We knew she was there. Her father’s mention of her when they moved in, along with the gossip, had established that fact. But the most we saw of her was a glimpse of an arm, burnished hair when the back of her head caught a ray of sunlight as she passed the window. Sometimes the curtains moved, as if she was shaking out the dust. Willie said she was trying to tease us, and he’d run to the window, only to see nothing, not even one more movement.
Most of the time we ignored the Klines–the girl, her father, their mysteriousness. Willie and David Ryan and I had things to do besides worry about our neighbors during our senior year. But Mom’s nosiness snagged my attention despite that.
“You’d think he’d take her out sometimes in their own neighborhood. Actually, maybe he does. There’s a back door; he has a car. But she can’t look that bad. Even so, who cares? It’s a community, for goodness sake, we all know each other.”
Dad rustled his paper. “We think we know each other. Anyway, not that one. Leave it be. I only hope they’re taking care of the place. Nice piece of property. Jay, hand me the milk. And good luck today.” He tried on a smile.
Dad was a construction worker. He was interested in buildings, not so much people. He and Mom owned a place a few blocks away that was rented out to a succession of family members or friends. He was saving money for the four-plex across the street so he could turn it into condos some day and get rich. Tate Kline and his daughter, Annie, were unlikely to be run off any time soon.
I handed Dad the milk carton and pushed off for school. My last final, then I was done for the summer. I closed the door behind me with exaggerated care since Dad was nursing a tooth ache.
I didn’t get why my dad liked the building where Annie and her father lived. It was a cement eyesore caught between several better ramshackle houses like ours, not as old but dark, big but unsightly. Somebody’s great idea of making a quick buck off their lot in the seventies, Dad said. The Kline’s red door broke up the grey, if slapdash red was what you liked. It needed a re-touch. I’d wondered why such color and why the landlord allowed it when all the other doors were a chacoal grey to better blend in. Maybe he felt sorry for the Klines.
Mom had told us she thought she saw Annie doing it–“it was a girl, I could tell by her clothes, who else would it be?”–one night after they moved in about two years ago, one hand with a flashlight, the other wielding a paint brush. Tate Kline might have done that job but no one mentioned it. He wasn’t friendly. They were like hermits. Tate worked at the canning factory. In passing he’d half-raise his hand, never looking you in the eye. He was pleasant-looking enough, dark hair with ruddy face, not as tall as my dad but by the way his body looked and moved, my friends and I supposed he could block a moving car if necessary. I wondered if Annie was like him or her mother, who was lost to the fire in Pennsylvania.
She was older than I was, Mom said. “Twenty, according to Freda Whalen, who had the nerve to ask Mr. Kline.”
Willie and David Ryan, fraternal twins, were waiting for me as usual after school. We headed to the Day to Night Coffee Shop where we ordered our brew and the last dried out muffins.
“I think it’s now or never,” Willie said, blueberry muffin crumbs falling from his lips. “I want to know what she’s about.”
“If there was a good reason, okay, but there isn’t. You just want to create some stupid excitement,” David said, grabbing the last bite from our shared plate. “Right, Jay?”
“I’m interested but only because I’d like to know their whole story. Maybe she needs help. I mean, her mother and all.”
“Sure.” Willie stifled a small yawn. “Future social worker, saving helpless kids and women.”
“Detective,” I reminded him unnecessarily. “Why do you always say that?”
David laughed and smacked his younger brother on the shoulder. “He’s jealous. He’ll be left behind while you and me are heading out, you to college, me to Uncle Jim’s company.”
“Sell-out. I have my own plan. Work at the golf club, find me a rich girl.”
Dabid snickered as Jay shook his head in disgust.
“For the hundredth time, we know. My point is, Willie, I’m not messing with the Klines. That they lost a wife and mother is bad enough. To a fire, no less, come on now. I don’t have to have a bleeding heart to mind my own business.”
“You’re right, Jay. And I heard the fire wasn’t accidental.” David stirred sugar into his coffee. “Someone had a big grudge against Tate Kline and they had it out. Kline won, not surprising, and the other guy carried out revenge. Only Tate was gone that night and his wife and Annie were in the shed sorting thought some junk when he doused it. Then when he came back home–”
I punched his arm lightly. “Know what? I’m tired of random talk. Let’s shoot some hoops.”
