Gabbi knocked twice on the red painted door, looking up at the darkening sky; it looked as though bad weather was on its way. It was unseasonably warm today, she thought to herself. This must be the calm before the storm. Mrs Rayner finally opened the door, a lemon yellow towel wrapped tightly around her head, a small spoon full of baby food in one hand and a green plastic skittle in the other.
“Gabbi! Come on in!” she greeted the girl warmly, “Max, will you put those down!” Max began to raise the keyring to his mouth. Mrs Rayner dropped the skittle and grabbed the keyring. Max’s lip started to tremble, tears shining in his eyes.
“Maxie!! It’s Gabbi, look!!” Mrs Rayner cooed. Gabbi reached down and swept Max up in her arms. He burst into a gush of gurgling baby laughter, completely forgetting about the keyring. Gabbi took over his feeding so Mrs Rayner could finish getting ready to go out. A small figure came down the stairs.
“Hey Jess, how’s it going?” Gabbi smiled at the girl who had a video in her hand, a Disney movie.
“Can we watch this, Gabbi? My dad bought me it today.”
“Sure,” replied Gabbi. After a few more minutes, Mr and Mrs Rayner came down the stairs, ready to head out. Mrs Rayner wore a pair of black trousers and a sparkly pink top the same shade as her dangly earrings. Mr Rayner wore a red corduroy shirt with little white buttons and blue jeans. He said hi to Gabbi.
She felt a little awkward because she’d heard that Mr Rayner’s father had died a few days ago and she didn’t know if she ought to mention it or not. She decided against it.
The parents kissed their children and Mr Rayner winked at Gabbi as he said, “we’ll be back around 12, the number of the restaurant is next to the phone - bedtime for the kids in five minutes, OK?” Jess began an outraged tirade but then cottoned on to their joke. She knew she would get to watch her video first.
“Dad, you’re not funny,” she remonstrated, rolling her eyes. Mr and Mrs Rayner laughed and went out into the night. Jessica pressed ‘play’ on the VCR remote control and the three of them sat on the couch, Max dozing on Gabbi’s lap and Jess cuddled into her side.
“My grandad’s dead,” announced Jess suddenly with a child’s bluntness. Gabbi didn’t answer, she didn’t know what to say. After a few moments, Jess became engrossed in the movie again.
“Right, you two, bedtime,” said Gabbi as the end credits started rolling up the screen. Max had been dozing on and off and Jess looked sleepy herself.
“One more video, Gabbi?” she ventured, but knew Gabbi would say no. They were good kids and were in bed asleep within twenty minutes. Gabbi had a quick tidy up – there were plastic bricks in all colors strewn around the floor, which she was bound to trip over if she didn’t move them, several skittles and a few soft toys. She put everything over by the wall, and then pulled open the door of the fridge, knowing that Mrs Rayner always left her a nice snack. She removed the paper plate covered in clingfilm. She had been left a turkey and tomato sandwich, three white chocolate fingers, some chips and a funny little frosted cake which looked like Jess had made it, or at least attempted to ice it. Gabbi helped herself to a glass of orange juice and settled back down on the couch, flicking through the TV stations until she found something good to watch.
Nothing happened for five minutes, until…
“Waaaaaaaaaaaagh!!” a shrill cry filled the air. Gabbi put down her plate and bolted up the stairs. The top stair creaked under her weight. Max was certainly upset about something. Gabbi checked his nappy to find that it was clean. She picked up the screaming baby and rocked him in her arms. Jess appeared in the doorway.
“Go back to bed, Jess, he’s OK,” whispered Gabbi, still rocking.
“Grandad,” Jess muttered, looking towards the corner of the room. Gabbi thought she must still be half asleep and told her to go back to bed. Jess shrugged and went back into her own room. Max settled down again after a while. Gabbi walked down the stairs.
