This story originally appeared in Slice Magazine — Issue 14, 20 14.
Graphite pebbles scatter the page, trailing a mountainous line like chunks of snow from a plow. The pencil comes to a rest after passing through the final letter. He sweeps his palm across his mark. The third time tonight, evident by the silvery stains below his thumb.
Three times already, yet more remain. The list goes on for pages. He sighs at this, not out of annoyance or burden. It is a sigh of resignation. A sigh to signify the end of one task, the start of another.
Number four looms. The name beside it mocks him. Untouched by the pencil, it pulsates, breathes, laughs. It lives.
He taps the name with his finger, t hen the address. Commits it all to memory for fear of misplacing the list. He chants the words like a mantra, savors each syllable, cradles the cadence. He chews his pencil, realizes what he’s doing and stops, only to return pencil to mouth when his mind drifts once more. He wonders, What story will come from number four?
He looks at his pencil, frowns. He at first searched for a pen, a marker, in fact, something of permanence to equal the magnitude of his mission. Not a pencil. There is no erasing this. Not for numbers one through three. And, soon enough, not for number four. But what could he do? A pencil was all he had. Tonight was the night, and so he will make do.
The list is what matters, he assures himself. It’s what’s most important. Remembering this, he folds the pages into a perfect square and tucks it into his coat pocket.
The list makers will be proud, he thinks. Proud of what I accomplish.
It does not matter that they know nothing of him, for, he believes, they will by the end of the night.
Knowing this quells some of his fears. Crossing out three names has dismissed what remained.
His train heads north, away from what is left of number three. He is relived to be gone from there. Bars on windows. Broken glass outnumbering stones on the sidewalk. How desolate, hopeless, how fitting a home for number three.
He assumes his journey will lead him back there again. The lowly prefer the trenches. But he cannot skip around. The list has an order, and he must oblige. Number four is next, and number four is north.
The bunny refuses to jump in the hole. It willingly circles the tree, but near the hole, it stutters, collapses clumsily in defeat.
Jackson chuckles in spite of himself. He looks toward the oven clock. Far too late for an impromptu shoe-tying lesson. But he never can resist those pouting lips and down-turned eyes.
“You’re gonna be such a sleepyhead tomorrow,” he sings to her. “Gram’s gonna be mad at me.”
“No she won’t,” Sarah sings back. She kicks her legs like a swimmer.
“Hey, Pele, hold your horses,” he says. “I need to undo those knots.” Sarah giggles. Jackson fumbles with the laces. “And she will get made at me.” He leans closer to her and whispers, “She might even ground me.”
Sarah gasps. “She can do that?”
Jackson nods. Sarah contemplates this.
“Five more minutes, Daddy. Then I’ll go to bed.”
He nods. “Five more minutes, princess. Deal.”
Five turns into fifteen. Fifteen turns into the bunny finding the hole, which turns into a celebratory dance, followed by Sara tying and untying all of Jackson’s shoes.
He has to remember to record this in her scrapbook, alongside a strand of hair from her first haircut, the date of her first steps, the moment “momma” left her lips.
By the time she’s washed up for bed, it’s past Jackson’s bedtime. But the night never ends without a story. He reads Black Beauty and stops only when he recognizes her deep breathing. He kisses her forehead. God, he wants to pick her up, squeeze her, swing her in the air.
But he resists. He must always resist. Sleep is too precious these days.
He slides off the bed, tucks the comforter under her chin. He turns off the light, leaving the room cast in pink from her nightlight. The one he gave her last year when the nightmares began.
He lingers at her door, lost in her breathing. He sways with the rhythm. Hi s own lullaby, Sarah’s breath. But it is his nightmare as well.
What if it stops? What if one night her breathing stops as though she’s unplugged? He’d be helpless, again. He’d fail, again. Left alone with only himself to blame.
He is no Superman. He can’t stop death, save lives, right wrongs. But that’s what Sarah needs. How can he tell her he’ll always fall short?
The least he can do is be ready for tragedy. To listen and make sure the breathing never stops. It’s a job that robs him of sleep many nights.
But not tonight, he insists. Please, not tonight.
He remembers Kathryn, sleeping, breathing, her warmth tickling the nape of his neck. The hint of a snort every now and then, though she’d deny it later on.
He took Sarah to see her once, shortly after it happened. It. Such a tiny word. Such an enormous impact.
She nearly fainted, Sarah did, that day. Both of her hands fit inside his. She pulled her right one out from his grip and pointed down.
“Mommy’s there?” she asked.
