Waiting for Dawn

Waiting for Dawn
by M. James Bizzell

He woke violently, gasping for air, emerging from the velvet dark in confusion. Static spots, the technicolored pixels so familiar from four-a.m. wakings, peeled away in animated clusters. Something tugged at his half-woken reality: a dream. He couldn’t remember the details. Something easy, something bad. The nightmares were becoming more present, or at least more lasting. It left him feeling off, settling in an odd position within him, taking up residence in the remote hours.

The effects of sleep apnea were jarring, especially on such quiet nights, from silence to panting terror, the greedy intake of air both confusing and euphoric. He heard nothing in the space beyond the walls of his huddled bedroom, not even the distant hum of overnight trucking. The episodes happened almost every night, every couple of hours. Wake up. Breathe. Wait for your heart to slow and your nerves to calm. Stop shaking. Go back to sleep. It was a constant and gripping fear, a suffocation in empty air—the demon on his chest while he slept.

He felt his wife lying next to him, her rhythmic breathing deep and full, completely undisturbed by his struggle. She had perhaps gotten used to it, but was a deep sleeper in any case. They had made love tonight after she had returned home from a lengthy business trip. It was something they had needed or wanted, probably both. A reward for taking care of the girls while she was away. Parenting had perks.

Despite everything, despite his wife’s contented sleep and the warmth of their bed, he was worried. A pervasive feeling had sunk its barbs into his languishing domesticity. The house was quiet. Possibly some remnant of his unborn dream lying buried like a shard within him. Living on their own stretch of land made the wind that blew and filled the house a regular occurrence; it was usually relaxing, but its ethereal noise was absent now. The exclusion shifted the atmosphere in their home a fraction of a degree. Nothing moved in the sallow scenery beyond their home. He could not even hear the clocks ticking from their sentry positions along the walls.

Something was wrong—unexplained and irrational, but very real, nonetheless—a twinge in the forgotten corners of his mind, the vestigial space of prehistory that alerted proto-humans to the predators that owned the night. He had felt this way before, when he was alone, but never, never, with his wife home and his daughters just down the hall, sleeping in their princess-pillowed and punk-postered beds.

He slid out from the warmth of the high thread-counts with deliberate slowness, afraid to disturb the queer stillness. He reached down under the bed and pulled out a revolver locked in a small safe that had been nearly forgotten behind a pile of Poe and Hawthorne. It took him a few tries to work the lock. The gun had been a gift from his father, and it had sat dormant for over five years, collecting dust and the faded memories of an old man. In his hand, the cold metal and the feel of the time-worn wood made him calmer—not safer, but more able. It was always loaded, a concession to the world that they endured.

The door to their bedroom stood open. They didn’t close it when the girls were home. One of the first tricks he had learned as a parent was to leave the door open; you never knew when someone would need something.

Light flickered from down the hall and he felt a cold kernel of fear build in his stomach. Lily had left her TV on again; it was as benign as that. He had told her last week how bad that was, how pretty little girls needed their beauty sleep if they wanted to stay pretty. She seemed to take him more seriously after that, but she was still a kid. He no longer worried about that stuff with Rachael, it was all boys and emotion now. Let her mother deal with that. At least Lily still thought babies came from kissing. He felt the fear slink away, its tendrils collapsing in the routine of domesticity.

He sighed quietly, his lips turning into a line. He moved toward the door, but kept the revolver in hand. No sense in leaving it in his room, if he had wanted to get it out, then he should keep it out. It felt right, anyway, the cool wood finish fit snugly into the palm of his hand as it had his father’s, some 20 years and a badge ago.

Lily’s room was at the end of the hall, farthest from the stairs. He passed by Rachael’s room on the way. Her door was shut and would be barred if she had her way. That room was her sanctuary, and he supposed all 15-year-olds needed one. He had sure as Hell needed a place away from his own parents when he was her age.

