“Our Town”: A Short Story by Leona Vander Molen for Haunted Passages

 

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED HERE and we always will. This is our home and we love it here. We love our house and our neighbor and we used to love our neighbor’s cat. But things happen. We know this. And we know we will never leave. How could we ever leave our home? We do not travel outside of our town. Perhaps the butcher should have traveled. Perhaps he should have left when he could. But how could he know? And really, how could you ask him to leave here, his town? Our town.

We saw the remnants of the butcher on our way to work. Or we saw the tape marking off where the remnants had been and we looked away in case anything was left. We do not need to dwell on the past. We go to work; we come home. Sometimes we make love. Sometimes we have sex. Sometimes we hide things from each other. Sometimes things go missing and they weren’t hidden by us.

Some fence posts went missing. We were outside checking on the plants we wanted to bring in before winter when we noticed the disappearance. Our garden is not as nice as our neighbor’s. We can see John’s garden easily now, admire his winter jasmine. His cat used to chew on it, and now his cat helps it grow.

We walked down the back steps and found ourselves face to face with John several meters away, looking right back at us through the fence void. We all stood for a moment staring, trying to remember to close our mouths, trying to remember that things happen. About five posts were gone from the middle. It was a neat and orderly hole. Clean cut. A smooth emptiness. We did not expect this. We did not see it coming. We never see it coming. We all sort of shrugged. Perhaps Carl hid them in the night. Once he hid the car around the corner and made it look like it was stolen, placing broken glass where it used to be parked. What a kidder. Who could have predicted what marriage would bring? It’s fun living with someone who keeps you on your toes. We try to stay on our toes at all times. Reaction time is quicker with toes. We try to remain ready because we know how things happen.

We checked the garage and the shed and the attic. No fence posts. Carl was telling the truth. He did not hide them. The neighbor did not hide them. They were taken in the cool of the night. Something came and spirited them away. We felt a minor panic, a small alarm ringing in our chests. However, we were not beside ourselves. We know that this is a mark of safety. A small moment of unluck makes us resistant. We know in this we are lucky. We will not be like the butcher.

When Carl came home from work the next day we talked more about the fence. About the posts. We said lucky us, that last night our luck ran out and now it can restart. We are lucky it was so minor. Only a few fence posts. The posts are small potatoes. It could’ve been much worse, like the butcher. The butcher was much bigger potatoes. Or like what happened to John’s cat a few months later. John probably doesn’t see his cat as small potatoes, but comparably it is smaller than the butcher or the paperboy. We decided to have potatoes for dinner and tried not to cut ourselves peeling with the too sharp knife we thought we’d lost.

We all lose things from time to time. Sometimes people lose an eye, a cat, an arm, each other. Sometimes things happen. Like how you think you see your dog out of the corner of your eye and then you turn and it’s just a paper bag on the floor and you remember your dog has been dead for years. This has happened to all of us. It’s fine. We continue to go to work. We watch movies at the theater where the boy falls asleep in the ticket booth. We buy groceries at the store. We wave to our neighbor from the porch when we pick up the paper in the morning. We watch as our neighbor looks for his cat.

 

The neighbor loved his cat and it was a beautiful cat. He let it outside and inside when it wanted, sometimes standing for minutes at the door, waiting for the cat to decide between one or the other as cats do. First it wants out and then he opens the door and it wants to stay in. He doesn’t mind the indecision. He finds it a kind of comfort. Others have a difficult time choosing and so does he. He cannot decide if he likes his new neighbors. The used-to-be-new neighbors. They aren’t really new anymore. They moved in next to him five years ago and he’s still on the fence. Or what’s left of it, anyway. She seems all right. He is good-looking but maybe isn’t all right. Maybe just nice enough.

The neighbor checks for his cat in the morning and does not find it swaying on the porch, rubbing its orange body on the banisters. This is not worrisome. His cat is a nomad. He imagines his cat living an exciting, dramatic life. He tries not to think about living vicariously through his cat. He wanders further from his house, down his walk and almost past the trees by the street, and then he notices. The cat, or what’s left of it, is strung up in the trees. Shreds dangle and twist in the light breeze. No fall leaves remain on the branches. The fur and flesh are naked against the white-grey sky. Something has happened to his cat.

