Illustration: “Green Stripes” © 2005 by Romeo Esparrago
The real estate agent’s car crunched to halt in the gravel at the curb. Maria twisted around to face the backseat. Her hair — an intricate weave of curls and swirls, all carefully sprayed into an immovable shape — bobbed as she spoke.
“This is it, dear. Listen, I know the house needs a little TLC –’’ she started.
“I like it,” said Ray. His voice was high, almost squeaky. He frowned for a moment, as if unhappy with his own voice. “I do. There’s something about it.” He examined the house closely with pale-blue eyes that blinked nervously from behind thick frames. He was reed-thin and not very tall, with hair so sparse it was almost transparent. He was gray and nondescript, easy to overlook in a crowd.
“Seriously? You like it?” blurted Maria, who immediately wanted to kick herself for opening her mouth. She regarded the house with distaste. She thought it was creepy. Decades before, the house might have been an impressive sight. It was large and well proportioned, with graceful Greek columns supporting the porch. Not anymore. Now, it was a wreck. It had clearly been abandoned for years. Strips of paint curled from the clapboard. A front window was smashed. Roof shingles lay scattered around the ragged lawn like gray poker chips.
“It feels like… home,” muttered Ray. He couldn’t say why he felt that way, but it was true. It was as if the house was reaching out to him before he had set a foot inside. Beside Ray sat beside his daughter, Barbara, a girl of 12 or 13, who had straight black hair. Joan, who was Ray’s wife, sat on the other side of the girl. She was a heavyset woman with sad eyes.
“Don’t you like it, Barbara?” he whispered to the girl. “Don’t you think we could make something out of this?” He kissed the top of the girl’s head and rubbed her back slowly. The girl stared blankly straight ahead. Joan sat still, as if an invisible wall separated her from her daughter and husband.
The real estate agent turned away uneasily. Ray was a weirdo. But she pushed doubts out of her mind. In her business, she couldn’t afford to wonder too much about clients. If he wanted the house, she’d make the sale.
Ray strode down the sidewalk toward the house. Maria scrambled to keep up, panting slightly in the heat.
“I know it needs …” she paused, scrabbling in her purse for the key. “Ah, here it is! Some work. A little bit. Well, more than a little bit, actually.” Key poked in door, door swung open. “But it has an interesting history.”
“Interesting?” said Ray. He stepped over shattered ceiling plaster that had fallen to the floor of the front hallway.
“It belonged to a famous inventor, forty or fifty years ago. Mr. Bartholomew. He created all sorts of stuff for car companies. I hear his name is still on a bunch of patents.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Ray said. He blinked at Maria. “Do you know what I do for a living?”
She shook her head.
“I’m an inventor, too. Electronics.”
Maria was delighted. “Really? Would you like to see Mr. Bartholomew’s workshop.”
“It still exists?”
“Oh yes, in the cellar. He had it all specially modified for his equipment. It’s a remarkable room. After he left, his wife didn’t change a thing. His wife owned it until she died in the nursing home.”
“His widow, you mean.”
Ray blinked nonstop when he saw the cellar. It was perfect for his work.
“This Batholomew knew what he was doing,” muttered Ray. Like the rest of the house, the workroom was a decrepit mess. Ancient electrical cords trailed to the floor from the ceiling. Mouse turds were everywhere. But the room was perfect. It was spacious, with high ceilings. Three large oak tables stood in a row, draped with white cloth. The machinery underneath puffed the cloth up in odd humps.
He paused after taking a few steps.
“I’m walking uphill. The floor’s not level,” he said.
Maria nodded. “Not uncommon in a house of this era or the neighborhood. Cellars flood in the spring because of the high water table. See how the floor slants toward the sump pump in the corner? Helps keep the cellar dry.”
Ray lifted the corner of a cloth and peered at the grimy, squat piece of machinery underneath.
“I’ll buy it,” he said.
Maria was pleased but dubious. “You haven’t seen the upstairs.”
He shrugged. “That’s my wife’s end. Let the bitch worry about it. Who’s the seller? The widow’s estate?”
Maria hesitated. “The wife’s estate.”
Ray was surprised. “Mr. Bartholomew is still alive?”
