Another short exercise, this time: “While babysitting for her neighbours, your character goes snooping through their cupboards and finds a disturbing photo.”
Jan didn’t mind babysitting for the Coopers. They always left her something decent to eat, and told her to help herself from the fridge if she fancied anything else. One of them always gave her a lift back home if it was raining, and sometimes even when it was fine.
The child, Katy, was always in bed when she arrived, and never seemed to wake up, let alone cry. So babysitting there was easy. Nice big TV with Netflix, lots of DVDs to watch if there was nothing on there, even books to read if she ever felt like it, but she’d never even looked at what was on the shelves.
She was looking forward to a binge-watch of Game of Thrones when she arrived at the Coopers’ but tried to hide her disappointment when Mr Cooper told her, “Sorry, Jan, the telly’s on the blink tonight. Tried to get it fixed for you for tonight, but they said the first they could manage was tomorrow morning. Sorry. I’m sure you’ll find something to keep you busy, though. Make yourself a hot drink and help yourself to biscuits. We’ll be back before eleven.” And they were off.
She moped around, and in desperation turned to the bookshelves. There was nothing there that she wanted to read – not that she was much of a reader anyway – but a battered travel guide to Central Asia caught her eye. They’d been learning a little about the area at school recently, and she’d been interested in the story of Ghengis Khan and his Mongols. So… she pulled the book out of the shelf, and a piece of paper fluttered to the floor, with something handwritten on it.
She picked it up and read “Somewhere south of Tashkent” and a date about four years ago. She turned it over, and saw it was a photograph of the Cooper couple and … what?
Standing between them was something that she could only describe as a cross between a chicken, a lizard, and a goat. It seemed to be about the height of a five-year old child, with feathers like a chicken but what appeared to be a dark purple colour, a head and arms like a lizard, and it stood upright on two goatish legs, ending in hooves. If it could be said to have an expression on what you might call its face, it was one of fear and terror.
She fanned the pages of the book to see if there were any more photos, but nothing else seemed to have been placed in the book. She turned to the pages on Tashkent, and found a section describing tours of the desert that had been circled and underlined in pencil.
She studied the photo again. There was nothing else in the picture except for desert – sand and stones – and a range of mountains in the background. She looked at the thing again. Weird. She put the photo back into the book, and put the book back on the shelf.
Time to check on little Katy. Jan climbed the stairs to peek into the child’s bedroom, and the little darling was safely asleep, smiling sweetly to herself, dreaming of whatever little children dream of when they’re warm and happy.
She went downstairs and decided to make herself a cup of chocolate – the Coopers bought a better brand than her Mum did. It was one of her regular treats. It was a quiet night, and without the television turned on, she could hear the wind rustling in the trees in the back garden – and something else. A sort of moaning whining sound coming from outside. Just in case, she ran upstairs to check on Katy again, but she was fast asleep. Back down to the kitchen again, and the noise was still outside.
There was a torch beside the back door, and she picked it up, and unlocked and opened the back door. The sound was louder outside, and seemed to come from a shed at the bottom of the lawn, by the hedge dividing the back garden from the wheat field behind the house.
She approached the shed, and shone the torch through the window. Immediately, the moaning changed to a cry of despair, which sounded almost human. A face appeared through the glass, and she shrank back, recognising it as that of the creature in the photograph. Again, it seemed to her that the expression was one of fear and terror, and despite its frightening appearance, she felt a stab of pity for this – this thing, whatever it was, confined in the shed.
The door of the shed was secured by a padlock, but she remembered seeing a key hanging from a hook by the back door. “I’ll be back,” she called to the thing, though she doubted if it could understand her.
Yes, there was the key, and it looked like a padlock key. Back at the shed, she fumbled with the lock, and the door swung open. Immediately she was conscious of a dark shape hurtling towards her, and she was knocked onto her back as something – the thing – climbed over her. She attempted to grab hold of it, but it squirmed out of her grasp. Her nostrils filled with a foul smell, and she passed out.
She woke up in her own bed at home, and opened her eyes to see her mother bending over her.
“Thank goodness you’re awake, dear. How do you feel?”
She went through a mental checklist. Did she feel all right? “Yes, Mum. I’m OK. What happened?”
“Mr. Cooper brought you back in his car. He said you’d gone into the garden and slipped over. You must have hit your head on a stone or something, he thought. I wondered if I should call an ambulance to check if you had concussion or something, but he didn’t seem to think it was necessary. Shall I help you undress and get into your night things?”
Jan realised she was still wearing her clothes, but no shoes. “Don’t fuss, Mum. I’ll manage.”
“All right, dear. Do you want a cup of something?”
“That would be nice, thanks. A cup of chocolate, please.”
As her mother left the room, Jan’s mind flashed back to the chocolate she hadn’t made in the Coopers’ kitchen, and what had happened afterwards. Had she imagined the thing in the shed?
As she lay there, she became conscious of something tickling her right palm, and she brought her hand out from under the bedclothes, remembering that she had made a grab for the thing as it had scampered over her in its rush to escape. She looked at the dark purple feather stuck between her fingers with horror.