“What’s wrong?” asked Jackson, already annoyed.
“Problems at home,” said Willard, stepping past Jackson into the house. “Greta needs to not see me for a while. She needs a break from me.” Jackson understood Greta’s position. He didn’t think it would take too many days of Willard living in his house before he was sick of him too. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have seen Willard almost every day for over two years.
“Wait a second,” said Jackson. Willard was already on his way through the kitchen to the basement stairs. “I’ve got a guest room up here you can stay in. You don’t need to stay in the basement.”
“I think I’d prefer the basement bedroom,” said Willard.
“I don’t think you would,” said Jackson. “I haven’t done any work on it since last time you saw it. The only pieces of furniture in there are four old dressers.”
“Well, I’ll take a look,” said Willard, and he opened the basement door, turned on the light, and began to descend the steps.
“All right,” said Jackson. “But did you bring anything with you? Change of clothes? A towel?”
Willard ignored him.
The basement, with cement floors and cinder block walls, was one big room except for the corner that Jackson had started to turn into a bedroom back when he thought a bunch of his college friends were going to move in with him. He’d gotten as far as walling the room off and installing the door before he realized his friends were all going to get married and get jobs and move away, or act as distant as if they’d moved away, and, therefore, there was no reason to finish the basement bedroom. So he’d moved the four heavy dressers the house’s previous owners had left in the basement into the unfinished bedroom, closed the door, and that was that.
Now, with Willard standing too close and breathing heavily through his nose, Jackson pointed out the various reasons that Willard shouldn’t want to stay in the basement bedroom. The gritty light from the bare bulbs affixed to the basement ceiling cast Jackson and Willard’s shadows into the dark room and across the squared-off hulks of the abandoned dressers. “See?” said Jackson. “No lights in here. You’d have to leave the door open to see what you’re doing. There’s no window, so it’s a deathtrap if there’s a fire. Just a hard cement floor, too, so even with a nice sleeping bag you’d be sore every morning.”
“Can I see how dark it is with the door closed?” asked Willard, stepping into the room.
“It’s completely dark,” said Jackson.
“I just need to check,” said Willard, and he closed the door.
A moment later Jackson heard the lock click. He tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn. “Willard? What are you doing?”
Willard didn’t answer.
Jackson knocked on the door. “Willard?”
A heavy scraping and bumping sound came from inside the room. Then the door shuddered as something thumped against it.
“Willard? Are you blocking the door with dressers? Why?”
The basement was silent other than the buzzing of the lights.
Jackson made a double portion of roast beef hash for supper and left a plateful sitting on the floor outside the basement bedroom door along with a glass of water. He knocked on the door and said, “Willard, I left some food out here for you.” Nothing happened and Jackson went back upstairs muttering anti-Willard declarations.
Jackson woke up the next morning to the sound of his cell phone ringing on the night stand next to his bed. “Do you know where Willard is?” It was Greta. “I’ve been calling his phone but it goes straight to voice mail.”
“I think he’s over here,” said Jackson. “He locked and barricaded himself in my basement bedroom yesterday. Unless he left during the night, I assume he’s still there.”
“That’s strange,” said Greta. “Did he say what he was doing?”
“No, he told me you needed a break from him for a while. But I don’t understand the rest of it. The barricading and so forth.”
“We’ve been fighting a lot recently,” said Greta. “That’s true. And then yesterday he called me at work and told me that the next time I saw him he’d be a new man. Completely changed. And that was the last I heard from him.”
“That makes me nervous,” said Jackson, sitting up in bed. Sunlight shone through his bedroom window onto the little heaps of clothing and toppled DVD stacks on the floor.
“Me too,” said Greta.
“Maybe you should come over and talk to him,” said Jackson.
“I’ll come by after work,” said Greta.
In the basement, the plate of hash and the glass of water sat untouched on the floor.
