“Don’t open the door!” Astrid hissed.
I glanced over my shoulder at my girlfriend. Her mouth was still frozen in the hiss, her teeth bared. Raising one eyebrow, I turned back to the door and peeked out of the peephole, studying the man crouching on the porch. He was turned slightly, allowing me a view of the side of his face. It was emaciated, with small sores scattered across the skin, as if he’d been picking zits. Long, greasy hair dangled around his shoulders and hung down in front of his eyes. I could hear him mumbling.
Backing away, I asked her, “Who is he?”
“Who knows? Who cares? Just don’t open the door.”
I bristled at the idea of some guy my girlfriend didn’t know, and was obviously frightened of, sitting on the porch. My eyes narrowed, a low growl rumbling through my voice. “What’s he want?” I turned to face her. “He wasn’t there when I got here.”
She motioned me to come back to her bedroom and I followed. In a voice slightly louder than the hiss, “I don’t know him but he was doing the same thing yesterday afternoon. Earlier this morning, it was a girl.”
“Sitting on your porch?” I rolled my eyes, spun around, and went back into the front room. Screw this. The bum had to go. Behind me, Astrid squeaked in protest. I ignored her and jerked the door open.
The boy sprang to his feet and whirled around to face me, clutching something to his chest. Wide eyes, pupils so large only a faint rim of color surrounded them, stared at me. His mouth hanging slack with a bit of drool trickling from one corner, it sported hideous, discolored teeth. Torn, dirty clothing covered a gaunt frame, putrid odors rising from them into my nostrils.
I gagged. “Get outta here!” I clenched fists and took a step toward him.
He backed away, a sullen look on his pocked face.
My voice rose in volume, matching my fury. “Go on!”
Chest curled to protect his prize, he turned away and ambled out of the yard in no particular hurry.
I shut the door and leaned against it for a moment, then looked at Astrid.
She shook her head. “It’ll just be another one later on.”
Still fighting with anger, I gave a brief shrug. “Call the cops.”
“I’ve tried that. These freaks know when they’re about to turn the corner. They disappear.”
The unlikely image of the boy turning invisible ran through my mind and I smiled. “Disappear?”
“Well…” She picked at a fingernail then snuck a peek out the window. “You know…jump the fence, climb a tree, duck out of sight. I don’t know. They’re always gone before the cops pull up.”
My anger was dissipating. I could see she was badly shaken. I put my arm around her and suggested we go for a burger. She agreed, but before we left she went around the place twice, making sure all the windows were locked and triple-checking the doors. Petting her bulldog terrier just before escorting her to the car, I said, “Bite his face off if someone comes in.” He licked my hand and wagged his tail as if to say, ‘I will, man.’ I shut the door after checking it once more.
I drove through her subdivision as we left. No sign of the bum, and the only person on the streets at all had been a man in baggy sweat pants. He was about forty feet from Astrid’s house and I didn’t recall seeing him in the neighborhood before. No one was on her street when we got back. I circled the block just to make sure.
We both had the afternoon off so, since the coast seemed clear, we did what was natural then took a shower afterwards. As I was combing my wet hair, I glanced out of the bathroom window and cussed. Loudly. The bum was standing across the street, staring at the house and…talking to himself while holding his ear? I put my glasses on but by then he was loping away.
I swore under my breath but turned my attention to getting dressed. I swear I only just got my pants zipped when Astrid’s brother Derek walked in, flopped down on the living room couch, and hollered, “Can I wifi off your data?”
Waste of space. And oxygen. I frowned but walked out from the bathroom to deal with him. “Yeah, just not for too long.”
“Okay,” he grumbled, like I was being mean.
I glanced out the front window. A chubby matron waddled past, panting to keep up with a retriever pulling her down the sidewalk at the end of a leash. From the bedroom I heard Astrid’s rapid clicking on the keyboard. I looked back at Derek with a censuring scowl. “What game are you playing?”
