Home sweet home…Alice thought numbly as she lowered the last box to the decrepit wooden floor. The place was modest, old, and would need some work. Surely she could handle it. At least, she was free of him, that controlling, possessive maniac.

            Alice stood there, trying to convince herself that being alone in this silent, dusty apartment was a good thing, then began unpacking. She didn’t own much and would need to buy some furniture, but she could do this the next day.

She decided to take her kitchen utensils out, settling the porcelain teapot her mom had bought for her onto the counter, hoping the space would feel cozy this way. As she worked, she noticed a thick smell floating around her. Scrunching up her nose, Alice looked around herself to find the possible source. She turned to the sink and bent over it, squinting at the dark pipe. Maybe something had rotten inside. She crouched to open the cupboard under the sink. The doors moved a little but something inside seemed to block them shut.

            Weird.

            She could worry about it later. For now she wanted to do as much work as she could, eager to find a sense of comfort before dark. She headed to her small bedroom and put fresh sheets on the bare mattress lying on the floor, then rose to her feet and admired her work. It still looked pitiful but at least it was clean.

A floorboard groaned. Alice froze in place, unease settling in her guts, straining to listen.

Don’t be stupid, you’re just scared to be alone, that’s it.

The apartment was quiet. It must have been the wood relaxing after the hot day.

She snatched her purse with a clammy hand and hurried outside, craving the fresh air. She’d seen a few fast food places on her drive here. Alice locked the door behind herself and exited the building on weak legs.

When she came back holding a bag of Chinese food, she felt refreshed and soothed. Being alone would take some time getting used to, especially for the scaredy cat she was, but it was better than living with a mad man. Alice unlocked the front door and was assaulted by that musky smell again. She clasped a hand over her mouth and winced, looking around the living room.

Something was off. Out of place. Alice’s heart picked up the pace as she tried to figure out what, then her eyes fixed on the boxes against the opposite wall. She could swear she hadn’t come around to open them yet, but there they were, their flaps bent outward, as though someone had pulled them open. Alice approached the boxes and leaned over, then sniffed. It reeked. Faint, greasy stains dotted the cardboard.

A shuffling sound made her freeze. It was so brief she almost missed it. On edge, Alice rushed to her right and burst into the kitchen, listening. The musky smell still lingered but nothing seemed out of place.

She settled the bag of Chinese food onto the small counter, no longer hungry, and checked into the bedroom and the bathroom, the back of her shirt damp with sweat, each time expecting someone to jump at her. The apartment was empty and silent. Alice hurried back to the front door to lock it with a shaky hand. She couldn’t keep herself from staring through the peephole, certain she would see him standing on the other side. But the hallway was empty, of course.

He’s not here, Alice. He hasn’t followed you and he hasn’t been in your apartment.

Paranoia was making her imagine things. The noise she’d heard had come from outside, surely, and she had opened the boxes herself and simply didn’t remember it.

The evening passed in a flash and Alice squirmed under the sheets and lay in the dark, staring at the gray rectangle painted by moonshine on the opposite wall.

Despite the crushing fatigue, Alice couldn’t sleep. It was like sleeping in a stranger’s house. She’d been uncomfortable during the day already, but now the place felt disturbing, grim, and unwelcoming, as though it didn’t want her. It made her skin crawl. Her sudden solitude weighed on her, crushing her chest as her eyes burned. Her mind raced and swirled for a while until she succumbed to a disturbed slumber.

A stench tickled her nose and pulled her out of her doze. The same musky and thick smell of sweat and dirt coming from the kitchen and coating the boxes in the living room. Nausea rose through her as she stirred and rolled onto her back. The odor lingered, overpowering and suffocating. Alice opened her eyes.

A dark shape stood at the foot of the mattress. Alice’s stomach dropped and a shiver crawled down her spine. A scream crept through her throat but died before it could escape her mouth.

The shape swayed slowly, letting out a ragged breath. Its hair stuck on end and its fists looked like they were clenched tightly.

I’m dreaming. This is a nightmare. It’s not him.

“Mine…” the hoarse voice whispered.

This snapped Alice out of her torpor and the scream finally escaped her mouth. The humanoid shape seemed to shrink under the noise. It staggered then shot out of the room in a flash.

Alice listened to panicked footsteps running away from the bedroom, her body drenched in cold sweat. She reached for her phone and pressed the button. Her chest tightened painfully. She’d forgotten to charge it and the batterie had died.

“Shit, shit, shit!”

Something broke in the kitchen, making her cry out in surprise. A heavy silence fell over the apartment. She listened, shaking, her blood pulsing in her ears, her nerves raw. Whoever the man was, he hadn’t left the apartment. She needed to reach the front door and get out. Fast.

She looked around herself and her heart sank. There wasn’t even an acceptable makeshift weapon within reach. Most of her things were still packed in the living room. She rose on cotton legs and tip-toed to the living room.

Just get to the door and run.

Alice crept out of the small corridor and peeked inside the kitchen to her left. The room was dark, but the thin strands of moonlight glowing through the window lit the shattered porcelain pieces scattered on the floor.

The smell wafted around her, making her gag. Something was out of place here. Something else than the broken teapot. The knot in Alice’s stomach tightened as she understood what.

One of the cupboard doors under the sink stood open. Her breath caught and her heart leaped in her throat. Did he come from there? Was he hiding in there this whole time?

“My… home…”

The cupboard door slammed shut. Alice stumbled back, her chest tight, and a hand clasped over her mouth.

There’s a man in my cupboard.

The front door was within reach, no one stood in her way, but Alice stayed there, rooted to the floor. The man hadn’t attacked her. She had lived with a violent man, and the one hiding in the closet was different. He was scared. Her legs moved on their own as she approached the kitchen and turned the lights on. The bag of Chinese food had been opened, and what used to contain Chow Mein now stood open and empty.

Alice walked on feet that felt like bricks and crouched in front of the cupboard. She raised a shaky hand and wrenched it open. She jerked backward and shuffled away frantically, heart pounding, staring at the person curled up under the sink. The wild, dark eyes surrounded by deep creases looked back at her, the disheveled hair framing an old woman’s grime-coated face.

“My home,” she said, her voice rasping. She reached for the doors with greasy hands and pulled them shut.

#

            “Home sweet home.” Alice smiled as she looked around her furnished living room. Sunlight poured through the windows, warming her exposed skin. The place looked clean and cozy and warm, and after days of cleaning she had finally gotten rid of the ambient stench.

            She headed to the kitchen and brewed some tea in the brand new teapot. She missed the old one, but this one was objectively prettier. Once her cup was ready, Alice sat at her small kitchen table and opened a bag of chocolate chip cookies. The scrunching sound of the wrapper would draw her out, surely.

            A smile stretched Alice’s lips as one of the doors under the sink opened a crack, letting a clean hand peek out. She leaned over and dropped a few cookies in the upward facing palm, glimpsing the sparkle of dark eyes for half a second. The hand full of cookies disappeared as the other one reached out, frozen in mid-air expectantly.

            “Nuh-uh. If you want tea, you’ll have to get out. You’ll make a mess in there.”

            The hand retreated and the door shut slowly, delicately. Alice let out a small chuckle and sipped the warm beverage.

            She’d told her she could sleep on the couch at night, but she liked it in there. She probably felt safe, the way Alice did now. Alice had wanted her independency and freedom, but the idea of living alone had filled her with dread.

            She was never really alone though, was she?

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