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Something is watching me from the ceiling. My bedroom is dark, and the ceiling is high, but I can see it very clearly.
The light is shaded by a pink glass saucer, hanging below the light bulb on thin brass chains. Something is curled up in the saucer, and its large yellow eyes stare at me through the glass. Occasionally it shifts, and the shade swings with a faint, dainty creak. The glowing eyes blink, and it stares at me again. It’s small, like some breed of pygmy monkey, but it’s not a monkey.
Monkeys do not have three eyes.
For some reason I’m not afraid. You’d think I would be, lying in my bed at 2am looking at a tiny three-eyed monkey. I am surrounded by darkness pierced only occasionally by a moonbeam, and the whole room sleeps in almost utter silence. The man next to me is so still that he scarcely seems to be breathing. As always, sharing a bed with him when he’s asleep is like sleeping alone. For all intents and purposes, it’s just me and the thing in the light shade.
It blinks again, as if to reassure me that it’s not a hallucination.
Without a sound, the creature uncurls from the lamp shade and scampers up to the ceiling, where it hangs upside down without any apparent effort. Now I can see that it’s several feet long, with a slim, sinewy body covered in soft fur. A long bushy tail drifts back and forth like a curling plume of smoke. It takes a couple of hesitant steps with its suckered feet, then, suddenly, scuttles across the ceiling and out the open window. I hear, or at least I think I hear its delicate feet pattering across the roof tiles. The sound is infinitesimal.
It seems stupid to think, ‘Did I dream that?' I know it works on TV, but here in reality, even in the shadowy reality of a dark room at 2am, it seems… insulting. I know there was a strange, impossible creature on the ceiling. Just because it's gone now does not change the fact that it was there.
I glance at Raff. He hasn’t moved at all. I flutter awake and back to sleep a dozen times a night, but for him, sleep is a deep black quiet chasm. Like a lot of stupid things, it scares me a little.
‘What are you looking at?’
Morning has broken. Raff has risen from that chasm of his.
‘I’m not looking at anything.’
‘You keep looking at the light. Is it cracked or something?’
‘No.’ Can I tell him what I saw? I want to, but I can’t face the conversations that might ensue. ‘Do you ever wonder that it might fall on us? I mean, it’s very old.’
‘So’s the ceiling. So’s the roof. You worry too much.’ He waves his hand nonchalantly and rolls out of bed. ‘Okay if I take a shower?’
‘Sure.’ I finish buttoning up my blouse.
‘Unless you’re worried that the shower head might fall on me!’ he calls teasingly from the bathroom.
I wander into the kitchen and give the cold water tap a sharp twist. I am rewarded with a perfect, scalded yelp.
‘You total bitch!’
‘And how,’ I shout back. Here we are, bantering like young lovers do. Only we’re not young lovers. Yes, we’re young. Yes, we sleep together sometimes. But lovers? Are we in love?
I am. I think. I know he makes me feel unhinged, which I guess is what love is supposed to do. Who knows what he feels?
Outside, Raff’s dog Mondo and my cat Argyle wait for their breakfasts. I look after Mondo because Raff lives in a building that doesn’t allow dogs, even fat, elderly blue heelers. He spends his days outside, barking at clouds, snapping at flies and sleeping in the sun, his legs twitching with dreams of his cattle-herding youth. Raff claims he is a guard dog, on loan to protect me. I doubt he could raise the energy. But I’m really very fond of him. His big brown eyes shine with total peace, as if nothing in his life has ever disappointed him.
Argyle, on the other hand, seems to have lived a life where nothing so far has really been up to standard. He regards Mondo with the polite loathing of an art dealer encountering someone who likes crying clowns on velvet. He eats his food with good-mannered resignation, as if only doing it as a personal favour to me. If he is surprised by a tennis ball rolling across the floor and gives chase, it is only for a moment, before he regains his self-control and stalks away in grim mortification, like an alcoholic tricked into drinking by a malicious friend.
I step out onto the back verandah. Mondo barks asthmatically and bounces up and down on his forelegs. I pour his dog biscuits into his bowl.
‘There was something on the roof last night, Mondo,’ I tell him. ‘Did you see it? Did you, boy?’
He would have barked if he had sensed anything. Right now, of course, every last speck of his concentration is on his breakfast.
Argyle could probably witness a whole troop of three-eyed monkey creatures crossing the roof and not bat an eyelid. He sniffs regretfully at his food as I scratch him behind the ears.
When I go back into the house, Raff is out of the shower, dressed in the old jeans and timeless sweaters that he seems to accumulate without ever going shopping. He’s not particularly attractive, he dresses in whatever comes to hand and I’m sure there are goldfish who have greater ambition and sense of direction. But he has a way of meeting my gaze with a look of quiet understanding that thrills me. If I was studying psychology rather than botany, I could probably explain away this look and my reaction to it as meaningless accidents of mind and physiognomy.
