The engine turns idly as I wait in the car. My gaze fixated on the hotel. When Joe suggested we visit Yorkshire’s National Park to celebrate our third anniversary, I hadn’t given it much thought. Why would I when the idea of a romantic weekend away left me all excited. Recently our relationship has become stagnant, and I had begun to think Joe was looking for a way out. I was dreading the moment he would tell me it was over. A moment which hasn’t happened. As I continue to stare at the old hotel, my insecurities rise again. Will this be our last weekend together? Is this our last time together? A weekend of sex before he tells me it’s all over.
‘Are you staying in the car all day?’
I shake my head. My gaze is still on the hotel. The sun may be bright, and there may be no breeze, but my hands are cold, and my nose tingles. I have to move.
‘Yeah – I’m coming.’ As I smile at Joe, the furrows in his forehead fade.
‘Well, what do you think?’
My smile is stiff. I know it is. Just as my walk to the hotel is slow.
‘Why did you choose this hotel?’
‘Jenna recommended it.’
‘You talked to Jenna about us?’
‘Sure – Who else is going to know what you like, but your best friend.’
I follow Joe into the hotel’s lobby, hanging behind him as he checks us in. I can get through this weekend I tell myself. A sudden tapping on the window catches my attention, and my gaze is drawn to a large crow. His small beady eyes burn into me, and my hand reaches behind my neck. My head throbs in time to the tap tapping.
My mouth opens and closes as I step closer to Joe.
‘Can we go to our room?’
‘Sure. It’s this way.’
The craw of the crow follows me as we enter the lift and my body shivers as I close my eyes. Which I quickly open when those eyes penetrate my vision. Eyes I haven’t seen in ten years. Not since I was seventeen. As we step out of the lift, I give my body a shake. Then I’m blinking. This is the same floor as my last stay. I force myself to follow Joe as he walks down the corridor. My heart stops beating as I fight for breath. My gaze flickers over the number of the room, twelve. The last room in the corridor. It’s the same room as my last stay. My mouth turns dry as I step inside, and my gaze flickers over the furnishing, surprised at the changes. The twin beds are gone, replaced with a Queen.
‘So, what do you think?’
My gaze leaves the bed to study Joe. His sandy brown hair flops over his creamy brown eyes, and the way he watches me, leaves my knees shaking. Even after three years, he still has the power to make my stomach quiver.
‘It’s a beautiful room. And the bed looks inviting.’ I loop my arms around his neck as I thrust my hips against his. His lips are warm, and I snuggle closer, rubbing my body over his. Then he’s breaking away from me, pushing me away as he reaches over to the bedside cabinet for the keys.
‘We’ve time for that later – Let’s go for a walk.’
My heart dips, this isn’t what I want. I want to stay in our room and make love while the sun still shines and warms our flesh. With a last glance around the room, I follow Joe out of the hotel. As I follow him, I don’t take notice of the path he has chosen until we are in the woods. Memories I’ve long buried, begin to surface, and I force them back down. The path is familiar. The cornflowers call me. Buttercups and daisies splash amongst the emerald green carpet. I have an urge to remove my shoes. To run barefoot as blades of grass caress my feet.
‘Let’s take a different path.’
Joe reaches out. His hand warm as it clasps mine, and as he pulls me up beside him, his smile melts the chill within me as we step further into the woods.
‘We’re here now Anna. We may as well as carry ongoing this way.’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’ My gaze shifts over the trees. The silence deafens me as I search for life. For a squirrel to run up a tree, or for the sound of a branch rattling, or leaves falling as birds flit from one branch to another. Yet there is nothing. As Joe, and I wander further into the forest, I ask myself what could go awry. I’m not on my own. It is daylight, and besides, there’s no music for me to follow. For me to lose track of time or my way in the forest. I have Joe. What can go wrong?
As I follow Joe, who keeps stopping to browse at the odd tree or branch, a crow caws as it flies over my head. His wing close. It brushes against my pale brown hair. Warmth floods me as I push my hand into Joe’s, clinging onto his fingers.
‘Are you okay?’
The laughter in his voice has me answering his grin with a nod as my own smile wobbles.
‘Yeah. I was just surprised at how close the crow came.’
Joe turns his head to look at me. His gaze digging into mine as I frown.
‘The one which just flew over us. You must have heard it.’
