The Thief

I find fiction difficult to write. The Thief is a short story, written in practice.

*

Charlie’s eyes shot open as she snapped out of deep sleep – not in response to a sound or a touch, but to something tickling her lizard brain. A warning. Her exposed arms were chilled, her legs – covered in layers of scrunched blankets that dripped off the side of the bed like melted icing – were sweating.

Her heart thumped, conscious of another living creature in her room. Trepidation crept silently up her spine, stilling her breath. Had time frozen at that moment, the scene would mimic the passing moment. Perfectly still – a picture rather than a movie.

Raising her head ever so slightly, a flicker of movement near her feet confirmed her subconscious warning. Something disappeared into a fabric trough, like a ship preparing to mount the next wave. She watched. The thing emerged, eight fat legs carrying a bulky abdomen over the crest of 1000 thread count ivory Egyptian cotton. In the moonlight the spider was almost white, blending somewhat into the sea of fabric. Charlie recognised that body shape creeping slowly towards her; the bulky abdomen, the thick, stubby, hairy legs; the traipsing walk a stark contrast to the skittering pace of the huntsman’s that usually took up residence in her apartment. This was a funnel web.

Charlie lay motionless as the white body meandered lazily up and down the folds of the fabric, a fat ship on the waves of a rolling sea. Waves that lapped at her thighs.

Inhaling very slowly though her nose, she gripped the dishevelled bedding at her waist, and with a well-practiced flick from years of waxing her legs, flung the fabric and spider to her right while diving to the left of the mahogany queen. Her attention trained on the folded triangle of sheets, she circled the bed, a wary dog eyeing a goanna, the predator/prey roles yet to be established. She switched on the light, squinting at the sharp pain of sudden illumination.

No spider scuttled out from within the blankets. Charlie stepped forward, pinching a tiny corner of top sheet between her thumb and forefinger, and peeled it back. No spider. Next, the woven baby blue blanket that didn’t really match anything else in the green room, but was warm enough to warrant inclusion during the winter months. No spider. Only the duvet remained. She peeled the duvet flat, ready to spring back at first sight of hairy legs. The duvet unfolded revealing only the ivy patterned cover – no hairy legs, no spider.

Charlie frowned. She pulled the pillows off the bed, then once again but with far less caution, peeled back each layer of bedding, then removed them all. On hands and knees she looked under the bed, under the bedside, in between the slats, in the pillow cases. No spider.

She stood at the foot of the bed, hands on her hips and chewing the inside of her cheek. There was no spider. No real spider at least; the dreams were back. These ‘dreams’, sometimes visual, sometimes auditory, sometimes both, had rattled her sanity since she became the age where having an active imagination was no longer an acceptable trait. The dreams weren’t limited to night either. She’d be jogging though the park, and the black Labrador in the corner of her eye was just a pile of soil at the edge of a new garden; the gold coin just a leaf.

After one final check, Charlie re-made the bed and climbed in, shuddering as she imaged the hairy body brushing her foot on its way to the prize – her big toe.

*

Residents are advised to lock their doors. Two nights ago, Ms. Boambee, local resident, was struck unconscious in her home, the thief taking her jewellery box and other items from her room. Police are asking for any leads, or any information that could lead to the capture of the perp…”

Charlie hit the mute button while she stirred the bubbling banana and honey oats on the stove. Creep, she thought, knowing exactly what ‘other items’ meant.

“It means personal items, like undies,” her brother, a cop, had explained once between large mouthfuls of bangers and mash at the pub.

“Chew with your mouth shut,” she had admonished, sounding just like her mother.

The jewellery she could at least understand, but undies as well? This is what you get for watching TV, especially during the day, she reminded herself, a reminder of the unsavoury.

The television normally remained firmly off, an ugly dust collecting ornament. Charlie preferred to zone out with a book, her imagination usually far superior to anything a producer could conjure up.

Usually.

Today she needed ideas. She was a writer, with one successful novel and a contract for a second, if she could come up with the goods. So far, no goods. All the wall staring, walking through the national park, sitting in cafes and watching the bland winter coats rush by had unsurprisingly failed to rouse her imagination.

Her last resort, the hateful television. ‘Idiot box’ her dad called it. Perhaps the news would yield a murder, a mystery, a story of long lost love? Maybe I could write a romance? Charlie switched off the stove before her musings erased any thoughts of breakfast and the oats burnt into the bottom of the pot. It wouldn’t be the first time.

One probably needed to experience true romance first hand she thought bitterly, adding further offence to the moment by burning her tongue on a chunk of hot banana. Her science fiction novel had sold out on the first print run, but now, sleek, metallic, futuristic thoughts refused to grace her imagination. Why was a mystery – everything was so damn grey at the moment. The coats, the sky, her kitchen, her mood.

