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Familiar Stranger

by Rebecca L. Stahl

Five years had passed since that dreaded night, and Kate Warren still couldn’t walk from her car into her house without her heart racing and her throat tightening. Her palms sweated as she willed herself to get out of her silver Camry.

She glanced anxiously at the sidewalk in front of her duplex. It was 2:00 a.m., and her street was dead quiet. It was safe, she reassured herself, and she opened the door and forced herself to move forward, her tense eyes darting back and forth with every step she took.

Time and time again, she felt her will to live was being challenged, just as it had been that night with Isaac Harper, who’d thought he had left her for dead. It was the incessant barking of her golden retriever, Duke, that had saved her. His growling and snarling had alerted her otherwise dismissive neighbor, Mrs. Charles, that something was wrong when Mrs. Charles was busy yanking her two French poodles around the block.

When Mrs. Charles had knocked on the door, Kate couldn’t respond; her last neurons were battling to stay conscious. It was Duke’s thundering voice from the backyard that had answered, prompting Mrs. Charles to notify the police.

Meanwhile, inside the house, Isaac Harper nudged Kate’s limp body with his boot one last time and regarded her with his ice-blue eyes. He hovered over her and grinned arrogantly at her, confident of adding her to his growing list of victims. And then he would slide out through the patio door, the same way he had entered.

But Kate had survived. And it was because of her that Isaac Harper would be receiving his meals through a metal slot for the rest of his natural days at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The fact that Harper was in a maximum-security lockup without the possibility of parole offered Kate little comfort. Every night, when she closed her eyes, she remembered his menacing glare when she was testifying against him in the courtroom. His stare was a promise that he would eventually come to take care of unfinished business: killing her.

Every morning Kate would awake, gasping for air, feeling his arms wrapped around her throat, just as she had the night he had slithered in through the patio. He had not tripped the alarm, because he worked for the company that installed it and knew how to disable it.

And instead of just suffocating her and ending it quickly, that monster liked his outmatched prey to struggle. Harper was like a tiger batting around a rat with his massive shoulders and towering height, allowing her to crawl away before he struck again, stalking her into the living room. The scene repeated in her mind over and over again until exhaustion took over, allowing her a few minutes of rest before she gasped awake again. It was she who was imprisoned, not Harper.

Duke made these horrible nights bearable. She had always kept him outside, but after the attack she moved him indoors. He slept at the foot of the bed, and when she had panic attacks, she was reassured by his stern brown eyes staring back at her and then roving around the room, letting her know that he was on guard. She would stroke his honey-colored fur and feel better somehow. Safe, if only for a few moments.

But since Duke’s death three months ago, it was almost impossible for Kate to sleep. The dark hollows under her eyes were becoming permanent residents. Her co-workers looked at her with suspicious stares, wondering if she was drinking the hospital Kool-Aid.

It wouldn’t be the first time that a nurse had helped herself to the medicine cabinet. Or they feared she was going to end it. And she could not deny that the thought had crossed her mind — several times. But then Harper would have won. And she wouldn’t allow that. She couldn’t.

The fact that tonight was the anniversary of the attack and Duke was gone made it even more unsettling for her. Every inch of her body was on high alert, her hairs prickling the back of her neck, her heart pounding in her chest, her throat dry as she shakily forced the key into the lock, turning it.

Her tense eyes circled around, making certain no one was lurking in the darkness, watching her as she was later informed that Harper had done. He had been scoping her for weeks prior to their dreaded encounter.

With a shudder, she forced open the door and quickly shut it behind her, fastening the deadbolt, swiftly punching in the code, silencing the alarm on the wall. Then she systematically turned on every light on the lower level, surveying every room, closet, and space where a person could hide, before doing the same thing upstairs.

Once she was satisfied that she was alone, she retreated downstairs into the living room and moved over to the patio entrance, staring at the hazy, glow of the security lamps, her terrified face reflecting off of the glass.

When would things get better, she wondered. Selling the house wasn’t an option. No one wanted to touch it after what had happened here; it might as well be infected with the Ebola virus. She was stuck here, strapped with a double mortgage.

But Kate did not think a change of scenery would help. She would still worry that Harper was out there — wherever she was — waiting for the perfect moment to attack.

She shook off the thought and saw a shadow slithering around the side of the house. She jumped back, but when the object came into view, she realized it was just a damn cat. The same sleek, black one that had been hanging around in the backyard for months, maybe longer. The animal’s glowing green eyes stared at her for a moment, and then he lazily sprawled out on the cement slab in front of the glass as if he owned the place.

Kate had thought about offering the thing food, but that would only invite in every other stray in the neighborhood, and in West Hollywood, there were hundreds. She wasn’t equipped for that — not to mention that Mrs. Charles would have a fit.

Mrs. Charles liked cats even less than she liked people. And this feline in particular felt the same way about humans. He never once whined or meowed, begging to come in. He just remained in front of the patio, prowling the backyard. In the morning, he would be gone. That was his usual pattern.

Shrugging and turning around, she walked over to the grey, alarm panel adjacent to the door, making certain it was activated. She felt reassured by the solid green lights. She was exhausted and should have gone to bed, but her mind was racing, and she needed a way to shut it down.

She eyed the TV and slumped down into her brown leather couch. She swiped the remote off the marble coffee table in front of her and turned it on. She flipped through the channels and quickly passed over dozens of shows until she stopped at the local news station.

The nightly broadcast was wrapping up, and the channel would soon become an infomercial highway, convincing men they could conceal their baldness with a spray can or that a compression top could make a woman appear twenty pounds thinner. And it would peddle all the other miracle supplements that promised to cure every human ailment. Kate yawned at the thought, grateful that these programs existed as her cure for insomnia.

