Consider the Night

Chapter One

Once a month he meticulously cleaned the barrel of the rifle until his image reflected on the metal. His face was distorted and almost unworldly, but it was then he knew the job was done correctly. Cradling the implement, he ran his left hand down the barrel until his tarnished wedding band hit the wooden stock. Then with his right hand he picked up a single bullet, opened the bolt, and locked it in the chamber. After a long pause, he pivoted the gun and looked down the gullet of the barrel. The smell of gunpowder formed an irresistible attraction and he closed his eyes to take in the scent. His cheeks tightened as unforgiving memories arose. Then he put the end of the barrel in his mouth and tasted the cold metal with his tongue and the roof of his mouth. The acrid, smoky taste overwhelmed him and he dizzied as it soaked into his taste buds. His index finger trembled on the trigger and he remembered a story about some sorry asshole that blew the back of his brains out but ended up a vegetable instead of dead. He wouldn’t make the same mistake. His breathing echoed in the hollow of the gun and he was forced to make a choice. Squeezing his eyes tighter, the final decision rose from a dark place he had visited before. He agonized until his twitching finger drifted from the trigger. When he set the gun in his lap, it was all he could do to breathe.

A puff of air escaped his lungs and the black in his head dissipated. The trembling slowed and he looked tentatively around the small cabin. When his gaze drew in only dusty knickknacks, it was clear he was alone on the lake. No more crowds or rush hour traffic or waiting at the drive-thru for a super-sized quarter pounder with cheese. No more stoplights and punks in monster trucks scaring the living shit out of him. No more witless neighbors filled with inane conversation about what a nice goddam day it was. Just he and Sam living on the lake with nobody else in sight.

“The way it should be, right Sam?” he said to the yellow lab lying on the wooden floor.

The dog raised an eyebrow and let out a huff.

It was then he heard the noise. A crack of twigs in the night that had no business being there. He was used to the sound of nocturnal creatures prowling the forest but this noise was loud. Too loud. The Wisconsin northwoods had its share of drifters and vagabonds making a living by raiding uninhabited homes. His cabin had been broken into more than once and he vowed if ever faced with the opportunity, he would take care of it with the business end of his rifle.

He looked out the window but saw no sign of unwanted activity. Beyond that the lake waters rippled in the soft moonlight and garnered his attention. The water was cold and deep and had remained unchanged in the countless years since he first laid eyes upon it. He cleared a smudge from the glass and watched the waves lap at the shoreline. Even in the dark of the evening, the roll of the curling waves did little to settle his discontent. His gaze moved to the patchy grass where a cold rain slapped him the day he first broke ground. He could still feel the rusted pick-ax pierce the earth until it was nearly embedded to its neck. The memory was almost as strong as the delicious smell the blade uncovered. It was clean and pure like God intended when he first created the earth. It was the very same soil that would act as foundation for the cabin and witness happiness and death and the moments in between.

His father helped him dig that day. Nothing more strenuous than a few shovelfuls he was barely able to lift into the wheelbarrow. The stroke left his father a shell of a man limping through life with only half the working parts he started with. It pained him to see his father struggling and it burned an image as strong as the grain on an oak. Even with his father as overseer of the construction, the cabin took years to complete. Finally on a warm summer day he pounded in the last of the shingles and wiped the sweat from his brow. As he paused on the roof, his father laid peacefully in the hammock swaying in the breeze. It was only the unnatural angle of the bad arm hanging over the edge of the hemp that garnered his attention.

“Dad?” he called as he spilled a cache of nails. The nails dribbled down the slope and tinkled into the gutter. “Dad?” he called louder. He scrambled down the ladder knowing his father was dead. A weakened blood vessel decided a comfortable hammock was as good a place as any to silence the man forever. As he approached, he dropped the hammer into the soft earth.

His mother herself would never stay at the lake. Too many bugs, she always said. And don’t get me started about that outdoor shower. Under the house where everyone can see my business? No thank you! After a few early visits, she didn’t budge from her statement for over thirty years. In some ways, he didn’t mind because it created a place that was truly his. He used it as a getaway for a steady parade of friends joining him for weekend card games or hunting excursions. Back then he didn’t mind the company; the change wouldn’t come until later. The lake became his singular respite from the storm of activity in the city. It was the only place that life made sense to him. The only place he ever hated to leave. Now he would die on the very same land the way he wanted. Alone.

