Up the short hill and around the corner into her quiet neighborhood—just moments away from the cold chardonnay chilling in her refrigerator—Catherine swerves to angle into her driveway and then stops dead in the middle of the street. The crisp white wine she’d envisioned moments before drops from her mind. Her next door neighbors, the McColls, a quirky but dear couple, are nowhere in sight. Not a soul is in sight. Yet their front door hangs wide open, as if forgotten, and light beams from every window.
Catherine inventories the cars. His two cars are there. Her two cars are there. Then Ranger steps into the door frame and squats, staring forlornly out.
She pulls halfway into her driveway and sets the parking brake. She walks to sidewalk in front of the McColl’s house. There isn’t a sound. It’s very odd. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches a curtain moving across the street. Lori Firth. If anyone knows what’s wrong, that one-woman neighborhood watch should know.
Catherine cups her hands around her mouth and projects. “Lori!” She waits a moment, and then shakes her head and walks up the drive and to the door.
Ranger approaches her with a tentative wag and sniffs her leg. She scratches his head. “Hey there, Ranger. What’s up, buddy?”
The Labrador offers no answers, except that he is clearly alone.
Catherine glances inside. The place is a mess. Furniture is displaced. The entry rug has been shoved aside. In the kitchen, visible from the front room, an oven timer is beeping.
“Hello?” she offers as she steps in. There is no response. The television is on, but muted. It looks like a ridiculous B movie complete with rubber monster suits. The couch has been shoved toward the television and against the wide, glass coffee table. A flower vase lay on its side, threatening to roll off onto the floor.
Ranger follows and Catherine crosses to the kitchen. She turns off the timer and checks the oven. It is on, but there is nothing inside. A casserole sits uncovered on the stove top. Two potholders lie on the floor. Whatever it was, it happened fast.
Catherine turns off the oven and eyes the back door. It, too, is open, but there is nothing unusual about that. The backyard seems to be in order. She cautiously walks the house with Ranger at her heels, approaching each turn with a, “Hello? Is anybody here? It’s Catherine.”
In the master bedroom, she sees the contents of Mia’s purse on the bed, scattered, but nothing else is in disarray beyond the normal sloppiness of socks and shoes and underwear piled near, but not in, the hamper. Through the bedroom window she sees her own bedroom window, and recalls the conversation she overheard this weekend. “God damn it, Garret! If you don’t start putting your socks in the hamper, I’m going to kill you!”
Garret laughed. “What? I thought they were in the hamper. Somebody must have taken them out.”
“And just what asshole might that have been? Are his initials Garret McColl?”
“You really have no proof one way or the other how those socks got out of the hamper. It’s a mystery. We might never get to the bottom of it.”
“I swear to God, you will have no idea what hit you!”
“I’m just saying…”
A string of profanities followed, and the couple apparently left their room to continue their verbal exchange elsewhere. It had been a typical slice of the McColl’s love-hate banter—one of the things that made them quirky. Some of their friends found it cute. Catherine, on the other hand, isn’t so sure. To each his or her own, but she is fairly certain that if she found herself engaged in similar repeated conversations, she would simply do away with the bastard. No banter. No warning. Just… bye-bye Garret. She mentally reprimands herself for the thought. Something here might be very wrong, and as a reluctant trespasser, this is no time to be judgmental.
She continues scouting the house. The office—really Garret’s office, judging by the piles of papers overflowing from his desktop and infringing on the tiny, neat space in front of Mia’s computer. On Garret’s screen is a timed-out video about the Flat Earth Society. What is wrong with that guy?
The other rooms are undisturbed and quiet. She turns off lights as she makes the rounds. It feels more than a little bit creepy to prowl a neighbor’s house like this. She tries to calm herself with repeated compliments to Ranger. “Such a good boy.”
Returning to the front room she sees the house phone and its cradle on the floor. She picks up the phone, turns it off and on. There is a dial tone.
She stares down at Ranger. “I wish you could talk, good buddy.” She wonders briefly if she should take him home with her and decides against it. “They will return soon.” They should return soon.
She hunts for a bag of dog treats and offers Ranger a biscuit. “You be a good boy. They’ll be back soon. She leaves the back door open, and then locks the front door and pulls it shut as she exits.
The curtain across the street moves again. Catherine drops her shoulders, cocks her hip and summons Lori with an impatient wave. Finally Lori’s door opens and she exits her house pulling a sweatshirt over her head.
“It’s not cold,” Millicent says.
Lori’s eyes are wide, worried, and curious. When she crosses the street, Catherine prompts her nosy neighbor. “What happened?”
Lori responds with a nervous head shake. “I don’t know.”
From her expression, it is clearly an incomplete response.
“Tell me,” Catherine prods further, “what you do know.” Lori’s children are well out of college. Lori busies herself with everybody’s business constantly. It is not like her to hold anything back.
Finally, Lori puts a hand to her face. “There… there was a paramedic and an ambulance… and a police car. I… oh, it must have been awful.”
Catherine steps closer. “Oh, my gosh. Is Mia okay?”
“I don’t know. Poor dear. She was crying hysterically.”
Dawning rises. Catherine looks back and the house and then returns her gaze to Lori. “Is it Garret?”
Lori nods quickly.
“I don’t know. But I think… I think…”
Catherine begins to doubt whether she wants to hear. But she reminds herself that nothing is ever as bad as her imagination. Not knowing. That is the enemy. Facts are never as bad as a wild imagination.
“The way they were acting… the way everyone was… I think…”
“You”—she leans forward and to the left to catch Lori’s eyes—”Think”—Lori relents and matches Catherine’s gaze—”What?”
Finally Lori blurts the news in a whisper that carries such hysteria that it rings louder than a shout. “I think he’s dead.”
Catherine crosses her arms and stares at her neighbor. She searches for words and finds none. Her skin prickles with goose flesh. She draws an unsteady breath and realizes she was wrong. It is cold. It’s damn cold. Chill to the bone.