Outpost19 Books

1. 2001

Where's the baby?

I called out in the dark.

Half asleep, I sat up in bed.

Where’s the baby? I asked again.

I’d been troubled recently by dreams of abandonment and forgetting—vague, formless visions and fragments— the only tangible evidence most nights, a sweat-soaked pillow. No clear images or stories I could relate the next morning. But tonight I was awakened by worry over a baby, a child we hadn’t really even considered seriously. I called out and my wife mumbled her response;

We don’t have a baby.

Then she rolled over and went back to sleep. The dog paced the hall and stood in the door, looking up at me. I could just make out her shape in the shadows. Emptiness settled over the house again and I tried to quiet my trembling brain.

Some nights I wondered if I was still recovering. It had only been a few months since sickness racked my body, leaving me dehydrated from vomiting and suffering non-stop searing headaches that made it nearly impossible to move or sleep or think clearly. It felt as if someone was trying to shove my eyeballs out from the inside. I spent almost a week in the fetal position before I was admitted to hospital, given a spinal tap, and diagnosed with viral meningitis. I couldn’t think straight for a while afterward, my brain slowly emerging from the fog of infection. I tired easily, had trouble eating, and lost 17 pounds in two weeks before I started to recover.

Wake-up Calls

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Two nights after my baby dream, I sat up in bed again, awakened by a new noise this time. Something loud and sharp. Unusual and shattering. Out of context. Outside and unwanted. I slipped on a robe and walked to the back of the house. I opened the sliding glass door and peered up into a shark-bittten sky, ragged with clouds. The air felt cold on my chest. I heard something out in the street, some kind of commotion. The dog bounced behind me, her hackles stiff, and the neighbor pets howled a warning call.

What could it be?

Who is out there, in the dark?

The eyes of streetlights burned overhead like Orson’s alien ships and the air looked like it had been scrubbed clean, shined, and buffed clear, as if I was staring through glass, at the night scene captured in a jar. I walked through the weedy yard, the dog tracking at my heel, and peered around the garage. In the street, a Jeep lay on its side, the wheels exposed to my view. Three boys in baseball caps stood around. Nobody seemed hurt. But I heard one of them say, “It’s leaking gas,” as another boy dug out his cell-phone.

They’d taken the corner too fast and rolled their Jeep.

We lived at an intersection, a corner where a short side street that fed into a series of boxy apartment complexes T’d into another street. Police sometimes parked on the side street to catch cars speeding down the other one. The corner wasn’t an especially noisy corner and it was located across from a large flood-control basin perfect for walking the dog. That night there was nobody else around. Just us and stars.

It was late, well past 2 a.m. and I should have gone back to bed. But I tiptoed closer, barefoot in the wet grass, because I wanted to see more. The boys were lucky the Jeep didn’t roll all the way over. I watched them and I could see the panic in their movements, the worry in the way they put their hands to their heads. They were probably drunk and hoping the police didn’t show up. I saw those boys, vulnerable beneath the streetlights, and thought of my own youth gone, the memories of similar misadventures with friends, and I wanted to help. I wanted to tell them to run or rush to their side and help lift the Jeep—which they tried to do without my help, to no avail. I wanted to reach out to them, but I was nearly naked beneath my robe; and I knew that perhaps the best way I could help them was by not calling the police.

I watched the boys’ friends arrive in a SUV, and the five of them, working quickly, tied a tow-rope to the roll-bar of the Jeep and then used the other truck to pull it back upright. It was an impressive display of teamwork and togetherness, of problem solving and common sense— the sort of things I imagined any father would want for his son; and I felt a strange surge of pride. I wanted to cheer as the boys untied the rope, jumped in the Jeep, started it up, and drove away. The dog and I walked back into the rented house where we lived, not a home so much as a stopping point, an intersection between youth and something else. I moved on my skinned feet, back to my wife, over the night floors dusted with the expectant promise of those words:

We don’t have a baby.

I still couldn’t shake the language of my wake-up dream, not this night, not with the moon so fat, not with empty rooms calling. Through the sprinkle of broken window glass on the asphalt, I’d seen the tar of my future, thick with hope for a child, and I could not run from it.

2. 2001

In the Summer of 2001, just months before 9/11 would change the world forever, a serial rapist stalked Fort Collins, Colorado, prowling neighborhoods at night, slipping in through open windows, unlocked sliding doors and assaulting women. Everywhere were the sounds of denial:

“Things like this don’t happen here.”

“I never lock my doors at night.”

“It’s just too hot. I have to keep the screen door open.”

“This is Fort Collins.”

Things like this don’t happen here.

We lived two blocks from campus in a tiny house with purple trim. I worked an 8-5 job, advising students on how to get into classes or how to appeal a parking ticket or how to avoid getting suspended; and I spent much of my time anticipating, dreading, attending, and loathing the odd theater of office staff meetings. If I was extremely lucky, I could combine my caffeine jitters with the occasional sugar rush from a donut or nut-crusted muffin. The more meetings I attended the less and less I said. I made $27,000 a year and thought there was a pretty good chance that I’d be doing that job—or one like it—for the rest of my life. We didn’t own a house. We each drove 12 year-old cars and we were up to our necks in credit card debt.

And we were trying to make a baby.

