By J Thomas Fussell
Chapter 13: The Neighbors
A gray dawn rose over Silent Glade, a gloomy start to a much-needed weekend. A blanket of anticipation like the charged atmosphere ahead of a summer storm cloaked the neighborhood with restless anxiety.
Little-D Lapin in 012 snapped awake as if he had been pinched and began to cry. Not a hard cry, but the soft piteous cry of the very young when danger is sensed nearby.
In 010, Oscar Jackson leapt out of bed, grabbed a combat knife from under his pillow, and slashed blindly around his bedroom with a savagery that would have stunned all who knew him. The dream of Iraq had felt so real.
Mike Blanchart yelled in pain as he took a wrong step on the way to the bathroom and twisted his ankle in the hallway of 008. His spew of obscenities shocked and disgusted Kathy who crossed herself and began to pray.
The Brennon house at 006 sat empty and still. Fortunately, the middle-aged couple were still overseas and knew nothing about the goings on back home. Unfortunately, they also knew nothing about the sudden crack in a pipe that morning in the attic above the guest room on the second floor.
Barry Thompson sat straight up from a dead sleep and began screaming The Lord’s Prayer. He then grabbed his head and toppled face first onto the floor. His wife, Ethel, pushed her life alert which told the paramedics to come to 004 Silent Glade Drive then ran around the bed to her husband’s side. Was this to be the remainder of her years? The stress of Barry’s illness had pushed her to her limit. They had just returned from the hospital two days before from where her Bear had suffered a stroke in the Lapin’s front yard on the day Beverly lost her eyes.
In a singular moment of rebirth on an otherwise dismal morning, in 002 Ginger-Lynn Debrow screamed in ecstasy as her husband finished inside her in a brief but loving morning romp. She had been successfully impregnated for the first time in her life and they had not even been trying. In her post-coital flush and with a mysterious certainty, Ginger-Lynn knew she had conceived. And like a knife to her heart, she knew it would not last and burst into tears to the utter confusion of her husband Chase.
Across the street in 001, Bobo the dog began barking at nothing then peed in the floor for the first time since he was eight weeks old. Gary Patterson screamed in fury at the display and kicked the dog who ran away whimpering.
Fred Stanton awoke to his son having another night terror in 003. He thought the idiot needed to leave the damn video games alone at night. He lifted himself out of bed and plopped down into his wheelchair, cursing at his pain and his son screaming his fool head off in the other room.
Tara Dixon awoke looking for her wife. Panic coursed through her like tiny explosions as she searched her empty house at 005. Then it struck her, it was Saturday, and Cindi was at Aerobics. She picked up the phone and called her, needing to hear her voice.
Alejandro Hernandez opened his bedroom door upstairs in 007 to find his blind stepmother standing behind the door with a look of maniacal anticipation on her face. The sockets of her cold dark eyes seemed to stare into his soul. She reached for him, and he began to scream.
In 009, Mark Wellington vomited explosively in the midst of telling his mother about how Emily Harris, a cute girl in his class, wanted to go out with him. He could not stop even after his stomach had emptied all over his mother and her clean floor. Susan Wellington rushed her son to the car with him dry heaving into a bucket. They would not be late to practice this time. This time they would not make it at all.
The Thompson house sat dead and empty. Dark mold clung noisomely to walls now damp with moisture. Wallpaper suddenly broke free from its mooring glue and curled into crinkling spirals. The whole house shuddered as if a tremor had run underneath the foundation.
And back at the end of the street, across from the Lapin’s house, Mary Sue fed. Blood had been spilled this day, and the cycle had finally begun.
Chapter 14: Murder Most Foul
Fred Stanton wheeled himself down the hall. Leroy had finally lost his muster. Didn’t usually take this long, but his son always wound down before Fred could actually make it to the room. The accident that took his wife and gave him these useless legs had left Leroy with permanent brain damage. Leroy could still learn and even grow as a person, but his emotional state remained that of thirteen-year-old boy. Fred huffed at the thought then rolled his eyes. Who was he kidding? He could not be mad at the boy. Leroy was an idiot, always had been even before the accident, but he was his idiot.
Fred rolled around the corner into the large bonus room that Leroy had turned into his bedroom and gasped at the mess. What in God’s name had the boy done now? The walls appeared to be covered in ketchup. What a fucking mess?
“I told you not to eat in this room, boy,” Fred said. “How the hell are we going to clean all this shit up? We’ll have to paint the god damned room.”
Leroy didn’t answer.
The couch that split the room sat directly in front of a large screen TV. It too was covered in the thick red paste which dripped down the screen in dark ribbons. He could see his sons hand sticking up above the back of the couch. He said, “Boy, I’m speaking to you. You best get your ass up. You’re about to be a busy …”
The words choked off in a cry of alarm when he rolled to the edge of the couch and saw what had become of his son. Leroy lay, legs and arms akimbo, spread across the couch like a doll thrown into a corner. Blood oozed from the slash across his neck.
