The Neighborly Thing: Noir Long Read By Margaret Garcia

The Neighborly Thing Noir Long Read By Margaret Garcia

Margaret Elysia Garcia, author of Neighborly Thing, is the author of short story collections Sad Girls and Other Stories, and the audiobook Mary of the Chance Encounters, and the co-founder, writer and director of Pachuca Productions: a Latina Theatrical Troupe.

She teaches creative writing and theatre in California State prisons in Susanville, CA through the William James Association for Arts in Corrections.

*****

Jim sank serious cash into the remodel of the house and most of that to his third wife’s specifications. He saved the best part of the rebuild for himself: a tower on the second floor of the Mediterranean style house on Ambassador Lane. He knew what the neighbors thought about it and he didn’t care. It did look like a castle turret. They referred to his house as McMansion Castle—and he could hear them mocking him when his window was open. Whatever. They might try working as hard as he did to make their nearly a million dollar fixer-uppers look half this good.

The turret had a lock on the inside of the door, so he could hide out and not be disturbed. Tatyana, his wife couldn’t startle him that way or look over his shoulder at what ever he was doing on his laptop. It’s not even that he did anything out of the ordinary for a man his age: a little bit of porn now and then, paying the bills online, checking his stock portfolio, youtube tutorials on various home improvement projects, and reading up on whatever cases he had coming up.

Tatyana wasn’t too keen on there being a room she couldn’t get into, but whenever she complained to him about it, he went down the list of things she wanted that he’d done for her—including a brand new kitchen and that Jaguar she had to have in the driveway. He gave her  a credit card too and that usually kept her at bay.  They’d come to a bit of an understanding that both of them liked to be alone while neither wanted to be completely alone. He had someone who looked decent enough when he had to be social for work and she had a green card and one of the best houses in Mission Viejo.

But what Tatyana really wanted from him was for him to do something about the neighbor to the left of her perfect hedge of palm trees and birds of paradise and bougainvilleas. What she wanted was for the neighbor lady to be gone.

He explained to Tatyana that they lived in the part of Mission Viejo not covered by a homeowner’s association rules. The neighbor wasn’t committing any crimes and there was no need to call the police just because she let her front yard go. Tatyana had grown up in the Bratislava and she was certain there was something one could do about the neighbor lady problem if one knew the right people. She had a cousin who knew people.

“They could talk to her—very sternly. Maybe suggest a gun in their pockets or something,” said Tatyana.

“Um, Tat. We don’t do that kind of thing here,” said Jim.

“Sure you do. I’ve seen your TV,” she said.

“No, Tat,” said Jim.

The neighbor wasn’t committing any crimes and there was no need to call the police just because she let her front yard go.

So Tatyana bought more plants and soil and instructed Miguel, the new gardener she hired, on how to arrange everything so that the neighbor’s front yard was almost invisible.

But Tatyana knew what was beyond her property line and it just bothered her to know she lived in one of the best neighborhoods in the county yet someone so unworthy was bringing down the neighborhood right next door to her. It didn’t seem fair.

Jim thought about trying to buy the neighbor lady’s house. What was her name? Something hippie and druggy—Amber. Yes, Amber was her name. He liked to spy on her sometimes when she sat in front of her house, sun bathing. Most of the residents of Ambassador Lane had a stone or wood bench, or some slightly uncomfortable looking rattan outside furniture meant to suggest leisure.

But no one ever sat in them. Everyone in the neighborhood knew better than to sit in the front yards except for Amber. She had the audacity to stick plastic faded beach chairs in her front side yard. Amber’s house was on the corner and backed against the culvert above the elementary school below.  Her front yard seemed to be an amalgamation of landscape projects that never quite came to fruition. She’d bought enough astroturf to take care of the side yard but not the main front or the hill leading to the street below.

So Jim got to look out the window of the turret to see Amber sitting on a faded yellow plastic chair with rusted metal, her feet up on an over turned milk crate. She had a patio table that had been blown over too many times, with rips in the umbrella, and chipped white paint over the metal round table.  There were red, yellow, and blue children’s beach pails and shovels that Amber used as planters. She also kept children’s floaties half filled with air and push pinned to the parts of short wooden fence between the two houses that was still standing. During the summer she kept a kiddie pool in the front yard to soak her feet. Tatyana could view Amber from the balcony off the master bedroom. She’d seen her eat her lunch at the patio table and just leave the dishes out there—for days. It bothered Tatyana to know that Americans could live so disgustingly in such a good neighborhood.

Jim took a microbrew out of his office mini-fridge he kept in the turret and sat facing the window and his neighbor’s yard below. Amber was setting out a jar of sun tea and talking on the phone. She was wearing a nearly see-through beach cover all with nothing underneath it—it was a little too short for a woman her age though he wasn’t sure what her age was.

He knew she had an adult son in his twenties that visited now and then for a month at a time and tried to drum up business in the neighborhood doing odd jobs—like lawn mowing. Maybe she was in her fifties too.  She wasn’t exactly fit, but he didn’t mind. She wasn’t wrinkling like Tatyana who was only in her late thirties—or so she said. He wondered if Amber dressed that way because she knew he was watching.

Jim took a microbrew out of his office mini-fridge he kept in the turret and sat facing the window and his neighbor’s yard below.

He spoke to Amber not long ago about whether she was interested in selling her house. It was clearly a tear down and he could finally have a proper driveway big enough for four cars. Maybe he could stick a swimming pool next door in the back and convert the tiny 1000 square feet of her house into a guest cabin. She said she’d think about it but he’d have to also pay her enough that she could relocate somewhere in the same city. He found that odd. For nothing about Amber said she was suited to South Orange County.  She looked like she’d be more at home in an RV park in Bakersfield. Maybe she had money troubles or health issues. He asked her if she needed help gardening and she looked at him surprised.

