The house was finally quiet, or at least quiet enough. Three months of family and friends all walking in and out of her door like a Lazy Susan filled with casseroles. She had woken up to people. She had fallen asleep to people.
Valerie had become so accustomed to hushed voices filling her ears during her waking hours that, though the bodies were absent, their voices seemed to linger in the corners of her room.
“I worry for her.”
“He was such a good man.”
“What an interesting choice of paint color.”
Not sure what to do with herself on her first night of solitude, Valerie decided the wine cabinet was a good place to start. She pulled out a bottle of Bordeaux but didn’t bother with a glass.
As she sat on the chaise lounge in the backyard, her mind wandered. She settled on the memory of the wine. It had been given to them at Thomas’ company's holiday party last year. Valerie could picture it: Thomas in his gray suit that fit his form so well. She had spent the night on-edge from the stares of his female coworkers.
“Ah! I bet this will pair nicely with the gas station peanuts I bought on the way here,” he had said when one of them handed him the bottle.
Remembering this, Valerie spit out a bit of her wine with a chuckle. The laughter was short lived. It was the first bit of joy she had felt since Thomas passed. Instantly, the joy turned to a feeling of guilt.
She tried to force the voices in the corners to give her some sort of positive affirmation: He would want you to be happy.
It didn’t work.
The more she drank, the less distinct the voices became, until they were just one giant murmur. It was like an eerie white noise, but it worked for Valerie. She slipped into a slumber.
Valerie sits at the foot of the bed, methodically twisting her wedding ring. Thomas appears in front of her and places his hand on hers.
“What’s got you thinking?”
She turns her head away.
“I’m embarrassed to say.”
Thomas sits next to her.
“Val…” he is still holding her hand. “Talk to me.”
She looks down at his hand. It sits like a weighted blanket on top of hers.
“I just don’t like the way those women looked at you this evening.”
“What women?” He asks.
“Thomas, they wish they had you.”
He’s a modest man. He won’t admit any of his associates fancy him.
“Forget about them,” he says as he takes his hand away from Valerie’s.
She is immediately beside herself, wondering why he would take such comfort away during her time of insecurity.
He rummages in his pocket.
“You know what they don’t have?”
“What?” Valerie asks.
From the inside of his suit, Thomas pulls out two bags of roasted peanuts.
“I thought you were joking!” Valerie shouts through a fit of laughter.
“Of course not.”
He winds up an underhand throw and softly tosses a bag of legumes to his wife.
Just as Valerie prepared to catch the bag in her dream, she was called forth back to her sad reality. She felt a gust of wind near her head. The yard was silent. Even the voices had gone to bed.
Valerie waited minutes before daring to move. She sat up and looked around. Nothing. There were no signs of life that she could see.
She decided to move to her bed. As she reached for the wine below her, she spotted something unusual. Directly next to the bottle was a peanut shell.
She scanned the yard again. Nothing.
Valerie didn’t sleep much. Thoughts of the shell, mixed with longing for her husband’s warm touch, kept her up most of the night. As soon as sunlight began to creep through the blinds, Valerie threw the covers to Thomas’ side of the bed.
She stood in the kitchen for a while, pulling out box after box of food she decided not to eat.
The empty house would take some getting used to. Valerie knew she would learn to live with it, but for now it was too much. She decided to take a walk.
It was a beautiful day outside. A light breeze was coming from the south. It made things just chilly enough in the shade to send a shiver through Valerie's arms, but made it so satisfying to be greeted by the sun’s slow-crawling heat. This made Valerie look up at the sky and smile in pure contentedness.
The voices were back. She wondered if they had been there the whole time and she was just too busy admiring the day to notice, or if they had just woken up themselves. Valerie looked around. She was close to her home. Where were the voices hiding? Were they on the neighbor’s porch? Perhaps they had climbed the tree.
As Valerie searched her surroundings for the voices’ origins, she saw a man in her driveway. He wore a dark blue, hooded sweatshirt. It may have just been his outfit, but he looked a bit husky.
He was looking at her roof.
“Excuse me,” she greeted the stranger.
She had startled him. He jumped back, putting him a few steps closer to the sidewalk.
“Hi, uh, hi, ma’am,” he stuttered.
“Can I help you with something?” Valerie kept an eye on his hands, which were stuffed inside the pocket of his sweatshirt.
“Uh, just doing a check on the neighborhood.”
“A check for what?”
“Uhm, roofs!” He pointed to Valerie’s roof. “Any holes in yours?”
“Are you talking about leaks?” Valerie was confused.
“No, no. I mean holes. Like, do you have any large holes in your facia?”
“I do not.”
The man nodded at this. Valerie squinted her eyes to try and make out his facial features, but the sun was blinding her. She took a step closer to the man and saw uneven patches of stubble spreading across his cheeks and chin. That was all she got the chance to see.