“Uh…” He trailed off, staring intently at his phone, fingers flashing across the screen.
It ticked me off.
Flopping down in the armchair, I asked, “Why don’t you use the time productively? Check Jobs.com.”
I gave the foot crossed over his other knee a hard nudge with my size 12. Couldn’t tell if I’d insulted or aggravated him. In the few seconds it took to mean mug me, his phone trilled alarmingly. He slapped the screen. “Great! I’m dead. Took me a friggin’ week to get this far.”
A shadow passed the south window and I half rose from the chair until noting the utility truck parked between Astrid’s and the neighboring house. “Time’s up anyway.”
“Aw! Come one! Let me have just a few more minutes!”
“I will if you’ll check your job account.”
“I did.” He blinked. “This morning.” Was he lying? “At home.” Definitely.
He craned his neck toward the bedroom. “Astrid?”
A distracted ‘No’ drifted back, accompanied by the click of keys.
“Please? I was so close.”
“This paper has to get turned in.”
Derek’s face fell and he started muttering, crossing his arms and slouching on the sofa.
Movement outside dragged my attention to the window and I got up to see. A semi with the name of some unfamiliar moving company emblazoned on the side had pulled up at the empty house across the street, and two guys began the process of unloading. A thin, gray-haired man, tall with slumped shoulders, stood on the porch watching them. It took me a moment to realize the For Sale sign was gone.
Derek muttered something. I wheeled around and fought to keep from yelling. “I don’t get it. How is it you have the time to travel six miles to get here but you can’t find work? If you really — “
“You mean a bank job?” Derek sneered at me. “Like you?”
My voice rose in direct proportion to my exasperation. “You couldn’t get a bank job! Federal background checks show shoplifting charges!”
Pink spots burst onto Derek’s cheeks. “I was seventeen.”
I sighed, found a chair, and sat down. Once more into the breach, dear friends. “I’m just saying, there are other jobs.” Such as? For Derek? “What about the arcade? The one at the mall. You’d be good at that.”
Working the zipper on his hoodie, he glared at me. “The arcade? Thought you wanted me to get a grownup job.”
I stared him down. “If you want a grownup job, demonstrate a mature attitude. Start by dressing up instead of like Skaterboy.”
Derek winced, pain flickering in his eyes. “You’re attacking my board. That’s low.”
Wow, that had actually hurt his feelings. I forced myself to dredge up some compassion. Or at least sound like it. “You’re twenty-two.”
He tensed, his expression tightened, and he locked eyes with me, leaning forward from the waist. “This skateboard is one of the best made. I have real skills, Bradley.” He seethed with righteous indignation.
I laughed. Couldn’t help it.
Astrid’s feet thumped on the hardwood floor. “This is the first time my boyfriend and I have had the same day off in months and you are not going to ruin it.”
To Astrid. “Aw, screw you!” To me. “And you!” Derek flung himself toward the door. “I’m outta her. Why don’t you two hump some more?” He twisted the knob, jerked the door open then looked back at us. “I could smell it when I walked in.” A second later the door banged shut.
Astrid gave me “the look” then spun around and went back to her school work. I sighed and walked out on the porch, able to hear the whir of Derek’s skateboard on the asphalt as he zipped around the corner. Two weeks and I’d be in the finance department. A few weeks after that, Astrid’s last semester would be over and we could move. Into a secure apartment, maybe, or a gated community. Somewhere he couldn’t just waltz in.
I started, glanced across the street where the cry had come from. A beefy, older guy was slinging his hand in pain while his helper looked on, one end of their dolly and a washing machine canted to the side. “That hurt!”
The older guy waved toward the house. “Wheel it in there, and hurry. This guy gives me the willies.”
“Are you gonna hook it up?”
They disappeared into the house, voices now too faint to hear. I started to go back inside but a flicker of movement next to a large privacy fence beside the house caught my attention. I glanced at it, then stared harder.
