It was close to midnight when I was leaving the University campus. I had been working late in the photography lab, developing photos for a project my tutor had given me. This was well before digital photography, so I had been in the dark room for a long time dipping the photographic paper into different liquids, and left the photos to develop overnight.
It was dark, but a short walk back to the car park when I saw someone walk towards me. He was a man in his early forties, I’d guess. I was about to cross to the other side when I felt something sharp touch my back.
“Cross the road,” a man said behind me in a hushed tone.
I headed straight for the man in front of me, ignoring the order. Pleading for it to be one of the professors, someone who recognised me.
“What are you doing?” he said, I could hear the anger in his voice.
The other man, in front, came into view under a streetlight. I grimaced and mouthed for help.
I had no idea who he was. He had short grey hair, balding, a chubby, friendly face and a dark jacket.
“So good to see you,” he said, embracing me hard, then whispered, “that man has a knife, play along.”
“It’s been a long time,” I said nervously, and the man smelt my hair.
“You smell really good,” he said, putting his arm around me.
He led me to the car park, checking behind him to see if the man had gone.
“You’re safe now,” he said.
“Thank you so much. Shouldn’t we call someone?”
“That’s a good idea. Do you have a car?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking around, fondling in my pocket for my keys.
“Shit, my keys are gone.”
I thought back to the man, and wondered if he had taken them out of my coat pocket.
“I can’t leave you here alone, with someone like that around, I can give you a lift?”
“We need to report him.”
“I have a car phone; we can do it on the way to your house.”
I was so grateful, and still on edge. He led me to his car, a blue BMW, some sort of sports car.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
I gave him directions and we pulled out of campus. All I did was search in the dark night for the man who almost abducted me.
He called the University, and was put through to security. He described the man to them.
“What’s your name?”
“Sally, Sally Marshall,” I offered.
He described me.
“I’m a student here.”
He echoed it, and thanked them. He chuckled.
“That was a close one,” he said, “you have to wonder what would have happened if I wasn’t there.”
We followed the roads to my parent’s house and my shoulders began to relax.
“Thank you,” I said, and he smiled back to me.
His car phone rang.
“Excuse me,” he said, picking it up.
His demeanour changed almost instantly, “Stay where you are mother, I’m just dropping someone off, I can help you in a minute. Don’t move, you may hurt yourself. Calm down. I won’t be long.”
He put the phone down agitated.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“My mother’s fallen over again.”
“Is she in danger?”
“She’ll be fine. She has a plastic hip, as long as she doesn’t move, I think she’ll be okay.”
“How far away do you live?”
He thumbed in the direction we had come.
“Ten minutes that way.”
“We can go now. I’ll get a taxi from your place?”
“No, it’s fine,” he said, shaking his head – it didn’t look like it was the first time that had happened.
“Please, it’s the least I can do. You may need help getting her up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” I said.
“Thank you, so much!”
He turned in the road and drove off at speed. I was happy, I was going to help the man who helped me – karma. I saw a car race past us and slam on its brakes, and follow. I kept checking the wingmirror, leaning my head to see properly.
“What are you doing?” the man said somewhat nervously.
“I think someone is following us.”
He checked the rear view, and pulled down a side street, then squealed into another and another. He was mostly silent for the rest of the drive, except for small grunts he made when he changed direction quickly.
“I think they are gone,” he said, “thank you, I appreciate that.”
“Do you think it was the man with the knife?”
“Almost certainly, he’s not going to want you to get away.”
“I didn’t see his face.”
“But, I did.”
A few minutes later he pulled into a makeshift driveway. The house was on one of those narrow streets of townhouses, where the cars parked half-on, half-off the pavement. The front garden had been tarmacked for the use of cars.
The man was visibly agitated when we got out. He searched the stones near the steps, producing a key and opening the door. A musty odour wafted out.
“Mum?” the man announced.
“Who’s that?” an old woman’s voice shouted from within the house.
The man rushed in and I followed.
“You’re okay,” he said, relieved, “how did you get yourself back in the chair?”
“Of course, I’m okay,” the old woman said, annoyed, “who is this? Another one, Charlie? How many do you need?”
