Here’s the story that helped me tie for first place in The Ottawa Independent Writer’s Anthology contest. I hope you enjoy!
“Why did you buy that shithole of a house?”
Looking down the hill I could see it from his perspective. After all, it wasn’t exactly what I had set out to purchase. The finger of green reached out to the grey Atlantic Ocean in direct opposition to the steep slope of the land around it. Mostly rock and a bare covering of grass, it would not bear a huge garden or even much of anything in that salt spray. Even the pale blue house that sat in the exact center looked more like a double-wide trailer than anything else. He was right. It wasn’t the best place to have purchased but there was something there, something I couldn’t identify.
“It’s not that bad,” I assured him.
“If you don’t get blown off the shore, you’ll walk off the edge in your sleep. Why, Lucy?”
Only the truth can hurt so well. “It’ll be fine. I’ll have a nice iron fence. Don’t you want to see the inside?”
I looked back at the man standing just up the slope from me. His forehead wrinkled as he looked down at the house and then back up towards the car.
“No, I’ll wait for you in the car.”
His yellow jacket seemed to clash with the world that was all grey sky and faded green. With a shrug of my shoulders, I plastered on some optimism and started down the hill towards my very first home. It wasn’t much better inside. The cupboards screamed mid-nineties and the linoleum that covered the kitchen had been white at some point. The sort of flotsam that gets left behind in a hasty move littered the place. To my right, facing toward the road, was a small living room and a bathroom, and then a bedroom took up the end. The brown carpet had seen better days but I could see potential. It just needed some love.
Moving-in day came and went. Desmond wasn’t available to help, which meant it took longer with the few friends who could make it out that far from the city. You’d expect more from a boyfriend but after weeks of his negativity, I didn’t miss him. Finally, my few possessions were safely inside. The pizza had been eaten and the beer drunk and I saw my friends back to the road with a flashlight and lots of relieved laughing. After their cars pulled away, I almost laughed with joy as I skipped back down the hill to the house, golden light seeping from the un-curtained windows. Once inside, I turned off some lights and dragged on a heavy sweater before going back to the kitchen. The repairs were minor, meant less to me than the oddness of the house. The perfection was at the end of the house, a full wall of glass that looked over a small wooden deck and then… the world. A wooden chair in hand, I stepped out of the sliding glass door and turned off the last of the lights. When I’d adjusted to the darkness, it was the most amazing sight. The stars arched overhead in a stream of white glitter matched in no city or town I’d ever lived. In front of me was the black expanse of the ocean. Slouching down into the warmth of my sweater, I eased against the stiff muscles of moving day and closed my eyes. In the darkness, I was surrounded by the suck and roar of the ocean waves below my house. It was perfection.
Later, much later since the moon was now overhead, I woke up to salted lips and a damp sweater. Shuffling upright against stiff muscles, I heard a clank and then a couple of more odd sounds I couldn’t place. When you’re that tired, sometimes you don’t make the best decisions.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
There was another muted clank and nothing. Suddenly realizing where I was and how late it had become, I turned back into the kitchen and dragged the chair with me. Shaking with tension, I turned all the lights on, locked the doors and waited. It took another few minutes for the adrenaline to cycle out and leave me feeling a little foolish. It was the first night in a new house. Of course, there would be noises I couldn’t explain. Feeling reassured, I headed to bed. I left the lights on though.
Two weeks later, I had finally settled in. All the windows had curtains and the brown carpet was clean. The linoleum was still stained but the whole place was immaculate, smelling of lemon cleaners and the flowers perched on the edge of the counter. It was home. Even Desmond had come around. He was visiting for the first time, begrudging me the distance on his car, but I was willing to take it for a first step. After all, now he’d seen the place all done up he could at least say it was cute. We settled down for a frozen pizza and popcorn party in front of the TV. The movie wasn’t that great, but just after it ended there was a knock at the door. Leaving Desmond behind, I opened the door to find a police officer. Lights from an emergency vehicle were reflected in the glass on the outer door.
“Are you Lucy Coombes?”
“Yes. Is everything okay?”
“This is a search warrant. Please step aside, Miss Coombes.”
Numb, I took the paper he handed to me and backed up. A small army of technicians and officers invaded my home. Desmond was irate at first but became interested, following them around. I had no interest in watching them destroy my home. They were thorough, I decided by three in the morning. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Exhausted by the move and working all hours to get the house together, I watched as the teams pulled it all apart. I was so shocked I couldn’t even cry. Finally, they packed up and left me with the officer who had started it all.
“Why?” I asked.
