The sky was a wash of inky black when Lola and Charles finally made it back down the hill. The night had come so quickly. It was only 6PM. Behind the curtain of the living room window, Lola could see her mother watching them as they approached the house. Her expression was neutral, but her pool blue eyes seemed to sparkle like gems. Lola rubbed her arms. The temperature had dropped when the sun vanished behind the horizon, and the red dress she wore did nothing to keep out the cold. What's worse, the look in her mother's eyes chilled her right to the bone. She felt her scalp prickle as if tiny ants were crawling all over her head.
"I can't believe it, Charles," Lola said, "Do you think Malachi was lying to us?"
"I don't. Do you?"
Lola frowned. They were almost at the front door. "No," she said. She thought back to her childhood days. They were blurry in her mind, the bits that she could remember. It was as if she was watching a reel of sepia-toned film, moving along at a speed so fast that she could only gather glimpses of what was happening. She remembered how her mother was when she was little, which was not much different from how she was now. Dignified, quiet, and slightly aloof. Her mother had never been the affectionate type, and her moods had always been very level, so it was hard for Lola to imagine her mother feeling strongly enough about anything to kill anyone-accident or not.
The front door was unlocked. Lola and Charles entered into the foyer, which was many degrees warmer than the frigid air outside. Lola's mother was waiting within the frame of the sitting room door. Her arms were folded.
"Well?" she said, "Any luck?"
Lola stared at her. It was like she was looking at a stranger. There was so much about her mother that she hadn't known until that afternoon, and she was sure that there was still more to uncover. Skeletons in the closet, so to speak.
"We need to talk," Lola said quietly. Any louder and her voice might have shaken.
Her mother smiled. A big, proper grin. It was a rarer sight than snow in July, and Lola felt that chill within her bloom again. "I thought you might want to. Let's sit down by the fire. It's awfully cold this evening."
On the brocade couch to the left of the fireplace, Lola's mother sat with one leg folded over the other, her red-nailed hands clasped together on one of her knees.
"I take it Malachi has told you all about my sordid past," she said.
"Then it's true?" Lola said, her heart leaping. She had hoped that Malachi had been lying, or had been embellishing the truth, at the very least. To think that her mother had exsanguinated someone-probably in the very house she had grown up in-left an unpleasant taste in her mouth.
Her mother exhaled through her nose and leant back into her seat. "It pains me to say that it is."
But her mother didn't look "pained", or "afraid" or "sorry". Any of the things that one might feel with someone's death weighing down on their conscience. And then, another thought struck Lola. Her mother had planned to follow her father into the sea. Where would that have left her if she had succeeded?
"What would've happened to me?" Lola asked, "I would've been abandoned."
Her mother looked down at her hands. "You would've followed us soon enough." She looked up from her hands and smiled at Lola. "I mean look at you. You're already changing." Her mother leaned forward in her seat. "You know that there's no stopping it, right? Malachi must've told you that."
Lola couldn't speak. It felt like her voice was stuck beneath the lump in her throat. Charles gripped her hand, and she glanced at him with her dewy eyes. She found herself feeling very thankful to have met him. At least, if she was going to turn into some horrible creature of the deep sea, she wouldn't have to do it alone.
"There is a way you can stop it," said her mother, and Lola looked at her with a quizzical stare.
"How?" Lola asked, squeezing Charles' hand.
Her mother ran her tongue over her lips and let a moment pass before answering. "We can exchange bodies."
A prickly heat crawled up to Lola's neck and face. "What?"
"You heard me."
"That's insane," said Lola.
"It's been done before. Think about it, Lola. You want to remain on land and I want to live in the sea. Swapping our bodies will solve all our problems. You know it will."
"But you're-" Lola stopped herself. She looked at her mother, a woman far past the spring of her youth, and shuddered. While her mother was still an icy beauty, with her white-blonde hair and high cheekbones, Lola had no desire to become middle-aged overnight.
"I'm what? Old? Goodness, Lola, I'm not that old, and I was far prettier than you when I was your age. What about you? How do you think you'll look when you reach my age? More like a toad, I should think." And then she laughed, a high pitched titter that sent Lola on edge. It was the laugh of someone on their descent to madness.
Lola shot up from her seat. "I think it's time for me and Charles to go."
Her mother stood up. "But you two have only just got here. Why not stay the night and think my offer over? You know it's the only way to remain human, Lola. I thought you would've jumped at the idea."
Lola didn't want to stay. In fact, she didn't even want to be in the same room as her mother.
Your mother comes from a long line of wizards and witches...
