It was night. Quiet, save for the usual night sounds: the hum of the furnace, a tree branch tapping gently on the bathroom window, snoring at assorted decibel levels coming from each of the three bedrooms.
She was asleep. Her husband and children were asleep. This should have continued uninterrupted for another five or six hours. It should have. But it didn't.
Something woke her up. She wasn't sure what she heard, but she knew she'd heard something. Probably the cat, she thought, rolling over on her side and pulling the blankets back up over her shoulders. She listened for a minute, but didn't hear anything more, so she tried to settle back into sleep.
There it was again.
What was it? Not the cat, she decided. The cat would have mewed anyway, she wouldn't have needed to do anything else, persistent - and loud - little creature that she was. And the other cat was asleep on one of the kids' beds. He liked his sleep and, like the rest of the family, preferred to do his sleeping at night. He was a day cat.
So what was making that noise?
She listened again, trying to decide if it was worth leaving her warm flannel sheets to investigate. Her feet were toasty warm, and the hardwood floors would be cold, so it would have to be something really, really -
- and there it was again.
Still hard to describe, even in her own mind and without words, the sound, whatever it was, came again. She could tell - she didn't know how - that it was in the living room. But she didn't think it had started there. Maybe it was the cat. Tulip. Small in size but full of attitude. She'd been spayed recently...maybe she was plotting revenge for the post-operative pain...
With a sigh, Meredith started to swing her legs out of bed. She looked briefly at her husband, but knew it would take a good hour to wake him up. So she would just get up and go have a look.
And then she heard a different sound. Very faint. And human. Someone coughed. Quietly. Like they didn't want to cough but couldn't stop it from happening. And it was definitely downstairs. Not one of the kids. Their rooms were on either side of her own - and she knew what their coughing would sound like anyway.
So who was coughing in her living room?
Without another thought, she slithered from under the blankets and touched the floor with her toes ever so gently. One inch of skin at a time, she gradually put her weight onto the balls of her feet and crept to the door.
She had lived in this house a long time now, and knew exactly which floorboards creaked and which ones didn't. She would be careful.
Softly, slowly, she turned the doorknob and opened the door, just enough to peek through. Nothing. The hallway was dark, lit only by the yellowy pink glow of a night light plugged into the outlet near the floor to her left.
She crept softly from the room, on the balls of her feet, barely touching the floor as she crossed to the stairs.
She paused to listen. She could hear something...she just wasn't sure what it was. It sounded almost like something scraping along the floor.
She breathed deeply, trying to slow her racing heart. She stood at the top of the stairs, focusing on her breathing, on her pulse, on the adrenaline surging through every cell in her body.
She crouched in the darkness and placed her right foot on the first step. Silence. She slowly poured her weight onto that foot and set her left foot down on the step below. Down the stairs she went like this, noiselessly, almost weightlessly, as she tried to float.
She was nearly at the bottom now, and she peered through the darkness toward the living room. Someone was in there. She could see a dark shape crouching near the television set at the far end of the room. What was he - she? - doing?
She took another cautious step down, still watching, more curious now than anything. What was of such interest over there? DVDs? Her son's video games? What?
She had nearly reached the landing. Three more steps and she would be in the hall. A stone's throw from whatever was going on in the living room. She stepped down.
And the old wood on the landing shrieked in protest.
She froze. The dark figure spun around. Another figure appeared to the right, and then another to the left. Three of them!
Without any further thought she leapt from the landing and was airborne.
Years - well, a few years - of martial arts training and multiple viewings of the Matrix movies took over and she was suddenly spinning through the air - a human bullet - she exploded into the living room and sent the first one flying backwards across the room. He crashed into the wall and slid to the floor.
She felt the other two - one on either side - lunge for her. She jumped toward the ceiling and heard the CRACK as one skull made contact with the other. The two slumped to the floor and lay there, moaning. As she landed, she saw the first one coming at her again. With a loud animal cry, she dove onto the floor, rolled, and came up spinning like a propellor. Her feet made contact - first the right foot, then the left - she felt the crunch of bones and heard a shriek of pain. Something had broken. Probably his nose. He dropped to the floor and lay there, unmoving.
She landed and felt an excruciating jolt from the middle toe on her right foot all the way up to her hip.
But she ignored it for now, and went to get the phone. She would need someone to come out and clear away the debris from her living room. She was annoyed. She had vacuumed and mopped the floors that afternoon, and now she'd have to do it again.
She hated housework.
But that's now how it really happened.