You might have seen a first draft of a short story yesterday. I actually hope you didn’t because it wasn’t very good. This is a newer version that was more in line for what I had originally wanted. Instead, as you likely know, once you start writing, anything can happen – both good and bad. I hope you can put the other version out of your head and forge on through this one.
The title is fairly meaningless, meaning I haven’t thought of one and just wanted something there that helped me know which story it is.
A few questions at the end. Thanks for flying with us, and Happy Holidays.
The first time Cindy heard the noise, she easily accepted that it was really something from the dream she was having about Dracula chasing her through the halls of the elementary school she had graduated from nearly twenty years prior. The second time she heard the noise, there was a forearm across her throat. She fought for something more simple than anything she could think of: air. She swiveled her head left to where a knife waited next to the vibrator in her nightstand. One of them had been used only an hour before and helped her get to sleep after sorting out the frustration of yet another bad first date. One was needed right at this moment. Her head turn was limited, but it moved enough to see that it was 1:17 in the morning.
There were at least nine things she wanted to say, but not a syllable could squeak out her closing esophagus. Mom, I love you was one. I’ve never skydived was another. I’ve never been with two men at once was close, until she remembered last year’s Christmas party at work. Funny what goes through one’s mind as death approaches.
“Eehh,” was all she could muster. “Iihh.” But in her mind was “Who are you and why are you in my house?” She felt a rib crack, then another, and it wasn’t until then that she could feel past the forearm, past her throat, to realize that a man was sitting, no, kneeling on her chest with his eyes only inches from hers. She wondered what she had done wrong to invite such pain.
“Where is it?” he growled.
“Whee,” “Wha,” “What?”
“Where is it?” he said again, his forearm pushing further.
He gripped the sheets on each side of her face and pulled the fabric across her face, causing her to think that the effect of the forearm was now doubled. She twisted, kicked, pushed, brought her knees up towards his back, and thought for sure her knees were doing enough to his back to weaken his grip, but the result was nothing more than kicking at water that moved a bit but fell right back where it was.
All she had left were nails, but she had no nails. She curled her fingers, digging at his wrists, clawing at his back, but her commitment to working out, improving her cardio, adding a little more tone to her arms and calves, all that limited her nail length, and she accepted that she could fake the nails but not fake the body.
The cardio gained was fading quickly, bringing her to a moment of choice, a crossroads, of either forward or backward, but there was no forward. It was either windshield or rearview mirror, and she had to pick. Her body relaxed, her strength conserved, her thoughts eased. Things were blurry, and she remembered something from a self-defense discussion in a college class ten years ago. She pushed, tensed. Then something felt wet between her legs, but not a good wet. It was a bad wet. Too much wet. Warm wet. Maybe it would drive him away. Maybe not.
He seemed to sense something, and he eased up just a little but not enough that she could work with it. Her eyes stayed on his, hoping he would show a sign that he knew she was giving in. His arm lessened, and her throat ate more hungrily, as if there was an understanding that he would give her more air if she would give him more – more what? She had to wait and hope to find out.
“Where is it?” he asked again, his face not as close as before.
He re-applied his forearm, restricted her breathing, and returned her to semi-consciousness, then let her back again.
“Where is it?”
Neither her eyes nor her voice gave him anything helpful. His right arm, the forearm across her neck, the hand gripped her right shoulder, pulled across her body and spun her to her left and face down on the bed. She had a thought of what was next. His left hand grabbed the waistband of her sweatpants. She had a further thought of what was next. Except that his right hand grabbed the collar of her shirt, and with his left hand on her waist band, he hoisted her from the bed and threw her to her feet.
Before she could recover a moment, a moment to run, he leapt from the bed and was behind her, forearm again at her throat but from behind, his hip into her back and pulling her towards him so that her own body weight could choke herself against his arm. He pulled her backwards, from her bedroom, through the hall, and down the steps.
Sink your body weight, she thought. Rag doll. Make him work. But he dragged her just as easily down six steps, a left turn at the landing, another six steps to the floor. Instead of a collar, he now had wide hands gripping all her thickness of the ponytail she normally slept in. She dropped to her knees, but he didn’t totally relax enough, and she felt the pull enough to stretch her back upward to avoid the pain.
Play dead, she thought, like you passed out. Though she wasn’t far from it.
“No,” he said through gritted teeth. “You’re going to find it.”
He lifted her up by her ponytail until she cried and reached for his strong hands, trying to lift herself up against his force to gain even the tiniest slack for herself until she had no choice but to stand and face him. But it was too dark to face him.
The nightlights she had spread around the first floor were enough to see where she was walking when she needed either iced tea in the summer or leftover coffee in the winter, but it wasn’t enough to see exactly who the man was who was, to a degree, having his way with her. Shards of red, blinding flashes of red through her field of vision prevented her from distinguishing anything of his face, anything she could later recount when she hoped to sit, huddled in a blanket on the sofa while a female officer might ask sensitive questions and male officers search her bed for hairs and clothing fibers.
“What!” she yelled. “What the fuck do you want?”
