Jess slammed the door behind her, hitting the wood with the heel of her boot, the doorknob rattling at the force. Water clung to her hair, dripping down her arms and onto the bags of groceries she was carrying, stumbling further into the apartment under their weight. She fumbled for the light switch, frantic fingers searching in the darkness. She let the bags go, fruit rolling across the floor, as she finally managed to find the switch and bathe the room in the glow of the LED bulbs held in the fixtures above her head.
She shivered and let out a breath as she lifted the bags that had stayed in her arms on the kitchen counter, and she stooped to start gathering all that had fallen, swearing under her breath as an orange slipped out of her overfilled hand and out towards the front door.
Jess immediately went to chase after it, and a gust of wind from the storm outside made her shiver, goosebumps rising where the chilly air met her soaked skin. She found the rogue fruit, and hurried back to her apartment door, only to find it shut.
“Fuck, please,” She muttered to herself, trying to twist the door open with her hands full, wanting to get inside, out of the cold and the rain that she hated so much.
Jess had tried to leave work with enough time to get back before the storm hit, but a presentation scheduled for the next day and an overeager boss meant she was stuck at her desk until late, her anxiety building as she watched the sky darkening out the office window, and the raindrops building larger and larger puddles on the ground.
The result was chattering teeth and hair plastered to her scalp as she pushed her way back inside and finally began putting the groceries away. She pushed the ice cream to the back of the freezer, placed soda on the shelf of the fridge, along with the long bag of spinach she’d half-heartedly convinced herself she’d actually eat before it expired this time.
Jess started stripping off her wet clothes before she reached the bathroom, tossing her t-shirt into the laundry machine on her way to the shower, turning the temperature up as high as it would go. She tried to run a brush through her hair, get the tangles out from the rain first, but gave up once she saw the bathroom mirror start to steam, placing a towel by the shower curtain and climbing over the edge of the tub into the warm water.
It felt like instant relief against her chilled skin, the heat sinking into her bones as she let the cold water wash away. She put a hand against the wall in front of her, head bowed, letting the water from the showerhead beat against her back.
It had been such a long day. Not even that anything bad had happened, but, just the day itself had dragged in its own monotonous way. Maybe she should have waited, she thought, and drawn herself a bath instead. Settled in with a glass of wine and propped her iPad against the
bathroom counter so she could watch a show. Before it all started again. But the thought of being submerged in water quickly dissuaded her from the notion that would have been a better option.
A thud in the other room shook Jess from her reverie. What was that? She pulled back the shower curtain as if she could see into the living room from behind the closed bathroom door. She grabbed the towel and wrapped it around herself as she stepped out of the shower, not bothering to turn it off. She was sure it was nothing, just her imagination, or maybe her neighbor from the floor above.
Jess poked her head into the living room. No sign anything had fallen, no sign of another person. She stepped into the room, making sure nothing was disturbed. No shoe prints on the carpet, no toppled books, no obvious signs of what would have caused the noise.
With a sigh, she went to turn back around to the bathroom, but the shine of the door handle caught her eye. Turning back, she looked more closely at the lock. Had she forgotten to lock it when she came in?
She tested the handle, and sure enough, it twisted under her palm. Swearing, she immediately flipped the lock, and the deadbolt for good measure.
“Hello?” She called out, one hand holding up the towel, one hand searching for the baseball bat she kept behind the couch. She moved quickly through the apartment, holding the bat aloft. She wasn’t overly fearful, it wasn’t like her building had frequent break-ins, but still, she thought, just in case.
Jess checked the living room, and the bedroom, with no signs of anyone. Letting out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, she dropped the bat by the bathroom door, placed the towel back beside the shower, and ducked back under the warm spray, chilled all over again.
A clattering outside made her jump, but then, she realized, it had to have been the bat falling over. It had been a gift her fiancé, Drew, had bought for her so she could join when he went to batting cages, rather than waiting as a bored onlooker.
Drew, who had peaked in college, playing for the Beavers in Oregon, until an elbow injury dashed his dreams of going pro, but would still swing the bat as often as he could.
