Setting: Neighbour’s Basement
Object: Old Refrigerator
Willie raised his head, just to the point where his eyes were above the windowsill. He was desperate to see what the crazy old man next door was up to.
“You know,” said Willie’s mom, “it would nice of you to go next door and lend Mr. Walker a hand, instead of spying on him while he struggles with that old refrigerator.”
He winced as soon as he heard his mother’s voice, knowing he had been caught in the act. “But mom…”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said as she carried a basket of recently dried towels out of the laundry room. “It’s finally a nice day out there and you have been cooped up in this house for far too long. Scoot!”
“But mom,” said Willie, his voice becoming whinier by the second, “Mr. Walker is creepy!” He was careful to call the old man by his proper name in front of his mom. Willie didn’t dare use any of the names that he and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood usually reserved for him.
Dropping a towel back into the basket, his mother sighed. “Mr. Walker is not creepy. And he isn’t crazy, like I know you and your friends like to believe. He’s just lonely and doesn’t have anyone he can depend on these days. One day, you’ll be his age. How would you like it if you were all alone and the nosy kid next door just watched and made fun of you instead of offering to help?”
“I guess I’d feel pretty bad…” Willie said, looking at his shoes and refusing to make eye contact with his mom. Then a light bulb came on in his head. “But what about the virus?!”
“What about it?”
“He’s old! He’s vulnerable! What if I go over there and give him something and he gets sick and dies?!” Willie said, almost excited at the prospect of having a valid excuse to not help the old man.
“Willie, did you come down with COVID while I wasn’t paying attention?” asked his mother.
Deflated, Willie shook his head.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, finishing up with the last hand towel. “Just go ask if you can help. Maybe he’ll say no.”
Willie started toward the back door and let out a disgruntled, “Fine,” under his breath.
His mother called after him as the screen door slammed closed, “But if he accepts your help you stay and help him!”
Willie walked over to the fence separating his back yard from Old Man Walker’s. He watched for a few seconds as his neighbor continued to struggle. From what the 12-year-old could tell, Mr. Walker had strapped an old refrigerator to a dolly and was trying to maneuver the thing down the steps of his back porch.
The kid shook his head before calling out, “Hey, Mr. Walker! Can I give you a hand with that?”
The old man looked up, confused for a moment as he we unsure where the youngster’s voice had come from. It took a second for his eyes to adjust on the face of his next-door neighbor. He smiled a little and pulled out a handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
Tilting the refrigerator back to a resting position, Mr. Walker beckoned for Willie to come over. He was breathing a little too heavily to form coherent words. He had forgotten how heavy a refrigerator can be when you’re trying to move it by yourself, even with a dolly. Especially at his age.
Willie was less than thrilled to get the non-verbal affirmative from Old Man Walker, but he put on the good guy act as best as he could as he walked from his yard to his neighbor’s.
“Did you get a new fridge?” he asked as he approached Mr. Walker’s back stairs.
Mr. Walker nodded his head. “I’m going to pick it up from the Best Buy as soon as I get this one taken care of.”
Willie looked the old fridge up and down, sizing the thing up. He wasn’t sure how much help he could actually be if it was as heavy as it looked. “Are you just taking it to the curb?”
This time, the old man shook his head no. “I want to get this down into my basement, but the staircase inside is too narrow. Gotta get it down there from the outside.”
Willie looked over to the nearby stairwell that led to the old man’s basement. Follow a creepy old man into his creepy old basement, he thought, That’ll make for a great death scene.
Without another word, Willie got to it and helped Old Man Walker keep the refrigerator steady as the wheels of the dolly bumped down the stairs. Once they got it off the porch, they had a good rhythm going and the kid figured those basement stairs would be a piece of cake.
All in all, it only took the two of them about 20 minutes to get the refrigerator standing upright against the cinder block wall of the unfinished basement. Willie helped to loosen the straps connecting the fridge to the dolly and noticed, for the first time, that the refrigerator had a latch with a padlock on the door.
Willie squinted his eyes in the dark of his neighbor’s basement, curious as to why the old man felt the need to lock his refrigerator closed. His mind raced with the possibilities, but he refused to allow himself to ask any questions. He just wanted to hear a thank you and be on his way.
“Well,” started the old man, “I thank you for your help. If not for you, that would’ve probably taken me all day.”
“Do you want to come up for some lemonade and cool off before you head back home?” asked Mr. Walker. Willie saw the smile on his face, but couldn’t help but feel like there was something else in his eyes.
“No, thank you,” said Willie, “I should get home and help my mom finish with the laundry.”
“That’s good,” said the old man as he clapped a hand on Willie’s shoulder, “You go on home and mind your mother.”
While he didn’t sprint out the door and up the stairs, Willie felt like he couldn’t get out of that basement fast enough. Something felt… off. Like things just weren’t quite right. That feeling remained with Willie as he walked into his own house. He could hear his mother saying something to him, but he really wasn’t paying attention to the words. His mind was still in that basement. He was still thinking about the look on the old man’s face when he invited him up for lemonade. He was still thinking about the lock on that old refrigerator.
Who locks a refrigerator? What’s he keeping in there? Who’s he trying to keep out?
Willie watched out the window as Old Man Walker emerged from his basement and walked over to the beat up pick-up truck in his driveway. He was vaguely aware of his mother approaching him from behind, but it still startled him when she rested a hand on his shoulder.
“I said, do you want a PB&J for lunch?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, that sounds good,” Willie said, his voice seeming to come from somewhere else.
