Christine and Armitage

Armitage sat on the kitchen counter. Silently she looked down on the scenery, evaluating what had happened here. The man had come in the middle of the night. He had moved cautiously, breaking into the house through the small door on the backside. He made very little noise, but Armitage still had good hearing, despite her age. She woke up from her slumber on the couch and she sat there listening to the noise of the lock being picked.

When the man came slowly into the kitchen, she instinctively wanted to hide, under the couch or under the stairs, where she often slept during hot days. He opened drawers and cabinets, methodically going through the contents. Armitage ran to the stairs, it was dark but to her cat eyes the last bit of glimmering light was more than enough to see everything.

He was stepping outside the kitchen when Armitage reached the upper floor. She stood there for a moment, looking down at him. In his right hand he was holding something. He gripped it nervously and seemed to point it at imaginary foes, unseen even to cat eyes. He was seemed unsure where to go next, but then turned and moved on to the living room. She quickly ran to Christine. She was still sleeping, unaware of the uninvited guest downstairs.

Armitage jumped onto the bed and landed between Christine's feet. She needed to wake her up and there was no time to be tender about it. She decided to do what she occasionally did, when Christine slept in and she was hungry. She went up to her head and bumped Christine's face with her nose. At first she got no reaction, but when she repeatedly bumped her, harder than usual, Christine finally awoke from her slumber.

Christine's dream became an amalgamation of running away from something and Armitage's wet nose on her face. When her mind shifted from the dream the two worlds became a confusing one for a tumbling couple of seconds. Slowly the realization that she was awake trickled into her conscious and she opened her eyes. When she saw Armitage's almond eyes, her wet nose and her whiskers hovering over her, she tried to give Armitage a good cuddle to quiet her down, but something was wrong. She had given her fishy cat food before she went to bed and usually there was still something left in the morning. When a growling hiss erupted from the cat and she realized that Armitage looked like a beat up dog, the fur on her tail stuck up like electrified.

There was a faint noise coming from downstairs. It did not sound right, very wrong in fact. There wasn't anyone else supposed to be in the house. Maybe some wild animal, attracted by a left open door and a promising food bouquet?

She heard a drawer being opened and the sound of footsteps silenced by carpet. Definitely not a furry guest, Christine decided sullenly, unless this one stole some shoes on its previous caper. She had to silence an irrational impulse to giggle and it dawned on her that she was genuinely scared, to the bones actually. This was her first burglary. It's so good to be at a premier. Flashes of various criminal shows started racing through her mind. What did the clueless victims in those usually do to get themselves killed as quick as possible? Face the insane killer gang alone, unarmed of course and maybe shout 'who is there' for good measure. You don't want to go down without spilling some memorable last words, right? Enough, Christine! She breathed deeply. That's better, dear. Now go and deal with it, okay honey? “Okay, here we go,” she said loud.

As silent as she could, she got up in her pajamas, slowly the touching the wooden floor with her bare feet. There was no phone up here, just the one in the living room downstairs. While more faint sounds were coming from below Christine tried to figure out what to do next without going completely bonkers in her mind. Armitage still sat on the bed and looked up to her with those curiously shimmering cat eyes, her tail still looking like a charged duster.

Whatever the intruder was doing down there, she figured he would come up sooner or later and she needed to do something desperately.

The upper floor was just two rooms and there was not much hiding space. Besides, if she would hide in a closet, what good would it do her when her uninvited guest inevitably knocked on her foolishly chosen trap? She thought about escaping through a window, but the intruder would probably hear her opening it and even if she managed to climb down without breaking her neck in a comic twist of events, then she would be outside and he would be in her house. That didn't sound like a very good plan, even on second thought. He had to go and she would make him if need be. Hold on, that's what the crime show victims do, isn't it? And besides, are you sure it's just one guy? She held still for a moment, to listen to the sounds from below or maybe to her thoughts running amok. But there was only silence, from either side. Strangely that proved to be no consolation whatsoever.

She looked around searching for a weapon or at least something that could double as a viable alternative for the time being. The best she could find on such short notice was a tennis racket. It had been used exactly twice for actually playing tennis, she gave up on the game when she realized she would never be any good at it. It was a clear decision. Christine gripped it tightly in her right hand and swung the racket a couple of times to get a hang of using as a weapon. The frame would be enough to apply appropriate force to an unsuspecting trespasser, but she needed to get the angle right. This, she thought, might finally be the time to put it to good use for once.

