(Note this is a work of continuous fiction. The first ten parts are at these links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three , Part Four , Part Five , Part Six, Part Seven , Part Eight , Part Nine , and Part Ten)
Rose feels her body tense up; she bounces on her heels a few times on the concrete patio, ready to sprint back the way they came. It’s an exhausting thought, running out into the woods just as night falls, the temperature dropping and the scent of rain heavy on the wind.
But James grins and walks casually into the the house, while Rose waits on the patio, her arms folded, looking around the yard. It’s a secluded old house and she can see why James likes it – only one other house is visible at all, a big brick manor just a little down the road across the street.
There are a few lights on in the other house, and the flickering of a television in a wide front window. Rose wonders if the people who live there know Debbie, if they’ll notice lights and televisions, and if they know when she goes to work.
Now another noise starts up, the barking of a tired-sounding dog. Rose takes a step forward, arms still folded, and peers inside.
There’s James across a large, tidy living room, entering numbers into a wall-mounted keypad. The numbers beep as he touches them, in the same electronic voice as the system alarm, and after four of them, the system falls silent. Now the dog seems louder.
“Is the dog new?” Rose asks.
“No, that’s Skyler,” James tells her. “He’s a good boy, we get along just fine. She keeps him crated up so he doesn’t crap in the house, but I always let him out.”
He wipes his hands on the legs of his khakis and proceeds farther into the house, calling out, “Skyler!” Then he looks back at her, his eyebrows up, and says, “Pull that door closed behind you, okay?”
So Rose closes the door and follows him into the kitchen, dimly lit by the light over the stove, where he opens the pantry and gets a bag of pig ears off the rack on the inside of the door. Somewhere else in the house, the barking gets more rapid and excited and a metal cage clangs and thumps as Skyler moves around in it.
Rose looks around the kitchen, a tidy, autumn-colored area with frilly orange placemats at a little breakfast nook table, and crafty, decorative signs hanging up that read “Home Sweet Home” and “In This House We Serve The Lord.” A bowl of fruit looks inviting – apples and bananas – but Rose isn’t sure what the rules are about eating the food in a house without teenagers.
Does Debbie know how many bananas she has left? Rose peers into the sink at a single cereal bowl with a spoon in it, filled with soapy water, and she thinks that Debbie probably knows exactly how many bananas were here when she left.
She starts to ask James, but he’s already heading down a hallway, creaking across the floorboards. He calls out behind him without looking: “Don’t turn on any lights and don’t eat anything. There he is – who’s a good boy?”
More clanging around and then a bunch of floppy dog noises, and then James creaks back down the hall, a small black lab mix at his heels, which trots up to Rose with the pig ear in his mouth and smells her, whining a little. She leans down to pet him, telling him, “Hello, you good boy!”
He gets used to them pretty quick. James leaves the two of them in the kitchen to get to know each other, creaking through the house to verify for certain that it’s empty, while Rose goes to the refrigerator to look at a few pictures of Debbie’s daughter, a bleach blonde wearing a cap and gown in one photo, a Cracker Barrel waitress outfit in another, a green prom dress in a third. Also attached to the refrigerator door with a magnet is an admissions letter to Florida State.
When James comes back in, Rose tells him, “Debbie’s daughter looks like a whore.”
“You should see her Facebook page.”
“How did you get the security code, out of total curiosity?”
He opens the pantry again and motions her over, and when she leans in to look where he’s pointing, she blinks a couple times, shaking her head. It’s a little Post-It, sticking to the wall next to some emergency numbers, unmarked except for the number 4506.
“Debbie goes running on her days off, takes her about a half hour. She takes the dog with her, and for some reason she doesn’t lock the door or turn the system on. She’s really diligent about it at practically all other times. I watched her run a few times to be sure about the timeline, and then I came and tried the door right after she left one day.”