Watching in the gym is his favorite thing to do because the girls are there and they are always twenty. Twenty when he was forty, twenty when he was fifty, and twenty still even though he’s past sixty with white hair and a tan face and he wears his good khaki shorts with a green shirt tucked in and he looks so neat and trim.
And off he goes past the cardio room where the sorority girls in tank tops and spandex shorts have claimed all the machines, their ponytails bounce, bounce, bouncing and their make-up run-run-running down their cheeks.
Sorority girls mean fraternity boys and fraternity boys mean wild and crazy and big and strong and it’s just no good.
Instead he goes to his quiet spot, the elevated track above the basketball court where they put the retired equipment—a few spin bikes, rowing machines, and treadmills—and he’s nervous as he climbs the stairs, hasn’t been this nervous in a long time, and when he sees her, his heart leaps and his cold hands ice over even more.
For a while now there’s been a girl who waves to him when he goes upstairs to his quiet spot, which he supposes is her quiet spot too, and she waves to him now, this girl with brown hair and brown eyes. She’s on a spin bike, her spin bike, wearing a light blue T-shirt and black shorts and when she waves, she smiles right at him and keeps on pedal-pedal-pedaling.
He likes this girl very much, has liked her for some time, months even, and he didn’t always know how to be patient, no-no-no, but he knows now and he understands it’s for the best, especially with all the ways they can find you these days, the cameras and cell phones and everyone always checking in with everyone else. So he’ll be patient because this girl is important to him, the way she notices him and says hello, and he loves the way she pedals, the way she tilts her head to the side to situate her earbuds just so, the way she smiles, a nice smile just for me, he thinks, and she reminds him of someone, someone he’s met before, one of the others perhaps, with the same soft cheeks and soft lips and soft smile reanimated here and now, her legs spinning round and round.
He thinks about walking over to her there and then, breaking the ice and getting this show on the road, but decides he’ll wait until she’s finished, and pedal, pedal, pedal she goes, and he turns on his radio headphones and walks his laps around the track and pumps his arms and stays fit and trim and he can’t let himself go, because letting yourself go is a sure sign of slipping and he can’t slip, no slipping, never had a single slip-up in all these years, some close calls to be sure—nosy neighbors, unexpected guests—and that had been messy, but never a failure, and he doesn’t plan to start failing now.
The man is getting older and hates the pains and twinges of it, especially the ones in his feet, oh god, his feet sometimes feel as though they’re on fire with white-hot pins and needles, and the only thing he can do to keep himself from blowing off the pair of them with his Remington is to fill his bathtub with ice water and stand in it until he’s numb from the ankles down and he leans his forehead against the cool shower wall tiles, daring himself to nod off and fall and break his neck and that would be it, the whole kit and caboodle ending right there in the rim-stained tub, and he’d finally be free of all this, but no—not yet.
The man also hates what’s become of his mind. Once a sharp tack, it’s now dulled to a nub, making it difficult to remember why he walked into a room, where he left his shoes, which keys go to which shed. He’s forgetful more often, not so much about the old and solid things from years ago—he still has those—but mostly the new and loose things that haven’t had time to harden, so instead of drinking Wild Turkey in the evenings like he used to, the man plays Sudoku and works on logic puzzles, the only glue he has to keep his mind together.
Still, there are days that make his brain feel like cotton, days when he wanders through the house his mother left him and he feels so young, certain that it’s 1978 and he’s about to take his Dodge Aspen out for a cruise to see if he can pick up any hitchhikers, and as he gathers his lunch and thermos and rope and hammer, he catches himself in a mirror, the sight enough to take his breath away. His white hair wispy as dry grass, he’s just a pale shadow of his former self, the young man with jet-black hair, blacker than the devil’s soul his mother used to say, as if she’d known all along, though they never spoke a word of it, just her saying, “How awful, so sad,” whenever the news was on and him nodding along and polishing the silver like she told him to every night, every fucking night, and him not even eating with that silver more than twice in his whole life, how awful, so sad, poor girl, yes, Mama.
