Rachel is not alone in her house.
| Six Breaths From October
Derek Berry Thorpe
Rachel Steinbok felt that uniquely sickening surge, somewhere in her mid-gut, the moment she realized there was someone else inside her house.
Acceptable in many other settings: in a cafe, a library, even in someone else's house, but not on a Monday night in her house, and certainly not at 11:28 pm.
A noise familiar in its character but deep within, she knew a human presence had to have caused it.
It was neither loud nor extended but it came, most definitely, from the dining room behind her.
It was some kind of scraping. Almost exactly what a wooden chair leg, dragging across the floor, would sound like. There was no one else in the house apart from her cat, Tabby, and she lay curled at her ankles, preoccupied with licking her hind paws.
Someone was in her house, in her treasured sanctuary and her heart marched up the avenue of her throat-- thumping that terrified, Pum-pump. Pum-pump, chest-drum beat of a one-man band.
She had just come from her upstairs bedroom watching the last quarter of the football game. The Jaguars were losing badly, and she couldn't shake her craving for the forest cake in her fridge. The last forkful went into her mouth, but she froze mid-chew when the noise occurred. The moist cake instantly tasted like sand and it fell from her mouth into the sink.
She reached for the black handle of the largest blade angling out of the knife block. As if she suffered from Parkinson's, the tremor in her hands made it difficult to maintain a strong grip.
Neurons firing at light speed, she mentally scrolled through all benign and malevolent possibilities that might have caused that sound. She pivoted and tried to decide her next move. She had no landline service in the house and her cell phone lay on the bed upstairs next to the remote.
The door leading into the kitchen from the garage was just feet away and it was still closed. The alarm console pulsed red. The house had been armed from the time she walked in from work, just after six o' clock. Was she really locked inside with some maniac the whole time? She'd been in practically every room at least twice, hearing and seeing nothing unusual. Perhaps there was a perfectly logical explanation for that noise in the adjoining room after all.
She continued to inhale without rhythm, nostrils flared, pupils dilated-- but her paralysis embarrassed her.
"Who's there?" she called.
Knife in hand, she took her first tentative steps towards the dining room. Tabby stayed curled on the kitchen mat licking and preening her strawberry mane.
"Who's there!" she called again. This time with more decibels and a slice of manufactured bravado.
She edged around the far side of the central kitchen island and moved with stealth, closer to the common area between the two rooms. From her position, she glimpsed the fireplace and mantle which was set into the corner of the dining room. The large framed mirror over the hearth provided a reflective view of the room and showed no one was hiding up against the wall waiting to pounce. The room was still cloaked in shadows, as the kitchen coveted most of the light.
"Hello, who's there? I have a gun."
She lied. Both arteries at the sides of her neck pulsed visibly with anxiety as she rounded the divide and flipped the light switch on.
Nothing. No frothing, toothless, crazed, axe-maniac in her dining room to be seen. Her eyes furtively danced around the familiar spaces. But on her second scan, when she looked closer, there was something.
Of the six chairs around the pine table, one was somewhat askew. Also from where she stood, she saw there were two puddles of milky fluid collected on the floor tiles, and on the counter with the wet bar sink.
She relaxed a little.
So it was Tabby after all. She just threw up and jumped from the counter to the chair. She reconsidered. No way! How could she move the chair if she had been curled up at my feet? The cat finished her grooming and padded along the floor to rub against her owner's warm leg.
Just as Tabby cleared the threshold to enter the dining area she stopped dead in her tracks and squealed in feline terror. Her back arched into a steep pinnacle and she hissed, like a venomous snake, at someone or something in that room.
Rachel's anxiety soared once again. She'd never seen her docile Tabby adopt such a hostile pose. The cat snarled and hissed again seemingly at nothing, while she was pressed once more up against her leg.
Without warning, Tabby sprang into the air. Twisting, flipping and screeching in a singular battle of epic production.
Rachel began to scream herself and it became difficult to distinguish which declaration of crisis came from whom. The cat's animated frenzy lasted a mere ten seconds before she fled the arena and bolted back through the kitchen and up the carpeted stairs.
Rachel, for her part, was left in a shaking mess after having seen her Tabby cavort in such an epileptic display. She retreated to the kitchen, whimpering in confusion, knees flexed and the knife held forward in combat mode. She could hear her own blood pulsing past her ear drums. The once soft downy hair which carpeted her neck and the center of her back was now rigid and locked at an angle much like the bristles of her brush.
And something else: the faucet was now on and flowing hot water from the tap.
How did that come on? She stretched to turn the water off and noticed the cake remnant that had fallen from her mouth into the sink was gone. There's no way Tabby could have eaten that without me seeing.
Rachel had enough. There was a man in her house and he had control of the utilities. The next thing would be electricity and probably the internet feed. She needed to call for help and fled for her upstairs room, helter-skelter, much like her cat had done seconds before.
