User Review( votes)
written by: J.D.G Perldeiner
The house was unassuming. It looked like all the other houses on the block, save for the fact that the lawn was badly overgrown and there were vines crawling up beneath the aluminum. Its occupants, if there were any, never introduced themselves to the neighborhood. Sometimes, a red pickup could be seen in the driveway, but no one ever saw it come and no one ever saw it leave. Folks figured that whoever owned it and lived in the place must work third shift. Graveyard shift. Come and go in the odd hours of the day and night, when other, normal, people were asleep. Still, no one stayed up late enough or surveilled early enough to catch it in motion. Some days it was there, some days it was gone.
The house was a deep aqua, deeper because of the eternal dusk of the property. Three pines and a dogwood darkened the plot with their shade even at the highest of summer noons. If the house had been a Victorian, or an Edwardian, the neighbor kids would have scared each other with stories of how the place was haunted, how there had been some crazed old man who built it or a widow. But the house hadn’t been built in the 1800s, it was built in the ‘80s, and it didn’t stand out, didn’t feel outre, or Gothic, or bizarre. From the street, it was just badly kept up.
People tended to forget about the house until they were driving by it. It was as though, to the rest of the world, it didn’t exist.
It was a cold afternoon in October when Jessica Pahl walked by the house and saw, for the first time, someone tending to it. He was a big man, with broad shoulders, wearing a torn polo shirt and jeans. She saw his heavy engineer’s boots and decided somewhere in the back of her mind that he made a kind of sense. He was weeding in the thicket of the lawn on his hands and knees. The street was bright, but the lawn was dim. It was as if a gauzy veil had been drawn across the property, stretching from the sidewalk to the front door. The dilapidated tiles poked up above the tree line, a handful of them glistening in the fast-dying sunlight near the roof’s peak.
Relegating the wide back of the weeding man into the world of things that made sense, things that need not worry her, Jessica continued on her way. It was rare for anyone to be walking at this time of day: most people were at home, eating, or else driving back from work. Jessica had decided to walk to and from the gas station to get some milk when she discovered she was out. Having just come home from work, and feeling the crisp air, she decided to walk. Why not? She didn’t have to admit to anyone but herself that the milk was to eat with Lucky Charms. She lived alone, she didn’t have to justify anything. She’d bought them in a fit of pique in the store the week before. So what if she was a grown adult? So, thinking guiltily of the cereal, she set out on foot to the gas station.
It wasn’t far, there and back, across the suburban blocks.
She was thinking of the Lucky Charms when she felt the presence looming near her. She was swathed in a sudden chill, the sunlight turned to shadow.
“Oh,” she said, turning. The man weeding the front lawn was now standing right next to her. He didn’t step onto the sidewalk, but rather stood right at the edge of the property. There was something strange and totemic about that, as though he were forbidden from passing over some hidden boundary.
He smiled. He had a hard, sun-worn face, with big cheeks and twinkling eyes. His arms were swathed in tattoos that crawled all the way up beneath his shirt. “Hi,” he said, “Couldn’t help notice you were out walking alone.” His tone was pleasant, his smile alluring, but something about him made Jessica want to pick up the pace.
Instead, she did the polite thing: she stopped and talked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before,” she said.
“I own the place,” said the stranger, jerking his thumb at the house behind. “But I also own my own tree-trimming business, so I guess I’m busy most days.” He paused. There was an awkward silence. Just as Jessica was getting ready to make a throat noise and start walking, he added, “No one around.”
“Nothing,” he said. Then he grabbed her wrist. She had always thought that when something like this happened when someone actually touched her, assaulted her, she would do something. She would spit, curse, kick. She didn’t do any of that. Her keys were in her pockets, not between her fingers, and she couldn’t get leverage to kick the stranger in the groin. What she did was make a disgusted face, wrinkle up her nose, curl her lip, and twist her head away. The milk fell from her nerveless fingers and burst open on the sidewalk. But the stranger, the stranger who had lived in this house in Jessica’s midst for years, the stranger had a grip like an iron vice. He pulled her toward the house.
