The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn is a psychological suspense novel cum horror story about, as they say, what lies beneath (available November 27, 2012).
Andrew Morrison sacrificed everything—his childhood, his education, and the girl of his dreams—to look after his alcoholic mother. But enough is enough, and now he’s determined to get out and live his life. That means trading the home he grew up in for a rented room in the house of an old childhood friend—both of which are in sorry shape.
The only thing worse than Drew’s squalid new digs and sullen new roommate is the envy he feels for the house next door: a picture-perfect suburban domicile straight out of Norman Rockwell, with a couple of happy householders to match. But the better acquainted he gets with his new neighbors—especially the sweet and sexy Harlow Ward—the more he suspects unspeakable darkness beyond the white picket fence.
Chapter 6 (Excerpt)
The headlights of the TransAm cut through the darkness, casting weird shadows across the face of the house. Drew had nursed the day’s wounds by watching talk shows and reality TV all afternoon when he should have been applying for work at gas stations and truck stops, but the bitter blow of countless nos had temporarily grounded him.
Mickey dragged himself through the door, and though he’d been gone the entire day, his appearance offered no clue where he had been. There was no uniform to suggest a day of work, no duffel bag or water bottle to suggest time spent at the gym.
“Hey,” Drew greeted him from the couch.
Mick offered his roommate a nod of the head, attempted to force a smile, but his expression was unreadable.
“Where were you?” Drew asked.
“Out,” Mickey replied.
“Just out?” Drew raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, driving around,” Mick said. “I’ll be right back.” Turning down the hall, he wandered to his room.
Drew pulled a face, squinting at the television.
Mickey resurfaced from his room a few minutes later, making a beeline for the fridge. He fished out two cans of beer, cracked one open while tossing the other at Drew. Taking a gulp mid-stride, Mick shuffled over to the couch and fell into his own personal divot.
Drew peered at the cold can of beer in his hands, then looked at his housemate, breaking the silence: “Can I get access to the network here? The password, I mean.”
Drew leaned forward, snatching his cell phone off of the coffee table. “The network,” he repeated, pulling up the settings screen. “I’ve got, like, no service here. Can I log into the wi-fi?” He pointed the phone at Mickey, a network titled “my neighbors suck” highlighted on the screen. “That’s you, I’m assuming.”
Mickey gulped his beer and peered at the television before offering an unenthusiastic nod.
“Well, can I have the password? Unless you have a computer I can use.”
“Job hunting,” Drew confessed. “I went to, like, nine different places today and wanted to kill myself afterward. Nobody’s hiring.”
“Then how’s the Internet going to help?”
Andrew lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I have to keep looking, right? Unless you’re about to bless me with a lifetime of free rent.”
“What’s wrong with the classifieds?” Mickey asked, throwing his head back to finish off his beer. Andrew stared at him in childlike fascination while Mick crushed the can in his hand.
“Seriously?” Drew asked.
It was Mickey’s turn to scope his roomie out. “Seriously what?“
“You’re going to make me go buy a newspaper?” Andrew shook his head, looking back to the TV.
They both sat silently for a long while. Drew chewed his bottom lip. Mick’s refusal to let him access the network was a breach of etiquette; if there was a roommate code, this was certainly a violation of it.
A minute later, Mickey spoke up, as if sensing what Drew was thinking.
“I forgot it.”
Andrew shook his head.
“The password,” Mickey clarified. “I forgot it. I got hacked and I made it complicated, and I didn’t write the goddamn thing down. Gotta call the cable company,” he said. “It takes, like, an hour to talk to anyone.”
Drew furrowed his eyebrows at his phone.
“I’ll do it later,” Mickey murmured.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said grudgingly, but he hoped that Mickey would worry about it.
They both went silent again, watching a Swiffer commercial as though it were entertainment gold.
“You know they can see that, right?”
Mickey glanced over to Drew.
“The network,” Drew told him. “What you named it.”
Mick offered the TV an intent look, and Drew felt that kernel of distrust wiggle at the pit of his stomach. Harlow had warned him, however vaguely, and the more time he spent with Mickey the more he was starting to believe that there was something to her advice. Perhaps that was why nobody had complained to the city about the state of Mick’s house; maybe the people on Magnolia were scared of what he would do in response. Andrew watched his roommate out of the corner of his eye, trying to get a feel of what sort of danger Mickey could pose; what kind of criminal he could possibly be. But Drew couldn’t very well ask him what his deal was. He’d have to wait it out, pick up on clues, piece it together himself. Or maybe he’d use it as another excuse to see Harlow; if Mick got too weird, he’d go to her for advice.
