There was blood. Everywhere. It pooled in the craterous pores of splintered wood, seeped through narrow cracks between warped floorboards, and stuck to the egg-shell-painted walls in dried, stringy clusters. Then there was the smell. A primitive and animalistic odor; part butcher’s shop, part rusted metal, it hung thickly in the air like a dense, demonic fog. Penny had no choice but to breath it in. The sickly scent lingered in her nasal passages even as the rejected air was exhaled from her lungs. She put a small hand to her mouth, trembling with the effort to keep back a scream.
Through the tight, vertical opening between closet door and bedroom wall, she could see her twin sister. Abby’s body had been mutilated; shredded like tissue paper until it no longer bared any resemblance to the beautiful young girl who had stood there mere moments before. She’d been counting behind her hands as Penny hid; it was a game, just a silly, children’s game, until…But she didn’t think of it now, her brain couldn’t process the trauma.
Their mother’s body lie across the room’s threshold, arms splayed out to either side of the limp torso like a morose kind of scarecrow . She’d tried to defend her daughters, had fought hard to shield them from the jagged weapon, but he had cut right through her, as though she were a warm stick of butter. He’d hacked into her throat, burying his axe so deeply that Penny heard the reverberation of steel on bone as he’d made contact with the spine. Neither of the twins had cried out, they’d only stared, wide-eyed and immobile.
He’d walked over to Abby then, a surreal grin playing on his lips. She’d uttered a single word, “Daddy?,” before he’d cut her down too, chopping until nothing remained of the girl but a heap of fleshy red pulp at his feet.
The expression on his face hadn’t changed as he’d done it, though his daughter’s blood had spewed up to stain his skin and clothes. He’d left room abruptly afterward, whistling as the axe was dragged haphazardly on the floor behind him.
Now, Penny waited… waited, and listened. Every so often, she would hear him; the close of a door, the creak of a stair. Tears flowed in streams down her cheeks, falling freely to dampen her shirt.
Buzz Buzz Buzz. The familiar vibration was coming from the doorway. She prayed her father wouldn’t hear. BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ. It was her mother’s cell phone. She held her breath. Creak. He was on the stairs. Creak. His voice echoed down the hallway.
“Penny? Oh, Penny? Where are you?” She buried her face in her hands, and crumpled into a corner.
“Penny?”, louder now, she could hear the axe on the floor. “Where are you?” The door handle to the closet turned, “PENNY!”
She shot up in bed, covered with sweat and panting heavily.
“Penny? Are you okay?” Brent was reaching over her to switch on the lamp.
“Was it a nightmare?”
She leaned into him wordlessly, her body wracked by a sudden outburst of sobs.
“It’s okay,” his arms closed around her, “I’m here.”
For a while, she couldn’t think clearly. The dream had been so vivid, so real that it had felt just like losing her family all over again.
“Mom dialed the police. Somehow, when she was fighting him…she…she called nine-one-one. They rang her back, and he heard it… he heard the ph..phone…buzzing. Bbb…bbut,”
“No,” he ran his lightly bearded chin across her damp forehead. His voice was hardly more than a whisper, “stop thinking about it. You’re shaking, baby. Just breath.”
She was beginning to hyperventilate, the bronchioles in her chest were tightening and starting to spasm.
“Get…inhaler,” she wheezed, and he jumped up to search the night stand.
“Here,” he said after a moment, helping her to lift the mouthpiece to her lips. She pushed the button to release the medication, and held the dispensed misty vapor in her lungs as best she could. It had the uncomfortable side effect of tachycardia, but at least she wasn’t choking anymore.
“Better?” Brent’s eyes searched hers in the dim light.
“Yea,” she breathed, “I’m going to take an Ativan, I think. My heart’s racing.” She started to push the covers off of herself, still trembling and feeling nauseated.
“No, you stay there, I’ll get it,” he turned quickly toward the en suite bathroom, “which one is that again?”
“Lorazepam,” she answered automatically, “should be toward the front.”
She heard him rummaging through the plastic bottles in the medicine cabinet, whispering their long, generic label names under his breath as he went; Zolpidem, Trazadone, Buproprion, Venlafaxine, Cyclobenzaprine. Christ, she might as well have her own pharmacy at this point.
He returned a couple of minutes later with a glass of water, and a small white pill in his palm.
She popped it into her mouth quickly, then downed the offered glass.
“Thank you,” wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she set the empty cup on the stand beside her. “You shouldn’t have to take care of me like this. It isn’t fair.” Her eyes were still glistening with tears as she lowered them to look at her lap.
“No,” he ran a hand through her sweat-drenched hair, stroking it back gently, “what happened to you, that wasn’t fair. Look at me.”
His blue eyes were serious, “I’m your husband, Penny. It’s my job to take care of you. I want to, and you do the same for me.” He had a kind, handsome face. She always thought he looked younger when he was like this, sleep tousled and without glasses.
“How did I get so lucky?,” she kissed his mouth, then started to lie back on the mattress. Life was much better for her now, she reminded herself. No one was trying to hurt her, not anymore. Mom and Abby had been freed from their suffering nearly fifteen years ago, and her father had been locked up in a psychiatric institution ever since, where he could pose no threat to his surviving daughter.
She listened to the droning hum of the oscillating fan as Brent put the light out. After a moment, the sound of his deep, even breaths beside her added to the nighttime’s quiet chorus. She was safe. Rolling onto to her side, she closed her heavy eyelids, and allowed herself to drift off into an easy, dreamless sleep.
