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Copyright © 2017 Lynette Aspey
This story remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

The Lover

(Trigger warnings: violence)

June Noland’s lover was restless. She was tired and he was bored.

“And boring? Well, that’s the end,” he’d promised. “Wham, Bam, thank you ma’am. Move on. Next in line!”

Lately, there’d been times when she forgot where she was, or even who. Like now, standing ankle-deep in briny water staring at a Missing Person’s poster featuring a girl she thought she knew.

“That mum of yours, she sure is a determined one,” he murmured in her ear. “Do you reckon she’d recognize you? Maybe we should go visit?”

June knew better than to react, which made her feel a little guilty but the roller-coaster he’d once feasted on had long since derailed.

“Remember when you tried to throw yourself against that wall?” He asked, reading her mind. There was real warmth in his voice because that was one of his favorite reminiscences.  Somehow, he’d managed to turn her mid-air so that she collided with the bricks face first.

Later, like the other hurtful times when she’d let him down, they’d made up so tenderly and she’d fallen in love all over again.

June wondered if there was any part of her that he hadn’t touched but such thoughts only dug the hole of loss deeper. Despite everything they’d shared, there was no escaping it; she was empty and he would leave her, but at least not before he found someone else.

Although that was proving difficult.

June knew it was her fault and she tried her best but her condition was the problem.

She was thinking about this while staring at her mother’s latest attempt to reach her. These posters had followed her down through the months, pleading, feeding her guilt: she suspected it was one of the reasons her lover had decided to stay.

Her old self stared back at her.  There was a number she could call, a place she could go—none of which she intended to pursue.

“Can we go now?” he whined.

I’m so tired, she wanted to say but she moved on, without a word and without a plan as to where they might rest. She knew old London’s swollen underbelly all too well and places that were both dry and private were few and far between. She would just have to check them, one by one.

Splashing through the rising tide reminded June of when she was still just a little girl. The estuary had swallowed their home, so her mother had moved into the city to share in a communal high-rise. There was no police force anymore but Susan had kept her weapons. They were her credentials and the community had accepted Susan’s application because the co-op needed someone like her to organize their security but it meant young June was left alone, a lot.

She was not alone in her experience. Like her peers, June learned to exist in the spaces between then and now, where roads had once existed that were now dead-ends. Where some found suicide in cheap Ice, she’d found a lover.

He never told her where he’d come from but there nothing in her life that could compare to his first embrace. Afterward, he’d been happy to share and he’d taught her so much.  He was old – she suspected, very old – and well-travelled. He told her of times past in such vivid detail that his stories felt real and fed her imagination for weeks.

He hadn’t minded her day-dreaming so much then because he could feed on happiness too, but frustration? Well, that took its toll. Like hunger and exposure.

She got used to it when she stopped fighting. Acceptance was a form of adaptation, wasn’t it?

Junie wished that her feet would adapt. She knew that they were rotting out from under her but physical pain only annoyed her lover, and so she trudged on without complaint, splashing her way through the waterlogged streets without much thought except to find somewhere as dry as possible.

Her preoccupation was why it took her a while to realize that they were being followed.

She turned, quickly enough to catch a good look. It was a girl, barely a teenager, with a dark, bone-sharp face half hidden in dreadlocks. The whites of her eyes shone in the dim light.

Realizing that she’d been seen, the girl moved out of the shadows. “That thing on yer back,” she said. “I sees it move.” It was a child’ voice, curious and avaricious.

Now? Was it to be now? In that heartbeat, June wanted to scream, “Run!”

Instead, she waited while her lover wove his siren spell, watched as the girl’s hungry, too-young face, softened at his song.

Again June thought of warning the child but the moment was gone as soon as it arrived. She had adapted and so would this grasping, malnourished slip of a thing.

And then her lover would finally leave her.

*

“Look at this!” Aran exclaimed, motioning Susan over. It was a grainy still-shot from one of the old surveillance cams they’d hacked.

A tragic, hunched figure stood in the half-light, studying one of their posters.

“We’ve seen her before,” said Susan, backing away.

“Yes, and this time we’ve got a good angle on her face.”

“It’s not her.”

Aran looked up from the screen. “Susan…”

“That’s not my June!”

Her partner’s dark eyes considered her steadily.

“Proof!” Susan demanded hoarsely, “prove to me that this myth of yours exists.” She turned and fled the room.

Aran turned back to the picture on his screen. Selecting the face on the cam-still, he zoomed in. Pixels enlarged, he zoomed again.

