Whoever said “life begins at forty” was a liar. When I hear that phrase, I picture a person living it up, enjoying an abundance of disposable income with a nice big house…but that’s not how my life turned out. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite.
I was dumped on my fortieth birthday by my fiancée, Amanda. She said (in so many words) that I needed to grow up…or get serious, or something like that; I can’t remember exactly how she said it, but it was a kick right where the sun doesn’t shine if you know what I mean. I’m not sure if she was talking about my lackluster career, or my non-committal attitude whenever she mentioned children, but we had dated for three years, and made some forward-thinking plans…including a June wedding this year; but I guess she got cold feet.
Talk about having the rug ripped from under me…it was all over; just like that, in the blink of an eye. One morning I was making her a cup of coffee, the next I was out of the house. She quit everything; the wedding, me…us…all of it. I was blindsided; it was as if one day I knew her and the next we were strangers. In retrospect, we had become a little boring…but it was still a shock to see how regular conversation had become as if we were speaking different languages.
The cherry on top was that I had no place to go; I was suddenly homeless! My parents live in New Jersey and I have no brothers or sisters…so I spent the first couple of weeks on the couches of friends as I attempted to talk my way back into our apartment. I attempted to treat it as if it were a temporary situation (I was in denial), and that’s how I sold my situation as I talked several of my friends into letting me sleep on their couches for “a few nights”…and I truly believed what I was saying.
“Jim, can I crash on your couch for a couple of days? Amanda and I are going through a rough patch. If I could just have a couple of days at your place while I work things out with her I’ll…I’ll appreciate it, and I’ll be gone after that. Tell Laura it’s only for a couple of nights. I’ll stay out of your way. I go to work early and I come home late.”
It went something like that each time. I talked my way in, and it wasn’t much fun for anyone. I had kids waking me up, scowls from wives, couples murmuring behind closed doors and all the humiliation that goes with it. I was up the river without a paddle, and it occurred to me that this is what Amanda had seen in me…I was damn near helpless with little savings and nothing to fall back on. Get serious…which I had taken as “get boring”. As soon as the truth of the new reality hit me, I got low. My self-esteem took a nosedive. I began to beat myself up.
Near the end of the second week of couch surfing, I had a feeling that the host-wife-du-jour was about to tell me to take it somewhere else. Luckily I bumped into an acquaintance at the liquor store. His name was Joe, and he wasn’t quite on my speed dial, but I did know him fairly well…from college, a few years back. Perhaps he was about to become a much better friend…Lord knows I sure needed one.
Joe said he heard about my situation through the grapevine and had a proposition for me. I would be able to crash at his house for a couple of weeks, with a small catch. He and his wife Candy were leaving the country for vacation and they needed someone to watch their cat. His timing couldn’t have been better, and they wouldn’t even be home. I said yes on the spot. We shook hands and I even pulled him in for an awkward hug…but it was real and came from my heart. I almost cried but I held it in for fear of making him feel uncomfortable.
Joe left the liquor store before I did, and while I browsed the shelves for this night’s poison my elation was interrupted by more self-sabotage. It dawned on me what my life had become: I was a cat sitter and a temporary one at that.
I accepted Joe’s offer because it was my only option, but it was a very nice option; a chance to relax in an empty house…to unwind and gather my thoughts, regroup, and meditate; whatever I wanted…no kids bouncing around or public masks to wear; raw healing time. I was on the minute-to-minute plan and I had no idea where my life was taking me… Maybe I’d get an idea during my solitude and I could make a plan.
I arrived at Joe & Candy’s house on a Friday evening carrying a suitcase full of everything I owned in the world. Candy met me at the door, seemingly nervous, or perhaps just animated for the upcoming vacation. Their house was on the outskirts of the city of about thirty thousand people. Joe had scored a nice piece of land on the border of a game preservation or something like that. He lived up a dirt road that would always seem rural.
“Hey! You must be Eric! Nice to meet you! Joe said you guys went to college together, right?”
“Yes, we did. He was friends with my buddy Matt. We hung out quite a few times.”
“Oh, nice! Well, come on in. We’ll show you the place and introduce you to Elton.”
“Who’s Elton?” I said, like a dumb ass. Her face went from tour guide to cat-mother in a quick second.
“Yes, Elton…you know…our cat”.
“Oh, shit. Shoot. Sorry. I didn’t know his name… Don’t worry; I’m a cat person! I love cats. What breed is he?” Her eyes returned to tour guide mode.
“He’s a Maine Coon; purebred. And he’s eight years old. He’s our baby.”
“I can’t wait to meet him.” I managed to fake a smile for as long as it took her to turn away and begin looking for the cat.
It was a nice house. I’m no expert (I can’t tell a Cape from a Victorian) but I would call it “open concept”. It was built around one great room, with some satellite rooms to the left as you walk in the front door. I now stood in the great room itself. The front door looked directly across the depth of the house to the kitchen, which was built around an island. The living room (also part of the great room) was to my right, and there were a fireplace and a television. I could picture myself sitting there crying until my masculinity returned.