What could he say? He didn’t want to say yes. Now it all seemed so grotesque to him, so primitive. Burying what once was his wife underground. What was he thinking, bringing Sarah here? There was no easy answer to give her; then again there seemed no more difficult question to ask.
Is Mommy there?
What did he tell her? He can’t be sure. Something about resting there, but that she lives here now, as he touched Sarah’s chest. She lives here now.
Sarah put her hand on her chest. Perhaps she believed the beat of her heart was Kathryn. But then she looked back down, forgot about her heart. She dropped to her knees. Began to shake. “She can’t breathe in there,” she wailed.
Jackson had to pull her away before Sarah’s nails dug in the earth.
They hadn’t returned since.
Over the last two months, Claire, Kathryn’s mother, hinted to Jackson that perhaps it was time he date, find a woman to help him with Sarah. To help him, period.
Jackson smiled, nodded, said maybe, but pushed the suggestion aside. No other woman fit in his world, in his and Sarah’s world. He could go through the rest of his life offering pleasantries to a person he’d just as well have never met.
Or he could be alone, with his little girl, guessing each step as he led the way. He preferred to guess.
Once he listened long enough to Sarah’s breathing, Jackson tiptoes to the kitchen. He needs water, warm milk perhaps. Instead, he pours a whiskey, hoping it will help him sleep. He never drinks when Sarah’s awake, usually does so only when she stays with Claire.
But some nights the loneliness shouts at him, trails him wherever he goes. The unrelenting shadow. Sometimes he smells Kathryn’s perfume. Sneezes from it. He’ll hear her hum, feel her fingertips. He’s certain of it. He searches the house, sure he’ll find her, until he discovers the truth. Just a breeze, an open window, something other than her. Just the house settling.
But nothing is more unsettling. On these nights, he needs a drink.
There is no Alex Foote. Not on any of these pages.
He made sure of it from the start. Not that he expected much. How long has it been? Who even knows about it? Too long. And no one.
Except him, that is. He knows. And for him it hasn’t been too long, can never be too long. Alex Foote is always near. The show breathing down his neck, making him flinch, cower. Close. Always too close. The hand on his shoulder, his back. The breath in his face.
Too close. Go away.
No, Foote is not here. Not on this list. But the others, all these others, surely they’re good enough.
They must be good enough. When this is all over, he’ll recall them as good enough. But number one will stand out among them all. His first.
Those eyes will remain.
“You are Nicholas Lumme, aren’t you?” he asked the man in the doorway. The man was frail, hard-edged bones jutting out beneath his skin like tent poles. He had eyes that squinted and a handful of white hair barely holding onto his head.
“Who are you?” the old man asked. Rather than raise his eyelids for a closer look, he raised his head, in fact bent back his whole body, at an upward angle.
“My name …” the old man’s visitor began, but he paused. Licked his dry lips. He practiced this exact moment for days, rehearsing, the line aloud, perfecting the delivery.
Examining the impact of each potential name he considered. My name … what is my name? He used a thesaurus, for good measure.
My name is vengeance. No, too sinister, not altruistic. Too bitter on the tongue. Justice. No, too emasculating. Too much like a superhero.
Redemption. He said the name once, then twice. He smiled.
Yes. My name is Redemption. His lips curled around those words. That’s what I say. That’s who I am. “My name is Redemption.” Then I burst through the threshold.
“My name,” he repeated, “is Redemption.” He leaned his shoulder into the door and surged forward. Lumme flopped to the floor. Redemption’s heart raced. My God! This is it. It’s begun.
He brought a hammer, just in case. But Lumme was so delicate, already two steps from death. Redemption’s gloved hands would suffice.
He cradled the fallen man. “You are Lumme,” yes?”
The old man nodded, attempted to speak but choked and coughed instead. His eyes locked on to Redemption’s face. They revealed a sense of understanding, an acceptance of this fate.
Yes, Redemption thought. You know why I’m here. You know what comes next.
There was a groan. Gurgling. A tremor from the body pinned beneath Redemption. And then … stillness.
Nothing but silence.
It is cold tonight, painfully cold. The air punishes him like needles as he climbs the stairs toward the street.
He wipes his eyes with his gloved hands and remembers Lumme’s eyes, swimming in water like pickled olives.
The faces of numbers two and three are difficult to recall. After Lumme, the process became clockwork, habitual. Ask a question, say his line, burst through the threshold. Act. Stillness. Leave. Pencil. Next.
But he can’t forget Lumme or those runny eyes. His hands curl, as though conforming to the shape of Lumme’s throat.
