Basement Dweller by Stanton McCaffery

A clump of dried mud fell from Kyle’s boot as he put his leg on top of the chain-link fence and hoisted himself into the backyard. No one had seen him as far as he could tell, thank fucking God.

The clouds were coming in thick and fast. Ten years he’d spent under that bridge and he swore if he had to endure one more storm there it would kill him.

After weeks of searching he’d found one home with an unlocked basement. It belonged to an elderly woman with a grey perm he’d spotted driving a Lincoln Town Car with a handicap placard. He’d scoped her place for days and the lights in the basement never went on.

He held his breath as he tried the knob. It could have been a fluke the time he tried it. She could have come to her senses and turned the lock, even set a deadbolt. She could have had a son that came over and noticed it was unlocked. Thankfully, neither occurred.

The smell of mold and mothballs engrossed him like a blanket. Despite the remaining daylight penetrating the basement windows, he needed his flashlight to see his way around. The last thing he wanted was to knock something over and alert the woman to his presence.

She must have been married at one point. Either that or she was a real outdoors kind of lady. The place was filled with tents and fishing poles, a deflated raft, even a kayak.

There was a dark spot under the stairs perfect for his sleeping bag. If she came down, it was possible he could hide there, be real quiet, and she might not even notice him.

He drank Wild Turkey and thought about taking off the next morning with one of the tents. When he grew tired, he nestled his head against the cinder block wall and fell asleep with the sound of rain against the window soothing him.

Hours later he woke to a car door slamming. Someone pounded their way up the front steps and hammered the front door. Kyle went to the window. The sight of a cop car on the street made everything hurt.

“I come back to my fucking house to eat my goddam lunch,” a man said above him.

The woman was stuttering. “Well, I see, but, well, I can tell that you’re angry, but I don’t like the thought of my tax dollars going to waste.”

Footsteps came inside, above Kyle’s head. “How am I wasting tax dollars, you nosey old bitch?!”

Kyle rolled his sleeping bag and capped his whiskey. Grabbing a tent would make too much noise.

“You are sitting in that house instead of patrolling, I know it.”

Something crashed to the floor, a lamp maybe. “You know the trouble I have now because you don’t mind your business?!”

Kyle heard the punches and the screams.

“Please. I won’t call again.”

A minute of crazy and the car was gone. Kyle left the basement making as little sound as possible, hopped over the fence just like he had the day before. It would have done him a hell of a lot of good if he had been able to grab a tent, he thought, but no way was it worth the risk.

A month later and it was painful how cold it was under the bridge. Freezing rain reddened and numbed Kyle’s face. He’d start losing fingers if life stayed this way, but he couldn’t risk another night in some old person’s basement. His first try came too close; those sounds from above gave him nightmares still, that old lady taking a beating like that.

Most of the newspapers he rolled into his clothes and his sleeping bag for insulation he didn’t bother to look at, let alone read. It was by some odd twist of fate that his eyes happened upon a curious headline: “Eighty-Year-Old Woman Found Beaten to Death Inside Home.”

That night he kept his face from the wind as much as he could and experienced another nightmare.

Rebound by Stanton McCaffery

When I was in the 6th grade there was one night I just couldn’t sleep. I MTV until it was time to go to school. I laid on the couch with my back turned to the TV, hoping the music would put me to sleep. That night they must have played this song by Jewel – you remember Jewel? – at least four times.

“Dreams last for so long, even after you’re gone,” she sang.

When I was eleven years old, hearing that song, I knew that I was too young to fully understand the pain this beautiful woman was crying about. Someday, I thought, I would come back to the song after a heartbreak of my own and understand exactly what Jewel was saying.

So, fast-forward a few decades, and Tina leaves me. An inert piece of shit, she called me. I had imagined my life with her and having her walk out on me was forcing me to re-imagine my existence. In a way, it was a death.

And Spotify, knowing the sad sack that I had recently become, actually recommended me a grouping of playlists they collectively referred to as “sad songs.” One of those playlists was called 90’s acoustic. And there, in the middle of the playlist was “You were meant for me.”

Finally, I knew what she meant. I knew it too well.

A week after Tina left my apartment proclaiming that she would never speak to me again, I sent her a text that said, “I was meant for you… and you were meant for me.” She never responded. Maybe she just didn’t know the song.

I had an uncle who lived his whole life alone. His beard always had food in it. Probably bugs also. He smelled like cigarettes and unwashed balls. I remember overhearing my mother talking about him once. “The man would be different if he had someone to share his life with,” she said. “They would minimize some of his, you know, less desirable eccentricities. But, well, he’s too far gone for a woman to be interested in him now.”

Looking in the mirror and seeing a dead skin flake hanging from my own patchy beard, I thought, how long would it be before I was too far gone? Was I too far gone already?

After two weeks of no messages from Tina and sleepless nights full of self-loathing, I had come to look at every woman I saw as a potential life partner. Would she save me from myself? Would she be my Jewel?

And one day I went to the Quick Check down the road to buy some toilet paper. In the parking lot, sitting with the door open to an old jalopy, was a woman. With one leg out of the car and her head resting against the steering, she had her eyes closed tight and was muttering something to herself. I thought maybe she was in pain.

“Are you okay?” I said.

She turned to me and opened beautiful blue eyes. “Just having a rough day is all. Thanks for asking.”

I nodded awkwardly and went into the store. I was walking down one of the back aisles looking at the magazine covers when I heard the same woman’s voice again. “Take all the money from the register and put it in the bag or I will pull each one of your teeth out with pliers, motherfucker.”

I turned down the aisle and saw her, the women from the parking lot. She had a pair of pliers in her hand and she was pointing them at the cashier, a kid of about sixteen. After the kid put a few handfuls of cash into a canvas Trader Joe’s bag, the woman ran out of the store.

Smitten, I followed her. There she was in the parking lot, cursing at her car. It wouldn’t start.

I came over and knocked gently on the hood. “Want a ride?”