Nora and Claire both screamed when the widow’s body stopped tumbling, looking first to the corpse and then back to one another. Nora was already crying loudly as she raced down the cellar steps. At the bottom, she turned her head to avoid seeing the lifeless face and ran to where Claire was crouched by the secret cache in the floor. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” she kept repeating with her hand over her mouth.
Claire stood and grabbed Nora’s hands, “what did you do?” she asked with a mixture of astonishment and horror. Everything was happening too fast and she was close to breaking down. At first, she had feared the worst when Mrs. Pellman caught her crouched over the open hiding spot; now though, their problems were unimaginably greater.
Nora quickly settled down enough to speak, and she said, “I don’t know—I panicked. I saw you sitting down here with all of that money in front of you, and then her standing in the doorway…” She trailed off and shook her head as though trying to erase the memory from her mind.
Looking over at Mrs. Pellman’s body, she asked, “we can still fix this though, right? No one knows we were here. Besides, how long will it be before anyone comes looking for her?”
Claire’s mind was still reeling from seeing Nora push the woman down the steps and she didn’t hear her question. “What?” she asked, rubbing her eyes. The color had drained even further from her normally porcelain skin, and dark circles had formed under her eyes.
“I said,” Nora repeated, “we can fix this,” and she gestured with her head towards the body. The more she thought about it, the more confident she became that they could still get out of there without anyone finding out. She hadn’t wanted to come today in the first place, but she was the one who killed Mrs. Pellman, and so there was nothing to do now but try and get them out of the mess she helped make.
Claire’s eyes widened in disbelief and she cried, “how, Nora? Look at her—she’s dead!” She let go of Nora’s hands and sank back down to the cool dirt floor.
Nora knelt down and looked at Claire. “Listen,” she said calmly, “the widow has no family; no one’s going to come here looking for her,” she brushed a strand of red hair from Claire’s eye and said, “besides, I have an idea.” She looked over into the large hole with the stacks of money inside. “We can just take the money out and then put her in here,” she said, looking back over to Claire.
Actually, that might work, thought Claire, feeling a glimmer of optimism. “Yeah…” she said, slowly coming out of her shock, “that might actually work. If you didn’t know to look down here, you’d never find it.” She got up and walked over to a stack of boxes on a nearby workbench. Picking one of the boxes up, she dumped the contents onto the bench and a returned to Nora. “Let’s put the money in here,” she said.
“Perfect,” said Nora, quickly taking the box. Both girls knelt around the hole in the dirt floor and began pulling the stacks of money out and putting them into the box. The bundles were comprised of different denominations of bills haphazardly bound together with an assortment of rubber bands. While some of the stacks looked to have newer bills, most were older and the bright green paper had turned a matte olive color over time.
More than one box was needed to carry all of the bundles and Claire returned to the stack on the bench for another. Neither girl glanced towards the body as they worked, focusing instead on the vast sum of money in front of them. “How much do you think is here?” asked Nora as she tossed the last bundle into the second box.
“I couldn’t even guess,” replied Claire, flipping through a bundle of bills. “These aren’t even the same bills in each bundle. There’s twenties, tens, fives—it’s going to take us years to count it all,” she said with a smile, and then added, “let’s get it up to the car and get out of here.”
Nora looked over to Mrs. Pellman’s body and said, “we should probably take care of her first.” She suddenly realized that they would have to touch the old woman’s body, and she had to fight the bile back down into her stomach.
Claire followed her gaze and nodded. “Yeah, okay—let’s just get it over with,” she said stoically and stood. Both girls walked over to the body and stopped, looking down at it. “How do you want to do it?” asked Claire.
“I don’t know,” said Nora with a shrug, “I guess we could each just grab an arm and drag her.” The cache was only a couple dozen feet away, but it wasn’t the distance that caused the girls to hesitate—neither wanted to be the first to touch the dead woman.
Finally, Nora inhaled once deeply for courage, and quickly bent down and grabbed the widow’s left arm and lifted it. The frail body didn’t weigh much, and it jerked upward as though it were a puppet on a string. Nora looked over to Claire as if to say: well?
A few minutes later, Claire lowered the top to the secret floor compartment. There was more than enough space inside for the widow’s corpse, and the dirt-colored lid settled smoothly back into place. When it clicked closed, it became nearly invisible on the floor. To be safe, both girls scrapped their feet over the cracks to blend them with the dirt before standing back to admire their work.
“Not a word of this for as long as we both live—right?” asked Nora. Claire just looked at her and nodded before grabbing one of the boxes. Unlike the widow, the boxes were heavy and she strained to lift it. Wobbling, she made her way shakily up the steps. When she got to the upper landing, she had to set the box down to rest.
Nora had carried the other box to the foot of the steps and she did the same, dropping her burden with a thud. Panting, Claire called down, “Jesus—we should pull the car closer.”
“I like the way you think,” said Nora from the bottom of the stairs. She quickly climbed the steps—taking two at a time—as she fished around in her pocket for her keys. At the top, she stepped around the other box and said, “but let’s go carefully, I want to make sure no one showed up while we were down here.”
Claire nodded and slowly opened the door to the hallway. Both girls creeped back down the hall, through the sitting room, and to the front door. When they reached the door, Nora grabbed the brass handle and twisted, but it didn’t turn.
“Turn it harder,” Claire told her, sounding urgent.
“I am turning it harder—there is no harder; it won’t budge,” snapped Nora. Claire reached around and tried twisting the handle but it wouldn’t move for her either. “Satisfied?” asked Nora when Claire gave up, “it’s stuck somehow.”
