You hear a thud and hope it's just the cat that knocked something over in the kitchen, that the sound wasn't as ominous as you thought. You rationalize that it was probably part of a dream and ignore the tightening in your chest. You push away any fear and convince yourself the sound was just your imagination but the doubt lies under the covers with you like an unwelcome bedfellow, a daddy long leg crawling up your spine so lightly that it feels like hot, warning whispers moving the body hair on the back of your neck.
There is no mistaking the second thud and your head cocks slightly against the pillow before you sit straight up. Your heart is beating faster and harder, so hard that it tries to crawl up your throat and release itself in a non-human whimper. The second floorboard to the left of the hall, the one that always creaks, makes a sound. You know that sound. You've heard it a thousand times but you can't even make out shadows. You curse yourself for buying those blackout curtains as your hand instinctively reaches for your husband, make that your ex-husband, who no longer shares your bed. You can almost hear Rick saying, "You're the one who wanted the divorce. Miss me now?"
You inch out of bed feeling both ridiculous and terrified but certain that footsteps are coming closer and you know the cat is not heavy enough to trigger that creaking sound. You know that. You pull the covers back quietly and slide your feet to the floor folding off the edge of the bed and wriggle under, pulling the lace bedskirt back in place as you inch your way to the center. You pretend that the king-sized bed will protect you; that whoever's out there will not have arms long enough to grab your ankles and rip you out.
You hold your breath and then exhale slowly and quietly into the carpet, scrunching your eyes shut and listening. You never stop listening. The footsteps are in your bedroom and your throat closes and in a matter of seconds you are thrust into one of those 20/20 crime stories you've watched on TV. You cover your mouth, trying to make your shallow breaths quieter, to stifle any uncontrollable screams but your hand is not your own anymore as it shakes beyond your control. No amount of willing it to stop will keep it still, and that leaves you paralyzed.
You can hear his breathing. The air under the bed has become thick, smelling like vomit and bile making it hard for you to breathe. He's standing at the foot of the bed, his worn white tennis shoes violating the innocence of the lace and you ever so quietly try to draw your legs up praying you can somehow be made invisible.
And you wait.
You wait for him to peer under. You wait for his face, for his hands to grab you as you try to prepare to fight but you're not sure if you'll be able to move and you think of the last time you saw your mother and what her face will look like when she gets the news you've been murdered, too afraid to blink because in an instant, he will be upon you and you can't tamp down the fear that winds around your windpipe.
You stare at the black smudge mark on his left shoe that mocks you from the slit between the carpet and the bedskirt and silently prohibit his feet from moving.
But his feet do move.
They move because your cell phone chimes in an email alert; the cell phone you charge across the room because you read somewhere that to leave it too close on the nightstand, next to your head, can cause cancer. You choke back vomit because you know now that he will find you. No one goes out without taking their cell phone. Your eyes search for a weapon but the only thing under your bed are some rolls of Christmas wrap and you suddenly have the bizarre notion that if you can just make out the image on the paper, he will go away. But it's so dark, so damn dark, and panic is running up and down your body like a trapped, rabid wildcat trying to get out.
The drawers of your dresser are pulled out and you can hear the contents being dumped on the floor and know he'll find all the cash you've squirreled away for the past year and a half. It's right there with your underwear and you chastise yourself for entertaining the ludicrous thought that he'll find the white envelope filled with hundreds and twenties and leave. Leave you under this bed. Untouched. Unbroken.
You hear the drawers drop to the ground, on the bed, another slammed against the wall, and the crash makes you recoil and unrelenting tremors rack your body and despite your efforts a tiny, audible sound spills from your lips. Regret hangs in the air and you try not to blink, certain the sound your eyelids will make will be deafening. You can no longer see his feet but the whoosh of his breathing is like a pillow over your face, a knee in your chest, a promise of violence to follow. Watery rattles echo in the room as he mumbles under his breath and sings "Hush Little Baby, Don't You Cry" and you feel like he is singing to you. You know he knows where you are. You can feel it.
He inserts YOUR NAME into the chorus and you go cold instinctively trying to pull your legs up again but they smack the underside of the bed. You lie there, shake your head no and wait because while you internally beg your body to move, it won't. He has control over your limbs, your breath.
You hear his footsteps travel down the hall, away from you, and you wonder if he is getting a knife from the kitchen. You have to make your move. YOU HAVE TO MOVE!
But you can't.
You always thought you'd be the kind of person to perform under pressure but your body is frozen. Your teeth are chattering. Your heart, your breath, your body, your tears are not your own. You lie there, feeling your body convulse with terror and the world spins around you.
