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Good Fences

He thinks at first the streetlight’s back on, but of course not. It’s been dark six weeks. There are already beer bottles piled on the sidewalk every morning from the dropout teenagers who surge in whenever there’s the littlest pool of darkness they can find, and then they smoke and drink and shout all night right under his window when he’s trying to sleep.

He looks out the window a little sidelong, just in case the high-school kids are down there.

They’re not. The street’s empty, except for the car on fire.

It’s on his side of the street; the fire’s still just a glow through the front windshield, shifting shadows. Cozy, almost.

He wonders whose car it is.

Then he starts to get nervous. What if it explodes? What if the fire catches and every car on the street lights up? What if the maple burns down? (The maple is the only thing that filters the smoke from the teenagers.)

He debates calling the police, but he can guess the trouble that would get him in. Anonymous tips aren’t anonymous, everybody knows that. Especially not in this neighborhood.

He imagines them showing up at his door, asking how he knew to call in the fire. Asking him if anyone can verify that he was home. He’ll probably end up spending his whole night at the station under suspicion, and then he’ll show up at work like a zombie.

It’s none of his business.

It’s one of those punks anyway, probably—some private fight between two dropouts with nothing better to do at night than throw lit cigarettes through the sunroof of a car until it goes up.

He can’t wait until the cops come. Then those kids will be in for it.

(Maybe it was the owner of the car, doing it for the money. That happens. Insurance companies have a whole fraud division to deal with it.)

The cops will figure it out. Better not to get involved.

***

An hour later he looks out his window to see if any of the kids are back. Taking pictures, maybe. Maybe one of them feels guilty and has come out to take some responsibility.

Of course nobody’s bothered to come. This neighborhood is going to hell.

He goes back to his book, keeps one ear out for the moment of ignition, when the car will blow and take out half the other cars on the block, and then the cops will show up and those kids will be sorry they were playing around with other people’s property.

It doesn’t explode. He sits up half the night waiting for nothing.

***

The next morning, he’s late getting up—of course he’s late, the fire kept him up all night, mainlining coffee just to stay awake in case the fire spread and threatened the maple.

It didn’t. It just burned out slowly, rolling for a long time behind smoky windows, almost too quiet to hear, and then with some little screeches and bangs as the windows shattered and the car curled in at the edges.

The cops never came.

(He has to find a new neighborhood.)

On his way to work he passes the shell. He risks one glance, disinterested, the kind of look anyone would give the skeleton of a wrecked car they were seeing for the first time.

The headlights are still there, but most of the windows are long gone, like the eyes have been ground out of a body; the inside is a ruin, just lumps and shadows he doesn’t want to look at for long.

He drops his head and passes by; there’s a crunch under his feet, and a spray of black ashes and glittering glass across the sidewalk ahead of him.

He walks as quickly as he can without knocking any of it into his shoes.

He doesn’t look again. The last thing he needs is to be accused of inspecting his handiwork.

There’s a pang in his stomach. Too much coffee.

***

At work, Peter is already in their cube, and as soon as he comes in, Peter looks up and says, “Jesus, Alan, you look like hell.”

“I was up half the night,” he says. “Some kids let a car burn up on my block.”

Peter whistles through his teeth. “Your place is seriously shady, man.”

He doesn’t argue.

***

He takes the window seat on the bus home.

(He likes window seats. His commute is ninety minutes, and Peter fucked him over with paperwork he’s carrying home. It gives him something to do.)

The bus rounds the corner, and he sees a glimpse of white in a third floor window. An old man in a button-down is edging toward the window, one arm out to brace him against the windowsill as soon as he reaches it. His face is wrinkled and set, and somehow he looks like he hasn’t talked to anyone in a long time.

Jesus, he thinks. For a second his hands get so heavy he thinks they’re going to crush his legs.

But the moment passes. Sometimes he’s a sucker, is all.

He can’t worry about strangers for the rest of his life. He has a briefcase full of paperwork; he has his own problems.

***

For two days he thinks someone will do something about the car.

But every day the car’s still there, still not towed or marked by police. Cars are parked in front of it, behind it, closer than he’d ever get to a car that looks as terrible as this one. Some people can’t see trouble when it’s looking right at them.

By the second day, Mrs. Christensen must have swept away the glass that was in front of her house—there are streaks of dark gray where the ashes have been ground to the pavement—but the shards just past her property line sit untouched, edges up.

Good fences make good neighbors, but for a second, the hair on his neck stands up.

(Is it a message? Did she see him watching the night it burned? What is she waiting for, then?)

