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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


              There was no clock in Mckayla’s room, but she was 9 years old, she didn’t need or want a clock. So when she was awoken in the dark of her room by a strange sound, she had no way of knowing what time it was, only that it was after her bedtime and before morning. She heard the TV in the living room, but her father often fell asleep in front of the TV and inadvertently spent the whole night on the couch.

               It was not the sound of the TV that had awoken her. The sound had come from outside her window, which was open so that any passing breezes could slip into McKayla’s bedroom through the screen, improving her sleep. Nor was the sound among those typically heard through McKayla’s open window at night: the aforementioned breeze stirring in the greenery, the unassuming commentary of nocturnal birds, cars shuffling through the neighborhood on tiptoe tires. This sound was human, a sob or sigh or something similar.

               McKayla rolled over under her sheet and thinner warm-weather comforter so that she faced the window instead of her bedroom door. The window was right next to McKayla’s bed – she could almost reach it from where she lay – and though it was open, the venetian blinds were not, the gentle circulation of night air tapping them against the window frame. McKayla saw no shadowed figure through the blinds, but she sensed someone there, someone standing in the reddish woodchips of the side-yard flowerbed. She heard the person inhale via mouth, exhale via nose. It was the breath of a grown man, it had those qualities.

               McKayla closed her eyes. She was not frightened. The man was probably just passing through her yard, and besides, the sounds he was making were sad, not dangerous. McKayla didn’t know of any reason to be afraid of sad men passing through her yard, not even at night.

               Outside the window, feet shifted in the woodchips, a throat was cleared. “I hate that it matters to me.” The voice was low and coarsened by weariness. “I usually deny that it does matter to me. But it does, if I’m not going to admit that now, then what’s the point?”

               McKayla said nothing. She did not recognize the voice and did not know what the man was talking about. She couldn’t imagine it had anything to do with her.

               “We want to believe we’re descended from good people,” said the man. “We all want to believe that, even if we ourselves are not particularly good. Isn’t that so?”

               McKayla didn’t think the man was really asking her. She stayed quiet.

               “It’s not that I want to know that I’m descended from kings and heroes,” said the man. “Well, I would like that, but I don’t require that to feel good about my heritage. And it isn’t even about modern societal definitions of respectability…”

               The man kept talking. The subject matter and vocabulary level had convinced McKayla that he was definitely not talking to her, but she found his voice soothing. In a way, the fact that she didn’t understand what he was talking about made it more soothing because she didn’t have to think about the content at all. McKayla closed her eyes and her mind wandered; she began to mentally compose a wish list for her birthday party, which was still three months away, and she performed her nightmare-prevention trick where she thought about the scariest scenes from movies that had troubled her and imagined funny elements into those scenes that then robbed them of their power to scare. For example, that alien abduction movie her cousin had shown her: McKayla imagined the gray alien appearing in the mom character’s kitchen surrounded by a sinister light, but instead of doing what it did in the movie (she preferred not to focus on that), what if the alien had said, “Can I use your bathroom?” McKayla knew “bathroom” was cheap, but the goal wasn’t to make the scenes as funny as possible, it was to make them as un-scary as possible.

               “I should go,” said the man outside McKayla’s window.

               McKayla’s eyes fluttered open. She’d been dozing, fading in and out to the rhythm of the man’s speech.

               “Thank you for listening,” said the man. “I feel much better.”

               McKayla almost said, “Good night,” but she stopped herself. She felt a little guilty for not paying closer attention to what the man was talking about since it now seemed apparent that he had been talking to her. But he also seemed pleased with how things had gone, so McKayla supposed it was OK that she hadn’t listened as well as the man thought she had.

               McKayla heard the man leave, then she fell asleep.


