Bloody bitch! Mike swore in his head as he slammed the car door. Even now, out here, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. His hand trembled as he tried to force the key into the ignition, and this time he did let one out.
She was standing at the window, watching him. She wouldn’t come, though. She never came to him. They’d be watching a documentary when she started the argument, something with David Attenborough and oceans, and suddenly Mike was reminded of those fish with the lights that lured their prey out of the dark depths.
That was Cassandra: an angler fish. She exuded a beautiful, warm light that never failed to ensnare him. But then came the needling teeth, telling him he wasn’t good enough, making him feel like he was something she’d trodden in. She was always trying to change him, mould him into something small, palatable. Digestible.
The car roared into life and he burned out the drive, not bothering to change gears until he was halfway down the road. The change in engine noise as he pushed it straight into third was like a sigh of relief.
“Sorry,” he muttered. The car didn’t deserve to be punished for his mistakes. It was his fault. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. God, I’m starting to believe her. That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was he knew he’d be back. Maybe not tonight. Or tomorrow. But at some point that light would catch his attention and he’d go swimming right back to his destruction.
He headed away from suburbia, out onto the main road through the woods. There was a housing development planned and in a couple of years they’d be gone, replaced by neat semis filled with women like Cassandra. The thought made Mike sick.
He pulled over, not the wisest plan, but the road was empty. He hadn’t seen another soul on it. The headlights lit a strip up ahead of the car, and either side of it faded grey to black in just a few metres. There was no colour anywhere.
Mike walked round to the passenger side, sucking in deep breaths of cold air. The night was still, calm. He was not. His heart pounded and his hands shook. He wanted a cigarette more than anything, but of course, she’d binned them all ages ago.
Maybe, just maybe, there might be one in the glove-box. The car was the one thing that was still his, and perhaps, if he was very lucky, one might have escaped her grasp. He opened the door and leaned in, rooting around desperately.
Mike stood up, slamming his head against the door. Unsuccessfully stifling a cry, he turned to see who had spoken. There was a girl, standing at the edge of the trees, looking at him. She looked to be about seven or eight, though Mike wasn’t very good at guessing that sort of thing, wearing a long white dress, probably a nightie.
“Um, are you okay?” he asked, not knowing what you were supposed to say to small girls who approached you at the side of the road in their night clothes. He looked nervously up and down the road, half hoping someone would come along to take the responsibility off his hands.
“Please, help me. It’s my mummy,” she said, pulling at a blonde pigtail. “She’s fallen down and she won’t get up.”
“Okay. Um. Don’t worry. I’ll call for help.” He reached into the car and then swore. His mobile was still sitting on Cassandra’s couch. She was probably going through his text messages right now. “Um. Sorry.”
The girl’s face seemed to crumble, and her wide eyes glistened.
“Oh, God, don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” Mike begged. “Where’s your mummy?”
She took his hand in hers. It was warm, and soft. Somehow he found himself comforted by it. Come on, he told himself. You can do this. Help this kid and show Cassandra you’re not a permanent fuck-up.
The girl led him deeper into the woods. There was no moon tonight and Mike could barely see more than a few steps ahead of him. She moved confidently, though, tugging on his hand as he tripped and stumbled. It was getting colder, though that may have been down to his anger dissipating. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before he was shivering convulsively.
“How much further to your house?” he asked.
She didn’t sound so scared now, and Mike felt a small glow of pride. He didn’t know what he was going to be able to do for her mother, but at least he had given this little girl some comfort.
“Up here.” She tugged at him, pulling him left and up a slope. Brambles scratched at his ankles, drawing blood. There was a strange sound, like something being dragged ahead of them, but it was too dark to see anything. Mike found his heart beating a bit faster.
“Come on!” Her nails dug into his hand like thorns. “Nearly there!”
It was getting lighter. Mike assumed they were approaching a housing estate, until the emerged in a clearing. Everything was still grey, but the trees and bushes were no longer a black, indistinguishable mass. Something else was visible. He blinked, just to make sure, but his vision remained the same.
There was a woman lying in the centre of the clearing.
“Mummy,” the girl said, pointing. Mike nodded, his throat dry. What was he supposed to do here? He wasn’t a doctor, and the closest he came to first aid was knowing you were supposed to do CPR to the rhythm of Nelly the Elephant. He swallowed, feeling his palms growing slick against hers.
Mike let go of the girl and took a step towards her mother. She was lying with her back to him, her long, black hair loose and spilling onto the forest floor. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a cough. Mike cleared his throat and tried again.
“Ma’am? Can you hear me?”
There was no answer, so he took another step, and then another, until he was kneeling by her side. She did not seem to be breathing. He put a hand on her shoulder, terrified it would be cold and stiff, but it was soft and giving. It didn’t feel much like flesh. He tugged gently and she rolled over.
Mike felt his heart seize up. Every drop of blood in his veins turned to ice and the air rushed from his lungs in a long hiss. He tried to back away, but his limbs were rubbery and useless.
It wasn’t a woman. He didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t human. Running down her body, from the base of her neck to her belly-button, was a long slit. As Mike watched in horror, it started to widen, and before long he could see long, razor sharp teeth emerging. It pushed itself up, so it was standing crab-wise on hands and feet, and came towards him. The thing’s head twisted to stare at him with dead eyes.
Mike scrabbled against the ground, desperately trying to get to his feet. The thing stalked towards him slowly, unconcerned by his actions. Just as its hand was reaching for him, he managed to push up and stumbled back the way he had come, unable to take his eyes off the thing.
“Mummy! Help my Mummy!”
The girl was laughing, dancing around him. Her features were twisted in a ghoulish smile that made Mike’s stomach clench. He turned to run and fell flat on his face. Mike cried out in pain and fear. Looking over his shoulder, he could see something wrapped around his ankle. There was a cord, almost invisible, and when he followed it he could see one end ran from the girl and the other to her “mother”.
The thing was the mouth was getting closer. He could smell it now, a mixture of spoiled meat and rotting sea-weed. Desperately he clawed at the ground, trying to get purchase, but he could not pull himself to his feet. He screamed, begged, prayed for someone, anyone, find him, until words merged together and he was babbling incoherently.
The long, needle-like teeth of the creature closed on his legs, turning Mike into fishfood.