He came down the road in no apparent hurry, slowing now and again to gaze into a window of a house as he passed. It was a Monday and the new year’s holiday and things were quiet on the street, kids and adults alike sleeping late, stores closed, no place anybody needed to be. No cars. A jet high overhead, silent, trailing a white plume that broadened as it tailed away, a slash across the pale blue sky. To the east clouds collided above the horizon, oozing reds and purples like an open wound.
Down the block across the street a U-Haul truck sat in a driveway, doors open, nobody around. As he drew nearer he could see that the garage door was open and inside, at the back of the garage, the door that led into the house was also open. Same with the front door. Still no sign of any person outside or in.
He looked over his shoulder at the house behind him, the curtains drawn closed in the picture window. Then he turned back and stepped off the curb, crossed the street, and moved up the driveway alongside the moving truck and up the steps onto the porch.
“Hello?” he called into the nearly empty front room, loudly enough for his voice to carry deeper into the house. He waited, looked to his left at the truck, back into the room, then at the quiet street behind him.
He stepped through the front door and heard his foot clack on the bare tile flooring, an unnatural sound. Moving boxes sat in haphazard stacks against the wall. Beyond the living room through a wide archway he could see another room and, at the back of the house, a sliding glass door through which the low winter sun projected an angled slash of light. He stood silently and listened but heard nothing but the low-frequency hum of a refrigerator compressor and the thump of his blood pulsing through his ears.
He walked into the kitchen. “Hello,” he called again, though more quietly this time, and his voice sounded thin and hollow in the empty room. On top of the breakfast bar were a set of keys, a red leather wallet, a pair of drugstore sunglasses, and a box cutter. The sun on the dark brown tile floor was raising wisps of heated air, the shimmering mirage carrying flecks of dust and the faint scent of citrus cleaner.
He stepped to the bar and picked up the knife, rolling it from one hand into the other as he looked over the wallet and the glasses and the small, tidy keyring – one house key and one car key. As he flicked the button on the box cutter forward and back with his thumb, extending and retracting the blade, he heard the squeak of the rollers as the door slid open, and he turned to see a woman standing in the doorway, her features indistinct, her body a dark silhouette sliced out of the brightness behind her.
“Can I help you?” She spoke with a voice clipped and too loud for the empty room. She took one tentative step, then stopped. She’d moved out of the backlight of the doorway, and he could see her face, her jaw set and her brow knotted, alert and wary. She held a cell phone in one hand, raised to her chest, her thumb wrapped around the front and pressed against the touchscreen. She looked at the box cutter in his hand.
“No,” he said quickly. “I…” He stopped. “I’m sorry.” He lay the knife on the counter carefully and without a sound. “I just…” He smiled weakly and raised his hands, palms forward in a gesture of surrender. He dropped his chin toward the floor and looked up at her, but her expression and pose were unchanged. He lowered his hands to his sides and took a step back. “All of your doors are open.”
She nodded slightly. “Yeah, I’m moving stuff.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I called out a couple of times but I didn’t hear anyone.”
“I was out back on the phone.” She shook her head slightly. “So you just let yourself in?”
“Well, no, the door was open. I saw the moving truck. I guess curiosity just got the better of me.” He raised his hands again, apologetically. “Hey, you know, I’m sorry. I’ll get out of here.” He turned away and started toward the front room.
“Are you one of the neighbors?” she asked, her voice still short and sharp.
He stopped in the arched doorway and turned halfway back toward her. He tried another smile. “Yes. I’m right behind here. On Acacia.”
She didn’t respond, but turned her eyes from him and walked with exaggerated confidence to the breakfast bar, and he watched her scan her possessions. Then she put the phone down alongside the keys and glasses and rested both hands against the countertop.
“Okay,” she finally said, then she exhaled a long breath. “It’s pretty weird to find a strange man standing in my kitchen.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“Especially with what’s been going on around here.”
She pushed her shoulders back and drew herself up to stand at her fullest height. “So you agree that this is not normal behavior?”
“I’ve never done anything like this. I can’t explain it.”
She looked him over then and he stood and let her take stock of him. She nodded, crossed one arm over her chest and gripped the other. “I’m Teresa,” she said, letting her face relax into a strained smile.
“Scott,” he said, and gave a small wave, still standing just inside the entryway. “Scotty.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet a neighbor, Scotty. However weird.” She uncrossed her arms and walked from behind the island toward him, hand extended. He smiled then and shook her hand. “Since you’re here,” she said, “can you help me carry that table in?”
The truck had no lift, and the ramp was still rolled up and latched under the cargo box. “I couldn’t figure out how to pull that thing down,” Teresa said, stepping onto the bumper of the truck. She was dressed for the gym – athletic shoes and shorts, a cotton t-shirt with the sleeves cut off in deep scoops down the sides, a light blue sports bra – and he watched as she pulled herself with ease into the back of the truck.
“The ramp will make it a lot easier to get that table out of there,” he said.