               When McKayla was 26, she began an old-fashioned letter correspondence with her boss’s son, a guy named Devan who lived in a different state and didn’t like the internet, although McKayla later found out he mostly didn’t like it because he couldn’t afford it. Devan also didn’t like talking on the phone because he lived with three snoopy roommates who eavesdropped on his conversations and used what they gleaned against him in ways that he would not describe in his letters. Other than the slowness, though, McKayla didn’t mind communicating with Devan via mail. He wrote great letters – both romantic and funny – and he wrote tons of them. Sometimes McKayla would receive five letters from Devan in a single week. She couldn’t keep pace, but Devan didn’t complain.

               After a year, Devan proposed marriage to McKayla at the end of the longest letter he’d ever written her: 12 pages of notebook paper, front and back. McKayla wrote back right away to accept. Next thing she knew, there was Devan at the side door of the house McKayla rented from her boss, Devan’s mom. He looked better than the few photos he’d sent: younger despite never having been older, and wearing nicer clothes, and not anywhere near as dopey as he’d looked in the worst of the pictures.

               “I could have moved to you,” said McKayla, but she was glad she didn’t have to.

The one inconvenient thing was that Devan insisted on starting married life in a house that his mother did not own. He didn’t want her to have landlord levels of control over his life, and he didn’t trust the workmen she hired to do repairs on her properties. “Her hiring criteria is all out of whack,” said Devan. “All she cares about is their religious beliefs.”

“What beliefs are those?” asked McKayla.

               “I don’t know,” said Devan.

               “You don’t know your own mom’s religious beliefs?”

               “I do too,” said Devan. “I just don’t know what kind of religious beliefs she favors in those loser workmen she hires.”

               “Probably the same as hers,” said McKayla.

               “You’d think,” said Devan.

               McKayla, who was paid well enough to not have to pretend to dislike the internet for the sake of her pride, found a nice house online for her and Devan to rent. The landlady ended up being a friendly rival of Devan’s mom, so she was delighted to have him as a tenant, and she even offered a discount when McKayla expressed last-second reservations about signing the lease because Devan still didn’t have a job.

               McKayla and Devan had a small wedding in Officer David K. Wolst Memorial Park, then they honeymooned for three days at a hotel right down the street from the Heavenburg City Zoo. They went to the zoo every day, spending hours watching the penguins in their dark, air conditioned enclosure. Multioak had a zoo too, of course, but Heavenburg’s was better. Additionally, the Multioak zoo had been overrun by posters and placards featuring a comedian who had been born near Multioak, and who had since donated a lot of money to the zoo. McKayla and Devan shared a distaste for the comedian.

               On the last evening of their honeymoon, McKayla and Devan reclined on their hotel bed and drank vanilla milkshakes while watching modern cartoons on the TV, comparing them unfavorably to the cartoons of their youths.

               “There’s probably a lot I still don’t know about you,” said Devan.

               “I tried to tell you as much as I could in the letters,” said McKayla.

               “I’m not complaining!” said Devan. “It’s exciting that there’s still so much I get to find out.”

               “Thank you,” said McKayla. “I’m excited to find out more about you too.”

               “What’s something I don’t know about you?” asked Devan. He used his straw as an inefficient spoon, scooping milkshake toward his mouth.

               “Like what?” asked McKayla.

               “Anything,” said Devan. “Something you want me to know. Something I should know. You can tell me anything.”

               “Oh!” said McKayla. “You saying it like that made me think of something.”

               “Great,” said Devan. “What is it?”

               “Ha ha,” said McKayla. “Now that I think of it, I definitely need to tell you since it’s gonna involve you now too.”

               “It is?” asked Devan.

               “Well, we’re gonna be sleeping in the same room, right?” asked McKayla. “The same bed?”

               “Ideally,” said Devan with a laugh.

               “Then yeah, it’s gonna involve you,” said McKayla.

               “I’m very curious,” said Devan.

               “It’s not that big of a deal,” said McKayla. “But I guess it’s a little strange. It only happens a couple of times a month at the most.”

               “What does?” asked Devan.

               “A man stands outside my window and talks about his problems,” said McKayla. “But he isn’t especially loud. His voice is kind of nice. You might just sleep right through it. He wakes me up, but then again, I guess I wouldn’t know if there were times when he didn’t wake me up.”

