Sally pulled the shade back and slipped her hand between the glass and the woven black fabric. She couldn’t make out the violet veins that ran across her palm, but she did see the crosshatch pattern that was etched into her wedding band.
“They called them ‘privacy shades,’” Sally sighed. “At the store. That we could see out, but no one could see in. You know, like that special glass they use in interrogation rooms in all of the police shows.”
She opened the back door and stepped onto the deck, backing up several feet to survey the windows.
“I don’t think you can see in,” Ruth said next to her, cocking her head to the side as she peered into the kitchen. “Not really.”
“Mom, I can see the individual leaves on my houseplant.” Sally squeezed the bridge of her nose between her forefinger and thumb. “I can read the time on the clock.”
“Well, who’s going to be standing on your deck to check the time, anyway? No one’s going to look into your kitchen, sweetie.”
“Why would I have bought shades if they didn’t provide privacy? Who even does that?” Sally inhaled sharply and held her breath.
“Sal, listen to me,” Ruth said, sensing her daughter was soon headed to a plane it would be difficult to de-escalate from. “This is a nice neighborhood. Look at how much pride people take in their homes, their yards. That sort of stuff doesn’t happen here.”
But Sally and her mother both knew that wasn’t true. They watched Law & Order; they’d been interviewed by detectives. They’d lost things that were important to them, and knew things they could never unlearn. Killers didn’t care whether your zip code had an ordinance to keep your grass under four inches tall, or how many health food stores were in a five-mile radius. Belonging to a golf club or having an expense account did not immunize a person from having awful things happen to them. They both knew that, and to pretend otherwise was nothing but willful ignorance.
“Let’s go inside,” Sally said quietly. “Maybe we can put up some paper or something.”
But then Jack and Sally’s stepfather had come home, and Marty was complaining about the new condo building that was taking over the town supermarket’s lease, and the baby woke up from her nap, and the kitchen turned into a cacophony of chopping and benevolent shouts and the shades were forgotten.
Only they weren’t, of course, because every time Sally went into the kitchen past dusk, she imagined a shadowy figure who stood just outside the house, his eyes—it was always a man in her fantasies; and it was always a man who did these kinds of things, wasn’t it?—boring into her home life. He watched as she prepared the baby’s meal, and strapped her into her high chair. He watched as Jack came home—within a ten minute window, day after day—and poured a glass of red wine for Sally and himself. He watched as the little family sat around the table, each member sneaking scraps of food to the dog. He knew when they went upstairs to put the baby to sleep; he knew when Jack took the dog out each night; he knew the lights would be off downstairs at no later than ten-thirty, when Sally and Jack went up to bed.
He knew all of this because Sally had made it so easy for him. The predictability that would avail the family to the man’s cruelty was the very thing that maintained Sally’s sanity. Sally, like the faceless stranger, thrived on routine once the baby was born. She learned quickly that the old adage about babies needing schedules was true, and she soon clung to the spaces between the mundanity, the moments she could sneak away and steal for herself: the hour and a half each morning and afternoon when the baby would sleep in her own crib, untethered to her; the varying time after a feeding when the baby wasn’t quite ready for sleep, but would be content to gum at a board book by herself. The beads of empty time she strung together didn’t make a necklace—or even a bracelet—but they allowed Sally to ignore the growing suspicion that she was dying inside.
Unfortunately, while babies—and their mothers—may need routines, routines were what allowed serial killers and stalkers to target their mark. Sally knew this; she and her mother routinely traded soft-backed crime novels and courtroom dramas—despite their history— and she felt fairly certain, every time she left her home, that she would at some point walk past a sadist or a pedophile or someone who kept young women locked away in their basement. It’s just statistics, she told Jack. Whether the man would let her keep walking was another matter.
Jack had initially been unaware of just how much of Sally’s brainspace was hijacked by thoughts of the inevitable theft of her child, the murder of her husband, the rape and torture of herself. Last week, he’d caught her standing in the kitchen with the lights off and had been swift to brush off her worries.
“No one’s watching us, babe,” Jack said as he strode into the room in his boxer briefs. “And if they are, they’ll get a good shot of this!” He smacked his barrel chest and wiggled his hips.
Sally had laughed, too, but had lingered behind after Jack had gone upstairs. Once she heard the buzz of his electric toothbrush, she dropped to her belly and crawled along the floor, peering out of the corner of one of the shades. He’s out there right now, Sally thought. She knew it. She just had to catch him in the act, and then….
What? What would she do? Scramble to dial the police without alerting the voyeur to her intent? Smack him over the head with the fire extinguisher they kept by the door, or pierce him with one of the knives from the butcher block they kept on the counter?
