Standing partially in the empty street, enjoying the silence and temporary solitude of the early morning, Conni looked up one side of the house, and down the other, as though painting it with her eyes. The flat cement porch, wood shuttered windows, and partially peeling teal paint of the place were all hers. Or soon to be hers. All she had to do was sign some papers and hand over every cent she has, which she was headed to do shortly.
The sun was beginning to brush off the shadows of the house she was still staring at, and now it came fully into view. A beam of light hit the small attic window at the peak and she squinted. Pulling her cell phone out of her back pocket to check the time, it took her eyes a few seconds to adjust before she could make out the numbers. 7AM. Her appointment at the title company was at 8AM, but with morning traffic she'd have just enough time to get another cup of coffee and then head over. She left her car parked in front of the house and started walking to the little cafe that was, to her delight, just a few blocks away. Things like that seem extra exciting when you move into a new place. As she walked she daydreamed about becoming a regular there. She smiled thinking of one of the cool, young baristas seeing her come in some day, having memorized her order. Coffee held out. Smiling. "Hi, Conni! Got it all ready for ya!"
At the corner she turned around to take one last look at the house. Her last view of it as a stranger. Pre-owner. The sun was reflecting even brighter off of the attic window now. The house was awake. Everyone was awake.
By 8:45AM the deed was done, literally, and after shaking hands with her realtor, the mortgage people, and the seller's realtor, Conni sat in her car in the parking lot of the title company, taking a breather, and organizing her paperwork. She'd hoped to meet the seller of the house, but she hadn't been there for the closing. She'd wanted to ask her realtor why, but didn't want to seem nosey. She figured it was less important for the seller to be there in person than it was for the buyer. Still, she had noticed that the seller's agent, a mid-40s blonde named Linda, looked a bit flustered at times, during the short while they sat across from each other in the office. When the title company's admin brought in coffee for everyone (not like Conni needed a third cup at that point, but she drank it anyway) she noticed that Linda's hand shook when she reached out to take it. Her foot would also periodically tap on the room's hard floors, as though she was anxious to get out of there. Conni herself had been excited to wrap things up and get the months long ordeal finalized, so she couldn't really blame her. But still, the image of the woman's shaking hand stuck in her mind.
Re-focusing on the folder of paperwork she had propped up on the steering wheel, she took everything out and organized it into sections. Deed (sold "AS IS"), mortgage details, and anything else along those lines that was super important went into the right flap of the folder. Smaller details like the transfer of water and sanitation, the final walkthrough breakdown, and info on how to transfer over the ADT security system account went in the left side. The neighborhood the house was in was a nice one. Quiet. Mostly young families. But since it would be just her and her 15-year-old cat, Baby, living there - she felt comforted by the fact that the house was already set up with ADT. She used her phone to email herself a reminder to get that all switched over tomorrow morning, and then put the folder of documents on the passenger seat. She had planned to go straight back to the new house after the signing, and maybe start on painting some of the rooms, but she was wiped out. What is it about the exchange of huge sums of money that just really makes you want a nice long nap? As soon as she thought the word "nap," she knew that's what the rest of her morning looked like. Napping. And then maybe lunch, followed by more napping. She'd hit it again bright and early tomorrow. Her first full day as a new homeowner. She could hardly believe it. While on one hand she was heavy in the heart, knowing that had her father not passed away and named her as the beneficiary for his life insurance, she would have never in her lifetime been able to afford a house, part of her felt what could only be described as pure pride. And joy.
"I wish you were here, dad," Conni said out loud, starting up the car. "Thank you for this house. Thank you for everything."
She stopped, feeling her eyes well up and not wanting to cry on what should really be one of the happiest days of her life. Even though she'd essentially just bought a house with money that her dad had to die for, she knew that she'd fill the place with love, and that his memory, his spirit, would live there with her, and that she'd never feel alone, knowing that he was watching over her.
Conni had indeed napped for hours once she made it home after the closing, and still went to bed early. Luxuriating in the rest. At some point, in the early hours of the morning, she was awoken by Baby jumping up on her pillow, pawing at her head.
"Breakfast already?" Conni said through a yawn to the cat, both of them arching into a big stretch. "Alright, let's get it."
Rolling herself out of bed and picking her pajama pants off the floor, where she'd lazily chucked them the night before, she got herself situated and then picked up the cat for his morning kiss. She often wondered if she'd tone down the affection towards her cat, or feel somewhat embarrassed by it, if she ever got married and there was another human living there, but she doubted it. Baby was her longest relationship. Her oldest friend. Even if she had a real baby someday which, now that she was nearing her mid-40s, didn't seem likely, he would always be her favorite. She held his fuzzy face close to hers, loving his stinky breath, a cross between old socks and tuna, and gave him a kiss directly on his rubbery black lips.
"Come on. Let's feed you. Last breakfast in the old house!"
Baby padded after her into the kitchen where she filled his food bowl with dry food more expensive than anything she currently had for herself in the fridge, and mixed in a spoonful of wet. She sat it down on his special mat. Red and blue plastic with the words "good kitty" in bubble letters. Then she filled his water bowl with fresh filtered water and watched him enjoy his morning feast.
