Desperate Living

Short Story Excerpt


Marc began driving the neighborhoods of Fountainebleau. Gigi expected Marc was lost by the strained look on his face. After another hour of driving up and down the streets and running their petrol almost to empty, Marc spotted an open gate to what seemed to be an abandoned estate. The low gear of the car hummed as Marc drove down the driveway. The headlights shone on an impressive estate house. The passengers of the car gasped when shadowy figures ran out of the house to the dark side of the lawn. Marc turned off the headlights and stepped out of the car with his revolver drawn ready to shoot.

Gigi watched as he disappeared through the open front door to survey the rooms of the house. The family waited in the car. Gigi nervously viewed the macabre surroundings and shuddered at the thought of spending the night in the scary house.

“Maman, aren’t we trespassing?” Gigi asked.

“Yes, chérie,” Maman soothed, “but it’s okay when times are desperate.”

Gigi held Pock tightly to her side for comfort, but Pock shivered in her arms.

“Simon, he’s been in there over twenty minutes. Don’t you think you should go find him?”

Maman asked, peering into the black night.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Papa blustered. “He has a gun.”

Even in the dark car, Gigi saw the stern look Maman gave Papa. Tonton Andre and Jacques remained silent as two rocks.

“The men in this car are as weak as water,” Maman huffed. “Okay, I’ll go.”

She exited the car just as Marc appeared in the doorway holding a lit candle.

“You can come in now, the house is empty,” Marc assured them.

“At least there’s one real man to depend on,” Maman sniffed.

Marc, always resourceful, had found a supply of candles and gave one to each family member as they entered the foyer.

“Good job, old man,” Papa said. “I knew you’d be invaluable on this trip.”

The once lovely home had been ransacked. Pieces of furniture were overturned and debris littered the floor. Marc held a candle to a vandalized family portrait. The pinched faces looked down at them with disapproval. The family wandered through the house, exploring the layout of the rooms, candles trembling in their hands.

“Look at the size of that chandelier,” Tante Aline said, gripping the curving handrail of the sweeping staircase in the weak light.

The sound of Maman’s piercing screams came from the direction of the kitchen. Marc and Gigi led the way in haste. The rest of the family timidly followed them towards the back of the house. When Gigi arrived in the kitchen, she stood frozen in shock. Food was on the floor, counters and walls. Garden rats skittered across the dirty floor, benefiting from an open kitchen door to feast on rotten food. Pock immediately pounced on a skittering rodent, catching a rat in his mouth and shaking the creature until its neck was broken. Gigi had never seen Pock go into action like this before. He growled and attacked another, and another, until he had killed most of them in rapid succession. Marc chased the remaining rodents out the door with a broom into the garden.

“Good job, Pock,” Gigi said, petting him on the scruff of his neck. Gigi watched Pock sniff the floor and cabinets for vermin scents, knowing he was reveling in his duty.

“I have never in my life seen such a mess,” Maman said, shaking her head in disbelief at the wreckage.

“I’m exhausted, Maman,” Gigi said, yawning. “I’m scared to sleep alone.”

“Chérie, you can sleep with us,” Maman said. “You’ll be safe in our bedroom.”

The families each chose an upstairs bedroom and settled in for the night. Gigi and Jacques pushed together chairs for beds in their parent’s bedrooms. Marc took a blanket and pillow to sleep downstairs on a sofa in the salon, sleeping with one eye open to guard the valuable petrol stored in the trunk. Pock jumped in the window seat of the bedroom, overlooking the front yard of the estate. The moon was absent in the cloudy nighttime sky. The house made odd creaking noises that stirred Pock to emit a low-pitched growl; he laid his head between his paws to sleep.

“I feel so strange being in this house uninvited,” Maman said, smoothing out the sheets of the bed. She picked up a cracked-glass framed photo of the resident family off the floor. She stared at the happy smiling faces in the candlelight. “I wonder what these people would say about us sleeping in their beds.” She blew out the candle and fell into the bed exhausted.  Sleep overwhelmed her conscious immediately.

