This story is by Elizabeth Austin and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Portia was half awake when she entered that paralyzing free fall where the body fights the mind to wake up. She gave in and reluctantly sat up. Feeling disoriented, she tried to recall where she was. No matter what she tried, deep sleep always eluded her. There was no rest.
Then she heard it, in the hallway outside her bedroom–a low growl.
Reaching for the bedside table, Portia grabbed a flashlight and the mini can of mace she kept nearby. Swinging her legs off the bed, she tiptoed to the door and looked out at the dark and shapeless expanse of the room beyond.
Portia flattened herself against the wall and inched out of the bedroom into the chasm.
A door banged shut. Her cat, Nero, hissed in the night.
Raising the flashlight in her left hand and holding the mace in front of her with her right, poised to use the weapons, she took a step forward. Then another. And another.
Tick, tick, tick. It sounded like a fingernail tapping on a window pane.
Desperately, Portia tried to recall if she had closed all the windows before she went to sleep. Yes, yes, no … She hadn’t closed the bay window in the kitchen. Worse yet, the kitchen is where she’d left her cell phone last night. She couldn’t even call for help.
Should she run out the front door to the neighbors? Ridiculous. The noises were in her mind. If they weren’t, well, she wasn’t the kind who’d run from a fight anyway.
Nero hissed again. Whatever was going on, the cat didn’t like it either.
Portia stumbled toward the kitchen.
Once inside the door, she paused. Should she risk turning on a light? Feeling it would leave her exposed, she took a deep breath and resumed her crawl towards the window. She was three feet away when her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she could see the gray outline of the bay window and feel the cold air streaming in. She reached out a hand, pushed down the window and, with a twist of her wrist, locked it.
A guttural growl began to rise behind her. Switching on the flashlight, Portia aimed it at the refrigerator. Nero emerged from the shadows, hissing and batting the air with his paw.
“Hush, Nero. It’s me.” Nero hissed again.
Startled, Portia turned to see what was behind her now. In the doorway, framed by the kitchen entryway, she saw it, but just barely. Surrounded by a dark shroud was a tall form with a featureless face, just the hint of a nose and mouth jutting from the space where a face should have been. For a moment, the thing stopped and faced her, almost daring her to confront it. And just as quickly, it was gone. Had she really seen the faceless specter? Was it a trick of the shadows?
She became determined now. This was her house. She wasn’t going to be bullied by anyone, or anything. Whatever monster lurked in her home, she would face it. Squaring her shoulders, she ran over to the light switch, flipped it on and pulled open a drawer, extracting a long steak knife.
Portia marched back into the living room, turning on lamps as she went. She was about to tackle the looming darkness of her bedroom when a knock rattled the front door. She gripped the knife.
Knock, knock, knock.
Should she continue her assault on the shadows in the bedroom or face whoever lurked behind the door?
The persistent banging decided it for her.
With a parting glance at the bedroom, Portia reluctantly shuffled towards the door and opened it.
On the doorstep stood two police officers: one tall and thin was holding a hat in front of him while trying to peer through the blinds. The other was short and stocky, with a thick mat of black hair.
“Mrs. Roberts?” The stocky officer was the first to speak up.
“It’s Ms. I haven’t been married in quite some time.”
“May we come in? It’s about your daughter, Denise.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. What does this have to do with her?”
The officer continued, “Ms. Roberts, when did you last see your daughter?”
“We haven’t seen each other in 10 years. She left home when she was 17 to be with a boy she couldn’t live without. Figured that one day when she was ready, she’d come around. Even left her room the way it was.”
Clearing his throat, the tall officer chimed in, “Your daughter was seriously injured this evening in a car accident about 50 miles from here. We found your contact information in her purse. She’s currently in a hospital in Tilden.”
Feeling a little dizzy, Portia grabbed a table to steady herself.
In a kindlier voice, the stocky officer asked if he could contact a support person for her.
“There’s no one. Denise is my only family. Can I go see her?”
As they drove to the hospital, Portia fought off a panic attack. So many questions were going through her head. What if Denise woke up and didn’t want her there? Worse yet, what if she didn’t wake up at all? Did Denise have a family of her own? Would they reject her as well?
At the hospital, the officers escorted Portia inside and up to a fourth-floor nurses’ station. The officers exchanged hellos with a nurse with long, gray hair and a warm smile, who promptly took charge and escorted Portia to a nearby room. Entering the room, she stopped short, filled with both horror and love, relief and fear. Laying in the bed, hooked up to multiple machines emitting beeps and pulsing lights, was her only child. If it weren’t for the machines, she wouldn’t have known that anything was wrong with Denise. Except for a cut above her eye, she didn’t bear any noticeable scars.
Portia’s attention was redirected to the man dressed in a white coat, who had followed them into the room.
“Ms. Roberts? I’m Dr. Kindred, the attending physician. I don’t know how much you’ve been told, but your daughter appears to have fallen asleep at the wheel. She has a broken pelvis and collarbone, as well as a concussion.”
“Will she be okay?”
“Denise has a long road ahead, but she’s young and healthy.”
“My daughter and I have been estranged for years. This is the first time I’ve seen her since she was a teenager. I don’t know if she even wants me here.”
“I don’t know your history with your daughter, but from what I’m told, your daughter’s home address is close by–not that far from where you live. On some level, she still wanted to be close to you. Sometimes when people have hurt each other, they want things to be repaired, but they don’t know how.
Hours later, Portia was replaying the doctor’s words in her head as sleep threatened to overtake her. For too long, rest had eluded her. Awake or asleep, she had been tormented by the monster who hunted her, who condemned and taunted her for not being a better mother. Too long, she had been alone, trying to make sense of everything.
But that night, despite everything, Portia slept deeply, knowing her daughter was near. For this moment, the shapeless monster who went bump in the night had fled. She understood now what it was–the guilt that she’d given up on Denise too quickly; that she hadn’t tried hard enough to find her when things got hard.
Much later, Portia gave into the consciousness and reluctantly sat up. Feeling disoriented, she tried to recall where she was. Sunlight was streaming in through the hospital window, its beams masking the figure in the bed.
Then she heard the voice that had been too long out of reach–the sound that could banish the monsters in the dark …