“They’re so strange,” I said to myself, taking a long drag from my cigarette.
I watched the Wilkinsons in their front yard and thumbed mindlessly through my phone. John rode around on a lawnmower with his shirt off, in sunglasses and a straw sun hat. Rosalie was ripping weeds out of the garden in her nightgown. I didn’t realize I’d been staring until he turned and spotted me sitting on the front porch next door, puffing a smoke and silently judging as sweat drenched his robust, white-haired chest. It was just before sunset and I was bundled in a sweater against the creeping chill.
“Hey, Dena,” he said. He smiled and waved, and I smiled back, suppressing that guilty feeling. I never told my husband about the cigarettes, but when he was out of town, I snuck plenty. Though John and Rosalie saw me smoking before and hadn’t said anything, I never stopped worrying about getting caught by those that mattered.
“Gonna be a nice night for the kiddos,” said John, looking to the sky and smiling at the crisp fall air. I nodded politely, and Rosalie forced herself up from a crouch.
“Hi, Dena! Going out with Brett and Lainey tonight?”
“They won’t be home for hours. Finally old enough to be out on Halloween without a constant chaperone, so they’re going out with friends from school.”
“Wonderful! What’ll you do with yourself?”
“I’ll be pausing Netflix in between trick or treaters and drinking wine, and I’m looking forward to it,” I said, laughing with easy charisma that masked the rest of me perfectly. “What are you two doing this evening?”
“We never seem to get many trick or treaters. We’ll probably just putz around the house like any other night,” she said.
I nodded. Their house was the talk of the neighbourhood, and no one wanted to set foot within five feet of the front door. Despite their habitual yard work, the Wilkinsons’ house was a shambles. Far too big for just the two of them, the old couple had lived there forty years. Even as the neighbourhood gentrified, became younger and wealthier, they held firm to their slowly decomposing lot.
“That old house next door is bringing down property values for everyone else on your street,” one of the PTA moms had once moaned to me. If I didn’t despise the other PTA moms, I would have agreed with her, but instead of a burden, the Wilkinsons had become my curiosity.
The owners before us had completely torn down the old Victorian wood frame that matched the Wilkinsons next door, and replaced it with a two-storey craftsman with an open entryway. They’d kept the old iron chandelier from the original home and rehung it, adding a certain glamour that no one failed to mention when they visited.
Butting my cigarette, I stood and wrapped my cardigan tighter against my chest. “Have a nice evening,” I said cordially, smiling as I went back inside. I had never been inside the Wilkinsons dilapidated old house, but I was sure it didn’t have the magnificence of this one.
Over the next several hours, I got through four episodes of Stranger Things and three bowls full of candy. A few kids and costumes reminded me of when my kids were small, and to those kids I gave an extra piece.
By 10:30, Brett and Lainey had missed curfew. Their cell phones rang, unanswered. After an hour, they stopped ringing at all and went straight to voicemail. By then, I was panicking, and I called my husband.
He hadn’t been expecting me, by the sounds of dance music playing in the background, and muffled voices forcing him to yell through the phone.
“Brett and Lainey aren’t home. I’ve been calling and I can’t get a hold of them.”
“They’re probably just having fun. It’s Halloween. They’ll be home,” he said.
His words soothed me somewhat. Enough to ask where the music was coming from.
“Just a show with some colleagues,” he said. “But I should go. It’s a bad connection and I can hardly hear you. I’ll call you when we get back to the hotel.”
I hung up the phone, then waited. I watched the clock on the wall, tick-tick, as the seconds slipped away. I called every one of their friends’ parents that I could think of, but their kids had all come home.
“Bailey said she left them when they were all headed home from trick or treating,” said the PTA mom who maligned the Wilkinsons’ curb appeal. No one had any other information, and my head started spinning with horrendous possibilities.
At midnight, the doorbell rang.
My heart lunged into my throat at the sound, but I got up and peered through the peephole. John and Rosalie Wilkinson stood on the other side of the door.
I opened it, and Rosalie held out a bag of candy. “Sorry it’s late, but we saw your light was still on and thought your kids would like it. I buy some every year. Never gets cleared out.”
I took the bag. My hand was shaking, and she noticed. “What’s wrong?”
“Brett and Lainey haven’t come home yet,” I said, and their faces were crestfallen.
“They haven’t called?” asked John.
“Their phones are off.”
“Have you called the police?”
“I was just working up to it,” I said, phone in hand. I’d searched online whether it was appropriate to call 911 for missing persons.
“We’ll canvas the neighbourhood,” said John.
They stayed while I called 911 from my front porch, then took my flashlight to wander the nearby streets. The police told me to wait until morning, because they were teenagers. By the time they sent someone over, I was a wreck.
My husband, Rick, flew home the next day, while the neighbours got together to look for the kids in a search that expanded to include several neighbourhoods, and soon the whole town. For the next week, I was in a fog.
I shut down when I learned TV cameras and grief do not mix well. Watching myself on screen was an out of body experience. I saw the anguish on my face, afraid to feel in front of anyone after that. I started smoking openly in front of my husband, but he just looked at me exhausted, as if he’d always known.
Late one night in the backyard, bundled in a coat against the cool November night, I saw John moving around next door. A short wooden fence separated us, and I knew my cigarettes reeked, but he paid me no attention.
