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New Fiction – The Problem With Neighbors

April 12, 2013

Hello ladies and gentlemen!  I don’t have a book review to share with you this week, but figured since I just posted about the 2013 Masters of Macabre contest that I would share one of my previous entries into the contest.  Here is the entry I submitted in the first contest.  One word of warning, I am still working on polishing it up for future publication, but wanted to share how it looked the first time I recorded the story.  The contest details are that I needed to include a sporting event, fear of lightening and thunder, and a riding lawnmower.  I hope you enjoy it.

***

The Problem With Neighbors

By Donald L. Pitsiladis

             “Does he have to do that now?!” Ted snapped as he turned the television volume up for the third time that hour.  “He can’t mow his lawn later tonight or on a Saturday?”  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his wife Karen roll her eyes before turning them back to her magazine.  It was the same complaint he’d made every Sunday since their neighbor moved in a month ago.  She’d suggested talking to him multiple times, but Ted didn’t like confrontations and always had an excuse ready for why he couldn’t.  “The weather is already changing and it’ll be put into storage soon.  I mean, you can’t mow the lawn when there’s snow on the ground, right?”, “It just isn’t the neighborly thing to do,” or “He might try to pick a fight with me if I complain, and I really don’t want to hurt him.”  That last reason always drew a snort laugh from Karen.

After grumbling and messing with the volume for five more minutes, Ted heard a plop behind him and turned to see Karen’s magazine falling off the arm of her chair.  When it hit the floor, it splayed open to pictures of men and women with muscles larger than his head, and he shot his wife a questioning look.  The look turned to ash under the angry heat of her gaze as she said, “You know, instead of always complaining about how lousy of a neighbor he is, why don’t you just go and talk to him?  I’m sure he’ll understand and finish cutting his grass after your stupid game is over.”  She waited a full heartbeat before really hitting below the belt, “Or are you not man enough?”

Ted’s face grew hot from that last shot, enough so that he growled, “Fine!” slipped on his shoes, and walked out the door before realizing what he was doing.  He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and watched as his neighbor cut the grass next to his own driveway, oblivious to the problems he was causing.   Ted wanted to go back inside and finish watching the game, but found Karen staring down at him from the front porch and knew there was no chance of that happening.  With a deep breath he marched across the yard thinking, “Maybe if she sees how tough I really am, she’ll start respecting me again.

The closer Ted got to his neighbor, the more distinct their size difference became.  Not only was the other man about a foot taller, he also had arms that looked like steel cables encased in chiseled granite and a large belly that jiggled in time with the mower.  The rational part of Ted’s brain tried talking him out of the confrontation, citing the neighbor’s distinct size and strength advantage by saying, “You’re going to get your butt kicked.”  The louder, more macho part of him won the mental debate by pointing out, “He may just beat you up, but at least you’ll regain Karen’s respect.  Isn’t that worth a little pain?”  His wife really did need to see that he was capable of standing up to guys like this, otherwise there might never be an end to her mocking.

As one would expect, the closer Ted got, the louder the mower became, so he decided to wait where the property lines met and wave to get his neighbor’s attention.  He was a little surprised when the big man turned off his engine seconds later and jogged over with a warm smile.  Ted returned the smile, but not out of politeness.  He found it strange that a man with so much strength in his arms would pay so little attention to the rest of himself.  He nearly burst out laughing when the man offered his hand and said with an Irish accent, “Good afternoon.  We haven’t met yet, have we?  Liam O’Shannessy.”

Ted gave the proffered hand only half a glance before pouncing, “I don’t care what your name is.  What I DO care about is that every weekend, while I’m trying to relax and watch a football game, I hear your lawnmower instead.”  Liam’s smile faltered and his hand fell slowly to his side as Ted continued his verbal onslaught, “Look, I know you’re new to the neighborhood and, judging by your accent, probably new to this country, but we Americans take our football VERY seriously.”  A slight blush rose in Liam’s cheeks and his eyes grew wide before quickly thinning to slits when Ted said, “Now, I’m going back inside to watch the rest of today’s game.  Go pour yourself some Frosted Lucky Charms, hide your wee pot o’ gold, or put on a skirt and Riverdance your way up and down the street.  Frankly, I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re quiet while doing it.”

