THE MIDNIGHT HOUR by Neil Davies
The first shuffling of feet in the hallway outside.
Right on time, as always.
Clare raised a hand to her forehead, felt the damp heat of her skin and ran shaky fingers back over her black hair, severely pulled back and tied with an old elastic band. It felt greasy. How long had it been since there had been enough hot water for a decent shower? Every morning she bathed as best she could in the freezing water that spurted erratically from the taps in the bathroom, but still she felt dirty, sweaty, gritty.
From the other side of her hotel room door more shuffling, the first hesitant mumbling of voices.
Clare looked at the bedside clock. 00:01am. Their confidence seemed to be growing quicker these nights.
She swung her feet to the floor and sat up on the edge of the bare mattress. Her t-shirt clung to patches of sweat on her body as she clasped her hands on her lap, fingers pressing tight against each other to try and stop the trembling. It seemed a little easier each night, as if her fear took longer to grow, longer to dominate her every thought. Just as their confidence came to them with ever increasing speed, so her fear became more sedate in its insidious crawl through her body. Strange. She had always thought it would be the other way round.
The bang on the door startled her, jerked her body upright from where it had slumped. For a moment she didn’t breathe, waiting, listening. There was a suspicion of laughter and light, running footsteps but the door remained silent and, more importantly, locked.
She hadn’t realised she had fallen asleep sitting on the edge of the bed. She had to be careful. She was vulnerable if she fell asleep. Later she could sleep, now she must be awake, alert.
She unravelled her fingers. They ached.
“What to do to stay awake?”
The same question every night, spoken in a whisper but spoken nonetheless.
She had long ago abandoned trying to read a book. Somehow concentrating on words on the page was more inclined to make her sleep than keep her awake. Play music? Walk around while listening? Maybe even dance a little? It was a possibility, but she knew that before long the rampant thud thud thud of their music would begin shaking the walls, rattling the door on its hinges. She only had a portable CD player. She couldn’t compete.
Perhaps if their music had been clearer she could have used that? But all she ever heard was the bass, the beat, the savage rhythm, the carnal raw power of…… she snapped open eyes that had once again fallen shut and pulled her hand back from where it had crawled beneath her t-shirt, over the sweat of her belly, up to the curve of her breasts. She knew the effect their music had on her, could only imagine what it must do to those nearer to it. No. Best not to imagine. Imagination led to temptation, led to weakness. She had been there once. She did not want to visit there again!
“So, not music then.”
She tried to force her voice louder than a whisper, to something more like normal conversation. It was difficult when the only person to converse with was yourself.
She used to exercise, many years ago, before the plague.
She pushed herself to her feet, trying to ignore the dull aching behind her knees. She reached for the trousers she had been wearing earlier in the day and then stopped. Why bother? The one window was shuttered, the door was locked. There was no one to see her parading around the room in nothing but her t-shirt. She stretched, touched her toes and was suddenly very aware of her naked buttocks thrust towards the door. Could they see through the keyhole? Did the door even have a keyhole? She’d never noticed. She reached for the trousers and slipped them on. She felt safer immediately. More secure. Strange how certain values seemed to remain when everything else fell apart.
She sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor breathing heavily, sweat dripping from the end of her nose.
Was she really that unfit? She could have done no more than 3 or 4 minutes of fairly gentle exercise yet she felt like she’d just finished a marathon. She looked down, noted her nipples pushing hard against the sweat-sodden material of her t-shirt. Why did they do that? She had only been exercising, not having sex!
As if on some invisible cue the music started. No gentle introduction, no gradual build, just the sudden thud thud thud of the bass line.
The hotel door rattled, the floor shook, what sounded like the plumbing began to groan in sympathy. And yet despite the pain it caused in her head, despite the fear it engendered from the knowledge that the beginning of the music meant they had overcome their fear of “the mad woman in room 52” and were now fully engaged in their “party hour”, it aroused in her feelings, urges that at all other times she kept under extreme control.
