Karen Raylor sucks it up and shuffles back the way she came. Her right foot is practically useless, its nerves screaming at her when she puts the slightest weight on it and groaning the rest of the time. Karen ends up practically hopping on her left foot.
She had just begun sweating when she dodged the squirrel, and now it feels as though she’s entered a walk-in freezer with an industrial fan blowing directly at her. Rationalizing that it’s not that cold outside doesn’t stop her skin from raising to needle points or her body from shaking.
A vehicle slows down.
“Hey, y’all need a lift?”
Karen sees a guy in his 50s peering at her through the lowered passenger window of his rust-bitten, rattling SUV. She can’t quite make out his eyes, but she senses that they’re playing over every inch of her jogging suit, which she knows highlights her curves.
“Thanks, I’ll be fine!” she says, limping on. “Just gotta walk it off!”
The man backs up, following her.
“Come on now, it’s freezing out there! Nice and warm in here, though!” Karen expects a sleazy chuckle to follow, but he’s silent.
“Thanks anyway!” She manages a wave and a brief smile.
“Suit yourself!” he says, shifting gear and revving away.
Karen doesn’t spare another thought for the guy.
She’s not sure how long it takes to her first turn down another street. Probably less than ten minutes, but it feels like an hour. Her shaking has worsened, her breaths rapid and shallow.
On this street, another vehicle slows down. It’s a large sedan piloted by a gray and wrinkled woman with a huge smile. She reminds Karen a bit of Nana.
“Dearie, let me give you a ride! You’ll catch your death out here!”
Karen is sorely tempted, but she chose to make it home on her own, and she sticks to that resolve.
“It’s very kind of you, thanks, but I’m almost there!” She feels brief shame at lying to such an endearing person.
“Okay, well, you get warmed up and take care of that foot!” The similarity to Nana’s level of concern makes Karen feel like crying.
“I will!” She gives the woman a heartfelt smile and continues on.
The hobbling trek to her neighborhood feels endless. Skin numb, Karen reflects that the silver lining of the wind’s merciless howling is that it’s reducing her sprain’s inflammation.
Her house. It’s in sight, and it’s never looked so amazing. She imagines the warm, pleasant air and its aroma of pumpkin spice from the seasonal air fresheners. Her couch. The nearby pile of blankets. Mr. Totsley curled up behind her legs, a mini-furnace. Her pace quickens a hair.
The front yard. Karen heads straight through it to her door, leaves rustling and breaking underfoot. Reaches the door. Lifts the key, but it’s like staring at someone else’s hand, the feeling gone. Fumbling, cursing, Karen uses both of her blue hands, finally sliding the key home and managing to turn it. She barely has the willpower to remove the key and lock the door behind her.
Warmth. The house is suffused with glorious heat. Karen simply stands for a moment, breathing it in, filling her lungs. Mr. Totsley comes running with a quick “mao!” and twines around her good leg, which she barely feels. He avoids her right leg altogether, perhaps sensing her injury.
Karen eases down to the hardwood floor and takes off her shoes, her fingers obeying a bit more now. Stands and snags her phone from the small table near the door. Limps to the thermostat and bumps it up three degrees to seventy-five. Makes her way to the couch. Grabs three folded blankets, quickly unfurls them atop one another, picks up their collaborative thickness. Holds them to her side as she gingerly lays down. As expected, Tots jumps up and settles in behind her legs. Karen withdraws into her mind, having no coherent thoughts as her body violently wracks itself to raise its temperature.
She comes to her senses, having been somewhere near sleep but not truly finding it. Her phone says 7:38 — on a typical day, she would have started work eight minutes ago.
She unlocks it, her fingers once again under her command. Pulls up the messaging app and types to her boss, letting him know about her foot. Her commitment to work is so strong that she says she’ll be in later without even thinking about how feasible that is.
He responds by saying she needs to get her foot checked out. Says he won’t expect to see her until Monday, to take care of herself. Two days off work, she thinks, dreading the thought of being laid up at home for a four-day weekend. But, she knows he’s right about getting the foot examined, so she agrees and locks her phone.
Karen pushes herself off the couch, clutching the blankets to herself. Her foot is more painful now and throbbing, likely due to the heat of the cocoon she had been under. It’s also swollen noticeably.
She hops to the front door. Steps into her left shoe but doesn’t sit to tie it. Decides against the other shoe. Puts on a fleece and her winter coat. Heads to the garage and drives to urgent care, awkwardly putting her left leg across her right to reach the accelerator. She has several jolting starts and stops as her non-dominant foot acclimates to the strange job of driving.
After a half-hour wait among children who are coughing their way into the annual sick season, Karen sees a nurse and then a doctor. The doctor examines her foot, does an x-ray, and brings the news that it’s not in fact broken, but is severely sprained. The doctor recommends a brace, cold compresses, over-the-counter pain relievers as necessary, and plenty of rest, including staying home today and tomorrow and taking it easy over the weekend. Says Karen should be able to return to the office Monday as long as she can spend most of her time sitting.
In the parking lot, Karen messages her boss and lets him know he was right about getting it checked out and her not coming in the rest of the week. She heads to Great Oak, where she gets an ankle brace, a spare, and two reusable cold compresses. Grabs pain meds a grade lower than the strength the doctor recommended, hoping she won’t have to use them at all. Gives in to her craving for peanut butter cups, picking up the bite-sized variety in a large bag that features a cartoon haunted house and smiling monsters, fully planning to crush the entire thing over the course of the weekend. Karen has the thought that she shouldn’t indulge in such things when she won’t be able to run, but she flicks it aside.
