In several armloads, Laurence ferried the entire contents of the junk drawer from the pantry to the kitchen. Everyone has one of these drawers in their house, Laurence thought. Theirs was wooden, twice the width of all the other drawers in the pantry, and had two black metal pull-handles. They had used it for decades. With everything spread out, he went to work organising it and settled on a system of categories: lights (flashlight, string of Christmas lights, plug-in night-light, outdoor flood), hardware (screws, nails, hinges, coat hooks), trash (a shoelace, three square card envelopes with discoloured and flaking gum, aged and cracked rubber bands, an expired bottle of aspirin). He came upon a plastic rectangular remote with a single button in the middle, similar to a garage door opener. It took him a moment to recognise it was the panic button for their deactivated house alarm. He placed it in the miscellaneous pile, which also had a small padlock and a jackknife. After organising everything, he returned to the empty drawer with a damp sponge. He cleaned the bits of crumbs and flakes of chipped paint at the bottom of the drawer and found, bumping around in the far corner, four loose keys which he arranged side by side in their own group.
He was working on his book. That’s what he told his departmental colleagues, students, and anyone else who he happened to run into, whether they asked or not. It’s also the same thing Greg Daniel, the Dean, had told him during their meeting with the Provost. Laurence, you should view this as an opportunity to work on your book. Greg had looked at the Provost after saying this, but the Provost didn’t add anything. And, at the time, Laurence was distracted and angry and even confused by the incident and the meeting. Plus, it had been a while since he had given his book any thought. The holidays were coming: all the students would be gone and most of his neighbours went away. Linda had a conference in Argentina, and they had already decided that he wouldn’t accompany her. It was a great time to re-focus on his book. Laurence’s response was delayed, but he eventually mustered one: Yes, yes this could be an opportunity.
Two of the keys were for the front door of the house. Extras made for guests. It had been years since anyone had stayed with them; they used to host a regular rotation of visitors. There was a smaller key for the padlock, which he had also found in the drawer. He placed these keys and the lock in a small plastic bag and worked his fingers down the opening, pressing the ridge and groove into each other. The base of the fourth key was wrapped in masking tape, which had yellowed over the years. Written in marker on one side were the letters W-A-L and on the other side L-A-C-E. The E was small and squat, smushed to fit. It was Linda’s handwriting. He couldn’t remember the Wallaces ever giving them a spare key. Not that it mattered or there was no reason why they wouldn’t. He just couldn’t recall a specific time when they gave it to them or even Linda ever mentioning it. He slipped this key into his pocket.
Unconsciously Laurence had seen the Wallaces’ television room décor—large leather couches, a small neat stack of folded newspapers and the oil-painting of the fruit bowl above the mantel—in passing for so many years that it resided in his head like an extension of their own house. The Wallaces were their neighbours on the west side. And after being retired for five years, that fall, instead of busying themselves with errands and newspaper reading, they decided to do some extensive travelling and had rented their house out. He had watched as the renters moved in, introduced himself, and even offered to help. They were a young family: Dave and Annie. He couldn’t remember their last names or recall their son Sam’s age. He had asked and Dave had told him. He just didn’t remember. Sam was still sort of a baby: walking but not really talking, older than one and younger than four. And now every time Laurence passed the window that looked into the Wallaces’ TV room, he felt a moment of displacement on seeing the renters’ worn furniture and mess.
After organising the junk drawer, Laurence made his way to his study, which was in the back of the house on the first floor. It was stuffed with books and stacks of papers. Three chest-high, dark brown, metal filing cabinets lined one of the walls. Only one of the drawers was actively used. He had written two books. His first one, which sold very well, was on the semantics of World War II and examined the language used in propaganda and primary documents; it was a topic that was popular at the time. He had been younger then. His second book was a disappointment and misguided. It explored how nature was represented through the writing of lake-district guidebooks from the early 19th century. Now, well now he wasn’t sure. He sat at his desk and waited for his computer: the screen flickered awake and the drive moaned. He moved the keyboard closer. His new book was going to be on the history of the refugee. He was starting with the basics, the wheres and the whats of the term refugee; he didn’t know how else to start. He had twenty pages written, practically nothing. He read through the first three pages and fixed a few sentences. Nothing substantial just some sentence structure and word choices. He would probably change it a hundred times before he finished it.
