The Vulture by Meg Gripton-Cooper

She can feel that Isabelle hasn’t shaved her armpits recently. This surprises her. The fuzz of it burns Kate’s hands as she drags Isabelle into the bathroom. It’s easier than expected. The hardest part is getting her over the side of the bathtub. If Kate had been smart about it, she could have constructed an elaborate pulley system with ropes and other interesting things, but there’s something rigid and clinical about that. This way, she knows that Isabelle hasn’t shaved for a while. Isabelle showers like clockwork every night, and yet she hasn’t shaved in what feels like a week, maybe even more. It’s satisfying being the only person who knows this. 
     The ice cubes make tiny clicking sounds against Isabelle’s skin as Kate settles her into the tub, like talons on tile. She adjusts the tilt of Isabelle’s head. Arranges her arms across her chest. Smoothes a hand over her hair and then wishes she hadn’t. Trying to fix it would only make it worse, so she leaves it despite the regret sounding through her. 
     Downstairs in the hallway, the phone rings. Shrill. Kate resents it for intruding on this tender moment. Nothing is soft enough. She hears the message being left: ‘Hey, Kate. It’s me. Couldn’t help myself, I suppose. Let me know you’re OK, please. Sorry it’s so late.’
     Breeze through the open window, voice in the hallway, can no one else feel it? People are peeling back their duvets this very second, Kate is sure. They’re sliding into warm sheets and setting the alarm. Any other day and she’d be in bed herself, huddled tight against the cold. Maybe Isabelle would be downstairs still, pulling a late night study session. But no. Not tonight. Kate leans over and sticks her finger into the crease of Isabelle’s armpit again, just to feel that prickle of stubble against her skin. Even this, not soft. The hair on Isabelle’s head, too, is not as she thought it would be. Something clings to the roots, something that smells cold and almost like hairspray but not quite. Isabelle always used cherry scented hairspray. Kate would have preferred that, preferred anything at all, to this. It doesn’t matter now. Already a new smell eats away whatever it is they put in Isabelle’s hair. 
     It’s cold. Isabelle’s head has tipped a little to the side. The new position reveals the column of her once perfectly white neck. Now, the green hue of Isabelle’s skin reminds Kate of a barely-healed bruise. Her neck is swan-like as ever. It is a graceful neck. Even now, cast green as though lit from beneath the surface, it would be hard not to recognise Isabelle’s beauty. And the green continues. As though she is standing in shadow, rather than laid out under the glaring white of the bathroom light. It gets darker, more insistent, across her abdomen. Mottled. But Kate does not look away. The eyes are more unnerving. Fogged over like cataracts, like milk in water, like the smudge of clouds in the distance. Isabelle once had blue eyes. This new gaze is foreign, though not unwelcome. Kate takes a second to remind herself that of course there will be changes. Kate has delivered Isabelle to her nest, from which she will eventually hatch, freed. 

Something falls to the floor when Kate pulls up the covers to make Isabelle’s bed. There it is, on the floorboards: a necklace. A gold one, delicate and gleaming, with a tiny disc hanging from the centre of the chain like a halo. Kate picks it up. Her roiling gut settles when she feels the cool metal. It wouldn’t do to lose something of Isabelle’s, something she might want upon her return. Kate will have to be more careful in the future. Yanking the covers about like that, what was she thinking? Only the most reverent of hands, here. She dangles the necklace from her fingers, watching it in the light. A message, surely. She has returned Isabelle home, and Isabelle rewarded her with divine communication. Kate cannot keep the necklace. 
     She goes back into the bathroom, unclasping the necklace on her way. Inside, Isabelle remains the same. Kate wraps the necklace around the hot tap. The disc swings a little. 
     ‘There you go,’ Kate murmurs, smoothing a reassuring hand over Isabelle’s shoulder. 
     It is perfect. So far, Isabelle’s new resting place has only minimal decoration. A photograph of the two of them as teenagers, stuck to the tiles above the bathtub. Next to it, a wad of bloodstained tissue.
     Back in Isabelle’s bedroom, Kate resumes her duties. Smoothing pillows and such. When she runs a hand over the covers, there’s no snagging. She does it again, this time with both hands. It’s been a long morning and it’s only now that she can feel the aching of her arms, the strain of her joints. She’s sure Isabelle won’t mind her sleeping here instead of her own bed. 
     When she leans back into the pillows, it is with her head held very carefully. It’s been a very long day. Time to unclench the fists. Safe in the knowledge that Isabelle is in the next room. Hot like blood. Her eyes are almost closed when she sees it. A shirt. Half hanging out of Isabelle’s wardrobe. It’s the colour that catches her first, because the colour was the reason she bought it, two months ago. Kate’s shirt. A sale find. Here, in Isabelle’s wardrobe. Kate swoops up from the bed and grasps the arm. Sunlight filters through the chiffon sleeve, and Kate feels faint with the knowledge that Isabelle stole something that belongs to her. She must have coveted this shirt, Kate’s shirt, and now it hangs haphazardly on a green plastic hanger, in between an ivory silk blouse and a pair of grey trousers with a Chanel belt still looped around the waist. It could have been something Isabelle asked to borrow, Kate could never deny her a thing she wanted. Instead, she’d taken it for herself. 
     It smells of Isabelle’s perfume, though Kate can’t understand how Isabelle ever managed to wear it without her noticing. This is an extraordinary blessing.

