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Helen smiled to herself as she bounded up the wide wooden stairs at the front of her old Queenslander style house. Unlocking the front door, she pondered the laxness of her neighbours, who didn’t bother locking their doors or windows when they went out. She had lived in the city all her life. There was no way she would ever get into such slack, country habits.

The accountancy firm where she worked had given her time off because she had worked late into the evening several times recently. She was revelling in the prospect of a long, lazy afternoon. Just recently, she had started going out with one of the other accountants and envisaged the luxury of pampering herself in preparation for tonight's candlelit dinner. She locked the front door and then, placing her handbag on the pristinely tidy kitchen bench, she headed straight for the bathroom.

What to do first? Manicure? Pedicure? A soaking bath? She studied herself in the antique style mirror, her blue grey eyes intent as they checked that her thick, blonde hair was sitting immaculately in its pageboy style cut. The ruddiness of her skin drew her attention and she wished for the thousandth time that she had a pale, porcelain complexion. The heat and humidity in this small North Queensland sugar town were not helping. Maybe her new concealer would do the trick.

She ran a finger along the determined jaw-line inherited from her father and wondered if cosmetics might do something to minimize that as well. There was a sudden, familiar pang of sadness as she pictured her father. She missed her parents. This move to North Queensland might be a good for her career, but she hadn't counted on the dreadful ache that had come with separation from family and friends. She caught sight of her full-lipped pout in the mirror and unselfconsciously moved her head this way and that, seeking her best angle.

Despite the loneliness, she was settling in. The old Queenslander was a real find, although she was a bit unsure of her neighbour. Cheryl was friendly enough, but such a country girl, with her nasal speech, shapeless flowered shifts and dirty cracks in her heels from going barefoot. Not Helen's type at all. As for Cheryl’s hyperactive six-year old, Caleb...

Their relationship hadn’t benefitted from the incident involving Helen's cat, Ginger. Helen had bought the ugly orange cat in the vain hope that he would protect her from marauding frogs, toads, snakes and geckoes. Instead, what did he fancy? Cheryl's budgie! Why anyone would let a budgerigar fly around the house was beyond her; and was it really Helen's fault that Ginger had pushed open Cheryl's back door, which had been left ajar? Mind you, Tweety had recovered, but did look decidedly bedraggled.

As Helen absentmindedly pushed her heavy fringe away from her eyes, she noticed something glint in the reflection. She peered in the mirror intently and realised that it was shards of glass. The stained-glass window beside the back door had a jagged hole in it. Her first inclination was to go and have a closer look, but a shiver ran up her spine as she realized that someone must have broken the window, in order to reach in and unlatch her back door. She had been broken in to.

With cool presence of mind, she quietly shut the bathroom door and locked herself in. What next? Her mind was buzzing and she couldn't think clearly. If she kept very still and listened intently, she should be able to work out if the intruder was still in the house. Her heart was thudding in her chest and it was difficult to be still. She wanted to pace. She bit her lip and pressed her ear to the door. She could hear nothing apart from the wild beating of her own heart. As she moved away from the door, a crash resounded from the direction of her bedroom. She froze. Then her leg muscles refused to support her and she slid to the floor. Her heart was now beating so hard and so rapidly that it hurt. She could feel herself panicking and started to feel faint.

Her thoughts tumbled one after another. This thief didn’t care about being heard. Perhaps it was more than one person? They could be armed. They might have heard her come up the front stairs. Worse, they might start looking for her. They would see that the bathroom door was now closed, or perhaps they would spot her handbag on the kitchen bench. She strained her ears to listen and distinctly heard footsteps. The sound of the footsteps grew louder. Her breath was coming in rasping gasps now. The footsteps stopped for a few seconds and then receded. She felt weak and dizzy and her vision started to blur.

How much time had passed? Helen managed to focus on her watch. Ten minutes. She had been home ten minutes and it felt as if she'd been locked in this bathroom for a lifetime. She dragged herself into a sitting position and tried to marshal her thoughts. She was in real fear for her safety. If she stayed here, she could be found and murdered to keep her quiet. She had read about such things in the papers. Imagine being another statistic. She could see the headlines: PROMISING ACCOUNTANT FOUND KNIFED IN BATHROOM.

