Sensitive

I’ve always been sensitive.  Not ‘can’t use soap’ sensitive or ‘cry at Christmas adverts’ sensitive.  Just ‘knowing things without a proper explanation’ sensitive.  Don’t get me wrong; I can’t tell you what the lottery numbers will be.  Do you think I’d be here if I could?  As if! I’d be lying in a hammock on my own island with an endless supply of fresh fruit and the occasional pizza.  I’ll tell you the kinds of things I know: what sex the baby will be, the fact that there will be a baby (before the bump appears or else it wouldn’t be ‘knowing’ so much as ‘seeing’), what clothes people will have on, even if I’ve never seen them before, who’s calling when the phone rings.  Boring stuff, mostly.   Occasionally I know weirder stuff, like when somebody is going to get hurt or die or when they’ve done something terrible.  That’s the stuff I hate because there’s nothing I can do about it, except … know.

The reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand why I instantly knew I was being followed.  There was no doubt in my mind; it started when I was on my way home.  I was tired, wet and hungry; I had no hope of a hot meal or a warm bed for several hours and I was in my own little world of irritation, but I felt that buzz … maybe you’ve felt it too … it’s the unmistakable touch of another person’s gaze.  When someone is looking right at you, it can be as though they reach across and lay their unwelcome fingers right onto your skin.  It creeps me out.

Whenever this happens, I try not to be too obvious about looking for whoever’s watching me.  There are some bad types out there and if they know you’ve spotted them, well … that could end very badly.  So, I was discreet and just stopped to look in a couple of windows to check out the reflection of the street behind me.  It didn’t help, to be honest; I couldn’t see anybody who looked dodgy, so I tried that thing where you stop as though you’ve forgotten something and turn around as though you might be planning on retracing your steps.  That tactic bore fruit immediately.  As I turned, I clearly saw a figure come to an abrupt halt and step back into the shadow of a hedge – very suspicious behaviour.  Definitely my follower!  I rummaged in my bag for a moment, watching the shadowy figure from under my dripping hood and then acted as though I’d found what I thought I’d forgotten and resumed walking in my original direction.

You’ll probably understand why I didn’t want to lead this character to my home, yet they showed no sign of dropping back, always close to the shadows, always stopping to wait if I went into a shop or stooped to ‘fasten a shoe’.  What was worrying me most of all was that we were coming to a place where I’d almost certainly be alone for five minutes or more if I continued towards home and I didn’t want that to happen if I could avoid it.  There was a brightly lit road with a steady flow of foot traffic just around the corner and I could head in that direction rather than back myself into the corner of isolation, but it would mean going much closer to the dark figure and I didn’t really feel comfortable about that.  I knew for certain that something really bad would happen if I confronted this disturbing admirer: I could feel it as surely as I could feel my feet making contact with the hard pavement.

Looking ahead, I could see the turn-off that led to the dark little bridge over the railway, which would then lead to a series of small, quiet roads which housed an empty old schoolhouse, some abandoned shops and some severely neglected houses that rarely betrayed any signs of life within.  At the rate I was walking now, I would reach the opening in two minutes at the most and the follower could be across the road and at my side thirty seconds later.  On the other hand, I could veer towards them right now, in full view of other people and cars that were passing by.  There were few areas of shadow as the shop fronts on both sides of the road spewed their lights into the world.  In a way, I felt tempted to risk passing the person more closely for a better look; at no point had I had a clear look at a face and I couldn’t even see clearly enough to say if it was a man or a woman.  Or neither, I suppose.

In a split second, my feet made the decision for me and I swerved toward the bright lights and the shadowy figure at their edge.  Making a point of looking up and down the road, I crossed at an angle that would leave me ahead of him or her by at least ten yards; the largest distance possible.  I didn’t want to get too close.  I could sense the malicious intent building now and as I swept my eyes across the figure’s face, I caught a glimpse of light, reflecting from dark eyes and it sent a deep shudder down my spine.  My reaction would pass for the effects of the cold, I was sure, if it had been noticed at all.  But now, we were on the same side of the road and I didn’t like that; it made me feel weak, vulnerable, controlled.  No!  I didn’t like it at all.

The feeling of being watched was now so much more than a buzz … it was a weight, a heat, a force and I could tell without looking that the distance between us was decreasing steadily.  There was no way I could turn around now that we were on the same side; it would be too obvious and I just didn’t want to look into the glinting eyes of this being who meant me harm.  In a panic, I veered into a cafe and stumbled to the counter.  I bought some tea and sat at the back of the shop, looking towards the street.  I couldn’t see the figure now but I knew they would be out there … waiting.  I could feel a draught on my cheek that seemed to come from behind me and I turned to look at the toilet door.  Next to it, was an open door that led into the kitchen … the empty kitchen.  Could I get out that way?  Even if I couldn’t … I had to try!

Heading towards the toilet, I walked steadily, swerving into the kitchen at the last minute and went straight for the back door.  I glanced over my shoulder to see the back of one of the women who was behind the counter; she was talking and unaware of my actions.  The door was unlocked and I was able to close it quietly behind me, but when I tried to leave the small yard I found the outer door was bolted and padlocked.  I looked around for inspiration and saw a large wooden planter, but it was too far from the wall to be of any use.  Pulling at it, I was surprised at how heavy it was, but in my desperation, I was able to drag it close enough to use as a boost to climb up onto the wall.  Unfortunately, the noise it had made as I had dragged it had attracted the attention of one of the coffee shop workers, who opened the door and began shouting and screeching.  I could hear footsteps running through the shop so I launched myself from the wall into the darkness of the alley, jarring my knee as I landed.

