Cries rang out of the nursery after midnight on the first of May, and Bo Magnussen burst from deep sleep to perform his duty. The house was dark, cold, and quiet as he trudged across the hall to scoop up his baby girl. After changing a wet diaper—one oozing with the runs—he went downstairs, still cradling the babe, to handcraft a bottle of formula. A shaft of white moonlight shone through the window, broadcast on the baby’s plump legs. He lifted her delicately toward his lips. Her smell was like a citrus-scented baby wipe, her cheek soft and smooth as he planted a kiss. It was delightful to have such moments of intimacy; it made sleeplessness tolerable, because true love had sprouted in his heart.
But in his mind something was amiss. He’d been pondering it all week as they moved from the city into the old farmhouse in the country. “I miss mom,” he said to the baby as she sucked the bottle dry. “Your grandma. She left us last November, went to Heaven. She left us this farm, you know. The old house, the barn, the pastures. It’s where I grew up, and I’ll teach you all about it. Someday I’ll build you a playground too, and buy you a horse to ride. But you’ve got to take care of it. Okay? I wonder what you’ll name it? Maybe Gracie Rose, like your grandma.” He looked again at the moonlight on her leg. “God, she woulda loved to hold and kiss you. Woulda loved it. Hey, you know what? Maybe that’s her. Maybe she’s the moonlight, and she’s reaching out to touch you.” A smile broke through his sleepy face but retreated like an outmaneuvered enemy as the war veteran resurfaced. “Now I’m not into that mystical shit, okay? The fact is she’s dead. I need to man up and move on like I did with Joe and Robbie after Fallujah.”
“Bo?” a kind voice called from upstairs. “Who are you talking to?”
“Oh, just myself. I’m just, I don’t know, I’m just sleep-deprived.”
“Come back up soon," the voice sweetly said. "I’m going back to work tomorrow, remember? And my commute is much longer now that we’re in Loretto.”
Yes, he remembered. It was Tuesday, the culmination of her maternity leave. Tomorrow he’d be left in charge of an infant, a full-time house-husband, while his wife, Alyssa, returned to her time-consuming job as a criminal prosecutor.
A deep breath developed, and a long sigh escaped.
Good God, he said to himself, pacing back and forth. Life can change so freaking fast. I grew up baling and stacking hay. I slaughtered pigs and cows. I cleared rocks from pastures. Dad taught me about the life of a man. I played football just like Dad. I served this country just like Dad. Yeah, and I became a drunk just like dad. But hey, I left that all in the past. That and those dead-end streets in the brain that I kept traveling ‘cause I couldn’t find an open road. Survivor’s guilt, that’s what they called it. I was held hostage by my history. A victim in need of rescue. But that was all wrong. Now I know they were choices, and most of ‘em bad. I was digging myself a big fat grave and about to fall in. And who kept me from that grave? From the drunken death spiral? Mom. That’s right, say it again. Mom. And now I'm a different person thanks to her. A better person. A man of peace and servitude. A pacifist. I know it’s not the manliest of choices, but it sure beats the goddamn onslaught of suicidal thoughts. In truth, I don’t care if Dad’s proud or not, because here’s my icing on the cake: four years sober this month.
Bo smiled again, propped the baby against his thick shoulder, and patted her back. She rewarded his efforts with a burp, an immensely satisfying sound. “Yes, my little jellybean, your grandma was a strong and steady person. A rock. Of course she was human and had weaknesses, but they weren't many. She was a devoted and caring person, and in that there’s greatness. It’s unsung, but it’s greatness. And that's who I’ll be for you. I promise.”
Bo set the bottle in the sink and shuffled through the living room, up the stairs, and into the nursery. He cupped the sleeping baby’s head with a large hand and slowly set her in the crib. He pulled the blanket up to her sternum and tucked her hands underneath. “Sleep tight, little jellybean. I love you.”
He drifted across the hall into the master bedroom, where Alyssa, his thirty-four-year-old wife, lay in wait. When he saw the bed, his body shifted toward sleep, a triumphant return to a peaceful state. Then, sitting on the bed’s edge, he began to detach his prosthetic leg, but some internal link had ruptured, the one connecting body with mind.
“I'll be right back,” he told her. “My mind’s too active right now. I'm gonna get some juice.”
