It was getting late. He was in that clumsy window of the evening, too early for sleep but late enough that no desire remained to stay awake. So, he was settling into an hour or so of cosy, drowsy boredom to cap off the day. Circumstance had conspired to offer him some idle time, and he was happy to accept it. There is a rare sort of comfort in having nothing to do and a healthy chunk of time in which to do it. Life is not inclined to reward laziness, but it will sometimes demand it. He intended to oblige, and savour the moment.
Then came a knock on the door.
An unexpected guest was never the start of anything good. In the daytime, it meant salesmen, activists, fussy neighbours, and so on. After dark, it meant nothing, and therefore anything that one’s mind might like to conjure. That was much worse. The sun, in his view, had a sanitising effect on the world. Its rays made everything nicer, safer. It marked the better half of the human experience, the half in which routine and normalcy held sway. Chaos and all its unsavoury cohorts were strictly nocturnal beasts. Their presence changed everything. Harmless strangers by daylight were dangerous by night, and likewise for their activities. Violence and depravity could not tolerate sunlight. This was their time. And now, with this knock, they were looking to invade. He had no line of salt, no black tourmaline. If somebody truly wished to do him harm, they would succeed.
He sank deeper into the sofa and made an attempt at perfect silence. If he could ignore a phone call, he could ignore someone at the door. It was gone ten. The rules were different. He was, he told himself, under no obligation to respond. It was probably a drunk, or somebody of similarly loose conduct, looking for a free phone, or the money for another round. If anything, the onus was on him to spare them both the trouble. That said, he had also heard of an old trick whereby thieves would knock on their victims’ doors. If there was no answer, they would assume that the house was empty, and have their way with it. In that case, he’d be better off responding. Still, it seemed less likely than his first assumption, and it was generally preferable to succumb to the paralysing fear rather than the galvanising one.
Another knock. He would weather the storm. Even a canvasser knocks twice. This product of an indecent night could hardly be expected to exercise greater consideration. He would stay the course, and it would pass.
Then came a neat, rhythmic sequence, an ordered tune composed entirely from the quiet, harsh clacking of metal on metal. The invader persisted with this for some time. As he listened, he found his mind changing. If this stranger had the discipline for such an appeal, then perhaps they were sober. That being the case, perhaps they were looking for help of some kind, in all good faith and for a perfectly respectable problem. It would hardly be proper of him to deny them of it, or at least of the chance to ask. In uncertain relation to his better judgement, he stood, adjusted his glasses, and made his way to the door.
Fully expecting to come face-to-face with some knife-wielding vision of bacchic horror, he unbolted the bolt and unchained the chain. This symbolic wooden slab was his armour, and he was moving to denude himself to the night – or perhaps he was blowing things out of proportion. Still, there was a lump in his throat as he turned the handle.
On the doorstep, half-glowing in the streetlight, a young woman stood expectantly. He had, unconsciously, been expecting a man, and was immediately put at ease. The scenarios he had feared remained entirely possible, but that fear had lost its bite. It now had to be reconciled with an element that he did not associate with threat, and his psyche was not in the business of reconciling unless absolutely necessary. He had gone from a place of exaggerated danger to one of exaggerated safety, and that transition suited him just fine. And she was perfectly unthreatening. She wore a very sensible-looking coat, with her (undyed) hair tied back in a very sensible-looking style. She was pretty, but not in a way that made him overly conscious of sex. All things told, she looked composed, if cold, and quite disconnected from whatever other debauchery might be occurring out there.
“Hi.” She said.
“I had a good feeling about this door. Been trying all around this part of town. Um… I need some help. Something fell through, and now I don’t have anywhere to stay tonight.”
“… so you’d like to sleep here?”
“Yes, if at all possible. Just until the early trains. I know it’s a lot to ask. But, you know… the houses around here are nice and the people are decent. I just felt like I’d be able to stay out of the way in a spare bed, and stay safe for the night. I really don’t want to risk a cheap hostel or anything like that.”
Well, he could hardly argue with that reasoning. This was indeed a nice, safe area, and his house was probably the nicest, safest part of it. Anywhere still offering beds for a reasonable price at this time would surely be exactly the sorts of places where an honest young woman would have the most cause for concern.
“Oh, well. Um… of course. I have a spare bedroom that you’re welcome to use. That’s what it’s there for, I suppose.”
“Absolutely. It’s not the sort of thing I’d normally do, but I can hardly turn you away in good conscience.”
She let out a charming sigh, and formed an equally charming smile.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have no idea how much of a help this is. You may well be a literal life-saver, you know.”
“Erm… no problem. Happy to help.”
“So, can I come in?”
“By all means.”
He stepped aside, clearing the way for her to enter. This she did with visible relief, bustling through the front hallway and into the kitchen as if to solidify her presence in the house, putting at least one room between her and the outside. He took a second to collect himself before joining her.
“It feels so good to be out of the cold.” She beamed, removing her coat to reveal another eminently sensible ensemble underneath.
“Look, I don’t want to get in your way. If you were doing something before, or just going to bed, you can carry on as you were. I’ll be as quiet as possible, and wake up nice and early. Probably be on my way before you’re even awake.
“No, no, that won’t do. Hospitality is a virtue that I don’t want to see lost. Make yourself at home.”
“You’re very kind.”
“Not at all. It’s basic human decency.” Internally, of course, he was congratulating himself profusely.
