Small whitecaps dapple the water like little paintbrush strokes and quietly collapse against the rocky shoreline and the metal pipe posts of the cabin’s functional but dilapidated dock. The wooden slats are bleached gray and warped, looking like fossilized bones, the rib cage of a fabled lake monster. Andrew promised to teach Wen how to fish for perch off the dock’s edge before Eric could suggest everyone stay off the creaky, ill-kept structure. Eric suspects Wen will give up on fishing as soon as the first worm is impaled on a hook. If the worm guts, roiling squirms, and death throes won’t do it, then she’ll quit after she has to yank and tear a barbed hook out of a perch’s button mouth. Then again, it’s possible she’ll love it and insist upon doing everything, including baiting the hook, herself. Her independence streak is so fierce as to be almost defiant. She has become so much like Andrew that it makes him love her and worry about her safety all the more. Late yesterday afternoon, as Wen changed into her bathing suit, Andrew rebuffed Eric’s attempt to start a discussion about the rickety dock by sprinting across its length, the structure earthquaking under his feet, and then he cannonballed into the lake.
Eric and Andrew lounge on the elevated back deck overlooking the sprawling Gaudet Lake; deep and dark, its basin was gouged out by glaciers fifteen thousand years ago and ringed by a seemingly endless forest of pine, fir, and birch trees. Behind the forest, looming as distant and unreachable as the clouds, are the ancient humpbacks of the White Mountains in the south, the lake’s natural fortress, both impenetrable and inescapable. The surrounding landscape is as spectacularly New England as it is alien to their everyday urban lives. There are a handful of cabins and camps on the lake, but none are visible from their deck. The only boat spied since their arrival was a yellow canoe gliding silently along the lake’s far shore. The three of them wordlessly watched it fade from view, falling off the unseen edge of the world.
The nearest cabin to theirs is two miles farther down the onetime logging road. Earlier that morning, well before either Andrew or Wen were awake, Eric jogged down to the unoccupied cabin, which had been recently painted a dark blue and had white shutters and a pair of snowshoes decorating the white front door. He resisted an inexplicably strong urge to peer into the windows and explore the property. Only an irrational fear of being caught by the absent owners and then having to stammer through an embarrassing rationalization of his behavior turned him away.
Eric lies half reclined in a chaise longue under the bright light of the sun. He forgot to drape a towel over the chair and its weave of plastic bands sticks to his bare back. He is probably mere minutes away from a slight burn if he doesn’t apply sunscreen. As a child he used to suffer through the stinging pain of sunburn on purpose so that he could later gross out his older sisters with his peeling skin. He’d carefully pry up large flakes and leave them attached to his body like miniature back and tail plates of a stegosaurus, his favorite dinosaur.
Andrew sits a few feet away from Eric, but not a patch of his pale skin is exposed to the sunlight. He is curled up with his legs folded on a bench seat under a nearly see-through umbrella that shades the old picnic table. The table sheds large strips of red stain. He wears baggy black shorts and a gray long-sleeve T-shirt adorned by Boston University’s crest, and his long hair is pulled back and tucked into an army-green flat cap. Andrew is hunched over a collection of essays about twentieth-century South American writers and magical realism. Eric knows what the book is because, since arriving at the cabin, Andrew has told him three times what he’s reading, and in the twenty minutes they’ve been on the deck, Andrew has read aloud two passages about Gabriel García Márquez. Eric read One Hundred Years of Solitude in college, but to his shame very little of that book has survived in his memory. That Andrew is not so subtly showing off and/or seeking Eric’s approval is endearing and irritating in equal measure.
Eric reads and rereads the same paragraph of a novel that everyone is supposedly talking about this summer. It’s a typical thriller involving a disappearance of a character, and he’s already weary of the contrived and borderline absurd plot. But it’s not the book’s fault that he can’t concentrate.
He says, “One of us should go see what Wen is up to.” It’s carefully worded and not a question to which Andrew can quickly say no. It’s a statement; something he’ll have to address directly.
“By one of us, do you mean me?”
“No.” Eric says it in a way that he expects Andrew to be able to instantly translate as a yes, of course, I wouldn’t have said anything otherwise. Eric doesn’t know how he’s become the hovering parent, the disciplinarian (God, how he hates that word), the one who obsesses over worst-case scenarios. Eric prides himself on being western-Pennsylvania friendly, easy to talk to, levelheaded, always willing to build toward consensus and compromise. The second youngest of nine children from a Catholic family, his ability to talk to and charm most everyone was how he survived his confusing teenage years and downright turbulent early twenties after he came out and his parents refused to pay for his final semester at the University of Pittsburgh. Eric’s response was to couch surf with the help of many generous friends and work at a popular sandwich shop near campus for two years until he paid the remaining tuition and earned his degree. All the while he talked to his parents (mostly his mom) on the phone and remained confident they would come around. And they did. The day Eric received his diploma, his parents showed up at his friend’s apartment in tears, apologizing, and they gave him a check equal to the amount of the college bill with a little extra thrown in, a check Eric promptly used to make a move up to Boston. Now a market analyst for Financeer, because of his obvious people skills he is occasionally called in to help mediate contentious meetings between administrators and his department director. Eric is laid-back in his approach to everything in his life, with the one exception of parenting. Andrew had to practically drag him out to the back deck instead of letting him remain inside, staring out the front windows and dutifully watching Wen playing alone in the yard.
Andrew doesn’t look up from his book and says, “Bears. Wen is up to her neck in bears.”
Eric drops his book and it claps loudly on the deck. “You are not funny.” The owners left strict written instructions, all capital letters, to not leave any unsecured garbage bags outside because it would attract bears. There’s a mini shedlike structure on the property for the sole purpose of housing and hiding trash. They are to bring trash to a town dump (which is only open to nonresidents on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), a fortyminute drive away with a charge of two dollars a bag. They could’ve rented a property on popular Lake Winnipesaukee, a tourist hot spot in the southern/central part of the state, where Eric wouldn’t be obsessing about bears (as much), instead of this beautiful but remote cabin, as lost in the woods as Goldilocks (more bears . . . ), a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Eric sits up and rubs his bald head, which is hot to the touch, and most definitely sunburned.
Andrew says, “Yes, I am.”
“You are not funny right now.”
“I can yell to her from here. But that might spook the bears. Make them more likely to attack.”
Eric laughs and says, “You are such a dick.” He stands, walks to the deck railing, and stretches, pretending that he’s looking out over the lake and that he is not going to walk inside the cabin or down the deck stairs and directly to the front yard.
“Maybe it’d be okay if some bears showed up. I like bears.” Andrew closes his book. His dark brown eyes and smile are aren’t-I-clever-and-cute big.
“She can come out back and search for grasshoppers.” Eric gestures below the deck but there isn’t much backyard at all, and what little they have is a mixture of sand, pine needles, mossy patches, and a small row of pine trees that yields to the shoreline. Eric twists his beard at the end of his chin, turns around, and says, “She probably needs a drink, or a snack, or more sunscreen.”
