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To Light and Guard

by Kerry Gans

Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God’s love commits me here.
Ever this day be at my side,
to light and guard, to rule and guide.

As I did every night before I went to bed, I crept into my two-and-a-half year old’s room, aided by the reflected light from the bathroom, and watched her sleep. Becky’s blond hair flowed across the small pillow, her head turned to her right. Her hand rested near her face, the thumb having slipped out of her mouth when she fell asleep.

I listened to Becky breathe. Soft in, slightly louder out. Steady. Rhythmic. Soothing.

I checked her room one last time to make sure nothing was out of place. She got frightened if she awoke in the night and saw something where nothing should be. Dresser/changing table, all the drawers shut tight; closet doors closed against monsters; stuffed animals watching her crib like sentinels; the garish red and blue plastic chair that, when sat upon, played annoying music while flashing multicolored lights; and at the head of her crib, Becky’s Pillow Pets nestled at the bottom of the narrow shelves her grandfather had made.

The shelves themselves held books, more stuffed animals, a snow globe, and a piece of heavy, sharp-edged slate that a relative had pasted Becky’s father’s baby picture and vital statistics onto years ago. Becky looked so like her father in that baby photo.

Becky lay sprawled under her moon quilt. Her favorite dolls, Sammi, Scout, and Teddy, snuggled on one side of the pillow. On the other side, inches from her face, stood a Kinderglo angel nightlight, dark now; the timer turned her off after half an hour. When off, the plastic angel looked like frosted glass. When on, the angel glowed softly, the light changing colors through the spectrum.

Becky’s godmother had gotten the angel for Becky when the toddler became afraid of the dark. My friend had died in a car accident, and now I always thought that Ann watched over my little one through the eyes of the angel. My daughter loved her angel, and knowing she could turn on the light whenever she wanted seemed to have allayed the worst of her fears.

“I love you, baby bug,” I whispered, as I did every night. Then I slipped out the door and eased it closed behind me.

I flicked on the light in the upstairs hallway. The other two guest bedroom doors stood shut, as they often did lately. Becky liked to close all the upstairs doors and scream so she could hear the echo. I left them shut and went into the bathroom.

I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed. I wanted a shower, but I couldn’t take one now because I couldn’t hear while in the shower. I needed to be able to hear.

I hesitated in front of my bedroom door at the top of the stairs before trudging downstairs one last time to check the doors. I flipped on the lights in every room I entered. The front and back doors were locked. I peeked under the blinds to make sure all the windows were fastened. I lifted the blinds as little as I could, afraid that I might look out a window and see someone peering in.

I entered the family room and turned on the light.

A figure stood outside the sliding glass door.

I stifled my scream when I recognized my own reflection.

I tried to be stern. We lived in a quiet neighborhood. The realtor had said so. The departing owner had said so. All the neighbors had said so. Nothing bad happened around here.

Isn’t that what they always say in movies right before the killer appears?

I wish this house had an alarm system.

My husband didn’t think we needed an alarm. We’d moved here because it was safe. Our old house had been broken into, thankfully when we weren’t home. But he didn’t see the need to have the added expense of an alarm system in our new house.

Still a little dizzy from the fear rush, I shut off the downstairs lights and climbed back up the stairs to my bedroom. I hadn’t told my husband about the news stories; he’d think I was seeing false patterns because of my fears. Three break-ins in two months. Not in our neighborhood, as my husband would have pointed out. But each one a few miles closer. The last only four and three-quarters miles away.

I left the hallway light on. I shut the door and locked it behind me. If my husband had been home, I wouldn’t have left the hall light on or locked the door, but he was a thousand miles away, and I couldn’t stand the heavy darkness outside my door when I slept alone in the house at night.

In the first of the recent break-ins, no one had been home. In the second, a woman had been attacked. In the third, a woman and her child had been injured. No deaths yet, but the pattern of escalation was clear.

I slipped into bed and lay awake for a long time. Every noise jerked me back from the edge of sleep. Finally, Becky’s quiet breathing on the baby monitor lulled me to dreamland.

* * *

I woke with a start, but didn’t know why. My heart pounded, but I forced myself to lie still, listening to find out what had startled me. I slitted my eyes open. The bedroom door was closed, the hall light seeping in around the edges. It was dark out.

I reached for the baby monitor next to the clock on the nightstand. 4:00 a.m. I held the monitor to my ear, and Becky’s quiet breathing calmed me. I put the monitor back on the nightstand.

And then I heard the scrape of a kitchen chair on the tile floor downstairs. As if someone had bumped it in the dark.

Someone in the house.

I slid out of bed. The plush carpet masked my footsteps as I grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle and crept to the bedroom door. My husband would have called if he’d been flying home early. A stranger was prowling around my house. I held my breath, listening for another sound so I could figure out the intruder’s location. My hammering heart made it almost impossible to hear.

Three years ago, I would have shoved my dresser in front of the bedroom door. Three years ago, I would have locked myself into the bathroom and called 911. Three years ago, I might have tried to escape using the fire ladder in the closet.

Three years ago I did not have a baby in a room down the hall.

The only thing stronger than the fear of opening my door was the horror of leaving my daughter alone. If the intruder intended to hurt me, hurt her, then no matter what happened, I wanted her to know she was not alone, that I had not abandoned her.

I would rather die protecting her than live the rest of my life knowing I’d hid in the bathroom and left her to face a monster alone.

I checked under the door. No foot shadows from the lighted hallway blackened the carpet.

I forced my hand to grasp the doorknob. It refused to turn. Was he on the other side, holding the knob? I sucked in a breath before remembering I had locked it. My shaking hand fumbled the lock open, but I couldn’t make myself turn the knob.

Was he outside on the steps? Waiting at the bottom of the stairs to see if he had awakened anyone with his noise?

