Jaime and Henry had picked the neighborhood because it seemed to be the idyllic suburban oasis that had eluded them when they were a childless couple living in the city. Jaime missed the city, it had always been her home and she had always felt such a strong connection to that place - but Henry had worn her down over these past few years. When she was pregnant and more than happy to take the subway everywhere, he seemed to find the urban lifestyle more and more unbearable. He had grown up in a neighborhood like this one - with wide, clean sidewalks, neatly trimmed lawns, and the gentle rush of trees that whispered when the wind blew. It was... quiet.
At first, she had trouble making friends with anyone else. Henry had taken to it like a fish to water, and it wasn’t long before he had his golf-buddies, poker-buddies, work-buddies. It was like some gene had activated in him and he had transformed from the turtleneck-wearing artist to a white-collar neighborhood stiff. And it was fine, after all, networking is important and Jaime wasn’t exactly making the same tips that she did in the city and, of course, they had a baby to provide for. Well, not much of a baby anymore. After all, little Abigail had just turned 2.
In fact, it was Abigail’s second birthday party that Jaime first noticed someone new in the neighborhood. They had the party at the neighborhood park with the duck pond on a bright Saturday afternoon. While the children screamed and circled around each other with wild abandon, Jaime lingered by with the rest of the parents, waiting for the chance to jump into the conversation.
They had been discussing some daytime talk show when one of the mothers - Cheryl, Jaime remembered belatedly - suddenly piped up: “Oh, who’s that?”
Jaime followed her gaze to see a figure walking by the pond. They were petite, wearing a dull brown dress down to their ankles, and their hair was cut to a messy buzz-cut.
One of the fathers - David? - wrinkled his nose as he replied, “That’s just one of the local homeless. I’ve made a few calls but they can’t really do anything about it right now.”
The other parents nodded along but Jaime found herself drifting even further away from their conversation. There was something about the person by the pond, maybe it was the almost musical sway in their hips as they walked. Or maybe they reminded her of some of the characters of the city.
The figure departed from the shoreline and made their way up to the park pathway, disappearing into the shadows of the trees. The other parents had already moved on, discussing the latest neighborhood gossip, but Jaime found herself watching the trees.
The homeless person had become a bit of a fixture in Jaime’s life. She would see them walking along the road or down the path, never too far from the park itself. They never did anything other than walk in silence, like a phantom.
One crisp fall evening, Jaime decided spontaneously to go on a nighttime stroll.
“Don’t be out too late,” Henry had warned, not breaking his gaze from the television.
It wasn’t late at all, barely ten. The park was different at night, the trees seemed taller and the pond larger, reflecting the moonlight like sterling silver. She smiled freely - this was a different kind of quiet.
The solitude didn’t last long, for there was the figure again, walking along the path from the opposite direction. They were wearing the same dress and were walking along with that same sway. While she held no contempt for the person, her heart began to crawl up her throat with anticipation as they came closer to an inevitable interception.
In the dull glow of the distant streetlight, she could barely make out the features of the other person. She knew it was rude to stare, and when the person raised their head and made eye contact, she glanced away guiltily.
The person stopped walking abruptly and without intending to, Jaime stopped as well.
It was quiet, so very quiet, as they stared at each other without speaking. She opened her mouth a few times in an aborted attempt to say something - anything, really - but the trappings of polite small talk were escaping her.
Finally, after several long moments, the person’s face twisted into a half-smile. They took a few steps closer and Jaime could see the feminine shape of their face, their large brown eyes. There was something familiar about them, and they seemed much younger than she expected.
“Cold tonight, isn’t it?” the person spoke, in barely a whisper. Their voice was almost inaudible even in the quiet.
“Yes. It’s chilly,” Jaime replied, her voice dropping instinctively to almost match theirs. She felt silly, like a schoolgirl.
“Is your house warm?” they asked, swaying again from side to side like they couldn’t keep still.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Ah, well. I wish I could say the same.” They fell quiet, and Jaime wasn’t sure if it was that they were feeling just as awkward as she or if they were waiting for an offer.
She felt herself say the words without any forethought at all, “We have a spare bedroom. You can stay with us if you’d like.” It was a strange thing to do, to offer this to someone so unknown, but there was a need inside of her to protect this person. Maybe some misplaced guilt for surrendering to this polished suburbia instead of her city life.
The person unexpectedly laughed, a throaty sort of chuckle and with their head tossed back, Jaime could see a dull red scar across their throat. It looked too uneven and askew to be anything medical.
“Well,” they said, voice even weaker from the effort, “It’s been a while since anyone offered me that.” They looked about the shadows, smelling the night air. “I’ll be fine tonight. But maybe, if you’re still willing, when winter comes... the snow falls hard here.”
They had departed not long after that, stepping off the path and into the treeline. By the time Jaime arrived home, she felt with a certainty that she would be seeing them again.
Months passed easily. Jaime still had no luck with making friends, Henry was spending longer hours at the office but that was fine because winter was a slow season for Jaime’s tips. Meanwhile, Abigail was becoming quite the little artist and Henry was already supposing that she could become an art teacher some day.
“Or maybe her art could be in museums and galleries,” Jaime had suggested, smiling fondly at the latest crayon masterpiece.
“What’s wrong with being a teacher?” Henry had asked.
