Authors: Brian Martinez
In the darkness, inside the drain, an eye looks up at him.
Chapter Three: Ten Days
Officer Monton, the dispatch officer, hangs up the phone. “We have a four-fifty-nine in progress at the Robins house. All units are tied up at that chemical spill, I’ll need a few of you to go out there.” Heads pop up all over the small station, looking away from their internet surfing and busy work.
Officer Banks glances up from the coffee machine. “Those two again? Let me guess- the gardener caught fire.” He slaps the arm of a passing officer who offers him the half-smile they all give him these days, like a parent humoring their child during a game of Look-What-I-Can-Do.
“You never did find that plumber,” Monton points out.
“I interviewed his wife. Seems they were having troubles. I'm betting he walked out on her. He did me a favor, too, because now your buddy Officer Banks can pick up the pieces of that broken-hearted piece-of-ass.”
“Is that why they call you The Vulture,” another officer prods.
“They call me that because I’ll peck your eyes out, smart-ass.” He knocks the man’s hunting magazine out of his hands.
Officer Butcher enters, already wearing his jacket and holster. He slides on his hat and says, “Are we talking or are we driving?”
Banks gets a good look at Butcher. The younger man looks a hundred years old this morning; deep lines of purple in the skin under his eyes, his hair matted and his armpits ringed with sweat-stains.
Banks gives him a smug nod. “Why don't you sit this one out?”
“I just have a bit of a cold, I’ll be alright.”
Banks slips on his jacket. “In that case I don’t want to catch whatever it is you got.” He heads for the door but Butcher stands in his way.
“It’s not contagious.”
“You know how it is with these things. Better not to take chances.”
Butcher knows exactly what Banks means. “You heard Monton, we're short-staffed. Everyone helps in their own way.”
“Not everyone.“ He stares at Butcher until the younger man steps aside to let him pass. Butcher waits until Banks is out the door before he removes his hat.
Monton looks away, avoiding his eyes.
On the front lawn again, Kevin looks around at the bright, beautiful trees swaying in the soft wind. It seems ludicrous now- the world, going on as it always has.
"I called the police."
His hand has a tiny splinter in the palm. A sliver of wood from the shovel; just the tiniest foreign object where it doesn't belong.
"Hey, did you hear me?" Mary's hand on his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"That's good. The police should come. Double-check."
"I was worried about you. You didn't find anything, did you?"
"He was in the basement." The words feel wrong in his mouth, like chewing on raw steak, sinewy and cold on the tongue.
"You okay, pal?" Mary kneels next to Felix and rubs his face. "You scared us." She holds Felix’s side. “Kevin, he’s trembling.” Kevin still stares at the splinter in his hand, rubbing at it with the other thumb. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t hear when she asks what happened in the house.
Behind them three police cars speed up the driveway. It’s a relief, until Mary recognizes one as Officer Banks.
All three cars skid to a stop. Two officers emerge and bear down on Kevin and Mary with command presence. “Are you the owners?”
“That’s them,” Officer Banks says from behind before she can respond. On his face is a smug grin.“Is the intruder still inside the house,” he asks, but the way he says “intruder” you can hear the air quotes.
Mary looks at Kevin for the answer. She calls his name. He looks up from his hand. Says he’s not sure.
“Did you see him exit the house?”
“Yes. No. I don’t think so.”
Mary grabs his arm, trying to help her floundering husband. “He doesn’t know what he saw, he believes there was a man in the spare bedroom window as he came back from-”
“No.” Kevin pushes her hand off. “That part I’m sure of. That part I know.” His tone is hostile, aggressive, which he realizes when he sees the hurt expression on Mary’s face. He never speaks to her this way, never touches her in anger, and she’s embarrassed to have strangers witness them interact this way let alone policemen. He tries to explain himself but only a strained sound comes from his open mouth.
“It’s alright,” one of the officers says, “we’ll check the house, you two stay right here.” Before they leave, Kevin catches the man throw a knowing nod to Banks, who nods in return.
They think I’m crazy, he thinks to himself. They might be right.
After the officers have cleared the house, one circling the perimeter while the other two go inside and check it top to bottom, they come back to Mary and Kevin. They pull out notepads and forms and take their official statement. The first thing Kevin asks is, "Did you check the basement?"
"We searched the whole house, no sign of intruders, no forced entry. If there was anyone in the house he's long gone now. Usually it's junkies looking for meds. Saw you coming up the driveway and got spooked." Kevin understands what's going on here: this cop is giving him a stock speech, memorized from hundreds of other calls, recited to make victims feel safe.
"And the spare bedroom?"
Officer Banks sniffs, barely hiding his anger. "He just told you, we checked the whole house." Again that knowing nod to another officer. Then he turns to Mary. "I understand you're shaken up but there's no reason for concern. Is there anything else you need before we go?" Kevin knows what he means. He would punch Officer Banks in the mouth if he could.
"No thank you, officer, you've been great." Mary leads Kevin back to the house, letting the officers wrap up.
That night, instead of sleeping, Kevin stares at the ceiling trying not to look at the air vent on the far wall. His heart booms in his chest and his palms sweat, but he refuses to look.
In the following days Mary notices a change in Kevin. He's distant, easily startled, and he's not eating as much. Instead of finishing his dinner and looking for something to snack on, he rarely clears his plate. She knows he's losing weight when he brushes his teeth next to her and she can see his shoulder bones in the mirror. She asks him if everything is good but he brushes aside the questions with vague allusions to feeling ill. Then he says he has a lot of work to catch up on, goes into the office and shuts the door.
