As takeout chimichangas battled against his sensitive bowels, Dan White drove homeward. Three years ago, after his mother died of pancreatic cancer, he began spending each Monday evening with his father. Dinner and beer and conversation about a sitcom or an old western were customary, but tonight his father had surprised him. The still-sober old man had tried to tell him something. It had been about marriage and momentum and love being an uphill struggle, but then the old man’s eyes had narrowed and he had shaken his head and had said goodnight and had closed the front door on his only child.
In truth, Dan was glad his father hadn’t continued. Marriage advice was rarely helpful. And if the old man had intended to tarnish the gleaming silver-work his son held high as his parents’ marriage, Dan had no interest in that either. Maybe that was why he never stayed past 9 pm. He usually left before his father got drunk and started reminiscing and truth-telling. At a painful twisting sensation just below the little beer-gut he kept at bay with regular trips to the gym, Dan grimaced. A moment later the pain intensified and the inside of the 76′ Firebird he had restored himself reminded him of the salt marsh out near 50th Street. He knew he had to find a toilet soon.
The problem was that Dan lived on the south side of Eldon, Nebraska and he was on the north. Other than his father’s house, a strip mall centered around a Super Target about five minutes ahead and the house on Pin Oak Rd (which was one of several properties he owned and rented out) he didn’t know what was where. Considering the sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, he figured he could pull a U-turn and hightail it back to his Dad’s. He might make it. He glanced at the iPhone on the passenger seat but, not being device-savvy, quickly decided against using it to locate the nearest restroom. With his luck, he’d get to monkeying around and narrowly miss a jaywalker and swerve into a tree. They’d revive him a couple hours later and fuss over his bruised noggin, meanwhile being polite enough not to mention the smell of the load in his pants.
The house on Pin Oak Rd. Holy crap. It was nearby, and the tenant, Rebecca Woods, had left town yesterday; and she’d asked him to look at her bedroom window during her absence. Supposedly it wasn’t latching correctly and was rising gradually as she slept allowing the winter admittance. Until now, he’d forgotten all about it. He didn’t have his toolbox but he did have the keys. If anyone asked about the intrusion, he’d tell them about the window. Turning down the car’s heater, he stomped on the gas and concentrated on the healthy purr of the engine. He smiled, thankful it hadn’t snowed in days and that he wasn’t in his other car, putting along. When his headlights illuminated the dark green Pin Oak Rd sign, he slowed the beast as much as he dared and hit the blinker. His stomach clenched. A white-knuckled moment later, he pulled into the badly cracked driveway of 3037 Pin Oak Rd. He groaned, tightening his backside. He was 50-years-old for Christ’s sake: too old and too young to shit himself.
As soon as the internal pressure relented a notch, he pushed out of the car and, tinkering with the key-ring, stiffly jogged to the front door of a house in need of fresh paint. He crashed inside and flicked on the hallway light. Then, orienting himself, he shot down the wide, short hallway that lead to the bedroom and the bathroom and, hardly noticing a strange, metallic odor, barged through the correct doorway and slammed shut the door. He sat down just in time.
Relieved, Dan surveyed the small, windowless room, flexing his toes within his shoes. Rebecca kept the space clean, but he had never liked it. Too small. His right knee rested against the vanity. Great. The toilet paper holder was empty. The fake chrome tube lay on the floor beside his right shoe. He shifted his bulk so he could check behind him near the toilet brush receptacle. Nothing. With his left hand, he grabbed the yellow shower curtain and dragged it toward him, wincing at the scraping of the metal rings. The tub was empty. He scooted forward and awkwardly opened the vanity. Shit. A spray-bottle of Windex in an old wicker basket. No paper towels. When he realized the cabinet door was about to slam shut, he shot out a hand to quiet it. Then, feeling foolish over his predicament and at the unwarranted sense that he had company, he opened the door and banged it closed.
A shuffling outside the bathroom door. Then a man cleared his throat with gusto.
Dan gulped, his face warming with embarrassment. The room spun once around him. When it stopped, he noticed more of it. The streaks of gray in the mostly piss-colored linoleum, which curled up at both ends where the bathtub met the craggy, eggshell wall. The difference in color between that wall and the grimy outlet and light switch covers it was supposed to match. The light switch. The light. He hadn’t been the one to turn it on.
“You know why there ain’t any paper in there?” Dan sat dumbly.
“Cause I took it. Something in this joint has got my sinuses all out of whack. Probably her crotch. Yeah, her moldy, rotten crotch.”
A knot unraveled in Dan’s stomach. Heat rose from the v-neck of his shirt. The toilet seat felt warm and slick. His legs tensed, and he started to stand. An image of his iPhone in his sleek, black car outside passed through his mind. Then his wife’s sweet face made an appearance. She had been angry with him lately but he wasn’t sure why, and he’d got idea she wasn’t either.
