For the first time in three years, Harry woke to the feeling of a body beside him.
Am I still asleep? he wondered. This would not be the first time he had dreamt of Leila. When he had scattered her ashes at sea, he'd known that a part of her would always remain with him, something incorporeal but real nonetheless.
A clawed hand covered his eyes--clawed?, he thought. This is definitely a dream. But there was undeniably something of Leila in the soft lips that kissed his cheek.
"Leila, if you're there, speak to me."
A shudder? He felt a finger cross his lips, urging him to silence, then a kiss that rendered the gesture irrelevant. Her tongue was long--too long. This was all wrong, and he could feel the dream twisting into something else entirely.
He pushed her away, and pulled her hand from his eyes as he sat up. "Leila--"
The figure before him clutched at its scarred throat, and he realized that it could not speak. It was as pale as the grave, and there was something wrong with its mouth. Eyes he remembered as blue were now sewn shut with black threads, but a third eye stared down from its forehead, red as fresh blood.
It shuddered again, and he realized that it was trying to cry.
Harry knew where this dream would go were he to shy away or scream. He wrapped his arms around the monster before him, and kissed it deeply. Four breasts pressed into his chest, and a long tail wrapped around him, but it was Leila's lips he kissed, Leila's warmth and Leila's smell.
At last he broke away. The monster's mouth distorted, and as if in a funhouse mirror he recognized the guilty smile that Leila gave him when dinner was burned black or there was a bucket of paint spilled in the bathroom.
It was then that he fully understood that he wasn't dreaming.
- - - -
Routine. That was how he'd survived after Leila's death, and that was how he'd survive her return. Leaving her alone in that house brought back uncomfortable memories of the days when he was married to the job more than to her, of the nightly arguments in which all he could say was "We need the money"--but at the same time, he was well aware that miraculous resurrections were not among the things that qualified him for a day off.
He lost himself in one phone call after another, and let himself forget his worries. (She can't go out in public, with that eye and that tail. And what can she eat, with her mouth shaped like that? And her old friends--can I trust any of them, or "Hello, I'm calling on behalf of Go! International," always be sure they can hear the exclamation point in your voice, don't think about anything now except making the sale.)
"Look at him," said a voice behind him, just quiet enough that the speaker probably thought he couldn't hear. "This is my third year here, and the third time I've seen him get like this. It always starts two days before Valentine's Day, and ends two days after. I have no idea what causes it."
"Maybe he's seen a ghost." Harry cursed under his breath as he recognized the replying voice. Three years ago, he and Neil had been friends. And when he was away on business, Leila and Neil had been a good deal more to each other.
"His girlfriend's dead, or what?"
"I had a dream last night. At least, I think it was a dream . . ."
"You and everyone else, if the radio's any indication. I guess there's something in the air. Seems to have hit him hardest, though."
Harry cursed once more as their conversation turned to other topics. So much for that line of inquiry. Yet he couldn't help but wonder what Neil had seen, and whether perhaps he wasn't the only one who'd found something--or someone--in his bed.
- - - -
The first thing he noticed, when he returned home that evening, was that the living room was clean. Household tidiness had been a longstanding argument with Leila--he laughed and called her Suzie Q. Homemaker, she replied that even if he wanted to live in a pigsty, she needed to keep the house clean for guests. A strange pang filled him at the memory, and he wondered if Leila felt the same. Perhaps she, too, needed the routine in order to forget what she had become.
The second thing he noticed was that the television was on.
Leila sprawled on the couch, her tail wrapped around the remote. One hand covered the scar on her throat, and the back of the couch hid the crisscross of cuts on her own back. She would have looked peaceful if it weren't for the threads in her eyelids.
"Don't I get a kiss to welcome me home?"
Leila's smile seemed almost sad as she stuck out her tongue, long and black. Very long, he noted, as she licked his face from five feet away. "Ecch. So this is what it's like to have a pet dog."
The TV caught his attention. "First observed along the Pacific coast, similar reports are coming in at scattered locations across the globe. Experts are at a loss to explain the appearance of these so-called 'monsters.'"
Harry blinked as a photo appeared on the screen, a picture of something with too many limbs, all ending in blades.
"This picture is but one of many, and public certainty of an organized hoax is beginning to fade. If this continues, it is expected that martial law will be called . . ."
"Scoot over," Harry said, and together with Leila he learned far more than he'd ever wanted to about little winged things that hopped more than they flew, and giants that swallowed anything in their paths, and (for a few brief, heart-stopping seconds) things with long tongues and extra eyes.
- - - -
"You saw something, didn't you, Harry?"
Neil was the last person Harry expected to see at the supermarket--and the last one he wanted to see. "I'm not talking to you, Neil."
"Stocking up on canned food, are you? Not even bothering to go to work--just like me. Most people still think these monsters aren't real. But you . . . you're preparing for the riots when they understand what's happening. You saw something, and I think I saw it too."
"Neil, I don't know what you're talking about."
"You were always a bad liar. Something pounded on my back door the night before last, and when I opened it . . . I had a nightmare last night about that face."
Outside his back door, he realized. She came back where she died, naked and probably scared out of her wits. Then she walked six blocks in the dark to get to our house, after Neil did whatever he did. Good thing I never remember to lock the door.
Aloud, he said "You're wasting your time."
"I'm washing my hands of this. It's none of my business whether that monster eats you. But first, let me give you a reminder. Leila's dead. Whatever that thing was, it can't be her."
Harry searched for a can of creamed corn, and pretended not to listen.
