The Kid Next Door
On Tuesday, the neighbors ask Justin to threaten to eat their child if the kid won’t stop playing with the Halloween decorations. From what Cassie can gather, there’s a fuzzy pumpkin face in particular that the kid keeps going for. Cassie thinks she remembers about the same decoration from when she was a kid. The kid’s name is Alex, she thinks. Or maybe Adam. Justin is okay with it this time and, through the wall, Cassie hears the kid crying and saying he won’t touch it again. Then, she hears the low growl of Justin’s monster voice. She shivers, wondering how this will shape Justin’s approach to fatherhood. If they ever actually have kids. Cassie thinks it should’ve been harder for the neighbors to talk Justin into this. On the other hand, Justin has started using the monster voice in bed, and he’s been more assertive once that started.
Cassie hears the slow trudge of Justin’s monster, and she goes back to their apartment’s dining area. For some reason, Justin doesn’t like her to listen to him being the monster. Maybe he gets creeped out by the overlap of the kid he terrorizes and the woman he has sex with. Though that would be an issue if they had kids, too, maybe.
Tuesdays, Cassie and Justin have a four-hour window of time together, so they’re having chicken, fettuccini Alfredo, and broccoli. A nice dinner that isn’t super pricey. Most of the parts of the dinner are frozen, so Justin won’t be stuck with too many dishes when Cassie goes to work. Justin will probably be asleep when she comes home.
The door opens. Cassie hears the normal Justin footsteps. “Make him cry?” Cassie asks. Justin wrinkles his face. “Scourge of little boys, savior of cardboard jack-o-lanterns.”
“My hero.” Cassie dips her broccoli in a little more sauce and puts it in her mouth. Justin sits at the table, “He’ll grow up to be a good boy who listens.”
Cassie nods, “Until he builds a monster-killing cannon.”
Justin laughs and eats some noodles, and Cassie wonders if she should’ve gone to the couch so they could watch TV while eating. Someday they’ll probably watch nothing but Sesame Street. Last night before they went to bed, they watched I Shouldn’t Be Alive, and she talked to Justin about how glad she was that they didn’t live in the Southwest with all the scorpions and snakes. Justin told her that plenty of people live in the Southwest without getting bitten, and plenty of people got bit without living in the Southwest. Cassie had asked if anyone in the Southwest ever died of monster attacks, and that had led to sex. That was fine, but Cassie did wonder if there would be any brown recluse spiders in the house. She was pretty sure they were even worse than black widows. Black widows had been the most poisonous spider people talked about when Cassie was a kid. But they’d seemed far away. Brown recluses were supposed to live near them, or in their area, or however you’d say it. But she couldn’t remember exactly where she would’ve heard that in the first place anyway.
Cassie and Justin are finishing their dinner without saying much. Justin does ask a little about work. Cassie doesn’t mind her work, but she hates talking about it. It’s only Thursday, and already the neighbors are asking for the monster again. Cassie thinks that they’re turning into monster addicts. What will the psychological effect on Adam or Alex be? Or Justin, for that matter? And what if the monster’s overall effect is wearing off? After all, how many times can the monster come over before the kid notices that the monster never does anything? As she thinks about this, Cassie realizes that she has no idea how old the boy is. She thinks about how hard it is for someone without kids to guess the age of a kid. What’s their reference point?
The monster should strike tonight, though, because the kid really crossed a line. He hit Mommy and won’t apologize. Even Cassie thinks this is a biggie. Justin is supposed to threaten not only to eat the kid, but to share him with a gorilla. There might also be a clown involved, but Cassie can’t hear everything through the wall. Maybe she only thinks that because she hated clowns when she was young. Clowns and spiders and snakes. She hasn’t heard spiders come up with the kid yet, but whatever they just said to the kid, he’s crying now. Cassie wonders if the kid just had a hard day at school. Then she wonders what a hard day at school is for a kid who’s whatever age Alex or Adam is. Did he get punched by a bully? Did he have to watch a video on clowns or spiders and get creeped out? Cassie goes back to the kitchen. She has to work again tonight, but she sneaks half a glass of wine. She doesn’t think Justin will notice, and she knows that her dipshit manager won’t. He once complimented that fucktowel Todd for his “excellent customer service” when Todd was just baked out of his mind. Maybe if Cassie went in a little tipsy, she’d get promoted for being so friendly. Then she wonders if maybe their manager comes into work drunk. He spends most of his time in his office. Cassie sighs; the wine isn’t even that good.
Cassie and Justin aren’t at a point in their lives where they buy good wine, and, to be honest, she doesn’t think she’d know the difference anyway. But she knows this wine isn’t great, so she drains it, rinses the glass and puts it in the strainer. She starts to go back to the wall, but before she gets there, she hears Justin coming back, so she walks back to the couch, where she sits down and tries to look sober. She turns on the TV and flips through channels. I Shouldn’t Be Alive is on again, but Cassie isn’t feeling up to it today. Justin comes in and walks to the couch, but doesn’t sit down. Cassie keeps flipping and she starts to wonder if she’s breathing too loudly. Then she realizes that Justin wants her to ask him about Adam or Anthony or whatever.
