I Saw Someone Living In An Unfinished Neighborhood
My girlfriend Denise lived in a nice suburb in Columbus, Georgia. Well, maybe it wasn't totally suburbia. Cedarbrook Drive and the other streets in her neighborhood were an offshoot from Nature Trail AKA a real suburb. Once you turned on Cedarbrook, you'd reach a bunch of houses lumped together including Denise's. But these homes were much bigger than the ones on Nature Trail. Cearbrook's were like glorified gingerbread houses on pristine one-acre lots. So you had enough land without sacrificing the warm comradeship of living in a tight-knit community. A rural forest ran behind all the backyards as well, making you feel like you were living in the country while still being less than three miles away from your local CVS.
For the most part, Cedarbrook and its surrounding streets formed a cozy village. The whole neighborhood like an embodiment of what suburbia should be. Diverse middle-class-families. Safety. And people that were friends rather than neighbors. Everyone got along like regular bar patrons.
From what I understood, most of the families had moved in together over ten years ago. Their children all grew up together. Every house and every street was filled with familial warmth. All except for one: Manning Lane.
The narrow street was tucked away in the very back of the neighborhood. Four incomplete houses stood on each side of the road. And at the end of the cul-de-sac was the final unfinished home: a house with a foundation but not much else. I always figured the 08 Recession probably killed whatever plans the developers had for it.
Ultimately, Manning Lane was nothing more than a ghost town in an otherwise flawless neighborhood. Denise told me that growing up, they used to go there just to scare one another. Like an "old dark house" extended across an entire street.
The closest I ever got to Manning was Stork Drive. I'd always noticed that gradual fade to darkness going from Stork to Manning Lane. As if the neighborhood forced the road to stay in the shadows. No street lights, no nothing. Just a literal valley of the shadow of death.
But the neighborhood didn't need Manning anyway. All the people living in the Cedarbrook area bonded like they were living in a beer commercial or sitcom. Only it was a genuine bond. Hell, they even welcomed me. And so did Denise's parents.
Honestly, I was surprised her folks were so nice. Denise and I had only been dating for about six months when they started letting me crash at their place. Granted, I mostly slept in the guest room… but still, the arrangement was sick. I got to spend more time with Denise than ever. And we could always find time to be intimate whether it was in her room or at a friends' house.
But I was always respectful. Not just cause her dad was ex-military who could easily kick the shit out of me if he wanted to, but because her parents did so much for us. And they liked me. I wanted to make them proud just like I wanted to make Denise happy.
Denise was 25 and already whooping fucking ass. Even this young, she was a professional woman. Tall and lanky, her brown eyes could command a room. As could her strong personality. She could be empathetic but still possess fierce strength. Simultaneously a warrior and philanthropist. Very Michelle Obama-esque… a resemblance Denise proudly wore on her sleeve.
By now, Denise had already saved up decent money. The logistics of living with the folks until her and I decided to settle down in our own place was really paying off. Recently, she got a nice job at a hospital's HR department. The commute was long. And once she started working there, I noticed her sex drive and energy levels dropped down lower than an overworked grandma's. I knew she was making great cash… but still. I missed the days back when she worked in Columbus. Particularly all that free time we had together.
Then again, I couldn't say much. I was 26 and chronically unemployed. Yeah, I had a degree. In English! I taught ESL on-line in one of those shit minimum-wage jobs for a few months. But since November, I'd been back to unemployment. At least now, I could spend long days writing in the guest room. Horror stories were my passion after all. An escape from my worries.
I made some money off my stories and scripts here and there. But even with some of the success I'd had with my NoSleeps, I wasn't Jordan Peele or Stephen King. I wasn't Billy Haggerty, the first wildly successful black male horror writer. Not yet at least.
However, I was always serious about my writing. Like a 9-to-5 slave, I stayed in that guest room, typing away at my latest scary story. I stayed focused. A mad scientist of literature. I just hoped one day I could make a living at it. Then Denise and I really could move out.
Every weekday around 6:30, I'd rush out the guest room like a dutiful pet. Right when Denise got home. Honestly, I don't know how she made that long commute. She'd leave in the morning when it was still dark and worked all the way until nightfall.