Willie had leaned back on two chair legs and fell forward with a thud. “My own twin feels something off. And you’re supposed to be the detective in training! Where’s your curiosity?”
I stood up and grabbed my coffee. “I’m good with being a human being, just not a creepy one.”
“Since when do your best friends qualify as creeps? Don’t you like horror movies, too? No, wait, that’s my bro, ole Willie-creep, crazy fool!”
“Watch it or I go to Jay’s team!”
The brothers followed me out, shoving each other and heckling me all the way to the park.
But I had more interest than they knew. I lived right across the street from the four-plex so how could I not? On one hand, it was invisible, a part of my surroundings on my way to other places. On the other, I saw it up close despite trying not to. I knew, for example, that she spread the curtains apart enough so she could see a little when I left for school each morning and at night when the sun was going down. Or if it was stormy or a police car or ambulance roared by, sirens blaring. Or if we rushed out of the house to some event. On the week-ends she didn’t appear so active by the window when I was home. Then Tate was always around. I saw him at the store sometimes, in his car with laundry baskets stacked up, at the park sitting on a bench and staring at the kids or the trees.
Did Annie want a real life again or was it her choice to sit inside day after day, night after night? Did her father want her to get out more or remain forever safe from others’ rude stares? Maybe she could barely move from the couch in front of the window, the tragedy so heavy on her she felt caved in. I couldn’t imagine it. Better to long for life than be branded something awful by it.
I got it in my head that I was going to re-paint the Kline’s front door for them. It should have stayed red but I liked the turquoise left over from our basement rec room. Red was the color of fire, passion, hate. This color might cheer up the building. I wondered if I could get away with it or if her father would call the landlord and report it as a sort of vandalism. At least an intrusion.
It wasn’t as dark as I’d expected around one o’clock in the morning the next Saturday. I’d waited for our lights and the Tates’ to go out. The nearest street lamp was half a block away but porch lights from a few houses illuminated the area a bit and augmented the strong light of a nearly full moon. Surrounding homes were quiet. I’d taken a flashlight, in case, but left it off. I painted swiftly, over cracks and peeling paint, thinking I should have done it right, scraped off old paint and made it shine. A passerby on a bike said it looked good, two thumbs up. A couple cars whizzed by without pause. I studied my work when the curtain jiggled and there was a hand. I grabbed the can and brush and ran.
The next morning my dad called Mom and me to the porch.
“Look at that, will you? They’ve changed colors overnight again. I hated that dirty red. That looks better. But strange, huh?”
The turquoise was richer in bright sun. I did alright. “Yeah. Nice to see a change.”
Mom sat by Dad, holding on to their coffees. “I love it. We should do our front door, but yellow or green. I never liked the plain wood.” She frowned. “That color looks a lot like the basement.”
On Sunday around dusk, I took a short cut down the alleyway that separated the Kline’s building from a house. David and Willie had made maple waffles with pork sausage for dinner and rented an action flick. Of course I got asked to join them and their parents. I was just rushing past the Kline’s when I heard the back screen door close with a bang. So I stopped and looked, although I was afraid I’d see Tate Kline.
She stood on the top step of the stoop, a floppy straw hat half covering her face. Hair tumbled down slight shoulders, a tangled mass of auburn brown. Bare feet peeked from beneath a long black skirt. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest. She rocked side to side twice, then was very still. Her lips–pale, unsmiling–parted, then she bit the lower one.
“Sorry if I startled you,” I said. “Just a shortcut to my friends’.”
Then I made out the scarring on her neck and chin, the skin rough and uneven, discolored and thickened. A snaky, angry map of the fire’s path. It ran down her right arm. When she saw me studying it she pulled up her baggy white sweater. She turned her eyes on me: large, wide, blue, guarded. Not exactly afraid.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. I know you’ve seen me every day as I go to school. I always wanted to say hi, so hello….”
She reached for the door, then half-turned, her face seen at last. A lovely small face partially altered by someone’s careless cruelty, by irreparable loss.
“Thank you. For the beautiful door.”
She smashed her hat close to her head, then entered the apartment on quiet feet. But she lingered. I could feel it.
I stood in the alley a few minutes, willing her to come back out. She did not. I resumed running to my friends’ but knew this encounter would stay a secret. An odd way to start my summer, the last one home. A small shiver ran up my sweaty back as it occurred to me the coming months were about to change me. And maybe I would change others, too.