The police had been nice to the young woman. The social workers at the community centre had been understanding, and the police psychiatrist really wanted to help her. She had said “You need to get away, love. You need time to rest and recuperate. It will help you forget”. They had all pulled together to get her a vacation in an isolated scout cottage in the woods; a small, one-room cabin with a kitchenette, a couple of beds and a table. She was supposed to stay here for two weeks to collect her thoughts and let the fresh air and the beautiful surroundings heal her. When she came back, they would help her get a job and start over. “Time will heal”, they had said.
But nobody had expected the pandemic. Two weeks became three weeks, and three weeks became four weeks. And then came Christmas and New Year, and days just kept popping up like whack-a-moles.
Her psychiatrist, Ms Elliot, had called her every day on the landline telephone to see how things were going and to keep her updated on the situation in the city. But she didn't call anymore. Maybe she was dead. A lot of people were. Livia still got her food packages every week though, so there were still people out there who knew about her and cared for her. And the old radio worked just fine, even if it was just the news twice a day.
A dream: It was a man. He was only a black shadow without features. Maybe it was Rick or maybe it was David. Or maybe it was someone else. It wasn't the first time Livia had this dream but she still couldn't tell who the shadow was. At least It wasn't threatening; it just hovered around her like a lost soul. She wanted to touch it. And maybe be touched by it. She had not been touched by anybody for ages.
She woke up in the small bed alcove that smelled of damp blankets and boy scout’s hormones. It was still dark and a bit ominous, like if something bad was going to be revealed when the lights came on. There was only one light switch and it was on the wall by the front door in the other end of the room. Every morning she had to walk across the room in darkness and every morning, she closed her eyes when she turned on the switch, scared of what the light might reveal. She wished that she had smuggled her mobile phone with her; it had a flashlight function. But when they had come to fetch her to drive her here, she had not cared about phones or friends or folks at all. They had asked her not to bring any electronics, and she had just shrugged her shoulders and complied. The only thing she had brought was a change of clothes, some books and watercolours, brushes and a paper pad.
Some days the sun was shining, but there were still patches of snow under the trees in the thick forest. It would have been great to take a walk outside on one of those days - they said there was a lake not far from the cabin - but it was still too cold. A “cold spell”, they said on the radio. And they were still warning people to stay away from strangers. The forest might be full of strangers.
Livia had read all the books, both the books that she had brought with her and the books that were left in the cabin. She had even read “The Horror of Mary’s Cabin”, with the screaming woman on the cover, - which she regretted. She had also used up all the watercolour papers, and she had hung her artwork on the walls. There were pictures of bad weather, of men, of men and women together, of naked people. She could have an exhibition when they came to take her home.
There was nothing left to do. Every day, she planned to take a walk outside - and every day she found that it had to wait. It was still too dangerous, the ground was wet and dirty, she could hear strange sounds from wild animals, the clouds looked like it could start raining. There was always a reason to stay inside.
The dream had changed. The shadow figure was closer now, glowing of anti-light, so deep and dark that you could fall into it and never come back. She couldn't move; and she knew that if she touched the cold figure, she would become a shadow figure herself. It was a disease, just like the one in the real world.
A sudden, banging sound woke her up. She wasn't sure if it was part of her dream or if it was real. It was just one bang, like metal on wood. Or someone knocking on the door with a hammer. She lay still for a couple of minutes, waiting, listening; too afraid to open her eyes. It might have been something from the outside. The forest was full of noises; from trees, from animals, maybe even from people, although she had not seen a living soul since she came here.
People were dangerous. Livia envisioned a horde of zombies walking through the forest, closing in on the cabin. She knew that the virus that kept her prison here did not make the dead rise again - people just died, and stayed dead - but the forest was as dense as a wall, and the threat from it had to take some physical form in her mind.
She took down some of the paintings she had made, the ones with people, the naked bodies. She cut them to strips with a pair of scissors she had found in the toolbox, thin strips that she arranged in patterns on the table. One of the naked men looked like Edward, mad Edward, furious Edward. She enjoyed cutting him to strips. In her mind, she could see him bleeding and begging for mercy. His enormous hands covered almost five parallel strips.
. The room had two windows, one facing each direction, but the view from them were the same; conifer trees. If she sat long enough by one of the windows and looked out, she could see movements: A bush suddenly shaking, a branch bending, emerging waves in the thick carpet of shredded needles covering the ground. She knew that it was the wind, or the forest waking up from winter, growing; that it was all natural. She knew that. But there could be another explanation, one that also explained the whispers she could hear if she listened very hard.
She had covered the windows with blankets from the unused beds. She didn't want to see what was out there and she didn't want anything to look in while she was undressing or doing things in secret. The blankets made her feel safe. She still had to open the front door once a week, open it and take three steps down the porch to retrieve the food bags, but that was unavoidable. It usually took several hours of planning and preparations; looking through the keyhole, listening, waiting for the right moment, before she dared rush out, with her eyes more or less closed, and grab the bags.
The dreams didn't come very often but when they did, the shadow figure was now so close that she could feel the virus particles penetrate her skin and attack her brain, and she knew that she was going to die. When that happened, she woke up, terrified, convinced she had been infected, and she would not be able to go back to sleep.
During the days, she sat by the table, rearranging the paper strips, cutting off pieces that didn't fit, letting the hours go by. There wasn't much else to do. She had read all the books, most of them twice, and she had begun cutting them to pieces. The cover with the screaming woman had been transformed into strips and rearranged into a less frightening, abstract image with watercolour covering the eyes. .
