Miranda Peters felt as though she were being hypnotized. She was looking into her neighbor’s eyes, could hear her talking, but was having difficulty understanding what was being said. She didn’t know how long it had been since she had last said anything in reply to what was being said to her.
A few minutes?
She felt a nervous tick starting in her right eye. She noticed a tick in her neighbor’s right eye too. She thought that odd but not threatening. Why did the word threatening enter her thoughts just then? It seemed like the simultaneous ticks could mean something, but what? She dragged her eyes away from her neighbor’s and focused on her mouth. She concentrated really hard and began to pick up on the conversation as if it were just beginning.
“….you know, we’ve only known each other for a few weeks,…(chicken)…, but I really like you a lot and already care about you. Now this is going to sound odd, but because I do care about you, I think it would be best,…(chicken)…, if you were to leave. You know, move away from here; maybe far away would be best….”
Why was her new, neighbor, Barbara Wilson, telling her that she should “leave?” Go home? No, that wasn’t it; they were at Miranda’s house. Barbara had said “move away.” Like Miranda should sell her house and move “maybe far away?” At least that’s what she thought that Barbara had been saying when she had come back from wherever she had drifted off to. And had she said something about chicken?
Barbara was a talker. She usually ambled over from her house across the street to Miranda’s house at about 9:30 and stayed an hour for coffee. And talk. Miranda was a free-lance writer, currently working on an article about rain forest issues in Brazil for The Times, and had usually put in a couple hours of work by the time Barbara showed up.
Now, as Barbara continued to drone on, Miranda felt like she was coming back from being very far away. A couple of times recently she had found herself daydreaming while Barbara was talking to her. Had Barbara ever noticed? Trying again to focus, Miranda thought she would ask Barbara what she had meant by the “move away” remark.
“Why would I want to move?” she asked. “You and Roger just moved in three weeks ago. Is something wrong? Is there something about the neighborhood that doesn’t feel right to you?”
Barbara hadn’t found employment yet. She and Roger had relocated here in Vermont from California. Roger was a financial planner and according to him, “could work anywhere.” Barbara was a lecturer at the college level in Psychology. If she wanted to teach at one of the universities or junior colleges in the area, she pretty much had to wait until a position opened up, usually at the end of a semester. The fall semester was already underway, so she might not get employment until the spring semester, if then.
Miranda owned her house outright. It was part of a divorce settlement that took place over ten years ago. She was thirty-eight years old, debt-free, no kids, and making a good living with her writing. She certainly wouldn’t be selling her house and moving “maybe far away” without a very good reason. She had put up with Barbara’s visits, they usually were only for an hour or so, but now she was looking at Barbara differently that she had previously. Like maybe she wasn’t just a compulsive talker, but maybe she wasn’t quite all there. Once again Barbara had been saying something and Miranda hadn’t been listening.
“….I probably shouldn’t tell you this, I mean so soon after getting to know you, but I think I can trust you and I also don’t want you to get hurt. You see, Roger didn’t really get transferred here by his previous employer. We just rented a truck, loaded it up one night with what we could, and left our house to the bank to foreclose upon. We had to get as far away from San Diego as fast we could. Things were going to start to come out. People were going to start to put two and two together and that was not going to be good for Roger and….”
“Was he doing something illegal in his business?” asked Miranda. “Embezzling or something like that?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Let’s see, how can I put this; sometimes Roger does bad things.”
“Bad things?” asked Miranda.
“Oh no,” said Barbara quickly when a look of horror had registered on Miranda’s face. “He’s never hurt me. It’s other people who sometimes get hurt. But it’s really not Roger’s fault. Even with our son Billy, that wasn’t Roger’s fault. They tried to say it was, but it wasn’t. I told them it wasn’t.”
Now Miranda was starting to get weirded out. She hardly knew these people. Should she ask more questions? Maybe she should just humor Barbara and try and get her to leave early today. But something like this wasn’t going to just go away. Even though Miranda didn’t know what was now out in the open, something was, and it frightened her. Hers was a quiet residential neighborhood. Some families had kids and pets, but otherwise it was very peaceful. She had to know more.
Just then, Barbara saw Roger pull into their driveway. “Oh, damn,” said Barbara. “Why is he home at this time of day? I hope nothing has happened already. It can’t be starting this soon.”
Barbara put her coffee cup on an end table. Looking through Miranda’s picture window, Miranda and Barbara watched Roger look at something in the trunk of their car. He seemed satisfied at what was in there and after slamming the trunk shut, he went into the house. Barbara looked at Miranda with a sick little smile. Miranda noticed that Barbara was wearing a pair of her earrings. And one of her sweaters. Stranger and stranger.
