Plus-One With A Vengeance : 3 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 3 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"An evil person is like a dirty window, they never let the light shine through."
— William Makepeace Thackeray


 

Amber was nearly at the bottom of the stairs when I suddenly remembered to ask whether there was a bathroom. (Kind of an important feature!)

"Oh, yes, of course!" she replied, sounding strangely delighted. "It's down here."

I came down the stairs. She stood behind her car. The empty spot for Max's car was on the far side of the garage. Amber pointed over my shoulder, into the corner under the stairs. I frowned, not understanding. Was she joking with me?

"You'll have to move all that lumber and assorted goodies," she said. "There is supposed to be a functioning bathroom in that corner. You won't have any reason to be coming into the house for that, or for anything else. You'll have everything you need out here."

I get it, I said mentally. I get it. You don't want me in the house. I get it.

While she returned to the house, I made my way to the corner under the stairs. The "lumber and assorted goodies" that stood in my way was all rubbish that needed to be thrown away. Clearly I was wading through the clutter, the cast-offs, the discards of the previous owner. There were a lot of children's toys — old, broken, and dirty: a tricycle missing its handlebar and a big wheel without its seat. A ripped badminton net wrapped around a single smashed racket. I came across an ancient rusted wheelbarrow with only one handle. I had to shift a lot of old, heavy lumber — 6x6 beams in various lengths. Nothing was worth saving. Nothing. Luckily, the garage was roomy enough that I could muscle the trash out of the way without impacting the parking.

When I finally managed to free enough space to pry open the bathroom door, I burst out laughing. It was the height of absurdity. The room was a meager eighteen inches square and just over six feet high (there was a reason for the low ceiling, as you'll see). It contained a toilet, a sink, and a medicine cabinet with a door that wouldn't stay closed, which, in that tiny space, took up some valuable real estate. In other words, it only served as something to bump your head on.

Sitting on the toilet worked fine. In fact, if you wanted to shave or wash your face, it was the best place to be, if you could shave without using the mirror.

Standing up, on the other hand, didn't work so well. Apart from having the medicine-cabinet door in your face, the toilet would push your calves forward and the sink would push your thighs backward. There was no standing up straight.

To my immense surprise, there was both hot and cold water! And a bit of soap. After shifting all that debris, my hands needed washing. But where did the hot water come from? As it turned out, the ceiling was low to make room for a small water header above.

Some genius had set a drain in the floor, and I found a cut-off garden hose that could be screwed onto the faucet. Obviously, this was a primitive shower. At the same time, it was a particularly disgusting bit of hose; all covered with black crud. I didn't want to touch it without gloves.

Lastly, this was another door with no lock. There was nothing but a rope loop you'd have to hang onto if you wanted to preserve your modesty. Or dignity. Or whatever.

I smiled. I laughed. I wiggled my way in and out of that contortionist's bathroom, grinning. Amber's game was pretty obvious — or at least, that's what I thought at the time: she wanted to embarrass and humiliate me. She figured I was so desperate that I'd have to live in those shitty conditions. Little did I know! Her plan for me (and Max) was far from being simple. Amber was operating on a whole other level of which I hadn't the least inkling. It would be three or four months before I even began to understand the game Amber was playing.

As Sherlock Holmes liked to say, the game was afoot. Invisible to me, but already afoot.

Back then, as I stood in the garage, it seemed absurdly simple: she wanted to drive me away by offering a place no reasonable person would accept — OR (imagining I was destitute and had no alternative) she wanted to humiliate me by sticking me in that dump.

In either case, I felt that she'd thrown down a challenge, and it was a challenge I knew I could meet.

 


 

I raced back to Dad's house. We had a lot of material left over from our renovations that I could use here. I grabbed the old door locks, a length of garden hose (I'd need it for showers until I moved the bathroom upstairs), a broom and dustpan, some trash bags, and all the cans of expanding foam we had left. The foam would keep out the cold and the mice. Oh, yes, and a box of filter masks. I'd want to wear one while sweeping up the dust and mice droppings. Last of all, my measuring tape, a notebook, and some pens. Time to get back and get cracking!

 


 

This isn't a story of home renovation, so I'll spare you the details of my labor. I'll just throw in the fact that my Dad sent me a healthy chunk of money from the sale of his house, thereby increasing my cushion of savings. I was grateful, both for the money and for the freedom it represented. After my burnout at the startup, I was in no hurry to get another programming job. If I continued to live frugally, I could go for nearly a decade without working. My only expense was food. I knew I'd have to start allocating money for clothes, but as I was mainly working on my living space, I dressed in work clothes nearly all the time.