Her biggest fear, beyond the very fact of confirming a violent criminal was lying in wait for her outside, was that once she found him, she wouldn’t be able to do anything. Her adrenaline would kick in, but instead of fight or flight, she would freeze. She could see him, striding toward her, her mouth opened wide in horror but stunningly, shatteringly silent. Unable to scream and alert Jack, the man would be upon her pressing a chloroform rag against her mouth and nose, laughing at how simple the whole thing was. He would throw her into the trunk of his car and drive her to a cave in the mountains, or tie her to a chair and wait for her to wake up before he carried the baby out of the door while she looked on impotently.
She’d always been vaguely afraid of home invasions in the way that all people who thrill in watching cheesy horror movies at slumber parties are. Sally and the internet had come of age at the same time, and the idea of someone fixating on her instant messaging presence—and tracking her down to her sixth grade lavender bedroom as she and her friends played with a Ouija board, or sneaking into bed with her in the single room she’d snagged her sophomore year in college—had vibrated just below the surface of her consciousness for the entirety of her technologically-wired life.
As the adults in her life—her own mother; the school nurse who led a special assembly, only for the female students, about how to prevent yourself from being sexually assaulted; the resident advisor who managed her college dormitory—had drilled into her, it was Sally’s responsibility to keep herself safe. Some line items on the Rape-Me-Not list, which had first come into existence when she was thirteen, included:
1. Don’t ever go over to a boy’s house, even if you bring a friend and his parents are home.
2. Never allow any man, even— especially—a friend’s father, to drive you home alone…
3. …and especially no teachers.
4. Do not be the last person at the party, even if it’s your own…
5. … and never, ever host a party at your home.
6. Do not stay out past ten at night, and always stay sober to drive yourself home.
7. Do not allow anyone to buy you any food or drink…
8. …and do not allow anyone to be alone with your food or drink….
The rules evolved as she grew older and Sally became both more savvy and better adjusted to living in the wilds of young adulthood. Of course, she had to make concessions on these rules, and each time she did, they caused her not a little distress. When she first began dating her husband, for example, he made a big show of wanting to pick her up at her apartment, drive her to their destination, pay for meals and movies and all of the typical dating rituals for 21st century heterosexual couples. It was only after their fifth date that she allowed herself to drink enough water to sate her during dinner and to consider leaving her plate and beverage unattended as she excused herself to use the restroom. They didn’t sleep together until their twelfth date, which was also the first time she let him into her apartment.
Jack thought Sally was more traditional than he was; not overtly religious, exactly, but a person who wouldn’t let herself get lost in someone whom she didn’t know well. And all of that was true enough, but he didn’t know that Sally also knew, deep in her bones, that one day her boyfriend would dismember her and scatter her limbs in different counties around the state. Or perhaps he would press the heel of his hand against her neck, tenderly at first as he thrust himself into her, but then more firmly and urgently as he got down to his principal objective, which was crushing her trachea.
Her fate was inevitable, she knew, and so Sally allowed herself to continue to see Jack. She brought him to her mother’s birthday party and her stepfather’s retirement lunch; she joined him at his family’s summer home on the beach. They went on double dates with their friends; they took cooking classes where they learned to form mozzarella from runny curds into a smooth white ball using their hands. They moved in together, Sally maintaining her lease while Jack hired movers to haul his boxes of polo shirts and loafers and golf clubs.
Still, she never let her guard down. Each night, she feigned fatigue in order to watch Jack’s bedtime routine from beneath her eyelashes, waiting until his breathing assumed the low grumble of a hibernating bear to allow herself to drop off. Instead of starting a diet like some of her fellow 20-somethings, she took refresher courses in self-defense every January. She saw a personal trainer twice a week, and increased their sessions to three once Jack proposed. Abusers usually showed signs of violence earlier in a relationship, she knew, but it was not unheard of for a partner to become violent after achieving a relationship milestone.
They married, they honeymooned, they settled into the patterns of an upper-middle class married couple; still Sally waited. The thought of a baby she couldn’t protect nauseated her, but when she became pregnant, she allowed herself to be temporarily swept up in Jack’s excitement, their parents’ promises of regular family dinners and large holiday gatherings. It almost felt normal.
But one night, Sally sprang up in bed, drenched in sweat, and she realized what was coming. She’d been so naïve—it wasn’t Sally that Jack was after, but their baby.
The last weeks of her pregnancy were spent in a blur of barely concealed panic; her OB-GYN admitted her a week before her due date out of concern for preeclampsia due to Sally’s elevated blood pressure.
She felt better in the hospital, though far from safe: there were so many dangerous medications that could be forced into her system, or even a single fatal bubble of air. Anyone could come in with a stethoscope and a name badge, masquerading as a medical provider. But Jack was encouraged to sleep at home and let Sally rest, which made the eighteen days she spent in her cot the first time in six years that she hadn’t worried her husband would smother her in her sleep.