Jackson knocked on the door. “Willard? Are you talking today?” No answer. Maybe Willard had some food and water concealed on his person. In his pockets or down his pants leg. Jackson hoped this was the case, although he would have thought any substantial amount of supplies would have been visible and he hadn’t noticed any strange lumps in Willard’s clothes. “Willard, do not kill yourself in there,” said Jackson. “Do not kill yourself. Is that what you’re planning on doing?” Jackson realized that Willard may have already killed himself, which would explain his silence. “Greta’s coming by later, Willard. You don’t want to miss that.”
Jackson took the plate of hash and glass of water back upstairs. He poured the water down the kitchen sink and scraped the hash into the garbage can. He went into the living room and sat on the couch under the front window. It was cold outside, but the sun was warm on the back of his neck.
Jackson didn’t think Willard had killed himself. All that stuff about becoming a new man didn’t sound like the kind of thing someone who wasn’t planning on being around anymore would say. But if Greta didn’t manage to coax Willard out of the room, or at least get him to communicate somehow, then Jackson was eventually going to have to smash his way inside. There was an old axe in the shed that he figured he’d be able to use to hack through the door, but he was going to be very irritated with Willard if it came to that. He wondered how long Willard could last without water, if indeed he didn’t have any with him, which he probably didn’t. Surely if Willard wasn’t trying to kill himself he’d have the good sense to come out before he died of thirst. An unpleasant thought struck Jackson. Where was Willard going to the bathroom? Greta couldn’t get there soon enough.
Greta didn’t show up until after 8.
“Sorry,” she said as Jackson led her down the basement stairs. “They kept me late at work. I tried to tell them it was a family emergency but they didn’t believe me.” She was wearing a jeans-and-long-sleeved-t-shirt outfit that Jackson thought was too casual to be work clothes, which meant she’d probably gone home before coming to talk to Willard, which made Jackson wonder if she considered the situation a family emergency.
“He’s in here,” said Jackson, walking over to the bedroom door and tapping on it with one knuckle.
Greta stepped up to the door and pounded on it with the palm of her hand. “Willard, it’s Greta! Come out!”
She looked at Jackson and frowned as she waited for a response. “Don’t ignore me!” she shouted.
“He hasn’t said anything to me either,” said Jackson.
“I’m his wife,” said Greta. “It’s not the same.”
“Well, it’s my room,” said Jackson. “In my house.”
“We have to break in,” said Greta. “Right now.”
“I was gonna wait a few days,” said Jackson. “Just to see if anything developed.”
“It has to be now,” said Greta. “What if he’s had an accident?”
“I’m not sure how that would happen,” said Jackson. “Unless he’s been climbing around on the dressers. But I haven’t heard anything.”
“Listen,” said Greta. “I’m here now. I’m not going home until we find out what’s going on in there.”
“I’ll get the axe,” said Jackson.
“Hear that?” shouted Greta, hammering on the door again. “He’s getting an axe, Willard! Aren’t you embarrassed? You should be!”
The axe wasn’t where Jackson thought it was and he had to dig around in the shed for a long time before he found it under a roll of tarpaper. When he got back to the basement, Greta was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back against the bedroom door. “Can you really chop through the door?” she asked.
“It’s not a very good door,” said Jackson. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”
“Last chance, Willard!” shouted Greta as she got to her feet. When she received no answer, she stepped back and gave Jackson a signal with her hand, which angered him since it was his axe and his door. He hefted the axe, stepped forward, and swung it from his shoulder with both hands, the head punching through the cheap door with no problem. He yanked the axe loose and swung it again, thin splinters of wood flying through the air as the hole in the door widened. Jackson aimed a blow near the door’s upper hinge and the door separated from the hinge with a crack. Seeing how successful this approach was, with the door hanging askew now, Jackson swung the axe like a golf club at the lower hinge, missed the door, and broke the hinge loose from the doorframe. Dropping the axe, Jackson jumped back out of the way as the door fell towards him and landed with a bang and a puff of dust on the floor.
