an original story
It was late August when Arthur noticed the new neighbors rolling up to the house that had lay empty next door for so long.
Four years ago, a young family moved into 291 Eden Road. They seemed like any other family. The husband/Dad, Andre, seemed nice enough. He worked at the hospital as an anesthesiologist, and his wife Molly worked at the Dentist’s office as an assistant. Pretty thing, with a welcoming smile, always bubbly, cheery; often came over to Arthur’s with a container of fresh muffins or cookies she had baked. She was a real sweetheart. Then there were the girls. Sadie was nine and Carrie was six. Little blonde cherubs with masses of unruly curly hair and big ponds of blue eyes. Arthur liked to watch the little ones play outside in the summer. Full of energy, full of life.
The Popovs got along nicely next door for a good year or so before the town turned into a media circus when the family simply vanished. Andre never showed up for work at the hospital, Molly never made it into work and the girls never made it to school. No one had seen or heard anything from the family since. They found the father’s empty SUV driven down an embankment near the river, doors open. There was no forensic evidence to be found other than the family’s own fingerprints and hair. There was no closure for the town and every so often they’d mention the mysterious event on the local news hoping for new leads. There didn’t seem to be any signs of struggle or any traces of blood in the Popov home either. People started to speculate that the family was murdered, or that Andre had been involved with some shady dealings, but there was no hard evidence to support either theory. It was just a random mystery.
The girls. They were so sweet. Arthur thought of them often. Arthur would lie in bed with his memories until he drifted off.
The next day he was shuffling out to get his mail when a man emerged from the home next door.
“Hi there neighbor.” He approached with a hand held out, Arthur took it and shook it. “We just moved in yesterday, the name’s Dan.”
“Yeah I saw you unloading yesterday. The name’s Arthur. That house has been empty for a while, it’ll be nice to have some life next door again. You have little ones?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah, two girls, nine and five, Lucy and Shelby, I’m sure you’ll hear ‘em outside.” Dan gave a little chuckle.
“Where you working Dan?” Arthur inquired.
“I’m a software engineer, I work a lot from home. Which is great, I get to spend time with the girls while Deanna is at work. That’s my wife, she’s a nurse. Long shifts.” Dan pursed his lips in a what are you gonna do kind of way whilst giving his shoulders a shrug.
“Anyhoo, pleasure to make your acquaintance Art, I gotta run out for supplies, thinking about having a barbecue this weekend, we’d love to have you if you’re free.”
Arthur secretly resented being addressed as Art, it seemed demeaning, less dignified and less respectful. Like he didn’t win all those medals, seeing his fellow men slaughtered while killing a few men himself over in Panama and the Gulf. But he smiled nonetheless and accepted the invitation. He didn’t get many home cooked meals these days.
Arthur had frequent nightmares about the Popovs. The unresolved mystery hit the town hard and it was on the news constantly for a good year or so. It was traumatic for the entire community. In Arthur’s dreams he saw the youngest Popov girl, Carrie- his favorite. Her long messy curly blonde hair would sometimes float above him when he woke in the middle of the night. She would be staring down at him, loose dirty curls hanging down low enough he thought he could feel them tickle his nose. It was her face that startled him. It wasn’t right. Her face was distorted and blackened, her throat-gashed wide open to show putrefying bone and cartilage beneath, and there were two empty black holes where her eyes should be. She was often screaming out, he couldn’t hear the scream, he merely saw her face contorted in fear, but mostly rage. On those nights Arthur would have to get up and shuffle to the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face. One night as he did so, he saw the lovely Molly appear briefly in the mirror behind him. Her face black and blue with decomposition, throat slashed open in the same manner as Carrie’s, that same rageful empty scream. Carrie definitely had her mother’s eyes and Molly’s were black empty sockets as well. That was the night Arthur decided to go see a doctor. “Maybe some sleeping pills would help.” He muttered to himself as he shuffled back to his bed.
When he was able to get in to see Dr. Stern, it was explained to him that he may be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, with the time served in the army, and being so close to the victims of such a horrific crime. It clearly impacted him. The good doctor also mentioned something about night terrors and offered a prescription to help him sleep. Arthur doubted the jackass’s mambo jumbo but he filled the prescription and took three that night before bed and slept like a log. No dreams, no floating angry decaying children.