Her feet skidded over the concrete and she began to scream. It was a wordless thing, not so much panicked as unthinking, a pure brain-stem response. She turned the howl into a cry for help, hammering the sounds into shapes. “HEY! HEY!” she shouted. Her feet kicked the turf. The lawn suddenly seemed enormous. It grew as he pulled her, unrolling like a grassy carpet, waist-high reeds beating at her hips. She was a tethered animal, trapped by the leash of her arm.
Across that vast open space that seemed to grow wider each moment, Jessica looked up to the house. The stranger was pulling her to the door. She was thrown back to her childhood. The windows of the house were more than simple casements: they were eyes. They stared blankly and menacingly, deep shadow lurking beneath. “HEY!” It filled her perception. The door was a mouth, closed but calling. Step by halting step, she drew closer. The knob gleamed. The house was watching. It waited there, waiting to open its maw to draw her inside. The stranger, his back rippling, reached out and opened it.
The far side was a black abyss.
“HEY! HEY!” she screamed. “LET GO!”
Something pulled at her, a dark wind. It was something other than the stranger, something deep, and primal, and black. It swirled around her legs, lifted up her feet, drawing her to follow. She didn’t want to go but was compelled. She stumbled forward.
She stopped at the frame. The interior of the house was blank nothingness. It could have been a fall straight down, for all she knew. She was looking into a black hole.
Her sneakers caught on the lip of the door; they skidded over.
The house swallowed her.
Things happened in the dark. There was a gap, an empty space, a non-place that Jessica was forced to traverse before she could return to life. Deprived of sight, she relied on other senses. She had trouble understanding some of the things she felt. The tight, abrasive pain of the ropes: she knew that. Her wrists were bound. She knew that. She was treated roughly, and by many hands, but she didn’t know how many. Was it just the stranger from the yard, or were there others? Where the stranger - the Man, now, she could hardly call someone so intimate as a kidnapper a stranger - where the Man had clenched her wrist, the pressure of her bindings produced a terrific blossom of pain. Had something broken? Bone ground against bone.
She was taken (led?) down a steep flight of stairs. Her hands were thrust behind her. Something cold and hard-pressed into her back: a pipe, column, or support beam. There followed another merciful gap. She swam in the darkness, unable to track time, unable to associate herself in space. It was as though the person that was Jessica had been set free from her moorings. Even as her body was bound, she was adrift, lost, forgotten. Maybe she slept. Her body ached with the tension of fear. In the moments that her self-hood returned to her, the muscles of her neck and back were taut like cords of wire.
Life returned with the light. A single bulb, a brilliant disc hanging from a length of twine, bobbed in midair. The Man was there beneath it. He had a disturbingly peaceful smile painted on his rough, sun-baked face. In his hands, he carried a white ceramic bowl. She squirmed when he knelt at her feet.
She was in a basement. The walls were suffused with the smell of wet mortar and rotting stone. Beads of condensation rolled down the cement. The floor was unfinished dirt, the stairway a simple wooden affair that framed a shelf filled with the detritus of a lifetime. There were glass jars, gas cans, cardboard boxes filled with books. On the ground, an old printer spilled its cords on the earth like a gutted animal. There were windows, small ones, up near the ceiling, but they were covered with thick blackout curtains. Of course.
The bowl, the one the man was holding, was filled with milk and cereal. Cereal. Not Lucky Charms, but cereal alone was enough to send a shiver up her spine. How had he known? “You need to eat,” the man urged. He scooped dissolving wheat and honey into the spoon and held it toward her. Had he been watching her? It made a sort of sense if the Man had been planning on kidnapping her. Maybe this wasn’t a random act. Maybe he’d been getting ready for this for a while. Those nights when she thought she saw movement in her window, or out of the corner of her eye. Had he been spying from the bushes, creeping through her garden, watching her eat… cereal in the afternoons?
He watched her work through this with a sad, almost conciliatory expression. As though they were both in this together, as though this weren’t something he’d done to her.
She kicked and shimmied, trying to move around the pipe to get away. The Man rocked back on his knees, frowning, as her jarring feet shot past him. A stray heel somehow struck the spoon in his hand. It spun off into the shadows, landing with a clatter. The Man put down the bowl and rose to retrieve it. The look of concern on his face was so incongruous that a jolt of strength ran through her: maybe she could actually get away. She redoubled her efforts, and a second kick toppled the little white bowl. The hungry earth drank the milk where it spilled, leaving behind only a broad, wet, stain.
