Nineteen

PIKESVILLE RYE         RITTENHOUSE RYE

Chorizo Hash w/Over-Easy Egg, Lime Crema, Jalapeno Hot Sauce

 At this point I was just drinking. By now the Big Guy knew the drill. When he saw me come in through the door and find a seat at a table or the bar he’d be at my side. I’d hand him the list, and he’d go off and bring one of the drinks I hadn’t had yet. Pikesville Rye, he said when he set the drink on the table. I knocked that one back, raised a finger and we repeated the drill. Rittenhouse Rye, he said when he brought me the second one. Although I felt like blasting right through this one as well, I made myself slow down. Here are my tasting notes: both of them are fine, I guess. I didn’t really notice.

All right, let me back up.

Sherry left yesterday morning, which is when, I think, everything went to hell, though I didn’t know it at the time. Her sister Barbara is dealing with a beloved husband who is having health problems. Sherry is driving to Ohio to give her sister a hand with chores that need to be done. I’m glad she’s gone, this charade of me smiling through nights of interrupted sleep and mysterious creatures leaping around the back yard are beginning to wear on me.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asks.

“Yeah, sure. Just staying up at night figuring things out. No worries.” Feeble grin glued on my mug.

I spent yesterday reading my Publishers Weekly book to review. More Special Ops adventures in the mountains of Afghanistan. Yawn. Time for bed.

What to do? Where to sleep? Get up in the night and listen at the floor? Or go upstairs and huddle with the covers over my head and try to make it through the night? Ignore everything? Confront? Shadows from the crawl space lurk in the corners of my mind.

At three AM I woke up in bed. I heard the cat, Sweetie, somewhere in the house, yowling. YOWLING.

This is not particularly unusual. Sometimes she creeps around and gets trapped in the mudroom, or the screened-in porch, or even outside on the front porch if she’s slipped out the door when I’ve gone to retrieve the mail. Then I lock the door and go to bed and she finds herself trapped outside.

In any of these situations, eventually she sits down and YOWLS until I come find her and let her into the house. This is a cat that was rescued from a life of existing on food scraps and living in the shelter of a black plastic garbage bag. She does not like to be trapped anywhere, particularly outside. Though she does exhibit a fondness for black plastic trash bags. I climbed out of bed and put on my blue robe and slippers. You know the one; you’ve seen the picture.

I could have turned on all the lights since I was alone in the house, but I didn’t think about it. I can maneuver around well in the house at night; I’ve had plenty of experience.

Yowl. Definitely outside. Not on the front porch. Not on the side porch. Not in the mudroom. Now I was starting to worry. I went back to the front room and stood still.

Yowl. Coming from Sherry’s office. Trapped in the closet?

I stood in her office on the spot I knew so well, right over where the mysterious light shines through the floorboards. Yowl. I got down on my hands and knees.

She’s not in the house. She’s in the crawlspace.

My blood ran, as they say, cold. How the hell did she get under there?

When Sherry leaves on a trip, I always carry her bags out to the car for her. I go through the mudroom and for a few minutes the door between the mudroom and the kitchen and the door to the exterior of the house will both be open at the same time. Sweetie must have slipped out and gone exploring. I think hard. Did Mark and I leave the door to the crawlspace open after I was down there? The cat is quite good at opening doors that are only the slightest bit ajar. Now what am I going to do? I can’t leave her under there, she’ll yowl all night. Maybe I can go outside, open the door and entice her close enough for me to grab her and carry her inside. Yes, I’m going to get clawed to ribbons, but it’s my own fault for not watching the doors more carefully. There was a question nagging at me that I didn’t really want to think about: why didn’t she go back to the door to the crawlspace, push it open and come up on the front porch and yowl at the front door? She’s smart; she should be able to figure that out.

I knelt back down on the floor and, feeling extremely foolish, yelled, “Sweetie, I’m going to go put some clothes on! I’ll come get you! Just hang on!”

Yowl.