She didn't even have time to read my stories anymore. The weekends and holidays were about the only times I felt like we were a couple. Yeah, I was frustrated, but I knew she had a bright future ahead of her. With or without me. And as long as she loved me, I wanted to be right there by her side.
After all, I had to keep up with Denise. I was a geeky Michael Ealy minus the captivating eyes and sculpted physique. Emphasis on the geeky part. As in monstrous glasses and scrawny bod. Maybe a weird fade too. Either way, I'd proudly be the First Husband to her President Michelle.
About the only thing Denise was adamant about on those weeknights was her daily walk. Even with a perfect body and slim stomach, she had the compulsion to "get fit again." Like a bulimic actress, she'd insinuate that without the walk she'd whale up. Considering we were in early December, and nightfall meant frigid temperatures, well. Those walks could be rough.
But still, I joined her. We'd walk throughout the neighborhood. Everywhere except Manning Lane. And in this weather, the walk felt like a tour of the North Pole. Complete with Cedarbrook's lavish Christmas lights. Not to mention ferocious winds that'd freeze you in place if you stood still for too long.
Thursday night, the mundane weekday routine was the same. I'd just finished up a story. The gruesome twist ending even scared me. Then my phone buzzed to life and gave me another scare. But the text from Denise got me excited. Like a 1950s housewife, I greeted her as soon as she got home.
We ate her mom's cooking. Then with the cold winds awaiting us, we made our way into the void of darkness outside.
We were about as prepared as usual. Denise in her heavy jacket and wool hat. Me in my double-decker wardrobe of a thin hoodie and her dad's winter coat. But still, nothing could prepare us for this frigid onslaught. It may as well have been snowing at this rate. And in Georgia, such a freezing night was close enough to a blizzard.
Denise didn't wanna hold hands. That'd been typical of her lately. Then again, through the piercing wind, I couldn't blame her. We walked side-by-side to the end of Cedarbrook Drive. Right up to the stop sign.
"We gotta get four-thousand steps," Denise said.
"I know, babe," I replied, the cold air flowing from my mouth like my soul was leaving my body.
Even in the uncomfortable cold, the walks were pretty. After all, the neighborhood was a glorious combination of modern suburbia and rural beauty. Like you had the city and country lives fused into one lovely neighborhood.
And this time of year, the Christmas decorations were out and about. Cedarbrook didn't fuck around when it came to the holidays. The Frosty, Santa, and reindeer figurines outnumbered the residents. The abundance of Christmas lights outshined the street lights, helping illuminate Denise and I's path. The lights so elaborate we felt like we were walking through a Christmas festival.
This "late" on a weeknight meant we were the only ones out in the neighborhood. Most of the lights in everyone's homes were off. Like they were throwing their own lively party, all the Christmas figurines and lights looked to be running all night.
Shivering, I pulled Denise's dad's jacket in closer. Even with two jackets, I felt vulnerable to the breeze's sheer force. The cool weather like knives to my face and ears.
"It's fucking cold, babe," I said.
Nonchalant, Denise stared down at her phone. At her app that counted our steps.
Even from where I stood, I could see we had a long way to go…
"We'll be alright," Denise said. Like an encouraging teacher, she grinned at me with those white pearls. "Once we get going, it'll feel warmer."
"Okay…" I responded.
We hit up all the usual areas and streets. Past all the Santa and snowmen figurines. At least, this frozen tundra had some character to it in the form of Christmas decorations.
I saw Denise lead the way past Stork Road. Right up to that left turn on to Manning Lane.
"You sure you wanna go there?" I asked, some unease in my voice.
"Duh," Denise said. She flashed me a teasing smile. "Don't tell me you're scared."
"Hey, as long as you'll protect me," I joked.
Denise gave me that cute laugh. One of the many things I adored about her. "I was gonna ask you the same."
For once, she reached out and grabbed my hand. Excitement surged through me. Like we were back on our first date. Our first kiss.
"Come on, Billy," she said, eager.