“Is the baby okay?”
“Yes,” he said. “Tucked in and sleeping.”
“Please check on her before you go to sleep.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Thanks,” she said, yawning. “Now back to my dream.”
“Am I in it?”
“Oh, maybe. Just maybe. How ’bout I tell you tomorrow.”
“Sure, I wanna know,” he said, then lingered back downstairs to the kitchen.
Truth be told, he wasn't seeking juice. It was something else, something in that window-penetrating moonlight that spoke to his soul. The internal warrior went silent as he put his hand down on the counter and was struck by the beam. Minutes ago he had found it stunning as it illuminated his baby’s body, but there upon his own flesh, he felt something completely different, as if some presence had merged with the molecules in the light to bring a message. Without pause he accepted it and was rocked by an intuitive shockwave of dread.
He glanced out the window onto the front yard and drive. Something moved, something bipedal. It was human! Or was it? Was it even real or some half-baked hallucination? These feelings were familiar, and war experiences came thundering back. He stared on bewildered as the dark figure crept along the fringe of the driveway, under a row of maples and their moonlit canopy. Then the dark figure stopped and made hand signals while another body leapt out of some shrubs. They were human! Onward they snuck, males, he surmised by the heft in their walk. When at a distance of fifty yards, he realized they were dressed all in black and that the leader carried a gun.
A pang of fear rose in his belly and shot like a rocket into his throat, but he clenched his jaw and drove it back down. Shirtless and shoeless, he raced down a flight of stairs to the basement, the floor cold and damp against his bare foot, the room dungeon-black. There he hoped to find a weapon in the stash of moving boxes.
Jesus Christ, he thought. There’s no weapons in here! I sold all my guns three years ago. Fucking pacifist bullshit! How stupid can you be? You have a family now! Fuck! Okay, okay. I’ll find a kitchen knife or something. Where’s the light switch? Oh, shit. Top of the stairs, you idiot.
Bo bounded to the top of the staircase and flicked the light on. But instead of returning below, an instinct kicked in, and he raced up to the bedroom.
“Baby, baby,” he said in a hurry. “Turn on the lamp.”
“Hey. Huh? What … what’s this?”
“Two men are coming up to our house. One’s got a gun.”
She sat up and turned on the lamp, her eyes half open. “What? C’mon, Bo. Don’t play like this.”
“This is not a game, Alyssa. I'm not fucking playing.”
Her eyes sprang open.
“Get up now. Go get the baby. And get the fuck into the nursery closet.”
Alyssa launched out of bed and did exactly what he said.
Bo heard the opening moan of the foyer door. It was a home improvement project that he’d been ignoring, the greasing of the door to silence the moan. In this instance he was grateful for his procrastination, even though he felt dumb for not locking the deadbolt. His choices seemed dire. With little hope left, he readied his fists to answer the call.
On the balls of one flesh foot and one carbon fiber, he crept down the stairs, adrenaline surging. His face and body were hidden as he listened for their motions. First he heard footsteps, barely audible, and a series of obscure whispers. He imagined them in the hallway moving toward the kitchen and living room. Soon their smell wafted from the nearby kitchen, their clothes infused with cigarette smoke. He heard their rapid breathing as if they were winded. Then, near the fireplace where bright orange coals smoldered, he remembered his axe on display. It was a modernized replica of a Danish war axe, the double-bladed type wielded by his Varangian ancestors. He cruised across the living room and lifted the axe. The long, sturdy handle, forged from hickory, titanium, and the same carbon fiber as his prosthetic, felt cool in his sweaty palms. The heaviness of the head was immediately apparent, as were the bat-wing-shaped blades, which looked sharp enough to shred steel. Like a cat in the midst of a midnight hunt, he retreated to the large couch and ducked low, ready to pounce.
“You sure we even got the right place?” one intruder said, entering the room.
“Yes, you fuckin’ grunt. It said ‘The Magnussens’ on their mailbox.”
Damn it! Bo thought, cursing himself for completing that project.
“Arright, man. So which way do we go?”
“I don’t know, but I heard some creaks upstairs when we came in.”
