Story 13: The Girl Next Door

For StoryADay May Challenge

“She’s at it again!” Brian growled as he looked out the kitchen window. Dylan came over to look. Sure enough, the girl next door was peeking through the slats of the fence with her digital camera.

“Why does she keep doing that? It creeps me out,” Brian fumed as he turned to stalk out of the kitchen. “I’ve had enough. I’m going to call the police.”

Dylan was annoyed, but he didn’t want the trouble of calling authorities and getting mixed up in paperwork and warrants and restraining orders, or whatever other annoying processes they’d have to go through to stop that peeking-Thomasina or whatever.

Brian had first noticed their neighbor’s odd behavior a few months ago, when he caught a glimpse of something large moving around on the other side of the fence. The girl looked relatively young,  maybe a teenager, with a dark blond ponytail. They never got a good look at her face.

But she appeared to be taking pictures of them through the fence slats. At least, she kept hovering close to the fence with what looked like a digital camera, or so it appeared when they went to the second floor and looked down through the apple tree branches.

Dylan had no idea why. It wasn’t as if their bathroom faced the fence. Just the kitchen and the backyard. And they didn’t do anything illegal or even interesting. Just had a couple of drinks now and then, or listened to some hip hop or rap on the radio. But the girl showed up at the weirdest times. sometimes morning, sometimes early afternoon, or evening. They never knew. There were days when she’d be gone, but then she’d be back when they were trying to relax in the backyard.

“Wait!” Dylan said, racing after Brian. “Don’t call the police.”

“Why not?” Brian said, exasperated.

“We…we don’t have enough evidence,” Dylan said. “What if we call someone and then she’s gone, and what are we going to say? We don’t have a warrant to search the home, or anything like that. It’ll all just be a big fuss for nothing.”

“What is she even doing, anyway?” Brian said. “I don’t get it.”

“Me neither,” Dylan said.

“I’m sure she’s up to no good. What are we going to do?”

“I know,” Dylan said. “I work from home, so I have more flexibility in my hours. I’ll keep an eye out for her, or maybe walk over to the house and see if anyone’s there.”

“Alright,” Brian said. “Let me know what you find out.”

For a few weeks, Dylan would take a walk to the other side of the neighborhood and observe the house that the girl lived in. The strange thing was, there appeared to be no activity in the house at all. Once in a while, he saw an old man come out, get into a car, and drive away.

But the girl never came out of the house, not once. Not even when Dylan drove his car over, parked it on the opposite side of the street, and then observed the house all day.

That was odd. Teenage girls were usually always off going to school or hanging out with their friends or shopping or something, right? Was the girl a ghost? A figment of their imagination?

“So, what did you find out?” Brian said about a week later.

“Nothing,” Dylan said. “An old man lives in the house and he comes in and out at times, but I never see the girl at all.”

Brian huffed. “I’m sick of this. I caught her peeping again two days ago. If you don’t confront her or whoever else is living in that house, I’m going to.”

“Brian? Brian, wait!” Dylan said as his roommate slammed out of the house. “What if…what if something else is going on? Do you think she could be a kidnapped hostage or something?”

Dylan chased Brian down the street, but when he caught up, Brian scowled at him. “She doesn’t look like a kidnapped hostage. She doesn’t look like some victim. If anything, we’re the victims. Of her spying. Don’t try to stop me, Dylan. I’m going to settle this once and for all. And if I don’t, I’m calling the police.”

When they got to the house, the old man was standing in the lawn, raking leaves. He looked up as the two young men approached with a puzzled expression on his face that smoothed into a blank as he caught the angry look on Brian’s face.

“Does a girl live in your house?” Brian said, pointing angrily at the house without so much as a greeting or introduction.

The old man sighed, and rubbed a hand over his face. “I suppose you mean Bekah.”

Dylan tried to smooth things over a little more. “We’re the neighbors who rent the house behind yours. I’m Dylan, and this is Brian.”

