Zack wasn't bothered by the girl next door. Sure, she watered her flowers at night, and once painted her walls with tomato sauce, but everyone had their quirks. (Zack found the tomato project intriguing, as she'd managed to drench the entire room, including the carpet and lampshade, in tomato. He tried not to imagine the smell after a month.)
After watching her for a few months, he decided to talk to her. Walk up straight to her door and knock, maybe he should bring some cookies. However he hesitated, what do you say to her? He doesn’t even know anything about her, and he prides himself on knowing everyone.
He knew the middle-aged lady who lived to his door to the right, Mrs. Roaker. She liked to bake cookies in the shapes of different amphibians. Zack had known her the entire time he had lived here, which seemed so long ago he didn’t even remember when he had arrived. which surely had been his entire life. Or something that felt as long. He knew the ancient old woman that lived across the street from Mrs. Roaker, who everyone swore would die any day now. Zack knew everyone in their sleepy town, and he meant everyone. Zack knew everyone in this sleepy town. Everyone. He knew the clerk at the deli, the mailman, the school teacher, and each family that lived on the street.
Zack knew everyone except for the girl next door. But as he thought more about it, he wasn’t sure if anyone else knew her either. Most people in the town knew everyone else, just like him. They had all been there for as long as they could remember.
Of course, Zack had moved here when he got out of high school, around a few years ago. Or maybe it was only a couple, no no, he has known Mrs. Roaker for five years now. Whatever the case was, he knew everyone, and he decided he needed to get to know the girl next door.
He meandered up the cobbled path that lay in front of the girl’s house. Her curtains were pulled back, and Zack could see the tomato sauce walls of the matching living room. He decided to not be a creep and restrained from looking more into the curtain-drawn windows.
The air was heavy and there was no breeze to rustle the mismatched flowers in the homemade garden. The door of the house was cracked and weathered, and the porch groaned under Zack's first step. The place seemed worn, but few houses on Umbra Road weren't a little aged. Fear washed through Zack for a moment, and it almost made him turn and run. His heart thumped heavily inside his chest, but he made sure to steady his breathing. This was the recurring theme when he walked to the house, his heart would thud and his legs would feel like jelly.
One late night a few evenings before (one that was mostly spent tossing and turning), Zack had imagined the girl as a ghost. He laughed at it at the moment. Ghosts were transparent, and the girl was very much opaque: from her hair to her clothes (always mismatched) to her shoes (just a little too big).
Now, standing in front of the large burgundy door, the image of the ghost girl haunted him. Feeding his hesitancy and the offer to run began to feel like a breath of fresh air.
Zack shook his head, pulled himself together, and tightened his tie. He reached for the door, paused a moment with his knuckles resting on the wood, and then finally knocked: once, twice, thrice.
A beat, then another, one more.
Zack exhaled a sigh he'd been harboring in his lungs, and it occurred to him she might not be home. But he hadn't seen her leave the house, aside from entering the garden. The only other option was that the girl was ignoring him, and this seemed the greater possibility.
Zack stood still for twenty minutes before he finally accepted defeat. His head swam and he dragged his feet sullenly as he lumbered home. Even if he had been a little nervous about the girl behind that large burgundy door, at least he would’ve gotten some closure.
A week passed, and Zack was headed to Mrs. Roaker’s house. She had begged him to set up her ‘new’ computer. Though Zack was sure the difficulties were user errors, just to be sure, he offered to pay a visit.
Mrs. Roaker’s house was majestic, and as always, impeccably clean. No cracks tarnished the wood siding, no odd liquids leaked from the awning. The interior was so immaculate, the air felt sterilized; the floors were nearly swept to non-existence and the vases were just a tad too polished.
Mrs. Roaker was a very prim woman, keeping to traditions of her southern past. Zack was welcome to cookies when she baked, but she asked that he leave his shoes by the door. He adored her from the moment he arrived long ago, and the feeling had yet to subside.