“She’s fine. Give her another five or ten minutes and then I’ll go see her, or get her. She’ll probably come looking for us before then, anyway. So sit, please. Stop worrying. Enjoy your sun. Or stand there and block it for me. Though you are getting a little pink. You burn even quicker than I do.”
Eric plucks his white T-shirt with the team USA SOCCER logo from the picnic tabletop and puts it on. “I’m trying not to hover. I’m trying to let her -” He pauses, leans against the deck railing, and folds his arms. “I’m trying to let her be.”
“I know you are. And you’re doing great.”
“I hate feeling this way. I really don’t like it.”
“You need to stop beating yourself up. You’re like the best dad in the world.”
“Like? So I’m almost the best dad in the world.”
Andrew laughs. “Hmm. Akin to, maybe.”
“Can you be more specific as to my ranking? Put a percentile on it?”
“You know I’m not good with numbers, but you’re near the pinnacle, the apex of best dads, the kind who earn the coffee mugs and T-shirts saying so.” Andrew closes his book and is clearly enjoying teasing Eric.
Eric is losing the playful joust and his patience. He blurts out, “And you’re one of those best dads, right?” even though he knows he isn’t being fair. “Now I know what to get you for Christmas.”
“Come on now, Eric. We’re clearly tied for like the best.”
“I think I prefer ‘akin to.'”
“That’s the spirit. But listen, even the best dads in the world worry and nag and fuck up, and you have to give yourself permission to fuck up and allow Wen to mess up on her own, too. Accept that none of us will ever be perfect.” It’s the start of a spiel that Andrew has given before, usually followed by references to their weeks-long discussions prior to adopting Wen, and how they talked about not giving in to the lizard-brained fear that rules too many parents and people in general, and Andrew would then switch into academic mode and quote studies that cite the importance of unsupervised play in a child’s intellectual and emotional development. Eric isn’t sure when Andrew became the whimsical, carefree sage who in his professional academic life is as persnickety and precise as an algorithm. But these are the roles they have fallen into since welcoming Wen into their lives. These are the roles they’ve embraced and find comforting in a way that acknowledges the wonderful, frightening, fulfilling, alienating, and allconsuming what did we do to ourselves? existential parental condition.
“Yeah, I know, I know. And I’m still going out front to see how she’s doing-“
“-only because I’m getting burned. I’m thirsty, and I’m bored. My book totally sucks.” Eric walks to the sliding glass door that opens to the small kitchen.
Andrew sticks out both legs, blocking the door. “None shall pass.”
“What is this, the world’s hairiest toll bridge?”
“That’s not very nice.” Andrew doesn’t move his legs and pretends to read his book. He obnoxiously licks a finger and turns a page.
Eric pinches some of Andrew’s leg hair between his fingers and yanks quickly.
“Ow! You’re such a bully.” Andrew swipes at Eric with his book. Eric steps back and avoids getting hit initially, but Andrew lunges forward again and swats him in the back of his left leg.
“Don’t hit me with magical realists!”
Eric slaps Andrew’s hat brim down over his eyes and then snags the book out of midair while a laughing Andrew tries to hit him again. Andrew clamps down on Eric’s arm and pulls him stumbling onto the picnic bench. The two of them wrestle for the book. They trade light, playful jabs, and then a warm kiss.
Andrew leans away, smirking like he won something, and says, “Okay, you can let go of the book now.”
“Are you sure?” Eric tries to quickly yank it out of Andrew’s hand.
“Don’t-you’ll tear off the cover. Let go so I can hit you with it again.”
“I’m going to throw you and the book-“
The back slider opens with a rattling crash, loud enough that Eric instinctively looks for a shower of broken glass. Wen runs out onto the deck, talking at supersonic speed. She jumps back and forth through the doorway, inside to the cabin then out on the deck then back inside again. She looks around wildly like she’s afraid to be outside, and she’s still talking and now waving frantically at them: come here, come inside.
Andrew says, “Wen, slow down, honey.”
Eric says, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
She’s not crying so she likely hasn’t been stung by a wasp or physically hurt by anything. He briefly imagines a scenario in which Wen heard something rustling out in the woods and got spooked, but she’s more than spooked. She’s clearly frightened, and Eric’s own alarm and panic rises.
Wen doesn’t stop dancing between the deck and the cabin. She does, however, take care to enunciate and slow down. She says, “Come inside, now. Please come in. You have to. Hurry. There are people here and they want to come in and they want to talk to you and some of them scare me.”
She doesn’t answer any more questions until after she herds her confused, concerned dads inside the cabin. With the slider shut behind them, she places a sawed-off hockey stick in the frame so the glass door can’t glide over the track even if the lock isn’t latched. Daddy Andrew showed her how to do that last night before she went to bed.
She pushes her dads out of the kitchen and toward the locked front door. The common area, which is a living room space and kitchen, takes up almost the entirety of the cabin’s interior. The walls are made of unstained wooden planks. Wen has already walked around most of the room, knocking and testing for loose ones. A map of the lake and forest, a framed mountain landscape at dusk, and a plaque with hand-carved loons hang haphazardly on the walls along with what look to be antique skis and poles and old baking soda and Moxie advertisements stamped onto sheets of tin, the kind of kitsch one can find at any general store in New Hampshire. A small sliver of a bathroom with the world’s skinniest shower stall is to the kitchen’s left. The showerhead leaks water more than it actually showers. Across from the back slider and to the right of the front door are the two rectangular bedrooms. Wen’s room has bunk beds, the frame built into the walls. Wen has slept in both beds already and has decided she prefers the bottom bunk. To the right of the two bedrooms is the open mouth of a stairwell that spirals down into the basement. A short, thigh-high wroughtiron fence rings the perimeter of the stairwell landing. Next to that and up against the back wall are a stone-and-mortar fireplace and chimney. Squatting on the hearth is a woodburning stove, a small stack of firewood, and a rack of black pewter stove tools: minishovel, brush, tongs, and a poker. A long, army-green couch, the upholstery as prickly as a cactus, cuts a diagonal claim through the common area. Offset to its left is the puffy blue love seat paired with a spindly-legged end table ready to topple at the slightest nudge. A small lamp with a bright yellow lampshade rests on the end table like a toadstool. To the left of the love seat and almost in the small kitchen is a rectangular table, an abandoned game of solitaire spread out on its top. A dusty and cobweb-tinseled wagon wheel turned folksy chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling and between two wooden beams wide enough to be footbridges. On the wall to their right and directly across from the front door are a window and a flat-screen television. The only modern appliance in the cabin (the refrigerator and stove have to be older than both Andrew and Eric), the television is tethered to a satellite dish, a lonely lump of plastic stationed on the roof. The flat-screen is so out of place as to be anachronistic. It seems impossible that it functions as intended and is less an accoutrement than it is a blackened window, forever night beyond its glass with its sash permanently nailed shut.
