NICHOLAS SWEENEY

Neighborly Care

FICTION

The new man who came to live in 220 Washington Street was the sort of man we wanted in our community. Quiet, respectable. A man who came to church and bought two slices of pie at the bake sale. Nothing like Emily and Rose; those two were always avoiding our potlucks and community fairs.

Old Esther, in the American Colonial on Washington-you know, with the begonias out front-she swore they stole her lawn gnomes. I would never say something like that, but Carl, who lived across the street from them, said he heard them smashing up pots or something. He said maybe they were Greek, but we all knew what really happened. Missus Onasis was Greek and you didn't hear her breaking vases all the time. No, she was the respectable sort. Our sort.

Besides, Emily had accused Esther of not cleaning up after her dog, Mimsy, who was apparently "shitting" in their yard. First off, Esther-sweet Esther-would never do something so rude. Could someone who baked the sweetest salmonberry pie you ever ate really plot something like that? That was finger pointing plain and simple, and just goes to show the sort of people Emily and Rose were.

Even if kind, forgetful Esther did accidentally let her dog do his business in your lawn, would you rather he did it in the street? And what about Esther? You want an old, arthritic woman twisting her spine for one little accident on your lawn?

Well, you can imagine how happy we all were when we found out they were gone one day. Just gone. Not a word to any of us. Not that they ever bothered to speak with us anyway.

It was a Tuesday when they left, a Tuesday in April. Arthur's stand overflowed with sugared radishes. He was the one who noticed their white Sedan missing, but their lawn chairs were on the deck, so he didn't think too hard about it.

Carl Emmond, the postman, was the one who started asking questions. Now don't misunderstand. Carl is a good standing man. He takes his garbage out every Monday night, and he donates to the church every Sunday, but his head gets a little too caught up in those mystery flicks of his.

Their mailbox was starting to overflow and spill out on the road. We like to keep our town clean here, so naturally he became concerned. He couldn't hold onto the mail. All of it came from far off places, big towns, and cities. Cold places with cold buildings and cold people.

None of them came from in town. They'd never sent us any letters, after all, so why should we send them any?

We're not sure who suggested it. Alison went to two years of graduate school, so it must have been her. We always listened to what Alison said. We decided to look through the mail. Mr. Forbes was hesitant. Sometimes he took his sheriff duties a little too seriously. He always jumps when we shoot fireworks on the Fourth.

It was our duty. We, as a community, needed to look after one another. What if something important came: a dead relative, a pressing debt? Carl was the first to suggest something sinister- you see what we mean about his little mystery flicks? He said there could be a ransom note, a coded threat, or a loan shark.

Naturally we were bound at this point to check, so we did it out of our neighborly concern. We're that kind of community. Even old Esther helped us. She took the biggest pile home with her. She used to be a paralegal before her husband, Albert-bless his soul-passed.

None of us found anything, and neither did she, just old postcards and wishing-you-were-here's, exactly what you would expect from homebodies like those two.

I guess for a while we all forgot about it. Things come up and a community learns to move on. Honestly, there wasn't much worth remembering about those two and the things we did remember we tried to forget. We knew what sort they were; sisters didn't look at each other that way and friends didn't hold hands like they did. Not that we really cared. What goes on behind closed doors isn't the community's business, but they didn't keep their frivolity indoors.

Esther had trouble pretending she wasn't happy they were gone. When Missus Onasis asked her how she felt about the whole thing, Esther only said that it was certainly much quieter. We knew exactly what she meant.

For a while, things were pretty quiet. Arthur-he's our community realtor, you'll remember-he was the first to ask if we should put the place on the market. It'd been four, five months now. Surely, if they had left they wouldn't be coming back.

Tender Esther seemed very excited about the idea. She lives alone after all, poor dear. She made a formal statement in town hall about it. Mr. Forbes, always on about his duty as sheriff, suggested we wait, but who could say no to Esther's leathery, smiling face.

We agreed to begin cleaning out the house to make it ready for sale. Esther even offered to take on most of the cleaning herself, but we couldn't just let an old, arthritic woman clean an entire house herself, and even Mr. Forbes was at least a little curious about what we would find inside.

