I woke up to find two very small, beady black eyes staring into mine this morning.
They were lying on the pillow next to me, watching me. After the initial three to five second pause whilst my brain changed tracks from the blessed unconsciousness line to the harsh reality line, and the realisation settled gently like a dropped piano on the equilibrium of my consciousness, I reacted in a manner suitable to the unexpected sight of finding two lidless eyes boring into mine which had not been there the night before. A frightened yelp and a swift, uncoordinated scramble across the double bed followed, the duvet now doubling as a wrestling octopus, tying my flailing limbs in knots.
Remarkably, my less than subtle reaction had not disturbed the other pillow, which allowed the more than welcome realization that the piercing gaze had not moved to follow me. A small amount of calm restored by this fact (ignoring the sarcastic commentary in the back of my mind that had it indeed moved I would’ve continued in my flight, fallen off the bed and then ran screaming from the room), I slowed and took a moment to examine what exactly had joined me in my slumber.
That it was a small, slightly scrawny mouse of the wild variety was obvious. That it was also very dead was also plain to see, unless of course, it had escaped an animal testing lab trying out samples of a new anti-depressive that dulled the senses to the point of oblivion and left the user in a Zen-like state of calm. Otherwise, my embarrassing tumble across the bed would at least have warranted some small movement on behalf of my new sleeping companion.
Gingerly, I moved toward it, reached over and after some small deliberation on where to touch it, slowly grasped the very end of its less than clean tail. In the midst of cold turkeying from my recent adrenaline rush, I cautiously lifted my guest and then made my way out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen, my eyes never quite leaving the mouse as it dangled from my clenched fingers in case it was feigning death in an effort to lull me into a false sense of security. (I had done a couple of first aid courses whilst at college, but none of them had covered how to check a mouse’s pulse.)
Reaching the kitchen, I fumbled in the drawer reserved for weekly papers, circulars and take-out menus with one hand, finally pulling out a suitably large newspaper and opened it haphazardly on the kitchen table. Gently placing my visitor upon it, I rooted through the drawer for a pen. Bypassing those of any value, I finally settled on an unreliable Bic and in a non-scientific manner prodded my unwelcome guest with it, much like a doctor checking a patient’s reflexes. But with a pen.
It didn’t move.
Life had indeed fled my erstwhile friend, so laying the pen next to him, I rolled both up in the newspaper, fleetingly considered saying some few words of respectful parting, thought better of it, and unceremoniously dumped mouse, paper, and pen in the kitchen bin. I then spent the next hour before work, in between showering and shaving, searching for mouseholes. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to look for, my only knowledge of these being from old Tom & Jerry cartoons, where to be honest Jerry appeared to live in much more comfortable circumstances than I.
Drawing a line under my increasingly fruitless search, I decided finally to call the landlord in the morning and raise the pest control issue with him.
I’m blaming next door's cat.
Granted, thinking back to yesterday, there wasn’t any teeth marks or blood on my visitor, but it now seems the most likely cause for his arrival. This doesn’t quite explain how what I’ve always viewed as a fat, lazy and excessively pampered feline could find its way into my house, but I guess even the most overweight and aggressively tedious cat must sometimes give in to its ingrained animal instincts and go exploring. Although why it should find the need to scale drainpipes and rooftops looking for an open window into my house for the express purpose of delivering the grizzly results of its nocturnal activities is beyond me.
Honestly, I can’t quite imagine how he did it? I don’t remember leaving any windows open, and aging Toby has never struck me as the adventurous type. Next door’s young daughters obviously dote on him though, and it’s usually a toss-up between his nighttime chorus or their new baby’s cries that have the dubious honor of waking me in the early hours. It must be him though, or some other local cat. Otherwise, how did a dead bird find its way into my bedroom last night?
Yes, I found a dead bird this morning when I awoke, placed on the same pillow, in pretty much the same position as the mouse before. Probably a blackbird, but I’m no ornithologist so I can’t confirm this, nor have I any desire to trace its breed on the internet either. My interest begins and ends with it being dead and finding it lying next to me.
Whilst not as extreme as yesterday’s reaction, I still found myself recoiling in my bed with a very nasty shudder when I awoke and saw it. The bird was bigger than the mouse, its black wings splayed haphazardly across the pillow. Its eyes though, as black and empty as the mouse’s, staring into mine on waking. Very unpleasant, and disturbing in an indefinable way. Like that feeling you get when you look into the glass eyes of a waxwork and are afraid to turn your back in case it reaches out to you when you’re not looking.
First a mouse, now a bird. Maybe it’s some kind of pack mentality, and old Toby is bringing me the fruits of his labors? Why, is beyond me - I don’t think I’ve ever been viewed as the alpha male of anything, or by anyone. All my previously failed relationships can attest to that.
