Jessica woke because of the cold. Icy tendrils of damp were clawing at her arms and the chattering of her teeth was enough to make her jaw ache. Beside her, Jackson slept soundly. The duvet was tucked round her shoulders and his face was relaxed and innocently boyish. The cold that seemed to be seeping into her very bones didn’t appear to be affecting him in the slightest.
Jessica remembered her mother talking about fevers so hot they tricked you into thinking that the burning you felt was ice. She certainly felt like she wasn’t completely awake. The semi-dreamlike state was disorienting and, when a car went past and lit the room with its headlights, she could see mist curling around the corners of the bedroom. Jackson’s house was fully insulated and he’d talked about the cost of getting his windows double glazed only last month. Granted, it was her first overnight stay here, but Jackson took pride in everything he had. The house would not let in fog.
Jessica wished that she could wake up fully and move her arms. Her limbs felt like lead, the illness weighing them down. The bedside light was close and the light would help her assess how sick she was. Maybe Jackson would even wake up and check her temperature for her. If only she could lift her hand to turn it on.
The fever must be strong if she was hallucinating. The voice was faint enough that she knew she was imagining it. Leave. It was coming from everywhere and nowhere — her fevered mind unable to pinpoint the direction of the sound. Leave. Her heart was beating too quickly, a staccato rhythm at the base of her throat and she wondered if she might need an ambulance. Leave. Leave. Leave.
Another car, another fleeting brightening of the room.
The paralysis broke and Jessica’s scream filled the room.
Jackson woke up immediately and his light was on before Jessica had finished the exhale. In the harsh light, Jessica’s fever vanished like it had never been, though the shivers took longer to subside. Jackson was angry when she couldn’t explain the scream, which she found hurtful. Surely he could give her a break? After she’d told him about the strange fever, and given his examinations of the goosebumps on her arms, he was mollified, but his shoulders turned away from her as he settled. Irritated that she’d disturbed his sleep for no good reason. She watched him fall asleep again, wishing that she could pacify him with a tale of a night terror or the glimpse of a mouse.
But how could she explain the bloodied face of the woman and the broken, grasping fingers that had reached for her?
She obsessed about it the next day and made an excuse to avoid returning that night. The woman’s face was imprinted on her mind, and she replayed the moment again and again. The caved cheekbones, the shattered teeth, the torn fingernails.
By the weekend, Jackson was getting annoyed with her avoidance. He had bought groceries to make her dinner, he complained, and they were going to go to waste without her. He wanted to know why she was skittish and suddenly had to work late — was she seeing someone else? Didn’t she love him anymore? She was his world, his everything — was she abandoning him?
He sounded so heartbroken that she gave in. After a few days of distance, the memory was losing its edge and she knew that a bad dream — for what else could it have been — wasn’t worth compromising her relationship for.
They had a lovely evening. Jackson made pasta and they drank wine on the porch, talking about work and families. There was a bit of tension when she mentioned spending time with a friend the following weekend. Jackson had planned a trip to the theatre, so Jessica cancelled on Annie and everything was fine. She would have more fun with him anyway — none of her friends really understood her the way he did. He was so happy when she told him that she could go that it more than made up for the sadness in her friend’s voice. He was right, too. Annie was just jealous and being selfish. She was so lucky to have him.
It took Jessica a long time to drift off. The slightest rustle of the curtain was enough to wake her from her shallow slumber, but eventually she succumbed to the pull of unconsciousness.
The voice startled her awake. Once again, her limbs were heavy and she was trapped in the shell of her body.
This time the source of the noise was obvious. It was coming from the shadow in the corner. As Jessica watched, dumb with terror, the shadow moved. It scaled the walls with jerky movements. A passing car lit the room briefly and Jessica caught a glimpse of a body, twisted and grotesque, climbing towards the ceiling. Its face was turned towards her and she saw that it was the woman from before. Her arms were hanging oddly, perhaps broken, and she dragged herself up in fits and starts.
