She never had trouble falling asleep. Head to pillow, lights low, she could be out in a matter of minutes. But Rosa always woke up, deep in the night while the house was quiet. She would lie there, watching the ceiling, her eyes adjusting to having opened in darkness, and she knew with a sinking feeling how the next few hours would be: he would come again, and she couldn’t stop him.
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t tried.
The first time he had made an appearance she had jumped out of bed, made her way to her bedroom door, closed and locked it, and backed into the closet, phone in hand. Hands shaking, she had dialed 911. One ring, two, and then –
“911, what’s your emergency?” a tired voice said on the line. A woman. Rosa couldn’t help but notice how calm the dispatcher sounded, almost bored.
“Hello?” the woman said again. “Hello? This is 911. What’s your emergency?”
“There’s someone in my house,” Rosa breathed into the phone, her voice as low as it could be without becoming a whisper.
“Yes. Yes. A man. I can hear him mumbling and moving around. I’m,” her voice broke. “I’m so scared. Please – I don’t know who he is or, or—,”
“What’s your location, ma’am?”
Rosa told her. She recited her address with her eyes closed, a vision of a fleet of cop cars with sirens blazing as they raced down her street played in her mind and she felt a sickening flutter of anxiety.
“Okay, officers have been dispatched to your residence. Stay where you are. I’ll stay on the line with you until they come, okay?”
Rosa felt as if something had suddenly become lodged in her throat.
“Okay?” the woman said again.
“Okay,” Rosa whimpered. “Okay.”
Rosa stood on her front porch in the indigo night speaking to the sergeant, who told her there had been no one in her home. There was no sign of a forced entry or an escape. All was quiet and calm. Nothing, and no one, had been found.
“You live alone, correct ma’am?”
Rosa nodded, hands clutching her sides. “I’m sure I heard someone,” she said, an edge to her voice. The sergeant gave her a pitying look.
“Is there anyone who can stay with you tonight? A friend? A family member?”
Rosa shook her head. “No, I… my family isn’t here. I’m alone…” She watched the lights of the squad cars flashing, bright and vibrant like bruises blooming against the darkness. They glared against her retinas each time she closed her eyes. The night was so deep, and part of her could still hear the man’s voice, mumbling through the house.
In the end, she was taken in by her elderly neighbors for the night. The sergeant had told her to call again if anything suspicious occurred, but there was something in his voice Rosa did not like, something that told her he knew nothing would happen – that nothing had happened.
But something had.
. . .
The intruder didn’t appear again for some time, and Rosa was able to sleep soundly again. As summer approached, she even slept with her window open a crack to let in the cool breeze, the nighttime sounds and the peeking moonlight. One night, however, she awoke suddenly, as if someone had whispered in her ear, startling her into consciousness.
Staring at the ceiling, she listened to the night around her. It was still and quiet, but she could hear the wind moving beyond her window screen. She rolled over and checked her clock; it was late, nearly 3am. Her eyes stung and for the first time in weeks, she saw the lights of the police cars flashing against her eyelids. Her heart fluttered beneath her breast.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into the night. “I’m okay. It’s okay. Everything’s okay.” She opened her eyes and glanced at her phone charging on her nightstand. She could call her neighbors if she needed to, but she didn’t want to wake them. “There’s no need,” she said to herself, no longer whispering. To be safe, however, Rosa rolled over and closed her window. It made a faint snap as it slid into place. She locked it and laid back against her pillows. Her heart was pounding, and with a sense of hideous, unwelcome, dawning realization, she knew what was about to happen.
The man’s voice broke the silence. Though it was soft it seemed to reverberate throughout the house, as if the vibrations of his voice had become a part of the very air, setting it ablaze. Rosa stayed frozen in her bed, heart hammering so hard it actually hurt. She tried to listen to what he was saying and think of what she should do at the same time, but it was as if her mind had jammed. Everything seemed fuzzy and slow except for her heart and its persistent thumping. Her underarms felt moist and her skin burned with anxiety. She wanted to run, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to move.
The man’s voice grew a little louder, as if he had moved closer in the last few seconds. Rosa had not heard any footsteps, but she was certain that the mumbling was closer, louder, more acute. She still couldn’t understand what he was saying, but she knew that this wasn’t in her mind as the police sergeant had implied. There was someone in her home. The same someone. He was moving closer, but slowly. I should get up and lock my door, she thought frantically, but she didn’t move. Trembling, Rosa reached for her phone and, like a small child, she hid beneath her covers.
She opened her contacts and scrolled, desperately trying to find her neighbor’s number. Blurred names flashed before her eyes until, suddenly, she paused at her home number – the home she had left nearly three years before. Rosa exhaled, releasing a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. The number seemed to glare at her and though she still trembled, the reason why had changed.
