Before the sun had risen Jacob heard the prowler shuffling through the brittle leaves. That sound and a warm breeze floated in through the open window by his bedside. He pushed aside the sheer white curtain that was yellowing with age and searched the darkness. The crackling of the leaves being crushed under foot reverberated like muffled firecrackers. Unable to see who was out there, he rolled onto his back and thought about the ease with which he could identify the way the intruder walked. In the trespasser’s shuffle there was a recognizable rhythm. Climbing out of bed, he looked over at Clarissa who was on her side and with her back to him. Her breathing was like tiny whispers.
At the window he peered out at the darkness, barely able to see the ground at the base of the tall oak trees. The shuffling had stopped, replaced by the sound of the leaves in the trees being rustled by the breeze. As he turned from the window and walked across the bedroom the feel of the coarse, threadbare carpet under his bare feet it brought back childhood memories of walking barefoot through the hay in his grandfather’s barn. He opened the door and in his head said “damn” as the hinges squeaked. Looking back, Clarissa had not moved. He went out, pulling the door closed behind him.
The hallway was dark except for a small nightlight in the baseboard that cast a pale blue light on the hardwood floor and cracking white paint on the bathroom door. Going into the bathroom he pulled the string that hung from the light fixture in the ceiling and blinked hard as the bulb light flashed brightly in his eyes. He peed, then while washing his hands in the small porcelain sink stared at his reflection in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Reaching the age of forty had happened as if sprung on him like an unwanted gift at a surprise party. Although he didn’t look old, his face was already lined and the eyes that stared back at him in his reflection were tired, and not from lack of sleep. He looked so much like his grandfather that it made his heart ache. He cupped his hand and gathered water in the palm and brought it to his mouth and drank it in. Leaving the bathroom, he left the light on and the door open and followed the trail of light down the hall.
He flicked the light switch at the top of the stairs and stood there for a moment inhaling the cinnamon scent of the potpourri Clarissa had put in a bowl on a stand near the bottom of the steps. As often as he had thought to tell her how much he liked it, he wished that he had. He walked down the steps trying to keep his full weight from making them creek. At the bottom he opened the front door and walked out onto the porch. In only his briefs, the morning breeze felt cooler on his skin now that he was totally immersed in it. There was a stillness in the air unaltered by the movement of the leaves clinging to the large branches. He stood at the top of the porch steps and scanned the yard and what little he could make out of the edge of the woods on the other side of the dirt road. Seeing nothing, he sat in the porch swing and began to rock back and forth very slowly. The rusty chain holding the swing to the ceiling of the porch screeched with every backward motion.
He laid down on the swing and curled into a fetal position and fell sound asleep.
The water of the Whipshaw Creek practically sang as it flowed over the large rocks and fallen tree limbs. Jacob sat on the bank with his feet in the cool water and tossed in acorns and watched them float on the surface, carried along by the swift current. Afternoon sunlight twinkled on the water. On both sides of the creek the woods hummed with birdsong and the chattering of gray squirrels. He tossed the last of the acorns he had been holding into the water and laid back on a bed of grass and leaves and looked up through the branches of the trees. Minnows nibbled on the soles of his feet. He thought about humming, then decided if he had to think about it, then doing it would make him feel self-conscious. When he was in high school he loved to sing until he joined the school choir, then he stopped singing for the same reason.
Annoyed with having his feet tickled he splashed them about then raised them out of the water, and with knees bent, placed them on the bank. He had laid his red flannel shirt beside him so he rolled it into a ball and put it under his head. The scents of underarm deodorant and sweat wafted up. He tried to understand why Clarissa complained about it; there was something pleasant about the smell. It was also nice to think of things he wouldn’t say out loud. He sat up and brushed a red ant from the top of his foot and thought about the feeling of restlessness that kept his nerves on edge and his body from remaining in one position for very long.
When a twig snapped behind him he quickly turned his head. Peering into the shadows of the woods he saw no one or anything moving. A moist breeze blew across his back and seemed to linger on his spine. Suddenly feeling naked and exposed he shivered then unrolled his shirt and put it on. Continuing to look into the woods he stood up and put on his socks and boots and rolled down his pants cuffs. As he walked to the road the sound of his own footsteps on the woodland debris beneath them seemed unnaturally loud. He stepped onto the road.
