Liam’s mother reverses out of the driveway, their young son strapped into the back seat and waving like a maniac out his window. “Bye, Dad! See ya later!”
“Bye, Li-Li! See ya Wednesday!”
“I’ll bring him back before school,” his ex-wife says. “I have early meetings.”
“Sounds good,” says Brian, still waving to his son. He waits until he’s out of Liam’s sight before he puts his hand down. It’s nice to be alone for a few days, but he already feels the pangs of missing his child creeping in.
Standing in the driveway, Brian considers his next move. There’s an antique armoire in his workshop that needs a final coat of stain and then some clear-coat to protect it. It took a week to repair and refinish, but he scheduled two. He could do something else if he wanted to…
It can wait. The issue of the monster lady is weighing too heavily on his mind to let it go. Ignoring the warning bells going off in his head, he walks to the bottom of the driveway and turns left to go down the street.
“What am I doing?” he mumbles under his breath. “The guy obviously doesn’t like visitors.” The fact that the guy also looks like a Bantam rooster spoiling for a fight is not making Brian’s misgivings any fewer.
“Hey there, Brian. Going for a walk on this fine morning?” Ethel, his next-door neighbor is out trimming her bushes again. They don’t need trimming; they’re just a prop to give her a reason to be standing outside, waiting for passersby.
Brian waves. “Yep. Just getting some fresh air, I guess. Seemed like a good idea.”
“Little Liam gone for the week?”
She must have seen him drive by. She sees everything that happens on this street. “Just for a few days. He’ll be back on Wednesday.” Brian keeps walking, although slower. If he stops, he’ll be stuck there for an hour and probably end up in her kitchen having an iced tea. She’s the nicest, most talkative neighbor he’s ever had. He doesn’t usually mind it; in fact, he’s happy to indulge in a neighborly chat now and again - it’s why he moved to this area - but today, he’s on a mission and he doesn’t have time for gossip or an hour-long discussion about the upcoming weather and whether Mrs. Grandston down the street will ever start recycling.
“Tell him to stop by and see me when he gets home,” she says, poking her clippers vaguely in Brian’s direction. “I bought some new cookies at the store and I think he’s going to like them. He’s my official cookie taster.”
“I’ll tell him. He’ll be really happy to hear that.”
She waves with a gloved hand as he reaches the far side of her property line, and he waves back.
Maybe I should ask Ethel about the guy around the corner. Brian’s not sure that Ethel knows anything beyond the business of those living on Lodi Street. She stays pretty close to home, taking care of her husband who’s slowly going downhill with dementia. Brian’s not looking forward to the day she’ll have to put him in a nursing home. He has a feeling it will take the spark from her, and she’s fun just the way she is, even if she is a little nosy.
The house comes into view. As he gets closer, he sees that the window is still broken, but now there’s a piece of cardboard taped over it. The house is still, with no sign that anyone’s home. The large black truck that was in the driveway last night isn’t there. Maybe it’s in the garage.
Brian walks up to the porch, taking the steps slowly as he looks around. He’s not sure what he’s looking for, but everything seems to be in order.
“What the hell am I doing here?” he whispers to himself. What am I going to say if that guy comes to the door again? I’ll ask him for the bill, that’s it. Tell him I want to pay right away. Be a good neighbor. Brian shakes his head at his ridiculous thoughts. He already told the guy to leave the bill in his box. Showing up again and ringing the bell when the sign on it says not to feels almost like harassment. He looks at the sign again, reading the heavy scrawl.
DO NOT RING BELL. DO NOT KNOCK. WE DON’T TAKE VISITORS.
Brian frowns. He can’t get past the feeling that it’s just a weird thing to do, to put a sign up like that warning people away. It’s like something he would have done as a kid on a clubhouse to keep other kids from discovering his secret hiding place. It’s so ridiculous it almost begs people to discover whatever it is he’s keeping inside.
Brian laughs nervously at himself. Don’t be stupid. You’re a grown man and so is he. This is his house. If you trespass he can shoot your stupid ass.
Brian steps back away from the door, prepared to leave and never come back. But then the sound of his son’s voice and the vision of him standing on their own front porch the night before comes back to him. “She’s not sick, Dad. She’s just really ugly.”
Brian doesn’t want to see a really ugly woman. That’s not what’s motivating him to stand her on this porch and risk pissing off this neighbor. It’s just that … he’s a math guy. Brian has always been strong in math, from the time he was Liam’s age. He uses it every day with his work at restoring furniture, both in the actual hands-on stuff and the figuring he has to do later when he does his billing. Everything always has to add up in his world, and this situation with the monster lady? It wasn’t adding up.
Brian glances over at the cardboard covering the hole. Maybe I’ll just take a look at the damage and make a call to a glass company myself. Then I can go get some cash out of the bank and be ready to pay the guy when he gives me the bill.
Brian takes a few tentative steps down the porch towards the front window. A car comes down the street and he freezes, waiting until it’s a few doors down before continuing. Once in front of the window, he looks around the neighborhood. No one is outside, and he sees no faces in any other windows. These people need an Ethel.
Turning to look at the cardboard, he notices it’s stuck to the still intact frame with duct tape. “That’s going to be a problem when the sun melts that adhesive onto the PVC,” he says out loud. He runs his finger along the edge, hoping he can find a loose spot so he can pry up the cardboard a little to see the actual damage. It’s stuck on too tight, though.
