This story was written for a contest.  The
requirement was that it had to either start or
end with the sentence: "I knew something
was wrong."

It quickly became my favorite of the short
stories.

Ms. Carmichael
by Xander Riley

I knew something was wrong.  It was not anything I could put my finger on at first, just a feeling that the room was “off.”  Hesitantly, I walked into my
living room and looked around to see what had my sixth sense on alert.  Everything was in its place, just as it should be; nothing was in disarray.  I
was a complete fanatic when it came to cleanliness and order.  If there were any items out of place, I would notice them in less than a second.  
Still…something was not right.

Moving further into the room, it finally dawned on me.  I could smell cologne – men’s cologne.  That was very unusual.  My husband had passed away
nearly fifteen years ago and none of my children had come by to visit this year.  The only men in my home were an occasional repairman and the
pest control man – a very nice young man named Jeff with perfect manners, by the way.  I tried to remember if this was the day for pest control, but at
my age, the mind does not always work as quickly it used to.  A moment later, I recalled that Jeff usually came around on the tenth of each month and
this was only the third.

I started to get nervous and decided that I did not want to be here alone.  Gretchen and Hank would still be up since we had just finished dinner a
short while ago.  I would ask them to come over with me to look through the house.  Just to make sure that it was safe.  Better safe than sorry, I
always say.  But before my hand reached the doorknob, I heard a deep voice behind me.

“Going somewhere, Ms. Carmichael?”

The voice was almost friendly, but taunting me at the same time.  Although I knew that it probably was not a very good idea, I turned to face my visitor
anyway.  Dear Lord, he was a big man!  He must have stood well over six feet.  And while that was not necessarily tall for a man, he towered over
me.  He had a dark ski mask over his head and was dressed all in black.  In his hand was a switchblade.  I could almost feel him smiling under that
mask.

“Who are you?  And, what are you doing in my home?”  The words must have sounded weak coming from my body.  I felt like David standing up to
Goliath.  I would have felt much better if I had a sling and a rock.  Not that I would have the nerve to use it, anyway.

“Who I am doesn’t matter.  As for what I’m doing in your house…Well, I’m robbing you, ma’am.  You have a nice collection of antiques here.”

I bristled at that comment!  Antiques, my shiny bottom!  Everything I own is new.  At least, it was new when I bought it.  The jerk was probably right -
they would be considered antiques today.  But how did he know that I own anything valuable?  I lived in a very small house in the middle of a
retirement community.  Most of the people in this part of town were poor -- and old.  Why would a thief target a house here?

He moved from the bedroom doorway into the living room, brandishing the knife as he walked.  My heart skipped a beat as I backed away from him.  
He continued to walk towards me and I continued to step back until I struck the wall.  He halted, and once again, I could feel him smiling under that
mask.

“Sit down, Ms. Carmichael, in the corner chair.”

I did as I was told.  My body was following orders, but my mind was racing with thoughts.  How did he know my name?  Why was a common thief being
so polite?  How did he know that I would be away from home this evening?  Was he going to kill me?  Or worse, rape me?

There was something vaguely familiar about the way he moved.  I began to wonder if I knew him from somewhere else.  He most definitely did not
remind me of anyone in the neighborhood since he did not move like an old man.  He was much taller than Jeff, the pest control man.  He was
skinnier than the plumber or electrician that I had to hire earlier this year.  Maybe he was one of my students when I was still teaching.  I searched my
memory, trying to identify his movements and speech pattern with any of my ex-students.  That did not help very much, though.  My students were
nine and ten years old at the time.  Only a handful of them came to see me after they graduated.

He returned to the room with rope in his hands.  Tarnation!  Why did I sit here while he was out of the room?  I should have slipped out the door when
I had the chance.  I could have made it all the way to Hank and Gretchen’s house before he got back.  This old brain of mine was not holding up its
end of the bargain.  Although I was mentally berating myself for my passivity, I suddenly found myself getting angry.  This was MY house!  How dare
he barge in and treat me like this!  I wanted to scratch his eyes out with my bare fingernails.  Instead, I held out my hands so he could tie me up.

