Anston was shaken by his encounter, and a bit mind-boggled. He had no idea what the homeless men were talking about. He was no fool. He did what was necessary the night he’d had his wife committed. It wasn’t easy taking her there, and it certainly wasn’t easy leaving her there. But doing so was the right thing, for both of them. She needed help. He’d provided that road for her. He was no fool. The homeless men were the fools!
Anston resolved never again to listen to the wisdom of old men who’d made worse decisions than he had. Technically, he was smarter—he wasn’t the one spending the night at the park, so he should’ve been the one giving the advice back there. He rolled his eyes at the “wise words” they’d given him. What did they know?
As soon as he found his way home, and as soon as he confirmed the Rottweiler had gone inside, Anston restarted his perimeter check, making sure that everything had remained secure.
“They’re the fools,” he kept muttering to himself as he rechecked the garage windows. He was right. They were wrong. But, more importantly, he was right. And they were wrong.
When he examined the windows facing the backyard and saw that each was untouched, he moved to the right of the house where the two bedrooms were located. These rooms had carried the most weight with his ex-wife during their marriage, so he thought they bore the greatest likelihood of her break-in, if she’d even come back to see him, which was looking less likely.
“I did the right thing,” he said under his breath. He knew he was right.
The guest bedroom, which wasn’t any smaller than the master bedroom, was first. According to memory, there were a number of reasons for her to choose this window over the rest. The prominent reason, of course, being that it was the room where he had first threatened to kick her out. When he did finally kick her out, a month later, he was decent enough to send her out through the front door, in the subtlest way possible, and there was plenty of paperwork to follow, but this was the hill where the snowball had formed.
“She was losing her mind.”
She had certainly made her feelings about the matter known to him at the time. In fact, he had almost changed his mind when he’d discovered that she had passion for something—a quality he’d always desired in women, a quality that he was certain after their wedding night that she didn’t have. But part of that passion was in threatening to invite her mother over to talk to him, sternly, about his way of thinking, so he had brushed it off as displaced desire and continued weighing the possibility of pushing her out the door.
“Not my fault she went insane.”
After he’d committed her to the “enrichment facility” a few weeks later, he spent several months with a knife beside his computer mouse in case she ever sought retribution. He eventually put it away when he reasoned she wasn’t coming back and that keeping a steak knife at his desk for months probably wasn’t necessary. He also concluded that, if against all odds she ever found her way home, then providing her easy access to the object she’d threatened to stab him with so close to the bed was a bad idea. That she might come here now, of course, resumed his uneasiness.
“Though, I probably should’ve visited more.”
He shook his head.
“At least once. Maybe she’d be less angry at me. Or more.”
He shook his head again. The truth was too fuzzy.
The truth. Such an elastic thing when it came to sanity.
She was crazy. The Happy Place Enrichment Facility had agreed. So, of course, he’d made the right decision turning her over to them. Hadn’t he?
The old men in the park were fools. They said they’d understood the situation, but they understood nothing. Giving up his wife for her own good was not easy, nor was it supposed to be. It was just necessary. That she couldn’t also figure that out was not his problem. Well, except for that he was creeping in the dark from anticipation of her making it his problem. But it shouldn’t have been his problem!
Anston hesitated to step forward. The night chill of early December crawled at his skin. The crickets laying siege on his bushes would confuse any bumps he might’ve heard in the night. The grass beneath his feet gave off the sounds of a snare drum. Even the neighbors could hear him moving now. And they’d snitch on him if they ever saw him creeping in the dark. Unlike him, they actually liked his estranged wife. They could “relate” to her. Perhaps someone should’ve had them committed to the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. Forging on any further, therefore, was the insanity at play.
He stared up at the neighbor’s tree branch reaching toward his house.
Nervous or not, he still needed his answers. He needed to know that he was alone.
Anston inched forward and checked the guestroom window. Despite the cold, sweat beaded on his knuckles. He started by finger-walking along the concrete wall. As he reached around the recession into the window frame, he scraped his fingertips against the glass, eyeing the inner curtain for movement. The glass was still smooth. Untouched, even. He released his grip on the window casing and collapsed against the wall. His breathing steadied.
First, he was relieved. Then mystified. If she had broken out of the psycho institution, then why hadn’t she come here? She loved this place. Probably more than anything else in town. As his fingers retracted from the locked window, he pondered the question. Maybe she couldn’t get a taxicab. Or maybe she’d forgotten where she used to live. Maybe her many medications had brought her to a ditch somewhere.
