My birthday started out fantastic. I had no idea it was going to be my last.
It all started with sitting in my parents’ backyard around a fire. The smell of the smoke had saturated our clothing and hair by that point, as we were on our third round of blender margaritas. My brother hadn’t come that night, but my best friend Sally had come with me to celebrate. Sally and I were giggling about a recent encounter we had at the local Wicca shop, where we work, when my mom pulled out a small box.
I turned the box around in my hands, trying to hear a sound to give away what might be inside. My mother had wrapped it in black wrapping paper that had small, sparkly skulls scattered all over it. I loved it and couldn’t wait to see what was inside.
“Oh, just open it, silly,” my mother said from across the fire from me.
I looked over at Sally on my right and saw her anxiously waiting for me to open it as well. I slowly began to unwrap the box, carefully sliding my finger along the edges of the paper, trying not to rip it. I could tell that Sally liked it as much as I did, so I thought it would be nice to use for her birthday gift next month. Once unwrapped, the box itself was plain without any labels or description.
“Now, it came in that box, so don’t go thinking I didn’t buy you something nice. I got it off one of those websites where people make stuff or find peculiar items to sell. I thought this would be right up your alley.”
I smiled at my mother while holding the small box in my hands. I heard a faint ring sound from the box, barely audible over the crackling of the wood in the fire pit. The flames were dying down, making it harder to see, so I pulled the box closer to my face, squinting down at it.
I pulled open the lid and there it was, although I could hardly make the details out clearly to know what it was at first.
“What is it?” I heard Sally ask beside me, but the hairs on my neck had gone up and my heart was pounding in my ears.
In the box was a small doll-like object. It had a round bottom on it that made it look like a miniature punching bag clown with the weight on the bottom. I still wasn’t sure what it was, but the eyes staring up at me filled me with dread. I remember blaming the margaritas right away, assuring myself that its eyes weren’t really alive even if they looked that way. The glint of the dying light from the fire on the yellow eyes sent fear through me.
“Janice? Are you going to show it to us?” Sally placed a hand on my arm, sounding worried.
“Oh sure,” I said, as I reluctantly put my hand into the small box. The instant my fingers grazed the cold plastic, the small ‘ding’ sound rang out again, this time a little louder. I paused, unsure if I should lift it or drop it in the fire. I felt my mother’s eyes on me, so I looked up. I could tell from the look on her face that she was disappointed in my reaction. Now she was sitting there judging my every move, sure that I hated the gift. I lifted it up, finally revealing it to the light and saw that it was a little, red devil with small numbers written around the round base.
“How cute! A little devil egg timer?” Sally exclaimed beside me. “What a clever gift, Mrs. Star.”
“Yes, mom. This is a great addition to my collection. Where did you say you found this?”
The rest of the time at my parents’ house went by without anything else memorable. I was able to put the timer back in the box fairly soon after, hoping to never open it again. I made sure to act like I loved it, even though I was already trying to decide whether I could toss it in the garbage bin on the way up to my apartment later that night, or if I should keep it in storage somewhere for when my mother came by to visit. I knew she would be looking for it, so I thought I’d better go with the latter.
That night, Sally and I got a ride home from my dad. He had gone indoors to watch Sportsnet long before we hit the margaritas, so he offered to drive us home. We lived in the same apartment complex, so we walked together to the front door. Once inside, Sally gave me a hug and wished me happy birthday one more time before going down to her basement apartment. I slowly climbed the stairs to the fourth floor.
As soon as I entered my apartment, I threw the box containing the egg timer into the bottom of the entryway closet, hoping that I wouldn’t have to look at it again for a few weeks. I figured that I could avoid inviting my mother over for a while. It made its sad ‘ding’ sound as it hit the floor, but I quickly forgot about it and went about getting ready for bed and turning off all the lights.
That night, around three o’clock in the morning, after only an hour or so of sleep, I heard something moving in my apartment. I always slept with the door open, so I could hear a scraping sound was coming from the kitchen. I slowly got out of bed, trying not to make any noise, so as not to alert the prowler. I could hear cupboards in my kitchen opening and closing. I stood just inside my bedroom door, trying to peek down the hallway towards the kitchen entrance. I couldn’t see any shadows or movement, but I could still hear shuffling. My apartment was small, so the hallway was connected to the entryway. I decided to make a run for it instead of confronting the prowler outright.
