Jennifer Lynn Krohn
Ava was greeted by open kitchen cabinets. She had complained multiple times, but Mari and Lu denied that they had ever left them that way. This morning not only the kitchen cabinets stood open but also the dishwasher, the fridge, and the washer and dryer. Passive aggression already, Ava thought. She didn’t have energy for this, so she walked through the house closing the small doors. She wasn’t even going to mention it to her roommates, but she couldn’t allow them to just walk all over her.
She took out a piece of paper and drew a pair of eyes on it. She had read somewhere that people were less likely to transgress if there were eyes, even artificial ones, watching them. She drew the pair of eyes as realistically as possible with the pupils staring straight forward. This way, they would follow the perpetrator through the room. Using a magnet, she left the page on the freezer door. She was gone before either of her roommates woke up.
When Mari came into the kitchen, she briefly stared at the pair of eyes before putting the kettle on the stove. As she sat at the table scrolling through her phone, Lu came out.
“Good morning, Mar-ga-ri-ta” Lu said, over-pronouncing each syllable—reminding Mari why she never used her given name.
“Morning Lulu,” she said in retaliation.
Lu stuck out her tongue then opened the fridge for her milk. She closed the door, oblivious to the eyes. She opened a cabinet door, pulled out a packet of protein powder, closed the cabinet, and began to vigorously shake the packet while dancing around the room.
“It’s a crime to be that energetic this early,” Mari said.
“This is just what a full night of sleep looks like.”
“If only,” Mari groaned. The kettle screeched, and Mari pulled herself out of the chair. All night a dark figure had stood over her bed. She knew that if the figure was aware she was awake something terrible would happen. She lay breathing in and out trying not to move, and the figure stood equally still. Finally, Mari could take it no more and tried to scream, but instead she woke in a different position in bed. She turned on the light and spent several hours scrolling through different social media sites on her phone, until she finally could fall back asleep. Mari didn’t mention this to Lu. Lu, she suspected, would tell her that she needed to exercise more or not to eat carbohydrates.
Mari ignored Lu’s chatter and stared at the eyes on the fridge as she drank her tea.
* * *
The next morning Ava woke. As she lay in bed, she remembered a dream. The kitchen was dark with only the blue-green light of the clocks on the stove, the microwave, and the coffeemaker illuminating it. The back door shook, the locked clicked, a dark figure entered. It walked to the nearest cabinet, opened it, took out one of the lime green plastic cups Lu had bought at a dollar store, and licked it. It licked another and another. Then it moved on to the coffee mugs. It slowly worked its way through the kitchen. Licking each plate and utensil. Never closing the cabinet doors. When it came to the fridge, it froze and stared. Then it turned over the sheet of paper. The dream ended.
Ava finally pulled herself out of bed and walked into the kitchen. All the cabinet doors were open, and the piece of paper with the eyes was turned over. She stood for a moment considering whether she should wake her roommates, but the potential for ridicule was too great. She remembered being in second grade. There was a birthday party at Lily Conner’s house—every girl was supposed to come as their favorite princess. Ava had hidden this fact from her mother. She already knew that it was better to show up in no costume than in a handmade one with no resemblance to a Disney character. During a game of hide and seek, all the mass produced Cinderellas, Snow Whites, Ariels, and Belles dared Ava to hide, by herself, in the lot behind the house. The lot was filled with ancient cottonwoods. Their leaves were the bright yellow they briefly turned before they became a dry, crinkly golden-brown. Weeds grew at the bases of the trees’ twisted trunks. Ava stood alone in this little bit of forest that would soon be lost to development, listening to the distant sounds of the party. She knew no one was going to look for her, and she also knew that this was probably for the best. Suddenly, everything became too quiet. The hairs on her arm stood up. Panic filled her. She had to get away, but she didn’t know where to, so she went up a tree.
A man emerged from the brush. He circled the trunk. For a second, Ava thought that he didn’t know she was there, but then he said, “Little girls aren’t supposed to climb trees.” Ava said nothing. She had found that when she was in trouble speaking only made it worse. “Why don’t you come down? We could be friends.” His hair was tangled, and dark stubble covered his jowls. His eyes were a light blue. “Those other girls were mean, weren’t they? I’ll be nice.” He spent at least fifteen minutes cajoling her to come down, but she said nothing. Then she heard her name from the house. She looked over and saw Lily’s mother calling for her. A stick snapped, and, when she looked down, she saw nothing but a tail disappearing into the undergrowth. She told the girls at the party about the man, and for the rest of elementary and middle school, and even into high school, when her classmates could be bothered to notice her, she was known as a liar, a teller of tales. Now that she was in college, she wanted to be reborn into someone who didn’t let the other girls get to her. A woman who was above the childish bullshit, who wouldn’t burst into tears in front of strangers.
