The Neighborly Thing to Do

by T.J. Weyler

Bear liked the house even if I still felt bad about having to move. Almost everybody besides me felt good about moving. When Mama and the Aunties weren’t at the community center or making enough cleansing oils and weavings to fill up the booth at the street market, they rummaged through all the boxes and crates leaned up against the walls or towering in corners, purifying the nooks of the new house as they found new places for old things. The other kids thought we might get to go to school in the fall.

So close to downtown, it didn’t matter that we only used bicycles or walked. Out on the farm, the Aunties used to have to hitchhike more than they liked. But once even our old neighbors had voted to get incorporated by the city, the Aunties figured we had to get involved if our goal was community. They said better to shape the changes than pretend not to notice. Mama thought we’d find some great places to get the good energy flowing again.

Streets crisscrossed every-which-way by the new house. I heard cars on at least one of the roads all the time. That meant I got stuck in the backyard or on the porch when Mama left on errands. I couldn’t go exploring, ’cause I wasn’t supposed to cross streets alone, and, after my one try, I learned that Bear didn’t count like a grownup.

Brother and Jeff and Leon were all big enough to ride their bikes up and down the wide, paved road in front of the house if they promised to mind the cars, so they left without me. The road leading up to the old farm had only been gravel. I used to get to play out there because any car coming had to go real slow and made so much noise it couldn’t sneak up. All the roads here were new smooth asphalt, and the Aunties worried that people might speed.

None of our new neighbors seemed very happy about us. They stared when they passed by the house and saw Mama or the Aunties in their long skirts and sandals. They never smiled when we waved, and they frowned at our bicycles and hand-carved sculptures. I’d even heard people talking about our hair and how wild it looked, though the Aunties made sure our braids stayed shiny and tight, and even Auntie Dina’s locks grew out long and beautiful, if a little rusty at the ends from the sun.

I missed the smell of growing things. Our neighbors had yards with only grass in them, a green full of toxins that made them into what Mama called an artificial monoculture. The neighbors cut their trees all the time so that the branches only grew a certain way. The Aunties said growing a thing the wrong way did more harm than not letting it grow at all.

At least the new porch was big enough for Bear and I to play “ship.” Bear helped me sail it, and we ran down the stretch of wood planks only stopping to look out over the railing to see where the boys had got to. I had to stand on tiptoe to see over the railing, but Bear thought that wasn’t so bad, so we ran down to the other end and looked into the ivy vines that grew right up to the edge of the porch like a green sea.

After a while, I got tired of running, so me and Bear sat down on a spare blanket with our cups and had tea. Bear thought plain water tasted best, but he’d pretend it was tea when I called it that. Bear reminded me that Auntie Celia’s baby would be here any day now, and soon I’d have someone else to play with. I thought it didn’t count the same because a baby would be too small to play with. The boys already left without me.

Outside felt pretty good, though. The wind whished enough to make the trees and bushes roll their heads around. If I went to the backyard where the sunshine covered everything, I knew I’d be plenty warm, but Bear reminded me that we couldn’t see anything back there. With all the grownups gone, the silence felt bigger, more watchful in a way that I didn’t like.

The new street did have other kids, mostly around the boys’ age. They had skateboards, and new clothes with the same tags, and they laughed at each other as they tried to do tricks. I saw Leon go by once, but he looked a little scared. I heard the other boys laugh some more, but they wouldn’t let me play even if I asked, so Bear and I tried to find something else to look at.

Then I noticed the girl.

Across the street, she had put out almost all the toys in the world on her green, green lawn, and she went from one pile to the other, taking turns, I guessed. She had a purple table with dolls sitting at all the laid places. Her pink teacups had plates and spoons that matched, and she had a teapot with flowers and a pitcher and little plastic cookies. She had one of those riding-toys, too, shaped like a fancy carriage but with no horses. The girl didn’t seem to like playing with anything that wasn’t pink or princess-y. A big bucket of animals and horses and doll-clothes and plastic food leaned against the side of their crabapple tree. The tree had no fruit on it, even though the ones in our yard already had so much that a bunch of it had rotted and called the yellow jackets to swarm.