If true, then that would’ve made her angrier at him.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have abandoned her,” he said under his breath.
He glanced to his right. Two windows to go. One of them faced the street, in full view of his nosy neighbors. If anyone were up to no good at the front of the house, the police would be here in minutes. So that really left him with just one window to check. The master bedroom window on the side of the house—the one he usually left cracked open to avoid coming home to a stuffy bedroom with poor ventilation. Because he’d closed it for his fishing trip, however, he expected to find it in the same condition as the rest.
From his position beside the guestroom, he sensed the window hadn’t been touched. Nothing sparkled in the grass underneath it. As far as he could tell from here, no one had cracked it or shattered it open. He was probably safe to continue for now. Nevertheless, he held his roach spray close to the chest. If anything jumped out at him in the last moments before reaching his front door, he’d let it have it. His throat tensed.
Anston kept his back to the wall as he sidestepped toward the master bedroom and the front of the house. Once he reached the window’s edge, he peeked ahead just enough to assess the situation.
The window was closed. The curtain, as he’d left it: also closed. The lights inside, off. Nothing moving in the darkness. By all accounts, he was alone here.
He’d nearly fallen to his knees in relief.
Now that he was definitely safe, he jogged past the window and into the front yard. He had just one barrier left to test. The front door.
Anston climbed the step onto the porch and approached the door, his left hand reaching for the handle and his right hand at eye level, aiming the roach spray.
Last chance to run away.
No, he had to make sure.
He swallowed hard and grabbed for the handle. It didn’t budge. Locked! He’d remembered that vital security step when he left with Rebecca. He smiled and laughed under his breath.
She wasn’t here. He was safe. For the time being, at least. Safe enough to prepare the house for her eventual arrival, Home Alone style. Assuming she was coming.
He held his breath as he reached for his keys. Then he held his wrist as he inserted the key into the lock.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. She’s not here.”
Once he forced himself to open it, Anston reached in for the light switch. For the first time tonight, normal lighting greeted him, though in the company of stale air. He waited a moment to see if anything would jump out from around a corner. But nothing did. His nerves began to calm. Except for a faint hissing that he couldn’t pinpoint, most likely his struggling air-conditioner, everything, including his heart, was still.
“She’s not here.”
He scanned the room from the kitchen to the bedrooms.
“Why isn’t she here?”
He checked over his shoulder, out onto the street, over to his car, past all the neighbors’ houses. As he stood just inside the doorway, he considered a list of variables regarding his current situation. She was out there somewhere, but he didn’t know whether she was coming here. If she were to arrive, he’d be in trouble.
“She should be here by now.”
If she wasn’t coming . . . well, the more he thought about that, the more it pissed him off. Why wouldn’t she want to come for him?
Even as he thought of it, he knew it was irrational. The last thing he needed was for someone who had threatened to stab him in his sleep to show up at his doorstep. But she was his ex-wife. Wife. The divorce was never finalized thanks to certain bureaucratic devices that had destroyed his motivation. Surely she must’ve wanted to see him. Even if it was to stick a blade in his gut, or whatever her nutsy little imagination had driven her to want. He felt a little insulted that she had ignored him completely.
But that was ridiculous. All of those months spent sleeping next to a crazy woman had clearly rubbed off on him. He refocused his thoughts. He needed a contingency plan in case she came home. Well, to Anston’s home. He needed to get the thought of her ever calling this place home again out of his mind.
To come up with the proper contingency, he needed to consider the facts:
- She hadn’t broken out of the facility alone. Brad Pitt was with her (not the famous one, the former chemist who had a different real name, most likely—Anston had to be careful not to mix the two up), and he was probably as dangerous, if not more so.
- It was possible that the breakout was Pitt’s idea, and that she was just along for the ride.
- She could be traveling around at Pitt’s mercy. Coming here may not have even been on the agenda.
- If she were coming here, she’d have already come. The breakout had happened hours ago, plenty of time for her to make her way home . . . make her way to Anston’s home.
- If she had other agendas to fulfill first, then she’d still be coming here, most likely in the middle of the night while he slept.
- Given her initial threat, he didn’t have the heart to sleep in his own bed.