Despite being stuck in the past a little too much for her liking, he was, mostly, fun. He had kept his charm and confidence – a confidence that told him she would never do better, and he liked to remind her of the fact.
She thought about him spending the night with her. Cozying up under a blanket, with a bad movie. But, then, she considered, wiping away the steam on her mirror, trying with more success to run the brush through her hair, it wasn’t like he’d actually answer her call.
Jess crossed to the bedroom, pulling out a pair of gym shorts and one of Drew’s oversized tee shirts. She braided her hair, throwing it over a shoulder, keeping it out of her way as it dried into an inevitably wavy mess.
She saw a shadow, from the window heading out to the porch. Only for an instant. She blinked, making sure her vision was clear.
Jess moved to the wall near the porch door and flicked on the outside light. Then she stuck her fingers between the blinds, and peered out.
Nothing. No shadows. Not even a spider crawling along the railing. Just more raindrops accumulating on the cement outside. She scoured the porch, then, just to reassure herself, went to the door. She only meant to open it a few inches, but a gust of wind from the storm knocked it back, hitting the wall of her living room. Poking her head out, she saw the bare space; the porch light illuminating the blank cement she’d kept saying she would eventually get furniture for. But, it was Seattle– what was the point of furnishing a porch only habitable ten days on a good year?
That was something Drew kept on her about. Told her to take more pride in her home. To care about decorations. To make it look like it had come out of a Better Homes & Gardens catalog. He kept trying to get her to watch HGTV shows with him, sent her pictures from interior designers on Instagram.
Jess knew why, even if she didn’t want to admit it to herself. Whenever he had mentioned it, it was because he’d been thinking about the future. About their house. About them, meaning, her, figuring out how their house would look. He would say it was so they could do it together, but that wasn’t it. He’d said he’d build the dining room table in his father’s garage, maybe. He’d said he’d build her shelves too, but she’d known he never would.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care, Jess thought, shutting the door to the porch, he’d just never known what he actually wanted. So, he relied on her to figure it out.
She looked down at the lock to the porch door, still holding the doorknob. Had the door been locked when she came outside? She couldn’t remember. Surely, it shouldn’t matter? She was on the second floor, wouldn’t she have heard someone trying to clamber up over the railing? She locked the door, and deadbolted that one too, for good measure.
Jess turned back around to the living room, debating what to do next. Movie, that was it. That was what she’d decided. She moved to the kitchen, grabbing one of the bags of popcorn she kept there. In the microwave, the button pressed, it wasn’t long before she could smell the artificial butter, the popping sound echoing through the kitchen and living room.
The sound made her jump. Sent a shiver up her spine. She had to remind herself what it was, where it was coming from.
She wanted to take off Drew’s shirt, but over the course of their relationship, she’d stopped buying pajamas. Taken bits of his wardrobe and called it a day. But the fabric felt wrong against her skin. Scratching against her nerve endings and sending her on edge.
She pulled out her phone, tried to settle back into the couch and relax. She scrolled through notifications while the movie started, a blanket wrapped around her legs.
Jess was sick of messages on her feed. Sick of the crooning over her ring, asking when the date was, how he’d asked her. She was sick of the fact that the actual news hadn’t spread yet. Not that she’d advertised that news in the same way. It made a knot twist in her stomach and she tossed the phone away. She couldn’t look at it anymore.
She needed a drink, and she moved off the couch and poured herself a healthy measure of vodka. She downed it, and poured herself another as she moved back into her bedroom, needing to take the shirt off.
Jess tripped over the bat in the hall, it had indeed fallen outside the bathroom door, and stumbled into the bedroom, the vodka sloshing over her hand.
She cursed again at the mess, at the bat, at the night, and was about to grab some tissues to clean herself up when she noticed it. The room smelled like…. something. Something beyond the spilled booze. She moved closer to the bed, trying to place it.
It smelled like the sea. Not a beach, but the briny scent of fish and seaweed. Jess backed away from the bed, away from the scent and the memories, willing herself to believe that it was her clothes, covered in muck from the storm, that was somehow causing the smell, not anything else. And then remembered that she’d already dumped them in the laundry machine.
