The Family Next Door This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

April 7, 2010
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I stood in front of the house, clad in my Sunday best, clutching the still-warm tuna fish casserole to my chest. The house, an old Victorian, sat tiredly on the small lot, as if sagging under the weight of an enormous burden. Its powder pink paint, once a glorious hue, was now faded and peeling. Plywood covered several of the stained-glass windows. The lawn, left to the care of Mother Nature, was filled with straggly, knee-high weeds. An old, rusty Oldsmobile lay decaying under the flowering magnolia tree.
I had been dreading this delivery the entire afternoon, ever since Momma had ceremoniously pulled out her famous “welcome-to-the-neighborhood” casserole recipe after breakfast. I had begged and pleaded, but to no avail. “I’m sure the Jones’ are nice people,” Momma had said, attempting to pacify my fears. “You might even like them. I heard they have a girl your age.”
I took a deep breath and unlatched the wrought-iron gate. I was greeted by a loud shriek. I jumped, startled by the presence of a half-naked little boy running frantically through the weeds. A girl stood on the porch, watching the spectacle. She was a tall, gangly creature, with jet-black hair and piercing crystal eyes. A silver ring hung from her left eyebrow and a tattoo of a green snake wound around her neck.

I flashed a smile, hoping to break her unrelenting gaze. She continued to stare. I cautiously advanced forward, expecting her to pounce at any moment. But she didn’t. She just sat there, following me as I crept slowly up the walk, up the porch steps.
Finally I reached the door. I stole a glance at the girl. She jerked her head toward the door. Taking a deep breath, I rapped softly, and then stepped back. Nothing happened. After a moment I knocked again, this time more resolutely. Silence.
Summoning my courage, I turned the door handle. The door swung open, and I was assaulted with an asphyxiating cloud of smoke. Covering my mouth, I ventured over the threshold. Through the hazy fog I could make out mountains of boxes, stacked high to the ceiling. A couch, covered with a speckled drop cloth, blocked the stairway. Several empty red and green pizza boxes littered the couch, complemented by over a dozen McDonald’s SuperSize cups. Obscene graffiti tattooed the century-old paneled walls.
And then an apparition appeared through the fog. “That be you, Jeannine?” a voice questioned. I stood, frozen. The apparition continued to glide toward me. “That be you?” The apparition had reached me now, and I realized the figure was not a ghost at all, but a heavyset woman wrapped in a blue bathrobe. The woman continued to waddle toward me, a beer bottle in one hand, and a half-burned cigarette in the other. She stared blankly at me, dumbfounded.
I thrust forward the casserole. “My mother sent this. A welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift”.

I smiled nervously, and turned, signaling my leave. I lifted my gaze to the face of the black-haired girl. I shuddered. Her eyes were ever piercing, ever fierce. She held out her hand. I studied it for a moment: the chipped black fingernails, the dirt-stained palm. Impulsively, I laid my hand in hers.
“Nice to meet you,” she whispered airily.
And that was the day I meet the family next door.

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