SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Julia Morris
Mrs. Hurwitz was peeling potatoes at the sink when she heard the noise—at least, that’s the version of events she would be telling Mr. Cooper. In truth, she had been propped up on the sofa flipping through The National Enquirer.
She’d spent the last several hours begging her rampaging children to lay down for a nap. When the little devils proved they could not be bargained with, she crushed two Ambien into their applesauce. They were asleep within the hour.
Following this minor victory, Mrs. Hurwitz was basking in the rare silence. She was halfway through an exposé involving a celebrity cheating scandal and an unplanned pregnancy when she heard the racket outside.
She sprang into action. She tossed the dog-eared tabloid to the side and scurried over to her kitchen window, side-stepping toy trucks and plastic Barbie dolls with the skill and dexterity of a military general. Careful to remain concealed behind the curtains in her kitchen window, Mrs. Hurwitz peered upon the outside world.
Chugging along down her street was an antique Volkswagen Beetle. Mrs. Hurwitz supposed in its heyday it must have been yellow, but several decades of rust had taken a toll. The Beetle was a spectrum of color ranging from deepest red to sickly green. It left a trail of exhaust behind like some kind of mechanical slug.
Mrs. Hurwitz leaned closer to the window for a better look. Her big belly pressed uncomfortably against the counter, though she ignored this. She hoped to catch a glimpse of the driver, but the windows were opaque in the sun. The individual behind the wheel remained a mystery.
From her hiding spot, Mrs. Hurwitz huffed deeply. The pitiful state of the vehicle was all she needed to become convinced that the Beetle and its driver did not belong in her neighborhood.
She pressed her forehead to the glass to keep the car in sight as it made its way down the block. She watched as the Beetle crawled to the house next door to Mr. Cooper. It sputtered to a stop in the driveway, coming to rest next to the foreclosure sign that swung dully in the wind.
Mrs. Hurwitz did not recognize the man that exited the car and this displeased her. From where she stood behind her curtains, she could see that he was very tall. His body cast long shadows on the driveway, rippling as he walked up the pavement toward the front door. She wondered how a man of that stature would fit comfortably in such a compact vehicle.
The tall stranger fumbled with his keys at the door. It took several attempts before the door swung open, and then he made his way inside the house and shut the door behind him. He had not taken a moment to look over his shoulder. If he had, perhaps he would have seen the silhouette of Mrs. Hurwitz in the window across the street.
The stranger had hardly shut the door behind him before Mrs. Hurwitz was picking up her phone. She dialed with fumbling fingers and her foot tapped in time with each ring. By the time Mr. Cooper picked up, she was practically bursting.
“I hear you’ve got a new neighbor?”
* * *
Mr. Cooper did not like change. He firmly believed that life was more bearable if you kept to a regular and rigid routine. With a routine, there would be no surprises. Mr. Cooper hated surprises.
Mr. Cooper got up every morning at a strict 5:30 a.m. He ate the same thing for breakfast each day—two fried eggs and toast—and only drank coffee on weekdays. He did his laundry on Tuesdays, mowed the grass on Sundays, and had planned to live in quiet indifference beside Mr. and Mrs. Anderson for the duration of his life.
The only disruption in his reliable, comfortable routine came in the form of an insider trading lawsuit. Mr. Anderson, Mr. Cooper’s silent neighbor of fifteen years, lost his house along with everything else he owned. As if that weren’t enough, he also earned himself a hefty prison sentence. It was a nasty business. Mrs. Anderson had to be hospitalized during the investigation. It caused quite a stir in the neighborhood. Shame.
Mr. Cooper often found himself cursing Mr. Anderson for his thoughtlessness. Men who cannot cover their tracks should not play the game. When Mr. Cooper had conducted his own backdoor deals, he was always very careful to never leave a trace. He hated Mr. Anderson for not being equally as cautious. Thanks to that greedy fool, Mr. Cooper would be getting a new next-door-neighbor who could very well stay up at all hours of the night, play loud music, and keep a dirty yard. Mr. Cooper didn’t like new neighbors. Not one bit.
He had seen the new neighbor’s crappy car in Mr. Anderson’s driveway twice. Once when the stranger came to view the house, just two weeks back, and a second time when Mrs. Hurwitz rang him up.
