The last thing the neighborhood needs is more children, she thought. When Tracy bought the house ten years back, practically all of her neighbors were shoveling AARP informational mailers into their recycling bins like squirrels stowing nuts in their nests; now, at forty-two years old, she was the oldest resident on her street. Over the past decade, she had watched eight new families move onto the block. Each one boasted at least two children under the age of ten. On summer days, the street was awash with bicycles and skateboards, a rainbow of multicolored helmets sailing down the sidewalk.
It was Memorial Day weekend when Curt pulled the large U-Haul truck onto the bottom of the driveway of their green shuttered bungalow. His wife Janis parked the maroon minivan in the street directly in front of the walkway to their new home, and before she could walk around to open the trunk’s hatchback, three tow-headed children spilled from the sliding side door and raced up the front steps.
Tracy leaned forward on the sofa cushion and watched them, her body shielded by the darkness of her living room. Warm air wafted through the window screen, bringing with it the smell of fresh cut grass and lily of the valley. Above her neighbor’s house stretched a bright blue sky without even the faintest wisp of a cloud. Tracy knew she should be outside. She should be yanking the weeds out of her rose garden. She should be trimming the overgrown forsythia bushes that lined the margin of her property. She should be brushing the dust off of her patio furniture and placing the pieces into an inviting arrangement. She should not be huddled on her couch, still wearing an old t-shirt and ratty shorts at two in the afternoon, spying on her new neighbors and listening to an infomercial announcer’s insistence that no, she could not go without a new set of kitchen knives.
“But wait: there’s more!” the voice on the screen screamed excitedly.
She didn’t wait for the encore. Instead, she shoved her feet into the dog-eared flip-flops pushed halfway under the sofa and walked reluctantly into the kitchen. Her cat, Doodle, was balanced precariously on his back on the windowsill, his upside-down head lolling bizarrely to the side to face the incoming sunbeam. She absent-mindedly ruffled the long fur on his stomach as she passed, then opened the door to the cellar and walked carefully down the old wooden stairs. Her basement floor was unfinished, just a wide expanse of hard dirt, and the room smelled dank and earthy. Tracy padded over to the washing machine and mechanically transferred her wet clothes to the dryer. She felt along the inside of the washer’s tub to make certain she hadn’t left a wily sock behind, then slammed the door to the dryer and started it. She was careful as she made her way back to the stairs that she didn’t dig her feet into the ground: she didn’t want to track the cellar into her home.
When she returned to the living room, carrying a rocks glass full of equal parts ice cubes and vodka, she could see that the conveyor belt transferring household items from the mini-van and truck to the house had started. She watched Janis maneuver the slightly overgrown lawn while balancing brown boxes in her arms. She watched Curt, with some effort, wrestle the dolly holding a large white refrigerator down the sidewalk that had buckled from frost heaves and time. The appliance wobbled slightly, and Tracy sipped her drink and wondered how it would fare up the dilapidated back steps. Curt looked to be relatively young, mid-thirties at most, and wore a thick beard and mirrored sunglasses. His arms bulged with strength, but his belly was round. A dad bod, Tracy thought to herself. That’s what they call it these days. Even from across the street, she could see the sweat pooling on his face and soaking his hair. A thin girl, her blonde hair in two bobbing pigtails, tottered behind her father, carrying an empty fish tank.
Tracy tilted her head back and let the last dribble of vodka slide into her mouth. The ice cubes slapped against her teeth. She knew she should welcome the family to the neighborhood. Eight new neighbors and not once had she ventured over to introduce herself, and now, it was long past the point of making their acquaintance without significant awkwardness. Instead, her interactions with them were limited to half-hearted waves and the occasional nod when she passed one of them mowing the lawn or walking the dog.