“Hello,” the old man said, looking older than he had a moment before. “I’m Jacob, Bekah’s grandfather.”

“We wanted to ask…” Dylan started, but Brian cut in.

“What is up with your granddaughter?” he demanded. “Are you aware that she regularly spies on us through the fence? With a digital camera or something like that?”

The grandfather looked deeply uncomfortable as Brian stepped forward threateningly. Dylan tried to put a hand on his roommate’s shoulder, but Brian shook him off.

“Yes,” the grandfather, Jacob, said.

“So you admit it. That’s invasion of privacy, you know,” Brian said. “I could sue her, or you, for not stopping her. You better make sure she quits or else the next time I catch her, I’m calling the cops!” Brian started to march off, but Jacob’s quiet voice stopped him.

“She has obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Brian turned. “What in the hell are you talking about, old man?”

“Brian!” Dylan warned. He knew his roommate was ticked–as was he–but there was no need to be this rude to a stranger, was there?

“Oh, shut up, Dyl. What does obsessive-compulsive disorder have to do with spying on people? Isn’t that the thing where people wash their hands and clean their rooms excessively? This is obviously just an excuse. And a lame one, at that.”

Brian started off again, and again, Jacob’s quiet voice stopped him.

“It is obvious you do not know what obsessive-compulsive disorder is.”

Brian turned. “Well, please explain it to me, then, old man.” he sneered.

“Obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Jacob said, “is a mental illness where the person suffers from intrusive, upsetting thoughts that they cannot control, and attempt to reduce the extreme anxiety caused by the thoughts through equally illogical and uncontrollable compulsions, which sometimes take the form of things like hand washing or cleaning, but can also include eating walls, tapping and counting, walking backwards, or, as in Bekah’s case, taking pictures when she hears noises.”

Jacob sighed and leaned against his rake.

“I was also unfamiliar with the condition, and Bekah didn’t use to be like this. My granddaughter used to be a happy, healthy little girl. See?” he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a worn wallet. Only Dylan leaned forward to look. The picture featured Jacob and an old woman Dylan assumed was his wife. Then there were two young adults with their arms around a ten-year-old with bright brown eyes, a dazzling smile, and dark blond pigtails.

“This is my family,” Dylan said. “Bekah and I are the only ones left.”

He closed the wallet and put it in his pocket. “After my wife, and then Bekah’s parents died in two separate car accident two years ago, Bekah hasn’t been the same. She has severe OCD, the doctors say related to her grief and fear of forgetting. She takes pictures constantly, the more so when she hears loud noises, or any noises at all.”

Dylan thought of the way he and Brian sometimes played loud rap or hip hop music in the backyard, or how they laughed and shouted when they were a little drunk.

“Please be patient with us,” Jacob continued. “Bekah has been terrified to leave the house for two years. She’s struggling with a lot of issues, and we are working on her treatment, but it has taken time…and will probably take more time. I am aware of her habits in the backyard, but I am not sure what to do. I have thought of telling her not to go out anymore, but then I think it can’t be good for her to stay indoors without fresh air or sunshine…and she is too terrified of cars to walk out the front door. I am sorry that she is bothering you, but I pray that you understand, and have patience with her. Please.”

Dylan opened his mouth to reply, but Brian beat him to the punch. “Yeah, well,  that’s not really our problem. You better hurry up and fix her, or else we really will call the police. Come on, Dylan.”

As they walked home, Dylan confronted his friend. “Brian, that was kind of rude, the way you were talking to the old man.”

“That’s crock!” Brian fumed. “He was totally lying to us. What OCD? Whoever heard of people having to take pictures because of a mental illness? Bull! I don’t know what those two are conspiring at, but I’m going to keep an eye on that girl. If she spies on us again, I’m calling the cops.”

Dylan didn’t say anything.