“I doubt it. He’d be well over 100 years old,” Maria said, watching Ray carefully. “But he’s been out of the picture for decades. You see, Mr. Bartholomew left his wife. He abandoned her. He was quite a womanizer. The story is that he ran away to Cuba with his young lover. That’s where she was from. They ran a casino down there, I heard. He was quite the handsome man. He was big, more than six-feet tall and a tremendous athlete,” She paused to scrutinize Ray. Unlike you, you scrawny dweeb, she thought. “Anyways, he was never officially listed as dead, so she never officially became a widow.”
Ray laughed. “So Bartholomew dumped his old cow of a wife for a hot young thing? We really are alike. I’d like to do the same thing, to tell you the truth. Marriage to that woman is like being chained to an anchor.”
Maria wobbled uneasily on her heels. The man was too much. All right, Ray’s wife was overweight and dowdy, but she was also sweet and unpretentious. Unlike him. “I’ll set up the sale as quickly as I can,” she said.
Ray wasn’t listening. He was staring at the cellar, already working out how he would lay out his own equipment.
* * *
Ray transformed the cellar over the next few months. The basic layout stayed the same — Ray even kept the three tables. But everything else was different. Fluorescents lined the ceiling, casting a cold white glow. Power cables snaked everywhere. A half-dozen flat-screen monitors lay scattered across the tables.
Ray kept a few of Bartholomew’s smaller electrical machines tools for sentimental reasons. It made him feel close to the old inventor in an odd way. For his own amusement, Ray even oiled up some pieces so they clanked and whirred. A few other odds and ends survived the trash heap as well. He kept a glass jar filled with an assortment of hand-made brass screws beside his computer. They were beautifully fashioned, probably by Bartholomew himself for a special project.
One day, stuck on a particularly nagging problem, Ray tilted the jar and poured a few of the screws into his hand. He held one up to the light. The craftsmanship was fantastic, he thought. So much work for such a small item. Ray suddenly felt dizzy, out of sorts. He closed his eyes. His world began to spin, to twist….
When he opened them, his world was gone. He stood in Bartholomew’s shoes, literally. Bartholomew — Ray? — held the screw up to the light. The newly cut brass gleamed.
“Perfect,” Bartholomew said in a deep baritone. “The screw — my work — it’s absolutely perfect. As usual.” Ray’s cellar was gone — it was Bartholomew’s now, as it must have appeared decades before. The tables and machinery were spotless. Ray’s mind almost shrieked with pleasure; his new body was tall and strong. If he could catch a glimpse in a mirror, he knew Bartholomew’s face would be as handsome as a movie star’s.
“Perfect like me?” said a laughing voice.
Bartholomew — or was it Ray? — turned toward the beautiful, petite woman in the tight, red dress sitting on a stool.
“No, I take it all back,” Bartholomew rumbled. (No more squeaky voice!, marveled Ray.) The woman’s face twisted into a playful pout. “You’re perfect. Forget the screws. They’re nothing compared to you. And especially not compared to that bitch of a wife.” He pointed a well-manicured hand toward the ceiling.
Dark eyes gleaming, the woman swayed over to him and reached her hands around his hips.
“Then perfection will be all yours, as soon as that ship leaves the dock tomorrow, won’t I?” she whispered.
“Mine,” Bartholomew whispered back, as her hungry lips pulled close. He heard a creak of foot on the stairs. Angry at being disturbed, he twisted toward the sound…
…“Ray!” shouted his wife, Joan. Ray knew, coming out his daze, she had been shouting for a while. “Ray! What’s wrong? Are you awake down there? There’s someone here to see you.”
Ray staggered sideways and almost fell. But he didn’t drop the jar of screws. Oh no, he didn’t lose his passageway into that distant world. He held tight to the jar.
“What?” he said softly, eyes blinking furiously. Then, sharply, “What do you want? You know never to bother me when I’m working.” He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool top of the table. He almost cried. What had that stupid bitch of a wife interrupted? He had been so close, he knew, so close to becoming Bartholomew. A few seconds more, a minute at most, and he would have been gone from here, back more than a half century, where he would have escaped from here and his wife forever.
“I think he’s a police officer,” said his wife.
“Police?” said Ray. His voice squeaked.
“Police.” Joan lingered over the word, let it roll from her lips with almost a sibilant hiss, as if she took special pleasure in saying it and seeing him recoil. Her eyes gleamed.
