Officer Franklin Butcher placed the flask against his mouth. The cold on his lips reminded him of playgrounds as a kid, afternoons spent laughing in the sun, climbing metal bars. He tilted the flask and took a heavy pull of whiskey. It warmed his gut enough to steel him against the damp air of a cold, autumn morning. As he screwed the cap back on, he took in the view through the dusty windshield.
The modest church stuck up from the earth like a bad tooth. It was in need of a fresh coat of paint, its wood tired and thirsty. He could almost swear the ancient-looking steeple on top was swaying in the wind, and he didn’t want to be there when it came down. The small, free-standing garage off to the right wasn’t faring much better. It looked ready to collapse into a pile of dust and tinder.
Butcher hadn't been in Shallow Creek long, yet the stories he'd heard of the church, and more specifically of Father Curtis, could fill a notebook. How the priest’s sermons were once so popular, local folks would bring their own chairs to sit outside the door once the pews filled up, even in the rain. How he once developed a deep infatuation for a beautiful trapeze artist who passed through town. How he burnt up Mister Schneider's crops one summer many years ago, claiming they hid the devil in them. How his congregation had dwindled so low those days, no one knew why he bothered to keep the church running anymore- except maybe as a tax shelter.
Butcher wasn’t much a fan of that sort of thing. Hanging around after the party was over. Which in a way explained his fresh divorce.
Butcher stashed his flask in the glove compartment and stepped out of the cruiser. He adjusted the gun on his hip and made his way toward the tiny church.
It took a moment for Butcher's eyes to adjust to the dark interior of the church. Even with limited vision, one thing was clear: there was a body on the floor.
Beneath the cross, a figure in dark robes was splayed out on the floor. By instinct Butcher's hand went to his hip, to feel for his gun. Before he could unclasp the holster, the body stirred and rose unevenly from the floor.
Father Curtis made the sign of the cross before turning to Butcher. He was old and pale, but there was a spark behind his eyes. Bushy, snow white eyebrows raised up on his wrinkled forehead. "You're far too young to be divorced," he remarked bluntly.
Officer Butcher frowned. "Word travels fast."
"In a town like this, it’s the only thing that does." Father Curtis smiled as he closed the distance between them. His worn shoes shuffled over old wood. "Why is it you and your wife separated?"
Butcher cleared his throat. "Actually, I’d rather not get into it."
The old man smiled sheepishly. "I'm sorry, my son, I have a curious mind. People normally share so much of themselves with me." He paused and gestured to the empty church. "Well, they used to."
Butcher let out a lungful of air that smelled of booze. The old man had a disarming way about him. "I guess you could say she and I had a difference of opinion. She thought I was a delusional, stubborn fool who would never change."
"I thought she could learn to live with it."
"You’re a better man than you give yourself credit for," Father Curtis chuckled.
"With all due respect, father, you don’t know the first thing about me."
"That’s not true. I do know the first thing about you." He raised an eyebrow. "Would you like to hear it?"
Butcher had little choice but to entertain the old man’s conversation. The priest was set on playing his little game before delving into why he’d called the police. "Go on then," Butcher said, an amused expression on his face.
"Good. Here it is." Father Curtis pointed a wavering finger at him. "More than anything, you want to do the right thing. You wanted to help people. So you joined the police. But still, something wasn’t quite right. And so you punished yourself. You’re a servant of God, who treats himself as a sinner."
Butcher shifted, the amused smile slipping away. "I’ve sinned plenty."
"Divorce is a sin last I checked."
"True. And yet perhaps the greater sin is wasting the life God gave you by being unhappy. After all, there are more worthwhile fights in this world than whose turn it is to take out the garbage."
"It wasn't all as simple as that."
"No." Butcher paused. "Sometimes it was the dishes."
The priest chuckled again. "I do like you," he nodded. "I'm glad you were brought here."
Butcher threw him a curious look.
"By the Lord, of course."
"Of course. I don't want to be rude, father, but you still haven't told me why you called the police. Dispatch said it was something about property damage. Did someone break in?" Butcher glanced around, seeing nothing out of place. "Was the church vandalized?"
Father Curtis shook his head. "No vandals. No thieves. It was something a little more natural than all that."
"You can't call the police whenever an old building starts to fall apart," Butcher pointed out. The man's face wrinkled in anger.
"I'm not so feeble that I cry for someone to help me change a light-bulb." His face had grown red. The old man caught himself. He gripped his chest, allowing himself a moment to calm down. Butcher reached out to help the priest, to catch him if necessary, but the man waved him away. "It’s alright. It’s alright," he said. "Well, anyway, would you like to see why I called you now?" the priest asked.
"I think I'd better," Butcher said, "before one of us drops dead."
The priest stepped to the edge of the abyss. He beckoned Officer Butcher to join him, his pale hand pointing to a safe place in the grass. With firm words he told the younger man to take a look.
"You should step back from there," Butcher said quietly.
"Nonsense, it's perfectly safe." The wind blew at his robes, whispering through his spider-web hair.
Butcher moved from the church’s back door toward Father Curtis. He chose his footsteps carefully, as if the ground were made of glass. He tried not to seem too worried in front of the old man, yet he knew it would be foolish to rush forward and risk falling in. Once he was alongside the man, he ventured a peek down.
The sinkhole's sides ran straight down for twenty feet until they angled in sharply another thirty or so. The bottom, shaded from the morning light, was littered with ancient, damp wood. What looked at first glance like roots and branches sticking out from its walls, on further inspection ended in fingers and toes. The stones littering the bottom had names carved into them.
"It nearly swallowed up the entire graveyard," Father Curtis said. Across from them, a length of nine or ten cars, the jagged, metal gate still stood, the old brick wall spread along the sheer drop.
