Neighbors, by C. L. Hernandez

2016 SFReader Story Contest
3rd Place

C. L. Hernandez is a writer of horror, dark fiction, urban fantasy, and occasional poetry. She’is the author of the novel The Curious Case of the Tuscan Plague Doctor, and the series The Complicated Life of Deegie Tibbs. She also writes the self-published series Horror Story Six-Packs (Cobwebs, vol. 1, and A Half-Dozen Horrors, vol. 2) She has stories featured in the anthologies Happy Little Horrors: Freak Show, Dead Harvest: A Collection of Dark Tales, and Deathmongers: Where the Light Dies. She lives in California’s Central Valley, and her life is a constant work in progress. Check out her website.

Neighbors
By C. L. Hernandez

Darla couldn’t stand it anymore.

Just one more peek before I start dinner.

Her fingertips, a shade pinker than the dusty lace curtain, trembled minutely, and she moved the curtain aside, just a little. Her husband, reclining on the couch behind her, rattled his newspaper and made an exaggerated throat-clearing sound. The curtain fluttered back into place as Darla spun around, her face a heated crimson.

The slight breeze of her haste stirred a downy hammock of spider web clinging to the curtain rod, and vintage fly corpses bobbed and swayed.

“Honey, don’t stare at the neighbors.” Matthew Lawrence’s face remained obscured behind the sports section for a few more seconds before he tossed the paper aside and shuffled across the carpet to join his wife at the window. “What could possibly be so interesting about those people?”

“Sorry.” Darla lowered her eyelashes, and her front teeth sought the abraded softness of her lower lip; she’d been nibbling there lately. “They just moved in the other day, while you were—you know—napping. They look…interesting. Besides, it’s better than watching that!” She pointed at the shrieking, candy-colored nonsense on the TV screen, then stabbed random buttons on the remote with her finger until the set went silent. She flicked her dust rag at the row of porcelain cats on the coffee table.

“I haven’t seen the husband yet,” Darla said. “He comes home late at night, and he’s gone by the time I wake up in the morning.” She sniffed at the dust rag and wrinkled her nose. “I bet he’s having an affair.”

“Well I’ll bet he’s just working to support his family.” Matthew paused to listen to the sounds of family fun time coming from across the street. “Sounds like a lot of kids. At least three or four. Poor guy has to work his ass off day and night, most likely. He probably doesn’t have time for an affair.” He took his wife’s arm and led her away from the window. “Don’t judge the neighbors; you don’t even know them.”

Later, seated on the couch next to her husband, Darla buttered slices of toast and arranged them—just so—around a gone-cold bowl of tomato soup. Matthew wasn’t eating again, and his face was still the color of old denim. “You need to eat,” Darla said, and she waved a slice of the fragrant rye toast under his nose.

A trio of flies strolled along Matthew’s abandoned newspaper, and she flapped the hem of her apron at them. The house was full of flies lately; not to mention cobwebs, dust, and dirty dishes. Darla did what she could here and there, but the bulk of the housework would have to wait. Her primary concern was Matthew now, and she would stay by his side until he was completely well again. He had come so close to death.

“I guess I’m just not that hungry,” said Matthew. “But I’ll eat soon. Promise.”

His fingers were stiff and chilly as they slid across her wrist and Darla said, “You’d better.”

Matthew nodded and closed his eyes.

What a good husband I have, Darla thought as she watched her husband sleep. So faithful. So loving.

She pressed a kiss onto his pale brow and felt a sting of pity for the woman across the street. She certainly didn’t have a quality man like Matthew. “I know you’d never leave me,” Darla said.

Later that afternoon, Darla stood at the window, looking out. She tightened her grip on her trusty dust rag and made a few random swipes at the cobweb trapeze hanging from the curtain rod. If Matthew woke and found her at the window again, that dusty clump of spider web would be her alibi: ‘What? Oh no, I was simply dusting, honey,’ she’d say. ‘Just dusting. Not spying on the neighbors at all.’

She glanced over her shoulder at Matthew, who still slumbered in his nest of blankets and newspapers, then returned her attention to the woman across the street. She was hunkered down on the sidewalk next to a flat of pansies, and busily digging holes at the edge of the lawn. Her cut-off shorts were riding up the crack of her ass, and her calves were covered with squiggly blue veins.