“Wait, there’s a door over here,” the grunt whispered as he moved into Bo’s vision, about the length of a pickup truck away and broadside. If Bo had a gun and ammo, this intruder would already be on his way to Hell. “Looks like it goes down some stairs. Maybe the basement. The light’s on.”
Bo didn’t know where in the room the gunman stood, and it made his heart pound like a jackhammer. With trembling legs, he rose slightly for a peek. The long-haired grunt was one step down the basement stairs, while the baldheaded gunman moved toward the staircase. Both backsides were to Bo, who readied his axe.
“There’s a busted step out here bout a halfways down,” the grunt said as Bo crouched low again and out of sight.
“So go check it out. I’m headin’ upstairs.”
“No way, man. You got the gun. You come with me. I wanna see what’s down here. Could be the payload we’re after.”
There was a pause, and Bo pictured the leader moving away from the stairs, closer to his gunless grunt.
“Do you understand what we’re here for? It’s been discussed three or four times. We’re here to kill Alyssa goddamn Magnussen and anyone else who gets in our way. Right now you’re getting in my way, and if you keep it up, I’ll kill you after I kill her and frame you for murder. Now stay with me or die.”
No response came, Bo assuming the grunt went along with the gunman’s plan. Then, under the weight of the men, he heard the old farmhouse stairs creak.
He stood slowly and watched them climb the stairs toward his beloved family. He prowled across the room, ready to attack, with no better option than to lower his shoulders and charge up the stairs with axe serving as lance. But as he made the stairs, the undisciplined man broke rank.
“I can't go in,” the grunt said in a panic. “I can't do this. I don't know. I … I just … I'm just done. I’m leavin’. It ain't worth it. You ain’t payin’ me enough.”
Bo slid from the stairs and ducked behind the wall, bracing himself for battle. A strange sound was heard, like the shot of some stun gun in a cosmic video game, followed by two thuds and the whoosh of fabric sliding down the stairs. A desolate energy formed in his stomach’s pit, and a second later, the deceased body of the grunt ended its downward slide to the floor in a clump. The back of the head was blown out, the blood-soaked brain visible. The sight catapulted Bo fully into the fight. His shoulder flush with the wall, he craned his neck and peeked around the corner.
Have you ever locked eyes with evil? Watched rage leak into a face as blood boils under skin? Or held in your piss as a gun levels with your teeth?
Bo withdrew his head as a shot was fired; it missed his face and splintered the oaken floor. He retreated to the kitchen, again bracing against a wall, awaiting the intruder. He desperately searched the backlog of his brain for some way to immobilize the man, some close-range military tactic to seize the gun. The truth was he needed to engage but had no covering fire. For another ten seconds he poured over possibilities until his guts stirred up and told him he had to move, that his family would die if hesitant.
Bo obeyed and barreled back into the living room, eyes big as eggs, heartbeat still hammering. He stopped and scanned the room, but the gunman wasn't there. With two deep breaths he regained composure, hurdled the fallen body, and raced upstairs, past a bathroom, past the master bedroom, and into the nursery. The room was dark save the night-light glowing from the wall beside the crib. Alyssa and the baby were there in the closet; he prayed they’d remain quiet. But almost on cue, that prayer was obliterated as the baby roused and started to wail. He tightened his grip and flexed his arms.
Footsteps fell deftly in the hall. Bo watched the entrance and widened his stance, the axe ready to slash. The gunman’s hand and wrist appeared and the trigger was pulled. The shot tore through the back wall, missing the closet by a foot. Bo jumped forward, slashing down at the wrist, but it was pulled back, missing by an inch. One axe blade gouged the floor but did not lodge. He reset his stance, both hands tight on the handle, the blades over his shoulder. The gun appeared again and angled toward his face. Bo dropped to the floor, and the bullet sped overhead, spraying chunks of drywall into the air and onto the floor. The gunman stormed into the room, screaming obscenities into the night. Like a detonated grenade, Bo exploded from the floor. The gunman was squared to the closet, his back to Bo, the gun leveled toward the cries inside. But the axe was already falling like a guillotine. It cleaved deeply through the gunman’s upper back, through shirt, skin, and trapezius, shattering clavicle, scapula, and ribs. The gunman’s lifeblood blew out like water spraying from a pressurized fountain. He crashed to the floor, howling horrifically. Bo stepped on the back of his bald head and dislodged the axe from the half-severed torso. But the gunman, still driven by some wrathful inner wind, rolled to his back and took aim at Bo’s chest. With no time for axemanship, Bo kicked the gun with force, and it skidded underneath the crib.