Carrying her bowl into the office, she opened her laptop, sighing as she realised it was also grey, and drummed her fingers lightly on the keys, hoping her fingers would develop a magical skill, not unlike muscle memory, where they wrote of their own accord.

The dream spider crept across her thoughts. A novel about spiders? No, too creepy.  Tap. Tap. Tap. A thief perhaps? Not an underpants thief of course…a jewel thief? A little Agatha Christie-esque, but it might work. She chewed her bottom lip as if it contained rogue ideas in hiding, while her resting finger filled the page with a string of ‘k’s.

kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk The thief creeps to the open door of the bedroom and peers in, her veiled head silhouetted against the doorframe. Around her neck drapes the pale orange lawyers desire to set fire to his office, fake his own death, and escape to Costa Rica where he’d run a bar, barefoot, and get a caramel skinned boyfriend who would tell him he was beautiful and happy and they didn’t need a four story house, three Mercedes, a cleaner, and 42 pairs of shoes. 

Across her brow, a silky, silvery dream ripples as she steps silently forward. In the fabric she catches a glimpse of the serpent’s body gliding up the flawless, pearly white body, sliding around the woman’s neck as its tongue flickers at her ear… An unexpected desire from a very surprising source. She would fetch a fair price for that one.  

The thief steps lightly to the edge of the bed, and, standing over her next victim, extracts their thoughts like a graceful magician pulling scarves from a hat. The long, luminescent blue essence told of stolen silver hidden in flour sacks in the basement below. Interesting. She could trade that knowledge, or maybe even steal the silver and swap it for ….kkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk

Charlie’s fingers hovered above the keys. What does a dream thief trade silver for? Standing and stretching her arms over her head, her spine cracked in protest, then relief. A dream thief. Unexpected, but far more alluring that the undie stealer who threatened to take root in her occipital lobe. Grimacing at the thought, and the sudden reminder from her stomach that she was a mere mortal, Charlie conceded to lunch.

Munching on a toasted cheese and vegemite sandwich, sustenance of champion writers and dream thieves alike, Charlie surveyed the mountain of dirty laundry, the mound…mounds if she was honest of unironed clean laundry, and the precarious pile of dirty dishes imitating the leaning tower of Pisa next to the sink. She really should clean.

Or – she could go to the Copper Kettle and follow her thief across the flat roofs of Istanbul. Tea, cake, a warm room and no chores. Hardly a choice. Charlie packed her laptop, notepad, and favourite blue pen into her bag, and stepped out into the waning light. Donning her dull grey (again, grey?) coat and scarf, Charlie braced the wind – a blustery day Winnie the Pooh would have said – and walked the brisk kilometre and a half to the Copper Kettle.

Her favourite tea house was a warren of tiny rooms and dead ends, dotted with dark wooden furniture, brassy tea pots and colourful hangings. It was what she thought a Turkish tea house might look like. What sort of building it had been before she could not imagine – the structure didn’t lend itself to anything other than getting lost. Perhaps it was the product of a confused architect and his opiate loving builder.

The chairs were not comfortable and the tables slightly too low, but the tea was excellent and Charlie, a regular, came prepared. A cushion to pad the unforgiving hard maple beneath her derriere, a copy of war and peace to raise her laptop to a respectable height, and a mouse and keyboard.

Five minutes later, a pot of English Breakfast to her right and slice of apple crumble on its way, Charlie disappeared into to the warm Turkish night, the gong of prayer time sounding in her mind.

The thief made no sound and left no physical trace. Yet you knew she had paid a visit by the faint yet distinct scent of cinnamon and honey lingering in the air.  Or maybe you just imagined it, the scent instead wafting in from the bakery next door or the kitchen below. Most would never know.

Six dreams, not bad for half a night’s work. The stolen silver dream she would keep, the rest would be swapped into other heads the following night, or sold on. Last week she’d implanted the spice grinders irrational fear of duck attack into the head of the Queen’s maid.  The Queen loved ducks, owning at least 25 that required daily feeding and care. To the theif’s delight, the maid spent the next three days alternating between sullen silence and panic.

In the macho butcher she implanted a dream of trying on a fetching pair of high heels. She grins at the thought of him seeing his own reflection in the shoe store mirror.

She had started torrid love affairs and feuds with this method, each creating more heated dreams and desires for her to pinch and play with.

“Charlie, shop is packed up now, home time,” café owner Imogen stood before Charlie, coat on and bag in hand, a small smile playing on her full, Bohemian lips.

Charlie looked up, a little shocked at her thief. Mischievous, and a bit saucy. Who knew that little minx had been hiding in her imagination. Standing up, Charlie stretched, the same vertebrae snapping their annoyance – she really must see an osteopath. Packing her bag, she imagined Istanbul, a vibrant city where colours and flavours dominate the senses. A welcome contrast to this winter where blandness permeated, blanketing the city, senses and soul. Maybe a few weeks in Turkey would fuel the first draft of the manuscript. Maybe not she grudgingly accepted, considering her bank account.

