The Clearing

        “WHAT'S THAT?” Emily turned Kaleb’s way and knocked a pillow to the floor. She said it again.
	“Hmm?” Kaleb said, half asleep.
	“That noise,” Emily said. She placed her hand on Kaleb’s chest. “Do you hear that?”
	Kaleb took a second, rubbed his eyes, and worked his tongue around his mouth. “It’s just the wind, Sweetie, or a raccoon. I’ve seen a lot of them lately.” He opened one eye and took in what he could. Emily was sitting up in bed, both her hands in tight fists, craning her head back and forth. “Just relax, Baby. Go back to sleep.” 
	Even though it was only early November, winter had already arrived, announcing its presence last week with a snow storm and consistent below-freezing temperatures. Just then, a gust swooped through the White Mountains and rattled the roof of their secluded cabin. The zephyr excited the remaining flames in the nearby Franklin stove, inducing a succession of machine-gun pops that startled them both. “You’re right,” Emily said, “maybe it is just the wind.” She dropped back into the sheets. 
	A minute passed, and Kaleb tried to get comfortable. He tossed and turned, and lined his gaze with the ceiling. Moonlight broke through a slit in the drapes, forming a white Rorschach-style blot on the ceiling that Kaleb thought resembled an M-16 rifle, the gun he carried while serving in Afghanistan. “Go long!” A football spiraling across the sky. Sergeant Wiggins going deep. A land mine. Wiggins’s femur poking through bloodied skin. Kaleb scooping him up, waving down a Humvee in the distance, feeling warm blood wash over his arms. 
	“Kaleb! Do you hear that?” 
	“For Christ’s sake — the noise, that noise.” 
        Kaleb sat up and took a peek towards the doorway at the opposite end of the room. There was a figure there, its silhouette tall and strong, backlit by what little light the Franklin stove’s embers had left to offer. Emily stared in the direction of the figure, most likely believing that everything was fine because Kaleb was still. When her eyes made sense of the person in the doorway, she didn’t scream. She trembled. Kaleb could actually feel the bed shake. He wedged himself tightly against her and wrapped his arm around her quivering stomach. He then reached for her hand, but her fingers were too rigid to be held. 
	“Don’t move,” the man said. His voice was deep and soft, hard to hear with the wind whirring outside. “No Superman shit. Just stay there. Both of you.”
	Stuttered breaths escaped Emily’s mouth one after the other, and Kaleb’s heartbeat sped up, switching from sleeping rhythm to a jogging-like clip. “Please,” Kaleb finally said. “Just don’t hurt us. Take whatever you like. We don’t have much. I’m a park ranger, and my wife’s a painter. I—”
	“Shut up.” The man was still camouflaged by the darkness. He hadn’t moved an inch. None of his features were visible.
	Kaleb went on: “There’s a shoe box. In the closet. With some cash in it. It’s all yours. Please, don’t hurt my wife. Don’t hurt us.”
	The room was still. There was only Emily’s trembling wheezes and the scraping of an animal on the roof, long claws ripping at the shingles.
	“It’s very simple,” the man said. He voice was steady and monotone, softening at the end of each sentence, like he was bored. “Do as I say. If you don’t, I’ll kill you both. First thing I want you to do is get out of bed and walk with me towards the living room. Can you do that?”
	Neither Emily nor Kaleb answered, so the man raised his voice and repeated the question.
	“Yes, yes,” they both said in unison.
	Emily tugged on Kaleb’s arm. She needed him. He’d managed to avoid capture during his six years of duty in the Middle East, but he knew plenty who hadn’t, and the ones who made it out always said that the best thing to do was to make the aggressors feel like they were in total control.  
	The man clicked on the hallway light, and Kaleb and Emily’s eyes adjusted to the brightness. They took him in. He was tall, wearing jeans and a navy hooded sweatshirt. He had a stocking cap pulled over his face, with holes cut out for his dark eyes and small mouth. “Pretty stupid of you,” he said, pointing at Kaleb, “to put your gun cabinet by the entrance.” He yanked a nickel-plated six-shooter — a pistol Kaleb had purchased a few weeks ago — from the waist of his jeans and pointed the barrel their way. He led them both into the living room where he clicked on another lamp. He licked his teeth and made them both sit on the couch. 
