from the anthology “Still Worlds Turning”, published by No Alibis Press.
Out of nowhere you are suddenly awake, heart pounding.
Nothing. The baby is next to you in the bed, asleep. In the orange glow of the salt lamp, the room’s shadows are still.
There is no noise from your son’s room.
The baby whimpers. Sometimes you wake a second before her, as if your body knows. That’s what the baby blogs say, the ones that say co-sleeping is fine. A mother’s instincts will keep you both safe. Though maybe it’s you that wakes her. The rustling of the duvet as you turn, the agitation of a dream. You lie completely motionless, waiting to see which way she’ll go.
And that’s when you hear it again.
It’s the creak of a footstep in the wooden hallway, the sound of a footstep that’s trying not to creak.
You know the ley lines of the flat, the trusted, navigable paths. The faulty joists in the timber flooring, guaranteed to wake a sleeping baby, even when that baby will sleep through the full blare of police sirens on the road outside.
Again, nothing – although now the nothing is charged.
It’s summer, so the heating’s off; it can’t be the pipes or radiators clicking to life. It’s summer, so the balcony door is open, to let air into your airless flat. You’re on the third floor and the glass box of a balcony doesn’t adjoin those of the neighbours, so it’s always seemed safe enough.
Your breathing sounds noisy. Your heart, too, leaping like a trapped thing in your chest.
The baby snuffles and rustles and turns on to her tummy. Was that another footstep?
You listen with your fingertips, with every hair of your head.
You locked the door last night, you’re sure of it. Or rather, didn’t fully lock it, as the Chubb lock has been sticking, but flicked the snib downwards to disable the Yale. It’s always been your husband’s task, like the bins and the recycling and the washing of pans, in the wordless division of domestic labour. But he’s away for two nights, of which this is the first; a symposium in Berlin. You don’t always bother doing the blinds, with the evenings so long. Has someone been watching? You know more than you mean to about the families opposite, the dioramas of their lives. Has someone who knows you, knows your husband, seen on his Facebook or Instagram that he’s away?
You listen, you listen. Your whole body aches with listening.
There was the man who came to rehang the front door, when it sagged on its hinges and kept jamming in the frame. For weeks afterwards you had missed calls from an unknown number. When you finally texted the number and said, “Who is this?” a message flashed back instantly, “An admirer”, followed by a smiley face, and then a second message, “Wud u like 2 go 4 a drink?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong number,” you texted.
“I dont think so” (another smiley face).
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”
“Yes u do”
“You didn’t reply, and showed the texts to your husband that night. Do you want me to text,” he said, “and say I’m your husband or something?”
“Oh what, like back off, this chattel’s mine?”
You both laughed, and it no longer seemed so sinister.
You were pregnant at the time, though not enough that it showed. You’d felt nauseous, blurry; the man’s arrival had jolted you from a midday nap – that first trimester tiredness that leaches from your very bones. You’d been blank at the door, almost rude, then overcompensated by faking brightness, offering tea, coffee, your stash of ginger biscuits. When he’d said, “What I’d really like is a nice cold beer”, you’d laughed and said, “Sounds good”.
You thought it must be him, though you couldn’t be sure enough to contact the company. Besides, it wasn’t as if he’d changed the locks, only the hinges, and no more messages came.
There hasn’t been another noise for a while, now: long enough that you allow yourself to think you must have imagined it, after all. Or maybe you didn’t imagine, but misheard and it came from your son’s room: a flung arm hitting the bedstead, a book falling to the floor.
You should check on your son. He begged and begged, this evening, to sleep in your bed, the way he used to until the baby came. You almost said yes. You half-wanted it yourself, the warmth of his smooth body, the way he cuddles right into you as if skin is no boundary. But you knew you’d all sleep badly if you did: the baby would wake him and he’d wake the baby; she’d see him and think it was morning and time to play, so you stayed firm.
Your son has been frightened of burglars, recently, and so you’ve been reading him the rhyming books of your own childhood from the library; the Robbers with names like Grabber Dan and Grandma Swag, thwarting and thwarted by Cops in an intricate, uneasy dance; the burglar who accidentally steals a baby and then goes straight, returning the things he’s stolen.
