A note on the pillow read: I warned you.
The sounds of the new day silenced, as if she had been sealed in a coffin. No birds, no traffic, nothing. Just silence. Then the pounding of her heart and her quickening breath invaded her ears from the inside. She sat up, and he trickled out of her, wetting the sheets.
Images from the previous night flooded her mind. Pleasure. Passion…and fear. She could feel his hands grasping her hair, holding her face close as he said, “If anyone finds out about this, it’s over.”
She had known him forever, it seemed, but in reality it had been less than a year. Theirs has been one of those connections, indescribable. Close. Fast friends. When it turned more, she fell hard. He had told her how he married after the army. But even with a wife and a three-year-old son, his need for her remained, and hers for him. Although she had tried to keep things platonic, she had been unable to resist when he had pushed toward seduction.
Life had damaged him, but then it hadn’t left her unscathed either. The scars on her arms and legs, self-inflicted, spoke to that. But she nor anyone but another soldier could grasp the depth of his internal injuries. As former sniper who had served in Iraq, he struggled with normal life. She could see the pain behind his eyes because it mirrored her own. Although she hadn’t known him before, she sensed the war had changed him. Still, they understood each others’ insanities. Both broken. Both scrambling to survive in a world they didn’t understand, and more importantly, one that didn’t understand them.
A buzzing pulled her out of her thoughts, and she looked over at her phone vibrating on the night stand, a reminder of an unread text from her best friend.
He must have seen it.
That’s how he knew she had told. She must have slept through the first alert, dreaming. Content in her satisfaction. His senses, honed from his experience overseas, enabled him to hear the quiet vibration in the night.
Now he knew. Now it was over.
She collapsed to the floor, holding herself in a fetal position. The fear that consumed her wouldn’t even allow tears to come. Gasping for breath, she tried to grasp this new reality.
He was gone. It was over. Surely he couldn’t throw their love away so easily. But the fear of hurting his family mixed with the unstable nature of PTSD made him unpredictable. She had seen it, his personality change from charming and witty one moment to dark and brooding and harsh the next. She had often wondered if he was reliving something from the war, remembering things that he quickly pushed back down deep inside the darkness of his mind. Despite horrors of war, tragedy and loss and savagery beyond comprehension, his greatest fear now was losing his family. He would stop at nothing to protect his place with them. He would never talk of them. She had asked repeatedly to see a picture of his wife, hoping that seeing her as a person, instead of just a intangible concept, would help her resist him. She would not do anything to hurt him or his family, but he always made an excuse. Perhaps his fear of losing them, of being discovered, had turned dangerous and triggered something primal inside him.
A new horror came to mind.
What if he meant over over. Like, over for her. Completely, not just the relationship?
“Get up,” her subconscious screamed at her.
But she couldn’t move.
“Get up! Get up!” The words burst from her mouth and echoed against the walls in the silent apartment.
Forcing herself to her feet, her instinct took over. Naked and alone, she ran to the front door and turned the two deadbolts, locked the doorknob, and shoved a chair beneath the handle. She stepped back, pulling her hands to her mouth, and trembled. Listening. But the silence remained. The whole world quiet, save for the pounding of her heart and her ever-quickening breath.
Her mind drifted back to a few weeks ago. She could still see him watching her with admiration. No, adoration. The heat in his eyes had startled her. No one had looked at her like that in quite some time, and she had thought she imagined it. An artist, like her, they had gone to an opening together. An excuse to see each other, of course, in a professional setting without suspicion, although there had been nothing to suspect at the time. They had just been colleagues, friends, supporting each other in a tough business. Keeping each other’s spirits up so that they could continue to create. But his wife was the jealous type. Older than he, on her third marriage, a scientist with little interest in the visual arts.
That night everything had changed. She had felt him watching her, and she didn’t quite know what to think. They had embraced, as always, but this time he kissed her. Just on the cheek. Rather innocent, really; but she had felt something new in that moment. For her, anyway. The look on his face as they parted made it clear that he had been taken with her for some time, and that night he had made his move, subtle as it was.
A door slammed in the hall, making her jump then realize she stood alone, naked and scared. Lost in her memories. Had she been more aware, could she have seen the danger that lay just beneath his surface?
Voices drifted through her closed door. She stared at the chair forced beneath the handle and listened.
“Why are you so grumpy this morning?” It was Mr. White, her neighbor.
“As if you didn’t know. I hardly slept with all that screaming and pounding last night.”
They must be on their way to church.
“Ah, to be young again,” he responded, his voice fading as they moved down the hall.
Then again, silence. Deafening, the kind that muffles every sense. The kind that fills the entire room with dread.
She still trembled, but the goosebumps on her flesh awakened her to the cold.
“You’re overreacting.” Her voice broke the silence. “Get a grip.”
