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HOME INVASION by Sean Ealy

He was late. Always late.

Seth looked at his watch and sighed. He pulled into the driveway and killed the engine, then sat there considering his excuse. The problem was he didn’t have one. He was late because he wanted to be late.

He slowly opened the car door, watching the house. The lights were on inside, burning through the kitchen window. Would Lacey be stewing over another missed meal? Oliver would be in bed by now. No good night kisses.

Another evening without Seth.

Okay, Seth good buddy. Just keep your mouth shut this time. No arguments, no excuses. Lying isn’t going to get you out of anything.

He reached for the door handle but paused. He could just turn around. Maybe there was another meeting, another all-nighter at the office. She wouldn’t buy it, but what did it matter? At least he wouldn’t have to face her tonight.

No. It was a pointless lie. Besides, she had probably heard his car pull up to the house. And he had to think about Oliver. It wasn’t the boy’s fault that his mommy and daddy couldn’t find a way to get along.

The January wind picked up, pushing dead leaves across the lonely street. The sound was like bones turning in a grave. A chill went up Seth’s back. He longed for the warmth of a happy home, but knew it would be just as cold inside as it was on the front porch.

He turned the knob and went inside.

The living room was empty. The house was quiet. He softly closed the door behind him, scanning the living room, the hallway, the kitchen. Lacey wasn’t in sight. He went into the kitchen. Nothing on the stove. The table was clear.

The ceiling above him creaked. She was upstairs. He set his computer bag on the table and turned as she came down. She saw him and frowned.

“Your son has been waiting for you to come home,” she said, her voice cold, flat. She looked exhausted.

“Okay.”

“I guessed you already ate, so I didn’t bother saving dinner.”

“That’s alright.” He stood there, stupid, his heart heavy, his pulse thick in his neck. His mouth wanted to lie, wanted to find excuses to fill up the empty space between them. But he forced his lips shut.

Passively, her eyes met his. He used to see a spark in those eyes, but now there was only darkness. Whatever ember had been there in the beginning was long extinguished.

She turned away from him. “Oliver dumped his spaghetti all over his head. And then while I was getting a towel wet, he poured out his juice. Another extraordinary evening! I’ve been wrestling with him to get to sleep for the last hour, but of course he refuses to lie down until Daddy comes home.”

Seth winced at the sting in her voice. “I’m sorry. I’ll say goodnight.”

Turning and leaving the kitchen felt like escaping a car wreck. He started up the stairs, where he heard the faint and muffled noises of Matchbox cars banging together. This made him smile.

He poked his head inside the open door, and for a moment just watched as his son played in bed. When Oliver saw his daddy standing there his face lit up.

“Daddy!”

“Hey, buddy,” Seth said, coming into the room and sitting down on the edge of his son’s bed. “What’cha doing there?”

“Playing,” Oliver said. He held a car in each chubby fist. “The fire truck has to go to the fire.”

“Oh yeah? Where’s the fire?”

“Up the big, big, big mountain. Where the spooky house is.”

“And what is the yellow car doing?”

“Uh, he’s just watching. He can’t go up the mountain because he’s broken.”

“Broken?”

“Yeah, the monster gave him a flat tire.”

“Where’s the monster?”

“He’s gone. Daddy scared him away.”

Seth loved his son’s imagination. He wrapped his arm around his son.

“That’s right,” he said. “Daddy scares all the monsters away.”

“Daddy?”

“What?”

“Why were you late coming home again?”

Seth’s heart dropped. “Well buddy, I had to work late.” Lies.

Oliver thought about this for a moment, eyes on the cars in his hands. Then he said, “I got in trouble. Mommy was so mad. I spilled noodles all over the place, but I’m sorry.”

“I know you are. It’s okay.”

“But Mommy was really mad. She said I was being terrible.”

“You’re not terrible,” Seth said, stroking his son’s hair. “I love you, and Mommy loves you. Sometimes things just get hard and people just get mad.”

Oliver scrunched up his face for a moment, thinking, and then his eyes were bright again.

“Mommy said it might snow tomorrow and that we could go outside and make a snowman! Would you like to make a snowman with me?”

“Maybe,” Seth said. “Good night, Ollie.”

“Good night.”

Seth closed his son’s door.

* * *

Going to bed without his wife had become a habit for Seth. They still slept in the same bed, but Lacey would usually come in long after he was already asleep.

