Gwendolyn Kiste is a horror and fantasy writer based in Pennsylvania. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications including Sirens Call, Danse Macabre, Dark Fire Fiction, 99 Pine Street, and Saturday Night Reader.
The doorbell rang, but April lingered in her art room, staring at a vacant canvas of a painting that would never be.
She already knew who was there.
“Dear,” a voice sang through the white front door. “Could I bother you for a chair?”
In defiance, April clutched a dust-drenched paintbrush and smeared a dollop of red on the blank background.
“Mom, it’s Catherine from next door.” Bobby ran to answer it. Then he ran just as fast to retrieve the dining room chair that April would never see again.
“Thank you, dear,” the voice said.
April waited until the door closed. After Bobby retreated to his room and the house settled into its new arrangement—everything normal except one chair lighter—she jerked the phone to her ear, and a number dialed on its own.
“She took a chair this time,” April whispered as she paced the barren hallway.
“A chair? Like a dining room chair?”
“Like a dining room chair.” Her fingers caressed the nearby wall where pictures of pink flowers and faraway landscapes used to hang. Pictures she’d painted. Pictures that would never return.
“What did Mark say?”
Her forehead rested against the unadorned wall, April hesitated. She already knew what her husband would say. She knew because he said the same thing every time since the innocuous first cup of flour.
“Let her have the stuff.” He’d smile. “We can buy new.”
April had loved that smile all through college and all though PTA meetings and all through last summer when the house began to empty. Now the sight of his condescending grin made her seasick.
“April?” the voice on the phone asked. “What did he say?”
“Nothing yet,” April said at last. “He’s not home from work.”
As if on cue, Mark strolled through the door, mail in hand. Each time he tossed a letter to the counter, he glanced at his wife, one eye squinted more than the other.
April turned away. “I’ve got to go now,” she said.
Dinner was baked chicken. Same as every Wednesday. Bobby ate the tasteless dish as though it was a feast. Mark shoved it around his plate, cut it into ever-smaller pieces, and when it appeared the meat would never surrender, gulped down the meal in three bites before escaping into headlines and classified ads.
“Who were you talking to when I got home?”
April set her fork on the bare table where the placemats once rested. “My sister,” she said. “We were discussing home decor. This table’s going to need new chairs soon.”
“Why do you need to ask Mary about our house?” Mark examined his wife over the edge of the newspaper. “Because you can’t make a decision without your big sister’s input?”
“She has good taste, that’s all.”
He scoffed and pretended to read a human interest piece. “If you like all things matronly and retro.”
“At least she doesn’t give away our furniture.”
“Do you want me to go over there and take everything back?” He slapped the paper onto his lap. “I can do that. I can make that poor woman live in an empty house.”
“No, you can’t,” April said. “You can’t do that.”
“What’s wrong with Daddy?” Bobby inspected his mother as she tucked him into bed.
“We just disagree sometimes, honey.”
Desperate for a distraction, she examined the room. Her gaze came to rest on a vacant spot on the wall that years of dust had never touched.
“Didn’t you like your grizzly bear poster anymore?” she asked.
“I still like it alright.”
“Then where--” April exhaled a ragged breath. “Did Catherine take it?”
Bobby nodded. “She said she liked it too.”
“When was she in your room, Bobby?”
“When Daddy brought her here yesterday.”
Chest heaving, April struggled to remember where she had been the previous day. A banal to do list rotated through her mind like discordant circus music on a calliope. Groceries. Post office. Coffee with her sister. Any of those activities provided plenty of time for the neighborhood thief to request the grand tour.
“Why are you showing her the house when I’m not here?” In the master bedroom, April wrenched off her shirt and jeans, her body suddenly naked in front of her husband.
“Are we really going to do this?” He sat on the mattress. “You’re going to accuse me of cheating?”
April marched to her side of the room with the precision of a soldier. “I just think it’s odd.”
