“Momma, Momma! Look at all the ants!” the blond toddler shouted, as he crouched at the edge of the narrow driveway. He picked up a stick and poked the mound.
“Colter, don’t mess with those,” the beautiful, young mother warned. “They bite. You’ll get hurt.”
Taking hold of the toddler’s hand, she led him to the minivan and watched as he clambered up into his car seat. As soon as he settled, she buckled him in.
“Let’s go, Dex!” she called toward the house.
A young boy of roughly eight years, same blond hair as the mom and the toddler, dashed outside. Backpack dangling off one shoulder, sneakers untied, a half-eaten wedge of toast hanging from his mouth, he skidded to a halt beside his mother, then tossed his backpack inside. With a lighthearted grin, he vaulted into the van and fastened his seatbelt.
A nostalgic smile spread across Daniel’s face as he sat in an old, black Jeep, camouflaged by the vehicles that were parked along the charming, suburban street. Birds chirped in the trees while squirrels romped about, carrying nuts from one lawn to another. The delicate perfume of flowers wafted on the morning breeze.
Watching the pretty mom and her two, young children brought back a wave of recollections, of a life that now was nothing more than a dream. A time when he was the young dad leaving for work, his lovely wife accompanying him to his truck while his young son hopped about at her heels, happily chasing the squirrels who ran up and down the oak tree in the front yard. Daniel couldn’t remember how many times he had to pull Finn from that tree and hand him off to Tricia.
He remembered pulling into the same driveway after a long shift at the firehouse, greeted by a somewhat older boy; still fairly young, riding his bike. At first sight of the truck, the boy beamed up at him, flashing one of the most genuine smiles Daniel had ever witnessed. There were no words to describe how much Daniel loved seeing that smile. Jumping out of the truck, he would scoop Finn up in his arms, breathing in the earthy scent of soil and that floral fabric softener Tricia loved so much. He loved that boy with every fiber of his being.
The smile faded from Daniel’s face, turning into a contemptuous sneer. Lies.
He took another drag from his smoke, observing the minivan pull out of the driveway and roll down the street. As it passed him by, the toddler smiled and waved at Daniel, both the boy’s mother and older brother, oblivious to the stranger who watched as they drove away.
Daniel had been spying on the house for the past two weeks, studying the routines of the new occupants of the home he once shared with his own family. A lifetime ago. He learned their routine. Every morning, the tall, athletic dad left for work. The absence of a uniform left Daniel to believe he was some sort of office hack. He cared little for those types. They were always so weak and boring.
The pretty mom, with her long, blonde hair always tied up in a messy bun, reminded him of his wife, Tricia, when she was younger. The resemblance ended with the hairstyle. Truth was, Tricia was nothing like this woman. She had no heart or soul. What she had was a darkness that consumed everything she touched. It grew inside her like a fungus, with an insatiable hunger for pain and strife.
It wasn’t always that way, or at least she was much better at hiding it in the early days. Sometimes when the mood struck him, Daniel would focus real hard, and like a dream, random memories of a happier time long ago would materialize through the haze of hate and pain. A time when a young firefighter was full of hope and promise, his pretty wife seemed happy and his son was the most precious thing in the entire world.
Daniel climbed out of the Jeep and leaned against the door. He took one final drag from his cigarette, then tossed it on the ground, extinguishing it with the toe of his black boot. One last glance around the street confirmed there was no one about. Setting his focus on the house, he made his way around to the side yard.
When he owned the house, the window to the laundry room was a constant on his list of things to repair. Never able to lock, Daniel tried a few remedies, but none ever worked well enough. The only way to fix the issue would have been to replace the window. He never got around to that. Standing in front of it now, he could see that the new homeowner hadn’t either. He slid the window open, then slipped inside.
It being Tuesday, Daniel knew he had the house to himself until noon. The mom would drop Dex, the older boy, at school, then take Colter to his gymnastics class. After that, they would go to the park for an hour so the little guy could climb the rock wall. They would come back around noon for lunch, then the pretty mom would put the little boy down for a nap.
With plenty of time to burn, Daniel decided he would check out the home and see what the new residents had done to the place.
The scent of fabric softener and a delicate, floral perfume hung heavy in the air. The door to the laundry room opened with a resounding, sustained creak as it swung on its hinges. That was another one of those things that required fixing, but since it didn’t bother him unless he was dealing with it at that moment—he never got around to it. Too easy to forget about.
The kitchen looked the same as always. Not much different. Same white cabinets. Same old, tile flooring, same old drawer pulls. At least they changed the curtains.
He rounded the corner into the living room. Shiny hardwood floors had replaced the old carpet. A nice upgrade for sure. Daniel stood in the center of the room and swiped his boot across the floor. This was the spot where he almost ended Tricia’s wretched existence for once and for all. Just a few more seconds and he would have been free of her; but then the kid had to interfere. Daniel shoved his rage down, inhaling and exhaling until calm washed over him. Yes, replacing the old, smelly carpet with wood floors was an excellent choice. He turned and wandered down the hall toward the bedrooms.
