It was almost three o’clock in the morning when something woke Leah up. She stayed in bed for a few groggy minutes, warm beneath the familiar blankets. For the last three days, an enormous rain storm had been falling on the island of Kauai, bringing an unusual chill along with it. The rain smacked against the windowpanes relentlessly. Leah had grown used to its noise. So it was something else that had disturbed her, and she knew she’d never get back to sleep until she figured out exactly what it was. With a reluctant sigh, she sat up in bed and looked around.
Her bedroom was filled with strange shadows and a stark light she hadn’t recognized right away. The new security light Aidan, her brother-in-law, had put in for her just before the storm. Nobody had come by, and Leah had done a thorough job of making sure she had enough supplies to last out the bad weather. She’d never seen it switch on at night before. It was probably the wind pushing something into the garden that had triggered it. The system was supposed to shut itself off after three minutes. She wondered how long she’d been awake, and watched the clock tick one minute after another.
Four, then five.
The light stayed on.
Aidan wasn’t known for his amazing skills at electrical installation. Under normal circumstances, Leah would have insisted on hiring a professional, but she didn’t really see the point of having the security to begin with. She’d only agreed to it to make her sister happy. There weren’t many dangers in rural parts of the island, unless you were afraid of having to listen to hippies talk about carving gourds. Leah’s nearest neighbours were a fifteen minute drive away, and that’s how she liked it. She didn’t even have a paved driveway. Who, she wondered, would bother to go all the way out to her place to commit a crime? It was smarter to head to the coast and wreck up the big town.
She cursed and grumbled as she got out of bed, shivering in her shorts and long-sleeved tee. It was even colder than she thought it would be. The floor was like ice beneath her bare feet. She stepped quick and lightly to the window, hugging herself for warmth, and tried to crane her head to see where the security light was mounted. The rain was making a mess of her view, coming down in thick streaks that made the outside world look like it was twisting around in a crystal decanter.
A shape moved at the corner of her eye. Her heart pounded for a second or two, then calmed as she looked into her driveway. Standing a little ways to the side of her car was a figure. It looked like a girl with bright red hair, pinned up in the style of a surf bunny from the days of Frankie and Annette. She was wearing a long, floral print dress and standing right in the middle of the pouring rain. She was too far away and the weather was too bad for Leah to make out her features. As she watched, the girl in the driveway looked right up at the bedroom window and waved. A slow, robotic hello.
The tiny hairs on Leah’s arms stood up, and she ducked away from the window. She took a few deep breaths.
Fine. The girl was there because her car had broken down, or she had some other kind of trouble. And she knew that somebody was home because Leah’s car was right there beside her, or maybe she assumed that somebody had manually turned the outside light on. But how could she have known exactly where Leah was? The room was dark, the security light was too bright and distracting, and there were other windows on the second floor. How had she known exactly which one Leah was standing at?
Calming herself, telling herself there was probably an innocent explanation for it all, Leah glanced out the window again. The girl was still there. Waiting. She looked young and delicate, like a teenager. There were all kinds of warnings and emergency procedures being declared because of the storm, and two of the nearby roads were flooded. Leah knew she’d never forgive herself if that girl was in need of help and she left her stranded. Shaking the doubts from her mind, Leah decided to make her way downstairs.
She tried not to think of the girl’s eerie wave. She tried to rationalize the strangeness of the shadows. Both the car and the small palm tree had cast long, deep shadows from the stark white light on top of the lanai. The girl didn’t have any shadow at all. But that could have been something to do with the angle, or a trick of the rain. The weather had blurred so many details, it was hard for Leah to be sure of anything she saw.
Just as her foot touched the bottom stair, the sound of the knock filled the house. A rhythmic slamming against the front door, in no way gentle or persuasive. It was loud, startlingly so, and strangely hollow. An angry demand very unlike the way Leah would have expected the girl she saw to knock. She tried to tell herself that her nerves were skewing things, making her edgy when there was no need to be. Maybe it had been a loud knock because the girl was feeling desperate, wanted to be sure that the people inside heard her. But then, why hadn’t she used the doorbell instead? Maybe there was someone else with her, and Leah simply hadn’t been able to see them from the window.
That changed things. That was a rational concern. What if there was a boyfriend? Someone big, strong and threatening.
Leah hurried into the kitchen and got herself a knife. Nothing big or menacing like one of the butcher’s knives on the posters for horror movies, just a small paring knife. Very sharp. The kind of thing that was guaranteed to hurt a man if you wanted him hurt, or stop him if he needed stopping. For the first time since moving out of the city, she regretted the seclusion she’d chosen. She’d take all the airplane flyovers, traffic noise and petty crime in the world to feel less vulnerable. The knock sounded again, with such urgency that Leah could feel the vibrations of it inside her bones.
