Sitting Room: Dawn

August 3rd, 2009


Illustrations by Nathan Scheck

“Magnolia bushes,” muttered Filbert. “What sort of burglar hides under magnolia bushes?”

It was just about five a.m., Saturday and Filbert had been under those same bushes for just over an hour and forty minutes. In fact this entire mission to “infiltrate the residence of the nefarious next-door neighbor and retrieve secret papers at the behest of my dear great aunt out of sheer good-nephewishness and not at all because she scares me half to death” began at dusk that evening and had gotten no further than old Mrs. Himmle’s back yard.

Not that he hadn’t been quite busy during that interlude of time betwixt then and now. The above-mentioned mission title had taken a good twenty-five minutes by itself; Filbert believed in being thorough. He had begun with some two hours of “stamina amassment” a.k.a. sitting in a chair doing nothing, followed by an hour of “mental preparation” otherwise known as procrastinating. After this came two hours of “putting one’s affairs in order should one die valiantly in the attempt,” a phrase which here means stalling. Then came the “mission briefing,” the high point of which was the inception of the mission title (he wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to the fridge). And after that was the “inventory check,” mostly involving clutching one’s crowbar and wondering if there is a specific kind of hat that infiltrators wore. Another thirty minutes were consumed by “combat conditioning” in other words, sitting on the kitchen counter with a pot of coffee and mentally thanking whoever it was that coined the term “battle stimulants.” Next, an hour of “stealth and patience” which means essentially the same thing that “mental preparation” means. Only thereafter had Filbert felt prepared to scramble over the brick wall dividing the two adjacent yards and wedge himself firmly under the magnolias, a feat he was rather proud of as said hedging did not at first glance seem to contain enough spare room for Filbert’s physique. Actually, some of the lower branches were still being rather outspoken as to that fact.

“The sort of burglar that hides under magnolias,” Filbert hissed peevishly, overcome by the need to answer his own rhetorical question, “is the sort of well-meaning, considerate person who wishes to do things right but is hampered by other people’s careless omissions in the content of his upbringing.”

Filbert’s affinity for being peeved by other people’s inconsiderateness towards his person was so finely honed, he himself was not actually exempt from it, should he happen to think something insensitive.

Few people, in his opinion, appreciate how hopelessly complicated the affair of breaking into the home of one’s aged nemesis (he had always wanted a nemesis) really is. Take the actual breaking bit, per example; an unconcerned and more importantly uninvolved person would say, “Its perfectly simple, you have that nice hefty crowbar laying about in the garage somewhere. People are always using crowbars to gain entry into homes that don’t want them, use that.” And then have done. Filbert agreed wholeheartedly that this was indeed what crowbars were for, in fact, he had always vaguely wondered why there were no federal restrictions on such items that clearly served only that nefarious purpose, but once you had the said tool and the said house how exactly did the whole affair of bringing them together work?

Did you use the crowbar to break one of the windows? Perhaps the glass in one or more of the doors should be smashed. Or did one just beat the doors in? It seemed that if one could do that with a mere crowbar, where did battering rams, shaped charges, and pizza deliverymen come in to it? Or if one was to use the prying aspect of the thing, did one pry the door away from the frame or the frame away from the door? Although he was not entirely sure he had seen it done anywhere, Filbert entertained a suspicion that a crowbar could be used to get beneath shingles on the roof.

“No, wait, that’s Dune,” he muttered distractedly.

Filbert took a deep breath, “Well, there’s nothing for it but to have a look at the door and see if anything presents itself.”

So saying, Filbert quickly scanned the grounds for signs of any large dogs or small grandchildren the occupant of the house might have left behind to devour the unsuspecting intruder. Upon finding none he wriggled laboriously out of the hedging and made his way across the lawn.

“Actually, aren’t people supposed to put little instruction stickers on the back or inside flap of things?” he thought, beginning to cheer up a bit. “I’ll bet there is a government-approved, safe way to break into houses. So, all I have to do is- Wait,” he paused, frowning. “If the sticker is on the inside of the door, how am I supposed to be instructed on how to open the door so I can see the instructions? Ghaa! The world hates me! I should sue someone.”

It was with bad grace that Filbert finally stomped up to the back door and glared at it through the dim light. It was a fairly short-lived glare, though.

Getting a good look at the door was, after all, what he had come over to do, but all the same, Filbert found said object severely disconcerting.