“Go for it.” She started pulling the heavy furniture pad off the top of the table.
He flipped down the latch and pulled the ramp out and down, jerking at it as it stuck on its rollers.
“Really? It was that easy?”
“Well, the latch was jammed a bit. I can see why you had trouble.”
She smiled at his lie, nodded, and watched him climb the ramp from the sunlight into the shaded interior with her. They each wrapped their hands under the apron of the table and lifted, and he began to walk backward across the floor of the box toward the ramp. “Can you see where you’re going?” she asked.
“Not really. But as long as I don’t step off the edge, this shouldn’t end badly.” He smiled. “Tell me when I get there.”
They descended the ramp cautiously and awkwardly and turned to shuffle across the grass to the front door. They twisted the table onto its side to maneuver the legs through the door. They continued as they had, him shuffling backward and looking at her, and her looking past him to see where they were going. When they had the table centered under the hanging lamp, she nodded to him and they set the table down, the legs clacking onto the tile.
“Mercy!” she exclaimed, and he smiled at the word. She pulled some stray strands of hair from her face and rolled her eyes. “The rest should be easy,” she said, her breath labored. “As weird as it was, I’m glad you showed up.”
“I wasn’t doing anything else.”
She leaned back against the bare wall and looked slowly over the room as if she were examining things that only she could see. “So, you’re on Acacia. Is that the one with thorns?”
“Everything in the desert has thorns.”
She gave a surprised laugh. “That’s a cheerful thought.”
“Don’t say nobody warned you.” He watched her as she swept her eyes across the room again. “You already unloaded the bed by yourself?”
“No bed. I left him the bed. I’m having a new one delivered tomorrow.”
He gestured left and right with his head, sweeping the emptiness of the room with his gaze. “Looks like you left him just about everything,” he said.
“Yeah. Well. We didn’t have much by the end.” He nodded, waiting for her to continue. She walked into the next room and he heard the refrigerator open. She came back with two bottles of water, opening one and taking a long drink as she walked. She offered the other to him. He took the bottle from her, then set it unopened on the table. She gave a small shrug and leaned back against the wall. “I don’t care. Stuff doesn’t matter to me,” she finally said, looking past him across the room and out through the open front door. “All I wanted was to get out. And I got that.” She drew a long slow breath, then exhaled in an audible sigh. “That’s enough.”
He shifted, waited, watched her face. After a moment she looked back at him, and he saw her face relax, reshape, rejoin him in the room. “Anyway,” she said, drawing a full breath, “what’s going on in this neighborhood? I mean, two days after I close on this house, they find that family.”
She waited, but he said nothing more. “Did you know them?”
“No. I think maybe I’d seen her and the kids sometimes when I was walking. If that was them.”
“Are you scared?”
“Hmm. I’m a little freaked out by it.”
Abruptly she leaned forward and stepped quickly to him, gripping a fold of his shirt sleeve in her fingers, pulling his arm away from his body.
“You’re bleeding,” she said, more a question than a statement. He looked from her face to his own body at the circle of blood spreading through his t-shirt over his left rib cage.
“It’s a scratch,” he said, lifting his shirt just enough to reveal the oozing slash. “It’s okay.”
“God! That is not a scratch. It looks like a cut. What did you do?”
“No, it’s okay, really. Mesquite thorn stabbed me. I was trimming trees yesterday. I probably just bumped it while we were moving the table.”
She leaned in to examine the wound, then stepped back suddenly and crossed her arms over her own chest. “I’ll see if I can find some gauze.” She turned and walked briskly down the hall and disappeared into one of the rooms. He stood holding his shirt above the cut, watching a rivulet of blood crawl down his skin.
He sat on a cardboard box and let her wash and bandage the cut while he held his shirt pulled up near his neck. “You don’t have a bed,” he said, “but you have gauze.”
She ran her fingers around the edges of the tape to secure the seal, then stood and inspected her work. “Girl scout,” she said, then she turned and carried the scissors and tape back down the hall.
Letting his shirt drop around his midriff, he stood up, walked to the open front door, and waited. He heard the sound of a toilet flushing from behind a closed door, water running. He walked outside and up the ramp into the truck and picked up one of the chairs from the dining set. She came around the back of the truck, stood aside, and gave him a grateful smile as he carried the chair down the ramp. In less than five minutes they had the truck emptied, and she began closing truck doors. He lifted the ramp and slid it noisily back into place, then clambered up and pulled down the heavy rolling door. He followed her into the garage, and she pushed the button to the automatic door closer. Without waiting, she turned and went inside. He followed.
As she went to the refrigerator, he walked to the front room and closed the door. He twisted the knob to lock the deadbolt, then stepped back.
“Thanks,” she said, but he gave no reply, just stood and watched her as she picked at the label on her water bottle. She looked up suddenly and broke the silence. “You want to help me unload the kitchen boxes, then we’ll get some sandwiches? Let me buy you lunch.” Then, quickly, as though thinking better of it, “Oh, you probably have someplace to be.”
