want you in the house with that woman.”

Ann shook her head. Despair seized hold of me, crushing me on all sides. My throat closed, and I could barely breathe.

“I love you so much, Ann. So much. I need you. Please, please can you try to get up, for me?”

Another slow, heavy headshake. I could have screamed.

“What has that thing done to you?”

I reached out and tried to hold Ann’s hand. She jerked away from me, furrowing herself deeper beneath the blankets.

I looked around the room, at the filthy plates and mugs on Ann’s side of the bed, the dust on her chest of drawers, breathed in the meaty fug of sweat and misery. It appalled me that I’d let things slide like this, allowing Ann to become as much of an unknown to me as the woman in the other room.

I left them both behind, in the end, deciding to take the car for a drive— nowhere, anywhere, taking off from the driveway with only the overwhelming desire to cleanse the oppressive dread of the house from me.

Skirting over the icy roads I kept half-hoping the car would overturn and kill me, despite my careful driving. It seemed impossible to carry on with my life now, the corrupt semblance of it that was left behind. I didn’t understand what the woman’s intentions truly were, and in a way that was worse, the uncertainty beckoning a labyrinth of possibilities in.

On the fourth or fifth turning I noticed a figure in an outsized jacket hunched on the other side of the street, glancing towards me in recognition.

She was cringing under a bus shelter, patting her pockets fractiously with both hands. Even from a distance I could tell that there was something badly wrong.

I pulled over and threw the passenger door open.

“What are you doing out here? I’ll give you a ride home.”

“If you’re offering,” said Viv, shaking snow onto the seat as she slumped down into it. “I just don’t know what to do with myself. You couldn’t— you couldn’t drive around a bit first, could you? Or park up somewhere. I’m in a bit of a state. Don’t want my housemates seeing me like this.”

“Of course. Honestly, it’s no trouble at all. What’s going on?”

“Can I light a ciggie first?”
“Of course.”

I watched her in the corner of my eye as I drove towards the carpark of a nearby café, all shut up for the winter. Viv—solid, strong Viv who’d always been the one to have it together—had dark pits under her eyes, and as she pursed her lips around a cigarette I saw her hand was shaking.

“So,” I prompted. “What’s up? You going to talk?”

“Sure,” said Viv. “But you’ll think I’m mad.”

Not likely, I thought, but said nothing.
She coughed, and started to talk.

“I had the day off, thought I’d visit the parents, try to organise who’s going to whose house on Christmas Day. You know me; I never get a plan together until the last minute. But, well, as soon as I turned up I knew something was off. You’re not going to take the piss, are you?”

I thought of my own unbelievable story, the one I’d wanted to tell her only a day ago. I could have laughed.

“Just tell me,” I said.

“Right. Right. Well, there I was, knocking on the door for ages. Must have been five minutes, but I knew they were home— the car was on the drive, and the curtains were open. After a bit the door opened and… oh Christ, I’m shaking like a fucking addict.

“The door opened and there was this man standing there. This man, he wasn’t my Dad— but it was. It makes no sense, I know, but I swear to you it was like if you’d hired an actor to play my Dad, exactly the same but… different eyes. Same colour and everything, just— different.”

I felt cold coarse through me, colder even than the ice glazed world outside the car.

“He’s been bad with drinking for a few years,” said Viv.

“Started looking a bit of a mess. All that was all gone. Not in a way you’d notice right away, but still. My Mam came up behind the man, started holding his hand and she looked so happy, and that was wrong, too. They fought like cat and dog over the drinking, and anyway, you’ve met my Mum; you know what she’s like.”

“I know,” I said.

My pulse throbbed in both ears, drowning Viv’s voice out to a murmur.

“I didn’t have a clue how to react. I wanted to say, ‘who’s this? Where the hell is Dad?’ But I just kept staring at this man, trying to figure out what I was seeing, or why I felt so uncomfortable. It was like… I wanted to be near him, but it felt wrong, because he was a stranger. I didn’t know him. It wasn’t him.”

Viv’s hands clenched her knees, veins working their way up and down them like worms.

“The guy looked right back me, and said, ‘Come in. You’ll freeze out there, mad girl.’ That ‘mad girl’. He used to call me that, my Dad. Mam called him ‘madman’ and he’d call me ‘mad girl’, the stupidest nicknames. Nobody could have known it but us. And for some reason rather than getting out of there I… I went into the house with them.”

Viv turned away, her jaw clenched tight.

Lowering my voice I said, “He… he didn’t hurt you?”

“No. That’s the worst thing about it. We all sat on the couch like some 1950s TV family, and he asked me how I’d been, about my friends, everything. And that’s how I knew for sure he wasn’t my Dad; they never want to know about my life, either of them, my Mum and Dad. They’re Catholics. Don’t want to hear a thing about my antics. But there he was, not blinking an eyelid, and she… she wasn’t listening, she just looked at him like he was Jesus resurrected. It was bizarre.

“I felt like I should have been happy about it— that’s what I always wanted, and all that shit. But honestly, it didn’t feel like I was talking to a person, more like an animal that somehow learned to talk, to fit in.”

I could see Viv struggling with story, interrogating herself inwardly over every word.

“I believe you, Viv,” I said. “I swear it.”

She snorted out a tight little laugh.

“Yeah, well, wait till I’ve finished. I managed to make some excuse to get my Mum alone in the kitchen, where he couldn’t see, or listen. I asked her who the man was, over and over, and she kept saying it was Dad— then suddenly she just crumpled, broke down right in front of me.

