Matt didn’t have to ask to know it had happened again. Gaby looked like a wax
carving with painted cheeks.
Without the sense of drama he would have felt a month ago, he locked and bolted the front door before even setting
down his briefcase. Gaby had also shot the bolt after she had come home from work, something neither of them used to do until
it was bedtime.
He kissed her, and felt resentment that her lips were cold. It wasn’t her fault, but he was
tired of having their love life upset by somebody they didn’t even know.
“Who was it this time?”
“The Shermans. Ruth nearly got killed. He had a knife. Jim beat him off with a chair.”
Her lips trembled.
A knife again, Matt thought. He’d always feared knives. Knives were unfair. They were silent, sliced deep into
your meat and organs, murdered you before you knew you were dead. How were they different from guns? He couldn’t explain
it to himself. Knives just sickened him.
The first two break-ins were bad enough. A house on the corner of their street had been entered and cleaned out before
the owners got home. They found MISSED YOU sprayed all over the walls in red paint. Next time, across the street, someone
was home. The intruder, masked again, had trussed up a mother and daughter and hacked off their hair with a knife. Whatever
else he had been contemplating was interrupted when their screams brought a neighbor pounding on the door. The
daughter, a gentle girl of fourteen, had been sent away to an aunt in Idaho.
As Matt washed up, thinking about this, Gaby telephoned the Shermans to tell them they were going over. That was what
everyone did now; they telephoned first. And all the kids were in well before dark. Nothing stirred on
their street anymore; cars driving through did so with their windows up.
The visit was harrowing. Ruth had aged ten years. She cried helplessly, her whole body clenched in on itself. Jim was
still angry. Red-faced, eyes glittering, he couldn’t stop talking. He had high blood pressure and a heart murmur, and
Matt was afraid he would drop dead on the spot. The hall and the dining room was a shambles. Chairs teetered on broken legs,
pictures had been ripped off the walls, their shattered glass strewn all over the floor. Something like giant claws had scored
deep welts on the paneling. Jim said he had made them swinging the chair. A small lacquered drum table lay on its side, its
delicate inlays crushed. The man had gone for the silver; all the drawers were pulled out. Matt looked at the obscene mess
and felt rage ignite and smolder in his belly. A slashed chair back, its stuffing bulging through, shook
him; he tried not to think of the knife.
Over every smooth surface was a layer of graphite. The police must have sprayed a ton of it around.
Gaby held Ruth
and walked her to the kitchen, murmuring, the tone soothing, though he couldn’t hear the words.
I could kill, Matt thought, I could easily kill this mad dog who’s been coming into people’s homes in the
middle of the night. An intruder sneaks in at a coward’s hour, pulls a knife, and changes you forever.
Jim said he was
going to have the house wired, cost what it would; they couldn’t live here anymore, otherwise.
When Matt and Gaby got home, she looked around at all the lights they had left on, every room illuminated as though
they were giving a party.
Matt spoke directly to the fear in her. “Nothing will happen here, baby. We’ll take extra precautions,
beginning with locking our bedroom door at night. He’s welcome to clean out the rest of the house but he won’t
get to us through the door.”
Shuddering, Gaby turned away. “You make him sound like a beast, like a werewolf with supernatural
powers. Should we sell and get away from here, Matt?” She was biting the tip of a finger and looking miserable.
Her chestnut hair, loose on her shoulders, made her look about fifteen. He loved the dainty neck under that hair; it
was his special preserve that only he had the right to touch and kiss.
But she knew as well as he they couldn’t sell, because they had just bought the house—not quite six months
ago—and didn’t have a spare nickel after mortgage payments. Why not, though? Why not put the
house up for sale and never mind if they didn’t get all their down payment back? Wasn’t it worth it to get their
lives back to normal?
When he told Gaby he agreed they should sell, she cried with a relief so wild it shocked him. “We’ll call
the real estate agent in the morning.”
Before he went to bed, he made house rounds, checking the windows. There were a lot of them. They had been delighted
to find an old house so airy and sun filled. And now so much glass had never looked so frail. It should be blacked out at
least, to give it substance, he thought. How the hell did this madman get through everyone’s defenses,
anyway? He had to be one very smart, very skilled guy. Maybe he even worked for a home security outfit and knew all the weak
spots in a house.
He was embarrassed about the tin cans dangling from the nylon fishing line strung across the basement windows. They
had put them up joking about the choice of labels on the cans: was tomato paste louder than tomato sauce? Could baked beans
make a bigger clamor than soup stock?
He locked the bedroom door and got into bed and Gaby rolled against him and hooked her leg around his. She felt soft,
female, a hardworking man’s compensation at day’s end.
“Why do you think he keeps hitting the same block?” She said it in a low voice, against his neck.
“Maybe they’re different people and don’t know they’re overworking it. Or this particular animal
is a psycho and enjoys the challenge. But that’s a solid door there,” he said, when Gaby stirred unhappily.
Don’t worry, hon.” He kissed her lips, warm now, and forgot about everything else.
Next day at work he went through an uncomfortable five minutes before he gave up and told the real estate agent the
“How am I supposed to keep it from the prospective buyer?” she demanded. “Anybody would want to know
why you’re leaving after you just moved in.”
The perfectly reasonable question made him belligerent. “You never told us about what was happening around here
when you sold us the house.”
