The Haunting of Leigh Harker
Leigh Harker's quiet suburban home was her sanctuary for more than a decade, until things abruptly changed. Curtains open by themselves. Radios turn off and on. And a dark figure looms in the shadows of her bedroom door at night, watching her, waiting for her to finally let down her guard enough to fall asleep.
Pushed to her limits but unwilling to abandon her home, Leigh struggles to find answers. But each step forces her towards something more terrifying than she ever imagined.
A poisonous shadow seeps from the locked door beneath the stairs. The handle rattles through the night and fingernails scratch at the wood. Her home harbours dangerous secrets, and now that Leigh is trapped within its walls, she fears she may never escape.
Do you think you're safe?
Release date: September 7, 2021
Print pages: 352
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The Haunting of Leigh Harker
1. The Something
Something lingers outside my room.
I am paralyzed. My hand-quilted blankets no longer feel like a warm cocoon but a straitjacket. They lace me to my bed. They strangle. My mouth hangs open as a breath dies in my throat, unable to reach my lungs.
And the something outside my bedroom creeps nearer. Just an inch, enough to reinforce its presence, to make sure that I won’t begin to doubt my senses.
I don’t dare avert my eyes. Nor am I foolish enough to move, not even to breathe. These straitjacket blankets will betray me. They will rustle. It will hear. I do not know what will happen then, and I do not want to learn.
My heart is so loud that I wish I could squeeze my fist around it just to make it go silent. Old oak branches, stripped bare by winter, jostle for space outside my window. They cut through the moonlight like knives, turning it into a lattice of sharp angles—a broken, shimmering glass discarded across my carpet and speckled up my walls. And over it. The four or five slivers of light that touch the dark shape reveal only tiny pieces of it, forcing me to glimpse it as though my eye were pressed to a keyhole.
It fills my doorway. Arms hang at its side. It gives the impression of grayness—grayness, with a tinge of sickly green. Skin or clothing, impossible to tell.
I cannot make out where the face ends and the hair begins, but there is hair, and it is long. I cannot see a mouth. Its eyes dominate its features. Round circles, too large, unnaturally huge, like an owl’s. Sheer white, they catch the moonlight.
The eyes are fixed on me. They do not move. They do not blink. I know, innately, that the slightest movement will call it closer. My heart is too fast, too loud, too painful. That breath is held prisoner in my throat, my lungs aching.
It turns. It lurches. The terrible something disappears as it paces along my hallway. The knifelike shards of light glance off the edges of its form as it moves away and I see hair, gray, gritty, and unreal, flowing behind it.
Its legs are not visible, but it must have them, as its steps ring out. Heavy, laborious, each one falls like a gavel on the wooden floor. It moves slowly, but I have the unwelcome sense that it is only feigning sluggishness. That, when the time comes, I will have no hope of outrunning it.
How do I know this? Have I been here before?
My lungs begin to work again. Not well—they stutter with each ebb and flow. The air tastes wrong. The perception lingers on my tongue, and I try to find words for what I’m imbibing. Dust. Age, like fabric left in the sun for twenty years or like a floor that has been swept but never mopped. There is something underneath those scents, too. Something disguised but insidious.
The weighty footsteps pause near my bathroom. It has to be looking inside, and I hate it, knowing its awful eyes will be staring into a room that never sees strangers, examining the half-empty bottles of conditioner, the cracks in the wall that harbor mold no matter how hard I scrub, the mirror that is a fraction too small for the area above my sink, and the discolored grouting between the aqua-green tiles. I feel as though a part of me is exposed, my secrets torn out of me, each one scraping painfully as they are extracted. I do not want the something to know me.
My arm snakes out toward the edge of my bed. The traitorous sheets crinkle like alarm bells. I fall still, breath suspended, waiting, but the something stays by the bathroom. I move again, dragging myself closer. The knives of light stab, repeatedly, over the quilted cover. They pluck out details. Eyes. A screaming mouth. Arms held up, clawing at darkness.
I created those designs. In the daylight, they recount myths from around the world. The designs are as familiar to me as my own face, but at that early morning hour, they feel evil.
My bare feet slide over the edge of the bed. Mattress springs groan and I clench my teeth. Over my shoulder, the bedroom door remains open, the hallway beyond empty. I watch the darkness, fearing what it might be hiding. My toes touch the plush rug in the center of the room.
