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Walter Kendal lay beside the tree stump; his head resting behind his arms in a heap of fall leaves. The air was crisp and cool with a freshness that beckoned the sun to come up. The tall evergreens trees stretched their arms towards the horizon. The woods were faintly dark with slivers of light just beginning to peek through. It was very still, except for the occasional rustling of foliage falling to the earth, and the soft cooing sound coming from the metal cage that held Walter’s only companion.
From the wooded area where Walter lay, he could easily watch the small middle-class neighborhood come to life. Flickering pools of light brought a warming glow to a scattering of homes. In the distance, just a crow’s caw away, he heard the sound of engines warming up to begin the day, doors slamming and voices calling out to greet neighbors. The familiar sights and sounds reminded Walter of a life he once knew.
He had been waiting patiently for the dark blue mini-van to pull out of the driveway on Wildwood Court. He walked the path he’d worn to the opening past the prickly pine trees with their scabby bark and squatted down a bit, veiled almost completely by their fury needles. The house he had his eye on belonged to Desiree Levite. Through the French double doors of her kitchen, he watched her prepare breakfast for her two small children and knew it wouldn’t be long now.
Desiree left each morning at around six thirty. He assumed this gave her plenty of time to cart her children to the sitter, hit the freeway, and begin her shift at Bailsman, Friedman, and Stiltz Law Firm. Walter knew Desiree was a file clerk and full-time student on her way to becoming a paralegal. He thought her ultimate goal was to become an attorney. He occasionally read a term paper left lying about and sometimes sifted through her mail.
Walter was thankful that the ground had not become cold and hard yet and that arthritis in his joints didn’t ache as badly as usual. He buttoned his trench coat and watched the lights of the minivan disappear from sight. Then he counted under his breath slowly from one to fifty seconds, making sure Desiree hadn’t forgotten her briefcase, diaper bag, or her oldest son’s backpack. Walter had been caught off guard more than once by the forgetful disarray of the drowsy mother. Making his way up the path, he walked briskly to the back porch of the modest three bedroom brick ranch. Then Walter raised the rock that was next to the welcome mat, retrieved the key and let himself in. Walter had felt nervous the first few times he had entered, peeking through the blinds at the sounds of each passing motorist. The unexpected clank of the brass mail slot had once left Walter frozen with fear, but after a few weeks, he had settled into a routine. He had no excuse for entering. He knew it was wrong, and eventually he would have to stop or fate would rear its ugly head and he’d be a criminal.
“Maybe I have succumbed to this sort of lifestyle after all?” He wished it were all a bad dream, but as he turned on the faucet that belonged to a stranger and raised the ribbed glass to his parched lips, he knew it was far too real.
It had happened by chance the first time, Walter stumbling upon the key. He had merely wanted some fresh drinking water. Walter was headed out of the woods, on his way to a nearby gas station to fill his empty jug in the men’s room. The Chevron had bath stalls in the back of the service station, and Walter didn’t have to enter the store to get washed up or refill his empty container. Sometimes they locked them after midnight, he assumed to keep people like himself out. While he was cutting through the neighborhood, he noticed the green garden hose. While reaching for the hose, he accidently knocked over a decorative rock with the name Levite painted in black. Its only function was to show ownership of the property Walter stood on and to hide a key. The power to enter lay within Walter’s reach. It made his heart pound. He could picture the food and imagine the sound of the thermostat clicking on and blowing warm heat. He longed for a shower and the company of television. It had been over a year since Walter had felt the comforts of a real home. He had a home three hundred miles away, just before the rich green hills of Kentucky turned into the mountains of Tennessee, a home full of memories too painful for Walter to face.
Safely inside, he slowly exhaled and made his way to the refrigerator for his morning juice. He never took enough for anyone to notice, but instead consumed just one egg, one small bowl of cornflakes, or one piece of toast. Then carefully the sixty-seven-year-old washed, dried, and returned his plate, saucer, and cup, putting everything back in its original place.
Occasionally the phone rang and startled him. Although he used to sit behind a large desk answering calls, he had now become accustomed to sleeping under overpasses, across park benches, and in wooded areas. The days of phone calls had been years ago, before his retirement, and now they were a distant memory.
After breakfast, Walter took a shower, leaving not a speck of water to be found. The soft green, slightly damp towel was folded neatly back on the rack to dry, his toothbrush was placed into the frayed pocket of his tan London Fog coat. He wanted to shave but stopped himself for fear that his gray facial hairs would be noticed. He settled for a dollop of hair gel. Walter ran his fingers through his graying hair, relishing the fact that he still had some. Although he had lost some on top, all and all he still had plenty. Leaving the bath, he walked down the hall. According to his watch, it was seven thirty a.m. He had, at least, seven hours before her return.
The small house was tidy and clean, except for an occasional toy left lying about and the many books that lay in heaps. There were educational books on common law, child psychology, and the Constitution. There were also hardbound classics, poetry, and children’s books. Shuffled amongst the collection was a New King James Bible, and from the looks of the worn leather, he figured it had been opened quite often. Walter had never experienced so many books, and at times, he found himself skimming through the volumes to pass the day. He had wondered at first if the books were for show, but now believed Desiree had read the majority of her collection.
It seemed strange to Walter that after entering her home for only a few weeks, he already felt as if he knew her. There were photographs of her children on the mantle, scented candles, and the usual displays of potted plants. The one thing that had confused Walter was a recent portrait of Desiree with a dark haired man who appeared to be her husband. He worried at first that the man in the portrait might be a traveling salesman who could abruptly show up and end Walter’s only refuge. Then he found the sympathy cards full of kind remarks about the loss of Desiree’s husband, John.
Walter didn’t know what the future held for him. He was never one to take handouts, and he knew he had to repay this young mother for what she was unknowingly giving to him. Sometimes he did small repair jobs, like fixing the younger child’s rocking chair. The leg had been broken at some point. Walter simply glued it back into place. He had also unclogged the kitchen sink when Desiree carved pumpkins for Halloween. On this cool November morning, he didn’t see anything needing his handy work. So, after resting a bit on the tweed recliner, he drifted off to sleep.