I am inside Jack’s house.
Rain trickles down the windowpanes, and a spring thunderstorm rumbles almost inaudibly in the distance as I drift through the blue window light, in and out of the shadows, tracing the objects in the living room with my gloved fingertips. A queen conch shell reclines on the sideboard, its frilled pale-pink lip deepening to a slick rose interior as the shell curves in on itself. I pick it up, hold it to my ear. A phantom ocean soughs inside the empty calcium walls. I imagine the bowl filling with surf, overflowing, disappearing under the sand.
The furniture is low and modern, with square brown side chairs and a kidney-shaped coffee table in front of the fireplace. The living room is arranged around a rag-leather area rug, and at one end of the sofa is a floor lamp made from a piece of gnarled, tiger-striped mesquite, stained and rubbed to a satin finish the color of a cinnamon stick. On the wall next to the fireplace hangs a graphic, ceiling-high painting of a raven on its perch.
I circle the room, opening drawers and doors, careful to leave things as I find them. I search the kitchen cabinets and the top shelf of the coat closet, the blanket chest by the door and the bookshelves against the wall, until I find what I came for: a simple wooden box, the contents of which are of no value to anyone but me and the guy who collected them.
A brass clock sits in the center of the mantel, clicking like an old lady’s tongue as I tuck the box under my arm.
Hurry. I hesitate, my eyes on the back door. Hurry.
I cross the room and start down the hallway. To my right, a door is ajar. I give it a gentle push and step through the doorway. The homeowner—Jack, I think, loving this…Jack Calabrese—has turned over the second bedroom to his hobby, ships in bottles. The room is lined with shelves bearing elaborate models in heavy glass bottles of different sizes and shapes, and under the window, a worktable is strewn with tiny pieces of wood and lengths of string. It looks like he’s begun work on a new model, and has only gotten as far as laying out the components. I circle the room, running my fingers along the smooth curved glass. I press my nose to the mouth of one of the bottles and inhale. Sawdust, mixed with a briny scent that makes me think he salvaged this bottle from the beach. Together the aromas evoke a shipyard, or a seaside lumber mill. I peer through the bottleneck at the ship inside, its prow aimed right at me.
My thoughts judder to a halt. A key clicks against the front door and slides into the lock.
My heart leaps, stumbles, restarts. Adrenaline flashes through my limbs.
In a second I’m out the door, skidding silently down the hall to the bedroom. I duck around the corner, run to the window and flip the latch. But the sash is fitted with a security lock that prevents it from opening more than a few inches. No sign of the key, and there won’t be time to pick the lock. I turn back to the room in dismay. The bed is low to the ground, no space underneath. No shower curtain in the attached bathroom or a wardrobe against the wall. And the back door I entered through is at the other side of the house.
Out of options, I cross the room, slip through the closet door and slide it shut. The hangers clatter as I push the clothes aside and sink to a crouch, clutching the wooden box to my chest. I raise a hand to stop them moving.
From the hallway, footsteps approach. Heavy, thudding against the hardwood floor.
Even here, I feel exposed. In my closet, there would be places to hide: a raft of boots and sneakers, a curtain of secondhand coats, the blue plastic laundry basket in the corner, full to overflowing with sweaters and faded jeans. I could have buried myself in belongings, hidden for hours until he either left again or fell asleep. But in this half-full closet, only a thin sliding door stands between me and discovery.
A slice of my reflection shimmers on the metal frame. My eye flashes, caught in a chink of light from the bedroom window. I ease sideways and press my back into the corner.
The footsteps get louder and more deliberate. They cross the room to the window I left standing open. A scrape of the window frame, and the whisper of rain outside is silenced. There is a pause. Then three steps, louder.
The grit on the bottom of his boots grinds against the floor.
My heartbeat is crashing in my ears, pounding at the roof of my mouth. Surely he will hear it. I hold my breath, feel my eyelids stretch open, then snap together. I screw them shut and chant a silent prayer.
Please don’t open the door. Please pleaseplease don’t open the door.…
The box in my arms tilts a little, shifting the contents. A muffled clunk from inside strikes my ears like a mallet.
Shit. God fucking dammit.
The door begins to slide.
The first thing I see is a claw hammer, raised to shoulder height. Then a fist, wrapped around the handle. A man’s face. The knife’s edge of his jaw, serrated with afternoon stubble. His eyes, framed in the thick brown rims of his glasses, squinting into the darkness, then widening in surprise.
He slides the clothes aside and stares down at me.
“What the fuck.”
I scramble to my feet, through the rack of jeans and flannel shirts. A lock of hair flops over my eyes.
“You want to tell me what the fuck you’re doing in my closet?”
“Robbing you.” My voice is thready. I clear my throat, jerk my chin.
His gaze falls to the box in my arms. He’s taller and more imposing than he seemed from a distance. But as he looks at me, his angry expression melts to a sort of baffled amusement, as though he’s waiting for me to explain the point of a joke. Up close, I notice an unexpected dimple that fills with shadow when he speaks and empties when he frowns, leaving only a short, thin crease to mark the place.
