I hear the sirens, far off, coming closer. I bury my head in my heads, covering my ears so I can’t hear them anymore. It doesn’t work; they filter in, echoing around the darkness, filling the room.
I stand, and switch on my old record player. I take the only album I own – Ziggy Stardust – and Five Years blasts out as loud as I dare to disguise the wailing sirens. Straight away, there’s a banging on the wall from my neighbour, so I turn it a little louder, just so she knows I heard her.
When I was a child, my father would sit me on his lap and we’d listen to the sirens as they fought through thick rush-hour traffic, his strong arms protecting me from them. I hated the idea of vehicles specially designed to manoeuvre dying people from one place to another.
I don’t think about my father much. When he died – taken away in an ambulance, with a promise he’d be home again soon – everyone was so upset, and I didn’t want to make Mum cry any more than she already was, so I hid in my bedroom and pretended he was always in another room. He became my secret, my fairy tale.
My mother tried to help me, tried to protect me like he’d done, but her arms weren’t as strong, weren’t as safe. And she had to send me here. “I can’t look after you anymore, I’m sorry.”
“Dad wouldn’t send me away,” I cried.
She hugged me. “Your dad was a very special person, I’ll never be able to take care of you the way he did. You need more help than I can give you.”
I don’t like that memory.
I hold my breath until it goes away.
I focus on the music, because I feel like a star man. I am a star man.
I close my eyes and float away.
A cat jumps from somewhere and lands on my window ledge. I gasp, startled. My heart pounds against my chest; I feel my pulse beating against my forehead.
Just a cat. How can a cat hurt me? I laugh with tentative relief.
But, even so, I hold my hands out in front of me, taking the stance of a kick boxer before the bout starts, alert and determined. Sssh, says a soothing voice in my head that could belong to me, or to my mother, or even to my father. Too many people are talking all at once, and I can’t concentrate.
This cat isn’t mine. I don’t know where it came from; he must be a stray. He’s brave: I live on the second floor, and there’s nothing below but a long fast drop onto grey concrete slabs. The cat looks at me, solid and unflinching; his eyes are green, cold, narrow.
I don’t turn away. There’s something haunting, almost irresistible about his eyes. I move my head to the side, but my gaze remains fixed on him. I want to look away, but the cat stares and I stare. His face changes, taking human form just for a second. I call out in shock. I know that face; the face of the devil. I feel myself being lifted up, floating, being coerced. He thinks I won’t fight, that I’ll give up easily.
The cat looks away, bored, just a cat; no longer possessed. And I’m still here, alive. I shiver and run my hands through my hair, down my ice-cold face, across my breasts, down my hips and thighs, just to make sure. Yes, I’m still here.
Never use a cat to do the Devil’s work, I think with a wry smile. Then I restrain myself. It was close this time. And he’ll be back, because he always comes back.
The cat arches his back and turns himself around on the narrow ledge; he stretches and lies down. He yawns, holding a paw out, indulgently examining himself. He appears to smile, to be satisfied with himself, then settles down and curls into himself. Just a cat.
I look beyond him, out across the orange glow of the city. They’re all out there, lurking under the cover of the darkness, sucking life from one person at a time. Those sirens, that’s how they travel. No one’s safe; I’m at home, my door and window are locked, bolted, and yet I’m not safe. They watch, they listen, they pounce when you least expect it.
My father lied. He said he’d always be here. But he isn’t. He hasn’t been here for a very long time. He’s a whisper in my peripheral vision, a speck of dust that’s blinked away.
He said he’d protect me from all the bad things; but he went away.
The sirens are getting closer; they are getting closer. I can see the blue lights twisting and turning in the shapes of roads that are there in the daytime. I back into the corner farthest from the window. My hands grasp the air. Who’s there? What do you want?
There’s no one here. I laugh anxiously. It’s all in my head. Dad told me that. He said my head played tricks on me. He said when the tricks started I just had to listen to his voice, and everything would be okay again.
I inspect my reflection in the window, a wobbly image that looks nothing like me. I reach out with faltering fingers and touch the fingers reaching out from the glass. I press my palms flat and feel the chill from outside. The glass is distorted. There are two of me, overlapping. How do you do, you do, I ask my selves? They reply in unison as though they’re one person.
It’s too hot; a trail of sweat runs down my back, following my spine like a warped, bony finger.
The cat jumps to its feet on the ledge. I spring back; I’d forgotten he was there. I watch him stretch. I stare right at him until he looks away. It’s a game. He glances back, winking sardonically, and looks past me, over my shoulder into the room. He opens his mouth, like he’s laughing at me. He’s going to enjoy it when this is over. He’ll be laughing louder than anyone else. He’s coming to get me.
I shiver but I’m not cold. I wrap my arms around my body, squeezing. My hands are cold against my hot chest, my hot stomach. I close my eyes to focus on the sound of my father’s voice; but I can’t hear him. He has to be here, doesn’t he? He said he’d always be here.
An ambulance stops outside, blue lights flash into my room. There’s a lot of commotion and noise suddenly. People running, doors opening and shutting at the end of corridors.
“In here, she’s in here. We found her about ten minutes ago. We’ve been giving CPR…” The voices muffle and quieten until I can’t hear them anymore.
