There was a barking in the distance. I fought my way through a thick fog. It grew louder and louder until suddenly it was right next to my ear. I opened my eyes and realized I had been dreaming. But, the barking. That was very real.
My dog, an eighty-pound German Shephard Rottweiler, was inches from my face and threatening the bedroom door with everything he had. Thinking he must’ve heard a knock at the front door, I got out of bed and threw on my green fleece nightgown with the embroidered fuzzy penguin in the middle. As soon as I opened the bedroom door, I realized I had been partially right.
Logan, my dog, lunged through the opening at three uniformed police officers. Bewildered, I grabbed Logan around his neck and held him back as an officer spoke through the snarls.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. My eyes were huge, but I still had trouble taking in the scene.
“You’re unharmed?” He asked again.
“I’m fine,” I said. I looked to my left at the rumpled sheets on the bed. “I was just sleeping. It’s my day off,” I forced an awkward smile. Not knowing if I had slept to an embarrassingly late hour.
“Your neighbor discharged a firearm this morning, ma’am. The man who lives below you,” he looked me in the eye waiting for acknowledgement before continuing. I nodded.
“It went into his ceiling, your floor. You didn’t answer when he came knocking to see if you were alright. So, he called us.”
Understanding flickered in my eyes. Like a forgotten light, fighting through years of darkness to turn on. I slowly nodded.
“We knocked for several minutes without response. We had to make sure you were okay.”
I nodded again. Then, I looked up and saw around the line of officers. That’s when I noticed it. My front door splintered, blown open. Snow swirling through the living room. It danced through the air, a fine powder, before settling on my couch. I blinked and looked back at the officer. A feeling of dread deep in my gut.
“We had to see that you were okay,” he repeated. A brief expression of apology flitted across his face. A grimace. “Sorry about your door. Do you mind if we do a quick search to locate the bullet trajectory?”
“Of course not,” the words sounded distant. Uttered by someone else. It was as if I was watching the scene unfold before me, a spectator. My body started moving. I shoved Logan through a small opening and into the bathroom, swinging the door shut behind him. It was like a dance. I saw my arms gesture towards my bedroom, welcoming those men and their snow-covered boots to stomp through my home. In the living room, I saw the worn, thick, flannel and fleece winter coat I had stolen from my grandfather and pulled it tight around me.
It was a week before Christmas and snow was an almost daily occurrence at this point. Today was no different. With my coat on, I surveyed the wreckage of my front door. It looked intact. The door frame was another story. It was split along the lock. A large piece of it had splintered and fallen to the ground. There was no hope of closing and latching it shut to keep out the cold. That’s when I saw him.
Dark hair, dirty clothes, thick black glasses. My neighbor standing at the foot of the stairs leading to my apartment, wringing his hands. ‘He looks ridiculous,’ I thought. I recognized the movement of his hands and posture as those of worry. He looked like my grandmother when I’d come home past curfew and she’d been waiting up for me. Again, I saw my body move without doing anything myself. A slow, forced nod towards him. His shoulders sagged and the hand wringing stopped. Clasped at his waist, his hands remained still.
“Sorry,” he shouted.
I forced a smile that may have been a grimace and nodded again. Then, I went into my kitchen where I could no longer see his shadow darkening the pile of snow in my doorway. I performed the normal actions of any morning. I grabbed the old, stained red tea kettle. Filled it to the top with tap water. Put it on to boil. By now the officers were stomping in and out of all the bedrooms, circling. Like a gathering of vultures looking for felled prey. One came out and went through the front door, down the stairs, past him. Without a word.
All I could do was stand there and watch the electric burner turn red from the heat. As if in a trance, all my bleary eyes registered was the red metal rings. Then an array of red images flashed before my eyes. Blood everywhere, sprayed from my mouth on the black and white silhouette of my parents on the wall above my bed. A mist coating all four cream-colored walls. A thick coat of the stuff dripping in between the keys of the computer keyboard, Logan’s coat matted with it. Blood leaking from my gut, legs, arms. Suddenly, I was aware of the tea kettle screaming. I took it off the heat and poured a mug, dropping in a bag. I blinked and looked around. I was still here. So was the snow and broken doorway. I padded in my stocking feet through the apartment and found two of the officers bent closely to the floor in my craft room, examining a small patch of the floor and knocking on it.
“Would you like some tea?” I croaked. My vocal cords shattered with the effort of speech, forgotten they still had work to do.
They were startled and swayed a little in their squats on the floor.