“I’m sorry,” the man apologised, “she’s got dementia.”
“No, I haven’t!” the old woman scolded.
The man twirled his finger about his temple. I smiled back at him.
“I’ll phone you a taxi,” he said, “I don’t want to leave my mother alone, do you understand?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Would you like a cup of tea, while you wait?”
“Sure,” I said, sitting down in a chair opposite his mother.
Charlie disappeared into the kitchen.
“Who are you then?”
“What are you doing with my awful son?”
“He saved me today.”
The woman cackled.
“That’ll be a first. I suppose you are going to want to go upstairs, like he does with all the other women. A different one every night.”
The woman turned to the kitchen and shouted, “when are you going to get married? I want a granddaughter.”
She rocked back and forth; her arms folded in front of her.
That’s when I saw him. A silhouette, barely visible through the net curtains at the front of the house. I watched as a head disappeared from view, then heard sounds of scratching from the front door.
“Charlie,” I whisper-shouted.
He returned moments later with the mug of tea.
“What’s going on? Is my mother telling you stories?”
“There’s someone trying to get in!”
I got up and ran to the corner of the room, and hid in a small ball. All the anxiety that I’d been holding back exploded.
Charlie turned off the living room light.
“What are you doing?” his mother whined.
He peaked around the net curtains. Apart from his wailing mother, it was silent.
“Do you think it’s him?” I asked, suddenly more than aware I was in a stranger’s house, with a potential rapist/killer trying to get in.
“You’re just like all the others with your crying. Why don’t you find a nice woman, Charlie?”
I jumped when I heard thumps at the back door, large bangs, as if someone was forcing all their weight onto it. Panicked I got up and ran.
“Don’t go upstairs, it’s not safe,” Charlie pleaded, stuck between stopping me or running to the back door.
I took the stairs two at a time. On the landing there were three different doors. I went through the first one on the left and closed it behind me. There was a bed, and someone slept.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I sighed when they didn’t wake.
From downstairs I heard screaming, the old lady screaming for her son. Then high-pitched crying and wailing, then silence. I stayed where I was, hiding in the corner behind the door. Then there were calm footsteps as someone ascended the stairs.
I held my hand over my mouth, stifling my laboured breaths. I heard doors open and close, knowing that mine was going to be next. I wasn’t scared when the door opened. I was relieved, in that way you feel better when you are caught in hide and seek, the tension is broken. From where I was, hidden in the corner, behind the door, I couldn’t see the man when he rifled through the bed sheets.
“Dear God,” he said to himself.
I didn’t do it on purpose. It must have bounced off my shoe. I watched as the door slowly returned to its previous position, revealing myself to the stranger who stood in the room.
“There you are!” he said, he eyes wild with madness, “you have to come with me.”
“No!” I demanded, slapping away his hand.
He didn’t look how I expected. His face was gaunt, his frame slender, the polar opposite to Charlie.
“That wasn’t a suggestion.”
The man grasped my hand and heaved me up. I clawed and hit his arm as he dragged me out of the bedroom.
“Charlie! Charlie,” the old woman screamed, as we descended the stairs.
“What did you do?” I demanded, but he wasn’t listening.
He pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and tried a few different ones as I pulled to get away, then stopped. Charlie’s lifeless body stared back at me from the floor, his eyes still open and looking at me, as if to say, run. A trickle of blood painted his face. Behind him, his mother held onto his body and rocked it back and forth.
“Charlie, wake up, you have to stop the bad man.”
She looked into my eyes, and her face contorted.
“You whore, just like all the others.”
Before I could react, I was yanked out of the house and into the street. I tried to scream, but the man held my mouth shut.
“You have to be silent if you want to live, do you understand me?”
Petrified, I stood still.
“Do you understand me?”
I nodded anxiously.
“Good, get in the car.”
He threw me in the driver’s side and pushed me over. I pulled on the passenger side handle, but it didn’t give way.
“STOP IT!” he shouted, “I’m trying to help.”
He accelerated away with anger and drove, his breathing hurried.
“You’re a fucking idiot, you know that right?” he said, spittle landing on my arm.
“Please don’t hurt me,” I pleaded, seeing the marks on my arm from his grip.