A staircase ran up the left wall to a loft. I couldn’t see exactly what furniture was up there from my angle but I could see that the stairs ended at a closed door facing the great room…most likely the master bedroom. Joe stood in the kitchen behind the island drinking a glass of wine.
“Hey man! How was the drive up? Did the GPS get you all the way here?”
“Yup. Here I am…thanks for having me. I’m ready to take care of your kitty. I can really use the time to sort things out too if you know what I mean…fix my life.”
“Yeah, I know. Say no more. This works well for both of us. Elton’s around here somewhere. He doesn’t do well when he’s alone for too long so we like to have someone check in with him daily at the very least. He gets anxious and starts clawing the furniture.”
“He’s our baby”, Candy reminded me. “He’s probably in the basement. That’s where the litter box is too, by the way.”
Joe gave Candy a bit of an eyeball, but I was used to comments like that; Candy didn’t love that I would be all alone in her house. I had been hearing it or at least feeling sentiments like that for the last two weeks in the other host-houses. She was worried I would wreck the place, or spill something; or that when she got home my smell might have taken over her Yankee Candle cured atmosphere. Hell, she was probably worried I would go through her things too. I avoided her eyes and gave silent thanks that she wouldn’t be staring at me every evening as the other wives had.
“Let me give you the tour,” said Joe.
“Jeez, I can pretty much see the whole house from here can’t I?”
“Ha ha, almost, but not quite. Follow me.” He led me from the kitchen down a short hallway. There were a bathroom, a guest bedroom, and an office. “You’ll sleep here” he gestured to the guest bedroom straight ahead. You hope I will, I thought. I hadn’t seen any security cameras…how would he know where I chose to sleep?
“Alright, looks good,” I said. It was a modest room with a queen bed. I was used to fold-out couches with kids bouncing on them, waking me up. It was heavenly compared to my recent past, and I scrapped my plans to take over the master bedroom, at least for the time being. Then he took me downstairs to the basement.
“There’s not much down here except for the litter box and the pool room,” he told me.
“You’ve got a pool table?”
“Yeah, do you shoot pool?”
“Ehhh… Honestly, no. I picture myself spending time on your couch upstairs in front of the fireplace.”
“Whatever you need, man. I mean, we’ve all been there, right? In the doghouse? Just spend this time alone figuring out whether this is a situation you can win or not. If you can, then get her back. If there’s no chance, well…cut your losses. There are plenty of fish in the sea, right?” His words were sobering; depressing; mere grains of sand on the beach of recovery.
“Right, that’s the next step; figuring it all out…making a plan.” I blurted halfheartedly.
“This other room is the furnace room. The cat box is in there. I don’t care how often you empty it; just empty it the day before we return, okay? It’s more for her sake than it is for mine if you know what I mean.”
“Sure, no problem. You get back the 22nd, right?”
“Right, the place is yours until then. Make yourself at home.”
“Thanks, Joe…I…I’m sorry about…this. I know you don’t really need someone to watch your cat this closely, and I know you’re doing me a favor…I’m just a mess…a charity case, pretty much. This is going to help me…this time alone. I’ll figure things out. I appreciate it. Thank you. If you ever need a favor let me know. I’m in your debt.”
“Whoa, whoa, keep it together Eric…I’m happy to help; and as I said…we’ve all been there, it’s just your turn, unfortunately. Hell, I’ll probably be there again someday, God forbid. Maybe you can help me then.”
“Oh, I doubt it. Whatever you’ve been through, you have Candy now. She seems great. You guys are going on vacation…top of the world, right? I probably should have gone on a few more vacations; maybe I wouldn’t be staying at your place right now. Where are you guys going anyway?”
“We’re going to Santorini. It’s beautiful there; cliffs, views, hiking, fresh Greek salads every day and cold white wine. Don’t worry; you’ll be doing the same thing with a different woman this time next year.” He forced a laugh to lighten the mood as he patted my back then led me back upstairs. I still hadn’t seen the cat. When we reached the top of the cellar stairs, Candy was in the kitchen absorbed with her smartphone, tapping the screen intensely. Joe either didn’t notice or chose not to ask. The nearly full wine glass he had left on the counter was now empty.
“Are you a pool player Eric?” she smiled as she put the phone down, ignoring whatever had captured her attention. She seemed stressed and I could tell it wasn’t a real smile, but then again neither was mine.
“Ah, not much. But I love your living room, and the fireplace and the TV. I can’t wait to set up camp right over there. I don’t know how much Joe told you, but I’m going through…some things…and I need time to gather my thoughts.”
“Oh; yes I did hear that. I’m sorry. Keep your chin up; there are plenty of fish in the sea.” Joe laughed wide-eyed, having just said the exact same thing down in the basement, and I joined in.
