Samson was barking, barking to wake the dead. Which meant the little demon was at it again. Water balloons, or firecrackers, or whatever new cruelty his sick, twisted mind had conjured up. Did they keep the boy chained up like a pit bull, wearing a path in the dirt? Wasn’t he late for school, or court, or something?
Amy perched on her toes and peered through her salt and pepper shakers. Sometimes it sounded like the whole family was in that backyard. They never slept, never gave it a rest. Whooping, trash cans clanging, jungle noises. Nights were even worse. Whatever ritual they were up to, the tranquility of Amy’s Saturday afternoon had been trampled underfoot, and she’d had enough. One does what one must.
Samson barked and barked, a relentless staccato of distress. Funny thing was, furry oaf wouldn’t hurt a flea chewing his own tail. Only dog in the whole wide world that won’t even bark at the mailman, is what Jack said about that stupid dog of his. Hope nobody breaks in, that dog’ll escort em right to the good stuff.
But now, every time Amy let Samson out for his business, that little demon seemed to be lurking, and frothed Jack’s dog into a thunderous outrage. It was downright black magic, that’s what it was.
Amy dried her hands and pulled off her apron, a practiced move, fluid and graceful. She should have called the cops days ago, is what she should have done. Today would be the end of it. She hung the apron beside the others, lined up fresh and clean on hooks she’d insisted Jack install their very first day, before even the movers arrived, those senseless clods. They’d managed to put absolutely nothing where it was marked to go, and “this side up” never pointing up. They couldn’t have done a worse job if they’d done it on purpose, despite her careful oversight and direction.
Amy navigated the maze of boxes, stacked four and five high. So many left to unpack. She shoved the screen door open hard enough to thwack the siding and leave a dent. Samson’s nose was buried in the chain link, his hoarse woofs transfiguring into huffs of ghostly steam. The little shit was peering between the fence slats. Oh she could see him, all right.
“Hey, you little shit!” she shouted, clopping to the fence.
Amy wished Jack were home. Let him deal with this. He was a big man, imposing. Intimidating. He would tell them something about how neighbors ought to behave. Why had he moved them to this godforsaken place? Why did they have to move at all, for that matter? With Jack always on the road, what did it even matter where they lived?
She patted the dog’s empty skull. “Come on, you dumb lumma. Don’t pay any attention to that awful–”
There was blood. Blood on Samson’s leg.
Amy knelt to examine it.
A wound. A BB-size hole.
That little demon had shot her dog.
She jolted upright and stood for a long minute, thinking and shivering, wind coaxing forth tears. The police wouldn’t do a damn thing, would they? She would tell the neighbors a thing or two herself. Enough was enough. Amy ordered Samson to stay put. He’d need stitches probably. Bringing him inside would make such a mess. Blood everywhere. So much left to unpack. Perfect.
She latched the gate behind her and marched up the alley, following the neighbor’s fence line. They hadn’t bothered to stow their cans. Amy expected no less. They were white trash. Pure white trash. Her own cans were tucked neatly behind the alcove she had Jack build. One of his first chores. Everything in its place.
The fence angled sharp, tracing the property to a clapboard house decorated in peeling paint. Was that little shit still in the backyard, watching? Amy bit her tongue. She had a few choice words for him. Clumps of briny grass hissed in the wind. Broken beer bottles bloomed like jagged green flowers. That was the thing with ignorant white trash. They didn’t know how to behave, and they didn’t care. No doubt they kept drugs in that ugly house of theirs, too.
Fuming, Amy ascended the porch, head tipped to the wind.
She was startled to find there a woman in a rocking chair. Cloak covering hunched shoulders, ancient as a pilgrim, nursing a cup of tea.
“What’chuwant?” the old woman said.
Amy stiffened. “What do I want? I want you to control that little devil of yours. He’s in your backyard right now, shooting guns at my dog.”
The woman’s gaze remained fixed on her tea. “Is he now?”
“You don’t believe me?” Amy would go fetch her dog this very instant, if she had to. Drag it limping over.
“I believe it.”
“I live behind you. I’ll be calling the police next time.”
“Aleister!” The woman craned her neck. The front door hung wide open despite the chill. “You bring yourself out here this instance!”
All along the awning, decorative ceramic trinkets clacked like teeth in the wind. A scrawny boy appeared at the door jam. His shirt hung like a sack from his chicken-wing collar bones. Butt ugly. Amy felt sorry for him, to a point.