“I love gardening and landscaping,” she said. “I used to do it professionally.”

Jim had a hard time believing that, standing at the edge of the Astroturf where the thistle was breaking through to reclaim its place. The rest of the yard was no better than her beach motel installation on the sideyard: dead grasses, dying vegetable garden, spots where the ivy and the ferns, juniper, and the privet fought each other in clumps—each with a shoot of leaves poking through the other.

She took his card and he swore she’d winked and flashed her breast at him. He stood there and smiled at her and could feel his face turning red as she laughed a little and went over to pick some rosemary from a bush that was beginning to crawl its way towards the curb.

“You should come over again sometime and help convince me,” she said, “I’m making a nutloaf and potatoes. This will go nicely.”  She held up the rosemary at him. Jim tried to smile but Tatyana ruined any love he’d ever had of meat and potatoes—even fake meat like ‘nutloaf’ from her constant cooking of the same dishes over and over again.

“Well? How did it go? Is she interested in selling?” Tatyana asked. Jim thought about Amber’s laugh and her invitation.

“Not yet,” Jim said.

Tatyana left Amber flyers about how the city would help with the landscaping if you put in low water use native plants. She thought maybe Amber was broke and not wanting to water. Tatyana looked at the Ford Contour in the driveway whose bumper was being held together by stickers. There were milkweeds and thistle waist high in clusters from the street to the front door. Maybe she was a single and there was no man to pay the water bill or the gardener. Tatyana was not without her sympathies, but she didn’t come all this way from Slovakia to live in a nice neighborhood in America with a man who didn’t bother her too much just to live next to this trash.   There were plastic containers mixed in with terra cotta pots and egg carton seedlings and the incongruity was too much for Tatyana.

Jim knew it kept his wife on edge to see all her tireless meticulous landscape planning be up ended by the woman next door. It made him smile to himself to see Tatyana so disturbed.

“There’s no cohesive narrative! I was reading about this in Sunset. A good neighborhood has to have cohesion. She uses the front yard like a backyard, Jim! Something must be done about it,” Tatyana said.

“I’ll try talking to her again in a few days, Tatyana,” Jim said.  Jim enjoyed watching Tatyana be pissed off so long as it wasn’t at him.  He climbed up the stairs to the turret and peered out the window. Amber was laying out on a beach towel on the Astroturf. On the sidewalk next to it, she had drawn water with kids’ chalk. She was moving on the towel back and forth. He could see her muscles flexing a bit on the backside of her bikini bottom. Bikini? She clearly had no top on, just the cover all.  Jim moved away from the window, for fear she’d see him staring at her. Tatyana had told him to go back there and talk about lawn care. Amber had to know she was a slob, he didn’t need to remind her. Plus who was he to talk about lawns? He didn’t have much of a lawn anymore—just flowering ground cover and succulents and a few flowering cactus in a tasteful and whimsical display in front of the castle. Any moment now, he thought, Amber will turn over.

Tatyana called up the turret to her husband that it was time to eat.

“Next month is when my family gets here,” Tatyana said over another evening of medallions of mystery meat and potatoes. When Jim found Tatyana from the Slovakian dating service, she seemed to have everything he needed as a twice-divorced man in his early fifties. She was tall and slender and she said she could cook. Maybe she was a cook in Slovakia, but not in California. She didn’t much like to clean either and asked that he hire a maid. She didn’t like to have sex with him or rather she just stopped about six months in to their marriage. She was there to be his wife, she said, nothing more. It was useless for Jim to point out that there was more to marriage than what Tatyana had in mind.

What she had in mind was bringing her two teenage children he didn’t know she had over— and also her mother. This is why Jim built the turret, preparing for the onslaught of visitors who he had a feeling might become permanent residents of the house.

“We have to go have a meeting with the immigration attorney, Jim. WE need to sponsor them and they need to see that we live in a nice home in a nice neighborhood.” We. What was this we she was always talking about? Didn’t she mean him? Of course they could stay for awhile, but Tatyana had let slip that she hoped he would send them to college in the USA.  He tried to explain that he started at community college, as did his own kids and so could they. What would be left of their inheritance if Tatyana insisted so much money go to her family? She didn’t even go down on him anymore. That was the last thing he thought that night before he fell asleep. That and wondering why he hadn’t had her sign a pre-nup. Tatyana was murmuring in her sleep. He thought he heard the sound of shovels and possibly a bonfire outside. He thought of Amber and her wild brown curly hair cascading down her back in her bikini bottoms dancing around a bonfire.

A few days later, Amber was in her front yard again drinking a mai tai and bending over unnecessarily to water the few plants she bothered tending. She’d been planting lately, which seemed odd to Jim. Helliotrope. Black dahlias. Black hollyhocks: all these deep reds and purples sinister plants right at the curbside. Maybe someone from the city did come out and talk to her, Jim thought. But then he noticed the milkweed and the thistle were just as tall as ever. Perhaps she was building a row of acceptable plants in the front and not really trimming back anything else or pulling weeds. The color it seemed was meant to draw attention away from the rest—a plant wall of eerie looking gothic flowers to keep the world at bay.

She wore nothing underneath her dress. Jim locked the door to the turret and watched Amber. He was embarrassed to admit to himself how much he enjoyed watching her. He just sat there and watched and wondered how she got to this neighborhood where she clearly did not fit in. He’d lived here ten years and hadn’t noticed her all that much till recently. Had she always been there? He watched Amber and wondered who she was.

“Hey Jim!” The sound of his name startled him. It was Amber waving up at him. She’d seen him. She waved to him. He waved back hesitant and flushed red. Tatyana was out shopping—and well, she didn’t want him anyway.

