SHE HEARD A KNOCKING, AND THEN A DOG BARKING. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door. It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded. She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades. She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?
The lit room alarmed her, the wrongness of it, like an emergency room at midnight. She thought, in quick succession: Mattie. Then, Jack. Then, Neighbor. Then, Car accident. But Mattie was in bed, wasn't she? Kathryn had seen her to bed, had watched her walk down the hall and through a door, the door shutting with a firmness that was just short of a slam, enough to make a statement but not provoke a reprimand. And Jack--where was Jack? She scratched the sides of her head, raking out her sleep-flattened hair. Jack was--where? She tried to remember the schedule: London. Due home around lunchtime. She was certain. Or did she have it wrong and had he forgotten his keys again?
She sat up and put her feet on the freezing floorboards. She had never understood why the wood of an old house lost its warmth so completely in the winter. Her black leggings had ridden up to the middle of her calves, and the cuffs of the shirt she had slept in, a worn white shirt of Jack's, had unrolled and were hanging past the tips of her fingers. She couldn't hear the knocking anymore, and she thought for a few seconds that she had imagined it. Had dreamed it, in the way she sometimes had dreams from which she woke into other dreams. She reached for the small clock on her bedside table and looked at it: 3:24. She peered more closely at the black face with the glow-in-the-dark dial and then set the clock down on the marble top of the table so hard that the case popped open and a battery rolled under the bed.
But Jack was in London, she told herself again. And Mattie was in bed.
There was another knock then, three sharp raps on glass. A small stoppage in her chest traveled down into her stomach and lay there. In the distance, the dog started up again with short, brittle yips.
She took careful steps across the floor, as if moving too fast might set something in motion that hadn't yet begun. She opened the latch of the bedroom door with a soft click and made her way down the back staircase. She was thinking that her daughter was upstairs and that she should be careful.
She walked through the kitchen and tried to see, through the window over the sink, into the driveway that wound around to the back of the house. She could just make out the shape of an ordinary dark car. She turned the corner into the narrow back hallway, where the tiles were worse than the floorboards, ice on the soles of her feet. She flipped on the back-door light and saw, beyond the small panes set into the top of the door, a man.
He tried not to look surprised by the sudden light. He moved his head slowly to the side, not staring into the glass, as if it were not a polite thing to do, as if he had all the time in the world, as if it were not 3:24 in the morning. He looked pale in the glare of the light. He had hooded eyelids and a widow's peak, hair the color of dust that had been cut short and brushed back at the sides. His topcoat collar was turned up, and his shoulders were hunched. He moved once quickly on the doorstep, stamping his feet. She made a judgment then. The long face, slightly sad; decent clothes; an interesting mouth, the bottom lip slightly curved and fuller than the upper lip: not dangerous. As she reached for the knob, she thought, Not a burglar, not a rapist. Definitely not a rapist. She opened the door.
"Mrs. Lyons?" he asked.
And then she knew.
It was in the way he said her name, the fact that he knew her name at all. It was in his eyes, a wary flicker. The quick breath he took.
© 1999 by Anita Shreve
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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