Sara stands at the kitchen sink rinsing her cereal bowl, and as the water goes from white to milky pearl to clear she is already up on her tiptoes and craning her neck to see over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. She shuts off the water and sets her bowl beside the sink, leaning farther forward, pressing her bony hips against the kitchen counter.
“What’s he doing?”
The smell of coffee permeates the room, and, behind her at the table Sean folds the newspaper over into precise fourths, snapping the pages into place.
“What’s who doing?”
When she doesn’t answer right away Sean sets the paper on the table and crosses the room to stand behind his wife, laying his hands on her shoulders. He follows her gaze and looks over the fence to where their aging neighbor, Charlie, is scooping shovelfuls of sod from the yard, creating the ragged edge of a pit. By night it would seem ominous, but by the direct light of day, where everything is revealed in stark reality it seems nearly innocuous.
“Maybe he’s digging a pool?”
Sara continues watching but her head moves left to right and left to right.
“Himself? Who knows?”
For a moment—before he catches himself—Sean is going to ask whether or not Charlie has grandkids. And then he realizes that she is just as unlikely to know as he is, and that it would, more than likely than not only remind her of the doctor’s visit two months back when they had learned that she would never be able to have children. The doctor had used a phrase that stuck in his head like a piece of glass embedded in his palm: Lutean Phase Defect. As he stands behind her now he can’t imagine his wife has a defect; she is so healthy and strong. But it’s not a phase. It’s not something she’ll grow out of. And so, with this thought in his head he simply makes a little noise meant to signify he is both perplexed and still interested.
“Maybe the guy is snapping,” he says.
His hand comes to rest on his wife’s belly and she almost immediately covers his hand with hers and half turns towards him, so close he could kiss her.
“Past tense,” she says, “has snapped.”
Sara turns slightly left and he takes a step back, knowing that she wants to move away from the window and he gives her space, letting her move out into the kitchen.
“Maybe he needs somebody to talk to.”
Sean thinks about mentioning that Margaret only left three months ago, but again he remembers that it is too closely in line with the fateful visit to the doctor’s office and he thinks better of it.
“Maybe,” he says.
“Go talk to him.”
“Why not? He could probably use someone to talk to. Maybe it’s only because he’s lonely.”
The thought itself doesn’t make any sense to Sean, but he doesn’t want to argue. The man is not digging up his once manicured back lawn because he is lonely or because he needs someone to talk to. Maybe he’s digging for some as yet unknown purpose. Maybe he’s digging and doesn’t want a lot of people coming around asking him why.
“Sure, maybe, look I’ll talk to him. Just not right now.”
Sara gives him a look that says: if not now, when? And already Sean is beginning to cave; before the end of the day he will be standing in his neighbor’s mutilated back yard.
At the grocery store Sean buys two steaks, the best that he can find, decent and well marbled. Twice he puts the steaks back and picks them up again. He gathers up a couple ears of corn and baked potatoes. In the beer aisle he peruses the contents of his basket and looks at the variety, struggling to identify what his neighbor might drink. He searches back into his memory to decide what the older man would want, but he can’t think of a single instance of seeing the older man with a particular brand or style of beer. Stout is too heavy, and the cheap stuff is too cheap. Then there is IPA and pale ale, and those seem almost too obvious. In the end he settles on an innocuous sounding beer—something local that is just neutral enough to work.
By the time Sean gets back to the house it’s already late afternoon and he can hear the chunk and smack of dirt hitting the fence as he climbs out of the car. He doesn’t bother to go into his own house, and, instead, heads straight for the side gate of his neighbor’s house and reaches over to unlatch it, knowing that it’s nearly identical to his own. As he rounds the end of the house he sees Charlie panting as he leans over the shovel. He’s suddenly, irrevocably, and acutely aware of the man’s age. He waits for Charlie to turn around and notice him, pausing with rustling plastic bags in hand. He waits, almost too long, standing at the corner of the house frozen. Sean is uncertain but curious and when Charlie finally does turn around, it isn’t the violent acknowledgement Sean has half expected, but something simpler and more honest, as if the older man was waiting for him.
“Sean,” he says, “what brings you by? Afraid the old man here has finally lost what remains of his marbles?”
Sean gives a little laugh—an attempt to ignore the question. The air around them is laced with the earthy smell of sweat and dirt.
“All this work you’re doing. Thought you might be hungry.”
“Hey? What you got there?”
“Steaks, potatoes, corn.”
“Bring any beer?”
“Give me a minute to get cleaned up.”
Sean waits on the back patio as Charlie slips out of his shoes and disappears into the house. For the moment he’s on his own, in the unfamiliarity of his neighbor’s backyard, and he knows for a fact that if Sara were to crane her neck to the left and angle her eyes out the window she’d see him sitting at the patio table with the grocery bags in front of him.