My desk is underneath the window and catches the worst of the shattered light. It holds paperwork, stacks of it, meticulously ordered, piled in front of a penholder so full that it’s a struggle to draw any implement out.
My journal is starting to gather dust across its leather jacket. A cup, empty, waits to be taken downstairs and washed.
Behind that clutter is a lifeline: my phone. The old-fashioned rotary model was bought as an impulse purchase for its aesthetic more than its practicality. I spent a quarter of my paycheck on it at a thrift store, regretted it before I arrived home, and then felt too embarrassed to return it, convinced that the thrift store staff would send each other knowing looks as I sheepishly pulled it out of my bag. In retaliation, I swung too far the other way: not using it as a glorified paperweight, as I’d initially intended, but plugging it into my never-used landline as though that might justify the indulgence.
It turns out that may have been the most vital waste of money of my life. I leave my mobile downstairs at night to prevent distractions. That antique rotary is the only phone on the second floor of my house.
My eyes stay fixed on the empty doorway as I rise from the mattress. My knees feel flimsy, as though they are built out of cardboard, unused to holding my weight. I reach through the shards of light toward the phone. A thudding footfall echoes from the hall. Has it tired of my bathroom? My fingers touch wood and I draw my eyes away from the gaping archway at my back.
The phone’s dial is a circle of faded numbers. I lift the wooden earpiece, moving gingerly to stop the cradle from making noise. The dial tone greets me and I press it against my chest, muffling it, agonizingly aware of how far sound travels in the dead of night.
My first impulse is to call my sister, but she lives hours away. The only help she could possibly offer is to tell me to call the police, so I cut straight to that second choice. All that matters at this moment is to not be alone in my house, to not be trapped here with the something. My finger nestles into the well-worn metal circle and drags it around, the dial clicking in fragments. It will make a terrible ringing noise if I let it loose, so I don’t, easing it back down to its starting position while I let air hiss through my teeth. Then I repeat the process.
The window above my desk was left open several inches. The night is bitingly cold, but I cannot sleep without fresh air. A breeze comes through, and vulnerable without my quilts, I shudder as its questing fingers worm through the gaps in my nightgown.
The third number has been turned, and as I ease the dial back to its starting position, I raise the receiver to my ear. It rings. I wrap one hand around the mouthpiece as I turn to face the doorway once again.
The something stands there. Only its flickering eyes are visible. Some part of it—its arms, maybe—shift.
“What is your emergency?”
The words come from the receiver, and I want to beg her to be quieter, but my voice has become a solid thing, frozen in my throat, a lump I cannot breathe past. My fingers are slick on the wood. My eyes burn, too dry, and when I blink, suddenly they are too wet.
“Hello?” The woman is patient, moderated, too serene for the situation. “What is the nature of your emergency?”
Help me, I want to say, but any noise will be the beginning of my end. The something watches, unblinking, hyperfocused, and I am cornered.
Again, the voice on the phone speaks. “Hello?”
My mouth opens a fraction wider, the blockage in my throat suffocating, my body set on fire by adrenaline even as fear grounds me to the spot—as though being still might save me. As though it doesn’t know exactly where I am.
Then the something in the doorway tilts its head. I still cannot see its mouth, but I can sense it opening, and a terrible noise comes out.
It is an imitation of what a human might sound like. The word is corrupted, a mockery of the patient woman on the phone. The unblinking, lifeless eyes bore into me as it repeats the noise, playing with the sounds, exploring the tones. “Hello? Hello.”
The woman on the phone joins the chorus. “Hello?”
It breaks my nerves. The receiver slips from my hold. The sleek wooden piece twists on its cord as it falls, then hits the floor with a resounding thud.
The something moves. I was right; it doesn’t need to shamble. It comes toward me with horrible speed, terrible power, its eyes as round as twin moons, boring into me, and I finally find enough voice to scream.
The back of my legs hit the desk’s chair. I fall to the floor, sparks of pain rising from my elbow but immaterial in the face of what is before me. The something stands where I stood just a second before, the shattered light bringing it into terrible resolution, and I wish it had stayed in the fog of shadows.
The head rotates, the pupil-less eyes turning to stare down at me. I’m sprawled, braced on my heels and my lower back and elbows, and hyperaware of every vulnerable part of my body. My stomach. My inner thighs. My face. They are all turned toward the creature, exposed, and I may as well be offering myself up as a sacrifice.
