Underneath the dresser, the outlet plate slowly opened like a door. Out of decades of habit, Bolt waited and listened, then peeked around the open edge of the plate and scanned the floor of the room, starting with the human-sized door to his right, past the bed with its head against the opposite wall, to the desk under the window to his left, then back to the door.
Bolt had had the house to himself for over a month, but he hadn’t outlived the rest of his family by being reckless. Even stepping out onto the hardwood floor, he moved slowly and listened intently before returning the plate against the wall. Years ago, he would have thrown the infinitesimal switch that his father had shown him how to install, making the outlet live again should any humans try to use it while he was out.
The O’Tooles had probably been about average as human hosts go. Two kids, a dog at first, a cat when it was just Jeannette. Old Man Gordon hadn’t been the handiest man, and he had rarely poked into any of the nooks and crannies where Bolt’s family made their home.
Nevertheless, Bolt’s life had never been carefree, and his caution had served him well. He still made his rounds, checking on all the emergency caches and mechanical accommodations he had installed and maintained over the years.
About six weeks ago, Jeannette’s kids came over to help her move into an assisted-living facility. It had been a long time coming, and Bolt had eavesdropped on several phone calls and one dramatic conversation when Jim—the son—and his wife Alexandra came to the house for the full-court press.
A week after Jeannette’s departure, Jim and Alexandra had visited the house so Alexandra could take measurements and claim items. Bolt didn’t get a look at Jim’s face, but the indulgent tone in his voice told Bold that Jim felt he had scored a coup.
Jeannette’s departure meant disaster for Bolt. The house would be sold, and he would have to either accommodate the new owners or find a new home. At age fifty, he had little enthusiasm for either.
Bolt leaned contemplatively against a leg of the dresser, remembering his first days alone outside the walls. He was constantly underestimating how long it took to cross the distance between furniture, but despite his misgivings he was never seen. In fact, the only time he knew he had been seen had been in this very room.
He glanced up at the hand- and footholds his father had carved into the recesses of the back of the dresser, so small and hidden the Bolt hadn’t been able to see them the first time. Without thinking, Bolt slipped a hand into a crevice and started to climb.
There wasn’t much worth borrowing inside or on top of the dresser anymore. The room, like its counterpart across the hall, had ostensibly been converted into a guest room. Most of the useful clutter had been cleared away, and there was very little traffic, particularly since Jeannette had slowed down. Even when the room had been occupied, the chief attraction had been the vantage point.
Taller than all other furniture in the room, the top of the dresser permitted a very efficient survey. Bolt remembered being exhilarated the first time he glanced out from behind the framed photos and knick-knacks that used to adorn the polished wood surface. He had quickly found himself making excuses to return for another look, although he was careful not to let his father suspect his habit. Particularly not after he had been seen.
At that time, the room belonged to Natalie, Jim’s sister. She and Bolt were exactly the same age, and as they advanced through their teenage years, he had let his curiosity overcome his caution. He never spied on Natalie in the bathroom, but the shadows underneath the dresser afforded excellent cover for watching her change clothes. At first, the thrill of possibly being caught had added to the attraction, but Bolt soon found it no challenge to remain hidden and decided he had seen all there was to see.
It was in such a mood of self-congratulation that Bolt had been waiting under the dresser for Natalie to fall asleep one evening when he heard an unusual rustling from her bed. She was normally a sound sleeper, and she hadn’t seemed sick that evening. Prudence required that Bolt remain beneath the dresser until he was sure Natalie was asleep, but he wasn’t very patient in his youth, and it irked him that he couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t lying still.
Impulsively, he turned to the handholds and climbed to the top of the dresser. The room was only dimly lit by the streetlight filtering through the drapes, and Bolt didn’t hesitate to pull himself up onto the dresser top, lying prone. He slowly crawled forward between the makeup case and a stuffed unicorn that had overstayed its welcome. He hadn’t quite reached the front edge when his field of vision was finally able to encompass the whole of Natalie’s bed.
She was lying on her back, head on her pillow, and the comforter pulled up to her neck. As far as Bolt could make out, Natalie’s arms were both beneath the comforter, and from her shoulders it seemed like her arms were writhing slowly but steadily. The rest of her seemed still, so it wasn’t as if she were tossing and turning. Bolt strained through the dim light to discern her expression, but her head was angled back, facing the ceiling.
To his credit, Bolt told himself he was being stupid as he slowly got to his feet for a slightly better perspective on Natalie’s face. Frustratingly, he couldn’t see much more, although he could have sworn her lips were moving inaudibly.
He shifted his attention to the outlines of Natalie’s arms as they moved beneath the comforter. Her left arm was all over the place, sometimes across her chest, sometimes at her side, sometimes flung over her head. Her right arm was stretched across her belly toward her thighs, her shoulder sending rhythmic downward surges. Was she scratching an itch?
The outline of Natalie’s right hand was barely pronounced, but Bolt focused all his awareness on it, trying to imagine its precise placement, extension, and tempo. His knowledge of the terrain was almost entirely abstract, and his own experimentation was no help. Was she grabbing? Rubbing? Poking?
