The man standing on the porch that night seemed like an ordinary gentrifier at first glance: young and tall and artfully unshaven. His jeans were tattered, but strangely crisp, and his shirt was loose and tight in all the wrong places. He had the appearance of someone vaguely famous, like his face could have been in a magazine ad or on the side of a bus. And to anyone other than Mary Walker, he would have successfully passed for a human.
Mary widened the opening of her front door, knowing she could no longer avoid him. She clutched the edges of her stained bathrobe and stared up at the man through the tangle of her grey and white hair.
He smiled, and there was something off, as if his features were meant to be stationary, not stretched in that way. “I thought I should finally introduce myself,” he said. “I’m the new neighbor.”
The man gestured over his shoulder toward the house across the street. It was an ashen block of concrete and glass, with sharp and modern angles, sitting on a pristine lot with a newly paved driveway. Every time Mary looked at it, she felt nauseous.
“I was wondering what you’d be like,” she said.
“I don’t see any horns,” Mary replied.
He laughed, and it, like his smile, seemed out of place. “I was wondering if we could talk, get to know one another. Unless this is a bad time?”
Mary pushed her hair from her eyes and looked out at the dark street. No dog-walkers or joggers in sight. “Why don’t you come in?” she said, standing aside.
The man was already through the entryway before she had finished her sentence, peering at Mary’s walls and looking around the corner into the den. “What a lovely home,” he said monotonously.
Mary tightened the frayed belt of her robe and walked behind him, watching as he ran his fingers along one of her sideboards and around the rim of a decorative vase. He paused at the sectional sofa in the center of the living room, then looked to Mary, as if inviting her to sit.
Mary needed no invitation in her own home. She went to an orange armchair in the corner and dropped into it comfortably, then pointed a bony finger at the sofa. The man sat at her direction, a glimmer of annoyance in his eyes.
“So,” Mary began. “You’re the one who bought Frank Abra’s home.”
He nodded. “I met him very briefly after the closing. Nice guy.”
“Hm.” Mary rested a weathered cheek on her hand. “A lot of people on the hill have been selling lately. But Frank? Didn’t strike me as the type.”
“Truth be told, I don’t know much about him,” he shrugged. “I think the house was getting to be too much to maintain.” The man glanced at other rooms that were visible from where he sat. “You live alone too, don’t you?”
Mary ignored the question. “Frank was getting on in years,” she said, scratching at a mole next to her eye with her index finger. “Still, I was surprised—not so much as a for-sale sign, let alone a goodbye. First time I knew what happened was when you got rid of the house.”
She vividly remembered the day Frank’s place had been demolished last spring.
It had started with a rumbling that made her get out of bed and look out the front window. Mary had watched as a slow-moving caravan of construction vehicles proceeded down the road, then encircled the small, Craftsman bungalow across the street.
She had emerged from her home in her bathrobe and marched over the low bushes in her front yard, waving a hand at one of the drivers.
“Hey!” she yelled. “What’re you doing?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Where’s Frank?” She shaded her eyes with one hand and looked up.
“Ma’am, I don’t know who Frank is, but he isn’t here. You better back up!”
The construction vehicles roared to life, and the ground began to vibrate as they inched across the lawn.
One of the bulldozers began by tearing through the planks of the front deck. It was an uncovered porch that Frank had built with his wife, Callie, in the Sixties. He hadn’t had the strength to repair it in over a decade, so the wood splintered and folded like toothpicks as the bulldozer’s blade rippled through with no resistance.
An excavator then approached the side of the house and raised its boom, reminding Mary of an animal rearing to strike. The bucket came down and clawed open a hole in one of the walls, bricks raining down onto the dirt. Mary could see into the home through the wound, the lilac-patterned wallpaper in one of Frank’s bedrooms shredded. Several minutes later, the wall next to it, adjacent to Frank’s chimney, came apart like cardboard.
Mary covered her nose and mouth with her hand, watching as the sections of Frank’s house came undone. Even after the machines left, she lingered on the street and walked through the lot where Frank’s home had been, a pile of dirt and rubble that was peppered with pieces of what used to hold the house together.
