A loud banging noise awoke them some time after midnight. By the time Elizabeth was awake she couldn’t remember if the sound had been real or part of a dream. But then Dan was awake as well and looking about, and she knew that the sound had been real.
"What was that", she asked in a groggy whisper.
"I don’t know," answered Dan as he pulled the covers off his side of the bed. He lowered his feet noiselessly to the floor. She would have remained in bed, lying still, breathing shallowly, and listening for any further strange sounds, but Dan was already in the hall. A fear whose irrationality she acknowledged and then dismissed directed her to slip from bed and tiptoe after Dan, rather than remain alone in the dark bedroom. Since the moment of waking she was trying to remember from which direction the sound had come, what it had sounded like; but these details had melted away along with any trace of the dream that it had interrupted. All she could recall was that it was a sharp clanging noise like a metal garbage lid hitting pavement. Dan was in the kitchen now and she followed him, using her phone to light the way. He had his hands raised in a vaguely defensive posture which she would have teased him over if she didn’t still feel freaked out herself. Dan stood with one hand on the island, listening. She sidled up next to him and asked, still in a whisper,
"Where did that sound come from, could you hear?"
He shook his head and continued to listen. A gusty wind beat outside, presaging a storm. It rattled branches against the roof and scraped leaves back and forth across the flagstone of the back porch. Perhaps a sizeable branch had blown off and struck the metal roof, or some piece of trash had rolled into the sliding glass doors. She listened for similar sounds that might confirm this theory. Then she heard it. It started lower than she expected: A deep hum, almost a growl. Than it swiftly raised in pitch and volume, finally and abruptly cutting short with a metallic clang that was piercing even through the walls of the house. They both had thrown their hands to their ears. Now Dan lowered his, walked to the front door (the sound had seemed to come more from that direction), and began fishing in the hall closet. She watched him, slowly lowering her hands as well. After several seconds that felt much longer he withdrew a long black mag-light, the type used by cops and security guards. He handed her her winter coat from the rack by the door and put his on as well over his shirt and boxers. She put hers on and preemptively buttoned it so her underwear would not be showing. She wanted to have her hands free, not holding it closed. Then he was unlocking the front door. At this she began to protest.
"Dan, we don’t know what on earth that was, but what if it’s dangerous?"
Saying this she realized she was curious and anxious to locate the source of the sound as well. She didn’t speak again when he twisted the handle and swung the door open. Instead she followed him out onto the front porch, quietly shutting the door behind her. Even with their coats the air was brisk and the wind seemed to cut right through her. Dan looked cold as well, though nothing specific indicated it. She just knew how he looked when cold. He was holding the light in such a way that he could swing it like a truncheon if necessary. She stayed behind him and darted looks to both sides, suddenly paranoid of being flanked by whatever fell forces haunted the night. Again she was tempted to laugh at herself. Silly, it was probably some lump of trash scraping down the road, or a car with a broken bumper that dragged. This is a quiet neighborhood. Nothing is waiting in the dark to attack you. Ahh, but that’s what they always think in the horror movies she and Dan sometimes enjoyed. Being on your guard costs nothing, but it could save you quite a bit. That was what her father, who had worked at a bank, had been fond of saying about investments, and it applied equally to other parts of life as he also fondly insisted. A brief pang filled her as she thought of the affable adages her father would sprinkle into every conversation, often when they hardly applied. Elizabeth and her mother still laughed about it whenever they discussed him.
This train of thought, which had already begun to distract her groggy mind, was interrupted by Dan’s sharp intake of breath a step ahead of her. He had stopped and she nearly walked into him. Instead she stepped to his left to see what he was looking at, then she gasped as well. It was some sort of... sculpture perhaps? It was made mostly of mud and sticks, and had rocks for eyes. She guessed it stood about up to her hips. It had a crown of interwoven sticks and arms made of sticks as well, almost like a snowman’s. It certainly wasn’t what had made the noise, for it had no apparent mechanism for motion or sound. Had someone left it here, near where their short driveway met the street? And if so, for what possible reason? Instead of solving the initial mystery of the noise, they had discovered a second mystery.
"What on earth is that... thing?" asked Elizabeth.
"I haven’t the foggiest," replied Dan, faking an accent as if to show he took the matter lightly. But she could tell he was as nervous and confused as she. He continued to shine the light onto its face, the gleaming rocks of the eyes, a blank stretch of mud where a nose or mouth might be, and began circling slowly around it at a distance of a few feet.
What... what on earth," she repeated absently, not expecting an answer, as she circled the other side. The back was blank and featureless, as she expected. Nothing further to be gleaned.
"Should we call the police?" asked Elizabeth. Dan was bent closer inspecting the face of the mud statue. At her voice he stood up and stepped back. He hesitated.
"It will sound silly..."
She barked a curt laugh in agreement.
"But yeah, I think we’d better." He switched the mag-light to his left hand and drew out his phone from the coat pocket with his right. She looked around. No lights in any of the neighboring houses. What would they think when the bright lights pulled into their driveway? The neighbors in the two closest houses might be able to hear her and Dan discuss the statue with the police if they happened to have a bedroom window open.
"What time is it?" asked Elizabeth.
"Looks like," he squinted at the bright screen, "2:41." That was so like him. He never said "a quarter to three", or even "2:40". It was always the exact minute. It was a habit she was fond of, an unconscious, often needless exactitude that complimented her ability to estimate and improvise—qualities he sometimes lacked. She thought these things as he hit send and waited for the police to pick up. The police answered. He replied
"Ah yes, hello. Not an emergency exactly, but..." he paused. "This will sound silly, but someone seems to have left a strange sort of statue thing in our driveway. We both heard a noise—" the voice cut him off and he paused then continued. "Yes, me and my wife." He gave their names. "We heard a noise that woke both of us up. We came outside to investigate and found this wierd statue. It’s kind of creepy, like a snowman but made out of dried mud and sticks. And we have no idea how it got here. It wasn’t here when we went to bed, I would have seen it when I locked the house."
Elizabeth nodded at him to confirm this. He smiled, listening while the policewoman—Elizabeth could tell it was a woman from the tone of voice though she couldn’t make out what she was saying—replied.
"Excellent, thank you very much. Yes, you too, good night."
They stood around in the cold, waiting.
"Oh, Dan! I wouldn’t touch the thing!"
"Don’t be silly," he said.
Phoning the police had reassured him. The world again worked as he had always assumed. Yes something strange had happened. Something more than strange. But the police would soon arrive and sort it all out. They would laugh about this tomorrow after a few extra hours of sleep.
The policeman turned his squad car onto their block in a little over twenty minutes. Not a bad response time, really. But when he pulled off the street he discovered that there was no one in the driveway or the yard, nor any sign of a "snowman statue". And after a little more investigation he discovered that there was no one in the house either.