Alice awoke the next morning with the hangover from hell. It was the kind of hangover which felt like goblins had crept in during the night and had decided that her head would make the perfect addition to their percussive band. She briefly panicked when she attempted to get up from the sofa and caught sight of the clock. Half-past ten? I'm late! She staggered to her feet, tried to keep her balance, and then remembered she'd moved her shift to the afternoon, pre-empting this very morning. And just as well, too. The world was a terrifyingly spinny and throbby place that morning, and Alice resolved - much like she did after every night out - never to drink again.
At first, there was very little she could piece together of the night before, only fragments of events and what felt like the weird fever-dreams that only a certain amount of vodka could produce. Geoff had been there... Or was it Tim, dressed as Geoff? Dracula was doing a little more than sucking the blood from the neck of Nurse Naughty... Someone had come dressed as King Kong, too...
She balanced herself, placing a hand on the back of the sofa, and knowing she really had to get a move on if she was to get to work on time, Alice hobbled into the kitchen. She had lost a shoe at some point, that was certain. Her feet felt cold and blistered. Pouring more than a generous amount of coffee granules into a mug, Alice put the kettle on and gazed vacantly into the fridge. Something fried will do, she thought, like fried eggs in a sandwich. With bacon. And loads of ketchup poured on top. She set about preparing her decadent cure, poured herself a coffee strong enough to raise the dead, and decided to lie back down while she waited for the bacon and eggs to fry.
Van Helsing was also there last night, she seemed to recall. Although that seemed more distant than other parts of the evening. Maybe an odd dream. She thought she could remember Van Helsing beating up a hoody, but that seemed more like it would fit in with her strange night's sleep rather than the Halloween party. She pushed all thoughts of the night before aside. She'd have breakfast, wake up properly, boot the hangover and clear her head, head to work and get on with her day.
The breakfast she'd prescribed herself did just the job; the strong, bitter coffee scared off the fuzziness in her brain, and the sandwich, dripping in grease and ketchup and packed so full with eggs and bacon she had to open her mouth as wide as she could just to take a bite, seemed to help stabilise her body for the day ahead. She still felt a little fuzzy, but at least the pounding headache was starting to ease off and she didn't feel half as nauseated as she did before. Alice made her way into the bathroom, and splashed her face with a handful of cold water. It was a refreshing sensation, and she rubbed her eyes to clear the tiredness. Leaning against the sink, she let out a quiet groan. It was going to take more than coffee, fried sandwiches, and cold water to completely shift this hangover.
As she looked up into the mirror, Alice was suddenly shaken to the core, and all colour drained from her face. There, stood immediately behind her and staring back at her from the reflection, was the hooded man from the night before. She wheeled around to face him, wide eyed and much more alert than she thought she was capable of being, but suddenly he was nowhere to be seen. The bathroom was empty. She turned back to the mirror, and all she could see was herself reflected in its surface, the bath and toiletry cabinet the only things behind her.
Adrenaline pumped through her body, and she let out a deep, panicked breath. Steeling herself, Alice walked slowly, cautiously, towards the bath. The shower curtain was drawn half-way across, and with a tentative shaking hand she reached out to pull it away. With a swift flick of her wrist, Alice whipped the curtain across, pulling it open in a flash
A single sad droplet of water dripped from the end of the tap.
Alice breathed a sigh of relief, and returned to the living room. Settling back down on the sofa, she checked the clock, told herself she'd nap for a little bit to digest breakfast and finish off the hangover. She tried to push all thoughts of last night's misadventures and nightmares aside, thinking that once she'd had a bit more sleep she'd forget all about it.
Of course, she did not forget.
As she tried to sleep, her mind was flooded with strange visions from the night before. It wasn't quite like a dream, but definitely not reality. She could see the old cobbled street and the hooded man as vividly as if she was there, but it also felt distant and dream-like. She was still aware she was just sprawled out on her sofa, but there was something incredibly tangible about this strange, waking dream. She was running down the street, her legs pounding and lungs tight as she tried to breathe and she knew that if she stopped, even for a second, he would catch up with her. The street stretched out before her, growing longer and longer as she ran until eventually it felt like she was going nowhere. Tentatively glancing behind her, Alice could see the hooded man standing right behind her, and no matter how fast she tried to run, she couldn't move from that spot. The hidden face of the man leered forwards.
