The back entrance to the Guesthouse wasn't a simple one. An odd labyrinth of little stone rooms with narrow arches instead of doors connected the garage to the kitchen doorway. Slits in the stonework let in oblique slivers of light. The labyrinth, like the house itself, had grown a bit at a time and, over the years, had housed everything from the laundry room (in the days of washboards and elbow grease) to old Pappy's pack of hunting dogs. Now it was scrubbed clean and empty except for two bags of salt at the end by the garage and a thin metal cabinet with a tiny lock and key on the wall outside of the kitchen door. The cabinet held a key on a hook for every lock on the farm and Maurice liked the symmetry of locking a box of keys, even if the key to the box was always left in the lock.
Maurice slipped quickly through the dim light of the labyrinth, alert for signs of Charlie who attended a private kindergarten in the afternoons and was always at home in the mornings. A note on this morning's job list had directed him to check in with Sallie at the Guesthouse about things to be done for the Mardi Gras party at the end of the week, and he never came to the Guesthouse without a heightened awareness of the possibilities for ambush by Joe and Sallie's only-begotten son. Mad Tom Guesthouse was only open for guests from March through November, "first bud to last leaf" as the saying went in the business, but the winter months were full of activity and February's annual Mardi Gras party followed hard on the heels of the Holiday Tea season. Still, the Guesthouse sans guests was unnaturally quiet and the quiet increased his uneasiness as he opened the kitchen door.
He was met by the busy hum of the new dishwasher he'd installed after Kirby's duct tape repair on the old one sprang a spectacular leak during the opening Christmas Tea. He smiled appreciatively at the cozy, efficient sound before noticing Sallie at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, surrounded by balled up tissues and a cold cup of tea. Her eyes were watery and her nose was the color of raw beef. She stared morosely at an open binder full of notes and lists for all of the Guesthouse events.
"I don't see how we can do it Maurice. My head feels like it's clogged with wet dryer lint and the house looks like all hell broke loose!" she moaned.
Maurice glanced around him. The mail was sorted into tidy piles on the polished counter, there was an empty coffee mug in the sink and a magazine on the chair by the woodstove. A broom and dustpan leaned next to the doorway against the wall. Sallie sniffed thickly and clenched her fingers against her temples.
"I can't do it. I can't pull it off. I can't have fifty people in costumes in my living room this weekend. I can't even blow my nose!"
This last declaration was true. Her swollen, red nose sounded as if it was stuffed with soggy socks. He considered the rest of her lament circumspectly. It was he who moved the tables, changed the flags and signs, and put up the decorations. The family ordered out for the linens and food and brought people in to clean up and serve. Circumstances appeared somewhat less dire than predicted.
A drip landed on the book in front of her. She looked up at him in surprise.
"Would this help?" He handed her the clean handkerchief from his pocket. Maurice was a resolute believer in the efficacy of a clean handkerchief.
Sallie stared at the handkerchief with knitted brow, as if it were a genus she'd never before encountered.
"Your nose?" prompted Maurice.
The silence was thick.
"My nose isn't dripping," she said with dreadful calm, "my nose is clogged. Very clogged."
Another drop splatted onto the book.
Both pairs of eyes turned upward. A damp spot the size of a large potato bloomed in the plaster on the ceiling. A tiny sparkle of water collected in its center and dropped onto the book. A second damp sparkle appeared next to the first. They watched it gather... bulge... tremble... drop...
His clear, gray eyes met her watery, red ones.
"Where's Charlie?" he asked in a neutral tone.
The question inhabited the empty air between them. Stillness gathered around it. Dread sifted through the cracks. Sallie's crimson nose glowed against the stark white of her face.
"I don't know," she whispered hoarsely.
Two drops plipped onto the book, plip-plip, one right after the other. The wet potato on the ceiling was now the size of a cantaloupe. They ran for the back stairs.
** ** **
Charlie Bertram was tall for his six years. And he was good at climbing. He appreciated these things about himself; they meant that he could reach whatever he needed without asking for help. His current project was a perfect example. He needed to aim the shower head so it hit the water in the bathtub directly, like rain, instead of splashing off the wall and running down the side. If he stood on the edge of the tub and held onto the shower curtain rod with one hand, he could just reach the shower head with his other one. He had made the water in the tub very deep so his remote-controlled shark had room to swim, and it was ready to circle ferociously around the boat with the guys as soon as he got the water right.
He adjusted the shower head to send a driving rain towards the boat, then swung off the curtain rod onto the floor. Water sloshed over the side of the tub and splashed his bare knees, but he paid it no mind. He had planned this project carefully, thinking through every possible glitch to avoid the usual trouble that plagued his best efforts. He'd even thought to wear his swim suit so it wouldn't matter if he got wet. He pictured his Mum's face, surprised and pleased at his thoughtful preparations, and allowed himself a small, smug smile before grabbing the remote control, adjusting his goggles and hopping onto the toilet seat to survey his storm.
The boat rocked violently and banged the side of the tub. All of the guys but one had been tossed to the deck and now clung frantically to the rain-soaked planking. Only the captain remained standing, clutching the wheel and facing gallantly into the storm. It was time to activate the shark...
** ** **
The younger Bertrams – Joe, Sallie and Charlie – occupied a three floor apartment in the rear of the Guesthouse. The Bertram family bathroom was situated directly above the Guesthouse kitchen and it took Maurice and Sallie mere moments to arrive at the bathroom door via the kitchen stairs. The bathroom door was tightly closed. A small double step led up to this door and water dribbled from the lip of each stair puddling on the polished hardwood floor of the hall.
Sallie, sniffing and trembling, stared at the puddle, limp arms hanging forlornly at her sides. It was Maurice who grabbed a towel from the neatly folded pile on the shelf in the hall. It was Maurice who jammed the towel against the bottom of the door. And it was he, Maurice, who opened the door and revealed the grave disaster unfolding in the tub.
In one fluid motion, he flipped the drain on the tub, turned off the tap, and tossed an armful of towels onto the sopping floor. The bathtub drained dry. The shark's plastic fins flapped rhythmically as it spun in a circle on the white enamel; the impotent whir of its motor was the only sound in the room.
Charlie stood motionless on the toilet seat.
Sallie stood motionless in the hall.
The shark whirred in circles in the tub.
"I'll get the mop," said Maurice and disappeared down the kitchen stairs.
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Mad Tom Winter: Gray ManGeneral Fiction
Maurice Diggersby, the handyman at Mad Tom Farm, likes to see that things are done right, and keeping things up and running on an estate that houses four generations of one eccentric family is no small task. When odd things go missing and mysterious...