The man’s heart is racing and he realizes he’s been clenching his fists as he walks his laps, his fingernails close to drawing blood. He doesn’t like to trouble himself with thoughts of his mother or dwell on the past and so he concentrates on where he is now and the girl on the bike, nice as can be in her own little world, what a pretty little world and he’d like to know what that world is like and maybe the girl will tell him all about it later . . . later.
He pauses his laps and shakes out his legs, bends over, and reaches for his toes, goes as far as he can until his hamstrings feel as though they might snap, shakes them out some more, and continues to walk, pump-pump-pumping his arms, and the track’s not too busy, just a few other white-haired floofs like him, and he tunes the dial on his big radio headphones to sports-talk radio. It’s crispy fall football season and he appreciates the chatter, finds it calming, the back-and-forth of faceless voices as they describe what happened in last week’s big games, what they think will happen this week, who’s been good at moving the ball forward and who’s been good at stopping it, discussing all the possibilities that could unfold within that hundred-yard grid.
The track laps pass soft and steady under his feet with only the slightest pain—it’s a good day—and just as he’s thinking about what a fine day he’s having, he notices that the girl has moved. She’s off the bike now, stretching on one of the blue mats by the seated weight machines, her ponytail grazing her shoulders as she turns this way and that and this way and that, and easy does it, he thinks to himself as he walks toward her with a big smile fixed on his face, him lifting a hand in a wave and her lifting a hand and smiling back and “Hello,” he says, and “Hello,” the girl says, and now here they are, her on the mat and the man standing before her with his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides, but he’s old and harmless and he hopes he reminds her of a grandfather—not hers maybe, but someone’s at least.
“Really starting to feel like fall out there, isn’t it?” he asks.
“Yeah,” the girl says, as she stretches an arm across her chest. “I love the cooler weather.”
“Me too,” the man says, smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling. Easy does it, he reminds himself, not too much—not too soon. “Do I know you from somewhere?” he asks. “We’ve met, haven’t we? I can’t seem to place where, but you look so familiar.”
And he can see the girl wondering what to say and how to say it, because the only place she would know him from is here, and she only waves to him because that’s what she’s been taught to do, the man knows it’s what they’ve all been taught to do—be nice, polite, warm—and then the girl says, “Well, I actually, um—we haven’t met outside of here, so you were right not to remember me from a different place.” The girl offers a nervous laugh, no harm done.
“Oh,” the man says, “I see, I just—I could’ve sworn I’d seen you somewhere else.” The girl nods and the man nods and he continues to stand there, and he can feel the girl wanting to get on with her day, to pop her music back in her ears, to finish stretching, and leave. She has to get to the lab soon, he knows, a full day ahead of her with classes of her own and then TA’ing more classes in the afternoon. In his older age, these girls have become his favorites, the ones who stick to a routine, who are focused and busy and don’t have time to see the bigger picture closing in around them.
The girl keeps nodding and eventually laughs again, another burst of tension to clear the air. “Yeah, no, I just see you here a lot so it seemed like—I guess I wanted to wave since we’re both always here at the same time, and I hope that’s okay.”
The man laughs too, a loud, barking laugh that startles the girl and makes her jump. “Of course it’s okay! Wave all you want, it’s a free country.” And the man chuckles and fidgets with his headphones resting around his neck, lets the silence settle, and thinks to himself, yes, now, do it now, and so he takes a deep breath and the girl is starting to gather her things, he’s going to lose her, and so the man asks, “Are you attached?”
The girl, mid-reach for her gym bag beside her, freezes. She keeps her face averted from the man, tucks a strand of sweaty brown hair behind her ear and looks up at him slowly, and the man can tell he’s gone for it too soon, what a stupid mistake he’s made, so impatient, he can’t just rush into these things like he used to, there’s no such thing as a quick pickup for him anymore.
But the girl doesn’t look upset or angry, only confused. “I’m sorry,” she says, “attached?”
