COLD GREY • by Jessica George

The girls in the library have an ongoing competition: strangest thing ever found between the pages of a returned book.

There’s the predictable — novelty bookmarks, unsent postcards. The disgusting — toenail clippings, hair, an old slice of toast. The sad — a photograph of an old man standing beside Grasmere, holding what looks like a flask. (Squint closely, and you see that it’s an urn.)

Lily wins the day she finds the skeleton of a fish, intact and picked perfectly clean, between the pages of Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems.

She blinks, and stares at it for a moment. “Er, excuse me,” she says, looking up, but the woman who handed in the book has already gone. Lily can’t quite recall what she looked like, except for a fleeting image of cold, grey eyes and curling tendrils of black hair, and when she glances around the library, the only people in are a knot of teenagers gathered around the computer and a couple of old ladies perusing the Mills & Boons.

The bones are pale and delicate. It wouldn’t last long in the Lost Property drawer, with discarded diaries to crush it and iPod headphones to tangle around the slender ribs. So Lily wraps it in paper towels nicked from the Ladies and slips it into her handbag at hometime. She props it up on her dressing-table, beside the mirror, before she goes to bed.

In the morning, her tap won’t stop dripping.

The woman doesn’t come into the library again, though Lily keeps an eye out for her. She pulls up the circulation history on the Moore anthology, but it comes up blank; must be a glitch in the system.

By the end of the week, the drip has become a puddle around Lily’s bathroom sink. She sits at the counter clicking glumly through the Yellow Pages website, looking for the number of a plumber. Her face itches.

Rich from the IT desk pauses at the desk on his way to the staffroom. He looks at her, frowns, then presses a finger to his cheek.

“Um, Lil,” he says. “You’ve got something on your face.”

She pulls out her compact mirror. There’s a little patch of rough, scaly skin on her right cheekbone. It’s not sore or red, though. Kind of silvery. Odd.

In the background, behind her head, Lily thinks for a moment that a dark shape glides past, the steady movement of a swimmer or a shark. She blinks and glances around. Nothing there. She snaps her compact mirror shut.

When she gets home, there’s water pouring out beneath the bathroom door, soaking into the carpet at the top of the stairs. She knows she ought to call for an emergency plumber, but her limbs feel heavy, and her head like it’s stuffed with wet wool. She sits down on the top step, instead, looks into the shadows until they start to swim before her eyes.

The next day, the right side of Lily’s face is covered in silvery scales. Her eyes have always been bright blue, but seem to have turned a shade paler overnight. She squints into the bathroom mirror as water laps around her feet.

She calls in sick to work and curls up under a blanket on the sofa. Her dreams are strange — all murky, shifting light and rocky grottoes, and voices that are faint and somehow distorted, as though heard from a great distance. When she wakes up, she’s mildly surprised to find herself in her own living-room. Her blanket is soaking wet.

The next morning — she thinks it’s the next morning, anyway — she picks up the phone and holds it to her ear. There’s no dial tone, and anyway, she can’t remember who she was going to ring.

The water is around her knees. It occurs vaguely to her that that ought to be impossible — she lives on the second floor, and she’s sure there was no flooding downstairs. It’s not even raining outside, is it? It occurs to her to look down through the window, but another gliding shadow distracts her.

Mornings begin to lose meaning, after that. Afternoons and evenings and nights, too. The light changes, but it’s always dim and faraway. Her silver-scaled hands shine faintly in the gloom.

The telephone stays disconnected, but that’s okay. There’s nobody she needs to speak to. It’s difficult to talk underwater. There’s seaweed under the kitchen table, and the fridge is full of barnacles.

She spends less and less time in the flat, though. There are worlds of deep outside her windows. The fish skeleton beside her mirror is gone, washed away or swallowed by weeds, but living fish dart through the doorways, their scales bright as coins.

Once, she finds a fragment of scaly skin caught on the window-frame. It’s grey-green; not hers. She thinks about reptiles, and how many layers do you have to shed before you find something real?

Something moves past the window again. A pale face, seen briefly, its expression cold. Black hair drifting with the current. She peers out, but sees no-one. Maybe next time.

She catches her reflection in the surface of an old mirror, once. She looks different now, she thinks. Before — whatever before means — her hair was mousy-brown and her eyes were blue, and people used to say she had roses in her cheeks. Now, she gleams dully, like old silver. She can’t remember what people used to call her. When she opens her mouth to speak, her words come out in bubbles of air and float away. Her hair hangs down in dark tendrils, and her eyes are as cold as the sea.

Jessica George is a PhD student from Pontypool, South Wales. Her fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Friction Magazine, and The New Flesh.

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