by Matthew S. Rotundo
As he stood at the kitchen stove, stirring the spaghetti and keeping an eye on the simmering marinara sauce, Steve Jacobs finally admitted to himself that he was in over his head. He couldn’t hide the disturbances–if that was the right word–any longer.
Ginny stood behind him, still dressed for work in a red business suit, her dark hair swept up, her arms crossed, her eyebrows raised. "All right, talk. What’s going on?"
He had no idea how to respond. He was caught.
Alvin, their tan and white tomcat, strode into the kitchen and began twining between Steve’s legs, expecting to be fed. Steve shooed the cat away. "What do you mean?"
"I think you know what I mean."
"I’m talking about this. Look, Steve."
He turned from the stove, shoulders slumped.
Ginny stood next to the dinner table, on which lay the day’s newspaper, still rolled and rubber-banded. She had brought in the paper when she arrived home, then had turned on the ceiling fan to relieve some of the kitchen’s late afternoon stuffiness. And she had noticed.
The ceiling fan had rattled since they’d bought the house five years ago. At the lowest setting, the noise was barely tolerable. At higher speeds, the racket was audible even from the upstairs bedroom.
But it wasn’t rattling now. It ran smoothly and silently.
Ginny reached up and pulled the chain that controlled the fan speed. The blades whirled faster, creating a gentle breeze, and still the only noise was a faint hum. She pulled the chain again. Even at the highest setting, with the blades a blur, the fan was whisper-quiet. She pulled the chain a final time, shutting off the motor, and crossed her arms once more. "Well?"
He smiled hopefully. "You like it?"
"Are you kidding? I’ve always hated that rattle. But who fixed it?"
She gave a short laugh. "Since when did you become an expert on ceiling fans? You’re not exactly the Bob Vila type, hon."
"I stopped by the library and looked up a few things. It wasn’t that hard, really. Once I got started."
"And when did you do all this?"
He thought back, being careful to pick a date that would hold up to scrutiny. "Last week. When you went to the neighborhood association meeting, remember?"
"Last Thursday? That was over a week ago. Why didn’t you tell me?"
"I wanted it to be a surprise."
"I see." Her brow furrowed. "Well . . . thanks."
"You’re welcome." With feigned nonchalance, he turned back to the stove.
"But . . . what possessed you to fix the ceiling fan?"
"It needed to be done, didn’t it?"
"Yes, but it’s been like that for years. Why now?"
"I don’t know," he said–the only truthful statement he’d made since she’d come home. "I guess it was just one of those things I’ve been putting off for too long."
"Have you been fixing other things around the house without telling me?"
"Like the bathroom sink upstairs. It doesn’t seem to leak anymore."
He swallowed hard. "Oh yeah, the sink. That just needed some tightening down."
He tried to say it with the confidence of the handymen from those dime-a-dozen home improvement shows she watched endlessly on public television. But if she decided to ask him precisely what had needed tightening, all would be lost. Steve Jacobs could quote insurance industry regulations chapter and verse, but had a hard time remembering when to change the oil–or, more properly, when to have a mechanic change it for him. His few abortive attempts at preventive maintenance had resulted in large messes, ruined parts, and embarrassing memories he’d just as soon forget.
Ginny, on the other hand, enjoyed taking things apart and learning how to fix them, a role Steve had been happy to cede to her. But her promotion to vice president had squeezed her time for home improvement projects.
She said, "I’m glad that’s all it was."
A smile crossed her features. She stepped over to him and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, hon. I appreciate it."
Relief and joy welled in him, and for one blissful moment, at least, they had bridged the distance between them that had grown alarming in recent months. Though he was unworthy of her gratitude, he would take it. "Welcome," he said.
She pulled back and gestured toward the table. "Listen, do you think you could remember to bring in the newspaper when you get home?"
She said it gently, apologetically even, and for once the reminder didn’t feel like a jab in the ribs. "Sorry, babe. I forgot."
She glanced at the stove, inhaled deeply. "Smells good. Let me change out of these clothes, and we can eat." She walked out of the kitchen. Moments later, he heard her tread on the stairs to the upper level. He sagged as pent-up tension drained out of him.