Charlie returns wearing a fresh shirt and pauses momentarily at the side door to slip on a pair of battered loafers as he smirks at Sean.
“Sorry to leave you out here. Didn’t even think to ask you in.”
“Wife sent you over to find out just what the heck old Charlie’s doing tearing up a perfectly good backyard, hey?”
Charlie sits as if drawn quickly downwards by an unseen force. As he combs his snowy hair with his fingers Sean can see the shiny pink of the man’s scalp. Sean reaches into one of the bags and snaps two cans from their plastic rings. Charlie must be digging himself a pool.
“Not exactly,” Charlie says, “it’s a fallout shelter. Well. It will be by the time I’m done.”
“Never know when the fit hits the shan.”
Sean glances at the pit; the ragged edges could easily be the set for any of the bad horror movies of Sean’s misspent youth. Surely the guy has to be kidding. But if he’s cracked he might actually be dangerous.
All those people that shoot up grocery stores and malls—they’re like Charlie, aren’t they? It’s always the ones you don’t suspect, or so they say, and for a moment Sean is worried. As he watches Charlie heave himself up from the chair he realizes how silly he’s being. The guy has to be pushing seventy and it isn’t as though he’s fit for his age. He’s your run-of-the-mill, skinny, old man that lives alone. Charlie makes his way over to the barbecue parked beneath the eaves of the house and rolls it several feet away from the side of the house and reaches down to open the valve on the propane tank.
“We’ll get this thing fired up and let her get up to temperature. Take it your wife isn’t coming along.”
“Had some things to do.”
There’s a stuttering click as Charlie holds down the button for the electric igniter and then the whoosh of the flame when it finally catches.
“You think old Charlie’s cracked.”
“Nuts. Bonkers. Certifiable. Padded Cells. The whole shebang.”
“It’s understandable,” Charlie says, “Heck. You’d be nuts if you didn’t think I was nuts, and it’s fine. Really. I like the company, and it might just be your lucky day.”
Charlie sets his beer on the patio table and gestures for Sean to follow, and makes his way to the sliding door, kicking off his shoes as he steps inside. Sean reaches down to unlace his shoes, thinking maybe this is how the guy lures people into his dungeon. At a half-head taller and with a good twenty or thirty pounds on the guy, Sean reminds himself there’s no need worry. After all, Sara knows where he is. Inside the house is dim and there is a vague musty smell that mingles with this morning’s coffee and fried eggs. The carpet has been worn down, and Sean can see where the man has treaded, shuffling, perhaps in half-sleep from living room to kitchen and then down the hall to where the master bedroom must be.
Part way down the hall Charlie stops and turns gesturing through the open doorway. Inside the room Sean can see that two computers have been set up—or maybe one computer with two screens. On the wall an oversized map of the county is bordered by various newspaper articles pinned in a loose column. Sean nods, taking it all in. The blinds on the window are closed to slits, and other than the map and the articles the walls are bare.
“This is command central,” Charlie says, “which’s a figure of speech, by the way, it’s not actually command anything. Just where I work. Look. You know what algorithms are? Type of thing they use on Google, all the Internet search engines. I worked with things like that the last few years of the career. Turns out it isn’t too difficult to set one up to do a little searching of its own. Set the right parameters; let the thing run itself.”
Charlie leads the way into the room and sits down in the rolling chair and taps the keyboard, the displays come to life, an intricate matrix of maps and headlines.
“I guess this isn’t helping any. You came out here to find out I’m not a nutcase, and this only proves it, right?”
“Are you, Charlie?”
“He asks the question. Good for you. Has Charlie lost his marbles? Well, maybe.”
“Would I know if I had?”
Despite himself Sean feels a smile crease his face but he’s uncertain what to say, as if any comment might spark the dry tinder of Charlie’s precarious paranoia. How’s he to know that the wrong word or phrase might cause Charlie to snap and pull a gun from the desk drawer.
Although his beer is empty he holds onto it, because it’s something to do. Something to occupy himself with. Eventually it might be an excuse to get out of the room. Charlie presses a key and the screens go black as he rolls back his chair and stands up, leading the way back through the dining room to the sliding door. He’s thankful to be outside again, in the still warm air. The cross breeze prickles the skin at the back of his neck. There’s a fine rope of smoke coming from the lid of the barbecue, and they can smell the charcoal layer burning off of the grill. The men stand there watching the flames tickle the metal grate and Sean retrieves two more beers from the bag, forgetting that Charlie has left a barely touched beer on the patio table. Charlie ducks back inside for tinfoil and a plate and utensils to start the potatoes going. Saying they’ll need a while to get going. Once they have rolled the potatoes in foil and set them on the grill the two men stand in a prolonged silence.
“Come on,” Charlie says finally, “I’ll show you the other part of this whole deal.”
