Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Neighbor Child (fiction)

There he was again. Riding his bicycle back and forth on the sidewalk. His mother had probably told him, "go only as far as the yellow house" because he never ventured beyond the far end of my property. He was an old style exemplar of little boy Americana, light brown hair in a bowl cut over a round face, about five or six years old. His big eyes flitted around but never seemed to land on anything. No doubt, many people thought he was a cute kid. But to me he was not cute, nor was he in any way, endearing. He was my nemesis.

Immune to the charm of children, I had given him little attention. The simple hello or wave that worked on adult neighbors had never proved effective with neighbor children. Therefore, I tended to ignore them. This proved perilous.

At first, the neighbor child ignored me, too. Then one day, he rode his bike up to my gate and stared into my backyard. Naturally, my dogs went to the fence and barked at him. The child just stared. In spite of my indifference to children, I had noticed that they usually like dogs. But he just stared. No squeals of delight, no small fingers reaching through the fence to touch. My dogs, sensing a terrible weirdness, kept on barking, in fact becoming more and more agitated at the child's spooky vacant presence. I put down my trowel and walked to the gate. Immediately, the child turned his bicycle around and peddled down the driveway and back toward his house. Six innocent dog eyes begged me for comfort. I petted them and said, "it's OK. He's gone."

He didn't stay gone. Later that day, the dogs and I were inside the house. Something must have caught my eye- a flash of chrome or a dash of handlebar fringe- so I glanced out the window. The neighbor child was riding his bicycle on my front lawn around and around the big tree. I watched incredulous, hypnotized. Then he steered his bike into the flower bed, leaving behind a fresh tread mark in between the tulips and the holly bush. I lunged out the front door and bellowed, "what are you doing?"

His head jerked in my direction and for an instant our eyes met. Did I see evil?

He broke eye contact and I zoomed into my firm grown-up voice. "You know better than to ride your bike in the flowers."

The child said nothing. He just stared. Though his gaze did not meet mine again, it hovered near, somewhere around my shoulders. I know now why my dogs had been so freaked out. "Go home," I said. The child turned his bike and moved off in the direction of his house.

The following day came a repeat performance. This time I told him if I ever saw him riding on my grass or flowerbeds I would tell on him. Oddly, this threat that had been so very dire when I was his age, seemed to have no effect on him. His big blank eyes flitted fly-like, showing no hint of remorse and certainly not the fear or dread that I expected from him. For a moment, I felt fear. What if he was a psychopath? Or what was it called now, antisocial personality? Whatever you call them, didn't they start by torturing animals before moving on to humans? No wonder my dogs needed comfort after their close encounter.

"Go home," I told the neighbor child. He turned his bicycle onto the side walk and rode away.

The welcome mat on my front porch sat just about a thin crack in the concrete slab. For years that crack remained unchanged. Then, seemingly overnight, the crack grew. Interestingly, this occurred about the same time that the neighbor child began to appear regularly. Before long the crack became a crevasse. I feared for the mailman. Contractors came and measured and wrote up estimates. The crack had become immanently treacherous so I placed one of those orange warning cones on the scariest section so that anyone walking on the porch could avoid falling in.

The cone did not go unnoticed by the neighbor child. He rode up to the porch, got off his bike and climbed the stairs. He sat on the top step and tipped the cone enough to peer underneath it. I wondered if he had been dared to do it, like kids will dare each other to approach a haunted house. Perhaps not, for this child was always alone.

Later that same day I heard what I thought was a police or fire siren. Curiously, the sound did not increase, nor did it fade. It continued unchanging, as though it was right outside my house. A flash of worry struck me- maybe one of my neighbors was being loaded into an ambulance. I saw nothing from the front window. The siren sound continued. It seemed to be coming from my kitchen. I dashed to the window over the sink and looked out. I could hear the siren clearly now. I looked down. There it was, the source of the sound.

The neighbor child sat on his bicycle under my kitchen window howling unrelentingly, a demented alarm. The pitch was piercing and the fact that it emanated from this boy was beyond eerie and I felt something that was less than terror but far more than consternation. In that moment, the thought first occurred to me to ask the mason to entomb the neighbor child in the new front porch.