So when the door opened in the middle of the night, he thought nothing of it. When the door didn’t close, he rolled over, squinting his eyes against the light spilling in from the hallway. A hulking figure blocked the doorway. Seth rubbed his eyes, and when he looked again he saw that the figure was holding something in its arms.

“Oliver,” Seth said, bolting upward, throwing the covers off his body.

“Don’t move,” the figure said. It stepped forward, a monster of a man. A freak. He wore a black stocking cap pulled down low over his ears, and a heavy jacket, its collar flipped up over his thick neck. He held Ollie tight to his chest, one large arm wrapped around the little boy’s body. His other hand was smashed over the boy’s mouth, muzzling him. The boy didn’t move, but hung so lifeless that Seth thought he was dead.

“Ollie.”

“Stand up slowly.” The freak took another step, and Ollie moved, just a little bit. Just a twitch in his leg. He was alive, but traumatized. “I’m going to put the boy down for just one minute. Long enough to tie up your hands. If you make any move, any move at all, I’ll kill him. Is that clear?”

Seth saw that the freak also held a knife in the hand that was wrapped around his son. Its blade was as dark as the terror growing inside Seth’s gut.

“Please don’t hurt my boy.”

“Do what I say, and everything will be fine.”

Seth slowly rose out of bed. “Please, take what you want. Take anything. Just don’t hurt my boy.”

The freak chuckled, a dry, raspy sound. Rusted hinges on forgotten doors. “I’ll take what I want. Whether anyone gets hurt depends on you. Show me your hands.”

Seth lifted both of his palms.

“Slowly.”

The freak bent over, a massive figure, Frankenstein’s monster in an army jacket. He set the boy down and showed him the knife.

“Now be a good boy,” he said. “Or I’ll stick this in your daddy’s eye.”

Ollie nodded. Seth could see his little boy’s legs shaking. The hallway light illuminated the terror on the boy’s face. He stood motionless, naked except for his Spiderman underwear, hands hanging limp to his sides.

“That’s a good boy,” the man said. In a flash he was on Seth, quicker than a big man should be. He hit Seth in the jaw, his fist like a piston, and it felt like the whole side of his face shattered under the force of the blow. He bound his hands with duct tape, bending him over the edge of the bed. Seth didn’t struggle, didn’t yell. He turned to look at his son. There was a puddle on the hardwood floor beneath the boy. Ollie had wet himself.

The room spun like a dizzying carnival ride as Seth was hurled off his feet and toward the wall, where he crumbled to the floor. He cried out, his voice hoarse and splintered. Tears formed in his eyes as the freak bound his ankles.

The closet door opened, and then the freak picked Seth up, threw him inside, where he landed on shoes and boots and sandals.

“Please,” Seth said. “Please don’t hurt my family.”

The freak closed the closet door, sealing Seth in darkness.

* * *

When the monster came in, it used the front door.

Lacey had been dozing on the couch, a half-empty glass of merlot left on the coffee table.

Before falling asleep, she had been wrestling with her thoughts. Her thoughts were dark tonight, and dangerously deep. The wine did that to her sometimes, but tonight it was all Seth’s fault.

She had heard him tonight, up in Ollie’s room. Out of curiosity, she had flicked on the baby monitor, tuning in like a fly on the wall. He was so good with Ollie, always had been, and it just pissed her off that he was so bad at everything else.

She was thinking about leaving him. This had been lingering in her mind for some time, like a shadow, but tonight was the first time she allowed herself to really consider it as an option. The bickering was bad enough, but the silence between them was unbearable. She had never felt so alone than when they were in the same room. Everything was broken.

Now, as she stared into the face of a stranger, all she could think about was how much she needed Seth. She needed him to come through for her, for Ollie, tonight like never before. This created a conflicting storm of emotion inside of her because she was afraid he would let her down again.

The monster had her tied to one of the wooden, high-back kitchen chairs. Her hands and feet were bound with duct tape. A dirty rag that smelled like motor oil was crammed inside her mouth, gagging her, making her want to vomit.

He regarded her from across the kitchen, leaning against the counter, as still as an oak tree. Deadpan eyes, thick jaw, massive shoulders. His hands were like steel traps, his nails bitten down to the quick, his fingers dirty as if he had been digging in the mud. He had a boxer’s face, a smashed and crooked nose, a Neanderthal brow jutting out from underneath the black stocking cap he wore.

