DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 29

“When you’ve learned nothing from the past

Or the lies people told,

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.

 

When they have all abandoned you

And left your bones to mold,

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.”

 

  1.                                                                                                     Michael Chwedyk, “Heart of Silver”

Chapter 29:

The Wall that Lost an Ear

Garbage trucks reverberated outside of Nicole’s bedroom window. They were joined by the early morning flights out of Midway, and together they jostled her awake before her alarm could sound. She noticed new cracks in the ceiling, but her eyes were always led to the worst of them. It splintered down to the closet frame, and the paint curled from the gash. That fracture has greeted me in the morning more times than my husband, thought Nicole. What a useless thought.

She felt Tara still nestled under her left arm—the side farthest from the door. Nicole kissed the top of her daughter’s head before glancing at the sheet draped over her right arm, concealing the gun in her hand. Only slept two hours this time, thought Nicole. She rubbed Tara’s pinkie toe between her thumb and forefinger. Don’t suppose you want to start taking shifts?

Nicole poured a bowl of Bran for Tara before shuffling to the coffee pot. She filled the reservoir halfway before she realized they were out of coffee. The agents had wasted it with the intention of “keeping sharp.” Nicole had to write sideways to fit it on the grocery list.

“I don’t want this,” said Tara as she slumped down in her chair.

“It’s either this or wait for Harry to get groceries,” said Nicole as she poured milk into the bowl.

“Donuts.”

“No donuts—just grown-up cereal.” Nicole examined her face. “Are you holding your breath?”

Tara slumped lower as her cheeks puffed out.

“So you’re going to end it all for donuts?” I guess this is better than her tantrums.

Nicole pinched Tara’s nose shut. The little girl batted her mother’s hand away with a cough. Nicole handed her a spoon and nudged the chair closer to the table. “You don’t even like dunking your head underwater in the pool.”

Nicole wondered how much of the morning Agent Montang would waste in her guest room. She placed the TV remote by Tara’s bowl. “Watch some cartoons; it’ll take your mind off breakfast.”

Nicole walked down the hallway and knocked on the door. “Agent Montang? Harry?” No answer. I think that’s enough pleasantries for one morning. She opened the door to find the agent splayed on the fold-out bed with his arm slung over his eyes. The sheets had been kicked onto the floor along with his dirty laundry and empty food containers.

At least the other two keep the living room clean. Nicole maneuvered passed his garbage on her way to the window. Her foot caught the edge of his black duffel bag. She kicked it in anger, but it was deceptively heavy for its size, moving only an inch from her toes. She pulled back the blinds, letting the sunlight bake across Harry. He rolled onto his side with a mumble.

“You’re late for work again,” said Nicole.

Harry sat up on the edge of the bed, rubbing his face with both palms. His hair stood on end. With a few  brushes with his hand it fell back into place. “I’ll need a minute.”

“Take your time. It’s not like you’re responsible for our well-being or anything.”

Harry reached for his aviator sunglasses from the nightstand.“A minute, Mrs. Reto.”

Tara had found something to her liking on TV. Nicole took a seat next to her and poured herself a bowl. Harry emerged from the hallway with wearing the same pants he had slept in and his collared shirt buttoned off-kilter. He looked as if he misplaced his keys.

“The other agents haven’t arrived yet,” said Nicole.

Harry pulled out his phone. “They didn’t check in with me, either.”

Nicole heard their van pull up in the driveway. She walked around Harry to unlock the front door. She looked through the eye hole to find Agent Quentin and Agent Marcy coming up the walkway.

Quentin was grossly overweight and trailed far behind Marcy. She fiddled with her keys to find the right one. When she looked down, she reminded Nicole of her sister Amber. Both carried bags of groceries on their way up the front steps.

“Take a breath of fresh air while you can,” said Quentin. Marcy chuckled as she unlocked the door.

They came inside without greeting and continued to the kitchen.

“I thought Harry was picking up groceries?” said Nicole.

“Change in plans,” said Marcy. “We picked up enough essentials to get you through the week.”

“You barely bought anything,” said Nicole. “I had a whole list ready. There’s no coffee, no detergent. There’s no paint.”

“Like I said—essentials.”

“That was the only thing Tara asked for. She’s been waiting weeks for red paint. Something I could EASILY go out and pick up in five minutes where as you two are over an hour late to bring me—what? Baking soda?”

