There it is, the sound of Gran’s snoring coming through the wall. That means it’s only a matter of time now. I shift around on the bed until I’m lying smack bang in the middle and pull the covers right up to my chin, no arms or legs hanging out the sides, everything tucked in and safe. It’s been five years since I last stayed over with Gran, but I haven’t forgotten the steps I must take to stay safe at night.
I was seven the last time I slept in this bed, in this room. It hasn’t changed. The furniture is still old and ugly. A single wardrobe made from depressing dark plywood stands on the right-hand side of the bed, and directly across from the bed is a dressing table made from the same dull wood. A large swivel mirror sits atop the table, reflecting the wardrobe and the bed’s high headboard. The curtains are a deep red and made from a heavy material, matching the red bedspread. Everything in Gran’s house is dark and dismal, it just seems to repel light.
And then she comes out at night and everything changes from dark and dismal to dark and terrifying.
I would hear her every night I stayed here, but would just hide under the covers and fall asleep. She would leave me alone then. She didn’t come under the covers to get me, she didn’t even climb onto the bed, the bed was my haven and kept her away.
That last night I stayed here, when I was seven, I didn’t quite tuck myself into the covers properly. They had bunched up on my left-hand side and formed a small gap that I could see out of . . . and that she could see in. But by the time I realised, it was too late. I could hear her raspy breathing behind me and when I slowly turned around there was one wide bloodshot eye, staring in at me.
I screamed and pulled the covers close, blocking her view. My Gran is practically deaf, so by the time she’d heard my muffled cries and shuffled to my room, she was gone.
I never stayed over at my Gran’s house again after that night. No one believed what I’d seen, but I made such a fuss and became so hysterical at the mere mention of Gran’s house, that my parents eventually gave up. If ever they needed a babysitter, they would ask my Mum’s friend Sharon.
But Sharon died last year, and Mum and Dad haven’t had a night out in months.
“You’re 12 years old now, Alice,” Dad had said to me, “You shouldn’t be scared of ghosts or the dark anymore.”
“But she’s not a ghost, Dad, she’s real!” came my protest.
“So, an old woman comes into your bedroom at night?” Dad said, then thought for a moment, “Are you sure it’s not your Gran?”
“No! She’s a witch!” I had screamed, and Mum had grabbed both my arms.
“Alice . . . Alice, you are staying with your Gran tonight and that’s that,” she’d said calmly, but her eyes were ablaze with anger and she stared me down, daring me to argue with her. In the end, I’d sobbed quietly in the back of the car, both parents ignoring me as though I was a silly spoilt wee girl. They didn’t even see me in, Gran met me on the street and, before they drove away, Mum and Dad told me to “behave” and “grow up”.
I can hear it now; the cellar door groaning as it opens. It’s in the hall – just under the stairs, and the sound echoes around the quiet house.
I begin to sweat; after all these years, it’s still the same. She’s been here all this time . . . waiting for me. I pull the covers up higher until only my eyes peer over the edge. My breathing is shallow and fast as my heartbeat quickens.
Then comes the creaking of the floorboards as she climbs the stairs. Slowly. Always slowly, as though to prolong the agony of my fear.
I’m too hot. I need air. I need water, but I dare not move. If I get out of this bed or stick out my hand to get my water bottle off the nightstand, she’ll get me.
She’s at the top of the stairs now. I can hear her shuffling along the landing . . . I imagine her crawling, dragging her decrepit body awkwardly along the landing. The sound stops outside my room.
My bedroom door opens, hinges squeaking quietly. I duck my head under the covers and wait. Wait for her to go away. Wait for this to be over.
She scurries quickly across the floor toward my bed. Her increased speed makes me squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath.
She can’t get me in here. She can’t get me in here.
Everything’s quiet. All I can hear is the blood thumping in my ears. I lie stalk still. I do not move. She knows I’m here. She knows I’m back and she wants me. And what do witches do with children? They eat them. She’s been waiting in the cellar all these years for me to come back. And now she’s in my room, and if I leave this bed, she’s going to get me.
The croaky whisper makes me jump. I tighten my grip on the covers and freeze.
“Where have you been, Alice?”
She’d never spoken before. Her voice sounds like a normal old woman’s voice, throaty and quivery, but the way she stresses my name is sinister.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Alice.”
It’s too hot under the covers. I’m struggling to breath and my heart is hammering in my chest. I need air, but I must stay where I am.
Every time she whispers my name my stomach tightens. The cramping makes me squirm involuntarily and the covers begin to feel heavy on my chest.
“I’m hungry, Alice.”
I can’t take it anymore – I’m going to suffocate if I don’t move. I yank the covers off my head and gulp in the cool air. My hair is plastered to my head with sweat and my damp pyjama top makes me shiver. I press my head back against the pillows and, moving just my eyes, search the room for her.
Everything is as it should be. She isn’t behind the curtains, or lurking in a dark corner. Nor is she under the dressing table. My eyes move up to the mirror and my mouth opens wide in a silent scream. There is her reflection, staring down at me through the mirror as she crouches on top of the wardrobe. The wardrobe that’s right next to my bed. She grips onto the edge of the wardrobe and drags long dirty nails over the wood. Her filthy grey hair hangs over her shoulders and she’s looking at me with a grin on her face that is both terrifying and demented.
Panic hits me and before I have time to think, I throw off the covers and lunge for the door. Once I’m on the landing I hear her drop to the floor and come scrambling after me. I run past my Gran’s room – she can’t save me. I hurl myself down the stairs – she’s right behind me. I feel something sharp swipe at me ankle and a tug on my pyjama trousers. I need to get out of this house. The keys are dangling in the lock on the front door. Can I do it? Would I be able to unlock the door, pull it open and get out before she gets me?
I leap from the third bottom step and bolt for the door. As I grab the key I twist it, yank on the door handle . . .
She catches hold of my ankle and pulls me off my feet. Screaming, I’m dragged backwards toward the cellar. My hands scramble for purchase and find the bottom step. I thrash my legs around, kicking out so that she’ll lose her grip. I’m not going into that cellar. She’s not eating me.
Suddenly she lets go. I spring to me feet and fly to the front door. I’m screaming this whole time; screaming as I open the door; screaming as I sprint down the driveway and out onto the road. Then my screams are mixed with squealing . . . the squealing of breaks. I turn just in time to see the truck come crashing into me and, before everything goes dark, I sigh. She’s not going to eat me.