It was only in these instances that she felt saddened by the fact she and Drew had never moved in together. That he was not there to check on the noises in the night. To protect her from creaking floorboards and shadows in the dark.
But then again, he never would have let her live it down if she’d asked for such protection.
The creaking was in the living room again. She kept the light on in her bedroom, and moved back, searching for the source of the sound. Telling herself it was just the wind, just the storm, just the wood of the floorboards.
“Jessie,” The voice behind her, the smell of salt filling her nostrils. She whipped around, but there was nothing.
She stayed perfectly still, her heart beating out of her chest.
It wasn’t real. It’s not real.
She went back to the couch, grabbed her phone, and ran back to the bedroom. She tore the shirt off her head and started searching through the drawers for something else she could wear. She pulled on a long sleeve tee shirt and was picking up Drew’s shirt, not quite sure what she was going to do with it, when the lights flickered.
In the moment of darkness, she saw the figure in the window, the shadow illuminated by a bolt of lightning.
Jess wanted to scream, but couldn’t find her voice.
He was gone as soon as the lights came back on.
Jessie swallowed, trying to remember how to breathe, her eyes locked on the window. The seconds began to lengthen as she thought through what to do.
If she left, she’d be in the storm. Driving through to…where? She didn’t know if her friends would take the call, and she couldn’t stand the thought of driving around in circles in the rain.
Or she could stay, and pray the shadow wasn’t real.
She could feel her emotions giving way, frustration building tears in the corners of her eyes.
She closed her eyes, held her head in her hands. “Please, stop,” she whispered to the air.
She heard the laughter in her ears. The chuckle of contempt. Jess opened her eyes, head snapping back up, searching for the source of the sound.
The laughter was getting louder, as though he was coming up behind her, getting closer and closer, until she could feel the hair standing up on the back of her neck.
“Jessie,” It would have sounded soothing, if it didn’t make her jump straight into the air, back to the closet, throwing on a pair of boots, her phone still in her hand.
She spotted the bat on the floor and picked it up, holding it aloft as she moved back to the kitchen, searching for her keys. They were on the counter, thankfully, right where she’d left them.
She walked backwards towards the door, afraid she would feel him behind her again.
Jess could hear the rain outside and didn’t want to leave. Didn’t want to feel the water flooding over her again.
“Jessie,” Was that a shadow, in the door to her bedroom? The figure hiding in the corners where the light couldn’t touch. “I want to help, Jessie.”
She turned around, flipped open the locks, dropped the bat, and sprinted out the door.
Jess ran, and felt his presence in every raindrop. His fear in the deep puddles that were sucking at her boots, his anger in every biting chill of wind. She could see her car, but his presence was right behind, his fingers reaching for her, begging her to come back.
She felt a hand around her wrist, and suddenly, she wasn’t sure when it was. What day, what time, where her feet were taking her.
If she was in his car, trying to explain, trying to tell him, with his anger burning so hot it seemed to fog up the glass of the windshield. Trying to justify, but also apologize for, her betrayal.
She wrenched herself back to the present. To the water pelting her skin as droplets, not as a suffocating force.
Jess slammed into the car, her hands slipping on the handle before finally wrenching it open and throwing herself inside.
No one in the backseat. No one besides her. But as she tried to put the key in the ignition, she saw the shine. The sparkle reflected by the fluorescent brightness from the street lights illuminating the parking lot.
The ring. The diamond ring he’d pulled from her finger.
The ring he’d been holding onto as he realized she wasn’t pulling him up too. “Jessie!” The echo in her brain. In her mind. Him saying her name as his car crashed into the water. The bubbles that formed silent screams as she freed herself from the car, and left him trapped between the dashboard and the seat.
Left him after he came to get her; after she’d asked for a ride in another torrential downpour. Because she didn’t feel safe driving herself. And he told her she’d make it up to him later, making him leave the house like that.
Remind her that she owed him, for coming to her rescue.
She felt like water was filling her lungs now. Drowning under the weight of her panic, her paranoia.
The ring looked pristine. Like it had never seen the salty water. Never floated between them in that abyss with a greenish glow of what became a cemetery.