He shook his head, trying to clear it. The guy outside was clearly bugshit. This wasn’t a joke. He knew the guy’s choice of words wasn’t merely a faux pas. He needed to think. He needed to get the guy to leave. The idea of a broken rib or a bloody nose or even a swollen pinkie-finger caused Dan to cower inwardly. But what about getting gut-stabbed and bleeding out on the cheap, stiff carpet. As he reminded himself to keep still and remain calm, his mutinous index finger jabbed the button on the doorknob. The lock engaged with a tinny click. Gritting his teeth, he looked at the ceiling.
The guy outside blew his nose. Then chuckled.
“You chicken shit,” he said, “I wanted in, I’d be in, Mr. Healthclub-Firebird. You’re not supposed to be here, but seeing how you are, I’m thinking you might help me out. Yeah, I got a use for you. Man. What did you do to deserve this? All you had to do was look in the garage. You’d have seen her car.”
Dan shivered. Slowly he stood, holding his belt-buckle to silence it. Eyes locked on the faintly gleaming, brass-tinged doorknob, he quietly put himself together. The man cleared his throat again, drawing out the action.
“Ever since I was little, this thing would talk to me through my bedroom window. It seemed to know what I was, what I was capable of, even before I did. I swear I didn’t really know till just a bit ago. Once I tried to tell Momma but she just said I was dreaming about human nature and put her cigarette out on the tip of my big toe. Squashed it in up under the nail. But I tell you what: it’s coming. It’s coming tonight. I can hear it in my mind. And I can feel it in my arms. The way a good song gives you gooseflesh. I want you to see it. I want to see your face when you see it. You’ll see it when it comes to feed on Rebecca. Stupid, fucking, bippy tart.”
“I tell you how I got in? I came over late for a cup of milk, preferably skim. We were fine for a while. She even told me about the latch on her bedroom window. Yeah, until I touched her. Got all crazy and told me to get the fuck out. When I turned to go, the bitch must have thought she sensed weakness. She started in. Criticizing just like momma. Right then, I looked down at my tenting ding-a-ling, and I knew I’d be back. I waited a bit, took one of my bar stools and flung it over that pitiful excuse for a privacy fence. Then I followed. Shouldn’t have told me about the window. I killed her. I fucked her up. I—“
The guy rattled on. Dan tried hard to listen carefully, but the motor of his mind seemed to be stuttering and he was missing words. His throat felt constricted, as if he were wearing a high-collared shirt and the room seemed a size smaller than a moment ago. He pondered the old, hollow-cored door before him, wondering if the material breathed or if the air between the thin flats of wood was stagnate, dead. Likes his mother. A lie is a closed door between us. She’d said that often when Dan was a boy. He supposed he’d always been full of shit.
When the guy’s rant segued into a song, Dan tore his eyes away from the doorknob and began to search for a weapon. The towel rack was out. Too flimsy. Breaking the mirror wouldn’t do either. At the noise, the guy might rush him. He didn’t want to cause a panic. He removed the lid on the toilet and silently prayed thanks that it was old and heavy. He gripped it with both hands and tried to prepare for a dark future. But what the hell was the guy singing?
“…scrambled eggs between her legs-“
“Okay, okay. Please stop,” Dan said.
“I just knew you were in there. Why don’t you come out and get a look at me; we’ll talk.”
“No, I think I’ll stay. Sooner or later somebody’ll get nosy.”
“Shit, not here in the big city. Folks just want privacy. You saying you don’t want to see it?”
“You think I’m going to kill you, don’t you? But that isn’t in the plan at all. I just want you to see it.”
“Sure. You’ll try,” Dan said.
“Guess I got to play hard ball,” the guy said, and then Dan heard the sloshing of liquid in some sort of container.
“I’ll give you till the count of three,” the guys s “Then I’ll pour on the gasoline and strike a match. Here, let me help.”
The lock on the doorknob popped out.
Reflexively Dan stepped backward and his fingernails dug into the imperfect side of the heavy slab of china. The door slowly swung open. He could hear the killer giving ground.
“Man, that ain’t even gray hair, it’s silver. Wish I had such cool hair.”
The leggy, boot-wearing, 30-something Dan had envisioned was not present. The only similarities between the imagined and the real were the age and the smile of movie-white teeth. The guy was stripped down to boxer shorts. He was short and soft and small-boned with swirls of black hair on his chest and belly and no hair on his head. His small eyes were set too closely. His beard was pubic-looking. His lips were purple. He tossed the role of toilet paper at Dan and laughed when it bounced off his chest and stopped rolling at the bedroom door. Dark eyes moved up and down Dan’s body.
“I bet you recycle. You recycle?”
Dan didn’t even blink. His body was warm and ready, and he was oddly calm, open, as if even the pours in his skin had the task of detecting the slightest movement. His eyes took in everything–the dusty red, plastic gas-container sitting by the spearmint green wall, the flaking, white baseboards, the old gray carpet and the small blob of beef-pink caught in the thick hair on the top of the shark-eyed man’s left foot. He did not see matches or a lighter or whatever he’d used to pop the lock.