	Again, the fire popped, and cold wind pummeled the house. A green duffel bag lay on the floor, and the man pulled a tangle of rope from it. Kaleb straightened his spine and the man pointed the gun at his head. “Whoa, what’d I say about being Superman?” The man looked in the direction of Kaleb’s gaze and noticed two cell phones charging on a coffee table. He stepped backwards, continuing to point the gun in their direction. When he finally reached the table, he turned and smashed both phones with the gun. He continued long after shards of glass screens and pieces of plastic were strewn about the carpet, just beating the table — metal on wood, a solid pounding that brought Kaleb back to the desert, with Wiggins screaming: “Don’t let me die, Kaleb. Please don’t let me die.”
        “Land line,” the man whispered. “Your land line? Where is it?”
	“Right there,” Emily said. “Behind you. In the kitchen.” She could barely get the words out, and when she did her body convulsed. 
	The man backed up slowly, his gun pointed directly at them, alternating between their two bodies every few seconds. He clobbered the phone home with the heel of the gun. Then he strolled back to Kaleb and Emily, humming a tune — a high note, then a low note. 
	First, he tied up Kaleb. A couple times, Emily looked over at the man and even gazed at Kaleb, her eyes saying, “I’m sorry.” Kaleb stayed still and allowed the man to finish up. His mouth had gone dry and he did what he could to gather some moisture, going as far as to suck on the insides of his cheeks. After his hands and feet were tied up, the man moved on to Emily, first blindfolding her with a red bandana that was dirty with what looked like car grease. She incomprehensibly babbled in bursts, like she was speaking in tongues and the sounds lingered in Kaleb’s ears. The only noise he’d ever heard that sounded similar was when he’d cornered a member of the Taliban in a house outside of Kabul. He remembered the repeated syllables that had spouted from the man’s mouth: jan-da jan-da jan-da. He’d pulled the trigger, then turned to see a cloaked woman clutching a newborn. 
        When the man grabbed Emily by the arm and led her towards the back door, she gagged, and a torrent of vomit splattered on the carpet, bits of beets in brown puddles, like pieces of exploded flesh. She squirmed and did her best to pull away, but she was too puny, and once he pressed the barrel of the six-shooter against the back of her temple, she went soft, her knees weak, like she hadn’t any bones in her body, and he threw open the back sliding door and led her into the night.
	Kaleb wrestled with the ropes. He tugged and yanked, spread his hands apart again and again, doing whatever he could to loosen the cords. He heard Emily finally scream for help. “Please,” she begged. “Kaleb!” Cold blasts of wind struck Kaleb as he did his best to get to her, tumbling and rolling to the opened back door. From the carpet, he saw the man open the trunk of a car and shove Emily inside. Kaleb writhed on the floor and shouted, but he knew no one could hear a thing with the brash wind and the nearest neighbor miles away. The man got into the driver’s-seat, closed the door, and headed up the long snowy driveway to the main road. 
        Soon after the man’s car took off, Kaleb was back in Army mindset. Adrenaline flushed his legs and his chest tingled. He’d been back eight months, but he already pined for the rush of war, the desire to help, fight, and to be needed by his fellow soldiers. More than anything, he missed being a hero. He had craved the way Emily used to speak to him when he was a soldier. He had noticed that these days, whenever he told people he worked as a park ranger at Jericho State Park, Emily was quick to say, “Yeah, he does that now. A little something for him to stay busy. But he used to be in the Army, fighting in Afghanistan.” Most people thanked him for his service and never asked about the park job. Why would they? It was nothing more than babysitting trees. “And it bothers you, that she says that? That she always talks about your past?” The psychiatrist had continued muttering: “Are you sure you’re okay? It’s not your fault that Wiggins is dead. So you guys were throwing a football around. It’s tough to come back. Trust me, I know. War is cocaine and the rest of the world is decaf coffee. Kaleb?”
        The man had done a lousy job tying Kaleb’s hands together, using nothing other than bow knots that weren’t effective for rope because the ends were too thick. In less than two minutes, Kaleb had worked his hands free and managed to crawl to the kitchen where he grabbed a bread knife and cut through the rope that fastened his feet. He sawed through in little time, and was up, throwing on a coat and jeans, and grabbing his other firearm — a Glock — that he had stowed away in the pantry behind some canned goods. He slammed a magazine into the base, ripped his keys from the hook near the back door, and sprinted to his truck. She wasn’t far, he thought. She couldn’t be. The main road only went south a half mile, maybe less. The man had to have gone north.
