17 Mar Nice Neighbors
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"Nice Neighbors"Written by
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Her family had lived in that house, on that street, for as long as Ivanna could remember.
She had her birthday parties in that backyard and swung from the big tree in the front yard until the rope wore down and the metal creaked. Every Christmas morning her and her brothers gathered on the floor before the tree and every Easter they sat on the back porch and dyed eggs to fill with confetti and glitter. Their walls were covered in both old and new photos; some black and white, some faded sepia and others from the weekend previous. It had always seemed to smell of her grandmother’s flowery perfume and smoke from their small wood burning fireplace. Not too big, but big enough, as her father always said.
It was home, serving as the backdrop for every fond memory she held dear.
Well, them and a less pleasant one.
Having lived in that neighborhood for so long they had come to be close with almost all their immediate neighbors. To their left lived an elderly couple Ivanna knew simply as Mr. and Mrs. Herrera, who always sat in rocking chairs in their netted enclosed porch, and to their right lived the Campbell family. The Campbell’s house was painted a lilac color and their back yards were separated by nothing more than a chain-link fence. It had a bigger front yard too, or at least it felt that way since they lacked bushes or trees, which in turn led to many afternoons spent playing tag there with the Campbell kids. The youngest of them was a girl two years older than Ivanna, named Alyssa. The two were very close, and often walked to school with their arms linked as they tried to stomp in every puddle or kick as much snow off the sidewalk as they could. Alyssa was at every one of those birthday parties without fail, and Ivanna climbed over the fence to join every one of her’s.
They agreed that nothing could ever separate them and someday they might even move away together.
The best thing was, in their minds, the fact that their bedroom windows were both on the sides of their respective house, facing each other. The two of them would sit in the windowsills, perched like birds, and spent many hours talking by writing on notebooks and holding them up for each other to see. They would get each other’s attention late at night with a few flickers of a flashlight and reveled in the disobedience and perceived danger of it all should they be found awake. Gossip, homework answers…anything to preoccupy each other until they were too tired to stay awake. Ivanna looked forward to it every night, especially on days when chores and schoolwork kept her out of the yard. Snowy and sick days were by far the worst and she sought comfort in leaning against the glass with her flashlight in hand.
Alyssa was her best friend, and she loved her.
Alyssa, unfortunately, didn’t stick around as long as she had planned.
That warm summer morning, when the moving truck pulled up in front of the lilac house, the two girls were heartbroken. Neither had known that far in advance and when the news had been broken to them it was taken with the hopeless sort of sadness that came with the inevitable. It rained that afternoon, and Alyssa stood in her window with her backpack over one shoulder, waving goodbye. She wasn’t crying, and Ivanna smiled back with as much reassurance as she could muster. After her friend had gotten into the car and drove away with all her family’s belongings in tow, however, all she could do was cry into her pillow so nobody would hear. She was a big girl after all.
“No, mommy…it’s okay. We’re gonna call and write letters. She’ll do it. She promised.”
The house was empty for a long while, growing weeds while remaining vacant and silent. They stayed out of the front yard and only went over to pick the FOR SALE sign back up when it would fall over. Winter blanketed the house in snow that was left untarnished by footsteps until spring. The lawn turned brown under the summer sun without someone to water in the evenings. School started back up again, and Ivanna had only received one letter and two phone calls from her old friend. They didn’t know what to talk about either time.
She wouldn’t have noticed the FOR SALE sign go down if it wasn’t for her brother Tomas’s suspicious tendencies.
Tomas had said multiple times he had seen people going in and out, but their parents insisted that they had been keeping an eye out and had seen nothing. When he pointed the now empty yard out to their father, he shrugged and suggested that maybe someone was moving in. They never saw a moving truck or the big spectacle that accompanied new tenants.
The red pickup truck was just there one day.
At first it appeared that only one person had moved it; a man with a thick white mustache and thinning silver-blonde hair would occasionally leave to go and buy groceries, and sometimes he would just pace the porch in the evenings with a beer can in one hand, wearing nothing but a wife-beater and a pair of grimy jeans. He introduced himself reluctantly in passing once as Douglas. Ivanna didn’t like the way his gaze lingered on her when he noticed her standing there. Sometimes she would go out and swing only to go inside promptly after noticing him in the window or looking out the screen door. He looked like he couldn’t figure out what she was, like she was some unidentifiable animal prowling about the property.
One late winter night, something else happened that she found unsettlingly odd.
