Under the Bed - Part 2
This time Karly screamed, she didn't try and swallow it down, she screamed for all she was worth, both lungs, as wide as her mouth could open.
She stumbled back from the bed, but the fingers just tightened, the claws bit. She flailed wildly at the wall, grabbing it with one hand, knocking over her lamp. She tried to shake it off her foot, tried to twist her leg, tried to kick it free with her other foot. In the dark she could barely see it, only just make out its shape, thick fingers, hair. A voice came from under the bed, a whisper, low, gravelly, a bear's growling rumble: “.....my bed.....”
“Get off me!” She kicked as hard as she could, stumbling over in her haste, still kicking, screaming.
To one side, Yvette was awake now, crying hard.
“Get off me!”
The light came on, blinding for a handful of seconds.
“What's going on in here?”
The bear's shadow loomed over her. Huge.
Her father, bear-shadowed, unshaven, in his pyjamas.
“Help me!” She yelled; but yelling, realised there was nothing now holding her foot. She scrambled backwards, clutching her foot against her.
Her father was beside her. “What is it, love?”
“It grabbed my foot. Its claws did.” There were no marks where the claws had dug in.
“Under the bed.”
He looked relieved.
Karly could have cried with frustration.
“Sweet-heart,” his arm was around her shoulders, “all you did was have nightmare. You've scared your sister.”
Yvette's crying had quietened to a wet snuffle, she looked as curious as scared.
“It was under the bed.” She should have said 'he' – her father might have looked for a man hiding under there.
“It wasn't real, love.”
What if it scratched her father's face right off? She had both sets of knuckles pressed against her mouth as she watched him go over there. He did so with an exasperated sigh, but at least he went. She was poised to run, or maybe fight – she wasn't sure – if something grabbed her father. But there was nothing, a few shoeboxes, an old doll, some felt-tip pens. That was it.
“Get a torch.”
“That's enough Karly, you just had a nightmare. You'll scare your sister carrying on like this.”
“But I-” It had been real. She looked at Yvette, but she already knew her sister hadn't heard anything, had just been woken up by her screaming.
“You go back to sleep,” he told her. He knelt to kiss her forehead, to dry her tears, but his words had been an instruction, she was expected to do as she was told.
She watched her father tuck Yvette back into bed, give her a kiss and a few words of comfort. Karly gasped when his hand went for the light.
Her father smiled. “You'll be all right. There's nothing there in the dark that isn't there in the light.”
But there is, she thought desperately, there is, and it's after me.
That's what the voice had said. It was enough to make her distrust her bed entirely. When she stretched her feet out in the night she was always afraid that something would be in there with her already. She'd told her parents that she knew it was only a nightmare – what point in saying otherwise? - but her own beliefs were settled firmly on a monster.
It was a monster that continued to scratch, and sometimes, when she was almost asleep, its voice would roll up to her ears. “Who's been sleeping in my bed?”
She told Yvette, because she thought she should warn her. “There might be one under your bed as well.”
“Are we pretending?”
“No. Evie. A real one. You have to sleep with your arms and legs under the covers, okay?” She didn't even know if that would help.
“Is there one in the closet too?”
“No. I don't know! I don't think so.”
“What does he look like?”
“I don't know.”
“I know you're pretending.”
“Fine then. But just do like I say.”
Yvette, ever-ready to please, just nodded quietly, unimpressed.
She was at school, when the next piece fitted into the puzzle.
Reading in the library, her eyes were drawn to the cover of a book that showed a familiar looking house. Only when she'd taken it down off the shelf and laid it down in front of her on the table, did she realise that it was her own house. It was very different to the way it looked now. Much smaller in the brown-and-white photo – the upstairs and most of the lounge were missing, the roof looked different, but the verandah was still where it should be, still guarded by roses, with the same large stones forming a garden path, the same apples and cherries set into the glass panels on the door.
She opened the book and flicked through it, finding a couple more photos. The date under one of them read November 23, 1854. She abandoned her intention to eat her lunch, and sat reading until she heard the bell.
At home her mother asked her what she'd learnt today.
Karly was well-prepared. She slid up onto the stool at the kitchen bench, and took a bite out of a juicy pear. “I learnt a lot. It's about this house.”
Her mother leaned in. “What did you learn?”
“It's really old, hundreds of years.”
“I found a book about it. It said this house, and all the ones along this part of the street, were all miner's houses. They were much smaller than they are now. Like the Harroways' house: all the side bit was built later, and the deck, and the driveway, it was just a little brick cottage, it had thatch on the roof. And this one, it only went to the edge of the rug, and it didn't go upstairs.”
“That's true. I could show you the plans.”
