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Watching Her Without Me by Madeleine D'Este

The first night I stood watching her house, there was drizzle. Under a wide-leaved fig tree, a foots-breadth away from the gleam of the amber streetlamp, I loitered safely on the other side of the road. A dogwalker sauntered right past me on the dead suburban street. He was so transfixed by his phone he didn’t even notice me; I could have been a telephone pole. In the wet air, I waited but the right moment never came, and when all the lights went out in the house, I slipped away, soggy and cold. She was inside. I presumed she was alone, I hoped she was, but I needed to be absolutely sure. I didn’t want any interruptions.

The next night I ventured closer, right up to her rusty wire front fence and severely pruned roses. I stared at the front door, with its fake lead-lighting, painted ivy on glass, while light glimmered from inside. She was home. I smiled to myself and wiped the film of sweat off my palms. In my sneakers, I crept up beside a white car, alone in the driveway, a model as practical and dull as a fridge, and continued up the path. I treaded carefully over the smooth white stones until I reached a single step and then the front door. With my pointer finger, I stroked the glossy surface. I was so close and she didn’t even know I was here. Then with a grin, I turned and disappeared back into the shadows.

The third night, the sky was free of clouds and the wind like needles of ice. The white car sat in the same position in the drive, and again, dim light oozed through the glass side panels of the front door. This time, I was sure, and instead of taking the front path, I skirted around the side of the house. My fists were bunched and hard as rocks. I passed a window with curtains firmly closed, the mumble of television voices leaching through the glass. She was laughing like a donkey and I clenched my teeth until they squeaked. I slipped my hand through the hole in the wooden fence and let myself in. The gate creaked open, the wind swallowing up the noise, and I snuck along the brick wall of the house and into the neat backyard. Old woman knickers and bras on the washing line flapped in the breeze, but no thick brown socks or Y-fronts. My heart thumped under my hoodie. My sneakers glided over the patio pavers until I stopped outside a sliding glass door. The room inside was dark; weak light from deeper in the house rippled over a kitchen table and chairs. I wrapped my fingers around the black handle and pushed. The glass door slid open, smoothly, silently, and I almost ruined it all by laughing out loud. I pushed it open and stepped into the cloying smells of rich tomato, garlic, and mince. Spaghetti bolognese for dinner. I closed the sliding door with a slight thud as obnoxious advertisements blasted down the hallway.

I switched on the kitchen light, the fluorescent tube zapping to life while I filled the kettle with water. As it boiled, I took a seat and waited, a smirk on my face. A vase filled with ugly fake flowers sat in the centre of the crumb-free table. I picked it up, swapping the ceramic cylinder from one hand to another, back and forth.

When the kettle reached its crescendo, the volume of the television dropped.

“Hello,” she called, a wobble in her voice.

I kept quiet.

Slippers scuffed on the carpet.

“Who’s there?” she demanded. Again, I said nothing.

Blinking behind her glasses, she appeared in the doorway, dumpy and puffy wrapped in a terry-towelling robe.

“Surprise,” I said.

She shrieked and grabbed for her heart.

I arched an eyebrow. “Aren’t you glad to see me, Mum?”

“Susie?” she sputtered. “I thought you were…”

“Tell me he’s gone.”

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