I didn’t notice it at first.
Reality had swam so easily into the dream, like drops of blood into water, that when I crossed the gap from surreal subconscious back into a waking mind, the sound seemed natural. But as I came to, the suppression shattered the illusion. Whoever was breathing didn’t want to be heard despite the urgent need for oxygen. Listening to those hushed breaths move in and out, even I felt my lungs begin to burn.
That was when my eyes went wide.
I stayed still for it occurred to me that once again I hadn’t locked the front door. It was a growing habit that was losing concern. Sure, it was an apartment complex. Yes, people came and went. But many of those around me were nice, friendly. I knew them by name and they knew me. The security of my front door stopped being an issue.
My pupils soaked in every spec of light. The digital clock on my nightstand seemed to burn a digital green—3:16 AM. Strips of yellow lined the wall, outside light slipping through the cracks in my blinds.
Still, the breathing continued, panicked but suppressed all the same.
Maybe I can roll over, I thought to myself. People do that in their sleep. It’s natural. I can switch sides and maybe see. But do I want to?
It didn’t matter. I heard it then. Footsteps. They were heavy but quick. Years of living in this complex told me someone was outside. They were lunging up the stairs in tippy-toed steps. Someone was hunting, and now they too had found my front door. I heard the slow squeal of it opening through the thin wall of my bedroom. Whoever it was, they were inside also. Only drywall and poor insulation stood between us.
The breathing near me hushed.
I sat up. I didn’t mean to, but adrenaline was flooding into my system. My muscles, minimal as they were, were growing with tension. In the scenario of fight or flight, my primitive core already knew escape was becoming less of an option.
I glanced to my left and saw her then. A blonde in a white tank top. I could smell her perfume. She had her hands over her mouth. Her nails were painted, but in the darkness I couldn’t tell the color. Panic filled her wild eyes. With trembling hands she held a finger over her lips telling me to be quiet. With the other, she motioned up and down in the universal sign for stabbing with a knife.
I stared at the wall in front of me as if I could see through it, knowing the small kitchen was just on the other side, and with it, my additional visitor. A soft squeak came through. That meant our attacker was standing at the end of the counter now, standing at the imaginary line where the kitchen ends and the tiny dining section begins.
I looked to the blonde again in hopes of receiving additional information, but her message remained the same: one finger pressed against her lips begging for silence and the other stabbing an invisible knife.
I don’t own a gun, was the first real thought I had. Behind the woman was my closet, a safe haven for t-shirts and pants and all things nonthreatening. There wasn’t even a Louisville Slugger tucked away on the shelf. It was just me and my boxers and my low thread-count sheets bought on sale years prior.
Another squeak came through the wall. Mr. Knife had moved, but which direction I didn’t know. I leaned forward and looked for light beyond my bedroom door. The door was barely open, and I knew why. The woman hiding in my room didn’t close it after entering. She was afraid to wake me. But why? Why wouldn’t you wake the person inside? Wake the world? Scream and cry until every apartment heard—
Because she knows Mr. Knife is going to kill her, my mind blasted. Waking the world isn’t enough. It won’t spare her life. He’s going to kill her regardless. Her only real chance was to hide.
A shadow shifted in the hall. Dim light was blocked. My mental processes were firing now, searing my mind in search for effective strategy, and I felt on the verge of panic. The blonde just kept doing it, stabbing her hand up and down. Her eyes were filled with fear, and I saw then that she was already bleeding. A dark line traveled down the length of her forearm. Red drops were flowing. She must have seen my realization then. She saw something in my eyes. Her composure cracked for a split second, and a sob snuck through her trembling lips.
I lunged from my bed as the shadow in the hall darted toward us. I shouldered everything I had in my 6’3, 188lb body into my bedroom door. An arm shot through and slashed down with the largest blade my mind could conceive. It was an ordinary carving knife, but when thrusting toward you in the night, any blade scales for terror. Our bodies collided into the door, but his arm was already through the opening and slashing down, ending in my thigh. As the knife pierced my leg, the door slammed Mr. Knife’s arm against the frame. In unison, we cried out in pain. I pushed with all my strength, but a great force was building on the other side. The door denied me, and slowly opened. The knife came down again, his arm bending at the elbow, and bit into my hip.
Then I was falling back and the large shadow was on top of me. The man was huge, my height and at least sixty pounds more. His thick breath swam with the smell of tequila and hate, and the last thing I heard was the panicked breathing turn to a shrill scream as he sank the blade into my throat.