It wasn’t the first time she heard it, or thought she did. This time, she would swallow her fear and check out the unmistakable sound. Could there be rats in the basement? Mice? Banditos? A young widow, Lori lived alone in a blue house with white shutters. She still filled the bird feeders that Marv had put in. After his death, sleep had been difficult, but now five years had passed. She slept upstairs in their king-sized bed – “Marvin, King of Marvin Gardens” they would joke to one another referring to the game of Monopoly.
Dutifully, after watching Charlie Rose, she padded downstairs in her argyle socks to the basement.
“Lori, you damn fool,” she said out loud. “What! The boogey man is gonna greet you with tea and crumpets!”
The basement floor was solid concrete. Not a single crumb to be found, unless, unless that odd thing by the crawl space turned out to be a crumb.
She pushed her short blonde hair out of her eyes, bent down and picked up “the thing.”
“I’ll be darned,” she said. It was part of last night’s Mexican casserole she had baked in the oven.
Should she call the police? Or should she solve the crime herself? At one in the morning, she decided to go back to bed.
Lori slept fitfully, having one of her repeating dreams. The airplane crash dreams had disappeared years ago. Now, as she lay under her dusty ceiling fan, her legs ensconced in sea-foam green pajamas, she had her latest terrible dream. Her legs flew like birds down her basement stairs, jolting her awake.
No, she thought. I’m not going downstairs to check, not just yet.
On her bedside table she helped herself to a Xanax to help her sleep. She fingered the little pink pill and took it with a plastic cup of water with its own straw. Her cluttered table also included a pad of paper where she listed ideas for her teaching job at Penn State in nearby Abington , Pennsylvania . A cup of drained coffee sat there, too, waiting to be toppled over.
Before she got out of bed for the day, she sat up, flipped on the classical music station and picked up one of seven library books she was reading.
“You’ve got to go, honey,” she said to the debut novelist Hannah Kent of ‘Burial Rites.’ “Why must you repeat yourself ad infinitum?”
Lying back down, she turned to the last two chapters and read them quickly, then snapped the book closed with a finality that indicated, “Fini.”
“Are you up yet darling?” she called as she went downstairs to make breakfast. The darling, of course, was the alleged intruder. She visualized a gaunt and starving homeless veteran who had been living in her house for years, appearing only when she left home.
From the fridge, she brought out the cold Mexican casserole, cut a small slice, and heated it in the microwave. The smell permeated the house – tomatoes and cheese and basil – and brought it into the large dining room to eat.
She used formal placemats the way she and Marvin always had. They threw loads of parties. She had invited colleagues from the college, while Marv brought over his friends from the local Barnes and Noble, where he was manager.
How long should she procrastinate checking out the basement crawl space?
As soon as the word “procrastinate” burned into her brain, she stood up. Taking one last sip of coffee, she started downstairs, then remembered she was still in her green pajamas.
She went upstairs, changed into her grey sweatpants and green T-shirt that read, “Birders Unite” and featured a huge red-headed woodpecker in living color on the front.
What weapon should she bring with her into the crawl space? Nothing. She’d read enough crime fiction to know that her enemy might use it against her.
When Lori was younger, she played a mean game of volleyball and used knee pads. She wished she had them now, as her knees scraped across the hard floor. Into the crawl space she went, reaching for a long string that attached to a single light bulb. The light blinded her and she backed out on her knees.
Back upstairs she went and grabbed a purple flashlight from the kitchen shelf.
She re-entered the crawl space and brandished the flash light like a revolver. At first she saw nothing. “Look for movement,” she told herself. She remained stock still on her knees. And then her eyes focused.
“Who’s there!” she called, forcing her voice not to tremble.
“Just me,” said the voice of a child.
“Show yourself!” cried Lori.
A little girl with curly brown hair crawled over to her, trailing an assortment of wild flowers, clearly from Lori’s back yard.
“What’s your name?” Lori asked gently.
“Olivia,” said the tiny girl.
“I know you!” said Lori. “You live in the yellow house!”
Olivia began to cry. She told Lori her dad left home because “Mommy is an alcoholic” and there was no food in the refrigerator.
“Holy cow!” thought Lori, “right here on our street.”
What a façade! The so-called perfect family had a lovely house with sculptured green shrubs in the front yard and a tiny brown and white Jack Russell terrier.
Lori learned that the little girl had easily gotten into the crawl space, simply by pushing open a loose board that had blown open on a windy day.
“Next time, dear,” said Lori, “simply come in through the front door. I’ll make you a nice breakfast. Do you like bacon and eggs and raisin toast?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do,” said the grateful little girl.
But there was no next time. The family in the yellow house vanished, taking with them their energetic Jack Russell Terrier whose name was “Jack.” Short for Jack Daniels? Lori wondered.
Lori put Olivia’s gift of wildflowers in a vase on the windowsill over the kitchen sink. Every day, another petal – yellow, purple or blue – fell like a tear into the sink.
Ruth Z. Deming has had her work published in lit mags including Literary Yard, Haggard and Halloo and Quail Bell. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia, in the good ole USA.