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Every night before I go to sleep, I knock four times on the wall. Someday, maybe, something will knock back.
In a horror movie I saw, a vampire banged on the window shutters, begging to be let in. Vampires have to be invited in. Ghosts come whether you ask them or not.
Radiators knock. Engines, too. Anyway, I can’t sleep unless I know the walls are sound.
Today I got called to a house out past the Armory, one of those big Victorians. It must have been some rich family’s home once, but got split into smaller and smaller flats, the kind that charge by the week because they know nobody’s sticking around very long. Not even students looking for cheap rent tried there anymore.
A faded black-and-orange FOR SALE sign stood in the front yard. Lord knows how they’d find a buyer. A man died in a third-floor bedroom, the agent said. Nobody found him for months.
No heat came from the rusted radiators, but I was glad for the cold. Someone had cleaned—not well. Maybe they’d pulled up a carpet. There were dark, dull floorboards with darker stains and something uneven about the set of the room. Bad foundation. A whiskey bottle rolled from under the bed. I knocked on the walls and heard scurrying. More rats here than people, I told them. Said I’d do my best.
Burn this place down, is what I wanted to say.
Now it’s two in the morning, and I can’t sleep, though no noises echo in my walls. I’d like to call my son Luke, but it’s too late. Even if I had his number. Even if he had a phone. Too late at night. Too late in other ways.
Luke had nightmares when he was small. Couldn’t fall asleep without a light on. We’d say a prayer together:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Bless the bed that I lie on
Four corners to my bed,
Four angels round my head.
He liked that, especially Luke, like his name. When he got a little older, after he’d outgrown Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, he asked if God and angels were just a story too, and I said what did it matter if stories were true, so long as they made you feel good?
I should have given him a better answer.
It’s not Luke’s fault, the drinking. It’s how his father was, why I left him, though I’d never worked a day in my life. Gone from my parents’ house to Billy’s, had Luke eight months later. Premature, we told Billy’s parents.
I’m the only woman at the Critter Gitters pest control agency. Started out filing, answering phones, but that didn’t pay the bills for a single mom. I’d never been afraid of bugs, or of hard work. And if I came home tired, reeking of chemicals, Luke never went to bed hungry. Never wore two pairs of socks, the ones with holes in the toes over the ones with holes in the heels, trying to keep the cold out. But cold is like a rat. It finds a way in.
I wonder where Luke is sleeping tonight. I was right to cut him off, I know. Changed the locks, canceled the credit cards he took. Tough love, the people at Al-Anon call it.
But those bottles under the bed. Those stains on the floors.
My jaw aches. I should wear that mouth guard, but I never do. I spent thousands fixing Luke’s teeth, so he wouldn’t have a life of toothaches like me. Always floss, I told him.
I imagine him living clean. A new life. Maybe in California, someplace warm. Every night before he goes to sleep, he brushes his straight white teeth. Flosses. Says his prayers.
Someday, maybe, he’ll show up at my door.