|“Get out of the house.” I
awoke to a blackness so thick I feared I was blind, as if I were buried
alive. I sat straight up not knowing where I was, the whisper still echoing
in my head. My heart was hammering. I didn't realize I was holding my
breath until I exhaled, lungs burning. I strained my eyes and ears against
the dark, desperate to hear the whispered warning again. The voice was
one I recognized.
I reached my hands out and felt the floor around me, covers wadded up, a pillow where my head had been, a palette on the floor-something you do when company comes over. Memories began to crash into my consciousness: the funeral, her few friends dressed in black, the smell of carnations sharp in my nose, and the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance as my grandmother’s body descended slowly into the ground.
I was at my grandmother’s house. Unable to sleep in her deathbed, I had made this palette on the floor. Crawling to the wall with the light switch, I smiled weakly into the blackness. Thirty-three years old and afraid of the dark. Call me chicken.
"Bawk bawk." The whisper sounded muffled in the dark.
I held out my hand, hoping to avoid a collision between my head and the wall, as I made my way across the room. I felt the footstool ahead of me and knew I was headed in the right direction. Footstool, rocker, magazine stand, wall. Wall, then blessed light switch. I felt a moment of pity for every blind person in the world. I reached up the wall and felt the light switch. Like a drowning person reaching for a life preserver I flipped the switch.
Confused, I flipped the switch again. On, off, on, off. Nothing.
"Shit." I said that louder than the chicken noises I had allowed myself earlier. I felt a twinge of fear peck at my stomach.
I sat with my back against the wall. Sweat beaded my brow. I stared into nothing. What to do now? The window, my brain called. I remembered drawing the thick velvet curtain across the picture window to the left of the rocker before lying down to sleep. The only window in the room, and I had blacked it out. Giving myself a mental slap on the head, I started crawling towards where the window should be. Where there is a window there is light. I replayed the room’s layout in my head.
Why had I stayed in this house? I asked myself. A hotel would have busted my budget. Plus I had wanted to make amends to the dead, and what better place than where she had died? I cursed my thinking.
I stubbed my middle finger against the rocker of the chair and huffed a curse into the blackness of the room. I crawled into the rocker, reached behind it, and felt the softness of the jade green velvet in my hands. I felt for the part in the middle and then paused. What if there was a face in the window? A face right out of the scary movies I used to love as a teen? A mad werewolf maybe, or a vampire with blood running down his chin? I scoffed at myself, and threw open the drapes in a gesture born of bravery and fear.
There was no face in the window.
The front yard lay in the dull three-quarter-full moon light. I could see the tire swing, unused for years, swaying slowly in the breeze. No bad guys in the bushes, no monsters in the trees. Just the front yard and blacktop road leading into town. No cars passed, but then not many did even at 2 p.m. This was country living at its finest. Two miles from the nearest tiny town, isolated in the middle of nowhere. Just the way Granny liked it.
“Get out of the house.”
The whisper was frantic now in my ear. I swung my head around, looking for the source but found none and turned back to the window.
Car lights in the distance. Headed this way. Heading slowly this way, creeping along. A drunk, most likely.
I stayed kneeling in the chair watching the car make its way down the blacktop towards Granny's house. The fear that had abated now returned with an adrenaline splash in my stomach. Maybe it wasn't a drunk, my mind screamed; maybe it was a bad man coming to get me. Suddenly, I knew what bad man it was: my ex-husband coming to get me. He would have known I'd go to Granny’s funeral, coming out of hiding for the one person who ever cared about me. He would have known I would stay here, my money situation being the way it was. And he would know that if he wanted to silence me forever for what I knew but could not prove, tonight would be the night to do it. I hunkered down in the rocker, watching the car weave towards the driveway then turn in. It drew up in front of the house and stopped. Exhaust rolled from behind the car in slow-moving clouds. The car just sat there. I could hear the engine rumbling, muted through the window, and I was suddenly glad there were no lights on. I realized Granny was to thank for that. Her voice had been the one I had heard whispering to me, waking me in the dark, making sure I wouldn't be seen. Hadn't I left a nightlight on before falling asleep? Yes, I had. I could see it now lying on the floor just below the outlet.
No one had come out of the car. I panicked. I fell off the rocker, landed on my back, flipped over, and started crawling toward the kitchen and the back door. I heard a sharp cry and realized it was coming from me. I shut my mouth. I felt the kitchen table legs, grasped the table, and rose to my feet. I could see the moonlight shining through the glass in the backdoor. I strained to hear over my harsh breath-was that a creak on the front porch? I was pretty sure it was. Knowing my time was limited, and I reached the back door, undid the bolt, and eased the door open. I slipped outside quietly, oh so quietly, and stood frozen on the back screened-in porch. My mind raced. Why had I stayed here? She would have forgiven me for not coming to her funeral, knowing my safety was at stake. I had talked to her frequently after leaving my husband. The thoughts and fears of what I thought he had done were jumbled in the back of my head. I had tried going to the police numerous times, yet I always held back. You needed proof of a crime, proof I didn't have. Suspicions I had plenty of. The news reports flashed in my head, seven missing children. The parents crying on TV, begging for the safe return of their children. I crept to the back screen door, praying it wouldn't squeak as I eased it open. It didn't. God bless Granny and her can of WD-40.
I froze as I heard my name whispered behind me.
I ran, no longer caring about making noise. I tumbled down the back stairs and into the yard.
"Sarah." More urgent this time.