"You're a spoiled big butt. You know that right?"
Baby purred in response.
Shuffling aside a heap of boxes with her foot so she could sit at the table with her own breakfast, coffee and a granola bar, she took a few sips, letting herself wake up a bit more, and then pulled the folder of house paperwork towards her, fishing out the ADT form to call. An agent picked up on the second ring and said she could meet her at the new house later that morning to go over everything, make sure the equipment was in proper working order, and get the account transferred over. Great. Done and done. Next she called to confirm that the movers were also coming that afternoon. All set. She'd be fully moved in and settled before she knew it.
Draining the last of her coffee in two big gulps, Conni got an image in her mind of a month from now, when all this busy work was behind her, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. God. It's gonna be so nice. But for now, there was much to be done. And a shower was next on the list.
When she pulled up to the new house, she was surprised to see Linda, the seller's realtor, sitting on the porch. She was staring at something in her lap, and she looked unwell, like she hadn't made it to bed the night before. Conni made an effort to smile and wave out the window, but she was mildly annoyed at the unexpected visit. There shouldn't be anything in the world left to sign, after all the numerous documents handled at the closing. Why was she there? Conni got out of the car and opened the trunk, yanking out the cans of paint (sage, and slate) that she'd brought, hoping she'd have some time to start painting, maybe finish a room or two, before the ADT lady showed up. She really hoped that Linda wouldn't take up too much of her time. She felt bad for thinking it, but less so after the realtor made no attempt to come over and help her juggle the paint cans. Rude.
Conni walked towards the house, and Linda, with two paint cans dangling in each hand, and a tarp and brush set under each arm. As she got closer she could see that recently, if not very recently, Linda had been crying.
"Hey, Linda!" Conni faked chipperness. "What brings you here today? Did I forget to sign something?"
Linda, eyes rimmed with red, didn't respond, but shot out an arm to hand her a sealed envelope. Her hand was shaking, again, and Conni noticed that her fingernails were very dirty, as though she'd just been planting potatoes.
"Here," Linda said, with no other greeting or explanation.
Conni set the paint materials down on the porch so she could take the envelope. It was thin. Maybe just a page inside. And there was nothing written on either side of it.
"What's this?" Conni asked. Now more curious than annoyed.
"It's from the owner," Linda said, standing up, quickly wiping off the back of her pants, and brushing past Conni who, unsure of what to do or say next, just watched her go. Finally, after an awkward beat or two, she called out "thank you!" to the woman's retreating back.
Unable to stand the suspense for one minute longer, Conni ripped open the envelope right there on the porch. As she'd suspected, there was just a single piece of notebook paper inside. Unfolding it, Conni saw but two words, written in neat cursive, what could be described as "woman's writing." It said: "I'm sorry."
Feeling a bit of relief, Conni took the message to be an awkward attempt to apologize for not being at the closing in person. She put the paper back in the envelope, folded it in two, and stuck it in her back pocket. Looking down the street before unlocking the door to go in, she saw Linda, stopped by the stop sign at the corner, watching her. Conni waved, thinking "odd woman" to herself, and then the two turned their backs to each other.
Still having a few hours before the ADT woman was set to arrive, Conni got to work painting what would be her new bedroom and soon forgot all about the strange interaction with Linda, and the note. She dumped sage paint, chosen for it's cheery, but not too cheeriness, into a tin pan from Home Depot, and got pleasure from the noise the thick fabric roller made when she moved it back and forth, soaking up the color. The teen who sold her the paint had assured it that it was less odorous than other brands, but it only took her a minute to realize that was clearly not the case. The room filled with the strong odor of paint fumes which, not the worse smell in the world, Conni knew weren't wise to spend any extended period of breathing in. She set down her roller and walked over to the window, struggling a bit to open it. The house had been on the market for a long time, and she couldn't imagine the last time the windows had been opened. The inspection, if you could call it that, basically consisted of a guy walking around, pulling on his belt, trying to impress her with tales of his backyard pot growing hobby. She can't remember him even looking at a window, let alone opening one. Conni put some force into it and gave it a wiggle. The window shot open and a strange alarm sounded out "OFFICE WINDOW, OPEN!"
She jumped, startled by the unfamiliar noise, and then laughed, remembering the appointment she was waiting for .. ADT. Jeez. Security systems were fancy these days. Not like she'd ever had one previously to compare it to.
Obviously her new bedroom had been used as an office by the previous owner. She'd have to ask ADT if there was a way to re-assign the, whatever they're officially called, security prompts or whatever.
Feeling the late winter breeze on her face, and able to breath a bit more safely, now that the paint fumes were airing out, Conni got back to work, lost in the task at hand until, what was an hour or two later, the front doorbell rang.
She had kind of hoped that, when rung, the doorbell would shout out "DOORBELL!!" But it was just a normal chime.
The ADT agent turned out to be a talkative, maybe lesbian, woman named Jan who spent about half an hour (easy breezy) switching over the account info, and walking Conni through the ins and outs of the security system. There were sensors on the front door, back door, and each window which would alert when opened. Conni told her the story of what happened when she opened the window while painting and Jan laughed, and then switched the "office" prompt to "bedroom," as requested. She had Conni set a new password used to arm and disarm the system, and watched as she tried it for herself on the keypad.
