Loose mortar dissolved into powder when Jess scratched her thumbnail along the seam between the foundation’s bricks. A chalky film coated her tongue and the musk of floorboards reminded her of the box-filled house overhead. The hint of space, however, teased through the basement’s wall.
Jess rolled her eyes and mimicked the parental tone. “I’m being careful, Harold.”
He cleared his throat like a dad might have, a real dad. “How many times do I have to ask you about the name?”
She snatched the screwdriver he offered, the flat head thick and catching the light of the basement’s bare bulb. Scooting into place, she knelt and carved along the right hand seam of the space the house’s faded blue prints implied hid on the other side.
Her silence wore Harold down, and he began grinding through the remaining mortar. Specks floated onto the architectural drawings lying between them, and a gray frost clung to the dark hairs on Harold’s hands and arms.
Jess sneezed, wiped her nose on her flannel sleeve, and doubled her effort. “What do you think it is?”
“Probably a sealed up storage closet,” Harold shrugged, “an old room.” He grunted and bent lower to work by the granite floor. “Could have bugs. Rats maybe.”
“At least then I’d have a pet.”
“If you consider a rat a pet.”
“They’re small and furry, aren’t they? I could name her after Mom.”
Harold stopped digging.
Jess didn’t, but she leaned closer to the brick as she worked, the surface cooling the flush on her cheeks.
“I’m sorry about her, you know.”
Harold’s apology filled the basement, joining the rest he’d voiced upstairs when they’d arrived, the ones during their packing escapade before the move, along the coastal interstate taking them from her death and into what was supposed to be a new life, a fresh start. His apologies, though, had never asked for her forgiveness. He felt sorry, she knew, but sorry for himself, sorry for his loss, sorry for the mess her mother had left in his hands.
Jess scrubbed her face with her sleeve, smearing dust with unshed tears. Resetting herself before the seam, she thrust in the screwdriver, jabbing deep but never reaching the pain.
Instead, a pop sounded, like an opened soda can, and Jess flinched in anticipation of the spray. Murmuring followed from the other side, and as she watched the brick, someone seemed to say “Hello?” before a trio of rapid knocks.
“Harold?” She gulped down her voice’s startled warble. “Did you hear that?”
“Get behind me.”
“You think I’m afraid?” Collecting herself, Jess bonked the screwdriver’s handle against the wall, mimicking the knock’s rhythm.
“Rats don’t knock.”
Another pop sounded. Dust rained from the floorboards and the support beams groaned.
Harold scooped up the drawings and grabbed her elbow. “We need to get out of here, it’s not stable.”
Jess pulled free and stabbed the flat head into the remaining bit of intact mortar. “You bought the place.”
“Please, Jess, listen to me.”
“All I’m hearing is somebody on the other side of this wall.” She glared at him and he look away, avoiding the bit of her mother she’d seen trapped in her own eyes. Giving Harold’s hunched figure her back, Jess kept digging. “I’m not letting them stay stuck where they don’t want to be.”
“A little more.” Brick muffled the voice, but the words, and a deeper voice saying, “Try again,” rang clear.
The wall bulged from a shove and Jess froze. When the rectangle outlined by scratched-away mortar trembled again, she barely felt Harold dragging her backwards. They’d cleared the wall before the bricks tumbled, the ruddy squares covering the sneaker prints left in the carpet of dust and exposing a plywood panel, one swinging into the grainy haze.
“Well?” asked the deeper voice, “Who is it, boy?”
A teenager with an elongated face and two squinting eyes crouched in the opening. He waved away the dusty clouds and peered through the gap carved into the basement wall. Thick curls softened jutting cheekbones, warmed the gaunt hue of his skin, and met the dull grey collar of a button down shirt and the straps of suspenders holding up baggy slacks.
Jess offered a half-smile when his gaze landed upon her. “Is it over?”
Slipping free from Harold, Jess crawled forward and knelt beside the plywood panel. Musky air tinged with body odor, the scent of kerosene lanterns, and overused perfume coiled around the newcomer’s gangly frame, and Jess crinkled her nose. “Is what over?”
The teenager frowned. “The War.”
Walter glanced behind him to where the deep-voiced man spoke and shrugged. After another quizzical glance her way, he withdrew.
A withered fellow, bald, bespectacled, and clutching a fedora as wrinkled as his pinstripe suit, took his place.
“Ah.” When his attention flicked past her and found Harold, the man shoved the fedora onto his head and bowed as much as he could while hunched. “Sir. Perhaps you could tell us how things are?”
Harold shuffled near, brow furrowed, neck bent to avoid the floorboards. “Perhaps we should start with introductions?”
“Quite right, quite right.” The man wiped his hand on slacks, then offered it through the door. “Elias Sherver.”
Harold shook the boney fingers. “Harold Jacobsen.” He thumbed Jess’ way. “This is my daughter—”
Jess stiffened. “Step-daughter.”
“My step-daughter, Jessica.”
“Miss.” Elias tipped his hat.
“Father?” Walter squeezed beside Elias, a broken chair leg now in his hand.
“Put that down boy. Can’t you see they don’t mean us any harm?”
“Neither did the first wave.”
“The first wave of what?” Jess raised her eyebrows when they both looked her way.
“Oh my.” Elias clucked his tongue, and rubbed at his forehead as he spoke to his son. “What do you see, boy?”
When Walter’s gaze drifted over her, Jess tugged at the hem of her flannel and smoothed over knees bulging through the frayed holes in her jeans. She worked at the grime beneath her fingernails as Walter moved on to Harold and returned to his father.
“They’re not in uniform.” Walter lowered his chair leg. “They’re not with the invasion.”
