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Killing Time

By Leigh_Wright All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Thriller

Killing Time

Rita scoops the pile of letters from the doormat and returns to the kitchen. Maddy is in her highchair, merrily slapping breakfast slop all over her face, content enough that at least some of it is making it into her mouth.

Rita coos, wiping a glob away from her daughter’s nostrils, then sits at the worn pine table. Her tea is tepid but she gulps it anyway, and examines the letters.

Two bills and six cards.

Could be worse, she thinks. Could have been six bills and two cards. Happy birthday to me.

Mulling over a glass of wine last night, she had promised herself that there would be no depression today. Mark has been gone for more than six months now - over half a year, for Christ’s sake! She’s so over that bastard,

(How dare he leave me and our baby to be with that whore!)

and is determined to not let anger and regret ruin her birthday. She is taking Maddy to the zoo, and they are going to have a great day, goddamn it!

The bills are put aside for another day. She opens the cards: one from Mum and Dad, one from (the sun shines out of her ass) sister Helen, and three from scattered friends Jenny, Pete, and Tracy. The sixth card has her address printed on the envelope rather than hand written. She saves that one till last, because everyone loves a surprise on their birthday, right?

Pathetic. Only twenty-nine, but already a lonely spinster grasping cheap thrills wherever I can find them.

She frowns at the disturbing image she discovers on the last card: a cartoon man with an alarm clock body slumped against a brick wall. His puckish head sports a preposterous Dali moustache that points toward lifeless bug-eyes. The hands of the clock droop at twenty-five minutes past seven, dripping blood. The legend is printed with the same blood-red colour outlined thinly with black:


Maddy ditches her bowl onto the floor, banging her spoon on the highchair tray with excitable violence. Soon she will start moaning to be let out.

Rita can tell the card is one of those that plays music, because it lumps where the little speaker is hidden inside. She expects some crappy rendition of the traditional birthday song, but instead the tinny tune sounds like some kind of twisted psychedelic dirge. The interior of the card is blank apart from one word: CALL,followed by a mobile phone number she doesn’t recognise.

There’s no way I’m going to call you, freak.

Who would send her such a card? The only person Rita can think of is Tom from work - he’s the kind of prick that loves playing puerile pranks on people, and he’s asked her out a couple of times. Lingering curiosity stays her hand from binning the card.

Rita works three days a week on the sixth floor of an office block, mostly typing and filing. The day after her birthday, having convinced herself that it was Tom who sent her the disturbing card, as no other candidate in her small social world seems to fit, she approaches him. She even has a couple of elaborate put-downs prepared, but doesn’t get a chance to use them.

Tom looks at her with amused arrogance as she questions him, and says “Sorry love, but why would I waste time sending you a card when you’ve already knocked me back twice? I presumed you were a dyke.”

As if that humiliation isn’t enough for one day, something very strange happens later on. The office radio, its home on top of an island of filing cabinets in the centre of the room, begins to crackle and hiss with static. Rita looks around to see if anyone is going to do something about it, but no one else seems to notice. Unable to tolerate the noise, she stands up from her desk and is about to walk over when the same psychedelic dirge as from the birthday card comes drifting through the static.

She freezes: an electric chill shivering her spine, skin prickling with goose pimples, her heart thumping chaotically. Then the static intensifies and the dirge fades - a moment later the radio is normal again, playing some mindless repetitive pop song.

Rita’s desk neighbour, Ruby, appears at her side, starting her out of her waking coma. “Are you alright? You’ve gone pale…”

Rita manages a weak smile. “I’m fine. Dizzy spell, that’s all. Thanks.” She resumes her place, staring unseeing at the computer screen. Half an hour later, lost in a confusing mind-loop of certainty of what she’d heard versus incredulity, she remembers there’s a quota to fill by the end of the day, and tries to concentrate.

The day drags on like some purgatory nightmare. In the end she finishes well short of her quota and has to promise her frowning boss that she’ll make up for it. On the way to collect Maddy from the crèche, Rita finally determines that the radio incident was just a temporary fugue. Not enough sleep, stress, and the humiliation from Tom-the-bastard fuck-nut had all built a tower of crazy to trap her in, if she let it. She must have hallucinated the psycho-delic dirge - must have imagined that it was coming from the office radio, that’s all.

