Neighborly

By A.E. Santana

Camila cringed. She gripped the gardening apron tied around her waist, her knuckles whitening, as she forced a tight-lipped smile onto her face. Camila wanted to scream at her neighbor, but they were in their respective front yards where everyone could see them. In the late morning, the sun spread warmth over the suburban neighborhood—track houses, green lawns, and nosey neighbors. Saturday. Everyone was out.

Camila thought about walking away from their across-the-fence conversation, but Ms. Abigail Simpson might then complain about how Camila Real was a self-centered chit, who thought she was too good for anyone else on the block. So, Camila stood vigilant next to the white picket fence, not agreeing or disagreeing with anything Abigail said, and feeling like a fool for it.

I should tell her to shut it, Camila thought. But Camila had always been taught to keep quiet and stick to the shadows. Like me, her mother had said, and my mother and her mother…

“If David’s daughter is so sick.” Abigail’s words brought Camila back to the sunny morning. “Then he should just move next to the hospital,” Abigail said. “If he did that, then there wouldn’t be sirens blaring in the middle of the night. He could just run her over to the hospital any time his brat decided to throw a fit.”

Camila nodded in recognition but frowned on the inside. So nice of you to suggest that, Abigail, she thought, her unspoken sarcasm festering inside her. But homes by the hospital are expensive, and David has a hard-enough time with bills like the rest of the world. Her lips twitched, her thoughts scrambled from her mind to her throat, but not a word came out from her mouth.

“That little girl isn’t even sick,” Abigail said. “She has this weird disease that nobody has ever heard of.”

           

You’re a disease, Camila thought. And David’s daughter’s name is Nina. Can’t you even say her name?

           

“Well, I’m tired because I didn’t get any sleep last night from all the noise.” Abigail snorted. “I’m going to go in and shut my eyes.” She left Camila standing by the wooden fence.

           

Camila took a deep breath and allowed her anger to seep out. Since moving into the neighborhood, and next to Abigail, five years ago, Camila’s daily meditation doubled—then tripled. “Someone should treat that lady a lesson,” she said to herself, before moving inside for a well-deserved slice of chocolate cake.      

           

Camila’s interiors were modest. Worn, comfortable, and mismatched furniture handed down from her mother supplied the rooms with places to eat, sleep, and entertain. Soft, hand-made colorful throws, blankets, and quilts cozied up the furniture. The walls were painted with the vibrant oranges, pinks, and violets of a sunset. Plants—in pots, hanging from the walls, and growing out of bottles and vases filled every corner of the house with life.

          

Savoring the chocolate while sitting on her great-grandmother’s settee, Camila fantasized about Abigail’s over-due lesson. Her mind wandered into various scenarios. It might be David, lashing out and finally telling Abigail what she really was. Or possibly, the Hernandez family who had had enough of Abigail’s racist bullshit. Or maybe, even me.

 

However, the scenario of Camila teaching Abigail a lesson always involved the large, brown leather book, also handed down from generation to generation, that she kept behind one of the bookshelves in her study. I could never do that, Camila thought. That just wouldn’t be right. Nevertheless, she smiled as she imagined whether-or-not Abigail might enjoy life swimming in a fishbowl.

 

***

           

The next morning, Camila stood on her back porch refilling the seed in her birdfeeder. She paused. The air shifted. A high-pitched yelp escaped from Abigail’s backyard.

           

“Wayne!” Abigail exploded. Camila felt her neighbor’s rage from the other side of their shared brick wall. “Those stupid birds are pecking at my sunflowers again. Why don’t you bark and scare them away? Idiot dog!”

           

Camila put down the bird seed. She imagined Abigail’s large English Sheppard’s goofy, lovable face. Why would he bark if you always discourage him?

           

“Wayne! Come here!” Abigail’s voice bulldozed over Camila’s thoughts. “Get over here right now! If you don’t listen to me, I’m going to—” The dog’s pained squeal, deep and winded, pierced the air.

 

Anger scorched through Camila’s body. She spun to look over the brick fence, peering into Abigail’s backyard.

           

Hearing her neighbor, Abigail glanced up. “What the hell are you looking at?” she asked.