Eventually, the picture became one enormous eye made of square dots. A strand of wiry hair hung down in front of an ear that appeared to have been chewed, and there, looking out from over her shoulder—

“Found you,” murmured Aran, as he stared back into the pointed face with its two yellow eyes. The pupils were cat-like slits that stared right back at him.

He sat back in his chair. The hairs on the back of his neck hackled and a sickly mixture of contempt and excitement stirred him. “Fuck,” he whispered softly. Those eyes scraped him clean, bared him to his essence, knew his needs.

He pulled up an old city map, updated it with streets that he knew were underwater, highlighted possible routes away from the street cam location where June had been only hours before, then he grabbed his coat and his weapon.

Despite her denial, Susan was waiting for him outside, armed and ready. She’d seen the truth, as he knew she would. “Can you get that creature off my daughter without killing her?”

Aran trapped the lie before it was spoken and she did not ask again.

*

Despite her youth, the girl was cautious. The lover spoke to the child, trying to find the hook that might draw her closer. All the time, June kept moving, taking corners, finding her way to an old courtyard where she knew there was a dark alley, a back entrance to an old shop that still had floors above the water.

Their quarry kept pace but maintained her distance.

June could feel the lover’s impatience rising but this was his game and it was only a matter of time. The girl would come to him eventually and then he would open her up and finger her vulnerabilities until she saw only that which was beautiful and desirable, until she could not do without him.

June knew this and despite her exhaustion, she felt the heat of jealousy.

It was not working though—the child was selfish and unexpectedly self-sufficient.

Abruptly, June’s lover stopped his charm offensive. He turned his attention back to June, stirring beneath her filthy cloak and tenderly stroking her shoulder. “Junie, Junie,” he sang into her ear. “You’re my sunshine, do you know that?”

In her overcast world, his words warmed her although she knew them to be lies. Her addiction to him was such that for a delicious moment, as June felt her lover nuzzle the crease of her neck, love blossomed outwards from her tired heart and snatched her breath away.

“You’re so special, Junie,” he whispered, “but you know that I have to leave you. You’ve always known it.”

She nodded, still unable to breathe, to speak.

Apparently forgotten, the girl sidled closer. She was suddenly peering into June’s face. “Yer not so old,” she observed, sounding interested, “but you smell like shit.”

The lover laughed, sounding delighted. It was enough to shift the tide of feeling into rage. “Go away,” June shrieked. “You can’t have him.”

A challenge was all the child needed. “Who says, ya filthy bitch?”

June shuffled backwards.

Suddenly finding herself in a position of power, the girl made a grab for her shoulder.

The lover was fairly bouncing with excitement. June stumbled, lost her footing and in a panic, threw herself sideways to avoid falling on top of him.

Their prey was feral. She took her chance to snatch what she wanted faster than either June or her lover anticipated.

He was not ready!

She yanked off June’s filthy cloak to reveal the lover clinging to her back. His pointed mouth twisted in a snarl of frustration.

The girl froze in shock and disgusted disappointment. “I thought it was a monkey!” she wailed.

The lover knew rejection when he saw it. His long taloned arm shot out, striking the girl in the chest with enough force to pierce her skinny chest. “I’ll give you monkey,” he hissed.

The girl spasmed as the lover indulged himself, shaking the thin body so hard that the girl’s dreadlocks bounced like tendrils against June’s face.

Her consciousness narrowed to the pinpoint of hysteria. All she could feel or hear were her own screams, echoing.

Her lover laughed. He hadn’t had it so good in months.

*

Susan and Aran followed June’s trail from the poster where the cam had picked her up for several blocks. The tideline dwellers knew the hunchback, had seen her pass.

They lost June in the vicinity of what had once been a small courtyard. The square was now a dank pool, with a rotting tree at its heart, the perimeter knee-deep in slimy water. The surrounding buildings created several dark alleys that ran off in different directions.

Then they heard the screams.

Susan would have run straight into the alley’s narrow entrance had Aran not held her back. He gave her a steady look and they both brought out weapons.

“Let me go first,” he said urgently. “If it is June, don’t go to her, no matter what she says. Do you understand?”

His grip dug painfully into her upper arm until she nodded curtly. “Yes. Hurry.”

The alley was dark and decay deadened the sound of their approach.

The screams had been replaced by a desperate keening sound, like that of a beaten cur. She couldn’t see the end of the alley but she knew with the instinct of a mother, that her daughter was there with that thing.

