"A creak. Right outside the door. A tiny rattle as the door handle was gripped on the other side. Two lone tears streamed down my face as if desperate to get away. Yes, even my tears wanted away from me!"
"She does have a good point, you know. I mean, why are you here? Why you, Stephanie Fey?"
Kidman had been looking at me suspiciously for some time. I was trying to ignore it, choosing instead to do some knitting, but stopping and starting as I wrote down a list of possible new avenues that I could pursue to investigate the mystery of the dead astronaut. Even though every stitch made me think about James, thinking also about the list helped to keep his image in the background. Moreover, it helped me to keep my head down and avoid Kidman’s eyes as she studied me. Still, all the while I sensed her frowning and staring, as if I might suddenly make a move that might give some secret away.
I was back in Mordan House and safely locked away in my suite of rooms. Outside, the night was cold, but the snow had been thawing for much of the day. Unusually, the rooms had a warm and cosy feel about them, in total contrast to how they had been feeling to me of late. But I’ve found myself making more of an effort since I got back from Mrs Ormsley’s; these rooms are my haven, my protection from everything that lies beyond these walls and I’ve decided that I should respect them more. If I don't nurture this tiny little nook for myself, then all of Mordan House will be cold and empty to me. Dead like space. If I allow that to happen, what will there be to stop me also feeling cold and empty, dead like space? But also I was buoyed by the fact that the paintings and sketches I'd found in the files were real. Even if they didn't indicate the presence of a ghost, they showed an unusual fixation with astronauts in the past of Mordan House, and I convinced myself that this was too much of a coincidence not to bear some relevance. Since my return, I’d spent some time looking for the key to the other basement door, but with no success. Yet this didn’t dampen my mood; the paintings and sketches amounted to progress. Perhaps I wasn’t as mad as I thought – even if I did have a Kidman in the house!
This Kidman, on the other hand, was in a different mood and curious about another perceived coincidence: the coincidence of me coming to reside in this house, and she was determined to talk about it.
"You know why I'm here," I replied, calmly, still not meeting her gaze. "I'm looking after this place for the owner. I leave once he's got enough money to demolish the house and redevelop it and the surrounding land. You know all that!"
"Yes, but Eva O'Dell's right, isn't she? When she commented on what you wrote on your web log the other day, she implied that all these goings-on seem particularly meaningful for you, for the life of Stephanie Fey. That's fine if it's all fanciful nonsense in your head, but if there's evidence now that the dead astronaut could be real, then why you? Why is all this happening to you?”
No, I wasn't going to let her annoy or upset me or contaminate my mood. Yes, I'd felt irritation towards the character of this Kidman phenomenon since she first appeared, and suppressing that irritation was sometimes difficult. Appeared? Is that the right verb? Materialised? Spilled out? Was secreted? Secreted! Gross! Whatever the correct verb is for the fact that Kidman was here now, where she wasn't here before, I was focusing my mind on not letting the character of her bother me. She would leave, no doubt, when she was ready to leave, or when some part of me was ready to let go of her. Say nothing, I told myself, say nothing.
"It’s because I know more about you as a person, you and your past, that I ask: why you, Stephanie Fey?"
“Wrong girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s me. With the wrong shoes and totally the wrong underwear. A timeless tale, I’d say!” Damn! I spoke! Say nothing, I told myself for the second time. Say nothing!
“You see, I know more about you than your web log readers do. I know a lot more than Eva O'Dell does, for example. You don't write much about yourself, do you? And it’s because I know more about you as a person, you and your past, that I ask: why you, Stephanie Fey?"
I couldn’t help it and found instantly that I was trying to explain myself. "I tell the readers of my blog what they need to know. No more and no less! Perhaps this place, and the events within it, would have relevance for many people on many levels," I ventured.
Kidman, however, didn't seem to be listening and just tried a different angle: “I know you think about James, the man you want to be your future boyfriend. But how much do you think about Philip, the ex-boyfriend?”
Philip? I glanced at her, sensing the deliberation that she was putting into each word, and as I glanced I was struck by the sight of her standing with a finger raised and extended towards me, that finger moving up and down in an accusatory fashion. I froze and found myself staring at her, my mouth dropping open involuntarily. Philip?
"Wrong girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s me. With the wrong shoes and totally the wrong underwear. A timeless tale, I’d say!"
But then my head jerked to one side, also spontaneously. Yet not because of Kidman. There was a sudden and unfamiliar sound within the house. The sound of a door moving somewhere, either opening or closing. Was it the front door of the house, the one beyond the locked door of my own suite of rooms? But that was locked too. I locked it myself. I looked back at Kidman, looking to see if she was sensing the same fully-formed uncertainty as me. Instead she lowered her hand as her face emptied of all expression.
“It’s him,” she said coldly, her eyes fixed upon me.
“What? Who? What are you talking about?”
