Night Prowlers by James Bates

Jeff sat bolt upright in bed, suddenly wide awake. The room was washed in the soft light of the full moon. He’d heard something. Was someone in the house? Maybe Linda had come back. He felt a quickening of his heart, a happy feeling. Then he felt what he still considered her side of the bed. Cold. That’s right, still gone. Damn. She’d left Minnesota six weeks earlier to move to New York City and live with her new boyfriend, leaving him with their two children and the cat. Shit. What to do now? 

Suddenly, there it was again, that noise. Floorboards creaking. A rustling sound. No doubt about it, someone was in the house. Someone or something. His mind quickly ran through the possibilities: A mouse? No, too tiny, too quiet. A chipmunk? Unlikely. Bailey, the cat? Hmm. The cat hunting a mouse? Ridiculous. Knowing the fat reticent tabby, he was probably fast asleep in a warm spot somewhere.

No, not the cat, and if not the cat, it had to be a person. A robber! First Linda had left, breaking his heart, now his home was being broken into by some creep. His brain nearly exploded with rage. Well, damn it, the guy was going to have to pay and pay big time. He was ready. There’d been a series of break-in’s in Minneapolis earlier that fall, and even though he lived in a small town twenty miles to the west, he figured it was best to be prepared. He reached over next to the night stand and grabbed his brand new lead core baseball bat. Now he was all set. Bring it on.

Jeff got out of bed and stood, bent at the waist, bat held high with both hands, senses on red alert, ready to protect his home at all costs. With only dim moonlight to guide him, he quietly made his way through the house, step by cautious step, starting with both the kid’s bedrooms, then the bathroom, linen closet, living room and kitchen. He saw nothing. Then he went downstairs and checked the family room, laundry room, furnace room and storage area. Still nothing. What was going on?

He went back to the kitchen, turned on the overhead light and sat at the table. He propped his bat next to the chair and bent to pet Bailey who’d awoken and accompanied him on his hunt for the robber. The big cat purred, easing Jeff’s fear somewhat.

In a few minutes he became aware of the house creaking and settling, and it gave him an idea. Maybe that’s what it’d been. Maybe it was just ordinary noises that a house made as the November weather turned cold and winter approached. Sounded plausible. He listened some more before deciding that it made sense, that there really was no robber, just the house being a house. Well, that was a relief. 

He stood up, turned off the light and went back to his bedroom, set the bat next to the nightstand and crawled under the covers, shivering a little while trying to warm up. Eventually, he fell into a restless, uneasy sleep.

In the living room, when they were certain their father was asleep, ten year old Evan and eight year old Stephanie stood up from their hiding place behind the couch.

“Well, that was weird,” Evan said, brushing back a lock of hair from his eyes. “Dad didn’t even see us.”

“Maybe he was just tired,” Stephanie said, shivering, wrapping herself tighter in her thin bathrobe. “I’ll bet that’s it.”

“Maybe…” Evan responded, thinking. “It’s just that he’s been acting so different lately. You know, since Mom left.”

“I know. I think he misses her. I sure do.”

“Yeah. Me, too.” They stood pensively until Evan reached over and patted his sister affectionately on the arm. “It’s okay, Steph.” 

It was all he could of think to say. With their mother gone, they were finding themselves depending more and more on each other for emotional support, especially since their father seemed to be in another world most of the time. Like tonight.

Stephanie sighed, “I thought it’d be fun to play a little trick on Daddy and cheer him up, but he didn’t even know we weren’t in our beds.”

“Yeah, I know,” Evan said. “Sometimes I wonder if he even knows we’re still living in the house with him.” He sighed, sadly. Then he turned so he was looking outside, and his mood brightened, “Hey, cool. Steph, Look.”

They were standing next to the living room window. The full moon was illuminating the outdoors like daytime. The moon glow on the grass was shimmering silver, almost like magic, a reminder of better times, happier times.

Stephanie looked but didn’t really see anything. Instead, she snuffled, leaned against her brother and fought back tears, “Do you think Mom will ever come home?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said, patting her on the back, trying to be strong. “I hope so. At least we aren’t alone. We’ve got Dad.”

“Yeah,” Stephanie said, wiping her nose and looking over her shoulder back toward the hallway. “Maybe we should go check on him.”

“Good idea. Let’s do that,” Evan said. “I worry about him.”

“Me, too.”

Hand in hand, brother and sister slowly made their way from the living room down the hallway and quietly opened the door to their father’s bedroom. They tip-toed inside, the moon casting a shadowy soft illumination, and, with barely enough light to see, they stepped to the foot of the bed.

Just then Jeff felt, rather than saw, a movement. Someone was in his room. The robber! All the pain and anger of the last six weeks boiled over into one volcanic instant, and he reacted, adrenaline racing. He jumped to his feet and grabbed his baseball bat, ready to do battle. In the dimly lit room he saw them standing near his bed. Not one, but two robbers. Damn. Well, they’d better be ready to pay.

Speechless, Evan and Stephanie stood frozen in place.

Jeff took a step forward, bat raised, prepared to strike and inflict some serious bodily damage. Instead, he stepped on the cat, who yowled, turned and sank his sharp teeth deep into Jeff’s ankle, sending him crashing to the floor, smashing his head on the nightstand with a sickening thud.

“Daddy!” Stephanie cried out, running instinctively to him. She fell to the floor and cradled her father’s head in her lap as he moaned in pain, and used the edge of her robe to dab away a trickle of blood running down his cheek.

“He’s hurt,” Evan yelled, turning on a light and reaching for the phone that had fallen off the nightstand. He called emergency and was told help was on the way. Then he searched for the bat. When he found it he said, “I’ll be right back.” He ran through the house to the garage and put the bat in the trash can, thinking, out of sight, out of mind.

Then he hurried back to join his sister, and they did what they could to comfort their father. In the background they could just make out the wailing siren of the approaching ambulance. 

Jeff groaned and opened his eyes, feeling groggy. His focused first on Stephanie, then on Evan, before managing a weak smile, “Are you kids all right? I thought there was a robber in the house.” He slurred his words, barely able to speak coherently, but at least he was conscious.

Brother and sister looked at each other, a message passing between them, one of both solidarity and hope.

Evan said, “Everything’s all right now, Dad. We called an ambulance. Help is on the way.”

“You just rest,” Stephanie added.

Jeff nodded, lay is head back, closed his eyes and mumbled, “Thanks, kids.” 

The wail of siren was getting louder, and the ambulance would arrive any minute. Evan and Stephanie waited nervously, each wondering, now, with their mother perhaps gone for good, if they were ready for this, ready for what the future might bring. They turned to each other, made eye contact, and, with no words being spoken, made a silent pact that they were. They’d do whatever they needed to survive. They had to. They were a family, the three of them and the cat. They had to make it work. They had no other choice.

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords (Dec, 2019, Author of the Month), The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine. In print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2 by Clarendon House Publishing, The Best of CafeLit 8 and the Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com

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