“I just said that!” he exclaimed. I nodded like a grinning idiot; this couldn’t end soon enough. Candy expressed an animated understanding. Nobody really cared for this conversation, but we all faked that we did. Joe looked at his watch. “Honey, we have to go. Eric, sorry to cut this short, but we’ve got a plane to catch. Grab yourself a glass of wine and kick back. The place is yours.”
Candy looked at her watch and confirmed Joe’s urgency. “Time flies! Eric, help yourself to anything you need. We won’t be readily available overseas, but our neighbor Maggie can help with most anything house related. She lives a few hundred yards over that way.” She gestured out the window to some lights through the trees in the distance. I realized that Maggie had probably been Candy’s first choice for checking on Elton.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I’m pretty low maintenance. I cook with a microwave and like I said that spot by the fireplace is looking pretty good. I think when the two weeks are up I’ll just have to tidy up around the couch.” Joe and Candy humored me with two fake chuckles. Joe continued:
“Honey, the bags are already in the car. Is there anything else you need to grab? A sweater for the plane maybe?”
“Yes, I need my sweater. I’ve got my passport, my wallet…my carry-on… I think I’m ready.”
“Alright, then compadre…any last questions before we leave you to heal in ‘Spa Clement’?”
I thought for a second, remembering that his last name was Clement, then said: “Uh, yes; but are you sure you have a cat?” They fake-laughed one more time…and then left.
I watched the taillights leave the property, and realized as the house grew quiet that this was the first time in more than two weeks that I had been alone. I broke down and cried for a good ten minutes in the silence. It had been building over the weeks and I had been burying it; entertaining false conversations with the wives of friends I had imposed upon. I was all bottled up, and it came spilling out.
Elton startled me as he brushed against my legs. He must have heard me crying and decided to check out the new “man” of the house that would be filling his cat dish. His affection interrupted my train of thought and I was grateful for it; I decided right there that I liked him and I hoped he would hang close. The first thing I did was go to the guest bedroom and grab the pillows and comforter off the bed. I threw them on the couch and turned on the TV.
After clicking through the electronic guide for a couple of minutes I decided on an old war movie…one of my favorites; and one that Amanda would never watch with me. I had missed the beginning but left it on anyway for background noise as I explored the fridge. Joe had a couple of beers in there so I popped one, grabbing a pad and paper by the telephone to write it down and keep track. I would replace whatever I consumed.
When the beer was half gone and the movie reached a part where a general tells a story about Abraham Lincoln writing a letter to the mother of three dead soldiers…I cried again, uncontrollably. That part had never made me cry before…no movies did really… What an emotional mess I was…and I still didn’t even understand how I had gotten here. Who was I…where was I going? I shut the TV off so I could focus for a moment; gather my thoughts while the mood struck.
Elton had curled into a ball on the ottoman and appeared to be asleep. I looked up at the high ceiling…acclimating…feeling the vibe of the house. It felt good to be alone. Each and every window was dark and there were very few window shades, perhaps because Joe and Candy lived on the edge of a state preservation and didn’t have to worry about anyone ever peering in unless they were perhaps…a deer. I shut the lights off to see better outside.
The moonlight illuminated the snow on the lawn and the trees. In the distance were lights, most likely Maggie’s house, but that was it. If I wanted to, I could camp on the couch naked and no one would ever know, despite the fact that one side of the house was made entirely of glass. I sat in the darkness for several minutes looking and listening. Elton didn’t move, already used to the house…his house. Somewhere downstairs the furnace fired up. The foreign noise creeped me out a bit, so I turned the lights back on.
In retrospect, I think I was trying to scare myself; after all, if I was busy being scared of the dark, then I wouldn’t be stuck on my true pain. The furnace did the job nicely. Every house has its own soundtrack, and I hadn’t learned this one yet. Unprepared for more anguish on the television, I built a fire and pulled out my phone. I had forgotten to ask for the wifi password before they left but I had two bars of signal which I hoped would be enough. I read, taking my phone through a familiar cycle; news, Twitter, Instagram…and then I heard something that was definitely not part of the house’s normal soundtrack:
“Is Joe coming?”
I leaped from the couch; the blanket fell, and I dropped my phone.
“Who’s there?!” I asked, head on a swivel. Had I imagined it? I waited…but heard nothing. My heart pounded as if it knew something my mind did not. I peered down the hallway to the dark guest room, but couldn’t see anything…or anyone. I checked to my left; the wall of glass, but there was no one there either. I took a step back to see the loft. After two steps back I gasped having caught what looked like a face a few feet back, inside the now open doorway of the master bedroom.
“Who the hell are you?!” I stammered.
The face hung there, looking out; a thin man…perhaps in his thirties. My heart continued to pound uncontrollably.
“Is Joe coming?”
He seemed in a daze, or drunk, the voice at a whisper. I couldn’t believe there had been another person in the house with me the entire time…through the crying, the lights off…everything. Was he sleeping the whole time?
