George was the deputy manager of a small bank branch. He sat at a desk eight or nine hours a day. He was getting flabby. Sometimes he said to himself, “George, you should do some push-ups and sit-ups,” but he never got around to it. He stayed at work late most nights because he dreaded going home to an empty house.
Jane was a customer service representative at an insurance agency. She usually punched out at five o’clock because she did volunteer work. She also took care of her aging parents. Her home was a small apartment in an old brick building at the edge of town. At night she watched TV, partly because she liked it and partly to avoid the silence that went with living alone.
There was a convoluted business matter between the bank branch and the insurance agency, which we won’t go into here, because it’s boring, but it meant that George and Jane ended up talking on the phone a few times a week.
At some point they started peppering their business conversations with personal comments and joking remarks, and George said, “Do you eat dinner?”
“‘Of course I eat dinner. Doesn’t everybody?”
“You want to go to a steak place with me?”
“What night were you thinking of, George?”
“Thursday, Friday, something like that.”
“Thursdays I cook for my parents. Fridays I volunteer at the senior center.”
“Pick me up at seven.”
On the big night George stood at his bathroom sink, wearing a Spider-man towel he had won in a raffle. With a razor he made paths in the fluffy shaving cream on his face.
He put on white boxers, a plaid shirt, khaki pants, black socks, a black belt, and black shoes. He left the house for his Cutlass Supreme parked on the street. He found a parking ticket under a windshield wiper. It was going to cost him fifty dollars.
He drove nice and easy toward Jane’s apartment building. He had yet to see her in person, and they had not sent each other any photographs by text or email, so he wondered what she looked like.
He said to himself, “So what if she isn’t pretty. Who are you, Buddy Ellis?”
Buddy Ellis was a movie star who was big at the time. He had a rippled abdomen and blonde streaks in his hair.
The gas gauge showed the tank was almost empty. But if George were to stop at a gas station to fill it, he would put himself in danger of being late.
He didn’t want to be late. Then again, he didn’t want to run out of gas.
He wondered what to do.
Jane was looking through her bedroom window at the street below. It was seven o’clock. George had not shown. She decided to wait for him outside.
Jane lived in a poor part of town. As she stood on the sidewalk in a neat blue skirt and colorful blouse, she provided a contrast to the tramps who passed by pushing carts full of cans and bottles.
“Gimme a dollar,” one of these men said.
Jane took a granola bar from her purse. The tramp grabbed it and walked on.
“Say thank you,” Jane said.
He said nothing.
“Now that’s just rude,” she said.
Over a wire fence, in a patch of dirt that served as the front yard for the battered house in the shadow of the apartment building where Jane lived, a toddler stood among various piece of junk. For clothing he had only a diaper. He was sucking on a pacifier and staring at Jane.
“You shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” Jane said. “You’re too little.”
He spat out the pacifier. “Mama,” he said.
Babies and small children made Jane uncomfortable — not because she didn’t like them, but because she wanted one of her own. To have a child, though, she felt she should have a husband, and it wasn’t looking good.
“I’m hungry,” the toddler said.
Jane found another granola bar in her purse and gave it to him. He tore open the wrapper and ate it so fast that she wondered if he had eaten anything else that day.
A Cutlass Supreme eased to the curb. The passenger-side window went down and the man at the wheel leaned across the front seat and said, “I’m looking for somebody who lives around here named Jane. You wouldn’t happen to know her by any chance, would you, miss?”
“Quit kidding around,” Jane said.
She liked how George looked. He was no Buddy Ellis but he was all right.
As Jane stepped into the car, George handed her a hard plastic cone filled with red roses. He didn’t mention that he had gotten them at the gas station.
“Thank you, George, they’re beautiful.”
“You are, too!” he said — and realized he was shouting without meaning to.
“Let me go inside and put these in water.”
“Nah, we can just keep ’em in the car. Let’s go. I’m hungry.”
“Hold your horses. They won’t close the restaurant.”
Jane got out of the car and walked back to the old brick building with quick steps.
While she was gone, the toddler put his stare on George.
“What are you lookin’ at?” George called through the open window.
“I’m hungry,” the toddler said.
“Let me see if I got something.”
He found a string of red licorice in the glove compartment. He got out of the car and passed it over the fence. In one suck the toddler made the string disappear.
“Lemme see if I got anything else.”
George felt around some more inside the glove compartment but found nothing. So he gave the kid all the coins from his change cup. It came to one dollar and eighty-five cents.
“Don’t spend it all in one place.”
Just then a loud voice sounded from inside the house: “Vernon! Get back in here before I beat your butt!”
At the restaurant George and Jane ordered roast beef — the “king’s cut” for George, the “queen’s cut” for Jane. When the waiter brought the dishes to the table, George felt guilty, because the “king’s cut” was massive and the “queen’s cut” was very small. Halfway through the meal, he said, “Sure you don’t want some of mine?”