*****

“Hello Amber,” he said walking up to her front yard. He’d brought her some presents: some clippers and some gloves that might come in handy should she want to weed.

“Well aren’t you Mr. Helpful. Thank you, Jim. I could use these for some of the work I’m doing around back.

“Around back?”

“Why yes, I have a garden back there.” The look on Jim’s confused face made Amber take pity on him.

“Here I’ll give you a tour.” Amber turned to the side yard gate and motioned for Jim to come into the backyard. He could only imagine how bad it was back there. She probably had old toilet planters and broken appliances. His house didn’t have windows to overlook her property on that side of the house. He was curious but also felt for sure it would be overrun with cats and fleas or something.

“Would you like a mai tai? There’s enough for one more in the shaker. Or anything else you want in the tiki bar.” Jim went through the gate and stood dumbfounded at the scene. It was a regular arboretum terraced all the way down the hillside. Up against the patio was a pool and spa, landscaped to look like natural pools. The tiki bar was fully stocked with a kitschy hut roof. Against the house a stone table stood with what looked like a harvest of various flowers, and herbs; against the back of the house wall, a large talavera mosaic of a moon in a fountain and a cabinet of the same tile stood on either side. Jim made himself a mai tai and shook his head in disbelief.         There was not a weed in sight.

“It’s beautiful back here, Amber. How is this possible?” Jim asked and then realized how that sounded and added. “You probably are busy.”

“I have a gardener. Miguel. He takes care of the backside of the house. I struck a deal with him. His place doesn’t have any yard; I don’t have any time to take care of a yard. So, he does the backyard for the both of us. We’ve got a vegetable garden, an herb garden, cactus, medicinal plants, and a great perimeter in the back.”

Jim wanted to ask her about the front yard but he didn’t know how to do it without sounding like an asshole so he just kept quiet.

“I know you’re wondering about the front yard. All I can tell you is that it cuts down on the bitches that want to come over and tell me what to do. Nobody makes me buy their shitty candles or Tuperware as they assume I have no money. Plus, it really seems to piss off your wife, I know.”

“It does,” he grinned.

“Where did you get her?”

“She’s from Slovakia.”

“Of course.” Amber rolled her eyes, “You know, a good deal of bad witches come from Eastern Europe.”

“Witches? Did you say?” That seemed like an odd turn in conversation. Jum started wondering what was in the mai tai.

“Yes,” said Amber and before he could respond she said, “I know these kinds of things.”

“You think my wife is a witch?” Jim still wasn’t sure he heard her right.

“Well, yes. She has you under a spell, doesn’t she? Why else would you come to harass me about my front yard and why else would you bother going all the way to Slovakia for a bride?”  Amber walked over to the talavera herb cabinet against the back wall; she stood in front of the broad stone table with inlaid tile. There were herb pots everywhere but it was so much more purposeful and beautiful than the front yard.  In the archway of the patio ferns hung down in lush greens. She got something out of the cabinet and a marble mortar and pestle from the table and began crushing whatever it was. Jim just stood there taking it all in.

“Do you like baths?” Amber asked casually as she was putting her mixture of hyssop, rue, frankincense and salt into a bag.

“Doesn’t everybody?”

“Oh good, then it won’t arouse suspicion.”

“Excuse me?”

“Here. Take this mixture and put it into your next bath.” Jim looked at her blankly then looked around as if he were picking up drugs and making sure no one saw as he put the bag in the front pocket of his pants. Amber turned and gestured just a second and ran into the house. She came back with a talisman on a leather strap and motioned to Jim to come to her. He did, and bowed his head. She put it on him. He hadn’t worn anything around his neck since his surfer days.

“That should offer you some protection. I’m so sorry you are going through this. We don’t always recognize dark magic when we see it. Do you love your wife?” She asked.

Jim felt Amber’s breath on his chest and it excited him to be that close to her. Her hair smelled of plumeria and her skin of coconut oil. He looked down at her suspiciously but put his arms around her and pulled her into him. She reached up and kissed him hard on the mouth. He kissed her back, dug his hands deep into her hair. He felt an electric charge he wasn’t prepared for and pulled away abruptly.

“Do I love my wife? Aren’t I supposed to love my wife?”

“I’m not trying to be unkind,” Amber said.

“It’s too late to do anything about not loving her, anyhow,” Jim said. “You know sometimes I can’t even remember our wedding day? I can’t find any photos. You’d think we would have taken some. I have to ask her about it.” Amber held his hand in hers and smiled and patted it as if she were his mother. “Can I come back and—talk to you again?” Jim asked. Amber smiled and nodded and his face reddened again. He couldn’t remember why he’d come over in the first place.

“Of course! Perhaps you can help me with the front yard,” she said, holding the side yard door open for him. “Oh by the way, you might want to have your own gardener do some trimming in your backyard. Your English ivy is both poisonous and encroaching—see?” Amber pointed to the end of her lot where ivy was indeed coming over the seven-foot tall property fence. It had started to wind itself into the cypress trees along the fence and was already half way up the palm trees. Jim heard the motor of his wife’s car pulling up to the house and thrust the baggy deep in his pocket and tucked the talisman inside his buttoned down shirt. He hung back for a few minutes until he heard her go inside. Jim looked up and down the street. As usual, no one was anywhere to be found though the disembodied sound of children playing in a backyard somewhere in the neighborhood could be heard. It always gave Jim a bit of assurance—that sound of children—and the smell of blowers and gasoline. He could close his eyes and know he was in his south county suburb.

