Here’s the other short story I wrote and read recently.
Esther was a night owl, always had been, so she was still awake reading a gardening magazine in bed when she heard the stairs creak. She paused, and put a hand to the reading glasses resting on the end of her nose. She had lived in that house for 82 years, and knew every small sound the house made, both voluntarily and involuntarily.
This was the fourth step squeaking, and it only did so when stepped on. Esther could recall stepping over it when her daughter Nancy was a napping infant. Her heart fluttered in her chest and she felt faint. Who would be in the house?
She looked for her cell phone on the quilt and realized she had left it downstairs. She rarely used it, in fact it was probably long out of battery power anyway. She had let Nancy talk her into discontinuing the land line last year, to her sudden regret. Who could be in the house?
Esther opened her mouth to call out, but no sound came. It was 12:15 A.M, no one would be visiting her unannounced. The only person who might, Nancy, was 2,000 miles away with her own family.
Moving as quickly as she could, Esther swung her legs off the bed and lowered herself to the floor. Her ancient knee joints protested painfully. They were already looking forward to sleep, and Esther was surprised they didn’t audibly pop.
Clutching her nightgown around her waist, Esther looked around the bedroom, trying to think of what to do. The large window overlooking the yard was one exit point, but the room was on the 2nd floor, and the only way down was a hard fall. Esther remembered how easily she had fractured her forearm and hand falling on ice two years earlier. The window wasn’t an option, but she pushed it open quietly, letting cool night air fill the room.
The upstairs hallway of the house was shaped like a large U, with Esther’s bedroom on the end of the right side. The stairs led up to the middle of the U, so Esther crept out from the bedroom, keeping her cold blue eyes on the far corner. The hallway was dark, barely illuminated by the light spilling from the bedroom, and she had to feel her way down to the next door.
This room was a spare bedroom that she used as her sewing room, although she hadn’t sewed anything in years. It smelled musty with disuse, and she felt her way along the wall to the closet, which was thankfully already open. There was a dress model in the closet, and Esther squeezed in behind it, pulling the clothes on the rack to cover her head.
Her heartbeat sounded impossibly loud, and not altogether rhythmic in her ears. Now that she was hiding her fear caught up with her, coppery in her mouth. Perhaps she was just hearing things after all? It was foolish to think that she knew every sound in such an old house. It could have been anything.
She was finally calming down and preparing to go out and investigate like a rational adult when she heard the squeak of the first floorboard in the hall, another sound that could only be coaxed from the house, particularly by heavier people. Esther remembered how her late husband Lewis had always made that step squeak when he reached the top of the stairs. It used to comfort her at night, hearing that sound and knowing he was finally home. It elicited the opposite response now.
Esther concentrated on keeping her breath low and even, straining to hear any sound outside the room. Her eyes, such as they were, had adjusted to the dark room, and she looked down and saw her tiny, frail frame in the baggy nightgown. She turned a mottled, stick-like arm and curled the thin little fingers into a fist. Her skin was dry and cold like newsprint paper.
There was the unmistakable sound of a foot stepping softly from just outside the door. Esther put a fluttering hand over her mouth and closed her eyes. Her heart jangled in her chest, and she wondering if she might have a heart attack right here in the sewing closet.
The door to the sewing room gave a little sigh as it swung open on its hinges. There was a tiny click and suddenly a flashlight beam cut a bright swath across the room. Esther leaned her head to the side to peer out between two coats. The beam flicked across the sewing table, then swung to the closet, blinding her.
She remained frozen in place, waiting for the other person to say something. She was sure some part of her must be sticking out. Or perhaps they would hear the breath that seemed to be hissing from her nostrils.
But the flashlight beam continued around the room and then with a little click it was gone. Esther blinked away the stars in her vision but remained still. There was a footstep, then another, and then she heard the hallway creak again.
She let out an almost painful exhalation and leaned back against the wall. Her heart thudded painfully against her ribs and she pressed her palms against the wall to keep upright.
She heard her bedroom door swing open, and this time the intruder was not attempting to be quiet. There was the sound of heavy boots on the hardwood floor. Her bathroom door was opened. She heard a man’s voice, speaking in low tones.
Then he was back in the hallway, just outside the sewing room, and when he spoke again Esther jumped, nearly knocking several hatboxes over.
“Hey, get over here.”
“I think she went out the window.”
“In the bedroom? No way. She’d be lying on the lawn.”
“Well she ain’t up here, I checked every room.”
“Then let’s get anything we can and get the hell out!”
“You go outside and see if she’s around the house, I’ll grab the jewelry boxes and meet you at the car. There’s hardly anything in here worth taking.”
The other man grunted agreement and tromped off.
Esther was surprised to find herself angered by his statement. Nothing worth taking? To her the house was a museum of priceless artifacts. Even an old, tattered rug was full of memories to her. She felt like walking out of the closet and giving this punk a piece of her mind.
The indignation helped settle her nerves somewhat, and she relaxed in her hiding place. These men would take her jewelry, which she would never be able to replace, but she would be left unharmed.
She took a mental inventory of the jewelry boxes, with their fraying silk cases. One of them she had owned since she was a little girl. It was powder blue, with a delicate silver thread weaved in a pattern through the top. Inside were various necklaces, earrings, and bracelets that she had worn throughout her life.
Of particular concern was the first piece of jewelry she had ever received, a thin silver chain bracelet that her mother had given her for Christmas when she was seven. They had been so poor, and Esther knew that her mother must have saved pennies every week for a year to be able to afford it. Of all the old treasures in that house, that small chain was her most valued. She rarely took it out of the box, for fear that it might break simply from old age.
Without thinking or realizing what she was doing, Esther pushed out of the closet, full of rage. To think of this thug making off into the night with that chain was too much to bear. She would rather confront him than just hide and let him slip away.