Amber was perversely vigilant, and — her schedule being much like Max's — she did her best to prevent Max and me from even saying hello. Despite her efforts, she couldn't be there at every moment. Max and I got into a routine of chatting in the garage when she'd leave for work before him or when he'd arrive home before her.

In spite of my intention of using the windfall from my Dad to pay for the work I was doing, Max insisted that I keep receipts, and every week he wrote me a check.

I'm glad he did, though. The work quickly got expensive. Unlike at my Dad's house, there was work involving the trades (electric and plumbing). When I demolished the little water closet downstairs and built a real bathroom upstairs, I had to buy a new water heater and all new fixtures (toilet and tub). For that, I had to call in a plumber. He had to redo the pipes to and from the kitchen sink, and upgrade both the water feed in and the connection out to the sewer. Those were so expensive that I didn't tell Max. It was a healthy expenditure, but the only one I'd made in years.

I ended up using those old 6x6 beams to beef up the structural integrity, especially under the new bathroom.

An electrician put in some baseboard heating and to redo the electrical panel.

"You know this dump is VERY illegal," the electrician told me. "For one thing, it's a definite fire trap. What kind of rent are you paying here?"

In any case, I got so caught up in the renovations, that I found myself alone on Thanksgiving without any plans and without any food. It was simply a lack of planning on my part. Back then, one day was pretty much like the next. I never knew what day of the week it was, let alone the date, so the holiday crept up on me unawares. I wandered around Town Center for a few hours with a growling stomach. In the end, I went to the only place I found open, which was Subway. I ordered two hot sandwiches and hid at a table in the back to eat them. The guy behind the counter seemed totally indifferent, but I was embarrassed that I'd forgotten one of our biggest national holidays.

Weeks passed. The renovation advanced. Eventually we came to the day this story finally starts: Christmas Eve, when Amber's game at last came above ground.

Christmas Eve snuck up on me in exactly the same way that Thanksgiving had. Without any warning (or so it seemed), boom! it was the day. I know it sounds ridiculous, but — apart from my brief occasional conversations with Max — I led a very simple, separate, solitary life. My only concern was to have my abode totally winter-proof before the weather turned seriously cold.

What happened is this: for some reason, the moment I opened my fridge and found it more-or-less empty, a voice in my head told me, It's Christmas Eve. Today.

Again, I had no plans for the holiday. Nowhere to go, nowhere to be. Which was fine. But still I'd have to eat. I pulled on my coat and hoofed it to Town Center.

Calculating that I'd need two evening meals (one for Christmas Eve and one for Christmas day), one big midday meal for Christmas, plus a festive breakfast tomorrow, I picked up pretty much any food item that caught my eye, as long as it didn't required any cooking beyond a microwave's ability. I also grabbed four bottles of wine and a bottle of bourbon. I doubted that I'd get through all that, but it was better to have leftovers than not enough.

After struggling with my bags as far as the sidewalk, I wrestled my phone from my pocket. Just at that moment, Kitty strolled up, smiling broadly.

"Oh, hey! Merry Christmas!" I called, kissing her on both cheeks. "How are you?"

"Merry Christmas! Really good," she replied. "Do you need help getting that stuff to your car?"

"Oh, I walked here," I told her. "I guess I wasn't thinking ahead. I'm just about to call an Uber."

"Don't do that — I'll give you a ride! I owe you, anyway, for that great gig you got me at your Dad's place."

"Oh, come on," I laughed.

"Seriously! It's only the second time that someone's bought the whole look! I made a tidy profit off your Dad. Claus and I want to take you out to dinner, any place you like. We'd take your Dad out, too, if he was still living up here."

I demurred, but she hefted one of my bags and started walking. "My car's over here."

In the car, on the way to Max's house, Kitty said, "I hear you're living like Cinderella."

"Huh?"

"You're living in Max and Amber's garage, aren't you?"

"Technically, it's a room above the garage, but yes. I've fixed it up, though — a lot. You should come up and see." I laughed. "I'm almost done — in another couple of weeks I could hire you to stage the place."

"Huh," she laughed, sounding doubtful.

As we approached, I told her, "You can pull into the driveway. Max and Amber won't be home yet." She gave me a strange look that I didn't understand, but replied, "Okay."

She insisted on carrying one of the bags, although once we got inside, she confessed she wouldn't be able to haul it all the way up the stairs.

