On the couch in his house, I tremble with nerves while he fetches glasses from the kitchen. He had the fire lit when I walked in, already blazing in the hearth, warming the entire room and fogging up my glasses from the sudden contrast to the freezing weather outside. He seems so at ease with himself, in the comforts of his own home, in the presence of his newly wed. I stare down at the ring on my finger, still feeling heavier than it should be, but that’s probably in my head. My imagination has been racing all night, from the walk over to his house, to the shop to buy the steaks he asked me to bring, which I hear him throwing into the pan now in the kitchen, to his attitude and the fact that he’s so calm and cool as always and handsome and mine.
That last statement makes me smile to myself, staring at the flames. My muscles are so tight sitting here, cross-legged with pins and needles prickling my skin. I take off my jumper and wipe the drizzle off my forehead from where the snowflakes melted into my hair and ran down. Kieran starts to whistle in the kitchen, cooking to his heart’s content. I take a deep breath and stand up to stretch. I hear the glasses clink in his hands as he picks them up, bringing them into me. He has donned the white apron. He stands there, dressed in his black formal cotton shirt with the top three buttons undone, the press pants and black pointy shoes. He could be going to a funeral if not for the apron.
His nose and jaw, so sharp and perfectly edged, making my stomach churn with butterflies just looking at him. He smiles warmly when he sees me standing.
‘A toast, pet.’ He lays the glasses down and takes the corkscrew out of his pocket to pop the champagne, pouring it out with one hand behind his back and filling my glass first. He hands me the glass and clinks his to mine. ‘To us.’
‘To us.’ I repeat, taking a sip and never taking my eyes off him.
I let the champagne cut my throat as he swallows a mouthful and looks at me hungrily, licking his lips.
‘Are you starving?’ He asks, voice low.
‘Yes.’ I answer, nodding.
Winking, he takes my hand and guides me into the kitchen to where steam rises off the steaks sizzling in the pan on the gas hob. Sirloin steaks, his favourite and specialty. He always cooks this for me on my birthday and at Christmas time. In the ten years that we’ve been together, I’ve never grown tired of his meals. And he’s never cooked one wrong. Never have I ever gotten food poisoning because of his culinary skills. And neither has he. In fact, he’s never gotten sick from anything, remarkably. I sit at the island in the centre of the kitchen with my bubbling golden glass and sip it quietly while he dances around the hob, adding a drop of alcohol to the steaks, making flames snap up for a split second, lighting up his face and eyes in their glow. With a prongs, he flips the meat, letting it sizzle and ladles a spoonful of sauce from another bubbling pot into a bowl and slides it onto the table for me.
‘Here, try this baby.’
Tentatively, I blow on the sauce and sip it gently, allowing the flavours to spread across my taste
buds and fill my pallet. ‘Peppercorn.’ I smile, making him wink. ‘How did you know?’
‘I know you like the back of my hand.’ He says, returning to the pan. After a few minutes, he serves the steaks onto the plates and spreads the sauce across them, lighting the candle on the island in the centre of the kitchen and adds a dusting of garlic to the food. He watches me while I eat the meal, taking my hand in his warm one and rubbing my knuckles with his thumb. ‘You like it?’
‘It’s delicious, as always.’ I wink at him now. Satisfied, beaming, he cuts into his own dinner and for the next few minutes, we eat in content silence. Outside, in one of the other houses in the neighbourhood, someone plays the Cello and piano in a duet. The soft melody is carried in through the window. He lifts my hand and kisses it, drawing my attention back to him.
‘I love you.’ He whispers, warm breath through my fingers and tickling my wrist. When we’re finished eating he loads up the dishwasher and pours out the rest of the champagne for us, draining his glass quicker than I do. Then he leans on the counter, reaching over to touch my face, his fingers sending static electricity across my skin, making my hair stand on end and my insides melt. Closing my eyes, I relax as I always do under his touch, letting his hand explore the shape of my skull, right down to the nape of my neck, then he leans in an kisses me right on the mouth.