Back on the television screen, the infomercial was replaced by a black and white Twilight Zone. Tracy knew this episode well: four odious relatives visit an elderly, dying man in anticipation of a large inheritance; since it’s Mardi Gras, the benefactor insists that they each wear a mask he’s selected for them. Tracy licked her teeth and glanced at the cable box. It was one in the afternoon. She debated pouring herself another drink when her cell phone jingled from the end table. She squinted at the caller’s name, then hit the green ANSWER button.
“Hey, Caroline,” Tracy said, the hoarse voice taking her by surprise. She tried to recall the last time she had spoken.
“What are you doing?” her sister’s voice in the speaker was aggressive, overly awake. Tracy sometimes wondered if her sister had a closet amphetamine habit. “I’m driving and 95 is a shit show. Why is everyone traveling on a Saturday afternoon, for Christ’s sakes?” She was headed to her beach house in Ogunquit, Tracy knew, like she did every weekend after Easter. The air from Caroline’s open window screeched in the background.
Tracy cleared her throat. “You’re traveling on a Saturday,” she pointed out and walked closer to her window. Curt and Janis were standing on the tree belt in front of their house, facing one another. The man was yelling something and waving his hands in the air; the woman stared at him, her hands gripped firmly to her hips.
Caroline ignored Tracy’s comment. “And did Mom call you about the Fourth? Patrick’s having a barbecue for the fireworks. Make sure you set aside the weekend and we can drive up together.” Tracy heard a metallic clicking sound, then a deep inhale. How her sister managed to light a cigarette while driving on the highway with her windows open was a mystery. “It’s not like you need to take vacation time, after all,” she added.
Tracy swallowed. “Yep,” she replied curtly.
“Did you call that lawyer I sent you? He’s supposed to be the best, especially for your kind of case.” A deep inhale in, then a quick exhale. “Did you call him?” she repeated.
“The review isn’t until July,” Tracy said, sitting on the sofa. The new neighbors were still arguing, but she still couldn’t make out what they were saying. Suddenly, Curt grabbed Janis by the shoulder and began to shake her violently. Caroline continued to talk in her ear, but Tracy let the phone slide down to her neck as she watched the scene continue. “I have to run, Carrie,” she said, half into the receiver and half into the collar of her t-shirt. “Call me tomorrow, ok?” She clicked the END CALL button without taking her eyes off of her neighbors or waiting for an acknowledgment from her sister.
Curt released his hold on his wife and turned and stomped into the house like a petulant child. Janis, once alone on the sidewalk, rubbed her shoulder with her left hand and walked cautiously into the back of the moving truck. She reappeared a moment later carrying a pair of lamps as if nothing had happened.
On the television, the elderly man screamed at his heirs from his death bed: “Without your masks, you’re caricatures!”
Tracy watched the couple and their children continue their unpacking for another moment. Then she wandered back into the kitchen to make herself another drink.
That night, when Tracy awoke on the couch, the cable television’s power-save function had turned the box off, leaving her temporarily blind. The green digital numbers read 10:30. Tracy sat up and blinked quickly, slightly disorientated. When had she fallen asleep? Her mouth felt tacky and dry, stuffed with cotton balls. A beam of light from the streetlamp outside her window cast a yellowish glow on the sill. The air smelled damp and green, like it had rained in the last few hours. She sat forward and patted the object sticking out of the back pocket of her shorts, then started to rise to walk to her bedroom. A movement outside of the window stopped her.
Curt was still milling about the moving truck, but his movements were slower; his sunglasses were off, and even from across the street, it was obvious from his face that he was exhausted. Tracy leaned forward. Curt was pushing a wide, flat broom across the floor of the cargo box; each time the bristles touched the air just behind the truck, a cloud of brown dust mushroomed. When he was done sweeping, Curt climbed down and disappeared up his driveway, holding the broom. The back of the truck gaped open.