“I’m fine,” Jane said.
But when George was making his way back to the table after having taken a quick phone call from his boss, he saw Jane reaching across the table with her fork and spearing a fairly big piece of the roast beef on his plate. She chewed fast and swallowed before he pulled back his chair. He considered making a quip about it but decided against it.
Through the warm summer night they strolled the lumpy sidewalks and stopped in at an ice cream shop. George ordered a fudge ripple cone, two scoops, and Jane went with a small cup of raspberry swirl yogurt. He asked her if she wanted some of his, and she said no. But before he had made it down to the cone part, she took two great licks and bit off a good-sized hunk of the fudge ripple.
In a churchyard, as the sky lost its light, George and Jane kissed for a long time.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he said. “We’ve known each other only a couple hours, not counting the phone calls, but how do you feel about marriage?”
“I feel it’s a useful institution.”
“What I meant was, how would you feel about you and me getting married? It wouldn’t have to be fancy. A judge can do it at City Hall. Doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes.”
Three months later George and Jane were married in a church. Afterward there was a reception with a jazz combo and forty-five guests.
They rented a one-story house not far from Jane’s old apartment. It had one bathroom, one bedroom, a small kitchen, three closets, and an attic above the main hallway. There was also a tiny backyard, where Jane planted tomatoes and basil. The marriage was happy, but a year into it they did not have a baby or even any sign of one.
“Do you think it’ll ever happen for us?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be a mama one day.”
And when the house made creaking noises late at night, Jane asked George if he thought the place was haunted.
He always said no.
One Sunday morning Jane made a dozen pancakes. George entered the kitchen looking sleepy. He slathered the three pancakes on his plate with butter. Then he poured maple syrup on them until it pooled and dribbled over the edges. He ate until the plate was empty, not counting the crumbs and the sticky remnants of syrup.
“Don’t you have anything to say this morning?” Jane asked.
“I just woke up. Nothing happened yet so I can talk about it.”
Jane had two pancakes on her plate, with a modest amount of syrup and no butter, and she ate them methodically.
“Would you like more?” she said.
“How many more we got?”
The seven extras were on a separate plate, kept warm beneath a glass dome.
“I’ll eat ’em all, unless you want some.”
“I’ve had enough, George. I think I’ll go and water my tomato plants.”
She left the kitchen through the back door. George heaped the pancakes onto his plate and gave them the butter and syrup treatment. Just as he was making his way through pancake number two, the phone rang. He stepped into the living room and took the call. It was a work call that lasted ten minutes. He was annoyed to have to deal with this kind of thing in the middle of his Sunday breakfast.
When he went back to the table, he saw that his plate was empty.
“Jane! My pancakes! They’re gone!”
After a moment, Jane came inside through the back door.
“Was it you?” he asked. “Did you eat those pancakes?”
“Me? I can barely manage two — don’t talk crazy.”
“I’ll tell you what’s crazy. I leave the room to take a call and when I come back, my pancakes are gone.”
“You probably ate them yourself and forgot.”
“You think I can’t remember it when I eat seven pancakes?”
They were both seething. Jane stomped off, back to the garden.
When George and Jane lay side by side in bed that night, staring at the ceiling, the little house made its usual creaking noises. George found that he was still wondering about those pancakes — and his mind flashed back to their first date.
To the “king’s cut.” And the fudge ripple.
The next Sunday night, George went to the refrigerator expecting to find a plate of sliced cantaloupe, which he had cut up earlier in the day. But all he found was an empty plate with a little pool of cantaloupe-colored juice on it.
“Honey?” he called. “Did you eat that cantaloupe?”
She didn’t answer. She was already asleep in bed.
The Sunday after that, Jane made hamburgers for dinner. Just as they sat down, the phone rang. It was another work call for George. He took it in the living room. When he got back to the table, Jane was gone — and his hamburger was gone, too.
She came back into the kitchen.
“My burger is gone!”
“You must have eaten it and forgotten all about it,” she said. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“What about yours?”
“You mean my burger? You were on the phone so long, I just ended up eating it.”
“Where were you just now?”
“I went to check my email. In the other room.”
“Why can’t you admit it, Jane?”
“That you’re stealing my food. That you’ve been stealing my food ever since the night we met!”
She had a fierce look.
That night, in bed, as Jane snored lightly and George listened to the creaks, he wondered just who this woman was, this woman he had married. Was she a secret food thief and a liar on top of that? He didn’t want to believe such a thing, but what other explanation could there be?
He had an idea. And he made a plan.
For breakfast the next Sunday morning, Jane made French toast and sunny-side-up eggs. When she was almost ready to serve it, George sent a text to one of his coworkers in accordance with the scheme he had hatched. Then he set his smartphone on a bookshelf, so that its camera lens had a good view of the kitchen table.