The something’s body rotates to match its immobile head. I scramble backward, feet kicking at the smooth floor, dust sticking to my palms, desperate to gain space from the shaggy thing looming above me. The receiver hangs, one end resting on the floor, the other suspended by the twisting line, and in the unnatural still of night, the voice floats from it: “Hello?”
“Hello.” The something’s voice is broken. It might be laughing, but the sound is as inhuman as the words. “Hello… Hello… Hello.”
My shoulder blades hit the closet. I reach behind myself, arms stretching above my head as I blindly seek the doorknob. It clicks as it opens. I use my heels to kick my way inside.
The circular eyes flash. With no pupil and no iris, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s looking at me or looking through me. I pull the door closed and hear the latch click. Jackets and dresses and pants cluster around me, pressing on me, as though to smother me. Now there is only one source of light: a line of it, marking the shallow gap between the doors and the floor.
The something’s footsteps are loud again. They thud, painstaking, as it drags itself closer to my hiding space. I cannot let it open the doors. My fingers are numb as they search for handles, but the inside of the wood is bare. There is no purchase.
A shadow cuts through the line of light at my feet. Metal groans faintly. I can picture its hands, heavy and disfigured, resting on the doorknobs.
I thrust my fingers, palm up, through the gap under the doors. The wood is rough there, raw, a shortcut the manufacturer thought would never be noticed. It grates on my fingers as I curl them up, gripping the base of the doors, desperate to hold them where they are.
Wood flexes. The line of light spears upward as the intruder tries to draw the doors apart. My shoulder muscles burn as I pull against it, and the vertical line of light shivers.
Then the external pressure releases, the doors snap closed, and I’m again swallowed by darkness.
My forehead touches the wood as I keel forward. It’s not yet safe, and I don’t dare remove my fingers from underneath the door. I wait, my hands cramping, my legs pulled up awkwardly as I huddle in my cloistered hiding space. If the intruder is still outside the door, it makes no noise, not even the whistle of breath. My eyes are wide-open but blind in the dark. My eyelashes graze the wood, my breath rolling back onto my lips from the proximity.
Then I hear it. Bones creak. Then crack. It is moving, lowering itself, coming closer to the floor. I look down. My hands are still hooked underneath the doors, my fingers braced outside, vulnerable. I cannot stand to leave them exposed like that. And yet, they are the only things ensuring the doors remain closed.
My fingertips feel electrified, the multitude of nerve endings sensitive, expectant. Warm, moist air brushes across my right index and middle finger. I imagine the something crouched and its open mouth close enough to my exposed fingers that twitching one outward would touch it.
It whispers, the word fractured and distorted: “Hello.”
Something sharp stabs into my fingers. The muscles in my hands spasm and the sloppily carved wood digs into my palms. I jerk my hands back, withdrawing them, and clutch them close to my chest. They hurt, but fear both swells and muddies the sensation, making it indistinct. I could have been cut. I could have lost a finger. In the dark, it’s impossible to tell. I bundle my hands together under my chin, squeezing them, and feel hot wetness seeping between the clammy skin.
The line of light underneath the door is speared through by nails. Long nails, ragged nails, creep their way through the gap, exploring the rough wood, touching over the areas where my own fingers were. My eyes are flooded and I tilt my head back, jackets and dresses lying cool against my flaming skin, hands clutched under my throat and knees pulled up against my chest.
The nails disappear from underneath the door. I already know where they will go next. There is no escape this time as the something reaches for the handles. I shimmy backward, letting the rows of clothing fall in front of my face. They cannot hide me. My legs are still exposed, and no matter how tightly I pull them against my body, they will be the first to be grabbed as the something drags me out of my hiding place.
The closet doors creak as they drift open. Through the shutters made of clothes, I can barely see the entity poised outside. A drop of warm blood falls from my palm and lays heavy on my forearm. My view is distorted by wools and cottons, loose threads so close to my eyes that they blur, creating layers of spiderwebs between me and the thing outside. I wish they were denser, dense enough to block out its awful eyes. They are its only visible part. Its form is painted all in ashen gray as the moon through the window backlights it. It fills the closet’s entrance, its arms spread wide as they hold the doors open, its shaggy hair lying heavy around its form, its shoulders hunched as it stares down at me.
And I’m calcified to the wall, too afraid to even close my eyes.