        He hopped in his truck, shoved the key into the ignition, and lit the motor. He took off, the tires spluttering on the soft ground, then catching and kicking up clumps of snow. Never again had he thought he’d feel the burn of war. It was a muscle, he’d thought, that would quickly atrophy, but here he was, and he could hear Wiggins rattle in his brain: “Attention, soldiers. A woman was taken from this cabin. Suspect heading north, driving a sedan with a broken taillight.” He sped northwards, his foot heavy on the gas and his hands tight on the steering wheel. There was nothing in this New Hampshire night — just coldness and darkness and some flakes of snow. His radio played, but was too soft to hear, and when he did pick up on it, he shut it off and delivered a few controlled puffs of air. 
        The shrink was right: Coming home from war wasn’t easy. Kaleb had thought it was probably a lot like getting out of jail. The real world and military life were different existences. He’d gotten used to writing Emily cards, and having her send him packages stuffed with taffy and black licorice and Dunkin’ Doughnuts coffee. He’d loved the way she wrote the E in Emily, curly and round, like a backwards three, and that she’d always signed each card with XOXO. Many times, he’d even pressed his lips to the seal of the envelope knowing her lips had been there first. He’d thought that she seemed to love him more when he was away. In every card she’d sent to base, she’d used the words brave and hero, and since he’d been back, she’d never called him those things. They’d only made love nine times, too, and he worried that she was no longer attracted to him without the uniform. He’d even caught her once, in the ricochet of the bathroom mirror, standing by his closet and brushing the fibers of his dress uniform.
        As he navigated the switchbacks, he thought he could see a red dot in the distance. It was the red dot of one taillight, but it was quick to disappear as Kaleb careened into a sharp turn. The tires skittered as the heavy Ford leaned into the curve, but Kaleb pushed hard, trying his best to close the gap. His mouth had gone dry again, and his teeth had started chattering. The forest flanked both sides of the icy road, and Kaleb pictured men deep in the dark, painted with mud, lurking behind the pines and maples. Jan-da jan-da jan-da. Jan-da jan-da. A clicking sound popped into his head, too, the snapping of a rifle bolt, and he shifted his weight on his seat, crinkling a page from last week’s local newspaper. He’d been on patrol like usual at the state park; the Wednesday had been calm. No one had picnicked or camped, just a few hikers had passed through. Kaleb had read the paper in his booth and come across an article: Lifeguard at YCMA Pool Saves Teenage Girl. He’d even managed to memorize a few of the sentences from the teenager: I just couldn’t catch my breath, and I started to panic and choke. It was horrible. It all went fast, and then he was there, and I was in his arms, and he brought me up, like an angel, like a hero. After he’d finished the article in his booth, his cell phone rang. He’d picked up, and the woman on the other end of the line had detailed that there was a man in the woman’s restroom by White Birch Trail. “I think he’s high,” she’d said. “Maybe heroin. I definitely saw a needle. That’s heroin, right? The one with the needle?”
        The speedometer pointed at fifty. Again, Kaleb felt his truck plane, so he let his foot off the gas and drove in the center of the road, where his knobby Goodyears straddled the yellow dividing lines. Was Emily still crying for him? Where did she think she was going? Did she know that he was coming after her? He played her cry in his mind and heard the way she held onto the a in Kaleb. Her voice was fragile, like a little girl’s, helpless and pure. He’d never seen her like that, and he never wanted to again. 
        Snow fell harder and faster now, and Kaleb flipped on his wipers and watched the powder smudge across the windshield. He cranked the defroster to max. He was closing in on the man. “And how long have you heard the voices? The screams? What are those words? Are they Arabic or something? And you’ve been counting heads in restaurants, grocery stores, and shopping malls? All the time? Do you own any guns? Kaleb? Do you hear me, Kaleb?” 
        He slapped his face and shook his head. The Glock dug further into his stomach and he readjusted it. Kaleb always believed that heroism was less about bravery and more about timing. The ability to show courage wasn’t rare, the opportunity was. He concentrated on the man’s single taillight, a glowing spot of red, a setting sun. “Emily!” he called out. “Emily!” 
