My neighborhood had always been very peaceful. I think that’s the main reason we moved there in the first place. The streets were freshly paved, whitewashed fences surrounded every property, buckets of flowers hung from the windows, and everyone seemed to be happy, even on the miserably rainy days. It was a haven. A haven filled with elderly people, one of my biggest complaints as a young child. I couldn’t exactly kick around a soccer ball with Edna or Joseph. So, I learned the ropes of chess and pacemakers and Vietnam. Not exactly fun for a skirmish child yearning to explore the world. But maybe that’s another reason why we moved there- so I stayed an innocent little girl.
But, as I grew older, I realized that my parents were absolutely stupid- and I’m not saying that out of retaliation. They forgot that people are mortal and, within ten years, all our neighbors would have either died off or moved to senior centers. And exactly ten years later, there I was sitting on our porch swing in my private school uniform licking a sugar-free popsicle watching the moving trucks come and go.
And there, my friends, is where our story begins.
It was a nice day, so I plopped my bag down on the porch step and sat carefully on the swing. Margaret and I used to do it all the time, but she had passed three years ago to colon cancer. I was twirling a daisy between my fingers when he walked by. Of course I said hello, that’s what I always did.
He walked over and I got a closer look of him. He looked like everything my parents had warned me to stay away from, and maybe that’s what intrigued me in him. Or maybe it was the way his dark eyes shined in the late afternoon sun. Either way, I felt something I’d never felt before when I laid my eyes on him.
“Good afternoon,” I repeated.
“Sup? As in supper?”
“As in, I think I was just leaving.”
I stood up causing my hair to fall out of place. My hair was never out of place. I tried to push back the strand, but he stopped me.
“Don’t. I mean, it looked intriguing.”
“Yeah. You know? Excitement and heart pounding in your chest?”
I had only related those words to pre-pacemakers and checkmate during chess, but I don’t think that was the kind of excitement he was talking about.
“Come on,” the boy laughed. “Doesn’t anything exciting happen around here?”
“The most action we ever had was when Franklin’s wife, Denise, died mysteriously one day.”
He smiled and began walking again. “Wow. You know what happened where I came from?”
“What?” I was yearning for any information. Anything.
“My brother was put in the slammer for selling drugs on the black market and sneaking Mexicans over the border.”
I knew none of what he was talking about, but I was way too intrigued to worry about that. I watched how the sunlight danced on his dark skin. How the wind blew his dark hair back and forth. How his eyes twinkled. Everything was so foreign. So strange. So beautifully perfect.
“Who’s that guy?”
“What g-” I turned and saw Franklin. He’d been separating from all of us, but I just figured it was because his wife died and all his neighborhood friends. “Oh, that’s Franklin.”
“Franklin? As in the widower?”
He smiled. “He did it.”
“He killed his wife.”
I had known Franklin since the day I learned how to walk. He was no killer. I had even seen him nurse a bird back to life. I looked up at the boy, who smiled.
“Think about it...um...your name?”
“Juan.” He walked down the porch. “Think about it, Molly. And when you realize that I’m right, which you will, give me a holler.”
I watched him walk away and then I looked over at Franklin, who was moving his cars around again for the third time. There’s no way he was a killer. Right?
That night, I pushed aside my brussel sprouts and broccoli, earning a stern glare from my mother. But I ignored her and said that I needed to finish some homework. I wasn’t. I had just lied to my parents for the first time ever.
I drew my blinds and turned off all the lights to watch Franklin’s house. His backyard light was on, but I couldn’t really make out anything. That’s when I remembered my father’s old telescope. I crept out into the hallway, surprised to see the light was still on downstairs. My parents’ whispers filled the hollow stairway.
“I’m telling you, Bob, she never passes up on brussel sprouts.”
“She said it herself: she had a lot of work to do. That’s the work ethic you put in her.”
“Right. Let’s just go to bed.”
I rushed to grab the telescope and scurried back to my room. The second the pop of the lense cap filled the room, I expected them to bang down the door and ground me for life. But the door stayed closed, so I went back to work.
At first, the scene was a little foggy, but as it cleared, I jumped back nearly knocking over my entire shelf of academic trophies. My heart pounded in my chest and my breaths came short. Was this the excitement Juan was talking about? But then I set my eye back on the lense and watched with vigor.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Juan!” I yelled out from the porch swing the next day. He smiled and set his backpack on the driveway before walking over. Gosh, he looked even better today.
“So, am I right?”
“He’s outside at night.”
“Hiding the evidence obviously.”
I nodded. “And I’ll watch again tonight to make sure.”
“No, you can’t just watch- that’s what the cops are for. You have to act. We have to get in there.”
“You mean break in?” I was appalled that he’d even mention a thing. I nearly had a heart attack using the telescope last night.
“Yeah, unless you’re too scared.”
“I’m not scared. I just...I want to observe him for another night.”
“I have to go to my brother’s stupid trial, but I’ll be back Saturday night. That gives you three days to get everything together- and by that I mean yourself.” He walked off and I stared at the ground. Three days until I had to go against everything I’d ever been taught.
