It felt like her lungs had shrunk, that they were two, dried dates* in her chest. Her nose was flaring*; she was struggling for breath. She knew that; and she knew that he was watching her, knew that he could see every fluttering*, shallow breath that she was taking.
‘Could you come out to my car for a moment?’ he asked. When he said it, he turned away slightly, indicating, with a nod of the head, the edge of the car that she had seen earlier and which was now almost invisible on the darkened street.
His glasses swung back to her: no eyes, only neon glare. He smiled.
‘I..I,’ she was stammering*.
‘It won’t take long,’ he said, and swung the shovel onto his shoulder. She followed its arc; and as she did, her mind started to clear. This was her chance, she told herself. This was how to get rid of him. She couldn’t be sure about the key in the kitchen door. If it wasn’t there – and there was a chance that it wasn’t, she would have to get him out the front door. ‘As soon as he steps out, I’ll lock it; then I’ll get my mobile; then I’ll call the police.’
‘You see, my wife’s sure that she knows you. She said that just before I parked outside.’
Even to Betty, desperate as she was to get him to the front door, that explanation sounded weak. She wasn’t going to ask, but the question must have shown on her face.
‘She’s hurt her leg – that’s why she didn’t come in. It’s easier if you go to her.’
He extended his hand in the direction of the door. ‘Shall we?’ he asked.
Betty nodded again and stepped around the edge of the counter. Her eyes were on the door. Three more meters and she would be safe. Three more meters, then she could slam the door behind him and the nightmare would end. But she needed him to go first. She hung back*. ‘Go ahead,’ she said, her eyes on his face.
He hesitated; and for a second, she thought he was going to refuse. Then he stepped forward. A single step, but it told her everything. It told her why the little alarm bell in her head had rung. It told her she wasn’t just a silly old woman. It told her she didn’t even need to look down at his feet, that she had known it all along. But she did look. It almost made her feel glad: no nice, solid brogues*; no slender Italian slip-ons*. Nothing like that. In fact, nothing at all. The sound she had heard, the one that raised her suspicions, that had set the alarm bell ringing, was the sound of skin slapping the cold concrete floor.
He was in his bare* feet.
*dates – the fruit from a palm tree
*flaring – growing larger (especially a fire)
*fluttering – moving up and down/side to side gently (e.g., a flag)
*stammering – speaking unclearly, repeating words
*hung back – waited
*brogues – heavy leather shoes
*slip-ons – light leather shoes without laces
*bare – naked, without clothing