The intruder looms closer, rising even higher above me. The doors groan. The band of light grows narrower, tightening into a ribbon, and then a sliver, and then nothing at all as the doors snap closed.
It is inside the closet with me. In that dark, narrow hole, close enough that I should have been able to feel its warmth, close enough that relaxing my position, even just slightly, would force my heel or my elbow to touch it. It makes no noise, but I can feel its presence. The air is heavier. Reeking of musty age and unwashed floors and that terrible something else.
My bleeding hand throbs with every pulse. The smell is overwhelming, and I cannot think, cannot breathe, do not dare move. The jacket to my left shifts, the wire hanger clinking as it turns on the rod. My wide eyes stare into nothing. My back aches from the pose I’m forced to hold, but I cannot relax, not even a fraction. I instinctively know that if I touch the intruder, it will be over. And the intruder is so close. It exhales, its rattling breath directly in my ear. I can all but taste its dead skin.
I burst forward in a spasm of energy that surprises even me. My hands hit the closet doors and they bang open as I charge through. There is no time to let my eyes adjust to the stabbing moonlight, no time to look over my shoulder. I run, bare feet slapping the floor. The phone’s receiver twists on its cord as I pass it. The screaming faces on my quilt track me with their distorted eyes. But I am at the bedroom door, through the opening, and my shoulder glances off the wall as I twist myself down the hallway.
Footsteps boom in my wake. They are longer than mine, steady, gaining. I pass the bathroom. The stairs are ahead, a treacherous pit of black with a lone bulb that I have no time to think about. I close my eyes as I near them, trusting my familiarity with the house to judge my footfalls.
The first stair finds its mark. Then the second and the third, and I’m flowing downward so rapidly that I barely glance off each step.
My feet sting as I come to a sudden halt on the lower floor. I swing to put my back to the wall. The stairwell is impenetrable; only the closest two steps are visible, while everything above is perfect black.
The air no longer tastes foul. I am alone.
2. They Might Be Footsteps
The gate’s rust is raw and flaky. My left hand rests on its highest bar, a position it’s taken many times, but lingering in a way that is unfamiliar. My right hand holds the keys to the sedan parked in the street behind me. Ahead is my house, set against the backdrop of the failing sun, its slate-tile roofing saturated by vivid, seeping colors.
Less than eighteen hours ago, something chased me out of this house. Now, during the day, it scarcely feels real. The encounter happened between those strange hours of two and four in the morning, where reality becomes distorted and dreams are intent on encroaching into the conscious world.
I lift my right hand. The key ring is hooked around my middle finger. A small cloth bandage is strapped to the index, running from between the first and second knuckles. That is my proof: a tangible rebuttal against the ethereal nature of those mid-dream hours.
Crisp air runs through my lungs. I push on the gate and it wails as it swings inward. That familiar greeting is my welcome home each night, the signal that I have left the outside world and reentered my dominion. It’s also an alarm against intrusion. Visitors must announce their arrival well before they reach my front door.
Though, truthfully, the fence isn’t much of a barrier. It barely comes to waist height, a constant that is maintained through regular dips in the rows of bricks to account for the way my street slopes. Anyone could hop over the lichen-fused fortifications with very little effort. They would need to keep to the grassed and gardened portions of my yard to avoid making the paving stones crunch, but within ten paces, they could be at my door, as silent as a specter.
The gate screams as it closes behind me. Spreading bushes and flowering trees dance to either side as the wind picks up, and the clambering mini rose bush that runs along the fence seems intent on snagging my knit jacket.
The four windows facing the street are all cold and dead, giving the building an air of abandonment. The ocher brick walls catch the setting sun. Spiderwebs live about the eaves and window frames on the second floor, too high for me to reach.
My sister once told me a house doesn’t deserve to be called a home unless a family lives in it. That snide proclamation came three years ago, shortly after the birth of her second daughter; it was one of many finishing blows to our relationship.
She was wrong anyway. This is a home. No one could argue against that. It felt like a home before I even moved into it as a first-time renter fifteen years ago. That feeling increased when I put down my deposit to buy it from its former owner, and it deepens with every passing year. I suspect it has become a home to everyone who has been a part of its near-century lifespan and will continue to be a home for others once I eventually move on.