*****

Tatyana stood outside the turret and pounded its door. Jim stood in the window again, but this time fingering the talisman Amber had given him. He wore it under his clothes or kept it in the turret. Two weeks had gone by since he’d spoken to Amber. She had pulled up a corner of Astroturf to reveal a large hole underneath about four feet deep. Maybe her chalk swimming pool would become a real spa in the front yard. He chuckled to himself. He wouldn’t put it passed her to do something like that. She looked straight up at him, pulled the front of her peasant dress to the side so that he could see she had nothing on underneath. Then Amber winked. He waved back.

“Jim! Open this door,” Tatyana cried out as she tried the doorknob again.  She sounded mildly frightened, but that could have also been because been noticing a change in Jim. He seemed more irritated at her than usual and he seemed to be fighting back on her demands. He’d told her he wasn’t up for having her family come over to stay with them, for starters. Tatyana told him that she was sure he’d change his mind soon.

“It’s not time for dinner yet, Tat—what’s up?” He said opening the door, just three inches, the way you might for a Jehovah’s Witness coming to the door.

“You aren’t acting yourself lately. It feels like you don’t want me around. But we have a deal—I’m your beautiful wife on your arm, and you are my breadwinning loving husband. Here. I made this for you to help you get back to being yourself again,” Jim looked at her coldly, almost cruel. Tatyana held out a reddish opaque beverage in a martini glass. He took the glass.

“I’ll be down in awhile, Tatyana. Thank you for the drink.”

“It’s a tonic. To help you feel better. Be sure to drink it all—has a better effect that way. Dinner will be ready in a half hour, okay?”

“Looks delicious,” Jim smiled at Tatyana and shut the door. He waited to hear her footsteps on the stairs before he locked the door again. She must think him an idiot. He took the drink to the window and poured the contents into the box of red geraniums beneath. It smelled of poison—what kind, he didn’t know. For the past two weeks, since the night he decided to take a bath with what Amber had given him, things had been strange. Tatyana had run into the master bath staring at him in the tub asking why the room smelled like hyssop and frankincense. It was something he was trying for his arthritis he said. She looked at him—like she knew he knew something.

Since then she’d been making him drinks and so far he hadn’t drank one but the plants through out the house had become well-watered. She’d never made drinks for him before and since the day Amber declared she might be a witch, Jim starting watching Tatyana’s every move.  Jim noticed Tatyana didn’t seem so pretty to him anymore. She was too skinny for him and she dressed as if she were colorblind, sticking too much gold on everything.

Tatyana must have sensed his mood; she got desperate. She offered her body to him—which was uncharacteristic enough for her, but she also stood in the doorway of the turret in pasties and a thong, asking to come in.  He smiled at her and traced her body from her lips, down her neck to her breasts—and then shut the door on her.

Tatyana was frantic. She came up to kiss him whenever he entered the room—something he used to do to her but then gave up. He ignored her. She took up dusting and told the maid she was not needed after all. Most of all, Jim enjoyed watching her nervousness around him.  She didn’t bring up the immigration lawyer or her kids or her mother again. It was as if he had suddenly won a game he didn’t know he’d been playing. Jim paced the turret with the gait of someone just waking up from a long sleep. He needed Tatyana gone, he thought. Then he went down to dinner with his empty glass.

*****

“Jim, I’ve been meaning to tell you, it’s time we pay the new gardener. I mean we can get someone else or do it ourselves. Or I could do it. But anyhow, we do owe him.”

“What’s his name again?” asked Jim.

“Miguel. Miguel Santos.” Something in the way she said Miguel’s name made Jim raise an eyebrow. He heard that name before but couldn’t place it.  Tatyana set down yet another plate of medallions of meat and chopped up potatoes. He wondered if the food was hexed and got up from the table to fix a giant salad in the kitchen.

“I can fix that for you,” said Tatyana, reaching for the fridge door.

“I like to make my own salads, thanks,” said Jim.

“You know Tatyana, no one sees the backyards around here. We don’t have to do any landscaping at all.       I’m saving more money by just letting it be,” said Jim.

“Sure they do. Everyone with a drone can see the backyards,” said Tatyana.

“No,” said Jim. “No.” He felt strange like something had just broken inside him. He looked up at Tatyana and for a brief moment where he couldn’t remember how it came to be that he was with her in the first place. He’d never online dated before and all of a sudden he was flying to a foreign country and bringing back a bride.

“Tatyana where are the photos of my children on the sideboard? I had them up there I know I did.”

“Jim, we’ve never had family photos in this house. You don’t talk to your children, remember? The falling out?” He remembered no such thing. There were no photos of the their wedding either.

“Oh yes. Falling out,” Jim said. Tatyana kept her eyes fixed on his. He smiled at her and he calmed a bit.

“If you want salads so much, I will make you a special dressing tomorrow,” Tatyana said. Jim reached into his shirt and touched the talisman. He got up with his salad plate as if to go back in the kitchen, but he dropped the plate once he got behind Tatyana, and put his hands around her neck.

“You have one hour to pack your things and get out of here,” Jim snarled.

“This. Is. My. House. I worked too hard for this for you to screw it up now,” said Tatyana gasping for air. Tatyana rose from her seat and tried to turn to face Jim all the while his thumbs pressed into her throat. “Look me in the eyes and tell me to leave,” Tatyana said.

“Leave,” Jim said without looking at her, “Get out of my house. I didn’t marry you. I never would have done that.”

“Fine. I’ll be gone in an hour. But I’m keeping my car,” Tatyana said.

“That’s in my name, not yours. You better find someplace to uber to my dear. I want you gone.” Jim said. She picked up her phone of the sideboard and ran out of the room. She placed a call in which she said only two words. ‘He knows.’

He heard her car engine but hadn’t heard her pack anything. He heard her yell to someone. Him maybe? He didn’t know. Maybe she was going for reinforcements, he thought. Who were those people she said she knew? Jim wanted to know and wanted to watch whatever was going to go down but not from there.

