By KM Rockwood
Miss Grayling paused as she swept the back steps to the weathered back porch of her stately Victorian home. She peered at the peeling paint. Some of the boards appeared to be rotting. It must have happened over the winter. She needed to remember to put them on the list of repairs that she was making for the handyman.
Loud shouting erupted in the yard next door. She couldn’t see what was happening, but she could listen. Although her hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be.
Children. Two distinct voices, squealing and shouting. Then an adult voice, demanding that they put down the hose and stop squirting one another.
A black streak dashed through the overgrown hedge, up the steps and through the back door. Arabella, her cat.
Soon a roaring engine noise drowned out the shouting.
When was the last time children had lived on this block? It must have been at least sixty years ago, when the McNamaras had owned that house. Being Irish and of course Catholic, they had raised a brood. Seven girls and five boys. Miss Grayling could remember them lined up, all dressed for church on Sunday mornings. The girls in proper modest dresses and the boys in black pants and white shirts.
The children had been fairly well behaved, although the boys were mischievous and sometimes naughty. A window broken by a stone from a slingshot, a bush trampled by trespassing feet. A brief word to Mr. McNamara would bring a swift apology and some type of repair or restitution, but there was sure to be another incident soon. Miss Grayling supposed that, despite their pretentions, they could not help being Irish.
Now there were children living next door again. Large families like the McNamaras were a rarity these days. Perhaps that meant that the parents would be keeping better track of these children. She hoped so.
Leaning the broom against the clapboard with its peeling paint, she gathered her skirts around her ankles and opened the back door. She glanced back at the deep back yards, separated by a tumbledown fence and overgrown hedges.
Miss Grayling followed Arabella through the pantry and into the kitchen. She put her teakettle on the stovetop to boil, and poured a bit of cream into a saucer for Arabella. The cat crept from beneath the unused pie safe to lap the cream.
The fur on the cat’s back was rumpled and flat. Frowning, Miss Grayling bent down to touch it. Wet. Those children had managed to get poor Arabella with the hose. It may have been inadvertent, and she decided to say nothing about it to the parents.
After breakfast the next morning, Miss Grayling went out to fill her bird feeders. As she was refilling the goldfinch feeder with thistle seed, the loud engine roaring started up next door again. She hoped this was not to be a regular occurrence. It would be most inappropriate in this quiet residential area.
Whatever was roaring moved to the back of the yard next door, toward the quiet wooded park that bordered the back of the properties on this entire block. In her girlhood, the park had boasted extensive formal gardens with pleasant winding paths for strolling. As time went on, the cultivated areas had shrunk, until now all that was left was a narrow strip next to the sidewalk that was planted in zinnias each year, then neglected by the park service. If she were younger, Miss Grayling would consider tending them for everyone’s enjoyment, but when she had last tried, the amount of water she could carry was insignificant against the need.
A plume of dust rose in the air over the hedges, following the sound.
The roaring and the dust plume swung around and headed back toward the houses, drawing closer and closer.
A squat machine of some sort — it was neither automobile nor motorcycle — rushed toward her. At the last minute, it veered off to one side, nearly hitting the gardening shed, and skidded to a stop.
A young man — a boy, really — half stood and lifted the visor of his helmet off his face and grinned at her. “Sorry! I think I got the wrong yard!”
Replacing the visor, he settled back in the seat and roared off again, this time right through the hedge. Had he driven right through the fence?
Miss Grayling finished hanging the birdfeeder, her hands trembling. This would never do. She would go speak to the young man’s father.
When she had fixed herself a cup of tea with a spot of brandy to steady her nerves, Miss Grayling took her good coat, hat and scarf from the hall closet and put them on. She stopped to assess herself in the mirror in the entry hall.
The hat, navy blue with a red ribbon, looked quite nice. Her navy coat was getting a trifle shabby. Perhaps she should consider getting a new one. Her jaunty red scarf was a bit frayed at the ends, but with it tucked under, it looked fine.
She poked at her hair. When had it turned so completely white? And it was thinning. There was nothing to be done for that, however. It was a natural consequence of getting older, and no one in this world was getting any younger.
