Neighbors

flower It takes forever for the house next door to sell. Poor For Sale Sign, rickety and crooked, like it’s been leaning there all summer, all year, all my life.

The real estate agent blames the lack of interest—no, the entire state of the housing market—on our yard. She leaves a note taped to our front door, saying that no decent family would move in next to a disaster like ours, that the lawn is an eyesore. And it kind of is. I want to tell my dad to get off his ass, crawl out of the bottle and pull-start that mower, but at the same time, I don’t want to tell him anything. It’s easier, just walking past the mess like it doesn’t even exist.

And the house does sell, despite the condition of our yard. I lie out in the weedy grass and watch the people come and go, first the movers and then the family. Their son looks my age, maybe a year or two older. He’s tall and dark-haired, with great shoulders and long, graceful hands. He’s always texting—never even looks up or turns around, but I don’t need to know the color of his eyes to tell that he’s delicious. I watch from over the fence, hopeful and terrified that at any moment, he’ll turn and see me there.

The girl is less oblivious. On the second day, she comes wandering over with bare feet and a beat-to-hell polaroid camera.

She’s younger, eleven or twelve, with a round, pale face and bangs cut short and straight across. Her hair is black and makes her look like a gothic babydoll. She’s holding a handful of fresh photos and staring at me like I’m some kind of extraterrestrial. Her eyes are ice-blue with freakishly long lashes.

I flick a hand at her and smile. She’s way too young to actually hang out with, but maybe she’ll invite me over anyway.

“Hi,” she says in a flat voice.

“What’s you name?” I ask brightly, but I already know. Behind her, the guy—obviously her brother—is sitting on the steps, gazing intently at his phone. There’s a box next to him, with photo albums and notebooks and a well-loved plush unicorn sticking out of the top. The name Abby is scrawled down the side in marker.

At first, she won’t answer or look at me, so I just keep talking, yammering about whatever, glancing past her every now and then to see if her brother is watching.

Finally, she takes a step closer. “How long have you lived here,” she asks in a tiny voice.

“Always—all my life.”

She tips her face to the sky. “What’s it like? Is there anything to do?”

“Well, what kinds of things do you want to do?”

“I like to take pictures,” she says, offering the handful of photos, fanning them out like playing cards. The paper is slick and glossy. The pictures are of the house and the yard, her brother standing by their one skinny tree, a burly pair of movers wrestling a red couch up the front steps in a long awkward diagonal.

“They’re nice,” I say. And they are. Surprisingly nice. The one of her brother makes me feel weirdly sad, like seeing a helium balloon tied to a railing somewhere, and knowing that no one’s coming back for it.

Abby smiles and looks away. “I have more. I keep them in an album.”

“Will you take my picture?” I pose for her, leaning on the fence, propping my chin on one hand.

She regards me doubtfully, then raises the camera anyway. When she presses the button, there’s a click and a flash and the camera spits out a pale square of paper. Abby catches it and stands, head bent, watching it develop. Her expression is so blank that it could mean a million things.

“Well, can I see it?”

“No,” she says, holding it against her chest.

“O-kay, never mind then. So, does your brother have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. But she doesn’t live here. She goes to his old school.”

A tiny flare of hope—I mean, distance is a killer, and how long can you really stay together when texting is the primary basis for a relationship? If I can just get him to see that I exist, maybe I can cure him of the girlfriend. “Is he always on his phone like that?”

Abby shrugs and shakes her head. “He’s been really into it lately. He didn’t want to move.”

“Yeah, that sucks. Maybe I should go over and introduce myself. You know, show him around.”

Abby follows my gaze, waving the polaroid in one soft, little-girl hand, careful to keep it turned away from me. “Do you ever feel . . . forgotten?” she says, and her voice cracks on the last word. Behind her, her brother is still staring into the vortex of his phone, ignoring the way she slouches by the fence.

The summer has been the longest, slowest, stupidest of my life. My dad sits in his study or in front of the TV, and talking about feeling forgotten just makes you feel more forgotten, so I smile like nothing is wrong. “Look, I’m sure he’ll get over it. Maybe I could come over and see your album sometime.”

No,” she says, the word coming out much too loud. Then she takes a deep breath and shakes her head. “I mean, I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

“So, are you going to show your brother my picture?”

She gives me a sideways look and shakes her head again.

“Can I at least see it then?”

“Only if you really want to.” Her expression is so empty it’s unreadable.

“I do.”

She holds out the picture, offering it to me over the fence. I don’t take it from her, just look. The paper, shiny and old-fashioned, familiar band of white along the bottom. In the foreground, the pickets of the fence are jagged like teeth. Behind it, empty sky.

Where there should be a girl with long brown hair and freckles, there’s nothing.

Abby looks up at me, near tears. “I’m sorry,” she says in a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”

I just shrug, smile weakly. I mean, what can you say?

