My wife and I just moved into a modern home on a quiet cul-de-sac in the suburbs, just a few months after she broke the wonderful news she was pregnant. We’d done extensive research to find this house, it’s only ¼ mile from a school and off of the highway, a safe little haven from busy roads, and it’s not too far from my job. After the movers left and a few hours spent unpacking and relaxing, Sharon and I finally slept in our new home just two nights ago.
I’m a bit of an insomniac already, and in a new place, I found myself tossing and turning. I eventually read the '2:30 AM' on my bright phone screen and sighed. I finally got up and wandered downstairs and poured a glass of water, then I walked to the living room and opened the window for some fresh air (a habit that I’ve found myself engaging in since quitting smoking). Through the open window, I heard a muffled, woman’s voice speaking and realized it was coming from the next-door neighbor’s house.
I looked over to the neighboring house’s side window, and through it saw a woman in her 50’s standing profile in her unlit living room, barely visible due to the cold glow of the moon's light. She stood there, extending a hand forward and raising it up and down, as if pantomiming the action of shaking a hand in greeting. I had to strain my ears and focus, but I was able to hear what she was saying as she repeated that action.
“Ah, you’re the new residents. I’m Mrs. Ainsworth,” the woman spoke before tilting her head back to look at the ceiling. “What a nice day, funny to think it’s nearly Octoshch, nearly Octochhh.” She twitched into an odd shiver, clearly having trouble at the end before trying again. “What a nice day, funny to think Halloween is nearly here,” she repeated before restarting the sequence with the handshake gesture, over and over. I felt guilty about spying and didn’t want to speculate about what speech impediment or possible neurosis my neighbor might have. Though creeped out a bit, I headed back to bed to eventually fall asleep.
I woke up yesterday morning to the smell of sizzling bacon and the nostalgic sounds of the Pet Shop Boys from downstairs, and I coasted through my morning routine with time to spare. The house felt like a home, and when I descended the stairs to see Sharon wiggling her butt to the 80’s track “West End Girls” in her plaid pajamas, it was. I couldn’t help but smile as I wiped the sleep from my eyes while Sharon sang into the spatula and performed an impromptu dance routine before wrapping her arms around me.
“Babe, I swear, it’s perfect! Do you hear that?” she asked, cocking her head towards the bluetooth speaker. I nodded with a smile.
“We can play music without the neighbors banging on our wall, there are no drunk assholes pissing outside our window, and look at this” Sharon said, using the spatula as a pointer to the wide, granite counter-tops then to our plates of eggs and bacon. “I have room to cook!”
I smiled, her comment about the window reminded me of the night, and I almost said something about the neighbor, but Sharon was in such a good mood so I let it go.
“Well, we need to make sure to unpack all the CDs, not just the 80’s jams you stole from your parents,” I joked and she rolled her eyes.
I soon kissed my wife and headed out the front door into the golden sun in our picturesque American suburb. I unlocked my car, when I felt staring eyes, and I turned my head to see a woman, that neighbor from the night before, watching me for a second before briskly walking over. She was wearing the same outfit and she extended a thin hand, which I shook, feeling her cold skin as she said those words.
“Ah, you’re the new residents. I’m Mrs. Ainsworth,” she said before looking up at the sky. “What a nice day, funny to think Halloween is nearly here,” she said, flashing a large, strange smile.
“I-um-yes, yes it is a nice day,” I tried to not trip over my words. I introduced myself and motioned to my wife in the doorway who waved and smiled. Mrs. Ainsworth kept that broad grin on her face as she walked backward a few steps before turning and briskly walking to her house, ducking under her garage door and then shutting it abruptly. My gaze drifted back to Sharon, who gave me the ‘What was that?’ look. I shrugged and shook my head before getting into the car, trying to focus on the day ahead.
Yesterday evening, when I arrived home after a tiring day of work, Sharon and I discussed the eccentric neighbor and I explained what I’d seen in the middle of the night, that Mrs. Ainsworth had been practicing all night to introduce herself.
“She clearly wanted to make a good impression,” Sharon said with a wink and a smile, “Wait...should I be jealous, babe?” she added jokingly.
“Oh yes, yes you should,” I purred, and she smacked my shoulder before I continued normally. “I’m being serious, it was creepy.”
Sharon didn’t seem bothered by it, suggesting maybe the neighbor had suffered from a TBI (Traumatic brain injury), she explained she’d seen a few in her years as a therapist. I shrugged and thought it was possible but I wasn’t content with that answer. As the evening carried on, however, I eventually found myself feeling less on edge and we enjoyed a romantic evening in. We fell asleep in each other’s arms, and I almost slept through the night.
I tossed and turned again and woke up around 2 AM, needing to use the bathroom. As I was about to switch off the light and leave, I looked out the upstairs window and my hair stood on end. From that angle, I could see into multiple rooms of the neighbors’ houses in the cul-de-sac. In every home I could see at least one of the neighbors, fully dressed and standing in the dark. It was impossible to make out what they were saying, but they were all just practicing everyday tasks. Things that were normal during daylight, but unsettling in those dark rooms in the middle of the night, alone.
A chubby man in a sweatsuit and headband jogged in place his living room with the lights out before turning his head in a double-take and waving as if spotting someone. In another home’s upstairs window, a little girl with blonde hair skipped with a jump rope in her dark bedroom. I then looked two houses to a man dressed in oil-stained overalls leaning on his kitchen table and using a wrench as if he were fixing something invisible. He paused every so often to wipe his forehead with his hairy wrist. After watching him for a few minutes, his head turned to me and his eyes locked on to mine, causing me to stumble back and duck out of view with a racing heart. When I finally peeked back again, he was gone. I was barely able to sleep after an hour trying to make sense of it in my mind.
This morning, I got dressed and shuffled downstairs to meet Sharon as she poured me a glass of OJ and scrambled some eggs. I explained that something wasn't right with the neighbors, that they were practicing acting normal in their dark homes at night. She said I needed sleep, and was overthinking things rather coldly. After nearly getting into a fight, she told me she’d look out for anything peculiar as I chugged some coffee before heading out into the crisp air, underslept and on edge. When I stepped into the sunlight, I heard a rhythmic tapping and I turned.
There I saw the fair-haired blonde child skipping rope in a driveway across the street. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I turned my head more to see the white truck in the driveway of that other neighbor in overalls, as he leaned under the hood with his wrench to fix his engine. I watched the practiced routine continue as he wiped his brow with his hairy wrist.
My eyes then darted over to the chubby man in a sweatsuit and headband jogging down the sidewalk in my direction. He soon turned his head, pretending to be surprised by seeing me, then he gave me that friendly wave I’d seen him practice over and over last night. As he jogged past, I watched his face drop slack as he rotated his head out of view, continuing on. I drove out of our cul-de-sac, but soon pulled onto the shoulder of the main road, and I watched.
I called Sharon, unable to even drive to work as I sat in my car, parked on the shoulder until she finally answered. She kept throwing around terms like “adjustment disorder” and “delusional”, but she didn’t see them all practicing last night as I did. She didn’t pull onto the shoulder of the highway to watch the jogging man continue around his house and stop at the back door, dead in his tracks. She didn’t see those thin, spidery legs slowly reach from his parted lips before he entered his home.
I pray it's nothing, but she also didn’t call me 'babe' this morning as she usually does. She called me 'hon'