The animal in the basement was whimpering again.
My next-door neighbor kept some sort of animal, I thought perhaps a dog, in her basement. For the last month I would be awakened at odd hours by a whimpering sound coming from there. I hadn't actually seen the dog, but then I worked during the day. I really intended to talk to her about the noise, but I'd never introduced myself and this didn't seem to be the right way to do it.
Then my company got bought out by a foreign outfit, and we all found ourselves on a three-week unexpected paid vacation while they "reviewed options for local personnel". I wasn't too worried, since good database administrators with web experience are hard to come by. Still, I now found myself at loose ends at 8 in the morning instead of hitting the road with the rest of the work crowd.
I decided this made for a good opportunity, and so a little after 9:30 I found myself, neatly dressed in slacks and shirt, ringing the doorbell of my neighbor's house. After a few minutes, as I was about to give up, the door opened and a rather attractive-looking matron dressed in a nondescript front-button housecoat, her hair done up in a neat bun, looked at me inquiringly. "Yes?" she asked.
I introduced myself, and her attitude became noticeably warmer. "Oh yes, of course. Well, I'm Helen; won't you come in? I was just fixing tea, if you'll have some." I followed her in and took a look around the house. Nice, neatly decorated, nothing particularly striking about it. We wandered toward the back of the house and into the kitchen, where a tea kettle was whistling. She continued, "Aren't you generally at work during the day? I've been here some time and your house is always so quiet." I explained about my work situation, and since she had now mentioned the subject of quiet, I had my opportunity. I asked her about the pet in the basement.
There was an odd, strained silence, and an indecipherable look came across her face. "Pet? I don't have any pets."
I explained about the sounds I had heard during the night, and she shook her head. "The night air carries sounds a good distance; I'm sorry about your being awoken, but I really don't know what you were hearing." I think she could tell I wasn't completely convinced, but I thanked her all the same for straightening me out.
We continued our tea and chatted about the neighborhood, city politics, how we came to be here. Somewhere between the second and third pot I learned that her husband had died some years back, so she had moved here to get away from the old memories. I sympathized as best as I could, having never gotten past the serious dating stage myself. That got my mind sidetracked, and I took a second look at her face, realizing that her eyes really were quite striking.
" ... woolgathering?" I shook myself, realizing that I hadn't been paying attention to what she was saying. "I'm sorry," I replied, "something you said just sent my mind on a tangent." She smiled accepting my apology, and repeated herself. "I was remarking that it's really quite important to know one's neighbors, even in the best of neighborhoods. Sometimes you need a hand around the house, and you never know just who the person next door will turn out to be." I nodded at that; then put my hands up against my temples to steady my head.
"Is something wrong?" she asked with some concern.
I mumbled something about the tea being too strong, I thought. She offered to let me lie down on her couch if I needed, but I declined. "It's okay, I've taken up so much of your morning already. I'll just be toddling on back..." I tried standing up, and my headache got seriously worse. I stumbled, and she took my arm in a surprisingly strong grip. "No, no I must insist," she said overriding my objections. "You're in no condition right now." I followed her meekly to the drawing room, and she helped me lie back on the couch. "I'll just leave the lights off, now, and you can come find me when you're feeling better."
I thanked her weakly, and let my eyes close. The room was pleasantly cool, and I heard her footsteps clicking faintly away...
I opened my eyes once, thinking I was hearing voices, but the room was blurry and it felt so much better just to lie back on the couch ... Eventually I felt a hand on my cheek, and opened my eyes to see her face inspecting me, those large brown eyes focused on mine. "Are you feeling better now?" I sat up tentatively, and my head stayed fastened to my shoulders. "I think so." I stood up, and everything seemed to be more or less normal. "Thank you," I said with some embarrassment, "I don't know quite what came over me. I must be coming down with something." She shrugged her shoulders, and suggested that I might also have been sensitive to something in the herbal tea.