Ava closed all the cabinet doors. She took down the drawing, and on the back she drew another pair of eyes. Obviously, whoever opened the cabinet doors didn’t like being watched.
* * *
The kitchen, illuminated by the clocks’ blue-green light, reflected onto the window in the back door, obscuring the figure trying to open it. Finally, the lock clicked, the door opened, and the figure entered. It looked immediately to the fridge. When it saw the eyes staring at it, it growled and sprang across the room. It turned the page over and found another pair of eyes. It shredded the page—Ava woke with a jolt. She could hear someone moving in the kitchen. She knew she should get up, catch her roommates in their passive aggressive act, and ask what the hell they were doing, but she lay still. At four a.m. one gave nightmares credence. Dawn would soon come with logic, and she would feel silly. But in the dark, she dared not move. She heard footsteps come down the hall and enter Mari’s room. Well, she thought, mystery over. She turned on her lamp and got out of bed. As soon as her feet hit the floor, the floorboards groaned, the door to Mari’s room burst open, something ran down the hall and out the back door.
Ava stood still for a second, then she stepped into the hall. No one was there. A second later, Mari came out.
“Were you in my room?” she asked.
“No,” Ava said, “Were you walking around the kitchen a little bit ago?”
“No, I was asleep. Then all of sudden I hear someone running around the house.”
“Let’s check on Lu.”
The two knocked on Lu’s door. No answer. They opened it. Inside they could see Lu in bed. She had on a pair of noise canceling head phones and a sleeping mask.
“Do you think she’s really asleep?” Ava asked.
“Yup,” Mari said, “She has all the necessary accessories.”
The two girls crept to the kitchen, turned the light on and found every door open including the back door.
“What the hell?” Mari said. She quickly crossed the room, closing and locking it. She stood for a second staring into the darkness, but only her own reflection stared back.
“This really wasn’t you or Lu?”
“Wait. Has this happened before?”
“Yeah, I found the kitchen like this the past two mornings,” Ava said, sitting down at the table. “I assumed one of you was playing a prank on me.”
“Shit,” Mari said. She wrapped her arms around herself. “The last two nights, I dreamt that there was this figure standing over my bed. What if…”
“I’m going to wake Lu up.” Ava said.
“I’m calling the cops.”
Ava shook Lu several times, and Lu woke up with a string of curses. “Nothing is more important for your health than sleep.”
“Someone was in the house,” Ava said, “Mari is calling the cops.”
With that, Lu was out of her bed asking questions. While waiting for the police, she searched the house, her softball bat in hand.
Two police officers came. One checked the front and back yards while the other asked questions, but in the end they just told the three to be sure to lock their doors and windows. When Ava protested that they had been, the officer told her that she should double-check before she went to bed. He also suggested that it may be a prank from one of their boyfriends. “After all, if someone entered this house, they obviously had a key.”
“Would Rich do something like this?” Mari asked Lu after the police left.
“No,” she said. “Anyways, I haven’t given him a key, and he’s out of town right now.”
“I haven’t given anyone a key,” Ava said.
“Neither have I,” Mari added.
“Do you think it could have been our landlord?” Lu asked.
“Mr. Davies can’t run like that,” Ava said.
“He’s the only other person I can think of who has a key,” Lu said.
“What about former tenants?” Mari asked.
“I’ll call Mr. Davies in the morning and get the locks changed.” Ava said. The girls waited for dawn together on the living room couch, watching cartoons from their childhood.
* * *
After the locks had been changed, Ava still didn’t feel safe. She walked around the house. The front yard was surrounded by a waist high chain-link fence that an adult could easily jump over. The backyard had a cinderblock wall of the same height, but wooden slats had been added which brought the total height to six feet. The cinder blocks, however, were wide enough to provide a ledge for anyone who still wished to climb over. The gate at the side of the house was chained shut, and the lock was so rusted that it couldn’t be unlocked. Behind the backyard was an alley that once had been used by garbage trucks, but now only saw the occasional vagrant. Both front and back yards were filled with smooth grey stones from a failed attempt at xeriscaping, but all the stone did was make it impossible to mow the ragweed, spurge, and silverleaf nightshade, which had overtaken the yard. Everywhere Ava looked, she just saw how pregnable it was.
