by Ashley O’Melia

DSCN0018I squinted against the rain as I ran from the car to the old house. Thunder scraped across the clouds, hurrying me along. I fumbled with the key box on the front door, punching in the code my boss had given me. The code was easy to remember since it was the same for every home we foreclosed on, and it sounded like a year: 1924. But coming to these places always made me nervous. It didn’t matter that I’d walked through dozens of abandoned or nearly-abandoned homes over the past six months. It didn’t matter that I had seen piles of trash as tall as I am, bathrooms molded over by leaking pipes, or overgrown yards that were practically jungles. It didn’t matter that nothing had ever jumped out of a closet at me and former homeowners had never come slinking around from the backyard to assault me. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my fault they hadn’t made their payments. These deserted homes gave me the creeps each and every time.

But it was my job. Part of it anyway. I had plenty of other duties, probably too many to count, but this was one of the parts that stuck out for me to pay attention to, for me to complain about at company Christmas parties, for me to have nightmares about. This was the part that scared me, that I would have loved to stand up and say “Hey, wait a minute. Shouldn’t you be sending a man out on this job?” Which was completely sexist of me, just not in the normal ways that people worry about.

Here I was, regardless. I could feel the lightening shivering in the distance, waiting to crawl down my spine if I didn’t hurry up and get the damn key box open already. My shaking fingers managed to punch the 4 and slide open the front panel, revealing a tarnished key. I jammed it into the deadbolt and flung the door inwards just as another peal of thunder raked the air behind me.

The familiar musty smell of a house that hasn’t been lived in for a couple of months stormed my nostrils. Despite the lack of electricity, I slammed the front door behind me to keep out the rain and waited a few moments for my eyes to adjust in the dimness. I was standing in a living room, smallish even without any furniture in it. A rectangle of trash and small toys denoted where the couch had once been. The residents had taken the curtains with them, and what little light that seeped through the grimy windows only limned the desolation of the place. From the pocket of my jacket, I pulled out the small digital camera with Johnston mtg co printed on a sticker on the side. I snapped a shot of the dismal room and quickly moved on to the next one.

The kitchen was apparently the source of most of the funk in here. Mismatched dishes that nobody had thought were worth washing cluttered together in a filthy sink. I shuddered and promised myself that when I got home I would wash every single dish I owned. Maybe twice. A puddle of water had taken up residence underneath the fridge and was slowly warping the floor into waves. There were more curtainless windows in here to let in the murky light from outside, but it wasn’t flattering. I clicked another photo, the putrid kitchen sink starring as the focal point.

I turned down a narrow hallway that led toward the back of the house to check out the bedrooms, hunching my shoulders to avoid touching the filthy walls. A child’s room, the stained carpet riddled with broken toys. Click. A teenager’s room, holes in the dark blue walls and splashes of black paint on every surface. Click. I turned at the end of the hall to step into the master bedroom. The walls were probably supposed to have been white at some point, but the dingy rings around where pictures used to hang was proof that the homeowners had been heavy smokers and hadn’t even had the decency to take it outside.

I raised my camera, framing the drab room in the display, when I heard a squeak. It was the tiniest sound, small enough that I wasn’t even sure I had really heard it at first. I turned off the camera and stuck it in my pocket. I crept further into the room, looking for…whatever it was. The rain had become heavier and was beating against the naked windows, but I heard it again. A high-pitched, short, squeaky sound, with a pitiful vibration at the end of it. I pushed the closet door open with one finger but only found a few wire hangers. Since there wasn’t anything else in the room to investigate, I did a quick check back through the rest of the house. I ventured a peek into each closet, cabinet, and even the shower. I noticed when I got back to the front door that I didn’t hear the sound anymore.

I could have just left. Maybe I should have. My job was just to take pictures and report to the office about the condition of the home. An outside company would be contracted to clean the place up, repair any major damage, and get it ready for sale.

But I couldn’t let it go. I surged back toward the back of the house, toward the master bedroom. I stood in the middle of the floor, ignoring the dust bunnies swirled around my feet. I closed my eyes and listened. I heard the swell of the rain as it shot out the broken downspout just outside. A car passed by, its tires whooshing wetly on the asphalt. I heard the squeak of the subfloor when I shifted my feet, but it wasn’t the same squeak I’d heard before. The rain pounded the window relentlessly, determined to get inside and wash away the grunge of abandonment. A crack of thunder rumbled above me, and there it was. The squeak, right after the thunder.

I opened my eyes. I was facing the window, and as my eyes focused they landed on a small pen just outside in the backyard. Most of the grass and weeds had already begun to shoot up around the rusted wire, but the inside of the pen was hard-packed earth. Well, with a layer of mud over it now. A small lump of brown fur huddled against a corner post, drenched and shaking. Another boom of thunder, and the lump raised a nose in the air and squeaked.

My stomach tried to crawl up through my throat and out of my mouth. All of these homes, all of these times, I kept waiting for something to jump out and say “Boo!” Instead, it huddled in a soggy corner and cried. But it made no difference.

I shot out of the bedroom. I found a door in the kitchen that led into the backyard and yanked it open, leaving it to bang against the wall as I jumped down the rickety porch steps. The little thing huddled further into its corner as I swam through the rain toward it. The gate on the dog pen was chained, but only held in place with a clip. I ripped it off the fence and cast it into the grass.

Here’s where I stopped. Here’s where I realized that I was moving too fast, trying to keep up with the adrenaline that was flooding my body. Despite the cold rain that was poking its fingers through my clothes, despite the grass and dirt that clung to the hem of my pants, I swung the gate open with a painful slowness. With baby steps I crept toward the corner where the creature cowered, shutting the gate behind me so it couldn’t run off into the road.

I didn’t need to worry about that part. The only movements the little dog made were shivering ones. I reached out a tentative hand to pet between its droopy ears. “Hey, little guy,” I murmured. I wasn’t sure if it could even hear me over the storm. “Hey, buddy.” A round brown eye looked askance at me. “Come with me, huh? You can’t stay out here.” Moving my hand down its back where its spine poked up through its mangy fur, I dared to scoop him up underneath his ribs.

The rain was running down my face and into my eyes. I blinked furiously as I wrapped my other hand around the little dog and put him in my jacket. I zipped it up over him. He didn’t mind that he was a little too big for this, and I didn’t mind that this was the nicest leather jacket I’d ever owned. He buried his head into my armpit, nuzzling his dirt into the silk blend of my shirt.

I headed back through the house, in the back door and out the front door, barely remembering to lock each of them on my way. I slid into the driver’s seat of my sedan. The little furry body was cold against me. I started the car, cranked up the heat, and unzipped my jacket to have a better look at him. Every part of him was as brown as the muddy pen he had been living in. He had short floppy ears, bulging eyes, and a horrific underbite. A face only a mother could love. I could feel his ribs rattling against mine as he shivered. “It’s okay, buddy. Let’s go home.”

Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student