Not wanting to give him a chance to reply, Ted turned on his heel and marched back to the house with his head held high and a satisfied smile.  The smile grew wider as he walked by his wife, as if to say, “See, I told you I would handle it.”  Instead of being impressed, however, Karen tsked him loudly before walking over to the stunned Irishman.  He watched in amazement as she introduced herself and shook Liam’s hand.  A small flame of jealousy sparked to life, fueled by how much the Irishman reminded him of Collin Farrell, his wife’s favorite actor.  The only thing that kept the little flame from growing into a much larger blaze was that, all teasing and bantering aside, he trusted his wife.  “At least she’ll buy me some time to watch the game in peace and quiet,” he thought as he sauntered back into the house.   The booming voice of a used car dealer telling everyone how crazy he was greeted him as he settled back onto the couch.

Several nights later, as Ted was pulling his garbage cans to the curb, he noticed an odd looking lawn mower sitting in Liam’s garage.  From ten feet away, the neon green number four on the mower’s face surrounded by bright orange flames leapt out at him from the black background.  The strange effect piqued his curiosity and drew him closer for a better look.  Identical numbers and flames adorned each side of the hood, but none had the same affect as the one on the machine’s face.  “So, this is why I can’t enjoy my Sundays,” he thought as he dropped to one knee beside it.  A closer look at the mower itself showed him that the fancy artwork wasn’t the only thing that made it different.  Most lawnmowers, riding or not, generally kept their blade guards close to the ground to guarantee a nice low cut.  The belly of this beast, however, stood at least a foot or so off the ground, making it impossible to cut any grass shorter than knee height.  “What kind of lawn mower is this?” he whispered.

Looking at the mechanics of the mower, he found alterations made to the fuel line, motor, and clutch.  These changes puzzled Ted because they weren’t typically done to a lawnmower.  As he rounded the front of the machine, a metallic ping from the ground helped resolve part of the mystery.  A shiny set of chrome wrenches lay slightly askew under his left foot.  Next to them lay several screwdrivers meticulously lined up in order by size.  They reminded him of the tools his older brother had used to tune up his dirt bike before a race.  “Why would someone want to tune up a lawnmower like that?” he wondered before remembering a news story he saw a couple of months ago.  It was about a group of people in the Midwest that held annual lawnmower races for their local fair.  He didn’t remember seeing any mowers looking as tricked out as this in the video they showed, and it made him curious enough to want to ask Liam why he’d made these changes.  In the end, he didn’t knock on the front door and ask because, to him, it wasn’t the neighborly thing to do.

With a shake of his head and a deep sigh, Ted made his way back home.  He got3 as far as the edge of his driveway before stopping with eyes wide open.  His Steelers were playing the Packers that Sunday in a Super Bowl rematch, and he’d completely forgotten about it.  It was the one game he’d been most looking forward to since the schedule came out months ago.  “I can’t miss this game,” he thought and turned back to his neighbor’s garage.  “Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll be at some out of town race that day,” he thought without knowing what the chances were of that happening.  When he thought about all of the games he didn’t get to enjoy or had been forced to miss because of Liam’s yard work, he made a decision.  It wasn’t something a good neighbor did or was supposed to do, but he didn’t want to miss any of the game that Sunday.  “Besides,” he reasoned with a touch of anger, “it’s not like he’s been very neighborly to me since moving in, either,”.

Ted scanned the cul de sac to see if anyone was outside or looking his way, and found only drawn curtains in the windows and an otherwise empty street.  Walking quickly and quietly, he made his way back to Liam’s garage and dropped to his haunches next to the lawn mower.  Inside the motor he found a wire that was easy to reach and even easier to overlook when troubleshooting.  With a single swipe of his finger, he deftly plucked the wire out, placed it in his pocket, and jogged home with a satisfied grin.  The remainder of his evening was spent reading a newspaper in his recliner and wishing he could see the look on his neighbor’s face when he tried to start the mower.

Game day found Ted settled on the couch with a six pack of amber beer and a large plate of nachos begging to be eaten.  Karen sat in the recliner with her nose buried in the latest copy of “O” magazine, a welcome change from the previous Sunday’s selection.  When the announcers began naming the starting players for each team, she looked up and sarcastically asked, “Aren’t you going to turn the volume up?”  Her right eyebrow rose when he grinned and shook his head no.  He saw the question, “Why not?” form on her lips, but a flurry of shouts and curses from outside left it unasked.  Ted chuckled as she walked to the front window to look for the source of such colorful language.  The players gathered at midfield on the television screen for the opening coin toss when he heard her angrily ask, “What did you do to Liam’s lawn mower?!”  Ted stopped laughing as Pittsburgh lost the coin toss.

