The storm was keeping Sam Morrison awake. He listened to the lid fly from the recycling bin and clatter across the side of the house. The wind was howling and gusting, a bully swinging for a connection. He retreated further under the duvet, his chin and nose covered. The rain was lashing against the windowpane in repeated attacks. He sensed the storm wanted to get in, wanted to find him in his bed and rage in his face. His eyes fixed on the red numbers on the bedside clock radio, and he knew that his brain would not allow him to switch off. It was not a case of fight or flight, it was as if he was on watch, with a primal knowledge that shutting his eyes would be a grave mistake.
As if a switch had been flicked in the sky, the storm abated. It was wholly unnatural, so sudden a contrast, that he peeled the duvet off and pulled himself out of bed, so his feet connected with the floor.
Sam staggered to the bedroom window and tugged back one curtain. Outside, the single streetlight washed a halo of yellow light over the small glistening lawn in front of the house, just before the black tree line, that marked the border of the woods.
One of the reasons Sam had bought his little house, post a painful divorce, was to be closer to nature, to shed off the frenzied city he and Sally had made a mess of things within. In his mind, woods had always been tranquil, still and safe. They were a refuge, a shelter, a sanctuary to feel surrounded by leafy hiding places.
Now he was here, living next to the shrieking baby-death rattle of vixens, the rustling of scavenging animals, the impenetrable darkness and these weird end-of-summer storms, he felt on edge every night. Apart from occasional eerie noises, it was too quiet and devoid of people. There were only two other houses in the closed estate, but one was a holiday home almost always vacant and the other belonged to a near-senile old widower called Cathy Wayward. She would meander along the pathway with her stick, muttering to herself over her whiskered chin. Her eyes would dart to the forest randomly, like she had caught a glimpse of something, before finding her train of thought again. He often waved at her from the window, gesturing with his mug of coffee raised, or shouted a no-risk greeting like ‘hello’ or ‘nice day for it’, but she would just stare back with those aged, soggy, yet penetrating eyes. He felt like she saw him as so inconsequential that he did not warrant any form of politeness or pointless acknowledgement.
He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise to some hidden electricity, something he often experienced and jokingly called his ‘spider senses’ when he was with Sally. She hated him referencing superheroes, it grated on her for some reason he never could fathom.
He watched the pitch-black wall of the trees, looking for shapes moving. It was like he knew before it happened, but there, at the edge of the tightly packed, tall thick ash trunks, was a squat, stocky figure, swaying from side to side gently, like it was in time with the rhythms of the breeze.
The figure was small, black and human-ish in shape and form, apart from wet, furry skin and red glowing eyes, and what looked like an oversized dog-like snout. It was staring at him, unblinking.
All those horror creatures sprang to mind at once, the werewolves, the chupacabras, the gremlins and greys. It was a beast born from folklore. Its muscles were disproportionately large and he could make out curled claws on long fingers, slashing tools for prey.
Sam’s heart pounded and his arms began to quiver. A little monster was working him out. He backed up so hard from the window he tripped over his pile of clothes left untidily on the floor and stumbled into the hard corner of the bed frame.
One of the arguments he always endured with Sally was about tidying up. All the little frictions had seemed to grow one enormous, sore blister until neither of them could bear the irritation any longer. They were childless at least, but the divorce had been all about property and resentments and faults.
“Shit!” he said next. A standard response to the unimaginable. Gathering his courage he stepped back to the window, holding his bruised shin with one hand. He scanned the area but all was quiet again, apart from a small rolling river of light wind dancing in the eye of the storm.
He was about to give up on his vigil when next door, there was a blood-curdling scream. It was Miss Wayward. He ducked under the bed, and with flailing arms located his old cricket bat. Running downstairs and out of the house was the last thing he wanted to do, but Cathy Wayward was screaming, she was really screaming and no one else was around to help her. By the time he had made it to her front door, complete with brass lion’s mouth knocker, he stopped dead in his tracks. The window was splattered with blood from inside the lounge. He looked up because he noticed the bedroom window had been smashed from the outside, like something had climbed up the gutter to attack. The old lady must have tried to hobble downstairs to escape but she only made it to her living room. The crunch of teeth splitting bones was audible through the window, large cracking sounds like a dinner ripping into lobster claws at the restaurant. Whatever was in there, was chowing down on the remains of Cathy Wayward.
Sam backed up, feeling weak and helpless again, his raised cricket bat seeming as light as a twig, his pajamas, as thin as tissue paper. The creature abruptly stopped eating, as if sensing him nearby.
He stopped breathing for a few long seconds, his breathing was too loud.
“Stuff this!” he finally squealed quietly, and he sprinted to his own house at a speed he would never have thought himself capable of. He barged back into the hall and slammed the door firmly shut behind him, the lock clicking.
There was a monster from the woods eating his neighbour, it was a difficult reality to comprehend. Reality was often hard to comprehend for Sam, he couldn’t deal with sudden horror or sudden anything. He was not built to cope.
As if love flickered as a last goodbye in his panicked brain, he recalled Sally’s red-rimmed eyes the last time he saw her outside the lawyers’ office.
