MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Tom Decker looked haunted.
He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, the weak light from the fluorescent bulb pulsing down on him as he attempted not to puke his guts out. Jenny was asleep in what passed as their small bedroom, cut off from the rest of the apartment by a flimsy room divider, legs tangled up in the whatever-thread-count cotton sheets they’d received from some cousin for their wedding a year earlier. Even though Tom had shut the door, he heard her heavy breathing through the thin walls. His long, greasy hair hung in his eyes, but he could still see himself—and he looked like shit. It was 2 P.M. on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Or was it Sunday? He honestly had no idea.
Racked by a violent cough, he spat, then ran the water to wash away the evidence. How many cigarettes had he smoked the night before? He felt even sicker just thinking about it. He really needed to quit. Then again, he’d been telling himself that for years. Ever since he was a teen and had started sneaking butts from his dad’s never-ending packs. His father had died from lung cancer. It’d been ugly at the end. Tom blinked and shook away the memories of the man’s sallow face, refocusing on the present. On the far different life he was trying to create for himself in New York City, away from his past.
He and Jenny had closed the dingy Alphabet City bar yet again, an easy task since he worked there most nights as the sole bartender. Easy to lock the door at 4 A.M. and stay inside with a few customer-friends and his wife and drink a couple more before he finally kicked everyone out.
It wasn’t unusual for Tom and Jenny to stumble the few blocks to their apartment while the sun was coming up, to pass shocked, offended, or disgusted neighbors heading out for early-morning activities. The couple would laugh guiltily as they tripped up the stairs and collapsed into bed, sometimes too drunk to fuck, sometimes not.
Last night he’d switched from beer to bourbon a little after midnight, a rookie mistake. Now his head was pounding and his stomach was a gurgling mess, but he prided himself on throwing up as seldom as possible. Plus, he was a loud puker, raging-lunatic loud, embarrassingly loud, and he didn’t want to wake Jenny.
Leaning over, Tom splashed water onto his unshaven face. It was a crapshoot at any given moment whether their tiny apartment would have hot water, but right now he welcomed the feel of the icy-cold liquid; it tamped down the nausea. How much sleep had he gotten? He didn’t have a clue, but it felt as though he’d slept for about twenty minutes.
“Tom…,” Jenny called softly from the bedroom.
He pushed his straggly hair up and out of his eyes, exhaled, and blinked several times. The water droplets on his face, through his blurred vision, gave him an almost alien look. He smiled at himself without any real mirth and wiped the water away before shutting off the light, opening the door, and returning to his bed and his wife.
* * *
Jenny Decker sat at the dining room table and watched her husband through bloodshot eyes. Their apartment was a glorified studio, so calling the tiny piece of furniture a “dining room table” was a stretch, but they’d done their best to create areas that replicated the spaces of a larger home. Since this table was in the designated “dining room,” it was the dining room table.
Rain beat against the nearby “living room” windows, making Jenny feel even sleepier. Shadows danced on the exposed brick above the small, nonfunctional fireplace.
The coffee that she was trying to suck down should have been delicious, especially considering how much sugar she’d dumped into it, but her hangover was bad enough that the heat flowing down her throat and into her stomach was all that mattered.
Tom looked as bad as she felt. He had that faraway expression on his face that told her he was trying not to throw up. He was playing with his Zippo, a habit she loved and hated at the same time. She loved the sound the lighter made but hated how much her husband smoked. Her grandfather, a colossally heavy smoker, had died from lung cancer when she was twelve. It was one of the things she and Tom had bonded over when they first met.
Still, the deaths of his father and her grandfather weren’t enough to get him to quit smoking, and eventually he gently asked her to stop berating him about it, explaining that he needed to do it on his own schedule. She no longer brought it up, but it broke her heart every time he lit up.
Across the table from her, though pale and sickly, Tom still looked good to her, with his crown of dark, shoulder-length hair and ratty white T-shirt, his dark tattoos peeking out of the sleeves. She smiled at the sight.
It had taken them a little while to figure out that it was Sunday, which sucked because it meant she had to work the next day. But at least Tom had the night off. It was pouring rain out, so Jenny took solace in the fact that after drinking coffee and picking at the stale bagels that had been in the cupboard for at least two days too many, she and Tom would snuggle down on the couch and watch bad TV on their unintentionally stolen cable. When they’d moved in a couple of years earlier, they found what was clearly an antenna wire sticking out of the wall facing the street. Was it their fault that when they plugged it into their TV, they had almost every channel known to humanity?
Tom caught her looking at him and gave Jenny that crooked grin she’d first noticed a little over three years earlier, when he’d been tending bar at a coworker’s going-away party in the same Alphabet City dive bar where he still worked. That was the first time she’d stayed at any bar after closing time. Tom’s lips had tasted so good that night.
They’d dated for only a year before he proposed, getting down on bended knee at a restaurant, embarrassing and exhilarating her at the same time. He had said the most amazing things in that moment, things she had always wanted to hear from a man. He seemed to understand her perfectly. She had gotten down onto the floor with him, whispered yes, and hugged him with a fervor that surprised even her. The restaurant’s other patrons applauded, and someone sent over a bottle of champagne. They never found out who had done it.
“Hey,” he said softly, bringing her back to the present.
“Hey, what?” she answered, mock serious.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you, too, baby.”
* * *
Monday morning was a little more forgiving.
Jenny was up early, as usual on a weekday, and had left for work before Tom woke up. He hated when he missed her getting ready. Watching her slip back into their bedroom after a 6 A.M. shower, pulling on her underwear and bra. Pretending she didn’t know he was watching as she pulled her long dirty-blond hair into a ponytail and put on the designer track suit with that stupid corporate logo, which should have looked horrible but somehow made her even hotter than usual.
He often tried to coax her back into bed but failed almost every time. She was way too dedicated to her work to let some quick morning sex jeopardize her job, no matter how good it was. Tom didn’t understand that kind of dedication to a nine-to-five job but respected it nonetheless. So he contented himself by watching her suit up for her day as a personal trainer to a bunch of douchebag investment bankers.
By the time he got up at nine thirty that Monday, Jenny had probably been at that fancy basement gym inside the Swiss investment bank for more than an hour. As if missing her morning routine wasn’t bad enough, his hangover from the previous day was still lingering.
Fuck, he thought, climbing out of bed and making his way to the bathroom. I must be getting old.
Still, he had nearly a whole day in front of him, before he had to clock in at the bar, and could spend the time painting. He’d won awards in high school for his work and had dreamed of moving to New York City and taking the art world by storm. His teachers had told him he was destined for greatness, and he’d believed them.
What an idiot, he thought.
Jenny kept telling him not to give up. She loved his art. She believed in him. These days, he painted for her more than for himself, yet he still dreamed of somehow striking it rich through his art. Of giving Jenny the kind of life she deserved.
