“Good morning Jacob! Do you like my sunflowers?”
Fishing out the box from the back seat of his ninety-six Jimmy, Jacob reflexively closed his eyes and tried to stop his shoulders from jamming up around his ears. Sticking what he hoped passed for a friendly expression on his face he straightened up and turned to face the eye-sore that was his neighbor.
“Good morning Carla Mae. Your sunflowers are lovely. We’ve been getting some great weather for gardening this year haven’t we?” The railroad ties that outlined her small, geometrically skewed patches of gardens looked as though they had been re-purposed directly from the original train track. Jacob wondered about the health of the plants being grown right beside those oil-soaked remnants.
“Oh we have!” Carla Mae’s voice, jagged as metal shavings rose excitedly. “My tomatoes are ripening quickly. I should have a good crop this year. Would you like some of the Arugula? It’s fantastic for pizza’s and salads and things. You look like you could use a dose of fresh vegetables. Fiber,” she finished. Jacob held his face carefully neutral as he shook his head from side to side.
“No thank you. I don’t get along with too many loose greens.” He imagined he could smell the ties and couldn’t stomach the idea of actually eating something that had grown up cradled in that nastiness. Talk about genetically modifying your food. Jesus, she might as well harvest herbs from alongside the road.
“Oh, you don’t?” Carla Mae’s mannish face lost a little of its happy glow and her bushy hair seemed to wilt. “Who can’t eat greens?
“Diverticulitis,” Jacob stated while shifting the box he was holding against his hip to his other side. “No seeds or nuts and very limited green, leafy stuff. Thank you though.” He turned to walk up his driveway.
“More packages from your sister?” Jacob stopped in mid-step and looked directly at the awful woman, his eyes squinting defensively as he turned to shield the box.
“It’s sweet that you two are so close. I never had siblings.” Carla Mae smiled gently at Jacob. She probably ate them all in the womb for a nice, organic snack, he thought.
“Twins,” he stated. “We have always been close.”
“That’s sweet,” she said again.
“Yes. Take care Carla Mae.” Jacob turned again and walked directly to his open garage where the familiar smell of raw wood settled comfortingly over him. The bulk of his business was done here. He was the owner and sole employee of Stahnn’s Furniture, Custom Design at Homegrown Prices. His tools, table saws, planers, miters, jigsaws and joiners were logically and neatly arranged but taking up the bulk of the inside space. No room left for the Jimmy. At the back door he hit the big button on the wall and listened to the motor engage on the garage door. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. At nine Mississippi the door settled fully against the concrete, blocking out the sunlight and Carla Mae’s nosey black eyes. Jacob exhaled with relief. Neighbors were a lot like the family members you didn’t have any say over, they were always there and there was just nothing you could do about them.
Unlocking the back door Jacob stepped into the kitchen of his Brady Bunch style home and set the box from Lila on the counter while he removed his shoes and slipped his keys over one of the hooks he had screwed into the side of the cupboard. Gold hook for his personal keys, silver hook for general padlocks and the antiqued hook held the key to the chest freezer. As he released the sliver key ring onto its hook his eye caught the glint of the lone key on the antiqued hook and his breath caught in his throat. There was nothing unusual about the key. It looked the same as it always did but right that second he felt exposed, as if someone else had come inside his home and looked at that key. Jacob breathed very slowly and leaned backwards to look into the garage.
A custom work bench ran the length of the south wall and squared perfectly into the corner before turning to carry halfway along the east wall. Beneath it ran cupboards and shelves, each one containing specific tools related to his furniture building. Everything was placed just-so and catalogued according to his own personal taste. Everything, aside from the work top itself, was painted a very bland shade of flat gray, including the walls. Jacobs eyes flicked first at the top of the bench in the corner. It was clear, just as he had left it, nothing cluttering the top. Looking down at the concrete he saw a light coating of sawdust that began about two feet before the bench. The dust was fine and barely noticeable, it’s light color not presenting a sharp contrast that would draw attention. Jacob stared hard at the dust for several moments, his eyes frozen. Finally he tore his gaze away and closed the back door completely, flicking the deadbolt into place. The sound of it clicking into the place was not as comforting as he would have liked. Could he just be over-reacting to his encounter with Carla Mae? The idea of anyone getting inside his home while he was out was pretty hard to believe since he kept everything locked pretty tightly. He was not foolish. The feeling that someone had been here wouldn’t go away though. There was nothing to do but inspect everything and settle his nerves.
