By Kylie Kary
I open my eyes.
I’m sitting up now, looking around the dark room, goosebumps forming on my arms, adrenaline beginning to take over. “Ryan,” I whisper to my snoring husband, “someone’s at the door.” My voice is quivering. Ryan stirs for a moment and turns to me with questioning eyes.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
“Oh, ****.” Ryan looks at his phone; the screen lights up his half-asleep face. 3:57am. At this point, I’m already shaking, and my mind is racing with nausea-inducing possibilities. “Who could be here this late? And why won’t they take a hint? We’re obviously not available…”
Ryan turns back to me with a face that reads ‘there’s probably a simple explanation’. He’s always been the rational one in our seven-year relationship, and I roll my eyes as I can tell that this is going to be another situation where I end up being told I’m too paranoid and everything turns out fine. It’s not that I wish something bad would happen, but sometimes it would be nice to gain a shred of credibility.
“I’ll take a look at the doorbell camera. You go check on Seth,” Ryan says with a voice full of confidence. He’s fully awake now. I creep across the hallway to where our two-year-old is sleeping— he’s still out cold, cuddling his favorite stuffed monkey. I breathe a sigh of relief, my hand on my chest, and head back into our bedroom. Ryan is now sat up, looking at his phone screen. His face is frozen in an emotion I’ve never seen from him before: fear. This makes my heart drop and I run back into Seth’s bedroom, scooping his sleeping body into my arms and quickly cross the hallway again to place him in our bed.
“Who is it?” I ask, afraid to know the answer. No response. “Ryan! Who the hell is it?” Still nothing. Then, “stay here with Seth. Don’t leave the room for anything. Everything is going to be okay,” and he begins rummaging through our closet for something before swiftly exiting our bedroom, locking the door behind him. As he leaves the room, I see the gleam of metal in his hand and instantly recognize our .22 revolver. “What the hell?!” I shout after him, frantically pulling up the doorbell camera on my own phone. My heart is racing as I wait for the live view to load. “Oh, god,” I let out a soft whimper.
He’s pacing at our front door, shotgun in hand, muttering something that I can’t quite make out. His name is Hank— Ryan’s estranged brother. The last we had heard, Hank was in prison, and was supposed to be there for another six months. It’s at this time that I notice the orange jumpsuit.
The next thing I hear is Ryan shouting through the door, “Hank, what do you want? It’s late, whatever it is I’m sure can wait until the morning. I need you to leave now.” Hank stops pacing and points the shotgun at the door. His gruff voice comes through the app and almost makes me drop my phone. “I came to get what is rightfully mine. You and I both know what I’m talking about, Ryan. And I ain’t leavin’ without him.”
“Him? What is he talking about?” I have now left the bedroom and my voice is shaking as I whisper to Ryan, who is standing guard by the front door. “Liz, go back to the room,” he responds in a hushed but urgent tone.
“Elizabeth? You in there darlin’?” Hank shouts through the door. He’s clearly drunk. I’ve only ever seen him in pictures. Ryan never wanted me to meet him because he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child and has an apparent history of mental breakdowns. I’ve never understood what would have been so bad about meeting him though, as I deal with people like that on a daily basis through my social work.
“You leave her out of this, you hear me? Leave now, or I’m calling the police. Leave and don’t come back. You know he isn’t yours. Don’t do something you’ll regret,” Ryan shouts through the door, his voice now sounding more like a growl. The knuckles on his hand are white around the revolver grip. I’m more confused than ever, and all I can focus on is the fact that Hank is both deranged and armed.
The next few moments happen almost too fast for me to process. Hank kicks our door with such force that our windows rattle. He kicks it a second time, and then a third. I frantically dial 911, something I should’ve done a long time ago. On the fourth kick, the doorframe cracks. On the fifth, it swings open. I scream and run back to the room to protect our son who is, miraculously, still sleeping. I hear a struggle ensue in the doorway, both men are cursing and I can clearly hear blows being landed. I’m pleading and crying on the phone with the emergency operator to send someone immediately. I can’t even focus on what she is asking me because in the midst of the fight, I hear Hank say a name that makes my blood run cold: “Seth”.
Suddenly, a piercing noise rings out through the house, and I know someone has been shot. My heart feels like it stops beating. My ears are ringing but things outside the bedroom door are now quiet. “Ma’am? Are you still with me? What was that noise? The police are almost there ma’am, just stay with me on the phone until responders arrive. Hello?” I can’t reply to the operator. My whole world is hanging by a thread. I still can’t hear anything coming from the living room. I’m praying to god that Ryan is okay, and that Hank is the one with a bullet wound.
