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Hunger

Samuel Best

Building blocks with ABC written on them.

The baby’s cry wakes him, pulling him from the deep in an instant. How long has he been out? Steven checks his phone. Only a few hours. He looks to Claire, lying next to him. Her eyes are closed but he knows she’ll be awake. That cry could wake the dead. It’s his turn though so he steps out of bed, the wooden floor cold on the soles of his feet. His legs are heavy and slow, his head dizzy, but he operates on autopilot these days. The swing of the hammer, the fastening of the nappy.

 

The house is silent except for Ivy, who falls to a soft whimpering when Steven picks her up, up and puts the dummy back in her mouth. Using the torch on his phone, he weaves through the house — dodging piles of undone laundry and the pram, disassembled in the hallway — to the kitchen. He sets the phone on the worktop, the beam of light enough to allow him to work without disturbing Ivy too much, the moonlight lying like a heavy winter on the floor tiles. Ivy squirms in his arms, her face wrinkled with a discontent that threatens further tears. Steven knows he must act quickly.

 

Spooning baby formula into the bottle, Steven whispers the measurements out so he doesn’t lose track. He shakes it, the plastic hot in his hand, though the rest of him is beginning to feel the cold creeping through the house. He holds Ivy closer and she coories into him as if in response. He walks her and the bottle over to the sink, begins to run the bottle under the tap to cool, and that’s when he hears it.

 

Shhfff.

 

A sudden shuffling sound, quiet and only lasting a second, but so out of place in the dark two a.m. kitchen that it may as well have been a scream.

 

Steven freezes, his hand holding the bottle still under the stream from the cold tap. Ivy looks up from the crook of his other arm. She doesn’t look worried but he imagines how loud the beating of his heart must be to her. He scans around the kitchen but can’t see any potential source of the sound.

He rocks his body slightly to soothe Ivy. As he reaches to turn the tap off he hears it again.

 

Shhfff.

 

A smooth, soft drag. Over in an instant, but enough to set Steven’s mind racing. He grabs for his phone, casts the torch beam around and for a second he thinks he sees his own face, distorted horribly, at the kitchen window before he realises it’s only him. The tired, drawn face of a new father; easily mistaken for a zombie pawing at the glass.

 

He turns his attention to the floor and halts the torch beam on the pile of cardboard by the back door. The car seat, the crib, the thousand nappies — they’d all been delivered with a mountain of cardboard packaging, now flat-packed and ready to be recycled. Steven realises a couple of pieces must have slipped and fallen. Gravity at work, not the forces of evil, he tells himself.

He returns to the sink and picks up the bottle of milk, trying to tell himself that just because he couldn’t see any cardboard out of place that didn’t mean some hadn’t fallen. He and Ivy are halfway across the room on their way back to the bedroom when Steven hears a third sound. A loud sound, this time. A deep, harsh growl.

In an instant, his skin is ice. He has Ivy pressed tightly to his chest. Sometimes you hear a sound and imagine it’s maybe a fox or a badger, but then sometimes something deep within tells you it is none of these things.

He imagines how he must look if anyone were to look in through the window: the torchlight illuminating him from the chest down, vulnerable with a baby and his hands full. He feels the thinness — the weakness — of his pyjama t-shirt, his boxer shorts, his bare feet. He is reminded of how fragile an infant baby is.

Steven lifts his phone up, raising the torchlight from the floor to the window. There’s something out there. He knows it. He walks over and presses his phone to the glass. He stands, stunned for a second, before fumbling for the button to turn the light off. He finds it but in his terror, he drops the phone.

 

The kitchen falls back to darkness as the sound of the screen cracking cuts through the room. Steven holds his breath, burning in his chest as the seconds pass. He listens to the noise outside, hears it coming closer to the house. A heavy sound.

 

A threatening sound. Steven wills Ivy to stay quiet but she starts to wriggle, the smell of fresh formula milk frustrating her hungry body. She tongues the dummy out of her mouth and it too falls to the floor. Steven bends quickly to pick it up, put it back before it’s too late, but he can’t feel it around and now it’s too late.

 

Across the room, the back door handle slowly starts to turn. There’s a loud, huffing breathing on the other side of the door. Something large. Something hungry. Ivy fusses but Steven can’t move. He’s frozen, trying to think if he locked up after he took the bin bags out earlier on. His memory has been shot since his sleep has been so poor and he can’t recall.

The handle turns and he can’t remember.

Steven can’t think at all.

Ivy begins to cry.

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