“To be perfectly frank, this isn’t helping my nerves any,” he mused, eyeing it suspiciously.

The rear door to Ophelia Himmle’s home was neat, self-respecting and just a touch prim. There was a neat, clean white-painted inner door, over which was a neat and relatively clean screen door, over which was a neat little note, primly penned and requesting that all burglars kindly use the front door as it was unlocked, thanks ever so much.

Filbert looked down at the crowbar clutched in his hands. It completely failed to give him a pitiful, betrayed look, so he chucked it and headed round the side of the house. The sky was beginning to lighten around the edges and Filbert felt hurried. Thus he only paused briefly to survey the forward premises, the flowerbeds were the sort that looked rather empty without a sprinkling of garden gnomes, in fact the only item of nongreenery present was another prim little sign staked in among the geraniums. It stated,

Death is a natural part of life; at any rate it is a natural part of disturbing my flowerbeds. You have been warned.

Filbert stared at this a moment, then firmly pushed it out of his mind and stole quickly up the gravel path to the front door. He seized the handle and twisted it with all the desperate energy of a fully flustered amature burglar, and, upon finding that that the door was indeed unlocked, he slipped gratefully inside.

Filbert’s first impression, as he leaned against the wall of the dim entryway, was that the house smelled rather funny. Not that the smell was over obvious, it was just that it was rather dark and the wall felt perfectly normal, so the first thing to come to his attention was the smell, and it (as I may have mentioned before) smelt odd. But this was no time to be deciphering incidental smellings, he had a job to do and standing in the dark snuffling would only delay his getting started.

About five minutes later he got it. It was not what the house smelled of, but rather what it didn’t smell of. There was no smell of cats. Experience had taught Filbert to associate old ladies with this sent, though he was not entirely sure why. Only about half of his aged relations kept cats. It must, Filbert decided, have a little to do with all the inter-visiting that went on and have a lot to do with aunt Madelyn, who’s home would completely asphyxiate anyone even remotely allergic to cats in just under thirty seconds.

That being out of the way, Filbert grudgingly felt his way into what appeared to be a sort of large sitting room; even in the dim light it gave off the distinctive air of somewhere where people would sit around drinking tea. He found a light switch and, because he suddenly had remembered about fingerprints, flicked it on with his nose.

Apart from the whole cat thing, Filbert found this room to be very properly old-ladyish, it was bright and cheery in a slightly subdued manner and just a little bit frilly. There were potted plants and pictures on the assorted end tables and doilies wherever it could conceivably be managed. The bulk of the room’s interior was taken up by an assortment of sofas and over-stuffed armchairs arranged in a sort of loose circle around an empty umbrella stand. Whatever for, Filbert had no idea. Some glass-fronted cabinets were set into opposite walls and a fireplace stood opposite the door. The mantle was covered by an assortment of ceramic figurines, which did not quite go with the rest of the decor. They looked rather cheap and the overall effect was a bit reminiscent of a shelf of canned goods stocked by an alarmist who had taken it in to their head that society would be overturned and destroyed by about two that afternoon. Above the mantle hung a large, stately portrait of a man, who, in Filbert’s opinion, seemed a great deal too smug for someone who had come to his sitting dressed in what looked remarkably like faded, blue upholstery.

He wasn’t feeling terribly gracious at this point. Filbert knew that even though he was burgling it, he had lost his initiative to an empty house. The knowledge was not pleasant. The problem, he decided, was probably confidence, since, apparently, that’s what the problem always is. He could not assert his will against that of the house because the house knew how to be a house (how could it not) where as Filbert did not know how to be a burglar. He wanted to flaunt his unbridled power at the house; it could not do anything to stop him, since it was, again, a house. But he simply didn’t know what to do now. Well he knew he was supposed to get these papers, but Filbert wanted to do it masterfully. He wanted Mrs. Himmle’s reaction on coming home to be horror and grudging respect, not to merely assume a raccoon had gotten in; For her to envision, on discovering her loss, some dark phantom of the night who could, he didn’t know, stick a cheese grater in her microwave while her entire bingo club were sitting down to dinner if he wanted to, not someone who sits in magnolias.

“I wish someone would have written a book on this sort of thing. What would that be called? Illicit etiquette?”

“Well, the only thing to do is to try,” he muttered. “Thoroughness is a good trait in any profession, I shall start by becoming accustomed to my surroundings. Besides a real burglar would be scouting for valuable stuff to steal.”

