Pam’s house was a two-story fixer-upper from the 1960s that hadn’t been fixered-up, and probably never would. It was left in my care while she backpacked across Scotland.
Despite her pages and pages of intricate and cryptic instructions — Flip the breaker if you want to run the microwave and the toaster at the same time; When the plumbing farts upstairs, threaten the downstairs toilet with the plunger; Open the kitchen window at 2:40 every other day; Do not, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT water the tree out front. — all I really managed most days was picking up her mail, making sure the refrigerator and liquor cabinet was adjusting to my constant presence, and screwing up her Netflix algorithms by watching my shows. Saturday mornings, I also performed triage on her most tragic houseplants. Some Saturday mornings. Okay, once. But in my defense, I never claimed to be nurturing.
Today unspooled in exactly the same manner as all the rest of my days here. I sprawled on the couch, open bag of chips tucked in next to me, almost-empty baking sheet of now-cold taquitos and chicken fingers on the ratty carpet below me, third bottle of beer on the coffee table in front of me, my hand curled around the Netflix remote.
The sun had set long ago, and I vowed to turn on some lights, in accordance with Rules Number 7 (subsections a – c) and 7A (subsection b) — Turn on the interior lights; living room; bedroom; making sure to rotate locations per random order (See Rules 19-26) and Turn on the exterior lights; particularly spotlight in side yard to keep the burrowing animals to a minimum — just as soon as I got up. But I was only on episode five of my current binge-worthy series, so it might be awhile.
I doubted Rule Number 7 mattered much, anyway. If somebody was desperate enough to break into this dump, having lights shining probably wasn’t going to deter them. And if the basement was any indication, could be the animals were tunneling to get out.
I startled awake. Netflix silently judged me, pulsing the question, “are you still watching?”
What woke me if not the TV? I shifted my weight against the bag of chips, creating a tooth-jolting noise in the utter silence, second only to the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard. I plucked the bag from the couch and dropped it to the baking sheet. A trail of chips and crumbs skittered out.
I didn’t move, listening. There was something very weird about being in someone else’s house late at night. You knew all the little sounds of your own place — the creaks and bangs of the furnace, the exact location of each floor squeak, the sudden rattle of the icemaker. Other people’s houses though, especially fixer-uppers, were enigmas. Loud, creepy enigmas.
My feet swung from the couch and planted themselves on the threadbare rug, clearly more interested in investigating than seemed prudent to the rest of me. Reluctantly, I hauled myself up the rest of the way. Three steps later, paused. A branch against the house? El cheapo ticking clock in one of the upstairs rooms? It sounded like scratching, but that made no sense.
Using the ambient light from the TV, I made my way across the dim room to the torchiere lamp standing in the corner. I twisted the knob, it came off in my hand, and the room blazed with harsh light. Again, I froze, listening.
Oh! The burrowing animals. I giggled at the silliness of my worry and headed for the garage, but not before jamming the knob back on the lamp. Perhaps I’m more nurturing than I thought.
The light switch for the side yard was on the farthest wall of the garage, near the outside door. I flipped on the garage light and made sure the door from the garage to the house was unlocked (because I am a girl who learns her lessons the hard way and hopefully only once). I found myself on tiptoe, sneaking across the garage.
The scratching definitely seemed louder now. Definitely coming from the side yard. Definitely skunk? Raccoon? Opossum?
I silently cursed that I hadn’t checked earlier that the side door was locked. Hell, it wasn’t even closed. If it had been, I could run across the garage, turn the outside light on, and run back inside before some rabid animal rushed me.
Ironically, the idea made me move at half-speed instead of double. I was like one of those lions on the savanna sneaking up on their prey, even though it was prey I decidedly did not want.
As I slowly stretched my fingertips toward the switch, the scratchy, scrabbling sound stopped. I flicked on the light. The side yard lit up like a carnival midway. Something small and covered in dirt vaulted from the hole, rushed away, and crashed into a juniper bush near the street.
Relief and adrenaline energized me. I stepped toward the hole the animal had dug and peered at it. The spotlight so bright it rendered the late night obsolete.
My breath caught and held. Ice coursed through my veins. My internal organs shifted one inch to the right.
The excavation resembled a miniature grave, maybe four feet deep, about three-feet by two. Tiny chaotic footprints muddled the dirt floor and in the scattered dirt above. At the short end of the hole were two perfect child-sized handprints planted in the mounded dirt. Scrawled nearby was a message: Won’t forget.
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So, Readers, I went back and forth about the message at the end. Which do you like better … “won’t forget” or “Pam”?