Monday, August 19, 2019

The Neighbor by Jason Kreth

John is more frightened by his sister-in-law than the inter-dimensional being that lives next door; by Jason Kreth.

"John, you have to go talk to him," Angela said from across our faux-wood kitchen table. She had started in on me as soon as I woke up and stumbled my way down to the kitchen. I looked like death, but that wasn't going to deter her.

I was wearing an old bathrobe from college that had more holes than actual fabric and my hair was a disheveled and thinning salt-and-pepper catastrophe that matched the two-days-worth of stubble on my face. To top it off, my skin was a pale, sickly shade of green that Crayola would have named "plague victim." I looked like a walking hang-over and I thought, once again, that I needed to cut back on my drinking.

I caught vague bits of her complaints as I made my way through the kitchen. I tried my best to ignore her. It wasn't that I didn't care about my wife, but there was a drumming in my head that had me convinced that a woodpecker had taken up residence inside my skull. I knew that as soon as I started paying attention, there would be no escape and I needed at least a few minutes to try to counteract the alcohol-induced ruination of my body.

"C... can..." I raised a warding hand towards her as I tried to speak, the words coming out in a dry croak. My mouth tasted like I had fallen asleep sucking on the bare foot of the homeless guy who lived outside the corner grocery store. I swallowed, trying in vain to force some moisture across my vocal cords. "Can you give me... just a second."

Angela sighed, crossed her arms and gave me a look of frustration over the top of her large, circular glasses. But she let me be.

I responded with a non-committal noise that I intended as thanks and closed my eyes to keep the God-forsaken light that was pouring through our windows from further waking the skull-pecker. I kept up this blind-man routine as I rummaged through my kitchen on a desperate search for the makings of a cup of coffee, though I hadn't counted on how hard that was to do without looking. But I persevered, and after more than one stubbed toe, a virtual Asian bazaar of knocked-over spices, and a multitude of burns across my hands and arms from the coffeemaker, I succeeded. My reward was a drink that qualified as coffee only by the loosest of definitions.

I sat down across the kitchen table from Angela, and took a long, slow sip of the scalding hot paint-thinner-masquerading-as-coffee. I gave my wife a wave of my hand that signaled she was free to unleash her frustrations once more. She made an annoyed noise before starting again.

"John, you have to go talk to him."

"Talk to who?" I asked. I tried to make sense of the bits and pieces of Angela's complaining that I had managed to capture as I had zombied may way about the kitchen.

She gave me an exasperated sigh as she tucked a loose strand of auburn hair behind her ear. "Chad! You have to go next-door and talk with Chad!"

I winced. "A touch quieter please. Why would I need talk with Chad?"

"Were you listening to anything I said?" Her volume was not reduced in the slightest.

No, I answered in my head. Even in my weakened, hungover state, I knew better that than to say that aloud. Instead, I just shrugged.

"Because of Susan!" she said.



Angela and I were on opposite ends of the house the night before when the knocking started. I sat in my upstairs office, staring at my open laptop, trying to figure out how I was going to start my next article. The cursor on the blank page in front of me was blinking out a pattern that I assumed was Morse Code for "you're still an unimaginative failure." Angela was downstairs in the den, watching television and scrolling through Instagram, looking at whatever fabricated, white-washed version of reality her friends had decided to post that day.

Outside, a storm was unleashing its fury, pelting our house with rain and rattling our windows with the peal of thunder. The sound was overwhelming. So much so that I missed the knock the first time it had come. And maybe even the second. But with each passing moment the knocks rose in intensity until both Angela and I stood by our front door, exchanging concerned looks, wondering what supernatural horror was trying to tear its way inside. I had a moment's hesitation before I reached for the door then, with one quick turn and a hard yank, swung it wide, ready to fend off the seven-hundred-pound werewolf I was sure was waiting for me. But what was standing there was far worse.

It was my sister-in-law, Susan.

