First Blood—Lyndsey Croal

I reach under the sink and grab the bucket and rubber gloves, still slightly bloodstained from last month.

El appears behind me. ‘Gutters clogged again?’

I look up at her and nod. ‘Have you seen the goggles?’ I don’t want to get entrails in my eyes again when the pipe unblocks. Just our luck that Jenny’s shift is so messy. Emma down the street just goes into hibernation for hers. And Lou from Jenny’s year develops gills and disappears into the river for a day or two. No blood or guts or half-eaten carcasses for their parents to deal with.

When I head outside and climb the ladder to the roof, Jenny is sitting in the oak tree overhanging the house. She’s made herself a nest where she can roost half-hidden, beady eyes watching the world go by. Dried blood stains the branches below her, making the tree look like it has root rot. When Jenny was little, we hung a tyre swing from that branch, and I would push her back and forwards as she screeched with delight, soaring high into the air. ‘Look Daddy, I’m flying!’

‘Yes you are, my little bird!’ I’d shout back. 

Yes. You are my little bird, I think now, looking up at my almost grown daughter. I swear her face is getting more angular each month – half bird, half wild girl, guts now dripping unceremoniously from her chin.

She watches me as I kneel and clear out the gutters, slowly filling the bucket with sinew and muscle and the occasional bone shard. I come across a leg bone – a rabbit maybe – and toss it into the flower beds to be buried later. My eyes drift over to the neighbour’s garden, realising I’ve not heard their pug yapping this morning. I look up at Jenny and she flaps her wings out and clicks her beak at me. We had the talk about neighbourhood pets three months ago.

There’s a noise from the street and Jenny’s neck cranes above her nest parapet, puffing out her green-black plumage so that it shimmers in the sun.

It’s only Dan, the postman, and the welcome sound of pug yapping follows as he does his rounds. ‘Morning Jay, lovely day,’ he says approaching the house.

I hold up my gloved hands. ‘Perfect for some spring cleaning!’

He nods and waves, puts our mail in the letterbox. Then his eyes land on Jenny and his smile fades a little. ‘That time already?’ He sighs. ‘I remember when it was Ayla going through it. Grow up so fast, don’t they?’ With that he tips his hat and heads off back down the street, a fixed expression on his face. Dan’s daughter Ayla left town last year. Actually, she ran off in her shifted form into the forest, and never came back. 

After a few days, Jenny comes out of her nest. Baby feathers appear everywhere and anywhere as she moults, sticking around no matter how much we hoover. Her beak retracts, her wings unfurl into soft skin, and finally she comes down for breakfast looking tired, but mostly like herself again.

‘Have we got cereal?’ she asks.

No guts. Good. ‘Of course sweetheart.’ I pour her a bowl with milk, alongside a glass of fresh orange juice. A balanced diet is important.

‘Have you noticed Jenny’s been out more than usual?’ El asks me one evening.

‘She’s a teenage girl, she’ll be out with friends.’

‘Maybe we should set a curfew.’

I shake my head. ‘We’ve got to let her spread her wings,’ I say, a smile on my lips.

But El isn’t amused. ‘Eric from Number 11 said he found her in their garden trying to climb their apple tree.’

I shrug. ‘Maybe she was hungry.’

‘It’s spring. There aren’t any apples.’

Not the sort of hungry I meant. Eric’s cat often sits up there, watching the birds. ‘I’ll talk to her.’

El sighs and looks out the window into the garden.

‘Is there something else?’ I ask.

‘It’s probably nothing.’ She pauses. ‘You’ve not noticed something…different about her?’

‘Beyond the feathers and talons she grows every month?’

‘It’s the way she looks at us, her eyes all narrowed like she wants to…I don’t know.’ She shakes her head, hackles rising. ‘It’s nothing. I’m just over worrying. My claws are due.’

I act surprised and pretend I haven’t noticed the sharpening and lengthening of El’s fingers. Or the way she literally howled with laughter at the golden retriever video Jenny showed us yesterday. Or how she ripped the armchair cushion when she stood up a little too fast to go to bed last night. Tonight, she’ll likely sleep in the garden for a few days until she shifts back to normal. Some families’ shifts sync up, but so far Jenny’s and El’s haven’t. I remain thankful for the little things. 

