This story is by Evelyn Puerto and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I spun around, looking to see who’d opened the door. “Isabel, stop it,” I told myself. It was just the vagaries of my old house. Every time the heat turned on, there was a thump and the sound of a door opening. The house scared me. Especially when I was rooting around in our windowless, dimly lit basement storage area.
I brushed my curling dark hair back from my face. I was glad this was my last night in this old house. The movers were coming tomorrow, to pack up everything and take it twelve hundred miles away to Miami. I was working late, packing up the things I wanted to take care of myself. Like my jewelry, and important papers.
I turned my attention back to the files spread in front of me. Old electric bills. Into the shredder with them. My husband, Mike had already moved to Miami, starting his job two months ago. I stayed behind to sell the house. That task accomplished, I was ready to go. A niggling sense of resentment pricked my soul. Somehow Mike avoided all the tedious parts of moving.
“Stop it.” I spoke the words out loud. It wasn’t his fault all this happened so fast. Old bank statements disappeared into the shredder, and with them, I hoped, my resentment. He’d be home soon. He promised to deal with all the old papers in the basement. I had decided to surprise him by starting the job.
I reached for another file folder. A smile spread across my face. My letters to Mike, written the year before we married. I hadn’t known he’d kept them. A few pictures of us hiking out west, sailing in Florida. We clung to each other in the pictures, as if we couldn’t bear to have even a millimeter of distance between us. Even five years into our marriage, it was still the same way. I put the file back in the drawer. This stuff was all keepers.
A glance at the clock told me I had about two hours before Mike arrived. I pulled out another folder. Our marriage certificate. I still couldn’t believe I’d married the guy voted most likely to succeed when we were in high school. He’d married one of the popular girls. I went to college and became an accountant.
We lost touch over the years. He married twice, both wives deceased. We bumped into each other at a class reunion. Our connection was instant. He vowed we’d have the perfect life together.
Only it wasn’t. Tension was building between us. Then one night we were driving home, and Mike lost control of the car on an icy road. I woke up four days later in the ICU. A year of therapy later, I’d recovered from most of my injuries. But I couldn’t remember why we’d been having problems before the accident. And sometimes I couldn’t remember words.
I pulled out the file drawer to see if there was anything in the back and jostled the cabinet. A stack of papers slid off the top and fell behind the cabinet.
Rats. I stood up and tried to retrieve the papers. The wood edge of the cabinet dug into my hand. Not enough space. I shifted the cabinet so I could reach behind.
I reached for the papers, wrinkling my nose at the musty smell. Then I saw it. A little panel in the wall I’d never seen before.
I ran my fingers around the sides of the panel. No way to open it. I bit my lip. Mike always told me to approach problems logically. I bit my lip. I can pry it open.
That would mean I would need a tool. I could picture it in my mind, long and thin with a handle on one end and a flattened end on the other. Whatever it was called, it would be in Mike’s toolbox. I climbed to my feet, knees creaking, and picked up damaged file folders and three broken picture frames. After dumping the trash, I hunted for the long flat edged tool.
A few minutes of searching and success was mine. I held up the tool like a trophy. Then I grabbed a flashlight. I didn’t want to stick my hand into a spider’s web.
This was the most fun I’d had in a week. Kind of like solving a mystery. I inserted the flat edge of the tool into the crack between the panel and the wall and pulled. It shifted slightly. I tried in another spot. Again, a tiny bit of movement.
The ceiling above me creaked. It always did that when the wind blew. One reason I’d be glad to move. That and the fact that Mike had lived here with his second wife. I always felt like part of her had never left.
I wiped the sweat off my face and continued working my way around the panel. Twenty minutes later, I pulled it back. Now for the scary part. Would I find some brown recluse spiders dwelling among the pipes?
I put down the tool. What was it called? A hammer? That didn’t seem right. Didn’t matter. I was done with it. I picked up the flashlight. At least I could remember what that was called. A window rattled. The wind was strong tonight. I hoped it wouldn’t hold up Mike’s flight.
Switching on the light, I peered into the two-foot square hole. Seeing no spiders or their webs, I leaned in closer. All I could see were two shoeboxes, one stacked on top of the other.
I had to laugh at myself. Probably someone’s old shoes. I gave myself a minute to imagine what they’d be. Saddle shoes from the fifties? Or, more likely, dyed bridesmaid’s shoes in some horrible color someone wanted to forget. I reached for the first box and opened it.
At first, I didn’t know what it was. Then I looked again. It was filled with locks of hair, all colors and textures. Each one bound with a rubber band.
Puzzled, I pulled out the second box. My jaw dropped when I saw the contents. On the top of a pile of newspaper clippings and other papers, staring up at me was a photo of Mike’s second wife, Juanita. The model-thin sultry brunette with enormous green eyes. She was the kind of woman every man would want. Not a mousy girl like me.
I dug into the box, anticipating that every paper would be like a knife stabbing at me. Did Mike regret having married me? Did he still love Juanita? Stop it, Isabel.
Under the photo were news reports of her death by drowning after her car slid off the road into an icy lake. Then her driver’s license. Under that, a photo of Claire, Mike’s first wife. And news reports of her death, when her car slid off an icy road over a cliff.
How odd. They both died in car accidents. Mike got lucky with me, I came out of my accident with just a few, what do they call them, red lines on my arms and back, and missing the ability to remember words.
There were more papers in the box. I wasn’t sure I wanted to look. But some masochistic impulse made me dig deeper. More news accounts from the last thirty or so years. Girls who’d gone missing. Some were found, raped, dead and tortured. The ones who had been found all had a lock of hair cut from their heads. Only a monster would do that to someone.
My hands started to shake. I turned back to the first box. What did they call people who did this, who killed a lot of people? I couldn’t remember the word. How did this hair get here, in this secret closet behind the closet? Who would have hidden these boxes?
I closed my eyes. All the news reports were under the reports of Mike’s wives’ deaths. I swallowed, feeling the hamburger I’d eaten for dinner trying to force its way out of my mouth. Sweat beaded on my forehead and I saw dark spots before my eyes.
I don’t know how long I sat on the floor, my head against the cold block wall of the basement. I looked through the papers in the box again. Juanita died just after one of the victims, just as police thought they were closing in on the killer. Then the trail went cold. Did she die because she discovered Mike’s secret?
Numbly I reached for my phone. I had to call someone before Mike returned. If only I could think of the word for what I thought he’d done. I tapped the phone against my lips, trying to remember.
There was the sound of a door opening and a thump above me. My heart started to race. “Isabel. I’m home.”