As she walked along the perimeter of the property, noting the areas where someone could slip in, she pocketed stones. When she went back inside, she took a Sharpie and Lu’s summer sky blue and pearl white nail polishes, without asking, and covered the stones with eyes. Eyes on all sides. Then she scattered them through the yard, and threw a few into the neighbors’ yards and the alley. She even hid a few in the house to be safe.
That night she had no dreams, but the next night she dreamt of a fox creeping toward cinderblock. It leapt to the top of the wall and squeezed between two loose wooden planks. Once in the backyard, Ava could see it from a dozen different angles. It crept to the back door and stood, taking a key from its pocket. The key fit into the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. It shook the door and cursed or growled, Ava was not sure which. The fox then ran out of the yard. In the alley, Ava lost sight of it.
When she woke up in the morning, Ava went to the back door and found that a key, which would not turn, was left in the lock outside. She placed it at the center of the kitchen table and waited for her roommates to wake up.
Mari stumbled in and grabbed the kettle. Once it was filled and on a hot burner, she sat down and looked at Ava.
“Aren’t you usually at the library by now?” Mari asked.
“I found that” she pointed at the key, “stuck in the back door.”
All the blurriness from Mari was gone, “He was in our house again!”
Ava shook her head, “I think it’s the key for the old lock. He couldn’t get in.”
“Well, that solves it then. It’s a former tenant.”
“Or someone they gave a spare key to?” Ava said.
“I had that dream again,” Mari said, “where the man was standing above my bed. Only it wasn’t my room. It was this bizarre dining room. All these people or animals, you know how dreams are, come in. And this man leans over me and for the first time I could see his face.” Mari paused, looking into a middle distance.
“What did he look like.”
Ava clenched her fist and said nothing.
“At this point, I realize I’m in a wedding dress. I can’t run or move or scream, and he knows this. He’s happy about it. He takes my hand and tries to yank off a ring. It has two pearls and a sapphire on it. It won’t come off. So he takes out these rusty old garden shears and snips my finger off. Then all the other men-animal-things rip me apart.” For a moment silence hung over the two women before the kettle cried out. As Mari made her tea, she said, “Probably just the stress.”
“I dreamt about a fox too. I dreamt that he was creeping through the yard,” Ava explained, “that he tried get in but couldn’t. That’s why I checked the door this morning.”
Mari turned and stared at Ava.
Lu entered the kitchen her usual chipper self, but froze when she saw Ava’s and Mari’s faces. “Another break in.”
“No, just an attempt,” Ava said and explained the situation, not mentioning the dreams.
Lu called the cops, but, as it was no longer an emergency, they had to wait several hours before an officer came out and made a report. There wasn’t much else the officer could do. After all, Mr. Davies had been renting the house to college students for three decades. He couldn’t remember if he’d even changed the locks before this week. All the girls could do was to always keep the doors and windows secured.
* * *
Later that day, Ava filled a couple canvas bags with rocks from the yard. She covered them in eyes. She then walked down the alley and a few blocks around the house dropping the stones so that one would never be out of sight of another. She had never walked through the neighborhood before. Each house had their doors shut, their curtains closed, or, if the curtains were open, the insides were so dark they may as well have been closed. She had only lived in the area for a couple months, but she knew it wouldn’t matter if she had lived there longer—she wouldn’t know these people. Yes, she would have caught glimpses of them going about their day, maybe even chatted with them, but they would remain mysteries just as she would to them.
Once the bag was empty and the atmosphere took on the burnished shine which only exists between afternoon and evening in the Autumn, Ava returned home. She walked into the living room and then the kitchen, and shrieked when she saw a man with dark blond hair at the table. Lu, hidden by the open fridge door, shrieked in response.
“What the hell?” Lu said, slamming the fridge shut.
“I think I startled your friend,” the man said, standing up from the table. He held out his hand. “I’m Rich. You must be Ava.”
Ava shook his hand. “I thought you were out of town?”
“I came back as soon as Lu told me about the break in.” He walked over to Lu and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Have to protect my best girl,” he said before kissing Lu’s cheek.
Lu giggled and playfully pushed him away. “You’re such a softy.”
“That’s awfully sweet,” Ava said. “Is Mari home?”
“Just missed her,” Lu said, “She’s closing tonight.”
“We better get going,” Rich said.
“You guys have a date?” Ava asked.
“I thought Lu deserved a night to take her mind off things,” Rich said smiling.
“Are you okay being home alone?” Lu asked.
“Why wouldn’t she be?” Rich asked. Lu shot him a look. “Right. Stupid question. We can stay,” he said, clearly unhappy with the prospect.