You really should check on him, but somehow your body won’t move. If there is someone in the flat – there isn’t, you tell yourself, but if there is – then surely it’s best you’re all asleep, or seem that way? Let that person, or persons, take what they want and go swiftly. Your laptop is on the kitchen table, your bag’s by the sofa. There’s a ceramic apple of loose change on the bookshelf, mostly shrapnel. It shouldn’t take long. It might be done already.
You try to remember whether the noises, if there were noises, were moving towards the bedrooms or into the livingroom: getting closer or farther away.
There’s a drug problem in the area, groups of addicts on the streets like some dystopian film, abandoned needles and scorched crack pipes. You sometimes watch the drug deals from your balcony; teenage boys standing look-out on corners, their mini-messenger bags wedged with thick rolls of cash. The cars speeding the wrong way up the one-way street, the shuffle-run of the addicts once the drop-off’s made. There have been leaflets from the police about muggings in the street, about home security. But there was stealth, not urgency, in the movements you heard.
Would-be rapists who creep into houses late at night and lie in wait for their victims, listen to them breathe. Abductors who take children to order: a little boy, blond-haired, no older than three.
Stop it. Now. Get up and check, the way you make your son do. No burglars in the wardrobe, no monsters under the bed.
You sit up.
The French teacher who told you when walking at night to hold your house keys in your fist, and poke a key through your first and second fingers, a makeshift weapon. A novel where someone thwarts attempted abduction by piercing her captor’s eye with a hairpin. You cast around the room. An architect’s pencil, the sort that pushes up refillable lead through a bright, sharp point? A paperclip?
A siren streams past on the road outside, shrill and discordant.
You quell the bubble of a sob.
Your phone is in the corridor. You read an article about the correlation between cellphone radiation and cancer; official public health guidance by the state of California on how to reduce exposure to radiofrequency energy. Ever since, you’ve insisted that phones aren’t charged in the bedroom overnight; the plug socket in your cramped bedroom right by the baby’s cot. And what would you do, anyway, missed-call your husband until he woke, then text that there might be someone in the flat? Message your family group, your sister thousands of miles away in another time zone, and ask her to phone the police?
What, the operator would say, is the nature of your emergency?
I woke, in the night.
You ease the duvet off your legs and get out of bed. Once you have babies, they say, you’ll never really sleep again, even after the babies finally do. Your feet on the floor like the herd of elephants you’re always chastising your son about. If there’s anyone in the flat, they’ll have heard you now. Abandoning your plans to sidle along the wall, you go quickly into the corridor, grab your phone. You stand for a moment. Nothing. Into your son’s room. He’s sideways in bed, half hanging out. You lift him, tuck him back in, press your lips to his neck. He moans. The baby, as predicted, has started to cry. Back into your bedroom, and pick her up. She stops crying, starts to rootle, but you don’t feed her yet, just put her down in the cot where she can’t fall out. To the sound of her outrage, you go down the corridor the other way, past the front door and into the livingroom.
Nothing and everything looks amiss.
It was the venetian blinds hanging over the open door, clicking against the doorframe in the breeze. It was a block, and then another, toppling from your son’s precarious tower, constructed with Duplo and cereal boxes and his baby sister’s bricks, which he insisted you leave out overnight.
You slide the balcony door closed, twist the handle up.
You check the front door, move the buggy up against it, just in case.
The baby’s cry is now at boiling point. Your son wakes up and calls out for you, too. Some tiny, shameful part of you is glad not to be awake alone.
You should go to them. Scoop up your son and bring him into your bed, feed the baby and then all lie down together, the way families must have for centuries, the way animals do.
The sirens again, outside. More of them, now, and louder, shifting in pitch and frequency. There is something still tugging at the edges of your consciousness. A framed map in the hallway, askew on its picture-hook. You right it, and think: was the frame always cracked? For a moment, you feel gloved hands on your shoulder, hot breath down your neck. Why would the blinds rattle on an airless night, or a tower suddenly tumble?
Something is happening, somewhere, you tell yourself, but not here, not here, not now.