Armitage was now sitting at the top of the stairs. She looked like she was on the hunt for mice, only this rodent was out of her league by a large margin. Christine knelt down and crawled forward to the edge of the stairs on all four. She tried to see through the veiling semi-darkness and get a look at her unwelcome guest for the first time. Peering into the gloom she realized she hadn't actually heard anything from downstairs the last minute or so. Turning her head slightly she focused on the faint sounds that were always present: the wind outside, the house swaying ever so slightly, maybe a car driving by outside. There was nothing besides innocent ambient noise and her own suppressed breathing.

Afraid to move she waited a while, she couldn't say how long, but the moment seemed to stretch and her tension increased steadily. There was no sound of footsteps, no rummaging, no voices or any other sign of someone else being in the house. Maybe he had found what he was looking for. Maybe he was gone. Maybe he is waiting down there, sitting in your cozy armchair, holding a gruesome killing contraption. And maybe he is waiting just for you to walk in. It sounded desperately insane, even in her head, but she couldn't help it. “If you hear voices in your head, you're in trouble, honey,” her father had once yelled at her mother. A flashback of her childhood crept up in her mind, she tried to suppress it, but the memories of her parents fighting and shouting at each other kept raising their ugly heads.

She looked at Armitage, who looked back at her in complete silence with shimmering eyes. A painful smile crept onto her face and Armitage looked at her curiously, angling her head slightly. Christine decided to go down and thankfully the insolent commenter in her head kept her mouth shut this time.

Slowly she got back to her feet and started sneaking down the stairs. With her left hand she slid down the handrail, in her right she held the tennis racket, like a jester's mace. She thought about that horror movie stereotype of the blonde bombshell character going up to the attic, to find out what that particular creepy sound was. That scene where you either want to scream at her “no, don't go” or just wait for the bad ending, if you are that kind of audience. But this is different, another part of her brain argued. You didn't hear anything just now and besides, your are going down, right? That part of her inner persona was new, the tragically optimistic counterpoint to the morbidly fatalistic one and just as helpful. The sketchy logic started to crumble when she set foot on the carpet at the foot of the stairs. The realization, that she had just come down with a tennis racket in her hand to fight an unknown number of potentially murderous thugs started to sink in. She stopped and tried to listen again, maybe even get a clue to what she was doing here. Her breathing was the only thing she heard and it didn't sound very encouraging.

In absence of a better plan Christine gripped the racket with both hands and raised it, ready for a hefty swing at anyone and anything. The living room was a couple of steps away to the right. Careful not to make a sound she started to go forward again. She peeked into the obscure scenery of her furniture, a sprawling scape of shadows, grotesque paper cut figures and deep black hollows. But there was nothing that registered to her senses as suspicious. Next was the kitchen, on the left side of the hallway and again the room was empty save for herself. Everything seemed to be where it belonged, the remains of her late evening snack where still on the counter just as she had left them. Putting down the tennis racket, she opened a drawer and took one of the sharp knifes she used to cut vegetables. The knife mirrored what little light was coming from outside, holding it gave her a vague sense of comfort that no other salad chopper ever had. Don't cut yourself. Which voice was that? She was starting to wonder if the intruder hadn't been a figment of her imagination after all.

Then the back door swung open and clashed against the wall with a hefty bang. In the door frame stood a figure dark against the semblance of her backyard. Christine stumbled back over her own feet but the wall behind her kept her from falling down as she bumped into it. For long seconds she held her breath and stared at the shadow clad silhouette in the door while she pressed her back to the wall. It didn't move and made no sound, just stood there like a piece waiting for its move. She managed to tear her eyes away and looked at the knife in her right hand. It didn't seem to radiate the same comforting aura anymore, she knew she was in serious trouble right now and all she had was a potato peeler. She glimpsed the light switch to her left and flipped it in a fit of rational thought. The sudden brightness still caught her by surprise, not least because it gave the figure that was now a man more credibility as the center piece of this ordeal. Where his former vague outline had scared her with its suggestion of menace, the light made the man a harsh certainty. A certainty with a knife of its own no less.

