Well, Harold was completely fucking crazy. Maude might have been OK. But Maude was a nurse who worked an early shift, so she was rarely awake when John and Steve came back in the evening. She could have been just as bat-shit weird as Harold and they’d never know it. John and Steve had pulled in at about four in the afternoon on Sunday, just three days ago. The day was bright and crisp and brittle with cold. Maude had been in the front by the garage splitting wood as John pulled into the driveway. Harold had been helping her. It had made Steve chuckle, little Maude swinging the six pound maul and giant Harold carefully placing the rounds of wood. As each piece was split, Harold would grab a new round of wood and place it on the stump. Then Harold would pick up the pieces and stack them. He’d grab a new round, Maude would swing… whack. Harold placed the new round, and the process would repeat itself. John and Steve pulled up in front of the Garage and climbed out. Thwack! Harold put a new round on the stump and looked up at them. “Hiya! You must be John. Welcome to Vermont!” He picked up the split pieces of wood and stacked them. Thwack! Harold grabbed a new round and put it on the stump. Maude brought the maul down and split the round easily. She looked up as the boys came closer. Maude stood the maul up against the stump and arched her back. Harold was bent down picking up the split pieces of wood and Maude could barely see over his back; she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. As Harold stacked the wood, Maude took off a glove and held out her hand.
“Maude Crick, nice to see you!”
“Hi! I’m John Walters and this is Stephen Burger.” John shook Maude’s hand while Steve waved at everyone.
Maude’s grip was firm and her smile was wide, “This big lump here is Harold.” Harold was standing still with a vacant expression on his face. “Don’t mind Harold, he’s just catching his wind,” Maude said as she whacked Harold on the shoulder.
Harold seemed to jump a little as he was jolted back into life. Harold took John’s outstretched arm into his gloved hands and pumped vigorously. He did the same with Steve. “Good to meet you! Steve was it? Well! Mind our manners! Let’s get you boys something hot to drink!” With that, Harold ambled away and back into the house. John watched Harold go and then realized that Maude had been watching him stare at Harold.
“Don’t worry about him, boys. He’s just got a bad back, can’t swing the maul like he once could. I don’t mind it… keeps me warm. But Harold’s right, let’s get you boys in out of this cold! Got any bags?”
At first, the kitchen seemed bright and cheery. The counters were white and the cabinets were all pale blond oak. The appliances weren’t new, but they were well cared for and the walls were covered in a bright wallpaper bursting with little pink flowers. There was a little sign over the sink that said “Bless this home” and another one on the wall with a little blackboard underneath that read “Maude’s Kitchen.” Harold had put a kettle on the stove and was rummaging through a cabinet.
Maude was unwinding her scarf and smiling at the two boys. “That’s all the bags you have? Two little backpacks?”
Steve unslung his bag and said, “Yeah, the car is loaded up with gear, but this is all we really need.”
Maude nodded. “Ayuh. I guess it is. Well, let me show you your rooms! Harold, you get these boys something hot and sweet to drink.”
Harold nodded, “I’m gettin it mother, I’m gettin it.”
Maude led the boys upstairs, showing them two neat, spare little rooms under the eaves. The rooms were clean and smelled of cedar and fresh laundry. The paint was crisp and the hardwood floor well polished. The rooms were nice, but antiseptic. The bedding was conventional New England patterned quilt and the closets were completely bare. There were no dressers or tables, and no photographs at all. The walls were sparsely decorated with the kind of small watercolor prints that you buy at Walmart and see hanging in your dentist’s lobby. One room down in pastel blues and whites and the other in muted pinks and soft reds. The pink room had a large stuffed bear sitting in a rocking chair in the corner, the price tag still hanging from its ear.
John and Steve dropped their bags in their respective rooms and Maude ushered them back downstairs to the kitchen. Harold was setting the table with steaming mugs on little matching saucers. The china pattern was pink floral–almost exactly the same color pink as Harold’s scalp. As Harold set the last two pieces of the pretty pink coffee set down, a creamer and a little sugar bowl, Steve and John took their seats at the table.
“Drink it while it’s hot, boys! And would you pass the cream and sugar down this way, mother?” Harold settled into a chair at the end of the table.
Maude didn’t sit, but instead bustled into the kitchen. “Get it yourself you oaf, you forgot to set out some cookies!”
As Harold replied, he lifted himself partially out of his chair and stretched across the table to grab the creamer set. “You’re right, mother. You’re right, I plum forgot.” He added a good amount of cream to his cup. “Now, I know you boys must be right cold from the drive, so drink up. Maude will have some cookies out here too.”
Steve was sitting opposite John, holding his cup halfway to his mouth and staring into it. He looked up at John with an odd expression on his face just as John picked up his cup and took a small sip.
John coughed and sputtered, nearly choking on the hot grape soda.
Maude was behind him. “Oh, you OK there honey?”
John nodded, coughing and finally managed a strangled “I’m fine.” As Maude sat down at the end of the table with a bag of Oreo cookies in her hand. “Just went down the wrong pipe,” John said.
“Oh honey, you OK? Good. You know, I’m a nurse if you need anything.”
John shook his head.
“Try some cream in it,” Harold said. “Makes it just like a hot grape creamsicle.”
Steve was smiling, his cup back down on the table. “Just like, I’m sure.” he said.
After Maude had finished her hot grape soda, she’d gone upstairs to bed. She’d said she worked early in the morning and needed her sleep. They hadn’t seen her since. In that time, they hadn’t actually seen Harold eat anything but Oreos and grape soda. And now the Cheez Whiz. They hadn’t seen Harold wear anything else either, he’d been up before them each morning, waiting in the kitchen for them to come downstairs, just as he had been waiting in the kitchen for them each night. There was other food, of course. Each morning there were stacks of pancakes with sausages and eggs, and each night there was a hearty, wholesome dinner: roast turkey, pork chops, chicken. But Harold hadn’t actually eaten any of it. They ate early, he said, and Maude was already in bed. The first two nights, John and Steve had eaten at the table, with Harold making attempts at conversation.
Conversation with Harold was difficult because every few seconds, he’d go blank. Sometimes he’d go blank in mid sentence and everyone would sit and wait until he’d swing his hand over the back of his head and down over his face. Steve called it a reboot. The blank-outs were usually short, but every so often they’d last a little longer. The first night, John and Steve had been too dumbstruck to react and had sat at the table staring mutely at Harold for a full five minutes.
Tonight was the worst. Harold had touched him. The memory of those fingers on his neck made John shiver in his sheets. He didn’t know how much more he could take. They’d joked about it at the restaurant, saying that they were afraid to go down into the basement for fear they’d find a body. Or bodies. It was absurd, but John couldn’t shake his fear. Harold had well and truly freaked him out tonight.
It wasn’t just the grape soda, or the cheez whiz and Oreos, although that was pretty bad. It was the blank-outs, the hyper cleanliness of the house, and as Steve had pointed out, the complete absence of any photographs anywhere. There were little plaques with homespun sayings, “God Bless this House,” and some bad watercolors on a few of the walls, but otherwise there were no photographs of any kind. No pictures of kids, no family photos, no frames on the end-tables or bookshelves. John thought the house looked more like a set than a home: everything was there but it was too sterile, too… plastic to feel much like a home.