By Faith Ellestad
It’s the day before closing, the stuff is out of the house and all that is left to do is clean. I’d like to skip it, but the contract specifies “broom swept”.
Moving took much longer than I thought. Dinnertime has come and gone, and a brilliant sunset is fading to dusk. I’m hungry now, and indulge in a fleeting moment of self-pity as I survey the job ahead. I had hoped to be home in time to say goodnight to the kids, their first night in the new house, but I doubt that I will make it by then. At least my mother-in-law and husband will be there to help them adjust. I am here alone except for a tank full of shamefully neglected tropical fish languishing in fetid water, which we couldn’t pack, and will have to be moved by me in the car when I am done. Where to begin?
I will start upstairs and move down. The lighting is eerie with bare bulbs and no curtains up there. Shadows seem to be moving independently of me, and I’m feeling a little creeped out as I ascend the stairs, remembering the time a mouse appeared out of nowhere and beat me to the landing when we first moved here. If there are any left, I hope they stay hidden, and I deliberately thump up the steps to frighten any curious rodents. Broom, dustpan and plastic bag in hand, I open the first attic door. Clear. A cursory whisk and I am on to the second door. Inside, I see a mouse trap holding a small skeleton. Shuddering, I sweep it up and deposit it in the garbage bag. No other signs of life, so I move on. Cleaning two more closets, I find an old rolled-up poster on a back shelf, a couple of legos, and the sword and cape from a cherished Star Wars figure. I start a keeper bag. Dust, sweep, and the upstairs is as clean as I can make it.
I am suddenly overwhelmed by the memories in this tatty old house. The bright peridot green paint and Knights in Armor curtains I made for my older son, and the wonderful wallpaper, which looked exactly like an autumn landscape we chose for the baby’s room. As I start to tear up, I become aware of a strange scraping sound outside. Those damn neighbors. I remember why we’re moving, and the tears retreat. I trot downstairs to see what is going on. Through the front window, I see that the pile of junk we had left for the street crew has been spread all over the driveway. A garbage bag of old coloring books, barely visible in the encroaching darkness, appears to have moved slightly. Or maybe it’s not a garbage bag. It seems to be growing limbs, like those tadpoles we studied in grade school science. The last purple steaks of light in the sky are being shoved behind the horizon as the night advances aggressively into its space. I can just make out a man digging through the detritus. Hopefully he will be done soon, because I really want to put the trash out, move the fish out to the car and leave here forever. Should I turn the porch light on? I am suddenly feeling very alone and uncomfortable. To keep myself focused, I decide to de-smudge the woodwork, moving from the kitchen through the dining room to the front of the house. I wish I had gotten a new battery in my watch, or left a clock unpacked, but I didn’t, and now have no idea what time it is.
Maybe the scavenger has left, No, he has edged closer and is pawing through a pile of ripped cushions. He’s been there a long time now. I wonder anxiously if he is homeless or a resident from the half-way house up the street. One of those guys recently had a psychotic episode and had to be taken away by the police. Could he be back? Now what do I do? I don’t think it’s safe to go out until I’m sure he’s gone. My stomach growls, the least of my problems. I peek out a side window and see him sitting on the bottom porch step. He’s getting closer. I crawl over to the front door to make sure it is locked, then sneak to check the back door. Now I must check each window. All closed and locked, but naked. The curtains have gone to the new house. I hear creaking and start to shake. Peeking around the kitchen door, I discover, to my horror, the intruder is looking through the front window. He knows I am in here. I am now sweating profusely. All pretense of cleaning has dissolved, like I am about to do.
I am here alone, armed only with a broom. The phones were turned off this morning. I have neither flashlight nor any way to summon help. The door handle rattles noisily. My heart may be beating even louder. I feel faint, my hands are clammy and individual hairs on my scalp are tingling.
Panic makes it hard for me to think, but I have to do something. Perhaps if he can’t see me, he will lose interest and leave. I decide to sit on the floor, out of view and not move. I inch my way into the bathroom, which has only one small window, and press my back against the ancient iron clawfoot tub. I could almost fit underneath it, maybe, if I sucked in my stomach and contorted, but I am afraid I might get stuck, so discard that idea. I will just stay alert and bide my time.
I think I have been sitting forever. The cold of the metal tub has penetrated my spine. My rear end is sore and numb, my knees are stiff, I am soaked with sweat and so thirsty my tongue is sticking to the roof of my mouth. Is it midnight? Close to dawn? Have minutes gone by or hours? Is my family at home sleeping or waiting up for me? Can I look out now? I start to crawl to a window, but the sound of snoring wafts in from the front porch causing me to scuttle back to the safety of the tiny bathroom. My heart has been pounding for hours. If I can’t slow it down, I think I may have a heart attack. I am not religious but begin to pray anyway,” Please let him leave. Please Please let him leave.”
Now I realize I’m shivering and spy my jacket in a heap on the living room floor. Just as I start crawling toward it, I detect the first hint of pre-dawn emerging bravely from behind the ink-black sky. Black becomes indigo, then grey, and inches slowly toward day. As soon as it is light enough to recognize shapes, I crab-walk to a side window to peek out. No snoring. A hopeful sign. Then I hear voices, a car door opens across the street. The neighborhood has awakened and I realize I am safe. With a rush of what reserves of adrenalin I still possess, I quickly empty all but three inches of water from the fish tank, rush it out to the car, grab my bag and lock the house. The new owners will be here in just a few hours. Too bad they will have to smell my sweat. But I don’t care. Me and my fish are heading home.
© Faith Ellestad
Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist. When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI . They have two grown sons of whom they are very proud, and a wonderful daughter-in-law.