“That’s where Luke works!” said Tara.

Nicole turned around to see the TV. Instead of cartoons she found a reporter standing outside of Wingfield Sports Collectables. The gate was shut while the marquee hung melted and charred.

“What the hell?” Nicole turned up the volume. The reporter told of a promising future cut short as a photo of a pretty girl appeared on screen. Jenna Teegs was the only victim of the arson. They interviewed the owner Arthur Wingfield from an awkward sitting position. Nicole did not believe he could stand from the shock in his voice. Nothing was said of Luke.

“I need to call Luke,” said Nicole.

“No calls,” said Quentin. “Hampton was very clear about that.”

“Your boss promised me my entire family would be protected! Men just tried to burn my stepson alive. You should have at least four men at his apartment right now!”

“I’ll send someone to check on him,” said Harry, “but our resources are limited.”

Nicole stared into Harry’s dark glasses. She wondered if he had the same apathetic eyes as the other two agents. “I don’t want to hear about your resources! Check on Ronnie too, then my parents. And when you know they’re safe, drive to Indiana and check on my cousins!”

Harry exchanged glances with the other agents. “Patrol the parameter, both of you.” When they left the house, he focused his attention on Nicole. “You know, this time together—it doesn’t need to be awful.”

“How long will you and your people be in my house!?”

“I can’t say. A few days…weeks—whatever’s necessary.”

“What did Jake say exactly when he arranged all this?”

“I wasn’t part of that discussion.”

“Why are you in charge then!? You don’t seem to know anything, let alone why you’re here! Don’t shrug your shoulders at me! Agent Hampton said you were the best and put you in charge of my life and the life of my daughter—I need to know that you know something—anything!”

Harry took off his glasses briefly to clean them. “I know you, Mrs. Reto.”

“Is that a fact!?”

“I wouldn’t call you a widow. You divorced Tara’s father before he died—most likely murdered by a man very similar to your current husband. The thought of turning scares the shit out of you, and Jake seemed like the best way to keep that from happening. You’re easy, Mrs. Reto. Jake is the difficult one. No records before ’91, but quite the accomplished killer, from the smell of things.”

“Tara, go play in your room.” Nicole stared back at the dark lenses with the sound of feet pitter-pattering upstairs. “What did you just say?”

“Hunters always keep trophies. He probably has a whole stash of them somewhere. The smell almost knocked me out when I first came here. I’m sure you’re used to it by now—don’t even notice, but the stink is all over you.”

“What makes you think you can talk to me like that?”

“Because we’re stuck with each other.” Harry waked to the door of the guest room and turned. “Missouri.”

“What?”

“Your cousins aren’t in Indiana. They moved to Missouri last spring.”

*****

                Nicole avoided Quentin and Marcy with little effort. They spent most of their day scouting the block, but Harry was always close. She watched him as she tended to Tara, silently waiting for every mannerism, idiosyncrasy, and peculiarity—anything that would reveal the man behind the glasses.

What she found was a robot—emotionless and repetitive. She never saw him eat or talk with his agents beyond simple orders. Little permeated his shell. His only words to her came at 10 and 2, letting her know he was taking a smoke break on the front porch.

Quentin had been sent to check on Luke. He returned in the afternoon with his findings. Nicole stood when he came through the door. Sweat beaded down his face as if he had ran from Luke’s place.

“Well? How is he?” said Nicole.

“He looks fine,” said Quentin.

“What did he have to say?”

“I didn’t talk to him. I drove past his apartment, he was out and about. Fine.”

“Tara, go to your room for a bit.” Nicole told herself to breath before placing her hands on her hips. “Why are you such a lazy piece of shit?”

“Mrs. Reto—, “said Harry.

“No! He didn’t do anything! He went dicking around for an hour and never even saw Luke! Just let me call him and make sure he’s really allright.”

“If Quentin says he saw Luke, he saw Luke,” said Harry. “That’s the end of it.”

Nicole tossed her hands up and let them slap against her sides. “You’re all un-fucking-believable.”

The next morning had been a silent one. Quentin kept his distance while Harry spent the morning on the porch. Even Tara had taken her nap early. Nicole enjoyed what little privacy she scrapped together, even if all she thought of was Jake and Luke. My husband is not a monster. I’m not a monster! I just want to know if my family is okay. Does that sound like a monster?