An insect landed on the corner of his desk. His instinct was to swat it; and if he caught it, he would crush it. Without looking he moved his hand towards it and he felt a hard shell and then saw it awkwardly lift off. It rose and arced through the air, landing on the lampshade across the room. It was too slow to be a fly. He made his way over to the lamp. It was a ladybird. He slowly edged his finger towards the insect. It worked its six legs in little movements and crawled onto his finger, marched up his wrist, and onto the sleeve of his white shirt. He wouldn’t crush a ladybird. He walked to the front door and opened it and shook his arm until it flew off. He followed it for a few moments but lost sight of it against the dulled silver overcast sky. He was caught off guard when he noticed his neighbour, Doug, standing with his overweight sheepdog, watching him. Laurence waved. Doug didn’t respond; he only turned and continued walking his dog. Doug lived halfway down the block in the corner house. And even though Laurence had seen Doug walk his dog several times a week for the past decade, they had never exchanged words, ever.
When Laurence sat back down at his computer, he noticed he had a yellow stain on his shirtsleeve from the ladybird. He went upstairs to his room to get a new shirt but decided to change into his running gear instead.
It had been nothing, barely a light squeeze; passable as a brush, almost. They called it an incident with his advisee, Jesse. Greg, the Dean, and Laurence had known each other for years. There was a taste of acid in Laurence’s mouth every time the Provost spoke. The Provost had just been hired that year. He was decades younger than Laurence and Greg. Jesse had chosen him to be her advisor, Laurence reminded them. But it wasn’t that sort of meeting. It wasn’t even a meeting; it was a review. He’d told Greg they wouldn’t even be speaking about this if it had happened ten, five, or even two years ago. The Provost asked him to take temporary leave from his tenure position contingent on performance and further review. The acidic taste started to burn as though Laurence were holding a battery in his mouth. Greg told him it had been decided he could stay on teaching part-time. He thought it was probably because of Linda that they didn’t fire him outright. She was well-known in her field and was forever receiving invitations for speaking engagements. He would need to rinse his mouth out as soon as the meeting was finished. It would be fine, he thought. Plus he hated the kids anyway. Most of them, at least. And he had his book.
Laurence usually went for his run in the evening, the hour when people had already arrived home after work but before they were sitting down to dinner. And at this time of year, when all the leaves were down and it was dark early, nothing was hidden. Camouflaged birds’ nests that were invisible in the warmer months suddenly appeared: clogs of sticks and dried stems delicately balanced at the end of a branch. The plots were small and houses tended to be big so all the homes ended up sitting right next to each other, nestled side by side. Laurence was unabashed as he stared through tungsten-lit windows and glimpsed people moving about in their domestic settings.
Midway through his run, Laurence could feel the sharp building pressure on his bladder and the need to urinate. Just a little further, he thought. The Provost had bought an old colonial on a highly desirable street. It was a cute three-storey house and not too big. Light grey exterior with black trim, it was incredibly tasteful. It was a small city. Everyone knew where people lived. Five-foot evergreen and holly bushes lined the front of the house. Perfect for Laurence’s purposes. Every time Laurence had stopped before, the house had been dark. He assumed they were away on vacation. He slipped between two of the shrubs and relieved himself. His head was just below a large window. It was juvenile but he didn’t care. He was watching the point of impact, wet leaves and rising steam when a light went on inside, and Laurence could see directly into the living room. There were bookshelves on either side of the door, a large couch that hugged the corner of the room with a wool blanket and a glass coffee table. An unpacked cardboard box was still in one of the corners. He thought the lights were on timers but then he saw a figure walk by the doorway. His stream never died down. Laurence quickly put himself back together and jogged out to the road. No damage done.
On his way to bed Laurence found two other ladybirds on the railing of the stairway leading to the second floor. He was too tired to let them outside so he just let them be. In the bedroom, he emptied his pockets out. He clutched the contents and opened his fist over the dresser: loose receipts, change, lint, and the Wallaces’ key settled in a small pile (every once in a while he would find a twist tie or a plastic screw cap that he had thoughtlessly slipped into his pocket during the day).