It was almost 8pm, the last light long gone, but the wind, having finished its 4pm warm up, was in full swing and playing for the home run.

“Come, we drive you home,” Imogen turned to walk out the door, “not safe to walk in wind.”

Outside, Charlie stepped round a wheelie bin on its side as a hub cap clattered across the road. Was the wind strong enough to rip off hubcaps? At home, the back balcony door crashed again the frame. Surely she had locked it? Charlie had always imagined the wind a mischievous creature, tousling her hair and unsuccessfully attempting to open the door as the wind, obviously, did not have opposable thumbs. But if it was dextrous enough to pry off hubcaps…

“Police have still not apprehended the prowler. Residents are reminded to lock their doors and windows after another home was burgled last night”, a serious faced anchor with perfectly coiffed hair and suspiciously orange-tinted skin warned.

Blowing across the top of her mug, Charlie switched away from the clash of orange skin and hot pink blazer to an episode of Midsomer Murders. Ninety minutes later, with the murderer (the Priest’s brother) successfully apprehended, Charlie reluctantly unfolded herself from her warm rug on the couch, and made her way to the freezing bedroom, shivering as she slipped between the sheets. Another body to warm the bed would be lovely, but her last attempt at a relationship has failed so miserably that a hot water bottle would be far cheaper and less dramatic. She’d buy one tomorrow.

At 3:18am she rose to consciousness. Tonight the room was darker, the Cheshire cat’s smile out her window slowly fading. The occasional thud and rattle reminded her the wind was still blowing, but was less fierce. As she rolled over onto her left side and settled back in for sleep, she saw the spider creeping silently up the wall. Eight legs took turns moving the fat abdomen vertically, defying gravity. The funnel web was back – if it had ever left. Charlie cringed at the thought that she had last night shared a bed with the deadly creature.

Shifting to the other side of the bed, Charlie slipped out from under the covers, backed out of the room, then dashed to the laundry and returned grasping a large container of bug killer. Thankfully, the spider continued its slow traipse up the wall, not particularly concerned with its impending death. Her legs hip width apart for stability, Charlie took aim, placed her forefinger on the nozzle, then pushed with all her finger strength as the spider screamed “STOP!” and exploded into glittering confetti.

Charlie woke to find herself spraying a white patch of foam onto an empty wall, no talking spiders or confetti in sight. She hopped around for a few seconds, checking around her feet for the spider, but finding none.

The thief creeps to the bedroom, her long, slender arm silently pushing open the door. She pokes her veiled head around the frame, watching the Sultan slumber noisily and restlessly, deep sleep evaded by the excess of wine.  How much wine she did not know. Alcohol was dangerous in her line of work – the mildly drunk tend to sleep poorly.

The queen, tired of the alternating chainsaw and whistle next to her, had moved into her own chamber. The sultan slept alone. Padding lightly to his bedside, the thief checks the guards still slump against the wall. She’d traded six dreams for that sleeping spell, but it was worth it. Tonight she would earn a real prize.

The deep crimson dream was short, but its value immense.  Which of his political opponents, she pondered, would pay the most for this?

Charlie sat up and bit into the sticky slice of orange and almond cake. Would she pay for a dream? No, but she would pay to not dream of screaming, exploding spiders.

“You heard about the prowler yes? I drive you home, not safe to walk home by yourself these days,” Imogen clucked at the wicked ways of the modern world. It wasn’t safe to walk most places in Imogen’s home country, but she seemed to have forgotten that. A full day had disappeared at the Copper Kettle, Charlie lost to reality as she shadowed her soft-footed muse across the warm, Turkish night.

Opening her front door, a huntsman scuttled into the ceiling corner, seeking refuge from the offensive intrusion to its peaceful evening. “At least you’re real”, she told the huntsman as she checked the bed for the potentially fictional, potentially real funnel web. Neither made themselves known.

3:18am once again. The covers, as usual, were dishevelled. Charlie’s eyes roamed the bed and walls for the talking spider. The wind had died down and the night was still. Eerily still. Night normally held more sounds than this – a drip of water, a bird flutter, something scuffling in the bushes. But tonight, nothing.

Except for that new sound – a sound Charlie did not want to be hearing.

Soft, slow, footsteps. Charlie held her breath, fear tiptoeing up her spine in time with the footsteps. Then silence. She exhaled slowly, terrified a noise would escape. She was sweating, the cold of the night unable to touch her as fear both pumped and paralysed her. Silence. An auditory hallucination, surely. She’d had at least 200 in her life, many of them as paralyzing as this one, but that still didn’t dull their effect. It’s a hallucination she told herself, forcing herself to breath and to stop clenching every muscle she could willingly control. It’s a hallucination. To prove it she exhaled loudly.

But as her breath escaped her mouth, the door to her bedroom slowly opened, a slender, dark hand just visible on the doorknob.

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