Under the Bed - Part 1
She loved hearing the story. Every night, in bed beside her sister, she would urge her mother or father – whoever's turn it was – to tell it again. They didn't even make a pretence of reading any more from the worn old book of fairytales, not when all four of them knew it by heart.
“And who's been sitting in my chair?” Her father's voice could rise to the heights of a baby bear, or dip to the hollow, gruff sound of the same bear's father.
“Who's been sitting in my chair?” She echoed, hugging her sister around the waist. It made her imagine that some stranger had snuck in downstairs and was ensconced in her favourite chair right now, feet up, taking her place.
“And who's been eating from my bowl?”
“.... and eaten it all up!” Her sister couldn't help but interrupt, that was the stage she was at, finishing the lines in stories, giggling excitably when she did – wanting to be noticed, wanting to be a
just little bit scared of these imaginary bears returning to their green-and-gold thatched cottage.
“Who's been sleeping in my bed.....?” Her father's voice rumbled the words, drawing them from somewhere below his throat. The sound had real menace.
Her sister got in first: “And here she still is!”
“Stop it!” Karly complained, squeezing Yvette closer. “You're skipping ahead.” And she'd ask her mother or father: “Tell it again. Please. Once more.”
“Tomorrow night.” And there'd be a kiss on the forehead for each of them, before their little upstairs room went dark.
In the quiet night she'd curl up with her sister, listening to the silence, to the small noises that blossomed out of it. “Can you hear them? That's them growling, they're coming home.”
Yvette was too old now to be scared that easily; anyway, her favourite thing, her only thing, was giggling. She just giggled at Karly's predictions: bears, coming up the stairs, wanting their dinner back and somewhere to sleep; and they would both let their imaginations run wild for a while.
She was older now, growing up, too old for her parents to tell her bedtime stories any more. But that didn't mean she loved her favourite story any less. She was too old to admit it, of course - almost nine - but when she was alone, she would take the old book of fairy tales down from the shelf, curl up in a soft chair and read it to herself.
It settled her and comforted her, scared away the worries of childhood.
At least at first.
She wasn't sure when her favourite story began to take on a more threatening tone, maybe it was when she first started hearing the noises. She was nine by now, and unable to sleep on a night when there'd been thunder earlier, and flashes of whole-sky lightning, when the storm had died away and the quiet that followed it had only seemed louder and more dangerous. The night held its breath, and her with it, listening to a branch tap the roof just above her head.
She only noticed slowly that that wasn't the only sound.
It could have been no more than the old house settling – it was a noisy house like that, especially in the rain – but the sound came too persistently, too regularly, a quiet, even, methodical scraping. She
couldn't put a direction to the sound, in the darkness it seemed as if it came from everywhere at once. Something, just outside the door, scratching to get inside, in the roof, trying to scratch its way through to where she was sleeping right beneath it.
Bears. Coming home to find her sleeping in their bed......
By daylight, it seemed silly again. Wasn't she much too old to be scared by something like that? Even Yvette was getting too old to be frightened by noises in the night.
Her mother packed her lunch for her, and kissed her on the cheek.
Karly kissed her back, but she couldn't help asking “Do we have mice, or possums or something?”
Her mother said “I hope not. Why would you ask that?"
“I thought Iheard them last night?”
“It was stormy night last night. It was keeping us all awake.”
“Oh, it wasn't a noise like the wind. It was like scratching.”
“Ah, just branches blowing against the side of the house. Nothing to worry about.”
But the wind had stopped by then. She kept her thoughts to herself, she didn't want to sound like a baby. She took Yvette's hand to walk her down the road the school, she promised her mother as she always did, that she'd be good today, that she'd learn at least one new thing, and show kindness to at least one person. It was a solemn promise, because her mother would ask about it when she came home, and Karly made sure, each day, that she'd always have something to say in response.
Beside her Yvette whispered, “I never heard any scratching.”
“Well, you probably weren't listening.”
And she forgot all about it by the time she got to school. She could have forgotten about it forever, if that'd been the last time she heard anything. For autumn, and into winter, there was nothing more than the ordinary noises of the night. And in the meantime there were shortening days, then lengthening again; she learnt some new words in class, a new rhyme in the playground; two of her teeth fell out and were replaced beneath her pillow with shiny new coins. On her tenth birthday there was a three-storey cake, red with raspberries cushioned in clouds of whipped cream; ten thick candles announced the completion her first decade.
Three days later, on another still night that had first been stormy, she heard the scratching sounds again. She'd almost forgotten them, and now they seemed louder, far more distinctive, and she felt sure she could hear another sound behind them, the sound of something moving about. Karly held her breath. She pulled the blanket up to her chin, listening. She wanted to dismiss them as just the background noises you might hear on any night, or maybe something going on at the neighbour's place. But the scratching was too clear, and too near. It could hardly be from further away than her closet, although the direction still eluded her.
She glanced across the room to Yvette's bed. Her sister slept on, not even shifting in her sleep.
But I do hear it.
It was right there, in her ears, crystal clear real.
Bears. One, two, three of them. It was their claws scratching on the stairs, their heavy bodies brushing against the walls, thumping against them every time they moved. Making their ungainly way up the stairs. Coming.....
Karly wanted to laugh at herself, at how crazy she was being. There were no bears. None that could open doors, or unlock them without a key, and then turn the door-handle, and the one after that. She
wanted to giggle at the thought.... except that she didn't quite dare.
It's probably just a cat or something.
