Vaughn’s eyes opened in complete darkness. He scanned up and down, left and right into the void trying to orient himself, but it took a moment to complete the climb back into full consciousness. He finally managed to raise his head up from his pillow and find his clock on the nightstand. The red digital numbers were, at first glance, incoherent, hieroglyphic nonsense until his lucidity returned. The time read 3:01.
He reached out next to him feeling the warm curve of Jessica’s flannel-covered hip under the covers. He slid his hand up her side, feeling that she was facing the other way, curled up in a fetal position as she always did when she slept. His lower leg brushed her toes; they were always freezing cold.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered to her.
No reply. She was out. No need to wake her up, he thought. He was probably just roused by a dream.
He lay for a few moments staring up blindly into the blackness. He wished that they had a dog—a German shepherd, perhaps—one of those majestic, vicious, and vigilant breeds that would sound alerts at intruders and scare them off, or even better, lock its jaws onto their throats.
Vaughn and Jessica Clayton had moved that past spring into an old house in the foothills west of Denver. It was a tri-level on a hillside on a ten acre parcel peppered with ponderosa pine and aspen. A seasonal stream was advertised and its trickling waters did not disappoint after the late season snows melted off. One of their first mornings in their new home they awoke to find a herd of fifty elk mewing in their yard.
The size of the property appealed to Jess and Vaughn who were recovering suburbanites. They were quickly spoiled by the tranquility and in no time they developed a loathing for the cinderblock strip malls and six-foot privacy fences that hemmed in their prior existence.
The lot also had views. What could possibly be said about the views that would do them justice? The panorama, culminating in the snow-capped Mount Evans to the west beat the hell out of staring at a brown, phallus-shaped water tower across the street.
But acclimating to rural life was, in many ways, more difficult than Vaughn had expected. The nights, especially after midnight, were utterly and completely quiet unless the coyotes were yelping. A late-night mountain lion screech was a most unnerving sound, unlike anything he had ever heard or expected. But in the absence of those disturbances, the night was a deafening, hypnotic silence that magnified the sense of isolation and intensified all the insignificant and meaningless noises made by a creaking, forty-year-old, plywood house. The wind blowing the bird feeder against the window was the audible equivalent of a car crash in one’s driveway. The snapping of a mousetrap sounded like a shotgun blast. The gentle buzz of the refrigerator, inaudible in the daytime, was akin to some roaring machine of heavy industry.
These sounds were meek noises to desensitized, urban dream weavers. The shrieking cop sirens and barking dogs and base-bumping car stereos of the city night drowned out the tinier noises. But out here, on the edge of the wilderness—at least a relative wilderness, anyway—those little noises were thunderous sounds.
Vaughn reassured himself that the noise that had awoken him, if it was indeed real and not dreamt, must have been nothing. It was just the old, plywood house shrinking as it cooled in the crisp spring night. Nothing at all, he said to himself. Just go back to sleep. He adjusted his pillow, positioning his cheek on the cool spot and closed his eyes. He still wished he had a German shepherd, though.
When Vaughn was a kid, a neighbor boy had a big, vicious, shepherd mix. It barked menacingly at everything, especially anything small and weak and human. The ten-year-old Vaughn, a small and weak child at the time, had to pass that beast on his way to the school bus stop each morning. Chinook, which was the dog’s unfittingly effervescent name, would always be standing sentry at his three-foot chain-link fence between houses, waiting for little towhead Vaughn to pass by. It would glare from behind that meager barrier, one which he could hop with minimal effort, drooling, his dead brown eyes locked onto Vaughn.
The legend of Chinook wove its way through the network of imaginative, neighborhood youths. It was known among these kids, to be a fact and not myth, that Chinook had broken loose one evening from his confines, climbed into an open, second story window, and made off with a neighbor’s infant child. All childhood legend of course, but a story that resonated with ten-year-olds, especially when one was walking home from a friend’s house in the darkness. Many a kid in Vaughn’s neighborhood cast anxious glances over their shoulders on such nocturnal journeys.
“Never look behind you cuz you might just see what’s gaining.” Vaughn chuckled as he recalled that grammar school advice, given by a chubby neighbor kid who was the chief propagator of the Chinook myth and also one who liked to scare the shit out of the neighbor kids with his Ouija board and black light.
Back to sleep, Vaughn thought. But I’ll probably dream of demonic dogs now.
Vaughn dozed off.
But a sliding noise stirred him again.
Then he heard what sounded like a voice.
Vaughn sprung up. It was definitely a voice. It was a male voice, hushed, whispering, but indeed a male voice. It was not Jessica. She was asleep.
Did I dream it? he asked himself. Maybe. He found his clock in the darkness again. It was 3:07. He sat up in bed, his eyes darting around through the black ink of night. He thought about what he should do. Should I go check it out? I’ll have to get up and that’ll wake Jess.
