My wife sleeps peacefully beside me. I lie awake, while a recurring nightmare involving a schoolyard bully dissolves like a movie fadeout. I’m far too old to suffer anxiety over being bullied as a boy, but long suppressed memories find comfort in the darkness of night.
Perspiration soaks the back of my neck. I flip the pillow searching for a cool, dry spot. Stripping off my pajamas offers no relief.
I tiptoe to the bathroom and stare into the mirror, squinting at white stubble growing like weeds through dry, cracked terrain. Water splashed on my face fails to wash away the nightmare or the memories of childhood cowardice.
I hear a creaking sound coming from the front of the house. Unsure if it’s a footstep, I stand as still as possible and listen. Is this what woke me? I remain at the doorway of the bathroom, naked, my heart pounding.
Is someone lurking in the darkness, standing as still as I? Will he retreat out the front door or will he attack? Does he have a weapon?
Do I call out, “Who’s there?” and add, “I have a gun.” No. I’m quite certain my voice would fail me, cracking like the cry of a schoolboy pleading for help. Do I slip back into the bedroom and call 9-1-1? I think of the embarrassment if the sound is just my imagination. And I’d frighten Mary. She already worries about me waking in the night to memories of schoolboy trauma.
My mind drifts back to a real event of more than fifty years ago. The Otis twins bloody my best friend, Paul Newsome. Paul cries for me to help him. I turn and run, too afraid to even call a teacher. I can still hear the Otis boys’ taunting laugh and feel the pang of Paul’s refusal to talk to me ever again.
Another rustling sound from the front of the house. My knees buckle.
I can’t stand it any longer; I have to do something. I grab the plunger and hold it, arm-bent, as if it were a rifle. Perhaps in the shadows it might deceive the intruder.
About to prove my manhood I think twice about doing so sans uniform. I grab a bath towel and wrap it around my waist, feeling like an ancient warrior about to be challenged in battle.
What I really want to do is flee to the bedroom, crawl under the covers, and pretend none of this is happening. I did that as a child and it cost me my best friend as well as my self-respect.
A tapping sound interrupts my fantasy. My hands shaking, I head towards the noise, clinging to the plunger like a soldier to his weapon.
“Who’s there?” I shout, surprised by the clarity of my voice.
“Who’s there, damn it?”
I make my way to the front of the house and, with a jolt of courage that would have frightened the Otis twins, turn on the living room light. I see the front door still latched, windows locked shut, everything in place. After checking the other rooms, I breathe normally for the first time since I awoke.
I shut a window in the study, slightly open. The blinds stop rustling. My towel falls to the floor.
“Honey,” I hear Mary call, “is everything all right?”
I turn to see her staring at me. Her eyes tell me she suspects early senility.
“I just heard a noise,” I tell her. But it’s nothing. The window was open is all.”
“My hero,” she says, laughing.
I’m reminded that I’m a sixty-year-old naked man holding a plunger.
“Let’s get some sleep,” I say, wrapping one arm around her shoulders while twirling the plunger with my free hand and placing it in an imaginary holster. “My work here is done.”
I leave the towel on the floor, my manhood secure.
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.