“Hands behind you, ma’am.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  I don’t want to hurt you.”

Wincing from the arthritic pain in my shoulder, I complied with his request.  He noticed my pain yet continued to tie my hands behind my back.  Then,
with a mumbled apology, he put duct tape over my mouth.  His politeness made the whole situation even more absurd.  Tied to the chair, I simply sat
and watched as he searched through my home looking for the most valuable objects.

I have never been one to hold a grudge or let anger control my actions.  However, as I sat there, literally bound and gagged, I could feel my face
redden.  My muscles (what little I had) tensed as I clenched my fists.  I could not move and the rope held me tight.  I wanted to fight back, but what
could I possibly do?  If I could only reach the phone to call for help!  But I couldn’t move my arms and, thus, could not remove the tape from my
mouth.  All I could do was to sit mutely, my legs aching to get up and run away.

My legs!  He did not bother to tie my legs.  I could move them freely!  I tried to stand up with the chair still tied to me.  That did not work.  Maybe I
could kick something over to make some noise and alert the neighbors.  The only things close enough to reach were my knitting bag (nothing noisy
there!), a magazine rack (again, no noise), the floor lamp, and an end table containing a framed picture of my dead husband.  There was no way for
me to make enough of a racket to be heard next door.  I would have to think of something else.

Well, there were knitting needles in my bag.  They would make a good weapon if I could free myself - and if I had the nerve to actually use them as
such.  Or, I could read one of the magazines to him until he fell asleep.  Or, I could turn the lamp off so he could not see while I sneaked out the
door.  Come on, Angela!  This is no time for jokes!  There had to be something I could do to get help.

Of course!  If the lamp was turned on and off repeatedly, Gretchen would surely notice and come over to investigate!  For once, I did not regret the
arthritis – it was the reason I purchased a lamp with a floor switch.  All I needed to do was rock the chair enough to turn it so I could reach the switch
with my foot.  I hoped that he stayed in the bedroom a while longer and would not see the light flashing.

I wished that I could remember the Morse code for an SOS.  It was in many of the movies I have seen over the years, but I never had any reason to
learn it.  Gretchen probably would recognize it and I was sure that Hank would since he was always working on those ham radio sets.  I suppose I
would just have to settle for the simple “on-off-on-off” method until somebody came to the door.

******************************************************************************

Larry Morten was pissed!  This was supposed to be an easy ‘in and out’ job.  The old biddy usually wasn’t home for at least another hour.  But, as
luck would have it, she returned early on the one night that he had broken in.  He pulled the ski mask over his face and waited.  Maybe he’d get lucky
and the old bag would fall asleep in her chair.  He didn’t want to hurt her.  He wasn’t a murderer - or a rapist.  Ewww!  Even the thought of having sex
with that wrinkled, saggy old broad was disgusting.

He watched from the dark bedroom as she walked around the living room.  She never sat down and she kept looking around the room.  It was
obvious that she had figured out something was wrong.  She headed back to the front door, so Larry stepped out to stop her.

“Going somewhere, Ms. Carmichael?”

The switchblade was all it took to convince her not to run.  She demanded to know who he was.  Larry nearly laughed at that one!  Let’s see…I’m in
your house illegally, I’m wearing a ski mask to hide my face, and I’m holding a switchblade on you.  Odds are that I’m not going to tell you my name.  
Especially because you’d recognize it.  That nosey bitch probably remembers every kid she ever met.

“Who I am doesn’t matter.  As for what I’m doing in your house…Well, I’m robbing you, ma’am.  You have a nice collection of antiques here.”

That was all she needed to know, that she was being robbed.  He wanted her to believe that this was a normal burglary.  Once he got what he came
for, he would leave her tied up and make an anonymous call to the cops after he crossed the border.  Nobody would get hurt, he’d have his cash,
and he could pawn some of her jewelry for traveling money.  Everything would work out fine.

Larry moved towards the old lady and grinned inside his mask as she backed away from him.  He was in charge now.  She had nowhere to run.  Once
he had her backed up against the wall, Larry stopped and gestured toward a chair on the far side of the room.