I am a gentle person, really. Edgar Allen Poe type notions don't come readily. But there was something about this bizarre boy that changed me. Truly, it was not me, it must have been he, who brought about this macabre episode.

I stepped outside onto the porch. Moving the cone aside, I held my eye just about the hole. The air was cool and stale. I squinted and strained to see down into the hole but saw only blackness. What was down there? Bricks? Dirt? A tiny squeaking came from somewhere in the abyss. Field Mice? A ground squirrel's nest? Demons? Imps? Thoroughly spooked, I replaced the cone and hurried inside, locking the door behind me.

The following day my broadcast spreader filled with corn gluten, I proceeded to feed the lawn. Many of my neighbors employed companies with trucks that carry poisons. Workers drive these trucks to my neighbor's homes to spray the poison onto their lawns. Then they erect tiny flags at the lawns edge to warn of the danger. Their lawns are green but it is not a natural green, rather, a glow-in-the-dark unearthly green. My lawn was green. The green of a wild meadow, a green you can stroll on with bare feet without getting cancer.

The neighbor child stopped his bicycle on the sidewalk in front of my house. Walking behind the spreader, I passed close to where the child sat on his bike. His spooky eyes danced randomly. I turned to spread another row, up and down in orderly lines. When I turned back again, the neighbor child was gone. There was no sign of him on the sidewalk in either direction. I shivered and kept spreading. When I finished, I noticed the orange cone on the porch was askew.

Drawing closer to the porch, I thought I heard something. Peering into the crack revealed nothing but darkness. I turned away then heard the something again. A voice? Though I spun around in all directions, I saw no one.

"I can assist you," said a clear soft voice.

"Who's there?" I asked.

"I am your servant," said the voice.

"Where are you?" I demanded.

"In here. I've always been here."

I felt a chill. The voice came from the porch. "What do you want?" I asked.

"To help you," said the voice.

"Let me see you," I said.

There was no response. I waited, listening hard. A thick silence enveloped me. No birds sang, no cars roared, the trees stood motionless.

Finally the voice said, "what do you want most?"

What an important question. What did I want most? To be happy ? Rich? Have more privacy? Freedom? Respect? Piece of mind? Wisdom? The perfect salsa recipe?

Suddenly I felt foolish, crazy, even. There I stood having a conversation with my broken front porch. I glanced around. The street was empty except for a red car with a crumbled tail light parked in front of the house next door. There were no people, no animals, no movement anywhere on the street. I longed for the obnoxious drone of a leaf blower to shatter the unnerving stillness. Glancing down the street toward the neighbor child's house, I could just make out his front lawn and his bicycle sprawled carelessly near the sidewalk.

"I'll get back to you," I muttered at the porch and rushed into the backyard. I could not be sure, for I was breathing hard, but a small chuckle seemed to follow me.

After a dreamless nights sleep, I felt renewed and clearheaded. Certainly, I had not heard a voice from the porch. I must have spent too much time in the sun. My confusion and distress were perfectly understandable. A wide brimmed hat would put an end to this nonsense.

However, no amount of sun exposure could explain the chalk design that appeared on the sidewalk at the foot of the walkway leading up to my front porch. I stood over the chalk marks, expecting to find a hop scotch pattern or names inside a heart. Instead, it was a perfect circle nearly filling a square section of sidewalk. The circle was drawn in yellow chalk. A curious pattern, also drawn in yellow, lined the inside of the circle. These markings weren't letters, at least not from any alphabet I knew of. Within this border of strange symbols was a design resembling flowers, done in pink chalk. These flower things surrounded a human figure drawn in blue. A single line of blue chalk started at the circle's outer edge and ran down the sidewalk. I followed the line. It ended at the neighbor child's house. The line turned and vanished into the grass under the child's bicycle.

I walked quickly back toward home on legs stiff with fear and stood again at the chalk circle. A pink line ran from the circle up to my front porch. Suddenly I heard a roar. I gasped, whirling around to see a large pick-up truck slowing to a stop in front of my house. A man, wearing a dusty bandanna on his head and thick work boots on this feet, jumped out of the truck.