He would do anything for her. He would give up anything.
* * *
Jenny knew the old dude was looking at her ass.
He came down to the gym almost every day but barely worked out. Jenny suspected it was just a ploy so he could watch her while she guided his stretches and half-baked attempts at weight training. Still, the guy was a senior vice president in Mergers and Acquisitions, so if he got his rocks off by checking out her chest and backside for a few minutes each morning, so be it. So long as he kept his wrinkled old hands to himself and her modest check cleared each week.
After the perv finished his session and hobbled off to the locker room, Jenny made her way to the front desk, where her manager, Sean, was typing away at the computer. A short redhead, he was seriously jacked for his size, and was generally nice, though sometimes he acted as if he were saving lives, not catering to a bunch of entitled 1 percenters.
“Hi, Sean,” she said, forcing a smile. He was constantly telling her to smile. “I’m done with—”
“One sec,” he mumbled, fingers blazing over the keyboard, updating his client database. Sean loved his database and labored over it for hours every day. Jenny kept the smile plastered on her face while attempting not to stare at the prominent, mildly disgusting veins that traversed his forearms.
“Oooo-kay … what’s up, Jennifer?” he said, sounding distracted. He glanced at her for only a second before looking back at the computer.
Since Jenny’s grandfather had died, Sean was the only person who called her Jennifer, and she hated it. But he was her boss, so, much like the ogling banker, he got a pass.
“I’m done a little early with Mr. Schrum. Is there anything you want me to do, or should I go on break?”
“Let’s see … Yeah, if you could mop the women’s locker room, that would be super-helpful. Apparently, Mrs. Griffin had a little accident in there. At least that’s what I’m told. I don’t even wanna know!”
He laughed at his own joke without looking up, and Jenny laughed along through clenched teeth. It wasn’t her job to clean anything—the building had custodians for that kind of thing—but she was in a good mood, so she let it go. After all, how bad a mess could it be?
* * *
Tom’s art studio sucked.
In fact, calling it an “art studio” wasn’t even close to accurate. Every once in a while, he’d retrieve a stack of newspapers from their building’s garbage/recycling area, spread them on the floor of the apartment’s tiny kitchenette, then set up his easel and stare at a blank canvas, waiting for inspiration. Technically, there was more space in the dining room or the living room or possibly even the tiny bedroom, but Tom liked how the light filtered in through the small window above the sink. It faced an adjoining apartment building, but the reflection of the sun against their neighbor’s always-shaded window was often dizzyingly beautiful and inspiring.
Today? Not so much.
Tom’s head still throbbed from Saturday’s drinking. He held the paintbrush in his slightly trembling hand but couldn’t figure out where to start, or even which color he wanted to start with. Honestly, he just wanted to go back to sleep. But if Jenny came home and found him in bed, he knew she’d be silently disappointed in him. Hell, he’d be disappointed in himself.
Maybe if he cracked a beer …
The blaring of his cell phone made him jump and drop the paintbrush onto the newspaper-covered floor. He laughed at himself, surprised at how on edge he was, then muttered, “Fuck…” The phone was on the couch, where he’d zoned out for an hour or so after dragging his ass out of bed. He caught the call on the last ring.
“What’s up, Kev?” he said after a glance at the screen. He headed for the living room window, which led to the fire escape and a much-needed cigarette.
Kevin Jenkins was Tom’s best friend, had been since they met in elementary school back in their tiny Pennsylvania town. They’d stayed in touch after high school graduation, no matter how much distance separated them, but these days, even living in the same city, they didn’t hang out or talk as much as they used to. Kevin’s bullshit corporate sales job, the kind of work they both used to mock, kept him far too busy, especially after a recent promotion.
“I’m surprised you’re awake,” Kevin said, the slight echo indicating that he was on his headset, something Tom also made fun of.
“Of course I’m awake,” Tom answered. “Wait, what time is it?”
Kevin laughed but Tom pulled the phone away from his head and looked—11:42 A.M. At least it was still morning.
“When are we hanging out, man?” Kevin asked. Tom could hear the computer keys clicking in the background while they talked, another thing he found annoying about his friend’s work habits.
Shit, he thought, I’m in an awful mood. He squeezed himself through the open window and sat down on the rusted metal fire escape, feeling the post-rain wind push through his hair. He fished the last cigarette from a crumpled pack, cupped it in one hand, and lit it with his Zippo. He gently tossed the lighter and the empty cigarette pack back through the window, onto the couch.
Four stories below, his fellow New Yorkers milled about, cabbies honking and cursing at each other. The streets glimmered with slowly drying rainwater. He suddenly felt inspired, knew which color he was going to use to begin his painting. Gray was always a good way to start.
“What are you talking about?” Tom said. He inhaled deeply; smoke trickled out of his mouth and nose as he continued, “You can come drink for free at my bar anytime you want. You know that.”
“Ahh, fuck that. I wanna go out, man. You know, to someplace that’s not a dive. No offense. Someplace where I’m not the only black guy and you’re not walking away every five minutes and I can talk to real women, not underage NYU students or barflies with three teeth.”
Tom laughed and took another deep puff. Kevin had a fair point.
“Okay, fine. I’ll talk to Jenny and we’ll figure out a date. Or I’ll come alone the next time she makes plans with Victoria. I’d rather hang out with you anyway. I’ll text you soon to set it up.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, that’s what you said a month ago. I told you you were gonna get boring when you got married.”
“Fuck. You.” Tom smiled and tapped the cigarette, watching the ash float off into the wind before dispersing completely. He observed the people below entering and leaving buildings, like insects. The painting was continuing to come together in his mind.
“Ha, okay,” Kevin said, the sound of typing increasing. “Well, let me know. And remember, anytime you want a real job, I could always use a new sales associate.”
“No way,” Tom answered, looking up into the sky and letting the sun temporarily blind him. “Never. Not in a million years.”
* * *
Jenny choked down the last of her nine-dollar beer, feeling her stomach revolt.
That first drink after a weekend of intense boozing was always the toughest, but she could already feel the lingering hangover starting to recede. Her older sister, Victoria, stared at her with a blank expression. Blank but somehow deeply judgmental. She had barely touched her own drink. Of course.
“Lookin’ a little green around the gills there, Jen,” Victoria said, smiling. Not a mean smile, Jenny conceded, but sure as hell not a nice one either.
“Ah, you know, the perks of being married to a bartender.”
Victoria raised her eyebrows at this remark and sipped daintily at her drink, some fruit-infused concoction that cost almost twice as much as the beer. “Speaking of which, how’s his ‘art’ going?”
Hearing the quotation marks, Jenny bit back the urge to unleash an obscenity-laced retort. She was in no mood to hear her sister trash her husband. “Good, actually. He’s probably painting right now. He loves working when the sun comes out right after it rains.”
