Authors: Ania Ahlborn
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Occult, #Humor & Satire, #Satire, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Suspense, #Paranormal, #Thrillers, #Psychological, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2012 Ania Ahlborn
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
To my husband and best friend, Will.
Here’s to me not poisoning your food,
and to you not killing me in my sleep.
“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
ndrew Morrison sat at a red light in his father’s beat-up Chevy. Bopping his head to an old Pearl Jam CD, he shrugged off that morning’s tension, put the past behind him, cranked up the stereo, and drove.
This is it
, he told himself.
This is freedom.
Somewhere down the line, he had convinced himself that freedom didn’t exist in Creekside, Kansas—that it couldn’t. Hell, nothing could survive in that corner of the world except for an endless expanse of wheat and corn. But he had been wrong. As it turned out, liberty
exist, and he was mere minutes from his first taste.
Mickey Fitch...Drew could hardly believe it. To think that he’d be rooming with his childhood friend, living with the guy he’d looked up to for so long—a guy who had bailed him out of tight spots as a kid. Mickey was extending his hand to Drew after all these years, and Drew was determined to show his gratitude. He didn’t have much cash, but he could spare twenty bucks; buy Mick dinner and make sure his friend knew he was thankful. After all, Mick was doing Drew a solid. He was letting Andrew move in on short notice, and with only a half month’s rent. That
in itself assured him: despite the time that had passed between them, they were still brothers in arms, and living together was going to be a great experience—the
He’d dreamed of this moment for so long, it felt nearly surreal to be knee-deep in it. Magnolia Lane was still a few intersections away, but Andrew was already there.
The light turned green and Drew stepped on the accelerator, rolling his rickety pickup through the interchange. He turned up his music, sucked in air, and belted out the chorus to “Even Flow” before laughing at himself. Lifting his right hand over his head, he nodded along to the rhythm, mouthing the words, not caring who saw. He had nothing to hide. The sky was bright, the breeze was warm, and the air smelled of honeysuckle and endless promise.
His eyes lit up when he turned onto Magnolia Lane, like Dorothy getting her first glimpse of a Technicolor Oz. Ahead of him: freshly laid tarmac, black and glittering in the sunshine; trees shaped like giant, leafy lollipops, perfectly pruned, not a single leaf out of place. He slowly rolled past a white picket fence—
a white picket fence!
A tiny Pekingese stuck its face through the whitewashed slats and barked, bouncing like a cartoon character with each yappy arf. Across the street, a woman in pink capris watered her flower garden. A few houses from hers, little kids screamed in glee as they jumped through an oscillating water sprinkler. They waved as Drew rolled past them, yelling out a unified
when he waved back.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, he hardly recognized himself. He was grinning like an idiot. His chest felt full—like the Grinch, his heart had grown three sizes, threatening to break every one of his ribs.
His gaze snagged on the carefully painted curb numbers, bright white and reflective against the concrete. He pressed the brake a little too hard. The Chevy’s tires gave off a half-second shriek—gone in an instant, but enough to momentarily mortify him.
“Shit,” he whispered, shooting a look at his side-view mirror. The kids had paused in their antics, staring at the pickup that had come to a dead stop in the middle of their street.
Suddenly he realized just how out of place he was. His Chevy was a relic. It belonged in a junkyard far more than it did on the road. His windows were rolled down, his rock music turned up way too loud.
He jammed the volume knob against the stereo console, the music replaced by the kids’ laughter and the occasional bark of that smash-faced dog. Easing his truck along the curb, he stared at the house just outside his window. It was gorgeous, a gingerbread house pulled straight from a fairy tale. This one had a white picket fence as well, rosebushes bursting with bright red blooms. Matching hydrangeas, heavy with blossoms, dangled from pots that hung beneath the eaves of the porch. A wind chime shivered in the breeze, small rounds of capiz shell sparkling in the sun. A hammock stretched across the right side of the patio.
Andrew exhaled a slow breath and reached for the door handle, stopping short when his attention paused on the house next door. He had been so dazzled by the residence in front of him that he hardly noticed the one directly beside it: a dwelling that, much like his truck, simply didn’t belong. It was set back from the street more than the others, ashamed of itself. But it seemed inevitable—every neighborhood had a sore thumb. It was as though all of Magnolia Lane was filmed in brilliant color, but this sad little house existed in dreary monochrome. Its gutters sagged in a frown. The screen door hung at an awkward angle, like a waterlogged Band-Aid trying to hang on with all its might. There was no doubt that the next storm would tear it from its hinges, sending it tumbling down the street into someone’s award-winning garden.
Drew couldn’t help but feel sorry for it. Being an outsider was never easy.