“Brilliant deduction.” Elias focused on Harold. “Are you with the Resistance?”
“We’re not with anyone,” said Harold. “We own this house.”
“Nonsense, I own this house.”
“Sherver.” Jess caught her balance on the door panel. “I saw that name on the trunk,” she glanced at Harold, “the one with the blue prints.”
“I was wondering how you found our entrance.” Elias adjusted his glasses. “Those would have been made by my father who built the place neigh on seventy years ago.”
“But—” Jess bit her tongue when Harold touched her arm.
“Which would make you where, Mr. Sherver?”
He bristled. “At Number 7 Maple Drive of course.”
Despite the matching address, Harold maintained his professorial tone. “And what year?”
Elias looked between them. “1914.”
Jess started to laugh, and then smothered her mouth. She met Harold’s gaze and he held hers for a heartbeat, the pleading look familiar. Deciding he made sense, for once, she nodded and kept quiet.
With a long, weary sigh, Harold returned to Elias. “Are there others in there with you?”
“My wife. Sister. Her family. Six in total.”
“Seven,” said Walter.
“Quite right,” Elias tapped his temple, “I forgot about the littlest niece. Born right here a month after the warning sirens had us taking cover.”
Jess scraped a nail along the panel, the tick helping her keep questions about whatever war they were talking about, the wave of bad guys, and the sirens, buttoned.
Harold, who no doubt had read about each in the endless boxes of tomes he’d been unloading, raked a hand through his dust-flecked hair. “How about you have them stay inside while we show you around?”
“Why?” Elias’ features hardened. “Did we lose?”
“I just think you might be the best one to explain what you’ll see.”
“You’re the one on the outside, so if you think that’d be best.” Elias put a hand on Walter’s shoulder. “Stay—”
“Father.” Walter planted the chair leg. “We don’t know what’s out there.”
Elias held his son’s unwavering gaze, but then brushed the brim of his hat in a conceding sort of way. Twisting around, he shouted behind them. “We’ll be right back, ladies. Going to have a look about first.”
“Watch yourself, Elias,” called a sharp-toned woman.
“I will.” Even so, Elias bumped his head on the jamb when shuffling through the doorway. He fumbled with his knocked off hat, a blush warming his cheeks as he rubbed the bump. “The wife knows me too well.”
“So I see.” Harold motioned as he dropped back, and taking the hint, Jess shifted aside.
Elias straightened as much as the basement’s low ceiling allowed, and Jess held her breath as Walter joined him. They developed matching gapes during their perusal of the hot water tank, the storm windows with their silver insulation, the old washer and dryer bound for the dump, and the clutter of debris including a stack of shriveled leather suitcases, crates with faded marks, and the trunk she’d pried open in the hopes of finding something more interesting than the suburban neighborhood outside.
“Why don’t you come this way?” Harold started for the stairs, scuttling sideways like a crab until the floor sloped and he could stand straight.
Jess caught his eye more than once as his attention leapt between her, the first tread, and the two shuffling dumbly in his wake. She came up behind Walter and grabbed hold of both banisters, creating a spindly blockade while Harold guided them from the basement’s gloom.
They emerged into the kitchen, the white and blue-checkered floor dulled by footsteps and time. Although they looked ancient, Jess guessed by their staggers and wordless mumbles, the refrigerator and stove were not ones Elias and Walter thought they’d see.
A passing car made the window panes rattle and turned them both to the front door.
The noise of others on the road drew Walter, the chair leg now held in a limp hand. He followed the rumbled to the screen door, open to allow in the late summer breeze. Managing the handle, he exited with Elias trundling at his heels.
They stood side by side at the porch rail, the son a head taller than the father, but in similar stupors overlooking the browning maples lining the road, and the smattering of houses all with the same stoop, the same wraparound porches, the same mailbox at the curb. Brick walkways led to slanted gables, each interrupted by the poke of a chimney. A few had a car in the driveway nestled next to an SUV. Some had children’s bikes abandoned on their sides after a last ride before the start of school, others a garden gnome or two waiting to hide behind spring flowers. Others had for-sale signs, the less fortunate, boarded windows and foreclosure notices taped to front doors half hidden by overgrown lawns.
A hybrid and VW Bug passed each other in the street and Elias grabbed hold of the rail. “What is this?”
“A better question would be when.” Dust rose off Elias’ fastened suit coat when Harold set a hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. He offered him a beer, the top already open. “Welcome home.”
Elias took the bottle but didn’t bring it to his lips. He set it on the rail instead and watched a police car roll by. “I don’t understand.”
Harold belted a long sip of his and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’m not sure I do either.”
Walter hung his head, his shoulders hunched as if he still crouched in the basement. “What are we going to do, father?”
“I don’t know, boy.”
“We’ll figure this out,“ leaning against the rail, Harold eyed the front door, “but you might want to think about how to tell your wife, your family first. After that, we can work on what happened and sort out how you want to start over.”
“I wouldn’t know what to say. How we would even begin.” Elias skimmed the neighborhood again, confusion glittering behind his lenses. “This is…”
Jess waded into the uncertainty, the quiet, and came to the rail. “It’s new, Mr. Sherver, that’s all.”
Walter glanced down at her, blue eyes large and unsure. She countered with a wobbly smile, then leaned forward enough catch Elias staring at her blankly beneath his hat’s brim, and then Harold who stiffened under her glance before sending his eyes to the floor.
“But don’t worry.” Jess soaked in the neighborhood. In the hush of the afternoon wind, she heard her mother’s voice speaking out through time, through distance, through death, and let her last words whisper off her tongue. “Starting over isn’t so bad.”