3382 words (13 minute read)

The Neighbor

They opened the door to find Timothy lying on the floor, before the fire, moving hot coals around with a poker. When the boy heard them come in, he sprang to his feet—letting the poker crash onto the hearth—and bounded toward them. He took hold of Helen and pressed his face into her arm, closing his eyes tightly.

Vincent nudged them to the kitchen while he studied her face in the light: a gash beneath her left eye had left a thin trail of blood.

“I’m fine. Really. The both of you can stop fussing over me.”

The moon shone in full view as the clouds continued to drift apart. The light filled the small kitchen with a warm glow. He found a cloth near the sink. He turned on the faucets, and the smell of sulphur wafted up. “You’d better sit,” he said, but Helen walked over to the window and stared out. “Timothy,” he continued, “could you find some bandages, please?”

The boy stared, as if perhaps waiting for permission; after a few moments of silence—Helen still facing the window—he turned and hurried into the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” Helen said.

“For what? Losing your footing? It could have happened to anyone.”

“For the way I spoke to you earlier. About the photograph.”

He wet the cloth under the faucet. “Here, use this to dab your cheek.”

“I would have remembered him, I’m sure, if I’d met anyone so striking, really.” She took the cloth from him and rested it lightly on the gash. “I remember any stranger who walks up here. The kind ones and the troublemakers.”

How Theo could have described the place so accurately, yet never set foot on the grounds, simply made no sense. Might his appearance have changed so dramatically that no matter the image he showed Helen she wouldn’t recognize him? Had he lived in the shadows here, keeping his distance from Helen, the children, her grandfather? Then again, could he really have escaped Esson’s detection?

No, he wasn’t about to start thinking in circles again, getting himself worked up. There were still too many unanswered questions. When his mind was clear, not overrun with so many conflicting thoughts, feelings, hopes and doubts, he’d read the letters again, and again, trying to match up what Theo described with what lay outside. He’d draw maps, charts, tables if he had to. But deep down, he knew Theo had stood before the Sulphur Cure. He was not prepared to give up yet. He’d journeyed this far, after all. He wouldn’t leave until he was convinced.

With a thundering gate Timothy rushed in, carrying two rolls of frayed and stained bandages. Kate followed behind him, her eyes wide with confusion.

“Oh, our little doctor,” Helen said, turning to face the children. “I really don’t think I’m hurt that badly. You’re all fussing too much. And you two! You should be fast asleep.” She brushed the gash on her face. “We all should be, for that matter, including you, Mr. Rhodes.”

“Call me Vincent, please.”

Timothy held up the bandages.

“Oh, those dirty things,” she said, embarrassed. “This week I’ll have to go into town and replace those.” She took the bandages from the boy and squeezed them between her hands to hide them. “I think I’ll take the children to bed. And please, please—help yourself to whatever is in the kitchen. You must be famished. I promised you dinner, yet we never got a chance to eat.” She stood, and as she placed her hands on Timothy’s shoulders and turned him to face the door, she added, “I’ll take just a moment to freshen up the guest room for you. A change of towels and bedding, an extra lamp on the nightstand.” She smiled coyly. “In case you feel inspired to sketch something before falling asleep.”

“Miss Sage-Brown, I don’t want to impose on you like this.”

“If I’m to call you Vincent, I think the same should apply to you.”

“You want him to call you Vincent?” Kate said.

Helen rolled her eyes. “Your comedy is almost always ill-timed, young lady.” She reached out and was about to guide the girl toward the door, but something on the shelf opposite her caught her attention. “It seems a silly time to mention this,” she said, “but are those your drawings next to the cookie tin?”

Vincent looked over to see the warped, wrinkled and torn pages of his sketchbook. The featured drawing—split in half—was the train station in Boston, more of an outline, really, as the “All aboard!” call had come before he could begin adding much detail.

“How did—”

“I’m afraid it’s probably Timothy’s doing. I apologize. He has a way of snooping around in places he shouldn’t.”

The boy shook his head.

