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Welp. Let’s dive right into another chapter. How are you liking Harold so far? 🙂
Nora stood alone in the kitchen. The fatigue of moving boxes all day dripped down from her neck to her back muscles. She stared into an empty cardboard box that felt so much like her own life.
Without looking, she tossed the empty box over her shoulder into the space she was beginning to think of as the breakfast nook. Nora’s forehead creased as she thought of Harold’s face. Not Harold’s face as she had just seen it, but his face when she gave birth to their son.
The pure happiness and pride highlighting Harold’s features made her heart soar through the pain of the contractions, but the way his face fell coupled with the lack of crying from between her legs, made her heart freefall down the shaft of her chest into her wrenching bowels.
Joshua never even took a breath.
Harold looked over at her after the doctor apologized and left them with their grief. The pride and happiness evident earlier on Harold’s face washed away in a torrent of disgust. Disgust at her, at Joshua, or the doctor, Nora didn’t know. She just knew that on the day she bore their dead son, Harold wore the disgust he’d felt plain on his face.
According to the doctor, Joshua’s umbilical cord entered the birth canal before he did. Joshua’s head then entered a loop in the umbilical cord and as he traveled towards the doctor’s open hands, the cord crushed his throat which resulted in his death.
Nora had a different take. She thought that her body killed her son. Her body was to blame for his death. Her body was judge, jury, and executioner in the trial for her son’s life. The sentence was death by hanging.
After hauling up a new box onto the work surface of the kitchen’s little island, and slicing through the packing tape with a chef’s knife, Nora began the tedious process of pulling out forks and spoons while trying to make the sounds of metal tinkling against metal block out the memory of the sound of Harold’s footsteps leaving her alone in the hospital room.
Sorting out different sized forks, knives, and spoons, Nora remembered Harold coming back into the hospital room. The look of disgust on his face had migrated to his eyes as a false, understanding sort of smile tried to form itself on his lips.
Harold said he loved her and didn’t blame her.
The way he said it made Nora feel like he’d actually said that he hated her and this was all her fault.
That day, Nora watched the husband she knew and loved be kidnapped by the imposter she could hear stumbling around in the nursery.
“It’s not his,” Nora said.
And the room wasn’t. They had talked about it. They had planned. They had decided.
Nora had even asked to make sure he was serious about having another child, and after a moment’s reflection, the man standing in the other room had said that he would give her another child if that was what she wanted.
Nora’s hands shook, something that was happening more and more these days, as she picked up the yellow tray holding the sorted, shiny utensils and slipped it into a drawer beside the clear glass refrigerator.
The fridge reminded Nora of a gas station fridge filled with cheap beer and garbage energy drinks, nothing more than a bum’s treasure chest.
Harold had seen that particular monstrosity in a magazine and obsessed over it for weeks, badgering her about color schemes and sizes and what she thought the optimal level of crisper space was.
Optimal level of crisper space?
Enough to fit a couple of tomatoes, some cilantro, and some parsley.
That answer had earned her a scowl from Harold and a week filled with sulking and sour looks. He even bumped shoulders with her in the kitchen several times, always saying sorry afterwards like it was an accident, but Nora knew better.
The utensils inside clattered and the drawer slammed as she forced it closed. Nora stood before the fridge, staring at its cold lines and its unforgiving harshness.
For all its love and caring, the fridge could’ve been Harold.
A hot tear slipped down her cheek, the familiar warmth and wetness feeling more like home than the house in which she now stood.
* * *
The doorbell rang as Nora rinsed lettuce in the sink a few hours later. The doorbell was a foreign sound and reminded her that although they’d bought the house, it still felt like a stranger’s.
Nora shook her hands off before drying them with a dish towel, then she walked out of the kitchen.
“Hi,” the couple standing in front of her said in unison when she opened the front door. The man held a magenta box with a black taffeta ribbon bowed on top.
The woman was at least seventy. Her hair glowed a deep shade of blue that Nora was certain the woman hadn’t intended. Large gold hoops hung down from her ears and her lips were painted a gaudy shade of red.
