THAT TIME OF THE NIGHT
BY IAN GORDON
That time of the night, between two and three in the morning, when neither day nor night seem absolute. That quietest of hours in the quietest of towns, when the busiest streets are free of vehicles and pedestrians. And if folks are to start up their cars or kick up their heels, they drive or pace in haste, for the quietest of towns are unnerving after dark.
In the depths of that hour, when most of us are sleeping, hidden things come out to play. They pour from the gutters and crawl from under stones; they whisper in the alleyways and groan at our windows. Like mosquitoes in the dark, they are drawn to our essence; they employ every trick to force us to perceive, to make us believe—but as the bell tolls three, they simply retreat, returning to the safety of hidden places. From dawn until dusk they watch from the shadows, inhumanly patient, awaiting that hour, that quietest of hours: that deserted, uncertain time of the night.
If I recall correctly, it was Thursday when I first heard it. I had switched the light off, rolled over in bed, and pinned the sheets between my legs in that inimitable way only a bachelor in a king-size bed can. Superstition meant that the closet door was closed, and the window was open.
Most Thursdays, out there, in the still of the night, the sounds of distant places would lull me to sleep, tempting me to dream, as if able to carry my thoughts on the night air to their sources: slow moving traffic, the lapping of waves on foreign shores, and the night song of insects in the woods.
But that particular Thursday, just after 2:00 a.m., things were much too quiet, as though the familiar sounds I had grown to depend on had retreated, making way for this new thing, this uncertain thing, whatever it was. Had I buried my head under the stack of pillows surrounding me, the sound that met my ears that night might have escaped my attention. But the wind carried it through the window, along with the faintest whiff of TCP antiseptic, willing me to hear it. Something was in motion out there—rattling. The sound of rusty joints? An old bicycle, I thought. It was a shrill sound, the kind of tone that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, like nails on chalkboards, ambling towards my window.
In the end, I must have drifted off, as the memory of the sound as I heard it that night, has faded.
The following night, I heard it again. Perhaps a neighbour was working on a bicycle in a nearby yard, basking in the cool night air, enjoying the quietude. It was quite possible he or she shared my sentiment for that strangest of hours, choosing to exploit its unique properties. But as the sound grew louder, I grew agitated. The jarring, high pitched screeching of those old wheels was preventing my descent into slumber. And so, I climbed out of bed, and approached the window.
As I reached the window and poked my head outside, the sound abruptly stopped. Gazing out onto the road, I searched for the source of the horrible racket, my eyes slowly adjusting to the amber glow of the streetlamps. I saw parked cars and the smattering of trees, the phone box and the twin bollards across the street, the steeple of the Bethel Church and its tiny graveyard, and lastly, the weary and dilapidated house of the late Walter Ainscough.
But no bicycle.
Carefully, I looked again, and noticed something: an out-of-place curiosity illuminated by a streetlamp, some hundred feet or so beyond the phone box across the street.
It was a wheelchair—an empty, wooden wheelchair.
Although I couldn’t be certain it had been the source of the din, a chill ran down my spine as I regarded its orientation. It faced my window.
I pulled the window shut and hastily returned to bed. Fortunately, I didn’t hear it again that night.
Saturday night, I lay awake. The anticipation was killing me. I knew I would hear it again—I could feel it.
The familiar sounds of the night had died off just after 2:00 a.m., then replaced by that new, eerie silence. Repeatedly I plunged my head under the pillows, hoping to drift off before the need to come up for air overcame me. I should have just closed the window, but it was so bloody hot—I couldn’t bear it. Besides, what was I afraid of? I dunked my head under once more, but I failed in my efforts to remain there.
I peeped out, grabbing a lungful of that stuffy air. And in that moment, that creaking, appalling racket assaulted my ears once more. Worryingly, the sound of what I prayed wasn’t that old wheelchair, was louder than it had been the night before. As the piercing, dissonant melody of those accursed wheels ambled in my direction, I fought to resist the urge to climb out of bed and look out of the window. I tried so hard to will myself to sleep, to will myself to ignore it. But I just couldn’t.
I threw back the sheets, and with my hands over my ears in an effort to block the din, I approached the window.
