Alice Hughes is an author of short fiction based out of Melbourne. She wrote The Intruder at the beginning of this year, and has called it a way of testing what the short story form can do with sound, and stripped of images.
She awoke like this: in the black. Not darkness. Black. Darkness had no relevance to her. Darkness was as meaningless as the table lamps that littered her apartment.
She stretched, feeling towards the space where Eric should have been. But she was alone in the bed. Her hands gripped at absence.
“Fine,” she muttered to herself. “If it’s like that.” They had fought the night before, and he was good at holding a grudge. He had probably slept the night on the couch.
She sat up, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Using her toes, she sought out the cane that lay on the floor, delighted as always to feel its presence and its permanence.
“Eric?” She called out, picking up the cane with her toes and then slipping the leather band around her wrist. She did not need it to navigate the apartment – she knew every nook and cranny of the place; could see it in her mind’s eye; could feel it, in the way she knew people with sight could not – but she liked having it with her. It was her extra limb. She felt odd without it.
“We’re going to argue this morning as well?” She called out. No answer. What a bastard he could be. How much egomania lay within that thin frame. Eric believed his problems were problems grand enough to disrupt the pattern of life itself. Eric was not only the hero of his own story, but the story of the goddamn planet earth – in his mind everything before his birth was a prelude to his great and awe-inspiring dance along the mortal coil.
“Whatever,” she called, and then rose, the cane limp around her wrist, navigating herself into the corner of the room where her dressing gown hung on the back of the door. She had slept naked. She hated the feeling of clothes as she slept. Pajamas suffocated her. She could drown in cloth.
The gown felt good against her skin; she felt the material as it slid up every inch. Of course, those with sight liked to talk about how the blind had heightened senses: it was one of the things they found interesting. They liked it the way they are amused to discover that apes can solve simple wooden puzzles.
And yet she had to admit for all of his faults – and how many there were – Eric had never treated her with the patronizing curiosity most of those with sight did. He never asked dumb questions. He never exploited her, not even for a joke. Not like the rest of them. There had been other boyfriends who thought it funny to move around the furniture in her apartment; thought because she was comfortable with her blindness they could be comfortable too. Thought they could poke fun.
But Eric never had. Eric: respectful to a tee. And yet here he he was, sulking. Like a child. Like he so often did. And all because of a stupid argument over his stupid mother.
“You’re really not talking to me?” she called, a little softer now. She was standing in the doorway to the bedroom – the couch where he must have spent the night was only a few meters to her left.
She waited, and in the silence heard the drip, drip of the tap coming from the bathroom. He had forgotten to turn off the fucking tap. Again.
This was another problem: he treated her like he would treat anyone else. But she wasn’t anyone else. She had needs – individualized, specific needs – and one of them was a certain kind of silence. Nothing drove her as mad as the little noises that people with sight tend to ignore: the slight buzzing of the TV when it was asleep, rather than off; the whine a radio developed when turned down low; the taps – the fucking taps – dripping.
Why couldn’t she find the happy medium? Why couldn’t she find the man that didn’t tease her, but didn’t just try to ignore her blindness either; didn’t consider her sight deprivation some odd personality trait that would go away if disregarded?
She strode straight through the living room, past the couch she saw Eric sleeping on in her mind’s eye, and through to the kitchen. She opened the fridge, heard its hum (loud), and pulled out a carton of orange juice. She didn’t want to fight with Eric anymore – she was rarely angry the morning after – but now she was being pulled into another domestic. She was being forced to play the part of the bitchy fiancée, annoyed over nothing, because he was playing the part of the bastard fiancée, and he was playing it well.
She took the carton over to the kitchen counter, placed it down, and then moved to get a glass from the cupboard, brushing her arm over the counter, feeling it strike against something, anticipating the crash of whatever she had just knocked over before it even hit the ground.
It shattered – it must have been a glass Eric had left on the counter, stupidly, stupidly. How hard was it to put the glasses back where you found them?
“Jesus fuck,” she exclaimed. “There’s fucking glass everywhere.”
There was silence, save the slow drip of the tap from the next room. “Eric? Eric, you have to come help me. I don’t know where the glass is. It must be all over the floor.”