He placed his free hand on Rachel’s door and shut his eyes tight. He really wished he hadn’t. Maybe his strange sleep had stirred some specters from the past, but the memories themselves were very real. His dad hadn’t lived long enough to make up for all those teenage years, never really got to see his son as an adult. His mother still sometimes cried when she saw him, he bore that much resemblance to the old man. He had remained distant after college and that had been a mistake. Rachael would come around—kids always did—and he had plenty of time left to be the good guy.

He moved away from his eldest daughter’s room and padded across the hardwood floor. It was always cold this time of year, but Steph preferred it to carpet, and if the woman wanted wood floors, she got them. She was king of this castle; she paid the bills, he raised the kids. It worked for them in a 21st-century kind of way. His grandfather, a World War veteran who had received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, would have been sick to see it.

He passed by the office. That door was never open, but it was tonight. When she was at home, Stephanie would sit in there for hours, calling execs and making travel plans while he made dinner and sat through the newest and most compelling episode of whatever sophomoric drivel Lily had found. He didn’t mind it really; he loved his wife and he loved the girls, but sometimes he craved a place safe from the prepubescent antics of child stars.

Lily was asleep in the floor in front of her bed, curled up with a blanket twisted around in her arms. The girl seemed to travel when she slept, just like her father. He set the revolver down on her dresser, next to what must have been the largest collection of stuffed animals in the known world, and picked her up carefully, his knees popping as he stood.

She felt weightless in his arms, like a doll, and as much as he teased her about it, she looked like one. Her blonde curls framed her pink face, and her blue eyes—closed now—could light up a room. He was sure she would break hearts when she was Rachael’s age, and he was just as sure that he would be waiting on the porch with a fully-loaded scowl.

He set her down on the bed and covered her with a princess-themed comforter. She was a princess, his little princess, and he felt whole. But he felt old, too. Barely 40 and falling apart. He should have treated his youth as a gift. His father had warned him about it, but he wouldn’t listen. Boys had to prove that they were men all the time, lest anyone forget.

He grabbed his gun on the way out and shut Lily’s door. There was something calming about doing that. Shutting doors meant safety, and in a house full of women, safety was the name of the game.

He walked back to the master bedroom and saw light flicker through the doorway. Someone had moved in front of the porch light that shined in from outside. Stephanie had woken up. He held the gun down beside his leg and moved to the room more quickly. It would be hard to explain its presence to his wife when he could hardly explain it to himself. Despite the assurance of such a normal and regular act, he was frightened. His heart rate had spiked, and he could feel the adrenaline seeping into him. He fought to steady his breathing, but it was a losing battle. Everything was fine. Steph had gotten up to use the bathroom, and when he went in, he would see the light on from underneath the door. Everything was fine.

Flick. Something moved in front of the light again—slower, more deliberate. He could feel his face tightening, the skin stretching over his skull. He pulled the gun up slowly, his hand gripping it like iron. He pushed the door open and winced as it hit the wall.

What he saw in the room was familiar and quiet. The bed, off to his right, lay in darkness, and he could see his wife laying there, still sleeping. Nothing moved within the room; it was dark and still. His eyes darted around the room, taking everything in with heightened sensitivity. Nothing. Empty and whole.

The light from the porch outside bathed the room in a sort of dim glow, a blue ether that was reserved for the center of the room only. Stephanie had left the blinds open. She liked to watch the rain fall, and they had sat there together tonight, but he always wanted them closed afterward. Something moved in front of the light again, cutting off the ethereal glow in the room. His eyes shot up and he felt his heart snag on something inside. On the balcony, silhouetted by the porch light, stood a man.

He drew the gun up clumsily before realizing the man was standing with his back to him under the glow of the light. His head was shaved and he appeared to be wearing a neon T-shirt, the kind of shirt he expected to see on one of his daughter’s friends.

Probably a fucking kid looking for Rachael. He wanted to shoot the dumb shit. He couldn’t believe the crap kids pulled now. He had never tried to sneak into someone’s house; that was the height of idiocy. The kid had probably tried climbing the balcony to look for his daughter, but he was going to find a foot up his ass if he ever stepped on his property again.