               Devan stopped both eating and drinking his milkshake. “A man?” he asked “What man?”

               “I don’t know,” said McKayla. “I’ve never met him.”

               “But what does he look like?”

               “I don’t know that either,” said McKayla. “I keep the blinds closed.”

               “But why does this happen?” asked Devan. “How long has this been going on?”

               “Since I was 9,” said McKayla. “I guess it makes him feel better. That’s what he says.”

               “Since you were 9?” said Devan. “For…17 years? How is that even possible? Haven’t you lived in several different apartments since then?”

               “He always finds me again,” said McKayla. “Not sure how. Every time I move I think, well, this might be the time when he loses me, but nope, he always shows up again, talking about his problems outside my window. I like sleeping with my window open, but even when it’s closed, like during the winter, I can still hear him pretty well. I even had a second-story apartment once, but sure enough, he must have found a way up into the tree, ‘cause it wasn’t too long before I heard him out there.” She chuckled to herself, trying to ease Devan’s obvious tension. She didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to her that the situation would make Devan uncomfortable. She supposed it was because she’d lived with it so long that it didn’t strike her as creepy. Of course, it hadn’t struck her as creepy when she was 9, either.

               “So he’s a stalker,” said Devan. He set his milkshake down on the bedside table and swiveled to sit cross-legged facing McKayla. “Has he ever tried to come inside? Have you ever noticed things missing from the house, the garage, the yard, your car?”

               “No, no, no, no,” said McKayla. “It isn’t anything like that.”

               “What do you say to him?” asked Devan.

               It was the first time McKayla had heard him use an accusatory tone directed at her, and it hurt her feelings. “I don’t say anything,” she said. “I never have. I usually just lie there and, I don’t know, sort of half-listen or think about other things or drift off, I don’t know…”

               “Then how does he know you’re there?” asked Devan.

               “I don’t know,” said McKayla. “It’s mysterious.”

               “It’s not mysterious,” said Devan. “I mean, it is, but in a bad way.”

               “It isn’t bad,” said McKayla. “It helps him to have someone to talk to, Devan. He sounds so sad, but then when he leaves, he sounds better. Less sad. He thanks me for listening.”

               “He’s using you,” said Devan. “He’s taking advantage of you, and he’s manipulated you into thinking this is a good thing, somehow. How old is he? Was he a grown man when you were 9?”

               “Yes,” said McKayla. “I don’t know how old he is. But he never talks about anything, like, gross. It’s all about, oh, fear of failure, worrying he doesn’t feel as deeply as other people, wishing he could appreciate dance as an art form, wishing he was an inconsequential bird like a sparrow…”

               “He talks to you about wishing he was a sparrow?” asked Devan. “Through your window in the middle of the night? That’s sick, McKayla. That’s sick.

               “It is?” asked McKayla. “It didn’t seem that sick to me. It was just kind of sad. Like most of what he says.”

               “So he makes you sad,” said Devan. “You don’t think that’s a problem?”

               “He doesn’t make me feel sad,” said McKayla. “Not at all.”

               “I don’t like it,” said Devan. “I don’t like anything about it. We need to call the police.”

               “No!” said McKayla. “That would be such a betrayal. He’s been talking to me for 17 years and I’ve never discouraged him. How is it fair for him to suddenly get in trouble for it now? He might not even show up outside our window. Maybe now that I’m married he won’t come anymore.” The thought made McKayla sad. She hoped it wasn’t true, but she didn’t want trouble between the man and Devan. Maybe she’d be able to convince Devan that it wasn’t a problem by the time the man showed up at their new place. Or maybe once Devan experienced one of the man’s visits for himself, he’d see that there was nothing to worry about, that the man was not a threat in any way.

               “He’d better not show up,” said Devan. “But if he does, I’ll warn him once. After that, if he shows up again, I’m calling the police.”