I heard nothing more downstairs. I hadn’t heard steps on the stairs, so he had to still be downstairs. Right? Even if he was at the bottom of the stairs, I could get to Becky’s room before he could get to me.

The doorknob, new and mercifully silent, turned easily. I opened the door quickly and dashed across the top of the stairs, past the bathroom, and to Becky’s door.

I had not seen anyone on the stairs.

I had not made a sound as I ran on the thick carpet.

I opened Becky’s door with the silence of long practice, slid inside, shut and locked it. I took a deep breath, as my eyes adjusted to the dark. My thighs trembling and my stomach churning, I hit the button on the phone and gratefully heard the dial tone. I dialed 911. The operator came on and I whispered our address.

“What is your emergency? Can you speak up, ma’am?”

I whispered. “There’s someone in the house.”

Then the phone went dead. The kitchen phone clattered across the tile floor. He’d pulled it out of the wall and hadn’t tried to cover up the noise. He had seen the “In Use” button lit. He knew I was awake.

I tossed the phone aside. I pushed the dresser, and the lamp on it rocked crazily. Normally I couldn’t have budged it, but I shoved it toward the door... until it stuck.

Damn the safety straps screwed to the wall! No quick release.

The fire ladder in the closet.

I yanked up the heavy blinds as if they were tissue paper. My fingertips burned as I hauled up the heavy inner storm window.

Becky stirred and sat up. “Mommy? What Mommy doing?”

“Shh,” I whispered. “Just be quiet, baby.”

The distinctive creak of the third step echoed up the stairwell.

I hauled open the window, and jerked the screen out.

The seventh step cracked like a gunshot.

I threw open the closet door.

The top step groaned.

The ladder hooked over the windowsill, and I let the rungs fall out the window and to the ground. They clattered against the outside wall.

I grabbed Becky from the crib, and she wrapped her legs and arms around me, vise-like.

The door to the guest bedroom smashed into the wall.

I couldn’t get out the window with Becky wrapped around me. I would have to put her down, climb out, then pull her out after me.

The locked doorknob jiggled. The soft sound cracked like thunder.

I crowbarred Becky off me and dropped her back in the crib. She whimpered, clutched her angel nightlight, and turned her on. A soft purple glow lit up the room.

My voice shook. “There’s just me and the baby in here. Take anything you want from the other rooms; there’s nothing for you in here.”

He laughed, a low, nearly inaudible rumble like a bear’s growl.

The hallway rug didn’t mask his heavy step as he backed up.

I snatched the lamp from the dresser. The cord ripped from the wall as the door burst in. Becky screamed.

As the man hurtled through the doorway, I clocked him with the base of the lamp.

The lamp shattered, but the big man merely winced before coming for me. Blood ran from the cut on his shaved scalp.

Pain exploded from my jaw in Technicolor. I didn’t know I’d become airborne until I slammed into the wall and fell on top of Pooh and his friends. For a second I lay still, but Becky’s voice rallied me.

“I need help! I need help!”

I struggled to my knees as he reached into the crib. I hurled the musical chair at him. It glanced across his back and tumbled to the floor, belting out “Skip to My Lou” and flashing a demonic disco light on the scene.

The man left Becky in the crib and lunged at me. I scratched at his face, kicked at his nuts, gouged at his eyes — anything, everything to keep him from my little girl. One solid punch in my gut doubled me over. He shoved me away.

My feet tangled in the Pillow Pets and I crashed into the shelves. They tilted before the safety straps caught them. Books and toys rained down on me. Something hard and heavy hit me in the head.

My ears rang, my vision clouded to gray, and I couldn’t move any of my limbs. My belly throbbed. Warm wetness matted my hair and trickled onto my nightshirt. I tumbled headlong toward blackness.

Until Becky shrieked.

The unearthly screech focused my brain. I forced my eyes open. The man had Becky in his hands. Her angel’s green glow threw his features into a gargoyle grimace. My arms were lead, my legs balked, but I moved.

My hand brushed the sharp, unyielding edge of the slate birth plaque. I curled my fingers around it.

He had Becky. How could I hit him without hurting her?

Becky writhed like a dervish in his hands. Arms and legs flailing, impossibly loud cries of “Stop! Stop! Stop!” He could barely hold onto her.

Becky smashed her fiery red angel into his nose with the inhuman strength only a hysterical toddler can have. He dropped her into the crib and clutched his gushing nose.

I climbed Becky’s screams like a ladder, my back against the shelves for support, both hands clutching the slate to my side. He saw me stand and reached for me. I whipped the slate up and into his throat. He dropped like an unstrung puppet. The slate, still lodged in his throat, jerked from my hands as he fell.

Ignoring the man’s gurgling sounds, I scooped up a sobbing Becky and the angel still clutched to her chest. As I stepped over him, I slipped on a pool of something wet that I didn’t want to think about.

I staggered as my head whirled. Afraid I might pass out or fall down the stairs, I reeled into my bedroom and slammed and locked the door behind me.

I pried Becky loose and tossed her on the bed. She scrambled toward the edge of the bed and screamed, “Mommy! Mommy!”

“It’s all right, Becky, it’s all right.” I could barely speak as I dragged the dresser in front of the door. My stomach throbbed from the punch. Deep breaths hurt. Pain stabbed through my head from the cut on my scalp.

I gathered Becky up again and collapsed in the corner by the window. I fought to stay conscious. My trembling body rocked her. Through chattering teeth, I whispered, “I’ve got you, Becky. Mommy’s got you. I’ve got you.”

Becky burrowed her face into my shoulder. Her thumb found her mouth and she stopped crying. I clutched her to me.

The soothing glow of the angel lit us as sirens wailed in the distance.

Copyright © 2013 by Kerry Gans

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