He tried the handle but the door was locked. Ofcourse it was, it was the middle of the night. He turned away from the front door and surveyed the night. Beyond the low, brick wall that governed his modest front garden, the culdesac in which he lived was quiet and at peace. The street lamps glowed with a soft, orange candescence and above them a bright, silver moon gazed down from an almost clear sky where stars glittered on the back drop of night like sprinkled diamonds on black velvet. The slight breeze that whispered through the darkness was balmy and heavily scented with blossom as it kissed and caressed his skin. How had he got there? What on earth was going on?
He had never been given to sleepwalking, not even in his childhood but what else could explain his sudden appearance in the front garden at the dead of night. He paused to recount the events of that evening. So far as he could remember, he had settled down to an evening's television entertainment after Hannah, his wife of forty seven years, had blessed him with his favourite tea of rabbit stew and dumplings. Around ten thirty, he had shared a cup of milky coacoa with her and then, as usual, he had retired to bed. He rembered reading for a while as Hannah lay peacefully beside him and then. . .well he must have turned off his bedside lamp and fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep. How long he had remained assleep he had no idea, for it was his habit to take off his wrist watch on getting into bed. How odd, he thought. He wondered what Hannah would say when she found out about his midnight sojourn. As he turned to go around the side of the house, his gaze fell onto his beloved garden. He had been a keen gardner all his life and both front and back plots were his life and joy. But something bothered him about the garden now. It took a few moments for his focus to recognise what it was. Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight and shifting shadows but the privett hedge that bordered his little Eden seemed unruly, overgrown, somehow. But that couldn't be. He kept it meticulously trimmed to an almost ruler edge straightness. Still, it did seem higher, untamed. His eyes dropped to the border and shaped flower beds within the garden. These too appeared unkempt. The grass seemed over long, not the bowling green length that he maintained, lending a shaggy fringe to the delicately cut borders. Even the 'Tam 'O' Shanters and 'Skylarks' appeared wilder than he recalled the previous day. There was litter too, empty crisp packets and sweet wrappers, entwined within the rose bushes and his precious rockery. He would have his work cut out in the morning but his main concern now was getting back to bed.
He stepped into the deep shadows cast by next door's fence and the side of his own house and reached for the side gate. This too felt different beneath his touch, as though the paint was peeling and, as he pushed, it emitted a tortured screech that set his teeth on edge. It seemed rusted, as if it hadn't been used in a long time. Heart pounding, he stood stock still, expecting the lights of the neighbouring houses to burst into life at any second as he held his breath. Nothing happened. The houses remained dark. Squeezing through the gap he had made in the gate, fearful of moving it again, for this was a very respectable neighbourhood and noise of any kind at this time in the morning was totally intollerable, he stepped into the back garden. Relief flooded his being as he saw that the porch door was open but this was short lived when he tried the back door and found it locked tight. Now what was he to do? Banging on the doors or shouting up for Hannah was out of the question. What would the neighbours say? And how embarrassing it would be if they found out he sleptwalked. As he pondered his predicament a soft, yellow glow suddenly illuminated upon the lawn. Stepping out of the porch, he gazed up at the house and could not suppress his grin. The light was shining from his bedroom window. Hannah must have woken up for a drink or something. In a moment or two she would realise he wasn't there beside her and come searching for him.
