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Intrusions

I like to sleep in other people’s empty houses. For a long time now, the only place I’ve found real rest is in a stranger’s bed. It makes me feel safe, being somewhere no one would think to look for me. My own apartment is haunted. It took me discovering an old can of Luke’s Lynx that had leaked behind the night stand to notice. The scent had seeped deep into the carpet, and though I shampooed the stain and washed my sheets, the reek continued to rise through the mattress: a ghost I couldn’t vanquish.

When I broke up with Luke towards the end of summer, I could tell he was disappointed but assumed he’d get past it. We’d only been living together for a few months, and while I’d hoped that inviting him to move in with me would bring us closer together, it instead confirmed that our relationship had arrived at its natural end. He was into the local music scene and played in a band part time, spending his nights at gigs with friends. Sometimes I went to watch him play, but I liked to fit in a barre or yoga class before work and usually left right after his set. On the weekends he’d be hung over and irritable about the noise when I vacuumed or stacked the dishwasher, while I resented creeping around to do the housework solo. There were no big fights and no one cheated, but we weren’t right for each other. I still felt mean being the one to break it off, and when the conversation came, I agreed that, yes, of course we’d still be friends.

I meant it too—I may not have been in love with Luke, but I liked him as a person. When he messaged, I replied, careful to keep my responses casual and polite without being flirty. But after a few weeks, his occasional ‘Thinking of you’ texts became drunken ‘U up?’s in the small hours, the headlights of his banged-up Subaru sweeping past my window when I failed to reply.

Then he started showing up in places he knew I was likely to be: riding his bike along the esplanade path where I run on Saturday mornings, waiting in line at the cafe next to my barre studio where I often stop for a latte after my class, picking out mandarins in the fresh produce section of the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon when I do my weekly shop. He always acted as surprised to see me as I was him. I knew he’d found another apartment to rent nearby—we both loved the neighbourhood—and he always insisted it was a coincidence when we bumped into each other. I couldn’t prove otherwise, but it made me uncomfortable.

I had a co-worker whose ex once climbed through her window and slid into bed beside her while she slept. He called it a grand gesture. She called the police. I think about that often. The terror of stretching out a sleepy hand, believing yourself to be alone in the dark, and touching skin. Luke never did anything like that, and I didn’t really believe he would. It was more that he could. If he wanted. He knew me. Knew my routine. And that was enough to make him a constant, prowling figure in my world. Present even when he was not.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have found a way to wear the cost of breaking my lease and moved. But I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he loomed so large in my life. I didn’t want to cede the space.

Instead, I made myself absent. Untraceable. As a kid, I was a champion at hide and seek. My mum had a boyfriend when I was twelve. Iain. He was quiet and well-mannered. An office manager for a small accounting firm. And he liked to creep around the house after Mum fell asleep. I have a memory of waking to see him outlined in the dark between my door and desk. He was standing very still, with an intense, hungry look on his face, watching me sleep. If not for the glinting moon in his eye, I might not have known he was there. By the time I came awake enough to switch on my bedside lamp, he’d gone, and, a few seconds later, I heard the toilet flush. The next morning at breakfast, he behaved as though nothing had happened. Cracking weak jokes and making Mum coffee. I couldn’t connect that version of him with the silent, watchful figure in my room and I never told Mum what I’d seen. In our sunny kitchen with the radio playing and the scent of jasmine coming in from the garden, it was easy enough to pass it off as a bad dream. And perhaps that’s all it was. But I started keeping a sleeping bag and a backpack filled with books and snacks on the carport roof for the nights Iain stayed over. I’d lie up there on my belly reading Caroline B Cooney by penlight, my muscles tensed and ears straining for the click of the back door. It never came, and Mum and Iain split soon after. I pushed the incident to the back of my mind where it grew fuzzy and faint beneath the growing shuffle of brighter memories. But after Luke began showing up where he wasn’t welcome, I started seeing faces in the shadows again.

The first house I stayed at was unplanned. My friend Roshni’s parents were selling their esplanade townhouse. She told me at brunch one Saturday that they were staying at their hobby farm so they didn’t have to clean before each open inspection, and complained that they were making her water the plants, despite her living and working on the other side of town. Roshni and I had been friends since high school and I remembered the house as open and inviting, filled with warming notes of cinnamon and fenugreek from her dad’s cooking and sun-licked glints of sea. It was also close to my apartment. I offered to do the watering and Roshni handed me the key, relieved.

