After securing the house and turning off the lights, Melanie creeps up the stairs and into her daughter’s bedroom. Izzie lies tangled in a nest of blankets, pillows and stuffed animals, her limbs splayed at improbable angles. There is a moment of electric fear when the white noise of the tabletop fan obscures the sound of the child’s breathing, and Melanie’s heart stalls. She reaches out, feels the small chest rise and fall. Exhaling her relief, she leans down and kisses the girl’s flushed forehead, feeling that treasured heart beating beneath her fingers. She makes her way back to the door, avoiding obstacles illuminated by the nightlight.
Across the hall, Alex sleeps fitfully, his restless legs tracing circles in the sheets. The dogs have taken refuge on Melanie’s side of the bed, and she nudges them to the middle so she can lie down. Two Boston Terriers purchased six months apart, one after each dead baby. Consolation prizes, she and Alex joke privately. It had almost been three dogs, but Izzie was a fighter.
Despite the warmth of their bedroom, she feels a chill, and snuggles under the blankets. One dog curls itself behind her knees, giving her calf a lick. Its little body is her personal hot water bottle. Cozy in her warm bed, she finds it miraculous how much a life can change in five years. Her memories of the city apartment are so faded, they might as well belong to someone else.
During the first year of their marriage, Melanie and Alex lived on the bottom floor of a triplex row house. The building was dreadful and the neighborhood was worse. They were burglarized twice. Not that they had anything worth stealing. They were college students with plastic cutlery and IKEA furniture. The loss of their jar of loose change was depressing, but hardly a fatal blow.
Their landlord considered heat to be a luxury. No matter how high they goosed the thermostat, January never saw the indoor temperature rise above sixty. During one particularly brutal cold snap, they wore parkas and knitted hats to bed, burrowing into each other and giggling at the absurdity. Melanie was pregnant for the first time and Alex wriggled his gloved hands under her coat to cradle her belly.
They bought their small homestead after the second stillbirth. Ten acres, mostly cleared, with a quaint farmhouse at the high point. Melanie had fallen in love with the white clapboard siding and grey slate roof. She claimed the smallest bedroom as her office and shoved her desk against the wall under the window. From there she could see their whole farm. They had imposing beech trees and post-and-rail enclosures for chickens and goats.
There was no more talk of babies, but they still had reserves of love for each other. Alex wanted to grow things, to make life come up from the ground. He toiled outside every moment he could spare. If the farm could be made profitable, he planned to transition from financial advisor to full-time farmer.
Melanie had had enough of the capricious nature of life. She stayed inside, staring at a computer screen and preparing legal briefs for lawyers she would never meet in person. She lost herself in mundane, solitary work, and was content with life. Until that pregnancy test.
Had she forgotten to take her birth control pills? She had no memory of neglecting this daily task, but the strength of her subconscious will was not something she could ignore. It really didn’t matter—the only thing that mattered was the fear that grew with it. The first stillbirth was a fluke, the obstetric specialists assured her. Try again, they urged.
Because of their faith in the doctors’ conviction, their second loss was just as shocking. So this third baby was a death that just hadn’t happened yet. Alex didn’t rub her belly, and Melanie didn’t pick out birth announcements. A corner of the barn housed a crib, changing table and layettes for two babies, out of sight in a large storage bin. They didn’t dare move anything indoors.
To their utter surprise and delight, the third baby didn’t die. Izzie arrived on time, the correct shade of pink, and wailing like a normal baby. But Melanie’s fear didn’t subside. She had prepared herself for another dead baby, and even as she watched her healthy infant sleeping in the crib they’d finally hauled upstairs, she wondered whether there would ever be a respite from the fear.
At one in the morning, Melanie wakes up and goes downstairs, as she does every night. The doors are locked, the windows secured, the pulsing green light of the alarm reflects across the tile floor of the foyer. All is well, and why shouldn’t it be? The police in this area are called for stray dogs or car accidents, not home invasions.
But old habits die hard. She wonders about that as she re-bolts the front door. Would these habits ever actually die? Or would she be triple-checking locks as an old woman, unable to shake the persistent fear that her family is in danger? She returns to bed, where her husband’s legs have stilled, and he is snoring softly. Melanie does not mind his movements, nor his snoring.
It reminds her of when her brother Philip bunked below her in their tiny bedroom. Philip’s legs were restless, too. They chuffed across the sheets, back and forth, until they went quiet and he slept. White noise like an oscillating fan, or perhaps the ocean. She had never heard the ocean. He talked softly to himself before falling asleep, inventing somnolent stories, sometimes praying as their mother had taught them. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep… her heart always skipped when he whispered If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Fifty percent of that prayer was about death. It made Melanie nervous. She never slept until Philip did. Even then, she was a protector, a mother.
The farmhouse bedroom is so dark, it looks the same with her eyes open or closed. No matter—sleep is not coming tonight.
She wishes for a thunderstorm, for the house to rattle and groan in the tempest. She wants lightning to make the edges of her curtains flicker and flash, so she can orient herself in this silent black room. Although it makes no sense to hope for lightning in February, she hopes anyway.