Their progress through the common room is slow and spasmodic. Andrew and Eric continue to unleash a torrent of questions and pleas for Wen to respond. She tries to keep a tally in her head but they are talking too fast and she can’t possibly keep up, and even if she could, she’d be attempting to answer their questions for days and days.
Wen tries her best, anyway. She speaks in clear and clipped sentences.
“I don’t know who they are.
Go look out the windows.
He says they want to talk.
There are four of them.
The big one is named Leonard.
He is very nice but started saying weird things.
He said we have to help save the world.
There isn’t any car.
I think they walked here.
They’re all sort of dressed the same.
Jeans and same kind of shirts but different colors.
I don’t know.
They didn’t say anything to me.
He said we had to choose something.
It sounded like something bad.
The others are carrying big and scary-looking tools.
Like scythes but not scythes.
I don’t know.
They look homemade.”
Her dads want to know more about the scary-looking tools. Wen hears her own words as a dull hum coming from some faraway place, as though she’s outside of herself but not inside the cabin, and she’s confused and thinking maybe she imagined their questions and imagined coming to get them and instead she’s still standing out on the front lawn, frozen in place, spotlighted by the sun, and the strangers with the awful things they carry are there and walking toward her.
Someone knocks on the front door. Seven knocks (Wen counts them); quiet, polite, and in rhythm. Leonard said seven wasn’t always lucky.
Andrew and Eric split and flank the front door. Wen stays back, hovering near the table and the invisible line between the common room and the kitchen. Sunlight, relentless and unforgiving, pours through the glass slider behind her. She curls her thumbs inside her fists and squeezes them, a nervous tick that has replaced chewing her hair. Two of her teachers at Chinese school have caught her doing the fist-thumb-squeeze in recent weeks and after her reassignment from what school calls the emerging group to the basics classes where most of the other students are a year or two younger than she is. When Laoshi Quang, her Pinyin and grammar teacher, saw Wen’s thumbs inside her fists, she smiled and gently unfolded Wen’s hands without breaking from the writing lesson. Her history/culture teacher, Mr. Robert Lu (he lets all the younger kids call him Mr. Bob), asked if Wen was nervous and then told her a silly knock-knock joke so bad it was funny. Mr. Bob is nice but he also makes her want to cry; he’s so nice he makes her feel guilty. Wen wants to stop going to the Chinese school. The work is difficult. She isn’t picking up on the spoken words and written characters as quickly as the other students, almost all of whom have parents who are Chinese. She does not practice speaking nor does she do all her homework during the week. Wen can’t articulate the following but she harbors an inchoate anger at her biological parents for giving her up, and she’s angry at the country China itself that it is a place in which her parents would be allowed/forced to give her up. She also spends much of her class time daydreaming about all the fun Saturday things her regular-school friends get to do without her.
From outside: “Hey, hello. My name is Leonard. I’m here with some friends of mine. Hello, in there?” His voice is muffled by the front door but clear.
Andrew whispers to Eric, “Tell him to go away nicely. Probably just some religious freaks, right? Saving the world one pamphlet at a time.”
Eric whispers back, “Probably. Probably. But Wen said they were carrying weird tools, something like . . . scythes, right?” He looks back at Wen and she nods her head.
“Christ . . .” Andrew pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, turns it on, and then puts it back in his pocket.
Wen wants to remind him cell phones don’t work out here and didn’t work when he tried to look up scythes yesterday. Her dads chose this place because there would be no Wi-Fi or cell reception so they could unplug and it would just be the three of them hanging out, swimming, talking, playing cards or board games without any digital distractions. Andrew said that it would be almost like camping, with a cabin instead of a tent. Wen wasn’t convinced of the merits of being unplugged, but she pretended to be excited about cabin-camping. Her phone is stashed in one of the wooden drawers beneath her bunk bed. She snapped pictures of the lake, the wooden ceiling beams she’d give anything to climb on/walk across, and her bunk bed when they arrived, but she hasn’t taken out her phone since. She isn’t sure why Daddy Andrew has his with him and so readily available in his pocket. Has he been using it when he wasn’t supposed to be? Were they lying about no Wi-Fi or cell service?
Andrew sneaks up to one of the front windows on the left of the door, peels back a corner of the curtain, and looks outside. He reaches up and gently shuts the window and latches it. He whispers, “The guy on the front stairs is frigging huge.”
Eric is practically spinning in place in front of the door. He finally says, “Hello. Hi, Leonard. We-“
Leonard interrupts. “Are you Daddy Andrew or Daddy Eric? I met your delightful daughter, Wen, already. She’s so smart, thoughtful, kind. You should be very proud.”
Andrew pulls his phone out again, checks it, swears, and stuffs it back in his pocket like he’s mad at it. He crouches, his face almost touching the window glass in the lower right corner. He says, “There are more people on his left, I think. Can’t really get a good look at them.”
Eric, still in front of the door, is turned so he’s facing Andrew. He has his arms down by his side and he leans to his right until his ear is only inches from the door. “This is Eric. Is there something we can help you with? We weren’t expecting any visitors. I don’t want to sound rude, but we’d rather be left alone.”
Leonard says, “I know, and I am sorry to intrude on your vacation. Such a beautiful spot, too. Never been to this lake before. Believe me, up until a few days ago, the four of us, we never thought we’d be here at this lake. The four of us never thought we’d be here to talk to you nice people. But we do need to talk with you, Eric, and with Andrew, and Wen, too. It’s vital that we talk. I cannot stress that enough. I know you have no reason to, but you must trust me. I’m pretty sure Wen trusts me. I get the sense she’s a very good judge of character.”
Eric looks back at Wen and his expression is blank, unreadable, but she wonders if he’s blaming her for all this somehow. Maybe this, whatever this is going to be, is her fault because instead of running inside as soon as Leonard and his big friendly smile showed up, she stayed and talked to him. She talked to a stranger when she wasn’t supposed to and anything that happens after that is because of her.
Eric says, “We’re talking now, Leonard, and we’re listening. What do you want?”
Andrew, his face still in the window, scuttles over to Eric and whispertalks some more, but Wen thinks he’s plenty loud enough for Leonard to hear through the door. “There’s a woman carrying something; looks like a hoe and shovel mixed together. Why the fuck is she carrying that?”
Eric asks through the door, “Who else is out there with you?”
Leonard says, “My friends Sabrina, Adriane, and Redmond. The four of us are here because we’re trying to help save-save a whole bunch of people. But we need your help to do that. Help isn’t even the right word. We can’t do anything to help anyone without you. Please believe me. Would you mind letting us in? We just want to talk, tell you more, explain, and speaking through the door is making a difficult conversation near impossible-“
As Leonard continues his filibuster, Eric slinks from the front door to the window on its right. He peels back a dusty lace curtain with two fingers, opening enough space for sunlight to shine on his forehead. After a brief look, he hisses and jumps back and away from the window. “What are they carrying? What are those things?”