He imagined himself as that ten-year-old, frightened of dogs. Just listen, he ordered himself. Be still. He put his hand on Jessica again and leaned toward her ear. He brushed away her soft hair and whispered. She didn’t respond, but her breathing, which generated a faint whistle when she exhaled, became quiet. He knew she was awake.
“What?” she finally asked in a faint voice.
“Shhh,” Vaughn whispered. “Did you hear that?”
They both held still for a minute or so listening to the darkness. A strong breeze combed through the pines outside their window. After a minute, Vaughn decided that it was just the wind. But his eyes scanned the blackness once more just to be sure. Jess was already whistling faintly again, apparently unconcerned. Vaughn gently brushed her hair with his hand and started to lie back.
This time Vaughn knew for certain the sound of a footfall on their wood floor. There was absolutely something inside the house. A feeling of terror splashed onto him as if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on him. He leaned over toward Jessica’s ear again.
“I’m going to check on Brooke.”
“Okay,” she mumbled, barely awake.
Vaughn quietly sat up on the edge of the bed and tried to clear his head asking himself if he was, in fact, awake. Am I dreaming? He checked the clock again. It was 3:08. “Should I do this?” he whispered faintly. “Be careful”. He fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand being careful not to tip his water glass over. Why was it so difficult to find them in the dark? He groped about until his hand bumped into the lenses. He grabbed them and put them on. He sighed, asking himself again if he was in fact awake.
Vaughn’s heart began to pound. He was definitely awake, now. He reached into the nightstand, and feeling around, he located a small key that he had taped there several weeks before. He removed it. He leaned forward and reached down, feeling along the inside of the bedrail.
“Where is it?” he whispered while groping. “There!” He felt cool steel of the old shotgun. He slid his hand back along the barrel until he felt the wood of the stock. Carefully, he pulled it off the hooks that held it in place on the rail. He had hooked the gun onto the inside of the bed rail with shelf brackets brackets.
Vaughn sat there on the edge of the bed holding the old gun and the key. I’m sure it’s just house noises, he thought. His heart rate slowed as he listened. Nevertheless, he proceeded. He felt for the lock which looped through the loading and ejection ports. He could not chamber a shell unless it was removed. He pushed the key into the lock considering once more if he should really do it?
It was quiet except for the velvety drone of the wind in the evergreens outside. He turned the key. Keep it pointed down. Keep the safety on. Don’t fire unless you know what you’re shooting at. Don’t even aim it unless you know, he thought. The cable broke loose and dropped onto the floor. He took a deep breath and stood up with the gun. Am I being foolish? he asked himself. Put it away. This is dangerous.
Vaughn made his way through the darkness to the door of the bedroom. He quietly cracked it open and looked down the hall, waiting for his eyes to adjust so he could see more detail. The outline of the hallway doors emerged. The glow of a neighbor’s porch light, several hundred yards away, beamed though the patio door. Nothing was moving. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
Vaughn slipped into the hallway sliding quietly along the wall, shotgun pointed down. He came to Brooke’s door. It was partly open which was the way he had left it when he put the toddler down. He gently pushed the door open and went in, using the glow of her nightlight to make his way towards her crib. He listened. There was no sound. He carefully kept the gun pointed away and crept closer to her crib. Still nothing. Closer. He looked into the bed…
There was just enough light to make out the outline of her tiny body. Brooke was on her stomach, knees tucked under, butt sticking straight up in the air, toy monkey to one side. Vaughn could now hear her faint, whistling snore, similar to her mother’s. He carefully retreated from the room.
He moved through the hall and down the stairs, guided by the faint blue din emanating from the refrigerator’s indicator light. He could make out the shape of the island and the faucet. There was no movement and no sound. He scanned the adjacent dining room and living room. Nothing. No sound.
Then a noise made the hair on his arms stand on end. It was only the refrigerator coming on. He sighed in relief. Everything seemed in order. The living room was dark but quiet. He listened again. No sound other than the purr of the compressor. He started to relax.
Vaughn stepped into the living room and turned toward the office…
…and his heart hammered one enormous beat, the pulse of it he could feel up into his temples. There, in front of him was the silhouette of a man, a man with a small flashlight, silently digging around in his desk. Vaughn wanted to call out but he pulled back ferociously on the reigns of his terror. Could it be a dream, a lucid dream? he thought. No, it’s real. He is there. I am awake.
Vaughn ducked quietly back into the hall, against the wall. He could feel sweat trickling down behind his ears. What do I do? He asked himself. He expected paralyzing terror to render him catatonic and helpless but, to his surprise, he didn’t freeze up. He was not shutting down with fear, just flushing with adrenaline. He thought of his wife, asleep. He thought of his daughter in her crib. His fight-instinct surged in torrents of epinephrine through his arteries and into his muscles. It felt like he could jump twelve feet and knock a man over with a war cry. Waves of tingling pinpricks washed up and down his ribs and legs. Kill him!Kill him dead!Shoot him!He’s in your house. This is your house. He might murder your wife or you or take your daughter. Kill him!