“Who are you? Joe and Candy didn’t tell me you’d be here. Are you supposed to be here?” He remained still, eyes darting back and forth.
“Who are you?” I repeated, still catching my breath. Ignoring me, he closed the door.
I checked my watch; fuck. Joe and Candy would be in the air over the Atlantic by now; there was no way to check with them. To make matters worse, now I couldn’t feel comfortable in the common area of the house, hanging out in my underwear, watching TV or doing whatever the hell I wanted. The door at the top of the stairs could open at any time, interrupting my peace. I picked up my phone and the blanket. Now I would have to put on a bullshit public face for this guy every day. I had a roommate.
The fear began turning to anger as I retreated to the guest room; once there, I locked the door. For whatever reason, the cell phone reception in that room was awful. I shut off the bedside light in frustration, wondering who the hell the guy was in the room above me…and why the hell he got the master bedroom.
At some point in the early morning hours, I heard him in the kitchen moving around, clinking glasses or dishes or something. I had to pee, but I held it; not quite ready to have an after midnight conversation with a stranger. He stayed busy out there for more than twenty minutes but despite my proximity to the kitchen I could not for the life of me figure out what the hell he was doing. I never heard the stove, the microwave, the television…nothing.
I woke the next morning and listened hard through the door. It seemed that Mr. Midnight might be sleeping. I ventured out quietly into the great room and looked around. The sun shone through the wall of windows before me. The kitchen was spotless. I checked the dishwasher and it was empty. There was no sign he had eaten anything. I walked across the length of the room not only to look out the windows but to turn around and face the master bedroom door, one floor above me. The door was closed.
Irritated, I searched the cabinets for coffee. I found some and made a pot. As it brewed, I went to the bottom of the staircase and stared up at the door. I couldn’t hear anything so I got brave and ventured up. As I reached the top stair I hovered, listening…but there was still no audible sign that he was in there. The house was silent except for the coffee maker. Thanks for the place to stay Joe…why the hell didn’t you tell me about this guy?
I grasped the doorknob, wondering if he had gone to work; it was a Saturday, but maybe he worked in a restaurant or something hospitality related. I listened hard; still nothing, not even heavy breathing. I turned the knob quietly until it could go no further, then I began a steady push, praying the door wouldn’t stick and give me away with a loud screech. Thankfully it glided open smoothly so I could peer in. I let the door clear the jamb by a quarter of an inch.
The bed was made perfectly; better than I could do in a thousand years. You could have bounced a quarter on it. I pushed the door open wide and walked in. It was a high-ceiling room with a bathroom to the right. Passing through the bedroom I didn’t see a suitcase or backpack anywhere. I entered the bathroom and looked around. The sink was dry and there were no toothbrushes in the holder. I opened the shower and peered in; dry as a bone, like the sink.
Mystified, I left the bathroom and passed back through the bedroom. On second glance, I confirmed that the room was indeed perfect. It looked as if Candy had left the room in such condition so as to detect if anyone had tampered with her stuff. It was all but impossible to believe that anyone had spent the night in there. I left scratching my head.
Being that it was my first Saturday alone in forever; I decided to head directly to the couch. No errands today…there was no telling when my roommate would return. I would make the most of my time alone; I would put him out of my mind until he forced himself back in. Before I settled into my couch-nest I finished my search of all of the cupboards, fridge, and freezer, planning my meals and snacks. This was going to be the greatest veg-out day in the history of mankind…for as long as it lasted. Twenty minutes into my lounge session, I heard the cellar door open downstairs. Footsteps followed.
“Hello?!” I said, suddenly startled, getting up from the couch.
“Hello!” I said again.
“How long is he gone for?” came the response from the stairwell. I escaped the circle of chairs and couches surrounding the television and looked down the staircase. The roommate was there, pale and nervous.
“What the hell are you doing here? Have you been downstairs all day? What…what are you doing? Playing pool?” I spoke rapidly…nervously. Again I found myself recounting all the moves I had made in the house that day that could have been witnessed or watched. He ignored my questions and started up the stairs; I stood aside.
“Thanks for having me,” he said, oddly. I backed into the kitchen as he passed me, continuing up the stairs to the master bedroom. The door closed behind him.
“Anytime,” I said to myself as I shook my head. This guy was strange, or weirdly introverted or…something. I did the only thing I could; I returned to the couch and continued with my movie marathon, relaxing only half as satisfying as before. I didn’t see him for the rest of the day or evening. Hours later I shut the television off and went to bed. My eyes bore dark circles and I felt like a zombie; very important steps in the healing process in my opinion. I wasn’t sure yet if I had hit bottom or not but the laziness phase was either just before or just after; either way I felt I was just that many hours closer to recovery…and that’s the only way I could look at it.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke. I wondered why at first because I didn’t have to pee. I stared at the ceiling for about forty-five minutes stir crazy, and I wondered if I was paying the price for my day of sloth. A day without some form of exercise usually meant a night of insomnia for me, or at least it had a few years back, before Amanda. She was into exercise and liked it when I went to the gym with her. I had slept like a baby ever since…but I didn’t want to start thinking about that now. The witching hour was not a good time for lamentations so I cut my thoughts short and got out of bed.