               McKayla said nothing. The honeymoon was almost over, but the argument cast a pall over what little remained. McKayla wondered if Devan would have taken her explanation of the situation with the man better if it had come in the form of a letter. On the drive back to Multioak the next morning, McKayla asked, “So what’s something else I should know about you, then?”

               “Hmm,” said Devan. “I was born with two teeth already in my mouth.”

               “I know,” said McKayla. “You told me that in your letters. Three times.”

               “Oh,” said Devan.


               Two weeks after McKayla and Devan had moved into their house, and three days after Devan had started his job at a medical study of exertion where he was paid almost 20 dollars an hour to exert himself all day, McKayla woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of the man’s voice coming through the window, which was across the room on Devan’s side of the bed. McKayla and Devan had not discussed the subject of the man’s nighttime visits since the honeymoon, but she suspected Devan had arranged the bedroom as he had for a reason. He had also put up a small resistance to sleeping with the window open, but McKayla had argued earnestly and honestly about why it was important to her without so much as alluding to the man, and Devan had relented.

               “I can’t stand my old hobbies,” said the man. “But taking up new ones feels like an abandonment of my identity.”

               McKayla looked at Devan in the dark. He lay on his right side facing her, his back to the window. His eyes were closed and his breathing sounded like sleep. The man’s voice was quiet, but always audible, always clear.

               “But on the other hand,” the man continued, “how is it that not enjoying things I used to enjoy doesn’t constitute an abandonment of my identity? Maybe it does. And what good is being true to my identity if it means I spend the rest of my life pursuing interests I no longer hold?”

               Devan stirred and cleared his throat.

               McKayla glanced at the window, then back to her husband’s sleeping face. Did he seem more awake? No, he didn’t, but she still wished the man outside her window would make it a short session tonight. Her worry was resulting in a much less soothing experience with the man than usual. Far from letting her mind wander or dozing off, McKayla was fixated on whether or not Devan was about to wake up and freak out.

               “But interest always waxes and wanes,” said the man. “We don’t abandon things entirely because of a period of reduced interest. Except we do, sometimes. I do. I have. Why should interest be the thing that governs how we spend our time?”

               McKayla slipped out of bed and crept to the window on the balls of her bare feet. She stooped so her mouth was near the slim space between the edge of the venetian blinds and the window frame. She felt night air on her lips and in her nose. “Hello?” she whispered.

               The man’s voice skidded to a halt in mid-sentence.

               “It’s me. McKayla.” She had no idea if the man knew her name or not. There was no response from the other side of the window, but McKayla detected faint breathing, the sound of a forefinger scratching a forearm or forehead. “I have a husband now,” she said. “I told him about you and he got upset. I couldn’t explain you very well. He’s in here right now and he’s asleep, but I just wanted to warn you that if he wakes up and hears you talking through the window, he might react kind of badly. He said he’d give you a warning first, but…well, I just want you to know that I don’t agree with him. I’m on your side. I know I’ve never spoken to you before, and I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I thought it was important to tell you this.” She glanced over her shoulder at the bed. Devan still had his back to her, but she imagined him lying as he was with his eyes wide open, listening to her telling the man outside the window she was on his side, and it made her nervous. “You can keep talking,” said McKayla, turning back to the window, “but be prepared.” She scurried back to the bed and crawled in. Devan’s eyes were not open. Was he feigning sleep? McKayla lay back and pulled her portion of the blankets up to her neck, her pulse at full gallop.

               “And my hobbies weren’t always my hobbies,” said the man, picking up where McKayla had interrupted him. “I wasn’t born into them. I had to pick them up somewhere along the way. When I did, was I abandoning my identity that came before them? Why should switching hobbies feel more like a crisis of identity than switching jobs, switching cities? It’s a foolish thing to agonize over, I know, but here I am.”

               McKayla felt something and turned her head to look at Devan again. His eyes were open. Even in the near-dark of the room, McKayla saw his face shift from bleary confusion to anger in a matter of moments.