 Helen ignored the boy’s protest, and craned her neck to scan the drawing. She released Timothy’s shoulders and walked over to where the sketchbook lay. “You truly have talent.” She lightly brushed the corner of the sketch, then picked up the book and turned it over. Another drawing—a depot devoid of trains, with a solitary person leaning against a column—was partially smudged from the rain, though the blurriness gave the scene a ghostly atmosphere. “You’re lucky you have something to delve into, to make you forget the troubles we’re in.” She drew her mouth to one side and heaved a sigh. “It’s not that I’m complaining, considering how much some people have lost in the last few years, first the war and especially this Depression.”

 The figure in the drawing stood before the tracks, with his shoulders drooped, and held his right hand with the palm outward and fingers curved in the exact manner as Theo. Did the sketch start out being a representation of his brother? Was the woman in the third drawing, the pretty one standing before the shop in Rhinebeck meant to be their mother? And the driver of the Packard in the sketch he’d started after passing through Middlebury on the train? His hair was as wispy as his father’s.

“You know, that looks nearly finished. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re able to sell it. Maybe in New York, as you did with your painting.”

Her artistic sense might not hold to the same level of scrutiny as his own, but he certainly found her optimism refreshing. “I’m afraid it’s not quite done.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked. “I think it’s very good. Why do you say it’s not done? Aside from that blotch. I can’t tell whether or not is supposed be…a crow, perhaps?”

“Well, there are a lot of reasons,” he said, lifting the sketchbook. “It’s just a little too out of proportion, for one thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“The columns are too large, I think. They should be a little smaller for the distance I’m trying to show.”

“Hm. Funny. I see it now, though I’m not sure I would have if you hadn’t pointed it out.”

“And do you see the ceiling? And that window in the corner?”

She nodded.

“Buildings aren’t that smooth. When you draw buildings and trees, or anything else for that matter, you have to be aware of texture. Lines and cracks….” He began to shade in bricks around the window frame by using his fingernail to smear a line. “And the surfaces start to decay, too. You have to show that.”

She touched her cheek and stared out the window, at the moving mist. “Well, I’m not sure I would allow anyone to add that if they were to draw me.” She smiled again. “I don’t think every bit of detail needs to be revealed.” She took hold of the sketchbook by the corner and pulled at it slightly to change the perspective. “What you have here is really quite good, overall, whether you believe it or not.” A few leaves swirled outside and bounced against the glass. “I’m not an expert, of course, but I know what appeals to me.”

The lights in the house flickered three times. Then, as before, the house plunged into darkness, save the glow from the parlor, and the few embers left in the living room fireplace, and the miniscule light of a late autumn dusk.

Three more times the lights flickered.

Kate gasped.

“The generator?” Vincent offered, for the sake of calming the children.

Helen brushed past him and leaned over the sink to gaze out the window. She drew the curtains closed, but folded back the edge of one to allow a cautious peek outside. “There are some strangers from town who wander around up here, on occasion, and cause me great worry.” She smiled, briefly; a vacuous gesture designed to soften the panicked atmosphere she was creating. “I don’t mean it to sound as ominous as I’m making it out to be.” Another pause, and then she said, “They’ve made off with radios and furniture, mostly, so I don’t imagine there’s much else in these buildings worth their while.”

“Why haven’t you ever notified the police?”

She shrugged. “If Geoffrey Esson made one good point earlier today, it was surely his description of our lazy sheriff.”

“Mr. Desmond saw two people earlier,” Kate said.

Helen turned to face her. “Two people? Where?”

“At the edge of the property, he said. They rolled into a ditch.”

Helen shook her head. “I don’t put much stock in what Grandpapa tells you. He’s forever muttering about seeing ‘them’ coming around again. I sometimes don’t always know what to make, if anything, of his pronouncements.”

“But he said that—”

“Kate, we’ve talked before about this. I don’t want you upsetting Timothy with wild stories.”

The girl looked down at the floor.

“Geoffrey Esson does enough of that already,” Helen said.

A crack echoed from outside, through the line of trees, down the hillside. Vincent immediately recognized the sound.

“Speak of the damn devil,” Helen said, her face reddening with anger.

“Helen!” Her grandfather’s voice rang down from the other direction. “Helen! Helen!”

