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Contemporary Fiction Drama

The day George and Melanie Hansen summited Mount Everest, their house sitter arrived at San Francisco General Hospital via paramedic transport, strapped to a gurney, writhing in pain. The house sitter, Keiko, was advised she could expect a full recovery from a peptic ulcer. Twelve time zones away, five miles above sea level, the Hansens smiled jubilantly for photos, unaware of their urgent need for a new house sitter…


“Hello, is this Miss Audrey, with the house sitting?” The woman’s voice—lilted by a sing-song accent—competed with an emergency vehicle siren wailing in the background. The caller didn’t wait for a reply. “I am Graciela Perez, housekeeper for Mister and Missus Hansen. The neighbors, the Lubins, they give me your number. They say you did very good house sitting for them last year.”


Audrey remembered the Lubins. An elderly Lithuanian couple. Their home—in an affluent enclave south of the city—wafted a musty aroma that irritated her sinuses. They paid cash though, with a generous tip too. Oh, the woman with the accent was still talking.


“…and there is a dog, a little one. If you can come today, I give the address. It is for three weeks. Can you stay the nights? They pay two hundred dollars each day.”


The raucous din of the congested Walmart parking lot almost swallowed those last few words, but not quite. Seated inside her ancient Volvo, crammed with everything she owned, Audrey inhaled one last chuff and tossed the cigarette out the window. She took her cell phone off mute and chirped, “Yes, I can clear my schedule for three weeks. Give me the address, dear.”


~ ~ ~

DAY ONE

George Hansen scraped ice crystals from his goggles. The summit lay ahead, staked with Buddhist prayer flags whipping in the bitter wind. Trailing his Sherpa guide, George clambered onto the narrow dome of snow, tore off his oxygen mask, and whooped in triumph, pumping a gloved fist toward his wife Melanie, ascending with her guide. They did it. Everest. The top of the world.


Audrey Markham wriggled onto the high-backed leather desk chair in the office of the Hansen’s elegant residence, her feet dangling inches above the Turkish carpet. Her favorite floral blouse was untucked, hiding the button she couldn’t close on the matching pink capri pants. Despite frantic efforts to tame her bobbed gray curls, they corkscrewed in every direction.


Across the room, a small brown dog lounged in a plush daybed. Funny-looking dog, she thought, scrunched face and ears like a bat. And so fancy! That dog has a nicer bed than some people.


The house tour concluded, Graciela made a copy of Audrey’s driver’s license and handed her a Taxpayer ID Form. Under the housekeeper’s watchful gaze, Audrey fidgeted with the silver-tipped pen (So fancy!). She hesitated a moment, then decided on a business name for the form: “House Sitting by Audrey.”


A car horn blared twice from outside the kitchen entrance near the six-car garage. Graciela shouldered her handbag and sweater. “Okay, Miss Audrey, I see you next week.” Audrey followed her through the chandeliered foyer and into the breakfast room, with the dog scurrying behind them. The housekeeper stopped at the kitchen door. “The Hansens are good people. I am with them five years. Take care of this house, okay? And,” her eyebrows arched, “no smoking inside the house.”


Damn, the cinnamon chewing gum didn’t work. Audrey managed a nod and a thin smile before latching the door.


She surveyed her luxurious home for the next three weeks. Two-stepping from room to room, giggling and twirling, she finally teetered onto an ornate wood bench near the bottom of the sweeping curved staircase. The dog came running and hopped around her feet.


Two hundred a day!  I’m sitting on top of the world.


~ ~ ~

DAY TWO

Temperature: below zero. The climbers— disoriented by oxygen deprivation, desiccated by exposure and exertion— arrive at the base camp at the foot of the summit. Time for only a brief rest before descending to lower-altitude camps, or there would be no sleep tonight.


Audrey called them her “jitters”: the restless shivers, tingling fingers, parched mouth. She grabbed a Diet Coke from the double-wide refrigerator (Do two people need such a huge fridge?) and wandered into the office. Framed photos covered the walls: the smiling couple in snow gear against backdrops of soaring white peaks. She squinted to read the engravings on the frames: Mt. Whitney 2012, Kilimanjaro 2014, Mont Blanc 2017, Denali 2020.


Audrey shook her head. This beautiful house, and they’re off climbing mountains.


