by Carolyn Weisbecker
My hand flew to my nose, and I held my breath as I stepped through the doorway.
What am I doing here?
A foul, but unmistakable odor hung from the ceiling and followed me as I carefully walked through the house. Death, left alone for too long, had soaked into the walls, ceilings, and the limp drapes. I reached for the light switch. Gray-tinged walls, streaked with grime, glared at me, and I could almost hear them whispering go away. I couldn’t. A sticky residue— thin and persistent like glue—bled from the floor and clung to the bottom of my shoes. My stinging eyes searched for where the man had been found—the neighbor said the sofa—a suspected heart attack after years of drug and alcohol abuse. The man was gone, but his suffering lingered.
When I entered the living room, I noticed it immediately. A hole in the floor, about eight by four feet, leaving the floor joists exposed. I knew that biohazard companies only cut through flooring when body fluids had seeped into the floor. I stepped closer, almost expecting to see a coffin below rather than a dank, dark basement.
What am I doing here?
As a realtor, I’ve been in many homes, but none as bad as this one.
The call had come the night before.
“We’d like you to sell our brother’s house.” The woman paused. “The neighbor found his body there a few weeks ago. The police said that he’d been deceased for several days, so of course, we hired a decontamination company to clean things up.”
I knew what that meant. There would be an odor. There always was.
I jotted down the address, and my mood lifted. At least, the home was in a nice part of town, with streets lined with towering pine trees and brick, Tudor-style homes. “When can I meet you there?”
“We’ll fly out as soon as possible. Robert, the neighbor to the north, has the key. He’s been a dear.”
My eyes returned one last time to the hole in the floor. And, that’s when the lights went out. I gasped. “Hello?”
I took a deep breath and immediately regretted it as the stench attacked my lungs. The electrical needs fixing, I thought, nodding my head as if to confirm it. I’ll have to have it checked and that hole covered. Glancing around the dimly lit room, I envisioned icy fingers dragging me to the hole in the floor, and I quickly headed for the door.
“Real estate lady? Are you still in here?” A man’s voice sliced through the room and saved me, if not from some crazy spirit, then from my crazy thoughts.
It was the next-door neighbor, Robert.
My breathing relaxed. “I’ll be right there.”
Robert stood by a peeling, dust-covered china cabinet. He glanced around the room, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. I tried to meet his dark eyes, but they darted from left to right. He shivered, yanked the cigarette from his mouth, and shoved it into his jacket pocket.
“Did you turn the light out?”
He nodded. “I thought you’d left, but then I heard footsteps, so I called out.”
I dug into my bag for my car keys. “You mentioned earlier that you were the one who found him?”
“I noticed Albert hadn’t shoveled his snow. I looked through the window and saw him lying on the sofa. Thank goodness, he never closed his drapes. I pounded on that window there, but he didn’t move. So, I called the police.”
My eyes darted in the direction which he pointed. Next to the window, I saw a lopsided framed photo—black and white—of a youngish, dark-haired man with a mustache and sideburns. On his lap sat a little girl, with the same raven hair. Curious, I stepped closer.
“Is that Albert?”
Robert stood at my heels. “That’s him but different.”
He stared at him as if I should understand. “He’s happy.”
I squinted. “What a cute little girl. Who was she?”
“Don’t know. Maybe a niece?”
As soon as we walked outside, I gulped the cold air, eager to force the house’s putrid remnants from my lungs.
“Thanks for opening up the house for me, Robert.”
“No bother, miss. The police gave me the key when they put the padlock on. They broke the door to get in.”
He waited, hesitantly, while I locked up. “How long did you know him, Robert?”
He shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “I met Albert after I moved here, about seven years ago. At first, he wouldn’t talk to me. Mumbled something about my dog keeping him up at night.” He laughed. “I didn’t own a dog, but he still insisted.”
“Not really. Albert came up with a lot of weird things. That was him.”