Just as it had the previous night, the sound ceased as I reached the window. Though this time, it wasn’t necessary to reassess the scene below to locate the source. The chair, that ugly, dilapidated wheelchair, was right across the street, parked silently beneath the Bethel’s entrance arch. The amber light of the streetlamps poured onto it, illuminating its blemishes. Deep cracks and ridges crisscrossed its worn seat and backrest, beneath which those wheels—the source of that ear-splitting racket—flaunted corroded spokes, the brittle metal tinted chocolate brown and cherry red.
Once more its orientation filled me with dread. The scarred wooden backrest of that ancient chair looked as if it was in possession of a face, riddled with lines of age, eyes of mist, and teeth of rot. Those elderly features scowled at me, as if preparing me for some hideous encounter.
Urgently, I once again yanked the window shut, and jumped back into bed. In a panic, I switched on the lights, and flicked on the television, praying the horrible cacophony of that nightmare chair would spare me further torture.
My prayers were answered.
Other than the hum and prattle of the television, there were no more sounds that night. But I didn’t sleep too well. I dreamt of the wheelchair with the wooden teeth. It was down by the Leeds Liverpool Canal, and it was after me. In my dream-weakened state, I could barely move, and the old machine continued to gain on me as I tried desperately to outrun it. Passing the barges and the willows along the banks, even the shrubs fought to hinder my progress, their green limbs clutching, eager to feed me to that ravenous, cacophonous chair. The wail of its rusty joints threatened to tear me apart, to swallow and digest me in some foul, hellish abyss.
I shot up in bed sweating like a pig. The television was still on—the documentary, North West Waterways, ending. Feeling brave, I flicked the television off, dimmed the lights, and lay back down. All was quiet.
I slept till noon.
The first thing I did when I awoke, was look out of the window.
Thankfully, the wheelchair was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t surprised, as it was said that hidden things returned to hidden places during the day. But that thought worried me too: the thought the chair could be hiding in the grounds of the Bethel; among the scrubs off Alma Road; or behind the sheds in the late Walter Ainscough’s yard—he had been wheelchair bound, hadn’t he? Those places were quiet, dark, and mostly undisturbed. The hidden things of the hidden places were said to watch from the shadows, plotting, whilst we—the unwitting public—continue to go about the trials and tribulations of daily life, oblivious to such things.
But I was oblivious no longer. I had seen it—a hidden thing—which meant I would see it again.
Over, and over, again.
Looking out onto the familiar street scene, I recalled the peculiar case of James Pennington. He had been a local lad, with a teenager’s interest in the occult. What that meant was, he shuffled tarot cards and carved Ouija boards, sometimes urinating on his possessions in ironic attempts to imbue them with his essence. He was peculiar—off the charts peculiar. He often sang to owls in churchyards, claiming owl chant was good for the soul.
But the whispers regarding Pennington’s doppelganger … that was something else entirely. Could it have been the result of the things he dabbled with? No one really knows—but it went something like this:
Pennington’s girlfriend, an out-of-towner called Danielle, was spending the weekend with him at his parents’ home, the latter away on holiday. Danielle too had an interest in the macabre, and often partook in his strange practices. At around 2:00 a.m. on the Sunday—that time of the night—James had answered the call of nature, later telling friends he had heard his girlfriend engaged in conversation with persons unknown whilst he was out of the room. Returning to the bedroom, he found Danielle unresponsive. Her face was pale; her eyes were focused on a dark corner of the room. Pennington said it had freaked him out, especially as his dog, a terrier called Max, would often sit mesmerized for hours, its eyes fixed upon that very corner of the room.
Several days later, following a period of silence, James’ despondent girlfriend began to talk.
She told him, quite fearfully, that she had watched his doppelganger emerge from the wall. The entity asked her questions about the man in the toilet, specifically about the suppleness of the skin about his face. Danielle swore the stranger looked exactly like Pennington, though his face, she noted, was rubbery, like a mask. Pennington, despite his supposed cool regarding such matters, was unnerved, inferring that discourse with a doppelganger was to invite it into one’s life. Undoubtedly, the invited would take steps to replace its twin.
