The botched Bloody Bat Recovery Mission ended with me getting caught, and I instinctively raised both arms toward the evening sky when I knew the gig was up.
Dammit, I thought, I’m as good as dead.
Unadjusted pupils somehow noticed the Timex’s hands stretched in opposite directions—it was 9:15.
Although the LED floodlight was blinding, it was no accident. A lazy shirtless thug with a viper tattoo and a sinister glare intentionally flipped the switch. There was no time to think or react because I was cornered, forced to engage with the serpent-affectionate fiend on this chilly November night.
By 9:14, I was elbow-deep in the trash, and I fretted that our local news would pair my driver’s license photo with a dopey headline, such as “Ted is Dead” or “The Elms Mourn Loss of Homeowner With Excellent Lawn.” If my investigative journalist ex-wife had her say, it would be “The Coward Had it Coming.” Perhaps Dateline might run the story of my demise, I wondered. That would make her jealous. Regardless of potential publicity, competent detectives would likely extrapolate foul play, a witness might emerge, or the bloodhounds would pick up my scent.
But what if they did not? It happened all the time, on tv.
Murderers get away with murder every day.
Mesmerized by the contents of the trash, I wondered why this murderer didn’t recycle.
I wish I had moved. The unspoken reflection resonated around 9:13 when I couldn't believe how disgusting my neighbor’s backyard was. Thankfully, I had never seen it before because of the fence. Moving, though, is what everyone suggested I do for months. A “seller's market,” they said, “can't go wrong, Ted—probably double that nest egg, right?” Sure, I could have made a profit and pursued something more fulfilling than plucking weeds, raking leaves, and amateur sleuthing. But I did not. I hated change; it was risky and often disappointing, as was my search for evidence.
It was 9:12 when the Realtor Earworm initially bugged me, and I swore to find a licensed one—if I came out of this alive. I silently beat myself up for not cutting ties with The Elms' most secluded, desirable street. See, even the best places can go downhill. I wasn’t emotionally attached, per se, as people often claim. The reason I stayed in The Elms for so long was also why I was cautiously approaching the incriminating trash can—I was invested. I couldn't just move after two decades of hard work. After receiving several annual awards for Best Lawn.
At 9:11, the seriousness of my actions began to sink in. I stepped on a twig and shuddered. The fence was an Olympic pole vault for someone my age, but I made it over with only a splinter. Once on the other side, I briefly considered abandoning the covert inquiry. My clumsiness and bleeding finger seemed like a sign to quit. The Universe reminded me I was vainly endeavoring to compensate for a lifetime of playing it safe.
But I didn't listen.
I am no wimp, I repeated stubbornly, ignoring the critical ghosts of my past.
Just a minute before, at 9:10, I pulled the door shut to 86 Wren—my beautiful home—and conceded that dumpster diving was not on my bucket list. The observation was ironic because that list was getting rather long. Since retiring last year, I have been obsessed with books like 100 Things To Do Before You Croak, The Bachelor’s Bucket List, and binge-watching True Crime. Perhaps all that adrenaline-infused material was unleashing a dormant Badass, I thought. But a nagging conscience kept repeating: shouldn’t have left the couch, Ted—BIG MISTAKE.
The only thing worse than making a mistake (as my ex-wife liked to tell me whenever I refused to give in) is denying you made one in the first place.
Now, I won’t hesitate to admit that the few seconds leading up to 9:15 is when panic truly set in.
The problem was, I couldn’t find the murder weapon—the bloody bat.
Confused, I leaned into the trash one last time to verify its absence.
My only house key tumbled from my shirt pocket into a massive heap of sticky filth. Horrified, I clawed and thrashed like a starving raccoon, searching for something more nourishing than empty bottles of Coke and Clorox. The floodlight beamed, and—well, you already know it was 9:15 and that I tend to backtrack a lot, obsess over time, and possess a frustratingly nonlinear memory.
So I stood with arms in the air like I was under arrest when the furious Viper Man barked, “What The Hell!” with one hand hidden behind his torso.
I remained mute, teeth chattering, trying to come up with a bulletproof pitch on the fly.
“What the hell are you doing!” he demanded.
