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Down in the valley, the first of May

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Franky’s new neighbors make her uneasy.

 

There’s two of them, apparently, but she’s only seen the man, Mr. Bellerose, in town and he’s… intense.  He’s built like a linebacker but he always dresses like a hipster, undercut and waistcoat and everything, and he has these spooky blue husky-dog eyes, always beaming out of his face like spotlights.  She’s seen him around town plenty of times, picking up groceries or gardening supplies or reams of fabric, and he always has a smile for anyone he passes but Franky just… doesn’t trust it.

 

The fact that she’s never seen his wife has a lot to do with that distrust; he always comes to town alone.  He talks about his wife all the time, always “my darling” this and “my wife” that, but no one’s actually seen her.  It’s fucking weird.  Does he have her chained up in the attic or something?

 

Franky has to know what’s up with them.

 

So she suggests to Gramma that maybe the hospitable thing to do for their new neighbors is to make them some cookies.  Gramma, of course, agrees, and makes some of her famous chocolate chip cookies, and would you be a dear and take them over for me, Francine.

 

Franky takes the cookies over.  She does it in the middle of the day, around 2PM, ‘cause she knows the Husband is usually out of the house working then which means she can finally get a look at this “darling” of his.  She cuts through the woods between their lots, just a few acres each, woods she had run through her whole childhood anyway, familiar as always even if there’s finally someone living in the house on the other side.

 

She comes out of the woods and heads straight to the front door, tupperware full of cookies in hand.  When she knocks, though, no one answers.  She stands around for a minute, then tries again, but still nothing.  Well, Gramma didn’t raise no quitter, and it looks like some lights are on inside so the Wife, if she exists, has to be home, right?

 

Franky walks around to the back.  The weather is decent today for this part of the summer, maybe she’s in the backyard.  All the flowerbeds lining the side of the house are bursting with flowers, so it’s a distinct possibility the wife is gardening or something.

 

There is indeed a person in the backyard, but he’s probably not a woman.  Franky thinks this, because all he’s wearing to water the garden is some basketball shorts and a giant sun hat, and Franky doesn’t reckon a woman would normally do that.  Did they hire a yard worker or something?

 

“You know you’re not supposed to water plants in the middle of the day, right?”  Franky calls.

 

The man startles so bad Franky thinks he might fall right over, then he whirls on her and shoots her with the hose.

 

Franky screams and just barely avoids dropping the cookies.  The man screams too, a terrified “who are you?!” before he cuts the water off.  After, they both stand there staring at each other, equally indignant.

 

“What the fuck, dude!” Franky yells, gesturing down at her now sopping wet T-shirt and shorts.

 

The guy just stares at her speechlessly for a long moment, eyes huge and whole body actually shaking pretty bad and, crap, Franky really scared this guy didn’t she?  Shoot.  Now she feels guilty.  She scowels.

 

After a long moment of frightened breathing, he seems to shake himself out of it, pointing the hose at the ground but still keeping it between them, holding it like a gun and he’s in a cop show or something.  “What do you want?” he asks.  He sounds mad, but his hands are visibly shaking.

 

“Well, I was trying to be neighborly and bring y’all some cookies but then you hosed me !” Franky exclaims, exasperated.  “Who even are you?  Where’s Mrs. Bellerose?”

 

That seems to catch him off guard because he finally stops holding the hose like he expects he’ll have to spray her with it again.  “I’m Mrs. Bellerose.  Kinda.”  Laughing a little, he rubs at his face with his free hand.  He looks so tired all of a sudden.  “Listen, I’m sorry for spraying you.  Why don’t you come in and dry off?”

 

Without waiting for her to reply, he drops the hose and walks past her into the house and Franky notices he has a slight limp, like he hurt his leg a while back.  Making an ostentatiously dubious face, not that the stranger can see it, she follows.  “What do you mean you’re kinda Mrs. Bellerose?  Aren’t you a guy?”

 

With an indelicate snort, the man makes a staying gesture and says instead of answering, “Let me get you a towel before you drip all over my floor.  Do you want a dry shirt?”

 

Franky looks down at her shirt.  It’s dark enough to not be see-through and reveal her bra, but she’s not too keen on the way it’s sticking to her regardless.  “Yeah, that would be great, thanks.  You didn’t answer my question.”

 

The guy ignores her and disappears into the kitchen, before returning a moment later in a faded pink t-shirt that might have been red once upon a time, hat gone to reveal dark hair curling awkwardly near his shoulders like he’s growing it out from a bad haircut.  He has another shirt and a towel in his hands, which he trades to Franky in exchange for the cookies and points back the way he came.

 

“Go through the kitchen to the laundry room.  I’ll wait out here.”

 

Huffing, Franky does as she’s told.  Only when she has the door closed and her shirt off does she think to be uneasy about being a half-naked teenage girl alone in a house with a stranger, so she hurriedly dries off as well as she can and puts on the loaner.  The house itself is weird, seeming to miss a lot of the usual stuff she associate’s with a home.  Pictures on the wall, matching furniture, that kind of thing.  But maybe if they’re newlyweds it makes sense, her grandparents have had their furniture since before Franky’s mom was born so what would she know.

 

There are some really nice dresses hanging in the laundry room, though.  Something about them makes Franky think they’re handmade.  They’re all in understated florals or gentle pastels, the brightest among them being a beautiful sky blue.  She reaches out to touch, running the soft fabric over her hand and making the hanger squeak loudly on the rod it’s hanging from.

 

Before she can pull away, the door to the laundry room wooshes open and almost clips her on the shoulder.

 

“Don’t touch those.”  The stranger doesn’t look so much angry as he does anxious. 

 

Slowly, Franky lets the skirt drops from her hand.  “Sorry.  They’re really pretty.”

