Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest Annual Competition for 2020
A deep sigh escapes my lungs, enough to fog a window, and I’m surprised it isn’t a fire-red haze tinted by fury. My tawny cat meows and rubs against my leg. My fist knocks at my forehead.
As usual, nothing is flowing out of me, nothingnothingnothing. Writing should be easier than this.
Stories are everywhere, to be plucked from the outside world, like apples off a tree. Yet my idea book is a collection of scattered drivel. I stare at the pages, pen in hand, hovering.
Another wordless day.
I rise, the wooden chair scraping and screeching against the laminate floor, the pen clapping as it drops on my scratched-up, coffee-stained, dirt-brown desk that sits in the corner of my second floor, more like an attic with its sloped ceiling and smallish size. I peer outside my square window. As I bend the blinds, I see little old Mrs. Murdle, across the street, performing her usual routine of frantically removing her black flats and sticking them in her shopper at the top of the steps before opening the front door. Why? What is she afraid of?
Maybe she is controlled by her surly husband. Even when Mrs. Murdle is home, I’ve seen Mr. Murdle peek out the window, waiting for someone, but that someone never seems to come.
The Murdles mystify me, a story to grip. This could be my apple.
I shove each foot into already tied gray sneakers, bending over to pull the backs of each up, then jam one foot at a time on the floor to finish the job. Zip-up hoodie on, I feel grateful to be recently divorced. No need to explain my unplanned walk.
The sun feels nice on my face as I step outside, the breeze making me fresh and lively. Their home appears quiet, their driveway vacant. But Mr. Murdle might be home, ready to unveil whenever the impulse zaps from his brain to his body.
Whistling, I stride casually, hands in my jean pockets, heading toward the corner, away from their home to deter suspicion. I scan both ways before crossing the street, my blood beginning to kick, and suddenly I am reminded of when I slept in an abandoned asylum, and the way adrenaline joined my body each time I heard a squeak, a splat, an echo. An attempt at a horror series crumbled into some shriveled short story, flimsy and prosaic, when I realized there was no actual plot.
To my right is a yellow house occupied by four children dictating overwhelmed parents, in and out of the house so often it seems unnecessary to own one—I wait for their minivan to back out of the driveway. I proceed, passing the blue home, quaint with beds of blooming yellow tulips and red roses, occupied by attractive newlyweds, and I see the young wife, probably early thirties, not much younger than myself, outside watering her garden. Jill is bending, and I can see the hills of her chest as the loose pink blouse falls.
“Hi Jeff, hope the writing is going well.” Nick yells, a golf club over his shoulder, trotting down their front steps.I return a quick wave and thanks before my gaze rolls to the sky, then back to the bumpy, slanted sidewalk, blades of grass like outstretched fingers between the concrete slabs, relieved the conversation stops there as he opens the trunk of his SUV.
My ex-wife, Genevieve, has a long, graceful neck accentuated by short-clipped blonde hair. She is exquisite to look at, but she wants too much, complains too often.
And here it is. The outdated but beautiful white Victorian. The home of the Murdles. Curtains in place. A dogwood tree on one side of their pathway, a cherry blossom on the other, the pinks and whites of the petals dreamy and inviting behind the ornate iron gate. I glance at my watch and I’m certain now my heart is beating fast.
I survey the area. If I come back at midnight, there will be enough room in the long driveway for me to slither in between their car and the neighbor’s wooden fence.
The Murdles could have an alarm system. But what if they do not? If they do, Mr. Murdle clearly does not deem it as reliable as he is. Once, I left my alarm system off, left the door open, in hopes a burglar would come in, provide me insight for a good mystery novel. Genevieve was exceptionally irate at that one. She claimed I was chasing extraordinary plots instead of creating characters, droning on about captivating characters that kept her reading, wanting more, but what does she know? A reader is not a writer, I told her. Then she had the audacity to tell me, “but a writer must read.” And of course, I told her, she knows nothing. That above all, a writer must write compelling stories.
I contemplate whether to stride further down the block or b-line across the street, returning safely to my home. But to my horror, there’s a stir by the window. My heart jams my throat—Mr. Murdle is looking right at me. Crooked nose with a bulbous tip, white hair so wispy it looks like frayed ends of a Q-tip, eyes black and oily like tar.