A breeze blew up at them. It brought with it the smell of dirt and death. A headache, light at first but growing in intensity, settled into Butcher's brow. Father Curtis noticed the change in his expression.
"Are you alright?"
"Fine. When did this happen?"
"Sometime during the night. I slept right through it. Never heard a thing." He pointed to the far end of the sinkhole. "That skull there belongs to the honorable Edward T. Billings, the first mayor of Shallow Creek. He was a far cry from that jester we have now." The priest cleared his throat, trying to cover his wavering voice. "I let him down. I’m afraid I let them all down. They left me in charge here, and I failed them." He stared down at the shattered skulls with a softness in his eyes, as if looking at old friends.
"There's not much sense blaming yourself," Butcher assured him. "Sinkholes, avalanches, landslides- they're natural parts of life."
The priest smiled. "Thank you, my son, but I suspect you and I have different philosophies on cause-and-effect." Father Curtis turned away from the fresh wound in the Earth and placed his leathery hand on Butcher's arm. "I need to lie down a while. This site is historical, you understand, protected under law. You can cover it up, to make sure no children fall in, but absolutely no one is to remove or touch anything down there. Even photographs are to go through me. I expect you'll make the proper arrangements."
Butcher nodded. With that, Father Curtis walked back to the church door.
"One more thing, father," Butcher called out.
The man stopped and turned. "What is it, my son?"
"You and I. We've never met, isn't that right?"
"So why did you ask for me by name?"
Father Curtis smiled sadly. "In dark days, we need as many torches as we can find." The old man hobbled back inside the church, leaving Butcher alone. He stared down into the mangled abyss, straining to read the worn-down names on broken gravestones.
Not far away, a station wagon pulled up to a newly purchased house.
With its slatted fence, brick façade, and long, gray roof covered in delicate vines of ivy, the house had the appearance of an old, Danish farmhouse. White outlines on its windows perfectly framed the view of its ample front yard.
Next to their fully-packed car, a young couple held hands. Today was supposed to be the happiest day of Kevin and Mary Fairburn’s lives, if not the happiest of all time, at least top five. There was the wedding day, and the day he proposed in the tent as it rained outside, and their first trip to England. But right up there on that list of life-changing moments, of the days they would remember and cherish forever, today had a special place reserved. It was, after all, the day Kevin and Mary moved into their first house.
This day was a sum of years, a product of saving and planning, hunting and looking, making offers and getting hopes up only to lose out at the last hour, then finally having their dream home land in their laps at a price they couldn't pass up.
Today was a perfect day. So why did Mary feel so uneasy? What explanation was there for the ominous freeze that had gripped her gut with needled fingers and refused to release her?
Why did she feel like a woman who had just signed her own autopsy?
Mary was good at reading Kevin's silences. Whenever she came home from work and found him with the refrigerator door open, staring at the food until the packages began to sweat, she knew he was worried about money. When he went ten or twenty minutes on the internet without laughing or sharing some awful photograph with her, she knew he was having a bad day. When he stared at a page of broken code for too long without his eyes darting back and forth like he was reading an alien language, she knew he was stuck in a doubt spiral that would end with deleted files and a nap on the couch that would solve everything.
That was why today's silence had her so concerned- because no matter which way she turned her head, Mary couldn't read it.
"What's wrong?" she finally asked. As always, he pretended everything was fine. So she dropped the subject. In her heart, though, she knew he was lying, not to be deceitful but to put her worries to rest. She had a tendency to obsess over small issues until they became large ones. So Kevin had developed the equal tendency to mute his reactions, in order to spare her the panic attack.
As the couple unpacked the stacks of cardboard boxes containing the sum of their shared life, inside, they were both screaming.
After they’d built the bed, Kevin gave Mary a face which said he couldn't wait anymore. She knew the face. Without so much as a word he left her side to find the boxes marked "computer" in his new office. It took him less than twenty minutes to set the machine up and turn it on. Five minutes later, he was lost in a world of numbers.
This was life with Kevin. Their life together. It was weird, but it was good.
After unpacking a few boxes, Mary changed into the oldest pair of jeans she owned and headed outside to assess the state of the garden. She put her fingers in the dirt and turned over leaves, looking for anything from dry soil to infestation.
At first, she didn't pick up on what was wrong. Something was missing. Soon she figured out what it was: there were no aphids or slugs chewing on the leaves. No red bugs nesting in the roots. Despite the perfect conditions of the garden, the plant-life was devoid of any crawling or egg-laying, even though the plants themselves seemed half-eaten.
For the briefest moment, Mary's brain allowed her to feel lucky. While most homeowners wasted their time and money on such troubles, She and Kevin would be spared from its touch.
The moment didn't last. Over a dinner of chicken and noodles, Mary brought up the strange business of the garden to Kevin.
"Do you think it’s strange that I couldn't find a single insect anywhere around the house?"
"A bit. But I’m perfectly happy living with the mystery if you are."
They got back to their noodles, then watched some television.
The next day, though, after looking for her in the bedroom, and the basement, and the driveway, Kevin found Mary in the backyard, staring into the trees. Her body was so stiff, he wondered if it was possible to die standing up. He called her name, but she didn't hear it. He called it again, louder this time, and she jumped. When he
asked her what she was doing, she told him she was looking.
"Looking for what?"
"Birds," she said, her eyes half-hollow, still focused above.
"First the bugs, then the birds."
"This is serious."
"Of course it is," he smiled.
"I’m not kidding, Kevin." She looked at him. "Something is wrong with this house."
The fly paper was heavy with dead flies, their wings like dried rice paper. With his feet perched on the wobbly toilet seat, careful not to touch the tacky glue, Butcher grabbed the string and pulled the fly trap from the ceiling, thumb tack and all.
Right then, the phone rang. He cursed and dropped the mess between the toilet and the shower, where years of someone else's dust and piss swallowed it up. He jumped down from the toilet to pick up the phone from the sink. He looked at the name on the caller ID. After a few rings, he picked it up.