She looked to be my age. I hadn’t seen any other girls.

The girl across the street filled up each of her dolly’s cups and then took one of the dolls to the carriage. She rooted around in the bucket, picking things up and putting them back. Then she gathered up the doll before going back to the tea party. I’d only ever seen such wispy blonde hair like hers on dolls before, and her dress frilled out at the sleeves and all along the bottom. The stars on it caught the light and winked. She even had those plastic jelly sandals with the glitter in them.

Mama wouldn’t let me wear anything like that. Plastics killed our Earth, got put together in shops full of little kids who worked all day for mean people. We only got to wear natural fibers. Well, except for wool, but that made me itch anyway. Brother’d talked Mama into at least three pairs of denim jeans though, because he got them at one of the exchanges at the community center. Mama said community support made them okay. I think Brother just wanted to have clothes like other kids in case he went to school. Mama promised I could learn to sew when I got old enough, and weave, and crochet, and anything else I wanted to know about making and mending. Brother already knew some about carving.

The neighbor girl had all kinds of shiny, frilly clothes and lots and lots of toys, but it looked like she couldn’t cross the street alone either, ’cause she stayed right in the front yard just like I stayed on the porch with Bear. I couldn’t figure out the expression on her face. She concentrated on each thing that she touched, but she didn’t frown the way Brother did when he worked math. Instead, she had an almost-smile that made her seem sleepy, ready to nap.

Just then, her grandma pushed open the door to the house, wiping the back of her wrist against her forehead. She looked tired, and cranky, and her metal-grey hair had come loose in strands from the bun at the back of her head. She had a rag in one hand and an apron knotted around her waist, but she looked across the street at me.

“Hey! You!” she said. She pointed right at me.

I jumped.

“Come play with her,” she called.

I felt like she’d caught me spying, but I hadn’t been sneaking or anything. The railing was high enough to hide me if I ducked down, but she already knew where I was. The Aunties said that ignoring grownups just ’cause you didn’t want to do what they said wasn’t respectful. Mama said that elders kept the wisdom of the world, if you only asked them to share.

I looked around for Brother, but all the boys had gone around to one of the other little side streets, and he couldn’t see me. I wasn’t supposed to cross the street, but the grandma had told me to, and we’d be right out front of the house where anybody who passed by could see us.

“Come on,” the grandma said, and wiped again at her sweaty face.

Bear thought we ought to go. He’d seen me staring long enough to know that I was lonely, tired of our two cups and the shade of the porch. He wouldn’t let me hide, and the grandma wouldn’t forget us standing there. Unless Brother came by, I had no reason not to go.

I clutched Bear under my arm and tried to come down the stairs careful, because they were made of old stone that got pushed out of shape by the roots of the big oak tree that grew on the side of our house, and they scraped hard if I fell on them wrong. I didn’t have any shoes on since I’d been planning on being on the porch all day. None of that seemed to matter to the grandma.

I looked both ways before I finally stepped off the curb, but it still made me feel like trouble when I left our yard and went into theirs. If another grownup told me to do it and it wasn’t a stranger asking me to steal or eat meat, I hoped that meant Mama wouldn’t be mad at me. But maybe I’d ask her how to say no, for later, in case it ever happened again.

As soon as I stepped onto their grass, the grandma went back inside, and the screen door closed with a bang. She didn’t even wait to see what we did, had only made sure I obeyed. I’d actually seen the grandpa more often, because he spent all his free time making sure that their grass stayed green and even, and that nothing grew in their yard except what he let grow. He had a riding mower, and sprays, and a weedwhacker, and all summer long the smell of cut grass came from this place. When he took down a tree, he didn’t even leave a stump so that he could even out the lumps in the yard.

Our yard stayed lumpy ’cause of the moles, but we also had rabbits and all kinds of songbirds, and blackberries and honeysuckle that grew in a tangle along the edges. We put our compost on the focal points and let our Earth decide what grew. Mama said we deserved each other as neighbors since she didn’t like seeing what he did to his yard and he sure didn’t like seeing what we did to ours.