“She told me how she’d gone for a drive in the night, a few weeks ago, when Dad was bad with the drinking. She can’t stand to be near him when he’s like that, but she didn’t know where to go. Ended up parking up at the side of the road somewhere at the edge of town, just sitting in the dark, no idea what to do with herself. Then she said there was this thump against the window, and he was out there, the man who looks like my dad, dripping wet and stark naked, like a madman.”

We sat in the quiet for a time, Viv and I, passing the cigarette wordlessly between us. Then she started up again, one hand rubbing her brow.

“I couldn’t get her to tell me why she brought him home with her, why she didn’t call the police even when she figured out it wasn’t Dad, after all. She wouldn’t even look me in the eye. All she said was that she liked him too much to send him ‘back’, whatever that meant. It was insane. I started on at her about Dad, the real one, asking where he was. I thought she must have chucked him out to shack up with this stranger. Anyway, she wouldn’t look at me, just at the wall.

“Then she said, ‘He’s still here. He’s upstairs.’”

Viv rubbed her lips together, the dry skin rustling. Her hand as she took the cigarette again was wringing with sweat, dampening the paper.

“So I went upstairs,” Viv said. “Mum tried to stop me, but I didn’t listen. The attic door was open, the ladder hanging down. None of us ever really went up there, so that was weird enough, but then there was… this smell. Like rot. Dirt after the rain. I just knew that my Dad was up there, Saoirse. I knew it even before I climbed that ladder. And I knew he wasn’t alright, that I shouldn’t go. He—”

With both hands Viv gestured into the air, trying incoherently to draw what she’d seen. Her eyes flickered, and her voice, which had been uneven and halting all along, grew fast and high.

“I thought he was dead, I thought he had to be dead. He should have been, there was no way he could live like that, none, but I— I looked at the ceiling, the floor, the walls. They were crawling with skin and hair, bits of teeth sticking out, and I thought, ‘What did that thing downstairs do to turn him inside out?’ But then I looked again and it was all moving, in and out. Breathing.”

I wanted to tell her to stop talking, to shut up, shut up. But I could only listen in petrified comprehension as she went on.

“I stared at it,” Viv moaned. “I couldn’t stop myself. I remember thinking ‘This is my Dad, this fucking thing is all part of him, this vile fucking thing is my father and he’s still alive.’”

Her voice broke off into a horrible, wordless cry, not quite a scream, but close enough. The sound cut off as quickly as it started, and then she was whispering again.

“My mum came up the ladder after me. The man tried to follow, and I was gonna push him down, I swear it, break his neck, but Mum said, ‘Don’t. It’ll hurt your father.’ She said it so tenderly, so concerned for him. It knocked me sick. I saw the man’s hand pull away from the attic floor, all these long, red, living sinews clinging on to him, as if they were part of each other. I think I got it, then. This thing that came out of the sea— it was using what was left of my Dad to stay alive, and I couldn’t do anything about it without him, too.”

Viv’s eyes flicked to mine, and I saw my own horror from the past few days reflected back at me, so human, so small.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Viv. “I don’t know what do. Just take me home.”

The entire journey to Viv’s and then on to my own house again was like a nightmare sequence in a surrealist film, every ordinary street warped through the lens of what I knew.

I kept looking at passers-by—parents with swaddled children, young couples clasping gloved hands, throngs of whooping teenagers—wondering how many of them were real, and how many had been monsters brought home by someone lonely and desperate enough to pretend they were the person they’d lost.

For a moment I tried to tell myself that perhaps it didn’t matter. That they were better for it, the way Viv’s new father had been. But I couldn’t believe that, not when I imagined I easily I myself could be replaced for similar reasons. How many times had I stumbled home drunk, high, belligerent, how many times had I ignored my wife, and the drowning magnitude of her illness?

If either of us was to be taken, I knew which was the more deserving; it had been Ann only because I, of the two of us, had gone down to the sea that night with a wish for my life to be changed.

I unlocked the front door to my house and let myself in, my left hand loosely clenched around a wrench I’d found in the glovebox, scarcely knowing what I thought to do with it. Without feeling I ascended the stairs, imagining Viv making the same journey in her parents’ home, our paths ending precisely the same.

I headed for the bedroom, stumbling like a sleepwalker over my own feet. The door handle felt wrong in my hand, cold and slippery. Still I turned it.


The woman was behind me, pale and lovely as a nymph in an illustration. She was wearing the white cotton dress Ann had often donned around the house when she still had the energy to put on clothes, and as she stepped towards me I caught the scent of my wife’s perfume, all flowers and smoke. I suppressed a retch, seeing how closely it was trying to be her, to assimilate with the best version of Ann that had been.

“Come away from there,” the woman said, gently.

Ignoring her, I pushed the bedroom door open an inch. Even through that small, dark slither I saw movement, heard wet sounds and whisperings, and knew, then, that I couldn’t look, didn’t have the stomach to.

I closed the door again and swayed, moaning.

“Ann,” I said. “My Ann.”

The woman moved, opening her arms, all stolen warmth.

“I’m here,” she said. “My darling.”

I thought about Ann, who I’d married on a beach in Ireland, kissing the salt from her lips, running my hands through her veil, her hair, Ann who’d run away with me like a girl in a fairy story, with only a single backpack of things and shoes with holes worn through the soles.

My arms opened of their own accord, drawn—gently, gently—towards the woman’s embrace.

Then I raised the wrench and hit the woman with it again and again until her flesh came apart under the blows, and was nothing but red tendrils upon the walls.

Published by (Not actually a Lady) Ruthless

I'm a Manchester based horror writer! Non binary. Stuck with this domain because I'm lazy

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