               “See?” whispered McKayla, reaching for Devan’s hand under the covers. “Harmless. He’s almost done.”

               “Maybe if my hobbies could benefit other people,” said the man outside the window. “Maybe if they had some utility besides occupying my mind, busying my hands.”

               Devan threw back the covers, sprang from the bed, and stalked to the window.

               “Devan, please,” said McKayla, sitting up in bed.

               Devan grabbed the cord for the venetian blinds and yanked, shouting, “Don’t come back! Next time I'm calling the cops!” He leaned forward to press his forehead against the window, swiveling it one way, then the other. “He’s gone.”

               “You scared him,” said McKayla.

               “Good,” said Devan, struggling with the blinds. He had yanked the cord too hard and was now having trouble getting them closed again.

               “Why couldn’t you just talk to him like a normal person?”

               “Because he isn’t a normal person,” said Devan.

               “I meant why couldn’t you talk to him like you’re a normal person?” said McKayla. “Instead of charging and shouting. You could have tried to be nice.”

               “My reaction is the exact reaction any normal person would have in these circumstances,” said Devan. “I promise you.”

               “So mine isn’t,” said McKayla. “That’s what you’re saying.”

                “Tolerating a strange man following you from house to house talking through your window a few nights a month for 17 years?” said Devan. “No, that isn’t normal.” He flung the cord to the blinds away from him so it clacked against the wall. “I broke them.” He strode back to the bed and flopped down on top of the covers.

               McKayla held her question in for as long as she could, but she knew it was inevitable. Ten minutes passed. The room was much lighter with the blinds open. “What did he look like?” she finally asked.

               “I don’t know,” said Devan. “By the time I looked, he was gone.”

               McKayla was relieved. She didn’t want Devan to know what the man looked like if she didn’t, but she preferred that neither of them knew. “If he was already gone, he probably didn’t hear your warning, Devan.”

               “So?” said Devan.

               “So if he didn’t hear your warning, then it isn’t fair for you to call the cops on him next time.”

               “If he didn’t stick around to hear my warning, that’s his fault,” said Devan. “He knows I don’t want him here. That’s warning enough.”

               “What if he comes back to you because he wants to work something out with you?” asked McKayla. “What if he wants to apologize? Are you gonna call the cops then?”

               “Come on, McKayla,” said Devan. “I exerted myself all day today, I have to exert myself all day tomorrow, and it’s very tiring.”

               “I wish you would trust me to vouch for him,” said McKayla.

               “Good idea,” said Devan. “That way he can kill us both.”

               “Of course,” said McKayla. “That’s his plan. How could I have not seen it sooner? Start telling me about his problems through my bedroom window when I’m 9, do that for 17 years, wait for me to get married, and then spring his trap.” She laughed, and she knew it sounded derisive, but she didn’t care.

               “Fine,” said Devan. “Do I know why this guy has been whining through a window to you for 17 years without ever introducing himself? No. And neither do you. But tell anyone else about this and they’ll be on my side. I guarantee it.”

               Devan was almost certainly right and McKayla knew it, but that did not change her mind, it only made her sorry for everyone she knew, for the whole rest of the world. She rolled onto her side, turning her back to Devan. The accumulated light from the moon, stars, streetlights, and neighbors’ porchlights coming through the window shaped a pale imitation of the window on the blank wall on McKayla’s side of the room; it admitted no breeze, no nighttime sounds, and no voices, sad, soothing, or otherwise.


               Since McKayla could think of no possible angle from which she could approach the argument with a clear shot at winning, she again avoided talking to Devan about the man outside the window. She tried not to think about it too much either since every time she did, she felt stabs of bitterness toward her husband. She knew he thought he was being protective. He didn’t seem capable of acknowledging that he was also acting out of jealousy and ignorance, but the situation was odd. McKayla just wished she could make Devan see that the oddness did not constitute a threat to her, him, or anyone.

               At least the blinds weren’t broken. Devan had fixed them without much trouble when he approached them in a calmer state.