“Screw it,” said Claire, turning away, “we’ll find another way out.”
The girls retraced their steps through the sitting room hoping to find a back door out of the house. Beyond the basement door they had come from, the hallway was a dark tunnel ending in a soft white glow. Nora lead the way down the hall towards the light at the end with Claire walking behind her, hand on her shoulder.
The light turned out to be a mud room with a door on the right wall leading into the kitchen as well as a door on the rear wall. Like the front door, this one also had a window. Beyond, lofty pecan trees dotted the yard, their tall, sinewy limbs rocking gently in the spring breeze.
Nora grabbed the knob and turned, hoping it was unlocked. It wasn’t however, and—also like the front door—she couldn’t see any lock mechanism on the handle. There was a deadbolt above it on the door, but it was already unlatched. She put both hands on the handle and turned as hard as she could—arching up on her toes as she groaned under the effort.
Neither the door nor the handle budged. Once again, Claire shouldered Nora out of the way and grabbed the knob. She strained as she turned as hard as she could, her red hair falling down over her eyes in sweaty clumps.
“It’s no use,” said Nora, “it’s not moving.” She looked around the mud room and spotted a cast iron door-stop in the likeness of a little black yorkie. Picking it up, she walked back to the door.
Claire grabbed her arm, “whoa—what are you doing?” she asked with an incredulous look.
“I’m tired of screwing around,” said Nora, “we need to get out of here—we’ve been here too long as it is.” She tried to pull her arm free but Claire tightened her grip.
“A broken window is going to draw more attention,” said Claire, “there has to be another way out.” She grabbed the iron yorkie from Claire and tossed it down, clanging as it hit the floor. “Come on,” she said, and pulled Nora’s hand after her.
The girls made their way back to the front of the house to the sitting room. Claire quickly pulled the sofa away from the window and it scrapped the wood floor loudly in the crypt-like house. Throwing the lace curtains back, she tried to lift the window. It didn’t move, and she reached up to unlatch the locks but saw that they were already open.
Both girls groaned loudly in exasperation. Nora pulled her shirt away from her chest and asked, “why is it getting so damn hot in here?”
Claire turned away from the window with sweat beading on her face. “I don’t know,” she said, “is the freaking heat on or something?” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked around. “Let’s keep trying,” she said, and walked off.
The girls went from room to room, but each window was the same: frozen in place as if they were locked, even though the latches were wide open. By the second room their clothes were soaked through with sweat. Nora’s black hair lay flatly against her head in wet clumps.
“What the hell!” screamed Claire in frustration. She looked to Nora as if to say: okay, you win—break the damn glass. Nodding in agreement, Nora walked off towards the hallway. When she returned to the mud room, she picked the door stop up again and swung it quickly at the window.
Nora recoiled—expecting the glass to shatter—but the iron dog just bounced off the window and back at her. Stunned, she steadied herself and swung again, only harder this time. Again, the dog bounced back as though it struck a tree trunk and not than a pane of glass.
The sweaty girls looked at each other with rising panic. Claire took the door-stop and swung her arm in a wide arch at the window. There was a loud clang as the dog glanced off and the momentum spun her in a wobbly circle.
The effort, combined with the oppressive heat, soon exhausted both girls, and they crouched on the floor. It was getting increasingly difficult to breath, and their panting came out in dry and ragged puffs. Nora climbed to her feet before grabbing Claire’s hand and pulling, “come on,” she said, “we have to get out of here.”
Both girls staggered back down the hall to the front parlor, leaning against the wall for support as they went. When they finally made it to the sitting room again, Claire sat down on the floor, groaning softly as sweat poured from her face.
Crestfallen, Nora sank to the floor and leaned against the wall under the window. Looking over to Claire, she said, “if we don’t get up right now—we never will. The cellar is our only hope,” she gasped, pausing to catch her breath, “it has to be cooler down there.”
Claire didn’t reply, she only nodded weakly as globs of sweat splashed off her face and onto the floor. Both girls struggled to their feet and shuffled to the hallway. When they were only a few feet from the cellar door, Nora stumbled and collapsed onto the hard floor.
Claire had to lean Nora against the wall as she open the door. When it swung open, she hefted Nora back up from behind, and guided her onto the dark landing. Her strength was fading fast—too fast—and she was starting to wonder how she would manage to get them both down the steps when her and Nora’s feet hit the box of money at the top of the steps.
Both girls were too weak to even scream as they tumbled face first down the steps. A chorus of thuds—punctuated by the dry sound of cracking bones—echoed throughout the house. When the girls came to rest at the bottom, Claire lay on her back. Her wide-eyes gazed into the darkness of the cellar as Nora rested on her arm, her neck bent at an impossible angle and her black hair covering her face.
The breeze slipped through the open downstairs window and gently pushed the lace curtain. “Honey,” the man called from the other room, “did you see this crown molding in here?”
“I did sweety,” his wife called from the parlor. She was seated on the sofa discussing loan options with the real estate agent.
The agent, a well put-together woman with bright red lipstick, looked at the man’s wife with a smile and said, “I think he’s falling in love,” with a perky laugh.
When the man walked back into the room his face beamed in a wide smile, and he said, “I love it. I mean, I love it. This is it—the house. We’ll take it.”
The man’s wife was just about to speak when a tabby cat wandered into the room, oblivious of the humans inside. The man, still smiling, bent down and scooped the cat up. “And who might you be, little buddy?” he asked, looking into its apathetic eyes.
The bubbly lady just giggled good naturedly, and said, “oh him, he comes with the house,” and all three of them laughed as the lace curtains danced along the walls.