Keep Her Safe – Richard Parker

Maggie couldn’t work out what sort of noise had woken her. As the shadowy ceiling of her bedroom came into focus she turned to her clock and squinted: 10:13 p.m. Her lack of sleep that week had prompted her to go to bed early, but she’d been there less than an hour. She waited for whichever sound had chiselled into her dreams, breath paused in her chest. Nothing. Just the vague patter of snow on the window-pane. The latest storm had started in earnest around six in the evening. Maggie lived in the first house on a narrow, dead-end row, and now she listened for footsteps outside her window. Nothing. Maybe it had come from next door? Mrs Serafina was in her eighties and often had her TV up loud. She couldn’t hear it. Maggie still didn’t breathe out. Maggie lived in Whitsun, a small New England town. Most of her neighbours in Bozeman Street were retired so noise at night was minimal.

Could it have been Chuck Bretton’s dog? It rarely barked though. A thud from downstairs. Maggie immediately sat up, blood draining from where it had been throbbing in her eardrums. Had that actually been inside the house? She always bolted the inner kitchen door before coming up to bed, so if anyone had broken in through the back one they’d have had to deal with a second before being able to access the lounge and the rest of the house. The front door of her red-brick Georgian row house was solid oak and had two deadbolts. The window of the lounge was triple glazed. If someone were to get in, the rear would be the most likely place as it backed onto the edge of a forest. Maggie waited and felt her chest tightening as her lungs strained for oxygen. She’d done this to herself the past few nights. Scared herself into believing that someone was inside her home.

Thud. Maggie swung her legs out of bed and placed her bare feet on the cold carpet. Penny, her baby daughter, hadn’t woken. She was a great sleeper. Everyone at the mothers’ group couldn’t believe how long she stayed down. At thirty-four, Maggie was one of the oldest there, and the others looked to her for support, like she wasn’t winging motherhood as much as they were. Penny’s exemplary sleeping patterns convinced everyone it was down to Maggie’s parenting skills. But Penny was eighteen months and, despite Maggie’s best efforts, still hadn’t taken a step or spoken her first word. Thud. Was it the loose guttering getting blown against the side of the house as it had been last night? But she’d fixed that and tonight there was no wind.

She breathed in the cool air of the room and quickly slid her white robe over her powder blue pyjamas. Where were her slippers? No time to locate them. She clenched herself and quietly twisted the handle of the wooden door. It had expanded in the frame with the damp, and she had to give it an almighty tug to free it. The nursery door was straight ahead and exactly nine paces away. She’d counted her steps there so many times now. Maggie found the switch for the landing light to her left, turned it on and waited. The bulb buzzed above her. If only her mothers’ group could see her now. How many times had she done this over the past few nights: loitered on the landing like a frightened kid, looking over the banister to the stairs below and preparing to lock herself in with Penny? Snow rustled on the darkened skylight, but she couldn’t discern anything else.

She took a pace forward and looked over the banister. She could see the kitchen door was still locked below. Maggie waited, her heart feeling as if it was frantically clawing its way up her chest. She still didn’t move. Her thoughts were rewinding to the previous week, when she’d been sick with terror outside another door… The long window on the landing was black. But even though she knew it looked across to nothing but the tree-lined horizon, she couldn’t help but think that somebody was watching her standing frozen there. In the absence of any more sounds, Maggie pushed open the nursery door. As she entered the dark room and switched on the light, there was a noise inside – much louder than any Penny could have been making from her crib: a sliding hiss that drew Maggie’s attention to the window. Somebody was coming through it. TWO The figure was halfway through, their bulk bent over the ledge and partially concealed by the curtains their body was bulging out.

Were they wearing a cloak? Maggie lunged for Penny. She scooped her out of her crib and clasped her tight as the figure’s weight landed on the carpet and shuddered the floorboards. As they stood, the hood of their dark blue poncho glistened from the rain. Maggie yelled then. An incoherent warning that came from deep inside her. She hoped it would briefly startle them. The figure froze, and Maggie saw blue surgical gloves clutching a carving knife. Her shoulder butted hard into the doorframe as she reversed from the nursery. Get back to the bedroom. Lock the door, she thought.

