Things look different at night. Shadows and shadows within shadows. Valerie closed her ancient HP laptop, hearing again the little footsteps sneaking by her closed bedroom door. The slight whisper, the sigh of a language, clicks and hisses. They walked through the small house, sliding along the bottom of the walls. This house, once belonging to Valerie’s long-dead grandparents, seemed infested with strange nocturnal creatures other than the usual mice. Her Aunt Florence had the upkeep and care of the old place, and no one was allowed to forget that.
She put her feet carefully on the floor, stood, but the floorboards creaked. Tiny feet racing past the door. If she kept the door open, they’d be heard in the walls. If she stayed up past two in the morning, with her door closed, she could catch them sneaking into the bathroom to steal her hair clips or trying to drag the bag of bread into the vent.
No lights, but the flashlight she swung about, searching them out. Her aunt got upset if she drove by and lights were on too late at night. No need to waste electricity, Florence would snap, her eyes full of calculations, spreadsheets, costs of every light left burning into the night. Valerie went toward the bathroom, found the toilet paper pulled down, a metal hair clip left on the linoleum. What did they do with her hair clips? She checked the mouse trap beneath the sink. It had snapped but the mouse had either been purloined by the vent dwellers or sprung by the mouse. Had she not watched a mouse nibble the peanut butter from a trap, the tiny pink feet resting on the bar that snapped down on whatever part of the mouse body it could? Delicately nibbling that peanut butter and not snapping that trap on itself. A bit of blood, which meant the mouse had been taken from the trap or had freed itself. She reset the trap, closed the cupboard doors beneath the gunky sink bowl encased in a square of counter painted a flat gray. Her toothbrush, her Dollar Store tooth paste. Almost out.
Having to ask for money to buy tooth paste made her drop her crusade to catch the little critters that lived with her in this house and get back to job hunting. She was down to something like fifty bucks. She owed St. Luke’s that and then some. Maybe not get ovarian cancer, maybe not get everything yanked out at thirty-one, maybe have a real job with insurance attached next time, dummy. She laughed at such a concept as wild as having a good job with a fantastic salary, with health insurance that actually paid for health stuff. She just needed a couple jobs, save every penny, live off boiled eggs and Top Ramen until she had enough put aside for an apartment, car payments, other living expenses and she’d be set for life. More laughter except it seemed she screamed and smashed the little clown painting her aunt had hung. Florence loved clowns. It was unnatural.
After cleaning up the broken clown picture, Valerie went back to her bedroom, to force herself to scan the local jobs market. An owl called outside, another answered. Clicks from the walls all around her as if those others yelled at the owls or were afraid of them. Perhaps ten minutes went by as she scanned job listings for long haul truckers, business managers that needed advanced degrees but were expected to work for minimum wage or as interns. Work at home assembling this or that. She had giant gaps in her retail-heavy resume, as well as her love life.
A small tap at the bottom of her door, the rustle of small voices, another tapping.
Valerie took a deep breath. Deliberate tapping. When they avoided her or ran from her? She had no idea what they looked like. Or what they were. “What do you want?” She called out, not leaving her bed. Tapping, louder now.
A strange gritty little voice, a small throat cleared over and over. Her heart slammed about in her throat, her lips opening. Tap tap tap! She crossed the floor, expecting something to stab her ankle or bite her leg. She pulled the door open and yes, there stood three creatures, not even a foot tall, with great yellow eyes on stalks, like fried eggs. They wore bits of socks, no socks she had ever owned. Neon green for one, bright orange and red for another and the third wore a bit of blue scarf wrapped about its middle like a skirt. A sort of gray-green skin, smooth and shiny, hairless skin. Very long fingers, six fingers and two toes on each long foot. A slit for a mouth, which rippled and formed sounds, before she understood the sounds were meant for her.
This from the one in the green sock. Holes had been sliced into the sock for the arms to fit through.
“Um,” Valerie tried to get her senses to realize this was real, this was happening. It took a bit. The world seemed made up of spoiled mayo splots and iffy tin foil structures.