She goes back into the bathroom in the early hours of the morning. The room is quiet, except for the sound of some drunk students stumbling home in the street below. The window is slung open wide as Kate could push it. A distant siren wails, a nightbird calls for its mate. Isabelle is listening. In some way, she is communicating with it all. There is a watchful look to her cold face, one Kate is familiar with. Like when Isabelle would attempt a recipe from the internet and her brows would form an almost perfect straight line. Leant against the kitchen counter on her elbows, glancing up at Kate, the hopeless laugh she’d give. 
     ‘I hope I’m not disturbing you too much.’
     Kate kneels down on the bathmat. At eye-level, she can see the areas for improvement. There had only been time to stick the photograph and tissue to the tile, but time will bring new opportunities. Make it homely. Somewhere Isabelle will feel comfortable enough to stretch out and luxuriate. For now, the photo looks at Kate from the tiles above where Isabelle’s head rests at the top of the bathtub. Their own faces, gazing beatifically down at them. Ten years younger and naive, the pair of them with no idea of what was to come. The mission Isabelle would trust Kate with. 
     ‘I know you’re probably cold, but it’s for the best. Here.’
     Kate sets the hairbrush on the side of the tub. Its convex back makes it rock a little. She waits until it is completely still.
     ‘I thought that I could brush your hair, if you like. Nothing too stressful. I’m sure it’s already smooth and all that, but it might feel relaxing more than anything else. Settle you in a little.’
     It isn’t difficult to arrange Isabelle into a position where Kate can reach her hair without having to hold her up. She’d expected her to be stiff, maybe like in the movies. But Isabelle could never be the same as those sorts of people. She is not stiff, she is not a doll. She is not gone, the same way all those other stiff shells of people are. It feels more like manoeuvring a sleeping person. She’s alarmed to feel a surge of squeamishness in her stomach, seeing that greenish skin rippling in the light. No time for that now. It isn’t needed. Eventually, Isabelle sits mostly upright. Her arms hang loosely, the elbows turned strangely forwards, wrists against the surface of ice cubes. The curve of her back is severe, enough that Kate can see the ridges of her spine like a snake under her skin, but Isabelle has always had good enough posture that it would be rude to begrudge the comfortable position of her choosing now. Kate runs a hand over Isabelle’s head. 
     ‘Wonderful. I know you always took such good care of it. That Acqua Di Parma shampoo. Maybe I’ll use that when I wash it. If that’s alright with you, obviously.’
     There’s a little friction between the bristles of the brush and the texture of Isabelle’s hair. It makes a noise that Kate finds satisfying, a kind of thick rasping. The brush makes its slow way from roots to ends. She’d intended to make Isabelle feel more comfortable, but it is Kate’s own muscles she feels loosening with each stroke. She has touched Isabelle’s hair before. There have been plenty of occasions, at sleepovers or holding it back in a ponytail while Isabelle threw up a night of tequila. Tender touches she could recall now, like when Isabelle had a cold and spent a weekend curled up on the sofa with daytime television and a supersize box of Kleenex.
     ‘Pass the remote, will you,’ she’d said to Kate, flailing her hand over her head.
     ‘Lazy,’ Kate had admonished, putting the remote into Isabelle’s waiting hand.
     ‘Sick,’ Isabelle countered, changing channels with a grunt. ‘Stick the kettle on, please?’
     Kate had stopped on her way to the kitchen and ran her hand over Isabelle’s head. Her hair had been messy then, pulled back from her face with a headband, but it had been enough to feel the strands under her fingers, the warmth of her scalp. Better still, to hear Isabelle hum in contentment. Electric, but momentary.
     ‘I know you might be a little scared,’ Kate tells Isabelle now. ‘So am I. But this will all feel so small when you get back. I promise.’
     It’s a heavy brush. It is a solidity she can take comfort in. It tethers her. Isabelle’s hair is so long that Kate can only just reach the bottom from her position on the outside of the tub, where the ends lay like feathers against the ice cubes. She’s determined not to leave a single strand untouched, so she stays for over an hour, brushing. The rhythm makes her feel sleepy and stupid. 
     ‘There,’ she says when it feels right. ‘I hope you’re more relaxed now.’
     Laying Isabelle back down is more of a struggle than sitting her up had been. Her limbs do not cooperate. One of her arms falls with a thud against the porcelain. A foot gets jammed by the tap. Kate is patient with her. Extricates the foot, rubs the arm soothingly. 
     ‘Careful, now,’ she says. ‘I don’t want you to hurt yourself.’
She puts the brush in a basket in the sink cabinet. Her heart beats with satisfaction, seeing Isabelle’s hair lay so smooth. Total knowledge of the feel of Isabelle’s scalp makes her almost woozy as she walks to the door.
     ‘Goodnight, Isabelle. I’ll see you in the morning.’

About the Author

Meg Gripton-Cooper is a graduate of Sheffield Hallam University, and is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Nottinghamshire.

Twitter: @Megan_gc_

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