Short Story by
Light, Speed, Time Prequel, The Photon Lock Series
Copyright 2016 L.V. Waterman. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places and events are either the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events, places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
‘I’m telling you guys, I really heard it this time. Listen!’ the blond girl said, her eyes wide with unease.
‘Becca, how many times? It’s an old house. It’s windy outside. There’s always been weird noises.’
‘I know, I know. But it was different. Like someone moaning or breathing funny. Not heard that before.’
The girl with big brown eyes only grunted in reply.
Large snowflakes raced round in a frenzy outside, tapping on the cracked glass of a small dormer window. The derelict Victorian attic was freezing in the semi-dark, with only a handful of candles scattered about the wooden floor. Their portable heater struggled, pumping air that was barely warm.
The brown-eyed girl gave the heater a hearty smack.
‘Sani! You made me jump,’ Becca said, panting.
‘No, it’s not. It just can’t cope in this cold. Poor thing.’ She looked round at the metal bucket that they normally used to catch leaks with in the rainy season. A couple of faintly charred timber logs lay miserably inside it. ‘Maybe we should try the fire again?’
‘Pointless. Like I said, nothing to keep it going with,’ Sani insisted, then focused on the third girl instead. ‘You’re quiet. What are you doing?’
Vicky had been listening to the other two bickering, mostly about the strange noises in the house. Like they usually did. It had become an annoying déjà vu.
Her dark auburn hair falling to her face, Vicky slowly rummaged in her coat pocket. She glanced from one to the other before reluctantly pulling out the two things she was poking around for.
‘Don’t judge,’ she said in a low voice. She then put the cigarette between her lips and held the lighter in front of her face. Her hand trembled.
‘What the heck?’
‘Are you insane?’
The two spoke at the same time.
Vicky was silent, continuing to stare at the lighter.
‘You’re fourteen,’ Becca pleaded. ‘They’ll put you in prison!’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Sani said and looked back at Vicky. ‘How did you get one, by the way?’
‘How’d you think, genius? Nicked it off my brother, of course. He won’t notice.’
‘Yep,’ Sani said to Becca. ‘She’s rebelling. Said the other day it’s only a matter of time before she’ll do something crazy.’
‘Hmm…’ Becca seemed to agree, though still appeared deeply concerned. She then tilted her head to the side and said, ‘Why didn’t you just say his name? It would have been funnier. Nicked it off Nick.’ Chuckling, she covered her mouth.
‘That’s pathetic and not even remotely funny.’ Sani rolled her eyes. ‘You only want to hear his name ’cause you fancy him.’
‘I do not!’
‘Oh come on, I’ve seen you. It’s ridiculous. He’s too old for goodness’ sake.’
‘Twenty-three is not old. Anyway, I do not.’
Vicky finally lit the cigarette, unnoticed by the other two. Their constant nagging at each other for things that didn’t matter were doing her head in.
Awkwardly breathing in the smoke through her mouth instantly made her choke. She grasped her throat, her lungs feeling like they were on fire as she struggled, coughing and spluttering.
‘Are you okay?’
She was vaguely aware of Becca patting her on the back and Sani whipping the cigarette out of her fingers. Trying to catch her breath for what seemed like forever, she started to open her eyes and wave her hand to leave her alone.
Becca and Sani resumed their seats on the floor, both no doubt eagerly awaiting to have a go at her.
Her breathing easing and slowing down at last, she made one more grunt to clear her throat.
‘Disgusting!’ Vicky croaked.
The two girls exchanged glances, and both smirked.
‘What is? The cigarette? Or the fact that Becca fancies your brother?’
‘Both,’ Vicky replied firmly and had another bout of coughing and patting herself on the chest, while Becca continued her unconvincing counterarguments. Her voice died out soon enough, drowned into the noise of the snowstorm outside. The still-flickering cigarette lay crushed to the side, oozing out the last few puffs of smoke.
‘Are you done being an idiot then?’ Sani’s gaze at Vicky was serious for a change.
‘Yes,’ she said miserably. ‘Remind me to never do that again.’
‘Because we have something to cheer you up anyway,’ Becca said beaming and went to unzip her bulky rucksack.
‘What are you talking about? You mean you two are going to stop useless arguments?’
‘A present,’ Sani clarified.
Vicky scratched her head. ‘It’s New Year’s Eve. Not Christmas Eve.’
