If only I’d come home earlier, thought Mike. If only I’d picked next week to go away. If only . . .Sandra shuffled into the kitchen, yawned, dropped her arm on the back of a stool and wondered why she got up. Rain from the night left her garden too wet to weed. Mike and the boys left for their annual camping trip six whole days ago, so the house was too clean to clean.
She finished her Sally Wright book last night at 2 a.m. Yet another problem solved, another murderer caught. She felt a cool breeze. “Where’s that coming from?” she said aloud, grabbing her glasses off the counter.
The windows are closed. The rain came in that way at 10:30. She peered through the living room. The front door was closed too. One step into the hall. She gasped.
Her back door stood wide open. But I shut it last night and twisted the knob locked. Then she noticed a key was in the lock, on the outside.
A chill, not from early morning breezes, stiffened her body. Wooden arms pulled what now seemed a very skimpy robe around her body. Her feet felt vulnerable, her hands naked and powerless. Who is in my house?
Mike was up early. Dawn in the mountains. Such splendor must not be wasted on the squirrels. He gazed with affection at Toby, 12 and Sammy, 7, still in their sleeping bags, still snoozing and snoring softly.Sandra stood still for what seemed hours. She listened intensely, her ears bursting. Her heart had already pounded itself outside of her chest, raced back down the hall, and was hiding under Sammy’s bed, along with two stale sandwiches and a half dozen hot wheels.
I won’t wake them. A jolt of early morning air is only for those whose internal alarm has already worked.
He laughed at his own mental verbosity and stepped outside the tent into the almost frosty air. Wonder what Sandra is doing? He glanced at his watch. If I know her, she stayed up all night with some book. She will be sound asleep right now, the sun soon streaming in, touching her golden hair.
Again he smiled, this time a little self-consciously. He loved Sandra with such intensity yet these were the times when he thought about her this way, when she was a 100 miles away. I should tell her more often, he promised himself as he started a fire to make coffee.
She forgot to vacuum under his bed. What was I thinking? Oh, I remember. I’m supposed to make muffins for his scout troop next week. Carrot would be nice, healthy. Boys don’t like blueberries and chocolate is too . . .
A gust banged the back door against the closet wall. Sandra yelped from hysteria to action, ran to her room, slammed the door, locked it, scurried to the adjoining bathroom, slammed that door, locked it, dropped to the floor and quivered in a ball until she realized how silly she looked, even though no one was looking.
She knew she was not alone. You know when someone is in your house, but no one was here in this room. She cautiously opened the door and peered into the bedroom. Sun streamed across the pillow. She moved slowly into the room, then jumped and screamed. There was a figure standing there, in a dove grey robe, golden hair in a wild state.
That’s me. My God, I don’t even know me. If there is a burglar in my house, one look and he would be so traumatized that he’d leave.
Her surprising humor drew some of the tension. She grabbed a hair brush and put her head together. Jeans and a t-shirt made her feel stronger. She wondered if they had any weapons in the house. Toby has a baseball bat. Sammy’s biggest weapon is his wit. I could use some wits. Mike is so gentle. He didn’t like me buying a fly swatter. That bat, just across the hall.
She stepped to the door, then heard it—a soft scraping. Her hand froze on the knob.
Mike sipped his coffee. Why does it taste better in the mountains? He didn’t want to wake the boys. He thought about Sandra and surprisingly, her father.Sandra’s stomach was a volcano, a vise, a wild storm. She stood as still as she could, her breathing in competition with some invisible runaway train. The scraping continued. It was coming from the back of the house? No, the basement? It was the basement. She could lock that door? No, not from the outside. Whoever was down there could lock her out, but she couldn’t lock him in.
I don’t want to think about him. He has been out of our lives for years. The only good he ever did was build our kitchen table. Otherwise his contribution to our lives, to Sandra’s life, is nothing but bruises. The outside ones healed, but I don’t know if inside ever will.
Mike tried, but he wasn’t a counselor and he couldn’t convince Sandra to go to a professional. She kept insisting she was fine, that God was healing her. Most of the time, she seemed fine, but Mike felt a knot inside him remembering her crying in her sleep, curled into a ball, her fists tight around her ears. She said it was nothing. Nothing, be damned. He wanted to shake that man.
But two years ago he just vanished. No more middle-of-the-night calls, no more pleading, no more attempts to see the boys, nothing. He was gone. Or he seemed to be gone. How can we know for sure, and will he ever come back?
His thoughts threatened to ruin both coffee and fresh air. He picked up a small pebble and tossed it toward a small sleeping bag. The occupant rumbled and rolled over. Mike tossed another pebble.
“Aw, Dad. Quit that!”
A chair? Like in the movies. I’ll put a chair under the doorknob. She grabbed a kitchen chair and leaned it against the basement door. It was two inches too short. She gasped, then quickly moved behind the table, shoving it toward the door. This will hold it shut.
As soon as the table touched the door, the door began slowly shoving the table.
Mike couldn’t help grin at his boys as they tried to dress inside their sleeping bags. He told them the night before to stuff jeans, T’s, clean socks and underwear down to the bottom. “It will stay dry there, and smell about the same as your feet,” which got another, “Aw, Dad.”Sandra was too frightened to scream. She watched the table slide into the room, afraid to move or even look at the basement door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something in the door opening. What was that? A saw? A hand saw. He was going to kill her with a hand saw? Sandra’s stomach lurched, but nothing came up.
Sammy was quicker. His size helped him roll down to the end of the bag, into his wrinkled clothes and out the top a good five minutes before Toby managed to pull himself together. This morning Mike decided he might let Toby have a sip of coffee, but both boys wanted hot chocolate. The water was boiling so he mixed half milk from the cooler. They wrapped their boy-size hands around the chipped and colorful camping mugs Sandra packed for them.
Mike’s thoughts returned, reluctantly, to her father. He’s gone. Why think about him. He told her once that he was going to make her a roll top desk before he died. She always wanted a roll top. I wonder if she ever thinks about that, or him? Can she ever get passed this without reconciliation? She says he has to make the first move. Will he do it? I don’t know. I hope so.
The saw had a hand attached, an old, gnarled hand with wood shavings caught in the coarse hair on the back. Sandra felt time had stopped, but the hand didn’t stop. One more push and the table slid far enough for an arm, then a shoulder, then a full body. He stepped into her clean kitchen, joining the bright morning sunlight pouring in the windows, and the crisp curtains that hid her, and this man, from the view of anyone who might see and stop whatever he was going to do.
“Sandra, I wanted a sign, something to show me that you would not turn me away again. Something that showed me I could come and make up for all I’ve done, that I could build your roll top desk, and you would accept it, and forgive me. I prayed for something, anything, and when I saw the key in the door, I knew that was my sign, so I brought in the wood and worked all week, at nights. I’m sorry for being such a fool, still am. But I just want to please you and show you I’m not the same, and your desk is all finished. Please, please come down and see it . . . .”