Malric bit his tongue to shut out the memory. It terrified him and filled him with rage because the Guild had refused to believe his story, refused to believe because they had planned his death from the start of that job.
Malric’s thoughts of vengeance were disturbed by approaching horsemen. He quickly disengaged himself from the thicket, silent and dark like a piece of the night itself. He lowered himself into the tall grass and waited.
The rider was wrapped in an emerald cloak that seemed to swallow his gaunt frame. He bridled his powerful gray warhorse to a post near the southern portal. Malric crawled forward to make sure he was within earshot. A sentry stepped out of the darkened alcove of the southern portal and confronted the rider. The rider held his arms towards the sky in supplication and cried, “He will rise again!”
“Aye, and make his servants Lords and Keepers of the Land!” replied the sentry.
The two figures then disappeared into the darkness of the temple. Malric crawled back to the thicket on his belly. His mare snorted at his approach.
Malric rose and put his palm against the mare’s head until she was silent. Malric removed his tools and two throwing daggers from the saddlebag. He ran a hand along the outside of his right boot and felt the reassuring shape of Sliver within.
What he was about to do went against all of the rules of engagement he had learned as a thief. He was slightly nervous, and he accidentally let the buckles of the saddlebag fall against one another. It was a subtle noise, but Malric removed a dagger from his waist all the same. Finally, after several moments of utter stillness, he sheathed the blade.
Malric shook off his doubts and mounted his steed. He moved off at a slow canter towards the town, careful to stay within the thicket’s perimeter. As soon as the shrine had disappeared into the velveteen background of the night he moved out of the thicket and once more rode towards the Temple of Thulos.
Striking the mare with his boots, he slid low into the saddle as it broke into a full gallop. He gripped a throwing dagger in one tense, sweaty palm and gritted his teeth as he struggled to stay horsed. The temple was just ahead.
Hearing the sentry unsheathe his blade, Malric pulled back hard on the reins, causing the mare to neigh and flail its forehooves. Malric shifted in the saddle and his dagger missed the sentry. Placing both hands on the hilt of his broadsword, the sentry prepared to strike. Malric watched in horror and struggled to fight the horse back.
A moment later a hoof crushed the sentry’s face, sending him crashing to the earth in a shower of armor. His hands trembling, Malric leapt from the saddle and finished the job by slitting the sentry’s throat.
In this episode, Malric travels into the wilderness beyond Sulsut to investigate the mysterious sect of Thulos.
Malric rode hard towards the sea. The hood of his cloak was off and his black hair flowed behind him in the slipstream like a mane. He was in love with the desolation beyond the city limits. Out here there was no need for secrecy. Even a renegade from the Thieves’ Guild was welcome to the rocky cliffs and wheeling gulls.
The Temple of Thulos was far out on the point, close to the lighthouse. Malric knew little about the sect, only that Thulos was the supposed deity of the Scavengers, a race of amphibious half-men who often attacked ships coming out of Sulsut Harbor. According to Sol, the temple itself was designed as a single vertical shaft that delved deep into the cliffs by the sea. The thought of meeting other members of the Guild in such a place weighed heavily on Malric, but the weight of the pouch of gold on his belt was heavier than the weight of his fear.
Dusk soon fell to night, and the wind off the sea sent a chill through Malric, and he wrapped his cloak about him as he neared the Thulos temple. It was a short, dome-shaped structure with portals at each of the compasspoints. Above each portal was the signet of Thulos—six sinuous limbs connected to a dark circle. Malric had been told that only one of the portals led down into the heart of the shrine.
Malric led his mare over to a group of pines some fifty yards distant from the temple. He was close to the cliffs now, and the wind sliced through the trees like a scythe, invading every exposed pore of his skin. He bridled his steed in the center of a thicket and rested his back against a nearby pine. He pulled the coarse fabric of his hood over his head and let his gaze wander out to the stars. There was no sound except for the occasional shuffling of the mare’s hooves against the earth.
The stars brought back memories of Malric’s boyhood, of lying on rooftops and watching the stars moving in their calm timeless paths above the din of Sulsut’s night life. He remembered the excitement of his early pilferings — shinnying down bowers into windows then escaping into the night by rooftop. As a bastard child in Sulsut his occupation in thievery was more or less preordained.
