The phone call came in the middle of the night.
I grabbed the phone, blinked at the light that seemed all too bright and glared at it. Three in the goddamn morning. Why in the name of Christ was my brother phoning me at this unholy hour?
"What the hell do you want?" I sat up in bed, rubbed my eyes and massaged my forehead in the hope it would prevent the headache I could feel brewing.
A terrified whisper answered me. This banished all thoughts of tiredness. "There's something in my house." His voice was hushed, I could barely hear it, despite the silence of the night.
"Why the hell are you phoning me and not the police?"
Already I was out of bed, pulling trousers on, my pyjama t-shirt discarded on the nearest clear part of the floor.
"Because I can't see it! It's there, I know it's there, but I don't know where it is." My brother sighed. "Come over? Please? I was hoping for strength in numbers, might chase it off."
That struck me as odd, the hour he phoned me at. I balanced the phone on my shoulder while I dug through the drawer. "I'm on my way. Should be there in about ten minutes if I cane it."
A sigh of relief responded. "Thank you. I knew I could count on you."
"You're such a brat. Waking me up at this fucking time."
My brother laughed. "I'll see you soon."
I switched on the lamp in the living room, looked around for my smokes. The room was a mess, debris of my latest decoration attempt left everywhere. Rolls of wallpaper lay sprawled across the floor, unopened rolls leaned precariously against the wallpaper table while the floor was sticky with spilt paste. My wife would murder me if she saw it.
The cigarette packet was dumped on the armchair. I grabbed them, grabbed my keys, locked the door, and left.
Already I could feel the gaze of the neighbours as they peered out of their windows. The night owls, the insomniacs, the nosy, all twitched their curtains when I started up my motorbike. It was half past by this point. No one would be out on the roads, or so I hoped. I revved the engine and sped onto the road and down the street.
When I reached my brother's home, I found it in darkness. I wheeled the bike into the driveway, propped it up on its stand and went to the front door. I was about to knock when the door opened and my brother grabbed my shirt, pulling me inside then slammed the door.
"Did you see anything outside?" he said, going into the living room.
I shook my head. "Nothing. There's not a soul out there."
"Sit down, I'll get you something." He moved to the kitchen and made coffee.
The living room was pitch black. The curtains were closed, as were the blinds. Neither coffee table nor side tables were safe from the mess as coffee cups littered both. My brother's phone lay discarded on the couch, ready to fall between the cushions. I retrieved it from its fate, placed it on the scarce space on one of the side tables nearby.
There were several torches perched here and there, packets of batteries, both new and old, sat next to them. What the hell happened?
My brother returned, two cups in his hands, both steaming. He handed me one, cup first. I took it and burnt my hand.
"Ow! I swear you do that on purpose," I turned the cup around.
He rolled his eyes. "Of course I do."
I sat down on the couch. "Care to tell me why a hurricane looks as if it's just passed through here?" I looked around the living room again. "The kids come over?"
He shook his head. "She's not letting me see them, remember." He fiddled with his cup, tracing patterns around the sides, a deep frown on his face. The wound of his recent divorce was still as raw as ever.
"So, what happened? Why are there torches everywhere?"
He bit his lip, again toyed with his cup and took a sip. "There was something outside. It started a few days ago."
It was the early hours of the morning; the dog was barking and there was a scrape at the window.
The feeling of dread that crept over him said otherwise. He opened his eyes, looked over to the window where the noise originated from. A shadow ran past. He thought it was an intruder.
He got up out of bed, went to check on the dog. He'd had the dog for several years; a god send during the divorce proceedings. The big lolloping beast sat in the living room, whining at the glass door to the back garden. It brightened when he appeared, kneeling next to it and gave its head a scratch.
"Hey buddy, what's all this noise about, hm?" he said. He stroked the dog's fur, stiffened when the dog growled low and long. It got to its feet, hackles risen, head bowed while it stood in front of him, ready to protect him to its last. He stood up, reached for a knife and the keys to the back door.