“Sit down, Ms. Carmichael, in the corner chair.”

She sat down, hanging her head as if in shame.  Larry actually felt sorry for her.  She looked totally defeated.  He left the room to find something to
tie her up with.  Damnit!  I left my bag in the car!  He quietly opened the back door, took off the mask, slipped out onto the porch, and hurried up the
street to his car.  It sure seemed like a good idea at the time to park so far away.  If only he hadn’t forgotten to bring his duffel bag into the house!  
Grabbing the rope and closing the trunk, he turned and raced back to her house.

This night was turning into a complete disaster.  It should have been so easy: break in, find the teddy bear, steal her jewelry, and leave.  Then it
would be one stop at a pawnshop before crossing the border and living the good life.  One hundred thousand dollars would go a long way in
Tijuana.  Back at the house, he eased the rear door closed again.  Pulling the mask over his head, he walked back into the living room, silently
praying that she hadn’t run for help while he was gone.

Luckily for Larry, Ms. Carmichael hadn’t budged.  She looked up at him as he entered the room, but it wasn’t the defeated expression he was
expecting.  He realized that if he had been gone for thirty seconds longer, she most likely would have run for it.  Larry knew that he had no other
choice but to tie her up.

“Hands behind you, ma’am.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  I don’t want to hurt you.”

A twinge of conscience nearly caused Larry to reconsider his plan.  The old woman was in obvious pain as he tied her hands behind her back.  
Without thinking about what he was saying, Larry apologized to her.  He was not rough with her.  Hell, her brittle bones might break if he jerked her
around.  But that look of defiance was still in her eyes.  He knew that she would eventually scream for help.  A little duct tape from the kitchen drawer
would solve that problem.  It was a good thing that he had already searched the kitchen before she came home.

Now that she was out of commission, Larry returned to his work in the bedroom.  He had already found the teddy bear that he came for, but was now
looking for anything else of value.  There was nothing in the drawers but clothing and there was nothing under the bed.  He tried the closet next.  
Finally - a jewelry box hidden in the back of the closet on the top shelf.  Not much was inside, but at least it would be easy to pawn.  After emptying
the contents, he closed the lid.  It played a stupid song while it was open.  One of those tunes that sticks in your head forever.
The song reminded him of his baby sister when she was taking piano lessons.  She was only twelve when he went to jail.  He’d never forget the look
on her face when he gave her the teddy bear.  It was the first, and only, gift he had ever given her.  To her, it meant the world.  To him, it was no
more than a way to hide the money until he was released from prison.  He would never in a million years have thought that she would grow up and
give the bear away.

******************************************************************************

My unwelcome visitor was creating quite a ruckus in my bedroom.  It sounded as if he were throwing all my jewelry in a bag.  Drawers banged open
and closed as he rifled through my prized possessions.  When I heard “Fur Elise” playing, I knew that he had opened my music box that I had hidden
on the top shelf in my closet.  You know you have been living alone for too long when you can identify every sound a person makes in your home.  
My foot continued working the lamp: on, off, on, off.  Suddenly a clicking sound startled me.  Was he opening the back door to the patio?

I leaned forward, trying to see into the bedroom.  Then I felt the breeze on my face.  Gretchen was standing in the doorway with her lower jaw nearly
touching her chest.  Thank the Lord that she did not make a sound to give us away!  I hoped that she would run home and call the police.  Instead,
she rushed over to me, took off the duct tape, and started to untie my hands.  Whispering as quietly as I could, I urged her to go get help.  She
refused, however, to leave me behind.

Once I was freed, we hurried to the open door.  Two old women sneaking across the room as quickly as possible while trying to be quiet.  I was the
first to reach the front porch.  I crossed the porch and was down the steps before I heard a muffled squeal behind me.  I looked back and saw
Gretchen with a knife to her throat.  He had grabbed her from behind before she could step outside the door.