Detective Lennon was balding, overweight, and twice Ray’s age. He spoke slowly and smiled shyly, almost apologetically, as if he wasn’t that bright, and knew it, and was embarrassed about it. It almost made a suspect feel bad for him. But his half-closed eyes had a hard way of watching that made you wonder if could see around corners.
Ray and Lennon shook hands and sat in opposite chairs in the living room. Joan and Barbara sat on the couch between the two men. The two females stared off into space, as if the two men were not there.
Be careful, thought Ray. He decided to turn on the charm, which he had in abundance, when he cared to use it. Just like Bartholomew, he realized with a sudden insight, and a pang, too, because he could be gone now, lost in that far distant, better world, if it weren’t for his foolish wife.
“You’ve moved around quite a bit,” chuckled Detective Lennon, in his slow way. “You’re hard to keep up with. Buy a house, sell it six months later. Rent, then move after three months.” Grinning, he shook his head as he flipped through sheets of paper.
“You know how it is,” said Ray. “We’ve been looking for the perfect community, the perfect house. And I think we’ve found both. Haven’t we, honey?” His wife Joan nodded slightly. Eyes downcast, she didn’t look at Lennon. Barbara sat still as a stone, a sullen look on her face.
“A lovely family, you have here Ray,” said Lennon. “You’re daughter is a real cutie. How do you like your new school, Barbara? Like it okay? Kids treating you all right?”
Barbara shrugged and leaned away from the detective.
“Anyway, Ray, I’m sorry to bother you. But there were some questions that kept popping up at these other schools Barbara attended. Nothing, I’m sure. But you know those school bureaucrats. A kid moves from school, and the school principal sends out a note, and two, three months later, it finally lands at the new school.”
“What kinds of questions, Detective?”
“Well, I’m not sure exactly,” said Lennon. “Reports are still trickling in. It seems as if — and again, the reports are incomplete — that Barbara has acted up occasionally. As if she might be having problems. Have you noticed any problems with your daughter, Ray?” Lennon smiled, but his eyes were icy.
“Problems?” said Ray. He tried to keep his voice from quavering. “Ridiculous. Barbara, you’re not having any problems at home, are you?”
Barbara glanced briefly at her father, then at her open palms. She didn’t answer for a moment. Time froze for Ray. He watched his daughter in silent agony. Barbara finally shook her head, no, and Ray sighed with relief. Ray wanted his daughter to say more, to explain things to the detective. Problems? What problems? What a perfectly ridiculous idea!, he wanted her to say. But she said nothing.
The detective shrugged slightly, as if he had never expected Barbara to really answer, even if he had hoped she would. Lennon’s hooded eyes flickered as he turned to Ray.
“Ray, I’m just a little curious. Who mentioned problems at home, Ray? Not me, I’m sure.”
“You said…” Ray started. He flushed. He plucked his glasses off his nose and wiped the lenses clean. His hands shook slightly. “Listen, you just heard what my daughter said. There’s nothing wrong. Nothing wrong at all.”
“Sure, sure,” said Lennon, hands up, all apologies and with a Hey-I’m-just-doing-my-job-attitude. But his eyes were cold. “Listen, Ray, you’re not going anyplace for the next day or two, are you? Until we get all the reports in from these school districts?” The detective talked in the same soft conversational tone, but the atmosphere in the room had changed subtly. Ray knew the detective had silently weighed factors only he could see and had made a decision. Ray was in Lennon’s sights. Ray was a hunted man.
“No place,” Ray said, his voice almost a whisper. “No place except the cellar.”
“Good!” said Lennon brightly. “We’ll soon have this whole matter cleaned up.” And he was gone.
Ray stared out at the window at the disappearing car of the detective. Lennon would be back, Ray knew. That kind, they always came back. Like a dog with his teeth in a bone, Lennon would be impossible to shake. The detective clearly wasn’t as stupid as the others.
Ray was startled to realize his wife still sat on the couch opposite him. She stared at him steadily and with a hint of defiance.
“What do you want?” he snapped. “Don’t you have a dinner to cook? A floor to clean?”
She left without a word, as he knew she would. She didn’t dare talk back. She knew what happened to women who spoke back to their men. He’d taught her good. But her shoulders held a defiant set that hadn’t existed before.