A cautious, room by room walk-through from the kitchen to the living room then, into the den followed by a trip up the stairs to the empty bedrooms and the bathroom. It was the bathroom and the den that set his nerves jangling further. Nothing was out of place but those rooms felt odd to him, chilly in a non-temperate sort of way. Jacob was almost positive someone had been in them. He couldn’t explain how he knew, it was just a bone-deep surety that someone else’s eyes had looked at his things.
Jacob looked deep into the bathroom mirror, studying his own reflection as well as that of the room behind him. Had he looked this rough when he had been talking with Carla Mae? His hazel green eyes looked rather sunken and disturbed above his not-so-sculpted cheek bones. The thin brown hair that had looked soft and inviting when he had left earlier that morning now appeared static-filled and alarmed. The effects of this abrupt stress were plastered all over him. His lips even appeared thinner to him and washed out, like the blood was draining away from them. Damnit! He slapped a hand against the top of the vanity in a surge of anger. How dare someone intrude upon his sanctuary! Jacob didn’t know how they had gotten in but he was going to be damn sure they couldn’t do it again.
* * * * *
Parked at the end of the block the man watched Jacob Stahnn exchange words with his neighbor then enter his home. The neighborhood was decent, middle class with edged streets, actual sidewalks and nice trees. The kind of place where the mailman would walk the route and stick the mail in a door slot. That lady in the little gray house that looked like it belonged on a Monopoly board left a lot to be desired. He chuckled as he watched Jacob inch toward his garage, trying to get away from a woman who was clearly a misplaced swamp witch. By the time the door was fully closed he was snorting with laughter.
That house, looking far better on the outside, had almost been a waste of time for him. He wondered if Jacob could tell that he had been there? He hadn’t touched anything, just looked around and made notes. The tools were a definite deal. He would be able to sell those with no problem. The computer in the den was a maybe. Most people used laptops these days so a full desktop arrangement might be a bit tough to dispose of, especially if the specs were outdated. He didn’t want to waste time hauling it if it wouldn’t bring a decent profit. Overall, the house’s contents were pretty useless, mostly older items like the television that actually needed a converter box to get a digital signal, books about trees and woodworking, and a ton of photographs plastered on every wall in the place, even the fucking bathroom. Judging from the face in almost all of them, Mr. Stahnn had a twin sister that he was very attached to. Did she have tools too? From what he had heard about twins they tended to share the same interests. It might be worth looking into if he had enough time.
* * * * *
Small Town Hardware opened at 9:00 a.m. on the dot, every single day except Sunday. It was closed on Sunday. Stevin sat anxiously in a booth in the Ice Cream Queen across the street licking nervously at his large, vanilla and chocolate twist cone. Personally he would have preferred the hard-packed ice cream from the waffle cone place but he wouldn’t be able to watch the hardware store from there. Besides, the waffle cone place would probably go under soon, no sense in giving them false hopes of success. That jerk that owned the place was a supreme bitch every time a piece of competition walked through the door. Seriously, his cute employee wasn’t that cute. Bitch should relax and be grateful he even had a customer.
Stevin checked his watch. 8:57 a.m. Ugh. What if he didn’t show? What if he decided to shop later than usual? What if he just didn’t need anything today and stayed home? He scratched at his chin with his free hand, feeling like his beard was tingling with worry and nervously moved on to his neck hair, raking his over-bitten nails against his throat until the skin was red. By shifting his vision carefully from across the street to directly at the window he could see most of his reflection in the glass, except for the part where the ceiling luminescents reflected right over top of him. His beard was perfectly trimmed and looked stunning despite the few gray hairs that he wailed over every time he trimmed. Thirty-four wasn’t old enough to get gray hair in your beard. His mom was probably the reason. She had thin, greasy hair that evidently started graying when she was in high school. Bohemian ancestry. His father had great hair, thick, dark and shiny with just a little wave in it. The ridiculous cowlick Stevin fought with on the back of his head was another gift from his mother. Why the hell did he have to have so many of her genes? At least he had his dad’s good skin and no freckles.
Melting ice cream dipped onto his hand. Stevin licked at it almost without realizing and moved mechanically back to judging himself for the umpteenth time. His blue paisley button-down fit perfectly across his chest and wasn’t too short so that it buckled out of his jeans and showed off his pale love handles. He studied the effect of buttoning his shirt almost at the top and decided again that it was fine. If he buttoned the top one his neck skin would bulge and the beard hair would itch. Stevin thought he looked casual enough to just be getting some ice cream and maybe a hammer from the hardware store. Another look at his watch, a red, leather nostalgia piece with Mickey Mouse on the face. Mickey’s hands pointed directly at the nine and the twelve. Stevin began nibbling around the cone.