Initially Laurence had been happy for the Wallaces. He had grown weary of seeing them moping around in their retirement. Dave and Annie added some vitality to the neighbourhood. But recently Laurence had come to regard the Wallaces’ decision to rent offensive. And although he had noticed Dave and Annie were slow to rake their leaves and had only done it twice that season, his annoyance had nothing to do with them or about property value either. It was the principle of the idea that annoyed Laurence; the fact that the Wallaces had made a decision which they weren’t even around to take accountability for.
That night, Laurence was plunged in the depths of sleep when he was awoken. It was a slow almost peaceful awareness of a house alarm wailing. Some of the neighbours had invested in the latest home-security systems. Dan Meyer, a recent divorcee living in the house kitty-corner to theirs, had surveillance cameras installed. Laurence lay there listening to the Waah-Waah-Waah-Waah-Waah-Waah-Waah. The more he listened the more he felt himself slipping inside the noise. And he could hear something else. Inside the alarm, in the centre of the waah-waah-waah, he could make out a voice, someone talking to him. He couldn’t hear what the voice was saying though. And then the alarm abruptly stopped. Laurence could still hear and feel the syncopation of the alarm. It was like it had made a hole in space. The waah-waah-waah-waah-waah was still going off in his head. And the voice inside was talking to him. Before he knew it, he had fallen back asleep.
Their alarm had been deactivated for years. Laurence’s contract had lapsed and they had never re-signed it. The alarm company still contacted them annually to see if they were interested in reactivating the alarm. He never got around to returning their calls. And their house remained decorated with alarm hardware: small, plastic motion detectors perched in the corners of ceilings and central passageways and rectangular numeric keypads, with buttons labelled: stand-by, armed, panic. Adhered to the windows were barely noticeable patch sensors. Years ago Laurence had attempted to remove the alarm company’s sticker displayed on their back door. It was an image of a large eye fully opened. He began razor-blading the sticker off, wedging the paper-thin blade downwards under the sticker. When Linda had seen him, she stopped him and said to leave it; it was a great deterrent.
In the morning after getting dressed, he scooped up the small pile from his dresser, including the Wallaces’ key, and placed it back in his pants pocket. He thought he should go over and offer the key to Dave and Annie, the renters; a subtle protest against the Wallaces.
He read the entire twenty pages of his book and wrote a few comments in the margins. Although if he were honest, he felt like he was commenting on someone else’s book. He had a hard time believing he had actually written it. But either way, the reading and comments was the most work he had done in the past three years. He was suddenly disturbed by the hhhuuuurrrrrnnnnnn of a leaf blower. It was too late in the season. Then there was the clanging of an aluminium ladder being set up. When he went to the window, he saw landscapers across the street at the McGinleys’. Squeezing in one final bill, he thought. At least they were maintaining their property. He liked that their neighbourhood was clean and trim except for Doug’s house. Laurence cringed whenever he passed Doug’s house. Years of neglect had left the yard with misshapen bushes and clumpy mounds of overgrown grass. Large holes cratered the driveway like it had been shelled. Even some of the windows looked as though they had been boarded up from the inside. The clapboard siding was water-stained from the jammed gutters forcing rain and snowmelt to cascade over the sides. He wondered if it was financial. It must be more than that. The way Doug always slowly walked by with his dog, the drawn curtains secreting away the whole house. It had to be part of a larger mental health issue, Laurence thought.
When Greg had called Laurence, he started by asking how he was. Laurence assumed he was going to ask about catching up for the holidays, maybe a party or dinner with spouses. It never crossed his mind that it would be about Jess. When Greg mentioned what had happened between himself and Jess, Laurence could feel his temperature rising. How would Greg even know? How did he find out about it? It was none of his business.
On his way back to his study, he passed by the window that looked into the Wallaces’ TV room. Fucking Wallaces, he thought when he saw the lumpy couch, rainbow-coloured rug and stuffed animals dotting the room. He was surprised when the little boy, Sam, appeared at the window and met his gaze. Sam pressed his face against the glass. A small veil of condensation blurred the child’s nose. Laurence stood there and didn’t move and the little boy just watched him. Laurence smiled and then waved. The boy still didn’t move. It was like he didn’t see Laurence. Sam stepped away from the window and disappeared into another room.
