by Merrilee Robson
Stealth was originally published last year in the Desperate and the Damned from Toe Six Press. You can enjoy two more of Merrilee’s short stories in Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast episodes-links and players below.
It was a small sound but enough to wake her. Enid listened, holding her body still, quietening her breath so she could hear.
What was that sound? The door, that was it, the soft snick of the latch. Someone had come in.
Maybe it was just that woman who claimed to be Sophie, her daughter. That was ridiculous, of course. Sophie was a little girl. Her face was clear in Enid’s mind. Round, apple cheeks with skin as soft as—not silk—softer than that. She couldn’t find a word soft enough to describe Sophie’s skin. Mouse-brown hair in pigtails, gap-toothed smile. A smell of baby soap.
Sometimes Enid thought the woman had something of Sophie’s smell. It confused her. That wasn’t Sophie.
But the woman was kind enough.
She listened for her steps, the sound of keys dropping on the hall table.
Enid allowed herself to breathe.
It must have been someone leaving. That woman who came to look after her. Mary? Was that her name? She had to go out sometimes. Down to the laundry room in the building’s basement. Off to the store to pick up something they needed. She’d run errands while Enid napped in the afternoon. Sometimes she met a friend at the store and stayed to chat. Enid didn’t blame her. She must be lonely, so far from home and only an old woman for company all day.
The door hadn’t quite locked; she could tell from the sound. If Mary was carrying something, and she so often was, she just let the door swing shut behind her, not bothering to pull it closed and make sure it was locked.
She heard the door open again and breathed a sigh of relief. Mary must have just nipped down to the laundry room and come back right away.
But the steps were not Mary’s quick decisive steps. They were different. Muffled, like the rubber-soled shoes Mary wore, but moving slowly and cautiously down the hall.
She could hear the person moving away, perhaps to Sophie’s room. Maybe it was the woman who called herself Sophie after all. But she always came to check on her as soon as she came home, even when Enid was napping.
Drawers opened and slid shut.
Who was it?
She wanted to call out. Mary? Sophie? But the words wouldn’t come. So often now her body wouldn’t obey her. She’d try to reach for something, a book, a cup of tea, but her hand stayed stubbornly in place.
Now all she could manage was a quiet murmur, more like breathing out than words.
Her hand moved now, brushing across the smooth surface of the rose-colored duvet cover she had thought so pretty when she bought it. She’d loved the satiny feel of it then, but now she wished she’d chosen something rougher, less slippery.
She tried to push herself upright, willing her body to behave. Tears came to her eyes when she remained where she was.
Then she saw him. He was a young man. Maybe in his twenties, although everyone looked so young to her these days. He was clean cut. None of those tattoos that looked so menacing, swirling around the bodies of young people, as if the pictures of dragons and snakes were alive. He looked respectable. Short hair, tidy clothes.
But what was he doing here? Did she know him? People often seemed to expect her to know them when she’d never seen them before.
He looked startled to see someone in the bed. Enid wanted to challenge him, to demand his business. But the look that came across his face made her close her eyes quickly and lie without moving, pretending to sleep.
She stayed still, like a small animal hiding, and listened to him moving around her room.
She could hear him scrabbling in her purse, which had been left on top of the bookshelf. She hardly ever left the apartment these days, just for her doctor or physiotherapy appointments, but she knew she had some money in there. He slid open the dresser drawers. First the top ones, where she kept her underwear, then the larger one with warm sweaters.
She remembered the Christmas morning when her husband had given it to her. The watch had a hidden clasp that left the gold band looking sleek and seamless. She had tried to put it on, but couldn’t figure out how to open the clasp. Then John had tried, moving his large fingers gently, so as not to break the delicate band. Frustration led to tears of laughter, sitting there in front of the tree, looking at the elegant bauble. It was Sophie, her little daughter, not the woman who pretended to be her, who had opened the clasp with her clever little fingers and slipped it on her mother’s wrist.