“Did you shoot this here woman’s dog?”
The boy grinned sheepishly.
“C’mon now. Don’t you lie.”
“It was uh accident,” he said.
“It was no accident!” Amy said. “And he knows it.”
“I expect,” the old woman said, “he knows what he knows.”
“Well, accident or not, my dog is injured. It’s bleeding.”
“What would you have me to do?”
“I want…” Amy paused, searching for a suggestion that seemed reasonable. “I want your little brat to leave my dog the hell alone. I want you to keep an eye on him.”
“Rest easy,” the woman said, swirling her tea. “I’m watchin with both.”
Amy considered these words. Was the old hag threatening her?
“You go on, Aleister. That’ll do.”
The boy licked his lips, turned, and melted into the house’s interior.
“Perhaps it’s not my place to say,” Amy said, pulling her sweater close. “But you could teach that child a bit of kindness.”
“Could I now?” The old woman said and laughed. It sound like berries frothing in a blender.
“It’s always possible to be kind,” Amy said, as a matter of fact. Wasn’t this a quote from the Dali Lama somewhere? Simple neighborly manners were the same everywhere. A basic set of rules made the world go round.
The old woman rustled in her rocker, issuing a sound like dry leaves, and set her teacup on the tree stump that served as an end table. In the cup Amy saw what looked like bone fragments. Tiny gray bird bones.
“Meanness don’t just happen overnight,” the old woman said. “It knows its own time. It ripens like cucumber. By the moon.”
What the hell was this supposed to mean? Amy shivered. The winter sun was sinking fast. She wished Jack were home. She wished he wasn’t always flying off to other places, doing incalculable and unexplainable dealings. Why was it so difficult for him to explain his work?
“He’s sick,” the old woman said suddenly, shaking Amy from her reverie. “The boy.”
“What? Ohmylord, I didn’t know.”
“You aint from around here.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Nobody blaming you.”
“Is there,” Amy shifted from foot to foot, “Is there anything I can do?”
“Anything at all, please ask.”
The woman set her eyes upon Amy. “What would you to do?”
“Oh. I… Soup? I make a delicious squash soup.”
The old woman marveled at her with rheumy eyes. “You’re just all alone in this world, ain’t you?”
“What? No, my husband is traveling.”
“I mean to say, you’re one of a kind.”
Amy offered a curt smile. “I’m just trying to find my place, like everyone else.”
“Some things just don’t fit. Ain’t nowhere to put them.”
Amy was certain this wasn’t true. She found it intolerably rude, besides.
A man’s laughter rolled through the open doorway, oily and obscene. Amy could see heavy shapes swelling in the shadows. Someone watching her.
“That’ll be my boys. Restless, I suppose.”
A heavy-set man stepped to the door, his jowls pinched with delight.
“Well, well, well,” he said.
“The boy shot her dog.”
“Did he? I’ll tan him good.”
“You’ll do no such thing. It was uh accident. Wun’t it, Amy?”
Had Amy introduced herself? She couldn’t recall. “Yes,” she said softly.
“Get on along, ’fore I tan you.”
The man held up both palms in surrender.
“Nice to meet you,” Amy said. It was always possible to be kind. She’d educate them by example. Kindness made everything simpler.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” the man told her. “It is all mine.”
“Hush up,” the old woman said. “Go on.”
“Hope to see you again real soon,” the man said over an enormous shoulder. “Real soon.” He thumped off.
“You got to excuse my son. He ain’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He don’t mean nothin.”
The sun fell behind the roof, and Amy stood in gloom. “My husband is traveling,” she heard herself say again. She felt like she was dreaming. “He’s coming back tonight.”
“It’s a complicated thing,” the old woman said. “It ain’t just the child. Men is all sickly in some form or other. Ever one of em looking to fill his own hunger. Rarely comes by a single medicine to cure them all.”
Amy wanted to ask the old woman what she meant, but she hadn’t intended to be gone so long. Jack would be calling soon, his flight arriving any time now. She would repeat her request that her dog remain unmolested, and she would leave. That’s what she’d do.
“I have to go,” Amy said. “I’m expecting a call.”
More laughter oozed from the house. Not just one voice, but two. Perhaps three.