“Leroy?” he cried. “What’ve you done to yourself?”
He rolled closer, still not understanding what he saw before him, and in choking sobs he said, “Why, son? Why did you do it?” Tears sprang to his eyes as he thought of his son slashing his own throat. Did the boy come to some sudden and horrific understanding of his own limitations?
But then, through a wet haze of tears, he saw another figure unfold from a shadowed corner near the far wall and stand up. The man – or was it a man? – was covered in thick blood from his shiny bald head to his boot covered toe. Oh god, was it a man? Fear surged through Fred’s chest and squeezed his heart. He gasped and fumbled at his wheels to roll back. Anything to get away from this dealer of death.
“What has he done?” asked the creature sardonically. “Hell, he didn’t do nothing but die. I did all the fucking work.”
The voice sounded familiar, and there was something about the man’s face. And yes, it was a man; he was sure of that now. How could he have thought otherwise?
“I had no idea you had to stab a son-of-bitch so many times to get them to shut the hell up. Did you?” the man said, sauntering closer. “I mean this,” he pointed to the mess on the couch with a dripping combat knife, “was a kick, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was easy. Specially with a big strong bastard like your boy.” He pointed the knife at Fred and grinned. “Now you, on the other hand, I’m… not so sure I should even bother. You look like you could die any second. You gone die?” The man nodded gravely answering the question before Fred could speak, “Yeah, you are going to die.”
Fred continued to roll back; his eyes wide with shock. Leroy’s ripped and bloody shirt leaped to the foreground of his vision and he suddenly understood the man’s words. Dozens of stab wounds covered his son’s chest and abdomen.
“What did you do to my boy? Get the fuck out of my house! Why? Why did you do it? Leroy wouldn’t hurt a fly!” Fred cried, then bumped into the wall.
“Now Fred, that’s just bullshit. He was killing the shit out of those zombies when I came in a little while ago,” the man said and pointed to the blood-spattered TV.
“How do you know my name? Who the fuck ‘re you?” Fred asked as he continued to try to roll away, even though his back was already pushing against the wall.
“Holy shit!” the man said, “You don’t even recognize me.” He barked laughter and scratched his bald head with the point of the knife. A tiny rivulet of fresh blood rolled past his left eye. “I guess my disguise is better than I thought.” The man smiled wickedly and took four quick steps across the room.
Fred stuck his arms up in defense. His left eye began to twitch, and then it came to him, the fucking detectives. With a snarl, he said, “You’re that piece of shit, Tom Eastman. I hear you tore some woman’s eyes out. Now what? You move up to the mentally and physically challenged. Brave man. I said, get the fuck out of my house!”
“What? I ain’t never tore nobody’s eyes out. What the fuck ‘re you talking about?” Tom said and slashed the knife across Fred’s outstretched hand.
A thin, deep wound opened in Fred’s palm. He moaned and pulled his hand against his chest.
“Don’t fight it, you old fuck, and I’ll make it quick. I ain’t got nothing against you or your boy. I just need this house. Oh yeah, don’t you feel it?” A gleam of excitement twinkled in Tom’s eyes. He lifted his arms in reverie and exaltation. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I think this’ all for her. Oh yes, don’t you see?” Tom dropped his arms and moved closer, waving the knife in a slow figure eight in front of Fred’s wide staring eyes. “Don’t you see? It’s all for Mary Sue now.” And in a flash of steel too fast for Fred to follow, Tom plunged the knife to the hilt into Fred’s throat, severing windpipe and spine in one fatal blow.
Tom tore the knife free and looked around. Yep, killing sure was a kick, but damn did it leave a mess. He sighed as he wiped the blade on Fred’s shirt. It was times like these that he missed Amy the most. He would make her clean this mess up right this instant, and that was no joke. He wished… and then as if answering his unspoken prayer, the soft hand of Mary Sue caressed his cheek.
“For me?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Tom said with a lopsided grin. “This’ all for you, babe.”
He turned into her embrace. Blood dripped onto her upstretched face. Oh yes, this is all for you, pretty lady, he thought, at least for now. He leaned in and kissed her with a passion he had not felt in years.