A good night’s sleep and I’ll be fine.

Home at last. A ready-meal in the microwave for Mummy, a tasty jar of slop warming up for Maddy, who sits on her play mat with her talking doll. “I love you!”

It says. “Big hugs! Twinkle, twinkle little star…”

The damn thing irritates Rita immensely, but Maddy loves it, so it has to be tolerated. Soon the food is ready and the dinner-time circus begins. Rita has a glass of red wine with her bland chicken, mash & veg, and Maddy makes a mess. Soon after it’s bath time for messy-pie, a little play, nursery rhymes, then sleepy-time.

Thankfully she goes off without too much trouble.

Next it’s downstairs to tidy up. The usual routine after that is to have another glass or two of wine and spend a couple of hours in front of the hypno-box before bed.

Rita has done the washing up and is on hands and knees tidying away the toys, when the doll says “I love you!”

Rita starts, but laughs it off. Stupid thing. She picks the doll up, its floppy eyes blinking and winking at her. “Big hugs!”

Stupid thing!

The doll’s eyes snap open and the psychedelic dirge insinuates from within. Rita drops it with a shriek and jumps to her feet. Landing face up on the play mat, the doll lays there like a corpse. Rita stares in horror, struggling to regain her sanity.

The doll winks at her.

Rita shrieks and runs. She has to get out of there, put as much distance between herself and the doll-from-hell as possible. She runs into the living room, grabs her car keys from the little round table by the sofa, is halfway out the front door before she pauses, frantically willing herself to listen to what her unconscious is screaming at her.

Maddy! She almost forgot Maddy. How fucking crazy is that? Jesus, pull yourself together… I’m losing my mind!

A new terror grips her, a distraction from the unreality of what’s happening. If I go insane they’ll lock me away and keep me so drugged up I’ll forget who I am. They’ll take Maddy away from me…

Pull yourself together, Rita. Lovely Rita, Meter Maid - Grandad used to sing that to her when she was little, and in times of anxiety she sings it to herself, hearing his voice. More than four years gone now, is Grandad. Heart attack.

Pull yourself together, Rita.

She closes the door and sits on the sofa, shaking almost to the point of convulsion. Eyes shut, she breathes deep and slow until her heart calms somewhat. Only then does she tentatively attempt rationalisation.

It has to be stress, doesn’t it? Doesn’t stress do the strangest things to a person’s mind sometimes? Stress and lack of sleep - that has to be it. But still… something nags at the peripheral of her mind: a dirty mad rat gnawing away at the blanket of sanity she struggles so desperately to cover herself with.

The card! It’s all about the fucking card.

But how..? Perhaps some part of her knows who the card is from: a forgotten, neglected friend? And hearing the music is a trigger, an attempt by her unconscious mind to say: Wakey, wakey! Remember this person. He or she is important and needs you to make the call!

Rita doesn’t know if any of this reasoning makes sense, but determines to fetch the card and call the number inside. Sure, the card isn’t to her taste - in fact, she finds it repulsive - but maybe some people would find it amusing. Someone obviously did: this elusive friend or acquaintance… so she will make the call and they will talk and laugh about the old days, and then this whole sorry incident will be over.

The doll still lies where she dropped it; it hasn’t crawled off and hidden, waiting for her to return so it can leap at her and bite a chunk from her neck. It lays on the play mat, silent and still. Rita plucks up the courage and strides over, picks the doll up, turns it around, finds the off switch. “No more Big Hugs for you tonight, bitch.”

She bundles all the toys in the play mat and dumps the lot into a yellow toy chest, then retrieves the birthday cards from a kitchen drawer. Sitting at the table, she places them carefully before her. That card is at the bottom of the pile.

Okay, here we go. I’ll probably be laughing about this whole thing soon.

With a trembling hand she turns over the first card - the one from her parents - starting a new pile. The card from her sister is next.