Leaving the chair propped under the door, she retuned to the bedroom and began gathering her clothes strewn about the room. She picked up the purple panties and the matching bra, bought especially for him, his favorite color, and slid them on, remembering how he had coaxed them off last night. The soft fabric of her favorite sweatshirt dried her cheeks as she pulled it over her head, its folds warming her body and comforting her. She stepped into her PJ bottoms and slid her feet into her fuzzy slippers.
The phone on the nightstand buzzed again, causing the adrenaline to rush to her brain. She picked up the phone to turn it off, but dropped it. Its face cracked as it hit the side of the nightstand before crashing to the floor. Frantic, she looked around then ran toward the window. After she jerked the curtains closed, she pressed herself against the wall next to it. Her pounding heart filled her ears, and she could see it moving the material of her thick sweatshirt. Her breath came faster and more shallow. She slid down the wall and hugged her knees, trying to consciously slow her breath. Breath in, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four. In, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four.
It wasn’t helping.
She crawled along the floor, fighting to breathe, toward the bathroom. Grasping the edge of the sink, she pulled herself up and reached for her bottle of Xanax. After gulping one of the tiny pills down with a handful of water, she took comfort in the fact that the attack would soon pass. Her face in the mirror seemed old, tired. She turned the shower knob to hot, knowing the hot water would calm her until the pills kicked in. It always did, but as the room steamed up she saw it again.
I warned you written on the glass shower door. Screaming, she wiped the words off then dashed around the apartment, jerking the curtains closed over the windows and ensuring all the lights were off. Although, that didn’t matter in the daylight. Her thoughts bounced around in her head, obsessive and frantic.
She rushed into the kitchen, opened the silverware drawer, and pulled out the biggest knife. Then she resumed her position on the floor, in a corner, with her knees pulled close. She kept her wide eyes trained on the front door and waited.
It’s not enough, her brain screamed at her. You haven’t done enough. Pile boxes in front of the windows! Call the police, for Christ’s sake!
“The Police,” she said aloud. “Fuck!”
Clutching the knife in one hand and forcing herself to take deep, controlled breaths, she crawled back into the bedroom to her shattered phone. She pushed the home button and saw the familiar picture pop up. Thank God! It still worked! She slid the arrow to unlock it and pressed the green phone button. Dr. Ray’s name filled the top three slots of her recent call list.
She pressed the top one.
“Hello,” the tired voice on the other end said.
“Sorry to wake you. It’s Marla.”
Following a heavy sigh, he said, “Yes, Marla. How can I help you?”
“I’m in danger!” she managed between rapid breaths.
“Calm down. Are you doing your breathing exercises?”
“Yes, but they’re not working! He’s coming! He’s coming for me!”
“You are having a panic attack again. Keep taking deep breaths. Try a hot shower until it passes. That always seems to help, right?”
“No! You don’t understand! On the shower–” But her pleas went unheard on the dropped call.
“Fucking AT&T!” she shrieked and hurled the phone across the room, hitting the far wall and denting the sheetrock. There goes the security deposit.
“Deep breaths. Deep breaths.” She rocked back and forth, covering her head with her arms. The knife rested against her back. God! The Xanax should kick in soon. I’ll be fine. I’ll be just fine. In, one-two-three-four, and out, one-two-three-four. In, one-two-three-four, and out one-two-three-four.
Dr. Ray was probably right; an anxiety attack had caused the paranoia because she already felt better. How ridiculous for her to be so freaked.
“I mean really, Marla? He’s just trying to scare you. Abusive SOB.”
She was definitely overreacting.
“Just do what you would normally do in the morning. No need to freak out.”
She laughed at herself as she made her coffee, and soon percolating sounds and delicious, fresh aroma of brewed java filled the room. Her eyelids drooped a little as she poured her first cup. The Xanax kicked into full gear. She felt relaxed and rather tired. It had been a long, exciting night after all. Was it really over? She couldn’t fathom never seeing him again, watching him smile, making her laugh, kissing those soft lips. But the comfortable chemical-induced calm allowed her momentary peace.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions, Marla.” Talking to herself often soothed her, allowing the thoughts to come out rather than bounce around in her brain driving her crazier. “I’m sure everything is fine. Just be glad he didn’t see that level of crazy. Don’t panic. Not yet. No need to panic yet.”
She sipped her coffee again and moved over to the large, living room window. At first, she just parted the curtains a sliver, peeking through them into the morning. It had snowed during the night, and a beautiful white blanket covered everything. It was Sunday, so many cars were still on the streets as all their owners slept in. Only a few tire treads marred the otherwise pristine white. It was a perfect morning.
“I love Xanax,” she sighed.
After sliding the curtains all the way open to let in the sunshine, she settled down on the sofa, pulled her lap blanket over her legs, and gazed out the window. Across the street some children were up playing in the snow. They had already formed the bottom of a snowman and were working together to roll the middle. A blue bird settled on a tree limb just outside. He held a worm in his beak. A car turned the corner and slid a little, but regained control before hitting the curb. On the top of the adjacent building, a glint caught her eye, like sun reflecting off glass.