NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH

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Chapter 10

The last week of school was incredibly busy, as it always was, and afterward it was merely a blur. Monday started by getting the kids off to school, then I was anxious to pay Ms. Gertie and Mrs. Matilda an impromptu visit. Before I could leave the house, though, the phone rang.

It was Lenore and she began talking a mile a minute as soon as I said, “Hello?” She had more good news for me: “Can you do a gig at the local Waldenbooks in the mall on Wednesday afternoon?”

Could I? “You bet!”

I jotted down the details in my notebook in time to her rapid-fire instructions, and was off the phone in under five minutes. I read the note I’d written and smiled with anticipation. The “gig” would be a snap; two hours of signing my name, answering questions, and promoting the new book I’d just illustrated, which was due out in September.

I smiled the whole way to Ms. Gertie’s house, and positively grinned when she answered the door wearing a sunny smile on her own face and an even sunnier yellow polyester pantsuit. She showed me in and I immediately noticed the changes to the décor.

The two women had managed to merge their opposing styles into a tastefully decorated blend, and I was impressed with the end result. Mrs. Matilda had whittled her vast collection down to a manageable amount and I wondered what she planned to do with the discarded items. She’d pared down her valuables to a scale that allowed Ms. Gertie’s house to remain uncluttered, simple, and tasteful. The only obvious difference was the house now reflected both of its occupants’ tastes in an unlikely harmonious conglomeration.

“I love what you’ve done to the place,” I said as I sat down on the sofa beside Mrs. Matilda and Ms. Gertie poured me a cup of coffee.

“Thank you!” they both said in unison.

The unlikely duo seemed to have benefited from living under the same roof in such a short amount of time: Mrs. Matilda wasn’t her typical grumpy self and Ms. Gertie didn’t seem nearly as flighty. I wondered if they were rubbing off on each other, and eventually their personalities would blend as much as their decorating styles.

“Yes, we were busier than a couple of one-armed paper-hangers yesterday,” Ms. Gertie said. “We managed to get all of Matilda’s things moved into here.”

“It shows,” I said, gesturing around the room.

“That’s not even the half of it,” Ms. Gertie said.

“I’m planning an auction for next Sunday,” Mrs. Matilda added.

I was confused. “You’re going to auction your house?”

“No,” Mrs. Matilda snapped, her bushy eyebrows lowered until they disappeared behind the thick frames of her dark glasses. Perhaps she hadn’t changed that much.

“Only the contents,” Ms. Gertie piped in. “We already hired an auctioneer and everything.”

“And I placed an ad in the Tribune to run this whole week,” Mrs. Matilda said. “Now I just need help packing.”

Both women looked at me expectantly and I blinked back at them in surprise. My mind raced as I pictured my upcoming week and I was relieved to realize I honestly only had one day available to help them.

“I can help tomorrow, but that’s the only day I’m free,” I said. “Sorry.”

Mrs. Matilda eagerly accepted my offer and quickly explained how the moving company she’d hired for Friday would only remove some of the bulky furniture and valuable pieces she planned to pass on to her family. The remainder of the house’s contents would be up to me to sort, pack into cartons, and label in preparation for the auction.

“We’ll work side-by-side,” Mrs. Matilda said brightly. “I can bag up stuff for the Goodwill.”

The idea of working alongside Mrs. Matilda in her smelly old house didn’t brighten the prospect for me, but I just smiled noncommittally at her.

“Speaking of packing,” Ms. Gertie said, rising from her chair and opening a closet door in the hallway. She returned a minute later, struggling with a large cardboard box in her hands. She dropped it onto my lap and if I hadn’t quickly grabbed it, it would have toppled over and slid to the floor.

The box was heavy and its contents clattered and jingled as I shifted its weight on my knees. I lifted one flap to peek inside, but quickly closed it when I saw the glint of silver and crystal.

“We cleaned out our closets yesterday,” Ms. Gertie said by way of an explanation. “And we picked out some of our best pieces for you.”

“If you have them appraised, you’ll see they’re worth substantially more than our agreed-upon fees,” Mrs. Matilda added.

I was flabbergasted by their unusual display of gratitude. I could think of no way to reject their incongruous form of payment without rebuffing them. I also knew that polite southern etiquette called for my gracious acceptance with a sincere smile on my face and to thank them profusely. So, that’s exactly what I did. My thanks were quickly followed by my farewells--- I’d agreed to help Mrs. Matilda pack and had accepted a box of stuff I didn’t want, and I was anxious to get out of there before I got suckered into anything else.