Whoever this guy is - and it’s almost certainly a guy, because what woman would send such a sick card?

Jenny’s card, then Pete’s.

Whoever this guy is, I’m going to tell him right off that I didn’t like that card one bit. He’s going to have to sweet talk me just to keep me on the phone, let alone anything else.

Her hand hovers over the penultimate card, the one from Tracy up in Nottingham. They’d been at school together what seems like an age ago. Close friends at the time, Tracy is the only person Rita keeps in contact with from that chapter of her life. They send each other Birthday and Christmas cards without fail, and share infrequent phone calls - the last time having been just after Mark left for good.

Rita has never been comfortable opening up to anyone, a fact Mark highlighted as a major contributing factor in the deterioration of their relationship. On the rare occasion she does feel the need to really talk, she prefers to do so with someone physically distant - someone she doesn’t have to face - and that someone is invariably Tracy, the perfect surrogate best friend. No matter how long it’s been since the last call, Tracy always listens patiently and gives advice as best she can. Then Rita thanks her, asks polite personal questions, and vow to call more often, but, catharsis over, does her level best to quickly forget about the perceived indignity of baring her soul.

The awkward, unavoidable truth for Rita is that, now Mark has gone, the superficial, aimless, and empty nature of her existence is exposed. She hates him for that - maybe even more so than for the fact that he left her and their daughter for a shot at happiness with somebody else.

Breaking out of her reverie with a trembling sigh, Rita flips over Tracy’s card. The last card is revealed in all its macabre cartoon glory. HAPPY BIRTHDAY! 29 YEARS OF KILLING TIME!

The clock-man is most definitely dead. Rita notices a tongue lolling out from beneath that ridiculous moustache. The bloody hands of the clock point at twenty past eight. She stares at that for a protracted moment, eight-legged unease crawling along her spine. Is the timedifferent from when she first opened the card?

Don’t be stupid now, Rita. Let’s get this over with before I really do go insane.

She opens the card and at once the psychedelic dirge starts. Shuddering involuntarily, she quickly works her finger inside the card’s lining and pulls out the offending little speaker, placing it on the table with the cardboard tab folded over so that the music doesn’t play. There.

Only then does she notice what is written inside the card:


Rita squeaks, dropping the card. The message has changed. Hasn’t it? She’s as sure of it as she had been about hearing the music coming from the radio at work, and from Maddy’s doll…but she just can’t trust her perceptions anymore. A wave of dizziness almost topples her from the chair. She lays her head on the table, struggling to breathe, fighting against encroaching unconsciousness.

It takes several minutes to regain some tentative approximation of equilibrium, her sanity stretched thin, tearing. Denial is an elixir, with frantic thoughts of her daughter an anchor to reason.

It’s time to get this over with. If I don’t, they’re going to find me dribbling and insane in a puddle of my own piss and vomit, and then who would look after Maddy?

Rita sees her life as a progression of spectacular failures, but she had promised herself, whilst floundering in a lonely ocean of tears after Mark’s sudden departure, that Maddy would prove to be the exemption to that rule. So she will deal with this madness, for Maddy’s sake.

Don’t think about what’s happening, just do it.

She takes the card and forces her quivering self into the living room, collapsing onto the sofa. The car keys are there, abandoned. She places them back onto the little round table by the window, and takes the house phone. After three frustrating attempts, she correctly dials the number written in the card.

It rings: once… twice… three times.

Rita fights the urge to throw the phone through the window. On the fifth ring there’s a click, and a strangely artificial male voice speaks:




The voice sounds like a typically over enthusiastic game show host. What the fuck is this? Rita laughs, relief tinged with hysteria. If the card turns out to be just some kind of messed up marketing scheme, then she will be able to chalk up her anxiety, even the hallucinations, to just temporarily “Giving Grace to the Cuckoo” - a term she remembers her grandma used to describe sporadic lapses of reason that apparently occurred to some members of the Mackenzie family tree. This is laughed at light-heartedly at family gatherings, accepted as a peculiarity rather than a serious issue, and isn’t something that Rita has given much thought to, until now.