Careful, he warned himself. Easy. Breathe. What if you miss? What if he has a gun? He’s cornered. He’ll attack. You have to get him with one shot. Get a better angle.
The adrenaline was pumping so hard he could feel pulsations in his neck. He pushed the safety in on the gun. Was it on or off? It must be off, he thought. Yes, it’s off. Easy, now. Get ready to load the shell. Push that little thing in with your thumb. One smooth motion…up, down. Quietly, now.
Vaughn took another peek around the wall again at the intruder. He couldn’t see the sweeping arc of his flashlight anymore. Where is he? he asked himself. He must have heard me. He’s got some balls coming in here like this. He looked again through the living room Maybe he took off. No. He’s trapped in there. I would have heard him. He’s got to be in the office.
Then the intruder poked his head up from behind Vaughn’s desk.
Oh shit! Now! Do it now! Vaughn thought. But what if he shoots back? Oh God. Just do it! Blast him! Pump that shell in and blow his fucking brains out. Reload and keep shooting until you’re out.
Vaughn crept forward carefully, gun aimed into the office at the intruder, hand ready to pump the forestock. He noticed a trickle down his leg. Pissed myself, he thought. He crept towards the office, gun aimed through the doorway, aimed towards the intruder’s chest.
Shoot now! Shoot! he thought. What if I miss? You have no choice. This is your house. This is your duty. Protect your family! But I can call the cops! No. They’ll never make it in time.
He tip-toed forward. The intruder was going through Vaughn’s desk drawers quickly and silently, flashlight held in his mouth. Closer, Vaughn crept, and closer still, his right thumb on the release, left palm squeezing the forestock, sights aligned, and still closer. Now ready…
He reached the door of the office. How could he not notice me, now? How can he not hear me? He poked the barrel of the gun into the office. His body followed. The intruder was still oblivious.
Shit. What now? Vaughn thought. Shoot him! Do it!
Vaughn watched him for a moment, wanting desperately to call out. The intruder’s head was down as he fumbled around for something under the desk. Vaughn guessed that he wanted to get into the safe. But then the intruder looked up, directly into Vaughn’s eyes…
“FREEZE!” Vaughn shouted, reflexively. There was so much adrenaline coursing through him that his order came out as a high-pitched shriek. “Don’t move!” In one fluid motion he slid the forestock back and forward, loading the shell. Shick shack. The intruder’s eyes darted about looking for an escape but he was trapped. He threw his hands into the air.
“No shoot! No shoot! No shoot!”
“Get your hands up,” Vaughn shouted nervously despite the intruder’s hands already being up. He stretched them even higher. “Move back!” Vaughn shouted. “Back against the wall!”
“Okay! Okay! No shoot me. No shoot. Okay?”
Vaughn screamed for Jessica. There was no answer. He waited two seconds and screamed again. “Jess!” Then one second more. “Jess!”
“No shoot me, okay? I no move.”
“Is okay. No shoot. I do what you say.”
“Get down on the ground!” Vaughn screeched. Then the more commanding quality of his voice returned. “No, just keep your hands up. Jess! God damn it!”
Jess finally appeared, almost running into Vaughn and nearly causing him to set off the shotgun.
“What the hell is your—?” shouted Jess as she switched on the light which illuminated reality in a brilliant supernova. The intruder came into full view. He was dressed in black sweats and a gray hoodie. He was small, Latino, and tattooed on his face and neck.
“What the hell?” Jess screamed. “Oh my god. What is going on?”
“Call the 911,” Vaughn ordered.
“No shoot me. Is cool,” begged the intruder.
“I said turn around. Shut up! Turn around or I’ll blow you away!”
“Okay, okay,” he said as he turned around. “Jus hear me. We no have to call cop.”
“Shut up,” Vaughn replied. “Keep your hands up. If you lower them I’ll shoot you dead. Jess, did you call 911?” Jessica was still standing next to him, frozen. “Jess!” Vaughn shouted into her ear. “Call the police! Now!”
Jessica Clayton, the mother, was consumed with other ideas, other instinctual ideas.
“Shoot the bastard!” she ordered.
“No shoot me!” begged the intruder. “Tell lady is okay. No shoot me!”
“Shoot him!” She shouted. “Shoot him, Vaughn. Kill him or I’ll kill him myself. I’ll go get a knife. You break into my house. You come here to take my daughter? Shoot him, Vaughn.”
Brooke started crying down the hall.
The intruder looked back over his shoulder. “No shoot me. I make it right. I give you money. No cop. I give you money.”
Jess turned for the hallway. “Brooke better be all right or I’ll come back here and stab your eyeballs out.”
“Brooke’s okay,” Vaughn assured her. “I checked on her, already. Just call the police. Please.” Jess ran to the kitchen. He heard her fumble around in the kitchen junk drawer. “What are you looking for?”
“The phone’s dead. I’m looking for the charger.”
“You let me go and I give you money. Please,” begged the intruder.
“Shut up,” said Vaughn.
“I can’t find the charger,” shouted Jess.
Brooke screamed louder and louder.