The plastic blocks Gabbi had tidied away were in the middle of the room. Five were balanced precariously on top of one another, the rest were lying around on the room. Gabbi’s heart began pounding in her chest before she realized what must have happened. Jess can’t be getting a lot of attention at the moment, Gabbi thought to herself, poor thing. What with Mr Rayner’s dad dying and Max needing to be looked after too. She’s probably hiding in the dark bit at the top of the stairs watching me, giggling. Well, I won’t turn around and look, I’ll just put them back and she’ll get bored. Then I’ll watch more TV. And Gabbi did just that.
Gabbi opened her eyes suddenly, she’d been dozing and something had woken her up. She blinked a few times and sat up. The TV was off. That was strange, Gabbi was sure she’d left it on. She looked at her watch. Half past ten. Mr and Mrs Rayner would be ages yet.
Lightning cracked in the sky; that must have been what Gabbi heard. The rain was pelting harshly against the windowpanes and the thunder rolled in the distance. Incredibly, the children seemed to be sleeping through it. Max normally woke up and screamed at the slightest noise and Jess was frightened of storms and would come down and demand to be allowed to curl up next to Gabbi under a blanket.
She crept up the stairs to check on the kids and they were indeed sound asleep. Shaking her head with surprise, Gabbi used the bathroom then went back downstairs. She pulled the curtain open slightly so she could watch the storm. Gabbi had done that when she was a kid. Her parents thought she was sleeping but she was actually awake, her face pressed against the cool window, watching the storm in awe, counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. Storms had always fascinated Gabbi. After a while, she pulled the curtain closed again and turned the TV back on.
The phone started to ring. Gabbi answered it after the first ring. There was no one at the other end. Gabbi noticed the pad beside the phone. It said Sailboat Restaurant in Mrs Rayner’s big rounded writing and there was a telephone number next to it and a smiley face. Gabbi stayed where she was for a few more seconds, in case the phone was going to ring again. It didn’t. She turned round and gasped in surprise. Jess was standing in front of her, a thumb in her mouth and a blanket in her hand.
“Jess! You scared me, sneaking up like that!”
“Gabbi, I don’t like all the scary noise, can I sit with you?”
“OK,” agreed Gabbi, “but just for a while, OK?” Jess nodded assent and Gabbi got her a glass of milk. They returned to the living room and Gabbi stared at the TV.
“Jess, did you switch the TV off?” she asked. Jess shook her head, looking puzzled. “Have you been having trouble with the TV?” she tried again, “it keeps going off, that’s twice now.” Jess shrugged uncertainly and said she didn’t think so. Gabbi put it back on and sat on the couch. Jess lay down with her head in Gabbi’s lap. Gabbi absentmindedly stroked Jess’s hair and watched the news.
“Will you put something else on?” asked Jess optimistically. Gabbi looked at her, her expression conveying a definite no. Uninterested in the news, Jess closed her eyes and dozed. The phone started to ring again, startling Gabbi. She picked up the handset; she could hear a faraway rumbling, as if someone was calling from far away but had a bad connection.
“Hello? I can’t hear you. Hello?” Gabbi got no response. She replaced the handset and her eyes caught sight of the piece of paper next to the phone. On it was the restaurant name, telephone number and something else… in faint spidery writing at the bottom of the page, it said “go outside”. Gabbi frowned in confusion. Strange that she hadn’t seen that before. A chill crept down her spine. How could she have missed it? Gabbi looked over at Jess. She was sleeping on the couch, snoring gently. In front of her were the building blocks, four in a stack this time, the one of top balanced impossibly on its corner; the rest were presumably still by the wall. Some of the blocks in the set had letters on. The top one didn’t. The second from the top said O, the next down said U and the last one said T. Out. What was outside, she wondered, not really wanting to know the answer. Gabbi slowly and shakily covered her mouth with her hand. Her body began to tremble, wondering whether she was hallucinating. For no reason, she spun around and looked behind her. There was nothing there. Gabbi didn’t want to go back in the living room. If the TV’s off, she told herself, if it’s off… she didn’t finish the sentence. Tears pricked her eyes. Something is going on here; something really weird is going on. Gabbi had had the news on volume 2, which was very quiet, but now there was nothing. It’s gone off again, she thought, and I don’t want to touch those stacked bricks. She glanced at the pad, wondering briefly whether to call the restaurant, before deciding against it. What could she say that would sound plausible? Max’s crying broke the silence. Gabbi ran up the stairs and into Max’s room. She picked him up and realized his diaper was still dry. His eyes were fixed on a corner of the room as he cried, the way a baby’s eyes would fix a new shiny mobile. Gabbi peered into the shadowy corner but saw nothing of interest. Max’s crying went down a few decibels but when Gabbi tried to put him back in his cot, he started over. Rolling her eyes, she decided to take him downstairs with her too. The room was quiet, a calm oasis compared to the violent maelstrom outside.