“I’m surprised you two became friends.”
He grinned. “If that’s what you could call it. He softened after I complimented him on his tomato plants.”
I looked over toward the backyard, expecting to see an outline of a garden, but I saw nothing but dead shrubs frozen in the snow.
“Albert had a huge garden. He made gallons of pasta sauce from all his tomatoes.” A smile tugged at his mouth. “He’d cook the tomatoes down for hours. That acidy smell lingered in the air for days.”
I imagined an old man with gray stubble and sideburns stirring a bubbling pot of red sauce.
“I love a good pasta sauce.”
“Albert made the best. He said the best sauce was a simple sauce. Just tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper.” He smacked his lips. “It was delicious.”
I opened my car door and paused. “Too bad his family didn’t check in on him more often.”
Robert looked down at his scuffed black boots. “Albert had problems, and he got worse over time. Shouting obscenities from his porch at no one in particular. Talking to himself while he wandered around the yard.” He sighed. “Once he hid naked behind some bushes and shot at the squirrels with a pellet gun. Neighbors called the police.”
“Sounds like he was a pinch of basil short in cooking his sauce.”
Why did I say that?
A few days later, I met Albert’s sister at my office. Olivia was probably in her sixties, with freshly colored blonde hair piled high on her head. Dark patches pulled down her heavily lined eyes, but when we shook hands, she smiled.
“Thanks for meeting with me,” she said. “We visited Albert last year, and everything seemed fine. He does have a lovely home, doesn’t he?” When I didn’t answer, she continued. “Well, you should have no problem selling it.”
I thought of his cluttered hallways, filled with broken furniture, wads of cat hair, and grime-streaked walls.
“Have you seen the house lately?”
She frowned and tilted her head back as we locked eyes. “Well, of course. Actually, Albert and I grew up there. When our parents died, Albert moved back in and took care of it.” She stopped to cough. “Shortly after, his wife left him. I don’t think he ever really recovered.”
“Mental illness is a difficult disease, especially for the family,” I said. “Did he have children?”
She straightened in her chair. “Albert had some problems, but he certainly wasn’t mentally ill.”
After she left, I gazed out the window at the specks of snow, swirling aimlessly from the swollen sky. What had happened to Albert that led him to live like that? My thoughts came to a screeching halt at the buzzing of my cell phone.
“I’d like to see a house you have listed on Walnut Street.” The woman spoke quickly, breathlessly, as if she just got back from a run.
I winced, dreading a return visit to Albert’s house so soon. “Absolutely. Who am I speaking with?”
“My name’s Meg,” she replied. “It was my father’s house.”
I arrived at Albert’s a few minutes early. I waited in my car and looked at the house objectively, pretending that I’d never seen it before. Ice-coated tree branches hovered above the cracked, peeling roof, and crumbling tree stumps dotted the yard.
I remembered Robert’s words as we discussed Albert’s garden. “You should’ve been here last summer. It was like a jungle. Several years ago, Albert planted dozens, no, make that hundreds of trees throughout the front yard. You could barely see the house.”
Mounds of snow covered the ground, but still, a renegade brown twig poked through.
“What happened to them all?” I asked.
“Well, he claimed the roots went all the way down to the bottom of the earth.” He laughed and scratched his head. “Crazy old bastard. I warned him, but they all died anyway.”
I must have looked confused.
Robert grinned. “I warned him not to overwater. He was out there day and night with the hose.”
Finally, my thoughts came to a halt at the sound of tires on crunchy ice. Albert’s daughter had arrived.
I met Meg at the door, and after quick introductions, I fumbled with the key. Looking down, I admired her black leather boots, the perfect addition to her matching gray wool coat.
“Thanks again for letting me see the house,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
If Meg was excited, she didn’t sound it.
I led her through the door. “How long has it been?”
Her hand flew to her nose. “My mother and I moved out when I was nine.”