‘I know.’ Becca held out a small box, covered in sparkly red wrapping paper. ‘But you got us stuff, and ours was just delayed in the post. You know how it is during this time of year.’ She thrust the box to Vicky. ‘Open.’
‘You guys… I said don’t worry about it.’
The girls giggled and rubbed their palms together as Vicky began tearing the paper away. She took her time, teasing them and unable to stop her own smile spreading.
The uneven strips revealed a portion of a picture of a dark grey object with a round glass bit in the middle. Somehow she recognised it immediately.
‘You didn’t,’ she whispered.
‘Oi! Stop guessing before you’re done unwrapping!’ Sani was furious.
Vicky shook the remainder of the paper off to the floor, revealing a slightly tattered white box with a picture of a Polaroid camera on it. Temporarily, legible words struggled to form in her mind.
‘What do you think?’
‘Guys. You… really shouldn’t have! This must have been expensive,’ she said, turning the box round in her hands. ‘I mean, I love it, but… I don’t know if I can accept this. After what I got you.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Becca. ‘It wasn’t that much, so don’t be silly.’
‘Yes.’ Sani hesitated. ‘Okay fine, if you must know, it was second-hand from the Internet. So stop being a muppet.’
‘Thought it was kind of obvious – look at the state of the box. Not exactly new, is it?’
Vicky grinned. ‘Cool, that makes me feel better. And I don’t care if it’s second-hand, pre-owned things are much more interesting.’
‘Yeah!’ the girls said in unison.
‘I love it!’ She leaned over for a double hug with them. ‘Thank you.’
Feeling her eyes getting damp, Vicky was glad for the semi-darkness.
The billowing white storm outside refused to calm down, now rattling the attic window. But the music on the girls’ radio had made it less noticeable. The kind of Trance music all three agreed on was part of the New Year’s Eve party on one of the local stations. An hour and a half to go till midnight.
With nearly empty cans of shandies at their sides, they were chatting and munching on some crisps and leftover fruitcake that Becca had brought over from home. They did their usual thing when they hung out at the abandoned Victorian manor house, telling their respective parents each was round the other’s place. No one bothered to check anymore; the three had been friends for years since primary school.
It was easiest for Vicky; her mum never seemed to take in exactly where she was going and with whom. No doubt being out now herself, in a pub somewhere, with some random bloke.
And these days, with a toddler, a wife and a busy job, her brother was less overbearing and “on her case” like he used to be, growing up.
That was fine. She had her mates, and that was cool.
They liked “their place”. No one ever bothered them here since the beginning. In fact, they even stopped using their secret knocking code on the attic door, when one had to go get something from the shops. It used to be: three knocks, pause then two, pause then one more knock.
True, the house was creepy, with its Gothic architecture and vague history of how it got partly destroyed more than a decade ago. This guy who was looking after the property, apparently burnt some of it down by accident and then vanished off the face of the earth. No body was found either, so it remained a mystery what actually happened. With the authorities having problems tracing the owners, the premises stayed neglected for years.
Hung somewhere in a hallway, they had seen the old photos of how it used to look like, back in its day. Surrounded by plenty of land, gardens and tall trees, it was quite impressive. Until one day all that land was split and sold over to build more houses on it.
But despite all the odd stories they’d hear circling around now and again about “the house at the end of the road”, it was fun and – it was theirs.
One hour till midnight.
‘So what have we decided?’ wondered Sani, weaving her long, ebony brown hair into a plait. ‘Are we going to finally stay here the night or what?’
‘No way!’ said Becca. ‘I’ll take my chances in the snowstorm. I’ve heard enough about weird stuff that happens here at night.’
‘Chicken. It’s all rubbish anyway, come on.’
‘No. Not ever. Besides, I need my bed. I’ll never be able to sleep if I’m not comfortable.’
‘Daddy spoils you too much.’ Sani smirked, then chucked a crumpled piece of tinfoil at Vicky. ‘You’d be up for it, wouldn’t you?’
Vicky shrugged. ‘Whatever.’
She was too busy examining her new toy. The box came with sample film paper that you had to load into the camera somehow, even though the picture instructions made it look so easy.
‘So you like our gift idea?’ Becca was eager to change the subject.
‘Yeah, you’re creative and like drawing and stuff, so we thought that might be fitting,’ added Sani. ‘Also noticed when you look over at something and do that thing with your fingers, like you’re framing what you see.’
‘What?’ Vicky instantly stopped fiddling with the camera and looked up. ‘Oh yeah. I do, don’t I?’