"I know you said not to call," Elaine said.
"I did say that."
"Sorry. I just wanted to see how you were doing in the new apartment." Elaine had always been too nice for her own good, especially where Butcher was concerned.
He walked out of the bathroom and into the dank living room. It wasn’t accurate to say the apartment was falling apart, not like that old church. More like it was slowly fading. The place wasn’t much, but it was home. At least until he found something better. "It's nice," he said, looking up at the sagging ceiling. It looked like a diaper that needed changing.
"Nice is good. And you?"
She paused. "Just the same?"
"What can I say? Same guy, different town." He kicked the refrigerator to open the jammed door. The lightbulb inside stuttered to life.
"I never wanted you to change who you were, just to stop punishing yourself." The phone line was silent for a stretch. Then she added, "It's okay to ask about him."
"I was going to."
"I know you were."
She sighed into the mouthpiece. "He misses you. He thinks I'm boring. I miss you, too."
"Elaine." He grabbed a beer and kicked the door shut.
"I know, I know. This is why I can't call."
"Is he doing better in school?"
"Same as before, good grades but no friends."
Butcher smiled. "Your brains and my attitude. Killer combo." She paused again.
"Franklin, before I hang up, can you just tell me you're alright?"
Butcher sunk down into his lumpy couch, beer in tow. "After all this time, I don't want to start lying to you now." He opened the beer loud enough for Elaine to hear. Without another word, she hung up.
Those days, it was how Butcher said goodbye.
It was a typical Friday night at The Limestone: the beer was watered down, the flat-screen was broken again, and no one knew where the goddamn darts were.
The bar’s front door squeaked open. Butcher stepped inside, bringing with him a cool breeze. Only two heads turned to notice him enter, two more than normal, on account of him being new to town. As he made his way past the two hunters bellied up to the bar, Ned Seymour and Patrick Will, his eyes went to the knife holsters on their belts. The sheathed blades made him regret leaving his gun in the car, though he knew the pair were relatively harmless, except maybe to each other.
He settled into a stool near the end of the bar, his boots hooked over the scuffed metal footrest. He shook the spilled beer from his fingers as the girl behind the bar approached. She slid him a towel for his hand.
"Get you something, cutie?" she asked. Katie was her name. Her eyes were thick with eyeliner.
"How do they let you tend a bar you’re too young to get into?" he asked. She threw him a devilish smile.
"I’m not as young as you think. I’ve been drinking for a long, long, long time now." She leaned in close, stretching out her words. "Legally, of course."
"I’m Officer Butcher," he said.
"I know who you are." She took the towel back. "So what’ll it be, officer? I could fix you up something nice. Welcome you to town proper."
"Sugar water with a cute name?"
"Maybe I'd surprise you."
"I imagine you could." He squinted at her. "You're Bill Thompson's daughter, aren't you?"
She looked at her nails with disinterest. "There's only two ways I know of to get a job, and the second one's to be someone's kid." She glanced back up. "You want to know the first?"
"I think I got it. Just get me a bourbon before your father catches you talking like that."
She straightened up. "I didn't peg you for a whiskey guy," she said.
"I'm a lot things you wouldn’t expect." He spun to face the bar as she went off to pour his drink. He had learned not to keep his back turned on a room, especially where drinking was involved.
For the better part of an hour, he watched the bar and nursed his bourbon. What he really wanted to do was throw it back so he could order another. He watched Ned and Patrick play pool badly and make worse excuses. He counted the mounted antlers on the walls, six in total, including the one with the dusty bra hanging from it for reasons no one remembered. He listened to the hunters talk about the fishing derby and how nothing was biting, how it was because the tourists were scaring the fish away with their campers and their kids with their bright orange arm floats, even though those folks had packed up and gone home months ago.
As he was sucking the last bit of whiskey out of an ice-cube, Officer Banks walked through the door.
Drew Banks was big, easily a head taller than Butcher, and the kind of guy who wouldn't let Butcher forget it. His leathery mug, handsome from one angle and off-putting from another, was carpeted with a day's growth, a beard which over the years had moved from deep black to a gray that matched the top of his head. He took a minute to bullshit with Ned and Patrick before he bothered to so much as look at Butcher.
Pointing to the glass in Butcher's hand, he said, "Sucking them back, I see."
"You said nine. It's ten."
"It's nine forty-five, don't exaggerate." He removed his leather jacket and threw it over the next stool. "And I said nine-thirty."
"Whatever you say."
The large man snapped his fingers to get Katie's attention. She rolled her eyes and came over, making sure not to lean in too close in case he got any ideas. "Well, hello, girl," he said in a deep baritone. "I must say, you're looking more and more of-age every day."
"Didn’t know you cared about that, Officer Banks," she said, putting extra stress on the officer bit.
"Well, sure I do. I'm concerned for your safety. It makes me happy to see how big and strong you're getting, especially in the legs. You look like you could run all night on those things."
She laughed. "You really are a creep, Banks."
"Yeah, I know it. Get me a beer, will you?"
"Don't have much choice, do I?"
"That's a good girl." He ignored Butcher until he had the beer in his hand, chewing on his tongue like a bothered cow. The moment he took a swig on the wet bottle, he turned as if suddenly remembering the other man. "So, Franklin," he said in a mocking tone, "how do you like Shallow Creek so far?"
"Knock it off."
"What's the problem?"
"Come on, Banks. You didn't ask me here to make small talk."
Banks feigned insult. "Can't a man engage a fellow officer in a bit of healthy conversation?"
"Some can. Not you."
Banks took another chug from his beer. A drop spilled, running down his gray stubble and onto his jeans. "If you're so smart, you probably already know what I'm about to say."
"My best guess is the sheriff wanted you to babysit me, and you wanted to tell me before my weekend off."
