The picturesque suburban street flows past the car window like a river of delivered promise.
He can barely see the fronts of the houses for all the Christmas decorations. Every porch is adorned with trees, reindeers, and sleighs. A kaleidoscope of lights shine from rooftops and wrap around mailboxes; American flags flutter from the gables, caught in the fierce wind. Snow blankets the yards, a well-worn path carved through the sidewalk, and as the car carries down the street, he sees several neighbors dutifully shoveling their driveway.
Children play in the street, whooping and shouting, their faces red and their breath clouding in the air, while their mothers look on from the front door, steaming cups of coffee or tea held tightly in their frozen grasp. He turns the corner, and picks out his own home from among the almost-identical rows – it carries something distinctly unique about it, an undefinable aspect that makes it his.
The drapes are closed, but warm light spills around the bay window, and from the upstairs windows too. He pulls into the driveway, a thin layer of frost crunching beneath the tires. He fingers his wedding ring, a nervous habit he has developed – a reality check, as he has come to think of it, but he suspects it no longer works. The difference between the states of consciousness is a remarkably thin line, and after a while, it doesn’t seem to matter which side he’s on.
He stays in the car just long enough to cherish the heat, then makes a hurried dash to the front door, nodding once at the nativity set, a mark of respect despite everything – it forms part of his love for his family, if not his own beliefs. The door is unlocked – it always is, in this neighborhood – and he pushes it open to an overpowering scent of lit candles, warm cookies, and home.
The routine is always the same – an excited bark, and the scratching of paws on the floorboards as the dachshund comes bounding down to lick at his ankles. He bends to scratch the dog, smiling; then comes the second burst of squeals, and in a flash of brown hair, he is assaulted by the two girls. Their loud shouts of ‘Daddy!’ are usually soft and light, but an uneasy feeling settles in his stomach when their voices are deeper and somehow muted.
He shakes his head – too long on the airplane, of course. A twenty-hour flight would do that anyone, he figures; the jetlag alone will take until New Year’s to fix. He tells his daughters about the souvenirs he brought back, gifts too – wrapped and ready for them to open on Christmas Day, after being released from the scrutinizing Custom’s officers, just like every year.
With girls and dog in tow, he walks down the hall, passing the office on one side, the library on the other; he enters the kitchen and the oven’s warmth washes over him like a comforting blanket.
She turns and smiles at him, the smile that pierces his heart and makes his knees weak. Her hair is tied up in an unruly knot, a pencil holding it all in place, with a pen behind her ear; on the bench lies her notebook, dozens of ideas jotted down, many hidden beneath the flour and chocolate stains.
He glances at the mistletoe overhead – cleverly placed, by himself no less – and leans down to kiss her, losing himself in her warm embrace.
“Get up,” she whispers to him – not whispers, shouts. He flinches, stepping away, her perfume lingering against his skin. She tilts her head , as if to ask What’s wrong? but instead, the words are cruel and blunt, “I said, get up.”
He staggers, his side burning in agony. The girls squeal, alarmed, their coloring books abandoned as they rush to their mother. The dog howls and makes a run for its basket, scattering pencils and crayons as it goes.
He looks down at his side, pulls his hand away, and sees blood.
“You listening, asshole? Get the hell up.”
Not her words. But that monster’s.
He wakes, and the house is gone, along with his children and the dog; most heartbreakingly of all, she is gone, and there is nothing but this empty shell of a life, and the torture that it has become.
The concrete is wet beneath him – a disgusting mix of blood, water, and urine. The boot lands on his chest again and he screams, ribs cracking beneath the blow. He coughs and rolls over, spitting red and gasping for air. A bright line shines overhead, dispelling the darkness of the four-by-four cell that has become his home.
The Russian leans over and spits on his face. He flinches, but he cannot move his arms to shield himself from the next kick – strength for anything except dreaming has long since deserted him.
“Tell me where the money is, cyka!”
He tries to speak, tries to protest his ignorance, but his throat is parched, and even then, it would only be the same truth he had pleaded for the first five days, the empty words he had screamed at the steel door while they kept him in darkness and isolation.
The Russian laughs. “You’re a stubborn one, I’ll give you that.”
The door opens, and warm light spills into the cell, accompanied by raucous laughter and the stench of cigar smoke. A man stands sillehoutted in the door, his features cast in shadow. His voice is deep when he speaks to his subordinate:
“Is he talking?”
“No more than usual.”
“And the money?”
“Says he doesn’t know.”
A moment’s pause, then the Shadow says, “Take care of it.”
The Russian grins, a wicked approximation of human emotion. “Gladly, boss.”
The door slams shut, and the Shadow returns to his lair of darkness. He rolls over on the ground, his clothes tattered and stained; he tries to crawl away, but collapses, his limbs shaking. He cannot do this anymore.
“I was beginning to like you, cyka,” the Russian laughs, racking his handgun. “All that fame, how’d it help you, eh? Nobody coming to save you. You will die alone, as you lived. Poetic, no? Let’s do something you’re familiar with. Smile for the camera.”
The flash is not unlike a camera, he thinks.
The end is not what he expects.
No bright light, nor fiery pits; not the emptiness of the infinite abyss that he had long suspected. Rather, he stands on the porch, the snow piling behind him. Music and laughter spills out of the adjacent homes. Carolers walk down the street, singing Holy Night, while the smell of freshly-baked cookies slips out from under the door. If he listens carefully, he can hear his daughters playing inside, squealing and laughing, their dog barking joyfully.
There is a note pinned to the front door, written with the deliberate stroke of a pen, signed with a heart beneath. It says simply, “Welcome home.“