Fingers seized her bob of dark hair. Maggie twisted her head, clutched Penny to her chest and crouched as she made for her open bedroom door. But the hand was yanking her back. Maggie could feel and hear the roots of her hair rip. She jerked her body sideways to escape and slammed into the banister slats. She was on one knee, the carpet burning it as her attacker lurched with her. Their wet bulk was on her back, but the grip hadn’t loosened. Maggie cradled Penny with one arm and turned awkwardly to hit out at the face behind her. Her fist connected with their throat, and she caught a glimpse of the features within the hood as they reacted to the pain. Maggie whipped her head away from the rubber fingers, grabbed one of the banister slats and used it to heave herself to her feet.

She could see the knife on the carpet to the right of her but knocked it with her foot to the left. It slid through the banister and dropped down the stairs. A hand grasped her ankle and tugged her back. She wrapped her arms around Penny as she fell and tried not to crush her. ‘Get off me!’ Rage crowded out her fear as she turned and kicked back at the figure with her free foot. Maggie’s bare sole connected with an arm reaching out to her. Maggie kicked again, and this time caught their chin. As they grunted, she wrenched her ankle from their grip and slid away on her behind. She held Penny tight to her chest. But they pounced at her again, crawling forward on all fours to intercept her before she could enter the bedroom.

A hand tried to secure her leg once more, and Maggie kicked at it as she slammed her back against the wall beside the door. Maggie turned and jammed her free elbow back as the figure tried to stop her getting inside. She heard the breath pushed out of them, smelt their sourness as she stood, grappled with the edge of the door and attempted to shut it. The figure was blocking it, and Maggie pushed harder. But her weight was squashing Penny. If she repositioned herself, however, it would be the tiny release of pressure they needed to get in. Maggie could hear Penny snuffling and starting to cry against her breast. Her bare feet slid on the carpet as the figure drove their weight against the panel. ‘You’re not coming in here!’ Maggie snarled through bared teeth and pedalled with her feet, trying to concentrate all of her energy into the shoulder blade that was above Penny. Her attacker puffed air as they rammed themselves repeatedly against the wood.

Maggie waited for the gap between the blows to the door and turned swiftly, bashing her spine against it and digging her heels in. She now had Penny in a safer position. Maggie could see her cell phone on the nightstand. It was only about four feet away, but there was no way she could pick it up. The figure threw itself at the door, and the impact juddered her chest and lifted her from the panel before she lodged herself in place again. She leaned back harder and felt the door slide half into the frame. But the expanded wood wouldn’t close flush. The door cracked with another blow, and Maggie prepared for their next run up. She battered the side of her body against the door, crying out as it banged shut. Maggie quickly turned the key in the lock.

Their fists were against the panel now, banging repeatedly with frustration and almost splitting the wood. Maggie backed away, unsure how long it would hold. ‘Ssshhh, ssshhh.’ Maggie tried to placate Penny, but her daughter’s mouth had widened, and the dry scrape of tears had turned into a howl. The noise at the door didn’t abate. Maggie sat on the edge of her bed with Penny and regarded her cell again. There was definitely no way she would use it. She’d seen the face of her attacker and, even though Maggie hadn’t recognised it, knew she couldn’t call the police on her. ‘Ssshhh, ssshhh.’ THREE A fissure appeared in the bottom panel of the door.

The woman was kicking it as well as beating it. ‘I’ve called the cops!’ Maggie shouted over Penny’s bawling. The noise stopped. ‘Better start running!’ Maggie tried to calm her daughter so she could listen for the intruder’s exit. ‘Ssshhh. That’s enough of that now.’ But she didn’t hear footsteps retreating to the nursery. ‘Ssshhh.’ She stood from the bed but didn’t move too far back to the door. Penny’s body wriggled in her arms as Maggie strained to hear.

The torn roots of her hair pulsed in time with the scraped skin of her knee. ‘Ssshhh.’ She rocked Penny, and her daughter’s sobs became less frequent. Maggie’s circulation refused to slow, and she couldn’t hear anything above it. The door shook in its frame and Penny’s yelling intensified. It sounded like her female intruder was using something solid to try and bash the door in. ‘You’re not going to get in here!’ But she really wasn’t sure. ‘Not in time. Go now. You can still escape before they arrive.

