They found a restaurant just inside of town. A family diner with an unfamiliar name and a full parking lot. Zebra went inside to wait for a table, leaving Katters standing by the car and smoking her fourth cigarette since they’d left the house.
She’d finally calmed down. Settled into a moody silence. But there was no telling how she’d react when they went back.
The host — tall, dark, exhausted — led Zebra to a table in the back of the restaurant, squeezed between the men’s and women’s restrooms. Katters had turned away from the windows, but she’d figure things out soon enough. Whenever she decided to stop smoking and come inside.
Whatever had happened in the basement, it had re-ignited Katters’ mistrust for the house, and she wouldn’t take that betrayal lightly. Her trust was hard to come by. One does not find it twice.
So there would be no convincing her she was wrong. There would be no pulling her back to the side of light and reason. There would be no compromise on her part. Any compromise would have to come from him.
And he could. He could cater to Katters’ delusions, treat the house as though it were dangerous (even though it clearly was not). Possibly leave entirely, and hire someone to take care of the whole business for him. But, more likely: stay and divide his attention between sorting and assessing his late-great-uncle’s former belongings, and soothing over Katters’ anxiety and panic. And, most importantly, ignoring the basement.
Or: he could behave sensibly and ignore her. Find out what was in the basement, if anything at all, and decide what he wanted to do about it. Write his partner off as a loss and get back to work.
He ordered, and he ate, and Katters never came inside. He found her precisely where he had left her: leaning against the car’s hood, staring at nothing, smoking cigarettes that had to have come from a second pack.
The lot was emptier than it had been, but he still had to weave through cars to get to her.
“You’ve been out here for an hour,” he said.
“Sounds about right.”
“Why didn’t you come inside?”
She muttered something he didn’t catch.
“Just don’t feel like eating,” she said, which was too long to be what she’d muttered. She turned, but didn’t look at him. Past him. At the restaurant.
Zebra glanced back. A family came through the doors, laughing, happy, full of food. When he turned forward again, Katters had already looked away.
“That’s absurd,” he said. “You’ve never turned down a meal in your life. And you were the one that wanted to eat in the first place.”
“Yeah?” she snapped. “Well, I changed my mind.”
He joined her near the hood, frowning. She was holding herself, her arms crossed and her shoulders hunched. Cutting herself off from the world. Her cigarette-hand hovered near her face even when she wasn’t smoking it. Ready at a moment’s notice.
“How many of those have you had?”
“None of your fucking business.”
There were a dozen butts scattered around her feet. That was unusual. He’d never seen her litter before.
It was time to decide if she was worth saving.
“Well, I brought you some food, anyway.”
He held a styrofoam box out to her. She didn’t move to take it. Stared down her nose at it. The lamp they’d parked under highlighted the suspicion perched on her face.
“You’re welcome,” he said, bobbing the box.
She shrugged and turned back to the horizon. It was dark, now, and the world blended seamlessly into the starry sky.
“So,” he said, lowering the box. “What’s in the basement?”
Katters snorted and pulled at her cigarette.
“Seriously, what happened down there?”
“I don’t know,” she said, blowing smoke at him.
He stepped back, but pretended she hadn’t just committed an affront to human decency. It was bait — and he was better than that. He tried to catch her eye instead, smiling. “Come on, I want to know. What happened?”
She rolled her eyes and stood up. “Nothing happened,” she said with her teeth bared. “It was dark, I got confused.” Her ears flicked as she turned toward the car. “It was probably my imagination, anyway.”
“It can’t be both. Either it was nothing, or it was your imagination. What happened?”
She shrugged and walked away from him.
She was a stubborn animal. So was he. “Well! If you won’t tell me, I’ll just have to go down and see for myself. There must be a light somewhere.”
“I couldn’t find it.”
“Could bring a flashlight, just in case. Hell, we could stop by a store on the way back and pick up all sorts of supplies. Make a real night of it.”
She looked at him, over her shoulder, then at the car. Her ears tilted down, betraying worry.
He grinned. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, but he could still have some fun with her. “Suppose it is haunted,” he said, walking to the driver’s door. “What do I need in a haunted basement?”
“You’re an asshole,” Katters said. The family passing them stopped laughing and hurried their daughter along.
“No, really.” Zebra tilted his head at her over the car. “I’ve never done this before and I want to do it right.” He looked back down and pulled the door open. “Salt, I suppose. Chalk. A Ouija Board. Do you think they sell holy water?”
“At the store?”
“You’re right,” he said, a little disappointed. “I’ll have to make do.”
He got into the car. She didn’t.
“Who cares what’s down there?” she asked him through the window. “Why don’t you just leave the basement for a realtor to deal with?”
“I care. What if there’s something I want?”
“Like buried treasure. Get in.”
She shuffled her feet, pacing between the car and the restaurant. Finally, she pulled the door open and ducked inside.
“I should get a shovel,” he said.
“There’s no treasure down there. I’m pretty sure. There’s not gonna be anything you want down there.”
“I thought you couldn’t see anything?”
She sighed and buckled herself in.
“I’m not going down there,” she said to her window as she rolled it down.
“I don’t care if you trip over the stairs on your way down and break both your legs. You’re on your own.”
“Duly noted. Ah, candles!”