She flinched as her cell phone vibrated and rang. Sarah. Her voice urgent, alarmed. “Mom, where are you? The manager at Glen Oaks called. She said you owe this month’s rent and last month’s too. What’s going on?”


“Honey, everything’s fine. I moved out, that’s all. I have a new house sitting job. Three weeks. Good money too.”


“House sitting? I thought you gave that up after you moved to Glen Oaks. You said your bills were caught up and—”


Audrey tensed, biting her lip.


Sarah’s voice dropped, low and breathy. “Mom, are you going online again?”


The jitters bubbled in Audrey’s chest.


“Oh, Mom.” A heavy sigh. “I can’t help you anymore. Josh asked about the money. I told him I needed things for the kids. Are you… are you still going to meetings?”


Audrey wished she hadn’t answered the phone.


“Mom, please call the number. Promise me, please.”


The anguish in her daughter’s voice tightened the knot in Audrey’s throat. She tugged at her collar. “Honey, it’s okay. I’m okay. I’ll call. I promise.”


Ensconced in the TV room on the pillowy couch (Who needs so many pillows?), Audrey tucked her legs under her and keyed the number into her phone. A male voice answered. “This is the Gambling Helpline. How can I help—”


She ended the call.


Sarah’s voice flickered across her memory, despondent, insistent. Flickering… fading… gone. The familiar pangs of guilt and shame were consumed by her jitters, growling with a beastly hunger, demanding to be fed. “I called,” Audrey muttered. “Promise made, promise kept.”


Now, what was the Wi-Fi password Graciela mentioned? Oh, yeah, it’s the dog’s name: B-U-S-T-E-R. Audrey snickered. People are so predictable.


She opened the app on her phone. Vegas Slots, her favorite casino. Cash still available in her account. What’s this? A new game? “Anchors Aweigh.” Hah! My Doug was in the Navy when we met. It’s a sign! Her momentary excitement gave way to an avalanche of melancholy. Memories of her sweet Doug. Life seemed simpler then. Even through their ups and downs, she felt… grounded, centered, needed. That was before. Before she lost him, before she lost everything. Her lips quivered. These thoughts... they always came up on her so unexpectedly. She couldn’t bear to think sad thoughts anymore.


The phone heated the skin of her palm. The screen glowed and vibrated with alluring shapes, whirling colors. A new game!  Lock in a bet, and… swipe. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching! A winner! Lock in, and swipe. Ka-ching! Five free plays! I’m rolling!


Audrey kicked off her shoes and gave herself to the game. The warm flush cascading over her body after every win. The bitter aftertaste of every loss. The fevered heat of expectation before each new roll. There would be no sleep tonight.


~ ~ ~

DAY THREE

Main Base Camp. A sprawling outpost of 200 tents. The last hour before dawn.

An avalanche—triggered by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake near Kathmandu—rumbled and roiled on the ridge above the tents where the climbers slept the sleep of the dead.


Gone. The money was gone. Audrey sat slumped on the floor in the TV room, surrounded by two empty boxes of Italian cookies (Doesn’t anyone buy Oreos anymore?) and six drained Diet Coke cans. Kneading her tingling hands, she practiced the self-talk recommended in therapy: Everything will be okay. Hold on until this job pays out, and you can go home to Glen Oaks. Now, you need to go to bed.


Bleary-eyed, she trudged up the stairs in the dark, took a wrong turn at the top, and flung open the door to an unfamiliar room. A room she hadn’t toured with Graciela. Peering inside—Wow, this place is huge. Must be the master bedroom. She hesitated, her hand lingering near the door knob. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to look around…


A stone fireplace. A canopied four-poster bed. Two bathrooms. An immense walk-in closet: more spacious than her studio apartment, dimmer-switch lighting, a dazzling wardrobe, and—Is that one of those fainting couches? Audrey wondered if Melanie Hansen ever fainted. Recalling the photos of the athletic-looking woman wielding an ice ax, she thought: probably not a fainter. Unable to resist, she stretched out on the button-tufted gold fabric. The upholstery was cool beneath her body; the air carried the soft scent of jasmine and roses.


Then, from her reclined vantage place, she detected an almost imperceptible movement overhead. The mirror on the wall above the couch appeared to wobble. Will that thing fall on my head? She leaned forward, gripped the frame, and yelped— “Whoa!”—as the mirror swung out, revealing a concealed wall safe.


