The house next door to Pat Robbins ' eerily identical to the home Pat shares with her college ' aged son, Mark ' has been empty for years, the darkness within seeming to warn all to stay away. Now new tenants are moving in: affable Josef Friedrichs and his lovely daughter, Kathy, who has stolen Mark ' s heart on first glance.
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September 30, 2006
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Excerpt from The Walker in Shadows by Barbara Michaels
The house next door had been empty as long as Pat could remember. Old Hiram, the caretaker, did not really occupy it; he camped in it, buying his food at one or another of the quick-food outlets and sleeping so rumor reported on a folding cot in one of the vast, echoing bedrooms. No chest of drawers would have been necessary, since he appeared to own only two shirts one checked, the other plain blue and two pairs of pants. Presumably these were replaced periodically, since they never progressed beyond a certain stage of decrepitude. Hiram had been heard mumbling to himself as he walked the streets, on those occasions when he emerged to dine on Big Macs and French fries. The soles of his shoes, inadequately secured by rubber bands, slapped the sidewalk as he proceeded. Sometimes he burst into a loud shrill laugh, as if he had told himself a particularly witty joke.
The neighborhood children called him a witch, ignoring his sex, which was, admittedly, hard to determine at a casual glance, for his long gray hair straggled to his shoulders. It was Pat's son Mark, trained to verbal accuracy by his father, who pointed out that male witches were more properly known as warlocks. The other kids liked the sound of the word and adopted it; thereafter, when old Hiram appeared on the street he was followed by a crowd of imp-sized tormentors, chanting the noun and a variety of selected adjectives. These became richer and riper and more decidedly Anglo-Saxon as the children grew, and their mothers shook their heads and wondered where the little monsters picked up such language.
Hiram's persecutors called him names, but they stayed at a safe distance, and after one or two unpleasant episodes they did not venture into the weedy, overgrown lawn of the house next door. They claimed Hiram had chased them with a nail-studded club, spitting blue fire.
The adults dismissed the blue fire and were inclined to place the club in the same doubtful category. No child ever showed convincing wounds, so the other parents followed the example of Jerry Robbins, husband of Pat and father of Mark. His reaction to Mark's complaint was a stern lecture on the meaning of private property. The lecture was reinforced by the method immortalized by Dickens' Mr. Squeers wall, noun; build, verb active. Mark built the wall between the two houses, assisted by his father. It took him three weeks of playtime, and got the point across.
A high iron fence, complete with spikes, surrounded the rest of the forbidden property. Rankly overgrown trees and shrubs formed a further barrier; on summer nights the shrouding honeysuckle scented the entire neighborhood, and poison ivy added its charms to brambly roses and other foliage. Normally these barriers would only have been a challenge to the children. It was not the wall, or the fence, or the poison ivy that kept them out; it was old Hiram, and the effect Jerry's lecture had had, not only on his own son, but on the other children.
Jerry had been dead now for over a year.