Ava Montgomery pushes hard to force her front door open wide enough to get inside, just managing to squeeze in through the small gap. The door clicks closed. Inside everything is in shadows cast by the moonlight. Black binbags bulge behind the door like squat toads piled one atop the other. Easing herself past them, Ava edges sideways down the hall made narrow by piles of books and newspapers stacked up against the walls on either side. Sliding out of her ballet flats she climbs the stairs at the end of the hallway, bare feet on bare wood.
Shower. She needs a shower. The bathroom is small, a toilet, a sink and a shower and barely enough room to turn from one to the other. She peers at herself in the tiny mirror above the sink, shadowed brown eyes and thick black hair, winter-pale skin. She undresses and climbs into the cubicle, turns the knob until it is just past comfortably hot. Stands beneath. Squirts the shampoo onto her hand and rubs at her hair. It slips and slides beneath her fingers and a handful of black strands fall out. At first she doesn’t notice, just keeps rubbing the shampoo in. Then more comes away and the plughole is quickly blocked. Hot water laps around her ankles. More and more hair falls to the shower floor and as her hands touch the smoothness of her skull she recoils and cries out. Turning off the shower she steps out and stands dripping in front of the mirror. Her scalp is bald. She runs her hands over her skull and the last few hairs float to the floor, leaving her head as smooth as an egg. Her eyes are wide open, her pupils dilated. She keeps swearing under her breath, a litany of profanities that no one is there to hear.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she says, unable to drag her eyes away from her reflection. Grabbing a towel, she crosses the small landing into her bedroom and sits on the unmade bed, pulling a laptop towards her and opening it. The blue glow of the screen is reflected in her face as she sits, hunched over. Through an open window the first birds can be heard, welcoming in the dawn. She types in sudden hair loss and scrolls through the pages of miracle cures and pictures of bald men, unable to find anything that fits. She slams the laptop shut and fights the tears that prick at the back of her eyes. She tries to control her panic. Tells herself to just do the next thing. Get dressed. Go downstairs, avoid the paperbacks on the steps that you keep meaning to move.
The sun is rising and in the kitchen its watery light fills the room. Tea. She needs tea. While she waits for the kettle to boil she stares out into the overgrown postage stamp of a back garden. She rubs her hand across her scalp without thinking and feels beneath her fingers small bumps where before was only smooth skin. Too tired to be surprised she lets her hand fall and a soothing blankness fills her brain. Her mobile beeps, a message.
Ava? Where did you go? I lost you in the club and then Kate said you’d left – you ok? Did you get home safe?
She replies Yes, am fine, didn’t feel good – got taxi home xx
Ava Montgomery deals with things on her own. She pulls the hood of the oversize sweatshirt over her head and makes tea, fingers trembling. She is meant to be at work in a few hours. She takes the tea into the living room, edging her way to the sofa past the towers of childhood comics and plastic bags overflowing with old clothes and stuffed toys. Books cover every surface and most of the floor. Turning the tv on she leans back in the sofa and mindlessly flicks. Eventually she finds an old black and white movie that shows people and children being attacked by huge flocks of scary looking birds. She turns the volume down and watches the flickering screen in silence, her eyes heavy.
Hours later she wakes with a start. Her hands immediately go to her head, as if it might all have been a dream. Her scalp is covered in what feels like soft down. She runs upstairs, knocking over books that tumble down as she takes the stairs two at a time. Yanking the bathroom door so hard it nearly comes off its hinges she lurches into the bathroom and peers at herself in the mirror. Tiny black feathers, soft as a new-born chick’s, cover her scalp. Fighting down the urge to scream she starts to pull the feathers out, wincing in pain as her skin is pulled and stretched over and over. Where she has plucked the feathers out her head is red and sore. In some places blood drips down to her face. Her mobile rings and she runs back downstairs to get it just as it cuts off. Immediately it starts up again and she answers, sitting down heavily on the sofa.
“Sorry, been throwing up all night – I know, I should have called – sorry,” she gabbles her excuses and her boss shouts down the phone at her. Holding it away from her ear she hangs up and drops the phone back onto the sofa. There will be other jobs. Blood drips into her eyes and she wipes it away with the back of her hand. The part of her brain that likes to be in control takes over as the rest of her mind backs away, gibbering into a corner. She needs milk to make tea and have breakfast, but she finished it last night. Focus. Do the next thing, don’t think too hard. Pulling the hoody back up over her head she grabs her purse and leaves the house, head bent. On the pavement she sees the glint of a silver chewing gum wrapper and bends to pick it up. She shoves it in the pocket of her jeans without knowing why. A bit further down the street and the glitter of a hoop earring catches her eye from the gutter. She puts it in her pocket reflexively, her eyes scanning the floor. At the corner shop she keeps her head bent, rushes in to buy the milk and a newspaper and stumbles out again without having said two words to a soul. No change there then she thinks with a flash of self-awareness that cuts deep. Outside the shop she sees a shiny new five pence coin on the floor, reaches down to pick it up, pushing it into the tight pocket of her jeans.
