It’s three o’clock in the afternoon when I discover the open window in the upstairs bathroom. I know this because the alarm I’ve set to remind me to eat has just gone off, bleating its digital protests from the bedside table. Beep! Buh-bleep! Beep! Buh-bleep! It won’t stop until I either push the button to silence it or wait ten minutes. If I wait ten minutes, the alarm will snooze for another ten, and then it’ll start back up with a vengeance. I know this because it happens every morning; I lie there listening to the screeching alarm clock for ten minutes, not getting up and not turning the damned thing off. How many times I let this happen varies from morning to morning.
But the alarm’s reminder to not forget to feed myself has been temporarily pushed to one side. There is a more pressing issue, a more distressing sound: I can hear the rain gushing outside. Shhhh, shhhh. My heartbeat is thudding against my ribcage like a prisoner beating against the bars of his cell. Thump. Tha-thump. Thump. Tha-thump.
Did I leave it open? No, of course I didn’t, why would I have? I’m not that careless. At least, not usually. But if not me, then who? After all, I’m the only one (left alive) in the house. Before I can ponder any further, the coppery aroma stings my nostrils and I rush forward and slam the window shut, pulling the bronze lever harshly to the side to lock it. Clunk.
I stand there for a moment, feeling my pulse thundering in my temples (tha-tump), hearing the rain lashing against the windows (shhhh, shhhh), sensing my palms becoming damp with perspiration. My stomach rolls within me, and I supress the urge to vomit.
Get a hold of yourself, the little voice inside my head says. Get a hold of yourself. Whether that little voice is me or not I still don’t know. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure that one out, and I’ve still no answer. I’m no nearer to the truth now than when the thought first arose in my developing brain.
Body shuddering with each jackhammering heartbeat, I begin my search of the house. I don’t know what I’ll find if things aren’t right, but I guess if something’s gone wrong it’ll be immediately apparent. And that’ll be that. I wonder whether it’ll be slow and painful or fast and painless. I hope for the latter two, but something in my gut tells me it’s a foolish hope.
First, the master bedroom that (my love used to sleep in) I sleep in. It’s all clear. The windows are shut, and the closet is empty. It takes me a fair bit of courage to open that door, but all I find are musty clothes limply draped on skeletal hangers. When was the last time I had opened the closet door? I wrack my brain but struggle to remember. I look down at the clothes I’m wearing and feel only marginally ashamed to see that they’re stained and filthy. No matter. Before I leave, I turn the alarm off and tell myself that I’ll remember to eat, all the while knowing that I’m telling myself a bald-faced lie.
On to the (children’s) spare room. The bright colours hurt my eyes, as do the grinning stuffed animals. They all stare at me, accusatorily. “Go away,” I tell them, and then I swear at them. The room, however, is empty — save for the teddy bear jury. I open the closet, confirm it’s empty, and then shut it again, pretending I don’t see the array of tiny clothes hanging from their nooses.
Okay, upstairs clear. Now to check the ground floor.
I stand at the top of the stairs for (hours on end) a minute, staring down at the front door. It’s shut, and the little metal chain is pulled across. Eventually, I snap out of my reverie and get myself moving, walking down the old familiar steps, hearing their creaks harmonise with my own groaning joints. Once down, I test the front door, just to check. It’s locked.
Nodding to myself, I begin my rounds, checking first the downstairs toilet (all clear) and then the lounge. The lounge is my least favourite part of the house because of the massive bay windows that cover the entire wall. They were part of the reason (we) I had bought the house; they had seemed so lovely in the sunshine. So much light, so much openness.
But now it is raining, and the windows are too big, too exposed. The whole street can look into the room. Is anybody out there, I wonder? Looking in at me right now? Seeing the lone silhouette standing motionless in an unlit house? I scan the other houses, but their darkened eyes tell me nothing. I try to look for any movement out there, but the rivulets of water that streak the glass distort and obscure the world outside. Even if my neighbours (and the rain) were watching, I’d struggle to tell. You have to be patient; occasionally you can catch glimpses of the cascading water rippling in strange ways. “You can window watch later,” I say aloud to the empty house, and then check the latches. They’re all locked shut.
