Maribeth Mundell

The Neighbor Woman

The old woman sighed deeply.

She’d watched the boy, known what was going to happen. Sometimes children had to be allowed to make their own mistakes, or else the lesson won’t stick. Instead, she stood by the stairs, silent, as he struggled with the paper bag, gripping it tightly by the corner instead of carrying it from the bottom. Naturally, the moment he reached out a sweaty, grimy hand for the screen door latch, the bag tore loudly, and the canned corn and tomatoes bounced and dented everywhere, rolling their way down the concrete steps, some landing gently on the lawn, others down the driveway, one stuck under the back wheel of the car. He froze, watching helplessly as the cans escaped, his arms still tightly gripping the torn brown paper.

His mother peered over the open car trunk to see what all the fuss was about, her body tense and yet dejected in a way the old woman had felt a thousand times as a young mother,

“Harry,” she groaned, as if the rolling cans were an anticipated gut punch, “you’re supposed to carry the bag from underneath.” She crouched with a sigh to rescue one of the cans, placing it in another bag she rested on the bumper. “How many times have I told you?”

Harry paused.

“Sorry, ma.” He moved down the steps, set free from the trance of his mistake, and began to gather the errant groceries.

“Harry,” the old woman murmured, bending closer so that he could hear her, “I told you the same thing your mother did.”

“I know,” he muttered back. “I just thought I could make it to the door.”

“At least you apologized. We all make mistakes.” She straightened, watching as the mother gave herself a pep talk and gathered two more grocery bags to carry into the house, bumping one up higher with a knee. She was a divorcee; it was clearly hard for her to raise a young boy alone, working full time, running a home. The old woman was glad that hadn’t been her life; it was an unnerving thought, the idea of having to do all these things by yourself. Divorce hadn’t been an option when she was the age of the boy’s mother. Their situation hadn’t been a good one, from what she’d managed to prise from him. The father was always working, the mother always crying. Some nights he wouldn’t come home, and then he’d stopped coming home altogether. In her own life, the old woman’s husband had come home every night by 5:30, and dinner was on the table by 6. Full dinners; none of this McDonalds or Burger King nonsense, inedible as it was. In the early part of their marriage, she’d had to make do with lesser cuts of meat, adding pasta and tomato sauce to stretch everything, Hamburger Helper or an occasional recipe from the back of the Bisquick box. She hadn’t been a marvelous cook, but nobody starved.

It was getting late, but you couldn’t tell by the light; the sun was still summer-high. Birds were calm, chastened by the heat and humidity. Airplanes occasionally buzzed overhead, and a lawnmower droned on in the distance. Harry collected the last of the cans and ran to bring them inside, plopping them noisily onto a countertop. Harry was 8; big for his age, with straight brown hair that ran long, and his mother’s brown eyes. He wore a NY YANKEES t-shirt and cargo shorts, and even though it was sweltering, sneakers. It seemed more often than not that boys these days wore sneakers in summer, or those godawful slides, with socks. Harry ran back outside, picked up his bike, and rode down the street, the wind in his hair. It was a bit small for him now, but it was some kind of expensive bike, a present from the absent father. So many fathers would do that, give gifts in exchange for the time they should have spent with their children. But time is so much more valuable than a bike. She watched him ride off down the street until he rounded the corner and disappeared.

—  

“Harry! Dinner!”

Harry had returned, but stood in the driveway for about twenty minutes, texting on his iPhone (also a gift from the father, if she remembered).  He hadn’t put the bike away, just down, and stood awkwardly straddling it with one leg and resting the other across the body as he stared at the screen, swiping and typing in the hot sun.

“Harry!” She yelled again. “Get off the phone and come in to dinner. You know how I feel about that.”

He groaned, rolled his eyes at no one and shoved the phone in his back pocket, starting for the house.

“Harry,” the old woman stated, “put the bike away. You don’t want to leave it out front where someone might steal it.”

He paused, thinking.

“No one’s going to steal it.” He turned to face her.

The old woman folded her arms, the corners of her mouth easing into a frown.

“And how, exactly, do you know that? What if it rains?” She felt an eyebrow lift, disapproving.

“It’s not going to rain,” he grouched, bending over and picking up the bike to move it grudgingly into the garage, sneakers dragging with every step.

She stifled a sigh.

“It’s the only bike you have. I don’t think you’ll be getting another one anytime soon.” It was her teacher voice; it had come in handy enough with her own children. She studied the bike, metallic red with black trim and a worn black leather seat. The hand grips were coming loose; a 10 speed, it had been far too big for him when his father had made a production of giving it. He had been a bit wobbly on it at first, not sure exactly what the 10 speeds were for, or how to brake. He also was not fond of wearing a helmet, for which she’d chided him, but again, sometimes children had to make their own mistakes…

..and here, he’d listened. He’d put the bike away. The bike that he’d ride so fast that he’d become a blur of boy and red, no telling where one began and the other ended…

Nighttime was always the loneliest time. She’d been used to a house full of people and pets. Nothing had made her heart more full than knowing that the people she loved were all under her roof, deep in their dreams. She’d often had trouble sleeping at night, and would wander out into the living room, listening to them breathing rhythmically, maybe turn or make an occasional soft, laughing sound. But now it was only her and the moon and her mind wouldn’t be quiet. It happens when you’re older, she’d been told, but not to be at rest when the world is sleeping can sometimes be lonelier than…well, anything you can imagine. Harry, of course, would be asleep, as a boy his age would be at this hour, his body racing all day long, that dead, dog tired that you so crave in adulthood. She herself rarely slept at all these days; as you age, she guessed, the veil between this world and the next becomes so thin, sleep starves itself away until one day you just fall through…

Something, she noticed, had changed. There was a different smell, a different feel about the place. It was an ominous feeling, something in the ether, very wrong, very wrong. As she was thinking it, she could sense the veil here getting very thin, and it was happening suddenly. She knew crossing the line wasn’t allowed, she knew that wasn’t why she was in this place, but at the same time, it had never been her habit to stay back and watch when she knew she could possibly change things for the better.

