37 - The Hand that Feeds

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By morning, the awkwardness that had settled over the house was far from dissipated, but no one acknowledged it. Liz woke, showered, dressed and headed into the garage to work on the couch restoration with hardly a word toward Nat. She didn't seem angry, exactly -- but preoccupied, distracted. 

Nat hovered, briefly, in the entry to the garage, thinking of attempts at conversation, failing miserably at all of them. Deciding at last not to try, and retreating into the kitchen. Her ancient laptop still sat on the table, a stack of papers and photographs around it, uneasy proof of how long it had been since the three of them had sat down to eat as a family. 

An unwelcome reminder, too, of the misery that had been brought into the house, inherited somehow from the the Riveras, an echo of their suffering. 

She picked up a stray photograph from the table, looking down into the smiling face of Anthony Rivera -- oblivious, maybe, of the horrors he would commit some time later. Or was he? Had he known all along about the darkness that was lurking in his heart? The thought sent a shiver down her spine, the hair raising all along her forearms. 

Out in the hall, Liam emerged from his room; Nat heard the shuffle of socked feet but could not take her eyes from the photograph in her hand. 

She laid it back onto the pile, then reflexively pulled other papers to cover it, as though hiding it from view could hide the memory from her mind. Soon she was stacking papers and piling them back into the box they had come from, now sitting empty by the table where she had first pulled them out to examine -- how many weeks ago? It felt like an eternity.

She took down the laptop, coiling up the cord, and carried both to the hall closet, tucking them away. After a moment, she brought the box of photographs and paperwork and put them there as well. She turned back to the kitchen and waited to feel at peace.

The peace did not come.

She opened the refrigerator and was caught immediately by a foul stench. But she had already thrown out the milk -- what else had gone bad? It hadn't been that long since they'd last bought groceries, had it?

She started digging through the fridge, pulling out items and stacking them one atop another on the counter, a precarious tower of rotting food: deli meat that had gone slimy and foul; plastic containers filled with food impossible to identify under the green-black slime of mold.

Everything in the fridge seemed to have gone rotten.

Stifling back a gag with the back of her hand, she dragged the trash can closer and began dumping things in, one at a time, feeling the bile rise at the back of her throat as the nausea trembled up from her belly.

In the parlor, Liam was talking. Reading aloud, maybe; he liked to practice his letters lately, since he'd grown impatient with how hard it could be to get others to read to him as often as he liked.

But she barely registered the words; they were distant, not a part of her immediate focus. From the garage, Liz's music played, too quiet and distorted to make out. Together, it made for a strange soundtrack, a beat kept in tempo by the persistent rustle and thud of items being dropped into the trash.

The refrigerator lay mostly bare. She grabbed a dish rag and dampened it in the sink to start scrubbing at the interior of the shelves, trying to wash out the awful stench.

How had it gotten this bad? She could have sworn even last night that nothing in there had been rotten, much less this particularly advanced state of decay.

In the parlor, Liam laughed.

And then he screamed.

Nat froze in place, one hand clutching the drawstring of the trash bag, trying to make sense of what she'd heard. Was that a delighted screech? Was he joking around?

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