- He couldn’t afford to sleep elsewhere and was probably doomed to face her, anyway.
Anston had moved toward the sofa while he considered the list of possibilities. Sitting down had often helped him to relax and think with a clearer head. It had allowed him to come up with at least seven facts, even though he was having trouble coming up with an eighth. It was possible he had thought of everything that mattered.
While he reviewed the points, he went to the bathroom sink to rinse his face. The half-empty bottle of tequila that Rebecca had brought was leaning against the slope beside the drain, so he moved it to the towel rack. Then he dried his face on a towel that hadn’t been washed in weeks. The stench didn’t even faze him, he was so used to his bachelor’s life.
Regarding the last three points, he realized he was still in significant danger, and he still needed some kind of security measure to keep him safe. His first thought was a little raw, and probably ineffective in the grand scheme of things, but it was better than nothing. As much as he preferred to catalog threats before acting on solutions, he was aware of the possibility that he was low on time. Going with his first solution, the gut solution, was his best defense this late in the game. So he retrieved his phone from the kitchen and called his friend Matt to crash at his place.
The plan was rough in his head, but it made sense. He figured Matt could sleep in the bed and Anston could snuggle up to a pillow in the closet where his wife, ex-wife, would be less likely to find him. Even as the phone rang, he thought of ways to polish the scenario for greater effect. If she were to barge in with a knife, Anston would have more time to react if he camped in the closet. He could slip out while she struggled with Matt. Or, in the likely scenario that Matt’s presence in the bed would confuse her and force her to halt her advancement, Anston could wait for her to leave without incident, then trade with Matt once she left. It could work. The site of another man in his bed would convince her he’d moved away. And if that happened, she’d never return, and he’d never have to worry about her sneaking up on him ever again. It was perfect! As his thoughts sped through his mind, he listened to the steady drone of each ring: four, five, six, seven. He couldn’t wait to enact his plan. But on the ninth ring he frowned. No one was home.
He wasn’t about to lose hope, though. He called George next. George was better for the plan, anyway, the more he thought about it. He was kind of a slob and someone Anston didn’t really want sleeping in his bed, ever, but he was tough, and he could handle a surprise attack. Probably should’ve called him first. But after the eighth ring, he gave up on George, too. They must’ve been on the boat.
Since he spent most of his free time working on computers, partly due to his social anxiety, Anston didn’t allow himself an opportunity to meet anyone else helpful. He had experimented with dating again, but he didn’t dare ask any of his former lady interests, or Rebecca for that matter, to sleep in the bed in his place. That would beg too many questions and lead to too many awkward moments. And his family lived too far away to help. And, as far as his neighbors were concerned, except for the woman who had sicced her Rottweiler on him moments ago, he’d never actually met any of them (again, they were all his ex-wife’s friends, not his), and he wasn’t sure that asking them to sleep in his bed tonight would’ve been appropriate.
As it seemed, he was on his own. He breathed in deeply to lower his blood pressure.
As he filled his lungs to the brim with air, he nearly choked. There was something acrid about it. He considered opening a window for better circulation—the place sure needed it—but he didn’t want to invite any unwanted guests inside, either, so he left it alone and told himself not to take so many deep breaths.
Next, he thought of other measures to stay safe. Soup cans stacked against the front door to alert him should she break in through there. Sleeping in the closet was still an option. But the most effective measure for dealing with this, and admittedly his least favorite plan—it would add complication to the mix should things go badly—was to call the police and ask for a patrol car to camp out for the evening. He didn’t want to invite them over because the fewer strangers he had interacting with his business, the better, but he knew they would keep him secure, depending on how fast they reacted to trouble, which, given what he’d observed in the past, was rather quickly. For that, he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, so he closed his eyes, stuck out his index finger, and dialed the emergency number by touch.
Fortunately, unlike his friends, the police picked up.
“Hi, I’d like to order some protection, please,” he said, when the operator took his request.
The conversation between him and the operator remained formal. After giving his address and a synopsis of the situation, which he’d kept vague for the sake of simplicity, Anston disconnected the call. A patrol car would arrive in the next twenty minutes or less. He stared out the window as he thought about all the things that could happen to him in twenty minutes or less.
With no other option before him, it was time, he reckoned, to listen to his fifty-plus messages.
He set the roach spray beside the machine and hit “PLAY.” The doctor from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility spoke first. Then a woman followed, a woman he knew very well—and assumed the doctor knew well, too. Her voice screeched more than it had when she was still actively his wife.