Denise's sudden kiss silenced me. Regardless of the bitter cold, I felt electric sparks fly between us. I felt her heart in that kiss. Her passion. Our undeniable chemistry.
She pulled back, that omnipresent smile still on her face. That cute smile.
Like Michelle Obama, she squeezed my hand with presidential authority. "I got you, babe," she reassured me.
And I let her lead the way. Who wouldn't with a girl this fine?
We entered Manning Lane's darkness. The real darkness. The street was small and tight. More like an alleyway than a two-lane road. There were the unfinished houses towering over us like decrepit castles on a hill. No mailboxes. No streetlights.
Even in the darkness, I could see how both rows of houses declined in quality as the street went on. A slow, steady downfall. Like a skeleton of suburbia. All the houses were in the same style as Cedarbrook's. Both the first houses on the left and right side were almost finished save for some roofing issues. Then from there, each house got worse and worse. Missing windows here and there. No front door. And then finally, the behemoth eyesore at the end of the cul-de-sac was awful. Like a neglected child, the house only had a bare foundation. Skin and bones in the form of wood and a thin roof. Not much else.
All the yards looked like shit… like overgrown jungles that looked like they were about to eat the weak houses near them. The yards may as well have blended in with the forest running out behind the final house. I didn't even see For Sale signs anywhere.
Without Christmas decorations or lights, the area looked sad. Not even the holidays could liven up this suburban graveyard.
Denise smiled at me. "Well." Like she was endorsing it for the cameras, she held up her iPhone. The step app. "One-thousand steps to go."
"Let's do it," I said.
Holding hands, we made our way down Manning Lane. We kept to the left side. Denise's iPhone an added source of light amidst this outdoor cavern.
In the cold, I cuddled up next to Denise. She didn't push me back. Instead, she wrapped her arm around me. And held on tight.
"Thanks, babe," I quipped.
She snuck her hand in my jacket pocket. "I'm cold too." Grinning, she gave me a kiss. "Thanks for doing this with me."
My eyes strayed toward the first house on the left. "Aw, no problem, babe."
Like a magnet, one of the windows on the first floor drew my gaze. I thought I saw a curtain there. A static hanging curtain.
"I could use the steps," I told Denise, my focus still on the window. "Unlike you."
Denise pulled me in closer. "Aww…"
Tightening my grip, I held on to Denise. Not just out of romance… but fear.
Chuckling, Denise didn't see the unease on my face. Not yet at least. "I gotta lose weight though, babe. This tum tum-"
"You're skinny," I said. As we got closer to the house, my unease turned to fear.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw Denise grab her flat stomach.
"Just look at it-" Denise began.
I stopped us both, startling Denise.
"Billy, what are you doing?" she asked. Her voice died once she saw the unrelenting terror in my eyes. The terror behind my gargantuan glasses.
Nervous, I pointed her toward the window. "Just look!"
Denise followed my gaze.
A man stood a few feet behind that window. With the darkness like a veil, not everything about him was clear. Just his body and the bottom of his face. He wore khakis and a blue sweater. His skin pale as snow. His wide smile whiter than snow too. He just stood there… and he hadn't moved since I first saw him. Like a cardboard cutout. A creepy Halloween decoration someone had left out for far too long… only I knew that wasn't the case. Especially since no one lived on Manning Lane.
"Who is he?" Denise asked, frightened.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe he's not real-"
The man closed his mouth for a second before displaying that big grin again. The eager smile sent chills down my spine.
And yet, nothing else on the man moved. He stood in his spot like it was his station.
Yanking me out of my fear, Denise pulled me further up the road. "Come on!" she said, doing her best to hide her fear through a harsh demand.
My feet staggered along the hard pavement. All the while, my restless eyes kept turning back toward the window. We were too far for me to get a good look. I didn't know if the man was still there… still in that same spot. With that same smile.
"Just keep walking," Denise said.
Trembling from the cold and fear, I faced her. "Let's just go back-"
"No, we're fine!"
I let her pull me along. Then again, Denise's grip was so tight I couldn't break away even if I wanted to go full chickenshit and leave my girlfriend here in this eerie valley.