“You’re the best. Thank you. But you can’t tell anyone about this,” she cautioned. “My parents don’t want people knowing the house is empty while it’s up for sale. Their stuff’s still there and they’re paranoid about intruders.”

I suspected she was more concerned they’d find out she’d been lazy and outsourced the job, but keeping mum suited me.

“I’ll be in and out. Even the ghosts won’t know I’m there,” I joked, slipping the key onto my key ring.

I went around the next evening after work and let myself in. The hush enfolded me as I slipped off my shoes inside the door and made my way through to the living room where late afternoon light spilled through the windows. Looking out at the waves through the tinted glass, I felt the anxious hitch in my chest release. Luke had no idea I was there. No one did.

I watered the plants as promised, drew the blinds and made my way up to Roshni’s old room. It was pretty much as I remembered it, minus the pictures of our high school friends grinning around her mirror and the bottle of Smirnoff taped beneath her mattress. I lay down on the bed thinking back on the nights we’d sat up chatting after parties and school discos. I didn’t mean to stay, but as the evening shadows grew long and deep around me, I drifted to sleep, filled with a contented calm I hadn’t felt in years.

Back at my apartment the next day, I found a package waiting for Luke. A few hours later, he texted about stopping by to retrieve it and apologised for the mix up—he’d gotten an email about the delivery and realised the company still had his old address. I left it in the letterbox and made sure I was out when he arrived, but my muscles grew tight again. Tensed for flight. That evening I started scrolling the local real estate app.

Finding suitable places, I soon discovered, is tricky. I need to be certain my presence won’t arouse suspicion and can’t risk neighbours seeing me enter the property, which means much of suburbia is out. I spend my weekends at open inspections, favouring listings in the foothills where the blocks are bigger and the houses set back from the road, obscured by screens of trees and shrubs. I also limit my search to asking prices under seven-fifty. Big rooms and panoramic views make me feel exposed. That, and the fancier places are always monitored, even when no one’s living there.

While perspective buyers and stickybeaks size-up storage space and poke through pantries, I check that there’s no fridge in the kitchen—that’s how you know the owners have moved out and the house has been staged for sale. Next, I look for security cameras and an alarm system. A way in. It’s shocking how often I find a spare key tucked beneath a pot by the back door, windows with screens that lift out, or a dog flap that doesn’t latch.

I never stay more than a night or two and I’m careful to leave no trace. Like a ghost no one ever sees. I’ve been doing it for months now. Hiding in the blind spots of other people’s lives.

By the time I find one-twenty-six Waratah Crescent spring is warming into summer. The jasmine hedges in my neighbourhood bloom honey-sweet and Luke has stopped texting. I’ve learned through Instagram that he’s found someone new. But I still have trouble sleeping in my own bed, never sure that the occasional car I hear idling on my street late at night isn’t him. And I keep seeing eyes in the dark.

The house is at the end of cul-de-sac and backs onto a national park. A double storey, post-war redbrick with snug, carpeted rooms, ornamental shutters on the windows and a slate-edged pool out back. It reminds me of my nana’s old house. The air carries the same supper scent of milky tea and Biscoff, calling up memories of chilly evenings lying on my belly by her gas heater watching reruns of Keeping Up Appearances and The Vicar of Dibley. Nana loved British humour.

I plan my stay for a Friday night after a hellish week at work. It’s coming on dusk when I back my car down the steep drive, out of sight from the road. The rain that fell earlier in the afternoon has left the air peppery with eucalyptus and the crazy paving walk leading to the house is shining and slick. A small, ornate lantern glows beside the front door. I figure it’s on a timer, but it feels inviting, as though the house has been waiting to take me in.

I make my way around the back where I’d found a spare key concealed, poorly, inside a plastic rock by the laundry door at the open inspection. The backyard is quiet with the absence of bird song—strange, given how close it is to the national park—and in the hush I hear a faint electric whine from the brushwood hut that houses the pool pump. I straighten up, key in hand, and run my eye across the dewy lawn to see the pool’s underwater lights are on, illuminating the creepy crawly hose that snakes across the surface. I figure the pool must be on a timer too, which makes sense given whoever owns the house is no longer in residence, but watching the creepy crawly track towards the shallow end, I feel a twinge of unease.

Once inside, I check over the house—same as I always do on arrival—poking my head into each room before it gets properly dark to confirm I’m alone. Even with the bland furniture brought in by the decorator and the cupboards all empty, Waratah Crescent still feels lived in. Inhabited. I push the word from my mind. There’s no one here.