I was confident my only hope of walking away alive was not to walk but to explain. So I told him what I was doing and how it all started and even tricked myself into thinking he might confess.
It all began at 3:10 in the afternoon when I checked my watch and took a break from raking the leaves. I had been at it for a good two hours and was exhausted. I lit a cigarette, marveling at the solitude of The Elm’s only dead-end street, Wren Ave.
It was so peaceful. Tidy. Quiet. Crime Free.
Although the community had turned upper middle class, I bought in two decades ago when prices were low. 86 Wren was a salmon-hued ranch with an immaculate lawn. I cared about the place, and it showed. During HOA meetings, everyone agreed it had “remarkable curb appeal” even though it was the only house painted something other than white, green, or gray. My point is I was a model neighbor and an outstanding citizen. I always kept to myself, waved, and said, “how's it going?”
When the garbage blew to my side, I took care of it.
When a dog on a walk relieved himself, I never yelled.
If a utility bill was misdelivered, I delivered it to the correct mailbox and tried to forget how late the Postal Service was around Christmas. Interestingly, 88 Wren’s bills were always Past Due. By most standards, I was nothing more than “that friendly guy,” “the leaf freak,” or “the pink house, right?”
88 Wren and its owner couldn't have been more opposite.
The Murder House, next door to me, was green, but it was supposed to be white, thanks to the moss and mold. It was a complete mess. Bill had been a total slob every day since showing up nearly a year ago. And I wouldn't have known his name so soon if he hadn’t thrown a toilet on the front lawn one week after moving in. This action violated several HOA rules, and since I was the closest and his only adjacent neighbor, I figured I’d tell him myself. After all, the HOA would not be as forgiving; they’d jump at the chance to make an example and levy a fine.
Although my intentions were exemplary, the confrontation didn't go over very well. I tried to be polite. But the swaggery shirtless man smelled of booze, and I found out the irritated snake inked on his chest corresponded with a vicious personality. When I mentioned the lawn issue, Viper Bill told me to take a hike, mind my business, and stop trespassing. I was the Toilet Police, he said. He then advised me how much he hated rules and was happy to have just gotten out of prison (where there were “too many goddamn rules”). Besides, Bill said he could do whatever he wanted because of “connections,” some cousin who worked for “the town.” Maybe that guy was an inspector. Or chief of inspectors. Or fictitious.
It could have all been lies, for all I know.
After that tense exchange, I stayed away. I learned my lesson, kept a reasonable distance, and even mowed the grass approximately three inches from our unmarked boundary in the front yard.
I won't lie. I hated looking at that unkempt house.
It was 3:16 when the cigarette was down to the filter. I had finished spacing out, fantasizing about having chili and chips for dinner. It’s also when I heard the blood-curdling scream from 88 Wren and—through a window—saw someone duck. It was a blur, but it looked like the swing of a baseball bat.
Who was that? I didn’t know. I could have sworn it was a woman.
And I was so damn sure that it was a bat. Bats are distinctive.
I dropped my rake and flinched. I took a few steps toward the peeling paint, droopy soffits, and a loose gutter that made a racket when the wind picked up. After those few steps, I stopped as if I had hit a wall.
Looking down, I realized why—the property line. The leaves were covering it, but my subconscious must've known.
I considered my options.
Option 1: turn around, and call the police.
Option 2: go over and ask if everything is ok.
The second option was riskier, but I was a neighborhood watch member. And sick of the bullies getting their way and the criminals escaping justice and watching nice neighborhoods go to shit.
I looked around—there was no one else around. So it would be my word against Mr. Town Connections, and this guy probably knew what he was doing. He had a criminal record and was comfortable breaking the rules in plain sight, so he must be a pro at hiding incriminating evidence. It occurred to me that this could’ve just been one of Bill’s many victims. He was home most of the time, and I had no idea if or where he worked.
How could I have been so blind?
This was happening next door, for Christ's sake!
A Murder Fest!
After a brief delay, I figured this reasoning wouldn’t hold up in a court, and besides, I wasn’t 100 percent sure if what I saw was murder. Maybe it was just two adults playing around. I mean, who the hell knew what they were into over there at decrepit 88 Wren, anyway?