I lugged the box home, having to stop twice to set it down so I didn’t drop it. Before depositing it in my bedroom closet, I examined the contents more closely. There was only one item that caught my eye: an amulet the size of my fist and shaped like a dragonfly. It was made from a variety of jewels, including rubies, emeralds, and opals; with a fine gold filigree separating them. I carried it downstairs and hung it in the living room picture window. Then I walked outside to check it out from the sidewalk.

Amanda was strolling by, pushing Gabby as usual. She waved before stopping beside me. She wore a tank top, sneakers, and a tight pair of stretchy pants; and once again, I was impressed by her tight body.

I suddenly remembered the scene I’d witnessed with Dylan between her two older children and I gasped, “Oh!” I knew, yet again, I was about to plunge into another extremely awkward position. We chatted for a moment while I waited for the perfect opportunity. But when is the perfect opportunity for addressing a parent about their children’s incestuous relationship? I decided to take the bull by the horns and simply blurt it out.

“I saw Jon and Tonya kissing the other night.”

Amanda froze. Her grip on the stroller handles turned her knuckles as ashen as her face. Beads of perspiration broke out along her hairline. Her golden eyes rolled before she closed them for a second. She sighed, opened her eyes and promptly burst into tears. Our relationship had developed enough that I felt comfortable giving her a hug. So, we stood there on the sidewalk of Rain Lane and her tears soaked the shoulder of my t-shirt. Finally she pulled herself together with a shuddering breath and released me.

“I’m sorry,” she sniffled.

“You can cry on my shoulder anytime,” I said with a shrug. We both looked at the wet spot on my shoulder and I was glad she hadn’t been wearing makeup.

“Where to begin?” she asked herself. She wiped her nose on her hand then looked me square in the eye. “Tonya’s my daughter but Jon’s not my son. And Gabby,” she gestured to the stroller, “isn’t my daughter. She’s my granddaughter. She’s really Jon and Tonya’s baby.”

We stared at each other for a second before Amanda started to laugh. She laughed so hard she had to hang onto the stroller as she doubled over with hearty guffaws. I wondered if she was having a nervous breakdown, and I stood by, ready to assist if the need arose. She slowly composed herself, and the well of laughter dried up to a trickle of snorts and a wide grin.

“Whew,” she said, wiping her streaming eyes on her hand then swiping her hand across her leg to dry it. “I’ve been holding that in for nearly a year, and it sure feels good to get it off my chest.”

Gabby began to fuss, so we slowly walked around the block and talked. It only took a few minutes for Amanda to tell me the whole story. But when she finished, I knew the most intimate details of her life. I found out she had been a pediatrician “in what seems like a lifetime ago.” She had closed her practice and retired when Tonya turned up pregnant. Tonya’s father, Jeremiah, had freaked out at the news.

“I thought he was going to string Jon up by his balls,” Amanda said, laughing at the memory. “I was sure I’d have to sedate him.” She reconsidered. “Or at least restrain him.”

I pictured Jeremiah’s size and laughed. “How would you have managed that?”

“I have a stun gun.”

Jeremiah had finally calmed down and sold their house. Then he moved them into their beach house until Tonya gave birth. It was during those ensuing six months of her pregnancy that Jon had begun to pester them in earnest.

“Jon Johnson?” I interrupted with a snicker.

She rolled her eyes heavenward and laughed. “His real name is Jonathan Adams and he’s eighteen.”

By the time Gabby was born, Jon had moved in with them. They had all moved into their new house on Rain Lane and started their new lives. Jon and Tonya were graduating from their former high school the following week, and both would be attending the same college in the fall. Amanda truly believed that upon Tonya’s eighteenth birthday in November, she would immediately marry Jon.

“So, we decided to raise Gabby as our own, and let Jon and Tonya grow up some.”

“That’s a pretty big sacrifice on your part,” I said. My mind was boggled by her news and I couldn’t think of anything better to say.

“You ain’t kidding. I really miss my job. And sleep.” Her voice brightened. “But when school lets out, Tonya will be getting up with Gabby at night.”

“No wonder you knew you didn’t have post-partum depression!” Suddenly pieces clicked into place: Amanda’s toned body and Tonya’s fuller figure, and Tonya’s help with naming the baby.

“There are still so many things to sort out, though,” Amanda admitted. We’d reached my house by then and stopped at the end of my driveway. My new sun catcher sparkled in the window. “Like if Gabby’s only going to know me as her mother, or Tonya too. Soon enough, Gabby will be talking and we need to have it figured out by then. She at least needs some kind of name to call us. It’s all so overwhelming.”

