The double doors that marked the entrance of the house were substantial and unwelcoming. As the saltbox had settled on its foundation, the doors had loosened in their housing enough that a strong wind would rattle them. Sometimes they would swing open unbidden. Deb and Brent were latchkey kids, often home alone for two or three hours before Daddy would pull in the driveway. They were strictly forbidden to answer the door for strangers. The position of the upstairs slider off the dining room allowed them to see anyone who approached the door if they parked in the driveway, which visitors, delivery men, or the poor Jehovah’s Witnesses who walked their bicycles up the mountain would naturally do.
They were never home alone after dark, but the afternoons could get lonely, especially since the children were directed to stay inside the home, behind locked doors, until their father arrived. At that time, they would rush outdoors for whatever sunlight was left before dinnertime.
Most afternoons, Brent watched TV or played video games to while away the time, leaving Deb to her own devices. She read or tinkered on the piano. Some days she played the stereo. The stereo was a large wooden cabined that housed a turntable and an eight-track tape player. It sat in the basement lounge, an area with a fully stocked western-style bar and a pool table that was ideal for parties her parents never had.
She was down in the basement bar, listening to Daddy’s Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons eight track when a shadow crossed over the wall. She instinctively turned back toward the sliding glass door. At the same time, she could hear the sounds of space battle in the next room. Someone had walked past the slider. Someone was in the yard.
She ran up the stairs to peek outside of the upstairs slider into the driveway. She had not heard anyone pull up, but if somebody were at the house, they would have driven. The mountain road was too steep and long for anyone with a lick of sense to walk.
There was no car in the driveway. The front door creaked. Deb knew without even looking that the knob was being tried. She was upstairs. Brent was downstairs. And someone was trying to enter the house between them. She dropped out of sight under the dining table as the front door swung open.
Deb heard no sound but the faint blasts of lasers and the beating of her heart loud in her ears. The second step creaked whenever it was stepped on. Mommy had badgered Daddy to repair it, but he said it was just as good as an alarm. Deb listened. She waited. The house had no back stairwell, so there was no way to get to Brent. Whoever was on the landing was making a choice: up or down.
Up the stairs would lead whoever it was to Deb; down the stairs would lead to the unsuspecting Brent. The telephone was across the room in the kitchen area, but Deb was frozen in place. The second step creaked. Deb curled herself between the twin pedestals of the table, ears attuned to the footsteps.
“Go away. Go away!” she shouted inside her mind, too afraid to cry out. She stared at the doorway, waiting to see a shadow cast itself onto the goldenrod carpet. It was shag, like the carpet in her room, and muffled steps if someone were careful, trying not to be heard. She waited some more, but no shadow fell. No one entered, but she could feel someone there. Someone was watching, someone who knew exactly where she was hidden away.
“Hey, stupid! You left the door open.” Brent came bounding up the stairs, taking them two at a time and making enough noise to raise the dead. He didn’t bother himself with closing it. He wasn’t the one who opened it in the first place. Just as he was swinging around the bannister—Mommy had expressly forbidden that little move—Deb felt it.
A puff of air caught her right in the face. No, it wasn’t a puff. It was a breath. Something had breathed on her, crouched in her worthless hiding place below the dining room table. The heavy curtain on the sliding glass door fluttered, a series of ripples down its length, and it was gone as quickly as Brent breezed into the dining room.
“Hey! Where are you? I want a snack before Daddy gets home.” As poor as her hiding spot was, Brent didn’t see her, at least not immediately. He did see movement behind the curtain, though, bounding immediately into attack position.
“I’ve got you!” he yelled. Everything with Brent was some sort of yell. Deb’s brother did everything with great animation as if he were actually a character in one of the video games he played to the point of obsession. He dove behind the curtain, throwing fabric carelessly to the side and rattling the rings on the rod as he moved down the length of the curtain.
It could have only been a couple of seconds, but time had taken on that frozen quality as Deb remained under the kitchen table, her body practically molded to the pedestal. She was too frightened to cry out to warn her brother. He was too headstrong to listen. The breath of the thing had taken her voice. She was paralyzed by the smell of it. She could have explained a draft, an eddy, or a sudden breeze. After all, the front door was standing wide open, but it wasn’t the air movement that had her in thrall. It was the odor.