Really, everything about the woman in front of her screamed gaudy. She wore a tangerine blouse and a vibrant, multicolored shirt with flying parrots and toucans on top. Large stones of turquoise hung around her neck and almost every ring was dotted with the same tell-tale blue. The woman’s pants were the same color as her tangerine t-shirt, and her shoes looked like lime-green genie slippers with beaded flowers on each toe.
The man next to her stood tall and only a bit hunched. His face was lined and he squinted at Nora, who wasn’t sure if it was the bright day or cataracts. He wore a light blue pair of coveralls and a bleached white pair of Keds that seemed even brighter than the whole of the woman’s ensemble.
“Hi?” Nora said, not sure who these people were.
“I’m Elsa and this is my husband Dougie.” Elsa nudged the man.
“Douglas, if you please,” he said, smiling at Elsa. “I’ve simply quit asking her to call me that. She likes Dougie and my Elsa does pretty much whatever she wants.”
“I do,” Elsa said, then addressed Nora. “Greyburn, honey.”
“What?” Nora asked.
“Greyburn,” Douglas said. “Our last name is Greyburn.”
“Okay?” Nora said, still not sure what this was, hoping it wasn’t a church trying to recruit new members.
“Relax,” Elsa said. “We’re not from a church or anything. We live across the street.”
“Ah,” Nora said. “Well it’s so nice to meet you both. Would you like to come in?”
“Only after you introduce yourself, honey,” Elsa said.
Nora laughed. “Now where are my manners? Sorry about that. My name is Eleanor Withers, but I prefer to go by Nora, and my husband,” Nora turned away from the door and called into the house, “Harry!”
“And your husband’s name is Harry,” Elsa finished for her.
“Close,” Nora said. “Harold.”
“Well that’s nice,” Elsa said as Nora moved from the door and allowed the two to enter.
Both of the Greyburns walked into the foyer and looked around.
“Well,” Elsa said, looking over to Nora. “You’ve made quite a bit of headway already and the furniture is so nice. So pretty.”
Nora blushed. “We’re still unpacking, but thank you.”
Footsteps pounded on the stairs as Harold came walking down.
“Hello,” Harold said, putting an arm around his wife.
“Harry, these nice folks live across the street from us. This is Elsa,” Nora said.
“Hi.” Harold smiled and shook Elsa’s hand. “It’s a pleasure, Elsa.”
“He’s polite,” Elsa said to Douglas who nodded back.
“And this is Douglas,” Nora said.
“Good to meet you,” Douglas said, holding out his hand to Harold.
Harold grasped it and was surprised at the strength of the man’s grip. “Good to meet you, Douglas.”
“Where are y’all from?” Elsa asked.
“Boston,” Harold and Nora said at the same time, looking at each other and laughing.
“Oh?” Douglas asked. “You a Pats fan?”
“Of course,” Harold said as the two women shared a knowing glance that said, men and their sports.
“Do you think they have much planned in the way of winning this season?” Douglas asked.
“I think Belichick always plans to win,” Harold said. “Who do you follow? The Cowboys? The Texans?”
“I followed the Cowboys for quite a time when I was younger, but I don’t see Jerry Jones doing a thing with that team as long as he’s the owner. And that quarterback? The one that used to date what’s-her-face? Chokes harder in the clutch than my old Honda lawnmower. I watch the Texans, so I guess I know a little bit about what being a Red Sox fan feels like. Well, before they won in ’04, ’07, and ‘14.”
“Give it eighty something more years, watch your team make the AFC championship game, and then watch them lose it on a routine extra point and I think you’ll only have an inkling of what the Sox went through.”
Douglas smiled. “I believe I would, Harold.”
“Boys, boys,” Elsa said before Harold could respond back. “Enough with the sports. Let’s all act like adults and let Nora open her present.”
“That’s a great idea, Els,” Douglas smiled and put his arm around his wife.
“All of mine are,” Elsa said, and then looked to Nora. “Go ahead, dearie. Just open ‘er up.”
