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The Separatist

Julie was in no mood to return to the office, so she decided to head straight for her appointment with Mr. Andersen, instead. That meant arriving before seven, but she hoped he would be ready for her. When she arrived, her knock was greeted by silence. She tried the doorbell. It chimed loudly, but elicited no response. Julie began to wonder if the old man had fled from her as well. 

     Without a watch, Julie couldn’t be sure how long she waited on the porch, but she knew it was well past seven. Dusk was descending, and the city’s lights winked and danced in the streets below her. She could taste the spicy tang in the ocean air as she stood looking at the sparkling city. An earlier shower had washed the pavements, producing glistening images that shimmered in the reflections of streetlights and neon signs. 
     The scene made her think of Jackie. As much as she enjoyed the city’s youthful energy and sophisticated charms, she wondered if it could ever yield someone, man or woman, to replace what she had shared with Jackie. It could be lonely, in spite of the crowded streets, dazzling theaters, and boisterous taverns. She thought about the parallels between the Kathy Griffith described by Mr. Andersen and her. She was friendly enough, had many acquaintances. But she didn’t have anyone with whom she could tell her deepest secrets, not since Jackie had moved to New York. 
     Waiting on the porch was making her melancholy. She shifted her feet impatiently and rang the doorbell again. Still no answer. Julie began to consider the possibility that something was wrong. She stepped off the porch and walked cautiously around the house, peeking through windows. The curtains were open, but there was no sign of life inside. The house was becoming darker and more foreboding by the minute. When Julie tried the back door, she discovered it was unlocked. After a moment’s hesitation, she pushed the door open and stepped inside, her hands trembling like Mr. Andersen’s when he’d entered that poker room. But there were no shuffling cards or clicking chips to greet her.
     Silence filled the rooms as Julie explored them, mocking her attempts to walk undetected on the hardwood floors. Her high heels echoed like birds pecking at a window. She abandoned her attempts at stealth and strode through the murky rooms looking for any signs of Thomas Andersen. A casual shirt and jacket hung in the downstairs closet, but their style suggested someone much younger. The kitchen was well stocked with plates, glasses, and utensils, but all were put away in their proper places. Two cans of soup stood on one shelf. The refrigerator was empty. She moved upstairs, where she found empty closets and drawers. The two bathrooms were as void of personal items as the rest of the house. There was nothing to prove Thomas Andersen had ever been there.

     Julie sat down on the bed and pondered what to do. Technically, she had just committed a crime, breaking and entering, and her instincts told her to leave at once. But she feared losing contact with the man who had so surreptitiously entered her life. 
     She thought of the things he had said about her during their first meeting. It still upset her to know that Mr. Andersen had spied on her and continued to do so. But, he had been right. Her only meaningful relationship had been with Jackie. Julie knew she wasn’t as beautiful as some women, but she did exude a sensual charm that attracted men, usually the kind that wanted sex but no commitments. She could feel a depressing mood descending on her, accompanied by a feeling of intense loneliness and inadequacy. When this happened, she became convinced that men only found her attractive at night when the lights were off. 
     The muted echo of footsteps in the rooms below snapped Julie out of her funk. Mr. Andersen had returned at last. She rose from the bed and nearly called out to him, before realizing the steps were too quick for a man who had to muster all his strength to avoid walking without a cane. And they were much too quiet. Whoever was there was moving with stealth, just as she had when she first slipped into the house. She could hear the intruder making his way through the living room. A rush of adrenaline surged through her at the thought that she might be in danger. Her mind became as light-headed as a cloud. Why didn’t I leave when I had the chance? What do I do now? Julie remembered Mr. Andersen’s comment at their first meeting about learning to fly. If only she could fly now and escape whoever was searching the rooms below! Suddenly, a beam of light bounced off the upstairs hallway wall, and a mouse-like squeak on the bottom step betrayed the weight of someone mounting the stairs.
     Julie frantically removed her shoes, while her head swiveled around the room looking for some place to hide. The empty closets mocked her in the gathering gloom. She would be discovered there in seconds, if anyone bothered to look. She slid to the floor and found the bed just high enough for her to wedge underneath it. Quickly, she pressed her back against the unyielding floorboards and worked her way under the swaying mattress. A musty odor and dust particles assaulted her, making it difficult for her to inhale without sneezing. She pinched her nose and lay as still as possible, trying not to breathe above a whisper.

     The footsteps were working their way methodically up the stairs, their echo building like an approaching thunderstorm. A throbbing noise was beating in her ears, and she realized her heart was pounding like a great, base drum. It seemed impossible that whoever was there couldn’t hear it. The man stepped into the room and halted. Julie bit her quivering lip to keep from crying out. Sweat gushed from every pore in her body. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to move or make a sound. The silence lasted for an eternity before the feet turned and moved away. She nearly cried with relief when she heard the man inspect the other rooms and return to the floor below. A door closed. Silence filled the house, but she couldn’t find the courage to move from her sanctuary. She wanted to stay there forever.
     At last, she slid from under the bed and tiptoed down the stairs in her stocking feet. The city’s lights cast a surreal glow about the living room, creating vague shadows and turning familiar objects into alien monsters. She hurried to the back door, put on her shoes and embraced the chilly, evening air as she hurried to her car. 
     Julie drove home in a state of shock and despair. Her close encounter with the intruder had wilted her courage. She’d never experienced real fear before. It made her feel vulnerable and foolish. It made her wonder what she’d hoped to accomplish by entering an empty house at night. She wasn’t normally so impulsive, and tonight’s impetuous behavior had exposed her to a frightening encounter. In spite of her shaken confidence, however, she couldn’t stop thinking about Andersen and how much she wanted to continue her discussions with him. The only problem was how to find him, again. The house had obviously been abandoned. Her best bet was the Italian restaurant where they first met. If she didn’t hear from him tomorrow, she would return there. Someone might know how to reach him or get a message to him.
     Julie’s mind was still in a haze when she pulled into the carport beneath her apartment. A reserved parking space was a luxury in San Francisco, and she had gladly paid the premium demanded by the owner so she wouldn’t have to circle the streets at night looking for a place to leave her car. She beeped the door locks closed and started to reach in her purse for her electronic key to the building. In that brief moment, a space of time that could be measured in less than a second, she sensed movement behind her. The same panic she had experienced in the empty house streaked through her body like a comet. She frantically searched for the small stun gun she kept in her purse for protection, but it was too late. A powerful arm pinned hers to her sides, and a foul-smelling cloth clamped over her nose and mouth. She squirmed and tried to kick her foot up into her assailant’s groin, but he was standing too close and was too strong. 
     “Be quiet my little bird,” a harsh voice whispered in her ear, “or I’ll clip your wings.”
     Julie’s ear burned from her assailant’s hot breath, and nausea welled up in her throat, making it difficult for her to breathe. Fuzzy images spun wildly through her brain. She could feel her legs buckling beneath her, could feel her body sagging in the man’s grip. The last thing she remembered was a loud grunt and the arm releasing her. She collapsed to the pavement like a pile of unwashed laundry.