Finally, I check the kitchen at the rear of the house. It’s cold in here, especially with the ceramic tiles underfoot. The door to the back garden is locked, as are the windows. I nod to myself. “It’s okay,” I say. “Nothing got in. We’re still us.”
I stand there at the kitchen sink, gazing into the garden. The grass is overgrown, and the hedges have overtaken the flower beds. At least someone likes all this rain, says the little voice inside my head. The miniature jungle that’s burgeoning behind my house is lush and green. If I were braver, perhaps I’d spend a minute or two out there. “We’ll see,” I tell the voice in my head. “We’ll see.”
I wake up to the sound of my neighbour banging against my front door. The door is sturdy and holds secure, but I can hear it juddering in its frame (thud-thud-thud) and the little metal chain across the jamb is rattling angrily (clack-clack-clack). She is crying. “Please, please let me in,” she wails. “They’ve gotten into the house. They got Jim! Oh, sweet Jesus, they got Jim!”
I glance at the clock beside my bed. The little red digits are glowing in the gloom like alien coals. My bleary eyes take a moment to focus before reading the time. 3:07 a.m. I lift my head off my pillow and strain my ears, listening for it. It’s hard to make out anything except the thudding of my front door and the rattling of the chain and Deidre’s moans.
I hold my breath and strain my attention, trying to focus. “Please, please let me in! I know you’re there; I saw you moving about yesterday. Let me in! They’re going to GET ME!” Deidre’s words escalate from a cry to a full-blown scream, voice cracking. I wince at the sound.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I whisper in the darkness. “Just shut up.” And, thank the Heavens, for a brief moment she does just that. Whether or not she heard my chant, I do not know. I suppose I never will.
In the second that Deidre pauses her assault on my front door, I hear all that I need to hear. In the lull of the moment, as I feel the microseconds tick-tick-ticking away, the decision is made, the gavel is banged, her fate is sealed.
Feeling like a sea creature dragged up from the depths, I slide my legs from out of the duvet and onto the carpet. With a groan and popping joints, I stand up and shuffle over to the window like a zombie. I take special care to not move too fast — I don’t want to be too visible. I look out at the world of water and shadows. Sure enough, there is Deidre, standing at my front door. She is looking up at me, mouth stretched open in a grin that reveals too many teeth, eyes open wide and oh so white.
Adrenaline gets dumped into my veins from that primordial part of the brain that is entirely focused on survival. Did she spot me as I moved towards the window? Or was she already looking, knowing that I’d be there? As my eyes adjust even further to the murk, I see she’s holding something. I squint and try to focus on it. Seeing me struggle, Deidre raises her hands to give be a better look, and my insides shrivel. I snatch the curtains and pull them across the window hastily, heart in my throat, copper in my mouth, sweat on my forehead. For a second, I can’t breathe, and my lungs begin to burn.
I wobble on my feet, clutching the curtains in a white-knuckle grip, not breathing. Outside, Deidre begins to bang on the door again. “Please, please let me in!” I force myself to gulp a breath of air. And then another. And then another. “I know you’re in theeeeereee!” Thud-thud-thud. Clack-clack-clack. The door will hold. I know it will. It has to.
I run back to (our) my bed and dive under the duvet like a frightened child, shivering. I pull the pillow down and wrap it around my ears and begin to hum that song that we—
—that I used to sing. I can’t remember the exact melody, and some of the words won’t come to me, yet I am singing it, nonetheless. I drown out Deidre with my own voices, both internal and external, blotting out her sounds like a cloud covers the sun. Only Deidre is no sunshine. There is no sunshine. Not anymore.
When I wake up for the second time, Deidre is gone, and the rain has stopped. I know it’s only temporary, but I’ll take any reprieve that I can. From my bedroom window I can see that she has left me the gift. I don’t want to go down there, I don’t want to go out there, but I know I can’t leave it sitting on my front steps. Judging by the look of it, it has already started to decay, and I don’t want the smell to seep into the house.
I trudge down the stairs and stand at the front door for (half the day) a moment, gathering my thoughts. Eventually, I bring myself to undo the chain, turn the key and throw the door open.
The smells that assault me are a mixed bag at best. Fresh, clean air intermingled with the metallic aftertaste of the previous rainfall, all underlined by the odour of rot. I peek down at the thing on the stoop and then quickly avert my gaze. I don’t want to look at it, and the glances that I have stolen I wish I could erase. I don’t want to touch it, yet I don’t want to leave it here any longer. What would the children think? Or my love?