‘There was no crow, Anna. It’s too dense for anything to fly this close. Besides, you sound like an elephant each time you step on a twig. And that’s bound to keep whatever animals are about, at bay.’
Just as Joe finishes speaking, a twig snaps, and I glance in the direction the noise came from. My hand slips from his as I stay where I am, and he carries on walking. Hidden behind a tree with just its head showing is a doe. Her brown eyes on me, and my breath hitches. No, it isn’t happening again. There is no party, no music. Animals do not transform into humans.
All those years ago, I’d fallen, and with the fall, came the concussion from hitting the ground extremely hard. What happened the last time I was here, was nothing more than a dream. Still, the deer stares at me. My feet beg me to turn and run, whilst my body refuses to move. My back is damp as fresh sweat trickles down my spine.
‘You remember her. Don’t you?’
I shake my head slowly as I push the images away. The voice is nothing more than a whisper in my ear. Yet I still jump when Joe’s hand curves onto my waist. My mouth is dry, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
‘Remember her – What do you mean.’
‘From that night.’
Joe’s eyes bore into mine as he strokes the hair away from my face, pushing it behind my ear.
‘What night?’ My gaze doesn’t move from the doe as I push the memories back. I don’t want to remember that night. It’s a part of me that I have put behind me. A part of me, I no longer want. I’m proud of who I have become.
‘You know what night.’ Joe’s voice is soft as he pulls my gaze to his. ‘It took me a long time to find you Anna.’
‘To find me.’
The blood in my head is spinning, and my stomach rolls. The back of my throat tightens as I move away from him. The path is gone. There are only trees surrounding me. My gaze returns to the doe. She is stepping away from her hiding place. Her steps slow as her body begins to transform. Slowly she straightens upright. Her front legs turn into arms. Her hind legs become human. Then she’s up-close. Her hand slips into Joe’s. The other hand, she thrusts towards me.
‘Hello, Anna. It’s been a long time.’
The coolness of the woods fade as bright sunlight floods the area. More rivulets of sweat roll down my back. Joe’s grasp is firm, and so is the woman’s as she pulls me gently towards her. I push my feet into the ground, and my head twists left to right, then behind me. There is nowhere for me to run.
‘You’re not real.’
The words are nothing more than a husky whisper when they should have been a loud shout.
‘We are, Anna. And it’s time for you to join us – To come home.’
‘No…’ My head spins towards Joe ‘Joe – What’s going on.’
‘I’ve brought you home Anna. It’s time to return to your own kind. No more running.’
‘No – You have it wrong. I don’t belong here.’
‘You do Anna. You should never have left in the first place. But you had to learn for yourself just what it’s like outside the forest. How the others live.’
The harder I pull and tug away. The firmer their grip is, and soon I find myself pulled in their direction. Closer to the music.
‘Anna. You’ve had your freedom. Now it’s time to return to your family.’
My gaze flies to the thing in front of me. What did she mean? My family is back in York, along with my friends.
‘I have family – Joe. Tell her. You’ve met them.’
‘Listen to Floride. Those people in the city aren’t your family. You don’t belong with them. How many times, as we lay in bed, did we talk about this? Talk about how different you are to them.’
The sunlight fades as Joe, and the strange woman draws me in further. The music is growing louder. The scream sticks in my throat, and the pounding in my head grows.
‘Joe. We have to get out of here. She has you under a spell.’
‘Anna, calm down.’ Joe comes to stand in front of me. His touch soft as he strokes my flesh. ‘Anna, you have to forget about York. Your home is here, with me. With your mother.’
His gaze drops from me to the woman. Her brown eyes search mine, and I feel the tug as I hang back. I refuse to go any further. If I do, all will be lost Everything I’ve worked for, will be gone, forgotten, if I take that step.
‘Joe. My life is in York, not here.’
‘Stop fighting it, Anna. You made your promise, and now you have to honour it.’
The woman’s touch is soothing as her thumb rubs over the flesh of my hand.
‘The one where we give you the freedom you desired. To live amongst the humans until Joe came to collect you.’
Joe is no longer a man. The light has faded, and he is a young buck. The woman who calls herself my mother, is no longer human. My gaze returns to the trail we have taken. On the ground lies the remains of the shirt, jeans, and underwear I was wearing.
The sun has disappeared, and the moon is high. As I look into the clear still water of the pond, I shake my head, and the image before me, shimmers. I raise my gaze to the young buck who stands before me, and with a nudge to his neck, we return to the herd.