The Night Watch

The basement hallway echoed like a crypt as Paul Edwards descended the stairs and dropped his suitcase at the door. He bent to brush a few grains of Brazilian sand from his shoes. There were new stains on the welcome mat, but the faded letters still looked comforting. Paul Edwards needed the familiarity of his little apartment. It was time to relax in the homespun greeting of his family, enjoy the attentions he was due. He felt all the manly pride of a soldier returning from combat. He was only a salesman, but he’d been chosen to accompany his department head on the trip to South America. They had foreign competition to subdue.

That would have been tiring enough, but his day hadn’t ended with company business. Rio de Janeiro offered diversions never dreamed of in Springville, modern variations on all the old amusements. Paul had dipped beneath the cosmopolitan crust with a beginner’s eagerness, dipped more than was fitting in his desire to appear more worldly. It had left him exhausted and unsettled, and he was glad to see the small town welcome mat of his own apartment again. Two weeks on the urban battlefield was enough.

He prepared his fondest smile as he fumbled with the lock. Before he could turn the bolt, the door swung open suddenly, almost pulling the key from his fingers, and his wife rushed into his arms. Paul caught the barest glimpse of her white face before she buried it in his shoulder. In the kitchen beyond the door, his daughter looked confused. She wandered over to hug his leg with a child’s possessiveness.

Paul looked down on his wife’s hair and puzzled over the reception. He had expected his family to be relieved, even thankful. But he wasn’t prepared for this. He could feel his wife’s tears through his shirt, warm and clinging tears against his skin.

“Thank God you’re home, Paul,” she said, and her voice broke in a sob. “I couldn’t have gone on any longer. I really couldn’t.”