               A week and a half after his first visit to McKayla and Devan’s new house, the man returned during a light two-a.m. storm. McKayla was lying awake listening to the polite, almost sheepish thunder and wondering if the carpet beneath the window was getting damp when she heard the man clear his throat, a sound that would have surely been lost in the patter of the rain had she not been attuned to it.

               “Why should anyone trust me?” said the man. “I don’t trust myself. I can’t. The fact that everyone’s crooked is no consolation. I’ve committed offenses against rightness worse than many crimes, and they surely haunt me more than my crimes.”

               McKayla hoped Devan was not hearing this. She turned her head to look at him and saw that he was wide awake, reaching for his phone on his nightstand.

               “Don’t,” whispered McKayla.

               Devan ignored her. As soon as he said, “Hello? I’d like to report a prowler in our yard” into his phone, the man stopped speaking. By the time the police arrived, he was long gone.

               One of the officers was middle-aged, the other was much younger. They stood in McKayla and Devan’s living room gripping their belts. There were many small, dark splotches on the shoulders of their uniforms. McKayla supposed cops probably didn’t use umbrellas while they were on duty very often. “Guess which one of us is the rookie,” said the younger one.

                “Um, him,” said Devan, pointing at the older officer.

               “Yeah, you guessed right,” said the younger officer. He looked and sounded disappointed. “But most people think I’m the rookie.”

               “I figured you probably wouldn’t ask if the answer was that obvious,” said Devan.

               “I came to law enforcement late,” said the older officer. He redoubled his grip on his belt. “I used to teach classes about police corruption.”

               “And you wanted to make a positive difference?” asked Devan.

               “What?” asked the older officer. “What do you mean?”

               “Like, you wanted to weed out corruption from the inside?” asked Devan. “Or be a good example?”

               “No, no,” said the older officer. “The classes were about how police corruption isn’t real. It’s an oxymoron."

               “Oh,” said Devan.

               McKayla said nothing. She hadn’t spoken beyond telling the officers her name since they arrived. She didn’t want to say anything that might incriminate the man outside the window. Devan had gotten fully dressed in anticipation of the cops’ arrival, but McKayla had just pulled a long robe on over her pajamas. It was her cold-weather robe, though the weather wasn’t cold, just wet.

               “So you didn’t see the prowler,” said the younger officer, getting the investigation back on track. “You don’t know what he looks like.”

               “No,” said Devan. “I didn’t see him, and my wife says she’s never seen him either.”

               “Which way did he run again?” asked the older officer.

               “I told you I didn’t see,” said Devan.

               “Just double checking,” said the older officer. He winked at McKayla in a grandfatherly way.

               “Maybe you should look for footprints,” said Devan.

               The younger officer heaved a sigh that was more of a dramatic shoulder-move than a breath. “Footprints are not as big of a thing in police work as a lot of people think. Most crimes aren’t gonna be solved with footprints. TV glamorizes footprints too much. But when you’ve worked as many cases as I have – or even as many as Officer Jangs here, who’s only a rookie – you realize footprints aren’t the answer.”

               “Did the man threaten you?” asked Officer Jangs. He seemed perturbed. McKayla thought he was probably long-past tired of the younger officer mentioning his rookie-hood.

               “No,” said McKayla. “Never.”

               “Not directly,” said Devan. “But he talked about committing crimes, which seemed to us like an implied threat.”

               “Seemed to you,” said McKayla.

               “What crimes?” asked the younger officer.

               “Nothing specific,” said Devan. “But he talked about his lack of remorse for crimes he’s committed.”

               “Oh, come on,” said McKayla. “We don’t even know if he was telling the truth.”

               “Not a risk I’m willing to take,” said Devan. He looked to the cops for confirmation that his reaction was appropriate.

               “You said he’s been here before?” asked the younger officer.

               “Less than two weeks ago,” said Devan. “And he’s been harassing my wife in the same way for 17 years. So we’re sure he’ll be back.”

