“The Rental”

The Rental

(c) Laura Jenski, 2021

I felt the chill as soon as we entered the kitchen. I shouldn’t have been cold, with a heavy coat and the sun pouring through the window facing the garden. Still, the iciness penetrated deep into my core.

Keith, the new man in my life, didn’t seem to notice the chill, or at least he was unfazed by it. He kept up a lively conversation with the woman from the house next door who’d brought us the key. The sound of Keith’s voice was one of the many things I loved about him. It made me feel safe and secure like never before in my life.

“I’d been on a waiting list for a place to rent for two years,” Keith said, leaning against the counter next to where I stood. “I lived with friends—in their guest rooms if I was lucky, basements if I wasn’t. Last winter, I slept in my car, but I have a job now.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t know the rental market was that tight.”

“It is when you’re an ex-con.” A tinge of red crept onto Keith’s ears; I leaned closer to him.

The neighbor turned her prying gaze upon me. “And your companion?”

Rallying, Keith laughed. “We met on the street—literally. Love at first sight. Right, Maggie?”

Keith liked to call me Maggie. It was not my actual name, but I didn’t care. I’d been called worse. Before I could respond, another cloak of cold air settled on me. It seemed to come through the window behind the sink. This time, I thought I heard a voice, too, calling from outside. I edged toward the door, listening.

“I suppose you want to go outside,” the woman said to me.

I pondered my response; I disliked talking to strangers.

Without waiting for my reply, the neighbor turned back to Keith. “The siding needs repair, you know.”

“The lady at the rental office did say the place needed some tender loving care. She sure wasn’t kidding.” As he spoke, Keith led me out the door. I didn’t think he’d heard what I had, but perhaps he saw the pleading look in my eyes. Undoubtedly, he was eager to explore the garage where he would work on cars, motorcycles, and whatever other vehicles showed up for repair. It was his livelihood and a source of amusement for me. I didn’t know anything about automobiles—or care, if truth be told—but if it mattered to Keith, it was important to me.

“The owner went to prison for fraud and God knows what else,” the neighbor said, eyeing Keith as she trailed us into the small yard. “But even before that, he didn’t take care of the place. The previous tenant did. Sara cleaned and painted and fixed things up. She always planted a vegetable garden up against the house.”

The sound, the voice, was louder outside, but still, Keith acted like he didn’t hear. I was not surprised; my hearing was much better than his. As the two of them meandered toward the garage, I hung back, monitoring their conversation while trying to locate the source of the mysterious sound.

“I was very fond of Sara. She was like a sunny day. I told her not to get involved with her landlord—that he wasn’t a good man, he didn’t respect women. But she fancied herself in love, deluding herself that he’d marry her when she told him about the baby. It didn’t make sense that she’d run off without a word.”

I saw Keith stiffen. He’d heard rumors about the landlord. When you spend time on the streets as we have, you learn things. Gritty stories told by people who live in the darkness because they have nowhere in the light to go. They see suspicious acts; they see crimes.

The neighbor turned to where I stood next to a small garden patch under the kitchen window. “Sara didn’t plant anything last spring, just turned over the soil.”

“Maybe Sara meant to leave after all,” Keith said, his gaze wandering to the garage, his soon-to-be workspace.

The woman shrugged, but the cock of her head told me she was unconvinced. “I guess she could’ve taken one of the jobs she’d been offered in New York. She’d talked about going there the whole time I knew her. If she did go, she must’ve taken her little pug dog with her.” Motioning toward the garage, she said, “The lock sticks sometimes. If you jimmy it a bit, it’ll open.”

While Keith struggled with the locked door, I examined Sara’s garden bed. It had a peculiar odor—not manure, but definitely organic. I scraped at the dry top layer with my foot. The smell wafted into the air, and I felt my heartbeat quicken.

Keith glanced in my direction. I tried to hide my agitation so I didn’t spoil his good mood, but my legs quivered.

The voice—I should say apparition because I no longer believed I heard a real voice—echoed in my head, swelling with each passing second. It compelled me to act. Dig, the apparition said. Dig here. Dig now.

On all fours, I clawed at the dirt, hesitant at first, then with increasing fury until soil flew all around me. The faster I dug, the more insistent the demand for me to dig. The spirit, not I, was in control.

“Maggie, what the hell are you doing?” Keith ran toward me, a horrified expression on his face, but I couldn’t stop. “You’re making a mess. You’re a mess—”

The bone was from a human arm, that was obvious. Keith brushed away the dirt around it as I dug furiously at the other end of the garden plot. When I unearthed another bone, the neighbor gasped and ran off. She returned moments later with a spade and hand trowel. Keith pushed me aside and shoveled away the soil. Within seconds, we could see what had drawn me to this site: two bodies, a young woman and a dog, skeletonized and unclothed—with one exception, a red bow.

“Sara,” the woman said. “She always tied her braid with a ribbon. Red was her favorite color.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the neighbor’s comments. The spirit, the pug dog, hadn’t finished with me. It said: There’s fetal tissue here in the grave. When the coroner tests it, it will prove he fathered her child.

Keith phoned the police. As we waited, the pug dog’s spirit drew me to the chimney and spoke to me one last time: The knife he killed her with is behind a loose brick at the base, on the left.

I led Keith to the site. Dried blood coated the blade and handle, where fingerprints remained.

“How did you know?” Keith said, attaching the leash to my collar and stroking my fur.