It had been so much softer than he had imagined. He hadn’t really imagined it so that was incorrect. It had been an in-the-moment thing. Still, softer than he would have thought as well as fuller. Softer and fuller. And she never pulled away. And he had apologised only because he wasn’t sure what else to say. He hadn’t wanted to scare her. He also wasn’t entirely convinced that something else could or might not happen.
Theirs was a four-bedroom house including the small home office. The afternoon sunlight was thick and cast long shadows. The guest rooms were superfluous. It would have been a waste of money to hire someone to clean extra rooms or so he thought. But Linda believed their time was too valuable to be spent cleaning guestrooms. Seven ladybird carcasses in total. They made a candy-wrapper crinkle when he pushed them into the dustpan. The orange sunlight framed branch scribble-designs that stretched across the walls and floor. The light and the views were amazing from the third floor. It needed some work though: patching, painting, and the bathroom needed updating. In the corner of the guest room was a crack in the plaster that ran the length of the ceiling. He followed the crack and at the far corner of the room where it started to widen, he noticed something moving. On closer inspection, he saw it was a whole swarm of ladybirds. They moved and filled the recess as though they were oozing out of it. He wasn’t sure how to deal with them. He thought maybe he could vacuum them. There was the old saying about ladybirds and luck, and he wondered how it applied if you had hundreds of them.
From the third-floor window, he looked over the Wallaces’ driveway. Dave’s Subaru wagon sat parked. On the back windshield were those stickers of cartoon people. Each one represented a different member of the family. Laurence had noticed that a lot of people had these stickers. Some people even had their pets represented. He wondered if they were supposed to be for safety to warn other drivers that there was a family in the car. Or maybe if it was somehow a form of boasting, a competition to show how big the family was. He found the stickers somehow obscene. Dave came out of the house carrying Sam. He walked down the driveway and placed Sam into the backseat and then got in the driver’s side and reversed out. Give them a few years, Laurence thought, and they’ll have two more stickers on the back of the car. Or maybe not; what did he know? He knew nothing of them beyond hi, how’s it going?
Dust the light fixtures, sweep up the basement floor, drain the boiler, and flush the bathroom pipes. It was an endless list, but there was hardly anything left to do. Not a speck in the house. It was still too early for his run. He jangled and fingered the spare key in his right-leg pocket. The brass warmed by his body heat, he casually walked over to the Wallaces’ house. It was a mere sixty feet between the two front doors. The sharp peaks that made up the key shank rose and fell in a mountain range of brass. The teeth easily slotted into the tumblers. He slowly turned the key and could feel the resistance of the bolt as it disengaged from the housing. Laurence wondered about their alarm but was willing to bet the Wallaces hadn’t used it in years.
He thought about Linda. She was only scheduled to be gone for five days and it had been nearly two weeks. He hadn’t heard from her. They hadn’t talked about the incident. He wasn’t sure what she knew or didn’t know. He should call her. He knew he should. He was afraid.
The amount of clutter and mess that littered every room made it obvious a child lived there. There were smears and marks at knee-level along walls and corners. Under the kitchen table lay a field of crumbs and shards of food. Half of the dining room was occupied by small figures, wooden blocks, plastic cars arranged in some scenario or what he presumed was a scenario. He kneeled on the ground and lowered his head so he was at eye-level with the scene; see it from their perspective. Small plastic men on their sides and backs, a horse and a gorilla still standing, cars lined up in a row as though in a traffic jam, and wooden blocks toppled in some sort of obstacle course. It was an aftermath of a disaster and this was the calm before the clean-up began.
He wandered into the kitchen, which was surprisingly tidy. He heard a car pulling down the street and it sounded like it had turned into the driveway. He made his way to the window and saw them. They were home earlier than usual. They were still in the car so he made his way to the door. He stood on the front stoop outside the front door as Dave came up the driveway holding Sam in his arms. Laurence would have to explain himself. Sam was already looking at him. Then Dave looked up and saw Laurence standing there and stopped.
‘Hi there, it’s Laurence, your neighbour, from next door, sorry I just…’ Laurence held up the key to show Dave. He could see that Dave was confused but this at least explained something. ‘I, we have a spare key…’
Dave was silent, listening.
