She woke up early, but didn’t know why. She laid motionless in the dark. What woke me up? She wondered. The house was quiet. She closed her eyes—not to fall back asleep, but to do the mental checklist.
Hudson’s room was right below her. His Google was off. The story he asked it to play for him when he went to bed was long over and had shut off hours ago. She controlled it from her phone and had turned down the volume at around eleven when she went to bed. Sometimes he got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom but there was no sound of a flushed toilet, water running, little feet padding on carpet or of him crawling back up the stairs to his bunk. Whatever had woken her, wasn’t him.
She shifted her attention to Quinton’s room, which was next to Hudson’s. His Google was silent as well. Earlier he had it at nearly maximum volume blaring his favorite Christian hymns and lullabies. He hated the silence of the dark and liked his music loud while he fell asleep. She never understood how he could fall asleep like that, but he did. In fact, he couldn’t in complete silence. She had shut that off as well before she went to bed though, and again, no sounds of stirring, nightmares or bathroom breaks below.
Next she focused on Emmit’s room, which was right down the hall from her own. He was only two and still in his crib. While he was prone to night terrors as of late, it wasn’t what had woken her. She was sure of it. When he had a terror, she was up out of bed immediately and halfway down the hall before consciously realizing what was happening. His terror wasn’t a one and done yelp, it was blood curdling cries that didn’t stop until he was safe in her arms. So, because of the silence, it couldn’t have been him.
She rolled over and grabbed the baby monitor resting on top of her bedside table. The monitor was dark, which meant no sound had triggered it to turn on the screen and show her Emmit. Ever since watching Paranormal Activity, she hated turning the monitor on—especially in the eerie hours of the night between pitch black and dawn. She took a deep breath and flicked the button to show her his room. She winced, waiting for something to happen—the movie had traumatized her for life. She pushed the thoughts aside and peered into the screen. Emmit was sleeping soundly curled up with his little bum in the air.
So what woke her?
She set the monitor down gently on the nightstand and rolled back onto her back, sneaking a quick looked to her side where James slept. Except James wasn’t there. He was on day eighteen of his latest work hitch in Alaska and wouldn’t be taking up space next to her for another three weeks. Not that it would really matter if he was there. He’d sleep through a hurricane, oblivious to anything and everything.
She remembered that time in college when she thought someone had broken into her apartment. He stayed sleeping while she had grabbed her softball bat, ready to hit a grandslam, into the intruder’s neck. It turned out to be her drunk roommate coming home in the middle of the night after a spat with her latest love interest. Good thing she had called out after coming in or Miranda would’ve had some major damage to her windpipe. She knew then that James would be seemingly worthless in a middle of the night crisis situation unless she woke him up first.
She took a deep breath to calm herself. Her eyes were adjusting to the dark and she stared up at her ceiling, watching the fan go round and round. She hated when this happened. After eliminating the kids as options, she had to move to the scarier stuff. The stuff James rolled his eyes about and told her she read too many scary books or watched too many true crime shows. But she was cautious and protective and she didn’t want to be one of those victims in her horror books or those crime documentaries. So she went through the next set of options—maybe a little far-fetched but still worth visiting.
The alarm hadn’t beeped or sounded. If someone had shattered a window or tried a door, it would be blaring. Ever since the burglary last spring, they had armed up in more ways than one. The fancy, top of the line security system was dormant. She grabbed her phone to double check—a habit of being slightly OCD and paranoid. The phone screen read 4:02 after she keyed in her password. She hated this time of night. It was that haunting hour. Somewhere between dawn and the darkest depths of the night. Anytime she had purposefully woken at this hour, whether to breastfeed the kids, catch a flight, or get on the road, she had always felt out of sorts and uncomfortable. It felt like some sort of dimension where everything was a little tilted and too silent. Like her brain was fogged and everything was tinted with a slightly green haze. If anything evil or bad were to happen, she was sure it would be at this time of night—which is why her heart pounded all the more trying to figure out what had woken her. She navigated the apps on her phone to the ADT security option. Nothing. No doors or windows touched or triggered. Cameras clear. Armed and ready.
Here’s where she spiraled. What else could it have been? Was someone already in the house and hiding from earlier? Impossible, she had checked the security before bed. She did this every night she was alone because she wouldn’t be able to sleep if she didn’t. She needed proof no one had snuck in while they were out and about during the day. She kept the place locked up like Fort Knox but still, people were vile and stealthy and scary. But her system showed nothing. No doors opened or closed while she was gone. No windows tampered. Zip.