Mr. Cooper wasn’t a fan of phone calls. His daughter called him once a week—Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m.—and aside from that his phone remained dutifully silent. It was a rare occurrence that Mr. Cooper would answer an unsolicited call, but he’d just found out his ex-wife was filing for divorce from her new and very young husband, courtesy of a text from his daughter, and so he was feeling more amenable than usual.
“I haven’t met him yet,” Mr. Cooper said when he answered, hearing Mrs. Hurwitz’s quick breath on the other end. “And quite frankly, I’d be more than happy if I didn’t have to.”
“Do you know anything about him?” Mrs. Hurwitz asked.
“Only one thing,” Mr. Cooper said, speaking with a purposeful slowness. He had information Mrs. Hurwitz wanted, and he always relished having an upper hand. “A friend of my daughter’s was at the auction where he bought the house.”
He stopped then, inspecting the varicose veins on his hand. He could practically feel Mrs. Hurwitz vibrating with anticipation.
“And?” she finally said, breathlessly. Mr. Cooper took a deep breath and smiled despite himself.
“I’ve heard he’s quite—well, truth be told, I’ve heard he’s hard to look at.”
Mrs. Hurwitz inhaled sharply. “What could that mean?” The excitement in her voice was palpable.
“I’ve been told that he’s got some sort of disfigurement,” Mr. Cooper said.
“What kind of disfigurement?”
“I really couldn’t say. I haven’t met the man and as I said before, I don’t quite care—oh, damn it. Mrs. Reynolds is calling me.”
* * *
Mrs. Reynolds had heard from Mr. Cooper that the man was deformed. She pressed Mr. Cooper for more details but found him to be customarily irritable and uncompromising. With Mr. Cooper proving so unhelpful, Mrs. Reynolds would have to take matters into her own hands.
She spent her morning baking banana bread and swatting away her husband’s pudgy fingers when he tried to tear himself a piece.
“This isn’t for you,” she said, waving him away like an irksome fly.
He retreated without much of a fuss and Mrs. Reynolds went back to rehearsing what she would say to her new neighbor. She had been desperate to meet him since the day he moved in, parking that eyesore of a car in the newly paved driveway Mr. Anderson had been so proud of, but she waited an entire week in order for the man to feel settled. That was the polite thing to do.
After a quick shout to her husband that she was running out, Mrs. Reynolds set off for the old Anderson house without waiting for a response. Seeing the house this close stirred in Mrs. Reynolds a twinge of unease. She had not been near the Anderson house since last year’s holiday party. Guilt ruffled her conscience.
Mrs. Reynolds had spent the evening of the holiday party pouring generous glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon for Mrs. Anderson. Two hours later, Mrs. Anderson had tipsily confided in Mrs. Reynolds the depths of her husband’s illegal dealings.
Mrs. Reynolds had listened with rapt attention, nodding sympathetically at all the right places as she topped off Mrs. Anderson’s glass. Mrs. Anderson’s lips, slowly turning a deeper shade of purple as the night wore on, helped Mrs. Reynolds track how much time had passed. As Mrs. Anderson’s words slurred together, becoming almost completely indecipherable, she finally spilled the details that would soon put her husband in jail.
“I can trust you, Pam, can’t I?” Mrs. Anderson could hardly keep her eyes open as she spoke.
Mrs. Reynolds had assured her that she could, and Mrs. Anderson had sung like a canary. It was that easy. Mrs. Reynolds then returned home, waited exactly one week, and called the authorities. Mrs. Anderson, poor dear, had not even remembered their conversation, and Mrs. Reynolds escaped without consequence.
Good riddance to the Andersons, Mrs. Reynolds thought to herself as she rang their old doorbell. She had never liked them. They were always waving their wealth in everyone’s faces, bringing home new sports cars for Christmas and donning designer logos just to go to the grocery store. Those two got what they deserved.
Mrs. Reynolds felt pinpricks of sweat as she waited to meet her new neighbor, hearing the doorbell echo back to her from inside the empty halls. One minute passed and then another. She rang the bell a second time. The floorboards creaked as a figure drew nearer to the door.
Mrs. Reynolds began to speak the second the door swung open.
“Hello, I’m Pamela Reynolds. I live just down the street.”