"You think I'll sleep on it, that way come Monday I won't fight so much when you tell me. But if you have half the smarts I give you credit for, you've figured out by now I don't work that way."
"Yeah, I'm starting to see you're as stubborn as a mule." He finished his beer and ordered a second from Katie, telling her to hold the attitude. "See her?" He nodded to the booth in the corner. A well-dressed blonde in her late thirties sat with her back to the wall, chatting up the pair of men across from her. Her green blouse was just a bit too tight to be considered purely professional- the same with her smile. "That," Banks said, "is Meredith Maycomb. She's very well known in these parts, if you know what I mean."
"What does she do?"
"I don't know, real estate or something. Who cares? The point I'm trying to make is she gets around, and I plan to be there when she comes around."
"Do I have to remind you you're a cop?"
"That depends, do I have to remind you you're an asshole?"
Butcher sighed. "I haven't forgotten." He made eye contact with Meredith Maycomb across the bar, noting the hungry expression in her eyes. The knowing nod. The confident smile. He nodded back. Then he climbed off his stool and threw a few bills on the bar. "It's been fun, Banks."
"Sure, sure," Banks said, not taking his eyes off the woman.
Before he left, Butcher turned back to Banks. "Come Monday I'll be fighting this. I don't need a partner to do my job, and I sure as hell don't need a babysitter."
Banks glanced his way. "Then maybe you should stop sucking on that baby bottle of yours all day."
Butcher nodded and left, looking one last time at Meredith Maycomb and the men with her. They buzzed like two flies who hadn't figured out yet they’d been caught.
The ground moved. It was almost imperceptible, just a slight shifting of dry dirt. The grasshopper, green as a new leaf, stopped to check the air. With its translucent head perked, antennae working, it looked for danger around the flat rocks ahead, in the dead tree branch, in the small puddle of water. It saw and heard nothing. Yet its instincts said something was wrong.
The grasshopper took a few hesitant steps forward. This time there was no mistaking it- the ground swelled up only inches away, and up from the dirt something rose. With impossible speed, long, dark legs covered in tan hair reached up and grab the grasshopper, trapping it in thick bristles. Before it had a chance to fight for its life, the grasshopper was pulled into the waiting fangs beneath the ground. Down into the dark, webbed nest below.
"That’s my girl."
Sheriff Green replaced the terrarium's lid, clicking the plastic locks into place. He sat behind his desk, annoyed to hear the pop in his left knee that came with every bend those days. Aside from his weathered skin, wrinkled brown from the sun as well as the native blood in his veins, it was the most obvious reminder of his years.
Which was why he never bent down in front of his officers.
A knock came at the door. He told whoever it was to come in.
"Do you have a minute?" Butcher asked.
"I have three." The Sheriff motioned to the chair facing him, but Butcher said he preferred to stand.
"I won't be long. I wanted to talk to you about Banks."
The Sheriff sighed. "Why I thought he'd keep his big mouth shut, I'll never know."
"That's just the problem- I don't have the best track record with loudmouths. I came here to make a fresh start, not to get slapped around by the babysitter."
"If Banks slaps you, you have my permission to slap him back."
"I’ll keep that in mind." Butcher glanced over at the tarantula tank, as uncomfortable with it as most people were. They never understood how he could love such things.
"I don't come to decisions lightly," the Sheriff said, leaning forward, "and I don't give bullshit assignments. So is he watching you? Yes. You're an unproven officer in my book, regardless of what your file says, and I like to keep tabs on what I'm not sure about."
"I can appreciate that."
"Good. I hope by now you can see we're not some backwater town. Shallow Creek has won awards for our compost recycling program, and we happen to boast the second most diverse police department in the entire county." He pointed out the door and across the station house to Officer Clark, a young black man with a perfectly-groomed mustache holding a cup of coffee. Clark raised his cup and nodded at Butcher.
"Impressive," Butcher said.
Sheriff Green settled back into his chair. He lowered his voice so that only Butcher could hear him. "What Officer Banks doesn't know is, I'm not making you two partners just so he can keep an eye on you. You have a pair of eyes of your own, don't you?"
"Last I checked."
"Then use them. Banks isn't exactly the shining light of the force, and that bronze on his chest is only getting duller. He’s your responsibility as much as you're his."
"So an ‘I-stab-your-back, you-stab-mine sort of thing."
Sheriff Green frowned. "The word you’re looking for is ‘watch.’"
"My mistake." Butcher didn’t look happy about the outcome of their conversation.
"I never asked you," the Sheriff said, "what brought you here from Greenwood?"
Butcher shrugged. "The wife and I were having troubles. She got the house, I got the boot."
Sheriff Green shook his head. "That's not what I meant. Why Shallow Creek?"
Butcher considered it. "I thought I could be comfortable here. It always seemed like a quiet enough town whenever I stopped through."
"You mean you could coast by until retirement."
Butcher shrugged again.
"That’s fine. It really is. I don’t need showboats coming to my town, making a lot of noise and burning the place down. You don’t need to go above and beyond to be a good cop here. Hell, I’m overjoyed every time an officer shows up for their shift. But when they do show up, what they need to do is follow orders. Get it?"
Sheriff Green nodded. "Those are my two favorite words, Butcher. The more you say them, the more I smile."
There was a smell in the basement.
It was hard to identify, like roadkill mixed with motor oil. To make things worse, Kevin and Mary were finding the source impossible to pinpoint- just when they narrowed it down to a particular corner they would lose it completely, only to rediscover it across the room.
When they'd had enough of the odd game, they called a plumber.
