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Authors: Leah Stewart

The New Neighbor

BOOK: The New Neighbor
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For

Dr. Florence “Flossie” Ridley

And in memory of

Col. Ellis Cameron “Cam” Stewart and Mildred “Sissy” Stewart

Dr. Nina J. Markus and Capt. Felix “Mac”
McAndrews

T
he whole world
thinks she did it. She knows that. Even in her house with the doors locked and the blinds down, she can feel the weight of it. All that certainty.

Jennifer

Every story is a history . . . and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history.

—C
HARLES
B
AXTER,
B
URNING
D
OWN THE
H
OUSE

Signs of Life

W
here before there
was no one, suddenly I, Margaret Riley, have a neighbor. I went out on the back deck this morning like every morning, and there she was. Across the pond, sitting on her own back deck. I was startled. That house has been empty a long time. My first impulse was to go back inside, as if I’d come upon something shameful, or embarrassed myself. As if I were out there naked, which of course I wasn’t, and even if I had been she was too far away to see. But I am braver than that. I put my coffee cup on the table, as usual, and then I went back inside for my book, which is by P. D. James, a remarkable woman, as ancient as I am and still creating mysteries. I have to make two trips because I need one hand for the cane. Sometimes I try to manage cane and book and coffee all at once, and the result is always coffee stains, or burns, or at the very least a wet book and a diminished cup of coffee. Every morning I’m frustrated anew by the need to make two trips. Impatience and age are not compatible.

She was still there when I came back out. I lowered myself into my chair. I felt self-conscious that she might be watching this slow maneuvering, like I am when someone watches me trying to park my car. The position of my chair ensured that if I looked up from my book I looked directly at her. I knew I wouldn’t move my chair—because it would be rude, and because it’s heavy—but I thought about doing so anyway. I drank my coffee slowly, pretending to gaze out over the pond, which is what I do every morning, though usually without the presence of someone who might be watching me.

Strange that she didn’t wave. Wasn’t it? But I hadn’t waved either. I couldn’t make out her face, of course—the pond is an acre across—but I could see the yellowish smudge of her long hair, and so I knew she was young, or at least much younger than I. Was it the job of the younger person to be the first to wave? Certainly it cost her less to move. She was wearing something purple. I think it was a purple bathrobe. I like purple myself, but that poem about the old ladies and the red hats has made it impossible for me to wear it.

The coffee cup was empty. I set it down, careful to push it back from the edge of the table, and reached for my book. Before I opened it I looked right at her. There was no way to know for sure but she seemed to be looking right back at me. I lifted my hand off my lap and extended my arm. What I mean is, I waved. I left my arm suspended a moment. She didn’t move. My arm fell back into my lap, a heavy thing. I was about to look down at my book like nothing had happened, like a cat casually licking its whiskers, pretending it didn’t just smack into the wall. Then she moved. I swear—I know she was far away and even with my glasses I have an old lady’s eyesight—but I swear, she jerked first, like she’d started to wave back and been restrained. Then she raised her arm and returned my greeting.

“Hello,” I said aloud, though she couldn’t hear me of course.

A few minutes went by, both of us sitting there enjoying the morning. A large bird of prey flew high above the pond and I tracked it with my eyes as it headed back into the trees. Probably a turkey vulture, but I liked to pretend it was a hawk. I glanced at my neighbor and saw her head turned up, too, watching until the bird vanished. She looked back at me—of course I couldn’t see her eyes but I know she looked—and I nodded. We had watched the bird together. We had seen it disappear, and maybe felt together a needless longing for its return. We were almost companionable. Then she got up and went inside her house.

I was surprised, when she was gone, by a twinge of loneliness. How silly. I am always alone. Sometimes days go by in which the only other people I see are on TV. This house is in the woods between two small towns—villages, really—on a mountain in Tennessee. I live here by myself. It’s been years since I lived with another person. I don’t ever want to live with another person again. I’m nearly ninety-one now, unimaginable as that sounds, and I will be alone until I die. Before they put me in a nursing home, in forced companionship with the sick and the dying, I will fling myself into the pond. I’ll weight my pockets with rocks, like Virginia Woolf, whose books I did my best to understand. All her words float away when I think of her. I see her crouched at the edge of the water, searching for just the right stones.

The Miraculous Now

M
ilo is still
asleep. It shouldn’t be a surprise to Jennifer that he’s sleeping in, given how lax she’s become about bedtime. Last night she resolved on a return to earlier, stricter routines, but when he reappeared at eight fifteen, twenty minutes after she’d said good night, wearing penguin pajamas and a sweet but calculating expression, her scolding held no conviction. “Why are you up?” she asked, and he said, “I want to snuggle with you.” Fear and worry have worn her down: she couldn’t resist. She let him curl up against her on the couch while she watched
Back to the Future
. Movies from her childhood are the only ones that interest her now. Milo, completely awake, watched the movie, too, and asked question after question for which she had no answers: “Why does he love her?” “Why does she love him?” “Can we go back in time?”