Andrew swaps windows for the new view. Eric returns to the front door, facing it, staring at the wood. His hands are on the top of his head as though he’s trying to keep it from flying away from his body.
Andrew is past being subtle with his peering out the window. He throws the curtain over his head. He leaks a terrified groan, a sound that turns Wen’s knees into rubber bands and shakes the foundation of her once permanent state of belief that she is safe whenever she is with her dads.
Wen says, “I’m sorry . . .” under her breath. She can’t explain why she is sorry, but she is.
Andrew slams the window shut, locks it, then staggers behind Eric and looks around the cabin with eyes as wide and deep as wells.
Eric asks, “What are they carrying? Could you see? Why are they here?”
Andrew says, “I-I don’t know, but we’re not waiting around. I’m calling the police. Now.”
“How long will it take for them to get out here?”
Andrew doesn’t answer and jogs through the room and to the beige landline phone hanging on the wooden frame outline of the kitchen, adjacent to the fridge.
Wen climbs into the love seat and crouches so that only her head floats over its back. She says to Eric, “Tell them to go away again. Please make them go away.”
Eric nods at Wen and says loudly to the four outside, “Listen, I’m sure you’re all very nice, but we’re not comfortable letting strangers into our cabin. I’m going to have to ask you to please leave the property.”
Andrew loudly replaces the phone in its cradle, then lifts it out and presses it to his ear, and repeats the cycle. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! There’s no dial tone. I don’t understand-“
Eric turns around. “What do you mean? Is it plugged in? Check the connection, maybe it’s loose. There was a dial tone yesterday. I checked as soon as we walked in.” It’s true. He did. Wen checked the phone right after him, too, and she wrapped herself in the long, springy cord until Eric told her not to mess with it, that it wasn’t a toy. He checked the phone again after she was untangled.
Andrew lifts the phone off the wall and inspects a translucent cord connected to the jack. He removes it and plugs it back in, then takes the phone out of its cradle. “I checked and I’m checking again but it’s not working. It’s not-“
Another man’s voice, this one deeper and older sounding than Leonard’s friendly lilt. What he says has a hint of glee to it, as though what he’s saying is a terrifically funny joke you won’t get until later, or the kind of joke that is only funny to the teller, which is the worst kind.
“We’re not leaving until after you let us in and we have our little chat.”
Wen imagines the man saying it while he’s staring through the door and cabin walls and looking right at her and his hands are wringing the thick wooden handle of his weapon. She has decided it is a weapon, something only a bad person or an orc would dare construct and carry.
Outside the cabin there’s a rush of harsh whispers descending upon the not-Leonard man who spoke. Maybe under different circumstances the four strangers might’ve sounded like a strong breeze rustling through the forest.
Leonard says, “Hey, I’m sorry. Redmond is as anxious and . . . passionate as we all are, and I can assure you his intentions are pure. I can only imagine how nervous you all are, and understandably so, at our arrival on your doorstep. This isn’t easy for us, either. We’ve never been in this position before. No one has, ever, not in the history of humankind.”
Eric responds, coolly, and without hesitation, “We’ve heard you, Leonard, and we’ve been very patient thus far. We’re not interested.” He pauses, runs a hand over his neatly trimmed beard, and adds, “We’d like you to leave now. It doesn’t sound like any of you are in trouble or anything like that, and I’m sure you can find someone else to help you.” As calm and as Daddy Eric as he’s been before now, there’s a fissure somewhere beneath his words, and it opens wide enough for Wen to tumble down into the hopeless dark.
Andrew must hear the same change in Eric’s voice too as he sprints across the short expanse of the room, steps in front of Eric like he’s shielding him, and yells, “We said no thank you! Leave now!” He shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet and pushes up his sleeves over his elbows.
From behind, Eric slowly curls an arm around his husband’s chest and pulls him away from the door. Andrew doesn’t resist.
There’s no response from Leonard or from any of the others outside. The silence lasts long enough to feel hopeful (maybe they are leaving) and menacing (maybe they are done with talking because they are ready to do something else).
Leonard says, “I do not intend this to sound like a threat, Andrew. It is Andrew, right?” Leonard pauses. Andrew nods his head yes although there’s no way Leonard can see him. “We aren’t leaving until we get a chance to talk, face-to-face. What we have to do is too important. We cannot and will not leave until that happens. I am sorry but we can’t change this situation. We have no choice. We all have no choice but to deal with it.” Eric says, “Well, you leave us no choice. We are calling the police. Right now.” His confident, stentorian voice, the one that makes people listen and makes people want to talk to him and be with him, is gone. He sounds shrunken, diminished, and Wen is afraid she’ll only ever hear this new voice.
Andrew reaches up and gently squeezes Eric’s arm, the one still wrapped across his chest at the shoulders.
One of the women says, “Hey, hi, um, we know you can’t do that. Call the police, I mean. No cell service out here, right? My phone hasn’t worked since somewhere way out on the Daniel Webster Highway. I’m sorry but I had to cut your landline. I’m, um, I’m Sabrina, by the way.” The awkwardness of her introduction is as chilling as the cutting of the landline admission.
Eric and Andrew slowly back away from the front door. If they keep going like this, they’ll fall over the back of the couch.
Eric says to Andrew, “Did you check your cell phone?”
“No bars. Nothing. Fucking nothing.”
Eric says, “Wen, can you get your phone, turn it on, and tell us if it works?”
Wen scoots off the love seat and instead of running to her room for her phone, she walks in front of her retreating dads. She screams at the front door, “Leave us alone, Leonard! You’re scaring us! You’re not my friend! Go away! Just go away!” She hopes she sounds in control and angry instead of frightened. She likes to believe that she has Daddy Eric’s voice inside of her somewhere.
Eric and Andrew step forward together and crouch down to Wen’s level. They both hug her, squeezing her between them, and they say what are supposed to be soothing things. Eric’s arm is sweaty on the back of her neck and Andrew is breathing fast, like he’s been racing her around the cabin. Wen doesn’t listen to her dads and instead strains to hear Leonard’s response.
Leonard says, “I know, and I’m sorry, Wen. I am. I truly am. And I am your friend. No matter what happens. But we can’t leave. Not yet. Please tell your dads to open the door. Everything will be easier if they do.”
Andrew shouts, “You don’t get to talk to her!”
As Eric is shushing her, Wen yells again, “Why do you have those scary weapons with you? Why do you need those?”
Leonard says, “They are not weapons, Wen. They are-tools. If you open the door now, we’ll drop them on the ground and leave them outside. And-please believe me-I promise they are not weapons.”
The other man yells, “Don’t worry. They’re not for you.”