- - - -
He rose the next morning to find Leila in the kitchen, brewing a pot of coffee. She only poured it into one cup, his cup, and he wondered again how she survived without eating or drinking.
At his approach, she gestured at the calendar. He'd moved it in the years since her death--she must have just found it. "Yes, tomorrow's Valentine's Day," he told her. "I guess you wouldn't have known. But I didn't have anything planned."
Few people could have read the exasperation on Leila's face, but he'd had more experience of that expression than he cared to recall. She rushed from the room, and returned with a blank sheet of paper.
She pulled a pen from a jar on the table, and for the first time since her return, she put pen to paper.
All she produced was a grocery list.
"Leila, I just bought plenty of food--" He certainly knew that look. "And besides, it's getting harder and harder to drive around here--" He didn't even recognize that one. "And I wouldn't feel right having something fancy if you couldn't eat it too--" At this, she jabbed a claw at the ingredient list.
Chicken, rice, cream of mushroom soup . . . He recognized the recipe as one in which she hated four of the ingredients, and he liked them all. They hadn't had it since their first year of marriage.
"All right, I'll do my best. I'm not sure they'll even have this stuff on the shelves anymore."
Her expression spoke volumes, but could be summed up in two words. You'd better.
- - - -
"It wasn't that bad a meal," he told her, though of course it had been. She'd burned the chicken, dried out the rice, and in general created an inedible mess. "You haven't cooked in three years. Well, actually, I don't know what you've been doing, but cooking wasn't one of the things, was it?"
For once, he couldn't read her expression.
"I shouldn't have said that, should I? I'm sorry. It's just that this is all so strange. You haven't told me anything about how you wound up like this."
She stared at him a moment, her gaze all the more intense from only one eye. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him from his chair, and before he knew what had happened, they were both in the bedroom.
She let go of his hand, stood back, and began to dance.
He didn't recognize the movements--they seemed like nothing on Earth. Well they wouldn't, would they?, a small part of his mind told him, but the rest was lost in a strange fascination. He'd stopped giving any thought to her lack of clothing, but there was something incredibly seductive about the sway of her four breasts, the play of her tail as it slowly made its way towards her hairless slit. He remembered stories of birds hypnotized by snakes.
With a practiced motion, she hopped backwards onto the bed, and that impossibly long tongue lassoed him and drew him in. Her claws didn't so much remove his pants as shred them, but laundry was the least of his concerns as her warm body pressed against his. He didn't know whether to be aroused or terrified. His erection suggested the former.
She unwrapped her tongue from around him, but his release was short-lived--only enough time passed for her to turn in bed, her face against his crotch, before her tail made him a prisoner again. She had neither teeth nor a gag reflex, and her mouth contracted as she swallowed his cock to the hilt. Warm, wet flesh pressed down from all sides. It's like her mouth and her slit are one and the same, he thought in bewilderment.
Well, best to go with the flow--a gift for a gift, a mouth for a mouth. He found no clitoris to lick, but her slit was sweet to his tongue, and there was something in it, something supple--
He nearly had a heart attack as a second tongue licked him back.
Two mouths that aren't mouths. Don't tell me-- He felt under her tail, and was relieved to discover that there was no tongue in her anus. Yet it dripped the same sweet liquid as it contracted and pulled his fingers in, and in shock, he wondered where he wouldn't find such wetness. Her ears? Her nose? If he ripped away the black threads, would she still have eyes?
All the while, her tongues played with his cock and his lips, and her tail pressed him against her soft breasts.
It is a very strange feeling to come while trying not to hyperventilate.
As he gasped, he was swept away on a wave of memories.
- - - -
"Neil? Are you in there? You didn't think I forgot your birthday, did you?"
As he let himself in through Neil's front door, a familiar moan rushed over him.
Silence. Then the sound of bare feet thumping on tile, heading for the back door.
He was fast, but she had a head start. She turned to look behind her as she reached the back staircase, still pulling up the strap of her dress.
A single clumsy misstep, and she fell headfirst all the way down.
- - - -
Her tail released him as they lay there in the afterglow. A tongue licked him clean, erasing all evidence of their act.
He turned in bed, and looked her in the eye. "Lust," he breathed. "That's how you died, and how you were punished."
She nodded, silent as ever.
"Made into this, by some insane sort of karma. What are the blade monsters? Wrath? And are the giants gluttony? And how do they punish a man who abandoned his wife for his job?"
"I sinned long before you ever did. In life and in death, you were the one who suffered for it. But you're the one who was blamed, and you're blaming yourself even now. That's what this is all about, isn't it? One day of happiness, one day pretending to be what you once were, and then you could prove to me that you were a monster, and I would abandon you again. Well, you're right, that's not the girl I married, because she would never accept that!"
He continued even as she flinched. "I don't deserve your love, but you've given it to me anyway. I don't care if God himself condemns you. The world is falling apart around us, and there's no time to make the same mistake twice. Whatever you've become, you're still beautiful to me."
A moment of stillness, and then she gave him her first genuine smile since he'd woken up two days ago.
Being hugged with two arms, two tongues and a tail is even stranger than coming while hyperventilating. In its own way, however, it is far more enjoyable.
Then she did something that he only understood in hindsight. She raised her claws to her closed eyes. Before he could cry out, the black threads were in shreds. Frustrated, she picked at the remnants of the threads, unable to grasp them with her claws.
"Let me," he said, and he pulled the threads from her eyelids, not even understanding what he was doing.
Her eyes--her real eyes--were still blue.
Beautiful and human.