Later in the afternoon Arthur sat out on his deck sipping a cold root beer watching the new neighbor girls play. The small one was already his favorite. Full of sass, dancing like no one’s looking. The older girl was off doing cartwheels when the little one fell and started crying.
Arthur grabbed a couple of cold root beers out of his cooler he kept beside his deck chair and lumbered across the yard gently getting down to one knee as laid the cold root beers down.
“I think you’ll live, don’t you darlin’?” Noticing her striking eyes he handed her a cold can of rootbeer and popped the top which alerted the attention of the older girl. “So which one’s Lucy and which one’s Shelby?” Arthur asked as he handed the older girl a cold beverage.
At that moment a very frazzled mom came tearing out of the side door, screen door banging against the side of the house. “Jesus what happened?” She demanded.
“I think the little one took a tumble, she’ll be ok, you know kids.” Arthur responded.
“Where did you get the root beers?” She asked both girls.
“The nice man gave them to us, nice and cold!” Answered the older girl.
“Hi.” The mom stuck her hand out. “I’m Deena, this little one is Shelby, the superstar over there is Lucy.” Lucy had sat her root beer down and had resumed her cartwheels. Arthur watched the little girl bounce and giggle. He smiled.
Deena interrupted his thought when she mentioned, “We’re having a barbecue this Saturday, we’d love it if you could join us. Is there a Mrs….?” She asked.
“Nader. The name is Arthur Nader. And no there is no Mrs. Nader, she passed away some years ago. We have a son, Ethan, he serves his country, so we only get to see each other a few months out of the year when he vacations. Watching the little ones makes me smile. I’d love to come to your barbecue, Deena.” He thanked her and shook her hand. He began to lumber his way back over to his own property before taking his off and waving it over his shoulder.
“Have a nice day ladies.” He shouted behind him.
“I asked that nice man, Arthur, next door to the barbecue Saturday.” Deena told her husband at dinner. She passed a bowl of corn to Shelby. Lucy talked eagerly about her day at school. While both Deena and Dan pretended to listen as they continued their own side conversation.
“Oh yeah, I met him outside. Seems pleasant enough. It would be nice to get to know our neighbors.” Dan agreed.
That night Arthur tossed and turned in his bed. His thoughts kept fleeting back to the day’s earlier events. Pretty blonde Lucy doing her cartwheels. Little Shelby’s glassy green eyes, wet from crying. There was something just so innocent about a little girl crying.
He got up to use the loo at some point in the night. As he reached for the towel to dry his hands he saw a ghastly sight peering back at him in the mirror. This time he saw the face of Sadie Popov. She was floating there in pajamas. The nine year old’s face was dry and cracked looking. Black holes where eyes should have been. She opened her mouth and let out a dire scream that made Arthur clasp his ears. A loud audible scream. The medicine cabinet, all its contents and the mirror shook in response. With Sadie’s mouth agape, torrents of maggots started pouring out of her eye sockets and mouth. They started plopping into the sink making black cruddy smears in the white porcelain. They were covered in something grotesque. Decomposition. Arthur started to shake as one landed on his hand. He screamed and shook it off. His clothes were drenched in sweat. He tried to settle himself. Telling himself he was just dreaming, but here he was standing in the bathroom. He heard the floor creak behind him. The old pine floors made audible creaks when you walked on them. This was coming from behind his bedroom door. He sat up, his heart was racing. He didn’t like this feeling. Feeling scared. The door swung out and closed with a bang. This made Arthur jump and yell. “You get the hell out of my house! I have guns!” A figure slowly walked forward and in the moonlight coming in through his window he could see Molly’s face. Lovely Molly. She approached in a yellow sundress, smiling at first with a basket of muffins. Arthur rubbed his eyes, and when he opened them her face was an inch from his. No longer lovely but angry. Her eyes were black. Her mouth open revealing two rows of long razor sharp teeth. He felt ice cold hands around his throat and as her face bent backward revealing those horrendous teeth, ready to seemingly eat his face- he awoke. This time the phone was ringing. It took him a moment to realize what was going on, whether he was truly awake or still in this nightmare with the Popovs.