He wore a dirty dark green coat over a woolen brown pullover with a triangle pattern. His stained and torn jeans ended in boots that looked like they had seen a lot of roads, stones and soil. His unkempt hair hadn't been washed in a while and apparently wasn't meant to go in any particular direction. It framed a face full of stubbles, wrinkles, dirt and bitterness. And there was the knife. It was huge and its gently curving blade was cut like a saw, the epitome of what anyone wouldn't want a nightly intruder to hold in his hand. And yet he held it, almost casually, pointing it down at his right side.

Christine instinctively tried to step back from him, instead she slid along the wall. Her eyes were steadily fixed on his. He looked back at her with a hard, disconcerting calmness that made her skin crawl like a shock of cold air. Without thinking she raised her right arm, her palms were sweaty but she kept the kitchen knife gripped and pointed the tip at the man. He looked at it and a hint of what might have been surprise rippled over his face. Slowly he raised his right arm, the blade in his hand seemed to grow as he brought it between them.

She stumbled backwards through the kitchen door into the hallway and he followed her with slow, deliberate steps. The knife still pointed at him Christine retreated into the living room. The light from the kitchen spilled in and gave a moody definition to the interior. He was still coming closer and she realized that she had nowhere to go from here. They looked at each other and Christine knew with certainty there would be no talking, no bargaining, no considerations and no kindness. The stage was set and it was either him or her.

They clashed, violently. The man came storming at Christine, swinging his knife like a nightmarish butcher on his inevitable killing spree. Instinctively she threw herself to the right, to escape the slash that would have cut through her. He had put so much force into the swing that he struggled to keep his balance and clashed with the couch table. Christine pushed herself up while he turned around to follow up his miss with another attempt. She stepped back, still clutching the kitchen knife in her right hand. There was a tremble in her legs, it started in the knees as an inkling of larger trouble and then worked its way up and down at the same time. It was like an announcement of worse things to come. She moved her bare feet to relax the muscles and to stop her from falling down. She was strangely aware of the carpet's texture under her feet, never had she experienced the roughness and the tiny movements of its surface so clearly. The wetness of sweat between the knife and her hand crept into her awareness as she curled her fingers harder around the grip.

He stood there, staring at her with a gaze that could have cut through glass and everything seemed to slow down in that moment. In the twilight she could see the dirt on his clothes, the tears and broken seams of his worn out jacket, his muddy shoes. She guessed he hadn't had a shower in quite a while.

Christine gripped the knife again, squeezed the handle like it was the only thing standing between her and a really unpleasant night. It was. He came storming at her again, his mouth was wide open, like the mouth of someone screaming for his life, but he didn't make a sound. It was surreal and somehow comical, but there was no time to fully appreciate the situation. She raised her knife, pointing the tip towards his approach.

He either didn't notice or didn't care, he came rushing at her, a silent fury with a deadly agenda. Christine tried to prepare for the impact, the blade offered for him, and when his jacket started to swallow the tip, she pushed forward with as much energy as she could muster. He tried to grab her right wrist with his left hand. She felt his fingers rough and leathery scraping over her arm. At the same time she managed to escape his weapon by pushing her left arm and shoulder into him. The force of his onslaught knocked them over, she felt gravity shifting and her feet losing contact to the carpet before the ground hit her hard in the back.

His chin came to rest on her left shoulder, she could feel his struggling breath in her ear. Slowly she turned her head to the left, toward him, his dirty hair and clothes were right in her face, a whiff of his stale smell crept into her nose. The stinging odor suddenly made her remember that he still had his knife. Panicking she tried to push him away and struggled with his weight pushing down on her. She took a couple of deep breaths then tried to again to push him aside. She managed to move him away just enough to slide out from under him. His body sank down heavy and unmoving.

She could not see his knife because his right arm was buried beneath his body. Her own knife stuck out from between his ribs though and his clothes started to bloom into a dark red spot that grew while she was looking. She hadn't even realized before that the blade had cut through his coat and into him. Her hand went to her face to cover her mouth, she stared dead ahead and held her breath while her thoughts played through the last minutes again. You killed him, dear, one of her voices helpfully noted. It pretty much looked like she had done just that.