The odor was unique, unlike anything she thought she had smelled before. It was a mixture of something like dirt, pinesap, and old bucket water. There was a fetid quality about it that she couldn’t quite place. Her grandfather’s image popped into her mind. More accurately, it was her memory of his image, for she hadn’t thought of him in years, and Mommy rarely spoke of him. She had only visited his gravesite one time, when his sister, Great Aunt Ida, had died and been buried at his feet. Nonny had snickered at that because Papa didn’t like his sister all that much in life, and she thought he’d be pleased she’d have to sniff his feet for the hereafter.
All these thoughts and images flashed through Deb’s mind as Brent careened through the curtain. Some synapse of memory triggered. It was not really memory, but base instinct, and she recognized the smell. She knew she had smelled it just before her grandfather’s accident. It was not accident, she recalled, even though that’s how Daddy referred to the incident. She found her voice, springing from her hiding spot.
“Brent! Watch out!”
The curtain rod sprang from its housing, billowing like a sail before bouncing off of something and crashing to the floor.
“Oww!” Brent screamed and began wailing. “Get it off me! Get it off me!” The more he flailed, the more entangled he became in the curtain. Deb pulled handfuls of curtain aside, trying to get to the wriggling mass beneath.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” he hollered, using up air by the gulp. He had always hated to have his head covered. It made him panic. She had used this to her advantage in many a fight with Brent, who was a gargantuan of a nine year old while she was a shrimp of a girl. They made a fairly even match. Deb finally got ahold of an arm and yanked him free of the shroud. Fabric ripped beneath him, caught on something.
“You’re gonna be in trouble,” he sniffled, a goose egg already rising on his forehead. Deb hugged him tight before he pushed her away. “Knock it off! I’m gonna tell.”
“No, you’re not, or I’ll clobber you. You’re gonna help me get this curtain back up before Daddy gets home, or we’re both gonna get it.” Deb resumed her bossy big sister role and glanced around nervously. The quality of the air had changed. Whatever had been in the room with them was gone.
“Did you fart?” Brent asked after he’d sucked up his snot the way he always did after having a crying fit.
“Yeah. What you gonna do about it?” Deb lied. Brent smelled it, too. It was real. “C’mon. Let’s put this curtain back up.”
The children worked as a team for once, climbing up on the dining room chairs to get enough height to place the rod back in the cradles hung above the slider. The only evidence of the mishap was a rip in the lining down toward the end. Deb hoped that Mommy wouldn’t notice that, and there was a good chance she wouldn’t, at least not for a long time. First, it was on the backside of the curtain; second, the way the curtain hung, the rip would be difficult to see from the driveway below. She figured they were pretty safe with the exception of the goose egg.
They put the chairs back in place, and Deb got a piece of ice from the freezer, wrapping it in the soured dishcloth hanging over the sink. “Here. It’s a bit stinky, but the ice should take care of your bump. I’m only helping you so we both don’t get into trouble. If you say a word about ripping the curtain, I’ll give you a lot more than a goose egg,” she threatened.
“I’d like to see you try it, butthead,” he replied sullenly.
“I’m not the one who cried over getting tangled up in a curtain, sissy. So, hush.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been hiding.” Brent would never be satisfied unless he had the last word. Deb walked back over to the fridge and pulled a hot dog from the drawer. “Here, eat your hot dog. Daddy will be home soon.” She handed Brent his favorite snack: raw hot dogs. Well, there weren’t really raw because they had been cooked before at the factory, or so she assumed. He liked them plain, no bun, no ketchup, and cold right out of the fridge. He’d eaten enough of them in the past to rule out any threat of ptomaine poisoning, so she figured one more would be just fine.
“Thanks, idiot,” he said, and things were back to normal.
Deb walked out of the kitchen to head toward the bathroom. She needed a little private time to clear her head, and a trip to the john would make that fart all the more plausible. At the foot of the stairs, the front door was closed. The deadbolt was engaged, gleaming through the crack between the doors. Her bowels grumbled, loosening, and she ran to the bathroom, trying to make it to the toilet in time.