The French door in the den was wide open, the equivalent of a welcome mat for mosquitoes, which were more prolific than ever this spring. Audrey called the housekeeper’s name as she zigzagged between the sectional and baby grand piano. She nearly tripped over Larry’s Suzuki book, spread-eagled on the carpet behind the ottoman. Transferring it to the piano bench, she tried and failed to recall if he’d practiced his recital piece before they left for school. The morning had been a more frantic scramble than usual: Sarah’s math binder gone AWOL, Larry’s PE uniform still damp in the dryer. Just thinking about it made her forehead sweat—or was it the temperature? Despite the humming AC, the room felt nearly as muggy as the outside. How long had the door been left open? Audrey surveyed the backyard—no Carmen—and shut the door firmly. Then she heard an odd sound behind her. A high-pitched whine, like that of a dog wanting to go outside.
They didn’t have a dog.
Turning, she saw them in the kitchen. One tall, the other much shorter. Ski masks revealed only their eyes. The short one wore baggy denim overalls spattered with green paint. The tall one, in jeans and a plain black sweatshirt, aimed a pistol directly at her.
Audrey caught her breath. Closed her eyes.
When no gunshot rang out, she slowly opened them. The tall one was walking toward her, arm extended, as if pulled by the pistol.
Her arms dropped to her sides. Her purse hit the floor. A beat later, her keys. She couldn’t feel her fingers. The animal sound came again. Had they shot Carmen? Dragged her off somewhere and left her to die?
“Don’t move,” said Tall. He spoke with an accent not unlike Carmen’s. He held the gun sideways as he walked. His other hand bounced arrhythmically against his hip. He turned his head left, then right. His shoulders twitched with each turn. He was muttering—or humming. Right, left. Twitch, twitch. Bounce. Bounce-bounce.
Audrey’s vision narrowed until all she saw was the black glove holding the gun, then just the hole at the end of the gun. A mosquito whined by her cheek. She didn’t dare swat it. If she moved, she knew he’d shoot her. The dark, dreadful hole kept advancing. She couldn’t help but shudder when the cold metal bumped against her forehead. It stayed there, pressing the only part of her body she could feel.
“Get over here, for Chrissake!” Tall barked.
He glanced back at Short, jerking his head. His shoulders twitched again. His arm moved, and his hand with it. The pistol’s muzzle skidded across Audrey’s forehead. Her throat tightened, trapping her scream. It lodged like a brick behind her sternum.
“Hurry up, idiot! We gotta do this fast,” Tall urged. He turned back to Audrey. His bloodshot eyes, hard and hateful, fixed on hers. His pupils were dark holes as large as the one on his gun. Black threads encircled them like a ring of insect legs. His mask, she realized, was a knitted cap with crudely cut, unraveling eye holes.
Audrey’s voice, just above a whisper, squeezed itself out of her throat. “What do you want?”
Short approached slowly, tugging at his makeshift mask. He wore gardening gloves with grimy rubber fingers and pink-flowered cloth on top. Audrey’s gloves. He must have taken them from the backyard shed. Tall’s gloves were knitted and black like his hat. He’d planned this. He’d come prepared. Why hadn’t his partner?
More than anything, Audrey wanted to close her eyes, but she needed to observe—the focused physician, picking up on instructive tics and details.
Short continued to pull at his mask. The raggedy eye holes kept sliding down onto his cheeks. He stepped on the dragging cuff of his overalls and stumbled, then caught himself. Tall twitched and muttered. His arm trembled, shaking the gun. His opposite hand resumed its choppy beat against his hip. He was jacked up on something. And alarmingly nervous.
Audrey’s eyes cut to the front door. What if the twins walked in? Where were they, what after-school activity? What day was it?
“Get the purse.” Tall jerked his head again. “Move your fat ass, or I’ll put a bullet in it.”
Short retrieved Audrey’s purse. When he straightened up, his eyes met hers for an instant before looking away. Audrey had seen eyes like that more times than she could count in her dementia patients—disoriented and distrustful. Short did not want to be here. His fear was as palpable as the metal pressing against Audrey’s forehead.
“Find the wallet,” Tall ordered. “Her phone, too.”
Audrey breathed as deeply as she could. My kids, oh God, please keep my kids away. She tried to keep her voice low and level, the voice of Dr. Reynolds calmly addressing an agitated patient. Her tongue, heavy and dry, strained to form words. “My wallet—not much cash.” How much? Twenty? Twenty-five? “I have credit cards and—”
“Cards ain’t worth shit. I need cash.” Tall jabbed the gun between her eyebrows to emphasize each word. Short handed him the wallet, and he shoved it into the waistband of his jeans. “Where’s the phone? This is taking too long.”