Mary returned her attention to the young man now sitting on her sofa, trying her best to push the image of the ruined Abra home from her mind.
“Did Frank mention where he was headed?” she asked.
“You know,” the man furrowed his brow, “I don’t think he did. But I’m sure I have his agent’s number somewhere if you’d like to get in touch.”
“That’s nice of you to offer.” Mary leaned on the other side of the armchair. “But enough about Frank. What about you? What brings you to the hill?”
The young man stretched his arms over the back of the sofa, making it a point to show how comfortable he was. “I just really like the neighborhood,” he said. “Quiet and removed. There’s a good energy about it. And the people seem nice.”
“Relaxed, I guess.”
“Relaxed,” Mary repeated. “I suppose that’s one way to put it.”
Mary would have described her neighbors as oblivious.
Not one of them had seemed concerned about Frank when he disappeared. For days after his house was demolished, Mary had gone door to door to see if anyone had heard where Frank was, or even that he was planning to leave.
None of the neighbors had answers, let alone cared.
Of course, it might have had something to do with who was asking. Several of them slammed their doors in Mary’s face at the sight of her. Others simply pretended they weren’t home. Mary could feel their eyes trailing her from their windows, and a few of them who had known Mary from better days, before she had become this way, had a certain look on their faces that she absolutely could not stand, as if they pitied her.
“Are you…taking care of yourself, Mary?” One of the older neighbors looked down at her bathrobe with concern.
“What’s to take care of?” Mary scoffed. “It’s not like I’m having company anytime soon, am I?” She pushed the tangled strands of her hair out of her face. “I’m just comfortable as I am, thank you very much. But about Frank—”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t know,” they said. “You please take care, though, okay, Mary?” The door shut slowly, and Mary muttered to herself as she moved on. She made doubly sure to meet every gaze as she marched down the street, before they each turned away, one by one.
One of the neighbors she did manage to catch at the door, a middle-aged man who lived a few houses down the block, listened to her just long enough to hear her mention Frank’s name before interrupting.
“If I tell you what I know,” he said, “will you stop calling parking enforcement and asking them to tow my goddamn car?”
Mary was used to these confrontations, and she knew that if she wasn’t firm about the way things ought to be, the others would walk all over her. Still, she preferred the honesty of this over the feigned sympathy she got from the others.
“If it doesn’t have a permit on the dash, I have to call,” she replied. “Could belong to some prowler.”
“It’s my car! You know that!”
“I really don’t like to assume, you know? Anyway, listen, about Frank—”
This door, like all the others, shut on her.
Mary grimaced to herself as she remembered, but paid it no mind. In her several decades of living on the hill, her neighbors had never understood how her watchful eye kept danger away from their homes. But she didn’t need their approval to keep things in order.
The young man on the sofa cleared his throat, trying to draw her back into the conversation. “If it’s not too much trouble, could I maybe get something to drink?”
“Ah.” Mary sat up straight and then pulled herself out of the armchair. “Of course. I’ve already forgotten basic hospitality. What would you like?”
“Water would be fine.”
“Coffee,” she said to herself. “It’s late, but I think I’ll need it for a chat like this. Would you like a cup?”
“Well, actually I said—” the man shifted, seemingly unsure if she was hard of hearing. “Sure. Coffee is fine.”
Mary shuffled to the other side of the den, leading the young man, who followed close behind her, through a dining room and into a kitchen in the northwest corner of the house. It was brightly lit, with soothing blue walls and shining tile that Mary scrubbed daily. She pointed absentmindedly to a breakfast nook in the corner, and the young man went over and sat in a chair.
Mary let her fingers run across the marble countertop as she moved around the kitchen in a practiced manner. She took two cups from her favorite, but rarely used, china set, gently placing each one next to the sink before producing a pour-over glass coffee maker from another cupboard and eyeing the curved, transparent body under the light just to make sure that there were no unsightly water marks. She brought out a tin filled with ground coffee she’d harvested from the cherries in the backyard, the earthy, gritty smell soothing her while she continued to assemble what she needed.