A girl, late teens, maybe, or a bit older, was sitting beside it. As I watched she uncrossed her legs. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing, given the very short skirt she was wearing, but lank, dirty blond hair hanging from her head ruined the fantasy. From where I stood I could see her lips move, mouthing something, then her face scrunched and she banged her fist on her thigh.
“Dope heads.” I gave my back to the hopeless ejecta of humanity and went back inside, shutting the door firmly and locking it. The keyboard had stopped clicking and clacking so I decided to check on Astrid. She’d vacated the chair, forsaking the desk for the bed.
She’s beautiful in an ordinary way. Clear skin, tipped nose, gorgeous green eyes. Her hair isn’t bountiful and curly, but I like the strawberry-blond color and it falls straight and soft to her shoulders. I’d wish she she hadn’t cut it but then I couldn’t put it behind her ear as easily and stick my tongue in it.
The woman makes this wonderful noise when I do that. She arched her neck to the side. I was well on the way to oh, so pleasant entertainment when her cell phone rang. “Don’t answer it.” My hands continued exploring intimate areas of her body.
“I have to,” she groaned, looking at the screen. “It’s my boss.”
She answered it and activated the speaker. A panicked, disembodied voice spit out rapid words, ending with a plea for help. “Tell her you can’t,” I whispered.
She looked at me, eyes twinkling, shaking her head.
To the phone: “Just for a couple of hours? Yeah, I can do that until Terry can come.” She pressed the off key and dropped her panties. I shucked my jeans.
It seemed like only minutes before I woke up from a nap I hadn’t intended to take. Astrid was gone, probably still covering at work, but something nagged. A moment later I heard crying. And sounds coming from the backyard. That brought me fully awake. I got out of bed, moving quickly but with stealth, headed for the window. The foot board had other ideas. It connected with my big toe. Hard. A Tarzan yell of pain erupted from my voicebox. Limping and cursing, I jerked the curtain aside.
Astrid’s house is backed by two empty lots. The idiot that had been crouched on her front porch this morning was standing in one of them. He spotted me at the window and gestured beseechingly. Pain made my voice carry as if from a bullhorn. “Come in the yard one more time and I’ll dial 911!”
The wraiths skulking about had me at the windows like a hophead hallucinating SWAT in the trees. If it hadn’t still been light outside, I’d have wondered if the vampire apocalypse had started. They couldn’t be zombies. Too much life left in them. What did they want, for crying out loud? I sat down and turned on the computer.
After the initial boot sequence, the screen cleared and Astrid’s default home screen started — a teal green analog clock. A grunt of surprise burped up my throat and I checked the system clock. Couple of hours? Really? She’d been gone more than four. I thought for a minute, decided against calling her at work, and sent a text.
I padded barefoot to the kitchen, opened the fridge and beneath a head of lettuce found a bag of semi-sweet chocolate baking chips. Astrid, Astrid. If she could be selfish, I could be greedy. Pocketing the chips, I poured a glass of milk, got a banana and went out on the porch where they heavenly smell of impending rain made me breath deep through my nostrils. I savored the moment of peace. Ah, true bliss.
After settling in the porch glider, my gaze wandered across the street while my mind considered Astrid’s likely predicament. Probably Terry, her co-worker, hadn’t come in as she’d said she would. Whoever had been puking in the bathroom earlier might have passed it along and it could now be my poor girlfriend praying to the porcelain god. Could they have been robbed? Perish the thought.
Movement in the front window where the new neighbor lived chased the thought from my mind. The man came out to the yard. It was strange for someone in the middle of moving to be dressed in a white shirt, tie and suit vest. Gray and white hair grew in leonine fashion from a sloping forehead. Out to the mailbox he went to post a few envelopes. He remained at the curb, gazing first one way down the street then the other. Slowly, he fixed on me. Dead, hooded eyes made the skin on my spine crawl. He bared his teeth, long and yellow, and it reminded me of how the cartoon Grinch smiled.