*****

“Get in,” Tatyana said to Miguel as he parked his pick up between the two houses.

“I was surprised to get your call,” Miguel said, “we usually get together later.”

“Get in. I’ll explain,” Tatyana said, “can we go to your place?”

“Sure but I’m parked here.”

“Just get in. Oh Miguel,” and with that Tatyana was sobbing and Miguel locked up his truck and took off with Tatyana just a few miles away to where his apartment was in Lake Forest—a city with neither a lake nor a forest but row after row of gated apartments filled with retirees and those who worked for the people in the cities next door. Miguel had thought he’d be spending the evening working on his garden in Amber’s backyard.  But his girlfriend, Tatyana had other things happening, apparently. Tomorrow was supposed to be the day she introduced him to her husband so that he could secure building another shed in another backyard that connected between all the foliage. Miguel secured eleven backyards that owners didn’t know what to do with.

Miguel was a dealmaker. He would work for free on the backyards in exchange for access to them. Behind Amber’s he’d put a gardening shed –well it looked that way from the outside, but the inside was a small off the grid cabin. He was hoping to put up another garden shed on Tatyana’s side of the cypress and ivy barrier. It would double the size and with it bordering the culvert it gave him more possibilities for movement. He would connect that one by tunnel to the neighbor on the other side. Miguel was a man who liked the idea of having escape routes and additional housing because, well, you never know. If he figured out how to bring water and power without being seen, he could have a whole network of places and could let go his apartment and the shitty overpriced rent he was paying to live between old ladies who wore American flag windbreakers and families of six in a two bedroom apartment taking up all the parking. Miguel patted Tatyana on her hand as she pulled in front of his gate and he keyed her in. He took her upstairs and let her ride out her sorrow for awhile. She was one of those women who could never be happy because she’d been in survival mode too long.

“You have to go back,” Miguel said when she came back from the bathroom. He was already dressed—he still had an evening of work ahead of him.

“I had him taken care of—“

“You…what?”

“Well yeah—I left before they got there.” Tatyana rummaged through her purse for a cigarette though she knew full well Miguel didn’t like her smoking in there.

“What did you do exactly?”

“Some family friends from Bratislava. They are just talking to him that’s all. He can’t throw me out. He only has me and his stupid kids that hardly come around since I hexed them.”

“You shouldn’t mess with things like that. They never end well.”

“Look. Jim will have to do until I find someone with more money. He’s not bad when he’s not trying to get laid and stays out of my way most of the time. It’s just something has gotten into him lately. It’s like I have no control,” said Tatyana. Miguel took her cigarette hand and pushed the cigarette down on the metal tray on the coffeetable.

“What if I wanted something more out of you? What if I wanted us to be legit?”

“And live in this dump? No, thank you.”

“You’re all heart, Tatyana. I need my truck. We need to go back. I’ll drive you.” Miguel took her key and escorted her back to her car and drove the two miles back to the lane on the hillside that was slowly becoming Miguel’s in his own way. There were so many bored housewives who needed gardeners.

He turned left onto Ambassador Lane. Up ahead he could see three police cars in front of his truck. He pulled over and got out of the driver’s seat, leaving Tatyana to figure stuff out on her own and walked back down the lane to the back of Amber’s property and the culvert to wait.

*****

“What’s going on officer?” said Tatyana as she pulled into the driveway of the castle.

“We have reason to believe that there’s been a kidnapping?”

“Kidnapping? Of who?” asked Tatyana.

“Are you the wife? We’d like to ask you a few questions. Do you know whose truck this is?” Said the officer.

“Probably some gardener’s,” said Tatyana.

“But that’s—kidnapped who? My husband? My uncles were due to come over. Perhaps they took him somewhere?” Tatyana started to elaborate and then realized that she needed to stay quiet. They led her into her own dining room table and she sat there and tried to come up with an alibi on the fly to tell the detective. The next door neighbor, it seems, had seen Jim forced into a car by two men in a van. He looked like he was in bad shape at the time. She’d been standing in her front yard and seen it all. Tatyana’s breathing started to get shallow and panicked.

“Well I don’t know where he is right now. You see we’d had an argument and my cousins were about to come over for dinner and I just left to take a drive to calm down.”

“It looks like you all already ate dinner,” said the second officer. “Why don’t you call your cousins. And are you sure they’re cousins? I could have sworn you said uncles.”           Tatyana hadn’t expected all this and went blank.

“Call them,” said the first officer. Neighbors walking their dogs had seen two men drive up to the house in a van as well. The dog neighbors had never seen anyone visit the house since the building was finished a year ago and not even the kids who grew up there visited anymore. They saw two men pushed open the front door without ringing the doorbell or knocking. They called the police from down the street a safe distance away.            When the cops got to the house it was empty. Just a note that said, “Tatyana stays if you know what’s good for you” and the busted front door. The neighbor watering weeds in the front lawn named Amber verified what the dog neighbors said.

“I said call them,” the first officer again. Tatyana slowly reached into her purse but could not bring herself to call fast enough.

“We think you better go to the station with us and explain why your name is on this note. Clearly your husband wasn’t planning on going anywhere. There’s a dinner plate on the floor and his drink looks untouched,” said the first officer.

“Um, he’s not married,” said the second. “I just ran the plates and got more info on him online. Twice divorced father of two. You mind telling us who you are lady? Are you the housekeeper?”

“I DO NOT KEEP HOUSE,” said Tatyana emphatically, “I don’t have to do that. I’m from Europe, you know, not Mexico.”

“You’re coming with us,” said the first officer who shook his head silently to himself. You’d think with the name Martinez on the badge they’d watch the racism, but no, they never did. He led Tatyana out of the castle and into the back of a squad car. The officer shut the door and turned back to the house just as the detective gave a howl.