As she gathered the accoutrements, her mind began to drift, recalling other times when she used to make things in the kitchen for more than just herself, when the thudding of little feet and high-pitched giggling echoed through the halls, joining the sounds of the sink-water rushing and glasses clattering as she stood at the countertop.
But then Mary remembered where she was again, and more importantly, whom she was with, and the pleasantness vanished.
“Hospitality is important, you know,” Mary said, more to herself than the man sitting at the nook, as she focused herself again and removed a coffee filter from the bottom of a small box. “Across all cultures, the code between guest and host is paramount. The Greeks had a special word for it…”
“Xenia,” the young man replied.
“Xenia,” Mary nodded, pouring the ground coffee on top of a filter and setting a kettle to boil. “That’s right. So you’re familiar. You have to be at your best, because you never know who, or what, could be visiting you.”
“I like that.” The young man leaned back, watching Mary carefully as she stood at the kettle.
“In the old stories, some of the worst monsters were the ones who broke that code. Innkeepers that preyed on guests. Bandits who took advantage of generous hosts. It takes something particularly nasty to do that in a home. Homes are sacred.”
The water came to a boil.
Mary grabbed the kettle and poured the water over the coffee pot, and the hot liquid dripped down into the glass body, filling it gradually. “Milk? Sugar?”
“Black is fine.”
“Black it is.” She poured the two cups and brought them over.
The man took the steaming cup and raised it to his lips, blowing gently and about to drink, when he noticed that Mary was watching him. Something about the coffee smelled unusual and caused him to stop.
He laughed, but in a way that seemed genuine for the first time that night—an angry cackle mixed with shock.
Mary drank from her cup and looked back at him. “What is it?”
She knew he had detected it.
Mary always mixed small pieces of aspen bark into her coffee, so that its flavor would seep into the drink. Its effect on ordinary people was negligible, but on things like Mary’s visitor, it could have irreparable consequences.
“So much for xenia,” he said, staring intently at the dark, rippling fluid in the cup in front of him.
“Had to try,” Mary shrugged.
In truth, she knew this visit had been coming for some time. She had lived too long, and too cautiously, to ignore the warning signs.
After she couldn’t turn up any information on Frank, she had gone, as she often did, to her other sources.
Mary set out early one morning up a dirt path behind her house toward the peak of the hill that overlooked the neighborhood. There was a wooded area, filled with blackened trees that had been caught in a brushfire long ago, yet never managed to die or sprout new growth. She followed the path for a few minutes before turning off from it, keeping track of small knife marks she had left in certain trunks.
Finally, at the heart of the woods, she found the carob tree, grey and knotted. She came within ten feet of it and stopped.
“I need to talk,” she said.
The leaves rustled, and there was grunting from some unseen space within the branches. The shaking subsided, and there was a silence before something emerged.
Yellow Eyes peeked his head out, appearing in the form of a large, black crow with greasy feathers.
“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it,” he said. “Haven’t been near any of the folks, just like we agreed.” The bird shuffled along the branch and turned its head, the ring of one of its eyes focused on her.
Mary watched Yellow Eyes closely. There were times when he would start a conversation, then pounce on her without warning. The last time he had done that, he had been wearing the body of a copperhead, and she could not feel her hand for over a year after.
“Spoken like an innocent,” Mary said. “But no. Someone new is moving to the neighborhood and seems like your type.”
“My type?” Yellow Eyes said. “You’ll have to be more specific. Charming? Good conversationalist?”
Mary turned around and began to walk away.
“Wait.” Yellow Eyes fluttered down from the branch and to the ground in front of the woman. “I’ll tell you anything you want, if you just, you know…”
The bird gestured with his head toward the circle of pale, purple petals around the carob tree, sprouting up from under the grass and weeds on the forest floor, ever-blooming and just as vibrant as they had been when Mary planted them years ago.