“Him. The man who enters the house and looks around.”
I think I instantly felt queasy and light-headed. What was she saying to me? “What are you talking about? What man?”
Slowly she moved her arm to point to the front of the house. “He parks his car at the end of the driveway where it can’t be seen and he lets himself in with a key. He’s done so since you opened the basement door. Each time he arrives, he goes down into the basement.”
"There was a sudden and unfamiliar sound within the house. The sound of a door moving somewhere, either opening or closing. Was it the front door of the house, the one beyond the locked door of my own suite of rooms?"
I remembered that I didn’t lock the basement door after I took the files away. I was too busy hurrying up the stairs, desperate to get away from there.
Now someone was in the house. Not a ghost. Not a figment of my twisted, hateful past, but someone I didn’t know and who had a key to let himself in and sneak around without me knowing. Someone who might also have a key to my suite of rooms.
Then there was another sound. The sound of feet. Walking quietly along the corridor outside my rooms. I thought momentarily of shouting out, warning the intruder that I was there – but the thought died away quickly like a whispered vowel sound within a gale. This was a new threat. And one that instantly felt hideously real. Unlike the dead astronaut. Unlike my own mind.
Kidman continued: “I thought you knew about him. You’ve sensed it though, haven’t you, Stephanie? The presence of somebody else walking through this house?”
Was she right? Did I sense it when I returned to the house from Mrs Ormsley’s and decided to barricade myself into this little glade, away from the rest of the house and its cold, dead arms? Maybe I did. Perhaps I had indeed felt it coming on, a kind of premonition of fear. Although nothing untoward had happened since I arrived back at the house, wasn’t there an underlying anxiety that had smouldered away inside, a little sickly and raw feeling, like a fragile coating over everything, like a little virus coming on? And even as I had been warm and cosy, as darkness muscled daylight out of the skies, had my uncertainty grown? But as a peripheral thing at first, hanging over me, before burrowing down inside, waiting for just such a trigger as this?
I inched towards the door to my suite of rooms, partly to reassure myself that I had locked it. The little hallway was poorly lit. From under the door I saw a strip of white light from the outside hallway. I had left a light on. Yes, there had been uncertainty somewhere inside me – there must have been. Why else would I have left that light on? These moments emphasised how little I know my own feelings, my own psychology, my own nerves. In the half-light, I could make out the feeble and precarious screws of the lock. I was tempted to rest my head against the door to hear better any sounds on the other side. Instead I hovered somewhere close beside it, ear cocked and head craned, a lock of hair in my hand and due pressure applied for nerves’ sake.
I found myself placing my hand on my chest. My breathing was becoming noisier. A slight wheezing sound was beginning to manifest and I felt myself edge into a corner between the door and the wall, trying desperately to breathe slowly and deeply, and to calm myself in order to help regulate my breathing.
"Although nothing untoward had happened since I arrived back at the house, wasn’t there an underlying anxiety that had smouldered away inside, a little sickly and raw feeling, like a fragile coating over everything, like a little virus coming on?"
Beyond the door I could hear nothing now. Not even the previous sound of footsteps. No sound of anyone venturing down into the basement. The only audible sound was me – in-out, in-out, like small bellows working madly. As I tried my best to listen, I watched the thin neon-like strip of light coming through the edges of the doorframe, trying to detect movement. Suddenly, there was a deft and gentle click sound, and the light in the hall beyond was extinguished. I gasped. Through the narrow angle of the doorway to the sitting-room I could see a part of Kidman’s dress but nothing else. My hands were shaking and my heartbeat was like a numbing, persistent pain. And, in that little corner of the corridor, I sank down to my knees and tried to make myself smaller and smaller, as my breathing turned to a rasp, my mouth open and gasping.
A creak. Right outside the door. A tiny rattle as the door handle was gripped on the other side. Two lone tears streamed down my face as if desperate to get away. Yes, even my tears wanted away from me!
Then the silence was broken by a foul, hoarse, whispering voice, snarling somewhat from the other side of the door: “Stephanie Fey.”
I shuddered and nearly choked. I thought for a moment that I would not be able to take another breath.
Then again: “Stephanie Fey. I know you’re in there.”
Listen was all I could do. I couldn’t speak. My mouth was frozen open, blocks of ice forming all the way down my throat and into my lungs, expanding and biting down on the little air that was there.
The voice then speeded up, still caustic and urgent: “I know you have files. Do they mention me? Do they mention anything about the man who engineered the helmets for her? Those helmets that eat people.” These last words he said with a quiver in his voice as if he was both scared and repelled.
I didn’t answer. I don’t think he realised that I couldn’t answer.
“I made them!” he said, spitting the words out, his whispers now becoming agitated. “Just as she wanted them. I designed them to do what she wanted them to do. To eat people. But I didn’t know what she wanted them for. I didn’t know that people were going to die.”