I won’t raise it with my neighbors yet - they’re a nice couple and I don’t think their young daughters have been actively training their cat to perform these nefarious deeds. Anyway, double checking all the windows before I go to bed tonight should resolve the issue, and any further little ‘presents’ he’ll have to leave outside the little bastard.
The bird is now alongside the mouse in the bin, wrapped in its biodegradable coffin of a newspaper. Thank God the bins are being collected tomorrow.
I don’t think it was Toby now.
Why? I woke up this morning to find Toby next to me on the other pillow this time, stone cold and very dead, staring at me with empty, coal black eyes like the bird and mouse before him. Not a mark on him. One could almost imagine him being asleep, if the icy chill of death hadn’t seeped into my fingers as I touched him this morning to check if he was still breathing.
It has to be my landlord then. Maybe he wants me out? Perhaps he has some other, higher paying tenants in mind?
No, that argument doesn't work. When I called the landlord on Tuesday to check the mouse problem, all I got was an answerphone message stating he was abroad, sunning himself in Spain and he’d be back in two weeks. This would also ignore the fact that as well as locking all the windows last night, I put the chains on the doors as well. None of them had been broken or disturbed as far as I could tell.
I’m stuck for an obvious explanation now. It’s a two-bed residence barely twenty years old - there are no secret passages, no basements, not even a chimney for an evil Santa Claus to pop down and deliver these rather dubious gifts. It makes no sense and no obvious answers are springing to mind.
Okay, how about this? Monday - Toby kills a mouse, and with it braced between his teeth, finds a way up the walls and external pipework to an open window, say the bathroom, follows my scent to the bedroom, and then leaves his gift on the pillow. Tuesday - he does the same thing, but this time he’s caught something a little bigger, so he goes through the same motions as before but this time delivering the bird. Wednesday - he hasn’t killed anything, but the pattern of activity from the previous two days is now in his mind, so he goes through the motions again.
This time, however, after two days of strenuous activity where before all he’d had to cope with up until then in his pampered life was jumping up and down off a sofa, his heart gives up the ghost and he unexpectedly becomes the final gift on my pillow. Maybe he knew a secret way in, like maybe a gap in the brickwork or slating on the roof, or he made his way in yesterday when I was working in the garden and was simply roaming unseen through my house until I went to bed.
I don't know, something, ANYTHING, that makes more sense than deranged tooth fairies delivering animal corpses whilst I sleep!
That only leaves one real problem now - how to tell next door I found their cat lying dead next to me in bed? Thinking about it, I don’t think they need *that* much detail. Probably for the best I tell them I found him in the garden like that, somewhere out of the way where they wouldn’t have seen him if they’d looked out their back window this morning and over toward my house.
I’m in a hotel room and I can’t bring myself to go home.
There are no cold, hard facts stopping me, but I know what I felt, and I’m too scared to go back to check.
I’d gone to bed the night before after securing all the windows again, but reasonably relaxed after Toby’s demise that I wouldn’t have any more visitors during the night. When I’d delivered him to the neighbors earlier that day, wrapped respectfully in an old blanket, they’d taken it with good grace. They’d been pretty much expecting him to fall over at any time - his age, luxurious lifestyle and ample feedings had made him a candidate for early passing.
They even apologized to me for finding him ‘in my garden’ but admitted they were relieved in some part that the girls hadn’t woken that morning to find him stiff and unmoving in their house. The usual polite ‘sorries’ back and forth, understanding pauses, we all knew the drill.
Out of politeness, and some misplaced feeling of guilt for finding Toby dead, I also called in after work to ask how the girls had taken the news. I was told they’d been understandably heartbroken, followed by the usual leap of childlike logic as the girls had then asked if this meant they could have a dog now. All in all, the conversation went pretty much as I expected, so after some additional small talk and commiserations I left them to it.
That night I fell asleep playing on my mobile, only waking in the early hours to its persistent buzz in my limp hand to indicate someone was calling me. As my brain warmed up into some semblance of life and function, the same simple dread we all experience when we receive a phone call in the very early hours of the morning settled in the pit of my stomach.
Apart from foreign call centres wanting to sell you insurance or drunken ex’s needing to get something off their chest, neither of which are pleasant calls to receive at the best of times, the only other reason for an ‘out-of-hours’ call is usually always bad news. Bracing myself, I lifted the phone to my head, hoping the phone call would turn out to be a bland, empty call so I could return to the welcome embrace of sleep. It wasn't.
It was next door. We’d exchanged numbers and spare keys a while back for the usual reasons, like parcels being dropped off and watching each other’s houses whilst on holiday. I recognised the guy next door’s voice at once, and my initial thoughts were of the cat. Maybe Toby had been faking all along and had made a run for it before his sedentary lifestyle of forced feeding had finally done him in? His first broken, worried words soon put this thought and any other flippant ones quickly out of my head though. That and the sound of crying coming from behind him from his wife. My mind blanked, I let his words drift over me, chilling me.