“You aren’t worried that it’ll piss them off?”
“Piss what off?”
“The Wards,” Drew said. “Isn’t it better to try to stay on good terms with the neighbors instead of, I don’t know…” He shrugged. “Telling them they suck? What’s wrong with them anyway?”
Mickey glared at the TV, then exhaled a sigh and shot Drew a look.
“Nothing,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Where’d you look, anyway?”
“For work,” Mick clarified.
“Oh, um…like everywhere? Grocery stores, DQ…” He rolled his eyes. “The job situation sucks.”
Mickey said nothing.
“Where do you work, anyway?” he asked.
Mickey stood and gave Andrew a look—ironically, one of wariness. “I’m going to bed,” he announced. “Lock up when you’re done.”
Before Andrew could push the subject, Mick dragged himself down the hall and disappeared behind his door.
Drew remained where he was for a long while, watching the flickering TV screen. He eventually turned off the TV, wandered to the front door, and threw the deadbolt in place, unable to help the incredulous smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth. It was funny, Mickey making sure that Drew locked up before bed—as though anyone would want to break into that dump; as though there was someone to fear on Magnolia other than the guy who lived in the creepy house with the crooked gutters.
Walking down the hall, he paused in front of the locked door directly across from his own—yet another reminder that Mickey was hiding something, that all was not well. Stepping inside his room, he closed his door behind him, his eyes set on the window across the way, on the glow of light coming from the house next door, on the single rose he’d placed on his windowsill, its stem stuck inside a plastic water bottle.
Wavering beside the door, he considered whether or not to lock himself in. He chewed his bottom lip, his memories of Mickey still redolent of childhood, of the good times they’d had. He wanted to believe his misgivings were little more than paranoia—his guilt for leaving his mother behind manifesting itself into uncertainty. Finally, he pushed himself away from the door, leaving it unlocked, sure that in due time his disquiet would pass.
Harlow pulled the palm of her hand across the top of the bed, smoothing wrinkles out of the comforter. While the house was pristine, this room was the one she cleaned the most; it was almost surgically sanitized. Nobody slept in that bed—at least not as often as she’d have liked—but she washed the sheets twice a week anyway, hopeful that her next guest would arrive soon. Nobody used the adjoining bathroom either, but she spent two hours a week scrubbing the sink, the toilet, the bathtub, until they sparkled like a cleaning product commercial. She vacuumed from the farthest corner of the bedroom back toward the door, leaving perfectly straight vacuum lines along the fibers of the carpet, imagining Andy doing the very same thing next door, determined to get that rat’s nest clean.
Today she had attacked the task with newfound zest, and she smiled to herself as she pulled the bedroom door closed. She could hardly wait. This time, it was going to be perfect.
She waited until the lights went out next door, and then she waited two hours more. Slipping out of bed, she left Red snoring in their bedroom. Her slippers silent on the stairs, she crossed the house into her kitchen, slipped a key out of the pocket of her robe, and unlocked the basement door. A minute later, the locked hallway door in Mickey’s house swung open, silent on its hinges, and Harlow stepped inside. She silently turned the knob of Drew’s door, smiling as it swung wide, unlocked, opening in greeting as she crept inside. Drew rolled over in his sleep, his right arm jutting out over the edge of the mattress; no regard for monsters that may have lurked beneath the bed.
She stood over him for a long while, watching him dream. She was tempted to brush his hair from his forehead, yearned to touch his cheek, to let her robe slide from her shoulders before slipping into bed with him, naked beneath the sheets. She wanted to draw her lips across the shell of his ear, whisper that this was their little secret. It’s okay, sweetheart, she’d tell him. This is my way of showing you how much I love you.
But it was too soon. She wanted him so badly, but it had to be perfect.
She eventually turned her attention to the dresser. Plucking up his wallet, Harlow drew a finger across the picture on his driver’s license: Andrew R. Morrison, only twenty-three years old. Sliding it out of its plastic holder, she brought it to her lips, her gaze snagging on the small card behind it—the one she had tacked to a plate of cookies. Her heart leapt at the sight of it. He had kept it. She had been right; Andrew wasn’t like the rest. Tucking his license back into place, she took a backward step toward the door, afraid that if she stayed any longer she wouldn’t be able to help herself—she’d wake him up, she’d make him hers. She placed the wallet back on the dresser, then slid it to its edge, allowing it to fall to the floor. She lingered for a while longer, then finally stepped out of the room.
