A short story by Paul Carroll. Originally published in Old Gods & Wicked Things.
The coming of December came with a knocking on the door, three times for good measure. Ireland was a cold place at this time of the year, especially after everything that had happened of late. All that misery, all that anguish, and the damn weather couldn’t hold off. Niamh and her brother were living together again; Sean had lost his job, and she her husband.
Since then, every time there came a knock on the door, she ran to answer. He wasn’t a dead man, and they weren’t separated, so she thought, maybe – maybe – he might return.
She couldn’t deny that the man looking at her from outside looked very much like her husband. He had Declan’s face, except that his mouth was a little crooked, and his eyes were a little darker than she remembered. But the nose was the same, and the hair, though slicked back with too much gel, was the same, thick and black.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he said to her simply. She shook her head, and closed her gapping mouth. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
She nodded slowly, stepping aside. “Sean, he’s back!” she called into the house. “Come in Declan,” she added, shutting the door quickly after him. The heat had already escaped the house, but she didn’t mind. She had him back, even if he was different. He walked with a swagger, and with a clip on the floor. Thick boots, she noted. Heavy boots. Black as his hair, black as his suit.
Niamh wasn’t as turned off as she thought she might be.
Sean embraced his brother-in-law. Those two had always been close, Niamh thought. “Tea?” Sean offered. He was typically Irish, even with the world gone to crap.
“Please,” Declan responded dryly. He took his wife in his arms the moment Sean’s back was turned, planting a kiss on her lips. She wasn’t used to it anymore, she realised. Too much time with her lips to herself. She kissed him back, trying to find some way to make it work, to make it comfortable and real, as if he hadn’t been gone for weeks on end.
It was easier said than done, and though she forced her tongue to meet his, there was nothing familiar about the experience. She got a mouthful of tongue in return, shivering and pulling away.
“It’s been too long,” he insisted, and before she could say anything he led her through the house. He knew his way around, still, even with the furniture rearranged around the fire. “Christmas is coming,” he noted. “Have you been good this year?” he asked her.
“Oh yes, Santa, I’ve been really good,” she jeered, dropping into her rocking chair. She didn’t think to sit beside him, and he noticed. “We just need to warm to each other again, I think.” He nodded in response, taking the cup Sean offered him. “I was just thinking, Sean, the three of us need to get out of the house soon.”
“A day out?” Sean asked. “We could do with it.”
“What’s the rush?” Declan asked them. “I’m barely back ten minutes and you’re talking about leaving? Are you that eager to get rid of me?” Niamh shared a nervous look with Sean, and her husband let out a laugh. “You two have always been too easy.” He sipped at the tea, a glint in his eye.
“It’s just… we’ve been cooped up here, waiting for something to happen,” Sean tried to explain. “You know how it is, Declan. Eventually, you run out of things to do.”
“And food,” Niamh added quickly.
Declan nodded and stood up from his seat. Niamh’s eyes followed him as he walked around the room. “You kept our wedding photo up,” he said to her. He ran a finger down the picture, and the frame fell from the wall. Niamh jumped at the sound of smashing glass, dropping her cup to the floor.
She didn’t see Declan reel up behind her, his hands gripping her shoulders tightly. His tongue licked her neck, and she thought it might have been seductive, if she couldn’t see his reflection in the spilt tea, and the look on Sean’s face. His tongue was black as his suit, a foot in length, and moving as if independent from his body. He lashed it back into his mouth, his eyes turning over black and red.
“What are you?” Sean asked him nervously, stepping away from the fire, away from Declan and Niamh.
“Something else,” Declan responded, gripping Niamh’s neck from behind and lifting her to her feet. He eyed the floor, where the tea had spilled. They’d run out of milk a while ago; the brown water acted as a mirror for Sean. He looked at Declan through the tea, his face black and distorted, his hair, where slicked back, containing two sharp horns, and his whole body painted black. He had the legs of a goat, and a look of evil in his eyes.
“Sean…” Niamh whimpered, and she was behind him. He spun on the spot, seeing Declan inches from his face. “Sean… he’s fast.”
“More than fast,” Declan added, raising a rifle from behind Sean. “Tut tut, Sean. You know I don’t approve.” The barrel crumpled in his grip, and he dropped the gun to the floor. “You’ve been a bold boy, Sean, and you Niamh alike. We’ve always known it.” He grinned savagely, sharp teeth on display. His tongue lashed out, dancing seductively in the air.
“Bold?” Sean asked dumbly.
Declan’s jacket whipped around Niamh in an instant, thrown with a single hand. She disappeared with a cry, and nothing more. “Very bold,” Declan muttered, “And right before Christmas.” He slashed pointed nails across his brother-in-law’s chest, drawing blood and tears, before whipping the coat around him, and holding it over his shoulder loosely. “Right before Christmas,” he repeated, stepping with a clunk from the room, and a glare in his eye, “And not a moment to lose.”