‘Tenebris venit,’ he breathed down the back of her neck. She felt shivers run down her spine and her skin turned cold.
BANG! Alice woke from the dream with a start, sitting bolt upright and breathing heavily. It took a while for her to compose herself and gather her bearings, but she realised she was home and safe, woken by the noise of the flat's letterbox. She turned to see the letterbox still flapping slightly, creaking on its hinges as it slowly swung back and forth, but no letters had been delivered.
The nightmare felt like it had lasted forever, but when she checked her phone, she saw she'd only been asleep for half an hour. Reaching for her mug, she drank the last gulp of the grainy – now cold – coffee and grimaced. Today was going to be a difficult day.
Alice tried to push the strange thoughts to the side while she focussed on getting ready for work. She showered, put on something a bit more suitable for work than the bee costume, and started to do her make-up. She had half considered talking to Rachel about her nightmare, just for reassurance that she needn't worry, but when her flatmate came staggering through the door shortly before noon, clutching a bottle of schnapps shouting ‘woo, hair of the dog!’ she thought better of it. Rachel slammed the door behind her, making Alice's brain shake.
‘Please, don't,’ Alice said, clutching one hand to her still-hungover head, ‘not so loud.’ Rachel bounced over to the sofa and sat down next to Alice.
‘You need some of this in you, then,’ Rachel said, holding the bottle of schnapps out to her. Alice took a quick swig and made a ‘nope’ face.
‘Ew, no, bad plan. I feel bad enough as it is.’
‘How?! You didn't have that much last night, and you walked home. I don't feel that bad!’
‘Maybe because you carried on drinking.’
‘True,’ Rachel said, and she took another swig from the bottle, ‘how'd you get home last night, anyway?’
Flashes of the street, of the man in the hood and then of the man in the coat and hat, ran through Alice's mind. She thought about the ache in her legs as she ran, the panic tight in her chest and losing a shoe somewhere along the line. Then she remembered the bright blue flash, and the strange things the man had said to her.
‘There was a fight down the alley on my way back, and I think someone was following me for a while. I don't know, I was very drunk, it's all a bit of a mess!’
‘Are you okay?!’ Rachel asked, putting a hand on Alice's knee sympathetically.
‘Yeah. Yeah! I'm fine. Just a bit of a bad night really.’
‘Not still going to work, are you? I've called in sick, me.’
‘Yeah, I am,’ Alice said dejectedly as she reached for her hairbrush and quickly ran it through her hair. She stood up and glanced around, looking for her shoes.
‘No, stay home! We can watch films and order takeaway and wallow in hungover self-pity.’
‘As fun as that sounds, I really can't afford to take the day off, Rachel. My manager was bad enough when I asked to move my hours to the afternoon, let alone if I don't go in at all.’
‘Oh, you're no fun,’ Rachel said teasingly. ‘Tonight, though. Pizza, cider, chick-flicks, the works.’
‘Fine! You've twisted my arm,’ Alice said with a smile, ‘Friday night in. Sounds good. Just what I need.’
Rachel nodded in sagely agreement. ‘You're overworked and spend your time worrying about silly things-’
‘Like the rent?’ Alice interrupted.
‘You know what I mean. You're always stressed about something or another. You need to take some time to chill, babe.’
This time it was Alice's turn to nod sagely. ‘Yeah, you're right,’ she said, ‘I've not been taking much time for myself. Maybe I am just overstressed.’ She had been running herself into the ground with work just to try and keep a roof over her head, but it hardly gave her a sense of self. She was simply Server #0, working on the shop floor for eight hours a day, and receiving more abuse from customers and staff alike than she really believed was possible.
‘Perfect! It's what we both need to relax,’ Rachel said. ‘And whatever's on your mind, I'll try to take it off of you.’
‘Thank you. But first, work,’ Alice declared. She threw her coat around her shoulders, wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, and pulled her bobble hat on. ‘I'll see you tonight,’ she said with a wave, and left the flat.
