This week I have been smashing through the short stories, and this here is my current work-in-progress!
The New Neighbors tells the story of Carol, a lonely suburban widow who jumps to befriend a new couple who have just moved in next door. Much to her disappointment, Carol’s attempts at making a connection with the reclusive couple are rebuffed, and her curiosity turns to suspicion when a potential connection arises to an interstate missing persons case.
You can read the story in the body of the post below, or download the PDF here:
The New Neighbors
Enjoy the read, and feedback is more than welcome!
The New Neighbors
A Short Story by Kate Kelsen
Copyright © 2020. All Rights Reserved
Summer had dragged on a month too long, but finally autumn had arrived in Woodbury, Connecticut. There was a chilly nip to the air, and the foliage along Maple Avenue had turned orange, brown and golden. Carol pulled her front door closed behind her, turning and walking down the front steps. In the basket on her arm were a loaf of freshly baked bread and a container of home-made pumpkin soup. The grass crunched beneath her boots as she crossed the yard to the neighboring house. Slipping the key into the door, she stepped inside, setting the basket down on the kitchen table.
Carol glanced across the way into the living room. Hazel’s armchair was empty. She
climbed the stairs to the master bedroom, knocked once, and opened the door. Hazel lay slouched against the headboard, her eyes restfully closed. Carol sat down on the edge of the mattress, placing her hand down over Hazel’s. She gasped once, closed her eyes and shook her head, a tear trickling down her cheek.
A tag was tied around Hazel’s big toe, and the black bag was zipped up over her
head. The undertaker gave Carol a small box.
“Her personal effects,” he said.
“You take care.”
Sitting on the edge of her bed, Carol held the box in her hands. She heard the front
door open and close, and footsteps coming up the stairs. Michael stopped by the bedroom door, and Carol looked up at him.
“Hazel is gone.”
SYLVAN, Hazel Joan of Woodbury- Passed away peacefully on 14th August, 2011. Dearly loved neighbor of Carol and Michael. Family and Friends are invited to attend a service for Hazel, at 10am, Wednesday 31st August at the Warwick Funerals Chapel.
Standing in front of her bedroom mirror, Carol ran her hands over her black dress. Michael waited for her in the hall. He looked smart in his suit and tie. It still brought Carol a tinge of sadness to think that the first suit she had bought her son was for his father’s funeral.
She turned to the bed, picking up the small box and tucking it into her bag.
“Why are you bringing that?”
“In case anyone shows.”
Next to the burial plot, Carol and Michael stood holding a handful of lilies each.
Carol extended her arm over the hole in the ground and dropped her flowers in, and Michael followed.
After the service had concluded and the priest had left, Carol and Michael returned to the car.
“I still can’t believe that nobody came,” said Carol. “Not even her son.”
Hazel’s house across the way had an eerie stillness to it during the day, and was dark and sombre at night. There was something dissimilar about it now that there was no life residing inside. Without its former custodian, it was a shell of a home, dark and dormant. Until one evening, like lungs taking in new breath, light filled the house again. From the window, Carol watched a lofty man lugging a frail-looking woman in a wheelchair backwards up the porch steps. That was the last she saw of them that evening, and the lights were out early.
The very next morning Carol marched across the way to Hazel’s house, holding the small box with her personal effects. She rang the bell, and the man of the house appeared, remaining behind the screen door.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Carol Cunningham. I’m from next door.”
The man nodded.
“Reid McKay. Nice to meet you.”
His tone was polite yet standoffish.
“You’re Hazel’s son?” Carol inquired.
Reid said nothing. Carol grinned awkwardly, extending the small box.
“ I have this. It’s a few of her things. I was hoping to give them back to her family.”
“I’m not family.”
“Oh. Well, I just wanted to stop by and welcome you to the neighborhood. My son Michael and I—”
“Thank-you, but this really isn’t a good time.”
“Oh, I see. Well, if there is anything we can do to help, I’d be more than happy. I used to care for Hazel who used to live here—”
The door closed, and Carol huffed in defeat.
“Well, that’s that I guess,” she muttered, and turned and marched home.
Much to Carol’s disappointment, the new neighbors kept to themselves. Reid McKay left in the mornings and returned home in the evenings. His wife was nowhere to be seen.
Bang! Bang! Bang! went the basketball as it hit the backboard of the hoop. Jacob bounced the ball, and Michael attempted to snatch it away. Jacob posed to take a shot, and Michael watched on helplessly as the ball sailed over his head and into the yard next door.