I went upstairs, pulled on my jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, snagged The World’s Most Powerful Flashlight and went outside. Sure enough, the low door to the crawlspace was slightly ajar. I pulled it open.

Of course I couldn’t see anything. As my eyes adjusted, it seemed as if there was a faint blue glow in the far corner of the crawlspace, beyond the furnace and the intervening ductwork. Sweetie yowled again, loud in the enclosed space. It sounded like she was off in the corner where the glow was pulsing. I switched on the flashlight. I knew I was going to be blinded, but I had to see what was happening.

YOWL!

My hand shook, my heart lurched. There was Sweetie. She was being held by the little ragdoll girl who was clutching her to her ragdoll chest. The look on the ragdoll’s round, sewn-up face with her missing nose was one of, what? Triumph? Amusement? Devilment.

“Mine,” the little girl said. Quite clearly.

“Mine!”

Sweetie yowled and writhed, but if her struggles and claws bothered the girl her ragdoll face didn’t show it.

“No, she’s mine,” I said. I was trying to sound firm but my voice was about as much squeak as it was voice.

“Let her go!”

She just smirked at me.

I could close the door, wait for daylight and call the animal rescue people to come extricate the cat from the crawlspace. Just one more feeble elderly man having to depend on the authorities to get him out of trouble. Or I could crawl in there and retrieve my cat from that apparition or whatever it was. Part of me was still convinced that all of this was some sort of figment born in my own brain, that the cat was simply afraid to come out, that I would make it to where she was and I would grab her and drag her out and there would be no little girl, that I was as nutty as the black walnut trees in the back yard. But another part of me was pretty sure that what I was seeing was real. Unexplainable but real, and that part had me so scared the flashlight trembled in my hand, causing the shadows of the water pipes, the dangling electrical wires, the shredded insulation, the gas lines, and the heater ducts to dance on the brick and cinderblock walls. The beam gleamed back at me from Sweetie’s fear-stricken eyes. The little girl’s eyes didn’t reflect because hers weren’t eyes, they were buttons, and why was I so afraid of a doll with buttons for eyes and a mouth sewn shut?

“Come and get her,” the little girl taunted in a low, lilting voice. The fact that she spoke so clearly was more menacing than if she had croaked the words. Then she laughed at me, and that was the worst thing, the most horrible thing yet.

“Sweetie, Sweetie,” she crooned, rocking back and forth, her cheek pressed against the cat’s head.

I began inching my way forward, dragging myself by my elbows and pushing with my knees underneath the large heating duct, my breath puffing up clouds of dirt that caught in my throat. The experience of crawling around under there the day before wasn’t particularly helpful. I was as near to tears as a grown man can be, but I was also pissed.

Give me my cat, bitch.

I switched the flashlight to my left hand and reached toward Sweetie. The doll inched back against one of the drunken pillars and pulled her closer. Sweetie yowled in pain and fear and at that moment I felt a hand close tightly around my ankle.

I was dragged violently backwards out of the crawlspace. It happened so quickly and so forcefully I sat up outside, stunned, looking at the moonlit sky. The silhouette of a man stood over me. I swung the flashlight around.

Rafe.

I had no idea why he was there.

“Get inside,” he ordered. “Go. Now. I’ll get the cat.”

I stood up and stumbled away as he dropped to the ground and swung under the house in a move so fluid I could only suppose that he had done it before. Many times before. He was gone before I could ask him if he needed the flashlight.

I walked shakily up the steps to the porch and inside. I went to Sherry’s office and sank down on the floor with my ear to the boards. I could hear Rafe murmuring though I couldn’t understand his words. Did the little girl answer?

Mine. Mine.

Then silence.

Then Sweetie.

No longer terrified.

Meow.

4 thoughts on “Nineteen

  1. Thanks for the new installment. It continues to fascinate me. Too bad a suspense-movie sound track can’t be added to a WordPress document.

    Richard

    >

    Like

  2. “But the history of the ancient core still needs to be written by the next steward of this house. Perhaps you will be the one to uncover the deeper mysteries of this old Hillsborough house.”

    Like

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