               “It isn’t harassment,” said McKayla. “It’s never bothered me.”

               “Here’s the thing,” said Officer Jangs. “Officer Quil and I can’t stake out your house every night waiting for this freak to come back. More than likely, he ran because he heard you call us, and that’ll be enough to scare him away.”

               “I warned him I was going to call you last time,” said Devan. “And that didn’t keep him away.”

               “He probably thought you were bluffing,” said Officer Quil. “People threaten to call us all the time and don’t follow through. Of course, the people we don’t want to hear from call us constantly.”

               “So what do you suggest?” asked Devan.

               “Next time he comes…” said Officer Jangs. He let a long pause float in the air before finishing his sentence in the least climactic way possible: “…try to call us again, but without him hearing that’s what you’re doing.”

               “Great,” said Devan. His tone displayed evidence of a rapidly fading deference to authority.

               McKayla was secretly relieved at how unhelpful the police were being.

               “One thing I’ll note before we go,” said Officer Quil. “The state usually sides with the homeowners when they take matters into their own hands in a case like this. He’s on your property uninvited, he knows you don’t want him here…” Officer Quil shrugged. “At this point, you can pretty much do what you think is necessary.”

               “I don’t own any guns,” said Devan.

               “Well, most people don’t like getting bonked with a bat much either,” said Officer Quil.

               After the police left, McKayla and Devan argued about the man outside the window for over an hour, making no progress at all. They were both working with the same basic set of facts, but arriving at directly contradictory conclusions. McKayla couldn’t translate 17 years-worth of experience with the man talking outside her window into words that could make Devan feel differently, and Devan couldn’t express how he felt in a way that could make McKayla disregard 17 years-worth of experience.


               The next time the man talked to McKayla through the bedroom window in the middle of the night, Devan wasn’t home. The people running the medical study of exertion wanted to study exertion at different altitudes, so Devan was exerting himself in the mountains for a week.

McKayla heard the man clear his throat in her dream, and her eyes snapped open before he spoke his first word. She had hoped the man would return while Devan was gone, and here he was. The night was humid and the room was stuffy, even with the window open. Had Devan been home, they probably would have run the air conditioning for the first time that year, but McKayla had wanted to be certain she wouldn’t sleep through any of the man’s visits.

“I tell myself I don’t know what I’m capable of,” said the man. “But I do know, and I suspect most people who know me know too. I don’t conceal it from anyone. I can’t. It shows on my face, in the way I carry myself. It shows in the shape of my teeth, the dull colors of my eyes.”

McKayla sat up, but didn’t get out of bed. She knew she didn’t need to whisper, but it still seemed best to talk in a low voice. She didn’t want to startle the man, didn’t want to send him running. “My husband isn’t here,” she said. “Devan’s exerting himself in the mountains.”

The man stopped his monologue.

“Are you still there?” asked McKayla.

The man said nothing, but McKayla sensed his presence.

“I’m glad I got this chance to talk to you,” said McKayla. “My husband is scared of you. He doesn’t know anything about you, so the cops have no way to find you, but I think he’s going to chase you himself next time. The police told him to hit you with a baseball bat, so he sleeps with a bat under the bed now. I’d get rid of it, but he’d just get mad at me and replace it.” She paused to give the man time to consider this information. “I don’t want Devan to hurt you,” she continued. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt. But if you talk to me through the window in the middle of the night while he’s here, I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt. I don’t doubt for a second that he’ll chase you down and hit you. He’s younger than you and he’s strong. He’s in great shape; his job is to exert himself all day for five days a week. And besides that, well, I don’t have any problem with you. I like you. This has been going on for so long that it feels totally natural to me, but Devan doesn’t see it that way and he’s right that no one else would either. The cops weren’t that upset about it, but I think they were just lazy, and they basically gave Devan permission to assault you. But the thing is that you’ve become a big problem in my marriage. Devan and I argue you about whenever you come up, and we didn’t know each other very well before we got married, so I think our relationship is more fragile than either of us want to admit, so arguing about you feels dangerous. It makes me very nervous. So my point is that I don’t think you should come anymore. For my sake and Devan’s sake, yes, but also for your own sake. If me listening to you through the window at night has helped you, I’m glad, I’ve always been happy to help, it’s always made me feel good to be here for you, but it has to end now. You should find someone else to talk to.”