Sean’s worry is melting into curiosity as he follows Charlie around the side of the house to the garage. Inside he can see that there is no longer room for Charlie to park his old pickup, which sits leaking its daily dose of oil onto the driveway. Charlie has lined the walls of the garage with metal shelves and there are two large folding tables set up in the middle of the room. Sean can see without asking that the shelves are laden with enough canned food to stock a corner store. There are large jugs of water and what looks to be fifty gallon drum of fuel.
“This is only part,” Charlie says, “I have to keep the rest of it a secret. Never know. The fit hits the shan and you might be knocking on my door for help. Or, you might be knocking on my door to take what I’ve got.”
“I don’t think I’d do that.”
“Exactly. You don’t think you would, but desperate times, desperate measures.”
“You expecting some sort of apocalypse?”
“Weren’t you ever a Boy Scout?”
Sean shakes his head and imagines circular merit badge emblazoned with a fiery mushroom cloud. Charlie makes a gesture and leads them back out into the driveway before pulling the door down and waiting for it to click. They walk back around the side of the house and now, finally, Charlie’s beer is empty and he reaches into the bag and grabs another for himself. They return to their seats at the patio table. The smell of the barbecue and the late spring evening and the beer are putting Sean in a decent mood. He hasn’t spent an afternoon like this in longer than he can remember. Sean and Sara’s friends are all well-intentioned, but they seem to spend more time concerned about construction on I-5 or housing prices to ever worry about something like this.
“Ask you a question?” Charlie says after a long pull on his beer.
“You have car insurance.”
“Fire. Earthquake. Life? Same thing.”
Charlie explains that after Margaret left he had more time to spend looking into these things. Sure it had been part of what had made her leave. All those years of marriage and it just went out the window because she thought that he had finally lost it and she couldn’t stand to be in the house with him anymore. She was worried that he was going to completely lose his mind, and the arguments had tunneled beneath the once sturdy walls of their relationship and when it was thoroughly compromised the whole thing collapsed.
The whole time that the relationship was eroding Charlie was monitoring the news: an outbreak of West Nile in Florida. Civil War in the Congo. Flesh eating bacteria in a New York hospital. Then there were the historical events. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1989. Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Katrina. Chernobyl. Fukushima.
Even if it wasn’t a nuclear holocaust that ended the world as we know it, he wanted to be able to survive. He’s old, he knows that, but that doesn’t mean that he has to resign himself to death. The two men sip their beers and Charlie finally gets up to put the steaks on the barbecue, tearing into the plastic package with his fingernail.
By the time they finally pull the steaks off of the barbecue the sun has set in brilliant oranges and pinks and the sky is drifting steadily towards the muddy blue- gray of night. By now Sean has a good solid buzz going, and he knows Charlie has been matching him one-for-one since they started, and he has to admit that the older man seems in good spirits; he’s becoming even more talkative. Their silverware catches the glint of the back porch lights and the steaks practically sparkle.
“Tell you the truth,” Sean says as he finishes his steak, “you do seem a little bit nutty.”
“There you go. Good man. Honesty.”
“Nutty but maybe a little realistic. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“I get it,” he says, “Trust me. If anyone you know is bound to understand that it’s me.”
“What did you expect your neighbors to think?”
Charlie looks at him in the half-light and smiles, shrugs, “life insurance.”
“And your pit here?”
“That there is the platinum membership.”
Sean pulls himself up from his seat and walks to the edge of the ragged hole. The sod is frayed and uneven at the end, and he can see the larger rocks where he has begun to pile them in the center.
“You have some sort of blueprint, I imagine.”
“Designed it myself.”
“Looks like this project’s going to take you a while.”
“If fit hits the shan before I can get her done, so be it.”
“I meant alone.”
“He’s coming around, folks.”
It’s just after midnight when Sara rolls over in bed and realizes that Sean isn’t home yet. She glances at the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock and momentary panic stalks through her veins. Throwing back the covers she slips on her robe and pads softly down the hallway to the kitchen, pausing there scrutinizing the silence until something, instinct maybe, leads her to the kitchen window. On tiptoes she cranes her neck again, just as she had that morning, peering over the fence into Charlie’s backyard.
It’s so incongruous that it takes her a moment to recognize her husband’s body as the muscles of his back move like hinges in sweat gleaming moonlight as he digs a shovel into the earth and flings earth towards the fence. Nearby, standing knee-deep in the pit beside her husband is Charlie, alternating movements with Sean. A strange choreography of pick and shovel. She hasn’t heard the noise—but now she can hear it through the window—the distant chunk swish of the shovel. Sarah leans over the sink and begins to cry.
About the Author: Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. A 2010 graduate of the Hollins University MFA program, he currently lives in Seattle where he works as a writing tutor and is a writer in residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. His work has appeared in The Portland Review, Writers Block Magazine, Husk, and Fiction Daily, among others.
Artwork: Cole Carter