“Are you seeing anyone? Would you like to have coffee with me?”
The girl shifts on the mat, and he can see her trying to hide her surprise, how she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings but also doesn’t want to say yes to him, an old man, and he can feel the heat climbing up his neck, the fuzziness in his head, and he’s trying to control himself, to keep himself from lashing out and ruining all the work he’s done so far, and so he thinks about a pond, the pond beside his mother’s house, which is now his house, and how the surface of that deep, dark pond is one of the most peaceful things you could possibly see.
And finally, “Yes,” the girl says, “yes, I’m attached,” but she isn’t attached to anyone at all, the man knows this—only if you count her microbiology books, she’s become quite attached to those. The man nods and looks at his feet and can’t stomach hearing an excuse, an apology, and he raises his head and sees this is exactly what the girl intends to do. They always have that look—the one that says their mind has become a maze of pillow phrases ready to soften the blow—and he’s not going to let her do that, not today, and so he lets the chill seep into his eyes.
“Don’t lie to me,” the man says in a voice different from the one he used before, a voice from an underground and faraway place, the place he knows how to keep hidden oh-so well, yes, they can ask him all the questions they want, all day long, and his mind is like a light switch—on, off, on, off.
The girl’s cheeks flush and her mouth opens, closes, opens again. “I’m—I’m not lying. I am attached,” she says, and the man is wound so tight, he can feel it, hears the blood beating against his eardrums, rage knocking on his front door, and he knows he’s got to do something before he crosses a line and, off, he thinks and it’s his magic word, the one that always works (except for when he decides to stay on instead) and the man’s voice softens, his face relaxes. “Forgive me,” the man says, evenly, calmly. “It’s just, I see you here a lot and I’ve never seen you with anyone, so I made an assumption.”
The girl gets ready to respond again, but the man cuts in. “It’s okay, really. I’ve been turned down plenty of times and it never hurts to ask.”
The girl nods and the man nods and they both smile. “I’m glad to have met you,” the man says and extends his hand, and the girl, who looks relieved this encounter will soon be over, takes his hand and, “Me too,” she says, letting go almost as soon as they touch.
The girl lives at the top of Henderson Hills in an old farmhouse, all that remains of what was once a thriving dairy farm. It’s a quiet area, surrounded by acres of soybeans and corn, and a little patch of woods she sometimes explores. Her friends ask if she ever gets creeped out, being all alone up there, especially at night with so many things that could be lurking nearby, but the girl likes it—how it’s removed from the parties and chaos of campus, but still close enough that she can hear the marching band play on game nights and drive to class in under fifteen minutes.
More than the location, the girl loves the old house, how it reminds her with its faded cabinets and worn-out windowsills and scuffed hardwood floors to take in the slower moments, to consider the wear and tear that has come before instead of being so focused on what’s next. She imagines what it must have been like living here in the 1950s, with the dairy farm thriving and plenty of manual work to be done each morning, how that kind of work can clear the head—feed the cows, water the cows, milk the cows, clean the cows, make more cows. The girl longs for such sharp priorities, especially in the midst of endless, fruitless hours at the lab, a dissertation she no longer believes in, and a program she’s not quite sure she wants to finish for a career she doesn’t really want to have.
She turns her Camry onto the gravel drive and begins the long uphill ascent, the tires losing purchase every now and then, making the car fishtail slightly. The farmhouse’s gable roof comes into view first, then the round attic window, and finally the entire house as she crests the hill—the sprawling front porch, the graying white siding and trim. The girl parks under the attached carport, kills the engine, and hurries inside.
She hangs her keys on the rack she inherited from her grandparents’ Sarasota condo—painted palm trees, a pelican, and Hang around awhile! stenciled in cheery text across the top of four hooks—and already she feels the stress leaving her body. Tired from her workout this morning, not to mention that odd encounter, and an afternoon spent in class and the lab, the girl is ready to let her mind escape to a world far, far from here, to her Friday night, the night she’s deemed free from all work and worry.
