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époque press
pronounced: /epƏk/
definition: /time/era/period

I curl up, hold my breath and listen; but between the racket outside and the whooshing in my ears, now that my heart is racing, it’s hard to know if they’ve found a way in.

   ‘Under the bed – clear,’ I whisper to myself, picturing the checks I wish I’d done. ‘Behind the curtains – clear too.’ Nothing but cobwebs and hangers in the wardrobe. Balcony door locked. Seal secure. And the bathroom has no window.

   As my pulse slows and my hearing sharpens, I uncurl slightly and risk pushing the sheet down to my chest. I keep hold of it, though, just in case. The room is quiet. Maybe the sound I thought I heard, the one I instinctively know I’ll be listening for until the end of my days, happened in a nightmare rather than in this room full of mahogany furniture and oil paintings. But I don’t think I was in a deep enough sleep to have been dreaming. A minute passes and when there’s still no noise I relax my grip on the sheet. There are damp patches on it from where I bunched it up in my palms. My face is damp too.

   If only the air conditioning worked.

   If only I could let the heat out, or sit on the balcony.

   If only I’d gone to bed naked, like I usually do.

   But I’m dressed, sort of. Even in the dark I can tell that much, although I’ve no idea what I’m wearing. I can’t remember. How is that possible? How long was I out? I roll over and reach for my phone. I left it on the bedside table. I’m sure I did. But I can’t find it, or the table.

I look but can’t see. My eyes won’t open. The pounding in my ears ratchets up and my body grows hot, itchy too.

   Light. I need light. I reach out again, this time for the switch on the wall.

   No, yells a voice in my head – they’ll be drawn to it.

   I freeze with my arm outstretched. It feels as though a kettlebell has been hooked onto my wrist, but I don’t move. The bed does, though. It rocks slightly, like the train I take to work. Is that where I am? On a train? On the one that brought us here, the beauty with uniformed waiters and gleaming wood? Impossible. That was for one night only. And I can’t be in our compartment. It was safe. And small. Perfect but tiny – unlike this room, which is shabby yet palatial, not to mention airless.

   I can’t fight the heaviness anymore. I drop my arm. It hits the mattress but makes no sound, at least none I can hear.

   The bed goes perfectly still.

   Something brushes my fingers. It tickles.

   ‘Stay away from me!’ I scream and scoot backwards. Kicking, I get tangled in the sheet.

   There’s nothing ticklish about the pressure then applied to my forehead, although the shush that accompanies this new hell feels like a draught on my cheek and makes me want to scratch.

   I do scratch: my cheek with my shoulder; my legs and ankles with my toes.

   How did one of them get in? Almost at once, an image comes to me of it flying down the ventilation shaft in the bathroom – the shaft with the finicky slats that wouldn’t quite close.

   The pressure on my forehead eases as the attack on my hand resumes.

   ‘Leave me alone,’ I plead. ‘I’ll react badly! I swear.’

   No response, except for a buzz.

   That noise. Intermittent, like before, but far, far louder.

   I have to get out; of bed and the room and this swamp of a city. I roll away from the missing table, taking the sheet with me. The bed is narrower than I remember. I almost fall but it, the shusher, has me and won’t let go.

   I hear shouting from outside, it’s getting nearer. I don’t understand a word until the stream of gibberish turns into a rasp of, ‘Mio Dio. Mio Dio. Mio Dio.’

   They must be after him too. Poor bastard.

   ‘Help,’ I mumble.

   ‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’ It sounds apologetic. I’m not fooled, though; they’re sneaky, all of them. I won’t let it get under my skin. It goes on, ‘Scusi, over here.’ And, more softly, ‘You’re all right, sweetie.’

   Sweetie. Is that what I am, a treat? I must be. That must be why they want me.

   I bring my knees up to my chest. I cover my face, my cheek feels funny against my palm; spongy, almost like cotton wool. I tear at it but can’t find skin.

   More of them swoop in. I hear them flapping around me.

   Something lands on my hair. I shrug it off, taking care not to expose myself. A second later it’s back – on my shoulder.

   ‘This won’t hurt,’ one of them drones. The words hang awkwardly on the air and sound unnatural. Probably because the line is a lie.

   I lower my hands and grab the sheet, intending to pull it over my head, but before taking cover I force my eyes open. What I see makes me squeeze them shut again. Harsh light, blindingly bright. But that’s not the worst of it. There’s a man stretched out beside me. He’s silent now and a mess. His nose is mushed up and his lips and chin are bloody.

   Blood. I remember. That’s what they want. Mine.

   I drag the sheet up. But one of them stops me. And another one lands on my elbow. I swat them away but I’m not quick enough. One of them gets my arm.

   I feel the tickle first, followed almost at once by a biting pain. Then nothing.

   As the light fades and the room quiets down, something brushes my ear. A shush, and on it a whisper. ‘I got you.’

N.K. Woods studied Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. Her stories have appeared in Books Ireland, New Worlds New Voices Anthology, The Honest Ulsterman, Storgy, and elsewhere. She lives in Ireland.

Of the story featured here, N.K. Woods states:

‘Monsters don't hide under the bed, or so we're told as children. But that's not quite true. There are bloodsuckers all over the world, tiny ones. And for some hyper-sensitive people, like the tourist in The Trouble with Visitors who is plagued by buzzing while trying to sleep, an encounter with the wrong type of bug can lead down a nightmare path to fever, confusion and hospital.’

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