“I must do this,” he had whispered to Lumme, as the man twitched one last time. He repeated these words with two and three as well, justifying their ends and his means.
“I must do this.” Commissioned. Sent for a purpose.
Sometimes ugliness must occur to preserve beauty, and somebody must assume that burden. If not him, then who?
“Alex Foote,” he mutters. Foote’s face replaces numbers two and three. That’s who he sees, who he’ll continue to see as he runs down the list.
A nose like a bicycle horn, eyebrows thick and wild like his mustache, breath more foul than the odor from his unwashed clothes.
Alex Foote, nowhere, yet everywhere on that list.
Redemption takes out those pages. He smiles at the three uneven lines, then regains composure as he sets his eyes o his next target. A new beginning. Another ending.
His hands again curl around the phantom neck of Lumme. Number three had gone the same way, number two was … messier. Less intimate, yet perhaps more appropriate.
He says number four’s name aloud. Lets the wind carry it away. He follows the words into the cold.
Six months ago, Jackson downsized. A king-size bed seemed an ocean to him. It felt that way to
Kathryn from the first night they slept in it.
“It’s like sleeping alone,” she complained.
Jackson made a show of proving to her that the extra space would not drive them apart. “Besides,” he reasoned, “we’ll need the space when Sarah has a bad dream and wants to sleep with us.”
In truth, Jackson welcomed that empty space. He had never loved the intimacy of small beds, never cared for the closeness of another person as he slept. He didn’t want to push Kathryn away. He just wanted legroom. First-class accommodation.
After Kathryn died, he clung to routine. He fought hard to change little. The way he flicked on and off Sarah’s light switch every morning, cutting toast into squares, not triangles, writing notes in her school lunches. A different person performing the tasks but, still, the same routine.
But his bed changed, grew larger. Too large. It swallowed him every night, only to spit him out each morning. He’d lie on his stomach, right arm outstretched toward the space Kathryn once filled. He cursed himself for ever wanting space from her. All he’d wanted was a few inches. Not all of this.
The bed had to go.
It was replaced with a twin. The smaller the better, he believed. He might’ve gotten a crib if he could, or a dog crate. No need for any space. Empty spaces welcome hauntings; there was enough of that inside of him.
He drifts a bit, but can’t yet fully sleep. Down the hall Sarah breathes. He tries to pace himself with her but instead holds his breath, returns to listening.
Why do I get to see her grow up, he wonders. Why me? I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve her. She needs her mother. Not a clueless fool.
He empties his second glass, sets down the magazine he’s reading, and turns on the news. A strangling downtown.
Jackson shakes his head. Maybe it’s time to leave here. Find a new home. Someplace safer. For Sarah. Why stay here?
But no. This is home, this city. It was his and Kathryn’s home. He’s not ready to leave it. And, besides, bad things happen only to bad people.
Number four is more difficult to find than anticipated. Redemption is spending too much time on this one. His quest might be cut short, interrupted by the morning sun. There are too many eyes in the light of day. But each tossed out name is a tiny victory. There are no losers from this.
This one’s neighborhood is much nicer than the last—row houses of brick, matching metal awnings, and private doors, each with their own stoop. Chalk drawings decorate some stoops; others are dressed with holiday lights, even a few plants fighting the cold.
There is order here, a neatness. Number four’s home looks no different than his neighbors’. Do they realize who lives among them? This predator in men’s clothing?
Number four’s at the end. He scouts the front and back, notices three sets of windows, all at the ground level. Which one will do? Which one is right?
There are two large windows at the front, adjacent to one another, dark curtains cutting them off from the street.
There’s no way to be sure, but Redemption assumes these lead to the living room. Living rooms are a gamble. Many people, he surmised, spend waking hours in living rooms. If they were asleep, it must be restless sleep, TV on, curled up on a couch.
He decides against these windows, goes around to the side. Here is a single window, similar to the single window around back, but this one has a glow. A thin, wisp of pink, like shining strands of cotton candy. Though weak, the light is strong enough to make transparent the curtains in the window.
This makes stealing a peek inside easy, maybe too easy. As visible as the room is to him, won’t he be to anyone inside? How unfortunate if he announced his presence before getting in. Once inside, it does not matter. He’ll take care of whatever obstacle comes his way. But to be prevented from his duty by a careless judgment call?
That would mean skipping a number. Letting number four live. A gaping hole to haunt him for years.
He’s not sure what to do. If he could steal just one peek, he’d know if this room was a perfect gateway.
