Karen Raylor’s daily alarm of soothing music wakes her up while the Hoffer household is dark and still. As she sneaks out of her makeshift bedroom on cautious feet, she thinks of karate. Saturday seems a long way off, and she wishes the class met two or three times a week instead of once.
Karen hears footsteps approach. I hope that’s not Paul, Karen thinks, body tense. He may not have cheated on Jamie, but who knows what kind of notions he might act on in the right situation.
In the pre-morning shadows of a less-familiar house, she’s disoriented as she tries to figure out the direction of the steps.
Then, she realizes there are more than two sets of footfalls. Four, actually. Another four join in. She hears quick, heavy breathing. Ah. The dogs. Karen exhales. They probably think it’s time for breakfast. She reaches out toward the silhouettes that now look much more dog-like. They lick her hands and create slight dancing sounds as their tails rapidly move their doggie butts back and forth.
“Sorry, I can’t feed you!” Karen whispers, leaning down. “I have to go! Wait for your mommy and daddy!” The dogs follow her to the front door, still panting and wagging. She unlocks her phone and uses the mellow luminescence of the home screen to find the deadbolt and knob. She feels bad leaving the door unlocked, but she can’t do anything about that without waking Jamie and maybe Paul, so she tries to content herself by saying that it’s a good neighborhood and the chances of someone trying to get in on that particular morning are almost zero. Nevertheless, Karen pulls out her keys and pretends to lock it, just in case anyone’s watching. Having found Mercer’s sculpture less than twelve hours earlier, it’s hard not to imagine the cold, quiet neighborhood teeming with lurking crooks and hoodlums.
Karen’s engine sounds to her like a race car’s as it springs to life. She moves the vehicle slowly, taking a full minute to back up, stop, and head through the nearest intersection.
As she threads the city streets, she thinks again of the sculpture. Knowing she has to go back home, even with the metal perversion hauled off by the police, creates a sense of dread in her mind that unfurls like a black rose. Karen wishes she could run before going to work but knows that eating breakfast, showering, and getting ready will use all of her time.
And, spending a few minutes with Mr. Totsley. Karen knows she’ll have to rush the rest of her routine to compensate, but she can hear the poor boy’s yowling as soon as she enters the house, and her heart gushes. Once he’s settled down and she’s showering, though, the black rose is suddenly a bush with dozens of blooms, thorns tearing at her composure. It seems certain that Mercer is going to crash through the bathroom door. Rip back the curtain. Leer at her wet body. Take off his clothes while she considers ridiculous weapons like a bottle of shampoo. Step in with her. Touch—
“Fuck!” Karen Raylor yells. “Fucking stop it, Karen!”
The rest of her routine is a scramble of automatic motions and prickly anxiety. She turns on her Mellow playlist, which helps in spurts, but visions of Mercer keep clawing their way into her mind.
Finally, she wrangles enough control to break out of the repeating script. She grabs the bathroom counter. Closes her eyes. Forces herself to breathe. Slowly, deeply. She opens her eyes and looks at herself in the mirror.
“You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.”
It mostly helps.
At work, interacting and connecting with others, completing tasks, it’s easier to minimize the dread. It shrinks down to a knot, an ebony worm tangled up with itself, asleep for now, small.
Lunchtime. Karen sits back and pulls out her phone to call Rochelle.
“Karen.” It’s her boss, Raymond. “You have a minute?” Raymond is a great leader, unifying his team with clear vision and going out of his way daily to help everyone feel important. He generally respects lunchtime as Karen’s, so when he asks to speak to her during it, she knows it’s a time-sensitive matter.
She joins him in his office, where he explains a new management initiative. Karen listens, takes notes, and offers advice — which Raymond often follows. She resists the urge to glance at the clock on his wall, maintaining her professionalism. However, she’s so expert at time management that she knows they’ve already used up twenty of her sixty minutes. Sure, she could make her call to Rochelle in the afternoon, but she tries to limit during-work calls as much as possible, ever aware of her visibility as an executive assistant and knowing that her actions reflect on Raymond.
With ten minutes left, Karen is back at her desk with a list of action items to help the new initiative. She phones Rochelle, hoping the conversation can be brief.
Karen gets Rochelle’s voicemail. “Damn it,” she mutters, disconnecting.
Instead, Karen send Rochelle a text message. She doesn’t give details of the recent incident, saying only that she’d like to hire Rochelle to investigate Mercer and asking if Rochelle is available tonight to discuss. She keeps her phone open for the rest of her eight minutes, hoping to get a return message. She doesn’t.
As Karen works the afternoon, she’s uncharacteristically anxious. Thoughts of Mercer breaking in take hold again, and Rochelle feels like her only lifeline, an invisible rope that she fumbles to find but can’t. Karen checks her phone every twenty minutes.
A half hour before her work day ends, Karen gets a reply from Rochelle. Rochelle would like to discuss it, but isn’t free tonight. She asks about late-afternoon tomorrow, Wednesday.
Karen has to fight back tears. Tomorrow? What if he breaks in tonight? She leans on the familiar crutch of breathing and relaxation, but it’s only half effective. She decides to take a quick walk around the floor before replying to Rochelle. She smiles and greets coworkers, blessedly avoiding serious conversation.
By the time she gets back to her desk, Karen feels somewhat better. Less paranoid, less fearful. She reflects that skipping her run that morning may have been worse for her brain than her body. She lets Rochelle know that late-afternoon tomorrow will be fine and suggests a time and coffee shop. Karen doesn’t normally have coffee, but the place she mentions has flavored drinks that she gets a few times a year. Rochelle confirms their appointment.
At home, the uneasiness returns. Karen turns on music and plays with Mr. Totsley, using a sturdy toy fishing rod to make a stuffed, battered mouse dance. As the cat stalks and swipes and pounces, Karen laughs, her mood lifting.
