I've been playing around with short stories lately. To celebrate Halloween, I thought I'd attempt to write a scary one. That's right. Comedic writer goes spooky. I hope you enjoy it...and...Happy Halloween everyone. :)
The Perfect Neighbor
by Tanya Eby
I bought the house on Whippoorwill all on my own. I fought for it; I worked for it; I prayed about it, and I’m not even a religious person. I don’t know. I wanted to prove something to my ex and to myself. Maybe that I was actually capable of doing something on my own. The house was small but cozy. A perfect house for one. I didn’t think of it as a Forever House, just an in-between house. A house in which to heal my heart and spirit in.
Movers moved in what few boxes I had. I unpacked on my own and felt the weight of loneliness like a brick inside my stomach. So when my next-door neighbor stopped by with a batch of brownies still warm from the oven, I was touched. It seemed like the sort of thing housewives did in the fifties. It was quaint and cute. She even wore an apron. “I see you’re making quite a nest for yourself here,” she said, nodding to my house. I had spent all morning painting my bedroom, changing it from an ugly bright yellow to a comforting deep brown. I wore paint spattered clothes and my frizzy hair puffed out at the corners of an old baseball cap.
“I’m making it more of…oh, I don’t know. More me.”
She nodded and I could tell she understood. “Well, I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I’ve made you these brownies. They’re shamefully gourmet. I’m a bit of an overachiever that way.”
She handed me the brownies, and I could feel the slight heat from them. In my mind I was already topping one with ice cream. “They smell perfect,” I said.
“They are,” she said with a slight smile and we both laughed. “I like things to be a certain way. What do psychiatrists call it? OCD? But they don’t call Martha Stewart that.”
“Are you a Martha Stewart?” I thought she might be. Her lawn was a deep green next to my slightly browned one. She had planters that were hand painted in deep swirls of green and yellow and flowers that looked so perfectly in bloom that they could’ve been fake.
“Me? A Martha Stewart? No!” she laughed again and I think it was then that I realized something was a little off, but I ignored it. “I’m a Marilyn,” she said as if that explained everything.
Marilyn and I became…friends. Yes. I guess that is the word for it. When I worked outside on the lawn, mowing or raking as the months passed, she would come out with freshly squeezed lemonade on a platter with a side of homemade cookies. In the summer the cookies were lightly scented with lavender from her garden; in the autumn she made apple cookies with apples from a tree in her backyard. She always wore a dress and looked attractive. Her hair was long and brushed til it shined. Her makeup could’ve been applied by a beautician. Her nails were manicured: perfectly arced, the perfect shade of red.
As time passed and I sweated and struggled outside to maintain the lawn, it occurred to me that I never saw Marilyn leave her house. Nor did I ever see anyone enter it. Did she work? Did she date? Was she alone? If she was alone then why didn’t she have the same frazzled look that I seemed to wear? I could barely manage to pull myself out of bed and get ready to go to the office where I researched and wrote grants. I did pull myself out of bed and work, but I somehow seemed to look ruffled…or at least like I needed an antidepressant.
Marilyn was so perfect she seemed to glow.
October rolled around and the large tree in my front yard seemed to burst into flames, it was such a deep orange. When Halloween approached, my tree shed the last of its leaves. One still clung to a low branch, and for some reason it was still green. As I bagged the last of the leaves (while in yoga pants, a stained t-shirt and my hair in a haphazard pony tail) I sensed rather than heard Marilyn approach.
“No, no, no!” she cried and then flung herself up towards the leaves. Perhaps it was just my imagination of a play of the light, but for a moment her brightly painted nails seemed to look like talons as she swiped at the lone green leaf. She tore it from the tree and crumpled it in her hand. I noticed that a strand of her perfect hair fell over one eye, hiding it. She carefully smoothed it back into place, took a deep breath and said: “That leaf was just out of place. It looks so much better now.” She wiped her forehead with her hand and there was a thin line of dirt. Certainly it was dirt and not, as my mind had tricked me into thinking, blood.
On Halloween night, Marilyn’s house transformed into a cover of a magazine. She somehow had decorated the house overnight because when I awoke the next morning, there were perfectly carved pumpkins lining the steps. A witch’s pot boiled with dry ice. Piped in scary music echoed from her porch. The spider webs glistened and looked so real…the spiders crouched within them appeared as if they were about to give birth to a thousand babies. It made my skin itch, how perfect everything was.
I worked all day and did not have the time or energy to carve pumpkins. I turned on my porch light, put out an un-carved pumpkin, and waited for the kids to come. I envisioned handing out chocolates and being the Cool House. I’d actually purchased about twenty full-size candy bars. One of the reasons my ex and I had divorced was that after ten years together, I decided I wanted children. He decided he wanted to buy a boat. I thought the children in their costumes would cheer me somehow.