I sit in the dining room to respond to a few work emails and eat the takeout I picked up at a drive through on my way to the house. When I’m done, I refill my paper cup with water from the filtered tap in the kitchen and tidy the rubbish into a bag to take with me in the morning. It’s still early, a little before nine, but I’m exhausted. So after I put my rubbish by the laundry door and take a final look around downstairs, I go up to the master bedroom and fall asleep reading on my phone.

I wake hours later, startled from sleep by a sudden noise. A possum, perhaps. Or some other creature scuffling in the dark. Whatever it is, it quiets before I come fully to, leaving my heart thudding in its wake. Weak moonlight filters through the trees making shadows dance on the carpet. I grope for my phone on the nightstand to check the time and knock over the cup of water I placed there before going to sleep.

“Damn it.”

My voice cracks the silence and the dark seems to shift its attention towards me. The sense of welcome I felt when I first arrived has dissipated. Now the house seems to thrum, as though a switch had been flipped. It makes me think of the pool in the backyard: the pump’s mosquito whine filling the air and the creepy crawly snaking through the submarine light.

It’s aware of you now, a voice whispers inside my head. I hush it away and reach my hand down, feeling for the toppled cup and my missing phone. The carpet is sodden and spongy beneath my fingertips, and in the room’s stuffy heat, the spilled water feels almost warm. Like blood, the voice whispers.

I jerk my hand back, the vision so clear, I half expect to see my fingertips stained red. My heart rabbits in the hush. Against my better judgement, I break my ‘no lights’ rule and switch on the bedside lamp. The carpet is unstained—of course it is—and the room as it was when I fell asleep. Except that the door now stands open. No matter whose house I’m in, I always shut the door of the room where I sleep. It’s an old habit—a safeguard—I’ve stuck to since I was twelve years old. But I’d been so tired and burned out from the week when I came upstairs; it’s possible I forgot. I stare into the deeper dark of the landing beyond the frame. I must have forgot.

The edge of my phone sticks out from beneath the valance, the screen spattered with water. Perfect. It must have fallen there when I fell asleep. I reach down for it, disturbing the fabric, and a warm puff of air breathes over my knuckles as I close my hand over the screen. I freeze. Draw my hand up slowly, shakily.

“Is someone there?” My voice is small and frightened. And I hate myself for it.

I imagine a man laid flat on his back beneath me, grinning up through the dark.

My phone reads one twenty-six am. I hold my breath and listen, straining for soft exhalations in the hush. I stay that way until my muscles ache and tremble from clenching. But there’s no sound and eventually my rational brain reasserts itself.

The bedroom door was never shut.

The breath on my hand was just the valance.

And the vision of bloodied carpet is proof that my imagination has kicked into overdrive.

There is no one under the bed, behind the door or on the landing, I tell myself. The Bogeyman is a ghost in your head; he can’t hurt you. Not here.

My mouth is sour with the aftertaste of fear and I’m thirsty. Or perhaps just looking for an excuse to go downstairs and check the doors. Confirm that I really am alone. I glance at my phone again. The lock screen still displays the time as one twenty-six. Water damage. It has to be. I wipe the phone down with the hem of my t-shirt and put it on the nightstand. Then I swing my legs over the side of the bed and lean down to retrieve the fallen cup.

I don’t look beneath the valance.

Downstairs, the pool lights glow through the windows, casting faint ripples over the walls. I check the front, back and laundry doors: all locked. There are no open or broken windows and the spare key is still on the kitchen bench where I left it. The tiles cool my bare feet as I fill my cup at the sink and look out across the yard to the jagged line of pines marking the boundary of the national park. I wonder about the other women who have stood here before me. What their lives were like in this house and who they shared the space with. Whether they felt safe.

I stop at the living room door on my way back upstairs.

There is a man seated on the couch. I’m certain there was no one there when I made my way to the kitchen and I blink to dissolve the shadows and make him disappear. But the man remains solid. Real. I bite down a scream to exhale a silent, terrified breath. He is seated facing away from me, so that I can only see the back of his head and one gloved hand hanging over the side of the armrest. He is completely motionless and I have no idea whether he knows I’m there.

Animal instinct urges me to run.