I ran through the yard and over the gravel driveway, aware of the gravel pinching into my bare feet. But I didn’t care. Down the driveway to the road I ran, memories of my ex-husband flashing through my mind like a lightning storm. A picnic at the lake during spring break from college, our first apartment, our love for everything about one another, our lost child. I had been alone with no other family other than Granny, and he had meant the world to me. Then, after I had lost the baby, he had hated me, had blamed me for losing the baby.
"Smoke while you're preggers, Sar, and see what you get."
The beatings started soon after we lost the baby. Despite the doctors' assurances, the child never had a chance to begin with. The baby had multiple congenital problems, the doctor had told me while holding my hand. My ex had changed by that time, become someone I didn't know. I left him and went into hiding after he beat me so badly I couldn't work the next day. He had changed, and he scared me, and I had told no one.
I felt tears course down my face as I ran, my fears of him coming alive as I ran. I stumbled over the road and into the thick grove of trees, bare of their leaves this late in the fall. I realized he could spot me easily. I hunkered down and stole a peek towards the house. The car was turning around slowly in the drive. I scurried along the ground like a crab, my butt high in the air. Taking cover behind a large grove of locust trees, I stumbled and reach out to steady myself. I felt a thorn from the tree punch into my right hand, and I winced and drew the hand to my mouth, sucking the blood it had drawn.
Damn, damn, damn. The car turned onto the blacktop, its headlights briefly illuminating the tree I was hiding behind. The car turned towards town, towards me. I knew making it towards town was my only chance to get away from him. I drew deeper into the woods, cursing my cell phone in my car a million miles away. No longer afraid of what might lurk in the woods, I was more afraid of what was on the road. I was flat on my belly now, ignoring the sharp thorns that drew the blood from my stomach and legs. I moved quickly, praying he would just go away. The car had drawn ahead of me now. It moved quicker than a scared woman belly crawling through the forest. I sped up, afraid to catch up to the car for fear he could hear me breathing or, worse, smell my fear but more afraid to let him out of my sight.
A branch snapped behind me, and I knew it was him. Somehow, he had left the car and gotten behind me after all. I rose to my feet and turned slowly around. A scream built in my throat, useless since there was no one but him to hear it. My heart hammered as I saw the small boy now in front of me. He couldn't have been more than seven years old. He was wearing a suit. Yes, he would be if he was who I thought he was.
"He's comin to get you, Miss."
I saw black spots and knew I was about to faint. I made a fist with my right hand. The broken off piece of thorn dug deeper. The bright pain from it cleared the black spots and my eyesight cleared.
"I'm sorry." I blurted to the small dead boy standing in front of me. Guilt swept over me like a tide. I was afraid I would drown.
The small boy didn't answer but instead pointed towards our left. The woods were deeper there, and I was suddenly more frightened.
"Go there, Miss. Follow there, and you'll be okay."
I turned and stared at the faint path in the woods. I never would have seen it if it hadn’t been for this small boy. I turned to thank him.
He was gone, as if he had never been.
The sound of the car engine brought me back to my senses. I bent down, knees popping, and peered through the trees. He was reversing, weaving all over the road, but making his way back towards me.
I stood, not caring if he saw me now, and started down the path at a fast walk. It was darker now, and I was afraid of knocking myself out on a low-hanging branch.
"This isn't happening, this isn't happening” was my mantra as I hurried through the woods. “Oh, you son of a bitch, I hope you rot in hell. This is NOT happening."
A car door banged shut behind me.
"Sarah? Sarah, come here I want to talk to you. I'm not going to hurt you. Quit acting this way and come here, damn it. I just want to talk to you, for god's sakes."
My heart couldn't take much more, and I feared I couldn't either. The son of a bitch, did he really think I believed him? That I would turn and go into his arms?
I didn't answer him as I made my way, tripping over fallen branches that seemed to grab at my ankles. I pulled free and continued on my way.
I looked back once during the trip through the woods. He stopped when I looked back.
"Sarah, come on. Why make us go through all of this? Just come here and talk to me." I saw the rope hanging from his fist.
I saw a clearing in the distance, and knew I had somehow made it to the end of the path. I could hear him chanting my name, a mantra of his own.
I plunged out of the trees and into a churchyard. The old church stood quietly in the moonlight. I ran for it, lungs burning and gasping for air. I reached the church steps and turned towards him, ready to fight. He stood there, looking at me.
"Come on Sar, don't do this. I need you. I want to be together again. Don't make me come up there and get you."
"Come on then, come on and get me if you think you can." I spun around and gasped. There sitting on the steps were seven small children dressed in their Sunday finest. "Dear God" I muttered.
The roar from behind me almost knocked me off my feet. I turned and watched as my ex-husband turned and ran into the black forest.
I collapsed on the stairs and was surrounded by the children hugging me and planting wet children kisses on my cheeks. The little boy who had met me in the woods took my hand in his, and I felt him place something there.
" Yes, this is Sarah."
"This officer Davis from the Grundy County Sheriff's Department. I'm sorry to give this news to you over the phone. It's your grandmother, I’m afraid. She's passed away. The neighbor who keeps a check on her found her earlier this evening. He said he found her in her bed. Died in her sleep. Please accept our condolences."
I started to cry. Cry for once again losing what was precious to me.
I hung up the phone and shivered. Was I going to stay in Grandma's house? Alone? Why yes, yes I was. I smiled to myself as I looked at the bloody cut in the palm of my right hand. Reaching over the side of the bed, I picked up the object from the floor and stared at it. I knew now I had the proof I needed. I picked up the phone and asked the operator for the number of the police in my grandmother’s town. I knew they’d want to be waiting when he came for me. Or maybe it would be too late and he would use the rope I had seen dangling from his fist-this time on himself.