Just some neighbourhood cat that'd maybe crept in some time today, gotten shut in somewhere. Maybe the garage, or the closet. She could probably get up and rescue it, and then the scratching would stop. Karly bit her lip, she slid out of bed and stood slowly, keeping one hand on top of the covers as she listened. Maybe from the closet..... and yet it was such an even, controlled sound, so slow, so deep.... could a cat even scratch like that...? Well, what else? She approached the closet on tiptoes, to show herself that there was no 'else', just some neighbourhood moggy with ordinary sized claws, hungry and just wanting out.
Her fingers curled over the door handle, she opened it, bracing for the cat to come running past her.
And the scratching went on.
In the garage then?
When would the noise wake her parents? When would they come out and see what all the fuss was about? She could tell them airily: 'Oh, it'll just be some cat from down the street, it probably got stuck in the garage.'
If they would just wake up.
She opened her bedroom door cautiously, and started out into the hallway, towards the stairs. Her legs felt odd, fluttery, and her stomach was cold and hollow. Something tingled along the back of her shoulders. Just a cat. Just a cat. But before she reached the bottom of the stairs she realised that she could no longer hear scratching. There was just a silence, made eerie by the memory of what had come before it.
Karly turned around and went back to bed, she lay there, waiting for the sound to start up again. At some point she must have slept, because she woke to the brightness of morning, to the sound of birds and car engines.
But she heard it other nights. Sometimes weak, sometimes strong. And sometimes with other noises accompanying the scratching – some of it like furniture being moved, or sometimes a grunting, growling noise that seemed to seep up from beneath the garage.
And before long she started hearing things in daylight as well.
In the middle of a teddy bear's dinner party she heard the long, sinister scratches, faint, but unmistakable. She shushed Yvette. “Listen.”
“Can't you hear that?”
Yvette shook her head.
“Are you pretending?”
“No. Real scratching.”
Yvette was stubborn: “There isn't.”
“I can't hear it.”
Whatever was out there, it was there for her.
She didn't tell anybody about it. Her friends at school would laugh and tease. Her teacher would cluck about her imagination, or tell her to stop day-dreaming. Her mother would be kind, but that look in her eyes would show disappointment. Her father would want to explain to her how the noises she thought she heard didn't make sense. 'You're a big girl now, you're too old to be frightened of noises in the night.' They would just think she wanted attention.
I don't, she thought crossly, I wish it would stop paying me so much attention.
Whatever it was.
She found that it helped sometimes to listen to her i-pod, the headphones, the music, drowned out a lot of the world's noise, and she could more easily dismiss things she did hear as just being part of the music.
She tried reading from her old book of fairytales, remembering how she'd been comforted when she was younger. It was still a fine old book, and she still knew her favourites by heart. Goldilocks especially. But the picture of three bears, crowded around a little blond girl sleeping above the covers of an old-style bed, caused a shiver to run down her back. Just looking at it seemed to bring the scratching sound into her ears. She noticed that some of the pages were starting to fall out.
She asked her mother: “Where did we get this book? Was it yours as a child?”
Her mother shook her head, “No, I think it came with the house. I think we found it in amongst the junk the last owner left behind. Maybe it was his when he was a little boy.”
“It seems really old.”
“Well, I think it is.”
“Do you think he'd want it back?”
“He's had fifteen years to come knocking on our door for his stuff. If he wanted it he'd have been here by now. Perhaps he wanted it to go to a couple of children who'd appreciate it as much as he did.”
“I wonder which one his favourite was.”
“I know what yours was.”
“Goldilocks.” She grinned, but the grin felt shallow, her heart felt cold inside her ribs.
Her mother asked her: “What did you learn today at school?”
“I learnt what an architect is.”
“And what's that?”
“A man who designs houses.”
“...or a woman?”
She smiled. “Or a woman. Nina Kelliher's uncle is an architect. A really famous one. Well, kind of famous. He's won awards and things. He was the one who wrote the plans for the new library.”
“And what kind thing did you do today?”
“Emmy-Lou Rogers spilt all the crayons and pens and stuff out of her pencil case. I went and helped her pick them up.”
“Good girl,” she gave her a kiss on the forehead.
However old she got, she was sure she didn't want her mother to ever stop kissing her.
Karly woke up in the middle of the night.
The scratching noise was closer than it had ever been. She felt her heart racing right from the first. Cold claws raked some unseen surface. She could hear the sound of something moving around, hear the clump of heavy footsteps, a grunt every now and then. Karly's first instinct was to screw her eyes up tight with fear – but when had that ever scared away the bogeyman? She sat upright in her bed, hoping the noises would recede like waves. But they didn't. They were clearer and scarier than ever. And from the way Yvette kept sleeping: I'm the only one who can hear this.
Which means it's not really there.
Except that it was so terribly close.... so.... She listened. For the first time the scratching didn't come from all directions, it was centred really close to her.... Under the bed....
In the moment that she thought it she felt the bed jolt, she felt it jump, the way a bed would if something large underneath it had moved suddenly......! It's real! It's real! She scrambled out of her bed as if it were on fire, choking down the cry of shock that had welled up in her throat. It was real and it was here, right here, right next to her.....
Please don't. Please just go away.
But the bed was still now. The noises had softened. Karly didn't know what to do. She was torn between running; grabbing Yvette and running; or climbing back into her bed, insisting to herself that nothing was happening. She wrapped her fingers around the neckline of her nightie, twisting them tight in the fabric, and stepped slowly towards the bed.
Something snapped out from under it; fingers, claws grabbed and tightened around her ankle......