By Attila Zønn
Stirling kicked his girlfriend Dasha out of bed for eating crackers.
Those cracker shards always found their way to his side of the bed.
He’d also had enough of her crunching and chewing.
Stirling had recently discovered through his DNA ancestry that one of his Neanderthal traits—he’d discovered through the test that he had 2% Neanderthal DNA— being annoyed by the sound of chewing was one of those traits. (At the same time he wondered how modern anthropology knew that Neanderthals hated the sound of chewing.) Stirling also hated the sound of the smacking of lips and Ooh, Oohing because something tasted good—(Dasha was an Ooh Ooher) God! He hated when she did that.
He’d realized during this time of viral isolation, with her constant presence, that Dasha’s idiosyncrasies—pet annoyances he considered slight when there used to be a buffer of eight to ten hours during a workday, were now excruciating and at times erupted murderous emotions in him. (He now understood why couples murder each other). So, for her safety and his sanity, Dasha and her cracker crunching ways went out of his bed and out of his house and he now basked in quiet solitude.
Having discovered this 2% Neanderthal descent, and having plenty of home time on his hands, Stirling decided to delve into his distant heritage. He immersed himself in all possible Neanderthal documentaries on YouTube and learned that Neanderthals had been misrepresented and weren’t the dumb, grunting brutes of movies or past anthropology. That was a good thing, he thought, since he was 2% Neanderthal. One program questioned if Neanderthals had a language. He was insulted. “Of course they had a language,” Stirling argued with the narrator, or else how could Neanderthals ever tell each other there was a woolly mammoth on the other side of the hill and co-ordinate a hunt? Pointing and grunting could only take a society so far. Could one call a clutch of nomads a society?
Neanderthals were gentle souls, caring for the elderly, the crippled, and buried their dead with sprinkles of flower petals. Stirling wasn’t a particularly compassionate man, but upon learning this, he wished he could hug every Neanderthal that ever existed.
He frowned at the mention of prehistoric homo sapiens. Encroaching assholes. They were vicious and combined with their lust, probably massacred or fucked the Neanderthals into extinction. Yes, that’s what happened. Those homo sapien men were probably attracted to the sturdy essence of Neanderthal women, they being a primitive version of a frontier woman, practical and compact with a robust nature, not afraid to break a nail. Dasha definitely was not that. She was delicate and frivolous. She was hair, lipstick, nails and long legs. Good riddance.
The commotion of pre-pandemic life had distracted Stirling from deep thought, but within this time of isolation, lying on his now spacious cracker crumbless bed, he had the calm to reflect on his life. Stirling decided that after this world crisis was over, he would find a practical, compact woman and imagined her hard against the wall with those compact legs tight around his hips. He hoped the masking would end at some point so he could select this compact woman. (Though this time of bandit faces has made him appreciate how beautiful women’s eyes were when not tainted by the rest of the face.)
Stirling has realized that his eight-hour job at the office could be condensed to four hours at home in his jammies. Also that he could indulge in sips of a Crown Royal bottle as he tapped the keys on the laptop. He sat back and stretched and thought This is the life. Why would he ever want to go back to the office?
This was also an opportunity to tidy up. He occupied his free time with yard work, with organizing his basement where he discovered possessions he had forgotten he had, finding delight in reconnecting with an old wardrobe but decided he was past the years of tight jeans and leather jackets, so he filled transparent garbage bags with clothes until the closets were bare. Then he carefully gathered all the antiquated electronics he had acquired over the years: the CD players, the TV boxes, the multitude of AV cables and computer keyboards, ergonomic or otherwise, and took them to the Value Bazaar where a masked young man indifferently tossed them into a bin.
Also during this time of anti-social living, there were questions he needed answered.
Dasha had always complained about his snoring, but Stirling was adamant that he did not snore. He breathed heavily while he slept but heavy breathing was not snoring. And this bothered him because since the split with Dasha, he has analyzed their relationship and rummaging through all the episodes of the seasons with her, he realized she had been “untruthful” many times. He preferred to think of her as “untruthful” instead of a “liar” because he couldn’t discard some residual feelings for her after nearly seven years as a couple.
So what about this snoring question?
With no one there to tell him the truth about his snoring how could he know, once and for all, if he did snore?
Somewhere in a drawer, he had a voice-activated recorder, bought years ago but only used once for a lecture. He had seen it so many times when in search of other things but now couldn’t locate it. Isn’t that always the way? How can something be consistently in front of your face except when you need it and then you can’t find it? He searched without success and was resolved to get a new one from Amazon when one day while frying burgers, there it was in a kitchen drawer where he kept measuring cups and the meat thermometer.