Now Milo is curled on his side with his face pressed against the railing on his toddler bed, one little hand dangling through the space between railing and mattress. She stands there watching him, holding her cooling coffee mug. His room is a mess, strewn with the tiny pieces of his complicated toys, while the colorful bins she bought to contain them go empty, pulled from the shelves and turned on their sides. In her old life she used to make him pick up, but now she doesn’t. In her old life she would have picked up some of the mess herself, but now she doesn’t do that either. All the urgency has fallen out of her days, leaving only a fluttering, purposeless anxiety. There is nothing she needs to do while he’s sleeping, except wait for him to wake up.

Thank God Milo is only four. She thinks with a shudder, for the thousandth time, of how much worse this all would’ve been if he were older. What she’s done to protect him would not have been possible. No matter how much of their old life she jettisoned, what could she have done about his memories? As it is she’s often surprised by how much has vanished. He exists in the miraculous now of early childhood. Already he’s forgotten that he used to have a different last name.

She doesn’t worry about someone recognizing her face. Or, if she does worry, watching the woman who opened her new bank account closely for signs of recognition, she knows the worry isn’t rational. Only the local press covered her story, and they’re far from home now, in this place she chose for its isolation. On the Internet she found a guide to disappearing, and she followed its steps as best she could. Not even her parents know where they are. She regrets the necessity of that precaution. But Zoe can’t know where they are, and what if Zoe asked, and Jennifer’s mother couldn’t bring herself to lie?

Milo sleeps on. Jennifer catches herself looking with calculation at one of his motorized trucks, lying on its back near her foot. When nudged, it springs to life with a violent beeping and whirring and spinning of wheels, as agitated as an overturned beetle. When Milo is awake it’s easier not to think.

Milo’s eyes pop open. She feels instantly guilty, even though she did nothing to wake him, she swears. “Mommy,” he says with satisfaction. He rolls onto his back and stretches.

She sets her mug on his dresser and kneels beside his bed to put a hand in his hair. “Hi, bubby,” she says.

“Scratch my back,” he commands, and she flips him onto his stomach and complies. He orders her to move her hand up and down and left and right. He’s got an impressive grasp on left and right. “Mommy,” he says, after a few minutes, “I need to tell you something.”

“You do?” she says.

“I want to wear my Iron Man shirt today, and then tomorrow I’ll wear my Spider-Man shirt, okay? I want to wear my Iron Man shirt to the playground.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” she says. She spreads her palm flat against his sleep-warmed back.

She tries to talk him into the playground in the state park in Monteagle, which is as far as she can tell a ghost playground, only ever populated by the two of them. But he wants to go to the one at the far end of Sewanee, by the community center, because it has a fireman pole, and she acquiesces because she finds it difficult, these days, to deny him much. He careens around the house while she tries to get them both ready, popping out of his seat at the kitchen table between bites of Cheerios. This behavior annoys her less than it used to do, in her other life, when she had reasons for rules and hurry. In fact it hardly annoys her at all. What does it matter? What does anything matter, except that she love him as much as she can? “Sit down and eat, Milo,” she says, and repeats. They have, as is often the case, two different conversations. “We can’t go until you’ve had breakfast,” she says, and he answers, “The fireman pole is really cool, right, Mom?” Yes, she says. Yes, it is.

At the playground, he leaps from the car as soon as she unbuckles him from his car seat and runs toward the jungle gym, chortling with eagerness and excitement. She follows slowly. To her relief they have the place to themselves. Sometimes she can almost believe they are the only people who live on this mountain, alone among empty houses and empty woods and empty stores.

She reaches Milo, who has stopped by the jungle gym and stands there frozen. “Are you going to climb?” she asks. Then she sees how unhappy he looks.

“There’s no one to play with,” he says. He sits down hard on the steps. His eyes well with tears that slowly spill over. This is the worst kind of crying, the truly stricken kind. He can lie on the floor and scream all day and Jennifer can remain immovable. But this solemn, big-eyed sorrow, this trembling-lipped heartbreak—this she cannot withstand.

“Oh, honey,” she says, sitting beside him and tucking him close. “I didn’t know that’s what you were hoping.”

The tears fall and fall. “I’m all by myself,” he says.

“You’re not by yourself,” she says, hopelessly. “You’re with me.”

He doesn’t respond to this, and why should he? It was a fatuous remark. She knows exactly what he means. He has no friends. He hasn’t been to a birthday party in more than a year—so long she’s amazed he can still remember their pleasures. The cake, the bag of favors, the manic joy. Though his fifth birthday is still six months away, he asks frequently if there’s any place on the Mountain like the warehouse-sized palace of bouncy houses where his friend Sam rang in his third birthday. She hates that place, and all others like it—those windowless hells of whirring air pumps and screaming children. And yet she’d gladly take him to such a place, if there were one nearby, and let him bounce until the cows came home. She’s been wondering who would bounce along with him, but she hadn’t realized he’d been wondering that, too.

BOOK: The New Neighbor
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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