It feels like hours go by before I hear the sirens approach and then the slamming doors of police cars. The officers are shouting indistinctly to one another; I can’t make out a single word. All that’s going through my mind is my husband’s voice telling me not to leave the room. Did I cause this to happen? I should’ve just stayed put like he said. Maybe Hank would’ve left. What the hell happened?
I see the flashlights through the cracks in our bedroom door before I hear the knocks. Seth has woken up and is now sitting in my lap. I’m stroking his hair with trembling hands. The officers yell out for me to open the door, so I pick my son up from the bed and follow their orders. I’m escorted out by a nice female officer with Seth wrapped tightly around my torso. It’s dark by the front door, and I can smell the gunpowder. I don’t see Ryan or Hank.
It isn’t until I’m sitting in the back of the ambulance that the female officer breaks the news I had been dreading. What she says is, “we have detained the assailant, Hank Thomason. He had gotten away from correctional officers during rec time in the courtyard,” but all I hear is “your husband has been shot. Your husband has been shot. Your husband has been shot.” I break down sobbing, the adrenaline finally wears off as reality sets in. The officer tells me that Ryan is in an ambulance on the way to the closest hospital with a trauma center. She says that from what she overheard from EMTs, it isn’t looking great– that he was shot in his head, but that they will do everything they can. Seth is laid out across my lap, too young to understand any of this, so he is sleeping again. I can’t move or speak so the tears just stream silently. The officer asks me if there’s any family or friends nearby that we can stay with, but I can’t muster up the strength to even open my mouth, so she places a sympathetic hand on my shoulder for a moment before walking away.
*Three months later*
Seth and I are living with my sister Jodi until we can find our own place in another town. Things have been impossible without Ryan here, and Seth still asks a few times a week when daddy is coming back. It’s a question I’ve not once been able to answer, and even if I could, he wouldn’t understand. I hope when he is older, he will forgive me for that.
It’s two in the afternoon and I’m putting away a few dishes from lunch when I hear a knock at the door. As I look through the peephole, I’m surprised to see the same female officer from that night. What was her name again? Wendy? Whitney? Her uniform just says ‘Stallings’ so I open the door and greet her as Officer Stallings. She gives me a warm smile, but I can tell she’s trying to hide pity behind her eyes. She first offers her condolences and then immediately transitions to why she stopped by, “it’s about Hank Thomason.”
A lump forms in my throat after hearing that name again. “What about him?” I ask reluctantly. She sighs with her eyes closed as if she is trying to find the right words. Finally, she asks me, “did you know about his… well, his obsession with you?”
My eyes widen and my mouth drops open. I’d never even met this man prior to that night, what in the world is this lady going on about? “What are you talking about? What obsession? I didn’t know Hank, and he didn’t know me,” I reply. Officer Stallings shakes her head and rubs her eyes, then answers with, “Hank Thomason has severe mental problems. One of them is that he forms delusional imaginary relationships with women that he has never met. I’m supposing that it may have helped him pass the time while serving out his sentence. As you know, Hank was convicted of the attempted kidnapping of a woman six years ago. He had spent months stalking her, creating fantasies in his mind that he and she were in some sort of romantic relationship. Well, according to the correctional officers at the prison he was being kept in, for the duration of his sentence, he had covered his cell wall in drawings of and love letters to one woman: Elizabeth Thomason. You.”
I gasp and my hand flies over my mouth. I didn’t know about the woman six years ago—Ryan told me that he was imprisoned for petty robberies. I didn’t know he had sent a picture of our family to a mentally unstable man in prison. I stumble backwards into the foyer of my sister’s home. Officer Stallings follows me inside, looking worried that I might faint. Once I gain my footing again, she continues: “he apparently had been obsessing over you for quite some time after receiving a letter from your husband with a picture of your family, including your son. For some reason, his delusion then began to focus on little Seth. He had convinced himself that he was Seth’s father, that he had impregnated you during your imaginary relationship together, and that Ryan was keeping his son from him. During our investigation, we found several letters your husband had received from Hank, most of them threatening to harm Ryan if he did not surrender custody of Seth to him. It’s likely that Ryan tried to keep these hidden because he didn’t want to scare you, or that he didn’t think Hank would ever actually act on these delusions. I’m so, so sorry. As soon as I heard about this, I had to come tell you myself. I didn’t want you to hear all of this for the first time during the trial. I think it’s a good idea that you relocate to a different part of the country and make sure you don’t ever have contact with Hank again.”
Officer Stallings looks into my tear-filled eyes, searching for anything to tell her that I understand, or that I am processing this information, but ultimately, she just waits silently for me to respond. Instead, I walk into the living room and sit down on the couch. I don’t hear the rest of what she says to me, but I believe it is some sort of attempt at offering comfort. Eventually, after realizing she isn’t going to get anything from me, she shows herself out of my sister’s home.
I hear the engine of her car roar to life and the wheels leave the driveway.
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