Giving Grace to the Cuckoo, that’s all she’s been doing. A good night’s sleep will paint this picture in a whole different light, and tomorrow she can laugh at herself and her dalliance with insanity. She feels lighter - layers of stress floating away into the ether…


Hearing the voice speak her name is a shock. Her breath catches in her throat.






Rita throws the phone across the room. Waves of despair roll over her, choking sobs reaching a wailing crescendo, hot desperate tears streaming down her face. It is some time before she realises that Maddy is awake, and by then her daughter’s cries mirror her own.

“MADDY!” Rita jumps up and runs for the stairs. “MUMMY’S COMING, BABY!” She finds Maddy writhing in her cot, distraught, and holds her tight, mind reeling with looping snatches of that demented game show host voice:


She somehow makes it downstairs with babe in arms, and makes up a bottle of milk. Then back upstairs into mummy’s bedroom for a nappy change. They snuggle up in bed, neither of them wanting to be alone. So exhausted are they that they both soon fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Maddy wakes up bright and cheery as usual, oblivious to the night’s trauma. Rita obliges the morning routine: juice for Maddy, tea for Mummy, nappy change, slop for Maddy, cereal for Mummy - though she barely touches it. All the while she tries in vain to believe that last night’s phone call didn’t happen. Maybe she’ll give Tracy a call, just to see how she’s doing…

Of course, the idea that anything might happen to her

(TONGUE CUT OUT OF HER HEAD!) is ridiculous, but it wouldn’t hurt to call anyway. It will be great to hear her voice - great to hear the voice of any sane adult right now. Maybe they could even arrange a visit up to Nottingham, if Tracy isn’t too busy. Last time they spoke, Tracy mentioned that she’d love to see Maddy. Hell, maybe Rita would even consider moving up there.

Right now, the prospect of starting a new life and expunging the old seems like a great idea.

It suddenly occurred to her that she had all the evidence she needed in the card to contact the police. They could call the number, hear the message, and trace the number to its source.
As long as she left out all the weird shit about the music and the changing message in the card, they’d surely have to treat the matter seriously - it must at least count as some kind of harassment.

Yes. She’ll call Tracy first, then the police. Then the matter will be resolved, the nightmare over.

Rita cleans Maddy up after breakfast, and sets her up on the living room floor with play mat and toys. (But talking dolly will stay in the toy chest today, thank you very much.)

There is a single draw set into the little round table by the sofa, and inside is a red notebook sparsely sprinkled with phone numbers. She looks up Tracy’s number, retrieves the phone from the floor where she threw it last night, and dials carefully, trying to keep her


thoughts calm. After the third ring someone picks up and a gruff voice says “Hello?”

That has to be Steve, Tracy’s husband of four years. Rita realises that she has never spoken to him before. “Oh, hello Steve, this is Rita - Tracy’s friend in Bristol. Is she-”

“This is Detective Inspector Bennet, Miss. I’m afraid Mr. and Mrs. Robinson aren’t here right now. There’s been an… incident. Mrs. Robinson has been taken to hospital and is being treated for an injury sustained during this incident. Perhaps you could call back later…”

Rita manages to thank the DI in a very small choked voice.

Maddy is happy enough gurgling away as she gums a rattle. Rita stares at her without seeing, an awful numbness bleaching her mind of thought. Then Maddy loses her balance, falling backward with a soft thud, and bursts into tears. Rita stands over her, a formless shadow of contempt darkening her face for a lingering moment before maternal instinct belatedly kicks in and she picks her up, hugging and cooing.


There are two more phone calls to make, she realises.

Rita perches on the edge of the sofa with the card in her hands. Mr. Cartoon Clock Man is still dead, but this time the hands of the clock are horizontal, pointing to a quarter past nine.

It feels like a dream. No more tears have come; she is an actress playing a part, but not a very good actress, because she just cannot connect with the emotion that this character is supposed to be feeling. She longs for this movie to be over so that she can go back to being the real Rita Mackenzie, whoever that is. Then the tears will come, oh yes. But first one more phone call. This time she will talk to the police and tell them about the card. It won’t look great that she hung up on three different policemen without telling them what she knows, but she’ll say that she is in shock and can barely believe what has happened.