“I do my best by this family. I work sixty hours a week. It’s not like you--”
“Not like I what?”
Mark sighed. “Your art certainly doesn’t bring in any extra money.”
April’s lips twitched, and she pressed one fist across her mouth. With no art left in the house and no inspiration to replace it, her once lofty ambitions of owning her own gallery had drifted out of sight like some distant island in a sailor’s periscope.
“I do my best too,” she said and turned away from her husband, the comforter smothering her sobs.
By the end of the week, another chair vanished along with the loveseat and two more pictures.
They never talked again about their neighbor’s impromptu sightseeing trip around the house, and April hoped the whole ordeal could be forgotten. On Saturday, when Mark maneuvered into the kitchen with his toolbox, she smiled and readied an inventory of overdue home repairs they could finish together.
But indifferent to her presence, Mark grabbed a wrench from the counter and moved toward the front door.
“Catherine needs me to fix the fuse box in her basement,” he said, impervious to the irony that he had called an electrician when their own fuses had needed repaired in the spring.
“So you’re going?” April heard her own voice but felt as if someone else asked the question.
“I’ll only be a minute.”
In one of the two remaining chairs at the table, April sat and waited. She waited through dinner that was never served and through Bobby’s homework that had more algebra than any ten-year-old should need to know. She waited until the middle of the night when she was sure it was too late to follow her husband.
So she took a bath instead and dressed in the pajamas Mark bought her the previous Christmas.
Perched at the bedroom window until dawn, she couldn’t see his form within Catherine’s house, but the sweet melody of his laughter carried itself across the fence that divided the two properties. From a thousand miles away, he sang to his wife, and April could hear him say goodbye.
“What do you mean he went over and didn’t come back?” Mary peered through the venetian blinds at the house next door. “Are you sure he’s still there?”
“His sedan hasn’t moved, so I would guess so.”
April rested in the last chair at the table. She didn’t know when Catherine—or Mark—had come for the other one, but it was gone nonetheless.
“Why don’t you just go over there and pull him home by the tie?”
“Because I shouldn’t have to,” April said.
The cavernous room was heavy with caustic fragrance. Mary always wore far more perfume than she needed. That morning, the overpowering bouquet of sandalwood was too much for April, and she gagged into her sleeve.
“How’s Bobby doing?”
“Fine. He hasn’t really noticed.”
“So he hasn’t noticed there’s a harlot next door?”
“I don’t blame Catherine,” April said. “What difference does it make to her? Mark was the one who should have known better.”
“Even still,” her sister said, “I want to have a talk with that woman.”
“Please don’t.” April gripped her sister’s arm, but Mary yanked free and charged the door.
“I’ll only be a minute.”
A minute turned into an hour, which turned into a day, and the day never ended. At breakfast, half-expired eggs—the only bit of food Catherine hadn’t pilfered—sizzled in the last pan, but April was as vacant as one of her canvases. She drooped over the burner like a decaying dress form, unable to feel anything except the tiny drops of oil that skipped from the stove and boiled on her skin.
“See you later, Mom,” Bobby said and flashed his smile so much like his father’s. Then he jumped aboard the smoke-spewing bus.
April watched him depart, waving from the window as though nothing in the world was wrong.
Same as the sedan, Mary’s SUV sat frozen in the driveway, an omnipresent reminder of Catherine’s handiwork. April wanted to call the police, but she already knew no one would take her report seriously. After all, there was no law against adults abandoning their lives, inexplicable though it may be.
While Bobby was at school, she decided they too would abandon their lives.
“We can start over somewhere else,” she said. “Anywhere else.”
A sentinel condemned to the art room, she waited all morning for Bobby to return. But as the afternoon waned, April slumped in a chair, and by the time the flashing red lights from the bus arrived, sleep had already overtaken her.
It was night when she awoke.
“Bobby?” She searched the house. “Where are you?”