Mary had learned at a young age that creatures like Yellow Eyes could never be confronted directly. Instead, there were other ways, mostly forgotten but still passed down in some families, or buried in books, which Mary made some effort to collect over the years. With the right tools and enough time, she knew she could hold her own against them.
In the case of Yellow Eyes, it took patience, but Mary had meticulously tracked him to his nest after he’d first chosen the crow body. She waited until he was away to seed the circle of vervain, then waited months more as the circle strengthened beneath him and bloomed.
This particular seal, the traveler’s knot, was one of the better ones she had crafted in her time on the hill. The living pattern of vervain connected him, not just to the mortal form of the bird he had chosen, but to the tree he had made his home. If anything happened to either the crow or the carob, Yellow Eyes would feel every bit of it, and if the damage was great enough, there were no new bodies that could save him from death. It was a terrifying prospect for a creature who was supposed to live forever.
“Tell me what you know, and I’ll decide if it’s worth your release,” Mary said.
Yellow Eyes crept closer, cocking his head one way and then the other. He drew his beak wide and exposed a row of round, human-like teeth, grinning. “I might have heard about someone who’s headed this way. But this one, if it is who I think it is, is definitely not my ‘type’.”
“Meaning, you know me,” Yellow Eyes said. “I’m old-fashioned. I like tricks and deals, the art of a good bargain. But these new things that are coming up now—they’re emptier and hungrier, no patience for the craft. They don’t get any enjoyment out of the chase the way some of us do.”
“Then what do they want?”
“What does any monstrous little toddler want? They want to take everything you have, just as soon as they can swallow it.”
Yellow Eyes drew closer to Mary. He puffed his chest and spread his clawed feet on the ground, exposing another set of long, dark fingers between his thin crow toes that curled into the dirt.
His tongue flopped out of his mouth as he salivated, growing overexcited.
Mary could see that Yellow Eyes was beginning to forget himself. She moved slowly to the trunk of the carob tree and reached a hand to the lowest branch, thin enough that she could bend it, but substantial enough that it would work for her.
She snapped it.
Yellow Eyes shrieked as the traveler’s knot connected him to the sensation of the branch breaking. He dropped to the ground and twisted in pain as if one of his bones had cracked.
“Settle down,” Mary said sharply.
Yellow Eyes shrank and gave the closest thing a bird could to a grimace as he breathed through the pain. “Listen,” he heaved, “A couple of little Mary Walker tricks aren’t going to cut it with this one. He’ll break you in half before you can get anything past him.”
“Hm,” Mary replied, wondering what she would do if that were true. She knew she would have to think this through carefully in advance.
“So?” Yellow Eyes turned his head, wincing. “You asked; I answered. That clears our ledger, I think.”
“Does it?” Mary stared down at the creature. “All I learned was that this stranger is tougher than you are, which,” she waved at the vervain flowers, “doesn’t tell me much at all.”
“Oh, come on.” Yellow Eyes flapped his wings. “I played nice, and you can’t keep me under the power of this seal forever.”
“If I survive, I’ll give it some thought.” Mary headed back toward the dirt path.
“Mary. Are you serious?”
She waved and kept walking.
“This is why no one likes you,” Yellow Eyes screeched. “Mary!”
His cawing carried over the hill, and she heard him for most of the walk back through the woods.
But it turned out, in the end, that Yellow Eyes had been right about Mary’s visitor.
The young man didn’t seem interested in engaging with, outwitting, or deceiving her. He looked down at the cup of coffee in front of him, dosed with aspen, and his resting expression shifted, almost imperceptibly.
His eyes moved very deliberately from the cup in his hands, up to meet Mary’s face.
“I prefer it this way,” he said. “Really.”
Mary began to retort as she stood up from the nook, but the man interrupted her.
“Sit,” he said quietly.
The old woman felt her body fold into the seat, like a hand had gripped the back of her neck and pushed her firmly into place, forcing her to stare at the man across from her.
“A little bird told me you were going to be trouble,” he said.