Nora smiled at that. For the first time, she felt like this might be home.
“I’ll do just that.” Nora pulled on one of the dangling ends of the black taffeta ribbon and watched as the corresponding loop grew smaller and smaller. When the loop hit the main part of the knot, it stopped moving.
Nora gave the end of the ribbon in her hand a little jerk, but the knot didn’t budge. She looked up at all the eyes on her and smiled.
“Let’s try the other side,” Nora said, putting on a smile as Elsa nodded her on.
Nora pulled on the other end and when the loop got to the main part of the knot it stopped moving.
This is the beginning.
The first housewarming present received in their new house and the knot snagged.
“I’ll grab a pair of scissors,” Harold said, starting to walk past Nora to the kitchen.
“No, I’ll do it,” Nora said. “I know where everything is. I unpacked that room.”
“Why don’t you both stay here?” Elsa said. “Dougie always carries a pocket knife for these types of occasions.”
“It’s true,” Douglas said and pulled out a tiny pocket knife with turquoise and coral inlaid into the handle. Douglas opened the blade and handed the knife to Nora, handle first.
It must’ve been a gift from Elsa, Nora thought.
Nora took the knife and felt the warmth of the handle in her palm. Slipping the edge of the blade between the black ribbon and the magenta box, Nora turned the knife and sawed through the ribbon. It made a light popping noise as the last strand let go.
Nora slipped the ribbon off the box and handed it to Harold. She opened the lid of the box and saw that the inside was filled with bright teal tissue paper. Out of the corner of her eye, Nora saw Elsa smile.
Parting the teal tissue paper and peeking in, Nora saw an object wrapped in bright yellow tissue paper at the bottom of the box. She reached in and pulled it out. The brightly wrapped object was only six inches by eight inches.
“What is it?” Nora asked, handing the box to Harold.
“Open it up and see,” Elsa said, the hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
Nora turned it over and found the edge of the tissue paper where Elsa had taped it down. She wiggled a finger underneath the paper and tore off a strip. The rest of the paper came off quickly and with no trouble.
Nora stood looking down at the gift. It was an old black and white picture of a house. The picture was mounted on rough paper the color of eggshell and framed in an old wooden frame. The frame might have been some shade of brown in its early life, but was now ebony black.
“Is this…” Nora trailed off, not really sure what she was looking at but feeling a sense of familiarity.
Elsa nodded. “Yes. That’s the house we’re standing in right now. My great grandfather took that picture over one-hundred years ago. That was the first picture he ever took with that camera. See, back then you had to stand real still to catch a picture, otherwise the thing would end up all blurry and you wouldn’t be able to tell what was an eye and what was a shoulder. So my great grandfather, being the thrifty man that he apparently was, started taking pictures of things that didn’t move.”
“Oh no,” Nora said, frowning. “I can’t accept this. This is too much, Elsa. This is a keepsake or something grandchildren to inherit.”
“I would normally agree, but my Dougie got himself shot in the war and we couldn’t have children after that. And of course we didn’t try before then, so Dougie and I are the last of our lines. Therefore it should go to ya’ll I think. A young couple like ya’ll has plenty of childbearing years ahead of them.”
Nora’s stomach twisted at that last bit. “Still though. I couldn’t possibly accept such a—”
Elsa cut Nora off. “You can and you will. Just invite us over for dinner some time when you’ve got everything settled, okay?”
Nora tried again. “But I—”
Harold interrupted this time. “That will be fine, Elsa. We really appreciate the gift. Thank you so much.”
“Yes, thank you, Elsa,” Nora said. “We’ll cherish it always.”
Douglas looked over at his wife. “I think it’s time for us to take our leave, Els.”
“I believe you’re right,” Elsa nodded. “Well, we’ll leave you both to your unpacking and get out of your hair now.”
“Thank you so much, Elsa. I don’t know how to express to you how much this means to us,” Nora said.
Elsa nodded as she turned around and smiled. “Sure you do, dearie. Invite us over for dinner some night.”
“We will,” Nora promised.
