Edition 1: Neighborhood Watch by Jennifer Solomon
When kids start to disappear, local menace Jaden points the finger at his odd neighbors, the Spragues. Will he be able to stop them before there’s another friend on the menu? A classic thriller, but wait for the twist… SY
Jaden Conner-Sterling was an awful little boy. Not to his parents, perhaps, but certainly to most of the world. He was eleven; too old for his actions to be considered cute, and too young for them to be considered dangerous. He was smart in a sly sort of way; too small to be a bully at his school, he instead used his fast wits to become a lackey to the older, stronger kids.
It was Jaden who came up with the nickname “Fetus Face” for the soft, fleshy fourth grader named Douglas, and “Crotch rot” for the pretty, but extremely shy, Marilyn. When his friends found a dead cat by the side of the road, it was Jaden’s idea to put it in a used Chinese takeout bag and stow it in the locker of an Asian student named Takumi. “Enjoy your runch!” the gang shouted as the young boy (Japanese, not Chinese) tried not to cry.
Jaden was clever enough to modify his behavior among adults, though he didn’t fool everyone. His math teacher, Margaret Leonard, for example, watched him like a hawk. Forty years of dealing with unruly children had given her sharp instincts, though she was no longer fast enough on her feet to catch him in the act. Jaden referred to her as Grandma Moses. His neighbors across the street, the Fitzgeralds, had caught him chucking stones at their bird feeder. His parents reprimanded him vaguely, and Jaden was careful to check that the Fitzgeralds were out before resuming his target practice.
His parents, David and Laura saw Jaden in a different light. In their eyes, he was a highly intelligent, inquisitive little boy.
“He has a huge appetite for learning,” said David to the guidance counselor, Mr. Grayson, “just not always for the subject matter at hand. He spends hours on the internet researching projects that interest him, like medieval history.”
Jaden’s only real interests in medieval history were the illustrations of torture devices he downloaded and passed along to his friends.
“He’s very creative,” added Laura. “Did you know he is writing his own comic book?”
Actually Mr. Grayson was aware of some of the content of the comic book, specifically the pictures portraying Mrs. Leonard as a vengeful mummy, cursing students with Egyptian algorithms. Grayson sighed and glanced at the clock. He had three more meetings like this scheduled for today; to him Jaden was just one of dozens of boys who didn’t pay attention and had parents who made excuses.
Jaden left most of his insults and nicknames at his front door. Although he did share with his parents the name he had for the neighbors over the back hedge: the Sprats. When he told them that nickname, his mother burst out laughing, and his father warned him with a smile not to say that name out of the house. However, his parents were amused enough to repeat the nickname to their friends one night over cocktails.
“Get this,” said David, after his third martini. “The husband is a thin as a prisoner of war, and his wife looks like the ‘before’ picture in a Weight Watcher’s commercial.”
“And she’s a good six inches taller than him too,” added Laura, refilling her wine glass.
“And about two feet wider!” laughed his father.
“They do look just like the illustration in Jaden’s old nursery rhyme books.” She leaned closer to her guests. “Guess what the husband’s name is.”
“Jack Sprague!” interrupted David. He continued in a singsong voice. “Jack Sprague could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean!”
“I think you’ve had enough, sweetie.”
“You always think I’ve had enough!”
“What’s the wife’s name?” asked one of the guests, more from a desire to steer the conversation away from David’s drinking than to actually know.
“Mabel,” he slurred. “Doesn’t fit in with a nursery rhyme. More like something you’d name a cow at the Iowa State Fair.”
“Maybe that’s how they met,” suggested Laura. “He was the judge and she was the blue ribbon winner.”
The two of them giggled like tipsy children, while their guests glanced at each other uneasily. Jaden listened to the conversation at the top of the stairs and smiled. If his parents only knew what nicknames their son had given them, they would certainly laugh less.
One day, while waiting for his father to pay for his coffee at Starbucks, Jaden swiped an expensive looking cell phone from one of the tables. He didn’t need one, it was just something to do. He was wise enough not to call his friends with it, but it had a pretty good camera and video recorder. He spent a few days taking pictures and video, uploading them to his computer before getting bored with the phone and tossing it down a storm drain. He brought his bully friends over one day and showed them his collection. Among the photos, were shots of his cartoonish neighbors, which his friends found riotous.
