Chris sat up with a sudden jolt. A shriek faintly resonated in his ears. But even before he could acknowledge it, the echo died out. Although his eyes were wide open, he could hardly see a thing. He sat swallowed up by sheer and complete darkness, trying hard to focus his hazy mind. (Where am I?)
His heart pulsated feverishly against his ribcage. It felt as if he had just run a marathon against his worst rival, and lost. The prickly parchedness in his throat made him more uncomfortable than the beads of perspiration on his forehead. He tried to swallow his saliva, but his mouth was equally dry. (Water!) He needed water.
(Where the hell am I?) He looked around for clues, but the darkness offered none. Groping about with both his hands, he caught hold of some soft fabric and gave it a tug. His mind was about to examine the fabric, when it was abruptly wrenched out of his hands. He jumped with a short, loud cry, which drove a splitting pain through his thirsty throat, almost making him cough. Then he sensed the languid, quiet movement, close by.
"Uhmm... Chris," she mumbled, "what are you doing?" Her voice was extremely drowsy.
(Lisa!) In a flash, it all came back to him. He was in bed. He was in her house, in her bed, with her. No wonder it was so dark and stuffy! Lisa would never allow otherwise. She could not sleep if there was even a hint of light in the room; she needed complete darkness.
The imported curtains in her bedroom were perhaps the most expensive of all her material possessions. Her friends teased that even the twinkling light from the faintest star could keep her up all night, tossing and turning in bed. Before retiring to bed, Lisa ensured that the windows were shut, and that the impenetrable curtains were down.
He whispered hesitantly, "I think I heard a little girl scream." But he was still skeptical about it. His reputation allowed that nobody could wake him up even by blowing a saxophone hard in his ear. No one could scream that loud.
"You must have been dreaming." Lisa whispered melodiously. "I didn’t hear a thing."
"Yeah," he knew that she was right. Wiping the perspiration on his forehead with his palm, he felt his heartbeat begin to calm down. He tentatively stretched his hands out in the direction of the bedside light. Finding it, he switched it on, and the room was flushed with yellow light.
"Go back to sleep." Lisa winced at the sudden brightness. "You know tomorrow will be hectic."
The day would indeed be hectic. The consulting firm that Chris worked for had finally given him an opportunity to deliver a sales presentation to one of their potential clients. An effective delivery would secure long-term business relationships with the client, and would generate transactions of high value for their firm. Everybody in the firm had invested great hopes on Chris. He had worked hard on the presentation for over a month.
"Water..." was all he could say as he got out of bed and walked shakily toward the bottle on the table.
Lisa rolled over and pulled up the blanket over her head, hiding from the glow of the light.
Working together for almost a year, Chris and Lisa had become very good friends. When she had first learnt that he had been chosen for the presentation, she had been very excited. She had eagerly rushed into his cabin and heartily congratulated him, and had vigorously shaken his hand.
She had lent him an enthusiastic helping hand while collecting the necessary and relevant information. She had invited Chris over to her house when he had trouble classifying and organizing data, or when he needed to clarify any figures. Lisa had even assisted him while writing and rewriting drafts, drawing charts, preparing slides, and rehearsing the discourse.
Chris reached for the bottle. He saw his presentation papers sprawled across the table. He was confident that he would execute it well. Everything was ready, and he was well prepared. There was still one more day to go, which he would utilize for his final rehearsals. Chris had already scheduled a mock presentation, which he would deliver to a few of his colleagues. Their questions and feedback would help him with the final coat of gloss.
As he guzzled mouthfuls of water, he mentally encouraged himself. He would surpass the expectations of all his colleagues. He might probably even earn that highly anticipated promotion. His boss would be proud of him! Lisa would be proud of him! His wife... would... The thought died away.