Its flaws are numerous, from the problematic grouting in the upstairs bathroom to the badly angled corner cupboard in the kitchen, with its door that never properly closes. But its quirks are overcompensated for by its richness. Real wood paneling runs along the main hallway. The stairs’ banister is thick and solid. The oak tree in the backyard must have been planted when the house was built, and its magnificent boughs overshadow anything else the street can offer.
Whatever happened last night is not something to be avoided, and I don’t allow myself to feel fear as the loose paving stones grind under my feet. This is my home. No one can strip that from me.
The front door, unlocked, opens at a touch. When I left, I snatched up my key ring on the way out but hadn’t spared the time to lock the door behind myself. The logic of the moment had said that if something was already inside, I would be a fool to seal it in there.
Now, I pause in the entryway. Bands of light come through large windows. They imbue the wood paneling and creamy paint with warmth. The hallway connects to the kitchen, running parallel to the stairwell that leads to the second floor. To the right is a rarely used living room that overlooks the front street, and to the left is the equally neglected dining room. I prefer to spend my time in the kitchen at the house’s rear. I’d rather indulge in the solitude of my backyard than watch the street.
Keys go on the narrow table beside the front door. My satchel is thrown onto the brass hooks above. Then I follow the hallway past the stairs, flexing my shoulders as I begin construction of a mental checklist for that evening.
A doorknob rattles behind me. I stop, one foot in the hall and one in the kitchen, all thoughts disintegrating. There are not many doors on the lower level of my home, which favors open archways. I scan between those that are visible, listening. The fridge hums. Birds shriek as they fight over the backyard feeder that must be near empty. A car engine encroaches and then becomes more distant again.
Otherwise, the house is quiet. My eyes itch and I realize I’ve forgotten to blink. I retrace the length of the hall, back to the front door, and put my eye to the peephole. It gives me a fish-eye view of the flagstone path, the treacherous clambering rose, and the rusted gate. I touch the doorknob, wondering if perhaps I hadn’t closed it properly, but there is no unexpected give to it.
As I turn, light catches off a bronze doorknob under the stairs, the only other possible source of the noise. That door is a part of my daily scenery but so little used that I’d long since blacked it out of my memory. Just like a spot on the carpet or a mug at the far back of the cupboard, it exists but is never truly looked at. I stare at it now, the tip of my tongue held between my teeth as I approach with measured steps.
What’s behind that door? Storage, I’m pretty sure, but it’s been so long since I used it that I can’t visualize the space. As a single person in a five-bedroom home, storage has never been a source of stress.
The bronze doorknob is ornate, like most of the original fixtures in my home. A wreath of tiny leaves is embossed on the surface, surrounding the handle and a delicate keyhole, tiny berries clustered between the flora. It’s well tarnished. The house’s previous owners must have cared more about this door than I do.
My ear touches the wood’s edge, where it merges with the paneling. The space holds echoes, and they play with my mind, teasing at the very edges of my hearing. My hand moves to the doorknob. It turns, but only for a fraction, before the motion abruptly halts. The door is locked.
It brings up a memory so vague that it could be a dream. I tried the door on my first day of renting my new home and found it was locked then, too. I must have intended to find the key or call a locksmith at some point but never did.
Over time, that door fell into the backdrop of my life, present but eternally overlooked. I smile. I’ve become so familiar with this dear home that it’s a surprise to find a part of it I haven’t yet seen.
I’ll uncover its mysteries, but not just yet. My back is sore from work and my mouth is dry. As I step away from the door, a clammy sensation rises in me, like something alive moving from my lower stomach and into my chest. I look over my shoulder. Nothing has changed. The door remains discreet, catching portions of light that stretch through the tall living room windows, innocuous among the panels. It has been there for the last fifteen years of my life. So why do I suddenly hate having it at my back?
The kettle, heavy with water, thumps onto its stand. It will take exactly two minutes to boil. My favorite mug comes out of the dishwasher, and I drop a lemongrass-and-ginger tea bag into it.
The only part of this routine that ever changes is the sun’s angle. Right now, it’s low, the last traces struggling over my neighbors’ roofs and through scattered trees to reach my yard. Winter is grudgingly giving way to spring, and its angle will rise every day for the next few months.
Normally I lean my forearms on the edge of the sink and stare at my yard for a minute and a half of meditation as I wait for the kettle, but tonight has something else on the schedule. Bandages and antiseptic come down from the cupboard above the stove, and I line them up on the laminate counter.