"Oh, my God!" Susan said, not even waiting for an invitation before stepping inside. With a huff she dropped a small piece of luggage on the floor and collapsed her umbrella, giving it a vicious shake. Water flung across Angela, me, and everything within a ten-foot radius. "Could you have taken any longer? These are Gucci shoes for Christ's sake!" She gestured down to black leather heels that, to my untrained eye, looked like the ones Angela tended to buy from the local retailer. I was sure the rest of her ensemble - a knee-length, form-fitting black dress and coordinating white trench coat - were all designer as well since that was Susan's thing.

"Susan?" Angela said. She pulled off her glasses and tried to wipe the newly deposited rain drops on her flannel pajama top. "What are you doing here?"

"Angie! Hi!" Susan said. All traces of her annoyance were gone in an instant and replaced with a thin, plastic veneer of well-practiced, suburban soccer mom-level excitement. She stepped over and gave her confused sister a quick hug, a wide smile spreading across her face that didn't quite reach her eyes. Whether it was because the smile was fake or because her facial muscles were paralyzed from her Botox addiction was hard to say, though. "Am I not allowed to come see my sister?"

"You live two states away," I mumbled and shut the front door behind her.

Susan swiveled towards me in a quick motion, blonde ringlets bouncing as she did. "Oh, hey John." The fake topcoat of civility was still smoothly in place, but the dark look in her eyes told a very different story. The dislike between Susan and I was real and mutual. She hated me because she didn't think I was good enough for her sister. I hated her because she was a stuck-up, narcissistic Barbie doll whose favorite past-time was making sure everyone around her knew she thought she was better than them.

She gave me a quick appraisal from head to toe and I was suddenly aware of the ill-fitting sweat suit I was wearing and the pudgy, middle-age body hiding underneath. "You look... good," she said, and then paused, narrowing her eyes. "Is your hair getting a bit thinner?"

"Uh..." was all I could manage to get out as I ran a hand across the top of my head.

"Don't worry," she said, feigning a supportive tone. She turned away from me, her chin in the air. "It happens to a lot of men your age."

"Anyway," Susan said to Angela, "I had a few business meetings in town and figured I'd stay with you while I was here since I don't get to see my little sis very often."

"That's nice, Susan, but..." my wife began, but Susan bulldozed right through.

"The guest bedroom is upstairs, right?" Susan slipped out of her jacket, grabbed her suitcase and started up the stairs without a pause.

"You're looking good by the way, Angie," Susan said over her shoulder as she climbed the last few stairs and rounded the corner to the guest bedroom. "The extra weight really suits you! I couldn't do it, but you handle it great!"

I watched as Angela's face fell, but she kept her mouth shut. I sighed. This was the dynamic between them. I knew Angela hated the way Susan treated her, but I also knew she wouldn't say anything. She never said anything. Susan was the older, prettier, more successful sister - the one their parents doted on - and Angela had always looked up to her. That type of envy is a hard thing to break, even when you're fully grown.

But that didn't mean I had to put up with the abuse myself or sit there while Susan bragged about how much money her new boyfriend made or commented on how "quaint" our house was. So, I did what I always did when Susan was in town. I went upstairs to my office, pulled out the bourbon I hid in the bottom drawer of my desk, and drank until I couldn't see anymore.



"Okay wait. What's wrong with Susan?" I asked.

"Listen!" Angela said. She pointed up towards the ceiling. Right above the kitchen was the guest bedroom that Susan had commandeered the night before.

I cocked my head to the side, tilting my left ear towards the ceiling. It took me only a second to hear it. There were repeated dull thumps, as if something was banging against the wall or floor. Interspersed between each thud I could make out the muffled sound of Susan's voice. I glanced up and noticed that the pendant lights hanging over our kitchen table were swaying back and forth from the impacts.

"What the hell is she doing?" I asked.

"I don't know, John," Angela said with frustration. "When I peeked in, she was kneeling in a corner banging her head against the wall and talking to herself."

I furrowed my brow at my wife. "Is she off her meds or something? Did you tell her to stop?"