“There was a report, Miss Coombes. You must know that this is a smuggling coast. Piracy is rife and this is the best, if not the only, place to moor a ship in either direction. The house was empty for a number of months and then you purchased it and moved in rather suddenly. We’ve had reports of lights on the beach below your house too. It was a precaution.”
“Precaution?! What the hell are you thinking? I’ve never been in trouble in my whole life. I’ve done everything by the book. Can’t I fall in love with a house and go to live there?”
“Calm down, Lucy,” Desmond snapped. “That’s enough.”
He grabbed his coat off the hook. “I’ll walk you to your car, officer.” He only turned back long enough to tell me to lock the door and then they were both gone. Leaning out to close the screen door, I could just hear the tail end of their conversation.
“Don’t mind, Lucy. She’s a bit emotional about this place.”
Shivering in what should have been a fresh breeze off the water, it was all I could do to close everything up. The place was a mess once again.
It had taken longer this time to get everything cleaned up. Desmond had been around a couple of times but not exactly to help. He seemed excited about the house, but more about structure and measurements. I told him over and over that there wasn’t anything to find. After all, between the mess the place had been in at first and what the police had done, there wasn’t an inch of the inside of the house that I hadn’t cleaned. In case anyone tries to tell you otherwise, that powder they use to dust for fingerprints gets just everywhere. But a sense of normalcy had returned to my life. It had been more than a month since I’d moved in and it was time to celebrate with a bottle of my favourite wine.
Much later that evening, I sat outside on the deck, admiring the full moon and listening to the ocean. There was that clanking sound once again. I knew the house well enough now to know it wasn’t a normal sound. I was also drunk enough to be brave and investigate. Although what I thought I’d do with a silver serving spoon and a flashlight, I can’t say. I tiptoed around the corner of the house where the moon was blocked by the structure. I didn’t want to turn on the light so I tried to be quiet as I moved along the wall. Whatever noise I caused tripping over unfamiliar terrain in the dark was covered by the wind and waves. At the end of the house, I hesitated but then gripping the spoon tighter, turned on the flashlight. I’m not sure what I expected but it certainly wasn’t a young man, half soaked and dressed in dark clothes. The moment lasted a little too long.
“Shit,” he muttered and turned, disappearing into the darkness. I walked far enough forward to see the beginning of a rope ladder before the rest of my brain caught up with me. In that second, I dropped the flashlight and spoon and ran back to the house, falling many times but not stopping until the door was locked behind me. The bathroom door I mean. I’d locked the front door and all the windows, then the bedroom door, but it had a window so I was finally safe between the toilet and the wall. I got my phone out and called Desmond. There was genuine concern in his voice as he promised he’d be over as soon as possible. That half an hour lasted two lifetimes.
The next morning, I woke from a very deep sleep to hear banging from the kitchen. The first thought I had was that the man of the night before was in my house. Then I remembered that Desmond had stayed the night. With visions of coffee and pancakes making me smile, I stumbled out to the kitchen. Instead of breakfast, destruction met my eyes. Desmond had put every dish I owned on the kitchen table and every part of the room was covered in heavy dust and sawdust. He’d carved a hole into the back of every cupboard, panels being ripped out if they hadn’t given way. In the very middle of the kitchen there he was, looking dirty, sweaty and somehow pleased with himself. I was horrified, almost silent in shock.
“What have you done?” was all I could ask.
“They might have been pirates…” he began but I interrupted.
“Desmond, this is my house. Why on earth would you destroy my kitchen? Why?”
“That’s not important.” If I had been paying more attention, I would have noticed him slipping something into his pocket as he straightened up.
“What? Don’t be ridiculous, Lucy, I…”
“Get out,” I repeated. “I don’t want to see you here again. Just… go.” He went and I crawled back into my bed. My one peaceful retreat.
It was a month later when I was disturbed in the middle of the night again. This time there was no sound outside, no clank or mysterious man on a ladder in my garden. No, this time there was a cold salty hand clamped over my mouth in the middle of the night. I screamed and lashed out, pulling away only to back against the wall on the other side of the bed.
“Who are you and what are you doing in my room?” I screamed. “What do you want?”
“Just be quiet, okay? Man, I can’t stand the screaming. Look, we just want to know where they are and then we won’t be bothering you anymore.”
I was surprisingly logical in the dark of my bedroom with a strange man, and only wearing my nightgown. “Where what are? What do you want?”
“Come on. They’re gone and you’re the only one here. Like I said, we’re moving on and we won’t be bothering you again. We just want them back and then you can pretend we never existed.”
“I don’t understand,” I could only insist.