Blindly, I ran along the alley, heading back towards where I had come from, hoping to find a way back onto the street and into the light and, hopefully, far behind wherever my pursuer was now waiting.  But I quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen!  I felt his presence before I ran into him.  Definitely a ‘him’.  Strong hands grabbed me and rotten breath drove into my face as I saw in sickening HD everything he wanted to do to me … had done to the others … but as my twitching claws shredded his stubbled face and my growing fangs sank into his bitter-tasting throat, the tears of shame poured from my eyes and onto my fur before I lost all sense of self … again.

In the quiet of the house

I remember the first time it woke me; I didn’t know what had happened.  My head was aching and I was really thirsty, so I thought it was probably that that had woken me.  According to the clock, it was 3:18.  I lay for a minute, hoping for some miracle to take away the headache and the thirst without me having to get out of bed.  There was no miracle.  I slid my feet to the freezing floor and pushed myself from the bed with a wince as my arthritic knee squeaked in protest.  From the bedroom, to the kitchen.  Two painkillers, a bottle of water.  Better go to the toilet to save having to face the stairs again later.  Back up the stairs.  Bed!

But I just lay there with something poking at me.  Some little thought that danced in and out of focus.  Had there been a noise?  A last look at the clock.  4:22!  How could more than an hour have gone by?  I didn’t need to be up early, but I knew I would be, so I closed my eyes and listened to my own breathing until sleep came.

All day, as I went about my routine, I felt jumpy.  There was nothing I could put my finger on; no specific thing that I could identify as the cause of my nervousness.  But it wore me out.  By mid-afternoon, I was struggling to keep my eyes open and since I couldn’t think straight, I decided to take a nap.

I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down, but my dreams were disturbing visions of everlasting staircases, chasms that opened up in the floor of my bedroom and doors slamming.  I opened my eyes.  Was that a dream or had a door just slammed?  I was soaked with sweat and there was a humming in my ears.  I swallowed and my mouth felt like sandpaper.  I sat up slowly, feeling sure I’d be dizzy, but I wasn’t; I just felt weak, washed out.  I opened my window and the autumn air dried the sweat on my face as I stood there.  I listened for sounds of movement, but hearing nothing apart from distant traffic and the scratch of leaves along the pavement, I went downstairs.

Everything seemed normal.  The doors were all open, so if the slam had been real, it had been outside, which was a relief.  I went to make myself some tea and was surprised to find I’d already laid out the tea things: my favourite cup, a present for Mother’s Day with ‘World’s Best Grandma’ in childish writing; the 2-person tea pot I use when I’m sure I’ll want seconds, and a tea spoon.  “I must have been more tired than I realised!”  My words bounced around the room, the only noise in a vast silence.  No, not the only noise.  There was a rapid clicking that I recognised with a sinking feeling.  It was the noise the kettle makes when it has recently boiled and switched off. Praying that I was wrong I tentatively laid a finger on the side of the kettle, but almost before it had reached the hot metal I was pulling it back to watch the red spot turn into a blister.  But I had been asleep for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, so who had boiled the kettle?

I didn’t feel safe.  My chest felt tight and I could feel the pounding of blood in my ears.  I walked into the living-room to find my keys.  They were nowhere to be seen, but if I left the house without them, I’d be locked out.  And then I remembered where they were; I had left them on the bedside table when I went to lie down.  I’ve always taken my keys upstairs with me when I went to bed and it had been an almost unconscious action when I’d gone up for a nap.

I didn’t think I could stand to go up those stairs right now.  The pounding in my ears was faster and I could hear my own breath, coming in short, wheezy puffs of panic; I had to do something!  Then I remembered something from years before.  When my children had been young and prone to messing about after bedtime, I would go into their room, see them unconvincingly pretending to be asleep and I would close their bedroom door as though I had left the room.  I would stand there not breathing and they would open their eyes to see me still watching them.  More often than not, they’d laugh. So it didn’t help them get to sleep, really; it just let them know they couldn’t pull the wool over my eyes.  I caught them out like that many times before they’d cottoned on to my trick.  Whoever was in my house right now, if there was anybody, didn’t know it, though.  I could at least be sure whether there was somebody there.  If I stood by the front door after I had closed it and somebody came out of hiding, at least I would be close to the door to get away and if nobody moved, I should probably consider the possibility that I’d sleep-walked or that I might finally be succumbing to the dementia that had stalked the women in my family for generations.

I made a lot of noise ‘leaving’ the house.  I banged into the living room door, swished my coat around as I put it on, said to myself, “I’d better get some bread while I’m out!” in a voice much louder than my usual voice.  It didn’t sound like me.  It sounded like somebody brave.  And then I opened the door and slammed it.  And waited.  I held my breath for half a minute …nothing!  I slowly and quietly let my breath leave through barely parted lips and then I heard the first noise … a creaking, perhaps …maybe a cupboard door.  It was upstairs.  And then a second noise, which I instantly recognised as the loose floorboard in the back bedroom.  As I took hold of the front door handle I heard another noise, and another and another.  And then all the noises happened at once, as, from top to bottom, the house came alive around me.