One night there was a knock on the door. The sound woke her up, but she couldn't move. Was it a real knock, from the real world, or was it in her mind, from a dream? She wasn't even sure if it was a knock or if it came from the door. No, it had not come from the door. It was closer; from the table, she thought, under the table. From the floor. How did she know that if it was just a dream?
She stayed in bed until sunlight penetrated the blankets in the windows. There were no more unfamiliar sounds but she couldn't convince herself that the knocking was imagined. When she finally left the bed, she went straight to the table to cut out some words from the paperback book and lay them out in a new order: “I am not afraid”, they would say. “I am not afraid”. But she couldn't find the scissors. Instead she grabbed her pen and began underlining the words she needed. There were plenty of them. “Afraid” was a common word.
In the evening, when she was having a potato and leek soup for dinner, she heard the knocking again. This time it was not so loud, but it definitely came from below. It could be the floorboards cracking or a water pipe with air bubbles, changing pressure. The sun was going down and the temperature was dropping; that could do it. She had probably heard it before without thinking of it. This time she was too worked up to not notice.
She woke up screaming. It was a dream; she knew that, but it was so real. She could still feel his fingers on her shoulder, hot and sticky as a leper patient’s in a tropical jungle infirmary. She could still feel his breath in her ear.
She sat up in her bed. It was dark outside, but the small room was lit. She had stopped turning off the light in the evenings because things happened when it was dark, things she didn't want to happen. The scissors had vanished. Other things had vanished too. Or moved. She could not put her finger on exactly what; a plate in the dish rack turned up in the cupboard, one of the books lay on the floor, a spoon went missing.
And the sound from the floor was there too, every day, knocking, scratching. Always in the afternoons when she had her dinner - if she had any dinner. The thought of opening the front door, stepping out on the porch and fetching the food-bags was more frightening than ever. Sometimes she could clearly hear the footsteps from the afflicted men outside. They wanted her. Only when her hunger overwhelmed her did she run out and grab the bags, and by then the bread was stale and mouldy, the vegetables wilted and sad and the butter runny as oil.
Today, when she was awake and up and about, the sound from under the house suddenly stopped - and two sticky hands squeezed her shoulders. For a second, it felt so real that she jumped up from the chair and turned the table over, but when she looked around, there was nobody there. She made a meagre attempt to curse her own imagination. It was her imagination. It must have been. A vivid memory of a foul dream
She didn't sleep at all that night.
She hardly leaves her bed anymore. The table is still upside-down. She eats with the plate on a pillow in her knee. The light in the ceiling is always on, but it seems to get dimmer. The corners are getting darker, yet, they are coming closer. Knock-knock-knock it says under the floor. And then comes the scratches, as if someone is pulling something over an uneven surface. There should not be any surfaces under the floor. Quiet. Knock-knock-knock.
She saw something moving under the carpet. She has seen lots of things moving. It’s all in her mind, she thinks. Movements in the corner of her eyes because she is tired, she thinks. She is losing it. But the movement under the carpet was real because it was right in front of her. Right there, in the far end of the room. Under the carpet.
Some small part of her still believed that things would go back to normal, once the pandemic had petered out. There would still be fighting and anger, and men looking at her with their burning eyes and lewd smiles. But the radio had died and she had no way to know for sure. Everybody could be dead. Yes, she thought. They are all dead. Nobody is coming to take me home.
Now Livia knew what was under the carpet. She had gathered strength and courage enough to go and have a look. She had lifted the carpet: It wasn't a rat. It was a hatch.
It was getting darker again. Nightfall came earlier, mornings came later; hot days were gone and bad weather more predominant. It rained most of the time, and cold, humid air seeped in through invisible cracks, dampening everything textile, making the old, heavy blankets less effective. When she washed her long, auburn hair - which was an increasingly rare endeavour - it took the whole day to get it sufficiently dry again. Yes, her hair had grown much too long.
The dreams had changed again and the shadow figures had got faces; unrecognisable, stiff, uncaring faces. They didn't mean anything. They just pushed her around like repelling magnets. Sometimes, when she woke up and opened her eyes, one of them was lying next to her in her bed, just inches away, staring back at her. Then she woke up for real and her heart was beating like a steam engine piston.
The carpet is pushed away and the hatch is open. There is no point getting over there to have a look. It is quite visible from the bed. It is open. It has been open for several days but nothing has emerged - and the knocking sounds have stopped. Now it’s just waiting.
Livia doesn't leave her bed more than once or twice a day when she has to. It is too dangerous. There are invisible footprints on the floor, full of germs and viruses. And if she gets too close to the walls, she can hear the men whispering outside.
Her hands and feet are dry. Her clothes stink. Her hair is a mess; it is much too long. “I am dying”, she says, quietly as not to wake something up. “I wish I had been kinder. I wish I never met him. I wish I’d been to Paris, flying from the top of the Eiffel Tower”.
The light bulb in the ceiling is dead and when it’s dark outside, it’s pitch black in this tiny room. The rustling sound from the hatch is loud and clear. Something is coming up from under. “Please”, she says. Sticky hands are grabbing her, lifting her up from the bed, carrying her towards the hatch. The shadow men from under, invisible in the dark. All wearing the same face, the face of the man that hurt her.