Well, it’s not like there’s anything left to steal in there, Tracy thought. She stood up and stretched. She’d had issues sleeping for nearly a year now, sometimes spending most of the night sitting up in bed, pawing her cell phone or watching reruns of Criminal Minds or I Love Lucy on the television. A few months earlier, when the warm weather nudged away winter’s chill, she began going for walks in the middle of the night, sometimes clocking two or even three miles as she ventured further and further from her house. She thought the exercise would make it easy to fall back asleep, but more often than not, she returned home even more awake than before. She started showering at three in the morning and arriving at the office by five, sometimes startling the overnight security guards.
Her broken internal clock took a toll, though: before long, she was dozing off at her desk, often without warning. One minute she was wide awake, entering figures on a spreadsheet, and the next, she was trying to rub away the crease that had formed on her cheek after waking with her face pressed against the side of her leather blotter. One late afternoon, as she was peeling the edge of her mouth from the hardwood desk top, she lifted her head to see Kate, her co-worker in the next office, standing in the doorway, staring at her.
“Are you alright?” Kate asked in a tone that communicated faux concern intermingled with snide judgment, a manner often reserved for colleagues who were both semi-incompetent and painfully unaware of their stupidity.
Tracy blinked at her, her vision still slightly bleary. “Yes, yes,” she said as quickly as possible. “I’m just fighting a migraine. You know how it is.”
Kate smiled, her lipped pressed together so firmly, they appeared to have been glued shut. “Yes, well, I hope you feel better. Your head was on your keyboard last week when I walked by.” She fingered the three silver bangles encircling her left wrist. “Maybe you should see a doctor.”
Tracy pasted across her face the broadest grin she could muster. “I’ll do that: thanks.” She assumed this would satisfy her co-worker, but the woman remained at the door, still looking at Tracy. “Did you need something?”
Kate loitered at the door a moment longer, then finally turned away. She left Tracy’s office without another word. And then, of course, the incident occurred.
Tracy walked to the other side of the room and had almost made it to the hallway when she heard a door slamming—faint—from outside. She turned to see Curt returning to the truck. He was carrying a long canvas sack, one of those industrial laundry bags. It was at least three feet across and Curt held it tight atop his forearms like a groom bringing his new bride across the threshold. When he reached the open cargo hold, he shifted the bag in his grasp, and it was this instance that made Tracy shuffle quickly over to the window to get a better look.
Before he tossed the sack into the cargo box, it appeared to wriggle. Tracy ducked backwards but kept her eyes on the bag. With horror, she thought she saw it buck slightly and roll on the floor of the empty freight area, even as Curt reached up and pulled the door shut. Then, her new neighbor climbed into the cab and drove the truck away.
The next morning, Tracy stared blankly at the coffeemaker as it gurgled its last brew breath. Her hair was still wet from the shower, and she absent-mindedly tousled it with her left hand as she reached for a mug on the wall hook with her right. The headless voice of George Stephanopoulos drifted from the next room. Tracy had always liked George. He was from Massachusetts, a local boy, so that won some points with her. Of course, she’d been too young to vote when he had been Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor, but there was something about his presence that made Tracy trust him. She never missed his Sunday talk show, even when she had not slept well the night before.
The night before. She vaguely remembered waking up on the couch and watching the man across the street as he completed his unpacking, but there had been something odd about the sight that she could not remember now, something about a chest, or a bag, or a—
Her phone began to ring insistently from her back pocket.
“Morning, Caroline,” she said into the receiver. She shook the confusion from her head and poured herself a cup of coffee.
Her sister’s voice blared into her ear. “Trace: you’ll never believe what my neighbors did last night. I mean, seriously—”
Tracy balanced the phone between her ear and her shoulder and brought the mug to her face. She breathed in the steam from the coffee, then lowered the cup to the sink and poured out half of its contents. As her sister’s rapid chatter continued, she opened the cabinet nearest to her and fished the half-empty container of Jameson from the collection of tall bottles at eye level. She felt jittery, like she had popped a few too many No-Doze tablets on an empty stomach. As she poured the whiskey into her cup, she watched the deep chestnut coffee lighten to a hazy caramel color. She didn’t feel much like baking, so after rifling through the other cabinets and discovering an unopened bag of cookies, she determined that these would make a fine welcoming gift for her new neighbors.