“Jesus Christ, look at that pig!” exclaimed Brandon, who was not so slender himself. “She must weigh four hundred pounds!”
“She probably eats all of her husband’s food; he looks like he’s starving” said Charlie, the leader of the gang. He was the strongest, and having already been left behind a grade, the oldest.
“I call them the Sprats,” said Jaden.
Charlie looked at him blankly.
“You know, like the nursery rhyme.”
Charlie still looked confused. Jaden recited the poem:
“Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so between the two of them,
They licked the platter clean.”
“Her husband better keep a lot of fat in that house,” said Steve Clooney, the lone black kid of the gang. He was tough and mean in a fight, which was why the other boys referred to him as Steve Coonie only when he wasn’t around. “Otherwise she might eat him instead.”
“Hey, you know that fat kid that went missing last week?” asked Jaden. “I bet she ate him!”
The other boys laughed, so he continued. “Plenty of fat for her, not so much lean for him!”
The boys laughed harder.
Bored of the joke, Jaden abruptly changed the subject. “Hey, you want to see the pictures I took in the girl’s bathroom?”
The mockery of the Spragues was quickly dropped.
It wasn’t until a few days later, when the papers reported that the thigh bone of Adam Scott, the fat kid who had been missing for over two weeks, had turned up that the boys thought of the Spragues again. The Clarksons’ ancient golden retriever had brought the suspiciously large bone to their porch, and a nervous Mrs. Clarkson had turned it over to the police. Not only did the bone belong to the missing boy, it had teeth marks all over it.
Human teeth marks.
The next day at school, rumors flew up and down the halls. Even though Adam Scott had lived on the other side of town, and went to a different school, everyone seemed to know him, or have a story to tell. In the cafeteria, the stories got progressively more gruesome. Kevin Boyle’s father being on the police force gave weight to Kevin’s version of the story. It didn’t matter that his father had worked behind the desk for the past twelve years, and spent more time filling out forms than doing anything else. Kevin wove a compelling tale to Charlie’s gang.
“There was still a hunk of Adam meat attached,” he said, mesmerizing the gang. “And when they put it under a microscope, you know what they found?” A dramatic pause. “Barbecue sauce!”
Jaden was jealous of the attention. “You know,” he lied, “a couple of weeks ago I was looking out my window, and I saw some fat kid with the Spragues in their backyard. They don’t have any kids, maybe it was Adam.”
“Bullshit,” said Steve, “why didn’t you say anything before?”
“Well,” said Jaden, thinking quickly, “I just saw a fat kid and figured it was the lady’s nephew or something. I didn’t put two and two together until just now.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t put two and two together, you put two and bullshit together. You don’t know if that’s the Adam kid or not.”
Next to Jaden, Steve was the smartest kid in the group, and he didn’t trust Jaden much. Jaden carefully fed disparaging remarks and racist comments to the rest of the gang to keep Steve from being too well liked. He lived in constant dread of Steve overthrowing Charlie and becoming leader of the boys. Charlie didn’t have the brains for leadership; he didn’t have much in the brains department. He did have older brothers who were stars of the high school football team, who also had a reputation for being tough off the field. It was their legacy, plus Charlie’s own strength, that made him leader. Jaden stuck close to his side, feeding him clever remarks, and basking in his protection.
“Maybe you should keep your eyes open,” said Brandon “report anything suspicious.”
He thoughtfully rubbed the small diamond stud he had in his earlobe, a recent birthday present. Brandon thought it made him look cool and tough, but Jaden secretly thought it made him look more like a fatter version of Elton John. Steve rolled his eyes at the suggestion, but the bell rang, interrupting their conversation.
On Tuesday, Jaden was late coming home; he had been eavesdropping on two teachers in the parking lot, hoping to find out if there would be a surprise history test tomorrow. Unfortunately, all the two talked about was the Scott boy; they rehashed the same gossip that had circulated in the lunchroom.
His father had already arrived home and retrieved the mail. There was a letter from Mr. Grayson informing his parents that Jaden was failing math. It was a letter Jaden had intended to intercept, being something of an expert in mail fraud. However, this afternoon he was banished to his room to study.