Zack stepped into the house and looked toward the glistening chandelier that hung in the entryway. The first time he saw it he had been lost in visuals for over fifteen minutes before Mrs. Roaker had saved him. The mezzanine that surrounded it was constructed with pillars and had the petite woman fussing with a painting.
“Oh, Zack! You’re here, perfect. I was just about to make some sweet tea. You head over to the kitchen and I’ll join you in a bit!” she yelled from the mezzanine, the painting was placed on a table. Zack smiled and took off his shoes, he didn’t need to have to scrub the floors.
The kitchen was quaint and clean like the rest of the house, and all the appliances were gas. The town had run on low electricity for years. The mayor had attempted to have someone fix it, but no one in the town could.
The town had a thing against outsiders, even though ironically most of its population was made up of tourists. The people who came here always stayed. Mrs. Roaker said people were drawn to the town’s charming personality. When Zack asked anyone else they said the same thing, and that is when he suspected the town preferred its secrets.
When Mrs. Roaker entered the kitchen she began to make her town-famous sweet tea. They chatted as she fluttered around the kitchen, cleaning and sweeping. Eventually, the conversation drifted back to the town and its inhabitants, as it always seemed to do. Zack mentioned the girl next door.
“Have you ever spoken to her?” he questioned, though he doubted she had.
“Oh, no darlin’. I would never be caught dead with the likes of her,” Zack was surprised by the hostility in her voice. “She’s bad news. Always slinking in her yard, never bothering to say hi. And any attempt of a greeting, she heads straight back to her tattered house!” Mrs. Roaker ranted with a huff. She didn’t stop there. She accused the girl of being a low life, a girl who was only looking for an old husband or maybe even being a crazy person who had run from the law.
Zack decided to take his leave, feeling frazzled and disgruntled by the one-sided conversation. Thoughts whirled violently in his head. Did Mrs. Roaker actually dislike someone? It was the first time Zack caught a whiff of displeasure from the usually good-natured woman, and it caught him off guard. Her actions were a stark contrast to her typical welcoming self.
Zack mused about it throughout the day and even more as he drifted to sleep. When had Mrs. Roaker gone to see the girl? Why hadn’t Mrs. Roaker told him sooner? Was the girl scared of people?
The only way to answer those questions was to talk to the girl himself.
He thought it through one more time. He would walk up to the door, knock, offer cookies (if she answered), they would become best friends, and prove Mrs. Roaker wrong. It seemed foolproof to an extent. At least the bit about walking up to the house and knocking; it would be easier this time. If she didn’t answer, Zack would try again tomorrow or never think about her again. The latter was becoming more and more appealing.
The girl had become a daily thought, an everyday wonder. Walking to the market, he thought of what color flower she liked most. In the grocery store, he wondered what type of fruits she preferred, or maybe if she was more a vegetable person.
The thoughts, questions, and ideas had become too much. Zack needed answers.
He stalked to the girl’s house, tracing his steps from a month prior. The track felt like he was walking a mile. Zack had reviewed the plan all day and he tried to go over it one more time, just in case.
Before he knew it, he was back on the step from a month ago, and a wave of deja vu rushed over him. He raised his hand to knock, but before his knuckles even touched the door, it swung open.
A girl with startling blue eyes stood there, wide-eyed and mouth hung open. Her hands were in gardening gloves, and her overalls seemed to be quite dirty and tattered. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, then her expression changed to scared. She reached for the door handle and began to pull it shut.
Zack put his foot out before the door shut, and let out a huff of pain.
“Wait, I just want to talk. I promise it won’t be for very long!” he exclaimed, hoping she heard his desperation. The struggling stopped, and she creaked the door ajar.
“What do you want?” she asked sharply, her eyes trailing over Zack’s body. He shifted slightly, scared to move his foot for fear she might close the door again.