“No wonder your husband cheats on you,” Darla said aloud.

“Darla.” Matthew’s voice sounded muffled under his drift of blankets.

She whirled around, feigning innocence. “Hungry, honey? Shall I fix you some oatmeal?”

“Maybe if you’d pay a little less attention to the neighbors and more attention to me, I’d be fully recovered by now.”

The dust rag fell to the floor, trailing dirty grey cobwebs. Darla breathed in deeply, her blunt fingers patting her faded red hair into place as she took in air and pretended she wasn’t hurt by his comment.

“You’d be dead if it weren’t for me,” she said simply. “I’ll cook you some eggs.” She shrugged off his harsh words. He wasn’t quite well yet; he wouldn’t say such things otherwise.

Darla paused at the kitchen doorway. “That husband of hers is like a ghost,” she told her husband. “His name on the mailbox is the closest I’ve come to seeing him.” She giggled and straightened her apron. “Could you imagine being married to a ghost, Matthew? Oh, my mind comes up with the craziest notions sometimes.”

***

Darla was elbows-deep in dish suds when the phone rang later that evening. Muttering mild curses, she blotted her pruny hands on her apron and answered the call on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Mom?” Her daughter’s voice, crackly and uncertain. “Are you okay? I just thought I’d check…”

“Yes, I’m fine, dear. I don’t need a thing. Thank you for checking up on me, though. You’re so sweet, and I’m so deserving.” Darla trilled plastic laughter and hoped it was convincing.

“Mom…? You sure…? I can be there in an hour if you—”

Darla tightened her jaw, and she fought to keep her voice steady. “Yes, Connie. Completely sure. Things were a little crazy around here with your father being sick and all, but he’s…he’s…” She stared at the sink full of glistening suds. “Everything’s fine now, Connie. Really.”

“My offer still stands, Mom. Come stay with us. The kids miss you, and I’m…well, I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine, Connie.” Darla’s fingers tightened and grew white around the phone’s plastic handset. “Although I’m not the one you should be asking about, you know. Your father is—”

“Mom, stop talking about Daddy! Listen to me!”

In a theatrical display of indignation, Darla slammed the rotary phone’s handset back into its cradle. “So, Miss Know-It-All Connie thinks I can’t handle taking care of business, does she?” Her hand plunged into the orange-scented dishwater, and she yanked the stopper from the drain. The rest of Matthew’s dishes would have to wait; she was far too frazzled to do it now.

***

“Mom, that old lady’s looking over here again!”

Across the street, Camryn Holm broadcast her urgent announcement. She slam-banged her way down the hall to her mother’s bedroom with her three siblings, Malachi, Beth, and Zach, in tow. “Every time we go out to the front yard—BOOM—there she is, staring at us from her window. It’s rude, and it’s creepy, and it sucks!”

Pam Holm looked up from the laundry she had been folding and drew in a long, steadying breath. She held it for a few heartbeats, then let it out slowly, like she’d learned to do in yoga class. “Then go to the back yard,” she said. “Problem solved, right?”

Camryn flopped her arms and rolled her eyes heavenward in a pique of eleven-year-old angst. “But Mommm! It’s not faaaair! Why is she allowed to be all nosy and staring and weird? Why is that okay? We should be allowed to play in our own front yard without—”

“Enough!” Pam held up a hand and narrowed her eyes, a baleful expression that clearly indicated she’d had enough of her offspring’s nonsense for one day. “All four of you! Either go play in the back yard, or go read in your rooms! These are your only choices! And you be nice to that poor lady across the street.”

“We’re not bothering her!” Camryn crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. “Besides, we don’t even know her.”

Pam tightened her fingers around a balled-up sock, throttling it. “Remember Mrs. Dunbar? The nice lady who helped us find this house?”

Camryn rolled her eyes again and nodded. Malachi, the youngest sibling, scratched a mosquito bite on his ankle and looked solemn-eyed.

“Well, that’s her mother, Mrs. Lawrence, over there across the street. I’ve heard life’s been hard for that family lately, so you kids be nice! Besides, she probably only wants to see who’s moved in over here. Now shoo! Go do something, or I’ll make you fold your father’s underwear!”