“I’ll be fine,” Ava said.
“Well, I’ll keep my cell phone on. Call me if anything happens,” Lu paused, “or if it doesn’t but you need company.”
“Thanks, I will,” Ava said. Lu gave her a hug that Ava awkwardly returned.
After the two left, Ava checked every window and door in the house. She made sure that her rock eyes were in their corners watching the rooms. She then sat down and started her trig homework. Above her desk was a window that faced the street. Evening, then night, crept through the neighborhood. Once the street lamp turned on, she closed her blinds. She tried to work, but she was aware of the darkness on the other side of the glass. She worried that if she opened her blinds, she would find a man standing there. Finally, she picked up her textbook and moved to the living room. She put on a cooking program to fill the room with friendly human voices and tried to work her way through equations. She contemplated calling Lu, but she knew she would return with Rich who would be pissed, though he would claim he was fine.
Eventually the front door shook, the lock clicked, and Mari entered the house. She stopped when she saw Ava on the couch.
“You okay?” Mari asked.
“Yeah, just letting my imagination get the better of me.”
Mari closed the door, turning the knob several times and shaking it to make sure it was truly locked. Then she flung herself on the couch. “I understand the feeling. Where’s Lu?”
“On a date with Rich.”
“Did you meet him?”
“Yeah, he seems,” Ava paused, “nice.”
“One of those rich—no pun intended—white boys who everybody thinks is just the nicest person because he’s sooo polite.”
“Yeah. The type who will open a door for you, but, if you open a door for him, he freaks out. How long has Lu been dating him?”
“6 or 7 months,” Mari said. “I’m probably being unfair. He treats her good and has never been creepy to me. Still, I never liked him.”
“I understand. Never trust a twenty-year-old dude who chooses to wear a polo shirt.”
The two remained up for another hour.
The front window filled with headlights. They heard a door shut and a car drive off. A minute later Lu entered the house.
“Guys!” she said bounding across the room. “Rich asked me to marry him!”
“Oh my god!” Mari said.
“Congrats!” Ava said.
“And the ring?” Mari said.
Lu held out a hand. On it was a silver ring with two pearls and a sapphire. “It was his mother’s, and her mother’s before,” Lu explained as she lifted her hand further to reexamine the stones. She didn’t see Ava look to Mari who, with the color draining from her face, nodded. The two quickly returned to the script of congratulations. They understood that some warnings would only harm.
* * *
A week passed uneventfully. Lu was buzzing with the possibilities of her future. Ava and Mari pretended enthusiasm. They both knew how little credibility nightmares had. Mari had Googled “Rich Renard” and “Richard Renard,” but found nothing on Lu’s fiancé. Not even a Facebook or Twitter account. Ava had taken another approach and searched for similar break ins. But nothing like what they dealt with appeared.
Ava had another dream. In it a fox emerged from a pink stucco house that looked like it was made from fresh meat. It darted down streets, through yards, and into the alley. Eventually, it entered their backyard. It came to the door, stood up, and took out a new key. The door unlocked. Wake up, Ava told herself, wake up. It opened the cabinets. It slobbered on the dishes. It took a pair of scissors out of a drawer. Ava was screaming in her head to wake up. The figure crept through the house and into Mari’s room. It bent over her, raising the scissors.
Ava was awake. She jumped from the bed, the thump of her feet alerting the intruder. She ran to the hall as the dark figure emerged, and she threw herself at it. The scissors clattered on the floor. Ava’s fist rained down on the figure. A hand landed against her face in an attempt to shove her off. Her teeth clamped down on a finger, and a scream filled the house. The figure finally flung her off and fled. A second later, Mari was in the hall yelling.
Ava said nothing as she sat in the living room waiting for the police. Mari realized that a long chunk of her black hair had been cut off when she found it scattered from the hall to the back door as she went to lock it once again. Lu kept trying to call Rich, but he didn’t answer.
“He’s said I should move in with him,” Lu kept saying. “That it’s not safe here.”
The police and paramedics arrived. They asked Ava her name, the date, and the name of the president.
“You still have no idea who did this?” an officer asked.
“No,” Lu said. Mari just shook her head.
“Excuse me,” Ava said, “I do.”
Everyone turned and looked at her. “The man who’s missing this,” and she held up the finger she had bitten off.
The police bagged the finger and said they would be checking at the hospitals for anyone arriving with the wound. Ava’s head began to throb, and she had a black eye. After the police left, she placed an icepack on her face and lay down. Soon she fell asleep.