Her dads quickly confer, speaking so quickly and in hushed, grunting tones Wen can’t tell who is saying what:
“‘They are not for you?'”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“I-I have no idea.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Check the cell again.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. Stay calm.”
“We’re not letting them in here.”
“No. We’re not.”
The man named Redmond, the one who sounds like he’s enjoying this, he shouts, “Yo! Hey!”
Andrew and Eric stop talking.
Redmond says, “Just do as Leonard says. Open the goddamn door.
We’re coming in either way.”
Andrew yells over Wen’s head, “The fuck you are! I have a gun!”
Her dads drop Wen from the group hug. She stumbles and almost falls to the hardwood. They were holding her so tightly between them, they lifted her off the floor. Neither of them noticed.
Eric says, “What are you doing?”
Andrew ignores him and shouts, “I’m not just talking shit!”
Andrew’s father used to say anyone who says they’re not talking shit has a mouthful. Clay Meriwether (never “Daddy,” only later in life did “Hey, Dad” have an honest ring of affection) was a mechanic/handyman from central Vermont. One morning there was a woman named Donna waiting outside the garage affixed to Clay’s parents’ old farmhouse. She lived on a commune in the microtown of Jamaica and she had a beat-up Datsun (that wasn’t hers) the color of a banana bruise. Clay worked on the car for two weeks and for free, and they got married four months later. A true odd couple: Donna, a vegetarian since her early twenties, keeps a small garden at the house and sells some (but never enough) of what she grows, and she used to read palms and auras and now is practicing holistic healing as her gig (her word); Clay, despite being in his early seventies, is still a full-time handyman and an avid hunter on most weekends, and while he’s softened his political stances in some ways (and hardened in others) he’s generally as conservative as Donna is not. Both Donna and Clay have always been voracious readers, and their shared favorite authors include Tom Robbins, Daphne du Maurier, and Walter Mosley. Donna and Clay always got along and they never left Vermont. Although nostalgia has dulled the edges of growing up in near isolation at the family farmhouse, Andrew couldn’t leave Vermont fast enough, and he managed to do so at age eighteen.
Eric pulls Andrew away from the front door, more urgently this time, grabbing and pulling his right arm, and he says, “No, don’t. Stop, wait a-“
Andrew doesn’t stop. He’s so scared and angry, and though he’s never pointed a gun at a person in the almost thirty years he’s been on-and-offand-then-on-again handling and shooting firearms, he imagines opening the door and pointing the little, unblinking black eye of the barrel at the forehead of the mostly formless shapes of Leonard or Redmond or whoever shows first. No, it’s Redmond he imagines as the target. In the glimpse out of the window Andrew saw Redmond in his obnoxious red shirt, his squat, stocky build, his linebacker stance dripping macho bravura, that alwaysburning fuel of violence and calamity. In his head, Andrew points the gun at him, the guy who looks and sounds like so many of the hate-filled, ignorant cavemen he’s had to deal with his whole life. Whenever Andrew is in a public place he is aware of their eyes and ears. That he is made to feel like he needs to make accommodations or adjustments to how he acts, to who he is in order to be left alone, to be safe, fills him with shame, guilt, fear, and anger. This Redmond might as well be a cipher, a stand-in, a representative for all of them: good ole boys, frat boys, card-carrying members of the old boys’ network, hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner God-fearin’ boys; they’re all of the same species. When Redmond speaks, he sounds so familiar; even if they haven’t met before, they have. Andrew would have no trouble pointing the gun at Redmond and he may even delight in watching the fear glaze over his dumb, animal eyes. If only Andrew actually had the gun on him.
He says, “Taurus snub-nosed .38 special. If you try to break in here, you’re going to have some problems.” Andrew gives his voice as much of an edge as he can muster, which maybe sounds like the-schoolteacher-isupset, but in his own ears, he sounds too much like a stereotype of a comic book nerd. His voice isn’t Eric’s slow, calm baritone of reason and authority. Andrew heard Eric before he first saw him. They met at a mutual friend’s BBQ , fifty people crammed into a comically small, square-shaped, postage-stamp backyard. The partygoers’ excuse mes and pardon mes were the jokes that never got old. Andrew was part of a small ring of friends and coworkers, laughing at something, he no longer remembers at what, but he remembers laughing, and he remembers it as a pleasantly drunk, slightly unhinged, completely happy laugh. Then he heard Eric talking, no, orating behind him about some European soccer team and their outlandishly expensive player transfers. That voice of his vibrated at some golden frequency, rising above the giddy and tipsy chatter of the blissful summer revelers. Andrew couldn’t have cared less about soccer, but he thought, Who is that?
Leonard says, “Please. Don’t do-“
Redmond interrupts. “Show us what you got. Put it in the window, dude.” His inflection on “dude” is both dismissive and threatening.
“You’ll see it when I point it at you.”
Eric sidles next to Andrew and whispers in his ear, “Did you actually bring it? Do you have it?”
In their apartment, Andrew keeps the gun locked in a notebook-sized safe on a shelf in their closet. The safe is new. He bought it eight months ago. Battery powered, he can open it with a touchpad combination or the new biometric palm-print reader, and if the battery dies, there’s a safety key.
Andrew grew up with guns. His father used to take him out hunting all the time, whether Andrew wanted to or not. When he was ten, his father gave him a .22 Huntington rifle. Andrew didn’t enjoy hunting or shooting animals (though he shot two deer and more than his fair share of squirrels), but he liked target shooting, and he spent a good chunk of his early teen years shooting at a withered gray tree stump about one thousand paces behind the farmhouse. When Andrew moved to Boston, he renounced all things Vermont, including guns. After the attack in that bar near the Boston Garden thirteen years ago, Andrew took self-defense and boxing classes, which helped him to feel more empowered and the nightmares stopped occurring as frequently and his general anxiety decreased to near normal levels (whatever those were), but it wasn’t enough. Within a year of the attack Andrew got his Massachusetts gun license/firearm identification and joined a shooting range. Eric strongly resisted having a gun in their apartment initially and they’d had the gun talk a second and third time before and after adopting Wen. Andrew insisted he wasn’t reacting or giving in to fear. He’d explained to Eric that the attack left him feeling unmoored; the beer bottle smashing into the back of his head broke off some part of himself that had yet to return. Shooting a gun was a part of who Andrew was as a child and teen and maybe if he could reclaim that small bit of who he once was, he’d feel more whole. Andrew knew he wasn’t explaining himself very well, but he also knew it sounded better than admitting his squeezing the trigger once a month at the range while imagining the silhouette on the paper target as his attacker felt so damned good and right.
Andrew says, “Yes and no.”
“What do you mean?”