“Good evening, young man.” His words drifted across the street to my ears. For such an ugly man, he had a cultured baritone voice. Like honey on top of cognac. Or a horror movie villain. One hand rose and waved a lazy arc through the air. I’d been raised to be polite to old people. College lessons on business ethics advised being pleasant to strangers, so as much as I didn’t want to, I rose and went to his side of the street.
With my best poker face on, I extended my hand. “Brad O’Dair.”
“John Hinckley.” Where had I heard that name? His handshake was limp, palms cool and dry. It felt nasty for some reason I couldn’t name.
The sky was getting darker. I eyed the clouds then Hinckley. Had he blinked yet? “Gonna rain real soon. Looks like they got your stuff unloaded just in time.”
“Yes. Fortunately.” That ghastly smile came again.
I didn’t want to be rude but a need to get away started to swell. He smelled like moth balls and old, dead bugs. “Well, it’s a good house. Pretty solid. That window…,”
I’d started to tell him how some kids had broken it out a few weeks back but noticed a blinking green light on a little box hanging below the brick sill. It caught me up short. “What’s that green light about?”
“Hmm?” He turned to see where I was pointing. A sheepish grin came back my way. “I haven’t gotten my satellite dish service changed to this address. That’s my router.” With a shrug, his grin got unbelievably wider. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Mind? “It’s not like it’s so bright it’ll keep me awake,” I told him. Then I extended my hand reluctantly for a parting shake. “It was good to meet you, sir. I work at First National on Third Street. In a couple of weeks I’ll be a loan officer, so come by and talk to me if you need anything.”
He released my hand with a nod. “Pleased to meet you, Brad O’Dair. I’ll consult no one else on matters of lending.” A dot of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. Without breaking eye contact, he wiped the drop away with a finger.
I beat feet back to where I’d come from. Pronto. Being in the same air space with him made me take another shower. And where was Astrid? Taking out my phone, I checked for a response to my text. Nothing.
Worried sick, I sent another then fixed dinner. It would make her happy and, besides, her day off had been ruined. Halfway through making hamburger and gravy on a shingle it started to rain. I put lids on the pans and sat down in front of the TV. Five minutes later I rang her job, not caring that it was a personal call.
A man answered and I could hear screeching hangers and background voices, and the jarring scream of a toddler. “Slinky Simone’s, this is Andy.”
“May I speak to Astrid?”
“She left about twenty minutes ago.”
I thanked him and silently swore a streak of blue. A loud knock made me jump. Derek. I jerked the door open and glared at him. He wasn’t wet and a car was backing out of the drive. Knocking into his shoulder in my haste to get past him, I raised both hands and waved. “Hey! Wait! Come back!” They must want to be shed of him as much as I for they put the car in drive without slowing. The transmission shuddered, caught, and the Impala sped away.
Of course, I’d left it wide open for Derek to go inside. And he was, hand on the knob as he studied the darkness behind me. From it, like a bizarre Greek chorus, came: “Hey, dude!” “Let me in!” “Pretty please?” and, “I need it!”
Derek hee-hawed merrily. “What lunacy, huh? All mobbed under the oak tree out of the rain.”
“Never mind them!” My wish for Astrid to have a quiet supper after her day went in the crapper was blown. It wasn’t a romantic meal but I’d hoped it would at least make for proper digestion. Heat crept up my neck and into my face. My blood pressure soared. Hands became talons and rose, wanting to choke the very life out of Derek.
He stumbled forward, caught his toe on the door jamb, and just about fell on his face. “What did I do?” Alarmed, he backed up.
My teeth almost gnashed as I said, “Remember Astrid telling you not to get dropped off here anymore? That means you do not get dropped off here anymore. Like you just did. She has to take you home so she can be rid of you.”
