After the kids were asleep, Aimee popped a bag of microwave popcorn, selected a flick she couldn’t watch with the girls around, and decided to have her own girls-night-in just as Jack had suggested. With the lights off and the television throwing blue shadows across the room, she tried to relax and forget all that had happened in the past couple of days.
It was futile: her mind wouldn’t shut off. That incessant scratching was getting louder; loud enough now to make her wonder if it would wake the kids. She grabbed the remote and paused her movie, abandoning her popcorn on the couch cushions, ready to track down that damn scratching once and for all.
At first it seemed like it was coming from near the front door, but as soon as Aimee approached the area, the scratching shifted to another part of the house. What she was once sure was an animal clawing on the outer walls of the house suddenly became an impossibility. The noise was coming from inside the walls, creeping along the arteries of their home, burrowing its way into random corners. Her search eventually led her to the kitchen. As soon as she pinpointed where the noise was coming from, it was back in the living room. If this was an animal, it knew it was being followed. It was playing games.
Eventually losing the noise’s location, Aimee shook her head in exasperation. She had wasted a good half hour chasing rogue scuffing, as though finally cornering the noise would make it disappear. If she wanted that scratching gone, she’d have to knock a hole in the wall first. She grabbed a can of diet Coke from the fridge and padded back to the living room, stopping short of the couch.
Her jaw fell slack at the mess. The popcorn she’d left on the couch was now all over the floor. Nubs was happily cleaning it up, crunching salty kernels with the wet smacking of his chops.
“Nubs!” she whispered with as much authority as she could without waking the girls. “Goddamnit.” Waving a hand to shoo him off, she snatched the metal mixing bowl off the couch and dropped to her knees, scooping up popcorn she’d eventually end up pouring into Nubs’ bowl.
“Stupid fucking dog,” she muttered to herself. “Last bag of popcorn too. I swear to God, if I was just a little meaner…” She looked up from the carpet to see Nubs sitting not more than a yard from her stripe-socked feet. “I thought I told you to get out of here,” she said, waving her hand at him again. “Get.”
But rather than sulking off into the shadows of the hallway, Nubs lowered his muzzle, looked at her with sad eyes and whined. Aimee peered at him. It wasn’t like Nubs to be so pathetic. He was an obedient dog; dumb, but not a troublemaker by any stretch. Some days it was almost impossible to move him from his napping spot, as though he hadn’t slept in weeks when, in truth, he slept a good sixteen hours a day.
“What’s wrong with you?” Aimee asked him with a scowl. Nubs answered by exhaling a sigh. He flattened himself out on the carpet, assuring her there was no way he was moving from that living room. Squirreling her mouth up into a cockeyed smirk, Aimee continued to pluck popcorn off the floor.
“You’re kind of freaking me out,” she told him. “Do you need to go out?”
Picking up the last bits of mess, she slid the bowl onto the coffee table and got to her feet, moving to the front door to let Nubs into the front yard to do his business. But Nubs, who was typically out-of-his-mind-excited at the prospect of going outside to pee, didn’t move from his spot. He didn’t even lift his head, only following Aimee with his eyes. He watched her put her hand on the door knob and whined before looking away.
Aimee furrowed her eyebrow and shook her head. “Whatever,” she said. “If you pee in the house…” She paused, sighed. “I’m talking to a dog. I’m having a conversation with a dog on a Saturday night.”
Collapsing onto the couch, she grabbed her soda off the floor, pulled her feet up, and unpaused the movie.
Less than thirty seconds later, a crash from the kitchen had Aimee on her feet in wide-eyed panic. Nubs jumped as well, growling at the darkness, his teeth bared. Aimee’s heart slammed itself against her ribs like a bird trying to free itself from a cage. Her first thought was, Someone’s in the house. Someone’s broken in and is going to kill me and the girls, unbeknownst to Jack. He’ll arrive home to a gruesome murder scene. Her eyes flitted around the room in search of a weapon. She lunged at Jack’s old piano and grabbed a candlestick off its top.
“Hello?” she called out. She tried to sound imposing, but her attempt at confidence only made her sound that much more frightened.
Nubs backed up. He plopped his butt down on the rug and watched Aimee approach the dark hallway, double-fisting a piece of home décor. Despite the intensity of that crash, neither Charlie nor Abigail stirred, as though the noise that had nearly stopped Aimee’s heart had somehow failed to infiltrate the thin walls of the girls’ room.
She wavered at the border of light and darkness, scared to cross over even if it was only a few feet to the light switch.
“I have a gun,” she warned. “I’ll blow your fucking head off.” But what was intended as a genuine threat sounded comical when it was whispered. Aimee eventually grew tired of her own apprehension and marched into the hall—suddenly a woman with no fear—and flipped the switch.
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