Welcome to the Neighborhood
© Anna Reith. All rights reserved.
There was a party going on when they arrived. Any other night, Tina would have been pleased by the fact. It meant the neighborhood wasn’t as uptight as the last place they’d lived, where the simple jubilant shout of a child riding past on a bicycle had lacy curtains twitching and old ladies’ lips pursed in lemon-sucking moues of disapproval. It had been impossible to do anything there without someone passing comment.
However, they were tired.
First, the removal truck had arrived late. Then there were the inevitable breakages, boxes being dropped, squashed and nearly left behind, and Mark had lost the keys just as they were meant to be locking up for the last time.
Tina passed a weary hand over her forehead. The whole business of getting their three-year-old tabby into the cat carrier had been an ordeal that should have been sculpted instead of described. Rodin’s Bleeding Woman with Bath Towel and Newspaper, for example. She glanced at the fresh red scratches that laced her knuckles and danced up her arm like bloody confetti. Naturally, they’d already packed the antiseptic.
Minx yowled pitifully from the confines of her wickerwork carrier, presumably protesting that she’d been provoked. From next door, thumping dance music pounded, almost drowning out the hoots and squeals of drunken laughter. The glow of multi-colored outdoor lights in violent shades of pink, blue and green crept up the other side of the fence with the eerie insistence of a particularly tacky aurora borealis. They exchanged looks, but said nothing.
“Wow,” Mark observed, as they entered the house and looked at the haphazard piles of boxes, dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the sitting room. “Is that the one with the bathroom stuff in?”
Tina peered at the careful marker pen labels. Bathroom, Bedroom 1, Bedroom 2, Kitchen… it obviously hadn’t made much difference to the movers. She patted the top of Minx’s carrier and shrugged.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll start moving them in the morning. What time is it?”
Mark stifled a yawn and glanced at his watch. “Eleven thirty. I’ll find the kettle. Guess next door can’t go on too much longer, right?”
Tina quirked an eyebrow.
Famous last words.
* * *
They sat among the boxes with mugs of tea, legs stretched out and aching backs propped against the cardboard forests. Mark kissed the top of her head and said—optimistically, Tina thought—that the place would be lovely when they’d got it straight.
“Don’t forget the basement,” he said, sipping his tea. “All that space….”
Tina nudged him in the ribs. “Yeah. You could build a boat.”
At a little before twelve, when fatigue was catching up with them, there was a knock at the back door, closely followed by the sound of the handle rattling.
“Helloooo-oooo!” warbled a man’s voice, as the door opened.
Tina scrambled to her feet, wondering when the hell it had become acceptable to let yourself into someone else’s house—and why the hell Mark hadn’t locked the door.
“Coo-ee, neighbors!” the voice crowed, heavy with liquid jollity. “Whee! I brought cake!”
She stared. The peculiar little man weaving his way into their kitchen was about five feet five, tanned to a burnt sun-bed orange and—despite looking at least sixty—he sported a thin crop of bleached blond hair. He wore baggy yellow shorts, from which stick-thin legs protruded, ending in pink flip-flops adorned with plastic daisies. The upper part of his body was encased—although not well enough for anyone’s benefit—in a stretch of vibrantly pink material that, on a younger, rather less scrawny man, might have been called a muscle tee. Gold chains glimmered at the top of his skinny chest, and he gave Tina a sickly, tipsy grin as he thrust a paper plate full of vanilla sponge towards her.
Somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see it was frosted in bright pink buttercream.
“S’my birthday!” he announced, and she wondered if he could really be putting on that camp voice.
No gay man she’d ever met sounded like that, dressed like that… Tina’s stomach knotted at the horrible thought that they’d moved in next door to some kind of homophobic douche who thought this get-up was funny. Maybe the rest of his party guests were all dressed as fetish nuns or something. Behind her, Mark’s arrival in the kitchen was heralded by a distinct choking sound. He cleared his throat hurriedly.
“Um… hi. Happy, uh, happy birthday. I’m Mark… this is my fiancée, Tina. Er… thank you for the cake.”
The odd little person simpered hideously. “Oooh, isn’t he gorgeous? Aren’t you lucky, Trish?” He giggled. “I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Mark. I’m Larry. I live next door… we’re having a party!”
