Changes by Vanessa Santos

The train ride had been long and tedious. Evelyn, muscles sore and on the brink of falling asleep right where she stood, dragged herself along the cobbled stones without paying her surroundings any notice. Claude had seemed high-spirited on the train, doing his utmost to draw her excitement out, but now he, too, was quiet. It was dusk and the day had been dull and grey, so that darkness was not so much falling as thickening, expanding to kill the last hints of light. The town was quiet, the sound of the suitcase wheels dragging on the pavement the only thing they could hear. There was no one in sight as they navigated the narrow streets, seemingly twisting themselves deeper into the heart of the small town.

“You do know where we’re going, don’t you, darling?” Evelyn asked, careful to keep exasperation out of her voice. It was tiredness, more than anything, making her temper short. She longed to take off her shoes and sink into a bath.

“Of course,” he replied, though he frowned at every street sign.

They had chosen their destination without much consideration: it was a small seaside town, unremarkable in every way. It fit their needs for quietude and remoteness, as well as Evelyn’s wish to be beside the sea. They hadn’t asked anyone for recommendations or advice; in fact, no one knew precisely where they were, only that they had gone, and would be gone for at least a week. Yet after the long journey, which had included many delays and transferring trains a fair few times, neither had much energy to enjoy the quaint little town.

They walked the winding roads until Evelyn’s feet, in her small, tight heels, ached. Eventually they did arrive at the inn, nearly hidden amongst a row of nondescript houses, just as the last of the light was leaking out of the sky. Inside the house was shabby, dark with heavy drapes covering the windows. At the front desk a dour looking woman stood as though on attention waiting for them. She smiled when they approached, an incongruous grin plastered on an otherwise flat expression, as though her mouth moved of its own accord, separate from the rest of her face.

“Mr. and Mrs. Ward,” she said at once, before they had even reached her desk. She only looked at Claude, holding his hand for a moment too long when she handed him the keys. “Your room is just at the top of the stairs, first door to the left.”

They shared a glance, as bewildered as it was amused, as they made their way upstairs. The corridor was heavily carpeted, and it soon proved to extend into their room as well, a dark maroon tone that made the place seem darker still. Evelyn opened the drapes immediately, though it was too dark out to see what their view was. Strangely, the streetlamps seemed to be few and far between, none close enough to cast the faintest of light their way.

The room was small and dusty, the furniture a dark wood, the bedspread threadbare and ancient. There was a desk pushed up against the wall and a chair tucked into it, though there was barely enough room to pull it out and use it. Even the window was small, though the drapes suggested otherwise, the fabric heavy and dragging on the floor. It was dark out now, but still barely eight o’clock. The prospect of settling down for the night was unappealing, at best, despite how tired they were.

“Why don’t we go out and find a pub, eh?” asked Claude, tone forcefully cheery.

Evelyn sighed, looked at the bed. The overhead light was so dim it barely lit the corners of the small room. It was a cramped, sad space, and yet part of her, possibly the biggest part of her, would still rather take her shoes off and crawl under the sheets. She knew, without needing to look at him, that Claude wanted to go sit somewhere warm and loud and drink a dram.

Leaving their luggage behind, they retreated from the room mere minutes after first entering. The entryway was deserted, no sign of the strange woman that greeted them. No sign, in fact, of anyone else in the whole building. There was a scent to the place, they now noticed, stale and musty. As though the house was preparing to be abandoned, even as people still slept within its walls.

Outside, the sky was a void, so black it looked clear, though there were no visible stars. You had to squint to find the clouds, heavy and camouflaged, promising rain. They had no idea where to go, and with so few lights about, it was hard to navigate. Claude led them roughly the way they’d come, hoping to stumble upon an open pub.

It didn’t take long. On a dark road, not far from the inn, was just the place they were looking for: warm light spilling out the windows, a bubble of noise, a fire crackling in the hearth. And people, sitting and chatting and drinking. Claude did not bother to check with Evelyn, didn’t give her as much as a look before barging through the door. She followed, hurriedly, managing to catch the door just before it swung shut again. The noise washed over them, the familiar hum of voices made Evelyn realise just how quiet the town had been, how on edge that silence had put her.

Claude was already at the bar, a wide smile on his face, chatting with the bartender. He gestured her closer as he sat on a stool. Traversing the pub to reach him, Evelyn felt as though she was swimming underwater. There was a hush to the voices now, a weight to their gaze upon her. She felt each glance as a sharp stab and had to work hard to keep walking and not let it show. Claude felt miles away, even as she approached him. He was smiling wide, back turned towards her once again, seemingly more at ease with this bartender than he’d ever been with anyone in his life. He looked to Evelyn as though he had been sitting upon that stool his whole life. For a strange, stretched out moment, Evelyn wondered if she had slipped realities and found herself in an unfamiliar place with someone who only somewhat resembled her husband. She watched him – his teeth looking unnaturally white in the soft glow of the lamps, his dark hair curling around his temples, eyes bright with excitement. By the time she reached him, she was unbalanced, adrift.

He glanced at her encouragingly, patted the stool next to her. “I ordered you a hot toddy,” he said, with a wide grin, “to warm you up.”