‘Are you coming round tonight?’ I ask him, trying not to sound needy.
‘Probably not,’ he admits. ‘I’ve got a session booked at the workshop. Do you want to meet me at the pub tomorrow night?’
‘Sure. What time?’
‘Oh, when you get there. See you.’ He kisses me lightly and gently, and walks out the front door without looking back.
I hear his car cough its way into life on the street.
‘Why are men so difficult?’ I ask Argyle as he wanders past.
‘Rowr,’ says Argyle, which is about as helpful as I can expect him to be.
Later that morning I surf the Net for three-eyed creatures. I find references to a breed of lizard in Madagascar and a type of primitive crustacean. Their third eyes are vestigial, aberrations in a reality of normal two-eyed faces. Also neither is more than a few centimeters long.
The scientific sites are greatly outnumbered by wacko sites – cults worshipping three-eyed gods, new agers trying to tap the power of the Third Eye, and conspiracy theorists demonstrating how trioptic symbolism in corporate logos refers to a shadowy Secret World Government. It seems that only crazy people see things with three eyes
It’s a beautiful day. The sun is warming the little side garden where my experimental plants grow. The seedlings that underwent gene manipulation are thrusting up out of the soil, already turning tiny but perfect leaves to the sun. The controls, on the other hand, are struggling, looking especially pallid and weak next to their vigorous neighbors. I always knew that the experiment would be a success – I knew that back when I was just doing the groundwork, but it’s a gratifying buzz to see the little plants proving me right. If only all of nature could be so obliging.
I’m growing my plants in a big old concrete tub that I found behind the garden shed, covered in dirt and weeds. In it my experiments are arranged in rows, neatly labelled, and brightly coloured insects are strolling like Lilliputian lovers down the avenues of seedlings. It’s such a cute idea it makes me smile. At first I take them for butterflies, but as one launches itself off into the air there’s something about its movement that jars. I get down on my hands and knees and peer into the tub as closely as I can. The insects ignore me.
They are tiny but exquisitely formed. They have three legs; two at the front, and one to balance on at the back. Their many slender wings are blue, green and gold, arranged on their backs like daisy petals. When they take to the air, their wings spin like miniscule helicopter blades. Their flight is accompanied by a faint, whispering hiss as they pump their wings. They go about their small business completely unaware of me, and, apparently, unaware of their sheer impossibility. First, I see a three-eyed monkey creature in the bedroom, and now, in my back yard, helicopter bugs.
You are not going mad, I tell myself. They are definitely there. One meanders into Argyle’s face, and he frowns at it as if startled by its wanton familiarity. He bats his paw at it a few times, then remembers his dignity and lapses into a disapproving glare. Mondo snaps at a different one that strays to close to him, but loses interest as it whispers away. I can see the sunlight flashing on the gold in their wings, and I can see the ripples radiating out from one landing in Mondo’s water bowl. They are as real as me.
Last night all I could do was stare at the creature on the ceiling. Now, in the bright sunshine of day, I feel more empowered to do something about it. I run into the house and grab an empty jar. I sit by my experiment, and try to make the insects return by sheer force of will. Eventually I am rewarded. I hold out the jar and the lid and track its movements. The helicopter bug flits away time after time, at the last possible millisecond. Then I manage to be just that tiny bit faster, and it is mine.
I hold the jar up and peer at my little captive. Its antenna twitch over the surface of the glass, and occasionally it launches into the air, only to bump against the lid and drop back down. It seems okay.
I take it indoors and put it on the table next to my computer. I try to view it from all angles, struggling to think of keywords to describe it to a search engine. But all I get from ‘helicopter’ and ‘insect’ is how the former is used to collect the latter. No creature flies like this, it would appear.
The helicopter bug looks sort of listless, so I get up and search for something to punch some air holes in the lid with. I hunt through several kitchen drawers, but all I find are random teaspoons, broken corkscrews, half-used matchbooks, an unaccountably large number of spatulas and a socket wrench. While I’m searching I wonder what, if anything, I should feed it. It didn’t seem to be eating any of my plants.
Eventually I find a corkscrew with a stubby blade on it. I take it back to the table where the jar is, but the insect is gone.
The jar is still there, and the lid is tightly screwed. But the insect itself has vanished. I peer into the jar from all angles, trying to see if it has crawled up into the lid or flattened itself behind the label. It’s simply not there. It has evaporated. Less than evaporated; it has dematerialised, as if beamed out by a tiny starship Enterprise in orbit from an alternative universe.
I walk out on the verandah, around to where my experiments are growing. There is no trace of the helicopter bugs. It’s as if they were never there at all.
