The Judge

Posted on: January 7, 2014

Gene wakes up to the sound of a baby crying. He turns his head to face the digital clock on his nightstand, lime green letters glowing 3:30 AM. The room seems blue as bits of moonlight slide through the blinds. Gene is disoriented, pondering the origin of that persistent wailing. A neighbor perhaps? But something inside him suggests that the sound is much closer, making his feet itch. It’s been so long since the last time he heard a baby cry. His children and grandchildren are grown now, and he lives alone - a widower.

Pulling the quilt from his body, he slides his legs from the bed and plants his feet on the floor. As he stands and makes his first step, he feels something sticking to the bottom of his feet. He turns on the lamp next to his bed and squints his eyes to investigate. Perplexion knits his brows; thousands of toothpicks litter the hardwood floor of his bedroom. Gene’s heart picks up pace as the wailing reaches a terrible volume. What the hell is going on? Someone must be in the house…

He opens the door and steps out into the hallway, thinking only of his Remington sitting in the gun cabinet in the den. The nightlight cuts on as he moves forward, but strange shadows play on the walls on either side of him. There are sheets of paper taped haphazardly over the wood panels, covered with child’s script. Gene steps toward the most illuminated one and reads a sentence written in black crayon: The monster comes out at night and gets into my bed. His mouth is dry as sweat builds in his armpits, soaking through his shirt. Seventy-five years old and only now does he know terror.

Panic propels him into the kitchen, but before he can grab a knife, the corners of rectangular silhouettes scratch at his eyes and face. He flips the light switch and discovers photographs, hundreds of photographs, surrounding him. Each one bears the image of one person, his estranged granddaughter Miranda whom he has not seen for twenty-two years. One picture shows her dressed up as an Indian princess for Halloween. In another, she stands on a diving board in her purple swimsuit, smiling for the camera. She is no older than six years old in the photographs, her age when Gene last saw her.

The wailing baby fuels his horror as he rips through the suspended images and all but falls into the den through the swinging door. He stumbles toward the gun cabinet and reaches for the lock, but it isn’t there. It’s already open. The shotgun is gone. And then, the lamp beside his brown microsuede recliner cuts on. He turns, clutching his chest as if his heart might burst and beholds a person dressed in black from head to toe. Only the mouth and eyes are seen, the gender questionable. With the press of a button on a remote control, the stranger stops the recording of the crying infant playing from the stereo. Gene’s Remington sits across the figure’s lap.

He falls to his knees, tears welling up in his eyes, nausea overtaking his insides. The stranger watches, listening to Gene blubber words like “please” and “don’t”. Snot dangles from the old man’s nostrils and spits drips from the corners of his lips. On hands and knees now, he crawls toward the intruder in supplication. He is begging for his life, pressing his forehead against the floor as if hoping he’ll fall through. The stranger takes the shotgun in both hands and pumps the slide, aiming at murder.

“Get up,” says a woman’s voice.

Gene weeps and hiccups uncontrollably, shaking his head.

“Get up.”

With weakness of spirit and knee, he stands up and covers his face with his hands.

“Now,” she continues. “Tell me what you did to me.”

His jaw shakes and teeth chatter.

Her voice calm and controlled, the stranger repeats, “Tell me what you did to me.”

Gene drops his hands and looks into Miranda’s eyes. He remembers taking her fishing on the lake when she was five years old, getting up before dawn to gather their supplies. She slept in the crook of his arm as they drove out in his pickup truck, country music playing and the volume low. He remembers slipping into her room in the dead of night, studying her face by the streetlight coming in through lacey white curtains. She was beautiful and she loved him. He hungered for her love more than any other because she worshipped him. Miranda wanted nothing more than to please her grandfather.

Now, she sits before him and listens to his last confession with silent severity. She knows that he has never told anyone these things, that this horrible occasion is also the release of a heavy burden. She recalls the day her father received orders to be stationed overseas, wondering if her grandfather would be angry, if he would kidnap her one night as she slept. But as months turned into years of living in one country and then another, the stomach aches stopped and the nightmares waned. In time, she grew new innocence.

Gene, silent now, stares at the floor. Miranda stands up and hands him the shotgun as she walks past, out of the den and out the front door. She slips through the open gate of the chain link fence and reconvenes with her motorcycle, pulling on her helmet and kickstarting the engine. The early morning hours and long highway shield her from the sound of an empty shotgun breaking her grandfather’s heart and the sight of his fruitless search for the shotgun shells in the small pack on her back. The miles that multiply between them hide an old man’s tears spilling on the photographs he holds in his hands as he lies in a heap on the kitchen floor. Miranda rides, cocooned by wind and an aching dawn.

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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