“How’s Lakshmi?” Jenny asked quickly, both of them knowing it was a loaded question. Lakshmi, Victoria’s younger wife, was always moving from one entrepreneurial idea to the next, with Victoria usually acting as her primary investor. So far, nothing had panned out.
Jenny’s older sister squirmed in her expensive business suit. “She’s doing amazing, thanks. She has this new diet regimen that she created. It’s pretty groundbreaking. I think it would make a fantastic book. She was actually hoping she could talk to you about it.”
“Well,” Jenny said, cringing inside, “I mean, yeah, I’m a personal trainer, but I don’t think I’m any kind of diet expert. Maybe I can—”
Victoria laughed—that loud, bitchy laugh Jenny had hated her whole life. It usually preceded some comment that made her want to cry or punch her sister in the mouth or both.
“Oh, no, honey, not for diet advice. Obviously. In case someone you train at the bank might be interested in investing. You know, to pay for one of those New York Times–bestselling ghostwriters or something.”
Obviously? Fucking obviously?
Jenny was about to unload on Victoria when their waitress reappeared. Saved by the bell, sis.
“Can I get you ladies another round?”
“No, thank you. I think just the ch—” Victoria started.
“I’ll take a shot of whiskey and another beer, and then she’ll take the check,” Jenny interrupted.
The waitress clearly got the signal because she backed away without another word. Victoria raised her eyebrows at her sister again.
“How’s work?” Jenny said, biting down on each word.
At first, Victoria seemed ready for a standoff, but then she sighed and looked away. Jenny saw the black circles under her eyes, and felt bad. She knew how hard Victoria worked, knew how much she had to fight to be taken seriously at her high-pressure, extremely high-paying marketing job, where most of the other executives were older men. Victoria had overcome a lot of sexism and general disdain to get where she was. She was tough, yes, maybe sometimes downright mean, but she was a strong woman, a great role model for a younger sister, and Jenny respected the hell out of her. Not that she’d readily admit it.
“Oh, you know,” her sister said, almost dreamily. “Never enough hours in the day. Or night. Lakshmi says I work too much. That I need to relax more. That we need to take more vacations. Like I have time for any of that. How about you? How’s the gym?”
“Oh, you know,” echoed Jenny with a grin, and saw Victoria’s expression soften. They’d fought constantly growing up, and still did often, but were fundamentally a tight unit, especially when dealing with their aging, increasingly obnoxious parents. “Nothing better than having a ninety-year-old corpse trying to paw your tits with his zombie hands.” Jenny held up her arms like the undead and swiped at her sister’s chest, and Victoria burst out laughing in a rare moment of pure emotion. Flooded with affection, Jenny laughed, too.
“I needed that,” Victoria said.
The waitress returned with the shot and the beer. Jenny pounded the former and chased it with a huge gulp of the latter while her sister shook her head. But there was still a smile on her face.
* * *
Jenny walked into her apartment building vestibule, tripping slightly on the uneven floor—she was nowhere near as drunk as she’d been two nights earlier, but certainly wasn’t sober. She’d convinced Victoria to stay and have a couple more drinks, then splurged for a cab after hugging her sister goodbye—two things she rarely did. Both felt great.
Approaching the row of small metal mailboxes built into the far wall, she tried to ignore the large cockroach she could see scuttling across the floor out of the corner of her eye. The building was fairly clean, especially for Alphabet City, but the dark, smelly garbage room was directly across from the mailboxes, and you could never really get away from the vermin in New York City. Shortly after she and Tom moved in, they’d heard scratching sounds in the walls and realized they had mice. They’d set out glue traps, and to this day Tom still refused to tell her how he’d disposed of the writhing, still-breathing, terrified rodents. He’d always looked pale and upset afterwards. He hated killing anything.
It was a struggle to maneuver the tiny key into the lock of their mailbox, but Jenny eventually succeeded, opening the metal door with a clang. There was rarely anything good in there—once in a while an envelope from her father, full of news clippings and comic strips from their hometown paper in Upstate New York. Otherwise, all they got were bills and junk mail.
As she riffled through the envelopes, she came upon one that wasn’t junk or a bill or a letter from her dad: something from the building’s management firm. Probably about renewing their lease, which was expiring soon. She hoped the rent wasn’t going up too much. A year earlier, around the time they were shelling out money for their wedding, it had jumped up a hundred dollars a month. Which was doable, but they’d had to cut back on booze and eating out, two of their absolute favorite things.
Leaning against the wall, cradling her purse in the crook of her elbow, Jenny ripped open the envelope and scanned the letter. She cocked her head in confusion and then read it again, more slowly, forcing her eyes to focus through the haze of alcohol.
“No … no … no…,” she repeated as she slid down the wall, landing on her ass, reading the letter for a third time. Finally, she closed her eyes and let out a shaky breath. The letter slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor as her eyes filled with tears.
“Fuck…,” she whispered.
* * *
The letter from the management company, which Jenny had ripped into shreds, was splayed across their dining room table, as was most of the Chinese food that they’d had delivered, one of those extra expenses they almost never indulged in anymore. Chopsticks jutted out of barely touched white boxes like strange sculptures. Though neither Tom nor Jenny had much of an appetite, they’d polished off a bottle of white wine and were halfway through a second. Tom had rushed home as soon as he closed the bar.
He looked back down at the screen of his crappy laptop, its case covered with stickers for obscure indie rock bands. They’d been looking at real estate websites for at least an hour, with little success.
“We’re fucked,” he muttered. “Even the shitty parts of Brooklyn have gotten too expensive for us.”
“I told you,” Jenny said, “we can look at the Br—”
“No way,” Tom interrupted, shutting the computer angrily. “I am not moving to the Bronx. Or to Queens, for that matter. I’d rather just give up entirely and move back to Pennsylvania. I can work in my cousin’s coffee shop, sweeping floors and taking out the garbage, and slowly shrivel up and die.”
Jenny knew he was kidding but could still see the look of enraged desperation in his eyes. Tom wasn’t always great under pressure, something that continued to surprise her considering how cool and collected he normally was.
“I just don’t get it. How can they jack up our rent so much? It’s almost tripled.”
“It’s the end of our lease and this place isn’t rent-controlled,” Tom answered. “They can do pretty much whatever the hell they want. They’re putting up all these new buildings … closing all the cool old-school stores … more room for fancy fucking wine bars and high-priced coffee shops and lame-ass Wall Street yuppies. It’s how they get rid of the undesirables.”
He chugged the rest of his wine and refilled his glass. Silence descended on the apartment. It was dark outside and weirdly quiet for Alphabet City. They looked at each other, neither sure what to say, how to proceed.
Jenny sipped her wine, weighing her next words before deciding to blurt them out.
“I can call Victoria.”
