What was that.
A sound. Outside, by the door.
Wait. He’s in Ottawa. No. Miami.
I feel around for the phone I always keep in the bed when he travels, but nothing is there. Sheets and pillows, softness now stripped of comfort. A memory of plugging my mobile into the outlet by the kitchen table last night, the battery dying in my purse earlier in the afternoon. I never bother plugging it in to charge overnight like he does. Not until it’s dead. He’s good like that, preventative. On top of things. On top of someone else now, maybe.
A creak on the steps. Yes, that’s a foot. A foot is slowly pressing down into one of the steps outside the door, the weight of a body, the wood below buckling enough to creak. They’re old steps. Should have been chopped up with an axe and replaced by a nice porch by now. A couple of wicker chairs, a swing even. So many summers gone. If I’m alive tomorrow that’s what I’m doing—I’m taking an axe to the steps. Paul can build the porch when he gets back. I don’t care that it’s February. But now a man, definitely a heavy-ish man, is there standing on the creaking step, hoping I didn’t hear.
I could run across the hall to the upstairs phone. I could sprint to the phone in the other room and dial 911. I could say—whisper—Operator? Yes, 15 Pheasant Drive. There is a sound outside, a creak. On a step beneath the door. The sort of sound made by a threatening sort of person. I can tell by the way he doesn’t want me to hear him. Please send Emergency Vehicles.
No, this isn’t an emergency yet. When she answers she will say: Nine-one-one, What is the nature of your emergency? I know that because it’s what she said the last time I called, when I thought Paul had fallen down the stairs but it had actually been the ironing board. Or maybe that’s the way the operator answers on TV and what I heard was some version of that question. There was the other time I called but I can’t remember how she answered then because I was screaming and banging on the wall. Help, help, please help. Sometimes emergencies are obvious.
What is the nature of my emergency? Operator, I hear a creak on the steps outside the door. Please send vehicles with loud sounds and flashing lights. There’s a good chance they could scare him away, so make sure the police are prepared for a foot chase over fences and through backyardsto catch him if he runs.
I don’t think 911 operators are allowed to laugh because anything can be an emergency. It’s all relative. This one may not be an emergency yet, like calling 911 from the highway to report an accident just because a car ahead is swerving—but it could be very soon. Imminent is the word that comes to mind. This one could make the news tomorrow, after it changes state from Emergency to Crime to Crime Scene. When they put up the yellow tape to zone off the area and serious men in glasses wheel my covered body down the creaky front steps on a stretcher. A porch would look nicer, conjure more sympathy from viewers I think, what with the wicker chairs and such.
I could call Paul. Run on tiptoes to the phone in the other room to call Paul. He will answer his cell phone groggy in his trying-to-be-patient-with-you-Martha-but-I’m-really-getting-tired-of-this voice. 2:07am. He’ll say if you’re really worried why would you call me in Miami. There is nothing I can do from Miami. I’m alone, Martha. He’ll say. There is no one here with me. Please, Martha. Please. Go back to bed. And I’ll have to quickly say that it has nothing to do with that and of course he’s alone and so am I and that’s the problem.
I’ll ask him when this situation becomes an emergency. He knows that sort of thing, where the threshold is. That’s why I have to call him. But then he’ll say something about the sounds I always hear in the dark now and how the wind bangs the gate—The wind? What the hell do you know about the wind in Toronto? You’re in Miami Paul—you haven’t the faintest idea what the weather is like here. And then I’ll have to drop my voice back down to a whisper so the predator doesn’t hear me, doesn’t know I’m awake. There is no wind, Paul. I’ll hiss into the phone. At least, the branches that normally make moving shadows on the wall are still. I will be home on Thursday, he’ll say. Or whatever day he’s supposed to come home this time.
I should call Paul.
There! Is he trying to open the door? Definitely something scratching against the glass, tugging at the handle. A hook. No, only in movies. A hand is scary enough. Paul will ask if I’ve taken my pills today. He’ll say it with a sigh and look at his watch that he wears even in bed with nothing else on. When we had sex, sometimes my hair would get caught in its clasp which hurt a bit and limited my range of motion. I never complained because I could tell it turned him on. Some kind of Tarzan-Jane control thing. Or whatever ancient man it was that used to drag his woman along the ground by her hair. Yes, Paul. Yes I did take my pills. I am fine. But someone is outside our door and I am alone. Please, just tell me when this becomes an emergency.