“Did you have to nibble on him at all today?”
Justin chuckles, then sits down, “Sometimes, I feel bad when I see him in the hall. It’s like, I never feel bad when I’m called in to scare him, because he’s done something that makes his parents want me in there, but when we’re just passing in the hall, maybe I’m ruining his day for no good reason.”
Cassie shrugs and pauses on some stupid show about stupid people. It was on E!.
“He probably did something over the course of the day so maybe he feels bad about whatever he did.”
Justin slumps on his couch, “Is this what we’re watching?”
Cassie starts flipping again, “I thought we were talking, so I stopped.”
The History Channel was something about the Deadly Sins, so Cassie stops on that. The guy on the TV is talking about how lust was compartmentalized in men’s lives in Ancient Greece.
“Do you want the remote?” Cassie asks.
Justin shakes his head, “Weekend tomorrow.”
“The parents said they’re going to that orchard out by Highway 8 to pick apples and drink cider.”
Now the show has some etching of this creepy guy leering. It’s supposed to be a god or a demon or something, but it looks like a clown to Cassie.
“Do you want kids?” she asks.
Justin stares at the TV, then he shrugs. Cassie looks at the time on the cable box and sees she’ll have to leave in an hour, which means she’ll have to start getting ready in less than a half hour, which means that Justin probably could wait her out. Cassie wonders if the etchings of anger would look like a clown or a monster. Then she wonders what monsters looked like in the dark ages. She knows that the etchings weren’t from the dark ages, but she doesn’t know exactly when they are from.
“When I was little,” Justin starts, “my brother and I stayed overnight at our aunt’s house. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized my mom was letting my aunt test drive parenthood.”
Cassie looks at the clock again, “Well, you guys do have cousins, right?”
Justin touches Cassie on her knee, “If we wanted to test drive, like going to the orchard, that’s out of the question for me.”
Cassie puts her hand over Justin’s, “Justin, would the neighbors really let us test drive their kid?”
Justin’s hand loosens, “Why wouldn’t they?”
“We’re not family,” Cassie puts the volume three notches lower.
“They let me in their home to scare their child.”
Cassie looks at the TV and wonders if she could wait this out. There’s another bearded old man talking about how lust used to be.
“We don’t really talk to them much. They only picked you because you’re their tallest neighbor.”
Cassie doesn’t know if it was the wine or something else, but her cheeks feel hot. Justin says, “Never mind, I guess.” There’s something about apples on the TV, and Cassie regrets having the wine.
Cassie and Justin are at home when the neighbors come back from what must’ve been a very bad trip to the orchard. The little boy’s screaming at the parents, and they don’t seem to be answering back at all, which Cassie figures must be a bad sign. She and Justin are eating chips on the couch, and she touches his arm, “Don’t go. They’re just using you.”
Justin smiles, “Maybe they won’t even ask.”
Cassie swirls the chips in the bowl, “If they do?”
Justin’s bottom lip tugs a little. It never occurred to her before, but she thinks, now, that Justin would probably choose their kids over her, and she knows she’d resent that, though maybe being a mother would change that.
“Let’s be quiet, and maybe they won’t even knock.”
Cassie puts the bowl of chips on their coffee table, then she lies back on the couch, laying her legs over Justin’s lap. He laughs a little and swats her knee. She pumps her legs, and he pinches her thigh. Soon, she’s sitting on his lap and sliding her hands up his chest.
“Oh, Mr. Monster,” Cassie says. “What sexy fur you have.” They kiss, and Cassie can hear the neighbors yelling, then their front door opening. Before the knock comes, she starts to moan. Justin grabs her arm and shakes his head. Cassie looks at him and waits for the knock, which hasn’t come yet. She kisses Justin’s neck, but he shakes his head again. Cassie slides off his lap and back onto the couch, and she moans again a little louder this time. Justin leans towards her and hisses, “stop it.” The feet in the hall scurry away, and Cassie wonders if it was the mom. She wonders if the dad would’ve stayed to listen for a while. He has long hair and a gut. He looks like the type who would listen.
Cassie looks at Justin, who turns on the TV and flips to a dumb action movie. The kind they show on basic cable. Next door, the parent (it is the mom’s voice) says something, and the kid’s yelling stops, then turns to crying. Cassie wonders if the mom told the kid that the monster got killed by a clown that was even meaner and scarier than the monster. Or a gorilla clown or a spider clown. Then Cassie tells herself that she should grow up. She sighs, pats Justin’s leg and mouths “sorry”. He nods and turns back to the action movie. There’s not even a big muscly star in this one. The hero just looks like a guy. Cassie would like to get up. She’d like to go shower, or drink or take a nap. But if she leaves now, Justin will be pouty most of the day, so she picks up the chips and watches the plain guy get his revenge. She thinks it’s stupid.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asks.
She knows he’ll say yes, but she thinks he says it just to give her permission. She wonders what he’d do if she dropped to the floor and threw a tantrum. But she knows she wouldn’t really know how to do it.
Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in 2 Bridges Review, The Toucan and Moon City Review, among other places. His first book, So Anyway… was published by Robocup Press in 2014. His short story collection, In the Family Way will be published in 2015 by Fomite Press.