Another round of coquettish giggles. Tina clutched the paper plate and tried not to stare in abject horror, although the man was strangely compelling, rather like a high-speed car crash. She was aware of Mark pretending not to be hiding behind her, discomfort rolling off him in waves.
“You absolutely must come and have a glass of bubbly-wubbly with us!” Larry enthused, the not-so-faint aroma of cheap champagne clinging to him like aftershave. “Say you will! ’Cos it’s my—”
“Birthday, yeah,” Mark said hollowly. “Er. We literally just got in and it’s, uh, been a very long day, so—”
“No! Must!” shrieked the man, his effusive oiliness suddenly congealing into something much harder. His mouth became a tight, waspish line, eyes like soft-boiled eggs glaring out at them from his wrinkled, nut-brown face.
Tina bit back on a squeak of her own, appalled at herself for that small pang of fear. Stupid to be frightened of something so… well, whatever he was. She wasn’t entirely sure an accurate adjective had been invented for Larry.
Mark touched her back gently.
“Right, right… fine. Yes. Uh… thank you, I guess.”
* * *
The party guests weren’t dressed as fetish nuns. There were about twenty of them, all men ranging from their late teens to early fifties, and one middle-aged woman. She sat at a wrought-iron patio table, methodically demolishing a bottle of Chablis.
The music still pounded on, volume high enough to distort the sound. There was laughter, drinking… and Larry, flitting and simpering among the crowd with all the desperate attention-seeking of a teenage girl.
Mark reached for her hand. Tina squeezed his fingers.
When Larry went indoors in search of more warm, flat champagne, she realized just how much the others were laughing at him—pointing and whispering as he passed by, but still happy enough to drink his booze and piss up against the giant yucca in the corner of his yard.
She started to feel sorry for the peculiar little man.
It didn’t last.
They made their excuses and left after fifteen minutes. Larry was too drunk to notice, and no one else seemed to care. The music didn’t stop until nearly five a.m. and, through the pulsing headaches, they agreed that it was a once-a-year thing, and they shouldn’t complain. The memory of the strange, friendless little man convinced Tina of that, and she determined they should try to be nice to him.
She felt less charitable when, three days later—as they were still knee-deep in self-assembly furniture and packing peanuts—Larry’s music started up again. This time, it was four in the afternoon.
“It’s a weekend,” Mark said with a shrug, as Minx fled past them, yowling in protest at the noise. “He’s probably just relaxing.”
At ten thirty-five that night, after the eighth consecutive play of Madonna’s Ray of Light, they sat and watched their glasses of wine vibrate gently across the newly assembled coffee table.
“Someone should say something,” Tina said, raising her voice to be heard above the music. “He could be dead in there!”
“Really?” Mark raised his eyebrows, face tinged with hope. “You think so?”
The strains of discordant, drunken singing filtered through the wall.
Mark frowned. “Damn.”
* * *
To their credit, Mark and Tina did try to befriend Larry, though without much success.
With Mark, he veered between coyness and inappropriate, clumsy parodies of flirtation. Of Tina, he was briskly dismissive, except when he was either downright rude, or attempting the unhealthy bonhomie of a fag-hag friendship they didn’t know each other well enough to foster.
She found him unpleasant, and that dislike soon grew more intense.
They hadn’t known when they signed the tenancy that everyone in the neighborhood knew about Larry. Some said he drank to escape personal torment, others that he’d been pushed over the edge by some dramatic crisis… generally, people didn’t care if either was true. The man was a pain in the ass.
He made himself even less popular by screaming discrimination every time a complaint was made.
“It’s because I’m gay, isn’t it?” he would fume, drawing himself up to the full insignificance of his height, shaking with fury.
The rational response to this—as Mark expressed one rainy three a.m., with Lady Gaga howling at full volume from every open window—was not subtle.
“No! It’s because you’re a dick! Now turn it down, asshole!”
They stood on Larry’s doorstep, huddled in pajamas and outdoor coats. The rain was turning to sleet, the promise of ice slicking the sidewalk.
His incandescent glare exploded into vituperative, uncontrolled fury, and the rant began. They couldn’t say these things to him, they were so awful, why was everyone against him… there was so much hate in the world! It was their own fault if he drove them out—and he’d do it, he swore—he’d come for them and make sure their lives weren’t worth living because they were so beastly!
If that glimmer of glassy, unhinged madness hadn’t been in his eyes, it would have been funny.
