Next Door – Blake Pierce

Chloe sat on the front steps of her apartment building beside her twin sister, Danielle, watching as the police led their father down the front stoop, in handcuffs. A large cop with a round belly stood in front of Chloe and Danielle. His black skin glistened with sweat as the summer night beamed down on them. “You girls don’t need to see this,” he said. Chloe thought it was a silly thing to say. Even at ten years old, she knew he was simply trying to block out the sight of their father being led into the back of a cop car. That sight was the least of her problems. She’d already seen the blood at the bottom of the stairs. She’d seen how it was splattered on the bottom step and then soaked into the carpet that led into the living room. She’d seen the body, too. It had been facedown. Her father had tried very hard not to let her see it. But no matter what he did, the sight of all that blood had stuck itself to the walls of her head. It was what she saw as the fat cop stood in front of her. It was all that she saw.

Chloe heard the door to the police car slam closed. She knew it was the sound of her father leaving them—she sensed, forever. “You girls okay?” the cop asked. Neither of them answered. Chloe was still seeing all of that blood at the bottom of the stairs, soaking into the blue carpet. She looked quickly over at Danielle and saw that her sister was staring at her feet. She wasn’t blinking. Chloe was pretty sure something was wrong with her. Chloe thought Danielle had seen more of the body, maybe even the really dark spot where all of the blood seemed to have come from. The fat cop looked up the front stoop stairs all of a sudden.

Under his breath, he said in a hissing voice: “Christ, can’t you wait? The girls are right here…” Behind the cop, they brought a body bag out of the building and down the steps. It was the body. The one that had leaked all of that dark red blood on the carpet. Their mother. “Girls?” the cop asked. “One of you want to talk to me?” But Chloe did not want to talk. Sometime later, a familiar car pulled up behind one of the remaining cop cars. The fat cop had stopped trying to get them to talk and Chloe sensed that he was just there with them so they would not feel alone. Beside Chloe, Danielle said her first word since they had been brought out to the front stoop. “Grandma,” Danielle said.

The familiar car that had showed up belonged to their grandmother. She got out of the car as quickly as her legs would allow. Chloe saw that she was crying. She felt a tear sliding down her face but it was not like crying. It felt like something breaking. “Your grandmother is here,” the cop said. He sounded relieved, happy to be rid of them. “Girls,” was the only word her grandmother got out as she came up the stairs. After that, she started to sob and took both of her granddaughters in an awkward embrace. Oddly enough, it was that embrace that Chloe would remember.

The sight of the blood would become faint. The fat cop faded after just a few weeks, as did the surreal sight of the cuffs. But for her entire life, Chloe would remember that awkward hug. And the feeling of something deep inside cracking, and then breaking. Had her father truly killed her mother? CHAPTER ONE 17 Years Later Chloe Fine climbed up the stairs of her new home—the home that she and her fiancé had hunted for, for months—and she could hardly contain her excitement. “That box too heavy?” Steven dashed up the steps beside her, carrying a box labeled PILLOWS. “Not at all,” she said, hefting her own box, which read DISHES on the side. Steven set his box down and took hers. “Let’s trade,” he said with a smile. He had been smiling a lot recently.

Actually, there seemed to have been a permanent smile on his face ever since she had allowed him to slip an engagement ring on her finger eight months ago. They marched together up the sidewalk. As they went, Chloe took in the sight of the yard. It wasn’t the big sprawling yard she’d always envisioned. In her mind, her house had a big open yard with trees scattered along the back. Instead, she and Steven had settled on one in a quiet neighborhood. But she was only twenty-seven; she had time. Both she and Steven knew that this was not the house they’d grow old in. And something about that made it even more special. This was to be their starter home, the place they would learn the ins and outs of marriage—and maybe where they’d work at having a kid or two.

