Art Pact 78

I crept around the room as silently as I could, trying to ignore the sound of my own heart, the rustle of my trousers rubbing together as I walked, the low murmur of traffic from the bypass. The last was the worst - too far away to make me feel the comforting nearness of other members of humanity, too close to leave me the silence that would help me locate whatever it was that was making the noise. I closed the window, hoping it would drown out the traffic, but the old wooden frame was so ill-fitting that it seemed to prevent no barrier to noise.

As I rounded the end of the bed I saw something moving with the corner of my eye, but when I turned all was silent. Although it was dark the floaters in my eyes seemed to be luminescent with a mischievous light, causing me to jump at shadows that existed nowhere except in my own lenses. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, thinking it stop me from becoming distracted, but all it did was focus my hearing and bring the sounds closer to me. Deprived of the comforting distance of sight, all sounds seem nearer than they are - a scuttling in the loft might as well be on the ceiling above your head, a noise at the skirting board around your feet instead. With my eyes closed I was so terrified that the sound of my own gasping breath grew and grew until it seemed certain to block out any more useful noises.

At the midpoint of the room, equidistant between the foot of the four-poster and the big window, I took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself down. It was somewhat successful, although immediately my heart began to slow, the noise happened again - this time above my head, on the cupboards to the right of me. These ones, unlike the closet by the door, did not stretch all the way up to the ceiling, being late additions to the room's furnishings. Their tops were cloaked in shadow, being too far above the floor to receive any light from the bedside lamp and too far from the window for the downward-slanting moonlight to throw any illumination upon them. The sound again - something like a scurrying sound, something like the light pad of a cat. I knew that it was no rat.

"Come out," I whispered. It moved again - closer, this time, a definite run. It went to my right, then there was a second of silence, then the sound of something landing heavily on the dresser. Another moment of silence, and again a thud as it hit the floor. I recoiled, jumping away from the bed towards the safety  of the window, leaving several meters of clear floor between us so that if it emerged I might be able to see it before it was on me. It did not attack, though. I saw the counterpane on the left side of the bed tremble slightly. It was underneath the mattress.

Now we were in a stand-off. I could not get closer to it without risking attack, it could not come to me without revealing itself, which seemed to be its aim. I say, of course, that it was the risk of attack that kept me pinned to the window, but in fact I am rather aggrandizing myself even to say that - for it implies that I understood what it was that I feared. In fact by this time I was simply paralysed with terror. My blood seemed to have turned to so much ice, freezing me in place lest an unwary movement might shatter my whole mass of veins and arteries. My right hand had found a grip on the window-frame, and was clutching it so tightly that I could nearly have shattered my fingers. My breath was shallow, rapid, as though I had run a marathon.

"Come out," I repeated, although I was terrified that I might be obeyed. The counterpane rustled on the side of the bed nearest to me, and my heart leapt into my throat, choking any further lunatic words that might have been lurking there.

Then the edge of the thing lifted, and from behind that fabric curtain extended a horrid thing - a snout, shaped like a rat's but wrinkled and scaly as a crocodile's, and sprouting from either side of the single gaping nostril were five fine hairs - I say hairs, but they writhed and grasped like fine tentacles, and I knew that they were no whisker as I knew it.

I saw no more, for the shock was too great for my mind, and the floor lurched up to meet my insensible head.


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