"No, John," Angela said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "I just thanked her for starting work on demolishing the wall. You know, since we were going to tear it out anyway."

"Okay, okay," I responded, raising my hands in apology. "Well, what the hell was she saying?"

"None of it made any sense," Angela said, shaking her head. "In fact, I'm not sure most of it was even English. That's why you need to go talk with Chad."

"I'm not following."

"Look, I don't know what happened, exactly, but Susan went over to meet Chad last night..."

I groaned. "You're kidding me, right?"

"John, I don't need you to lecture me..."

"...Angela, didn't you tell her not to go over there..."

"I did! But you know Susan, she doesn't listen to me."

"She doesn't listen to anyone!" I said. Susan was insufferable. The only positive trait of Susan was that she lived over six hundred miles away, but even that wasn't enough to keep her from complicating my life.

"She's always doing this kind of crap, Angela. She's selfish and doesn't care about anyone but herself. I mean, she showed up yesterday without warning and every time we see her, she's talking about how she thinks I'm a failure, or how we don't live in a nice enough house, or you don't drive a nice enough car. It's this kind of crap that made Tom and the kids leave her. And Harry before them!"

Angela gave me a razor-sharp glare. It was my talk of Tom and the kids - she loved them. I'd overstepped my bounds.

"Fine," I said with resigned exhaustion, "I'll go talk to Chad."



Chad had moved into the house next door nearly six months ago. I still thought of him as the "new neighbor" though he'd probably been there long enough to outgrow the title. He was about as good of a neighbor as you could possibly hope for. His front yard was immaculately groomed, his trash cans were always placed on the curb and removed as soon as the trash collectors came by, and he was one of the friendliest people I had ever met.

The only real downside was that he was an immortal, eldritch demigod from a neighboring dimension.

To my surprise, the neighborhood was willing to look past Chad's otherworldly background and accept him as one of their own. Our neighborhood was filled to the brim with young, liberal, white couples. You know the type: tweeting about how they refuse to use plastic straws anymore and spending every waking moment making sure that everyone knew they were in no way associated with racism, sexism, classism, or any other "ism." If you ever wanted to know how far that type of person would go to maintain their progressive street cred, it extended at least as far as inviting the neighborhood interdimensional being to family barbecues.

While Chad was a model neighbor, his origins did lead to strange happenings. The first time was no more than two weeks after Chad moved in. A strong storm had blown through, drenching my house with driving rain and small bits of hail. That, alone, wasn't odd. What was unusual was that every rain cloud that reached Chad's place dumped torrents of pure, crimson blood on Chad's house, and Chad's house alone.

After that, the weird things kept happening. Most of the time they were small: spooky noises, things moving on their own - your usual B-grade horror movie fare. But a few times, the weirdness picked up. I remember one day when a group of goth kids appeared on Chad's lawn and, after hours of chanting, set themselves on fire trying to gain Chad's favor. The strangest, though, was when the sky above Chad's house became a swirling vortex of impenetrable darkness that emanated a continuous wailing cry that sounded like a dying porpoise. Chad told me later that it was his parents coming to visit.

Each time these things happened, though, Chad was quick to apologize to his neighbors for the inconvenience they caused. He even went so far as to gift everyone bottles of wine. He was quite considerate.



I crossed the distance to Chad's house as fast as a hungover, middle-aged man wearing no shoes and a ratty bathrobe could. Which is to say, not that fast at all. There were no ominous uneasy feelings or inexplicable cold spots as I crossed from my yard to his. Instead, the only thing that marked the divide was the jarring transition from the brown, nearly dead, unkempt height of my weed-infested lawn, to the immaculate, emerald and manicured softness of Chad's yard. It felt like stepping from a field of broken glass onto a cloud. I may have even let out a baby-like coo as I paused to enjoy the feeling between my toes. I made a mental note to figure out who Chad's lawn guy was.

