A. Poythress

girl next door

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Cybil skitters through the long grass, stalking the jumping bugs and waving blades in a reflection to the cat, Boss. Boss’ tail is a sinuous curve above his back, lashing back and forth as he picks out his prey. Cybil watches him crouch, eyes narrowed, ready for the pounce.

            A thud.

            Girl and cat both perk up at once, gazes drawn to the backyard next door hidden behind the fence. All the sounds of the outside world seem to quiet down as the two wait to figure out what made the noise.

Another thud, this time followed by a soft hiss.

Cybil crawls on her hands and knees over to the fence, determined to learn the source of the noise. She knows the place low near the ground where the slats were installed sloppily and gape open enough to see through. She crouches down and presses her face against the rough wood, scans the neighbor’s backyard while ignoring the prickly grass scratching at her face.

The old lady who lives next door is standing in the middle of the yard, dressed the way she always is; pink pantsuit from the 70s, greying hair up in curlers, fuzzy slippers on her feet. She’s got a shovel clutched in both hands. She thrusts it into the ground and it makes the same dull thudas before. 

As Cybil watches, the old lady presses one slipper-clad foot against the lip of the shovel and presses it in further. She lifts a large clump of dirt up which she deposits next to the hole, the loose, rain-parched soil hissing as it slides off metal and onto the growing pile.

Cybil sits back and looks over at Boss. He’s sitting a foot away from her, licking one big orange paw. His ear flicks when another thudof the shovel sounds out, but he doesn’t look perturbed. Cybil takes it as a sign to keep watching so she can report her findings to him later.

The old lady is still digging when Cybil presses her face to the fence to watch again. It’s weird—her mom always makes her dad walk over to offer to mow the lawn or do any household chores she might need. Cybil once had to feed her old mop looking dog when she was away, but it’d died earlier in the year. If the lady needed a hole dug, why do it on her own? Especially in the late afternoon when it was obvious there were people home to help her.

But the old lady doesn’t seem inconvenienced at having to dig her own hole at all. She just keeps pulling up shovelfuls of dirt one after the other. Soon, the soil she pulls up is dark and Cybil can smell it all the way from her hiding place. Damp and like living things, growing things. The darker dirt falls off the shovel in clumps, landing with loud thumps.

Cybil’s knees start to ache from her crouch, so she gets on her belly to watch, neck craning up to keep her eyes in the right place on the fence.

The old woman steps into the hole and it’s so deep that the earth seems to eat her up to the knees. She continues to throw dark clods of dirt over her shoulder as she digs. Maybe she’s gone mad, madder than Cybil has always thought the old lady to be, and she’s digging her way to the other side of the world. Or maybe she’s digging a grave. Cybil has no clue what she thinks she’s doing.

She leans away and rolls over onto her back, looking up at the orange sky. It’s quickly darkening at the edges of the horizon, purple bleeding into the orange like an old bruise. Soon, the lightning bugs will be out, their bodies turning on and off like Christmas lights. That’s what Cybil had been out for in the first place, to watch the lightning bugs with Boss. He never chased them. Just watched them drift by and flick on and off.

Boss buts his head against Cybil’s face, getting his fur all in her nose and mouth. He tastes like pollen and grass but she doesn’t mind.

“Good man,” she says, voice muffled. She runs her fingers over the hard ridge of his back. His rusty purr weaves in and out of the thuds still floating over the fence. “What do youthink she’s digging for?” Cybil asks him.

Boss kneads his feet against the dirt, claws digging into and out of the same places. He looks up at her, then back to his own little holes. The cat doesn’t answer.

Cybil takes that as the answer it is and moves back to the fence. It’s dark enough that her mother is going to start calling for her any time now. She hopes the old lady finishes up whatever she’s doing before then, or she’ll miss it. Boss won’t catch her up, either. He never does when she misses out on interesting things.

