THE MAN WHO CAME FROM NOWHERE
Melissa had only been married three months, much of which had been spent in motels until, at last, they found an apartment in half of an empty duplex. It was at the very edge of the small town, but the young couple didn’t care. They had just moved out of graduate school housing, where you could practically hear the neighbors breathing through the cardboard walls. She and Bruce happily set up their barbeque pit in the backyard, which opened out on a farm field, and bought a picnic table at a yard sale to go with it. Melissa even started a little garden, to which Bruce had promised to add an addition that weekend. But he was called to corporate headquarters back east in New York, half a continent away.
She drove him to the airport, trying to look brave. It was the first time they had been apart since they were married. “It’s like I’m being torn in half,” she said, gulping the tears back.
“I wish we could afford two tickets, but we spent so long in motels, you know.” His finger traced her lips. “Honey, I’ll be back before you know it. Maybe even this weekend. Then I’ll dig up that garden plot for the corn and stuff. I’ll save up my per diem and get us some real nice steaks. And we’ll have vodka collins, how’s that?”
“Oh, no, you don’t go shorting yourself just so you can buy expensive steaks. We’ll have hot dogs and beer just like always. Just come home as soon as you can. I’ll miss you so bad, it hurts already. Call me,” she begged as he got out of the car.
“Promise,” he said, blowing her a kiss.
Melissa cried all the way home, actually blubbering so long at one stoplight that a chorus of horns snapped her out of it. When she got home at the end of road, two little dogs ran out of the carport barking. Figuring they belonged to neighbors in the next block, she planned to give them a treat next time she saw them. She watched them tear up the road, wishing they had stayed around to make friends. Living in a motel was no place for an animal, but Bruce had promised her that, when they were settled, she could send for Bailey, her dog that she had left with her mom.
The crushing loneliness set in as soon as she opened the door and smelled the bacon she had fried that morning for Bruce. In order not to have a complete meltdown so early in the day, she turned on the TV and the CD player at the same time. Making herself a cup of coffee, she hurried upstairs without looking at the rumpled bed, changed into shorts, and put on an exercise video to complete the cacophony of noise.
That passed the morning. At noon, she called her mom who would be on her lunch hour back home. The familiar voice answered, ”Hi, baby, how’s it going?”
That was all it took. Melissa burst into tears. After a half-hour conversation spent reassuring her mother she hadn’t married an axe murderer, she hung up, feeling mildly comforted. Social contact helped combat the awful loneliness, so Melissa decided to pay a visit to the small library in town. During the motel days, she had made friends with one of the younger librarians and, needing someone to talk to and something to read, she had found both in Sharon.
So the day passed, but when night fell and the town shut its doors, she finally had to go home. Melissa made herself an egg sandwich, took her book, an apple, and box of chocolate cookies and retreated to her bed. After a phone call from Bruce, she fell asleep with the light on.
In the middle of the night, the little dogs were back, raising hell outside her carport. She raised the bedroom window and told them to be quiet, figuring that would do it. It didn’t, and it seemed nothing would. She put on her robe, went downstairs, and turned on the outside light which Bruce had told her to do, in spite of the electric bill.
“Hey, go home!” she shouted. “Shoo!”
The two scoundrels beat it up the road, but she remained there for a little longer, looking up at the wide canopy of stars. The dogs came back again and again, tearing up the road when she came out the front door. Finally, she fell asleep with cotton in her ears, a trick she had learned in the graduate school housing.
In the morning, she planned her schedule before she even got out of bed: put in a load of wash, exercise to the video, make herself a strawberry protein shake, hang the wash on the line in the back yard, wash the car—dirt seemed to cling to it—do something in the garden—watch the plants grow—and, in the afternoon, head back to the library.
Filled with determination, she put on her shorts and halter top, going through her routine like an athlete getting ready for a marathon. When the wash was done, she carried the basket out to the clothesline, thinking some poor stiff before her had the exactly same feeling that she had landed on a different planet.
He literally rose up from the weeds.