Meg clasped her hands and turned to look around. “My grandparents loved this house. Believe it or not, at one time it was quite the house.”
She took a few more steps and then picked up a small, faded statue of an angel.
“My grandfather designed this place. He loved the sun, so he put windows everywhere. But, my grandmother hated the light—said it hurt her eyes—so she made drapes.” She shook her head. “My God, I can’t believe they’re still here.”
She frowned at the statue, still in her hand, and then gingerly placed it back down. “Underneath these nasty carpets are oak floors. By the way, have you noticed the fireplace? All Italian marble. Grandpa had it shipped from Sicily. His family still lives there.” She looked up and folded her arms. “When I was little, I told my friends I lived in a palace.”
“These old homes have a lot of personality,” I said, not having the heart to tell her that the home was a gut-job and that these small details wouldn’t matter to a new owner.
“I’m sure it was hard when you moved away, being your grandparent’s house and all.”
Meg spun around to face me. “I hated this house! I spent years hiding in the back of my closet as my father beat my mother senseless. There were times I thought he’d kill her.”
My stomach knotted up. “That’s terrible.” I hesitated, not wanting to dredge up more bad memories. “Was Albert always like that?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and slowly shook her head. “Before we moved here, my parents rented a tiny house just a few miles away. My mom was one of those stay-at-home moms. You know, she kept the house impossibly clean and made these incredible meals, like roasted chicken and potatoes au gratin, that kind of thing.” She sighed, and her eyes popped open. “My mom was amazing. She died several years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” I wanted to hug her but kept my distance. “What kind of work did Albert do?”
“He was a high school chemistry teacher. That’s all I remember him talking about. He loved his students, the science competitions, the school.” She gave a sharp, bitter laugh. “He called me his little mad scientist because I loved to create things in the kitchen. Said I had a future as a chemist.”
My eyes met hers, and I waited, wanting to know more.
She seemed to know it and continued. “But then things changed. Money got tight, and he felt like he wasn’t getting paid enough. His parents agreed with him. They pushed him to go to law school, but Albert didn’t have it in him. He loved teaching, but he threw it all away to make his parents happy. Unfortunately, …” Her voice dwindled.
I sensed her reluctance to continue, but I couldn’t stop myself. “Unfortunately?”
What am I doing? She obviously doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Unfortunately, Albert hated it, but by then, his parents were supporting us, and he didn’t want to disappoint them, so he kept at it but flunked out.” She sighed. “He couldn’t handle the fact that he failed. I guess that’s when he went bonkers.”
“Why didn’t he go back to his teaching job?”
“My mom said he was too embarrassed. He thought they wouldn’t take him back, and I think, quite frankly, that he was afraid he’d fail again.”
I stood silently, feeling the weight of her anguish.
“He started drinking, and it wasn’t long after that he began abusing my mom.” Her eyes hardened. “I hated him. I wanted him to die for hurting her. After we moved, I refused to see him.”
“So, you haven’t seen him since you were a child?”
Meg shrugged. “I’d see him off and on through the years, just at family events. He was usually drunk or high, so we never talked. He got my phone number a few years ago from my aunt and left me some messages, but I never called him back.” She fingered one dangling earring. “All I could remember was how much he hurt my mom, so I thought, why bother? He was a loser.” She turned away. “Mind if I look around a little on my own?”
Confidences were over.
“Go right ahead. I need to make a phone call, so I’ll wait outside.”
A few minutes later, Meg rushed out the door. “Thanks so much for your time. I’m sorry I have to hurry off, but I’m late for a lunch date.”
“No problem, Meg. Did …?”
“Good luck in selling the house,” she called over her shoulder.
Before I could say another word, she jumped into her car and sped off.
That must be quite a date, I thought. I tossed my bag into the car and went back into the house to turn off the lights. That accomplished, I was almost out the door when I stopped. Something wasn’t right.
My eyes darted to the wall that had held the photo of Albert and the little girl.
The photo was gone.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing