by Michael Beeman
A noise woke Sarah sometime after midnight. Gene slept on next to her, and for a moment she thought he’d nudged her or made some noise in his sleep. Then she heard a muffled thump in the living room downstairs. The catalog of night sounds in their home, the banging shutters, refrigerator motor turning on and off, humming air conditioner and all the other noises she no longer woke for did not include a muffled thump. She rose quietly and walked into the hall.
Sarah paused at the top of the curved stairway, squinting to make out shapes faint in the dark. Drifts of shadows and slanting moonlight remade her living room, blurring together the couches, chairs, side-tables, and lamps. As her eyes adjusted, she recognized a pewter statue, an old relief of a sailor bought cheap and given to Gene as a joke, laying on its back at the bottom of the stairs. Sarah walked towards the statue without thinking about how it had moved from its normal place on the mantel. Replicas of Impressionist paintings hung on the wall next to the stairs, eye-level: as Sarah passed their Monet a figure detached itself from the darkness beneath her.
The burglar dressed in black and carried a handgun. He wore a ski mask, and for a moment didn’t have a face at all, just a smooth shadow where his face should have been. All Sarah could see clearly was the gun, a silver revolver, and the man’s eyes. The burglar waited, mouthless, below. Sarah felt as if he was trying to communicate something to her, that he’d snuck into the house with a message to deliver in the night. She was unsure of her role, though, and did not know what the burglar expected her to do.
Sarah stood half-way down the stairs, waiting. The burglar watched from the bottom of the stairs. The gun he held seemed like a prop, a leftover from a bad western movie, not the gun a real burglar would use. Even his abandoned theft, a worthless statue, was ridiculous. Sarah grew tired of their stand-off. “You can keep it,” she said, motioning to the fallen sailor.
The burglar lowered his gun. He bent and picked up the statue. He hefted the statue in his free hand, as if trying to estimate its value by weight. He placed the statue upright on the table next to him and backed from the room. Sarah heard the screen door in their kitchen slam shut as he left.
When she felt it was safe, Sarah walked down the stairs and picked up the statue. It was an ugly thing, old and roughly hewn, not much improved by the low light. Right then she felt it was her most valuable possession. She is held it as she woke Gene and explained what had happened. She still had the statue when the police arrived, and kept it with her as she retold the story, gesturing with it to emphasize important points. “You can keep it,” she repeated smiling at her own punch-line.
After the police left, Sarah and Gene went back to bed to get a few hours of sleep before work. Gene dropped off immediately. Sarah couldn’t just fall back asleep. She stared at the ceiling, wondering who the burglar had been, where he had gone, and what he was doing at that moment.
Sarah stood half-way down the stairs, waiting. The burglar watched from the bottom of the stairs. She could see fear in the man’s eyes. The gun shook in his hand, as if the burglar struggled to hold it. Seeing him shaking, scared, Sarah felt pity for the burglar, for anyone driven to something so desperate. What had led this man to her house in the middle of the night? What kind life left a person with breaking into someone’s home as the best way to get by?
“Take whatever you need,” Sarah said. The burglar cocked his head to one side. She spread her hands out, palms up, offering everything in the home. She closed her eyes. Minutes that felt like hours passed. Sarah opened her eyes at the sound of the screen door in their kitchen slam shut, and saw that ugly sailor statue staring up at her from the floor.
By the time the police arrived Sarah had assessed the damage downstairs. The burglar had taken everything of value from their first floor, family heirlooms and made-to-order decorations alike. The only thing left was the pewter sailor statue. Sarah hugged the statue as she lead the police through their home, showing him all the places where things should have been.
“So you saw him here?” Sarah, Gene, and a young police officer stood at the top of the stairs looking down into the living room. “Then what?” Sarah thought for a moment. “Then he left.”
“You must have scared him away,” the young officer said. “Burglars are cowards. I’d like to catch someone trying that in my house. Wouldn’t be anything left of him.”
Sarah and Gene stayed up the rest of the night, calculating how much they had lost. When Sarah tried to sleep, just before dawn, the officer’s words returned to her, “You must have scared him away,” repeating in her mind.
Sarah stood half-way down the stairs, waiting. The burglar watched from the bottom of the stairs. The gun shone white in the moonlight, pale as exposed bone. His eyes seemed crazy and desperate. Sarah’s hope for a quick, quiet resolution vanished as the burglar raised his revolver and leveled it at her, bracing it with both hands. She had time to consider this, to watch the burglar aim at her. To hear a sharp click as the burglar thumbed back the hammer. To take one breath.
The gun roared; the shot caught the right side of Sarah’s face. She spun halfway around, driven face-first into the painting behind her. For a moment her legs supported her, and it looked as if she was trying to get a good look at the painting, studying the brush stroke or a small figure in the back ground. Then her knees buckled, her body fell, her body rolled down the stairs. On the wall, an abstract smear of blood and hair, brain and bone.
A cloud of milky smoke hung in front of the burglar. Sarah’s blood spread towards his feet like a puddle of black ink. The burglar threw the revolver to the floor quickly, as if it had burned him, and backed out of the room. He didn’t take anything. The screen door slammed behind him as he left.
Inside the house, Gene began to scream. He yelled his wife’s name over and over. His cries reached the burglar, muffled and indistinct, as he ran through the yard. Then he was gone, back into the darkness surrounding their house, back into the night from which he’d came.
