Nathan Prince

Posted on April 16, 2012

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Oleanders

I woke up to the sound of glass shattering. Like a lightning bolt, panic struck and I couldn’t breathe. Gasping from the shock, I rolled out of bed and onto the floor. Home invasion, I thought, crawling toward the bedroom door. Had to be. The shattering, a quick splash, was at the front of the house. It could have been the door or a window, and was definitely not accidental, like a tree limb in a windstorm, but cool and deliberate, the splash from a skilled diver. Scrambling to collect myself, I stood up at the door, which was slightly ajar, and listened like a cat with all the strength I could summon. Fear possessed me in the darkness as I heard what sounded like the click of the front door closing, then the creak of stairs leading down to the basement. The concrete floor would absorb their footsteps. In the relative silence I lost track of them. Scatter-brained and frantic, I didn’t know what to do. Maybe it was my wife’s sister, who slept over on occasion, or one of her friend’s. My phone was not on the nightstand where I usually left it. I thought I heard movement in the hallway. Had I miscalculated? Think. How many were there? From the footsteps I’d assumed two. Had a third made it upstairs to the bedrooms? My wife was sleeping in the bedroom next to the stairs. She usually pulled that sort of nonsense whenever there was a disagreement of some kind between us. The baby, a two-year-old, was either with my wife or in her own bedroom at the end of the hallway. Without clothes or glasses, I stood next to the door listening as if in a trance.

I was in a bad position. If anybody walked into the bedroom I would be exposed out in the open without any cover whatsoever. I guess I expected the sweeping beam of a flashlight or some kind of giveaway to confirm the movement I thought I’d heard, but there was nothing. I ducked down behind the bureau at the end of the bed and waited. Silence. Crawling alongside the wall opposite the door, I put my ear to the floor vent, which led down to the basement. If they were here to steal then surely I’d hear movement, shifting or shuffling… something. I couldn’t remember where I left my phone. My wife’s phone was probably with her. I tried not to panic, saying, “don’t panic, don’t panic,” to myself over and over like a crazed mantra. I relaxed for a moment and tried to control my breath, my breathing. My thoughts were racing uncontrollably. Even if I had a phone, would a 911 call be worth the risk? How long would it take for them to arrive? Could I – we – bide the time that long? Were the intruders armed?

I felt the bedroom door swing open slightly. Quietly, I rolled to the side of the bed. I could feel someone look into the room, wait, listen, stop, check, focus, see, double-check, wait. From underneath the bed, I could make out their shadow, the toe of a black boot at the threshold through soft darkness. As I lay on the floor naked, prostrate, terrified, blind and frozen with fear, a stranger stood between me, my wife and daughter.

The door was left open partially. Shocked I’d not been discovered, I started hyperventilating, shaking and sweating. I knew I’d have to overcome this fear (these fears) in order to deal with the situation. I would have to calm down and figure something out. There was a handgun in the closet but no ammunition, the last of it left at the range a few months back. I’d been meaning to get more for some time. It didn’t matter. A cardinal rule, whatever was needed at the moment, and especially in time of dire urgency, was unavailable. Still, if I could get to a weapon, I’d at least have an edge. Besides a kitchen knife, there were golf clubs downstairs in a storage closet…. Think. How many were there? One was upstairs, I’d barely made out their shadow, the tip of their boot in the darkness, heard the careful breathing as the room was being surveyed. Ultimately, their number and intentions were unknown. I settled down and, thinking more clearly, developed a plan. I grabbed my glasses from the nightstand and pajama bottoms from the floor. There was a pocketknife in one of the drawers, but I didn’t know where exactly and was afraid to make any unnecessary noise. I opened the window as quickly and quietly as possible and put the pajamas over the ledge. An ice-cold draft passed over me as I crawled out of the window gracelessly, scratching my stomach and privates on the sill, tumbling out onto the porch. I turned around, closed the window from the outside and ducked down to see if my clumsiness had been noticed.

Branches from backyard trees swayed in the wind.

