Home > Newest Books > Strangers: A Novel

Strangers: A Novel
Author:Ursula Archer & Arno Strobel

Strangers: A Novel

Ursula Archer & Arno Strobel



1

It’s only by chance that I see the entrance light flicker on. Because I happen to glance across at the bathroom window as I blow-dry my hair. Outside, there is light where there shouldn’t be any.

Someone must have activated the motion sensor, but I’m not expecting anyone, so there’s no way I’m opening the door if the bell rings. In general, I’ve got nothing against friends dropping by unannounced, but the last thing I’m in the mood for today is Ela turning up on the doorstep with two bottles of red wine and launching into an endless monologue about how she’s really going to break up with Richard this time, without a shadow of a doubt.

No. She’ll just have to come to terms with her lousy relationship by herself today. But then again, maybe it’s just Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I switch the hair dryer to a higher speed so I won’t even have to lie when I say I didn’t hear the doorbell. I ignore the nagging sense of unease gradually unfurling inside me. Sure, sometimes burglars ring the doorbell first to make sure no one’s home before they strike. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I haven’t been in Germany long enough to know how common it actually is. I may speak the language fluently, but when it comes to day-to-day life, there’s a lot that’s still foreign to me.

Besides, it’s silly to think the worst just because of a harmless ring of the doorbell.

For heaven’s sake, I’m not usually like this.

A few moments later, the entrance light goes out again.

I turn off the hair dryer, nudge the curtain of the bathroom window aside a little, and peer out. There’s no one there. Neither a visitor nor someone trying to break in through the door or windows.

Dad would throttle me with his bare hands if he knew I was living alone in an unprotected house—there are more security cameras at our family compound in Melbourne than at the Pentagon. Another reason I’m glad to be away from there.

For the next few minutes everything is still, and the pressure weighing down on my chest slowly dissipates, giving way to joyful anticipation. There’s nothing else standing in the way of a relaxing evening on the couch, and I can’t wait. A cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a good book are everything I want from the rest of today—also, maybe someone who’d be willing to massage my back for me. I have no idea where the tension between my shoulder blades has come from.

Vanilla tea. Just the thought of it warms me up. I slip into my bathrobe and open the door to the hallway, then make my way down the stairs. Halfway down, I pause.

There was … a noise. A clinking sound. From inside the house. Someone smashing in a window pane? No, it wasn’t loud enough for that.

All at once, the uneasiness from before comes crashing back, this time with twice the force. My hand grips the banister. I take a deep breath, try to pull myself together, walk down another step. You’re being silly, I tell myself, burglars would make much more noise. They would snatch as much stuff as they could and try to make off with it as quickly as possible—

Another sound. Not a clinking this time, but a scraping. Like a drawer being opened and closed.

My first impulse is to turn around. Run to my bedroom, call the police. Hide.

Instead, I fight all my instincts and remain there, as I realize I don’t even have this one, sensible option. My phone is in the kitchen, its battery almost dead. I had put it on the espresso machine, in plain sight, so I wouldn’t forget to charge it.

But the kitchen and living room are precisely where the noises are coming from.

I walk down another two steps. Yes, I can see light through the crack of the living room door.

I take a deep breath to beat back my fear, which seems much too great for the context. The fact that the light’s on doesn’t mean a damn thing; I’m always forgetting to turn it off. So there’s no reason to panic. And besides, the front door is right in front of me. If I need to, I can be outside in five seconds to get help, no matter if I’m in my bathrobe or not.

I hold my breath. Concentrate and listen hard. Now there’s nothing but silence. Was I wrong, did I just imagine the noises? My mind considers this to be entirely possible, but my wildly hammering heart says otherwise. And if there’s one thing I can’t bear, it’s uncertainty.

There’s a paperweight on the dresser in the hall. Ela gave it to me a few weeks ago. A cube made of blue glass, at least four pounds in weight. I pick it up in one hand, ignoring the junk mail which sails down to the floor, and slowly, slowly, open the living room door.

Nothing. Nobody. At least not in here. The living room is untouched; the terrace door is completely intact; everything is just as I left it.

As far as the kitchen is concerned, though, I’m not sure yet. I can’t get a glimpse of it from where I’m standing, and the light’s off.

The paperweight almost slips out of my sweaty hand. I grip it tighter and take a step into the living room. Silently. Another step. Until I’m standing in the middle of the room.

Right when I’m starting to laugh at myself for being so foolish, a shadow steps out of the darkness of the kitchen.

The scream which tries to escape from me dies out halfway, as if there were suddenly no breath left in my body. Every part of my body freezes.

Run away is the only thought which makes it to my consciousness, but I’m not capable of putting it into action. My legs refuse to respond.

A man is standing there beneath the light of the ceiling lamp: he is dark haired, broad shouldered. He says something, his mouth moves, but I can’t make out a word of it; every sound seems to be coming from a great distance, only the hammering of my heartbeat is worryingly close and loud. Is this shock?

The man says something again, but it’s as though I’ve suddenly forgotten all my German. For a moment, the room spins around me. Don’t pass out now, I tell myself.

He cocks his head to the side, hesitates. Then he comes toward me. A new thought pounds into my head: You’re so stupid, why didn’t you stay upstairs?

Only when he’s close enough for me to smell a hint of his aftershave does the paralyzing shock finally lift. I edge backward, but toward the wall instead of the door. By the time I realize it’s too late, he’s almost right next to me.

“Get out!” I shout, in the hope of at least startling him. To my surprise, it works. He stops in his tracks.

“Get out, or I’ll call the police!” If I shout a little louder, maybe the neighbors will hear me too.