Back home, Karen puts the cold compresses in the freezer, and then sits on the couch and slowly pulls on one of the braces, forcing herself to breathe through the pain. She grabs one of the three blankets and wraps up, more for prevention than necessity.
Karen glances around and realizes the extent of her situation. No going to work, no running or even walking, limited ability to clean the house, laundry will be a challenge. No karate, she thinks, squeezing her eyes shut. No class, no practicing at home. Damn. She opens her eyes, not letting herself wallow in what she can’t change. She picks up her phone, noticing that her boss has sent a message of understanding and encouragement, and calls the martial arts academy to let them know about her foot.
The office worker answers. Sandy, Karen recalls just in time to use the woman’s name. Karen details her situation. Sandy offers genuine sympathy, says she will let Mrs. Draver know, and thanks Karen for sharing the news, wishing her a fast recovery.
As Karen hangs up, her smile falters. With the bustle from handling the initial tasks of her injured foot now over, Karen is faced with nothing but slow time to kill. She knows the next four days will feel like two weeks.
Jamie. Maybe she can hang out tonight and some this weekend.
Karen messages her friend, telling about the injury and asking if she can come over after work. As expected, Jamie replies within a few minutes, using a flurry of messages. She’s busy tonight, but can hang out tomorrow. Karen confirms with an admission that her calendar is wide-open and anytime will be fine.
That leaves Karen to her own devices for a day and a half. She glances around the living room. Thoughts encroach that her house is now a prison. She ignores them as melodramatic, but they persist in the back of her mind.
I need to get out of my head. Murder mysteries, her usual go-to genre for books, still don’t sound appealing, and she’s not sure what else she has in the house. At any rate, reading is not enticing at the moment. She wants some sound in the house, some talking, some life besides her and Mr. Totsley and her imagination. She lowers herself from the couch to her knees and crawls to the movie cabinet. Selects an adventure movie about kids following old maps and clues to pirate treasure, one of her favorites from childhood. Gets lost in the nostalgia. Eats half the bag of peanut butter cups before her stomach protests and she sets them aside.
Karen passes most of the rest of the day watching movies, spending a bit of between-time on other activities: a load of laundry, making lunch, working out her upper body with light dumbbells. Takes a nap in the afternoon. She keeps a cold compress on her ankle as much as possible, swapping for the one in the freezer as necessary. She’s able to avoid pain meds, although at times she has to employ some serious breathing and relaxation techniques to do so.
Evening comes. The darkness settling around her nearly empty house brings echoes of grief for the loved ones she’s lost. Her parents. Brad. Nana. Karen shakes her head and refuses to fully revisit any of those tragedies. She forces herself back to the present, petting Mr. Totsley and playing with the fishing-reel toy, his favorite.
In bed, she meditates. Gently guides away all thoughts and feelings until she reaches a void of serenity. Falls asleep.
Her sleep has shattered for some reason. A sound. Her pulse quickens. Karen reaches for her phone. It’s not there. The couch, she realizes. Her injured ankle threw off her routine so much that she left it downstairs.
A shuffle. Faint… someone walking downstairs. No, there’s no way.
Another shuffle. Silence. Another.
Karen’s adrenaline spikes. I don’t have my taser yet and my foot is fucked up! Damn it!
She throws back the covers and swings her legs to the edge of her bed. I have to hide! Where? Her right ankle is a throbbing mess that she doesn’t register until she puts pressure on it. Pain sears through her armor of adrenaline. She sucks in a hissing breath and forces herself to be quiet.
Downstairs, another muted rustle.
Karen turns and quickly throws the covers back over the mattress, hoping it looks as though she hasn’t been there. Eases down to the floor. Her soft pajamas let her slide on her knees. She makes her way to the closet, judging that she won’t have time for anything else.
As she reaches the closet door, Karen hears a creak on the stairs leading up to the second floor. Her mind fills with a voice of panic, but she forces herself to maintain stealth. Reaches up. Turns the knob with agonizing care so it doesn’t announce its own movement.
Creak on the stairs. Creak.
Karen is inside the closet. A walk-in, it has plenty of room. Plenty of room for clothes, but she keeps it so organized that there’s not really anywhere to hide except behind the clothes. Thankfully, they’re on felt hangers, so they wouldn’t make much noise if she had to go that route. She closes the door and is in pure blackness.
Going from memory, Karen thinks about the contents of the closet. Clothes, of course. Shoes. Lots of shoes, a few with stiletto heels. Purses. Nothing much else worthy of note.
A whisper of sound in her bedroom. Not a creak — only the stairs creak — but the sound of someone walking very slowly.
Karen forces her breaths to be longer and deeper than just quiet gasps. No light; whoever it is doesn’t have a flashlight. That gives her somewhat of an advantage, but how can she best make use of it?
Special! Cast your vote in two polls!
Chapter 14 Choice 1: What should Karen use as a weapon?
- Purse: Fill a purse with shoes. (17%)
- Stilettos: Hold one of the pointy-heeled shoes in each hand. (83%)
This poll closed on January 22nd, 2018.
Chapter 14 Choice 2: How should Karen prepare in case the intruder opens the closet?
- Door, push: If it starts to open, push as hard as she can. (17%)
- Door, wait: If it opens, wait and then swing with her weapon(s). (50%)
- Hide: Move to the back of the closet and get behind some clothes. (33%)
This poll closed on January 22nd, 2018.