I locked the deadbolt and flicked the regular lock into place, dropped my bag on the chair and sagged against the door. Safe from the insanity outside. For now. How much longer could I cope? There were still six months left on my lease. With a sigh, I pushed off the door and crossed the large single room of my studio apartment to the walk-in closet in the back corner.
“Hello Eric, how was your day?” I shrugged out of my dress clothes and slipped into shorts and a t-shirt. “Are you awake?” I knelt on the closet floor and peered past a crumpled hoodie on the bottom shelf.
Beautiful green eyes blinked at me. “Meow.” Eric stretched a huge gray paw toward me.
Grasping the offered paw, I gave it a smooch. “Did you have a good day?” I feared the answer. Eric had been extremely jumpy lately and had taken to spending his days sleeping on a thick stack of hoodies I’d tucked in the bottom shelf of the closet. “Come on, baby boy, let’s feed you.”
I pulled canned food out of the cupboard. Eric rubbed against my leg, letting me know he was there and hungry. I laughed. He was always thought he was starving even though I left kibble out while I was at work. He waited patiently at my feet, watching as I filled his bowl. I set the food on the floor. His loud purrs thanked me.
While Eric ate, it was time to make my dinner. I held the fridge door open and stared at the contents; ketchup and a half-empty cup of coffee. I must have been sleepwalking this morning, I thought, pulling the cup out and pouring the contents down the sink. “Eric, I’ll be late tomorrow. I hate grocery shopping, but there’s nothing here to eat.” The only thing I was sure of was that I was not going back out in the world this evening. I was safe here. Mostly.
I rummaged through my bag, muttering in frustration until my phone appeared exactly where it didn’t belong, typical. I punched speed dial number two. The phone rang and rang. Finally, a woman answered, “Peppy’s Pizza. Would you like to hear the specials?”
After placing my order, I flopped on the couch and turned the TV on. It was time to try to forget my misery by watching other people who were even more miserable. That was my current excuse for being a Survivor addict and I was sticking to it. Eric finished his dinner and jumped on the couch where he indulged in a leisurely bath.
Knock, knock, knock!
“That was fast,” I said to Eric, who stared past his back leg, which was sticking straight up, at the door. His eyes were huge. I stroked his soft head before crossing the room and flipped open the locks. “Wow, that sure was…” I quit speaking when a warm sticky liquid splashed on my face. The empty red plastic cup bounced off my chest, clattering to the concrete walkway. My neighbor walked down the hallway cackling like the maniac he was. In shock, I stood there dripping and blinking. His final taunt shouted down the hallway brought me out of my trance. I slammed the door and locked it.
A glance at my watch confirmed there were still ten minutes until the woman had said the pizza would arrive. I dashed down the hall to shower away whatever nastiness was in the cup.
Five minutes later I joined Eric on the couch. “I wish I’d never walked in on him and the apartment manager.” My voice wavered. “I was just dropping off the rent check! How was I supposed to know she was ‘paying’ him for drugs. I just heard groaning and poked my head through the open door to ask if she was okay.” Anger and frustration threatened to bring more tears. “And seriously, what kind of deranged sicko throws a smoke bomb on someone’s deck? I thought the building was on fire!” A shiver raced down my spine at the memory.
I had grabbed Eric, put him in his carrier, and still in my jammies and slippers had hauled him down to the car. It was one a.m. My neighbor and his buddies were leaning against the back fence, laughing at me. The rancid morning breath taste of fear filled my mouth when I remembered how he’d lured me outside. Thankfully, they’d only chased us back inside and pounded on the door until it was in danger of crumbling. Eric and I had spent the night in the closet, curled up in a ball under a quilt trying to comfort one another. They could have done anything to us and that scared the crap out of me.
Eric came and sat on my lap. There is nothing better than rubbing your hands through soft fur and listening to a purring cat to make you feel better. The vibrations of his purrs entered through my hands and slowed my pounding heart and my breathing.
We both jumped and stared at the door like it was the enemy. “It’s probably the pizza,” I whispered.
Leaving Eric on the couch I moved the step stool into place and climbed up to look through the peep-hole. Never again would I assume I knew who was on the other side. The pizza girl watched the door with a bored expression as she blew a huge pink bubble. I tipped her, took the pizza, and closed the door.