Every thrust, every twist, turned the knots wound around her wrists tighter. They didn’t loosen when she stopped. They only went in one direction, crushing the fragile bones into an ever-smaller space. The pain was too great. She slumped back, her breath coming in shallow gasps.
The Man jogged back across the basement to her side. He shook his head. “Not off to a great start, Jessica,” he said. Despite herself, despite the pain coursing through her arms as she hung in place, she started to laugh. Not that this man knew her name - that was terrifying. No, the idea that their… relationship (or whatever this fucked-up condition between them was), the idea that any kind of rocky start was on her account, and not because she’d been hauled bodily off the street by this person—it was absurd. She couldn’t do anything but laugh.
It poured out of some deep, hidden well. It was dark, bubbling up uncontrollably. Its tones were fringed with wild hysteria. Nor could she control it, or suppress it. Trying to stop was like trying to stem a fire hydrant with a bottle cap. Her shoulders shook. Tears poured down her cheeks.
The Man was struck dumb with surprise. He stood there, spoon in hand, watching her heave with laughter on the verge of desperation, listening to the raw and ragged edge to her voice. After a moment, as though sharing the source of the joke, he joined in. Unlike Jessica, his laughter was pure and unhurried, without the shadow of dread that dogged her own.
Her voice climbed, register after register. She swung, now loosely, from the pole to which she had been tied. Her wrists ground together and she could almost feel the chips of bone, like sharp flint, gliding beneath the skin. She imagined them slashing into her muscles, roving sewing needles. The thought only caused more pained, choking, laughter to dribble from her lips. She knew she was out of control, but didn’t care. Why should she? In or out, she was trapped in a basement with a strange man who undoubtedly wanted to kill her and probably planned on raping her first. And for what? Getting a jug of milk from the corner. Crying over spilled milk. That was funny, too. More laughter, gales of laughter, entire hurricanes of it, and the man’s voice joining in.
But what was that? Something, something outside, beyond the narrow windows with their thick black curtains, beyond the lawn where the Man had been manicuring his plants, on the other side of the sidewalk, it was… A car! Someone was coming home. Was it that time of night? This could be her chance!
All at once, the laughter changed inside her. Its source, someplace by her heart, began to quiver. Her eyes darted around the basement again: glass jars, printer, gas cans, boxes, a long-handled pair of gardening shears, a band saw, the Man laughing, a microwave with a broken faceplate, an Apple II half-buried in unspooled magnetic tape, the Man laughing, a straight razor hanging from a beam, an enormous pipe wrench, the Man laughing, the bare bulb, the Man laughing, the Man laughing, the Man laughing…
She had to escape. The laugh became a scream. As forceful and unstoppable as the laughter had been, when it gave way to the wailing horror beneath, there was nothing she could do to control it. The sound drowned out the car, drowned out the man’s laughter. She watched as a frown spread across his face and his smile died. He folded his arms and watched. Everything in her was crying out now, every cell was howling. She screamed until bloody flecks speckled her lips. Veins bulged on her neck, a cramp started in her throat, and her wrist throbbed with pain. The scream came from the very root of her. It was a hammer swung not only at the Man, at the pipe, at her bonds and the house, but at every powerless minute of her life, every day where she, Jessica, had been smashed down beneath the inscrutable thumb of another.
At last, at long, long, last, her shriek faded. When even its echoes had been swallowed by the crumbling basement walls, the Man breathed a soft sigh. “They can’t hear you,” he said. His voice was sad, like a teacher gently scolding a backwards student. “We’re well set back from the road.”
Then, he picked up the pipe wrench, walked to her, and swung.
He was kind to her while she healed. She was brought up out of the basement and left handcuffed in an upstairs bedroom. It smelled of spoiled perfume and dead flowers. The whorls and scrolls of vegetal wallpaper shone in the daylight as a lurid yellow and glistened at night in a bilious, otherworldly hue. He helped her to the bathroom and closed her in when she needed to go. He got her food, even asking her what kind she wanted when she could eat solids again. He was a deft hand with gauze, and never withheld medicine to help manage her pain. He was surprisingly, horribly, gentle.