Caroline’s hyperactive drone continued in her ear as she walked into the living room, sipping her makeshift Irish coffee and bringing with her the Jameson bottle under her arm. Across the street, Curt walked back and forth from the house to the garage, carrying an assortment of home improvement materials: a hammer, a large hand-saw, and a hatchet, up and down the empty driveway. Tracy sat on the couch and tried to listen to the news program while interjecting sincere uh-huhs into the phone at appropriate times, but her mind was racing and she wanted desperately to catch up with it. Her eyes ping-ponged from the screen to the window and back again.
Curt now carried a bulky black trash bag in each of his hands, and he walked with his legs spread wide and sailor-like, giving him the appearance of a human balance scale. He dropped the bags at the end of the driveway and Tracy could hear the thump of their weight as he did so.
“…so I said to Nancy, if that daughter of hers is getting married on a Caribbean beach, well, I just—” Caroline’s voice blathered on.
Tracy looked back at the screen. A diplomat from some country Tracy wasn’t familiar with was talking to a correspondent, explaining that if economic sanctions continued, the United States would be sorry.
Curt returned with another pair of heavy trash bags and plunked them next to the first ones.
“—And that’s when I said, you’ve got to be joking, right? Then Ann jumped in and—”
Tracy couldn’t take it anymore. It felt like the room had begun to spin. She was on a tilt-a-whirl and was trying desperately to jump off. “Caro? Caro?” she yelled. “You’re breaking up. Can you call back when you have better service?” She’d used this act before, but usually it was with her mother, and she doubted her sister would fall for the trick. However, she didn’t wait for her reaction and simply clicked the END CALL button and tossed the phone onto the cushion beside her.
George nodded solemnly into the camera.
Tracy gulped the rest of her drink and took a deep breath. The heat of the liquid carved a path down her throat and into her stomach, and she felt her cheeks flush with alcohol blossoms. She poured another healthy splash of the whiskey and tried to settle her thoughts.
Curt made a third trip down the driveway, bringing with him only one full bag this time. He dropped it next to the others, wiped his palms on his thighs, then walked into the house.
George moved onto another political hot button story, but Tracy did not take her eyes off of the bags. How does someone who just moved in the day before acquire so much trash? she wondered.
This time, when Tracy woke up, the green numbers on the cable box read 7:13. She was sitting straight up in her red wing-back chair, her head nestled firmly in the corner at the top. A coffee cup containing an inch of pale yellow liquid sat on a coaster on the side table nearby, and Doodle the cat was stretched out in a faint sunbeam in the middle of the rug in front of her. Tracy leaned forward; her shoulders and upper arms ached, but she supposed that was stiffness from her awkward sleeping position. She could see through the window the edge of Curt and Janis’ house, and while it was still light out, she resolved to bring the welcome treats over to their home and introduce herself.
She padded over to the front hallway and stuck her feet into the old flip-flops waiting conveniently by the doorway to the kitchen. As she packed the cookies into a plastic container left behind from Christmas baking, she noticed bits of dirt trailing across the linoleum. She checked the bottoms of her sandals; they were covered with the same dirt, likely remnants from the basement. She must not have been as careful walking back from the dryer as she thought. She grabbed a broom from behind the pantry door and swept up the debris, then checked her reflection in the hall mirror before clicking the container shut and walking across the street.
The barrage of trash bags was gone, but the maroon mini-van was now parked in the driveway. Two of the three blonde children squatted behind it, scrutinizing the pavement. As Tracy moved closer, she saw that they were drawing with colored chalk: a tri-color rainbow, a tree, and block letters spelling out B-E-A-T-R-I-C-E dotted the small square of blacktop. As she climbed the steps onto the covered porch, the smaller of the two girls glanced up at her but said nothing and returned her focus to her sketching. Before Tracy could press the doorbell, the heavy green door opened and her new neighbor appeared at the screen.
