New Neighbors Pt. 3 | The Sourpuss
“You’re going to live here? With those dogs?”
The straight line frown deepens, activating a constellation of chin stipples. The little black eyes are seized with dismay.
I glance around at my surroundings: junk piled against the wall; sheet covering the window in lieu of curtains; dark living room unlit by an overhead light and lamps still packed away.
After a painful silence, my face, too, presses into a frown.
“Yes,” I say plainly.
What exactly did she expect me to say? No? I don’t actually live next door to you, stranger who is now my neighbor. These dogs? They’re only visiting for the day! We’re warming the place up for the real residents, who are uncannily quiet — you won’t even notice them! No children or dogs, known to always have their trash and recycling tidily lined up along the street at break of dawn on the correct day and pulled back out-of-sight promptly. They never sing while cooking dinner with the windows open or beat their carpets with a broom. They are middle-aged, married — professors, perhaps. Neither of these real new neighbors will practice trumpet in the evening. Their food has no offensive smell, and they don’t smoke. They don’t even own a grill. They do own the appropriate landscape maintenance equipment, however. Their lawn will be impeccably shorn, although strangely you’ll never hear the sound of their lawn mower buzzing back and forth on weekend mornings. Nor will you ever actually see them. Their presence will be entirely peripheral. They’re perfectly content to make few, if any, waves of influence in the neighborhood or town as a whole. They’ve chosen this 900-square-foot rundown ranch house as their site for unobtrusive stillness and ineffectuality. Dear neighbor, aren’t you pleased?
“I just want you to know that I’m not happy about you living here. Not one bit,” she barks, breath billowing white from her white face. Her eyes dart to the larger, stylish midcentury ranch house on the other side of mine. “We can’t have dogs making noise around here,” she continues. “Professor Toole lives over there, and he’s got terminal cancer. He’s dying! He won’t be able to handle one bark — not a single bark! And I have terrible headaches.”
I’m silent. My mouth has fallen open. I blink several long, stunned blinks and try to make eye contact to communicate that what she’s saying is hurtful, but she doesn’t look at me. Her eyes are restless. There are two large pots beside her in the snow where one of my friends had left them after unloading the moving truck the day before. Parched, dead geraniums stick out from the dry dirt, their blossoms papery and leached of color.
“I heard that big dog barking at 7:30 this morning,” she continues, her voice higher in pitch. “We can’t have that. That could kill Professor Toole! One bark! I’m sorry to have to say this, but if I hear that dog barking, I’ll have to call in a complaint.”
Finally, she looks me in the eye. She betrays no recognition of a shocked expression I feel I must be projecting. I’m aware of how these first interactions with a new neighbor are supposed to play out: a plate of cookies, a brief conversation about the surrounding residents, a tip or two about trash day or parking. My stomach twists like a wet rag, wringing adrenaline through my veins, and my heart turns into a fist punching brutally against my chest, where I hold Pippa closer, defensively.
“Well?” she says.
I open my mouth, close it again. I can feel my eyes widening.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” She actually says this. It’s a phrase my elderly kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Kraft, used to wield like a prod dipped in guilt. “Don’t be such a sourpuss” was another expression Mrs. Kraft often used, and the word springs into my head, immediately striking me as the perfect word to describe this woman, my new neighbor: Sourpuss. The very definition.
I blink slowly and find my voice. “I am so sorry to hear about Professor Toole,” I say quietly. His name in my mouth feels like an alias, a suspect in a mystery novel. I’m genuinely sorry, though, and feel an awareness of the dark and painful tragedy occurring just to the west of me. I want to tell Professor Toole, through this eastern neighbor, who obviously knows him intimately, that I mean him no harm. “My dog is still getting used to his surroundings. I would normally bring him inside as soon as he made a noise, but I was in the shower. I asked my daughter to let him inside, but she forgot. That won’t be something that happens often.”
She shakes her head emphatically. “Just one bark,” she repeats. “It could kill him.”