The last thing Lola needed was to be cursed in her sleep. She couldn't trust a word that came out of her mother's mouth. Not after all all the lies she had told her.
"I'm sorry, mother, but we really do have to get going. Let's go, Charles."
"Lola," her mother said firmly, placing both hands on Lola's shoulders and giving them a squeeze that was a little too hard. "I insist that you think it over. Time is running out."
Charles spoke up. "Mrs. Nesser. You should let Lola go. We don't want to miss the next train."
Lola's mother looked at Charles like he'd appeared out of thin air. Lola was scared that she wouldn't let her go, but her grip loosened and she stepped away.
"Alright," said Lola's mother, "But at least let me drive you both to the station. You don't want to waste your money on a cab."
"Okay," Lola said. It sounded reasonable enough. The station wasn't too far a drive and she doubted that her mother would try anything shady out in public. What's more, she feared that denying the offer of a ride would only upset her mother. And upsetting her mother now seemed like a dangerous prospect.
Her mother smiled. "Good. Good. Let me just get the Ford out of the garage."
The Ford in question was a 1949 Ford Club Coupe. It had a split windscreen and was a gorgeous dark blue colour that possessed an almost holographic quality under light. Her mother hadn't driven it in years. It had belonged to her father and she'd had it locked up for the most part ever since he'd "died". It was a classic, high-maintenance beauty that was sure to throw a fit if you drove too fast or took a corner too sharply. The seatbelts only went over your lap, not across your body, so Lola was certain that it hadn't passed an MOT. Nevertheless, she got into the front passenger seat and buckled up.
Her mother's hands were on the steering wheel. She was wearing her orange leather driving gloves. It was dark inside the car and even darker outside, where the yellow light of sparse street lamps failed to illuminate the shadow of the night.
"I still think you should think about my offer, Lola. I'm not getting any younger and you're getting less human everyday."
Charles was the last to enter the car. Lola was grateful when she heard him get inside and shut the door. His presence made her feel more… secure.
Lola didn't look at her mother. She looked straight out of the window, feeling a rising discomfort that she tried to keep out of her face and voice. "It's alright, mother. I just need time to take all this in."
Her mother started the car, and as she did so, a hag-like shriek of laughter left her mouth that was both uncharacteristic and abrupt. When Lola peered at Charles through the rearview mirror, he looked just as befuddled as she felt.
"Lola, my dear," said her mother, driving out of their street, "Time is something that neither of us have."
Instead of turning right, in the direction of the train station, her mother turned left, towards the more derelict part of town.
"You're going the wrong way," said Lola. Her mother said nothing. She continued to drive down the darkened street, where the houses lining the pavement deteriorated in quality until they reached the part of town that was known as "the ruins". It was the closest neighborhood to the coast. You could taste the brine of the sea in the air and hear waves lapping against the shore. Few people lived in the ruins, and those who did spent most of their time indoors. The houses, those that hadn't already crumbled to dust, looked like they were rotting from the inside out.
Her mother passed through the desolate neighborhood, where Lola felt the eyes of its inhabitants peering out of grimy windows, and continued to drive until the wheels of her car hit sand. They were at the beach. The water looked as black and as slick as crude oil in the dark of night.
Lola turned to her mother. "What are we doing here?"
Her mother's knuckles had turned white on the wheel. "You're a stupid girl, Lola," her mother hissed. Like a snake.
Lola wanted to run for the hills. "Charles, let's get out of here." She tried to open the door, but it was locked. How was it locked when there wasn't any child lock?
"Mother, let us out," Lola demanded.
Her mother looked at her and sneered. It was an ugly expression, transforming her elfin features into those of a witch. Lola felt the blood draining from her face. She had never been so afraid of anybody in her life. She tried once more to get the door to budge open, and she would've broken the window if she'd had the strength. Anything to get away from her mother.
"Open the door!" Lola cried.
Charles tried to reason with her mother. "Mrs. Nesser, please think about what you're doing. Lola doesn't swap bodies with you and nothing you say is going to change her mind."
"Shut up. The both of you, just shut up!"
When Lola saw the small revolver in her mother's hand, she fell silently immediately. Her mother reached into her coat pocket with her free hand and pulled out a small crystal vial filled with lurid green liquid. She handed it to Lola.
Lola's hands trembled as she held the small vial. "What is this?" she dared to ask.
"It will speed up the transformation process. I think you'll reconsider my offer once your skin turns green permanently."
"Don't you start!" she shouted at Charles, before turning her attention back to Lola once more. "I said drink."