“I want the book,” he growled again. “It’s not here. Where is it?”
“Why would I have your book?” she argued through tears. “I don’t have any book!”
“We sold you this house,” he said. “My books were left behind, and they were on these shelves.” He pointed to the built-in bookcases that flanked the fireplace. “Where are the books?” She struggled slightly. “Tell me where they are!”
“I don’t know!” she cried.
“Yes! You do! Think!”
She did, while keeping both hands on her hair, on her scalp, as if that was the only thing keeping it together.
“My sister!” she said. “My sister has them. I gave them to her!”
“Let’s go,” he said. “Drive me to her house.”
“She lives an hour away.”
“I don’t care,” he snapped. “Get your keys and let’s go. No cell phones. Nothing. Just keys. In the kitchen.” He guided her, still by the ponytail, to the kitchen where she snatched the keys from the countertop near the refrigerator and moved, barefoot, through the door into the garage where her car waited.
He guided her behind the wheel, then dropped to the floor of the backseat, still with a strong grip on her hair. “Go,” he said.
The hour she claimed was less than half, and she slowed to a stop across the street from a ranch on a rural road, far enough from anyone who might be passing, anyone familiar enough to pay attention.
“You’re going to knock on the door, and I’m going to be right next to you,” the man said. “If I want, I can kill both of you in less than two seconds.”
“Her husband is a cop,” she tried.
“Shut up. Lie to me again, and I rip out half your hair. Just do your best to stay calm, ask for the book, and we will go. Do it right and nobody gets hurt.”
“What’s so important about – ”
But that was as much as she could spit out before his strongest pull yet nearly sucked her into the backseat next to him. She knew that the smack against the steering wheel would leave a mark on her thigh that might need explaining if anyone were to see it.
He guided her from the driver’s seat, closed the car door silently, and moved her like a puppet across the street and up the front path.
“I’m going to let go of your hair. You run, and she doesn’t see tomorrow. Understand?”
“Follow directions, and everybody sees tomorrow, and you’ll never see me again. Understand?”
“You don’t knock. I’ll knock. You ask for the book. If she invites you in, you say you’re not feeling well and you need the cool air outside. You don’t go inside. Understand?”
“I hope so.”
They stopped on the cement and brick steps. Cindy did her best to wipe away tears with her shoulder. There was a booming knock, wait, knock again, wait. The door opened.
“Holy Christ,” said a woman slightly younger than Cindy but with similar hair. “What the hell are you doing? You couldn’t just call?”
“My. My phone isn’t working.” Cindy’s eyes danced to her left, then to her sister, then left again. The sister looked and looked back again.
“What’s going on? This seems weird.” She pulled her robe tightly around her chest.
“We,” Cindy began, then her head jerked slightly back. “I need a book I gave you when I bought my house last month. It’s got a red cover.”
“You want to come in and look for it?”
“No!” barked Cindy. “No. Just get the book, or get the whole box I gave you. If you have the box still.”
“I do. C’mon in and – ”
“No! Please. Please just get the box. I can’t really explain.”
“Okay, okay. Relax.” As her sister walked away, the man reached and pulled the door closed where it stayed until the sister returned. She held a small, cardboard box with no more than a dozen hardcover books inside.
“Here,” she said. “I hope this works out for, for whatever you’re up to.”
“I know it seems crazy, but just trust me. We’ll talk about it tomorrow, I – ”
But she was pulled backwards before she could say anything further.
“I’m okay,” she called. “Seriously. I know this seems bad, but I’ll explain tomorrow.”
“Call me when you get home,” the sister said, still through the open door.
“Go,” Cindy said. “Go back to bed. I’ll call you later.”
She put the box on the front seat and drove off.
“You got your books. Now what? Just let me go home, and I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“Of course you won’t,” the man said, re-gripping her hair from the back and leaning forward between the front bucket seats. “Watch the road, not me.”
“Where do you want me to go?” she asked.
As she drove, following his directions, she saw flashes of books as they flew from the box on the front seat to the floor in front of it. When the books stopped, and he said nothing for a while, she assumed he found what he wanted. When the grip on her hair was released, she was certain. They both stayed silent until she pulled up in front of a house in an unfamiliar area of town.
“We have to give this to my son,” he said. A book landed on her lap, startling her as if an uninvited hand were in her lap. “Go. Get out.”
“What about – ?”
“Go,” he repeated as he gripped her ponytail again and guided her out of the car and followed her to the front door.
Cindy thought about the time, estimating it was about three in the morning. She thought about the circumstance, perhaps a divorce or separation, and why she was needed for this instead of him doing it himself. Was her purpose to show his wife or ex-wife that he had already found another woman? Was this some kind of drunken vengeance? She hadn’t smelled alcohol, but there were other chemicals to influence behavior, especially bad behavior.
“Knock,” he said. “Bell doesn’t work.” She did, waited. “Again,” he said. She did. The door opened. Cindy locked eyes with a woman about her age, about her height, but her hair was rolled up in a big clip that dangled unevenly above the collar of a worn, pink robe that she pulled across her chest when a force of wind blew past. It threw Cindy’s ponytail in her face enough that she needed both hands to remove it. The gust blew past the woman at the door, causing her to fall half a step backwards. She sniffed at the air like a dog might when another dog is in the neighborhood.
