The disappearance of the swimming pool cover tormented Pete Darley long into the night and kept his mind tethered to the waking world. Eventually, when he was sure sleep wouldn’t come, he threw back the duvet cover, kicked on his slippers, wrapped himself in Barb’s bathrobe and went downstairs to begin the search.
First, he checked the tool shed. There were hoes and rakes and gas cans and spools of nylon strimmer cord and stacks of leftover tile from when he and Barb redid the bathroom, but no swimming pool cover. He retreated. He got down on all fours and peered under the house’s crawlspace. Nothing. Just a few paint cans and a pogo stick that once belonged to his nephew Topher.
It was pitch black out and Pete’s eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the moonlight. He tripped over a bucket of soapy water on his way to the swimming pool, splashing his pj bottoms. He wanted to curse so bad. He wanted to hop the fence into Roy Grolt’s yard and take a big U-boat-shaped dump in his smoker. He knew Grolt was the culprit. Who else could it be? He probably took it while Pete was at work and his wife was visiting her kid from another marriage on the North Shore.
Grolt was a laundry man. Owned seven Sudsville Wash n’ Drys across the state of Minnesota. He’d done well for himself. A right-winger with a police commissioner swagger and eyebrows like two fat caterpillars. Barb didn’t care for him either. The Darleys were dyed in the wool lefties. “As liberal as two strips of rice paper bacon” as Pete’s late father-in-law used to say.
The hem of Pete’s bathrobe fluttered in the breeze. Fireflies pulsed in the dark. Two rabbits, an adult and baby, tumbled out of the hedgerow, shot across the lawn, and disappeared under a boxwood bush.
He figured he’d better check the garage.
It was a small two car garage with an oil stain shaped like South Dakota that had seeped into the foundation. Pete flipped a switch by the door and heard a pop. He gritted his teeth. His hands shot out in front of him in various directions as he shuffled across the cold, cement floor, feeling his way around the Sedan, fearful for his shins and all the other unarmored parts of him that might meet the end of a rake or shovel or some other pointy object. He’d nearly made it to the trash cans when he heard the faint rattle of the matchbox in his robe pocket. Barb wasn’t a smoker. She loathed the tobacco industry, had t-shirts printed up that said “smoke salmon, not cigarettes!” and loved to remind Pete that were he to ever pick up the habit she would divorce him faster than he could say emphysema.
The matches were for lighting candles. Barb had a thing for candles. They were her obsession, her vice. She kept a box of penny candles in every drawer of the house and several more on the floor of the closet. Lately, she’d begun storing them in her son Dawson’s room since he was away at college now and only visited during holidays. A massive blackout two years ago that left the family blind as cave-dwelling salamanders in their own home was how she justified her excesses both to herself and to her friends and loved ones whenever the subject of candles came up.
But the truth was that she just liked them. She liked the look and feel of them as they slid out of their cardboard package. She liked lighting them. The soft glow they gave off. The shadows they threw against the wall and the myriad smells they produced and that tended to fill a room. That these odors were likely toxic either didn’t occur to her or were totally eclipsed in her mind by romantic visions of herself reading, writing, eating or making love by candlelight.
Pete struck a match and cupped it in his hand at chest-level. The stain on the floor looked like it had grown. More Texas than South Dakota now. A paper plate crusted with dried barbecue sauce lay face down by his foot. A partial thumbprint adorned the edge. He pictured a trenchcoated detective delicately dropping it in a ziploc bag to be sent away to the lab for analysis. He knelt down, dug his nails under the edge of the plate and lifted it up slowly. Underneath, he discovered dozens of dead flies whose bodies had fused together to form one solid, shapeless mass. Pete had never seen anything like it. Was it a sex thing? The way their bodies appeared welded together reminded Pete vaguely of insect hanky-panky, but he was no entomologist.
Whatever it was, he couldn’t stand to look at them. And yet, he knew if he tried to move the clump of bodies they would break apart into multiple pieces and, as absurd as it sounded, this would have felt like a desecration so he just left them where they lay.
Pete sat on the edge of the pool and stared at his reflection in the water. Leaves, dead bugs and other tiny bits of debris floated by, taunting him, making him wish he’d spent the extra cash on one of those automatic retractable covers. For a long time, Pete sat with his thoughts in silence. He remembered when he and Barb put the swimming pool in shortly after closing on the house. This was early in their marriage. Both agreed it was a big deal, a sign that they were to make an honest go of it and a big middle finger to the oppressive summer heat that always agitated cold-blooded creatures like Pete and drove wedges between young couples.
Pete spit and the water rippled softly. He was about to give up the search and go back inside when he noticed the footprint in the grass. Size eleven if he had to guess. He felt like mixing up some plaster of Paris and making a mold. Not that there was any doubt as to who’d made the footprint.
It was that sasquatch Roy Grolt.
Pete crept along the fence dividing the two properties, mindful of footprints and other identifying evidence that Grolt may have left behind. He knew what he had to do. After awkwardly scaling the fence and coming down hard on the balls of his feet, Pete crouched in the knee-high weeds for a moment and tried to keep a low profile.
Grolt’s yard, like the man himself, was big and unkempt. There was a circular wrought iron table and some overturned chairs, a badminton net, and a push lawnmower with two flat tires parked under an exotic-looking evergreen Barb had once referred to as a “monkey puzzle.” A grasshopper leapt into the pocket of Pete’s robe and out again without him noticing. Pete was not aware of any guard dog or security system, but still proceeded with caution as he wound his way up the sloping yard towards the house.