“I got a book out.”
“The people that owned the mine built them for the workers to live in, and they took the rent out of their wages. They had big families living in them sometimes. Or sometimes the miners left them back home.”
“I've read about that. They wouldn't have had anything you take for granted now. No TV, no computer, no electricity.”
“There was a fireplace, where the heat-pump is now. It was made of jagged bricks. I've got a picture. There's all sorts of pictures.”
Her mother smiled warmly. “You've evidently had a good day.”
Good? Maybe. Illuminating – a big word, which had been one of her 'learnt-todays' last week. She did her best to put it into a sentence whenever she could. Illuminating. The house, in the old days, had been makeshift and cluttered, the inner walls had seemed flimsy, uneven, and had been dotted with little pictures and ornaments, had had a set of three little shelves built into them. The furniture had been old-style, tattered, covered in blankets and rugs. A ceramic pot sat next to the fireplace; and a jug; and a lamp rested on one of the shelves; a candle; a big heavy clock. There'd been trees in the little garden.
But the pictures that had struck her most, were the ones of the occupants. Several portrait-style photographs had been taken. One, with him sitting on the verandah in a wicker chair, showed a miner. He was dark, thick, bearded, unkempt and overgrown – he looked in every way like a man could look like a bear. His woolly jersey, full of holes, his heavy boots, a round, hairy face with dark eyes set into weathered flesh. Just looking at him made her want to tell him how sorry she was for sleeping in his bed.
Her mother was asking her: “And what kind thing did you do?”
Karly's head shot up. Surely, she hadn't....
Her mother waited.
“I forgot to. I forgot all about it.”
It was a relief that her mother just smiled softly and leaned over to kiss her cheek, the disappointment was as soft and gentle as her mother was herself. “Well, you'll just need to do two nice things tomorrow that's all.”
“I will. I promise.”
She did. When she saw an old woman carrying groceries from the bus, she offered to help her carry them. When she saw a little boy being picked on by other children she stopped and told them to leave him alone, she walked with the boy and chatted with him, encouraged him to feel liked, to forget about the morning's bullies. When she saw her teacher in a new green dress, she made a point of telling her how pretty she looked today.
But the monster would still be waiting when she got home. And she thought about that while she walked. Yvette had been talking to her, and she hadn't been listening. Now her sister was cross: “You don't like me.”
“Yes I do.”
“Then why did you ignore me?”
“I was thinking.”
“Nothing.” At the crossing she barely remembered to put her hand on Yvette's shoulder while they waited for the cars to stop.
This monster was running her life. Karly sat on the bed, in the late afternoon's sun, her legs crossed under her, staring down the foot of the bed. She did half expect to see a dirty, clawed handslide up from under it.
“It's got to stop.” She wasn't sure she was going to be able to find her voice, but in the end she could, and it came out far stronger, more assertive, than she'd been afraid it would. “Look, Mr Monster-Under-the-Bed, you have to stop bothering me all the time. This isn't even really your bed. It might have been your bedroom, and maybe you put the your bed in the same place, but this bed's different. Anyway, it's my turn to sleep here. You have to leave me alone.
She thought she'd feel silly. She thought she'd feel like a little child half her age. But she didn't, she felt better.
She went down to dinner that day, smiling. She paid attention to Yvette, rambling on about the school play she was going to be in, about the sparkly costume she was going to wear. Her father was talking to her mother about his work, about the man who sat two desks away; her mother asked them about where they'd like to go for the holidays this year.
If the old miner listened, he did so quietly.
She felt as if she'd turned a corner, as if she'd won a victory over her own imagination. She still heard the noises every now and then, but they were more muted, more easily dismissable as rats or birds,
or just the floorboards creaking beside each other. At times she heard scratching that was still too clearly, sharply scratching to be ignored, at times there might be a voice, gruff, faint, garbled, not
quite whispering “....my bed....”, but for the most part she could sleep easily, putting on a grown-up's face, believing there was nothing but junk and old socks beneath her bed, nothing worse out in the night, than what was there by day.
Until Death came to her window one night.
It was a night like those that seemed to bring out the scratching – wild and stormy at first, then settling to an eerie quiet that deafened with its absence of noise. As the outside world held its
breath, Karly lay on her back, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the scratching to begin, listening out for that faint, half-heard gruff voice. Instead she saw something moving – from the far corner of her eye. When she turned her head – like she knew it would be: she saw only the dark glass, speckled with raindrops, the faint shapes of a dark garden beyond it. Perfectly still. And she felt a chill like she'd never felt before, something that made the feeling in her stomach when she'd first heard the scratching seem like nothing. This was like frost forming inside her veins, her guts frosting over, curling up tight around that deep, alien cold spot.