She didn’t know what he had done with Ollie. This was the most maddening thing. She was sorry for getting angry with him this afternoon, would never get angry with him again if she could just see his face one more time. His beautiful, handsome face.

The monster reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one, took a drag, exhaled blue smoke.

“I’m gonna have fun with you,” he said, smiling. “But not yet.”

He finished his cigarette and dropped it in the sink, and then he was gone.

* * *

The waiting was the worst.

How long had it been? A half hour? An hour? Seth had lost all sense of time. His head hurt from smashing it on the wall. His wrists and shoulders groaned. He writhed and pulled against the duct tape binding his hands, but it was no use.

Was the freak working alone? He listened for other voices but only heard the dull swoosh of the ceiling fan in the bedroom. It was maddening not knowing what was happening outside of this closet.

An image came to him of Ollie standing in the bedroom, eyes wide with fear, urine soaking the floor beneath him. Tears stung at the corners of Seth’s eyes. He choked back the scream rising in his throat.

From somewhere down the hallway came the sound of heavy footsteps. Seth heard the bedroom door crash open against the wall, and he sucked in stale air when he heard the footsteps stop directly in front of the closet. But then only silence.

Was the freak toying with him? Was this a game?

When the closet door yanked open, Seth was again reminded of how big the freak was. His body choked the open door frame. In one hand he held something about the size of a softball, round, colorless in the shadows.

The freak grabbed a handful of Seth’s hair and shoved him backwards into the wall. He squatted down and set the thing in his hand on the floor, just inside the closet door. Seth recognized it was the baby monitor they kept in Oliver’s room. The freak flicked the switch, then turned the wheel on the side, raising the volume all the way.

“You have a nice wife,” the freak said. “Real pretty.”

“What do you want from us?” Seth yelled.

“I brought this so you could listen to her scream.” He pulled out the knife and waved it slowly back and forth, twisting the blade in the air. “Don’t be a hero.”

The freak’s face was an ugly mask in the darkness. He slammed the door, and Seth could hear him laughing as he left the bedroom.

Don’t be a hero.

After a few minutes, the baby monitor crackled. The receiver on the other end switched on, and now Seth could hear all kinds of noises. He stiffened.

“Hope you can hear us alright up there.” The thick, syrupy voice of the intruder at Seth’s feet.

More static as the control monitor moved, then a bang as it was set down. Seth heard his wife sobbing.

Seth said her name, but the speaker only worked one way.

“Say hello to your husband.”

“Please,” Lacey said, hysterical. “Please don’t…”

Seth heard the freak grunt, and then the sound of an open hand slapping flesh. Lacey screamed.

“Oh, you bastard!” Seth yelled at the speaker.

“I will have to teach your woman how to play this game,” the freak said, his voice so close to the speaker now that it seemed to fill up the darkness inside the closet.

The receiver clicked off. Seth kicked his bound feet and howled.

“Don’t you dare touch her, you fuck!”

He kicked at the baby monitor with his bound feet.

Lacey

After all the arguments, the bickering and the name-calling, he still loved her. She was still the same high school sweetheart he had married nine years ago. It had been a rough two years, but it wasn’t all her fault. Ollie was a good kid, but he was a challenge, and he knew how to push Lacey’s buttons. She was home with him all day while Seth was at work, and by the time Seth came home there was little energy left for him. He promised her that he understood, and at first had tried to make the most of it, but eventually they began to grow apart. They stopped talking to each other, stopped touching each other, and Seth had started to make excuses for not being home. It was just easier that way.

Now Seth realized he was a fool.

He leaned over and brought his legs underneath his body so that he could rise up on his knees. Hanging clothes scratched at his face, metal hangers sliding across the wooden rack above. The fruity scent of fabric softener filled his nose. He worked his way toward the door, moving across Lacey’s shoes and other clutter that littered the closet floor.

He put his back to the door and felt along with his fingers until he came upon the doorknob. Planting his butt against the door, he turned the knob, but couldn’t get it to go far enough. He let go, readjusted his wrists to the point of pain, and then tried it again. The door clicked open. There had never been such a sweeter sound.

* * *

He took the gag out of her mouth and told her to be a good girl. If she screamed he would make her eat the rag, would stuff it right down her throat until she choked on it.

Lacey didn’t scream. Couldn’t if she wanted to.