Moments later, she’s in PJs and settled deep in the sofa cushions, a bowl of spicy pork ramen and a tall glass of wine on the coffee table before her. She clicks through dozens of movie titles before selecting a science fiction flick about a group of astronauts in search of a signal sent from deep space. Ah, yes—perfect, the girl thinks.
Outside, the wind picks up. Branches scratch their fingers across the siding, and the old windows rattle and thud inside their frames, making the girl think of loose teeth. She sips her wine and lets the warmth wash through her, over her, unraveling layers of knotted muscles in her neck and shoulders as the opening credits of the movie play over a large desert, steadily zooming in to reveal a line of radio telescopes, receivers pointed toward a starry sky.
A few minutes into the movie, the girl hears tapping against the living room window. Only tree branches, she assures herself. She lifts herself slightly off the cushions, trying to look out the window, but the lights inside create too much of a glare. Just the wind, the girl tells herself once more, and takes another sip of wine.
As the astronauts chart their course, preparing to enter the first of three black holes, the girl can’t delay a bathroom break any longer. She pauses the movie, shrugs off her blanket, runs to the restroom and, afterward, makes a detour to the kitchen for a sleeve of chocolate chip cookies.
The girl hustles back toward the sofa, feeling chilled after being out of her cocoon of blankets, and just as she’s making a mental note to bleed her radiators before true winter sets in, something outside the living room window catches her eye—something dark and shapeless in the grass—but she can’t make it out, the glare of the lights inside are still too much. Munching on a cookie, the girl walks to the window, presses her face close to the pane, and cups the darkness around her eyes.
The moon, full and white, glows down from above, throwing just enough light for her to see the shed where she keeps the lawnmower and, beyond that, the whispery skeletons of soybean stalks. The wind picks up for a moment and one corner of the shapeless and nameless thing in the grass billows. The girl decides it’s probably her grill cover from the back porch—what else could it be?—and that the wind has blown it off—must have been some wind—because the girl always double knots the ties at all four corners, a habit instilled in her by her dad whose tolerance for carelessness is low.
She gives an exasperated sigh, slips on her sandals, and something—maybe it’s being alone atop Henderson Hills, high above town where everything’s dark and quiet—makes her pause, turn on the porchlight, and take a cautious look between the blinds of her front window before opening her door. The empty gravel drive and front lawn blaze back at her—nothing there except for the birdbath her mom insisted they get her from Walmart, something to make her place more “homey.”
Satisfied that the coast is clear, the girl opens the door and steps out into the cold air—colder than she’d thought it would be, the temperature must’ve dropped by ten degrees since this afternoon—and hugs her sweatshirt tightly around her. The girl listens and hears nothing but the distant hum of semis on the interstate, a sound that sometimes comforts her with its steady rhythm and other times makes her feel small and alone in the world. Tonight, it’s a little of both.
The grass, wet with dew, soaks her socks and sandals and turns her toes to ice as she walks toward the object lying in the grass, and she still can’t seem to quiet her nerves, her pounding heart, but the closer she gets, the more certain she is: it’s her grill cover all right. She turns to look back at the house, noting the distance she’s crossed—about twenty feet. How did it get so far out here?
The girl stoops and begins a combination of rolling and folding up the unruly bundle, checking the corners—thankfully there are no tears and the ties are still intact. Time to learn how to tie new knots, she thinks as she continues walking around the side of the house, to the back porch where she’ll secure it on the grill once again, but then she hears something, the slightest sound, like a cracking branch but not quite. More like a click. She thinks it came from somewhere in front of her, toward the back porch, but it’s hard to be certain in the echoey night. She tells herself it’s probably a squirrel or rabbit. They run the show out here, and she’s just along for the ride, but as much as she tells herself squirrel, rabbit, squirrel, rabbit over and over again, she can’t ignore her body’s natural response.
