Originally published in New Genre 7: Summer 2015. Reprinted with thanks.
Webb woke to a whine—a screen door hinging open, or a jeep pulling down the road. There was a dark shape by the headboard, Sandy in her nightdress. She’d gotten out of bed and now she was beside it, shaking.
Why couldn’t he move his arm? No, it was moving alright—he could feel himself take her hand, but the sleeping pills muffled his sense of touch.
“Charles!” she whispered, “there’s someone in the house.”
Which house, Fort Monmouth? No, this was Shetucket, the green house, old Captain Putnam’s place. It came back in a breath: this was where they’d retired to while their boy Mitch had been overseas in Saigon, then Mitch was back with them, now married and across town. Webb had been watching the hurricane before he went to bed and there was no sound of a storm now, but there might still be limbs creaking outside and road crews. All right, he knew where he was.
“Could you turn on the lamp?” he asked.
“Are you awake enough to stand up, Charles?” she asked. “The power isn’t back yet. Oh, Charles!”
She was right to be worried. Three weeks ago he’d woken up in the night and fallen onto the floor. When she got up to help him he realized that didn’t know where he was or what the bed was called. He hadn’t told her; he’d pretended to know and it came back by the time he sat upright. If it had been a stroke it was short, and there had been no other, so the news wasn’t bad.
From downstairs, he heard the deep pat of a thick book landing on a wood floor.
“Hell yes, I can stand up!”
There was a keychain flashlight on the dresser; he opened the drawer and felt for it, felt her hand next to his. He’d get up while she found it.
Pushing his upper body into a sitting position, turning, Webb slid his feet into his slippers. Jesus, it was cold, and it bit the already biting ache in his knees. She’d found the small light now and had twisted it on and off, quickly and with both hands, to show him she’d found it. He got up and pulled his robe off the hook.
“Wait here,” he said. Then coming to understand that she was scared, he leaned in, touched her cheek. “If I need you I’ll shout.”
She squeezed his arm. “There’s a bigger flashlight in the office,” she whispered loud. “I didn’t want to use it in case they saw the beam.”
It was the hurricane that frightened her, the big tree coming down in the front of the yard. She always made it sound like she took things easily (“oh, well, there goes the tree”) but she became more skittish after every loss. She would throw away letters in a fit, then stew for days about money.
“It’s fine, my girl,” he said, surprised how well he could see in the dark. He kept the dark flashlight in his fist and crossed into the hall, the contours of which were clear in the moonlight falling in through the window by the stairs. The rain must have stopped and the moon come out. If they’d still been stationed on Governor’s Island there’d be a flood tide and a constant fog horn. It wasn’t early enough to hear any birds.
At the head of the steps he heard a toc, as though a door had shut downstairs. It sounded like the hall door, the one dividing the living room from the front… so if someone had come in through the front, they were nearly through to where the china was kept. That’s what she’d be concerned about now, now the initial panic fled she’d be thinking practically, tallying her losses, thinking exactly how long it might take Mitch to get there from across town.
Webb took the stairs quietly at first, then saw he’d need to hold on to the banister. It creaked under his hand. Webb grimaced: why did he think it wouldn’t be like this? You fought your whole life, he knew, and had to go on fighting old, you had to shoot and be disbelieved, let the weeds grow, bow goodbye, and if you want to go and talk to a priest you wind up talking to a pedophile. And Sandy: she’d had to sweat out his basic training, his going off to fight, twice, and then Mitch off in Asia. Now she’s got to stand upstairs shivering, a frightened old woman. The poor girl.
And why couldn’t he wake up sharply anymore, why the confusion about where he was? It was getting so he couldn’t close his eyes in the dark without hearing the knife come through his tent. That and the MP’s head going to pieces in the jeep. Why now? Late—he’d been asleep for long enough that his body felt heavy—and zip. His eyes had opened on the torn tent as the blade made its second zip, like an X, and before the blade or its owner had pushed through again Webb’s pistol was up and bang bang bang. It was three fast shots and then he was into the snow with his bare feet. There was no one in sight, there was no sound. That was less than a mile from the line in Korean winter, shivering with his nerves on high.
