December 18

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 5)

 

“Someone here?”  That was what TV characters usually said in their dark house, even though they were supposed to be alone and didn’t really hope for an answer.  Ethel Finley called her son’s name, too, wondering aloud if he’d visited for some obscure reason.

Her mind was fuzzy, but hadn’t someone else visited today?  That’s right:  a rude social worker, hoping to remove her from her home.  When did he leave?  Had he closed the door behind him?

As Ethel walked toward the front door, her hands brushed against the walls or touched lightly at familiar boxes and stacks of papers. She knew the shape of them — the layout, the arrangement — though she’d forgotten the contents of many boxes, or what lay beneath the early dates of newspaper or the latest slips of bulk-mail brochures and coupons.

She knew, also, which sections of floor would groan beneath her weight.  Her foot pressed down on a carpeted spot half-way through the hall, and the creak was slow and loud from her cautious step.

Ethel braced herself to turn the corner toward the front door — a possible source of the draft she’d felt in her dream.  The door might be wide open, with somebody hidden behind it, gloved fingers curled around the edge.   She had no weapons, that she could think of.  She couldn’t very well defend herself with a stack of newspapers.

That plastic rustle again, and another quick blast of chill air.  She wished the phone was working, so she could call the police.  But there was no guarantee the police would be helpful.  They’d dismiss her, like they always did:   Isn’t this the same old woman who fell down last week?  Now she’s hearing things…

She had to check by herself.  Slowly, slowly she peered around the corner.

The front door was closed.  Ethel let out a sigh of relief.  She’d been stupid, letting that silly dream get under her skin like that.  Nobody had broken in here.

Unless…somebody had broken in, then shut the door afterwards.  Quiet-like.  She also considered the social worker she’d invited into her living room for a chat: a strange man she’d let into her home, left him wondering what treasures might be hidden in these various boxes, what money and coins were tucked among stacks of papers.

Then she realized this was how Arthur wanted her to feel, whether he’d admit it or not.  Her son wanted her to feel unsafe in her own home.

Alone in that big house.  What if something happened to you?  What if I couldn’t get to you in time to help?

Nonsense.  If someone else were here, she would know it.  She could tell if a box was moved aside, or if one of her magazine stacks tilted at an unusual angle.  The hall and the entryway were fine.  Nothing had changed.

She half-remembered the tap of footsteps, the door slamming closed while she slept.  That’s when the spy from the nursing home — the man who pretended to be an exterminator — must have given up and gone away.

Another rustling noise reached her:  a flapping, louder this time, followed by a whistle.  Ethel could locate the source of the sound, now that she was closer:  the stairway on the other side of the front door.   She decided the sound was too random to be caused by a human intruder:  it was like wind through an autumn clothesline, rather than the methodical rummaging of a thief through boxes.

Ethel began a slow ascent up the carpeted stairs.  She couldn’t reach the banister, so used various stacks of papers to steady herself as she climbed.  Since she hadn’t needed to go upstairs in a long while, the effort made her feel out of breath.  It got darker with each step.  And colder.

A small glow beckoned to her from the landing, and Ethel reached down to recover a flashlight.  Probably a free gift that came with one of her Shopping Channel orders — it must have fallen off a stack of papers and somehow turned itself on.

The flashlight felt sticky in her hand, as if it had rolled through syrup.  She’d rinse it off later, in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

She aimed the beam at the other end of the landing, where the second set of stairs led upwards.  Some of the papers and bins had toppled over, and she worried it would take a mountain climber to get to the top.

Ethel felt air on her arms and even through the cotton of her house dress.  The flap and rustle of plastic was louder here — a cold breeze blowing through a broken upstairs window she must have fixed herself, long ago, the duct tape breaking loose and a draft reaching all the way down to her living room.

She’d find a way to patch it again.  One of the bins might have tape.

Ethel ran the flashlight beam over the papers and boxes.  Some of her best things — gadgets and supplies she knew she might need — she’d stored in plastic bins.  But then she’d piled a few things on top of the bins, and she hadn’t had time to label the contents as she’d intended.  (The label machine was in one of the Shopper Channel boxes in the downstairs hallway, she was fairly certain).

A few steps higher, she transferred a pile of old magazines to one side, then opened the bin she’d uncovered.  No tools or tape:  just a stack of bathrobes she’d ordered, still in their original shrink wrap.  She pushed another container aside, trying to recreate a path up the stairway, and it was a tight fit.

After she lifted a few cardboard boxes, Ethel realized she’d gotten water on the sleeve of her house dress.  She bundled the fabric to wring out the moisture, but as she squeezed the fabric felt sticky and warm, and a foul odor rose from her sleeve.  She lifted her hand to her face and the odor nearly overpowered her.  It wasn’t water.  The milky substance had flecks of foam and swirls of pink and gray throughout.  Ethel shook her hand in the air, but the noxious substance clung to her palm.

An animal must have entered through the upstairs window frame, Ethel decided.  She had pressed her sleeve into cat-sick without realizing it.  Strays lived off a nasty diet of garbage and field mice and birds, so their vomit would be unnatural and offensive.  That’s all this was.  Not a possum or a raccoon, she hoped — just a neglected stray that hoped for indoor warmth.

Was it still inside the house?  She aimed the flashlight beam over the stairway, a shifting ripple of light waved over uneven and fallen boxes and bins and papers.   Three steps up, a dark puddle oozed from beneath a large box with a jagged hole in one side.  She saw marks like paw prints in the sticky mush…and a line down the middle, as if a thick tail had been dragged through.

 

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[…continued in December 19 entry…]