Short Fiction by Sophie Powell
If someone broke into your house now, how would you get out?
Ever since I was a child I have always planned my escape route. It started as a game; a question posed to myself. Then I would spend a delicious few minutes plotting my escape. It was a child’s flight of fancy of course, and part of the joy was scaring myself.
Sometimes I had to stop if it got too frightening, or if I had checkmated myself into a corner. Although there weren’t many places that I couldn’t work out how to flee from in the house I grew up in. Both bedrooms were on the ground floor at the front of the house and had windows you could jump from. The house was detached, with a front and back garden. All routes ended in the garden in some way, after that you had a choice. As long as you weren’t seen from the windows you could make it to the street. There was a gate at either side of the house, also a garage with lockable doors at the front and back. Four exit points.
Locking yourself into the bathroom was one option; even though it left you with your back to the wall, it bought you time. Could you squeeze out of the top part of the window? Would the attacker realise that if they went out of the kitchen door and turned left they could catch you? If they did you were terrifyingly trapped. If they didn’t, then you could probably disappear into the garage, or let yourself out of the side gate.
Stealth was important. If you put your hand on a certain point of your bedroom door when you went to the bathroom in the night, the click wouldn’t wake anyone else. This was useful information and could be filed away. Especially if you might need to swap rooms before you made it to an exit.
Our house had started off as a bungalow but had been extended up and then out, like a child’s Lego construction. As a result, it did not follow the typical configuration of rooms. The lounge was upstairs; it had two windows with excellent views over the valley and a Velux window pointing at the sky.
This was the trickiest place to escape from. You might have the advantage that the attacker, coming in at the ground floor level, did not yet know you were there. But if someone was at the foot of the stairs the only way out was on to the roof. Even from the porch it was a long drop.
On the right-hand side of the lounge was another window. This was a better option; it brought you within jumping distance of the garage roof and the next-door neighbour’s garden. I had seen squirrels and cats make the leap and I wondered if I could. I would probably use the doorframe of the side gate, balancing on that before letting myself down the other side.
I liked the idea of finding a neighbour’s door open, walking through the strange house nonchalantly and letting myself out onto the street. The intruders would be looking for me in vain inside the house they had broken into.
I was always alone in the game. It was far too frightening to involve my younger sister. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else in my imagination. I escaped solo, and the game finished when I made it to the street. There was no logical follow up such as finding help or contacting family members. Just a simple premise; how do you get out?
Do you want to play?
From where you are now.
Imagine someone has arrived at your open bedroom window. Perhaps they are breaking in to steal things, but you are there and they weren’t expecting you. They will attack you. You can hide first if you like but then you must escape. How are you going to get out?
How did you do?
From where I am now I would drop to the floor and hide in the well of the writing desk I am sitting at, wait for the person to pass the door of the study through the narrow hallway, then run for the front door, grabbing keys on my way out and lock it behind me. Then even if they tried to follow me they would at least be stalled.
I live in a very different house now. Terraced, on a hill, over four floors. No jumping from these windows. From a distance the multi coloured houses look charming and bright. They climb steeply up the hill and arrange themselves in neat upright rows. They make it onto calendars, and local artists paint pictures of them. It is a local joke to try and match your car or your outfit to the jaunty paintwork.
Up close the effect is shabbier, less professional-artist and more like a child’s painting where the colour has gone over the lines. The cars are squeezed together and bumped onto the kerb. There are regular local arguments about whether you should or should not park on the pavement. Seagulls spill rubbish over the streets.
The other day whilst hanging laundry on the airer in my bedroom I had an uneasy feeling. I realised that I hadn’t planned an escape route from that room. It suddenly came to me. I was facing the window and my back was to the door. But by then of course it was too late.
I had heard on the local community notice board about a spate of burglaries in the area. Either the burglar had keys, or they broke the lock. There was speculation about people posing as builders. All the houses have narrow hallways; most people hang their coats by the door. The perpetrators broke in, often while people were at home, took stuff by the door, wallets, car keys, work bags and left.
Perhaps it was knowing this that made me uneasy. My sister thinks so. But at that moment there was a definite prickle down my spine. I had my back to the door.
I should have known what to expect, and yet the jolt to my head was still a surprise. I lurched forward into the airer; it is the heated kind and the metal seared my skin. I choked on the damp washing.
I tried to stand but my ankles were kicked from underneath me and I landed sharply on my ribs, catching the side of the bed as I came down. It was all I could do to catch my breath. I had bitten my tongue as I lurched forward, and my mouth filled with irony blood. And then another crack as a piece of wood slammed into my head, and I lost consciousness.
I came round in the Royal Sussex hospital with the mother of all headaches. Worse than the aftermath of a bottle of tequila, this one. My lips felt swollen and it hurt to breathe.
“You broke your ribs when you fell,” my sister explained. She was sitting by my bed. She looked strained and pale. “It might hurt to breathe for a while.” she smiled weakly, her lips like paper. “You’re going to have some pretty bad bruising.”
“Do they know who did it?” I managed to ask
“Nobody did it Fran, that’s it, they think you may have had some kind of a fit. They’ve been asking me about epilepsy in the family.”
I stared at her.
“I told them there isn’t any history, but they want to monitor you. We had to break the door down. Your neighbour with the baby said she heard you shouting, but you wouldn’t answer.”
I couldn’t speak. My mouth stung. I felt exhausted, like a discarded rag.
I was in hospital for three nights. Then they said I could go home. I got a taxi, but I didn’t like the way the doors locked themselves with a hollow clunk as we drove, and the driver kept looking at me in the mirror. That was one week ago.
I am having a recurring dream since the attack, a nightmare really. I am lost in a hotel; a maze of corridors and I can’t find my room. It is too hot, and everything smells of over cooked food. Every turn I choose takes me further away from the exit. There is no way out.
I have moved my mattress into the kitchen. It is in the basement and there are double doors out to the garden. The garden wall is low on both sides, and the gardens back onto each other from the next road down the hill. But I would have to climb over five walls in one direction to get to the street. If I climbed into an opposite neighbour’s garden and their back door was open I could exit onto a different street altogether. This idea excites me. When my ribs have healed a bit more I will practice at night-time, climbing the walls.
There is also a utility room at basement level, which I could hide in for a while, maybe. If I did that and then the perpetrator went into the garden looking for me I could run up the stairs and exit via the front door.
My sister is concerned. Although she can’t visit every day because she teaches in a secondary school, she comes as often as she can. She suggests getting a chain on the door and turning the key in the Chubb lock to make myself feel safer. I can’t do that. I can’t lock myself in.
I haven’t seen them yet, not since the attack. But next time they come for me, I will be ready.