He’d reached the hall downstairs now and had to stop to rest his knees. A series of clinks reported from the kitchen, like bottles coming down from a shelf of bottles. Hell, it’s probably old Pete Kopsach coming in for a drink, and he thinks it’s three o’clock in the afternoon! Webb grinned. Well, it was a thief, then, a kid. Webb would scare the hell out of him.
Webb reached into the hall closet, felt behind the tweed overcoats for his air rifle. He used to pelt deer away from Sandy’s lilies, until his granddaughter—Mitch’s girl—told him he was being cruel. Webb decided she was right and kept the rifle in the hall closet. He liked to keep the girl happy.
The pellets would cause a rattle, so he’d have to move quickly once he touched them. Conscious not to open his hand too sharply and cause a sting, Webb lifted the BB carton from its low shelf and folded open the latch. Resting the rifle under his arm, he poured in a load, snapped the cap, and pumped the gun in quick succession. Then, with the end of the barrel, he pushed the hall door ajar.
The living room stood empty of intruders and was filled with no sound. Lowering the gun, no longer feeling the ache in his knees, Webb crossed into the kitchen with his old quick strength, cased it, checked the pantry, and paused outside the dining room. If the kid—he was sure there could only be one, two would be making real noise—hadn’t crawled out a window, then this was the only place left to hide downstairs.
“Come the hell out of there,” he said.
Nothing stirred. And then, after what might have been the wind picking up, there came the sound he’d woken to—a hinge or a whine. He pushed the door in with the barrel.
The top-hinged window had blown open. And it was creaking against the base of a dogwood branch that bore down on it. The hinge must have bent out of shape, because instead of falling shut, it screeched when the heavy limb exerted pressure from above. It was the storm that wrenched it and the room was empty.
“It’s all right Sandy,” he shouted, making his way to the window in an effort to pull it shut. He wanted the strength. Once he would have kicked out the metal attachment and snapped the pane straight in. Now, he thought, the best he could do was to tape a trash bag so as to keep the carpet dry until he could call Mitch when it was light out.
Webb heard the closet door shut in the hall. Sandy must have come down.
“I took out the gun,” he shouted, “but there was no one here! It’s just you and I, darling girl!” He made himself sound gallant, propped the rifle against the dining room table so as not to startle her.
The room looked darker than it had a moment earlier, and he peeked up at the sky through the damaged pane and watched the storm clouds inching to cover the moon. More storm? So this had been the eye. They must have only just fallen asleep. He’d been too startled to reach for his watch when he woke. He’d have to cover the window fast.
He smiled as he looked around for something he could use, a serving table he could prop. He’d laugh with Pete about it on Wednesday. That would be a good time, old Pete at the club with a Schlitz in his hand, telling the rest of the boys about their adventures in upper Kangwon-Do.
“Jesus, we thought the whole KPA was coming down on us! Everyone’s scrambling to get their boots on and there’s Webb in his stocking feet, spooked, shouting, ‘for christsakes look around, they may be all over the place!’” Webb would beam as Pete went on, “And I’m thinking Jesus Webb if they were here you’d had em all picked off by now … pwut pwut pwut … Hell, we may as well all go home and let you take em on in your stocking feet!”
And by now Webb would laugh too, thinking, you weren’t in the tent, Pete.
“Dear girl, I need your help in here!” he shouted, “we have to…” he coughed into the words, bent over to clear his throat. He’d quit shouting, catch his breath, and then go and get her.
But he persisted coughing from deep in his chest, though it was not deep enough, and there wasn’t any sign of Sandy in the doorway. Rain pelted the floor behind him. “Sandy come the hell in here!” But he was already walking toward the hall. Reaching it, he found it empty.
He’d wondered lately if her own hearing might be getting weaker and so he shouted again, “Sandy, there’s no one here!” So he’d walk up the stairs and fetch her. Of course she couldn’t hear him … he didn’t have the lungs to boom half a mile any longer.
Webb heard the scrape of the heavy table being dragged. For a second he wondered if he was still in the dining room, if he’d stepped out of himself and wandered his mind down the hall.
Webb started back toward the dining room, cursing himself for leaving the weapon. This was old age. This. His chest wheezed.
The dragging stopped.
“Who the hell’s in there?” It was darker with the rain coming down. Webb could hear it all around the house, a pat on the gutters off the eaves and over the panes.