I suddenly didn't want to find out.
Or get yelled at again.
Slowly, I backed away and picked up my rake so I didn’t look suspicious. I pretended to shuffle the leaves around and waited a few more seconds but heard nothing and saw no movement at the window. The noise that sounded like a scream could’ve been something else.
I concluded that I was paranoid and sick of the leaves; they could wait. I went inside my home and locked the door, where I believed I was safe. Around 8:05, I cooked that can of chili on the stove, and sometime around 8:45, I cracked open a bottle of Coors. But it was precisely at 9:05 when I dropped the bottle and smashed the mute button on the tv remote.
It was that scream. Again.
Now, I was more scared than ever and more confident than ever.
I ran to the window facing Bill’s house and peeked through the blinds. A light was on in the room toward the front, where I had witnessed the first murder.
My heartbeat was racing, but I saw nothing except the lamp near the window.
His car was still in the driveway, so Bill was undoubtedly home. Just like earlier.
Suddenly, I saw his face appear, and he reached for the shade. My nose and eyes were wedged between the blinds. Witnessing his bizarre expression sent chills down my neck: a vast, satisfying grin.
This has to be bad, I thought. He never smiles.
The window turned dark.
And I ducked.
Maybe it was the beer or nerves, but I felt brave and jittery. I waited, counting to ten, then raised my head to window height. The porch door opened. Bill walked outside with something that looked like a baseball bat and swung back the trash can lid. When I heard it slam and his house door closed, I jumped up and ran to get my shoes. I left so quickly that I forgot my phone, but keys and a BIC seemed more critical. I planned to retrieve the evidence, call the police, and celebrate with a smoke.
You know the rest.
Everything I just told you is what I intended to tell Bill when he asked me “what the hell I was doing”—but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I devised an elaborate tale about how I was trying to catch my cat. It had escaped. I thought I saw it in the trash can next door, dropped my keys looking for it, and it was all a crazy misunderstanding. I wasn’t trespassing intentionally.
He had to understand, right?
Well, he did not. At 9:17, Bill got angry and told me I was a nosey liar.
He said I didn’t even have a cat.
I told him I did, even though I did not.
He said he saw me peeking through my blinds and called me “A Peeper.”
I said I was looking for the cat when I saw him swing a bat at a woman.
“You are a DEAD FUCKING PEEPING LIAR!” he screamed.
I panicked. It was flight or fight, and as Bill’s hidden arm appeared, I did the only thing I could.
I stopped spinning the ridiculous “lost cat pitch” and bolted before the viper could strike.
After jumping over the fence, though, I rolled my ankle. I struggled to take a few clumsy steps—as Bill fumbled with the gate latch. The thing is, I had no house key now; the ex still had the spare. My leg was numb, and my ankle was throbbing. I couldn’t run. And my cell phone was on the table, inside and useless.
Frantic, I noticed the enormous pile of leaves I had left that was as high as my waist.
So I dove into them and held my breath.
I’m no coward, I thought, careful not to move, to make a single sound. I just don’t have a choice.
It was 7:00 am the following day, and my ex-wife showed up with her news crew to cover The Elm’s Tragedy. Since I struggled to sleep on the three-season porch after the fire crew did their best last night, I was glad to see her. She handed me the spare key, and I said, “thank you for that.”
She just shook her head, staring at the charred shell that used to be 88 Wren Ave. “So sad, Ted. And so close.”
I agreed; it was.
They didn't get there in time, the fire department. Real heroes, though, she said.
I nodded, silent.
But accidents happen, my ex-wife explained, horrific accidents. The fire chief had informed her that Bill must’ve smoked.
I confirmed that he did. Pretty sure he smoked everything.
A real shame, she said.
Yes, I agreed, relieved. The neighborhood felt safe again, and I felt like a real hero.
And then, I remembered. “Was Bill alone?”
She turned to me and frowned. “No.” And what she told me next made me ill.
Dammit, I thought, I’m as good as dead.
Around 7:01, I fainted, my head hitting the sidewalk.
Since then, my memory has never been quite right.