Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
– William Blake
Lori said, Are you all right, and I said, No. I stared at the ceiling and the slatted bars of sunlight inching down the wall and thought I had never felt such dread, that a terrible new benchmark in nightmares had been set. But the thought dredged up something deep within me, something the dream had disturbed, or awakened.In the dream I walked with an unarmed guard down a dimly-lit hallway redolent with an underlying odor of death and decay only partially masked by sterilants. Double doors opened onto a dusty industrial yard illuminated by a single vapor light. As we moved into the yard tin sheds and misshapen lumps of machinery withdrew into the shadows. A dog broke at our feet with a yelp. Startled, the guard cursed and hurled a rock after it.
Other than the thudding of our hearts, the silence was absolute. Unnerved, we tried to laugh it off, but it fell flat with the sudden click of a door latch behind us. Such dread fell on us that it was as if all light and hope were extinguished. The guard bolted for the building, crying oh no oh no oh no. Hard on his heels, I followed.
We burst into the corridor and listened. No sound other than a faint running of water issuing from an unmarked door down the hall. We approached with legs gone weak, the dread deepening with each step until it became almost too much to bear. We stared at each other, trying to summon the courage to open the door. I drew my pistol. He gingerly turned the knob.
The water stopped.
Do we scream in our dreams? I bolted awake so fast I never had the chance. For long afterward my chest squeezed the breath out of me. Lori asked what happened but I wouldn’t say. It was all I could do to convince myself that I was in Kansas, that the dream hadn’t been real, that it was just my overworked brain descending into its own mysterious hell. But once it was real.
I didn’t know the girl well. She was a dispatcher and I was a field technician so we rarely saw one another. What I did see I didn’t like—she was loud and crude, almost obnoxious. When she began coming to work with stories of being stalked, few people believed her. But I was a sort of knight errant, a throwback to the days of chivalry, and her stories got to me. The fear in her eyes was no invention.
Her name was Dolly. She told me that almost every night a knock on the front door augured a presence that sucked the very air from the room. The presence would circle the house, rapping once on each window until it reached the back door. The knob would turn until stopped by the lock. Milk bottles were smashed on her porch. In the latest incident her cat was gutted and left on her doorstep.
The police took reports, beefed up patrols, but the man kept returning. She considered moving but didn’t have the money.
When I called the police I was told there was nothing they could do unless they caught the guy in the act. “What if we catch him?” I asked.
“Make sure he doesn’t walk away.”
One afternoon I parked several blocks from her house, walked down an alley and slipped through her back door. From a duffel I removed two pistols and an Ithaca double-barrel shotgun sawed off at eighteen inches. An hour later a friend named Daryl came through the front. He had a two-way radio borrowed from work and a rusty butcher knife. He dropped the knife into the sink. “Found it,” he said.
Six blocks away another friend was waiting in a company truck. Our dispatcher was told to act immediately upon our signal. We were ready, and soon dusk filtered down and night fell.
In that day, in that place, it was not so hard to decide to take the life of another. When blood is spilled all constraints are relinquished. The predator must become the prey. We made small talk in subdued voices, the TV turned low. Hours passed. I wasn’t so naïve that it hadn’t crossed my mind to doubt her. As midnight approached Dolly whimpered once and curled into a fetal position.
A double tap on the front door.
The sound unleashed a primal fear that liquefied our bones. It was as if a dark cloud had fallen on us, smothering us in paralysis and a terror greater than any we had known. It thickened the air like fog. Daryl crawled for a position inside the bedroom and I scrambled for a place just off the kitchen where I had an unobstructed field of fire, but it was like moving through molasses.
A rap on the front window.
I snapped the shotgun open and checked the loads. Two double-00 buck shells, each capable of cutting a man in half. The latch closed with a crisp snap echoed by the release of the safety.
Tap. This immediately behind me. My skin crawled.
Daryl told our partner to remain in position. “He’s here,” he whispered.
Three windows to go. I pulled the .45 from my belt and verified a round in the chamber.
Dolly lay on the floor, arms over her head, trembling violently.
I moved behind the wall, braced the stock against my shoulder, barrels down. We would to let the guy get halfway into the room before taking him out.
Time stopped. Sweat trickled down my sides. I could scarcely breathe from a sense of doom that permeated the air.
The doorknob turned with agonizing slowness. After a long pause, the door cracked an inch.
Behind me Dolly moaned like a wounded animal.
My finger slid to the forward trigger as the door swung open.
(Conclusion next week)