The back door is the closest exit—maybe ten steps behind me—but my phone and car keys are still upstairs on the bedside table. And I’m not wearing any shoes. I think of the national park yawning around us. At least once a year there’s a land search for someone who wanders off the trails. They’re usually found, provided someone knows they’re in the park to begin with, but every so often a body turns up that no one was looking for. I used Google Maps to navigate here and I’m unfamiliar with the warren of sparsely populated streets that worm through the centre of the park. If I get lost out there in the dark, this man may not be the worst I have to fear. Which means I need my keys.

The man hasn’t moved. He sits so still I cannot even discern the sound of his breathing. If I weren’t looking at him, I wouldn’t have known he was there. I take one cautious step, then another towards the stairs. I’m still holding the cup of water, my hand shaking so badly the water threatens to slosh over the lip onto the tile and give me away. Moving slowly so my knees won’t crack, I lower myself to a crouch and set the cup on the floor. My heart is beating so loud in my ears, I can’t tell whether I’ve given myself away and my shoulders hunch in anticipation of a warm, telling breath on the back of my neck. When it doesn’t come, I force myself to move, crawling up the stairs on all fours, keeping close by the wall where the dark is deepest.

I don’t let myself look back until I reach the landing, terrified that the man will have crept up behind me. In my mind I see him looming over me, arms raised and jaw unhinged ready to swallow me down. But the stairs and hall below are empty. I let out a breath and swipe the tears from my cheeks with trembling fingers.

Once inside the bedroom I move quickly, shoving my feet into my sneakers as I snatch up my phone. The screen is still frozen and it won’t let me make a call. I curse as I shove it in my pocket and make a Wolverine fist with my keys. An ex-boyfriend once told me that this doesn’t work as a weapon: the palm isn’t solid or strong enough to hold the keys in place between the knuckles and do real damage, and if I was close enough to my assailant try it, I was already dead. I don’t know whether that’s true, but right now it’s the only weapon I have.

The house remains quiet and still as I tiptoe back to the landing and start down the stairs. And the longer the silence persists, the more I begin to doubt myself. The shadow of my hand clutching my keys is an elongated claw along the wall and the sight of it sends a new chill through me. Perhaps the man was a trick of the dark—perhaps that’s all there ever was: my diseased imagination seeking form in shadow, scaring me away from the bright places to become the thing that creeps in the night.

But then I look down and see that my cup is missing from the bottom of the stairs.

“You were brave to sleep in that room.” The man’s voice is a smoky whisper, almost more suggestion than sound.

Blue light ripples from the living room door and moving closer, I see the man is still sitting on the couch. He raises the cup to his lips and drinks. The sight of his mouth pressing over a smudge of my lipstick makes me nauseous.

My eyes flick to the back door. Ten steps. Just ten steps. But terror jams the signals in my brain and my legs won’t move.

“You know this house is haunted,” he continues in the same languid tone.

I let out a noise somewhere between a hiccup and a laugh, and something I said to Roshni all those months ago echoes back: Even the ghosts won’t know I’m there.

The man turns to look at me and cocks his head to one side, offended. “You don’t believe in ghosts?”

The faint, crystalline light ripples over his face, silvering his skin and making his eyes appear deep and black. I note his features in dot points, already thinking how I will describe him to the police, assuming I make it that far. Caucasian. Dark hair, cut short. Clean shaven. No distinguishing marks or tattoos. He wears a dark, unbranded tracksuit and cheap, generic sneakers. The kind that sell for twenty bucks at Kmart. Sitting down, he looks to be of average height and weight. But fit. Broad shouldered. Youngish, I think, though his age is tricky to gauge in the dim; he might be anywhere between twenty-five and forty.

He’s still watching me, waiting for an answer, and I want to tell him that I don’t know what I believe about ghosts; I’ve been preoccupied with other monsters. My mouth works, but no words come.

“Aren’t you curious?” he presses.

“About you?” I manage.

“The story,” he corrects, giving the word a sharp edge. “Every ghost has a story.”

Don’t make him angry, an inner voice warns. I nod and lick my lips, trying for a smile. “Alright. Yes. Tell me.”

Maybe if I can keep him talking—humour him—he’ll let me leave.

He sets the cup down carefully, his hand shaking, mimicking mine. Not possible, I remind myself. He was facing the other way. He sees my unease and smiles as though we’re sharing a joke. But it’s an ugly expression. His lips stretch too wide for his face and his mouth is overcrowded with teeth.

“A woman died in the master bedroom upstairs.”

I swallow hard. “That’s awful. Was she sick?”

