CW Kascha went back to school and studied philosophy in his late 20’s. In 2014, he became a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Germany and has been living in Dresden since. You can follow him on Twitter (@cwkascha).
Beth looked up at the second floor windows of the abandoned house and then over her shoulder at the empty dirt road, as Gene pushed through the tall, yellowing grass and stepped onto an overgrown brick path that lead to the porch. She followed him. Ribbons of sunlight ran through the porch’s ornate trim, and crickets sang from every direction. They were far from the main road, and there was not another house in sight, although in the distance she could see the spire of a church poking out from the tops of the auburn trees.
“You know Sadie’s pregnant?”
“Oh?” Gene climbed the porch steps and peered through the remnants of a shattered window into an empty little side room.
“She’s due in April. I ran into her and Kevin yesterday at a yard sale. Caught them checking out the baby stuff.”
Gene opened the door. There was a stairway and a hallway leading to the kitchen. Every surface was coated in a layer of dark dust.
“Hello?” They waited for an answer, and Beth smiled faintly.
“I guess they’ve already flown south for the winter.”
He ran a calloused hand over the banister, leaving a fat trail in the dust.
“Oak. Beautiful. See, if we had a pickup, I could rip this sucker out and throw it up in our place.”
Tracing the big blue veins of his hand with her fingertips, she kissed him. He kissed back and squeezed her shoulder.
The air smelt like rotten cardboard. They turned the corner and could see that the downstairs living room still had a couch and a couple of chairs. Gene examined the chairs before grabbing one and lugging it to the porch.
“Needs to be reupholstered, but the frame’s in great shape.”
Beth took a tall, retro lamp from the living room, but on the first floor nothing else caught their interest. He lit a cigarette and headed up the stairs. She waited until he was up in case the stairs were unable to support their combined weight. He went off somewhere to the right. When she made it to the top, she went left to a small room at the end of the hallway.
The room was full of ebbing sunlight, and a mobile hung from the ceiling. She gazed out of the window at their car below and the path they had driven across the field. She could see all the way to where the forest began and across the field to the dirt road they had taken. They were definitely alone. She spun the mobile, smiling as its tiny mirrors tossed amber light about the empty walls of the room.
“Hey, check this out!”
She followed Gene’s voice to a room at the other end of the creaking hallway and found him sitting in a tattered recliner, facing an ancient television set with a dark, wooden case.
“Do you think it still works?”
She smirked at him as he stood up. “Do you really want to carry it all the way home just to find out it doesn’t?”
His eyes turned upwards, and he clicked his tongue in his mouth. “Well, we could always turn it into a planter. Or a terrarium. Here.” He kneeled down to unplug it. “Can you give me a hand?”
Beth laughed. “Seriously? Even if it works, you’re not going to be able to hook anything up to it.”
“There’s always a way. Come on—you want me to throw my back out on the stairs?”
“It might keep you from bringing home more junk.” But she was already crouching. She grabbed hold and hoisted the TV up with him. They inched carefully down the stairs and out the front door. As Beth was repositioning her hands, a bright streak of pain struck through her, and she whipped her finger up as her end of the TV slammed down to the floor of the porch, Gene’s end quickly following. They both cursed. She squeezed her finger until the tip turned purple.
“What the hell was that about?”
“I cut myself!” she snapped at him. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
He looked down at the TV before mumbling, “Sorry. Let me see.”
“It’s okay, really. But there’s no sense in bringing this thing home now.” She kicked the side of the TV with her sneaker.
“Eh, I’m sure it’s seen worse. But I can get it to the car myself.”
“Yeah, you can.”
“Listen, I’m sorry. I’ll make you dinner when we get back and you can relax. Lamb chops, potatoes and asparagus?”
The sun was halfway below the autumn trees, and drowned their colors in a backlit silhouette. Beth scratched at Gene’s chest through his flannel shirt. He messed up her hair, so she gently punched his shoulder.
“It’s getting dark. Why don’t we just check out the cellar and head back home?”
He nodded and took a deep breath. They found the door to the cellar in the kitchen and headed down the wobbling wooden steps, again one at a time. Small windows at the top of the cellar walls let in some of the remaining daylight. Beside an old oil furnace were stacks of tiles, wood, and bricks and a pile of rusty bicycle wheels. Cluttered, steel shelves lined the other side of the room. He rummaged through the coffee cans and plastic trays and rotting cardboard boxes on the shelves while she picked through the tiles, which were all hideous.
“Anything worthwhile?” she asked.
Gene was staring into a box and standing still. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” He closed the box and turned to her. Even in the dimness, she could see his face was pale, and she went to him and pulled open the flaps of the box. Without trying to stop her, he dragged his palm across his face like a sleepy child. Inside the box were rifle rounds.
“It’s just this cellar and . . .”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”
He waved away her words.
“No, I should. There’s still a lot I didn’t tell you.”
He folded his arms and braced them with a stiff grip. She didn’t try to touch him while he spoke.
“It was in a cellar that we found them. The shopkeeper and his whole family.” He shook his head. “Just for selling us food when we were clearing their neighborhood after the shelling.”
“I’m so sorry. You got to know them while you were stationed there?”
“Not really. Just a few days, and then the insurgents . . . did that to them. But I didn’t tell you what happened after that.” His eyes made fleeting contact with hers. “One of our guys said he thought he knew who ratted them out—a doctor. Apparently the shopkeeper told our guy that this loyalist doctor was giving him a hard time and was threatening to tell everyone they were feeding us.”