At first, I paced the room attempting to burn some of the calories I hadn’t all day long. The house was quiet. I stopped at the door and listened through it; nothing…not even the cat. Some cat-sitting job this turned out to be; I’d barely seen him. Taking a breath, I opened the door silently and stepped into the hallway. The great room was bathed in moonlight. Still feeling as though I had the majority of the house to myself, I stepped forward. The fridge hummed and a small LED shined from the cable box under the television across the room. I considered drinking a beer to help myself relax and took a step toward the kitchen, then stopped dead in my tracks. He was standing behind the island, looking across the room…but not at me. I jumped; I couldn’t help myself.
“Oh shit! You scared the hell out of me…Oh man…” He didn’t startle but slowly turned his head my way. I couldn’t see his face; the window by the sink provided only backlight.
“Well, I guess I’m not getting any sleep tonight, my heart is going to jump out of my chest! Sorry if I scared you too…hey, what’s your name? I’m Eric.”
He responded for a long moment by staring right through me, or at least it felt that way. Finally, he said something.
“I love it when he leaves town,” he said. It took me a long moment to process the words. My heart was still racing and my line of questioning had been ignored again; I wondered if he was mentally ill.
“Who are you talking about… Joe? Why? What do you mean? Do you stay here and watch the cat often?”
“He doesn’t know, does he?” he responded. I began to wonder if we were talking about the same things. I had no idea where he was coming from, and abandoned my attempt at a get-to-know-you.
“Uh…I’m not sure. What do you mean? What are you talking about?
“You don’t want to tell him, I understand, but sooner or later you’ll have to.”
I came to the realization that he wasn’t talking to me at all. We had never met, but he was acting as we had. I wished I had never left the bedroom. A moment of silence followed. He stared at the front door. “Okay um, I think I’m ready to give sleep another shot. I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned his head toward me.
“I just tell people I’m Candy’s chiropractor.”
“Chiropractor? Great! My back hurts…we can talk tomorrow, but right now I have to go. I’m tired; I’ll see you in the morning.” I backed into the guest room and closed the door. The strangest conversation of my life, bar none. I was relieved to be out of the kitchen…but I was still a long, long way from sleep. I stood by the door for a few minutes, hoping to hear some sign that he had also called it a night and went back upstairs…but I heard nothing. It was all unsettling, to say the least.
With nothing better to do, I lied back down. When that didn’t work I got right back up and looked out the window into the back yard. The snow on the ground illuminated things more than usual, and I could make out the immediate half acre or so of yard including Joe’s utility shed that probably held things like a lawnmower and a snow blower. The tree line of the game reserve provided a dark backdrop. I exhaled slowly, thinking deeply…still pent up. I couldn’t relax; the guy was odd…and here we were, alone together. Just then a coyote crossed the back lawn and disappeared into the woods, and for whatever reason, it gave me a feeling of peace.
My thoughts went to our conversation. What was his line about being Candy’s chiropractor? It was so out of context. Chiropractor or plumber, I couldn’t have cared less; I was neck deep in my own problems. He acted like Joe didn’t know he was in the house, and that he loved it when he Joe was out of town, or perhaps…
A chill washed over my body as it struck me; if not a realization, at least a theory. It was a theory I didn’t like and didn’t want to believe. I sat up and glanced at the closed bedroom door.
I didn’t want to, but I would have to go back upstairs.
After opening my door quietly and slithering out of the guestroom, I stood in the exact spot I had during the conversation twenty minutes before. He was no longer behind the island. The great room was empty and all was quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator. I walked to the center of the room and turned back to take a look up at the master bedroom door. It was closed as expected, and now I would have to look in again to see if he was there. My being filled with dread, as I silently prayed that he was up there sleeping.
I snuck my way up, hoping to avoid a creaky step. I positioned myself just outside the room, still perfect in avoiding unwanted sounds. It was hard to hear through the door over the beat of my heart, but sounds or no sounds; I felt I knew what I would find. Procrastinating one final second, I turned the knob retracting the latch…and pushed slowly.
The room was pitch-black…much darker than the great room with the moonlit wall of glass. The gap I had created was a clean black stripe between the door and the woodwork. My greatest hope was he would wake up and catch me snooping, forcing me to explain myself; but deep down I knew I wouldn’t have to lie to anyone.
The bed was empty.
The bedspread was as taut and undisturbed as the previous afternoon when I took my initial tour. Still no suitcase, or backpack…or any sort of overnight bag in the room. I spun to check behind me; nobody sprawled on the couch below. In the master bath; still no toothbrush or any sort of moisture in the sink or the tub. There was only one more place to check.