She could see their neighbor’s house quite clearly. The lawns were separated only by a series of tall bushes. The picturesque white porch was almost identical to their own. “I know I grew up here for the most part,” Chloe said. “But it just doesn’t feel the same. It feels like a different town.” “I assure you, it’s exactly the same,” Steven said. “Well, give or take a few new housing developments like the one we are currently homeowners in. Good old Pinecrest, Maryland. Small enough so you’ll always run into people you don’t want to but just large enough to not have to drive an hour to a grocery store.

” “I miss Philly already.” “Not me,” Steven said. “No more Eagles fans, no more Rocky jokes, no more traffic.” “All good points,” Chloe agreed. “Still…” “Give it some time,” Steven said. “This will feel like home soon enough.” Chloe wished her grandmother was there in that moment to see this house. Chloe was pretty sure she’d be proud. She’d probably also waste no time in firing up the brand new oven in the kitchen in order to bake a celebratory dessert. But she’d died two years ago, just ten months after Chloe’s grandfather died in a car accident.

It would have been poetic to think she’d died of a broken heart but that hadn’t been the case; in the end, it was a heart attack that claimed her grandmother. Chloe also thought of Danielle. Right after high school, Danielle had moved away to Boston for a few years. There had been a pregnancy scare, an arrest or two, and several failed jobs. All of that had eventually led her sister back here, to Pinecrest, a few years ago. As for Chloe, she had gone to college in Philadelphia, met Steven, and started working toward her career of becoming an FBI agent. She had a few classes remaining, but the transition had been smooth. Baltimore was just a half hour drive to the west and all of her credits had transferred without a hitch. The stars had seemed to align in some majestic way when Steven had managed to land a job in Pinecrest. As much as Chloe joked about not wanting to return to Pinecrest, something inside of her knew she’d always end up back there if even for just a few years.

It was a dumb sentiment but she felt she owed it to her grandparents. Growing up, she couldn’t get out of this place fast enough and she felt that her grandparents had always taken that a little personally. And then the perfect house had come along and Chloe had started to love the idea of being back in a smaller town. Pinecrest wasn’t tiny at all—a population of about thirty-five thousand made it a comfortable size as far as Chloe was concerned. Also, she was excited to meet up with Danielle at some point. But first, they had to finish moving in. The meager belongings she and Steven owned were packed into the back of the U-Haul that was currently parked askew in their small concrete driveway. They were now two hours into unloading the truck, in and out, back and forth, until they could finally see the back of the trailer through the last row of boxes and bins. As Steven brought in the last of the boxes, Chloe began to unpack. It was surreal to realize that these were items from their separate apartments now being unboxed to share the same space they’d share as a couple.

It was a warm feeling, one that made her glance at the ring on her finger with a confident smile. As she was unpacking, she heard a knock on the front door—the first actual knock at their new home. This was followed by a woman’s high-pitched voice saying: “Hello?” Confused, Chloe stopped unpacking and walked to the front door. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting to see but it certainly wasn’t a face from her past. Strangely enough, that’s exactly what she found waiting at the door. “Chloe Fine?” the woman asked. It had been eight years, but Chloe recognized the face of Kathleen Saunders easily enough. They’d gone to high school together. It was very dreamlike to see her here, standing at her front door. While not the best of friends in high school, they had been a bit more than casual acquaintances.

Still, seeing a face from her past standing in the threshold of her future was so unexpected that it made Chloe feel dizzy for a moment. “Kathleen?” she asked. “What the hell are you doing here?” “Living here,” Kathleen said with a smile. She had put on quite a bit of weight since high school but her smile was exactly the same. “Here?” Chloe asked. “In this neighborhood?” “Yes. Two houses over, to your right. I was coming in from walking my dog and I thought it was you. Well, you or your sister. So I came over and asked the man in the back of the U-Haul and he said to come on up and say hello.

Is that your husband?” “Fiancé,” Chloe said. “Well, how small of a world is this?” she asked. “Or…rather, how small of a town.” “Yes, I suppose it really is,” Chloe said. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I actually have to go meet with a client in about an hour,” Kathleen said. “And besides, I don’t want to keep you from unpacking. But listen…there’s a block party this Saturday. I wanted to be the first to personally invite you.” “Well, thanks. I appreciate it.