Locked in his room, the math book open on his desk, Jaden stared out the window. It was a beautiful, sunny day, one of the last few left of the fall. He resented being stuck inside, though if he was free to do as he wished, he would most likely stay indoors. Charlie had gotten the latest Gears of War release; his friends were probably over at Charlie’s house, refining their assassination skills. Jaden idly drew a tank in the margins of his notebook and rested his chin on his hand. His room was hot and stuffy; soon he dozed off.
He was awakened not by sound but by scent: the smell of meat cooking. Jaden opened his eyes, his stomach restless with hunger. Mr. Sprague stood in front of his barbeque grill in his backyard. It appeared that he was basting an enormous roast. Jaden’s mouth watered. His parents were on another one of their short-lived health kicks—he had endured a few weeks of organic vegetables and baked skinless chicken, supplemented with candy bars swiped from the grocery store.
As he watched Mr. Sprague poke at the meat with a fork, Mrs. Sprague appeared, carrying a tumbler of a dark red liquid. That’s a big glass of wine, Jaden thought, followed by a darker idea. That’s not wine, that’s blood. She handed the glass to her husband, who drank deeply, leaving a crimson mark around his mouth. Mrs. Sprague went back into her house, returning a moment later with an enormous platter. Her husband carefully transferred the roast onto the platter. That’s the biggest hunk of meat I’ve ever seen, Jaden thought, and that woman’s probably going to eat it all in one sitting. He felt a stirring of envy; he had seen his mother putting out tofu for dinner tonight.
The phone rang downstairs, but he ignored it. Jaden only answered calls coming in on his private line. A moment later his mother yelled for him at the bottom of the stairs. Reluctantly, he dragged himself out of his chair and opened the door.
“It’s Brandon’s mother,” Laura said, “Brandon never came home, and she was wondering where he was. Do you know if where he could be?”
Actually Brandon hadn’t been in school that day either, but Jaden hadn’t thought much of it. It wasn’t uncommon for Brandon to skip school. He’s probably playing Xbox at Charlie’s, he thought, but he didn’t want Brandon to get in trouble.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Can I get back to studying?”
He heard his mother relay the message to Brandon’s mother, then hang up the phone.
“You’ve been studying so hard this afternoon, sweetie, I think that’s enough. You deserve a reward. Would you like me to order pizza tonight? We can have tofu tomorrow.”
That night Jaden gorged himself on pizza and garlic bread.
“Maybe not a fourth slice, dear,” said his mother, “you don’t want to end up looking like your friend, do you?”
“Brandon’s not that fat,” said Jaden through a mouthful of cheese.
“He looks like that fat kid from The Goonies, what was his name, Chunk?” said his father.
“Who?” said Jaden.
“Never mind,” said Laura.
“Be nice!” she whispered under her breath to her husband.
That evening, Jaden fell into a deep peaceful sleep, free from anxiety and bad dreams. Over the next few days, when Brandon failed to turn up, Jaden’s nights got progressively worse. He watched obsessively out his window, looking for a hint. In the mornings, walking alone to school, he no longer cut through the Spragues’ back yard. It was a short cut both he and Brandon had used.
At school, a respectful silence surrounded Jaden and his friends. Though no trace of Brandon had turned up yet, in most people’s minds he was already dead and buried, and probably eaten as well. The boys were given a cautious sort of treatment. When Steve was caught stealing from a younger student, Mr. Grayson suggested detention rather than the five day suspension that was the customary punishment. Charlie’s chronic lateness which usually sent him to the principal’s office went unremarked. Even Mrs. Leonard, no big fan of Jaden, allowed him to skip a pop quiz she was giving, citing his “certain despair” over his missing friend as her reason.
Jaden told his friends about the barbeque and his suspicions, but they weren’t convinced.
“I don’t know,” said Steve. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of evidence.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kevin, whose knowledge of police procedure was drawn more from television than any wisdom from his father. “You gotta get more if you want the police to search their house.
Jaden felt himself losing ground. “I’m telling you guys, there’s something about these people that’s just wrong.” He looked anxiously at Charlie for support, who shrugged noncommittally.
“I dunno, man,” he said, rising from the table. “I gotta go meet Katie Benedict. She agreed to let me copy her science homework.”