The next few days, Brian kept a digital camera in his pocket and stared out the kitchen window frequently, hoping, it seemed to Dylan, to catch the girl red-handed. But she didn’t appear. Perhaps Jacob had passed along the news of their visit to his granddaughter, and she’d stopped.

Then one day, as the leaves were turning color, a few weeks after their encounter with Jacob, Dylan caught sight of movement through the kitchen window.

He immediately went to the backyard, and, as the girl had done so many times, he pressed up against the wooden fence and peeked through the slats.

The girl was not in the backyard, this time. She was inside the house, where she was supposed to be. Dylan felt weird, being the spy this time, looking at someone inside their kitchen. But he rationalized that she had done it so many times to them, he could do it to her.

The girl was doing odd things. She had a digital camera in her hand and would take a picture of the sink, then the stove, then the fridge, then again. Then she pulled out a chair and started photographing each item while standing on the chair.

There was a pot on the stove, and Dylan watched with increasing perplexity as the girl took a picture of the pot while standing on the chair, then removed the lid and took another picture. Then she replaced the lid, removed the chair, backed away, and took another picture. Then took away the lid, and took another picture.

Her movements were jerky, uncoordinated, as if she was a puppet on a string. Could what Jacob had said be true?

“Is she spying again?” Brian’s voice next to Dylan’s ear caused him to jump. “I’m calling the police.”

Dylan grabbed Brian’s arm. “No, wait.”

“I’ve had enough, I–”

“Shut up and look, Brian,” Dylan said, gesturing to the fence.

Brian grumbled. “I don’t want to lower myself to the level of that low-life peeping Thomasina,” he said, until Dylan grabbed him and shoved him to the fence.

“Look!” Dylan said.

Together, they watched in silence as the girl repeated everything Dylan had seen her do before: sink, stove, fridge; move the chair in: sink, stove, fridge; take chair away. Pot lid on, pot lid off. Stand back: pot lid on, pot lid off.

She wasn’t slaughtering a pig or cutting off chicken heads, but something about watching the girl’s movements filled Dylan with a sense of horror and dread, the same expression he had seen in Jacob’s eyes when the old man was explaining his granddaughter’s condition to them.

It was like watching a terrifying ritual.

And then, Dylan noticed something, in the brief moment when the girl turned her head and looked through her kitchen window.

“She’s crying,” Dylan said.

Brian said nothing.

The girl’s movements were getting slower. At first motivated by a kind of frenetic energy, she now seemed to drag herself through the ritual as her chest heaved with silent sobs. Finally, it seemed to be over. She closed the pot lid, slumped to the wall, and fell in a heap, her head in her hands. Her whole body was shaking.

She remained there for perhaps two minutes, though to Dylan, it felt like an eternity. Then she dragged herself to her feet and disappeared into the house.

Dylan and Brian drew back from the fence, as if a trance had broken.

“I read about OCD after we met the old man,” Dylan said, not sure why he was speaking in a low whisper. “He was right. OCD isn’t just about washing and cleaning rituals. It can involve almost any kind of behavior…jumping over cracks, talking backwards, even invisible mental compulsions like reciting prayers in your head. What makes it OCD is the fact that the person knows it’s irrational but they can’t stop doing it anyway. They are tortured by their own inability to stop–like a mental prison.”

Brian walked inside without a word, and Dylan followed, not sure what his roommate would do. Surely Brian wouldn’t call the police?

But Brian simply walked into the kitchen and put away his digital camera. “I’m going to order pizza for dinner,” he said. “You want some?”

“Sure,” Dylan said, acting casual. “I’ll have pepperoni.”

Later, as Dylan was washing a glass in the kitchen, he looked through the window at the lights twinkling through the slats of the fence, and remembered the way the girl looked earlier that evening–her red-rimmed haunted eyes, the way she trembled as she moved the chair and pot lid, and the tears streaming like two unending rivers down her face.

Dylan sighed and clicked off the light.

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