Balancing unsteadily in Jacob’s cupped hands, Michael pulled himself up over the timber palings, peering over the fence into the neighboring backyard.
“I can see it!” he grunted.
Jacob let him back down to the ground, and together they ran next door and up the front steps. Michael rang the bell, and Mr. McKay answered.
“Hi, uh, my ball went over your fence. Can I get it back, please?”
“Well, now we won’t have to listen to that incessant banging day and night!”
Mr. McKay slammed the door closed, and Michael looked at Jacob, puzzled. They ran back to Michael’s house, finding Carol in the kitchen preparing dinner.
“The guy next door won’t give me my ball back!” Michael exclaimed.
“My ball went over the fence, and he won’t give it back!”
“He’s probably busy making dinner. Go ask him again tomorrow, you might catch him at a better time.”
A few days passed, and when Mr. McKay still had not thrown the ball back over the fence, Michael reluctantly asked his mother for help. In response she put together a hamper of wine and cheeses, and Michael joined her in delivering it, trailing behind her as she led the way across the yard. Standing on the porch, Carol exaggerated a struggle with the weight of the basket in her arms.
“Ring the doorbell, will you, Michael?” she grunted.
Michael huffed as he raised a floppy arm to the button. He pressed it for a few seconds before folding his arms again and resuming his reluctant slouch. Mr. McKay appeared.
“Hi, Mr. McKay. This is my son Michael; I understand he lost his basketball over your fence a few days ago.”
“Yes, it’s nice to not be woken at 6am every morning!”
“I understand,” said Carol, nudging Michael. “Michael has something to say to you.”
“I’m sorry for disturbing you,” he muttered.
“You see, it was Michael’s father’s ball,” Carol added. “They played together almost every day…”
“This really isn’t a good time…”
The door closed, and Michael looked at his mother.
“Now what?” he exclaimed.
At his bedroom window, Michael puffed clouds of pungent earthy smoke out into the chilly night air. He passed the joint to Jacob, and peered through his binoculars at the house next door. Through a downstairs window, he could see an empty plate discarded on the kitchen table. Mr. McKay appeared, stepping out onto the porch. In his hands he held Michael’s deflated basketball, and Michael watched on helplessly as he threw it in the trash can.
“You asshole!” he exclaimed. “He popped my basketball!”
“What?” Jacob coughed.
Michael lowered the binoculars. “We have to get him back, Jacob.”
“How are we going to do that?”
Michael paused thoughtfully.
“We could slash his tires.”
“What? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? What if we get caught?”
“The ball belonged to my dad, Jacob. I should make you do it; you’re the one that lost it over there.”
Sipping her morning coffee, Carol flicked through the morning paper. A headline on page six caught her eye.
‘Former Live-In Carer Speaks Out in Case of Missing Vermont Psychiatrist.’
Carol read on.
‘A former live-in carer has spoken to Burlington Police in regards to a possible connection to the case of missing woman Elizabeth McDermott, who vanished from her psychiatry practice four years ago. Amy Bennett, who worked for a brief time in the employ of a man who called himself ‘John Linden’ contacted emergency services from a lake house in Waterbury, Vermont following an alleged altercation. Ms. Bennet was treated in hospital for extensive injuries, including two broken legs.
Police say that Mr. Linden is traveling with a woman who is being transported in a wheelchair, and that the woman would appear malnourished and unwell. Police urge anybody with information to contact authorities immediately.’
Heart thumping, breath quivering, Carol peered across the yard to Hazel’s house. Mr. McKay’s car was gone. She crossed the yard and climbed the front steps, sliding her key into the door and slipping inside. She crossed the way to the stairs, taking each one carefully, freezing at the slightest creak in the timber beneath her feet. She made it to the top, and she thought her heart was going to thump right out of her chest as she crept along the hallway toward the master bedroom.
Turn back now! She thought. Turn back now!
She stopped outside the closed door, wrapping a trembling hand around the doorknob. Inside, an emaciated woman lay in the bed. Her hair was thin and wiry, her eyes sunken, her skin pale.
Carol’s eyes dropped to the foot of the bed. She reached for the bedspread, pulling it back to reveal the woman’s legs, horribly disfigured, bent and twisted from old fractures. Her ankles were covered in bruises and welts from the shackles that were chained to the bars at the end of the bed. Carol looked back up at the woman’s face; her eyes were strained with pure desperation. Carol took her mobile out of her pocket.