He creeps toward the window from the side, crouching lower with each step, holding his breath. He refuses to lift his head the few inches to crest the sill. Instead, he places his hand on a lower corner of the glass. There’s a warmth bursting through. Too much warmth, he thinks. There’s life in here. And it just does not feel right.
It will have to be the next window.
Jackson leaves open both his and Sarah’s bedroom doors. This makes him feel closer to her, more accessible, just in case.
She has nightmares often. Nightmares that conjure screams, screams that steal sleep, sleep for both of them.
Jackson was a deep sleeper when Kathryn was there. Sarah’s diaper-change calls or demands for feeding never stirred him. Only a hard shake could wake him. He’d set his alarm each night, fully aware he set it for Kathryn, not him.
Kathryn mockingly threatened separate bedrooms, said she was better off beside Sarah’s crib.
“It’s the only way I’ll get a good night’s sleep,” she said.
“I’ll get better,” he promised. But he never did. How could he? Get better at sleeping lighter? Was that even possible?
The answer, he came to discover, was yes. When Kathryn died, his sleep passed away as well. There was no longer a cushion, a fall back, a partner to rely on. He was the last line of defense for Sarah.
Every whimper, sniffle, scratch, and sneeze shook him like thunder. He’d never forgive himself if he slept through something important.
He lies in bed, TV now off, waiting for sleep like it was a long overdue train. “Daddy.”
His body jolts alert. Instinct takes over. His feet hit the ground. His body lunges to the hallway before she calls a second time.
“Coming, sweetie,” he says.
At her doorway he flips the switch, washing out the pink. His eyes squint from the light. He falls onto Sarah’s bed, swoops her up in her arms.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” he whispers. “Just a bad dream. A terrible dream.”
Sarah’s body temples like a rabbit’s. He squeezes her, hoping it stops.
She shakes for both of them, he wants to say. She is the conduit of terror. What he fights to bury, she lets erupt. He holds on to her, knowing he holds on to himself as well. “Do you remember what it was about?”
She shakes her head, wipes her nose on his shirt. She doesn’t remember. She never remembers. Is that good or bad? Jackson has no idea. But if she does remember one day, will she share it with him? Will he always be daddy to her?
He may not have the answers, but he’ll listen. He’ll nod and listen. He’ll tell her he knows how she feels. The nightmares, they visit him, too. He’s just too numb to react.
“I’ll stay right here, sweetie. Go back to sleep.” He lays her back on the bed, lets her head sink into her pillow. He strokes her hair.
Will I always be Daddy? Or will I just be your father one day?
He hears the trees sway outside. Creaking. Moaning. Threatening to snap. Blocks of snow fall to the ground with echoing thuds. Why does his mind drift to nails in a coffin?
Sarah’s window rattles.
Why did I bury her? Jackson wonders. The thought of Kathryn out there, cold, alone, blocks of snow falling down, crushing her … why?
“Thank you, Daddy,” Sarah whispers, reminding him there is no Kathryn. No one is there to feel the cold.
This little girl, she’s the closest Jackson will ever be to his wife again. This little girl who thinks of him as the slayer of her fears, like some kind of hero.
But you’re the hero, he says to himself. Every day you save me.
Eventually her breathing deepens. Jackson stops stroking her hair. He pulls himself from her bed. “Thank you,” he whispers. He turns off the light. The pink returns.
He stands at her door. He feels a cold breeze against his back. The hallway is cool, a sudden draft. He folds his arms for warmth.
He doesn’t want to think it, but he does …
Goosebumps rise on his arms; the hairs on the back of his neck stand. He wants to shake this off, but he can’t. Is this Kathryn?
He hesitates at Sarah’s door. With reluctance he closes it, thinking the cold might creep in.
Every sneeze, every sniffle … like thunder.
There’ll be no more nightmares tonight, he reasons, then turns back toward his room. Again, that breeze.
There have been other breezes, other sounds, other nights of false hope. None of it amounted to anything, none of it led to Kathryn. But what if this time is different? What if this time it’s her?
If it is Kathryn, he’ll welcome her, lie with her in bed. Feel the warmth. Cherish how little space there is in the bed. Promise her he’s a light sleeper. Promise he’ll save her this time. Keep her from the cold.
Please be Kathryn, he begs. Please don’t be just another cold breeze, just another disappointment. The unsettling settling. Doesn’t he deserve this? One more night with his wife, his love? Doesn’t Sarah deserve her mother?
Is tonight the night God redeems Himself? “Kathryn,” he whispers into the cold.