Outside was silent. No wind blew, the sky was a hazy orange, dyed from the streetlights. Empty trees and empty branches reached into the clouds, the shrubbery of the back of the garden little more than an outline, illuminated by a lamp that glowed from one of the neighbours' windows.
The movement was subtle. Something swept through the bushes, quickly and with little sound. When it moved again, he grabbed his dog's collar, holding it back. It continued to growl, letting out the odd 'woof' of warning. He felt his stomach churn, his breathing quickened though he tried to pretend it was an animal of some sort scavenging for food. Some kind of rational explanation for the movement, anything but what his mind conjured up. That it was someone not something.
He turned away.
Further up the gardens, a figure stood watching him.
Then came the faces at the windows.
With Halloween approaching, naturally my brother thought it was kids messing around. His dog however disagreed. The great lumbering beast would cower and hide under tables whenever the faces appeared, whining the entire time. My brother, on the other hand, would rush from the room with the intention of confronting the little hellions only to find them gone. There was no trace anyone had been there at all.
This went on for days. My brother would lurk, waiting for the faces, the masks to appear at the window. As much as he didn't want to admit, they unnerved him terribly. The masks were cracked, made of clay with dubious stains on the cheeks. They had faces painted onto them, one a clown with bright red lips that were unnaturally long. Another had a crying face, tears painted down the cheeks, this one had the most stains on it.
The stains looked like blood, another thing he didn't want to admit. Whoever was behind the mask, had they attacked someone previously? And, more to the point, was he next?
"You have a bunch of kids harassing you," I said, once he'd finished.
He nodded. His coffee was untouched. "I phoned the police, but they couldn't help unless the kids actually did something."
I rolled my eyes. "Bloody typical." I stood up, my own coffee on the table, while a packet of batteries on the arm of the couch made a daring bid for freedom.
My brother yawned and tanked his coffee as if it were a pint and last rounds had been called at the pub. I frowned and sat back down then took a moment to properly study him in the dim light.
Despite the gloom, I could see the dark circles, the hunched shoulders, the suitcases the bags under his eyes carried. He hadn't slept in days and internally, I sighed.
"Look, why don't you get some sleep?" I suggested, gesturing to the darkened hallway.
"I can't, not with this going on," he answered and rubbed his forehead.
"You won't let your stubborn arse sleep, you mean."
He scowled at me. "Would you if you had potential murderers peering through your window at night?"
I rolled my eyes. "Oh, don't be so dramatic. The rate you're going you'll be dead of lack of sleep before they can get in to do anything."
"Well do excuse me if fearing for my life now counts as unnecessary drama." He turned away. "You might as well head home. I'll deal with this my damn self."
"You're such a brat at times, phoning me at this bloody time..." I paused and shifted on the couch. "And what the hell am I sitting on now?" I stood for a second time and found a packet of batteries almost halfway up my arse.
My brother snorted. "Trying to be the Energizer Bunny there?"
"I'm more likely to be the fucked one at the side of the race with the Poundland batteries."
He put a hand over his mouth to try and hide the smile, he was supposed to be mad at me after all.
"Look, it might spook them to find me here instead of you." I reached over, put one hand on his shoulder and pointed to the general direction of where his bedroom lay. "Besides, what're big brothers for, hm? I'll get murdered in your stead."
He could see this was a losing battle, and despite the hesitance and brief resistance, he stood up from the couch. He took a last look around, took a torch, a packet of batteries from the many piles strewn around and disappeared into the gloom of the hallway.
What are big brothers for? He was younger than me by several years, our sister younger still. I was one of the middle children, two elder brothers came along before me, my brother and sister came after. I was incredibly close to my brother, so it made sense that I was his first port of call. Even if it was three in the morning, he knew I would come running.
I waited until I heard the bedroom door shut, then tried the light in the living room. To my surprise, it switched on. In the light, I could see exactly how rattled my brother was.