The coffee table in front of the largest sofa looked rather promising; it bore a small glass case, a framed picture, and a small stack of books. Making his way over, Filbert found that the case contained a small, very tarnished silver spoon, which, in his opinion, seemed a bit odd. The picture frame contained a photograph of what appeared to be Mrs. Himmle and some friends, a dozen or so all smiling and oozing camaraderie; rather like a volleyball team, only they were all old ladies wearing hats, all but one of them was clutching an umbrella, and volleyball teams generally are not pictured with what looked remarkably like an unconscious motorcycle gang strewn about their feet. He turned to the books, though he could not shake the impression that one of those depicted looked oddly familiar.

The first was a small brown book entitled, H. C. Fitzgerald’s Handbook of Illicit Etiquette. This House did not appear to be giving up easily.

“If I read that, I have truly lost,” Filbert decided, and firmly looked to the others.

The rest of the stack contained such titles as The Phantom Pig Warrior and Other Legends and The Tales of Edna Weatherspindle. One title in particular caught his eye; it was the apparent fourth book of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Series, entitled: Ship of Pinkness. The cover art featured a ship that was indeed pink and also a lot of monkeys. Filbert was slightly confused, he had never heard of it before. On top of which he always had the impression that the books in question were supposed to be a trilogy. Still this might be worth reading, he thought. Personally he preferred Anne McCaffery, but Robin Hobb was all right.

And that was it, Filbert suddenly realized; he would swipe this book and thus throw everyone who might come after him into confusion. Now he could finally get the papers and get out of here. But Filbert found that he didn’t want to.

There is something strangely empowering about swiping someone else’s book, it felt as though he had reached the height of reckless abandon and nothing horrific had happened to him yet. After all, this was just about the most provocative thing one person could do to another, particularly if person A swiped said item whilst person B was still reading it. Filbert didn’t actually know if Ophelia was still reading the book. He just hoped so.

The possibilities were beginning to bloom: he could pilfer her fridge or rearrange her furniture. Or, the inspiration struck him, if one wanted to be invasive with minimal effort one could just pop over to the answering machine on that nice end table in the corner and listen to her telephone messages.

A moment later Filbert was looming over the abovementioned bit of appliance. He could feel it cowering before him like a grounded partridge under the adamant stare of a hawk; hoping desperately that the telephone receiver on its back will hide it from the inevitable.

“Nothing can stop the inevitable!” cried Filbert as he jabbed the play button. “That’s what the word means!”

There was the slightest pause; just enough time for Filbert to reflect that if the oncoming recording was from a telemarketer the mood would be completely ruined.

The machine commenced.

“You have reached the telephone of Ophelia Himmle. She is obviously doing something much more important than standing around listening to you talk. So if what you have to say is worth her while, please continue, but on your own head be it if you are simply wasting other people’s valuable time.”

There was the expected tone and a new voice took over, “Er, hello, Aunt Ophelia. It’s Will. Sorry I missed your last call but Herbert insists that I keep my phone secured while I’m on duty, he brought this soundproof box and everything. Anyway, nothing really important has happened, we, by which I mean I, have managed to avoid public damages, for now anyway. On the other hand, Herbert’s taken up aspirin obsessing again and this time I don’t have a clue why. From what I got out of him I’m pretty sure it isn’t telepathy withdrawal. But that can wait, I doubt it will turn into too much of a field problem; there’s only one more target and then we’re heading back. I guess I’ll see you in a couple days – bye.”

“Okay, forget messages,” Filbert thought. “Messages are weird.”

He switched it off.

By now blue-grey early morning light was peering apologetically into the room through the Northward window and Filbert decided that, all things considered, he ought to get a move on. He therefore made his way over to the cabinet opposite the window. It did not take more that a cursory inspection to show that this was what he was after; it clearly contained a veritable myriad of doilies. (The other looked to house various knickknacks, he thought he had seen a snow globe).

Upon trying it, he found the cabinet door to be locked. This did not perturb him terribly, the door’s structural integrity looked unimpressive. Of course, at that point Filbert perceived a reemergence of his old nemesis; there was a note taped to the inside of the glass paneling. This one was neither neat nor prim, but was a nasty scrawl dripping with smugness. It read, Force this open, I dare you. Positioned conspicuously near this note was a small glass vial filled with a forbidding clear liquid.