Then a louder noise from the woods. He grasped the rifle and locked another bullet into the chamber. Picking up his flashlight, he made his way to the screen door. He opened it slowly and a single bulb gave a dim view of the forest. Dogwoods and bramble obscured his vision as he quietly closed the door behind him.

“I’ll be back, Sam,” he whispered to the lab.

He licked his lips and looked deeper into the woods. Within a few steps the light faded but he clicked on a flashlight and forged ahead. Adrenaline flowed and his heart pounded. He stepped tentatively into the woods and avoided any sound that would give away his location. Blowing out a stream of cold air, he marched deeper into the woods.

Crack! came a sound from behind a clump of trees. He had no doubt it was the weight of a human stepping on a dead branch. The only question was why the miserable bastard was in his woods. He was at full attention and for one brief moment he was young again. The sensation was electrifying and emboldened him to pick up his cadence. He pointed the flashlight toward the sound and estimated it to be thirty yards ahead. Quickening his pace, he was ready to face whatever lie ahead and let his rifle determine the final outcome.

The sound of movement echoed again from the distance. Something was out there and the footsteps hinted at far more than an animal foraging for food. He ground his teeth and his vision blurred in the night mist. He had learned to navigate in the darkness of Vietnam and now that time was upon him again. He inhaled deeply and the thick, mottled mass of decay enveloped him and caused an unexpected disorientation. Gripping the rifle harder, his heart thumped like a tribal drumbeat. That was quickly overshadowed by a muffled crush of leaves and a break of ground twigs.

“Who’s out there?” he called in a bleating voice. “Who is it?”

His shout was ignored and he squinted into the shadows. The weak beam of his flashlight was little help in the blackness. Age and cataracts had robbed him of night vision and the darkness was a murky blend of shadows and clouds. He focused and had no recourse but to trust his instincts. Then he came to a dead stop when he stepped on a soft spot in the ground. He dizzied and dropped the flashlight as the night skies spun wildly. He stumbled and steadied himself with the butt of his rifle. When he looked down, a clawing right hand stretched toward his boot. Then he saw the face. Blood seeping from a troopmate’s misshapen jaw soaking into the earth leaving the wounded man barely able to moan. As the night sky exploded overhead, he made a choice to flee when instincts for self-preservation took precedence. The ground shuddered and he retreated in order to avoid death at the hand of flying mortar shells. I’ll be back, Zeke! he promised as he stepped back. But when that time came, the man’s lifeblood had already leached into the rotting filth of the jungle.

When a rush of wind slapped his face, the jungle was gone.

He shook his head. Then noise echoed again but this time it was closer. He took a step towards it and for the first time noticed the proximity of the neon lights marking the local lake tavern. It added little comfort in spite of the reminder there was help nearby. Help? He almost spat the word in disgust. A couple of nitwits drinking beer was about as good as it would get. When the neon flickered, almost on cue the sliver of moon fell behind a cloud and smothered the thin fabric of remaining light. He raised the gun to his shoulder, eyed the sight, and aimed toward the last sound. Better safe than dead, he thought.

Then he heard it.

Breathing. Deep and labored with a menacing rhythm sifting through the dark.

“You better stay still or I’ll blow the brains out the back of your head,” he said giving fair warning. When the statement was met by silence, he took another step. “Your funeral, asshole,” he said as he kept the rifle pointed.

With the barrel of the gun he pushed aside a small branch of a pine and etched his finger on the trigger. He would take a life if that’s what it came to in the end. Last man standing wins, his sergeant had preached years ago. And if tonight was his or someone else’s time to die, so be it. He scanned the forest and braced the rifle harder against his shoulder. The darkness made it impossible to see beyond the end of the barrel, so he stiffened and waited for any sign of movement.

“Last chance,” he said as he firmed up his trigger finger. “Stand tall where I can see you.”

That was the final declaration before he stumbled over the root of a tree. The ground was unyielding and both his face and lower ribs struck the roots spreading in all directions. “Fuuh!” he shouted as a lightning bolt of pain shot into his chest. The next breath doubled the pain and his mind fogged as it tried to make sense of his predicament. At that instant it was all he could do to protect the rifle from firing unintentionally, yet his index finger twitched tenuously on the trigger.

It was then a shadow appeared from behind the tree. In the dark he could not make out more than the shape of a man. The specter towered over him and he smelled death. When the breeze crackled in the night, there was only one recourse left. He fired the rifle at the image and the crescendo of the gunshot echoed into the black. The shadow disappeared as fast as it had arrived. He ignored his rib pain and lurched to his knees. He squinted and locked in another bullet before letting it sail in the direction of the first. The ringing of the rifle resonated in the woods and he dizzied at the effort. His breathing escalated and hung in the chill of the night. Moments later the confrontation ended without a victor being named.