Jacques lay still in bed, waiting to hear his parents snoring. He quietly re-lit a candle and made his way down the grand staircase to the first floor. Gigi, through half-closed eyes, saw light emanating from the hallway. She rose out of bed and followed Jacques from a distance to the kitchen. From a hidden corner, Gigi observed Jacques extracting a large butcher knife from a kitchen drawer. He softly ran a finger along the edge of the blade to test the sharpness.  Then he left the kitchen with the large knife in hand. Gigi, in a flash, remounted the grand staircase ahead of Jacques, passing portraits of the peering ancestors. She shivered as the eyes in the portrait paintings seemed to follow her in the flickering candle light as she remounted the stairs.

Gigi nestled with Pock in the window seat of her parents’ bedroom without disturbing them in the least. Gigi thought about Jacques and the large butcher knife. She knew how his mind worked. In the event of a German attack, Jacques was prepared to defend the family against the enemy. All boys thought about was playing soldier. Gigi fell asleep, dreaming of rambling through the Jardin des Plants with Pepère and Pock with the Star of David necklace in her hand.

The house was tranquil in the middle of the night. The only sounds were the chorus of snores from the dormant family, and the frogs singing in nearby glades. Outside in the garden, rats ran along the edge of the abandoned estate house in the safety of the dense vines that grew up the brick walls.

In the stillness of the night, an owl hooted in the distance calling to its mate. The large bird flew gracefully to a low tree branch, adjacent to the kitchen door. The avian predator peered over the nocturnal landscape, waiting for rodents to cross the open grassy lawn. The owl kept perfectly still, occasionally its large eyes slowly opened and closed. The bird rotated its head with eyes dilated, capturing an expanded view of the misty lawn.

Two practiced thieves, with deathlike silence, crept back into the yard of the estate. The thieves had spent most of the day looting and inventorying the valuables of the estate. They sometimes amused themselves from boredom by slashing portrait paintings or mashing priceless antique glass and furniture.  Earlier, when the touring car had approached the house, they had made a hasty retreat to the thick woods at the estate’s edge. From a hidden vantage point, the thieves watched the family go to bed, room by room, as the low lights from their candles were extinguished.

The thieves had observed Marc refueling the car with large tin cans of petrol. When he had finished his task, he had repacked and secured everything back in its place. However, the thieves noticed that the trunk lid was left open, due to the excess of all the family’s precious possessions.

The owl’s head turned as the thieves passed below its perch. The bird’s perfect telescopic vision followed the thieves, creeping toward the touring car. The thieves were flush with anticipation.

One whispered to the other, “This is going to be a piece of cake.”

As the thieves came around the corner of the estate, they saw a flash of candlelight from the kitchen. In an instant, they pressed their bodies flat to the outside wall and held their breath.  They peeked into the kitchen. A young boy of about thirteen or fourteen held a large butcher knife up to the candle flame. The long blade looked ridiculous in the hands of the pint size boy and evoked stifled snickers from the thieves.

The thieves waited half an hour after the house stood in total darkness before making their move. They fumbled with the ropes in the inky dark night and extracted a pocketknife and sawed at the thick cords. “You’ve almost got it, just a little bit more.”

From the dense ivy, a rat strayed from its cover to cross the lawn to its underground den. The owl quickly spotted its prey and flew down with its talons fully extended. The high pitched squeals from the rat and the hawk’s screech echoed across the dewy lawn. Pock began a tirade of barking at the top of his lungs. The thieves had just extracted the prized petrol from the trunk when a loud gunshot rang past their ears. The thieves dropped the cans of petrol and ran full speed as another shot went whizzing by them. The more rotund of the duo tripped on a tree root and fell flat on his face with a loud thud. His partner in crime didn’t stop, but kept running as the bloody-faced portly thief cursed his bad luck.


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