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Fiction Page 21



Lawrence R. Dagstine

It was something Joanne did not want to hear after she'd already tucked herself in for the night.  Definitely a thumping sound, and it was definitely something unusual to her new two-floor brownstone apartment.  She had almost dozed off with a good book in her hands, but now the noise had her wide-awake and feeling somewhat apprehensive.  Instinctively she put the book down on the nightstand and raised her head off the pillow and tilted it, listening intently.  Two distinct footsteps fell upon the wooden kitchen floor directly below her bedroom.  She dropped her head back and pulled the blankets over her.  Somebody was in her apartment! A feeling of panic began to grip her, and her breath shortened to a wisp.  Was there a burglar downstairs, or was she just jumping to conclusions? She had locked up for the night.  But of course foolish thoughts froze before they had a chance to race through her mind.  Just in case it was a prowler, she couldn't chalk up a straight idea to save her life, and at the moment that was exactly what she needed most.
One thing was for sure.  She had just finished the final chapter of a Dean Koontz suspense novel, and all those other books she'd read about murderers and unsoundly stalkers were doing little good, except to force a tear down her face as she lay shivering under the blanket.
Moments later things quieted down.  Perhaps they weren't footsteps after all, but the loose shutter above the refrigerator which the building's superintendent had refused to fix for so long.  She gave a slight sigh of relief, and a thin smile began to cross her face.  She whispered to herself aloud, "Silly.  It's probably just the wind.  I'll bet you forgot to close the kitchen window again." For a second there she even considered the neighbor's cat, jumping back and forth off the ledge.
She lay still and silent for a few more minutes before fully convincing herself to turn off the lamp on the nightstand and drop the blanket from her head---but she still wanted to be sure.  She eased her legs out of bed and put on her slippers.  Before that the floor felt frozen beneath her feet, and she dimmed the lights to where she could just feel her way around the room, or just in case, duck in some shadows.
As she approached the door, her steps touched the parquet tiles ever so slightly, almost as if she was walking on the balls of her feet.  She did her best to remain silent, even though she was sure it was the wind.  She kept telling herself over and over that it was only her imagination, and that everything was going to be all right.  But then she cursed her own weakness as a floorboard creaked, protesting her own passage.  She'd made it all the way to the top of the stairs when she noticed the lights were on.  She had already stopped in her tracks, upset at herself, when she heard the new sound issue forth from the kitchen, along with part of what looked like a human shadow.  
A man's voice, deep and throaty, cried out, "Hurumph!" The footsteps were crossing the kitchen floor again, this time approaching the base of the stairs.  Joanne turned and bolted back into the bedroom and slammed the door shut.  The intruder, obviously now aware of her presence, saw that there was no point in keeping silent any longer.
       Upstairs, Joanne locked the door and slid a chair against the knob.  She cried openly and ran to the phone on the nearby bedstand---the same stand with the lamp and the book on it---and, very greatly frightened, sat on the floor against the wall just beside the bathroom door, trying to figure out what number she should dial.  A friend's number? Maybe contact a family member? 911 for emergency? Her fear had catapulted her into a state of utter confusion.
The bathroom next to her had two doors: one from this bedroom and one from the second.  She rushed inside, practically tripping over the bathmat and pulled the little gold latch.  As she tightened her grip on the portable phone she slid down to her knees and banged her head along the side of the tub.  Her ears were now ringing, and her whimpering face was glued against the cool synthetic-tile wall.  For a split second she listened, barely able to halt her panicked cries and deep breaths.
Thump.  Thump.  Thump!
The sound of heavy boots was coming up the stairs at a rapid pace---in fact probably already at the top! Joanne forced herself up, though shaking violently.  She went to the bathroom window and screamed at the top of her lungs, but no one heard…no one could hear her desperate cries.  Then she decided to try the phone again.  With some fumbling she set it to her ear.  She had dialed 611 instead of 911, so terrified that she mistook the 6 for a 9.  
Outside the bedroom, the intruder fiddled with the doorknob, and as if by magic the lock clicked and the door was open.  The chair that acted as a wedge fell and a dark figure entered.  It now became nothing more than an obstacle for the intruder's footsteps.  Joanne suddenly realized she'd left the key in the hole on the other side.  Like a fool she had always left it there.  
She didn't wait around to face whoever it was that was stalking her.  She threw the phone down (she saw that it was low on battery power so she couldn't take it with her) and unbolted the gold latch that led to the guest bedroom.  She fled inside and swung the door shut behind her.  She wanted to scream again but fear choked her as if it had a thick hand wrapped around her vocal chords.  She tried to gather herself but the feel of a trickle of blood (probably the result of the tub from two minutes earlier) rolling down her head caused the room to spin.  She rocked in gentle circles ready to lose control and perhaps consciousness at any moment.  The sound of the door being forced open kept her awake and fully aware.  But after a while defeat stomped her courage, and she felt as if she was about to have a panic attack and blackout.
The intruder now came into full sight, appearing in the arch of the doorway.  He had used the same key to open this door that he had used on the first bedroom door.  He wore a black three-piece suit and his hair was clean-cut and perfectly groomed, shaped sort of like a 1930's cowlick.  Joanne gasped, knowing he was perfectly average and undescribable, just like all the murderers and stalkers in those Dean Koontz-style novels.  She ran to the window, but it was locked.  She started screaming and clutching her arms to her face and kicking wildly.  The man smiled at her and these uncontrollable actions through the darkness.
He took a step towards her, obviously hiding something behind his back...something perhaps sharp and deadly.  Joanne took two steps back herself.  She could not make her way around him and back out the door.  Her strength was practically gone.  With wide eyes she turned to the intruder and their gazes met.  She froze in utter horror.  It was that moment which seemed to pass in slow motion as her whole life flashed before her eyes.
Then, without further ado, the intruder pulled the hidden object from behind his back and thrust it at her.  A book.  A very large book.  And then the figure knelt down, making his presence known…"Sis? Sis, are you all right?"
Joanne was huddled in the corner, confused. "What?"
"It's me, your brother.  You locked me out again so I had to climb up the fire escape through the kitchen window.  I wish you wouldn't do that.  I ruined my good suit."
Joanne grabbed the book out of his hands. "You scared me half to death! Haven't you ever heard of knocking, Kyle?"
Kyle threw her a freakish glance. "I had a date tonight and it ended early, so sue me.  Jesus, what's wrong with you? Anyway, I'm going to Cheryl's place and I just wanted to drop off that book you lent me.  It was great…had me hiding under the covers most of the night."
Joanne looked at the title of the book.