He was faster than I expected and the hand wrapped tightly around my wrist. I tried to scream again but he shook me hard enough to rattle my teeth. It was all I could do to stay on my own two feet as he dragged me out to the kitchen. The scene that met my eyes was almost a repeat of Desmond’s last visit, except this time there was only one cupboard emptied. The one between the wall and the stove had been pulled apart and some broken wood lay on the floor next to it. From the last tidying-up, I remembered that this one had gone back together better than the others since there was so much space to work with. There were four other men standing in the kitchen, while a fifth sat at my kitchen table and filled a pipe. I only had a moment to think how nautical he seemed before I was dropped to the floor in front of him.
“She says she doesn’t know what we’re talking about,” the man from my bedroom offered.
The older man, salt sprayed and smelling faintly of diesel and the smoke from his pipe, leaned forward to get a better look at me. “Is that right then?”
“I don’t know what you people want!” I was starting to panic talk now and I couldn’t stop. “Whatever it is, please tell me and I’ll give it to you. I don’t have much money. You’re welcome to whatever you want from the kitchen. Take whatever you need. Please leave me…”
“Quiet,” the older man ordered and with some surprise, I dropped into silence.
“Now, we’ll be getting to the bottom of this one way or another.” He leaned forward and I backed up and into the man who’d pulled me out of my bedroom. Flinching from him, I didn’t know where to look.
“Wait. Look at this.” A man I hadn’t noticed was sitting at the kitchen table with a computer. They all watched him as he turned the machine around so they could see. In a video that was clearly shot from above my back door, we all watched Desmond tearing apart my kitchen. When he reached the cupboard they were interested in, he reached in and pulled out a worn leather bag. It was hard to see what he’d found in there but it was small enough to hide, and whatever it was, he seemed excited. Then I walked in front of the camera and I watched our last argument on fast-forward until Desmond left the house. With a sigh, everyone sat back in their chairs.
“Well then,” the man behind me started. “I guess that answers that question.”
“And brings up another one,” the older man continued. “Who’s the man, girl?”
“What do you want with him?”
The old man stood. “We’re here for what was in that cupboard. As we told you. We’ll leave you alone as soon as we get it back. Don’t be foolish now. That boy ain’t nothing to you. That’s clear enough.”
“Desmond.” I had only hesitated for a moment. If he was foolish enough to steal something from men like this…
“Ah, I see. Boys, we be going to the village tonight.”
The men in the room started to gather their things.
“And the woman?” The man behind me asked before they started to file out of the door.
The older man hesitated. “Bring her along, Andy. Let’s get this sorted out.”
They were gentle enough with me now I was cooperating. I couldn’t fault them for that but I was still terrified. We passed down the ladder, a slippery wood affair attached too loosely to the cliff next to my house. Any concern I might have felt for modesty in other circumstances went out of the window. I was just relieved when my feet finally touched the beach. Andy was the last to come down, clambering along the cliff and releasing the ladder when he reached the bottom. Ropes whizzed but I couldn’t see any details in the dark. I’d be more impressed by his feats later when I knew he was the first one up… without the ladder. The wind cut through my thin clothing and my teeth were chattering no matter how hard I clenched my jaw. They lifted me into the small rowboat that was pulled up on the rocky beach and then piled in until the boat was so close to the water, I couldn’t breathe. They didn’t seem at all concerned. There was a bigger boat further out on the water, and with disturbing dexterity they got me on board, then hoisted themselves inboard and we started out. There wasn’t room in the cabin for everyone and I ended up sitting on a cold damp plastic box outside. It was already the most miserable night I’d ever spent. Andy showed up again with a blanket to sit on and another to put over my legs. With some trouble, he helped me into what he called a floater jacket. It was some sort of padded coat that restricted my movement and seemed to swallow me whole once he’d done up the zipper. It was warm though and for that I even thanked him. The bouncing of the boat on the ocean was even comforting once I’d got used to it. For a brief second, I even smiled… before realizing that I was still being kidnapped by a bunch of smugglers who were about to go after my ex-boyfriend.
We reached the dock late at night, 3:30 a.m. by the clock on the drugstore we passed as we moved through the village. With much movement and internal discussion, they organized themselves and then we were off on foot. I got to keep the blanket and we were quite the thing to be seen on the streets that late at night. Of course, no one was looking. Desmond’s house was dark and his expensive sedan was parked in the driveway. With a hiss of air, someone punctured his tires and then we all trooped into the house. The fact that it was locked and there was an alarm didn’t seem to faze them or present a problem. The door opened and we trooped into the house in silence. . Whether it was the late hour or the fact that I was beyond fear, I set out automatically closing curtains in the living room and turning on lights. Andy stayed by my side and we waited with the older man and the technician while the four others went to collect Desmond. Not for the first time, I realized they were a dangerous bunch There was the faint sound of a struggle upstairs, then two of the men dragged a very naked Desmond down the hall to the center of his living room. No one moved for a moment and then one of the men with him spoke.