“Hi… hi there,” Tracy said, a bit taken off guard. “I’m Tracy. I live across the street.” She tilted her head in the direction of her house. As she did, she glanced at her beige stucco bungalow. It seemed small and sad from this angle, a tiny doll house with overgrown flower bushes and a lawn in desperate need of fertilizer. She turned back to face the door and held out the container of store-baked goods. “I brought you some cookies. I hope you have a sweet tooth!”
The man peered down at the box in her hand, then looked back at Tracy. He pushed open the screen door an inch. “I’m Curt. That’s very nice of you, Tracy.” He paused for a moment, then cleared his throat nervously and continued. “Would you like to come in?” He backed away from the screen a few inches.
Tracy walked inside and was instantly swallowed by the coolness of the dimly-lit living room. She took a few steps forward on the hardwood floor and stopped. Curt shut the door behind her and stood awkwardly next to it. She held out the cookies again. “Dessert. For you,” she said, smiling.
The third child, a boy whose hair was nearly white, appeared in the doorway at the far end of the room. “Dessert?” he echoed hopefully, then bounded excitedly over to Tracy like a puppy. He turned to his father. “Can I have some?”
Curt tousled the child’s hair playfully. “Andy, this is our neighbor across the street, Tracy. What do you say?”
Andy turned back to Tracy. He threw his shoulders back and stuck his hand out robotically. “Nice to meet you, Tracy. My name is Andy.”
Tracy grasped his hand quickly, then handed him the plastic container. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” she said, more to the air than to Curt or Andy. The boy thanked her for the box and wandered back into the room at the far end of the house. The two adults stood silent in the room once more. Tracy glanced about, expecting Curt’s wife to appear, but she did not. The house was still.
“So, anyway,” Tracy started, as if Andy had interrupted a lively conversation, “There is a great Polish bakery about a mile and a half that way and there’s a park two blocks over that way with a nice playground for kids.” She motioned with her hands. “They have fireworks in July. You can spread out a blanket and watch the sky explode with color right above you.” She realized she was talking very loudly and fast. This must be what it’s like to be Caroline, she thought.
“I saw you moving things yesterday,” she continued, then immediately regretted saying it. Curt’s face shifted, and there was something in this new countenance that made her uneasy. “In the afternoon. With the kids. And a woman with auburn hair in a ponytail,” she added quickly, placing her hand inside the back pocket of her shorts and feeling for the object inside.
“My wife,” Curt said. “Janis.” He stared at Tracy for a long moment. “She went out earlier in the day but hasn’t returned yet. I’m sure she sends her appreciation for your welcome gift. That was very thoughtful of you.”
Tracy shifted her weight from one foot to another. There was something wrong about the situation, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. “Well, I’d better get going,” she said, edging back toward the door. “Again, welcome, and I’m sure I’ll see you… and Janis… soon.” She turned her back to Curt and grasped the doorknob, half expecting a blow to the back of her head, but she exited without incident.
The next day was a holiday, but the network channels resumed their vapid schedule of both health talk shows that made Tracy feel like a bit of a hypochondriac and recycled game shows that made Tracy feel like a bit of a moron. She had curled herself into a ball on the sofa, her knees nudging her breasts, and Doodle had poured himself into the space behind her legs and snored softly. Her cell phone rang but she ignored it. It was likely Caroline again, and she didn’t have the energy to manufacture an escape plan this time. In the distance, she heard the soft buzz of her dryer timer, indicating that her sheets were done.
She reached her arm across to the coffee table, grabbed the remote control, and tapped the channel button until the screen dissolved into black and white. Another Twilight Zone, she thought. They always do these marathons on holiday weekends. This episode told the story of a woman driving cross-country who keeps seeing the same hitch-hiker everywhere she goes. Tracy stretched her arm out to the coffee table again, trying in vain to grab the tequila sunrise she’d made herself promptly at noon. It was just out of reach, so she sat up, stretched, then snatched the glass from the table. The ice cubes were just starting to lose their jagged edges. She sat forward and patted her back pocket.