’ Maggie looked at her phone for the third time but knew that was all she was going to do with it. The wood thundered again. ‘I know why you’ve come here!’ Maggie shouted over Penny. Another strike to the door opened a crack all the way up it. Many more and the whole thing would break apart. ‘And exactly why you can’t leave until I’m dead.’ The assault halted. Maggie stroked Penny’s head but it didn’t soothe her. ‘You’re a mother like me, aren’t you?’ No response from the landing. ‘I know you’re terrified right now.

Speak to me.’ As Penny’s full-throated wailing continued, Maggie could see a shadow flit across the split. ‘Open this door!’ a frazzled female voice demanded from the other side of it. She sounded young to Maggie. ‘You’ve been given my name.’ Maggie gently jiggled Penny. ‘Haven’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ the voice eventually conceded. ‘You’re Maggie Walsh.’ Maggie closed her eyes. Now there was no doubt.

‘Is this part of the test?’ ‘No.’ Maggie slowly slid open the drawer of the nightstand. ‘Then how do you know? You must be part of it.’ ‘No. I just know what you’ve been asked to do.’ ‘How?’ Hysteria had crept into the woman’s voice. ‘Somebody has taken your baby, haven’t they?’ There was no reply but then Maggie heard the woman sniff. ‘And they told you to come here and stab me otherwise your child won’t be returned.’ ‘Yes.’ The female intruder eventually answered.

‘Tell me how you know.’ Her voice trembled. ‘Because four days ago I was told to do the same.’ Maggie took out what she kept in the drawer. It was Jeff’s .38 snubbie revolver and she’d fully loaded it. FOUR ‘What’s your name?’ Maggie pointed the weapon directly at the door. She’d fired guns on a range before, but not this one. ‘Tell me it ends here. That this has been a sick joke and you’re going to give Abigail back to me.

’ Maggie shivered. She recognised the raw desperation in her voice. She hugged Penny tighter and hated what she was about to say. ‘No. I can’t help you find your daughter. I wish someone could have done the same for me.’ ‘She’s only twenty-one months,’ the woman’s voice quavered. Maggie bounced Penny. Her eyelids were getting heavy. The crying was wearing her out.

‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you. You have to leave now.’ ‘He said if I don’t go through with this I’ll never see her again.’ Maggie shut her eyes. ‘Go back to him. Say you’ll do anything.’ But she’d tried the same. She’d begged but been told there was only one course of action that would return Penny to her. ‘He’s not going to listen.

If I let you live…’ She couldn’t finish the rest of the sentence. Maggie nodded but kept the barrel steady. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘I’m not doing this,’ the other woman replied warily. ‘Doing what?’ ‘Letting you use my name so you can reason with me.’ Maggie stiffened. That wasn’t the response of someone who was about to fall apart. But if she was like Maggie she’d probably spent hours keying herself up to do it. ‘Just take a breath.’ Now Penny’s sobs were slowing, Maggie could hear the woman’s dry panting near the door. ‘Why should I listen to anything you say? I don’t know you.

I was only given this address today.’ ‘But you know I’m a mother living on her own. How old are you?’ ‘Quiet, let me think.’ ‘My child, Penny, she’s eighteen months.’ ‘I don’t want to know.’ She didn’t want to know who Maggie was or who was about to become an orphan. But she had to dissuade her, because the only other alternative was gripped cold in her fist. ‘I don’t know who you are but, like me, you have to be sickened by what you’ve been told to do.’ The shadow moved past the crack in the door again. ‘Even if Abigail’s life depends on it.

’ ‘Don’t use her name either.’ She was breathing faster now. Was she psyching herself up? ‘You told me her name. She means everything to you, right?’ ‘Stop talking.’ ‘So does my Penny. And if you think I’m about to let you deprive her of her only parent then you’d better think very carefully before coming near this door again.’ But this was what she shouldn’t be doing. If she became aggressive, if she gave this woman even half a reason to want to return it, it made the job she’d been given that much more bearable. ‘I know you’ll do anything for her.’ She softened her voice.

