The Gift of Illusion – Sample

What was the worst day of your life?

Well.

Having trouble?

You’re not alone.  The average life can span over twenty-six thousand days, give or take, thus for most of us narrowing down one particular day as the absolute worst could be an exercise in the impossible.

Isaac Winters had an answer.  No problem.

January 17th, 1995, was the day.  The worst.

Isaac had stayed up late to finish another round of paperwork due the next morning.  While his wife and daughter slept upstairs, the thirty-year-old police officer sat within a small office on the first floor, slouched over a stack of forms, barely able to remain productive.  As he struggled to keep his attention on the documents, scribbling a note here, jotting a name there, Isaac drifted away.  His head hit the thick stack of paper with a thump and then quickly sprung back up.  He leaned back in the black swivel chair and flexed open his eyelids until the back of his head throbbed.  The pain felt like his brains were being sucked out of his skull through a straw.  He massaged his temples in a slow, clockwise motion.  The comfort of his bed waiting above had summoned him, and after a long, difficult fight, he finally surrendered.

Isaac headed upstairs.  First, he checked on his nine-month-old daughter, Amy, and then tiptoed into his bedroom, careful not to wake his wife.  Linda Winters slept on her right side with her hands snuggled between her cheek and pillow.  She was wearing a white silk nightgown Isaac had given her the previous night.

“Do you like it?” he had asked, after she had torn off the red bow and beheaded the gift box.

Linda had smiled and then said exactly what he had hoped she would say.

Nothing.

Then they’d made love for the last time.

Before lying down, Isaac peered out a small window above his nightstand.  A large, naked oak tree on the side of the house shook and parted with a few small branches.  The wind had picked up over the last hour and showed no sign of calming any time soon.  A distant thunder hummed as a sudden flash of lightning brightened the room.

The storm was approaching fast, and soon Isaac would be kneeling in the middle of it.  But it wasn’t until he leaned back and closed his eyes that he heard the shatter of glass, followed by the baby crying.

Eyes open.

A sudden unease swept through him and rushed outward to his appendages like a legion of tunneling worms.  His fingers and toes itched as the worms struck his skin like a collection of jabbing needles.  The temperature in the room seemed to drop by innumerable degrees, spawning a crawl of small bumps across his body.

He sat up.  Still.  Hesitant.

Why the hesitation?

It wasn’t a familiar feeling, not for him, not in his line of work.  It wasn’t accepted.  The ability to think fast and act sharp was crucial for anyone in law enforcement.  Still he hesitated, if for not more than a few seconds, while the cold sweat gathering on his brow thickened.

He hurried out of bed and removed a loaded nine millimeter from the bedside drawer.  Then he woke his wife and told her to lock the bedroom door, call 911, and stay quiet until he returned.  Linda didn’t bother to ask why; the gun in her husband’s hand was all the answer she needed.  She did as he ordered and locked the door after he left the bedroom.

The baby’s cries increased.

Isaac inched through the dark upstairs hall, holding the gun out in front of him with his right index finger cradling the trigger.  As he came to the staircase on the left, he pressed his back against the inner wall and sidestepped the remaining distance.  Then he rolled from behind the corner and pointed the black firearm down the length of stairs.

Clear.

With the stairs behind him, he opened the door to Amy’s room and hurried over to the crib.  She appeared to be fine, like him, she had just woken suddenly.  He twisted the knob on the mobile suspended over the crib then listened as Brahms Lullaby chimed and the small stuffed giraffe, elephant, and tiger slowly revolved counterclockwise.

Amy quieted.

Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.

He turned the small screw lock from inside the door before shutting it.  Then he walked back to the center of the hall and crept down the old wooden staircase.  A subtle peeling sound, like tape being removed very slowly, came with each lift of his bare feet from the hardwood.  When he reached the second stair from the bottom, he saw a giant shadow dance across the opposing wall of the living room.  The shadow stopped for a brief moment and then smoothed into the darkness.

His hands were now sweating and the gun felt slick and heavy.  He turned left from the bottom step and saw the broken window in the dining room up ahead.  Many large fragments of glass lay on the dark brown carpet beneath the windowsill.  The white curtains over the window shuddered with the force of the gusting wind.  Outside, lightning struck, and a heavy rain began battering against the roof.

As he stepped past the stairs, his eyes still focused on the broken window, Isaac heard a slight click sound come from the left of him.  He knew the sound.  It was the sound of a hammer being cocked back, a cylinder rotating.

He twisted to his left and pointed the 9mm into the dark crawl space behind the stairs.  He didn’t move or blink, nor did he breathe.  His index finger quivered on the cold, oily trigger of the gun.

What are you waiting for?

Before he could act, a brilliant flash of light robbed his sight, and an enormous wave of pressure (like the force of two storms colliding) pulsated through his body.  Falling backward, he heard nothing, not rain, nor thunder, just silence—peaceful and undisturbed.