Mary’s brow creased at the mention of Yellow Eyes, but she did her best to keep her expression neutral. It seemed Mary’s visitor had more information about her than she anticipated and, like her, had prepared himself in advance of this night.
The young man pushed his cup across the table. “You know, the thing I enjoy most about a fresh brew is the aroma, flavor…and heat. Pick it up.”
Mary’s hand moved of its own accord, taking his cup and bringing it closer.
“Pour it on your hand. Slowly.”
It had been a long time since Mary had met someone with a silver tongue as strong as his. There were ways to fight this kind of persuasion, with enough preparation and the right tonics, but she knew that it was futile now to try.
She tipped the cup and watched as the steaming liquid spilled onto the back of her other hand, which was firmly pressed on the surface of the table. Little splatters of coffee bounced off of her skin as her hand grew patchy, red and white blisters beginning to form. Mary did her best not to react, but her breathing grew faster and shallower as her eyes watered. She bit deep into her bottom lip as she felt the pain searing up through her arm.
Rivers of coffee joined around her hand and cascaded off the edge of the table, splashing to the tile below.
“Does it hurt?” the young man asked. “It’s hard to tell with you.”
Even though she could not stop it, Mary wasn’t powerless. There were methods she had learned, still taught by older members of certain monasteries who were wary of creatures like this, that were used to slow the connection from the nerves to the mind, even if only for a few seconds.
Mary breathed steadily and concentrated on the sharp, vibrant smell of the coffee, recalling the way it often drifted up the stairs and along the corridors of the house, up to the bedroom on the second floor, and how, when it did, she could pick up its bitter fragrance, even when she was wrapped in layers of her thick, down blankets early in the morning. She was transported to those chilly hours after sunrise when someone else was brewing a pot, and she could hear the whistling of the kettle as she kept her eyes closed, still fading in and out of consciousness. She recalled her daughter’s footsteps, her tiny hands pressing Mary’s cheeks and poking her nose while Mary pretended to sleep for a little bit longer.
Mary trembled until the last drop of coffee had run out, but she did not make a sound.
When she opened her eyes, the young man seemed to be watching her intently, masking just a hint of frustration. His gaze turned to the second cup of coffee, still steaming, but before he could speak, Mary knocked the cup with the back of her red, blistered hand. It flew off the table and shattered on the kitchen floor with a burst that soaked the floor.
The man crossed his arms. “Now why would you do that? I could just make you refill your cup from the pot, you know.”
Mary gripped her burned hand and stared silently.
The man moved over in his chair to a spot at the table that wasn’t dripping with coffee. He rested his elbows on its surface and put his chin on his clasped hands. “Go on,” he said softly. “Cool that hand. And while you’re at it, clean this up.”
Mary went to the sink and ran her hand under the cold water. She grabbed a wet cloth from a rack and wrapped her fingers, then took another rag to wipe up the coffee.
“I really meant it earlier, you know,” the young man said as he watched her clean the floor. “This is a lovely home. Nicer than I would have expected from the way you keep yourself.”
“Thanks,” Mary replied dryly, throwing the fragments of the cup in the trash and wringing the rag out in the sink.
“It’s obvious you have a real reverence for all these things,” he waved at the furniture and the decorations surrounding him. “You’ve practically built a museum here, of fonder times perhaps?” The man gave a knowing half-smile and picked up the other cup on the table, holding it to the light and peering at the sides and the bottom. “But no matter how much meaning and memory you imbue these things with, they’ll eventually fall apart. Just like you.”
He let the cup drop from his hand and crash to the tile floor below, its pieces scattering in every direction.
“Prick,” Mary muttered, getting back on the floor.
“What was that?”
She huffed as she stood, then wiped the table in the breakfast nook before throwing the last few shards away. “You heard it.”
“You know.” He sat forward. “I could burn this place to the ground, with you still in it. And I wouldn’t even have to blink.”
“Not likely,” Mary replied.
“Not likely,” she repeated. “If that were true, you’d have done it. You wouldn’t waste your time with this coffee and small talk,” Mary said. “It’s clear you want something from me, or I’d be dead.”