If she called, would her parents answer? If the phone rang in the middle of the night like this, would they care? Would they know it was her? Rosa felt suddenly suspended by this thought and all went quiet. She could see them, side by side in their bed, sound asleep with covers pulled up to necks, close together. Landline on the nightstand, receiver in the cradle, suddenly ringing to life. Her father would probably grimace, angry that someone was calling so late. Her mother would probably be worried – who would call at this hour? What if something’s wrong? Her father would answer, a tinge of annoyance in his voice. She’d speak – what would she say? – they’d hear her and freeze, and… what then? She imagined her father immediately hanging up, and that thought alone made her heart feel cold.
As if in response, the mumbling grew still louder – so loud that Rosa was certain the man was standing just outside her bedroom door. She darkened her phone and lay completely still. Though she knew he was just outside, there was no evidence of his presence besides his mumbling voice: no breath, no movement, not even the creaking of the floor. She waited, sure that the doorknob would begin to creak as he turned it, but the sound never came. Instead, his voice grew softer, but somehow clearer.
… haven’t seen her in some time… some time, it’s been a while and I haven’t seen her do I miss her yes of course I do I just don’t know how to say it because things are ending inside I can feel them crumbling like a city sinking into the earth and I miss her and I want to hold her again but she’s so far away from me and I haven’t seen her in some time… some time… she used to be here, so close to me and I miss her and I love her and I…
Rosa shut her eyes. His words made her feel strange, almost transfixed. She felt terrified, but a terrible sadness, an overwhelming sense of dread, was creeping over her. She tensed up, muscles tightly wound like coiled springs, too afraid to move. Rosa tried to steady her breathing and think; she had to shut him out and concentrate on what to do. She had to call for help, but she couldn’t decide who to call – the police? Her neighbors? As she thought the man grew even louder, repeating the same words but with more urgency with each repetition. Rosa placed her hands over her ears, feeling her insides raging. She could still hear him, could still feel that terrible creeping sadness as his voice rattled through the door and into her brain until—
All the air seemed to vanish from the room. She clapped her hands over her mouth and for a moment, Rosa could not breathe. In the next moment, she realized the man’s voice had stopped, but the silence that was left behind was heavy, pregnant, like the air before a thunderstorm. She felt different, too. Her heart had suddenly slowed, and the fear she had been feeling had vanished almost instantly and she sensed, or somehow knew, that the man was gone.
But the sadness remained and she couldn’t shake it. It was as if something had taken residence inside her, twisted its roots around her heart and dug deep into her bones. She waited only a moment, and then slowly and quietly, she crept from her bed and to her door. Rosa pressed her ear against the wood and listened, but the house was still and silent, like a child holding their breath. Trembling slightly, she reached for her doorknob and turned. The hinges creaked as the door swung inward and outside there was – nothing: blank, dark hallway holding not a soul.
She exhaled. The hallway looked innocent and, with a tinge of shame and anxiety, she thought of the police sergeant and his pitying look. Slowly, she closed her bedroom door, locked it, and made her way back to bed. Rosa climbed under the covers, pulled them up to her neck, and laid against her pillows, eyes open. She tried to think of what the mumbling man had been saying until – there is no mumbling man. It didn’t sound like her own voice, but the message was clear. She felt suddenly afraid, wondering that perhaps her mind had gone wrong, that these were the first signs of madness. Rosa wondered if she should call her doctor – but what would she say? The police sergeant’s face once again swam before her eyes and she shut them. The mind can play tricks and tell lies, she thought furiously. But she didn’t dare ask why. She lay there thinking, feeling the sadness and the doubt, until everything around her went black.
. . .
Rosa slept soundly, deeper than she had in a long time. She awoke the next morning to sunshine and clarity, telling herself, with the smallest trace of doubt, that it had been not a lie, but some strange dream, a trick of the mind. A trick of the mind. It didn’t mean she was crazy at all. There was no reason to go there. There was a funny feeling in her stomach as she thought this, but she ignored it, pushed it down deep.
The man returned the next night.
He was so loud that Rosa would have sworn he was standing in her bedroom – if only she could see him. There was no one there, just the voice that incessantly pleaded that he had loved someone who had left him and gone far away. He stayed for hours, mumbling in a broken voice. When dawn came, he quieted, and Rosa somehow fell asleep. It became a routine, sometimes two nights in a row, sometimes three. Other times he wouldn’t come at all for days on end, but when she got comfortable, thought he was gone for good, he’d reappear, mumbling as if he couldn’t quite form his words – as if when he tried to wrap his lips around them they’d break and tumble out, like water plummeting over a fall. She told no one about this – still, in some way, denying that it was happening. She ignored the sadness, crossing her arms over her heart when she felt it especially fiercely. If she kept it to herself, then maybe it wasn’t real. The police sergeant frowned. The siren lights flashed.