After a quick apology for calling so early, he got straight to the point, or as quickly as his cracked voice would allow. Had I been in all evening? Had I seen anyone loitering near their house tonight or any time before? Had I seen anyone walking down the street with a baby in their arms?
Only by the grace of some pitying God or the blind, fortunate luck of chance had I awoken this morning facing away from the other pillow for the first time this week. I didn’t have to see it though to know what was there next to me. I could feel its presence pressing against my mind, the subtle knowledge we all have when we know something is occupying the space behind us. It was there, on the pillow behind me. Bigger than a mouse, bigger than a bird, and just bigger than a cat. Wrapped in warm baby clothes, but exuding the bitter chill of the grave.
I was numb. The icy sickness of my thoughts filtered down through my veins, spreading to extinguish the heat in every elemental part of me. No headlong flight from the bed this time. I rose slowly, carefully, desperate not to disturb what was on the other pillow. Every move cautious and restrained, despite the heart thudding in my chest demanding I escape the confines of the room and the unremitting horror it held. But I couldn’t risk it. Dare not risk it.
I wanted no noise or other sense that would cause me to turn and look behind me. No part of me argued the option of turning around and finally confirming what I knew to the very depths of my being had been deposited next to me as I slept that night. Just shy of hyperventilation, I staggered out of the room, a man drunk on fear and revulsion. Slowly, as if hoping not to wake some sleeping child, I closed the door behind me and slid to the floor, my back resting against the wood, and sobbed in both terror and disbelief.
Grasping the wooden door frame with shaking hands, I rose and staggered toward the bathroom as I felt the first stirrings of vomit rise in my stomach as I thought again of what now resided in my bedroom. Collapsing to my knees, I bent over the pan and retched, my throat burning with agony, but barely matching the knowledge wringing my brain between its hands.
Forcing myself to stand, I took a look in the mirror, hardly recognising the face in front of me. The sunken, stinging eyes, the slack lips, the ashen face and trembling that would not stop. I glanced away, feeling the gorge rise again, when my eyes caught a sight through the window.
My bathroom window offered a view of next door’s backdoor and part of their garden, still wrapped in darkness in those early hours of the morning. I saw my neighbors stood there, seeking a breather from the oppressive misery of their house, the ghoulish pallor of their fraught faces standing out in the sickly light spilling from their kitchen window.
My neighbor was clinging tightly to his wife as she sobbed into his shoulder, a policewoman with a pad and a concerned look asking them questions and waiting for answers between choked crying.
Mindlessly my eyes drifted across to the back door and noticed the older of their two daughters stood there, her expression dazed and blank, barely aware having just been awoken into this living nightmare. Sorrow and pity threatened to finally cast me into the abyss I felt myself hanging by my fingertips over, when her head turned and she looked up at me. And then she smiled. A small, childish grin that did not reach her eyes.
An oily, dark worm of thought began to slowly uncoil through my mind, all from that simple look. A nasty thought. A sick, twisted, impossible thought that I was ashamed of, but it held fast.
And then I saw the younger sister behind her, just edging forward. Small, waif like, she always seemed to be following her older sister’s lead in everything, never too far from her side. I watched as she squeezed herself between her sister and the open door. Such a small gap, such a tiny gap, a gap no bigger than say the one you’d find on a chained door pushed to its limits. Maybe. She looked up to meet my gaze as well and I saw the same emotionless eyes looking back, eyes like black pebbles in a clear pool.
I staggered backward as the enormity of what I was thinking took root and spread its cancerous branches through my mind. I fell to the floor as my legs gave way again, but kept shuffling backward desperately, away from the window and the smile that had so utterly poisoned my thoughts.
I reached the landing, the bannister stopping my backward retreat, the breath tearing from my lungs in ragged exhalations. It was a while before my mind registered the phone ringing in my hand, and more force of habit than conscious thought brought it up against my ear to answer.
“Hi,” came the eldest daughter’s childish voice over the line.
I couldn’t respond, yet I couldn’t put down the phone either. Some bleak, fatalistic part of me needed to reach the end of this road, to see the path that had led to this hell.
“Did you like your presents?” she giggled. A dark little sound, like a madman reminiscing about his past deeds in a secluded corner of his cell.
“Why?” was all I could force myself to say.
She sighed, and then answered matter of factly, as if explaining to another child like we were friends in some playground of the damned.
“We were bored. We wanted to go exploring, especially at night when Mummy and Daddy couldn’t watch us, and it’s only polite to bring a gift if you visit someone’s house, Mummy said so.”
"Why Toby?" I asked, my voice as leaden as my thoughts.
Her voice took on a note of exasperation:
“Toby was boring. He didn’t want to play anymore. He just slept all day and ate treats. He was rubbish. We want a dog now, but Daddy said we couldn’t have both a dog and a cat. So Toby had to go away.”