“I can’t begin to imagine.” And that was the truth. “Have you thought about a family counselor or something?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t been able to think at all for the past two months.”

I gave her the name of Heather’s former therapist, and silently hoped Amanda would have better luck with him than Heather did. Gabby began to fuss again and I invited them to come in. Amanda declined and wrinkled her nose at Gabby.

“Someone needs a diaper change,” she said regretfully. “See you later, Cami Jo. And thanks for everything.”

She gave me one last hug before hustling across the street.

I wiled away the afternoon hours until my kids were due home by painting. ‘Gravity’ was coming along beautifully and I was working at a steady pace to finish it. I was desperately trying to beat two separate clocks: the end of my kid-free days and the beginning of the relentless summer heat. The garage only had one vent connecting it to the house, which barely kept the temperature low enough so I didn’t suffer from a heat stroke. There were no windows to crack for ventilation or to install a window A/C unit in, either. I knew if I didn’t finish it in the next few days it would have to wait until autumn.

After school, I walked the kids to the corner 7-11 for our first Slurpee jaunt of the season. Tiffani was there, flaunting a hot pink string bikini. She had at least pulled on a pair of raggedy cut-offs over top, but had left the frayed shorts unzipped with the waistband folded over for maximum belly ring exposure.

It was the last day of school for the high-schoolers, but the pool wouldn’t be open for another week. Most of the lifeguards were seniors and graduating on Saturday night, and they refused to return to work until Monday. So, the pool was closed for another week and Tiffani’s flamboyant attire remained a mystery.

We walked back to Rain Lane together, and I broached the subject of Tiffani’s love life. I wanted to keep my promise to Heather, but between my kids’ constant chatter and Tiffani’s tight-lipped, typical teen-aged sullenness, I got nowhere by the time we reached my house. I impulsively asked if she could babysit on Wednesday evening, and she readily agreed.

She ambled on her way and I shook my head at the image she created: all exposed, tanned skin, honey blond hair rippling to her narrow waist, and long, curvy legs shimmering with a glitter lotion in the sun.


Dylan had his first soccer practice that evening after dinner. As I watched him attempt to kick the ball, miss, and fall down I realized he’d inherited my total lack of grace and coordination. I fervently hoped he didn’t end up breaking his leg, or worse, during the upcoming summer.

He proudly showed me his new bruises before bed. I counted sixteen, including a cluster of seven small ones on his left shin. I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer for his safety.

Katie Nicole was next to turn in, quickly followed by Bill and me. He had barely spoken throughout the evening and I figured there must be problems at work. He kissed me goodnight and promptly fell asleep. I was left with listening to his snores and dreading my upcoming day with Mrs. Matilda.

The weather forecast was predicting a heat wave and by noon the next day the meteorologist estimated it would be a hundred degrees before the heat index. I could easily imagine how hot and stinky Mrs. Matilda’s house would be, and I tossed and turned for quite a while before falling asleep.

I came fully awake some time later, sitting up and swinging my legs over the side of the bed. I blinked around the room in confusion, wondering if I’d been in the process of sleepwalking. I was about to lay back down when I heard the sound of something unfamiliar (not Frank’s claws) scraping against the front door.

I slid the rest of the way out of bed and tiptoed across the room. I didn’t bother with my robe because I suddenly heard a different sound--- the sound of the front doorknob jiggling back and forth. I flew down the stairs and wondered why we hadn’t gotten a Doberman Pinscher instead of a cowardly, lazy Dachshund like Frank.

I saw the doorknob wiggling just as I reached the door. The deadbolt hadn’t been breached and the chain lock was still intact. So, I flipped on the porch light and put my eye to the peephole. All I could see was the top of a black hooded sweatshirt turning away from me as the man wearing it took off running. He was thin and wore a pair of dark Converse sneakers on his feet. That was all I saw before he jumped my hedges and disappeared into the night.

“Oh, it’s on now,” I whispered.

I closed and locked all the windows and checked on the kids. Frank was sleeping peacefully in the crook of Dylan’s arm. I scowled at him and considered waking him out of spite, but went back to bed instead.

I briefly considered waking Bill as well, to tell him what had happened. But I took one look at his smiling face, lost in dreamland, and I just couldn’t do it. I knew he would insist on calling the police, which would inevitably wake the kids. Their sleep would needlessly be disturbed and they would be frightened in their own home for some time to come. Or at least that’s what I told myself as I drifted off to sleep with Bill’s rumbling snores in my ears.