His kiss is as tender as the steaks, burning with unspeakable desires that I’m sure are racing through both our minds right now. In the heat of the moment, I reach out and take his forearms, pulling him closer to me, gripping the black shirt and making him slide off the stool to stand, slightly bent forward to embrace me. My nose squashes against his cheek, but I don’t mind that. He opens his mouth to kiss me again, but something presses against my forehead, sharp and pointy, like a toothpick, pushing against the skin, painfully. I moan, pulling back just as whatever it is stabs the skin and a sharp jab of pain registers. I push him away and reach up to touch my head just as two drops of blood well up and come away on my fingers. ‘What the hell-’ I start to say but the words die before they can escape my mouth when I see Kieran’s face.
Protruding from his forehead, above each eye, like that of a bull, are two small horns. Just the tips coming through, but they’re horns, none the less. He looks down, embarrassed before meeting my eyes again.
‘It’s okay.’ He says, calmly. ‘It’s nothing to be scared of. C’mere, let me see.’
He gently touches my forehead while I sit there in shock, then takes my head in both his hands and pulls me closer to press his tongue to the two small wounds. His tongue is burning hot, but strangely I feel the holes close. When he lets me go, I reach up to touch my head and through the warm wetness of his saliva, to find the pricks have disappeared. He stares me straight in the eye as I take in what just happened.
‘What just happened?’ Is all I manage to say. To that, he smiles and takes my hand again, bringing it up to the horns and letting me brush my fingers against them. They are sharp, too sharp and so delicate. And beautiful, despite the demonic appearance they give him, they are beautiful. If I were to drag my finger across the tip of one, it would slice it open and I would bleed again. He closes his eyes as I explore his anomaly. The horns are seemingly made of bone or something similar in composition, but they are warm. And real. One hundred percent real, growing out of his forehead.
‘Who are you?’ I ask, in a low voice, the shock and fear coming through immediately. Kieran just smiles, a little sadly.
‘I’m yours. It’s okay, I know it’s a shock, but, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you. And I’m not the devil if that’s what you’re thinking. I promise you that. I’m not a demon.’ He smiles again.
‘Where did they come from?’ I ask, never taking my eyes off the horns. In response, he squeezes his eyes shut, face contorted and before me, the horns pull back into the skin of his forehead, the holes they leave behind closing slowly until his forehead is back to normal, like it was a few moments ago.
Then he smiles again, touching my wrist.
I stand up, taking my hands back, leaving the island and standing behind the stool, to put something between us. ‘I’m going to bed.’ I announce. He doesn’t try to stop me, just sits, looking at me, unphased by my reaction. Before anything else can happen, I leave the kitchen and walk up the stairs to his room that might as well be my room at this stage. My mother was opposed to us moving in together until we got married and now that we finally have, she’s at home crying as she packs my things away. I might just stop her tomorrow. In the darkness of his bedroom, I gaze at his things, his photographs on the walls of his parents and sister, of the two of us, of his school photos when he was a few years younger. His clothes are strung over the back of one of the chairs and on the floor where he left them yesterday. His bed, with fresh sheets, curtesy of me, invites me to lie in it, to sleep, but at the same time, seems all the more sinister. I’m not sure about what I just witnessed downstairs, was it the champagne? Did I hallucinate? Am I just nuts? Or was it all real. I reach up and touch my forehead, where the skin has completely healed, but behind that, my skull throbs a little bit, reminding me that it was real. Reminding me not to forget what just happened.
With my mind racing and my heart in my mouth, I sit down on the bed and take a deep breath, then kick off my shoes and leave my glasses on the bedside table, pulling the duvet over me, still with my clothes on. The bed sheets are cool and soft, the memory foam moulding around my figure. I close my eyes, images of those horns behind my eyelids and piercing my mind’s eye. For a while, I lie there, unsure of what to do or think, should I go back downstairs to him, should I leave?
Or should I just accept it? He has horns, so what? He’s still the same man I married, he still has the exact same personality, he’s still the human I fell in love with.
Is he? A dark corner of my mind has piped up, voicing its opinion. How can you be so sure?
