Chapter 4 - Two Nights Before I Disappear

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Another sleepless night, preceded by a shitty day. My boss sent me home early because I couldn't focus. I didn't argue with him, because someone is following me.

It's a feeling more than anything. I don't have physical proof. But everywhere I turn, I catch a vibe that tells me I'm being watched. On the drive home I monitored every mirror, knowing in my gut one of the cars behind me is paying extra attention to my taillights. Even as the cars exited and entered the road behind me, my gnawing suspicion remained. It's like a distant song that I can't quite make the words out to, or a shadow with blurry lines in the corner of my vision. I'm not alone anymore. Ever.

Every misplaced sound, every unexpected movement, every errant object, every unlikely coincidence, it's all tallied into another crate of coal for the furnace of dread. I told Nicole I'm not feeling well and needed to head to bed early. I ended up blowing the time wrapping blankets tighter and tighter across my body, faking sleep until the others found their peace.

And even now, awake once more and standing in the kitchen at 3 a.m. in my boxer shorts eating from a new jar of peanut butter, I feel exposed, like I'm naked on TV, the weight of a million eyeballs crushing me into a cube. But then I look around and I see nothing out of the ordinary, no reason to think I'm being watched by anyone except my startled reflection in the glass oval in the front door.

From the kitchen, the image in the ornate design looks almost alien. The dark sockets of my eyes turn completely black, my facial features smoothed over into a disturbingly plain, even soulless, expression. I stare long enough that I convince myself someone else is at the door looking in at me through the glass oval. Someone child-sized. Standing on the tips of its toes. Staring mutely right back at me.

A crescendo of panic stabs my chest.

My better sense takes over and I break my gaze. Of course it's my imagination, but I can't shake the feeling my paranoia isn't unwarranted. Someone is out there looking in at me. Watching. Waiting. Maybe not through the glass oval, but somewhere. And the more I can't seem to find him or her or it or them, the more I feel like a rabbit in a pit of wolves.

So I go get the thing I promised Nicole I'd never touch again now that there's an infant in the house. I get a gun.

It's hidden in a small safe tucked in the crawlspace beneath the basement steps. Nicole told me to get rid of it, and I promised her I would, but I'm not naïve despite our safe neighborhood. I justified betraying her wishes on account of "protecting my family." When you need a gun, you need a gun. Of course, it wouldn't do much good if I weren't around, seeing as how Nicole still can't navigate stairs, but it's comforting to know the option is there all the same.

The gun is a .38 revolver, one of those snubnoses you see in the detective movies. Had it all my adult life. Never once pulled the trigger on anything but a target at the range. Standing in the basement now, holding it in my hands as I drop shells into its exposed chambers, I wonder what to do next. Keep it in my pocket? I'm in my boxer shorts. Slip it into a holster? There isn't one. Check the outside of the house? Yes, I think so. It'd help me relax to know there isn't someone looking in through the windows, or so I figure.

I leave the light on above the stairs and make my way back up. Maybe I'm more committed to my young family than I gave myself credit for before. All these urges to leave, and here I am worried some freak might be looking into the windows, wielding a gun in the name of protecting Nicole and the baby.

Maybe it was just a phase. Maybe I can make this work after all.

Or maybe I'm paranoid and I'm in it for myself. All of this started with me thinking someone was after me, not them. But holding the gun in my hands, it's easy to convince myself that's not true, at least for the moment. What's that saying? "Fake it until you make it." Maybe every father has to fake it until they feel truly bonded to their new family, at least for the sake of the people counting on them.

I don't get far. Someone greets me at the top of the stairs. It's Nicole, and I don't think I've ever seen her as angry.

"You're disgusting," Nicole says. She speaks in a whisper, as she usually does when she's exceptionally upset. It contrasts with how her face contorts from the pain of standing up. "You told me you got rid of that thing."

I keep the barrel pointed away from her and say, "This isn't what it looks like."

Nicole braces herself against the wall. With her free hand she holds the face of her cell phone toward me. I see the numbers 9, 1 and 1 already inputted. All she has to do is press Dial to connect.

"If you want to leave, leave," she says. Then, looking at the gun in my hand, "But don't leave that way."

She honestly thinks I'd kill her? Good lord, what have I become?

"I think there's someone outside," I say, trying to frame it in a way that cools her suspicions.

"And I think you're losing your mind," Nicole says, still in a whisper that barely throttles her alarm. "Either put the gun away or I'm calling the police."

I can't allow for either. I'm positive something is watching us, and I certainly don't want to spend a night in jail.

"Wait a minute, I can explain," I say and take a step toward her up the stairs.

Nicole's eyes fixate on the gun.

"Take another step, Liam, and I swear you'll never see your son again," she says, this time with a scream that wakes the baby in the bedroom.

Hearing the baby cry takes me out of the moment, drawing my attention away from the panic and paranoia, pulling me back into a sense of clarity. Nicole gasps as I slip a thumb against the cylinder. Then I do it.

I open the cylinder and let the shells tumble down the stairs.

"I'm sorry," I say, looking down at my feet. "I didn't know what I was thinking."

Nicole sighs and leans her forehead against the wall. "Please, please, please get your shit together. I can't take care of a baby and you at the same time," she says.

I spend the rest of the night on the couch. Eyes wide open. Heart running laps in my chest. Cauldron of dread still boiling. Wondering if I'll ever sleep again, if the return of the tapping on the bedroom window is anything other than my insomniac imagination, if our son will grow up to make the same mistakes I did. Wondering if this will all end well.

But I know it won't.

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