They may think she’s a crank, even if she doesn’t tell them the whole story, but they’ll have to investigate.

Then? Then the police will trace the number in the card and make an arrest. The end credits will roll, the movie over, and she can stop playing a part and attempt to rediscover some meaning to her life.

Mark slips into her mind, and she sighs a terrible yearning for him. No - not for him, but for the ideal of what he represented: companionship, equilibrium, purpose. Their relationship never reached anything close to understanding, and the truth is that her falling pregnant had taken away Mark’s desire to try. She would have had an abortion for him. If only he’d tried communicating with her instead of pretending he was content with the prospect of fatherhood - all because he couldn’t face his own emotional wasteland.

Mark had finally found his motivation for leaving when Maddy was barely two months old. His visits to the pub increased during the last couple of months of the pregnancy, and of course Rita suspected he was seeing another woman. He came home one night with barely concealed guilt in his eyes, and she knew then that the flirting had progressed to something more.

She never directly confronted him about it, naïvely choosing instead to hold on to a kernel of hope that when their baby was born he would fall in love with them both.

Stupid. Fucking stupid. Why didn’t I fight for him? Why didn’t I show him how much I needed him, how much I loved him?

Because I didn’t love him. Love never blossomed in our relationship, and it was mutual.

In the end Mark got the all clear to move in with his girlfriend. He tried apologising to Rita, offering lame promises to support her as much as he could, and she screamed at him and pleaded with him and cried rivers of despair, but still he walked out the door and never came back.

She watches Maddy scrambling amongst the garish collection of toys on the living room floor, and wonders how different her life would be if her daughter had never been born. Guilt stabs at her immediately after the thought, and that briefly irritates her, but she tells herself that Maddy is a beautiful, innocent being who deserves unconditional love rather than the detached care she has received thus far.

Rita stares again at the lifeless image on the card, and vows to address the lingering resentment that taints her bond with Maddy as soon as this madness is over. It’s time to call the police.

Unease crawls inside her gut. She makes to put the card down, but just can’t resist the dread temptation to open it.
The message has changed again:


She moans as a fresh wave of horror washes through her. Does whoever is responsible for all of this know what she is thinking, or did they surmise that calling the police would be the thing she would do next?

She shakes her head, confused. None of this makes sense. How can whoever is behind this be changing the card’s picture and message?

The simple answer shocks her. There’s more than one card. Someone’s here, swapping them over when I’m not looking.

Cautiously she makes her way around the house, half expecting someone to jump out at her from within a wardrobe or behind a door, but there is no one. She makes sure the front and back doors are locked and returns to the living room, not feeling particularly comforted. Her next thought is that she is being watched, that there are cameras secreted in her home. She scans the room for suspect items, but finds nothing.


Maddy wails, terrified at her mother’s outburst.

“Oh shit no, Maddy honey-babe, shush-shush now. Mummy’s sorry. There-there. There-there.”

She makes Maddy a bottle and somehow manages to calm her down, laying her snuggled up on the far corner of the sofa. Rita wants to scream and tear her hair out; she wants to run to her car and drive off the edge of the world. Instead she sits, slowly convulsing with her efforts to remain calm, because she just can’t copewith Maddy crying again right now.

If Maddy cries again, Rita will take her to her room, shut the door, and ignore the god-awful screams for comfort and attention, because Maddy crying again will be the spark that lights the powder keg that is her mind, and if that happens she will explode into a rage of insanity that she might not come back from.

Nope, she just can not cope with Maddy crying again.

Somehow she manages to pick up the phone and dial the number.





“God no…please, stop.”




A tiny spark flares in Rita’s volatile mind, but fizzles to nothing. Cold stark belief douses her of emotion. Denial is futile. This sick game is being played out with or without her active participation, and the rules of the game state that non-compliance is worse than playing along.