Ears perked, muscles rigid, slight metallic taste beginning at the back of her throat, and a cold stone in her stomach. All warmth from the wine is gone, and her senses snap sharply into focus as she surveys the yard and fields around her. Swish, swish, swish, whisper the stalks, and the girl is clutching the grill cover so hard to her chest, her arms are going stiff.
She looks back at the farmhouse. Bright light spills from the living room window, her home a lantern to the world outside, and it shocks her, how clearly she can see inside—her bookshelf, the kitchen table, and what’s that? A shadow, moving in her house? The girl’s heart rate spikes, makes her feel dizzy, but then—of course, she thinks, and lets out a sigh of relief, her breath making a cloud in front of her. The bulb in her floor lamp has been on the fritz, flickering on and off the last couple of nights. That’s what threw the shadows. She adds lightbulbs to her growing list of mental notes and takes a moment to steel her nerves.
Get a grip, she thinks, there’s no one out here. Still, she decides securing the grill cover can wait until morning and, with that, jogs quickly back to the house and through the front door, closing and locking it behind her in a hurry. Phew. She drops the grill cover to the floor and slides off her sandals in one fluid motion, pulls off her wet socks, and wipes her feet on the welcome mat.
On her TV, the space crew is right where she left them, countless galaxies away. She settles onto the couch, grabs another cookie, and is ready to dig back into the comfort of her night.
Instinctively, she reaches for her phone to see if she’s had any texts—maybe from her mom or sister—but her phone isn’t on the coffee table. Huh, she thinks. She feels for it in the couch cushions but comes up empty-handed, stands up and looks around at the windowsills, the bookshelf, the kitchen table—just piles of textbooks and lab notes. She goes to her bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen. Nothing.
The girl is sure her phone will turn up, but something tugs at her. Hadn’t she texted her sister right when she got home? And dropped it on the coffee table with the same satisfying clunk like always? She shrugs the tugging away, assuring herself her phone’s probably right in front of her and she’s just too tired and has had too much wine to see it.
For now, the girl resumes her Friday night, pressing play on the movie, ready to find out if the astronauts will locate where the pulsating signal has been coming from and, even more important, who or what has been sending it. The girl pulls the blanket to her chin, warms her feet on the sofa cushions, and quickly loses herself in the movie once again.
Suddenly, there’s a loud knock on the girl’s front door, followed by two smaller knocks. The girl jumps, has a moment to think she’s glad she wasn’t holding her wine or she would’ve spent the rest of her night cleaning up a mess, but then that thought is quickly replaced by the fairytale question, Now who could that be?
She pauses the movie quickly, holds her breath, doesn’t move a muscle. I just won’t answer it, she thinks, and then whoever it is will go away.
Still, she can’t imagine who would be coming this late. She checks the clock on the wall. It’s past eleven, and she doesn’t remember making plans with anyone—she wouldn’t forget a thing like that—but maybe it’s someone who’s been texting her, saying they were going to stop by, and of course she would have no idea if that were the case. The girl scans her living room one more time—still no phone.
“Hello?” comes a muffled voice from behind the door. “Hello, is anybody home?”
The girl’s heart thuds against her throat. Though she’s only really heard that voice for the first time today, she knows it’s the man from the gym and, even more, she knows it’s a bad thing he’s here, that nothing good will come of this.
The man knocks again.
The girl crouches on the floor and takes stock of her windows. The front blinds are thankfully closed, but all the man has to do is walk around the side of the house and he’ll be able to look right into the living room window and see her there on the floor, cowering away from him.
She crawls to that window and quickly, quietly lowers the blinds. She tugs a few times, the cheap blinds going wonky then straight, wonky then straight, all the way down like playing red light, green light, red light, green light.
The girl crawls back to her spot behind the sofa, as far away from all of the walls and windows as she can get. There, now, she thinks. She will just sit here and wait for him to go away. Surely, he won’t stay long. It’s cold outside and if she doesn’t answer the door, then the man has to leave. Those are the rules, she thinks.