As she bent over to pull a wet sheet out of her basket and struggled to lift it by its corners, Melissa became aware there was a man standing at the edge of the pasture not ten feet from her, a tall, heavyset young man, and he was laughing. It was as if he were saying, “I’ve got you now and you can’t do anything about it.”
Her first urge was to scream, but a voice in her head stopped her. Don’t scream! rang out loud and clear. As she straightened up to hang a piece of laundry, the man came barreling out of the weeds. In the same instant, Melissa lifted the heavy laundry basket and threw it directly in his path so that he stumbled over it.
Pivoting on one foot like a dancer, she took off running for the house, but he was advancing so fast with longer strides that she could hear him panting behind her. But she made it to the nearest door which she had left open, slammed it in his face, latching the screen just a split second before he grasped the handle.
There was a window beside it, and he ripped off the screen while she threw the deadbolt on the door and rushed to lock the window. That brought her face to face with her attacker and he had the same crazy grin, laughing at her ashen face. She went from window to window seeing if they were locked, with him just a second behind her. All he would have to do is get a rock and smash a pane of glass to reach the lock but he was looking for easier access. He disappeared for a split second and she thought he had gone for a rock. Then she thought about the front door! Had she thrown the deadbolt or had she left it unlocked in her sleep-deprived state last night?
Just then, her furry friends were back, barking furiously. She could only imagine them tearing at his trouser cuff, distracting him, giving her a chance to check the front door and throw the deadbolt.
She had left her cell phone upstairs in her bedroom, and she climbed the stairs two at a time, crashing into the room and there he was on the roof of the carport, almost at the window! Again, they met face to face as she locked the window before he reached it. The dogs went into frenzy below, and the man got a look of mad fury on his face. While he was distracted by the dogs, she found her cell phone under a pile of clothes and tried to dial nine-one-one, but she must have dialed Information instead because she got an automated voice recording. “What city and state, please?”
The man was at the window again, trying to raise it from the outside. She dialed nine-one-one again. And this time, a human answered, a woman with a twang like a banjo in her voice. “Nine-one-one, this is Roberta. How can I help you?”
“There’s a man on the roof of my carport, trying to open a window. He chased me inside while I was hanging up my clothes in the backyard.”
“Are you home alone, honey?”
“My husband’s away. I think the man’s got the lock broken—send somebody, quick! I’m going to make a run for it.” She threw the phone down and ran downstairs out the front door. The man stopped tugging at the bedroom window and watched her tear up the street, the dogs following in her wake.
Melissa reached the first house and hammered on the front door. There was no one home. Then she looked down the road at her house. He was running up the road toward her, lumbering, out of breath, but still coming. She tried the next house and the next. They were empty! No car was parked in the garage or anywhere around, for the matter. She kept going, although the man was closing the gap between them, in spite of the racket the two little dogs made. When he was a few yards away, she could see he was laughing at her. It was obvious this was a bedroom community. There was no one home in the daytime. Just like Bruce, everyone worked in the city.
As luck, or something, would have it, not entirely everyone. A car turned down the dead end road, crawling along as though the driver was looking for an address, and Melissa frantically started waving it down.
“Hey! Hey! Help me, please!”
The car stopped and she began to sob with relief.
“Melissa? What on earth is the matter?” It was Sharon from the library. There was no time to explain. Melissa got in the backseat and locked the door. “I was just coming over to give the book you ordered,” Sharon said, “and see if you wanted to go to the movies tonight.”
The man had disappeared into the field again and the dogs stood in the road, their tongues lolling out, exhausted but alert for their next caper. The police had finally tracked the call to the small town, though it cost them precious minutes. Sharon stayed with her while the detectives crawled all over the house, coming to the conclusion that the stalker had spent the night on the roof outside her bedroom window.
“He’d have to know the town pretty well,” one of them said, “or at least, the houses on this road to know there was no one home.”
A local cop scoffed. “This ain’t even a road. It used to be the fence line for that ranch over there until the damned developer built a few houses on it and called it whatever. Half of these places are empty, or gone into foreclosure.” He came over to where the girls were standing . “You ought to have a big dog and a loaded gun to live out here, young lady.” He was a burly man with iron-gray hair. “And you, young lady, ought you to be minding the store?”