Staring at him she stood there for a while, motionless and listening to her own heavy breathing. A series of fragmented thoughts was racing through her head again. Should she call the police? Would they arrest her, congratulate her, clean the spot on the carpet? She killed someone, right? She imagined he cops standing in her living room, asking cop questions while scribbling with ballpens on little cop notepads. Behind them the CSI people, an older man and a young blonde woman, would do their thing with the corpse. “He's dead,” would the man proclaim as if he had just solved this episode's mystery, “she killed him.” You gonna look splendid on national television, dear. She swallowed hard and turned her attention back to the man, the real crux of the evening. Then another thought wiggled itself into her conscience: the eponymous almost-victim had just knocked her attacker out, then proceeded to make the phone call, giving the barely inconvenienced bad guy just enough time to get back to his feet and commence round two of the dance.

It slowly dawned on Christine that she wasn't thinking quite straight at the moment. The idea to make damn sure he wasn't a threat anymore wasn't without merit though, she decided. She ran into the kitchen to get another knife, a bigger one this time. Hurriedly she opened the drawer, picked a chef knife and sprinted back into the living room. The man was still lying on her carpet and her knife still protruded from his ribs. Searching with her fingers along the wall she tried to find the light switch without taking her eyes off of him. Her fingers found it and she switched on the ceiling lamp.

The light did nothing to make the scene look any better than before. Yep, he's still dead, genius. Or is he? She needed to get his weapon, make sure he wasn't a danger anymore, dead would be good. Failing to come up with anything better she slowly walked to his lower end and kicked his foot. She waited for a reaction, a movement, anything. Holding her breath she listened, he made no sound and didn't move.

She licked over her lips and looked around the room for anything that could be useful right now. A desk lamp caught her attention and she picked it up with her free hand. She put the chef knife on the table and tried to rip the power cord from the lamp, but it didn't come out. Slowly she walked to his feet and used the cord with the lamp still attached to tie his legs together at the ankles. He didn't move while she tied him, she stepped back and looked down on her work. She decided it was a master piece as far as tying probably-dead people with desk lamps goes.

Picking up the knife from the table Christine went to her reading chair and moved it so that it faced the man. She sat down and leaned back. The exhaustion washed over her, she realized she was tired and at the end of her strength. Her eyes closed but she opened them again quickly, afraid to fall asleep. Soon her eyes closed again, this time sleep entered unopposed.

When she woke it was like a shock. She was disoriented for a couple of seconds, uncertain where she was and what she was afraid of. Her heart was beating too fast and she felt something was horribly wrong. She sat up and her mouth gaped in disbelief. It was still dark outside, the living room was still brightly lit and an agitated voice was talking at the very edge of her conscious. Everything still was where it belonged. Except the man. He was gone and where he had been only the carpet occupied the space in front of her. The lamp she had used to tie him was gone too.

She stood up, the knife dropped from her lap to the ground with a thump, but she didn't notice. In a trance she walked to the spot where he had been before, where he still should be but wasn't. This was a nightmare. She looked around the room and considered her options, her eyes found the telephone and clung to it.

Picking up the receiver she licked her lips and tried to figure out what exactly she would tell the police. She heard the dialing tone, it was uncomfortably shrill in her ear and she instinctively held the receiver a little farther away. Her fingers found the numbers on the phone and dialed the emergency number. It was ringing, far away, there was static noise in the line, ringing, a strange loud clacking noise with a disturbingly guttural quality cracked into her ear.

Then a decisive click. “…even blood stains. Yes, can you imagine?” The voice was hollow and devoid of life, as though it had been drained of its presence. “Can you imagine that, Christine?” it asked with soulless solemnity. Christine almost dropped the receiver. She was frozen in disbelief, goosebumps spread coldly on her arms. “Can you imagine?” This time the voice had a menacing rumble and it seemed closer somehow, as if it was coming through the phone line.

Christine swallowed and turned her head to look at the receiver in her hand. Quiet static noise came from the ear piece, a metallic far-away waterfall. Suddenly the voice screamed from the phone manically: “Blood stains, Christine! CAN YOU IMAGINE?”

She shrieked and her whole body winced in shock. She dropped the receiver and backed off from the phone. With wide open eyes she stared at the receiver swinging left and right, the dialing tone was mocking her.