“Toast?” This directed at her from the one in the blue scarf skirt. All six eyes swiveled toward the tiny kitchen, to the toaster sitting on the counter. Their fingers interlaced. All had long pointed little claws. Like a kitten would have. Or a rat. Maybe they were rats that had been mutated by the local chemicals the farmers threw around so carelessly.
“You want some toast?”
“Toast.” This arrived from whispers all over. Toast, toast, toast, toast. She swiveled her head, unnerved and decidedly uneasy.
“I can make some toast,” she told the three emissaries or whatever they were. On went the lights, the creatures blinking their egg yellow eyes but trailing after her as she put bread in the old toaster, got out the Blue Bonnet, the last spoonful of strawberry jam. Moans arose, more of the creatures crept from around the corner, from the direction of the living room. The house had two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a sort of utility room that held the washer and dryer. The previous tenants had trashed it, which is why she could crash here at all. Her aunt was done, done as hell, with renting to strangers. At least for now, until she got tired of Valerie not paying a rent much or at all. Valerie could go, sink or swim right after that exhaustion kicked in. Florence was hard on everyone, even family. It’s a hard world, you can’t be soft—that was Florence’s life motto.
Now there were eight, no, ten, of the creatures with the snail-like eyes and the various means of covering their bodies. One even wore a potholder, with faded snowflakes against a dark blue background. cut in the sides, the bottom sliced off for the legs. They all climbed atop the table, waiting patiently for toast. A sort of whispering among them, their hands rising and falling or touching. As if they communicated through touch as well as sound. Two rows with five in each. “How many of you?”
The green sock one cleared its throat. “Few.” He made hissing sounds, a clear meow, turned his six-fingered hand into a claw. Another gave that piercing child’s scream of a hawk, flapped its arms, little hand into a claw as well. Another barked like a dog, opened the mouth very wide to reveal small fangs set in the gums. A very long narrow tongue. What were these things? “Few,” said the leader of this band of snail people and all of them looked sad.
“Oh. Cats and dogs and hawks, sure. Coyotes, probably. People. Start on that,” she buttered the first two slices of toast, setting them on a plate, scooping out the last bit of jam, putting that spoon on the plate as an offering. They consulted each other over the jam, pointing at it, having arguments, before the leader began tearing up the toast into shares for each one there. “It’s jam. Strawberry. Do you not like jam?”
“Jam?” The one in the potholder dared touch the jam with its tongue. It garbled out something in a rapid way, nodding, the eye stalks nearly spinning in excitement. The others rushed to get some of that jam on their bit of toast. The sound of munching, the groans of happiness. They sat cross-legged or lay on their bellies, little feet waving. Burps and farts. They were natural, whatever they were. Demons surely didn’t burp or fart. Maybe they did.
“Are you demons? What are you? Why are you in this house?”
The leader sat up, bit of toast yet clutched in his hand. “Too fast.” He finally got out, the others nodding away. “Help?”
That meant talk slower or help them? “Help with what?” She decided to ask as the munching stopped, as the twenty pairs of yellow egg eyes swiveled toward her as she sat at the table, buttering two more slices of toast.
“We go. River. Wings. Teeth! Beaky.” The orange and red socked one got this out, struggling with each word. Did they need water now? Whiskey? “River.”
“River. What river? Do you all need some water or milk? I don’t have any. Water?”
Consultations, hissed arguments, gestures. “Water?”
“The wet stuff?” She pointed at the sink, they all sighed, nodded away, smiling or what looked like smiling with their slit of a mouth curved upward in a half circle. Valerie put water into a saucer, as she had no cups tiny enough for these diplomats. They all politely took a sip, lining up to do so. But it was clearly the toast and strawberry jam they craved, wanted, lusted for. “What river? What do you mean?”
“You. To the river. Nearby? River nearby. Take us.”
Boom went her stymied brain. They wanted a ride to the river. “You want me to take you all to the river. The Malheur? The Snake? The Owhyee? The Boise? And why can’t you just go? Why are you running about the house here at night?”
“We watch you. You different.”
“You all watch me? All the time?”
Heads shook, eyes waving back and forth, hands touching, their fingertip claws hooking, being released. “No.” Neon sock one stood, holding its bit of toast. “You not loud. Not bang walls. Not set traps. Not for us. Gray racers, yes. Not for us.”