Where was Sophie now? Surely she ought to know where her little girl was. And John, for that matter. It seemed so long since she had seen him.
She looked at the man. That wasn’t John, was it? No, she was sure he was a stranger.
She thought of yelling then, telling him to stop. She wanted to grab something, a large umbrella, a rolling pin, any one of a number of things around the place that might be used to hit an intruder, chase him out the door.
But she knew she couldn’t stand on her own, couldn’t shout for help, couldn’t run away from him. So she stayed still, pretending to sleep, eyes tightly shut, although tears had started to trickle out of the corners of her eyes.
The young man left her room and then she heard the front door open and close again. Enid noticed that he had left the door closed but not quite locked, as Mary had left it.
Was he planning on coming back? He hadn’t touched her but the look on his face when he had first seen her told her he wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her. Enid’s breath started coming in rapid pants.
Then she heard the door open again.
She stopped breathing altogether until she heard Mary’s familiar footsteps.
So she was safe, or at least no longer alone. She hadn’t realized how tightly she was holding her muscles until she felt them relax.
But Mary was with someone. She could hear a man’s voice, then Mary’s laugh.
“Thank you for helping me,” she was saying in her accented English. “The laundry basket can be heavy.”
When Enid heard the man’s voice, she knew, without seeing him that it was the man who had been in her bedroom. The voice was young and should have sounded pleasant, if not for the too-smooth tone, the fake warmth. Enid thought the man’s voice matched his face, attractive enough until you saw the coldness in his eyes.
“So you look after the old lady who lives here,” he said. “How’s she doing? I heard she had Alzheimer’s or something.”
“She’s not too good,” Mary said. “She can sometimes move a little on her own. But mostly I have to help her. She’s supposed to do exercises but mostly she’s too tired.”
“But she can still talk, right?” he asked, sounding like a concerned neighbor.
“No, she just moans. She sometimes gets a word out but she doesn’t make much sense.”
“Can’t talk at all? That’s too bad,” he said. Enid could tell from the tone in his voice, trying hard to sound concerned, but not disguising his satisfaction, that Mary had given him the right answer, that she would be safe from him, at least for now.
Why did she care? She’d sometimes wished she were dead. What was the point of living like this, unable to move on her own, unable to talk? Mary sometimes helped her do exercises but what was the point?
Was it just fear of a violent death that made her glad the young man thought her mind was gone? Or did she not want to die after all?
When the woman who pretended to be Sophie came home, Enid wanted to tell her about the man who had robbed them. She struggled to say something. Sometimes she couldn’t make a sound come out and at other times she could just manage a noise that wasn’t much more than a groan. Sometimes she managed a word, but it was the wrong word, as if thrown up at random from the depths of her brain.
Now it felt like her brain and her body were wrestling. A man came into our home and robbed us, she wanted to say. “Mmmm,” was all she managed to say. Finally, one word popped out. “Man,” she said, the word sounding clear, at least to her.
Sophie looked surprised. “Did you just say ‘man’, Mum? What man?”
“Was there a man here today?”
“No,” Mary said. “No one came.”
“Man,” Enid repeated, pleased to get it out again.
“Oh, the man from across the hall helped me with the laundry basket today,” Mary said. “I thought she was still asleep but maybe she means him.”
Sophie frowned. “I don’t think you should let strangers into the apartment, Mary. It seems to have upset Mother. And I don’t like it, either.”
“He was just here a minute,” Mary said. “He saw me getting off the elevator with the laundry basket and he offered to carry it in for me. He was just being nice.” She blushed a little.
“I can’t imagine that the basket was so heavy that you couldn’t carry it,” Sophie said, sounding annoyed.
