“There’s someone living in my apartment.” Rebecca looked at Joseph with tired eyes. She had a thousand-yard stare, too. And, yes, she looked almost painfully tired. Joseph gave her a sympathetic look.
“You’re the only person living in your apartment, sweetie,” he said softly, reaching across the table to take her hands. “You’re under a lot of stress, a lot of pressure. Work’s driving you crazy – you've said that yourse-”
“I’M NOT GOING CRAZY!” Rebecca spat. Joseph let go of her hands for a moment, shocked. The coffee shop patrons around them went quiet briefly, giving them both side glances. “I’m... look, I’m not going crazy. Someone is living in my apartment, and I need help to get proof.”
Joseph pressed his lips together, running his thumb over her knuckles. He sighed after a moment, letting her go. He just couldn’t see her side of it.
“I... Becks. I love you dearly. I do. But the idea that someone could be living comfortably with you in that apartment... it just doesn’t seem possible! Have you thought about it rationally?”
“Of course I have! And it’s not – like I know it sounds crazy! Completely batshit! But it’s not.”
“Alright. I’ll humour you. Where are they sleeping?” Joseph picked up his cappuccino and took a sip.
“No clue. At first, I thought maybe under my bed -” Joseph choked on his coffee, putting it down before he could drop it. “Stay with me, Joe! At first I thought under my bed, since I’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and hear things. But then I realised maybe it was the neighbours. Until stuff was moving under there... like my boxes and stuff. Things were pushed out further than usual.”
“Right. And what made you think otherwise?”
“I stuck a suitcase and more boxes under there, and suddenly, they stopped moving. I really wedged the suitcase under there. Nothing happened after that.”
“Okay. So, where else could they be sleeping?”
“I don’t know. The sofa, maybe? The blankets always seem to have moved a tiny bit. And the other day, I got a whiff of someone else on them. Not my smell.”
“Ah, yes, because you are a house pet and have A Smell.” Joseph’s eyes twinkled at her. He wasn’t taking her seriously at all. Nevertheless, Rebecca pushed on ahead.
“I think there might also be some kind of little compartment in my store cupboard. There has to be. But I can’t see anything.”
“Vents, then? You think someone could sleep in the vents?”
“Or in that weird little cubby thing behind the boiler cupboard. I know it’s vacant space but I thought it was a sheer drop to the basement. Someone small could reasonably fit there. I know I could. The contractor who came to upgrade my boiler said I’d fit there – he actually recommended I put some kind of panic room back there.” Rebecca palmed her face. “And then he started talking to me about those cat and dog rooms people build. You know, the little bedrooms under the stairs and what not?” Joseph nodded. “Told me if I ever got a cat and fancied some DIY, I could do that, too. I told him I’m allergic to cats.”
“Right...” Joseph pulled out his phone and composed a note. “So. Places your roommate could be sleeping: Under your bed, in the storage cupboard’s possible hidey-hole, on the sofa.” Rebecca nodded. “Got it. Let’s think food. How’s this person eating?”
“There’s always something missing. Some snack foods, usually cans of stuff from the pantry. If there’s ever bread, there’s usually a few slices missing here and there. Sweets tend to go pretty quickly too.” Joseph made notes. “And if I batch cook something, if I think there’s, say, 8 portions, I only ever get around 6 portions.”
“And there’s no way you could be eating more than you think?”
“I’ve lost weight with stress, Joe. I’m barely eating or sleeping.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, actually...”
“I look like shit. I know.” Joseph gave her a small nod, but it wasn’t malicious.
“Okay. Potentially stealing food based on what you have most of.”
“Yeah. Like I had one bag of crisps left in the pantry for ages, but when I had a share bag or tortillas open, it went down faster than I was actually eating them.”
“Got it...” Joseph made another note. “Drinks? I guess water? You don’t have cola or anything.”
“Yeah. I only drink water. So if they’re using a glass or whatever, it’s easy enough to wash up and go into the dishwasher. Or maybe they have their own bottle...? One of my bottles did go missing, actually.”
“What about showering? Laundry? That kind of thing?”
“Well, there’s communal laundry downstairs in the basement. Showers, I guess it would be easy enough to hop in after me in a morning. If the bathroom is still wet, I don’t notice anything.”
“No phantom footprints on the floor mat?”
“No. But then, if they take the mat up when they get out...”
“I don’t know...” Rebecca shivered. “Unless he’s using mine...” She cringed visibly.
“Oh, so it’s a he now...”