The new owners decorated the first room with dinosaurs. A perfect setting to inspire the imagination of a young boy. When he owned this home, the original intent was that this room would belong to the second child that he and Tricia were planning to have. That never came to be, so the room turned into a catch-all for everything they accumulated over the years that they never could quite find a place for. It was good to see it being used for its initial purpose. He wondered what it would have been like if they had had a second child. Would it have changed anything? Would that second child have looked like him? Shaking his head to oust the thought, he strolled down the hall.
Running his hand along the smooth drywall, he marveled at the seamless repair. The memory of that night came rushing back. Tricia’s confession that over the years, she aborted not one, but two, unborn babies, all because she would sooner die than see him happy. The rage arising from all the years of pent-up hate for the way his life turned out; for all the shattered ambitions and lies. He flexed his hand. He could almost feel the warmth of Finn’s head in the palm of his hand as he smashed it into the drywall. A malevolent smirk crossed his face. They certainly did a superb job on the repair.
A hand-drawn warning on red construction paper hung askew on the next door “Do Not Enter” it cautioned. Daniel chuckled, then turned the doorknob and stepped inside.
The room smelled of fresh laundry with a modest hint of soil. He wondered if that was the standard scent of all little boys. Sports posters hung on the walls. Models of rockets and aircraft sat proudly on display. Honestly, the only actual difference was the color scheme. He stood in silence; waiting, for what? He didn’t know. Sadness, anger, bitterness; an emotion of some sort? The days of feeling bad over everything he lost were long over. All the normal emotions had burned through him one at a time, leaving nothing more than the charred remains of hollow memories and a solemn vow for vengeance.
He spun around and stalked across the hall to the master bedroom.
The fragrant perfume of fresh blossoms in the spring hovered around the threshold. He inhaled. Such a pleasant smell. Tricia never used perfume, it made her sneeze. No, when they lived in this house, the air smelled of pine cleaner, fabric softener and whatever food she was cooking up for dinner.
The bedroom walls were a soft gray. That too was an improvement over the pale tan Tricia insisted on painting every wall in the house.
Daniel climbed on top of the bench at the foot of the bed and separated the ceiling fan from the mount. Holding the fixture with one hand, he groped around in the ceiling, searching for a cache of money he hid there. Gone. Of course, she would remember that hiding place. After placing the fan back in place, he climbed down, taking care to straighten the comforter. He didn’t want to leave any trace he had been there. No sense in destroying the pretty mom’s sense of safety and comfort in her own home.
It was safe to assume that Tricia emptied all the hiding places she knew about. Key point; the ones she knew about. He smirked and stormed back to the laundry room.
About a year before everything came crashing down, the washing machine sprung a massive leak. Water spewed out and flooded the entire room, destroying the drywall. The entire room needed to be restored. Of course, the first thing Daniel discovered when he began the demo was a small rag stuffed inside the drainage hose. Right away, he knew who was responsible, so he found his son and made sure the boy understood the error of his ways. To his credit, Finn never whined or complained. He took his beating like a man, then went right to work on the demolition of the room. He didn’t even ask for any protective gear from the drywall dust. It was for the better, anyway. There was no way Daniel would have given him any.
Thinking back on it, Daniel still had to admit a small amount of respect for the kid. When confronted, Finn held his ground. He didn’t cower, or run, or even lie. No, the boy stood strong and seldom ever flinched. Say what you want about the kid, he had serious backbone.
It took a full month to complete the renovations of the room. Since Daniel did all the restoration work himself, he installed an extra hiding place. One that only he would know about.
Standing in the laundry room now, Daniel pulled the washing machine away from the wall, took out his knife, and chipped away at the grout around the tiles. It came away easily. Next, he lifted four of the tiles, exposing a piece of concrete backer board. He leaned that against the wall and peered down at the metal safe tucked away inside the hole, precisely how he left it. It was a large one, with a dial combination lock. Daniel blew the dust aside, then quickly unlocked the door.
Come to papa baby. Stashed inside were all the things he would require in the event of an emergency. Five thousand dollars in cash, a fake ID and passport, a set of keys to a storage locker at the other end of town, two boxes of ammo and, the best item of all, a shiny, black revolver still wrapped in muslin cloth.
In the safe, a lone photo rested on the metal floor. Two people beamed up at him, suspended forever in time. One a young, handsome father; the other, a boy around five years old, holding up a huge catfish, flashing a toothless grin. The cheerful man in the picture was no longer recognizable to Daniel. It was as though he were staring at someone else—a stranger who only looked like him.
His hand trembled as he stared down at the image. A kaleidoscope of emotions whirled around inside. He snorted, crushed the photo into a ball, tossed it into the safe, then slammed the door shut.
After taking particular care to put the tiles back into place, Daniel slid the washer against the wall, cleaned up his mess, and made one more cursory check of the home. Once he was certain everything was exactly the way he found it, he climbed out the window and sauntered back to the old Jeep.
The next stop was a run by the storage facility to pick up the gear he had tucked away. If his memory served him correctly, the locker contained camping gear, freeze-dried food, and extra clothing. There should be at least another two thousand dollars as well. It was time for a road trip to visit Tricia. She was going to be thrilled to see Daniel. He could hardly wait to see the look on her face.