I slump to the floor, leaning against the wall, hugging my legs close to my chest. They went into Jennifer’s room. She’s new. She doesn’t talk to anyone, not even at mealtimes when we go and eat together downstairs. She doesn’t eat in front of people; she hides food in her pocket to eat later. She carries a pink teddy everywhere she goes.
Jennifer’s door opens and the voices return, shouting out lots of medical stuff that I don’t understand. The wheels of the stretcher squeal on the lino, and footsteps run beside it. They emerge downstairs and Jennifer gets swallowed up into the ambulance. I kneel at the window and peer over the ledge; then walk backwards. It’s wrong, staring like that.
One day, it’ll be me. My overdose, my limp body being wheeled away.
I jolt forward, as if pushed. I jump around. Who’s there? I watch the shadows. He comes in the shadows, hiding, waiting for the precise moment. Then he strikes before you even have time to react. He’s listening. He hears my thoughts. He’s here. I can feel his ice-cold hand sliding around my waist, pulling me towards him. I can’t move.
He’s gone again. As condescendingly and calmly as a cat, he leaps in and out of bodies, possessing and deserting at will.
The light in the middle of the ceiling is suddenly too intense. I hold my hand up to shield my eyes from the piercing light. I stumble backwards, but catch myself in time. If I move too close to the door, I’ll be vulnerable; he’ll seize me, swoop down to steal my soul from within me.
The opening chords of Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide gently ebb into the room. I focus on David Bowie’s voice in lieu of Dad’s. Will it work the same way? If I listen to Bowie will the bad things stop?
My head aches. I close my eyes, hazy and uncertain, dreamlike. If this is a dream, I can be anyone I like, can’t I? I can walk through walls, or fly high above the city. Or I can make myself small and invisible. I can creep through people’s legs while they stand in bus queues. I can watch them like they watch me.
The moon is high in the sky tonight, but it’s frowning; I always thought the moon smiled. It’s just a lump of rock in the sky, says someone in the corner, using my father’s voice. But he wouldn’t say that, of course. He’d say, of course the man in the moon is real, just like Father Christmas, and I’d believe him.
It drifts across the sky, still scowling, and shines into my room, making it shimmer. The ghost-grey radiance swirls around me. I idly gaze up at the ceiling, at the cracks that are now highlighted. Some are fine lines; others are almost holes that cast deeper, snaking shadows.
That’s it! That’s how he’s getting in!
I’ve always wondered; now I know. That’s how he watches me. That’s how he knows so much about me. Neither my father’s voice nor David Bowie can protect me from this insidious wickedness. I’ll never escape because he’s right here, on top of me. And I’ll always know it.
I’m here. Take me, that’s what you want, isn’t it? What choice do I have?
I stand in the middle of the room, my arms stretched out, spinning on the spot. I wait, but nothing happens. He doesn’t want me to give in, to surrender; he wants to snatch me, to fight for me. To prove his dominance over me. He’s losing his chance. I won’t offer myself again, and I won’t be taken easily.
Why doesn’t he answer? I know he’s here. I can feel him, I can smell him, taste him. I want to reach out and bury myself within him. I want to give him everything I have. I’m tired now; I want to give in, and then I can sleep. All I want to do is sleep.
It’s a trick!
Who said that? I stand frozen, my eyes shifting around the room quickly as I try to catch him.
There’s no one here. No one except the cat, of course. He’s standing proud, staring in, his eyes glinting in the light.
I want to hide, escape. He watches me closely, with a slow smile. He knows what I’m thinking; he knows everything.
“Please go away. Please leave me alone.”
I hear them laughing. I swing around, hoping to catch him in the corner of my eye. He’s too quick. They’re mocking; their voices are full of hatred and scorn. I cover my ears. They won’t go away. They laugh. I look at the cat; he’s laughing too.
I hear breathing, someone creeping up behind me. I spin around, with a yell. No one. Too quick. Like a cat. I turn the other way. No one; no thing. I gradually crouch down to make myself as tiny as possible. I jump with a loud whooping noise, to frighten him. Even though I know it’s pointless.
Gradually, as though drifting on a still river, I am aware of Dad’s aftershave, a warmth returning to the room. I feel his hand pressing on my shoulder. He’s standing beside me; the two of us together, fighting the bad thing.
The cat observes with displeasure. He sees my father beside me. I watch the cat shift his gaze between the two of us, sitting like a porcelain figurine. I don’t move, don’t try to run. I’m strong now; my father has given me this strength, his strength. And the cat doesn’t know what to do. He expected it to be easy this time. He thought my defences were finally worn down. He thought he’d win.
It’s my turn to smile, my turn to laugh. The cat hisses and jumps away. I expect to see my father smiling at me, but the warmth and fragrance drifts away, and I’m alone again. But I don’t have to hide anymore. I can fight back; and my father will always be there.
About the Author:
Annalisa Crawford lives in Cornwall UK, with a good supply of moorland and beaches to keep her inspired. She lives with her husband, two sons, a dog and a cat. Crawford writes dark contemporary, character-driven stories. She has been winning competitions and publishing short stories in small press journals for many years, Cat and The Dreamer in 2012.
Annalisa's website - www.annalisacrawford.com