He’d found blood. Jim’s blood. On the door handle leading up to the turret.

*****

Jim was surprised at how different Amber’s house was in reality to what he’d imagined. He had imagined macramé owls and faded shag carpet and wood paneling the way many of the non-renovated houses in the neighborhood looked. Then after the talisman and bath thing two weeks ago, he’d been certain he’d find a cauldron in there. It was clean lines of mission furniture and white walls and wrought iron and niches in the walls with saint candles. Amber wore no shoes in the house –and offered Jim guest slippers, though he went barefoot too. He lay on her couch with his feet up drinking a microbrew.

When Tatyana left the house he’d gone back to the turret to see if Amber was in her yard. He’d noticed by the door to the turret there was a stone in the corner and under it—written in red ink—was his name and hers in a heart as well as a bloodied white dove feather. It gave him the uneasy feeling that he’d seen something he shouldn’t have. He turned the paper over and over again trying to discern some meaning and went to shove it into his pocket when it sliced his fingers. Paper cut.

He brought the paper to Amber to ask what it meant. Her eyes went wide and she nodded as if in agreement to something he didn’t know. She took it out of his hands and burned it over the white candle she kept lit on her mantle. Then she burned the feather and said words he didn’t understand. Maybe they were in a different language, he thought, but none that he knew.

Amber. When he was in turret tower and in the front yard she clearly teased him, maybe even wanted him, he thought. But both in the backyard and now at her immaculate kitchen counter, full of pale marble and Ikea renovation, she didn’t flirt at all.

“So why does your front yard look the way it does when the rest of everything is so—cleaned up?” He felt regret in asking almost immediately. He didn’t mean to insult her. Amber smiled to herself. She had soup simmering on the stove. She gave it a stir.

“You have security cameras. I have an old shitty car in the driveway and an installation piece in the front yard. Who would break in to my house? They know from the outside that there’s nothing to steal,” Amber set out two bowls and poured a soup—chicken tortilla. Jim took his bowl appreciatively and took the first few bites. It smelled and tasted amazing. It occurred to him that he hadn’t eaten another woman’s cooking in ages.

“I could set up cameras for you if you want. I have some spares,” said Jim.

“I’m okay with things the way they are,” said Amber.  “You know, I’m beginning to see how Tatyana was able to get to you in the first place.”

“How so?” asked Jim.

“You don’t really know me but you come over here willingly. You come for my help but I don’t think you’ve done your research, mister, because you’re here eating my food and hanging out in my house and don’t seem the slightest bit afraid of witches.”

“I’m at ease here,” said Jim, “I’m not sure why I feel that way but I do. And you’re no witch—you’re more like a Sawdust Festival hippie.” Amber raised her eyebrow at him. She was kind of a hippie. She knew that. And she loved the festival.

“Did it occur to you Jim, that having understood what Tatyana has been doing to you with witchcraft might mean that I could do the same?” Amber asked. She blew him a kiss and he smiled back at her. She got out a cutting board and began to chop limes. She limed a glass and dipped it in salt, poured the margaritas contents from the blender and garnished with a lime. It looked absolutely delicious and magical. She handed it to Jim.

“It tastes marvelous. Witchcraft, huh? Maybe you’re just a great hostess.”

“You are under my spell, Jim.” Amber said. “It’s a harmless one. I’m helping you see what your life with Tatyana really was. I’m helping you recognize it. I’m helping to bring you peace—but I won’t steal your money. I have my own.”

“I came over of my own free will,” Jim said. He felt indignant and a little confused. If it were a spell, when did it start? Where would it end? Jim heard someone walking in from the backyard and he grew alarmed. Amber smiled and ran her hand down his arm. It was Miguel.

“Oh hi Miguel,” said Amber. “Jim, this is my friend Miguel—he’s the one who designed my backyard I was telling you about. Miguel this is the man from the castle.” Miguel smiled uncomfortably and a vision of Tatyana on top of him flashed before his eyes as he shook Jim’s hand. He almost felt guilty.

“I love your work with Amber’s yard. Mine is coming along in the back. My—

wife hired someone to work it and so far, so good,” said Jim.

“She hired me,” Miguel said and took a swig of the margarita Amber held out for him. Of course he didn’t know. He raised his glass at Amber and took a second drink, “Your libations are always magical aren’t they?”

“That’s what I try and tell you people,” she said.

“Oh. Well then. Thank you! It’s looking great,” Jim said, holding his glass out for more. Amber refilled his glass.

“Thank you.” Miguel put his glass down and Amber refilled. He put his arm around her waist. Jim looked taken aback.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were—“

“We’re not,” said Amber, “but we’ve become good friends.”

“Indeed we have,” said Miguel. “Whatever this wonderful lady wants done, I do for her. And what does the lovely Amber want this evening?” Amber looked between the two men and smiled.

“Well, I could use a good massage later—by either of you two gentlemen—or both—but right at the moment I think I need to focus on making sure Tatyana leaves Jim along for good. Miguel, how did that work out?” Jim usually didn’t drink anything but his microbrews and on his third margarita he was feeling tired and couldn’t follow much of the conversation. He got up from the kitchen barstool and collapsed on the floor.

“Well that was taking forever,” Amber said, “Get him to the couch, will you?” Miguel picked Jim up and carried him over to the long white sofa. He felt sorry for the man. “How did it go with the not-wife?”

“Perfect. Though I’m kind of sad that was the last time.”

