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The uncomfortable silence was finally broken when the door of Flat 5 – which was opposite their own – flung open, making them all jump.
The occupants of Flat 5 didn’t typically mix much with Penny’s Flat 6. They used separate kitchens, which was normal, but their Freshers reps hadn’t given them much chance to get to know each other.
Now, the other flat were all filing noisily towards the lift, laughing and singing raucously.
‘They must be going out too,’ Karla observed.
As they watched through the glass panel in the kitchen door, they saw that the flat were taking it in turns to hug one person among them – a tall, slender boy with electric blue hair. ‘Come on, Sam! Come with us!’ they chanted encouragingly.
‘No, sorry,’ Sam said. ‘I’ve got something important to do. I’m busy.’
Finally, after much imploring, they accepted his refusals, and, waving and smiling, they all piled into the lift. It rattled and rumbled as it descended through the building, taking the occupants of Flat 5 with it.
Karla glanced at her watch.
‘Hey, if they’re heading to get the bus, we better had too!’
What followed was the usual scramble. Bottles of Echo Falls hastily tipped into inconspicuous Evian bottles. People hurrying to their rooms to find their ID, drag on their coats, touch up their makeup. Someone lost a lipstick, finding it in the last place they expected. Despite the rigmarole, a few minutes later, Penny was laughing and waving as the flat crammed themselves into the lift, ready to go. The doors slid shut, and the lift churned its way towards the exit of Slaidburn House.
Penny stood still for a moment. The flat felt blissfully quiet after the chaotic departure. Only the hushed buzz of the fridges undercut the silence. She wanted some time to enjoy the peace.
Once she’d breathed it in, and caught the reproachful smell of the bin, she made for her room.
‘They’ve gone, Dylan,’ she called lightly as she passed the first door on the left. Dylan was often whispered about in the flat; he was a recluse like none of them had ever met before. He even took his own binbags into his room so he wouldn’t have to risk interacting with the rest of them. There was no reply, but she thought he might like to know considering how much he hated large gatherings.
Penny stepped into her room and locked the door, dropped into her chair, and shuffled her laptop mousepad. She checked her watch. Eleven on the dot. With a sigh, she gritted her teeth and got on with it.
With her library books open beside her, five different PDFs to click between, and her carefully colour-coded plans, she worked busily for the next hour. She hated leaving work so last-minute but organising the Zumbathon for the Barnardo’s society had kept her busy for the last week. She’d written an intricate seven-day plan, but even then, she’d only been able to snatch a few hours here and there to work on it. Tonight was her last chance to finish the essay – she’d already agreed to coffee with Welcome the next day.
Hopefully, she’d be able to work as long as she needed without interruption.
The next time Penny checked the clock on her laptop, it read 00:10. She’d made good progress on her final argument, and was just thinking about taking a short break, when she heard the lift rumbling back up through the building. She was going to ignore it when it stopped on her floor.
That’s weird, she thought. It wasn’t like her flatmates to spend only an hour and ten minutes on a night out. Less, counting the bus journey into town.
Hitting ‘Save’ on her essay, Penny unlocked her door and poked her head out.
The fob lock on the flat door beeped, and Ross appeared. He looked somewhat flustered but smiled broadly when he saw Penny.
‘Oh, hi, Penny,’ he said, entering the flat.
‘Hey,’ Penny replied from her doorway. ‘What’re you doing back so soon?’
‘Would you believe, Karla forgot her hat,’ he said, as he strode past her and headed for Karla’s room. ‘And of course, I have to come back for it because they’re playing ‘Bad Blood’ inside and she doesn’t want to miss it.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Penny, with a smile. That sounded just like Karla. ‘Well, it’ll get you some Brownie points.’
‘It better had,’ Ross chuckled. He unlocked the door and Penny noticed Karla had given him her key – no one else had a Betty Boop keyring. ‘I didn’t disturb you working when I came up, did I?’ he added.
‘Not a bit,’ Penny lied.
‘Okay,’ said Ross. ‘Well, I’ll just grab this stuff, so you get back to it. I’ll see you later.’
Ross entered Karla’s room, the door closing behind him.
Penny returned to her desk and kept working. A few minutes later, she heard Karla’s door shut again. Ross locked it and jogged down the corridor. Seconds later, the lift rattled again, and he was gone.
Penny kept on working, and by 01:30 things were beginning to take shape. She was just inputting some footnotes when she heard a door open.
The footsteps were rapid and light. Someone crossed into the kitchen, and she heard cupboard doors opening and closing, followed by the hum of the microwave. Only Dylan made food in the kitchen this late at night. It was the only way he could be sure he wouldn’t run into anyone. Penny felt sorry for him. Earlier in the year she’d invited him to everything the flat did together, hoping to encourage him, but it hadn’t taken her long to realise that it was only making him less comfortable. Now, most people left him to his own devices, but Penny still felt a bit guilty about that.