To deal with the death of a pet is difficult. You must be both the loved one left behind and the coroner and the cemetery caretaker. John, the neighbor, is hurt. Tears wet his sweater-vest as his sits with his back turned to the window, trying to ignore the new leaves on his trees. Eventually he is roused into action by the knowledge that it could have been anyone’s pet. It could have been him. His cat may have saved him; the least he can do is bury it. He thinks perhaps his neighbors will extend a helping hand. Perhaps things will be different. And then he reminds himself that sometimes things happen in town. That’s just the way it is.

 

We watch as he finds the cat dangling in the trees. Bits of the animal make new leaves for the branches. The red bloom of cat looks almost beautiful, the orange fur catching the faded morning light and the red, that bright red. We’ve never seen a red so bright. We are cold, so we watch from inside. It is winter. Our neighbor slumps back to his house. It must be hard to lose a pet. We never owned any. Never needed any when we have each other.

We watch as our neighbor returns and tries to detangle the bits with a broom. The insides smear on the bark and he becomes frustrated. He leaves and comes back with a rake to retrieve the parts. This works much better. We would help but we are rakeless. We hid the rake years ago. Or else we broke it. We no longer have possession of a rake, so we watch instead as neighborhood kids circle around the cat trees, trying to get a better look, the neighbor occasionally threatening them with his rake.

Something goes bump in the night. That’s what they say about things in the night. Maybe it’s your loved one, bumping into tables, chairs, fences in their nighttime blindness. Maybe it’s nothing at all.

We attend the small funeral our neighbor holds in his yard for the cat. The commute is easy since the fence posts disappeared. We say a few words. We tell our neighbor not to be lonely. It is hard not to be lonely, especially when it used to be just you and your garden and your cat and now it’s just you and your garden and your cat buried beneath the winter jasmine in a shoebox. We stand in silence. We tell him it’s okay. We tell him this is how things are. He knows this. We all know things happen here. We tell him how luck works. We let him know that this is better than the butcher, that none of us can control what happens, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault. We tell him it’s going to be fine. We go back inside because it’s cold.

 

The town sits in the middle of some land, like all other towns probably sit. Quiet and content and accepting. People do not leave and even fewer visit. It is a fine town. The news of the cat will not appear in the newspaper. The fence posts are not mentioned either. Only when it’s something more noteworthy. Things like a school play, or the fall festival, or the butcher being prepared like he used to prepare his meats, or the paperboy.

When it’s the paperboy’s turn we stop receiving the newspaper. We all stop receiving the newspaper. For four days, no one in town receives a paper. Papers at the newspaper office fill windows and floors as they search for a replacement and search for a recent picture of the paperboy to include in the obituary.

When we start receiving the paper again we read about the paperboy. The paperboy always wore a red hat. In the wintertime he wore a red beanie with a pompom on top, and in the summer he wore a red cap. He was at that age where he seemed ageless. Someplace between eight and fourteen where he’s still a kid. Was a kid. He always delivered the paper on time, and always knew to throw it at our porch, not the hedges or the sidewalk. They recognized what was left of him from the hat. He was wearing the pompom beanie.

The paper says we are sad. The paper reminds us that things happen. The paper reminds us how much we love our town. The paperboy, like the butcher, was perhaps a price of love. We think perhaps we will miss him. We think perhaps he was young, but we know the paperboy knew. He was a happy boy and he knew things happen here. We are sure he would not hold this against the town.

 

The trouble with small, nice towns is they’re just too nice. You have to make your own trouble, your own fun. Sometimes that’s hiding your wife’s car around the corner and making it look like someone stole it. Sometimes that’s breaking into your own house hoisting the rake above your head and screaming, chasing around in the night until the rake breaks on a doorframe and you give up the joke, the magic ruined. Sometimes it’s just going to work and going home and thinking about maybe starting a family. After all, you live in the nicest town. It would be the perfect place to raise children. We love children.

