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Estimated reading time — 5 minutes

The stillness wakes me. Not that pleasant quiet after a winter snow, or the comfortable silence of a sleeping house, but a heavy blanket of non-sound, as if even the air was afraid to stir. I lay in bed, barely breathing, straining to catch even the slightest movement. Nothing.

Slowly I rise, not wanting to break the spell. Why is it every action seems so much louder when you’re trying to be quiet? Even my breathing sounds harsh, my pulse thundering in my ears.

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I pad to the window, feet chilled from the polished wood floor. The early morning sun bathes the landscape in weak, yellow tones. Snow glints and contrasts with the dark pine woods lining the path from the house to the river. Leaning closer I can feel the coldness outside seeping in along the frame. I reach out to touch the glass, but my shifting weight makes the floorboards creak. I freeze in place, suddenly apprehensive, as if I don’t want anyone to know I’m awake.

‘Is that you, dear?’

A call from below frees all from that stillness and suddenly sounds rush in; the chittering of birds on the deck, the faint murmur of the heater, the clink of a spoon in a cup. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and shake off the last dregs of sleep.

‘Yes, Mum, be right down!’, I call as I finish making the bed.

I’m home, or at least at my parents’ house, for Christmas. We decided, my better half and I, that it would be easier if I came up alone, since the borders were still closed to foreigners because of the virus. To be honest, it was a nice change of pace, and I had truly missed being in a snowy clime for the holidays.

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Through the space of the half-closed door I glance into my parents’ bedroom and think I see a body-shaped lump still tucked under the blankets. Funny, Dad is usually the first one up. First time for everything, I guess.

I slowly make my way down the stairs, pausing to look at the art Mum had lovingly hung. A little piece from each place they’d traveled to, a handmade souvenir to be enjoyed instead of stuffed into a drawer never to be looked at again. One day they’ll be able to add new ones.

Pausing at the landing a small smile steals across my face as I glance at the tree and the decorations on the mantel. Another treasure trove of nostalgia; we’d collected the decorations over decades. It was always fun to decide the theme and reminisce as we unwrapped each little bauble.

I round the corner, surprised to see Mum at the dining room table and not her usual perch in the kitchen. ‘Good morning!’ I chirp as I hug her, but… it doesn’t feel right.

‘Good morning, honey.’ I pause and my arms slacken.

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‘Are you feeling ok, Mum?’ I pull back to see her face. Her eyes meet mine and something cold and flat flashes across, here and gone so fast I must have imagined it.

‘Never better! Why do you ask, sweetheart?’ She smiles and pats my hand, a gesture both familiar and alien. I step back, nonplussed.

‘Oh, it’s nothing. Things just seem a little… off. Must have had a weird dream follow me from sleep.’

‘Well, have some tea and toast, kiddo; that’ll set things aright.’

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Grateful to focus on the mundane task of preparing my breakfast, I linger on each step. Still not able to fully shake off the weirdness, I mentally go through the day’s activities we have planned. So, we’re gonna play some Scrabble, then bake the butter tarts and meringues. I root around in several cupboards, finally finding the honey next to the flour in the pantry.

Then… then head out for an appropriately socially distanced lunch at ‘our’ teahouse. Yum! Another search turns up the butter on the windowsill by the sink. Hmm, and maybe on the way home pick up some Chinese from that amazing place in the village. Yeah, this’ll be great!

Satisfied with my effort to brighten my mood, I spare a look out the kitchen window, across the white expanse outside, the snow glittering against the bright blue sky. I take a deep breath and carry my cup and plate to the table, determined to stay in good spirits. Smiling at Mum, I drizzle honey over my nicely charred toast and happily tuck into brekkie.

‘Oh,’ she says lightly, ‘by the way, Dad stepped out. Said he wanted a new mask, the one he’s using now is too old.’ I laugh because that’s so Dad. Anytime he’d pass in front of a mirror he’d playfully preen and give himself a thumbs up. Now he was all about collecting stylish masks to coordinate with his outfits.

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But wait… ‘Isn’t he still sleeping? I thought I saw him in bed.’ Mum’s smile falters, but then comes back, bigger, brighter.

Did she always have such a wide mouth?

‘Oh, silly me, of course he’s still sleeping. I meant he’d be going out. Later.’ She takes a sip of tea, slurping, giving me a sidelong glance. I absent-mindedly take another bite of toast, feeling unsettled, a frisson of electricity flitting across my shoulders and the back of my neck.

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Another slurp, and another look. Is there something wrong with her face? The right side looks almost like it’s sagging. She reaches across and pats my hand again, her hand clammy, bony. Could it be a stroke? I look more closely, trying to see the telltale signs.

And then, I notice it. A thin, red line just under her jaw by her ear. Wha-? What is that? ‘Mum, what’s that on your neck?’

‘What do you mean, sweetheart?’ A pause. ‘Kiddo?’ Another pause, then in that tone when you’ve figured out the trick, ‘Dear.’

‘Is… is that blood?’ I see it more clearly now, the line. It’s tracing along her jaw, spreading, widening. ‘Oh, god, what’s wrong with your face?’ My voice falters; catches in my throat. It’s hard to swallow.

She gracefully touches her hand to her neck, peering wryly at the smudge left on her fingers like it’s an inconvenience, a small frustration.

‘Sometimes with older ones they don’t sit right, you have to adjust.’ A soft laugh and a sigh, and then she straightens in her chair. I’m flushed and freezing, cemented to mine.

Still smiling that too-wide grin she grasps her face with one hand and casually pulls, —What?—, her face coming away with a squelch, —WHAT?— ribbons of sticky —What is HAPPENING?— ichor suspended between, rivulets of claret trailing down her neck.

‘What the f—‘, I stammer.

‘Language, dear’, the thing holding my mother’s face says.

With a grunt of effort I fling myself back from the table. Can’t breathe, can’t bre—, no, no, no, no, no, no, I don’t—

‘It’s alright, dear, you’ll see it will all be alright’ it says as it gently puts her face back on, smoothing the edges so they once again lie seamless against her —its, ITS— skin. I lurch out of the dining room, legs moving like molasses, like in a horror movie, —a movie! A dream? This isn’t real!— while my not-Mum turns in her chair to watch.

I hear a thud from upstairs, knowing now it’s not my Dad but another… thing. I choke back a cry as I stumble towards the front door.

‘Remember dear, if you want to stay safe out there…’ A low chuckle follows.

My fingers brush the cool handle and then I’m gripping it, turning it, feeling the icy air as the door cracks open. She, no, IT, is still at the table, watching, amused by my terror, my flight.

So close, I can make it! The door, open wider now, lets the winter chill wash over me. My foot touches the welcome mat. Oh god, I’m free. I’m safe.

A breath, a blink, and a movement so fluid and swift it doesn’t even register. And then, a whisper, soft and ticklish against my ear, ‘…face masks are required.’

Credit : Lady Ravensdale

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