My first instinct was to scream for help, to keep running until I was safe with other people.  But I could not leave my friend at the mercy of a madman.  
As if it were a sign from above, a car drove past at that exact moment.  It was the perfect opportunity to get help.  I raised my hand to get their
attention, but another squeal from Gretchen stopped me cold.  Looking back, I could see a thin trail of blood on her neck.  Without words, mister
maniac had made his point.  My raised hand waved at the car as if nothing was wrong.  The elderly couple in the sedan had no clue that they were
passing two old ladies who were fighting for their lives.  Shoulders slumped, I walked up the steps and back into my prison.

“Good girl.  Like I said earlier, just be good and nobody has to get hurt.  That goes for your friend here, too.  I’ll be gone before you know it and you
can get back to your rug-hooking.”

In the living room once again, I lost all will to resist.  This time I had company, though.  He tied her hands and feet, gagged her, and left her lying on
the floor.  Then he did the same to me.  No chair this time, no lamp.  Not even a pillow for our heads.  We laid there, waiting for him to leave and
praying that he would keep his promise not to hurt us.  After all, neither of us had seen his face.  We could not identify him to the police – as far as
he knew.

A thoughtless comment had given him away.  There was only one person in the world who thought that I ‘hooked rugs’.  That man was Larry Morten.  
As a child, Larry had once asked me what I was making.  I told him that I was crocheting an afghan.  He did not understand the word, so he called it a
rug.  Not wanting to argue, I agreed that I was “hooking a rug.”

Now that I knew his identity, I tried to figure out why he chose my house.  I had taught both Larry and, many years later, his sister, Lisa.  Larry never
came to visit me, but Lisa would drop in after every school year.  When I retired from teaching, she stopped by to wish me well.  And she gave me a
teddy bear for good luck.  Two years later, her car was struck by a train.  I visited her in the hospital every week for a year, but she never came out of
her coma.  When she passed away, I attended her funeral.

Larry was not the type for sentiment.  Once he had graduated from my class, I did not see him again until his picture showed up in the local
newspaper under the headline “Bank Heist – Robbers Caught, Money Lost in Bonfire.”  He had been arrested along with his two accomplices during
a shootout at the coalmine.  It was an inside job and they had escaped with about $300,000 in cash and bonds.  During the shootout, there was an
explosion in the mine’s warehouse – all of the money was reported burned.  The three men spent the next twenty years in jail.

I could think of only one reason for him to choose my house: the teddy bear.  It was the only link between his family and me.  Was it possible that he
had hidden his share of the stolen loot inside that innocent bear?  Was he collecting his pay for a job completed twenty years ago?  Was he willing to
kill for it?

******************************************************************************

With a bag of loot in one hand and his switchblade in the other, Larry went back to the living room to check on the old woman.  The front door was
standing wide open and Ms. Carmichael was going down the steps.  Another old geezer was following her out the door.  Christ Almighty!  What else
was going to go wrong tonight?  He caught the other woman by the hair before she left the porch, cutting off her scream with a hand over her mouth.  
Ms. Carmichael turned to look back.  She was the defiant one – she’d need some incentive to come back inside.  He placed the knife against her
friend’s throat.

That should have been enough to convince her, yet she tried to flag down a passing car.  Damn bitch!  She’s nothing but trouble.  The blade slowly
slid across the throat of the other woman, drawing blood and eliciting another squeal.  Ms. Carmichael realized her predicament – she simply waved
at the car as if nothing were wrong and returned to her house.  Things were starting to fall back into place again.

“Good girl.  Like I said earlier, just be good and nobody has to get hurt.  That goes for your friend here, too.”

This time, he tied both women’s hands and feet.  They were gagged to keep them quiet and he left them in the middle of the room, away from
anything they could use to escape or signal for help.  That was the only way this plan could work – he had to get away clean.  Once he was in
Mexico, he would be free - and rich.  One hundred thousand dollars will go a long way when you’re south of the border.  Larry returned to the
bedroom, filled his sack, and slipped out the back door.  He did not want the women to know that he was gone.  Nobody would have any idea how
much of a head start he had.