“There are better women out there for you,” said Amber. She leaned over Jim to make sure he was out and then got out some haircutting scissors and gave him a trim. She placed his hairs in a vial. She fetched a doctor’s bag and drew his blood—though it was messy with the alcohol in his system. She put some of his blood in another two vials and handed them to Miguel—who placed one in the freezer on a tray with others behind the ice cream. He went out to Tatyana’s car and spilled the other one in much of the back seat along. He placed a few of Jim’s hairs back there. If things went bad, Tatyana would take the fall and no one else.

“He’ll probably sleep the rest of the hour. You know, he’s really not that bad. Likeable even—it’s just that house is so—awful.” Amber ran her fingers across Miguel’s chest and he turned around and hoisted her up on the top of the couch. She was too old for him, but he’d drank the same elixir as Jim. He slid his hands underneath her dress and she unzipped his pants. She kissed him at the same time. Miguel wondered what she’d eaten. Her kisses tasted unusually sweet. He needed to have her.

A vibration buzzed in Jim’s pocket and then a phone finding alarm. Shit, Amber thought. She’d totally forgotten about checking for a phone. It felt like only seconds before she heard the knock on the door. Miguel quietly stepped back through the sliding glass door and on to the patio to retreat to his shed house. Amber straightened herself up and went to open the door.

Detective Bustamante had Tatyana’s phone in his hand; it had found Jim’s.

“Good evening, I’m Detective Bustamante. I’d love to ask you a few questions—particularly how it is that your neighbor’s phone is in your house.” Amber smiled at the detective and moved a wisp of hair from the v-neck of her dress. He observed that she didn’t have anything on under it.

“Well, Jim and I are good friends. What with his crazy wife trying to kill him and all, I invited him over here to rest awhile—I’ll wake him up for you. Poor thing, you know I think she may have put something in his beer. He came over, had his usual margarita with us and just passed out. I’m sure it’s the stress. Would you like a margarita? ”

“Well it’s good to see him here—I guess there’s no kidnapping then—probably just neighbors with wild imaginations. I can’t drink on the job but those certainly look good.”

“Well I called in what I saw. Poor man! That harpie that lives with him does nothing but take advantage of him. I’m so sorry I hadn’t gotten around to calling you all to tell you that he came back here. It’s been quite a day in our quiet little neighborhood,” said Amber. She handed Detective Bustamante a margarita.

“Yes. Nothing much of interest happens here so I bet any little thing out of place gets to people,” said Bustamante.

“The neighbors all hate my garden. That’s usually the only thing out of place.” Detective Bustamante nodded and smiled. He wished all the people he came in contact with were as pleasant as Amber. He sipped at the margarita to be polite but found himself finishing it. There was no reason to hold Tatyana if her husband was here and he looked fine. Peaceful even. But why the blood on the door earlier?

“I’m going to have to wake him. There was blood on his door,” said Bustamante.

“Ah! He told me he had a paper cut. Look at his hand. Ouch,” said Amber. “So where’s Tatyana? Back at the precinct?” Bustamante nodded.

“You live here alone?” asked Bustamonte. Amber nodded. Jim started to make talking sounds that neither of them could make out. Amber left the men alone for a few minutes and came back with a tray of coffee and handed a cup to the detective. She put Jim’s cup under his nose and he slowly began to wake up. Bustamonte sat across from him and took a couple of swigs of coffee. Café de Olla. How did she know he’d been wanting some?

“Hello sir. I’m Detective Bustamonte and I’d like to ask you a few questions. Can you account for your whereabouts today?”

“I was at my house. And then I left my house once I realized my wife—actually she’s not my wife. I never married her. I mean the woman who lives in my house, was gone.”

“That would be Tatyana?”

“Yes.”

“Did you have any reason to believe someone might want to harm you?”

“Yes. Tatyana said something about “her people” coming to talk to me. It sounded like a veiled threat but things haven’t been so good between us lately and I thought I’d come over and see my neighbor, Amber and we’d hang out while I figured out what was happening. Hey. Where’s Miguel?”

“Miguel?” Asked Bustamante. “Is that whose truck is outside?”

“That would be my gardener. He’s been working in the back all day. I’ve got him working on several of my projects out there. Would you like me to go get him?” said Amber, coming in carrying a tray of chocolate chip cookies. The men each took one. “His English isn’t great. Gardener, you know.” Jim’s looked puzzled; his English had been fine. He’d never even noticed it.

“No need to bother the man if you say he’s been working in the back all day,” said Bustamante. He walked towards the sliding glass door. “It’s beautiful out there. Is he going to do the front too?”

“Nah,” said Amber.

“Where’s Tatyana now?” Asked Jim.

“We’re still holding her for a moment. We thought with blood on the door that maybe—does your gardener always stay this late?“

“Well, my dear detective, I have him hanging lights outside. You need to be able to see what they look like at night to do them correctly. Do you want to speak to him?”

“No, that’s alright.”

“That was probably me bleeding on the door. I had a nasty cut on my hand,” said Jim. The detective nodded and pulled his business card out from his jacket pocket and handed it to Jim. Jim showed him his cut.

“Thank you for answering my questions. I’ll be on my way.” He finished his café de olla. It went down smooth.

“Thank you for checking. Should I be looking at a restraining order?” asked Jim.

“That’s up to you,” said Detective Bustamonte holding a last bite of cookie in his hand as he showed himself out. Jim looked like he wasn’t sure at all what to do next. He stuffed a cookie in his mouth and drank down his coffee. He felt sobered up.

“She will come back,” Amber said, “but we will be ready for her. Jim, I want you to go home and I’ll send Miguel over with you if you’d like. Find anything she’s written on. She’s casting spells. Find them. We need to create a bonfire and burn them to break them. I know it sounds weird but this is what must be done.”

