Hunkered Down

by Katie Strine

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CC0: Public Domain

 

Betsy found a dead animal curled up among a pile of sheets in the basement. She figured it had crawled in through the rectangular window that sat above the washer/dryer set. Large enough for a small human, like herself, or a sizable animal.

At first she wasn’t sure what lay within the sheets, but felt the bulge of body when she wrapped her arms around the cotton. She recoiled. Then the obvious signs of decay sunk into her senses. The offensive smell. The crack of window open to winter’s air. The mess of sheets she hadn’t touched for months.

The room itself was accustomed to decay, to be honest. She and her husband, Sean, had purchased the place excited to have an old home. Stories of the war, possibilities of ghosts, a multitude of past’s secrets warped into the walls.

But they hadn’t put forth any work to the downside of owning an old home, so the broken windows – like this one – remained broken.

The dog clawed at the door at the top of the stairs, but she feared he’d dig his nose into the mess of sheets, too eager. She shoveled the animal and the sheet into a trash bag, moved it all outside, and that was that. She would have asked Sean to help, but he was at work.

“The window in the basement is cracked open – broken – and I can’t figure out how to fix it.”

Sean asked a number of possibilities each starting with “Have you tried” to which she nodded her head, yes, yes, yes. They stood over the kitchen island while he ate cold lasagna out of the pan, a work meeting pushing into the evening. She stood with one foot folded over the other, trying to keep them warm. She wanted to run upstairs and grab socks, but she remained, her elbows on the island, looking up to Sean.

He pushed his glasses up the crook of his nose and put the lasagna down. “That was really good, by the way. I was famished.”

She mumbled thanks. “Could you come down now? I just don’t like the idea of it open. Someone could fit in it, really.”

He agreed to follow her but replied he was more worried about the foundation of the house than interlopers. “We’re so nestled off the road. Who would saunter back here? And for what?” He reasoned the odds were in their favor.

Descending the stairs, Betsy heard a rustling from where a makeshift closet stood in the corner – perhaps a former generation had stored wine there? – but it didn’t seem functional now. The door swung on rusty hinges. It held cobwebs and maybe an old broom someone left behind. Betsy heard the little door clatter and she raced to see if something had dodged into it as a hiding place.

“See?” She heard Sean behind her. “Animals looking for warmth. This winter has been something else. Dan from work? You remember him? He says this will be the longest, roughest winter we’ve seen.”

“Well, all the more reason to fix the window, Sean. We can’t afford to heat the house if the heat is leaving the house.”

He climbed atop the dryer. The length of his body wedged in the space, his backend stuck toward her face, as he jumbled the lock and rocked the window.

Betsy stood below shoving a screwdriver toward Sean. “It’s the paint, I think. Too many coats on the lock and so it won’t twist into place. Do you think you could pry it?”

He grabbed at the screwdriver. She felt winter on his fingers. He drove the tool into the lock. Bits of paint chips richoced in the air. “My hands are nearly frozen, Betsy, and this damn thing isn’t budging. Can I look at this tomorrow? When there’s at least some sunlight streaming in?” She was disappointed, but he had positioned the window so it appeared closed before she could say no.

Hanging over their shared sink, toothbrushes rubbing in and out of their mouths, Betsy eyed Sean in the mirror. He had taken off his glasses and she followed the hanging lines under his eyes. The skin tucked and bellowed and she thought of curtains on a window. When he had aged, she wasn’t certain. They had lived here only four years. Four winters, she thought, which had been considerably timid. But his work had been increasingly demanding. Long nights and meetings and conference calls and spreadsheets of numbers she didn’t pretend to understand.

He rinsed his brush and let it clank into the glass. “I’ll have to go in for a little bit tomorrow. Dan has this out of town client he insists I meet. Lunch meeting, actually.”

“But it’s Saturday.”

“Nature of the beast.” He shrugged and left the bathroom. She heard the bedsprings compete with his weight.

She stood in the bathroom, the tile warmed, a little circle of heat generating from her. She thought of another day alone in the house, as it had been lately. She understood the working days and had committed to a 9-5, her office positioned in the sun room toward the back of the house where she worked on freelance writing, various editing jobs, etc. But then the long nights and now empty weekends.

By the time she situated herself beside Sean in the bed, his nose rustled deep under a snore. A winter landscape unfolded through the window and her brain ticked into the movie The Shining. She pictured Sean’s face protruding through a wall of their house as Jack Nicholson does in the film. “All work and no play” taunted her as she drifted into sleep where she found herself following the snowy labrinth, her feet worked into frostbite.

She opened the dryer and relished in its warmth. The day had dipped closer to zero than not, despite the sun bursting in through their windows. In walking the dog, Pete, she recalled her nightmare and wiggled her toes in exaggeration. But Pete loved the snow. He dove his snout into the white curves of unnatural landscape where the wind had whipped drifts of snow. Back at the house she had to pry off pieces of frozen clumps in his fur. Miniature icicles. He resembled the abominable snowman. Her hands submerged in hot clothes was a welcomed opposition.

