June 1, 2024
“Get away from the window, Heather!” I said, hammering nails into faded wooden boards, procured from the dismantled barn, over the downstairs windows, as if preparing for a tornado to tear through the valley. A storm loomed, but it had nothing to do with meteorological systems. Neither did I know when it would arrive, nor what the capacity of its strength would be.
Heather pressed against the wall, tense as a statue at my sharp warning. Her golden hair fell to the middle of her back. Fearful blue eyes regarded me from my tone, and I couldn’t recall if I’d ever raised my voice to her before. Both the loud hammering and my erratic loud warning startled her nerves, but the ramifications of my greatest fear that someone might hurl a rock or brick through the window at the exact moment she peered out and subsequently blinding her, fueled my passionate reprimand.
Immediate hindsight patronized me to contrition, and I had every intention to do just that after securing the windows. From my vague recollections, I’ve since realized I never apologized to Heather for scaring her. In all the commotion, something must’ve distracted me.
Chase helped me finish covering the windows. Knob locks and two sets of deadbolts reinforcing both the front and the kitchen doors leading into the narrow laundry room, and the garage beyond, satisfied me to a measurable extent. A rear kitchen door opened onto the backyard where I’d fitted an iron bar in its track behind the sliding partition. I protected the tempered glass with plywood as well. Never did I consider the wood boards could alert passersby—as infrequent as they may stumble past—to the abandoned and availability for occupancy that our blue clapboard farmhouse possessed.
I failed to recognize that the second-floor was vulnerable, complacent in its presumed impenetrability, but I also didn’t want to compromise its usage as a sniper’s nest from which to defend our home from advancing assailants.
While Chase and I safeguarded the windows, Allie set the oak table in the ever-darkening gloom for a scrumptious tuna sandwich dinner. Even candle flames would brighten the interior that could seep through the smallest gaps between lumber and window frames, announcing our presence to roving bandits. The world had recently taught me that betrayal, just as risk, came from everywhere and everyone, but I felt confident it wouldn’t emerge from these three people seated with me. Sometimes, blood relations didn’t insulate one from treachery, and could often intensify one’s susceptibility toward it.
“Mommy, I’m tired.” The stunted gray silhouette of my daughter rubbed her eyes with chubby fists.
“Okay, baby. Come on.” Allie’s chair scraped the floor.
“No lights, Al.”
“What do you expect me to do, Gus? Levitate up the stairs?”
“Don’t be sarcastic.” I turned on the flashlight, hooding the beam with a hand and angling it downward.
Allie led Heather up the staircase.
“What are we going to do?” Chase asked.
“Life? The future?”
—— —— ——
Splintering wood cracked through my sleep. Though the conditioning of our new, unconventional reality had settled in by that point, and for weeks I’d slept more soundly than when the disruptive, nihilistic changes began, my discomfort at such an unexpected disturbance rattled my psyche, though my body responded by sheer intuition, jumping up in a flash, and grabbing two Mossberg shotguns from the hanging iron gun rack in the walk-in closet. I kept all my guns preloaded with a round chambered for immediate availability, but doubled checked.
Allie regarded my frantic actions propped on an elbow as Chase entered the room with apprehension shadowing his features. I tossed him the Mossberg 590, informing him of its readiness. Before rushing into the hall with the 500 slipping around my sweaty grasp by millimeters, I whispered our daughter’s name to Allie, igniting her into a swooshing pale nightgown frenzy.
Chase shadowed me to the staircase that descended into perdition. A creak and a squeal of forced metal carried on ghoulish wings of imminent danger.
The click and a subsequent thud along the second-floor hall, presumably from Heather’s room, in concert with my initial downward steps, reminded me and provided me with the courage to stave off the unknown, confabulated horrors that my fevered mind conjured and from which my heart desperately sought retreat.
Already fearing Allie’s movements securing Heather and herself alerted the intruders of our knowledge of their invasion, and thus compromise our advantage to surprise them, my one life preserver was they would presume overhead noises were cowering inhabitants instead of proactive hunters greeting them halfway.
My heart settled into a rattling, frantic groove as I went down the stairs. My limited eyesight sharpened, anticipating the faintest differences in shade variations in the inky blackness, but my ears perked to guide the barrel of my shotgun.
I held my breath at intervals, feeling the coolest air from the half-wall falling away, and the downstairs opening on the left. Prepared to fire at any sound of movement, susurrations low in volume and high in pitch, suggested coordinating whispers.
The full-throttle timpani squished in my ears; my tense jaw ached, and I realized I gritted my teeth.
Halfway down, with the stock pressed hard against my shoulder, I flailed my right hand to pause Chase with a tap on his stomach. Prior to that night, I’d discussed with Allie and Chase a variety of signals—visual, auditory, and somesthetic—so that we’d constantly possess communication under any circumstances, giving us an advantage against any adversary, increasing our chances of prevailing.
We all knew this moment was imminent, but not when.