The stars were out and luminous, I could almost feel them buzzing. A light, spring snow lay on the ground, electric on the soles of my feet. A crescent moon filled the backyard up with just enough light. My breath had returned. Out in the open I could breathe. I tried to put on the pajama bottoms, but when they didn’t fit, realized I had my wife’s pink bathrobe, so wrapped it around my bleeding waist and leapt over the rail of the porch to not leave tracks in the snow. Peering through a window at ground level on the near side of the house, I could see there were no lights or activity in the open area of the basement. The thieves would have to be in the computer room or in the far corner of the living room near the entertainment center. To keep from triggering the motion-sensitive light of the garage, I crawled underneath the back porch and toward the driveway like a predator and leaned against the house. Our vehicles were not in the driveway or the garage. My wife’s Jeep was in the shop, and her father had borrowed my truck to pick up a piece of furniture or something, I couldn’t remember. Then it dawned on me, this was no coincidence. These were professionals, and they knew exactly what they were doing. Lately, I’d been working out of state at another terminal once or twice a month, trying to turn it around again after John, the manager, walked out, leaving everything in disarray. When I was gone, my wife sometimes stayed with her parents or her sister, who lived nearby. Because the vehicles were not there, the thieves thought we were out of town or gone! Neighbors, kids, someone from the block, they probably scoped the house out for some time and learned our schedules.

I remembered my neighbor, the only one on the block to acknowledge our presence, as the neighborhood wasn’t really diversified, had warned me of a break-in the year before, right before we moved in. Some expensive tools and equipment were taken from his garage in the middle of the afternoon while he was at work. Obviously they were experienced, to pull off something like that in broad daylight. But it didn’t matter now. I knew the score and was pretty sure of what they were after. There was nothing of value in my garage. The only question now was how desperate they were. How far were they willing to go? Were they violent? They probably expected an empty house. The one upstairs, probably after jewelry and other valuables, must’ve seen my wife and little girl sleeping, and still had decided to go through with it. They had to be desperate.

Going back the way I came, making my way alongside the house to the computer room, I could make out a faint, blue glow emanating from the window. In the computer room, electronics were everywhere, in the living room, a giant flat screen and state-of the-art sound system, with hardly any effort, perfectly visible from outside. I needed to get to the storage closet, but how? Through the front door, the way they came, presumably? Stepping over the window, I walked to the front of the house, past the ADM security sign, whose system had never been set up, past the oleanders my wife had planted too early, whose dried leaves were poisonous enough to be lethal, knowledge of which she’d claimed to be ignorant when I jokingly asked of her intentions, and into the shadows of an elm’s leafless boughs. My feet were going numb and I was getting cold. I knew I could go next door to the neighbors and make an emergency call, but I was afraid to make too much noise. Crazed, adrenalized, inviolable, a power was growing from within. Some kind of transformation was taking place.

Possessed and delirious, I circled back to double-check everything and looked in through a downstairs living room window. I could make out silhouettes in the shadows near the entertainment center, confirming my suspicions finally. An unfamiliar minivan was parked in front of the neighbor’s house. Two figures walked out the front door toward the van carrying the flatscreen. I was about to go in when another figure came out, two rolled up oriental rugs on each shoulder. I’d forgotten how expensive the rugs were. Crouched down under bushes, I watched and waited. If the lookout was still in the house, there’d be four altogether. As the third headed toward the minivan, I crawled on all fours between the bushes and the house to the front door and slipped in quietly. I went downstairs to the storage room and closed the door behind me. I heard them coming back downstairs, intent and methodical as ants. In absolute black silence I stood, concentrating, listening. It would be best to wait for them to go out on their second trip before I made a move. It would be best to just let them go on their way. Losing track of time, I couldn’t hear anything.

Two memories occurred to me and passed instantly. The first was of my grandfather and our childhood home. One day my grandfather noticed white streaks all over his vehicle. Thinking nothing of it, he wiped them away. Going to work the following day, he noticed the same white streaks over a few other vehicles down the block, and the next day again on his vehicle, a blue van. He invited me to sit in the back of the van with him one night when it was late, near my bedtime. As was his way, he told me a story. About a mangy dog he found in a garbage dump when he was a boy that he raised for hunting. “Beautiful dog,” he reflected, “natural phenomenon, a killer.” She turned out to be the best bird dog anyone had ever seen, he said.