Summer folded into Fall, Fall crumpled into winter. She no longer opened her window at night, and the moon stopped peeking through her blinds, hidden now behind a blanket of clouds.
. . .
Outside there were Christmas lights twinkling. The clock read 10pm and Rosa found herself already in bed, covers pulled up to her neck, eyes on the window. The air seemed frozen, and the lights glittered at her brightly, as if magnified through clear ice. She glanced at her bedside table and felt a flurry of anxiety, furious and desperate like a hummingbird straining to stay airborne, as she looked at her lamp. Turn it off and she’d be enveloped in darkness, followed by deep sleep for an hour, maybe two, and then he’d come and her heart would ache. She turned away and looked back at the window. The lights were off. Her neighbors must have turned them off for the night in that moment she’d looked away. In their absence, the world seemed empty, as if it were just her, her home, and the mumbling man inside of it, giving it mass. Without them it was hollow, and without him she was utterly alone.
The thought struck her, she realized she wanted to hear him, that voice that spoke of sad things. Over the last few months she had found that his words stirred something inside her that she could not explain. They brought tears to her eyes, as if they were a eulogy for someone she loved. No, not for them. By them, of them. Their voiced regrets, brought on by the clarity and finality of death. She shook her head slightly; it felt heavy, her thoughts were too dense and her mind too tired. The air outside hung frozen; the moon was wrapped up in the clouds. Who was the mumbling man sad for? Where was the girl he had lost? And why had he lost her?
She awoke to her phone ringing. Cold, flat light spilled into her room from outside and she realized with a start that it was unmistakably morning. She reached for her phone and placed it to her ear without even checking the screen to see who it was.
Like a splash of cold water the voice slapped her awake. She flushed and her heart quickened. Rosa placed a hand over her breast; the beat knocked against it.
“Rosa?” the voice was more urgent and also strained. “Rosa, are you there?”
Rosa swallowed and tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again: “Mom?”
“Oh, Rosa – hello, sweetie. Yes, it’s me.”
She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. Her mother said her name again.
“Are you alright?”
Rosa nodded before realizing her mother couldn’t see her. “Yeah, I’m,” she stopped. The mumbling man hadn’t come last night. She hadn’t woken up. “I’m okay. Are you?”
This time her mother stayed silent. Rosa waited, barely believing that she was actually on the phone with her mother after all this time. She heard a crackling sound over the connection – her mother was inhaling deeply.
“Honey,” she said, her voice suddenly grave. Rosa gripped the phone. “Honey, Daddy died last night. In his sleep. He—,” her voice broke.
Rosa was silent for only a moment. She felt as if she hadn’t quite heard correctly.
“Dad’s dead?” She said it too harshly, she knew it. She closed her eyes as the silence floated from her mother, thousands of miles away, over the airwaves, to her.
“Rosa,” her mother said. “Rosa, Daddy loved you, even if…” but she didn’t finish.
Rosa’s eyes were wet but her voice was steady. “When should I come down,” she asked without a question mark. Her mother made a strange noise, and when she spoke again her voice was tight. “Tomorrow, if you can. Or the next day if not… if not today. I need you here.” Another pause. “Rosa, I’m sorry.”
They spoke for another few minutes, going over the arrangements, what had happened, and what would happen next. Rosa felt strangely numb, as if she were in a dream. She thought, vaguely, that she might wake up to her dark room and the mumbling man, but that didn’t happen. The sky had grown a little darker by the time she got off the phone: clouds gathering for a winter storm. She had to get up, get dressed, start packing – Rosa knew she wouldn’t be back here for a while. She had to see when she could get a flight home, had to make calls, had to get moving. But in that moment she laid back down, deep into her pillows, pulling her covers up to her neck. The sadness had returned, greater and more terrible than it had ever been. It settled over her heart like an animal hunkering down to rest. Rosa thought about her mother, about her father, about death. She thought about the lights of the police car, so many months ago, and the sergeant’s face, except now he looked sad, not pitying. Rosa thought of her elderly neighbors just a few feet from her own home, and she thought finally of the mumbling man, his sad monologue.
It’s been so long, he had said outside her door that first night she truly heard him. And she’s so far away… But he hadn’t come last night. Rosa closed her eyes. He hadn’t come last night. For the first time in months, he hadn’t come.