Three steps. Three steps into the kitchen and I’m swinging around the doorjamb, snapping the shotgun level to the center of his body mass and squeezing both triggers.
If he moves fast and ducks into the bedroom Daryl nails him with his .38.
Three steps and it’s over.
Through the open door came the sound of a vehicle thundering down the alley. My ears strained for footsteps but the car drowned it out. It roared past the house pelting gravel and broken glass against the fences. In its wake fell a preternatural silence, and like the snuffing of a candle the dread presence was gone.
I waited a moment more, ears screaming for something to latch onto, a scrape on the linoleum floor, the rustle of clothing, heavy breathing, and hearing nothing stepped into the doorway, sweeping the kitchen with the shotgun. Night spilled through the open door. I quickly crossed the room and closed it.
Dolly was inconsolate, sobbing hysterically on the living room floor. Daryl radioed our partner with an update and told him to go home. We worked to get her calmed down and in the process tried calming ourselves.
“What was that?” he asked when we found a moment alone. I had no answer.
Later, I let myself out the back door and walked back to my car. The night was full of menace and the shotgun a welcome weight in my hands.
We returned the next night, same procedure, arriving hours early, little talk, curtains closed tight, TV on low. But a new element had been introduced, a horrific dread that cloyed the air like smoke from a fire, choking our lungs, sapping our energy.
The night dragged on endlessly. Daryl and Dolly dozed on the couch while I sat in the entrance to the kitchen, the shotgun cradled in my arms. I thought it possible that this time he would come in quick and low, so I listened for the unmistakable sound of a hand on the door knob. But I also expected to sense his presence long before the knob moved. And this time, I vowed, there would be no three-step rule.
It was much later when a pall descended on us, quick as lightning, amplified by the ringing of the telephone. Dolly stifled a scream but reached for it, lifting the handset with palsied fingers.
“I know they’re there,” a male voice said.
She dropped the phone. Daryl snatched it up, listening intently to the hum of silence. But the connection was unbroken, and in the intervening seconds I believe our heartbeats, loud as they were, meshed into a sort of malefic rhythm that would bound us somehow across all time.
Without speaking, Daryl set the phone in the cradle.
Very few neighboring houses provided views of all entrances to Dolly’s house. The man could well have lived next door. But the phone calls set a pattern over the next several days as Daryl returned alone, varying his arrival and entry point each time. The calls came early or late with maddening irregularity. It was as if the man’s goal was to keep them off balance, a cat-and-mouse game or power play, with a young woman’s sanity or, perhaps, her life, hanging in the balance.
Our gambit set him back, made him more cautious, but we never doubted that he was watching our every move. Nor did he never allow us to doubt it. His calls were too short to trace. He hid in darkness. He was always there, even when he wasn’t.
Shortly thereafter Dolly vacated the house and moved in with Daryl. We hadn’t rescued her, as my chivalric fancy had imagined. The dragon outwitted the knights. And yet believing her and offering our assistance was more than any other would do. If we didn’t succeed in our mission we at least brought about a standstill, and created a barrier the presence could not cross. Under the circumstances, perhaps that in itself was enough, and all that could be hoped for, or expected.
The man escaped to prey on others. I like to think, however, that realizing he’d been expected, that a trap had been laid, poisoned his nerve whenever he gathered the night and went afield to cause mischief. And that he understood at some point his luck would run its course, and a time would come when a yawning abyss would cut him down in a spray of red mist.
What I have never been able to explain is an evil so pervasive that it conjures its own malevolent atmospherics. For the sake of reference I claim this was a man, but a mere mortal cannot radiate such life-draining hopelessness and terror. Demon, vetala, shayatin, asura, succubus, incubus—mankind has tacked names on such evil since the beginning of language, and for most of humanity they’re only fanciful terms, ancient myths or words to frighten children. I only know that such descriptions are empty and inadequate when one comes under the influence of such malignity.
From my vantage on the Kansas plains I am sometimes taken aback at these episodes, almost incredulous, as if they were something read in a novel or overheard in a conversation, something that happened to another. But in my dreams there are no such illusions. In the shadows of perpetual night, at the end of dark corridors or behind closed doors where the sound of running water can stop a heartbeat, that which we confronted still watches, still waits, still hunts.