Hand on the Door
Meanwhile his wife Tammy, a large homely woman, lay undisturbed beside him, a peaceful grimace spreading out upon her round, night-blue features. Their children, two boys, Dale and Carter, slept down the hallway from their parents’ bedroom; both of them fast asleep.
The windows of the house were all varnished in a cold, wet fog; gone black with the resplendent winter night. A pale aura rose up now, where moonlight reflected off the blankets of snow that had fallen steadily throughout the day.
Such harsh outer conditions somehow made the warmth of a shelter homier, and served as a reminder of their many God-given blessings, Anson and his wife had reflected together just a little after ten o’clock; before saying goodnight and switching off their bedside lamps. They had both fallen asleep quickly and had remained so for three hours since.
Anson’s arm suddenly came up and then stretched off the bedside, like he was shaking someone’s hand, someone to whom he felt in a subordinate position. His fingers pawed at the air as he mumbled something about how, “You wanted to see me, sir,” and, “No sir, it’s warm enough for me…” Nothing more than gibberish really, but to Anson the circumstances were very real, very serious, and so he was on his best behavior.
In the dream Anson had been his regular self for most of the time; going about his business as an Assembly Man at a factory in Tukwila. It was just like it always was save for a few strangely altered details. For example, his workspace was moved to a different wall of the factory. And instead of working alongside Wade Hanky, he now shared a bench with his older sister, Carol. Which he took more or less in stride, adapting to his sister’s company beside him with all the nonchalance of a man smelling his wife’s new perfume. By far the most alien element of the dream to Anson, though, was that it felt as if a very dreadful event was creeping its way to the surface, whereas he usually felt a great deal of complacency and ease at work.
This self-assurance came from the fact that Anson had been with the company for twenty-two good years, knew everyone, even his bosses, as a friend, and had never once received a single complaint over the quality of the digital scales he assembled. And so now this eerie feeling of dread, snaking through the air, caused him to fret in his sleep; perhaps it was that he’d had too much coffee that day.
At some point, whether it happened semi-naturally with a summons or not, he found himself walking towards his boss, Jim Collins’s office. Already he knew that something was wrong and that the purpose of their meeting was over some fault he had made. It was during the time when he first opened Jim’s door and the time that he closed it behind him that he had transformed, and was no longer the same Anson Briar he’d seen in the mirror every day for forty-six years.
The hand and fingers he saw wrapped around the doorknob, though extending from his person, did not resemble the same extremity that had spelt his love and livelihood for as long as he could remember. Instead of a pink, fishy color with red splotches abounding, Anson Briar discovered a hand – equally strong and calloused as his own – but one that had turned a curious shade of brown. In fact, it was the exact same color as the rosewood varnish he’d used to refurbish a roll-top desk that Tammy had brought home, second-hand, from the Good Will during the summer, and had said would make for a ‘nice addition’ to the den. As always, she had been right; it did give the room a ‘little extra something.’ But then what was the meaning of this? What had happened to his skin – his race – his identity, as a ‘hardworking, tax paying, God fearing, red Scots-blooded, American’ human being?
It’d been during this moment of fantastic realization that the sleeping Anson Briar had lifted his hand to hang suspended over the bedside, and trip over his tongue in disbelief.
Turning around now, the black Anson Briar looked up at his boss, Jim Collins – who by this time had become several feet taller than a human man should be. And Jim Collins, in his pristine gray business suit, looked down at Anson, a hint of sadism in the smirk that was quivering in the corner of his bloodless mouth. Unlike Anson and his mustache, Collins was a clean-shaven man with a large, comicbook jaw. His eyes were as dull and gray as his suit, and they glinted like two metal ball bearings lodged in the top of an oval-shaped sponge cake. Abiding the customs of waking life, the two dream men mechanically shook hands. Then Anson asked his superior if he’d wanted to see him.
‘Yes, Briar, I did,’ said Jim Collins. ‘Say, are you cold in here? The damn heater is on the fritz. I could run and get you a blanket if you like; I know your sister crochets.’
The black Anson Briar meekly assured his boss that the temperature was fine.
‘Good good,’ said Jim Collins, rubbing his hands together, as if by way of his hands he could warm the conversation to the point he was trying to reach. ‘So how ya been feeling lately, buddy?’
‘Me? Oh, I’ve been fine. Eating plenty,’ said Anson, nervously. ‘Why? Has someone said something to you?’
‘Well yes, as a matter of fact,’ Jim Collins said, seeming, with every cautious aversion of his eyes, to grow larger in size so that the office began to rapidly shrink to the proportions of a dog kennel. ‘Have you been to the doctor lately, Briar?’
‘No, sir, I have not. Why do you ask?’
With a challenged look in his face, Jim Collins rubbed his hands together some more, hunching his head and shoulders so they wouldn’t go through the ceiling:
‘So I didn’t want to come flat out and say it, being that you’ve been such a good worker all these years but – well, lately you’ve seemed to be a little – how do I put it gently? Well,’ and shaking his head apologetically, ‘BLACK! …I guess you could say. Is everything going alright at home?’