She was suddenly aware of a hollowness where she had expected to find hope, loathing when she needed to feel compassion. Suddenly, all she wanted was to grab Aran by his arm and drag him away with her – but it had been the search that had brought them together, there was no turning back, for either of them.

The sounds of suffering stopped abruptly.

In the deep quiet that followed, Susan heard the squeak of a rat, the drip of filthy water and a soft shuffling of feet.

Something grotesque rose out of the gloom; the mound of a broken body lay at its feet.

The hunchback stepped over the body and shuffled towards them. The hunch writhed, twisting and appearing to grow.

Aran took a step. “Release her,” he commanded.

Two fierce, yellow eyes peered at them over June’s shoulder.

“Junie?” whispered Susan.

If her daughter heard her, she made no sign. The lover was focused on Aran, his musical words for this ears only.

I’m not worthy, thought Susan, suddenly jealous of her partner’s smooth skin, those dark eyes so heavily lashed, his high Asiatic cheekbones.

It was the lascivious leer that crossed June’s face that woke Susan from the dream cast by the creature’s voice.

“Aran!” she snapped, only to see a savage mixture of passion and guilt twist his face.

“Ah, your old woman doesn’t know, does she, my boy? You used her to find me? Oh, what a delicious mix: guilt and mercy!” The creature humped June’s back in a parody of climax, laughing.

Susan lifted her chin. “This is your last fuck,” she grated as she raised her gun and fired.

Surprise widened the creature’s eyes but he was magically fast. June took the shot in her shoulder even as she threw herself onto Aran and engulfed him in the folds of her filthy cloak.

Susan dropped the gun. She caught hold of Aran’s leg; used her strength to haul him out from under the catastrophe they had wrought.

“Let go,” she heard him grunt, as he twisted out of her grasp.

Beside them, June stirred and whimpered. Leaning down, Susan yanked the filthy, matted material away from her daughter’s back and stared.

She heard hurried footsteps approaching. She heard Aran tell someone to leave him alone, to see to the women. She felt hands take hold of her. She did not resist.

Her daughter’s back was awash in blood. The bullet had destroyed her shoulder.

The hump was gone.

*

Later, Susan used the last of her credit to find a bed for her dying daughter. She stayed with her, hoping that June might wake and recognize her but there was no answering pressure in that limp, cold hand.

In the end, without being able to say how she came to be there, she found herself watching the hostel’s Aids trolley her daughter’s broken body away. With nowhere else to go, she let her feet find their own way back to the apartment she had shared with her daughter and later, Aran, who had sought her out, shared what he knew, taught her how to hunt. It was not love, she knew, but they had shared a bond and there had been affection.

Susan waited but he didn’t come back. Finally, hunger drove her out in search of food, in search of him.

It was later, in some other depression in time, when she discovered herself back looking down at his clutter. There, peeking out from beneath his tablet, was the edge of a picture. She tugged at the corner, easing it out.

Pixelated eyes stared back at her. She could make out the pouting mouth curled into a half-smile.

Susan considered what she saw, what she now knew to be sure beyond doubt. She wondered if the nature of the relationship would be different, now that the incubus had a male lover.

Susan poured herself a drink, the last dram of alcohol left in her apartment. She sat down on the sagging couch and took a sip, savoring the whiskey’s hot bite. She decided that she would rest for a while and, perhaps, in the quiet of the early hours, she could mourn her daughter. She looked into her glass and swirled the drink, studying the motion of trapped liquid before downing the rest in one swallow. It was good that the whiskey was finally gone. Now there was nothing left of the time before.

“Round and round,” she whispered, but the cycle would stop with her. No more innocent children, no more beautiful young men. Susan Noland had reservoirs enough to keep the monster sated till eternity. Tomorrow, she would begin her search again.

This story emerged out of an unfortunate, and unfortunately long, relationship more than half a lifetime ago. It took a lot of distance before I was able to say that I was over it – but then, I was young. It wasn’t until much later that I recognised the type of person I’d been involved with is these days labelled as an “Emotional Vampire”. All those engineered fights, then the punishment and then the making up, created a cycle in which I felt myself to be disappearing: everything I was, everything I could be, sucked up.

Fortunately for me, I escaped and he went on to some other young fool. Having gained distance, I then began to wonder how it would have felt to be a mother trying to find a missing daughter; a child that she knew had been taken by something dark and inexplicable. Set that search into the backdrop of a drowning world, play with the essentials of the story, and there you have it. I admit that I thought long and hard about putting this nasty piece of work out there, but then I thought, “hey, what the hell” . 

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