Awake/not awake, how do you tell? Did she dream that the rain through headlights had become living shadows; that the ceiling writhed and twisted and the room ran with water; that the cornices leaked and streams bubbled down the walls, over the cupboard, over the dresser, over the photographs and onto the floor?
The darkness had her, held her immobile, limbs against the bed. It was all she could do to breathe, take shallow teaspoons of air against the running waters, little sips. Little sips, little movements. Planning, working toward moving her hand, rehearsing it in her mind, recalling the muscles that operate, the pathways in her arm down to the fist that was balled tight in a wet sheet.
The storm crossed out to sea and the hiss of rain soothed the enervated sleepers. And then the phone rang.
Jim answered, ‘Yeah…huh…’
She rolled her head on the pillow: 2.13. Christ. She swung her legs off the bed and took the phone. ‘Tell her what time it is,’ Jim said burying his head back under the covers.
‘Mum,’ she said flat and non-committal.
‘Hello? O thank god. I just don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t picked up.’ The static rolled on the line.
‘It’s three in the morning,’ Jim spoke from beneath the pillows.
Gently, Jean asked, ‘what is it Mum? You know what time it is don’t you? Remember? The time difference here on the coast?’
‘Yes, yes,’ she replied, ‘but I didn’t know what else…’
‘Now…don’t. Please don’t start crying. I’ve got a big day tomorrow and I’ve got to look my best and it’s been three nights now.’
‘He’s…I mean it’s back,’ her mother replied.
‘Who?’ Rubbing her eyes.
‘He’s out there now kicking leaves about, pulling on the branches.’
Jean cradled the phone in her neck and walked over to the dresser. She ran her hand over the wood and then stopped at a small bead of water resting on the counter, cool and luscious. ‘Jean?’ her mother close in her ear.
Straightening Jean replied. ‘We talked about this, remember? We agreed.’
‘I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work, no matter how hard I wish he won’t stay away. What could he possibly want? Hush…He’s at the windows now rattling the screens. Here listen…’ The receiver went dead.
‘Don’t …hello… Mum?’
‘Here give me that.’ Action-man Jim snatched for the phone, ‘I’ll tell her—’
Jean stared coldly at him and he relented, dived back under the covers, punching pillows. ‘Just go back to sleep,’ she said.
She walked out into the hallway.
‘OK,’ Jean the teacher said when her mother returned. ‘What do you do when there’s a stranger outside, you—?’ Now complete the sentence.
‘Call the police.’ her mother replied. ‘Yes I know. But then what? He’d just run away. They’d arrive with their bright lights and then they’d be sitting there on the settee with their clipboards and cheap pens and disbelieving eyes: “Did you actually see anyone maam?” Well no. “Can you give us a description?” I didn’t get a clear view. “You live here alone do you?”… I can just hear them.’
Jean sat at the top of the stairs, playing her toes in a damp patch of carpet. ‘Now don’t get carried away,’ she soothed. ‘The police are here to protect us.’
Her mother, now the activist teenager, was incredulous. ‘How can you say that? Don’t you listen to the news? Corruption, beatings, unmarked cars on the highway.’
‘I’ll call them,’ she offered.
‘No. No. I don’t want the police involved.’
‘Stop that humming and tell me what I’m going to do with him. And. Oh dear he’s at the screen door.’
‘Mum, just relax. Deep breaths. Remember we have security now.’
‘How can I—?’ her mother panicked.
‘— Listen. Listen to me. No one can come in unless you let them. Remember we had the doors installed last winter. You’re safe.’
She was quiet so Jean continued. ‘Remember how the salesman said it would keep out a charging rhinoceros. He said they’d used it as shark cages against the white pointer the most savage predator in the ocean and the divers escaped without a scratch?’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ Cool and reflective.
‘Why? Well it’s late and I’m very tired.’ Jean was in the kitchen and found the cigarettes hidden on the top shelf; lit one and took a deep drag.
‘You’re not smoking again are you?’
‘No, I’m not smoking again. What are you my mother?’
‘A mother knows you know.’ They both laughed. And then she said, ‘I’d better just check the locks,’ and hung up.