Prompt as Hell with KJ and Budgie #5 – International Repetitive Strain Injury Awareness Day

KJ and I give each other writing prompts each Wednesday, and we have to write a piece based on that prompt, no matter what it is. We are not allowed to reveal the prompts.

This is Prompt as Hell with KJ Marshall and Budgie Bigelow.

Episode 5: International Repetitive Strain Injury Awareness Day

I hear it’s considered politically incorrect to make Polack jokes, and that goes double if they’re undead. My tale takes place on the last day of February, the twenty-eighth. There was no twenty-ninth that year.

I had recently moved into my new home, a small cape on the corner of Hill Road and Maple. It was a nice neighborhood, the kind where you can raise a family. My family was just myself and my two dogs, Jack and Howitzer. They were a couple of lap dog mutts, but they were my furry babies. I was watching them outside on an unusually warm February day when I saw the first movement I’ve seen from the house next door since I moved to Hill RD. A red-headed woman walked outside. She was unlike my ex-wife in a lot of ways except the hair. She put on a pair of sunglasses and gave me a smile and a wave before leaving.

I wanted to say something to her, even if it was just a quick chat. I know she was probably married, even though I hadn’t seen a husband, but I didn’t have much human interaction outside of work since my marriage had ended. I was lonely and bored with the vapid women I met on dating apps.

“Hey, neighbor,” someone said, making me jump. There was a middle-aged man standing at my hedges, the man of the house, so to speak. He had a crew cut and wore coke-bottle glasses like an old TV nerd. I wondered if he caught me watching his wife walk away. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “My mind was elsewhere. I didn’t even hear you until you spoke.”

My neighbor laughed and extended his hand over the hedge. “I’m John,” he said. “John Nowakowski.”

“James Carr,” I said, extending my own hand and shaking his. “Nice to meet you. I just saw your wife leaving.”

“My wife’s inside,” John replied.

“Oh,” I said. “Must have been someone else then.”

I waited for John to fill me in on who the redhead leaving his house was, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about her. “How are you liking the neighborhood?” he asked instead.

“It’s good,” I said. “It’s quiet.” I noticed my dogs were at the backdoor, scratching to get back inside. “That’s weird. They usually only do that to get out.”

“I’ll let you get back to your dogs,” John said, offering me a smile. “Why don’t you come by for dinner tonight. My wife would want to meet you too.”

I almost came up with an excuse to stay home, but I remembered how I needed some kind of human interaction in my life. Besides, maybe I can get him to divulge who the redhead is. “OK,” I replied. “Is six o’clock OK?”

“Six is perfect,” John replied. “I’ll see you then.”

“See you then,” I echoed. I turned and went toward my dogs. “Cut it out, guys. What the hell is your problem today?”

***

I set my dogs up with their beds and food in the kitchen and went over to John’s house for dinner. I knocked on the door once, and his wife was there to greet me. She was chubby, short, and blonde. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in. “Don’t stay out on the porch!” she said. “Come in!”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m James. I met your husband earlier.”

“I’m Betty,” she said. “Nice to actually meet you.”

“Likewise,” I said. I looked around the house. The colors were all mismatched, and there was a doe head mounted above the TV. Someone had put a Patriots hat on its head. There were pictures everywhere, but they were just of John and Betty. There were no children at all, and there was no sign of the redhead from earlier.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Betty said, taking my arm again and leading me to the kitchen. “We’re having minute steaks and mustard. After dinner, we have Pictionary!”

“Great,” I said, regretting my decision to come for dinner. She led me to the kitchen, where John was already waiting, unwrapping a package of Wonderbread.

“Thought you might like sandwiches!” John exclaimed. He had some pre-sliced Kraft singles in the center of the table too. Something told me that John and Betty Nowakowski didn’t have many people over for dinner.

***

Minute steaks sandwiches weren’t the worst dinner I had ever eaten, but it was a far cry from the best. I had eaten two sandwiches, but I was still hungry when we were done. I felt it was best to stop after two, though. We played Pictionary after, and that was pretty bad. It was supposed to be a team game, and Betty had declared herself the “designated guesser” since there were only three of us, a job she was terrible at performing. It was hard to draw with a woman screeching a hundred wrong answers in your ear.

The Nowakowskis were an odd pair, and that was putting it mildly. I remembered all the Polack jokes my dad used to make when I was a kid. I don’t think I knew any polish people back then, but I fully appreciated the jokes in a whole new light after dinner and games with my new neighbors.

“I need to get home,” I said, getting up after the last game of Pictionary came to its grateful end. “My dogs will need to go outside, and they don’t eat unless I’m with them.”

“They’ll be OK,” John said. “How about a drink?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I think I’ll just head back home.”

“Nonsense,” Betty said. “Stay a while. You can watch our slides from our trip to Miami last summer.”

“It was a good trip,” John said. “I promise I won’t do too much commentary.”

“He always says that, but he never means it,” Betty added.

“Really,” I said. “I should go.” I was just about to feign an oncoming bout of diarrhea when someone banged on the door. John and Betty just looked at each other.

“Are you going to answer the door?” I asked.

There was another knock, louder this time. John and Betty froze in place.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“POLICE!” the voice on the other end of the door shouted. “OPEN UP, OR WE’RE COMING IN!”

I turned back to where John and Betty were, but they were gone. Everything was gone; the furniture, the TV, the pictures, the doe wearing the Patriots hat, all of it, leaving just the floorboards. The house was dark and empty. “What the fuck?” I asked nobody.

The door was opened a moment later, and two police officers rushed in, guns drawn. “Hands above your head!” the one in front shouted. I did as he said. “Turn around!” he added. I once again complied with what I thought was a more than reasonable request. He came up to me and put my hands behind my back, cuffing my wrists. He read me my rights as he dragged me out of the empty house that belonged to the Nowakowskis and put me in the back of his cruiser.

***

I sat in my cell after sitting through two hours of questioning as to why I had broken into my neighbor’s empty house, a house in which nobody lives. I explained that I had been invited in by John and Betty, but they didn’t believe me. I had pleaded to let me go so I could take care of my dogs, but they told me I had to post bail first. I never had the chance to call anyone when the guard came by and unlocked my cell.

“You’re all set,” he said, opening the door.

“I am?” I asked. “How?”

“Never question a good deed,” the guard replied, “but charges were dropped.”

I was led to the lobby of the police station, and I was met by the redhead who was leaving the Nowakowskis’ house. She gave me a look of pity. “Hi,” she said. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and explain?”

“Maybe some other time,” I replied. “Thanks for getting me out, but I need to get home to my dogs.” Any other time and I would have loved to get to know her better, but my patience was gone, the circumstances were fucked up, and I just wanted to get home and rest my spinning head.

I walked past her and outside. I realized I was on the other side of town without a car. “I can give you a lift,” the redheaded woman said, following me outside.

I sighed. “Sure.” What choice did I have anyway?

“I can get that coffee to go too,” she added.

I looked in her worried face. There was something she wanted to tell me; and I had questions about what had happened, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the answers. “OK,” I said, relenting to her feminine charms. “A ride and a coffee to go. That’s all.”

***

The redheaded woman was Wendy Peterson, realtor, and her company owned the house next door. She had given me a card and showed me the listing to prove it was legit. I wasn’t an expert, but it didn’t seem doctored to me. I had gotten that much information out of her on the way home, but she wouldn’t give up anything else until we were in the comfort of my home.

My dogs had calmed down after a barking fit or two. They miraculously had kept their bladders in check during my whole ordeal. They were eating a late supper as I conversed with Wendy about my neighbors and their quirky disposition.

“John and Betty Nowakowski are dead,” Wendy said, holding her styrofoam cup with both hands. “They have been for ten years now.”

I wish she hasn’t said that as I was drinking. I choked and had to regain proper breathing so I could respond. “That’s impossible,” I said.

“You told me what happened,” Wendy said. “They were there one minute, and they were gone after the police responded to the silent alarm, furniture and all. How else do you explain it?”

I had no answer. The only other explanation involved aliens beaming them to outer space along with all their early possessions.

“Shit,” I said. “They’re really ghosts? So you’ve seen them too?”

“Yeah,” Wendy said. “I’ve been trying to sell their house for years, but they don’t want to go.”

“So others have seen them?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” Wendy replied. They’ve made their presence known, but you and I are the only ones they’ve conversed with as far as I know.”

I was silent again. My mind went to the haunted house, separated from my house by less than a hundred feet of open air and a line of hedges.

“I’m going to ask you a favor since you’ve had this experience,” Wendy said, “but I want you to know it’s not easy for me to ask.”

“What’s the favor?” I asked.

“Go back there with me,” Wendy replied. “Help me convince them they’re dead and talk them into moving on. They must like you if they’ve shown themselves to you. You’re the only person other than me I know of who’ve they’ve spoken to.”

I watched her, and she watched me right back. I weighed her request as she waited for my answer. My eyes were locked on hers, those beautiful, chocolate-brown eyes.

I’m such a sucker for a pretty woman.

“OK,” I said. “I guess I’ll help you.”

***

We walked through the Nowakowskis’ house, what used to be their house when they were still alive anyway. I half-expected the furniture and pictures to be back, even that stupid doe head and its hat, but there was nothing. “I don’t think we’ll find anything here,” I said, looking around.

“I was hoping they’d be here tonight,” Wendy said. “Maybe those cops scared them away.”

“Maybe,” I said. “You really need to sell this house, huh?”

