Water dripped from the spout, tapping the stone pavement loudly as it crashed onto its hard surface and broke apart into hundreds of tiny droplets. The tap-tap-tap repeated itself at a faster pace as the drizzle from the sky turned into a light rain. Across the streets, umbrellas popped open and waterproof coats were wrapped around human bodies. Even some dogs on leashes were wearing impermeable jackets. Cars roaring in the street splashed muddy water onto unsuspecting passers-bys. It was the usual English afternoon, dark and dreary and cloudy. All that remained was for the fog to envelope the mortals below in blindness and for the wind to beat against windows and doors, knocking out nests on its way to the human abodes. Yellow rubber wellies squelched and squeaked. Puddles were avoided or deliberately jumped into by children. It was a great afternoon to be outside.
A red umbrella popped open. Beneath it, a figure in a trench coat walked lightly on the pavement, silent as a cat and almost passing unseen if it weren’t for the umbrella clearly marking her location (and her phone, which she had left at home for obvious reasons). Across the street, a yellow umbrella sprang up like a mushroom. The person beneath it also wore a trench coat. A subtle glance was exchanged by the two humans, lasting only a couple of seconds yet speaking a thousand words. They kept walking in opposite directions until the red umbrella owner turned right and got trapped in a dead-end street. There, she took out a key hanging from a pink key chain and jammed it into one of the doors leading into a small brick house. It twisted and turned and few seconds passed between her entering and slamming the door shut behind her back. The bright red umbrella was deflated into its resting position and left in a cylinder at the entrance. The woman sighed loudly, exhaling all the tension out of her lungs. It was over. She didn’t know the man in the yellow umbrella that well, she told herself. He was just a strange person that had suddenly appeared in their neighbourhood. Their communication methods were strange, for sure, but his whole existence was stranger still.
She locked the front door – just in case, you never know if a stalker is following you. Women have got to be careful! She removed her trench coat and hung it on a rickety plastic clothes drier in the kitchen, then removed the wet mini boots from her aching feet and rushed up the stairs to fling herself onto bed. It was over. The house was so warm thanks to the heating that she kept on in the autumn and winter, higher than the temperature outside which was icy cold. She wriggled under her duvet and laughed heartily at the joy of being stuck under a cover and comfortable without a single human to berate her for taking her body to bed at this time of day.
The clock beside her ticked away, the long arm running a full circle as she slept undisturbed in her tiny bed. The short hand of the clock moved slightly from five to six. She was woken up by a notification on her phone, which she had left on her bedside table to charge. It was that loud ping that signalled that a maybe-important message had arrived. Unwillingly, she stretched her arms across the bed and picked up the device. Emails, texts, news, more posts... She didn’t have time for this! She was meant to be dozing peacefully as the rain tapped gently on her windows and the splashes outside like rushing waves lulled her to sleep. She checked her inbox again. Oh dear. “Allie is gone. We can’t find her. Her family is worried.”
It was Evelyn. She worried about everyone’s safety. No neighbourhood is safe, ever. Now Allie had disappeared and she would have to look for her. This wasn’t good. She trembled, her backbone tingling and skin shivering violently.
She texted Evelyn.
“Who saw her last? Where was she and how many hours ago did she disappear?”
“Her husband saw her leaving – she said she was going to buy bread and milk. That was 10 hours ago. She hasn’t replied anyone’s messages. She’s a fast texter, you know. Her car was found parked outside the supermarket. They’re going to check the security cameras. Everyone is worried.”
Of course everyone was worried. After Sara disappeared a month ago, everyone had become fidgety. Any disappearance was a cause for concern. They still hadn’t retrieved Sara. She was still missing. And now Allie.
“Okay. Stay calm. Have you called the police?”
“Yes, they’re on their way. I’m worried sick. Allie has her children at school! The teachers called home because no one went to pick up Robbie and Mary. What if something happened to her?”
“Just keep cool for the moment. Ask around and look at her car from outside, but don’t touch anything.”
