(This beginning is based on something that actually did happen to me and which has not faded over time. But nothing else in the story is autobiographical.)
A twig snapping woke Cela up, but a softer sound, the sound of breathing, told her not to open her eyes. The breathing didn’t belong to another girl—not her sister having snuck in after a bad dream nor her mother having come in to check on her well-being. It wasn’t the breathing of her father who never came to her room anyway.
She peeked through her eyelashes. A man’s hand rested on the windowsill a few inches from her face. He wasn’t actually in her room, but almost. The curtains were open and limp. Nothing remained of the summer breeze that had eased her to sleep. The window screen that had never fit well in its frame was gone too. Her father had promised to fix it.
The man was an outline of darkness, and the brightness of his eyes surprised her. The fingers on his hand tapped the sill, and the old, dry paint cracked under his hard tapping. Cela became aware of where her skin touched cloth and where it was bare. She’d kicked off the sheet because of the heat, and her nightgown had rolled up her legs. She resisted the urge to tug it down, deciding that if he believed she were asleep, she’d be safe.
He leaned into the window, and his shape took on a more detailed form as he loomed over her. He looked around. He pulled back and stood straight in the periwinkles that grew along the back of the house.
The man appeared not to know what to do or what was expected of him. Cela thought of her baton on the floor and of bringing it down over his head. She imagined him wrestling it from her.
She decided to roll over. It would mean putting her back to him, but it would also mean not having to see him, to be able to open her eyes wide and think, the fear behind her. Pretending to roll over in her sleep, she twisted, her nightgown moving further up, and she looked out into her room. Something touched the side of her leg. Was she imagining it? The touch, though light, felt like a weight dragged across her skin. She told herself she wasn’t going to panic, and she kept her voice in her throat as her stomach wrenched. The fingers stopped at the edge of her gown. Or maybe they weren’t even there. Fear was like her imagination turned into a thousand, terrified bees. No. She wouldn’t panic.
Her picture on the side of milk boxes came to mind. She was going to be one of those kids whose parents posted fliers around town and pleaded on television while her body wasted away in a field or ditch. Forever she’d be the dead daughter. The dead sister.
It was a shame because now she’d have something to say when forced to write about what she did over her summer. The absurdity of the thought settled her down. She could breathe, hear the sound of the oscillating fan, smell the cotton of her sheets.
Cela waited for the hand to take hold and drag her out the window, but nothing happened. Her eyes were on the door to her room, the hall, and the way to her parents’ room. All she had to do was make it to their room and all would be well. There would be no man at her window. No hand on her skin.
She let her feet drop to the floor and she sat up, without turning to look. No hand grabbed her by the neck. She stood. No growl, no shout, no rush came at her from behind. With measured steps she walked. No gun went off. No knife came flying. There was nothing but the sound of her feet sticking on the wood floor.
Her parents were asleep. Moonlight streamed in over their bed. Cela stared at the window a moment, waiting to see the man look in, and she thought of the window in her sister’s room. Leaving her parents sound asleep, she made her way down the hall and to her sister’s shut door. Her sister, only eleven, had a sign on her door that read keep out. Iris was like that, always insisting on the door being shut. Cela didn’t see the point.
The curtains in Iris’s room were drawn, and the window closed. A fan spun full blast, making posters rattle and the curtains undulate. Cela sat on the edge of the bed.
Her sister slept curled up tight as if she needed to keep a rare gift close to her heart. Cela loved Iris’s prettiness, her fine bones with prefect edges, skin like a shell’s insides, hair falling in well-drawn waves. Iris took after their mother, but as pretty as their mother was, Iris was like nature’s second try, improved and polished. Cela had a hard time deciding if she were jealous or grateful for her sister. But she saw how men watched her sister wherever she went, and her sister not yet twelve. She saw the anxiety in their father’s eyes when Iris walked out the door, and it made him unreasonable—never let your sister out of you sight, Cela. And did anyone speak to her, did you see? Cela always saw, but she kept it to herself. She didn’t mind being her sister’s keeper, and she wouldn’t be her father’s spy.
“Iris,” she whispered. “Iris. Rissy.”
Iris blinked. “Cel?”
“But I was dreaming,”
“About a boy I met at school today. He was running down the hall, late. At school, I mean. Not in my dream.”
“I have to tell you—”
“His name is Evan. Evan Gessner. And I’m going to marry him.” Sleep filled her voice and she remained curled up as if sharing confidences with her pillow.
“Rissy, you’re eleven.”
“But I won’t always be eleven.”
“Look, I came in here to tell you—”
“But don’t tell Dad. You know how he gets.”
“Fine. Now would you listen to me? Someone’s outside.”
Iris propped herself up on her elbows. “Lots of people are outside.”
Cela sighed. “I mean there’s a man standing outside my window looking in.”
“Looking in at what?”
“I don’t know. Me. My room. I think he’s a burglar.”
“We don’t have anything to burgle.”
“Riss.” Cela thought about telling her sister how she had felt him touch her leg—it still felt as if his fingers were there—but her sister was too young to be told that.
“Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?” Iris asked.
“Come see for yourself.”
“You’re the big sister. Chase him away.”
“I just wanted to make sure he didn’t come here. That he didn’t come look in your window.”
Iris glanced in that direction. “I don’t see anyone.”
“Maybe he’s in my room right now. Maybe he’s climbed in.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“You don’t know that. He could be a serial killer or something,” Cela said.
“Maybe he’s lost.”
“At my window? C’mon.”
“Well, he didn’t kill you, did he? And now you’re here in my room keeping me awake.”
“I’m going to go tell mom and dad.”
Iris sat up straight. “Don’t do that. They’ll just call the police.”
“They should call the police.”
“You sure are causing lots of trouble, Cel, in the middle of the night.”
“I bet he’s long gone. Go on and look.”
“And then what?”
“Then we can all get some sleep.”
“This is the last time I try to warn you about anything.”
“You giving up being my big sister?” Iris asked, settling back into bed, her voice drifting.
“No. Not yet.” Cela wanted to say more, but heard her sister’s faint snores and everything felt like a dream.
At her bedroom door, Cela took a deep breath and strode in. No one was there. Maybe it had been a dream, but she saw that the screen was missing and she knelt on her bed to look out the window. Over neighboring rooftops tinges of pink lightened the sky. She looked down. The periwinkles were crushed, half-broken stems dangled, and she smelled wet, turned earth. The screen leaned against the outside wall. She pulled it up and rested it in the frame, pinching her fingers. She was thirsty but didn’t want to leave her room again. After closing the window and the curtains, she pulled up the covers, pretended the sheets weren’t sticking to her, and tried to sleep. She would act as if nothing had happened at all. She was good at that.
Thank you for reading!