Joanne opened the back door and slid the suitcase off the car seat. As she walked up the path to the back door of the house, Alex opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
“Welcome home traveler”, he said with a smile. “How was your mother?”
“Hello husband. Mother is fine. I am glad to be home, I missed you.” she climbed the steps to the porch and kissed her husband.
“I missed you, too – now come inside and cook me some food.” Alex took Joanne’s suitcase from her hand and carried it into the house.
“Did you notice how that little tree has started to grow?” Joanne asked looking at the small evergreen tree she planted in the yard several years earlier.
“See the tree how big it’s grown…” Alex started to sing.
“Oh, please, why did I say it…I had to know you would start singing that stupid song. I don’t know why I hate it so much.” Joanne loved her spouse’s sense of humor – even though it was often at her expense.
“Come on in…I’m hungry.” “How ’bout we order a pizza, it was a long drive and I don’t feel like cooking.” They ordered pizza and watched Jeopardy while they ate.
The next day was Sunday so Joanne spent the afternoon working in the yard. Alex came out to help haul away some debris Joanne cut from the hedges. As he carried the load to the curb he glanced across the fence at the driveway next door.
“I think someone new moved in, I don’t remember ever seeing that car before.” Alex stated. Joanne never appeared to be very interested in the comings and goings of the parade of tenants who occupied the house next door but her husband was always keeping her up-to-date anyway.
“I hadn’t noticed”, said Joanne, “I rarely pay attention to what car is parked over there.” “I just worry that we are going to get noisy neighbors. The last couple of people were pretty quiet.”
“Yes, they were quiet, no screaming children.” Joanne and Alex married when they were in their late 40’s and decided that the path of parenthood was not for them. They enjoyed their quiet, childless existence and had little patience for ‘other people’s children’.
“I forgot to tell you”, said Alex. “The other day at the grocery store I saw the father-in-law of the guy who owned the house next door.”
“Owned? Did they sell it?”
“No, he left his wife. I guess after they moved into the new house and finished all the renovations on the apartments next door, he just up and left her.”
“That’s awful!” Joanne said as she pulled a dandelion from the flower bed. “Don’t they have like six kids?”
“Five, but yes, it is awful. At least he finished the apartments so she still has the income from the rental. I guess her dad helps her out with repairs and stuff. That must be the truck I have seen parked out front. I thought it was Dan’s, but it must be her father’s.”
“They moved out what 5 years ago? When did he leave?”
“I guess it had to be about two years after they moved. I know we didn’t know them well, but it was still sad to hear.”
The following Sunday, Joanne was once again at working tending her precious garden. As she stood to trim a different hedge, a minivan pulled into the driveway next door. Out of the car bounded 5 children and a woman who looked as worn out as Joanne’s ancient garden shoes. Joanne didn’t really want to talk but now that she had made eye contact she didn’t have much choice.
“Hello.” She waved the hand that held her garden shears. “I don’t think we ever formally met, I’m Joanne Foster.”
“Oh hello. I’m Gloria”, the frazzled woman stated.
“Looks like you’re cleaning up the apartments.”
“Kids, go on inside and get started, I’ll be there in a minute.” Gloria Roberts sighed as she set down her bucket of cleaning supplies and waved her hoard away.
“I just heard about your husband. I’m so sorry; it must be very difficult for you.”
“My father said he ran into your husband the other week at the store. It was hard, but it keeps getting easier as the years go by. The hardest thing is the not knowing.”
“Not knowing?” Joanne asked as she approached the fence.
“Not knowing why he left, or what happened to him. We were happy. We had lived in our beautiful new house for about 2 years. Our youngest was just born and things were going great. The country was such a pleasant place for the kids. Then one day he left for work and never came home again.” Gloria wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and bent down to pick up the bucket.
“I’m sorry, I had no idea.”
“How could you have known? We were living way out of town and it wasn’t like you and I were close when we lived here. Anyway, I better get inside before they do more damage than the former tenant.” She nodded her head toward the sound of screaming children
“Seems like the noisy one’s are the most likely to just take off.” Joanne stated turning back toward her plants.
“I don’t seem to be having much luck with tenants. So many of them do just take off without paying the rent and they so often don’t even clean up after themselves. Some of them have left clothing and furniture behind. I didn’t know they were noisy – have many of the former renters been a problem for you?”
“Not so much a problem – just some night owls. My Alex works the graveyard shift so I am here alone 5 nights a week. There have been a couple times that I can hear thumping like a stereo or video game playing well past midnight. I think when your husband, Dan, is that right?”
“Yes, my husband’s name was Dan.” Gloria nearly whispered.
“When Dan did the renovations, I think he removed part of a wall that eliminated some of the sound-proofing that we enjoyed when you lived there. With the houses being up against each other like that I don’t think it was such a good idea to remove that wall.” Joanne noticed the expression on Gloria’s face and decided she shouldn’t be criticizing the woman’s missing husband. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Roberts, I shouldn’t’ have said anything, it’s just that your kids, well, we never heard any noise from them, but now sometimes…never mind. It was nice talking to you.” Joanne walked back to the shrub and started pruning.
“I’m sorry, Joanne, I didn’t know you were being disturbed. If the next tenants make too much noise, please call the leasing company, they should take care of it. By the way, your plants are beautiful; maybe someday you’ll tell me how you get them to grow so well.” Gloria walked into the house – already starting to yell at the children.
Joanne finished her day of gardening by applying a dose fertilizer to the plants. As she stood back and admired her work she again marveled at the little tree. It hardly grew at all the first year, but the last three years it had really taken off. She was seriously considering using it as a Christmas tree someday. The way it was growing, it would only be a couple more years before it was big enough.
She crept up the stairs to the attic. As she pushed the crate away from the wall she felt warm air flow in from the other room. She ducked down and soundlessly moved through the opening in the wall. The “renter” as she thought of him was asleep. Of course he was asleep now – it was 2:00 am. Two hours ago when she was trying to sleep, he was wide awake and playing his video game. She held the handkerchief over his mouth and nose, after 5 kills, she knew just how much chloroform she needed to put an adult out quickly. He only struggled for a moment before succumbing to the fumes. The pillow came next – it was so easy to suffocate someone who was already unconscious – no screaming, no fighting. She laid the plastic sheeting on the floor and rolled the dead man off the bed and onto the plastic. As she dragged him across the floor and through the opening in the brick wall between the upstairs apartment and the attic, she thought of how happy the little tree would be for its next treatment of fertilizer. Without realizing it, she began to hum the song.