He’s after drugs. For sure. Predators usually are, especially in this neighbourhood. The drugstore down the street has three identical yellow signs in the windows each printed with the message: NARCOTICS SUCH AS OXYCONTIN ARE AVAILABLE BY SPECIAL ORDER ONLY. There is something about the font and the drugstore’s logo at the bottom of the signs that makes them look polite, almost friendly. Special Order sounds nice, like the sort of thing picked up by a practical woman in a wool coat, leather gloves and a fine hat.
Hullo Mrs Matthews! Your Special Order has arrived.
Oh! Thanks a bunch Jimmy, I’ll swing by in the morning.
A brown paper package tied up with string handed over the counter by a smiling pharmacist, like the one in the Norman Rockwell paintings. Too-da-loo, Mrs Matthews says, the Narcotics such as Oxycontin tucked under her arm as she waves good-bye to Jimmy and the pharmacist with the other gloved hand.
I’ve heard of this before. A lot, come to think of it. Drug addicts breaking into your house when they know you’ve got what they need.
I think he’s coming around the side. Narcotics are available in this house, no special order required. The predator must know that. Heard that the Missus must be on something good to keep her steady. Damn the big yellow signs! If they weren’t taped to the windows he might just be prowling around the alley behind the drugstore, waiting for the right moment to jimmy open the back door with the crowbar hidden in his jacket. But he knows they’re available there by Special Order only. We all know, thanks to the signs. We all further assume they are locked away in a safe or simply Not On The Premises. Hence, the requirement for special orders.
I didn’t notice my heart until now. This makes it real. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel it in my ears. If this wasn’t an emergency I wouldn’t be feeling this way. Maybe the nature of my emergency will be a heart attack. No matter what, we’re approaching the threshold.
I heard it. Something metal, clanking on the deck. The crowbar. The one he was going to use to break into the drugstore before he saw the signs and resorted to Plan B. This is Plan B. I am Plan B. I’m getting the phone.
It’s always good to be prepared for the worst.
It makes you less afraid of life in general, I think.
I always said I’d never over-protect my kids. Or maybe I just thought that, it’s hard to remember now. I’d tell them the truth about things, even the sorts of things that are supposed to be beyond them, not meant for children. Like the things my mother would whisper into the phone, pulling the cord taut around the wall as she dropped her voice and walked out of the kitchen, away from us. Where people go when they disappear. What cancer really is. Why grown-ups run away, why they slice into their arms and let the blood run from under the bathroom door to soak into the hallway carpet. I wouldn’t necessarily bring up these topics, just answer questions as they arose.
That was the plan.
Maybe some weekends we’d walk through streets where sadness lurks. Just to see it, to know it in advance. I could introduce them to homeless people, to street kids especially. Talk about things. All of us, sitting on the sidewalk in a circle with a runaway kid and his mangy German Shepherd and his sign that says Every Bit Helps. We’d listen to his story. I would definitely make sure they were not afraid of dogs. Or strangers. Or the dark.
Ringing. Voicemail dammit. He must have it on silent. Try again. What hotel is he staying at? Palm Something. It’s on my damn cell phone downstairs. This is an emergency. An Emergency. Answer dammit. Please, Paul. Please.
“Paul – there’s a man. I can hear him –”
“Martha. Oh Martha. I miss her so much tonight.”
I can’t breathe. Can’t form a word.
“Are you in her room, honey?” His voice warbles. I can see his tears, the tiny globes of water that fall straight from his lashes. “Is that where you’re calling from?”
“God. Shit. Sometimes I can’t bear it.”
I lay down, cheek to the floor to feel the cold, staring at the place where her crib had been. Where her bed had been. Where the doll I sewed together from a pattern used to rest on her pillow.
“Martha – ”
“Paul. You could have called me.”
“I didn’t want to upset you. Didn’t want to wake you.” He takes a deep, wet breath. A web of mucous thickens his throat. “Why are you up, hon?”
“I heard something. But it’s gone now.”