by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
there's a delivery truck out front," Kyle said.
The grocery boy made a weekly delivery, and the postman brought
occasional letters and bills and all the curricula for Kyle's
home schooling. Everything else they needed came from delivery
trucks, except for a few special supplies. Kyle was good with
computers and tracking shipments. He always knew when anything
was coming, and he hadn't mentioned a shipment due today.
Anna set her brush on the easel ledge below her canvas and went
to peer over Kyle's shoulder. "Are we expecting anything?"
A man climbed out of the truck by the front gate.
Kyle shook his head. He backed his wheelchair away from his
observation post at the window. He always backed away when
strangers approached. He was fifteen now, perhaps old enough to
be better socialized, she thought, but perhaps not.
The doorbell rang.
Anna glanced at Kyle. He had retreated to the dark hallway;
only the toes of his shoes were visible in the light from her
still-life lamp. She went to the door.
The FedEx man was young. His hair stuck out in taffy spikes
below his cap. "Please sign on line 28," he said.
"Who's it from? I wasn't expecting anything." She signed.
"Don't know, ma'am." He handed her a package about the size of
a tea box. The address label was smeared. The return address
label read, "A Friend" in handwriting she didn't recognize. She
frowned at it, then glanced at the address label again. "But
this isn't — " she called to the young man. He had jumped down
the porch steps, crossed the front yard, and was already in the
driver's seat of his truck.
The man touched his cap and drove away.
"What is it, Gran?" Kyle rolled into the room.
"Something for the Crandalls." How could the delivery man make
such a mistake? Her last name was Grant; she supposed the smear
made "Crandall" look like "Grant." But the address — well. The
smear had disguised that, too.
The Crandalls, a man, a woman, and two bad-tempered children,
had lived next door for six years. They had interested Anna and
Kyle on many levels, but they were fairly secretive; details had
been difficult to collect.
They had moved out last week, in something of a hurry; they had
hired extra help, dark brawny young men Anna had never seen
before. Kyle had entertained Anna while she painted by
describing each item as it made the journey from the Crandalls's
front door to the back of their U-Haul. That day she had been
painting one of her special commissions, a still life of cheese
cubes and a stuffed raccoon, and she had to paint fast before
the cheese dried. Polaroids weren't big enough to derive fine
details from. Still, Kyle's report had made her look up from
her work more than once.
They had learned things about the Crandalls that day that living
next door for six years hadn't taught them.
The exercise equipment must have come into the house in boxes to
be assembled, but it came out whole, and there was a lot of it,
with some really heavy weights. Some of the chrome assemblies
with leather straps and strange-shaped seats had baffled Kyle,
in spite of the fact that he watched workout videos for fun.
Anna didn't tell him what she suspected such equipment was used
for. Perhaps when he was sixteen she would educate him in that
direction, or maybe she should wait until he was eighteen.
There weren't many ways in which he was still young; she might
as well treasure what slivers of innocence he had.
The giant brown globe with the continents laid out according to
archaic and incorrect knowledge had made Anna wonder if she
might not have liked the Crandalls if she had actually gotten to
know them. The corporate shredder had also impressed her.
"May I see?" Kyle held out his hands for the Crandalls's
"We shouldn't." She dropped it into his hands.
"What else are we going to do with it? Did they leave a
Anna frowned. "Let's see."
Of course, the Crandalls hadn't stopped in to say anything about
where they were going. Anna had never spoken to any of them
except the boy, who had lost a Frisbee in her monkey puzzle tree
the first year the Crandalls had lived in the house. Anna had
given him permission to climb up and get it, but of course no
one could climb a monkey puzzle tree. He had given up after the
thorns pierced his palms. The Frisbee was still there, much
The house stood there now with its windows blank and its lawn
going brown, a FOR SALE sign pounded into the petunia bed.
She called the post office and asked if there was forwarding
information for the Crandalls, but no.
She called the Realtor listed on the sign, and discovered that
the Crandalls hadn't really owned the house; they had rented it
from a third party who wanted to sell. No, no forwarding
address for the Crandalls.
"I'll call Janie on the corner. She knows everything." Anna
never talked to Janie or anyone else in the neighborhood if she
could avoid it.
She sighed and dialed Janie's number.
"Oh, Anna," Janie said when Anna had identified herself. "How
are you? How's that little crippled grandson of yours?"
"We're fine. Do you know how to get in touch with the Crandalls?"
"Nobody knows. I went over and talked to them on moving day,
asked them where they were going. Not very forthcoming, those
Crandalls. Did he ever tell you what he did all day?"
"Darn it. Six years and I could never figure them out. Their
cars got more expensive every year, and those kids were wearing
brand-name clothes, and shoes that cost two hundred dollars a
pair, and I still couldn't figure out what he did, or who all
those visitors he had were, the ones who always came after
dark. It only took me a month to figure out that Mr. Fowler is
gay and his wife is just for show, and just a week to find out
about Beatrice Moravia's affair with the gardener. Oh, Anna,
while I've got you on the phone, could you tell me what you're
working on now? Will you be doing another gallery show anytime
"Just private commissions, Janie." Anna glanced at today's
still life: a selection of nipple rings, silver, brass, and
gold, laid out on a spotted rabbit pelt. Tricky textures and
"Oh dear. I did love your show at the Matchbox Gallery last
year, and I so wanted to see more of your work. Is there any
chance I might take a peek?"
"Sorry, Janie. I signed nondisclosure agreements on all of
these." If you let Janie into your front door, the next thing
you knew she'd be going through the medicine cabinet, the
kitchen cupboards, the trash cans, and the fridge, and you
couldn't keep her out of the basement or the still room, either.