"Hello, ma'am" the man said. He moved behind the truck and pulled a big sledge hammer out of the truck bed. Carrying the heavy hammer easily in one hand, he moved past me to the porch. "I'm gonna break up the slab now," he said and swung the hammer with a dull thud.

I went out to buy a hat. When I returned, the workman was gone and so was the top of the porch. Yellow caution tape surrounded the area. Chunks of concrete lay inside the porch foundation, like tissue paper filling a gift box. I hoped the ground squirrels had gotten out in time.

The pink chalk line that had been on the walkway, had vanished. The chalk circle remained. The blue line that ran from the circle down the sidewalk to the neighbor child's house was still there, though it appeared to have faded.

There was the neighbor child coming toward me, riding his bicycle along the blue line. I went inside the house and let the dogs out into the backyard. They barked at the neighbor child as he sat on his bicycle inside the yellow chalk circle. His weird empty eyes moved over the porch crater. He seemed to want to proceed up the walkway but his bike wouldn't move. The child's eyebrows furrowed. He tried again and again to move the bike toward the porch. Finally, he turned the bike toward his house and rode away.

Later, when it was dark, I stood before the porch. The street light cast a dabbled shadow on the rough pile of broken concrete. A voice from somewhere under the rubble said, "you have to do your part now."

"What?" I said, stupidly.

"Really now, stop being silly," the voice said. "I took care of the first part of the spell. You must do your part now. Only together can we complete the spell."

Somehow I'd known. Indeed, I had known for a long time. Even before the voice or the design on the sidewalk, I had sensed that some sort of Bogie man dwelled under the porch. Of course, my rational mind had pushed the notion aside.

"Wait," I said.

"There has been enough waiting," said the voice. "You are one who respects our earth. I will help you. But you must do as I say."

I stood silently trembling for a long time, uncertain what to do, what to believe. At last, I said, "I'm going inside now." I turned to go, then added, oddly, "good night."

"Good night," the voice said.

I heard no disappointment in the voice's tone and felt relief.

The next day, I was in my backyard staking Peonies. My dogs barked. There he was again. The neighbor child. He was on a scooter this time. He stood with one foot on the scooter, one foot in my driveway. His hands gripped the handle bars, his knuckles aimed at me. The child stared his vacant infuriating stare at me, at the yard, at the air surrounding us. I resolved then to finish the spell.

Once it was dark, I faced the porch. "What must I do?"

Very good," said the voice. "Now listen carefully."

I listened, all the while hoping that this creature would not show itself. Surely, it was a Legion of the Night and I, a foolish mortal.

Using my garden spade, I cut a circle into the lawn as instructed. I stepped inside the circle and waited. The air was warm and damp. In the distance, crickets chirped. My nose picked up delectable whiffs of meat cooking on a barbecue somewhere. A car drove past, pulsing with rap music. On the other side of the street, a man walked with a white dog on a leash. They paid me no notice as I stood in the shadows of my front lawn.

The voice began a chant of unfamiliar words. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best, trusting in this Geomancy, Majic, Sorcery, whatever it was that I had given in to. The voice sang it's strange song in the dark and I sensed nothing else but the power of the spell. Finally, it was silent and I opened my eyes. Nothing seemed different except that I now felt alone.

"Thank you," I said toward the porch. I glanced around, feeling embarrassed and guilty. What had I just done? Was I now in league with Satan's Soldiers? I fled into the house.

Once inside, I no longer felt afraid. Of anything. And not simply because I was safely locked in the house. Something had happened to me. Magic, perhaps.

A few days later, a new concrete slab was poured. I put the welcome mat out again. The spade cuts in the lawn had closed up, like a minor wound healed. The yellow circle was still there on the sidewalk but the blue figure inside it had faded so that it was barely visible. The blue line that ran from the circle down to the neighbor child's house had disappeared. A FOR SALE sign stood on the neighbor child's front lawn in the same spot that he had heedlessly tossed his bicycle.

A month later a SOLD sign perched on top of the FOR SALE sign. I got into the habit of wearing my wide brimmed hat when I did yard work. One night brought a thunder storm with heavy rain. In the morning, the chalk circle was gone. I never saw the neighbor child again. The voice from the porch has been silent.

No comments:

Post a Comment