Atlas by Alex Shedlock

Arnold’s wife Demi slinks into the room just before midnight. He is at the dining table focused on a video call with the Americans. She seems to be verging on tears. He glances at her over a sip from a glass of water. The room is dim, barely bright enough for the webcam on his dusty and crumb-ridden laptop to capture his face. The Americans are watching him through this tiny lens. They are eight hours in the past, their working day just finishing.

Demi paces around the room. The thick hem of her red felt gown swings with the pivots of her hips.

“Right. Right, I think that’s a good idea,” Arnold says, half-absorbing the conversation through tiny earbuds. On the screen are a few bald men in well-pressed shirts, spread lackadaisically around a grey boardroom. They check notepads and wave pens at one another. Arnold is acutely aware he’s in an apartment. In a front room strewn with books and DVDs and plant pots and leather upholstery. The world on the other side of the webcam makes his mind fuzz. He tries to keep an eye on Demi with subtle-as-he-can-manage glances. He doesn’t want to give the impression he might be breaking confidentiality by having a civilian in the room.

Demi strides to the window at the far end with her arms folded. Her jaw chews intensely on nothing. She picks a path around the settee and the record player and a plant pot with a tall vine-wrapped bamboo cane. Her mouth’s corners twist down in what could become tears any second. It’s either tears or disgust, Arnold thinks. Whatever it is, it will have to wait. He’s on a big call. Nothing should distract him. He told her this.

“April fifteenth? Okay,” he clicks the date quickly into a calendar. He glances at Demi again.

Thirty minutes later she has left the room and returned four times, her face increasingly anxious. His leg now spasms excitedly.

“Right guys, thanks for all this. Got to clock off.”

“No worries Arnie,” the head American chatters in his ear. “Follow up soon.” Arnold jerks a nod and slims a smile. He taps the feed off. Demi isn’t in the room any more. The hall light is on. It is almost one o clock. He finds Demi leaning against the wall in the hall looking at her phone.

“There’s something in there,” she says.


“In our room. It crawled down the curtain and started flopping about.”

“A what?”

“I don’t know!” she half-shouts. “It was the size of my hand,” she holds her palm to Arnold’s face. “It was so disgusting. It was making this noise. Flapping like leather gloves. I can’t go in there.”

“Right, so I need to do it?”

“I’m not going in there!” Demi says while Arnold trudges into the kitchen.

“What are you doing?”

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to touch it.” He emerges with a short plastic broomstick. Stepping into their bedroom he feels her at his back. “You stay there,” he says.

“What? Why?”

Arnold waves his hands. “It’ll only make me more stressed if you’re hovering over my shoulder.” Demi pauses at the doorframe. “Just stay there.” He closes the bedroom door. Hears her pacing through the wood.
He casts a close, slow eye over the room. There is nothing on the curtains. The bed covers have been thrown off; exposing nothing. The cornicing and ceiling is bare but for dangling threads of cobweb. The broomstick smells of dust.

“I bet you anything it was a mouse,” he says towards the door. “You sure it was flapping?”

He walks forward with the broom and pokes at the curtains. He reaches out with its broken end and slowly parts them. Not a flap or a thud. No leathery beating sound. He looks at the cupboard. To one side is a squat chair, only ever used to tie shoe laces or dump laundry on, and he pulls it out and stands on it. He peers over the top of the cupboard. He feels dust sticking under his eyelids.

“There’s nothing. I’m not seeing anything.”

“Have you looked at the cuckoo clock?” Demi says right up against the closed door.

Arnold pauses. The cuckoo clock. Every second generation. The dark heirloom protrudes from the wall opposite the bed. It looks like a tree hollow pulled inside out. He drags the low chair over to the wall and climbs up again. Rises gradually on one tip toe.

“It’s behind the clock isn’t it?”

He looks around all of its sides. A block of ornate brown. He studies its left side for a few seconds more.

“It’s not,” he grunts. This clock wakes them up every day at 7am. A strange bird emerges from shadows of their room and caws.

“Can you just look, please?”

“No, it’s not behind the cuckoo clock,” Arnold groans. “Listen, there’s nothing here.” Demi pushes in the door. “I bet you anything it was a mouse. What else would climb a curtain then drop down when it spots you? It’ll be a mouse and it’ll be long gone.”

“Okay, fine,” Demi says. After standing and sighing for a minute she takes the gown off and gets into bed.

Arnold moves about the apartment turning plugs off and checking windows. He brushes his teeth while gazing at his phone, spits and heads into the bedroom. Climbs into bed next to Demi. She’s already asleep. She spoons him. As he lies there, Demi’s warm arm wrapped around his chest, he stares at the wall opposite the bed. He looks at the cuckoo clock and at the giant moth stuck to its side as if defying gravity. Arnold looks into the black eyes of the mummy-wrapped thing and it fills him with familiarity and reassurance.