Becca laughed. ‘Hey, perhaps an idea for a career, huh?’
‘Cool!’ said Sani. ‘Yes, meet Victoria, the famous photographer.’
‘Shut up.’ Vicky laughed back with them. ‘Okay, I like that!’
The radio started playing their favourite track, and all three stopped chatting for a bit, turning the sound up and doing various hand and arm gestures with the rhythm and miming the lyrics.
Sadly, as with a lot of good tracks, it was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before the beat was slowing down, when–
Knock… Knock… Knock!
All three jumped out of their skin. Becca covered her mouth as Sani grasped the knob on the radio, twisting it down, then quickly switched off the heater.
‘What the hell?’ Vicky whispered, her eyes darting.
Like the first time, the bangs were slow, with a long pause in-between. They seemed to be coming from the attic door.
‘What the actual… crap!’ whispered Sani. For the first time in ages, she appeared worried.
‘Oh no.’ Becca trembled, adding quietly, ‘Someone heard our music.’
Vicky blew out the candles, wafting the waxy smell as darkness covered everything apart from a vague ambience from the window.
The eerie stillness was broken by the sound of an approaching car, which was somewhat unusual. It wasn’t a busy road, and the house was the last one at a dead end, having its own short drive.
Making as little noise as possible, Vicky stood up and crept to the window.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Shush. Just looking.’
Reaching the window, she noticed the snow had eased down, and she tried to see through the overgrown front garden down below.
A ghostly white vehicle had stopped right outside the rusty iron gate. Some distant street lamp just about illuminated the yellow and blue chequered side of the car, making Vicky gasp. It was a police car.
‘What’s going on?’
She saw a dark, uniformed figure come out of the car, stretch and click on a torch, lazily flashing it over the shrubs and trees in the front garden. The silhouette, which was obviously male, paced along the edge of the short stone wall, continuing to probe with his torch. Moving away that she could barely see his outline through the snowy branches, Vicky squinted when, without warning, his light flashed over towards her window. Ducking down below the windowsill, hopefully just in time, she saw the beam shine at an angle from outside.
‘Who is that?’ She heard Becca’s quivering voice.
‘Copper…’ she whispered back.
‘Oh crap!’ came Sani’s retort.
The light shimmered through the glass for several very long seconds as Vicky’s heart hammered. Did he see her? Why was he here?
Did someone report the music?
Who the hell knocked on the attic door?
She realised it had gone dark. He moved the torch away.
‘Great.’ She heard Sani again. ‘If the coppers find out people hang around here… well, no more our place.’
‘Be quiet,’ pleaded Becca.
‘Is he coming in?’
Reluctantly Vicky turned around to face the window, slowly raising her head just enough so she could see the front gate.
The officer stood in front of it, appearing to be talking into his radio, balancing casually on the balls of his feet. He then bent his knees slightly, leaning forward, and looked like he was laughing with whomever was at the other end on his radio.
She saw him take one last peek at the house and pace back to the car.
‘I think he’s leaving,’ Vicky said hopefully. ‘He’s getting inside the car. Yes, please just go. It’s New Year’s Eve. Give us a break, dude.’
‘Are you sure?’
The headlights came on, and they all heard the engine growl.
‘Phew. Yes.’ She sighed but carried on staring out of the window until she was satisfied she could no longer see his car.
Becca had already re-lit the candles when Vicky sat back down next to them, biting her nail. The other two’s faces showed the same expression of panic. Although relieved the copper was gone, they faced another, admittedly more terrifying mystery.
‘Who the hell knocked?’ Sani was first to speak.
‘It was our code. How? Nobody knows it,’ Becca said quickly.
‘I’ve never told anyone.’
‘Nor have I.’
‘It was a warning,’ Vicky interrupted them.
Both frowned at her, confused.
‘Someone warned us. About the copper coming,’ she said resolutely, yet still fearful. ‘Our music was too loud. If we hadn’t turned it down and blew out the candles in time, well the police would have definitely found out.’
Becca and Sani exchanged solemn glances.
‘Yep. We’d be nicked,’ Vicky added. ‘Saying goodbye to this place.’
‘True,’ said Sani. ‘Although can’t exactly nick us for that. Surely?’
‘Well, it’s trespassing. Remember that sign outside,’ said Becca. ‘We’d be in trouble anyway.’