"The sink," he murmured. "Jesus Christ, she noticed the sink, too. What the hell is going on around here?"
He hated lying to her, but he feared telling the truth would have been worse: he hadn’t touched the ceiling fan, nor had he worked on the leaky tap in the bathroom sink. And that wasn’t the half of it. There was also the matter of an annoying squeal coming from his car’s engine that had suddenly and inexplicably stopped. The flickering porch light, the result of bad wiring, now shone steadily every night. And the creaky floorboards in the upstairs bedroom were now quiet and firm when walked upon.
It wasn’t him, and it wasn’t Ginny. Which left him with two possibilities: either items in and around the house had started fixing themselves, or someone was repairing them for him.
He still believed–hoped–that a rational explanation existed, but given his limited knowledge of such esoteric matters as engine repair and home improvement, he was at a loss to devise one. It was time to talk to someone who could.
Alvin waited in the entryway to the kitchen, sitting on his haunches near his empty bowl, waiting to be fed. He looked at Steve with the unearthly stillness innate in all cats. His gaze seemed somehow accusatory, as if he meant to say, You don’t fool me one bit. And you’re not fooling her, either.
"Scat," Steve said, flapping an arm in the animal’s direction. Alvin bolted.
Ray Sanders was something of an anomaly among underwriters. He had shoulder-length hair and a thick beard, came to work in mix-and-match thrift store outfits, and accoutered his cubicle with NASCAR wall calendars and posters. He and Steve had worked in the same department for three years.
Ray had a passion for cars, tools . . . and hamsters.
He was famed around the office for knowing engine specs on any vehicle make and model manufactured in the last quarter-century. He boasted with justifiable pride about the backyard deck he had built single-handedly. And his house was a miniature rodent city. When Steve and Ginny visited him for dinner, they had to step carefully, or risk damaging one of the hundreds of hamster-sized, interconnected plastic tubes that ran throughout the house. Ray owned somewhere between twenty and thirty hamsters of all varieties–brown, white, and mottled–and always seemed to be buying more.
The day after the ceiling fan incident, Steve invited Ray over for barbecued steak dinner.
After they ate, the two sat in lawn chairs just outside of Steve’s garage, each dressed in shorts and T-shirts, drinking beers and watching dusk settle over the neighborhood. Ginny had joined them for a while, but had been driven inside by the late summer mosquitoes.
"Thanks for the steak," Ray said. "It was delicious."
"No problem." Steve cleared his throat, shifted in his chair. Alvin, who had been sitting contentedly in Steve’s lap, jumped down and ran off into the gathering dark to make his nightly rounds.
"Ray, I have to ask you something."
Steve pointed to his car in the driveway–a battered 1978 El Camino with oxidized paint, rusting quarter panels, and torn upholstery. "You remember that funny noise the engine was making? I mentioned that to you, didn’t I?"
"It’s not the engine. I’ve told you before: you need a new fan belt. I could take care of it, if you like."
"That’s the thing, Ray. It stopped."
"What? The engine?"
"No, the squealing. It just went away."
Ray paused while swigging his beer. "Since when?"
"I don’t know. Maybe two weeks ago."
"Did someone work on it?"
"I haven’t taken it to the garage in months."
"Cars don’t fix themselves, Steve."
"Could the belt have been knocked back into place accidentally, maybe? Like if I ran over a pothole, or something like that?"
"That belt’s probably overstretched and worn out. It needs to be replaced."
"Care to have a look at it?"
Ray smiled. "Is that the real reason you invited me over tonight?"
"Of course not. I just . . ." He had no idea how to finish the sentence. "Well, maybe. But that doesn’t mean–"
"It’s all right. I owe you one."
"Not at all," Steve said. But he was glad to have an excuse.
Ray referred to the occasion, two weeks previous, when he had borrowed a gray sport coat of Steve’s. Ray had needed it for a wedding he’d been invited to, said it would match perfectly with some pants of his. Steve had been happy to loan it to him, and Ray returned the coat the following Monday.