It’s also dark enough that the lights attached to the back of the neighbor’s house automatically flicker on, illuminating small pools of the yard. A spotlight circles the hole in the ground and the shovel swinging in an arc above the old lady’s head. She’s humming now, a tuneless thing that makes the hairs at the back of Cybil’s neck stand up. Something about the humming isn’t right.

“Ah, there you are,” the old woman says. It’s quiet out, no summer bugs screaming the way they always do, so her voice carries out of the hole and through the yard. All Cybil can see of her now are the hair curlers moving up and down.

Cybil presses her face harder against the fence, eager to know what the woman found. 

The old woman tosses the shovel out of the hole and then reaches up and grasps onto the sides of it. With surprising strength, she heaves herself up and over the edge. She leans down and holds out a hand.

“Easy there,” she says. “I know it’s been a while.”

Cybil quivers in her spot at the fence, whole body on edge and waiting. She barely notices Boss brushing up against her, pressing in close the way he never does when she wants him to. His fur is standing up on end, too, like he’s just as anxious as she is to know what’s going to come out.

A pale, slim hand reaches out of the hole and takes hold of the old woman’s. The nails are shiny and long, fingers thin and almost spidery. The old woman’s hands are even more wrinkly and spotted compared to this new one.

“There we go, atta girl,” the old woman says happily. She leans back and hauls up the person on the other end of the arm with that surprising strength. 

What comes out of the hole is a young woman, maybe in her late teens. She’s nude, hairless body shining in the artificial light. Cybil’s eyes go wide as she takes the woman in. She’s so tall and lean, beautiful, with flowing locks of blonde hair that fall down her back and over her perky pink-tipped breasts. There’s no dirt clinging to her somehow, like even the earth knows it has no place on her body.

“Everything you need to know is written down in the usual place. There’s a DVD in the player waiting for you—don’t worry, you’ll know what that means after you’ve read the brief,” the old woman says as she starts to disrobe. More of her wrinkled, spotted flesh is put on display with each article of clothing she takes off. “I let you stay down longer than usual, so don’t bother me until you’re desperate, okay?”

Cybil should feel ashamed of looking at their nudity, should look away as the old woman’s sagging breasts are revealed, but she can’t take her eyes off what’s happening. The old woman toes off her slippers as she reaches up to uncurl her hair, throwing the curlers to the ground. It leaves her brittle, grey and white hair to spill across her discolored skin. Even her nails look old as they rake through her hair, trying to untangle the snarls. They’re brittle and cracked.

“I won’t bother you, I promise,” the glowing woman says. Even her voice is beautiful, light and lilting. “Have a good sleep, my love. I’ll see you when the time comes.”

The old woman makes a twisting face at the younger. “Yes, that’s what you always say, and somehow I’m never as refreshed as you when I wake up.”

The young woman hums, the same song the older had sung earlier. It still somehow makes Cybil’s skin crawl, even though it sounds so nice sliding out between her lips.

With one last wave of a gnarled hand, the old woman hops, naked, into the hole. The young woman picks up the fallen shovel and starts to spill dirt back into the gaping opening. Her shovelfuls are smaller, her movements more delicate. Her body flows through the air like she’s dancing. She smiles as she buries the old woman.

The back-door clatters open and both Cybil and Boss jump at the sudden noise. She twists around to see her mom leaning out the door, waving at her. She calls out, “Cybil! Time to come in!” before sliding the door shut again. She flicks on the light as a gentle reminder.

Cybil’s heart pounds hard from the small fright. She knew her mom was going to call for her, but she’d somehow managed to forget. The two women made her forget.

She turns back to look through the fence, just to get one last glimpse.

The young woman is frozen, eyes fixed on the spot where Cybil is hiding.

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A. Poythress is a second year MFA fiction student at Columbia College Chicago.  They've been published in Thresholds UK, Best Flash Fiction, Asymmetry, and Write City Magazine, among others.  They primarily write horror and surreal stories about women and queer folk.