Chapter 5 - The Night Before I Disappear

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The gun may be gone, but my creeping paranoia is alive and well. Nicole let me back into the bedroom, but I only manage a few minutes of deep sleep before coming to again. It's becoming routine. I barely need to watch out for the baby toys and stray bottles and unpacked clothes and unread books and random dishes and blankets crunchy with puke and various noisemakers hungry for batteries spread out in the living room waiting to send my face to the floor.

The baby's not old enough to play with half of the toys yet, but Nicole insisted I try to wrap his fingers around a rattle. "At least make an effort," she said.

And I did, although the baby seemed as into it as me. Weighing heavy in my tired arms, he felt more like a lead doll come to life than a miniature version of a human being. A fake. A phony. A fraud. A spitting image of his old man.

I used to flick on the stove light before fetching the peanut butter from the cupboard, but no more. My hands know right where the jar is next to the maple syrup and boxed rice. The only light in the dark great room comes from the glow of the streetlight illuminating the glass oval of the front door.

It hurts to blink my eyes from the insomnia. I let my thousand-yard stare fall to the contours of the glass oval instead. I remember how foreign my reflection looked before, but now I know to expect it. No surprises there as the pantomime of my face in the glass again melts into something alien.

I finish up with the peanut butter and drag myself back to the cupboard to put the jar away. My eyes glimpse back toward the glass oval as I turn from the cupboard. That alien version of my face is still there despite the fact I've moved out of sight.

Someone is standing at the front door.

I nearly drop the peanut butter as I return it next to the rice. Whoever is at the door is about half my height, as tall as a kid. Reminds me of the person or animal or thing peering into the bedroom window when I pulled into the driveway after my midnight joy ride. And just as it did then, it seems to be looking inside. Looking at me.

I'm just tired. No one is actually at the door.

I rub the drowsiness from my eyes and try hard to focus through the fiery irritation burning my pupils.

The face is still there.

I can't quite make the features out. They're blurred by the patterns in the glass, but I know now I'm not imagining things. That face is as real as the stains on my white t-shirt.

The gun. Get the gun.

No, I promised Nicole I wouldn't touch it again. What if she woke up and caught me? I can't risk it. Better to go back to bed and forget this whole thing even happened. My cell phone is in the bedroom anyway, and I can call the police if anyone tries to break in. Besides, whoever this is, if there even is a who out there, is half my size. I stopped lifting weights after the baby came, but I can still lay it down, or so I tell myself.

I keep my gaze on the floor and make my way back to the bedroom, trying hard not to look at the front door. I only make it a few steps before something stops my feet and nearly my heart.

Knock knock.

Two knocks. For some reason, that spooks me more than the fact some freak is at the door in the middle of the night. One knock sounds like an accident. Three is polite. But two? Two is like it's reminding me it can see me. I know it's there, but I don't want to acknowledge it. This is all still in my head, right? A product of too many sleepless nights in a row. Right?

Knock knock.

No. It can't be.

I jam my eyelids shut and retrace my steps back into the kitchen. My thoughts drift to luring whoever or whatever is outside away from the baby. Opening my eyes once more, I take a look at the front door.

The face is gone.

But I heard the knocking. Even if I imagined the face, I definitely heard two rounds of two knocks. Maybe it was a confused bird or a bat or some trash blowing in the wind or anything else or, oh, please, let it be anything else.

Feeling a bit more relaxed, I pour a tall glass of water from the sink and bring my dry mouth back to life. Relief is only momentary. There's a squeaking noise at the back door in the rear of the kitchen. Unlike the front door, the back door lacks a window, but I don't need one to see what's happening.

Someone is turning the doorknob.

This is not my imagination. I need to call the police.

The back door is dead-bolted shut, so I'm more worried about getting to the cell phone in the bedroom. I take a quick step into the living room and stop when my eyes meet the glass oval of the front door.

The face is back.

Knock knock.

There are two of them now?

I rush into the bedroom and turn on the light, rifling through the debris on my nightstand in search of the cell phone, but for the life of me I can't find it.

Nicole wakes up and rolls her eyes. "What is it this time?" she says.

"Cell phone. Give me your cell phone. There are people outside the house trying to break in," I say between my labored breathing.

Nicole seems less than convinced. "You said that last night. You didn't get the gun again, did you?" she says.

"No, no, you don't understand, it was real this time. I heard knocking and watched the doorknob twist and saw a face at the front door," I say.

That gets her attention. She hands me her cell phone and I make the call. Since we live right in town, it doesn't take long for the police to show up. A pair of officers check our house inside and out, finding nothing incriminating other than dirty diapers and the look Nicole gives me.

"I'm glad you called, but it's probably kids out playing pranks," one of the officers says to me out in the driveway. "They're like cockroaches, if you don't mind the comparison. They scatter when you turn on the lights."

I'm not sure I'm satisfied with the answer, but I nod anyway.

"Any reason they'd want to pick my house?" I say.

The officer points at the street and says, "It's probably because the streetlights are out. These kids, they like messing with people in the dark."

Weren't the streetlights just on? Otherwise how'd I see that face at the front door?

I don't mention that to the officers. I thank them for their time and think of checking on the baby.

"If it happens again give us a call," the officer says. "A word of advice, though? Whatever you do, don't let them inside. We got some calls about the same issues not long ago. Seems these kids will knock on doors late at night asking for help. The people inside let them in, and all hell breaks loose. Leaves the homeowners pretty shook up. Happened not too long ago to an older couple. They put the house up for sale the next day."

"Thanks. I wasn't planning on it," I say.

"Good. Oh, and one more thing," the officer says to me before leaving. "Get some sleep. You look like the walking dead."

Back inside, I find Nicole hunched over the bassinet, stroking the sleeping baby's scalp. She looks up at me as I enter the bedroom and says, "I don't know what you think you saw or heard, but I know one thing."

"What's that?" I say, bracing for the worst.

"You acted like you actually gave a damn," Nicole says with a smile. "Keep it up."

I collapse onto my side of the bed. Feels good. I'd been expecting the couch.

"I will," I say and watch Nicole fall back to sleep.

I should've joined her, but every time I felt myself drifting off, something wrenched me back awake.

Someone is tapping at the window.

I flick the light switch above my head, and the tapping stops. The three of us sleep with the lights on the rest of the night. I get no complaints from Nicole or the baby.

Stupid kids.

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