Steve popped the hood, then brought forth a hood lamp from the garage, plugged it in, and shone it on the engine block.
Ray bent to examine the strip of vulcanized rubber that wound around the radiator fan, alternator, and cam shaft. He pressed on the belt and ran his hands along its length. After a few moments, he straightened, frowning.
"What do you think?" Steve asked.
"Weird," Ray said. "It should be slack, and frayed at the edges. Maybe even a little discolored. But it isn’t."
With his free hand, Steve emulated Ray’s inspection of the fan belt. Smooth and taut, it gleamed dull black under the hood lamp.
"It’s good as new," Ray said. "In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was new. Are you sure no one’s worked on it?"
"I think I’d know if someone had worked on my car, Ray."
A roguish part of his mind answered him, Oh, really?
Ray’s frown deepened. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it with a snap. His eyes went wide.
"What?" Steve asked. "Did you think of something?"
Ray blinked and shook his head. "Huh? Oh, no. Sorry. Just woolgathering for a second."
"Do you have any ideas?"
"It’s a little odd. But it’s probably just one of those things."
"What does that mean?"
Ray slammed down the hood. "I don’t know. But I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s weird . . . but it’s a good kind of weird, isn’t it?"
"That’s all that matters. Say, what time is it?"
Steve glanced at his watch. "Quarter to eight. Why?"
"I just remembered: I haven’t fed the hamsters yet. I have to go. Thanks again for the dinner and the beer."
"You’re leaving? So soon? I have more in the fridge–"
"No, I gotta run. Thanks anyway. See you at the office." Ray fished his keys from a pocket and headed for his car.
Steve stood confused, still holding the hood lamp. "Well, let me get Ginny out here so she can say good-bye–"
Ray waved him off. Within moments, he had gotten into his car, started it, and driven away.
With a shrug, Steve switched off the hood lamp and put it back in the garage, then set to cleaning up. He returned the folding chairs to the storage space under the basement stairs and collected the empty beer cans. "Just one of those things," he said aloud. "Well, OK. Maybe he’s right."
In the dusk of summer evening, on an unrelentingly normal suburban street, Ray’s explanation held a certain comfort. Steve clung to it, ignoring for the moment the unanswered questions that still stirred in his mind.
A good kind of weird. He could live with that. After years of tolerating those somehow accusatory squeaks and rattles of everyday life, he could do with a little peace.
Ray’s can of beer, the one he’d been drinking before he looked at the El Camino, was still half-full. Steve emptied it in the grass near the driveway and went inside.
The musty smell in the basement disappeared. The living room windows, once so drafty that the curtains fluttered with any outside breeze, suddenly became airtight. The clock on the oven console, stopped for months, spontaneously began to keep correct time.
Just one of those things.
A good kind of weird.
It was nice. It was a good thing. He had been worried about how he was going to afford new living room windows. And he had never noticed how much all those minor annoyances had weighed on him until they were gone. Each one had seemed like a tiny indictment, proof of his unfitness to call himself a grown man and a homeowner. As they disappeared one by one, he felt more in control of his life than ever before.
Even better, he and Ginny began to laugh together, to enjoy each other’s company again. They made time for a few dates, and their long dormant sex life reawakened. On occasion, Ginny would mention one or two larger home improvement projects they might work on together; Steve would smile and nod. There would be time to figure that out later.
And if the strangeness of this random, preternatural good fortune nagged at him as he lay awake in bed in the early morning hours; if he sometimes envisioned tiny creatures running around his house in the dark, with strange, miniature tools at the ready, hungrily repairing any malfunction they found; if every tick or pop of the house settling sounded to his ears like furtive movement–he figured he could live with that.
So long as Ginny went along with it.
Late one night, she came to the bedroom door, dressed in her bathrobe, one hand held behind her back. Steve had already stripped to his underwear and was pulling back the quilted bedspread. He stopped when he saw the tense set of her mouth.
In a small voice, she said, "Steve?"