“You best be home,” the old woman said. “Midnight ain’t far off. Never is.”
Amy turned to go, stumbling on the stairs. The night air was buzzing like a refrigerator. She returned to herself at last. “I’m calling the police next time,” she called back. “I won’t be so nice.”
“Everybody have they reasons, honey,” the old woman called after her. “Go on along now.”
As she turned to the alley, Amy broke into a trot, though she couldn’t say why. Samson whined when he saw her coming. She whistled the dog into the house. Jack would be calling. Hearing his voice would set her at ease, make her feel safe. Always did.
Amy affixed the security chain. No deadbolt yet. That was next on her to-do list for Jack. She had his tasks all charted out for two weeks straight. Certain things needed doing at certain times. It only made sense. Amy decided to reprioritize the deadbolt. She’d set Jack on it first thing Monday.
Somewhere in the house, A Summer Place was playing sweetly. Her cell phone ringing. Her wedding song, the one she’d chosen for the first dance. The one that reminded Amy of her childhood. Chlorine and cut grass, and everything in its right place. A Summer Place played on, Jack calling from the airport. Amy wove through the stacks of boxes, to the living room, and plucked up her phone.
“Hey! I’m on my way. Just have to change my–”
“Something came up,” she heard her husband say.
“You’re not at the airport.”
“Something came up. I missed my flight.”
“Something came up. What? What came up?”
“Do we have to do this, Amy? It’s complicated, all right? Just one more night.”
“You’re never home. You do it on purpose.”
Silence on other end.
“Are you still there?”
“Still here,” Jack said.
“I was looking forward to you being home. There’s so much that needs to be done.”
“I’m coming, Amy. Tomorrow. One more night.”
Amy closed her eyes, and for some reason she saw the old woman rocking there in the dark. She wondered if the old hag slept on that porch.
“Okay, baby?” Jack sounded apologetic. Impatient and apologetic at the same time. “One more night.”
“Stay there,” she told him. “Stay if you want to stay.”
“Amy, why do you always have to…”
Jack’s question evaporated amid hotel lobby noises. Why did she always have to what? The question was: why did he always have to. Amy said nothing. In the background, she heard music. Women laughing.
“One more night,” Jack said, soft as a caress. “I wouldn’t stay if I didn’t have to.”
“That’s my girl. See you tomorrow night?”
“You sound weird. You’re okay?”
“Yes,” Amy lied.
Despite such a long and busy day, Amy wasn’t sleepy. She made herself a pot of coffee and worked on the unpacking. So many boxes to go. Amy found it soothing to remove the contents, and unwrap them, and sort them in their proper place. That was half the pleasure of moving somewhere new. Maybe the only pleasure of it. Finding the place, the specific exact place, where something was meant to be. They’d moved so many times since she’d known Jack, picking up and starting over somewhere new. It was impossible to make friends, impossible to feel settled. Amy opened another box and removed its contents. She decided to make a game of it. The prize to find would be her wedding photo, her and Jack beaming in that Kent, Ohio pavilion. Looking so happy. One glance at that photo and you could hear the polka music. Once she’d found and hung her wedding photo, she could desist and go to bed. Such was her game.
Amy started with the larger boxes, the ones marked frames. Lots of pictures in there. But no wedding photo. She checked another box, and another. The photo had to be somewhere. Amy worked until she was exhausted, searching and unpacking and placing everything in their place, until the shelves and spaces and cabinets and closets blurred together into an unsolvable puzzle. Having lost her own game, she pushed the remaining boxes into a corner, and she climbed into bed. Where was the photo? Perhaps more boxes were pending arrival? That damnable moving company. Disorganized, shoddy, despite Amy’s close supervision. She’d have a word with their management, that’s what she’d do. Sometimes a head-chopping was just the medicine to improve customer service. Such were the thoughts that accompanied Amy to sleep…
Chirp, new sneakers on a gym floor. Chirp, a hungry fat cricket.
Amy sat up in bed. Somewhere in the house, a smoke detector was chirping. Every thirty seconds.
Chirp, my battery is low. Every thirty seconds.
Chirp, come change my battery.
No chance of falling back to sleep, chirp, chirp, chirp.
Amy stuffed her feet into slippers and moved into the hall, listening.
Downstairs. The smoke detector was somewhere downstairs.
She padded to the stairs.