The little girl stood by her table where her dolls still had their tea and waited for me to come to her. I held onto Bear and went, because I couldn’t complain about being lonely if I wasn’t willing to play when people asked me to. She didn’t seem to think it strange at all that her grandma had called me this time, when she’d never invited me before.

She looked me over and tilted her head to the side. When she smiled, she had dimples in both cheeks. “Grandma can’t hardly believe we got black hippies.”

I didn’t know what to say to that.

I could tell by the way she said “hippies” that she didn’t mean it as a good thing. Maybe not “black,” either. But Mama told me that meeting ignorance with anger wouldn’t fix anything, and Bear thought I should try to be nice until I figured out if she’d meant it or just repeated what she’d heard her family say.

“We’ll play tea party,” she said.

I nodded, and shifted Bear so that I held him in front of me wrapped in both arms.

She picked up one of her dolls and started to hand it to me, but then put it down on the grass. “Your teddy bear’s awful ratty. I guess you’re too poor for a good one, huh?”

I squeezed Bear a little tighter. Mama always told me to be nice, even when people weren’t nice back. “You got a nice teapot,” I told her.

The little girl smiled at me, like she had a secret. “Grandma said it cost too much, but then it went on sale and she got it for me,” she said.

I nodded. I looked around behind me, but the street stayed empty. Cars passed a couple of streets over, but not close enough to be seen.

“Grandma will bring out real cookies if I want,” the girl said.

I shook my head. Mama said not to be rude but careful. What went into a body affected what came out. If we didn’t know who made it, the safest food was kosher. I didn’t think the grandma made kosher cookies.

The little girl looked bored. “Maybe we’ll play family. We can trade babies.”

I backed up before she finished talking, and she frowned at me. She leaned down and picked up the doll from the grass. “You play with Tabitha,” she said. “She’s a special edition. Hardly anybody has one, but I asked Grandma, and she found one at a store after they were all supposed to be gone, and the man didn’t know they were supposed to be expensive, so he sold it to Grandma for regular price.”

I didn’t recognize the doll, but Mama and the Aunties didn’t let us watch TV because of all the empty commercialism. The doll had a lot of frills on the dress and blue eyes that opened and shut when the girl leaned it back and forth. I didn’t like the idea of trading, not one bit. Even if Bear thought it was rude, I wasn’t letting go of him.

The girl frowned harder. “I don’t have any black ones. Tabitha’s better than that.”

I didn’t even shake my head, just got ready to get out of her reach, in case.

She let out a big puff of air. “You’re weird,” she said. “Keep your ratty old teddy bear if it bugs you so much.” She put the doll back in its seat at the table.

After a minute, her face got that dreamy look again. When she smiled, she had that secret grin. “We’ll play explorers,” she said.

She took off running and I followed her, because I knew all about follow the leader games from playing with the boys. Sometimes they’d still let me play, at least for the parts in the yard.

She made a ring around the crabapple tree, and ran along the edge of the driveway made of white stones before she ran back to her table full of dolls. I tried to follow as best I could, but she didn’t tell me where to go like the boys did, or laugh or squeal like I might have. We just ran faster and faster around the yard, in silence, and I had to hang onto Bear with only one arm so I could keep my balance.

It didn’t seem to be a chase game. The girl never checked to see that I followed, or danced out of reach. She ran so fast I almost slipped a couple of times, and I felt strange trying to keep up in bare feet when she had plastic jelly shoes that kept her from scraping anything.

She kept running real close to the driveway and the curb and then changing directions all of a sudden, so it started to seem like she wanted me to trip. I slowed down a little, because if I fell, I’d probably get all scraped and cut. Mama told us rushing so hard that somebody got hurt meant we weren’t acting right, deliberate. Every action had a consequence, so we’d better think before we moved.

After a while, the girl ran full out around the corner of the house, and I had to run double-fast to catch up. I almost tripped over her as she duck into the space under the porch. I stopped and held Bear tighter, but the girl just grinned and waved her hand. All that wispy hair didn’t even look out of place.

“Come on, come on,” she said. “It’s okay. I go under here all the time.”

She didn’t exactly say that her Grandma let her under the porch all the time, but she did say it like she never had to sneak. I didn’t like it that none of the boys had come back down the street before we’d left the yard. If Brother came looking for me, he might not see me right off. I figured I’d hear him if he started calling. As long as I got back before Mama came home.

