Neighbors

We live in a quiet neighborhood. Lots of trees. Green lawns. Janice and I bought our house here four years ago. We needed more room for the kids. Janice says it’s quiet like a cemetery is quiet. She wants to get a job, but no wife of mine is going to work. Anyway, she has a job: taking care of the kids and getting meals on the table.

Mrs. Koles died last month. She lived in the house down on the corner. After an estate sale, the house was put on the market. It sold almost immediately. Carpenters and plumbers and electricians showed up to renovate it. Then a moving van arrived. The new owners moved in.

Janice and I walked down and introduced ourselves. The new owners were an elderly couple. They seemed to come from some East European community. They were both dressed in shabby black and spoke with an accent. They did not seem friendly, or interested in us in the least. Their eyes were never still. They were a little slit-eyed. Frankly, they gave me the creeps. Janice seemed intrigued by them. Old as they were, maybe they were gypsies or Communists or something like that.

Our kids, Todd, six, and Amy, nine, went over there the next day.

“Their grandson lives with them,” Janice said.

“How do you know that? Have you been over there again?” I said, but she didn’t answer.

Todd and Amy came back two hours later.

“Did you meet the grandson?” I asked them. “You were gone forever.”

“Yes,” said Todd.

“What’s his name?”

“Damon,” Todd said.

“How old is he?” I said. “What’s he like?”

Todd shrugged.

“He’s OK,” he said.

Amy seemed to ignore me.

The kids went to their rooms. I looked at Janice and raised my eyebrows.

“They haven’t decided whether they like him or not,” she said.

Both Todd and Amy began spending a lot of time with Damon. It seemed to me that when they came home from these visits, they were always in a strange, noncommittal mood. I couldn’t get anything out of them about the new boy.

“I don’t like this,” I said to Janice. “They’re spending too much time over there. What about all their other friends? Why are they both over there? Six-year-olds and nine-year-olds have completely different interests.”

“Calm down. All the kids are doing it,” Janice said. “It’s a good change. Nothing ever happens around here in the summer. They’re lucky to have something to do.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “You’ve always kept the kids busy during summer vacation.”

“Now I don’t have to,” Janice said. “Now I can sit and stare out the window instead.”

“What’s the matter with you? Join a book club or something. And how old is this Damon, anyway?”

“I’ll go down and meet him tomorrow,” Janice said. “Quit worrying. You know how you get. I’m glad Damon and his grandparents are here. I feel like I’ve been waiting for them.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

My cheeks felt hot all of a sudden. Janice left the room quickly, before I could set her straight.

I asked her about Damon the following day.

“I met him,” she said. “He’s fine.”

“That’s it?” I said. “The whole neighborhood is hanging around his house and that’s all you can say? He’s fine? What’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting strange lately. Distant. What is it?”

“Nothing. Don’t worry about Damon. Things are going to work out fine.”

She wasn’t making any sense.

“Tell Todd and Amy to stop going down there,” I said. “I mean it.”

I saw Damon myself that evening. I knew it was him immediately, a small figure walking past the house on the sidewalk, dressed in that same shabby black. In the dusk, I could tell only that his skin was pale and that he walked more like an old man than a child. He wasn’t any larger than Todd. I went to the door but hesitated with my hand on the knob. Started to go out but paused. When I finally did, he was gone.

I walked slowly around the block as the day’s light faded. There were no children out. Night settled in and the streetlights took hold. I saw a nighthawk kiting in the purple light overhead, catching moths. I passed the Morvis house and saw their daughter standing at a window. I stepped onto the lawn to take a closer look. The girl stared out at me. She was grinning and gestured me closer. I turned and hurried away.

When I sat down for breakfast the next morning, I got a shock. Todd and Amy both seemed pale, much too pale. Their skin had a translucent quality, as if light from within were escaping through it. I pulled Janice into the living room.

“My God, what’s happened to them?” I said.

“They’re fine,” Janice said.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a shake.

“Wake up,” I said.

She shrugged away from me. I took her by the arm.

“Now you listen to me,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with those children or why you’re ignoring it, or what’s wrong with you, but I want them checked out. Take them to Dr. Sasco this morning, without fail. I’m going to call him from work after he examines them.”

“Sure,” Janice said.

At the office, I waited until ten before calling Sasco.

“Nothing at all to worry about,” Sasco said. “Normal summer condition. What about you? Have you been feeling stressed lately? Janice tells me that she’s worried about you.”

“I’m fine. What about Janice? Did she seem normal to you?”

“Janice? Normal? Of course she did. Look, why don’t you come in? Let me schedule you at the front desk.”

“No. Explain to me why the kids’ skin looks so strange,” I said.

“It was probably the lighting,” Sasco said. “Was it dusk? Was it dim in the room?”