She turned to her side straining to hear any creaks or pops from the house that may have startled her awake. Sometimes, when the days were warm but the nights were cool—typically fall—her house would crack so loud it sounded like a quick gun shot. But it was the middle of summer and the night was warm and muggy. She also thought it could’ve been her water softener regenerating from the utility room because that woke her a few times in the past but that went on long enough that she would’ve woken to the actual sound of the system working, not this absolute silence.
She rolled over to her other side and looked out the huge, bare windows into the starless night and the tree tops below. Maybe it was the feeling of someone watching her that eased her awake. She believed you could feel someone watching and shivered at the thought of someone out there in the woods staring back at her this very moment. The woods were vast behind her and anyone could take cover in them. It was now more than ever she missed their German Shepherd, Vader. He would let her know if this was an actual situation or her overactive imagination. These instances happened more than she liked to admit but at least when Vader was alive he’d let her know. He’d either start whooping his terrifying bark—which meant something was really up–or he would look at her with his warm brown eyes like, mom, it’s fine. I’d let you know. She missed him so much. They wanted to get another dog but Vader’s death was still too shocking and too close. She wasn’t ready.
Thinking of her old dog, she got up to look out the back window wondering if it was deer or coyotes that she may have heard. Often times when he barked, it was over an animal in the yard. But the yard was still, dark, and tinged that weird green. She cranked the window open to listen for the sounds of life outside—sounds that always calmed her—but there was nothing. No coyotes, no crickets, no frogs singing from the creek, no hoot owls. It felt unsettled. Like their evening songs were intruded by something foreign out there.
She strained her eyes against the windows trying to see out into the first few feet of the woods but saw nothing other than wild growth and trees. She was an artist. It was a blessing and a curse. She was the type of person who could look at wallpaper and see a man’s silhouette or a car driving down a city road. She looked at the clouds and saw entire scenes. She could also look into her woods and see a person crouching instead of the rock that was actually out there.
Now, she stared hard into one spot that had caught her eye when she scanned her landscape. It sent shivers up her spine. If she looked close enough, it appeared as if someone was crouched out there just a few feet into the woods. The shape moved slightly in a way that seemed alive not static like a rock. She tried to remember if there was actually a rock there but couldn’t. She never paid close enough attention to the woods. The trees were motionless—even higher up—so nothing should be moving out there because there was no wind. But she swore she saw something and the more she looked, the more she could piece together a body, hands, a coat and a face. She felt panic moving from her stomach and spreading through every inch of her body—to her arms, her feet and up to her flushing face. She thought about running to get her gun out of the safe but that was all the way in their office on the opposite side of the house. James was suddenly in her head chastising her overactive imagination, while she strained to see the weird shaped rock and thought about her gun down the hall.
She shook her head and peeled herself away from the window. Her city was safe. The burglary was a fluke and it was an inside job when they were remodeling their screened-in porch. Plus the people who burglarized them were in jail. They got caught on another inside job and one partner had spilled the beans and confessed to five more–theirs included. She also had the security system. Even if someone was watching at this moment, that person wasn’t getting in without alerting her or without the master code.
She yawned, still tired and glad she had a couple of more hours to sleep. She checked off her mental checklist one more time and felt satisfied—albeit a little wary of what had actually woken her. Resigned, she figured she’d never know for sure. She took a drink of water from the bottle on her bedside table, checked the phone again for the time—4:17—and fell back into the large bed. Just before drifting off, she had the sensation of being watched again, but sleep overwhelmed her before she could visit those thoughts.
He let out the breath he’d been holding since she came to the window. Three months and ten days now and she hadn’t once looked out with any intent other than a sweeping glance. He’d gotten careless and that had almost cost him. 4243. He melted back into the woods putting the large home—putting her—behind him. 4243. He snaked his way down the path to the creek and followed it upstream for a mile. 4243, 4243, 4243. His car was parked in an old abandoned farm field. He climbed into the beat up black Ford and sat quietly letting his breathing steady and mind relax. He clenched and unclenched his hands. 4243. Too close. Too careless. His plan almost foiled. 4243. He pulled out his phone from the glove compartment and swiped to open his screen. His was void of any apps other than an ADT app of his own. 4243. The same code he had seen her carelessly press into the pad when she finalized the system he had installed for her last spring. 4243. The number he had used multiple times to visit the home when she was out. The code he used to slip that dog the untraceable poison. The code he used to watch her when she showered, when she slept. The code, 4243, he used to erase any trace of his visits. 4243. 4243. Soon.