“No thank you, ma’am. Very kind of you,” one of them answered. I walked back down the hallway, past Logan’s whines from the bathroom and into the kitchen. Carrying my mug of tea, I circled the snowdrift in the living room and sat down on a clear space of the couch. I blew on my tea, then stuck my frozen face in the steam. I could hear talking in the distance, but it was a far-away drone. ‘Like the summer cicadas back in Ohio,’ I thought. I sat there, absorbing the steam and thinking of sticky hot summer days.
“Ma’am,” Someone said.
I shook my head, ripped from the heat.
“We’re all done now. Looks like it never exited the ceiling. We couldn’t find a point of exit anyhow. Looks to be in that unoccupied bedroom. You’re very lucky. Everyone is relieved you’re okay.”
The words slid off me like a bucket of ice water. Leaving me with a cold, hollow feeling that slowly spread from the back of my chest.
“Okay, thanks,” I whispered over my now cold cup of tea.
“Again, we’re sorry about your door. Since it’s a Sunday, we’re having a hard time locating the maintenance here. If you’re okay with it, one of us will stay behind until they get that door fixed for you.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’d be nice.” I stared at the empty TV screen in front of me. Devoid of something, but what?
Three hours later, my door was fixed and shut on the swirling piles of snow. What did I do for all those hours? Watch TV? Bake? Maybe I read a book. I can’t recall anything but a blur of mugs of tea, an officer on my stairs and a recurring sight of him downstairs repeatedly wringing his hands.
I know I called Ethan. I wanted to warn him in case he came home early and found police at our door. I didn’t want him to worry about me. I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. I didn’t want to worry about me.
By the time Ethan came home, he was a nervous wreck and couldn’t stop hugging me. Wanting to do something strong and protective. To keep his family safe. His hatred for the man downstairs was growing, coming to a rolling boil and dangerously close to bubbling over and burning us all.
As the week went on, the feelings started to burst through the wall I’d erected. Paranoia, anxiety and biggest of all, fear. I couldn’t go home. He was still living downstairs, presumably with more guns. ‘Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again?’ I’d think. ‘Who’s to say it was even an accident in the first place?’
That cold hollow feeling from before continued to spread throughout my body. Growing like a vine, it twisted its way through me, gaining strength, body. A gripping panic. First, I’d feel it in my chest, then it’d move on to my stomach and throat. Making its way from there out along my arms and legs until it numbed my fingers and toes.
I found more projects to do at work, stayed later. The thought of traversing that parking lot, walking past his door, climbing the stairs and entering the place I’d almost died would keep me plastered to my steering wheel. Unable to pry off my white-knuckled fingers. Eventually, I’d work up the courage to let go. Then I’d call Ethan.
“When will you be home?” I’d ask.
“I can’t go in there,” I’d plead.
Eventually we realized what I already knew. ‘We need to move. Now.’
We scheduled a meeting with a realtor. Beginning a process so difficult, heartbreaking and all-consuming that ended up replacing the panic of going home with something new. Something almost worse. We didn’t move right away. It’d be another six months before we moved to yet another apartment complex. Another year after that before we bought a home.
It was three weeks before my almost-murderer was evicted for what he’d done. I knew if you missed a rent payment, they’d evict you in twenty-four hours. Recklessly endangering lives wasn’t as serious to our landlords as money. During that time, I’d imagine all the ways I could’ve bled out in my bed that white December morning. I’d think of the family that lived above me and their kids who were home and in the potential bullet trajectory that day as well. I’d joke to friends about Kevlar pajamas and bed sheets. That gripping ice cold dread would be a constant companion.
The day the shooter moved out; his parents came to help him. They were a kind couple in their 50s or 60s. They knew who I was. What their son almost did to me. They were apologetic. They wanted to put my panic to rest and exonerate their son. An extension of themselves who had gone so terribly wrong. It was some of the strangest small talk I ever made. They caught me on my way up the stairs after work. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember is how it made me feel, pitied and misunderstood. They thought it was all a big misunderstanding. Though they felt bad for me, they thought it was all a bit much.
I never saw them again. But, the thought of their son stayed with me. In all the apartments, in every moment my safety felt unsure. I thought of him. His pale, milky skin. The dark clothing he always wore. His shaggy dark hair that fell across his forehead in a way that made you wonder when he last showered. Those thick black-framed glasses, separating him from your gaze. His hostile German Shephard that repeatedly tried to attack ours.
We used to joke about him. About him shooting up a public place. Back when public shootings were becoming a more frequent occurrence. Before they were commonplace in the daily news. He had cameras outside his door. He fit the profile of most shooters. Paranoid. White male. Antisocial. I never joked about anyone matching that description again. I’d always be left wondering, was it an accident?
A native of Ohio, Gina Soldano is a freelance writer. She spends her days writing and taking care of her one-year-old son.