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       Next Door, p.1

           Lori R. Lopez
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Next Door

  Next Door

  by Lori R. Lopez

  All rights reserved

  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any

  media without written permission from the author, except

  brief excerpts in critical reviews and articles.

  This is a work of fiction.

  Copyright © 2012 by Lori R. Lopez

  Front Cover Illustration by Lori R. Lopez

  THE FINAL DAY of Kat Mandou’s life commenced as tedious as most. The only thing out of the ordinary was that something peculiar seemed to be going on at the house next door.

  Not that he was inclined to snoop. Quite the opposite. He preferred to ignore the world, and seldom heeded the inhabitants of the dreary olive-planked eyesore — accidentally glimpsed on occasion because they left the drapes wide like they had no secrets, no skulking chain-rattling embarrassments to hide. Kat doubted it. Everyone had a skeleton or two.

  Impressions consisted of a couple always grinning at a toddler. If they were so happy, why did he hear so many blood-curdling wails? A decrepit geezer toward the rear of the abode was a permanent fixture, seated on a musty-dusty tattered-battered sort of chair. Kat wondered in an especially idle moment if the fossil might be stuffed like a museum exhibit, the victim of a mad taxidermist.

  Today their drapes were inexplicably drawn, which seemed stranger than the disturbing signs. (Actual signs, spelling trouble in capital letters!)

  But the self-absorbed teen did not intend to lose sleep over a situation that had nothing to do with him. He simply didn’t care.

  Even the date, All Hallows Eve, did little to reduce his doldrums.

  Typically, there were no invitations to costume parties. No cordial solicitations to anonymously wreak mischief. Kat might as well have been invisible as far as the social roster of Baneridge High was concerned. A phantom, sheer and flimsy, ineffectually haunting those malicious cliquish corridors.

  Except for a name that prompted peers to tease, “How’s the weather up there?” Being tall and gangly probably didn’t help.

  Things could’ve been worse, Kat conceded. His name could have been Tim Buktu.

  So here it was, another Halloween staying home. But this year his parents were attending a presentation on organic gardening. Fun!

  “Are you sure you won’t come with us?” nagged his mother.

  Kat rolled his eyes. As a tyke he had been hauled to community functions, barbecues, family reunions, birthday banquets, weddings and funerals. He had been subjected to every mall, market, or convention under the sun. What could be more stagnant, more grueling to endure than a rock show? Rocks! Polished piles of inanimate minerals! Anything, perhaps, rooted to the ground? No thanks. He wearily declined.

  “You’re constantly moping. You need a hobby, a diversion. Something that appeals to you. I remember you enjoyed planting flowers with me. You were the best weed-puller on the block!”

  “I was five years old.”

  “He doesn’t need a diversion, he wastes enough time. He needs to decide what to do with his life,” objected Dad, who tended to address Kat indirectly. “It’s never too soon.”

  “And you’ve been saying that since I was five,” scorned Kat.

  “He could, of course, become a chiropractor like his old man!” the tell-that-kid-to stand-up-straighter advocate hinted.

  Right. As if he wasn’t already terrified of the future. Of inheriting high cholesterol. Losing his hair along with his grasp on reality. Becoming duller than a deadbolt like Dad. Or the alternative, drifting the rest of his life without a single interest.

  “Let him choose for himself,” admonished Mom.

  “I would if he could. How can he choose if he doesn’t have a clue what he wants?” Dad rhetorically retorted.

  “Hello? I’m still in the room,” Kat complained. “And I’m fine, don’t worry. Just go to your plant lecture.”

  He would much rather spend the night at home, keeping the lights off to avoid being pestered by droves of sugar zombies combing the streets.

  His shortlist of amigos, Chester — a casual acquaintance due to Angela’s lingering influence — had been volunteered by authority figures to take siblings trick-or-treating. That’s what he said when Kat called him (admittedly upon discovering he, unlike Chessman, would have to survive the traditionally un-hallowed evening alone).

  “Okay, well, I just wanted to see if you were busy. And let you know it’s no big deal you laughed. It was pretty funny. I got pranked by my neighbors.”

  “Yeah. Okay. Gotta go.”

  “I’m glad I don’t have a younger brat to get stuck with,” remarked Kat, a portable phone to his ear. “Braces are bad enough. Along with the name. And the height issue. Man, I’m such a freak!” He guffawed.