Tears started welling in her eyes. Can you imagine? This can't be, she shook her head. Disoriented she left the living room and stumbled into the kitchen. The man was lying on the floor tiles, face down, ankles tied with the lamp that lay beside his feet, knife stuck in his side, exactly like he had been on the floor of the living room before.

Christine felt naked panic swelling up her throat as she walked slowly backwards out of the kitchen. When the wall behind stopped her retreat she decided what she would do with the man on her kitchen floor.

A few meters to her right was the door that led down to the basement, she opened it and used the door stopper to keep it from closing. Back in the kitchen she looked down on him, she could see the soiled soles of his shoes. She grabbed him by the feet and dragged him into the hallway walking backwards. His head bumped up when his face slid over the door step. Then she turned right and dragged him with her until she was standing at the top of the stairs that led down to the cellar. She hadn't turned on the lamp in the basement and the light from the kitchen lit but the first few steps.

Her heart was racing wildly in her breast and she was breathing unsteadily. Avoiding him with her feet she clumsily leaped back to his head. His face had turned down while she dragged him and his nose was pushed firmly into the carpet. She sat down in front of his unruly hair and pushed her feet into his shoulders. Leaning on both her heads she managed to push him into the dark of the door. His boots and heavy body hit the steps again and again with booming strokes and the musty air coming from below gave his unwilling descent an eerie overtone.

His head went last and Christine sat before the open door looking down at her work. The mop of his unwashed hair was just barely visible in the kitchen's shy light. The rest of his body sank down into darkness, the dirty colors of his clothes faded to black.

She stood up, kicked the stopper to the side, closed the door and turned the key. It felt cold between her fingers, she pulled it from the key hole and put it into the breast pocket of her pajamas.

Got something to hide, dear?

Leaning against the closed door she closed her eyes.

Blood stains, can you imagine?

She opened her eyes again and looked down the empty hallway. “Shut up!” She screamed hysterically. “Just shut up, will you?”

There was no answer.

And there was no blood on the kitchen floor, nor on the floor in the hallway. And no dirt for that matter. Not a single stain. “Even blood stains,” she mumbled to herself, edging closer to hysteria.

Her bare feet took her back to the living room. She sat down in her reading chair, pulled her legs up and embraced her knees with her arms. She felt like crying but no tears came. Once more she closed her eyes and again sleep came easily.

She woke up, drowsy and in an uncomfortable fetal position on the chair. Her brain still tried to process the situation when Armitage came running into the room. She sat down at the door and looked at Christine curiously.

A voice started clamoring for her attention. Slowly Christine turned her head until she found the television. A guy in a blue suit was talking about a miracle paste that was apparently the solution to mankind's every problem. She stared at the screen with eyes still half asleep, while her mind tried to figure out what was going on. It slowly dawned on her that she had been watching a TV show, one of the crime investigation vehicles. She had fallen asleep like she did so often when she was tired from work.

The man, the intruder, their knife fight, her curious stow away endeavor, it had all been a concoction of her imagination and questionable entertainment taste. She felt a curious sensation between the sting of being cheated and the relief of having survived a nightmare.

Armitage tiptoed over to her and jumped on her lap, making an effort to get her head ruffled. Christine obeyed and tickled her behind the ears. Armitage started to purr and worked her claws softly into Christine's upper thighs. I was a comforting reminder of reality: Armitage's weight on her lap, the soothing drone of her feline enjoyment.

She reached for the remote and turned the television off. Carrying Armitage in her right arm she was about to go upstairs, but when she was at the foot of the stairs she stopped. As she turned back towards the cellar door, a vague ghost in her own image dragging someone down the hallway flickered through her thoughts. Just a dream, she had to remind herself, it was just a dream.

The cellar door was closed, it always was, it was cold down there and the air always smelled stale. She walked up to the door and put her left hand on the handle. Armitage suddenly hissed at the door furiously, her ears lay flat on her head and her whiskers trembled. The key that was always in the key hole was missing. Christine held her breath and pushed the door handle. The door opened silently and with dreamlike inertia.

Armitage hissed again at the empty staircase vanishing into the dark. Christine closed the door and breathed deeply. Petting Armitage she went upstairs and climbed into her bed. She would need to move, she decided, before she closed her eyes. Can you imagine?

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