Each time he moved, his pistol bumped Audrey’s forehead. Right, left, the bridge of her nose. Her cranium thrummed with the same jittery rhythm as his body. Meth, she decided. He was high as a kite. Her breath came in wheezy gasps. How easily that edgy finger could pull the trigger.
Short thrust the phone at Tall, who jammed it into a back pocket. Then Short held up the purse, a Prada tote that Phil had given to Audrey for her birthday. “Can we take this, too?”
Oh my God. Audrey stopped herself from saying it aloud. Short was female. Young, too, judging from the timbre of her voice. A frightened girl who coveted a fancy purse.
Tall ignored her. “What else you got?” he asked Audrey. His head swiveled. Left, right. “Big-ass house—you got gold, right?” He half-turned, jerked his chin at the front door. She’d left her computer bag beside the potted ficus. “You got a laptop in there?”
When Audrey told him she did, he ordered Short to find it. Short hesitated, then scuttled across the foyer.
Tall’s eyes flicked to Audrey’s hands quaking at her sides. “Gimme the watch, the rings. What else, what else? You got more diamonds?”
Audrey fumbled with her watch clasp. Would he shoot her when he saw it wasn’t a Rolex? “We have—a safe,” she heard herself say. “Upstairs. There’s cash. Five hundred—I think.” She passed him the watch. Stripped the rings from her trembling fingers.
Without a second look, Tall slid them into his pocket. He drew back the gun but kept it level with Audrey’s face. “Show me.”
Short hovered by the door, cradling the laptop like a baby. The purse dangled from her elbow. Tall pointed the gun at her. “Get over here! I told you already, you run away, you’re dead.”
Short shuffled toward them, and Tall turned back to Audrey. Motioned with the gun. “Move, move!”
It took enormous effort for Audrey to unlock her knees. The gun gouged her back as they crossed the foyer. She heard the animal sound again.
Tall slammed his fist against the coat-closet door. “Shut the fuck up!”
Carmen was still alive. The realization gave Audrey an absurd rush of hope. She gripped the banister and forced her legs, shaky and weak, to climb. Tall followed so closely she felt his hot breath puffing against her neck. He was muttering again, a string of unintelligible syllables. With each step, the gun jabbed her spine.
A different sound, hoarse and choppy, louder than Tall’s muttering and her own throbbing pulse, rose up behind her. Short was crying. Her mask muted the sound, but there was no mistaking the guttural sobs.
“Idiota! Shut up, for Chrissake!” Tall shouted.
With every cell in her body, Audrey hated him. How had he conscripted this terrified girl as his accomplice? Had she known ahead of time what he planned to do?
They reached the upstairs landing, and Audrey indicated the master bedroom. She clung to the banister, gulping air. Her legs quivered like those of a Parkinson’s patient. “The safe—” she rasped, finally catching her breath. “In the closet.” Her tone was cold with fury. If Tall noticed, if it angered him—suddenly she didn’t care.
She tottered into the room and flung open the closet door. Phil, always behind schedule, had left it in disarray. Sneakers, balled socks, running shorts, bath towels—a colorful jumble blanketed the floor.
“I don’t see no safe.” Tall pressed the pistol against her neck. “If you’re bullshitting me—”
“On the back wall, behind the clothes.” You son of a bitch. Audrey swallowed hard, tamping down her rage. Find your doctor voice, she told herself.
Short hung back, sniffling, in the bedroom doorway.
Tall shoved Audrey forward. “If you got a gun in there, you’re dead if you try to use it.”
She fairly spat out the words: “There’s. No. Gun.” How she wished she held one now—and, like her sister Melanie, knew how to use it. By the far wall slacks hung on the lower rack, and she slid these to the side, revealing the safe. Tall pushed her to her knees. She stared at the keypad until the numbers swam. Four numbers, only four—
“Stop fucking around!” Tall shouted.
“I can’t remember—just give me a second.” She closed her eyes, visualizing numerals. They coupled and clustered, ragged stars in a dark sky, but no constellation seemed recognizable. She opened her eyes and began punching buttons. Tall knelt beside her, his breath burning her neck. The safe’s door buzzed like an angry insect. The digital display flashed ERROR. She tried a different combination, then another.