“I’m not trying to kill any of you. Okay. How did you get here? In this house?”
“Carried. Cage. Escape cage, kill us. Stomp.” Neon sock stomped his two-toed foot, several moaned very softly in stark sympathy. She was reminded of a church meeting, where people rocked and swayed to a preacher telling a sad tale. “We live in walls or down below. Dangers. Can’t get back. Too far. Don’t know here. Outside strange. Inside safe.”
“So, you’re trapped in this house. Because you can’t get back to some river. So, it’s not nearby. Do you know the river’s name?”
“Fastwell Blend,” said the one in the snowflake potholder. He or she or it seemed very pleased to push that from its slit of a mouth. The others nodded, slapped the table top.
Farewell Bend, had to be. The Snake. She considered she had half a tank. It was maybe twenty miles up there, but she couldn’t just drop them off at the freeway truck stop there and wave goodbye. She’d have to motor up into the , going toward Hells Canyon or swinging onto that back way toward Weiser. Which should set her bank balance below zero after buying gas.
“That’s far. Maybe a closer river? The Malheur. It’s a few miles away.”
Eyes studying her. Their whispers full of clicks and hisses. “Fastwell Blend?”
“I don’t have any money. I’m flat broke. Worse than that. I owe so much to the hospital. I maxed out two credit cards, they’re mad at me, too. I don’t have a job. I was sick. I’m fucked. But sure, you want me to drive you all to Farewell fucking Bend and beyond, probably to Huntington or whatever’s up that way, I forget…sure. Let’s go. I got half a tank of gas!” She turned her head toward the sink rather than her intently listening audience of wall dwellers. Snail people. Dwarf demons. A six-fingered tiny hand, oddly very warm, patted her clenched fist which yet held the butter knife. Her stomach hurt at having to remember how much money she owed. Well over a hundred thou and climbing. She had told no one in her family. Her mother had a new boyfriend there in Tacoma, her dad peddled conspiracy theories down in Arizona somewhere and her Aunt Florence allowed her to live in the house the last renters had trashed. With the understanding, said very much to Valerie’s face, that it was temporary. Her few friends were just as broke or worse than she was.
Maybe a good deed would magically restore Valerie to some sort of solvent state. Maybe she’d next be visited by the lottery fairy, who’d hand her the winning Powerball ticket worth millions. Wasn’t that the real American dream anymore? Tears. Were there tears on her fat, stupid cheeks now? More hands patting her fist, murmurs, singing that rose upward like smoke from a friendly campfire.
“Farewell Bend. We go tomorrow. Pack up, wall dwellers. You’re going home.” Valerie stood, set the butter knife down. They all held very still as if they did not believe her. Hope on each little round face, the eyes moving apart, coming together over and over.
“Yes. Tomorrow. You get your things. Your stuff?”
“Stuff…stuff? Stuff. Ah,” chittering, hisses, clicks, whispers. Nods all around. “Beelingings.”
“Sure,” Valerie replied.
The pile of stuff. The wall dwellers had dragged out or carried their copious collection of hair clips, bobby pins, Christmas jewelery consisting of pins, earrings and necklaces; nails, pushpins, several children’s size scissors, razor blades. Along with bits of cloth, several carefully folded small squares of tin foil, cupcake papers, athletic socks, string, spools of thread, sewing needles, a single knitting needle, a crochet hook. Other objects they had collected and squirreled away for their future trip to the promised land of Fastwell Blend. There were actually about fifteen of the creatures. There were two very small ones and three that seemed elderly, with their eye stalks barely able to hold up their bleary yellow eyes. “Maybe a bag to put all that in?” Valerie showed them a grocery bag from Wal-Mart. They stood back, the ten main ones, discussed this, before shrugging at her. Just a wave of shrugs. “You put your beelings into this. Dump it out there.” She began tossing items in, they chittered in real alarm until one grabbed another, chittered and hissed very loudly, waving a hand about. “Everything goes in here. We take it with us. It goes, too.” She found herself speaking in a weird, stilted way, as if to children who did not understand English at all. They spoke to her in the same way.
“It travel to river? All?” Neon sock asked, gray-green head tilting, eyes blinking at her.