Anna had only let Janie in once, soon after Janie arrived in the
neighborhood. That was back when Anna's husband Hadrian was
still alive; Anna and Hadrian had lived on the block the
longest, and Hadrian had improved their house a lot before he
passed, dug the secret tunnel to a hidden exit in the park,
equipped the garage with all kinds of elegant and more or less
secret storage places, brought in electricity and refrigeration
for some of their special projects behind the walls. Hadrian
had been crafty; he had known how to disguise the true uses of
things, and a good thing, too.
Janie had seen enough in the house to keep her talking to
everyone else in the neighborhood for months. Fortunately, she
hadn't understood most of what she had seen.
Janie hadn't been in the house since Kyle moved in eight years
earlier, after the accident that killed his parents and crippled
him. Anna thought of how small Kyle had looked when she first
met him, seven, thin, pale, and dwarfed by his new wheelchair
and his fresh tragedy. His mother, Anna's daughter, had moved
as far away as she could as soon as she could, and had stayed
away the rest of her life.
Kyle's arrival had been such a gift.
Hadrian had lived long enough to make most of the house
wheelchair-accessible, and he'd done special work on the
basement for Kyle, though Hadrian and Anna hadn't known what
directions Kyle's interests would take him.
They had an inkling when Kyle started his first collection. He
was fascinated by the Victorian practice of weaving the hair of
the dead into jewelry, ornaments, and three-dimensional floral
displays under glass.
Hadrian had been dead a year by the time Kyle confessed his
longing to connect with his parents in some tangible way. Anna,
delighted, had worked out the details with him. Kyle had strong
arms; he worked with weights and did exercises in doorways. It
had helped with their night-time cemetery visits. They didn't
enlist outside help for what they did.
Kyle had seen Janie peering in his bedroom window once. Anna
had put squirt guns loaded with ammonia on his bedside table and
his desk in case it happened again.
Anna said, "You're sure there's no way to reach the Crandalls,
"They weren't friendly with anyone in the neighborhood. I don't
know where he worked. Say, what did that young man just deliver
to your house?"
"Oh." Janie's voice held a wealth of disappointment.
"Talk to you later," Anna said.
"The Baines boy at the grocery store said you ordered extra
steaks," Janie said. "Expecting company?"
"No." Good thing Janie had never seen the basement since its
conversion. Good thing she couldn't smell the basement air.
Good thing she didn't know what they were raising in the bins
under the basement floor. "Good-bye, Janie." Anna hung up.
"So can we open it?" Kyle asked.
Anna sucked on her lower lip, then nodded.
Kyle pulled his all-purpose tool from the pocket on the arm of
his chair and slit the tape. He lifted the lid. "Ack."
Anna's nose wrinkled. The smell was unpleasant, a decayed meat
scent mixed with chemicals. She joined Kyle.
Inside the box was a folded note. Kyle lifted it out with the
needle-nose pliers in his multi-tool to reveal a mass of white
cotton balls, stained with something the color of iced tea.
They stared at it. Kyle used the pliers to lift the cotton away
one ball at a time.
The severed finger was a strange, non-flesh color. It wore a
gold man's ring set with an opaque green stone.
Kyle set the box on his tray. He raised his eyebrows at Anna.
"Go on," she said.
He opened the note. Mostly, it was typed. Anna read it over
"It is an offense to God that you can live with what you have
done. We will make it harder for you. If you ever want to see
your brother alive again, call this number and be prepared to
The area code was local. The signature was unreadable.
"They had night visitors," Kyle said. His window faced the
Crandalls' house, and he had very acute night vision. "More
people went in than came out."
"Janie mentioned the visitors. I wonder how she missed the
numbers not adding up."
"They were good at quiet." Kyle set the note down and stared at
Anna considered it too.
No way to reach the Crandalls, though she wished more than ever
that she knew what they had done. She could call the number,
tell whoever answered that their dreams were futile, that there
was no money and no hope of remorse.
But interfering with the affairs of other people always gave
them permission to interfere back. She didn't like the tone of
that letter. The brother was probably doomed anyway.
"You want it?" Anna asked Kyle.
He gave her a very sweet smile. He closed the box carefully and
scooted down the hall to the back of the house, to his ramp down
to the basement, where he had his work room.
Sometimes she used things from his collection in her paintings.
She had been getting more commissions that called for things
like that. Word of mouth was serving her well.
More people went into the Crandall house than came out. What
happened to the people who hadn't come out? Perhaps some of
them were still there?
Would it be worth a little nighttime exploration?
If there was a lull before the house sold, maybe they could
tunnel in. Not such a distance, and Kyle was so strong these
days. Who knew what they might find under the basement earth
over there? If they had time, they could build a cover for the
tunnel, make it impossible for the new owners to tell the tunnel
was there, and thus have access to the house. Opportunities
multiplied in Anna's mind.
She mixed up a white gold for the highlights on the metal she
was painting, then paused to look out the window toward the
house where the Crandalls had lived. Who would move in next?
About the Author:
Over the past twenty-four years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold
novels, juvenile and media tie-in books, short story
collections, and more than 200 short stories. Her works have
been finalists for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic,
Sturgeon, and Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread
That Binds the Bones, won a Stoker Award.
Nina's young adult novel Spirits That Walk in Shadow was
published by Viking in 2006. Her short science fiction novel
Catalyst was published by Tachyon in 2006. Fall of Light,
a fantasy novel, will be published by Ace in 2008.
Nina works at a bookstore, does production work for the
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and teaches short
story writing through her local community college. She also
works with teen writers. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with
several cats, a mannequin, and many strange toys.
Story © 2007 Nina Kiriki Hoffman.