By the time I stumbled out of bed the next morning, tired and bleary eyed, my mother had already left for work. There was a text waiting for me. So sorry about last night. You shouldn't have seen that. Dinner tonight?
I responded with, See you tonight.
But when I arrived home after practice, I found her rushing around, slipping earrings into her ears. She wore a short skirt and a flowy blouse, and her dark hair was flipped and curled in an abundance of volume.
“Hi,” she offered, out of breath, hopping into one of her heels and almost falling over. "Um, I hope you don't mind, but I forgot I had plans tonight. I made them a while ago, you know, before I knew that you'd be here." She stopped, awaiting my reaction with her face scrunched in apology. "But I could cancel them. I mean... I could stay."
"No, go," I encouraged. "I'll be okay, really."
"Are you sure?" she asked again, battling with her decision.
"Yeah, I have a ton of homework to do," I exaggerated, trying to make her feel better. "Have a good time."
"Okay," she replied, staggering on one foot to pull up the strap of her heel as she grabbed for her purse. "Well, help yourself to the freezer, I guess.” She took out a mini Altoids tin and opened it, popping a small white pill down her throat with a toss of her head.
“Don’t wait up,” she advised, removing her jacket from the hall closet next to the stairs. "I'll probably be pretty late." Before I could even unzip my jacket, she was out the front door. I shook my head in befuddlement and took in the vacant house with a heavy breath.
The door flew open behind me. I turned with a start. “Uh... can you move your car?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” I followed her back out the door.
“Sorry that I’m running off so fast,” she attempted to explain as we walked down the driveway. “I’m so late and my friends hate waiting on me.”
“It’s okay,” I replied to… no one. She was already in her car, anxiously waiting for me to back up. I watched her speed away before pulling back into the driveway.
I put my things in my room and went down to the kitchen to prepare something to eat. I pulled out a frozen lasagna and followed the instructions to heat it in the microwave.
As I sat in the silent house, watching television and eating the lasagna, I realized I'd never been alone like this before. As much as I’d felt alone most of my life, emotionally isolating myself from… well, everyone, I’d never really been by myself. Before I lived with Sara, I wasn’t allowed to be home alone. But I was usually involved in something at school that kept me occupied anyway. And now that I was alone, I didn’t like the stillness. It made the thoughts in my head too loud.
I ventured upstairs a couple hours later, leaving the table lamp turned on at the bottom of the stairs, along with the light on the porch. After getting ready for bed, I pre-occupied myself with homework as best I could. But with every creak, my head jerked to attention and my heartbeat faltered. When the wind picked up outside, rattling the windows in their peeling wooden frames, I opted to drown out the creepiness with music.
Eventually, I crawled into bed, keeping the music playing so I wouldn’t be kept awake by every groaning board in the house. I took a deep breath and stared at the black door across from me, hesitating before shutting off the light. The door and the entire wall disappeared with the click of the lamp.
I shot up in the bed, gasping and covered in sweat, flipping on the light to disperse the figure at my door. The black door remained closed, mocking me.
My eyes twitched, listening for any movement. I wasn’t sure if I’d screamed out loud since my mother hadn’t rushed into the room. That’s when I heard the deadbolt click open at the bottom of the stairs followed by laughter and a deep voice. It was after two in the morning. I blinked at the clock, wondering where she could’ve been and who she was with now.
I shut off my light, so she wouldn’t think I was waiting up for her, and pulled the covers over me. The wind screeched against the windows, rustling the black curtains with each frigid gust. The old house couldn’t keep out the cold that seeped in through its bowed boards. I pulled the comforter up to my nose, waiting for sleep.
“That was quite the storm last night, wasn’t it Mary?” the radio personality chuckled, his voice forcing its way into my ears. I rolled over and hit snooze, fighting the urge to pull the covers up over my head and go back to sleep. I lay on my back and stared up at the ceiling, dreading the chill that awaited me once I flipped back the blankets.
My phone beeped. Snow Day! was displayed under Sara’s name. Good. That meant I could stay in bed until my mother turned up the heat.
Coming to get you in a few hours, appeared on my phone a moment later under Evan’s name. I responded with an affirmative, feeling much too awake to find sleep again. Footsteps fell across the unforgiving boards leading to the bathroom, and seconds later the pipes thumped and squealed with the sound of water rushing through them. "Fine," I huffed out loud, "I'm getting up."
I threw my hair up in a pile of twists on top of my head and slid on socks to protect my feet from the icy floorboards before plodding down the stairs. Pulling a box of cereal from the cabinet, I poured myself a bowl to take into the living room. I adjusted the thermostat to a warmer temperature so I would no longer have to see my breath.
I flipped on SportsCenter and started eating the cereal. The sound of the door opening and feet banging against the wood on the porch stopped me mid-bite. I peeked over to find a guy brushing snow from his jacket and shoving off his boots by the door. My heart pounded, knowing what I looked like and not wanting to be seen by whoever it was entering like he belonged here.
I watched with wide eyes as a guy with messy dark hair walked into the living room with a bowl of cereal of his own. I pulled my knees up to cover my chest, very aware that I didn’t have anything on under my long sleeved shirt. He had a muscular build and a youthful face―making me question exactly who he was. He didn’t look that much older than Jared.