Without thinking too much — sometimes, you just have to act — I march forward and boot it from the step. I instantly wishing I had put on shoes to do this. My big toe digs into something soft and wet and I grimace and start to recoil. And then it’s gone. Well, not gone gone, but slightly further away. I was never any good at football. The thing lands in the gutter that separates the pavement outside my house from the road that runs beside it. That’ll have to do. I won’t stray any further from my front door.
My head is starting to hurt; I can tell a migraine is on the way. There is a grinding, throbbing sensation behind my left eye. “You need to lie down is what we need to do,” I tell the empty street. We step back inside, massaging my temples. I (don’t) close the front door.
As I make the slog back up the stairs, we remind myself to wash my foot, when I have motivation. I can feel some residue under my nail and in between our toes. “The alarm will say when,” I mutter as I stroke the wall during my ascent. “That’s when we’ll know.”
I lie back down on our bed, not having the energy to get under the duvet. I hear something shuffling in the closet, but we pretend that I don’t. “Just clothes on hangers,” I say, partially to myself, partially to the door. “Clothes on hangers,” I repeat, waving away the mirage of the closet door creaking open. Creeee. “It’s just us. Nothing got inside.”
I close my eyes and feign unconsciousness. But, of course, sleep does not really come.
I can’t sleep without hearing the sound of rainfall.
We wake up to the sound of my alarm. I roll over and smack the digital clock, silencing its screeching. 3:07 a.m. say the dull red numbers, glowing in the dark like the infernal eyes. “Time to eat,” we tell the darkness and sit upright.
Outside, I can hear the rain falling. “It’s really comin’ down a Sturm!” I crow and then cackle. It feels good to laugh. When was the time we laughed like that? “Not never,” I say, nodding in agreement. As I get up off the bed, I see why the rain sounds louder — the window is wide open. I nod again. That’s right. “Just as the closet door is open,” we tell the rain, not quite daring to look into that pitch-black void that houses (what’s in there what’s in there what’s in there) nothing but clothes and hangers.
I have to check the house. From our master bedroom I head to the bathroom and see that the window here is also open. That’s right, because I opened it, didn’t I? And if not us, then who? I had vague memories of closing the window, but—
“No, that can’t be right,” I mutter, frowning. The rich, coppery smell hits my nostrils and I inhale deeply. “Aahhh.” I take a step forward and push the window open a little bit wider. “Anythin’ less than full throttle is reverse, Captain! Aye-aye!”
The rain outside is soft and soothing. Shhhh. Shhhh. We wonder, how did we ever make do without that sound? The thought of its absence makes me sad. How empty the world would be, would be, would be, without the rain to see, to free, to be.
I make my way into the children’s room and return the smiles that the cuddly denizens offer me. “How’s it going, chaps?” I ask. “That good, huh?” I grin. “Fantastic. Tell me, where are the kids?” I listen, nodding. “Ah, yes, of course. Playing. Playing outside.” I look up to the window which has also been thrown completely open (by who by me). “Playing outside in the rain.” I smile.
I walk (we run like droplets down a window) down the stairs and out the front door, which was never closed. Why would I close it? Who would close it? “Not us, that’s for sure!” The rain hits me like (a truck)—
—like (a breath of fresh air)—
—like (a tonne of bricks)—
—like (doG raed ho gniod I ma tahw pots t’nac I)—
The rain envelopes me, like a mother cuddling her child, like a person cradling their lover. I am instantly soaked, and all about me the falling rainwater is rippling and stirring, in ways that it (never should) always should. It’s beautiful. I embrace the rain (shhhh, shhhh), knowing all will be okay, all will be okay now, all will be okay (dear child), all will be okay. Did we feel fear before? It’s hard to remember, there’s only (shhhh, shhhh)—
I breathe in deeply, as if only discovering how to truly breathe for the first time in my life, feeling my lungs opening up like flowers in bloom. It’s good to get out, to finally get out (something got in it found its way in something got in it—)
Somewhere behind us, an alarm is blaring.
We mustn’t forget to eat.
27th March 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest