By Nicola Vallera
I flatten my potato nose against the cold glass. The old lady across the street stands like a stone figure, her piercing gaze drilling into me like she can see through my soul. A chill runs down my spine as she raises her arm and points in my direction. I hold my breath, knowing that if I move, she can spot me.
It must be because of my left ear, leaning forward like a pig. Everybody hates it.
The old woman is scheming with Jim Carlson, who lives next door. He’s an ex-football player who doesn’t do shit. I saw them exchange secretive glances and knew something was up.
“Dr. Klopp, what’s your opinion?” I say, keeping my face on the glass.
“Everybody wants to see you dead,” a rasping voice says. “No one will show any mercy.”
His words come like a curse. They chill my blood.
“Your ear, Sebastian… your ear.”
A dim light flickers in a house next to mine. Its glow makes the darkness alive like Christmas had come early.
“So, these must be the newcomers?” Dr. Klopp says.
“They took over for the cursed family.”
Dr. Klopp murmurs in disappointment. “Those who reported you to the police?”
“I was fulfilling my duty… the good citizen, spying on them.”
“You did it well, Sebastian.”
“Their teenage sons laughed at your ear.”
“They were plotting against me.”
I glance at the wall clock. Its numerals glow in a red hue against the backdrop of darkening twilight. The hands are creeping towards five o’clock, and I know I must hurry. It’s getting late.
I say goodbye to Dr. Klopp and wrap myself in my beloved green jacket adorned with the Celtics emblem. Then I take to the street, scurrying my short legs in corduroy pants and sneakers. The chill of winter brushes against my bald head, prompting me to don a wool cap. It’s black and blends into the night.
I don’t want to be seen. I don’t want my neighbors to catch me and cut my throat. Neighbors kill like it’s nothing.
A familiar figure catches my eye as I round the corner onto the street that leads to the supermarket. Mrs. Sinclair, the retired lady from behind my house, always wears a ruby shawl and walks her poodle. A chill runs through me as her icy gaze locks onto mine. She might be armed, and if I cross her, she might stick a dagger into my back.
I hurry to the opposite sidewalk. My heart pounds, and every second feels like an eternity. When I glance back, the woman has already turned the corner.
I must lock my house, or someone will slit my throat while sleeping.
I tremble as I approach the supermarket. The clock in the supermarket reads 5.12 PM. Dr. Kropp says waiting until five is the safest hour for shopping. At least my closest neighbors never come after five.
The cashier glares at me with his brows furrowed, and his teeth grit as he runs my items through the scanner. I know he hates my ear. Without surveillance cameras, he’d have been on me in seconds. I picture him pushing me against the shelves and pressing his beefy hands into my neck.
I bought frozen noodles to prevent food poisoning. The ice is too hard to inject anything harmful.
I tremble, gazing at the floor.
What if the cashier shoots me? Do salesclerks have guns? Oh my god!
“Seventeen dollars and twenty-five cents,” the cashier says, a slight smirk on his face.
My heart skips a beat at the thought of what he could mean with those numbers. Seventeen times twenty-five bullets? Four hundred twenty-five bullets? He keeps drumming his thick fingers, and I’m helpless.
Should I pay or run?
The tension is thick in the air. I search for answers, but all I find is chaos.
I pull a crisp twenty-dollar bill from my pocket and slam it on the counter. I don’t even wait for the change and take off running. With all the money Mom and Dad left me, survival isn’t a problem.
I retrace the road, hastening because my instinct says I’ll meet someone. My hunch always gets it right, alas.
A station wagon is creeping into my new neighbors’ garage. I walk past it, but it backs out. It does it with such speed that it bumps into my shoulder, and I fall. The shopping bag I’m carrying rips open. The packet of noodles with garlic-chili seasoning inside it rolls under the back wheel of the car. I hear a crunching sound as the wheel comes down on it.
Someone says, “Oh my god!”
Someone tries to help me up. Then more people gather around. I stand up and see a young woman in her early twenties with blonde hair and tears in her eyes. A man with a thick black mustache stands behind her. Next to him is a woman in her forties. She looks like an older version of the younger woman. Beside her, a boy around thirteen is biting his lip.
“I’m such a bad driver, so sorry,” the young woman stutters. “I wanted to move forward, but my foot slipped.”
Did she try to kill me or what?
I lost my cap, so I keep my hand on my crooked ear. If they see it, they’ll kill me.
“The wheel smashed your food,” the older woman says.
“I bet it was your dinner,” says the man, waving toward the remnants of my noodles.
I glance at him and nod, but my mind is racing with worry.
“Would you like to join us for dinner?” the older woman says.
If they invite me to dinner, what could be their next step? Poisoning me? And where would they hide my body?
“I’m feeling quite uneasy about trusting others,” I tell them.
The man stares at me and chuckles.
