He wanted to buy a gift that would be completely unexpected. The type of object that could never be guessed. His father was the type of person who had it all. The type of person who it was difficult to buy for.
It wouldn’t matter if he bought him something ordinary and perhaps traditional, like socks, or a bottle of whiskey, but he was always doing that, so his father was probably expecting something along those lines. Not this time, though.
As Thomas Walters stood at the window of an old antiques shop, he saw exactly what his father was going to receive for his birthday. Amongst what were supposedly antiques, like cheap vases and cameras, a stuffed fox stared at nothing with its glassy eyes, made to look as though it had stopped to listen. Its ears were pointing upwards and it was facing to one side as though it had heard the call of hunters, or some other threatening noise that brought its senses to full alert. That was his father’s gift, he thought.
He was quite sure he would like it, but hoped he wouldn’t expect one of the traditional presents as well. It could well be a case of: ‘Yes, very nice, now can I have my real present?’. Quite simply, he was getting the fox, as it was his birthday the following day, and he didn’t particularly relish the idea of continuing shopping around, not when his present was in the window of the antiques shop.
It was the type of shop that nobody ever seemed to venture into, yet remained open for years. All of the 15 years he had been living in this town, he had never gone inside, until today. It was also one of those rare shops where a little bell would ring upon opening. Inside wasn’t much different from the window, but there didn’t seem to be many actual ‘antiques’ in the true sense of the word. There was furniture that was probably fashionable in the sixties, ornaments that could probably be picked up in some bargain store or market. There were a few electrical items, such as radios and toys, but nothing that could be any older than the 1920s. Seated at the back, behind a cheap looking desk, a man in a pristine white suit sat scrutinizing a paperback with an eyeglass that looked embedded into his skin. It didn’t seem as though he was aware of the customer.
“Er, hello,” said Thomas. The man looked up, put down his book, took out his eyeglass and stood up.
“Sorry,” he said, “I do apologise.”
“For what?” asked Thomas with a slight smile. “I’m interested in the fox you have in the window.”
The man thought for a moment, as though trying to remember it, or he was deciding how much to charge.
“The fox, yes, I know the one you mean. It’s five pounds for that. Sorry to charge so much, but I don’t normally obtain items like that.”
“That’s okay,” said Thomas, “it’s actually quite reasonable.” The man smiled, as though it was his fourth or fifth ever sale.
Unsurprisingly, a few people glanced in his direction as he walked home, the fox heavy under his arm as he walked up a winding slope to his detached house where he lived with his wife and two children. That night, he had been ordered to keep it in the shed, away from the children, because it had scared them when they had seen it. Thomas attempted to wrap it, not putting it into the actual shape, but loosely, its content ill-defined. As he wrapped it, its dead, glassy eyes occasionally stared at him, and when they did, he knew how the children felt. When he had finished, he closed and locked the shed quickly, keen to be back in the warmth of the house.
Thomas slept restlessly. He dreamed that he had given his father the fox, who wasn’t happy with it. He had put it in his garage until he decided what to do with it. The fox then suddenly leapt down from the bench, ran through the kitchen, through the hall, up the stairs and into the bedroom where his father lay asleep. It leapt onto the bed, and clamped its jaws around his throat. That was where the dream ended, but Thomas did not wake. Instead, the dream repeated itself again, and again, and again.
Thomas looked more than a little dishevelled in the morning. More than usual, but after a good, filling breakfast, he was driving the two miles to the next part of town to where his father lived in his semi-detached. As usual, he was in his garage, doing something to his Chevrolet Avalanche. He never drove it, just constantly maintained it, because it was more of a hobby than a chore. Thomas pulled up in the driveway and saw his father up ahead, in his blue overalls, wiping grease from his hands, the vehicle’s bonnet wide open. Thomas was soon approaching with his father’s gift under one arm.
He stayed for approximately an hour before heading back home, but he knew that his father was displeased with his present. He was expecting him to say: ‘That’s just what I’ve always wanted’ in a sarcastic tone, but Thomas was glad he spared him that.
Neil Walters had left the fox on the counter in the garage until he decided what to do with it. It was still there a few days later, staring at him as he worked on the car. As it was putting him off, he decided a good place for it was the small bedroom where nobody ever ventured, hardly even him. The room was a makeshift storeroom, a place for those items that have no use, but are too good to throw away, a place for unwanted gifts.