He retrieved the knife from the counter and then backhanded her hard across the face. Tears fell from her eyes and down the contour of her burning cheeks. Darkness gathered around the edges of her vision as her head swooned, and she sat there waiting to see if she would black out.

He cut her leg, slicing the blade through her gray sweats and into the flesh above her knee, and she cried out. He wrapped a big hand in her hair and jerked her head back, exposing her neck. Letting the blade rest there at the tender spot just below her jaw line seemed to please him.

“Please,” she pleaded.

“You beg like a dog. I like that.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Nobody wants to die.”

“Where is my son? Please don’t hurt my son.”

“Little boy went away. Like a birdy.”

“Who are you?” she whispered, closing her eyes. The blade bit into her skin, drawing the faintest line of blood.

“I’m death.”

He lowered the knife until it was just above the rise of her breasts.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“Ah, but it’ll be fun. You’ll like it. And then you’ll die.”

He reached for the baby monitor and flicked it back on.

“Say hello to your husband,” he said.

Then he came for her.

* * *

Seth inched his way across the bedroom floor like a worm. He was running out of time, and it frustrated him that he couldn’t move quicker. He made for the bed, and sat up, breathing hard, looking around the room.

Now what genius?

There was a glass on the nightstand. He had brought it upstairs with him when he went to bed, and it was still half full of water. A thought occurred to him them. If he could break the glass, then maybe he could use one of the pieces to cut the tape away from his hands. But how to get to the glass?

Seth rocked to the side, and then rammed his shoulder as hard as he could into the nightstand. Tendrils of pain, hot and sharp, flared at his shoulder and neck, but the glass remained. He hit it again, dropping his shoulder lower this time. Then he reared back and did it again. The glass tipped forward, spilling water down the front of the nightstand and down Seth’s head. It rolled, then fell, shattering on the hardwood floor.

Seth held his breath. He was making too much noise.

The baby monitor squawked, pulling Seth’s attention back to the closet.

“Say hello to your husband.”

He heard Lacey scream, and the world stood still. There was a meaty thud, something hard hitting soft flesh, and Lacey’s scream was cut short. Chaos. Shoes on linoleum. A chair sliding across the floor. Strangled, muffled sounds and heavy breathing, and then a long period of utter silence. This frightened Seth more than anything.

What did you do? What did you do to her, you prick?

“Please don’t,” his wife finally said, and she sounded so fragile, so little. “Oh, no, no, no, please don’t.”

Something released inside Seth then. His fear no longer mattered. There was only objective and necessity. Cut the tape. Save your family.

The glass had shattered into a thousand pieces too small to do him any good. He moved away from the nightstand, scouring the floor for anything that he could use, cursing the darkness. Then his eyes fell across a jagged, curved piece of glass in the shape of a half moon, just underneath the bed frame. But was it within the reach of his fingers?

He slid on his butt, across glass, until his hands were about where he thought the broken shard was. He felt along the bed frame, found the bottom edge, then had to almost lie down on his side in order to touch the floor. But he couldn’t feel what he was looking for. He felt along the floor blindly, and when he felt something grace the tip of his middle finger, he was sure that he had nudged the piece of glass further under the bed. He took a breath, steadied his hand, reached again. This time his finger wrapped over the jagged shard.

“Stop moving, bitch!” The freak’s agitated voice. Another sick thud and Lacey moaned.

Seth heard this but refused to let it register. If he stopped now he would certainly lose whatever momentum he had gained. Holding the piece of glass between the knuckle of his middle and index fingers, he worked his hand up and down in a sawing motion, hoping the glass was sharp enough to work through the tape.

Something crashed downstairs.

He pressed harder with the glass, and finally he could feel the tape start to give. He pulled with both hands, but still couldn’t break free. The glass shard slipped between his sweaty fingers. If he lost it, he would lose everything. He sliced, stabbing at the tape in fierce, small movements, and when he felt a little more give in the tape he pulled. The tape released, his hands pulled apart. He was free.

He reached for his feet, both hands swollen, like giant balloons, and his fingers fumbled badly with the piece of glass. He sawed at the tape binding his feet.

Once free, Seth went to the door and listened. Everything had gone eerily quiet downstairs. Even the baby monitor was soundless.

Looking down the hall, he realized he was a man about to face a monster with empty hands. The freak was too big to take down without a weapon.

