jan burke
jan burke




The man who stood beneath the tree on the front lawn had come to hurt his mother. Of that, Travis felt certain.

The boy stood just a few feet behind the blinds, not touching them, his hands curled tightly on the edge of the desk behind him. The lights were out in the house and with the blinds angled in this way—yes, he was fairly sure he could not be seen by the man. The window wasn't open very far, just a few inches, and the screen was in place. Travis's pajamas were dark in color, wouldn't give him away. More likely his pale face would reflect the moonlight.

He's not looking at me anyway, Travis reassured himself. The man was staring toward his mother's window. He had not moved for the last few minutes.

The small anniversary clock on the desk chimed once. Most other children who were Travis's age were in bed by now, but he was allowed to stay up as late as he liked. Travis was, his mother was fond of saying, the oldest eleven-year-old in the world.

He wasn't sure that his mother was right about that. His mother seemed not to be right about much of anything lately. At the thought, Travis glanced nervously toward the room upstairs. He hoped his mother would not awaken. She was so afraid of so many things; seeing the man out on the lawn would greatly upset her.

All together, Travis had been watching the man for about twenty minutes now. He had come downstairs to the study when he heard the car. This was a quiet street, and on these breeze-barren summer evenings, windows were open, sounds carried. Even if the engine had been turned off, the kiss of tires on the pavement would have betrayed the man's arrival. Apparently-- and to Travis's amazement—none of their neighbors had heard the driver's door open and close.

The man had not parked in front of their house, though it was obviously his destination. Yet once reaching it, he had not tried to come inside, as Travis had expected. Instead, he had stood beneath that tree and stared at the room where Travis's mother slept.

The man stirred, took a step closer. Did he see Travis then? No, no, he was still staring at the upper story. He took another step, and another. Travis's palms dampened on the desk.

The man was crossing the lawn now, coming straight toward him. Move away from the window! Run upstairs! Don't let him see you! Hide!

But Travis stayed. And watched.

He could see him clearly now, as he stood just outside the window. He was no further from Travis than priest from confessor. Travis tried to study him objectively, to memorize his features. The man was younger than his mother, taller and stronger. That his mother would probably call the man's face handsome did not count for much with Travis, especially not if the man intended to harm them. He watched the strange, intense longing on the man's face; watched him frown in indecision.

Suddenly the man's gaze fell, and again Travis tensed, thinking he might be seen—but the man's eyes were lowered now. The man began to move again; he walked slowly out of view.

Travis let out his breath, then suddenly drew it back in again as he realized that the man was not walking toward the street, but to their backyard gate. He heard the sound of the latch being fumbled open, the quiet click as it closed behind the intruder. Travis ran on bare feet to the kitchen, heard the man's steps clacking cautiously over the bed of black pebbles that lay between the house and fence.

Here, too, the windows were open, but curtains hung over them, blocking any view. The pebbles gave away the man's movements. The back door! Had his mother remembered to lock the back door? Panicked now, staying low, Travis hurried through the kitchen to the laundryroom.

No! He could see the dead bolt had not been thrown.

He reached up, turned the latch, pulled his hand back just as he heard the soft sound of the man's soles on the back porch. Crouching, Travis leaned against the door, praying the man would not see him, had not heard him throw the lock.

There was a long moment of heart-too-loud silence before he watched the knob turn, heard the man lean his weight gently against the door. The man paused, and Travis looked up to see a hand pressed against the glass of the window in the door.

It was red.


Had the man cut himself?

No. Travis could see the palm of his hand pressed there, perfect and large and unwounded.

The knob released.

The man stepped back, and Travis heard him leave the porch; he waited for his steps on the pebbles. The sound did not come.

Travis dared to rise up a little, to peer out the window in the door. He saw the man staring up again, this time, toward Travis's own bedroom window. And Travis saw the man's face, and again his expression of longing, a longing that Travis found mysterious and unsettling.

Travis stood now, and the movement must have caught the man's eye, for he was looking right at him, right straight at him; the man, with his solemn face, Travis's own pale, wide-eyed expression reflected on the same surface, boy's and man's face in one. For reasons that would elude him for many years, Travis suddenly balled his hand into a hard fist and plunged it through the glass, through the very place where the hand print had not yet dried, watched the red glass splinter and fall, did not cry out as it cut once and then cut again as he pulled his hand back, not shedding tears when his father reached in through the broken window and let himself into the house, not feeling anything like pain until his father took him into his arms.

© Jan Burke