The dressers were blocking the doorway, but none of them reached higher than Jackson’s chest. Standing on the fallen door, Jackson and Greta looked over the tops of the dressers and into the dark bedroom.
“Willard?” said Greta. “Where are you?”
“I can’t see anything,” said Jackson. “We’ll have to climb over top of the dressers to get into the room.”
“Willard!” said Greta. “We’re as good as in now, so you might as well speak!”
A long, deep sigh came out of the darkness. “I’m here,” said Willard in a voice that sounded strained and muffled.
“We know,” said Greta. “That’s why we smashed the door.”
“Why I smashed it in, yeah,” said Jackson.
“I haven’t changed yet,” said Willard. “I haven’t transformed all the way yet. You didn’t give me enough time.”
“We’ve been married for two years,” said Greta. “How much time do you need?”
“I can’t change out there,” said Willard. “There are too many distractions. I can’t focus out there.”
“You would have died of thirst closed up in there,” said Greta. “Your plan was idiotic.”
Jackson had to agree. He rested his hands on the dresser closest to the door and tried to rock it back and forth. It bumped against the other dressers Willard had arranged around it. Clearing the doorway was going to be a major ordeal.
“So do we have to come drag you out of there?” asked Greta.
“I can’t move very well,” said Willard. “Or see, really.”
“Your muscles couldn’t have atrophied that fast,” said Jackson.
“That’s not the problem!” said Willard. “I already told you!”
Jackson looked at Greta, who was fuming. “I’ll go see what’s wrong with him,” said Jackson. He walked over to a shelf on the far wall of the basement, found a dusty flashlight that still worked, and came back over to the bedroom, boosting himself up on top of the dresser in the doorway and crawling into the room on the tops of the other dressers before dropping to the floor. He could just make out Willard’s prone form lying on the cement. Jackson turned on the flashlight and nearly dropped it as he recoiled at what he saw.
“I told you,” said Willard. “I’m only partially transformed.” His face was puffy and there was a gummy substance coating his features that was especially thick around his eyes and chin. His hair was patchy and there were shiny bits of scalp showing on the top of his head. Training the beam of the flashlight down Willard’s body, Jackson saw that something was happening to Willard’s hands too. Some of his fingers had fused together and there were new nubs sprouting out of his knuckles. “Don’t touch me,” said Willard. “I’m very sensitive right now.”
“What’s going on?” shouted Greta. “Is he coming out?”
“I don’t think that’s going to be an option,” said Jackson. “He’s a mess.”
“Perfect,” said Greta. “That figures. Willard, this is so typical! No matter how much you promise to change, you’re still the same screw-up!”
Jackson heard her stalk across the basement to the steps and then stomp upstairs and slam the door behind her.
“You shouldn’t have interfered,” said Willard with an expression on his face that, regardless of what it was intended to convey, just looked disgusting. “I didn’t want anyone to see me until I was a new person.”
“A new person can be just as aggravating as everyone else,” said Jackson. “If not more so. How much longer do you need?”
“A few days,” said Willard. “I’m changing everything Greta doesn’t like about me. Personality issues, tastes. It takes a while, but I’ll be OK.”
“All right,” said Jackson. “Then I’m leaving you down here. Just come upstairs when you’re finished.”
“Sounds fine,” said Willard. “Will the guest bedroom still be available? I think I’ll need it. At least until I can prove to Greta how much I’ve changed.”
Jackson hesitated. “I suppose,” he finally said because he felt he had to. But there was no way the new Willard would be anything but a lateral move. He was an irritant at the very core of his being and no amount of isolated rearrangement of his raw material could produce anything other than an irritant no matter how different the presentation.
“You owe me a door,” said Jackson as he climbed back up onto the dressers.
“Once I’ve changed, my new self will probably reimburse you,” said Willard.
Jackson doubted it.