           

Camila watched Wayne limp, his breathing short and hard. She moved her gaze toward Abigail, and the motion tore the last shred of control Camila had. Fury—sick and hot—poured out of her.

 

Abigail glared back, spidery hands on bony hips. “Go back to your business, Cam-i-la.”

           

The heat in Camila’s body boiled and popped, until there was no more fire left and a chill ran through her. Cold rage slinked through Camila’s eyes, sharpened by a malicious sting.

           

“Camila?” Abigail said.

           

Camila wasn’t listening. Her words came out hot and painful, like a blister on the tongue:

 

Re-shape and turn,

Mold and twist,

Bigger to smaller,

A yell to a hiss,

Hair goes soft,

Bones re-align,

Turn from you,

To small feline.

           

For a moment, Camila’s sight turned gray and blurry. She blinked away the fog to see Wayne chase a black and white cat around Abigail’s back porch. 

 

“Wayne! No!” Camila shouted and climbed over the brick fence, landing in Abigail’s sunflowers. “Wayne, stop!” The dog growled but slunk over to a corner, his tail hidden, and eyes dropped.

           

Camila moved to the other side of the yard and grabbed the frightened cat from underneath one of the lawn chairs. The cat shrieked and clung to Camila’s blouse, ripping holes in the fabric, and tearing into Camila’s skin. “Shhh…” Camila soothed and rocked the animal. She looked down into the cat’s large blue eyes and held the little creature tighter. “What did I do?”

 

Camila tucked the quivering cat underneath her blouse and carefully climbed the brick wall back to her own property.

 

Safe inside her own home, Camila placed the cat on the kitchen floor and took a moment to catch her breath. The cat crept behind a large potted house plant in the kitchen’s corner, but didn’t yowl or bite or scratch.

 

“You’re quite calm for a human just turned into cat,” Camila said as she fetched a saucer of thick off-white milk. “That’s goat’s milk.” She placed the saucer on the floor. “Much better for animals to have than cow’s milk.”  

 

Camila carefully moved around in the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea. I wonder if she knows she’s a cat, Camila thought, and if she doesn’t, I wonder if she will remember being a cat.

 

The cat was frightened, but any animal would have been—almost attacked and now in a new environment. The cat curled behind the pot and didn’t move. Abigail would be throwing a fit, making the biggest scene in the world. The cat was acting like a cat.

           

“Well, I hope you like being a cat, Abigail,” Camila said as she set her water to boil. “Because that’s how you’re going to stay until I find the reverse incantation.” Camila looked through her teas for the chamomile. “Until then, you and everybody on the block are getting a vacation.”    

 

***

           

“Where did Abigail go?” Sandra asked, petting the black and white cat next to her on Camila’s couch.

           

After a night to herself, the cat had lapped up the milk and roamed the darkened house, becoming comfortable. That morning, Camila noted how docile the cat was after a night of recuperation. She wanted to test whether or not the cat had any of Abigail’s memories so, she invited Gilbert and Sandra Hernandez over for afternoon tea. Abigail hated the couple, and if the cat had Abigail’s memories, Camila would see it.

           

“I don’t know,” Camila said. She placed a pitcher of lemonade on the old oak coffee table next to her mother’s porcelain teapot. “I asked her, but she just gave me a snooty attitude and told me to feed her dog.” Camila stole a glance to the glass sliding doors in the kitchen. Wayne sat on the back porch, looking in. “That’s why Wayne’s in the back.”

           

Gilbert lounged on the couch next to his wife.  “You better be careful with that dog though,” he said. “He was real nice when Abigail got him as a pup, but he can sure be mean now.”

           

Gilbert and Sandra had at least two poor encounters with Wayne and Abigail that Camila knew of. “That’s not his fault,” Camila said. “Abigail hasn’t treated him well.”

           

“Is this Abigail’s cat, too?” Sandra picked the little feline up and hugged her. The cat nuzzled Sandra’s chin.

           

“No.” Camila hoped her smile hid her nervousness. She closely watched the cat. But the cat was affectionate. “I…found her,” Camila said. “She’s my responsibility.”

