Thursday, January 25, 2007

Distorted Reflections

A rake had been left in the yard. It was just around the corner on the side of the house, hidden in the long grass, so that no one who happened to be walking through the yard could have noticed it before they stepped on it. The rake was at the front corner of the house, and a manual lawnmower—the kind that was powered solely by the person pushing it—was at the back corner. It had been left sideways in the narrow path that connected the front yard to the back.

Inside the house, she was watching television while she waited for her cookies to finish baking. The only programs on were men talking about sports, movies that no one had wanted to watch even when they were new, and people who wanted to sell things. The local news would be coming on soon, but all they talked about these days was the burglar who had been seen in numerous neighborhoods all across the town, and she had heard all she wanted to hear about him. She was currently watching a woman move a whisper-quiet vacuum cleaner across a square of carpet that had apparently been brought into the studio just for this segment. The woman was demonstrating that with this model, you could pick up rows of inch-long nails from the carpet without disturbing your husband’s football game.

Three complete outfits were lying on her couch. The tops and blouses were on the back cushions, and the skirts and slacks were on the bottom cushions. It almost looked like three were people sitting there. She took off the outfit she had been considering and threw it onto the pile in the corner of the room. Standing in the living room wearing only her underwear, she picked up the next option from the couch and tried it on.

She should have been doing this in the bathroom or her bedroom, because there were mirrors in those rooms, but she could not hear the oven timer from there and so she had compromised by bringing her wardrobe into the living room. With the lights in the room turned on and the darkness outside, the windows reflected enough for her to be able to decide whether a particular outfit was the one she should wear. She knew the reflections the windows gave were distorted, but she had decided she would have to live with that.

The oven timer went off before she had a chance to button her shirt, so with the ends of it flapping behind her, she went into the kitchen and took out the cookies. They were oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that she had made from a recipe she found in a magazine. She did not normally eat oatmeal, much less oatmeal cookies, but she had decided to try them tonight. She set them on the counter to cool and went back to look at herself in the window. She had buttoned her shirt and fixed the collar by the time she returned to the living room.

She did not especially like the way she looked in the window—she had never liked looking at herself in mirrors—but the shirt fit her well, and with the top two buttons undone, she thought she looked as good as she could. Only one of the pairs of shoes she had brought down matched the skirt she had on, so she did not even have to make a decision about that. After only a brief consideration, she decided to wear a necklace.

The cookies had cooled by now, so she put them on a plate, grabbed a chair from the kitchen table with her spare hand, and went to the front door. She had to put both items down—first the chair and then the plate on top of it—in order to be able to open the door, and because the screen door closed automatically unless it was propped open, she had to hold it open with her foot while she grabbed the chair and placed it on the porch. Now all she had to do was wait.

As she had on previous nights, she rested her back against the door and hoped she would not have to eat all of the cookies by herself. Even though they were different from what she normally made, they were good cookies—she tasted one to confirm their quality—and under different circumstances she would have eaten them gladly, even factoring in the extra workout time it would take her to burn off their calories. But that was not why she had baked them.

One of the dogs from the corner house started barking at a car, but when she saw that the car was driving past her street, she put her head back against the door. A few minutes later, the married couple who had moved next door in a few months ago jogged past. She had talked to them several times, and they had even invited her over for dinner once, but she had made up an excuse and told them she would not be able to come. She was glad the porch light was turned off and they could not see her.

Just as she was getting ready to go inside for the night, she heard a noise from the back of the house. She froze and strained to make sure that she was hearing was finally what she wanted to hear. After another few seconds it was unmistakable: Someone had moved the lawnmower out of the way and was now coming up the side of the house. She heard him reaching, searching for a window that might have been left unlocked, and she smiled, knowing that he would not find one. He would have to come around to the front of the house.

His steps were slow and cautious—it was obvious he knew what he was doing—but she allowed herself to hope. She could almost see him now, and she could have watched the entire scene if she had stood up, but she did not want to risk anything yet. Finally her patience was rewarded: He stepped on the tine end of the rake, and the handle flew up and hit him. She waited until he had landed on the ground before she moved.

He was dazed but not unconscious. Fortunately, he was able to stand up and walk by himself—she needed only to guide him to the porch. He was a large man, dressed entirely in black and with a black ski mask over his face. Though he had been startled by the rake hitting him, he retained enough of his senses to pull off the mask before they reached the porch.

“Are you all right?” she asked. She turned on the light and sat down.

The plate of cookies was now between them. He looked at them, and then at her, and said, “I think so. I’m just a little startled, is all. I’m sorry to be walking through your yard at night like that, but I was on my way home from work—I’m on second shift at the factory down the road—and I figured I’d just cut through a few yards and save me a few minutes on my trip. I’m sorry if I scared you.”

“You didn’t scare me at all. I was already out on the porch when I heard you. Some nights, I just like to sit out here and listen to the night. And tonight, I was in a baking mood, so I made some cookies to have while I sat out here. Would you like one? They’re oatmeal chocolate chip.”

“How long ago did you say they came out?”

“I didn’t, but it’s only been a few minutes. Go ahead and have one.”

She handed him a cookie in such a way that he had to touch her hand when he took it.

“So you just decided to bake cookies in the middle of the night? I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m prying, but that seems a little strange to me.”