He waited with anticipation for the lounge and kitchen lights to come on, evidence of Hannah's search for him, but they remained dark. He knocked softly on the back door to gain her attention but recieved no reply. She must have drifted back off to sleep again without realising his absence, Bless her. But what was he to do now? He couldn't spend the night stood up in the garden like a spare clothes prop. Of course, the shed. He would spend the night in there. Dig out one of the loungers and wrap up in one of the old blamkets he knew were in there. It wouldn't be the most comfortable night he had spent but at least he would be warm and dry and he wouldn't have to disturb his neighbours. The shed stood at the bottom of the garden beside the fish pond and rockery that surrounded it. Again, he noticed subtle changes as he strode through it. The grass here too seemed overlong, as though it hadn't been mowed for months. Weeds had invaded his rockery, choking his ajuga and alyssum. Even his cistus and cotula seemed in peril. Glancing into the still waters of his beloved pond, he could see quite clearly that it had obtained an oily type film on its surface. What on earth was going on? The whole place looked as if it was going to rack and ruin. Maybe it was all just a trick of the light? He hoped so. On reaching the shed, he could not stop the gasp of annoyance and astonishment that escaped his throat. One of the windows had a full length, diagonal crack all the way across it. But it had been fine when he had left it that day. And where was the lock off the door? He checked that every night before retiring for the evening. And why were his ladders lying on there side beside the hut and not locked inside? There was something really strange going on but it would have to wait until morning. For now, he just wanted to sleep. Then the revelation hit him. The ladder, of course. He could put it up under his bedroom window and tap on the glass to get Hannah's attention. Always providing, that is, he didn't slip and break his neck. And it beat his earlier idea of hunting around for tiny pebbles and throwing them at the window. One broken window was quite enough, thank you very much.
Bending stiffly, he retrieved the ladders and headed back towards the house. The metal felt cold and slightly damp due to the night mist that had begun to curl accross the lawn. His focus now was on reaching his bedroom window. Testing each rung carefully before putting his full weight through it, he climbed slowly and steadily. Within moments, he was staring through the gap in the curtains at the sleeping form of his beloved Hannah. She lay facing the window and he took a few moments out to study her features. His heart swelled and burned with love as he gazed upon her. She looked as beautiful now as she had the day he had first met her. But here again, there seemed to be some subtle changes. Her wavy, shoulder length hair, spread out like a halo on her pillow, once golden blonde, now seemed a little greyer. Her features appeared thinner, more drawn than usual so that her eyes appeared ringed and her cheeks a little sunken. But for all that, she was still his beautiful Hannah. As he watched, he noticed that she appeared to be dreaming. Her lips moved noisilessly and her eyes twitched beneath her eyelids. He wondered idly what she was seeing and hoped it was him. Lifting a hand, he tapped gently on the window. Hannah shifted fitfully in her sleep but did not stir. He tapped again, a little louder this time. Oh please wake up, he intoned mentally. If a neighbour was to look out now they might mistake him for a burglar and call the police. Hannah's eyes flickered open and for a moment her stare was blank, unfocussed. Again he tapped and her gaze immediately sharpened as her senses came back online. Slowly, labrously, as one emerging from a deep slumber, she pushed herself to a sitting position and swung her legs out of bed. He waved at her to attract her attention but couldn't be sure if she could see him or not through the gap. He tapped again. Cautiously, Hannah stood and made her way unsteadily towards the window. Reaching out, she swiftly pulled the curtains apart and stared through the glass at him. He gave her an embarrassed and apologetic grin and half waved. For long moments they locked eyes, none of them uttering a sound. Then, without warning, Hannah's mouth widened and the most horrendous and terror filled screech erupted. It filled the room beyond and rattled against the window. It seemed to go on and on. Her whole body had stiffened and it trembled as if thousands of volts of electricity were coursing through it. He looked on in utter shock as her eyes bulged impossibly from their sockets. Her lips were drawn tightly across closely, clenched teeth and he feared she would die of fright at any moment. Unable to stand it any longer, he threw up his arms and. . .everything came flooding back to him. He had gone to bed after his evening coacoa and had read for a little while before sleep had overtaken him but it hadn't been the previous evening. It had been an evening long ago and it had been a sleep he had not awakened from. As he lowered his hands, he caught his reflection in the window. Like his hands, blackened flesh hung in rotting strips to the bleached bone of his skull. His eyes were black, bottomless holes and his mouth had become a corpse's rictus grin. Hair adhered to the top of his head in sparse clumps and all prevading was the stench of the grave. With one, last look of sadness and regret, he faded from sight, returning to the other world from whence he had come, leaving the empty ladder leaning against the wall.
© Copyright 2017 Randall Stone. All rights reserved.
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