Like a bear above its mortally wounded prey, he roared down at the gunman, spitting on him as he spoke, “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“The name’s Jack Ashe,” the gunman spouted, blood running from his mouth. “Just released from prison on good behavior. But your wife knows damn well I didn't change for the good. Truth is I've dreamed of killing her daily for the last eight years. She put me there and deserves to die for it.”
It was all Bo needed to hear. He raised the great axe above his head and drove it down to split the gunman’s skull, the blade embedding into the oak floor planks. The closet door slid open, and Alyssa’s face appeared. Her eyes welled with tears, her jaw quivering. Half-turned with the baby shielded, she stepped into the room to witness the aftermath. Bo walked calmly to the wall and switched on the light.
“Your phone, please,” he said.
She handed it over, her fingers shaking.
Bo stood above the mutilated body and snapped pictures. “I’d give you a hug right now, but I’m covered in blood and bone.”
“I don’t need a hug,” she said, her voice fluttering with fear. “I know what you did, and I’ll never forget it, never in my life. Thank you.”
Bo looked at her and smiled. “I love you, Alyssa.”
“I love you,” she said, the tears starting to flow.
“Life can change in a hurry,” Bo said. “I know that; I’ve experienced that. And when you make promises it’s best to keep ‘em. I made a promise to be a devoted, caring daddy to our girl. And if devotion means being a protector, that’s what I’ll be. If caring means to nurture toughness and strength, I can do that too. There’s a fine line when you have a young, vulnerable family. A fine line indeed. I need to re-establish my boundaries to be a guardian first and foremost, a guardian in the traditional sense. But instead of coming from a fearful place, I’ll come from a place of encouragement and love. It’s the integration of my father and mother into one, into wholeness, completeness, into another level of maturation without the pitfalls like being a drunken fool. I think I’m really starting to understand my quest.”
“I can’t believe you’re so calm,” Alyssa said, shaking like a newborn in a blizzard.
“I’ve been in fights since I was young. You know that. I’ve been to war. Christ, in the army I practically slept with my M16. But backing off all that fear and angst was a good experience. That was the gift of sobriety. It allowed me more space to expand. It made me confront my darkest depths without chemical dependency to cover it all up. But sometimes instinct overpowers choice. That’s just the way it is for me, because deep down the warrior will always be there. For me it’s not right to turn the other cheek when someone attacks my bloodline.”
She looked down at Ashe’s twitching legs. “I can’t live here now. I know it’s your dream, but, oh my God, no way!”
“I understand. It doesn’t have to be here. I’ll live anywhere as long as I’m with my family.”
Bo heard a car’s engine hum in the driveway. He went to the window as two police cars, no lights flashing, sped up the driveway. “I texted 911 when I was in the closet.”
“Nice job, honey. That’s smart.”
“Hey, you know that dream I mentioned?”
“The one I was in?”
“No, no,” she said. “You weren’t in it. But your dad was.”
“My dad? Hmm, that’s weird.”
“Listen, I’ve never told you, but once in awhile he comes to me in dreams. It’s rare, very rare, and usually very strange. So in this one he was standing on top of the moon. And wherever he’d point his fingers, this bright light would shoot out. Moonlight, I guess. Sometimes he’d do it real slowly, almost gently. And sometimes he’d do it like there was something out there he wanted to gun down. Anyway, you said you wanted to know. Maybe you can make something of it.”
“Well, just think about it. I’m gonna go answer the door now and start this police report.”
“Okay,” Bo said. “I’ll be right down.”
He went back to the window and set his eyes again on the moon, now partially eclipsed with clouds. He pointed his finger at the moon, miming a handgun and squeezing the imaginary trigger. “You taught me about the life of a man. I played football just like you. I served this country just like you. And I became a drunk just like you. You pushed me hard, so damn hard I was often in pain. Not that I expect sympathy, ‘cause I sure wouldn’t get any from you. There was never much love, and that’s perfectly fine because you and I both know I’m here to become the father and husband you could never be.”