The dress model teetered on its base and Esther reached to steady it but too late, it crashed into the wall with a loud thud, then slid to the floor with a hiss. Esther was frozen in the middle of the room, and the silence from her bedroom told her that the man had heard it, too.
Heavy footsteps came out into the hallway.
“Hello? You still here, old bird?” The voice was sweet like he was talking to a wayward child.
Esther grabbed a pincushion from the sewing table and put her tiny body behind the door. As she stood there she pulled out sewing needles and then stuck them out through the sides of the pincushion, point up.
The flashlight clicked on and entered the room, probing the floor. The man was in the doorway, Esther could hear his breathing and smell him, like old cigarettes and garlic. The flashlight danced around the open closet.
“Come on out here, honey.”
Esther gritted her dentures together. The mouth on this guy. He stepped into the room and Esther peeked around at his broad back. Moving silently she stepped out, holding the pincushion in her right hand. As she moved her brain tried to keep up and formulate a plan. Hold on, her mind begged. Hold on, let’s plan this out.
But she was already in motion. With all her might she reached back and then pounded the pincushion into the side of the man’s neck. She didn’t know what reaction to expect, but the man exploded. He dropped the flashlight and the beam flew around the room, making wild shadows out of his flailing body. She saw the man’s red face, twisted in a snarl of rage and pain, and he saw her, a terrified wraith of a woman, her nightgown wisping around her.
Esther was frozen a second longer and then flew into the hallway, pulling the door to the sewing room shut behind her and pushing the small bolt lock closed. She remembered installing it as soon as Nancy had learned how to walk. Didn’t want her getting into pins.
Standing in the hallway, Esther was unsure of where to go. The other man was somewhere, either outside or in the house. Suddenly Esther remembered Lewis’s bayonet. She ran to the bedroom and reached up on the top shelf, feeling for the long, thin box. The man in the sewing room was throwing his weight against the door, and she could hear the wood splintering and cracking.
After Lewis had passed away, Nancy’s husband Dale had agreed to take most of the WWII memorabilia and sell it, but he had forgotten the bayonet. Esther hadn’t even thought of it for at least five years. Perhaps it wasn’t here, after all?
No, it was there. Esther’s fingers pinched the cardboard lid and pulled it down. It hit her in the head, and it was heavy, but she ignored the pain. The man in the sewing room was kicking the door apart, grunting with exertion.
Esther opened the green box and there was the bayonet, hard and ugly. She picked it up and it dragged her arm down. What was she thinking? She didn’t know how to use a knife for anything other than chopping vegetables.
She positioned herself in front of the small table by the mirror that held her jewelry boxes. This would be her last stand.
There was a final crash in the hallway and then angry stomping toward her room. Esther grabbed the bayonet with two hands and steeled herself. The tip of the knife wavered and her arms already felt exhausted holding it out. She relaxed her elbows against her sides and let her body take some of the weight.
The man was in the doorway, huffing and flushed, blinking in the warm light from the lamps. There were a dozen oozing points of blood on his neck, but other than that he seemed unharmed. He looked at Esther like a bull about to charge, but paused when he saw the knife.
“What are you gonna do with that?” He laughed and then reached into his boot, pulling out a small folding knife. “Okay, we can do it this way.”
He advanced on her but she did not move. In fact she was not looking at him at all. She was looking at the clock on the nightstand, which read 12:29. Esther frequently fell asleep while reading in bed, and Nancy had noticed that she would sleep through the night with the lights burning. So it was, Nancy had suggested they install a light timer, which would shut the lights off every night, at 12:30.
The man was a few feet away when the lamps suddenly clicked off, and the room was plunged into darkness. Esther knew this was her only chance. She lunged forward, hoping her arms could keep the bayonet steady.
The tip of the blade hit the man’s hip but did not penetrate his pants. He swiped with his knife, narrowly missing her face. Esther ducked by him and then saw he was silhouetted by the large window. She charged him then, surprising him and throwing her 95 pounds into his midsection. He tottered back and into the window. His head smacked against the bottom of the pane but his body went through the opening.
Esther saw his face as he fell, illuminated in moonlight, horribly surprised to be falling. There was a cry, and then a hard thud. She stood in the window, and saw him splayed out below. He was still alive, she saw his ribs heaving air, but one leg was bent unnaturally beneath him and he was yelling in agony.
There were boots on the stairs, and Esther hurried into the hall, the bayonet hanging at her side. The other man was standing at the end of the hallway, a flashlight in his hand. He was considerably smaller than the other man, but still much larger than Esther. They regarded one another silently for a moment. She couldn’t see his face, but could tell he was interested in the bayonet. The big man’s cries of pain were barely audible outside.
“Get out of my house.” Her own voice surprised her. It wasn’t shaky or small, like she had imagined it would be. In fact it didn’t sound like her at all.
“Whoa, hang on, old-”
“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE.” She began walking down the hall, the knife swinging freely at her side.
“Okay, wait a second. Wait-” The man realized she wasn’t going to stop and turned and ran.
Esther gave chase, taking the stairs two at a time in her bare feet. The man paused at the kitchen door and saw she was right behind him.
“Jesus lady, hang on now-”
Esther dropped the bayonet to the kitchen floor with a loud clatter and yanked her chef’s knife from the wooden block on the counter. The man stared at the gleaming silver and then pulled the kitchen door open and sprinted out into the night.
Esther stood in the doorway. She heard an engine turn over, and then there was a squeal of tires as a car sped away. The big man on the lawn realized he had been abandoned and renewed his painful whimpering.
The cell phone was on the coffee table, out of battery, as Esther had guessed. She plugged it in to charge and then sat down to wait. There was no hurry.XX