The kids look blankly at their mother, not seeming to understand that they now live here. Sara goes into the kitchen and surveys the fake brick linoleum and avocado green appliances. The décor is old enough to be quirky and vintage, and with elbow grease will functional and cheerful. The fridge is groaning and wheezing and she is slightly worried it might be a death rattle. She cautiously opens the door and is not too upset by the condition. A desiccated brick of baking soda is the lone tenant. She pulls the plastic shopping bag towards her and begins to unload its contents. A slim paper carton of milk, a packaged disc of bologna, a cube of generic cheese have too much space between them. She had paid a premium for them at the all night gas station, and they would hardly last the evening.
The old birch colonial-style cabinets need a good scrubbing before she unloads the paper bags of ramen and plastic silverware. While she is running the brown rusty well water in hopes that it will clear, she is shaken with a huge explosion. Her children are screaming, and as she runs into the front room, she cannot see them in the clouds of dust that hang in the air. Out of the gritty murk emerges a large figure. She is paralyzed with fright. The figure moves forwards toward her and then stops. “Um,” the terrifying scepter stutters. “Um, I think you’ve got some dry rot.” Her children have pressed themselves to the wall, and the dust begins to settle to reveal a large bearded man nervously clutching a ball cap and studying the gaping hole in the front room ceiling.
She sticks her face into her sweatshirt to avoid inhaling the plaster dust. She turns to this man, who has literally crashed through her ceiling. A flat section of plaster falls off his hair, and she can see through the dust that it is auburn. He just stands mutely in the middle of the room. “Are you hurt?” she asks, not relishing the idea of taking a giant, dusty squatter to the ER on a dark night. He appears to consider her question as he pats at himself in search of injuries. “Um, I think I’m OK,” he says. “Just shaken up a little. I was trying to sneak out without you seeing me. I didn’t want to scare you.” He appears apologetic and also unaware of the apparent gravity of the situation.
“What are you doing here?” she finally asks. “Well, I’ve been staying here on and off for the past six years,” he says, as if she and the kids are the ones who don’t belong. “I’m a contractor, and work is hard to come by close to home. Whenever I have a project in this area, I stay here. It saves me a ton on travel expenses.” He explains this in a laid-back, reasonable tone of voice, similar to the way she explains to her clients that their babies can’t have Diet Pepsi in their bottles. He sounds quite logical as he casually justifies six years of breaking and entering. There is a rustling sound on the stairway and she tenses up again as a low-slung basset hound comes around the corner, surveys the scene and lays down that the man’s feet. “Oh, Gladys,” he croons. “I’m so, so glad you’re okay.”
Her son and daughter have pressed themselves against the wall, but they look quite awake now. Her son is cowering toward her daughter, who edges away from him and creeps out to tentatively crouch before Gladys. She quietly offers her fingers to the dog who lifts her head and sniffs them politely in greeting. Chiara is immediately in love and reverently strokes the animals head. Gladys, knowing a good thing when she sees it, rolls over and presents her distended stomach to the girl for a belly rub. Without warning, Chiara, who is twelve, bursts into tears as she throws her thin arms around the dog. Gladys can go with the flow. She knows she has been called into duty, and bears this turn of events with a patient stoicism that reveals a kind and gentle soul.
Michael comes out of the tiny area under the stairs and leans against Sara’s side. The house is cold and filthy. They are hungry and exhausted and at least Sara needs to pee quite urgently. Her full bladder plows her awkwardly through the moment as she squints through the cloud of dust which is beginning to settle. “How much of the house is like that?” She asks. “Can we use the bathroom?” “That part of the house is probably fine,” says the squatter. “By the way, my name’s Tom.” He holds out a plate-sized hand and Sara grasps it while reflecting on the oddness of the moment. She does not give her name in return. “The reason that this part of the ceiling fell in has to be because of the leak in the roof.” He says. “The roof has a leak?” Sara is not pleased to learn this bit of information. “There is a pretty bad one where some of the old slate shingles were replaced with asphalt. I went up there this spring and covered it with a tarp, but there’s no way to tell how long that water was getting in. I’ll go take a look and make sure that you can still utilize the other room and the bath,” says Tom. His work boots are muffled by the carpet as he climbs the stairs.
Sara crouches down and lays a gentle hand on Chiara’s shoulder. Her sobs have quieted and her body is convulsing in that way that follows a cathartic outburst. While she absently strokes her daughter’s back she is plagued with a fear so crushing, that she is nearly compelled to call her ex-husband, and not only reveal their whereabouts, but beg him to come for them. Could strange men and falling ceilings really be any better than constantly living on the defensive and being the scapegoat for every infraction, both real and imagined?
There’s no doubt in her mind that he’d come for them, and there will be that short-lived honeymoon period that always comes in the very beginning of a reconciliation. She will be forced to whisper to him how she can’t live without him, and she will be rewarded for this confession. She will watch the kids as they study him at first, with mistrustful eyes, and worse than that, loving ones, after they start to believe in him. He has a way of knowing just when she is starting to believe that he loves and values her, and for maximum effect, this is when he knocks down with one of his vicious accusations.
She pulls her hands away from her children and wraps them around her body, remembering the verbal barbs, followed by the kicks and punches if she occasioned to fight back. She remembers when the results of her first-ever mammogram had come back with a request that she undergo a biopsy to further investigate a lump in her breast. It had turned out to be a benign calcification, but for a sweet week and a half she had looked forward to the news that she had cancer. Such a relief it would be to die and not have your own hand in it; to leave by chance rather than to be forced to choose to leave your children with a monster.
Of course, it was the realization that she saw dying of cancer as a positive thing that convinced her to divorce him. She had left countless times up until then, but this time he allowed the divorce because she left him with all of the material assets. She had also agreed to let him have custody of the children, otherwise he would never had agreed. Since that time, she had jumped from town to town, sometimes leaving days before he found where they had been. Clearing out her 401K had to have flagged her, and she didn’t sleep a night until the moving van had been loaded up. Her decision to buy this house in her maiden name may slow him up for a while, but not for long. She is tired of running by this point. Up until this crippling moment of weakness, she has finally felt strong enough to fight him.