All three looked over at the attic door on the floor. It was locked, as usual, with the added measure of a few bricks lying on top of it.
‘Shall we find out who it was then?’ asked Sani.
‘Are you mad? No!’ Becca said. ‘I think I will be staying here the night. Go back in the morning when it’s light!’
‘Such a chicken.’
‘Guys. Whoever it was, if they helped us, they’re good. They’re on our side,’ Vicky said.
‘Someone?’ Becca insisted. ‘Or something?’
‘Oh, come on! Really?’ Sani shook her head. ‘What, a ghost warned us?’
Shrugging, Becca then crossed her arms in a huff.
‘Someone else is definitely not our friend though,’ said Vicky. ‘One of the neighbours, I guess. Maybe saw our lights? I mean, you’d think people wouldn’t be arses, especially tonight of all nights.’
‘Yeah, we’ll have to be careful now.’ Sani stood up, grabbed her bag and rummaged in it until she produced her own torch. ‘You comin’?’ She nudged her head at Vicky, who got up after grabbing her Polaroid camera.
‘Where are you two going?’
‘You can stay here and keep an eye on our stuff while we look around.’ Clicking her torch on, Sani dashed to the attic door with Vicky right behind her.
‘No way! I am not staying here all by myself.’ They heard Becca’s hurried footsteps following after them.
The attic door made the familiar squeak as Sani steadily lifted it up and over, then shone her torch down the ladder. The wooden floor below reflected her light mockingly.
Nothing. Nobody there as they listened for several seconds.
‘Careful,’ Becca whispered, watching Sani descend.
When she reached the bottom, they saw the flash of the torch dart round in all directions. Sani’s face then looked up.
‘Can’t see anyone. It’s okay, come down.’
Vicky was next, following the light on the ladder steps, with one hand holding on to the camera. Then came Becca.
‘Why did you bring that?’ Sani pointed at Vicky’s camera.
‘Dunno. Just in case.’
‘Hah. Proper detective now, aren’t you?’
‘Guys. I think whoever it was, they left,’ Becca said. ‘Let’s just go home.’
A door had just slammed somewhere on the floor below, making them jolt. Then, without a word, Sani scurried towards the smaller staircase ahead and disappeared down it.
‘Wait!’ Vicky said after her. ‘What are you–’ She felt Becca’s freezing hand wrap around her wrist.
‘I don’t like this.’
‘Come on, we have to follow her, Bec.’
‘It’s too dark. She’s the only one with a torch.’
Vicky turned round towards a distant window at the other end of the hall. Faint moonlight crept through the timeworn net curtains, giving just enough light to see vague outlines of walls and furniture.
‘Fine,’ Vicky said. ‘We’ll take the main stairs. I’m not sure where exactly–’
Becca had let go of her wrist, and she heard a series of thumps – feet climbing a ladder.
‘I’m going up,’ she said, panting. ‘Are you coming?’
‘I’m closing the door!’
‘Okay then, just knock the code when you’re back.’
Vicky heard the slam.
Then there was the slide of the lock and a scrape of some bricks.
In the dark, alone, Vicky listened hard. For anything. Voices, footsteps, or doors, or floor creaks.
She shuffled along the hallway, heading for the dim window. In a minute, somewhere to the right, there should be a turn and then the main stairs. Vicky heard subtle thuds but almost instantly realised that it was Becca, cowering above.
What a silly chicken, she thought.
Now reaching the shadowy wide stairs, she outstretched her hand and felt around for the banisters. Her foot touched the first step, and she gradually moved down, following a continuous curve as the stairs twisted in a semicircle.
The next landing partly veered off into another hall to the rest of the first floor. Vicky fumbled for the wall and stepped a bit further inside.
‘Sani?’ Her voice echoed bleakly. But no reply came.
She decided to continue down the stairs to the ground floor in case Sani caught up with the mysterious knocker just as they ran out of the house perhaps. It was getting lighter as she descended. Here there were several moonlit windows and she could see the bottom of the stairs.
For a few moments she stood still in the spacious front hallway, thinking. They’ve never ever used the front door. Not only it would have been foolish and too risky, also the door had warped and expanded so much that it would have been a job for anyone to try and open it.
Since they hardly used the main stairs, she wondered where to turn so she could find her way round to the other side where the back door was. The darkness was disorientating.
It had to be to the right and then through a narrow hallway and then some more rooms. She tried to visualise it from a distant memory.
