It’s that moment when you know you’re being watched; when an invisible hand reaches into your dreams and drags you back to reality. The shock sends your heart racing, the panic intensifying when inner voices whisper, Don’t make a sound, something’s not right.
We’ve all experienced that prickling sensation as the hairs on the back of our neck stand to attention while our ears burn, straining to pick out the tiniest of sounds. We can sense the heat of a stare without opening our eyes. Is that a sixth sense or merely survival instincts? Call it what you will, when it kicks in, you’re ripped from the arms of slumber and thrown into consciousness with heart-stopping abruptness.
And so it is for me. Shaken and uncertain what has woken me, I lie perfectly still, breath held, listening. There… a footfall. It’s faint, merely a creak of leather, barely perceivable. There it is again. I hear it clearly this time.
Someone’s in my room.
Blood screams in my ears as a rush of adrenaline surges through my veins. Both body and mind prepare for ‘fight or flight’ but deeper instincts keep me frozen. My eyes remain tightly shut, my breathing shallow. To my unwanted visitor, I must appear asleep even though I’m anything but. I’m wide awake - more than awake - every sense is heightened.
My mind whirls. There’s someone in the room with me, I’m sure of it, but how? I locked the door. I know I locked it. I remember locking it. I live in London in student accommodation that’s targeted by thieves all the time. Locking my door is done habitually. It has to be. I lock it then check it’s secure before removing the key. I’m meticulous and I did exactly that before I got into bed. I swear I did.
So who’s in my room? Not a fellow student popping in on the off chance I’m awake and not the cleaners either. They come in early but not when it’s still dark. It’s the middle of the night, I can tell, even through closed eyelids. No, whoever’s in here shouldn’t be.
My heart thumps against my ribcage and my hands tremble. This isn’t good. I’m in trouble. I clarify the situation in my head: it’s a break-in, they want money. It’s safest to play dead and let them get on with it. My wallet’s in plain sight, my laptop too. They’ll snatch them and leave.
But there’s an element of doubt - what if it’s not a burglary? Breathing faster, muscles twitching, I’m ready to bolt. My hands ball into fists.
Wait… don’t move, don’t open your eyes, stay down, stay quiet.
The voice of reason issues the instruction and I obey. It makes sense. My visitor is between me and the door, my only exit. If I run, I may not be quick enough and, if they are armed, colliding with them will result in panicked conflict. One of us will get hurt, maybe both. I could endanger others too: students rushing to see what the noise is about only to get caught up in the fracas. Better to be quiet and lie still.
What was that? A rustle of paper? Something being moved on my desk?
My muscles are coiled springs and my stomach twists in knots. Nausea wells inside me. I listen again. No more sounds. Nothing.
Where’s he gone? Or she. It could be a she. Oh no, that burning, penetrating sensation again - they’re watching me, eyes intensely scrutinizing my inert body. I want to scream but my vocal cords are as paralysed as the rest of me. What are they doing? Why don’t they leave?
Something’s not right… there’s a chill in the air, a distinct drop in temperature. Is the window open? Is that how they got in? Surely not, my room’s on the third floor. There’s no ledge outside, no flat roof, no balcony. It’s a sheer drop to the street below, a busy street. A ladder would be spotted a mile off.
Think… be logical.
They had to have come through the door, not the window. The chill must be from there, it’s open somehow… oh damn, I left the key in the lock, didn’t I? Stupid, stupid! It’s the oldest trick in the book: push a piece of paper under the door then dislodge the key so it falls. This is an old hall of residence, built in the sixties I think, and my floor’s not been upgraded yet. I don’t have a snug fitting fire door, mine’s a wooden original with a gap at the bottom wide enough for the key to be retracted.
In my mind, I’ve deduced what this is - it’s a break-in. I’m being robbed and, so far, the burglar isn’t bothered by me. He/she is calm: no heavy breathing, barely any sound whatsoever. Pretending to be asleep is working so I’m not in any immediate danger. I must be patient.
I clench my teeth to stop them chattering. Is that fear or the cold? It’s terribly cold… and quiet. It’s silent again. Why? What are they doing? Still watching? Waiting? Waiting for what?
A sudden flurry of footsteps shatters my illusion of safety. I’m in danger, real danger. My pulse surges… now what? Change the plan? Leap out of bed, wave my arms around and yell for help? But they’re so close, I won’t make it to the door… I can’t.
Stiffening with fear, I hear breathing and feel the heat of a presence standing right beside my bed. My petrified mind screams at the knowledge that someone is standing over me, peering into my face. They’re looking right at me!
My eyelids flutter. No! Did they see that? Do they know I’m faking sleep?
Oh, crap… something’s brushing against my arm. What is that? A hand? A scarf? Please let this be a simple burglary… please.
The bed rocks, the mattress sinking. A body comes into contact with mine. I tremble, heart thumping so fast, it feels like it’s going to explode. Breath scorches my cheek as the visitor leans over me.
Faint… I think I’m going to faint. My eyelids flutter again, I can’t stop them. There’s sweat on my brow and my body’s shaking. It’s obvious I’m conscious.
The time has come to fight. There’s no longer a choice. My adrenaline peaks, preparing me. I’m ready to take on anything. I brace myself…
The mattress suddenly springs back into shape and the heat beside me recedes in an instant. Still motionless, I listen to footsteps retreating across the room. The contents of my waste bin rustle as the visitor knocks into it. A floorboard creaks.