The only time that changed was on Halloween. The neighborhood was lit up and she could see, through one of the low browed windows, the other houses, distant as remote islands, lively as campfires. The Man’s house was drawn back behind its protective shadow of trees but, to Jessica’s lasting surprise, he lit the front and kept the downstairs lights going all night. He apologized profusely to her for the pain it caused her broken jaw before he did it, but for the remainder of that evening, Jessica was gagged with a choking fist of cloth. She watched children and their guardian parents come and go below. The Man handed out candy. He was the smiling example of the perfect neighbor.
She imagined what it was like for those children who came to the man’s house: a real Halloween treat. Here was a mysterious, secluded house well back from the street with a real ghost in the upstairs window. She had become a spirit, haunting the bedroom, a barely-seen shadow moving against the darkness behind her. She moaned periodically, both from pain and in the hope someone would hear. A teenage Dracula peered up at the window for a long time, but he, like everyone else, eventually went on his way. She couldn’t even pull herself free to knock her forehead against the glass.
When winter came, the Man spent less time in the house with her. Months confined to bed rest had sprouted sores on her sides and given her a wobbly gait. There was no one to miss her, so she couldn’t wait to be discovered. Her sister was the last surviving member of her close family. She saw her once a year, around Thanksgiving. Her coworkers would barely register she’d been gone. God, she thought, no one will even realize I’m dead.
The first time the Man left her alone and unbound, she shot out of bed and immediately fell face-first into the nightstand. For hours, she struggled on the floor, reaching for even the edge of a doily above, but could not rise. Her thoughts flowed back to that first meeting in the basement, the milk and cheerios, and she wondered if he’d been drugging her. How else could he be so certain he could leave her unguarded?
He found her on the floor when he got back from work, hours later. He helped her back into the bed, softly chastised her for pushing herself too far. “You’re still recovering,” he said, and left her a cup of tea. She let it go cold on the bureau.
Next time, she managed to work herself out of bed by leveraging the strength that remained in her arms. She got herself to the phone with much swearing and grunting. When she put it to her ear she was somehow not surprised to find the line was dead. The time after that, she didn’t even bother to get up. As a reward, when he returned, the Man wheeled a television into her room and gave her the remote.
The day the officer came to the door, the whole town was blanketed in snow. Winter Storm Europa had dumped twenty inches the night before in a near white-out. She had watched it coming down, wondering if she would ever see the outside from the outside again. Her melancholy was growing worse. She exercised her legs every day when the man lef, and tried to keep from sitting in one position. The day a sore tore and bled into the blanket, he’d changed the sheets and effusively promised to get a hospital bed for her, but that had yet to come. He still hadn’t touched her. Except for the occasional threat of violent retaliation should she try to get attention, he’d been… kind? No, kind was the wrong word, kind people didn’t do this. Gentle. That term again. Gentle to her. People were gentle with the infirm and with small animals, hunters might be gentle with prey. That was what she was to him: a prey beast, something to stalk, and kill, and eat. She wondered when the killing would come, and what the eating would look like.
She had grown to hate the room with the yellow wallpaper. Her legs were getting stronger again, but they weren’t ready yet for a full flight. When the officer showed up at the house, she was wearily making her way to and from the bathroom. If the Man came home and saw that she’d been to the bathroom he’d be suspicious, but not dangerous. It was only when she tried to go downstairs, or outside, or (god forbid) to throw something through a window, that he changed. When the Man changed it could be slow, or lightning quick. She’d learned the things that caused him to change, and tried not to do them anymore, at least not where he could see.
If there was something disturbed in another part of the house, that would set him off. She wasn’t supposed to go downstairs. Upstairs was iffy, too, but usually safe. The only really safe places were the bathroom and the room with the yellow wallpaper. When he discovered the broken vase and the splintered back window, he locked her in a closet for four days running. She’d been forced to eat, shit, and piss in that tiny space until her nostrils stung with ammonia and her eyes were red with tears. Something like that hadn’t happened in a long time. She was saving her strength.