Once alone, he doesn't code. He's afraid of letting his guard down, of losing himself in that place with no eyes on the sinks, no ears to the floor.
When Mary is off at work, Kevin pours himself a glass of water, sits at the kitchen table and watches the basement door. He waits for phantom sounds and reappeared bodies. He doesn't know what else to do to ease the feeling that the moment his back is turned, horrors will be unleashed from those stairs. Felix lays at his feet, occasionally asking to be let outside, but when Kevin doesn't notice the scratching at the door the dog sometimes has accidents. He pees in the corner and whines, sorry for what he's done.
Once, Kevin is so lost listening to the basement he forgets Felix outside for almost two hours. No matter how much he apologizes to Felix, scratching behind the dog's fuzzy ears, he hates the way it makes him feel.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Felix puts his paws up on Kevin’s knees, letting himself be pet. His fur is cold, his nose dry, but he blames nothing on Kevin. He’s just happy to be back inside with people, warm, getting scratched under his chin, tongue out, eyes squinted, and the sight is so silly after such a cruel oversight that Kevin can’t help but chuckle. “You don’t hold grudges, do you, pal?”
He’s looking into his dog’s eyes, smiling for the first time in a week, when he hears it.
The sound is faint at first, so much that even Felix with his sensitive hearing doesn’t seem concerned. It registers as nothing more than an electric shaver left running, sputtering through its last moments before the rechargeable battery dies. But as it continues on it gains in volume, varying in pitch and speed until it moves from something mechanical toward a surgical dampness, like a liposuction vacuum sucking up watery fat.
Man and dog notice it at the same time, far off in the house, in a forgotten closet, an electrical outlet, maybe even on the roof, an antenna gone mad. Like the smell in the basement it’s hard to pinpoint, but unlike the smell, the sound becomes more and more obvious, coming closer, up the hallway, winds its way up like a moray eel emerging from a split in oceanic rock.
Kevin and Felix freeze in place. They share the fear. Felix’s tiny paws, still rested on Kevin’s thigh, dig in with extended claws. A tide of dread and death washes over them and they can do nothing about it.
The sucking and spitting and scraping comes around the corner with such physical presence it confuses both of them when their eyes find no object to tie it to. Yet there it is, the disembodied noise, approaching, encroaching, passing under them- so close, the floorboards shake beneath their feet and paws.
They hold on tight, pressed against each other, praying for it to end, to move on and forget them, leave them alone and let them live. It whirls around them and with it the stink of decay, the faint smell from the basement but much stronger, thicker, vomit times one thousand, shit and piss and rotten breath putrefied over a million years of hate and rot. It's enough to make anyone gag, vomit, fall to the ground choking, but they wouldn't dare make themselves known. To give up their presence, to admit the sound and stink might know they're here, alive, shaking just above, would be to admit that death knows their name.
When it finally passes, moving to the stairs and on down to the basement, Kevin and Felix are kneeling in a puddle of urine.
Mary is in a good mood. She had a good talk at work today with a patient who without realizing it had given her some great advice.
As she was prepping the older woman for a root deepening, laying out the dentist's tools as the nitrous took effect, the woman began singing lightly to calm herself down. Mary asked her what song is was, because it sounded old, older than radio, older than recordings, and the woman smiled in that sweet, gassed up way.
She said, "Oh, I don't remember the name, I just remember it was my husband's favorite. I sang because he liked it. Can't stand music myself, but if it made him happy that was good." A deep breath from the mask, the whooshing of the canister. Sweet air filled her lungs. "Everyone's looking for money like money makes them happy. Money, money, money. All you have is your happiness, so if it makes him happy, do it, even if you think it's silly or dumb. A woman who can't make her husband happy with a smile and a squeeze is no woman at all."
Mary stood at the tool tray, her back to the old lady, tears pooling in her eyes.
Home now, she parks in the driveway, stopping to collect the mail from the mailbox, something she wishes Kevin would remember to do but it's not as big a deal as she made it out to be.
She's about to head in when she notices something.
With the mail in hand, she walks over to the driver's side window of Kevin's car. Inside, staring forward, Kevin sits behind the wheel. Just by his eyes, by their hollow rings, she knows her day is about to get much worse.
Felix lays in the passenger seat, asleep.
Mary calls Kevin's name, lightly at first, then louder, hoping not to scare him. After calling it three times she taps on the window. Instead of jumping or shouting, he turns his head to her and rolls the window down.
"Do you need to tell me something," she asks.
"I do." His tone is even, numb.
"You want to come inside so we can talk?"
He shakes his head.
"Then tell me what you need. I can't help you unless you tell me."
With one finger he presses the button that unlocks the passenger side door. The click wakes up Felix, and he wags his tail a bit when he sees Mary is home, but it worries her that even Felix looks spooked. She walks around the front of the car, watching Kevin the entire time, her eyes on him. Before she opens the door and gets in she lets out one, long sigh, outside, where he can't hear it. She scoops up Felix and holds him in her lap, petting him as much for her own comfort as for Felix's.
After a few moments of silence, filled with stop-starts of talk, Kevin says, "I need your help."
"Good. That's all I want to do. I want to help you."
"The thing is, I don't know what kind of help I need." He stares forward, scared, embarrassed to make eye contact with her. "I don't know if I need help with something in there or something in here." He puts his finger to the side of his head. "I think it's real. Felix thinks it's real, too, which is the only reason why I haven't..."