“Stop stalling, bitch!”
Breath held, she tried again, then started when the door beeped and swung open. Tall elbowed her aside and pulled out a zippered pouch.
As she’d hoped, his attention focused on the money. He set his pistol on the floor between his knees and tore open the pouch.
Short stayed in the closet doorway. Audrey turned her head just enough to catch Short’s eye and jerked her chin to the side. She lifted her right hand, two inches at most. Jabbed a finger. Run, she mouthed. Run. Go.
For a moment, Short simply stared. She took a tentative step backward. Hesitated. A second step. A third. As her paint-stained pant leg disappeared around the bedroom door, Audrey raised her hands to her eyes and pretended to cry. She doubled over, only to realize that pretense wasn’t necessary. Sobs seared her throat. “Run,” she whispered into her chest. “Run, run.”
Wiping her eyes, she looked up as Tall slid the pouch inside his shirt. He pulled two velvet jewelry boxes from the back of the safe, then turned, no doubt expecting to hand them to Short. “What the fuck—” He grabbed the gun and sprang to his feet. His work boot landed a savage kick on Audrey’s knee before he ran out of the closet.
She toppled backward, pain knifing down her leg. Dangling dresses and garment bags enveloped her. She huddled beneath them, arms wrapped around her throbbing knee, until she heard Tall’s footsteps pounding the stairs.
Forcing herself upright, she limped to the bedside phone. For a long moment, she stared at the keypad, her mind again maddeningly blank. As never before, she comprehended the terror of Alzheimer’s. “You’re safe,” she said. Raising her voice, she repeated it. It took three repetitions before she believed it, before her memory’s door unlocked, propelling her fingers to the proper keys.
Searing heat mounted below her patella. She labored across the room to the window overlooking the backyard. The place between her legs felt strangely damp. She glanced down. Yet another indignity: she’d wet herself.
Outside, Short was nowhere to be seen. Tall ran out of the house, across the lawn, and into the garden shed. The operator answered the call just as he emerged with a rake and Audrey’s gardening tote, bristling with hand tools. He’d shed the mask and sweatshirt and tied a red bandana around his forehead. A scraggly ponytail reached halfway down the back of his dirty T-shirt. He appeared no more suspicious than any member of the countless landscaping crews that showed up daily to manicure the neighborhood’s spacious lawns.
“Are you there? Houston 911, what’s your emergency?”
Tall pushed between two loose boards in the back fence—hurricane damage that Audrey and Phil kept meaning to have repaired—and disappeared.
“Burglary. A man with a gun. And a—” Should she mention the girl?
“Address, please. And a call-back number in case we’re disconnected.”
Audrey’s molars rattled so strenuously that her jaw ached. It was all she could do to grip the phone. Words emerged in bursts, like handfuls of stones hurled against a window. “Send the police—hurry—the man—he ran away.” She pulled a handful of tissues from the box on the dresser and shoved them down inside her slacks. Her face was wet, too, and she grabbed more tissues to stanch the tears. She no longer recognized herself. Where was the unflappable, take-charge psychiatrist?
“Please stay on the line, ma’am. I need your address and phone.”
Audrey stammered out a string of numbers, then realized she’d transposed two and corrected herself. She remembered, thank God, the name of her street. As she spoke, she made her way down to the foyer, each step a fresh blow to her knee.
Carmen sat slumped inside the coat closet with a dishrag jammed into her mouth. Thin cords, vaguely familiar, bound her wrists and ankles, cutting into her skin. No bleeding or visible lacerations. Mild swelling. Minimal bruising.
The operator raised her voice. Injuries? Ambulance?
The sight of Carmen’s stricken face and chafed skin steadied Audrey. Unlike everything else in the past hour, this was something familiar: a patient had presented and, mercifully, was not seriously harmed. Her jaw stilled. Her voice strengthened. “Just send police,” she told the operator, gently pulling the rag from Carmen’s trembling mouth. “The man ran away. He took my bag of garden tools. The gun’s probably hidden inside.”
Carmen began to sob. “Muchas gracias, Jesucristo! I thought that devil would shoot you!”
Audrey forced a smile. She took a deep breath to steady her voice. “They’re gone now. We’re both okay.” Another smile, convincing enough that Carmen stopped crying. “Hang on while I find some scissors.”
Audrey hobbled into the kitchen, repeating her address to the operator. The blind over the sink had been reduced to a pile of slats, splayed like a downed fence across the counter. A chef’s knife lay beside them. Audrey shuddered, imagining the blade in Tall’s gloved hand.