It only takes a second to unpick the safety pin holding the bandage around my finger. I unravel it gingerly. The finger is stiff and the bandages carry blots of red, and I’m surprised I made it through work without more trouble.
The gash runs from my first knuckle to the second. It’s unlike the clean cuts that come from a kitchen knife or poorly handled scalpel. It’s ragged, its depth irregular. It makes me think of a cat scratch, only deeper. If I bend the finger too far, I am liable to split it open and see tendons. Possibly even bone.
It might be worth visiting the ER, but not tonight. Everything about the past day feels too much like a dream. Tonight, I need to be alone to allow my thoughts to settle, to reconcile, to comprehend. And so I unscrew the cap from the bottle of antiseptic. The kettle cuts out, and in the abrupt silence following its furious rumbling, I can hear my breathing, too fast and too shallow.
The cut has fused over with dried blood, but I still clean its edges. Then I began weaving the fresh bandage around it, laying it carefully, binding it tight enough to hold the skin together.
Something moves in my yard. I’m a second too late to lift my head. The view through my kitchen window is serene; grass, due for a cut, sways. The old oak’s trunk is unyielding, though its branches dance readily. The ceramic bird feeder, suspended from the closest branch, hosts two sparrows. They bicker over the seeds.
I’m certain the motion came from something larger. A figure the size of a man, or close to it. I stay still for another minute, waiting, but I can’t be sure that I didn’t just see a sliding shadow, so when nothing else moves I put my head back down to finish the bandages.
The safety pin seals the wrap. I stretch my arm out and move my fingers experimentally. As long as I don’t try to bend the index, I don’t feel much from it. That’s good. A compromised hand would make it hard to do my job as an archivist at the natural history museum, and it’s been years since I took a day off. I’m not so egocentric that I would refuse to ever call in sick, but it would still irk me to break my streak. My fingers need to stay nimble for the labeling, transferring, and copious documenting that consumes the largest portion of my workday. The artifacts I work with are delicate. I can’t risk fumbling them.
Steam still rises from the kettle’s spout, but I don’t like pouring it unless it’s just finished boiling. I switch it on a second time.
The rumbles start quickly as the still-hot water jumps into action. My eyes close. The sound undulates, filled with pops and deeper grumbles and the faint hiss of escaping steam. And something else. Something that sounds like footsteps.
I let my eyes open, instinctively looking to the window, then behind myself and along the hallway. Flecks of dust twist through the bands of light, as though the air there was recently disturbed. The footsteps seem to be growing louder, but they’re masked by the kettle, its own array of sounds growing to a fever pitch as it trembles on its base.
Then the kettle’s switch flicks off, and the rumbles start to fade. The sound that might be footsteps lasts for perhaps a half second longer, then it, too, is gone. I am left staring along an empty hallway as my pulse throbs in my bandaged finger.
I pour the water. The tea bag spins, pale color flooding out of it, and I pull it out before it can leech too much. I roll my head, eyes half-closed as I stretch out my neck muscles, then pick up the mug and carry it from the kitchen. The tea will need time to cool, but I want to have it with me.
The stairwell has two light switches, one at the top and one at the base, but the lower switch stopped working two years ago and I have yet to call an electrician to repair it. Habit is an unyielding pressure, and once established, it is hard to deny. I’m in the habit of climbing the stairwell in the dark. It’s a treacherous walk that I should fear more.
I take the stairs lightly, holding the banister for the first four before it turns at an angle and disappears into the walls. The steps are solid but old, and their wood strains under my footfalls, deep sighs that I’m compelled to echo.
Then I emerge from the cavern into the second-floor hallway. The doors are all sealed. I run my tongue across the back of my teeth as I take the sight in. I like to leave the bathroom door open to circulate air and ward off the always-present mold, and my bedroom door was left open against my will the previous night.
I adjust the angle of my mug. Heat seeps into the handle, warming my fingers, and I know the drink is hot enough to scald if thrown at an unwanted presence.
The bathroom door opens at my touch. Everything is where I left it: the towel on its rack, the bath mat, even the angle of my toothbrush in its mug. No amount of cleaning can improve the bathroom’s impression of dingy neglect. It will remain this way until it is eventually remodeled and the heaviness of age is physically chiseled out of it.
The carpet cushions my feet as I pass the linen closet and stop at my bedroom door. Its handle creaks when I turn it.