She passed the entrance to the first bedroom then slammed and locked her own bedroom door. She dragged a chair from her vanity and slid the back up under the handle in her attempt to 'MacGyver' a barricade. Scrambling onto her bed, she noted for reference that her cell phone had eighty-two percent battery life left, in case he cut the power.
She dialed three numbers.
"9-1-1, what's your emergency?" said the robotic operator.
"Uh- hello, I'm Rachel Steinbok. I'm at home and I'm pretty sure there's someone in my house."
"Someone like an intruder? What's the description?"
"I haven't actually seen him. I just know. I sort of heard a noise."
"Okay, no description. I see your location on my computer. You said you heard something?"
"Yes. It sounds,um, weird. But a chair moved."
"Do you live alone, ma'am? Any pets?"
"I do live alone, but I have a cat."
The operator hesitated. "We'll send a unit over, ma'am, but there's a big game downtown so most of our free units are at the stadium. It might be a little while."
"What? I need someone right now!"
"Stay calm, arm yourself and or barricade yourself in a room. Try to call a friend or neighbor over until a squad car comes."
"Okay." She ended the conversation. The operator made her angry. It sounded as if she was reading directly from a recipe book without any emotional investment in her plight. She missed the days when the option of slamming the phone down was still a weapon of frustration. Still, she was glad she was able to reach someone.
She went to the window which overlooked her backyard and switched on the security floodlights. Nothing out of the ordinary. From her position, she could see her neighbor's house. Frank was most certainly at the game as his house was still dark. She sighed, as she really didn't know anyone else on her street that would babysit until the cops came.
In thought, her eyes lost focus looking out through the window. By default, this brought her image in the glass into sharper view. She was pleased that she wasn't startled by her own reflection, given her state of mind. Her silky dark hair was largely still in place despite the recent events downstairs. Although her brow was etched, her good looks still dominated. Even the shapeless football jersey she wore couldn't deny her enviable curves beneath.
She closed the curtains and went to the barricaded door. Leaning in, she placed her ear onto the surface and strained to hear anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. Not even Tabby. She felt bad for her cat, but there was no way she was opening that door to let her in.
She is probably in the nursery next door anyway, buried under a mountain of stuffed animals.
She muted the post-game commentary on her flat screen and sat on her bed.
Just sit tight and hunker down until the cops come, huh? she thought, mocking the operator.
She pressed the home button on her smartphone and the lit screen showed; Monday, September 30th, 11:40 pm. In twenty minutes, September would be gone forever. She hoped she was still around to witness that.
Rachel sat bolt upright in her bed. She figured out exactly who the intruder was in her house and the realization was like a numbing detonation in her skull.
It wasn't a madman or a stranger. It had to be that loser, Liam Gallagher. They had been considering marriage until recently before she called it off. He was the only one she shared her alarm code with. Last February, he even took her to Brazil carnival in Rio. He got her pregnant, and although she was hesitant to marry outside of her Jewish faith, she thought she might give it a shot.
One day, he surprised her with a brand new crib set and multiple stuffed animals, secretly installed into the adjoining bedroom without her approval. That had been just another misgiving she had about him. But when she announced that she wasn't pregnant anymore, he didn't take it well and refused to accept that she hadn't gone and had a medical termination. In truth, she'd began to bleed abnormally in her bathroom. The doctors only confirmed that the pregnancy was lost.
After that, the magic disappeared and she just wanted to be left alone. She stopped taking his calls and soon declined to even chat when he kept showing up at her favorite places.
"To hell with you, Liam! You shitty stalker! Halloween is not for another thirty-one days," she shouted through the locked door.
She wanted the world to know who was skulking around in her house and picked up her phone to post it on Facebook. If something happened to her at least all of her friends would know who to look for.
It had just turned 11:54; six minutes to midnight. Rachel had only written a few words into her feed when the water in her tub came on and she heard the rings of her shower curtain slide across the metal rod with that unmistakable screeching.
Each individual bone of her vertebrae, froze-- right then, into a cube of ice.
How in the hell did he get from downstairs into my bathroom?
The air trapped in her lungs escaped in a primal utterance she didn't know she was capable of producing. Springing out of her bed, she crossed the room in an instant, closed the bathroom door and held the handle shut against the doorframe with all of her being.
"What is your problem, Liam? Leave me alone! The cops are on their way!"
What came from behind the door next, contradicted every physical law she'd ever believed.
No voice pleading to get back together, no heartfelt sincere apology. Rather, a rage of unspeakable dimension. The door imploded, ripping the handle from her grip and thrusting her shoulder against the frame. The force was so strong, the upper and middle hinges separated from the wood.
Rachel winced from her shoulder pain and stood unbelieving at the twisted door in her dark bathroom. One hundred Liams could never be that strong.