One of those days - when Chris had been working late into the evening at Lisa’s house – Cupid had attacked them with potent arrows. And they had fallen together on her bed. After the first time, while under a spell of guilt, they had solemnly sworn to each other that they would never repeat the mistake, and that they would keep their relationship strictly official. But the naked, winged, Roman boy archer had been very persuasive, and they had gone to bed together on four different occasions since then.
Would his wife, Carla be proud of him? He looked at Lisa. Carla had never met her. She only knew that Lisa was his colleague and friend. Carla had always wished him only the best. She had given him enough space. But what had he done? He had gone and betrayed her trust. Carla did not know that in the last one month, Chris had regularly been to Lisa’s house, and that he had slept with her. Carla, if she only knew, would never be proud of him.
(But she will not know! Who will tell her?) He pushed the worry away. Now was not the time to bother about morals or relationships. Only one more day remained before his big professional break. One more day of hard work, and then he would shine.
He put the bottle back in its place. Of course, his wife would be proud of him! He took a deep breath and looked at the wall clock. 2:30 AM. (One more day... Concentrate... Focus...)
Suddenly, he heard it again: the spine-chilling shriek! The cry of a little girl in excruciating pain! It felt as though someone had poked a dagger through his heart, before passing an icy hand over the back of his neck.
"Lisa!" he shouted, his voice as powerful as ever, water having revived his strength. "Listen..."
Obviously shocked, Lisa flung the blanket back and rolled over to face him. "What?" She winced, blinded again by the brightness.
He held up his right palm as a signal for her to be quiet, and pointed his left index finger toward the window, although he could not be certain that the scream had come from that direction. They waited. Five seconds. Nothing.
"Didn’t you hear that?" he finally asked, extremely agitated.
"The scream." Yet again, he was doubtful. "A little girl..."
Partially awake, Lisa was still tired. "You are so cute," she observed with a tender smile.
"This couldn’t have been a dream," Chris did not smile back. "I was awake when I heard it," he protested, "I wasn’t asleep."
"Chris, you’ve been working too hard," Lisa offered, "Your mind is playing tricks on you. Come back to bed," she yawned, "and get some rest."
"Yeah, that must be it." Considering the circumstances, it was apparently the most logical explanation.
"Please switch the light off."
Chris looked at the papers on the table one last time before walking back to bed. After two minutes, he was fast asleep.
6:03 AM. Chris was running about the house in his pajamas, from the kitchen to the dining hall, to the sitting room, to the bedroom, frantically looking for something.
Lisa looked stunning in her nightgown as she sat up on bed, yawning, with her hair all messed up. Like most women, she looked naturally beautiful in the morning. And like most women, she would quickly be overcome by the temptation to ruin her natural beauty with comb and cosmetics. Chris never understood why women did that.
"Exactly what are you looking for?" Lisa asked finally, rubbing her eyes.
"My cell phone," Chris said, rushing into the bathroom and looking in the cabinet. He came out with knotted eyebrows, "Where the hell did it go?"
"Nowhere!" Lisa smiled at him. "It is still where you left it yesterday... On your table at office."
"Damn!" Chris remembered, and looked worried, "Carla would have called last night!"
Carla would call him whenever he had to work late into the night. Imagining that he was at office, she would pep him up with a few encouraging words, and would remind him not to neglect his health. She would firmly ask him to eat dinner on time, and to drink plenty of water. She would also implore him to take regular breaks and get enough rest.
Lisa looked at her reflection in the big oval mirror on the dressing table. She did not look very happy with her hair. Picking up a comb from the drawer, she started brushing her hair.
"Later tonight," Chris continued in a troubled voice, "she will surely ask why I hadn’t received her call."
"Ouch!" Lisa fought with her comb to straighten out a few knotted strands.
"What am I going to say?" Chris was thinking aloud.
"Tell her the truth." Lisa looked at his distraught reflection as he stood behind her.
"Are you crazy?"
"Hey, hey," she saw the utter shock on his face, "I was just kidding! I am sure you will think of something." Temporarily satisfied with her hair, she smiled at her lovely reflection.