I skipped dinner again that night. And my homework. How was I supposed to concentrate on algorithms if a potential murderer was living in the house next door? Surely they’d have some sort of exception. At least that’s what I hoped as I set the telescope up again.
By Friday, I was a mess. I had a backpack filled with incompleted papers, my uniform was wrinkled from sleeping in it the night before, and I didn’t have enough energy to even unknot my hair. So, my mother’s reaction as I walked downstairs was completely understandable.
“Molly, take a seat. We need to talk.”
“I’m going to be late for-”
“I’ve been talking to your teachers and they said that you haven’t been turning in your assignments this week.”
Busted. I tried to think of an excuse, but I had none.
“And you’re not eating. And you’re clearly not sleeping. Honey, we’re worried about you. What’s going on?”
I stared at her. Part of me, the part she raised, wanted to just bawl and confess the lies, the spying, the forbidden friend, and potential crime I was about to commit the next day. But the other part of me knew I couldn’t do that. I set my jaw. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“I know that it’s hard with all your friends dying, but-”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
She smiled and handed me my lunch. “Have a great day at school, sweetheart.”
Somehow I managed to make it through the day. But the second I came home, I collapsed with exhaustion on my bed. I heard my parents walk in later that night, once again whispering about me. Someone needed to tell them that they weren’t the best whisperers in the world.
“She came home and shut herself in her room. I’m just concerned about depression.”
“Jen, relax.” My dad must have pointed to the telescope. “She’s just exploring a new habit.”
Yeah, being a bad girl. But I closed my eyes tighter and kept listening.
“She’s so tired during the day because she’s up all night studying the skies. That’s why she can’t concentrate at school and skips dinner.”
“It’s not healthy.”
“Come on, I did the same thing when I was her age. I’ll just take her up to the fields tomorrow night.”
Tomorrow night? No. I couldn’t bail on Juan. I had sacrificed so much as it was just trying to get information on Franklin. And I was almost there too. All I needed was a better view of the backyard.
When my parents closed the door again, I sat up. I needed a fool-proof plan.
* * * * * * * * *
It was about an hour before Juan was to come back home when I called out, “Mom?”
She must have flown up the stairs. “What’s the matter, honey?”
“I don’t feel great.” It was a complete lie, my stomach was in knots.
“But your father just packed the car.”
“I know, but my stomach hurts.”
“I think you’re just hungry. Come on.” She grabbed my wrist and stared at me. Her hand moved to my forehead. “You’re burning up.”
“I’m not feeling well,” I repeated.
She looked at me with sorrowful eyes. Everything was going according to plan. “Well, why don’t you rest. I’ll go let your father know.”
“Thank you.” I sat back on the bed. “And Mom?”
“I’m just going to take a long nap. Please don’t disturb me. I want to get over this as quick as I can.”
She smiled and then closed the door. I took a deep breath and shut off the electric blanket, how she didn’t see it, I don’t know. I quickly locked the door and opened the window, which Juan crawled in moments later. Why does he look better every time I see him?
He smiled. “You ready?”
I looked back at the door and took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
We crawled out the window and dropped down behind the bushes. The branches instantly tried to pull me back, but I was gone. My heart pounded in my ears as we walked to the side of Franklin’s house. Boom boom. Boom boom. I looked over at Juan, who was calmer than I’d ever seen him. His dark eyes looked around carefully and then he sided over to the fence.
The light was on. Of course Franklin was back there. I looked at Juan again as the sound of metal hitting dirt filled the silence. Why would he be digging at this hour?
Juan put a finger over his beautiful lips and picked up a stone. I knew what he was doing seconds before he did it. The glass seemed to shatter in slow motion. He then bent down for me to climb in claiming I knew the house better. Unfortunately I did.
I took a sharp turn into the first room- the bathroom. Juan looked at me.
“What’s that have to do with a murder?”
It didn’t. Unless, of course, you count a guilty conscience and revenge of extra brussel sprouts. I wiped my mouth and then met him back in the hallway, where he was looking at all the pictures.
“They were one happy couple,” he whispered.
“So why would he knock her off?”
He couldn’t stand being wrong. And I couldn’t stand his face when he was upset. Was there anything this boy could do without looking so amazing? But he didn’t have another hypothesis, so we continued to the bedroom.
Something didn’t feel right as we cracked open all his drawers to find any piece of evidence. I grabbed a couple mushy letters and pair of jeans, but nothing had anything even remotely useful. Juan looked up at me again.
The doorknob began to shake and we hit the floor.
“Under the bed,” he whispered over as I stayed there like a log.
I crawled under to the best of my ability and felt something touch my leg. I prayed that it wasn’t Denise’s corpse as I turned my head. Thankfully, it was just Juan trying to get my attention.
I looked past him and saw the outline of a skeleton in the back behind the clothes. I had heard of skeletons in the closet, but this was a whole new level. I closed my eyes and held my breath as the door opened and the lights flicked on.
Franklin’s voice sounded eerie in that hour as he said, “I know you’re in here.”
I looked over at Juan, who looked back at me. We were trapped under the bed of a murderer.