His eyes darkened. “Maybe this is it. Maybe I want you to suffer.”
“Stop saying that.”
“You would have picked a budding young woman to torture or a family to harass. But an old lady like me has no value, and no value, no entertainment.”
The young man tapped the table with his fingers.
“We both want this over with, don’t we?” she asked. “What’s the point in dragging it out now?”
The man appeared loath to admit it, but Mary could tell that he was growing impatient. After a minute of silence, he reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, unfolded it and put it down for Mary to see.
She picked it up and read it over as she sat down across from him again. “A quitclaim?” she muttered. Mary studied the language of the document a second time. It was a run-of-the-mill human deed for her property, as far as she could tell. Mary had seen a lot of gambits by his kind, but never anything so pedestrian.
“What could someone like you want with my land?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter.” The young man’s face went purposefully blank. “But the fact that this also gets you out of this neighborhood now strikes me as a bonus.”
Mary ignored the insult and read the document again, trying to guess at what the man was leaving unsaid. She assumed that if he could have forced her to sign, he would have already, but something prevented it. He could try to charm, frighten, or bully her, but, in the end, he wanted this transfer to be voluntary for some reason.
“What about the formalities?” Mary asked. “Price, notarization, things like that?”
“The price is whatever you tell me it is. The rest I can make happen tonight, once you sign. It’s just paper, after all.”
“And is this the deal you made with Frank Abra?” she asked.
The young man stared back without answering.
Of course, Mary already knew what had happened to Frank without the man saying anything. Weeks after the Abra house was demolished, Mary had visited the lot across the street after sundown, when the construction workers were gone.
She had seen that most of the rubble had been dumped, and a giant pit was ready to be filled with concrete for the house’s foundation. Mary brought an old metal detector she had gotten at a garage sale years earlier, barely used except for clearing out rusty nails and other debris in her garden. She paced across the Abra lot, waving the detector around, mostly finding coins and scrap, until she eventually came across a piece of jewelry a few feet from where the new house was to be built.
She reached down and pulled a window locket from the soil.
Mary wiped it with the sleeve of her bathrobe and inspected it. She remembered seeing Callie Abra wear the locket every day as she stood out on the lawn and watered their garden, and, after she passed away, Mary saw Frank put it around his neck too, never once putting it aside or taking it off, always grasping it like it was the most important thing on earth. The fact that it was here, and he wasn’t, told her everything she needed to know.
Mary slid it into the pocket of her bathrobe and looked around at the lot one more time.
The truth was that she and the Abras had never really been that close. On the best days, she was polite with them, and on the worst, the whole street could hear their screaming matches.
And yet, Mary realized, as she knelt in the dirt, that the neighborhood felt quieter and lonelier without them.
Her fingers crept to the ground, and she touched the soil, feeling its dampness.
Mary remembered the soil as she stared at the young man in her kitchen, thinking of what best to say.
“What will happen to the neighborhood?” she asked him.
“The hill. What will you do to them?”
The man shifted in his seat and squinted at her, as if puzzled by her question. “You know, when I first moved here and asked around, it was funny. I didn’t even have to pry. Yours was the name that almost inevitably came up when people talked about this street.”
“Guess I’m popular,” Mary replied flatly.
“Lady Bathrobe,” he said. “The Hag on the Hill. Old Tangle-Hair. The Parking Permit Crusader. The Groaning Crone.”
“A couple of those are clever, but the rest are objectively bad.”
“ ‘Nobody cares about her,’ ‘Lives alone for a reason,’ they told me.” The young man watched Mary sink visibly in her chair. “ ‘Why doesn’t she do everyone a favor and just die?’ “
Mary squeezed her burned hand.
“They don’t even want to look at you. Just the sight of your filthy robe and ratty hair puts them on edge. Most of them wish you would just disappear and never come back.” He shook his head. “I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.”
“So what?” she said softly.
“So, why do you care what happens to this place after you leave?” The man pushed the deed closer to Mary. “You don’t need this hill, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the hill certainly doesn’t need you.”