“Go wash your hands, that refrigerator looked dirty.”
Willie looked down at his hands and, yes, they were dirty. He suddenly heard Old Man Walker’s truck start up and looked back out the window as the old man backed out toward the street.
He did as his mother asked, rushing over to the kitchen sink to wash his hands while his mom spread peanut butter and jelly on bread. Willie wolfed down the sandwich, as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks.
“Are you gonna chew before you swallow?” his mother asked, amused at how hungry her son must have been.
“Sorry,” he said as he finished off his lunch. Then he looked up at her and asked, “Can I go hang out in Barry’s tree house?”
“Is Barry home?”
“Probably,” Willie said, figuring that most people were home these days, with the pandemic and all.
“All right, but don’t stay too long.”
Willie nodded his head, put his plate in the sink, then headed out the back door again. But he didn’t go toward Barry’s house. At least, not at first. Barry lived on the other side of Old Man Walker, but Willie had no intention of going as far as Barry’s tree house.
He wanted to get a look at that refrigerator. He wanted to get a look inside that refrigerator.
Before going back next door, Willie stopped off in the shed behind his house, where he knew his dad kept all his tools. He looked around for something, anything, that might be able to take care of a padlock. He knew he wouldn’t be able to pick the lock, but surely he could pry open the latch with something. When he spotted the crowbar leaning against the corner, he knew he was in business.
Willie kept an eye on the windows of his own house that looked out toward Mr. Walker’s place. Wouldn’t want mom to see that he was up to no good. And he was fully aware that breaking into his next-door neighbor’s basement was no good. But he just had to know what the old man was hiding.
He made his way down the outside basement stairs and tried to turn the doorknob. Willie figured the old man would’ve locked up when he left, but the door opened easily. The old refrigerator would be a different story, he knew.
Crowbar in hand, Willie moved to the fridge and pried the latch until it popped off the side of the appliance. Slowly, nervously, he reached for the handle and pulled. What he saw disgusted him. But when the smell hit his nostrils, he could no longer control his gag reflex. He could feel his lunch making a comeback as he dropped the crowbar with a loud clang and quickly ran up the stairs, just in time for him to vomit in the old man’s yard.
Willie coughed and sputtered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He was breathing heavily as he looked back down at the dark basement. He wasn’t sure what to do at this point. Should he go back and get a better look at what he couldn’t have seen? Should he just go tell his mom, not caring about the consequences of breaking into the old man’s house?
He was lost in his own thoughts when he felt a familiar hand clap down on his shoulder. “Let your curiosity get the better of you?” asked a familiar voice. But that voice was not as kind as it had been earlier when it was offering the boy a glass of lemonade. Old Man Walker’s voice sounded darker, more sinister.
The old man firmly grabbed Willie’s shirt and directed him back down the stairs. When they were both inside the basement, Walker pushed the boy down so that he sat down hard on the floor. Willie couldn’t help but look back over at the open refrigerator.
His mind had not been playing tricks on him. That was a body in there. It was a dead human being. He began to feel sick again and closed his eyes tightly.
“I’m gonna make you a deal, Willie,” said the old man as he closed the refrigerator door and began working to repair the broken latch. “You can go home. And as long as you keep your mouth shut about what you’ve seen down here, then you have nothing to fear.”
Willie was too afraid to say anything in response.
The old man stopped what he was doing and turned to look at the kid. “Do you understand what I’m saying to you, boy?”
Willie looked up at Mr. Walker and shook his head. He wasn’t sure he could grasp the alphabet if he were asked to recite it right now.
Old Man Walker took a deep breath. “If you can stay quiet, everything will be just fine. But if you say a word to anyone…” And here, the old man paused. “Well, let’s just say there will be a great deal of suffering on your part.” Then he continued slowly, “And your mother… and your father.”
The old man watched the boy, carefully determining how he was reacting. “You’re a good kid, Willie. I’d really hate to see anything bad happen to you or your family. Now, get out of here.”
Willie did not hesitate and ran back to his own house as fast as he could. He said nothing to his mother and made a beeline for his bedroom. For the next few hours, he did nothing but sit on his own floor and stare at nothing in particular
It wasn’t until his mother came to get him for dinner that he decided he needed to tell the truth. So, while sitting at the dinner table with no appetite, Willie told his mother and father what he had witnessed that day. His parents looked at each other and Willie saw his dad shake his head and drop his eyes.
“Willie, I am so disappointed in you,” his mom said, standing up and taking her plate into the kitchen.
“What?” Willie couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Then his father spoke up, “It’s bad enough that you felt like it was okay to break into that old man’s home, but that you have to make up vicious stories about him, too?”
“But, dad, I’m…”
“I don’t want to hear it! You’re grounded,” his dad said.
“And tomorrow, you and I are going over there and you will apologize to Mr. Walker in person,” added his mom.
Willie went pale. His whole body turned cold, as if someone had just injected ice water into his veins. He stood on wobbly legs as tears began to fill his eyes. He walked to his room and closed his door, terrified that he had just sealed the fates of his entire family.
Needless to say, he did not sleep at all that night.
Thanks to Paul for this week’s challenge! Hopefully he can forgive me for spelling neighbor without the U. Now that you’ve finished reading this story, head over to his blog, The Captain’s Speech, and see what he’s up to. I’m still planning to keep this up until I run out of challenges, so if you haven’t submitted your challenge, you can still click here and leave something for me in the comments.