Stella hated bank holiday Mondays. The long weekend always seemed to exacerbate the weekly anxiety of going back to work. The problem with bank holidays, she thought. Is that although you get an extra day off, you get two Sundays, not two Saturdays. To avoid thinking about her gargantuan to-do list the following day, she took a bottle of Pinot Grigio out of the fridge. Just one glass, she thought. Just to take the edge off the dread. That was another problem with bank holidays. A full week of work had to be crammed into only four days. Stella held the bottle and twisted the aluminium collar holding the screw cap in place. It came away with a satisfying click. She savoured the glug-glug-glug of the wine as it poured into the chilled glass and she curled up on the settee.
Stella turned on the television and scrolled through the channels one by one, struggling to find something she wanted to watch. It seemed to be wall-to-wall snooker. She gave up and turned on the radio. She picked up her phone and absently scrolled through Facebook. It was filled with people who seemed to have had much more interesting weekends than her. Denise and Mike had been to Amsterdam. Sam and Jason had been camping in the Lake District. There had been a picture of the two of them at the top of Helvellyn. The only mountain Stella had scaled had been the pile of ironing that had threatened to take over the living room. She sighed and switched to Twitter. All that served to do was to remind her of the forthcoming election. She felt her anxiety rise again and locked her phone. She poured a second glass of wine.
By the time she had finished her third glass – the last of the bottle – Stella was feeling thoroughly depressed and more than a little tipsy. She was just falling off to sleep when she was startled by the buzz of her phone. She was disappointed to find it was a text from her mobile phone provider. She checked Facebook and Twitter again. No notifications. She opened Snapchat and took a selfie. God! I look awful, she thought. She flicked through the filters to try out the various augmented reality options. The software detected her face and added a pair of dog’s ears to her head and a snout to her nose. When she opened her mouth, a tongue lapped out of the mouth of her image. She sent the video to Debbie, her friend from work, and closed her eyes. The image of the video stayed in her vision, projected onto the back of her eyelids for a time. She decided that she was more drunk than she thought. It appeared as though there was a second set of dog’s ears over her shoulder, as if the software had detected another face standing behind her. Within minutes, she was asleep and snoring loudly.
Bleary-eyed, Debbie stared at her computer screen and scanned the various trending topics on Twitter. She scrolled through several pages before she realised she hadn’t taken anything in. She sighed and glanced at the clock. How could it only be 10:30? It felt like she’d been at work for hours. She heard footsteps behind her and without thinking, a reflex action in her left hand pushed the ‘alt’ and ‘tab’ keys on her keyboard and the screen toggled to a half-completed spreadsheet. Her manager sat in the swivel chair next to hers.
“Morning, Debs,” he said. Debbie’s skin crawled. She hated that contraction of her name, and the intrinsic familiarity it implied.
“Morning, Kevin,” she replied, covering up her shudder by rubbing her arms and pulling a scarf around her neck.
Kevin nodded to the blank screen next to hers. “No sign of Stella?”
Debbie frowned. “No,” she said. “Has she not called in?”
Kevin shook his head. “I just wanted to check if you’d heard anything before I call her.”
Debbie shrugged. “Sorry.”
“She’s probably just stuck in traffic,” said Kevin. “She might be stuck in a tunnel with no signal or something.”
Debbie considered pointing out the fact that if that were the case, there’d be little point calling her. She decided against it. “Traffic was fine for me this morning,” she said. She took her phone out of her bag. There were no missed calls or messages but there was a Snapchat notification in the top left hand corner. Debbie didn’t really get Snapchat. She supposed she was too old for it really. Just another one of those things that kids these days seemed to be into that went over her head. She glanced at her ‘Flirty at Thirty’ mug and winced. When did she start saying ‘kids these days’?
Kevin picked up Stella’s phone and dialled her number. Debbie opened up the message. It was one of those silly filtered videos that made the person look like some kind of animal. Stella sent them from time to time but Debbie didn’t usually bother watching them. Something was different this time though. There was a second set of dog’s ears over Stella’s shoulder. She peered at the screen, nosey about who Stella was with but she couldn’t actually make out a face. Just a disembodied pair of ears. Debbie put on her glasses and something flashed on the screen just as the video, infuriatingly, ended. She heard Kevin leaving a voicemail message. He dialled Stella’s home number.
Debbie started the video again. She guessed Stella would get some kind of notification but she didn’t mind that. There was something odd about it. She watched intently to the end this time. Just as the countdown clock clicked to zero, she shrieked and dropped her phone, cracking the screen.
Kevin put down the receiver on Stella’s phone. “What’s up?” he said.
Debbie’s hand was shaking as she picked up her phone. “Nothing,” she said. “Just burned my hand on my coffee.” It was a lie. Her coffee was lukewarm at best.
“I can’t get through to her on her mobile or landline,” said Kevin. “I’ll give her another half an hour and try again.
“No!” said Debbie, loud enough to surprise herself. A few people turned to look at her. She felt the blood rush to her face and her ears throbbed.
“I want to make sure she’s alright. I’ll take a long lunch and go round her place.”
Kevin seemed to think it over as if in his head, he was thinking of an excuse to say no. “OK,” he said, eventually. Debbie guessed that he was relieved it would save him a job.
Debbie felt sick as she climbed into her car. She looked at herself in her rear-view mirror. She wondered if her eyes had been playing tricks on her. They must have been, and yet a part of her mind knew that they hadn’t. That they had actually seen what she thought they’d seen: a pair of glowing red eyes; and although she wasn’t sure of the definition, she was certain that the word ‘malevolent’ could have been invented for them.
Debbie pulled into Stella’s cul-de-sac as an ambulance was coming out. There was a slowly-dispersing crowd outside her house and somehow, Debbie knew. She parked the car with one wheel on the kerb but she didn’t care and she jumped out to ask the nearest person what was going on.
“I’m so sorry,” said an old women in a dressing gown and grubby white slippers. “Did you know her?”
Debbie noted the past tense and felt tears coat her eyes, blurring her vision. She nodded. In a daze, she heard only snippets of what the woman said: “Such a shame”, “so young as well” and something about a “faulty Carbon Monoxide detector, apparently.”
Numb, Debbie sat down on the kerb. She watched the Snapchat video again. This time, Stella’s face was gone and all that was left was the comical second set of dog’s ears and those penetrating, hateful, crimson eyes.