Confident in my assumptions, but afraid nonetheless, I quit my efforts to remain quiet; it only augmented the drama. If my theory was true, the chiropractor was dead, unbelievably…a spirit…a ghost. If my theory was wrong, I would ask the weirdo why the hell he had chosen to sleep in the basement or play pool all night long. I flicked on every light in the house on the way down, and I grabbed a small knife in the kitchen. If he was a living human being…I could still conceal it and not look like an idiot.
The cellar stairs were steep and poorly lit. The door at the bottom was closed, so I opened it, passing into the left-right hallway between the pool room and the furnace room. No lights were on as they might be if someone were awake, playing pool. The odds of him camping out down here were slim, so this would most likely be a very quick trip; I flicked on the switch in the hallway and continued.
The pool room had fluorescent lights that tinkled and blinked for a second, needing a few minutes to warm. After the initial flickerings, the light in the room remained dim. Joe was apparently a deer hunter and had hung antlers on the wall. These made for odd shadows as I adjusted my eyes. No one alive was down here. Relieved that I could now leave the cellar, I turned to head back up, but something caught my eye. I spotted a safe in the corner behind Joe’s homemade bar.
The door to the safe was slightly ajar; it turned out to be a gun safe; big and tall, almost as tall as I was. Nice job Joe, way to lock up. Leave a depressed guy to watch your house while you’re gone and leave the guns out. Perhaps you’ll come home to something to remember. For the record, I would never kill myself, but Joe had no way of knowing that.
I opened the safe’s door wide, still keen to each and every sound and shadow in the basement. An appearance by my roommate right now could mean cardiac arrest. I checked behind and down the hallway once more just to be sure I was still alone. Inside the safe stood a shotgun, a couple of hunting rifles and plenty of shells; on one of the shelves, a .45 pistol.
I recalled a video I had once seen of a guy that shot himself in the foot with a .45. The man must have been crippled for life; the foot was damn near amputated…so I let that monster lie right where it sat. Behind it was a smaller pistol that read Sig Sauer P238 on the side. It was small enough to fit in my pocket so I borrowed it for…mental health. I checked to see if it was loaded, then kept it drawn as I left the pool room for the furnace room. I was fairly certain the chiropractor wouldn’t be in there but I had to check it out to put my mind at ease.
My stomach sank as I left the pool room and began to hear slow scratches from behind the furnace room door. It sounded as if my roommate had decided to go full-ghost on me… No more one-on-one conversations and mistaking him for a living human; he had graduated to scratching on doors and who knows what else…maybe rattling chains would come next. I left the pool room light on because I needed it like I needed oxygen. If that light went out right now I would die of a heart attack, never mind the ghost. I threw open the furnace room door and stood back, gun raised.
Elton bolted the room and headed upstairs, scaring the shit out of me. I can’t stand “jump scares” in movies because they are annoying, cheap and cliché…also probably because they’re so damn effective…and that was a jump scare and a half. Some cat sitter I turned out to be. Poor Elton must be starving. No wonder I hadn’t seen him all day. I wondered whose fault it was; who had closed the door on him? As I climbed the stairs I began to scold myself for my half baked ghost theories. I had a roommate and he was a human being just like I was…right?
I made sure to leave the furnace room door open a crack so Elton could poop whenever he needed, then headed back upstairs. Just to be sure, I checked the master bedroom one more time and then checked again to see that the front door was locked. Elton camped at his dish devouring his food, making up for missed meals. Poor guy! I pulled up a stool and sat at the island waiting for him to finish, hoping that after he was done he might accompany me to the guest room. Thankfully he did. I locked the door behind us and fell asleep with the pistol close by on the nightstand.
I woke up early the next morning freshly paranoid. It was obvious by now that it would be impossible to enjoy a lazy sleep-in during my stay here…my self-healing retreat had become a train wreck. I put my jeans on and pocketed the pistol…but the roommate was nowhere to be found…had he even been here at all? Might I be losing my mind? Again I wondered.
Not yet hungry for breakfast, I walked around the island to the very spot he had stood during our conversation. There was nary a bottle cap or dirty spoon to prove that he had ever stood there. As curious as I was unsatisfied, I finished getting dressed, put on a pair of Joe’s boots, grabbed the house keys (paranoia working overtime) and took a walk around the perimeter of the house.
There was no car but my own in the driveway and that didn’t surprise me; no fresh tire tracks either. I was coming to terms with the idea that I might be…haunted. Looking out across the back lawn, there was a small path of footprints leading from the house to the woods; where they led exactly I couldn’t tell. Several other sets of footprints crisscrossed the back lawn from the deck to the shed and from the shed to the bulkhead (which I hadn’t until then realized entered the cellar via the furnace room). Since I had been speculating on the shed’s contents last night, I decided to check it out.
