The old man settled back into the tangled welter of sheets and blankets that comprised his bed and sighed. From somewhere near his feet, his sigh was answered with a similar exhalation. In the moonlight that leaked around the edges of the drawn curtains, he could just make out the silhouette of two large, pointed ears beneath which two concerned eyes glistened and watched. Then, as if in agreement, man and dog grunted in unison and lay their heads down once more.
For the old dog, sleep returned easily and she was soon snoring, but for her master, a lifetime of loss, regret, and now, loneliness, always awaited his return to consciousness and seized him fast in its talons. To counter this, he had developed a process by which he could sooth his mind of its anxieties and eventually return to sleep. This method consisted of a simple inventory of all the familiar and comforting sounds that his home and dog made within the overall silence of the greater night. It always began with his companion.
Her deep, steady breathing told him all was well, and this provided the first step towards his greater relaxation. Keeping his own breathing regular while attempting to slow his heart rate at the same time, he allowed his mind to wander through his home of forty years seeking other familiar sounds that reassured him.
First and foremost was the furnace. During the winter months, the reliability of its great warming breath held no equal as his ideal of comfort and safety from the elements, and now he looked forward to that series of sounds that heralded its arousal. The light, tap-tap-tap of the contracting water pipe he had so recently used warned him of the dropping temperature, even as the winds outside scampered with tiny claws across the wall next to his bed. Then, as if on cue, he perceived the barely audible click of the thermostat signaling from its perch on the wall that the moment for action had arrived. With pleasurable anticipation, the old man listened for the sounds that must follow.
From within the greater darkness of the attached garage came the barely audible hiss of gas followed by, after what seemed a long and dangerous time, the business-like snap of the igniter. Then, with a satisfying, distant roar, the flames were brought into being to warm his home. In his mind’s eye he could picture the dancing light playing across the stained concrete floor of the garage. And then, as the finale, the heater fan located beneath the staircase whirred into life as the warm air coming through the vent reached it to trigger its assistance in pushing the warmth up to the second floor. The house now hummed contentedly to itself as it dispelled the tendrils of cold that had seeped silently through the walls. The old man secured the blanket beneath his chin, even as his eyes began to dart and play beneath his eyelids.
As sleep began to reclaim him at last, the voices of his wife, Claire, and their children, called to him from somewhere not far away, though their actual figures were still withheld from him. In the dusty living room, the French clock he had bought her as a gift in
began to chime the hour in light, tinkling notes and, like a hypnotist; he
counted each one as they sank him deeper and deeper into the welcoming
The old man, now decades younger, watched as his lovely young wife toweled off his children next to the pool beneath a benign sun in a peerless sky, and smiled contently. The only sound that intruded was the reassuring crackle of expanding wood that signaled the triumph of the furnace over the nascent cold; the walls and door frames returning to their intended shapes and sizes.
Claire noticed him watching and returned his smile. The kids were fussing about being called out of the water and though he could not hear their words; their body language was unmistakable. A popping sound from somewhere to his left, startled him, and he found himself vaguely troubled as to its source and meaning, but loath to turn away from his wife and children even for a second. Even so, Claire’s face wavered in his vision like the surface of a pond disturbed with a pebble. When it settled again into the plump-cheeked, grey-eyed features that he was familiar with, her expression had changed to one of concern, the laughing smile having vanished like the sun he could no longer feel nor see above him. She approached him still carrying a dripping towel. The kids leapt soundlessly into the pool behind her back.
She spoke to him and he strained to hear her words, “Did you remember to lock the front door?” she whispered, the words seeming to come from a great distance.
He stared back at his wife in bereaved silence. Was this all she had to say to him…her husband of fifty years; after so long a separation? The mundanity of her words struck him to the heart and a sob caught in his throat that snatched him back to awareness.
As he opened his eyes, his young wife’s words blew into tatters like an old cobweb, and he struggled to catch them before they vanished. But the sound that seemed to have prompted them returned to him with terrifying clarity and he understood in that instant that it had come from one place and that place alone—the seventh step of the stairwell outside his bedroom door. As the furnace switched off and its efforts faded into a long sigh, the house lapsed into the silence of a held breath. Then the dog began to growl…