Ted heard Karen stomping around behind him, but chose to ignore her unless she interfered with his enjoyment of the game.  The last thing he saw before her body blocked the screen was the Steeler’s kicker launching the ball high and deep into the other team’s zone.  His left hand automatically shot out towards her and he shouted “What the hell?!”  She responded by crossing her arms in front of her chest and angrily glaring at him.  He calmed down after a minute and said in a polite, but still impatient voice, “Can you please move away from the screen?  I’ve been waiting to watch this game for months and, to be honest, you make a better door than a window.”

“Liam needs that lawn mower running today, and I know you did something to it!”  Ted rolled his eyes with annoyance at the accusation, laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back on the couch.  When it became obvious he wasn’t going to give her the confession she was looking for, she snatched the remote control from the table, stepped to her right, and said, “Fine, if you won’t cooperate with me, then I don’t have a choice.”  He watched as a Steeler safety leapt for an easy interception before the screen turned black.  “If you want to watch any part of this game, you will apologize to Liam and help him fix whatever it is you broke.”

Ted shot his wife a nasty look before he walking to the front door and slipping his shoes on.  With his hand on the door handle, he said, “Don’t think you’ve won, because you haven’t.”  He pointed in his neighbor’s direction and continued, “I will not apologize to that man for anything.  If someone owes anyone an apology, it’s him for ruining my Sundays.”  He opened the door and stepped outside, saying over his shoulder, “I’m going to Joe’s.  Don’t wait up.”

The game lasted only two and a half hours with the Steelers easily picking up the win.  Unfortunately for Ted, the portion he caught was boring and uneventful, so he made up for it by downing appetizers and pitchers of beer until everything was a blur.  None of it tasted good, but they helped him deal with the bitter taste of his wife being right yet again.  He’d crossed the line and needed to apologize for breaking Liam’s mower, although he still felt one was owed to him as well.  When the clock above the bar chimed eight times, he decided it was probably time to head for home.  “Maybe she’ll be so glad I’m home that she’ll forget why she was so mad,” his drink addled brain thought.  He was so inebriated that he didn’t notice how dark the sky had become as he left the bar.  If he had seen it, he would have gone back inside and called for Karen to come pick him up.

Ted suffered from astraphobia, a fear of thunder and lightening, and was especially terrified of being outside during a storm.  His phobia started with a series of nightmares in his freshman year of college and only snowballed from there.  In the dreams, he was being chased through a meadow by something he never saw, and yet knew was large, mean and wanted to kill him.  He remembered a storm brewing overhead as he tried escaping to a nearby forest, only to be brought down feet from his goal by a bolt of lightning to the back.  He woke instantly each time and soon after stopped venturing outdoors when he knew a storm was coming, lest any of his fears came true.

The alcoholic buzz Ted felt evaporated with the first flash of lightning.  He was halfway home and, even running at his fastest, wouldn’t have made it back to his house or the bar before the storm’s arrival.  By the time the sky lit up a second time, he was already looking for a place to hide and scolding himself for not checking the weather beforehand.  Sure, it might have meant staying home and dealing with his wife’s nagging, but the safety it offered was worth it.  Instead, he found himself in the one place he never wanted to be, in the middle of a dark street with lightening dancing all around him.  He was so pre-occupied with his situation that he didn’t notice the other person on the street until they collided.

Ted landed hard on his back with a loud, “Oof!” as the air rushed out of him.  He felt panic nearly take over as he tried to draw a breath while also watching electricity dance among the clouds above him.  When he felt the cool night air re-enter his lungs, he sat up and looked for a place to hide and for the person he hit.  Shelter was still nowhere to be found, but he was able to locate the other man.  “Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” he managed to cough out as the man climbed to his feet.  Ted’s stomach clenched when he recognized Liam and saw that he didn’t look happy.

The Irishman didn’t say anything right away and didn’t need to.  The anger in his gaze and the way his body shook spoke volumes on how he felt.  Ted tried smiling at him, all the while wondering, “Did Karen tell him?”  When he saw the shirt Liam was wearing, he understood why his attempt at friendliness was not being reciprocated.  “The International Lawnmower Racing Championship” was emblazoned across his chest in big, bright red letters with the current date.  “So, that was what Karen meant about him needing the mower today,” Ted thought and braced for whatever Liam wanted to dish out.  Silently, he prayed that the word lawsuit didn’t get mentioned.

