New-to-you – The Maid

So, nothing new ready to go up here yet…combination of no time, and when there is time, I’m working on something that’s taking more than a few days to finish.  But I can’t leave this place gathering too much dust; of the multitudes who visit (almost double digits at its peak earlier this month!), a few of them know where and when I sleep and have access to well-balanced blunt objects.  I need to keep them happy.

So until I have something new to go here, I thought I’d post something old, but in that best salesman’s creed, is New-to-you.

And because it’s been brought up here more than any other story I’ve written, and I’ve had a few recent requests specifically for it, first up is the Stephen King On Writing award-winning story “The Maid”.  Reading through it today…it actually holds up better than I was expecting.  Like nothing I’d written before, or have since, but still pretty darn good.  I was able to resist the urge to roll up my sleeves and dig into some re-writing, which is always a good sign.


The Maid

He noticed, as he pulled into his driveway, that he’d left the lights in the kitchen on.  Nothing unusual there, not these days.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as forgetting to turn the car’s engine off and leaving it running all night, which he’d done two weeks ago, or forgetting that the kids had to be at school at eight and that he was the only one who could drive them.  But it was, in a way, worse, because it was so obvious.  Like hanging a sign out.  He wondered how many of his neighbors had walked by that day, noticing and shaking their heads.  Maybe letting loose with a quiet “Tsk-tsk, poor guy. . .” before continuing on their way.

Nothing he could do about it now, though.  It was actually comforting, however surreal.  Like this house was a home again, their home, and Lily was waiting inside, getting dinner ready, maybe a candle-lit spread for the two of them, the twins over at her sister’s for the night. . .  The twins were with Annie tonight, but it definitely wasn’t to give he and Lily a private evening together alone.  More like he and Jack, or Jim, or even his old college buddy Jose.  Whatever he had left in the cupboard would be fine, as long as it was strong, and put him to sleep.

He gathered his briefcase and his jacket and got out of the car.  Then reached back in, turned the engine off, and pulled the keys out—once is, perhaps, understandable; beyond that is just pitiful.

He’d remembered to turn the entryway lights off, at least.  He hadn’t completely lost it yet.  He dumped his briefcase in the shadows at the foot of the stairs, went to hang his jacket up, then remembered it was Friday and tossed it back on top of his briefcase.  Let the maid get it, he thought, and laughed as he went into the kitchen.

Cruising on autopilot, he opened the closet just past the doorway and pulled out a bottle.  It felt full, so it didn’t much matter what it was, and he didn’t bother looking.  He went to the counter to find a glass clean enough to get him started—he usually went straight to the bottle once the buzz kicked in—and for the first time that day, he started to really worry.  Or maybe it was just a new worry, one he hadn’t already been carrying around with him for the past month.  It was fresher, and it stung.

There were no glasses on the counter, used or otherwise.  There should have been; and dirty, encrusted dishes, piles of silverware, pots of three day-old, half-eaten chili.  But the counters were clean, not even a stray crumb or coffee stain.  He’d done this before.  Sometimes—generally after three in the morning—he’d be overcome with drunken disgust at his life and how it’d turned out, and he’d throw himself into the housework he’d ignored during the day.  Thinking that somehow clean windows or a vacuumed carpet would make the life of a drunk, single father with twins and a nut-case ex-wife more bearable.  He never did a very good job, and it never made things more bearable.  But he always remembered the embarrassing attempt.

He didn’t remember cleaning the kitchen last night.  Nor did he think, even sober, that he could’ve done such a spotless job.  It was like the maid he and Lily used to joke about had broken in while he was gone during the day.  Breaking and entering and. . .Cloroxing?  Had he even noticed it this morning?  The routine of the days was starting to melt everything all together—all he could remember of that morning was a pair of three year olds who couldn’t tie their shoes by themselves yet.  And cereal.  There was always cereal; that was a safe bet.

He’d never had a blackout like this before, and regardless of how nice the results looked, he didn’t think he wanted to make a habit of it.  Maybe he should take it easy tonight, watch a movie on pay-per-view and get to bed early.  Spend the weekend sobering up a little instead of the reverse.