He laid the rifle on the ground and touched where the exposed root had opened his cheek. Feeling the sting of broken skin, he estimated it to be a simple flesh wound that would fade in a fortnight. Next were his ribs, where he was quite sure he had broken at least one. He had suffered lesions far worse than this and he spat in disgust at his bodies weakness. He regrouped and breathed in the cool air of the forest. The night skies opened and through the trees there was a glimmer of constellations that he and his son had studied decades ago. He squeezed away the memory and lowered his gaze into the abandoned woods. Then he shivered in the still of the forest and lost himself in the unforgiving darkness.

***

He could live with a broken rib. That he had done before. He hadn’t spit up blood so he was fairly certain he hadn’t punctured a lung. Doctors? Like hell he was going to get checked out by someone who would tell him he wasn’t dead and then send a bill just to prove it. So he picked up his rifle, stood as best he could, and got on with living.

He still had no idea who was in the woods. He supposed he could call the police, but what would he tell them? That he had gotten the shit kicked out of himself by a man with no face? Even worse was the attention it would draw. He wanted no part of that either. Rather, he would just wait until the next time a stranger set foot on his property and take care of it then.

He decided to head to the lake tavern and talk to one of the few people that straddled the line as a friend. The tavern was only fifty yards further and he hobbled with the rifle acting as a crutch. The neon light marking Wood Lake Resort blinked randomly in the distance. Normally the word “Resort” gave him pause to smile but not tonight. The tavern was no more than an oversized two-story shed covered with flesh-colored siding. The roof was in disrepair, but no matter how many times he offered to help the owner replace it, he was always rebuffed.

“Stubborn fool,” he said to himself as he leaned his rifle against the front siding.

The red wooden door squeaked when he opened it. He grimaced in pain but ignored the sensation as he was confronted with the strangely appealing smell of old cigarette smoke and cedar paneling. His eyes were drawn to the mounted fish captured in mid-leap lining the far wall of the bar. He remembered the day he spent with his wife and son gathering in a stringer of walleyes as thick as his calf.

“Dang good eating,” he told them as they filleted the fish in the old shanty.

Like his family, the shanty was now gone. A victim of termites and strong winds on a hot summer night.

“Hey Schmidt!” said the bartender from behind the bar. “You still breathing?”

He half-smiled in spite of the knife-like pain in his chest. It was the only greeting he had come to know. He responded in kind.

“Still here, Bill. And plenty strong enough to kick your pasty tail around this shit-hole of a bar.” He liked to come to the tavern and did so a few times a week. Most times it was the early afternoon before the supper hour. He could drink his fill and avoid conversation with locals that inevitably dropped in for a quick one after work. Even worse were the summer months when a conveyor belt of vacationers came and went. They had red faces and sunglasses-induced raccoon eyes that tipped him off to their status. He would nod at their greetings but do his best to avoid any conversation. When he looked around the desolate horseshoe-shaped bar, he questioned the bar owner. “All alone?”

“Mostly,” he said as the dim light of the bar shaded his face. “Gloria’s in and out doing what she does and there’s a couple in the back.” He sighed at the emptiness. “Not even Fat Pete and Gipper tonight.”

“Umm,” he said as he placed a fingertip on his injured rib.

“They went to Lake Delton to fish. The Gipper’s family is from there so they stayed at his folk’s place. They’ll be back in a day or two I’d guess.”

“Right. Unless they get drunk and fall in the water.”

“Undoubtedly.” He paused. “So what you been up to?” Bill asked. “Counting your wrinkles?”

“Something like that.” he said slowly. Then he got to the point. “Bill, you seen anyone funny around here lately?”

“Funny?”

“Strange.”

“No, not really,” he said with a shake of his head. “Why do you ask?”

He winced when he took a breath. “I heard a noise outside my cabin and I took a look. I followed somebody into the woods and got the snot kicked out of me.”

“You what?” he asked in a rising voice. Then for the first time he noticed the slim stream of blood gracing his cheek. “Your face!”

He touched his cheek. “I was chasing the bastard and fell on a root. And I think I busted a rib.” He paused and drew in a shallow breath. “I tracked him into the woods and had him at the edge of my rifle. Might’a had ‘im too, but it was too dark to see. I got a’coupla shots off but he got away.”