The curtains were closed except for a small gap in the middle. Below the window was a footstool, and it was covered in candles, boxes of matches, batteries and a torch. I moved them all and deposited them in their rightful homes.
The kitchen fared no better than the living room. Drawers were pulled out and left, knives gone from their usual stand on the counter while scissors were strewn from one end to the next. I spent some time returning everything to its proper place and went back to the living room.
My brother's dog was still in its crate, though it had brightened considerably when I arrived. I let it out, scratched behind its ear and generally made a fuss over it.
And that's when I heard it.
A knock on the window, lightly at first, but distinctive enough that it would be recognised.
I turned in time to see a clown mask slowly descend beneath the window's view. I charged after them, the dog beating its tail against the floor and it let out a long whine, eyes wide, pupils dilated. I threw the door open, stomach churning, my palms clammy. There was nothing there, no sign of anything or anyone despite what I'd seen moments before.
I realised my mistake in an instant.
In my haste, I hadn't thought this might be a distraction technique, draw me out as a way for them to get in.
I rushed back inside, slammed the door shut, put the chain on it and turned the key in the lock. I went for a knife from the kitchen, slid it into my back pocket while I retrieved a pair of scissors.
I switched the light off and ducked down behind an armchair. Now I understood the need for darkness and just why so many matches and torches littered the living room.
My own set of matches were in my back pocket along with my smokes. While others used lighters, I preferred my matches. They came in handy during power cuts. To the day, both my brothers and my wife nagged me to give it up. Out of stubbornness, I dug my heels in every time.
I waited, sat on the couch, scissors in my hand.
I went from window to window, completely on edge. There was no sign of the would-be intruder, no matter how many times I checked. I patrolled the outside of the house like a night watchman, looking for any sign of life. There were none.
With the time of year it was, the sun didn't even consider rising until at least mid-morning, by which point I was blowing smoke signals when my brother got back up.
He opened the door, saw my expression and the steady rate the smoke was rising, did an about turn and left. I heard the kettle boiling a moment later.
I paced the room, up and down, up and down, my expression thunderous and my mood even worse so. When a cigarette went out, I retrieved another from the packet. Until I had smoked my way through the entire thing. This only served to make my mood even worse and I threw the packet on the floor, where it bounced and landed face down.
My brother returned, two steaming cups in his hands, then placed both down and caught me before I could stalk the living room again. He sat me down, handed me the cup, this time handle first unless he wanted an earful.
"I'll buy you a packet of smokes," he said, already fiddling with the cup while he traced the pattern with his fingers.
"What's in it for you?" I answered. My scowl remained.
"All the coffee you want."
"And you want?"
"Stay here? Try and frighten these kids off?"
I sighed. "You know I'm in the middle of decorating. My wife will throw a fit if she sees the state the place is in."
"I'll get my eldest over to do it, or hell, I'll pay for a professional decorator."
My frown deepened. "Are you saying my decorating skill sucks?"
He sat back on the couch. "You did come home drunk, somehow found wallpaper and put it up upside down. Bathroom was filled with poor dead fish swimming belly up for months."
"Shove it up your shit pipe."
He remained unfazed by the insult. "Look, if the police won't do anything, I at least need a witness. And you've had my back through everything."
My mood went further south. "You know sleepovers are what my daughter does. You do realise that? Her dad doesn't do that shit."
He rolled his eyes. "You make it sound like I'm about to order Domino's and buy every chick flick DVD I can find."
"You're such a shit."
He grinned; he knew he'd won.
"It better be decent chick flicks. None of that Bridget Jones's diary nonsense. Or Mama Mia. I hate that fucking film." My scowl had lessened somewhat, something of a relief.
"Don't worry, I'll buy the entire shelf of horror from HMV."
"I hate you."
"No, you don't. I'm your favourite."
He disappeared out of the room.
"You're my ex-favourite!"
That was one of the last normal conversations we had.