No answer. No sound. Except: drip, drip, drip.
“Please, honey,” she said, and was ashamed to find fear had crept into her voice. “Eric?”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Fuck you then,” she muttered. “You fucking asshole.”
Drip. Drip. Drip. She took a step towards the living room, out of the kitchen, and pain shot through her foot. She had trod right on a piece of glass – a splinter of the stuff, she could feel it, deep – and she let out a squeal of pain as she practically leapt over the rest of the linoleum, and through to the safety of the carpeted living room.
“I’m bleeding,” she barked, hobbling over towards where he was on the couch, ready to hit the guy, cane out, all prepared to feel the tip of it go sinking into his stupid, sleeping back…
But her cane did not strike Eric. It hit the back of the couch.
He was not there.
She was a little stunned. All the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. He wasn’t in bed. He wasn’t on the couch. The apartment was so small; there were very few places he could now be. Suddenly, she was afraid. Genuinely afraid.
And then, from the bathroom: a cough.
Her whole body went into spasm. It was fear, and it dripped through her. That was Eric coughing, wasn’t it? Then why wasn’t he answering?
“Eric? Hey, baby?” She called out, slowly.
From the bathroom: a shuffle, the unmistakable sound of sock clad fleet stumbling over the tiles. She raised her cane up, instinctively.
“Eric,” she cried, almost hysterical. “Eric, for fuck’s sake.”
There was another hacking cough, followed by the sound of fluid hitting the sides of the sink.
She was suddenly sure she needed to be very, very quiet. She stood perfectly still. There was somebody in her apartment. Eric would not ignore her like this, no matter how angry he was.
Her mind flashed with the word: intruder. It strobed through her brain, searing itself there. What had happened to Eric, then? He was not strong – what if he had been beaten up? What if he had been killed?
She let out a whimper, and then threw her hands up to her mouth, clamping it shut.
A moan came from the bathroom. It was a complicated noise, made from the back of the throat, but wet, as though a person with a mouthful of fluid was trying to speak.
Fluid. That was the word she used in her head. She did not want to use the word blood. Although, what else would it be?
A scenario rushed itself through her mind: an intruder had broken in. Eric had heard (how had Eric heard, and she hadn’t? a voice inside her probed, but she ignored it) and had risen to attack. He had gotten a knife from the kitchen – maybe the glass fit into that somehow (somehow? How? came the voice again), and then he had gone to attack the intruder, had managed to stab him. But the intruder was too strong, he had hurt Eric, maybe he had knocked him out, and now the intruder was in the bathroom, coughing up blood, wounded, but still dangerous.
Another terrible, agonized sound came. She flinched at it.
In no time at all the voice that kept interrupting her resurfaced. It was, she supposed, what her mother would have liked to call the voice of reason, because such phrases are a mother’s bread and butter.
Don’t be stupid, came the voice. You would have heard an intruder. It’s Eric in the bathroom, but he’s hurt. Maybe not badly: don’t always think badly. Maybe he’s sick. Maybe he’s vomiting.
Or, she thought, taking over from the voice, maybe Eric had had a heart attack. Maybe he was on his knees on the bathroom floor, gasping for breath, bright light blinding him, close to the end…
But then the noise came again. That moan. And with that noise, she could no longer convince herself that it was Eric, sick in the bathroom. She could no longer convince herself that the figure in the bathroom was Eric at all.
She took a step backwards. She raised up her cane. There was no way out of the apartment without passing the bathroom door. She was going to have to make a run for it, straight through the corridor, past the bathroom, out, out of the front and down the stairwell, and –
She needed a knife. The intruder would hear her pass the door – Christ, he had already heard her, she had been walking around the place shrieking like a mad housewife – and he would come bursting out, armed.
Maybe she should just stay still. If she could make it clear she was no threat – she was blind, for Christ’s sake – maybe the intruder would leave her be. Maybe if she could call out to him, let him know that she was not going to try to stop him…
A terrible, pained howl came from the bathroom, horrendously loud.