        The road climbed. A gust kicked up, too, causing a swirl of flurries to brush against the truck. Kaleb smashed the gas pedal and gripped the wheel harder. He was almost there now, no more than a quarter mile away. His thoughts turned back to that day last week: After the woman had called him, he’d gone to the restroom. It wasn’t uncommon for junkies to seek refuge in the park, and he’d been hard on them, hoping that if word spread, they’d stop coming. As soon as Kaleb had pushed open the bathroom door, the stench of urine had made him cringe. Day had broken through the plastic skylight in the ceiling and lit a man who was wedged between the sink and the trashcan. The man had worn olive cargo pants and a white stained t-shirt that was stretched over a muscular torso. A jacket was tucked behind his head and his sleepy eyes roamed the restroom. Even though it was chilly out, the man had been sweating and his cheeks were ruddy.
        “Emily!” Kaleb screamed as the shafts of his headlights finally lit the bumper of the man’s car. He checked his Glock, made sure it was still tucked into his jeans and chewed on the inside of his cheek till he drew blood. “I’m coming for you,” he whispered. If he managed to save her, he wondered what the paper would read, if the headline would mention the word hero, like the article he’d memorized. Could Emily hear the growl of his engine? Often when he arrived home from work, she’d say, “Knew you were home. Heard your truck from far away.” He accelerated, hoping the rumble of his hearty V8 would reach her ears. 
        The road now descended. Kaleb let his foot off the gas and watched the RPM needle slide down to two-thousand. He neared the old sedan, was no more than twenty feet away now, his brights shining through the back window. And then, just after mile-marker thirty-nine, without slowing down, the man swung his car off the main road onto a dirt path. Kaleb hammered the brakes and the Thermos that rested on the passenger seat pinged off the dash and rolled around on the floor. Kaleb didn’t follow. He stayed straight on the main road. He knew this area far better than the man. He knew it far better than anyone, actually. Day after day, he had surveyed this outer fringe of the park, even made himself get lost just to find his way out. The man had just turned off onto an emergency fire trail that led to a large cleaning in the forest. Let him think he pulled one over on me, Kaleb thought, knowing that there was another entrance to the very same clearing at mile-marker forty. From forty, it was actually a smoother drive to the clearing, too, so with his 4x4, he was certain he’d beat the man to the spot. 
	In the quiet of the truck’s cabin, he remembered the desperation in the druggie’s voice: “Please,” he’d begged, “don’t call the police. Don’t make me go back to jail! I can’t! My wife and kids. Just… please! I beg of you! I’ll do ten years this time.” The man had collapsed onto the floor, the words having drained him. His chest had risen and fallen rapidly. A syringe had dropped from his left hand and rolled towards Kaleb’s boots. Kaleb hadn’t said a thing. He’d grabbed his phone from his pocket and dialed the police.
	His headlights grazed the green mile-marker forty sign. He tapped the brakes and swerved onto the trail. His palms were sore from clutching the wheel so tightly, and he removed them after completing the turn and opened and closed his hands to get some of the feeling back. He started down the trail. He could hear Wiggins again, dishing out details, telling him where to be and what to do and how to get in and get out, and he started to visualize the scenario, even see Emily’s face when he took control. She’d beam. She’d know she made the right decision to marry him, and she’d be overjoyed that her soldier was back home and all hers. She’d no longer have to tell her friends about his past in order to validate his present. No, the papers and the local — maybe even the national— news shows would do that for her. Even the other rangers who’d been on the job longer and who had more seniority would be intimidated. Maybe they wouldn’t try to push weekend duty on him any longer. Maybe Emily would leave her painting studio to come on a hike with him, and they’d finally get around to having a family, like they so often talked about in their letters. “I’m glad your wife sent you to me, Kaleb. She loves you so much. There are medications that may help. Many people in your position are like powder kegs. You’re courageous to come here. You’re courageous to your core.”
	When he began the decline into the clearing, he canvassed the surroundings. It was a straight shot. He then killed the headlights, shut off the engine, and coasted down the trail in neutral. There were no other lights on the scene yet, and Kaleb gathered that he’d beaten the man to the clearing. Wind traced the truck and, without the engine running, the cabin turned cold fast. Kaleb’s eyes were dry. He blinked a few times to get some of the moisture back. He’d save his Emily. He knew he would.