I got the kids off to school a few hours later, and then I took Frank for a walk. After seeing Tiffani at the 7-11 the day before, I wondered how things were between Heather and Chavez. So, I decided to drop by her house before going to Mrs. Matilda’s sweat shop. I fortified myself with a last cup of coffee then headed out.

I stopped on my porch because Bethany was in her front yard. She was fiddling around with her hose, and I correctly guessed she was addressing the mole situation again. I came up behind her rather quietly and watched her uncoil the hose for a minute before speaking.

“What are you up to?”

She jumped in surprise and dropped the hose nozzle at her feet.

“How are you doing, Cami Jo?”

“Fine. So what are you up to?”

“Nothing much, just taking care of this rototilling mole once and for all.” With that, she jammed the nozzle into a hole by her foot, marched over to the spigot and turned it on full force.

“You’re going to flood it out,” I said after she’d rejoined me.

“That’s right.” She crossed her arms and gave the hole a suspicious look.

We stood in silence for a moment. “How would you and Brandon like to double date with Bill and me tomorrow night? I already got Tiffani to babysit, I just haven’t decided where to go yet.”

Bethany not only agreed, she enthusiastically took over all of the planning. She told me what time to be ready (6:45) and how to dress (“nice”), and “to be prepared to have fun.” Then she had to get ready for a meeting at work and she wanted to call Brandon about our plans first.

I hurried to Heather’s house, anxious to get inside before Mrs. Matilda could spy me from across the street. I had to ring the doorbell twice, pound on the door for a minute, and was just about to leave when Tiffani finally threw open the door. She was wearing a short black robe that she haphazardly tried to clutch together. She struggled to smooth her disheveled hair and hold the robe closed at the same time.

“Sorry if I woke you,” I said as I passed by her to have a seat on the pristine sofa. The stain on the floor had vanished entirely, and I decided to ask Heather what she’d used on it.

“Uh, like, that’s okay,” Tiffani said from the front door.

“Is your mom around?”

“No, she’s, uh, not home right now.”

There was something in her tone that aroused my suspicion. I looked more closely at her and noticed her thick eyeliner was unsmudged although she was still dressed for bed. Her eyes nervously darted from me to the hallway to her left as she bit the tip of her lime green thumbnail. My Mom Alarm went off, and as I studied her, a blush crept up her neck all the way to the tips of her multi-pierced ear. She dropped her gaze, looking as guilty as Katie Nicole had when I’d caught her trying to hide her nine- month old brother in the dryer.

I opened my mouth, having no idea what I was about to say, when a thin, shirtless, young man, who could only be Chavez, sauntered into the room. An unlit cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and he casually zipped up his fly as he nodded a greeting at me. His bare feet shuffled across the floor, leaving dirty tracks on Heather’s white Berber carpet.

His shaggy black hair fell into his dark, smoldering eyes as he jerked his cleft chin in my general direction. For only being a senior in high school, I was surprised by the five o’clock shadow on his cheeks. However, his body hair stopped there, as far as I could tell. His bald abdomen had the faint beginnings of a rippling six-pack and his arms were roped with sinewy muscles.

He disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later, popping the top of a can of Budweiser and smoke trailing over his shoulder from his newly lit cigarette. He stretched, and ashes fluttered down from the tip of his Marlboro and landed next to a dark footprint on the carpet.

“Are you twenty-one?” I asked conversationally.

“I have an ID in my wallet that says so,” he smoothly replied. He sneered at me and the whole bad-boy image he was so carefully cultivating was complete.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Tiffani whined, still frozen in place by the front door.

I cut her off. “Oh please!” Then I just shot her my best “stern Mom” look. I fleetingly wondered what I would do if it was Katie Nicole facing me in a similar situation. I glanced at Chavez and wholeheartedly agreed with Bill’s suggestion of killing the boy. I swore to myself I wouldn’t ever let it happen to us. But, I surmised, Heather probably hadn’t ever seen this day coming when she’d looked into her sweet little nine-year-old daughter’s face either.

“Please don’t tell my mom,” Tiffani begged, her teary blue eyes and trembling lips making her look like a nine- year old again.

“Why?” I asked. “Were you in her bed again?”

Tiffani began to frantically shake her head back and forth in denial. Chavez was helpful enough to add, “Nah, just Tiffani’s.” I wondered, for perhaps the millionth time, how I always managed to end up in such embarrassing situations.