"Will you please tell me what’s going on here?" Her voice broke a little as she spoke, and restrained tears shone in her eyes.
The bedroom was cool enough to raise gooseflesh all over his body. He shivered. "What’s wrong?"
She showed him what she had hidden behind her back: a coffee-table book, its cover splashed with a photograph of sunlight streaming in through a huge bay window. Simple block letters formed the title: Window Installation and Repair. "I found this."
"That? I checked it out from the library. What’s the problem?"
"More home improvement, is that it?"
"This is how you learned to get rid of the draft in the living room?"
Her features hardened. She tossed the book onto the bed. "You’re lying to me." She said it wonderingly, as if she couldn’t believe her own words.
He swallowed. "Lying?"
Just like that, she became angry, and the gap between them yawned wide open once again, as if the previous few weeks had never happened. "Yes, damn it, lying. I got curious, you see. I called the library. That book was just checked out yesterday. The windows have been fixed for at least a week."
Steve licked his lips, nonplussed.
She set hands on hips. "Lately, I hear you down in the basement, rooting through the toolbox. What are you doing down there? Just making noise, so that I’ll hear you?"
He averted his gaze. It was frightening, how easily she could read him.
"This isn’t fun anymore, Steve. In fact, it’s a little scary. Will you please tell me the truth? Please?"
He stood before her in his underwear, head down, and shrugged. "It’s just a few repairs. What’s the harm in that?"
"My God. You don’t know, either, do you?" She heaved a sigh. "Jesus. You can be such a little boy sometimes. Well, if you’re not going to look into this, I will."
"You don’t have to do that."
She nodded toward the book. "Will you put that damned thing on the nightstand, please? I’d like to go to bed now."
"Enough, Steve. I don’t want to talk about it anymore."
His mouth bobbed as he tried to form a coherent sentence–something, anything to dissuade her. Nothing came to mind.
"Oh, forget it." She elbowed past him and snatched a pillow. "I’ll sleep on the couch."
"Ginny, don’t be like that–"
She slammed the door behind her.
Steve’s gaze drifted toward the book she’d left on the bed, and sadness touched him.
Steve came home that evening to an empty house. Ginny had mentioned earlier in the day that she had another neighborhood association meeting–working on a petition to the city for street repairs, or something like that. Given the tension in the house after the incident with the book, Steve felt that time apart was probably best.
Things had been going so well, too. Now they seemed worse than ever.
He had no interest in making dinner for himself. Weary from days of worry and spotty sleep, he wanted nothing more than to channel-surf for a while, and let his mind go blank. He changed out of his work clothes, returned to the living room, flopped onto the couch, and switched on the television with the remote.
That was when he noticed the first thing.
Cycling through all the channels took him longer than usual. Much longer.
He blinked and ran through the channels again. Unease rose in him.
He and Ginny had agreed long ago that they had better things to spend their money on than a glut of premium cable television channels. He had programmed his remote to skip over the scrambled stations.
Every premium channel now came in clean and clear–even the pay-per-view stations, which normally required a converter box.
"Son of a bitch," he said softly. He pressed the channel up button on his remote with metronomic regularity, gaping at the television. Random images–sporting events, news programs, soft-core porn–flashed before his disbelieving eyes. The remote must have been reprogrammed, too. Otherwise, he would never have known.
He shut off the television and set down the remote, rubbing at his eyes. Silence fell on the living room.
That was when he noticed the second thing. Or rather, he didn’t notice it: Alvin.
He had been so preoccupied that he had forgotten all about the cat. Alvin had not greeted Steve at the door as he always did, eager to be fed and let out for the night.
Steve sat up straighter, glancing around the living room, frowning. He called out: "Alvin? Alvin? Here, kitty."
No answering meow. No soft patter of paws.
Steve got up and checked the upstairs bathroom first, where Alvin’s litter box was kept. He searched all his favorite haunts, from the spare bed in the guest room to the windowsill over the kitchen sink, calling the cat’s name as he went. Alvin did not emerge.
