Commute (Part 3 of 6)
Janet ran and ran, her mind a boiling mass of fear and panic. At first, she didn’t know where she was, but her natural sense of direction was somehow able to penetrate the terror that gripped her to her bones, and eventually she made it home. She fumbled clumsily with her keys as she reached her front door, breathing heavily and swearing profusely. Jamming the correct key into the lock, she wrenched her front door open, bolted inside and slammed it shut. She threw down her bag; let her coat fall on the stairs as she raced to her bedroom; nearly tripped over her cat and finally collapsed on her bed, dripping with sweat and more terrified than she could ever remember being. The tears came in an instant and Janet’s fists pounded into her mattress as she cried incoherently for what felt like forever.
Make it stop, she pleaded to the universe.
Just make it stop!
As Janet cocooned herself in her bed, crying insane and fearful tears, a lone figure rounded the corner of her street and walked casually up to her house. He was dressed in dark clothes and had his hat brim pulled down enough to conceal some of his face. He stopped at Janet’s door and looked about to see if he was being watched. He took a slip of paper out of his pocket and gently fed it through the letterbox in the middle of the door. He looked up at the house and returned to the street, walking back the way he had come.
Hours passed, and eventually Janet wore herself out through crying. As the tears subsided she suddenly felt exhausted, wiped out. She didn’t intend to, but she ended up sleeping for most of the afternoon. It was getting dark by the time she woke up. The momentary serenity of the deep sleep that the exhaustion had brought on was eradicated in a second as the memory of the day’s events returned to Janet like a death knell. She went from languid and calm to tense and fretful in a heartbeat, and all at once the worrying thoughts and paranoid fantasies came galloping back to the very front of her mind.
What am I going to do, she thought desperately to herself.
Janet felt alone. There was no one whom she could turn to; no one who would believe her, at any rate. She thought of her family and friends and dismissed them all one by one as possible candidates to whom she could recount the strange and frightening things that were happening to her. The more she thought about it the more she wanted to talk to someone, anyone, just to be able to try and make some sense of what was happening. Enough had now happened that Janet was becoming convinced of one of two possible, and awful, scenarios. Either she was going mad and the incidents on the trains and the bus were symptoms of that, or she was being terrorised by some form of…ghost? Janet felt stupid and ashamed to even think of something like that. She was not a superstitious person by nature, so her mind was refusing to let her fully believe that what she had seen could be anything supernatural. The problem was that she couldn’t think of any other explanations that even came close to fitting as nauseatingly snugly as the theories of madness or the occult seemed to. Janet didn’t want either option to be the one that was actually happening, but she couldn’t remove the thought from her mind that it was becoming increasingly suggestive that it was either one or the other.
Janet sighed in tired resignation, completely unsure of what to do.
Scratch scratch scratch.
Janet jumped off of the bed with a start, her eyes instantly wide and her body rigid and tense.
Not here, she thought, wildly. Not in my home!
The door to her bedroom was pushed open gently by her cat, Heathcliff. Janet sagged with relief and sat back down on the bed.
It was just the cat, she thought.
Just the cat.
‘I suppose I’d better feed you,’ she said to Heathcliff, who looked up at her with his big, expectant eyes. ‘Come on then.’ Doing something normal, like feeding the cat, helped a little to calm Janet down. Heathcliff wound around her legs as she quickly prepared his dinner, giving him a quick stroke as she lowered his bowl on to the kitchen floor. She watched him eat for a few seconds and found herself envying his carefree lifestyle.
Oh to have no worries like you, she thought, as she looked at her cat happily munching away.
As she looked at Heathcliff demolish his dinner, Janet realised that she was still in her work clothes. They were now creased and caked in dried sweat. Janet suddenly felt grimy and she wrinkled her nose in displeasure at the smell of stale sweat mingled with her perfume that now seemed to fill the room.
I need a bath, she thought.
Janet made her way back into the hall, bound for the bathroom, but as she was about to pass the front door she noticed something lying on the mat. Thinking it a piece of post from earlier in the day, she absentmindedly picked it up. It was a piece of paper. Janet frowned as she turned it over. There was no address, so whoever had delivered this had done so by hand. As soon as Janet saw what was written on the paper she froze, her hand shooting up to cover her mouth. It read:
I can help.
Janet stood rooted to the spot, holding the piece of paper in her now quivering hand. Below the three words was written a mobile phone number. Janet read and re-read the short note, trying to think what it could possibly mean. It had to be about what’s been happening to me, thought Janet, shakily, but who sent it? After no one seeming to notice the tapping then the thump on the train window, then the hideous face in the train and bus window, and also the figure amongst the trees, Janet wondered who else could know what was happening to her. As always, her mind fought for supremacy in terms of which outlandish explanation was going to get a foothold and squat in her brain like a bad smell. Did someone genuinely know what was happening to her, or was this all part of the same elaborate and cruel joke that some misfit was having at her expense? Janet felt both relieved that someone else might be able to share some knowledge with her on this horrible situation and fearful that whoever sent this note might be the very same person who could be trying to, and succeeding in, scaring her out of her wits.
Janet looked at the phone number.
Do I call, she wondered.
Janet pondered for several minutes on whether to ring the number. Her mind raced with every conceivable possibility and eventuality. In the end, her desire to not suffer this alone won out and she reached for her house phone.