The man who showed up at their door was friendly enough, hauling ancient tools from his ancient van, but he was the sort of emotionally exhausting talker Kevin wasn't equipped to deal with. Within thirty minutes he’d already explained how his gay son hadn't talked to him in eight months, not because he was gay but because he had a bit of a drug problem, nothing that couldn't be treated, it just made him a little edgy. Meanwhile, they hadn't even made their way downstairs yet, into the disembodied smell of the basement. Kevin couldn’t stand anyone who avoided doing their job. Who procrastinated their purpose.
"What's the deal with this place, anyways?" The plumber asked.
Kevin raised an eyebrow. "In reference to?"
"You know, how no one lives here for long."
"The real estate woman told us there was one owner."
The plumber showed Kevin his palms, which were somehow already dirty. "Hey, it's none of my business. Which way to the stink?"
Kevin let the subject change. He wanted to get on with it and let the man do his job. He intended to ask the man a few more questions regarding what else he’d heard about the house- preferably as he was leaving it.
He took the plumber to the basement, where of course the smell had disappeared. After pretending to listen to the plumber explain the serious issue of excessive pressure from municipal water suppliers, Kevin excused himself and ran back up the creaking stairs, hiding in his office to wait for the man to finish.
Kevin’s eyes swam through lines of code, fingers moving across the keyboard in fluid patterns. Pupils dilated, his pulse raced as strange words spilled from his mouth.
Kevin told people he worked freelance because it gave him more freedom to work the hours he wanted to work. The truth, though, was that workplaces didn't really work out for him.
And that was because he scared people.
He was a nice enough guy, people agreed, and excellent at his job. The problem started when he became focused. At some point he stopped being aware of the room around him. He would stare not just at the screen but through it, while in his throat strange sounds would utter forth. It started as a mumble. As he worked, the sounds continued to grow into full, whispered words. Words no one had heard before.
His concentration had its own phantom language.
"Did he find it?"
The question jolted Kevin in his seat. He was ripped screaming from that other place. Mary yelped, caught off guard by his reaction. "Jesus, I'm sorry," she said, clutching her chest.
He swallowed and took a breath. "Find what?"
"Who?" he asked. Then: "Oh. Right." He looked at the time, thinking it had only been half an hour at most. He was surprised to see what the clock said. "His van is still here?"
"Because he’s been here almost four hours." Kevin stood from the chair, feeling the line of sweat down his back. He left his office and headed to the basement door. Standing on the precipice, no sound came from below except the low, sad drone of the boiler. He called out to the plumber but got no reply. He descended the stairs, planning to have a word with the man trying to gut him for four hours of labor.
He found himself alone in the basement.
"Hello?" He rounded the corner to the boiler room, expecting to see the man crouched in the corner, his head buried in an open pipe, ass-crack proudly displayed. All he found were the man's tools.
He called up the stairs to Mary. She appeared at the top of the stairs. "Is his van still here?" he asked her.
"I just parked next to it. He’s not there?"
"No." By the look on his face, Mary knew to come downstairs. She found the same thing he did- a set of old tools, and nothing more. The smell wasn't gone, either. It was, if anything, stronger.
"Maybe he’s smoking a cigarette?"
Kevin walked upstairs and out the front door. He noted the van still parked out front before walking around to the side of the house, then to the back and around the other side. He found only grass and trees, no plumber sneaking a smoke. He peeked into the plumber's van in hopes of catching the man napping in the back. Other than an old magazine and an empty Styrofoam cup, the van was empty.
Back inside, Mary was in the kitchen, dialing the plumber's number. Kevin sat down, a bit winded from running around so soon after waking from his code sleep. After letting the line ring five, six, seven times, Mary hung up. "Where could he have gone?" she asked.
"Maybe he had the sudden urge to strip off his clothes and run into the woods."
She smiled. "Seriously, though, you don't find this a little weird?"
"Absolutely, I do. I just don't know what to do about it except wait."
She put her phone down, half-expecting it to ring the moment it touched the table. It didn't.
"Alright," Mary said. "We wait."
The Shallow Creek Police Department had a full roster of eight men and two women, not including their unofficial mascot, a squirrel that lived in the station house’s crawlspace. They’d nicknamed him Houdini, on account of the little bugger evading capture for three years running.
Other than that unintended inhabitant, the station had very little in the way of extras. It had been built in the sixties, and it showed. The locker room was all avocado green tile. The waiting room’s carpet was a dirty, burnt orange. The bathroom smelled of mildew. Chairs creaked and pipes leaked.
On the station’s main floor, an open area with half a dozen rusting desks, Officer Banks was talking to Officer Smith at a volume that said he wanted everyone to hear it. Smith didn’t look interested, but he was too young and timid to tell Banks he wanted no part in the conversation. "You can’t imagine the things I would do to her," Banks boasted. "I’m talking in every room of every house she’s ever sold."
"Don’t let the sheriff hear you say that. He’s had an eye on her for a bit."
"Hey, I’m not greedy. I know how to share."
Butcher unlocked his desk’s bottom drawer and pulled it open slowly, trying not to let it squeak. The bottle inside slid forward, the amber liquid sloshing a friendly hello. It had been a long day, and Butcher was thirsty.
"Hey, Butcher, is she hot?" Banks called out.
Butcher looked up from the drawer. "Who?"
He frowned. "Ex-wife." His hand hovered over the bottle.
"Sounds like a no." Banks chuckled, slapping Officer Smith on his back. Smith smiled uncomfortably, trying not to show how much it hurt.
"It’s not a no, but it’s a conversation I’m not having with you."
Banks scoffed. "Why not?"
"I don’t talk about Elaine like that. Never have, never will." Butcher closed the drawer and locked it. No peeking allowed.
"She’s your ex, who cares?"
"She’s still the mother of my son. And a human being, last I checked."
"I’ll check again if you want." Banks laughed louder this time. Officer Smith was doing his best to slowly distance himself from Banks without Banks taking notice. He could see what was coming even if Banks didn’t.