Tom stared at her for a long moment, unmoving. Jenny felt a ball of panic beginning to form in the pit of her stomach but forced it out of her system, knowing this was their only logical way forward.
“And why would you do that?” he said, barely audible.
“Tom,” Jenny said quickly, knowing how much he hated when she used his name like that, “We don’t make anywhere near enough for us to get another apartment like this. We got lucky last time and we both know it. And, whether you like it or not, Victoria is very well connected. She must know at least one Realtor who will help us out. If not a bunch of them.
“Trust me, I don’t love the idea of going to her, begging for help. It kind of makes my skin crawl. Do you think I want to give her more ammo? I just don’t know that we have much choice. Neither of us knows the first thing about real estate, and who knows which of these sites we can even trust.
“We’re probably missing a bunch of opportunities. We’ve only looked for an hour. Who knows how many cheap, great apartments are right under our noses? I think calling Victoria is the best thing we can do.”
Tom stared at his wife. She had so much more that she wanted to say, but she held her tongue. She knew how her husband’s thought process worked. She had presented her case and now he had to convince himself. A long moment of silence passed.
“Fine,” he said finally, looking down at the floor.
* * *
Tom and Jenny pulled the rental car up to yet another tiny house in New Jersey.
Chelsea, the unbelievably positive and thoroughly made-up real estate agent whom Victoria had gone to college with, was already there. Standing next to her immaculate white minivan in her bright-blue power suit, she beamed at them with a smile that looked painted onto her face.
“I don’t know if I can do this again,” Jenny muttered. It had been a long day already. Each house they’d seen was worse than the one before.
“Yeah,” Tom agreed. “I mean, that last one was obviously a crack den at some point. Did you see that mattress in the backyard? And some of these neighborhoods … I thought Alphabet City was bad.”
They both looked at the still-smiling Chelsea, who hadn’t moved, and grinned back. The smile standoff lasted for a few moments, then Tom sighed and pushed the car door open, unfolding himself up and out of the rental. Jenny joined him on the sidewalk in the warm June sunlight and growing wind.
Chelsea approached, pushing a strand of bleached platinum hair off her face and trying to tuck it back into her shockingly tight bun.
“So,” she said, waving her arm toward the small red house as if she were a game show hostess, “what we have here is a delightful two-bedroom ranch. It’s a little small compared to the last few I’ve shown you, but it has the cutest yard and the taxes are very reasonable. I think you’re going to like it a lot!”
Wrinkling her nose in what she probably thought was childlike cuteness, Chelsea sashayed up the walk to the almost nonexistent concrete porch. Jenny looked at Tom, and they locked hands.
“The city was a bust and New Jersey isn’t exactly stepping up. Pennsylvania is looking better and better…,” he said with the crooked smile she loved.
She laughed and squeezed his fingers, pulling him forward. “Oh, shut up. This one is going to be perfect for us. I can feel it.”
* * *
The smell of stale cat urine assaulted them even though all the house’s windows were cracked open.
“The layout is supremely functional, it has great feng shui,” Chelsea was saying. It had taken very little time to walk through all the rooms; the ground floor wasn’t all that much bigger than their apartment, and the upstairs was even smaller. “There’s a jitney stop a couple of blocks over, and the shuttle drops you off right in back of the train station. Which is terribly convenient!
“Now, let me show you the backyard. It’s actually much bigger than it looks at first glance.”
“Um … Chelsea?” Jenny interrupted.
“Hm, yes, Jenny?”
“Isn’t there a … bit of a problem here?”
Chelsea stared at her with a blankness that Tom found kind of impressive.
“Problem? No … no, not that I can think of…”
“The smell, Chelsea,” Tom said after a moment of awkward silence. “I think my wife is talking about the fact that this entire house reeks of cat pee. Not exactly the kind of smell that goes away … you know … ever.”
“Oh,” Chelsea answered, seemingly shocked by the idea that one of the houses she was showing could be considered somehow less than perfect. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah, okay, but we noticed,” Tom continued, his bullshit meter going off. “I think—”
“We realize our price range isn’t the most competitive,” Jenny interrupted, stepping closer to Chelsea, “but the apartments and houses we’ve seen so far haven’t really been … our style. I mean, we really appreciate your time—Victoria said you squeezed us in at the last minute. Which is so nice of you. But is there anything else you have … maybe something affordable but with a bit more … personality?”
Chelsea’s face went slack and Jenny could see her nostrils flare ever so slightly. Then the Realtor blinked several times, as if she were rebooting, and the mask went back up.
“Personality … personality … hmm. Actually, now that I think about it, I do know about one house that you might adore. It isn’t officially listed yet, but trust me, it has a lot of personality.”
* * *
Tom’s left hand was raised in a futile attempt to block the sunlight from his eyes, the late-day clouds having parted and then vanished during the drive over. Jenny stood next to him in the reverse pose, her right hand shielding her eyes as the two of them stared at the large, 112-year-old house.
“Sorry I’m late!” Chelsea nearly shouted from close behind them, making them both jump. “My husband called, there was some kind of emergency with my youngest.… Isn’t there always? Apparently, multiple adhesive bandages were required!” She laughed.
Jenny wondered what was so amusing about one of Chelsea’s kids getting hurt. A parent’s prerogative, she decided.
“This house is almost in our price range?” Jenny asked, focusing on the large structure in front of them and shaking her head in disbelief. “It’s gorgeous.”
The house at 79 Waldrop Street, in Springdale, New Jersey, one of several homes in a rounded cul-de-sac, was a big Victorian with large bay windows, a slate roof, and a huge porch with iron railings and wide front steps. The third floor boasted a single small, stained-glass window. On the porch, a wooden swing rocked gently in the breeze. The yard was overgrown but clearly had a lot of potential.
“Shall we?” Chelsea intoned, smiling at them like a cat staring at a couple of mice. She led them up the steps, unlocked the door, and ushered them inside.
Jenny was sure they were in the wrong house. There was no way they could afford a place like this. On top of that, the place was a mess, practically overflowing with stuff—all of it tacky as hell, in her opinion. A thin layer of dust covered everything.
The entry opened directly into a dining room. An enormous wooden table with lion’s-paw feet filled most of the floor; a lighter-colored wooden china cabinet stood along the closest wall. Another wooden china area, this one built into the wall to their left, was closed off by small glass doors. An antique-looking wooden display table squatted in the far corner, covered in random bric-a-brac.
Another doorway across the room and to the left opened into a small bathroom. A doorway directly in front of them led into the kitchen, and a small door with a brass knob stood to the left of that, between the other two doors, oddly placed in the far wall, cut into the painfully bright wallpaper.
“Whoa,” Jenny said quietly.
“Is this … does someone live here?” Tom asked, confused.