‘But believe me, I’m prepared to do the same. A second time.’ FIVE ‘OK,’ the voice on the landing said eventually. What the hell did that mean? ‘OK, you’re leaving?’ There was a pause. ‘No. OK, I’m prepared to believe this happened to you.’ But Maggie wasn’t buying it. ‘Why?’ ‘Because time is running out and I don’t have a choice.’ Or was she biding time until she could take her by surprise? ‘I need to know one thing though.’ ‘What?’ Maggie could see the shadow of her intruder’s feet at the gap under the door.

‘Have you really called the cops?’ Her voice suddenly sounded small, like a child’s. Maggie considered how to reply. What would be the most convincing answer? If she said she had, would that mean her intruder would attack in the small amount of time she thought she had before they arrived? If the woman were to believe that Maggie had done the same as she’d been told to do when her child had been threatened, ‘no’ would be more convincing. Maggie shouldn’t want to summon the cops, particularly if they arrested her intruder. If she revealed why she was there they’d then question Maggie about her own mission. With no alibi for that night, the police could easily find out what she’d done, and Maggie couldn’t countenance the notion of them taking Penny away. She looked down at her daughter dozing in her arms. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she called. ‘I’m not leaving this room until you’re gone of your own accord or in a pair of handcuffs.’ ‘If you won’t tell me, maybe I’ll take my chances.

But if your story’s true, you wouldn’t have called them. If they arrest me, I’ll tell them you’ve just admitted to doing the same as I have.’ The threat to her and Penny was escalating. This woman was smart. ‘Did you call them?’ ‘No.’ Maggie swallowed and waited. An exhalation and then silence. What was going through her mind now? ‘That’s the honest answer. I can also tell you that it doesn’t matter one way or the other because I’m holding a loaded gun.’ The shadow moved swiftly sideways.

‘It belonged to my ex but I know how to use it. I’m not a great shot but from this distance I’m not going to miss you coming through the door.’ She tried to control the tremor in her voice. ‘I don’t want to fire it in front of Penny, but I will if I have to.’ The other woman absorbed this for a few moments. ‘You just told me you called the police when you didn’t. Why should I believe you’ve got a gun in there?’ ‘You can find out if you go near that door again.’ ‘I’ve only got until sunrise. Give me a straight answer.’ ‘So you can do a risk assessment? Decide whether it’s safe to force your way in?’ ‘Fire a shot.

’ ‘I’ve told you. Not with Penny in here.’ ‘Then I have no proof your gun exists. The room you’re in is at the far corner of your house. You won’t be able to bang on the wall to attract your neighbour, and the window only overlooks the forest.’ She must have been watching Maggie’s home as Maggie had her target’s; waiting and trembling while she came to the same conclusion she had. That she should bide her time until after the bedroom light had been switched off. ‘Did you bring anything else? Other than the knife?’ The floorboard creaked under the woman’s weight. And Maggie hoped she wouldn’t play dumb. ‘Just a knife from the block at home.

’ ‘You got a phone with you?’ ‘Yes,’ the woman said suspiciously. ‘You on WhatsApp?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘OK, give me your number. I’ll WhatsApp you a photo of me with the gun in my hand.’ Silence. ‘Come on.’ Maggie felt emboldened. ‘That’s going to be the quickest way of settling this. I’ll send you a photo of my gun.’ ‘My cell is in the car,’ she eventually responded.

‘Convenient. Isn’t he in touch with you on that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘He was with me too. Told me to silence the ringer when I went inside the house. I’m surprised he didn’t do the same with you.’ ‘I said, it’s in the car,’ she replied, tersely. ‘Are you parked nearby?’ ‘How stupid d’you think I am? I’m not fetching it.’ ‘Why not? I’ve told you I haven’t called the police.’ ‘Yes, that’s what you told me. But even if you haven’t you can still escape while I’m gone.

’ ‘Escape where?’ ‘Even if you didn’t want to involve your neighbours there’s a huge forest for you to hide in back there.’ ‘OK, that was a dumb thing for me to say. Listen, I don’t believe your cell is in your car, so why don’t I send you the image like I said?’ ‘It’s in the car,’ the woman snapped, barely holding her temper in check. ‘OK. Then you’re just going to have to believe I’ve got this gun in my hand.’ Maggie gripped it harder almost as if she had to convince herself. ‘And I’ll have to believe you just have that carving knife.


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