Barbara came home from her early shift at the frozen-foods plant, tossed her dirty hoodie in the laundry and fumbled around the junk drawer for the pack of cigarettes she kept among the old birthday candles, twist ties, and broken pencils. She had no idea why she didn’t just keep them in her purse or on the coffee table. She lived alone after all, there was no reason to hide her vices. Yet every time she bought a new pack she carefully pushed it to the back of the drawer along with the plastic lighter. It was like she was still a teenager trying to keep her dad from finding them. From punishing her.
She sighed with relief when her fingers touched the cellophane around the box of menthols. She tapped one into her palm and placed the filter between her dry lips. That was when she heard an odd sound. Her first thought was that it was just the old refrigerator churning out some ice cubes, until she heard it again. This time she knew it came from the bedroom, and it sounded distinctly like broken glass under the sole of a shoe.
In a flash she remembered the time her father had charged across the remains of a shattered glass that had slipped from her little five-year old hand just after she overfilled it with juice. His heavy work boots crunch-crunched as he marched towards her, hand raised and ready to strike….
She heard it again and thoughts of her dad evaporated as the reality of the moment settled in: Someone was in her apartment.
She lived alone on the bottom floor of a 19th century house that the owner had split into two units sometime in the 1990s. A couple of frat boys who attended the local college lived on the top floor. All in all they were nice enough, she supposed, though she always made sure to double check the locks and close the windows tight when they had friends over to drink Genny Light on the roof. But they weren’t home today. She had heard them talking about heading to New England for the December break and neither of their cars were in the driveway.
She turned her head toward the noise, unlit Marlboro still dangling from her mouth. She could see movement in her bedroom. She inched closer until she could make out the figure of a man bent over her jewelry box roughly tossing earrings and bracelets into a pillowcase. Her pillowcase. The one she put her exhausted head on every night, the white one with the tiny pink roses from the set that her grandma sent her from St. Louis when she first moved into this cheap apartment. They were just from Walmart but Grandma had washed, folded, and wrapped them in perfume-scented tissue before mailing them to her in Buffalo. When she opened the package she had put them to her nose and inhaled the sweet smell of Chantilly Lace.
The asshole could have the jewelry, she thought, but he needs to take his goddamn hands off of my pillowcase. “Put it down,” she called out in a small voice.
He looked up and saw her there in the doorway. He grabbed the big Maglite she kept on the nightstand and lifted it to attack. But before he had a chance to swing she started to slap him, kick his shins, and tear at his greasy blond hair.
“Get out get out get out get out!” She was screaming at the top of her lungs, now, something she had never done before even when her father’s hands or belt bruised her tender body. Not when the parties upstairs got out of hand and hordes of college guys stomped around keeping her awake and afraid. Not when the guys at work grabbed her ass as she boxed broccoli or when they “accidentally” brushed her breasts when squeezing past her near the time clock.
But now she yelled and shrieked and howled until he finally hit her with the flashlight, knocking her to the floor.
Everything went black.
When Barbara floated back to consciousness she felt like she had been out for hours but couldn’t be sure. She was afraid to open her eyes, because he, whoever he was, might still be there pawing through her stuff. But the apartment was quiet. Finally, she willed herself to look around. She could see dust bunnies, a crumpled gum wrapper, and a small brown spider.
The spider made its way across the baseboard to a web stretched across the molding to the corner of the wall. It lumbered upwards toward a black fly trapped among the strands. When the spider reached the fly it pounced on it, and the twitching stopped. That’s when she noticed that she was clutching something in her hands.
It was the pillowcase. She managed to move her arms until the cool cotton was near her face and she breathed deeply of her own scent–sweat, strawberry shampoo, cigarette smoke.
The words rose out of her throat and past her lips so quickly and loudly she startled herself with her own voice. She pushed up to her knees and looked around the room. He was gone. She reached over to where the cigarette had fallen when he cracked her on head with the Maglite. She picked it up, brushed it off, and stuck it back in her mouth before using her bare hand to scoop up the spider, fly, and web, crushing the whole lot of it in her fist.
Now, where was that lighter? ∎