There were clean glasses in the cupboard—he’d apparently put everything away too—and he filled one almost to the top with what turned out to be Jack Daniels.  No ice: there’s no need to coast politely into oblivion when you’re drinking alone.  He sat down at the kitchen table, yanking his tie loose and opening the top two buttons of his shirt.  He took a long sip of his drink, shivering as he felt it work its way through his stiff and tired body, and leaned back, stretching his legs out in front of him.  Day is done, he thought, And so am I.

The light on the answering machine next to him was flashing, and he reached out and hit the play button.  The first message was just a hang-up, white noise, only it went on and on, for a good half-minute.  Then there was a familiar sound he couldn’t quite place, a loud rumbling and rattling.  It wasn’t until he heard the horn blow twice that he recognized it for a semi-truck, roaring past.  And then the rest of the noise fell into place: traffic.  It sounded like a pay phone alongside a busy street, maybe a highway.  The message ended a second later without the caller saying a word.  Probably a wrong number, he thought, which fit in quite well with his own crumbling life.  Someone stuck in the breakdown lane, trying to get home. . .  He raised his glass to the invisible caller. Right on, brother.

The second message was from Annie, his ex-sister-in-law.  He sat up and checked the time stamp showing on the display; she’d called and left the message twenty minutes ago, while he was still driving home after dropping the twins off with her.  He didn’t like the way her voice sounded:  hurried, and nervous.  Maybe a little scared, even.

“Mark? It’s Annie. I just got. . .um.  Look, try not to let this freak you out too much, but. . .shit.  Mark?  They lost Lily.  They were taking her over to Ridgeview today to run some tests, and the van to bring her back signed out at three, but it’s only fifteen minutes back to. . .to County, only they didn’t notice the van hadn’t made it back yet until the shifts changed over at six.

“Um, so, I talked to Sergeant Thomas already.  He called me after you weren’t home yet, and he says that everyone’s probably just lost in the paperwork and she’s safe away in her ce—. . .room.  But then he said he wants us all to come down to the station ’til they do find her, and if they don’t, tonight, then they’re going to put us up in a hotel ’til they do.  So you figure it out.

“I’ve got the twins, you just left here fifteen minutes ago, so we should be there. . .any time now.  So be ready to go, okay?  Bye.”

The message ended, the machine beeped twice (meaning that was the last one), and began to rewind the tape.  It sounded very loud in the quiet kitchen.  The rattle and the hiss, and then suddenly the sharp click as it reached the beginning and stopped.  His hand jerked again, spilling some of the liquor, and he didn’t notice it.  He got to his feet, raised the glass, and drank until he started to choke on it.  It burned, and he was coughing all over the kitchen, big coughs that bent him over at the waist, but he couldn’t think of anything else to do.  Everything was so much easier to deal with when he was drunk.  It all just kind of. . .happened, and he was along for the ride.

As the coughs died and he straightened back up, he glanced back over at the counter and saw something moving.

His heart froze, his breathing fainted, and a sudden burst of adrenaline flooded him.  But.  It was just a reflection, his own, caught in the window behind the sink.  It was dark outside, and he was a little jumpy, and more than a little drunk already, and maybe, for a second, he’d thought he’d seen. . .

Lily?  Why would she come here?  Even if she’d actually. . .slipped away, from the doctors, why would she come all the way back here?  ‘Cause she’s crazy, he thought, and wondered where the idea had come from.  You saw her at the hospital.  Crazy people don’t need why’s.  But. . .

“Ah, shit,” he said, and it fell out of his mouth just like it sounded.  The last thing he wanted to be tonight was responsible.  And now he had to spend the evening with Annie and the twins; not that he didn’t love them, Annie too, but he could already feel the Jack Daniels starting to crawl its way up the back of his neck, getting ready to lower its shroud over his temples, and forehead, and eventually his eyes, so he could sleep.  All because some orderly out at Ridgeview had assumed that the “next guy” would take care of. . .whatever it was they did to keep track of the patients out there.  The whole damn world was going to hell.

He put the almost-empty glass down on the counter—and not without a little satisfaction, like the marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima.  Clean my counters, will you? he asked the drunken maid inside of him.  Take that.

He paused in the hallway, listening for the sound of a car approaching in the street outside. There was none—he figured he had five or ten minutes before Annie showed up.  Probably more, considering how she drove, especially with the twins in the car.  Time enough to go and change.  It was Friday, after all, and he hadn’t become a teacher so that he could dress up on the weekends.  He started up the stairs, nearly tripping over his jacket and briefcase along the way, and made it all the way to the switchback landing before he saw her.