"ARMED! READY TO ARM!" The system called out.
"There you go," Jan said. "Safe as houses."
Conni walked Jan out, thanking her and taking her business card, should she have any problems with the system down the line. Opening the door to let her out it chimed "FRONT DOOR! OPEN!"
"You can turn those chimes off, if you want. Just hit *7 on the key pad," Jan said.
"I think I'll leave them on. They're funny," Conni said, watching the woman pull herself into a much too large for her company van.
"Nothing funny about safety, ma'am."
Back to her day's routine, Conni shut and locked the front door and remembered that she'd left the bedroom window open. Baby didn't do much climbing and jumping these days, but she still liked to be careful about leaving him alone around screens. Busting out of screened doors and windows was a favorite trick of his as a kitten and she'd had to coax him out from many a bush, and out from under many a car in his hellion days. She hoped today wasn't a resurgence of them.
Her stomach fluttered a bit as she double-timed it to the bedroom, but was quickly relieved to see the cat safe and sound, sleeping on the paint tarp, the tip of his tail lightly speckled sage.
Now was a good time for a break, she thought, looking down at the sleeping cat. I'll finish painting once the movers leave.
"FRONT DOOR! OPEN!"
"What the hell is that?" The mover asked, squeezing past Conni with one half of a couch at his waist.
"Jesus, Frank, it's the security system. Never had one?" The mover at the other end chided him.
"Oh, I got a security system all right," Frank shot back. "I call it Louisville Slugger."
Conni laughed along with them and directed them to just dump everything in the living room as the paint in the bedroom and guest room was still a bit wet.
As the movers synchronized lowering the couch down she noticed they were sweating. Winters were getting hotter and hotter. It seems bizarre to have a 75 degree day in February but ... global warming. It's real.
"Let me get you guys some glasses of water," Conni said. "And here, I'll open these windows."
"LIVING ROOM WINDOW, OPEN!"
"DINING ROOM WINDOW, OPEN!"
"Yeah, yeah. We get it," Frank grumbled. "Don't you get sick of these things?"
"Haven't had a chance to," Conni smiled back at him, handing over the water.
Having signed over what will, hopefully, be the last big check for at least a couple weeks, Conni tipped the movers and walked them out. They shared one last laugh at "FRONT DOOR! OPEN!" and then drove away, still giggling. Hopefully not about Conni's boobs. You never grow out of the fear of thinking that anytime a person's laughing, they're laughing at you.
Now almost dinner time, it had cooled down quite a bit. Conni shut the windows while mulling over whether or not to unpack a bit, or just set up the bed and call it a day. An early night and a nice glass of red wine sounded amazing. She'd go check on how dry the paint was in the bedroom, and let that decide.
Baby wasn't anywhere to be seen, but that wasn't unusual. He usually made a point of disappearing when strangers came around. Especially men.
Connie folded up the paint tarp with the paint caked rollers and pan inside, and then lightly touched a finger tip to the wall. Still tacky. Looks like she'll be camping out in the living room tonight. Wine time.
Conni's brow furrowed at the new alert. Basement? This house didn't have a basement.
"LIVING ROOM WINDOW! OPEN!"
Great. The ADT was already on the fritz. Just when she thought she was about to have a restful night. She'd call Jan and have her come back out. Maybe she'd offer her some wine. She chuckled thinking about it.
Walking out to the kitchen to grab Jan's card, still on the table, something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Was that floorboard always sticking up like that? How could she not have noticed that?
Conni walked over to inspect, hoping to be able to just pop the board back into place with minimal effort, and without having to write anybody another check, but when she bent down she heard something. Meowing.
"Baby?? Are you down there?" Conni called for him, through the crack in the floor, feeling strange, but not entirely alarmed, yet.
She heard the meowing again but this time, it sounded different. It sounded human. Like a non animal trying mimic an animal's noise.
Again, the strange meowing.
Conni put her eye flush against the crack in the floorboards and could make out something moving down there. She pried the board loose, exposing a full section of what was now, clearly, a sub-basement she was not told about, but it was pitch black down there and she couldn't see Baby, or anything at all.
"Oh, Baby. If you make me ruin these floors to go down there and fetch you there's gonna be hell to pay," Conni said to herself, pulling up another board, and then another, so she could drop down.
Now down in the mysterious basement (maybe she'd store Christmas stuff down here?) she stood still for a minute to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She was about to call out for the cat again when something brushed against her left shoulder. Turning, she could see the top of a head. She slowly moved her eyes down, they were met by another pair of eyes. Beautiful blue eyes. A child's eyes. Shining clearly back at Conni from an otherwise severely deformed face. Slack jawed, and drooling something dark from out of a mash of jumbled teeth, the child spoke.
Conni was breathless as she watched the child, smiling, hold out her arms with her cat slung across them. When Conni didn't return the smile, the child grew angry and flung the cat, mangled and bleeding, down at her feet.
All at once the note that Linda had given her made sense.
"I'm going to call your mother," Conni said. "Wait here."