I am pleased to announce that I have accepted the first work of fiction submitted to Slattery’s Art of Horror Magazine. Although some might not consider it “horror” per se, because it is not supernatural in nature and does not contain horrific gore, it does meet the stipulations I have set out for this magazine, in that it contains a horrific element and it pushes a nebulous boundary between horror and another genre, which in this case is mainstream literature. I like the story and its understated element of suspense, its thoughtful wording, and its ability to draw the reader into it for a vicarious experience. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
by Steffany Willey
Asha was my spur-of-the-moment walking buddy. She lived five houses away, and if one of us suddenly needed a break from our mom lives we’d give the other a call. Winter and summer we’d plod the two-mile loop, often grumbling about what our kids did or didn’t do, sometimes bragging about the grandkids. We’d pick apart the neighbors’ landscaping, which often amounted to little more than plugging in a feeble row of Home Depot arborvitae, and made suggestions (to each other) like clipboard horticulturalists.
Our route passed a house I’d visited many times. It was a trim two-story colonial with a wing on one side that had once been a garage. The lawn was thick then, lush, the sidewalk edged, the shrubs mulched. Inside, the rooms lulled sweetly in this tidy castle.
Over the years it had changed hands a number of times but to progressively disinterested owners. Now it had deteriorated into such a mess it brought us to a halt. We scowled at a tree skeleton and overgrown shrubs that shrouded the windows. That same grass was choked with weeds that were well beyond a lawnmower and a gallon of Weed B Gon. Even the sidewalk fought to hold its own. It was a shame. It brought down the neighborhood.
It was during that scathing appraisal that we saw the girl. She was at a front window and seemed to be struggling to open it. She looked like a young teen. When she saw us she waved. We waved back. She kept on waving.
Suddenly a man emerged from the front door. He was fortyish and lean, a swimmer or runner possibly. In jeans and a pressed shirt and a stylish day-old beard, he couldn’t have been more at odds with this sorry house. Or that was our impression until he marched our way.
“Everything OK?” he demanded in a no-nonsense tone. His laser eyes pinned us down as if we’d been trespassing. The message was clear: Move on ladies. Were neighbors giving him heat about his property?
“Yeah,” I think I mumbled, and turned away to walk on. When I glanced back the girl was gone and a shade pulled. The man stood firm, watching.
It bothered me. Asha too. Had the girl been waving or beckoning, asking for help? We hemmed and hawed. Should we do something about this? Or was she just a kid sent to her room and trying to sneak out?
We made a point to check out the house the next day. This time I jotted down the address and name on the mailbox, but weeks passed before I contacted the community association and was told to share my concerns with the police; in turn, they took note, made a written report.
So it was. We did our bit, said what we saw.
Fall brought birthdays and holidays and deaths in the neighborhood. We squeezed in our walk when we could, offering up our critiques. A couple houses went on the market, polished it seemed overnight. Asha’s neighbor built a lopsided shed on a twenty-degree slope in his backyard that was supported on one edge by stilts; it and his new John Deere riding mower crashed to the bottom of their lot two months later. We might have told him so.
And sometimes I would drive by the house with the girl and see a light on, but usually it was dark, to itself.
The winter was harsh, the land hidden under a glaze of snow that leaked all day then morphed into black ice at night. Our walks were few, and we didn’t get back into the swing until March. By then neighbors were emerging like hibernated bears, poking into gardens and washing cars. One afternoon we slowed to admire a ’57 T-Bird, its owner in the driveway stroking it like a cat. I’d seen him before, similarly entranced, touching up flaws only he could see. His house, as it happened, was across the street from the house with the girl.
“Do you ever drive it?” I asked pleasantly as we came even with his driveway.
Snatched from his reverie, he offered, “Fourth of July parades. That’s about it.”
“I’ll have to look for you. I never miss the Catonsville parade.”
“‘I’ll be there.”
I glanced behind me. “I was wondering about that house. It looks abandoned.”
He wrung out a chamois that looked dry.
”Yeah. He … ah … isn’t there.”
“I guess you could say that.” He honed in on the passenger-side door, buffing an area under the handle. Asha and I traded looks.
“Were there children living there?”
“We saw a girl at a front window a while back. Something seemed … off … not right …”
He sighed and turned to us. “I figured they were relatives.” Then: “He was arrested a few days ago on child pornography charges. He’s … he was …. a teacher.” He didn’t meet our eyes.
“Oh no!” I said.
Asha touched my arm. “Sweet Lord,” she croaked.
We stood looking at each other, the three of us. There was more but he wasn’t saying. Guilt was written on his face as if in Magic Marker.
“I’ll look for the car at the parade,” I finally said, backing off and pulling Asha with me.
“I’m sorry,” he said as if he was to blame.
Later it made the news, and in a month a For Sale sign was stuck in the mud by the driveway. No one had bothered to tame the property, so someone was going to get a good fixer-upper deal. Families clamored for homes in this school district so it would sell easily.
Though we still walk, we never speak of the girl or remark on the house as we pass. In fact, it’s as if it isn’t even there