We met on Thursday the 5th. The weatherman had declared it would be a warm autumn day, not a cloud in the sky. Carl Emmond said Esther was already there when he got there, hard worker that she was even in her old age. She was loading a couple of long black bags into her van when he arrived. "Just a few little things." She just waved away his help. She told him she might need a little break to do some gardening.

It's hard not to imagine Carl searching every nook of that old house. Missus Onasis said she found him talking to himself and holding a pencil in his hand like it was a cigarette, even though, like any self-respecting gentleman, Carl certainly didn't smoke. Apparently he even had a black hat on when she got there, though none of the rest of us saw it.

The whole place smelled like dust and the citrus pine oils Rose always burned. When Arthur got there to do an assessment, he couldn't stop sneezing and had to be excused. The rest of the place was a mess of warm brown and red carpets, pagan symbols, and elephant statues. Pastor David asked if he could do an exorcism before the house went on the market.

Their bedroom had one bed like we had guessed and was dry with the smell of sage incense, which naturally got Arthur coughing again. Emily and Rose had hung a huge tan map over their bed, and on it they'd pricked a bunch of red and green pins with little strings looped around each of the green ones, so that the pins formed a web.

Carl suggested we look at where the last loop led and perhaps that might be the clue to find where they had gone. He had been standing off to the side of the door, bringing his pencil up to his lips and then down. But the last loop had led here, so that didn't help us any.

Carl left the rest of us to clean up the bedroom. We took it upon ourselves to start taking things off the walls and stuff the belongings into the big black bags Esther had left for us.

Missus Onasis took most of the shawls for herself. Arthur found a new hoe in their shed. Pastor David took some of the beeswax candles for the church's power outage stock. Alison took most of their religion books off the shelf, making sure to leave Carl a few. Even Mr. Forbes couldn't resist taking the elephant lamp for his collection.

We were almost finished when Carl cried out that he'd found something.

Mr. Forbes made it down the stairs first, and you would swear that he hadn't seen the sun a day in his life-he was so pale. Carl stood in the center of the dank cement basement, holding up the corner of a burgundy carpet. It was hard to see at first, the yellow light gave off a weak glow and flickered, but the patch of rust red on the ground was unmistakable.

"Two people don't just disappear," Carl said. "It looks like we may have a murder on our hands, folks."

It wasn't hard to imagine Carl practicing that line, but the effect was just the same, and none of us could very well disagree. A dried pool of blood stretched across the floor.

Mr. Forbes's knees buckled and he fainted, poor dear. Pastor David made a cross over his chest and began to whisper a prayer beneath his breath. Missus Onasis, who'd once been a physician, nodded her head. "Definitely blood alright, and certainly enough to bring someone down," she said.

She motioned Carl to move and the young man wilted a little, but stepped aside anyway. Missus Onasis bent down and pulled something out of the carpet. She held it up to the light.

"What is it?" Alison demanded.

Missus Onasis shook her head and turned the shard around. The shard was painted creamy beige on one side and white on the other. She pinched the piece between her fingers.

"It's a clue," Carl said, his confidence remembered. He walked over and stared at it. "It looks like a nose."

Alison took a step forward, holding her books out in front of her like a shield. "Is it one of theirs?" she whispered.

Missus Onasis rolled her eyes. "It's porcelain."

"The murder weapon!" Carl declared. We all turned toward him. He snatched the nose shard from Missus Onasis's hand, a very ungentlemanly thing to do, but we forgave him this time. "What has a nose and is made of porcelain?"

We waited in silence. It wasn't much of a riddle, but we weren't much for answering riddles anyway. We looked to Alison. "A statue?" she asked more than said.

"Close," Carl said, and his cheeks flushed. "A lawn gnome."

Now you can imagine the kind of hubbub this created. We aren't like those big cities on the coast. People just don't get murdered here. There was poor Albert with the pills, but even that wasn't quite as bad as this.

Miss Onasis was quick to point out the crashing sounds they'd heard a while back. That must have been when it happened, and then one of them must have fled the crime.

"Unless-," Alison started to say, but then she couldn't finish it. We all knew what she meant: unless it wasn't Emily or Rose who did the killing. But surely something like that couldn't happen in our community. Not here. Things like that just didn't happen in a community like ours. They just didn't. But here they had. The proof was on the basement floor.