She lay in bed, half awake, when something in the window of Alyssa’s old room caught her attention. It was a tiny flicker, not like a flashlight but more the reflection of light off something else. She sat up, convinced it was a trick of memory and light. The flickering was deliberate, a pattern of varying durations, and something was moving ever so slightly between the half-drawn curtains in the darkness of the supposedly vacant room. Sliding out from under the covers, she made her way to window and cupped her hands around her eyes for a clearer look.
The room wasn’t vacant at all; a girl a few years younger than her stood almost out of sight with a compact mirror in her hand. She was using the glow of the streetlamp, and waved excitedly when she was noticed. She moved forward and began to mouth something unintelligible, as Ivanna reached for her notebook in response.
Hey there, who are you?
The girl looked confused and didn’t appear to understand either what was written or what the question was. She stared blankly at her a moment before she mouthed a simple question.
Ivanna nodded, urging her to answer. She pointed to herself and mouthed Ivanna as well as she could before pointing to the girl for her response.
Marisa. After a few tries, Ivanna turned back to the notebook and held it up long enough for the girl to decipher.
It’s nice to meet you, Marisa.
Marisa nodded happily and smiled a wide toothy grin. She was missing a few front teeth, but didn’t seem to mind. Soon they would be back, seeing that adult teeth were beginning to peek out of her gums. It was nothing unusual for a child her age. She pointed out and then held up two fingers. The message was clear.
Before she could write anything more, Marisa’s head turned and she suddenly looked flustered. She turned back only to wave before slipping back out of sight. This left Ivanna slightly rattled, wondering if this was something normal or not. Some people were just shy, she knew, and she didn’t want to make mountains out of molehills…but the encounter left her uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the last time Marisa appeared in the window; she would stand there waiting for her new friend to notice and come to the window. She only appeared at night at first, which allowed the “I’m tired, gotta sleep” half-excuse to be used, only the sad look on Marisa’s face made her insides writhe with guilt. It was difficult to talk, since she never had any paper and wouldn’t open the window because there was a house alarm installed, so the conversations were quite brief. The girl’s voice was a mystery for the longest time.
Soon she was there during the day too, which made things less unsettling and more uncomfortable. The window would slide open at around nine in the morning and if she was anywhere in sight Marisa would call her name. Sometimes she threw little pebbles at the glass until she came to look. She spoke too fast and asked too many questions, which Ivanna politely answered until an excuse popped up. It made her feel like a horrible sort of friend.
“Do you have a dog? My dad’s allergic to pet fur or something.”
“What are you doing? Homework? Oh yeah spelling is hard. Really, really hard.”
“What took you so long to get home? Do you walk or ride a bus? I like the bus.”
“You wanna play something? I have lots of dolls.”
“You wanna come over and play? I have lots of games we could play.”
For someone with so many questions, however, there was one that she refused to answer herself, which made Ivanna even more suspicious. One afternoon, while unpacking the necessary supplies to complete her homework, Marisa asked her what she did at school and continued to pry at details. Swallowing hard to push back the apprehensiveness, she turned and asked, “Where do you go to school, Marisa? I never see you at mine.”
The girl in the window looked as if she were suddenly put on a stage with a spotlight on her face.
“I used to go to a private school by mom’s house, but daddy’s been…homeschooling me…or something.”
“Really? Is it fun staying home?”
“Sure, I guess.” She tilted her head as if listening, then her eyes widened in surprise.
“Nothing, my daddy’s calling. See you later.”
That evening at dinner, she brought up Marisa to her parents. She told them everything about her, all the questions and the weird feeling she got. She admitted how she had been actively avoiding her and sneaking around she wouldn’t see her. At first her parents didn’t seem to worry, saying that their new neighbor was just a little nosy. Tomas seemed more interested, and she could tell by his face he was as more curious than anything else. After dinner he asked if he could see Marisa, and there wasn’t any logical reason she should answer no.
But when they tried to get her attention they found that night she didn’t come to the window.
Tomas made sure the window was locked before going back to his own room. A week passed and they waited for the strange neighbor friend. A week passed and Marisa was nowhere in sight and neither of them had any desire to go knocking on the door with Douglas inside.
“Maybe she’s imaginary.”
“I’m too big for imaginary friends.”
Finally, on a particularly cold evening, she saw the flicker from the window once again. The window was indeed open, but only enough for Marisa to whisper through. She looked alright, albeit a little tired. “Hey, Ivanna? You wanna see something cool?!”
