Patty explains everything to Mike’s mom when she gets home. Ms. Brook is unnerved and begs her to stay—and while she entertains the idea for a minute, Patty realizes she can’t. Nobody is home to take care of her dogs. And while Ms. Brook offers to drive her home to take care of them and then drive her back here, Patty declines. Even if it wasn’t for the dogs, she would still want to be home, where she knows every corner and cranny, and where she isn’t reliant strictly on a telephone on the wall if something happens. Ms. Brook looks disappointed and a little hurt, but understands. Still, Patty leaves the house with burning cheeks and a paranoid (and probably—hopefully—completely wrong) suspicion that this is the last time she’ll be asked to babysit for young Mikey.
She doesn’t get six blocks before the wind hits her and tries to freeze her eyeballs solid, and this makes her rethink the whole my-puppies-need-me aspect of the endeavor a bit. Two and a half miles in this weather? In the dark? With some wackaloon wandering around staring into people’s windows? Suddenly the prospect of staying at the Brook home seems infinitely preferable. Then she recalls how last week she dozed off on the couch and woke up just in time to see Mikey dropping a wad of bubble gum into her hair.
Patty starts walking faster. The dogs may lose control and drop a deuce on the rug every once in a while, but they’re still better company than Mikey Brook and his prepubescent pranks. Besides, she ate the last of their peanut butter earlier.
It takes between twenty minutes and half an hour to walk the distance from Mikey’s home to hers. It would be faster, but with the snow on the ground and her old old boots interacting badly with it, it’s better to move slowly. She marks her passage with the crunch of each step, and counts each streetlight as she passes it. There are twenty-three of them. She gets most of the way to number fourteen before she hears the footsteps behind her.
At first she thinks it’s her own footfalls, echoing back to her across the empty parking lot of the high school across the street. But she continues to hear them, crunching steps slightly out of time with hers, even after she passes the school. She remembers the man at the Brook’s window; suddenly it dawns on her what a bad, bad idea this really is, and she begins to walk faster. After a moment the footsteps behind her speed up as well. She thinks she hears a muttered curse. Patty mutters a curse of her own and starts to run.
The footsteps behind her speed up even more.
Okay girl, she thinks, now’s when you find out if all that treadmill work you do at the gym is worth it.
With a mile to go before she gets back to her house, Patty lengthens her stride and begins to run faster. Her breath fans out behind her in ghostly plumes. Behind her the pursuing footsteps increase their pace as well, forming a staccato counter-rhythm against her, intruding on her concentration, insinuating that she isn’t fast enough, that she is clumsy, that she will trip and fall, that what she’s doing is useless, it’s a mile, maybe more, she’s cold, she’s tired, better just give in and—
“Fuck that,” she hisses, and puts on some more speed. She is rewarded with a wordless, frustrated grunt from her pursuer. Then he too speeds up. Again.
Patty moans a little and keeps pushing herself, but she can only run so fast. She wants to look back and see how close he is, but knows that if she does she will surely slip and fall on the treacherous sidewalk. There are patches of ice and mounds of half-melted, then refrozen snow every few feet ahead of here, and even under the harsh, unnatural glare of the sodium lights above (sixteen now, seventeen coming up on the left, but still too slow, too slow by half) it is impossible to see some of the hazards until she is almost on top of them. Every few steps she feels her feet wanting to skid out from under her and she thinks, oh my God I am so screwed.
She counts the streetlights.
At number nineteen she hears his breathing, ragged and hoarse, behind her. He’s getting nearer with every step. She tries to ignore it but she can’t, she’s getting a stitch in her side, her legs are beginning to feel like lead, and she’s sure that soon she’ll feel his breath on her neck, his hand on her shoulder, his foot snaking between hers and tripping her to the hard cold ground …
Time to change the rules of the game.
Patty sees a clear patch of sidewalk coming up; on either side is a small hill of snow and ice chunks. Rock salt glitters in the half-light like the fallen stuff of stars. It grinds under her boots as she runs across it, forcing her legs to work harder, to put on extra speed before whoever is chasing her can catch her up. As she runs she reaches down and grabs at a likely looking chunk of snow and ice. It comes up in her hand, not quite rock solid, and as it does she plants her feet, pirouettes with a dancer’s grace, and lets fly.
She finishes her spin and keeps running, but before she does she catches a fast, indelible glimpse of the man chasing her. He’s tall, bulky, and wears a long padded duster that extends nearly to her feet. He wears no hat; bare scalp gleams in the moonlight and the streetlight (twenty now) almost there, but still too slow). His face is a half-boiled mess of scar tissue. A scream bubbles up in her throat but she doesn’t give in to it; instead she lets the adrenaline from her fright pour into her legs and re-energize them. She begins to pick up speed again. Behind her the scar-faced man roars, and she hears him stumble and fall. Apparently her throw was on the mark; that, or he has found a patch of black ice she somehow, fortunately, missed. Either way it is a gift horse, and as far as she’s concerned its mouth is off limits.
The stitch in her side gets worse, but she has her second wind now, and ignores it, ignores everything but her feet on the pavement, and the ice and the snow and the passing streetlights, twenty-one now, and then twenty-two on the corner where she cuts a hard right turn. And there it is, midway down the block, her two story A frame house, the roof a patchwork of badly replaced shingles she can’t afford to have re-done correctly. The living room light is on and Pepper, her chocolate lab, is perched with his feet on the first floor window sill waiting for her. When he sees her he’ll start wiggling around with all the puppy in his soul and then—
—a freight train smashes into her from behind, and her thoughts go whirling. She lands rough, the wind knocked out of her. Her head smashes against the icy sidewalk, hard enough to make her see stars. She rolls over on her back, but her limbs have somehow turned to jelly and refuse to move fast enough. her second wind has suddenly become a tornado, and she’s caught up in it, at the mercy of the moment.
And then her pursuer’s scarred face leans into view above her. His yellow teeth are gritted in a death rictus, and she knows. She knows.
She’s never getting home again.