That night, Neil sat in bed, bathed in muted light from a bedside lamp. He poured another measure of whiskey, having already cleared nearly half of the bottle. His senses had become almost numbed, and his vision, although never clear, was now much worse. His hearing was similar. It was just about adequate normally, but both of those senses at present didn’t necessarily need to be used, so he indulged in an ever growing passion for whiskey, perhaps to forget that he was becoming more and more alone. He would frequent the local pubs, going partly for the surrounding social atmosphere, because there were people in there. It didn’t matter that they were strangers. That was usually preferable to an empty house, watching television. He had made a few friends in the pubs, people who could be described as local. People like him. That slowed down the growing depression that was caused by isolation, but now, when surrounded by quiet, was when loneliness sank its teeth in deepest, so he numbed his senses with his second passion, and that was when he was past caring.
Nothing mattered when in a drunken stupor. Things that had he been sober would have put his senses on full alert, did not work while alcohol was in his system. Things like the sound of scratching at a door. A door creaking open. More scratching, closer this time, louder, but still unheard by Neil. What his sense of sight became aware of was the bedroom door slowly opening.
The following morning, Thomas was feeling bad about the present he had given his father. What seemed like a good idea at the time, eroded away to make him feel quite low. So he decided on buying the biggest bottle of whiskey the off-licence sold and driving around straight away.
He was soon knocking on the front door, bottle in hand with an expression of sorrow on his face. He had keys to let himself in, but had never used them. There was no answer after a few knocks, so he took out his mobile phone and tried ringing him. Still nothing. Obviously he must be out, he thought, so decided to leave the whiskey inside, so that when he came in he would see it. A good place, he thought, was the kitchen counter. It couldn’t be missed there.
Soon, he was in the living room, leaving the bottle on the cluttered coffee table. Ever since Neil became a widower nine years ago, he had let the place become cluttered with useless items, such as old newspapers, leaflets, paraphernalia that helped to personalise the house, and define a huge portion of the personality of the owner. An untidy household reflected the fact that the owner simply didn’t care what people thought any more. What he did in his own house, and what it looked like, was his business, nobody else’s. Why should he tidy up when he had no reason to? Cleanliness was not a concern Neil had, and Thomas was certainly aware of it. It seemed to be messier than the last time he was here, and he wondered if the bedroom was in a similar state.
Up the stairs he went, and was surprised to find the curtains still closed. He could not make anything out properly, only that the bed was occupied. He guessed that he was asleep, and stepped close, his eyes gradually adjusting. He saw that his face was much darker than what it should have been, as though he had splashed oil onto his face. Thomas was aware that there was an odour that could well be blood. He was about to fling the duvet back in panic, but before he touched it, it went back itself to reveal the face of something he couldn’t quite place. Shock was only a split second away, and in that split second, he realised it was the fox, no longer stuffed, and very agile. It leapt at Thomas’s throat, but the shock had numbed the pain.
After a few moments, the fox came out of the bedroom onto the landing, its mouth dripping blood. It didn’t know where to start looking, so it tried the other bedroom and began searching.
The antiques shop had a closed sign outside. This had happened many times when normally it would have been open. Inside, upstairs, the owner, still in his white suit, sat cross legged on a mat, his eyes closed. In all corners, incense burned. Its thick smoke curled slowly into the air, and one candle burned in front of him, on the floor. In his mind, he could see through the eyes of the fox. He was controlling it. It was a kind of telepathic remote control. He was searching for something valuable, something that could be described as antique. Something he could sell in the shop, along with all the other items he had taken from those who had bought the fox previously. The fox would find something it could fit in its mouth, in its empty stomach, then find a way out of the house. Sometimes when it could not find a way out, it would have to wait until night time, before smashing out of the back or kitchen window. It always found a way out. The shop owner would come when it was least suspicious and retrieve the fox. That way he didn’t have to break and enter, and become an ordinary burglar, or thief.
The fox found an old pair of spectacles that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the seventies, and an ornament of a small bird. It looked like a kingfisher, or sparrow. It found the garage open, so went in and decided to wait by the Chevrolet. There was light coming in from beneath the main garage door, indicating that it wasn’t locked properly. It just needed somebody to come along and lift it open.
The antique shop owner smiled, knowing that he would do just that. When he opened his eyes, and cut off the connection with the fox, the fox would snap back into the position that it was found to be in, in the shop window. He stood up and extinguished the candle. He decided to go straight away to collect the fox. That way if the bodies were discovered, the finger of suspicion wouldn’t be pointed at him, not when he had wiped away the blood from its jaws.
Approximately a week later, a man and wife were passing the antiques shop. The wife stopped at the window.
“Look at this,” she said, her husband wandering back to see what she had spotted.
“A stuffed fox?” he said.
“Yes, we can afford it, can’t we?”
The husband thought for a moment, then reluctantly agreed. They entered the shop, the bell above the door ringing once again.