While this new development gave Filbert pause, he flatly refused to surrender his newfound confidence. He reasoned that there must be some secretive opening mechanism of sorts nearby; a pressure-sensitive floorboard or a bust with a button in its neck or something.

The only object nearby proved to be a radio/CD player, but it proved to have no hidden purposes that he could find. Still Filbert resolved to put on some music to show his defiance of the note whilst he examined the floorboards. He was surprised to find among the scattered CDs on the player’s end table, a copy of the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack, it did not really strike him as old lady-ish. Nevertheless, it seemed oddly appropriate for the present situation, so he popped it in. Filbert hesitated briefly between tracks three and nine as to which went the best with present activities, he decided on the latter, hit play, and got to work poking at the carpeting.

After just about two minutes and twelve seconds amid the carpet lint and swirling orchestral tones, Filbert, while digging about under a nearby chair heard an audible click behind him.

Fighting down the sudden image of a batty old woman leveling an Uzi, he looked quickly over his shoulder and was taken aback to see that the cabinet was swinging slowly open of its own accord, spilling completely superfluous yet oddly necessary mist across the floor. For Filbert it was the work of an instant to resolve not to even bother trying to figure out what had happened. He simply waited for the cabinet to finish its lengthy drama and stand with its contents fully revealed.

There were rather a lot of doilies within and it took some time sifting through them to find the small bundle of papers in the back of the third shelf. The papers, Filbert was gratified to see, were covered in coded writings. Nothing makes a task seem worthwhile like cryptic documents at the end of it.

And thus, his quarry finally in hand, Filbert hastily exited the house, popped round the back, retrieved his trusty (albeit useless) crowbar, scrambled over the garden wall, and careened gratefully through his own back door. He slumped to the kitchen, flopped in a chair, and marveled at how much adrenalin was seeping out of his system. He also found time to be wildly thankful, in an exhausted, shaky sort of way, that it was all finally over.

It was at this point, his cares atypically flown, that Filbert had time to notice the long white object that had definitely not been on the table when he had left earlier that morning.

It was Aunt Margaret’s umbrella. There was no mistaking it, the two were seen everywhere together. In fact, the only times one ever saw it out of the woman’s grasp was when she would leave it laying conspicuously about a room for the expressed purpose of providing a obviously theatrical, yet effectively forbidding cue to the fact that she was at that moment lurking in some dark corner or other, if not actually planning to do something horrible to one, then at least fantasizing about it vigorously.

“I see you survived,” came the familiar voice from the shadows near the fridge, it was not a terribly pleasant voice, it seemed always to have a sardonic chuckle waiting in the wings.

Aunt Margaret stepped slowly into the light, the way she moved gave the distinct impression of a cloak billowing darkly about her, and not the sort of cloak one wears to keep off the rain, the sort one wears when one is some sort of medieval arch villain and wants to be sure everyone knows it.

Filbert felt the appropriate response to this was to look franticly round his ankles for Miffy. He didn’t see any sign of the neurotic little dog, but his aunt didn’t give him time for more than a cursory search. She strode to the table, seized her umbrella, and pointed it at Filbert’s forehead in a manner remarkably suggestive of a harpoon gun. It possessed the air of an unmistakably dangerous line of sight along with enormous overtones of skewerage.

“What have you brought?” she demanded.

The hand that gripped the bundled papers shot into the air, it took all of Filbert’s self control not to wave them franticly. Margaret took them and looked them over briefly but did not lower the umbrella.

“Is that all?” she asked.

“That’s all there was,” Filbert quavered, wondering desperately how he could possibly have messed this up.

His aunt’s right eye narrowed.

“That, er, had to do with my mission, um, thing,” Filbert attempted to clarify.

“Yes?” she hissed, impatience and disgust warring for dominance in her voice.

“Well, I also took this book… thing, but it didn’t have anything to do with, um…” Almost before he had it out of his pocket, Margaret snatched the object under discussion and gazed at it fixedly for a pregnant moment. Filbert thought he saw, for just the briefest instant, the shadow of a smile play about his aunt’s thin lips. The umbrella came away from his head.

“You have done well,” she remarked and abruptly swept from the room.

As he listened to his front door slam shut, Filbert toyed with the idea of being peevish about his lost reading material, but he found he really didn’t care that much.

He had survived and Filbert felt rather pleased with himself.

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