“Those shots were yours?” he asked in a breathless voice. “I heard them!”

“Damn right they were mine. I only missed him‘cause it was too damn dark to see. An cuz’a my busted rib.”

He nodded. “You okay? Maybe you need to go to the hospital. Are you bleeding? Pissing blood or anything? Maybe you punctured a kidney!”

He laughed despite the pain. “No blood, Bill. And if you ever get me a beer, I’ll let you know about the piss.”

“I’ll get the beer in a minute.” He grabbed the edge of the bar with both hands. “You think we should call the cops?”

“Bill, really.”

He shook his head and realized the futility of the local police force. “Sorry. Dumb thing to say. So,” he said as he waved a hand in the air, “who do you think it was?”

He blew out a wisp of air and shrugged. “I’m sure I have no goddam idea. I think a thief just wandering around looking for an easy mark.”

Bill didn’t disagree but paused and took a long, slow look at the man’s disheveled appearance. “A thief in the woods? At this hour?” he asked aloud. “That doesn’t make sense.” He bit his lower lip before responding. “But I’m sure you’re right, Schmidt,” he said and narrowed his eyes. “I’ll keep a look out.”

“You do that, Einstein. At the very least I’ll sleep better knowing you’re on the job.”

Bill shook his head. “Two letters, old man. F and U,” he said. “Fill in the rest.”

Schmidt half-smiled over the wooden bar. “Take a pill, Bill. I’m just giving you crap. It’s just that I don’t trust most near anybody about anything these days.” He took a drink before continuing. “There’s a lot of people out there that would rather take than earn.” He looked around the bar at the empty stools. “I used to be able to pick them out,” he said. “Now I have no freakin’ clue. So I’d rather just stay on my land and live out my days until I die.”

Bill nodded and filled a tall glass with the usual beverage. Schmidt liked that he didn’t even have to tell him what he wanted. For a rare moment he was at ease. Most times he didn’t even mind the bartender’s company, which was an even rarer situation. He liked Bill in spite of his liver-spotted baldness and muttonchop sideburns the bartender swore he had stolen directly off Elvis’ dead face. Bill and his wife, Gloria, had been the owners of the tavern for the last eight years and were more saps in a long line of saps believing they could draw on a thirsty public to keep them in the green. Instead, after years of struggle another color kept showing up on their ledgers. One that caused the couple to plaster a “For Sale by Owner” sign on the sun-bleached front of the building.
He didn’t even know Bill’s last name. Thompson or Compton or something like that. After all the years he no longer cared enough to even ask. Once or twice the man had come to help move a piece of furniture and on a few unexpected occasions to savor a beer around a campfire. It was then around the burning embers they shared buried secrets that neither would reveal in the daylight. The banter at the tavern was a different matter.

He reached for the glass of beer set in front of him and took a small sip. “About time. Nice to give a dying man his last wish.”

“Last wish,” he snorted. “Don’t give me that garbage. You’re too stubborn to die. A coma maybe, but not dead.”

“Damn straight,” he said to the bartender, holding back a smile. He had long considered smiling a sign of weakness and that wasn’t going to change any time soon. “I have too much to do.”

“Sure, you’re a real renaissance man. You know what that means?”

He shrugged. “No. But I’ll look it up in my dictionary.”

“I didn’t think they even still existed,” Bill replied. “You need to get with the times. Someday I’ll give you my old computer.”

“No need. I do okay without.” And he did. He didn’t even have a phone and that was the way he liked it. If he had to make a call, he would bum one from the tavern.

“You ever get bored at that place of yours, Schmidt?” Bill asked.

He was going to explain the myriad of chores that kept him occupied, but a loud voice from the small dining area interrupted him. He craned his neck and studied a stocky dark-skinned stranger sitting with a matching woman, both of whom he doubted were even American. The man had a thick head of unruly black hair set off by a gold chain hanging around his neck. With a cross at the end of it, he thought to himself. The guy’s probably Buddhist!

“You ain’t gonna like this,” said Bill as he took a step back. “That man is going to be your new neighbor. He’s building a house right next door to you.”

The word neighbor stung as if it was a wasp piercing the back of his neck. He didn’t like it. Not one goddam bit. His chest heaved and the pain in his ribs magnified. He brought the glass to his lips and finished the beer in a series of deep gulps. When he pushed it forward the bartender refilled it without a word being spoken. The next swallow left an unaccustomed bitter aftertaste. He set the glass on the bar and looked out the window into the darkness.

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