“I’m not going to hurt you. FUCK!”
His car revved and screamed as he negotiated the narrow streets.
After a few minutes he had calmed. Softly he asked, “Why didn’t you listen to me? Why did you hug him?”
“He said you had a knife.”
He shook his head.
“I was trying to help you.”
“It didn’t feel like it. What did you do to Charlie?”
“What I had to,” he hit the steering wheel, “I never thought I had it in me! Thank you!”
“I think he’s dying. We need to call for an ambulance!”
He rummaged around in his pockets.
“Are these your keys?” he said and sniffed defiantly.
Stunned, I said, “Yes.”
“I found them on your friend. He must have taken them from you when he hugged you. I’m going to drive you back to campus.”
“What’s going on? He called security about you.”
“I don’t think he did. I’m part of the security team, I’d have heard it over the radio.”
“What made you think he was going to do anything to me?”
“We had a report of a girl being forced into a car by someone meeting his description, but luckily, she got away.”
“Why didn’t you do something before? Why follow us out here?”
He didn’t answer, and continued to drive, contemplating what he was going to say next.
He sighed, “I was scared. I didn’t think I could do it. Then I saw you get into his car and I knew I had to do something.”
“Why didn’t you phone the police?”
“Aren’t you happy? I fucking saved you from a madman! Didn’t you see what was in the bed?”
He shook his head again. We drove in silence until we pulled up to the University.
“Thank you,” I said as I got out, I didn’t mean it, but it felt the right thing to do.
“Think of this as karma,” he shouted, then turned around and left.
I didn’t tell anyone about what happened. I don’t know if I was ashamed, that it was my fault.
I was at breakfast with my parents, when my father said, “You need to be careful when you’re out there, Sally.”
He was reading from the local newspaper.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“Such a shame, four prostitutes.”
“They’re called sex workers, dad.”
“Sorry, four sex workers found dead in a house only a couple of miles away from here.”
“Have they caught the man?” my mother asked.
“Yes, he was found dead in the house. His mother said a man and woman killed him. I guess it was a sex worker and her pimp. Good for them,” he said, “you’ve got to look out for yourself, you never know what could happen.”
I didn’t say a word.
“You’re not a sex worker, are you Sally?” my mother asked.
“Dear God, no!” I said, still thinking about the poor women found in the house, “can I have a look?”
Dad handed me the paper. The man’s face stared back at me, no longer the friendly man that
helped me, but a sombre photo, one from a previous conviction.
“Are you okay, Sally?” my dad asked, “that’s the face of a killer.”
I needed to tell someone, someone I trusted. I couldn’t keep it to myself. I told my lifelong friend, Jessica, she was in the same classes as me. We’d been drinking, after finishing our midterm exams. I told her everything. I told her of the man who pressed the knife into my back, although it wasn’t a knife. I told her about Charlie and how he took me to his house. I told her about the tea. That’s when it hit me, it was almost certainly drugged. If it wasn’t for the man who saved me, I may have not been here to tell her the story.
After the holidays, we were on campus. It was staying lighter for longer as summer approached. Jessica and I were walking to my car, and I saw the man, the man that helped me.
“That’s him!” I said, “he’s the one who saved me.”
“Go talk to him,” she said.
“He looks cute. Let me do it.”
She jogged over the road and began talking to him. I ran around a faculty building, feeling my embarrassment grow.
When I peeked out, I saw them walking arm in arm. Jessica always had a way with words, and I guess her face and figure help too.
I waited for her to phone later in the evening, but she didn’t. I guessed she got lucky. In the morning, I tried again. Her mother answered.
“Is Jessica there?”
“No, she didn’t come home last night. Is that Sally?”
“She said she was going to stay with you.”
“That was the plan, but she met someone.”
“Oh. Anyone you know?”
I thought about it for a moment. My mind flashed back to the sharp instrument placed against my back.
“No,” I said, “Can you tell her to phone me when she gets in?”
“I will do.”
I spoke to Jessica’s mum most mornings, until the calls became less and less frequent, until they stopped altogether.
He saved me. He wouldn’t do anything to her. They just ran off together, happily ever after. That’s what I tell myself. Happily. Ever. After.