He heard a man’s strained voice. It said the word “Charlie.”
Webb pitched to listen, to convince himself he’d heard his name. It was a tenor voice, and something about the accent rang antique. It was a Shetucket sound, an old one. Webb remembered the sound of it from his boyhood, the fat burghers and the drawling old men who’d missed the first war.
“Charlie, come here.”
It said Charlie like it knew him, had known him for awhile.
Will it be a teenager after all, he wondered, or someone I haven’t seen in sixty years? But as quickly as it rose he dismissed the thought. He would have recognized the voice. This didn’t sound like anyone. The men from his boyhood were long off the earth.
Webb turned the corner to find a small old man with a beard staring back at him from the hall. The man held a rainslicker hat in his hand.
“Charlie, I’ve been waiting for you.”
It’s Captain Putnam, he thought in amazement. Christ he’s even wearing a greatcoat, a heavy thick one.
Webb kept coming toward him, not afraid but curious to see him better, make out his face. There was a pencil sketch of old Putnam in Sandy’s room upstairs. They’d found it in the attic when they first arrived. Putnam had been newly commissioned then, with a clean face and a heavy brow, curls in his hair.
Webb didn’t trust himself to speak.
“I want to talk with you, Charlie,” the Captain said. Webb noticed the front door open, rain blowing onto the carpet behind the old man. By then he was close enough to see his face. It could almost be Putnam. His cheek was scarred, but unlike the pencil sketch it wasn’t a high cheek. It seemed to sink from the eye down. And the eyes weren’t right; they were small where Putnam’s in the sketch had been romantically grand. But he smelled like a sea captain. Webb caught a whiff of the Brittany coast. That same smell everywhere: rank brine. And the man had the look of those captains Webb had met, the ones who never really seemed to be in the room with you, a part of their minds on loan. They were empty bodies when they stepped off ship.
“Come with me, Charlie.”
It struck him like a thrill, life in the storm and parts of the world he couldn’t guess. From behind his eyes fell parts of a map, and the sound of animals across the wire… they were soldiers marching, prepared to reef a sail or push new country. They were like the separate bones of a hand.
A lick of wind pushed through the door and left Webb shivering.
“Charlie, come here. I want to talk to you.” And the Captain stepped back, gestured as if to a curtain before it rose. Webb couldn’t place the voice. It was new to him.
“You’ll stay here,” Webb said, nearly letting it become a question.
Webb perceived the Captain standing closer to the edge of the threshold than just a moment ago. He’s going to walk away, Webb thought, he’s going to step outside the door and he won’t come back.
And in the moment of framing his thought the Captain was gone. He slipped through the door as though Webb had vanished him by conceiving it. Webb stepped to the open door where the wind was whipping in harder now and stood for a moment, remembering everything that had happened, trying to piece together the story, the sequence, the way the man looked: the rain hat, oilskins. Webb knew the ghost was gone the way a boy knows he has to go inside when it starts to rain.
Webb had run through hurricanes like obstacle courses in his youth, mind alive, flashlight in his hand because the day was black. But it was the middle of the night and the howl outside would upset her. She’d be shivering too.
He shut the door tightly, locked it, and walked to the foot of the stairs. He could see her leaning over the banister on the stair-head. Her usual poise had fled entirely and the worry had flushed itself into panic. She leaned forward, arms crossed beneath her chest like she was trying to physically hold herself from bolting.
“No one’s here,” he said, “you’ve got to come down and help me with the table.”
She stepped down onto the second stair, indignant. “You’re telling me there’s no one there? Charles, I heard you talking with someone!” But he heard in her voice that she didn’t want to believe it.
“I was calling for you,” he said.
“Are you sure no one’s there?”
He couldn’t tell her what he’d seen. He’d never be able to tell her. She’d either panic because he was hallucinating or want to move out of a haunted house. If he didn’t tell her about the snakes in the basement, he couldn’t tell her this.
“It’s the window,” he told her, short of breath again from the shouting. She came down the steps and touched his arm.
“I’ll start the coffee,” she said, “forget sleeping now.”
He followed her as far as the living room, where he lowered himself into his chair by the window and stared a long while into the moving dark.