In the first moments of consciousness, Mr Hunter stared blindly into the pitch black. He reached for the bedside lamp and his fingers fumbled for the switch. Finally, its harsh light swept across the bedroom and completed the brutality of his awakening.
He had been lifted from waters whose dark undertow had threatened to take him away.
As he listened to the fearful screaming, the images he had viewed stormed back across his memory. Then the cacophony turned to the familiar ring of his telephone. He raised his body, still coated in the dampness of fear, and climbed out of bed. His legs felt like they had run a hundred marathons. And the thought occured to his irony that soemtimes delivering messages can be fatal.
The phone continued to ring, sounding impatient.
Whoever the caller was, they were determined to get through. He looked at the clock in the hallway and it told him that it was three in the morning. A pattern was beginning to develop. His head was banging from a deeply rooted pain that resounded like a metronomic explosions.
“Hello,” his annoyance was evident, but there was no reply.
“Hello, who is it?”
Eventually, a faint voice emerged as if it was arriving from a great distance.
A bolt of pain shot out of the darkness; nausea and anger were its companions.
“Whoever you are, this is not funny. You bastard, how dare you?”
“I haven’t got long,” the voice crackled with static. It was a voice he remembered, its timbre instantly recognisable. “It is The Piper you are searching for. It is The Piper.”
The volley of static returned as the teacher continued to listen. Tears had formed in the corners of his eyes and were welling up, ready to roll. His throat was hard, his Adam’s apple the size of a cricket ball, choked his windpipe. He could not speak. He tried, but all that came was an ineffectual squeak.
The static continued yet within it there were more voices, much weaker than the one who had addressed him. They were calling out, a multitude of names. Some were moaning in agony, their pitiful cries now evident, whilst some were cursing those who had led them there. Many were pleading for help, an animalistic yearning for the agony to be ended.
“It was not your fault. It was The Piper. He knows what you are and he will find you. Promise me that you will not be found. Promise…”
The static increased to open the flood of anguish; and then it snapped shut.
Cradling the handset next to his ear, Graham Hunter listened to the dead connection.
Tears washed his face, lightening exploded in his temples, and his bones housed the arthritic aches of a very, very old man.
Changed utterly, the words sang their way through the air like swans in flight.
However, waking from the depths of sleep, Laura knew that these were not the birds of the poem, linked for life, these were fleeing. Their wings beat the night air in urgent escape. Something had disturbed their sleep, some dark thing that slunk along, some rough beast intent on their destruction. The swans were of the lake and were now rising higher into the night, their reflections fading like hope.
Laura lay tightly in a foetal position. The noise of the beast, its footsteps circling in an ever-widening search, was getting louder and closer. She held her breath, straining not to make a sound. Even nearer, she could hear the breathing of the thing that was tumbling through the undergrowth towards her. Its savage rattle, so much like that of a snake, swept along the ground.
If she were to stay, it would find her and she dreaded to even think of the consequences. If she moved, it would hear her and race towards its prey. She had no wings to help her flee. She was caught in the soft molars of indecision, each moment counting towards its own consequence. She tightened the position as if its imaginary womb could protect her. If she were to die, then it would be with her eyes closed.
Mum,it was the voice of Michael and her spirits soared.
She lifted her face from the crook of her arm and let her eyes follow her son’s tones back to its source. Dismay fell upon her like carrion when she realised that it was emanating from the area in which the beast had previously been cutting its noisy advance. Now, the thing was quiet. There was no breathing, no deathly rattle, and Laura knew why. It had heard her son.
As the stark reality dropped its bombshell, she rose to her feet screaming.
“Michael run! Run, it’s waiting for you, it’s hiding, it’s…” and then the words she had so desperately ripped from the depth of her maternal courage – stopped, trapped in a throat that had dried with an outrage of disbelief. The thing standing in the footprint of her son’s voice was smiling at her.
It was her son, Michael.
Mother, you always knew I was a little, let’s say, different didn’t you?