Carrying on with her instincts, she told herself she’d get there in the end. It’s not exactly a massive mansion or anything.
One of her feet started sticking to the carpet. But hoping it wasn’t anything weird or disgusting, she walked until she had reached a wide door. Yes, she thought. This had to be the second drawing room, which definitely had another door the other side that led towards the old kitchens. As she twisted the handle and pushed, the door bumped into something and she heard objects falling to the floor.
The room must have been full with furniture and other unidentified stuff. She didn’t recall it being like that before. There was no way she could get through to the other side.
Unless, of course, this wasn’t the second drawing room.
Was she lost?
She caught herself wondering if perhaps Becca was being sensible after all, waiting upstairs. And that Sani, having the advantage of a torch, would soon be back up at the attic. With Vicky lost in the dark, they’d have to go back looking for her!
But then an idea popped into her head. She lifted her Polaroid camera to her face and poked around the device with her fingers. Finding what must have been a power button, she pressed it, relieved to hear a swift, mechanical sound.
From what she remembered of scanning the instructions earlier, the flash was automatic.
Great attempt at a first ever photo! She huffed to herself.
With the camera just below her face and her finger on the shutter release, Vicky stared ahead, hoping to catch a visual when the flash happens.
Another mechanical noise indicated a photo had rolled out of the camera as the brief light illuminated the wide door.
For a split second she caught the carvings on the painted wood and suddenly gasped. This was the main drawing room. She wasn’t where she thought she was. Still partly seeing the image in her mind, there was something else on the door. Something stuck to it.
In the dark, Vicky probed for where it roughly should have been, gliding her hand on the wooden surface, when the edge of the paper made a flick. It brushed past her skin, then fell down somewhere.
‘For goodness’ sake!’
Now on her knees, she searched around on the floor, picking up various objects. Something hard and cold and long, then a furry thing that must have been a cushion. Something round and heavy that made a liquid sound. This was pointless.
Then, remembering the photo, she thought she might as well check if the note was readable on the image. She needed to find the back door.
Vicky removed the photo from the camera and placed it in her coat pocket. From a hazy memory of the front side of the ground floor, she worked out where she should be going. Left, down a hallway a bit, past some doors and one of them leading to the basement. She nearly bumped into a rectangular, towering thing.
It was an old grandfather clock that had never worked. Proceeding cautiously, there was that framed drawing of a young girl holding a plush bunny, then the weird turn towards the bottom of the small staircase. After that, there had to be the kitchens and utility room.
Grinding to a halt at last, she recognised the shadow of the stove as she paused in the middle of the tiled floor.
‘Sani?’ she said again, not expecting much.
Vicky turned and walked into the utility room, stopping in front of the back door. Checking first that she couldn’t hear anything, she opened it lightly.
The snowstorm had died down quite a bit, though the large flakes were still falling softly and hypnotically, illuminated by the moonlight.
Pulling the door to and covering her head with the coat hood, she strolled out further into the white garden, each step making a crunching sound. She stopped and faced the moon. Right, she could have a look at her captured photo to see what that note had said.
Instead, she lifted the camera to her face, her eye at the viewfinder, and took a shot of the bright sphere in the sky. The photo rolled out of the camera, and she eagerly removed it, waving it impatiently and then stared at the slowly developing picture.
Vicky groaned. A very blurry white circle on a black background materialised on the paper.
Perhaps she needed more practice.
A hand touched her shoulder, and Vicky nearly screamed, barely holding on to the camera.
‘There you are!’ Becca’s face came into focus. ‘I’ve been looking for you.’
Unable to speak yet, Vicky was trying to catch her breath, her hand on her stomach. She could see Becca’s guilty expression.
‘Sorry. I felt bad about going back up, so I tried to follow you after I got my own torch from my bag.’ Becca pressed her lips together, hesitating. ‘I took the small stairs though. I don’t like going the other way. It’s too creepy, and I don’t remember my way around.’
‘I know,’ Vicky said. ‘I kind of got lost for a minute down there myself.’
‘So where’s Sani? Have you seen her?’
They both gazed around the snow-covered garden. It was quiet, with only their own line of footprints leading from the back door to where they stood. Within moments though, they could make out rustling in the shrubs near the side of the house.
‘Speak of the devil,’ said Becca as Sani’s unmistakable silhouette came out of the bushes, marching to them, her torch still on and flailing at her side.
‘What are you two doing out?’ she said when she reached them. Bits of twigs and snow protruded out of her tangled hair.