           

Gilbert laughed and put his arm around Sandra, sneaking a scratch under the cat’s chin. The cat loved it. “If we were responsible for all the animals Sandy found,” he said, “we’d be living in a barn.”

           

Sandra rolled her brown eyes at her husband. “I can’t help it.” She smiled at Camila. “I love animals.” She held the cat like a baby. “Much better than some humans.”

           

“Whenever Abigail comes back, keep this cat away from her.” Gilbert scratched the feline behind her ear before reaching for another glass of lemonade. “I have a feeling that she would sic that dog of hers on it.”

           

Camila looked at her back porch through the glass doors where Wayne peered in. He stared at the cat. “I don’t think Wayne likes her anyhow,” Camila said.

 

***

           

That night, Camila and the cat stayed up in her study. The cat took great pleasure in lying on everything, and Camila sat hunched with her large, leather book out in front of her. She came across the original incantation a dozen times, but nothing to fix it. I suppose when my great-grandmas and grandpas wrote this, they didn’t intend to turn anyone back.

 

She closed the book.  Her eyes burned and felt heavy in their sockets. I’m going to have to create the reverse.

           

Camila looked at the cat grooming herself on a stack of magazines. “It’ll be a shame when I turn you back,” Camila said. “I mean, I guess I could start on it first thing in the morning.” She leaned back in her worn leather chair. Candles burned bright in her study. After moving in, electricity no longer worked in that part of the house, a place that smelled of incense—sweetgrass, cedar, and sage—and earth.

 

“Probably have it ready in a couple of days,” Camila said, “but who’d believe that Abigail only went on a vacation for a couple of days?” The cat continued to clean herself. For a moment, Camila thought of old tales of familiars—animals sometimes with the face of the human they once were. Maybe…

She shook the idea away.

 

“I’m probably going to have to make something in case you have a memory for all this,” Camila said. “Maybe I should do that one first.”

           

The cat looked up and mewed.

             

“That settles it.” Camila stretched and yawned. “I’ll make the memory charm first, then get started on you, kitty.”

 

***

             

The memory charm took a day longer than Camila planned. She stared down at the words, pleased. She glanced at the blank stack of papers on her desk. She groaned. “I guess I’ll just do the right thing.”  Camila placed the memory charm to the side and started on the reversal incantation.

 

She sat at her desk with the cat, carefully choosing her words, when her doorbell rang. Camila cursed under her breath and got up to open the door. The cat followed, her dainty paws never making a sound on the carpeted floor.   

           

An older man stood on the other side of the door. His white hair thinned on his forehead and his pallid skin hung loose on his bones.

 

“Hello?” Camila asked.

           

“I’m looking for my daughter.” His voice came out in gruff tones. His eyes were large and blue, but heavy with years of mistrust and frustration.

           

“Your daughter?” Camila asked.

           

“Abigail Simpson,” the man said. “She was supposed to call me two days ago, and I never heard from her.”

           

“Oh, she went away on vacation,” Camila said with a smile. She imitated what she hoped a dumb, helpful neighbor looked like. She felt the cat rub against her ankle. Gently, Camila nudged the cat away from the open door. Away from Mr. Simpson.

           

“No, she didn’t.” Abigail’s father stared at Camila.

 

Camila let her smile drop into a confused look. “That’s what she told me.” She willed her nerves to stay calm. The hair on her body danced up in anticipation. “She even told me to feed Wayne. He’s in the back and everything.”

           

Mr. Simpson narrowed his eyes. “Why is Wayne in your backyard?”
           

Because I couldn’t just leave him while I took care of his owner that I turned into a cat. Camila put on an embarrassed face. “She didn’t want me to go through her house to feed him.”

          

The old man huffed then nodded. “Sounds like her.” He straightened and hitched his pants up. Camila half expected him to spit off to the corner like some movie cowboy. “Well, let me have the dog,” he said. “I’ll take him back with me.”

           

Camila hesitated, but knew it was better if she didn’t argue. She moved aside to let the older man in. “If you think Abigail would be alright with that.”

           

Mr. Simpson burst through the doorframe, knocking Camila aside with his shoulder. “Why wouldn’t she?” he snapped.

