The Boy Next Door
The next-door neighbors’ oldest daughter is a blond biological child. Next comes Luna—her parents nearly missed a bomb blast from the Shining Path when they went to pick her up. “Please take good care of my baby,” said the tiny dark woman who’d come down from the Andes, an eight-hour bus ride, with her bundle, then swiftly returned to care for her other 12 children.
It was easier bringing Luli and Ping back from China. Dennis, the youngest, was born to a crack-addicted teenager in Buffalo, New York.
Anna had raised her own sons before all these children came along. She loved the chance to be an aunty to those girls, inviting them to tea or to help plant pansies when they were small, but they grew up even faster than Anna’s sons.
Dennis’s childhood played out. He often kicked around a ball in his yard on the side that faced Anna’s house, or hung out on his trampoline. As a little boy he was curious about all things going on in her house. One morning, when Anna returned from the farmers market, Dennis came bounding over like one of the dogs to see what she bought. It wasn’t enough that she described it— kale, kohlrabi, mizuna. He wanted to see those things.
“Can I come inside your house?” The towhead was small for his years with a puckish face. Adorable was the word often used to describe him, though as he grew he began to resent it.
“Let’s first get your parents’ permission,” said Anna, taking his little hand in hers and walking around to the back, looking for Charles and Louise. The swing set was abandoned, and the picnic table dappled with freshly fallen leaves. She continued around to the other side, where the dogs barked. Dennis broke free of Anna’s hand, petting the dogs to calm them down. Anna was not a dog person. She didn’t like when dogs sniffed at her privates.
They continued around to the front, ringing the doorbell, but Anna knew it was futile—Charles and Louise never answered their door.
“Come,” said Anna to Dennis. “You can phone them and tell them where you are.”
Anna didn’t consider her neighbors irresponsible parents. When you have five kids, you’re not able to hover over each and every one. The neighborhood was safe, and she liked that the greater community of neighbors could help watch over the children. She dialed their number and handed the phone to Dennis, who looked up at her. “Just tell them you’re coming to my house for a few minutes.”
When his mother’s announcement started, Dennis handed the phone back to Anna. “If you’re looking for Dennis, he’s with me,” she recorded. “He wants to see my veggies, and I’ll give him something to eat.”
Inside, Dennis quickly lost interest in the rutabagas. Anna cut up an apple for him, but instead he asked if he could do the dishes.
“Sure,” she said, pulling up a stool to the sink, filling it with warm sudsy water and a few cups and plates. She helped Dennis roll up his sleeves, then he climbed the stool and began gently splashing the sudsy water.
After a few minutes, he wanted to make bubbles. Anna had a bubble jar she filled with a fresh mixture of dishwashing soap, then took out the wand and blew a stream of bubbles that landed on Dennis’s blond head as he giggled. She brought the wand to his face, and he took it from her, blowing bubbles all over her kitchen.
Ordinarily Anna would wash the veggies before putting them in the fridge, but she’d do that later, after Dennis was done with the dishes.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Would you like a peanut butter sandwich?”
“Do you have waffles?”
“Can I have my peanut butter and honey on a waffle?”
Anna took out the waffles and put them in the toaster while Dennis dripped soapy water on the floor. “Here,” she said, pulling a fresh towel from the drawer and drying his hands. He had that little boy smell she remembered from her own sons; it seemed to emanate from the scalp. She remembered their heads, sweating on the pillow at night as she kissed the scalp, and how over the years it evolved from a sweet smell to a sour one.
He pulled up the stool to the counter where she was spreading the peanut butter on the hot waffle. “Can I do it?” he asked
She handed him the knife and watched him play with the peanut butter, gooping it all over the waffle and the plate.
“We have a honey bear too,” he said when she handed him the squirt bottle.
“Do you like your sandwich open faced or closed?”
She sat him on a stool at the table, then brought over his sandwich. He nibbled off his first bite when Anna sensed movement outside the window. One of the men in the neighborhood came tearing through her yard, a look of terror on his face, and Anna instantly understood what was going on. Charles and Louise had realized their little boy was missing. They didn’t bother listening to their messages, they immediately phoned all the neighbors with little boys who Dennis might have gone to visit. All the parents of the neighborhood boys had formed a posse to search for the missing, and presumed kidnapped, boy with the blond hair.
“Uh-oh,” said Anna. “We’ll come back so you can finish your sandwich, but we’d better go and tell your parents where you are.” She grabbed him by his sticky hand and took him out the front door. “Oh, my!” she said, when she saw the two police cars in front of Dennis’s house, Louise sitting on the front porch talking to one of the officers. “Here he is,” she shouted, running to Louise, who started crying when she saw her little blond angel. All the big sisters, their long legs extending from shorts, came out too: the biological child, now in college, the Peruvian girl, in high school, and Luli and Ping, interrupted from their homework.
Louise hugged Dennis as Anna babbled her explanation to the police, blushing as if she had done something bad she had to lie about. Had she had kidnapped Dennis because she missed her own sons? Those dogs came to sniff her private parts, as if they, too, were investigating. The police smiled, pleased with the easy resolution, and drove away. Louise started to scold Dennis, but Anna interjected that it was her fault, she should have tried harder to let them know Dennis was at her house. Charles assured Dennis that everything was OK, he wasn’t in trouble, and if he wanted he could return to Anna’s house and finish his sandwich.