He shakes his head. “It was violent.” He sounds excited. “An intruder broke in while she was at work. He hid under the bed until she fell asleep.”

His smile widens as my expression falls.

I realise I’m yet to see him blink and my mouth feels dry. “How do you know that?”

“Urban legend. I grew up around here. Kids used to dare each other to sneak into the front yard at night to try and catch a glimpse of the ghost.”

They’ll always be watching, the voice in my head whispers. Even when you’re dead.

“Is—is that why you’re here now? You saw the house was for sale and you wanted to know whether the story was real?”

“It is real,” he assures me, his expression grave with certainty.

“You’ve seen her, then? The ghost?” I ask, to keep the man talking as I scrabble to make sense of his presence. His intentions. And how much danger I am in.

He shakes his head. “Not her. Him. This is his house now.” His smile stretches wide as I absorb this information. “Bet you’re glad you didn’t look under the bed.”

The words strike an ominous chord. I remember the lamp over the front door, welcoming me in, and a chilling thought presents itself: what if he was already inside when I arrived? What if he saw me at the inspection—had seen me at many inspections and started following me when he figured out my game? What if this isn’t the first night we’ve shared together?

“How long have you been here?” I ask.

“Why? Do I make you uncomfortable?”

I consider lying. Laughing him off. The way I usually would to keep a man onside long enough to make my excuses and get away. But there’s no escaping this.

“It creeps me out to think there was a stranger in the house while I was sleeping,” I tell him. “If you knew I was here, you should’ve woken me up.”

“You wouldn’t have liked that.” His voice is matter-of-fact, and I silently agree that his is not a face I would want to see pressing out of the dark when I woke.

It occurs to me that, by my design, no one else knows I’m here. And nor is anyone likely to come to the house for some time. My body could be in pieces and scattered in the park for hikers to find by then. My breath gets shaky thinking about it.

The man cocks his head to one side. “Do you think I’m going to hurt you?”

I resent the way he asks, genuinely curious, as though I could be anything other than terrified by his presence.

“Are you?” I breathe.

He looks disappointed. “We’re just talking. Perhaps you didn’t like my story? Then again, if you’re scared of the bogeyman, you shouldn’t go nosing around strange places at night.”

I want to to tell him that the nightmare spaces are the only safe spots I have left. But it’s too sad. Too pathetic. And it makes me sick to realise it’s true.

“I’m going to see what I can find upstairs,” he tells me, and when he stands and I see he’s taller than I realised. Much taller. “You could come, if you like. Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’d rather not,” I tell him.

“Fair enough.”

He looks at me expectedly and I realise that he’s waiting for me to step aside so he can pass. I blink at him in disbelief. He’s letting me go.

My heart flips. He is letting me go.

The spell that’s been holding me in place breaks, pins and needles prickle up my legs and I stumble for the door. My hand is reaching for the knob and I’m nine steps closer to freedom when he calls back to me.

“Hey lady.” The mocking note in his voice tugs and, against my better judgement, I glance over my shoulder to see he’s already—impossibly, it seems—at the top of the stairs. “Take care of yourself out there in the dark.”

His eyes glint down at me before he drops soundlessly to his belly and lizard crawls towards the bedroom.

I scream and scrabble at the door, yanking it open. And then I’m running. The night air is a cold hand on the back of my neck as I skirt the side of the house and sprint for my car, pounding the unlock button on my key as I go.

Part of me worries that the car won’t be there, or it’ll be damaged, preventing my escape. But my red Swift is still sitting in the drive where I left it and gives a cheerful beep beep, lights flashing orange, as the locks release. I sob with relief. My fingers are sweaty, slipping on the handle as I glance through the window to the back seat, instinctively checking to be sure it’s empty. I get the door open, hurl myself in and slam the central locking. Grateful tears stream down my cheeks and I force deep, steadying breaths, trying to calm myself enough to drive. Somehow, despite my shaking fingers, I manage to get the keys in the ignition and put the car in gear. But something catches my eye in the rear view mirror as I release the handbrake, and I glance up to see the house crouched behind me. The lamp beside the front door gutters and winks out. And when I look back to the road ahead, the night is full of eyes.

About the Author

Margot McGovern lives in Adelaide, Australia. Her debut novel Neverland (PRH Aus., 2018) was shortlisted for the Text Prize and the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, and her story “Euryhaline” was recently published in Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales (Wakefield Press, 2021). She is also a book reviewer and a former judge for the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Find Margot on Instagram: @project_lectito.