She kicks the covers off. She knows this house well enough to make her way to the kitchen without a glimmer of light, but she drags her fingertips along the wall to keep her balance on the stairs. Fourteen steps, with the loose tread mat on the fifth one down. She makes a mental note to get the tack hammer from the garage in the morning, but she will probably forget again.
Melanie opens the drapes in the sunroom. Or is it a moonroom at three in the morning? She smiles as she sets coffee to percolating, using the light from the microwave clock. She could probably do it without that. So much of her life is spent in darkness, she wonders if she might someday consider her eyes to be superfluous. She adds creamer and brings her mug to the window seat.
The moon is waxing gibbous, its silvery glow frosting the bare limbs of the trees. Her world is colorless, soundless, beautiful. She curls her legs onto the window seat, sips her coffee, leans her forehead against the cold window glass. There is a flash and she lifts her head. Have the gods granted her prayer for a storm? No, the light is dim, too yellow to be natural.
Someone is walking through her yard with a flashlight.
Her belly drops, then rises, heaving with fear and rage. Melanie gets up and retreats toward the living room. She watches the side-to-side motion of the light. She has met challenges like this before—challenges of turf, of territory. She knows weakness is a greater threat than this intruder.
Alex doesn’t believe in guns, and in theory, neither does Melanie. But behind a row of antique books atop the bookcase, there is a locked box. Inside the cover of a leather-bound copy of The Collected Works of Tennyson is a small brass key. Alex has never read poetry, and Melanie has never told him about the gun.
She stands on her tiptoes and pulls down the book. No noise from upstairs. She retrieves the key, unlocks the box and lifts out the gun.
She glides back to the window, her feet sliding silently on the weathered pine floor as if she is ice skating. The flashlight is shining into her goat pen, sweeping the ground. The goats like to sleep in the small barn on cold nights, so the light does not reveal her animals. The gate opens and the intruder walks toward the barn. She thinks it must be a man—even in darkness he appears tall and broad. Is he a goat-napper? No, he seems uninterested in the farmhouse.
She considers her fear. Not panic—more like anxiety. The gun has much to do with that. She feels powerful as she holds it, almost invincible. Which she knows is unfounded, because if the trespasser is armed, the odds are good that he is a better shot than she is.
It would be smart to wait for him to leave. There’s no reason for confrontation. The loss of a few goats is bearable. If she calls the police, they might arrive in time to catch whoever is out there.
She crosses the room to fetch her phone from upstairs. But the flashlight beam comes through her window and shines directly on her. It switches off, but not before Melanie’s night vision is gone. By the time her eyes adjust, the dark figure is fifty feet away and moving toward the house. He’s shouting. As she raises the gun to fire a bullet through the window, she recognizes his voice.
“Melanie!” he says. It’s her neighbor, John. Melanie drops the gun and shudders. She points to the left, directing him to the kitchen door. If he’d noticed the gun, he didn’t react, and she stashes it on top of the antique hutch before letting him in.
“What are you doing?” she says, wiping her sweaty palms on her pajamas.
“Mattie’s wandered off again. Last time we were here she seemed interested in your goats, so I thought I’d check,” John says. He’s burly, able to hold down a full-grown sheep for shearing, even in his sixties. Despite his strength, he is gentle with his wife. Mattie has Alzheimer’s.
Melanie says, “Let’s check the barn.”
They find Mattie sitting cross-legged in the hay, a lantern next to her, petting a pygmy goat. She looks up at John, grinning, her eyes alight with childlike excitement. She pats the ground next to her. John could just pick her up and carry her home like a doll, cradling her petite frame. Instead, he drops to his knees and begins the delicate process of convincing his wife to come with him.
Melanie goes into the moonlit yard. The sky is cloudless, the stars are faint, struggling to compete with the rising dawn. Melanie feels a phantom in her hand, the gun she’d almost fired. The thought of it disturbs her. It doesn’t matter that she hadn’t pulled the trigger. Her finger was squeezing it when she heard John’s voice. She might have killed him.
She grapples with this realization long after John has gently led Mattie over the hill and back to their own farm. Melanie doesn’t feel the cold as she lies on the grass. Tendrils of vapor rise from her mouth and nose. The moon is setting and the sky is glowing with soft pink morning light.
She gets up when she hears the chickens rustling in their coop. Alex will be out soon to feed and water the animals. She decides to tell him about the gun and accept his reaction, whatever it might be. She expects him to be angry. He will lose trust in her and she will have to accept that. But not yet. Not yet. She needs a few hours of sleep before facing those consequences.
The dogs welcome her back into bed as though sensing her need for love and warmth. She drifts to sleep, awakening to the squeak of the pipes in the bathroom. When he is done showering, Alex will come in wearing a towel and kiss her on the forehead. Downstairs, the doors are locked. Upstairs, her daughter is alive. And although she has learned that she has the capacity for it, Melanie did not kill anyone in the darkness of last night.