When it was time, when the baby started its downward, headfirst spiral towards life on dry land, Sally mumbled to the nurses for the seventeenth time about her birth plan—the key being no narcotics, no epidural—she could barely speak through the pain, waves of agony rolling through her spine. Her tooth pierced through her lower lip as she clamped down bitterly, the lie of the necessity of a “natural birth” fed to her by other women no less a betrayal than her own body’s need for succor. She felt an icy tongue licking the nape of her neck as the needle slid into her lumbar, the anaesthesiologist cracking jokes as Sally lost the use of her lower body. Jack’s hand was laced through hers, his eyes warm and encouraging. Sally leaned back against the pillow as defeat washed over her. “Get some rest,” they told her, and she drifted off with visions of twilight sleep and changelings dancing on her eyelids.
The first days at home with the baby were a combination of incredulity, bliss, and exhaustion. Jack and Sally were two ships passing in the night, handing the baby back and forth so one could sleep while the other diapered and fed and lullabyed. Sally felt good; elated, even, and wondered if perhaps she’d been wrong, that the horrible fate she’d imagined for herself and her baby might not come to be after all.
But on the tenth day, Sally stopped sleeping, and by the twelfth, she knew that the time would soon arrive when Jack would do with the baby whatever he had planned. During his shifts, Sally would peer through a slim crack in the door or burst into the bathroom unannounced, hoping to take Jack by surprise. His eyes would always narrow in concern; she should be resting, healing.
“You have to sleep, sweetheart,” he told her gently.
Ruth came over every other day while Jack was on parental leave, and every day once his three weeks were up. The baby was larger, had already grown out of her newborn clothes, and still Sally was afraid that someone would come to harm her baby. She hadn’t uttered those words to her mother, but she didn’t need to; Ruth’s eyes were deep with knowing, and she reached out to her daughter whenever she passed by, grasping her fingers and giving them a gentle squeeze. We’re still here, she seemed to say.
Her mother was the one person whom Sally wholly trusted with her life, with her daughter’s life, and Ruth was able to convince Sally to sleep only on the condition that Ruth sat in the room, holding the baby while she napped on her chest. Sally’s sleep was fitful, but the minutes turned into hours and soon she was back into a regular sleep schedule—or the schedule that was demanded by a baby: sleep for two hours, breastfeed for one; sleep, breastfeed, repeat. Her mind began to clear; Jack hadn’t harmed Sally or the baby, and surely if he was going to do it, Sally thought, it would be when they were in their most vulnerable state post-birth.
Sally began to settle back into her steady-state of secret hypervigilance. Her husband, who didn’t need much encouragement to choose to believe that his wife was okay, resumed his peck-on-the-cheek before he left for work in the morning, his cheerful entrance at the end of the day. Sally’s stepfather came over every Friday afternoon with fixings for dinner and a song to teach his grandbaby. The only person aside from Sally who wasn’t fooled was Ruth. Because Ruth was just as anxious as her daughter; she was simply better at hiding it behind her practicality.
Three months after mother and daughter had examined the shades, the two were sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a brownie and a pot of chamomile tea. Ruth reached over for Sally’s hand, rubbing her thumb over the cuticles that had been bitten down to the quick.
“I wish you’d let yourself relax, honey,” Ruth said with a sad smile.
Sally withdrew her hand and brought it up to her face, resting her chin against the cool palm. “Do you?” she asked sharply. She looked pointedly at her mother’s left foot, which was kicking back and forth above the floor, pumping an invisible swing.
Ruth sighed and shook her head quickly, shutting down the question. “It’s not helpful…”
“None of this shit is helpful,” Sally muttered. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not with us all the time. Every day, Mom…” her voice cracked. “Every day I’m living it over and over and over again.”
“And you think I’m not?” Ruth’s eyes were wide in mockery, a rarity for her.
“Every day I wake up and I’m thirteen years old again and it’s happening, he’s there, but then my daughter cries and I have to just become the parent and seal up the fear and make oatmeal and kiss Jack goodbye… and all the while, there’s a little girl being stolen from her own backyard while we all watch.”
“Sally.” Ruth reached for her daughter’s hand again. “Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.”
Sally nodded and looked out of her shades, which were drawn to block the sun. She’d never relinquished the possibility that an invisible stranger was watching her outside in addition to the viper who lived inside her house. Was he watching them now? It was harder to see inside the house during the day, but it wasn’t impossible. And he’d know that her mother came over every afternoon, that they had lunch and brought the baby upstairs for her nap before sitting down at the table to chat. He’d know all of it, because despite Sally’s constant reminder to herself that routines were bad—dangerous, even—she couldn’t stop herself from doing the same goddamn thing every day.