Steve stood in the middle of the kitchen, trying to think. His gaze lighted upon Alvin’s bowl, and an idea occurred to him. He located the bag of dry cat food in its customary cupboard and filled the bowl, hoping the sound would bring the tom running, as it usually did. But it didn’t.
Had Alvin come back last night? Yes, Steve remembered getting out of bed around midnight–he hadn’t slept, anyway–to let the cat in.
All right, calm down, he told himself. He has to be around here somewhere. Look again, more carefully this time.
Steve started upstairs and worked his way down, checking every room, looking under every piece of furniture, behind piles of clothing, even inside cabinets and closets. He found nothing upstairs. Nor on the main level. That left only the basement.
He approached the steps with trepidation. He flicked on the light and descended.
Most of the basement level had been finished as a rec room: white carpet, wood paneling, bookshelves, an old couch-and-love- seat set. Steve peered into corners and crevices, found only a few cobwebs.
The utility room was yet unfinished. The floor was concrete, the walls bare cinder block. Steve checked around the furnace and behind the washer and dryer. He was about to dig into the storage space under the basement stairs when he noticed a dark stain on the floor, about the size of a saucer.
He knelt. In the dim light, the stain appeared almost black–with perhaps a hint of maroon. He touched trembling fingers to it, found it cool and sticky. He held his fingers to his face. The reddish tinge of the stain became unmistakable.
Blood. Not quite dried.
"Oh, Jesus." He settled into a sitting position, letting his hand fall to his side, strengthless. "Oh, Jesus. Alvin." He glanced right and left, but saw no other bloodstains, no trail of crimson spots leading in one direction or another.
He looked again at the pile of junk stored under the stairs. He was suddenly bereft of the desire to search through it. He shouted at it instead: "What’s going on? Huh? Why me? Why now? Goddamn it, why?"
His voice fell into silence. Despair welled in him. His life had become so strange lately, so infested with weirdness.
Even as he thought it, he realized that he’d found the right word: infested, as if with termites. Except these creatures repaired instead of ravaged. Gremlins, perhaps. But no, that wasn’t quite right, either. Gremlins were supposed to be invisible pranksters, last he heard.
And besides, whatever had invaded his home had apparently developed a dislike for cats. Maybe Alvin had spotted one of them scurrying through the house. Maybe he had even given chase, all the way downstairs, here to the utility room. And then–Steve forced the gruesome visual out of his mind.
How, in the name of Christ, had such an infestation happened in the first place? Termites came from mounds. Where had these . . .things . . . come from?
He thought back, trying to remember when he had noticed the first disturbance. Was it the bathroom sink? Or the fan belt in the El Camino?
The El Camino . . . Thinking of the car recalled Ray’s inspection of the engine.
I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s weird . . . but it’s a good kind of weird, isn’t it?
But then he had run off suddenly, making lame excuses and leaving a half-finished beer.
"Holy shit." Strange associations formed in Steve’s mind. "Holy shit!"
He jumped to his feet and ran for a telephone.
"Steve, slow down. What’s going on? What are you talking about?"
"Damn it, Ray, what did you do to me? And why? They got the cat, for Christ’s sake!"
"They? Who are they?"
"That’s what I’m asking you!"
"Steve, you need to calm down. I don’t know what you’re–"
"I’m talking about my coat, Ray. The one I loaned you. All this craziness started when you gave it back to me. Now some weird little Mr. Fixits are running rampant through my house, and they’ve killed the cat, and who knows what they’re going to do next? You know what’s going on, Ray; don’t bullshit me. I could see it in your face when you looked at the El Camino. So tell me!"
Silence on the line. As he paced the kitchen floor, cordless telephone in hand, Steve glanced at the oven clock: seven-thirty. Ginny would be getting home soon.
Quietly, Ray said, "It was an accident."
"What was an accident?"
Ray sighed. "I hung your coat in my closet. That’s probably how it happened. Some of them must have gotten into a pocket. I’m sorry. I guess I wasn’t thinking."
The matter-of-fact way he said it doused some of Steve’s franticness. He paused in his pacing. "What are they?"
"I don’t know."
"You . . . what?"