“Well, I don’t know! It’s creepy!” Rebecca shuddered again.
“Alright, alright. So by the looks of it, we have what can only be described as either a very human-like cat, a very clever raccoon or a stealthy ninja child... or a creepy thin woman.”
“Great, thanks Joseph.” Rebecca drank more of her coffee and closed her eyes. “I just don’t feel safe there any more.”
Rebecca knew she couldn’t go to the police with such a ridiculous report. Joseph was right; the only things that fit the bill were cats with opposable thumbs, very clever raccoons, a stealthy ninja-child, or a creepy thin woman. And none of those posed real threats, outside of maybe a higher utility and food bill for the month.
It didn’t help that the doors in her place were deadly quiet when opened. As Rebecca sat with her dinner on her lap that night, watching a comedy movie to try and cheer herself up, she found her mind wandering to all the times she’d been sitting at her desk near the window in her living room, working from home, only to turn around for a coffee and her bedroom door be wide open... or the times her kitchen door had been open, too... her mother’s habit of closing the doors to keep the temperature right in each room had been instilled in her... she’d never leave a door open. And the contractor had taken a look at what she had assumed were faulty locks, and told her everything fit together perfectly! Nothing made any sense.
That night, Rebecca went to bed as usual. She carried out her routine, brushing her teeth, going to the toilet, putting her phone on charge. Closing off the lights, she made her way to her bedroom, and settled down to read for a little while. She’d taken all the food out of the pantry and the fridge and put it right by her bed, where she could see it. All the batch-cooked stuff, the open chips, anything that usually got grazed on. She’d also put all the towels into the bed with her, so she’d feel it if someone tried to get one. She dried the entire bathroom off before she went to bed, too – and she wouldn’t take a shower the next morning, so any water droplets wouldn’t be from her. Joseph reassured her that she was absolutely batshit insane for doing what she was doing. But she didn’t care anymore. She was tired of it. A good job those towels were soft...
She jerked awake.
The door was open. She turned over slowly.
A dark figure was hunched over the food.
Rebecca let out the loudest, longest scream she’d ever let out in her entire life. The figure darted from the room before she could fumble with the switch on her lamp, her hands were shaking so much. The bag of chips had fallen on the floor. The door was wide open. 3 cans of chilli were missing, too. Rebecca ran through to the living room and grabbed her phone, turning on every single light as she went. She rang Joseph, moving to the kitchen to grab the largest knife she had. She kept calling Joseph, pressing herself against the kitchen door. At least she had a balcony to defend herself from, and a roof she could jump onto!
“Rebecca?!” Joseph’s voice was thick with sleep.
“PLEASE PLEASE COME OVER JOSEPH! PLEASE! SOMEONE’S HERE!” Rebecca gabbled, clutching the phone tightly. “Joseph please!”
“What - calm down – what's-”
“Someone was in the bedroom, Joseph! Please come over! Please!”
“Did you call the police?!”
“You said I’m crazy!”
“Call them! I’m on my way!”
Joseph cut the call, and Rebecca listened hard, straining to hear over the sound of her heart hammering. Nothing. She dialled 911, her hand shaking violently.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“There’s someone in my apartment... please, send the police...” she whispered, still trying to listen over the sound of her heart. The kitchen door was shut, and it was dark. She gave the operator her address, confirming it. “I have a knife... my friend Joseph is coming over...”
“It’ll be alright, ma’am, I’m keeping you on the line until a dispatcher gets here.”
It felt like an age before Joseph turned up with the police, letting them in with his key.
“Evening, Ma’am, I’m Officer Melbourne, this is Officer Polk. There was an intruder?” Rebecca eyed the officers, still trembling. She explained everything to them, letting them take the knife from her. She showed them around the place, trying to keep herself as calm as possible.
“Can you show us the store cupboard?” Officer Polk asked. Torches in hand, they followed Rebecca through to the store cupboard. They looked around with the lights off, the tension silent and rising. Joseph held Rebecca tightly. Even though he didn’t believe her about any of it, she was still terrified. She still needed support.
“Is there anything, officers?” Joseph asked quietly.
“Not that I can see -”
“HEY! STOP!” The roar of Officer Melbourne made everyone leap with fright. There was a struggle, and the torch he was holding fell with a thud. Melbourne struggled with something, the something in the wall behind a small hatch clearly fighting back. There was a shriek, and then Melbourne pulled out an entire small human being. A young girl, looking no older than 15, very thin, looking terrified.