Derek smacked his lips, one eyebrow cocked sardonically. I wasn’t inspiring fear. “That’s kind of harsh.”
“I’m through being polite.”
Holding up his hands in order to calm me, he said the one thing that would save his life right now. “I might have a job. Can I use Astrid’s pc to check?”
“What’s wrong with the one at your home?”
“I was with Christy and this is closer.” His hakuna matata face was mild and, oh, so innocent. “Come on, Brad. You wouldn’t want anyone else to nab it while we dicker, would you?”
The breath I drew in my nose exploded back out of my lips. “Go!” I pointed toward the bedroom. “Go! Hurry!”
A big, sunny smile was bestowed on me and he bounced off. He might log onto Jobs.com but I was betting Kingdom of Foo would be one tab away. I’d give him a minute before bringing the whip down.
As I sank down on the couch, scrubbing my face with my hands, a whoop of victory and cries of “Yes!” and “All right!” could be heard through the door. Derek hammered busily on the keyboard. Something about him being on the computer was
Then it hit me like a kick from both rear hooves of a mule. I hadn’t gone online earlier; All I’d done was power on and look at the clock for the time. Even I didn’t have her Windows password but Derek did? An absurd jealousy had me coming out of the armchair and his life was spared for the second time in under five minutes when Astrid burst through the door, dripping rain. She slammed it and leaned back, her eyes wild. Almost hysterical, her voice was pitched two octaves above usual. “Who are all those people in my yard?”
I looked out the peephole and counted at least six shapes now in the shadows and rain, most under the oak tree. Until I found out why she was so wet and freaked I could care less about the mutants. I got a towel, gently put it around her shoulders and encircled her with a warming embrace. “Babe, why are you so wet? Where have you been?” I asked, my lips against her drenched hair.
“Terry didn’t come in like she said.” Astrid’s bottom lip quivered. “And then, on the way home, I had a flat tire. Must have walked eight blocks in the rain.”
“And you didn’t call?” I could hardly believe my ears.
She looked up, imploring me with her eyes not to lecture. “My phone is dead.”
From the back of the house Derek trumpeted, “Yes! Break out the beer!” He bounded into the room, both hands making the victory sign. “I am… employed!”
Astrid poked him in the chest and screeched, “Did you bring those scags with you?”
His joy turned to confusion. “Huh?”
Astrid pointed toward the yard. “Them!”
Derek blinked, then looked to me for clarification. “Huh? What scags?” He went to see who she was talking about and an excited buzz from the small herd beneath the oak wafted in. Ecstatic, they were in an frenzy of gabbing and finger stabbing, orgasmic joy on faces lit up by the glow of screens. “Oh! You mean the wipires.”
“The who?” I asked.
Derek shut the door and turned around. “Wipires. ‘S what I call ‘em. Internet vampires, people with no network coverage. A lot of them are homeless but some aren’t. They mob places that offer free wifi, sucking up signal like Dracula sucks blood.”
Astrid’s consternation was gone. She finished blotting water off her face and went to work on her hair. “Aww. That’s sad.”
Now it made sense. All that “I need it” and “Please” and “Let me in.” Hinckley’s router came to mind and I headed to the bedroom. Leaning over the back of the chair, I checked a few things that led to a few more. I doubt Astrid had investigated lately whether or not she was the sole administrator on her computer — she wasn’t — or if this other mysterious person (Derek) had full folder rights. To top it off, another internet connection had been added that was set on ‘open’ and ‘connect automatically.’ This was the one providing service at the moment, and I’d bet, every time the computer booted up.
I went back to the living room and squared up with Derek. “Want to explain to your sister about the changes made to her pc?”
At least he had the grace to be embarrassed over what he’d done. Astrid’s eyebrows drew together, blunting her pretty nose. “What have you done?” she demanded to know.
Derek shuffled his feet, looking down at them. I had to give him points for not trying to use his dopey smile to charm her. Tenting his fingers and putting them beneath his chin as if praying she wouldn’t murder him, he admitted, “I was wrong to do it.”