You have never been more alone.
The kitchen door slams and the silence feels false, a trick, and you begin to rock back and forth on your side in the fetal position, the only position that provides you any relief and you wait. No sound, just dead air. A stillness that feels alive. A reaper sitting in your bedroom chair smiling, waiting to greet you with a swing of his scythe.
Minutes? Hours? You're not sure how long you wait for a floorboard to creak, a mucous filled breath, a sinister lullaby. Silence fills the room with too much air like a balloon just waiting to pop but you decide you have to crawl to your cell phone. You tell yourself he is gone. You beg God to keep you safe and immediately feel guilty because you know you never give God time of day until you're in trouble. You promise to go to church.
Just keep me safe. Just keep me safe.
You inch out from under the bed slowly, your legs jelly, unable to help you move. You pull with your arms towards the spot where your phone is, feeling the carpet burn on your elbows and stomach, searching blindly.
Then you hear it. Another thud and some Other You enters your body and begins frantically searching, whimpering, crying and muttering. You find the charger cord and follow it only to discover the phone is gone. You hear the word, NOOOO, fly out of your mouth and you sound like a child as you begin to break apart, collapsing, losing.
You swallow back the vomit that threatens, succumbing to the crazy that takes hold. You crawl on all fours down the hall, rabid, a caged animal whose claws grip the carpet, whose teeth clip the air, whose hair and sweat cloud your vision, every shadow escalating your jangled body into a four-legged primal run. Vomit spews from your mouth but you don't stop. Forcing your legs to rise, you turn the doorknob, gagging on the smell of your own liquid fear.
No time now. RUN you scream, commanding yourself. You don't look to see if anyone is waiting. You run, your head down and leading, pretending some kind of invisible shield protects you from the violent blows, the meaty thrusts from hooked knives, the drilling bullets that might cleave fire through your organs, the clanging belt buckle sound that precedes a rape that could rip you in two, all of it, none of it, lurking in the darkness.
You run toward the light, clamor onto the porch, hoping someone will answer. You pummel the neighbor's door. Out of your mouth come animal sounds of terror; screams and sobs. Noises you have never heard yourself make. Noises you have never heard anyone make. You plead eye contact with your neighbor as he cracks the door. Something inside you pushes him with a strength that nearly knocks him flat as you watch your body clamor to gain ground. Call the police, you think you scream a thousand times, feeling a relief that leaves you hugging your knees and thanking God for mercy.
* * *
I knew you'd be home. I'd been watchin' you for months now workin' your noon to eight shift at that hipster salon where you massage strangers with your whory little hands. Girls like you make me sick. Everybody loves that smile, that laugh, but try to get close to you, really get to know you and they'd discover, just like I did, what an icy bitch you really are. Jimmy thinks so too. I wanted to teach you a lesson about what it means to show a little every-goddamn-day kindness but Jimmy said to make it look like a robbery.
I can't believe people around here are still hidin' their house keys under pots, along door frames, inside those rocks made of plastic that wouldn't even fool a shitfaced retard. A few robberies, some smashed car windows and the whole fuckin' neighborhood goes on terrorist watch. You were the one actin' all scared and shit at the Neighborhood Watch Meeting. What a joke. Let's get all the neighbors together and, Can we have a show of hands? Who's home during the day?
All me and Jimmy did was try and talk to you after the meetin', invite you over to throw back a beer but you didn't have the time. Gave us that look you pretty girls use to show how disgusted you are, like us breathin' the same air as you makes your unsliced skin crawl.
When your phone went off, I wanted to laugh out loud. Pretty but stupid, like all the rest. I knew I could just bend down, grab your ankles and yank your skinny ass out from under your lace-covered slut sack, but I gotta say, Jimmy was right, it was much more fun listenin' to you squirm under there.
Jimmy said to leave right away but I got a way of knowin' these things. I could tell just from lookin' at you. So I slammed the kitchen door shut but didn't leave, sweetheart, and sure as shit, it didn't take you long to come crawlin' down that hall, nekkid. I'm right, every goddamn time! It's like I'm psychic or shit! I told Jimmy, "That chick sleeps commando, perked up and ready for action."
You didn't see me walk out the door behind you, watch your sweet, taut flesh sway in the starlight. For a half a second it damn near hypnotized me like them bouncin' sing-a-long balls on kid's shows.
You ran right for it. I mean I wasn't sure if it would work but, I'll be damned if you didn't follow the script just like Jimmy said you would.
So now you know darlin,' what it's like to be neighborly.
Like that old commercial, we left the light on for you.