“Hey,” he greeted with a nod, sitting next to me on the couch like he’d known me for years.
“Hi,” I replied, not moving a muscle.
“I’m Chris,” he offered before shoveling a mound of cereal into his mouth, the milk dribbling down his chin. He wiped it off with his sleeve while his eyes remained glued to the television. He glanced over at me again and said, “It’s a shitty mess out there.”
I nodded, not really wanting to have a conversation with this strange guy sitting next to me.
“Chris, are you still here?” my mother yelled from the top of the stairs, sounding like she hadn't expected him to be.
"Yeah," he bellowed in return.
"I thought you were leaving to get to class," she returned in confusion.
"Got cancelled," he answered, still staring at the TV.
"Um... could you start my car for me?"
Without complaint, Chris put his bowl down on the coffee table and walked out of the room. I listened to the jangling of keys and the click of the door. I’d hoped to disappear before he returned, but I was met with the door flinging open as he rushed in, out of breath, to escape the cold.
“What are you up to today?” he asked, using his toes to remove his snow covered boots.
“Not sure,” I answered with my arms crossed over my chest.
“My friend’s having a party tonight if you and Rachel want to come by,” he offered.
“Oh,” was all that I could find to say.
“Emily, you're up,” my mother noted in surprise as she walked down the stairs in a long black skirt, black leather dress boots and a fitted green turtleneck sweater. "I thought school was cancelled."
“Don’t you look all sexy in your work clothes,” Chris admired before I could answer. She flashed an embarrassed glance my way and laughed uncomfortably. He grabbed her when she reached the bottom step, burying his face in her neck. She giggled awkwardly and pushed him away, walking past him to the kitchen.
“So, will I see you when I get back from school in a few weeks?” he asked, following her.
“Umm... we'll see,” she replied reluctantly, her cheeks bright red. “Want some coffee?” He followed her into the kitchen, and I hopped up the stairs two at a time to escape to my room. I stayed in there until I heard them leave. A few minutes later a text appeared. I'm so, so sorry about that. Thought he’d be gone by the time you got up. I didn’t respond. I didn't even know what to say.
I wish I could say that Chris was a fluke and it never happened again. Although she attempted to hide the guys, I could hear her coming home giggling on the nights she stayed out late after work―presumably after drinking a little too much. I didn’t usually see them, nor could I confirm if she was in fact drunk―I just had a feeling. Every so often, I'd bump into one of the guys on my way to the bathroom in the morning, but I probably wouldn't have known most of them were there at all if I could have actually gotten some sleep.
She never provided an explanation or apologized for their presence. Perhaps she didn't realize I knew. They'd come in after I was in bed, and she'd sneak them out early, before I got up. It's not like it happened every night, but it happened enough that I always made sure I had a sports bra on before I left my room.
I wasn't exactly prepared for her lifestyle. And she wasn’t exactly prepared for mine either.
A creak pulled me from my sleep. I remained still with my eyes closed, listening to the wind push against the house and the groans of the old building fighting against it. I opened my eyes, staring into the dark with my ears at attention. There was another creak, closer to my room.
My unblinking eyes slowly adjusted to the light, as little as there was. But it didn’t matter how much I stared at the door, I couldn’t see into the black paint. I might as well have been looking into an abyss. I only knew where it was because a sliver of light seeped in under its uneven edge. Another board let out a creak right outside the door.
I wanted to call out for my mother, hoping it was her. But I remained paralyzed in my bed. The only thing that moved was my heart racing in my chest. I heard the handle jiggle, and the hinges shrieked open. The silhouette stood in the door’s frame, unmoving.
I opened my mouth to ask who it was, but I could barely breathe. The person stepped forward, allowing just enough light to make out the angular features of her face and the sneer on her lips. I looked down at her hand and she was holding something long and hard. It reflected the light enough for me to know that whatever it was, it was going to hurt.
“You don’t deserve to live,” she grunted, raising her arm over her head.
“Emily?!” another voice screamed. My eyes shot open. I remained frozen, breath heaving, trying to orient myself. The door flung open and my mother rushed in in a panic, “What's wrong?!” She stood just inside the door, flipping on the light, her hand over her heart.
My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath to ease the racing beats in my chest. “It was just a dream,” I explained, from my startled seated position.
“Holy shit, Emily,” she declared, letting out a long breath. “You just about gave me a heart attack.”
“Sorry.” I ran my hand over my brow, erasing the lingering sweat that clung to my skin. “I’m fine.”
She hesitated before leaving, like she wanted to say something. She looked me over again and finally said, "Well... good night," then walked out, shutting off the light and closing the door behind her.
I clicked on the lamp next to my bed, to keep out the dark, and settled into my pillow with my arms wrapped tightly across my body. The dream lingered. It felt so real, I was afraid to close my eyes again.
My mother came into my room only a couple of times after that night, panicked by my screams. But then she stopped, probably realizing there wasn't anything she could do.
I felt guilty for waking her, especially when I saw her slumped over her coffee each morning. I knew I wasn't easy to live with. I’d often found Sara on the couch of her entertainment room in attempt to escape me.
My therapist had prescribed sleeping pills, but they didn't take the nightmares away. They only kept me trapped, thrashing inside of them.
"I'm sorry," I offered one morning. My mother looked up from her coffee. "About keeping you awake."