” “Hey, really quickly…how’s Danielle? I know when she finished up high school she was going through some stuff. Rumor has it that she’s living in Boston.” “She was in Boston,” Chloe said. “But she’s actually been back here in Pinecrest for a few years.” “That’s so cool,” Kathleen said. “Maybe invite her to the block party, too? I’d love to get to catch up with both of you!” “Likewise,” Chloe said. She briefly looked over Kathleen’s shoulder and saw Steven in the back of the U-Haul. He was shrugging his shoulders and giving a squinted up face that seemed to say: I’m sorry! “Well, it was so good to see you,” Kathleen said. “I hope to see you at the block party. And if not, you know where I live!” “Yup! Two houses over, to the right.

” Kathleen nodded and then surprised Chloe with a hug. Chloe returned it, pretty sure Kathleen had not been the hugging type back in high school. She watched her old (and new, she supposed) friend wave to Steven as she walked back down to the sidewalk along the street. Steven came back up the porch steps, carrying the final two boxes. Chloe took the top one off for him and they carried them into the living room. The place was a maze of boxes, bins, and luggage. “Sorry about that,” Steven said. “I didn’t know if that would be a welcome guest or not.” “No, it’s fine. It was weird, but fine.

” “She said she was a friend from high school?” “Yeah. And here we are, living two houses apart. She seemed really sweet, though. She invited us to a block party this weekend.” “That’s nice.” “She knew Danielle back in high school, too. I think I’m going to invite her to the party, too.” Steven started opening up one of the boxes, letting out a sigh. “Chloe, we haven’t even been here an entire day. Can’t we wait before inviting your sister into our lives?” “We are,” she said.

“The party is three days away. So we’re waiting three days.” “You know what I mean. Danielle has a tendency to make things difficult when they don’t have to be.” Chloe did know what he meant. Steven had met Danielle four times and each of those occasions had been awkward—and neither of them had a problem saying as much. Danielle came with a particular set of issues, none of which were well suited for being around people she was unfamiliar with. So she supposed Steven was right. Why invite her to a block party where she wouldn’t know anyone? But the answer was easy: Because she’s my sister. She’s been alone and hurting these last few years and as lame as it sounds, she needs me.

A quick flash of the two of them sitting on those apartment stairs tore through her head like a desert wind. “You knew I’d reach out to her eventually,” Chloe said. “I can’t very well be living in the same city and continue to shut her out of my life.” Steven nodded and came to her. “I know, I know,” he said. “But a man can dream.” She knew there was a bit of barbed truth to the comment but she also recognized the joking tone. He was giving in, not wanting to let a discussion about her sister ruin moving day for them. “It could be good for her,” Chloe said. “Getting out and socializing…I think I can bring it out of her if I can become something of a regular fixture in her life.

” Steven knew the complex history between the two of them. And although he made no secrets about not being particularly fond of Danielle, he had always lovingly supported Chloe and understood her concern for her sister. “Do what you think is best for her, then,” he said. “And after you call her, come help me put the bed together in the master bedroom. I’ve got plans for it later.” “Oh, you do?” “Yeah. All this moving has wiped me out. I’m exhausted, I’m going to sleep so hard…and it’s going to be so hot.” They both cracked up and found their way into each other’s arms. They shared a lingering kiss that suggested maybe their first night in their new home would put the bed to good use.

But for now, there were the mounds and mounds of boxes to unpack. Plus, a potentially uncomfortable phone call to make to her sister. It was a thought that filled her with equal amounts of joy and anxiousness. Even as her twin sister, Chloe was never sure what to expect from Danielle. And something about being back in Pinecrest made her sadly certain that things with Danielle had likely only gotten worse. CHAPTER TWO Danielle Fine popped a No-Doz, swallowed it down with a warm, flat Coke, then opened up her underwear drawer and dug down on the right side for the sluttiest thing she could find. Danielle thought about Martin. They had been dating for about six weeks now. And while they had both decided that they were going to take it slow, Danielle had lost her patience. She had decided she was going to throw herself at him tonight; stopping at second base every time they saw one another was making her feel like a stupid teenager who didn’t know what she was doing.