She stretched out her legs and rolled onto her side. She propped her head up on a pillow, letting the flashing images on the screen and the vibrant voices drown out the thoughts in her head. Finally, she felt herself drifting off to sleep, and sweet slumber took over.

A loud buzzing woke her, and she turned her head in the direction of the sound, staring at the rainbow of vertical lines appearing on the TV. Rubbing her eyes and forcing herself to stand, Kate stumbled into her bedroom, flicked off the lights and collapsed backwards into her bed. She pulled the covers up to her chin and instantly fell back to sleep.

Moments later, she felt hands wrapped around her neck and she gasped awake, jerking forward. Her panicked eyes searched the darkness, but there was no one there. She leaned against the headboard, her eyes moved around the empty room again, but she felt she was not alone.

And then she saw the black cat standing in the doorway, his haunting green eyes trained on something on the wall behind her. She leapt out of bed and turned in the direction that held the cat’s gaze.

She shuddered when she thought she saw cold, blue eyes glare back at her. But it couldn’t be him. He was locked up, and she would have been notified if he had escaped. It would have been all over the news.

Frantically turning on the lamp on her nightstand, she looked around again. All that stared back at her was white walls. But the cat was still behind her, and he wasn’t moving his fierce gaze. How the hell did that animal get in here in the first place? All the muscles in her body tensed, and the hairs on the back of her neck bristled.

She darted toward the alarm panel next to the front door. She froze when she saw the wide-open patio door. She swallowed hard, and her heart pounded in her chest. Someone was in the house. The alarm should have sounded. But it hadn’t. Harper. Was. Here.

Shaking and spinning on her heels, she raced for the phone in the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Harper lounging in the doorway, his cold, menacing glare fixed on her face. But his tan skin was now marble-white, almost translucent. She blinked to make certain that she was really seeing him standing in front of her.

“How is my little sparrow?” he asked, his voice mocking. It was him. How had he gotten out? She shuddered and took a step backwards as he stalked towards her.

“Oh Kate, your time for flying away is over,” Harper said coldly. “You won’t ever escape me again.” And then he lunged at her, his hands were wrapped around her throat before she even had a chance to react. His strong grip lifted her in the air, choking her, stopping just before her body went limp.

He released his hands and let her drop to the floor, allowing her to stay conscious a bit longer, prolonging the agony of it all just as he had done five years before. Harper knelt down next to her and stroked her face, “Are you ready to go, my little sparrow?” he said, his voice ragged. He seemed to be aroused at the prospect of extinguishing her.

She desperately tried to turn herself over, to crawl away, but she was too weak and only collapsed onto her back.

“Oh Kate, you always were a fighter,” he said with a chuckle. “Mm,” he murmured excitedly, “I’ve waited so long for this.” His fingers lingered just above the skin of her neck as he gazed cunningly at her, like a snake baring its fangs, deciding when it was going to strike.

She stared back at him with wide, fearful eyes. He grinned arrogantly back. This was what he’d been waiting for and now he’d attack. She screamed at herself to move — to do anything — but her body wouldn’t follow the commands of her mind. All she could do was look up at him, panicked. This was it. Harper had won.

Just as she felt her throat tightening, as his palms gripped her flesh, she watched as the black cat leapt into the air, but her eyes widened in disbelief when Duke emerged from the animal, his golden frame crashing into Harper and knocking him to the ground.

In a flash, Duke was hovering over him and sinking his teeth into his arm, dragging Harper out the patio door. She clutched her neck with her hand and inhaled. Shakily forcing herself to sit up, she glanced warily around and watched as the cat skidded into the backyard after them.

She took another deep breath, and then another, and when she felt she was steady enough to stand, she gripped the top of the couch with her hands and stood up.

She walked to the glass door and reached for the white rectangular handle. She closed the door, staring out as the first rays of sun kissed the grass.

A woman’s excited voice coming from the TV caused her to snap her head around as breaking news flashed in red on the bottom of the screen. She didn’t have to listen to know that the woman was going to announce that Harper had escaped. Thanks for the warning, she thought sardonically, ignoring the announcer’s perky chatter, still shocked and shaken that she had survived. Again.

As her eyes focused on the screen, she read the words on the banner at the bottom of it. Isaac Harper died in Pelican Bay State Prison last night. Foul play is suspected.

That can’t be right, Kate thought. He was just here. She stared at the screen again, burning the words in her retinas, allowing her grey matter to process them.

But would that mean she had been attacked by his ghost? She shuddered at the thought. But she had been saved by Duke — or his ghost? She shook her head in disbelief.

And then she remembered that the black cat had appeared the same night Duke had died. Has he been here this entire time?

She glanced over at the patio and was surprised to find the black cat sprawled out on the cement slab. It had always seemed to disappear in the morning... Or maybe she only thought it had? Maybe he had been in the backyard the entire time? Protecting her. Watching over her now just as he had in life.

With a shrug she moved over to the glass entrance, and as the cat stared up at her, it was Duke’s stern brown eyes that looked back at her, not the glowing green ones of the cat.

“You want to come in, boy?” she offered, opening it. Just as the sleek form of the black cat stepped inside, Duke’s own form separated from the animal’s body. He appeared softer, with a glow that was almost transparent. His shaggy, golden fur and chocolate eyes regarded her as he moved past her, before taking his usual spot in the grey rug in front of the bed.

Duke’s large frame merged with that of the cat. Kate blinked, and only the black, feline remained, but it was Duke’s faithful gaze that stared back at her. It was that faithful gaze that returned to her a sense of comfort she hadn’t known since his death months earlier. And with her devoted Duke around, she would always be able to fly away.

Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca L. Stahl

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