Joe R. Lansdale
Cold in July
Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
That night, Ann heard the noise first.
I was asleep. I hadn’t slept well in a while due to some problems at work, and the fact that our four-year-old son, Jordan, had been sick the previous two nights, coughing, vomiting, getting us up at all hours. But tonight he was sleeping soundly and I was out cold.
I came awake with Ann’s elbow in my rib and her whisper, “Did you hear that?” I hadn’t, but the tone of her voice assured me she had certainly heard something, and it wasn’t just a night bird calling or a dog working the trash cans out back; Ann wasn’t the frighty type, and she had incredible hearing, perhaps to compensate for her bad eyesight.
Rolling onto my back, I listened. A moment later I heard a noise. It was the glass door at the back of the house leading into the living room; it was cautiously being slid back. Most likely, what Ann had heard originally was the lock being jimmied. I thought about Jordan asleep in the room across the hall and gooseflesh rolled across me in a cold tide that ebbed at the top of my skull.
I put my lips to Ann’s ear and whispered, “Shhhh.” Easing out of bed, I grabbed my robe off the bedpost and slipped it on out of habit. Our night-light in the backyard was slicing through a split in the curtains, and I could see well enough to go over to the closet, open the door and pull a shoe box down from the top shelf. I put the shoe box on the bed and opened it. Inside was a. 38 snub-nose and a box of shells. I loaded the gun quickly by feel. When I was finished, I felt light-headed and realized I had been holding my breath.
Since Jordan had been sick, we had gotten in the habit of leaving our bedroom door open so we could hear him should he call out in the night That made it easy for me to step into the hallway holding the. 38 against my leg. In that moment, I wished we lived back in town, instead of here off the lake road on our five-acre plot. We weren’t exactly isolated, but in a situation like this, we might as well have been. Our nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away and our house was surrounded by thick pine forest and squatty brush that captured shadows.
It was strange, but stepping into the hall, I was very much aware of the walls of the house, how narrow the hallway really was. Even the ceiling seemed low and suffocating, and I could feel the nap of the carpet between my toes, and it seemed sharp as needles. I wondered absently if it were deep enough to hide in.
I could see the flashlight beam playing across the living room, flitting here and there like a moth trying to escape from a jar, and I could hear shoes sliding gently across the carpet.
I tried to swallow the grapefruit in my throat as I inched forward and stepped gingerly around the corner into the living room.
The burglar’s back was to me. The night-light in the backyard shone through the glass door and framed the man. He was tall and thin, wearing dark clothes and a dark wool cap. He was shining his light at a painting on the wall, probably deciding if it was worth stealing or not.
It wasn’t. It was a cheapo landscape from the county fair. Ann and I knew the artist and that was the reason we bought it. It covered that part of the wall as well as a Picasso.
The burglar came to the same conclusion about its worth, or lack of, because he turned from the painting, and as he did, his light fell on me.
For a moment we both stood like fence posts, then his light wavered and he reached to his belt with his free hand, and instinctively I knew he was reaching for a gun. But I couldn’t move. It was as if concrete had been p toe had bumped into my veins and pores and had instantly hardened.
He brought the gun out of his belt and fired. The bullet snapped past my head and punched the wall behind me. Without really thinking about it, I jerked up the. 38 and pulled the trigger.
His head whipped back, then forward. The wool cap nodded to one side but didn’t come off. He stepped back stiffly and sat down on the couch as if very tired. His revolver fell to the floor, then the flashlight dropped from the other hand.
I didn’t want to take my eyes off the man, but I found I was tracking the progress of the flashlight as if hypnotized by it. It whirled halfway across the floor toward me, stopped, rolled back a pace, quit moving, its beam pooled at my feet like watery honey.
Suddenly I realized my ears were ringing with the sound of gunfire, and that the concrete had gone out of me. I was shaking, still pointing the gun in the direction of the burglar, who seemed to be doing nothing more than lounging on the couch.
I took a deep breath and started forward.
“Is he dead?”
I damn near jumped a foot. It was Ann behind me.
“Goddamn,” I said. “I don’t know. Turn on the light.”
“Except for shitting myself, fine. Turn on the light.”
Ann flicked the switch and I edged forward, holding the gun in front of me, half-expecting him to jump off the couch and grab me.
But he didn’t move. He just sat there, looking very composed and very alive.
Except for his right eye. That spoiled the lifelike effect. The eye was gone. There was just a dark, wet hole where it used to be. Blood welled at the corners, spilled out, and ran down his cheek like scarlet tears.
I found myself staring at his good eye. It was still shiny, but going dull. It looked as soft and brown as a doe’s.
I glanced away, only to find something equally awful. On the wall above the couch, partially splashed on the cheap landscape, I could see squirts of blood, brains and little white fragments that might have been bone splinters. I thought of what the exit wound at the back of the man’s head would look like. I’d read somewhere that the bullet going out made a hole many times bigger than the one it made going in. I wondered in a lightning flash of insanity if I could stick my fist in there and stir it around.
It wasn’t something I really wanted to know.
I put the revolver in the pocket of my robe, wavered. The room got hot, seemed to melt like wax and me with it. I went down and my hands went out. I grabbed at the dead man’s knees so I wouldn’t go to the floor; I could feel the fading warmth of his flesh through his pants.
“Don’t look at him,” Ann said.
“God, his goddamn brains are all over the fucking wall.”
Then Ann became sick. She fell down beside me, her arm around my shoulders, and like monks before a shrine, we dipped our heads. But instead of prayers flying out of our mouths, it was vomit, splattering the carpet and the dead man’s shoes.