As she rummaged in the junk drawer, the tenacious operator kept asking questions. Number of intruders? Physical description? Audrey tried to describe Tall but could barely hear herself over the humming in her ears.
She limped back to the closet. Setting down the phone, she lowered herself onto her good knee, a position as awkward as it was painful. The operator’s voice leaked from the receiver. Audrey ignored it until she’d freed Carmen, then pressed the phone into Carmen’s hand. “It’s 911. Tell her what happened. I need to lie down.”
She lurched toward the sectional. A glittering scrim hung before her, clouding her vision. Her legs turned leaden. The glitter thickened and pressed against her, insistent as rushing water. Syncope. Low blood— She felt her body crumple as the wave, shining, roaring, rose up to claim her.
The rich woman’s neighborhood was full of high fences and locked gates. Ixchel’s sole escape route was the glaring openness of the sidewalk. She begged Santiago Apóstol for a miracle to help her evade both Eliseo and the police, though she knew she didn’t deserve one. Then she saw a green plastic barricade stretched around a yard where part of a house had been knocked down. She ignored the prominent signs—Danger, No Trespassing, Construction Zone—and sneaked through a gap in back. Crumpled gutters jutted out of a dumpster on a strip of pavement that must have once been the driveway. She crouched behind the dumpster, heart thudding like a drum. Her teeth chattered, even as sweat drenched her back. The wail of sirens competed with her pounding pulse as she wriggled out of Eliseo’s overalls and pulled off his sweatshirt. She stood just long enough to hurl them into the dumpster, praying they’d be buried in the morning by splintered boards and shattered glass. No matter how hard she rubbed her face, the scratchy, suffocating feeling of the fake mask refused to go away.
She waited until the sirens stopped, then waited a while longer. When she ventured back onto the sidewalk, she listened hard for the rattling engine of Eliseo’s van but heard only birdsong. She walked briskly, pretending that she was a normal eighth-grader hurrying home to check Instagram and watch YouTube movie trailers. Surely nobody could tell simply by looking that she didn’t have a cell phone or a computer. The absence of a backpack, however, worried her. She’d made it halfway down the block before she noticed a plastic-sheathed IKEA catalog lying in each driveway. She casually scooped up three, stripped off the plastic, and stuffed it into her shorts pocket. Holding the catalogs close to her chest, she pretended that they were books she’d taken from her locker. A backpack would have been more convincing, but at least now she wasn’t empty-handed.
She zigzagged from one street to another, each lavishly shaded by live oaks whose muscular branches stretched protectively across wide lawns. Not one dandelion marred the lush greenness. The houses astonished her too. One had a fountain, the next bushes trimmed to resemble animals. Columns. Turrets. Windows that dwarfed the ones at her church.
Twittering birds swooped between the trees. Leaf-blowers roared in the distance. There wasn’t a hint of droning, high-speed traffic. Her neighborhood—where billboards sprouted instead of trees and grass was in short supply—lay somewhere on the freeway’s opposite side. She walked purposefully, as if she took this route daily, but how could she be sure that she was heading in the right direction?
The catalogs grew heavier, until her arm ached and her hand turned numb. She shifted them to the other side and kept going. Her heart hammered as if she were sprinting around the middle-school track, trying to catch up with thin, long-legged classmates who got As, not Cs, in PE. Her throat was so dry it hurt to swallow. She risked a quick drink from the spray shooting out of a sprinkler head at the edge of a yard. More water got on her face and shirt than in her mouth. She hurried on before anyone noticed. People who lived in fancy houses didn’t drink from their neighbors’ sprinklers.
She held her breath each time she turned a corner. Had Eliseo taken off to pay his dealer, or was he cruising the neighborhood, looking for her? Even if she’d had the courage to ask for directions, she hadn’t seen one person, not even a maid on her way to a bus stop, since leaving the rich woman’s house. At Ixchel’s building, people always hung out in the parking lot—smoking, gossiping, cooking on rusty charcoal grills.
She stifled a scream when a squirrel darted directly in front of her and disappeared beneath a tall wooden fence. It, too, seemed eager to hide. Her throat tightened, and she quickened her pace. Catalogs, backpack—it didn’t matter. Simply walking in this neighborhood made her look suspicious.
Her pulse spiked when two boys on bikes peeled out of a driveway and sped toward her. She stared at the sidewalk and forced herself to keep walking, keep breathing—until they hopped the curb and screeched to a stop less than a yard away.
