Thursday, October 18, 2012
[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "Cold air blew in from the front of the house, and I knew before I went into the kitchen that the door had been open all night." I gave Eric Storch this prompt: " 'Sometimes I don't consider myself very good at life, so I hide in my profession.' --Kurt Vonnegut"]
I didn't have many visitors. On a hot day, my mailman would sit and drink some ice water with me, and I had a few neighbors who would check in on me. But generally speaking, I was alone most of the time. It suited me well enough. I had always been a solitary sort of person, even when my house was crowded. My wife was stolen, first her soul, then her body, by breast cancer, and then my son left to chase his dreams, living with 4 other animators in a rented house outside St. Louis. So I was alone, mostly, and that was by choice. Mostly.
So when the cold air blew in from the front of the house, I knew before I went into the kitchen that the door had been open all night. I knew I hadn't left it open- my nighttime ritual involved shutting all my doors and windows, then giving both doors a ritual tug to be sure they had latched. I didn't lock them anymore- there wasn't anything for anyone to steal, and our neighborhood was quiet and paranoid enough so that any unusual visitors would stick out.
I had glanced at the clock as I walked through the kitchen. It was 3:45, bringing to mind the old Fitzgerald quote about how, in a deep dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o'clock in the morning. I didn't have to be anywhere in the morning, but this time of the night always troubled me. 2 o'clock is somehow still part of the previous night, and 4 o'clock always belongs to the next day. 3 is a hermaphrodite, half here and half there, and when I find myself awake at that hour, I am always haunted by a vague anxiety, a feeling that nothing good can happen.
I came into the front room and stopped short when I saw her. She was sitting in my recliner, which faced vaguely towards the television, her legs crossed primly at the knee as if she was waiting to be called on. She was in that indeterminate spectrum of age- she could be a tall 12 year old, or a slim lass of 20. Her legs were bare, and she wore only what I assumed was a nightshirt, along with those comically functionless boots that were still in fashion- too slight to be any real protection, and too common to be truly fashionable. It wasn't freezing- in my New England boyhood, we'd call this a warm winter day. But it was too cold to be outside in nightclothes.
I shut the door gently, continuing to look at her as she sat. Her hair was a rat's nest of disorder, tufts and tangles galore. I could see her nipples pushing at the fabric, taut and hard, but her face was a mask of dreamy unconcern. I knew two things that would produce that face, being stoned and sleepwalking, and I assumed it was probably the latter. I had lived with a sleepwalker in college, and we all got used to steering him back to bed at all hours of the night.
"Hi," I said, my voice syrupy from sleep. She didn't react, simply kept staring at my television like she was waiting for someone. She looked familiar. I knew she belonged in the neighborhood, but which kid belonged to which house was a daily puzzle that I never exerted myself enough to solve. Emily, I think her name was.
"Emily?," I tried. "Honey? You're in the wrong house, sweetheart."
Nothing. She could be an android before you pressed the on button. Not happy, not sad, just blank emptiness.
I walked over to the couch and picked up an Afghan my wife had knitted years ago. I walked over to her and tried to wrap it around her shoulders. She was still unresponsive, so I settled on draping it over her as best I could. At least I couldn't see her nipples anymore. What kind of thoughts were running through her head? Was she escaping from something? What made someone walk through the cold into a stranger's house? I knew the old wives' tale that you couldn't wake up a sleepwalker without causing insanity was false, but I didn't want to wake her up even so. She would be entitled to be panicky, waking up in a stranger's house, barely clothed.
I dialed 911, keeping an eye on her as I waited. Once I explained, the dispatcher chuckled.
"Oh, Emily? Yeah, this isn't the first time. About once a month, she escapes whatever traps her parents lay and gets out. She's visited everyone on the block at least once. I guess it's just your turn tonight. Hold tight, an officer is on the way."
I set the phone down, looking at her empty, open face. Her face was flushed red, probably from the wind as she walked. I knew intellectually she had a disease, no more or less than an ear infection, one that would probably clear as she aged. But I had a sick feeling, a deep disquiet that something was wrong with my nocturnal intruder.
The police knocked politely as I pondered. The officer at the door was a young looking man, slightly tense, giving me a long hard look. We exchanged greetings, and I stepped back, letting him and his partner, a squat, muscular looking blonde woman, into my house.
"There she is," the woman said lovingly. She walked in front of me, scooping the girl up as if she were a sleepy toddler. One of Emily's boots fell to the floor as the officer lifted her up. Her toenails had ragged dots of polish on them. I picked up the boot and handed it to the male officer.
"Is this her blanket?," the woman said.
"No," I said. "It's mine. Let her keep it."
"OK," she said. "I'll give the parents your address. You should get to know each other."
With no more strain than lifting a case of soda, the woman walked past me carrying the girl.
I looked at the male officer. "Pedersen," his uniform said.
"Do you think she's OK?," I said. "She's not being abused or anything?"
"I thought that, too," he said. "My partner, there, had a long talk with her the last time we had to pick her up. She swears up and down everything is fine. Until she says boo, there's not much we can do about it."
"Aha. Well thanks for coming out."
"No problem. Thanks for not shooting her."
"Good night, Officer."
"Good night. And lock your door," Pedersen said.
The three of them left. My heat cycled on, trying to eliminate the chill. I thought about her foot, bare in the still chilly air, so vulnerable. My heart ached briefly for all the lonely people I could not protect, and then I sighed and turned the TV on.