It smelled like cold dirt under the porch, like the inside of a tunnel that had been left alone for a long time. I couldn’t see so great. Light came in from gaps, somewhere. Just enough to make things murky, and so I could kinda make out the little girl’s face.

“Come see,” she said.

We both had to walk crouched down to fit. Even someone Brother’s size would have to get all the way down and crawl to get in under here. I figured, after this game, I’d played enough. I didn’t like being bossed, not even by Brother or the other boys.

I followed her further around a corner and realized that the ground felt funny. It might have taken me longer to notice if I’d had my shoes on. It felt colder than it should have, even being in the dark under the house. And it seemed a little squishy, like it’d been churned a lot not too long ago. I couldn’t figure anything they’d grow in all this darkness except maybe mushrooms. The neighbors didn’t seem the kind of people who’d want to do that.

“I can have almost anything I want,” the girl said. She said it quiet, almost a whisper. “Even the toys that never go on sale. As long as I feed it.”

Bear thought we probably ought to go back to the porch. I thought so, too. But when I looked behind me, I couldn’t see where we’d come in. Then something moved, kind of rustled, and I whipped back to try and see what it was. The dirt shifted under my feet, but not like an earthquake. More like the way it moved when the moles made tunnels in the yard. Only bigger.

“I used bugs at first, because even the big ones are easy to catch,” the girl said.

I didn’t like that I couldn’t find my way out, and I felt stupid that I hadn’t just told her “no” before we’d gone under the house.

“Those only got me tiny things, like dessert, when Grandma said we shouldn’t waste money, or stickers at the store.”

She sounded happy, not scared or worried or tired. We both crouched down in the dark under her house where nobody would think to look. The ground moved again. Bear thought we should definitely go.

“But then it told me that if I gave it bigger things, it would give me even better things back,” the girl said.

I kind of thought I could see her eyes, or maybe the glittery stars on her dress catching light.

“Birds are hard, but Grandma has a feeder, and they’ll come for bread, even if it’s wet. That got me the teapot and Tabitha.”

If anything, the ground started to feel colder, and damp, almost; a slimy kind of feeling that made me even sorrier that I’d come here with her. I hadn’t told anybody.

“I saved the rabbit for something real, real special,” the girl said, “like a pony or a trip to Princessland, even before my birthday.”

I didn’t know how I could tell she was grinning in the dark, but I could kind of feel it touching me. It felt like when I brushed up against a spider web.

“Then I decided to ask for a friend,” she said.

I knew she’d been lonely, even with all her buckets of toys. But I didn’t want to be her friend if it meant going under the house to this cold, slimy place.

I could definitely see her eyes. The light in them wasn’t reflected. It just got brighter and brighter. It made everything around her seem darker. I figured I’d have to run for it and keep one hand out. I didn’t like this game and I didn’t want to spend any more time with this little girl.

Then the ground started to rumble steady. I could tell that whatever made it do that could fill up the whole space before I’d even made it back out from under the house.

“I thought it hadn’t worked right,” the girl said. “You’re too weird, and you don’t want to play family or even share your stupid teddy bear.”

Mama said that panic made people do dangerous things, so I tried to keep taking deep breaths as the rumble got louder and louder and the ground under me swayed.

“But I figured out what you’re really for. It thinks you’re like the rabbit. Just like something that still lives in the woods. I bet you don’t even drink soda or anything, right?”

Mama and the Aunties thought fruit had plenty of sugar. Sometimes we got raisins in our oatmeal.

“You’re big enough to get me something really, really good,” the girl said. “Maybe even big enough to let it leave the yard. I haven’t even decided what I’m going to ask for.”

I took Bear in both arms so there’d be no chance I dropped him. Any minute, this thing would pop out right under us both. It wouldn’t eat her because she ate preservatives and refined sugar and covered herself in plastics. Her grandparents couldn’t fit under the house, and none of the kids in the neighborhood were young enough to want to play with her in the first place. The rumbling thing didn’t have that many choices in the city if it couldn’t stand preservatives.