Sigh. An exasperated sigh.
“Cat, you didn’t see Allie today, did you?”
“No, haven’t seen her in all day.”
She rolled off the bed and covered her shoulders with a soft pink blanket. Her eyelashes wiped tears of stress from her eyes as she blinked slowly. Why now? Evelyn was probably sick with worry – she tended to literally get nauseous and throw up when she was stressed. Sighing again, Caterina made her way towards the living room and threw herself on the sofa. The rain drops splattered against the window panes. Water dribbled down the glass and piled into little puddles on every side of the house. It was eerily peaceful, like a storm crackling above a tempestuous sea that you watch from the safety of the shore.
The odd man with the yellow umbrella had appeared a month ago. He had just moved into the house adjacent to hers. They were neighbours, she felt herself forced to admit. She didn’t want to be associated with such a suspiciously strange person, but what was done was done. He was there to stay – for the moment.
Caterina listened to the rhythmic tapping of the rain outside, in hopes of calming her nerves. Her tingling skin and sweaty brow felt cold. Even with the heating on, the icy air had seeped into her bones.
The darkness of the evening poured a shadow over her heart. All was still in her small house, occupied by her and no one else. If someone had tried to steal her from her living room, they’d certainly succeed in doing so without getting caught. She was alone there. Suddenly, her phone buzzed. It was a text message.
“Hey” the message said.
“Hey. You are?” She didn’t have the number saved in her agenda. It ended in 670. No one she knew.
“Mark. Your neighbour.”
“Oh. Hey. How are you doing?”
“Good. Hey – are you okay? If you need a tea and a chat you can come over. It’s not great to be alone.”
Caterina’s heart bounded at full speed. If this wasn’t an invitation for trouble, then could this really be well-intentioned? And how had he obtained her phone number?
“What colour is my umbrella?” she wrote.
“Yes! So you’ve noticed me.”
So it was him – the man with the yellow umbrella – for sure. She was so going missing tonight. He knew where she lived, who she was, and had her phone number. Caterina sprang up from the sofa and drew all the curtains. It was pitch black inside; she turned the lights on and checked that all the doors were properly locked. All was good.
Allie wasn’t coming back. Sara hadn’t, so why should she? Now she might disappear. Text Evelyn! But no, she was already crippled with anxiety as was, why disturb her? And Evelyn would probably call the police on a potentially innocent and kind human being. Who knew what his intentions were? Perhaps he really meant to be nice. Did he know that Allie had disappeared? Allison Belton. Did he know her? Her phone buzzed again.
It was Chris.
“So, are you up for a tea?”
“Maybe next time.”
“Okay. I’m here if you need me.”
Caterina’s teeth were chattering. Oh god, this was it.
Not knowing why, she scribbled a note on a fluorescent magenta post-it. I’m at home. It’s 6:23. Alone. Evelyn, I’m okay. I’m not missing – yet. She stuck the note to her fridge door and exhaled deeply.
That was enough information for anyone searching her. If she went missing in the middle of the night, whoever searched her the following day would find the post-it. Given that the kidnapper didn’t take the post-it with them.
Caterina decided it was time to calm down and nap again. She went up the staircase and shuffled into the bathroom. There, she brushed her teeth furiously until they felt clean enough and flossed the spaces between them until her guns bled. She was that nervous.
Back in bed, all she could think of was the wind whistling and the crows chatting in the trees. It was all too ominous. Such an Edgar A. Poe night. The floorboards creaked. They always did when air ran into the house through the cracks in the walls and the spaces around the windows and doors. Now it was scary. Caterina shuddered uncontrollably. This was it. Take me. She didn’t remember feeling this scared since her mother had almost died in a car crash. This fear was too real.
The floorboards whined loudly. The creaking noise got louder and louder. Her heart leapt into her mouth, ready to run out at light speed. Caterina clutched the sides of her duvet, hiding her face below it, just keeping her eyes out for any intruders. The door opened, silently, slowly, far too slowly. Caterina felt tears streaming down her cheeks.