"I don’t really know what they are. I’ve never even seen them. But they’ve been with me for years–since I was a teenager, in shop class. I think that’s where they came from. Why they picked me, I have no idea. Similar interests, maybe."
Steve took several moments to absorb this. "Are they gremlins?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Gremlins, brownies, elves, whatever. You want to call them gremlins, fine. They’re gremlins."
"And you’ve never seen them?"
"Never seen them, never heard them, never smelled them. I tried for years to get a glimpse of them, but I couldn’t manage it. These days, I don’t even bother. I just let them do what they do."
"And what’s that, exactly?"
"You know already: they fix things. It’s in their nature, I guess."
"Fix things? That’s it?"
"Then–" Steve’s voice cracked. "Then why did they kill Alvin?"
"Oh. Oh, shit. Steve, I’m sorry."
"Sorry about what?"
"Well . . . they can go a long time without food, but even gremlins get hungry once in a while."
"Jesus." A chill sank into him. He ran a hand through his hair. "Jesus, this can’t be happening."
"I’m really sorry about the cat, man. That’s terrible. I should have warned you, but I just wasn’t sure. I thought maybe the problem with the fan belt wasn’t as bad as you made it out to be. And I was afraid you’d mark me as a kook if I told you what I suspected."
Steve sank slowly to the linoleum floor, thinking of poor Alvin. Ginny was going to be devastated. "What . . . what do you feed them?"
Steve laughed humorlessly. "Of course."
"You know, it’s really not so bad, once you get used to the idea. I mean, a few hamsters–it’s a small price to pay. All the little annoyances, the minor inconveniences, the nagging details that we spend so much time worrying over–imagine if you never had to deal with them. Take it from me, it’s nice. No, better than that; it’s heavenly." He paused. "There are probably people like me all over the world. You ever notice how some folks seem to lead charmed lives?"
Steve stared at the oven clock. Seven forty-five. What was he going to tell Ginny?
"Steve? You there?"
"Right here," he said weakly. "So how do I get rid of them?"
"I’m not sure. I never tried. But I suppose that if you didn’t feed them, they’d go away soon enough."
"Thanks. Thanks a million."
"Steve, you have to believe me: I never meant for anything bad to happen. Swear to God."
"Yeah. Well. If you’ll excuse me, I have a bloodstain to clean up."
He disconnected, then set the receiver aside.
Steve lay on the living room couch in the dark, waiting, working on excuses.
The image of the bloodstain on the utility room floor formed in his mind. He hadn’t needed to clean it up, after all. By the time he had worked up the nerve to return to the basement, armed with some old rags and a bottle of bleach, the stain was gone. He inspected the concrete floor, but could find no trace of discoloration. Very thorough, these gremlins were. He had put the rags and the bleach away, and had spent the rest of the time waiting for Ginny to get home, bracing himself for her wrath.
He supposed he had known all along that it was too good to last. If only he had understood sooner. He could have concocted a better cover story, made his wife believe it. He could have gotten some rabbits to raise in the back yard. Ginny liked rabbits, he was pretty sure. If he had only known sooner, he could have pulled it off. And nothing would have happened to Alvin.
He heard the echo of the tom’s meow and closed his eyes. Ah, God, if only he had understood sooner.
The meow came again.
Steve opened his eyes, frowning, and looked around. He saw only the silhouetted lumps of the easy chair and the entertainment center. The house was dark and still.
Terrific. Now he was hearing things.
The meow came again, faint but insistent, as if Alvin was somewhere nearby, trying to get Steve’s attention.
He sat up suddenly. A wild hope rose in him: maybe Alvin had survived the attack, and was lying hurt, calling for help. Steve concentrated, ignoring his pounding heart, trying to locate the source of the sound. It came again, from the direction of the kitchen.
He stood and picked his way carefully through the darkened living room. At the entry to the kitchen, he flicked the light switch, squinting against the sudden brightness. He expected to see something unpleasant–the cat’s broken and bloodied form lying on the linoleum, maybe–but the kitchen appeared clean and undisturbed.