He felt the fear slide away, leaving a slick residue of rage. All that remained was anger. Anger for the stupid kid scaring the shit out of him.

The fucking nerve. He moved toward the double doors with the gun still in his hand, oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t wearing anything over his underwear. He pushed open the door and closed it behind him. It was best to not let his wife see him threatening minors.

“Hey, buddy. Turn around.” His voice had a familiar edge in it. He never talked to his wife or daughters like that. “The voice,” as Rachael called it, was reserved for assholes and her friends—synonymous, as far as he was concerned.

The kid’s head jerked up, but he didn’t turn around. The kid looked a lot older than he was expecting, but it could be the soft glow coming from below the deck boards, filling in the figure with deep shadows. He actually looked like he could be 30, with the softness of excess fat hanging from his hips and exposed shoulders. He really didn’t understand kids anymore. Their smoking and drinking would make them 60 by the time they were actually 30.

“Listen, I don’t want you coming around here, especially not at night. I could have fucking shot you, kid. Get off my property and don’t come around Rachael anymore, or I swear to God, I’ll call the police.” He moved to grab the kid. The asshole would look at him; he deserved respect.

The kid’s head whipped around. He was at least 30, there was no mistaking it. His face was coarse with a few days’ worth of stubble and his head wasn’t shaved, he was bald. The man’s eyes were boring holes into him, too. They weren’t normal, they were too intense. Then he noticed the blood.

It was everywhere. On the man’s shirt, on his hands, in his mouth. Slippery blood covering him. There was also something lying at his feet, a mutilated corpse, its hair matted over what remained of the body: Alexander, their five year-old German shepherd. The dog had been Lily’s gift at age three, and he was staring at what remained of the dog, his dog.

He jerked the revolver up just as the man fell on him with bloodstained hands. He was stronger than he looked, and much faster. The man’s hands tore into him like knives, taking ragged clumps of flesh out of his body with every frenetic blow. The bald man cut into him like a ragged knife, burning everything he touched. It was all he could do to cover his eyes and kick out with a frantic movement.

The blood-soaked man stumbled back and let out a cry that sounded far less than human. The man was sick, that much was clear. He pointed the gun at the man’s chest and fired twice in quick succession, double-action, without pulling back the hammer. The first round hit its mark, more or less, but the second sailed wide of the target and clipped the bald man on his forehead. The bullet ripped across the skin, exposing the skull and spraying flesh across the deck. The kick had been greater than he expected, but the surprise of actually firing the weapon in anger was more deafening than the sudden noise.

The bald man slumped down against the rail, smearing a crimson streak across the manicured white wood. He had stopped moving forward, but his eyes never lost their intense glare. His body was failing him, but he still clawed at the open air, howling as he did so.

He squeezed off another round at the man’s head, hitting him in the bridge of the nose. The face caved in under the impact, trickling the blood that remained, and the bald man went still with that horrid glare fixed to his face.

He rose quickly from the gore all around him. His dog was dead, he was bleeding from his shoulder and chest, and he had shot and killed a man. Their blood mixed freely on the deck where they held summer barbeques with his mother.

His eyes snapped back to the double doors just as his wife opened them, her face a mask of shock and confusion.

“Mark? I think I heard—” She cut off midsentence, no doubt seeing the blood.

“Steph, sweetie, go inside and get the girls. It’s not safe out here.”

“What is that? You’re bleeding, you’re bleeding, Mark!”

Her tone was winding up, shifting higher, leaving the ground below. His mind was racing. The girls would have woken up. There were two bodies on his balcony and his daughters were waking up. They couldn’t see this. They couldn’t see him like this.

Mark threw down the revolver and wiped his hands on his undershirt, but they only came away with more blood. He felt sick; he was losing blood, sure, but he had killed a man. It was self-defense—they had to see that. The police would be on their way soon, there would be an investigation, and his family would see him covered in blood—

“Mark, look at me!”