Mary lowered her chin and reached into the pocket of her bathrobe. She felt for the Abras’ locket, which she kept there now out of habit, and she touched its smooth, metal edges. For the first time, she didn’t have a pithy response for the young man, and he seemed pleased.
“How about, instead of pouring your energy into this house and this hill, maybe you take care of yourself, for once, and enjoy those golden years?” He pinched the sleeve of her tattered bathrobe and smirked. “Because whatever it is you’re trying to preserve, it’s gone, lady. You’ve got to see that.”
The young man seemed like he was finished speaking and sat back down. Nothing about what the man said changed what Mary was going to do next; in truth, she had made that decision some time ago. But still, when it was quiet again, Mary realized she felt a chill, one that usually visited her when she couldn’t fall asleep, and it touched her more deeply than anything else that had happened that night.
After a few seconds, Mary stood and began to walk from the kitchen. The young man followed her, through the study and dining room, and back to the den. Mary approached one of the windows at the front of the house and moved back a heavy curtain, so that she could see across the street clearly.
“There.” She pointed at his home, the block of concrete and glass, its modern architecture and chic exterior, like a blight on the hill.
“What about it?”
“You want me to sign? Then I want something first. Whether I leave or not, I can’t stand the idea of that shitbox sitting there instead of Frank’s place. Makes me sick.” Mary gestured over her shoulder. “So let’s see if you were telling the truth. Burn it to the ground without blinking, or whatever it was you said.”
The young man raised an eyebrow and looked out the window. He was strangely hesitant, and Mary could see that it was her turn to press him.
“That’s what I thought,” she laughed.
“Acting smug and lecturing me about the meaning of ‘things’. But I can see it, you’re just as attached as I am. Bet you picked the design of that place because you saw it in some magazine. Maybe that’s how you picked your face too. All you ugly little fiends just want to be pretty deep down, after all.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he scoffed, seeming to grow more self-conscious by the second, as if even the vaguest accusation that he shared anything in common with Mary were perverse.
“Go on,” Mary grinned. “It doesn’t matter to you, does it? You’ll still have the land. Just burn that monstrosity on top of it, and I’ll believe you’re serious about your offer. I’ll sign the deed, just like you want, and we can call it a night and stop wasting everyone’s time. What do you say?”
Now it was his turn to go quiet.
“Unless…” Mary looked out the window. “Your whole scheme was to build a suburb of shitboxes, because you love playing house so much? Maybe that’s the problem?”
The man eyed Mary, trying to understand why she was being so insistent, but his expression began to change, his pride and his eagerness to finish things winning out. Before he had uttered a word, she knew that she had him.
The young man looked back out the window and nodded his head.
The flames across the street erupted suddenly, from no single source.
In seconds, the entire concrete and glass house was surrounded by a growing fire. The stone did not burn, but the supports and framing inside began to split and crack as the heat spread.
Mary looked over at her visitor, holding her breath.
He began blinking rapidly, and he touched his throat.
Part of the living room of the concrete house tumbled as a support beam crashed to the ground. Some of the glass at the front of the house began to ooze into liquid, pouring onto the lawn, while furniture inside the structure shrank and collapsed.
“Does it hurt?” she asked. “It’s hard to tell with you.”
The man opened his mouth to respond, but his voice was only a rasp.
The young man staggered out of the den and toward the front door.
Mary watched from the window as he stumbled across the street toward the flaming house, his silhouette twisting and stretching as the fire raged in front of him.
She imagined that as he stepped across the lawn, he finally noticed, hidden among the blades of grass, the pale, purple vervain flowers, just beginning to bloom—the ones she had planted late at night, well before the foundation in that place had been poured, when she had wandered onto the Abra lot, so small and scattered that they probably never caught his eye before.
She still remembered the sensation of the soil, the dampness of it, as she placed the seeds around the property in the right formation, the beginnings of the traveler’s knot that would eventually, quietly bind him to that body and to that home.