‘I was following after you, but I went the other way,’ Vicky said and quickly added, ‘So did you see anyone?’
‘I think so,’ Sani said, frowning. ‘I caught a glimpse of someone running out of the back door. So I went after them, down the side of the house. Got a bit stuck in the shrubs in the end though. It’s so overgrown, you won’t believe how bad–’
‘Wait, so who was it?’ pressed Becca.
‘I don’t know. I barely saw them. Whoever it was, they’re definitely gone now. Vanished!’
‘Guys, listen,’ Vicky said. ‘There was this note stuck to the drawing room door. I didn’t see what it said, and I lost it. But I took a picture of it. Wait…’
She put the photo of the moon into her other pocket and retrieved the first photo.
All three huddled closely as Sani shone her torch on to the photo Vicky was now holding. The square Polaroid print revealed an image of a Post-it note stuck to a door, which had a few words written in block capitals. It wasn’t as clear as she had hoped.
‘Keep the n… nose?’ Vicky struggled.
‘Noise!’ Becca corrected.
‘Oh, yes! Keep the noise down,’ Vicky read. ‘Neh… Neighbour sus…picious.’
The three exchanged glances and stared back at the photo again.
‘Signed by, A Friend,’ Sani read.
They stood still in silence for a minute, letting the dancing snowflakes stick to their clothes and hair.
‘Who?’ Vicky said mysteriously.
‘Do you think it’s that new girl at school, who keeps trying to follow us around?’ wondered Becca. ‘Can’t remember her name.’
‘Nope,’ Sani said defiantly. ‘It was a bloke.’
‘I thought you said you hardly saw them,’ Vicky said.
‘I know. But it just seemed like a guy. Like the shape of him. I’m pretty sure.’
‘Right.’ Vicky strolled a few feet away from them. ‘Let’s see…’
Sani and Becca looked at each other, and both said, ‘There she goes.’
But Vicky ignored them, muttering to herself and biting her nail, then she turned and faced them.
‘It’s obviously someone who lives nearby,’ she said, her eyes darting around with excitement. ‘There’s no other explanation.’
‘Okay,’ both said.
‘And the only one I can think of is that boy who lives a few doors down from here. Ugh, what’s his name?’
‘What, that one from a couple of years above us? With sandy hair?’
‘That’s the one.’ Vicky pointed at Sani. ‘Mark? No… Michael. I think.’
‘Oh, him,’ said Becca. ‘Yeah, maybe. He’s kinda cool.’
‘I mean, I’ve seen him give me this knowing look sometimes.’ Vicky sprinted back to them. ‘I dunno. I could be talking rubbish though.’
‘Cool. Maybe we’ll have a chat with him after the holidays. In any case, we’ll just have to be more careful from now on.’
‘Guys!’ Becca interrupted and grabbed Sani’s arm. ‘It’s five minutes to midnight! Let’s go back up and greet the New Year with some more shandy.’
Scampering back through the house this time was easy. With both Sani and Becca having torches aiding the way, they went their usual route, via the small staircase.
Once up in the attic, Becca lit the candles, while Vicky retrieved the last three cans out of her rucksack. From somewhere far away, they heard muffled sounds of premature fireworks, as Sani turned on the radio, adjusting the volume down a bit.
‘… and with ten seconds to go, let’s count down to two thousand and four!’ said the joyful voice on the radio.
‘Quick!’ Vicky said, and the three gathered close together, opening their cans. They laughed and chinked the cans together, taking a sip.
And in unison with the voice on the radio, they counted down–
‘Three, two, one… HAPPY NEW YEAR!’
A strange rattling noise woke her up. It was pitch-black and cold. She realised her back was stiff and her feet felt numb. Amidst the noise, there was a short rustling sound.
‘Oh no,’ came Becca’s muffled voice. ‘I forgot you guys made me stay here.’
‘Yeah,’ said Vicky. ‘I just got woken up too.’
‘Oi, Sani! Stop snoring.’ More shuffling from Becca’s direction as she must have reached out to shake her friend.
The rattling noise had stopped.
‘No, mum, I don’t like corned beef sandwiches…’ said Sani bleakly and presumably went back to sleep.
Lying flat on her back, Vicky turned her head to where the window should have been. She tried to adjust her eyes, when she saw the very faint night-time sky against the darkness of the attic. It was quiet; the snowing had definitely stopped.
