When had the snow started? Looking out the living room window, Mavis shivered. It wasn’t snowing an hour ago, when I arrived. The house creaked all around her. This new house sounds like an old woman.
Open House—her first. Right now, she wished it would be her last at this place.
The other realtors may have anticipated its wrongness, since they—every one of them—refused to do the Open. Of course, it was near Christmas, and so their excuses sounded reasonable enough. Mavis recalled the moment when the question came up—who would go out there and sit in the empty house? The silence was vocal, followed by adamant shaking of heads. In something like a parting of the waters, there she, the junior realtor, was left standing in the room’s center. Of course, the old maid living with her mother had no pressing plans.
She shivered even then, picturing herself alone in that big speck house.
Mavis tried to think positively: The sale money’d be good with the housing slump. However, it was hardly the right time of year to sell houses. This one had just come on the market—a big many-windowed house with lovely grounds, just built, a spec house. Rare to have so much acreage, only possible at the edge of town. Not that anyone could see the grounds now. Not that anyone was looking.
Didn’t an Open House suggest a constant stream of people or at least a trickle of them flowing through, the sun flowing in, cookies for them to grab as they went by? Well, there was a cake with some kind of yellow frosting. She’d grabbed it at the store on her way over. But how awkward it’d be to carry around! She gazed at it, still entombed in its hard plastic, with a knife resting on top. She realized now that the knife was her kitchen carving knife. In her typical hurry, she’d only focused on grabbing her book and radio. Well, such a knife might be necessary to open the heavy plastic, but really! How inappropriate to have such a cleaver. Now she’d have to worry about people hurting themselves.
To fill the house’s sudden stillness, she forced perspective to the surface. Lighten up. Why’d it matter? No one’s here, so the question of a cheerful open house is moot.
Mavis had been there since four p.m., and now it was six. She couldn’t sit still. She wasn’t much for sitting anyway. No sooner had she made the rounds and sat down, than she’d sprung her up again and started wandering, looking out each window upstairs and down. No car passed by. But a tingling up her neck started—Something is about to happen. Her arms clutched across her chest in a tentative Napoleonic stance facing the outside.
The visibility was cottony, muffled. Falling snow had the way of silence, obliterating all sensation. She tried in vain to remember the distance to the nearest house. Some people liked the solitude of trees; she liked neighbors close by in case of emergency.
Even with the thermostat up, the house chilled around the edges. Maybe the insulation isn’t so good, though it passed inspection.
Still, the outside cold crept in. She had left her winter coat on and even her mittens. Her finger tips were numb. It was the time of day when she needed tea—she got sleepy and dull brained.
Out the front window, she watched the white powdery sky clicking down into darkness. At no time had there been real daylight. This Ohio sky superimposed itself on the memory of Michigan skies, familiar from her grandparents’ Thanksgivings there—the steel gray-white blandness of an endless piece of paper—the feeling of being encased inside a wrapper.
Her own big house was old. The only advantage here would be nobody had died in this house—yet.
The few furniture bits here, to make it look “lived in,” instead resembled a cardboard backdrop on an empty stage. Each step sounded against the walls. Was that a twitch of air behind her? Her damp neck’s constant switching around caused a lightning current of pain. There was a creak on the stairs, in the room she had just left. Hurrying back to find no one, she thought, He’s fast, he moves when I do, he’s hiding. Short bursts of air made her grasp the banister, and go downstairs to sit.
This Michigan-like sky, the house itself—it’s strange how people need to be encased. In the house, even more in the car, you bump against things. And of course, at the end, with the coffin or the mausoleum, the walls narrow to just enclose the body. How does the box give comfort?
Even the “open” in Open House was a mirage. She couldn’t leave the door wide open. Right now, she felt just the opposite—something was closing in towards her.
She coughed, glancing down at her usual “cozy,” – a Miss Marple spin-off, small town, neighborly types, the kind of mystery that would have comforted her if she were stretched out on her own bed at home. But here her eyes swung slippery over the words, while creaks punched all around her. A new house shouldn’t be creaking, should it?
She’d leave if she didn’t need the money. Her mother’s savings were almost gone, yet her mother refused to go into a nursing home. Home care expense required Mavis to do even more canvassing for leads and clients by phone. Her mother was deteriorating, forever grumbling about her pains. Mavis sensed she wouldn’t miss her—it had been a long time since they’d really talked. But she also wondered if she could stay in that big old house, living alone. Though she knew it well, there were too many dark places, even in daytime.
Strange—she couldn’t see a future beyond the moment. Even going home at 8 p.m. didn’t seem real.