On the television, the woman driving cross-country had sought out a mechanic to change her flat tire, and the man was expressing surprise that the woman survived the accident that caused the repair. Doodle yawned and rolled over onto his side; his eyes remained closed. Tracy peeked outside. No one was outside of Curt and Janis’s house, and their shades were drawn. Just as she was rising to bring her empty glass into the kitchen, Tracy heard a knock at her front door, a quick rap.
Tracy smoothed her hair with her hands and walked to the entryway. She certainly wasn’t expecting anyone, and she would have simply pretended to not be home, except there weren’t any strange cars parked near her house, and she was curious to see who was visiting. Surprised to see Curt standing on the other side of her screen, she glanced quickly at the latch on the door to double-check it was locked.
Curt squinted at her, then flashed a lop-sided grin. “Good morning, Tracy,” he said. “I’m just dropping off your container. The kids sure appreciated the cookies: thanks again.” He squinted again, and Tracy wondered if, between the sunglasses and dark house, Curt had an oversensitivity to light. She said nothing back to him, and he fidgeted a bit, then added, “Can I give you back the container?” He waved the box in front of the screen.
“Oh, uh, of course,” Tracy stammered. She unlatched the door, opened it, and accepted the plastic tin from her neighbor. “Thanks.”
They were both silent, staring at one another. “Well,” Tracy finally said, “I suppose I should go finish my laundry.” She backed away as she said this. Curt waved his hand in a half-hearted goodbye and Tracy shut the door.
The Twilight Zone episode was ending. As she walked through the living room on her way to the door to the basement, she caught a glimpse of the screen. The woman was staring into the vanity mirror of her car. From the back seat, the dead hitch-hiker stared back at her. “I believe you’re going my way?” he said.
She walked through the kitchen, slid her feet into her flip-flops, and walked down the basement stairs. The dryer had contorted the pile of sheets into a tangled ball, and the sheets trapped inside were still damp. She pulled the pieces apart and placed them orderly back into the drum, then turned on the machine. It wasn’t until the clothes began to tumble that she turned around and only then did she see him standing directly behind her.
“I know she’s here,” Curt said. His eyes were fixed, unmoving.
Tracy put her hand inside her back pocket and gripped the object inside. “Who’s here?” she asked. She glanced at the shovel leaning against the furnace about ten feet away.
Curt started to walk to the right of Tracy, looking at the ground. “Janis. My wife. She told me she was coming over here yesterday afternoon. She left, and then you showed up at the house two hours later.” He continued to walk the perimeter of the cellar, keeping his eyes on the dirt floor.
Tracy was so quiet in her movements, he didn’t know she had crept up behind him until he felt the blade pierce his neck. His jugular vein erupted, spraying blood all over the nearby wall, as his hands clawed in vain at Tracy’s fingers pushing the knife in his throat. When at last he collapsed, Tracy wrestled the weapon from his body, then calmly brought it over to the laundry sink to clean.
The dryer purred and continued its soft thumping. Tracy retrieved the shovel and began to dig a fresh hole, but her blade hit something metal almost immediately. She bent down to inspect the culprit: three silver bangle bracelets still attached to a partially decomposed arm. She reburied her missing co-worker and began to dig five feet away, next to Janis’s makeshift grave.
She was running out of space, and she was exhausted.
Rebecca Rowland is an editor, librarian, and author who specializes in dark fiction and speculative horror. Her stories most recently appeared in the anthologies The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror (vol 4) and Ghosts, Goblins, Murder, and Madness and in the on-line Women in Horror Month collection, “The Ones You Don’t Bring Home.” Her first short fiction collection, The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight, was published in 2018. Her first novel, Pieces, will be released in late 2019. Despite her love of the ocean and unwavering distaste for cold temperatures, she currently resides in a landlocked and often icy corner of New England.