“I better go and see what he’s up to,” said Barbara. “You think about what I said and we can talk again tomorrow morning.”
Miranda stayed at the window and watched Barbara cross the street and go into her house. Think about what Barbara had said? But what exactly had she said? That Roger sometimes does bad things and that she–Miranda–should move? Someplace “maybe far away?”
That night, as she was closing up the house before getting ready for bed, Miranda saw Roger standing on his front lawn smoking a cigarette. It was just dark, the sun was setting earlier as fall progressed, and he appeared to be looking at her house. Miranda stepped back from the living room window and felt that if she hadn’t had that conversation with Barbara this morning, the friendly thing would have been to wave.
However, instead of waving, she felt like hiding. Moving out of sight, she pulled the cord that closed the drapes. After again checking the front and back door, she quickly went upstairs. Once in her room, she locked her bedroom door. She had a bathroom just off the bedroom and had no intention of leaving her room until it was daylight. She was sure that she would feel better in the daylight, but right now she felt near panic. Before closing the bedroom curtains of the window that looked out over the back yard, Miranda peered out into the darkness. She groaned when she saw someone standing in her yard.
Whoever it was, he was looking up at her window. Because it was dark in her backyard, Miranda couldn’t clearly see the face of the person standing down there, but she was pretty sure it was Roger. When he took a drag off of his cigarette there was just enough light to show the area around his mouth. He appeared to be smiling with one of those smiles that the bad guys have in horror movies. Miranda was even more frightened now because it seemed that Roger was in her backyard and didn’t care if he were seen.
The shrill ringing of the phone on her bedside table caused her to scream. She picked up the phone but before she could croak out a “Hello,” Barbara’s voice came out of the receiver loud and angry.
“Is he over there? He is, isn’t he? You bitch! Damn you! You couldn’t let us start fresh. You’re just like those slutty women in San Diego. I thought we were friends. You couldn’t stay away from him. You just had to…”
The line went dead. Had he cut the line? Miranda’s cell phone was downstairs in her office. The landline and the cell phone both had the same number. She had been meaning to cancel the landline and just have a couple of cell phones with the same number but had just never gotten around to it.
Something hit the back door hard and Miranda screamed again. Then there was the sound of glass breaking. Then, it was quiet. Could he break down the bedroom door? Should she go out the window and yell for help? Yes, she would do that. Not out the back window onto the porch; he might be there. Out the front window and onto to the roof of the front porch facing the street. Surely one of the neighbors would hear her. As she was struggling with the screen preventing her from going out of the window, Roger, she was sure it had to be Roger, hit the bedroom door. The door held, but there were some stress cracks along the framing. He hit it again, this time even harder.
“What did she tell you about me? She lies about me! She’s always spreading lies about me! She’s the one who did all those terrible things in San Diego, not me! She’s the one that caused those women to have mental breakdowns. And I didn’t have anything to do with those two women disappearing.”
“What about your son, Roger?” Miranda said quietly to the closed door. “What happened to your son, Billy?”
With a cry of rage, Roger hit the door once again.
“Help me! Somebody help me!” Miranda yelled out the window. She kicked at the screen and after two kicks, it fell onto the roof. She scrambled out and was on the roof when she heard Roger hit the door yet another time. Standing on the roof waiving her arms and calling for help, she saw Barbara come running out of her house across the street. She was carrying what appeared to be a rifle and stopped on Miranda’s lawn to take aim. From where Miranda stood, it looked like Barbara was going to shoot her. She quickly dropped down and lay flat on the roof. Barbara was still aiming the rifle and Miranda whimpered when someone grabbed her ankle. It was Roger; he had broken down the door and was out on the roof with her. He had one of her ankles gripped tightly in his hands. Crouched down on the roof and facing the street, he was pulling like he was trying to separate her foot from her leg.
The sound of the rifle was louder then Miranda’s screaming. Roger fell heavily onto her legs and Miranda grunted in revulsion.
“Get off! Get off me!” she yelled as she struggled to get free of Roger.
Looking down at the houses across the street from hers, she saw lights on and people standing on their porches.
“Help me! Call the police. They’re trying to kill me!”
Nobody was moving to confront Barbara. She had turned around to face that side of the street and her rifle was leveled at them. Some stepped back inside. Miranda did see that one of her neighbors was talking on a cell phone.
When once more Miranda looked down at Barbara, she saw that she had turned around and was looking up to the roof again. She aimed the gun, this time at Miranda, and fired twice. Because Miranda was still lying on the roof, the angle was bad, and both bullets passed over her and slammed into the side of the house. She could hear sirens in the distance. She was going to live!