Nicole passed by the guest room. The door was left ajar, and she spotted Harry’s duffel bag perched awkwardly on the nightstand. Let’s see what kind of monster you are, Mr. Montang. Nicole rifled through his bag, pushing aside clumps of clothing until she found an accordion file buried at the bottom. Her fingernails pried the folder open, spraying black flecks onto the floor. What the fuck is this? Nothing was legible, deeply coated in tar-like blood.

Why would he carry this around? thought Nicole.

“What are you doing?” said a tiny voice from the doorway.

“God, Tara, you scared me.” Nicole shoved the file back into the duffel bag and zipped it closed. “We need to—“

The screen door from the kitchen screeched open, followed by footsteps on linoleum.

Oh shit. “Don’t go out there. Get under the bed. Hurry.”

Nicole guided her daughter first, shoving storage boxes deeper underneath. There was barely room for Nicole, but she contorted to fit, brushing against layers of dust and cobwebs. She held her hand over Tara’s mouth. “Don’t make a sound, baby.”

Tara hid her face behind her mother’s hand.

Nicole saw Harry’s shoes step into the room. Nicole lost sight of him as he made his way around the bed. He dropped something heavy onto the mattress—a weight she felt press on her back. The zipper from the duffel bag ripped open followed by silence.

The bag was throttled against the wall. The bang made Tara seize her mother’s side. Harry paced the floor until he came back into Nicole’s view.

“It’s me,” said Harry.

The words stabbed Nicole in the chest before she realized he was on his phone.

“I’m requesting an additional firearm. I’ve got nothing.”

Nicole felt foolish for leaving her gun upstairs. She could not imagine how embarrassing it must have been for Harry to call his boss for one.

“Yes, I know I said I had one before, but there’s been a mix-up. Judith must have taken my bag instead.”

Was Judith one of the other agents that came with Hampton?

“They’re nondescript black duffel bags, I’m sure this has happened before. Maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if I wasn’t so overworked.”

Who talks to their boss like this?

“What about my mental health!? What about my family!?”

Nicole felt her heartbeat quicken against the floorboards.

“I already told you—I don’t know where Judith is.”

The tone of his answer suggested it may have been the fifth or sixth time he was asked that question. Who is she and why is she so important?

Harry ended his call and took a seat on the bed.

“Hey, it’s me. Did you give it to him yet? Okay, put him on the phone.”

Harry only sounded mildly annoyed with whoever he was speaking to this time.

“Hey, Meatball, did you open my gift? I hope it’s the right game.”

Harry sounded like a different man entirely. His voice was soothing and calm without a hint of melancholy. Although they were close in age, Nicole never considered he might be someone’s husband or father.

“Oh, you don’t have that system? I’m sorry, that’s my bad. I’m pretty sure I saved the receipt. It should be in my office on the desk. Can you go check right now while I’m on the phone?”

Nicole smiled. Her father had played the same trick on her and her sister on more than one Christmas. Harry had a lovely laugh.

“Surprise! Mom should be able to figure out how to hook it up eventually. Have fun, and let your sister play too.”

Harry was quiet for so long Nicole thought he might have ended the call.

“I don’t think I can get over there today. I’m not sure about next week either.”

Harry’s voiced returned to what Nicole had known.

“ I miss you too. You don’t have to put mom back on. I’ll see you as soon as I can, okay? Love you.”

When the call ended, Nicole felt she was responsible for keeping them apart. She was not the only one.

“Fuck this place,” said Harry as he stood. “Mrs. Reto, I’m taking a break! Be back in five!”

She almost answered him. Nicole waited for the click of the screen door before crawling out with Tara.

Later that day, Nicole and Tara sat at the kitchen table for lunch. Harry returned from his smoke break with a Styrofoam container from Quentin. He walked toward the guest room without a word.

“You can eat at the table,” said Nicole, “if that’s more comfortable.”

“It’s fine,” said Harry as he proceeded to the guestroom.

“Is Judith your friend?” said Tara.

Nicole gagged on her sandwich as Harry stopped abruptly. He looked down at Tara. “Promise me you’ll never say that name again.”

Tara nodded.

“Good girl.” Harry went to his room and slammed the door behind him.

Nicole pulled a clump of dust from Tara’s hair. “Did I ever show you how to play the quiet game?”

*****

Nicole knocked on the guestroom door, carrying a small stack of towels. “Can I come in, Harry?”