“Harry.”

At first it was soft, to see if he was wakeful. Her instinct was not to scare him, but things in the world could be scary indeed. Perhaps there was nothing scarier than him not waking up.

“Harry. HARRY. You have to wake up now.”

He stirred a little, half opening his eyes, rolling them in his head. He wasn’t quite awake, and probably thought this was a dream.

“Harry!” It was a sharp sound, even to her. His face scrunched in the darkness.

“What? Why?”

“You have to go and wake your mother, Harry. Go now.”

He began to groggily pull himself to his feet, rubbing his eyes, his pajamas twisted and half tucked.

“Listen to me,” she warned carefully, time growing short, “you’re going to have to crawl, Harry.” She attempted to keep her voice even, to calm him. “There’s a fire. There’s a lot of smoke. Smoke goes above your head. If you stay low, you won’t breathe in the smoke. I’m sure they still do that training in school.”

He stood dully, blinking in the darkness.

“I can’t see.”

“It’s dark, sweetheart. And there’s a fire. You have to get out now.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” There was a crisp edge to her voice now.  This was no time to revert to the helplessness of toddlerhood.

Slowly, he followed her insistent direction, crawling to the closed bedroom door. He reached up to touch the knob.

“NO!”

He jumped in surprise. To her recollection, she’d never shouted at him before.

“Touch the door. If it’s hot, you’ll have to try another way out. If it’s cool, you can touch the knob.”

Gingerly, he placed his small, sweaty palm on the wood of the door’s lower panel.

“It’s cool.”

“That’s fine, that’s fine. Turn the knob now. There may be smoke, but don’t be scared.”

It was a stupid admonition, and she knew it. You can’t tell someone not to be scared in a situation where by rights you have all the reason in the world to be scared. As if with her mind, she felt him reach up and turn the knob, pushing the door open. It was a little smoky, but not enough to keep him from seeing. Where was the smoke alarm? Perhaps his mother, tired of having it set off by something spilled on a broiler, had removed the batteries. Harry crossed the hall, still on his hands and knees, and pushed his way into his mother’s room. The door had been unlatched.

“Mom?” He pulled himself up on her side of the double bed. She was breathing contentedly, her back to the door.

“Mom?” He pushed her a bit. She stirred. She’d probably taken something to sleep.

He shook her harder.

“Mom!”

She reached over to stop him, flailing.

“Harry, what’s up…? She gave his arm an affectionate squeeze.

“Mom, there’s a fire.”

She sat up quickly, her head suddenly bathed in the thin blue smoke. Anything she’d taken to sleep-Sominex would be her guess, nothing prescription-suddenly evaporated. Clumsily, she grabbed at Harry, forgetting in her panic how big he was and attempted for a moment to carry him.

“Where is it? Did you see it?”

“Just the smoke.”

She ran out into the hallway, in a t shirt and leggings, and flipped on the hall light. Smoke was pouring up the stairs, but didn’t seem to have cut off the way to the door. Grabbing her cell and half dragging Harry, she dialed 911 and tore out of the house into the front yard, Harry sitting hard on the lawn.

“Um, 911? Yes, I have a fire at 4211 Shadetree, I think it’s in the kitchen, yes, everyone’s out safely…” She knelt, huddling by Harry, rubbing his back and staring at the house. She nodded her head in an unseen response to whomever was on the other end.

“Yes… no,” She looked around, “I don’t hear anyone, no…” Tears welled up in her eyes. This was the last thing she needed. “Um, no, I don’t think we have anywhere to go…I understand…” She hugged Harry more tightly. Harry turned his head, looked toward the old woman.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

She shook her head. It had been nothing, a true nothing. She smiled, not sure if he could see her in the low light.

Presently the fire trucks arrived, along with police cars. Harry’s mom talked to the police, she and Harry were wrapped in blankets, and Harry moved away, soberly observing the confusion of trucks, lights, shouting firemen. The old woman watched, too. The fire hadn’t been a big one, thankfully, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the number of men, trucks, lights and equipment. Still, it was exciting; not something that went on often in one’s neighborhood.  

“We’re sleeping in a hotel tonight,” he told her, his eyes not leaving the firemen on the lawn as he clutched at the gray wool blanket the firemen had given him.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Think of it as a little vacation; you’re not really going anywhere this summer, are you?”

He shrugged.

“Dad was supposed to take me fishing, so maybe.” His bare toes dug at the grass. He studied them for a moment, needing a break from all the activity.

“I don’t know how I’m so lucky to have you,” he said, half to himself, pulling the blanket more tightly around himself. “You saved us. Mom and me. We could have died.”

She smiled blandly.

Lucky.

She could still remember that day, a crisp fall day in October, pulling out of her driveway in the old white Buick on the way to the grocery store, when a boy on a red bike darted in front of her in the orange light of dusk, and she’d swerved hard to the left to avoid him, he hadn’t looked, he hadn’t seen her, there had been heavy old oak trees on either side of the road…

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