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.