“Not anymore,” Chelsea answered, walking around the table and spreading her arms out with a bizarre amount of pride, as if she had decorated this disaster herself. “The house is what we call ‘as is.’ A friend of a friend of a friend who lives in Europe inherited it like this. I don’t know all the details but he is very eager to get it off his hands, so it’s less expensive than it might otherwise be … much less expensive. On the condition, of course, that whoever buys it will have to deal with all of the stuff left behind.”
Jenny and Tom followed Chelsea around the giant wooden table and into a room through yet another doorway directly to the left. This space was clearly intended to be the living room, judging by the matching floral-pattern upholstered couch and love seat, both shrouded in yellowing plastic. An ancient rocking chair sat by itself against the far wall. An awful red-and-black rug covered the floor, and above the furniture hung an ugly, angular chandelier that was too low—it would be hard to walk straight across the room without having to duck, or risk having your eyes gouged out. An old-school stereo system hunkered in the far corner, complete with a turntable, double cassette player, and an eight-track.
“When you consider the … extremely cluttered nature of the house, you begin to understand why it’s so affordable. The rooms don’t have to stay as is, of course. Who wants to walk straight into a dining room from the outside?” Chelsea said with an offended laugh.
“You can make the place your own! How much fun would that be!” She lowered her voice slightly. “Of course, the house does need some work, some overall upkeep, another aspect that may have turned off some buyers, though the foundation is more than solid. Are you handy, Tom?”
“We both are, actually,” Jenny said, put off by Chelsea’s casual sexism, though she wasn’t exactly proficient with tools.
“Well, good,” Chelsea said with a smile that seemed to be calling Jenny a liar. “This might be perfect for you, then, if you’re up for a project. And who knows what kind of cool things you’ll find hidden here!”
“Where does that door go?” Tom asked as they walked back into the dining room, pointing to the small one with the brass handle.
“Ah yes,” Chelsea responded. “That goes upstairs. I love this little door. These Victorians have all kinds of cute touches. A tiny door! So quaint.” She opened it and walked quickly up the carpeted stairs. The carpet was a pretty awful dark pink. Tom half expected the stairs to creak and groan as Chelsea walked up, but her ascent was silent. Maybe she’s right, he thought, maybe this house really does have a solid foundation.
He grabbed Jenny’s hand before she went up. “Well?”
“I … I kind of frickin’ love it, Tom.”
He laughed and put his arm around his wife, kissing her cheek gently. “Let’s see the rest of this haunted house before we jump into the deep end.”
“Of course,” she whispered as they walked up the steps. “But I know you like it, too. I can see it in your eyes.”
Tom didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. She was right. He kind of frickin’ loved it, too.
* * *
The second floor was fairly unremarkable, the three bedrooms and bathroom all large and cluttered, but Tom and Jenny loved the small, winding staircase at the end of the hallway that led to the compact third floor, which had only one room, as the house narrowed. When Chelsea opened the small door, Jenny marveled at the sunlight pulsing in, multicolored, through the stained glass.
Surprisingly, unlike the rest of the house, this small room was empty of furniture. The walls were decorated with a half dozen large, framed black-and-white photographs of desert settings, including two that featured the gaping maw of a dark cave. The photos themselves were a little hard to see, since someone had taken a red marker to the glass, covering each image with illegible scrawls, what looked like crude maps, and somewhat disturbing drawings of monstrous faces.
“Whoa…,” Tom muttered, “postmodern.”
“This room gets beautiful light, as you can see,” Chelsea said cheerily, ignoring the pictures. “Might be nice for an office … or a nursery?”
Jenny felt blood immediately rush to her face and could sense Tom tensing next to her. This was a conversation they’d had many times, and it never ended well. Tom was open to the idea of having kids but it was something that made him extremely nervous. He thought his parents had been emotionally abusive, to him and to each other, and he didn’t want to make the same mistakes they had. And honestly, Jenny didn’t feel ready for kids either, but lately, when she saw cherubic little faces in strollers or a toddler asleep on a parent’s shoulder, she’d started feeling those “biological clock” pangs she had always dismissed.
A long moment of uncomfortable silence stretched out until Tom clapped his hands together, a little too loud for the small space.
“So … is that it up here?”
“I’m glad you asked!” Chelsea said, her eyes lighting up. She headed toward the far wall, to the right of the window. Jenny looked at Tom quizzically and he shrugged in reply. “Like I said,” the real estate agent continued, “these old houses are full of all kinds of cute touches.” Tom cringed at her repeated use of the phrase, as though she were reading out of a brochure permanently etched in front of her eyes. “Check this out.”
Chelsea pushed her fingers against the wall. Tom noticed the thin, tall, rectangular outline in the wall just as the hidden door swung open.
“Okay, you got me,” he admitted, laughing. “That is cool.”
Jenny and Tom stepped forward and peered down into the darkness of the open doorway as Chelsea moved aside. “A … secret staircase?”
“Exactly! I’m thinking a servant used to live up here, back when the house was first constructed.”
“What makes you think that?” Jenny asked.
“Come on down and I’ll show you,” Chelsea said, and whisked past them, walking daintily down the steep and rickety wooden stairs.
“This is pretty sweet,” Tom said to Jenny, smiling.
“You always did love the Gothic stuff,” she responded, pushing him into the stairwell ahead of her.
As they walked slowly down the stairs, Jenny wondered how many people had used them in the last hundred-plus years and felt goose bumps race across her flesh. Something about this gloomy staircase and the stale smell of the air made her feel light-headed.
Chelsea had already opened the door at the bottom, flooding the space with light from below. She stared up at them with an anticipatory smile on her face, as if she’d sneaked them dessert before dinner.
When Tom reached the bottom, his face contorted in surprise.
“What’s down there?” Jenny called out, unable to see past either of them.
* * *
The kitchen looked like the 1970s had thrown up in it. Repeatedly.
Polished bronze and white lacquer were everywhere. The stained wooden cabinets, which Tom and Jenny glanced through, were still full of supplies, including half-full spice containers, plates and bowls, dust-covered glassware, and knives and other utensils. On the far side of the kitchen, Tom saw a well-stocked pantry through an open doorway that was right next to a closed door.
“Wow,” Jenny said, taking in the room.
“It’s got a lot of personality, that’s for sure,” Chelsea agreed.
“Where does that go?” Tom asked, pointing at the closed door.
“Ah yes, that’s the basement,” Chelsea said through her unnaturally white teeth. “A great space, but it needs some work. Maybe a man’s touch.” Something in her tone drew Tom’s attention; she wasn’t as ebullient or friendly as she’d been earlier. He noticed how tired she looked and that her smile was starting to really look forced. He felt bad for how unenthusiastic he’d been all day. Maybe she’s not as bad as she seems, he thought.
“Why don’t you and I check out the backyard while Tom looks at the basement?” Chelsea said to Jenny.
“I could use some fresh air,” Jenny admitted.