“My name is Carol Cunningham…I need help at no.1 Maple Avenue, Woodbury…I need help, there is a woman trapped. Please hurry.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and Carol screamed when a hand came over her mouth from behind. She was dragged backwards, and she grabbed at the door frame, her fingers slipping. She bit down hard on the hand, and her attacker howled in pain as she scrambled out of his grasp and down the stairs. When she had almost reached the bottom, her ankle rolled and she fell onto the floor in the hall. She cried out as Mr. McKay took a hold of her and dragged her along the hall, opening the basement door and pushing her in. She tumbled down the stairs, hitting the floor hard at the bottom. She looked up just in time to see the light disappear behind the closing door.
“Not again,” Reid muttered as he charged back along the hall. “Not again!”
He leapt up the stairs two at a time, stopping at the master bedroom.
“Time to go,” he said to the woman, approaching the wheelchair sitting in the corner.
“Come on, Lisa. I’ve got to get you out of here. Just hold on.”
Step by step, he awkwardly pushed the wheelchair down the stairs. He pushed Lisa out onto the porch across the way to the car, stopping suddenly, growling violently at the sight of his tires deflated. He threw his arms in the air, pacing a few moments, looking frantically around. Composing himself, he scooped Lisa up out of the wheelchair and carried her inside.
“Come on, Lisa! I’ve got to hide you!”
He carried her down into the basement, stepping over Carol who was cowering on the floor. He lay Lisa on a slab bench and covered her with an old drop cloth.
“I won’t leave you,” he panted, stroking her hair. “I promise.”
He ran back up the basement stairs two at a time. As he approached the front door, he stopped dead in his tracks again at the sight of the red and blue lights flashing outside.
The number of emergency vehicles on Maple Avenue was steadily increasing. A handful of news vans were among them also. Lisa was wheeled on a stretcher out of the house and into the back of an ambulance as cameramen and photographers jostled for a picture of her. Carol was next, joined by Michael who rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital.
“Is my mom going to be alright?” Michael asked the attending paramedic.
“She’s going to be fine, son,” he reassured.
The door to Carol’s hospital room opened, and in stepped a man in a suit, with brown
collar-length hair and a moustache. He showed a badge.
“My name is Detective Brendan Clements. I’m from the Burlington Police. Can I speak with you, Mrs. Cunningham?”
“Sure. Carol is fine. This is my son, Michael.”
“You should be very proud of yourself, Carol. If it weren’t for you, and whoever slashed Daniel Harrison’s tires, Elizabeth McDermott may not have been found.”
“So it really was her?”
“It was. Daniel’s mother had recently passed away, leaving him the house in Maple Avenue, and so when Amy uncovered the truth he had the perfect getaway.”“Oh my God!” Carol shook her head, reaching over and taking Michael’s hand. “I just knew something was going on over there! I just can’t believe that all this was happening right under our noses!”
Carol paused thoughtfully.
“How is she, Detective? How is Elizabeth?”
“She’s quite unwell, as you can imagine. It will be a long road to recovery. But she has the best people caring for her now.”
Holding her cup of coffee in her hands, Carol watched the unfolding news bulletin on the television. The headline read ‘Elizabeth McDermott returns Home’. The footage was showing a whole street lined with people cheering and waving decorated banners and signs. A car pulled up in front of a house, and aided into her wheelchair, Elizabeth McDermott hid behind the hood of her sweater as she was swept away inside.
“Daniel Harrison was a former patient of Elizabeth McDermott’s in Burlington. He had developed an unhealthy obsession with her, and one night he waited for her outside her clinic and ran her down with his car. He then kidnapped her and took her to a lake house in Waterbury in Vermont, where he kept her for four years. He eventually hired a live-in carer named Amy Bennet, and Amy has stated that she was told that Elizabeth’s vegetative state was due to a brain aneurysm. It has been revealed that Daniel kept her heavily sedated, and was slowly poisoning her to death with drain cleaner.”
The doorbell rang, and Carol reached for her crutches.
She hobbled to the front door, and on the step stood a man in a collared shirt, tie and vest.
“Peter Marshall,” he greeted with a smile. “Hazel’s estate lawyer. We spoke on the phone.”
“Oh, right. Come in. Can I make you a cup of coffee or something?”
“Oh, no thanks, I’m fine.”
Carol sat with him at the kitchen table.