They kept a fish-tank at the top of the stairs, ostensibly for the twins benefit, though they hadn’t voiced much of an opinion.  Mark had found himself sitting in front of it at night, especially recently, staring into the calm water, and the eerie glow that the heat lamp gave off, seeping through like liquid fog.  He’d bought the fish, and the tank, but he wasn’t the one who had taken care of them.  That had been Lily’s job, and part of the origins of the Maid Joke.  As in, “They’re your fish, Mark.  What do you think I am, your maid?”  Variations on the theme were, “Stop throwing your stuff on the ground, Mark. There’s no maid to pick up after you anymore.”  Or the suddenly relevant, “I wish you wouldn’t leave your dishes all over the counter Mark.  Or am I just your maid, cleaning up after you?  Is that all I am?”

Lily was sitting at the top of the steps, next to the tank, her head resting against it, one arm draped loosely around the front leg of the table it was resting on.  She was staring out into space, but she didn’t look dazed or drugged.  More like an animal, a leopard napping in a tree, waiting for her prey to stroll unexpectedly by.  She didn’t look like she’d seen him yet.  But before he could move or even think, she did.

“Mark?”  She sounded pleased to see him.  “You’re home.”

“Lily?  Wh-” But the question died on his lips.  His eyes were adjusting to the dim light, and he could see more of her.  She was still in her hospital pajamas, the thin cotton with the V-neck.  Not the green ones, for doctors, or the white ones, for the normal patients, but her orange ones.  For the violent patients.  Her hair was short, just a week or two past a buzz-cut.  Her feet were bare and dark.  And her front was stained with. . .with whatever was dripping from the wicked-looking club she was holding.  It was dark, but he didn’t need to know what color it was.  He could smell the blood from where he was standing.

“Lily.  What are you doing here?”

“I shouldn’t have left you guys.  You know I shouldn’t have, Mark.  And I’m sorry.  You can’t take care of yourself.”

She got to her feet, the club hanging by her side, the horns at the ends of it glistening in the dim light.  She took a step towards him, down the stairs.  Prowling, her eyes alive and watchful.

“You can’t, and I knew that, and still. . .I went and left the three of you on your own.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!”  With each shout, she raised the club and, as he watched in horror, brought it down on her own head.  He didn’t know if she was already bleeding, but when she stopped, it was pouring down one side of her face, a mask with just a single, dull eye staring out.  He started to back away from her, facing her and feeling behind him for the next step.  She followed, getting closer.

“Can you-,” she started, “. . . It’s your fault too, you know.”

“Lily.  Take it easy.”  He had to reach out for the banister.  The whiskey was still creeping over him, and he was on the verge of losing his balance.  He was afraid of turning around and running—hell, he was afraid to move.  She looked like she was waiting, just waiting for the right moment to pounce.  “Just stop and tell me what you want.”

“I want. . .”  She stopped for a moment, then bent over, her hands going to the sides of her head, like she used to when one of her headaches would hit her mid-stride.  He thought for a wild second that he should leap forward and tackle her, now, while she couldn’t pay attention.  At least get his hands on the club she’d been using on herself.  And maybe others.  Bare minimum he could turn and run for his life.  But he couldn’t move, could barely breath.  The shroud was upon him.  She was happening; he was just along for the ride.

She looked up, and saw the intent in his eyes.  Her blood-smeared lips curled into a nasty smile.

“What the fuck do you think I am?  Your maid?”  And she started towards him again, faster.

He kept backing up, one hand on the railing, until he was almost at the bottom of the stairs, wondering if he’d locked the front door, if he’d have to stop and unlock it before she chased him out into the street.  Give the neighbors something to really talk about, he thought, and a sick half-giggle escaped his lips.  She heard it, and lunged for him.

His left foot reached back, feeling for the floor, and stopped before it should have.  His heel came down on top of his briefcase, and it fell over, taking him with it.  He felt his ankle twist, the pain momentarily overwhelming his thoughts.  Probably sprained it, he thought, and then he felt her on him, landing on him, taking her prey.  He tried to roll over, and the last thing he saw was the club in her hands coming down towards his face.

She brought it down again, and again, and again.

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