Part one of two installments of a short story written by Rose Guildenstern.
In the suburbs of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, lived two reluctant neighbors, Larry Bolton and Chad Weaver.
Every morning at dawn, Larry walked out front in his plaid pajamas, terry bathrobe, and bedroom slippers to collect his newspaper. He took a long breath of the morning air as he sipped his hot cup of black coffee and watched the rosy sun rise over the Schuylkill River. Saying a prayer of thanks out loud for the blessing to live one more day, the old man turned around, shuffled back into his home, and shut the door, locking it behind him.
That’s when Chad always saw Larry peeking through his window shutters, spying on Chad like clockwork.
Mornings in the Weaver household tended towards chaos over clockwork. With two kids in school and two working parents, it was all he and Kayla could do some days just to get the girls fed and out the door before they were already late. Moving across country from Los Angeles three years ago for Chad’s promotion proved far more difficult a change than they’d expected, and only now were they beginning to acclimate to the culture shock of Eastern Pennsylvania, where people said “hello” and meant it…until they didn’t.
Larry hadn’t meant a hello in over two years.
The trouble started during the Weaver’s second week in their newly purchased home on Lightwood Drive. Chad and his eldest, Mia, were having a grand time raking the leaves scattered all over their front yard: A novel adventure for both as former Californians used to perennial sunshine and palm trees. As Mia chased a particularly spirited maple leaf, Larry bridged the distance between their two homes to introduce himself.
“Welcome! I’m Larry Bolton, your next-door neighbor.”
Chad stopped, thankful for the reprieve from what he was quickly realizing was far more work than he expected. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Chad Weaver, and this is my daughter Mia. Say hi, Mia!”
Mia ran towards them, grasping the maple leaf to her chest like a trophy, and sing-songed, “Hello, hello, hello, hello! We are glad to meet you, we are glad to greet you. Hello, hello, hello, hello!” She gave Larry a quick hug and darted back to pick out another treasure to play with from among the leaves.
“Friendly little gal you’ve got there.” Larry said, smiling. “A real sweetheart.”
“So, I hear you’ve come to us from L.A. That’s quite a change.”
“To say the least. But as you can see, we’re all enchanted with the prospect of a real autumn. And the girls can’t wait to have their first white Christmas.”
That’s when Kayla came out to call the two in for lunch, and Larry realized that Chad’s wife was black.
His reaction wasn’t uncommon, even in California.
First he squinted in confusion as he stiffened, followed by a swift glance from Chad to Kayla to Mia and back to Chad as recognition dawned. Then a contrived neutrality masked his expression as he forced a wider grin and an exaggerated wave to Kayla in the doorway.
Inwardly, Chad cringed. After all these years in an interracial marriage, he still wasn’t accustomed to the response. As Mia followed her mother inside, Chad prepared himself for the worst.
“That’s nice…your uh…wife… seems real…nice.”
“It’s been wonderful to meet you, Larry. People weren’t quite so neighborly in California.”
Larry rallied. “My wife, Martha, and I are retired, so we’re home all day. If you ever need anything, let us know.” He paused a moment, slipping both hands deep into his pants pockets. “I’m glad to see you raking your leaves. With the strong winds here, it’s important to keep on top of them or they’ll end up on someone else’s property. The last owners of your house were down right negligent.”
“Thanks for the tip—I’ll be sure to stay ahead of it. Well, I’d better go in now—the family’s waiting for me.”
Larry nodded his head, turned his back, crossed the property line, and that was that.
Or so Chad thought.
The complaints began soon after. Despite Chad’s best efforts, when he was away on business a storm blew all his leaves onto Larry’s pristine lawn. As the first snow came in December and Chad used his new snow blower, the snow from Chad’s driveway ended up all over the side of Larry’s house. When Kayla hosted a Christmas party with her work colleagues, Larry showed up pounding on their door at 10:30 pm, protesting the noise.
And that was only the beginning.
In no time, Chad began to lose his patience with Larry as well. One of the geezer’s dogs scared Chad’s youngest, Shelby, so she fell and broke her hand. The family found themselves keeping their curtains closed, even on a lovely day, to avoid being creeped out by Larry’s prying eyes. During a particularly nasty thunder storm, one of Larry’s huge trees fell over and took out Chad’s window.
That man was home all day long with all the time he wanted to do whatever he liked, yet what it seemed he liked to do most was judge Chad—who worked sixty plus hours a week and often traveled for business—as remiss in a neighbor’s obligations.
After a little over a year of these passive-aggressive disputes, Larry hired a company to build a fence between their properties (and only between their properties, not on any of the other sides of his land). He served Chad with a bill to pay for half of it—afterwards.
Chad was livid. He appealed to the home owner’s association, but they refused to take sides. He had his lawyer draft and send a letter refusing to pay, and in response Larry sued him.
In the last year, the two had only exchanged perfunctory “hellos” eight times.
Chad kept count.
The final straw came when Chad was traveling in New York City the day of the ISIS attack, and Kayla was beside herself with worry, not knowing if her husband was living or dead. Larry’s words of “comfort” when they ran into each other at the post office were, “That’s what you get for voting for a fake candidate.”
Larry knew that Chad voted Independent.
Chad returned home safe, alive but rattled from his proximity to the attack and furious at Larry for what the man had said to Kayla. He stayed up late after his kids were safely tucked in bed with dreams of sugar plums in their heads—it was Christmas Eve—and drafted a letter that expressed in no uncertain terms just where the codger could stick his “neighborly” ways. He even gift wrapped the letter and placed an enormous red bow on it. When Chad turned off the light on his bed stand just after midnight, he fell into the deepest sleep he’d slept in the three years since he’d been shackled to Larry Bolton.
The next morning, his children were gone.
Surprised they hadn’t been awakened to rush downstairs and open presents, Chad and Kayla found their daughters’ beds empty.
They were nowhere to be found in the house. The doors were still locked from the inside, and the alarm system was still on.
It was as though Mia and Shelby had vanished.
____________________________________________ Stay tuned for the second and final installment of this original short story by Rose Guildenstern in my next Bloggishness.