Edition 13: Serial Fiction: Clutter Coach (Part 2 of 2) by Tom Barlow
Part 2 and the extent of Kathy’s hoarding finally comes to Stuart’s attention. Feeling cornered, Kathy starts to push back against her husband’s controlling nature and act in a disturbing way. What spell is the samovar weaving upon her? SY
Stuart caught her staring at her eBay sales when he arrived home early. Before she could shut down the window, he saw the sale notification on the art deco pin she had put up for sale.
“That’s going to help,” he said, throwing his briefcase on the desk and pointing at the $250 final sale price. “How soon do we get the money?”
She stabbed the monitor power button and the screen went dark. “I was going to withdraw it,” she said, one hand on her sweater, stroking the pin she could no longer bear parting with.
He reached over her shoulder and turned the monitor back on. She caught his scent, a hint of soapy floral, rather than end-of-day funk.
He took the mouse from her and began scrolling through her transactions, grunting as the other sales rolled into view. “Damn! You must have three grand’s worth of sales.”
Kathy rolled back from the computer. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to sell any of these.”
He spotted the box of items at her feet and picked them up. “Too late.” He pulled out the death photo, shook his head, and put it back. “Print out those addresses and I’ll ship this stuff from work tomorrow.”
As she printed the orders, she curled her shoulder slightly to keep the pin out of Stuart’s sight. He spotted it anyway, and had it unfastened and in the box before she could move her hand.
After dinner, Stuart announced he was going to clean the garage. A few minutes later, she heard his car leave. She awoke when he returned, during American Idol, but he didn’t come in. A moment later, the vacuum cleaner started up.
The next morning, Kathy called to cancel her appointment with a potential client. She canceled her hair appointment. She watched the garbage truck pass by, and for once didn’t scramble out in her robe to set their cans at the curb.
The samovar worried her like an earache, until she felt compelled to stare at it once more. She crawled into the loft, reached into the spreader. It was empty.
She held her breath as she pulled aside the clutter, looking under and within the trash they felt they couldn’t live without. Nothing.
After her third repeat, she descended and hurried into the kitchen, fearing she had left it on the stove. Not there. Not in the cabinets, or the fridge or the oven, the dining room, the family room. She spent two hours searching, hoping to clear Stuart of her suspicions.
She was waiting for him, her third vodka tonic in hand, when he opened the door that evening.
“Where is my teakettle?” she said without preamble, and a little louder than she intended.
Stuart set his briefcase down on the dishwasher as he did every evening, methodically untied his shoes and set them in the shoe rack.
“Fifteen thousand dollars,” he finally said, cocking his head to the side. “How long were you going to sit on that thing, when you knew we were broke?”
She threw her cocktail glass across the room, where it exploded in the sink, throwing shards across the tile countertop. Stuart’s eyes opened wider.
“You asshole! You have no right to sell my stuff. It’s my stuff. Mine!” She was so angry she had to piss.
“Well, Notre Dame has it now. Or the money for it. Kathy, we had to pay tuition. Is some goddamned piece of silverware more important than Trent’s future?”
Kathy squeezed her eyes shut, clapped her hands over her ears, trying to quell the raw waves of unfocused emotion that made it impossible for her to think. Her tears were a scant release. After a couple of moments, she felt Stuart pass her on his way to his his home office. She was so angry she couldn’t tell if he touched her or not.
She was unable to fall asleep that night. As the bells of the Presbyterian Church nearby struck two, the obvious finally struck her—who would have an interest in the samovar and $15,000 to spend on such short notice?
The next morning Kathy waited until ten, knowing Mary Beth had a standing ten o’clock meeting at her office, before she put on her Hunting Kathy outfit and drove to Mary Beth’s house.
The back door was, as usual, unlocked. The samovar, however, wasn’t where she expected to find it, in the bottom of the bedroom closet. Nor under the bed, or in other closets, or on a shelf in the den, or in a kitchen cabinet. Having cleaned out Mary Beth’s hoard several times, she knew all of the house’s stashes. The last place she checked was the garage. All of the shovels were still there, lined up against the wall.
One had fresh dirt clumped on the blade.