I ran down the hallway as fast as I could without a glance to the kitchen as I passed. My cell phone was in my hand, but I forgot my keys to the apartment. I didn’t care. I ran down the stairs to the basement without looking back, dialing Sally as I went to warn her that I would be coming. She was already standing with her door open when I reached her apartment.
“When will the police be here?” she demanded.
“I haven’t called them yet. I didn’t even see if someone was there. What if I was dreaming or something? They would think I am crazy!”
“Janice! Just call the police! Now!”
We walked into her apartment and I called the police department. I refused to dial the emergency number in case I had been imagining it. The woman that picked up assured me it was the type of call to make to the emergency line, but she agreed to radio an officer to come check on the apartment for me anyways. Sally gave me a sweater to cover my pajamas a bit, and we walked to the front doors to wait for the officer to arrive.
He arrived within a few minutes and escorted us back up to my apartment with Sally’s spare key. Once we reached the top of the stairs, the police officer turned to us and demanded, “Wait here now. Give me the key to open the door. Did you see how many are in your apartment? Was it just one person or were there multiple? And were they armed?”
I realized that all these questions would likely have been typically asked during a call to the emergency line, so I stammered, feeling sheepish now, “I didn’t see. I got out of the apartment as soon as I heard my cupboards opening and closing. I have no idea if there is even one person still in my apartment. For all I know, they left by now.”
I looked down at my feet, sure that the officer was unimpressed by my cowardice.
“Alright. Stay here. I’ll come back and get you if the coast is clear.”
After a few minutes, the officer came back, letting us know it was okay to return to the apartment.
“There is no one in there now, ma’am. I am not saying there was never anyone in there, but it looks like you scared them off when you ran out of the apartment. You likely made the right move getting out of there quickly and calling us from your friend’s apartment. Next time, make sure you use the emergency line though. That tends to be a faster response,” the officer scolded.
After he left, Sally sat in my kitchen at my small two-seater dining table. It was now going on five in the morning.
“Sally, you can go home now. I have gone through the place. Nothing is missing. I must have been imagining things.”
“Are you sure? I can stay here for the night if you like?”
“No, honest, I’m good.”
After a few more minutes of convincing, Sally finally left the apartment to go back to her own. I walked around and double checked that all the doors and windows were still locked, and I crawled back into bed. When I came out the next morning, I saw it. I somehow missed it during the chaos of the early morning hours, but the devil egg timer was sitting in the middle of my stovetop. The look of it sitting there made me jump.
A smile was on its face, which I didn’t remember noticing when I first saw it the night before. Its eyes seemed to follow me as I walked up to it before I picked it up and threw it in the drawer beside the stove. I took a deep breath while leaning over the counter, trying to remember what Sally did in the kitchen only a few hours before.
“Did Sally find it and pull it out?” I wondered aloud. The silence of my kitchen seemed to mock me, so I turned and decided to ignore it. She must have thought I had dropped it on my way in and felt she was doing me a favor by pulling it back out.
The rest of the day was ordinary. It was a Saturday, but I still had to go into work. I wished I hadn’t had the third margarita, as the combination of the hangover and the lack of sleep made working my shift at the occult shop that much harder.
Once finished, I didn’t want to go home. The events of the night before were bothering me, so I agreed to meet Sally and some of our other friends at the nearby pub for dinner and drinks. After too many drinks, again, and retelling the stories from the previous night multiple times over, Sally and I caught a cab back to our apartment complex and said goodnight. I needed a hot shower and my warm bed.
“Do you want me to come stay over in your apartment tonight?” she asked as we neared the stairs. I could tell by her tone that she was offering out of a sense of duty, not because she wanted to. I knew she had the early shift at the shop on Sundays.
“Nah, I’m good. I’ll make sure everything is still locked up before I go to bed. Have a good night.”