Enid wondered about that. Mary was a tiny little thing, short and skinny. Enid had always been tall. She had lost weight lately. She felt small and frail most of the time, thinking that her body was not much more than skin and bone. But when Mary supported her to help her out of bed, she could feel the weight of those solid bones. She marveled at the strength it took, not just to lift an old woman, but to travel all those miles to a strange, cold country, just to look after someone’s mother. She wasn’t sure she liked Mary exactly; she resented the need for her. But she was impressed by her, by the way she managed to appear cheerful, even as she worked so hard.
So she was dismayed when Mary left.
“I had to ask her to leave,” she heard Sophie telling their neighbor. “I found out she was stealing from us.”
“No,” Enid said, but it came out as “nuh, nuh.”
“Oh, Mum, don’t worry, we’ll find someone else. You’ll have someone to look after you.”
Sophie’s voice grew quieter. “My mother doesn’t know it, but some of her things are gone too. The gold watch my dad gave her and her engagement and wedding rings. She’d be heartbroken if she found out. I did talk to the police but I didn’t have proof that Mary had taken the things. She denied it, of course. But I had to tell the agency.”
That’s when Enid knew she had to do something.
Sophie did find someone to look after her. Joan was a large woman with dark skin as shiny as a ripe eggplant and a hearty laugh that seemed to rumble up from her depths.
“You have to help her with her exercises,” Sophie told Joan. “She doesn’t like to do them and the woman we had before didn’t try as hard as she could have. But the doctor thinks that she might be able to recover some strength.”
“I thought it was dementia,” Joan said politely. “She’s not getting better from that.”
“There’s some dementia and she had a couple of small strokes. The doctor isn’t sure if she’ll ever be able to talk properly again, but he thinks she can regain some movement. It would be better for all of us if she wasn’t totally helpless.”
So Joan worked with Enid on her exercises, moving her bony legs and arms, helping her to walk to the bathroom, to sit up in a chair for part of the day.
Enid liked her better than Mary. She felt safer with her, better able to stand with Joan’s bulk supporting her, rather than Mary’s skinny frame.
And she closed the door firmly behind her when she left the flat, leaving Enid safe behind the lock.
But the man came anyway.
Had he come to hurt her after all?
He winked at her as he walked past, heading for the balcony at the back of the flat. Apparently it was an easy jump to the neighboring balcony, where they had left the windows open on a hot summer day. Five floors up and only trusted neighbors beside them. Why wouldn’t they feel safe leaving the windows open?
And later she could hear raised voices from the apartment next door, the mother’s voice angry, the teenage daughter’s first plaintive, then shouting, then in tears.
“She says she didn’t even take the tablet to school today,” Enid heard the neighbor say to the woman who called herself Sophie. “But she must have left it there. It’s not anywhere in the apartment. It’s not so much the carelessness or the cost, although I really can’t afford to get another one. But I can’t stand her lying about it. “
Enid could hear Sophie’s soothing voice and then the neighbor’s cross voice. “She just cries and says it wasn’t her. But that iPad didn’t walk out of the apartment on its own. I’ve grounded her and she’ll stay grounded until she admits it.”
First Mary. And now this girl. Enid knew she was the girl next door, not Sophie. But she sometimes got confused, imagining the thin girl with long, coltish legs was her Sophie. Where was Sophie? She should be home from school by now. She would have homework. And she’d be hungry.
She stood up. She could walk a bit now, holding onto the walker. Her foot dragged but she made it into the kitchen. She lifted the flour canister from the counter. She would make something for Sophie to eat.
And then she was there, the woman who called herself Sophie, taking the canister from her hand and putting it back on the counter.
Didn’t she realize that Sophie would be hungry after school? She tried to tell her.
“That’s right, Mum. I’m Sophie,” the woman said, a look of pleasure on her face. She turned to Joan, who’d been cleaning the bathroom. “She’s trying to say my name. I sometimes think she doesn’t even know who I am. Maybe she is getting better.”
Joan’s doubt was written all over her face. “The exercises are helping a bit.”
Enid was so frustrated with them. There was something about Sophie. Oh, yes. She was being blamed for losing the neighbor’s tablet but the man had stolen it. She needed to tell them.
