“Matt, do you hear that?”
I sat up in bed and checked the watch on my dresser. Two in the morning.
“Somebody is here.”
I listened. The wind had a way of making innocent sounds seem suspicious. A tapping at the window, a scraping in the walls, a pounding at the door. You kind of got used to it in the suburbs. There’s always an explanation. Busted pipes, expanding air ducts, cats, dogs, fox, mice, an overeager ornament from the wife.
Three clear knocks echoed down the hallway of our small home.
“Who is it?” Em whispered. “What do they want?”
I hopped out of bed and threw on some basketball shorts from the floor. I found a clean shirt in the drawer. Em flicked the switch by my nightstand a few times, but nothing responded, so I had to tiptoe through obstacles in the dark. I stepped on a cat toy on the way out. There might have been a very small vocal reaction to that shooting pain. Em chuckled.
“Great,” she groaned. “Now he knows a woman is here.”
Three more knocks interrupted her punchline.
I hustled to the door and paused.
“How do you know it’s a he?” I snapped back. “Could be anybody.”
We had been through a similar routine more than once in the past few weeks. Em often heard things in the night. Ever since we moved. I became the investigator, with my trusty Louisville Slugger and iPhone flashlight at the ready. I never found anything. Nothing more threatening than a mouse. But my looking always made her feel better. Couldn’t fault a girl for that much—especially in a new house.
Three more knocks. More hurried now.
I stumbled into the living room, foot still aching. and found my baseball bat waiting behind the couch. The knocks began to lose all rhythm. The visitor pounded the door anxiously, angrily, quickly losing patience, before angry, heavy boots retreated down the porch in a huff. I waited a moment. Then I opened the door.
The neighborhood was enveloped in white snowflakes, which listed lazily onto lawns and driveways. The street was unblemished by plows or tires (no surprise there—thanks to our awful Public Works). Only a single pair of footprints led from the highway, about a mile away, all the way to our front door. Standing at the source of them was an ordinary-looking man in black boots. He was looking away from me.
I couldn’t see much at first. The visitor wore a heavy black parka with a dorky feathered hood on top and pink swoosh pants, which stood out in the snow. He didn’t seem to hear me over the wind. I raised my voice and shouted louder.
“Can I help you?”
He looked back for the first time. He smiled. He appeared to be about middle-aged. Dark black hair peeked out through the hood and dangled in front of cool blue eyes. He hopped up the steps and reached out confidently to shake my hand. When he spoke, his voice sounded oddly high pitched, which really didn’t fit his burly body. His breath and coat stunk of cigarettes.
“Oh, thank God. Thank God for the Good Samaritan. Sir, my car broke down on the highway. The engine is dead. Can’t believe my luck. My cell phone is out of battery. Fuckin’ technology, right? I am from out of town, and I don’t know my ass from a back road out here. I know it’s late. I know how this must look. But would you mind if I stepped inside and used your phone?”
Something about the situation gave me the creeps. I didn’t like it. I tried to let him down easy.
“Our phone’s dead,” I announced. “The power is out here. Sorry about that, bud.”
I moved to shut the door. He looked wounded. That reaction definitely stung my conscience a bit. He turned to stare helplessly at the acres of empty, untouched snow. Seven or eight inches stacked up in some places. The drifts, in particular, looked difficult to pass. The plows were still nowhere to be seen. White Valley was often unprepared when it came to unexpected storms. I empathized. I understood the struggle. I still wouldn’t have budged on my own.
“Okay,” he muttered. “Guess I better get walking.”
Emily appeared by my side.
“You could stay here a bit. If you like? Until the power comes back?”
“Really?” He smiled. “That would be lovely.”
I pushed the door back a crack.
“What are you doing?” I snapped. “He’s a stranger.”
She slapped me on the arm.
“So what? He’s stuck. It’s all over Facebook. The highway is still backed up. This is something my dad would do. Sneak out of the house during a storm for some fast food or something. He needs help.”
“So, how about it?” I asked with the entrance no longer between us. “You could dry off a bit if you like.”
The visitor nodded and pushed himself past. He shucked off his water-clogged clothes in the hallway. The pink pants looked about three sizes too small. I didn’t understand why, but it didn’t bother me much at the time. Maybe he borrowed his daughter’s stuff.