The damn police officer caught her off guard, though. That, she hadn’t counted on.
She first realized someone was approaching the house when she heard footsteps cracking through the icy scum on the snow. She was in the yellow bedroom (of course), and levered herself up to peer through the window. It was as though the house itself had designs to keep her prisoner. Her hand slipped on the freezing glass. She almost expected to find a layer of skin adhered to it, held tight by the ice.
Police. Help. The words flashed through her mind like a blazing fuse. At first she closed her fist and struck the window. It was a weak patter, something the officer below surely couldn’t hear. She stared at the brim of his hat, pulled low over his face, willing him to look up at the window. He was as insensible to her psychic pleading as she expected.
She turned off the TV and pried herself out of bed. Her feet hit the carpet. She didn’t topple. Not bad. The exercises were paying off. The cop was walking toward the house. She needed to make it down to the front step before he pulled away in his cruiser. This might be her only chance to get out of here before the hammer fell. She struggled to the upstairs hall, her legs wobbling in worrisome patterns. She imagined the terrors the Man had in store: not just a figurative, but a literal hammer. She pictured him smashing her in the face with a ball peen until she was spitting out teeth. She wondered if he’d pull her nails out by the root, or break all her fingers, or maybe he’d just do something simple and take those gas cans from downstairs, douse her tattered clothes in fuel, and watch her burn.
Police. Help. She made it to the top of the stairs. Was that the sound of the man’s red truck pulling into the driveway? No, she couldn’t think that way, she had to have hope, had to make it down—She slipped and tumbled a few steps. Her legs were still weak. Her knees had buckled, her hands slipped, and she was now wedged in the stairwell. It was a tight descent. She imagined the officer just outside. He might be peering in the ground floor windows, trying to discover what had made that thump. She wondered if her voice still worked if she could shout through the pain in her jaw.
Well, what the hell. She tried it. Her voice was a hollow croak, but she forced it to form words. “Hey! Help! Help me! I’m in here!” she called. Each cry rasped in her lungs.
On her feet again, she thundered and bumped the rest of the way down the staircase. It took all her breath to reach the front door. The knob taunted her. She could remember (but now only vaguely) what it looked like on the outside all those months ago. She fumbled for it. From the far side, she heard the cop responding to her. “Hello?” his muffled voice was saying, “Is there someone there?”
“Yes!” she said. Tears were coursing down her cheeks. Her fingers nervelessly gripped the doorknob and pulled. Locked! Stupid! Of course, it would be! She shot the bolt. “Wait! Don’t leave!” The thought of the officer abandoning her now, when she was only a thin plank of wood away, was more than she could bear. She yanked the door open.
The officer stared back, but there was no surprise on his face. “Oh, honey,” said the man quietly, “didn’t I warn you to be good?”
She took a step back.
The red truck was peeking around the corner. There was no cruiser. “Stay quiet,” said the Man. “Stay quiet, and you stay safe.” He had the pipe wrench in his hand.
By the end of Spring, she almost had the use of her arm back. It was still sore from time to time, but at least her jaw had healed. And she’d learned something new. He had friends. He had friends in high places, friends in low places. There was no way out that didn’t go through Him.
He trusted her to serve Him now. Food was delivered by order and wound up in the driveway every week. She went out to get it, but only at night. He watched from the yellow bedroom to make sure she didn’t take off. She had almost tried, once, but then she remembered the pain of the pipe wrench and the face of that cop leering down into hers. Instead of bolting into the dark she took the groceries in.
She had become his cook and helpmate. She spent hours cleaning the house, limping from room to room with a broom and dustpan. He seemed impossible dirty. Every room had a track of grime. He left garbage behind him wherever he went: dirty plates, wrappers, teabags, coffee-stained mugs, you name it.
At least he wasn’t in a hurry to kill her. He could have done it at any time. She was beaten now or appeared beaten, so she often wondered if she would even resist. She taunted herself each night with the image of the Man coming with an ax instead of a wrench, or else deciding this time he wasn’t going to break something like a lesson, he was going to break everything once and for all. Her body had learned, quite without any input from her, to cringe whenever He was near. The sound of His step was enough to tighten her fists and clench the muscles of her back. The rumor of His coming was tectonic.