Reluctantly, I stepped out of the tactile euphoria and made my way up the three concrete steps that led to Chad's bright yellow front door. I reached up and gave it a few quick knocks, the skull-pecker in my head beating in time with the sound. It took only moments before I heard soft footsteps inside and the door swung open.

"Oh, hi John," Chad said to me with a smile. He looked to me as he always did, a man in his mid-forties with graying, brown hair and a perfectly groomed, close-cropped beard. He wore a pair of gray slacks with a coordinated navy sweater over a crisp, white dress shirt. He was an immaculate picture of suburban, middle-aged living. It was only the thick, writhing, flesh-colored umbilicus that stretched from the back of Chad's head, up the stairs and to the second floor that would give anyone a clue that Chad was anything other than a suburban professional. I wondered, not for the first time, if the man standing before me was the "real" Chad or if what I was talking to was just an appendage of whatever lived on the second floor.

"Hey Chad," I said. His name wasn't really Chad. It was something like Lwelchadistrklivus. When I tried to say it, I sounded like I was reciting the chemical ingredients on the back of a Lysol bottle while gargling marbles. Not to mention, every time I tried, my mind was assaulted with visions of endless, hungering mouths filled with rows of razor-sharp, needle-like teeth. That was a bit disconcerting if I was being honest. The first time we met, he explained to me that his true name wasn't meant to be spoken by mortals, and to just call him Chad instead. I happily obliged.

"What can I do for you?" Chad asked. The smile that had greeted me remained pinned to his face, transforming into a vaguely unsettling rictus. It didn't help the look that Chad never blinked.

"Did my wife's sister, Susan, come over last night?" I asked.

Chad's smile faded a bit. "Yes. Is something wrong?"

"Well, she's not quite acting like herself, today."

"Oh," Chad said. "How so?"

"According to Angela," I began, pausing as I attempted to find the most delicate way to describe it. When that failed, I just spit out the first thing that came to mind, "she's playing the bongos with her face against my wall and mumbling a bunch of spooky shit under her breath."

Chad nodded. "Ah, I see."

"Do you know what's wrong with her?" I asked.

"I think I do. I'm sorry to say, but it's probably my fault." The smile still refused to budge.

I raised an eyebrow. "It is?"

"Well," Chad continued, "when she came over last night, she insisted on having sexual intercourse with me."

"Really?" I said, scrunching my face like a kid trying to force a mouthful of broccoli past his uncooperative gag reflex. Chad had never been one for subtlety and combining my sister-in-law and sex in the same thought made me nauseous.

"Yes. I tried to warn her," Chad said, unperturbed by my disgusted look. "I told her that being with one of my kind can have unexpected consequences. But she was very... forceful."

I glanced again at the pink umbilicus behind Chad. It twitched and surged backwards up the stairs, almost as if it had swallowed something and was taking it to some giant, unseen belly. There was no accounting for Susan's tastes.

"Yeah, that sounds like her," I mumbled. I scrubbed my palms across my eyes and let out a long sigh.

"I believe that when we were together," Chad said, "she peered through the Gates of Palherri and into the realm where the Unquenchable Minds reside. Unfortunately, it's not unheard of for the Gates to reveal themselves when I climax."

That was a detail I didn't need. "The what Minds?" I asked.

"The Unquenchable Minds. They are beings of unimaginable hunger who feast on the sanity of those unfortunate enough to trespass into their domain. It is said that they tear the mind of a person free of their body and imprison it in their Fortress of Pain where it is slowly devoured over the course of millennia. Without its mind, the body is left an empty, crazed husk that will slowly wither and die, but many say that is a far more merciful fate than the disembodied consciousness will face."

My jaw hung open.

Chad recognized my look and tried his best to backtrack. "Not to say your sister in law would go through that, though." He put on his best reassuring smile which, given the fact that he never stopped smiling, meant his smile just somehow got bigger. "There's a chance her mind was flayed out of existence the moment it was pulled from her body."

My mouth shut with an audible click. I took a deep breath and tried to center my thoughts. "So, you think she ended up looking through these Gates of... Havarti?"