He drove as fast as he dared toward the Mexican border, taking care to keep under the speed limit.  After a brief stop at a rest area to ditch the gun
and mask, he started his search for a pawnshop.  He could almost smell the good life on the horizon.

The pawnshop gave him cash for all of the jewelry except the fakes.  It only came to a total of a hundred bucks.  But that didn’t matter to Larry.  He
hopped back in his car and drove to the border, occasionally glancing over at the teddy bear on the seat beside him.  That was his meal ticket – not
the bear itself, but what was inside the bear.  It was his share of a bank robbery from twenty years ago.  A robbery that took months of planning, but
still didn’t work out right.  He would have collected his pay sooner, but he had spent the last two decades in prison for the crime.  At least it wasn’t too
bad in jail - he knew that he would be rich once he was released.  His partners were still in jail for another five years because they had insisted on
carrying guns.

******************************************************************************

I had lost all feeling in my arms and legs after fifteen minutes on the floor.  Another twenty minutes later, my front door burst from its hinges.  Police
officers rushed into the room with guns drawn.  Two of them searched through my home while a third untied us.  The thief was gone, the back door
left standing wide open.  Hank was finally allowed to come inside.  He hugged Gretchen tightly, kissing her face and thanking God that she was alive.  
He had come over to check on us when Gretchen did not return home.  That was when he saw us through the window.  One call to the police, then
he waited anxiously until he knew we were unharmed.

I will not bore you with the details of the next few hours - police reports, inventory of stolen property, and questions galore.  I was exhausted by the
time they left.  Hank took Gretchen home and I crawled into my bed.  Sleep came to me quickly, but it was a restless sleep.  I dreamt of him all night –
in some dreams he beat me up, in others he stabbed me.  By morning, my sheets were soaked with sweat.  The worst part of the entire ordeal was
that I no longer felt comfortable or safe in my own home.

That next morning, I called Gretchen to invite her (and Hank) to go on a trip with me.  It would do us all good to leave for a while.  We could travel to
Florida on a mini-vacation.  They were both thrilled with the idea.  Retirement can be extremely dull unless you spice up your life occasionally with a
trip.  We decided that we would leave the following morning.  By the time we returned, all of this would be no more than an unpleasant memory.

I received a call from Sergeant Williams while I was packing for my trip.  They had traced my jewelry to a pawnshop near the Mexico border.  The
owner of the shop gave them a positive ID on the man with my jewelry.  His name was Larry Morten.  He was already somewhere in Mexico after
making a clean getaway.  There was nothing more that the police could do, but they had retrieved my jewelry for me.  It would be mailed to my house.

******************************************************************************

Larry made it across the Mexican border without incident.  Tijuana was the perfect place for him to start his new life.  He sold his car and used the
cash to check into a hotel.  Later, he could buy a house with his loot.  Hell, he’d buy a mansion if he could find one.  He took his bag and the bear
into his room and stripped down to his underwear.  Damn, it was hot down here!  He grabbed the bear, grinning in anticipation.  The switchblade
sliced off the bear’s head and he ripped the body apart.  It was empty!  Well, not entirely empty – there was a note inside.

My dearest Lisa,
Thank you for this very special gift.  I am sure that you did not know there was money inside this bear when you gave it to me.  I would not have
discovered it myself if not for a most unfortunate accident.  (It seems that a neighbor's dog was convinced that this was a real bear.  He ripped it
apart before we could get it away from him.  I was repairing the damage when I noticed the bulge inside.)

Most likely, your brother hid his “dirty money” here so that he can retrieve it later.  He is in for quite a surprise when, and if, he ever finds the bear
again.  I doubt that it could ever be traced to me since you gave it as a gift, but there is always the chance that he will track it down.  Though you
weren’t aware of the extent of your gift, I feel that this came from God, a way to atone for another’s sins.  I could not, in good conscience, keep the
money for myself so I decided to put it to good use.

I reimbursed your parents all the expenses for your funeral, and then donated the remainder to the hospital that kept you alive for so long.  I know
that is what you would have wanted.

Rest in peace, my child.  Walk with God.

Signed,
Angela Carmichael

© Copyright 2008 Xander Riley
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