Black Anson Briar shuddered at the perceived recriminations. It was all so unreasonable seeming. The room swelled and seemed fit to burst. He began to stammer for an excuse of some kind, like a sous chef who’s allowed the noodles to go soft.
He wanted so badly to explain his condition, to gain a second chance to prove that he was worth the trouble of retaining. However Jim Collins was already shaking his head in grave disappointment over the measures he was being forced to take. Anson’s brain bubbled for a defense, but he was suddenly stopped short, when Jim Collins opened his mouth wide and let loose a torrent of bizarre, animalistic growls.
Anson backed himself up against the wall, wrenched by a cool and detached breed of shock. He was no longer afraid of being fired. All his petty fears were instantly replaced by incredulity, and he felt the need to understand something very important. So he listened harder, his eyes narrowing. Sounding just like a dog, Jim Collins began to bark and woof in a string of rhythmic warning calls. By the second, these barks grew louder and closer and more desperate until finally something inside of his mind understood –.
Flying up out of bed, Anson Briar whipped his head side to side in alarm, his eyes hacking away at the darkness that swamped the bedroom.
His heart hammered at his chest, as he adjusted to waking life. In a damp white t-shirt and flannel shorts, he stood with his legs straddled wide and his arms hanging out to his sides, his hands making fists, like they each held invisible buckets of water. Running his tongue through the sweat-salted bristles of his mustache, Anson strained his ears to catch the subtlest sounds possible.
Echoing up from out in the backyard, Wally, the family’s golden retriever, was barking his head off. Something was wrong. And now even Tammy Briar, an impenetrable sleeper of legendary repute, was stirring awake in the tumult of her husband’s frantic exit from their marriage bed; in her loose nightgown, she slid herself up tight against the oak headboard, rubbed fists into her eyes, and asked, somewhat resentfully:
“What? What are you doing?”
“Shh!” Anson hissed, sending unseen flecks of spit to arch out where his finger didn’t block. “Be quiet.”
Tammy’s eyes opened fully, and she slid one of her legs off the side of the bed till her toes touched the carpet. Then in a frightened whisper she called out to her husband:
“What is it?”
Through the bedroom window, Anson noticed – only because of its sudden lack – a portion of the motion-sensor, security lighting go dim in the backyard. All the same, the dog continued to bark, the brief gaps between its harsh, wooden calls now filled with a desperate whinnying plea.
“I don’t know,” he whispered to Tammy, as he moved quietly towards the bedroom door. When he’d wrapped his hand around the knob, tentatively, he blinked hard his eyes, as if partially remembering something that wouldn’t come clear. His ghostly pale hand glowed in the darkness as he twisted the knob as far as it would go one way, and he held it there. Then looking over his shoulder, he rasped something to his wife; who, by this point, was tense beyond anything but taking short, half-gulps of breath:
“Tammy! Tammy, get the gun.” Upon sensing in the dark, her immobility, Anson wrinkled his face in exasperation before whispering in a heated, but lucid tone, “In my nightstand…”
Tammy then crawled over the bed and leaned over towards his nightstand.
He was just about to remind her about the gun’s safety mechanism when, on the other side of the door, he heard the clumsy sound of footfalls moving through the hallway. Tiny icicles sprouted up from the nape of Anson’s neck, as he leaned nearer to the door and listened, studying the noises for a sense of character. Although he’d already sent Tammy to get the family gun, he began to remind himself that his eldest son, Carter, was prone to sleepwalking.
The thought worked to both calm and terrify him at once.
Now the sound of a door opened down the hallway. Judging as best he could the distance, it sounded like it was the bathroom door and not the door to one of his sons’ rooms.
But he couldn’t take any risks.
And before he fully knew what he was doing, Anson Briar had swung his bedroom door wide open, and was now glaring down the hallway; his squat body, silhouetted in the blue-black haze of the night, and fuming, like a volcano, with a palpable lava of murderous intent.
There was someone there, sure enough. But in the dark, it was hard to discern exactly who. The figure was tall – gangly, like Carter was. Yet there was something incredibly foreign about the person standing there, a kind of darkly illuminated novelty in their outline and proportion. And for a moment it seemed that the two of them had fallen into a slow spell long enough to examine one another, like two animals passing one another in the forest at night, both on guard but curious.
It was almost like time had slowed down. Anson saw everything with this tremendous clarity as it was unfolding. The person in the hall moved slightly in his direction, as if to greet someone he knew and had not seen in a long time. Then as he started forth, the pale beams of moon that came in through the bathroom window caught on his face, and Anson knew right then that he had never seen this person before in his life.
Even more jarring was the fact that as soon as he realized this person to be a stranger, the intruder’s face, half-lighted by moon, broke into this uncanny grimace, as though his being there and seeing Anson was one big hilarious joke that only he heard the punch-line to.
As this awful reckoning set in, Anson was at the mercy of his disbelief and was made to look on while the stranger, in full control of his actions, pivoted and clattered down the staircase. By the time he was rounding the landing for the second set, Anson realized that this person was completely naked, without a stitch of clothing on. Which made his decision to pursue all the more staggering in its absurdity. And it wasn’t until he, too, had rounded the first flight that he remembered to call upstairs to his wife, asking her to call the police.