She walks home and images of the night in the club come back to her in flashes. Bodies, too many bodies. Strobe lighting and wet floors and music that drilled into her skull. It wasn’t her thing. She had left when she couldn’t take anymore. She wanted to fit in, pretend that she enjoyed dancing with strangers and feeling their sweat-slick limbs bump against her own in the dark, but it had all become too much. As she left the club a man with a feathered mask had stopped her on the way out, his hand on her arm.
“You – it’s you. I saw you in my dream,” he said staring at her in wonder, obviously high as a kite. She extricated her arm out of his hand and walked swiftly away. He shouted after her “Fly away my Queen, fly away home,” and she turned around to see him standing still in a sea of constantly moving bodies, watching her leave. The memory seems out of place in the quiet Sunday morning streets with their neatly terraced houses. She burrows herself further into the comfort and anonymity of her grey hoody, walking quickly to escape the twitching of net curtains as she passes by.
She reaches her house. Pushes her weight against the front door and feels it give as the black bin bags squash up against the wall behind the door. Last time her mother came to visit she had offered to help Ava “clear up a bit” and Ava had felt an ice-cold panic overwhelm her. It was as if she was standing on a beach and feeling the tide pulling the sands away from her feet and there was nothing she could do to stop it from dragging her away.
Indoors she heads straight for the kitchen, kettle on. She fishes the bits of rubbish out of her pocket and lays them in a line on the windowsill; just bits of litter, no longer shiny jewels to be treasured. She sees her reflection in the kettle and pushes the hoody back off her head, a small black feather falling to the floor as she does so. The feathers that appeared this morning have grown. They are longer and new ones have sprouted up and pushed through the scabs where she plucked the first ones out. She makes the tea, still numb with shock. Leans against the counter, scrolling through her phone looking for answers. Nothing. She thinks back to the man in the club, did he place her under some weird voodoo curse? She laughs out loud, a high pitched, hysterical sound that turns into a sob. Things like that don’t happen in Hackney. They don’t happen anywhere, she is going insane, that must be it. Maybe someone slipped her something in the club, some new drug that causes temporary madness. Google says sudden hair loss can be caused by trauma. It doesn’t mention feathers.
She walks into the living room and paces back and forth on the rug in front of the sofa. The rug is old and has worn down to its threads. When she first saw it in the junk shop it reminded her of the flying carpets of her childhood adventure books, made her remember a time when she believed in magic. Today the pacing does not bring its usual comfort. She rubs her fingers together, winds them over and under each other, rubs both thumbs against each finger in turn. Nothing works. The living room is cold, the heating broke last week and winter is around the corner. She goes upstairs and bundles the duvet up in her arms, carries it down the stairs and puts it on the floor so she can lean against the sofa and wrap herself in its comfort. Curls herself up and takes deep yogic breaths to try and calm down. The smells of damp and mould and unwashed dishes fill her nose and she groans, pulling the feathered warmth tighter around herself. All day she does nothing but lie on the floor, wrapped in the covers and shivering in the cold. She sleeps and wakes and sleeps again. At some point the doorbell goes but she ignores it and whoever it is goes away.
When she wakes up properly dusk is settling in. Her stomach is growling and so empty it feels like the acids that slosh around her belly are eating her from the inside out. Without any conscious thought she gets up and walks into the kitchen. Picking up her keys she opens the back door and steps out into the early evening. The birds are singing and the last of the sun’s rays can be seen disappearing over the rooftops, closely followed by a blue-black sky. The garden is a wilderness. An old white fridge lies rusting in a corner, leaning against the fence. Ava stumbles into the garden and falls to her knees by what was once a flower bed. She plunges her bare hands into the soil, pulling up weeds by their roots and burrowing deeper into the earth. She keeps digging and digging until her nails are sore and bleeding and filled with soil. While she has been working the moon has come out and it now hangs heavy and full in the sky. The birds have fallen silent. Worms wriggle in amongst the dirt and she picks them up one by one. Gathers them in her hands and watches as they twist and flick themselves from side to side in her open palms. She piles them all into one palm and picks one up, holding it firmly between her finger and thumb. Tilting her head to one side she watches it squirm and her mouth fills with saliva. Food. She needs food. She tips her head back and her mouth opens of its own accord. She lets the worm drop. It twists and turns on her tongue and she tastes gritty soil. Swallows reflexively. When she finally stands up the knees of her jeans are soaked through.
Indoors she climbs the stairs slowly, one foot in front of the other. Her mind flits from thing to thing, never settling long enough for her to focus. The weight of a rucksack on her shoulder. The taste of lemon after tequila. The smell of new books, the rasp of her fingers across clean sheets. Her brain is trying to protect her and in a detached way she is grateful for the kindness. She gets undressed again, leaves her muddy clothes in a pile on top of the ones from this morning. A lifetime ago. The shower is hot and the water glances off the feathers that have spread across her shoulders and down her arms. She no longer tries to pluck them out, instead she strokes her arms and all the feathers lie flat beneath her palms. Mud and blood from her fingers mingle and get washed away, swirling in the water that pools around her feet. Eventually the water grows cold and her skin takes on a blueish hue. She steps out and shakes herself dry, sending droplets of water in all directions.