Grolt’s tool shed seemed the obvious place to check first, but as he approached the back porch, Pete noticed something that made him pause. The porch door had been left wide open and a light emanated from one of the interior rooms. Breaking and entering was not a part of Pete’s original plan and until now he hadn’t considered the lengths to which he’d go to recover his precious swimming pool cover. It would only take a second to check the tool shed, Pete reasoned with himself, though he sensed it would be a fruitless search. Something was compelling him towards the light, even though he knew it to be reckless, stupid and exactly the sort of behavior that often precedes something awful.
He poked his head inside the house and stared down the long shadow-eaten hallway. Against his better judgment he called Roy’s name twice and when no answer came, he continued on inside.
Pete had never been inside his neighbor’s house before, but even this rather limited view of it convinced him that it was a far more lavish residence than his own. Suspended from the ceiling via thin, metal wires were a row of hive-shaped glass lamps in the Japanese style that even in the dark Pete could tell were the genuine article. To his right, pushed flush against the wall was an antique leather trunk with brass studs and a busted metal clasp that looked like something Lon Chaney would have lugged around in the twenties. There was a box of French champagne sitting on a dolly beside a sheeted grandfather clock. For a moment, Pete thought about opening it up and taking a bottle for himself and Barb, if and when she ever returned from her trip.
When he reached the end of the hall, he turned left and walked through an open door into a vast living room. Shadows clung to the ceiling and obscured much of the furniture which had been shifted into the corner to make room for the swimming pool cover. He thought he spotted a piano tucked away with the rest of the furnishings and found the idea of a philistine like Grolt banging out Chopin preposterous. A hulking chandelier covered in cobwebs hung from the ceiling from a long steel chain. He didn’t feel for a switch on the wall. He didn’t move at all.
The pool cover lay unfurled in the center of the room, its four corners pinned down with bricks. Around it someone had created a border with dozens of candles, all burning furiously.
He walked over to the pool cover, knelt down and started setting aside candles until there was a gap of about four feet. It was at this point that Pete became aware of the breathing. A wheezing, actually, sharp and painful, like the sound of a raccoon stuck in a chimney. A sound that Barb was fond of imitating whenever an actor in those old black and white movies casually lit up a Chesterfield or Lucky Strike. A sound that made Pete stop breathing altogether.
He removed one of the bricks and watched the corner slip away beyond his grasp into darkness. He hadn’t realized until then that there was no floor underneath, just a straight drop down. Now, with one of the corners freed, the cover sagged in several places and the sound of tortured breathing was given full vent from below. He could have run. He could have flung himself back down the hall, out onto the lawn and, if he was ten years younger and not quite so portly, vaulted the fence and locked himself in his house while he waited for the police to arrive.
Instead, he chose to stay and look in the pit.
Peeling back the cover, slowly at first and then more quickly as the figures began to take shape, Pete could only choke out a few barely audible syllables before terror robbed him of speech entirely.
He took a couple blind steps backwards and knocked over a candle with the edge of his foot. The candle rolled, its wick still burning, and came to a stop a few inches from the toe of Roy Grolt’s penny loafer.
“I owe you an apology,” Grolt said. He was standing in the doorway, holding a candle in each hand and far from looking angry about finding a trespasser in his home he appeared happy to see Pete.
“What for?” Pete replied.
“For taking your pool cover without asking. I didn’t think you’d notice with everything that’s been going on at home.”
Grolt made a face. “The stuff with Barb. She leaves, she comes back. She leaves, she comes back. It’s really none of my business, pal. Point is, I didn’t think you’d miss it.”
Pete thought he saw something move in the pit, but would not take his eyes off Grolt.
“What are they?” he asked, his voice wobbly.
“Can’t you tell?”
Pete shook his head.
“They used to be many and now they’re one. Not sure how that works, but maybe it’s not for me to understand. Maybe it’s enough to just know they’re there, Pete, and that their pain and misery which is our pain and misery will soon be at an end. I console myself with that notion.”
Pete’s scalp felt like it was on fire, like someone was holding a candle to the back of his neck. “I can help you, Grolt,” he pleaded. “I can make a phone call…”
“No thanks. I don’t want help. What I want is for you to get on the floor and to roll yourself into that pit.”
“And before you ask, of course I’ll buy you a new pool cover. This one’s no good to anyone anymore.
Barb yanked at the handle of the sliding glass door until it came unstuck and opened onto the expansive patio. The sun was bearing down on her. She wore a snug swimming cap and white bathing suit she’d picked up on her way back from Duluth. Dawson cried when she left which was unusual for a boy his age, even one of his sensitivity. She dreaded seeing her husband again and was relieved to come home to an empty house. The first thing she did was light a candle at the stove since she couldn’t find her box of matches anywhere. She didn’t even notice that the pool cover was missing.
The water, on this thermometer-busting July day, was refreshingly cool. For a long time, she floated on her back, surrounded by leaf fragments and little buoyant bug husks, listening to the water lapping at the edges of the pool. Helicopter seeds descended from the sky, landing a few inches from her head. Her mind was clear. Her breathing was slow and deliberate. She felt that she could float in that pool the whole rest of the afternoon like a millionaire’s wife. And if the phone happened to ring, she’d ignore it. Even if it was Pete calling from his office or a motel somewhere, wanting to apologize for the things he said. Even if she knew that would be their last conversation, their last shot at reconciliation, she wouldn’t pick up the phone.
Not for anything.
Not for all the candles in Notre-Dame.
About the Author
Andreas J. Britz is a writer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Horror Zine, Dark Dossier, Mystery Tribune, Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror & Wonder, Blood Moon Rising, The Chamber Magazine, Fabula Argentea, The Honest Ulsterman and several other digital and print publications. He is a Truman Capote Fellowship recipient and won the 2012 University of Chicago Emerging Writer Award. He lives in West Cork, Ireland with his wife Sarah.