Kathy found the new bush, a rhododendron, planted under the living room window. Buried beneath its root ball was the samovar, wrapped in a $300 dress that she thought Mary Beth had taken to the Salvation Army months ago.
Kathy took it home, hid it, and swam laps in the pool to burn off her anger at Stuart, for stealing, and her best friend, for conspiring. She stroked until she was so tired she could barely pull herself up the step to get out.
But still she couldn’t sleep. As the sun baked her back, she dreamed, as she often did, of revenge. Her heart needed something to fill the space that Stuart’s love had once filled. Something bitter.
Stuart seemed pleased and surprised when she greeted him that evening with tall Long Island iced tea cocktail. He sprawled on the lawn chair and raised the glass to her. “I’m glad you’ve forgiven me,” he said, taking a long pull at the drink.
She shrugged her shoulders. “I figure you’ll pay me back in kind some day.” She sipped her can of Sprite.
“Some day? Am I going to have to watch my back?” He raised his eyebrows, but a moment later his eyes rolled up and his head lolled back.
As soon as Stuart’s limbs went slack, Kathy jumped up, grabbed zip ties from her purse and lashed Stuart’s hands and feet to the lawn chair. Then she took one of his cigarettes from his shirt pocket, lit it, and sat back to watch him twitch.
She’d always been a participant, not a witness to the visions, and was surprised at how still Stuart sat. By the time the sun went down he had still not moved enough to put tension on the zipties. In fact, his first words woke Kathy from a light sleep.
“What did you give me?” he said, his voice whispery and frightened. He tried to move his arms, grimacing as the ties dug into his flesh. “What the fuck…?”
Kathy dragged her chair over to sit directly in front of her husband, leaned forward, put her elbows on her knees, and stared at his face. “Tell me what you saw.”
Stuart kept his eyes shut and breathed shallowly for several minutes before replying. “LSD–right? Is that why I’m tied up?” He tugged feebly at the restraints.
She put her hands on his forearms. “Just tell me what you saw. I want to know if we saw the same thing.”
His eyes narrowed, his mouth pursed. “You’ve been taking this shit? Is that why you’ve been acting so weird? Kathy, what the fuck has come over you?”
“What did you see?” she said, trying to keep her voice from cracking from tension.
Stuart nodded slowly. “What–you had a bad trip? You hope I had the same bad dreams?” He smiled bitterly. “Sorry to disappoint you, but what I saw was all good. We were on vacation in the Loire Valley. We toured Chenonceau, spent a week in Blois. I’ve never seen you happier. You were planning to take drawing lessons so you could come back and sketch the chateaux.”
Kathy grabbed his biceps and shook him. “Tell me the truth, you bastard. What did you see?”
Stuart smiled sarcastically. “You were shopping for an outfit in Paris. I gave you two grand to buy clothes. I think we were in Hermes, and you were picking out a purse. Then we were on a night cruise on the Seine. Then I bought you a piece of rice with your name inscribed on it from a guy in front of the Pompidou Center.”
She slapped him. “Bastard! Tell me the truth!”
He shook his head. “Kathy, you’ve lost it. Cut me loose and we’ll go to the emergency room. They can give you a sedative. You’ll feel better, I promise. Please.”
She turned her back to him, cupping her face in her hands.
“Kathy, please. I have to take a piss.”
She finally cut him free, backing away quickly afterward in case he struck at her. However, he never even glanced her way, but walked into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. Five minutes later, he came back out carrying a suitcase, threw it in the back seat of his Volvo, and drove off.
Kathy got as far a carrying the samovar to Stuart’s workbench and finding his small sledgehammer, but try as she might, she couldn’t make herself swing at it. The silver troublemaker sat there, mocking her with its beautiful curves. From the bench seat, she could see down the narrow aisles between the piles of boxes that filled her basement. The treasures she was drowning in, the delusions that had taken over her life.
“Kathy?” Stuart’s voice shook her out of her reverie. Not knowing why, she lifted Stuart’s carpet knife hanging on the punchboard wall and slipping it into the pocket of her hoodie. She slowly climbed the stairs.
“Kathy?” Stuart was standing in the family room. Sitting at the dining room table behind him was Mary Beth. And Trent.