True to form, Dylan made his meal and went right back to his room.
At 01:45, Penny finally closed her books, folded away her essay plan, and shut down her laptop. She stretched luxuriantly. As a treat, she wouldn’t submit the essay until morning.
Penny didn’t like staying up this late. All-nighters had never come naturally to her, and she realised she’d been yawning constantly for the last fifteen minutes. She changed into her pyjamas and took her cup of water to the bathroom with her.
The Prazosin tablet was on the shelf by the sink. Penny put it in her mouth, drank some water and tipped back her head.
Without warning the water went down the wrong way, instantly unleashing a scratching feeling all the way down her throat. Penny barely swallowed the water before she pitched forward with a cough.
The tablet flew out of her mouth and into the sink.
Penny scrambled to catch it, but she was coughing too much. The tablet slid straight down the plughole and out of sight.
Another sip of water cleared the coughing. Penny wiped her streaming eyes and cursed quietly.
She couldn’t go and get another tablet. Karla’s room was locked. For a long time, she stood in the bathroom. A chill of apprehension ran up her spine.
Without her medication, she knew what kind of night she was in for.
She brushed her teeth. Then, to try and settle herself, she got into bed and opened Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Her favourite Poirot mystery, she’d read it and re-read it, and hoped that doing so now would give her some comfort.
She read by the glow of the light on the wall beside her bed, but before long, the yawning and heavy eyelids became too much. By now, she was resigned to whatever awaited her. Any sleep was better than none. She closed the book, turned out the light, and lay down. In moments, her eyes slid shut.
The dull tone of a fog bell, floating on the heaving tide, rang like a funeral march.
Penny woke up with a jerk. Her heart was hammering, and even in those first moments she could feel her duvet coiled tightly around her. She forced her hand, which was gripping a handful of her pillow, to relax.
At first, she thought it was the nightmare that had woken her, before she realised, she could hear something. Splashing, groaning, and muddled voices from the kitchen.
Penny reached out and turned her alarm clock to face her. 02:20.
The noise from the kitchen was shifting as the flatmates spilled out into the corridor. A few sentences floated into Penny’s room as she lay in bed.
‘Easy does it, mate, easy does it,’ Dalil was saying.
‘Where’s your key, Chris?’ asked Welcome.
All the voices were undercut by a low, constant moaning noise. There was a jangle of keys, and a door close to Penny’s opened. At that moment the groaning grew sharper and louder. The voices rushed into urgency. There was a clatter of people all moving at once, another door opening, followed by more splashing. People audibly cringed.
‘Someone’s being sick,’ Penny thought.
The voices became gentler, comforting.
‘Good lad, Chris,’ said Ross.
Chris, Penny thought. He must have got too drunk while they were out. Much toodrunk, actually – nothing else could have forced the whole flat to come back with him.
She knew she should get up and help too, but something held her back. The nightmare still felt cold inside her, like a great stone in her chest, and in bed she felt safe. So, she lay still, listening. Soon, Chris’s vomiting began to subside.
‘Tell you what,’ said a voice, as its owner stepped out of Chris’s room. It was Velda. ‘I’ve got some Alka-Seltzer in the kitchen. I’ll go make him one.’
A minute later she was back, and again the flat gently soothed Chris.
It seemed to work. Shortly afterwards, she heard them quietly filing out into the corridor.
‘Thanks guys, thanks guys. Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,’ Chris said sluggishly. His door closed and he locked it. Muttering and whispering, many of them still a bit drunk themselves, Penny’s flatmates made for their bedrooms. Doors closed along the hall, and a few seconds later the motion-sensing light in the corridor flicked off.
Penny was surprised by how quickly the flat returned to silence. It all seemed to be over. She got herself comfortable, and within moments she was falling asleep again. The last thing she saw was her alarm clock. 02:27.
Something was different now. Penny was looking down at the woman from above, and rather than staring at the sky, the woman’s head was lolling to the side. She looked like a carcass waiting for vultures.
As Penny watched, the head yawed slowly to the right, until the glassy eyes faced her.
Penny didn’t notice herself drift once again from sleep into wakefulness but was relieved that she had. An icy trickle of sweat ran down her forehead. Her throat was tight with revulsion at the grisly sight that was seared into her mind. She shivered quietly under the duvet.
She switched on the light over her bed. She immediately felt safer, bathed in its golden glow.