Ray knew where he had to go. The cellar. He could escape there, escape into the past, where Bartholomew’s spirit still lingered. Ray desperately wanted to disappear into a place where his body was strong and handsome, his girlfriend was beautiful, and he could live in a legendary Cuba dripping with casinos and money. There, he could escape the threat of the present. Forever.
Walking down to the cellar, he carefully gripped the hand-rail, afraid his shaking legs would betray him. Wouldn’t that be the end all of all end alls? If he slipped and fell? Broke his neck and died, right at the bottom of the stairs. He choked down a laugh, afraid he’d hear a madman’s ravings.
The jar of screws sat right where he’d left it, beside his computer. He poured a handful of screws into his hand. He squeezed them tight, willing Bartholomew to come back. For a minute nothing happened, and he almost screamed, afraid that the magic had dissipated like fog before the hot morning sun.
Then, to his relief, the dizziness returned. His world twisted inside out. And suddenly Bartholomew was back, and so was Ray. The women in the red dress walked toward him, her hips swimming sexily inside her dress.
“Mine,” he whispered, pulling the woman close. He heard the creak of a foot on the stairs and thought wildly, it was his wife, back to screw it all up for him again. But when he looked, it was with Bartholomew’s face and the thick legs clumping down the stairs belonged to a woman he had never seen before. It was Bartholomew’s wife, Ray realized. Tears streaked the woman’s care-worn face.
“What do you want, foolish woman?” rumbled Bartholomew. (How Ray gloried in those deep tones! How he had hated his own voice!) “This is where I work! I told you never to come down here.” The frightened women in red scuttled behind him.
“I put up with your women all these years,” cried the wife. “I knew I wasn’t as pretty as they were and that you married me for my father’s money, so you could make your inventions. But I thought you’d learn to love me. That you’d never leave me. But I heard you, Bartholomew. Oh yes I did. I heard what you told your whore. You’re leaving on the ship tomorrow, aren’t you? You and the whore, yes, that’s right, isn’t it?” She spoke the last so softly it wasn’t clear if she were speaking to Bartholomew or herself.
“Go upstairs, woman, and make supper,” barked Bartholomew. But the woman with the sad eyes and gray hair shook her head.
“Not tonight, Bart. Not for you.” Her hand came out from behind her back. She pointed a small black pistol straight at Bartholomew’s chest.
“No! You can’t!” shouted the man. But she could and she did. She fired only twice; she was a good shot.
Later, digging the hole in the cellar, she wondered at Bartholomew’s last plea. Not at what the bastard had said, but at his voice. She had never heard it squeak like that before. She finally decided it must’ve been nerves. Who wouldn’t be nervous in the last few seconds of their life?
She pushed it out of her mind. She had other things to worry about. For instance, did she have enough concrete to do the entire cellar floor? If she didn’t, the floor might not be even.
* * *
“Your friend flew the coop, I hear,” said the man lounging in the office chair.
“Who’s that?” said Maria absently. Her massive hairdo of sculptured hair bounced up and down as she flipped through a stack of paperwork.
“The guy who bought the old Bartholomew place, that’s who. As if you didn’t know,” said the man. He leaned back and watched a spider cross the ceiling. “I heard the cops were closing in on him. For something or other. He took off, apparently. The wife and the daughter are sticking around. They’re doing okay. The wife told the police she had no idea where the louse went.”
Maria frowned. “Ray was a weird one, I will say. Now where did I put that file?”
“A weird one for a weird house,” agreed the man. “Which story did you tell the family? That he took off for Cuba?”
Maria’s frown deepened. “What other story would there be?” She turned away from the man, who waggled his finger at her.
“As if you don’t know. You were the one who told me other story, Maria. About the rumor that Bartholomew’s wife killed the old man and his mistress and buried them in the cellar. I bet you told the buyers the floor was slanted to help drain the water, too.”
She paused to frown at the man.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that horrible story in my life. Now where is that file?” *
About the Author: Matthew S. Carroll lives in Boston with a wife, four kids, one brainless cat, and piles of newspapers. There’s nothing he likes better than reading a great SF novel while sitting on the couch and watching the Red Sox go down in yet another late-inning defeat.
(c) 2005 Matthew S. Carroll firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago was created by alien children as a summer-camp project. Grade: A+.
(c) 2005 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com