They backed down, went home, slammed the door on the whole sorry mess. Tina was embarrassed to find herself bursting into tears from the adrenaline and the sheer absurdity. Mark hugged her tight, still fizzing with anger.
“We ought to do something,” he said grimly, stroking her hair.
Minx jumped up onto the windowsill and began washing her ears.
Tina sniffed and raised her head, seeing the familiar glint of determination in her fiancé’s face.
“Honey… I don’t know.”
Mark brushed his thumb across her cheek.
“Just think about it,” he murmured as, next door, Celine Dion began a full-scale sonic assault on the drywall.
* * *
There were so many little ways in which it could have been different. So many times it could all have been changed.
Nothing about it was inevitable.
He could, after all, have turned the music down.
* * *
Larry awoke with a throbbing pain his head but, as it wasn’t accompanied by the usual nausea which mornings brought, he was confused.
The room seemed different, too. It definitely wasn’t where he’d been last night. In fact, he couldn’t remember going to bed at all. Just… being in the garden, tipping a bucket of slugs over the fence into next door’s garden—that bitch and the horrible cock-tease husband, whatshisname—and then turning to go indoors for a little drink before bed, maybe putting some music on.
He loved his music. It kept him young!
Only… no. He hadn’t, had he? He couldn’t have done. And now he was here, with his head hurting and his vision swimming, staring at a patch of concrete.
Something was very, very wrong.
“Tina? I think he’s awake!”
The cock-tease. Larry tried to lift his head, unable to work out where the voice was coming from… and realized the reason he felt so strange was that he was hanging upside down, suspended by his ankles in what he now saw was a large basement.
A thin shaft of light fell through a small window at the far end of the room, and dust motes danced in it. There didn’t seem to be much down here; tool benches, an old pasting table… a large wooden tub. Larry wriggled, the clink of chains alerting him to shackles on his wrists and ankles. Fear rushed to his head along with the blood, and he began to pant.
The bitch walked towards him with a large pair of scissors in her hand. She was smiling, and her kitten heels clacked softly on the hard floor.
“So he is,” she observed. “Would you mind, honey?”
The cock-tease shook his head. “Got it.”
He disappeared from Larry’s view for a moment, but then there was the feel of a strong hand on the back of his head, the smell of a man’s cologne… he struggled, but there was no use fighting the introduction of the gag. As the rubber ball lodged itself between Larry’s teeth, he thrashed his head, and the cock-tease cinched the straps tight. He let out a frightened howl and it reverberated, muffled, through his mouth.
The bitch hummed cheerfully as she began to cut his clothes from him. He twisted and wrenched his body, heart pounding and sweat pouring from him, but it didn’t do any good. His feet were fastened to a hook in the ceiling, his hands to a ring bolted to the floor. Stretched between the two, taut and helpless, he could do nothing as she stripped him, and when the blades began to skim his skin, Larry decided it was safer to stay still.
Hot, panicked breaths puffed from his nostrils. His eyes and nose were trying to run, gravity inhibiting the process, and he was sodden with tears and snot, saliva pooling at the corners of his mouth, stretched by the gag. The shreds of his clothes wafted past his face, underwear and all, but he was too terrified for shame… or even curiosity.
It didn’t seem real, therefore it wasn’t. Nothing was. It was beastly, and awful, and probably a dream. Nightmare, maybe.
She nudged his shriveled, timid penis with the scissors, and the touch of cold metal made him whimper.
“Snip, snip!” the bitch said playfully, and the cock-tease laughed, like it was some kind of private joke.
Larry grew dizzier, and bile burned in his gullet. He forced it down—up, given his currently inverted status—aware that he’d choke if he tried to puke.
The cock-tease walked around behind him, coming to join the bitch. He put his arms around her waist, kissed her cheek, and gave a happy little sigh.
“Man, we haven’t done this in ages, have we?”
“I know!” She nuzzled into him. “I was silly to be worried, I guess. You were right—there’s plenty of space.”
Larry tried a scream, but all it did was make his throat sore. Slowly, he realized there was another noise in the background… a distant, ugly thudding.
The bitch smiled brightly at him.
“We put your music on,” she said. “Nice and loud.”