“Grandpapa, are you all right? Stay there. I’m coming. Kate? Timothy? You and Mr. Rhodes come with me, away from the windows.”

She started toward the staircase.

“Helen,” Vincent called after her. “What’s going on? What should I do? Tell me how to help.”

What in God’s name was happening? Helen’s reaction seemed to indicate this was not a new phenomenon; she’d reacted as if they’d rehearsed this plan of action many times over. Yet he hadn’t seen this side her; her confidence, her calm manner had vanished in a split second.

The lights flickered on, and went dead again.

“Someone’s in the Sulphur Cure. Esson must be chasing after them.”

Helen!”

The lights came on.

“I’m coming, Grandpapa.” Her voice rose above his in frustration. Her face was now white, and her hands trembled. She raced up the stairs. He followed, as did the children, Kate tugging on Timothy as if he were a rag doll.

When they reached the upstairs hall, Kate stood with her arms wrapped around Timothy. The boy looked at Helen, his expression begging for answers, reassurance that everything was fine.

“What was that?” Kate asked. “Is someone shooting again? Why do they keep coming back here?”

“I know what they’re after,” Mr. Desmond called out from his room. “They’re not going to leave us alone until they find it.”

“Grandpapa, are you hurt?” Helen asked as she raced to his doorway.

“No, no, I’m not hurt. But I want someone to put a stop to these thieves.”

Another shot rang out.

“Stay right there, children. Away from the windows.”

“Helen,” Vincent pleaded, “what’s going on?”

Someone rapped furiously at the front door. She turned quickly. Her eyes grew wide as she took two steps toward the banister. As she positioned herself to gaze without being detected, she bit her bottom lip. It was a habit he had seen all too often when she grew pensive, frustrated, or in this case, fearful.

“Anyone home?” a voice called from the front porch.

Vincent knew the voice. Helen’s annoyed expression confirmed the identity.

“Esson!” she called down. “What on earth is going on out there?”

The man rapped the door again. Harder.

“Helen? Are you home?”

“What does he want?” Mr. Desmond barked.

“I don’t relish finding out,” Helen said. She started toward the stairs as the man’s pounding grew in volume.

Not waiting for a request or plea, Vincent followed behind her. He was certain that whatever this lunatic wanted now, it would be sound policy to show there was another person in the house, an able-bodied person should this man have some troublesome bent.

“The most annoying neighbor anyone could ask for,” she said softly as she descended the staircase. “I have yet to figure out how his mind works.” She paused. “Or doesn’t.”

She took a deep breath as she reached the foyer. She turned the knob and slowly pulled open the door.

Esson stood propped against the pillar. He was actually quite handsome, with a boyish look, but he was scruffy: unshaven, torn clothing, dirt smudged on his hands and face. In worse condition than he seemed during their previous encounter. He showed no reaction as he stared at Helen; only when he saw Vincent did his face twitch, and he drew his mouth to one side.

“Brought you a couple a rabbits,” he said, shifting the rifle that was resting in the crook of his left arm. “I put ’em on the back porch.” He looked again at Vincent. “You live here now?”

“Don’t you dare be rude,” Helen said. “You remember Vincent Rhodes.” Without much pause, she added, “You shot at him, if you’ll remember. I’m sure he’ll remember you for quite some time.” She started to close the door. “And thank you, by the way, for the rabbits. I’m glad you found your target this time.”

Esson stepped forward, and stuck his foot between the door and the jam.

“Raining so hard today I never got around to gathering me up somethin’ to eat. And might not get out of the house tomorrow.” He turned and spit onto the ground. “Know those kids don’t like squirrel, so I kept those for myself.”

“Tell him to stay out of our buildings,” Mr. Desmond called down.

“Grandpapa, keep quiet.”

“He still on about protecting those Germans, is he?” Esson looked at Vincent. “We did have some here you know. Right up at that old Sulphur Cure. Germans! They thought I was seeing ghosts from my stint in the war, but I smelled ’em right away.” He regarded Helen. “Did you tell your guest about the Germans?”