Taking up her sturdy walking cane, the one with the silver goose head for a handle, she went out her front door, down the steps, careful to avoid the weak boards, and out to the sidewalk.
The wooden steps on the house next door had been replaced by concrete ones. They would last much longer than the old ones, but they had no class. The front porch had been enclosed by windows. It disfigured the house so. She could remember when all the houses on the block sported wide front porches with wicker furniture. How pleasant it had been to sit there and greet neighbors as they passed by. Everyone was too busy these days, probably inside watching television. Miss Grayling had never owned a television set.
Four mailboxes in various states of disrepair were attached to the front pillar next to the door to the porch. She stopped and stared at them. Why would anyone need four mailboxes? And each had a different name on it.
While she was standing musing about the mailboxes, a man opened the door and stepped out.
He was a rough-looking person, in a scruffy jacket and a well-worn cap. He had a smelly, cheap cigar clenched in his teeth.
He raised his eyebrows and looked at Miss Grayling. “Can I help you?” He didn’t bother to take the cigar out of his mouth.
One didn’t correct adults, so she refrained from pointing out that the “can” should have been “may.” The grammatical error certainly went with the man’s appearance.
She gathered her courage. “Perhaps,” she said. “I would like to speak to the father of the young man who is roaring around the backyards and the park in some type of motorized vehicle.”
“Yeah,” he said, without either introducing himself or giving Miss Grayling a chance to introduce herself. “That’s my boy Sammy. On his 4-wheeler.”
“I see,” she said, although she did not. “He was in my yard…”
“Sorry about that,” the man said. “He said he got a bit turned around, coming back from the park. It won’t happen again.”
“But he rode right through the fence.”
“Well, he went through the hedge, if you want to call it that. I don’t think there’s much fence there. I’ll make sure he takes a look at it and patches it up some if he did any damage.”
“That’s quite a noisy machine he has,” Miss Grayling said. “This is a peaceful neighborhood. He will disturb the birds at my feeder.”
The man pulled the cigar out of his mouth. “Is that right? I tell you, there’s a lot of bird shit all over the place. I don’t think it will make much difference if he disturbs the birds a bit. It won’t hurt them.”
“But soon they will be nesting.”
“They can nest. I’ll tell Sammy to stay away from your yard as much as he can. Okay?”
It wasn’t really okay, but Miss Grayling didn’t know what to say. The man was putting the cigar back in his mouth and closing the door behind him. Then he nodded to her and strode down the walk to the street.
She stood there, concentrating on keeping a small polite smile on her lips, and watched him leave. Then she went back to her house.
In the next few days, Sammy and his infernal machine sped through her yard on a regular basis, often early in the morning, disturbing the peaceful dawn and scattering the birds. He would either burst through the hedge, which was now thoroughly compromised in several places, and proceed through her yard to the park, or come from the park and roar back to his own yard. Sometimes he wore the helmet, but more often he was bareheaded. And as he passed, he would often half-stand and let go of the handlebars in order to raise his middle finger in the direction of Miss Grayling’s back porch. She pretended not to notice.
Arabella began spending much of her time inside, hiding under the pie safe in the corner of the kitchen.
She thought about asking the handyman to repair the fence, when he came around. It had been a while since he’d stopped in. She might even call someone in to repair the fence, but Sammy would probably just break through it again. And that was well down on her list of needed repairs. It was more important to concentrate on the ones that the city building inspector insisted needed her attention, like the leaking intake pipe from the city water system. And the renovation of the old electrical system, including breakers to replace the fuse box in which she had placed pennies to keep the power flowing.
Out in the yard to fill the bird feeders, Miss Grayling looked in dismay at the flattened vegetation in the yard and the hedges. She went over to inspect one particularly large breech. Perhaps she could purchase large specimens of some kind of what was called sticker bushes? She could remember them from her youth, when her uncle planted them to keep people from cutting across the front lawn at the corner instead of properly remaining on the sidewalk. She believed they were still there, now over ten foot high.
A horrid yowling came from beyond the battered hedge. Miss Grayling adjusted her eyeglasses, but she still could not make out much.
Arabella burst through the hedge, her tail smoking.
Laugher erupted from the yard next door.