She slept for several hours before she started to dream. A fox emerged from the pink house again. Its right paw wrapped in bandages. He was followed by a wolf, a bear, and a lynx. They started down the street, but the bear noticed one of the many-eyed stones. The fox scooped it up and swallowed it like it was an egg. The lynx noticed another, and the fox swallowed that one as well. The pack made slow progress as it searched for the stones. Every time they found one, the fox swallowed it, and Ava slowly became blind. A slamming door woke her.
She found Mari in the kitchen cleaning fingerprint dust from the cabinets. “What happened?” Ava asked.
“Lu and I had a fight. She’s moving in with Rich, so I told her that I didn’t trust him,” Mari explained.
Ava sat down at the table. “He finally answered his phone.”
“Yeah, apparently he and his frat were celebrating last night,” Mari rolled her eyes.
“Well, if he has an alibi.” Ava rested crossed her arms on the table and rested her head on them. “I don’t blame her for wanting to leave.”
“I understand, but she’s moving out tonight.”
“Yeah, Rich and his frat are coming over right now to move her and her stuff.”
Ava sat upright. “We need to leave now!”
“We just need to go!”
“Lu won’t come.”
Ava looked around. “Is that cop car still parked out there?”
“Yeah, they’ll be watching us all night.”
Ava crossed the room. She grabbed Mari by both her shoulders. “Apologize to Lu. Don’t leave her alone with them and don’t let her leave with them.”
“Just promise me!”
With that Ava went out the back door. She scampered over the fence and sprinted down the back alley.
Mari took a breath and knocked on Lu’s door. After a few minutes of knocking, Lu finally flung the door open. Mari apologized, said that the whole thing was making her paranoid against all men, and she said that she felt like Rich was stealing a friend. Finally, she offered to help Lu pack. Lu burst into tears and hugged her.
There was a knock, and Lu opened the door to three young men.
“Where’s Rich?” she asked.
“He forgot his wallet at home, so he’s running back and getting it,” one said as all three stepped in.
“So where do we start?” another one said.
* * *
Ava ran down the alley following the path of her nightmares to the pink house. It was a salmon stucco that looked boring in daylight. She climbed the chain link fence into the backyard and found the back door locked. She picked up a stone, broke the door’s window, and let herself in. She stepped into a laundry room filled with unsorted and unwashed clothing. Flies swarmed the piles and the sour-sweet scent of something rotten made her gag. She pushed through to the kitchen.
The floor and countertops were enveloped by bird bones. The empty eyes of song bird skulls stared at her, as well as wings, stretched out, pieces of flesh and feathers stuck to the delicate white. She crossed the room, when, with a jangling of keys, the front door opened. She stood silent, listening for the footfalls in the other room, but she heard none.
She peeked into the living room. Rich paced around a large wooden table. Its surface covered in dents and scratches. There was no other furniture, but, much like the kitchen, bird carcasses covered every flat surface. Rich was dressed in his pressed khakis and baby blue polo. He wore black driving gloves on both hands, though the pinky on his right hand stuck out at an odd angle that did not move with the rest of his fingers. He leaned over the table and wretched up stone after stone. The painted-on eyes stared past spit and bile as they clattered against the wood and floor. Ava tip-toed back into the kitchen.
She turned on the stove’s gas burners then fetched some of the clothes from the laundry. As soon as the flames danced up a torn skirt, she threw it in a corner. Then a shirt became engulfed and was thrown in another.
“What the hell?” Rich cried from the other room.
Ava didn’t bother turning around. She fled through the back door. She ran all the way home. She entered through the front door and found all of Rich’s friends sitting in front of the TV.
“Where are Mari and Lu?”
“They went out to rent a van and get some boxes,” one said.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, I’ll be in my room.” She forced herself to walk slowly down the hall. Once in her room, she sat with her back against the door.
Suddenly, one of them howled in the living room. The rest joined in before Ava could hear the approaching sirens. After the sirens cut out, there was a hushed discussion. Ava scooted forward and opened the door a cracked.
“Should we check it out?” one asked.
“If it’s our house, that means that firemen will go inside.”
“We should leave before they start asking questions.”
“What about Rich?”
Soon the group left, and Ava sighed. She wondered what the firemen and the police would find in the house. She wondered if it was bad enough to keep the animals running or if they would start tracking their prey once more.
Jennifer Lynn Krohn was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She earned her MFA from the University of New Mexico, and she currently teaches English at Central New Mexico Community College. She was the winner of The Golden Key’s 2017 Flash Fiction Contest and has published work in Phantom Drift, Storm Cellar, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal among others.