Something in the refrigerator smells sour-oniony and off, she realizes as the door shuts. She’ll have to take care of it tomorrow. Not now. Now that the door is shut, she cannot open it again.
She doesn’t want to start over.
If he were home, she wouldn’t have to do this, but he’s working late.
The security alarm is the first step. The deadbolt goes three times (clonk clonk clonk). Handling the front door means that the behind-the-door has been checked. In the front room, there’s the dark, triangular crevice of the behind-the-armchair (really too small to hide anything … unless the anything is small). Her gut confidently feels that the inch of under-the-couch is too narrow, but the under-the-ottoman is about four inches. She kneels to check.
Since they only just moved in, the dining room is still unfurnished, blissfully all open corners. This room is a reprieve until she can agree on a table. She flicks the chandelier lights on just to make sure they go off.
His car? … Not his car.
In the kitchen, after the unfortunately misjudged fridge, are drawers and cabinets and one large pantry, where the bottom shelf is clear (“Clear!” she hears him say in his medical voice. She clicks it against her teeth: clear, clear, clear.) The refrigerator fits perfectly into its recessed nook—a welcome change from their old apartment, which had a behind-the-fridge.
In the bathroom, the toilet lid is a little fortress of its own magic. But the claw foot tub … constellations of tiny panics had needled her back when she first saw it, again when they bought the house, now every time she pulls back the shower curtain. She lets her eyes absorb the nothingness at each end of the tub, breathing it in: clear, clear, clear. When the frayed edges of her gut seam together in satisfaction, she pulls the curtain all the way around, sealing the nothingness into place.
He isn’t home yet.
Three bedrooms. Like the dining room, they are still unfurnished, so there’s no under-the-bed or wedged-between-dresser-and-wall … but anything, anything (anything) could be behind those sliding mirrored closet doors. She inhales, avoids her reflection and the galaxy of space behind it, slides them open, and same as with the tub: one-two-three, clear-clear-clear at each end, and then once more, to make sure nothing snuck into one end while the other was being scrutinized. They are long closets.
The apartment only took ten minutes. This house takes twenty and that’s still with these as-yet unfurnished rooms. Why did they buy a house with so many bedrooms? (She knows why.)
He isn’t home yet.
Finally, finally: the master bedroom. She inhales the light of the hallway and carries it with her into her sanctuary, closing the door: click click click. These walls hold many corners: the walk-in closet, the en suite with the shower stall, the behind-the-dresser, the under-the-bed. She can’t lock the bedroom door because he’ll be home soon, but the house is otherwise safe now under her pseudo-spell-casting, so she can explore the confines at her leisure.
She turns the TV on. Its vibration-hum-sing is an added layer of protection, because would she be confident enough to listen to the cheerfully abrasive chefs on Chopped if she were worried about the rest of the house?
Her jaw loosens; her sternum spreads. The release always outweighs the sense of silliness, the fear of being caught. As long as he never knows. As long as it stays between her and this new house. As long as he’s home soon.
She brushes her teeth, thirty seconds per quadrant. The bed looks unbelievably cozy, a floating cocoon of down. It was a complicated day at the office; she expects to have another unpleasant conversation with her boss tomorrow. She climbs into bed, sinking into the spongy memory foam, tucking each foot into the comforter.
Her phone chimes. His text reads: “Emergency case — maybe another couple hours. Don’t stay up. XOXOXO.”
She inhales, exhales, starts brushing her hair. A new episode starts.
Something clatters down the hall, perhaps on the kitchen floor.
A.K. Cotham’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in publications such as Black Fox Literary Magazine, Slink Chunk Press, ByLine, Iconoclast, Poor Mojo’s Almanac, Sacramento News & Review, Solano Magazine, and the Two Cranes Press anthology Scattered, Covered, Smothered. Two short stories were also selected for performance by Sacramento Stories on Stage. She lives in Northern California.