"That's okay," I told her. "You run up ahead and see what I've done to the place. I'll deal with the bags."

I clumsily negotiated the narrow stairs with two of the bags, leaving the third one down below for a second trip.

Kitty was my first guest: the first person to see my work. Not even Max had been up there yet. I was pretty proud of the transformation I'd effected, so I was grinning from ear to ear when I stepped inside.

She had her back to me, and turned to face me when I entered. I can still see her face, as if it was a moment ago. She had a look of horrified surprise, of sadness, of pity. "Oh, Elliot!" she cried.

"What?" I asked, alarmed. "What's wrong?"

"This place! I can't believe that you— that they let you— oh, Elliot! I know you want to be near Max, but this..."

It was an odd moment. I thought I'd done so well in making it livable! "I've done a ton of work on this place," I protested.

Kitty's face went white. "It used to be worse?"

"Oh, Kitty, come on — it's not as bad as all that! It isn't awful, is it?" Her pained expression answered for her.

She heaved a deep breath and looked at the floor.

"I have to get the other bag," I said. "And put this stuff away."

As I stowed my purchases in the fridge, I told her, "Why don't you sit down?"

She glanced around quickly, nervously. When I realized what she was looking for, I got irritated. "There aren't any mice," I told her.

"Oh, I know," she replied, lying, still skittish.

"Oh, well," she said. "Eventually you'll move into the main house, right?"

"Huh?" I chuckled. "Main house? There's only one house — but why would I move in?"

Up to this point I'd been pretty confused, but now the shoe was on the other foot. Kitty looked positively puzzled. I couldn't make sense out of her reactions or from anything she said.

Looking for some kind of common ground, I told her, "I'm surprised, Kitty, I thought I did a good job here."

"I guess," she ventured. "Look, I'm sorry. I don't know... I guess I expected a lot of other things."

"Like what?"

"Oh, nothing. I'm sorry.." She came over, and on tiptoe, kissed my cheek. "Listen, for tomorrow, I'd invite you over, but Claus' parents and mine will be there, and—"

"It's fine," I said. "I'm fine. I'm happy. I like it here. If I didn't, I'd move."

"You mean to Florida, with your Dad?"

"No, I mean to someplace else, here in town."

"Would you be able to afford that?"

"Able to afford it? Kitty, what on earth are you talking about? You don't think I'm living here because I'm broke, do you?"

"Oh, no, no, of course not!" she said hastily, though her face betrayed her doubt. "Okay. Well, I guess I better go. It was nice seeing you, Elliot. take care. And Merry Christmas!" She took a last uncertain look around her, as if she expected a rat to leap out of the furniture.

"Merry Christmas, Kitty. I'll walk you to your car."

"No, it's fine," she said, waving me off. I listened to her footsteps as she fled down the stairs. She slammed the side door — probably without meaning to. Then I heard her car door open and close, her engine start, and finally the sound of her driving away.

 


 

Of course, the conversation replayed in my mind over and over. It didn't get any clearer, though. It didn't make any more sense than when she first said those things. I had no idea what she was getting at. Oh well.

 


 

Max came home first. I went down to say hello and to wish him Merry Christmas. I told him about Kitty's visit and her strange reaction. I asked him, "Max, could you come up and take a look at what I've done? I mean, I think I did a good job, but—"

"I'm sure it's fine," he told me. "I'll come up, but not now. Amber will be home soon. I found a recipe for a Christmas cocktail I want to surprise her with."

"Cool! I hope she likes it."

"Yeah, me too." He laughed. "Merry Christmas, buddy." He gave me a few manly whacks on the shoulder.

"Merry Christmas."

I saw down on the middle step and watched Max go into his house. Even though I don't smoke, for some reason I wished I had a cigarette. I sat there, without a thought in my head, just sitting, until Amber pulled into the driveway. Not wanting to cross paths with her, I was about to jump up and retreat to my room when she killed her lights and engine halfway up the driveway, next to the house. Odd. She always puts her car away. Always. Oh, well. There's a first time for everything. She got out of her car and walked into the house without seeing me.

Kitty's visit left me deflated. There didn't seem any reason to move from the stair, except that it was a little chilly, that it smelled like a garage. Also, I began to feel hungry. I went upstairs, got out some cheese, some wine, some bread. As I ate, I kept looking at the clock, watching the numbers change. I lay down, I got up, I ate some more, I drank half a bottle of wine. All of that took twenty minutes. Then I heard Amber's car in the driveway. I waited, expecting her to open the garage door and pull inside, but she didn't. Instead, it sounded like she pulled out and drove away. Very odd. On Christmas Eve! I opened my door and descended a few steps. Through the little windows in the garage door, I could see that the driveway was empty. Amber was gone. Oh well! Not my business. I returned to my room and lay down. It was too early to go to sleep. I wasn't tired anyway.