“I hope I didn’t hurt you,” Ted said jovially as he got to his feet.  He hoped that a little light hearted humor might ease some of the tension in the air, but that hope withered under Liam’s unchanged look of hatred.  Taking a step forward, Ted extended his right hand and said, “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot last week, and I’m sorry for that.  Things have been very hectic lately and I haven’t been feeling my normal, friendly self.  I’d like to change that, if it’s okay with you.”  A flicker in the sky overhead reminded him that he still needed to find some kind of shelter before the storm arrived.

A loud clap of thunder reverberated off the nearby buildings as Liam stared at the proffered hand.  “You cost me my championship,” he said in a calm, flat voice that caught Ted off guard.  He had expected and braced himself for an emotional explosion of some kind, but the controlled way the Irishman spoke frightened him more.  “Do you have any idea how hard I worked to get to that race?  What I had to sacrifice?” Liam lifted his head to look his neighbor in the eyes.  “Today was going to be my chance at fame and glory, and you stole it from me so you could watch your little football game in peace and quiet?”

Ted’s mouth opened and closed as he searched for the right words.  “I’m so very sorry, Liam, I had no idea,” he finally said, “I-I-Is there some way I can make it up to you?”  His neighbor silently glared at him as a brilliant bolt of lightning split the heavens a short distance away.  It was like the storm wanted to remind Ted that it was still coming and was hungry for him.  “Do you mind if we move this indoors, please?” he asked in a nervous voice, “I really don’t like being outside when the weather is like this.”  His eyes followed a series of flashes in the sky and he added, “I’m sure we can come to some kind of an agreement once we’re safe in a shelter.  I mean, it was only a lawnmower race, right?”  As soon as those last words left his lips, he regretted saying them.

Ted watched as the expression on Liam’s face changed to one of pure rage and his body tensed up like a snake coiling to strike.  He, on the other hand, jumped like a scared mouse when another flash of lightning lit up the sky.  When he looked back at his neighbor a second later, the fury on the Irishman’s face was replaced by an evil grin that sent chills up his spine.  “I figured out how you can make it up to me,” Liam said.  “We’re going to have ourselves a little race.  If you win, I’ll dismantle my mower and never build another.”

“What if you win?” Ted asked, already dreading the answer.

“Why, if I win, I get your wife, Teddy m’boy.  After all, a lonely man like me might enjoy spending time in the company of a beautiful woman like her, am I right?” Liam said with a wink.

“No!” Ted growled in anger.  “There’s no way I’ll ever make a bet like that.  Nothing in this world is worth more to me than her.”

“Not even your own life?” Liam asked as he pulled a strange looking gun from his pocket.  “You see, I’ve travelled through life so focused on winning a championship that I needed to forgo certain things, namely dating and marriage.  Now that you’ve destroyed my dream, I feel it is only right to take what I see as equal compensation for that.”  He aimed his gun at Ted’s chest and said with a chuckle, “Be glad I’m giving you a chance to keep her.”

Ted’s heart skipped a beat as fear squeezed its icy claws around him.  He looked up at the sky, where the flashes grew increasingly faster, then to the gun in Liam’s hand, and finally at the man himself.  His neighbor looked like a power lifter not a runner, so a race against him might be a quick win.  Then again, with the memory of his dreams and how distracted the storm was making him, he might trip and lose.  Not racing wasn’t an option because he would be shot and have his wife taken anyway.  With eyes cast to the ground, Ted said, “Fine.  I’ll race you, but not tonight.  This storm is going to be too dangerous and will be a major distraction for me.  Can we do this next Saturday, perhaps?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with you a wee bit, fella.  You see, as long as I hold this,” he said while gesturing with the gun, “I get full say in everything.  I pick the time and the location, and I say today is the day.”

“So, what, you’ll shoot me if I don’t agree?”

Liam’s smile grew wider as he said, “But of course, Teddy m’boy.  And if that happens, poor Karen is left to do everything I ask.  And I do mean… everything.”  He closed his eyes and licked his lips before adding, “In fact, she’s waiting for me at home as we speak.”  Ted tried rushing his neighbor while his eyes were closed, but stopped after two steps when the gun’s aim shifted to his head.  “Now, now, we’ll have none of that.  Are you upset because I secured the kitty before offering my little wager?  You must think me daft not to do otherwise.  I locked her in my home the moment she came to tell me about your misdeed.”