She realised her skin had broken into goosepimples. She did feel cold, despite how warm it was inside. Though they were sitting at the bar and far from the fire, they could feel its heat, padded along the heat of so many bodies crammed together. A group by the window cheered loudly, clinking their glasses together, and Evelyn clenched her fists to keep from flinching.

She looked at Claude, yearning intensely for a reassuring gaze, for him to look at her as he had always done: seeing her, telling her, with his eyes only, how together they were in the world, never truly alone. But he was still chatting with the bartender and, though she was sitting right next to him, she couldn’t hear what they were saying. She heard the drone of their voices as though behind a thick glass wall.

The bartender finally looked at her when he set her hot toddy before her, a quick glance that held, it seemed to Evelyn, an immeasurable amount of contempt. So intense she felt it that she drew back sharply, nearly falling off her stool. Claude reached out a hand to steady her as the bartender finally moved away to tend to other drinkers.

“You alright there, love?” his tone was light, teasing. He finally looked at her. Evelyn was sure he would know, immediately, from seeing her face, that something was wrong. How could he not? She was sure her confusion and distress were plain for anyone to see. But his eyes only grazed hers for a moment, an achingly empty moment, before turning to look at the pub.

So casual was his attitude, his demeanour relaxed and happy, that Evelyn was further disoriented. Perhaps there was nothing to this night, this place, this pub, that was unusual or unnatural. It had been a matter of minutes – entering the pub, sitting next to Claude, receiving her drink. Perhaps her perception had been skewed from the beginning and she had been interpreting the pub’s entire atmosphere wrong.

Claude sipped his whiskey and looked around. Evelyn tried to calm her racing heart, to tell herself she was panicking for no good reason. The man sitting next to her still felt so far away she couldn’t bring herself to touch his shoulder and gently ask him to leave. More than that, he was so at ease here she could not bring herself to take him away. She debated, briefly, excusing herself and walking back alone, but the thought made her feel more wretched than ever.

Someone sat on the other side of Claude, somehow obscured by Claude enough that Evelyn couldn’t see them. He turned towards them, presumably to answer something they had said, and Evelyn could feel it, the shift. His body language changing, turning away from her. Another conversation started, droning on outside her reach. She heard a word, stolen, here and there, no more. Claude laughed at something this stranger said, a high laugh, free from self-consciousness.

Evelyn cupped her drink, hoping the warmth of it would seep into her hands, thaw her heart. Her hands, she noticed, were shaking slightly. The bartender returned, joined Claude and the stranger in their conversation. She looked at the group, caught the bartender giving her the side-eye. It was unmistakable now. Yet the bartender was part of the bubble her husband was in, closer to him now than she was. They seemed deep in conversation, as though they had known each other forever, as though they were the best of friends. Claude was turned away, Evelyn could not see his face. Was it still his face, even? Was it still Claude?

She sipped her drink some more, told herself her perception of time was distorting – surely this was nothing but a brief conversation, her husband was in no way abandoning her, merely engaging in some polite small talk with the locals. She glanced around her side of the pub, wondering if this was custom, if someone was about to slide in next to her. It seemed unlikely, at first, then absurd, for the rest of the pub goers were sneaking glances at her, just as the bartender had. They did it quickly, in what they maybe thought was a furtive manner, but was, instead, blatantly obvious to Evelyn. Their looks held the same as the bartender’s: assessment, judgment, contempt. Something she could not name, like a snicker was hiding just behind their eyes.

She looked away, turned towards Claude, now determined to catch his attention, tell him she wanted to leave. Within her a hole had opened up, she needed her husband to hold her hand and walk away with her, back to their dark little room where it would be just the two of them. But Claude was no longer sitting next to her. A shiver went up her spine, she was poised on the edge of a cliff, the abyss beneath her feet about to swallow her up.

She spotted him quickly enough, standing among a group of men, his back still half turned away. She watched as the man closest to him offered him a cigar. Without hesitation, Claude took it. Evelyn watched the man lean forward, light his cigar, watched Claude puff away.

Claude had never, as far as Evelyn knew, touched a cigar. He knew her dislike for them, shared it – had seemed to share it, had seemed to despise them too, for the entirety of their marriage. Evelyn sat and watched a stranger smoke, surrounded by other strangers with an uncommon aversion to her.

Somewhere behind her, a group roared in laughter. Evelyn was unsure whether she could find her way back to the pub on her own. She shivered, eyed the darkness outside, beyond the windows. It was so absolute it seemed at though the world ended at the pub door. She was cold to the bones. She had never felt so alone in all her life.

Claude glanced back, once. Not at her, but around the pub. His eyes caught hers for a moment. There was no hint of recognition.

Evelyn rose. It might be too dark out, in this town, for her to find her way anywhere. But it was quiet, too. She knew, because all the noise was inside that very room. It might just be quiet enough that she could hear the ocean, the lap of the waves, the inviting scent of seaweed. She was sure she could find it, even in the night.

She looked behind her, before she left, but she could no longer spot Claude amidst the rest. She closed the door gently behind her, but it hardly mattered – no one noticed her leave.

Vanessa Santos was born and raised on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic. Eventually she exchanged one fairytale setting for another and now lives in Scotland (though still by the sea) and spends as much of her time as possible devouring stories, creating stories, and wandering the endless Scottish woods. You can follow her adventures and writings on Instagram @nesscbsantos