She didn’t respond. Esson took a step forward, and bent his head down a bit to see inside the house, up to where Mr. Desmond stood poised over the banister at the top of the stairs.

“Shouldn’t have forbid me from rooting around in that old resort of yours,” he said. “I could’ve caught ’em all if you hadn’t been a jackass about me in your precious old ruins. I might think you were in cahoots with those Huns, Desmond.”

“Ah, you can go to hell. You’re after what everyone else is after and you know it.”

“All right,” Helen said. “That’s enough.”

Vincent knew he couldn’t remain silent. Certainly he had to exercise caution. The worst thing he could do was escalate the situation. Antagonize the man. Provoke him. The rifle Esson carried did not exactly fill Vincent with contentment. But as a neutral party and someone Esson might perceive as more of an equal match—in physical strength at least—he hoped he might persuade the man he had little to gain from his behavior.

“Mr. Esson, I think you can leave here knowing everything is under control.”

The man shifted his weight and pivoted slightly to face him. “That so, Victor?” He smirked as he looked him up and down. “Victor, right? I’m pretty bad with names.”

He wasn’t about to take the man’s bait. “I think we’ll all be better off if you leave now.”

“That a threat?”

“Vincent, please,” Helen said, “there’s no reason you need to feel—”

“What sense does it make,” he interrupted, “to drop off food only to turn around and harass us?”

“Oh, is it ‘us’ now?” Esson said. “Are you the family protector now?” He paused. “Or are you part of whatever scheme they’ve got going on up here?”

What did the man mean? A scheme?

“There’s nothing going on up here but one stranger after another breaking into the buildings and trying to rob us blind,” Mr. Desmond said. “But I’ll tell you like I’ve told everyone else: you’re wasting your time. You can tear the place apart but you’ll never find it.”

“No,” Esson answered back. “Because you end up dead or missing if you stay around here too long. Just ask the children’s father.”

Something flew past Vincent; a whoosh followed by the sound of shattering glass.

From behind him Kate shouted. “Timothy, stop!”

Vincent’s first thought was something happened to the boy. When he turned to look at the top of the stairs, he saw Kate clutching Timothy’s arm. The boy tried to wrest himself free.

“He threw the glass bowl that was on the table,” Kate said, meekly.

“Their father’s a touchy subject, eh?” Esson said. “Puts everyone on edge.” He glanced toward the top of the stairs. “Even the little ones.”

Helen slammed the front door shut. Esson kicked it.

“Helen,” Vincent said, “I don’t care if your sheriff is the walking dead, I think we should call him.”

“That man isn’t right,” she said, folding her arms tightly and turning away from the door. She spoke softly, more to herself. “The war tore him apart. He saw three of his friends die, and—”

Without thinking, Vincent stepped forward and took hold of Helen by the shoulders. The gesture wasn’t intended to be violent, or threatening; he knew it was wrong, but felt as if he were dealing with a stubborn child who repeatedly refused to cooperate. “Let’s call the sheriff.”

She was shocked. As much as he surprised himself, clearly Helen never expected to see this side of him. Her eyes grew wide, and he felt her body stiffen. “We no longer have telephone service up here. And I’ve told you before, Esson is odd, but he’d never—” Her voice broke. She glanced up at the children. “Get ready for bed now. I’ll be up to tuck you in shortly.”

“I’m too old to be tucked in,” Kate muttered.

“Go on now,” Helen said. “I’ll be up in a minute.”

Helen turned and walked back into the kitchen. She went over to the window, pulled the curtains apart, and glanced outside. She drew the curtains closed, clenching the fabric until her knuckles turned white.

“Somehow I can live in that awful building’s shadows,” she said, “but I don’t think I have the strength left to ever set foot in there again.”

“Helen,” Vincent said, moving closer to her. “Is there something I can do?”

Without facing him, she said, “It’s enough knowing you’ll be in the guest room tonight.” She yanked on the curtain once more, as if expecting to see something just beyond the window. Her breathing became shallow, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself. Her body trembled, despite her every effort to control it.

“A ring around the moon,” she whispered. “Bad weather on the way. As if we don’t have enough trouble already.”