“Where’d you get those catalogs?” one asked.
Without raising her eyes, she said she needed them for a school project.
“Your uniform’s weird. What school do you go to?”
She tried to squeeze past them, but the blond boy moved his bike to block her path.
Lifting her chin, she said, “It’s not a uniform. I’m home-schooled.” She tried to sound like her best friend, Jacqui, who played soccer better than most boys and knew it. Jacqui had swagger and attitude, ineffable armor that deflected any challenge. She would have regarded the boys as if they were cockroaches she’d graciously decided not to step on. If only Ixchel had kept the rich woman’s purse. It would have been her armor, slung casually over her shoulder, silently proclaiming, I belong.
The boys exchanged glances. The blond boy’s cheeks were densely freckled. The other boy had dark hair and brown skin, but he wasn’t Hispanic. He studied Ixchel for a moment, then smirked. “You don’t live around here, do you?”
Ixchel tried to stare him down, to imagine the purse’s leather handles pressing her collarbone, its golden label catching the light and the boys’ attention. But all she felt was her thin veneer of bravery melting away. It trickled with her sweat down the backs of legs too chubby and short to make it around the school track, much less up and down a soccer field.
The brown boy appraised her as if she were the one who was a cockroach. Panic swelling inside her chest, Ixchel threw the catalogs at him and ran across the street.
Tires squealed. A horn blared. White and silver flashed in the corner of her eye. A hot draft passed quickly behind her. She kept running when she reached the opposite sidewalk, recalling the rich woman’s face, shadowed by clothes hanging above her in the closet. Run, run. Why would she have said that unless she’d known that Ixchel wasn’t evil like Eliseo? That Ixchel never could have brought herself to keep the beautiful purse?
On October 17, 2014, a Houston ER physician returned from work to find two masked, armed intruders in his home. They left with cash, jewelry, and guns but did not hurt the doctor or his housekeeper. Weeks later, when the police had exhausted all leads, the physician and his wife held a news conference. If the gunmen turned themselves in, the couple promised to pay for their education, including college.
When I read the newspaper account, I was struck by the immense story potential of this scenario. As is my habit when ruminating about a possible novel, I started by asking, What if? What if the physician were a woman? What if only one intruder were armed? And what if the second were a young girl?
Two characters began to take shape in my mind. The first is Audrey Reynolds, a geriatric psychiatrist with an arrogant streak and an uncommon skill for balancing career and family. Her professional standing is impeccable. Her husband is an equally successful developer, her ten-year-old twins picture-perfect. She leads an enviable life that, in her estimation, she’s earned and deserves.
The other character inhabits a dramatically different world, separated from Audrey’s by an eleven-lane freeway. Ixchel Puzul, the armed gunman’s thirteen-year-old cousin, is a terrified, last-minute conscript for the home invasion. The American-born daughter of an undocumented Guatemalan maid, she takes advanced academic classes but struggles to pass PE. Her meth-addicted cousin, taken in by her mother six months earlier, abuses Ixchel sexually whenever the opportunity arises.
What interested me most in the scenario were the flip sides of offering and accepting such a well-intended act of altruism. Aside from the obvious loss of liberty in juvenile detention, what might Ixchel sacrifice by taking Audrey up on her offer? How might Audrey’s gesture become as much an emotional commitment as a financial one? And if that happens, what consequences will it have for her family?
In order to fully explore the intersection of my protagonists’ extremely different lives, I knew I’d need to put them under the same roof and see what happened. Before that occurs, however, both experience profound losses that are indirect results of the robbery. In its immediate aftermath, Audrey and her family retreat to their lake house, where a freak accident claims the life of her daughter. And while Ixchel is in juvenile detention, her mother is deported without due process. Audrey’s marriage falters, and her son becomes alarmingly withdrawn. Ixchel endures juvee and a dysfunctional Child Protective Services group home. How she finds her way back to Audrey’s fractured family and subsequently becomes an integral part of it completes the novel’s narrative arc.
Though the story was inspired by a crime, it’s not a crime novel. The criminal act serves only as the catalyst for these characters’ challenging journey from violence and grief to radical forgiveness and healing.
Marian Szczepanski holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and teaches creative-writing workshops for Writespace in Houston and the Writers’ League of Texas in Austin. Her debut novel, Playing St. Barbara, was published by High Hill Press in 2013. She lives in Houston and Hood River, Oregon.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017