Jim and Miguel went next door and began looking under things and finding her scribbling of notes under candleholders and vases. He went through her room, his bedroom and bath. They found little tiny altars in corners where if you weren’t looking at it in a particular way you’ve never guess that there was witchcraft in a pile of rocks with some slight bit of hair or part of Jim’s nails and some small token of his. A cap from a microbrew.  A decades old Boy Scouts pin. When they’ve covered the whole house and put all the pieces in a big shopping bag, Miguel brought over a hibatchi and started the coals in the front yard. Jim didn’t think she’d ever been in the turret but he checked through it just in case. Underneath the small round Turkish rug outside the door, he found a note in Tatyana’s handwriting that said, “the house is mine, his heart is mine, his life is mine.” Jim took up the note, written in reddish ink, perhaps blood the way it dried brown and put it in the bag.

“It’s ready!” Miguel called up to him. Jim made his way down the turret. He felt a bit groggy, like he was in a bit of daze and couldn’t remember making the decision to burn anything yet he knew that he had to. He walked out the front door as Tatyana rounded the corner in a car. He tried to stare her down as she pulled up but her eye-line went straight to Miguel. He shook his head and put an envelope on the grill; watched it burst into flames. She screamed.

“What are you doing here?” Tatyana said as she slammed the car door shut.

“Don’t be silly, Tat—this is Miguel. I believe you hired him to tend my property.”

“I know who he is.”

“Hello, lover,” said Miguel. Tatyana had a sudden look of fear in her eye and motioned as if to silence, Miguel.

“Oh no worries, Tat,” said Jim. “He’s a handsome guy and I know you must have been getting it from somewhere.” Tatyana looked back and forth between the two men. She opened up her purse and pulled out a small hand gun.

“Oh come on, baby, put that away,” said Miguel.

“Why are you talking to each other? What have you said?” She looked between the two men and moved the gun between them. Miguel moved towards her and reached for her hand to push the gun away but she moved and shot him in the thigh. She shot him again a little higher, but she did not reach his heart. He fell back onto the driveway, his blood beginning to wet the grass growing between the squares and staining the concrete. Tatyana turned to Jim.

“Jim darling, why don’t you get inside the house. Go on. Up in your castle—your wife will bring you a nitecap,” Tatyana smiled, stepping over Miguel’s as if he wasn’t there.

Jim looked at her as if she were a stranger that he perhaps knew from somewhere. He wondered where his son and daughter were and thought that he should call them soon. Then he looked beyond Tatyana, where Amber stood with a knife in her left hand, and her right fingers to her lips gesturing quiet.

“I think, I’ll stay out here awhile, Tatyana. Or who ever you are. You are not my wife.”

“Of course I’m your wife, don’t you remember?” Jim stood before Tatyana, the shopping bag of her spells at his feet. She concentrated all her energy on his eyes. If she could just see through to him—hypnotize him—she could fix this.

“Then kiss me, Tatyana,” Jim said, “and put that gun away.” Yes! It’s working Tatyana thought to herself as she laid the gun back in her open purse and stepped towards Jim. He caught her there in an awkward embrace. Holding her so that her body could not move beyond him. It gave Amber a steadier target. Jim lifted Tatyana’s face in his hands, giving Amber’s knife the room it needed to split her throat. He knew she was gone when he tasted the blood in her kiss.

*****

“We live in the best neighborhood, Jim,” said Amber as they placed the Astroturf back in place. “Now I have to check on Miguel. Those shots knocked the wind out of him, but I’m sure what I gave him and a little more care will have him back to normal in no time.”

“Amber –you’re incredible.

“I like to think of myself as a healer,” Amber said. “I’ll check on you in the morning. I’ll call if Miguel needs anything. Thanks, Jim.” Jim went back to his side of the yard and to the driveway where the coals on the hibatchi were still hot. Jim took matches out of his pocket and reached into the shopping bag still standing where he left it when he said goodbye to Tatyana. He lit one of the papers on fire and let it fall into the grill, and then another, then another, until all the contents of the bag were gone and then he burnt the bag itself. None of the dog neighbors or any of the other neighbors had been out or heard a thing.

Jim took a long shower then headed up to his turret and left the door unlocked. He looked down at Amber’s yard and wondered if it would bother him to know Tatyana resided in a bag in a whole dug for step down spa.  He could see Amber pulling some leaves off a plant. He heard her mumbling some words, and then she turned and looked up at him. She walked through to his yard and the smoldering coals of the hibatchi filled with the ash of Tatyana’s black magic. Amber sprinkled some leaves on it and said more words. The flame went purple and then blue. He stared down at her and felt himself rise a bit down below. With her back to the street, she opened her dress to him and stood naked before him. She howled up at him. Then she turned and headed to her own house and walked back inside. The driveway returned to normal. The grill—and any bloodstains gone.

“He’s going to do it,” Amber told Miguel as she resoaked the towel she had on his head in cold water.

“I just want his backyard,” Miguel said, you can have the house.”

“And you shall have it. And I won’t have to look at that goddess awful castle anymore.” In the pocket of her dress she thumbed a few strands of Jim’s hair.

*****

            Jim felt a genuine smile return to his face for the first time in years as his pickaxe went into the dry wall of the turret. It would take a few weeks for the remodel to be completed but he was anxious for Amber—his new wife—to have the home she’d always wanted. To think she’d been his neighbor all this time. Even his kids liked her. They were over more these days. Amber loved to cook for them.

He had one panel of drywall left. He stopped a moment to look out the window one last time. Ah! Their neighborhood—a quiet, peaceful place with lush, full gardens, a few people walking their dogs now and then. He heard children laughing and a leaf blower. Ambassador lane: a heavenly place where everyone minded their own business under the blue skies. He breathed in a refreshing ocean breeze then turned to thrust the ax in the wall of the turret once more.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed The Neighborly Thing by Margaret Garcia, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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