I hold out the box with both hands like a guilty child. He takes it from me, looks briefly inside and sets it on the dresser.
“You have odd tastes for a thief,” he says. “Or poor judgment.”
I step toward the door. He shifts his weight, a bare movement, but it stops me in my tracks. I glance automatically at the window. Closed and latched.
“Don’t I know you?” he says. “From town or something?”
“No. Look, I’m sor—”
“Is this about Rosemary?”
I look at him blankly. “No.”
His gaze wanders down my body as he takes in my Pixies T-shirt, torn secondhand Levi’s. Knitted, elbow-length gloves, striped orange and blue.
There is a light thump from the closet. A couple of shirts, dislodged from the rack, have fallen to the ground. To leave them there seems rude, so I gather them up and hang them back on the rail, smoothing the fabric, adjusting the hangers as though I can convey a benign intention by the care I take with his clothing.
When I straighten again and face Jack Calabrese, his expression has softened to that of a cool stepfather dealing with the teenager who’s just wrecked the family car. And though I’ve dressed to inspire that reaction, just in case, his self-confidence unsettles me.
He lays the hammer on the dresser, next to the wooden box. “Want a drink?”
I must have heard him wrong. “A drink.”
“Yeah.” He speaks over his shoulder as he passes through the doorway. “You look like you could use one.”
I follow slowly, my legs weak as water, boneless, loose. Down the hallway, past the ship room. Outside, the rain has picked up, pattering against the roof, the raindrops sliding thick as wax down the windowpanes.
He takes two glasses from the cupboard and fills them with ice. I steal a glance at the door. Now would be the time to run—make a mad dash across the room, out the door, down the road to the main street and the shortcut through the heavy woods to my house. I imagine myself there, safe and warm and locked in tight.
But I don’t run. The same thing that drew me here keeps me rooted to the spot.
He crosses the room and hands me the drink.
“So, what were you looking for, exactly?” he says. “Money?Drugs?”
“Neither, nothing.” I take a sip of fiery-cool liquid. “Just the box.”
“That box of sentimental crap? Why?”
Warmth bursts over my cheeks and seeps down my neck, and that seems to answer his question. And in a flash, I realize he’s handing me the perfect excuse—for the break-in, for everything. I see, dimly, the path before us. All I need to do is let his ego lead the way.
He smiles. “I’m flattered. And how did you know about the box?”
“I didn’t. At least…I mean, everyone has a box. Usually with men it’s a shoebox. Yours is…”
“Mine is what?”
“Nicer than usual.”
He crosses his arms, leans a hip against the granite counter. His voice is slow, intimate, as though we’re exchanging secrets in a crowded room. The corner of his mouth twitches upward. “This a hobby of yours? Breaking and entering? Stealing men’s boxes?” He raises his eyebrows, loading the question with innuendo.
I swirl my drink and stare into the glass.
“Look, I’m sorry.”
A white gleam slides along the frame of his glasses when he moves his head. His eyes are veiled by a sheet of window light across the lenses.
“So, what did you want to know?”
What can I say that doesn’t seem absurd to the point of madness? I wanted to know what your house looks like, what’s in your fridge and medicine cabinet, where you keep your jack mags and how well-used they appear to be. Whether that accent is Boston or Philly. I want to know what your shampoo smells like, whether you leave your socks on the floor, can keep a houseplant alive, own a cat or a bong or an insulin syringe. I want to see how you rumple the bed. And the sum of all those answered questions, plus a thousand more I haven’t thought of yet:
I want to know whether you’d kill for me.
I set his glass on the counter and head for the door, shuffling sideways to avoid turning my back to him.
He follows, hands in his pockets.
“What’s your name?” he says.
The heel of my sneaker hits the step at the entryway. “I’m sorry.”
“You mentioned that.”
“And I’ll be going now.”
As I reach the door and twist the handle at the small of my back, he closes the gap between us, stretches one long arm over my shoulder to hold the door closed. I stare straight ahead, watching his pulse flicker in the hollow under his jaw.
“Tell me your name,” he says. “I’m guessing you know mine.”
I won’t look him in the eye. My breath has grown shallow and quick, small gusts over my lips.
I don’t know how to answer. None of this is going according to plan. I feel like an actor onstage who’s rehearsed the wrong play. I need to get out the door, get away, think it through before things go too far—
Before I can react, he reaches behind me, slides his hand around my ass and into my pocket and comes up with my wallet. I make a grab but he yanks it away, opens it and takes out my driver’s license.
“Alice Elizabeth Croft,” he reads. “Five-four, one hundred fifteen pounds.Black hair, green eyes.”
He returns my wallet, smiling, looking me over. “Sounds about right.”
“Can I go now?”
He steps back, hands up. “Who’s stopping you?”
I open the door and stumble onto the front porch, pausing at the top step to pull up my hood.
“Hey, do you want a ride?” The amusement in his voice is clear, even through the storm. “It’s 336 Signal Road, right?”
I run down the wooden steps and leave him laughing behind me.