She led me to the front door, and shook my hand warmly as I took my leave. "Do drop in again," she added with a smile, "it's so nice to know someone who's home during the day." I thanked her again, and headed back to my own house, where I noticed with some surprise I'd spent the entire morning over there. I took two aspirin and took a long nap, waking late in the afternoon and feeling much better.
I went out to dinner that evening and caught a movie, and got a good night's sleep, undisturbed by any sounds from my neighbor's basement, or wherever they had been coming from.
I spent the next day in the back yard, fixing the gutters and cleaning out some accumulated debris. At one point I thought I was being watched, but I looked around and decided I just wasn't dealing well with not being at work. I did more shopping than usual, seeing no reason to blow my budget on eating out when I was just going to be home most of the day. I fixed a few casseroles and fried up some chicken breasts so I'd have something convenient whenever I got hungry, then celebrated by going out to dinner. Hey, I never claimed to be consistent.
About three in the morning I woke up, alert. The sounds were there again; vague, animal noises. I went to my window and opened it, listening. It still sounded like it was coming from her basement.
Coming to a decision, I got dressed in dark clothes and quietly went out my back door. Outside of the usual traffic noises, nothing was audible. I went around the side of my house to the front edge of the mutual fence, looked around to verify that nobody was around, and crept around the side of her house to the spot near her back patio where I could see the top of a window sunk into the ground. On closer inspection, I could tell it had been painted from the inside, but age had cracked the paint and there were faint traces of light coming through.
About that time I heard the sound again. It was definitely a whimpering, like a dog trying to get through a closed door. Up close, I could now hear something like a voice, although no words were distinguishable. Then there was silence again, and after a few minutes I decided discretion was calling for me to get back home. I turned at the edge of the fence, and looked at her house, but there was no sign of activity other than the faintest bit of illumination limning the basement window.
I lay awake, listening, for fifteen more minutes, but nothing else disturbed the night and I finally fell back to sleep.
The next morning I got a phone call from Helen. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm having a problem with my cable, and I don't want to call out the service unless I have to, they take so long. Would you by any chance know anything about it?" I told her that I wasn't a cable TV specialist, but that I'd done my time tracing connection problems with computers and that I'd be glad to give it a look-see.
When her door opened and I saw Helen again, I took a step back in surprise. The drab housecoat in which she had first greeted me was gone; instead she was dressed in a well-cut silk blouse and a nicely contrasting suede skirt, one which demonstrated that she had legs to be proud of. She was still wearing her hair in that teacher-style bun, though. I pulled myself back together and took her proffered hand, entering the house as she held the door open. She led me to the back bedroom where the troublesome television set was located, and stayed as I got down and rummaged around the back looking at the connections. Eventually I was able to find a spot where part of the cable had been frayed and had shorted to the ground sheath. Maybe five minutes later, I was standing up wiping some sweat off my forehead and telling her "Okay, if that works you won't have to call the cable guys."
She turned the television on, bringing forth a loud blast of static and fuzz, then she hit the channel button and we got a legitimate picture from CNN, followed in quick order by a country music video, an old Sixties cartoon (and I won't embarrass myself by admitting which one), a dimly lit dungeon scene with a scantily-dressed woman in shackles against the wall, a soap opera in Spanish, and the weather channel.
"Seems to be working," she said finally with a pleased tone. "Thank you so much, I really hate to impose like this, let me do something for you. How about a home-cooked dinner?"
I tried to demur, but we went into the kitchen and had some juice drinks together, her suede skirt moving enticingly as she leaned over the sink, and before I knew it I was agreeing to come by her house at eight.
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, other than an increasing sense of unease on my part. I couldn't decide whether I was reading signals from Helen, or just reacting to not having been on a date in over three months. I could just imagine myself saying something inappropriate and finding myself out on my ear. After lunch I suddenly decided that I needed to get a haircut, and after that I went through my closet to find a slacks and shirt combination that was halfway dressy but not showy, and took a much longer shower than usual.