“She was good?”

“The best.”

“What happened to her?”

“She got old like me. Lost the fire.”

I dozed off and woke to him saying, “Here they come.”

I followed his line of sight. Three figures, kids, walking down the street carrying milk in gallon jugs, one of them dumping the milk all over cars as he passed them. My grandfather cracked the van window. As they went by he said to them in a low, loud voice, “You shouldn’t waste good milk, boy.”

Startled, they jumped and ran away, leaving the milk behind. My grandfather got out and yelled, “You all stay away from here now, you hear!”

The other was from early adulthood. I was working maintenance at a car garage. A customer, a regular, came in one day with a neck cast. The cast had spokes that ran to a shoulder harness, which supported the neck and prevented movement in any direction. He looked ridiculous. Muscular and knowledgeable, he related the story. Someone had broken into his garage to steal his truck. As they pulled out of the garage and into the alley, he tried to stop them. He jumped on the hood of the truck and, as they turned from the alley onto the side street, was thrown off the hood and onto a curb. He broke his neck and dislocated some vertebrae in the middle of his back, was almost killed, paralyzed. It turned out to be kids out for kicks, the incident utterly meaningless. Was it worth it, we joked him, to put your life on the line for a truck that was insured, over something that could more or less be replaced with a phone call?

Was it worth it? I was putting everyone at risk to prove one foolish point, yes, but I had to prove this one thing to myself, to them, the world, to everyone and thing. What the hell was it worth anyway, if a goddamn thief could come take it all away?

I thought I could feel them going upstairs. I tried to open the closet door ever so slightly, but it creaked. I stopped, tears welling, throat burning, heaving from the shock of the heat after the cold outside.

I had to make a move, but I didn’t know what to do. I opened the door the rest of the way and walked toward the staircase with a golf club. A light as bright as anything I’d ever seen flashed before me. I was on the floor being kicked in the side with a heavy boot. Everything was still so quiet. What luck, I thought to myself, to have come across professional thieves who could also scrap. I came to as the stranger ran upstairs to the front door. My glasses were gone and blood was streaming down my chest. Sweeping my hands over the floor, I searched for my glasses and the club but could locate neither. My lip split, I spit out a tooth and heard the minivan start and speed away. Precariously, I walked up to the front door and, right before I stepped out, heard the click of the back door being closed. The motion light from the garage lit up the driveway. I heard a dog barking from the far side of the backyard. The owner, who must’ve worked late or something, would let the dog, a monstrous beast, out in the middle of the night, and it would bark at anything, waking up half the neighborhood. Now the stupid dog was a savior. To escape, the upstairs thief had probably run away from the street to cut through the backyards. Frightened by the beast, the thief would’ve had to double-back.

I went out the front door, grabbed a lava rock from beneath the bushes and stood near the side of the house. From the driveway an echo of footsteps resounded. Timing the approach, I turned and threw the rock at my neighbor’s car, knowing it would trigger the alarm, and stepped from the side of the house. The thief had taken off her mask, hair flying everywhere, radiant as a peacock. Everything slowed down. Running toward me recklessly, I surprised her. She started to turn and stumbled as I lined up in front of her and swung with everything I had, everything I believed in and loved, with all my might and abandon, carelessly, fervently, religiously, letting it all go, easy water into rapids, swung purposefully and hit her square in the face, directly in the nose, with all the power I could channel, her momentum against mine. She grunted and fell.

I held my broken hand. I must have seemed crazed and deranged, barefoot and chested, bloody, head busted, a pink bathrobe around my waist, blind, trembling, crying and slobbering in the midst of regaining consciousness, my senses warped, heart rate insane, the dog, smelling commotion, barking furiously, the neighbor’s car alarm destroying any semblance of nightly suburban peace. I heard my wife from the door cry, “What’s going on out there?”

****

Nathan Prince received a BA from Millikin University. He lives and works near Chicago. Most recently he has been published in Contemporary American Voices, Burning Word, and by the International Library of Poetry.

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