Before she even knew what she was doing, she was running. Fear had seized her body. She dashed straight through the corridor, approaching the bathroom –
BAM – the bathroom door flew open, just as she passed it, and a terrible stench, finally released, came from the room; it smelt like rot, like blood, like shit. She turned, her back to the now open bathroom door, and her hands slid up, trying to find the doorknob for the front door, just as she felt a sudden, swift rush of air against the back of her neck, the intruder right fucking behind her, and then her hands clamped on the doorknob, and she threw it open, and stepped straight through, into the stairwell of the apartment.
She screamed. The intruder had caught onto her long, flowing hair, and as she had darted forward, he had held on. The hair was pulled out at the roots. Her hands flew to the back of her head, instinctively protecting herself. She stumbled – so close to falling down the stairs – but steadied herself against the bannister.
“Get away from me!” She managed. She wanted to be loud: Terrence and Holly, the old married couple. They lived at the apartment at the bottom of the stairs. Surely, if she shouted loud enough, they would be able to hear her. They weren’t that deaf
She stumbled forward, gripping the bannister, down the stairs, one foot at a time, the cane tapping uselessly at her side.
A sudden rush of air came against the back of her neck, and she screamed again. The intruder was swiping at her, and there was no doubt anymore: he wanted to hurt her. He hadn’t broken in to steal anything; he had broken into kill her and Eric. Eric had tried to stop him. Eric had failed. The intruder wanted her dead. She could feel that intent emanating from him. That was all he wanted. He wanted her dead, but before that, he wanted her pain. The simple barbarity of his actions told her that.
She slipped down the stairs, all her weight propelling her forward, and let out another desperate shriek.
“HELP! Please help me!”
She was all the way down the stairs now. She could no longer feel the intruder behind her, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there – that didn’t mean anything – and she stumbled forwards, and straight into Terrence and Holly’s door.
She expected it to be closed, but she also expected it to be locked. As soon as she pressed her weight against the door, it flew open, and she hit the ground hard. Sudden pain shocked through her wrists. Of course: Terrence and Holly bragged about the way they never bolted their door – never even latched it – because they were old, and old people though that naivety was a virtue. She was stunned; pinned to the ground. She didn’t think she’d be able to get up again at all, until she heard.
The noise went like this: thump. Thump. Thump.
It was the intruder walking down the stairs.
She got to her feet, desperately, and scrabbled forward. She did not know Terrence and Holly’s apartment: had no idea where the obstacles lay, had never seen it from the inside. “Terrence? Holly?” She shouted, and was greeted with a sudden sharp pain in her right shinbone – she’d walked straight into something. She stumbled backwards three good steps. She couldn’t move – had no idea where to go – she was a rat in a maze. She threw her hands forward, desperate to feel something, anything, but there was just so much empty fucking space, and that noise from upstairs – that thump, thump, thump, getting louder and louder…
She let out a terrible, anguished scream. It was louder than she thought any scream could be. It stunned her.
It must have stunned the intruder, too. Because now there was silence. The slow, terrible footsteps on the stairs had stopped. She stood in Terrence and Holly’s apartment – in their living room? their corridor? – and there was total silence.
And then: a slow moan.
Not from behind. Not from the intruder.
From right in front of her. “Terrence? Holly?” She said.
Another moan. This time, more feminine.
There was a shuffling sound, and then a sudden, terrible gasp of air hit her in the face. It smelt like blood. It smelt like meat.
They were so close she could feel their breath.
She filled her lungs, ready to scream again, when suddenly, from behind, something grabbed her shoulders so tight she thought they would break like twigs.
Of course, those with sight like to talk about how the blind have heightened senses: it is one of the things they find interesting. But it did not take heightened senses for her to feel the hard, cold thing as the hands grabbed her. It was the hard, cold thing she had bought with Eric almost a year ago now. She had never seen it with her own eyes of course, but knew it. She knew it because the man in the shop had handed it to her, and she had worked it through her fingers, testing its shape and size.
It was Eric’s engagement band.
A hoarse, pained scream escaped her lips. As though that were the cue it had been waiting for, the thing that had once been Eric gently pulled her head to one side, and held it there, exposing the clean white waiting flesh of her neck.
Read another short story – Visiting Him by Poppy Reid – here.