Butcher had had enough. He stood from his chair and smoothed his shirt. "Tell me something, Banks, how many teeth do you have?" Banks made a face like he’d just bitten into gristle in a fifty dollar steak. "Tell you what, come over here, let’s lay them out on my desk and count."
Officer Smith moved quickly out of the way, no longer hiding his non-involvement. Banks went right for Butcher and got in his face. He looked down at Butcher, his nose less than an inch away. "I’ll tell you what," he growled, "you can count them when you’re picking them out of your neck." Butcher smiled up at him, not backing down.
"Your breath is not good," he said calmly.
"Yeah? You wanna know what yours smells like?" Banks grinned smugly at him. Butcher balled his hand into a fist, prepared to erase the smile.
"What’s the problem?" Sheriff Green appeared in the door to his office, hands on his hips. Banks addressed him without moving out of Butcher’s face.
"Officer Butcher here is making inappropriate threats to my person, sir."
Sheriff Green took a step forward. "You really want to have a talk about appropriate workplace talk?" Banks slowly backed off a foot, no more. He kept his eyes drilled into Butcher’s. Butcher subtly winked at him. Banks was about to attack when the sheriff shouted, "Banks!"
He spun to look at the sheriff. Eyes on fire.
"Either sit your ass down or go find yourselves a room. I hear the Sweet Haven Motel is very discreet."
Banks continued to burn. After a moment, he snorted. The room relaxed slightly. All three officers present had been ready to spring into action and break up a fight.
Officer Monton, the station’s dispatch, and its oldest officer by a decade, cleared his throat loudly. "If everyone is done, we have a call."
Sheriff Green made his way over to the dispatch counter. "What is it?"
"Possible disappearance at the old house on Cherry."
Sheriff Green nodded. "Alright. Banks, Butcher, you’re up. Go show me you can still do your jobs and not kill each other." With that he returned to his office, closing the door behind him. Butcher gathered his things from his desk, double-checking that the bottom drawer was locked. As he did, Officer Banks walked past him, pausing on the way to the locker room. He leaned in so only Butcher could hear.
"You talk like that to me again," he said, "they’ll be cleaning pieces of you out of the drywall." He walked on without waiting for a response.
"Looking forward to it," Butcher said to no one.
The missing man was a plumber by the name of Roger Will. Officer Smith had already called from the man’s shop to say the plumber wasn’t there. He was heading to the man’s house next.
Kevin and Mary Fairburn were young and smart from what Butcher could tell. She was in the medical field, a dental assistant at Doctor Davis’ office, and he did something with computers. Of the two, the wife was clearly more practiced in social skills. She had answered the door when Butcher and Banks arrived, and had also done most of the talking, despite the majority of their story happening to the husband.
"Would you say he was acting despondent?" Butcher asked.
"I don't think so," Kevin Fairburn replied.
"It's not always obvious. Sometimes it's just a slight break from normal behavior."
"I wouldn’t know his normal behavior. I had one conversation with him before he disappeared."
Butcher raised his eyes from his notepad. "This is a small town. I thought everyone knew each other."
"We just moved in."
"That does change things." Butcher made a note. "Was the conversation hostile or aggressive?"
Before Kevin could respond, Mary stopped him. "Are you suggesting we got into an argument with a plumber, killed him and called the cops?"
"Of course not. We just have to look at it from every angle."
Mary’s face softened. "Sorry. It’s been a long day. We don’t even know this guy’s name, he was just a listing my husband found in the phone book, and now we’re spending
our night like this." She placed her hand on Kevin’s shoulder.
"I get it. His name is Roger, by the way. I don’t know him, either."
"You’re new, too?"
Mary smiled. Butcher was starting to break through the couple’s defenses. Kevin Fairburn seemed more nervous than his wife, but then he seemed a bit more awkward than her in general. Just as Butcher was building some kind of rapport with the two, Banks emerged from the basement. "It stinks like shit down there," he said bluntly. Butcher shook his head.
"That's why we called a plumber," Kevin replied. "There was a strange smell and we couldn’t locate it."
"From the smell of it you don’t need a plumber, you need an exorcist," Banks snorted. Butcher and Kevin met eyes. Butcher just shrugged. If he could apologize for his new partner, he would. But he had a feeling if he started doing that now, he’d never stop. Mary wiped her hands on her jeans with a sense of finality.
"Anyway, we've told you everything we know."
"It's not much to go on." Butcher put away his notepad. "We'll send someone over to tow the van. In the meantime, keep an eye out. And call us if he shows up."
"You'll be the first to know." Mary showed them to the door. She seemed eager to get them out of the house. Butcher couldn’t blame her. It was already well into dinnertime, and the two looked exhausted. Butcher was thirsty himself.
Out in the driveway, Banks checked the plumber’s van again. As he shone a flashlight through the back window, Butcher looked out over the generous property. It had gone a bit wild without a proper owner. Grass grew long and weeds longer. The half-moon above lit up the nearby treetops. The expanse was a pool of darkness, the faint sound of bats hunting insects drifting from far off. Otherwise the night surrounding the Fairburn home was strangely quiet.
Butcher rubbed the back of his head. He’d been fighting a headache since they’d pulled up to the house, but he’d managed to not think about it until just then. As he grew thirstier, though, the pain in his skull became harder to ignore. He glanced back at his partner, deciding to smooth things over. He still didn’t like Banks, but he apparently had to work with the guy. "Don't you live somewhere around here?" he asked Banks.
"Just over there." Banks pointed past an outcropping of trees no more than a football field away. "Hell of a way to meet the new neighbors."
"Wife’s kind of hot, but there's something wrong with her wiring if she's into a loser like that."
Butcher looked back to the house. "Strange call. It doesn’t make sense."
Banks moved away from the van, clicking off his flashlight. "Kids in this town think this place is haunted, the way people are always moving in and out. But you know what I think?"