Blackness swallowed the ground floor as I crouched midway with my nose inches from the dim balusters. My threat detection relied on the faintest sound. I chanced descending a couple more treads. One riser betrayed me with a squeak of loose nails on warped wood that I’d forgotten to consider in my adrenaline-fueled distraction.
A gunshot blasted, sifting pulverized plaster dust on me. Crouching lower, I miscalculated my balance and fell back, sitting down two risers above, squeezing between Chase’s size elevens briefly as the sudden impact then propelled me forward, and down three steps that would’ve been more if I hadn’t the wherewithal to smack my right hand against the wall to brace my descent.
Rubber squeaked hardwood as on a basketball court. I swiveled ever so slightly toward the open space of the living room, the stairwell wall rising to block and protect Chase from the direct sightline of an intruder’s bullet. With fingers gripping a baluster, imprisoning me between floors, I waited and listened, the squeaking getting louder, closer.
Licking my dry lips, I fired the shotgun into the dark.
“Ah . . .”
Gentle sounds of dragged rather than lifted feet whispered across the hardwood floor from right to left. I’d already suspected one had entered from the backyard, either through the kitchen or laundry room, but those sounds confirmed that the second intruder had followed suit to the first. A silly, novice trespassing tactic screaming of complacent entitlement.
The steps ended, tickling the cilia in my ear. Sensing a presence before me, I leaned back just enough to be sure the Mossberg’s barrel didn’t clack between balusters when I pivoted to the opening stair base where I detected the faint, lighter gray outline of a bipedal figure against the surrounding, deeper blackness.
Massaging the trigger, I rose and gripped a handful of Chase’s shirt, gently pulling downward; he crouched, fully comprehending my nonverbal alert.
I let out a low whistle, my finger triggered, my ears as attuned to sound as a landmine was to pressure.
A minute squeak from what I imagined was from his rubber sole’s friction against the wood, and a barely detectable shift in the indistinct gray shape in the oily darkness. I fired another round as glass shattered and crashed upstairs.
The choices of listening for any noise implying that the immediate threat of the second intruder’s demise and perhaps a third’s approach and reasoning why breaking glass crashed upstairs before consequently acting, tore at my decision-making and prioritizing abilities. I presumed the shattering glass came from Heather’s room, where I suspected Allie attempted to defend herself after retrieving a shotgun to fire at more bandits assaulting our clapboard fortress. The second intruder’s body thudding to the floor, and the vacuum emptiness seconds afterward that proved nobody else scampered in the shadows, drove me upstairs from where Allie’s first anguished cries wailed.
At the second-floor landing, the screams faded, as if the distance had extended between us, contrary to my proximity to the room I’d approached. My sweaty palms slipped on the doorknob that wouldn’t turn as I rammed my shoulder into the wood. A crack of stress offered some hope but didn’t dampen my frenzy to gain access. I blotted my palm on my thigh, focused on a two-handed, tighter grip on the knob, and leaned all my weight into subsequent poundings on the pre-hung paneling.
It may have budged an inch or might have held strong, as modern American craftsmanship was less solid than it had once been when they built the house in the mid-eighties. Clearly, something large (probably Heather’s dresser) blocked the door to prevent the intruders from breaking through. Had Allie trapped them by barricading the door against the suspected trespassers to secure and protect her youngest child?
I rammed the door repeatedly, Chase helping on my left, gaining meager inches with each blow that my heart desperately wanted to believe was miles wide enough through which I could slink in to rescue my girls. Every hit did little to displace the dresser or whatever blocked the way.
The girls’ cries stifled, and there weren’t any gunshots that I expected if Allie fired on them.
“. . . on, already!” A voice echoed, that sounded like it originated outside the house.
But how could that be?
I heard twin pops (car doors slamming shut?) and skidding (tires kicking up gravel?), only then realizing Chase wasn’t beside me and not sure when he’d abandoned the effort.
One last heave cracked the wood around in the doorjamb’s locking plate. A gap appeared between the door and jamb, scraping Heather’s dresser far enough to slip through, but by then it was too late. Feeling like Rapunzel at the window, a pair of crimson demon eyes I knew were vehicle taillights winked toward the street. Frozen, I watched as the pickup truck that abducted my girls turn right and vanish.
I flew out of the room and down the stairs. A yellow wash of light speared the darkness, and keys tinkled.
“The Jeep, Dad. Come on!”
Tripping over not one but both fallen intruders on my way to the garage through the kitchen, I finally made it, where Chase waited in the passenger seat with the Cherokee already idling.
The garage door’s rumbling ascent allowed me shameless time for handing Chase my shotgun in the passenger seat and prepare for an expected ambush from attackers as devoted to their cause as suicide bombers.
Nobody lay in wait outside the garage. Within seconds we were cruising the streets in search of that faded red pickup that not since viewing it through Heather’s bedroom window moments earlier and feeling each crushing and subsequent mallet blow to my heart with every additional foot of distance closer to the street, had I recognized the matching hue of its paneling to our old barn.
Under a fingernail moon, the Cherokee bounced and jolted along Country Route 15. The pale gray mocking tongue extended into the bleak night.