I trudged through my mountain homework while sitting on the couch, legs crossed, blanket over me. A candle on the mantel filled the room with a pumpkin fragrance, providing a seasonal scent that matched the cobweb decorations and plastic spiders near the fireplace. I worked through Macbeth, deciphering the genius of the dialogue, trying my best to answer the questions Mr. Chuchta had handed out. But I was having trouble concentrating. Every page or two, Sam and Destiny would waltz their way in front of me. I swatted at them, shooing their happiness away. But they’d sway right back, undeterred by my efforts.
My mom wasn’t home yet to help me talk through the hurt. She was working two jobs then, her way of paying bills and forgetting how alone she was. So, when Sam and Destiny wouldn’t leave me alone, I gave up and decided to take a shower.
I let the water run as hot as possible before getting in. The contrast of cool air to hot water was invigorating on my skin, clean. With my hands on the shower wall, the water ran heavy in my hair as I let my thoughts vanish in the steam. My chest relaxed. My lungs opened. I felt like I could sing again. With the water streaming over me, I sang verses from the song for our upcoming competition, losing myself in the lyrics and the heat.
I could have stayed there for hours. But the water eventually cooled. I turned the faucet off. Final drips fell to my feet. The wide mirror of the bathroom had fogged. The air was steam. I cracked the bathroom door open to thin out the air. Taking my towel from its hook, I bent to dry my hair. When I did, I caught a glimpse of someone standing in my room.
My heart lurched. I shied behind the door. With the towel now covering me, I glanced for another look, just to be sure, peering at a cautious angle through the slim gap between the door and frame. Pale limbs and black hair stood in the corner of my bedroom. They took a step towards me.
I slammed the bathroom door shut and locked it. I shuffled backwards until hitting the wall. I tucked myself behind the counter, trembling there like a frightened animal. I had no idea what to do. I was covered in a towel, still dripping. I had no weapon, no phone. I watched the doorknob, waiting for it to turn. I had no idea what would happen when it did. I remained paralyzed, stunned. The water dripped down my back and legs.
I heard my mother downstairs. She was home from work.
I stomped on the floor and shouted. I didn’t stop until her voice was heard in my room. “Sarah? Where are you? What’s wrong? Sarah!”
Throwing the door open, I imagined the other woman standing in horrid watching silence from the corner. Only my mother was there. I told her someone was in the home and we had to get out and call the police and go, quickly. My vivid fright convinced her. She said, “okay, okay.” I grabbed some clothes and pulled them on as my mother followed me. We went out into the night and waited for the police in a dark empty night.
The cruiser eventually pulled up. I had expected sirens and flashing lights. I had expected them to speed their way to us, screeching to a stop, concerned for our immediate safety. But the two officers stepped out of the cruiser like plumbers after a twelve-hour day. While the moseyed up to us, all I could think about was how long it took for them to get to our home. It had been at least fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. It seemed to be enough time for my mother and I to both be murdered a few times each.
Still outside, the officers spoke to us, asking questions. I explained what I saw. The woman. One of the officers went inside to search the house, while the other officer stayed with my mother and I, jotting down notes in his notebook while offering attempts at light-hearted conversation regarding Halloween and the trouble of finding the perfect Halloween costumes for each of his children.
A little while later, the other officer came back outside. He’d finished his search. He was alone. Maybe I expected him to drag the woman out in cuffs, or maybe to tear away her mask to reveal some Scooby-Do twist of an ending that would suddenly make sense. Brushing off my fear with his hands, the officer announced, “The house is clear. There’s no one inside.”
That didn’t make sense at all. For all I had imagined, whether it be the woman walked out in handcuffs or even gunshots splitting the night, the last thing I expected was nothing.
I could sense the woman’s presence, imagined her standing at my bedroom window, looking down on us in distant amusement. “Please,” I begged. “Will you look again?”
The officer hesitated. But he was convinced by how afraid I was, convinced that it mattered to me. “Sure.”
This time, all of us went inside. My mother and I stayed near the front door, tucked together beneath the entryway light.
The same officer who investigated the first time did so again, clambering back up the stairs with his hand on the rail and his eyes up before him. Footfalls could be heard above us, going from one end of the house to the other, with silent pauses in-between as he sifted through a closet or peeked beneath a dresser. Then he came back down, showing us his empty hands, as if he would have been cradling the intruder in his arms.