"Right now," Lisa threw the comb back into the drawer and closed it, "you need to relax and get ready." She walked towards the door as she reminded him, "Mock presentation at 11:30 AM. We have to leave by 10:00 AM."
Chris looked at the wall clock and shook his worries away. "Yeah," he said as she stood by the door, "You are right." (Focus, Chris... Focus!)
"Yes, please..." Chris walked to the window. He had pulled the imported curtains aside and opened the window as soon as he had woken up. "...Strong." He smiled, inhaling a lungful of fresh air. (I can do it. I will do it!)
6:45 AM. Chris was at the table, reviewing the slide transparencies. He was mentally preparing himself to talk about each slide. The steaming cup of coffee rested across the table. The first five slides would need about ten minutes. The eleventh slide was a chart. He picked up the notes page relating to the slide in one hand, and the coffee cup in the other, and walked over to the window. He stood there, leaning his shoulder against the wall, sipping his coffee and glancing through the notes.
An abrupt movement on the other side of the road outside the window distracted him. It was as if a very familiar object had simply materialized out of thin air. Looking in the direction of the movement, he realized why it was familiar. The little girl, about eleven years of age, wore a white, half-sleeve shirt. Her red-and-black-checkered skirt was held up with shoulder straps of the same color. It was the customary school uniform.
She simply stood there, with her schoolbag hanging down her right shoulder, her back turned toward the street. She was waiting for someone, perhaps for the school bus. But it was too early to start for school, which normally opened at 9:00 AM. Chris shrugged the thought off, and turned back to his notes. But, for some unknown reason, he could not concentrate.
The air suddenly felt unnaturally chilly, as though he were standing in a very large and efficient cold storage unit. And yet, he felt beads of perspiration form on his forehead.
In a flash, he sensed another abrupt movement from the corner of his eye. When he looked back in the direction, he jumped in utter shock. The girl had crossed the street at what must have been the speed of lightning! No one could move so fast; it should have been sheer magic! She stood right outside the window, staring up at him.
In the next instant, he saw her face. His heart leaped with fear. Her face was ashen, completely bleached! Her pale eyeballs painfully strained out from their sockets and stared directly at him. Her mouth was open, as if frozen in a shriek. She could barely be described as human. She was the epitome of horror! A chill ran up his spine.
The notes page slipped out from between his trembling fingers. He dropped the cup, and it crashed on the floor. Then he screamed. It was an involuntary, hysterical reaction.
In a split second, another wave of familiarity shot through his senses. (Naomi!) His second scream could perhaps be heard across the whole block.
He closed his eyes. He felt terror accompanied by nervousness and confusion. (What is she doing here? How did she get here? What on earth happened to her? No! It cannot be her. I am seeing things. I am dreaming again.) But he was not sure. Was she really there? Was he only dreaming? Was he going crazy?
"What is wrong with you?" Lisa was at the door.
Chris did not answer. He stood there, back turned to the window, eyes closed tight. He was limp and trembling, and his face reflected mortal fear.
"Chris!" Lisa tried to shake him out. "What happened? What is the matter with you?"
"Na-" Chris could hardly talk; his voice betrayed him. Without opening his eyes, he pointed his thumb in a direction behind him, towards the window.
"Look," Chris forced out a whisper, "look!"
Lisa brushed past him and peeped out the window. "Look at what? What is it?"
He still did not dare open his eyes, and his voice never rose above a whisper, "Naomi!"
"Naomi? Your daughter?" she stared at him in sheer surprise. "But... Chris, there is nobody here."
"Chris, there is nobody here. See for yourself."
Chris turned slowly, still trembling with nervousness and terror. He looked out at the empty street. The streetlights were gradually dimming out.
"She was there... right there!" Regaining his voice, he pointed at the location where she had stood.