I was right; there was a snow blower in there, and behind it, a lawnmower. A pegboard of garden tools was nailed to the back wall. There were several empty spots on the board where it seemed tools should belong. I wondered for a quick moment where those missing tools might be and then lost interest. I closed up the shed, walked around to the front door and went back in; thankfully I had not been locked out. As soon as I entered I kicked off Joe’s boots and locked the door behind me.
I gave the house my prerequisite quick search, then set up several “traps” designed to warn me if something out of my sightline moved as I watched television. On the bedroom door, I leaned a broom. If it opened, I would hear it slide against the surface and fall…unless of course, something caught it. I did the same thing for the door at the bottom of the cellar stairs. The couch had a decent view of both the front door and the slider on the wall of glass. Satisfied with my setup, I plopped down and attempted to relax; most people would have left, but I had no options…and nowhere else to go.
If everything went according to plan, I would watch five movies today. It was daylight. I felt relatively safe. I hadn’t had time alone like this in…maybe ten years, and I was sick as a dog back when that happened. I didn’t want quiet time right now…without the TV I would only start thinking of my mystery roommate or worse; Amanda.
Two-and-a-half movies in, I dozed. I’m not sure how long I was out, but I knew it didn’t last long.
Like an explosion, the master bedroom door banged open, damaging the wall and sending the warning-broom flying. I jumped up, once again scared out of my wits, heart pounding wildly. I stood up straight, looking at the empty bedroom doorway, shaking as I waited for what came next.
He appeared; pale, the face of a ghoul. His eyes rolled up as he seemed to look at the ceiling, perhaps in pain. He was hunched, using the jamb for support…covered in blood.
“Oh my God, what happened to you? Wh…”
A pulse of blood surged from his chest, through his t-shirt and down through his pull-string sweatpants, soaking them both. He turned and looked back into the room worriedly; then with a burst of adrenalin came alive again. Wildly, he jumped the entire flight of stairs to the landing; I’m sure I heard something in his leg crack. He screamed as he crumbled but fought to pull himself back up and continue on, as if for his life.
He passed me limping, leaving through the sliding door, running for the woods. I took note of where he entered the forest; he followed the footprints I had earlier. To be safe, I pulled the pistol and checked the master bedroom. It was the same old story up there; not a drop of blood, nor a wrinkle on the bed. I checked my watch; 3:30 PM; still a fair amount of daylight left. What to do; investigate? He’ll be back later if I don’t, right? I put Joe’s boots back on.
I followed the footprints cautiously into the forest, but they weren’t fresh footprints; the sun and wind had expanded them, dried them somewhat and smoothed them out. The blood, however, was fresh and bright red; a contradiction…and no doubt a message. If I hadn’t come to terms with my instincts up until this point, I had for sure now. There was no longer a doubt the “roommate” was dead…a ghost…and now that we were on the same page…I had to figure out what he wanted. He barely paid me attention. His words…seemed meant for others. I felt a chill; where was I heading right now? With no good excuse to turn back, I entered the woods.
I followed the blood for about fifty yards. The only sound was a gentle wind through the trees. This was not a proper path or formal trail; the old footsteps in the snow zigged and zagged, avoiding branches and saplings. I did a lot of ducking to avoid both injury and torn clothing. The forest became dense. I turned back to see from where I’d come, and the house was all but obscured. Maggie’s house was much further to the south and completely invisible. I kept on.
After a few steps further, I saw him up ahead in a clearing on the ground, his back to me, unmoving. As I scraped my way painfully through the last of the barrier branches his body dissolved before my eyes. The small clearing he was in, however, came alive. It bloomed bright red; blood everywhere; on the trees, branches, and snow. Everything in a ten-foot radius… was solid red. Something terrible had happened; he…died here…and…and now I understood why there were so many missing tools in the shed.
He was killed here and…disposed of.
Just then I heard a twig snap, followed by crunching snow. I ducked down to see the cause of the noise through the branches. I would be a fool to think that it was a deer or animal approaching; deer are not likely to follow fresh human footprints. The closing footsteps were methodical; they took their time cautiously…hunting. I saw boots, then legs, and then I heard my name.
It was Joe.
“Joe…is that you?” I asked, mind racing; attempting to calculate flight distances and time zones.
“Eric…what are you doing out here?” he said as he ducked under the last wall of branches. He carried a machete but didn’t appear to be using it to chop himself a path. We stood together in the bloodstained clearing; and as he finished his sentence the scarlet spatter that covered everything in view faded away. Realizing he had probably not seen the same thing I had, I did my best to recover from the shock of it all and deflected his question to buy time.
“What am I doing out here? Joe…what are you doing out here!? Aren’t you supposed to be in Santorini? Why back so soon? Where’s Candy?”
Joe showed a look of disbelief. He wasn’t smiling.
“Eric, I’m serious; what are you doing out here? No coat…my boots.”