She made herself think of flooded roads, stranded people, medical emergencies. With the knife at her side, she went to her front door and stood with her hand resting on the knob. Part of her was screaming to forget it, to go back upstairs and lock herself in her room until morning, but she couldn’t. In a quick, defiant motion, she swung the front door open and looked out into the pouring rain. No one was there.
“Hello?” Leah called, stepping carefully onto the lanai. “Is somebody out here? Do you need help?”
She made her way forward very carefully, adjusting her grip on the knife handle. The rain was fierce and deafening, cold splashes of it coiling around her naked ankles like ocean spray. Everything smelled drowned and muddy. There was no sign of anyone, not even a set of footprints in the softened earth of the driveway. Leah stepped to the very edge of the outside steps and took one last look around.
“I’m going back inside.” She called, her voice quivering more than she would have liked.
As she turned, the front door slammed shut and shook the floor of the lanai. The security light snapped off so quickly, it was as if the bulb had suddenly burnt out. Leah sprang towards the closed door and twisted frantically at the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Impossible. The only way to lock the door was from the outside. She hadn’t even had a deadbolt put in.
Finally, the door relented and swung open as though there hadn’t been any resistance at all. Leah dashed inside and slammed it shut behind her.
The house felt empty and full at the same time. The greyness of the rainy night settled on the familiar rooms in front of her like a layer of dust. She knew that the house had to be searched. Somebody could have been hiding close to the wall and ducked in when she was looking at the driveway. It took her a few moments, standing in the empty front room with the soft drumbeat of the rain mingling with the pounding of her heart, before she felt bold enough to do it.
When she found no one, she began to relax. She ended the search in the kitchen, and decided to pour herself a glass of water and check her phone. Just to be safe, she’d send a message to her sister. Nothing to worry her, just something to let her know about the girl in the driveway. She put the paring knife down on the counter and picked up her phone. No bars and no wifi. The storm had been upsetting service on and off for the last few days. Leah tried not think of it as isolation. It was just a nuisance. Her imagination was playing tricks on her. When morning came, she would laugh at herself and spend another cozy day curled up and watching whatever was saved on the DVR.
A razor-thin breeze whistled by her ear when she went to get a glass from the cupboard. There was a sound like nothing she’d heard before. A sharp, reverberating thud. Something had hit the cupboard door while she held it open. Slowly, nervously, she closed it to see what it had been. The paring knife was sticking out of the door, as though it had been thrown.
Leah turned. The kitchen was bright, well-lit, and empty. She grabbed the phone off the counter, and hurried upstairs to the bedroom. She would throw on some flip-flops and proper clothes, grab her keys, and get the hell out. The goat ranch up the road was owned by two very friendly retirees, she was certain that they would help her. There was no guarantee that the roads would be clear, probably covered in water and debris, maybe even a fallen tree, some parts too muddy to drive on, but she had to try.
Her feet almost slipped on the hardwood stairs as she hurried to change. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel like she wasn’t driving through a rain storm in her underwear. She grabbed a pair of jeans off the closet floor and pulled them on, her back to the window. As she did, the room filled with the pale white light that had woken her up less than an hour before. The security light, coming to life once more. She didn’t want to turn around and look out the window, but she made her body move to where she could look out and see.
There was no redheaded girl, but the light stayed on.
Calmly, Leah slipped on her flip-flops and headed into the hall. She breathed steadily, stepped carefully. The house was colder than it should have been at the top of the stairs. The smell of rain and boggy, wet earth was pungent and overwhelming. Leah swallowed hard, steadied herself. It would be a difficult drive to the neighbour’s – she wouldn’t make it if she was in a panic. But when she got to the middle of the staircase, she couldn’t control the surge of dread that overtook her. The front door was wide open.
The security light caught the falling rain, casting patterned shadows on the floor. Leah braced herself and headed straight for the door. She would run right for the car and jump in, without any kind of hesitation. She made for the lanai, but something at the corner of her eye, in the dust grey shadows of the living room, moved. Leah froze. She couldn’t help herself. She turned to look.
The redheaded girl was standing there, her head tilted to one side. This close, Leah could notice things she hadn’t been able to see from the upstairs window. Like the black dirt under the girl’s fingernails, the disarray of the orderly hairstyle, the rips and stains on the long floral dress.
“I’m sorry,” The girl looked over her shoulder, as though she were expecting someone else to step out of the shadows behind her.
The security light switched off.