In bed that night, Sally lay awake, nudging Jack every time his breathing hitched and came out in a snort. Jack had turned the alarm system on before coming upstairs; Sally had already checked it once, saying she was especially thirsty and needed a second glass of water. But the kind of person who would watch her—watch her family— every night would be wily and sharp; he would know how to bypass a security system, either by disconnecting both power and WiFi or, more likely, having spied on Jack and Sally enough times that he’d have seen the patterns their fingers made as they tapped the numerical code into the digital keypad. He’d have been able to hide in the cover of night, invisible to them due to their ridiculous, worthless window shades.
Sally climbed out of bed and slid her feet into her slippers. She crept down the sides of the stairs, avoiding the creaky spots in their centers as she pressed her body against the wall. The kitchen and living room were dark; the red light indicating the alarm was active was illuminated. She sighed and shook her head as she padded over to the pantry, removing a box of cheese crackers.
No one is trying to get in, she thought to herself as she shoved a handful of Cheddar Bunnies into her mouth.
She heard the floorboards creak upstairs and she stopped mid-chew, her heart already skipping in her chest. Silence, followed by a smaller creak, as if someone were shifting their weight, waiting her out.
No one is trying to get in, unless they were already inside, Sally thought as a cold flash of sweat soaked the back of her t-shirt, the spaces behind her knees.
It was happening, now. Twenty years had passed since Jessie had been taken, but she’d always known it was coming. They were marked, this family. She’d lived most of her life waiting for the inevitable, and now that it was here, she should know what to do. The self-defense classes had taught her how to override her fear and take action, but she couldn’t remember any of that right now: her mind was a complete blank, an icy pond on a clear winter’s day.
The cracker box fell from her hand, landing on the tiled floor with a hollow thud. Sally stared at it, thinking of the ants that would thrill at their luck. She turned away, facing the counter. She didn’t need to look her killer in the face to know he was coming.
Footsteps clumped down the stairs, emboldened by the crash in the kitchen. He was barefoot, it sounded like; the flapping of his soles against the hardwood were soft but no less persistent. Sally squeezed the granite countertop between her fingers, its sharp edge etching a groove into her palm. He was closer now; soon he would enter the kitchen and the confrontation she’d been waiting most of her life for would be upon her.
Sally’s head snapped up. No. She would not stand still, a doe in an open pasture inviting a hunter’s bullet. Her right arm jabbed out, reaching for the steak knife that was slotted into the bamboo butcher’s block on the counter in front of her. She heard the whine of the swinging door; he would reach her before she’d exhaled her next breath.
“Sally?” She could almost feel his breath on the back of her neck, almost will the hairs to stand on end. The voice was familiar, a perennial source of both comfort and terror.
She spun around, confirming her suspicions. He reached out to her, freeing the space under his left armpit for Sally to plunge the blade. His eyes widened in shock, then narrowed into confusion; his brow wrinkled as he reached for the handle sticking out from his side.
“I wouldn’t,” Sally told her husband calmly.
If she’d hit her mark— and she’d practiced this move dozens of times during her self-defense training—she’d stabbed Jack’s axillary artery, which brought blood to the human torso. If he were to remove the knife, the artery would likely be severed and he would bleed out. She wasn’t ready for that.
“Wait here,” she said, but Jack had already sunk down to his knees on the tile, blood seeping from his T-shirt and pooling around him on the floor.
Sally picked up her cell phone, which sat neatly next to Jack’s own—Sally insisted they not bring screens into their bedroom—and pushed the home button. Bypassing the passcode, she pressed “emergency” and keyed in 9-1-1.
“911, what’s your emergency?” an authoritative female voice said on the line.
“There’s a man in my house,” Sally said, casting her gaze over to her husband. Jack was twitching slightly, his fingers moving as if he, too, were dialing a phone. “I protected myself,” she continued. “I protected my family.”
“Is someone hurt, ma’am?” the operator asked. “Are there children in the house?”
“Someone is hurt,” Sally confirmed. “I’m here with my baby. We need your help.”
“I’ve traced the call—” the operator confirmed the address. “Officers will be dispatched to the location immediately, along with an ambulance. Try to stay calm, ma’am,” she told Sally, whose voice hadn’t wavered. “I will remain on the phone with you until they arrive.”
Sally nodded, and dropped down to the floor, crossing her legs as she looked into Jack’s eyes, which now had a glassy sheen. She reached out her hand as if to touch him, but Jack drew back from her, using his good arm to shield himself.
His wife smiled slightly, and sighed into the phone. “It’s always the husband, you know.”
Katie Blandford-Levy studied English and French at Macalester College, and received her MSW from Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. Her short fiction has previously been published in Bridge Eight Press. She lives with her family in suburban New Jersey.
© 2021, Katie Blandford-Levy