“What’s wrong, Els?” Douglas asked as the two of them walked back across the street to their own house.
“Something’s off with those two. Did you not feel it?” Elsa asked.
“No. I didn’t feel anything. They seem like a nice enough couple. Harold’s a bit old for the girl, but other than that, nice.”
“I hope so,” Elsa said.
“What’s wrong?” Douglas asked. He was used to asking this question. He’d been married to Elsa for fifty-seven years now and knew that she usually didn’t answer it the first couple times, but whatever the issue was would stick in her like a splinter beneath a fingernail until she told him.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just that house. It’s so damned unlucky.”
“French!” Douglas laughed. “Mind your french, honey. I don’t think the house is unlucky, I just think the people that move in are unlucky.”
“Roger seemed so normal though, and to die like that, it was so strange.”
“I know, but some people are just a little loose up in the head.”
Elsa glared at him. “A screw loose. They have a screw loose in the head.”
Douglas chuckled, “I kind of liked my version better.”
“That’s because you’re a dirty old man.”
“Maybe, but I’ve got a dirty old bird for a wife.”
Elsa smiled at that. The first smile Douglas had seen since they’d left the Withers’ house.
“So what’s wrong?” He asked again.
“I don’t want them to end up like that poor family that lived there before Roger moved in.”
“Ah,” Douglas said, and there it was. The head of the splinter. “What were their names again?”
“Harold and Nora.”
“I know that. I meant the family before Roger.”
“Well be specific, Dougie. The Wilsons. Tammy and…”
“Bill?” Douglas helped.
“I was getting there,” Elsa said.
“And you would’ve gotten there. I was just giving your sizable fanny a boost though.”
Elsa scoffed and slapped at Douglas’s arm. “Such a dirty old man.”
“Did you ever find the key for that closet?” Harold asked as he sat down at the dinner table that night.
“No.” Nora shook her head and brought over a bowl of salad. “We have keys for the basement, the garage, and the shed in the back. While you were in the sho—”
“What is that?” Harold interrupted, pointing to the bowl of iceberg lettuce and chopped hearts of romaine sitting in the middle of the table. He frowned as Nora sat down.
“Salad. The doctor did say that you needed to start eating healthier, that you needed to make a change, remember?”
Harold’s attitude sometimes reminded Nora of a newborn’s attitude towards a jar of baby food it was dead set on not eating. Her stomach rolled over. Joshua had never even gotten the chance to eat.
Thoughts like these still hit her from time to time and knocked her to her knees.
“Rabbit food,” Harold wrinkled his nose. “I need red meat. You know that. A man needs to eat red meat to stay healthy and strong.”
Nora raised an eyebrow. Harold had been so winded from carrying in a single medium-sized box that he had barely been able to call for her.
“I’ll start walking, Nora. Don’t look at me like that.”
Nora said nothing. She removed the tongs from the bowl of greens and dished out a healthy portion to herself. She replaced the tongs in the bowl with the handle pointing at Harold.
He glared over the salad bowl at her.
“For Christ’s sake, Harry. Just eat.” Nora nudged the wooden bowl towards him with her fingertips.
Harold pulled out the tongs and removed three green leaves from the bowl, one at a time.
Nora sighed, and started eating as silence fell over the table.
“Did you check if any of the keys worked in the lock?” Harold asked.
Nora shook her head, “I was trying to tell you that, but you interrupted me. I tried—”
“Don’t speak to me like that,” Harold interrupted again.
“What?” Nora asked, confused. “Speak to you like what?”
“You were guilt tripping me.”
“I was what?”
“You were guilt tripping me, Nora. And I don’t appreciate that kind of disrespect.”
“You don’t appreciate that kind of disrespect?” Nora asked.
The word disrespect felt nasty in her mouth.
“That’s right,” Harold said, forgetting that he didn’t like rabbit food and spooning himself three large helpings. “I don’t appreciate that kind of disrespect and I won’t accept it in my house. Do you understand?”
Her lower jaw pushed out, Nora laughed. It had an ugly coughing sound to it.