He towered over her so that Mrs. Reynolds had to crane her neck to look upon him. A jagged red scar started at the corner of his eye and made its way down to his chin. The more she stared at the scar, the more gruesome it seemed to become.
“I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood,” she said, offering the banana bread.
He took the wrapped package from her hands with a gentleness that she hadn’t expected. As he did so, she noticed that his face was not the only part of him that was disfigured. Tight, shiny scars had laid claim to his arms. A lumpy roadmap that trailed from the tips of his fingers, ran the length of his arms, and then disappeared inside his T-shirt. She wondered how much of his body was mottled and deformed beneath his clothes.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m Allen.”
He made a formidable figure as he stood before her, tall and broad-shouldered and scarred to the bone. He appeared to be younger than anyone else in the neighborhood, no more than thirty if she had to guess. She would wonder later, after the shock of seeing his scars had worn off, how he’d come to find himself here in this little corner of suburbia.
Her sharp eye observed a faint tan line on his third finger where a wedding band may once have sat.
“Do you have a last name, Allen?”
“And what brings you out here, Allen Moore?”
“Just looking to get away from the city,” he said.
Vague, she noted. Very vague.
“Is it just you out here, Allen?”
A shadow crossed his face for a very brief moment.
“Yes,” he said, voice wavering but resigned. “It’s just me.”
Mrs. Reynolds could feel in the spaces of the words that there was much he wasn’t saying.
Her focus shifted from the man to the house behind him. She could not see much, but what she did see was completely bare. Not one picture hung on the walls. Not a single piece of furniture adorned the halls.
“Well, if you’d ever like some company—” She moved instinctively forward. He crossed his lumpy arms and stood staunchly in the doorway.
“I’m still quite a mess over here. Maybe some other time.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Reynolds said. “I’ll be going then.”
It was all she could do not to peer through the front windows on her way home. Her curiosity gnawed at her insides. She was only home a minute before Mrs. Hurwitz knocked on her door.
“He’s horribly disfigured,” Mrs. Reynolds told Mrs. Hurwitz, moving aside so her neighbor could come inside. “And he used to be married, but his wife has gone and left him.”
* * *
The first stories were rooted in small truths. The man’s name was Allen Moore. His body was deeply scarred. He lived alone. He worked several towns over in a production factory.
As the days turned to weeks and weeks to months, Allen Moore remained withdrawn. He did not engage with his prying neighbors. He left the house only for work. With nothing much to draw on, the stories became inventive.
They saw him at the liquor store, several bottles clanging in his cart, and claimed he was a drunk. They saw his beat-up old Beetle parked at the police station, and claimed he had a history with the law.
The first cohesive story they created was as follows:
He was hammered one night, typical for a drunk, and wrecked his car. That’s how he got the scars.
“What of his wife?” someone would ask.
She was in the car with him. He killed her in the accident. He went to jail for a few years, then got out for good behavior. He moved to the neighborhood for a fresh start. This was a popular tale that grew many heads as it filtered through town.
The stories mutated. They said Allen Moore had a daughter. She was no longer speaking to him because he killed her mother. No, wait! He had killed his daughter in the accident, too. Then, he’d tried to kill himself.
At their monthly book club, the local ladies sat with elbows upon knees, swapping stories over pie and tea. Their copies of To Kill a Mockingbird were left unopened on the floor.
“The car accident stories are all phony,” Mrs. Hurwitz said to her spellbound audience. “You don’t get scars like that from a car accident. Those are burn scars.”
“He was a chain smoker. One day, he accidentally set the house on fire. Killed his whole family.”
“That happened to my cousin!” someone called out.
“I think I heard about that in the news!” another said.
“Yes! Yes!” a third shouted. “I believe I heard that also.”
They watched him from a distance, captivated. A sighting of Allen Moore was followed by a chorus of whispers. No one dared speak to him for fear they would be included in the ever-growing saga.
On one particular day of grocery shopping, Mrs. Hurwitz spotted Allen Moore in the pasta aisle. Compelled to share the latest gossip, she grabbed the closest person—Mrs. Shears—and they put their heads together.
“I heard he set the house on fire on purpose,” Mrs. Hurwitz said
“Yes,” Mrs. Hurwitz said, eyes glinting. “That makes him an arsonist and a murderer.”
“Terrifying,” Mrs. Shears said.