“They were sitting at the kitchen table this morning in full daylight.”

The doctor chuckled and the sound was so unexpected, so strange, it unsettled me. Why did he do that? I slammed the phone down. My temper got away from me for a moment and I broke my coffee cup when I threw it.

At dinner, I saw that Janice was also changing. She was scary pale. The glow from within both children was stronger now and she had it too.

“What is this?” I said, seeing the food on the table. “You didn’t make this.”

“I was busy,” Janice said. “Damon’s grandparents prepared it for me.”

They had all been eating it, whatever it was, without waiting for me. The children kept eating it now, but too fast. They were tearing at it.

I moved around the table and examined Todd closely. His skin was unwrinkled but it seemed somehow old and stretched thin. In addition, the brown in his eyes had faded.

I studied his throat. The side of his neck. Something moved there. A lump. I reached out to touch it with my finger but it smoothed out and disappeared.

Amy left the table. I told her to come back but she went to her room and shut the door.

“Leave her alone,” Janice said.

I strode out of the kitchen. I flung open the front door and left the house and hurried down the block to the Koles house. Banged on the door.

The boy Damon answered it. He stood staring up at me. Was he a little boy or a little old man? I couldn’t tell. His skin seemed impossibly thin. I felt as if, by straining, I could see through it and into him. As with Todd, I sensed something pulsing in his neck. Something warty and malignant and shaped like a fat worm. His eyes held mine. They were colorless. No, not quite colorless. The color of thin mucus.

“What are you doing to my children?” I said.

He smiled. Reached out to touch my bare arm with fingers like ice. Then he stepped back and closed the door. It clicked shut.

I felt something on my arm. In my arm. Moving. I ran home.

“Janice,” I said. “We’ve got to go back to Dr. Sasco. Now.”

“Honey,” she said, “I have made an appointment. For you. Tonight. Now. With Dr. Rust. Go right over to the clinic.”

“Dr. Rust? Who is Dr. Rust?”

“He’s a respected psychiatrist. You need to see him. He’ll prescribe medication for you. Honey, I’m afraid that you’re ill. Go see Dr. Rust. Otherwise, we’ll have to do something more drastic. We can’t have you running up and down the block like this.”

The blue in her eyes had faded impossibly.

“Get in the car,” she said. “I’ll take you.”

“No, wait. Where are the children?”

“Don’t worry about the children. They’re not here right now.”

She led me out to the car. I tried to control my shaking. At the clinic, Janice helped me inside.

“I’ll wait in the car,” she said.

Dr. Rust led me into his office with a hand on my elbow.

“Lie down on the couch,” he said.

“It’s not safe to lie down,” I said.

“Then sit down, at least. So you can concentrate.”

I didn’t fall for that.

“OK,” Rust said. “We can talk with you on your feet.”

“Why am I here?”

“Your wife wants me to help you calm down. She told me something of your history.”

“She was lying. I don’t have a history. Never mind. How do you propose to help me?”

“With medicine,” Rust said.

He spent an hour or more, or maybe less, I’m not sure, trying to reassure me. I took several pills that he gave me with a glass of water. He also gave me a bottle of them to take home.

I stopped at the door on the way out and looked at him carefully for the first time.

“What are you staring at?” he said.

“Are you always so pale?”

Janice was gone. A taxi waited to give me a ride. At home, Janice and Todd and Amy were sitting at the kitchen table. Their eyes glittered, but with the yellowish tint of phlegm in them.

I walked past the table and continued upstairs. I could feel the pills taking effect. I entered the bathroom and closed the door and locked it.

In the bathroom mirror, I could see the changes. My skin looked like extra-thin rice paper. Light leaked out of it around my eyes. My eyes were alien eggs. I understood that now. I wasn’t really seeing out of them at all.

I opened the medicine cabinet and found an old double-edged razor blade stuck to the bottom shelf under a glob of toothpaste. I pried it up. It was rusty but when I cleaned it, its edge glittered under the bathroom light.

I smiled in anticipation. Ran my forefinger over the pulsing vein in my neck. It was alive, of course, like a thick worm. Not a vein at all. Yes, it was a worm. It had laid the eggs that replaced my eyes. I could not stop Damon or Sasco or Rust or Janice or the children, but I could kill the worm. Janice banged on the door. Rust’s pills made the room spin, as planned.

After killing the worm, I would dig out those eggs. I brought the razor up to my throat.

It sliced deeply through skin and tendon and the veiny worm with ease. One muscular rip was all it took. I could see far into the cut until a spurt of purple blood and then a pulsing spray of it filled the wound and covered my hand and arm and the mirror. The worm’s eggs went black and I laughed at killing them. Laughed until I choked on the blood and the bathroom floor came up at me fast and cracked open my skull.

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