In the Neighbourhood

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Chapter 6: Circle

Stan could see Darrell across the street, chatting with Zsolt at the end of Zsolt’s driveway. Perfect—if he could just get them somewhere a little more private, where they could all talk. He needed an excuse, and fast, before Darrell wandered back home.

He raced to the garage, snapped on the lights, scanned the stacks of discarded lumber, the rows of hanging gardening tools, the workbench where he never seemed to do any work.

That reminded him—up in the rafters, the plywood. Six virgin sheets of plywood, eight by four feet, three-quarter inch, good, heavy stuff. Hadn’t Jason mentioned something about a tree fort recently? He could get those sheets down, start looking at some plans. How hard could it be? It was basically a box and a ladder, after all, and a hole or two cut in the sides.

He rolled up the wide garage door, and Zsolt and Darrell turned to look when they heard the noise. Stan waved and hurried across the street to where they stood—checking himself, though, so he didn’t look too hurried. Just a neighbour coming out to say hi.

“What’re you two fellas up to this evening?” he asked when he was close enough.

“I got grubs. Look.” Zsolt knelt down to a badly yellowed patch of grass and gave it a pull; it lifted without resistance, as if it were a doormat lying on the topsoil.

“That’s not good,” Stan agreed.

“They eat through the roots,” Darrell said. “Basically cut the grass away, just below the surface. Kill the whole lawn, if you let ’em.”

“What d’you do? Spray ’em?”

“Yeah. Look, there’s one.” Darrell pointed with his toe at the topsoil that Zsolt had exposed under the grass.

“Looks like a white caterpillar or something,” Stan observed.

“Looks like a shrimp,” Zsolt said. Stan saw what he meant; the grub was curled into a semi-circle, like a good-sized raw shrimp. The idea of the thing being food, though, was repulsive. “Nice fat one,” Zsolt added.

“He should be. He’s eaten half your lawn.” Darrell stepped on the disgusting little thing, but it didn’t have much effect; it still lay there, flaccid and pale.

“Hey, you guys got a second?” Stan said, after they had stared at the grub for a while. “I could use a hand.”

“Sure,” Zsolt said, standing up and brushing the dust from his knees. “What do you need?”

“Got these sheets of plywood up in the roof of my garage. Want to get ’em down—just need you guys to take them when I hand ’em down.”

“No problem,” Zsolt said.

“Better be quick,” Darrell said. “Gonna be dark out soon.”

“Just take a couple minutes. There’s only six sheets.” Stan took a step to lead the way, waited to see if they were following, and when they did he was off ahead of them, getting to the garage before they were even at his driveway.

He had the ladder out and was up in the rafters by the time Zsolt ambled into the garage, followed by Darrell. Stan picked up a corner of the topmost sheet; it was heavier than he’d expected. “I’ll hand ’em down to you,” he told the other two. “You can just lean them over on the wall, there.”

“Careful of the car,” Darrell warned.

Not only were the sheets heavy, they were rough, too. They stuck together like Velcro. Stan had to really pull to get the first sheet to slide away from the stack. The ladder moved alarmingly under his feet as he pulled.

“Careful!” Darrell warned.

“It’s fine,” Stan grunted, still trying to free the sheet.

It was finally loose; now Stan had a new problem. The rafters were in the wrong place, weren’t far enough apart to let the sheet fall through with Stan and the ladder in the way. Sweat began to run down his face; it was hot up in these rafters.

“Turn it—” Zsolt started. “No, point the corner—”

Stan twisted around and, with some effort, got the sheet to fall past him, into Zsolt and Darrell’s waiting hands. As it fell, the edge of the sheet tore painfully through his palm.

“Bet that hurt,” Darrell commented, and Zsolt chuckled.

“S’fine,” Stan said, grimacing but trying to ignore the pain. “Here comes the next one.”

When all the plywood was down, Stan came down and found a clean—relatively clean—rag to wrap around his hand. The blood was mostly dried now—it looked worse than it felt, really.

“When’s the last time you had a tetanus shot?” Darrell asked, peering at the wound.

“It’s not serious,” Stan said. “I’ll disinfect it. Don’t worry.”

“Hurt much?” Zsolt ask.

“Nah. It’s fine.” Stan lowered his hand, out of view, tired of the attention it was getting.

“So anyhow...” Darrell said, turning to leave.