Chapter 15: We Could Watch Birds
Oscar waited on his porch for his grocery delivery. He rarely let people in his house these days. People didn’t understand his collections, or his inability to divest himself of pretty much anything. He didn’t think of himself as a hoarder, at least not like a hoarder on that TV show “Hoarders”. Oscar considered himself a collector. He threw out his garbage like everyone else; he just threw away less than most. As an example, Oscar loved his magazines. Even in the modern age when every article could eventually be found online, he still purchased hard copy magazines and papers to be sent to his home. Oscar didn’t trust the internet. People could change articles on a whim. But if he had the hard copy, he had proof of what was said and when. So, he kept every copy of every magazine that had ever been sent to him, and he had subscriptions to at least two dozen which ranged from Forbes, Time Magazine, and US News to National Geographic, The Audubon Society, and The Smithsonian, not to mention Playboy, Omni Magazine, and Heavy Metal. He of course didn’t read them all. Who has that kind of time? But he did catalog them and carefully place them in shelves and piles to be shelved later. Magazines were not the only thing he collected though; they were only one of many. People didn’t understand. Most only saw the piles and immediately wanted to get him help. Oscar sighed deeply. It did lead to a lonely life though. What woman would want to live in this kind of clutter?
A week had passed since the incident with Beverly Hernandez at the turn-about. He wondered how she was doing? He heard that Javier brought her home, but he had not seen either of them. The TBI and the local boys were across the street at the Eastman’s for a couple of days. He had expected them to canvas the neighborhood, especially if they suspected Tom. On the other hand, maybe he had it all wrong, because after only a couple of days and maybe a few neighbors questioned, the detectives and the police pulled out. He would just have to wait. In one way or another, Oscar felt certain he would eventually know what was going on.
He pulled out a Hav-a-Tampa Cigar and lit it with a zippo. He only smoked outside, hating the smell in his house – not to mention the potential fire hazard many of his collections represented. He looked at his phone. The delivery was still forty minutes away. Apparently, a Miss Nama Carter was picking the order. She had already asked him a couple of questions. He hoped the fruit looked better than last time. The man who had picked his food last week had not even looked at the fruit he picked up. Of course, nobody would pick the same fruit Oscar would if he were picking for himself, but then he would have to leave his house, and he didn’t want to do that. He was not a shut in, not exactly. It was just that he had not like crowds or loud noises since his time in Iraq. He knew PTSD and its many symptoms. But what was an old ex-soldier medic to do? It was a hell-of-a-lot easier to just stay home than to go see a shrink once a week or do some form of annoying group therapy. At least here, he could still take a good hike in the peace of the hills, where he could watch birds through his binoculars and listen to sounds of the forest in peace.
“Hi, Mr. Oscar,” a squeaky little girl voice said from the end of his porch. “What you doin’?”
The unexpected voice startled him, and he jumped, eliciting a cute, tinkling laugh from behind him.
“I got you, didn’t I?” said Dee Lapin stepping around so he could see her. The four-year-old wore a pink and purple fairy costume complete with fraying edges to show how much she cherished it. She carried a glittering, yellow, plastic wand in one hand.
“Yes, you did little honey.” He smiled at the impish grin on the little girl’s face. “What can an old man do for such a pretty little fairy? Does your mother know where you are?” He looked up across his yard and down the short trail through the trees between his and Lapin’s house. He could see Jennifer Lapin at the end of the path as usual, making sure her little girl made it to her destination. She gestured to ask if it was ok for Dee to be there. He waved and nodded. Jennifer put her hand to her ear to indicate he should call her when he was ready to send her daughter home. He gave the thumbs up, and Jennifer waved and walked away.
“I don’t know. We could watch birds, or go to the magic place. We could play fairies. Do you want to play fairy?”
“Hmm. Do you think an old soldier medic would be allowed into such an exclusive club?”
Dee’s forehead creased, and she said, “What’s nextclusib mean?”
“Ah, good question, little one. Ex-clu-sive,” Oscar enunciated very clearly, “means only very special people are allowed.”
Her face turned very serious, and she reached out and grasped his dark callused hand in her tiny unblemished hand. She looked deep into his eyes, “Oh fairies clubs aren’t nextclusib, Mr. Oscar.” He could tell she was thinking very hard, “And you know what?” she asked.
“What?” he asked, touched and bemused.
“Even if they were nextclusib, I would make them take you anyway, ‘cause you are super special too. Hmph.” That last was said with emphasis and clearly indicated Dee considered the issue resolved.
Oscar smiled. “Well in that case, I’ll be glad to join you in playing fairy. Do I get a wand too?”
“Yep, but I only has one. Do you want to share?”
“Yes, I do, little honey. I would be honored.”
And for the next forty-five minutes, Oscar Jackson and Dee Lapin played fairy on his front lawn. They took turns with the wand and did fantastic magic with sparkles and bright lights and even defeated an old troll who had wondered into his yard. The delivery of Oscar’s groceries ended the fun and the two sat resting on Oscar’s porch while Mrs. Nama Carter carried his goods up from her car.
Oscar picked up his binoculars, removed the end caps, and handed the viewers to Dee. “While I take the groceries in and get us some water, why don’t you see if you can find a bird? Do you remember the rule?”
She took the binoculars reverentially and placed the cord around her neck. The binoculars hung almost to her knees. She said, “Yep, don’t remove the cord. Because that way if I drop um, they won’t hit the dirt.”