As soon as she advanced toward the man, he bolted. He took off running towards the main street.
Valerie shrugged. She was perplexed by the interaction, but not necessarily intimidated. She chalked it up to some creep scoping out houses for potential targets. She went inside and checked that all of her windows were locked. She was tempted to leave one open in hopes the voices might escape through it.
While waiting for the casserole in the oven to boil over and fill the house with the familiar burnt smell of Valerie’s cooking, she moseyed out to the backyard. The peanut was still there, next to the ring left behind by the wine bottle. She picked it up and brought it inside.
She wasn’t sure why she had done so, but it felt wrong to leave it behind. She hoped that Thomas had put the memory in her dream. She hoped that the peanut shell was a sign he was still with her, and that maybe one day his voice would emerge from the chatter in the corners of their home.
Valerie sat on the couch with a plate on her lap. The plate was just hot enough to cause her bare thighs discomfort, but not enough to remove it. The little bit of pain was solacing. The voices said she deserved it.
Reruns of an outdated sitcom played on the television. The snarky remarks from the characters distracted Valerie from the voices in the corner. Safe from their criticisms, Valerie drifted off to sleep.
Valerie watches Thomas in the bathroom mirror. Half of his face is covered in shaving cream. Valerie doesn’t care. She’s willing to risk the mess for a kiss.
“Oh,” Thomas says when she breaks their embrace for a bit of air.
Valerie wipes the surplus of foam off of her face and smears it on Thomas’ forehead.
“Why you little,” his mouth curls into a mischievous smile.
Valerie attempts to run out of the bathroom, but Thomas has a grasp on her wrist. He brings it to his mouth. With his lips, he follows the blue veins up her arm. Valerie forgets about the play fight. Her body starts to succumb to the gentle, yet effective, act of affection.
This is what Thomas was hoping for. He tightens his grip and completes the journey up Valerie’s arm with his cheek, leaving a ski slope of shaving cream.
“Thomas!” She shouts. She’s a little upset that the sexual teasing had ended so abruptly.
“THOMAS!” Valerie shrieks. All thoughts of intimacy are put on hold. A rat has entered the scene. It seems to shriek back at Valerie.
It scurries into a corner behind the toilet. Thomas grabs a plunger and attempts to use it as a sword.
The rat darts towards Valerie, who leaps onto the counter.
“Don’t worry,” Thomas assures his wife. “I’ll get him.”
Valerie is jolted from her dream. She felt a gust of wind near her head. It was far more intense than the previous night. Her eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark, but she swore she saw something float towards the back door.
The back door.
“Crap!” Valerie said aloud.
She rushed to the back of the house. The door was wide open. She couldn’t remember if she had left it open earlier. She stood there, frozen in fear.
Finally, she decided it best to close and lock the sliding glass door. The thought that she had just inadvertently trapped an intruder inside her home crossed her mind. It kept her up the rest of the night.
Valerie made a pot of coffee and searched for the largest knife she had. To be safe, she grabbed two: one plain, and one serrated.
She was on her way back to the living room when she spotted something. She put her hand up to her mouth in shock. Unfortunately, it was the hand holding the plain blade knife. Her lip was cut ever so slightly, sending a drop of blood down her chin. Valerie didn’t notice. She was possessed by the sight in front of her. There, just inches from where Valerie had been sleeping, was the lifeless body of a dusty brown mouse.
After the initial shock wore off, Valerie used a nearby towel to move the rodent. Not sure where to grab, Valerie went for the tail. As she lifted it from the ground, she noticed wounds. Seven punctures bordered the little creature’s spine. She wrapped up the towel and placed the animal in the freezer.
Valerie sat on the sofa until morning, listening to the voices. They were louder than normal, but Valerie couldn’t make out what they were saying. Would they warn her of danger?
At around noon, Valerie considered calling her sister. She stared at the phone in her hand. She wished her sister would just call her.
All Valerie wanted was a bit of comfort, but she knew if she reached out to anyone, they would think she was weak. They would think she needed help. They would think all of the things the voices said in the corners.
She tried not to think about the carrion that was now shacking up with her garlic bread and strawberry gelato. She tried not to think of the intruder that may be in her home, but she still clung to the knives.
Feeling uneasy, she grabbed the peanut shell and tossed it into the freezer as well, refusing to look inside.
Desperate for some sort of distraction, Valerie opened her blinds. Her driveway was filthy. One of her many recent visitors must have had an oil leak. Even worse, it looked like someone else, or maybe the same person, had tried to help by doing some weeding. They left the pile of plant life by the road, where it was now starting to rot. It needed to be in the proper bin for the city to remove it. Normally, one of her neighbors would complain about this, but they were probably adhering to some sort of grieving grace period before they started being obviously nosey again.