	He hit the brakes and clicked on the lights one last time. He was about halfway down the incline, less than hundred yards from the clearing. He yanked the emergency brake and popped out of the truck. He didn’t want to be in the actual clearing when the man arrived with Emily. He wanted to take the man by surprise. The weather had dropped even more, into the high twenties, Kaleb thought, and the snow had made the ground wet and slushy.
	Deep in the timber, there was a thickness to the quiet — dark and rich. Only the sounds of his body against the night. One step, then another. He heard his heart, his grinding teeth, and a steady ringing in his ears. This was just like the days in the mountains near Kandahar. He always heard this faint drilling sound in his ears when he was focused. It was his brain’s way of letting him know he was ready. He took deep breath after deep breath and tried to get his fingers to stop twitching. He pressed on, crouching towards the clearing, stepping over fallen branches and stray pinecones, amazed at how well he navigated without the weight of body armor. Were people behind him? Following him? Scurrying, laughing? He even thought he could hear Wiggins snickering, and the cloaked woman and her baby crying. They seemed close, right around the corner. Jan-da jan-da jan-da. He ripped his Glock from his jeans and swung the gun around. “Leave me alone,” he whispered. 
	Columns of light sliced through the forest from the northern end of the clearing, and then Kaleb heard the sounds of tires crunching snow and gripping against rough road. He took cover behind a pine. The wind kicked up again, blasting Kaleb, making him turn his back and wait until the gale had passed. He continued, wending through the dark forest, ripping through thickets of shrubbery and messes of undergrowth and swamps of mud that tugged at his boots and pant legs. His teeth knocked together and the ringing grew sharper in his ears.  
	He could now make out the man’s running car. He gripped his Glock tighter, felt the cold metal against his palm, and brought the barrel in the direction of the man’s car. He was only twenty yards out now.
	As he neared the clearing, Kaleb tried to inspect the man. It was black everywhere but where the headlights lit, and the man couldn’t be spotted. He gathered the man was at the trunk when he heard the latch unlock, the hinges squeak, and Emily scream. The scream didn’t even sound human, and in this open air, it carried like a wave, and pinged in Kaleb’s ears for several seconds. He wanted to call out: “Emily, I’m here. I’m here for you. I love you. Please don’t leave me.” He tucked his gun back into his jeans and blew on his hands. 
	The man grabbed Emily and took her out in front of his car. The headlights were bright and beaming, and lit the cold forest perfectly. He shoved her and, because her feet were tied, she tumbled face first to the ground, causing the red bandana to loosen and fall to her side. Traces of powder rose into the shafts of the car’s lights. The man stood in the front of the car, pointed the gun at her, and told her in a steady voice, “Don’t try anything.”
Kaleb swallowed hard and tasted some blood from his chewed cheeks. It had always helped him to countdown when he was this focused, and so he did. He positioned himself on the ground, propped his elbows, pointed the Glock, took aim at the man’s chest, and waited for him to stabilize. Jan-da jan-da jan-da. He started counting down from ten. Emily lay motionless on the ground, her face angled in Kaleb’s direction. Eight. Her eyes seem to speak to him. Big and clear, begging for help. Six. And then she screamed again, pleaded. Her eyes snapped shut. “Kaleb!” she said. “Please! Kaleb!” In possibly her last breaths, it was his face and name that came to her so easily. Even in this cold, Kaleb felt his neck and face grow hot. Three. Kaleb exhaled. Two. One.
	The gun jumped in his hands.
	A shell sputtered from the magazine.
	A single shot from the dark forest.
	He’d hit the man in his left shoulder. Then he fired three more times. Blood and brain matter erupted from the man’s head as the fatal bullets struck. The man’s legs buckled and his body went down in a heap, his head smacking the front bumper of his car as he fell. Once on the ground, his legs jerked and his hands clawed at the snow. That was number thirty-three. At this point it was easy, routine. Kaleb was used to the smell of sulfur, the sound, the power of the trigger, and he let out a breath he’d been holding and pushed himself off the ground. He tucked his Glock into his coat pocket, against his heart.