As he set the recorder up on his nightstand he hoped he could come to some conclusion about his snoring in order to transition into a new relationship without any mysteries—in the event that he did snore he could maybe find a remedy so as not to burden his next mate with nightly discomfort. The label on the recorder claimed the device was ultrasensitive, that it would pick up the sound of a pin drop. He hoped so, turned it on and went to sleep.
When morning broke, Stirling awoke refreshed and optimistic but had forgotten about the recorder until he had made his coffee and then went with delight to his nightstand and turned it on, listening between sips of his coffee for the snore. He did breathe heavy and there were moments when he didn’t breathe at all. He also heard his tossing and turning (He knew about that) but there was no snore.
Just as he thought and shook his head.
But wait . . . maybe his snoring started in deep sleep, so he sat on the edge of the bed, sipped his coffee and nodded as he listened.
Heavy breathing, heavy breathing and then . . . his piano played.
The piano was in the living room.
What? How? How can the piano be playing on this recorder? And how had it not woken him up? But . . .who is playing the piano in the middle of the night in his house? He listened. He recognized the tune. It was Gounod’s Funeral March Of A Marionette and instantly he got an image of Alfred Hitchcock. Then the playing stopped and quick hard-heeled footsteps came down the hall, louder and louder then abruptly stopped.
He conjured a vision in his head of someone standing at his bedroom door. There was a hard scraping on the floor. Shuffling? Silence. Standing by his bed, watching him sleep? More shuffling. The hinges on his closet door squeaked ( he made a mental note that he had to oil the hinges) followed by the sound of things being tossed about in the closet.
It was Dasha, the bitch, come to disturb his slumber! He should have changed the locks. Whenever she looked for something she tossed stuff around instead of being tidy. Why hadn’t it woken him up though? Wait . . . Dasha didn’t know how to play the piano. He had tried to teach her but she complained that her long fingernails would strike the keys before her fingertips did.
There was someone in his house!
Stirling jumped up and looked around him. He checked the closet — everything was in order. He rushed to his front door to see if it was still locked. Locked. The living room was not disturbed. The lid on the piano was down over the keys. He went back to the recording and listened. He could still hear his heavy breath, his tossing and turning and the rummaging in the closet.
“What the fuck!” he repeated as he paced with the recorder in his hand. “What the fuck!”
Someone was in his house.
He’d heard of such things, of people hiding in walls, in attics. He rushed to the butcher block in the kitchen to get the big knife . . . but the big knife was missing.
His adrenaline surged.
He took the next largest knife; the bread knife. He practiced his stabbing technique; low to the gut, high and down into the throat . . . but realized the bread knife was no good for stabbing. . . but he could slash! Yes! He practiced by carving V’s and X’s into the air.
He was ready.
He approached every room in his bungalow, every closet, the tub, behind the shower curtain—no one, then stood in the hallway below the attic hatch. He gazed at it. But how? How can somebody be hiding up there? He had to look. He grabbed the flashlight by his bed and the stepladder and pushed the hatch open. Small tufts of insulation fell on him. There was a cool breeze in the attic as the flashlight pierced the darkness and in the corner, four frightened eyes gleamed back at him.
He had raccoons in his attic. It’ll cost him a fortune to get them out. Money pissed to the wind. He growled at them and called them, “Fuckers!” He pulled the hatch back in place and stepped down.
Is that what this was all about? But raccoons don’t play the piano or wear hard-heeled shoes.
This was a raccoon coincidence.
He had to keep checking.
He stood at the top of the basement stairs and flicked on the light. His heart pounded in his ears. Down he went, imagining that before he reached the bottom step, whoever would leap at him, but he was ready, knife clutched tightly, arm raised . . . but there was no one waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
The basement was tidy. Of course. He had worked hard to make it so. There was no clutter for someone to hide behind. All was well lit and open, except the two closets. Two doors, side by side. Which closet was the intruder in; door number one or door number two?
“I know you’re in there,” he called out.
“Alright you motherfucker!” he yelled, and flung open the first closet door. Empty. Just some abandoned coat hangers. He quickly pivoted to face the other closet door. “I’ve got you now!” he yelled and savaged open the second door.
His knife hand relaxed and he lowered his arm because there was no one to defend from in that closet either.
He was suddenly tired, trudging up the stairs to the main floor, but was pleased with his courage. Face the danger. He was proud of himself. He hadn’t run out of the house like a pussy.
There was no one in his house; he was certain now so he went back to the recorder and turned it on. The rustling in his closet continued, then it stopped, the hard heeled shuffling, then a whisper, “Off.” The recording switched off.
Silence . . .
So disquieting, disturbing. The whisper? Man or woman? Hard to tell. He went into the living room, sat on the couch and stared at the piano . . .