Valerie moved her focus to the house across the street: the Duvall's. Their house was always pristine. Perfectly groomed hedges lined the path from their driveway to their picturesque red front door. The house was truly quite lovely. The second floor loft had a triangle-shaped window that pointed to the peak of the A-frame structure.
It looked like the cover of a magazine. Just beside the home sat an oak tree almost twice the height of the house. It was regal. Last summer, a storm had blown through the neighborhood and tried to take one of the branches with it. It must have been too heavy to carry because the wind dropped it on Thomas’ car.
Valerie had been livid. Thomas, on the other hand, was ecstatic for the excuse to purchase a new vehicle.
Valerie smiled at the memory.
The voices got louder.
In the afternoon, Valerie concluded that, if there were an intruder in her house, he would have surely tried to attack her by now. She sat on the edge of the chaise lounge. The ring from the wine bottle was still there. Valerie’s eyes followed the circle, trying to find the end. Monotonous tasks helped push away her thoughts.
Valerie’s eyes soon tired. She tried to fight the urge to lay back, but it was a battle she would lose. She had been up all night. She told herself that she was safe. It was still light outside. The gate was closed. She would just rest her eyes.
“This storm is nuts!” Thomas exclaims. Valerie can hardly hear him over the howling wind. It doesn’t help that his face is practically pressed against the window.
“You should get away from the windows, Tom”.
Thomas waves a hand at her.
Valerie makes her way through the house with a flashlight. She is using matches to light several scented candles all gifted to her from various nieces.
“You should be less worried about me and the window, and more worried about you playing with fire.” Thomas starts walking towards his wife. He uses the excuse of the matches, but Valerie knows he had decided she was right about the window.
“Hush,” she tells him.
He starts humming a tune. Valerie doesn’t recognize it, but it is quite inviting. Thomas takes the matches from her hands.
“Care to dance?” He asks.
Valerie simply smiles.
He takes her by the waist and interlocks his fingers with hers.
Thomas resumes his humming close to Valerie’s ear. The vibrations make their way from his throat to Valerie's bones.
“I’m worried about the storm,” she says.
His tune gets more elaborate.
“La, la la, la.”
Valerie forgets about the weather.
They sway for a few minutes until Thomas lets go of her hand. He instead lightly gathers a handful of her hair in his fist.
She leans in to kiss him, but a loud crash interrupts them.
Valerie was awoken by an object falling on her stomach. It was a twig. She felt another gust of wind, but this time, she saw something. It was nearly sun down. The sky was filled with a fleeting palette of pinks and oranges. A figure, maybe the size of a cat, floated towards the gate to the front of the house. Valerie jumped up from the lounge to run after it.
The figure did not go far. It landed on her driveway, right next to one of the puddles of oil.
It was an owl. His heart-shaped face was pale white with dark brown eyes that seemed to recognize the woman in front of him.
The bird crouched over and took two steps towards Valerie before he was stopped. He was engulfed in a blanket.
Valerie was surprised to see the stranger who had been in her driveway the previous day.
“Follow me,” he told her.
Valerie wasn’t sure why, but she did. She asked no questions, and he offered no explanations, as they walked down the road. They stopped at a pickup truck parked a few houses down.
“Open that,” the man gestured to a rather large dog crate in the bed of the truck.
The man opened the blanket inside the crate and locked the owl inside.
“Thanks,” he said after securing the door. “Been trying to catch that sucker for almost a week now.”
Valerie seemed to snap out of it.
“Why?” she asked.
“My son set him free. If you can really call it being free. The thing hasn’t hunted for its own food in over six years.”
“What?” Valerie asked, once it was obvious the man wasn’t going to give her any other context.
“Oh! He’s, uh, one of the rescue birds over at the sanctuary. A barn owl. My teenage boy has some issues. He swears the owl demanded to be released.”
“Sounds like he was just trying to help the bird out.”
“That’s how he sees it. The thing is missing a toe. Apparently makes it difficult to hold onto prey.”
“How many toes are they supposed to have?”
“Four talons on each foot. You'd think seven would still be enough to carry whatever this guy eats. I guess not.”
Valerie thought back to the mouse.
“Did your son mention if the owl said anything else?”
“Are you trying to be funny?”
The man looked confused, and then a bit weary.
“I’m going to take him back now.” He paused. “Thanks for your help.”
Valerie and the owl kept eye contact as the man drove away. He looked familiar, but Valerie had never been to the sanctuary before. Valerie had never seen an owl in person.
The bird never made a noise, but he looked as if he had something to say.
It was quiet in the house. Valerie sat on the kitchen floor for hours, but the voices never came back.