She waited for him to continue, even as she started to feel queasy.
“The next day we took the Caiman through the neighborhood. I was driving. No one was out in the streets. It was overcast, but still hot as hell. I had to keep wiping my sweat off the steering wheel. I drove up to this doctor’s office, and they got out of the back and ran inside. One of them yelled to me that it would only take five minutes. I checked my watch. We had fifteen until we had to check in. Then I heard them smashing the glass and the furniture and everything and the guy screaming at them, at first in Arabic, but then he switched to English. He had a British accent—kind of sounded like Jeremy Irons, and he just kept asking why are you doing this why why why, what did I do. And then I heard the shot.”
It felt like the floor of the cellar floor was slightly tilting to one side, and Beth moved her foot a couple of inches to steady herself.
“They came back out, and we drove away. I never said a word about it to anyone.”
She was quiet and let him gather his thoughts, as she swallowed down the hot gas that was trying to escape from her stomach.
“I still don’t know . . . none of us really knew. It was all based on hearsay.” His eyes settled on her and he let his arms fall. She tried to touch him, but he moved away and shook his head. Words and phrases bubbled up from inside her. She let them all float upward and fade.
“I feel like I don’t deserve anything I have after what we did.”
His face shuddered. She shook her head and held him. Without talking, they stood pressed against each other until minutes later, when Beth felt him suddenly go rigid in her arms.
“Did you . . .”
She did. She also heard a car door close and saw the light in the room chopped up by someone crossing in front of the windows. Shoes shuffled up the steps and stopped on the porch right outside the door. She realized they had left it wide open.
It was a man’s voice. Gene put a finger to his lips, moved toward the stairs and called back, “Hey! I’m here in the cellar.”
Beth shook both her hands at him and mouthed what the hell are you doing. With wide eyes, he gestured for her to stay put and began to hike up the stairs. What he was doing made more sense, she knew, than trying to hide somewhere. Their car was right out front, and if it was a neighbor or the owner of the property, they had to try to keep him from calling the police. If he hadn’t already. None of this stopped a gaping sensation from forming in her stomach as she heard the footsteps enter the house and slowly pass through the hallway.
“This is the police. I want you to come out slowly, alright?”
“Yes, sir. I’m not armed, nor am I dangerous, I promise.” He grinned down at her.
“Just keep coming slowly, and we won’t have any problems here.”
“Absolutely.” He continued upwards, waving goodbye to Beth as the stairs squealed under his weight and the footsteps overhead came closer. He put his hands on his head, as he reached the top and turned the corner. The cop’s footsteps stopped right above her. She breathed silently through her mouth and listened.
“You here alone?”
She rolled her eyes. What if he checked the cellar? What if he caught him lying? Gene was going to be arrested. There was no talking his way out of this, with the TV and furniture sitting on the porch. And if the cop had already called a tow truck, she was going to be stuck there alone. She saw herself walking along the dirt road in the night, and thought about how long it would take her to get to town. She took in air to yell, he’s not alone, but a more forceful image silenced her—sitting in the office at the preschool trying to explain her arrest to a gang of hollow-faced administrators shaking their heads and pointing to the door. They were two counties away, but someone would find out.
“What are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry officer, could you just let me know if I’m free to go?”
She allowed herself a grin. Know your rights 101.
“Alright, buddy. You want to talk down at the station instead of right here right now? That’s up to you, but you’re under arrest for criminal trespassing.”
A felony charge. If she also got caught, she wouldn’t only lose her job. She would never teach again.
“I understand, officer.”
They walked through the hallway, out onto the porch and their feet scuffed down the steps. Before they passed the windows, she hid behind the cellar steps in case he should peek inside and listened for the police car’s doors opening and closing. If the sound only came once, she would have to find a better hiding place because he might come back inside to search the house. She scanned the cellar, which was growing darker by the minute, without seeing any place that would better conceal her. It was doubtful that she could make it up the stairs and find another hiding place before he came back in.
A second car door opened and closed, and after a moment, she felt her muscles ease up at the sound of wheels growling over the dirt. She dashed upstairs and watched from the corner of a window in the living room as the police cruiser drove off through the field, yellow grain flickering under the headlights in the early dusk. The police car turned out onto the dirt road and vanished through the trees.
She ran to her car, and when she thought the cruiser was far enough ahead, she pulled out onto the dirt road and turned on her headlights. Driving at an inconspicuous speed through the forest to the paved road that wound its way up the hill, it took her about fifteen minutes to reach the stop sign at the top.
With her foot on the brake, she stitched together a plan and a story. She would have to park down the street from the station, for sure. She could dip into their emergency savings to bail him out, and her sister might know a lawyer who could try to get him probation and community service. Better yet, get the charges dropped down to simple trespassing. It would be, what, a $90 ticket? No big deal.
Sighing, she looked to the right, down the darkened road that led into the center of the town, where she imagined the police station would be, and then to the left, in the direction of the highway onramp about seven miles away that would take her back home. Her sneaker eased up from the brake pedal, and the car rolled back a foot before she gave it gas. It was going to be okay. But as she passed the stop sign and felt herself glancing to the left one more time, a painful tightness seized her chest—like she was trapped under a slab of concrete.