His eyes roam up. A set of white, gauzy curtains are right in front of him, obscuring his view of the house’s interior. This house has the same basic layout as his, so he knows there’s a large living room of sorts on the other side of the glass. He wonders what the woman was doing when the ball came through her window. Was she sitting in the living room reading a book? Was she in the kitchen making cookies?
He blinks his eyes a few times as they adjust to looking through the white curtain. There’s a couch in the center of the wall facing him with side chairs on its left and right, its dark, burry contours getting clearer the longer he stares. A small coffee table rests in the middle of the conversation area. His eyes roam the walls, wondering what the pictures in frames look like. It’s too difficult to see. He steps back and stands straighter, embarrassed when he realizes he’s being worse than Ethel, staring into people’s houses like this.
It’s then that something inside the house catches his eye. Brian stops moving for a moment as he focuses his attention on the dark shape on the floor. He steps closer to the window, going so far as to press his face up against the glass and cup his hands around his eyes, trying to see better. What is that? A carpet on the floor? No. It’s not a carpet. It’s too bulky. It looks like…
He bends down, a sense of urgency overtaking his good sense. He scratches desperately at the edge of the duct tape, finally getting a corner of it to peel away from the window frame. He draws it down, careful not to let it tear. Once it’s free on one side, he grabs the cardboard and pushes it sideways, like opening the cover of the book.
What the hell am I doing? This is nuts… He ignores his own concerns, needing more than anything else right now to just confirm that what he thinks he’s seeing on that floor is not what he’s seeing.
The hole in the window is finally revealed, and it’s big enough for his hand to fit through. Thank you, Liam. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think he’d thank his son for breaking someone’s window.
Brian reaches through and grabs the curtains on the other side, using both hands to pull the bottom of them out through the hole. As soon as he has the entire bottom seam through the broken window, he lifts it up and looks into the small space that’s remaining. Now there are no curtains in the way and he can see into the living room as clear as if he were standing inside the house.
“Holy Mary mother of Jesus,” he whispers. He raises his voice. “Ma’am … ! Miss … ! Are you okay?”
There’s what he assumes to be a woman lying on the floor in the middle of the room. All he can see is the back of her head and blood on her one exposed hand. “Ma’am! Are you okay?!”
“Fuck!” he yells, hurriedly shoving the curtain back through the hole and pushing the cardboard into place. He cuts the back of his hand on the glass, but he ignores the blood, the pain, and everything else as he struggles to get his cell phone out of his front pocket.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“Hello, this is Brian Jensen and I’m standing on the front porch of …” He leans out and looks at the number on the front of the house near the door, “…thirty-two Fresno Street, and there’s a woman inside her house who’s passed out and there’s blood. She needs an ambulance.”
“Are you the homeowner, sir?”
“No, I’m a neighbor. Can you please send someone quick? I’m afraid she might be … dead. I’m not sure. She’s not moving.”
“Can you check for a pulse?”
“No, I’m outside. But just wait a minute. I’m going in.”
“Sir, is there anyone else at the home?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Hold the line while I call the house,” the operator says.
Brian’s at the front door when the woman comes back on the line. “They don’t appear to have a home phone on record. Have you tried the doorbell?”
“No.” Brian realizes how ridiculous it is that he hasn’t bothered to do that first. Surely the guy who lives here needs to know his wife is passed out on the floor. She’s obviously sick. Maybe she hit her head or something when she fell.
Brian rings the doorbell several times and bangs on the door with his fist. “Is anyone home?!” he yells.
No one answers.
“I don’t think anyone’s home but her,” Brian says to the operator. He tries the handle, but the door is locked. “I’m going to see if they have another open door somewhere.”
“Sir, I don’t recommend you break into the home.”
“I hear ya, but I’m doing it anyway.”
Brian runs around to the back and tries the door he finds there. It’s locked up tight as well. “The back door’s locked too. I’m going back to the front.”
“The ambulance is on its way along with a police officer. Can you stay on scene until they arrive?”
“Do you want me to stay on the line with you?”
“No. Thanks for your help.” Brian hangs up without waiting for a response.
Going back to the front, he scrambles to pull the cardboard off and the curtain through the hole again. He leaves blood on the curtains in his attempts to see inside.
“Ma’am, an ambulance is on its way, okay? Ma’am, can you hear me?”
He’s about to look away when he sees her first finger move. It’s just the slightest twitch, but he’s sure he saw it. “I see you moving! I know you’re alive! They’re coming, okay! They’re coming!”
A low moan comes from inside the house, from the woman. Brian’s breath catches in his throat as her hand moves again, this time to slide out across the carpet. It leaves a smear of blood behind.
She moans again, this time an agonizing sound that makes Brian’s skin crawl. “You’re going to be okay. I called nine-one-one.”
Her moaning turns to a strange keening, like a growl and a sob blended together into something almost animalistic. The sounds of a siren in the distance reach Brian’s ears. He’s frozen in place, holding up the curtains and peering inside, as her head slowly turns.
The ambulance turns into the driveway as her face comes into view. Brian needs only one second to take in the sight of the horror before him before the blood in his veins goes cold and the words fall out of his mouth unbidden.
“Oh my god … what happened to your face?”
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