“What the fuck?!” Polk hissed. “Sorry, ma’am.” He spoke to Rebecca as Melbourne detained the young girl, who stopped panicking and froze.
“Do you know her?” Melbourne asked. Polk had his gun trained on her.
“Please don’t shoot me, I didn’t want to hurt anybody!” the girl whimpered, eyeing the gun. Rebecca took immediate pity on her.
“What’s your name?!”
“Clara! Clara Fortescue!” The girl cowered away, curling into a ball. Rebecca froze.
“Clara?” She stepped forward. “Rosie’s girl?”
“Was,” Clara whispered. “She kicked me out.”
“You do know her, ma’am?” Polk lowered his weapon, re-holstering it reluctantly.
“Yeah… she’s my sister’s kid.”
Once everyone had calmed down, Rebecca, Joseph, Clara, Melbourne and Polk sat in the living room. Polk and Melbourne took notes, all of them drinking tea.
“I thought I’d gotten pregnant a couple months back, and she lost it with me. I had nowhere else to go, and… and one day I came by here and thought maybe you’d let me stay… I found your door open, so I thought maybe you’d left it open on accident,” Clara sniffed. “You weren’t in. I checked the place over. I thought maybe you might be angry with me too, if I was pregnant… but I didn’t know where else to go, and I was hungry. Anyway, this guy started knocking, and I freaked out. I remembered the little hatch in your cupboard. These apartments have crawlspaces for extra storage… I figured if it was empty, it was a sign. I don’t know who it was.”
“Probably me,” Joseph said. “I have a key.”
“And I’d have called the police if I’d found you in here.”
“Oh…” Clara looked down. “Well, at first, I’d wait until you went to bed, and then I’d creep in and slide under the bed and stay there until you went out. But then you stuck the suitcases under there… I tried to be as quiet as possible…”
“You should have told me, Clara! Of course I’d have let you stay! You’re my niece – and your mom’s my baby sister. It’s my job to bite her ass for kicking you out!” Rebecca wrapped an arm around Clara’s shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Becks.” Clara started crying again.
“Well, I don’t think there’s any real danger here. No charges, I assume?”
“No. None.” Rebecca smiled at them tiredly. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, officers.”
“Rather you waste our time and it be a rogue niece, than not waste it, and it be some weird creep.” Polk smiled at her. “We’ll leave you to it.”
“And young lady? Next time, no hiding in people’s crawl spaces.” Melbourne’s tone was firm but kind. He gave her a wry smirk, and Clara nodded.
“Yes, sir,” she said softly. Joseph let the officers out, and Rebecca turned to Clara.
“So, are you pregnant?”
“No. I got my period again two weeks here.” Clara shrugged. “But I was in too deep and couldn’t go home.” She wiped her eyes. “Didn’t mom mention anything about me?”
“I haven’t spoken to her, sweetie. I’ll be honest, she’s grown a little distant from me in the last year. I kept reaching out, but she didn’t seem to want to know.” Rebecca shrugged. “I think actually the last time I saw her was just after your sixteenth.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Becks.”
“That’s alright, love. People change, things change. What’s important is that you’re safe now.” Rebecca kissed her on the head. “Now, we’d better get you showered and a decent meal in you. It’s a good job it’s summer, otherwise you’d have missed school.”
“I know…” Joseph yawned deeply, shaking his head.
“Mind if I crash here for the night?”
“You guys really need to cut the crap and move in together.” Clara gave them both a smirk.
“Well… maybe she’s right. If it’ll stop you from being so deathly paranoid…” Joseph smirked at Rebecca, and wrapped his arms around her. “Although I was right.”
“Stealthy ninja child.”
Rebecca burst out laughing, shaking her head. Perhaps paranoia wasn’t necessarily always a bad thing…
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I was hoping all the fuss turned out to be over a raccoon; that would've been funny. But the sweetness of the story makes it just as good. I'm with Rebecca on paranoia not necessarily being a bad thing. I think it's all part of evolution: As time goes on and the world gets crazier, paranoia will become more and more a necessity for survival.
Oh - Gip!!! :D What a lovely surprise!! :D I absolutely agree - I did want to make it a raccoon, but then I also wanted to make it some creepy guy who'd been stalking her... but then I realised maybe I get a bit anxious and paranoid myself and started freaking myself out, so I went a bit safer!! But as with everything, balance is key!! :D Thanks so much for reading - and it's so nice to hear from you!!