“Man,” she said forcefully. “Man.”
“What man, Mum?” the woman said. “Did someone come here today?”
“No one was here,” Joan said.
“She said that before,” Sophie said, “when one of the neighbors was here. I think it upset her.”
“I’ve been here all day and no one came,” Joan said kindly. “You know, sometimes people with dementia, they can get a little paranoid, imagine things. They can be afraid.”
“Oh, do you think that’s it. I hope not. My poor mother. That would be terrible.”
The man was real, Enid thought later at night. Mary had seen him.
But was it the same man? No one else had seen him come in. Had she imagined him?
No. He stole things. That’s how she knew he was real. Things were gone.
But she remembered Sophie saying that Mary had stolen, the mother next door saying her daughter had lied.
There must be some proof that the man was real, Enid thought. She knew he was real. He must have left fingerprints or something, marks on the carpet from his big feet.
If the man wasn’t real, he wouldn’t leave footprints.
But if he was real…
He wasn’t just in her imagination.
Whether he was real or not, she knew he would come again.
And she wanted to stop him.
It was the flour that gave her the idea.
Joan had moved the canister to the front of the counter. She must have been planning on baking something.
When Joan went down to the laundry room, Enid carefully moved her walker near her and used it to stand up from her chair.
The next part was harder. She slid the canister to the edge of the counter and then lifted it onto the flat seat of the walker. She almost dropped it but managed to catch it and balance it in place.
It almost fell again when she pulled the lid off, but she shoved it back in place.
The flour sifter was on the counter too.
And the balcony door was open.
She wheeled her walker over to the door and outside. Her foot still dragged but she didn’t fall. The exercises were helping.
The flour sifter fit into her hand in a familiar way. Spooning the flour into it was hard. But when she grabbed the wooden handle of the crank and started to turn it felt so right, so familiar.
She settled for waving the sifter around the balcony, letting the flour drift around, gradually pulling the walker back towards the kitchen.
There were some clumps but mostly there were just fine patches of flour on the weathered grey of the balcony deck. Patches that didn’t show too much it you weren’t looking for them.
She had to back up slowly, careful not to run the walker through flour she had scattered.
She was back in the kitchen when Joan returned. She’d been trying to put the canister back on the counter but Joan didn’t know that.
“Oh, Mrs. Enid you don’t need to be bothering with that,” Joan said. “Joan’s going to make you a cake. That’s what I’m here for. You come sit in your chair and I’ll bring you some cake when it’s ready.” She helped Enid back to her chair. “Oh, look. You’ve got flour all over your pretty dress. Let me just clean that up.”
Don’t let her look at the balcony, Enid prayed. She couldn’t stand the thought that Joan might briskly sweep up all her hard work the way she was cleaning up the flour Enid had spilled on the kitchen floor.
She didn’t notice and neither did the man when he came the next day, breezing in when Joan was out doing the shopping.
She stayed still in her bed, listening for an angry shout but all she heard was a thump and then a muffled curse, as if his foot had slipped a bit when he tried to jump to the balcony next door.
Then the woman who called herself Sophie was home, her voice high with excitement.
“Joan, I just found out we’ve had a thief living in the building.”
She heard Joan’s cluck of dismay.
“No, it’s good news. They caught him. Apparently the people next door came home to find their laptop and some jewelry missing. But there was this clear footprint in the middle of their hall and then smudges leading to the apartment across from them.
“So police checked that apartment and found their missing stuff and the guy’s shoes with some kind of powder or dust on them. Isn’t that lucky?”
“So he’s going to jail?” Joan asked.
“Yes, they’ve arrested him. I don’t imagine he’ll get much jail time, if any, but the building manager says he’s going to evict him.”
“And the best news is they found Mum’s watch. Not her rings but she’ll get her watch back. She probably won’t ever have to find out it was missing.”
Enid lay in bed, listening to their voices. “Man,” she whispered to herself.
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