Strangers in the Garden by Jane Sherman

Catherine wakes to find unwelcome intruders in her garden; by Jane Sherman.

Catherine woke suddenly. It wasn't the slow, slithering into early morning that she usually experienced. The back of her neck prickled. She held her breath and listened. What had she heard? The humidifier fan was audible, but would never have caused her to wake up. It was too early in the morning for the next-door neighbor's lawn-care people to be working.

Catherine listened to the raspy scrape of the garden-shed door slide along its track. Now, she was completely awake. No one used her garden tools except her. Barefoot, she walked from the bedroom to the living room, taking care to stay back from the windows in case someone was in the driveway.

I should call 911, she thought. But before I do, I'll make sure it's not someone I know. Maybe a friend's come to visit the garden, although it's way too early and there's nothing in bloom.

A rusty, green pickup truck was parked in the driveway, not one she recognized and she was certain no one was scheduled to work at the house today.

Catherine hurried back to her bedroom and quickly pulled on yesterday's jeans and a striped shirt. She didn't stop to glance in the mirror to check if her short blond hair was still every-which-way from sleep.

Even though spring had officially arrived, it was still cold in the morning. Slipping into her black winter jacket, she opened the front door and tip-toed down the wooden stairs to the driveway.

Perhaps this is the time when it would be smart to have a gun, she thought. But she was very anti-gun and would have nothing to do with them. Her ex-husband had a rifle, but that was long gone.

Her gravel driveway went around the side of the garage as well as to the house and she heard the stones crunch under someone's feet. Catherine froze for a second and turned and ran back up the stairs into the house, quietly shutting the door, waiting see who was there, before the person saw her. She waited, her heart pounding in her throat, until she saw someone come around the corner of the garage.

First an attractive young woman, wearing jeans and a blue parka appeared; no one she knew. Then immediately after, a middle-aged man, in an orange jumpsuit and a gray hooded sweatshirt came into view.

Oh my God! she thought to herself, not recognizing either of them. It's good I wasn't outside. And he's wearing a prison outfit!

Quickly she ran to the phone in the kitchen and dialed 911. Before the phone was answered, she heard police sirens. She scurried through the house to where she could see the road. Two police cars raced past the house, screeched around the sharp curve and continued on their way.

"What's your emergency?" the desk officer asked. He sounded bored, expecting someone who didn't really have an urgent situation.

"A guy in an orange jump suit and a woman are in my yard," she said. She rushed to tell him everything she knew, about the pickup truck and the two cop cars that just sped past her house. He said he'd contact them and tell them her address. She felt her shoulders relax a little.

The front doorbell rang. She whispered to the officer on the phone, "Someone's at my front door. I'm afraid it's the person you're looking for."

"Don't answer it. Stay away from the door. It's probably the prisoner who escaped yesterday from the Federal prison in Danbury. He's dangerous."

Catherine didn't ask what he'd done. The term dangerous was enough. She moved without a sound into the kitchen and heard the front door open. For a moment, there wasn't a sound. She listened to light steps on the wood floor that stopped when the person reached the living room rug.

Catherine realized she hadn't locked the door when she re-entered the house.

Oh my god, she thought. I'm usually overly cautious about locking doors and setting the alarm. The one time it really counts, I forget!

Silently, she hurried back to her bedroom, closed and locked the door as quietly as she could.

Still holding the phone, she whispered into the receiver, "Someone's inside the house. I don't know who it is."

Gone was the officer's calm tone. "Stay in your bedroom and lock the door. Be absolutely quiet. Say nothing," he ordered her.

"All right," she whispered back.

Maybe the man and woman thought nobody was home. Her car was visible through the side windows in the garage, but perhaps they hadn't noticed. She could only hope.

Catherine stood next to the bedroom door and listened. She could hear the clang of the heavy silver candlesticks that she had just polished for Easter dinner the week before. They must be robbing me!

She didn't consider the sentimental value of the candlesticks that had been in her family for generations, only about the possible danger to herself. Home invasions were no joke. She remembered well the home invasion in Cheshire, less than forty miles from Westport, and was sure she didn't want to end up dead like the women in that family.

Catherine wondered what the man had done. His crime must have been violent, if the police officer said he was dangerous.

She heard the sound of the refrigerator opening. Perhaps they were hungry. There was some left-over roast lamb from Easter dinner, as well as a few hors d'oeurvres.

"Gimme the cheese. Goes down easy," the man said. "I'm thirsty. Not even any beer... shit... just milk."

"I'll take that slice of cake," the woman said.

Catherine hoped that they didn't touch the roasted vegetables; she thought how this batch was especially delicious.

She breathed in with a little jerk, a silent laugh at herself for thinking of something so unimportant. The thought allowed her to momentarily push away her growing fear. Catherine knew she had to remain calm and absolutely quiet, if she had any hope of preventing them knowing she was in the house.