It’s a blizzard. At home—a mere five miles away—she would’ve looked out and thought how fluffy and lovely. Would she be here, in this sale house, forever? Even now socked in, she might be forced to stay the night here. Where the walls creaked and contracted, where there was nothing but open spaces, echoing rooms. She simply couldn’t stay the night. She wouldn’t sleep—and also, an afterthought—who’d take care of Mother? The care giver would leave by nine p.m. regardless.
She started. Is that a noise? Maybe a crunch of something in the snow. A car? No one would come this late. It was seven o’clock.
From the hall window, she could make out a black object just beyond the house lights. If only she’d thought earlier (a day earlier) of Christmas lights in the entranceway—though that’s not light enough.
She scurried back to her seat facing the front door, her body bent forward, suddenly surging with heat. She watched the door knob for it to turn.
It’s strange—no car door banging. Would the snow muffle that sound?
The moment of the door’s opening did not register. There was a man standing in front of her, a man in a suit, a black overcoat flapping open—tall, rangy.
His voice was low, raw.
What’d he say? The indistinct words sounded echoey from down a long, dark hallway. A sharp breath caught in her throat. Everything about him was dark, his hair, a few strands curled over his eyes, and his eyes—well-like black. She heard a voice, like an old-fashioned hissing record, scratching out words she couldn’t make out.
“Are you looking for a home in the neighborhood?” She was standing, unattached to a voice which had a rusty hoarseness, as though from lack of use. The word “home” wobbled in her mind. What neighborhood? The image of treetops wedded over a narrow street with houses on both sides seemed not of this world.
“I’m not looking for a home—” The voice emerged as a low growl.
“Are you looking for a home in the price range over $250 thousand?” Mavis was automated, a steady voice, her body rocking side to side.
“No.” He looked up snagging her eyes. Behind the blank stare was something not quite dull enough.
He stood there immobile, not weaving like a drunk—his full height taut and towering above her. She realized she had fallen back into the chair. Her hand cupped behind her to touch the seat back. She cleared her throat and measured her words out.
“Well, take a look around. I will try to answer your questions.” Her squashed unopened paperback was hard against her rib cage. Taking a slow breath, she pinched her eyes closed. Let this be a nightmare I will wake from. Even if he moved just into the next room, she might be able to run out of the house or if not, at least reach into her purse for the cell phone. I bet this is a dead zone here. Who would I call? The police? – too far away, and in this weather how soon would they arrive?
Still, he stood facing her, and where his voice had sounded low before, absolute command pounded out now: “No. You show me around.”
She rose on command, as though sleepwalking. Her floating movements were imagined from somewhere above, a repeat of earlier wanderings through the house. The dining room—there was one in this house—made her calculate how many total rooms there were. Quite a few! This man had no intention of paying for even one room. So why was he here?
She stood beside the entrance to the first room for him to go ahead. But he did not move. Inwardly she shrugged. Only this room, though. This is not what one should do. I’m breaking all the rules. The customer is supposed to go in first, so you don’t get trapped.
She was constantly looking back. He moved heavily. Her spiel ran nonstop: “There’s enough room here for a table of twenty to sit, and notice the window into the kitchen for easy delivery of the dishes.” She glanced at the too small round table centering the room, with its paper lace cover and plastic bowl. “The corner coves—for glass china cabinets, with drawers for table linens.” It was like she was speaking a foreign language the way she rattled it out.
His head dipped and swayed sideways, like he had his own internal noise. She moved to the side of the kitchen’s swinging door like pushing a curtain aside to let him pass, but he continued to stand there waiting. She decided to slide sideways, pushing her back against the unbending counters while her auto-pilot continued, about the cupboards and the countertop, the middle island—the newest material, the lazy susan for pots and pans, and the wonderful wide windows to the lawn and woods. Darkness visible outside—the white makes the dark blacker. Would the snow be up to her waist? The kitchen light illuminated a white swirling dance just beyond the eaves.
Her throat, dry and sore, her voice squeaked, then croaked into silence. As soon as her words faltered, they fell like wooden soldiers into emptiness. Whenever she stopped for him to pass, he stopped too, and now started weaving. Would that big coat soon envelop her?
Ascending the stairs with him right behind her, she jumped at each thump of his heavy boots. For all her scurrying sideways, he was brushing right behind her, where she could not see him. But with his raspy breath close, her heavy coat felt prickly. She glanced at her watch: 7:15. She had fourty-five minutes to go—not long.
When she reached the last bedroom, she swung around to face him, her back against the dark window. Even with her coat removed, the glass plate of cold behind her barely penetrated. Instead both hot and exposed, she kept shifting the coat from one arm to the other. She stood on unfamiliar territory, like the one being shown the house.
Descending the stairs, she felt his harsh breath against her neck, not hot though, and the thump of boots loud and hard. At least no doors could lock on her. Yes, Open House that way, no room keys, and not much hurtful furniture either. Their descent was the first time she felt a breeze as if the front door had swung open. Were others coming in? She strained for voices.