Not downstairs, but hung high over the landing. The tall ceilings were the only thing she liked about this new house. She’d told the realtor so. The realtor had been a real piece of work. She’d had one of those resting bitch faces, like someone was constantly holding a turd under her nose.
Amy would need a ladder. No other way to reach that thing. A very tall ladder. She hoped those movers had put the garden equipment in the garage like it was labeled.
They had indeed. Something done right, one item in its proper place. Amy would be sure to mention this one good thing to their management. She dragged the ladder to the living room, its aluminum rungs rattling over Berber. She set the thing upright and extended the segments far as they would go. The ladder still wasn’t quite tall enough to reach, but her own height would be enough to make up the difference. Yes, the tall ceilings were the only good thing about this house.
Amy tested the first rung with a slippered foot. The ladder seemed sturdy, resting agreeably against the wall. She ascended, careful and slow. She’d have to climb the last few rungs to reach the smoke detector.
Amy stretched her arms, reaching.
The sound was so piercing she lost her balance, but she caught herself. She took a deep breath, reached high overhead, and wrapped her fingers around the plastic casing. And she pulled.
It wouldn’t budge.
CHIRP! it liked its place just fine.
Amy repositioned herself and tugged again, harder. The blasted thing was installed so tight. All she needed to do was detach it and see what size battery it needed. And this was her mistake, she realized, as the thing snapped free and she felt herself falling–
Because the smoke detector was connected with wires. There was no battery, the thing was hooked directly to electricity–
Amy fell backwards, and a shower of sparks accompanied her.
The boy was laughing, and he sounded ill. His throat whistled with fever, and he laughed. His skin glowed hot with infection, and he laughed and laughed…
Amy opened her eyes, the sun’s orange prism crisscrossing her face. Samson was whining. She saw the ladder overhead, the gaping hole, the wires. And she remembered. Pulling the smoke detector loose, falling. Falling.
It was late, the afternoon sun fading fast. Had she been out cold, unconscious the whole day long? She touched her forehead, and her fingers came back tipped in blood. Amy stood, and searing pain shot up her leg. It was her ankle. Something wrong with her ankle.
Samson whined. Hungry, needing to pee.
Amy took a step towards him, grimacing. Her ankle was no good at all. It hurt to put weight there. She needed a doctor. Maybe she’d broken it. This never would’ve happened if Jack had come home when he was supposed to. He wasn’t home, and so this horrible thing had happened. One bad thing brings another, Amy’s mother used to say.
She hobbled into the kitchen. Samson stood nosing the porch door. Amy let him out, and the stupid oaf commenced immediately to woofing up a storm.
Amy scanned the kitchen for her cell phone. She must’ve left it in the bedroom. She hobbled to the stairs and climbed them one by one, biting her lip to endure the pain.
The phone wasn’t in her room.
She plopped onto the bed and checked her ankle. It was purple and swollen, nothing she wanted to think about. She tugged on her jeans, navigating tenderly around the ankle. She slipped into sneakers, pulled on a sweater. She stood once more, dreading the stairs. One does what one has to. Find the phone.
The day was fading fast, the kitchen already in shadows. Outside Samson was barking, barking to wake the dead. Amy hit the lights. Nothing. She toggled the switch, on-off, on-off. The oven clock was dark. Amy remembered sparks, falling. Somehow she’d shorted the circuit. Never mind it. Jack could fix it, Jack was good at that kind of stuff. She’d reprioritize his list, was all.
Through the porch door, Amy saw the dog barking. And there was the little demon, standing in the alley, pumpkin grin and holding that rifle! It was the boy’s fault. The whole thing was the boy. She’d warned that old hag. Electricity or no, Amy was calling the cops. That’s exactly what she was going to do. She’d do it in the dark if she had to. She snatched the phone off the wall. No dial tone. She punched some buttons anyway. Nothing. Apparently a landline needed electricity.
“Damn you,” she said, slamming the phone. “Damn you, damn you, damn you!” She stood alone in her kitchen, ankle throbbing. Samson howling.
Cell phone, Amy realized. She needed her cell phone.
Samson howled again. That damn child. Amy pushed through the door and into the cold. The boy was chirping. She could plainly hear him. Chirping like a fat hungry cricket.
“Hey you little shit!” she screamed at him. “Stop that!”