But no children came. At least not to my house, and not to any of the other houses on the street—except for Marilyn’s. A steady stream of families drove up. Lovely, thin, perfectly coiffed women walked their children up to the door. They kissed their cheeks, and left quickly. It seemed strange to me that the children were older, probably twelve or thirteen, without costumes, and without siblings or friends. Each mother dropped off one child. The moms were so beautiful yet seemed sad. Perhaps, I thought, Marilyn was hosting a party for busy working moms. What a strange Halloween party it must be. There seemed to be no joy from any of the children.
At nine o’clock, when the steady stream of cars to Marilyn’s had stopped and the street slipped completely into night, she came to my door. She was dressed as a witch, wearing full makeup. Her face was gnarled and twisted, her back humped, and her hands looked arthritic…no doubt bent from so many potions. She’d even disguised her voice. “Come into my house,” she offered. “We’ll have a pot of tea. I want to show you my Halloween collection.”
Because I was lonely, because I waited so long, because Marilyn was so perfect at everything, because I was so inadequate, I did the only thing I could think of. I went over to her house.
The inside of her house was as beautiful as the outside. In fact, it was like stepping into the pages of a magazine. Her lush living room featured a leather sofa, a perfectly roaring fireplace, and silk pillows in shade of crimson and burgundy. She walked me through the kitchen with gleaming countertops and a silver fridge. There was an island made of some kind of expensive looking wood with a set of knives spread out as if she was ready to carve a Thanksgiving turkey.
“Did you have a nice party?” I asked her.
“Party?” her voice crackled. I wished she’d drop the old hag act. I was beginning to get annoyed by her Halloween, and for a moment I dreaded Christmas. Would she don a Mrs. Claus outfit? Would there be elves?
“You know,” I said, “all the children?”
She cackled then. Yes. A real cackle. Her laughter sent shivers up my spine and somehow I knew. It was as if the spell of perfection over her house shimmered and popped, the way a bubble shimmers and pops as soon as you’ve launched it into the air. I saw the perfection of her kitchen, and then I saw the kitchen as it really was. The dozens of Mason jars stacked on shelves. The piles of children’s clothes in the corner. The blood smeared cutting board. The shadows. Oh, god. The shadows, everywhere.
I looked at Marilyn. I stared at her…and I saw. She wasn’t wearing makeup. The slight green of her skin was its natural hue. Her pointed nose was her actual nose. And her fingers were, indeed, sharpened into talons.
“You see me now, don’t you dear?” she asked. I broke out into a sweat. I could not speak, so I nodded instead. “And do you know what I keep in those jars?” She pointed to a row of jars above the stove. I did not need to look at them because I knew. I knew. She kept children in those jars. Bits and pieces of them. Everywhere. An entire collection replenished every Halloween.
She pushed me gently forward. Led me into a small room that looked like a fortune teller’s lair complete with swaths of fabric, sparkling light, and a fortune teller’s ball in the center of a round table. “Sit,” she ordered and I did. “Payment first.”
As if in a trance I held out my palm but there was no money there. She dragged her nail across the palm, and a thin line of blood sprung to the surface. She brought my palm to her lips and I felt the leathery tickle of her tongue.
“I know what you want. You want what all the women who come to this neighborhood want. And you can have it. You can have it all, for a price.”
I couldn’t breathe. My heart hammered. I wanted to cry out, to run, but I was frozen there. “Tell me what it is your heart desires,” she hissed, drawing out the last syllable.
I could not stop myself. I spoke the words. “I want children,” I said. “I want love. I want a nice house. I want to be beautiful. I want things to be easy.” It was as if all my secret wishes simply floated from the surface, like bubbles of air rise when you are swimming underwater.
“Yessss,” she said. “And you will have it all.”
I would like to say that I called the police and turned her in. I would like to say I ran screaming and asked for help. But I did not. We shared some pumpkin bars, and then a special cup of tea. It was thick like cocoa and bitter and she told me to drink every drop. Payment, she said, would not be due for fourteen years. Fourteen years seemed so very far away.
I noticed the changes almost overnight. I began to lose weight. My hair grew long and shiny. Things came easier at work. In fact, I started to excel at almost everything. And then I met the man of my dreams. Franklin and I wed almost three months after meeting, and I conceived almost immediately.
I have long since moved from the house on Whippoorwill. We live in a seven bedroom, three-bathroom home in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. We have, I must admit, a picture perfect life. And with four beautiful children now, it seems the price will be almost worth it.
There is a price for this perfection. Would I change anything? If I hadn’t met Marilyn, if I hadn’t agreed to her terms, would I have the beautiful and easy life I have now? No.
I have tried not to love my firstborn, but it has been difficult. She was such an easy baby and now, at thirteen, I can see the woman she could become if the contract weren’t due. My husband and I have not explained to her the price of perfection. We do not speak of it. It is something we know and accept. It is the way things are here.
Tomorrow is Halloween eve and I will travel once more back to Whippoorwill where Marilyn is waiting. She only shows her true face on Halloween so that she can perform the incantations she needs to make the magic happen. I will drop my daughter off to her front porch, and my daughter will go inside willingly, and I will drive home to my perfect family, and we will say a word of thanks for all our blessings.