There was a baseball bat next to Lacey’s side of the bed. She kept it there for protection during the nights Seth was away on business. It wasn’t a gun, but it was better than a broken shard of glass.

Seth went back for the bat, and then crept out into the hallway. He made it to the top of the stairs when he heard the freak laughing from somewhere below. The kitchen maybe. He paused, choking up on the Louisville Slugger. His heart was in his throat, but he couldn’t afford to stop now. One step, two steps, three steps down, and he was able to crouch to peer into the living room through the railing. Nothing. Five steps and he was now exposed from the knees down. No turning back.

Something crashed in the kitchen. Seth came down the last few steps. His arms were shaking. He cut through the living room, focusing only on the sounds he was hearing. He rounded the corner at the dining room toward the kitchen, and stepped into madness.

The freak had Lacey pinned to the floor. Her USC sweatshirt was ripped open. Her sweat pants were thrown over the sink. Blood smeared the linoleum. Her blood. One of the kitchen chairs had been thrown across the room and lay in ruin against the stove.

Seth watched the freak lean in over her face, holding his wife’s jaw in his hand, forcing her to look at him. The freak kissed her on the lips, and then he hit her.

A dam broke in Seth’s mind, one that had held him back from almost everything in his life until then. Rage, like dark water, swallowed him. He raised the bat, and like a man splitting wood, he brought it down on the freak’s head. The sound was horrible, a hollow sound, a violent sound. Seth did it again, and again, and the freak rolled off of his wife.

Lacey’s face was a bloody mess. Her right eye was swollen almost entirely shut. Her lip was split and blood ran from her nose. The freak had cut her stomach, two shallow gashes just underneath her ribcage. She held her left arm as if it might be broken.

Seth turned toward the freak, now on his hands and knees, dazed from the blow to his head. Blood trickled from the big man’s ear, but he was still trying to get back up. Seth swung the bat again, too hard, but the big man moved, dodging the blow. He spun around, and Seth didn’t see the knife until it was too late. The blade slashed across his shin.

Seth almost dropped the bat, but he knew that if he let go now he would never again be able to pick it back up. His fingers, lacerated and slick with blood, curled again around the bat’s handle. The freak came at him, a charging bull, and Seth swung. Hard. Aiming for the fences.

The bat broke, leaving Seth with only a fraction of the handle left in his hands, the business end splintering away. The freak went down with a hard crash, the knife spilling from his hand. He gave a single, gruesome twitch and then didn’t move again, lying face down in a puddle of his own blood.

In the movies maybe the hero would finish the killer off, make sure that he would never rise again, but Seth was no hero. Instead, after dialing 911, he went to his wife, took off his own shirt and covered her naked, bleeding, shivering body. She held on to him fiercely, with an eagerness that said so much more than any words that had passed between them in the last several years. She needed him, and that was fine. That was good.

* * *

Seth found his son in the bathroom, also bound with duct tape. Ollie sat trembling in the corner, behind the toilet, naked except for his wet Underoos.

He picked up his son, held him to his chest, and then sat on the kitchen floor, next to Lacey, spent, until the police came.

“Daddy saved us from the monster,” Oliver whispered.

Tears flooded Seth’s eyes as the weight of everything came crashing down over him. Nothing else mattered now but this moment. Life would begin again, forged out of madness, as the dawn is forged out of the darkness of night.

Seth held his family close. Outside, as the first police car pulled up in front of their house, it began to snow. When Oliver saw this, he wanted to know if they could build a snowman in the morning.

Seth couldn’t think of one thing he would rather do.

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AUTHOR BIO:

I am a writer of speculative and literary fiction, living in the Northwest. I’ve been published in Denali and Under The Bed Magazine.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH HOME INVASION:

It’s not easy to capture the range of emotions portrayed in this superb piece of writing, but author Sean Ealy has succeeded admirably here. He strikes a perfect balance, showing the right amount of the violence and blending it with inner emotions of the characters. He shows us the intensity and horror while not overdoing it or making it feel gratuitous. We applaud Sean’s skill in knowing when to use restraint.

Equally impressive is how well he handles the two perspectives of Seth and Lacey and how he uses a variety of senses and devices to evoke some very powerful emotions both in the characters and in the reader. Although we’re never put into the boy’s head, we see the terror he’s feeling as well. We can’t imagine how this story could have been written any better.