“The safe is in the side panel storage compartment, in the SUV.” Andrew bringing the gun was an impulse decision made only minutes before leaving for the cabin. Eric and Wen were down the street getting coffee and donuts for the ride and Andrew took a last walk through the condo, making sure they weren’t forgetting anything important. It suddenly occurred to Andrew the gun was important. During their week on the lake Eric would worry about bears and wild animals, and Andrew would worry about being in the sticks of not-so-socially-liberal New Hampshire. Andrew briefly imagined a pair of don’t-tread-on-me types seeing him, Eric, and Wen buying food at a supermarket and then following them out to the parking lot spewing epithets and threats, or maybe the fucking rednecks would follow them out to their remote cabin to actualize their homophobia and hatred in more than words. Andrew chastised himself for imagining and dwelling on worst-case scenarios (but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen; he knew this from experience) and he hummed “Dueling Banjos” in an attempt to make himself feel silly for wanting to bring the gun. It didn’t work and he stashed the safe in the side panel. Andrew didn’t tell Eric he was bringing the gun, and he knew he wasn’t being fair, but he didn’t want to have to deal with that conversation. Eric has been as understanding as he possibly can about Andrew’s gun ownership. Still, he would not have been happy at all about the gun coming with them on vacation. Even though they already had a long family talk about the gun and safe being off-limits to Wen, it would’ve made Eric even more neurotic about her playing unsupervised in the cabin and he would’ve obsessed over scenarios in which she finds the safe and somehow opens it.
Redmond says, “Hey, come on, now. We all like show-and-tell out here.
No? Nothing? That’s what I thought. Lying through his teeth. He doesn’t
Leonard shouts, “That’s enough!” his voice deep, percussive, slightly unhinged, as shocking as an explosion of dog barks from a once-presumed empty house. Wen whimpers and slaps her hands over her ears. Andrew is reminded that as threatening and Cro-Magnon as Redmond sounds and looks, this guy Leonard standing a foot or two away on the other side of that door is a big fucking boy.
Leonard says, “I’m sorry for yelling, and I’m not yelling at you or your family. That was directed at Redmond.” There’s a beat of silence that is almost as terrifying as anything that’s been said to this point. “There’s no need for a gun, Andrew. We are not here to-to harm any of you. We just need to talk face-to-face. I think I’ve said all that I can say while we’re out here. So I’m coming in now, okay?”
The doorknob twists and the bolted door rattles in the frame. Andrew, Eric, and Wen watch and say nothing and do nothing as though Leonard’s abrupt segue into attempted entry is the chess equivalent of saying “checkmate.”
Andrew breaks through their collective stupor and yells, “No, not okay!”
Eric throws his body against the door. He says into the darkly stained wood, “We’ve been very understanding and we’ve asked you nicely to leave us alone. Go away.” He adds, running out of breath, although he instantly regrets saying it, “You’re scaring Wen.” Then he turns to Andrew and says quickly through gritted teeth, “What do we do? What do we do?”
Leonard says, “Please, just open the door.”
“Fuck off! Go away!” Andrew pulls his green hat tighter onto his head and spins himself in circles. He doesn’t know what to do.
Wen is sitting on the floor, leaning against the back of the couch. She covers her eyes and screams “Go away, Leonard! You are not my friend!” repeatedly.
The woman in the black button-down shirt peers into the window to the left of the front door. She sees Andrew and raps on the screen with the wooden end of her tool like a child tapping on the glass of an aquarium. She disappears and says something to the rest of the group. There’s a quick and hushed discussion outside, and a red shape blurs past the window on the other side of the door. Andrew thinks he can hear Redmond’s plodding steps tracing the exterior of the cabin, heading toward the back deck.
Leonard is still talking. Since shouting at Redmond, his voice hasn’t again raised or changed pitch; he might as well be a recording. His evenness and manners are proof of their collective madness. “We are not here to hurt you. We need your help to make things right, to save what must be saved. Only you can help us. You can start by opening the door . . .”
Andrew sprints to the front windows and pulls the threadbare, seethrough curtains closed. He then vaults into the kitchen and pulls the dark blue curtain, as thick as a winter blanket, across the glass slider, eclipsing most of the sunlight. The space below the slider frame and above the curtain rod glows radioactive light as does the window above the kitchen sink. The rest of the cabin darkens.
Wen carefully turns on the small lamp with the buttercup-yellow lampshade on the end table. She stands trapped in its spotlight, holding her closed fists, with her thumbs curled up safely inside, against her mouth.
Andrew goes over to Wen and hugs her. She doesn’t hug back. He reaches behind him, to the wall between the kitchen and bathroom, and he flicks on the wagon wheel ceiling light. Only four of the six bulbs work. He anticipates Wen asking him if everything will be okay, and if she does, he’ll do what any good parent would do; he’ll lie to her.
Wen says, “I’m scared.”
“We can be scared together, all right?”
She nods. “They’re coming in?”
“They might try.”
He kisses the top of Wen’s head. His lips and mouth are dry. He takes off his hat and places it on her head. It’s too big for her but she doesn’t take it off. She pulls the brim over her eyes and tucks as much of her hair as she can fit under the hat.
Eric says, “Andrew,” and wanders into the common room. Leonard has stopped talking and stopped trying to open the front door. “Did they go away?”
Andrew knows it’s a rhetorical, an I-have-to-say-something-or-scream kind of question. Of course they haven’t gone away, not yet, and a part of him believes they will spend days, years, the rest of their lives trapped in this cabin, under siege. Andrew would rather hold on to that hellish image and dare not hope the others left because right now hope would be an intoxicant, a mind-duller; hope would be dangerous. Andrew plays along because Wen is listening and he plays along because he must. He says, “I think they’re just trying to scare us, right? Too goddamn cowardly to actually-“
Heavy footsteps pound up the stairs that climb to the deck platform. Eric and Andrew eye the couch at the same time and Eric runs to the far end. Andrew momentarily considers telling Wen to hide in the bathroom and lock the door and don’t come out no matter what. Instead he clears a path to the back slider, pushing the dinner table, the chairs, and love seat away from the couch, the legs scraping and rumbling across the hardwood floor before sliding onto the kitchen linoleum. Wen helps, too, moving the end table and lamp toward the bathroom.
“Good job, Wen.”
Andrew and Eric lift the couch. It’s an old sleeper sofa as heavy and unwieldy as a tank. Andrew shuffles to the slider, but Eric abruptly lowers his end, pitching Andrew back toward the common room. Eric says, “Wait, turn it around. We have to spin it around so the back goes against the glass.”
Andrew wants to say, Does it fucking matter? If the others break the glass slider, what way the couch faces won’t really stop them. He doesn’t say anything even as it feels like a mistake, a panic move, a waste of precious time, and the two of them stutter-walk, grunt, and groan through a quick semicircle and drop the couch in front of the back slider. The guts of springs and metal framing crash and clang discordantly.
Andrew ducks into the kitchen and closes and latches the window above the sink. Are all the other windows closed? The ones in the bedrooms are big enough for someone to climb through. He opens drawers looking for knives, the biggest ones they have. They’ll need knives, right? They’ll need something. He says, “Make sure the bedroom windows are closed and covered.”