I am a notoriously light sleeper—known to bolt upright in bed at the slightest noise. Always have been. And I’d been thinking a lot about this baby. I felt unsettled. A bit off. Spinning in something of a mental dither.

One night as my wife slept next to me with the windows open—possibly already pregnant--I awoke to the subtle sound of our side gate, rattling and opening, a sound I knew because I’d made it myself thousands of times, a sound I knew intuitively as a harmless, simple sound, but also a sound that my brain, even in a semi-conscious state knew was only harmless in certain contexts.

I looked out the window to see a tall dark figure walk past the frame. I followed him with my eyes as I stood and moved toward the open back door, just a screen door between me and the dark. I wore nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. As he came into view again out the back door, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Get the fuck out of here. Now, motherfucker!” and the man stumbled, clearly startled by my outburst.

He said, “Whoa, man,” then paused, struggling to stand completely upright and said, “Whoa,” again.

“Get the fuck out of my yard now, motherfucker!”

I barked again.

“What’s going on?” my girlfriend asked.

“There’s someone in the yard.”

“OK, OK, man. Jeez,” the man said and lurched toward the back of our yard.

The man was clearly drunk and bewildered.

“Goddamnit,” I muttered, as I watched him stumble blindly toward the wire fence at the back of the yard. I tried not to laugh when he hit the fence full stride and fell back into the grass like he’d been punched. It was funny for a moment. But then he got up and walked back toward the house and before I could even start screaming at him again, making as much scary noise as I could muster, he raised his hands in defeat and shuffled back down the side of the house, crashed through the gate, and left it swinging open as he disappeared into the night. I thought about following after him, taking him aside, helping find his house. I didn’t want him to get hurt, but I had the news reports rattling around in my head. What if he had been the rapist, and he was searching for an open door? What if I hadn’t been home to protect my wife? I called the police and told them that I had just chased a man out of my yard but that I didn’t think he was the rapist.

Steven Church is also the editor of The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Work from The Normal School

“I think he’s just a drunk college student,” I told them. “He’s probably harmless,” I said. Probably someone else’s kid. Just trying to find his way home.

“Probably,” the voice said.

3. 2002

The night we brought our first-born child home from the hospital, I knew the colors of my world had changed forever. We lived in the same tiny two-bedroom house just a block from campus, located right in the middle of the rowdiest student neighborhood. Just two days old, our son slept for only a couple of hours at a stretch, and it was my turn to be up with him. I checked the clock and turned on the TV. It was 3:00 a.m.. I paced around the small house carrying him in the crook of my arm, bouncing and singing songs, just trying to soothe him back to sleep.

He chortled and I looked down at his red and purpletinted body, all shriveled up like a tiny old man with these enormous white-socked feet. His neck drooped like a wet noodle; his fists curled into tiny wrinkled balls. The blood in his veins coursed just beneath thin new skin, and the soft spots on his skull pulsed rhythmically with his heartbeat.

The theme song for Northern Exposure, one of my favorite shows, had just started when I heard a racket at the side-door—the sound I knew instinctively as someone turning the knob, pushing against the deadbolt lock, trying to get inside our house.

I looked down at our son and felt this instant click of resolve in my gut, this whir and hum of images, impressions, colors and sounds. I felt suddenly—quite surprisingly—incredibly protective, almost animal. My hackles raised, I peeked around the corner, not sure what to expect, my senses tingling, ready for anything. Standing at the side-door was not a burglar, intruder or rapist, but a pudgy girl in a black hooded sweatshirt— maybe seventeen or eighteen, and quite obviously drunk. I saw her through the glass. She teetered on the porch, methodically turning the knob. I watched her for a few moments, glad the door was locked up tight. She kept turning the knob and pushing her shoulder against the door.

I stepped up and rapped on the glass. The girl didn’t move, didn’t even look up at me. I knocked again and she finally locked her wandering gaze onto me. I pointed at the baby curled up in my arm, his tiny red fists clutched up to his chin.

“Wrong house,” I said through the glass.

She just stared, squinted her eyes, and then looked down at the baby.

“Wrong house!” I barked.

She threw her hands up in a show of surrender, turned slowly, and fell flat on her face in our flowerbed. I called the police, laid the baby down in bed next to my wife, and watched the girl through the door until the cops arrived. She lay there in the dirt for a while, then rolled out into the driveway, sat up, and pulled the hood of her sweatshirt down over her eyes. She sat like that until the police showed, their red and blue lights pulsing and dancing across the walls of our living room. I cracked the door and gave a statement to the police. After trying in vain to question the drunken girl, they loaded her into an ambulance and took her to detox.

After the police left I paced around the house for a while, watching snippets of Northern Exposure; but I was easily distracted. I couldn’t help but think about how the situation might have been different. What if I’d forgotten to lock the door? What if she made it into the house? What if she’d been a man? What if she’d hurt herself?

Strangely enough I wasn’t so worried about what she might have done. Instead what worried me—frightened me actually—was how quickly, coolly, and rationally I had decided that I could destroy anyone or anything that threatened my son. He was just two days old. I was 106 just barely a father, still green. But some instinct clicked inside and I knew, as soon as I heard that doorknob rattling, that I could kill to protect him from harm.

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Steven Church is the author of several books of nonfiction. Read more about I'm Just Getting To The Disturbing Part.

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Steven is also the editor of The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Work from The Normal School.

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