We didn't try to point fingers then, we just aren't those kinds of people. We have standards. But word spread and people talked.

We did agree on one thing, at least. We couldn't tell Esther. It would break the poor woman's heart to hear that one of her little gnomes was used for such an evil purpose. We left her to her gardening.

But Esther, gentle Esther was a wise woman, and she could tell something was indeed very wrong. No one stayed after church for her bake sales. Carl cancelled football practice on Wednesdays. Missus Onasis stopped meeting for afternoon tea on Saturdays. A couple weeks after, she called us together for an emergency town meeting.

"I think you all know why we're here tonight," she said. She was a small woman, barely up to Carl's chin, and he was the shortest man in town. She clasped her mitten-covered hands in front of her.

We couldn't help but shy away from her bespectacled eyes. She scanned our faces, the wrinkles on her brow sagging in the slightest of furrows.

She nodded. "It's a terrible thing, what happened to our newest of neighbors," she said. "I heard of the news from our dear sheriff Mr. Forbes and it nearly broke me." She motioned to the man, and he sunk down beneath our glares.

"I know what you're feeling," she said, and we knew that she really did. "I was just as scared as you are now. It gets very lonely on that hill, and there is so little protection for an old woman like me."

We wanted to tell her we would protect her, but we stayed quiet.

"However, I remembered something," Esther said. "I have all of you. I know better than most, but when something like this happens-something so terrible, we can't let it pull us apart." She walked over and put a hand on Mr. Forbes's shoulder, and he looked up. "We are a community. We have each other, and that is what makes us strong."

She looked so strong, a coach or quarterback in an old woman's body. Her chin was up, her gaze set. "Like a painting of Lewis and Clark," Alison later said, her voice wistful.

So that's what we did. We moved on. Esther's begonias bloomed. Alison started a job at the local newspaper. Mr. Forbes stopped avoiding Washington Street on his afternoon walks. And like letting out a breath, we let thoughts of those two drift from our minds.

Carl wasn't too keen on just forgetting about a mystery like that-we are a quiet town, after all-but one day even he wouldn't stop on his morning route to see if a light might be shining in their window.

It was February when George moved into 220 Washington Street, and he brought his dog, yappy, mean old thing. George, like we mentioned, was wonderful. He wore a suit wherever he went, even when it rained. He was an actor-can you believe that?

A real actor! Smaller pictures, nothing fancy. Sometimes when he sat out on his porch talking to Mr. Forbes, we would open our windows just to catch the barest hint of his rich voice drifting on the warm spring breeze.

But his dog; we consider ourselves animal lovers here. We take our animals to Missus Onasis's vet as often as she tells us. Mr. Forbes brushes his horses before and after he lets them out to pasture. Twice a year Pastor David lets Alison collect funds for the ASPCA. That dog of George's was as bad as they come though. If it wasn't barking, it was growling. Most of the time it kept itself curled up at the foot of George's chair, but one day, it bit poor, sweet Esther's half-blind dog when it was just sniffing around George's house.

Nine stiches! Nine stiches for Esther's corgi. What if that had been Esther walking by the house, or one of the children?

Now you must understand, we would never wish ill on one of God's creatures. Every creature is beautiful in the Creator's eyes. Still, it was hard to mourn when coyotes got George's dog one night.

It was Flag Day, so the community was having a crafts competition at the church. Red, white, and blue scraps littered the floor, and the new "flags" were tacked to the wall for Mr. Forbes, Pastor David, and Arthur to judge.

George was always a respectable gentleman, but when he came into the church, he was crying. Crying about his dog. He'd called and called, but the creature never came. We were sad-at least a little. Not for the dog, but for George. There was a search, of course. We take care of our own, and after all that did include George's dog. Even Esther with that hip of hers insisted on coming, but either the coyotes took him clean or he'd wandered far.

Older dogs did that sometimes, Esther explained to us, while Missus Onasis nodded. "So we won't have to watch them go." And she put her arm on George's arm.

As always we moved on because we are a strong community. Mr. Forbes invited George to his fishing trip, Alison collected donations for the ASPCA, and Esther dug up and replanted her begonias. And they, like everything in our fair community, looked beautiful.