She pushed herself angrily to her feet, began to pace the room like an animal, determined to maintain that control.
She had lived alone in this room for almost 2 years before she had finally succumbed, just the once. Once. One mad, insane time.
She had unlocked the hotel door, turned the handle, let it swing slightly ajar. She had lay back on the bed, naked, not even wearing the t-shirt she so often did these days. Someone had entered the room. A man. She couldn’t remember his face, only his body. Tall, skinny. She remembered thinking “he’s not really my type”. Then another had come in, and another, maybe even another. She wasn’t sure how many. The music had seemed louder than ever that night, louder, wilder, hypnotic. It had been quick, animal, even brutal. She honestly couldn’t remember that much about it. She had a faint memory of blood, someone had been injured in the mad abandonment, perhaps it had even been her? Then she had been alone once again, locking the door, putting her clothes on, ashamed and already trying to forget what had happened.
The door had never been unlocked since. Not while they were out there. Not while their music roared.
The small unlocking of the repressed memory, although she still resisted remembering any detail, led her as if by some reflex to the bedside cabinet and the small picture frame that stood there. She picked it up, smiling slightly at the handsome man and pretty little girl who posed there. Her husband. Her daughter. They had been among the first victims of the plague.
Had they discovered the source of that terrible affliction? Had they found a cure? If they had it had not reached out here, to the city she could no longer even remember the name of. The city she had wandered into, dazed from her loss, horrified at the death that lay all around, guilty that she was one of the few who seemed immune. The hotel had been deserted, somewhere to stay before she moved on again. Then they had arrived, and she had never moved on, rarely moved out of the room.
From the very beginning it had been midnight. She had no idea what they did before that time. She never saw them if she ventured out onto the streets, into the deserted shops during daylight. But at midnight it began. Every night. Without fail. For over 3 years!
The shout had a sing-song quality to it, like a child goading a playmate in the playground. She felt her stomach turn over at the sound of it, closed her eyes, chewed at her lower lip.
“Can Clare come out to play?”
It was a man’s voice. No. More like a child’s, a teenager perhaps. Young certainly.
She could hear others, not the one calling, laughing. Somewhere there was a congratulatory whoop. A brief smattering of applause.
It was not the first time they had called to her. She guessed it was a form of bravado, almost a rites of passage thing with them. Most of them were only in their teens after all. What happened to them when they grew older? Where were the older ones, the ones who had been there from the very beginning? Perhaps they stayed quiet, in the background. Baiting was a young person’s game!
“I’ve got something for you Clare. Open the door and its all yours!”
More laughter. Several whoops. The music seemed to grow louder.
She covered her face with her hands. She would not let them goad her into responding. She knew from experience that if she stayed quiet they eventually got bored and moved on to other things, things more interesting than the mad woman in the hotel room.
Behind her hands the tears began.
The floorboards by the far wall were loose. She noted their creaking as she paced the room. They had been loose for as long as she could remember. It wasn’t important, it was just something she noticed.
They had stopped calling her name a couple of minutes ago. Her name, crude suggestions, eventually angry abuse when she refused to even acknowledge they were there outside her door. Towards the end someone had started hammering at the wood, shouting obscenities. For a while she had been afraid the lock would give way, or the hinges, and that they would come pouring into the room. She had backed away to the shuttered window, frightened, crying, trembling.
But it had stopped. The door had held. She had sank to her knees in an attitude of prayer, but she had given up praying long ago. There could be no one worth praying to, not when you saw what had happened to the world.
Carol, her six year old daughter, had been the first. Not just the first in their family but the first in the whole town. It was a notoriety Clare would have gladly done without.
The slim pale girl had died quietly, apparently painlessly, in the invisible, insidious way the plague had of taking its victims. Clare had been holding her. Matthew, her husband, had stood beside her. There was nothing anyone could do.