Alvin meowed yet again–that trademark yowl he gave whenever he became impatient. It came from the other side of the kitchen door. The cat was outside, demanding to be let in.
On numb legs, Steve went to the door and opened it. Alvin walked in, tail high. He moved with calmness and confidence, in no apparent distress, other than being irritated with Steve for keeping him waiting.
Steve bent and picked up the cat. Alvin squirmed in his arms, clearly not in the mood to be held. Steve examined him from all angles, feeling for cuts or abrasions. Aside from some dirt in his belly fur, Alvin appeared completely normal. Steve set him down. The cat strode indignantly from the kitchen.
The blood. There had been a goodly quantity of it. If it hadn’t been Alvin’s . . .
Steve’s gaze fell on the kitchen table, and his breath stopped.
It looked so completely normal: white tablecloth with a floral design, a centerpiece of African violets. Nothing untoward there, except–
A newspaper lay on it, still rolled and rubber-banded.
With trembling hands, he stripped off the rubber band and unfolded the paper. He glanced at the date; it was today’s.
He hadn’t brought the newspaper in; he had forgotten it, as usual. The oven clock informed him that the time was now nine-thirty; Ginny still hadn’t come home. And he had found blood in the basement.
Steve dropped the newspaper and staggered, catching himself on the kitchen door.
As before, when he had discovered the bloodstain, a visual came to him: Ginny arriving home early, feeding Alvin, letting him out for the evening, and then–having some free time before her meeting–deciding to explore a little, to figure out once and for all what was going on. He imagined her poking into the house’s dark corners, all the small, hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, working methodically, eventually reaching the storage space under the basement stairs. And then . . .
"Oh, God," he murmured. "Oh, God."
They must have been really hungry.
Horror swelled in him. He collapsed, curling into a fetal ball, whimpering.
An unknown time later, Steve opened his eyes. Muscles were sore from lying on the floor. He must have blanked out for a while, overwhelmed by shock. He stirred and sat up.
He was exhausted. His stomach still churned at the thought of what had happened in the basement. But he became aware of something else, a strange thought that had formed unbidden in the forefront of his mind: She wanted to ruin everything.
They had been quite happy over the past several weeks, hadn’t they? Happier than they’d been in a long, long time. But unlike him, she hadn’t been content to leave well enough alone.
It’s really not so bad . . . all the little annoyances, the minor inconveniences . . . imagine if you never had to deal with them.
And honestly, hadn’t it been her own fault? She had gone poking around where she shouldn’t have.
Take it from me, it’s nice. No, better than that: it’s heavenly.
Steve had never intended for anything bad to happen to her, but now that it had, what could he do about it? Whom could he tell? The police would think he was a nut, would probably assume he had done it.
You ever notice how some folks seem to lead charmed lives?
She had wanted to ruin everything. Maybe–just maybe–it was better this way.
He got to his feet. The kitchen door was still open; he closed it and sat at the table. He picked the newspaper off the floor and set it before him. He stared at it, unseeing.
"She was unhappy," he said to the empty kitchen. "She’d been unhappy for years. She finally decided she couldn’t take it anymore. So she ran off. She left everything behind, made a new start. Yes, that’s it. People will believe that."
And if the police got involved anyway? Well, they would have a hard time finding evidence of a crime. No murder weapon, no body, no sign of violence. The only person who might suspect was Ray. But even he didn’t know what kind of appetites they had.
And even if he did, he shared a certain measure of complicity in all this, didn’t he? That could come in handy, if push came to shove.
"It’s a small price to pay," Steve said.
He could pull it off, after all. He could do it.
As the recently repaired oven clock ticked away into the late hours, he refined his story, rehearsing it, making it sound natural. He busied himself, too, with the possibility of raising some rabbits in the backyard, or maybe some other small animal. He could buy some cages, read up on their care and feeding, learn everything he had to know. And maybe once a week, he would leave a rabbit alone in the basement, near the storage space under the stairs.
Hamsters would be too obvious. But rabbits . . . Ginny had always liked rabbits.
©Matthew S. Rotundo