Oscar adjusted the cord so the binoculars hung closer to her waist. “You got it. See how many birds you can find, okay? I’ll tell you what they are when I come back.”
“Okay,” she said and began to scan the trees.
As he picked up his groceries, she said, “Little-D got scared this morning. He said there was a bad lady in his room.”
“Little-D said all that?” Oscar asked. He knew the little guy had a very limited vocabulary.
“He talked it like baby talk, but I can still talk that talk too. He said the bad lady had a scary mouth and scary eyes. Did you see a bad lady this morning, Mr. Oscar? Did you?”
“No, little honey,” he said, “I haven’t seen any bad ladies at all.” His own morning with him standing by the bed with a knife in his hand, came hurtling back into his mind and a shiver ran down his spine. “I’ll let you know if I see one, okay? You just tell Little-D that I have his back.”
“Okay, Mr. Oscar. I’ll tell him,” Dee said and then went back to looking for birds.
Oscar carried his groceries inside and sat them on the kitchen counter. In stark contrast to the rest of the house, clutter ended at the kitchen door. In his mind, the kitchen should maintain the same level of cleanliness as an operating room. He put the groceries away and then glanced around the corner through the living-room. He could see Dee Lapin staring off into the distance though the binoculars. He smiled and a contented joy filled his heart. What a great kid; he had never had the opportunity to feel grandfatherly – or even fatherly for that matter. But this kid… this kid made him understand what it meant to be a father in a way he didn’t think possible for himself. He pulled out an apple, cored it, then sliced it into wedges. He poured two glasses of water, put the sliced apple and the water on a tray, and carried it outside. He glanced up at the clock and noticed it was almost lunch time. He pulled out his phone and dialed the Lapin house to check if it was okay to feed Dee this close to lunch. Jennifer said it was no problem, but that she would be over in a few minutes to pick her daughter up for a more substantial lunch.
When Oscar carried out the snack, he found Dee staring through the binoculars, not moving, and seemingly very intent. He said, “Hey kid, what do you see?”
She didn’t respond, or even move. Oscar said, “Little honey? Are you okay?” He sat the tray down on the porch table and touched her shoulder. Her skin quivered under his touch.
“Dee?” he said.
He took the binoculars from her hands, lifted the cord from around her neck, and sat the glasses on the table. A scarlet drop of blood slid from her nose and dripped onto the wooden planks of his deck. Her eyes rolled back into her head and the white orbs of her eyes stared blankly at him. Suddenly, she slumped forward and toppled towards the deck.
Oscar caught her as she fell and lowered her to the floor. “Dee?” he said again, louder this time.
She began to shiver and shake. Was it a seizure? He scrabbled with his belt, finally pulling it off and forced her jaws open as gently as possible. He slid the leather belt between her teeth, then picked her up off the floor and put her in his lap. The warmth of his body seemed to temper the seizure and the shaking began to calm.
Oscar heard a shriek and turn to see Jennifer Lapin rushing to his side.
“I was just about to call you,” Oscar said, “I just stepped inside for a second. When I came back out with the apple, I found her like this, staring through my binoculars. She seems to be calming, but…”
“Is she okay?” Jennifer asked, panic clear in her voice. Oscar was a doctor though, or had been in the military.
“I don’t know, she seems to be calming. Here, you take her.”
When her mother picked her up, Dee snuggled in close and started to cry. It was not a cry of pain or even panicked in any way. Just the gentle sobbing of a child who knows something is wrong, but is not sure what. Oscar was not even sure she was fully awake.
“You need to take her to the hospital right away. It could be anything. Hopefully it’s nothing but a small fever or some such, but you never know. Seizures can be quite serious.”
“Oh God,” Jennifer started to tear-up but managed to keep it under control. “What’s going on lately? It seems like… I don’t know.”
“Should I call Gerald?”
“No, no. I’ll take it from here. Thank you though.”
“Please call me when you find out what’s going on? I’ll worry myself sick until you do. Or, do you want me to come with you?”
Jennifer knew Oscar did not really want to leave his house. He had told her of his PTSD years ago. She said, “No, that’s ok, but of course I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.”
Oscar watched them until they were out of sight, then sat down in the chair where Dee had been bird-watching. He picked up the binoculars and began scanning the trees in the direction she had been looking when he found her. The Hernandez house lay in that direction. At first, he focused on the trees looking for what could have intrigued her. There was nothing. But then he saw it, or more precisely, saw her. Beverly Hernandez stood motionless at one of the windows on the second floor. Her eyeless gaze stared at him through the binoculars, and her wicked smile grew disturbingly wider. He didn’t know how, but she knew she was being watched. It was all he could do to pull his eyes away. Jennifer Lapin was right, something was going on, something very strange indeed.