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I knew I was bordering on hysteria as I watched it happen, because all I could think of was that line from the movie Hot Fuzz. Everyone and their mum's got guns round here. Apparently, rural areas are pretty similar on both sides of the pond, because the old lady across the street most definitely had a gun, and knew exactly how to use it.
I was taking out the garbage at midnight, exhausted and annoyed at myself for having forgotten yet again to do it earlier. The night was quiet and pitch black on my side of the road, because the street light had gone out again. No one could see me stumbling barefoot down the driveway in nothing but a t-shirt. The crepe myrtles that lined the edge of the yard shielded me from view, but I could see two slim, dark figures running across my neighbor's yard and up to her front door. I froze, curious and a little alarmed that trespassers had been skulking around our neighborhood. Someone should really call the police.
It was one of the few times I'd seen her. She was fairly new to the neighborhood, and didn't socialize with anyone on our street, as far as I had seen. Although, to be fair, as a socially anxious introvert, neither did I. I only ever saw her as she left in the evening and came home from work in the early morning as I was just heading out. She never waved back, which is pretty much tantamount to a cardinal sin in Alabama, and by that act alone, she'd made it abundantly clear that she wasn't interested in making nice.
I watched as two young boys, probably around thirteen or fourteen, ran up to her front door, rang the doorbell, and ran off to hide in the tall grass of the unkempt adjacent lot, a fourth acre of city-owned, unruly ugliness that no one seemed interested in maintaining. I’d thought time and again about calling the city to complain, but my trees hid it from my view so that I only had to see it briefly as I drove by or took out the trash. I imagined the old woman would call anyway, because it stuck out like a sore thumb against her immaculate lawn, and now to add further insult, was being used to conceal two scrawny little troublemakers. After a few seconds, the lady turned on the porch light and opened her front door. I could see her angry face as she stepped out and seemed to look directly at the spot where the boys were hiding.
She stood there for a few seconds, unmoving, just glaring in their direction, and then went back inside and turned off the porch light. From where I was standing, I could hear the barely muffled guffaws of the two scamps in the grass, and I waited silently, mesmerized by the scene unfolding before me and wondering if they would be bold enough for a second attempt.
They were. I could hear barely-stifled snickering, followed by what appeared to be some playful shoving, and then they were off, sprinting back to her darkened doorstep. The smaller of the two reached out and pushed the doorbell, but didn't even have time to turn around before the door was flung open and two loud gunshots rang out into the night.
I couldn't move or breathe as I watched her step out and move to the boys lying on her lawn. One of them was completely still, but the other one was writhing and screaming and calling out for his mother. The old lady raised her rifle, bashing him across the skull, and then he was silent. I managed a whimper as a trickle of urine ran down my leg, but I stood stock still otherwise, clutching the top of the garbage bag dangling from my left hand until my fingers punched holes in the plastic.
Someone else is seeing this. Someone will call the police, and they'll come and arrest her, and I can just go back inside. It became my mantra as I stood and waited with no phone, no shoes, and terrified that any movement would make my presence known as she began hauling the bodies inside with more strength than a woman in her seventies should have. She never looked up to see if anyone was watching as she completed her gruesome task, and no one ever came. Gun shots are a frequent occurrence here, and even if they had woken up one of the other neighbors, evidently, no one thought enough about it to investigate.
Once the bodies were inside, she went in behind them without even a glance back, and I was running to my front door as soon as hers shut. I dropped the forgotten bag of garbage in the entryway and ran all the way to the bathroom, where I collapsed in front of the toilet and threw up. I don't know how long I sat there, covered in my own piss and vomit, but eventually I got myself into the shower, where I sat in the bottom of the tub, letting the spray wash over me until the hot water ran out. I dried off mechanically, barely aware of my actions, and then curled into my bed, naked save for the blankets that I cocooned myself in from head to toe. I lay there wide awake until dawn, listening for squad cars or any sign that someone besides me had witnessed what happened and done something.
I stayed that way until 7am, and since there was no way I was leaving the house, I called in sick, barely hearing a word that my supervisor said. After hanging up, I went to the bathroom, and then straight back to bed, where I finally passed out into an exhausted yet restless slumber. I woke again around 2 pm, starving and having to pee, so I did my business and made myself a sandwich. By the time I finished eating, I'd almost convinced myself that I hadn't seen what I thought I'd seen the previous night. I went so far as to reason that I probably didn't even take the trash, because I had the flu or some virus, which caused me to have a nightmare.
It was a plausible theory that I probably would've allowed myself to believe, if I hadn't gone to take the trash out once more and seen two boys, about thirteen or fourteen, hacking down the tall grass in the abandoned lot with machetes. I didn't actually see them until after I was standing in the bottom of my driveway next to the trash can, and by then, I was close enough to see that something wasn't quite right with them. They were only ten feet away, and I was easily visible, right in their line of vision, but they just kept hacking away haphazardly and ignoring me. Even stranger, they worked side by side, and yet, they weren't goofing off and kidding around the way boys their age are prone to do, even when they're being punished. Neither of them spoke or acknowledged the presence of the other in any way.
About the same time I noticed that their skin seemed to be an unhealthy shade of gray and their dark clothes were torn and bloody, the old woman threw open her front door and made a beeline for me, wearing a beaming, cheerful smile that made me want to run like hell. Coward that I was, I stood frozen yet again as she crossed the street, hailing me. "Hey there, neighbor. Nice to finally meet you!"
I think I may have managed a nod, and if she noticed that I was ready to jump right out of my skin, she didn't acknowledge it as she continued, "I tell you what, those boys have been trouble ever since I caught 'em walkin’ by my house and throwin' bottles in my ditch, and if there's one thing I won't abide, it's trouble. Their mama even came by here a little while ago, screamin' and carryin' on like a savage. I'm workin' a little of my magic on her as we speak. Some people just come from bad blood, you know. Can't be fixed, and ain't worth more than the piddlin' amount of work you can squeeze out of 'em before they dry up."
I didn't need an aptitude for insight to see the implicit threat in her words, and she certainly didn't need to make herself any clearer. The pair of teenage zombies that suddenly appeared behind her, armed and ready to be at her beck and call, were a promise of what might happen to anyone who crossed the old woman, and her next words affirmed it. "These two little jokers are about to finally make themselves useful." Then she looked around my yard, clearly disapproving of its slightly shabby appearance. "Tell you what," she continued, the dark undertone making the pit of my stomach curl, "when they finish that lot, I'll send 'em over here. Let's see if we can't get you tended to before it's too late."
She was giving me a choice that wasn't a choice at all-go along with it, play dumb, or suffer the consequences. I looked around to see if anyone else might be around to bear witness, but the crepe myrtles that I’d planted along the winding driveway and around my whole yard, and then neglected to trim, had gone wild, creating a lovely pink shield around my property. I had done it intentionally because I liked the view and the idea of being hidden in my own little flowery world, and now my self-imposed isolation was working against me, and absolutely no one was coming to my rescue. Resignation and bone-deep fear settled around me like an itchy blanket. I might be a coward, but I'm no fool.
There was no fighting anyone who had enough evil in them to shoot children and then raise them up from the dead to be her slaves. Even if I could have thought of a way to get out of the situation unscathed, it hardly seemed worth the risk. After all, she’d only gone after them for causing her trouble, so as long as I kept my head down and my mouth shut, everything would be fine. I was no match for her, and no one was coming to help, and after all, she was right. My hedges really did need trimming.