The door kept turning on its hinges. A shadow of a human grew from the doorway. Caterina jumped, startled by the figure, and screeched like an owl. She hoped that by screaming she would catch the attention of anyone passing by her neighbourhood. A hand caught her mouth and hurried hushed begged her to quiet down. Caterina stared up into the large blue eyes and gasped.
“It’s me,” the female voice whispered. The hands came off Caterina’s mouth, who had fallen dead silent.
“Yes. Keep me safe.”
“What? Everyone’s been looking for you! What’s going on?”
“I’m running away from my husband. It’s over. He’s... Gotten worse.”
“Did he abuse you? What about your children? Are you going to leave them with him?”
“He won’t hurt them. They’re his children as well. But I’m out. Help me escape from here. I need you.”
“So, you weren’t kidnapped... Oh my god, did someone see you coming here?”
“No one. Look, I can’t stay. It’s over.”
Allie revealed a bruise on her forehead, hidden beneath the fringe of honey brown which she now raised. On her knees were deep cuts and her arms were covered in blues.
“That’s not the worst part,” Allie said. “The psychological abuse, now that I couldn’t stand anymore. Hit me, stone me, burn me, but never control my life. I’ve been contacting all the women’s support groups but no one has the guts to help me. That’s why I came here. You aren’t as annoying and ingenuous as Evelyn. She’ll believe anything my husband tells her.”
“She said you were going out for bread and milk, according to your husband.”
“I ran out the window. He was furious because we ran out of milk for his creamy cappuccino.”
“Oh... Are you okay? Well, no, you aren’t, otherwise you wouldn’t have run away. Okay, this is going to be complicated. Let’s sleep, I’ll come up with something tomorrow morning.”
Caterina was tired. This was too much. She loved Allie as a close friend, and this revelation hurt her. She felt guilty for not having realize what had been happening to her earlier on. Rumours had trickled through of her husband being quite stern with her, but no one really knew that she had been getting abused.
They slept in the skinny bed, huddled under the duvet. Allison whimpered in her dreams, hugging Caterina tightly as she did so. The closeness reminded Caterina of herself when she slept with her mother as a child, holding onto her hand when a nightmare plagued her mind in the dark. She hadn’t felt this comfortable next to another human being in years. It was like having a little sister. The warmth of her arms wrapped around her slim body was welcoming. Poor Allison, she thought, how could she not have known about that? How many beatings had she endured?
Caterina finally fell asleep at three in the morning. Her head was heavy on the pillow. Ink splashes and hands invaded her dreamscape. They were grabbing her throat, squeezing her trachea, wandering about her dark mind. The black ink stained her skin until she blended with the background. She tried to scream, but nothing came out of her throat. She was choking on a hand. Caterina shook her head wildly, mouthing “STOP” as the hands crawled over her like insects.
In the morning, a hand brushed over her face. “Allie?”
“You’re awake. Let’s go.”
Where? She didn’t dare ask. The rain was beating against the window panes, harder than the day before. What was Allison up to?
Allie took her hand and pulled her towards the front door. She unlocked the front door.
“You?” Caterina exclaimed.
From below the yellow umbrella a grinning face lit up. It was the strange man, her neighbour.
“Ready to go?”
“Where are you going? Allie?”
“I’m going to disappear for a while. Like Sara.”
Caterina turned to face the grinning man.
“Is this what you do? Do you make women go missing?”
“I send them to a safe place. I work for a sort of... Women’s support group. You wouldn’t suspect a man would be assisting women in need, would you?”
“No, I would think you were kidnapping them and throwing them in your attic or cellar to rot.”
“Don’t worry, this is legal and real. Let’s go.”
Allison followed him into a black car. Caterina fell back onto the hard floor, shocked. The man with the yellow umbrella was helping women escape? Her backside had hit the ground so hard it now hurt a lot.