She felt the draft as soon as her husband opened the front door. Hot air whirred through the ducts, the ticking sound they’d worried about even louder than usual, over-matched by a cold blast that continued even with the door closed. The foyer felt almost as frigid as their drive home.

“There.” He pointed down the hallway, toward the back of the house.

She looked in that direction, past the breakfast nook. Glass shimmered against the hardwood floor. One of the diamond-shaped panes had been broken out of the patio door.

“I told Mitch to keep an eye on his boys.”

“They’re only ten,” she said. She walked into the kitchen while Donnie went to the garage to find something to cover the hole. She took down coffee beans and plugged in the grinder but couldn’t help looking at the broken pane.

She measured the beans, stopping midway. Who would be outside playing in this weather? Taking a step toward the door, she noticed that the deadbolt had been flipped and was about to call Donnie when a figure appeared in her peripheral vision.

Turning, she saw a man wearing her husband’s camel-hair coat, a red backpack over one shoulder. The coat was too big on him, the shoulder pads jutting out like a scarecrow. His white ski cap was pulled down so far all she could see were brown eyes, large pores on a bulbous nose, and thin, expressionless lips. He came upon her as quietly as in a dream.

She opened her mouth to call out, but Donnie was behind her before she could speak.

The man threw open the door, his footsteps heavy on their wooden deck. Before she could turn, Donnie brushed past. “Call 911,” he said.

“Wait.” She reached out for him, but it was too late. He was at the door.

Fumbling for her phone, she lagged behind, stopping in the middle of the room. She felt a slight thrill at Donnie’s impetuousness before fear took over. The intruder could have a weapon, a gun. He might not be alone.

The motion sensor triggered the floodlights, covering the backyard in a halogen haze. In a panic, the man had passed the back gate and headed for the fence instead, Donnie’s coat flapping open around him. She dialed, asked for the police, and told her story, all the while pacing between the kitchen window and the door. Donnie vaulted the deck stairs and slipped in the fresh snow, then headed across the yard.

The intruder hoisted himself onto their wooden fence but was unable to pull himself clear, feet scrabbling against the varnished boards. His cap came loose, drifting to the ground, and his breath floated around him in plumes as he struggled. He had both elbows atop the fence by the time Donnie got to him.

Her husband pulled the man off the fence, shoving him to the ground once he’d stripped the coat from his shoulders. He rolled it into a ball and threw it to the side, the man lying motionless, except for his heaving chest, in a satiny Vikings jacket too thin for the weather. Donnie prodded him with his foot, and the man rolled into a ball, covering his head with his hands. The backpack lay near him, and Donnie picked it up. Once he’d rooted through the contents, he placed it on the snow behind him and turned to the window.

“The police are on their way,” she said, though he couldn’t possibly hear her.

Crouching, he rolled the man over, holding him steady with his left hand.

It took her a moment to realize what he was doing. He sent his fist into the man’s face, wound up, and swung again, pounding him like a piston. He still had on the leather driving gloves she’d given him for Christmas that year.

She froze, her own breath fogging the window, while her husband, who had wept at the Wellstone memorial, who gave to all the right charities and flew to Central America every year to set broken bones, stood over the prone figure, shouting words she couldn’t make out.

A knock at the door, and then it swung open, two police officers charging down the hallway, one yelling, “Hold it right there,” while the other advanced on her.

Her teeth chattered so hard from adrenaline that she couldn’t speak, only pointed to the backyard, where the officers were already heading, unbidden.

Needing something to occupy herself, she finished making coffee. The beans whirred, and she thought of her husband outside, in the cold, with the intruder. Before she could fill the carafe with water, she heard the squawk of a radio. The heavier policeman entered through the back door and ducked his head at her. “We’re going to have to bring the perp through the house,” he said. “You might want to wait in another room.”

They’d spent months renovating the kitchen, tearing out the linoleum and laying tile, putting in new cabinets and countertops. She’d swung a sledgehammer until she couldn’t lift her arms and learned how to install the track lighting above the new sink. No one would chase her from this room.

They entered in single file, and she noticed the damage right away. The man limped, stooped over even as the handcuffs, cinched behind him, forced his shoulders back. One eye had swelled shut. She knew how strong her husband was; long after she’d tired from the sledgehammer, he’d continued, grunting louder with each swing, cursing the wall, the house, and the hammer. He came in last, holding his right hand in his left. He was still talking, had been ever since he’d caught the man, directing his words at the older officer. “Of course we want to press charges. I’ll follow you to the station.” He kissed her on the cheek, then followed the officers out the front door.

*

Hours passed, time she spent covering the hole in the window, straightening every item that looked askew, and drinking enough coffee to keep her up until dawn. When Donnie finally returned, hand wrapped in a layer of gauze and medical tape, he ignored her questions and headed for the bathroom.

“I have to get this smell off me,” he said.

She followed him as far as the bedroom and settled on the edge of the bed while he was in the shower. With nothing left to do, she was forced to remember the look on the man’s face, a look she couldn’t be certain she hadn’t imagined, one of bemused embarrassment, like a child caught in what had seemed like an ironclad lie. She remembered the rush she’d felt as her husband had leapt over the railing, the surge when she’d realized the man wouldn’t make it over the fence in time, and the crash that had succeeded these. Donnie hummed in the shower.

She crossed the room and opened the closet, sought out the bin where they kept accessories they rarely needed: the cloche that a coworker of hers referred to as her Queen Elizabeth hat, more scarves than any couple needed, and the ski mask her husband wore when he shoveled snow. She pulled it over her head, rolling it over her slender nose, until it settled beneath her chin. It must have been snug on her husband; with a little adjustment, her eyes and mouth aligned with the holes.

Avoiding her reflection in the mirror, she picked up the women’s-wear catalog on her dresser, rolled it into a tube, and entered the bathroom. The steam was thick enough that her husband was merely a blotch behind the opaque glass of the shower door. He was humming one of Bach’s cello suites, his favorite surgical accompaniment, but stopped when she turned off the light.

“Honey?” he said. “Is that you?”

She strode forward, steps muffled by the bathmat, and opened the door.

 

Matthew Duffus is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows and the forthcoming short-story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories (Oct. 2020). He teaches and directs the writing center at Gardner-Webb University, in Boiling Springs, NC. Follow him at matthewduffus.com or on Twitter @DuffusMatthew.
Photo by Peter Mason on Unsplash

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