"Gates of Palherri," Chad said.

"Right... Gates of Palherri. Did she not seem... off... when she left?"

"No more than any other woman who shares my bed. They often leave stumbling, out of breath, and incoherent." It was said without an ounce of irony or narcissism, as if Chad was telling me the weather. Like I said, he wasn't one for subtlety.

"Jesus Christ, man." I shuddered, trying to banish the images my overactive imagination had conjured of Chad's vigorous lovemaking. "Is there nothing we can do about it? Angela's pissed."

"I'm sorry, John," Chad's smile flagged, "but there's not much to be done after the Unquenchable Minds have started feasting."

I groaned.

"Hmm," Chad said, then paused, contemplating. After a moment, his eyes lit up and he raised a finger as a thought came to him. "Ahah! I know."

"What?" I asked. A small ember of hope ignited within me.

"Let me get you a bottle of wine to make up for it."



I walked back from Chad's house, trying to buy myself a little extra time to figure out what I was going to tell Angela. I hadn't made a decision when I opened the door and stepped into the kitchen, a bottle of Chad's patented "I'm sorry" Pinot Noir in hand. Angela was nowhere to be seen. I tossed the bottle onto the kitchen counter as I passed, and it rocked back and forth on its rounded bottom edge before finally righting itself and coming to rest.

After a brief search of the house, I found Angela upstairs, standing outside the guest bedroom with the door open. She leaned against the door frame, arms crossed, gazing inward. I stepped up beside her and could see Susan crouched on the floor, her hair a mess of blond tangles and her nightgown ripped and stained in multiple spots. She had begun drawing strange, cryptic symbols across the north wall of the room with whatever she could find nearby - a tube of lipstick, a dark make-up pencil and a pair of crayons she had likely stuffed in her purse from some Olive Garden trip on a weekend visitation with her kids.

"What did Chad say?" Angela asked. She seemed remarkably unfazed by the sight of her sister penning the magnum opus of bat-shit crazy across our walls.

I took a breath and considered how I wanted to respond. I could tell her the truth, but things would never be the same between us and Chad. She would blame him for what happened and spend the next several years shooting icy glares his way every time she saw him. Not to mention, she'd make my life a living hell if I even so much as waved to him as I backed my car out.

That would be the "right thing" to do, of course.

The other option was to lie. I could smooth things over. Make it seem like Chad wasn't involved. Things would be good, but if Angela ever found out, I'd be lucky if she only murdered me in my sleep.

After a moment more of consideration, I made up my mind.

"He said she came over, that they had a few drinks, and then she went home and seemed fine." The lie was easier than I expected. Chad was a good neighbor - better than the rich college kids that had lived there before him - and the last thing I wanted was for Angela to start a feud. Besides, Susan had slept with him even after he warned her of the consequences. Anything that happened was on her.

Angela didn't say a word, instead turning her head towards me. Her gaze locked onto mine and I steeled myself. I knew that if this lie was going to succeed, I couldn't show any cracks - any weakness in my defenses. I would not shy away from her stare.

I lasted less than a second before I found something super interesting on my fingernails.

I waited for the barrage of expletives and physical blows to start, but they never came. Instead, Angela turned back to watch Susan scribble furiously for a few more moments. I could see that she was considering something, weighing it in her mind, seeing how it felt before speaking.

"Makes sense."

That wasn't what I expected.

She took a long, slow breath. "Maybe it's not such a bad thing. I don't know about you, but I might just prefer Susan this way."

6 comments:

  1. A happy ending! The sister in law must have had a thing for aliens, too bad about the side effects. But as Seinfeld used to say 'not that theres anything wrong with that'

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really enjoyed the knee-slapping humor in this one. Chad is a delightfully quirky character, so easy to visualize that umbilicus!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really enjoyed this story. My favourite but was Chad saying 'sorry, let me buy you a bottle of wine to make up for it'. Hilarious! And to think he probably did them a favour!

    ReplyDelete
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    ReplyDelete