I never should have had Kitty over. Her reactions threw off my equilibrium and spoiled my mood. I didn't know what to make of her weird comments. Living like Cinderella... wanting to be near Max... eventually you'll move into the main house... — what on earth did it mean? That "main house" nonsense could only come from Amber. Amber, giving herself airs, as though she was some great lady, to the manor born. Main house, indeed! There was only one house, Max's house, and the garage, where I lived. It was hardly a house. And why would I be moving into the house? Amber would never countenance that!

While I lay there, staring at the ceiling, I heard the garage's side door open. Max called my name from the bottom of the stairs. He swore, then came quickly up the stairs, still calling my name. He burst into the room. I looked up at him, blinking.

"Have you seen Amber?" he demanded. He seemed confused, upset, impatient.

"She never comes up here," I told him. "but I heard her leave about—" I glanced at the clock "—about forty minutes ago."

"Forty minutes ago..." he repeated, seemingly more confused. "I didn't hear the garage door open or close."

"She parked in the driveway."

Max was clearly startled by my answer. "The driveway?" He ran halfway down the stairs and looked out the little windows into the driveway. "She's gone."

"Right," I said. "You didn't know she was going out?"

"No, she said she'd be right back."

"So? She'll be right back."

"No, no — she said it like she was just going upstairs for— something, I don't know. But not I'll be right back like she was driving off somewhere."

"Okay." He seemed surprisingly upset. I felt he was making a mountain out of a molehill. "Have you tried calling her?"

"Yes, and I think she's blocking my calls. I don't know."

"Blocking your calls? What makes you say that? Do you get a message that says your call has been blocked?"

"No, it doesn't work like that. I'm not sure how it's supposed to go, but I get a voicemail message."

"Sounds pretty standard."

"No — it's not. It's not her normal voicemail message. It's different, like the one that comes with the phone. You know, the one with the weird guy's voice? In any case, she's not picking up and she's not calling back."

"It's only been forty minutes," I pointed out.

He rubbed the side of his thumb against his beard stubble in a distracted way. "I don't know, man. I've got a bad feeling about this." Then he stopped and looked around the room. "Hey, wow — you did a nice job up here. This is quite a upgrade. Can I open this door? Is it a closet? My God! You've created an actual bathroom!"

"Yeah," I said proudly.

Max shook his head. "Don't get me wrong — it's no reflection on your work. I mean, what you've done is fantastic, but in spite of all that, this place is still a shit-hole. It's part of a garage! You have to move into the house, man. Down to the mother-in-law suite, the way you should have from the start."

I shook my head.

"I don't know why you talked Amber into letting you live out here."

"Max, Amber is the one who put me out here. She told me to fix it up."

"What!? Why didn't you say something to me about it? I thought you wanted to live out here!"

"I asked Amber if you knew she told me to live out here, and she said it was none of my business. She said that was between the two of you."

Max sighed heavily.

"I'm sorry, man," I told him.

"You're sorry? I'm the one who should be sorry! This is ridiculous. Elliot, I had no idea." He looked around the room. "All this work, all this time..."

"Max, seriously, I didn't mind."

Max frowned. "Listen," he said, "Come into the house now, right now, and have a drink with me. I'm going to make this Christmas cocktail, the one I was going to make for Amber, and you and I will drink it."

"I think you're overreacting," I told him. "She'll be back any minute."

He shook his head in response.

"What if she comes home while I'm in there?"

"Fuck her!" Max declared. "It's my house! You're my friend! What right does she have to separate me from my friends? from my family? On Christmas Eve no less!"

"Uh..." Clearly there was more going on than I knew.

"Come on, Elliot! Join me in a Christmas toast. Come on."

I followed him down the stairs and into the house. After months of living above the garage, the experience of stepping into Max's kitchen took my breath away. Just as a general overall impression, it was a hell of a lot nicer in the house than it was in the garage. For one thing, it was warmer. And prettier. And — it smelled a lot better. That was for damn sure.

"First, the Christmas cocktail!" Max exclaimed, placing himself at the kitchen island, where an assortment of bottles awaited, along with two martini glasses and a shaker.