As Malric grew more relaxed, the memories spilled out of his mind more rapidly, progressing into his manhood; a whirlwind of sensation and emotion. One kept recurring. It was the memory of Galron’s face as he peered over the edge of the pit down at Malric. It was a wicked mask of hate made more hideous because it was worn by a man Malric had once called blood brother. The images that followed were worse. They depicted something sliding through the bones and other debris that littered the floor of the pit, something with a long, twisting body, hungry eyes, and blade-like mandibles . . .
In this episode of Secrets in Sulsut, Malric recovers from his injuries while Sol studies the mysterious ring of Thulos.
Malric and Sol sat by the fire. The storm had once again worked itself up into a downpour, and it struck the thatched roof like muffled laughter. Malric and Sol were talking excitedly over a small golden object.
“See this signet, Malric? It is the signet of Thulos, the ancient one of the sea, the leader of the sea dogs.”
“I’m sure Dirk stole it,” said Malric dryly. “Perhaps . . . but what if not? What if members of the Guild have joined the Thulos sect?”
“Really, old man, I think that owl of yours flew away with your senses.”
“There is no need for debate. I will read the object’s past. Finish your mead.”
Sol retired to an adjacent room. Malric continued to drink, feeling warm and content for the first time in weeks. He studied the cozy room, the frightful array of books, skulls, and vials that lined the shelves and walls. Sol’s owl studied him from its perch on the mantle over the fireplace.
An hour later Sol returned, his face drawn and grave. He placed a bag of gold down on the table in front of Malric.
“Dirk was a member of the Thulos sect. I have also discovered that others from the Guild have joined. Something has happened. The city of Sulsut is in grave danger. I want you to investigate the Thulos sect.” All of the cheer had left Sol’s manner, as if the storm outside had swept through his being and left everything gray.
Malric was oblivious to Sol’s distress. He was warm and dry by the fire. He had just been given a pouch of gold and flowing cups of honeymead. Malric was more than content, he was downright drunk. There was only one thing missing from this moment—the singing of steel and the last gasping breaths of his enemies.
In this episode, Malric escapes the temple and is healed by the wizard Sol.
Malric shinnied out of the window of a squat, black temple. He did not even try to break his fall to the ground. He was barely cognizant of the sensation of falling at all, or the fact that he was lying face down in the dirt.
After several minutes of difficult breathing, Malric unsteadily rose, still living a vivid dream of battle with phantom ships and luminous skeletal warriors.
Waving his imaginary saber and issuing meek battle cries, Malric staggered into the gardens behind the boulevard known as Tin-Ka Tah.
The last thing Malric remembered was stumbling out of the Temple of Tin-Ka Tah, the venom of a giant centipede coursing through his veins and the bitter taste of Galron’s betrayal on his lips . . .
He came to. His eyes swam dizzily for several moments, lost in the golden brilliance of Sol’s robes, and finally came into focus.
“Sol?” Malric cried. “But how—”
“I could sense that you were close to death, Malric. Our destinies are closer than you think. I sent out R. David Fulcher 256 Attis, my best owl, to be my eyes in the city. He led me to you.”
“How long have I slept?” inquired Malric.
“It has been a week since I discovered you in the gardens. You should really consider becoming a mage, Malric. It could really improve your quality of living,” said Sol in his old granite voice.
“Even your ill humor suits me well tonight, Sol. I thought I’d never swallow poison again after leaving the Thieves’ Guild.”
Suddenly Malric began to cough, and his temple grew warm. “One moment,” Sol stated, getting up slowly to retrieve a wooden bowl full of amber liquid. “Drink this,” he commanded.
“What is it?” asked Malric.
“Drink it.” Malric looked uncertainly at Sol, and then at the contents of the bowl. Steam rose gently off of the liquid’s surface, which was like a thick syrup. It smelled faintly of wildflowers.
Malric sighed and drank the warm fluid deeply. His eyelids grew heavy. “Thank you, Sol. I owe you much,” he whispered.
“Rest now,” Sol replied, but Malric was already asleep.