The weather outside was bitterly cold that afternoon. It was the kind of weather that was equal parts refreshing and misery-inducing, and Alice was more inclined to feel the latter. She sat huddled on the crowded tube carriage on the way to work, nestled under her thick, woollen coat and wearing more layers than she could count. Her scarf was tightly wrapped up around her neck, and pulled up to cover her nose from the cold. She much preferred the summer. At least it was warmer on the underground than it had been outside, even if the air was a little dusty.
The journey to work always made Alice feel miserable, always dreading stepping off of the tube and walking around the corner to the store where she worked. Day in, day out, she'd fall into the usual routine, sat on a claustrophobic and increasingly packed train on the way to work, where all she did all day was stand behind the tills, serving customers and packing their bags, likely getting shouted at because she wasn't folding their shirts quite right, or receive disgruntled remarks whenever she had to direct someone to customer services. Then she'd likely make fewer sales than her co-workers and be told to ‘up her game if you want to make it in retail,’ which, of course, she did not. Same old, same old.
The tube had been stopping and starting the whole journey, something to do with signal failures on the Victoria line, and Alice was starting to worry that she'd be late. She may not have wanted to go into work, but nor did she want to announce her lateness after management had already picked her up for clocking in ten minutes late because of a tube delay in the past. She glanced at the time on her phone. Not too late yet, she thought, I should have five minutes to get there from the station. As if to mock her optimistic outlook on time, the train came to a grinding halt again. Sparks flew up outside of the window, briefly illuminating the normally unseen passages of the London Underground. A number of men in suits tutted with world-weary irritation as the tube came to a full stop.
‘We apologise for the delay,’ a voice came crackling through the tannoy, ‘but due to a signalling issue at Warren Street Station, we will have to wait here for approximately five minutes.’ Alice rolled her eyes, just typical.
The glare of the fluorescent lights above the passenger's heads began to flicker, and the carriage started to grow dimmer and dimmer. Then, with a unified buzzing noise, the lights went out, plunging the carriage into darkness. Alice looked around nervously, she was uncomfortable on the underground at the best of times, let alone when sat in pitch blackness, stuck in a tunnel with no way out. She could just about make out the outlines of her fellow passengers, some of whom were still trying to read the Metro in spite of the absence of light. It was then that she noticed the person sat opposite her. He was hunched over, his head facing the floor, and his features covered by his hood. She felt a shiver as she recognised the unearthly air about the figure, but it couldn't possibly be... Could it? She wondered, staring at the all too familiar clothing.
As she stared at the man, trying to convince herself it wasn't her nightmarish apparition, his head slowly began to rise. The lights flickered back on for only a moment, and she saw him staring back at her with haunting, unblinking eyes. But they weren't really eyes – where eyes should have been there were two, almond-shaped black holes. They didn't look so much like holes into the head, but holes torn in the fabric of reality, and it wasn't really a blackness as much as it was... Nothingness. Alice froze in fear, unable to break her eye-contact with this thing that seemed to have manifested itself from her nightmares. She was too afraid to blink, and she could feel the man staring into her soul with his unseeing, non-existent eyes. She shivered as she felt her blood run cold.
The man stood up and leaned forward, putting his face directly in front of Alice's. ‘Darkness is coming,’ he intoned, his voice hollow and haunting like a strong wind echoing through a deep cave. Alice tried to scream, but she made no noise, and she felt completely paralysed. The rest of the carriage seemed utterly oblivious to the man now leering so ominously close to her. With another silent scream, Alice tried to kick the man away from her.
She awoke with a jolt and her legs kicked out involuntarily. Her head was throbbing with a pain worse than before. She looked around the carriage nervously; it was perfectly well lit, still filled with men in suits reading newspapers, and no sign of her nightmarish vision. The man sat opposite her was just an elderly gentleman reading the newspaper through his bifocals, and he most certainly had proper, human eyes. She gazed out of the window as she wound down from the nightmarish vision, trying to calm herself.
‘The next station is Oxford Circus,’ announced the automated service, and Alice briefly toyed with the idea of just staying on the underground until the end of the line, but she couldn't really afford to take the day off, especially not on a whim; she'd already been given a written warning for taking two sick days, and management had told her that a third would result in non-specific ‘disciplinary action.’ Begrudgingly, Alice stood up and made her way to the carriage doors, off to face another tedious day.