The TV was on again. The building blocks were back against the wall. Did I put them back, wondered Gabbi, am I going crazy? Is that what’s happening – I stacked the bricks and I turned off the TV and now I think it was someone, no something else? I wish Mr and Mrs Rayner would come home. I’m really freaked out now. She looked again at her watch. Five minutes to midnight. She sat on the couch, Max in her arms. They’d said midnight, she thought, just five more minutes... only five more minutes...
A sound from upstairs made Gabbi jump. It sounded like footsteps directly overhead. What the heck, she thought. No one’s up there, she told herself, unable to stop shaking, hugging the children tighter to herself. Then a creak. The top stair. Gabbi was frozen, unable to move or tear her eyes from the shadowy place at the top of the staircase. Someone was trying to scare her, someone or something, and whatever it was wanted her to go outside. Beep beep – her watch informed her it was midnight. Another footstep. Gabbi could make out a foot in a brown shoe, with blue jeans above it, wispy and unreal looking. This wasn’t a person. Was it a ghost? The children were now both staring at the figure on the staircase, trembling against the petrified babysitter.
“Gabbi?” Jess whispered. Gabbi didn’t answer. There were no words. Another step. The other foot. The shoes were the same as the ones Gabbi was wearing, the jeans the same. What was this? Some supernatural twin? A disembodied voice loudly came from the TV set, it growled “out…..side.” It was low and rumbling, like a cassette being played at half speed. Gabbi began shuddering violently. She felt beads of sweat prick her forehead, her tears beginning to fall. The children were too terrified to move. Another step. Another. Another.
“It’s me, it’s me, it’s a ghost of me, oh my god, oh my god,” Gabbi had a split-second decision to make. She didn’t want to see the face on this thing coming down the stairs. She made that decision. Snatching up Max and grabbing Jess by the hand, she darted for the front door without looking behind her, her panic flowing from every pore like hot bile, terrified screams issuing from her throat. She let go of the little girl’s hand for a second to wrench open the door. The rain hit her face once she was outside but Gabbi could not stop screaming. She ran for the front gate.
A car pulled up. It was the Rayners. They ran out of the car, a look of horror on their faces.
“What the hell’s going on? Gabbi, what happened?” The children were crying loudly and Jess held on to her mother’s legs.
“Don’t go in there!!” yelled Gabbi. Suddenly there was a loud clap of thunder, a flash of lightning and an explosion from inside the house. The living room window suddenly blasted outwards. The air was full of shards of glass and an intense heat. Gabbi collapsed.
She came round a few minutes later, feeling like she was floating in a surreal fog.
“What happened?” she croaked.
“Lightning,” replied Mrs Rayner her voice quavering, “it struck the TV aerial, ran down the cable and blew up the TV. I’ve read about it happening but it’s so rare. Thank god you were all outside. The state of that room - if any of you’d been in there…” her voice cracked and she buried her face in Mr Rayner’s chest.
“Why did you come outside?” asked Mr Rayner quietly.
“I don’t know,” replied Gabbi, shakily, “I don’t know what was going on tonight. I was so scared. I don’t understand,” Gabbi realized she wasn’t making any sense but she had to keep talking. She heard sirens in the distance. Had she looked at Mr Rayner’s face at that moment, she would have seen him staring up at the sky in wonder, mouthing a silent thank you to his father.