A thunderstorm was raging in Rachel Sorensen’s sleep. She was in an old barn, somewhere up north, far enough away from the city that the swaying trees outside the run-down structure could be called a forest. Rain came in between the old gray boards of the wall she was crouched against, splattering her face. Or were they tears that wet her cheeks? Because she knew she was hiding again—not until the bruises went away, but so that he wouldn’t add to them. Her shoulder still ached from where he’d wrenched her arm from its socket, two nights past.
A sudden thought came to her, and she looked frantically around the barn with the next flash of lightning. What if he was in the barn with her? What if this time, when he rammed the pistol up under her chin, he pulled the—
The thunder woke her.
She sat upright in her own bed, in her own apartment. The ache in her shoulder was just a memory. Her cheeks were damp—crying in her sleep again. But it had just been a dream, nothing more. One more false memory to add to the collection of real hurts and aches and bad memories that she was still trying to put behind her.
She looked out the window, hoping the view it gave of the park would calm her, then realized that it wasn’t raining. The sky was clear. Stars could be made out against the city’s light pollution, which rose for miles into the sky above the streets.
The thunder came again.
She turned her head once more, this time to the doorway of the bedroom.
It’s the door, she realized.
Her gaze went to the clock beside the bed. The digital readout told her it was past three in the morning. She shivered.
Please let this just be a dream, too, she thought.
Because she knew who it was at her door. Her therapist had explained it to her: no matter where she went or how well she hid her tracks, if he was determined enough, he would find her.
“You have to be prepared for that,” Dr. Caley had told her, sympathetically.
But sympathy was no help right now. She started to reach for the phone, but knew it was futile. By the time the police came, he’d be gone again, leaving her to deal with their endless questions. By the time they came, she could be dead.
He was here now. Pounding on the wood with his thick knuckles. Hands once gentle, turned hard and angry.
“We just haven’t got the manpower to put a squad car outside your building every night,” the detective had explained to her, apologetically.
Apologies were no help either.
There was a lull. He’d stopped his assault on the door. But now she could hear his voice, muffled by the door, but all too familiar.
“I’m your goddamn husband!” he shouted.
She buried her face against the pillow.
“No, you’re not,” she whispered.
He was nothing to her now. He should be the past, lost, forgotten, but he wouldn’t let her give it up. He wouldn’t give it up. There had been times when her body was a road map of bruises, the time he threw her down the stairs and broke her collarbone. It could have been her neck. Times, aYl tYiose times, too many times, and then he was so sorry after, so sorry, he’d go back on his medication, he promised he would, he didn’t know what had gotten into him, because he loved her, he really did, and she, God help her, had believed him. Time after time, she had believed him.
She left him twice before the divorce, and both times he tracked her down and brought her back. And showed her how much he loved her with his anger and his shouting and his fists and finally the gun shoved up under her chin.
Such a calm, kind man, it was hard to believe, their mutual friends told her when she left the third and final time, ran to a shelter for battered women, let them hide her until the court date. But they didn’t know about his condition. They didn’t see him when he stopped taking
the medication, when his easy good nature slipped away like the loose mask it was, and the depression began, and then the paranoia, and then the anger.
No one could understand. Not their well-meaning friends. Not her own mother telling her that it was just the pressures at his work, Frank really loved her, marriage could be a bumpy road but they’d get through the hard times.
Rachel’s body was healed by the time she went to court, but she had the pictures to prove what he had done to her—photos taken by Sarah Bell at the shelter. Thank God for Sarah. Thank God for Frank’s doctor, who explained, yes, Mr. Bedley did have an unfortunate condition; it could be controlled, unless he refused to take the medication that had been prescribed to help him deal with his problem. Thank God for all the land strangers who believed and helped when those in her own social circle-Frank’s friends, she’d learned all too painfully—and even her own family hesitated, looked awkward, kept talking about reconciliation when all Rachel wanted was freedom.
There were three locks and a safety chain on the door, but as Rachel lay there, listening to her ex-husband pound on the door, they seemed a very flimsy defense now. Trembling, she got up from the bed and crept down the hall toward the door.
It shook as he began to hammer against it again.
She looked around her untidy living room for something to shove against the door. Frank would hate this room. A coffee mug and a plate full of crumbs still sitting on the side table beside the chair where she’d been reading last night. Piles of magazines on the coffee table. CDs scattered across the top of the stereo cabinet in a disorganized jumble. The jacket she’d worn home from work last night still tossed across the back of the sofa.
Cause for a beating—if this was their home, if they were still married. But it wasn’t. The room belonged to her. The apartment was hers, and he had no right to be outside her door, still tormenting her.
There was nothing to put against the door. She wasn’t strong enough to move any of the furniture on her own. And that was the problem with being a woman, wasn’t it? They were all stronger than you, all those men with their fists and their anger. Every day she read in the paper about the horrors husbands and fathers forced upon those they claimed to love.
Because they were stronger. Because they could. Because they had pressures and stress and it was understandable, wasn’t it, that they needed an outlet? It’s not like they meant to hurt anybody, was it? It’s not like they reveled in their power with their boyish grins and strangers’ eyes.
The pounding stopped again.
“I know you’re in there, Rachel,” he said, his voice calm, so calm, so reasonable. “Please let me in. I just want to talk to you, that’s all. I just want to explain things to you.” She heard a heavy thump as he leaned against the door. “I’ve changed. Things’ll be different this time. I promise you.”
Rachel stood in front of the door, hugging herself to stop shaking.