It didn’t matter, really. In any case, whatever Abigail decided to be when she got older, Jaime knew she’d be just terrific at it.
It was close to Christmas when Jaime took one of her semi-regular walks to the park, this time with the intention of seeing if the pond had frozen over. She was watching the trees when she saw the person again - swaying their way along towards the pond.
They’d had a few spontaneous encounters since that first one, just passing conversations. BUt under the snowy brewing sky, Jaime left the path and her feet crunching the icy grass to meet them with a soft greeting and a specific purpose.
They looked up at the sound of her voice and gave her a twisted smile.
“I haven’t seen you in a bit,” she said, breathless from the cold. “Everything ok?”
“Yes,” they replied, staring out at the icy pond, “Sometimes I’m here. Sometimes I’m not.”
Jaime smiled sadly at that before gazing upward. Despite the creeping night, she could see the snow clouds gathering overhead.
“It’s supposed to be a blizzard tonight,” she said bluntly. “If you want, that guest room is still available.”
The person stared at her with wide eyes, some unknown emotion bubbling up in them.
“You live at the house on the corner, with the red curtains,” they said nonsensically.
“That’s us,” she replied, brow furrowing, “How did you know?”
They shifted from foot to foot, looking past her at something only they could see.
“Did you know the people who lived there?” she asked.
They nodded at that, stiltedly.
It wasn’t too much effort to cajole the person to follow her to the car. It was slow going, as she realized that the sway in their hips wasn’t so much out of choice but from a limp.
By the time she buckled them in and started the car, the first flakes of the night were falling in speed.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’m a paranoid driver,” Jaime said lightly as the car crawled along. “Henry - that’s my husband, you’ll meet him - it always drives him nuts how slow I go.”
The person looked out the window at the growing storm.
“I’m glad you’re not driving fast,” they croaked, “Accidents happen when people drive fast.”
Jaime felt her smile flicker and she snuck a glance at their exposed scar. As though they could sense her eyes, they turned back to her and snuck a hand up to feel their own neck lightly. “This was from a car accident. I was very young.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jaime muttered, training her eyes back on the road.
“It’s ok. It was a long time ago, now. My mother helped me the best she could, but ...” the person sighed, “when she died, I was on my own and I just couldn’t do anything anymore.”
“And your father?”
Another twisted smile stretched across their face, “He wasn’t much help.”
A heavy silence filled the car. Fortunately, she didn’t live far and it wasn’t too long before the car pulled into the driveway.
Henry was standing in the doorway, a greeting frozen on his lips as he took in the sight of who was in the front seat.
“Stay here,” Jaime muttered to the person, “I’ll be right back.”
They obediently stayed in the car while she approached her husband, his face screwed up in confusion.
“Honey?” he said in a strained voice, “Is that the homeless person that lives in the park?”
“Yes. It’s going to snowstorm tonight and I want them to stay with us.”
“Stay with us,” he repeated incredulously. “Honey, no. We cannot - no, that is a crazy idea, we cannot have a homeless person in our house.”
“I know, I know,” she waved her hands placating, “but it’s OK, I know them and they’re harmless, really. Abigail can stay with us in our room and - and they’ll be gone by morning, I know it.”
“No, no no - ” he took a step off the porch and walked closer to her, to the car, “No. Take them to a shelter. Or drop them off at a church, I don’t care, just - they can’t stay here. Come on, Jaime, this can’t happen.”
He stared at her in that way that told her his mind was made up. Her heart sank guiltily.
“Ok,” she breathed out. “Ok, well, I guess I’ll take them to the church down the road and see if they can help...”
Henry bit his lip for a moment before saying, “I’ll take them. It’s - it’s fine, I’ll take them to the church and when we get back, we’ll talk about this.”
But he had taken two steps to the car when they realized simultaneously that at some point during the exchange, the figure had left, disappearing into the night. There was no sign of them, no dark shadow darting through the trees or swaying along the road. They were just simply gone.
The two of them had spent the rest of the night watching old films while Abigail slept peacefully, Henry occasionally getting up to double check the locks on the doors and windows.
For a long time, any time Jaime thought of the figure, it was with guilt and curiosity. She thought of them whenever she was at the park, whenever she was driving alone, whenever she stood alone while the rest of the parents talked. But she never saw them again.
Or at least, she thought she never saw them again.
A few years later, Henry had picked up Abigail from a friend’s house on a dark, snowy night. He was speeding along when the car suddenly slid on a long patch of ice, caught up in wild momentum as it tumbled off the side of the road.
Jaime had rushed to the hospital, bouncing wildly between hysterical and calm, panicking and numb. It was hours before the doctor finally let her in to see them, her husband’s calm face as he breathed in deeply, and her daughter’s sleeping pale form.
And when her eyes trailed down her daughter’s face, they stopped at the sight of the injury on Abigail’s neck. It was a long telltale cut across her throat, and the asymmetrical gash was both sickening and all too familiar to Jaime’s eyes.
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Nice story! Good pacing with just the right amount of mystery. Looking into the future, I guess the mother will die and Abigail will end up homeless. (Question-could the future have been changed if the father would have let the homeless person into the house?) It's a good story if you keep the reader thinking after the last word is read! Congrats.
Thanks for the kind words, Sally! I like to think it's open-ended but like in the matter of all things cyclical, just because something can change doesn't mean it ever will. Thanks again!