There was still one thing she could do. She told this to herself on many nights when she was preparing his food. The kitchen was simple, out of date, and worn down. She stood over a gas stove frying vegetables picked up from night-time asphalt and watched the flame lick the bottom of the cast-iron pan. One night, at Spring’s end, when the windows were open and the Man was passed out in the other room, she had a thought. It was a one-word thought. The word was: glass.
Glass. When she was little, Jessica’s older sister had broken a window in their house. The shattered glass lay on the kitchen floor. Its shards were brilliant, delightful jacks: spikes of glimmering ice. She was only two or three, some age when the knowledge of elemental dangers hasn’t yet set in. Though she didn’t remember it, or half-remembered it, or had been taught to create the memory by later stories, she, Jessica, apparently tried to eat it. Why not? It looked like ice. Jenny liked to tell that story at family gatherings. It always ended with: “You could have died!” That look of smug satisfaction on her face as she described the way mom had rushed Jessica to the hospital. “They thought you ate it!”
So, there was that. The idea banged around her head while she cooked. You could grind up glass very fine. The Man might not be able to see it. Hide it in something soft so that the first time he knew it was there was when it was tearing up his guts. Yes, glass. That might do it.
To get the glass and prepare it, Jessica had to wait until the Man was out. This wasn’t hard. He was gone for most of the daylight hours. If He had people watching the house, they weren’t anywhere Jessica could see them. Besides, the back yard was shielded by high wooden fences, so no one would pry into the kitchen as she did her work. How to procure the glass? The Man would notice if any of His drinking glasses were gone. Jessica knew this from experience. She’d accidentally broken a bowl once, back when her arm was still in a sling, and He’d lost His mind.
The basement. When she’d been held down there, in the beginning, she hadn’t been able to stop looking at the bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Light bulbs were wafer-thin. That glass should be easy to pound into dust. She just needed enough. She didn’t dare go down and fill a pillowcase with them right away. She had to make sure He didn’t keep a record of those too. There was only one thing worse than staying trapped in this house and that was failing to escape, failing in a way that He knew. The punishment would be more severe than anything He’d doled out so far. She knew that in her aching bones.
What then? She could wait. She could wait until a bulb burned out and, instead of throwing it into the trash she could break it into shards, pound it into dust, and hide that dust in a twist of a dishcloth. How long would that take? Years. It would be years before she had enough. They would burn out one by one, and in that time she’d lose a tooth here, an eye there. No. But she could make them burn out. Let Him see broken filaments. Shake the bulb hard when it was hot, and there was a good chance the filament would snap. There was some risk, sure. He might check the garbage for the missing bulbs. There was a risk in everything. She had no choice.
It was a stormy July evening when Jessica served the glass. This was the last meal the Man wanted her to prepare. “The strain is getting to be too much on you,” He rumbled. “Just stick to making your own food from now on. I’ll eat out.”
This sent a chill of terror into her heart. She wasn’t ready to make His last meal. She had been saving glass for months, a bulb at a time, and she only had a few small handfuls of dust. The panic was immediate and sharp. If she didn’t do it now, tonight, she would never have the chance again. The dishcloth full of glass dust was hidden in her bed, tucked down between the mattress and the box spring.
How to get upstairs without arousing His suspicion? If things went wrong now, she would surely meet whatever end He had planned for her. Feigning a spill, she called out that she would be just a minute to change her shirt. He was slumped on the couch with the baleful light of the television spilling across His threatening frame. It made Him look less dangerous the way a sleeping predator was less dangerous: tense, waiting, not de-fanged. He could snap into a whirlwind of violent motion at any moment.
He ignored her, let her go upstairs and find her secret weapon. The rag was precious and she had to carry it with care. She wrapped it in the fringe of her shirt and twisted that so it would sit below her waistline, safely tucked into her pants. Tonight, she told herself. Tonight.