In this episode, Marlic learns of Galron’s treachery, and encounters a new horror in the black temple of the Dharin Ki.
“Watch the center tile,” Malric warned. Malric withdrew his blade, Sliver, from its sheath, expecting danger ahead.
The two thieves crept up a narrow spiraling staircase, into a corridor lined with heavy wooden doors and paved with eastern furs and weaves. They were still several levels beneath the ground.
Malric stepped forward into nothingness. For an agonizing moment he swayed on the lip of the pit, watching the carpet that had covered it fall into the darkness below.
Then he was pushed from behind. Plunging headfirst, Malric attempted to roll his body so that he would land on his hands, but he did not complete the revolution and struck the hard stone with his back.
Through the haze of his pain, Malric could see the square of light above him, and Galron’s bearded, scornful face peering over the side.
Malric could not study the bitter picture for long. Slithering through the bones and old blades that covered the floor of the pit came a much older servant of the temple, a long segmented body with countless legs that clicked over the debris as it advanced. Its hungry red eyes and slick mandibles were visible in the near darkness.
Malric sat up and fished among the garbage for Sliver, which had been knocked from his hand upon impact. The beast was almost upon him.
“By Erahorn, Galron shall pay for this,” Malric promised the dead around him. He removed a rusty short sword from the pile.
The centipede reared up its forebody to strike. Malric dodged its mandibles and thrust at the creature. The hard plates that covered the creature’s underbelly deflected the blow.
The creature whipped its long body around Malric’s legs and toppled him as he was rising.
There was an immense pain in Malric’s ankle, and he shrieked. One of the centipede’s hook-like mandibles had found purchase, and the other was greedily trying to take hold.
Malric’s arm was shaking as he raised the blade. Using both hands, he guided the tip into a groove between the creature’s head and the segment before it. He then threw all of his weight forward and down, and there was a sickening crunch as the centipede’s head tore free from the rest of the body and the sword pierced the soft mush of its brain.
Finally the heavy animal chain around Malric’s legs was still, and Malric heaved the carcass from him. Reaching down, he placed a hand on either side of the creature’s dismembered head and worked the mandible out of his ankle, tossing the eggshell skull against the wall.
The stench of the creature’s body was suffocating. Malric looked up with fire in his eyes, but Galron was gone. Malric removed climbing spikes from his belt and steadied himself against the wall before beginning his ascent. He felt faint, and he vomited into the rubbish as he dug for Sliver. He finally found the dagger and wasted no time in mounting the wall. The creature’s venom was already making his head swim.
I’ve decided to try the S&S (“Sword & Sorcery”) Fantasy genre for this month’s series.
“Secrets in Sulsut” was one of my rare attempts at this genre, and I hope it echoes some of the great S&S tales from Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber.
The protagonist is a thief named Malric living in the medieval harbor city of Sulsut.
I hope you enjoy this brief diversion into S&S!
SECRETS IN SULSUT
THE FIRST SECRET:A SECRET VENGEANCE
North of the run-down slums that lined the street known as the Beggars’ Handshake, there is a boulevard of temples and shrines known as Tin-Ka Tah, or “Walk to Stars” in the ancient tongue.
On this boulevard there is a squat, black temple of the Dharin Ki, an elusive sect who walk the streets of Sulsut in grim crimson cloaks, never revealing their features to the light. Their bodies move strangely beneath the folds of their clothing, and their steps are unusually long. In Sulsut, these worshippers and their temple are avoided and disliked by the human residents of the city.
And in this temple, under the composite shades of darkness, stalks a thief named Malric.
Guild-brother Dirk was dying. His body twitched and rocked violently in the flickering torchlight, sick with poison.
Malric and Guild-brother Galron worked feverishly at Dirk’s belt, cutting loose the small pouches of gems that had been pried from the ornaments of the Dharin Ki temple. The murderer lay beside its victim, the black exoskeleton in the region of its thorax crushed and oozing green blood. Its fly-like, multi-faceted eyes stared into an apocalypse it would never witness.
Finally the worshipper’s venom ran its course, and Dirk was still.