“What are you doing home?” Kathy said, hurrying to Trent and hugging him fiercely.
He hugged back as much as she had come to expect from a teenage boy, then stepped back, looking nervously at his father.
Stuart put his hand around her shoulder and guided her to the dining room table. When she was seated, the other did likewise.
“We’re worried about you, Kathy,” Stuart said, crossing his hands on the table. The others nodded. Mary Beth wouldn’t meet her eyes, while Trent pulled at his lower lip.
“You’re acting irrationally. The hoarding, well, I’ve tried to overlook it. But there’s no room left downstairs. And this samovar thing—well, you just haven’t been yourself.”
Kathy watched Trent’s face, the only one she still valued. He blinked rapidly. She could feel his knee tapping against the bottom of the table.
“You have no right to sell my stuff,” she said. “And I live here too, so if I want to hold onto stuff until it appreciates in value, that’s my decision.”
“If I opened one of those boxes, do you think I’d find antiques? They’re full of junk, Kathy, other people’s junk that they had the good sense to throw away.” He picked at the seam between table sections with his index finger nail. “And this drug thing. I don’t know what kind of dope you put in that tea—ecstasy? But it scares the hell out of me, that you’re taking this stuff, and now you’re forcing it on me and Mary.”
“That’s serious shit, Mom,” Trent said.
Kathy reached across the table and took her son’s hand. “It’s not like he says. I’m not taking drugs.” She turned to Mary Beth. “You tell him.”
Mary Beth smiled the fake customer smile had seen her use on customers she later confessed she found loathsome. “I don’t know, babe. I know I found some mumbo-jumbo about magic and spells around that samovar, but I didn’t believe any more than I believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t think you did, either. I mean, the whole thing is preposterous, right?”
“You bitch!” Kathy said, her hands drawn into tight balls. “I thought you were my friend. Now you try to steal my samovar. What’s it really worth, Mary Beth? A million? You gave this asshole I’m married to fifteen grand?”
“Mom, please!” Trent said, his head cocked to one side so that his long curly hair hung down the way Kathy loved, like she’d given birth to a rock god.
“Don’t be mean. We want to help you.”
Stuart pulled a piece of paper and a brochure from his jacket pocket, unfolded and flattened it, and slid the brochure in front of her. “We want you to go here for a little while, for treatment. We all agree it would be the fastest way for you to get back to yourself.”
Kathy gazed at the elaborate brochure. “The Spring Hills Center.” For treatment of obsessive behavior. It looked like a country club. The shrubs lining the drive were precisely manicured and aligned plumb-bob straight.
He slid the paper over. She picked it up. “And what’s this?”
Stuart cleared his throat. “Power of Attorney. That way we can make sure you get all the help you need. You won’t have to worry about anything.”
“The magic is real!” Kathy said, wringing the brochure in one hand. But Trent was staring at her, and suddenly she could see herself through his eyes, as though the tea was still in her system.
She was appalled at her appearance. Arms crossed like an petulant child. Hair sticking up in sheaves, a frown hollowing her cheeks. Before her mother died, she’d confided to Kathy that the nurse’s aide had eaten off two of her toes while bathing her.
‘Like that?’ she wondered. Was it so easy to cross over to lunacy? That damned samovar.
She could ignore Stuart and Mary Beth, but Trent’s pity was breaking her heart. Kathy picked up the document, holding it close to her face as a shield. I must really be crazy, she thought. The house is full of evidence.
She could feel the others holding their breaths.
“Please,” she said, putting down the paper and dabbing away tears, “please help me. I don’t want to lose my mind.”
All three stepped forward, draping their arms over her and one another. “We won’t let anything happen to you,” her son said softly.
Then, through her tears and the warmth of bodies, she caught the faint whiff. The perfume. The same scent that hung on every piece of clothing she had cleaned out of Mary Beth’s closet.
The same scent that was on Stuart’s collar.
Tom Barlow is an Ohio, USA writer. He is the author of the science fiction novel I’ll Meet You Yesterday, and his work has been featured in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Hard-Boiled Horror, Best of Crossed Genres #2, Battlespace and Desolate Places, as well as many magazines including The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Digital Science Fiction, Coyote Wild and Encounters.