The rain pounded on the top of her car.
And then he was there. In her headlights. A black shadow reflected on the pavement. His laughter in her ears, and she could sense, rather than see, his lips curling up into a sneer. She screamed, foot on the accelerator. Slamming against the darkness and shadows. Driving forward into something she couldn’t see, until she was forced to stop in an ear-splitting shattering of glass.
The world was dark, Jess’s vision blurred.
She was sitting beside him, but in the passenger seat now. Drew’s perfect sandy hair tousled, eyes looking straight ahead. She pressed herself against the door, but was unable to look away from him.
“You’re dead.” As though the fact could save her. Her hand clutched around the door handle that would not budge.
He slowly turned to look at her. He opened his mouth, and water flowed out from his throat, filling the car, the seawater lining Jess’s boots, the flood climbing up her shins, and she felt her stomach drop below her seat as his voice filled her ears.
“You made sure of that,”
She opened the door, ready to jump into the sea, and the world tried to right itself. She was back in the parking lot, taking large gasps of air, back in the present and back in the driver’s seat.
His feet jumped onto the hood of the car, his hand reaching around the shattered glass of the windshield towards the collar of her shirt.
“We said forever, Jessie,” his hand around her throat, dragging her out of the car, and she screamed as her back and her arms met the fragments of glass. He threw her to the ground, and was once again made of smoke, only visible in the reflections of street lights, of her fractured headlights. “But you forgot that, didn’t you?”
She tried to crawl away, and felt his fingers, wet and slimy but strong, clutch her calf. She kicked back, making contact with nothing but air, but the pressure on her leg was gone. She lunged forward, grabbing a shard of glass from the ground.
Jess slashed at the darkness, her palm sliced against the glass, blood oozing from her hand.
And still the laughing in her ears. The flickers of black against the light mocking her. Taunting her.
She screamed again, but it sounded more like a cry to her ears. She took one look at the car, smashed against the automatic gate that had not opened in time for her adrenaline. She looked up at the building, her building. She kept turning, making herself dizzy, nausea making bile rise up her throat. Run, she managed to think, forcing her legs to work against her will. Out of the rain. She managed to propel herself up the stairs and to her apartment, the closest shelter she could see. He’d wanted to lure her out, she thought, wanted to bring her to the storm, where he was strong, where he could reach her. She slammed the door behind her, and saw the bat she’d dropped before.
She turned back to the door and smashed the bat against the metal. Pounding and pounding against the deadbolt until there was no way to move the handle back to unlock it.
The power flickered again, and a shadow appeared in the living room window. She leaped to the porch door and began to swing at the deadbolt there. Blood from her slashed palm bleeding into the tape around the bat’s handle, splattering against the floor, until both locks were mangled; cemented into place.
Her heavy breathing drowned out everything but the pounding of her heart, each thump making blood trickle down her sides, from her back, her arms, her hand. Jess took a step back, checking for signs of him.
A bolt of lightning, a deafening crack of thunder, and the lights in the apartment disappeared.
She could feel him, before she saw him. His presence a hook pulling her back around. Trying to swallow past the lump in her throat, she turned to see the figure in the darkness.
The moonlight reflected off his pearly teeth as his lips lifted into a smile. The rain hammered against the window and dripped off Jess’s hair, her skin, her clothes, mixing with her blood upon the floor.
She clung to the bat with white-knuckled fingers, as her eyes finally met his.
“Well, now that you’ve done that,” he said, stepping closer to the window, towards her. “What will you do now?”
This story previously appeared in Filament, by City Lights Theater Company.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Kirstyn Petras is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer but primarily identifies as caffeine in a human suit held together by hair spray and sheer force of will. She has been published in Punk Noir, Hoosier Noir, Alien Buddha Press, City Lights Theatre Company, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. Her debut novel, The Next Witness, was released in 2022 by Cinnabar Moth Publishing. When not writing, she trains contortion and aerial hoop. She is also the co-host of Dark Waters, a literary podcast exploring all that is dark, dreary, and wonderfully twisted. You can find her on Twitter and check out her work on her linktr.ee