Beth Dowrey’s SUV screeched to a stop in the dirt just a few inches from his legs. A cloud of dirt floated up from under the tires.
“Jesus, Jacob, I almost hit you,” she yelled sticking her head out the window. “Are you okay?”
“Sorry, Beth,” he said. “I guess I was daydreaming.”
“I guess you were. Not many vehicles use this road but you still have to look out,” she said.
He went to the window. “Beth, you had any problems with prowlers or trespassers down at your place?”
“Not for years,” she said. “Why?”
“Just wondered,” he said. As he turned to walk the rest of the way across the road, he said, “If you see any strangers on your property let me know.”
She drove off, her rear tires kicking up more dust clouds.
Slowly walking up the walkway to his porch he pushed the leaves that had fallen on it back into the grass with the tips of his boots. Once on the porch he turned and stared at the woods.
Jacob placed a small square piece of wood under the leg of the kitchen table then stood up and pushed on the top to see if it still wobbled. “There, fixed,” he said when the table didn’t move.
Clarissa was standing at the stove with her back to him. She had twisted her long brown hair into a braid that hung down the middle of her back. As she stirred the pot of lentils the braid shook back and forth.
Sitting down, Jacob watched her, the movement of the braid against the stillness of the rest of her body. The braid was like a living thing that had attached itself to her. In that moment he hated the braid, the imagined threat it posed to his wife. It was two entwined snakes. The ropes of a noose. He turned away and looked out the window above the sink. The branches of the oak trees were heavy with clusters of acorns. Two squirrels chased each other along a limb.
“I have to drive to Cincinnati tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll leave early and be back late.”
“Okay,” she said as she lifted the pot from the stove and turned and placed it on a pad on the table.
He turned and faced her. “There’s a guy there who has a part I need for the Dodge.”
“Okay,” she said as she ladled lentils onto a plate. The steam from the lentils had turned her pale cheeks red. Beads of perspiration had formed above her upper lip.
“I found the guy on eBay. I was lucky that he was close enough to avoid having to pay for shipping costs,” he said as he reached out and accepted the plate she handed to him.
“What are you going to do tomorrow?” he said as he spooned a dollop of sour cream on the lentils.
“I might go the flea market with Beth,” she said as she ladled lentils onto her plate.
“I saw her earlier,” he said. He put a spoonful of lentils and sour cream in his mouth and swallowed. The taste of cumin, cloves and cinnamon she put in the lentils lingered on his tongue.
“You did?” she said. “Can you pass me the sour cream?”
“Yeah, I was coming back from the creek and saw her on the road,” he said. He handed her the container of sour cream, the tips of his fingers touching hers. “We just waved at each other.”
She quickly pulled her hand away, gripping the sour cream.
Picking up the glass of water he thought about the lie he had just told her. It was a small lie. Meaningless. But she would be seeing Beth tomorrow and Beth would tell her what happened and maybe even that he had asked about prowlers. As he gulped down the water he turned and looked at the trees. The squirrels were gone. When he put the glass down he looked at Clarissa. She was staring at him as if he was a stranger.
The story continues in episode 2.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had short stories published in Gathering Storm Magazine, Midnight Circus Magazine, Double Feature, Tigershark Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, CultureCult Magazine, Fictive Dream, Ricky’s Back Yard, Panorama Journal, Story and Grit, Earhten Lamp Journal, NoiseMedium,Visitant Literary Journal, The Drunken Llama, Sick Lit Magazine, Literally Stories, Communicators League, Jakob’s Horror Box, Trigger Warnings, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, The Haunted Traveler, Bull & Cross, The Dirty Pool and in the Dystopia/Utopia Anthology by Flame Tree Publishing, the 100 Voices Volume II anthology by Centum Press, the Winter’s Grasp and Waiting For a Kiss anthologies by Fantasia Divinity Magazine and the Neighbors and River Tales anthologies by Zimbell House Publishing and the Grivante Press Anthology: MASHED: The Culinary Delights of Erotic Horror, and Pure Slush: Inane Flash Fiction anthology, among numerous others. His plays have been produced in several states including Arizona, Missouri and Ohio. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.