"You wouldn't shoot me," said Lola, her voice shaky, "You need this body. My body…"
Her mother pointed the gun at Charles over the top of her seat. "But I'll happily shoot him. You've both become quite chummy, haven't you? Now drink before I force it down your throat."
Lola didn't need to be convinced of her mother's murderous capabilities. Without further question, she opened the lid of the vial and brought it up to her lips. She wrinkled her nose at the offensive aroma it exuded, but tipped the thick liquid into her mouth. It was foul, like tasting hot garbage, and there was a rotting seafood tang that made her eyes water. She might've regurgitated the effluent if she didn't fear that her mother would put a bullet in Charles.
"Good girl. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
Lola breathed in deeply. Her eyes flickered to Charles, whose face was a mask of fright, before she did the unthinkable and lunged at her mother. She could already feel her body changing. There was fire and adrenaline in her veins. She grappled with her mother for the gun, which went off and shattered the behind her mother's head. Her mother screamed as glass showered over her like a deluge of sharpened hail. Lola felt her mother's grip loosen, and used the opportunity to rip the gun from out of her fingers. She pointed the gun at her mother, who had scratches all over her face but was otherwise no worse for wear.
"You wouldn't dare," said her mother.
Lola's hands shook uncontrollably as she held the gun toward her mother's chest. Of course, she couldn't shoot her mother. Unlike her, Lola wasn't a killer, and didn't want to become one if she could help it.
"Just let us out," said Lola.
Her mother's eyes narrowed, but all the locks popped up, and Lola wasted no time scrambling out of the car. Charles followed suit. He put his arms around Lola and they began to trudge away on the sandy shore.
It was cold and windy, and the lights of the town looked as distant as the stars in the sky. A chill ran through Lola. She was beginning to feel nauseous. "Charles, I don't feel well." She dropped the gun and it made a dull thud as it hit the compact sand. It felt far too heavy, much like her head. Charles drew her closer to his body. Lola flung her arms around his neck, fearing that she'd slip right through the sand and into the centre of the earth if she didn't hold on.
"It's okay, Lola. We just have to get back to town."
Lola saw her mother behind them. She was out of the car, staring them down like a bull who had every intention of charging. There was something long and sharp in her right hand. Another weapon, glinting like silver under the light of the moon.
"Oh, my God," Lola breathed.
Charles had his back to her mother. He couldn't see what was waiting for them. "What is it?" he asked.
"Charles, run!" Lola cried, letting go of him as soon as her mother dashed forward. She would gladly sink as long as one of them got away.
Charles spun around, and his eyes widened when he saw the mad woman approaching with a long blade-the kind used to gut an animal-raised in both her hands. He was frozen, like a deer caught in the headlights, and it was too late when he finally made a move. He lifted his arms up to shield himself from the attack, and the knife went straight through the flesh of his shoulder. His scream pierced the frigid night air along with Lola's, and the wind seemed to howl along with them.
Lola couldn't stand. Pain was coursing through her body like wildfire and her vision was blurred with tears. She could hear Charles groaning in pain. He was on his knife was still embedded in his shoulder, and his warm blood spilled down to stain the pristine sand. His only saving grace was that Lola's mother was no longer interested in him. She strolled to where Lola was balled up in pain.
"Help!" Lola screamed, but her voice was snatched by the wind and drowned by the roaring sea. Her mother crouched down by her side and smiled. The moonlight turned her blonde hair white.
"Don't worry, love. You're safe with me. Once you're done changing we can start the body exchange and all will be well."
Something caught her mother's eye in the distance, in the direction of the sea. Lola could tell because the smile vanished from her mother's face and was replaced with a grimace.
"For fuck's sake!" her mother muttered, getting to her feet to retrieve the gun that Lola had dropped.
Lola rolled onto her front and lifted her head to see what had spooked her mother. There were figures emerging from the blackened water of the sea. Of vaguely humanoid form, they walked onto the shore with graceful ease. The sound of consecutive gunshots ricocheted in Lola's ear, and she saw one of the creatures stumble to the ground; it was of little consequence. A huge swell of them followed, rising out of the waves like an army of Poseidon. Lola's heart beat faster, but not because she was afraid of the oncoming horde. She was enthralled. There were so many of them, and there was a strange beauty in their hairless, streamlined forms. And she wondered, in the part of her mind that wasn't delirious with pain, if her father might be among them.
Her mother tossed the empty revolver to the ground and retreated, leaving Lola lying on the sand. Charles crawled to her side. "It's going to be alright, Lola," he said, even as he continued to bleed into his already red hand.
Red turned to black as Lola fell into unconsciousness.