Once Mr. Totsley loses interest and wanders away, though, the darkness rushes back into Karen’s mind as though her cat had been a lantern holding it at bay. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s not safe in the house.
Take action, deary, Nana says. Don’t just wait for life to happen. Do something to feel in control.
Nodding with more conviction than she feels, Karen gets a heavy-duty flashlight from the kitchen. She plans to turn on room lights as she checks the house, but the weight of the handheld spotlight is reassuring. She stops back in the living room, pausing the music and slipping her phone into her pocket.
Guest bedroom. Just as secure and normal.
Karen feels like an intruder in her own house, sneaking from room to room and shining a flashlight. She imagines what it looks like from outside, and hopes Mrs. Grindle next door isn’t peering out her windows. Then, she thinks of Mercer. If HE’s watching, he probably knows I’m being paranoid, her mind throws out before she tells it to shut up.
Ground floor. All rooms, fine. Karen feels stupid.
Basement. Karen feels her skin raise up as soon as she descends, only partially due to the chillier air. It really feels as though Mercer is crouched in some corner. Karen does a slow circuit, the combined illumination of the overheads and her flashlight feeling insufficient.
Main room. The sensation of her feet on the countless squishy fibers of the carpet grates her nerves like sandpaper.
Back room. Except, wait… she steps back into the main room. Plays the flashlight on the egress window. Sees a heart etched into the glass.
Karen’s head shudders in rapid shakes. The flashlight falls from her hand, a tube of cold metal that smashes the top of her foot. She barely registers the pain as she flees up both flights of stairs to her bedroom.
Her mind is panicked, incapable of clear thought. She crawls into bed, pulling sheet and comforter over her into a cocoon. Screams. Cries.
Child. Child. Come here, child. Nana’s voice fights through Karen’s maelstrom, a lighthouse. Child. My dear Karen. Come here. Karen flees to a memory.
She’s ten. She sees an amazing butterfly of fuchsia and black. It alights on a tree branch and stays there. Karen stares, entirely absorbed as it silently opens and closes its opaque, stained-glass wings. Her neck aches from craning upward, but she doesn’t feel it.
The butterfly doesn’t leave. Karen is astounded; she’s never seen one stay in the same place for so long. She wants a closer look.
She starts climbing the tree. It’s automatic — she’s climbed that tree hundreds of times. Her focus is on the unusually beautiful insect, though, and she slips. Tries to catch herself. Turns in a funny way. Slams into the ground. Yells in pain — or tries to, but her lungs pull in only a wheeze of air.
Arms lift her. Strong but gentle beyond measure. She barely acknowledges their existence.
Karen’s breathing is still intolerably shallow. Her body is a gnarled figure of tension, organs screaming to her mind for reprieve from the vice of pressure.
A soothing sensation glides down Karen’s back. Again. She focuses her mind enough to see that she’s in Nana’s lap. Looks up, eyes full of terror. Sees Nana’s face, the best smile in the world, the most wrinkles. The eyes of endless warmth and love. Karen starts to relax.
Her stomach and lungs loosen. The air comes. Karen can do nothing but stare at Nana for what feels like days. Nana holds her gaze, smile never lessening.
“There, child. It’s okay now. You’ll be okay.”
She embraces Nana’s abdomen. Cries against her grandma, tears of fear and relief and lingering pain and love.
Karen comes back to the present.
Pulls the comforter off her head.
The house feels like hers again. A place of safety, despite Mercer’s recent actions.
Karen walks to the first floor, limping slightly due to the red welt on her foot from the flashlight, and finds Mr. Totsley. Sits in her chair and encourages him to jump up. Enjoys the bonding time, the stillness of the house seeming natural and restorative instead of crouching and malicious. She finishes out the evening with peace. Silly, she tells herself. I haven’t been leaning on Nana enough since the sculpture showed up.
Work feels normal again the next day. Memories of yesterday’s worries are present in her mind like shadowy ships on the horizon, but the sea is calm, the sky richly blue, the sun warm. Karen calls the police at lunch to let them know about the etched heart, but declines when the officer says he could stop by the house. She seriously doubts he will find any evidence. He asks her to take pictures and email them to him; she agrees.
The coffee-shop meeting with Rochelle is encouraging. Her karate classmate suggests one week of investigation; Karen agrees and signs the contract. Rochelle says she can continue after the week is done if they both feel it’s necessary.
As the meeting nears its end, a thought occurs to Karen. It’s a strange thought, but she mulls it over with curiosity and peace, not with fear or anger.
“Rochelle… this isn’t something I’ve ever considered until just now, but… should I get a gun?”
If Rochelle is surprised, she masks it professionally.
“It’s entirely up to you. If you think it would help you feel safer, then go for it, but I will tell you that people who keep guns in the home are more likely to use them for criminal assault or unintentionally harm themselves or others than for self-defense. If you decide to get one, I strongly recommend taking a class on gun safety and going to a shooting range on a regular basis.”
As they leave, Karen thanks Rochelle again for agreeing to investigate Mercer. Rochelle says she’s glad to help out and looks forward to seeing her at karate on Saturday.
At home, Karen takes pictures of the egress window and emails them to the police. The action is empowering, and the etched heart loses much of its remaining command over her.
It’s Wednesday night, one of the three days a week Karen has committed to practicing karate at home. While she does, her 80s energy music encouraging her to maximum effort, the thought of getting a gun keeps coming back to her mind. She knows it’ll return repeatedly until she decides.
Chapter 11 Choice: Should Karen get a gun?
- No: It's not worth the risks. (56%)
- Yes: Be ready for the worst. (44%)
This poll closed on December 28th, 2017.