‘I didn’t mean to scare you. I used the spare and there was an, an… an alarm going off.’ Laurence finally got it out. ‘I thought it was coming from your house,’ he explained. ‘So I used this. We have it from the Wallaces.’ He could see Dave start to ease a bit. ‘It turned out it was someone else’s alarm. I think it might have been the Connors’ two doors down. Have you met them yet?’
‘Do they have a Lab?’ Dave asked.
‘Yes, a golden one.’
‘We’ve met them a few times,’ Dave smiled. ‘We don’t use the alarm. I’m not even sure if the Wallaces use it. Plus, there isn’t anything worth taking.’ Laurence wondered if Dave thought he was trying to take something.
‘Sorry for the intrusion. I’ll leave you with the key.’ He held the key out to Dave and backed away from the door and down the front steps.
‘No, not at all. Why don’t you keep it, just in case?’
Laurence pushed the key back into his pocket. He looked at Sam and smiled. The young boy had brown curly hair and a broad face with blue eyes. Sam was now staring at Laurence. Dave moved up the stairs past Laurence.
‘I appreciate you checking, thank you,’ Dave said. ‘Annie and I noticed you were around. And we were just saying, we should have you over for dinner sometime.’
Laurence had taken a few steps towards his house. ‘Yeah, sure that would be great, anytime.’ Sam pulled a rubber giraffe out of his pocket.
‘You know, we just bought a chicken and are about to roast it. Annie will be home shortly. We’d be happy to have you stay for dinner tonight. That is, if you are free?’ Dave had opened the door and was smiling.
‘Oh gosh, I don’t know. I don’t want to bother you.’ The boy was galloping the giraffe in the air.
‘It wouldn’t be a bother at all. It would be great.’
‘Well, why not.’ Laurence would miss his run.
He followed them into the house and back to the kitchen. Laurence sat in a small wooden chair as Dave unpacked the groceries and Sam played with his giraffe. Then the boy held the giraffe out to Laurence and Laurence took it. Dark brown splotches adorned the giraffe’s body and long neck, and the head had antlers that were rounded on top. They weren’t antlers exactly, he somehow remembered this. Ossicones is what they were called. He had learned it once and thought he could tell Sam, but realised he was probably too young to understand.
Sam stood watching him. Laurence wasn’t sure what the boy wanted him to do. He air-galloped the giraffe. Sam only gave a slight smile. He wanted something more. He moved the giraffe again, but the boy only stared.
‘Sam, give him some room would you?’ Dave said.
He moved the giraffe’s mouth open and then shut it and then opened it again. Sam started to smile. Laurence understood what the boy wanted. But he didn’t know what sound a giraffe made.
‘How’s the book coming along?’ Dave asked.
Laurence didn’t answer. He didn’t remember telling Dave about his book but that didn’t mean anything. He opened the giraffe’s mouth and then opened his mouth, ‘Waaaaah-na-na-na-na.’ It just came out. Sam looked shocked at first but started laughing. Dave turned around and smiled. Laurence pointed the giraffe at Dave and opened the giraffe’s mouth again. ‘Waaaaaaaaaaah.’ The boy laughed again.
He was happy to miss his run. He hoped he could linger over drinks after dinner. He wouldn’t want to leave. He got up and wandered to the living room to look at the bookcase. Out the window he saw a car pull into the driveway. Dave’s wife Annie got out and walked towards the house. He noticed Doug was coming down the street with his dog. Annie stopped and said hi. Doug smiled and said something back. He wondered what they had said.
It was while he walked through the TV room that he caught a glimpse of his own house. He didn’t mean to. He wished he hadn’t seen it. There was the brass standing lamp next to his leather wingback. Most of the windows were dark and empty just sitting there. Fuck the Wallaces, he thought.
At dinner, he would ask them about Doug. If they knew him at all. He would ask them who else they had met in the neighbourhood. He realised they would probably ask him about Linda. He was sure they would wait until the end of the meal. He wondered if it would be Dave or Annie who would actually ask him. He figured Annie would probably be the one to inquire. Then he wondered if he would talk about Linda. His hand was inside his pocket holding the Wallaces’ key. It was warm. What would he say?