  Dead air.

  “Chester?” Frowning at the cheap economy phone, he smacked it against his palm. Severing the call, he listened to a monotony of nil. The battery wasn’t dead so it had to be the chintzy service or lowcost gadget — the price of having a coupon-clipping mom who avidly flocked to sales; a money-grubbing dad who coveted the commercial hype of rebates, discounts, gratuitous offers.

  Kat stored the device in a pocket and sighed. Then spied between second-story curtains. What was up with the crazy neighbors? Their house, too, was dark. Yet a red bulb spookily beckoned from the porch.

  A wood placard was propped before a folding chair in the yard. Nose crinkled, squinting, the lad wondered what was posted there now.

  FREE POMEGRANATES! a bulletin heralded as he approached on his twenty-speed that morning. A basket of crimson fruit occupied the chair.

  “Okay. That’s a surprise,” he muttered and slowed to a stop. The tree behind the adjacent residence had appeared diseased, limbs and foliage coated white. Flies droned above a harvest of withered sunken orbs that reminded Kat of shrunken heads.

  Maybe some of the seed-bearing husks on the far side were able to ripen. Kat noticed the tree because pomegranates were his favorite food, scoring three on a scale of ten. All else rated zero. He was generally indifferent about everything, meals included.

  Orange and yellow leaves littered a carpet of parched grass. Timorous footsteps crunched as he neared the chair, wheeling his bike.

  A sweet aroma cloyed. The contents of the basket shifted. What was that? Suspicious, he scrutinized the fruit. Which couldn’t have jiggled. The heap must’ve resettled, he dismissed. Kat nervously reached for the largest granada (a term acquired from Spanish Class) then shoved it into a book pack slung over his chest. He felt like he was being observed, as if he were stealing the fruit. Mounting his bike, the teen pedalled uneasily to school.

  During Lunch Period he carried a paper sack to an isolated table. Kat positioned the pomegranate like a trophy, a symbol of achievement.

  In a sense it was, though he had never cared about gifts, or been excited to receive something for nothing.

  They gave awards for exemplary conduct, didn’t they? This behavior was certainly unrivalled. It was downright odd for a dispassionate flake like him.

  Tepidly chewing half of the tasteless nondescript sandwich prepared by his mother, which could’ve contained tacks and staples for all he was aware, exchanging nods with Chester (at a table for video-game addicts), he plucked the forbidden slightly foreboding fruit from the tabletop.

  An abominable stench made him gag. The boy blinked at his hand. To his astonishment, he gripped a maggoty ball of seeping brown ooze. A veneer of disgusting despicable fly larvas teemed. Scouts, as if for the swarm, hopped to exposed tissue and proceeded to chisel.

  “Sick!” the kid shrilled. And tumbled off the bench amidst a bustling cafeteria. Leaping up, he danced
about swatting putrid white slugs off his clothes. Then swiped burrowing tick-maggots from his flesh.

  The entire school laughed. Other than pupils who were absent. The students loitering in restrooms, gathered outdoors. It was still a lot of mirthful gaping mouths. And those not present to witness the spectacle would learn about it soon via cell phone, Internet, or word of mouth.

  It was, to his regret, The Information Age. The Communication Era. Nothing was private, nothing sacred. Or was High School always so petty and spiteful?

  Cheeks flaming, Kat collected his trash then spun to meet his only friend’s gaze.

  Chester stopped snickering and averted his face.

  Dewy-eyed, Kat scuffed out of the building to a desolate courtyard, where he perched on an embankment and waited for the bell. It was the dimmest day of his life. But even dejection seemed shallow.

  Fortuitously, the basket was removed by afternoon. A subsequent board enticed, FREE PETS!

  Coasting to a halt in his driveway, last house on the block, the unpopular geek hesitated then shook his head. I’m not myself, he gauged. Acute curiosity for him was unnatural. A result, he estimated, of the incident at school. He expected the tingles to alleviate. Like cutting off the circulation from a wrist. The pulse would immediately revive as the prickling subdued.

  Kat released his bike to crash on cement and leaped to the stoop. He fumbled in his pack for a key, unlocked the door, barged into the house and thudded upstairs.

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