April Sopkin
Arnold Startled

Arnold woke and sat up. His heart thumped in his ears, and for many seconds he could hear nothing else. The plane crash in his dream was the third one this week. He peeled himself out of bed, careful not to wake his wife, Myra, and with the same care in mind went downstairs to the guest bathroom instead of using the master.

He flinched after he turned on the overhead light, ducked down to the running stream of cool water from the faucet and splashed his face. The dreams were completely unrealistic. Arnold knew they wouldn’t be taking a prop plane to London, and yet, his dream had placed him in a seat next to the wing—all the better to watch as the propeller sputtered and stopped, the whole plane suddenly lurching in a hard tip to the left, cutting swift circles through endless, fluffy clouds as it headed for the ground. Just a dream! But real enough that he could still feel Myra in the seat next to him, her body pushing in on him as the speed of their plummet intensified.

Arnold dried his face with the hand towel and gave a long look in the mirror. His olive skin appeared yellow in the overhead light. His eyes were hollow and heavy, and above them his forehead stretched back to a high place.

“You are going on a plane,” he whispered to his reflection. “You are a man. Fifty-fucking-three years old. You will do this—you will, you will, you will. You will take your wife to London. You will ride that ridiculous underwater train so you can climb the Eiffel Tower together, and she will see Paris at night.”

His hands gripped the edge of the sink. Thirty years. It was an anniversary worthy of such a trip, Arnold knew. He’d been promising Myra for at least a decade now. They’d never had much savings between his failed businesses and her library clerk salary. Money flow was a legitimate excuse. Of course, Myra knew about his fear of flying, too. He insisted he was a man who preferred the open road. Truly, nothing beat an old-fashioned road trip on America’s blue highways. But absolutely nothing beat both feet on the ground.

Arnold flipped off the bathroom light. In the hallway, he paused to consider the stairs but headed toward the kitchen instead. At the refrigerator—a towering silver structure purchased at a considerable discount the day after Christmas—he tugged open the door and let the light pour over him. Leftover pork chops or turkey chili? One of those chocolate pudding cups or pimento cheese? Or maybe something reasonable like oatmeal, which Myra bought plain and doctored up with honey and cinnamon and a handful of unsalted almonds—

“Mister, please. Don’t say a word and do not turn around.”

Arnold startled at the voice behind him, his grip on the refrigerator door giving a jump, causing all the condiment jars to clink and rattle.

“Quiet, now! Sshhh, man!”

Arnold felt the intruder’s breath on the back of his neck. Smelled onions and the tart rot of body odor. His heart began the same quick hard beat that usually accompanied a plane crash.

“Don’t turn around.”

Arnold’s eyes spun in their sockets. He strained at his peripheral, spotting the wooden knife block next to the stove. The thought of dashing to grab and wield a blade occurred just as he noticed the eight-inch chef’s knife was missing.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” the man said, as he stepped closer and pressed the knife tip to Arnold’s back. “Close the fridge.”

Arnold gave the door a weak nudge. It closed but didn’t seal. A thin strip of light remained where it was slightly ajar.

The man said again, “I just want whatever cash you have in the house.”

On command, Arnold thought about money. But his thoughts were abstract, unclear. He stared at a photo of Myra on the freezer door—1979, sophomore at U of M, long brown hair parted so it grazed one eye—and heard himself saying, over and over, “Please don’t, please, just don’t.”

The man implored Arnold to listen. “Mister, please,” he said. “Just cash. Please. I’m not a violent man, I swear it.”

From the sharp rasp in his voice, Arnold assumed that the man was likely homeless. He could be any age. Any strength. Telling any kind of truth. The man sounded sick, breathing heavy and wet. Absently, Arnold recalled how the winter was lingering this year.

“I’m not a violent man,” the intruder repeated. “What’s upstairs? Is there money upstairs? Do you have a safe?”

Arnold rambled, “There’s nothing, no, no, I might have cash in my office, in my desk. It’s downstairs. The basement.”

“You got nothing on this floor?” There was a pause, then: “Mister, please don’t lead me around so you can trip some alarm. I just want cash. I’ll leave after that.”

Arnold fumbled for a thought. “Uh, there’s really, I’m not, please understand, just—or wait, the closet! My jacket. Yes, here! It’s down this hall, just right here.” Arnold found himself leading the way dutifully, almost relieved to have the answer. He barely noticed the knife nudging at his back, until the refrigerator door alarm—a convenient addition to the newest models, kindly alerting its owner that the door wasn’t fully closed—resounded down the hall and the intruder mistook it for Arnold’s betrayal.

“Just cash, goddammit! Why’d you have to make me—”

Arnold thought only flashing words: Oh—I—It’s—not—

The chef’s knife pushed through the middle of Arnold’s back at a steep angle, cutting through muscle then kidney then spleen. And then Arnold was on the floor and the man was gone. He hadn’t heard the front door open and shut. He didn’t even know what kind of pain he was in. He sensed the vessel was spinning out of control, the cold whip of wind making it hard to breathe. He was both inside and outside. The clouds parted for his tumbling body and his perspective somersaulted from Earth to sky, ground then blue, Earth then sky. Ground came closer. And a tightening overcame his vision, a perfect view circling smaller into a pinhole until the pinhole closed and he could hear only the rush of air as he fell through it.

April Sopkin lives and writes in Richmond, Virginia. She is an editor for and has been published in the literary journal Makeout Creek. More information about her work can be found at aprilsopkin.com.