“What is it?”
“I made a pillow fort! It’s really fun, and it’s got multiple little rooms. If you’re sneaky you could come over and we can play in it.”
“Why do I have to be sneaky?”
“Daddy doesn’t like people coming over. They make messes. You won’t, but he thinks you will.”
“Where is the pillow fort?”
“It’s in the little crawlspace under the living room floor! You wanna?”
Ivanna swallowed hard. “It’s late, and I have school tomorrow. I gotta go to bed soon. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, I just never have any friends over. It’s like they forgot about me.”
“Oh, I bet they didn’t. Everyone’s in school and… I’ll ask my mom tomorrow.”
Marisa cracked a little smile, and for a while they sat in silence.
“Is Douglas your dad?” Ivanna asked slowly, as if she were tiptoeing around. The little girl in the window made a face she hadn’t before; her brow furrowed and she shook her head? “Douglas?”
“Yeah! He and my dad only talked a little. He doesn’t seem to like neighbors much.”
“That’s not my daddy’s name.”
Tomas wouldn’t let such new information go, and spent more time trying to encounter Marisa himself. He asked questions like, “does she look like him” or “what else did she say about him”. Still there was no response whenever Tomas was present, even if he hid so she couldn’t see him. This frustrated him greatly, and he continued to bring it up to their parents only to be told not to spy on neighbors. At one point he accused his sister of making it all up because she was upset about Alyssa.
On a chilly November morning, Ivanna proved she wasn’t making anything up.
It was about 4:30, before the sun had begun to rise up into the grey winter sky, the entire family was awoken by the sound of glass shattering. She was the first to get up and figure out what had caused the noise since all she had to do was peek out the window. The window Marisa had so frequently perched in had shattered outward, scattering shimmering shards of glass all over the weeds in the window well below. There the dark haired girl stood, her curly locks no longer in their neat braids and her eyes wide with fear, or at least what she perceived to be fear. She was shaking her head, and when Ivanna called her name she looked around frantically, her eyes unfocused.
“I can’t…I can’t see its too dark I don’t wanna… I don’t wanna be here please…”
“Marisa I’m right here, what happened?” She waved her arms but the girl only groped around blindly.
“I don’t wanna go back into to the dark place…its not fun. It’s not fun!”
There was another indistinct thud, and then her voice was gone. Everyone rushed in shortly after, but no body could figure out what had happened or what she was even talking about when she tried to articulate what she had seen.
That afternoon, Ivanna decided to call Alyssa out in hopes of telling someone who would better understand. She sat in her windowsill looking out as she listened to the ringing in anticipation. Alyssa’s mother answered after three attempts, sounding irritated before giving over the phone.
“Hey, Ivanna, how are you?!”
“Something weird is happening in your house.”
She went into detail explaining what was happening, from the first night to that morning, and her old friend only listened in a nervous silence. It was only after Ivanna mentioned Marisa’s offer to join her in the crawlspace pillow fort that Alyssa spoke up.
“Wait, she said she was playing in the crawlspace?”
“Mhmm, she wanted me to go and see it. It was under the living room floor.”
“You’ve been to my house though; we have a basement just like yours. No crawlspace.”
“Really? Oh yeah.”
It was then, while absentmindedly staring out the window, she noticed Douglas practically running from his house, hastily tossing ratty suitcases and bags into the back of his red truck. He was staring all around as if afraid someone would sneak up on him, then jumped in and drove away.
She went hopping down the stairs, eager to tell Tomas, only to find her father sitting on the couch leaning forward to focus all attention on the news report. “Hey, honey isn’t that…”
Her mother came running in, and they all stared in horror as the breaking news ribbon moved across the screen and a photo of a man with a thick white mustache and silver-blonde hair was put onscreen. The local reporter spoke with grim urgency.
“…police are searching for 55 year old Douglas Hume, who is the primary suspect in the murder of Sandra and Anthony Mitchell, as well as the abduction of their seven year old daughter… after neighbors reported a foul smell coming from the attached duplex where Hume had previously lived, police found the Mitchells’ remains buried in the crawlspace after having been missing for nearly four months…police believe that Hume is tied to multiple robberies and abductions all over the state. He is considered to be armed and very dangerous. If you have any information concerning the whereabouts of Mr. Hume, please contact call this number on screen…”
Ivanna watched in shock as her mother snatched the phone from her hands and darted to the kitchen to dial the number.
Credit: Ahnika Vigil