“I will…go throw this in the dryer,” Emily offered. “I’ll run it when the power comes back.”
She disappeared down the stairs as the man made himself comfortable on my couch.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ryan,” I answered. “You?”
“Got a towel?” he asked me, pointing to the sopping mess accumulating on our wood floors. “Or some clothes?”
Something about his arrogance annoyed me. Here we were, allowing a strange man into our home in the middle of the night, without suspicion, and he was already barking orders. Already dirtying up the living room. I found an old rag buried under a basket filled with mascara and pulled it loose. When I came back outside, “Ryan” had stretched his long legs out on the couch. The pillows were soaked. My wife’s favorite white blanket was stained with mud.
“You know, that’s a pretty sweet thing you got there.” He giggled as I wiped up the mess. “Pretty sweet indeed.”
“Wish I had a sweet ass at home like that one.”
I didn’t expect that. Not right off the bat. The words made my skin crawl. I would have hit him if it all hadn’t happened so fast. Emily waltzed up from the basement hurriedly. She walked over and handed over a fresh set of blankets.
“Sorry about that! Hopefully the power comes back soon.”
The creep stared at her like a dog eyeing a brand-new bone. I suddenly noticed the shorts she was wearing. I noticed the revealing nightgown. We were just in bed, after all.
“Say, honey, do you work out a lot?” he asked.
“You’re just so thin!”
My wife blushed and covered herself.
“Oh. I see. Excuse me.”
She disappeared for the bedroom. I moved to follow. Maybe that would be it. Maybe we could leave him in the living room and lock the door. He knew how to find his way out. I really wasn’t interested in playing parcheesi with a creepy stranger in the middle of the night. He had what he wanted, a place to stay; he didn’t need us for anything more.
A familiar jingle danced its way toward the couch.
“Ohhhh…look at that…you’ve got yourself a fat cat!”
Figaro hopped happily into the man’s outstretched arms.
“He just likes attention,” I snapped. “Put him down.”
Ryan smiled and stroked him gently.
“Oh, all pussies like attention. You know, they say cats are one of the only animals to prefer human interaction to food? They tested it, in a lab somewhere, fuck if I know. But trust of man is built into their instincts. Happened through centuries of evolution. Some real National Geographic shit. Ain’t that something?”
I nodded. Ryan squeezed Figaro and stared at me intently. Something evil played out in those cool little eyes. Like he was looking for just the right way to bait me into a fight.
“You know, I could snap this little shit’s neck right now, and he’d let me do it.”
That did it.
“Time to go.”
The stranger blinked. The atmosphere in my living room changed in an instant. A moment’s hesitation caused Figaro to hiss and jump through his weakened grip. The ringing bell disappeared down the stairs.
“That little fucker bit me.” He cackled. “Might have a lawsuit on our hands.”
I grabbed the bat still resting up against my front door.
My wife called out from the bedroom.
“Everything all right?”
I shouted back, “Stay in there and lock the door.”
Ryan got to his feet lazily. He was still smiling. Like the threat of me holding a bat amused him. Maybe he didn’t think I’d use it. Maybe he thought he could take me. I could see why. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall.
“Yes, please, stay in bed, sweetheart. I’ll be done with your husband in a minute.”
He advanced fast. I swung faster. My brother always told me, if you get in a fight with a bigger man, aim for his knees. Thank fuck for that advice.
The stranger’s bones shattered like a piece of glass. The next blow went to his face. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out of my house, blood streaming all the way, and left him at the bottom of the porch. I hit him once more for good measure. Then we locked the door and called the police.
We heard some more commotion outside. We heard him try to jimmy the door handle. After several unsuccessful attempts, he screamed, begged, and offered up every cuss in the dictionary to try and convince us to open the door. I stood tall with the bat and waited. The footsteps retreated after a while.
White Valley PD stormed the area ten minutes later.
We waited by the window and watched it happen. One car stopped. But the rest kept driving. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why. I almost chased them down myself before Emily stopped me. Now we know the reason. “Ryan” made a few other stops that night. The others weren’t so lucky.
First, a young family on Howard Street. Then, a retired couple on my block.
They found the clothes at the foot of my driveway.
But the stranger was gone.