She knew what she was doing. And she was pretty sure Martin did, too. By the end of the night, she’d know for sure. She ended up selecting a lacy black pair that barely covered the front and was practically nonexistent in the back. She thought about which bra to wear but decided on not wearing one at all. She and Martin weren’t exactly dress-up types and besides, she knew she was very much lacking in the chest; there was no expensive bra in the world that was going to be of much help. Besides… Martin had told her he liked how her boobs looked when their shapes were visible through a T-shirt. They were meeting early, catching an early dinner so they could make the 6:30 movie in time. The mere fact that they were doing dinner and a movie rather than cheap drinks and a trip back to his house for a painful make-out session was a point in her favor. She wondered if Martin was the kind who liked to feel that he was being a gentleman.

Six weeks with the guy…you should already know that kind of shit, she thought as she slid on the panties. She got dressed in front of the full-length mirror on her bedroom wall. She tried on a few shirts before deciding to play it chill. She settled for a black, slightly tight T-shirt and a very basic pair of jeans. She was not the sort of girl who owned a bunch of dresses or skirts. She normally put on the first thing she grabbed in the morning. She knew she’d been blessed with her mother’s good looks and, because she also managed to have immaculate skin, she usually went without much makeup, too. Her dyed black hair and intense brown eyes pulled the entire package together; in the blink of an eye she could make the transformation from innocent and sweet to aggressively sexy. It was one of the reasons she had never really cared about her small boobs. With a quick look into the mirror, seeing the same figure, face, and T-shirt band logo that had all been there as a teen, Danielle was ready to head out to meet Martin.

He was a greaseball of sorts, only not the kind that hung out in motor garages or racetracks. He’d toyed with amateur boxing at one point, or so he said. He had the body to make her believe it (another reason she was losing her patience) and currently worked as a freelance IT specialist. But, like her, he didn’t take life too seriously and enjoyed drinking a lot. So far, they seemed like a perfect match. But still. Six weeks without sex. She felt a lot of pressure. What if he refused? What if he really wanted to keep taking it slow and she just couldn’t wait? Sighing, she went to the fridge. To calm her nerves, she grabbed a Guinness from the fridge, popped the top, and took a swig.

She realized she was putting alcohol on top of her No-Doz but shrugged it off. She’d certainly put her body through much worse. Her phone rang. If he’s calling to cancel on me, I’ll kill him, she thought. When she saw that it wasn’t his name on the display, she relaxed. Yet when she saw it was her sister, she slumped her shoulders. She knew she might as well answer it. If she didn’t Chloe would call her back fifteen minutes from now. Persistence was one of the few traits they had in common. She answered the call, skipping hellos as she usually did.

“Welcome back to Pinecrest,” she said, as monotone as possible. “You officially a resident again?” “Depends on if you’re asking me or all of these unpacked boxes,” Chloe replied. “When did you get in?” Danielle asked. “This morning. We finally got everything out of the U-Haul and are trying to get through the boxes and figure out where everything needs to go.” “Do you need some help?” Danielle asked. The brief silence on the other end of the line suggested that Chloe had not been expecting this sort of generosity. Truth be told, Danielle had only asked because she knew Chloe would not take her up on it. Or, rather, Steven would not want Chloe to take her up on it. “You know, I think we’re good right now.

I wish I would have thought to call you when we were unpacking all of the damned boxes.” “Maybe I wouldn’t have offered then,” Danielle said with dry sarcasm. “Anyway, listen. Do you remember Kathleen Saunders from high school?” “Vaguely,” Danielle said, the name bringing to mind a bright and smiling teenaged face—the kind of face that always got a little too close when speaking. “Turns out she lives in my neighborhood. Just two houses down. She came by a while ago and said hello. She also invited Steven and I to a block party this weekend.” “Wow, one day in and you already sound domesticated as hell. You buy a minivan yet?” There was another brief silence; Danielle figured Chloe was trying to decide if the comment was a venomous barb or just a joke.