"Does this drink have a name?"

"Yes, of course it has a name! It's called a Mistletoe Martini. There are several versions, but this one appealed to me." He paused for a moment, then: "Full disclosure: I haven't tried it yet."

I glanced around, half-fearing that Amber would pop out of the woodwork and throw me out.

As if reading my mind, Max growled, "Quit worrying. She's not coming back tonight."

"Has she taken off like this before?"

"Not exactly like this, but yeah, she has a tendency to up and leave. Not often." He considered for a moment. "This is maybe the fourth time since I've known her. One time she got impatient about something and just walked away from me. I was trying to read the map on my phone, but without a word, she took off. She had no idea where she was going. She ended up walking for hours in a straight line until she finally... I don't know... came to? and realized she had no idea where she was." He sighed. "I should have known when she said I'll be right back. She never says that."

I frowned, not understanding.

"She says that, and you figure she'll be right back. If she said, I'm leaving, she wouldn't make a clean getaway."

"I don't know what to say."

Max put the lid on the shaker and hoisted it near his shoulder. "Then don't say anything. We'll just drink." He smiled and started shaking the drink.

I looked at the bottles he'd used: cranberry iced tea, orange juice, lemon juice, vodka, cherry brandy. After pouring out two martinis, he garnished them with fresh raspberries and handed one to me. "Merry Christmas, man!"

"Merry Christmas."

We each took sips, nodded approvingly. "It's refreshing," I told him.

"Whatever," he said with a laugh. "It does the job. Come on, let me show you the mother-in-law suite. You're done with that garage. I'm sorry I let her do that to you."

"It's okay."

"No, it's not okay. It's just that, with her, it's easier to go along. She's like a wall, if a wall could be aggressive. An aggressive wall. An aggressive, pushy wall. I am SO done with that."

"Do you mean you're breaking up with her?"

"No. I mean I'm done giving in to everything she wants or says. This is my house, and you're my friend. I mean, it's not as though you're moving into the bedroom across the hall. You'll see. It's a totally separate... uh... living space."

The tour only took a few minutes. The suite consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, a sitting room, and a kitchenette. There were two big closets, a wide chest of drawers, and lots of cabinets in the kitchenette. The suite was as nice as Max's mother had said. It was clean, bright, and comfortable.

After we knocked back the rest of our drinks, Max insisted we move all my belongings, right then, without waiting a moment.

I would have been happy to carry over a couple of items, to symbolically move in, but Max insisted on carting over everything — not that I had that many possessions. "I told you: you're done with the garage, man! Welcome back to civilization!"

Then he fixed another pair of martinis. "It needs a little more booze this time," he said. "Do you think Triple Sec would help?"

"I think they were fine the way you made them. In fact, I feel a little loopy already."

"Huh. Well, you can't fly on one leg — am I right?"

"I dunno—"

"Triple Sec it is!"

While he mixed the second pair of martinis, I wandered into the living room and admired their Christmas tree. It nearly filled the bow window at the front of the house. It was the most beautiful tree I'd seen. It was exactly the right height, with three inches between the star on top and the ceiling. Its proportions were perfect, a symmetric cone, adorned with blinking lights, festive draping, huge glass balls colored deep green, blue, and red. "It must have taken an entire day to put this all together!"

"I suppose so," Max answered. "Amber hired someone to do it." He shrugged.

"Oh. I always liked doing that — it's something I used to do with my Mom." My eyes misted (an effect of the alcohol).

I leaned down to look at the presents under the tree. There were five, different sizes, all perfectly wrapped in golden paper with red ribbons. "Did she hire someone to wrap the gifts, too?" Just being nosy, I poked at the labels. To Amber, From Max — all five said the same thing. To Amber, From Max...

"Hey, Max, all these presents are from you to her. Doesn't she give *you* any presents?"

"What?" he asked in a sharp tone. He entered the room with the second pair of drinks and handed me one, a little roughly. I repeated my observation that all the presents were for Amber; none for him.

"There were presents for me yesterday!" he exclaimed, mystified.

"Huh," I said.

He knelt down and put his head near the floor, examining the entire space beneath the tree and finding nothing.

I don't know why I did the next thing that I did, but I did it. I walked over to the front closet, the one next to the front door, and opened it. Maybe I thought the presents would be hidden there, I don't know. In any case, the closet was half empty. It was easy to see that everything in there belonged to Max. All the coats, shoes, everything was obviously masculine. None of it was Amber's. When I pointed this out to Max, his jaw fell. He swore. Then he set his drink down and cried, "Come on!" He raced up the stairs. I quickly followed.

