The Stranger Inside – Laura Benedict

The outcropping of limestone on which Michelle Hannon struck her head had been a part of the hillside for three thousand years, before there were trees in sight taller than a scrubby pine. It was thicker and a dozen feet broader back then, but storms and earthquakes came, and chinkapin oaks and butternut trees sank deep roots in the hillside, fracturing the big rock. Chunks of it fell away and tumbled into the timid creek at the bottom of the ravine. Now most of those old trees were gone, long ago sacrificed to logging, and the rock was little wider than Michelle’s hunched and broken body was tall. She lay wedged between it and the earth, as though she were trying to hide in the rock’s shadow. Her thoughts were caught in a blink, the slow closing of one undamaged eye, and she was at the beginning of her life again, soothed by her mother’s thrumming heartbeat. She felt only a quiet joy. There was no unmovable rock, no blood streaking her face, no pain seething through her body. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. But the moment that lasted both a split second and an eternity ended, and with each frantic beat of her heart, the joy ebbed away. Death was coming for her. She could hear it stalking through the leaves carpeting the hillside, eager to whisper its frigid breath in her ear. Her eye closed. Chapter Two The front door key in Kimber’s hand won’t turn in the lock, but she tries it again and again: taking it out, sliding it back in, her mind unable to connect what’s happening with what is supposed to happen.

Frustrated, she tries the other keys on the fob, the keys to her garage, her mother’s house, and the radio station where she works, just in case she’s gone a little crazy and forgotten which is which. With each successive key, she tries harder to force it in, making her hand hurt. All the while, a low, insistent voice in her brain is telling her what she already suspects. None of the keys will work. She stares at the door a moment, then glances around her porch and the tree-lined street beyond. There’s no one around, and the day seems to be slipping quietly into evening, as it should. Wait. Am I being punked? Is someone hiding and watching? Laughing at her? She lets her laptop bag slide off her shoulder to rest beside the weekender at her feet and pushes her dark blond bob away from her face with her sunglasses. Stepping back, she looks up at the familiar rows of green and orange glass squares arranged above the lintel. This is definitely the same door she closed—and locked—behind her when she left four days ago.

The same polished mahogany, the same simple Shaker lines that complement the rest of the Craftsman-style bungalow. The same faint scratches inflicted by her next-door neighbor’s tiny dog. A dozen feet away, the cedar porch swing hangs unmoving in the torpid August twilight. She looks at the useless set of keys in her hand, feeling stymied and helpless. Shading her forehead, she presses against a front window and is relieved to see the kitchen light she left on Thursday afternoon is the only light burning. Still. An empty house somehow feels empty, doesn’t it? But this house—her house—doesn’t feel empty at all. The idea that someone is inside takes hold of her and won’t let go. “Hello? Is somebody in there?” She raps hard and fast on the glass until her knuckles sting. “Hey! Hello?” Along with the unending hum of cicadas, there’s the sound of a lawn mower from a few houses away yet nothing but silence from inside her house.

She presses the doorbell once, twice, five times. Nothing. There are other ways to get inside. Kimber leaves the porch and stalks across the yard on the half-buried stone pavers to drop her bags on the driveway beside her Mini. On her way to the backyard, she glances warily at the steep concrete stairwell tucked beside the house. The door at the bottom opens into the basement. She’s seen enough horror movies to know better than to force her way in through there. The door, like the basement itself, is rough and cobwebbed and gives her the creeps. She’s never tried to open it and doesn’t want to. Reaching one hand to a back pocket of her shorts, she touches her phone for reassurance.

If someone really is inside, she’ll eventually have to call the police, but right now she feels a nervous tingle of excitement at the possibility of confronting them. The hinges on the back porch’s screen door grate and squeal as she pulls the door open. She looks over her shoulder into the darkening yard. No one is behind her. But did she really expect there to be? Giving herself a little shake, she tells herself she’s just being paranoid. Ridiculous! What a funny story it will make to tell her best friend over wine. Maybe there is just something wrong with her keys. Maybe it’s only someone’s idea of a bad joke after all. Then she enters the dim porch, and the remnants of the lovely calm she stored up during the long weekend’s lake retreat rush from her body like an outgoing tide. An unfamiliar, sparkling red and white Novara Strada bicycle leans against one wall.

It’s no kid’s toy, and her beat-up Trek looks homely beside it. A scratched yellow helmet hangs from the newer bike’s handlebars. And is that one of her bathroom face towels draped over the seat? She grabs it up to find it’s spotted with grease and smells heavily of rancid sweat. Disgusted and furious, she drops it and kicks it away. Her hand shakes as she struggles to fit her key into the back door lock. When it doesn’t work, she doesn’t bother to try the other keys. The feeling that someone is inside is stronger now. She’s dealt with some obnoxious people in her life, but breaking into her house is over the top. And it makes her angry. She peers through the glass into the narrow hall that serves as a mudroom.

At its end is the interior basement door, illuminated by light spilling from the kitchen. A black baseball cap hangs on the door’s hook, along with the frilly kitchen apron her ex-husband gave her as a housewarming joke. She doesn’t own a black baseball cap. A formless shadow slides across the basement door and disappears. “Hey!” Kimber rattles the loose handle below the offending lock. “Who’s in there?” An ugly sense of violation takes root inside her. She retrieves the stained towel and hurriedly wraps it around her hand before she can change her mind. But as she steels herself to punch through the glass, the kitchen light blinks out, and everything on the other side of the door turns from gray to black. Deep inside the house, a door slams. Stunned, she backs away.

All her brave anger gone, she turns and bursts out the screen door, feeling as helpless as a child. Helpless in her own backyard. Unable to enter her own house. Her mind races. Did she accidentally leave a door unlocked, so a stranger—or strangers—could get inside and even go so far as to change the locks? Shit. This can’t be happening. Then comes that answering voice in her head. The one that is hers, only not quite: Oh yes. It’s happening. Tall shade trees engulf the backyard in shadows, and Kimber walks quickly out to the brighter driveway.

Her fingers fumble as she tries to dial 911, as they do in her nightmares. What if whoever is inside gets to her before the dispatcher answers? Finally the call goes through and it rings three, four times. “Nine one one. What is your emergency?” She hesitates. She hasn’t planned what to say. “Hello? Can you speak?” “Someone’s broken into my house. I need you to get them out.” A light from the second floor draws her attention. Looking up, she sees the silhouette of a man in her guest room window.

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