So I’m always a bit nervy of posting a story of mine, but here’s one that is particularly appropriate for a night as inky black as this.
The Storm Born
Wind came, and with it, the children. They had been there for weeks now, clinging on the edge of the trees, bordering in the senses of all those who saw them. They were the flick of the branch in the corner of an eye, the shadow that moved when you looked at it. They were the children who waited for a night like this to be born.
And this night was perfect for them. It was the darkest of nights, the thickest of blacks. It was the sort of night that swallowed light and sound and people. People walked in it and when they got further than three steps away from each other, they disappeared. A hand stretched out and was grabbed and a breath exhaled with tense relief.
It was the blackest of nights. The car headlights picked up the outline of the trees on the common as it turned down Pennyhedge Lane. Mr Thornton hunched over the wheel, tense, and ignored his daughter who was sat by him on the passenger seat.
Jessica pressed her face to the window and fancied she could see outside. She could, she thought, if she squinted hard enough, almost see their house Oak View, right at the end of the lane. It was miles away if she thought about it and yet it felt as if they were already there. “Are we there yet?” she asked, “Dad? Can’t you drive any faster?”
“Not in this,” said Mr Thornton, gritting his teeth. He had never quite understood the expression until now, and now he could barely remember doing anything else. His body ached. His whole being ached. His fingers had barely moved from their rictus grip around the wheel. Every turn he took, even the slight shivers of the wheel, made the car buck and wheel away from him. “A night like this,” he said, “Unbelievable.”
Jessica turned the radio up and up and then she conceded defeat and turned it off. The howls of the wind increased to the extent that she could barely believe she hadn’t been deafened by them already. Unconsciously she pressed her palms together.
A tree hovered drunkenly in front of them and then it slammed down on the road. Mr Thornton swore and flung himself over the steering wheel. The car skidded around the tree – somehow – and they heard the loose branches and – everything – scrabble and scratch at the car roof before Mr Thornton floored it and Jessica swung into the back of her chair and they finally – finally – saw the lights of their house come into view.
When they could speak, eventually, when Mr Thornton put the handbrake on and took an immense depth, Jessica said, “We don’t tell Mum.” Her hands, she realised, were shaking. “She’ll go crazy.”
“Agreed,” said Mr Thornton. “Agreed like I’ve never agreed anything before.”
They got out of the car. Mr Thornton led the way to the house. Jessica, a moment behind him, heard something. It was a something that made her turn and stare at the car, trying to figure out what it was. It wasn’t – a – storm noise.
It wasn’t – an – anything – noise.
As her father fumbled with the key in the door, cursing the fact that he’d never put in a porch light, Jessica kept staring and she figured it out what was the source of the noise. It was a branch, scratting its way over the car roof. And then she saw it slide off and onto the floor and do so in a way that she knew, just knew, wasn’t anything to do with the wind.
She heard the noise again. Fingers being drawn – being gouged – against metal. Wood spitting and burning on the bonfire. And ice, ice balling on windows.
Unable to stop herself, she took a step forward. It was as if now she had seen the branch, she couldn’t see anything else. It was as if the branch was everything and that the world around it simply didn’t exist.
“Jessica!” called Mr Thornton as he finally managed to unlock the door. “Come on!”
But she didn’t hear him. She couldn’t. Transfixed, she stood there and she watched the way the branch started to – unfurl. It was as if she was watching one of those nature programmes but instead of a flower growing it was – it was – a person. There was a part of her that couldn’t believe what she was seeing and yet, another part of her, that accepted it. That told her, quite clearly, that this was a person and it had grown out of this fallen branch.
And when the person fully unfurled from the tree, rolling their limbs from the finger-thin branches and standing up from the shadow, Jessica Thornton felt herself start to shake.
The person had her face. It walked towards her, its legs thin and music-like, and its body quivering in the storm. She heard it, heard it inside of her, and she said, “Jessica,” because she could not help herself.
“Jessica,” it said, in a voice of burnt paper and smoke. It touched her face.
She felt herself start to fall. It was as though she was standing on the edge of a very high cliff and suddenly she had been pushed. She tried to scream but she couldn’t. She tried to move her hands – her legs – anything – but she couldn’t. She wasn’t even sure that she was in her body any more. She didn’t feel – whole.
“Jessica,” it said again, and its voice had changed. To – hers.
Jessica realised that it was her now, that somehow, it had seen her and become her and now, because, there was only a space in the world for one Jessica Thornton, she was being pushed out. She was being erased.
She saw the thing – the her – pat its – her hair back into position. She saw the thing take a shaking step towards the house, testing its new body, its shape. Testing what it now was. She saw her father come back to the door.
“Come on!” he said again, and she sobbed because he realised he was not talking to her. That he was talking to it and it was inside her body and inside her life and it had stolen her world.
The Jessica-thing stepped inside the house. And the Jessica-that-was felt the storm wind pick her up and start to pull the brief threads of what was left of her apart.