“I was out for a walk… It was hot in the house… I just followed the first footprints I saw thinking it was a trail. This one sucks. Are there any better ones?”
He looked me up and down…assessing my believability. “Why is the sliding door open? And what the hell happened to the bedroom door?” he was referring to the hole in the wall made by the doorknob as the bleeding man crashed through it.
“What? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I’d left the door open. I just left the house…I’ve barely been gone ten minutes. What happened?” I deflected again, improvising badly. We didn’t trust each other.
“Candy is still in Greece. She…she had an accident. I came home for some insurance papers.”
I didn’t know what to think. It was almost as if he had touched down in Greece, turned around and flown home…but I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t had time to think it all through; do the math.
“An accident? Wow…what happened?”
“We were hiking the rim of the crater…and…she…slipped. She fell a long, long way. She’s hurt badly. I was of no use in the hospital but she’s in good hands, so I came home to get some things. Papers and stuff.” We stared at each other for a moment awkwardly. He knew I didn’t believe him.
“Oh man, I hope she’s okay; when does she come home? Hey Joe, do you mind if we take this conversation inside? I’m not hot anymore. In fact, I’m cold.” His machete was making me nervous, as was the locale; after all, as I had just realized…he had already killed on this exact spot.
“It is cold out here Eric. Real cold…” he trailed off and addressed the elephant we were pretending to ignore. “You might as well tell me how you found this place; this spot. This exact spot, specifically I mean.” He subconsciously passed the machete from his left hand to his right, and I took notice. Not one to beat around the bush, I called him out.
“You’re not being honest, Joe. What happened? What did you do to Candy?” I said. His face went from serious to disappointment. His carefully planned double murder had been solved by the last-minute cat-sitter. I had gone from clever detail to fatal flaw in his mind.
“I pushed her. She’s wedged between some boulders at the bottom of a slope right now. She’s not in the hospital. They haven’t even found her yet. She was cheating on me…you know what that feels like, right? I mean you can understand, correct? The guy she was with is dead too. I killed him right here last week. Right here on this very spot and I can’t imagine what the hell you’re doing out here. You’re standing on top of him in fact. How the hell’d you figure it out?” He brought the machete up waist-high.
“Amanda didn’t cheat on me, Joe.”
“Cut the shit, Eric. How’d you know?”
He told me” I said. “The chiropractor. He told me himself.” Joe’s looked at me in disbelief.
“Tell me how you know or I’ll kill you.” I thought hard for a second; he was going to kill me anyway. Nervous beyond belief, I decided to buy some time with the truth.
“He’s still in your house Joe. Walking around. Bleeding. Opening doors. Saying things he used to say to Candy. Even if you kill me right now and escape the FBI, the Greek police, Interpol or whatever…you won’t escape him.”
Joe stared blankly. Everything I said was on point but he didn’t want to accept it. His mind was on a thousand things, but mostly the investigation to come; the investigation he thought he had prepared for flawlessly. I was a monkey wrench…and somewhat of a witness… and he didn’t like it.
“Thanks for watching Elton, if you even lifted a finger…but it’s time to say goodbye. I know your life sucks right now but I might have an answer for that.” He stepped forward preparing to swing the machete. Like a cowboy in a gunfight and much to my own surprise, I pulled the pistol smoothly from my sweatshirt, stepped sideways and shot him between the eyes. He landed in a heap over the spot I had just occupied; over the dead man’s grave. I went numb.
An odd thought crossed my mind: Why was the gun safe left open? Wasn’t it closed when Joe gave me the grand tour? I would never know for sure. Lost in thought, I looked down at Joe’s corpse and decided to leave it there, go back inside, and prepare the house for departure.
There was an odd feeling in the air; a lull. The house seemed empty for the first time. It was cold inside, but that might have been because Joe and I had left the door open. As I searched for some dish gloves, I noticed something in the living room:
On the wall next to the fireplace, a portrait had been taken down and set on a reclining chair. Behind it, an open wall safe. Putting the gloves on, I approached. Inside were a coin collection and a few hundred dollars in cash…both untraceable; gifts that I assumed were from the chiropractor. I put them in my bag and began the big cleanup.
I wiped every surface that I touched with glass cleaner. I removed the couch cushions and cleaned the bathroom, all while wearing a pair of Joe’s shoes. As dusk fell, I began to debate myself on the merits of one more night in the house; I was still homeless, but I could risk it and stay; either that or burn some cash in a hotel.
As I pondered this latest thought, I glanced out the window into the back yard and found my answer. What I saw I will never forget; a wide trail of blood from the woods to the center of the back lawn. Three coyotes were working pretty hard on what was left of Joe. Two of them were eating a larger piece, while the third had Joe’s head secured under his front leg as he pulled and chewed.
It was officially time to go. I would have to gamble that Joe and Candy had not told anyone of my last minute job offer. I gave the place one last check, loaded the car and quietly drove away.