	Emily shrieked and twisted her head from side to side. Gasps left her mouth fast and hard and strands of hair fell in front of her eyes as she searched the surroundings. “Help!” she managed to say, and Kaleb stepped out of the forest and into the clearing and rushed her way. “Emily,” he said. He entered the light, dropped down, brushed the hair from her face, and watched her eyes widen. She gazed at him the way he’d always wanted her to — with awe. She cried as he pulled a pocket knife from his jeans and cut through the rope that wrapped her hands and feet. He pulled her up and she gripped his back and shoulders. Her words were hurried and soft, but he made out, “Save me.” And she was right. He had. Now she had proof. All of it hadn’t happened overseas, in another land, but here in her zip code where she was born and raised. “I love,” she said. “I love.” And he dug his hands into her hair and pulled the thin fabric of her pajamas. “Me too,” he said.
	The man was behind Kaleb and Emily, still, on the ground, and he groaned one final time. It was a sound that reminded Kaleb of when he’d first seen the man in the women’s restroom, high on heroin. “Please, man!” he’d begged. “I’ll do whatever you want. Whatever!” And Kaleb had stopped dialing, the article still very much on his mind: I just couldn’t catch my breath, and I started to panic and choke. It was horrible. It all went fast, and then he was there, and I was in his arms, and he brought me up, like an angel, like a hero. Kaleb had invited the man into his truck, gotten all of his information. “I’ll let you go, never mention this to anybody, under one condition. That you do something for me.” And Kaleb had gone on, detailed the plan, told him that the backdoor didn’t lock, told him about the gun cabinet, told him about the phones, and told him not to tie him up too good. “Keep yourself straight till then, too,” Kaleb had said. “Afterwards get as high as you want. All right? Got it?” The man had nodded. “Mile-marker thirty-nine?” the man had repeated. “And you’ll enter at forty. Once I’m there, get her out of the car, walk her to the front. And you’ll just shoot a warning shot high above my head, scare me off, and I’ll get back in my car. That will be it? You’ll just let it all go? Blow over?” Kaleb had nodded, a smile forming on his face. “Exactly,” Kaleb had said. “Now say it all again.” 
	A swirl of wind overtook the clearing, powering against bark, and scattering flurries. Emily and Kaleb huddled together in the bright light. Emily’s body convulsed and she sobbed and clawed at Kaleb’s back. Even through his thick jacket, he could feel her nails on his spine, and it reminded him of the way they used to love one another, before he’d enlisted. She squeezed him hard, like she’d never let go, then tighter, until he found it difficult to breathe. 
	The gun popped in his breast pocket. 
        Emily jumped back and Kaleb coughed and tried to catch his breath. It took him a moment to realize what had happened. In his excitement, he hadn’t clicked on the safety. Emily was frozen, her mouth open, and they locked eyes as Kaleb brought the zipper down on his jacket, revealing a red circle on his t-shirt that grew by the second. She hurried over and yanked his shirt up. One bullet right in the abdomen. He hadn’t felt anything, actually. He coughed more, and started to choke on his own blood. Then his legs went numb and he fell back on the ground and aligned his gaze with the tops of trees and the yellow tendrils of light that illuminated the many flakes.
	He thought he could smell the evergreen of the forest and the wetness of the snow. It all came through so easily. He pictured the football spiraling through the hot air and dropping perfectly into Wiggins’s arms. Then Wiggins was laughing and doing a celebratory dance. His eyes stayed open and he could see Emily hover above him. Once more, he pulled a labored breath through his mouth and felt his warm blood coat his stomach and chest. “No,” he heard Emily say over and again. “No.” She placed her hands about his body, but the blood continued to seep, saturate her pajamas, run over his flesh, and pool on the white ground. She gazed at him with her large eyes, her pupils stretched to the rims of her brown irises — the same one that had beckoned him to kiss her that night on the Hampton Beach boardwalk right after the movie on their way to the diner to share gravy-soaked fries. He saw the two of them, under soft street lights, strolling to the front door, her hair dancing with the salty breeze, his hand attached to hers, and then he heard her whisper fade through the walls of his consciousness: “Hero. Hero. My hero.”


Mathieu Cailler is the author of six books. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous national and international publications. He is the recipient of a Shakespeare Award, a Short Story America Prize, and a New England Book Festival Award. Heaven and Other Zip Codes, his debut novel and most recently published book, was named the winner of the 2021 Los Angeles Book Festival Prize. He can be found at