“Yes, it is,” Mrs. Hurwitz added. “A man like that doesn’t belong near my children.”
“No,” Mrs. Shears agreed. “Nor mine.”
“Someone should tell him to get away from here,” Mrs. Hurwitz said, eyeing him as he moved on to order meat from the butcher.
“Yes,” Mrs. Shears agreed.
“I’ve half a mind to do it myself,” Mrs. Hurwitz said while Mrs. Shears nodded vigorously.
Mrs. Hurwitz went into great detail about what she would say to Allen Moore while Mrs. Shears applauded. Following this lengthy monologue, she and Mrs. Shears went on their way to separate checkout lines. Allen Moore continued on his way, unbothered and unaware of the mob that was growing at his heels.
That was how it went for many months. The rumors took on a life of their own. Soon, everyone knew and feared Allen Moore without ever having spoken to him.
On the evening of the annual summer block party, several of the neighbors stood congregated to the side. Allen Moore was the topic of discussion despite not being in attendance. Mrs. Hurwitz was regaling her neighbors with her arsonist theory when a hush fell across the lively party. A sleek black car was making its way toward them.
“Do we know this person?” a voice called out. “A guest, perhaps?” But the silence was deafening. This was no guest.
The car glided to a stop several feet from the celebration and a petite, blond woman exited. She wore enormous sunglasses that concealed half of her face. She surveyed the crowd for a moment but did not say anything. It was as if she were waiting for them to greet her, as if they might have been expecting her.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m looking for Allen Moore. He lives around here, yes?”
They stared at one another in open-mouthed astonishment, then nodded in unison. Their minds were racing with possible explanations and stories that could be spun from this unexpected twist. Mrs. Hurwitz took note of every detail. She couldn’t wait to catch up with Mrs. Reynolds, who was at home with the flu.
“Who are you?” rang out a voice from the grouped bodies. The woman turned her head, trying to find the source, but the speaker was lost amid the crowd. When she spoke, she spoke to them all.
“I’m his wife. Well, ex-wife. He hasn’t been answering my calls, so I’ve come to see him in person.”
The group exchanged glances. Allen Moore’s wife was alive. A hole had appeared in their carefully concocted drama.
“Why do you need to see him?”
“That’s really none of your business, is it?” The woman’s tone was sharp, almost chastising. A blush began to creep among the crowd. They shuffled their feet and cast their eyes to the ground.
“He lives down that way.” A lone arm emerged from the group, pointing down the street. “You can just make it out at the end of the road.”
The woman turned her head to follow this direction.
“Ah, yes, I see the ugly Beetle. I’m not surprised to see he still hasn’t gotten rid of it. He put more effort into restoring that car than he did our marriage, if you know what I mean. Tragedy will do that. Makes you forget all the things that matter.”
She spoke as if she expected them to understand, but this tiny piece of insight into Allen Moore’s life was alien to them. The congregation blinked at her but did not say a word. She peered at them quizzically, as though confused, then began to walk back to her car.
“Wait,” someone called. The crowd held its breath.
She turned around and as she did so, took off her sunglasses. With her face unobscured, they could see dark circles beneath her eyes. She looked desperately tired.
“Where did he get those scars?”
The woman raised her eyebrows coolly. Perhaps she could sense the eager, animalistic hunger that rippled through the crowd.
“He used to be a firefighter. He had an accident a while back trying to…well, he overextended himself playing the hero. I’ll leave it at that. The rest is his business.”
With that, she was off. They watched in communal silence as her car slowly made its way toward Allen Moore. No one laughed or joked. It would seem Allen was neither a drunk nor a murderer. His sordid past, with such thrills as prison, death, and destruction, had been wiped clean. An emptiness began to fill each and every one of them. The fantastical excitement that had run through their veins these last few months was gone. The illusion they created shattered.
“You know,” someone said from the back. The crowd stirred. “I heard Pam Reynolds sent the Andersons to prison.”
A buzzing broke out. It was a stampede to speak. Each person was ready to divulge what they had heard, suspected, and inferred. Pam Reynolds, absent from the group, was unable to save herself.
Allen Moore was all but forgotten.
Julia Morris is a young professional who spends her free time pursuing her love of fiction writing. She fell in love with writing at a very young age and has been working to hone her craft every day since then. She is currently working on her first novel.