I pull my phone out, feigning a call. To appear casual. I travel a few feet, look up, then down, kick a rock, mimic a conversation. I refuse to inspect the window before I continue strolling, curious if he recognizes me, if he knows me as well as I know him.
I make it home; I feel shaken up. His glare. Like a bolt of lightning, it zapped right through me, my chest and stomach now a tangle of burnt wires, frayed and frantic.
In the kitchen I rattle a box of kibble, and my cat scurries into the kitchen. I fill her plastic dish and then preheat the oven for a frozen mushroom and black olive square pizza.
Midnight soon arrives and my cuckoo clock chimes. Old and dusty, a gift from an uncle who lived in Germany, hangs on the wall beside my squashy brown suede recliner, but I enjoy its melody, the bird whistling as it pops out with its quasi broken wing, the miniature stained figures dancing above him on their tiny wooden balcony. Genevieve wanted me to dust it off, but I liked the eerie effect the dust and webs provided.
The opened front window lets in the beautiful spring night, the quiet, cool air extending across the small, dark village, into my home, and the smell of dewy grass and honeysuckles sticks to my nostrils; all are welcome guests.
Will I be a welcome guest for the Murdles? Only if I don’t get caught. I have my black windbreaker on, black hood over brown hair, black pants, black shoes. I hop down the brick steps of my ordinary beige home, this time crossing the street straight away.
The adrenaline returns and my blood thumps as if a drummer is stomping his pedal over and over and over, the bass relentlessly roaring from my heart. Beatingbeatingbeating.
Is a story worth this? I could give up the writing career, like Genevieve nagged on and on and on about. “Why don’t you try something else in the meantime, and keep writing as a hobby only?” “We can’t survive on my income alone.” “Give it up already, Jeff.” “You hardly do anything for me, yet you are willing to sleep on the streets of New York for a story!” Then finally, “It’s disastrous, delusional plot chasing—or it’s me.” She is delusional! No way I would give up writing.
I approach the Murdle house. The dull-white window curtains, that look out of an 1800s home catalogue, are closed; the house is pitch-black save for the soft yellow glow of the wall lanterns hung on either side of the front door, and the leftover, dim white light from adjacent neighbors highlight the peripheral grass.
I edge toward the chain-link gate of their driveway, set further back than the main iron one protecting the front yard; an odd combination cheapening the overall aesthetic. Earlier today it was open, and I had not taken the possibility of it being closed into account.
It’s locked. The back of my neck begins to sweat. I realize how stupid I must look, how I feel so juvenile, so lost. But something in me feels magnetized to this house, hypnotizing me, like this is the answer to my writing dreams, saving me, savingsavingsaving, so I must not, cannot, will not, give up, like some determined hero in a song about the underdog.
The gate is not too high. I climb it with ease, only requiring one foot in a hexagonal gap half-way up. Impressively, my right leg pops over like a graceful rainbow, and I momentarily straddle as my right foot slips into a slot, and as quietly as I can, I lower myself onto the gravel of their driveway. Disturbed rocks crunch underneath my sneakers. I still myself as my heart skips a beat, then another, then another, all of me trying to quiet myself, shrink myself, disappear into the darkness.
My plan is poor, a child’s plan (as Genevieve would surely call it), and I’m stuck on an island of gravel that stretches to the end of the driveway where the two-car garage, or carriage house rather, looms, puzzling me how this house still exists on our block with its myriad styles of homes.
I must reach the grass. I should turn around altogether while I still can; that or fall asleep on their front lawn and when they find me, I can blame it on somnambulism.
I should have just asked Mrs. Murdle why she takes off her shoes because I don’t really know what to do right now. I leap. I knock gravel behind me, like my litter-kicking cat trying to cover her waste. But I’ve made it to the grass, the front yard, the lit up exposed territory, and now I wholly grasp I did not plan or map out any steps at all. I look around, and that’s when I spot the camera. The camera on the roof. What now?
Then I hear it. I hear it behind me. The door creaking open. To my surprise, I feel the backs of each of my eyes sear with the heat of tears.