Toward the end of breakfast he asked, in a casual tone, if Jane had made enough for a second helping.
“You sure do have an appetite,” she said, and she fixed his plate with three more pieces of French toast and one more sunny-side-up egg. “I think I’ll go outside now and water my tomatoes.”
“That’s a great idea,” George said.
As Jane was heading for the back door, the house phone rang. It was his coworker — right on schedule. George picked up and whispered, “Thanks, Fred. I owe you one.” The coworker hung up. George stayed in the living room for ten minutes, pretending to have a conversation. (He said things like, “Well, you have a good point there.”)
When he returned to the table, the three pieces of French toast and the sunny-side-up egg were gone from his plate. Now Jane would have to admit it. And if she didn’t, well, he would simply show her the video.
But when she came in from the garden, she was so sweet and cheerful that he didn’t have the heart to bring it up. They both worked so hard all week, at the bank and the insurance agency — so why mess up a Sunday?
In bed that night, though, George found that it was weighing on his mind.
“It’s funny,” he said.
“What’s funny, George?”
“This food thing. When you were supposedly out in the garden this morning, somebody ate my French toast, not to mention my sunny-side-up egg.”
“Not this again.”
“Why won’t you admit it? I don’t care about the food. I just don’t like the lying.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“Nobody has to call anybody anything. I got it all on video.”
He took his smartphone from the nightstand. There, in the dark bedroom, as the house made its nightly creaks, George and Jane watched the little screen. After two minutes, this is what they saw: a ragged-looking boy sneaking into the kitchen and eating everything on George’s plate with the appetite of a wild animal.
“The poor child,” Jane said.
“I’m sorry, Jane. I’m sorry I accused you.”
“The poor child,” she said again.
“All this time I thought it was you. Boy, honey, was I ever wrong.”
Jane no longer cared enough about the argument to even acknowledge it. She grabbed the phone and watched the child with tears in her eyes.
“We have to find him,” she said. “We have to help that little guy.”
“Hang on a minute,” George said.
He pulled back the covers and got out of bed.
“George? What are you doing?”
He stood beneath the special door set in the hallway ceiling. There was a cord attached to it. He gave it a tug. The door came open and a set of ladder-like stairs slid toward him, from the ceiling to the floor.
He set his right foot on the first step and his left foot on the second and he started climbing toward the dark attic.
Once he was up there, he heard scratching sounds, as if squirrels or raccoons were scurrying off to hide. Then he heard the sound of breathing.
An answer came in a small voice: “Nobody.”
“It must be somebody.”
When George’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he saw the boy. He must have been about three or four years old. George scooped him up. He was trembling. A smell hit George’s nostrils, the odor of rot.
“Don’t be scared, I got you.”
George carried the boy down the ladder-like stairs.
Jane took him in her arms, saying, “Are you all right, little guy? Are you hungry?”
In the kitchen she sat him down and prepared him a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. He wolfed down the sandwich and slugged down the milk.
“Where’s your mommy and daddy?” Jane asked.
His hair was long and matted. His clothes were dirty and ripped and too small for his body. While he ate, George drew a bath. Once it was ready, not too hot, Jane brought him to the bathroom. The boy took off his clothes and stepped into the warm water.
“This is the same child who used to live next to my old building,” Jane said.
“Oh, yeah, I remember that little guy. I saw him the night we met.”
“He must have remembered us. He must have followed us here.” She was kneeling next to the tub. “What’s your name, little guy? You can tell us.”
She squirted some shampoo into the palm of her hand and washed his hair. Fleas dove off his scalp and into the water.
“He chose us, George.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he said.
“He remembered us. He found us. He chose us.”
They made the living room couch into a bed, and Jane watched him sleep there for the rest of the night while George snored in the bedroom. The next morning they walked him back to the house with the patch of dirt out front. The closer they got to it, the slower the boy walked. At the wire fence, he cowered. He hid behind Jane’s legs.
“You two stay here,” George said.
He crossed the dirt and stepped aboard the sagging porch. He pressed the doorbell but heard nothing so he knocked. Nobody came. He pounded on the door ten times. Still no one. He looked through the grimy windows. He saw some strange things inside. For instance, part of the floor was covered in smashed glass. And there was a rug that looked like it had been burned at the edges. And there was an old toaster on the couch, and the couch had holes in it.
Finally, a man opened the front door. He had a bandana on his head and no shirt.
“What’s the noise about?”
“Do you live here?”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“I’m looking for the people who live here.”
“I’m more like what you would call a houseguest. The people who live here left a long time ago.”
Three more people appeared behind this man. They looked like shadows.
“Thank you,” George said, and he left.
After meeting with government agencies nine times and appearing in court on six occasions over the next few months, George and Jane formally adopted Vernon. And never again did the food disappear from George’s plate.