Miss Grayling hurried up the steps and opened the back door. Arabella dashed inside and headed for the pie safe.
Coaxing the cat out took an effort and a piece of chicken liver. Fortunately, her tail had stopped smoking. It turned out that it wasn’t the tail itself, but a can filled with charred paper. A hole had been punched in the side of the can with a string passed through it. The whole had been tied tightly to Arabella’s tail.
This had gone entirely too far. Action was called for, and apparently it was up to Miss Grayling to implement it.
She got up even earlier than usual the next morning, and instead of fixing her tea and toast, she put on her warm jacket and went out to the shed.
Rummaging around on the disorganized shelves and stacks of unused items, she found a coil of heavy wire. She took it out to the yard, along with several sturdy eyebolts and a rusted pair of pliers.
When she heard the roar of the infernal machine, Miss Grayling hurried out to the back porch.
Sammy was not wearing his helmet. Seeing her, he grinned an evil smirk and stood up slightly. Gunning the engine, he raised his middle finger at her and glanced back at her as he sped away.
Miss Grayling stepped back into the house to finish her tea and toast.
When she came out again, Sammy lay still on the ground, his head at an odd angle. The infernal machine had crashed into a large tree. Its front end was smashed and was smoking.
Miss Grayling went out in the yard, pausing to look at his inert form. She could not tell whether he was breathing or not. Really, it didn’t matter.
She undid the wire from the lower set of eyebolts and moved it to the higher one. Then she unscrewed the lower set and put them in her pocket. There were holes in the trees, but she didn’t think they were particularly noticeable.
When the wire was secured, she hung two of the birdhouses on the wire near the supporting trees. The other two and the birdfeeder she put on the ground. Stepping back to look at it, she frowned. Should they appear to have been damaged?
Reluctantly, she picked them up and threw them on the ground, smashing a corner of one birdhouse and destroying the feeder. She went into the shed and got a scooper full of bird seed, which she scattered on the ground. Stepping carefully around the still body on the ground, she went back inside to clear up her breakfast dishes.
When the police knocked on her door, Miss Grayling offered them tea. A nice policewoman accepted. Her nametag said Gutierrez. She sat at the kitchen table as Miss Grayling poured the tea, offering cream and sugar.
The rest of them went around back.
“Thank you,” Officer Gutierrez said, accepting the cup. “Did you hear anything?”
“What do you mean?” Miss Grayling asked, wondering if she should have served the tea in the parlor instead of the kitchen. It wasn’t like a policewoman was an invited guest, but she certainly wasn’t a servant.
“The ATV itself would have been quite noisy,” Officer Gutierrez said. “And when it crashed…”
“All Terrain Vehicle. That thing he was riding.”
“Oh.” Miss Grayling took a sip of her tea. “It is quite loud. But I am hard of hearing, and I have learned to ignore it, so I put it right out of my mind.”
“It must be upsetting, such a terrible tragedy. A death, right in your own back yard. Such a shock.”
Miss Grayling considered. “It is a shock. Perhaps we need a spot of brandy in our tea. Would you like some?”
“No, I can’t have alcohol while I’m on duty, thank you,” Officer Gutierrez said. “Are you going to be all right? Shall I call someone to stay with you? At your age…”
“I will be fine, thank you.” Miss Grayling sat up straighter, deciding to skip the brandy. She didn’t want to give Officer Gutierrez reason to call a social worker from the Office of the Aging to evaluate her living situation.
But Officer Gutierrez had changed the subject. “Of course, the young man should not have been trespassing, but still, what a way to die. A waste of a young life! Wouldn’t you have thought he’d have seen the birdhouses and the feeders? And have realized that they had to be suspended from something.”
Miss Grayling just nodded.
“And he must have been moving at a good clip, to hit it that hard.”
Arabella climbed into Miss Grayling’s lap.
Officer Gutierrez reached over to pet her. “Isn’t that an odd hairless ring on the poor cat’s tail? What could have happened to it?”
Rubbing behind the cat’s ears, Miss Grayling didn’t answer.
The cat settled down and began purring as if they didn’t have a problem in the world.
KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for short stories and novels, including the Jesse Damon Crime Novel series.
Copyright © 2015 KM Rockwood. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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