The neighborhood search posse was still there, looking at Anna, suspiciously. Even the beautiful girls eyed her. Was she some kind of child molester or pervert? She licked the honey off her fingers.
Dennis looked up at his mother’s swollen eyes. “It’s ok, you can go back and finish your sandwich.”
In the coming weeks, when Anna recounted the story to her hairdresser and another neighbor, she realized they had already heard it. “Louise is worried about Dennis,” said the hairdresser. “She’s worried that Dennis will go with anyone.”
Was Anna anyone?
She was glad that Charles had suggested Dennis return to finish his sandwich so he’d know that not only had he done nothing wrong, that Anna was an ok neighbor, a safe person.
Anna would never invite Dennis into her house again, but when he passed her on the street, he always said hello, even as he entered adolescence.
When he was about 11, Dennis got into trouble for throwing glass shards into a pool, along with another boy in the neighborhood. The other boy was older, and Anna was convinced the older boy was the instigator. Dennis wouldn’t have done something like that on his own.
Louise often took Dennis for walks in the neighborhood. They looked like a happy mother and son, but Anna learned these were disciplinary walks. When Dennis misbehaved, rather than punish him, his mother took him for a walk where they could discuss some of the issues on his mind.
In time, Dennis resisted the walks, and so had to be grounded. Anna would often notice him working in the yard—as punishment, Louise explained, she would make him pull weeds.
“Lucky you, having a resident weeder,” Anna joked.
At 13, Dennis was still small for his age, still blond, and still had a little boy’s adorable face, though his body was getting muscular from playing soccer. Soccer was a way for him to work out his issues, Louise told Anna. When he broke his ankle and couldn’t play, the issues could not be worked out.
One night, Dennis disappeared. He had started the evening at the house of a girl in the neighborhood, but at 9 pm, her curfew, he left. He came home, and Charles and Louise thought he was home for the evening, but some time after 10 they realized he’d piled a clump of pillows and pajamas under the covers to look like he was sleeping in his bed—when you’re the youngest in a family of five you master all the tricks.
Anna had gone to see a production of “The Children’s Hour” and was returning at 11 when she saw Charles and Louise scouring the neighborhood. “Dennis is missing,” they said. They had awoken the parents’ of the girl he’d visited earlier, to no avail. They’d called him and texted him and there was no reply. Anna e-mailed the next morning to find out if they’d found him yet.
At about 3 a.m., she learned, Dennis had turned up, asleep on the bleachers at the high school. He’d ridden his bicycle there but didn’t get his parents’ messages because he was asleep. “I wasn’t doing drugs,” he insisted, surrendering his phone so his parents could track his messages.
Louise told Anna that this time, Dennis’s punishment was to sleep on the floor in their bedroom for three weeks. “He really hates that,” said Louise, hopeful it would be a behavior changer.
In summer, Anna would leave the balcony door open at night. She could hear the wild pool parties. There was shouting and splashing until the wee hours. Dennis’s voice had turned deep. He was still very good looking, still shorter than other boys his age. Anna wondered–hoped–girls liked him. In the morning there would be beer bottles scattered on the lawn.
In the late fall and winter, Anna would see Dennis walking to the bus stop, wearing only a gray hooded sweatshirt on even the coldest days. His hands in his pockets, his head gazed downward. Downward dog, she thought. By March, Anna noticed that Dennis had taken his sleeping bag out to the tree house that was visible from her driveway. He appeared to be coming home late at night—well, early in the morning—and camping out in his backyard. One of Anna’s sons had camped out in their backyard for a week in the late fall during his high school unit on Transcendentalism and written a paper, but somehow this didn’t seem to be what Dennis was up to. In the cold weather, Anna never ran into Louise, but by May, when they were both out working in the garden, Louise told her that Dennis was now going to meetings with Charles.
Dennis was still too young to drive, but he had a girlfriend two years his senior who drove. Anna sometimes saw her parked in front, the driver’s window open, her long blond hair spilling out, along with smoke from her cigarette.
Charles’s own path toward sobriety had started even before he and Louise settled into the house next to Anna. The only child of an Irish immigrant who worked as a night janitor in a school in New Haven, Charles’s rise through an Ivy League education, becoming a book publisher by his 28th birthday, came with costs. Charles’s closest friends were comrades in sobriety, and he and Louise often found employment for fellow AA members, helping them rebuild their lives as they built patios or garden sheds. Some of these friends would work at their home during the years Dennis was growing up, so Dennis saw familiar faces in the meetings.
Anna encountered Charles and Dennis on their way home one morning. Charles greeted her in his usual way. Dennis’s head was bent over as he engaged with his phone. His blond hair was dark now, unkempt and greasy—it no longer had that little boy smell. He was still small for his age, still boyish, his muscular forearms lined with black spidery tattoos. She flashed back to the day when he came to wash her dishes. “Do you remember,” she began, describing the day.
Dennis looked up from his phone, looked her in the eye. He shook his head. Charles laughed. Anna released her breath.
Ilene Dube is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. Her short stories, poetry, and personal essays have appeared in Atticus Review, Corvus Review, Former People, HerStory, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic, Kelsey Review, Foliate Oak, The Grief Diaries, The Oddville Press, Penny Shorts, Unlikely Stories, and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction.