The cat dashed past Gerard’s legs and up the stairs in a black, scrabbling blur. Moments earlier the backdoor had crashed open, squeaking and clattering noisily in the frame.
He ran to the backroom and wrenched the door closed against the resistant wind and whipping rain. Gerard locked the door, leaving the key slightly turned. He took a final glance through the frosted pane into the garden, weakly lit by a neighbour’s security light, and returned to the living room.
The family watched as he knelt on the sofa under the front window and peered out into the street. They sat across the room, on the larger sofa, huddled together in the far corner.
‘I take it that’s the last of you?’ Gerard said without turning from his watch.
‘I told you, we’re all here’ the father replied.
Gerard turned his head and grimaced.
‘You didn’t mention the cat. I don’t remember a cat. I don’t remember any of this. Thought I would. Any other potential visitors I should know about?’
Of course I didn’t mention the cat! The father wanted to scream at the intruder. You break into my house, threaten my family, and you think I give a damn about the cat? But instead he just nodded and simply said, ‘No. Why does it matter?’
Gerard turned to the window. The family watched the leathery curls on the back of his neck wrinkle as he spoke.
‘Nothing matters now. Everywhere is locked. No getting in, no getting out. Now it begins.’
Despite her husband’s hurried appeal for calm when the intruder was out of the room, the mother struggled to hide the frustration in her voice.
‘What begins? What do you want?’ she snapped, clinging to her son tightly.
‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to save you from what’s out there.’ Gerard peered into the gloom between the streetlights.
‘There’s nothing out there’ said the mother.
Gerard turned, smiled, and sat facing them. As he crossed his legs the mother noticed how he repeatedly toyed with the laces of his gnarled boots. A nervous tick? Obsessive behaviour? She’d seen it before somewhere she couldn’t place.
‘Not yet. We’re in for a long night. You might want to get some bedding down for the little one. Looks like he might need it.’
The son, despite the adrenalin and confusion, was nodding into his mother’s armpit, the whites of his eyes rolling up under flittering eyelids.
‘I’ll go’ said the father.
‘We’ll both go’ insisted Gerard, pulling himself up to his intimidating six and five, wreathed in his long, worn leather jacket.
The father ran another mental bout against the monster before him. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight, and he guessed there’d be nothing fair about it. When the intruder had first appeared in the house just twenty minutes previously, having casually just walked in from the street through the unlocked door, he had quickly subdued the father’s attempts at retaliation with little more than a sturdily outstretched arm and a firm grip.
So far the intruder had revealed no weapons, but that coat could hide a small armoury. There was nothing in the house the father could use anyway, save a sturdy walking stick in the storm-porch, but that was locked away like everything else.
He got up and walked to the corridor and was signalled by the intruder to go first up the stairs. As he reached the top he realised there was one weapon that was available to all, given the right circumstances. He stopped and waited for the footsteps behind to catch up.
‘What are you waiting for?’ said the intruder, one foot half on the landing, his knees bent and arms spread to the walls.
The father turned, planted his hands firmly on either side of the stair walls, lifted his leg and kicked the intruder squarely in the chest, putting his whole weight behind his straightening knee.
Gerard instinctively reached forward to grab the assailing leg, but was already toppling backwards as he did so. His hands flayed pointlessly into the void between them. He hit the steps hard, with the weight of his body on top of him, and then tumbled through all the angles to the foot of the stairs.
The mother came running out of the living room, in an instant seeing the contorted intruder and closing the door behind her.
‘Stay in there darling, just stay in there a moment’ she called back, holding the handle to stop her son from following. The handle wobbled and then fell still.
‘That’s it,’ she said, trying to hide the shake in her voice, ‘just have a little lie down, we’ll be there in a minute.’
The father descended the stairs quickly, lunged and landed purposefully with his knee on the intruder’s throat, figuring he could at least hold him down him while his wife and child ran to safety. All the heap below him could manage, however, was to turn his head slightly to meet his eye.