“There’s a woman but Ryan knows her. She’s getting sorted out and heading home. She won’t be seeing him or saying anything. Ryan’ll speak for her.”
“Very good.” The old man beside me looked the trembling Desmond up and down and then settled back into the leather sofa. “Now, boy, let’s be talking about what you took that ain’t yours.”
“What? I took nothing!” It would have been more convincing if his voice hadn’t cracked on the last word.
“We’ve not got the time to go through all this. We all saw the video. We saw you take the bag from Lucy’s house. Now you’re going to tell us where it is.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please…” He looked around frantically and then his eyes set on me. “Lucy, what have you done? Tell them I didn’t take anything. I’m innocent.”
“From the cupboard,” I offered. “There was a bag.”
“She’s lying!” he screamed at the older man.
The man just sighed and stood up. “Well, there’ll be hell to pay for this one. Okay boys, tear the place apart.”
Desmond made more noise but they tied him up and gagged him, and then someone threw a blanket over him. It was for the best. I didn’t need to hear that this was all my fault again or see him pleading to be let go. They were thorough and I couldn’t help but think that the cops could take lessons. They trashed the place. By 5:00 a.m., they’d found the bag and Andy was counting out what looked like diamonds and solid gold squares on the coffee table. No one else spoke.
“One of the pieces of gold is missing,” he finally said. “I checked twice. Inventory is off.”
All eyes turned to Desmond, silently shrieking on the floor.
“Where is it?” the old man asked, removing the gag. Desmond simply blubbered so he tipped his pipe bowl out onto Desmond’s chest. He shrieked and even I winced. “Now I’m only asking one last time. Where’s the last one?”
“I spent it,” he finally offered. “I pawned the damn thing and I bought the new PlayStation.”
The old man looked up at me. “This seem likely?”
I looked at the television, which was a bigger model than the last time I visited. There was a brand-new machine in pieces underneath it. I could only assume that’s what it was.
The old man nodded and stood up. “Okay, take it out of his hide and we’ll move on.”
Maybe it was the fact that I’d shared a bed with the man a couple of times, that I had once dreamed of some sort of future with him, that my dispassion evaporated. I couldn’t watch him being tortured.
“Wait.” All eyes were on me now. “Leave him alone. I’ll help you. You can keep using the house and I’ll have stairs built and have fires on the beach and no one has to know. I’ll hide whatever you need.”
“He’d have given you over to us without hesitating,” Andy said with a frown.
“I know. He’s stupid and cruel and I see that now. Just…”
“And what guarantee do we have that he’ll stay quiet? And that you will?”
“I could be arrested just as easily as you,” I said, thinking quickly. “If you get caught you have enough footage to prove I was hiding stolen goods. As for him… I don’t know. Something?”
“Andy, take her outside.”
“Please, sir. What else can I offer?”
A great big sigh as he perched back on the overturned couch. “You’ve bought his life with your offer. Yours is still the best place to be using on this coast. And with a girl living there the cops won’t bother with it. Now get out of here while we have a chat with this lad about his future.”
There wasn’t anything else I could do. Instead, I sniffed and pulled my blanket tighter as the two men sent the other woman off in a taxi and waited in the driveway. With boyish snickers, two of them played tic-tac-toe with keys on the hood of Desmond’s car. I just waited in silence, too tired and cold to care much. There were no screams from inside so clearly they were just talking to Desmond. I was done with him now. I’d bought his life and that was all I could do. When they came out soon after, they were still talking but the grim feel of them had passed. The older man put a firm hand on my shoulder and led us off down the street and back to the boat.
“Now, my girl, tell me about these stairs that you want to build.”
Well, I was in on it now, and set fairly well for a life of crime.
I didn’t see Desmond again for a long time. Two years almost. He was on the same side of a city street and I crossed over to avoid him. He’d reported us all to the police and I’d had the house searched again. It wasn’t the last time, but I was getting better at cleaning up the fingerprint powder. We knew they were coming this time and there wasn’t anything for them to find. Desmond had an accident shortly after that and lost a leg. Broke his nose pretty badly too, and messed up his face. I didn’t ask for details but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer man. I had played by the rules and had done well out of the bargain. Really well, to be honest. Andy and I got married last year and he’s moved in. Now I’m one of the pirates in my own pantry.