Her lips moved, without voice, to a comforting verse of prayer she knew as a child, but by the end, it was contaminated with a long string of obscenities.
It was time to go.
She flung the vanity chair from under the bedroom door handle and burst out of her room. She said a brief silent goodbye to Tabby and she ran for her life.
Four-five-six long strides down the hallway. She passed the nursery and the carpeted stairway lay just ahead. She'd be out of her house in mere seconds, with enough time to press the panic button on the alarm console. What she'd do outside after that, she'd figure out when she got there. But her house was not hers anymore.
Rachel Steinbok would never know how that pre-midnight October breeze felt on her cheeks.
At the height of her terror, at the top of the stairs, she felt a strong push between her shoulders. She lost her balance and went crashing forward down the entire flight. Tumbling and rolling out of control, she spilled onto the floor like a discarded plaything.
Dazed, her prime objective to get out still resonated. She tried to get up, but someone held her legs aloft and began dragging her back up the stairs. Her head was numb from the minor concussion and now each violent bump up the staircase made it worse. She tried to grip the vertical rails of the banister to reverse her ascent, but her delicate vice was no match for the drag.
Rachel, in her fog, twisted to get a look at her silent attacker.
She didn't see anyone. She blinked her eyes to reset her cloudy vision, but still saw no figure holding her ankles, dragging her back up the stairs. Just a trail of what she thought was musty cat vomit stained the carpet.
Rachel Steinbok was immersed in an ocean of terror. What in the Holy hell was happening to her? She never thought that she'd now be wishing Liam was the intruder. After the eighth blow to her head, against the wall and up the stairs, her body was dragged, not into her master bedroom, but into the nursery and tossed absently against the crib.
"Help, stop. What is this? Who are you?" The weakness in her plea was evident. Too defeated to scream or mount a defense. She sat up, back against the crib rails, looking for something-- anything to make sense of this breathing nightmare. There was an odor in the air around her. Her closest approximation was old stagnant, once-clean water.
Her lips and right eye were bruised and swollen. Blood oozed from a cut below her ear. Nothing seemed to be happening. On the opposite wall, behind the clock face, both of Mickey Mouse's arms were almost together above his head. She attempted to get up but she was shoved back down hard against the rails.
"Whaaaat?" she raged through her streaming tears.
Then, as the first day of the new month began, a small ball lying on the floor rolled from its position and stopped between Rachel's parted legs. She could not comprehend this phenomenon. Rachel stared at the ball, exposing all of the whites of her eyes. She did not move.
Inexplicably, the ball moved back to its starting position and rolled again towards her, but this time swifter. It smacked against her inner thigh. With an unsteady hand, she grasped the ball and rolled it back to where it came from.
What is this thing hoping to achieve? To scare the living daisies out of me so we could sit and play rollie ball?
It stopped before it lost all of its speed and then it rolled back to her. This time, from literally out of nowhere, another object rolled with the ball. It was the black and red forest cake that had fallen from her mouth earlier.
What is this? An offering from this creature? Of all the things in this universe, I am to be haunted by a poltergeist who wants to play and eat cake.
Part of her terror transformed into a chunk of rage. She vented this energy by yelling and throwing the ball back at the thing. She regretted her protest as she felt herself being suspended by her left arm and thigh. She was tossed into the corner of the room against the wall, dropping into the pile of soft animals below. Before she could assess the damage to her person, she was hauled again by her neck and shoulders and flung hard into the unused crib.
She groaned in her agony, but more so, in acceptance of her plight. This thing was going to kill her on this first day of October. She lay on the infant mattress in a forced fetal position. The sheets were soaking wet with the same morbid sour fluid. It was enough for her to suppress her gag reflex at being in such intimate contact with the ooze from this unseen intruder. Yet still, there was a hint of familiarity to the odor and she tried to retrieve this olfactory memory.
She writhed and swam in the lake of her dreamscape. A semiconscious soup of blurred images.
She revisited that incredible evening on the beach in Rio de Janeiro with Liam while they were on vacation. The frenzy of the carnivale around the bonfire. Scantily clad, muscular, sexy bodies responding to the samba drums. The tall, painted band leader, with fake red eyes and arms like twisted cables, breathing fire and salvation. The masks of Bacchanal and the mash of flesh, fueling the sensual liberty. The sweet intoxication of the spirit infecting everyone. Suddenly Liam was inside her, and it seemed like the most natural act on the planet. The dance of copulation lasted well into the night. She was positive she became pregnant that night.
A woman knows the scent of her fertility. A woman knows.
Her head was pounding as she lay in the crib. It was an odd pounding. Painless but persistent... and musical?
"Police officers! Open up! Responding to a 9-1-1 call! Police!"