A banging on the front door pulls her out of herself and she grabs a dressing gown from the back of the door, pulling up the hood to cover her feathered scalp. Downstairs the banging continues.
“Ava? Ava! Are you in?” calls a male voice through the letterbox. She stands on the top step and shouts down the stairs.
“I’m sick, go away,” she says – her hand on the wall, stopping her from running down to open the front door. She knows who it is. Tony. He can’t see her like this, no one can. Ava Montgomery leans against the wall and tears prickle at the back of her eyes. She mentally shakes herself, straightens her shoulders and makes her voice firm.
“I’ll call you – I ate a dodgy kebab. I just need to see it through Tones, I’ll call you – I promise,” she lies, praying that he will go away and leave her alone.
“Babe, let me in, I’ll look after you – you don’t have to cope on your own, you’re not superwoman,” he says, and she can just make out the outline of his lean body bending down to talk through the letterbox.
“Honestly Tones, I’m fine – I just need to be on my own.”
“Fine, call me tomorrow,” he says, letting the letterbox snap shut. She breathes a sigh of relief and waits for the sound of the front gate clanging before she ventures downstairs. In the dimly moonlit living-room the comfort of the clutter pulls her in, and she weaves her way through the mess to the duvet which still holds the shape of her body. Sinking down into it she picks her phone up from the floor where it fell as she slept. A missed call from her mother, nothing else. Dropping it again she gets up, picks her way to the window and draws the curtains shut, then feels her way in the dark to the wall to put the light switch on. The dressing gown rubs against the lengthening feathers on her arms and she shrugs it from her shoulders, letting it lie where it falls on the floor. Then, naked, she goes to the bookshelf that is overflowing onto the floor and her eyes light on a book of Ancient Egyptian mythology that she had picked up from a charity shop but never read. She hefts it up, carries it to her duvet nest and begins to read. A world of gods and goddesses, of gods with the heads of jackals and a woman with wings. Her heart beats faster as she reads – the goddess Isis is depicted as a bird – she turns to her phone and types in Isis goddess and clicks on images, then scrolls through pages of a woman with wings, image after image.
She drops the phone and shivers, the feathers that have appeared on her chest fluffing up as her body temperature drops. She screams and hurls the book across the room in a fit of rage and frustration. It crashes into a small table, smashing a vase full of dead flowers and falling spine up in the broken glass. Her brain whirls and her stomach turns. She kneels over and clutches her belly as she retches onto the carpet and then falls back into the covers, curling into herself like an ancient embryonic fossil. Pulling the duvet close around her, she sleeps and dreams. She is flying over the houses and gaining height and getting closer and closer to the sun until she can feel the skin on her face start to peel and when she looks down at her hands they are blackened and the cords of muscle are showing through the bubbling fat of her arms and she is plunging to the earth and the wind is pushing the skin from her bones and she screams but there is no one to hear.
Something wakes her and for a few minutes she doesn’t move. Just lies, tightly curled in on herself. Listening. She can hear the fridge in the kitchen and her own ragged breathing and a bird singing. Slowly, she uncurls herself and lets the duvet fall away from her body. The feathers have grown in the night. As she kneels to stand up they brush along the floor and she can feel the vibrations travel from the tip of the feathers to the skin of her arm. It is not an unpleasant sensation. Her head feels clear and clean, like someone came and threw every thought, every worry, into black bin bags and took them away in the night. Leaving her still and silent inside. She walks into the kitchen and as she edges past the books piled high in the hallway she holds her feathered arms close to her body to protect them from harm. In the kitchen she looks out at the sky and it is still dark. She can just make out birds gathering in the old apple tree in the garden and she can feel their excitement like a palpable thing. Pushing the back door open she steps out. The dawn chorus rises around her and joy flutters inside her breast. It feels like she might die from a happiness that threatens to crack open her chest. Turning to look up and behind her she sees the sky starting to lighten over the roof of the house. As she steps backward into the garden her bare feet relish the dew damp cold grass, toes curling into the earth. The tips of her wings brush the floor.
Ava Montgomery stands and stares into the sky and watches the sparkling stars disappear one by one. Power shivers up and down her arms, the slight breeze ruffling her feathers and sending shock waves of pleasure through her body. She takes another step backwards to better see the sun rising over the houses. It feels as though her bones are made of glass, blown so impossibly thin a touch would melt them away. She looks down at her arms and they look almost translucent beneath the feathers, she can see green veins and feel the blood pumping around her body, hear it in her ears. The smell of the dawn mingling with the honeysuckle that grows wild up the fence fills her with a feeling of hope and possibility. In salutation to the sun she raises her arms. Her wings spread open and as she brings them down her feet lift from the earth and she flies up into the unknown, free at last.
BIO: F J Richardson was born on a boat on the river Thames and now lives and writes in a cottage in the woods. She has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from OU and writes dark speculative fiction. She spends an inordinate amount of time reading books about the end of the world and drinking tea and red wine. She can be found at @fjrichardson77 on Twitter.