Matthew had himself died just a week later, but he wasn’t the second. By then hundreds had died, perhaps thousands. The town had been decimated quickly, quietly, ruthlessly.
Within a month, when there was only herself and maybe twenty others still alive, she had walked out. No packing, no planning. Just out of her front door, down the main street and away. Away. That had been all that was important.
By then bodies just stayed where they fell, in the middle of the street, on their porch, in a shop doorway. There was no one left to clear the corpses away. At least, no one who cared.
The loose floorboards creaked underfoot again.
Some hidden part of her mind shouted at her, called to her. The floorboards were important.
She slowly got down on her hands and knees, placing her palms against the worn carpet. She could feel the floor vibrating with the bass of the music outside.
“There’s something here I should remember.”
She whispered the words, not even realising she had said them aloud.
A drop of sweat dripped from her forehead onto the back of her hand. Her breathing grew heavy. She could feel more sweat running from her back, down her sides, under her breasts.
She felt ill.
“Perhaps the exercise wasn’t a good idea after all!”
But she knew it wasn’t the exercise. It was a memory. A memory fighting it’s way to the surface through barriers that had been strong and impenetrable for almost 2 years. Since the last time these floorboards were lifted. Since just after the one time she had let people into this room.
She scratched at the edge of the carpet, managed to get a hold and pulled it back. She heard little popping, tearing noises as the worn material snapped free of the edging strips it had settled back onto all that time ago. Dust rose into the air, into her lungs, making her cough, but she kept pulling until the bare floorboards lay before her and the carpet was folded back under her knees.
Three strips of board side by side had been broken and placed back at some point. Now they lifted easily as one by one she pulled them up and placed them carefully to one side.
Her heart was thumping almost as loud as the music as she reached a trembling hand down into the darkness below the floor, muscles tensed for quickly pulling away if anything should move.
Her fingers found the soft cloth of a bag and, clutching it tightly, she lifted it into the light. A grey cloth bag, heavy with whatever was inside it. She shuffled backwards, allowing the carpet to fall back over the bare floorboards, over the hole she had made.
The bag made a metallic noise as she placed it on the bed, metal on metal.
Taking one deep shaky breath she pulled open the bag.
Clare stood before the bed, one hand covering her mouth, the other twisting nervously at the bottom of her t-shirt. In a line before her lay the contents of the bag. Three knives. A wide-bladed hunting knife. A serrated edged army knife. A machete. Even after all this time they shone, clean, polished. Without touching she knew they were razor-sharp.
As she looked at them the memories, painful, horrible memories, came screaming back into her head.
Death from the plague was not quiet, peaceful like she remembered. But she had not been able to watch her daughter die in the agonies of that terrible illness. Instead she had decided her daughter would die quickly, in her sleep, with her mother by her side. Her daughter had been the first.
When her husband had shown the first symptoms of the plague it had been a relatively easy decision to show him the same mercy she had shown her daughter. And then the neighbours had been infected, then the families down the road that she knew by sight but not by name.
It had got easier the more people she released from their agonies. She had realised she had a calling, a gift even. In this time of panic and fear she could bring peace and calm. She knew then that she had to go out into the world and help all she could.
But things had gone wrong here, in this city, this hotel room. Wrong when she had let those others into her room, into her body. Even though she had released them from their anguish afterwards it had not been the same. She had sinned. She had slipped from her path.
She had hidden the knives and her mind had conveniently forgotten the rest.
The army knife was tucked into the waistband of her trousers. The hunting knife was in her left hand. The machete lay on the bed.
She turned the key in the door.
She was ready. She had rediscovered her purpose in life, her reason for living. Her calling.
She didn’t need to hide in this room anymore.
She pulled open the door, reached back and grabbed the machete in her right hand, smiling as the thud thud thud of the music grew suddenly louder, filling her body with a sensuous pleasure she had not experienced for so long.
Clare danced out into the plague-infested world slicing and stabbing to the beat.