“Yes. All your beelings. All of this goes into bag. It goes with us. Take it to river. All your stuff.”
They all suddenly nodded, sighing at understanding at last. The creatures began to carry their possessions, picked off the floor of this house or taken from drawers, baskets and jewelry boxes, into the bag, with one holding up the side. Valerie made to help but they went very still and careful, almost afraid of her or afraid she’d mess something up only they understood to be right and true. The heavier objects were piled in first, followed by lighter items. All very orderly. The piled crap became crap in the bag. But it was not crap to them, perhaps it meant they could survive in the wilds by a river. Make weapons or housing. Or art or sew clothes for themselves from scraps of a washrag or a torn bit from a blouse.
Valerie glanced at her phone clock. Ten oh seven. She could drive them up there, find a spot, drop them off, get back here by this afternoon. The crunch of tires on the driveway and oh dear, Aunt Florence. The wall dwellers gasped, she just sighed. “Go hide. I have your stuff, it will go here.” She placed the grocery bag beneath the sink, out of sight. They stared at the closed cupboard doors, then at her. “It’s okay. She won’t stay long. We’ll go after that.”
“Hide.” They rushed toward the living room and the front door. But when Florence knocked, Valerie found nothing in that living room but the hideous brown couch and the mismatched lounge chairs that had been new during the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s run. The giant circus clown painting made her eyes hurt. Florence refused to take it down despite complaints from renters.
“I’m here, I was in the back. Hi, Aunt Florence, come in,” Valerie opened the door, let her aunt inside. Florence sniffed the air, then did so closer to Valerie. “Still not smoking dope. What can I do ya for? I have some coffee.”
“I had some. I’m coffee-ed out. I worked the late shift, saw the lights on. What’s going on here at night? I said no parties. I thought you were sick.” Florence stalked about, her nurse scrubs at odds with her character. “I have to go back in, we’re short. There’s a job there. Cleaning. You want it?”
“Cleaning? Uh…sure. What do I need to fill out?”
“I don’t know. Talk to Bonnie. She hires people. I said you needed a job, she needs someone to clean. The floors, bedpans, the bathrooms. She can talk about all that but she needs someone now. Can you start tonight?”
“Uh, sure. Sure. What time?”
“Call Bonnie,” and Florence pulled out a piece of notebook paper with a number scribbled across it. “It’s just . Maybe fifteen hours but it’s something, right? How are you? Don’t keep those lights on all the time. It drives me nuts. I’ll get you some candles. Call Bonnie. What is that smell? Did you get a cat?” Florence pulled no punches, her thoughts were never hidden. She had the jittery charm of a meth addict. That was unkind but true. True things are often not kind. You can be true or you can be kind, thought Valerie.
The creatures had a smell. She did not notice it but now she did. It did smell like a litter box in here a bit. But more green. A vegan cat taking veggie dumps.
“No. Probably something in the garbage.”
“Oh. Sure. Well, I have to go. You should come by for dinner one of these nights. I’ll make a meatloaf. Do you eat meat? I hear no one eats it anymore.”
“I eat meat,” Valerie said, struggling to keep her face straight. “I’ll call Bonnie.”
“Yes! And then you can pay a bit of rent.”
“I sure will.” Valerie waved to her aunt, who turned around and went off to her job at the Fairweather Nursing Facility. Work at the same place as her aunt? All the cuss words, all of them but it was something, indeed. Valerie dialed the number, got the voicemail for Bonnie, the main supervisor and one of Florence’s few friends. Florence had pulled strings, no doubt. “Hi, this is Valerie Pearson. I’m calling about the cleaning position, ?” She gave her number, ended the call. The wall dwellers had trickled out, standing way back, looking very worried. “Just a sec. We’ll go.”
Her phone rang, her few minutes left would hopefully be enough to secure some employment. “Hi, yes, I called about the cleaning position?”
“Florence said you needed a job. Can you start right now?”
Damn it. She looked at the little faces. Rebellion at once. Clean up shit and puke and death or go for a long drive? “I can start later today. I have an appointment this morning. With my doctor. I had ovarian cancer.”
“Oh,” Bonnie tutted at her end, said something to someone else, before resuming the call. “That’s fine. You know where we are? Just get here when you can, I guess.”