Oh my God, the police are here.That's them outside knocking on the door, I have to get out of here, she rejoiced in her head.
She looked around the room. She saw nothing but felt the presence of the intruder. She stood in the crib and put one leg over the rails, then the other. The police were still banging on the front door and ringing her doorbell. She took one step forward and the presence held her by the throat and pushed her back.
She could smell the scent of her own fertility and in one blinding flash, she knew.
She knew everything.
The weight of her epiphany could have easily crushed her but her own survival depended on the next few sentences out of her mouth.
"Take your hands off of me. This is no way to treat your mother, Hannah. Step aside while I answer the door this instant or you will be punished... And listen, you should know the abortion was spontaneous, it was not planned. It was not my will...I still love you."
The pressure around her neck increased. She could hardly breathe. Then, it was no more. The pressure, the odor, the presence all left and the toilet in that bathroom flushed on its own.
Rachel Steinbok left the nursery with a calm confident stride. She started down the stairs, in the same manner, one step at a time. By mid- flight, however, she couldn't contain her relief any longer and she bolted for the front door. Help had arrived. She disarmed the security alarm and opened the door to see two uniformed policemen.
"Are you Ms. Steinbok? Did you call about an intruder?" asked the senior officer.
Rachel was so overwhelmed, she didn't respond initially.
"You're hurt. You're bleeding, ma'am. Is the intruder still here?"
Both drew their weapons as they stepped through the entrance.
"Thank you for coming," Rachel began. "I'm sorry I wasted your time though officers. It was a false alarm. I feel so silly but it was my cat all along."
Rachel could not believe the words she spoke to her rescuers, but something deep from within guided her now.
The officer probed. "How did you get those injuries to your face? A cat can't do that?"
"I tripped and fell over a loose board on the stairs. I'm fine now."
"Is there anyone else here with you now? I know he might have threatened you to say nothing."
"No, I'm alone. Thanks for coming out. Sorry for the trouble."
"I'm going to have to take a look around if you don't mind. I'm not buying your story, ma'am."
Rachel stepped aside and allowed the senior cop to take a look at the ground floor level. His junior kept watch on her by the front door. The sergeant satisfied himself with the downstairs rooms. With his pistol at the ready, he stood at the base of the stairs.
"Lenny, sit tight and watch her and the perimeter. Ma'am, I'm going to have to look upstairs."
"Go right ahead, sir," she remained calm but incredulous that she failed to allow the officers to save her.
Rachel looked at the face of the young policeman. Officer Lenny Bortz had a kind and intelligent face she thought. He took the shoulder radio from its clasp and put it to his mouth, but he spoke directly to her in a whisper.
"I know you might be scared. It's obvious someone beat you up. If he's still here or if you want to leave the house, just give me a wink or a sign. We'll take it from here."
Rachel took a long drink of the night air and leaned in to reply to officer Bortz.
"It kind of sucks that the Jaguars lost again tonight, huh?"
The other officer called from upstairs. "Hey, Lenny. It's all clear up here. I got a freaked out cat, a busted master bathroom door and running water in the tub and in another sink. Any change?"
"No, come on back, Sarge."
The senior officer appeared at the top of the stairs and started down, replacing his weapon to its holster. Without warning, he swore and fell face first the rest of the way down the flight of stairs. A truly unceremonious descent. His service weapon landed some distance past his body.
Rachel walked over and squatted in her short sports jersey before the stunned cop on the floor.
"You see? You tripped on the loose board just like I did."
"No, no. I--I was pushed. Somebody pushed me!"
"Officer Bortz, did you see anyone push your partner?"
"No, I... Hey, Sarge, you okay?"
"Tripped on the loose board on the stairs just like I did then. Thank you guys for coming out. Have a good night, gentlemen," she said, rising to stand by the door.
She waited until the squad car left before she shut the door to head back upstairs. She had a birthday party for her daughter, Hannah, to attend to.
She sobbed as she entered the nursery. Her offspring had been living in the filthy plumbing alone all these months. She recalled clearly now that her original due date had been October first.
Rachel Steinbok walked into the bathroom. The sink faucet flowed with hot water and the mirror above glazed over in condensation. In typical child's handwriting, she saw a single Portuguese word: 'pai'.
She felt a sudden urge to urinate from her full bladder and sat on the toilet to void. She was at peace and in balanced communion with her body.
The toilet flushed on its own and she was at once filled with the presence, thrusting repeatedly up through the folds of her labia and into her once empty womb. She spread her legs and bore down, as if from instinct, allowing access for her cold passenger.
By the end of her sixth breath, the inbirth was complete.
Unperturbed, she looked down and rubbed the slight bulge under her football jersey while she sat.
Hannah will need to meet her father soon. He will want to teach her how to conceal her red eyes and to breathe fire and salvation. I wonder the cost of a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.