“Not yet,” she finally answered. “Need the babies first. But about that block party…I think you should come. Kathleen was asking about you.” “I’m flattered,” Danielle said, not flattered at all. “Look, we’re going to end up hanging out anyway,” Chloe said. “We may as well do it sooner rather than later to avoid all the phone tag. And I’d really like for you to see the house.” “I might have a date that day,” Danielle said. “Like a real date or just one of your poor one-night guys?” “A real date.

You’d like him, I think.” That was bullshit. She was pretty sure Chloe wouldn’t approve of Martin at all. “You know how we can find out? Bring him, too.” “Ah Jesus, you’re insufferable.” “Is that a yes?” Chloe asked. “That’s a we’ll see.” “I’ll take it. How are you, Danielle? Everything going good?” “Yeah, I suppose. Work is going well, and I’m about to go out on a date with the same guy for the twentieth time.

” “Ooh, he does sound special,” Chloe joked. “Speaking of which, I need to get going,” Danielle said. “Sure. I’m going to text you our address. I hope you come to the block party. Three o’clock, this Saturday.” “No promises,” Danielle said and then took a very long gulp from her Guinness. “Bye, Chloe.” She hung up without waiting for Chloe’s goodbye. She had no idea why, but the conversation had been draining.

A block party, she thought with bitter sarcasm. I know we don’t talk all that often, but you’d think she’d know me better than that… As this thought crept through her mind, she started to think about her mother. That’s where her mind usually went whenever she was irritated with Chloe. As she thought of her mom, her hand went to her neck. Finding the area there bare, she hurried back through her small apartment and into the bedroom. She went to the jewelry box on her dresser and pulled out her mother’s silver necklace— just about the only tangible thing she owned that had once belonged to Gale Fine. She placed it around her neck and tucked the simple little pendant beneath her shirt. Feeling it against her skin, she wondered how often Chloe thought of their mother. She also tried to remember the last time they had both talked about what had happened that morning seventeen years ago. She knew they were both haunted by it, but really, did anyone ever enjoy talking about ghosts? Now with only ten minutes left before she needed to leave to meet with Martin, she chugged down the rest of her beer.

She figured she could just go and be a little early. She headed for the front door to do just that but then stopped in her tracks. Directly beneath the front door, there was an envelope. It had not been there when she was speaking on the phone with Chloe. She walked to it and carefully picked it up. It felt like watching herself in a movie because she had done this before. This was not the first note that had come. The envelope was unmarked. No name, no address, no markings of any kind. She opened the flap, which had not been adhered to the rest of the envelope.

She reached inside and found a simple square of cardstock paper, a little larger than a playing card. She took the note out and read it. And then read it again. She tucked it back into the envelope and carried the envelope to the desk along the far wall of the living room. She placed it there with the other four notes, all with similar messages. She stared at them for a moment, fearful and confused. Her palms grew sweaty and her heart started to beat harder. Who’s watching me? she wondered. And why? She then did what she usually chose to do when something bothered her. She ignored it.

She pushed this most recent note out of her mind, along with the simple message it carried, and headed out the door to meet Martin. As she walked out of the building, the note’s message flashed in her mind in little shocks, almost like a neon sign. I KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. It made no sense, but then again, it seemed to make all the sense in the world. She looked down at her own shadow on the city sidewalk and couldn’t help but walk a little faster. She knew she could not escape a problem by putting it in her personal rearview mirror, but it at least made her feel better. I KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. Her feet seemed to agree, wanting to stop walking, to run back and try to make sense of the letters —to call someone. Maybe the cops. Maybe even Chloe.

But Danielle only walked faster. She’d managed to put her past behind her, for the most part. Why would these letters be any different?

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