The sheets on my bed are lightly rumpled. The corner is pulled back from where I crept out of it. In daylight, the quilt has returned to its more soothing form: it displays Aesop’s fables. Rabbits and storks, foxes and grasshoppers, twisting and dancing as they tell their stories.
The phone on my desk appears normal, except the receiver sits in the cradle. I approach the closet. Its doors are also closed. I tug on them, and they swing outward easily, exposing rows of clothing arranged by season.
I place my mug on the desk’s coaster. Slightly embarrassed, I hesitate, then crouch to look under my bed. There are no surprises, only the pair of soft shoes I store there, which I pull out and swap for the low heels I’ve been wearing all day.
My outfit, business casual and all black, came from my car: a uniform stored there in case I need fresh clothes at short notice. I switch out of it, transitioning from long skirt and knit jacket and into my comfortable evening clothes. As I pull the ibis clip out of my hair and tie it into a messy bun, I begin to feel slightly more human.
Something happened last night. It was real, even if the evidence is limited.
My house is too quiet. Peace is something I normally relish, but today it’s more—not an island of solitude, but an ocean of it, enough to drown in.
I turn to the small black radio on my bedside table. It covers me in white noise on the nights my eyes won’t stay closed. I turn it on and push the volume up. Music fills the room and I breathe deeply, the ache in my mind soothed by the thundering drums and furious guitar strains. If I asked my coworkers to guess what music appealed to me, most would probably suggest classical or jazz. I doubt any would consider hard rock, but as the beats envelop me, I am truly calm for the first time today.
The volume is high enough that I will hear it downstairs. I take up my cup of tea, which is not quite cool enough to drink but only a few minutes away, and return to the hall. The upper level holds two other bedrooms and a rumpus room, and I look inside them all. The doors were left closed, as they should be, and I cannot see any sign that they were disturbed.
The dark tunnel carries me downstairs. I turn into the kitchen and set about completing my routine: a microwave dinner from the freezer, heated for thirty seconds longer than the packaging recommends. Two foil packets come out of a drawer. One gives up a pain tablet to ward off the headache I feel prickling at the back of my skull, and the second gives a little pink disk. An antidepressant for anxiety. Both go onto the counter.
A folder of paperwork—none of it necessary from a professional view, but necessary for my own peace of mind—spreads out over the kitchen counter. The microwave beeps. I retrieve dinner and a fork, then pull up my favored chair, identical to the other three that make up the set sans the scuff marks and heavy wearing around its feet and cushion, and take my position at the kitchen table, ready to sink into the evening.
Only, I can’t. My mug is missing. I must have forgotten it when I went upstairs.
Music drifts through the ceiling, too muffled for me to catch much other than the beat. I consider forgoing the tea entirely, then reluctantly scrape my chair out from the table.
The sun has set. Even with all of my delays, that seems too early. As I follow the hallway back toward the stairs, I swing past the living room to check the clock. Large white couches run along one wall and create a divide through the room’s center, trapping a coffee table between them. Fifteen years in the sun has sucked some of the brightness out of their upholstery, but other than that, they could be brand-new.
The wall only bears two decorations: the simple black-and-white clock and the patchwork quilt suspended above the seating. The clock says it’s six fifteen. I barely look at it, though, because the quilt has drawn my focus, the way it always does. Bittersweet sensations fill me, heavy on the bitterness. The sweet becomes harder to find every year.
Maybe it’s time to take the quilt down. I’ve been thinking along that line for some time, but I never touch it. It took me hundreds of hours to sew, by far the largest project I ever took on, and I refuse to let the work go to waste.
I’m ready to turn away when I notice an abnormality. One of the couches has a subtle indent in its cushion. As though someone had been sitting there until just a moment ago. I picture the intruder from the night before hunched there, its shaggy hair sticking to the couch’s back, its round eyes watching me walk through my home.
The indent seems to be growing shallower as the foam rises back to its normal state. I approach and place my hand on the fabric, half expecting to find warmth.
If anything, the seat feels colder.
My hand snaps back. My thumb moves in a small circle over the edge of the bandage as I look from the archway leading to the hall to the archway leading to the kitchen.
Music continues to flow from upstairs, but my favored drumbeats are missing. I tilt my head toward the sound as a waltz plays, slow and creeping. Under the melody is another noise: my bedroom door, creaking as it draws open.
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