The endless rain cut her off from the world. It transformed the house, far apart from the rest of mankind. No one could hear her. No one would come. She jumped at every bang of thunder. Would He realize there was something wrong with the potatoes? She chose the softest substance to hide the glass, distributing it evenly through his portion. There wasn’t much, just a few finger lengths of powder she’d managed to produce. Would it be enough? If it merely inconvenienced Him, sent Him to the hospital where He learned He’d been the target of an attack, then she was dead.
But no, there was nothing. He didn’t so much as flinch. She began to doubt she’d ever put the glass in the food. She checked after dinner, to see if the rag was in the garbage, but she saw she’d left it on the counter. Her heart stopped. Had she dreamed it? No, looking closer: the glittering field of stars on its surface that spoke of glass fragments still left behind.
He grumbled about work, shouldered through the back door, and went out into the storm.
Jessica didn’t see the man again after that. She sometimes heard Him moving around upstairs, and His red truck certainly stayed in the driveway. She became increasingly certain that the glass had been a hallucination or a dream. The rag was gone. She threw it out after He left so there would be no evidence of her crime. Without the rag in which she’d stored it, she began to doubt she’d ever even made the attempt.
He is here, she would tell herself, whenever she heard a tread on the stair or the sound of feet on the first floor. He’s home again. One night she stayed up watching His truck to see if it would move. It never did. Her eyes were bleary when she fell asleep at dawn.
There was a strange hummock out in the back. She wondered if it was something He’d brought to torture her with. If so, He must have forgotten about it. It was a big lump near the woodshed covered with a tarp. From time to time she thought she saw a boot sticking out from underneath it, or a pale bit of flesh, but she convinced herself that was just her imagination. Besides, why would He put a body out where it could be found like that? Just to frighten her? And why did it sometimes look as though, instead of being carefully laid out, it had simply fallen there and clutched at the tarp as it fell? She tried not to think about it. It made a crawling feeling filled her stomach like it was full of grave worms.
There were days she dreamed that the man had died. In her dreams, he ate a fatal load of glass and staggered out into the rain, puking blood. Sometimes, in those dreams, he collapsed at the foot of the woodpile and grasped for the tarp. It came off, slithery with water, and covered him. Other days, she dreamed she’d fed herself the glass by accident. Put it into the wrong plate, maybe. Or else, it wasn’t an accident: it was a way out. More than once she woke herself up with breathy screams and a slick feeling of moisture on her belly and between her legs.
He became less demanding, less of a threat and more of a vaporous presence throughout the house. He made sure never to enter a room she was in. Something had changed. Maybe, she thought, just maybe, He was afraid of her now. Just a little. Maybe He’d found out about the glass. He didn’t let her go, but nor did He raise a hand to her again. Only the ghostly reminder of His presence remained. A shadow from another room, the sound of soft breathing, the opening, and closing of doors.
With Halloween approaching, Jessica went into the pantry and filled the baskets with candy. “Do you want me to leave them for the kids to get?” she asked the empty house. The Man did not answer, except to softly stir in his room upstairs. His reply was so faint, it could have been the wind.
“So should I do it myself?” Nothing. That was a yes.
When the night came, she turned on the outside lights. The house would be, for one evening at least, inviting. She smiled at the kids in their ghostbuster costumes and gave out the fun-sized Snickers. She thought vaguely of leaving, or of grabbing a parent by the shoulders and shrieking at them. Her mind fluttered like a pinioned bird. She didn’t do any of that. She heard Him walking around upstairs. She couldn’t risk making Him angry again. She still couldn’t leave. He was immortal. He’d survived the glass. There was nothing that could stop him now.
The last children were swallowed up by the night. She sat for a long time in the living room, her head in her hands. She couldn’t leave. He was just around the corner, waiting for her. But there was something else down in the basement, something other than glass, something she’d thought of before, though never in quite this way. The gas cans. If the man could not be killed, perhaps, at least…
She stood in the darkness. It was her cloak. He wouldn’t come down while she was here, she knew that from the long silences that had engulfed the house these past months. She’d stuffed rags into couch cushions. The smell of gas wafted up and made her light-headed. She wanted to faint, to give way to the shadowy silence that oozed from the walls and the floor. The matches rattled in her trembling hands.
Somewhere upstairs, the Man was moving.