‘I came to save you’ Gerard moaned, pushing back against the waves of pain and cold numbness that phased across his being.
‘Don’t move!’ the mother yelled. ‘I’m calling the police.’
She thrust her hand into the intruder’s pockets and pulled out the keys he had stashed away earlier after bursting into their home and overpowering her husband. She felt a guilty pride now as all the intruder could do to try and stop her was strain against unresponsive muscles and limp limbs, thanks to her husband’s besting.
She unlocked the storm porch and retrieved the mobile phones the intruder had sealed away.
‘Close the door’ he whispered through strained breath, but the mother didn’t listen, busy as she was frantically checking each of the devices.
‘No signal?’ said the father. She nodded.
‘Use the landline. I’ll be okay.’
She ran to the kitchen.
‘Don’t go out. Don’t let anyone in. Not till light. Please!’ Gerard’s eyes bulged with the effort of speaking.
The father twisted his knee. He could barely force out words through the anger.
‘You come into my house, you say we will die if we don’t do what you ask, you threaten my family and now you beg me not to call the police?’
‘They can’t help you!’ Gerard pleaded. ‘They can’t help anyone! Not tonight. Only me.’
‘Why? Because there’s something ‘out there’? There’s something in here, and you’re done, man. You’re sick, you’re a sick…’
The father was interrupted by the sound of his wife’s cursing from down the hall. He called out to her and she returned, clutching the telephone handset.
‘There’s nothing’ she said, handing it over.
The father pressed fruitlessly at buttons, listening to the silence.
‘You cut the lines? Why would you do that?’
The intruder seemed to be coming to some kind of peace. His breathing slowed, his features calmed, his eyes looked past the father and to the ceiling.
‘They’re all down. Everything’s down. I came back to stop it from happening to you again. I failed.’
‘Damn right you failed. Sarah. Go next door, now. Get the police, and an ambulance.’
There was a loud scratch from behind the living room door.
‘Darling?’ said the mother tentatively.
‘I told you. They’re here. But how can… How did I make it? If…’ the intruder babbled weakly. There was another scratch in the wood of the door, deep and jarring. And another. It grew louder, furious.
‘Mummy!’ the son shouted from beyond.
‘Get him out!’ she yelled at her husband.
The father jumped to his feet and quickly but cautiously eased the door open. His heart pounded violently as the cat flew past him and down the corridor to the kitchen. The son followed soon after, sniffling from the fright of the dark living room and the sound of animal claws. He stood blinking in the doorway.
‘Just the cat!’ the father said furiously to the intruder, but the intruder said nothing. His eyes twitched urgently, but the words wouldn’t come to his lips, his breath failing in his throat. All he could do was look to the top of the stairs.
‘What?’ said the father. ‘What’s up there?’ He peered up, trying to follow the intruder’s line of sight but could see nothing on the dark landing.
‘It was me!’ the intruder croaked suddenly and violently. ‘I let it in. But why send me back here if… Oh dear.’ the intruder choked on the end of his sentence.
There was another scratch, and a deep, rattling growl, this time it came from upstairs.
‘But, Claw just went to the kitchen?’ said the mother.
‘Probably a stray’ the father said. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’
‘I’m coming too’ insisted the mother. ‘What if he wasn’t alone?’
The father looked at the dazed son in the doorway.
‘We can’t leave him. Not here, not with,’ he nodded at the intruder who had closed his eyes, and was very, very still. ‘Oh god. I think he’s…’ the father stopped short of saying the word in front of his son, even the sound of it in is head made him shudder.
The mother turned the boy by the shoulders and stepped him into the porch.
‘We’re going out soon, so you put your shoes on, Mummy and Daddy are just going to get some things. I’m going to close the door. Only for a few seconds, I promise.’
The son sat down on the cold tiles. The father winked and rubbed his hair before locking the door behind him and heading upstairs with his wife.
That was the night the shadows came in from the darkness and waited for those who went looking. That was the night that changed everything.
Gerard fiddled with the laces of his shoes while he waited for his parents to return.
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