Someone walked up to her bedroom door and turned the knob. Surely the intruders must now realize that someone was home, if an interior door was locked.

Bang, bang. The door shook as fists slammed into it. She didn't make a move.

"I don't think anyone's home," the man said.

"Are you thinking? The door is locked. Someone must be in there," the woman said to him.

"I'm going to break it down," he said.

"Open up the goddamned door. Now!" the man shouted.

Moving one step back, she waited, standing absolutely still, making no sound. He repeated his demands, yelling, as she stood silently, pretending that she was somewhere else, she wasn't in danger, and that an escaped, violent prisoner wasn't in her home.

Fleetingly, she hoped that her three cats wouldn't get in the way, that he wouldn't hurt them. The two younger ones probably hid under the sofa and Cocoa would be in her basket, waiting for breakfast.

"Open the door!" he repeated."I want all your jewelry!"

She still said nothing and moved soundlessly across the bedroom rug. Walking towards the bathroom, Catherine realized that if she was to secure the door, it was certain to make a noise.

Crack! The trim splintered as the man's shoulder slammed into the bedroom door, forcing it open. Realizing that any noise she created at this point would make no difference, she ran into the bathroom, shut and locked the door.

She heard police sirens scream as they careened around the sharp curve and then brakes squealing when they slowed down enough to make the turn into her driveway. She hoped it would only be moments until the police entered the house and then she would be safe.

The bathroom door muffled the sounds of what was happening with the police, who had entered the house. Catherine unlocked the bathroom door, peered through the slightly open slit and confirmed that the man was no longer in the room. She crept cautiously into her bedroom, and stared at the damaged door hanging on one hinge. She stopped when a gunshot rang out and listened to the scuffle going on in the living room. Then there was another sound of gunfire.

Who got shot?

A State Police officer entered her bedroom. "Are you all right? Are you the woman who telephoned the police?

"Yes," she said. Her throat tightened up. That's all she could say.

"Stay here," he ordered.

She could hear him walk through the kitchen and enter the living room. Unable to force herself to remain in the bathroom, she tiptoed into the kitchen. Her cat Cocoa was safe, lying in her basket, eyes wide and upset.

When Catherine entered the living room, she saw lamps knocked over and broken glass from the dining room chandelier. Her eyes stopped at the figure in the orange jumpsuit lying face down on the living room floor. Blood pooled near the man's head, spreading along the floor until it was stopped by the Oriental rug. Droplets of blood had squirted from the man's head, decorating the plain cream-colored sofa in a sweeping pattern. He lay still; no one was trying to help him.

More emergency vehicles poured into the driveway and three additional heavy-shoed authorities stormed into the house. Catherine had always been uncomfortable around police officers, but this time she was grateful for their presence, grateful that the prisoner couldn't harm her, grateful that the woman was in custody, her hands cuffed behind her.

The scene felt otherworldly and she was afraid she might faint. Breathing deeply, she sat down on the cream-colored sectional sofa. No one paid any attention to her. They were all involved with the dead man and the woman who stood handcuffed as a huge state police officer held her arm.

After a few minutes, she asked one of the police officers, "Who's the woman and why was she helping him? Why was he in prison?"

Now that the situation appeared to be under control, the officer answered. "She's his sister and helped with the escape. He was serving a life sentence for a robbery that turned violent."

He paused for a moment, letting her sense the importance of what he was about to say.

"He murdered the family he was robbing."

Memories, good and bad flooded her mind, as if she was living what might have happened if she had opened the door. She chided herself for leaving the door unlocked but really, someone intent on violence could have opened it. But none of that had happened. She was lucky. The police were professional, the good guys.

Catherine felt thankful that she had more time to live, probably much more time. She felt overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude for being alive. She had a chance for decades of delight, satisfaction and accomplishment. She began thinking of what she might do in her new life, the one she could easily not have experienced.


  1. What I like most is the tension buildup - sound of shed door, crunch on gravel, pickup in the driveway, doorbell. I also liked the thoughts - maybe should have a gun, forgot to lock the door - worried about the cats. Nicely done, Jane!

  2. very good read, as Nancy said the build up of tension is handled just right, for me that really started with the sentence`Are you thinking...?`
    well done

    Mike McC

  3. As Nancy says, the tension mounts incrementally and effectively. This engages the reader well; and the details of an ordinary home life juxtaposed with the invasive violation committed by the intruders is well managed. I think I would have liked a bit more development of the backstory and/or characterisation of the criminal and his sister? many thanks,

  4. Nice tension waiting for the police to arrive. The story is well written and certainly holds the readers interest. I would like to have had Catherine's thoughts and perhaps sympathy ??? . . . for the sister.
    An enjoyable read. Thank you