Malric wished that the combat had never taken place. He wished that Dirk was still alive. He wished that he was roaming the streets of Sulsut, thieving freely as opposed to being trapped in this black shrine.
Most of all, he wished that the worshipper had not thrown off its cloak before attacking Dirk. The six, many jointed appendages and the weeping antennae of the creature were the product of strong sorcery indeed.
After removing the items from Dirk’s belt, Malric removed a ring with an odd signet from Dirk’s hand.
Galron watched him curiously as he did this.
“I find this signet interesting,” Malric said.
“A minor pilfering of Dirk’s, nothing more,” Galron replied in a disinterested tone.
“Perhaps,” Malric replied, stowing the object into his pouch.
“I think that it is best that we leave this accursed place,” hissed Galron, his beady green eyes madly searching the passageway.
Their pace was cautious. It was as if the two of them moved within a cloud of silence, so accomplished were they at their craft. Tapestries hung over the doorways of the chambers that were adjacent to the corridor, undulating with the incense-laden draft, each hiding a potential adversary. Jade idols with ruby eyes stared back at them from niches in the wall. They did not stop to pry the gems loose.
Malric stepped forward and froze. The floor beneath his left foot sank just slightly with his weight, and now attempted to push the foot upwards with spring tension. Malric placed his other foot on the tile to hold it down. He motioned for Galron to step back, and then he sprang forward onto his stomach. He felt a rush of air pass by his head, and watched as a huge blade rolled overhead and disappeared into a slot in the wall.
“By the gods of Erahorn, brother, that was close!” whispered Malric.
In the closing of the story, the hedge and the man next door have been destroyed, and things in the neighborhood slowly return to normal. Unlike the unhallowed ground of Stephen King’s Pet Sematery, it was important to me to have the house and land next door restored to health once the malevolent forces had been banished.
The young couple embodies this theme of renewal, as what better symbolizes Spring and rebirth than the love shared between two people?
I hope you enjoyed this episodic adventure and stay tuned for future episodes of other stories soon.
George and Charles knew they didn’t have much time. The fire department would soon arrive, and they would ask questions.
They forced their way inside the house next door with a crowbar. It was filled with a heady vegetable stench. They found the remains of the old man in the cellar, hard and blackened as if he were mummified. They wrapped the carcass up in a blanket from one of the upstairs bedrooms and carried it out the back door and left it behind a pile of bricks in the Thomas’ back yard.
The various authorities arrived and asked about the fire and the disappearance of the old man, but the Thomas’ and Middletons’ played dumb. Late that night George and Charles heaved the hard, woody thing into the back of George’s van. They drove to a deserted road in some nearby woods. There they burned the corpse and watched as its scent of wood rot and hickory drifted through the trees. They watched until there was nothing left but ashes. Those they scattered.
The authorities came again and again, and for a short while the old man’s mysterious disappearance was a hot media topic. The woods surrounding Sun Terrace were searched extensively with no results. Finally the story lost its fifteen minutes of fame and things began to cool down in Sun Terrace.
A year later a new couple decided to move into the house next door. The woman had an interest in gardening, and discovered that the strip of land between the two houses was especially fertile.
One night in the early spring Billy was awakened by sounds beneath his window, crooning sounds of delight or relief. Looking down from his window, he saw the two lovers embracing on a blanket under the moon. He realized that his parents had been right all along.
In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, the story reaches its fiery climax. Just prior to the action, the stresses of a new job and new home have formed cracks in the Thomas’ family life, as if the malevolent energy of the hedge had crept into their home as well.
Please continue to follow my blog after this post, as there will be an epilogue to the tale posted as the final episode.
Billy awoke to the sound of his parents arguing.
By the time he reached the kitchen he knew what the fight was about. His dad had lost the case, his first court case in the new town where he had something to prove.
It always hurt Billy to watch his parents fight, but this morning his excitement about the old man and the mysterious hedge numbed the hurt.
“Calm down, Charles, Billy’s probably up. It’s not good for him to hear us fight.”
“I don’t give a damn about—” Billy’s father cut off the words as he noticed Billy entering the kitchen.
“Dad?” asked Billy meekly.