Upon hitting the floor, a sharp pain clambered up the ladder of Isaac’s spine to his left shoulder.  Without thought, he sealed a hand over the broken skin.  Seconds later, two large boots walked into his sight, and when he looked up, he saw the .38 caliber revolver pointed at his head.  Lying on his back, Isaac could see directly up the silver barrel; it seemed a mile wide and many oceans deep.

Apparently satisfied, the intruder pulled the revolver away and turned toward the staircase.  On the stairs, his soppy boots thumped and whined against the wood.

Isaac got to his feet, saw the black pistol lying on the floor a few feet behind him, and staggered over to pick it up.  Then he walked to the staircase, leaned on the handrail, and applied more pressure to his left shoulder.  At the top of the stairs, the dark intruder looked both directions down the hall, and then turned right.

He’s heading for my bedroom, for Linda! 

Isaac hobbled up the stairs, gripping the wooden handrail.  From above, he could hear banging on the bedroom door and his wife desperately crying out.

Isaac!  Isaac!  Help!

Hearing her scream only made him try harder to push his bleeding body up the stairs.

When he finally reached the upstairs hall, the banging had stopped, along with Linda’s cries.  All he could hear now was the final verse of Brahms Lullaby concluding.

Guardian angels are near, so sleep on, with no fear.

The bedroom door was wide open, the broken handle hanging loosely from the wooden frame.  Muffled sounds escaped from the room.

He was almost upon the open doorway when he heard the bedsprings quake, followed by the terrifying shriek of his wife.  The scream felt like it had been amplified two hundred times before it reached Isaac’s ears.  Then the gun went off.

But it wasn’t his. 

Isaac trembled as the gun fired one, two, three, four times, and with each shot, he felt the wound within his chest ache and wrench as though a hand was burrowing inside the round, bloody hole one stiff finger at a time.  Once inside, the hand formed a fist around his heart, and squeezed.

Amy began crying again from down the hall.  The lullaby had finished on an off note, overpowered by the passionate swell of gunfire.

When the intruder came through the broken door, his face spotted with blood, Isaac was waiting for him.  “Drop the gun!” he yelled.

The intruder was noticeably startled by Isaac’s presence in the hall.  He had expected Isaac to be dead.  He had the .38 caliber revolver lowered at his side, one bullet left in the cylinder.

“I said drop it!”

“I can’t.  I still have work to do.”

Isaac clutched the 9mm tighter and took a deep breath.  Tears ran down his face, though he didn’t even realize it.  “What have you done?”

“I think you know,” said the intruder.  His voice was flat and emotionless.  “Don’t you?”

Isaac drew in another deep breath.  “Why?”

“You ruined my life.  Now I’ve ruined yours.”

In the background, nine-month-old Amy continued to cry and cry.  She wanted her mother.

The intruder sneered.  “Only one thing left to do.”

Isaac agreed.  He pulled the trigger and fired a bullet into the chest of his wife’s murderer.  Then he fired two more.  The blaring sound reverberated across the upstairs hall.

The gunman staggered and then fell backward to the hardwood floor, convulsing violently, blood draining from the multiple holes in his chest.

Once he was sure the intruder was dead, Isaac began limping toward the bedroom, smearing blood against the wall as he extended his left hand outward for support.  He dropped the pistol in the doorway and looked over at his wife’s body sprawled across the bed.  Linda’s arms lay against the headboard, elbows bent, palms up.  Her right leg dangled halfway off the bed and her head faced the small square window.

Isaac carefully stepped over the broken door and closer to his wife.  He grabbed her hand and touched her cheek, trying not to look at the expanding red holes in her white nightgown.  Linda’s green eyes stared toward the window, vacuous and inactive.  Her mouth hung open, poised for a scream that would never surface.  Somewhere in his mind, deep within some nightmare of contemptuous, eternal memory, Isaac could still hear her final scream echo, and the deafening blast of emptying shells.

He knelt next to his dead wife, bowed his face in the messed sheets, and wept.  Without looking up, he reached for Linda’s hand, still warm, and squeezed it in his own.  Minutes later, he heard the droning of police sirens over the thundering rain.  He slowly sat up, released his hand from his dead wife’s, and whispered, “I’m so sorry, honey.”

He left the bedroom, stepped over the fractured man lying in a blood puddle in the hall, and hobbled down the stairs.  He thought of going back up and getting his daughter, who was now fast asleep, but he lacked the strength needed to break down the locked door.  He was closer to death than he realized, yet not as close as he would have preferred.

He fell to his knees in the middle of the front yard with his hand still pressed tight against his heart.  A punishing rain drummed down on him, cleansed the blood and tears, but the pain remained.  The bullet buried in his chest—he hardly felt it.  The true source of pain lay far beyond the physical, eating away at his conscience.

How could I let this happen?  How? 

Three police cruisers pulled up at the side of the house.  One officer hurried over to him and asked, “What happened?”

At first, Isaac couldn’t speak.  Then he began sobbing.  “Linda.  Oh God!  Linda.”

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