Banks spit into the grass. "Kids are shit-dumb."
"I'll be sure to tell my son that," Butcher said, heading toward their cruiser. Banks followed suit, though he went for the driver’s side.
"Anyhow, Roger probably got loaded on the job and walked home." He looked over the top of the cruiser at Butcher and cracked a smile. "I'm sure a few of us have done the same."
Butcher nodded, acknowledging the joke. Under his breath, though, he mumbled, "Asshole," as he opened the passenger door and slipped inside.
Banks chuckled, pleased with himself.
Kevin and Mary tried to get back to their normal lives. They focused on their jobs and day-to-day routines, pretending not to notice the strange looks they got at the supermarket. They threw themselves into fixing up their new home. They cleaned the gutters and power-washed the siding, painted the walls and varnished the railings. They even reupholstered the chairs and replaced a few missing tiles.
"Would you want a dog?" Mary asked Kevin over a black garbage bag.
"In the future?"
"In the distant future."
"Sure, why not?"
She said, "Is this afternoon distant enough?"
Excited, like nervous third graders, they walked around the adoption center looking into the eyes of hounds, shaking paws with poodles and scratching between the itchy shoulder blades of retrievers. They looked for a connection. A spark. As much as they liked a few of the dogs, there was nothing that said This Is The One.
After forty-five minutes, they decided to leave. Adoption was serious, they agreed. The last thing they should do was get one to get one.
That was when they saw him.
In the corner, in a stack of cages just wheeled in by one of the young workers, a scrappy-looking mutt with wiry, gray fur quietly watched them. He had big, open eyes and a look of deep thought. As they approached him, he simply moved toward the front of the cage to greet them. He was neither scared nor overly excited by their presence. When they asked to play with him in one of the gated areas, it took him less than three minutes to fall asleep in Mary's lap.
On the way home they named him Felix. They hoped he would be enough of a distraction, something to help them forget about their rough start in Shallow Creek.
On a quiet Sunday, Kevin looked outside and noted how beautiful the weather was- clear skies above, a soft breeze moving through the trees. With Mary still in bed, he put on an old pair of sneakers and a light coat and grabbed Felix's leash. The little guy's tail wagged with such speed, it looked like a gray blur above his butt.
Felix had had a hard time adjusting. The dog loved Kevin and Mary- as it seemed he would probably love every man, woman and child he would ever meet- but he seemed uncomfortable about the house itself. He paced, occasionally whining, and often begged to be let outside, refusing to return for an hour at a time. Kevin and Mary hoped that, with time, he would grow to love the house as much as he did them.
Kevin and Felix walked through the neighborhood, enjoying the mild weather. It was the kind of day even the birds appreciated, filling the sky with their sweet songs. Kevin marveled at how peaceful the morning could be- even with a few neighbors staring suspiciously at him from their living room windows.
On the way home, Kevin realized he hadn’t taken his wallet with him. He’d wanted to surprise Mary with breakfast in bed, to make up for how distant he‘d been. He decided he would take Felix home, grab his wallet from the dresser, and sneak back out for the croissants Mary loved so much.
As the pair rounded the corner, to where the house came into view, Kevin saw that, to his disappointment, Mary was watching him from the spare bedroom window. She was just barely visible from a distance. He couldn't make out the details of her face, but he saw the outline of her head at the window. He was happy to see her, of course, but the surprise breakfast he’d been planning was ruined.
Felix pulled on the leash, eager to get home. He pulled so hard that Kevin quickened his pace. Kevin was surprised by how much power the little dog had, and he remarked for the thousandth time how happy he was they’d adopted him. Anyone that excited to be home was a welcome addition to their life.
But Kevin also noticed a touch of desperation to the dog. An anxiousness in his movement. Closer to the house now, Kevin looked to see if Mary had noticed Felix's odd behavior as well, or if it was his over-active imagination.
What he saw made him go cold. The face in the spare bedroom window wasn't Mary's. It had the unmistakable features of a man. A man staring directly at him.
Kevin stopped dead. He stared at the man in his house, waiting for the image to fade. A mirage. A nightmare. The man looked back at him. Felix pulled harder on the leash, begging him to move. Kevin strained to identify the face in the window. But before he could make out the face, the strange man disappeared from sight.
Into the house.
Kevin launched toward the house. He ran faster than he’d ever run in his life. He let go of the leash and Felix
bolted ahead of him, the lead swaying and jumping over the grass behind him.
Every footstep felt like thunder slowed down. Kevin’s bones jolted, his eyes on fire as he pictured the stranger in his home, walking down the hallway to the master bedroom, where Mary lay in bed. Unaware of the intruder. Asleep to the creeping doom.
Ahead of Kevin, Felix had already reached the door. He barked and clawed at it like he wanted to tear it apart.
Kevin finally reached the door as well. In one, swift motion he jammed the key into the handle, unlocked the door and pushed through at riot force. His shoulder slammed into the wooden frame but he felt no pain, no impact, only the flash of anger that came with being slowed down even a fraction of a second.
He ran through the house, unblinking eyes scanning for movement, for shapes, for anything that shouldn't be there. He tore through the living room and past the kitchen, down the hallway to the bedroom at the end.
Mary wasn’t in bed.
The sight of the empty bed, sheets wrinkled and thrown open, was enough to send Kevin into full panic. His pulse throbbed so hard it welled up in his neck and choked him. He was a man lost and confused, his world collapsing all around him.
Mary stood at the bathroom sink in her red pajamas, toothbrush clutched between her teeth. Her expression was a mixture of amusement and confusion. When she saw the look on Kevin's face, though, the amusement quickly faded.
Without a word, Kevin grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out of the bathroom. He pulled her up the hallway and out of the house. He heard nothing and felt nothing. Just focused on the running. On getting away from the house. They got a hundred feet before he noticed Mary shouting for him to stop.