Threatened with forced participation in household chores, the kids cleared the room, filed into the back yard, and promptly began a spirited debate over who should be allowed to drink from the hose first.

Pam plunged her hands into the pile of warm, fragrant towels that lay on the bed and began folding. She checked the clock on the nightstand. It was almost time for her husband’s lunchtime phone call. His twelve hour shifts at the plastics plant would take a while to get used to.

When the kids’ outdoor activities became boring, Camryn suggested a game of Truth or Dare. She explained the rules to her siblings, and declared that she was going first. Then, with a dangerous grin, she chose her victim: “Malachi! Truth or dare?”

Malachi considered his reply, but Camryn was impatient.

“Truth or dare, butthead? What’s it gonna be? C’mon, we ain’t got all day!” She sneered down at her younger brother. “Kids are so stupid.”

The other two Dunbar kids studied Malachi with a new interest. The game their big sister was teaching them was far more entertaining than the ladybug they’d captured in a coffee can earlier.

“Dare!” Malachi sputtered. “I choose dare!”

Camryn leaned in close, and Malachi smelled pink bubble gum on her breath when she said, “I dare you to go across the street, peek in that old lady’s window, and take a picture.” She held her cell phone a few inches in front of his nose. “I’ll even let you use my celly!”

Beth and Zach let out twin gasps of awe and gaped at their older sister. She had skipped right over the easy, fit-for-little-brothers dares, and gone right for the serious stuff. Mal wouldn’t do it, no way. He’d wind up crying, peeing his pants, or breaking Camryn’s cell phone.

Malachi studied the pink and lavender unicorn sticker on the proffered cell phone, and he touched it reverently with a fingertip. Accepting Camryn’s dare would surely earn him a little more respect from the others. They might even let him be the boss sometimes instead of dumb old Camryn. She always got to be the boss and that certainly wasn’t fair.

His hand shot out, cat-quick, and he snatched the cell phone from Camryn’s palm. “I’ll do it,” he said.

***

Malachi had bony, scabby legs that could move like lightning and a small, compact body that was easily hidden in the tall weeds of the vacant lot next to the Lawrence house. Grasshoppers chirped and scuttled in the dry grass, and the mid-summer sun raised a gleam of sweat on the boy’s sunburned brow. Not a single sound came from the old lady’s house.

This is going to be easier than I thought, he reassured himself. If the old lady spotted him, he’d just run; she couldn’t catch him. Emboldened by his own thoughts and clutching his sister’s cell phone, Malachi crept out of the weeds and eased himself over the low fence surrounding the property.

“I don’t care what you say, Matthew! Connie has no idea what she’s talking about!” The old woman’s strident voice burst through the open window and ruined the golden stillness of the hot summer afternoon. The somnolent drone of the grasshoppers ceased at once and Malachi almost screamed. He was more than halfway across the side yard, exposed, and there were no hiding places.

He closed the remaining distance in three long leaps and squatted down under the window. His heart felt huge and shuddery, and his body crackled with terror-fueled adrenaline, but he remembered his mission: it wasn’t about Camryn’s dumb game, not anymore. This was about proving to her once and for all that he was way more than some dumb little kid.

He swallowed hard and forced his fear-swollen heart back into his chest where it belonged. He grinned in spite of his dilemma. Camryn would have run screaming down the street if she had heard that old lady yelling. He pressed against the sun-warmed splintered boards of the house and tightened his sweat-slick grip on the cell phone.

“No, Matthew! You’re wrong, and so is she! I cared for you! I nursed you back to health when everyone else gave up! You would have died if it weren’t for me! I can handle things! I can take care of business! I can! I can!”

The old lady’s screech had traveled from one side of the house to the other, and Mal wondered if she was doing that walking back and forth thing that grown-ups sometimes did when they got pissed off. His legs tensed as he prepared to spring up, snap his picture, and run like hell.

She’s just an old lady, and I can run faster. She’s just an old lady, and I can run faster. He repeated the mantra under his breath, and his grubby finger quivered over the phone’s touch screen. Maybe when she goes to the bathroom, he thought, Yeah, that’s when I’ll take the picture! She’ll never even see me! And it’ll be real soon too, because old ladies pee a lot, like Grandma does!