She was screaming now, her blue eyes—so much like Lily’s—were sharp and horrified. He had drifted off, lost somewhere in his head. He had to get her back inside, away from what would undoubtedly be called a murder.

Mark extended his arms, pushing her back with soothing noises.

“Baby, go inside. He just came at me. I think … I think he killed Alexander. Honey, no, stop. We need to get the girls, something wasn’t right with him. I think he was sick.” He led her away from the blood with as much grace as he could muster.

She wouldn’t touch him, and he thought he could feel that sane cold look in his own eyes. He was a murderer.

He was shaking. The adrenaline spike that had filled him seconds before dumped him down, made him feel hollow and cold.

Stephanie shrank back into the house. Shrank. She was not a tall woman, but she could make her presence felt in any situation. Not once had she ever been afraid of him, but there, he could see it. She was more than afraid, she was terrified and confused and distant all at once. The girls would not see him like this.

“Get me a shirt, Stephanie. I need you to call the police and get me a clean shirt. Get the girls and head downstairs, they don’t need to see this.”

It surprised him just how level his voice was. He had gunned down another human being and he was carrying on like he had just returned from the store.

Stephanie set down the phone for the fifth time. The girls sat huddled across from her, not looking at him. Sometimes Rachael would glance up quickly, but her eyes would find the floor again before he could make eye contact and reassure her. They feared him, too. Not so much Lily, she really didn’t understand what was going on—she just kept screaming for the dead dog and crying. He had tried to hug her then, but Stephanie gave him a look that told him that in no uncertain terms would he be allowed to touch his daughter.

The line was busy. 911 was busy. The thought roiled within him. Something was going on. He felt that same slick feeling he had when he woke. He had not imagined it.

Mark looked up at Stephanie. Her head was in her hands, her long, dark hair falling around her face.

“He was sick, Steph. He tried to kill me.”

“Shut up, just shut up. I can’t hear this. The girls don’t need to hear this.”

“Sweetie, please. Don’t do this.”

Now he could feel the fear creeping into his voice. She was distancing herself from him. She was just as scared as he was, if not more so. Her husband had just killed a man, and now only a busy tone reached them through the phone.

Lily flipped on the TV and the silence stretched on, punctured only by the sobs of his wife and youngest daughter. The den filled with an ether-blue glow and Mark could see Rachael looking at him again.

He rose quietly and sat beside his wife. He pulled her close, and if she stiffened at first, it melted away in a heartbeat. He was the same man she had made love to a few hours ago, the father of her children. She had to see that.

Stephanie began to sob quietly, her head resting against his bruised and bloodied chest. She had bandaged what she could, but he could feel his wounds burning with infection through his clothes.

“I don’t want you to go. I need you.”

It was muffled against his chest, but he could hear her. The words were just for him, and he was grateful for that. He would do what he must, but he would not abandon his family. Tears trickled down his face, unchecked.

Lily came up to him and stuck her face in front of his.

“Why isn’t the TV working, Daddy?”

Mark looked up and touched his daughter’s tiny face.

“It’s working, sweet girl, you just have to change the channel.” He took the remote from her and tried toggling to something other than the news.

“I did, Daddy. It’s on every channel.”

He stared at the television for a few stunned seconds before unmuting it. There was a middle-aged man with a microphone and an ear-piece shouting to be heard over the whirl of sirens.

“—officials have cordoned off the area, do not go into the city. Do not go into the city.”

He leaned forward despite the discomfort he felt in his chest. There it was, that flood of fear, the culmination of the entire uneasy night. His body tingled; it felt like staring into the mouth of Hell. Something was going on, and it displaced something essential within him.

“I don’t think the cops are coming, dad.” Rachael had finally spoken.

He looked up at his eldest and smiled bitterly in the dim glow of the television that breached the darkness.

“No, baby, I don’t think they are.”

Copyright © 2015 M. James Bizzell