Then the bedside lamp switched on.
Natalie was staring directly at him, a sensation he had often imagined but never experienced. Both of them were breathing heavily, but otherwise neither of them moved. Three more thunderous heartbeats, then Bolt turned and raced to the back of the dresser and dropped behind it, hoping he made no audible noise as he caught hold of his father’s ladder. Half falling, half climbing, Bolt descended to the floor, then opened the outlet plate. By some miracle he didn’t touch the live current as he dove inside the wall, hauling on the lanyard to close the plate behind him.
He didn’t know how long he lay there, imagining a pursuit that never came. No thumping feet, no cries of alarm, no furniture scraping against walls, no fiddling with the outlet plate. Just a metallic taste in his throat and the afterimage of Natalie’s heaving, astonished face.
For weeks afterward, Bolt avoided Natalie’s room entirely. Eavesdropping gave no indication that Natalie might have spoken to anyone in the house about what she had seen. His father used the outlet plate passage often enough, and he never reported any traps or signs of human scrutiny. After about a month Bolt concluded that Natalie must not have believed her eyes, but his signature caution dated from that closest of calls.
The room remained Natalie’s until about halfway through her college years, but even after she had gotten her own place, the room was never fully emptied of her belongings or memory. She returned for a couple of weeks just before her divorce, but Bolt did not tempt fate by looking in on her.
Bolt’s father only ever once asked him if he wanted to leave the house, perhaps start a family of his own. Bolt considered it for a day or two, then finally replied that it seemed like a great deal of risk for an uncertain future. His father never brought it up again.
Reclining against the ancient tissue box that was now the sole object atop the dresser, Bolt admitted to himself that he probably knew this house better than his father ever did. He had explored and customized more spaces and had laid up more caches and amenities than anyone he knew of. He wasn’t looking forward to starting over.
Bolt reflexively started as he heard a car pull into the driveway. A single car door closed, followed by a key at the front door. He quickly moved to the back of the dresser and climbed down behind it, but he remained just below the top.
Was it Jim and Alexandra again? Perhaps hey had already given a key to a realtor. There was no particular reason for any of them to visit this room, but Bolt stayed hidden. If they talked about when the house was to be sold, he wanted to know his deadline.
He heard footsteps, just one human walking through the house. No voices. Bolt decided he was unlikely to learn anything specific. He started to descend to the floor when the human walked into the room.
They stepped slowly, passing the dresser and the foot of the bed, moving to the desk. There was a stillness that belied any mundane purpose. Finally, Bolt poked his head halfway out of the shadows to glimpse his visitor.
She had her back to him, but Bolt knew it was Natalie. She didn’t look much different than the last time he had a prolonged look at her, almost five years ago. She had both hands placed on the desktop, possibly trying to recall a more innocent time.
Bolt continued to watch Natalie as she turned and sat on her old bed, looking up at the window and the bare walls. Her eyes passed over the dresser, but he knew he was safely hidden. Eventually she swung her legs up onto the bed and lay back until her head rested on the pillow. Her arms remained at her sides as she stared at the ceiling, so Bolt was unprepared when she started speaking.
“The house will be listed tomorrow,” she said in a clear enunciatory voice. “The wiring and plumbing are super old, and the new owners will have to open up all the walls to bring it up to code.”
Bolt’s blood roared in his ears as he realized to whom she must be talking. He started trembling so much that he thought he might lose his grip.
“You’re welcome to stay with me,” she continued, “until you find a new place, or as long as you like.”
Bolt swallowed. She was still lying on her back, not looking in his direction. His limbs felt numb. His father had never prepared him for this.
He watched Natalie’s fingers fidgeting atop the comforter. He felt his mind start to separate from his body, rising above the top of the dresser. Something between desperation and resolution spurred his arms and legs to propel him up over the edge.
Standing on the top, Bolt stared dumbly across the room. A chill pierced his chest as Natalie raised her head and propped herself up on her shoulders. He shambled forward, almost laughing as he raised arms over his head and started waving.
Without taking her eyes off Bolt, Natalie slowly got up and walked over to the dresser. As she lowered her widening eyes and warming smile to his level, he released his tears of relief.
Even drafting this longhand, it was impossible for me not to keep my word count in mind as I composed. Consequently, I declined to follow certain digressions that I would almost certainly have to cut later. I’m very happy with this version and with the fact that it fits the contest’s word limit. It was a good exercise in concision.
However, I can’t let go of the idea that I should have spotted the fact that my original idea required more than two thousand words and tried something else. Of course, there was a deadline, as well, so starting over from scratch was dicey. After submitting it and re-reading it again, I realized something more about where this story came from, and I knew I had to extend it.
Note that is not an early draft that was cut down to what became my contest entry. I’m not sure I would be able to cut this version in any significant way. If I had written this version out first, I might have had to drop out. That would have been unfortunate for the contest, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t have been a better creative exercise.
In any event, please tell me what you think about either version, and if you have a preference, let me know that too.