“You want to really know why?! You never did enough, you never tried enough. You’re frightened of everything, so you’ll never be anything, you’ll never be whole. It’s like you’re just hiding and waiting. I can’t wait anymore with you, Sam, I just can’t.”
That’s what she said after which she marched away into another future, leaving him dithering on the pavement, sobbing his heart out, partly in rage at her being right.
There was a bang on the door, a serious impact. It was like a boulder had hit it, the hinges rattling with shock.
This little creature was powerful, more powerful than made sense.
“What are you?” he heard himself whisper as the second impact shook the front door with even more ferocity.
There was a story sometimes peddled by conspiracy types, about the forest. It had always been regarded as the kind of nonsense the ‘want to believers’ manufactured to spice up a dull world. Maybe that was the link? A secretive government installation was rumoured to be hidden deep in the woods, underground. Sam had never ventured far into the nature reserve, there were trails but they got complicated and confusing and so he stayed to places he knew were safe, the signposted routes with nature boards and trail names engraved on posts. He did remember looking at the map and seeing a large area that was fenced off to the public. He had presumed it was dangerous, maybe he was right.
Outside, the thing was frustrated and regathering itself, circling the house.
Sam crept into the kitchen, gliding toward the cutlery drawer on his slippers. When he reached it, he pulled out the biggest steak knife and retreated back to the hallway, out of sight from the windows.
His mobile phone was on the dresser upstairs. He’d grab it and call someone. Step by step he ascended the soft, carpeted staircase and hurried back to his bedroom.
His thumb hovered over the emergency dial button, but on a whim, he decided to call Sally.
At first, predictably she ignored him, but by the third try she picked up.
“What the hell? You don’t get to phone me anymore, Sam. Especially not at night when you’re drunk!”
“I’m not drunk… I’m calling because I might not get a chance to talk to you ever again.”
He heard her groan and make that little noise of anger he was so used to. It had almost become endearing when she first started to display it, a grunt, animalistic, a bear’s growl of dominance.
“There is a… An attacker just outside, he’s crazy. He’s trying to get in. He’s already killed my neighbour and he means business…”
“Sam, if this is not some stupid ruse to talk to me, and by your panting, I’m inclined to think maybe you’re telling me the truth, then get off the phone and call the police, NOW!”
“I wanted to talk to you first. I needed to talk to you first.”
The line was silent, a heavy, black-hole kind of silent.
“There is no point…” she said.
“You were right about me, I’m a coward… But I still love you, I always will love you. It’s like however hard I hide away, I look away, you are still there, looking back at me. I can’t get away from that. I don’t want to get away from that.”
The door began to splinter downstairs. It was like a fist had gone through it. Sam could hear the growls downstairs loud and close, the nash of teeth, hungry for more meat. It wanted him, it wanted to eat every sinew in him and make him suffer.
“I can’t go back. I can’t do this again… Do you understand?”
“I do, but I have to fight just a little more. Just a little. Will you talk to me again if I get out of this? Maybe just one coffee. No expectations, no romance, no hope, just a coffee and some conversation?”
The silence again, overshadowed by the ripping of the door off its hinged in the hallway and the thud of monster feet on the thick-pile carpet.
‘What a time to exert this kind of bullshit emotional leverage!’ is what sparked through Sally’s thoughts but this time, for the sake of her conscience, she had no choice.
“… Okay, if you get off the phone, and just deal with this now, and you get out of this, I will meet for one coffee.”
“I’ll hold you to that…”
His voice was scary. It was a tone she had not heard from him. It made her uncomfortable, not in the way she was used to being uncomfortable with him. This was worse somehow.
She had meant for him to call the police but he clearly had no intention of doing that and to be fair, it sounded like there was no time left. Sam dropped the phone on the bed, and as the monster tore up the stairs toward his open bedroom door, he gritted his teeth and charged with the steak knife high above his head. Fear seemed to spill over into something else, a new kind of feeling for him. He was going to kill it, he was going to thrust the blade into its snarly mouth and end it. Something wild overtook him completely because that was what was asked of him.
The line remained open and she listened in shock, at the beast’s roars, which turned to screams, at the sound of flesh tearing, at the sound of his anger, at the sound of his pure, undiluted will to hurt it back.
“….Sam? What is going on? Are you okay? Are you there?….”
The sounds were terrifying.
For the first time since she had known him, she felt surprised and it left her breathless and afraid. She was sure she had heard a bear and Sam was fighting it and beating it. How was that possible? It was like she didn’t know him at all.
She pressed her ear harder to the receiver to pick out any clues to the scene, in the mess of sounds. An animal was groaning in pain, defeated, but there were other noises, like slashing, a knife maybe, stabbing into flesh again and again and again. She began to shake, it was as if nothing would make any sense to her again. She could feel the danger of a turning point, she could sense something evil being born.
As the eye passed by, the storm began to escalate. The slashing sounds stopped and Sam began to chuckle, as if finally getting a joke he was told years ago. The winds howled through the air, the rain thrashed over the house but Sam couldn’t hear anything but the sound of his own heart beating strong with rage and victory.
In that remote, rural outcrop, something new and menacing was stirring in the shadows, something that had transformed when it should have broken. Sally’s shaking finger pressed the red hang-up button and she dialled the police. She didn’t know what to say to them, all she knew was that the police were what she needed next.