“Oh, shit, hey-“
“The basement stairs. What do we do about those?” That open rectangular hole in the floor and its stairs that circle and drain down below . . .
Leonard shouts from somewhere outside, no longer at the front door, but toward the bathroom/kitchen side. “Come on, guys, you can open the doors! Please don’t do this! We’re not trying to scare you! We’re not here to harm you!”
“Cops are on the way, and if you set one foot in here, I’ll shoot!” Andrew leaves the kitchen without taking anything with him. Eric stands in the middle of the room transfixed by the basement stairs.
Andrew jogs over and grabs Eric’s arm. He whispers, “Is the basement door locked?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not. Wen and I opened the door earlier, and we both went outside, and I-I don’t remember if we locked it after. I don’t think we did. The door might even be wide open.”
“Should we go down and check?”
They gravitate to the emptied center of the common room. They listen. There might be the sound of someone walking lightly in the basement and there might not.
“Maybe.” Eric looks around the cabin. “Or maybe we clog up the top, so even if they come in through the basement they can’t come all the way up the stairs.”
They carry the love seat over and Andrew already knows it’s too light to be any kind of barrier. Maybe it’s enough to slow a couple of them down if they were to come up through the basement and it would give him, Eric, and Wen enough time to flee the cabin through the front door and get to the SUV. They could fight off one or two of them on the way, too, he thinks, but not all four. The closer Andrew gets to the mouth of the stairs, the more anxiety hot-wires his system and he envisions hands shooting up out of the darkness and clutching their ankles to pull them down, down, down.
Eric says, “Here, tilt it toward me a little. We can wedge the feet inside the railing and the fence.”
Andrew fears the love seat is too small and will tumble down the stairs, but it jams up against the railing a foot or so below the plane of the main room floor like Eric said it would. It’s in there tight, too. Andrew runs back and grabs the kitchen table to add to the stopped-up staircase. Of course now he’s thinking maybe they shouldn’t block off a possible escape route. Plus there’s all kinds of stuff in the basement they could use as weapons or barricades and now they can’t get to any of it. Up here there isn’t much with which to defend themselves, certainly not anything with the reach and menace of what the strangers are carrying.
Andrew places the table on top of the love seat. Two of the legs fit in the empty space between the wall, floor, and wrought-iron rail, and the other two legs are propped awkwardly on the love seat. He pushes down on the table hard enough that the middle of the table cracks and bends inward.
Eric goes to the hearth and the woodburning stove and plucks the pewter metal poker and tongs from the basket. He says, “Take this,” and gives Andrew the poker.
The metal is cold and, instead of emboldening, it feels as useless as a handful of sand. He looks around the room for something, anything else but sees only the brittle museum-piece skis and poles and other useless kitsch on the walls.
Eric retrieves the tin mesh basket of fire logs and drops it next to the staircase.
“What are you doing with those?”
“We can-I don’t know-hit them with the logs?” He points at the bin like the log defense is self-explanatory. He mimes throwing logs down the stairs and then tries to hide a dawning sheepish smile.
“Right. Hell yeah, we’re gonna hit ’em with logs.”
Andrew and Eric fall into bright, quick bursts of we-shouldn’t-belaughing laughter. Tears ring Andrew’s eyes as fear and the numbness of this irreality momentarily give way to absurdity.
Eric wipes his face and composes himself quicker than Andrew does. “Hey, Wen. Come on over with us, okay, honey?”
She doesn’t ask what is so funny and she walks mechanically across the room, her eyes focused on the furniture-topped basement stairs.
Andrew pulls Eric close and whispers so that Wen won’t hear him. “If they really try to come in here, I say we make a run for the SUV. Right out the front door. I’ll go out first and hold them up so you and Wen can make it. If I don’t get to the SUV with you, you two leave anyway and get help.” Andrew reaches in his pocket for the keys.
Eric says, “No. Stop it. Don’t give those to me. If we leave, we all leave together.”
Wen tugs on Eric’s arm and asks, “Daddy, can I have something to hold, too?”
The back deck reverberates with footsteps. One of the four is walking loudly, purposefully.
“Daddy, can I have something, please?”
“Yes. Yes, you can.” Andrew quickly goes to the woodburning stove and returns with the minishovel.
Wen holds it like a softball bat and takes a practice swing. She spins around on her back heel and Andrew has to sidestep to dodge being inadvertently hit in the knee. Neither Andrew nor Eric tells her to be careful.
Andrew twists the poker in his hands. There has to be something else they can do. He says, “What about the knives? In the kitchen. We should grab some knives.”
Eric sighs. “Are we really going to-“
“Yes, we really might have to.”
“Have to what-“
The screen door slider to the deck that too easily jumps out of the track (Wen has already knocked it out of the doorframe twice) whooshes open.
Redmond calls out, “You really should get someone to fix the screen, guys! Wouldn’t want you to lose any money on your deposit. Be good boys, let us in, and we’ll fix it for you, yeah? Won’t even charge you.” The blue curtain obscures the view of the deck and Redmond, but it is not enough to keep them hidden and safe.
Wen shouts, “Go away!”
“That’s what I thought.” Redmond knocks shave-and-a-haircut on the glass door.
There’s the unmistakable sound of movement in the basement: sliding and shuffling across the cement floor and the creak and low-frequency taps of feet trying not to be heard on wooden stairs.
Redmond says singsong, “That’s supposed to be the signal knock. No matter.” Something crashes and protrudes through the glass slider, bowing out the curtain away from the deck and over the barricade couch, a large blue fist thrusting defiantly into the kitchen before disappearing. A second then third blow pulls the curtain and rod off the wide doorframe. Sunlight flashes atomic bright in the cabin and Redmond is a hulking shadow in the Oppenheimer glare. He hacks at the rest of the glass door with the sledgehammer end of his makeshift weapon. He grunts, crouches, and rams shoulder-first into the couch, shoving it into the kitchen. Broken glass crackles and grinds under his heels and under the couch’s stubby peg legs.
Andrew does the math: Redmond is almost fully inside the kitchen and there’s at least one of them in the basement, so there are only two of the others, at most, outside. He and Eric can take them on or get past them and to the SUV. He believes they can. They have to.
Andrew fishes the keys out and stuffs them into a pocket of Eric’s shorts. “Come on, let’s go!”
Eric doesn’t argue and scoops Wen up and holds her so that they are chest to chest. She wraps her arms around his shoulders and buries her face into the side of his neck. Eric’s left arm coils under her butt. He brandishes the not-all-that-threatening woodstove tongs in his free hand.