“Does this have a basement?” His voice scraped like metal, startling the prolonged silence, after her spiel had spiraled to its end. Her teeth pressed down hard on her bottom lip. Of course there was a basement. She didn’t hear her own “yes.” Maybe she just nodded.
The cement basement area was as large as the house, “enough room for a utility room, both work and storage areas,” she almost heard herself say. But how many lights were there? Where were they? It was a large open space with blind spots, where the furnace and tree trunk-like supports blocked visibility. She had not gone down to the basement, because basements were creepy. You never knew what could emerge from their depths.
Who would find her there? And how long would it take even to check there?
The stairs had an old-fashioned narrowness, and as it turned out, the lighting only took a person into areas section by section, stretching shadows everywhere. In spite of the basement’s colder temperature, the silky blouse plastered to her back. She had to lead the way. It reminded her of the space under her bed where she never looked. She gripped her dangling coat as if it were a rope.
The only time he did not stand behind her was when they came to the electrical box. He stepped from behind her to examine it. His eyes gleamed while peering at the various switches.
Whirling around, she fled up the stairs. She never knew before that she could manage two steps at a time. She was about to close the door—Was there a lock? But he had bolted up the stairs after her. Cringing at the crashing wave-sounds behind or inside her, she bumped into her chair before turning to face him. He was struggling with something inside his coat.
It’s a knife, one of those butcher knives, jagged. She shrunk backwards almost tumbling into the chair again. Her hand balanced herself on the seat back.
“No one is coming here today.” His voice boomed the pronouncement.
“Oh, yes, there is. Someone is coming. I have an appointment with someone very shortly.” She spoke rapidly, not daring to look at her watch. Maybe it was eight already.
He stepped forward, she back. The knife gleamed, an extension of his hand, a replica of her own carving knife in the kitchen. While he swung it back and forth from his crouched wrestler position, she swerved sideways. Idiotically—because nothing like this had ever happened to her before—she pictured the Chinese ballet of streamers she’d seen on TV. The Chinese dancers darted and thrust, pounding down on the floor, while the red stream flashed widely.
This maddening dance went on so long her legs and sides ached. Dizziness came from eyes focused on the knife swinging across her middle closer and closer like a pendulum.
Finally, dropping her coat, she stepped forward almost to the edge of the knife’s range. “If you want this house, sit down and I will draw up an offer right now.” Her voice came from somewhere else. But from the force of her words, he stumbled backwards.
“No, I don’t want this house.” He jabbed in front of him like a fencer. “No one is coming here today,” he repeated in a cold whisper.
He swiveled his head upward. Were his pupils circling up and around?
“Yes, I will take it and put a pool table in the middle of this room.” His tone was mocking. Like a dance of boxers they’d become, but now his eyes did not sit still. His back was to the front door.
There’s another back door through the kitchen. In one swift movement she could swoop up her coat and purse and run.
But then she snapped. Her voice now sounded like an angry mother disciplining her unruly child, “Sit down. I will write the offer.” She had stepped forward again, forcing him to look her in the face.
Heavy gasps filled the air. Just at that moment, the radio, which she’d forgotten she’d brought, broke through its static. “Kill the pig, Kill the pig.” They both turned to the small radio on the floor beside her chair. The fierce pounding rhythms came fast like spurts of fire. What kind of song was that? She glanced down and touched her protruding stomach. The song was directed at her!
Where is he? Where’d he go? Is he hiding behind me? She pirouetted, stopping at the closed basement door. It did have a lock!
The click—of a knife?—made her jump. Was it being closed or opened?
She grasped for her knife, squishing the plastic cover, which fell open. The cake’s form looked like a small collapsed body. She drew back from it.
Her arms were suddenly full—the book, the radio, the knife, the purse—and the coat was thrown over her back. The door clicked behind her. The lights could stay on all night—she needed light. No one at the windows. She swirled around to face the driveway. Snow touched her cheek, soft, wet and cold. With the light from opening the car, her hand ready to close it, she peered down the driveway. No tracks behind her.
Could the snow, steadily coming down, have covered them so quickly? Her own tracks in would have been buried by this time, but would his? Had he walked? Had she noticed any snow on him? Her eyes darted to the sides where the trees were. No visible footprints.
She tossed her armful into the trunk. She started the car, then thought, Where’s my knife? She felt its pressure still, the handle hard against her palm.
A former English Professor at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI, Olive Gale Mullet has served as a Book Reviewer for The Pioneer, Big Rapids newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, and Newpages.com. Her story “Les Voleurs” was published in Michigan State University’s Red Cedar Review (Winter 2002).