The boy took off running. Back to the old hag’s house, no doubt. Amy would catch him there. That much was certain. She hobbled down the stairs, gripping the bannister, hit the grass, and took off limping after him. One does what one must.
Her face sweaty and cold, her head spinning, Amy climbed the hag’s porch. The rocking chair sat empty. Amy knocked on the door and waited. The boy was in there for sure, where else would he have gone? Amy knocked harder. Waiting, her ankle throbbing with the beating of her heart.
That’s when she heard it.
A Summer Place.
Coming from somewhere behind the door. Amy’s phone ringing. A Summer Place, playing inside the house. Unmistakable.
Her heart burning, Amy turned the doorknob and pushed her way inside. The smell of stale grease and fried meat enveloped her, the stench stifling as the darkness.
A Summer Place played on. It was sacrilegious to hear her song in this white trash hovel. Amy made her way along the hall, found herself in a den. Her cell phone lay on a threadbare couch. It had stopped ringing. She picked it up, absently wiped it on her jeans. An old timey TV stood on four legs, its screen flickering cerulean hospital hues over the dirty walls.
Just enough light. Just enough to see: the Kent Ohio pavilion, her and Jack in their moment of bliss. Amy’s wedding photo sat atop the TV set! Amy limped to it, plucked it up. Jack’s face had been scratched away, leaving rough paper in its place. A red circle had been drawn over Amy’s veil. Another near her ankle. Amy touched her head.
Somewhere deep within the house came the sound of laughter.
Amy turned and ran.
Her ankle burning hot coals, she ran. Stinging wasps and centipedes and fireworks.
Amy slammed her door, affixed the security chain. No deadbolt yet. That would be next on Jack’s to-do. Certain things needed doing at certain times. Amy sank to the floor. Samson limped over and slumped behind her. She ignored him, dialing her cell phone in darkness.
Jack’s voicemail picked up.
“Hurry,” Amy whispered. “We’re not safe! We’re not safe here!” She heard herself talking, heard the words she was saying. Something about the wedding photo. Something about her phone. She sounded ridiculous.
She hung up.
Amy took a bath, that’s what she did. She lit candles. She iced her ankle. She crawled into bed, Samson on the floor beneath her. She took one of her Regency romances.
She’d read, wait for Jack to call. That’s what she’d do. Jack would be calling soon.
Amy fell asleep reading.
Samson was a big old thing. A big dumb old thing with a mean bark who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Over his booming, Amy heard laughter. Oily and obscene.
She jolted upright in bed.
The old woman was in the bedroom corner, sitting in her rocker. Two men stood on either side of her like Sumo wrestler bookends. One held a thick, red candle that flickered blood-colored shadows over Amy’s tall ceiling. The other, the one from the porch, held a knife. Sharp and long. Curved like a woman’s body.
“Aint nothin personal,” the old woman said. “Really it’s a highest compliment, depending on how you look at it.”
The knife shimmered red in the candlelight. Amy saw movement at the edge of her vision and turned to find the boy standing beside her bed. He was still wearing the potato sack shirt, and up close Amy could see dark moon circles under his eyes. But what Amy noticed most was his teeth, his pointy teeth. Rows of thin gray cones lining his gums. The boy licked his lips.
“Meanness don’t just happen overnight,” the old woman said from her rocker. “Bitter fruit requires careful feeding. Kindness takes a thousand cuts to bleed out. Meanness, though. It gushes. One big cut is all it takes. Course you know that, woman like you.”
Amy screamed and turned away from the teeth, those terrible pointy teeth. She saw the boxes scattered around the room. So many left to unpack. So much stuff to put in its place.
Her eyes fell to the clock on her nightstand.
The old woman was right. Midnight wasn’t far off.
Amy heard her cell phone ringing somewhere downstairs.
A Summer Place. Ringing and ringing.
That bastard Jack, no doubt calling to tell her he’d missed his flight again. This would teach him. This would teach him good.
Feivel Wolff misspent his youth in an indie rock band, setting stories to music on southern college radio. He blinked and found himself raising a family — and saving the stories for bedtime. These days, he tells himself stories as he wanders the corporate wastelands. His writing has appeared in Red River Review, The Haunted Traveler, LTEN Focus Magazine, Poetry Pacific, and Red Booth Review. Late nights may find him haunting the manuscript of his second novel or maintaining his status as Twitter’s best-kept secret @PhPWolff.