My aggression stands down as the situation changes. Once again, it’s wise to remain quiet. They’re leaving. Let them go. I hear the distinctive click of my door handle being depressed. Waiting, listening, straining, I’m prepared to fight but pray I won’t have to.
Nothing. Silence. There’s absolute quiet and what’s more, the feeling of being watched has gone. No more prickles on my neck. Why?
Slowly, careful not to move my head, I open my eyelids a fraction. Through the darkness, I can make out my door - closed, not open. The hallway light is creeping under it. Nothing’s blocking it. There’s no-one there. As my eyes adjust, I can see my key in the lock. My blood runs cold.
Oh my goodness, they’re still in my room, hiding.
Opening my eyes wide, I move my head enough to allow my gaze to sweep the room. Nothing. No shadows, nothing out of place. This isn’t a burglary. It’s something more sinister and it’s time to move. No more hesitation: straight to the door and out.
But that’s not what I do. Something still isn’t right… the thought nags and nags at me. Why would anyone hide in my room? Steal my belongings and run, yes. Incapacitate me while I sleep, also possible. But hide? Is this some kind of prank?
I need to know. The nearest light is a lamp on my desk. Springing into action, I cross the room in a single bound and click the switch. Light floods my cramped student quarters, illuminating every corner. There are few hiding places and, grabbing a butter knife from a crumb-covered plate, I attack the most obvious - my wardrobe.
Nothing. The only other place large enough to conceal a human is under my bed. I flick back the duvet and pull out the boxes and bags stored under there.
“Come out!” I yell, anger rising. “Show yourself.”
I’ve had enough. This ends now.
There’s no-one under my bed. Nothing’s disturbed, not even the dust. Confused, scared, I cross to my door and pull on the handle. It doesn’t open. It’s locked. How? If it’s locked then someone’s in here. They have to be.
“Go on, get out!” I scream. Unlocking the door, I fling it wide. “Get-out. Go!”
Nothing. Not a sound, not a movement.
With a headache pounding in my temples, I slope back to my bed and slump onto the mattress. What the hell is going on?
I pinch myself. I’m definitely awake. The t-shirt I’m wearing is damp with sweat, my muscles are tense and my pulse is still racing. The fear is real, but… am I hallucinating? I’d been drinking, yes. I had a few pints, maybe a couple of shots, but not enough to make me hallucinate, surely?
Thoroughly muddled, I check the room again: windows, wardrobe, even my tiny cupboard. Finding nothing, I throw everything out of the wardrobe then, suddenly nauseous, run to my sink and throw-up. The contents of my stomach stink of beer and whiskey. Ugh!
A sharp knock on my door scares me half to death. Spinning around, I find my neighbour leaning against my open door. Bleary-eyed and dressing-gown clad, she doesn’t look happy.
“What are you doing?” she groans. “It’s half past three in the sodding morning.”
“Sorry,” I mutter, wiping my mouth. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Have you been sick? Do you need help?”
My room must stink so there’s no point denying it. “I’m not ill. Too much to drink,” I shrug.
Folding her arms, she glares at me. “Have you slept yet?”
“What? Yes… of course. I just woke up.”
“Idiot!” she snaps. “You should never go to bed drunk. What if you’d been sick in your sleep, huh? You’d have choked.”
“I wouldn’t,” I laugh, making light of it, “I’m not that drunk. Anyway, choking in your sleep’s a bit of an old-wives tale.”
“No. It’s not,” her eyes flash with anger, “and if you’d lived here last year, like I did, you wouldn’t be standing there with that stupid smirk on your face.”
Now I’m really confused. I gape at her, uncertain how to respond. “Jane? What are you-”
“I’m sorry,” she raises a trembling hand and backs away, “I don’t want to talk about it. Ask someone else.” She retreats into her room, then pauses, door ajar. “Drink some water, have a shower, stay awake until you sober up. Alright?”
“I promise. Sorry for waking you. I-”
She’s gone. What was that about? My night’s turned from strange to stranger.
At the sink, I rinse out a mug and gulp down water. Nausea hits me again and, for the second time, I vomit. Crikey… I did drink a bit more than I thought. As I splash cold water on my face it occurs to me that my neighbour could be right, I could have choked. I study my face in the mirror.
What a stupid thing to do, I tell my reflection. It’s a good job I woke up… my chest suddenly tightens as Jane’s words replay in my head. It dawns on me - I do know what she was talking about. I’ve heard the stories, the whole tragic tale but…
I turn sharply, I’ve got goose-bumps again. Every nerve fibre is tingling. My gaze darts around my room, nervously, searching. I’m missing something aren’t I? What? What haven’t I seen?
I catch my breath when I spot the notepad on my desk: it’s open. I didn’t leave it like that. I left it closed with a pencil on top. Could that be the sound I heard, the paper moving? Is this what the ‘visit’ was about?
Creeping towards it, cold shivers run the length of my spine. I can hardly bring myself to look. I swallow hard when I see writing… faint, shaky pencil marks. Picking up the pad, I hold it to the light. A gasp escapes my throat as I read the message -
Are your eyes open now?