I took a deep, deep breath. I didn’t want to see it come up, or feel it any closer than I already did in the slimy, cold dirt between my toes.

Bear told me the words of binding, and I repeated them, careful to make sure I said them the exact same way.

Mama and the Aunties had felt the sickness growing in the city every time they went to visit the community center. They said too many of the doorways were getting thin and needed more constant tending. They had told us all look out for polluted energy, for bad spots. Imagine me stepping in one the first time I got off the porch.

Bear made me say the words three times all the way through before he let me take off running. The rumbling didn’t stop, but it didn’t get any louder. It took the girl a minute to realize that.

Then she ran forward and caught my arm. Enough of that light pulsed in her eyes to still make them look glow-in-the-dark, like lighting bugs.

“What did you do?” Her voice sounded like two things talking at once. High little-girl-voice, and scratchy, rumbly it-voice.

She tried to pull me back, but she only had borrowed power, so she couldn’t hold me when I pulled away.

She chased me, but I didn’t say anything, just saved my breath for running. I hit a wall face first, hard enough that I probably busted my lip. I just clamped my mouth shut to make sure I didn’t drip blood anywhere in here.

I burst out from under the house and didn’t even slow down, just ran along the side until I reached the front yard. I knew she’d chase me, but she shouldn’t be under there when it closed up, either. I sprang across the road and scrambled up the steps, scraping my toes. Only then did I turn around to look behind me.

The little girl stood at the edge of her yard where the green grass stopped and the asphalt started. While she watched me, her angry face faded into surprise. Then she just looked confused. She looked down at the dirt all over her frilly dress and pawed at it. By tomorrow, she probably wouldn’t even be able to hear the thing anymore, but I’d make sure to tell all the Aunties so they could be certain whatever it was stayed closed up and trapped.

As I tried to get my breath back, Brother rolled down the street on his bike. He had a hole in one of the knees of his jeans, and dirt smeared across the back of them. He stopped in front of the stairs and frowned at me, especially after he noticed the neighbor girl holding her doll, Tabitha, like she didn’t quite remember what she used it for.

He stomped up the stairs and put his hands on his hips. “You’re not supposed to cross the street by yourself,” he said. “And you know Bear doesn’t count.”

I nodded. “Her grandma made me. The thing under their porch told her to.”

Brother frowned and looked back at the house where the little girl had begun to play tea party again with a little more confidence. He looked like he still wanted to argue, but then he shrugged. “Your lip’s busted and your feet are cut. You didn’t bleed on anything over there?”

I shook my head, so he nodded and helped me back up to the porch and handed me one of his carvings out of his pocket. My feet quit stinging so much.

“How come you’re not with everybody else?” I asked.

Brother shrugged again. “All they wanted to talk about were videogames and shows we’ve never seen. They kept wanting to know why none of us played basketball as good as the guys on TV, or why we didn’t have stories about gangs, or why the Aunties don’t look like black people are supposed to.”

He sighed and dusted off his pants. “Then they led us out into the woods and tried to feed us to one of those critters,” he said. “Said one of the basketball teams would move here.” He shook his head at the stupidity and meanness of it. “We bound up the spot, but Jeff and Leon are making sure all those guys don’t remember, aren’t controlled anymore.”

I nodded and flopped back down on my blanket by the two empty cups me and Bear used for tea.

Brother sat down, kind of like he didn’t want to. “I’m sorry you have to play by yourself so much,” he said.

I shrugged, but Bear reminded me that Mama taught us to be gracious. “Thanks for helping me up the stairs.”

Brother nodded. “They’re gonna be mad about your lip,” he said.

“They’re gonna be mad about your jeans,” I said.

He shrugged.

“There’s probably more,” he said. “Of the bad spots, of those critters.”

“Yep.” The wind gusted pretty good, and the bushes rustled some more.

Brother scratched his nose. “The trees around here are pretty, anyway.”

I nodded.

Bear still liked the house.


T. J. Weyler grew up in a town that had vegans, but not monsters (well, kudzu). She currently lives in Virginia with her husband and many, many books. She’s working on her MFA and developing a serious jones for critical theory. Help her waste valuable work time by emailing tjweyler@gmail.com.

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