But it’s nothing. He gives people too much credit. She’s probably pretended she didn’t see the car at all. She’s not the type of neighbor to put herself out.

***

He gets home late. (Peter went to a meeting and never came back, and somebody had to close the month, so here he is, at ten at night.)

The teenagers aren’t under the broken streetlight. He might be able to get to sleep before midnight once he tackles work.

The car is still there. One of the tires has blown; it looks drunk, half-lurching its way out of the street.

He should be so lucky.

He closes the door behind him, locks it twice.

As he sits down at his desk there are little sounds that bother him, like someone outside is scratching a chalkboard half an inch at a time.

He doesn’t check. He has work.

He’s so tired that he can’t stop the shakes he gets after his second cup of coffee. (He gets this way sometimes when people assign him an unfair workload. He knows the signs. It’s out of his control.)

At midnight, there’s a metallic thud on the street outside.

The dropouts have knocked over the streetlight is the first thing he thinks, but when he gets to the window nothing’s there, and he realizes that something must have fallen out of the car.

Of course that’s what the noises were. What other problem is as awful as this one?

Only the headlights give away that there’s a car there at all. They’re still bright and clear, untouched by all the fire, and even without the streetlight they’re right where he thinks they are, as soon as he looks out the window.

It must have been something dropping out from underneath the car. The outside of it looks the same—the roof swollen like a boil, a lump of melted trash in the backseat, the windows with a few jagged fingers left clawing at the empty centers, the scorched paint job so flat that it’s invisible in the dark, vanished like a secret just for him.

He doesn’t know how he knows what the rest of the car even looks like. The streetlight’s still out. It’s not like he’s been looking at it. That car is the last thing he wants to see.

He pulls the curtains shut.

***

Around midnight, he wakes up from a dream that he called the cops. One hand’s already fumbling for the phone.

(He laughs, when he has himself together. What sort of phone call was he planning to make?

“Yeah, hi, a car burned up over the weekend and I didn’t do anything then, but the teenagers aren’t under the streetlight any more and I think the car is staring at me, so can you tow it?”)

But the longer he thinks about it, the more unfair it gets. Where the hell is the person this car belonged to? Wouldn’t someone have noticed by now that his transportation habits have been suddenly and violently altered? Hasn’t anyone on the street clued him in?

Hasn’t anybody said anything?

When he looks out his window, he sees the scorched-out roof, the half-melted grill like a grimace, the headlights gleaming like eyes.

***

The car’s still there in the morning.

All day he thinks about it—knocking on some doors in his building, or even talking to Mrs. Christensen.

(“Forget it,” says Peter when he brings it up. “Too late now. You’ll just be the twitchy asshole who’s way too interested in the burned-up car. I’d call the cops on you if you knocked on my door. Where the hell is the P&L I gave you?”)

Still, he thinks about it, on and off.

It’s not worth it—Peter’s right, and besides, his neighborhood is full of creeps, it would probably just end with him in a fight about insurance fraud with the asshole who lit up his own car—but he just wants someone to fucking take care of it already.

***

On the bus, he’s going over invoices, and he looks up too late to see if the old man’s in the window again.

Probably was. Things are always happening to make him feel badly.

***

When he turns the corner for home and sees that the car is still there, his stomach sinks.

(He’d hoped for better, from somebody.)

On his way up the street, he passes Mrs. Christensen. She’s raking leaves with her eyes on the ground.

He’s so angry he nearly asks her about it—he opens his mouth to say, “So, am I the only one who can see this fucking car?”

(He could swear it’s a foot closer to his building. He could swear the tires are blown on the opposite side now, like it really is moving, like it saw him coming and is crawling to reach him like a dog.

Jesus Christ, he’s shaking.)

But the words won’t go past his throat, so he just coughs and keeps his gaze on his feet as he walks, and tries to take comfort that he’s not the only one who can’t bring himself to look at it.

***

At some point after, the television is nothing but infomercials, he gives up on sleep and settles by the window.

The car is the only other thing that’s awake. Might as well have company.

It’s a lovely night, cool and clear, and he’s not surprised when two of the high-schoolers appear as if by magic in the flare of a cigarette lighter.

(I knew it, he thinks. I knew it, you little fucks.)

They pass a cigarette back and forth, talking just low enough that he can’t hear what they’re saying. They don’t look at the car, not even a glance over. How can they be so casual about what they did?

One of the boys takes the cigarette and shoves the other, dances away with a laugh. He’s never understood what’s so funny about that stuff that you have to go wake your neighbors playing around about nothing.