The other members of his family gaze at me with a combination of astonishment and skepticism.
The man tames his chuckling. “You must be a joker.”
“Please,” the older woman insists. “We would be delighted.”
“We moved in yesterday,” the man says. “We can’t wait to meet our neighbors.”
“Did the car hit your ear?” the young woman asks.
Oh-ho. They suspect me.
I shake my head, but my hand doesn’t move from my ear. I’m about to head back to my house when the man suddenly grabs me and steers me toward his house.
“Hey, come on! Don’t turn me down. I want you to say yes.”
I can’t disengage. He might hide a blade under his sweater sleeve and slit my throat. I must keep a cool head.
I find myself in the dining room. The young woman is adding another seat.
“Do you want me to look at your ear?” the older woman asks.
“Why?” I ask her in alarm.
“I see you holding it in your hand.”
“No, no, thank you.”
“Need to use the restroom?” the man asks.
He directs me toward the stairs. “It’s upstairs. Last door on the left.”
I hasten up, thinking of how to escape through the window.
I’ll fall on the hedge dividing our houses.
I enter the bathroom. But the view outside the window scares me because of the height. I can’t help but observe that the hedge is situated a couple of feet away, not below.
I can’t jump, or I’ll hurt myself on the pavement. So I’ll flood the bathroom. Then the family will come, and they’ll check it out. And while they’re distracted, I’ll flee from the main door.
I plug the hole in the tub with a towel and turn on the water. Then I start down the corridor. I hear whispers from downstairs when I’m about to step on the stairs.
“The accident must have shocked him,” the young woman says.
“Be more cautious,” says the man.
“But Dad… he suddenly came out….”
It doesn’t seem like they’re planning my murder. Did I exaggerate? Are they nice people?
But the man says, “Give me the big knife, and I’ll cut the beast into slices.”
Argh! There you go. They want to kill me.
“How do you kill a pig?” the boy asks.
“You start with its ears,” the man says.
“Why from there?”
“Because they’re crooked.”
I back away in panic. I’m in a house of killers.
I run into a room to check on its window—too high. There are dolls on a shelf. I need to remove their heads. The family may have used the dolls for magic. So I take one and snap its head. I repeat the process with the others until thirteen heads are on the ground. Afterward, I move to another room filled with robots and superhero posters.
I pick up a comic book on the bed and flip through its pages. I come across some curious phrases that Spiderman uses while talking to a criminal. Like, “I’m gonna give you a little tug on the ear….”
I tear up the page and put it in my pocket. It’s evidence. As I reach into my pocket, I feel the texture of wool. It’s the cap I had been wearing earlier on the street. I don’t know how it ended up in my pocket, but I probably dropped it during the accident. Absent-mindedly, I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Now that I think about it, the cap could conceal my deformed ears, and the family wouldn’t notice.
I put on my cap and pull it down to cover my ears when suddenly I hear the man’s voice calling me from the stairs.
“Everything OK?” he says.
I briskly make my way through the corridor, trying my best not to draw any unwanted attention.
“Yep,” I say.
I head downstairs, and the man questions whether I’m feeling cold.
Why that question? They want to put me in the oven and cook me—cursed cannibals.
“Nope,” I say.
“Why don’t you take off your cap?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“If you say so….”
The woman approaches us. “Dinner’s ready. Please, this way.”
As we move to the table full of food, I can’t help but feel uneasy. The boy and the young woman are already seated. The man and his wife take the heads of the table. I sit at the side, facing their children. The man watches me with a wide grin, but when I look at his wife, her smile seems forced and apprehensive.
“My bad for not introducing myself earlier,” the man says. “My name’s George, and I’m a salesman.”
Bullshit. You’re a monster aiming to cut off my ear.
“I’m Laura,” the woman says. “I work as a physical therapist at St. John’s Hospital.”
Are you just putting on an act and pretending to live a normal life?
According to Dr. Kropp, the most dangerous beings often appear to be the most trustworthy.
“This is Anne,” she says, pointing to her daughter.
The girl pulls an embarrassed smile, showing her braces.
“Anne is studying to be a doctor.”
The boy makes a disgusted face.
“And that’s Ethan,” the woman says, pointing at the boy. “He wants to know about everything except studying.”
The boy rolls his eyes.
Bullshit! I know what you want. But you won’t get my ear.
“And you?” George asks. “What’s your name?”
“Sebastian,” I say in a low voice.
“What a beautiful name,” Laura says, forcing a smile.
“I bet you work in an office?” George says.
“Why would he want to work in a boring old office?” Laura asks.
George watches me, and I nod.
“You see?” he says. “I have a sixth sense about things.”
You call them things; I call them ears.
“I bet you work in a department store,” George says, stroking his big black mustache.
I nod. I must humor them.
“What department?” Laura asks.
“Wait,” George says. “Let me guess.”