“How did you die?” Her voice is thin and shaking.

And I want to tell her that I don’t know. I don’t have even the faintest idea. But I do. Sometimes, you make yourself forget the things that make you stop breathing. You remember them and you still forget anyway. I was riding my bike to the lake, out along the county road, and then it was over. Just like that.

Abby backs away, clutching the photo. “Did you not know?”

“I guess I knew,” I say. “Yeah, I did. But sometimes . . . well, it’s just nicer to think it never happened, you know?”

She watches me with brimming eyes. “You’re not going to haunt me, are you?”

“What? No, I’m not going to haunt you. Don’t be stupid.”

“What do you want, then?” she says, looking miserable.

The question is so honest it’s painful. I want to eat Sour Patch Kids and kiss boys and walk down to the Dairy Queen with my friends—all those friends I used to have. I want to spend my days with someone else, do what they do and not be shut up in my house all the time, alone with no one but my father.

She looks so lonely standing there. So lost, and I want to hug her but the fence is in the way and what if my hands go right through?

“Can I take your picture?” I ask, because it seems to be a language she understands.

When she passes me the camera, it feels angular and solid, like I am really holding it. Sometimes I reme
mber the world so clearly it almost seems real, and even though I can’t shake the knowledge that I’m not there, I push the button, take the picture anyway.

The camera whirs and grinds, spitting out the square of paper and we stand with our heads together, with the fence between us, waiting for the image to show up.

Shapes appear, ghostly at first, then showing up clearer and clearer. Her lawn, weed-free and carefully mowed, racing to the edges of the photo like a tiny green sea. There in the background, her brother is texting, sitting on the steps beside the abandoned box. The Abby box, overflowing with notebooks, stuffed animals, photo albums and an old polaroid camera, and this whole time, they have not brought in one stick of furniture that looks like it belongs to a twelve-year-old girl.

The photo is crisp, everything bright and in focus. There is no black-haired gothic babydoll—no Abby, besides what’s in the box—and I knew that too. I knew it since she crossed the lawn to talk to me. Knew it even when I wanted, wanted, wanted to know something else.

“I’m sorry,” I say, because the look on her face is like looking at myself.

Photo by Maco@Sky Walker

68 thoughts on “Neighbors

  1. Win! The one of her brother makes me feel weirdly sad, like seeing a helium balloon tied to a railing somewhere, and knowing that no one’s coming back for it. Especially.

  2. Oh, Brenna. So sad. So sad.

    You do sad better than anyone I know, but it never (or at least ultra-rarely) crosses into emo territory, and that’s a gift. Another haunting tale.

  3. *sob*
    What perfect symmetry. Both sides of the fence match up perfectly — despite the differences in the yards, the emptiness on both sides is the same.

    Beautiful — even though it’s kind of killing me.

  4. Ohhhhh… Brenna, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: This made my eyes prickle and my nose sting. I hate crying, but this story was so beautifully written and so very sad that when I was done reading, I scrolled back to the top and read it straight through again. Loved it even more the second time. Will probably love it even more the third time.

    *off to read again*

  5. Wow this is amazing! So many beautiful images, especially the helium balloon and the lawn like a green sea. I love your writing!

  6. Oh! You got me twice! Beautiful and sad. I, too, love this bit: The one of her brother makes me feel weirdly sad, like seeing a helium balloon tied to a railing somewhere, and knowing that no one’s coming back for it.

  7. This is exactly what it’s like. The sad waiting no time. You can’t breathe, sigh out the tension, and every emotion is heightened. They know, but can’t express it, and being there with them makes them remember. I knew what was coming, but I had to keep reading. Vertigo. Walking into traffic. I love your work. I’d like to post a teaser and then link to this on my blog. I’d write and add a short piece on spirit rescues. Cheers, Simon.

  8. I love this. I love how it hinted at it, just a short phrase here or there, but you don’t really form any true suspicions until the picture. I love how it’s sad, but not really depressing.

    And now I really can’t wait for The Replacement.

  9. This was my first time reading your work and I really enjoyed it. I should have been working, but I was looking for something worthwhile to distract me and this was perfect.

    I had a pretty good idea where it was going, but not in the obvious cliche movie way. It was more like that’s what I hoped would happen and was pleased when it did.

    Very good, thanks for sharing.

  10. sad but beautiful, i love how the girl takes pictures of every thing, it is like her way of keeping track of what is happening since she is gone.

    -polkadotiful : )

  11. I think I might have stolen that image from the movie The Red Balloon, but I’m not sure, because in my head, the balloon in the line is yellow πŸ˜€

  12. πŸ˜€ I try to tread lightly, but I definitely tread that emo line, and I have *no* idea why. Real-life me is kind of the opposite!