And then a skitter-skatter. Hard nails on cold concrete.

She heard the critter but couldn’t see the critter. She followed sounds around the basement and talked at it under her breath. Where are you? Where are you hiding? What do you want from me? The basement wrapped its arms in defense hugging each corner. Her antagonist. Each menacing, dusted, dingy square inch of it.

She ascended the stairs in defeat bearing the weight of the laundry.

“Perhaps work is too slow for you right now.” Sean equated all life’s problems against work. His father had been the same, of course, and she knew she was somehow likely falling into her own mother’s habits.

“Sean, I have enough work, that’s not the problem. If I’m bored – and that’s your insinuation – perhaps it’s because my husband is never home.” She hadn’t intended to take on an argument today.

He rolled his eyes and she assumed he was weighing her paycheck against his. Their bills tallied in his head with numbers carried into neat, little columns. “Betsy. Dear. Love-of-my-life.” Each placated name pushed at her temper. “This is a growing business. Do you want a comfortable life? Do you want to keep working from home? It’s a sacrifice now for our future.” She wondered what connotations surrounded the word ‘our’ in his head.

“Look, Sean, it’s whatever, okay? I know you’re committed to long hours right now. But then you go and minimize the problems I have here. I’ll just call someone out to the house to fix the window since we can’t do it ourselves. It’s the dead of winter and I don’t need that window open to the world.”

This resolved the window issue, but Betsy found two more dead animals at the end of the same week. They had clustered into the back closet area. She found them after Pete pushed into the basement and growled at the corner. Not only that, but they had stolen pieces of dirty laundry to situate themselves.

She left the mess for Sean.

She took Pete with her outside and walked the perimeter of the house. Was there another point of entry? Snow had swooped up along most of the house’s edges. She assumed a critter’s path would be obvious to spot, but the wind – even now as she and Pete stood dumbfounded – relentlessly thundered in all directions. Her hair whipped into a frenzy and splashed against her face.

It was Tuesday and nearing 8:00 PM. Sean had committed to another night meeting. She tugged at Pete and they meandered toward the street. It was so mind-numbing cold, she couldn’t fathom why any animal hadn’t hunkered down into its own natural shelter. She thought she might find them out on the street waiting for her to go back inside. Waiting for her to turn her back so they could scurry up the driveway and into the basement.
Halfway to the street – the driveway lasting half a mile – she realized she should have brought a flashlight but reasoned Pete would sniff out an animal, really.

She was so consumed with her search – her head beating against itself and the wind – she hadn’t noticed the car parked on the road in front of their house. Its lights were off but it cast a steady flow of exhaust. Only when Pete tugged toward it did she look up and into its windows. Two men, perhaps Sean and his partner, sat in the front. She could only see forms, dark lumps of bodies, no pronounced details. She watched as they embraced for what felt longer than a standard hug. And why would work partners hug, anyway?

The passenger door opened and Pete barked an aggressive warning until he realized it was Sean.

“Betsy? What are you doing out here? You’ll freeze to death.” His words forced a flash of her nightmare into memory. All work and no play, her mind reminded her, but then she thought she had had it all wrong. The hugging forms, two shadows of human clung together, hung in her mind but not as a tangible idea.

“Where’s your car?”

He turned toward the street as if he had forgotten the answer. “Oh, yea.” His words took off with the wind. “Dan brought me home.”

“Okay.” She scratched at her scalp and pushed the flowing strands of hair behind her ears. Why hadn’t she put on a hat? Pete tugged toward the house, restless and cold. “But why?”

“Car troubles.” And then that shoulder shrug. Nature of the beast. Placated names. It is what it is. He walked up the drive and past her, then turned back, “You coming inside? It’s freezing out here. Honestly. What were you doing anyway?” He didn’t wait for an answer, assuming she’d follow him and explain once inside the house. Instead she stood looking toward the street. A fresh wave of snow began to descend, some of it caught in the street lights. She focused on the lines in the street from Dan’s tires. She stared into them as if they could talk. As if they would argue against or for what her simple mind worked itself around. The long hours. The extended lunches. The new suits.

Then across the street burrowed below a pine tree, a set of yellow eyes matched hers. She couldn’t discern the animal but watched the outline of its body slinking below the tree line, its eyes on her, waiting for her to return to the house.

 

 

Katie Strine tolerates life through literature and dark beer. She lives in the east suburbs of Cleveland with her family – husband, son and dog – who accompany her on oddball adventures. Her work has been published in The Writing Disorder, The Wayne Literary Review and Visitant. Stay in touch via LinkedIn and Facebook.

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