“Can I help you?” the woman whispered.
Cindy’s mouth hung open as memories appeared. She remembered her across the table in a real estate office. She was explaining how her husband had been called away and couldn’t make it to the closing. A few syllables fell out of Cindy’s face, but it was nothing intelligible.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” the tired woman said.
“I. I mean.” Cindy spun left and right. She didn’t realize she was no longer holding the book until the woman looked down at her hand and then back up at Cindy but without any further knowledge of the moment.
“Oh! The book!” Her feet shifted. She held her eyes closed and, as her mother used to remind her, she did her best. “I was. I was with your husband.”
“Your husband.” Cindy looked again behind her. “I’m not sure where he went. I mean, he was – ”
“What do you mean that you were with my husband?” She again tightened her robe and quickly glanced behind her when she heard something.
Cindy tried again. “Your husband. He was at my house. I mean your house. I mean I bought your house recently. You might – ”
“Yes,” the woman interrupted. “I know. I remember. But what do you mean about my husband?”
“Well, he came to my house, your house. The house.”
Cindy’s thoughts caught up like a down escalator doing too fast. “Oh. No. Please, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not like you think.”
“You don’t know what I think,” said the woman in the robe. “Nobody knows what I think. And when someone tells you they know how you feel,” a tear formed, “they’re lying. They don’t know. Nobody knows.”
Cindy fought to understand but lost the fight when a boy appeared behind the woman at the door.
“Mom?” the boy asked. Cindy estimated him at about fifteen. She noticed how much the boy looked like the man who chased her into her car, her sister’s house, and then guided her, somehow, to this house. “Mom, look what I found in my room.”
Cindy looked at the boy, then looked at her own hands that held nothing.
The boy opened a red-covered book and held it up.
“Look here, Mom.” He pointed to something written in pencil inside the front cover and read aloud. “Everybody makes mistakes. But the worst mistake you can ever make is to not ask for help when you know need it. Dad.”
“That was your grandfather’s book,” the woman said. Then she looked up at Cindy, back to the book, and to the boy. “Your dad wanted you to have it, but he couldn’t find it.” Cindy watched as more tears formed on the woman’s face. “But this nice woman found it and brought it over.” The woman put an arm around the boy without taking her eyes off Cindy. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” said Cindy, her own tears forming. “I found it. And I thought it might be yours.”
“Yes,” the woman said. She mussed the boy’s hair as he flipped through the pages. He looked up at Cindy and smiled as both women fought – but lost – holding back tears.
“Right,” said the woman. “Holden, say thanks and goodnight to the nice woman.”
“Thanks, miss.” The boy extended a hand. Cindy shook it and watched him turn away, flipping through the pages.
“You’re welcome,” said Cindy. “G’night.”
They watched the boy head down a hallway and disappear into a room. The woman turned back to Cindy.
“Seems like a good boy,” Cindy said. “Holden?”
“His father insisted on that name. And he hasn’t spoken a word since he found – I mean – since his father left. Nearly two months. They rarely got along well. Hell, none of us ever got along well. He kept saying he felt like he was intruding on our lives, and maybe we would all be better off without him, but I never took that seriously. He kept telling me he had something he thought might help, but he was gone before he ever gave it to him. Pretty sure it was that book.”
“I hope so,” said Cindy.
“G’night,” said the woman. She closed the door, then held it, then said, “Come back. Any time.”
Cindy nodded, afraid what would happen if she attempted to speak. She turned and walked back to her car, hitting the remote to unlock the door. She fell behind the wheel and attempted to process what had happened over the previous two hours. She glanced back to the door, then started the car and drove home.
Ten minutes later she turned the key and exhaled fully as she locked the door behind her. She threw the keys on the floor beneath the coat rack without looking, eyes heavy as an internal auto-pilot guided her through the living room and to the stairs up to her bedroom.
The first thing Cindy did was find her cell phone. There were three text messages and one voicemail from her sister. She texted back, “I’ll explain it all tomorrow. Breakfast at the diner, 10?”
Her sister answered. “Ok. G’night.”
They met, and Cindy recounted the whole story, from waking up with an arm across her neck to the boy who hadn’t spoken for months. Then she waited for her sister’s lecture about living alone and maybe moving back in with her, but none of that came up.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” her sister said.
“Only one?” Cindy laughed.
“When you came to my house for the box, why didn’t you just come inside? We could have locked the door and called the police.”
“You think he was going to just let me walk into your house and let us call the cops?”
“He?” her sister asked. “He who? Cindy, there was no he. You were by yourself.”
Question 1: Not sure if you read the previous version of this story, but if so, do you think this is an improvement?
Question 2: At what point did you suspect and/or realize the man intruding was a ghost?
Question 3: I want a connection between the book and a slightly disturbed man, so I went with The Catcher in the Rye. Do you feel any kind of connection there? Does it matter?