“I just want to talk,” Zack reiterated, meeting the girl’s eyes hoping to encourage a connection. “I want to talk about the town.”
The girl paused before swinging the door wide, and Zack nearly fell through the doorway with surprise. The girl was standing there looking at him with doe eyes, wringing her hands. She pushed a hand out and waved erratically, gesturing for him to enter.
He walked through the door and whispered a weak “thank you”. Zack glanced around the house’s interior and was pleased to find no lasting tomato smell. His heart still felt like it was thumping through his chest.
The girl eyed him carefully, and Zack shifted when he saw.
“Have you noticed things too?” she breathed in words so soft that Zack strained to hear it. He faltered. He had planned to ask her something, not the other way around.
“Like what?” he asked, observing the girl fumbling with her gloves.
“You know, the weather, the mayor, the way people run from you like you’re poisonous,” she said, her eyes trailing behind Zack. He followed her gaze and noticed a board covered with red string and papers. Names and pictures of people from the town littered the display. On a small table nearby, samples of dirt were labeled and sorted into categories.
His head began to fill with questions and more speculations. Why did she have all this stuff, and what was she using it for? The world seemed to gain new light, and yet also lose its sparkle. He had thought the girl was a mysterious puzzle, a new wonder to study, but now it seemed Mrs. Roaker was right about the girl being crazy. Zack sighed and turned toward the door, the girl reached out to stop him.
“Wait, just answer my question, then you can go,” she said, her hand resting on Zack’s shoulder. He looked back toward her, and the fight left him when he saw her pleading. He nodded, and the girl began to explain her findings.
Zack learned her name was Marcella, she was the same age as him and had come to the town four years ago. She began to notice odd things about the town as soon as she arrived. The weather was always perfect, with no wind and clear skies. The people never talked to her, and she didn’t feel the need to speak to anyone else. Zack had mentioned Mrs. Roaker, but Marcella had never seen anyone even near her house.
By the time she had finished, they were both sitting in the tomato-walled room and idly sipping tea. Zack had never tried to process so much in his life, and he wasn’t sure if he should be scared or not. The girl suggested he return home, it was getting late and she had given him what he wanted.
Before leaving, she asked him one last time, “Did you ever notice anything weird?”
Zack shook his head and wandered home.
He was leaving, packing up his stuff, and leaving. Ever since his conversation with the girl next door, the rest of the town avoided him as though he had leprosy. There were no more friendly greetings. No more small talk. Mrs. Roaker refused to contact him or respond when he reached out. People didn’t welcome him into their stores or ask about his new favorite book. Everything fell eerily silent in Zack’s world.
He spent most days inside his house, reading or drawing or looking out the windows, trying to remember what his life was before moving to the town. Zack knew he must have had a life, some other form of existence. He had always struggled to remember, but now it felt like an all-out battle to process anything at all.
Eventually, he gave up, content with peering out the window and daydreaming of afternoons with Mrs. Roaker. Then a new boy moved in on the other side of Mrs. Roaker. He looked younger than Zack, and his hair was grown out. Zack had been replaced.
Somehow people knew he had spoken to the girl, they knew what he had done. There was no trial, only the shared agreement of exile. And as soon as the new boy moved in, he was forgotten about. Only a memory of the people who dared to remember him.
That’s why he was leaving, abandoning the town and leaving it far behind. He wanted to escape this mystery and the seemingly false memories. It’s not as though he was leaving family behind, after all, they weren’t his family and they certainly weren’t acting like one. They could have their new subject of interest, another unsuspecting boy, and Zack could disappear without the risk of being remembered. His belongings were crammed into a suitcase. He would slip away in the middle of the night, and the town would awake to his disappearance.
Now he was standing at the edge of town, the welcome sign above his head. His four bags sprung around him, he walked out of the town with no mysteries solved. No closure but more open endings. He sighed as he passed under the sign.
After all, the town seemed to like its secrets, and for some reason, it only kept the people who wanted to keep them.