Coming down the second flight now, he could hear the sliding-glass door to the backyard squeaking open. The close proximity and the familiarity of this noise redoubled Anson’s fury and his wish to overtake this man, though the thought of actually laying hands on him, given his nudity, suddenly filled his being with a childish disgust that he hadn’t felt since he was a linebacker in high school and had tackled a boy on the opposing team, only to notice that this boy withdrew some secret gratification from the abuses Anson had dealt him in the innocent spirit of the game, his own sense of degradation only made worse by the rapturous applause booming from the stands. As he scrambled across the hardwood floor towards the living room, he heard the sliding-glass door flung shut.
Bounding up the two steps into the kitchen, Anson leveled his hands for the handle of the sliding-glass door while his eyes pierced through to the backyard, where the motion-sensing lights were blazing on, illuminating the skinny and scarecrow-like nude that raced madly over the snow-covered lawn.
Anson threw the door, sending it off its track, and hurled himself outside into the cold and the dark of the backyard, his legs burning up like paper scraps, as he conjured the glory of his faded football career, in pursuit of this demonic fugitive. Trying to narrow the distance, Anson trained his eyes on the naked runner ahead of him. He was as tall in the light as he’d seemed in the dark, though perhaps even skinnier and more misshapen, especially the head, which seemed now to be dented in places. His skin was like yellowed paper and his every bone threatened to burst through the delicate layers of flesh that gave them human form.
Seeing first the naked stranger go running by, back the way that he had come, the dog, chained to a spike, was outraged and began to howl as though he would come apart. But then, upon seeing his master run by, in His shirt and shorts, the dog had a moment of pause, in which he wondered if this wasn’t some sort of elaborate human game. However, hearing the strain of His master’s bones as they went grinding by in the snow, and sensing His murderous hatred (unlike any rebuke he’d ever known,) the dog all at once came to understand that this was not a game, but a hunt. And with new fervor, Wally barked harder, and drew up against his collar to the point that a few of the metal links in his chain snapped open, like the jaws of an excavator.
With alarming athleticism the rail-thin intruder scrabbled his way up the high wooden fence and balanced for a moment at the top of the boards, his naked form appearing like a pasty featherless bird, or a gargoyle, in the yard lights for the few seconds that Anson saw him perched there before disappearing down the other side. He, too, leapt up to mount the fence, but his beer-weight and age proved too much, thus leaving him stranded with his arms over the boards just enough that his trembling chin was above the fence, and he could see the pale manikin of light go zigzagging through the dark between snow-laden pines.
Then Anson let go and dropped back down into his own yard, gradually estimating the bitter cold out into which he’d been lured for combat and finding it suddenly unbearable, while his underarms swelled with pain from having been dug into the fence so long…
In a state of vengeful fatigue the likes of which he had never experienced before, Anson lumbered over and released Wally from his chain and the two of them, man and beast, wandered along the crunching snow and up the back-steps to enter the warmth of the house.
Upstairs, crouched in the dark against the headboard, Tammy Briar was laying the phone in its cradle on the nightstand. The shape of her face and arms were dimmer than the nightgown that glowed whitely in the shadows. Her eyes stared into the bedroom door and her arm lowered to pick something up off the bed, which she held outstretched by her bent knees. Little frenzied sips of air moved in and out of her mouth.
In the other room Carter, their eldest son, was waking up from the sound of the commotion that had passed through the hallway and down the stairs a few minutes prior. Meanwhile Dale slept the sleep of the dead.
After putting the sliding-glass door back on its track and locking up, Anson had nearly tripped over something behind the couch. In the light coming in through the glass from the motion-sensors, he discovered a ball of clothing and shoes resting on the floor. He’d decided to leave it for the cops.
Anson was now plodding up the stairs. The dog had disappeared into the darkness of the kitchen as soon as they’d come in together, but he’d be along soon, and he would likely come begging to sleep in their bed with them. Given the events of the night and how Wally had warned them of danger like a good dog should, Anson considered he might allow the dog in bed with them, but just for tonight.
When he’d reached the top of the stairs, he turned and started for the door, calling out to his wife:
“I’m coming in.”
Then laying his hand on the knob, he pulled open the door to stand once more in silhouette. The room ignited in a yellow blaze, lighting up Anson’s features for a split second as the gun barked. A scream rang out as Anson felt at his chest where the bullet had run through him. Then he crumpled in the doorway, like a marionette with its strings cut.
Apparently Tammy had misheard him when he’d called out to her that he was coming in, thinking instead that he had been warning her, saying, ‘He’s coming in,’ and so she had fired at the first thing that came through the door. Dropping the gun, she rushed over towards the door, howling into the night and thus bringing both of her sons to come rushing into the bedroom.
About forty-five minutes later, the K9 search team had tracked down the intruder. They found him sitting in a neighbor’s hot tub, pretending to enjoy a three a.m. soak. Several guns were trained on him as they drew near. When they pulled him out of the steaming water and threw him down into the snow he was laughing, and in the rays of the flashlights they could see his body was littered with scrapes and cuts, all bleeding into the snow, from where the stickerbushes had clawed at his naked skin.