Barbara let out with a long string of obscenities and put the barrel of the rifle under her chin. She was trying to get her arms into position to pull the trigger when she was tackled from behind by one of the teenagers in the neighborhood. The rifle went off as they both hit the ground. The bullet blew off a section of the side of Barbara’s face and then, except for the approaching black and whites, it was quiet.
The teenager stood up and some of the neighbors started to applaud. When he looked down at Barbara, he stumbled a bit as if he was going to faint or maybe throw up and the applause abruptly stopped. Some of the folks who had been on their porches now ran out to steady him. Then, almost as one, they looked up onto Miranda’s roof and pointed. When Miranda turned to look back at what they might be pointing to, she was shocked to see Roger standing unsteadily just a few feet behind her. He had been shot in the chest, there was a lot of blood on his shirt, and he was looking at the crowd down below that had gathered around Barbara. When Miranda had pushed him off her a minute ago, he had appeared to have been lifeless.
“I think that this is my stop,” he said. “This is where I get off.”
He then lurched forward, trying to run, and dove off the roof in a clumsy swan dive. It appeared that he was attempting to fly to where Barbara was lying in the street, but his momentum only carried him to about the middle of Miranda’s yard where he landed with a sickening thud.
The bullet wound and the fall may or may not have killed Roger and the rifle shot to the side of Barbara’s face may or not have killed her. Still sitting on the roof facing the street waiting for the police, Miranda was sure that if either or both survived they would probably be in prison for a long time once things started to “come out” and the police started “to put two and two together.”
She looked down at the car parked in the driveway and a picture of Roger standing by the open trunk went through her mind. What could be in that trunk? Who could be in that trunk?
Tomorrow morning Miranda was going to call her boss at The Times and tell her that she wanted to take an assignment in Paris or London, someplace far away for about six months. Not “maybe” far away, but really, really far away. With a start, she realized she was doing pretty much what Barbara had suggested to her this morning.
How ironic. She wondered if Barbara had planted any other ideas in her head when they had been talking recently. Would some triggering event in the future cause her to make a Barbara-suggested decision? Barbara was the only one who knew the answers to those questions, but even if she lived, Miranda wouldn’t be able to trust any information she would get from her.
Sighing, Miranda walked up the slightly sloped roof and climbed through her bedroom window. She felt hungry. Actually, she was suddenly ravenous. She thought that some of that leftover fried chicken would be good right now. And some potato salad. To hell with Barbara! And if the police didn’t like it that she was eating while they interviewed her, to hell with them, too!
There was no leftover fried chicken. Miranda had been going to make the chicken tomorrow night. When two police officers entered her kitchen through the broken back door, they found Miranda sitting at her table eating a piece of raw chicken. There was more raw chicken on a plate in front of her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, are you alright?’ asked Joe Simpson, the older of the two officers.
“Sure, fine now. Want some?” said Miranda, offering the piece she had been chewing on to Officer Simpson.
The younger officer, Marsha Jenson, stepped out of the room and Officer Simpson thought it was because she was going to be sick. He sure wasn’t feeling too hot. He was surprised when he heard Officer Jenson calmly talking to the EMTs on her radio. Looking down the hall from the kitchen, he could see her standing in the now open front doorway waving them in.
“At least one of us is keepin’ it together,” said Officer Simpson under his breath.
Miranda was back to eating chicken and seemed to have forgotten about the officers. The look in her eyes said she was a long way from her kitchen table.
“So, whatta ya think, Joe?” said Marsha.
“I think I’ve got two more years until I can retire, that’s what I think. I’m going to go and be a greeter at that big warehouse store in the mall. Maybe work ten ’til two with an hour off for lunch. Know what else, Marsha?”
“What’s that, Joe?”
“It’s gonna be a long, long time before I eat any damn chicken.”
At the word chicken, Miranda looked up at Officer Simpson. Apparently at some level she had been following the conversation. Around a mouth full of chicken, she smiled and again offered him the piece she was gnawing on. “Sure ya don’t want some?” she asked.
“Let’s get outta here, Marsha. The EMTs can finish up in here. We should go see what’s going on outside. It’s probably nutso out there, too, but it’s gotta be better than in here.”
Roy Dorman is retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Benefits Office and has been a voracious reader for over 60 years. At the prompting of an old high school friend, himself a retired English teacher, Roy is now a voracious writer. He has had flash fiction and poetry published recently in Cease Cows, Gravel, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Press, Drunk Monkeys, Birds Piled Loosely, Black Petals, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Cheapjack Pulp, and Yellow Mama.
Image by lisa cee (Lisa Campeau)