Furiously she wished she hadn’t spat the Prazosin down the sink. It would be a restful night otherwise, and she wouldn’t have had to listen to Chris be sick down the toilet for several minutes. She briefly considered going to Karla’s room and asking for another pill but decided against it. Karla and Ross would be asleep by now. Or perhaps not. Either way, she didn’t want to disturb them. She knew she’d regret being so considerate by morning.
As she lay there, she heard Chris groan suddenly. His heavy feet blundered across his room, and the guttural retching returned. With a growl Penny rolled over and pulled her pillow over her head.
The vomiting didn’t last long, but the heaving continued, and a few minutes later, she heard two pairs of slippered feet scurry down the corridor.
‘Chris? You alright?’ Dalil called softly through the door.
Chris made an inarticulate, hoarse sound.
‘You want us to come in?’ That was Lucien.
Another groan, but this one sounded like it was agreeing.
‘The door’s locked, mate,’ said Dalil.
Still groaning, Chris stumped across the floor. The lock rattled and the door opened.
‘Okay, buddy. Take it easy,’ came Lucien’s voice, and the door closed.
Penny didn’t fancy listening to another round of throwing up. Still with her head under the pillow, she rolled over and screwed her eyes shut. With enough effort, she managed to tone out the noise from Chris’s room. Her brain was still tired, and she felt it slowly powering down again.
Pulling her back into…
Everything was a swirling grey blankness. She could only hear and feel.
There was something around Penny’s neck. At first, it just rested there, like a slightly-too-tight shirt collar. But all at once, it began to tighten. Not quickly, but with a horrible deliberateness. In seconds she felt the muscles in her neck being crudely squashed together. Whatever it was, it was starting to rub into her skin. She heard, as if from far away, panicked gasping, and a low, animal grunting. Colours began to burst in the grey mist as the thing round her neck drew closer and closer, squeezing her throat closed. She tried to struggle but couldn’t move. Just as the mist began to go black—
A breath rushed into Penny’s body as she sat bolt upright. She was panting convulsively. How long had she stopped breathing?
She managed to get her eyes open and sat, staring around her room, shaking from head to toe. Even with the light on, the nightmare felt more visceral and real than the waking world, and it took her a few minutes to convince herself that, yes, here she was, in her room in Lancaster, and she wasn’t about to turn and find herself on that sodden freezing Northumbrian beach.
Penny stared at her hand. It trembled tautly like a plucked string. She felt sick herself.
Gradually, she began to feel tethered, once again, to reality. She swung her legs out of bed and ground the heels of her hands into her eyes.
How many more times tonight would she need to face that dreadful dream?
Penny glanced at her alarm clock again. 03:36. She had slept for longer than she’d thought.
‘I mean, so long as you get enough sleep, it doesn’t matter if you have bad dreams, right?’ Penny thought, without believing it for a second.
At that moment, a sound carried to her. It was quiet, indistinct, so that she couldn’t tell if it had only just started, or if it had been going for a while and she’d only just noticed it. It was so vague that it took her a while to realise what was making it, but when she did, it was unmistakeable.
Somewhere close, a mattress was squeaking as a heavy weight moved on top of it.
For a few seconds she listened. The sound went on. The bed would creak briefly, and then stop, then start again, but the breaks weren’t regular. Some were longer and some shorter.
Penny’s eyes narrowed. Only one room in the flat had two people sleeping in it: Ross was staying in Karla’s room. But that was at the far end of the corridor.
She was wide awake by now and couldn’t ignore the noise. She slid her feet into her slippers and got out of bed. The light in the corridor flared as she opened her door.
Out here, she could tell immediately where the noise was coming from. Chris’s room.
In one step, she was across the corridor and tapping gently on the door.
‘Chris?’ she called softly. ‘You okay?’
The thumping and shifting from behind the door stopped instantly.
Penny frowned in thought. She couldn’t hear moaning or retching, so it didn’t seem Chris was being sick again. The sounds of the bed hadn’t been violent and there hadn’t been any cries.
She tried the door. It was locked.
‘You sure you’re okay?’
Penny put her ear to the door. Now she was closer, so could hear another sound from inside the room. Deep, slow breathing.
That settled her a bit. Maybe Chris had just been tossing and turning. She knew that happened to people who went to sleep drunk. At least he wasn’t throwing up.
‘‘Night? He can’t hear you!’ she reminded herself, as she padded back into her room and shut her door. She climbed back into bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling. The noises didn’t restart. The whole building was silent once again.
Penny lay still, her thoughts drifting aimlessly. She didn’t know when sleep finally took hold of her, but when she woke up, light was streaming through the edges of the blind, and her alarm clock was beeping. 07:15. Time to get up.
Not a bad night, considering she hadn’t taken her Prazosin, Penny thought as she got dressed.