“I do know. Okay. Sorry.”
“No problem,” except it was. It was already two strikes for Valerie at Fairweather. Like every crappy job ever lately. She was already at fault, already suspect, already to blame for whatever. Her head ached, her heart ached. She felt more broken by that not disguised at all contempt from this Bonnie than her entire ordeal with her cancer. “I’ll see you whenever, I guess.” Click!
The miles flew, her gas gauge quivered toward not full. She had had a quarter of a tank, not half. Twenty five dollars to fill it. Half of her net worth. Not really her worth because she was over a hundred thou in the hole. Now she owed some rent. She’d scrub toilet, snort bleach, owe rent. Never get ahead. No matter what. Her car would break down. Her cancer would return, this time in her lungs or her brain, though right now she could not afford tests. It would just have to grow away and kill her because she could not afford tests. The wall dwellers dared peek through the windows but mostly kept on the floor so nothing could see them but Valerie. During filling her tank, hoping her bank account had not been emptied by some overeager collections company, they had hidden beneath the seat or in her trunk.
They snuffed the air, studied the sky where a hawk circled high overhead.
“I’ll make sure you all get to the river. Then, yes, I go.”
“Go to river?”
“Yes! This way. I don’t want to risk my car on those rocks. Come on,” she took the grocery sack, went on ahead as they fell in behind her, trotting, even the elderly ones. She slowed after a bit. “Maybe you all can ride on me? On my shoulders, atop my head? In this bag?”
“Claws,” said one, pointing at the hawk. They climbed her quite easily, with was rather repulsive. They seemed hot to the touch. Four rode in the bag, four sat on her shoulders, two on her head.
“I can carry the rest. You’re not that heavy,” she allowed the remaining five to perch in her cradled arms, her hair being used to keep the ones on her shoulder in place, the two on her head also clutching at her hair. Plus the sack and her keys in her pocket, her car locked up tight but who would steal her battered little Chevy Nova?
Onward. It seemed miles to go before she swept. Ha ha. The sun baked her, the dwellers were mostly silent, but chattered amongst themselves at times. She saw the sparkle of the water, smelled the river stink of rapid growth and decay and a dead fish somewhere. Pronghorns bounded off, a pheasant flew up, quail scurried off, before bursting into flight. Carefully, she lifted the two off her head, set them down beneath the shade of a big cottonwood. She put the bag on the ground, the four inside crawling out. She got the four off her shoulders, the others already down that had ridden against her chest. She marked the place in her memory but doubted she’d ever come here again but she might.
“This will have to do. I guess you can find a home somewhere here.”
“River,” breathed out the one in the neon sock, before the others burst into a strange song that all had to join, their voices rising up like the quiver of leaves during a rainstorm. Oh…she watched others with the same stalk-like eyes peeking from under rocks, from the center of bushes, from what looked like animal burrow entrances. They crept out, clearly afraid of her but curious. Hisses and whistles, clicks and taps, sighs. She stepped away from this, feeling she did not belong here now at all. Her fifteen turned, some of them turned, anyway, to watch her go. Little six-fingered hands lifted in farewell. They began to drag their grocery bag toward the oncoming group, who wore leaves and what looked like a chipmunk hide and a length of rope for clothes. Why did they need clothes or coverings? Where had that come from?
Valerie got back to her car. She unlocked it, sat in the driver’s seat. She could just drive up the freeway, when she got to the ramp. Drive toward Portland or even Seattle. Just drive. Beg for change, buy gas, just drive. Disappear. Not show up to mop floors, leave everything she had in her aunt’s house, be alone and free. Get lost. Just get so lost no one could find her, remind her she was a loser who owed, a loser who would never have children now, a loser who had taken weird creatures to the Snake River instead of reporting immediately to work. She needed to find her own Fastwell Blend.
Valerie turned back toward her life, her part-time new job, her aunt’s house. But she found herself packing all her shit, throwing it in her car. She left a note for her aunt, and she got back on the freeway, with twenty five in her account. She got to Farewell Bend, slid by it. Her gaze caught the Snake in her review. She had no prayers or hopes left to give anyone or anything. She just drove until the needle could get no more past the red.