“Well, I’m actually like you. What I mean is that I work second shift too, so I just got off work a little while ago.”

“Really? Where do you work?”

“At this little bakery on the other side of town. You probably wouldn’t have heard of it. It’s late when I’m there, of course, so I don’t actually make the bread or anything. I just organize the orders and get everything ready for the girls who come in for the morning shift.”

“So do you work with dough and flour at all?” He bit off a piece of the cookie. “’Cause you’ve certainly learned your skills from somewhere.”

“Actually, I don’t get to touch much of anything when I’m at work. I guess that’s why I get in these baking moods when I come home sometimes. You’re just lucky you came by on a night when I was in the mood. If you like them, that is.”

“Oh, they’re good cookies, all right. I’ve always liked oatmeal, too. It adds a nice texture. It’s just that I’m a little surprised they make you wear those fancy clothes when you’re at the bakery.”

“What? Oh, no, this isn’t what I wear to work. It’s just that one of my friends is coming in to see me tonight, and we’d talked about going out when she gets here, so I wanted to be ready for her when she comes.”

“Got it. When’s she supposed to come in?”


“Your friend. The one you said is coming to visit you. When’s she going to be here?”

“In a while. Why do you ask?”

“It’s just that I didn’t want to keep you here or anything. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on going out with your friend because you thought you had to take care of me or something. I’m really not that bad. It’s just that it was a shock, that’s all.”

She handed him another cookie. “Now that I think about it, she might not be coming at all tonight. She mentioned something about that. She’s driving in, and she said that if she was too tired to make it all the way here, she’d probably end up getting a hotel room somewhere. So there’s no hurry. You can stay as long as you need to.”

“This sure is a big house you’ve got here,” he said, looking around at the porch and the windows. “Do you live here all by yourself?”

“Not until two years ago. I wouldn’t have gotten to keep it, but my ex-husband’s lawyer just wasn’t as good as mine.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear you’re divorced.”

“Don’t be. I saw it coming way before he actually said anything, and I’m glad it’s over. I’m really better off alone.”

“But doesn’t it ever get lonely, living in this big place all by yourself? I’m sure you could rent out part of it if you wanted to, make it into an apartment.”

“I’ve thought of that, but actually, with all the stuff I still have here, there isn’t much room. I had a really good lawyer.”

Neither one looked at the other while they tried to think of something more to say. He tensed and ducked down a little when a car drove by, but she did not notice.

“I thought that might have been your friend,” he said. “Did she say how late she might be?”

“No, she didn’t, actually. I’m not sure when she might show up.”

“Do you think you might want to call her? I mean, you don’t want to wait out here all night, do you?”

“It’s a nice night, so I wouldn’t mind staying out here a little longer. Don’t feel like you need to stay here with me or anything. I like having someone to talk to while I wait, of course, but I’ve got plenty of cookies left, and I’m fine with just sitting here. But I forgot what you said. I’m sorry. You were in a hurry to get home.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You said you were going through my yard because it was going to be faster. I figured that meant you were in a hurry.”

“Well, I can see how you’d take it that way, but what I really meant was that I don’t like walking around town at night. It can be dangerous out there, you know.”

“Oh. So know that you’re here, you not in a hurry anymore?”

“Not at all. Could I have another cookie?”

She let him see that she was smiling. “You know what I just realized?”

“No, I don’t, actually.”

“We still don’t know each other’s names. We’ve been sitting here, eating cookies and talking, but we never introduced ourselves.”

“Call me Jacob,” he said. “Who are you?”


“That’s a pretty name. But you know what? I can’t stop thinking about that friend of yours. Don’t you think you should maybe go inside and call her?”

“I guess I could, just to make sure she’s okay.”

She did not know if he would follow her inside and so did not look to see if he was. She would have been too disappointed, now, if she looked and did not see what she wanted to see.

His steps were silent behind her as she went to the phone. She turned sideways to pick up the receiver and saw him out of the corner of her eye, just before he swung and hit her. The cordless receiver landed on the floor a second after she did, its batteries spilling from the back of it.

“Now, where’s your most valuable stuff, stuff like that necklace you’ve got on? I’m not interested in the cheap crap. Just tell me what I want to know and I won’t hurt you.”

“Upstairs, the first door on the right. That’s my jewelry room. I’ve been collecting jewelry for years. There are diamonds and pearls, and there’s even some gold, too. That’s where should go.”

He tied her hands and feet together with a rope he had in his back pocket. His hands had felt cold at first, but they warmed against her skin as they worked the knots. He was breathing hard now and he blew air over her neck and into one of her ears. The knots were tight and she could not have gotten away if she had wanted to.

She listened while he banged open the door that had never been locked and began searching the jewelry room. She could hear his hands working quickly: He sorted through her necklaces, rings, and other valuable trinkets, putting the ones that were worth money into his pockets and throwing the others on the floor. Some of the least valuable pieces were the most precious to her, because she could remember why those had been given to her and who had told her she was pretty when she had received them. Now he was throwing those on the floor and breaking them.

He paused in the doorway on his way out. He told her, “My name isn’t Jacob.”

“Are you leaving right away?” she asked.

He was already gone when she started to wonder how long it would be before someone found her and untied her. She had to smile when she thought that someone would do that for her.

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