“What?” Hands went on hips.
Derek wetted his lips and looked to me for sympathy. Or at least a little man-to-man understanding. “You remember that day I was here while you were at work?” Astrid nodded, eyes narrowing. “Well…you had the computer off…I was bored…” He spread his hands. “I, I… found your password taped in the back of the desk drawer.”
“You snooped!” She was outraged, mouth agape, her cheeks reddening.
In the interim silence came a wipire’s voice. “Come on, man!”
“That’s not all,” I said, involving myself in one drama at a time. “Tell her the rest.”
Derek began pacing a slow circle, his fingers combing through his hair. When he looked at Astrid I saw a healthy degree of fear in his eyes. His sister has a bad temper when it finally gets up. “I got to thinking you might find out I’d been online and how, well, handy it would be in the future if I was locked out again, so…”
He mumbled until he watched Astrid’s hands clench and unclench. Derek became a man that night. Spine straight and with a staunch, kill-me-if-you-must air, said, “I put myself as an administrator and set up an open connection for the internet.”
Astrid poked a finger under his nose with one hand and gave him a hard shove with the other. Derek staggered back and she followed. “You are the reason those people out there found this house!”
He bowed his head, contrite. “Yes.”
“You are never, ever, to touch my computer again!” she shouted. “And after I take you home to Mom and Dad’s I don’t want to see your face for a month!”
The hubbub from outside resumed. A girl’s voice shouted, “Turn it back on!”
“Come on, lady!”
“I gotta call my mama!”
All this because Derek is a game junkie. He was standing there with his hands in his pockets but offering no other defense. Still, I wanted to beat the crap out of him for doing this to my girlfriend, even if she was his sister. I headed for the door, wishing I had a baseball bat.
“Wait,” Astrid told me. I could see as her whole demeanor changed before us. A kind of glaze covered her eyes as the wipires sang their siren song. Come on, lady. She had the look usually reserved for starving dogs and old ladies on foot. It almost always presaged the handing over of a few dollar bills. I paused, my hand on the knob. A sweet smile made her face shine with charity but it was kind of blank, too. She wasn’t herself.
“What are they hurting?” she asked softly.
“Nothing. Right now. It’s wifi tonight. Tomorrow they’ll be asking for a cigarette or if they can pee.”
“I doubt it will come to that.”
Derek chimed in. “Brad has a point.”
See? One chewing out and a job later, the boy was smarter already. “Thank you, Derek.” I took her hand and pleaded with her. “Sweetie, don’t let them snow you. I feel sorry for them, too, but these street people are not to be trusted.” I looked deep into her eyes.
They didn’t change, however. She remained hypnotized.
“They have so little. Wifi isn’t much to ask.”
“They’ll tell all the other bums and next week there’ll be a horde of them,” I explained.
We stared at her beatific face. Derek shot me a worried glance. “She’s under their spell. Watch her close. If she gets up in the middle of the night…,” And he put his arms out in front of him, mimicking a vampire minion from an old black and white horror movie.
I ignored him but gaped at her. “You can’t be serious!”
Her placid expression hardened a little. “It’s my router, Brad.”
Outside the wipires called seductively. Astrid opened the door, baring her IP address for them to byte. “Listen up, people. Come between six and seven in the morning and four to six in the evening and I’ll let you use the wifi. Agreed? The rest of the time, stay lost. Got it?”
A chorus of: “Woohoo!” “Thanks, girl!” “Yay! We have forty-five more minutes.” erupted from outside.
The door clunked shut. Astrid turned to us. Was it my imagination? Derek leaned in and spoke sotto voce. “Bro, she’s in thrall.”
Yes. She was more beautiful than ever. Her skin had paled a shade. I stumbled back into Derek. As if by electrical impulse, my hands rose and made a cross.
Astrid shuddered and averted her head.