by J.K. Radtke

There was a knock at the door, followed by a loud grunting sound. Cassie hadn’t been home for more than fifteen minutes before he'd returned, again.

That son of a bitch, she thought as she made her way to the front door.

Having already changed from her work clothes into a tight pink top and loose fitting baby-blue pajama bottoms, it was clear in her face that this wasn’t going to be a long, drawn out ordeal. She would address the issue from behind the door, rid herself of this nonsense, and then call it a night.

Reaching the door, she noticed herself rubbing the sides of her thighs, and promptly stopped. She did this often when she began to get nervous. A tic, her mother called it; like tugging on a strand of loose hair, or biting your bottom lip. She stopped walking and took a moment to calm down.

“Everything is fine,” she told herself. “Just tell him to go away, or else.” She nodded, agreeing with her plan, and proceeded toward the door.

There was another knock as she moved, followed by more grunting. By now, the knocking had grown into a thunderous rumbling that seemed to rattle the entire wall. As she approached, she swore she could even feel the floor give a shudder beneath her feet.

“Calm,” she whispered. “Stay calm.”

As she reached the door, lifting her eye to the peephole, she failed to notice that she was rubbing her thighs again.

Through the peephole, she could see a silhouetted figure standing motionless; dressed in black, concealing his face with a large black hat. Cassie immediately found herself wondering if it was the hat that was turned down, or the figure’s head. Before she could come to any kind of answer, the figure grunted again, followed by a few punches with the butt of his fist.

It was the same man as last night, and the night before. This is getting ridiculous, she thought. She tried to mask the panic in her voice with a grunt of her own. Still peering attentively through the peephole, she spoke in a stern, authoritative voice.

“Hey, guy,” she said, “get the hell out of here, or I’ll call the cops!”

The figure didn’t move. The last two nights, Cassie remembered, he would show up, pound on her door for a few minutes, and then go away after she’d threaten to call the police. Hoping to quell the issue sooner, she'd jumped straight to the finish, and prayed that would be the end.

It wasn't. As the figure stood just outside her door, Cassie continued to rub her thighs, and calm herself with succinct mental notes: Calm down, Cassie...Get a hold of yourself...This guy will go away...Stay strong...Grab something blunt, just in case.

Cassie thought her last note was a wise one, and quickly shuffled across her wood floor paneling to the fireplace. Grabbing a poker from its polished brass holder, she returned to the door. Holding the poker with one hand, and rubbing her thigh in the other, she took a deep breath before peering through the peephole again.

The figure was gone.

Tension dropped off of Cassie’s chest like a lead weight, but she continued to look. She wanted to make sure he was gone. After a minute of frantically peering through at every possible angle, she let out a sigh of relief, and put the poker back in its proper place.

Looking around her apartment, she realized that, in all of the confusion, she'd left the water running in the bathroom sink. Her steps were quick, strides long; she was almost skipping across her apartment. She felt relieved, which in turn, filled her with joy; enough joy to make her skip giddily to the bathroom. In doing so, she slipped right past the phone without a thought. She wouldn’t be needing the cops after all.

Standing over the sink, Cassie took a good long look in the mirror in front of her before reaching for the handle. She evaluated herself closely. Beyond the shoulder length, curly, light-brown hair, beyond the smattering of freckles that decorated her nose and round cheeks, beyond the smooth, porcelain skin of her face that she made it a point to moisturize at least twice a day, she saw strength; she saw will; she saw a woman that stared adversity in the face (as best she could) and refused to back down.

She smiled at herself, and turned the water off.

The day had been long. Her routine was stretching longer and longer these days. She wanted to rest, and be done with it; start fresh tomorrow with a renewed sense of purpose. Skipping her way to the bedroom, she took one last look at her apartment, smiled again, and entered darkness.

Climbing into bed, she could swear the bed was softer than she remembered. Her pillows were thicker, and softer as well. Her comforter brought her warmth like she’d never felt before…instant, secure, reassuring. She smiled again, turned over, and as she drifted off to sleep, she gave a small prayer of thanks to the Lord for making her strong when she needed to be. She felt so good, so comfortable, so strong, she secretly wished these feelings would last forever. She hoped the night was a long one, and fell asleep.

The next morning, police photographers and detectives hovered over her intently, examining the lacerations that covered her body. Her shoulder length, curly, light-brown hair was tangled, and stuck together in clumps of dried blood; her freckles were displaced by a nose that had been broken in three places and a shattered cheek bone; her smooth, porcelain skin had been ripped to pieces leaving thick, long, crimson grooves carved at random angles.

Yet, as the police went about their business collecting evidence, evaluating the scene, many of them couldn’t get over the look on her face. Buried underneath the horrific mess were a smile, and a mild expression of peace.

"Well," one detective muttered, "at least she died happy."

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