Nellie couldn’t say what woke her. But when she opened her eyes, a woman wearing her white, lacy wedding gown stood by the foot of her bed, looking down at her.
Nellie’s throat closed around a scream, and she lunged for the baseball bat leaning against her nightstand. Then her vision adjusted to the grainy dawn light and the pounding of her heart softened.
She let out a tight laugh as she realized she was safe. The illusion was merely her wedding dress, ensconced in plastic, hanging on the back of her closet door, where she’d placed it yesterday after picking it up from the bridal shop. The bodice and full skirt were stuffed with crumpled tissue to maintain the shape. Nellie collapsed back onto her pillow. When her breathing steadied, she checked the blocky blue numbers on her nightstand clock. Too early, again.
She stretched her arms overhead and reached with her left hand to turn off the alarm before it could blare, the diamond engagement ring Richard had given her feeling heavy and foreign on her finger.
Even as a child, Nellie had never been able to fall asleep easily. Her mother didn’t have the patience for drawn-out bedtime rituals, but her father would gently rub her back, spelling out sentences over the fabric of her nightgown. I love you or You’re super special, he’d write, and she would try to guess the message. Other times he’d trace patterns, circles, stars, and triangles—at least until her parents divorced and he moved out when she was nine. Then she’d lie alone in her twin bed under her pink-and-purple-striped comforter and stare at the water stain that marred her ceiling.
When she finally dozed off, she usually slept hard for a good seven or eight hours—so deeply and dreamlessly that her mother sometimes had to physically shake her to awaken her.
But following an October night in her senior year of college, that suddenly changed.
Her insomnia worsened sharply, and her sleep became fractured by vivid dreams and abrupt awakenings. Once, she came downstairs to breakfast in her sorority house and her Chi Omega sister told her she’d been yelling something unintelligible. Nellie had attempted to brush it off: “Just stressed about finals. The Psych Stat exam is supposed to be a killer.” Then she’d left the table to get another cup of coffee.
After that, she’d forced herself to visit the college counselor, but despite the woman’s gentle coaxing, Nellie couldn’t talk about the warm early-fall night that had begun with bottles of vodka and laughter and ended with police sirens and despair. Nellie had met with the therapist twice, but canceled her third appointment and never went back.
Nellie had told Richard a few details when she’d awoken from one of her recurring nightmares to feel his arms tightening around her and his deep voice whispering in her ear, “I’ve got you, baby. You’re safe with me.” Entwined with him, she felt a security she realized she’d yearned for her entire life, even before the incident. With Richard beside her, Nellie was finally able to succumb again to the vulnerable state of deep sleep. It was as if the unsteady ground beneath her feet had stabilized.
Last night, though, Nellie had been alone in her old ground-floor brownstone apartment. Richard was in Chicago on business, and her best friend and roommate, Samantha, had slept over at her latest boyfriend’s. The noises of New York City permeated the walls: honking horns, occasional shouts, a barking dog . . . Even though the Upper East Side crime rate was the lowest in the borough, steel bars secured the windows, and three locks reinforced the door, including the thick one Nellie had installed after she’d moved in. Still, she’d needed an extra glass of Chardonnay before she’d been able to drift off.
Nellie rubbed her gritty eyes and slowly peeled herself out of bed. She pulled on her terry-cloth robe, then looked at her dress again, wondering if she should try to clear space in her tiny closet so it would fit. But the skirt was so full. At the bridal boutique, surrounded by its poufy and sequin-encrusted sisters, it had looked elegantly simple, like a chignon amidst bouffants. But next to the tangle of clothes and flimsy IKEA bookshelf in her cramped bedroom, it seemed to veer dangerously close to a Disney Princess ensemble.
Too late to change it, though. The wedding was approaching fast and every detail was in place, down to the cake topper—a blond bride and her handsome groom, frozen in a perfect moment.
“Jeez, they even look like you two,” Samantha had said when Nellie showed her a picture of the vintage china figurines that Richard had emailed. The topper had belonged to his parents, and Richard had retrieved it from the storage room in his apartment building’s basement after he proposed. Sam had wrinkled her nose. “Ever think he’s too good to be true?”