“H…H… Hello?” Arthur’s voice shook as his eyes danced furiously around the bedroom. It was daytime now.
“Dad? Dad, are you alright? You sound weird.” It was Ethan, Arthur’s son.
Arthur slid on an argyle knit vest over his collared shirt for the barbecue. He felt it made him look smart. As he approached the property he could smell grill smells. Propane, meat, sweet sauce. It made his mouth water. Making his way into the yard his eyes were immediately drawn to the children. Lucy and Shelby were hopping excitedly up and down with a few other kids he hadn’t seen before.
“Art!” Dan waved with a beer in one hand, spatula in the other.
Ugh, Arthur grumped to himself but returned a forced smile and hesitant wave while gritting his teeth. “Hey Dan, nice day for a cookout.” Arthur responded. He walked up to Deena who was setting out condiments on the patio table. She wore a green halter sundress that matched her eyes and and her long auburn hair tied up in a ponytail. She looked… Lovely.
Everyone was introduced and Arthur learned that the extra people at the barbecue happened to be a co-worker of Dan and his wife and their son and the other couple was Deena’s sister, her husband and their two daughters. Arthur played the kindly neighbor well. No one really knew him. Not even his wife, June, really knew him. Ethan knew him better than his wife. Arthur learned Dan had a business trip coming up which would coincide with Ethan’s visit. He was eager to introduce the girls to his son.
As Deena cleared plates, the kids all retreated to a tent that was propped up in the backyard. The women went to the kitchen to clean up the dinner dishes and the men were gathered around the beginnings of a campfire. Arthur took it upon himself to walk towards the tent at the back of the yard, just out of sight of the men and their fire.
“BOO!” Arthur yelled to five squealing kids. When they realized it was just the nice old man they stopped and a couple of the girls giggled. Lucy told him, “Mr. Nader! You scared us! You could have been a real monster!” The kids all started to giggle as Arthur made a funny face at them.
“A monster? Oh I’m no monster my dear. Sleep tight, don’t let the devil bite.” Arthur sang out to the children as he turned away.
“Bedbugs.” It was Shelby’s sweet melodic voice. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite Mr. Nader.”
Arthur hesitated, looking back over his shoulder. “Right… Right… Bedbugs. Good night kiddos.” He made his way to the kitchen to see Deena before he’d make his way home.
“That was a great meal Deena, I thank you very much for having me.” He looked into her green eyes. He loved green eyes. It was the very same eyes that sweet Shelby had.
“Well we’re glad you came to join us Art, is that OK? That I call you Art?” She was polite enough to ask.
“Of course Dear, you can call me Art, just don’t call me late for dinner.” He laughed, exposing yellowing crooked teeth. It gave Deena the willies.
“OK, well, have a good night Art.” She ushered him out feeling suddenly uncomfortable.
“You too my dear.” He responded melodically. While he walked away he licked his lips nervously and uncontrollably. Like a man who hasn’t had a drink in days. He felt that excitement again. The excitement that made him keep going.
Arthur retired to his bed that night thinking of the faces and eyes of Deena and young Shelby. He imagined restraining them and looking deeply into those hypnotizing green eyes. He bent down to reach the box. His special box. Inside he removed a lock of blonde curly hair and inhaled deeply. He placed it back in the box and removed another lock of hair, and another, and another. Smelling them all individually. It brought back so many fond memories. The faces of children smiling, laughing, crying, dying. So much joy.
That night Arthur would pass away in his sleep but not before being visited by each of his victims. Mostly little girls with a few mothers sprinkled in. In his last moments, he thought about his son, Ethan. He thanked him for being a good son. He shared a special bond with his son that not many men get to experience with their sons.
Once the body was found and removed, police found the box of trinkets Arthur had kept for so long. Photos of little girls, locks of hair, and most disturbing of all, several human eyeballs. Perfectly preserved in little containers. It would take Forensics and Missing Persons a while to figure out who each individual victim was. One thing they found however was a photo, a little blurry, but it was clear who it was. Carrie Popov.
When the news of his father’s death reached Ethan overseas, he was eager to get home. He had a box of his own that needed burying.
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Arthur Image: Pixabay/Canva