"The steps, remember?" Denise said. She forced a smile for me.
Like the dutiful boyfriend I was, I returned a smile. If she was tough enough to deal with what we witnessed… well, I guess I had to be too. Compromise is what relationships were all about, right?
I just didn't like the prospect of continuing through Manning Lane. For once, I really missed the obnoxious Christmas lights from our neighborhood. They'd be like nightlights to a child for me at this point.
We started walking past the second house. Unlike the first one, this home had serious issues. The windows weren't actually there for one thing. No glass at all. And there wasn't much of a roof either.
"When was the last time you came here?" I asked Denise, trying to get my mind off this uncanny vision of suburbia.
"I don't know," she responded. With nervous eyes, she faced me. "Maybe when I was twelve?"
The second house's front door creaked open. Not a quick burst caused by the wind either. There was a long, groaning creak. As if a ghost was begging us to come inside.
Scared shitless, I pulled Denise back. "Fuck!" I yelled.
I felt Denise trembling in my grasp. But I knew she wouldn't dare admit why.
Frightened, my eyes glanced over at the window. Maybe out of instinct, maybe from remembering what I had seen in the previous house. I don't know. Either way, my disturbed intuition was right…
There standing behind the window was the man. I still couldn't see above his snow white smile. But it didn't matter. I knew it was him. He wore the same khakis and blue sweater. He had the same pale skin. He was still on his same nightwatch.
Even without the glass, I could tell he was standing behind the same window. As if the houses had switched spots in a matter of seconds. Not that I would be able to tell considering every house looked the fucking same. Only I knew this was the second home due to its deteriorating condition.
The man now had company. A tall woman stood right next to him. She was taller and lankier than him. And she too had long limbs dangling by her side. She had pale skin. And they were both dressed the same: blue sweaters and khakis. Like twins playfully masquerading as suburban husband and wife. Not to mention she had the same smile of pearly whites he did. Their smiles the only facial features Denise and I could see on either of them. And maybe that was a blessing in disguise…
A frenetic breeze blew the woman's blonde hair like it was fluttering curtains. But neither the man nor woman moved at all. Their mouths would close for a second before opening back up with those big, wide grins. As if they were programmed robots.
Denise pulled me away from the horrifying sight. "Just keep walking!" she said with Ariana Grande's ferocity.
I let her drag me off like the slave boyfriend I was. Her prisoner of love. Not that I was complaining. "But what about them?" I asked Denise in a frightened whisper.
With a glower, Denise confronted me. "Just don't fucking say anything."
Dragged by Denise, I followed her down the street. I didn't even turn around. I was too scared… I could only imagine the couple's smiles somehow still following me from behind that broken window. I didn't wanna know what they were so happy about… maybe they were glad to finally have company…
Denise and I made our way down to house number three. The portrait of Manning Lane's downfall was, again, well represented by each subsequent house. This one didn't even have a doorway much less any glass on the windows. Like the Cedarbrook architect's blueprint had only been brought to half-ass life.
Like a car picking up frightened speed, Denise dragged me past the house as fast as she could. Our frenetic steps formed an incessant rhythm on the pavement. We were so damn close to passing the house without incident.
Then like a knife, a dim light cut on through the dark winter night. A light coming on from inside the third house. Right in the entryway behind where the front door should be.
Denise and I stopped dead in our tracks.
"I thought you said they had no electricity?" I sputtered out, worried.
Her scared eyes glued to the house, Denise didn't even bother looking at me. "They don't."
Another dim light erupted behind one of the windows. The window where we'd seen the couple throughout this terrifying walk. In the very same spot they always were. And this house was no different.
The man and woman were basked in the light for all to see. In all their terrifying glory. They stood in the same place, their long limbs forever hanging by their side.
Only now a son and daughter stood in front of them. Both of them maybe ten-years-old. Tall and scrawny like their parents. Pale skin like them as well.
They all wore the same clothes. Blue sweaters. And khaki pants. And their smiles were just as big. Pearly whites were in those genes, apparently.
