He squats like a reptilian predator waiting for a moment. That moment, when he’ll strike. Awashed with a light, ruby, and amber he blends into the shadows and lurches out of them like an apparition of smeared blood. He squats, waiting.
Eric never paid any mind to his neighbour. Why would he? He’d only ever seen him once, late last November. Eric was stumbling home from an unsuccessful date in town. Blown out, gutted and a bit pissed he decide to stop off at the ‘Happy House’ with a plan to eat away his disappointment with a number sixty-two and egg fired rice. Plaggy take-away bag swinging, legs wobbling Eric fumbled with the key to the door. Then a wisp passed him by, he felt a weak waft of air and turned his head. The man opposite was leaving his house. Eric raised an eyebrow and said ‘Aye up,” well, mumbled it. The man said nothing. He pulled up the collar of his duffle coat and walked on into the November night. A charcoal night. One of those nights where you would be able to see the stars if the council hadn’t raped the sky with low-pressure sodium. It was kind of them, to obscure the natural majesty that was available to all for free. Eric mused this as he went into the house, to quell his failure with MSG.
That was it, Eric’s only encounter with the man who lived opposite. During the day his curtains were shut. The house, impotent to the life and the agenda that surrounded it. In that small terrace, people would come and go. On hot nights in the summer, music could be heard from every house creating an urban megamix. No one cared or got into each other’s faces they were too close for that. They just got on and shared food, music, and laughs. It was not the most affluent neighbourhood, but it was real, and Eric loved it.
In the summer months, Eric made a few quid working with a bunch of lads from across town. Wheeler-dealers, with one foot in the nick and the other one on the gas. They bootlegged DVDs and CDs and sold them three for a fiver on the Sunday markets. Eric could drive a van, so they set him up with a hire vehicle and a stall. He’d pick up the merchandise on Saturday evening, and they’d tell him what market he was on. Then they would also provide him with a float and a bum bag. Sunday at 4 am he was off. Usually, he would do a market near Stratford, it was a good run, it would take about an hour and a half, so Eric needed to be on his game.
Saturday nights were alright for fighting, dancing, and shagging; for some people. In the best months, the hot months, Eric got an early night. He had to get up, and he never let people down. Also, the lads from across town didn’t take well to excuses and poor performers. They could quickly make £1300 a market, Eric got eighty quid, which suited him right enough. Diligence, therefore, was the name of the game and laddish carousing was on hold for one night per week. Only in the summer though.
August nights are stickier than a treacle pudding. The more Eric tried to sleep the less his mind would let him. Some nights he’d sleep like a stone. This night his brain whirred like a dynamo powering that light bulb we know as a brain. Eric tossed and turned, he made that schoolboy error of looking at the clock. The dim aqua digital digits went from 22:03 to 23:09 then 01:25. He started to panic, the heat had rinsed him in sweat, and he knew he needed that prize. That golden prize, the glory of sleep. Just dozing off, letting go and floating away. That was his goal, but, like the World Cup or a winning lottery ticket, it was out of his reach.
He sat bolt upright and vaulted out of bed. He put some pants and on and went downstairs. He poured some milk into a high ball. The ice-cold liquid left creamy tears around the glass as he swilled it and took a gulp. Too cold. He put the glass in the microwave and turned the dial to thirty seconds. The atomic telly pinged, and Eric grabbed the glass, it wasn’t too hot, but it would do. He swallowed it in one and went back upstairs.
Eric’s bedroom was like a sauna. He threw open the curtains and though the windows were already open he pushed them outwards as far as they would go. I’d give real money for a breeze right now, he thought. He leaned on the window ledge and looked out onto the terrace. A courtyard led to two rows of houses that faced each other, and at the end opposite the courtyard, there was a wall. It was nearly two in the morning, the megamix normally died down at eleven, and you wouldn’t see a soul until the next day.
Eric surveyed the place, he cursed his overactive mind and made a deal with himself to get back into bed. Then he paused. He looked at the house opposite. The curtains were open. A weird glow was coming from the living room window. It was red, dark red, like a light from the 70’s or Soho. It was strange. It was warm. Eric looked closer. He moved his head so he could see into the living room. He saw his neighbour.
The man was crouching down with his knees pressed against his chest and his backside grazing the floor. He was naked, and his head was darting from side to side like a bird of prey scanning for rodents. He stayed crouched but began to hop little bunny hops. Eric smirked, he wanted to laugh, the whole scene was just so odd. “Each to their own” he whispered. There was something not right though. The living room floor had been covered in dirt. Either that, or he’d spilled a massive bag of ground coffee all over the place. Eric squinted and leaned forward out of the window to get a closer look.
There was a boy, a small boy in the there with him. The boy was trying to run, but the man hopped and blocked him. He would move with agile little bounces. The kid was crying, distressed and trying to run. The man was mocking him and kept stopping him. Eric didn’t recognise the boy. This whole situation did not look right. He fumbled on his bedside table to get his phone. The event he was observing was unusual. The boy was panicked; Eric was going to call the police.
Eric tapped the screen of his phone, and the illumination lit up his face, it caught the attention of the man. He looked directly up at Eric. Eric looked into his eyes. They burned him. Those empty windows to a vile soul scorched him like a million lumens piercing him with a burning sensation hotter than smelted steel. Eric wanted to look away but he couldn’t. The man stood, naked, thin with skin like pale ash and he raised a finger and pointed at Eric. A long finger, it looked like gnarly chopstick fashioned from fish bones. The man pulled back his thin lips and revealed teeth, incisors all of them. Jagged like cursed rocks on a mountain shore, grey and marbled with rust coloured stains.
The man screamed a high-pitched wail that carried through the glass window and hurt Eric’s ears. He then pulled the curtains shut. It was as though he pulled unconsciousness down on Eric because he passed out and fell to the floor.
When Eric awoke, it was 4 am, and he was lying on top of his bedclothes. He was fully dressed and there was a steaming cup of black coffee by his bed. His head whirred like an out of control washing machine, and his throat felt as though he’d gone ten rounds with a strong cider at the Barley Mow. It was unlike any hangover he had ever felt. He had memories of the night before, wishy-washy images of red, burning eyes and teeth. Then there was the boy. It was all fuzzy, dreamlike visions that made no sense.
It occurred to him; he couldn’t have a hangover. He never drank before the markets. When he went to bed he was naked, and where did the coffee come from? Fear rose in him, like a creeping mist consuming his body. Eric’s heart began to step up its beats, and a thin layer of cold sweat graced his forehead like an autumn frost. He had to go. He went downstairs. The keys to the hire van were by the door. He looked for his jacket, flung one on and checked himself in the hallway mirror. There smeared in a rusty brown paste was a single word: Warned!