‘Is it too early to get up and go home, do you think?’ whispered Becca.
Vicky wriggled her hand out of the blanket and probed until she found the torch. She then shone it on to her watch.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘It’s three thirty. Go back to sleep.’
‘Okay. It’s freezing though. Put the heater back on, will you?’
Tutting, Vicky sat halfway up but then thought back for a moment.
‘Wait. The battery died, remember?’
But there came no reply.
The stillness curiously deafening, Vicky sighed, then lay back down on to her side, scrunching her body snugly under the thin blanket. She rubbed her legs together, folding one cold foot over the other. There was a strange paper-like flick that seemed to come from the bottom of her boot.
At first she lay still, her eyes wide open.
One hand had grasped the torch off the floor, while the other moved down to her foot and, with some difficulty, unpeeled something from the sole of her boot. She flashed the torch on the piece of paper she was holding – the Post-it note with the block letter writing on it. Complete with a piece of chewing gum squashed to the back of it. The note was damp and creased as she carefully unpeeled the hardened gum off, chucking it aside.
Of course, she thought. She must have stepped on it after it fell off the door. And the gum was that sticky thing from the carpet. How funny. Funny it survived the trek in the snow and all the way through the house. Vicky smoothed it out and studied the words. Definitely a good piece of evidence she was going to keep hold of. Maybe question that guy about it later.
She pocketed the note, but as she did, her torch briefly flashed over the floor near her feet, highlighting something square.
The beam steady on it for a few seconds – it was the same message.
Keep the noise down. Neighbour suspicious. A Friend.
She scanned the floor, finding two more Post-it notes further along. Same message.
Swiftly jumping to her feet, Vicky followed an uneven trail of the notes with the light. They appeared to be scattered everywhere the more she looked around. Single ones and handfuls of them on the floor, some even stuck to the wooden beams and some on the walls.
Her pulse started to race, and the torch in her hand shook. She directed the quivering light at the attic door.
It was shut, with the bricks lying firmly on top.
Suppressing a scream with difficulty, she hesitated, contemplating waking the other two. How could they not have noticed these before?
Becca had turned over in her sleep, muttering something. Momentarily Vicky visualised the panic she was about to cause if she were to show this to them.
Trying to calm her breathing, she sat on the floor instead, her arms around her knees. Thinking.
She had to try and figure this out. That’s right. There had to be a rational explanation to this. There always was.
It was just a practical joke. Had to be. They left the attic door open when they were downstairs. That guy must have planted these here to make his point. And when they got back, they were too excited with the New Year countdown to see anything. That’s all.
Yes, that made sense.
Vicky looked at her two friends sleeping on the floor. Both of them curled up tightly in their own blankets. Their skin ashen, their lips blue. The fog-like particles of her breath emitted steadily; it only just hit her how cold it really was. The sunrise was ages away yet.
Shining her torch at the metal bucket, she suddenly had an idea…
‘Come on, wake up! It’s time to go.’ The bright sunbeam from the window highlighted Becca’s golden hair. It was way too cosy and warm to get up.
‘You going to tell us how you managed to get the fire going?’ Sani’s voice said.
Vicky sat up, rubbing her temple. ‘All them notes, that’s how.’
For a moment Vicky sat squinting her eyes and frowning; the hazy images from a few hours ago slowly resurfacing.
‘That guy thought it would be funny to leave lots of those notes up here. So I used them to start the fire.’ Her eyes finally adjusting to the light, Vicky pointed at the empty floor.
‘What?’ She gasped. ‘There was a load of them still left over. Heaps. Right there.’
‘Of course there was.’
Vicky shot up, dropping her blanket, and paced around the attic.
‘They were everywhere. I swear.’ She scratched her head while the other two giggled.
‘Funny dream perhaps?’ said Becca.
‘No! Look, I’ll show you.’ Vicky walked back towards them, desperately fiddling with her coat. ‘I’ve got the original one in my pocket… Wait. Where is it?’
‘You had a photo of it, remember? Not the note itself,’ said Sani.
Double-checking all her pockets one last time, Vicky grunted. ‘I can’t find that either. I don’t believe this! I must have burnt them both by accident. Burnt all of it.’
‘Really. What kind of a detective would you become, destroying the evidence, huh?’ Sani laughed and then added, ‘I guess Becca’s right, perhaps a new career goal is in order.’ She winked and pointed at the Polaroid camera basking in the sunlight on the floor.
It was time to go home.
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