He threw something from his shed over his shoulder. A slab of meat, and at least 20 pounds of it. He lifted the lid of his monster grill and threw the meat down, flames licking pale skin as it seared against the iron grate. He closed the lid and turned down the heat before he headed back inside.
I finished my smoke, then sat outside a few minutes hoping to avoid passing my husband in the hallways. I’d taken to sleeping in my daughter’s room at night, staring up at shadowed lights projecting stars. Lainey’s old nightlight had never come down, and I surrounded myself in her memories. As a kid, she acted out her dream of becoming an astronaut on the living room furniture, and it use to drive me crazy. Now, I’d give anything for those moments.
A popping sound startled me. I turned, staring at the grill as the sear of the meat pulsated, against the cool night stillness. The smell hit my nostrils then — the smell of burning pork. And my son’s putrid cologne.
I stood, instinctively took a step before John rushed back outside, lifting the lid and waving away a thick cloud of smoke, obscuring whatever he was cooking. The scent of cologne stayed with me, but I thought it was crazy. ‘John Wilkinson is not cooking your son,’ I told myself repeatedly.
Days passed, and I started watching John in his backyard every night. He was always cooking meat, and I was fascinated by the smells. Every night, the aroma was different — it might smell like curry, or okra, or rotten meat. It reminded me of the time I ate bad duck at that place in Beijing, not far from Tiananmen Square, in college.
Sometimes, I’d smell more perfumes. I wouldn’t be able to place the smell and I thought, if he really was cooking humans, how interesting it was that no two smelled the same.
Before news reporters started camping out on our front lawn, I rarely smoked in the backyard. That’s where the kids hung out. I never knew John cooked so much meat, and I had no idea how he and Rosalie could possibly eat it all.
My husband and I vacillated between believing we would get answers, to trying to come to terms with the possibility we would not. He was back at work sooner than I, travelling just as he did before, avoiding our empty old house. I was terrified to return to work, to face piteous looks from my coworkers, but the lonely house wasn’t good for me either. Sometimes, I could hear the memory of them echo through the walls, and for a moment I would forget they were gone.
But their beds stayed made. Homework sat untouched on their desks. December hit, and the PTA mom knocked one day. I frowned.
“Janet, hi,” I said. I pushed a smile.
“Hi, Dena, sweetie. How are you holding up?”
“I’m getting by,” I said, hoping the glare that I shot her said what I wouldn’t.
“Well, you look great.”
“It’s grief dieting. It hasn’t been great.”
Janet, so falsely chipper, was getting uncomfortable. I revelled in it. My first moment of true joy since Brett and Lainey disappeared.
“Well, anyway, I know you’ve been away from the meetings for a while, but I’m canvassing the neighbourhood for food hamper donations and I thought I’d ask if you had anything to give.”
“Of course,” I said, admittedly under a mile of donated groceries and meals from countless directions. She followed me to the pantry and practically helped herself, so I stood back wearily and let her do her work.
“Thank you, Dena. You’re an inspiration, really. Everything you’ve gone through and still with such a generous heart. Bad things always happen to the wrong people.”
She looked like she was going to cry, but she pulled me in for a hug instead. I hung there waiting until she was done.
“You have such a beautiful home, Dena. It’s stunning!” she said, her hand on the door as the chandelier caught her eye. “Oh! Did you hear about the house next door?”
“What about it?” I said, holding my tongue before I brought up the barbeque.
“They got clearance to tear it down! Finally.”
I frowned. “What will happen to John and Rosalie?”
She studied my face and took a step outside the door. “The old couple who died six years ago? Their estate was finally settled. Demolition is next week.”
That night, I reheated a donated lasagna and sat across the table from my husband for the first time in weeks. He looked as exhausted as I felt.
“Who’s this from?” he asked.
“The wife of one of your account managers. Leo, I think.”
“It’s good,” he said, and I nodded.
“Janet Masterson was here earlier. She told me the Wilkinsons house—”
“You’re on the Wilkinsons again, Dena?”
We looked at each other, and a fork hit a plate down the table. We both held ours firmly in our hands, dripping with lasagna.
“I used to love Mrs. Wilkinson’s cookies. Chocolate chip was the best!”
My husband and I turned. We were both stunned to find ourselves staring at our daughter, who was looking back at us quizzically.
“Why are you staring at me like that?”
“Where the hell have you been?”
My husband was beside himself. With tears in his eyes, he leapt from the table to wrap her in his arms. “We were so worried.”
“What are you doing? Dad, stop,” Lainey said, wriggling out of his embrace. I blinked, wiping the flow of tears away each time.
“Why are you both being weird?” she asked.
The front door opened, and they heard a noise in the front hall. “Brett, get in here! Mom and Dad are freaking out for some reason.”
He stepped into the kitchen, at least an inch taller than the last time we saw him. I raced into his arms and touched his face to make sure he was real, which he quickly dodged uncomfortably.
“Lainey’s right. You’re both being really weird. What’s going on?”
“We’ve missed you so much. You’ve been gone almost two months. Since Halloween night,” my husband said, and they gawked at us.
“What are you talking about?” asked Brett. “We got back from being with our friends on Halloween, and found mom asleep on the couch watching Stranger Things.”
“You guys are so weird!” said Lainey. “And speaking of holidays, when are you going to get out the Christmas decorations? It looks like someone died in here.”
Abby Simpson is a lifelong writer working towards becoming an author. Canadian, a lover of food, culture, social issues, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Find Abby on Twitter: @abbythetweet