“Oh, I understand, Harold. I understand that you have no clue what disrespect is. You have no understanding of disrespect.”
“Then tell me.”
“You want me to tell you?”
“Sure, Nora. Try me.”
“Disrespect is letting your body turn into—” Nora gestured at him with a grimace, “—that. Why don’t you work out? You think I like looking at that? You think I find that sexy and attractive? You think I like that lying next to me every night?”
Harold sat there, shoveling mouthful after mouthful of salad into his mouth. His jaw opened and shut as he tore through the leafy greens and glared at her.
“Well we’re not all in possession of such god-given genetics like you are,” Harold shot back at her as a small piece of romaine flew from his mouth in an arc and landed on his plate. He took another bite and kept chewing.
“God-given genetics?” Nora asked, placing her fork on her plate and dropping her hands to her lap where they curled into tiny white fists. “You’ve seen both my mother and father, Harry. You know what they look like. You know that they both have diabetes. I keep my figure by watching what I eat.”
“When you eat,” Harold muttered.
“Oh, so I’m anorexic now? I’ve suddenly developed an eating disorder to aid you in making your point, in winning this shitty little argument?”
Harold grunted and kept eating.
“Maybe you can answer a question of mine. Hmm?”
“How rude—no, I’m sorry—how disrespectful do you find it when someone blames all of their problems on someone else?”
Harold kept chewing, his face growing red.
Nora went on, “And further, how terribly disrespectful would you find someone ignoring someone else after they asked a question?”
“Oh no. You look. You look, Harold. Look at the things you’re doing and tell me that they’re not disrespectful. Just you try.”
“I was just trying to show you—”
“No. No, no, no. You are not putting any of this on me. None of—”
Harold’s hand swung in a wide arc and his palm smacked the wooden bowl still partially filled with salad off the table. The bowl hit the floor with a hollow thud, several leaves of lettuce popping out like confetti, and skittered across the tile into the kitchen where it banged into the cabinet. It wobbled around in several circles, filling the room with noise, before it settled upside-down on the tile.
Harold stared at the bowl with a look on his face that suggested he was confused about how it came to be on the tile in the kitchen.
Nora leaned back in her chair and folded her arms, her face devoid of emotion.
“Well?” Nora asked after Harold failed to break the silence.
“Sorry,” Harold said, still with that confused look on his face.
“You ever plan on doing that to me?”
“What?” Harold looked away from the bowl and at his wife.
“You ever plan on laying your hands on me like that?”
“No.” Harold looked like he was shocked at her question, like she had asked if he ever planned on sawing off his own left foot. “I would never lay a hand on you. You know that.”
Nora turned her head in a slow arc and looked at the overturned bowl then back at Harold.
The bowl, Harold.
The bowl, Harold.
“Okay-okay,” Harold said. “So I was a little rude earlier.”
Nora raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, Nora. I was a ton rude earlier.”
“When else were you rude?”
“Just now. I’m sorry I hit the bowl. I just lost control of myself, but I promise you that I will never lay a finger on you.”
“Huh?” Harold asked, the confusion settling back on his face.
“Unless I want you to lay a hand on me,” Nora smiled at him.
“Unless you want me to lay a hand on you?” Harold asked her.
“In bed, Harry,” Nora smiled again. In the back of her mind, a plan began to form.
“In bed,” Harold mumbled to himself.
His eyes widening and his cheeks turning red, Harold understood what she was talking about.
“There you go,” Nora said.
Harold smiled as she left her chair to pick up the salad from the kitchen floor.
Yep. Harold is super likable… bet you can’t wait to see what Nora has planned.
That’s it for today. Keep being awesome, and don’t forget: you have to buy the book by March 22nd in order get access to:
Greed – The Machine: A Card Game for Backstabbers
You’ll get two different pdfs of this card game (color and greyscale) and an instruction sheet.
A behind-the-scenes pdf that contains all 16 covers I made for The Wish Room before deciding on the current cover along with my thinking for cutting all the covers I didn’t use.
Click here to see more.
Until next time,