With the slow-motion surrealism of a cold-water diver crawling towards a distant sky, Alicia Wade swam towards consciousness. Awareness of her surroundings did not burst forth with the sudden crystal-edged clarity of a switch being thrown. Instead, she only gradually emerged from the pool of slumber that had engulfed her so completely the night before.
The at-long-last-finished work-week had been a killer. That, of course, came as a two-edged sword. On the positive side, she had snagged five new clients. The increase in business boded well. Perhaps her recent ebb in income would finally come to an end. She hated dipping into her savings and detested the notion of cashing in any of her stocks. If she expected any chance after retirement of maintaining an active lifestyle of travel, excellent cuisine, and a roomy home in which to visit with any children she (hopefully) created in the not-too-distant future, she would have to rely upon her own investments and resources. It was a lead-pipe cinch the money the feds stole from her in their ponzi-scheme of a "social insecurity" program would be nowhere to be found. Despite decades of yapping about "reform" and "saving" the system, anyone other than a fool realized the whole house of cards would sooner rather than later collapse of its own weight.
The older generations had saddled the younger and less numerous workers with this disguised middle-class welfare scam. They continued to out-vote and effectively veto their descendants. Even such a modest proposal as permitting the producers of their crumbling society to invest their "insurance" money in the market had gone nowhere. The aging leeches would continue to suck them dry then discard their empty husks.
With an effort of will, Alicia tore her thoughts from that too-familiar and aggravating path. While contemplating the ever-increasing injustices impinging upon her existence could perk her up with adrenaline-charged indignation, on Sundays she preferred a mellower route to wakefulness. Besides, no matter what the wider political and philosophical context against which she struggled, she lived in the here and now. What use to spoil her enjoyment of the good aspects of her life by dwelling too much on the bad she could only minimally affect?
She scissored her arms more tightly over her face to block the filtered light streaming in through the lace curtains. Drawing in a deep breath, she attempted to focus once more on the week-that-was.
One thing she was not was a morning person. A tough characteristic to fight for someone chained to a schedule of twelve-hour days Monday through Friday and a mere eight on Saturdays. The day would arrive, however, when she could throw that all aside and return to her true love. While she had sold few of the modest water-colors she had painted, she knew she possessed an above average talent. Unfortunately, that talent in no way approached outstanding. She could discern no path to a comfortable retirement via her paintbrushes and canvases.
With a self-amused smile, she grinned at her randomly drifting thoughts. For many people in their mid-thirties, such serious speculation on a retirement over three decades distant would seem supremely silly. Not to her, however. A sparse childhood -- in terms both of physical comforts and emotional support -- dealing with the arbitrary irrationality of an alcoholic father and a mousy, appeasing mother had provided her with what might be termed "anti-models."
Scrabbling for a meager existence, never casting an eye beyond the short-term necessities of life, indulging in beer-hazed binges and alternating between violent rages and smothering false "love": such precarious behaviors from her parents had pointed her in the opposite direction. While she had no problem immersing herself in the pleasures of the moment, she also realized with sober logic that the present needed to be integrated with the potential future and proceed from a considered past.
A faint frown curved her lips. Such integration, of course, did not come easily or automatically. While she might be emerging from the trough of lean economic times, her personal life -- more specifically, her love life -- appeared still headed for the pits.
The visit from Nate yesterday afternoon had been anything other than fun or amusing. She could not decide what to be more angry about: his attempt to ignore the multiple philandering that had finally ended their relationship a month before, his suddenly revealed religious fanaticism, or his arrogant (or blind?) assumption that she accept him back after the betrayals he had committed. Simply thinking about what he had done often set her limbs trembling in barely controlled outrage.
Twin lines of tears leaked from the corners of Alicia's closed eyes and trickled down the sides of her face. At one time, that evidence of a man's ability to affect her despite their break-up would, itself, have increased her upset. Now, however, she realized that the connections between her head and her heart -- her intellect and her emotions -- formed far more complex linkages than she previously had supposed. It had taken her a number of months to form her attachment to Nate Travers. Her conscious (and erroneous!) judgment that he represented values she shared had led to the warm feelings that had buoyed her through some rough situations.
Her frown deepened. No. That characterization did not adequately capture the truth of their affair. Nate did possess many admirable qualities. She did not believe herself so inept as to be totally taken in by his actions. He displayed a lively sense of humor. His passion for sexual involvement had taught her just how engrossing that activity could be. His willingness to delve into novel activities had captured her attention and brightened her existence. All that had to be acknowledged.
Unfortunately, the qualities requiring a longer time frame to demonstrate -- trust, commitment, integrity -- had revealed their absence only after she had developed a real attachment to his precocious and handsome self.
She knew too many women (including her younger, more naive self) who would interpret the aching pain she felt when remembering Nate as an indication that, perhaps, she had been too hasty in dumping him. Maybe if she only worked harder, she could change him and recreate that earlier joy. She should trust her heart over her head.