“Yeah, what’s up, champ?” replied Charles, forcing a smile.
“I saw something last night. Something scary. It’s about the old man next door! He goes into the hedge at night, and his hair becomes leaves, and his legs branches!”
Billy’s father broke into a fit of maniacal laughter.
“You know what, champ? I was just telling your mother that part of that hedge is on our property, and that I was going to use my day off to cut it down.”
“Please, Charles, that man has never done anything to us,” pleaded Sharon Thomas.
“Two against one. I want it down. Billy wants it down. Majority rule,” he replied snidely.
“Let’s burn it down. We have to kill it!”
“We’ll start with trimming it, champ. We’ll see how it goes from there. Who knows?” said Billy’s father, staring defiantly at Sharon. “Maybe we will burn it down.”
“Go to hell, Charles,” she said coldly, and stormed upstairs.
Outside the sky was grey as slate. Mr. Thomas went to the shed and brought back the clippers.
“Do you want to do the honors, sport?” asked Charles, playfully snipping the clippers in the air. Billy backed away from the hedge. He could feel that it was alive, sentient.
“Okay, here goes nothing.” Mr. Thomas raised the clippers and approached the hedge. He clipped off a thin branch and a high-pitched scream arose from the interior of the shuttered house next door.
“What the hell?” muttered Charles, stepping back from the hedge in confused awe.
Suddenly the hedge came to life, its limbs lashing out like whips and wrapping around Billy’s father. A vine snaked around his neck. Billy’s father dropped the clippers and struggled to get his fingers under the vine.
Billy sprang to the ground to retrieve the clippers. A searing pain erupted from his ankle where a thin tendril had begun to gouge its way into his flesh. Still he groped for the clippers, and almost had them, when a thick branch coiled itself around his torso and began to drag him toward the interior of the hedge where hundreds of quivering vines awaited him.
His father fell to his knees, and the veins on his forehead stood up on his blue face. Tears sprang hot on Billy’s eyes as he desperately tried to free himself. Dozens of the vines had latched themselves on to his thin body, and a thick branch danced in front of his face, waiting to lock around his neck.
Amid the chaos Billy heard the screech of tires on the pavement. As he was drawn toward the interior of the hedge Judd Brown’s gnarled face filled his vision, and the pulsing eyes pulled him forward with their gaze.
Suddenly the face stretched into a scream, an ear-piercing shriek like that of a thousand dying gulls wheeling into a storm-riddled sea. Then it faded in its agony. The smell of smoke filled Billy’s nose and he looked around in amazement as the vines and branches reluctantly loosened their hold.
George Middleton stood in front of a blazing section of the hedge, shaking the last oily drops out of a gasoline can. His eyes were the eyes of a warrior, not the eyes of an elderly man who told old war stories from his rocker. Billy finally shook off the last pieces of growth and ran over to assist his father. Once free they walked over to stand next to George, content to say nothing, content to watch it burn.
In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, Billy receives a warning to stay away from the old man, and discovers the old man’s horrible secret.
The hedge is the central device in the tale, and while growing up formed an intimidating barrier between our house and the man next door. It was extremely thick, about ten feet high, and extended all the way from the back yard to the front of the house next door.
Of course, the transformation described in the story never actually took place, but it took place in my mind. And isn’t that where all the fun stuff happens anyway?
The next week workmen came to the house next door in a battered pick up truck filled with sacks of peat moss and tanks of insecticide. Billy stopped on his way to the bus stop to watch them strap the chrome tanks on to their backs like scuba divers. Reluctantly he decided he would risk treading on to the old man’s property to talk with them.
He had to tug on one of the men’s legs to get his attention. Finally the man turned off his sprayer and pushed his goggles up to his brow.
“What do you want, kid?” he asked, his jaws furiously working a stick of gum.
“Do you know the man that lives here?”
“No, kid. Never even met him. Don’t want to either.” The man looked back at the house and then back again to Billy nervously, his eyes filled with fear.
“You his new neighbor?” he asked.
“Yup,” replied Billy.
