(Winner of the Ditmar Award for Best Novella, 2009)
(Winner of the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Short Story, 2008)
(Recipient of an Honorable Mention in Best Horror Of The Year Volume One, edited by Ellen Datlow)
Christ, not again. Hard enough to sleep with the afternoon sun sleazing through the venetian blinds, the dull ache in each and every joint of her sweat-sick body, and Faith groans as she rolls over to grab the bottle of water beside her bed. Blister pack of tablets beside that, antibiotics of some kind, and RelaxaTabs as well because the doctor refused to prescribe her any sort of decent sleeping pill; she takes two of each.
Natural rest, my arse.
Hard enough to sleep with the near-constant vertigo and the quilt pulled right up to her chin, sweating and itching beneath it because otherwise she'll only wake up with chattering teeth and her fingernails a disturbing shade of blue.
Hard enough without this: the sobs and muffled shouts pressing through the shoddy townhouse wall, the nameless thumps and, yesterday, even the sound of smashing glass.
Faith pulls the pillow over her head, but it's too hot, too close; she can't breathe properly even when she's not trying to smother herself. Stretches her legs instead, trying to kick the cramps from her knees, and when the shouting from next door starts up again, she raises a fist for the umpteenth time to pound against the wall.
And, for the umpteenth time, stops herself at the very last second.
It might only make things worse.
No idea who her neighbours are, after all. A single woman, the agent's assurance during inspection, quiet and tidy; you'll have no trouble there-and with that now so obviously a lie, who the hell knows what she's moved in next door to on a fucking twelve-month lease?
The shouting ceases, gives way to sobbing. Soft, feminine cries that Faith almost can't hearâ€”and somehow that only makes it worse. So, two more RelaxaTabs before curling tight beneath the blanket with her chin tucked close to her chest, and no matter that it's harder to breathe through her congestion like that.
Harder still to sleep with what she can hearâ€”and imagineâ€”beyond that wall.
If ice could boil, and still stay frozen, this is how it might burn.
The seething shiver of skin on skin, on cloth, on the bare bathroom floor as she lies spread-eagled in an effort to touch absolutely nothing, or as much of it as she can. The water that ebbs around her chattering teeth, slips into her mouth despite the cool, strong hands that hold up her head, long fingers curved firm around her chin when all she wants to do is slip beneath the surface and sink, sink, sink. The light that swells her skull, her bones, her guts, seeking to split her wide and spill itself into the world.
New city, new job, and Faith is lonely. Not that she would ever admit as much with a clear head, a clean bloodstream; hence the wine.
That had been the plan, anyway.
But mice and men and smothered, broken blondes, Mara isn't alone.
Faith can't hear the sounds all the way out here in the kitchen. Those same whimpers and thumps she remembers from when she was ill, sounds she'd later decidedâ€”hoped?â€”had been amplified by delirium, fever-swollen and exaggerated beyond all measure of reality. Until now. She picks up the cordless phone for the second time tonight, index finger hovering above the 0 on the keypad.
What if Mara hates her for calling the police?
What if the...boyfriend? lover? (rapist?) takes it out on Mara herself?
What if the police don't arrive in time, or even at all?
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