The young man now turned to look at Mary in the window. There was no time to return to her house and try to compel her to release the bond of the traveler’s knot, and even if he could stop the flames, the house was too far gone, the inside of the structure crumbling, much as the insides of his body likely were. The young man knew, just as Mary did, that it was too late now to avoid what was coming.
His face began to collapse, like desiccated dirt, and his true appearance emerged from what remained of his head. Mary always had trouble seeing the real faces of his kind, but he, like all of them, looked like a shifting pool of ink to her, blurred and shapeless.
After a moment of stillness, he looked away and continued forward into the house, moving through a gap where one of the large floor-to-ceiling windows had melted away. Mary could only guess, but as he went further through the flames, she thought he was trying to hide himself, not wanting to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing what was happening to him in his final moments.
He stood with his back toward Mary as everything came apart around him, his tall shape disappearing in the crackling and roaring that filled the concrete block as the fire stretched to the glowing, night sky.
Mary went to her porch and sat on the top step, covering her mouth and nose with the wet rag on her hand. Other neighbors were at their windows, or on their front steps as sirens drew closer to the bottom of the hill.
As she watched the sky darken, a vast cloud of smoke growing above the neighborhood, a crow with greasy feathers landed on the eaves above her.
“I don’t understand,” Yellow Eyes said. “You had him in a knot. You could have struck a deal, made him grovel, work for you, even. Why?”
Mary did not turn away from the flames. “Maybe he did something to piss me off.”
Yellow Eyes watched the fire, as entranced as everyone else.
“Next time you try to play both sides, you’ll remember this, though, won’t you?” She looked at him coldly.
The crow turned a solid yellow ring of its eye at the old woman, flexed his wings, then took off toward the top of the hill without another word.
By the time the ambulances and fire trucks arrived, a couple of the house’s walls were leaning and another had fallen. Everything inside had already been consumed.
There was, in Mary’s mind, nothing more to save.
In the days after that fire, Mary returned to her daily routine. Standing each morning on her lawn with a cup of coffee, she scanned the dashboards of the parked cars on the street for any without a permit, then she walked down the block to see if any recycling or trash bins were put out early or left too late, in violation of the county code.
When she wasn’t watching for unusual cars or strangers entering the neighborhood, she found herself staring at the charred walls of what used to be the concrete house across the street, imagining the old Craftsman in its place while she gripped the Abras’ locket in her hand.
Frank would have come slowly down the steps on each of those mornings to retrieve his mail, gripping one of the handrails—sometimes nodding at Mary and sometimes not. But instead, there was nothing but an ugly view of grey rock and blackened wood. Even now, no one was asking where Frank went, Mary realized, and it was unlikely that any of them ever would.
No one ever asks where the old neighbors go, she thought.
Despite herself, Mary continued to dwell on what the young man said to her the night of the fire. As she dusted her sideboards and vases, she often lost interest, like everything had become too tiresome to finish. When she felt that way, Mary wandered upstairs, to one of the quiet rooms that usually sat untouched, the bed inside still perfectly made and flowery wallpaper around it covered with soft light that flowed through sheer curtains.
She knelt in front of a trunk, unlatching and lifting it open, and peered down at a cluttered pile of old dolls and wooden toys, all of them associated with some holiday or birthday that came back to her as she brought her fingers lightly over them.
In those instances, Mary sometimes considered, for a brief moment, finally throwing them out. Her daughter was never going to use them, after all—she would never brew a pot of coffee for Mary downstairs, or chatter away with her in the kitchen while sitting at the breakfast nook, or touch Mary’s cheek to wake her up.
Things would never be like they were again, she knew.
But still, she couldn’t bring her hands to move, to take anything from the trunk, and she sat paralyzed for longer than she expected. She kept imagining the young man, standing in front of the roaring flames, and thought, for some reason, that she too might begin to crumble and collapse inward, to fall apart bit by bit, if she were to alter anything in the house, no matter how small.
So, instead, Mary put everything back, got on her feet, and then closed the door to the room behind her—each time, more intent than before to leave things in their place, exactly as they were.