The door was the first thing Andrew noticed: It was wide open. The second was that his wallet, which he’d left on top of his dresser, was now on the floor, as though someone had rifled through it and accidentally dropped it on their way out. He blinked at it from the bed, and for a good long while he couldn’t figure out what the hell he was seeing. Someone had been in his room; someone had messed with his stuff. Wallets didn’t just magically slide across the tops of dressers. Doors didn’t just open by themselves.
The sickening sensation of his privacy having been violated slithered over him. He shuddered, then threw the sheets aside, marching across his room to snatch the wallet off the floor. As he thumbed through its contents, he realized that nothing was missing. But his head still swam with betrayal. There was no doubt that someone had come into his room while he slept. That, piled on top of the locked door, the refusal to answer questions, the “forgotten” password: Drew suddenly felt like he was back home, surrounded by deception and lies.
“Son of a bitch.”
Yanking the top drawer of his dresser open, he threw the wallet in amidst his socks and underwear. Then he stomped down the hall, paused in front of Mickey’s room, took a breath, and pounded on the door.
“Hey!” he yelled, his fist hammering against cheap wood. “I need to talk to you.”
Mickey answered after a few seconds, groggy with sleep.
“The fuck, man?” He rubbed at one of his eyes, looking oddly childlike despite his wide shoulders. Mickey was put together like a bodybuilder, but Andrew refused to let his roomie’s size deter him.
“Did you come into my room last night?”
Mickey looked confused, but Drew refused to buy into his feigned innocence. Harlow was right: Mick was bad news. Maybe that was how he got his cash: by ripping off his housemates. Maybe he had been planning on taking Drew’s money as well, but was stopped short by some remnant of their childhood friendship.
“My door was open and my wallet was on the floor,” Drew told him. “When I went to sleep, the door was closed and the wallet wasn’t on the floor.”
“Huh?” Mickey blinked back at him sleepily.
“You know, it’s one thing to invite someone to live with you when the place is a sty,” Drew told him. “It’s another to come into someone’s room and screw with their shit.”
“Hey,” Mickey said, raising a hand. “I didn’t mess with your shit, man.”
“Whatever,” Drew muttered, then turned away, not sure what he had expected to accomplish—not entirely sure why he was so pissed. If the guy wanted to, he could snap Drew’s neck without even trying, but Andrew’s irritation refused to subside. He couldn’t get the name of Mick’s home network out of his head: my neighbors suck. It rubbed him the wrong way. He took it personally—an attack on the only individual in Creekside who seemed to give half a shit about what was going on in his life; the only person who had his best interests in mind.
“I bet you rob banks.” It tumbled out of him involuntarily as he walked away. He winced as soon as it left his lips. It was below the belt; a result of his own feelings of inadequacy, of Mickey’s disaffection.
“Rob banks?” Mickey exhaled a snort. “You think I’d be living in this shithole if I robbed banks? You’re a real genius, huh? A real fucking Einstein.”
Drew stopped in his tracks, eyeing the crappy carpet beneath his feet. He had half a dozen comebacks to Mickey’s quip, but he held back, turning to face his former friend. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I just feel…” Drew hesitated, shook his head. “I don’t know, like maybe you offered for me to move in here on a whim, but you never thought I’d actually show up.”
Mickey stared at him for a long while, as though waiting for him to say something more. Drew was waiting for Mick to deny his theory, to shake his head and tell him that this feeling of his was ridiculous; of course he wanted Drew to move in. But Mickey stuck to the facts.
“Is anything missing from your room?” he asked.
“No,” Drew muttered.
“Maybe that’s because I didn’t mess with your shit.”
“Then who did?”
“I don’t know.” Mickey shrugged. “Maybe someone walked in through the front fucking door. It happens.”
“I locked the door.”
Mickey shrugged again.
“Are you missing anything?” Drew asked. “Have you checked?”
“I’m not missing anything,” Mickey said flatly.
“So, despite the front door being locked, someone got inside, they rifled through my stuff, not yours, and they didn’t take anything?”