Curiously, three days later, Pennington disappeared. But his disappearance wasn’t supernatural.
His body was never found—well—most of it wasn’t. A fisherman, on his way to one of the many ponds of what the locals call the Bonnies, made a gruesome discovery in one of the fields. He stumbled upon the naked body of a young girl, though in place of what should have been her face, was a mask of human flesh, haphazardly stitched from brow to chin, ear to ear. Local police later revealed that the girl, Danielle Green, had stabbed her boyfriend, James Pennington, to death, subsequently flaying his face with a blunt knife. In her attempt to wear the grisly shroud, she had succumbed to blood loss as a result of flaying her own face in order to replace it.
Strange things aren’t uncommon in my neck of the woods. And just as Pennington brought the mentally unstable Danielle Green into his life, I shuddered at the prospect of what I had brought into mine.
Sunday. That time of the night.
There were no sounds during the witching hour, nor any between 2:00 and 2:45. And so, assuming the hidden thing had skipped a beat, I flicked off the television, dimmed the lights, and pressed my head firmly into the pillows.
I was on the verge of sleep when I heard it.
It sounded as it had before—that terrible, agonised screeching. But, disturbingly, it wasn’t the night wind that carried it to my ears. The sound was dampened, as though heard through plasterboard, or floorboards.
I opened my eyes and scanned the black shapes in the darkness: the wardrobe with the board games stacked upon it; the freestanding mirror; the clunky computer desk and the dusty CRT; the softly billowing curtains in front of the window. The sound persisted, but its source wasn’t out there in the night, nor was it in the room with me—it was downstairs!
Like a frightened child, I pulled the sheets up over my head. The act of doing so seemed to lure the thing closer. The screeching amplified, and I could smell it. Oh, the stench of old leather and rusty iron! Pervading the room, the odour crawled into the bed with me, and filled my nostrils. As I lay there, clinging inanely to the pillows, my mind rejected the harsh reality of what was assuredly an impossible chain of events.
Quite suddenly, the screeching sound terminated at the foot of the bed, and instead, I heard laboured breathing—a sort of gasping for air. The spluttering was coupled with the distinct whiff of TCP antiseptic.
A latent memory returned to me: a vision of the late Walter Ainscough across the street, weeding the garden as he often did in his twilight years, bound to a rickety wheelchair, choking dandelions, his aged face cracked and worn, coughing and spluttering, cursing the yard. I recalled the irrational fear I used to feel as I watched him from afar, just a lad, barely twelve, afraid of the old man, brought up on a diet of too much horror and not enough empathy. Blind as a bat old Walter was, searching the air for sounds, grasping at weeds from the confines of that ancient chair.
Irrational or not, I always felt he knew I was watching.
There it was, the memory I had buried—the vision of Old Man Ainscough, wheezing in that chair, dying; his marbled, listless eyes glaring up at my window as he writhed. In his death throes, he had spotted me, and he knew I was the only witness to his demise. But I had been too fearful of his outward appearance to intervene, and much too afraid to tell my parents afterwards. I remember hurling myself under the sheets, praying I would never meet that terrible gaze again.
But my suppressed guilt had brought him back from the darkest gulfs, to punish me for my sin—my childhood secret.
And then came the hands: those weathered hands that had once yanked dandelions from the yard across the street; hands that had choked weeds and flowers alike; moving under the sheets; reaching for me. I could smell him—incontinence and TCP. It hit me like a tonne of bricks. His spluttering frame inched up the mattress, his immobile legs dragging behind him. As his calloused hands grazed my calves, he mumbled between breaths:
“Hidden things, hidden things, come to thee, ‘tween two and three!”
And with those words, the festering frame of Old Man Ainscough disappeared.
My eyes are on the clock—it’s approaching that time of the night.
I know he’s there. He’s always there. Parked across the street under the yellow glow of the streetlamps. He’s waiting to curse me, again and again, just like Danielle Green cursed James Pennington.
But I can handle it. The lights are on, and the hum and prattle of the television keeps the whining at bay.
The window stays shut now.
It’s just that damned smell—leather, iron, and the faintest hint of TCP antiseptic.