"It will drop from the skies, bringing with it the power of the void. When this time comes, all will be plucked and devoured"
What was I hearing? None of this disjointed rambling made any sense to me. All I seemed to hear was this unfamiliar voice snaking under the door and slithering into me through my mouth. Did I see the shadows of that narrow little hallway start to slowly curl and glide towards me too?
“I need to know if any of the files are invoices or correspondence,” the voice continued. "Do they mention me?” This last question was insistent, demanding a reply.
I knew I had to try and say something. At least just to let him know that I couldn’t talk. I had to summon up some words. Any words.
“I – I – I don’t. Know. Who. Who you are. The files. Are. All. Case notes. That’s all. Just case notes.”
I think I felt the man’s head rest against the wood of the door. Now he seemed emotional, almost close to tears. Was this relief? Or fear? Or was he feeling out the strength of the door? He would have heard the weakness in my voice. Now was the time to strike. Or take out his own key and unlock it from the outside? The little slithering shadows moved in ever closer around me, poised to pounce and take me by the throat.
“She’ll come back, you know. She’ll come back here," the voice said. "She needs this house. She and this house are part of the same horrible machine. She’ll have me plucked, just to make sure I keep quiet. You should leave. She’ll make you wear one of those helmets, and when that happens you’ll wear it for the rest of time. Is that what you want? She’ll have you plucked, Stephanie Fey. And she won’t stop till her anger dies. If it ever does.”
“Who? Who? Is she? I don’t. Know what. Any of this means!”
I think I sensed his head move back from the doorframe before he said: “It means just what she said it means: ‘It will drop from the skies, bringing with it the power of the void. When this time comes, all will be plucked and devoured’. That’s what she said. And I’ve seen it happen.”
In my mind I saw the dead astronaut hanging above the treeline, just as I had seen it before. Bringing with it the power of the void? Was that why it waited? Waiting to devour? To pluck? Who's turn? Who's turn was it now? Mine?
And he’d seen it? But what exactly had he seen? I was going to attempt to ask this very question when I realised that the intruder was gone. I knew it instantly. The silence on the other side of the door seemed different. The sense of the house around me was changed. I moved towards the kitchen area – that was where my inhaler was located. But I could only move by slowly crawling on the floor. I hadn’t the energy for anything more; if I had, I’d have run to the window to try and see the man making for his car, to see what he looked like and perhaps recognise him. I found my inhaler. It shook in my hands as I continued to tremble. My hands weak, I eventually found the strength to use it and then cried as I felt instant relief, the chemical acting to dispel the tightness of my chest, but also easing the tightness of fear.
"Philip was right. I’m nothing! Like he used to say to me: I’m a small ball and I should just let other people bounce me"
Where was Kidman? I staggered back into the main room. As I entered, a shadow on the ceiling caught my eye. I looked up and there she was, hanging in the air, unfettered by gravity, compressed between the wall and the ceiling, her body crooked and constrained. Her face staring down at me with vacant, hungry eyes. The long, supple dress clinging to every curve of every limb. And in a voice that was acidic and almost possessed, she said: “It’s your turn to be plucked, Stephanie Fey!” As she said the word ‘plucked’ she drew every sound out of the word, while making her hands into spindly little claws, her face twisted, pale and despicable. In that instant, I saw her tongue start to exit her mouth and heard her throat gurgle as if tightening, tightening. My hands went over my eyes and I screamed. I felt that scream rip right through me as if my entire body had suddenly turned into an agonising sound of fear. My eyes opened again, as quickly as I had closed them, and I found the room to be empty. No Kidman. Nothing. Just the sick taste in my mouth and the heavy feel in my stomach of my own demonic imagination.
I didn’t sleep in my bed that night – last night – I slept in my little hallway instead, and with a kitchen knife and a hammer at my side. No Kidman to console me. Just me.
Asthma has a tendency to exhaust my brain, as if it’s starved of oxygen during an attack and needs to take time to fill up again. The main thought that I can recall was on a loop, persistently going round and round my head. The thought said: What can I possibly have let loose in opening that basement door?
Yet the last thought before I fell asleep was one of self-loathing and self-doubt. It said: How could I have been so foolish? This isn’t me! Philip was right. I’m nothing! Like he used to say to me: I’m a small ball and I should just let other people bounce me. Yes, I thought, I am indeed a small ball and I should just let other people bounce me.
Today, while in the neighbouring town, recuperating in the glow of other people’s ordinary lives, I overheard the story of an engineer who lived in the town and who didn’t arrive home last night. Something had happened to him in the 20 yards between where he parked his car on the street and the front door of his family home. When I heard this, I opened my bag, took out my inhaler and used it. In my mind I could see Kidman’s face, fingers and twisted limbs, and hear that rasping voice saying, “It’s your turn to be plucked!”