Thank maturity for sparing her the additional burden of that delusion! Rather than berating or second-guessing herself, she realized her emotions had simply not yet caught up with her new judgment. Eventually her subconscious would work through the apparent contradiction and establish her fresh insights as the basis for the new feelings images of Nate would elicit. Time would once more bring her decisions and responses into congruence. Until then, unfortunately, she would simply have to work through the pain and accept it as part of the healing process.
Sniffling, letting the tears flow as they would, she dropped her arms to her sides and succumbed to a good old-fashioned cry. When at last the pangs lessened, she sighed a self-indulgent breath and stared at the blank expanse of the pale-blue ceiling, a faux sky that calmed her burbling insides. Gradually, her smile reasserted itself, though with a quiet undertone.
Sunday or not, morning person or not, the world beckoned...not to mention her bladder and her stomach.
Tossing aside the light, pastel green comforter, she sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress sagged under her weight. With her nose still running, she leaned over to snag a tissue from the container perched on the nightstand.
It was in the middle of blowing her nose that she spotted the muddy footprints trailing away from the bed and out into the hallway.
As the implications of that startling evidence of an unknown visitor sank through her initial shock, her heart stuttered. Only for a moment, though, did her paralysis last. Lunging up and out of bed, she raced for her walk-in closet. She cursed her excessive caution in storing her .38 revolver in its box on the top shelf above her clothes. Many of her friends had young children, and she had always thought it better to avoid tempting fate.
Tearing open the black plastic case, she snatched at the chrome-plated gun. Its abrupt weight felt infinitely reassuring in her sweating hand. Fumbling with the speed-loader, she flipped open the revolver's six-shot cylinder. Clumsily, she jammed the captured hollow-point bullets into the waiting holes. A quick twist of the loader's knob released the rounds into their tiny homes. With excessive force, she slammed the cylinder shut. Pausing at the closet's entrance to calm herself, she wondered how next to proceed.
The hammering in her chest and the rapid rise and fall of her breasts testified to the intensity of her reaction to the alien, drying lumps of damp dirt. Those clues marred the perfection not only of the expensive bedroom carpet but also a formerly beautiful day. Her racing mind spun through a half-dozen scenarios as to how this might play out.
Did the intruder still lurk somewhere in her overly-spacious home? Did he sleep even now in one of her spare bedrooms? Or toss fitfully on her living room couch as the television prattled on with whatever inanities filled a Sunday morning's fare? Did he -- surely it had to be a he, she thought wildly -- did he hide somewhere, waiting in patient amusement for her to stumble upon him during a panicked inspection of her house? Was he observing her at that very moment, scrunched under her bed, perhaps, grinning at her half-dressed figure clutching a rarely used weapon?
(And she had neglected practicing with her gun. Her initial enthusiasm and resolve to gain proficiency in its use had faded under the day-to-day pressures of earning a living in an increasingly competitive world. That omission she vowed to rectify.)
Stealing a quick glance under the sturdy cherry wood bed frame -- empty, thankfully -- Alicia laid the revolver at her feet and yanked a pair of blue jeans from the closet rack. Constantly sweeping her gaze across the bedroom -- and especially down that long hallway -- she hopped into the jeans and zipped them closed. Shimmying next into a red sweatshirt, she stuffed her bare feet into a pair of old tennis shoes and quickly tied them.
Scooping up the revolver in her right hand, she felt far less vulnerable. A distracted part of her marveled at how much difference clothes made in one's attitude to facing potential danger.
She had traversed half the distance to the bedroom door when a vague memory forced its way into her consciousness. Somewhere, somewhen, before purchasing her gun, she had read an article on home defense. The author had insisted that the surest way to get yourself killed was to search out a criminal. All the intruder need do was lie in wait and...
Rather than charge foolishly into the open, Alicia modified her plan in midstream. Closing the door -- damn! no deadbolt; another oversight to correct -- she scurried over to the gray portable, digital phone resting in its cradle on the nightstand.
Punching in the three digits, she waited for the dispatcher to answer. With a maddeningly slow drawl, the woman on the other end listened while Alicia explained her situation.
Are you hurt?
Is the intruder still there?
I don't know.
Are you alone?
Yes. But I have a gun.
Ten minutes later, a patrol car with lights flashing blue and red screeched to a halt in her driveway. Two officers emerged from their vehicle and cautiously approached the house.
Shouting out a window that she would run down and unlock the front door, Alicia flung open the bedroom door and dashed down the stairs. Noting the line of dried prints curving towards a broken living room window, she twisted the front door dead-bolt open and admitted the policemen.
A quarter hour of searching produced no evidence of the person who had broken into her home. Once that fact had been established, the two middle-aged cops relaxed and seemed to lose interest in Alicia's situation. A few more questions completed their investigation. The younger of the two men glanced reprovingly at the revolver Alicia had laid on a lamp table in the foyer.
"You can get yourself killed with that," he said almost angrily, gesturing.