"What is it, what happened?" she asked, frantic.
"The window. There was a face…in the window," he gasped, his words coming a few at a time.
"Whose face? What window?"
"Spare bedroom. I was…walking Felix. I saw his face…in the house. Inside the house." He pointed with one, adrenaline-heavy hand.
Mary looked at the house, then back at Kevin. Her face went slack. "Someone’s in our house?"
He nodded, catching his breath.
"What do we do? Do we call the police? I…I left my phone. Do you have yours?"
"Here." He handed her his phone. It felt useless to him. He paused, choosing his next words carefully. Finally he said, "Did you see him?"
She looked up at him, about to dial. "No. Who is he? Is he a burglar?"
Kevin shook his head. "Not a burglar," he said. "It was him."
"Him," Kevin said. "The plumber."
Mary studied Kevin’s face for the joke, but she couldn’t find it. He didn’t appear to be joking at all. And yet…
"The plumber? Roger?"
"I wasn't sure at first. I couldn't get a good look at him, but the more I think about it…" The man's face as he backed away from the window, retreating into the house, flashed across Kevin’s memory. The more he played it back in his mind, the more certain he was of the man's identity. Yet the way he appeared to float away, like a balloon with the string cut, felt wrong. Artificial. There was something else about the face that disturbed him as well. A strange lack of expression. An emptiness.
Mary didn’t know what to say. Then she looked around them. "Where's Felix?"
Kevin's heart dropped. He remembered Felix ahead of him, clawing at the front door, entering the house once it opened, then nothing.
"He must still be in there," Kevin said, slightly numb. They both listened, trying to make out barks or growls, but their ears were met with wind.
"I’m calling the police," Mary said.
Her eyes widened. "Kevin, there's a man in our house."
"They'll never make it in time."
"In time for what?"
"To save Felix."
She took a hard look at Kevin. "Don’t do it," she said, but he was already walking toward the house. "Kevin! Don’t do this," she begged.
"Stay here," he replied.
Kevin kept his eyes on the house as he approached, staring wide-eyed into the windows. He made a wide approach around to the left side. He’d left a shovel leaning against the house, next to the garbage cans, and he took the tool up in his hands. He gripped it until it became a weapon, testing its weight. Then he slowly trudged to the front door.
He put his ear to the door's cool surface. No sounds came from inside. No growling. No shuffling. No voices. He grabbed the door’s handle, turned it, and entered.
The feel of the house had changed completely. Gone was the sense of home, of security. Room by room, Kevin worked his way through, sweating and praying, hoping for one sound, one, single sign of life. He pushed away images of what might have become of his dog. Were he to find any man, disappeared plumber or no, hurting his dog in the ways going through his mind, he wasn’t sure he could stop himself from doing terrible things to that man.
The kitchen was empty. Same for the living room. Bathrooms and bedrooms, even the spare room, where Kevin had seen the phantom face in the window, were all silent. There was only one place left to check.
As if on cue, Felix’s barking started from deep within the house. In the ground. There was a desperate nature to the dog’s cries that made Kevin nervous. He squeezed the shovel tightly and ran toward the basement door.
He took the stairs three at a time, weapon in hand. But it was too fast. He landed on the concrete floor hard. He felt it in his knees, like the bones wanted to push out.
Kevin lost his balance and tumbled. The shovel fell from his hand and bounced across the basement. He rolled on the floor, nearly twisting his ankle before coming to a stop on his back.
With pain shooting up his side, Kevin sat up, expecting the worst: a crazed killer, wielding Kevin's own shovel against him. Instead, he sat up to find Felix a foot away. No deranged, would-be assassin. Just the dog, barking madly at a small drain in the ground.
Kevin got to his feet, his head swimming. He sighed with relief. "It's just a drain," he said, looking down at the rusty square no bigger than his hand. But Felix ignored him. He continued the shrill barking, made worse by the basement's echo.
"It’s alright, boy." Kevin touched Felix on his side. The dog snapped at him, his lips curled back, teeth bared. His normally placid expression had twisted into a beastly snarl.
Kevin was shocked. A moment later, Felix recognized him. It was as if a spell had been broken. His big, black eyes dilated and his teeth tucked back into his mouth. Felix whined an apology.
"Let’s get out of here," Kevin said, rubbing the dog's side. He looked again at the drain, wondering what could affect Felix so badly. The two turned to leave, both of them anxious to leave the basement.
They’d reached as far as the bottom of the stairs when a thought occurred to Kevin. If he didn't check the drain now, he wouldn't be able to sleep that night. Not that he slept well those days to begin with.
"Stay," he told Felix. The shovel still lay on the floor, against the wall where it had landed. Kevin thought about picking it up, but he realized how ridiculous it would be to wield a weapon against a drain. That picking up the shovel would be admitting to himself that he was scared of the floor. And so, despite his clenched fists, despite his licking lips, despite his feet and legs that ached and shouted for him to turn around, he left the shovel where it was and went to the drain.
Hesitantly, Kevin inched over the drain until he was standing just over it. His line of sight aimed directly down into the darkness between its thin, metal bars.
Kevin sighed. There was only darkness down there, nothing more. Just like the house above him, there was nothing to be afraid of. No strange man in his house, no enemy behind the gates, only a face he swore he saw in the window. Even that, after so much proof otherwise, he was starting to doubt. He most likely hadn’t seen anything at all. Just a play of light, coupled with imagination.
That moment, as Kevin turned to leave, was one he would go over in his mind for some time to come. More than even the face in the window.
Just as his head turned, as his eyes moved from the drain beneath him, he caught one, final image. One last glimpse which he would try to forget as he lay in bed that night, Mary next to him, him wanting to wake her up and talk through what he’d seen.
In the darkness, inside the drain, an eye looked up at him.