By the time McKayla finished talking, tears were spilling from both corners of both eyes. Also, the man was gone, and McKayla didn’t know when he’d left.


Devan returned from his high-altitude exertions predictably exhausted. McKayla picked him up at 9p.m. from the airport in Heavenburg, they grabbed chicken from Grand Beede on the way home, ate it on the porch swing, and went to bed.

When McKayla woke up in the middle of the night, the man at the window was in mid-sentence. She had no idea how long he had been talking.

“ – care if you call it resolve or stubbornness, and I imagine that not caring what it’s called is another symptom of the thing itself. How do I quantify the pain it’s caused versus the pain it’s averted? It’s impossible. And even if it weren’t, should pain be the final calculation? I sometimes feel guilty when I refuse to bend my will, but I know that I would be overcome with shame if I gave in.”

McKayla looked to Devan’s side of the bed. He was not there. His covers were thrown back and he was gone. McKayla leapt out of bed, dropped to her hands and knees, and lifted the bed skirt to look for the bat. It was gone too. She was about to cry out for the man to run when she heard Devan’s shout from outside. “I warned you! I told you to stay away!” From just beyond the blinds and the window screen, McKayla heard a sharp intake of breath and a scrambling escape. Moments later she heard Devan’s heavy, thumping footfalls as he sprinted past the window in pursuit, no doubt brandishing the baseball bat in one hand. McKayla ran to the window and opened the blinds, but the men were gone. There was nothing to see but 50 feet of featureless side yard and the impassive wall of the neighbor’s garage. McKayla hurried out of the bedroom, down the hall, and out the front door, her bare feet slapping on the cool cement of the front walk. When she got to the curb, she looked up the street, then down the street, and saw nothing but a Multioak neighborhood slumbering through a muggy spring night. She listened for Devan yelling threats, for the clang of an aluminum bat contacting a human skull, but instead heard only the familiar sounds of the hour, unfiltered by screen or blinds, the vacant auditory cradle of a voice fleeing for its life.


The police could not find Devan, much less the man he’d chased who McKayla could neither identify nor describe. She tried to imitate his voice, but it was an utter failure. The police looked but discovered nothing, not a single clue. Volunteers from the community looked too, but their efforts were exactly as fruitless as those of McKayla and the police.

A month after Devan went missing, McKayla woke to the sound of the man’s voice coming through her window. She had taken to sleeping with the window closed since Devan disappeared, but she had no trouble hearing the man despite the thin pane of glass between them.

“It’s so easy for me to tell myself I have no choice in certain matters,” said the man. “So easy. To retroactively present myself with two options and agree that I chose as any reasonable person would have. Last time I spoke of being stubborn, but look at how often I speak of others forcing my hand.”

“Where is my husband?” asked McKayla, lying alone on the far side of her bed. “What did you do to him? I want him back.”

The man said nothing for a long time, and McKayla assumed he had slipped away, just like he always did when things got difficult. It surprised her when he spoke again, his voice pitched as soothingly as she’d ever heard it. “If you ever need to talk,” he said, “I’d be happy to listen.”

Discussion Questions

  • Would you want your mom as your landlord? Why or why not?

  • At what age did you begin to feel the first stirrings of wanting a clock in your bedroom?

  • Would a medical study of exertion that paid you 20 dollars an hour to exert yourself all day be better or worse than your current job? In what ways?

  • Which officer would you have guessed was the rookie: the younger one or the older one?

  • Should I have avoided shortening “baseball bat” to “bat” every time said item was mentioned in the story in order to avoid confusion based on my known affinities?

  • What’s the most intimate thing someone has ever revealed to you through a window in the middle of the night?