Max entered their bedroom, and ran to a bureau. "Check that closet!" he told me, pointing. As I opened the door, I heard him behind me, opening drawers, swearing, and saying "Empty!" I could tell by the hollow sound that each drawer he opened was empty. In fact, the closet, too, was empty. Completely empty. It was a walk-in closet with shelves and rods and hooks and drawers, but there were no clothes, no shoes, no jewelry. Not even a handkerchief.

Max came, peering over my shoulder. "How did she— how could she— it's—" He half-sat, half-collapsed onto his bed. "She must have been planning this for weeks! Maybe months! Do you realize? She moved all her stuff out — everything — without my noticing! Right under my nose! And she had a LOT of stuff. A shit-ton of stuff! She couldn't have done this overnight!" Turning to me, he asked, "Did you ever see a moving van? A truck? People carrying stuff out? Boxes? Bags? Anything?" I shook my head no.

Max looked around him, stumped. Then he sidled over to one of the bedside tables and opened the drawer. "Nothing. No note, no message, no clue, no warning. What the fuck?" He sat there for a space without speaking, his shoulders hunched, squeezing the fingers of his left hand with his right.

"I'm just... floored," he whispered at long last.

I waited for what seemed a decent interval, then asked, "Have you eaten? Max? Have you eaten?" He shook his head. "Then I'll prepare something. It's Christmas Eve. We should have a meal. Like Martha would say, it's a good thing."

"Martha?"

"Martha Stewart."

He turned his head to look at me. It was as if I'd spoken an unknown language.

"Never mind," I said. "I'll bring up your drink, then I'll get some dinner together." He replied with an almost imperceptible shrug.

The food I bought earlier only needed a little microwaving. I found some leftover lasagna in Max's fridge, so I heated that up, too. Then I managed to carry two wine glasses (shoved upside-down between my fingers), my half-empty wine bottle and a full, uncorked bottle. I laid the two plates full of food along my left forearm, and draped a pair of napkins over my wrist.

When I entered the bedroom, Max murmured, "We shouldn't eat in here."

I said, "I won't tell if you don't."

We sat on the edge of the bed, the wine on the bedside table. When we were ready for second helpings, we went back downstairs, and turned on the TV in the living room. Miracle on 34th Street was just about to start. I was shocked to hear that Max had never seen it. His lip curled in disdain. "That's the one where Rock Hudson dies and it screws up everybody's life, isn't it? And every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings? No thanks."

"No, no — you're thinking of It's a Wonderful Life and it's James Stewart, not Rock Hudson. You're right, that *is* a terrible movie. Miracle on 34th Street is the best. It's totally opposite. It starts off with a drunken Santa. With a whip."

Max managed to finish most of the wine, and then moved to tequila. I switched to water. I didn't want to be drunk and stupid if Amber happened to show up. I knew it was unlikely, but with her you never knew.

By the time the movie ended, Max was sound asleep in his recliner. I took his shoes off and covered him with a blanket. I had my back to the window as I did those things, and when I turned again toward the tree and the window, I saw something that froze my blood within me. In the lowest right corner of the window was a face, surrounded by a mane of hair. The face had a fierce expression, and it stared unblinking at me. It was the most frightening thing I've ever seen in my entire life.

It was Amber's face. Shocked, startled, even shaking, I was unable to speak or move. Then I blinked and the face was gone.

I ran to the window and looked outside. There was nothing; no one. I ran to the side windows. There was no one there. No car in the driveway. No trace of anyone. The sidewalks were clear.

Unnerved, I ran around the house, throwing the deadbolts on all the doors, locking all the windows. Not that it would do me any good — Amber had the keys to the house.

I poured myself a shot of whiskey to steady my nerves. Could I have imagined it? I had been drinking; I could easily have imagined it. After all, it was a very emotional day. That face — it probably wasn't real, was it?

Then came an idea that helped calm my nerves: a primitive alarm system. I found some folding chairs in a closet. I pressed a chair tight up against each door, then set two wine glasses on the seat of each chair. I figured that if she came in, the glasses would fall and break. I was sure to hear it, no matter what. I didn't want her sneaking in on me while I slept. Even if she wasn't really there.

Then I found a blanket, wrapped myself in it, and lay down fully clothed on the couch in the living room. Trembling, I listened to Max's snoring, which I somehow found reassuring. It soothed me until I fell asleep.



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