Chloe woke up on the floor, her thoughts foggy. She must have fallen and knocked herself out when she hit the hardwood. She started to get up, but felt dizzy and eased back down. The kitchen was dark except for pinpoints of light on the coffeemaker, TV, and cable box, like a suburban constellation.
She tried to understand how long she’d been lying here. The last thing she remembered, she was rinsing the dishes after lunch, eyeing the sun through the window, like a big, fresh shiny yolk in the sky. Yellow was her favorite color, and she always tried to get it into her painting. Chloe used to teach art in middle school, but now she was a new mom with no time to shower, much less paint.
She heard a mechanical ca-thunk,
and the Christmas lights went on outside. Red, green, and blue glimmered on the wetness underneath her, which seemed to be spreading. Her gaze traveled to its edge, where her Maine Coon, Jake, sat in silhouette under the table, his ears translucent triangles, backlit by the multicolored lights.
Chloe reached for a chair to pull herself up, but was oddly weak and slumped to the floor. She felt cold, though the kitchen had a southern exposure and stayed warm, even in winter. She needed help, but was alone. Her sister Danielle and her brother-in-law Bob had come over for lunch, then Danielle had taken the baby Christmas shopping and Bob had gone to work. They didn’t have children, and Danielle had been happy to take Emily to the mall by herself.We can pick out Christmas presents for you and Mike!
Chloe closed her eyes, wishing her husband Mike were here, but he was a reservist in the Army Medical Corps, serving in Afghanistan. He’d be home in a month, and she was counting the days. She’d prayed he wouldn’t be called up because he was thirty-six years old, and when the deployment orders came, she’d taken it badly. She’d simply dissolved into tears, whether from sleep deprivation, crazed hormones, or worry.Mike, please, I’m begging you. Don’t go.
Suddenly Chloe realized something. The Christmas lights were controlled by a timer that turned them on at five o’clock, which meant Bob and Danielle would be back at any minute. She had to hide the vodka she’d left out on the counter. Nobody could know about her drinking, especially not Danielle. Chloe should have been more careful, but she was a beginner alcoholic.
She reached for the chair and hoisted herself up partway. The kitchen whirled, a mad blur of Christmas lights. She clung to the chair, feeling dizzy, cold, and spacey, as if she were floating on a frigid river. Her hand slipped, and the chair wobbled. Jake sprang backwards, then resettled into a crouch.
She put her hands on the floor to lift her chest up, like a push-up, but the wetness was everywhere. Under her hands, between her fingers, soaking her shirt. It didn’t smell like vodka. The fog in her brain cleared, and Chloe remembered she’d been loading the dishwasher, and the chef’s knife had slipped, slicing the underside of her arm. Bright red blood had spurted from the wound, and she’d fainted. She always fainted at the sight of blood, and Mike used to kid her.The doctor’s wife, who’s afraid of blood.
Chloe looked at her left arm in horror. It was covered with blood, reflecting the holiday lights. Blood. Her mouth went dry. She’d been bleeding all afternoon. She could bleed to death.
“Help!” she called out, but her voice sounded far away. She had to get to her cell phone and call 911. She dragged herself through the slippery blood to the base cabinet, clawed the door for the handle, and grabbed it on the second try. She tried to pull herself up but had no strength left. She clung to the handle.
Chloe spotted her laptop to her right, on its side. She must have knocked it off the counter when she fell. Her best friend Sara was always online, and Chloe could g-chat her for help. She slid the laptop toward her and hit the keys with a slick palm, but the monitor didn’t light up. She didn’t know if it was off or broken.
She shoved it aside, getting a better idea. She would crawl to the front door and out to the sidewalk. The neighbors or someone driving by would see her. She started crawling, her breath ragged. The front door lay directly down the hall, behind a solid expanse of hardwood and an area rug. She dragged herself toward it, smearing blood across the kitchen threshold.
Hope surged in her chest. Her arms ached but they kept churning. She pulled herself into the hallway. She kept her eye on the front door. It had a window on the top half, and she could see the Christmas lights on the porch. She had put them up herself, for Emily’s first Christmas.
The door lay thirty feet ahead, but Chloe felt her legs begin to weaken. Her arms were failing, but she couldn’t give up. She was a mother. She had a precious baby, only seven months old.
Chloe moved forward on her elbows, but more slowly, like a car running out of gas. Still she kept going. The front door was only fifteen feet away. Then thirteen, then ten. She had to make it.Go, go, go. Nine, eight, seven feet left.
Chloe reached the edge of the area rug, but couldn’t go another inch. Her forehead dropped to the soft wool. Her body flattened. Her eyes closed as if they were sealed. She felt her life ebb away, borne off in a sea of her own blood. Suddenly she heard a noise, outside the house. A car was pulling into the driveway, its engine thrumming.Thank God!
She heard the sound of a car door opening and closing, then footsteps on the driveway. They were slow because the driveway was icy in patches, the rock salt melting it unevenly.Hurry, hurry, hurry.
Chloe remembered the front door was unlocked, a lucky break. She was supposed to lock it behind Danielle, who had been carrying Emily, the diaper bag, and her purse, but she had forgotten. It would serve her well, now. Whoever was coming could see her through the window, rush in, and call 911.
The footsteps drew closer to the door, but Chloe didn’t recognize them. She didn’t know Bob or Danielle by their footstep. It could be anybody.Please God hurry
The footsteps reached the front door, and Chloe heard the mechanical turning of the doorknob. The door unlatched, and she felt a vacuum as it swung open. Frigid air blasted her from the open doorway. Her hair blew into her face, but she couldn’t even open her eyes.Help me help me call 911
She heard the footsteps walk to her, then stop near her head. But whoever it was didn’t call her name, rush to her side, or cry out in alarm.What is going on why aren’t you calling 911
She heard the footsteps walk back to the door.Wait don’t go please help me
She heard the sound of the front door closing.No come back please help I’m—
The latch engaged with a quiet click
Copyright © 2013 by Smart Blonde, LLC
LISA SCOTTOLINE is a New York Times bestselling and Edgar Award–winning author of twenty-one novels. She has served as President of Mystery Writers of America, and her recent novel Look Again has been optioned for a feature film. She is a weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her columns have been collected in four books and optioned for television. She has 30 million copies of her books in print in the United States, and she has been published in thirty countries. She lives in the Philadelphia area with an array of disobedient pets.