"But... That’s impossible, Chris. How would Naomi get here?" Lisa was right. Chris had not told his wife or daughter that he was going over to Lisa’s house. They did not even know her address. There was absolutely no way that either of them could be there looking for him.
But Chris was still nervous. "I don’t know," he said, "but she was there. She was... She was standing on the other side of the road. Then suddenly, she..." Hearing his own words, Chris began to realize that they seemed ridiculous, "...appeared... there."
Lisa looked at him incredulously for a few moments. Then she asked, "Okay then, where is she now?"
"She could be..." His rationale did not agree with his words, "anywhere around the house."
"Fine. Come along." Lisa took his hand and marched out with a purpose. "Let us find out."
Reluctantly, he followed her around the house, looking nervously, yet cautiously around.
"See?" Lisa said, at the end of the inspection, "Nobody here."
His relief was only partial. He remembered the screams that he had heard during the night. He recalled the look of horror on the pale face that he had seen. Something was terribly wrong. The girl had seemed to be in great pain.
"I need to call home," he said at last, rushing back into Lisa’s house, "to find out if all is fine."
"Use my phone."
Naomi loved to answer the telephone. Whenever it rang, she would drop everything else and rush to answer it before her parents could do so. There were times when this had annoyed Chris, but not today. Today, even as he dialed his residence number, Chris prayed that Naomi should answer the call.
He waited nervously, the receiver trembling in his hand, as he heard the ring. Second ring. (Where is she?) Third ring. (What is she doing?) Fourth ring. (Why isn’t she answering yet?) Fifth... He heard the click as the receiver was lifted off the hook on the other side. And then he heard sobs.
"Uhmm... Carla?" he asked suspiciously.
"Chris! Oh God, Chris!" It was his wife. She was sobbing uncontrollably. She sounded thankful at hearing his voice.
"Carla! What is wrong, dear?"
"Where were you?" Carla continued amidst her sobs and sniffs, "I’ve been trying to contact you all night. Your cell..."
"My cell broke down..." he thought fast, "...yesterday afternoon. The batteries..." Chris was a hopeless liar.
He looked up at Lisa, hoping to get some ideas from her. But she simply stared back at his face. "I have left it at the service technicians for repairs," he continued, "It has been there since noon, yesterday."
"I called your office," Carla sorrowfully asked, "Why didn’t you answer?"
Carla’s voice was laden with grief. Chris realized that she was not just upset about him not answering her calls. There was something else. He could sense real bad news in her voice, in her sobs.
"I must have been away from my cabin. But why are you crying, dear? Tell me what is wrong."
"Naomi..." Carla could say nothing beyond that. She burst out crying uncontrollably, almost deafening him.
"What about Naomi? ...Tell me! ...What happened? ...Carla? ...Carla!"
Then he heard a male voice through the receiver. It was his brother-in-law. "Chris, Dexter here. I have bad news..."
Chris listened silently, the receiver glued to his ear. When he heard the news he felt another sharp blast of chill run up his spine. Then the receiver slipped from his hand.
Suddenly he felt as though the room was rotating around its axis. His knees felt weak. Chris held on tightly to the table with both hands for support. He felt a void in his stomach; he felt it rise, he felt it grow; he felt it sweep over his entire being. Tears rained from his eyes. For two minutes he stood there, shocked and weakened. Then he turned slowly.
Still leaning on the table, he looked at Lisa with traumatized, tearful eyes. "Naomi..."
"Is she all right?" Lisa asked tenderly, walking towards him.
"She... she... suffered a major heart attack last night..."
"Oh my God, that is terrible!" Lisa was shocked by the news, "What, is she all right now? Where is she?"
"They tried, but... they couldn’t do anything for her," Chris bit his lips and looked up toward the ceiling.
He swallowed hard before he continued. "I heard her last scream at 2:30 AM."
Disclaimer: All characters and circumstances portrayed in the above composition are fictional. Any similarity to any person or persons, living or dead, is only coincidental. The intensity is all mine.