Oh, my gosh. Audrey gawked at the safe, openmouthed, then shook her head and closed the mirror. Not such a good hiding place. I hope they don’t keep many valuables there. Smiling wearily, she settled back on the couch… eyelids heavy, head drooping, arms numbing slowly.


That night, she slept the sleep of the dead.


~ ~ ~

DAY FOUR

Sherpas call the mountain Chomolungma: “Mother Goddess of the World.” Those who ventured to conquer her frozen realm lie buried beneath a shroud of snow, mouthing silent screams: How did we anger the Goddess? No answer, only the howling of the wrathful wind.


Audrey awoke to shrill ringing. The house phone. Still groggy, stiff, she stumbled downstairs to the speaker phone in the kitchen and keyed in the voicemail code.


“Hello, Mrs. Yamashita.” Must be the poor woman who went to the hospital. “Evelyn Sutterfield calling, the Hansen’s attorney. I have difficult news. There was an avalanche in Nepal. The Hansens did not survive.” Audrey swayed backward, one hand over her mouth. “Please arrange to vacate the home today. An associate from the firm will arrive this afternoon to reset the security alarm and convey the pet to a kennel. Please remit an invoice for your services to be paid as the estate is settled…”


Blah, blah, blah. Audrey registered that the attorney was still speaking, but her brain refused to process the words. She dropped to the floor and rocked back and forth, hugging her knees.


Vacate today? Where will I go? I can’t wait to be paid. I need the money now.


Minutes later, she stood before the hidden safe in the walk-in closet. A keypad lock. She tried B-U-S-T-E-R, the voicemail code, the house alarm code. None worked. People are predictable. Think, Audrey, think.


She flopped into an armchair near the bed, rubbing her eyes. An object on the fireplace mantel came into focus: a metal jar inscribed “Cookie” in block lettering. A cookie jar in a bedroom? She moved closer to the fireplace. The jar was embossed with tiny pawprints. An urn. The ashes of a beloved pet. Her eyes widened. Could it be so simple? She returned to the closet and keyed in the letters: C-O-O-K-I-E. The safe clicked and popped open. Freed from the grip of desperation, her body went limp with relief.


Audrey made her way downstairs, hauling her canvas duffel bag. Inside the bag, a sock concealed diamond earrings and a Rolex watch. The safe had held seven drawers of glittering ornaments: necklaces, bracelets, earrings, watches, rings. No need to be greedy. The earrings and watch will do fine. The nice folks at the Oakland Jewelry Exchange will help me. With luck, they’ll still have my wedding ring.


As she passed the office, she spotted Buster napping on his chaise. “Did you hear the lawyer? You’re going to a kennel.” The dog hopped onto the rug and scampered over to her, yipping expectantly. Audrey considered the tiny animal circling her feet. “Yunno, my grandkids would love a goofy little guy like you.”


She sat at the desk and reached for a notepad. Dear Lawyers, she wrote, Buster ran away. I looked everywhere. He’s gone. I’m so sorry.


The letter done, she noticed the manila folder on the desk. Aha! She opened the folder, removed her driver’s license copy and tax form, crumpled the pages, and stuffed them into the pocket of her cardigan. Satisfied, she rose from the desk, smiling. “Hey, Buster, wanna go for a ride?”


Audrey coaxed the sputtering Volvo onto the main road, heading for the bridge to Oakland. She mused dreamily about her cozy furnished bungalow at Glen Oaks. Pulling the dog onto her lap, she scratched his ears and sighed, “Yunno, it will be so good to be home.”

~ ~ ~


TEN DAYS LATER

The silver Mercedes eased along the tree-lined drive to the Hansen home and parked beneath the porte-cochère. The driver turned to the lone passenger: a slender woman, her left leg encased in a heavy brace. “Let’s get you inside so you can rest that leg.” She paused, her eyes narrowing with concern. “Please let me know if there is anything the firm can do for you. Call me any time.”


Melanie Hansen gazed at the house, eyes glistening. “Thank you, Evelyn.” She sighed. “You know, in the middle of… everything… all I kept thinking was… it will be so good to be home.”


_____________


September 22, 2023 07:04

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