“It’s unlocked.”

Nicole came in and found him eating his lunch on the floor.

“I forgot to bring you new towels,” said Nicole. She laid them on the foot of the bed. “You don’t have to keep using these.” She lifted the damp towels from the floor, twisting them as she spoke. “I was thinking maybe you should take a break.”

“I am.”

“I meant a real break. You seem tightly wound. Marcy and Quentin are here until seven, so just be back before they leave.”

“That’s not up to you,” said Harry as he licked the sauce from his fingers. He stood up and approached her. “How did Tara know about Judith?”

“She’s a good listener, and you don’t exactly have an indoor voice.”

Harry closed the door and locked it. “Are you spying on me?”

“You can’t scare me,” said Nicole. “I don’t care how dark your glasses are, I refuse to be scared by a man who’s terrified of an old, fat woman with a fake eye. That bitch told me I was running the show. I’m ordering you to leave my house, not Marcy or Quentin—you. I want you to find out if Luke’s okay even if that takes you six, maybe seven hours. Is that understood?”

“You’re the boss.” Harry unlocked the door and left.

With no agents in the house, Nicole took the opportunity to search for the source of the odor that plagued everyone. She proceeded to the basement with Tara. “Stay on the steps, baby. Don’t come any closer.” Nicole turned on her flashlight and scanned Jake’s workbench. Each tool was polished clean and sorted. Where else would he hide trophies? She searched each drawer, finding only immaculate instruments. The faint stench grew as she approached. It’s just mold. Jake wouldn’t keep trophies, he just does what needs to be done.

She felt a breeze waft over her toes. Nicole looked down at the stained concrete below and found wheels mounted on one side of the bench. She shoved the bench with her shoulder until it laid in the corner. She aimed the light where the bench had been and discovered a tiny caged door no larger than an air conditioner. Her fingers poked through and seized the mesh. She took a deep breath and lifted the loose door from the wall.

The powerful stench made her gag. The flashlight flickered before dying out completely. Nicole hit it with her palm. “Shit!” She looked back and saw Tara on the bottom step of the stairs, gazing into the hole. “Turn around, Tara. There’s nothing to see.” Nicole reached her hand inside, sweeping the ice cold walls of the cavity. Her hand gripped something small and rubbery. Just as I thought—just some fungus growing in a dank crawlspace.

Nicole plucked the object from the orifice. When her hand returned to the light, she realized she was holding a human ear. Nicole did all she could to hold the scream in and tossed it back into the void. She jumped to her feet and haphazardly returned everything back to its proper place.

“Upstairs!” said Nicole. “Now!”

After dinner, Nicole and Tara sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Harry to arrive. Nicole gazed into the living room to find Quentin staring back at her from the couch. The front door opened, and Marcy took a seat on the loveseat adjacent to Quentin. “We’re only staying until seven,” said Marcy.

“Your job is to protect my family,” said Nicole. “You’ll stay here ‘til morning if you have to.”

Harry was next to come through the door. He carried a paper bag with him. As the other agents began to leave, Harry caught Quentin’s arm. “Hand me your gun,” said Harry.

“Why?”

Harry extended an open hand.

Quentin removed his weapon from his holster and handed it to Harry.

“Mother will issue you something more fitting tomorrow,” said Harry. “You can go.”

Harry removed his sunglasses as he entered the kitchen. His eyes were weary, but peaceful, with a glow Nicole had never seen.

“Better?” said Nicole.

“Better.” Harry opened his paper bag. “Tara, when you’re ready…” Harry pulled out a tub of red acrylic paint and placed it on the counter.”

Tara bounded for the paint and ran into the living room to cover the table with newspaper.

“Say thank you to Harry, Tara.”

She yelled a thank you before starting her work.

“Did you eat?” said Nicole. “I can make you something.”

“I’m good,” said Harry. “I just wanted to thank you for—”

“It was nothing.”

“So I want you to know that I did check up on Luke.”

“And?”

Harry turned around to look at Tara. “I hear she’s a good listener.”

They stepped out onto the porch—the sun fading fast over the horizon.

“He wasn’t at his apartment,” said Harry. “His car was gone, so I drove to Ron’s place, and I found something nailed to his door—something you’re not going to like.”

“What?”

Harry reached into his paper bag and pulled out a partially melted wolf mask.

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