Alicia thinned her lips. "Just what would you suggest I do if someone forces his way in here? In the ten minutes it took you to get here, I could be dead." The man's condescending tone grated against her relief that whoever had violated her privacy had departed without harming her...physically, anyway.
"Don't resist. Give him what he wants. Surely there's nothing here worth dying for," he said with an artificial smile of support.
Only my life, she thought savagely. "Well," she said, struggling to keep her voice even and devoid of the sarcasm she wanted to unleash, "women who use handguns to defend themselves are safer than those who don't."
The officer grunted his contemptuous opinion of that. "If you see anyone lurking about, give us a call."
"Thanks," Alicia said sourly, easing the door shut. As she snapped the lock home, she murmured, "You sexist pig." A reluctant smile danced across her lips as she caught the dual nature of that particular insult. Leaning against what no longer felt like such a substantial barrier, she said, "By the time you got here to defend me, you fucking bastard, the only thing you'd have to protect would be my corpse."
With her day of rest ruined, Alicia called a repairman to fix the shattered window. She gladly paid the extra money to have the work done that day. Fragile though it might be, an intact window added to her peace of mind. Once the man had collected his check and left, Alicia returned to her bedroom closet and pulled down the leather holster and belt she had purchased along with her gun. Despite an initial sheepish feeling, she did not take long to grow accustomed to the weight of the pistol on her hip. What she would do tomorrow, she could not decide. She had no carry permit for a handgun. Since she had no political connections, the odds of the current paternalistic sheriff granting her a request to obtain such a permit appeared somewhere between minuscule and none.
Annoyed at the necessity of choosing between exercising her right to defend her life and the potential legal repercussions of being caught with an unsanctioned weapon, Alicia prowled her house and yard until her bitter sense of betrayal drained away.
Distasteful though it was, she at last dug her Eureka out of the hallway closet and vacuumed up the detritus of the individual who had violated the sanctity of her home and her existence. She had just started on the tracks in her bedroom when an oddly disturbing realization clamored for her attention. Switching off the upright, she stared at the smeared trail of mud that ended beside her bed.
Despite her determination to keep her perspective about this onerous situation, Alicia shivered uncontrollably as she imagined just how closely this pervert had been to her while she slept. Mere inches away. He could easily have reached over and...
Hot tears gushed down her cheeks. "Damn you!" she screamed to the air. "Damn you to hell and gone!"
All her life she had sought a moderate level of stability and security. In one tragic moment, all that effort had been swept away by a few ounces of crumbling dirt.
Her gaze darted to the phone. For another wrenching moment, the image of Nate's large hands and strong profile filled her mind's eye.
No. No, she would not succumb to that. Angry, she might be. Frightened, most definitely. Desperate...? Not yet. Not that way. She had other friends. People who would support her. Individuals she could trust. Susan, maybe. Or Tony. Someone. Anyone other than Nate.
Walking briskly to the phone, she picked it up and hit the speed dial.
After four rings, a woman's voice answered. "Hello?"
Grasping the handset in a white-knuckled grip, Alicia stifled a sob.
"Who is this?" the voice asked in sudden alarm.
"S-s-susan. It's Alicia."
"Alicia! What's wrong?"
With the rushing force of a broken dam, words spilled out as Alicia recounted the day's distressing events. As she did, her tears renewed themselves, but more quietly now. Sinking onto the mattress, she lowered her forehead into the palm of her left hand. She experienced a sense of relief simply unburdening herself to a friend who actually cared what happened to her.
As she recalled her furious reaction to the police, her gaze fixed on the last set of muddy prints. Mockingly, they announced where the intruder had loomed over her, staring at her oh-so-vulnerable body clothed in its flimsy nightgown. The dirt from her flower patch clearly outlined the soles of the tennis shoes the man had worn, even marking the curve of the instep.
Subconsciously, her eyes lifted to retrace the path the man had taken. The vacuum still held its lonely mechanical vigil where she had left it.
Then it hit her: the prints. They stopped on the left side of her bed. Casting about the room, she saw nothing to suggest the criminal had walked away. No prints. No depressions in the rug. No open window he might have leaped to. Nothing.
So how had he...?
A frigid stiletto of atavistic apprehension slithered through her veins. As a rational woman, she did not believe in ghosts or goblins or any shred of the supernatural. A logical explanation had to exist for what at first blush appeared to be clearly impossible...even though, at the moment, she could not glimpse even the haziest image of a sensible solution to this puzzle.
The growing concern of Susan's phone-diminished voice barely penetrated Alicia's awareness.
A man she did not know -- not Nate; the prints were far too small for him -- had crossed a threshold he had no right to break. A man she did not know had headed directly, purposefully, from her living room, up a long flight of stairs, and then stood hovering over her like some vampiric apparition in the darkness of the night. A man she did not know could have murdered her before she could offer the least shred of resistance.
What would she do if -- when? -- this unknown monster returned to haunt her dreams?
Without thinking about the action, she drew the shiny revolver from its holster and nestled it in her lap.