Jessica’s breath was quick and shallow. Her chest was the only part of her that was moving.
The woman was almost directly above her.
What had been the dry rustle of the wind through leaves in a graveyard was getting louder. Now the scrape of ragged nails under a closed lid. Now the frenzied cry of the forever trapped.
Jackson swore as he woke, all flailing limbs and angry confusion. He thought she was the cause, and what could Jessica say? The dead woman screamed it, not me? He wouldn’t be calmed, either and they ended up standing: Jackson fury personified and Jessica cowering before his wrath.
The names he called her weren’t fair but who could blame him? As far as he was concerned, Jessica had waited till he was asleep and then shocked him awake with a jarring noise. What would the neighbours think? What kind of sick sense of humour did she have?
At one point, he raised his hand and Jessica flinched. But he saw and caught himself, scooping her up in apologetic arms. He was sorry for that. She’d pushed him so far but she didn’t deserve that.
They fell back asleep with limbs entangled, Jessica tightly ensconced in his embrace. And the woman did not return.
They stayed at hers for a while.
Jessica made an effort to make her apartment welcoming for him, enticing him over with favourite beers and lingerie and whispered promises.
He enjoyed the attention, relished being treated like a king. Women have forgotten how to treat their men nowadays, he said as Jessica rubbed his shoulders and tried not to think of bloodied lips and exposed bone. It was nice to be with someone who understood how things should be.
Jessica nodded and apologised again for the burnt steak at dinner. She didn’t tell him it was because she’d looked for the time and thought she’d seen matted hair in the reflection in the glass on the clock. He forgave her though, and she promised again to be more careful next time. She rubbed her wrist where he‘d gripped it so tightly and reassured him again.
She evaded his requests to go to his house for the next few weeks. What had been a treat for him had become routine and he didn’t understand why she wouldn’t come to him. He had to drive twenty minutes out of his way to get to hers but his house was only ten minutes from where she worked. Was it too much to ask for her to put the effort? Eventually he got tired of listening to her excuses and demanded it.
He wasn’t being unreasonable. Jackson saw her for who she was, loved her more deeply than anyone else could and was the only one in the world who truly cared for her. She could get over her objections and give him something in return.
So she went back.
Every movement made her jump. The scraping of Jackson’s chair as he stood up: a squeak. The chiming of the clock: a spilled coffee. The slam of the porch door: a wine glass shattered on the carpet.
The storm arrived after that, though. Jessica was putting away the dishes after dinner when the drop of blood in the sink made her raise her head. The woman clung to the cabinets and her face was inches from Jessica’s own. She wore a sense of urgency like a shawl.
Jessica’s screech made Jackson turn and her outgoing arm caught him full in the face.
Jackson’s rage was to be expected but the strength of it took her by surprise. She was clumsy and stupid. His lip was swelling and it was her fault. She‘d already ruined a new carpet with a wine that was already staining. Her reactions were ridiculous. Why was she so jumpy anyway? What was she hiding? Why would she hide something from him?
Jessica’s half-articulated attempts at pacifying him only made it worse. Why was she treating him like a child? He’d been so patient, so good and this was how she repaid him? With deceit and patronising excuses?
As Jackson advanced, Jessica saw the shadow crouching in the hall. It flinched away from Jackson as he dragged Jessica towards it, shrinking as he shouted about how she was just like other women. She lied and manipulated. She tried to make a fool out of him. She was a conniving bitch.
She saw the wide eyes of the woman, streaked with ruptured capillaries and horror, at the bottom of the basement stairs. No words, no pleas for forgiveness would soothe Jackson’s ire. He was fury and vengeance and justice.
Jessica saw the woman’s expression: unmistakably sorrowful as she wheeled through the air, desperately trying to catch a handhold to save herself. Jessica landed on the cold concrete of the basement, her own body now twisted in sympathy, her own face marred and bloodied to match.
Her final breath was scented with the woman’s fetid exhale and the last thing she heard was the mournful whisper.
I tried to warn you.