“Are you there?” Did she mean the monster? “Just leave me alone tonight, please.”
But already she could hear the faint scuffling of its fur, its claws, against the floorboards. She hugged the blanket up against her chest. It would stop soon. It would.
Something moved again in the window. At first she thought it was one of the trees, its branches swaying against the glass, its edges whitened by a streetlight at the far end of the driveway. But there was something quite different about the way it moved, steady, coming forward out of darkness, a shape that was fuzzy, almost a face, almost a mist – the man in the moon, descended to the earth. Then a crystalline face was at the window. The window's edges frosted over with its presence, the glass cracked in one corner. It was a skeleton's face – a polished, glittery skull, encrusted with tiny crystals. Long. Thin. Toothless. Garlanded in wisps of black mist. It's eyes were blue, set far back, sparkling, deadly cold – a lake on a winter's morning – too deep to freeze, but just as cold
And it looked through the window, peering, looking for.... her.
She just knew. And she didn't dare move. Any sound, any movement, would draw its attention. Anything at all. And Yvette, if she woke up, or even if she rolled over and it saw her..... She'd leapt on top of it, if it did that, if it came for her sister.... Karly promised herself she would. But what if she didn't dare.....?
She knew. If it touched her.....
Only in her mind she called out for help – silent, psychic cries, that she willed her mother and father to hear. They could take on Death. She was desperately sure of it. If only they'd come in, if only they'd come in to check on her and Yvette.
Beneath her something moved, the floorboards creaked.
Outside. Inside – beneath her. Her breath hurt, trapped in her lungs.
Maybe only in her mind, the whisper: “....my bed....”
A skeletal hand flowed against the window; where its fingers touched, the glass rippled as if it were nothing more than water. White fingers probed a disturbed pond – stark against the darkness outside. While nobody came. While nobody, nobody came.
I just want to wake up. I don't want to dream this any more.
It must be a dream.
But the fingers slid inside. Yvette made a tiny murmur in her sleep.
Karly didn't know for sure what she was doing. She had no thought in her head as to how she'd get out of this. She thought she wouldn't. They'd find her dead in the morning – maybe from a tree fallen through the window, or some unsuspected illness – a stroke, a heart attack, a virus – maybe from falling too hard out of bed. The slightest sound or twitch would only bring it on faster. But her arms – of their own accord – slid the covers over her head; and she eased herself a little way down the bed, before slipping over the side and rolling – silently, please silently – underneath.
From the first, it seemed warm under here, and it smelt earthy, greasy. She could hear the sound of scratching, so close to her ear. She could feel the brush of fur against her cheek. And from the direction of the window she could feel the cold. Death was silent, but his presence distilled the air – it hardened, shivered, drained.
Death at the window. Something else, down here with her. It was all she could not to cry.
Then she felt it, moving against her, big, bristly – and she caught a glint of its eye, a sliver of tooth. It was almost on top of her, its claws, right next to her.... She reacted on instinct to the heavy clawed hand – paw? - that she felt and saw slide across her face: she pushed herself backwards across the floor. The monster was faster. It had always been faster. Snake-fast. Its hot, rough paw clamped down over her mouth, while the other caught her waist and held her down.
And Death walked about in the room. Karly couldn't see him. She was too far under the bed, and anyway, her eyes were shut so tightly they hurt. Death was as silent as ever, but she knew he was there, gliding over the floorboards, casting his evil-blue eyes across the beds, the walls, the wardrobes. Did she hear the wardrobe door open? Did she? Were his feet right now beside the bed, his bone-fingers prodding the blankets? There was no way he could help but find her. Or had he lured her under here, herded her, into the monster's ready teeth....?
She might have screamed, if she could have, if the leathery hand would let a sound out, would let enough air in draw a full breath.
Death moved slowly away through the window, maybe moving onto another house. But what about Yvette? Or whose-ever-else's house he might go to instead? Who would he choose?
The monster breathed beside her - deep, hot, musty breaths. She listened. And she listened to her own heart hammering. When she felt his grip slacken she rolled out into the open, and crawled to Yvette's bed. Her sister's hand was warm, she muttered when Karly squeezed.
She wanted to leap on her sister and hug her. But Death might be still so close.
She crawled back over to her bed, lifting the blankets to look underneath. She could hardly see the monster, could only get a glimpse of a stocky outline, a fur covering, a fraction of gold-hazel eye, a thick arm outstretched. And that was all she realised he would ever let her see. It didn't matter. He'd saved her life. Karly slid back under the bed and curled up against his warm body.
From that night on, they became firm friends.