Janet was just about to start keying in the numbers when an odd feeling of caution came over her. Did she really want to give whoever had sent this note her phone number by calling from her house? Even though the note had been delivered by hand the thought of calling from either her landline or mobile filled Janet with a nasty, creeping dread that made her mind up for her. She replaced the receiver on the handset and decided to use the phone box at the end of her road. She had a weird moment of clarity as she wondered to herself when the last time was that she had used a phone box, but her mind was set. Even if this person, whoever it was, did know where she lived, she didn’t want to make it any easier for them to frighten her by giving them either of her phone numbers. Janet picked up her coat from the stairs and was about to leave the house when another thought came to her mind. She walked quickly into the kitchen and slipped a steak knife into her pocket. She had no idea if she’d have the courage to use something like that on a person, but she had been scared so badly over the past few weeks that she decided she wasn’t going to take any chances. Janet left her house and walked out on to the darkened street, hoping that the old phone box was still working.
Janet’s determination waned slightly as she stepped out into the evening darkness. Shadows blanketed the street, and Janet’s eyes darted nervously from one inky black corner to another, hoping that she wasn’t walking right into a trap. She gripped the handle of the steak knife in her pocket for some sense of reassurance and felt a little guilty for doing so. She had seen and read enough news stories to know that knife crime was a bad enough problem without her contributing to it, but the fear that now seemed to pulsate from her very bone marrow convinced her that to not protect herself was not an option. She took a deep breath and hoped that she wouldn’t have to even think about using the knife on anyone.
Seeing the light of the phone box at the end of the road, Janet quickened her pace. Her eyes still shot from shadow to shadow as she walked; her body still tense. The street was quiet, but Janet could see diffused light emanating from a number of living room windows. That made her feel a little better, knowing that if anything bad did happen all she had to do was scream and her neighbours would come and help.
After what seemed like far too long for such a short stretch of road, Janet reached the phone box. She pulled the door open and stepped inside, bathing herself in the harsh fluorescent light. It had been so long since Janet had last used a phone box that she had to read the instructions to know how much change to push through the slot. Fortunately, the varying pieces of graffiti that declared whose gang territory she was standing in or which number to call for the best weed didn’t completely obscure the phone box’s instructions, and Janet fished the correct amount of change out of her purse. Her mind racing, Janet had the oddness of clarity to marvel momentarily at the happenstance of her purse being in her coat pocket when she left the house to phone the mystery number. The pockets in her coat were deep, and therefore her purse had fortunately not fallen out during her mad dash from the bus stop to her house earlier that day.
Janet slid the last coin into the slot and breathed deeply.
This is it, she thought.
Janet dialled the number.
She placed a steadying hand on the small shelf in the phone box as the number rang.
‘Hello, Janet.’ The voice came from the other end of the line and took Janet completely by surprise. Her skin prickled with instant fear and she instinctively slammed the receiver down, ending the call. Janet turned around to face the door, ready to race home, when the phone began to ring.
Janet turned back around and looked at the ringing phone.
What do I do, she thought.
They said my name!
They know me!
Still the phone kept ringing. Almost every impulse in Janet’s body was telling her to run; to sprint back home, lock the door and hide herself away. Her hand was on the door handle, gripped tight, but she didn’t run. She didn’t open the door and flee.
No, she thought.
No. Too much has happened and I want…no I need answers. Janet took another long and steadying breath and slowly she picked up the receiver.
‘Hello, Janet,’ said the voice, again.
‘H…h…hello?’ stammered Janet. ‘Who are you?’ Janet scanned the darkened street as she spoke, straining to see anything amiss.
‘Someone who knows what you’re going through,’ said the voice in a soothing and calm tone. Whoever was on the other end of the line, they didn’t seem at all concerned about what was happening to Janet.
‘How do you know what’s happening to me?’ asked Janet, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the phone receiver harder and harder.
‘Because I’ve seen it happen before,’ said the voice. ‘I can help make it stop.’
‘You…you can?’ A small ray of hope appeared in Janet’s mind, but it was not without an accompanying feeling of caution and fear.
‘How do I know that I can trust you?’ asked Janet, in what she hoped were firmer and bolder tones than she felt.
‘At this moment, you don’t, but if you want to learn more about what’s been going on then I advise you to listen to me.’ Janet felt torn. She both did and didn’t want to hear what this person had to say for fear of it either being some sick joke, or worse, for fear of it all being true. Janet’s desperation to make sense of what she was going through was strong enough to spur her on.
‘So what is happening to me?’
‘I don’t think this is something that we should discuss over the phone. Especially not a public telephone.’
‘How…how did you know I was…?’
‘Using the phone box at the end of your street? What I do necessitates a watchful eye, and I foresaw the possibility that you may not have wanted to contact me from your own numbers.’
‘What you do? What do you do?’
‘What I have to tell you can’t be done like this. We have to meet.’
‘Do you think I’m completely stupid?’ asked Janet, a small but noticeable fire entering her voice. ‘I don’t know you from Adam! You could be anyone!’
‘True,’ replied the voice, in the same irritatingly smooth tone. ‘I could indeed be anyone. However, who I am is the only person who is going to be able to offer you an actual explanation as to the, shall we say, strange goings-on that you have been experiencing of late. Your caution is well-founded, and I commend you for it, but rest assured you are quite safe from me.’
‘Why won’t you just tell me what’s happening now?’ Janet felt like she was whining, but every single ounce of common sense in her body was screaming at her not to agree to meet this stranger, whoever he was.
- December 2014