The gap was tiny. Even using the sharpest, thinnest knife in the drawer I could barely fit the blade in the crack. It was only when I fetched a second knife and used them both, one to press the wood down on the other side and one to lever it up, that I managed to get a purchase and lift the slat. I grabbed at it, too soon, pinching my fingertips painfully and had to go through the entire process again from scratch. Like some things do, it was becoming a mission: me versus the box. My foot was already aching, my fingers stinging and I was damned if I was going to let it win. If it came to it I could get a hammer and smash the hell out of the box and see how it liked that! Ha!
I pulled the knives out, upended the box and brought it down with a bang on the side of the table. The wooden panel came out, clattered onto the floor together with something else, something that landed with a soft thump and rolled: Rolled away before I could take a step, before I could properly see what it was. Rolled across the floor and vanished under the big box freezer in the corner that I knew weighed about half a ton.
Like most of my furniture it had come with the house; a relic of my landlady. The one time I’d tried to get rid of it, it had taken me half an hour to push it across the floor only to find that the door was too narrow. How she had managed to get it up the front steps let alone into the room was a mystery.
Still, I wasn’t about to let it defeat me. I fetched a flat wooden spoon and knelt on the floor in front of the freezer, peering into the darkness beneath. Jamming the spoon in the gap I waggled it furiously, raising dust and sending a tiny spider skittering in panic. Something small and soft rolled out and bounced against my knee. I grabbed it before it could escape.
I nearly dropped it again in disgust because at first glance it looked like a dead mouse. But it wasn’t dead, it was just a toy. A tiny stuffed animal with ruffed grey fur, curled up with its back humped as if it was asleep. It was almost featureless, apart from the ragged ends of pink felt ears at the head end and a fury tail that wrapped tight around it, hiding its legs. It felt slightly warm in my hand. Maybe it was the cold floor I was kneeling on that made me shudder.
I got up and tried to pretend that things were normal. I shoved the animal toy in my pocket and put the kettle on. I checked the fridge but there was no milk. Normal day; normal lack of milk. What could be more humdrum than that? Everything just as usual, as usual. Nice, comforting normality. I should buy milk, of course. I had enough money, didn’t I?
I winced pulling on my boots, but the pain in my leg had become a dull, hot ache and I was sure I could hobble along ok. The shop wasn’t far.
I grabbed a few notes and stepped out into the eerie quiet of the street, willing myself not to notice anything unusual. Maybe there was some football match going on? Everyone inside watching the game. Or maybe by some weird coincidence everyone in my street had gone away on holiday at the same time. I kept my head down and limped along, humming to myself quietly to drown out the silence.
The shop was shut. I’d never known it be shut before. Ever. The strange old guy and his strange old wife and their strange young son worked around the clock. They lurked behind the scratched and cluttered counter even on Christmas Day, as if holidays were things that happened to other people on some other planet. You’d find them haunting the aisles, staring dead-eyed at cans of tomato soup or re-dating dusty jars, at one in the morning. At four am you’d find them rearranging the milk cartons, pulling the older stock to the front.
My footsteps, halting and uneven with my sore ankle, were loud in the quietness. No matter how I strained my ears I could hear nothing. No traffic, no alarms, radios, or TV sets; no dogs barked and no birds sang. There was barely a breath of wind. Nothing moved.
I couldn’t go back home. I felt that if I did, this thing, nightmare, whatever it was would never end. I couldn’t lock myself away from it, it would get to me too much. With my back crawling I limped on, making for one place that never closed.
But the police station was deserted. The door was open so I walked right in, right up to the toughened glass screen, behind which no one sat. And that was wrong. Forget the people in my street, forget all the people who should have been in the two other streets I’d walked along to get here, who in their right mind would give an entire station-full of police officers the day off on the same day?
I shivered and yelled out, because I just couldn’t stand the quiet a second longer; “Hey! Is anyone there! Hello?”
And I jumped and my heart banged because there came an answering shout from somewhere in the building, followed by clanging and thumping, slightly muffled behind walls and doors, echoing down the hallways.
“Let me out! Hey, come on, let me out!”