           

Camila sucked in a breath. How would you like to be a duck? she thought, then said, “Alright, let’s go get him.” Camila led him to the sliding doors in the kitchen. 

           

The affectionate cat took a shine to the man and walked around and between his legs. Abigail’s father nearly tripped over her. “Damn cat!” 

 

“Sorry,” Camila said. She scooped up the cat and placed her atop the television, out of the way. Camila gave the cat a few pats before turning back to Mr. Simpson.

 

He was already opening the sliding door and bringing Wayne in. The dog skulked over to the older man, recognizing him. “No leash?” Mr. Simpson asked.

           

“Sure, sure,” Camila answered with a smile, urgent to get them out; suddenly aware she had the cat, Wayne, and Abigail’s father all in the same room. “It’s by the front door.” She walked Mr. Simpson to the front, hoping he was just as eager to be on his way.

           

Camila’s mind raced. I should have started the reversal transformation rite first. She scolded herself. Abigail probably won’t remember anything anyway. She looked at Abigail’s father and Wayne. She couldn’t waste any more time.

 

Three steps ahead of Mr. Simpson, Camila opened the front door. The sun blanketed the neighborhood with afternoon light. Across the street, David sat on his front porch with Nina who happily played with sidewalk chalk. A couple of older kids rode around on bikes. Next to David’s house, Gilbert and Sandra pulled into their driveway. Camila watched them open the trunk of their car to retrieve groceries.

 

The day seemed quiet, but a strange sensation settled over her skin. Her mother’s words crawled into her head: Your skin is the first boundary you ever know, listen to it.

 

Camila sucked in a breath and moved to shut the front door, to shut the scene of the quaint suburban neighborhood out. But she was too slow, and the cat shot out from under her legs into the front yard.

 

“No!” Camila screamed. Images of the cat getting hit by a speeding card or running away and out of the neighborhood never to return spun in her head. However, the cat stopped in Camila’s yard to sniff a dandelion. The odd tingling on Camila’s skin intensified. She heard Mr. Simpson and Wayne shuffle behind her. The dog barked.

 

Wayne.

 

He saw her, Camila thought, her skin pinpricked and scorched. Camila turned in hopes of stopping the big dog from chasing after the cat but felt as if she was fighting her way through thick honey, her movements slow and labored.

 

Facing Mr. Simpson, Camila let out a relieved sigh. Abigail’s father had already grabbed ahold of Wayne’s collar before the dog broke away. Wayne whined and barked in a panic to go after the cat but didn’t budge from his spot.

 

Cool relief washed over Camila, and she felt her heart beat again. She put a hand over her heart, steadying it, and looked up to thank Abigail’s father.

 

A wicked smile slipped over the old man’s face.

 

Camila’s ease fluttered away; her skin screamed a warning, but she wasn’t fast enough.

 

Mr. Simpson released the dog with an “oops,” and he and Camila watched Wayne leap towards the cat, frightening the smaller creature into a short-lived chase.

 

The world that had slowed down around Camila, now seemed to go too fast. She knew she was running after the dog, yelling for help. She was aware of her neighbors—David, Nina, Gilbert, Sandra, the kids on the bikes—all looking up but not moving from their places. But the world was a blur of teeth and fur and blood.

           

It only took a moment for the large English Sheppard to tear the cat apart, leaving the dog’s face blood-streaked. From the edge of her porch, Camila heard Nina cry and David take her inside. She heard the kids on the bikes curse in shock. Sandra’s scream filled the air. After the cat was dead, Wayne continued to chew on its head and neck. 

           

Sickness rolled inside Camila, turning her stomach to mush. Her heart twisted in her chest. No…, she thought, the word cold and distant and too late. No…

           

“Sorry about that,” Mr. Simpson said as he passed Camila, walking toward Wayne. The cruel smile never left his face. “My Abigail said she trained him to be a killer.”

A.E. Santana's short stories have appeared in various anthologies, most recently Demonic Carnival III. She is currently the true horror/paranormal editor at Kelp Journal and received her MFA in creative writing from the UCR Low-Residency program. Visit her online at aesantana.com.

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