* * *
It took most of the morning to do the job. Mark had the day off work, which was useful. There was always such a mess to clean up and—as Tina was fond of saying—she wasn’t going to spend hours on her knees with a scrub brush and a bottle of bleach just because she was the girl.
Everything they did, they did together. That was the way it worked.
Still, for such a small, skinny guy, Larry bled a hell of a lot.
She let Mark do the opening up, pushing the tub into position to catch the entrails before he took the long, well-polished butcher’s knife and inserted the point just above Larry’s navel. One good push, then an almighty pull downward, and he split as easily as if God had inserted a zipper. There was the inevitable hoarse groaning, screaming noise, but it wore off inside a minute.
“Maybe you should have done his throat first,” she suggested, looking at their neighbor’s slack, flaccid face. Unconscious, yes… not dead yet, Tina judged. Soon, though. “Or we could have strangled him, I suppose. Would that have been kinder?”
She furrowed her brow as she glanced at Mark. They were not, after all, cruel people. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, leaving a thin smear of blood behind it, and sighed.
“Teen, you always do this… make up your mind beforehand, ’kay? It’s too late now.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” she protested, raising her hands. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, honey. Just a thought.”
He gave her that narrow-eyed ‘yeah, right’ look and, for a moment, she thought he’d bring up the whole issue of the china cabinet he’d built for her mother. She’d honestly believed he had the new measurements before he started cutting the timber, but— anyway, it was an argument for another time.
Tina peered down at the red-washed figure, the flow of blood draining from his body beginning to weaken now. Mark passed her a thinner knife with a slight curve to the blade.
“Here. I’ll do the throat, if it makes you happy.”
She smirked. “Thanks, sweetie.”
He sighed, knelt, and dragged the butcher’s knife across Larry’s saggy pencil-neck. The funny little man’s face was crumpled into graceless folds, stained with mucus and blood, and he did look even odder than normal upside down.
Tina shrugged and set to cutting the entrails from the suspended body. It always put her in mind of Christmas, and she caught herself humming the first few bars of Jingle Bells.
“It’s not even October,” Mark reproached, nudging the wooden tub with his foot so it caught the length of intestine that threatened to fall wetly onto the concrete.
“I know… I just always think of turkeys. Are your parents coming this year?”
“Yeah, I think so. And Dylan.”
“That’ll be nice. D’you think he’ll bring Craig?”
Mark shrugged. “Not sure.”
“Aw, I hope so.” Tina stopped at the bottom of the ribcage, stepping back to allow Mark access. “They’re good together.”
He snorted, then gave a grunt of effort as he brought the knife down through cartilage and glossy, slick layers of muscle.
“Yeah, but—ungh—I don’t know if they’re ready to get that serious. You know what Dylan’s like.”
Tina chuckled. “Mm. I got the steady brother.”
“Huh,” Mark intoned dryly. “Thank you, dear. Well, I think that’s all we can do ’til we take him down. Cup of coffee while we let him drain?”
* * *
They put out invitations for the block party that afternoon. Mark did the legwork, while Tina sat on the basement floor, carefully paring thick, waxy layers of yellow fat from the meat.
She wrinkled her nose in distaste as the discard pile got ever higher. There was so little useable about the man… although she shouldn’t have been surprised, she supposed.
* * *
On Saturday morning the rain cleared and left a crisp, pleasant autumn day behind it. The sun was warm, and the old pasting tables were covered with cheerful gingham cloths and laden with plates of food.
A good two-thirds of the neighborhood showed up. People smiled and mingled happily. Kids rode past on bikes, whooping and yelling, and nobody batted an eye. Tina and Mark chatted and made small talk, and passed around the paper plates full of homemade sausage rolls, mini burgers, vol-au-vents and—Tina’s own invention, as she told Mrs. Daniels from Number 35—hot ’n’ spicy beef and Parmesan fritters.
“Mm!” the woman exclaimed, sucking relish off her thumb. “It’s wonderful, dear. Could I ask you for the recipe?”
“Oh, I don’t know…. Family secret, you see,” Tina said, with a playful smile. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Assuaged, Mrs. Daniels wandered back off into the crowd, and Mark slipped his arm around Tina’s waist.
Birds sang in the trees overhead, and she sighed contentedly, watching the sunlight pick at the mica in the asphalt, as if every dark part of life might really have a silver lining.
“I think we’ll like it here,” she said. “Don’t you?”