After a long shower, I crawled into the sheets, my hair still wet from the shower, and inhaled the scent of my favorite fabric softener before passing out.
Two hours later, I opened my eyes to see the red numbers on my clock telling me it was three o’clock in the morning again. I wasn’t sure what had woken me up, but I had a feeling of déjà vu washed over me. That is when I could hear it, the ticking of a timer coming from my kitchen.
I sat up in my bed right away, trying to still my breath to listen more intently to the sound coming from my kitchen. I didn’t hear anything but the ticking of the timer. I thought back to that morning, when I remembered putting it away in the drawer. I tried to recall if it was sitting back on the stovetop when I got home, but I couldn’t remember.
I slowly emerged from my bedroom, careful to stick to the edges of the hall in case an intruder had returned to my apartment. Although why would they want to come into my apartment just to turn on my timer? As I walked into the kitchen, I turned on the light switch to my left. The room was empty, as was the small living area that was attached to it. I looked over to the stovetop and there it was. The small devil timer was back on my stovetop, the ticking sound getting louder.
I stared at the timer from the kitchen entrance, afraid to move any closer to it. I wondered how much time was left on it, but didn’t dare get close. That is when my cell phone alerted me to a text. I walked backwards down the hall, keeping my eyes on the kitchen, straining to try and keep my eyes on the timer while I backed up. When it became impossible to keep my eyes on it, I turned and grabbed my phone off its charger on my nightstand. It was a text from Sally.
‘Janice, I don’t know what’s going on. I keep hearing the sounds you talked about last night. It sounds like someone was in my kitchen, but I’m standing in it now, and no one is here. What the hell?’
I texted back, ‘Weird! I don’t hear those sounds anymore, but I am starting to think that the timer my mom gave me is cursed. Did you pull it out when you were here the other day?’
‘The timer? Why would it be cursed? Why would I pull it out? I didn’t even think about it while I was there.’
I walked back towards the kitchen. I could hear the timer slowing down. I wondered if it was nearing the end, hoping that the sound would stop. I walked backwards towards my living room and sat on the couch. From there, I watched the timer as it ticked, still unable to brave nearing the stovetop, deciding that distance from the thing was best. When it finally hit zero and the ‘ding’ rang out, I waited, but nothing happened. I looked back at my phone to text Sally.
‘I don’t know. I likely sound crazy, but I swear it just turned itself on and sat on the counter to stare at me, but last I remember, I had put it in the drawer. All okay there now?’
I sat on the couch, unsure of taking my eyes of the timer, and waited for Sally’s response. The next thing I knew, I awoke to my phone ringing, realizing that I had fallen asleep on my couch while waiting for Sally. I didn’t recognize the number on the phone, but answered anyways.
“Miss Star? This is Officer Daniels. I was with you the other night when you thought someone was trying to break into your apartment? I need to ask you a few questions. I am downstairs, so can I please come up?”
“Oh! I just woke up and need to get dressed. Can I ask what you need?”
“Look, I shouldn’t be discussing this over the phone. It’s about your friend that was with you when I came. She was just found dead in her apartment. As we understand it, you were the last person to speak to her alive.”
The phone dropped from my hand.
‘Sally is dead?’
Even the thought sounded impossible in my head. My heart was pounding in my chest, threatening to jump out, as I tried to process the information. I fumbled to pick up the phone.
“How could this be? I was just texting her a few hours ago. When did this happen?”
“Well, we can’t say for sure, but it must have been shortly after you texted with her. Can you please let me know what she last texted you and the exact time? We are trying to figure out how someone got in, as all the doors and windows are locked.”
That’s when I heard it. The ticking sound of the timer had started again. My voice stopped working as I looked toward my kitchen. The timer was no longer on the stovetop. It was in the middle of the kitchen floor, only a few feet away from the carpet to the living area where I was sitting. The smile on the timer’s face had shifted from its usual, horrific grin to a wide lipped laugh. Its eyes were still on me. That’s when I realized that although its body moved as it turned during the countdown, its face never left mine.
The phone dropped from my hand again as I opened my mouth and screamed.
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