“I just want this off my desk,” Wendy said. “It’s like the curse of my company. We have to pay the property taxes every year it doesn’t sell. I’m kind of desperate to be the one who finally gets rid of it.”

“I’m glad to help,” I said. “It’s just too bad they haven’t -”

“Anyone up for charades?!” John exclaimed, coming into the den. Betty followed with a plastic kitchen bowl full of little pieces of paper. The furniture was back, down to the doe head and its Patriots hat.

“We’re going to have so much fun!” Betty added, putting the bowl on the coffee table.

Wendy and I traded a look. Now that they were here, we needed to convince them they were dead. Now that the task was at hand, I had no idea how to go about it. Do I just tell them they’re dead? Do I have to be subtler than that?

“Why do you two look so glum?” Betty asked. “Can I get you some cold iced tea?”

“Um…” Wendy said. “Actually, we should talk. James?”

“Yeah,” I said, walking over to the couch and sitting with Wendy. “I think it’s high time we had a chat.”

“What did my husband do?” Betty asked. “I told him to trim that damn tree. Did any branches fall on your property? John, go over there and clean them up.”

“It’s the middle of the night!” John said. “I’m not picking up any branches!”

“It’s not about branches!” I snapped.

“Did anything odd happen ten years ago?” Wendy asked.

“Ten years?” Betty replied, her finger on her chin while she thought. “Not that I remember.”

“How about you, John?” Wendy asked.

“I think that was the year I fell off the roof,” John replied.

“How did that happen?” I asked.

“Well,” John said, shifting in his chair. “I was on the roof, cleaning the gutters. Betty came outside and came over to where I was working. She waved to me, and I waved back. I lost my balance, and I fell on top of her.”

“Did you get hurt?” I asked.

“Oh dear, no,” Betty said. “We just got right up and came back inside.”

Wendy and I shared another look. At least we knew how they died, and it was a death straight out of one of my dad’s old Polack jokes. Now I just needed to figure out how to use it.

“That fall would kill a regular guy,” I said.

“Good thing the doctor’s always call me irregular,” John said, chuckling to himself.

“Oh, stop!” Betty said. “His doctors have never said any such thing to him.”

“I’m serious,” I continued. “How do you know that fall hadn’t killed you.”

John and Betty shared a look.

“Think about it,” I said. “It’s been ten years since you took that fall. You’ve been in this house since. You haven’t worked, travelled, or done anything?”

“What are you trying to say?” John asked.

“You’ve been here,” I said. “Right here. Ten years. You haven’t aged. Do you understand?”

“No,” Betty said. “We live here. This is our home.”

“They’re not getting it,” Wendy said.

I sighed, thinking. “There’s a land of the living,” I said, “and a land of the dead, right?”

“Sure,” John said. “I know what you’re saying. I was raised Catholic after all.”

“So when you die,” I continued, “you go to the other side, heaven or wherever.”

“Right,” John said. He gave me an odd look. “You’re not one of those Mormons, are you?”

“We are happy with our religion if you are,” Betty said. “We can still be friends, but don’t go trying to convert us.” She shared a laugh with her husband.

“Dammit!” I said, standing. “How hard is it to convince two ghost Polacks that they’re dead?!”

The laughter died, and I got a dirty look from John and Betty. Wendy didn’t look to pleased with me either. “Do you have any idea how many Polack jokes I had to stand for at work?” John asked. “Every day, my boss would think it was funny to tell Polack jokes in front of me, and I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”

“It was humiliating,” Betty said. “Tell him the one about the Polack at the red light.”

“I’m not repeating it,” John said. “It was disgusting.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Damage is done, James,” John said. “Damage is done.”

“You know what?” Betty asked, putting her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “I don’t want to stay here and put up with this.”

“Me neither,” John said. “I’d never thought I’d hear that word in my own home.”

“John,” I said. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Goodbye,” John said. He looked at Wendy, who stood too. “I guess this house is yours now.”

“Goodbye, dear,” Betty said. “You’ve always been so nice to us.” She gave me one last glare, and the two of them were gone, furnishings and all.

“Well,” I said, looking at Wendy. “I guess that’s that.”

“Yeah,” Wendy replied said. “That was a little rough.”

“Sorry,” I said. “You’re not Polish, are you?”

“No,” Wendy replied. “It’s OK though. They’re gone, and that’s what matters.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Don’t be a stranger when you come by to sell this place off. Maybe we can get dinner some night after.”

“I’d like that,” Wendy said, taking my hand, smiling. “My number’s on my card if you ever get bored and want to text or call.”

“OK,” I said. “I think I will.”

So that’s my tale of how I met my ghost neighbors, exorcised them from their home, and banged the realtor who was trying to sell their house. Wendy sold the house, and there has been no activities from John and Betty. Sometimes I like to think of them on the other side, playing Pictionary or charades with other long-gone souls who wished they could die a second death just to get away from the Nowakowskis.

The End

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