No. No way. She would not surrender without a fight. She had a brain. She needed to use it. Right now. She moved quietly to the small, high window. Cheryl's house was visible from here. She needed to somehow attract Cheryl's attention. Grabbing two brightly coloured towels, she waved them frantically out the window. Nothing. Her arms ached and her legs were shaking. If she screamed loudly enough, Cheryl might hear her. Perhaps Cheryl could get help before the intruders broke down the bathroom door. After what seemed hours, she caught sight of Cheryl looking out of her back door. Helen gathered up all of her strength, ready to emit a blood-curdling cry.

Only the tiniest croak escaped her lips. Her voice had frozen in her throat. Desperately, she scanned the area outside for inspiration. The mango tree! The gnarled tree spread its branches close to the house. The nearest branch was solid, but just a little too high to climb on to. If she could get hold of the end and tie it to something, she might be able to climb on to it. Quietly and methodically, she searched the bathroom. Pantyhose, that would do the trick. Biting her lip, she leant out and grasped the end of the branch, pulled it down and secured it to the towel rail.

Mustering up every bit of her courage and determination, she hauled herself up to kneel on the window sill and then straddled the branch, while keeping one hand firmly grasping the window. It should be strong enough to support her weight. If not, there was nothing to break her fall. She felt sick to the pit of her stomach. Tentatively, she let go the window, grasped the branch with both hands and hauled herself inch by inch towards the trunk. When she reached the crook between the branch and the trunk, she huddled, sick with exhaustion.

Helen, what on earth are ya doin’ up there?”

Cheryl was standing at the bottom of the tree, looking up at her.

Helen nearly fell off her branch with shock.

Shh, there are burglars in my house,” she hissed.

Ya sure?” shouted Cheryl. “I was just over at your place. Wanted to tell ya 'bout the ball Caleb chucked through ya colored window.”

What?” Helen could hardly believe what she was hearing. 

Yeah, smashed it. We'll get it fixed for ya straight away, like.”

But I heard a crash from my bedroom; and footsteps,” said Helen faintly.

Well, I was on ya stairs just before. Front door was locked so I thought ya must be havin’ a rest or something,” said Cheryl. “That could’ve been the footsteps ya heard.”

What about the noise from the bedroom?”

Cheryl laughed. “Look, there's that dratted cat of yours on that window sill further along. Bet he knocked something over. That ya bedroom?”

Sure is,” said Helen limply. She realised with embarrassment, that for all her judgements about the lack of security of her neighbours, she had left her bedroom window wide open. “And yep,” Helen continued. “I agree with you. That cat of mine is a bloody nuisance sometimes.”

Helen shifted on her branch to get a little more comfortable.

You know what, Cheryl? I feel damn stupid, stuck up this tree like an idiot.”

Cheryl grinned. “What say I help ya down and we go check out the damage and be sure there ain't no burglars?”

That would be great,” said Helen. “Except now we're locked out.”

I don’t s’pose you’re the type to keep a spare key under the mat?” mused Cheryl. “Hey, I know. Ya could unlatch the back door by putting ya hand through the hole in the glass.”

You’re right,” said Helen, “and yes, I would really appreciate some company.”

I'll just fetch Caleb and I'll make ya a nice cuppa. Or maybe with a dash of something a bit stronger, like. Ya look terrible. Pale, like one of them china dolls. We need to get some of that lovely colour back in ya face.”

Helen grinned. On reflection, she realised she might have found a friend. 

Cheryl, what would you say to a glass of champagne?”


END

BIO:

I’m from Townsville, Australia. I’ve lived in Mackay, Darwin and Perth and have worked as a psychologist, administrative officer and music teacher. All this has been in preparation for my real work in life – raising a family and writing. I had a few short stories published some years back and am excited to have the opportunity to be writing (and more importantly, reading) again.

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