Andrew runs to the front door and there are more instant calculations and considerations and variables. How long before Redmond is inside the cabin and across the common room and to them? Does Andrew try to stop him, or waylay him long enough for Eric and Wen to get out the front door? Should he instead focus on the door, opening it quickly, smoothly, without hesitation, and then running outside to clear a path for Eric and Wen? If Andrew were first to the SUV and first to his gun, then he wouldn’t have any trouble keeping the others off them as they drove out of here. But what if he can’t get to the SUV and what if Eric and Wen can’t make it, either? Do they sprint madly down the road or scatter into the woods like spooked rabbits? Maybe they could run out behind the cabin and to the lake. The others wouldn’t expect that, would they? He and Eric are both excellent swimmers. They could swim across the lake with Wen in tow if they had to. They could make it-
Andrew only has eyes for the door and the latch bolt and twist lock in the doorknob. He is not looking at Redmond and doesn’t know if that man is past the couch obstacle. He does not look back to Eric and Wen, who are at least two steps behind. Andrew is running too fast to stop and he crashes into the door, knocking the poker out of his hand and to the floor. He picks it up.
Eric shouts from behind. “Andrew!”
The woman in the off-white shirt looms in the bedroom doorway to his right, holding her long-staffed weapon and its bizarre and curled-over shovel head pointed out into the room. Andrew has an Escher-esque view beyond her, into the bedroom he and Eric are sharing, and to the wide-open window through which she gained entry.
She says, “Please stop. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Still barreling toward the front door, Eric pivots, opening his right shoulder, and swings the tongs at the woman. His first swipe makes solid contact, pinging off the pointed blade of her weapon, which she drops. He teeters and almost falls but follows up with another swing and hits her left shoulder. It’s a glancing blow but enough to make her cry out, drop to her knees, and briefly clutch her arm. She quickly recovers, picks up her weapon, and jabs it at Eric’s legs. There isn’t much oomph behind her strike but it’s well placed. She connects, somewhere below his knees and then the odd blade and wooden handle get caught up between his ankles. Eric trips and as he falls he twists his face and chest away from the floor, presumably so he doesn’t land on top of Wen. With the added torque, his fall speeds up, he lands awkwardly on his back, and his head bounces off the floor, making a nauseating soft and hollow sound. His body goes limp, arms twitching and open. Wen rolls off his chest and slides into Andrew’s feet. She scrambles back to Eric and screams his name. Eric’s eyes are closed, his empty arms retracted so his elbows are on his chest, his forearms hovering above him, and his hands wilt inward, looking gnarled, arthritic.
Andrew yells Eric’s name and yells Wen’s name, too, and then he’s just yelling. His back is against the front door and get the gun get the gun get the gun is an emergency-broadcast-system alert in his head but he can’t open the door and he can’t leave.
He tightens his grip on the poker and swings wildly in the direction of the woman in the white shirt. She creeps along the floor closer to Eric and Wen.
The woman holds her weapon out in Andrew’s direction, but defensively. Her hands and arms shake as though the thing weighs two hundred pounds. She says, “Let me help him. I’m a nurse. He’s hurt.”
“Get the fuck away from them! Don’t touch them!”
He lunges at her and strikes the blade of her weapon with the poker. Metal on metal clangs like a blacksmith’s strike and vibrations run up through his hand and numb his forearm. He keeps swinging and she scoots away, backward toward the bedroom.
Andrew drops to a knee next to Eric’s head. Eric’s eyelids flutter and he drunkenly moves his arms and attempts to sit up, rolling and rocking like a turtle flipped onto his shell.
Wen has both arms wrapped around Eric’s right arm, and she pulls him, saying, “Get up! We have to go, Daddy!”
Everything speeds up and collapses in on Andrew.
The kitchen table and love seat bubble up from the suddenly volcanic basement stairwell and spill out into the common room. Leonard follows, an ash cloud billowing into the cabin. He’s enormous, bigger than a god. Unlike the others, he carries no weapon.
The sun shines mercilessly through the shattered glass slider doors. Redmond is a squat, silhouetted goblin, holding his bulky staff like a picket sign. He grunts and giggles his way past kitchen chairs and the end table, knocking over the little yellow lamp, snuffing out its weak light. He says, “Sorry about the mess. We’ll clean it up. Promise. Now let’s take it easy there, Zorro, yeah? Stop waving that thing around before someone gets-“
Andrew launches at Redmond. He swings the poker high, aiming for the man’s head. Redmond is slow to react but he manages to duck behind the mass-of-shovel-and-trowel-blades end of the weapon. The poker gets caught in the spaces between the irregularly arranged hand tools. Redmond drops that end of the weapon, holding the wooden handle parallel to the floor, levering the poker out of Andrew’s grasp. It clangs to the hardwood and skitters out of reach.
With Redmond’s hands down by his waist, Andrew doesn’t hesitate. He throws two quick punches. The first, a right hand, connects with Redmond’s fleshy nose and draws a squirt of blood. The second jab, a sharp left, slams into his jaw, and Andrew cuts open the skin of his knuckles on teeth. Staggered, Redmond drops his weapon, checks his nose for blood, and his eyelids flutter like moth wings. Andrew doesn’t let Redmond create space or opportunity to get his hands back up. Andrew goes in tight and works the body, punching Redmond in the ribs with two rights, and a left to the stomach, which goes soft like a sail with no wind, and an uppercut to the bottom of his chin that clicks his jaw shut. A hard punch to the solar plexus whooshes the rest of the air out.
Redmond is roughly the same height as Andrew, but he’s a thick, beefy guy, probably outweighing him by more than fifty pounds. As many shots as Andrew is expertly landing, he knows it’ll take a lot more to get Redmond to go down and to keep him down. So Andrew keeps hitting him.
Redmond has his arms up trying to protect himself, but he’s either too slow or has been knocked into being too slow to fend off the blur of blows. Blood gouts from his nose and leaks from his split lip but he doesn’t go down. He absorbs the punishment as though in atonement.
“Daddy, stop hitting the man! Stop it! Stop it!”
Andrew stops and he backs away on sea legs, exhausted and gasping for breath. His knuckles are swollen and bloodied.
Redmond takes a shaky backward step and sits heavily on the couch he pushed away from the slider doors. The springs inside the couch reprise their dissonant chord.
Leonard stands in the middle of the common room, holding Wen in the crook of one arm. She looks so small, she could be a ribbon on his chest. Wen has her hands balled up in fists that way she does (with the thumbs inside) and she holds those fists against her mouth. She isn’t wearing Andrew’s hat anymore.
The woman in the black button-down shirt stands next to Leonard and Wen. She reaches across Leonard and pats Wen’s leg and says, “Shh, you’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.” Andrew doesn’t know where she came from or how she got inside the cabin.
Eric is on the floor, sitting up. His eyes are wide in what would be a hammy pantomime of surprise if there were any life or light in his blank stare.
The woman in the white shirt kneels before Eric. She peers into one eye and then the other, examining him. She has a hand resting on his shoulder and she talks in a low voice. He responds with slight nods and confused, pained looks.
Leonard says, “Wen is right, Andrew. That’s enough. That’s enough.”