“There wasn’t anything to tell. The break-ins began this year. I’m sorry, Matt. I can’t handle
this because we’d both be wasting our time. The best thing you can do is put in a security system. Call me again, maybe
when things quiet down.”
Without hope, he called another agent and got a vague promise to “drop up.”
tried one more. The agent, a brisk-sounding man, said he would come up that evening. Well, that was something, thought Matt,
and went home.
Gaby had fresh bad news. The neighborhood’s first killing, two doors down. It was a dog, and it had died defending
its mistress. Matt didn’t want to know the details, but Gaby told him anyway. The handsome German
shepherd had been knifed in the throat, and before it died had torn the flesh of its killer.
“A finger, “ Gaby whispered, burrowing in Matt’s arm. “There was a pinky finger in
the dog’s jaws.”
He had heard enough. “Listen, Gaby, let’s get out of here now, tonight, drive straight to Arizona. My brother
will put us up as long as we want.”
Wearily, she said the obvious. “We’ve used up our vacation time and we can’t afford to take leave
without pay. This house….” From the way she said it, she hated the house now.
He was beginning to hate it, too. They had sunk everything they had, their future in forfeit, and from castle it had
turned into prison. He had delighted in the big oak in the front. The lilac beside their bedroom window was Gaby’s special
love. When it bloomed their first spring she leaned against it and sniffed like a basset hound and crooned to it. Now
the small garden had become dry, brown and ragged, the sum of their lives.
The agent arrived at eight sharp. Apparently, he was unaware of the bad odor of their neighborhood, for after a tour
he said the charm of the house would attract buyers immediately. And the location was good. Matt averted his eyes as he agreed.
When the FOR SALE
sign was planted in front, Matt and Gaby opened a bottle of Paul Cheneau, their last extravagance on buying the house.
In two days eight
people stopped by. Most were young couples like themselves, ready to buy for the first time, and though Matt referred them
to the agent, they lingered to talk. He found in himself a surprising ability to prattle about nothing much in a pleasant
vein. When they asked why Matt and Gaby were selling, he told them vaguely, “A job change, took me by surprise….”
(almost true if that was what it took to move far away from here).
He did not look directly into their eyes. Gaby talked in a low voice that must have sounded sullen to strangers.
A few days later
they had a firm offer from the first family who had visited. Matt remembered their little girl. She had loved the big oak
in the front and asked if all the neighborhood kids would come and play if her father put a swing in the tree. The child had
bright chestnut hair like Gaby’s, and round blue eyes.
“We’ve decided not to sell,” he found himself saying to the agent.
right,” Gaby said without hesitation. “We have changed our minds.” She went to Matt and held his hand.
After the annoyed
man left, Matt went down to the basement and restrung the cans across the windows, a routine he performed after someone left.
It seemed the dark
arrived sooner each day than it ought to for October. They were already leaving the house before it was light, eyeing with
suspicion every person coming their way as they walked to the bus stop.
The Shermans moved away without waiting to sell their house.
One night Gaby cried out, “I’ve had enough of this! All we do is work and come home and lock the door and
go to bed and get up and go to work. We’re even afraid to go out at night in case someone’s broken in and waiting
for us! Matt, I just won’t take this anymore, you hear?”
He was surprised
at the anger she unleashed in him. Even as he thought they were like prisoners squabbling in a cell he lashed back. “You
won’t take it anymore? You don’t HAVE to take it. Feel free to go stay with your parents. Most
of the precautions we’re taking are because of you, anyway.” He resented her and he resented the tempers that
flared up between them every day. It’s this place, he thought. We have to get away. Contrite, he went to embrace Gaby,
but she stepped back from him and went into their bedroom and slammed the door.
That night, and the next, they slept apart.
Gaby awoke abruptly. Lying still, she tried to place the slight noise she had heard in her sleep. A tree branch brushing
the roof? Raccoon pushing over a plot? She closed her eyes but opened them again immediately. Sleep was gone until she had
investigated the noise. And Matt was out there in the spare room, probably with his door wide open. She swung out of bed,
felt for her slippers, then decided to go barefoot. She felt with her hand along the dresser, found the heavy silver hand
mirror Matt had given her on their second anniversary last month (Matt, I’m sorry. I’ve been bitchy
because you haven’t been making love the way you used to. I love you so much). She would make up with him tomorrow.
She held the mirror
at an angle, the edge away from her body. If only it had a three-foot handle! She unlocked the door quietly, looked both ways
in the hall, then glided across to check on Matt. His deep, slow breathing reached her, bespeaking exhaustion from too many
hours of overtime. She went down the hall, treading near the wall. Night creakings came magnified from shadowy corners to
her strained hearing. Air cooled against her breasts, moist from tension-induced sweat. The dining room
was empty, giving off the faint glint of the brass carriage clock.
Nothing in the living room, nothing in the kitchen. The prickling in her arms subsided and she forced
slow, calming breaths through her nostrils.
In the spare room, Matt hadn’t moved. Gaby drew the other half of the counterpane over him and went back to the
bedroom, closed and locked the door. The luminous digits on her bedside clock read 3:06. That was good. She still had three
hours to sleep, sweet sleep.
Gaby got into her warm bed and turned over toward Matt’s side and her foot touched a leg.