“C’mon, it’s okay. It’ll be here any minute.”
He showed Dan his arm.
“Pimply. It’s all pimply.”
Dan’s nose and upper lip twitched. The killer’s smile widened as he pointed to the closed bedroom door.
“I open that, and it’ll reek even worse. Reminds me of my childhood. Reminds me of two things actually. One I’m not gonna talk about. The other is a sweaty handful of pennies. Any metal probably. I bet your wedding ring stinks.”
Stepping over the threshold, Dan adjusted his grip again. His ears honed in on a tiny sound that it took a second to recognize as his wedding ring sliding along the china.
Then it just happened. The dark eyes squinted and then rolled to the door. The bald head began to follow the eyes. The whole body turned, revealing the little man’s back and the knife-handle nestled in a black patch of kinky hair above the band of the man’s boxer shorts.
“You hear that?” the little man asked.
But Dan was already in motion. His mind was blank. His entire upper body vibrated like a struck bell when the toilet lid connected with the glossy skull. The man went down. On his belly, one ear to the thin carpet, he appeared to be sleeping. Dan stared at the bald head, at the bruising, puffy spot. He wasn’t sure what had happened to it but the knife was no longer visible. When the brown eyes opened and the brow furrowed and the arms slid back toward the ribcage, Dan hit the little man again. As hard as he could. The end of the toilet lid snapped off and flakes of white appeared on the carpet and in the little man’s eyebrows and across his freckled nose. Though the head was dented and bleeding, Dan stared at a white spec on the black and empty eyeball nearest the floor. He was vaguely aware of the odd notion that his mother were in the room, watching, knowing the necessity of what he’d done. Then the pain in his big toe registered and he noticed the hairy arm reaching, the open hand, an the knife sticking out the top of his shoe. He stumbled backward, yelping when his butt hit the wall. Dazed, he stood there for a long moment, staring at the knife. Then he looked at the object in his hands and threw it down. He became aware of a nasty headache as he bent over, as if his head were half-filled with water. The knife slid out easily. He tossed it somewhere. He couldn’t be sure but the wound felt superficial. It was painful but he had no trouble moving. He’d done it. He’d survived. In 50 years, he’d never thought he’d make it if push came to shove. He thought of his son. His daughter hadn’t been hard to rear, but his son had needed a father who had had more faith in himself. No, his daughter could have used that other man too.
From behind Rebecca’s bedroom door something shifted or slid or creaked. He tried to look through the gap beneath it, but the space was dark. His heart started thumping away again and it seemed to radiate a slightly painful warmth that was edging its way down to his stomach and into his shoulders.
Mostly Dan wanted to run. But maybe he could help. Maybe Rebecca was still alive. And maybe the guy he’d just clouted was a nutcase but not a murderer. He lurched forward and reached out a trembling hand.
The bed beneath the window was a red mess. After a time, details emerged. A strand of hair, a pug nose, a split lip, a tooth. One young breast. He thought he could taste the thick stench in the air. He thought he could feel it coating his face. He gagged, put a fist to his mouth, bit hard on the knuckle.
Suddenly his eyes flicked upward and focused on the window. Something was there, dark and wriggling and filling the space, almost muting an emergency siren off in the distance. Even this close, Dan couldn’t see it clearly. It reminded him of being a child and the things his mind would draw in the dark. It was the reason he’d needed a night light. Dan thought if he saw too much of it now, he may never sleep again. His big toe throbbed. When a part of the mass dropped onto the bed, making a slurping noise reminiscent of lover’s lost in an open-mouthed kiss, Dan swallowed bile, pulled the door shut and staggered out into the cold night.
Eying the slipshod wooden fence, he got in his car and keyed the ignition and wondered why his headlights seemed so bright. He backed out, wincing in pain as he pressed the gas pedal. He hoped nothing horrible would appear in the windows of the little house or climbing over the rickety fence. A good distance from Pin Oak Rd, he parked under a no-parking sign and stared at his iPhone until he felt he could drive again.
He’d have to lie. A little. He had stop by to work on the window and had decided to use the bathroom. He’d forgotten his tools but figured he’d find some in the garage. He’d lie, but he’d do better later. He would. He would take his place. Husband. Father. Son. Landlord. He had wasted far too much of his life merely acting out his parts, because he had always figured on failure. So for now he would shoot for near the truth. Unexpectedly a stark image sparked in his mind. He gagged, looked out the window, gulped. He couldn’t decide which was worse—the poor dead woman in the bloody bed or the dark thing he’d seen in the window?
Michael King spends most of his time at home. He is grateful to his beautiful family for keeping him tethered to the earth. He writes only when the cats are sleeping, unless they are sleeping across the keyboard or atop the printer.