It’s as if the voice waits for her thoughts to run their course before continuing…


She has to make a choice. If she doesn’t, her family will die. Her mind goes to work wielding almost schizophrenic logic:

- Well, I can’t be responsible for the death of my own parents, now can I? Besides, that’s a two for the price of one option, and it would surely be better if only one person had to die…

- Wait a minute, shouldn’t Maddy have been the first to be checked off the list?

- This is no time for bullshit. There’s a decision to be made, and it’s pretty fucking obvious what the outcome will be. It’s Hellen - she has to be the one.

- So I’m going to condemn my own sister to death?

- I have to make a choice: it’s going to be her.

- And the fact that she married my boyfriend and went on to live a wonderful life with him, while I began a series of spectacular failures, has got nothing to do with it?

- We split up a month before they started seeing each other…

- A whole month! Well that’s alright then.

- This isn’t fucking helping.

- A month that I know of. She may well have been spreading her legs for him while he was still mine - wasn’t there that time when I thought I could taste pussy on his cock? I actually drank from my own sister’s cup - now that’s humiliating.

- She’s a man-stealing bitch, and I won’t lose much sleep over the decision. Is that what you want to hear?

- Ah. Well at least I know I’m on the same page…

The voice on the phone has been patient. “PRESS THE CORRESPONDING NUMBER TO MAKE YOUR CHOICE!”

Rita presses the number 2 on her phone.


Maddy stirs, bottle empty, blinking blearily. She moans, struggling to sit up.

Rita sits her on her knee. “Hey Maddy. What are we going to do with you, then?”

Maddy reaches out for the card, which is balanced on the arm of the sofa. Rita pulls her back with a gasp, as if the card carries some malevolent infection that might be transmitted by touch. She moves it onto the little round table, noticing with a shudder that the bloody arms of the clock now point at ten past ten. Trying to understand how such a thing is possible seems a pointless, insanity inducing business, so she gives up trying.

Maddy squirms and moans to be let down. Rita complies, and Maddy crawls over to her toys, gurgling happily. Rita is surprised to see that it’s only a quarter to eleven - the day feels like it’s already stretched to the end of eternity and back.

She wonders where Helen is right now. Could be lazing in bed… could be at some glamorous location with her perfect tits busting out of a £10,000 dress, with some lecherous photographer asking her to bend over just a little more… could be-


Jesus, what have I done?

Helen is younger, prettier, successful, rich, a stealer of men, and an all-star bitch to boot, but still family. Rita finds her sister’s mobile number and dials it as quick as she can. It rings once, twice, three times…


“Thank God, Helen, it’s Rita. Look - this is going to sound crazy, but…”

There are strange sounds on the line, and for a moment Rita doesn’t understand what they are. Her eyes fix on a little porcelain child-clown juggling balls with a shit-eating grin, standing amongst sundry knick-knacks on a dusty shelf. Her brain attempts to mix a few dwindling chemicals together to produce an appropriate emotion, and fails. The sounds falter, climaxing with a final ragged exhale. The phone slips from her hand. She reaches up, fingers digging into her auburn hair and pulling, hard. The pain is immense, bringing with it hot tears of despair. A terrible parody of her sister’s death rattle rips from her throat.

Maddy, worried by her mother’s anguish, crawls towards her for reassurance. Rita draws in deep shuddering breaths and brings her hands back down, clumps of hair twisted around her fingers. She sees her daughter approaching and side-steps away, grabbing the card from the table. The blood-dripping hands of the clock now point at five minutes past eleven. Inside is a new message:


Maddy continues to try and reach mummy’s legs, but mummy keeps being over there. This is very frustrating, and Maddy voices her indignation as best she can.

Rita ignores her, an intense epiphany shining like a beacon through the chaos of her mind. She recognises the enormity of decision: all those choices made throughout her life based on barely understood feeling and expectation. Now she can see that every single decision is precious - each one a vital component shaping her existence - and that none should be squandered. How can she have passed through her entire life in a dream-like state, barely conscious of who she is and what she is doing? Nothing matters except NOW, and any decision made should be a pure expression of self desire.

There can be no regret then.

She picks the phone up off the floor and dials the number.








On the card, the hands of the clock-man’s body point at twelve ‘o clock.



Rita makes her decision.

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