Eleanor crouched in the library, hunched over. The gnawing ache of stooping above books all night caught up with her. Every muscle whined for a horizontal bed. She let out a long, strained sigh. As if breathing out all her deadline torments. She stretched away from her desk cubicle and rubbed her eyes. It was hours ago she had splashed off her light make up in the ladies’. Her phone screen lit up. Unknown caller. If you knew Eleanor, then you’d know that she never ever answered withheld caller IDs. Or oftentimes known callers. Who even spoke over the phone anymore nowadays; unless it was for work or sorting out forms? She hated it. There was just something about not being able to see the other person, having to listen in on their every word. Being so close to a stranger. She shuddered. It rang silently until the screen went dark and the caller was sent to voicemail.
Eleanor looked at her keys, longingly thinking of going home. She checked her watch. It was so late it was beyond early. Eleanor hit save on her laptop and scooped it into her bag; along with the smattering of pages her pen had scribbled illegible notes over. Stifling a yawn, Eleanor pulled her wool long-line coat on and shouldered her rucksack. Whilst heading down the stairs she negotiated the knotted earphones. Damn string theory. The screen lit up again. Under her breath, Eleanor swore with tired frustration.
All-nighters were becoming all too regular for Eleanor, deadlines fast approaching. So the dark walk back didn’t faze her anymore. The route home through the uniform streets was so imprinted on her mind, her feet did all the work now. Instead, she calmed her overworked mind with Florence and the Machine. A sorry compensation to its sleep-deprived abuse. Tonight, the streets were vaguely lit by the first thought of sun-rise. Looking up at the sky, smoky clouds were dusted faintly with a thin violet outline. Longingly, she thought of those missed evenings curled up on the sofa with Edwin watching some sitcom; sacrificed for these all-nighters. Eleanor was exhausted. She wondered whether to head for bed or the coffee maker when she got in. But her thoughts of a steaming hot cup and hitting back against clean white linen were intruded on.
The phone, sitting in her inside pocket, tickled against her chest, pausing Florence. Crossly, she tore it out of her coat, jabbed at the green button and held out in front of her mouth.
“Hello?” Eleanor asked gruffly. Her earphones fed her the long silence. Any remnants of her patience snapped. “Hello?! Do you know what time it is?” No answer. She took a deep breath.
The feeling her tired anger ebbed away, an unnerving prickly sensation taking over instead. She didn’t say anything else, her tongue felt knotted in some way. Her steps slowed down. To her horror, she heard the noise on the phone. As she slowed down, she was falling out of rhythm. Out of rhythm with the identical sound on the phoneline. Footsteps. Brisk, consistent paces. Trouser material rubbing against itself. And hard soles against pavement. The distinctive click of the sole of suit shoes. A horrible wave of nausea swept over Eleanor. The prickly feeling crawled up her back. She felt her muscles tense up, rooting her to the ground. The phoneline continued to walk. This couldn’t be Edwin, he just didn’t do things like this; none of her friends would for that matter. They knew she was hard pressed with her thesis right now so wouldn’t find a prank like this amusing. And this couldn’t be a butt dial. Who walks around at this time? And in expensive suit shoes? A butt dial wouldn’t have a withheld caller ID.
Thoroughly confounded, Eleanor wanted to talk. If she could just get a response out of whoever this was. To hear their voice.
“Hello? Who is this? Where are you?” she asked, spinning around.
A clear sense of her own vulnerability dawned on her. Alone, on an empty street. The uniform houses all had their windows curtained. No one in sight. She wasn’t close to home, or near enough to turn back to the library. Fuck. All the while the footsteps marched on. Eleanor’s stomach clenched, the prickling sensation consuming her skin: down her legs, over her shoulders, across her arms.
Feeling watched, her primal instincts took a hold and she began running. Not caring that the phoneline picked up the sound of her flimsy mustard dolly shoes pounding pathetically against the street. Turning this way and that way along familiar streets leading her home: if she could just get there. All the while her earphones beat out the steady, unchanging footsteps.
Her thick coat became an iron sheet against the wind. The ache from hunching over all night bit into her shoulders. Her legs felt like they couldn’t move fast enough, like long wads of floppy jelly. As she turned a corner, her house came into view. The sight of the row of little redbrick terraces seemed to hug Eleanor. She panted harder, betraying her exhaustion to the unknown caller. But she couldn’t stop. Her muscles were alight, lungs stinging. As she came closer to the house, she saw a comforting amber light from the bathroom: a lighthouse calling out in a storm. Just like Edwin to be up this early, no doubt thinking about a fry up before the commute to work. That bubble of normality seemed strange to Eleanor, thrown into this sudden tangle of panic and confusion. If she could just get to the door. Away from whatever this phone call meant.
All the while, Eleanor hadn’t once dared to look behind her. She needed speed. She didn’t want to know anything but that she was almost home. The idea of being watched tingled hotly through her body. Her hands frantically fumbled in her pockets as she pounded the pavement, the sound of the stranger’s march still tattooing her eardrums. A jumble of fingers found the door key. She tore over the small garden gate and reached the front door, hitting the key in the lock. It wouldn’t go in. Shit. She pulled out another silver key and tried that one. Not now for God’s sake.
In some subconscious field, she saw a vague movement flickering under the streetlights at the corner of her eye. Her head turned. A figure. A black figure. Striding in time to the rhythm on the phone. Her stomach plummeted and the hand holding the keys froze over.
As if possessed, Eleanor slammed on the door with all the strength left in her shattered body.
“Ed! Open the door! Let me in! Let me in right now! Ed! EDWIN!” her voice screeched out, panic pulsating in her throat. The figure was getting closer. So close now that she could make out his clothes. He wore a smart black trench coat over a crisp white shirt. His legs were obscured by the front garden hedge she looked out over. Between the glare of the streetlights and the softening dark sky, she could make out the beady gleam of black sunglasses.
Fuck. What is this?
Eleanor rapped on the door again, whilst scrabbling to find a key she hadn’t tried yet. His footsteps hadn’t picked up pace, even though he was so near and undoubtedly saw Eleanor wrestling with the door. If he could see her behind the overgrown driveway and those sunglasses when it was this dark? As she held up her last key, Eleanor looked over her shoulder once more. She let out a shout. The man was right outside the house. He strode swiftly, turning into the front garden, the little gate screeching open. He was meters away, crunching across the drive towards her. Screaming, she stabbed the key into the door. It worked. He was an arm’s length away as she turned it, expecting at any second to feel his fingertips on her back.
She punched open the door and slammed it shut. And pulled across the security chain for good measure. For a split second she heard the last gravelled steps but then radio silence. The small semi-circle of wavy glass on the top of the front door showed a shadowed head. Eleanor breathed heavily. They could have stood like that, separated by a door, for hours.