Note: This is the first installment of a story I plan to serialize on this blog. I haven’t written fiction in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever tried my hand at suspense/psychological thrillers. Hopefully, it will add something fun to the mix that isn’t too far off topic. How often would you like to see new installments? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The sun had just gone down when we heard a knock at the door. It was mid-November, so it was already dark at 5pm.
Jack and I had just hunkered down under blankets on our respective couches. The first big snowstorm of the season was headed our way, and dinner was cooking in the kitchen.
We looked at each other—who could be knocking at five on a Sunday? We were still relatively new to the community, so maybe it was a neighbor dropping off a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine. Only one grandmotherly woman had welcomed us to the neighborhood so far. I was still holding out hope that a youngish couple would show up and we would all become fast friends.
Jack went to the door. We had no chain and no screen door, so he just opened the front door to whoever was there. The area was secluded and much nicer than the last place we lived, so I wasn’t too concerned that he didn’t ask first who it was.
A woman’s voice said, “Oh, hello. Thank you so much for answering your door.”
I jumped up and joined my husband in the foyer. A woman stood there holding the hand of a small child. The child was all bundled up against the cold, and the woman had on a long puffy coat that was hanging open. She appeared to be pregnant, but I know better than to make assumptions about that. She looked a bit out of breath—flushed and tired.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but our car just broke down up there.” She motioned behind her. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, and a flight of wooden stairs led up to the street. In the light of our street post, I could see a taller figure standing at the top of the stairs, carrying something large.
“That’s my husband up there. We are calling around to find a mechanic that can come out, but this little one really needs to use the restroom,” she looked at the child. “And I suppose I do, too.”
“Please, come in,” I said. “Jack, why don’t you go tell her husband to come down.”
The woman and child stepped into the house. I thought it might be easier for her to navigate in our small half-bath without her big coat, so I offered to hang it up. Then I showed them to the bathroom.
“We are so grateful, thank you again so much,” she said as she closed the bathroom door.
On my way back to the foyer, I scooped up the crumpled blankets from the couches and tossed them into the coat closet. When I reached the door, a man was standing there holding another child, about a year younger, on his hip. I guessed to myself that the two children were about three and four, but I wasn’t particularly good with kids’ ages. Maybe four and five?
“Would you like to come in and sit down?” Jack asked.
“We’ll be out of your hair shortly,” the man said, not moving.
“It’s pretty cold out there,” I said. “And it’s supposed to start snowing any minute. Have you reached a tow truck or mechanic yet?”
“Not really. Left a few messages.” He shifted the kid over to the other side.
“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom,” the child whispered.
“I can show you where it is,” said Jack.
“And I can take your coats,” I said.
“That’s not necessary, we really will be out of your hair in no time.”
“It’s no trouble. What with the kids and your wife’s condition, you are more than welcome to wait here.”
The man gave me a sideways look, and I immediately regretted referring to his wife’s “condition.”
“Do you all live in the area?” I asked to change the subject.
He glanced away for a moment and took a long pause. “No, we were visiting people a couple blocks away.”
Silence. Then the child started tugging on the man’s sleeve.
“Follow me,” Jack said, and the man went off with him.
I started thinking about why this family had come to our house. There was nowhere on our part of the street to pull over their car. Was it sitting in the middle of the road? The neighbor to the right of us only came out on weekends, and he had likely left to go back to the city, so his house would be dark. The neighbor on the other side was older and went to bed early, but not this early.
The woman and child came out of the bathroom, and her husband and the other child took their place. She was holding the child’s coat and hat and scarf.
“I’m Elise, and this is Jack,” I said. “Why don’t we all sit down?”
The woman looked grateful to sit down on the loveseat with the child.
“I can take those from you,” I gestured toward the child’s coat.
“No worries, we shouldn’t be too long. Though it does smell awfully good in here.”
“We have a big pot of chili cooking,” I explained. “Perfect comfort food for a snowstorm. I can’t believe we’re expecting like a foot of snow this early in the season.”
“Oh, my, are we supposed to get that much? I wish we had gotten an earlier start. The roads out here are confusing. We got a little turned around. And then the car…” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes, it’s easy to lose your way here,” Jack said.
The woman still hadn’t offered her name, and I was wondering if it would be rude to ask. The child was remarkably quiet and still.
The husband came out of the bathroom talking on his cell phone. Maybe one of the mechanics had called him back?
The other child hung back, behind his legs. This child still had a coat and hat on.
The man hung up. “Well, they can’t come out for another hour at least.”
“We made plenty of chili if you’d like to stay,” I offered. “It should be ready in about twenty minutes. I have cornbread baking in the oven, too.” Jack gave me a look. I knew he didn’t want these strangers in our house on a cozy Sunday evening, eating dinner with us, but what could we do?
“So, did you folks just move in?” The man asked. He was referring to the boxes stacked here and there, marked “living room” and “den.”
“A couple months ago,” I confessed. “It’s taking a while to get fully unpacked. Don’t you hate packing? I hate packing. But unpacking is usually fun because you get to decide where to put everything in your new home. But this time it’s dragging on for some reason.”
Jack gave me another look, like okay, Chatty Cathy.
Silence again. I decided to pull off the band-aid: “Can I ask your names?”
The woman stood up and walked over to the man, who was hovering on the perimeter of the living room. The child followed her.
“What do you want to do?” she asked him. “These people are being very kind.”
“I guess we could stay until the mechanic gets here,” he said and then looked at us. “But you folks go ahead and eat. We’ll be just fine. We had a big lunch earlier.”
I speculated: Perhaps they don’t eat meat. Or spicy food. Maybe the kids hate chili.
We were all standing at this point, including the two children, and it was getting really awkward.
“Is your car in the road? Do you need us to help you push it off?” I asked. “You can use the neighbor’s parking spot—he’s gone back to the city.”
“It’s fine,” the man said in a tone that said, stop asking questions.
The woman sighed, “You know what, I would love to have some of your chili. Can I help you in the kitchen?”
I could have hugged her. “Absolutely, right this way!” I headed toward the kitchen, not even caring that I was leaving Jack with the man and the two kids.
“Jocelyn,” I heard him call after her, but she ignored him. Jocelyn! One name down, three to go.
Coming Up: Part II, The Dinner