“Hello?” the man says again. “I’m sorry if I scared you. Today, at the gym,” he offers. “It wasn’t my intention. And I—well, after you left, I saw that you left your phone behind.”
Her phone? At the gym? But she’d used it since then, hadn’t she? She’d been rushing all day, from the gym to class to the lab to groceries and the time, the time—where did the time go?
“I told the nice young man at the front desk,” he explains, “about how I found your phone, and he said he thought you lived out this way.”
Who at the front desk? And how would he know where I live? the girl wonders. Something feels off, not quite right, and the girl senses it in her stomach as she realizes the answer is a simple one: the man is lying.
“I think I have the right place. I recognize your car, that’s yours, isn’t it?” And he says this with the confidence of someone who already knows the answer, someone who isn’t asking a question but rather stating a mutually understood truth, and the girl’s mind is racing, wondering how he knows what her car looks like, how he knows where she lives, if he’s been out here before, wondering about all those times before when she’d felt watched or spooked or had found a leaf placed perfectly on her windshield, a pinecone on her wicker chair, a pretty gemstone in the birdbath.
The man leans against the door and it creaks with his weight, a sound that says this man is patient, he is persistent, he is a cold draft of wind that finds the nooks and crannies in every home. And, inside, the girl is trying to stay as still as possible and not make any noise—maybe he’ll think she went out with friends and grabbed a ride with one of them, which would explain her car being parked in the port.
She scans her apartment, making sure everything is secure, that she is well hidden. Her eyes catch on the living room wall, just before the kitchen. There is a rectangle of wallpaper that stands out, where the flowers are brighter and the cream color creamier, outlining where the old landline phone used to hang. It seems to mock the girl now, this patch, and she imagines the old phone, imagines all the calls it cradled over the years, the conversations with brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents. The calls between lovestruck teenagers, asking each other out for sodas, milkshakes, talking late into the night with the cows asleep outside. The calls with sons and daughters who grew up, moved away. She imagines the calls to the hired hands, the banks, the brokers, the vultures circling and looking for cheap land, the bank again and again, always the bank, and finally the foreclosure. She imagines the phone’s entire existence and tries to will it into being, wishing it here into the physical world, come back, I need you.
A knock on the door brings the girl back to her reality. Two solid thunk, thunks.
“I know you’re there,” the man says. “I promise—I’m harmless. I just want to give you your phone.” He laughs a little, that same chuckle the girl remembers from the gym. “And it’s cold out here. I’d like to go home myself, so if you don’t mind—” The man jiggles the door handle.
“Leave it!” the girl yells. It comes out more as a scream, which she’d hoped to avoid, but there it was. All the cards on the table. Her: terrified. Him: cool as a cucumber. She clears her throat and touches her forehead, willing herself not to panic. Maybe she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion and this man is actually harmless and trying to do a good deed, but then what about her instincts? What about all the alarms going off in her body, every single one of them a flaming billboard screaming FUCK NO. She tries to sound as calm as possible. “Please, I mean, just leave it on the porch.”
“I’d hate to do that,” the man says. “There’s a lot of frost out here and it could get wet. I can hand it to you. Just open the door.”
“I’d rather not,” she calls back, her voice still shaky. “Please just leave it. I appreciate you picking it up—thank you.”
The man sighs. “Leave it? But, I’m a friend, aren’t I? We know each other. I see you almost every day.” He takes a deep breath of the crisp, country air. He does it loudly—breathe in, breathe out. “It sure does smell good out here, far away from everything.” The girl hears him sit down on the creaky wicker chair, making himself comfortable. “I remember this farm,” the man continues, “and I remember the Hendersons. Good people, nice family.”
The girl is still crouched behind the couch. Her breath is short and she’s sweating profusely, the armpits of her sweatshirt growing damp.
The man taps against something on the porch, ticking off the seconds. “Do you like living way out here? It doesn’t give you the willies or anything? It can get creepy out this-a-way, let me tell ya that.”