He pushed the driver’s door open to the cool early evening air, its metallic whine cutting through the murmur of a tranquil, tree-lined suburbia. This was a world apart from the street he grew up on. Less than five miles away, Cedar Street was desolate and lonely, snatched out of one of the seven circles of hell and thrown onto the flat Kansas landscape. The trees that existed there were sparse, exposing old houses to a relentless prairie wind. The ones that had survived the storms were husks of what they had once been: stripped of their branches, left dead in the ground by tornados that had done their damnedest to wipe that street off the map.
He inhaled the scent of lilacs and honeysuckle before grabbing a box from the bed of his truck, then began his trek toward the white picket gate. Balancing the box on his knee, he fumbled with the latch, blinking when he saw a silhouette move past the front window.
That was when he noticed the house number tacked next to the door.
Drew took a step back, placed the moving box down on the sidewalk, and fished the scrap piece of paper out of his back pocket. The number
didn’t look right, and that’s what the door of the fairy-tale house declared. He nearly laughed when he realized it, his stomach turning behind the faded cotton of his Nirvana T-shirt: this wasn’t Mickey Fitch’s house.
Mickey’s was the sad monstrosity next door.
Disappointment bloomed into blighted hope. He had been stupid to think it would have been so easy. Nobody simply walked into paradise.
Drew narrowed his eyes, plucked his box off the ground, and marched down the sidewalk toward the sulking home next door. He had spent a good portion of his summers fixing up the house on Cedar Street—it, too, was a sad sight. If he could keep that old lean-to upright, he sure as hell could resurrect this place. All it needed was the straightening of gutters and a fresh coat of paint.
Magnolia Lane was handing Drew his own private metaphor: His life was a mess, and he was here to fix it.
Reaching the house, he pressed the box between the wall and his chest, balancing it on a raised knee before reaching for the bell. Before his finger hit the button, he reeled back, staring at the fat spider that sat beside the glowing button. It sat there, illuminated from behind, as if giving Andrew a final opportunity to forget the whole thing—to turn around and walk away. Shuddering at the thing, Drew knocked instead.
There was a long, dead silence. Was Mickey even home?
Then the front door swung open, and a death mask emerged from behind a tattered screen.
Mick peered through the screen door with a squint, as though he hadn’t seen daylight in years. Dark circles under his eyes implied he hadn’t slept for weeks, their shadows contrasting against his white shock of blond hair. He appeared older than Drew remembered, like he was aging at twice the natural speed. Kansas did that to some. It may have been the sun or the wind, the tornado sirens in the dead of night, or the hypnotic sway of wheat fields beneath an endless sky. This place pushed people to the brink of madness, assuring them that the wide-open landscape proved that the world was flat; the horizon held nothing.
This wasn’t the bright-eyed kid Andrew had run to when Drew’s dad had gone missing, when his mom had drunk herself into a stupor.
Drew had been preparing a wide smile for his old friend, but it wavered as he stared.
“Hey,” he said, trying to appear as enthusiastic as he had felt a few minutes before. “Dude, this neighborhood is intense.”
No response: Mickey remained motionless, staring out through the frayed screen door. Drew furrowed his eyebrows. The dead look in his old friend’s eyes scared him.
Had he made a mistake? He swallowed against the lump in his throat, his pulse drumming in his ears. Mickey looked like
he was deciding whether to let Andrew inside or tell him to hit the road.
Drew dared to pose the question, figured it was just a matter of time before it came bursting forth: “Are you OK? You look rough, man.”
He opened his mouth to speak again, to give Mickey some reason to go through with the deal and invite him in, but Mickey finally roused from his trance.
“Hey, man,” he replied in a dry monotone. “Yeah, sorry.” He motioned with a swoop of his arm for Andrew to enter, pushing the screen door open to let him inside.
Drew’s heart sank. The inside of the house was as unfortunate as its exterior. An obvious path had been worn in the dirty carpet from the kitchen to the couch and then to somewhere down a hall, but beyond that, the house looked unused, coated in a layer of dust. Dingy curtains flanked the windows, one of the rods hanging low, as though someone had caught themselves on the drape to break a fall. Another window was covered by a bedsheet tacked to the wall by an army of staples, hundreds of them punched into the drywall in a crooked, glittering line. The smell wasn’t as bad as it should have been—stale, with an undertone of dust and sweat, but otherwise innocuous.
Drew carefully placed his box down at his feet, allowing himself to fully take in the squalor. This was worse than Cedar Street. At least there, he had kept things under relative control. He spent weekends washing windows, painting the deck with leftover paint he found in the garage, anything to keep his grandparents’ pride and joy from disintegrating in the wind. But
...this looked like Mickey had moved in and never lifted a finger.
Mickey had made a beeline for the couch as soon as Andrew had stepped inside. He mashed the buttons of a game controller, oblivious to the fact that Andrew was standing just beyond the
front door, a box at his feet, waiting to be acknowledged by a guy he used to consider a close friend.