This one is more or less the transcript of a nightmare some time ago. I scribbled down the details, but it took me a long time to work up the nerve to turn it loose. It still gives me the skeevies even now because it seems so…plausible.
Are You Ready?
The kids are in the den watching television, milling over homework, and waiting not-so-patiently for dinner. Their ragged chorus of vague references to starvation reaches me on the second floor.
I’m home from work late, again. Once more, my wife had to fly solo on homework help and dinner prep. I hurry out of my work clothes. Without even seeing them, I know that four lunches are stacked in the fridge, ready to be swiped and stowed in backpacks on the way out the door tomorrow. There are four washed, dried and folded school uniforms in the bedrooms down the hall for our brood to climb into during their sleep-crusted, weekday morning routine. Everyone is showered, the dinner smells delicious, and I can hear my love singing commercial jingles, despite how tired she must surely be.
Walking back down the stairs, I hear a knock at the front door. “I’ll get it,” I say to everyone and no one in particular.
I open it. On the other side of the storm door, standing on my front porch, is a duplicate of me. The doppelganger wears the same faded, off-brand jeans, the same blue sweatshirt and the same black beanie. His left cheek sports the same love tap cat scratch, nearly healed now, that I have on mine; the one that Mr. Chuck game me while wrestling in the den several nights ago.
For a moment, I think I’m seeing a just-out-of-sync reflection in the glass of the storm door, distorted by a trick of the light on my tired eyes. I raise my hand. The reflection does not comply. Adrenalized instinct constricts my chest.
He smiles slightly. Like a late-night Harryhausen skeleton, his eyes are deep, dead and hollow. But otherwise, he is me. I manage to find the door latch and crack the storm door.
“Are you ready?” Like playback on a recording, he sounds just like me.
I open my mouth but can’t find my voice, although I know where it is. He has it. My belly knots and I exhale, but my words won’t cooperate. He nods once and turns, stepping down off the porch.
“Ready for what?” I manage to vomit the words.
He turns and looks back with his hinting smile.
“For what is about to begin.” He turns and walks away.
I open the door wide and step onto the porch. With a soft hiss, it closes behind me. Bare feet rustle across the lawn as his silhouette fades into the black beyond the weak halo of the porch lights.
“It begins soon.” His voice carries over the hush of evening.
My lower jaw trembles and the gooseflesh wraps around me, despite my sweatshirt.
The warmth of cheery windows dot the landscape of our sleepy neighborhood as the night’s light traffic rumbles in the distance. I turn back and open the door with trembling fingers.
“Hey sweetie. What’re you doing?” My wife stands at the other end of the foyer.
“Nothing. Just a kid selling popcorn for school.” I close the door behind me.
“Wow – I didn’t even hear the doorbell.” She grins. “Can you make the salad? Spaghetti’s almost done.”
I nod and manage a plausible “mhmm.”
I lock the deadbolt and lean against the door for a deep breath before following her into the shining heart of the kitchen.
Later that night, we lie in bed. But even with the peaceful rhythm of her breathing next to me, I cannot relax. She sleeps (and why shouldn’t she, after all?) while I stare up at the plaster whorls of the ceiling. I turn and check the clock. 2:48 AM.
Nearly seven hours since my front-porch encounter. Have I imagined it? Am I mental? I’m afraid of the answer. So afraid, in fact, that I can’t even tell her. For more than twenty years this woman has been my foundation of common sense. If I can’t tell her what happened, then no one will know.
I hold up a hand. My fingers still tingle and twitch with restless energy.
I can’t explain what I saw, but the fear is as real as the lingering taste of garlic from the night’s meal. It’s as real as the smell of the summer peach lotion that sits on her nightstand. It was real. It’s still real.
Are you ready?
A blast echoes in the distance. The darkness blazes to orange between the closed blinds and dissipates back to calm. I stare at the windows, uncertain.
A rapid string of pops cuts over the fading rumble of the explosion. Gunfire?
It begins soon.
A woman’s scream rings out, nearby. My wife stirs. My thoughts turn to our children, sleeping soundly in their beds down the hall. Glass shatters downstairs and I realize two things:
It has begun.
I am not ready.