“Wait—before you go—” Stan said, and Darrell stopped. They both stood looking at Stan, waiting for him to say something.

“I went to his backyard and looked behind the shed, right where I left it,” Stan said. “It’s gone.”

Zsolt looked to Darrell, back to Stan. “What’s gone?”

“One of the tapes,” Darrell told him. “Stan left it for Gerry and Doreen before they moved out, and it’s gone.”

“You think they took it?”

“It’s possible,” Darrell answered.

“It’s more likely,” Stan said, “that they never got it.” Were these two really this obtuse?

“Oh.” Zsolt was silent for a second. “So where is it then?”

“I think—” Darrell began.

“I think Keith has it,” Stan said, raising his voice over Darrell’s.

“Now—”

“No. I know it. And he hasn’t said anything. It’s—” Stan’s words failed him.

“How long ago did you leave it?” Zsolt asked. “They moved out in, what, May...”

“That’s beside the point,” Stan insisted. “Gerry returned your tape, right? If he had mine, he would have returned that too. No. I know—”

“Keith has it,” Darrell said.

Stan stopped. “How do you know?” he asked, his voice sounding far away. Darrell stared over at another part of the garage.

“He told me.”

Mary, her eyes closed, throwing her head back in ecstasy. Her sweaty thighs, across his, pulling them closer, pulling him deeper, then releasing. Her noise, half-groan, half-giggle, escaping obscenely, tantalizingly, with each stroke. She leaned down, lifted his head, whispered, “You feel so big,” and it had energized him almost to the point of panic. He had seen that. Keith had seen them.

The bastard.

Darrell’s hand was on his shoulder. “C’mon, relax,” he was saying soothingly, almost pleading, as if he were calming a screaming child. “C’mon.”

Had he said that aloud? Stan wasn’t sure, suddenly. He just felt cold and sick. Keith had his tape—the bastard.

“I don’t get the big deal,” Zsolt said. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Nothing you haven’t seen before, from us.”

“It’s a question of trust,” Darrell cut in, just as Stan was about to say—well, say something. “It’s fine with us, because we know each other already, know the rules. It’s different, introducing someone new into the mix.”

“We didn’t introduce him—he came sneaking in.”

“The tape was in his backyard,” Zsolt pointed out.

Why did that matter to them? Why did they insist on missing the point? “But he knows what’s on the tape. He’s not acknowledging it—he’s just holding onto it. Watching us. Laughing at us.”

“He’s confused.”

“What—he can’t tell who’s on the tape? I would’ve thought—”

“No—no. Look. He came to me to ask what to do. He’s never met you before. He didn’t know who made the tape or where it came from. So he asked me about you, and what he should do about returning it.”

The way Darrell talked, it sounded like Keith had found Stan’s hammer or something. “What’s so difficult? He rings my bell, tells me he’s found something of mine, hands it over. That’s how an adult handles it.”

“Most adults don’t make tapes of themselves and leave them in their neighbours’ backyards, though,” Darrell answered. “You have to admit it’s a bit strange.”

“All the more reason to deal with it head on. Like a man.”

Darrell sighed but said nothing.

“Did you tell him about us?” Zsolt asked. “Our... arrangement?”

“Yes,” Darrell said.

“And?”

“He was... interested.”

They stood for a while, watching their feet shuffle uncomfortably. These guys, too, Stan thought. They’ve seen me and Marie. Not that tape, but lots of others. Did they laugh at her? At me?

“You know, I’ve never been with a redhead,” Zsolt commented. “I mean, if they wanted to—”

Stan couldn’t bear any more talk. “That’s it,” he snapped.

“What?”

“You.” Stan pointed angrily at Zsolt; his eyes widened and he took a half-step backwards. “You go to him. Tell him that he has to join this, the... circle. He has to make a tape too, and give mine back.”

Zsolt gaped. Stan looked at Darrell for support, but Darrell just looked back at him.

“But I don’t even—” Zsolt started to protest.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re in this together. Get him to join, or—” He should add a threat, Stan felt, an ultimatum here, but couldn’t think of the right thing to say.

At last, Zsolt shrugged. “Okay.”

The tension eased, like air whistling out of a tire valve. “Okay,” Stan confirmed.

“Whenever I see him.”

“Soon,” Stan said. It had to be soon or, well, what was the point?

The sun was gone, and twilight was infiltrating. Stan closed the garage door behind them before remembering that he hadn’t thanked them for helping him with the wood.

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