Chavez made no move to leave as he sipped his beer and an uncomfortable silence hung in the air along with his smoke. Tiffani and I both stared at the young man as he flopped onto the recliner and picked up the remote control. He seemed oblivious to the tension his very presence was creating. As I watched, he belched and rubbed his stubbly cheek with a sound like a pumice stone scraping away a thick callous.

“’Scuse me,” he mumbled.

I was surprised he showed any social manners at all. However, my opinion of him didn’t have a chance to rise before he lifted his ass and farted. That’s my cue, I thought as I stood to go.

Tiffani still stood by the front door and I had to squeeze past her in order to leave. She reached out to me, perhaps to grab my hand, but caught herself and stopped short. I could clearly see the panic in her glistening eyes as she silently pleaded with me. I left without answering her unasked question.

“Live in fear,” I whispered after she closed the door behind me.

I was almost to the driveway when I heard her tentatively calling my name. I looked over my shoulder and saw her standing on the front porch.

“Do you still want me to babysit tomorrow night?”

I sighed. “I suppose so.”


Mrs. Matilda was waiting for me on her front porch; I could see her from the top of Heather’s long, sloping driveway, all the way across Rain Lane. She was standing with one hand on her meaty hip and the other hand was grasping the ivory handle of her cane. She was glancing up and down the street and I hurried up to her.

She barely greeted me before leading me through the front door. Boxes were stacked precariously amongst her belongings, and I saw cartons towering above Tiffany lamps, fine crystal, and priceless objects d’art.

“You’ll be packing similar items together in boxes, and they’ll be sold as individual lots at the auction,” Mrs. Matilda said, peering around.

“Okay,” I said. “Where do you want me to start?”

She gestured uselessly around. “You’re your own boss, dear.” She pointed at the closest stack of boxes. “There’s bubble wrap and paper in there.” She paused to squint at me. “You do know how to pack, don’t you?”

“Of course,” I said, feeling slightly offended.

I set about bubble-wrapping her knickknacks and hauling boxes from room to room, per Mrs. Matilda’s instructions. She’d said I could be my own boss, but it turned out she was a strict supervisor who didn’t tolerate any slacking off from her staff. She refused to dirty her own hands by doing any work, but she had no problem calling me out if she thought I was shirking a task.

The noontime chime from the grandfather clock had just finished echoing when Ms. Gertie bustled through the front door, a picnic basket dangling from the crook of her arm. We went outside to the backyard and ate an al fresco-style lunch.

I’d never seen Mrs. Matilda’s backyard before because she always kept her curtains drawn and I was surprised by the size of it. I’d always assumed my neighbors’ yards were similar to my own half-acre lot, but Mrs. Matilda’s was easily a whole acre larger than mine! The rear of her property line was marked by a high metal fence accompanied by tall boxwoods to camouflage it, which separated her yard from the neighborhood swimming pool. There were no trees; only the lush boxwoods and a few rosebushes, which were desperately clinging to life in their shade-free environment.

Mrs. Matilda’s backyard was adjacent to Ms. Gertie’s with a sturdy, PVC picket fence separating them, and on the other side was Sprinkle Street. Beyond that was a parking lot which surrounded Brandon’s grocery store. Her house sat on a prime piece of real estate in the Misty Meadows community--- close by the supermarket and neighboring shops, nearby the pool, and it also featured a huge backyard.

Mrs. Matilda allowed us a thirty minute lunch break to eat our fried chicken, potato salad, and peach cobbler. Exactly thirty minutes after we sat down on her back porch, she proclaimed it was time for us to get back to work. I smiled to myself, thinking she was more punctual than a time clock.

Ms. Gertie had no sooner left when two men walked in the front door without knocking. I saw them through the labyrinth of boxes before they saw me.

“Grandma?” the thin one wearing a suit called from just inside the door. The other man wore a pair of faded Levi’s and he hung back in the doorway.

I peered around a stack of boxes just as Mrs. Matilda waddled into the room.

“Samuel!” she exclaimed. “What a pleasant surprise.”

He was swallowed up in her embrace, and I was reminded of Jack Sprat and his wife. Mrs. Matilda made introductions and after giving me a quick glance up and down accompanied by a sly smile, Samuel quickly dismissed me. He looked like a weasel to me, with his shifty eyes and sharp facial features. His self-assured, cock-of-the-walk attitude only added to his weasely image. I took an immediate dislike to him, and I suddenly remembered an expression my mother used to say: “I’d trust him as far as I could throw him.” However, that expression wouldn’t exactly apply in the present situation because, judging by his slight build, I could probably throw him a surprising distance.