“Matthew, do not argue with me. The subject is closed.” The old lady’s voice took on a librarian-like primness now, and for that Mal was glad; her previous lunatic’s screech had been horrifying. Now she just sounded like his Sunday school teacher.

“I just find it odd that your golden girl didn’t even ask how you were. How do you like that?”

Her old lady shoes made creaky thumps across the wooden floor boards. She was standing by the window again; he couldn’t take his picture now.

Come on, you dumb old bat! Come on!

A grasshopper tried tuning its fiddle in the tall grass behind him, but gave up after a single note.

“I’m not yelling!” The old lady’s voice rose up again, screeching and squawking, and Mal tried not to think of a gigantic grasshopper with a shrill human voice and bristly, backwards legs.

“Connie never asked about you! Not one word about her own father!”

Holy crap! Who is she talking to?

Thunkthunkthunk…thunk.

Her steps led away from the window again, but Mal still heard her voice: loud and scratchy, like the voice of the wind-up talking witch his mother brought home last Halloween.

“What do you mean, she knows you’re okay? That’s ridiculous! Of course she doesn’t know! You haven’t spoken to her since I got you out of that horrible place! That—that hole in the ground!”

Whoever the crazy old bitch was yelling at was doing a pretty good job of ignoring her. Unless…of course! She was on the phone! That’s why he couldn’t hear another person talking! And to think he was half scared to death! Mal decided to keep that last part to himself, though. The other kids would use that little secret as grist for the teasing mill for years to come. He could almost hear them now: Mal’s scared of old ladies! Neener-neener-NEEner! Kids are so stupid!

“All right, Matthew. We won’t fight about it. You’re right of course. Besides, you need to save your strength for getting well, don’t you?”

Thunk, thunk went the old lady shoes until she stood next to the window again, right over a vaguely frightened Malachi. How long had he been crouching next to that warm, splintery house? Five minutes? Ten? Surely it wasn’t as long as it felt.

“I’m going upstairs for a nap now, dear. Do you need anything before I go? Toast? Tea? Another blanket?”

Dishes rattled and papers rustled.

“I was going to straighten up the coffee table for you today, but—”

A pause.

“Alright then, my love. I’m going upstairs now.”

Someone was in the house with her!

The old lady’s shoes clomped up the stairs, and a door slammed somewhere on the second floor.

Mal closed his eyes and gathered courage while his ears remained on high alert for any sound indicating her return. It was now a simple matter of jump up, snap a picture, then run like hell back home to brag about his bravery under such weird circumstances. He readied the camera, his skinny boy’s legs tensed, then he sprang upright and snapped three pictures through the window glass.

In the three seconds it took to acquire proof that he’d completed his dare, Mal was able to determine that there was indeed another person in the house besides Mrs. Lawrence.

Someone was lying on the couch.

Mal saw two legs, clad in blue pajama bottoms, poking out from beneath a jumble of blankets and newspapers. A pair of worn out corduroy slippers covered the feet. The rest of the person was hidden from view, bundled up like a burrito under all those blankets. A heap of plates and bowls, full of rotting food, covered the coffee table, and a battalion of fat, glistening flies investigated the scene.

Mrs. Lawrence sure is a shitty housekeeper, Mal thought. And that person on the couch looks sick! He took one more picture: the couch with its motionless occupant, and the coffee table, groaning under its load of dirty dishes.

Something’s wrong here. Far more than a mere thought, that feeling of dread fairly oozed through the dusty, fly-specked window, and his fear accelerated to unbearable levels. He jammed the phone back in his pocket and ran like hell.

He plunged through the tall weeds, horrified tears scalding his cheeks. The grasshoppers rose up around him in a chirring cloud. Something grabbed his ankle and pulled him to the ground. Mal thrashed and flailed in the dust, screaming soundlessly, grappling with the thing pinning him down.

A shovel with a broken handle lay in the grass. Not a snake, not a monster, not an axe murderer, just an old shovel with a mud caked blade lying in the grass just waiting for a precocious six-year-old boy to trip over it.

He went to his mother first.

That suffocating feeling of wrongness had been too much to bear, and even a hell-bent-for-adventure kid knew when an adult should intervene. In his mother’s cheerful blue kitchen, Malachi showed her the pictures on Camryn’s phone, and told her the things he’d seen through the Lawrences’ dirty living room window. An odd little sound escaped his mother’s throat as she looked at the pictures. Her mouth dropped open so far Mal could see the fillings in her teeth.