“Sounds good to me,” Tom said, absentmindedly pulling an elastic band off his wrist and pulling his hair back into a ponytail. It was warm in the kitchen and he was starting to sweat a little.
As the two women went outside, Tom moved toward the basement, then stopped, noticing a large, somewhat faint stain on the linoleum floor. He’d never seen that particular shade of gray before. Some sort of horrible pasta accident, he thought with a chuckle as he walked over to the closed door.
The metal doorknob was cold and his entire body shivered when he touched it.
Turning the knob, he pushed the door open and was greeted by a dank, moist odor, like upturned earth after a particularly bad storm. Images of his parents’ funerals flashed through his mind … how they had died so close to each other, how Tom had been forced to go through the process twice in the same year when he was in his early twenties … but he forced them away. Spotting a light switch to his left, he flipped it; a dirty, naked bulb sputtered on overhead, accompanied by an intermittent ticking noise that seemed to emanate from the bulb itself. The wooden stairs that led down to a cracked, gray concrete floor were old, worn, and not altogether safe-looking. Tom felt dizzy—a familiar sensation he often experienced when entering a new place, somewhere potentially exciting or terrifying.
He walked down the stairs slowly, the wood creaking and even buckling slightly in places. At the bottom, he found and flicked another light switch. Fluorescent ceiling lights hummed to life, crisscrossing the low-hanging drop ceiling. There were a few scattered windows down here, but, Tom saw, they had been painted over. He stared at the contents of the basement for a few seconds in slack-jawed wonder.
Every inch of the enormous space was packed with stuff … boxes, black garbage bags filled to near explosion, stacks of books, sports equipment, what must have been hundreds of gardening tools, bags of seed and dirt, camping equipment, at least a dozen old television sets, and who knew what else.
His eyes started to water from all the dust as he surveyed the space. The piles stretched off into the darkness, a lunatic maze of seemingly infinite proportions. Tom took a deep, panicked breath, as if he’d been drowning and surfaced at the last possible moment, then laughed at himself.
“Fucking hoarders,” he said out loud. Jenny would probably love going through all this. She was obsessed with crappy little flea markets and secondhand shops.
He turned to go back upstairs, but a strange noise from the distant shadows stopped him.
“The hell?” he murmured, turning to once again peer into the darkness. After a few seconds, he heard it again. God damn if it didn’t sound like breathing. Watery breathing, as if a sick animal were hidden down here.
Plumbing problems? Tom wondered as he cautiously moved toward the sound, wary of the precarious towers of junk. It got darker the farther he walked, as though the basement were somehow absorbing the fluorescent light, but he was able to discern a kind of path through the piles, like someone had walked this route before. Looking ahead, he squinted at something large and shadowy against the far wall. His breath hitched in his throat, his steps faltering.
A person, huge and hunched, stood facing him.
No, that was ridiculous. What would someone be doing down here, waiting in the dark? Fighting the urge to turn and run, Tom reached shaking, sweaty fingers into his beat-up jeans and withdrew his phone, which he immediately dropped. It landed with a hollow thud. Hoping the screen wasn’t broken, he bent down to pick it up. A huge millipede-type insect ran out of a nearby pile of junk and skittered across his fingers—Tom flinched, yelled, and fell back onto his ass. Terrified, feeling like an infant, and hating himself for his reaction, he hit the button on the side of the phone and it blazed with light. He held it up, aiming it toward the person or whatever the hell it was in the corner.
The horrifying “person” was actually an old refrigerator. A very old refrigerator. It had probably been white once, but now it was mostly brown and yellow. A rusty metal handle dangled off the door.
“Get a grip,” Tom mumbled. At that instant, the light went out and his stomach dropped. He quickly hit the button a second time.
Moving closer to the fridge, he noticed markings on the floor in front of it, scrapes in the concrete and shifted dust. He shook his head, intrigued even though a knot was forming in his gut. Someone moved this refrigerator back and forth, he thought, cocking his head as he studied the ground. A lot.
Tom shoved the phone back into his pocket, plunging the corner back into darkness, and took hold of the fridge. Slick with sweat, his fingers slipped. He quickly wiped them on his shirt and grabbed the antique appliance again.
It was heavy. Really heavy. He smiled at the challenge, then tightened his grip and pulled with all his strength.
The refrigerator inched forward, then seemed to find its path, swinging to one side as if it were the door to yet another hidden passageway, opening into darkness like a toothless grin.
Panting slightly from the exertion, Tom squinted into the shadows.
Stuck to the wall, previously hidden by the refrigerator, was a dark pulsating mass about the size of a baby.
“Jesus…” Tom whispered. It resembled an oversized chrysalis, reminding him of days spent in the woods when he was a kid. Back when he had parents, had a family. But he’d never seen anything quite like this—the size, the color, everything about it seemed somehow wrong.
Despite the fear nestling in his stomach, he leaned closer, his eyes having adjusted to the darkness. Black and dark-purple veins covered the object, and he realized that the slow, rhythmic breathing noise he’d heard earlier was coming from the chrysalis. So was a rancid smell, like days-old garbage or the scent of a body after it gave up the ghost. The thing was covered in a thick, shiny mucus that caught what little light reached back here.
Disgusted, Tom looked around for something he could use to get rid of whatever this was, the same way he handled cockroaches or spiders or even mice in their apartment. If they ended up buying this house, he didn’t want Jenny to inadvertently come across whatever this thing was. His gaze came to rest on a short-toothed metal rake. The teeth were incredibly sharp looking, making the tool resemble a medieval torture device more than a suburban gardening implement. He picked it up and tapped it against the floor a couple of times, liking that the bars of the rake were stiff, unbending. Strong enough to be used the way he intended. The splintered wooden handle felt comfortable against his palms, reminding him of working in the backyard with his dad when he was a kid. Some of the only good memories he had of the man. Maybe Tom could get used to living in the suburbs again.
Turning back toward the chrysalis, he raised the rake, ready to destroy this bizarre object stuck to the wall. Just before he swung, he paused. Had the “breathing” increased, or was that his imagination? The veins also seemed to be pulsating. Tom stared at it, makeshift weapon still raised. What is this thing?
He dropped the rake, which clattered onto the floor, and stepped forward. He could feel something intangible radiating off the chrysalis. Blood pounded in his ears, and a wave of excitement swept through him as he reached out. Before he could even question his actions, Tom carefully placed his hand on the dark mass. It was warmer than he expected, soft and spongelike. It pulsed, shrinking away and then expanding back into his grasp, as if frightened and then accepting, pulsating into his palm over and over and over again.
After a long moment, Tom pulled his hand away. Mucus stretched between his fingers and the still-throbbing chrysalis, arcing through the air, connecting them.
