Mom was at her real estate office and Dad was in the city being an executive producer. Maybe I’ll take you to work one day and show you around, he told me, and I said, Cool. Mom had asked me if it was okay if she went back to work, and I said, Why not?
I want to be sure you can handle being alone, Jenny.
I felt like asking her what was so bad about being alone, given that there were plenty of times when being alone was exactly what I was down on my knees praying for, when I wasn’t down on my knees doing something else.
No problem, I said to Mom. It’s fine.
I was tired. Not “physically can’t keep my head up” tired, though I wasn’t exactly getting what you’d call a good night’s sleep. The freak-show nightmares took care of that. Just tired of us all dancing around each other—what we could talk about and what we couldn’t, how I should or shouldn’t act. Trying to navigate between the past and present, like constantly switching a car radio from contemporary to oldies.
Last night Dad called me Jenny Penny, as he pulled a penny out of my ear.
I almost said, How’d you do that, Dad? Still wanting to believe in magic.
Penny for your thoughts, he’d said, sticking it into my hand.This is my daughter, Jenny. She’s home. She’s back.
Sure. My thoughts were about being six years old again and still feeling like you could be carried through life on your dad’s back. My thoughts were I just might take him up on that offer to visit his production company, just so he could parade me around the office and say, This is my daughter, Jenny. She’s home. She’s back.
We’re never going to let her out of our sight again.
My thoughts right now were about falling into a long, sweet nap where I’d dream about old times, the kind where you wake up feel- ing like you’re on fake Xans.
I might’ve if it wasn’t for the phone. It kept ringing.
We were still adhering to a strict “don’t answer the phone” policy around here. Mostly because there were only so many ways you can say no. Like, No, thanks, and, I told you we weren’t interested, and, If you call here again I’m going to call the police—which seemed to be Dad’s new hobby, calling the police. That reporter from Newsday who’d buzzed me in the middle of the night—what was his name? Max, right—had managed to weasel Dad’s cell phone number from somebody, and Dad had not so politely told him to fuck off. Just like he told the booking agent from Fox News, the reporter from Time magazine, the producer from Ellen, and Dr. Phil himself—kind of cool the Philster would personally call to try to get me on his show. Dad told him thanks but no thanks, refraining from using the F word only because Mom was a true fan.
The phone was ringing now.
I tried to ignore it, but sometimes trying to ignore something only makes you that much more aware of it, and the ringing started to sound like a car alarm in the middle of the night.
I picked it up, enjoying the silence for a moment before actually putting it to my ear.
“Hello, is Mrs. Kristal there?” A man’s voice. “She’s out,” I said.
“Oh.” Quiet. “Is this . . . never mind. Wait—can you tell her Joe Pennebaker says sorry, he won’t be calling again. That’s all. Just please let her know.”
“Sure,” I said, wondering why someone would call just to say that they wouldn’t be calling. “No problem.”
After I hung up, I started wishing everyone else out there felt the same way. The phone had started in again.
When it reached earsplitting, I bailed.
Opening the front door took some real effort, not because it was particularly heavy, but because the last time I’d gone through it, it’d been from the other direction. We’d been under siege, and I was finally opening the stockade gates.
But there was only a police car moseying down the street, and the officer who’d picked me up that first day—I think it was him— waved at me.
“Hey. Everything okay?” he shouted.
“No,” I said.
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“I’m being questioned by the police.” He squinted.
“Just kidding,” I said.
“Copy that,” he answered. “Your dad asked us to keep an eye out, that’s all.”
“Well, have a good day, miss.” Zoom. The police car accelerated down the street.
About a half minute too soon.
I spotted her halfway down the block. A reporter, I thought.
She was hanging back, nearly blocked by a row of moth-eaten rhododendron bushes at the end of the block. Peeking. Which is exactly what a reporter would be doing, right? Trying to snap a photo of the girl who’d made it back. Mom had shown me the head- line on the website of the local paper: lost and found. On the left was the picture from the telephone pole, and on the right was one of the photos Detective Mary had snapped at the precinct—the one where I’d mugged for the camera. Mom didn’t understand how the paper could’ve gotten hold of that one and said she was going to call the precinct to complain. I couldn’t stop thinking that the girl on the right looked like she wouldn’t have much in common with the girl on the left.
I stopped dead, the sound of the police car pulling away still echoing in my ears, that face staring at me from behind the bushes.
Was a camera crew about to jump me?
When she walked out where I could see all of her, she was alone. It didn’t make her any less threatening. There was something about her face I didn’t like.
Her expression, for one thing, which seemed to be alternating between shyness and anger.
The other thing about her face was that I thought I recognized it.
“I just want to speak with you . . . ,” she said.
I ran. Fast. Panic can do that to you, suddenly turn you into Usain Bolt. I zoomed back down the block to my front door.
Which wouldn’t open. It. Would. Not. Open.
It must’ve locked automatically. No one had given me any keys. “Please . . .” I heard her voice behind me. “You need to stop
If I don’t look, she’s not here.
I ran around to the back of the house. To the sliding glass door—did anyone ever actually bother locking it?
It slid open.
As soon as I dived through, I locked it shut from inside. I ran into the living room and pulled the drapes tighter than they already were—tight enough to pretty much block out every single molecule of light.
I retreated to the couch where Mom and Dad and I had huddled together the morning the reporters surrounded the house shouting my name. Now someone else was out there doing it.
Deep breaths . . . deep breaths . . .
Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock . . .
In between banging on the front door, she was shouting some- thing. I couldn’t actually hear the words because I’d put both hands up over my ears.
If I wait and do nothing, she’ll go away.
She can’t keep knocking on a door that won’t open.
She can’t keep screaming at someone who won’t answer.
The knocking stopped.
I lowered my hands and held my breath. I’d been hugging my knees with my head between my legs—what they tell you to do when a plane’s about to crash.
I waited for the banging to start up again. Then waited some more.
After a while, I slowly unfolded myself from the couch, crept over to the blinds, and peeked. All clear. I should’ve felt okay then. I should’ve felt home free.
Only the phone starting ringing. Again.
There was a one-tenth of one percent possibility it wasn’t her. I started to believe in that possibility, to embrace it like faith. It was another talk show. Another newspaper. It was Mr. Pennebaker ad- mitting he’d lied, that he was going to call back just one more time.
“Finally,” she said when I picked it up.
I didn’t say anything back. My lungs were pressing up against my ribs.
“Remember,” she said, “I know who you really are.”
From Safe by S.K. Barnett. Used with the permission of the publisher, Dutton Books. Copyright © 2020 by S.K. Barnett.