Because I would know, that’s how. I know him better than anyone. And vice versa. Like he said, like the back of your hand. We’ve been together for over a decade now and only now have I seen … what I just saw. How could he have kept that a secret from me this entire time?
Ah, I don’t know. I’m overthinking things now. At this rate I’ll never be able to get to sleep. With the steaks sitting in my stomach, I can’t seem to rest. But when I think about going back downstairs, my gut fails me. So I sit up and watch the door, waiting for him to come up to me. After what feels like an eternity, I lie back down and close my eyes again, sleep threatening to overcome me now. That’s when I hear the footfalls on the stairs and the door opens. I look up and see him standing there, in the doorway, silhouetted by the light in the hall, a long shadow stretching into the room and up onto the bed. Like something out of Dracula. He flicks the light off and comes into the bedroom. The horns protruding from his head once more, his eyes seem to have darkened in colour. At the end of the bed, he unbuttons his shirt and throws it on the ground, then removed the rest of his clothes.
When he pulls down his underpants, I see something hanging down from behind him, emerging from his tailbone. Long and spurting what seems to be hair, it falls down and sways from side to side, like a cats. And when he moves away from the bed to hang his clothes up, I see that his feet have changed, split down the centre, cloven like a hoof, but still human coloured nonetheless. He turns and looks at me, coming towards me and climbing onto the bed, sliding between the sheets to wrap his arms around me and hold me close to him, one hand stroking the side of my face. In the warmth of his embrace, despite my instincts telling to flee, my mind and heart racing, my body relaxes under his touch as it always does and my eyelids become droopy. In the next few moments, I slip away into unconsciousness. No dreams plague my mind, or nightmares either. I sleep right through to the morning time.
When the winter blue morning light spills in through the open blinds, I rise from my slumber to find Kieran still asleep beside me, sound to the world. I slip quietly out of bed, the cold immediately grabbing me with its icy hands, making me shiver, goose-bumps all over my body. Donning his bathrobe, I walk down the hall to the bathroom, splashing my face with water, the events of last night still horribly vivid in my mind. Resting my hands against the sink, I stare back at my reflection, pale-faced and sleepy-eyed. My hands are a little shaky, the ring in my left hand still weighing what feels like a thousand pounds. I take it off and lay it on the sink, not wanting to put it anywhere near my skin. Maybe this was all a mistake, maybe I should reconsider …
A wave of nausea suddenly comes over me, making me dizzy and having to grip the edge of the sink for support. After a moment, my head begins to throb, right where the horns punctured my skin and I double over the sink, vomiting what’s left of last night’s meal into the sink and down the drain. I continue until green bile comes up and all that’s left is dry retching. When it’s past, I wash my mouth out with water and reach for my ring, placing it back on my third finger. The throbbing in my head ebbs away then. The nausea calming down, my stomach no longer churning and then … nothing at all. The ring still feels heavy, but other than that, I’m fine. Glancing at my reflection, I notice him, standing in the doorway, silently watching me, horns and everything still there. He approaches me and wraps his warm hands around me. ‘Thomas, you’re sick.’
‘I’m okay now.’ I say, washing the last bits of sick down the drain.
‘Was it the steaks? Did I not cook them right?’
‘No, it’s alright. Maybe I’ve caught a bug or something, I don’t know.’
‘Come back to bed. Maybe if you lay down you’d feel better.’
‘I’ll be right there. I promise. I just want to get a drink of water first.’
‘I’ll get it for you.’ He says.
‘No, I’ll do it. I might go outside and get some fresh air too.’
He lets me go, watching me descend the stairs. When I reach the kitchen, I gulp down three glasses of water to wet my throat and sooth the burning in it and also because I feel like I’m burning up from the inside out. In the back garden of his house, the birds have gathered at the feeders, chirping happily and contently while they peck at the food in the nets and holders. I open the back door and breathe in the fresh air from the cold winter morning. It does make me feel better. By the feeders, two robin redbreasts feed beside each other contently, before taking off, probably flying back to their nest to feed their young ones.