Richard was thirty-six, nine years older than Nellie, and a successful hedge fund manager. He had a runner’s wiry build, and an easy smile that belied his intense navy-blue eyes.
For their first date, he’d taken her to a French restaurant and knowledgeably discussed white Burgundies with the sommelier. For their second, on a snowy Saturday, he’d told her to dress warmly and had shown up carrying two bright green plastic sleds. “I know the best hill in Central Park,” he’d said.
He’d worn a pair of faded jeans and had looked just as good in them as he did in his well-cut suits.
Nellie hadn’t been joking when she replied to Sam’s question by saying, “Only every day.”
Nellie smothered another yawn as she padded the seven steps into the tiny galley kitchen, the linoleum cold under her bare feet. She flicked on the overhead light, noticing Sam had—again—made a mess of the honey jar after sweetening her tea. The viscous liquid oozed down the side, and a cockroach struggled in the sticky amber pool. Even after years of living in Manhattan, the sight still made her queasy. Nellie grabbed one of Sam’s dirty mugs out of the sink and trapped the roach under it. Let her deal with it, she thought. As she waited for her coffee to brew, she flipped open her laptop and began checking email—a coupon from the Gap; her mother, who’d apparently become a vegetarian, asking Nellie to make sure there would be a meat-free option at the wedding dinner; a notice that her credit-card payment was due.
Nellie poured her coffee into a mug decorated with hearts and the words World’s #1 Teacher—she and Samantha, who also taught at the Learning Ladder preschool, had a dozen nearly identical ones jammed in the cupboard—and took a grateful sip. She had ten spring parent-teacher conferences scheduled today for her Cubs, her class of three-year-olds. Without caffeine, she’d be in danger of falling asleep in the “quiet corner,” and she needed to be on her game. First up were the Porters, who’d recently fretted over the lack of Spike Jonze–style creativity being cultivated in her classroom. They’d recommended she replace the big dollhouse with a giant tepee and had followed up by sending her a link to one the Land of Nod sold for $229.
She’d miss the Porters only slightly less than the cockroaches when she moved in with Richard, Nellie decided. She looked at Samantha’s mug, felt a surge of guilt, and used a tissue to quickly scoop up the bug and flush it down the toilet.
Her cell phone rang as Nellie was turning on the shower. She wrapped herself in a towel and hurried into the bedroom to grab her purse. Her phone wasn’t there, though; Nellie was forever misplacing it. She eventually dug it out of the folds of her comforter.
Caller ID showed a blocked number. A moment later a voice-mail alert appeared on her screen. She pressed a button to listen to it but only heard a faint, rhythmic sound. Breathing.
A telemarketer, she told herself as she tossed the phone back on the bed. No big deal. She was overreacting, as she sometimes did. She was just overwhelmed. After all, in the next few weeks, she’d pack up her apartment, move in with Richard, and hold a bouquet of white roses as she walked toward her new life. Change was unnerving, and she was facing a lot of it all at once.
Still, it was the third call in as many weeks.
She glanced at the front door. The steel dead bolt was engaged.
She headed to the bathroom, then turned back and picked up her cell phone, bringing it with her. She placed it on the edge of the sink, locked the door, then slung her towel over the rod and stepped into the shower. She jumped back as the too-cold spray hit her, then adjusted the knob and rubbed her hands over her arms.
Steam filled the small space, and she let the water course over the knots in her shoulders and down her back. She was changing her last name after the wedding. Maybe she’d change her phone number, too.
She’d slipped on a linen dress and was swiping mascara over her blond eyelashes—the only time she wore much makeup or nice clothes to work was for parent-teacher conferences and graduation day—when her cell phone vibrated, the noise loud and tinny against the porcelain sink. She flinched, and her mascara wand streaked upward, leaving a black mark near her eyebrow.
She looked down to see an incoming text from Richard:
Can’t wait to see you tonight, beautiful. Counting the minutes. I love you.
As she stared at her fiancé’s words, the breath that had seemed stuck in her chest all morning loosened. I love you, too, she texted back.
She’d tell him about the phone calls tonight. Richard would pour her a glass of wine and lift her feet up onto his lap while they talked. Maybe he’d find a way to trace the hidden number. She finished getting ready, then picked up her heavy shoulder bag and stepped out in the faint spring sunshine.