Michelle burst into the apartment in a whirlwind of activity, kicking off her shoes in the hall, and flinging her keys into the bowl on the sideboard marked “Keys-N-Stuff” with a practiced flip of her wrist. She padded quickly to the table to put down the stack of packages she held, tossing her long black coat in the general direction of the couch. She was in the kitchen in a flash, fumbling through the junk drawer for scotch tape and scissors, then in the hall closet for wrapping paper, then back at the table to slap it all down next to the boxes she had just brought in. She finally took a breath, and checked her watch.
Okay, the party starts in just over ninety minutes, so I have to leave here in just under an hour. Wrap the presents, make the dip, shower, dress, then out the door in less than an hour.
She paused, considering.
I can do it.
In the bedroom she rummaged through the closet and dresser, laying clothes on the bed as she assembled that evening’s outfit. She turned toward the bathroom, intending to hop in the shower, but ground to a halt after just two steps in that direction, suddenly aware.
It was back again. That feeling she was being watched.
She checked the bedroom window; the curtain was still in place, the shade down, exactly like last time she’d checked as far as she could tell. She pulled the curtain aside just a fraction, putting her eye to the gap like a frightened child peeking out from under the covers in the night.
Nothing. Not even the lights of another building across the way. There couldn’t be. Michelle lived on the top floor of the tallest building in the neighborhood — there was no way someone could peek in her windows without a helicopter, and she didn’t see one of those hovering out there either. Nothing but a stars against the blackness. She twitched the curtain back into place, making certain there were no gaps. She checked her watch again.
She started toward the shower again, but the feeling intensified. She stopped, trembling.
It’s all in my head. The docs all agree it’s all in my head, right?
Yeah… but they don’t have to live it.
She strode over to her nightstand and pulled open the drawer to reveal a space that was empty but for a single prescription bottle. She took up the bottle and gave it a small shake, listening to the pills rattle inside.
Almost out of Valium. I hope Dr. Winslow won’t give me a hard time about refilling it. He sure prescribed it fast enough.
She thought about taking one of the little tablets, what she thought of as ‘sanity in a bottle’. She knew it would calm her, take the edge off the feeling of being watched and let her undress, let her shower, let her function. But it also took the edge off all her emotions, and this was Christmas Eve. She was going to a party. Her family would be there, her mom and dad, and she didn’t want to walk through it like a sleepwalker. She wanted to enjoy herself, not worry her parents. Besides, she was going to have to drive to get there, and the dose she was likely to take…
She tossed the bottle back into the nightstand unopened, pushing the drawer closed with a hip.
I’m just going to have to tough it out.
She started toward the bathroom door once more her hands going to the buttons on her blouse, and felt the eyes watching her every move. She veered off to her left, exiting the bedroom and making for the kitchen.
I really should make the dip before I get dressed, shouldn’t I?
Forty minutes later she stood in the bedroom again, staring at the bathroom door. The onion dip was made. The presents were wrapped. Her apartment had been tidied, the dishwasher emptied, and the carpet vacuumed. She was supposed to be leaving in five minutes, and there was no possible way she could be on time now unless she skipped her clean-up altogether. It had been a long day at the bakery, though, with all kinds of last-minute orders from people desperate to have something to bring to their own parties. Working hard all day in front of the ovens had left Michelle a little fragrant. What her dad would call ‘whiffy’. Skipping a shower was not an option.
Gritting her teeth she unbuttoned her blouse, peeled it from her back and tossed it in the hamper. Immediately the watched feeling intensified. She pulled off her jeans and the feeling grew stronger still, like a cold hand touching all her exposed skin. She looked around, but there was no one there.
She went into the bathroom and turned the water on. Waited. Adjusted the temperature. Waited again. Thought about the pills in the nightstand, but knew it was too late anyway. She bit her lip, unable to put it off any longer, stripped off her bra and panties and stepped into the shower. She could feel the eyes watching her, ogling her; felt them caressing her skin, prying into the secret places of her body, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The warm spray mixed with her tears as she reached for the soap.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Three thousand two hundred and ninety miles away a lighter scritched. A cigarette flared to life in a dim room. A thick hand reached for yet another shot glass. Red-rimmed eyes stared into the depths of a glowing ball of snow, in which a tiny sobbing figure scoured herself with a loofah. A rough tongue licked coarse, chapped lips as harshly whispered words slunk past stained and cracked teeth, a song riding into the world on fetid, bourbon-soaked breath.
“…he sees you when you’re sleeping…he knows when you’re awake…”