It’s Mrs. Murdle in a fluffy white robe and matching slippers, her silver-gray hair ringlets slightly frizzed. I exhale the trapped fear. She will be kinder than Mr. Murdle. I hope.
“Hello? Who is that?” She squints her eyes. “Oh my. . .” She looks me up and down, fear shakes her voice. “What are you. . .what are you doing here?” I inch forward. “Don’t move—you stay right there—or I’m going to call the police.”
“It’s okay,” I put my hands up in surrender, freeze in place. “It’s just me, Jeff, a neighbor. I-I tend to sleepwalk. Just found myself here.” I stutter. Thankfully, the dark is hiding the burn I can feel in my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. This must look very odd.” I let out a quick laugh to hopefully convey I am not a threat.
“That sounds like quite the problem.” She oozed skepticism, but the tone of her voice softened. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow morning for coffee and tell me what you really came for, Jeff. It would be nice to meet you. I’ve seen you around.”
“Oh-ah. Yes, I can do that.” I lower my head like a kid caught sneaking candy, but I am also getting what I want, so I win, and Genevieve loses. I half-smile.
“The front gate to our pathway is easy to open on your way out,” she says. “Incredible how acrobatic you must be while asleep. It was quite the show.” I turn and look at the black iron entrance. I’m an idiot. I laugh, embarrassed.
“Thanks. And thanks for understanding.” I could have easily been arrested by now. “See you in the morning then.”
I try to sleep, but too many scenarios run through my head of what awaits. A murder set-up? Cops? Elaborate torture chamber? Wishful thinking. More likely would be cookies and milk and a crochet lesson. But still, nothing comes to mind to excuse the frantic put-away of shoes, aside from being a germaphobe. Which would be disappointing, not enough to carry a story, not one so original, at least. So, I must still find out.
The morning sun sneaks from the sky into my bedroom, veiling various inside-out shirts and crinkled balls of socks strewn about the floor with a peach tint. I munch on an apple.
I wait for the agreed upon time of nine o’clock to head over. Mrs. Murdle waits at the top of her porch, rocking in a wooden chair.
“We will stay out here, dear. Unless you don’t mind taking your shoes off.”
“That’s actually the mystery.” I say, walking the steps, feeling more at ease. “Why do you do that?”
“You snuck onto our property for shoe removal?” She places her hands in her lap above her powder blue slacks. “Maybe it is about time you start dating again, dear.”
Well that confirms Genevieve’s front yard scene upon moving out was as histrionic and noticeable as I thought.
“Well. . .putting it that way does sound. . .silly, for lack of a better word. But yes. See, I’m trying to write a story—a profound story—with curious characters.” As I say this last statement, I realize maybe it is about the characters after all. The likable people, like Genevieve said. The ones you care about. I suddenly miss her.
“It must seem curious indeed to one who lacks the need for it. Mr. Murdle is dying of cancer, Jeff. We do not want to risk trailing in unwelcome threats to his system that might hasten the process. And the security cameras let us know of any threats outside our control.”
“Oh, wow.” My hand runs through my hair. “I had no idea. I’m. . .so sorry to hear that, Mrs. Murdle.” I swallow shame.
“Well. Why would you? You could have visited any time, you know. Without sneaking. Benjamin—Mr. Murdle—saw you the other day, hoping you were coming to say hello.”
“Really?” I say, hands on hips, genuinely puzzled. Birdsong hits my ears, a pleasant measure of chirps.
“Yes. He keeps hoping our estranged son will show up. That the cancer would urge him to reconcile their differences, the ones that have kept him away from us so long. But. . .nothing so far. Only calls here and there to speak with me only.” Her gaze drops to the wood planks of the porch. The tweeting blue bird lands on the white wood railing, and I think about my own father, a successful author, who died from an aneurysm when I was only nineteen.
I say, “I can come in for breakfast.” A smile lights her face as she looks up, and the creases from years of joy become more defined.
The front door opens.
“Mr. Murdle,” I say, unsure if I should reach my hand out, but do anyway out of politeness. “It’s great to finally meet you.”
“Call me Benjamin.” His hand meets mine, releasing something within me, and I no longer care if a book idea lurks inside their home—although I have a feeling this story will write itself.