“Rachel, honey. Please.”
There was a time when she would have believed him, but she didn’t know that person anymore. That woman she had been—that poor, gullible woman, frightened of her own shadow—had finally grown stronger. She remembered all too clearly how his whispered promises turned into her screams. She remembered walking on eggshells through so much of the time they’d been together, making sure that she did nothing to anger him, that Tuesdays they had pork chops, and steak on Fridays, that she folded his underwear in two, not three, that she was always waiting for him when he came home, that she did everything he wanted when they were in bed, even when it hurt, even when it left her with an empty gnawing ache inside her, because her body remembered a time when he’d cared about pleasing her.
She’d had to fit the image of her that he’d created in his mind—that land and considerate mind that had changed three months after their marriage, when he’d forgotten to get that simple prescription filled. He’d come home late, and she’d forgotten to pick up his suit from the cleaners, so he hit her, an open-handed slap that was still hard enough to knock her from her feet, and then he was so sorry, God he was sorry, but not so sorry that it didn’t happen again. And again. An endless spi-raling loop of apparent and very real pain.
He didn’t know her. He had never known her. He’d never tried, never cared to know her. Why would that have changed now?
His voice still soft, a little boy’s voice, knowing he’s done something wrong, desperate to make amends. It meant nothing to her now.
A light tap on the door.
She made no reply. Dr. Caley had explained it to her. He was just pushing buttons, looking for the one to give him leverage back into her life. Fear. Pity. Need. Compassion. Whatever it took.
He thumped the door suddenly, and she jumped as though he’d hit her.
“Open the goddamned door, Rachel, or I swear I’ll break it down.”
And he would, too, she realized. One of these times, he would. He’d just break it down and drag her away again, back to that house that he owned by himself now because she hadn’t wanted anything from him, just her freedom. It was her lawyer who had insisted on negotiating a hefty divorce settlement.
“These days, money is freedom,” Marian Prusakowski had argued when they met in her office to discuss strategies. “He owes you that much. He owes you the chance to get your life back on track, and you won’t be able to do that without the freedom from financial worries for the first while. We won’t go for support—just a straight settlement.”
Frank owed her a lot more than that, Rachel had realized in the months after their divorce was finalized, but he wouldn’t even give her breathing room, court order notwithstanding. She’d come to understand all too soon that the restraining order was just words on paper, devoid of real meaning or bite. The only way the police could enforce it was if they actually caught him in the act.
By then she could be dead.
He started to hammer against the wood once more, and then Rachel heard another voice in the corridor outside her apartment.
“Could you keep it down?”
It was her neighbor, Rob Carter. He lived two doors down. A sweet, gentle man. She felt safe talking with him, having him over for a coffee, or going to his apartment for one. He was gay.
“Mind your own business,” Frank told the man.
“It’s past three in the—”
“I don’t give a shit what time it is. I’m trying to talk to my wife.”
Please, Rachel thought. Just go back into your apartment.
“She’s not your wife anymore,” Rob said.
They’d talked about Frank before. Not the first time they met. Not the second or third. Not until Rachel felt safe with him, not until that time she was coming home from work and saw Rob walking down the street ahead of her, arm around another man, and knew that it was only friendship that he wanted from her.
“I guess someone’s looking for a fat lip,” she heard Frank say, his voice moving away from her door.
Rob didn’t cut a very impressive figure. He was a slight man, with thinning sandy-colored hair. Not like Frank, with his beefy shoulders and arms, courtesy of his workouts at the health club that he kept as regularly as he did everything else in his life except that one simple act of taking his medication.
“We’ll see what the police have to say about that,” Rob replied.
Rachel heard his door slam shut, locks engage.
“Now see what you’ve done?” Frank shouted at her door. He hammered on the wood, shaking the door in its frame. “Are you happy now?”
He slammed his fist against it one last time, then Rachel could hear him move away toward the elevator.
“Her own husband. Won’t even talk to her own goddamned husband.…”
Rachel sank to the floor, still leaning against the wall, arms still wrapped around herself. She listened for the arriving ping of the elevator, for the doors to open, then shut, and then finally it seemed as though she could breathe again. But she wouldn’t be able to sleep. Experience had taught her that.
She huddled against the wall for a long time, until she finally got mad at herself for letting him get to her this way again. She stood up, ran a hand through her tangle of blond hair, then turned on a light and went into the kitchen, where she put on the kettle to make herself some herbal tea. It never calmed her enough to get back to sleep on a night like this, but it helped take the raw jangling edge from her nerves.
She was never sure when Frank would show up at her door. Sometimes a week or two went by; sometimes he came two or three nights in a row. She’d moved twice before to get away from him, but he always tracked her down.
This apartment was the most expensive yet, because it had security. A doorman. She’d have to talk to the realty company again. She didn’t know how Frank had talked his way past the doorman, but she could guess. He was so kind and considerate, wasn’t he? Such a charming, genial man. Who wouldn’t trust him?
She’d changed jobs once as well—not through choice. She’d been fired because Frank kept showing up and frightening the customers. Standing in the door of the gallery, yelling at her until someone called the police. That was when her lawyer had asked the judge for a restraining order against him—he wasn’t allowed to come to her building or where she worked—but it didn’t seem to make any difference. It never made any difference, not to her, not to any of all those other women in situations similar to hers.
At least he hadn’t found out where she was working now. She hadn’t told anyone, only Lily.
Copyright © 1994 by Charles de Lint