 

“Thank you, my husband made them for me.  You can put the shirt and towel in the washing machine, I’ll run them through later.”  Then he adds, voice mild with humor, “They have pockets.”

 

Dropping the wet items in the washing machine, Franky eyes him warily again.  “What?”

 

“The dresses.  They have pockets.”

 

“Uh, okay?”  Franky isn’t really a dress person.

 

The stranger watches her uneasily for a moment, looking poised to jump away at a moment’s notice.  Eventually he seems to muster the courage to say, “My name is Waylon.  Can I, uh.  Do you want something to drink?  We have iced tea.”

 

At least this Waylon has some sort of understanding of hospitality.  “That would be great, thank you.  And my name is Franky, nice to meet you.”

 

Together, they return to the kitchen and Waylon pours them both a glass of iced tea.  It’s not sweet enough for Franky’s liking, but she doesn’t mention that, instead just sipping at the drink as they both watch each other silently.

 

Franky breaks first because the curiosity is eating her alive.  “How are you Mr. Bellerose’s wife if you’re a guy?”

 

“Can a guy not be a wife?” the apparent Mrs. Waylon Bellerose, in his too big t-shirt, ugly basketball shorts, and no shoes asks mildly.

 

She gives him the kind of narrow-eyed stare that only a teenager can muster.  “...Is that supposed to be some kinda trick question.”

 

“Not really.”  He takes another sip of his tea.  The ice makes a cheerful tinkling sound against the glass.

 

Franky mulls that over for a second, sipping her own tea.  She draws a conclusion.  “Does Mr. Bellerose not let you leave the house because he doesn’t want people to know his wife is a guy?”

 

Waylon actually laughs at the question.  It’s a startling sound, bright and effervescent, and it catches Franky a little by surprise.  It’s a nice sound.  Franky flushes.

 

“Eddie doesn’t make me do anything.  I stay here because I don’t like being around people.  My husband is the extrovert, I work from home and tend the garden and let him do all the stuff that requires talking to people.  We take care of each other that way.”

 

“Oh.”  Her tea glass had left a ring of condensation on the table.  Franky swirls her finger in it so she doesn’t have to see how beautiful Waylon is when he smiles.  Her Gramma always says true love can light people up from the inside, but this is the first time Franky has seen it in person since her grandpa died.  “Well you’re talking to me, aren’t you?”

 

“It’s only fair, since I shot you with the hose earlier.  And you did bring us cookies.”  Waylon smirks a bit at her, giving Franky a glimpse at a sarcastic sense of humor.  “You have to be nice to people who bring you cookies, right?”

 

Before Franky can answer, the sound of the front door rattling open on uneven hinges cuts through their conversation.  Franky jumps, startled, but Waylon goes rigid in apprehension as he stares with laserlike intensity towards where the sound came from.  

 

“Darling, I’m home!” a voice calls from the other side of the house.  It has the quality of an old-timey moviestar, like its owner grew up only watching Turner Classic Movies or something. “I swear, I’ll fix this door soon.  What a racket.”

 

Waylon relaxes as soon as he hears the voice, his look of terror melting into a faint but fond smile.  He rises and crosses to the doorway that Franky assumes leads to the front of the house and meets the mountain that is Mr. Eddie Bellerose with a kiss.  “You’re home early, honey.”

 

“Yes, well,” Eddie grouses as he stoops to peck his wife on the lips, “those bastards at the plant let me go before my three months so they wouldn’t have to give me benefits.  Oh, forgive my language, Darling, I’m just a little put out about the ordeal.”

 

Then Eddie’s fog-light eyes find Franky sitting at the table.  He seems surprised, one hand reaching protectively for Waylon’s waist even though Franky is pretty sure he could crumple her up like tissue paper with one hand.

 

Waylon places a settling hand on his husband’s chest.  “Eddie, this is our neighbor, Franky.  She brought us some cookies.  I accidentally got her with the hose so she’s borrowing a shirt until I can get hers back to her.”

 

Eddie’s expression opens instantly, transforming from wary guard dog to charming neighbor from one moment to the next.  Franky feels like she just dodged a bullet somehow.  “That’s terribly kind of you, miss Franky,” he effuses.  “Eddie Bellerose.”

 

Gramma taught Franky manners, so she rises and offers her hand even though Eddie Bellerose still rubs her the wrong way.  Waylon really seems to love him, at least, and she likes him well enough so maybe Eddie will grow on her too.  He at least seems like a cool guy, even if he does confuse Franky a bit with the wife thing.  “Nice to meet you, sir.  I’m sorry about the plant, they used to be a good place to work but things have changed a lot since they were bought out.”

 

“Pleasure to meet you as well, miss.”  Eddie’s giant hand is gentle around her’s as they shake, and his smile is pleasant enough but the warmth of it doesn’t quite reach the chilly blue of his eyes.

 

Yeah, he definitely still creeps her out.  “It sure was nice to meet y’all but I have to head home before my Gramma starts to worry,” Franky says as she withdraws, trying not to look too obviously wary.  “Thank you for the dry shirt, Mrs. Bellerose.”

 

“Of course, Franky.”  Waylon’s hand is back on Eddie’s chest and Franky wonders if he's using it to hold the other man back, somehow.  Anchor him.  “Are you in that blue house down the road?  I’ll bring your shirt back with the tupperware once they’re both clean.”

 

“It would be much appreciated,” Franky agrees as she slips back out the backdoor.  Both the Belleroses watch her with an eerie kind of wild-animal attentiveness.  If she saw them at night, she wonders, would their eyes reflect light too?  “Y’all have a good day, now.”

 

And with that, Franky is finally in the clear.  She cuts back through the woods to her house, thinking again about her strange neighbors.  They’re so much weirder than she could have ever anticipated.

 

And so much more interesting.