He squints and puts on a serious face like a fortune teller. But I can tell it’s all an act.
“I bet you work in the stationery department.”
“In an office in the stationary department.”
“In an office in a department store’s stationary department.”
What a drag!
“See?” George says and chuckles.
Ethan glares at me. I gulp and sense the sweat trickling down my skin. But Anne smiles. George gets up, grabs a large knife, and I wince.
I’m about to scream. But if I cry, the killers will know that I know. With an immense effort, I contain myself. The man plunges the knife into the roast and slices it.
“How long have you been living here, Sebastian?” Laura asks.
“Thirty-two years,” I say.
“Thirty-two?” she asks. “How old are you?”
“Ah… so you’ve lived here all your life?”
“Yes, but Dr. Kropp told me to keep things on the down low. Better safe than sorry, right?”
“Safe?” Laura asks.
“Who’s Dr. Kropp?” asks George.
Someone rings the doorbell.
Have they invited more cannibals?
As everyone watches the door, I swiftly duck under the table to hide from view. Then I overhear a conversation between a woman and George before she leaves, and the door shuts.
“A woman got the wrong address,” George says. “Where’s Sebastian?”
“Oops,” Laura says. “Where is he?”
“He was here a moment ago,” says Anne.
I hear the noise of the chairs. They all stand up.
“Has he gone to the bathroom?” Laura asks.
They call my name. I hear footsteps heading upstairs moments later, followed by a scream. Though I should run, I hear Anne shouting from the bathroom, “Come over here!” prompting me to consider a different plan.
Everyone’s in the bathroom. I’m gonna lock them inside so they don’t follow me home, and then I’ll have time to barricade myself.
I hurry upstairs and glance into the bathroom. I see the entire family soaking their feet by the tub filled to the brim with water. The tub is so full that it resembles a public fountain. I quickly remove the keys from the door and close it with a loud slam. Before anyone reaches the door, I lock it. Loud banging on the door and piercing screams fill the air.
“Hey!” George yells. “What are you doing?”
“Dr. Kropp says that an exceptional situation calls for exceptional measures,” I say.
“Who the hell is Dr. Kropp?” George roars.
“You’re a freak!” Anne says.
“Call the police,” says Laura.
Police? Not the police.
I must do something. I’m not the bad guy. They are monsters.
Setting fire to the house appeals to me. So I run downstairs and grab the oven lighter in the kitchen. I open a door and enter the garage. There are a couple of gallons of gasoline. I grab them. Then I return to the house and spill the gas in the living room. I leave a trail leading to the main door. Then I open it, set fire to the trail, shut it, and hurry to my house.
But a voice orders me to stop. It says to raise my hands and not to move. Police officers, unaware of my ordeal, handcuff me.
“Call the firemen!” a policeman yells.
The flames engulf the house. When the firefighters arrive, I’m sure the cannibals burned to death.
But peering through the window of the police car, I see them. The cannibals are walking toward an ambulance wrapped in blankets.
As I glance toward the back window, I notice a group of neighbors standing a few feet away. They observe the situation. Some hold their arms crossed while others record on their phones. I spot Jim Carlson and the old woman.
A journey to the police station follows. The officers don’t spare glares. Once we arrive, I find myself in a stifling room. A woman and a man face me.
The woman questions me about my presence in the house that caught fire. I’m about to disclose the truth about the killers’ intentions when an officer interrupts. He whispers something in the woman’s ear. The woman looks at me with an embarrassed expression.
“You’re free to go,” she tells me. “The family confessed.”
“Confessed what?” her colleague asks.
“They confessed they murdered the family who lived in the house. They hid the corpses in the basement. Can you believe they were planning his assassination?” The woman points to me.
“Why?” the man asks.
“Sebastian’s ear has an anomaly.”
“It faces forward.”
She watches me with pitiful eyes.
“Isn’t that right, Sebastian?”
“So?” the man asks.
“Looks like the family wasn’t OK with it.”
The woman turns to me. “You’re lucky, Sebastian. There are plenty of lunatics out there.”
I get up and follow a policeman who drives me home. Once inside, I make my way to the window. I must survey my neighbors. They want to kill me.
“The family wanted to bake me like a turkey,” I say.
“Be wary of accepting invitations from your neighbors,” warns Dr. Kropp.
His voice is low and raspy and echoes through the darkness.
Nicola Vallera is a certified English teacher with credentials from the University of Cambridge (Celta). He currently resides in Brazil and enjoys indulging in his hobbies of reading and writing. Vallera has published several short stories, including “The Endless City” (2019) in Deadman’s Tome and Datura, “The Beggar on the Bridge” (2023) in Fabula Argentea, “She Deserved to Die” (2023) in Adelaide Magazine, and “Tim” (2023) in both Modern Literature and Kathai Literary Journal.