The following is an excerpt from the beginning of my short story House Guest, the oldest active story in my opus, so to speak. It will be the first entry in my upcoming collection Dr. Elessar’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Enjoy!
William Harrison sat up in bed, awakened by a particularly frightening nightmare.
This was all too common an event for him, though he’d thought it was becoming less so. His pajamas were slightly damp with sweat, but that was as much because he was using too many covers as that he was frightened by his dream. He’d had far too many, sometimes far more terrible and vivid, dreams in his life to let himself be bothered all that much by this last one. In fact, as was usual, he couldn’t even remember what the dream had been about now that he was awake.
He blinked sleep from his eyes and looked around the dark room, first noting that, according to his bedside clock, it was just after three in the morning. Surely that was the loneliest time of night…the soul’s midnight, he had heard someone call it once, though he didn’t know why.
His bed was too big. He noticed this acutely in the near blackness of his room, the pale rectangle showing vividly against the surrounding dark. For the past several months, he’d slept in a bed that was little more than a cot, and the king-sized mattress he lay on now was far, far larger than that. To add to—and to worsen—its relative size, his wife, Melissa, wasn’t there with him. And, of course, neither was Tammy, their four-year-old daughter, who would sometimes crawl into bed with her parents during the night, when her own nightmares, or just her darkened room, became too frightening.
A wave of loneliness and loss swept over William at the thought of his wife and daughter, and he was helpless to stop tears from coming.
Why had Melissa done that? How could she? How could she just…leave him? Leave him when he needed her the most.
There was no answer.
He no longer heard any disembodied voices speaking to him, telling him horrible things about himself, about how awful he was, about how no one could possibly love him. He no longer saw things that weren’t really there. And he didn’t see Melissa, either…because she wasn’t there. And she wasn’t going to be there, either.
He had been having some bad problems; he couldn’t deny that. Given that fact, he couldn’t blame her for wanting to get away, at least for a while. But now the problems were over. Dr. Hughes—with the help of the nurses and staff and everyone else—had fixed him up, had brought him together, had helped him to understand what it was that he really feared, and had found medicines that drove away imaginary voices and images, without producing too many side-effects. That had taken some doing, some trial and error, but not nearly as much as William would have thought.
Dr. Hughes was a miracle worker. He had certainly worked his miracle on William. But despite that miracle, Melissa and Tammy were both still gone. Dr. Hughes couldn’t help him there.
Maybe Melissa’s mother had been to blame. Of course. It almost had to have been her. The woman was a fanatic of one of those bizarre new offshoots of Christianity that seemed to sprout up everywhere, and that seemed to have so little in common with what William remembered from his childhood Sunday school classes. She had probably convinced Melissa that he, William, had been under the influence of the Devil. She might have even told her that he was possessed, possibly by the Devil himself.
The woman had never hesitated to manipulate and intimidate her own daughter, and now she was probably working on her granddaughter as well, poisoning her against her father.
That interfering old…
No. Never mind. Dr. Hughes had told him to try not to lose his temper without a good reason, and he was about to do just that. Thinking of Dr. Hughes’s counsel reminded him of how his own mother had always said, “Count to ten before you get angry.” William had taken that advice to heart when he was a boy. He would always count to ten…and upon reaching the last number of the count, he would beat the snot out of whoever had made him mad.
Before the tears on his cheeks had even stopped rolling, William laughed out loud. Hearing his own chuckle, he thought he certainly must have looked silly, sitting up late at night in bed, crying and then laughing out loud, alone, all within a matter of seconds. Thinking this, he laughed even harder at himself.
Then, quite abruptly, he stopped laughing, distracted by a noise.
Had he heard…had he heard someone knocking at his front door? Or was that a last remnant of his dream, not quite swept away completely? It sounded real…but it might have been his heart, thumping away in the aftermath of his mixed emotions. Surely it couldn’t be knocking. Not at three o’clock in the morning.
No, wait. There it was again. It really was someone knocking at his door at three a.m.; he wasn’t crazy. He knew he wasn’t, because if he were, they wouldn’t have let him come back home. He knew what craziness felt like, and he didn’t feel like that now.
William swung out of bed briskly, almost happy to hear the knocking again, somewhat louder than before. He didn’t bother putting on his robe and slippers; he just went downstairs in his pajamas. The knocking continued during his descent, coming in staccato bursts of varying lengths. At the end of a long series of knocks, he reached the bottom of the stairs. The inside light there was already glowing—he left it on at night in case he needed to go to the kitchen. He walked to the front door and flipped on the porchlight. This seemed a prudent thing to do when answering the door in the middle of the night, just in case there was some weirdo out there. He knew that there were plenty of them around. He’d met some of them. He had probably been one of them.
He looked out through his front door window, a tiny aperture perhaps a foot and a half tall and half as wide, crossed with a thin, sparse pattern of metallic trimming which, thankfully, did not in any way impair the view. The window was right about head level, and William neither had to stoop nor tiptoe to look through it.
There was no one there. Apparently, whoever it was had given up on him answering. Certainly, the knocking had stopped.
Oh, well. That was their loss. They should have been just a bit more patient.
William clicked off the outside light and turned to go back upstairs. He stopped before he reached the first step, though, for now there was again a knock at the door behind him. Puzzled and startled, William turned and for a moment just looked at the door.
Whoever had knocked must have seen him turn on the light as they were walking away, and then had come rushing back, but not in time to be seen before William gave up. It felt odd that he had not noticed any sign of them, not even a flicker of movement, but then again, it was dark, and the little window did not give much of a view.
He stepped back to the door and turned the outside light back on, then looked out just as he had before.
There was no one there. The knocking had stopped.
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