She was outside again, watching me. Her face wore a gentle expression, but what lay behind those dark, piercing eyes? It’s strange. I can go for weeks without seeing her, but she’d been outside, watching, waiting, every night for the past week. We’d lived opposite each other for almost ten years. I’m ashamed to say my knowledge of my aging neighbor consisted of knowing her name – Florence Walsh. Nothing else. We’d exchanged the occasional greeting, more often than not when she was tidying her yard, but that was it. She was THAT neighbor. You know the one, no matter the time of day, month, year or weather, the curtains were always closed.
I parked the car and popped the trunk to retrieve my laptop bag and sweatshirt. I’d spent the evening working on my latest novel at a local coffee house. I write horror stories and, like Florence being outside every night for the past week, I’ve been out writing every night for the past week. I glanced across, waved and gave her a cheery smile.
“Hi Florence, how are you?”
Florence was leaning on the wrought-iron handrail for the short flight of steps to her front door. Were my eyes deceiving me, or were they the same clothes she’d been wearing every time I’d seen her this week? Her eyes stared a hole through me. There was an intensity about them I’d never seen before. It looked like something was wrong so I walked across the street to speak to her. Frail in appearance, Florence shuffled toward the road, her mouth opened to speak. She mumbled something, but it was unintelligible, her voice too faint for me to hear. A pang of guilt tormented my body. It’s pretty shitty when you realize that after all these years we’ve never had a proper conversation. For all I knew, she didn’t even know my name.
“Are you feeling okay, Florence? Is there anything I can do?”
She lifted a pale, withered hand and pointed at her house. I could see dirt under her fingernails. She must’ve been working in her flower beds. She had the tidiest front yard in the street.
“What is it? Do you need help? Can I call someone for you?”
The smell of hyacinths filled the air as she pointed. Apart from some flaking paint on the front door, nothing struck me as being wrong or out of place. She never stopped pointing, each gesture increased in its urgency. That’s when I noted one of her eyes was so obscured by cataracts, I couldn’t make out the eye color.
“Did someone break into your house? Is someone bothering you?”
Florence must’ve reckoned I wasn’t taking any notice of her. The feeling was mutual. There I was trying to be a good neighbor and getting nowhere fast. That’s what you get for trying to help. Her frustration rose as she gesticulated again in the direction of the door. She shrugged and shuffled away in her slippers toward the steps. She stopped, turned around and motioned for me to follow. Bewildered, I put my laptop bag and sweatshirt on the ground and shadowed her like a lost puppy. The last thing I wanted was for her to trip and fall, so I put my hand out to steady her but missed her arm. What the hell? She could move fast.
“Are you locked out? Do I need to call a locksmith?”
I followed Florence to the top of the steps. She stood to one side and waved toward the door, turning her hand like she wanted me to open it. Now both of her eyes had that strange clouded look and her skin appeared to be opaque. This was more than a little freakin’ weird. The alarm bells in my head told me this wasn’t an invite for milk and cookies. I grabbed the handle and glanced sideways at her. She appeared calm now, the frustration had lifted from her features. The briefest, gentlest of smiles formed on her lips.
“Is this what you want, Florence?”
She did the twisty-hand thing again and gestured for me to continue. By the time I’d opened the door an inch, she’d vanished like a silver dollar in a magic trick. All that remained was the faint scent of her lavender perfume. Where did she go? How did that happen?
I pushed the door with my fingers and it swung wide open. A pervading stench attacked my nostrils. Oh my God. It was the most disturbing thing I’d ever encountered – a pungent, rancid mix of decaying flesh, feces, rotten eggs and rotting cabbage. It was disgusting. The smell was so vile it coated my tongue and I damned-near gagged all over the welcome mat. I tried to breathe, but my lungs were constricted as if I was being held captive in a giant bear hug. Clutching my hand across my nose and mouth in an effort to reduce the brutal, fetid odor, I flicked on the light-switch with my free hand. A horrifying sight greeted me – a sight that’ll haunt my dreams forever.
Her lifeless blue-tinted body was lying, limbs bent at awkward angles, at the bottom of the stairs. Her head was in such an unnatural position there was no way she could be asleep. Dried blood plastered wispy grey hair to her scalp and her fragile skin resembled a wax dummy. I fought back the urge to vomit again as I watched flies and bugs crawling over her as she lay surrounded by dark stains on the carpet. Her swollen tongue protruded from between her bloodied lips. Someone once told me that there was no such thing as a beautiful corpse when death claimed the soul. They were right. I wanted to shut the door, run and hide, forget what I’d seen, but her empty, soulless eyes rooted me to the spot. They stared back, seeing nothing. Nothing at all. Darkness. Florence was dead.
Shock kicked in almost immediately as I fumbled with my phone trying to call 911. My hands trembled and my legs turned to Jell-O. I sat on the grass outside Florence’s house, still tasting and smelling the reek of death, until the cops arrived a few minutes later followed by the medical examiner. I could see the neighbors’ curtains twitching, as they made sure to get a good eyeful of the proceedings. A cop questioned me for several minutes, adding fuel to the fire for the nosey neighbors. There’s no way he believed what I’d told him. He said that one of the neighbors claimed to have seen me acting a little strange outside Florence’s house.
The medical examiner came out and in a hushed, respectful tone, said Florence had been dead for at least a week. A few minutes later, they carried her out in a body bag. A cold rush of air skimmed my ear and a thin ghost-like voice whispered “Thank you.”
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