After Survivor was over we went to bed. I settled in on my half of the bed and Eric settled on the pillow on his side. In minutes I’d sunk into an uneasy sleep; dreams about my neighbor haunted me. An enormous bang of some sort interrupted my dream. I was sitting up in the bed before I was fully conscious! My heart pounded like a jackhammer in my ears, blocking out the sounds I was desperately listening for. Forever passed before I laid back down. Eric curled against me and we dozed until morning.
“Don’t forget I’ll be late tonight. Bye, baby boy,” I called to his retreating back and rushed out the door. I’d slept through my alarm.
The little hairs on my neck and arm stood straight up as I approached my car. I glanced over my shoulder in both directions but didn’t see anyone. When I was five feet from the car I realized what was different. My license plate was gone! I hurried to check the back. Yep, that one too.
I’d report it from work. I pulled out of the parking spot. The car felt sluggish and a thumping sound started as I picked up speed. My heart sank. I’d heard that sound before. I eased back into the parking space, got out and slammed the door so hard the car rolled from side to side before settling. The front tire was almost flat. The back one on the driver’s side was flat. Sweat ran off me as I checked the other side. The front was flat and the rear tire was partially off the rim.
Back in my apartment I called my boss and told him I wouldn’t be in today–car trouble again. Eric appeared as I hung up. He sat on his haunches and tilted his head, curious why I was back so soon.
I’d reach my last straw; that hated straw, that cruelest of all straws, that tormentor masquerading as a straw! “Eric, we’re moving! Just as soon as I call a tow truck and get new tires. Pack your toys while I’m gone!”
I made several phone calls and then waited on the people I’d called; the police, a tow truck company, and my insurance guy. When the car finally had four new tires, I drove home.
My neighbor leaned on his balcony railing, watching me park. With my head down, I ran up the stairs, hurried inside and locked the door. I pulled a large duffel bag from under my bed and filled it with essentials. Next I packed everything Eric would need.
I carried everything I was taking down to the car and loaded it into the trunk and back seat. Then I went back for Eric, who was waiting in his carrier. I looked around my first apartment. It’d been a nice place to live until the owners had sold the complex a couple of months after Eric and I had moved in. Things went downhill fast. Closing the door on the echoes of sadness and fear that rolled across the room toward me, I hurried downstairs; doubtful I’d see any of my things again.
I secured the carrier on the passenger seat and climbed in next to him. My neighbor gave me a one-fingered salute and shouted a farewell. I put the car in gear and headed toward freedom, but my foot was shaking so badly it slipped off the clutch. The car jerked and the engine died. Eric yowled. My heart thundered in my ears. Without looking at my neighbor, I turned the key and took off so fast the wheels squealed a little. I refused to look back.
Eric and I relaxed as the tires hummed across the miles. I’d only had a vague plan when we’d left, so it didn’t surprise me to realize I was on the mountain road that would take me to my childhood home.
It was dark when I pulled into Mom’s driveway four hours later. She wasn’t expecting me. “I hope she’s here,” I said to Eric. His carrier banged softly into my leg as I lugged it up the sidewalk. “If she’s not, we’ll figure something out. I’ll keep you safe.”
The front door opened. “Tina, is everything okay? Why are you here?” Mom hurried down the porch steps.
“I need a safe place,” I said over Eric’s cries. “My apartment isn’t safe for us anymore. Oh Mom, I don’t know what to do!” The emotions I’d been holding in check broke free. I burst into tears.
Mom took Eric’s carrier in one hand and guided me into the house with the other. “Let’s get you two inside. It’s cold tonight.” The door closed softly behind us.
Instead of uncertainty and fear, the sound of the door closing brought relief. For the first time in months, I felt peace wash over me. Eric must have felt it too because he immediately quit yowling. Mom opened the door of his carrier and Eric rushed to me. He climbed into my arms and buried his head under my chin.
Wrapping Eric and me in a hug she whispered, “I’m always here for you. I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re safe here. I love you.” She kissed Eric’s head.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear those words. I . . . love . . . you. They didn’t make everything magically alright, but they did promise something better. “I love you too, Mom. And, I love you, Eric.”
I hoped you enjoyed reading Somewhere Safe. Do you think you’d read and enjoy a novella based on the premise of this short story? Please let me know in the comments. Thank you.