Now in the light, I could get a glimpse of all four of them. The blue sweaters all featured crude Christmas caricatures: Santa Claus for the father, Mrs. Claus for the mother, an elf for the little girl, and a reindeer for the little boy. They were all ugly Christmas sweaters. And together, the family wore them with those wide smiles as if everyone was posing for the world's creepiest holiday family photo.
Only they weren't staring into a huge camera. They were staring at us.
All of them stared at us with blank white eyes. Paler than their skin. Paler than snow. Their hair a light cross between blonde and white. Angular, attractive cheekbones combined with those killer smiles made them all look like the perfect All-American family. A postcard image that was a little too real for comfort.
The breeze picked up, almost blowing me back on to the street. I closed my eyes against the frightful cold. "Let's fucking go!" I yelled at Denise. "Come on!"
I could see Denise hang on to her wool hat. She struggled to stay upright from the wind. From the graveyard breeze.
I hugged Denise, keeping her from falling.
Together, we staggered back in the breeze. Closer to that final house.
"Come on!" I heard Denise yell.
Bigger lights cut on from behind us. Colossal lights more appropriate for a football field than a suburban household.
Blinded, we turned and looked toward the final house on Manning Lane.
"Shit!" I cried.
The illustrious lights were Christmas decorations. They were grand and decadent. If they were on the real streets of Cedarbrook, they'd win the neighborhood without question. With the Cedarbrook woods looming behind them, the decorations themselves looked to be an exhibit from Santa's Enchanted Forest.
Out here in the cold, those glowing Santa Claus's and reindeer scared me. Their smiles bared down on Denise and I. As did their unblinking eyes.
And somehow, the house was now finished. No longer the eyesore of our area, this final home was glorious. A Cedarbrook mansion. Like a pretty duckling gone Cedarbrook swan. The roof was done. The windows pristine. The front door tall and strong. The paint perfect. The bricks without a touch of mold.
I could feel Denise tremble in my grasp. And I'm sure she could feel me do the same. Both from the cold and the outright terror of what lied before us.
Our adrenaline wild with dread, Denise and I could see our cold breaths pumping out like a steam engine.
Like the cover of a Manning Lane magazine, the family stood by their treasured yuletide display. Forever smiling. And like their Christmas figurines, the family's light eyes stayed on us.
Sure, maybe the smiles were inviting. But I had a feeling it was for more than offering us hot chocolate and cookies. This family wanted Denise and I's company. But I didn't know for how long…
Denise snatched my arm and pulled me back. "Let's go!" she screamed.
Before turning, I could see the family raise their long arms out and stagger toward us. They moved with methodical precision. Like wind-up toys on a mission. And their grins never vanished. Their light eyes beamed down on us like lasers.
Denise and I whirled around. And we stood still in petrified fear. Like our feet were frozen to the pavement.
Families now stood in all the yards. All eight of them. Every house stood complete and glorious… just like the last house on Manning Lane.
Their bright Christmas decorations shined down on Denise and I like prison spotlights. "Jingle Bells" echoed toward us from all the exhibits… the jolly anthem sounding more and more like our funeral hymn. One we couldn't escape.
The families all looked the same. Father, mother, daughter, son. Every one was in the same Christmas attire: blue sweaters and khakis. Like they all swarmed in from the same party.
Yet they were diverse. Some families white. Some black. Some Hispanic. But they all had the same pale cold eyes. The same light hair. And the same beaming smiles.
And they were only getting closer. Holding their long arms out, they descended upon us. Every Manning Lane family. Their eyes grew brighter and brighter as they neared us. Their hands clamored for company…
"Run!" I yelled at Denise. I snatched her hand, our palms now frozen in the cold.
She didn't need me to lead her. Channeling her inner athletic Michelle Obama, Denise went into overdrive and led us straight toward the woods.
Our breathing got heavier and heavier as we ran past the final house's Christmas museum. And we never slowed down. Our hearts pounding, we entered the dark forest. Our fear was at its peak. Our footsteps echoed everywhere. And from there, we kept running. Far from Manning Lane. And far from its bizarre families.
Submitted December 08, 2018 at 10:20AM by rhonnie14