"Babe? Babe! Wake up!"
I came to, groggily peering at the alarm clock on my bedside table. The red LEDs glared at me in the darkness. As I suspected, it was ungodly early.
"Babe?" my wife whispered again, and I felt her hand shaking my shoulder gently. "I heard a noise downstairs. I think someone's down there."
I cursed vehemently in my head: I even considered feigning a deep sleep and ignoring her. Only for a second, though, before I dismissed it for two very good reasons. Firstly, I knew from past experience that if I didn't respond, she'd keep it up all night until I caved in and checked. And secondly? She was my wife. I loved her with all my heart, and if she was scared and needed me to go downstairs to confirm no one was there, then, of course, I would do it.
"It's OK," I muttered, as I reached for my glasses. "I'll go make sure everything's safe." I stood up, feeling my right leg twinge as the old pain flared, and grabbed my dressing gown from the back of the bedroom door.
Just as I reached for the door handle, she spoke again. "Wait!"
I stopped, knowing what was coming next.
"Take the bat with you – just in case."
I held back the retort that bubbled into my throat: that there would be no one down there, just like there hadn't been every time she'd woken me over the last two years. Instead, I took a deep breath, picked up the 3-foot ash club from its resting place against the dresser, and stepped out into the landing.
I gave myself a second or two, to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom. What little moonlight there was tonight barely cast its pale illumination through the window, and seemed to weave unfamiliar shadows across the walls and floor.
As I made my way down the stairs, the irritation I'd felt since being roused began to seep away. It wasn't really my wife's fault that she was so jumpy. After all, three years ago there had been someone in our home. I'd been stabbed in the thigh as they made their escape, and my wife ... well, ever since the first anniversary of that night, I'd been woken up regularly by her anxiety. I'd read up about it, and learned that this sort of thing could take years to heal without professional help – and I doubted that there would be any therapy sessions booked in the foreseeable future.
I walked across the hallway, but as I reached the living room door, I froze. Something had fallen over in the kitchen and clattered onto the floor, shattering the silence and stopping my breath. Could it be that tonight, after all the endless false alarms, she was right, again? Was there someone else in the house with me?
Suddenly, the bat in my hands felt less like a useless prop, and more like a vital weapon. I curled my fingers around its grip, trying to ignore the slick sweat pouring from my palms. My heart pounded furiously in my chest, and I wanted nothing more than to just unlock the front door and run headlong into the dark night. But for the second time since waking, I held myself still, took a deep breath, and steeled myself for whatever might lie within our kitchen.
The distance from living room to kitchen was no more than ten feet, but in that moment, it felt like miles. I inched my way forward, not daring to make any sound. Closing my free hand around the door handle, my mind was flooded with memories from that night: the sharp glint of the knife blade, the sharper pain of it entering my thigh, all that blood... I felt my knees buckle, and I bit down hard on my tongue to stop myself from crying out in anguish. Only the bat, coming to my aid as an impromptu walking stick, stopped me from collapsing in a heap to the floor.
For a third time that night, I focussed on taking slow, deep breaths, until I felt I could stand unaided again. Finally, I opened my eyes, raised the bat over my head, and flung open the door.
The scene that greeted my eyes was one of absolute chaos. In the middle of the floor lay a mess of utensils, scattered there when the pot had been overturned on the worktop. Food packets were ripped open, their contents strewn everywhere. There was a unworldly, hissing scream, and a blurring flurry of movement... as the neighbour's grey tabby cat shot across the room and out of the window I'd mistakenly left open when I went to bed that evening.
All the adrenaline my body had been building up was flushed in an instant, and I fell to the floor, laughing with a raw, near-hysterical edge. Eventually, I picked myself up, closed the kitchen window, and made my way back up to bed: cleaning could wait till morning. As I climbed the stairs, I found my mind flashing back once more: waking in the hospital, the doctors explaining what had happened, the bottomless pain that had felt like it would never heal...
I stepped back into our room and flopped down onto the bed. "It was nothing," I said, still smiling to myself, "just the neighbour's damned cat looking for food." I turned to face my beloved wife: but of course, she wasn't there.
She hadn't been there for three years – not since that same blade that had wounded me, had taken her life too soon. On the first anniversary of her death – the first time her voice had woken me - it had been one of the most terrifying moments of my life. These days, though, I look forward to it.
It's worth it, just to hear her voice beside me one more time.