TO BE READ AFTER DARK
It began with a familiar creak .You’ve heard it too. We all have. Even deaf people know what I’m talking about, that particular vibration heard-felt in your bones late at night, in the dark, near your bed , just as you were starting to fall asleep.
It is an old memory. It belongs in childhood bedrooms, under beds, behind doors. In the closet.
A primeval memory, firebranded in our primate brains. The creak, just outside the cave, or behind that tree, or right next to you. A creak with sharp teeth.
But I digress.
There was a creak.
I ignored it ,as you do. Could be any of a thousand rational explanations. A floorboard, a piece of furniture, the TV, the windowpane, the radiator. All of them make little noises because of the temperature changes during the night. Even the lightbulbs cooling off. Everyone knows that.
There was a crackling sound then. I proceeded to remain in bed, eyes shut, breathing regular.
But I jumped inside. My body hadn’t moved an inch, only my heart and nerves seemed to have given me an electric jolt.
The survival instinct kicked in, adrenaline pumping and muscles tensing while my ears strained to locate the source of sound.
Meanwhile, I pretended to be asleep. I pretended to myself, which is sad.
You know, at least children are honest. They cry and scream. They beg to spend the night somewhere else. They say the words out loud.
“There is a monster under my bed”
Children listen to their instincts. They know when their senses are telling the truth. Later, they grow up and learn about “what would people think”, “they’ ll lock me up “ and , above all, “impossible”.
Grown ups, they’d rather be eaten by a sabertooth than go through the potential embarrassment of telling someone about it.
“It must be my imagination. Everyone knows they are extinct”-They would tell themselves while a 2 ton cat licks their liver to pieces.
I do remember the creaking from my own childhood. It would start by the door, on the corner. In the dead of night, every little crackle rang like a gunshot.
The sounds made the rounds of the room, getting closer and closer. By then, I would be praying that it was the cat.
Not that I ever believed that the cat made the noises. Usually, you only knew he was in the room when he landed on the bed. Cats don’t do footsteps.
So, here I am, all grown up, home alone, dark house, warm bed, some creaking (to recap) and then I feel the cat on the bed.
Cat owners will be familiar with this .Your pet decides to join you in the middle of the night. He jumps on the bed and proceeds to select the best place to lie down. He’s in no rush.
You can feel the little paws treading carefully around you ( or all over you, some are more considerate that others), negotiating the dunes and valleys of your duvet , then finally settling down on a choice spot. The cat relaxes and so do you.
That’s what happened next. As a child, it would reassure me against the monsters.
Not so much now, since, as I was saying I felt the cat on my bed and I haven’t had a cat in 10 years.
The “Rational Explanation Firewall” jumps to it : my imagination, I am dreaming, nervous muscles spasms and, my favourite, stress. I push the panic down , refusing to listen, but there is something here. In my house. In my room. On the bed with me. It came to me.
I’m covered in goosebumps and my spine is tingling but I haven’t moved yet.
Can I hear breathing? I hold my breath to listen I think I hear it but i can’t be certain because my heart is pounding on my ears and I can’t stop that one, at least not until I take a fakir course. So I breath again.
I wish I had a cat. I’ll get one in the morning.
Childhood wisdom tells me that I need to turn on the light. I’ve no cat, mum and dad and granny aren’t across the hallway, and so I must move, send my hand outside the duvet, across the bedside table, fingers outstretched to find the switch of the reading lamp.
All by itself, my hand. A lonely hero, an explorer of wilderness ,naked and vulnerable, on a rescue mission. I must move.
There is a click.
I replay it in my head and I think it sounded faintly wet, like a tongue.
I don’t dare to move. What if I move and I feel the weight of a warm body pressing against mine? Even moving enough to hide my head under the duvet would be too risky. No , the hand must go. Light is my only chance. But, what if It is on the table now?
My fingers might find It (fur, scales, slime?) on their way to the light switch, and then what?
My eyes are firmly closed. I could just sit this one out. Stay still and wait till morning.
Buy a cat. Keep the light on tomorrow night. Drink myself to sleep. Invite someone over. Anything. Anything but this.
There’s a movement in the air. A faint breeze on my skin. Must be a draft. An open window somewhere?
But no, because the alarm is on and the windows are practically airtight , double glaze for a better energy conservation system.
It is a breath. The Thing’s breath. Slightly colder than room temperature. Waiting is not an option. I must reach the light switch.
I concentrate. Where was it exactly? And what else did I leave on the table?
The alarm clock, some tissues, a book, the phone, pocket junk(the jumble of small change, crumpled receipts and unopened sugar and salt sachets from take-away joints that I poured on the table before taking off my trousers) A family portrait.
But I believe I know where I’m going .My hand initiates the operation, almost of her own volition, since I am too petrified to make up my mind. Once started, we might as well keep going. Hand slides over my body , upwards, nearly out now, quietly , reaches the frontier, the protection of the sheets falls away and Hand is on its own in hostile territory.
Nothing attacks or gives any indication that my intrepid explorer has been detected. I find the table, trying not to rush, nothing could be worse than rushing and knocking the lamp over. It would roll on the carpet, farther away than I could possibly reach without leaving my bed-fortress.
Swift fingers jump from phone to book to picture frame, bounce off the alarm clock, but they make a quick recovery and yes! , they are on the lamps rounded base.
From there, it is easy. Climb up to the little oval switch that is right there, waiting, cheering silently for me.
It was hard to breath.
I had stretched my arm and there was a tightness in my chest. Maybe because I was holding my breath, forgetting to exhale, focused on The Dangerous Adventures of Hand.
It was hard to breathe because there was a weight on my chest, something that had slithered on top of me while I was distracted elsewhere.
And, if I was holding my breath, the quick panting I had been hearing couldn’t be coming from my throat.
Panic took control. I turned my head away, fingers found the switch and light inundated the world. At the same time, I opened my eyes. I desperately needed to confirm that there was nothing there. My empty room. Nothing there.
My house is lit at all hours. I have extra batteries , flashlights and candles in every room. I bought 2 cats whom, contrary to most people, I encourage to sleep on my bed. But I hardly sleep myself. I allow my eyes to close only for brief intervals, enough so I won’t die ,and I always wake up startled. I tried coffee and drugs to help me stay awake but the truth is, I don’t need them anymore.
Terror keeps me from indulging.
I don’t relax, ever.
It was just a glimpse, a split second, I might have missed it.
But I saw.
As the lights came on , I opened my eyes. I can’t say that I saw anything, because I didn’t, there was nothing there. But it left me a memory. Branded into my pupils, like the flash from a camera, was an afterimage of its face.
Bright, deep eyes, close up to mine, and that smile full of teeth and malevolence. A hungry smiled that said “I’ll be seeing you”.
The worst is that it wasn’t a strange face. I’ve seen it before. It has been with me since childhood. I grew up and I forgot. But it doesn’t forget.
I listen harder these days.