Between Teas and Ticking

    Evelyn could never trust her ears. For a moment, the ticking sounds like
home. It bounces her back into her kitchen and the chilli-shaped clock above the
door. A gift from her sister, Vivian. The matching kettle whistles for her to take it off
the heat. She pours, orange-scented steam rising into her face like a sauna. She lets
the tea steep as she wipes the counter, preparing her mind for the part of the
evening she dreads. She has a final finger-burning squeeze of the tea bag and
chucks it at the bin, rather disappointed that it lands on the floor next to it with a plop.
No matter. She will put it where it was headed tomorrow. She takes her tea and flicks
the light off.
    This is not home. She curses that ticking noise in the dark as she blinks out
warm, trickling tears. Her home sounds like clocks and smells of almonds and
vanilla. This place smells of bleach. Of cleaning. So much cleaning it burns. So much
cleaning, she lays there, eyes squeezed shut, trying not to beg the question. Trying
not to see the arms stretching out from that dark corner. The imaginary terror she
had envisioned every night between tea making and bedtime come to life.
    She had a system. Steadily up the stairs that never creak. Not too quickly, not
too slowly for either would invite danger. As soon as she steps onto the beam of
bedroom light on the top stair, she will feel safe. She can follow it to her room like
breadcrumbs and shut the door on all the dark things.
    She had imagined this terror between the stairs and her bedroom so many
times she could not believe her senses when there was a slight shift behind her. She
stopped when she should have run—listened when she should have screamed.
Everything in her told her to move with urgency, but she did not want to give the
terror permission to be terrible. She stepped again and the thing that was trying to
keep time with her was out half a step long enough for her to drop her tea and try to
ascend the stairs in ghastly strides.
    Too late. Arms reached out for her, wrapped themselves around in the
meanest hug she had ever known.
    Stronger.
    Bigger.
    Tighter. So tight, she could not breathe.
    There must have been more to the arms, but she could not see them. She
could only feel the floor drop from beneath her. The beam on the top stair starting to
fade. The sickly sweet smell the arms’ hand held over her nose and mouth. The sting
of steaming spilt tea on her foot and everything fading to a ticking blackness.
    She misses the light and opens her eyes to the blinding dark. She kicks her
legs out, alarmed when the wall kicks her back before she can fully straighten them.
She starts flailing and kicking with all the frenzy of a child warding off wasps and the
wall pounds her back in kind at every turn. She tries to stand but the ceiling meets
her with the same force as the walls. She claws and clasps at the sides, desperately
feeling along for anything revealing itself as an escape route. She brushes over a dip
and feverishly examines it, hoping it is a way out. It is not. It is just a hole. A hole not
big enough to escape through, but just small enough for something to enter. Her
fingers move over more tiny little entrances. Each side is full of holes, and the
sensation of running her finger along them makes her queasy. The ticking starts to
pound against her eardrum like an angry neighbour at the door. She wants to
scream back but she cannot. It feels silly. Who is on the other side listening and
laughing? Not helping me. She starts feeling silly for feeling silly. And lost.
    Lost the light.
    Lost all her bearings.
    Losing all hope.
    She kicks the wall again. No give. There is just enough room for her to sit up
and draw an imaginary circle around herself. She did this in the evenings when she
felt particularly frazzled. It was the reason she often fell asleep on the hardwood
floor, falling gracelessly onto her back after several revolutions to stare at the ceiling
and drift off to spinning thoughts that always ticked and tocked.
    She runs her finger along the floor, tracing and retracing her path along the
grain, steadily releasing the panic. She traces further out and hits something that
shifts at her touch. She snaps her hand back, waiting to hear something that is alive
and makes a skittering sound along the floor. Something that crept in through the
tiny holes. The sound never comes. She slowly slides her hands along the floor, her
fingers like whiskers feeling around the surface. She touches it again; brave enough
to grab it this time. As she turns it over in her hands like a surprise gift, her fingers
brush against a scratchy side. Two scratchy sides. She shakes it waiting for the
sound. A matchbox sound. For the first time since opening her eyes, a glimmer of
hope emerges. She fumbles around inside the box, barely able to keep herself from
shaking it out of her clumsy, fearful hands. She clasps one and after a couple of
strikes, relishes the sizzling smell as an amber glow floods the container. The blaze
gives off more light than she could imagine such a simple thing giving, and her eyes
spend the flame readjusting to light, and it is gone before she has time to look
around.
    She wants to light another, but carefully takes one out, places it in her hand,
and starts counting. Out loud.
    1...2... The sound of her own voice makes her feel real again.
    3...4...She counts, half preparing for the inevitable, half occupying herself with
something mundane and distracting.
    5...6... The ticking starts to fade out as her ears play back the sound of the
matchbox.
    7...8... It sounded full when she shook it.
    9...10... It seems full now as she sticks her fingers in to pluck the matches
out.
    11.... She scrambles around in the box for more. Shakes it to hear the one
she hopes she missed.
    There's no sound. Eleven. Only eleven. The full matchbox sound drifts off into
the distance as the ticking returns to curse her. The glimmer of hope fades a little.
    She fumbles and the light fizzles on again as she silently subtracts it from her
unlit matches. She remembers the holes in the walls and holds the light closer. She
realizes the holes are not hollow. No creature could sneak through these little
entrances. She holds the light closer again. They are more like pockets. There is….
    Light out. She rushes for the sound of that reassuring scratch. It takes a
couple of tries this time, but soon the flame returns, and its number decreases.
There are so many holes. She cautiously sticks her finger into one and realizes that
it is paper. She sticks her finger into another. Full of paper.
    Light out.
    Light on. None of the holes are empty. All filled with paper. She tries to pull
one out, but it is jammed so tight she has to dig her finger in and use just the tip of
her nail to pull.
    Light out.
    Light on. She will waste too many matches this way. She feels along the wall
in a race with the flame to pull as many out as she can.
    Light off. She starts uncrumpling the paper as the ticking gets louder. It is
always louder in the quiet, and it is always accompanied by a silent fear that clings to
her like wet clothes. Dread seeps in through the tiny pockets in the walls. A dread
like the moment after tea making when all her ticking clocks and deceitful ears are
not enough to break the terrible silence.
    Light on.
    My name's Jake. I don't know how long I've been here. I don't know what's
going to happen to me....
    Light out.
    Light on.
    My name's Marie. My boys are with their dad this weekend. Please don't hurt
them....
    Light out.
    Light on.
    Evan. I'm scared. Someone has to take care of my mum.
    Light out. She stops. Kicks the rest of the crumpled sheets away. She has
three matches left and no paper or pen. For a moment, she wonders where theirs
came from. Contemplates subtracting from her dwindling number of matches to look
for them.
    How many matches would it take to write my name? To tell someone about
me?
    To write her fear of the next few minutes and the minutes after that? She
refuses to look for them, the paper and pen, but she starts writing notes in her head.
    My name is Evelyn. I liked tea with a hint of orange in its steam. My sister
bought me a clock so awful I found a matching kettle so she would never know how
awful I thought it was. She chucks the note in her mind trash. It makes it in this time.
She starts again.
    My name is Evelyn. I got lost once, but I didn’t scream. Vivian found me and
asked why. I told her I could hear the clocks ticking, and it was silly to scream. I
didn’t know that the sound in my ears wasn’t supposed to be there and I thought they
would laugh at me.
    She wishes they were here to laugh at her now. To drown out the ticking that
keeps bouncing her back into a house of clocks ticking hellos and goodbyes. An
empty kitchen with a tea bag on its floor, waiting to be thrown away tomorrow. Vivian
will have to do it, now. And turn off the bedroom light.

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