“No, I’m not expected anywhere.” He glanced around the room. “Sure. Let’s empty some boxes.”
She raised her water bottle in salute and headed into the kitchen. “How ‘bout you unpack boxes and I’ll put things where I want them.”
“Makes sense,” he said, rounding the corner into the kitchen. He found her standing, hands on hips, looking at the countertop.
“What did I do with the box cutter?”
He looked at her blankly for a moment. “Did you take it in the bathroom when you were getting me gauze?”
“Probably.” She moved past him and toward the hallway. “Do you still not want any water?”
“I’m good. I have the bottle you gave me.”
She went down the hall, and he stood and waited, listening to the sounds of boxes sliding on tile, objects being moved, paper rustling. She reappeared, her brow wrinkled and lips squeezed tightly closed. “I can’t find it.”
“It was right here on the counter.”
“Yeah.” She paused. “You don’t think you maybe slipped it in your pocket, do you? Just not thinking?”
He patted each of his pockets in turn, then again. “Nope. Nothing.” He shrugged.
“Okay. I must have moved it somewhere. It’ll turn up in a minute.”
“No place to hide in here.”
She laughed then. “No, no place to hide.” She walked into the kitchen and pushed a box toward him with her foot. “See if you can get that open.”
By 11 they’d unpacked every box in the kitchen, pulled some textbooks and paperback novels out of boxes in the front room and stacked them along the baseboard, and leaned a few of her framed photos against the books, all scenic shots with strong light and long shadows she said she’d taken on her vacations before the divorce. They sat at the kitchen island, drinking from cans of beer. She’d carried a small portable television from the bedroom and plugged it in on the kitchen counter, and a college football game was playing with the sound turned most of the way down.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Mmm. Four years, I guess.”
“You like it?”
“Yeah, it’s quiet. Maybe a little boring. It’s kind of hard to get to know anybody.”
She smiled. “Unless you just walk into their house when they’re not looking.”
He raised his brows and shrugged. She leaned over and punched at his ribs lightly, playfully. He twisted quickly in his chair to dodge her jab, grabbed her wrist, and squeezed—hard—then slowly released her.
“Christ, you’re strong,” she said, rubbing her wrist. “I mean, not that you wouldn’t be, but…”
“Did I hurt you?”
“A little, I guess. But I started it.”
He took a long drink of his beer, draining it, then set the empty back on the counter. “Yeah, you’re kind of looking for trouble.” He smiled at her.
Out from the direction of the main highway they heard a siren spiral up to a wail, then another. They sat and listened as the sirens grew louder, moving toward them then past them and up the street behind her house, where they abruptly stopped.
“Is that your street?” she asked.
He turned his head as if to listen for the location of the now silent sirens. “I don’t think so. I’m a couple of streets farther.”
“Oh. I thought you said you were on the next street over.”
She cocked her head, furrowed her brow. “I swear you did.”
“No. I’m on Acacia. It’s farther.”
She shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t know the streets yet.” She got up from her chair and went to the refrigerator, looked inside. “Are you hungry? I don’t want to go out there, but I could order something if you know a good place that delivers.”
“No, I should get out of here.”
“Really? I’d like to do something to thank you for carrying all my crap.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He got up, looked quickly around the room, patted his pockets.
The percussive beating of an approaching helicopter thumped into the room. As it passed overhead, she walked to the back patio door and pulled the curtains aside. “I can’t tell if it’s police or news.” The helicopter sound tailed away from behind the house, then they could hear it grow louder as it circled back again.
“This is freaky,” she said, still watching out the window. “Let’s see if there’s anything on the news.” She turned back and he was gone.
“Scotty?” she called out. There was no response, nothing but silence for a moment, then she heard a door close. She stepped quickly into the front room and he was standing there, peering through the blinds out onto the street.
“I thought you left,” she said. He didn’t turn but held his eyes on the street. “Is something wrong?”
“No. I don’t know. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“It must be big, with police and helicopters, right?”
“Seems like it.”
“I’m going to see if there’s anything on the news.” She walked back into the kitchen and turned up the volume on the little television. She flipped through the channels, then again. Finding nothing, she walked back out to the front room. He was still at the window, but crouching now, looking up through the blinds toward the sky.
“Can you see the helicopter?”
“No. Trees are in the way.”
She watched him scan the sky for a moment. “Listen,” she said. “Do you need to get home?” He didn’t answer. “Maybe you need to get home?” He stood, turned from the window toward her. The helicopter grew louder again. She crossed her arms over her chest, wrapped her outstretched fingers across her ribs. “Because if you don’t, I wouldn’t mind you sticking around for a while. Until this is over, you know?”
He nodded slowly, squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed them vigorously, then blinked several times and gave a quick shake of his head. He looked at her and waited for the thumping of the helicopter to trail away. “Sure,” he finally said. “I’ve got no place I should be.”