The second boy swings for a punch and misses, and the dropout with the cigarette laughs again, pretending to smother it in his sleeve, but the sound echoes off the walls in the apartment.

He wishes this kid had burned up in the car, just to shut him up.

The kid looks up and sees him.

(He doesn’t know how, it’s dark outside and it’s dark in the apartment, but he can still see the car, so maybe it’s just never as dark as you think.)

The kid gets a weird look on his face, and reaches for his friend without looking behind him, so now the other one’s looking at him, too.

He doesn’t move. He’s a citizen worried about vandalism. They should be afraid of him, after what they did.

They edge away from the building, down the street and past his line of sight, and then he hears two pairs of footsteps running.

The carcass was facing them, too, and just for a second one of the headlights disappears, like a shadow moved across it, or it moved.

***

Peter goes to lunch with the Project Manager without telling him.

His own P&L is still sitting on the copier, where Peter fucking copied it to take to lunch to show off and forgot to cover his ass and put it back.

Maybe he didn’t forget. Maybe Peter just figures that he’s invisible, and knows he won’t say anything.

Maybe Peter figures he doesn’t have the spine; he doesn’t have the balls to call the cops and tell them Peter burnt out a car on his street and to come talk to him about it, just so some uniforms would come in and scare some respect back into Peter.

At least then the cops would know that the car was there. After that it wouldn’t matter what happened—Peter would be innocent, that was fine, he didn’t need Peter to go to jail. Just so long as he could make someone else see the car and tell him what happened.

(He sits with the phone in his hand for three minutes, trying to work up the courage.)

***

For lunch he buys a greasy burger, garlic fries, and a newspaper. He’s going to sit in the cube by himself, stink the place up, and read the entire fucking paper, no matter how long it takes, just so that whenever Peter gets back, he can sees how little he cares about the shit that Peter’s pulled.

He skims, mostly, because the sports section goes on forever and world policy is kind of depressing.

It’s an accident that he sees the obituary at all.

The man in the photo is a stranger, but he pauses and looks at the face for a long time.

Then he looks at the date of birth, the address.

It’s the old man from the window.

The face is twenty or thirty years younger in this picture, but he knows. The eyes are the same, and that jowly face is the same, even from a window three floors up.

It doesn’t say how he died.

(Jesus, he thinks, please say it’s not jumping.)

There’s nothing about who he’s survived by.

It doesn’t mean he died alone. People leave things out of obituaries all the time.

He throws the burger away.

***

He wakes up from a nightmare (fire everywhere, he wakes up gasping, someone needs to get this car off the street or he’s never going to get to sleep again).

As soon as he can breathe, he runs to the window to make sure the maple’s all right.

The roof of the car has fallen in. The sound must have woken him.

It collapsed so completely that there’s no sharp edges left, no tears where the metal held on. It looks like someone lifted it out clean—it’s just gone.

Now he can look right into the back seat of the car, at the thing he’s never brought himself to really look at.

The body.

It’s curled in the backseat of the car, cocooned in the shell of the headrests that melted across it to protect it from falling to pieces. The streetlight’s still blown out—it’s too dark to see anything, unless you know what you’re afraid to see—but he can make out the line of a spindly arm, the curve of a hand, an arch that must have been a leg, laid out across the back of the beast, and even in the pitch black he knows the body’s there.

It’s bone-pale, now, burned out to ashes.

(Its mouth is open; he can see it from here. That man died alone and screaming.)

And no one’s called the cops, in all this time. No one’s said a thing. They left it for him to find, because they knew, they knew what he’d be finding now.

(Or they hadn’t seen it, not one thing, and he’s the only guy awake and gripping the windowsill until his knuckles pop.)

He wonders what those dropouts will say when they show up tonight to drink and smoke and see that the car isn’t hiding their secret any more.

Maybe it was one of them who died in there, he thinks. It makes it a fraction easier to breathe, thinking of the body in that car being one of them, thinking of them having to really look at that car, with the spine arching up from inside it, and be fucking sorry for what they did. That’s better than anything else he can come up with.

It’s ashes now, anyway. Too late to do anything. The dead are dead.

(Survived by, he thinks, before he can help himself.)

He closes the window tightly and pulls the curtains shut so the street noise is muffled and he can get some sleep.

It’s almost midnight, and he has work in the morning.

© 2012 Genevieve Valentine.

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Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve ValentineGenevieve Valentine is the author of the novel, Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti. Her short fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from magazines such as Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod, and in many anthologies, including Armored, Under the Moons of Mars, Running with the Pack, The Living Dead 2, The Way of the Wizard, Federations, Teeth, and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, among others. Her writing has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.