  13. Thanks! I love symmetry, and recursive patterns, and Merry Fates is the perfect place to play with that, because I don’t have to sustain it for a whole novel πŸ™‚

  14. Oh, I hate crying too! But I love making other people cry. (but only in writing–I promise!)

  15. The keeping track is something I definitely relate to, since I hoard scraps of paper and little trinkets to an excessive degree!

  16. Thanks! I’m glad you stopped by. And yes, I did have to think a lot about what I wanted to say, and how what I wanted to say would be different from movies (*ahem* one movie in particular) that do the same thing.

  17. I love how it’s sad, but not really depressing.

    Oh, good! That’s exactly what I was shooting for, but sad is hard to wrangle sometimes–it can run off toward depressing if I’m not vigilant πŸ˜€

  18. Wow. This story was–if you’ll forgive the pun–haunting. So sad, but also grounded. I didn’t even expect any of the twists!

  19. GREAT story! I had no clue until the picture…I really hoped that some day, she might catch the brother’s attention. : (

  20. I get the sense that the narrator was forgotten even before she died, while Abby was carried with her family to the new place in a box of cherished things, and I love that juxtaposition. Or maybe it’s that the place fell apart when her dad lost her. Either way, it works as a metaphor for the different ways of grieving.

    This piece is melancholy, in the way the medieval physicians regarded it, and that is not an easy mood to evoke. Well writ, lady.

  21. Very beautiful and so sad. I love how it shows two families dealing in very different ways with their loss. xxx

  22. “What do you want?” Ummm, your brother. πŸ™‚ I loved that bit of sass in her tone πŸ™‚

  23. She was fun to write (when she wasn’t being sad)! Since I was decidedly *not* boy-crazy at 15, I’m always fascinated by girls who are.

  24. Thanks! And haunting is a great compliment, even when it comes in the form of a pun–I’ll take it πŸ˜€

  25. I get the sense that the narrator was forgotten even before she died

    I really think this too. It probably got worse after she died, but I don’t think it was a huge departure from her life before. I think ghosts are such a handy metaphor for just about everything!

  26. Thanks! I started this thinking it might be a kissing story, but it was not to be πŸ™‚

  27. So Sad. And beautiful.

    It got to my shoulders and made me shake and gave me serious goosebumps. Really.

    And these two lines –

    β€œDo you ever feel . . . forgotten?”

    The one of her brother makes me feel weirdly sad, like seeing a helium balloon tied to a railing somewhere, and knowing that no one’s coming back for it.

  28. Beautiful and sad…
    Sadly beautiful? or beautifully sad?
    Hmm, I don’t know which one but either way I love this. πŸ™‚

  29. I’m coming in a little late, so I don’t know what else to add that hasn’t already been said. It’s so heartbreaking and beautiful. Sniff … sniff …

  30. Kay, thanks for sharing our community with your students! And I’m glad you liked the story–it’s currently one of my personal favorites and I had a great time writing it!

  31. Beautiful. Just beautiful. It really made me sad, but I enjoyed it anyway. It was the kind of sad that didn’t make me depressed again. This sad was a refreshing one for me.

    Thank you.

  32. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you liked it. I find I write about sad things a lot, so I do try not to make them depressing. I think sad and depressing can definitely be two different things.

  33. good stories are amazing, like this one, makes me feel like I could be dead but just don’t know it. Glad I found this place

  34. Glad you liked it! If you poke around the Merry Fates blog, you’ll begin to notice that I can rarely write a story that doesn’t involve sociopaths and blood, so I’m kind of proud of this one πŸ™‚

  35. Glad you stopped by! Sometimes, I get really excited about the psychology of things and one day, I just started wondering how it would feel to be dead and what you would think about πŸ™‚

  36. I too loved the emotion tied to the image of the forgotten balloon but I equally like the list of things she missed from her life. Gummy bears, kissing boys and walks with friends, that list brought into sharp focus the loss this young girl feels. I also thought of the sister’s box of stuff sitting next to her brother. I’d like to think it was his idea to bring and keep it close. Maybe his possession of the stuffed unicorn and album was proof that sweet Abby was not forgotten. Your mix of loss, innocence and kindred souls was perfect!

  37. hello, saw this community on lj spotlight and thought i’d drop by and i’m glad that i did.

    this was a really great read and different from what i usually read and i think thats what i like the most about it.

  38. Thanksβ€”I think I’d originally started it out to be a scary story about haunting, but it just wouldn’t scare. The ghosts were too sad . . .

  39. Thanks for stopping by! It’s kind of an idea-sandbox around here, so there’s definitely variety. I’m glad you liked it πŸ™‚

  40. I definitely think that even if keeping Abby’s things wasn’t originally his idea, they belong to him now. He’s kind of in the background, both literally, and as a character, but I wonder about him.

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