Sharon had to stand on tiptoe to give him a hug. “Meet my father, Melissa. He’s big on guns and dogs. Those two little bandits in the road are strays. Dumped by someone who moved out. Happens all the time. I tried to get them to come with me when I found them raiding the library dumpster. But they scoot right back here, to this duplex every time. So I guess you’ve inherited them, Melissa.”
Two days later, they found the man lurking in the cemetery. He had escaped from a state facility for the criminally insane, Sharon said. Her father was the police chief and told her, in confidence, that the man had been arrested for raping and beating a woman nearly to death. But he was judged too insane to stand trial and committed for life. “That was three years ago,” she said. “He has escaped twice during that time.”
“Then this makes three times in three years. What do they have him in, a room with a revolving door?” Melissa was outraged, remembering his red, leering face when he thought she was defenseless.
“I guess he’s like a Houdini or something. Don’t worry, he won’t be back. They’re moving him to a different facility. One with maximum security.”
No word ever appeared in the county newspaper or on the local TV news. When she asked Sharon why the news blackout, she only mumbled something about the state not wanting the newspapers to start an investigation of their institutions. “If you don’t want to file charges, then that’s the end of the matter as far as the police are concerned.”
“What’s the use? They’ll only take him back to the funny farm.”
When Bruce came home the following Monday, he found some changes had taken place in his absence. The tomato plants were filled with tiny green fruit, his wife had a part-time job at the local library, and two little dogs guarded the house, only letting him in the door because Melissa told them he could come in. In the following weeks, they put up a fence between the field and their backyard, they named the dogs Pete and Repeat, and Bruce bought Melissa a gun. It looked like a toy and she quickly put it away in a drawer so she wouldn’t be reminded of what it was for.
The tomatoes ripened, Bruce went back to New York for a few days, saying if she wanted to stay with her mother, he understood. But Melissa liked her job at the library, she was making friends, and besides, who would take care of Pete and Repeat? No, Mama was out and the two marauders were in. Not that they stayed in. The call of the wild was too great and the pair of them would run off through the field chasing a rabbit or gopher. Or they would make the rounds on garbage pickup day, tipping over peoples’ garbage cans on the curb.
One day, Melissa came home with her arms full of groceries and fished in her purse for the keys to the house. That was when she noticed the silence. The Jack Russell terrors weren’t jumping all over her.
She let herself into the house, leaving the front door open while she put the groceries away, in case they showed up. Sticking her head out the door, she looked both ways up the road to make sure they weren’t running or being chased by some irate neighbor. It wasn’t garbage day so they must be out chasing the postman or a rabbit, she decided.
Melissa was busy putting her shopping when she heard a noise behind her. She turned and found the man standing behind her holding the limp body of Pete. He was laughing at her shock. “Dog’s dead. Broken neck. He won’t bark no more.”
“Then we’d better bury him,” Melissa replied calmly. “I’ll show you where.”
He thought it over then nodded. “Or he’ll stink.”
“Yes. That’s what happens.” Melissa opened the back door and walked into the back yard. She had left the shovel lying by the garden that morning where she was planting potatoes.
“That’s what happens when you’re dead,” he repeated behind her.
She darted away from him, grabbed the shovel, and swung it, the full force of her anger behind the blow. The man’s expression of surprise as the shovel hit him was imprinted on her memory forever. He went down like a felled tree. The limp body of Pete dropped from his inert hands. Melissa picked up the dog and cradled him. Even in death, he had managed to save her life.
On the ground, the man moved and groaned, blood spouting from his head. Melissa thought about finishing him with another blow. Then, still holding on to Pete, she went in the house and called the police. While she waited, she heard a whimper coming from the basement. It was Repeat tied up with a piece of string to a pipe.
A siren told her the police were here. She looked into the backyard. The man was gone, but not far. Repeat found him hiding behind a fir tree just beyond the little garden and barked until the police could march him away.
“You bad woman,” he yelled at her as they led him away. “You hit me!”
“You killed my dog! If you ever come back here again, I’ll do more than just hit you,” Melissa yelled back. And marveled at her own strength.
© 2017 by Trisha O’Keefe