“You meant so much to her, Carol. You being there for her. She really loved you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s in her will.” Peter slid a piece of paper across the table at her, and she picked it up. “She left you the house, Carol.”
Carol looked up at him, speechless for several seconds.
“I thought she left it to him? To Daniel, her son?”
“Well, police and forensics have been sweeping through the place since Elizabeth McDermott’s discovery, and in the process came across an updated version of the will.”
Carol paced Hazels living room, shadowed closely behind by the man heading the removals team.
“And the desk?” the man enquired, pressing his pen to his clipboard.
“The desk goes,” Carol confirmed. “No, wait. The desk can stay.”
The removalists moved to shift the couch.
“Wait a minute…” Carol hesitated. “The couches can stay.”
“What about the chairs?”
“They stay too. Actually, everything is going to stay.”
“Are you sure? What about the bedroom?”
The man shrugged.
“So then, we’re done?”
“We’re done. Sorry to waste your time.”
Sitting by the window in the sun room, Elizabeth looked out over her parents’ back garden. On one side were tidy flower beds, stepping stones and leafy bushes, and on the other side a row of shady trees along the fence line. In many ways it was still mostly the same as she remembered, with a few differences. In an attempt to maintain some privacy for her, Elizabeth’s parents had strung up tarpaulins between the trees and the fence, so that she could still go outside without the interference of curious, prying eyes eager to get a glimpse of her. The tarpaulins were a stark reminder of her new reality, an unwanted notoriety. In a way she felt she was still captured.
Elizabeth’s mother came into the room and placed a cup of tea down next to her.
“Andrew called. He’d like to see you, if you’re up for it.”
“Are you sure? He did say he can talk to you on the phone if you preferred.”
“No, no. I’d like to see him.”
Andrew’s tears began to flow the moment he stepped into the room. He was the same as she remembered, yet different all at once. In his tear-sodden, screwed up expression, Elizabeth saw relief and joy twisted with anguish and grief. He sat down beside her, and she took his hands in hers, sighting a gold ring on his finger.
“I’m sorry, Liz,” Andrew whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“What for, Andrew?”
“For not waiting for you.”
“Andrew, I know you had to move on with your life. I wanted you to.” She smiled,
stroking his cheek. “I’m glad you came. I wasn’t sure you would.”
“Of course I would. I never stopped thinking about you, Liz. Never. I did everything I could to find you. We had hope, but all the leads went dry…”
“And there came a time when you had to move on.” Elizabeth ran her thumb over his ring finger. “So, you’re married now?”
“Yes. We have a daughter.”
Elizabeth smiled to herself.
“I always knew you’d make a wonderful father.”
She looked out into the garden.
“I’m supposed to have a very different memory of this place. Our wedding ceremony. I had it all planned out: I was supposed to walk with Dad through the garden gate, past the flowerbeds, along the stepping stones into the garden. I can still imagine the guests, turning in their seats, smiling as they watch me walk down the aisle.” Elizabeth pointed out the window. “You would have been standing right there, waiting for me.”
She paused, sighing deeply.
“We would have bought our first home, a small house in a good neighborhood. It would have been our little piece of heaven. We would have started a family within a year, I reckon.” Elizabeth looked back at Andrew, smiling warmly. “All I wanted was to marry you and settle down. A modest life; that was all I wanted. It was hard to imagine that anything could go wrong.”
The world on the other side of false imprisonment was a changed one. Everybody Elizabeth had loved and cared for were still there waiting for her, except for Andrew. The more time that had passed the more she had feared she was losing him. With each passing day she feared he was closer to the moment that he would decide enough was enough, that he would accept that she may never come back. That he would put the past behind him and begin again.
Seeing him again now had filled her with joy that was quickly followed by sadness. It was indeed as she had feared: he had found someone new to love, and that someone had started the family that Elizabeth had so desperately wanted with him. After having been crushed by the disappearance of the woman he loved, he had gathered the pieces of his shattered heart back together, and found the strength to let himself love again. Elizabeth’s re-emergence had surely been a shock to his attempt to forge a new life for himself.
Elizabeth had lost Andrew, but she treasured the memory of the time they spent together. She would always love and care for him. She was not angry with Andrew, but with Daniel Harrison. Along with her health and freedom, Daniel had stolen the union between her and the man who was supposed to be her husband. In order to create his fantasy of a life with her, he had taken Elizabeth’s opportunity of a life with Andrew. And she did not know if she could ever forgive him for that.