“I’m sorry, Mom.” Mal’s bottom lip trembled. “I know I shouldn’ta gone over there, but Camryn made me do it! She did! She—”

“Go take your bath.” Pam Dunbar’s voice wavered—just a bit—and her fingers whipped through the pages of a phone book. “And get your brothers and sisters in here. Now.”

The feeling of wrong became huge, smothering and malignant. Wrong became VERY wrong and tears began to flow. “Okay, Mom,” Mal said.

***

Darla woke refreshed, with a sleep creased face and a cleared mind. After a brief freshening up, she would go downstairs and resume her role as devoted wife and nursemaid. Matthew was growing stronger by the day, thanks to her careful ministrations.

That horrid daughter of theirs certainly hadn’t done much, that was certain. How dare she not ask about her poor, sick father? Shame on her! Darla had a good mind to call Connie and give her a good scolding, but first Matthew needed tea, maybe an herbal blend this evening.

The phone rang just as the kettle shrieked, and Darla nearly dropped her husband’s favorite mug. She scrabbled at the stove knobs, silenced the teapot’s wail, then picked up the ringing phone. “Hello? Yes?”

“Mom…”

At the sound of her daughter’s voice, Darla curled her free hand into a fist, and her tone was glacial when she said, “Hello, Constance.”

“Mom, I just…I got a call from the woman across the street from you, and she said that…oh shit, Mother, what have you done? What the hell did you do?”

Darla dipped a tea bag in and out of hot water and nipped at her bottom lip. “I don’t know what you mean, dear. All I’ve been doing this past week is taking care of your father. I don’t suppose you want to talk to him? He’s awake now, wanting his tea. He’s getting stronger every day, just in case you were concerned about that, which I doubt. The poor dear. It’s been such a struggle.”

“Mom! Listen to me! I—”

“I’m not in the mood for another scolding, Connie. I’ll give you a call back once I’ve simmered down.”

“Did you dig him up, Mom? Did you dig Daddy up? Mom? Answer me, damn you!”

“That’s no way to talk to your mother, Constance.” Darla sniffed and tossed the teabag into the sink. “Goodbye.”

From the living room came Matthew’s voice, low and smooth: “Sweetheart? Is my tea ready yet?”

“Coming dear!” Darla put the tea on a tray and added a few shortbread cookies; Matthew always liked those.

***

The authorities had to break the door down eventually. Darla Lawrence was magnificent in her fierce determination to refuse their entry, and quite a spectacle took place on the front lawn of her home. She eluded the police for a surprising amount of time, considering her age.  She darted around the yard, tearing at her hair and apron as she screamed the name of her dead husband at the black and purple sky.

Across the street, huddled in a lump on his bed, Malachi heard the old woman’s eerie wail, and he pressed his hands hard against his ears to block out the sound. After a long, long while, he took his hands away from his head and sat up. The screaming had stopped, along with the wailing sirens.

Malachi slid off the bed and went to the window. All the lights were on in the house across the street, and yellow crime scene tape fluttered in the breeze, just like on the crime shows his Dad watched on TV. Silhouetted crime scene investigators passed back and forth in front of the windows.

I took pictures of a dead guy. Malachi thought. A real live dead guy!

“Hey, Mal. You okay?”

Malachi spun away from the window and glared at Camryn, standing in the doorway. “Go away, Cam. You made me get in trouble with your dumb game.”

Camryn stayed where she was, and Mal didn’t push the issue. “Did she really dig up the dead guy, Cam? Really and truly?”

“That’s what the cops are saying, I guess.” She moved up next to him and draped an arm around his narrow shoulders. “Don’t think about it anymore, Mal. It’s over.”

“But how did she do it, Cam? How? She’s just a little old lady.”

Camryn shrugged. “I dunno. I guess when you really, really love somebody, you get super powers or something.”

“Like Iron Man and The Hulk, you mean?”

“Something like that, yeah.” Camryn took her brother’s hand and lead him away from the window. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get some ice cream, okay? You can have three scoops instead of two, but don’t tell Mom. And tomorrow, you can be the boss.”

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