At our previous house, we had a smaller back yard that was almost entirely fenced in, with tall wooden posts and a tangle of honeysuckle shielding adjacent neighbors from the sight of Toby. Not once did my neighbors complain when he barked. After the break in, when I texted my next-door-neighbor to tell her what had happened, she wrote back saying she was so relieved to know we had Toby protecting us.
That night, or, rather, that morning, my eyes blearily opened in my pitch black bedroom and soon I could make out the shape of my daughter beside me in bed, where she must’ve snuck in sometime in the early hours, and my white comforter on the floor where it must have slid off my body. I realized that I’d been hearing noises in my sleep, a rustling and clacking that must have been what woke me. I’d felt what I can only describe as a vacuum in the air, like the empty pocket that’s left after a car whooshes by you on the street. Or like playing Crack the Whip in school when the girl whose hand you’d been holding at the tail end of the human chain was whipped away from your grip, and when you turned to look at her, she’d been flung from sight, the only things left your empty hand and the empty space where she’d been just a second before.
I registered the feeling of a sudden vacuum and realized it was Toby, who’d been sleeping on the blanket on the floor beside me. He’d been there just a second before, and in my bleary peripheral vision, I’d glimpsed his black body sprinting through the open bedroom door. His claws skidded on the wood floor and a guttural bark rose from the hall, louder and more threatening than I’d ever heard from him. It was a bark and snarl mixed together, and it was deafening. It was a bark that said, I will murder you and it spiked fear into my veins.
My daughter woke immediately, crying out and clutching my arm. I wore nothing but a t-shirt and underwear. I ricocheted out of bed. “What the FUCK” I said, my voice far away. I knew it. Someone who was not me or my son or my daughter was in our house. I could feel their presence, and then I heard them.
Toby continued to bark unceasingly. It was a primal, weaponized bark. I plucked the blanket from the floor and clutched it to my body. My daughter had begun to wail.
“Mommm, Mommm!” she cried.
“It’s okay!” I said breathlessly.
A thunderous drum of footfalls moved down the hall away from Toby’s vicious, unending bark, and the sound of claws against the wood followed into the distance. Again I felt the presence of a person and the sucking away of air, leaving an empty pocket in its wake. I moved into the doorway, squinting into the light put off by the nearby kitchen. In a split second, the silence of the air vacuum weirdly hung in the air, and then an ear-splitting crash, a series of blunt impacts, a surprised shout in a man’s grumbling voice, the sound of wood splintering, glass shattering. Toby’s bellow cut short abruptly.
“What is it?” my daughter cried.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!” my son shrieked from his bedroom down the hall.
“Ollie! Stay in your bed! Sylvia, stay! Stay where you are!”
Oliver hadn’t heeded my warning. He sprinted down the front hall, his face screwed into horror, his eyes clenched shut and hands swimming the air in front of him. He careened past me and dove into the bed beside Sylvia. I turned the corner into the back hall. Toby came scrambling toward me from the shadows and stood behind my legs, where he resumed barking. A long mound of hair stood on end on his back. Spit strewn from his mouth and his front legs lifted off the ground from the force of the unrelenting quick, powerful barks.
Now it was the only sound in the house. I felt a rush of cold air and I took a quick lunge toward the end of the hall. Rounding the corner, I saw the French doors leading to the back yard — one hanging bent on a single hinge and the other lying split in half, every pane of glass turned into shards on the patio. Impossibly, the door had been broken outward against its hinges. Strewn among the splintered wood and glass was a scattering of credit cards, IDs.
Toby was still barking when the police came. I shut him into my bedroom as they searched the outer perimeter of the house, their flashlight beams cutting across the scared faces of my children. They went into the basement, the attic. They pushed aside coats to shine their lights into the shadowy corners of the closet.
“It’s a good thing you have that dog, ma’am,” the short, barrel-chested one said.
“You’d better call your landlord about that door,” said the other officer.
They filled out a report, then the short one asked, “Do you feel safe? We’re going to go.”
Yes, I nodded. But it was a lie.
To be continued.