He stared at his glistening fingers. They seemed very far away, as if they were falling to the floor while the rest of him stayed in the same place. The entire basement brightened, went black, then lit up again, darkness and light oscillating in a regular rhythm. The chrysalis grew larger, its shape morphing, human hands and faces reaching out toward Tom from beneath its surface, beckoning him closer.
Voices whispered his name. His skin seemed to slough off in the same instant that his blood was absorbed by his bones, which turned to dust. He blew away in a sudden gust of wind, only to re-form in the same spot, the lights above him flickering, his eyes opening and closing even though, he knew, his lids were completely gone. He disintegrated and reappeared once, then multiple times. Time stood still.
Holy fucking shit.
* * *
“How was the basement?” Chelsea asked as Tom joined them outside, striding through the long grass.
“And what took you so long?” Jenny added, staring at him.
“It was … uhh … pretty crazy down there,” Tom said, avoiding eye contact with Jenny. He could only imagine what he looked like after what had just happened. Or had it even happened? He wasn’t sure. He fought an urge to head back inside and go down those rickety stairs again.
“Like I said, the basement needs a bit of work,” Chelsea admitted. “‘As is’ means ‘as is.’ But who knows what treasures are down there!”
“Yeah … who knows…,” he mumbled, feeling Jenny’s gaze burning a hole through his face. He fought to keep his composure, mind still spinning. “There’s a ton of dust, that’s for sure. What have you two been up to?”
Jenny’s face softened and she smiled. “I’ve been grilling Chelsea about Victoria’s college days, but I’m not getting much out of her. Something about a sorority sister ‘code of silence.’”
“That’s right!” the real estate agent chirped. “Just trust me when I tell you that neither of us will ever drink tequila again!”
* * *
Jenny looked out at the passing houses while Tom drove them back to the car-rental place. They had taken a train out to New Jersey to see what the commute was like, and were surprised to discover how little time it took.
Tom was almost done with his second consecutive cigarette, blowing the smoke out the slightly open window. He’d been quiet since the backyard.
“So,” she said, turning away from her window as the cute little town receded behind them, “what do you think?”
“About what?” he said, eyes fixed on the road. Dark clouds were starting to gather in the sky.
“All the houses. But especially the last one. It’s kind of ridiculously big for us, right?”
“Yeah, it’s hard to imagine living there,” he said, speeding up to make it through a yellow light. “But … it’s pretty great.”
“Right?” Jenny agreed, putting her left hand on Tom’s arm. “I mean, it costs a bit more than we were hoping to spend, but for that price, we are getting a major deal. Victoria says she’ll lend us as much as we need for the down payment and the first couple of months, and we can pay her back whenever. We’ll have to sign some extra paperwork at closing but it’ll totally be fine.” Tom looked at her, but she pressed on. “I know, it’s not optimal.… I feel the same way as you do about having to borrow from her … but this is an amazing opportunity. We could really grow into it. And Sean was saying we’ll all probably get raises soon, membership has been going through the roof.”
“You deserve a raise. Putting up with those handsy old pervs.”
“Seriously.” She laughed, pulling her phone out of her purse. “Awesome. I’ll email Chelsea and tell her we’re interested in moving forward.”
“Nice,” Tom said, his voice distant as he concentrated on making a left turn across traffic and into the car-rental place.
“So … admit it,” Jenny said, tapping an email into her phone, “you totally smoked a joint in the basement.”
“What? I did not!” he said, turning to look at her as he pulled into the CUSTOMERS ONLY parking spot in front of the storefront.
“Mmm-hm,” she answered. “Then what took you so long? And why are your eyes so bloodshot?”
“I told you, it was crazy down there. Beyond anything you can imagine. And an insane amount of dust. Seriously. It’s packed with wall-to-wall stuff. Once we get it cleaned out, though, it’ll be amazing. It would make a killer art studio.…”
“That’s fine with me,” Jenny said, gathering up the rental documents. “I would love for you to have a space to really concentrate on your art. And you can finally have the man cave you’ve always wanted.”
* * *
It wasn’t often that they made love while completely sober.
But as soon as they got back to their apartment that night, exhausted, Tom led Jenny into the bedroom. No dinner, no alcohol, no words. He stripped her out of her clothes slowly and laid her down on the bed. He stared into her eyes for a silent minute as she unbuckled his pants. She couldn’t remember ever being as turned on as she was right then. He didn’t take off his clothes, just kissed her mouth gently as he entered her. Her senses buzzed with white light and they both came within minutes. He stayed on top of her for a little while and they kissed softly as the wind pushed against their tiny bedroom window.
“I love you,” she murmured. “Almost as much as I love that house.”
Tom cracked up and fell off his wife, landing next to her, still panting. She laughed, too, and curled up against him, and they both fell asleep.
* * *
“I can’t believe you’re moving to fucking Jersey, man.”
Kevin shook his head at Tom and raised the half-finished glass of beer to his lips. It was nine o’clock on a Wednesday and they had just finished dinner at a recently opened Italian restaurant that was getting rave reviews, then moved to the bar to continue their conversation.
“Me neither,” Tom said. “I always said they’d have to get me out of New York in a coffin. But you should see the house, Kev. It’s incredible.”
“Yeah, but it’s in Jersey.” He said the last word slowly, as if it were the name of some newly discovered disease. “You’re turning in your New York City badge and becoming a commuter. A fuckin’ bridge and tunneler.”
“You’re just jealous because I get to pay even more taxes now.”
Kevin laughed and chugged the rest of his beer. Tom swept the hair out of his eyes and did the same. They signaled the bartender and ordered another round.
“How’s Jenny feeling about this whole thing? You guys gonna settle down and have fourteen kids and go apple picking in matching sweaters? Start going to church every week?”
“Ha!” Tom barked as the bartender poured their beers, his pale face lit from underneath by lights on the floor behind the bar. The place was filling up quickly, a line of people waiting for a table stretching out the door, and it was getting loud. Some awful pop music blared in the background. A pack of twentysomething guys in suits pushed in around Kevin and Tom, jockeying for position and trying to catch the bartender’s eye. “Not likely. Nothing is gonna change, other than how long it’ll take me to get to work. I’ll probably still be spending more time in Manhattan than the burbs.”
“Suuuuuure,” Kevin responded. “Keep telling yourself that.”
“You’re an asshole,” Tom laughed.
“I learned it by watching you!” Kevin said in a high voice, a favorite joke of theirs from childhood, and the two friends cracked up as their beers appeared in front of them.
They toasted, and as his best friend took a long sip, Tom asked, “How are your grandparents doing? I still feel so bad about never mailing them a thank-you note for the wedding present they sent us. It was way too expensive!”
“Well, they’re still pissed off they weren’t invited. It’s all they ever talk about.”
“Wait, what?” Tom said, concerned. “It was a tiny ceremony. You know that. We barely invited anyone. Didn’t you—?”