I’m coming for you, she said.
The dial tone followed, then the beep.
I’m coming for you, said the next message. It was her, but it didn’t sound like her.
The beep followed.
Anston reached for his shirt collar.
I’m coming for you.
I’m coming for you, sweetheart. Yep, no doubt, her voice sounded weird.
I’m coming home.
Dial tone. Beep.
I’m coming for you.
Click. Dial tone. Beep.
Anston took down the first few buttons of his shirt to escape the heat around his neck. His head felt light, almost spinning. He didn’t want to listen anymore. Yet, he was transfixed. Her creepy voice still had a melody to it that made his heart race, and not because he was worried about her killing him in his sleep, even if that did accelerate it.
I’m coming for you.
I’m coming for you, darling.
Hello, valued customer. This is First Regional Bank calling regarding your account. We have some exciting new options for your future banking experience. If you would like to upgrade to a premium account, please press one. If you would like to upgrade to our platinum account, please press two. For our frequent flyer program, please press three. If you would like to speak to a representative, please stay on the line. Para toda consulta en español, presione cuatro.
Several minutes of silence followed.
Thank you for holding. How may I help you? More silence. Hello?
Dial tone. Beep.
Why was your phone busy?
I’m coming for you.
I’m still coming for you.
Anston stood from the couch and walked into the kitchen, his head so light it was ready to crash into the ceiling.
His stomach had behaved so far, but now he wanted to vomit. He poured himself a glass of water. Some of it sloshed onto the counter when he set the glass down.
Something he hadn’t noticed before amid the problems regarding his stomach and safety, but noticed now that he drank some water, was that his throat was dry, even scratchy. For a moment he could taste even the remains of salt in his mouth. Then he noticed something else: a headache. A different headache from the one that resulted in the gas station lights interacting with the pepper spray. It was more of a lightheadedness than a pressure attack. He hadn’t eaten all day. His blood sugar must’ve taken a dive. If his stomach had only given him peace. He decided to test it.
Kitchenware was sparse in his house. In fact, he owned only one pot—The Happy Place Enrichment Facility had gotten half of his assets in the first phase of the divorce settlement; the second phase was still pending as the divorce was never finalized. Anything requiring advanced cooking techniques didn’t get made on his stove. Often, anything that involved cooking period didn’t get made here. He usually ordered out. As he thought about that, he felt another pain in his stomach; he should’ve gone out for dinner earlier. He should’ve just told Dr. Farea to stuff it and go out with Rebecca instead, especially now that the doc’s warning was premature. But it was too late. Most places nearby would’ve been closed this time of night.
He placed his single pot on the burner. Next, he scoured his cupboard for something canned. His choices were tuna and soup. He thought the classic chicken noodle soup was best for the occasion, as it was easiest on an upset stomach, so he popped the tin can’s top and poured the contents into the pot. Then he reached for the burner’s knob to cook it.
His stomach—it was ready to go. All other senses vanished in that moment. He could feel it contract, its contents rising. He stopped short of the knob and ran for the bathroom.
I’m coming for you, doll-face, said the machine as he ran past it.
The bathroom was grimy in places, with mildew caked in the tiles and stubble lining the sink. Anston had every intention of cleaning it someday. But today was not that day. Today was made for puking.
He forced the toilet lid open with a clang against the tank, but lost control of the seat. It fell as the first wave of vomit coursed through his system and out of his mouth, slicing through its heavy stream. Chunks of food ricocheted to the floor as they bounced off the seat’s edge.
Several minutes he spent over the bowl, retching every last morsel still lingering in his system. The echo of his gagging bounced around in his head, encouraging his stomach’s muscle reflex to go another round. Soon, he was spent, knees on the floor, face just inches from the toilet. All the day’s anxieties had gone out with it. And to think he’d almost made some soup.
He got up, feeling nothing left to expel. Then he went to the sink and rinsed his face again. His stomach was tight, but relief settled in. Everything would be all right. He checked his face in the mirror. His lips were clean. He was clean.
Satisfied, Anston returned to the living room, ready to unplug his answering machine. Then he froze when he got within ten feet of the sofa. His mind fell blank and his jaw dropped. He didn’t dare so much as flinch. He wasn’t alone. Alice was back home, after all.