In the middle of the night, there’s a scream from Jenny’s room and I run through to her. She’s lying on the bed, writhing in distress. In the shadows I see the ruffle of feathers and her arm-wing outstretched. Surely it’s not that time again? I’m still recovering from her last shift. 

‘It hurts,’ she says. ‘Make it stop.’

I pat her on the leg but find the roughness of talons beneath my fingers. I pull away. She’s never complained about it hurting before. Maybe I should take her to see the doctor again. When the shifts first began, we took her there, but they just told us that all girls go through it. It’s completely normal, nothing to worry about. If it gets too disruptive, they have a pill or a patch she could try, with only “limited side effects”, like anxiety and headaches and nausea and blood clots. But it’s expensive, and we figured what’s a bit of guts in gutters, and feathers on the sofa to deal with every month? Better to just let nature take its course. And eventually, the shifts should become less extreme. ‘It’ll pass in a few days.’

‘What if it doesn’t, and what if I don’t change back? Like Ayla.’ She opens her mouth, and a strange guttural noise comes from the back of her throat. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. ‘And I’m so hungry,’ she continues. ‘And tired, and everything hurts and I’m just hungry! Why won’t it stop?’

‘Don’t worry sweetheart,’ I try to reassure her. ‘Let me help. What do you—’

‘No you don’t understand!’ she shouts, her voice different, strained. ‘I want Mum!’

‘Mum’s in the garden.’

Jenny lifts her head and lets out a long screech.

The pug next door starts yapping.

Next thing El is howling. 

I try my best to calm Jenny down, but she’s crying now like a harpy, uncontrollably, sobs amidst shrieks and caws. Surely it can’t be that bad?

‘Do you need to go outside? Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Biscuits? Paracetamol? Hot water bottle?’ But she won’t reply, she just pushes me away. El is still howling, and I put my hands to my head. This is too much. There must be an easier way. What did I do to deserve all of this?

On my way to check on El, there’s a knock at the front door. Flashing blue lights reflect in the windows. When I open the door, local police officer Patrick is standing on the porch. He pokes his head in and looks upstairs where Jenny is still screeching the house down. Then, there’s a clatter from the window opening, and I hear her talons tip-tapping against the roof as she retreats to her nest.

‘Had a noise complaint?’

‘Hi Patrick, sorry it’s—’

‘That time again?’

I laugh in an attempt to lighten the mood. ‘Yes. I’ll try to keep them quiet.’

He speaks into his radio. ‘False alarm. Just a shift-sync.’

‘How’s the family?’ I ask him as he scribbles something in his notepad.

‘I suspect you’ve some idea,’ he says, looking as tired as he sounds. He has three teenage daughters. ‘Rhea got her first shift last month. Scales and all. A real mess, especially when she ate Harry the Hamster whole. Held a funeral in the garden with an empty shoebox, poor thing. The girls were beside themselves.’

I nod. ‘She’ll learn to control her impulses,’ I say. ‘Just takes time.’ I look behind me to the back door. El’s howling has become more high-pitched, agitated. The neighbour’s pug is scraping wildly at their back door.

And then, suddenly, silence. A still, disconcerting quiet as the night air chills. Patrick senses it too and he steps into the front garden and shines his torch down the street. I pull my coat off the hook and follow. He wanders round the edge of the house and shines the light at Jenny’s nest. But she’s not there. I turn around just in time to see the swoop of a giant bird, wings illuminated by the blue lights. She’s heading straight for us, eyes hungry, talons outstretched.

Look Daddy, I’m flying.

previously published in Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021 (2021)

Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based author of strange and speculative fiction, with work published in several magazines and anthologies, including Dark Matter Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and Orion’s Belt. She’s a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, British Fantasy Award Finalist, former Hawthornden Fellow, and a Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant Recipient. Her debut novelette “Have You Decided On Your Question” is published in April 2023 with Shortwave Publishing. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via her website

photo by Chris Sabor and Vita Leonis (via unsplash)