We think perhaps we would like to raise some of our own. We think perhaps we would not want our family to be like the paperboy’s family. What’s left of it anyway. We are talking about a family when the investigator knocks on the door. She is pretty and new. She looks like an out-of-towner. An outsider narrative, we sigh and whisper and watch as she watches. She wants to talk about the paperboy. The parents are distraught. They should know how things happen but perhaps they forgot the town they know. Perhaps they forgot the butcher, the cat.

 

The investigator lives just outside of the town. She was homeschooled. She would often avoid town. She grew up quiet and observant and obsessive. She is now an investigator. She is now on a job. She has to work in the town, for a family in town. The family is stricken. She tries to tell them everything will be fine. She wants them to stop crying. She wants to tell them she can make it better but she doesn’t know if she will.

She has to look at the remains of a boy. The coroner says this was the paperboy. She tries to fit together pieces to see a boy but her eyes are not up to the task. There is not enough left for the task. Perhaps that was his right eye, and is that a part of the large intestine? Why is it up where the nose should be? She is shown pictures of the butcher when he is mentioned. The coroner says it’s no hassle but that it’s no use. No one would do this to the paperboy. No one would do this to the butcher. No one could do this.

She works her way around the paperboy’s route. Do you know who he spent his time with? Do you know if he hung out in this neighborhood? When was the last time you saw him? It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but things happen here and that’s just how things are. She is not sure how to respond. A man tells her about his cat. His neighbors tell her about his cat again and about their fence posts. They are a good-looking couple. They are friendly and reassuring, and like everyone, they want to help.

 

She wears nice heels. She keeps her hair up. She looks professional. She asks about the paperboy and we ask her why she’s asking. We work hard to be charming. We go to get some water, or tea. In the other room Carl suggests we invite her for dinner. She doesn’t know anyone in town. She is quiet and nice and we should be welcoming. We should show her how fine this town is, our town. We do like having company.

We try to be helpful. She already knows about the cat and the fence posts and the paperboy. What’s left? We worry about being unhelpful but she gives a small smile. She agrees to dinner.

 

We prepare a roast. We skin potatoes and add seasoning and open some wine. We want our guest to feel welcome. We want the investigator to know how nice our town is. We want her to know that everything and everyone is fine. The paperboy isn’t fine but he is also no longer a paperboy. Now he is nothing and it doesn’t help anything to dwell on him and what he used to be and what he is now.

She arrives perfectly on time. She is wearing the same outfit from before, and for a moment we think it is rude. And then she smiles and her teeth are nice and white and we forgive her. We offer wine and serve salad and dressing and make comfortable conversation. She is a very quiet investigator. We wonder if she is investigating us now. We wonder what she knows about us and our town. We wonder if we’re making the right impression.

The roast is served and we eat. Strips of meat bloody our plates and the candles burn with a quiet temper. We have finished the wine. Soon we have finished dinner. We did not prepare dessert. We are embarrassed. She looks embarrassed for us. Eventually she takes a long look at the door. We all look at the door. It’s getting late. The windows are dark. The whole neighborhood is dark.

We think we should tell her not to go. We think we should tell her we believe that when things happen, they happen at night. But we want her to like us. We do not want her to grow tired of our company, or feel a forced friendship. We watch her walk out the door. And then the room is empty, like she was never here to begin with. We are only ourselves again. We smile.

 

We hear later that no one has heard from the investigator. It’s fine. It wasn’t meant to be. We think about her neat hair, her clean shoes, and shining teeth. We wonder if someday someone will find teeth like that in town. They would be coveted. This is the assumed ending of the investigation. The paperboy passed and we were sad. We sent hopes, prayers, and brought his family potato salad. We grieved for the right amount of time, maintaining frowns for the designated number of days. But the paperboy’s family remembers how things happen. The investigator will not return. We will not go looking for her. We move on. We know about our town, and surely she knew about it too. We all told her the truth.

We look at each other. We love each other very much, squeeze hands like a comfort or a dull threat. Things happen here. And sometimes things happen to us.

 

 

Leona Vander Molen received her MFA from Eastern Washington University, where she served as the managing editor of Willow Springs. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Punch Drunk Press, Lilac City Fairy Tales, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and Waccamaw, among others. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, with her cat, Moon Unit.

Image: thennowmovielocations.com

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