The old man swings his axe in an arc up over his head and brings it down hard. There is a wet sound when the blade makes contact. Not at all what he was hoping. And it’s quieter than expected. He decides to keep at it and lifts the axe for another swing. It is tiring work.
Melody walks toward home from the campus bookstore after her closing shift ends. It’s dark outside by 5:30 pm. She doesn’t pass a single person in the first block. A blanket of snow mutes the ambient sound in the deserted streets, the way acoustic fabric panels tame the noise in a recording booth. Between that and her fuzzy earmuffs, she wonders whether she would be able to hear another person walking up behind her. She turns around just to check, feeling silly. No one is there.
Although it may look as if Melody is dressed for the Arctic, it’s just her typical January-in-Wisconsin getup. After five semesters at UW, she had learned that the frigid temperatures are an enemy she should not underestimate. Packing on thick layers is the only way to fight back. Because she is from Nevada, that wasn’t always second-nature.
Her family can’t afford to fly her back home for the holidays, so she embraces these lonely winter breaks on the vacant campus. Melody takes the opportunity to double down on her gym time. Toughen up for next semester. She likes walking too. And besides, she doesn’t trust the buses, what with all the black ice on the roads that’s no doubt hiding underneath the snow. The long icicles clinging to the eaves are proof of that.
Is it the solitude playing tricks on her mind? She feels that she’s in danger and there is a psychopath headed right for her, ready to grab her purse or do worse. She prepares a strategy for the assailant. She recounts the basics of self-defense that she heard in a workshop some years ago.
Avoid physical fighting if at all possible.
Say what you need to to get out of the situation.
Find an object to throw, a wallet, a book, anything.
Flee whenever possible.
But Melody does nothing. There is no one actually here on this block either. She finds it is only shapes and shadows cast off some shrubbery and a post office box. She reaches her apartment building.
He should not have used the axe. But he continues nonetheless. The old man is restless. Being a new retiree does that to a person. Sometimes, he becomes so stir crazy that he questions his own sanity.
The little girl sees him chopping. She notices how much the old man is sweating from the work. She walks toward him.
Locking the deadbolt and sliding the security chain into its track is what Melody does first (even before flicking the lights on) when she enters her dark, first-floor apartment. She’s glad to be home and ready to get out of her ridiculously puffy coat. She turns, unzipping it with one hand and reaching for the living room lamp with the other. But she freezes mid-motion. There is a man sitting in her armchair across the room. Sitting in the dark. His silhouette–whoever he is–looks strong. His left ankle rests on his right knee.
Maybe ninety-nine out of one hundred women would have screamed or ran immediately. Melody doesn’t even breathe. Time slows and she processes a dozen thoughts at once. Thoughts about whether she knows him, whether he knows she’s spotted him.
She’s managed to numb the memory of a past trauma for the better part of a decade. But now–in the midst of this silent stand-off with a man who has apparently broken into her apartment–that horrible day comes back to her. It was the day of the big family reunion on Grandpa’s farm in northern Wisconsin. It’s so vivid she can smell the pine trees even now.
The old man continues chopping at a large section of a pine tree trunk that is laying on the ground. The little girl sees him grunting, sweating, cupping his hand over his aching side, and comes closer to watch.
“Whatcha doing, Grandpa?”
“Well, Melody girl, I thought everyone might enjoy a bonfire later tonight.” They are near the edge of Grandpa’s farm property which includes a small forest of pine trees. In the distance, all the other family members and their significant others are gathered around red-and-white tableclothed picnic tables, laughing and carrying on. Some others play a spirited game of badminton. “I’m trying to make us some fire logs, but the sap hasn’t had a chance to dry up from this here tree I cut down not too long ago.” He gestures for his granddaughter to bend down and see the sap. “And it’s still wet from the rainstorm on Thursday. Wouldn’t even be worth burning like this, if I can manage to light it. It’d be all smoke. Make everyone’s eyes itch.” Melody looks up at him wonderingly. She politely listens. “That’s life, kiddo. When she’s just right and all dried up, the wood’ll crack apart with a whisper of the axe. But when she don’t wanna be cracked, when her mind’s made up, you’re fightin’ a losing battle.” Grandpa’s philosophizing is over Melody’s head. He picks up his axe and starts back toward the other relatives.
Melody hears someone calling to her from the woods. She walks a ways into the trees and recognizes the man’s face. He waves. She can’t remember who he is, but would later learn he was the boyfriend of a second cousin.
He tells her there is a very, very special spot in the forest. She goes willingly. The man then explains that the little girl can do a very, very good deed for him. God loves when children do good deeds for their elders, he says. The deed itself isn’t fun and the man makes her promise to shut her eyes very, very tight and that he would put her jeans right back on just as soon as she was done doing helping him like a very, very good girl.
The helping doesn’t last long, but the sick feeling Melody has afterwards lingers for years and years.
She speculates whether there is anyone in that armchair at all. The man shifts just enough to convince her that he is real and not imagined. There is indeed a man in the darkness. Waiting.
What is he going to do to me? She wonders. What!?
Nothing, she decides. She’ll be damned if anyone’s going to hurt her or lay a filthy fucking finger on her ever again.
Melody turns and unlocks the deadbolt and the safety chain in one graceful movement. She leaps outside and slams her apartment door shut. She clambors to wedge a patio chair up under the door knob then considers fleeing at full speed. Her mind changes when she eyes a hanging icicle that is almost three feet long. It takes her four tries before she can snap it off the eaves.
The intruder kicks at Melody’s apartment door a couple times before stopping. For a moment, Melody waits in silence with the giant icicle in her leather-gloved hands. She then hears a noise from the side of her building. He is coming out through the bedroom window, she realizes.
As soon as the man’s feet hit the ground, he comes face-to-face with Melody. She screams and lunges forward, burying the heavy icicle into the man’s eye socket.
Leaving the man laid out and spilling blood, Melody runs down the street. She mumbles to herself, hysterical (unable to manage tears which would pour from her face hours later, after all the police questioning is finalized).
“You’re not…not gonna crack me…not all dried up…no. Made up my mind. Never, ever, ever again.”
She takes her cell out of her pocket and dials 9-1-1.