I didn’t understand. Couldn’t comprehend it. How could he not have found her? The woman had been so tall, tall as the ceiling.
The adults stepped into the kitchen without me. I continued to look at the stairs, certain the woman would come for me while my mother and the officers unaware.
I could hear the whispers from the kitchen. The officers told my mother there was nothing else they could really do. My mother then assured them with a hint of embarrassment, “she’s really not like this.”
After the officers left, I spent several minutes attempting to convince my mother that I wasn’t making it up. The woman was too tall. I had seen her take a step. That’s when I saw the way my mother looked at me. Like I was a child. Like I had disappointed her.
“Let’s get some sleep, Sarah,” she said. “You need a good night’s rest. I know you’re stressed with tests and I heard about what happened with Sam.”
That upset and frustrated me. While residual fear continued to play at me, making me question myself and what I had seen, suddenly, now, my mother had brought up the one name I didn’t want to hear. Sam’s. Sam. All the ugly emotions from earlier in the day returned. It was like being sick with the flu and then falling down the stairs. I asked touchily, “How do you know about that?”
“Emma’s mother called me.”
“How would anything with Sam make me see a woman in my room?” My voice rose. “Why would anything with Sam make some woman appear in my room? How? Tell me?”
“I don’t know,” my mother said, trying to calm me with her reasonableness. “But when the officer didn’t find anyone, I started thinking about all the pressure that you’ve been dealing with. Acapella and tests. College applications. Your father being gone. And then Sam.”
“This is so ridiculous.” I turned away from her.
“Sarah, the officer didn’t find anyone,” she reminded me again, trying to sound pleasant and in control, parental.
“It doesn’t mean someone wasn’t in the home.”
“Then why didn’t the officer find anyone?”
“I don’t know. She must have left while I was hiding in the bathroom.”
My mother accepted that with a “Maybe.”
“You think I made it up.”
“No. Not at all. But I think you’re tired.”
“Being tired and Sam being a jerk aren’t going to make me see some woman, Mom. I know what I saw.” I was pleading with her to see my side as much as she was pleading with me to see hers.
“Will you come with me?” I begged. “Please. To look through the house. If the officer didn’t find anyone, then we won’t either, but I want to be sure.”
My mother held my hand. “If it will help,” she said.
We searched the home. My mother escorted me along, talking gently, but dismissively, as though I were a toddler obsessed with the notion of the Boogieman hiding beneath my bed. We examined closets. Peeked behind doors. Thumbed our toes through laundry on the floor.
By the time we were done, it was 2:00am. We found nothing. The both of us were spent. My mother spoke those cliché and predictable words always offered to the fearfully preoccupied: “See. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Then she grabbed up a sweater hanging from the corner of my dresser. “This must have been what you saw.” She sounded tired, too tired to deal with a gray sweater that had been mistaken for something grim, and she tossed it into the hamper as though she had suddenly vanquished my monster. A monster of cotton sleeves, undone by regular spin cycle.
I did my best to believe her. I did. I began telling myself that maybe it had been my imagination. All the adults had told me so. We’d looked everywhere. I was tired. I was stressed. And slowly, I did believe her. Little by little. Second by second. I had been drying my hair. The bathroom was filled with steam. I never saw the woman directly. Just glimpses. And the woman was so tall, so was abnormal. It must have been my imagination.
My mother saw how disappointed I was with myself. “It’s okay, Sarah,” she said. “Come here.” She pulled me into a hug.
“I’m sorry,” I said into her shoulder.
“It’s okay,” she said, stroking my back.
“Sam is such a jerk,” I said.
“Yes, he is.”
We both laughed a little.
“I’ll see you in the morning, okay?” she asked.
“Sounds good. I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too. Go get some rest.”
Every part of me was heavy with exhaustion. I returned to my room, thinking still I was convinced. But I barely slept that night. Creeping fright riddled my imagination, transforming everything in my room into some evidence that the woman was in the darkness with me. I could see the woman in the corner. I could see her at the end of the bed, her tongue stretching for my toes like an eel in dark water.
When I woke, the world was less alive. Sounds and colors were muted to my untrusting senses. I caught myself four or five times looking over my shoulder. An easy paranoia had infested the soft parts of my mind.
My mother asked how I slept. I could see the answer she wanted to hear, so lied and told her I slept well. She asked if I felt better, and I lied again. When my mother asked if I was past this, I said yes. Because I hoped it was true.