This is the story I entered for the first round of the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge. It needed to be under 1000 words, I was in group 1, which meant the genre was suspense, location was a dark alley and the object to include was chocolate milk.
Synopsis: Painters open a door that should have been left closed.
Those fucking bathroom walls. â€œMr. Trustyâ€ had come over to the house to give me a quote for painting and re-sealing them. He had tut-tutted and clucked about how badly it had been done before, and promised to do it so much better. It was going to be expensive but he and his team would get it right and I would be delighted, just you wait.
Three strange men arrived at the front door the following week. No Mr. Trusty. They had been sent by him; he was too busy to come himself, but they assured me they knew exactly what they were doing and could be left alone to get on with it.
On day one the spare room became a smelly storeroom for their clothes and shoes, cigarette packets with half-smoked butts, buckets with brushes and rollers, and giant bundles of black plastic sheeting. I crept past them as they pounded through the house, dragging loose chips of old paint on their boot heels. They acknowledged me with surly grunts.
On day two the limping, phlegmy man of about sixty (how the hell was he going to be able to do anything? I thought as he spoke) introduced himself as Johan and demanded access to the back alley. They needed to bring their ladders through the back, across the courtyard and in through the kitchen door. I handed over the key with reluctance. I never opened the back door into that alley which was a dark service lane for all the houses on our side of the street, filled with garbage bins, a lonely and neglected guard dog, and next door neighbor Mr. Hartleyâ€™s rotting building material, stacked up for the day he would be adding an extra room. I stayed in my bedroom and heard the men laughing, but they went silent whenever I appeared.
On day three they seemed to be in and out of the back alley every five minutes and I could hear the poor dog bark and growl as they swore at it. I tried to work on my laptop in the lounge but the constant smell of paint fumes and cigarettes made me nauseous.
On day four Johan told me they were almost done but he needed more sealant for the shower door. Would I run down to the hardware store and get some. They couldnâ€™t continue without it.
I left with a vague sense of discomfort, but it was less than the constant unease of being alone in the house with them.
The choice of sealant was baffling. Who knew that there could be so many options for so many different applications? A grumpy, almost still a teenager, shop assistant lumbered over to help me. His handwritten nametag said GEORGE in sloping capitals. He was finishing a carton of Steri Stumpie chocolate milk, slurping the last bit through a tiny straw. It was the kind of carton used by the Cape Town police department to advertise wanted criminals. Johanâ€™s face stared back at me before George crumpled it and the carton in his hand and tossed it into a used paint drum.
I sat in the car in the parking lot in frozen indecision. Go back home and say nothing? Call the police? Call Mr. Trusty? I started the process of convincing myself it hadnâ€™t been Johan staring back from that chocolate milk carton. A trick of the light. My vivid imagination.
I went home. Opened the front door. It was too quiet. The spare room was empty except for a cigarette packet, peeping out from under the bed. I walked into the lounge. My laptop was gone. My mobile phone, the charger it had been plugged into, the microwave, kettle, broken damn toaster and tiny TV were all gone. In my bedroom the drawers were open. My underwear, costume jewelry, the cat bowl for fuck sakes. All gone.
Footprints in paint smudges trailed through the house, leading up to, and then away from the empty spaces where my stuff had been. They gathered up and led to the kitchen door, across the courtyard and through the unlocked and open door, into the alley.
I heard whining. I was too scared to look. They had done something terrible to that miserable dog.
My first urgent thought was to call the police. No phone. They had taken my phone.
I ran into the road. Their van was gone. The front door slammed shut behind me. I screamed. My bag slid from my shoulder into the road. I had my bag. I still had my bag. With my keys, my keys, my keys. I turned back.
At the front door my breath caught in my throat and I allowed myself a tiny sob as I scratched in my bag for the damn house keys and bent a fingernail on something hard and unfamiliar.
I got the door open, stepped inside and allowed it to swing shut behind me. I stood for a moment in the afternoon gloom, getting used to the dim light and the sad, familiar smell of my one-person home. I would never feel safe. Something slithered across the back of my calves, and I jumped, swore and looked down. Jones, the street cat that had adopted my home and then me, had snuck in behind me.
The lounge looked barren when I walked past and headed to the bathroom to pee.
I flicked on the bathroom light and saw my reflection in the mirror, framed by the newly painted walls. I slid the few steps to the toilet bowl and heaved, head down. When I looked up and out through the window, my face flushed and eyes stinging, I saw, with mounting terror, that the back door into the alleyway was gone. Off its hinges and gone.