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?
I hope you enjoy Episode 5!
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.