She peered out the window, the same window where she had bid farewell to her son that morning and where Mary had stood before her.
Bobby’s lifeless bicycle rested in the adjacent yard.
April dialed 911. “My neighbor kidnapped my son.”
“Stay calm, ma’am. What’s this neighbor’s name?”
“Catherine. I don’t know her last name. I don’t even know if she has one.”
“Do you have any idea where she took him?”
“Yes,” April said. “Next door. She has him next door.”
“Do you know if anyone is with them?”
April nodded, though she didn’t know why. “That’s where my husband and sister have been staying too.”
The operator paused. “Your son is at a neighbor’s house, and he’s with his father and aunt?”
“Ma’am, is this some sort of custody dispute?”
April slammed her fist into the exposed drywall. “Just please send someone right away.”
Twenty minutes later, two detectives in an unmarked vehicle arrived. They knocked at Catherine’s door, and smiling, she invited them inside.
April waited. Like her family, the men never withdrew from the house.
The next morning, with yet another car retired to the chrome graveyard outside her home, April phoned the station.
“Can you please tell me what happened with the officers who went after my son?”
“They called in. Said there was no problem.”
“And did they return to work?”
“It was the end of the shift,” the operator said, “so they went home for the night.”
“Could I please speak with them when they get in?”
“Sure,” the voice said. “But they both called in sick today, so it might be awhile.”
April hung up the phone. As though it was any other day, she positioned a stool before a blank canvas and stared into the hopelessly white abyss.
At midnight, the doorbell rang. When April didn’t answer, the lock clattered, and like a beacon snaking through a void, moonlight spilled into the hallway.
It was Catherine. She loitered at the bottom of the stairs, Mark’s keys dangling from her fingers.
“Your son asked for his teddy bear,” she said.
April shadowed the woman to Bobby’s room. “You can’t have it.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just a teddy bear.”
Body suddenly weightless, April raised one hand and as if someone else possessed her, she dragged her diamond ring across a patch of strawberry freckles. There was a moment of unadulterated silence before the wound opened, and red spilled onto Catherine’s cheeks.
“That wasn’t very nice,” the woman said and wiped the gore from her face.
“What you did wasn’t very nice either.” April moved toward her, arm raised again.
A smile on her lips as though it was a game, Catherine shoved her adversary, a single thrust like a hurricane. Once again inhabiting her own form, April slammed into the wall, and her forehead struck a jagged piece of a light fixture. The world spun for a moment and then went dark.
When she finally pulled herself from the floor, it was morning, and the room was vacant. No more foolish posters on the walls. No more bed where her child had rested. And no more teddy bear.
Stumbling down the stairs, April searched each room, and every one came up empty. Even her art supplies were gone. At last, the woman next door had drained the final iota of life from the house. All except April.
She trudged across the invisible Maginot Line that separated the two properties and found herself staring into Catherine’s welcome mat.
Though she never knocked, the door opened, and a puff of sandalwood perfume wafted outside to greet her.
“I want my stuff back,” April said.
“Of course.” Catherine bid her into the foyer. “Let’s talk over tea, yes? A fresh pot is ready for you.”
“No!” April pressed her arms into either side of the doorframe. “I won’t let you. Not this time.”
On the stairwell, two tiny feet pattered by as someone giggled. April glanced up, her eyes bleary. In the arms of a shadow, the teddy bear flashed past the doorway and disappeared.
“Bobby.” She mouthed the name, her tears blinding her.
“You poor dear,” Catherine said. “Come inside right away. I’ll take care of you. Your husband’s been waiting. So has your sister. We’ve all been waiting really.”
“I don’t want to,” April whispered.
“No one ever does.” The woman smiled. “But like I said, the tea’s waiting. And you don’t want it to steep too long and go bitter, do you?”
Too weary to argue, April inhaled, and her feet carried her across the threshold. In the far corner of the foyer, she found her paints and canvases waiting for her.
Waiting like she’d never left them.