A touch of wild madness sparked across my brain and I croaked a half crazed laugh, before remembering the contents of my bedroom and asked in a confused daze:
This time her tiny voice took on a hard edge, not angry but exasperated, fed from a cold and absolute childish logic untouched by any compassion:
“Mummy said our little brother was a gift from heaven. We disagreed. He made too much noise, and took up too much of Mummy’s time. Daddy told us before you don’t return gifts. He said it’s rude. But we don’t think so. If it’s something you don’t want, you should be allowed to get rid of it.”
She said it as if her conclusions were obvious, the only sane and correct response, as if daring me to argue the point with her.
“But why put all these things in my bed??”
At this she laughed, another small childish giggle as if she’d just watched her favourite cartoon character fall off a cliff. Maybe that’s all I was to her, I and everyone else in the world.
“Because it was funny silly!”
Desperately, I tried to take the initiative, to restore my place as the adult in this insane conversation, where up until now I was just another clueless victim.
“You know the police will check my house for evidence. They’ll have a forensics team in here to check everything. They’ll find traces of both you and your sister in my house and they’ll ask questions.”
“Hmmm...” She seemed to ponder this, allowing me a few precious seconds of hope, before dashing them mercilessly, and I couldn’t help but think of a fly having its wings slowly plucked as she answered innocently enough:
“You mean questions like: ‘Why is there evidence of two small girls present in that man’s bedroom of all places?’ Questions like that?”
I stuttered the beginning of an angry protest, quickly dispelled by the cold, calculating response that had radiated down the line. My heart thudded like a lead weight in my chest and a cold sweat prickled across my body. All the possible options open to me ran through my head, hitting a brick wall in each. I could tell she was waiting for me to finish my train of thought, as if she'd already run every scenario through her head and was just biding her time until I’d reached the same conclusion as she. Then she spoke again:
“There’s an easy way out you know. You can have some of Daddy’s special sweets. They help him sleep sometimes so I left a small bottle of them in your bedside drawer last night. You snore very loudly, did you know that?” At this she giggled again, and I could hear the faint sound of her sister giggling behind her as well down the phone, like it was the funniest thing in the world.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a long, long rest and sleep all these troubles away? Oh, we have to go now, Mummy and Daddy are coming back in and we have to put on our special sad faces again. Bye!”
I heard her sister call bye behind her as well before they hung up. The mobile fell from my hand.
What happened next I don’t exactly recall. Maybe some kind of ‘flight or fight’ response kicked in; she’d easily countered and removed fight as an option, leaving only flight. My purpose in fleeing was led less by a desire to escape the authorities at this time than a desperate need to get as far away from the contents of my bedroom, and the two children who up until then I had seen as nothing more than your average adorable girls, who I'd seen day in, day out, playing with their cat in the garden. That the police would soon be visiting my house I had no doubt, either through following standard procedure, or as I could easily imagine, following up some seemingly clueless, throwaway remark made by the eldest daughter. I remember binning the offered pills, grabbing a few clothes, and then fleeing my home as if the Devil himself was after me.
So here I am, sat on the end of a hotel bed a few hundred miles away, booked under a fake name in cash, and I feel numb. I’m going to sleep here tonight and then keep moving. It’s probably hopeless, but I’ll be damned if I’m just going to lay down and die to suit whatever her crazed needs are. I’m hoping the longer I stay out of the hands of the police, the more chance there is someone might start asking the less obvious questions. Maybe she’ll slip up somehow, say something that’ll give away her part in it. It’s a longshot, but I’ll take it for now.
I woke up this morning to find another gift on the pillow next to me. Her father, my neighbour, his eyes open wide, caught in a look of unbelieving shock. A pink post-it was stuck to his cheek. It read: “Daddy wouldn’t buy us a dog”, complete with an unhappy smiley face in purple ink and a couple of drawn hearts. I wouldn’t like to guess how he died.
Maybe I’ve grown used to this, or more likely I’ve just gone through fear and revulsion to the other side and my emotions have switched off as a defence mechanism. Either way, I didn’t react as before, just acknowledged his presence for a few seconds, then went to the bathroom to relieve myself. Who knows, I might’ve even been expecting it subconsciously.
How she achieved this one I’ve got no idea - the fact she could though is evidence enough for me that she has help, human or otherwise. I wouldn’t like to bet right now on what you’d find if you checked her for a birthmark, but I’m guessing numbers would most likely be involved.
Anyway, I’m sat on the edge of the bed now, looking at the bottle of pills she’d helpfully retrieved from the bin in my house and then left on my bed side table last night. I can hear the sound of sirens approaching in the distance so I guess I’ll be having visitors soon. Think I’ll get myself a glass of water and avail myself of her final gift...
Written by CharminglyShallow