“Well, I better warn you. One of the guys saw him once when he looked down into one of the basement windows. He thinks the old man has some sort of disease. He said he was real old-looking, older than he thought anyone should be, and he was hard and twisted like tree branches, and had long green fingers like blades of grass. Take it from me, kid, the old man is a freak. If you’re smart, you’ll stay away from him.”
The man looked around nervously once again, then slid his goggles down over his eyes and went back to work.
Billy turned away and ran to the bus stop, his heart racing in his chest as the voice of the workman played back in his head: stay away from him, stay away from him, stay away…
Billy snapped awake. At first he thought it was the wind that had awakened him, because the sound had that particular crooning quality the wind sometimes gets when it blows through narrow spaces. Then Billy heard the feeling behind the sound, and he was sure that the sound was coming from something alive. Billy pulled the covers up to his chin, and he could hear his heart beating in the near silence like a drum.
Cautiously Billy rose from his bed and moved toward the window. He expected to see the nightmare creatures of his dream silhouetted in the distant trees by a fat moon.
But the scene was not from Billy’s dream.
Tonight’s moon was a slim crescent, and nothing but leaves hung on the distant trees.
The sound came again, a whimpering sigh rising in the night, and Billy looked down to the hedge. The old man stood below, his inhuman features evident even in the darkness. He was gnarled and bent, like the workman had described. His eyes were green like unripe tomatoes; his long weedy hair and slender fingers the same color. Green, the green of growing things; just as the rest of him was dark brown, the color of earth and of wood. He was pouring the rich peat moss over his body, moaning softly like a cat.
Billy watched the dark christening from above, spellbound and unable to look away. He did not know how much time was passing, only that the old man was changing…changing into something.
The old man grew wilder, his cries now more like those of a predator, and his eyes pulsed with a fevered frequency.
Billy watched, knowing that he should get his parents, should prove to them that he was right about the old man next door. But something was about to happen, and Billy couldn’t miss it. The old man unwound his sinuous limbs from the sack of peat moss and let it fall at his feet. He became still and quiet. Then, with great effort, he lifted one stumpy leg and took a step into the hedge. The hedge parted and allowed him entrance. There was a grating creak like the sound branches make in a storm when the other leg moved forward.
Billy watched in fascination as leg became root and arms became branch. The old man uttered a sigh of final release, like the contented sigh of the dead, and Billy knew that the old man and the hedge were now one. Billy watched for several minutes more as the old man’s form slowly disappeared into the tangle of branches. Soon only his eyes could be seen, two hovering emerald fireflies trapped in a green bottle.
Please stay, Billy wished to himself, please don’t disappear. I’ve got to show mom and dad I’m right.
But then the old man’s eyes winked out like the eyes of a jack-o-lantern, and there was only a hedge sighing in the breeze left behind for evidence.
In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, the Middletons connect with their neighbors the Thomases, and Billy once again brings up the strange man next door…
The Man Next Door – Episode 4
Billy brought the old man up at breakfast the next morning.
“Did you guys ever notice that the man next door never comes out of his house?” asked Billy tentatively with a mouth full of Frosted Flakes.
“Billy—” his father began.
“I think he’s evil. Maybe a vampire or something, maybe that’s why he always keeps his shades down.”
“Billy, we’ve been through this. That man is our neighbor, and as eccentric as he may or may not be, I will not have you saying such things about him,” said Billy’s father, glaring down at him from over the newspaper.
“What does eccentric mean?” asked Billy.
“It’s another word for weird, dear,” said Mrs.Thomas.
“Well, I’m sorry Charles, but that’s what it means!”
“Okay, okay. That was a poor choice of words. What I mean to say is that whatever our neighbors do is their business, as long as they’re not breaking the law.”
“Is blood sucking against the law?” asked Billy.
Mr. Thomas threw down his paper in disgust and held his head in his hands for several moments. Mrs. Thomas was biting her lip, trying hard not to crack up.
Mr. Thomas looked at her with hostility then turned back to Billy.
“Let me put it this way, champ. Do you want people coming into our house and watching the way that we live?” Billy shook his head in negation. “Of course you don’t. And they don’t want us watching them, understand?”
“Good. Gotta go, champ,” said Mr. Thomas, wiping his mouth with a napkin and throwing on his suit jacket. He pecked his wife on the cheek and a second later was out the door.