The reassuring clarity of daylight was a comfort to Penny the next morning. Everything from her nightmare seemed to be far away again, shoved back into the murky depths of the past where it belonged. She went about her morning routine as usual, brushing her teeth in the steamed-up bathroom while Brent showered. The blurry reflection ensconced in the small oval mirror before her looked tired, the dark half-circles under its eyes were in sharp contrast with the pale, freckled skin of the rest of the face. They would be impossible to conceal with makeup, she knew, but tried a light layer anyway.
Her hair wasn’t easy to manage, even on the best of days. Flaming red and prone to frizzing, it had been cut into two layers, the longest of which reached to just below her shoulder blades. The shorter layer was meant to frame her face, but usually she ended up clipping that part back, because the sight of it in her peripheral vision was distracting.
Brent was out of the shower by the time she had it all passably tamed and styled. She pecked him on a wet cheek, and moved down to make room for him at the vanity. He smiled at her in a familiar, intimate way, then began to rub shaving cream over his cheeks and jaw.
Penny applied two coats of mascara to each of her upper lash lines. She really didn’t need the mirror for it. With eyelashes so blonde they were almost sheer, she’d had a lot of practice trying to make them visible. Waiting until Brent bent to rinse his razor, she used a dusky rose color on her lips, puckering comically at her husband’s reflection as he looked up.
“Nice ,” he winked, then wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close up against his body .
She ran slender fingers through his dark, damp hair, and kissed his smiling mouth. When they broke apart, she grinned and wiped the lingering red residue from his lips.
Blood. The thought had occurred so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that she had to stop herself from pushing away . It could be like this, the psychiatrist had told her. Triggers for PTSD could be simple, everyday occurrences; they usually were, in fact. The traumatized brain would link a perfectly harmless stimulus, like the crack of a firework, (or in her case, the sight of the color red on skin,) to the sufferer’s time of disturbance.
Hastily, she opened the medicine cabinet, concealing her face behind the door. He’d worried over her enough last night without having to see the fear in her expression now. Besides, she could deal with this very minor exacerbation on her own.
He went into the bedroom to get dressed, and she readied her morning pills, hesitating for a moment with her hand over the Ativan bottle. She passed over it; the anxiety wasn’t bothersome enough to warrant an additional pill just now. Swallowing the tiny handful of capsules she’d accumulated, Penny straightened to look at her reflection once more, before following her husband out of the room.
Brent was flawless in his charcoal-gray suit and light-rimmed glasses. He worked as a Finance Manager for a large automotive company in town. Penny stood admiring him as he laced up his shoes.
“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered, so quietly that he didn’t hear.
In summer, she could walk the three blocks from their town home to the tiny bookstore where she worked. Now, in mid-winter, she preferred to drive, even if it did mean that she had to pay to park on the street.
Franny’s Discount Bookstore was a tall, thin building, wedged inconspicuously between an Italian pizzeria and a crisp, new insurance firm.
Penny was impressed that the little business was able to stay afloat in the era of online shopping and digital publishing. She liked it, though, enjoyed the smell of physical pages and the weighted feel of hard-covers in her hands.
Frances Gibbons, the shop’s proprietor, was there early as usual, bending over a pile of books that were still in their cellophane wrappings.
“Good morning,” she called, as the entry bell announced Penny’s arrival. “Just got a new batch in, nonfictions mostly.”
Penny returned the greeting and hung up her coat. Shelving the new books would be a tedious process, but at least it would keep her brain occupied.
A couple of hours later, the bell rang again. Frances welcomed their first customer of the day in cheerful, unassuming tones. She knew how to cultivate a peaceful, unhurried atmosphere for her patrons.
Penny peered around the shelf she was stocking, and instantly, her heart froze. The man had turned toward her at the same moment, and his eyes met hers with a gut-wrenching familiarity. It can’t be. She bolted back behind the shelf, trying to keep her breaths even. It’s not him, she told herself, he has similar eyes, that’s all. Her father was far away, locked up and gone from her life.
She couldn’t bring herself to look again, though, and waited until she heard Frances ring up his purchases and wish him a “good day,” to venture out of her hiding place.
“You look green,” the older woman said concernedly, eyeing Penny up and down. “Are you sick?”
“Actually, I’m not feeling my best today. Had kind of a hard night.”
Frances pursed her lips, “why don’t you go home, honey? We’re slow anyway and there’s an awful bug going around. Go get some rest.”
Penny was about to refuse, but thought of the Ativan in her cabinet, and her warm, soft bed. Tempted into acquiescence, she accepted.
“Thank you, I think I will. Call if you need me, though.”
She couldn’t help but be on high-alert when she walked the short distance to her car. There was no sign of the man from the store, however, nor was there anything else to give her pause.
By the time she slipped underneath her comforter after a light lunch, she felt markedly better. Her silk pillowcase smelled like Brent’s cologne, and the Ativan she’d taken with her turkey sandwich was starting to work. She yawned contentedly, and turned onto her side.
Creak. She sat up, horrified. Had she locked the door? She scrambled to pick up her cell phone. It wasn’t there. Had she left it in the bathroom? Creak. Her heart was pounding. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move. Creak. The sound of gritty metal dragging on wood.A muffled scream escaped from her gaping mouth. The door started to open, slowly, dreadfully.
Erica Schaef worked as a Registered Nurse for many years before becoming a stay-at-home parent. Her short stories have been featured most recently by Visual Verse (Vol. 06- Chapter 09), Blood Moon Rising Magazine (Issue 77), HellBound Books (“The Toilet Zone”), and Still Point Arts Quarterly (Fall 2019 issue: “The Dance”). More of her short stories will be in featured in upcoming anthologies by Fantasia Divinity (“Isolation” and “Waters of Destruction”), and Jitter Press (Issue 8). She lives in rural Tennessee with her husband and two children.