As the man talks, the girl crawls through the living room to the kitchen, pulls a carving knife from the butcher block. On her way, she glimpses a stack of binders on the floor, lab notes and student grades, something that seems a million miles away right now, just like her classes and exams and dissertation and her—My laptop! Oh my god, my laptop! I’ll message someone for help!
Her heart pounding, the girl army crawls to her backpack by the front door, the man saying something about polishing silver, right arm, left arm, right arm, left arm, and the girl with the knife still clutched in her hand.
Her other hand now on her backpack, unzipping it slowly, quietly, her palms slicked with sweat as she pulls the cold, thin laptop from its sleeve, opens it and waits for it to come to life so she can enter her password. Her hands are rigid and shaking and she can’t seem to steady them enough and WRONG PASSWORD and WRONG PASSWORD and don’t get locked out now, she thinks, and she’s so focused that she doesn’t realize the silence that’s fallen, her front porch eerily quiet.
The wind whips across bare branches outside, sends them skittering across the house’s siding. A hollow howl follows, playing across the empty fields and under the eaves. Then, the girl hears something rattling—something metal, the sound carrying across the kitchen to the living room, to the girl on the floor by the front door who sees the man’s thin shadow in the glow of the back porchlight, the jiggling doorknob.
She sucks in a quick breath. “Please, please, please,” she says to her laptop, tapping her fingers just above the keys as her password loads, and suddenly her desktop appears and the girl clicks on her browser, loads her profile, her timeline, typing the most insane thing she’s ever typed: PLEASE HELP! INTRUDER BREAKING INTO MY HOME! SEND POLICE TO 11800 COUNTY ROAD 51, MURPHYSBORO, IL! The girl prays someone, anyone—a high school acquaintance she hasn’t spoken to in five years, someone from her PhD cohort, an old soccer coach, her aunt in Des Moines, ANYONE—will see it and send help.
Then, she hears a sound so haunting, so straight-from-a-nightmare the girl knows that if she makes it through this night, she will always remember this sound: metal against metal, the sound of the back door bolt sliding out of its locked position.
No! The girl’s eyes dart to the key rack—Hang around awhile!—and her keys are no longer there because the man is a slippery man who circles and watches and waits and circles and hunts until the time is right and he’s been watching for awhile, the girl realizes, and how could she have been so blind, but there’s no time to think about that now, and on her laptop, the comments are already pouring in:
Are you okay!?
OMFG is this for reeeaaaalll?!?!
I’m calling the police! Tell me if this is a joke NOW!
Oh my god! Please be safe!
And the girl slams her laptop shut, hugs it to her chest with her left arm, the carving knife in her right hand and she’s running up the worn stairs, tripping, catching herself, and she’s jumping for the attic door string hanging from the ceiling, missing, jumping, yanking it, her brain screaming at her to hurry, hurry, hurry! and she’s unfolding the old wooden ladder to the attic, listening as the back door suctions open and then closed again, the deadbolt sliding back into place.
The girl climbs carefully and quickly, shifting her laptop to her right arm with the knife still in hand, using only her left hand to climb as she leans most of her weight forward on the inclined ladder.
“Helllloooo!” the man calls, his voice sing-songy as it moves through the house. “Where are you?”
On shaky legs the girl clears the last step of the ladder, turns around on her hands and knees, tries to pull up the ladder as quietly as she can, listening for sirens in the distance but all she hears are heavy boots in the kitchen, the living room, starting up the stairs. The ladder hinges are rusty and the girl’s never raised the ladder from up here, it’s harder than she’d thought, and the man is climbing, climbing, climbing the stairs, and the house is quiet except for his footsteps and the squeak of the protesting hinges and the girl is straining and then there he is—at the top of the stairs. The man, waving to her. The girl, waving back, carving knife in hand.
Janelle Blasdel lives in Chicago where she works as an ad copywriter and performs improv and sketch comedy throughout the city. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Slackjaw, Points in Case, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Main Street Rag. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. You can find her on Twitter at @janelleblasdel.