There was a brief pause as she sat down and untied her hair. Realising that he was now obliged actually to offer some of the virtuous hospitality he had promised, he appealed to the universal emblem thereof.
“Cup of tea?”
“Oh, no thanks. A glass of water would be nice, though.”
“Certainly. I hope you’re not one of those mineral water people.”
“Tap is fine.”
He filled a glass and handed it over. Her eyes seemed to light up as she touched it, and she rubbed the outside with what seemed to him to be a slightly indecent fascination. She was entirely too enthusiastic about it, in short, and was barely attempting to hide the fact. There was, he felt, something decidedly off about that. But he could hardly begrudge her a quirk or two. Nobody’s perfect, or perfectly normal.
“Um…” She paused for a second. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to bed? I don’t want to keep you. It’s late.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m not too old to stay up a little longer than usual.”
“Are you sure? I’m very grateful to you, but really, I can take things from here.”
At this point, a touch of mistrust was starting to creep back in. Perhaps he had been too quick to judge. Perhaps he was repeating that mistake. Either way, that was not the sort of dilemma he wanted to have on a Friday evening, and he had brought it on himself. He resolved to be more careful with his kindness in future, regardless of how this turned out.
She took a deep, strained sort of breath. Her stomach growled. It sounded desperate.
“I really… could use the privacy. Really. Just go to sleep. Please. It will be easier for both of us.”
“Alright, that does it. What’s going on here? Are you going to rob me? Because that’s not going to happen. I hardly think you’re going to be able to overpower me.”
“No. That’s not it.” She twitched. “That’s not it. I just have to… sort some things out on my own, alright? Call it a woman’s business.”
“Well, I don’t know how much woman’s business I’d like going on in my home in any case, but that ship has sailed. You’re going to have to be straight with me, or I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
She sat, drumming her feet against the floor, blinking erratically. Both hands were wrapped around the glass, massaging it with increasing agitation.
“… fuck it. Sorry.”
At once, the windows cracked through. The lightbulbs began to splinter, flickering wildly. Her mouth opened wide (much too wide, he felt), and she put the entire glass in, crunching down into it with a look of utter satisfaction. He watched, aghast, as she swallowed, the outlines of shards clearly visible as they pulsed down her neck.
She stood just as he took a step towards her, freezing him in place with an admonishing finger.
Blood tumbled out of her mouth when she spoke. His head was spinning, his legs were shaking, and he obeyed, watching silently as she picked apart his windows and ate mouthful after jagged mouthful. With that done, she fixed him with another warning gaze, climbed onto the table, and plucked the lightbulb. That was one bite, little more than dessert. She stood there in the dark, a silhouette of sticky, bloodied lunacy standing tall over him. Then her stomach growled again, and she jumped down, prowling off deeper into the house.
This act of further invasion gave him back a little bit of fighting spirit. He collected himself and went off in pursuit, which was not difficult – a thick, red trail was soaking into the carpet. She was in the living room, hunched over the remnants of a coffee table.
“Stop!” He cried. “Stop it, stop it, stop it. I don’t know what you are or what you’re doing, but please. You’ve got to go, now, or I’m going to have to get violent.”
The threat had just sort of… flopped out, and was about as convincing as could be expected from a man who was visibly trembling. She stood, and walked slowly to him, stopping just inches in front.
“A person.” She said, removing his glasses. “Has got to eat. And it’s not easy when your appetites are all wrong.” She popped out the lenses and ate them like after-dinner mints. “But it is what it is. Nothing I can do. I can hardly just starve, can I?”
“No… but, this… this is…”
“Broken eggs. Can’t make an omelette, and so on.”
He looked down at the bloody, glass-seeded rug, felt the night air blowing in through a now-vacant window, and found the comparison wanting.
“Please.” He could feel his throat catch, and was actively resisting tears. “Tell me you’re done.”
“All full up, thank you. It really was sweet of you to let me in.”
She hugged him, trapping him momentarily in a warm, sodden embrace. It was not pleasant.
“I am grateful.” She continued. “And hey, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll make it up to you. But I figure you must be doing pretty well for yourself, right? Single guy, in a house like this, in this part of town. I tried. I’m not perfect, but I tried.”
He didn’t know to what extent he was angry, or to what extent he could blame her. He wasn’t thinking about it. He wasn’t thinking about the damage to his property, or the violation of his rights, or her situation, or what he might do in it, or how any of this was even possible. Thought was a lost cause. He just wanted it not to have happened. Failing that, he just wanted it to be done.
“I’m… I don’t… I’m done. Can you just go? Just leave, and that can be that.”
“Of course. But, erm… I’m going to have to use your shower first.”
He slumped to the floor, failing miserably in his attempts not to cry. With a voice of total defeat, he offered to show her to the spare bedroom.
He never did tell anybody about what happened that night. The clean-up was long, expensive, and full of awkward questions, but he took it on the chin and moved on – another of those virtues he was keen to preserve. All things told (and with selective ignorance of a few items) he was rather proud of his composure throughout the whole ordeal. She had been right about his finances. Barely a dent’s worth of damage caused, in the grand scheme of things. One year later, and the whole ghastly business was behind him. Or so he told himself. Whether he knew it or not, he was a changed man. For the rest of his days, he felt a strange discomfort about unthreatening young women. And, needless to say, he never answered the door again.