“You do understand what your father is trying to tell you, don’t you honey?” asked Billy’s mother.
“Sure, mom,” answered Billy.
But Billy didn’t understand, and that morning on the way to the bus stop he was more careful than ever to stay away from the house next door.
That night the Thomases were invited to dinner by the Middletons, an older couple on the same block.
Billy wasn’t looking forward to the dinner. His father had mentioned that the Middletons were retired, and although Billy didn’t know exactly what that meant he knew it had something to do with them being old. Besides, going to dinner would mean he would have to wear his nice clothes that always made his neck itch around the collar. His mom would probably even make him take a bath.
Billy turned out to be pleasantly surprised by the Middletons. Although they were old, they had a comfortable air about themselves that was very infectious, and Billy had been thrilled to learn that Mr. Middleton had flown a B-17 in World War II.
The dinner was delicious, and Billy concentrated on the juicy strips of roast beef and the heaping mound of mashed potatoes on his plate while the adults engaged in conversation.
Finally, as the plates were being cleared for dessert, Billy could no longer contain himself.
“Mr. Middleton, do you know anything about the old man that lives next door to us?”
Billy’s mother gasped and his father sternly mouthed “No” at him from across the table.
“Now, now, no reason to be hard on the boy. He’s asking a perfectly legitimate question. Your neighbor—Judd Brown’s his name, by the way—is the sort of man who raises eyebrows. The way he keeps himself locked up in that house as if he were dead makes one wonder how he passes his days.”
“I think he’s a vampire,” quipped Billy.
“Well, now, that certainly would explain a few things,” chuckled Mr. Middleton. “He used to be a friendly enough fellow when we moved here. He was a night watchman at some museum downtown, so he would spend most of the daylight hours sleeping. He and his wife went their separate ways a long time ago, but he had a daughter who came by once or twice to see him.” Mr. Middleton shook his head slowly.
“Even back then—that was around 1965, you understand—he seemed old. Real old. I can’t imagine him now. Must be in a wretched state, poor fellow. Some of the other old timers in the neighborhood have suggested that he may have as many as a 110 years on him, but when you get to be their age you tend to get your facts all mixed up.”
Billy stared at Mr. Middleton with shocked concern.
“Now don’t you go worrying about me, Billy,” said Mr. Middleton laughing deeply, “I still have all of my functions.”
“How does he get his food?” asked Mr. Thomas.
“It’s delivered, I suppose. I’ve seen people over there mowing the lawn, so I know he’s still alive and kicking.”
“I saw him in the window,” chimed Billy.
“That so?” asked Mr. Middleton. “What did he look like?”
“He had glowing green eyes, and—”
“Billy, remember our discussion,” boomed Mr. Thomas.
“Go easy on the boy,” said Mr. Middleton. “I’m sure old Judd was quite a sight.” Mr. Middleton paused before going on. “Strange thing is the attention he gives to that hedge of his. People come over once a month to take care of it, you know, lay some new soil over the roots and such. Strange thing is, I don’t recall ever having seen it trimmed. It’s as if the hedge maintains itself.”
“Perhaps it’s a certain species that only grows to a certain height?” suggested Mrs. Thomas.
“No, I’ve seen it up close,” stated Mr. Middleton.
“It’s your run-of-the-mill hedge all right, and it should be a big tangled mess by now, unless that crazy old geezer is going out there to cut it at midnight.”
“Honestly, George!” declared Martha Middleton.
George shrugged and everyone laughed, breaking the ghostly silence that had hung over the table as George talked about Judd Brown.
Martha Middleton retreated to the kitchen, and soon emerged with generous slices of apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream. It was clear that the two families had become fast friends, and before the night was through the four adults had finished off a bottle of champagne.
Shortly before midnight the families bid one another good night and the Thomases walked through the cool summer night toward home.
Billy watched the moths congregate around the streetlights, waiting for the scolding that was bound to come for bringing up the old man next door, but somehow they reached their house and the scolding never came. That night as Billy drifted off to sleep he thought maybe, just maybe, they are starting to believe me.