The three other boys looked at Charlie, surprised. Katie was one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the school, and usually had nothing to do with Charlie or his friends.
“Wow,” said Kevin. Charlie smiled.
“What can I say?” he said. “She feels sorry for me.”
The boys watched him go, distracted. Jaden gathered up his books and headed out the door also, a plan formulating in his mind.
When the final bell rang that afternoon, the school emptied quickly. On Fridays, there were no after-school clubs or tutoring, just a few unlucky boys stuck in detention on the first floor. Jaden waited in the bathroom on the third floor until it was silent, then made his way over to the guidance counselor’s office.
It was anonymity that Jaden sought. The police could easily trace the phone call back to the school, but they wouldn’t know which kid out of the hundreds who went there had made it. After a quick scan of the hallway, Jaden dialed the police station’s number from memory. Pitching his voice a little higher than normal, he quickly explained to the person that answered that he had seen Brandon Monroe get caught by the Mr. Sprague as he cut through their backyard. He had seen Mr. Sprague yell at Brandon and drag him into his house. When the operator pressed him for more details, he nervously hung up the phone.
“Jaden? What are you doing?” Jaden jumped and spun around and found himself facing Mr. Grayson, the guidance counselor
“Nothing!” he stammered nervously, but Mr. Grayson was already picking up the phone and hitting the redial button.
“Sit down,” he hissed to Jaden, who sat miserably on a hard wooden chair.
He listened to the counselor identify himself to the police and explain that Jaden was pulling a prank, all the while glaring at the boy. When he hung up the phone, his expression softened a bit. He squatted down by the chair.
“Jaden you understand that you can really hurt people by playing this sort of game, right?” he asked in his best guidance counselor voice.
“It’s not a game!” Jaden retorted, “I know they have something to do with the missing kids, with, with Brandon!”
“And how do you know this?” Grayson asked gently.
Jaden opened his mouth to speak and stopped. What could he say? That Mabel Sprague was fat? That her husband was creepy looking? He had seen him drink a big glass of what might very well have been cranberry juice, and they used a barbeque grill. When you said these things out loud, Jaden realized, it sounded a lot stupider than when you thought about them in your bedroom late at night. His eyes brimmed with tears in frustration.
“Hey, hey,” said Grayson, “I know you’ve had a rough time with your friend going missing. Why don’t we keep this little incident between ourselves?” Jaden nodded eagerly, letting a calculated tear slide down his cheek. Grayson smiled sympathetically and offered to drive him home.
Once in the car, Grayson offered to swing by McDonalds and get him a milkshake. “It will give you a chance to feel better before you get home,” he said.
This just gets better and better, thought Jaden as they drove away. I should use Brandon’s disappearance for something. He was speculating idly on whether he wanted a new Xbox or a Playstation when he spotted something shiny on the floor of the car. Without thinking, he carelessly picked it up. It was a diamond earring, like the kind Brandon wore. Jaden quickly glanced over to see Grayson looking at him.
“Well damn,” said Grayson , stepping on the accelerator “I knew I forgot something.”
Jaden fumbled for the door but couldn’t open it.
“Child proof locks,” he explained to the boy.
Jaden lunged at him, but Grayson was quicker. His hand darted out and slammed the boy’s head against the window. Dazed and bleeding, he struggled weakly, but another few punches from the guidance counselor stilled him.
“Why?” he gasped weakly.
“It’s an old tradition,” answered Grayson airily “You probably wouldn’t understand. Besides do you know how expensive groceries get on my salary?”
He slapped at Jaden’s fumbling hands. He pulled out his cell phone and pressed a button.
“Margaret!” he said. “You’ll never guess who I’m having over for dinner tonight. Your favorite little math student.”
He paused for a moment, listening. “Yep, that little snot who drew that nasty picture of you in his shitty comic book.”
Jaden heard an exultant screech on the other end of the call. “I know, karma, right? So would you like to come over tonight and have dinner with me? I’ll fire up the grill and see you around eight.”
He smiled cruelly at Jaden. “Don’t forget your secret sauce!”
Jennifer Solomon has been recently published in Title Goes Here, Aoife, and Sounds of the Night. She has just completed a young adult novel, The Phantoms of Red River High. Currently she resides in New Rochelle, New York.