Feeling powerless, Ted lifted his head to watch the electricity dance across the sky.  His instincts told him to run and find shelter, but that left Karen at the mercy of this lunatic.  It didn’t matter if he got shot in the process or not, she would still suffer for his actions.  “All I wanted to do was watch a game without constantly turning the volume up,” he thought and closed his eyes.  With tears streaming down his cheeks Ted said, “Fine,” and lowered his head.  He opened his eyes and, with an air of defiance, asked, “Do we race here, or did you have someplace else in mind?”

With a jerk of his hand, Liam motioned for Ted to walk to the end of the block.  As they neared the corner, Ted saw a pick-up truck with an orange number four surrounded by bright flames on the hood.  Liam’s riding lawn mower sat securely strapped to a trailer behind the truck, its green number four glared at him from the circle of flames surrounding it.  The passenger door opened and Liam motioned for Ted to climb in.  From there he watched the crazy Irishman round the front of the pickup and climb into the driver’s seat, the red dot from the gun’s laser scope never leaving him for more than half of a second.

They drove without speaking to each other for over an hour in the same direction the storm travelled until they were well ahead of it.  Ted hoped the storm took its time in arriving at their destination just so he would have one less worry.  ‘The rest of the time spent away from his phobia allowed him to focus more on winning the race, saving his wife, and not getting killed in the process.  He chanced glances at his captor every so often, hoping for some kind of an opening.  Liam, however, kept his gun pointed at Ted with his left hand while steering with his right, occasionally sneaking peeks just to remind him that his attention wasn’t only on the road.  The silence in the cab was finally broken when Liam said, “We’re here,” and pulled the truck to a smooth stop.

Ted stared at their destination in shock.  He closed his eyes and wished he was wrong, that they were actually someplace else, but the grassy meadow from his dreams waved back at him in the wind when they re-opened.  A rumble of thunder in the distance helped complete the scene.  “How is this possible?” he thought.  “Were they some kind of premonitions warning me about this?”  He reached his left hand over to his right to pinch himself, but the cold touch of the gun as it pressed against his temple was convincing enough that this wasn’t a dream.

“Get out and unload the mower,” Liam said with a savage smile and forceful nudge of the gun.  Once it was lined up where he wanted it, he said, “The rules are simple.  The first to the forest wins.  Since you look the running type and I clearly don’t, you’ll be racing against me and my machine.”  He gestured to the mower with his empty hand, prompting a protest from Ted, but a quick movement with the gun silenced it before it left his lips.  “Just to be fair, this field is a half mile from where my racer is to the trees, so I’ll give you a head start of a quarter of the distance.  I’d also promise to not shoot you, but somehow I don’t think you’ll believe me.”

Liam’s gaze shifted from Ted to something off in the distance behind him.  When he looked back, he had a maniacal glint in his eyes and said, “Race time!”  He mounted his mechanical steed and gestured for Ted to come stand next to him.  “On your mark!” Liam shouted and Ted turned his focus to the forest, “Get set!”   Both men leaned forward, ready to take off.  “Go!”

Ted jumped off the line in a dead sprint hoping to grab a sizeable lead before slowing his pace to conserve strength and energy.  Both would be needed to stay ahead of Liam and for the big burst of speed he needed at the end.  It wasn’t long before the loud roar of the modified lawn mower echoed through the meadow as it left the starting line.  The fear from hearing the machine’s growl growing louder sooner than expected gave him a very much needed boost of energy.  The muscles in his legs pumped harder as he neared the trees and for the first time knew he was going to win.

Ted was feet away from the nearest tree when he felt something hard strike his back, followed by a massive jolt of electricity that coursed through his body.  He fell to the ground in a heap, his dreams once again running through his mind.  Refusing to give up when he was so close, Ted tried pushing himself to get up by picturing Karen wearing black and crying for him while Liam stood fondling her, but found himself still convulsing on the ground.  Liam stopped his mower within easy sight of where Ted’s head lay, the strange gun in his hand and pointing at his chest.  He was forced the words, “You cheated!” out before the gun fired again and another jolt of electricity entered his body.

A satisfied grin stretched across Liam’s face as he looked down at his neighbor and said, “You have to love these new taser guns.  No wires to get tangled up.”  He tossed the taser gun to the side, leaned closer to Ted, and said, “I never promised I wouldn’t shoot you or that I would play fair.”  Ted watched as Liam repositioned the lawn mower so that the front wheels were pointed at his feet.  He thought he heard a growl of satisfaction from the mower as Liam shifted it into gear.

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