“This is Kevin,” he said, and his companion stepped forward to shake Mrs. Matilda’s hand. “He’s a building inspector, here in an unofficial capacity as a favor to me.”

Mrs. Matilda turned a wary look at Samuel, but before she could protest he steered her by the elbow into the depths of the rear of her house. I could hear their hushed voices but couldn’t make out the words. Kevin and I exchanged an uncomfortable smile before I returned to packing up Mrs. Matilda’s collection of Faberge eggs. Samuel and his grandmother returned a minute later, Samuel with a smug smile on his face and Mrs. Matilda with a worried frown on hers.

“Cami Jo?” Mrs. Matilda asked.

I stood up and leaned around a stack of boxes so she could see me.

“Kevin here is going to take a look around the house, but he promises to not get in your way,” Mrs. Matilda said, shooting Kevin a warning glance.

“Okay,” I said.

I continued packing, oblivious to what everyone else was doing. My knees hurt from kneeling on the hardwood floors and my back was in agony from climbing a rickety, wooden ladder in the living room to retrieve books from the floor-to-ceiling solid pine bookcase. Every so often I checked my watch, hoping it would be time to meet my kids’ school bus.

The temperature soared and by mid-afternoon it approached the hundred degree mark. I was glad I was only helping for one day and that I’d managed to stay downstairs. I carried yet another box into the dining room and a drop of sweat tickled the end of my nose. I set the box down and the bead of sweat landed on my forearm, and I decided I was done for the day.

I went in search of Mrs. Matilda and found her and the two younger men in the kitchen, deep in conversation. I hung back in the doorway, reluctant to interrupt yet eager to overhear. Kevin was doing all of the talking and the things he was saying were far from good.

“I’m telling you,” he was saying, “you’ve got termites eating away at the framework, rodents eating away at the electrical system, and last, but certainly not least, you’ve got mold growing in your walls.”

He went on to tell her that her cedar roof wasn’t very fire resistant and the only carpeting in the house, in her prized formal living room was original to the house.

“Which means it was installed before the 1953 Flammability Criteria went into effect,” Kevin explained to Mrs. Matilda’s blank look. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, ma’am, but if I were here in an official capacity I’d have to condemn the place.”

I gasped and all eyes turned to look at me.

“I didn’t see you there, Cami Jo,” Mrs. Matilda said.

I took a step into the room, out of the shadows. “I need to get home before my kids get home from school,” I said meekly.

“Of course,” Mrs. Matilda said. She swept past the men and walked me to the front door.

“I couldn’t help overhearing,” I said as we picked our way through the maze of boxes.

“Yes, I long for the day when a poltergeist was the only thing infesting my house,” she sighed.

“What are you going to do?”

“Go to the doctor first, I suppose. Just to make sure nothing in the house made me sick. Did you know you can get leptospirosis from mice?”

“No,” I said. “But do you know what you’re going to do with your house?”

“Well, first and foremost: I can’t let my insurance company get wind of this because my policy doesn’t cover mold.

“Oh no,” I said lamely, wondering if my own insurance policy covered such things. We were at the front door by then and I paused to look at her. “It sounds like you need a natural disaster or something. Hey! Hurricane season is coming soon.”

“Hmph,” Mrs. Matilda said, sounding like she didn’t have much faith in the idea. “I think I need more of the man-made type of natural disaster.”

“Mrs. Matilda,” I scolded in a hushed tone, “that’s called insurance fraud and you go to jail for it.”

“Only if you get caught.” She opened the door for me and smiled. “Thank you so much for all your help today.”

I faltered for a second before deciding to let it got. “You’re welcome. I’ll see you later.”

I had enough time to shower and change out of my sticky clothes before the kids got home from school. They’ didn’t have any homework so we took Frank for a walk after eating a snack.

I waited to tell them about Mrs. Matilda’s house until dinnertime. Dylan, in particular, listened to me talk about her house’s problems with a rapt look of fascination on his face. As I talked, his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open.

“Mold?” he asked when I was finished. “There’s mold growing in her house?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said.

“Gross,” Katie Nicole said.

“Like the mold that was growing in the bowl in the back of the refrigerator when we came home from vacation last summer?” Dylan asked.

“Something like that, yes.”

“Cool,” Dylan said.

Katie Nicole made a face at him. “It’s gross.”

“Yeah,” he replied defensively, “but in a cool way.”

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