She looked around the house one last time, made sure all the lights were turned off, and said goodbye to the dog. Then she slung her bag over her shoulder, opened the door, went out and turned to lock the dead-bolt.
Hearing the door shut, he yawned and stretched. He’d give it another ten minutes in case she’d forgotten something and came back. That had happened once and he’d nearly gotten caught. He had the whole day, after all; he could afford to wait.
The dog’s nose wrinkled as she took in a million scents in the still air. She knew he’d come out soon. At first, she’d been afraid; she was a timid little dog. But he’d scratched her chin and offered treats, so then it was okay. He wasn’t a stranger anymore.
He showered first. It was important to be extremely clean. Odors were detectable. Carefully, he squeegeed the shower. The towel he added to the pile of his clothes he was about to run through the washer and dryer. Then he poured himself a bowl of cereal. Hmmm, she was almost out of milk. It wouldn’t be smart to take the last of it, so he had to eat the cereal dry. He washed and put away his dishes and left the house, striding confidently to the bus stop like any other neighborhood resident. He’d sweep up at a construction site today, make a little money, buy some groceries to replace what he consumed so she wouldn’t notice.
She’d had an uneasy feeling for some time. Something danced around the edges of her consciousness, but she couldn’t name it. She was just jumpy, she told herself. Women who lived alone tended to get jumpy. Well, she’d jolly well have to get over it; at her age, she wasn’t likely to find a companion.
Keeping busy was the solution, so she grabbed a scratch pad and began making a list. She’d get organized. There were jobs she’d been meaning to get to, and she knew if she committed them to paper, she’d eventually do them. She loved the feeling of crossing items off a list.
- Schedule carpet cleaning; 2. Wash curtains and blinds; 3. Organize kitchen cupboards; 4. Clear out dormer closet.
He’d have been in a panic if he could have seen the last item on that list. The dormer closet was where he lived. Past the suitcases, golf clubs, leftover bathroom tiles and rolled up rugs, he squeezed his way to his sleeping bag tucked under the eaves. When she went to work, he came out. He thought of it as his home, too
He worked on the construction crew that built this house. Because of his size – small and wiry – he could get into tight spaces where the bigger guys didn’t fit. He laid the sub floor in the dormer closet that stretched the length of the wall. Useless space, he’d thought – too low to enter without stooping, too shallow to allow for more than piling things at arm’s reach inside the tiny door. But when he lost his apartment, he remembered. Maybe that space wasn’t so useless after all.
It had been easy to gain entry through an unlocked window, a breach of security he corrected once he was in the house. At the first opportunity, he had a key made. He was very careful not to betray his presence by leaving the smallest trace of himself. It was easier because she seldom entered the top floor bedroom, furnished for guests who never came.
Weekends were a problem. She was home all day then, so he left the house on Friday afternoon and stay with his pals under the 8th Street bridge until Monday morning. It was always good to get back to his cozy closet. Makes a man thankful to be indoors, was what he thought. He’d lived undetected in his little lair for months.
But then he caught a cold, a bad one. He always coughed his head off when he had a cold. It was the worst of luck that it coincided with her time off for the Christmas holidays. He felt too sick to move, and he couldn’t control his coughing.
She heard him, of course. That cough made sense of everything she’d been feeling. Of course, she’d noticed inexplicable things – the key she thought she’d lost, but found again the next day right where she always left it, the damp shower curtain that should have dried hours earlier, the slight increase in her utility bills. It all clicked into place.
Somehow, she wasn’t afraid. She went to the closet door, bent down and opened it.
“Come out,” she said. “I know you’re there. Come out.”
She could see he was sick. His eyes glittered feverishly in a flushed, scared face, and chills shook his body. Illness made him look young and vulnerable.
“I’m sorry,” he rasped through his sore throat. “Don’t call the police. I’ll go.”
“No,” she said, surprising them both. “Stay.”
The dog licked his hand.