I pass the day in normal activities like study and abnormal activities like fretting about my sanity. As twilight comes I am preparing dinner in my kitchen. I am making chicken stir fry. At one point I reach for some bean sprouts, and all is normal. A moment later, I reach for the bok choy, and there is a lizard on the kitchen counter. It is blue grey, about a foot long, and sitting calmly on the benchtop as if meditating some higher issue.
I count the number of eyes. Two. Good. I count the number of legs. Six. Damn.
This is starting to annoy me. Yesterday this house was home to me, Mondo, Argyle, Raff on occasions, and a few spiders, silverfish and snails in the garden. Then today, apparently, someone has announced an open house for impossible animals who don’t have much consideration for my personal space, my delicate sensibilities or my sense of what’s rational and what isn’t.
‘If you’re looking for a three-eyed monkey or a swarm of helicopter bugs,’ I tell it tersely, ‘you’re too late. They’ve gone off to freak out someone else.’
The lizard is oblivious to both my words and my tone.
It crawls a few inches forward and sniffs thoughtfully at the plate of diced chicken.
‘Hey!’ I slap the benchtop near the plate with a spatula. The lizard pulls back, and its eyes, which are the size of marbles, suddenly bloom to the size of tennis balls. It’s like something a cartoon character would do. Still staring at me with its oversized orbs, it scuttles backwards, then slithers over the edge of the counter and vanishes. And I mean vanishes. At first I think it has ducked into an open drawer, but all the drawers and cupboards are firmly closed.
I spend the evening sitting on the couch watching TV, mostly stupid sitcoms and hospital dramas. Keeping me company are the cat, curled neatly on a different chair, and the dog, draped over my lap like a fat lumpy rug. At one point I try calling Raff’s place. Of course he’s not there, and I remember that he told me he was going to be out. His voice on his answering machine sounds wavering and vague. The wavering is because it’s a cheap digital answering machine his sister gave him for his birthday. The vagueness is just him being him.
I fall asleep on the couch and wake up near midnight. The TV is showing a detective drama that wasn’t good enough to make prime time. I put Mondo outside, and he shuffles off to the old wooden crate that Raff converted into a doghouse for him. Argyle has a little cat door that allows him to come and go as he pleases, so he stays on his chair, just giving me a furtive glance to see if I’m going to dare try to disturb him. I don’t. I go to bed and hope that tomorrow will be less disturbing.
I wake up again in darkness. It is either just before 2 or just before 3 – the luminous hands of my retro alarm clock are hard to read when you’ve just woken. Out the window slender clouds are drifting across the moon, and a fitful breeze is making the trees ripple against the sky. I glance up. The light fitting is uninhabited.
As I close my eyes, I suddenly notice a gentle crooning noise, coming from somewhere up the street. It’s soft, with a lulling quality that almost sinks me back down into sleep. But something about it disturbs me.
My eyes jerk open as I hear a plastic thud, as something bumps against the garbage bin on the driveway. I pull back the covers and slide out of bed, hardly daring to breathe. The bedroom window has net curtains that I can peer through while I remain invisible to anyone outside.
Out on the overgrown lawn, a stumpy creature is wandering towards the house. Unlike the weird but harmless animals of yesterday, this one fills me with a horrible chill. It looks like the figure from Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but crushed down to dwarf size, and somehow mutilated.
It is hobbling its way toward me. I don’t think it can see me – I’m not even sure that it has eyes - but it seems to be able to sense something in my direction. As it stumbles along it is crooning to itself… or maybe to me, like a snake trying to hypnotise its prey. Very slowly I sink down below the level of the window sill, and push myself right back into the corner of the room, between the dressing table and the wall where the shadows are deepest. It comes up to the window, and peers in.
It will be able to see my bed and the rumpled sheets and blankets that show someone was recently in it. I feel naked in the corner, unable to even allow myself to shiver lest I give myself away. Silently, a little misshapen hand reaches up and pushes on the window. The latch rattles. The window was open last night; a stray gust of wind must have slammed it shut during the day. It is not locked. It’s an old wooden window, and it sticks, but the thing outside is persistent, and it slowly works it until it creaks ajar.
There’s nothing to do but scream, and hope that one of the neighbors can hear it, and get here quickly enough. I breathe in as quietly as I can.
But the little hand at the window is gone. The gentle, horrible song has gone too. I know I should stay down, but I raise myself up so I can just see over the edge of the window sill. I just catch sight of its back as it rustles through the hibiscus toward the street. Then I see another one, just as hideous, shuffling along the street in the same direction.
Crouching at the window, I see a third, then a fourth. They are shuffling, but moving in a straight line, as if whatever they were searching for has been found, somewhere down the street. I know, as if intuitively, that if they’d found me instead it would have made my worst nightmare seem like a gentle frolic in the park.
Even when the street is quiet again, I can’t risk going back to bed. I curl up in the corner and try not to cry, and when Argyle wanders in hours later, I grab him and hug him very close.
The Tip Jar