Sarah stood half-way down the stairs, waiting. The burglar watched from the bottom of the stairs. In the moonlight his eyes looked empty and dull. The burglar seemed to be under a spell, like an animal startled in the wild. If Sarah broke eye contact, the burglar would bolt. She thought she could see the burglar’s chest swell with each breath, but in the dark it could have been her imagination pulsing.
The house was absolutely still: no clocks ticked, no cars passed in the road outside, no television droned on in the background. Nothing moved. An overwhelming silence, an absence of sound so deep it became a sound itself, grew and grew. Soon Sarah felt it pressing against her temples, the pressure growing as if she were underwater and sinking towards the bottom of a lake. Sarah waited as long as she could. Without thinking, she reached out and took a small step forward.
The burglar left so quickly: he was there, he flashed towards the door, he was gone. Footsteps slapped the kitchen floor, a screen door slammed. Sarah stayed frozen for a moment longer, her hand outstretched, still reaching for the burglar.
A burglar! She jogged down the stairs, her mind racing as she passed the fallen statue. He’d been burglarizing! If only Sarah hadn’t interrupted. If only she hadn’t spooked him. She could have watched, could have studied the burglar’s habits. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
Sarah ran through the kitchen. She pulled one of Gene’s coats from the rack, stepped into a pair of tennis shoes she’d left by the door, and walked into her backyard. At the end of her street she saw a dark figure turning the corner, walking fast. She shrugged the coat over her shoulders and followed.
Sarah walked quietly, keeping close to the tree line at the side of the road. Ahead of her the burglar was transforming. He pulled off the ski mask, his white hair suddenly bright in the moonlight. Under his black sweatshirt he wore a faded blue work shirt. He tucked the gun into the back of his pants and covered it with his shirt. The burglar rolled the sweatshirt and ski mask into a ball and threw them into a ditch at the side of the road. He didn’t look like a burglar at all; he could have been anyone.
The man led Sarah out of her neighborhood and through the center of town. It was late but there were people out downtown walking between a few open bars. Sarah let the burglar stray ahead of her, following from a block behind, mixing with the light foot traffic. Soon the burglar left downtown and headed for a low-rent housing project behind a shopping center. Sarah watched him slip inside. She waited outside, lingering in the shadows near the side of the building, until she saw a light in a second floor-window snap on.
By jumping as high as she could, arms fully extended, Sarah was just able to reach the bottom of the burglar’s porch. She hung for a moment, hauled herself up carefully, and clambered onto a small second-story balcony.
The burglar sat in a recliner, watching television. In one hand he held a glass half-filled with dark liquid which he occasionally raised to his lips. In the other hand he held a remote control. Sarah watched for a few minutes as the man alternated between each: lifting the glass to his lips, letting the glass fall, lifting the remote to point at the TV, dropping the remote, lifting the glass again.
He’s too old, Sarah thought. Burglary is a young man’s game. A burglar has to be fit to sneak, to carry loot, to climb fences, to run from the police. Her burglar sat in a Lay-Z-Boy recliner, resting the remote control on his beer-belly. His face was deeply lined, his nose large and red, an alcoholic’s. The gun he’d used lay on the floor next to the chair, discarded like a child’s forgotten toy.
The man emptied his glass. His head nodded, drooped, and finally fell until his chin rested on his chest. As Sarah watched, his breathing assumed the familiar pattern of sleep. Here was her burglar: an old drunk falling asleep in front of the television.
Sarah tested the sliding door and found it unlocked. Creeping inside, she couldn’t help thinking that a burglar should know better than to leave his own home unlocked.
A late-night television show boomed in the living room. Stacks of unwashed dishes lined the kitchen counter and filled the sink. The smell of old trash in the corner suggested it had been there for more than a week.
Once she decided to steal from the burglar her theft was obvious.
The gun’s weight startled Sarah: from the way they guns tossed around in the movies and on TV she’d expected it to be lighter. She had to hold the gun with both hands. Sarah liked the heft of it, though. Heavy, metal, solid, it felt like a tool – a hammer, a power drill. Rust curled around the barrel. Sarah considered the sleeping burglar. She raised the revolver, aimed at the burglar’s head, and thumbed back the hammer.
Sarah expected to feel something – power, excitement, fear. A rising emotion she would release with a gunshot or by granting mercy. She felt only pity. The burglar’s ragged snores rose, momentarily drowning out the forgotten television. A commercial advertised life insurance. An 800 number flashed neon across the screen.
Sarah’s hands grew heavy. She let the gun fall. She thumbed the hammer back into place, stuck the gun into her coat pocket, and crossed the room without bothering to soften her steps. Her burglar never stirred. She left the unlocked sliding door open behind her and hoisted herself back to the ground.
Sarah walked home, passing empty businesses and full houses. It was late. She was the only person awake in the town, the state, the entire world. Who else sees their home so silent and empty? Criminals, insomniacs, police: the denizens of midnight. As she walked the darken streets of her neighborhood, Sarah felt like a watchman looking after the moonlit world. Inside the houses she passed, families and burglars slept soundly on.
Since receiving his MFA from the Stonecoast MFA Program in 2009, Michael Beeman has placed writing in The South Carolina Review, Necessary Fiction, Esquire.com, Thought Catalog, Publishers Weekly, The Sewanee Review (which awarded him the Andrew Nelson Lytle Fiction Prize for 2013), and elsewhere. He edits fiction for Big Lucks magazine and reads submissions for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series. Originally from New England, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he is an enthusiastic volunteer at Dave Eggers’s non-profit tutoring center 826DC. He also tweets about books: @MichaelBeeman.