“Maybe they didn’t come into my room.” Mickey stared at Drew, his eyes not once leaving his roommate’s face. “Maybe they weren’t after your shit. Ever think of that? Maybe they wanted something else. Or maybe it’s just your imagination,” Mickey added a moment later, “and you woke me up for nothing.”
Drew turned away, ready to wander back to his room, but he was stopped short by the final nail in the conversational coffin.
“That’s probably how you got here in the first place, right?” Mickey asked. “You overreacted?”
Mickey disappeared into his room. Drew felt like he was going to be sick—not only because he was terrible at confrontation, but because Mickey was right. Rather than approaching his mother with a demand for answers, Drew busted up the living room; he packed his shit; he abandoned her, just like his dad.
As a kid, Drew would take to the streets on his bike after arguments with his mom, and he’d usually end up at the Fitches’ place. So it struck him as odd that after his argument with Mickey, Drew found himself cruising along what could have been every street in Creekside until he reached Cedar Street, his mother but a few hundred yards away. He parked along the dirt shoulder, far enough so that he wouldn’t be noticed in case his mother was staring out any of the windows. The sky was growing dark with a thick roll of clouds. A storm was closing in from the west, and his old house always seemed to be hit first.
A twister had whipped along their street when he had been four or five. Distant sirens wailed, but Drew ran to the window instead of to the basement, where he’d been taught to go. A black cyclone, thick and slow, touched down and tore trees from the earth. With his nose pressed to the shuddering glass, he wondered what it would be like to run into that wind; wondered if he could catch it like a butterfly in a net, wondered if he could run through to the center without being plucked from the ground like Dorothy. There’s no place like home.
Watching those clouds churning overhead now, he imagined the house on Cedar Street and everything in it being swallowed by the wind, speculating on how it would feel to lose his past, his mother, his entire identity.
“You’d cry like a baby,” he told himself. “And now, if it happens, you’ll never forgive yourself.”
He spent more than an hour sitting along the dirt shoulder, deliberating whether or not to go inside. He could call the whole thing off with Mick right now and return to comfortable familiarity. At least here, on Cedar, he knew what was behind every door. But coming back meant giving in; it meant giving up Magnolia and returning to a life he couldn’t handle anymore, living with a woman who was scared of her own shadow.
Drew looked away from his old house, his mouth sour with realization: He’d never look at his mother the same way again. Because he’d looked into the sun, and the sun had blinded him with its brilliance.
He still loved her. He always would. But Julie Morrison would have to learn to live without him. Because he couldn’t do it anymore; he couldn’t ignore all the things he deserved when they were right there, waiting for him on Magnolia Lane.
That night, a neighborhood dog had a barking fit. It wasn’t the Pekingese. It sounded bigger, like a retriever, and the thing refused to let up, yowling like it was being skinned alive. Drew considered shoving his feet into his shoes and stalking across the street to bang on the owner’s door; the entire neighborhood would surely thank him, because what kind of pet owner left their dog outside during a storm? But in the end he rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head to muffle the noise, and that was the way he slept.
Whether it had been a few minutes or a few hours, Drew’s eyes shot open to a metallic bang outside. With the pillow secured over his head, he wasn’t able to discern where it had come from; probably the wind knocking over someone’s trash can. But it had sounded closer—almost directly in front of the house. If it had been a trash can, it had probably slammed into the side of his truck. The dog that had eventually settled down was in an uproar again, barking its head off from an undisclosed location. Groggy, Drew threw the pillow across his bed and pushed the window curtain aside, sleepily peering out onto the street.
His truck was parked along the curb, no trash can in sight. It was nights like these that Drew was thankful he didn’t have a nice car. With his luck, a tornado would spear a tree branch through the front windshield of his brand-new ride before he could peel the temp tag from the back bumper.
Not seeing anything, he let the curtain slip from his fingers. He pulled the sheets over his head, burying himself again.
Copyright © 2012 Ania Ahlborn
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Born in Ciechanow, Poland, Ania Ahlborn has always been drawn to the darker, mysterious, and sometimes morbid side of life. As a child, she’d spend hours among the headstones of the large wooded cemetery next door, breaking up bouquets of silk flowers so that everyone had their equal share. Her new novel, The Neighbors, will be out on November 27th. A cross between Blue Velvet and Basic Instinct, it goes beyond Norman Rockwell’s white picket fence to discover the true horror of those whose lawns meet ours.