“Relax, relax,” Kevin said, holding up his hands. “Totally kidding. You know they love you. They probably love you more than they love me. I mean, you practically lived at our house, growing up, and you never talked back to them like I did.”
“True facts,” Tom said, sipping at his beer. “How’s single life treating you?”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Kevin muttered. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m having fun. A lot of fun. But still hoping ‘the one’ is out there somewhere. I’m getting tired of all the games and whatnot. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“And work?” Tom asked, raising his voice a bit as the music got even louder.
“Ahh, you know, same shit, different day,” Kevin answered. “Bunch of bureaucratic bullshit, mostly. Dealing with a crazy man of a boss. Managing a team of slackers. Kids out of college, stoners, dumb-asses. The cream of the crop. I need better salespeople. I need you. You could crush it there, seriously. You would be a natural. I know you’re sick of hearing it, but—”
“I’m sick of hearing it,” Tom interrupted, shooting his best friend the sly grin that said he was joking but actually wasn’t.
Kevin held up his hands in supplication once again. “Okay, okay, I’ll stop. For tonight. But eventually I’m gonna wear you down and you’re gonna come work for me. Why fight it?”
“You know me,” Tom said as he stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar, past the bottles that partially obscured his face, “I love to fight.”
* * *
Tom had an appointment to meet Chelsea and the house inspector out in New Jersey at 9 A.M. on a Friday morning, way earlier than he would have chosen. He’d closed the bar the night before … or earlier that morning, to be accurate. He was definitely dragging despite having chugged a giant plastic cup of iced coffee on the train out of the city. It was interesting to see the kinds of people leaving New York during rush hour, a mix of hipsters who had clearly been out all night and older people with luggage.
Jenny had tried but wasn’t able to get out of work—a couple of other people were home sick—so Tom said he would handle the inspection on his own. He’d done a fair amount of repair work around his house as a kid. His dad, a businessman and a drunk, wasn’t around—or sober—much of the time. As an only child, Tom had taken it upon himself to learn how to handle tools. Fixing things kept the house from falling apart and earned him some attention from his distracted mother, who liked to drink as much as, if not more than, his dad.
Buying this house and moving to New Jersey made him worry that he was replicating his parents’ trajectory. It all felt hauntingly familiar.
Despite his exhaustion, Tom pushed these dark thoughts out of his mind and focused on his current task. The house inspector, a burly, hairy guy named Ray Dallesander, was already at the house when he arrived. Chelsea was there, too, on her phone. She waved but kept talking. Tom caught a slight whiff of alcohol on the other man’s breath, poorly covered by the clashing scent of extremely minty mouthwash. Ray wore a giant green flannel shirt over paint-splotched jeans and huge, scuffed steel-tipped work boots. He shook Tom’s hand vigorously, apparently trying to break all the bones in his fingers.
“Shall we?” Ray said, bad breath wafting out from beneath his graying mustache. In addition to alcohol and mint, Tom could also make out the scent of stale cigars. He fought not to physically recoil from the smell.
“Go ahead without me,” Chelsea whispered, placing her hand over the phone for a second. “I’ll be right in.”
As the two men entered the house, Ray pulled his notebook—the first sheet already covered with chicken-scratch writing—out from under his arm and began to write. The moment he stepped inside, Tom’s fingers trembled with excitement as he glanced through the dining room, toward the kitchen and the unseen basement door.
Ray wanted to start at the top of the house and work their way down, frustrating Tom, who desperately wanted to see the chrysalis again.
Up on the third floor, the inspector started by declaring that the secret stairway was stupid; he rolled his eyes as he peered down into the shadows. But he said that the wood felt sturdy enough as he walked up and down the staircase, not that Tom and Jenny would ever really need to use it. Unless Tom needed to sneak down to the kitchen to get some late-night booze, he added with a harsh laugh as he walked out of the room and made his way back down to the second floor.
Ray took his time going through each room and clearly loved the sound of his own voice. When he wasn’t pointing out cracks in the wood or holes that might mean termites, the inspector told story after story about drunken shenanigans and mentioned probably a hundred different sports teams and players, about 1 percent of which Tom recognized. Tom’s evident and total disinterest in sports seemed to confuse the older man but did not discourage him; the stories continued, regardless.
Still, the inspector was impressed by the house, concluding that the previous owners had put some money or work or both into it.
As Ray launched into a fresh lament about one of New York’s teams (baseball, basketball—Tom wasn’t even sure), they reached the kitchen. Tom’s stomach twisted when he stepped onto the linoleum.
The inspector glanced at the large gray stain on the floor but apparently decided it wasn’t worth mentioning. After pointing out a few minor flaws, nothing Tom couldn’t handle, Ray headed for the closed basement door.
“We don’t need to go down there,” Tom said from across the room, only then realizing that he had backed up against the far counter. “I need to clean it up first. It’s a mess.”
“Excuse me?” Ray said, bewilderment creasing his face. “The basement is probably the most important place to check. You’ve got your water heater, the furnace, plumbing that runs to the street … the guts of the whole—”
“I said, we’re not going down there.” Tom’s raised voice sounded alien to his own ears. He slid open a drawer behind him, his hands moving almost on their own. His fingers curled around the handle of a knife.
Ray cocked his head, as if amused or sensing danger, but Tom said nothing more, and at last the older man shook his head, sighed, and walked out of the room, making more notes on his pad of paper.
“As long as you sign the paperwork at the end and your check clears, it’s no skin off my back,” he said. Followed by, “Fucking hippie fag,” under his breath.
Tom let go of the knife, hearing it quietly clatter back into the drawer like an echo of a dream. He stared at his hand, tears filling his eyes.
What the hell was that? he thought.
When he lifted his head, the basement door seemed to be pulsating in and out. The sound of breathing rose in the room, soft but insistent. It was a sound that he recognized. And welcomed. The kitchen tunneled into darkness around him.
He took one step in the direction of the basement, his foot throwing off intense sparks of colors when it hit the floor. The high the chrysalis had given him before was reinserting itself into his consciousness but it was a pale reflection of the real thing. He needed to touch it again. Immediately.
Ray’s voice boomed out of the other room, invading the darkness and stopping Tom in his tracks. “Let’s go! I can’t leave you in here, and I need to lock up! Some of us have to, you know, work for a living!”
The kitchen snapped back into focus, brightly sunlit. The breathing sound faded, replaced by birds chirping outside. Disoriented by the sensory assault, Tom tried to slow his own breathing, hearing his pulse race in his ears. The high was receding and his mind grasped for it, but it was no use. It faded away completely.
“I don’t have all day!” Ray shouted from the porch, where Chelsea still talked on her phone, jolting Tom into motion.
Leaving the kitchen, he took one last look over his shoulder. The basement door stared back. Unmoving. Implacable.
Copyright © 2018 by Brendan Deneen