This story is by Kate Murphy and was a runner-up in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Kate Murphy is a writer and marketer living in Mexico. Kate spends her time traveling (check out her blog at metakatedtravel.com), running, and learning new board games. She’s currently finishing up a novel with support from the world’s most incredible writing group, Writers With Cats.
It was another miserable morning in a string of incessantly gray days when Beverly pulled aside the flimsy lace curtain and first glimpsed Millie’s even-paced shuffle. A shadow had initially drawn her to the window. She suspected the nasty black cat that had been hanging around might be lurking in her box hedges. But there was no cat, only her neighbor Millie in the road. She shuffled past without waving. Beverly frowned and closed the curtain.
The next morning, Beverly checked to make sure no cars were parked on the street. This was a favorite part of her daily routine; she’d gleefully ring the HOA to let them know about her neighbors’ policy violation. When Beverly glanced at the street, she found herself watching Millie walk by yet again. It was a strange coincidence, but Beverly didn’t believe in fate. Everything in her life could be controlled, managed, or leveraged.
Proper control was how she’d handled her son when he brought a boy home; unacceptable behavior was not tolerated in her home. He left. Her ex-husbands had to be dealt with so that she could control her own finances. Their departures were more permanent. Taking control of the situation was the practical prescription for all ailments.
The third day, Beverly watched Millie trudge past as sleet tapped at the glass. Strange to walk circles in this weather! She hadn’t thought about Millie since her tiny dog used to escape and wander the neighborhood, but now wished she’d paid more attention. She couldn’t stand that dog—it peed on her hydrangeas and forced that damned black cat to clamber into the underbelly of her car.
In the week after the dog disappeared, Beverly had watched the community message board fill up with condolences. He had been Millie’s only companion—his loss hit the woman hard. She never did suspect the rat baits Beverly hid under her flower bushes. I’ve always had a penchant for crushing problems before they begin, Beverly thought smugly. Come to think of it, she could use the same solution on the pesky cat. A smile twitched at the corners of her lips as she watched Millie shuffle along dog-less. It had been a horrible animal, really.
Beverly gazed out the window on the fourth morning and promptly spilled her coffee. She rushed to sop up the lukewarm mess, commending herself for the plastic chair cover. She’d always known proper planning could prevent any stain.
She directed her frustration outside at the scene that had caused the spill. It wasn’t just Millie walking anymore. Who was that with her? Beverly squinted.
A man resembling her son’s ex-boyfriend walked just behind Millie, but she couldn’t be sure it was him. Beverly had only met the man once, then told Mark to call her when he learned to make better choices. Mark and the man she vaguely remembered was named Bobby had separated; she just couldn’t remember why.
When had this look-alike moved into the neighborhood? And why was he walking with Millie?
For the next several days, the pair walked from the dim light of dawn until well past a decent bedtime at an unnaturally equal pace. If Beverly stared long enough, they’d round the cul-de-sac and continue on past her house. It seemed that every time she glanced away and looked back, they were passing by her window.
Beverly did not, as a rule, take an interest in other people. But she’d been in this house alone for several years with no one consistently in her life but the voices on the blue glow of the news. She wasn’t worried. She was intrigued. From the moment she woke until well after she triple-checked the locks and slipped into bed, the walkers trod circles through her mind. She’d wake in the middle of the night, sure that she could hear the scratch of Millie’s house shoes on the pavement outside.
After a week, she reported the behavior. She’d given these two long enough to act normal. “There’s someone out there walking all day long. Some woman who lives down the street,” she told the HOA.
“If she lives in the neighborhood, there’s not much we can do ma’am. Have a nice—” Beverly huffed and hung up. She resigned herself to ignoring them. Two hours later, without ever consciously moving towards the window, she found herself with her head stuck between the curtains.
She inhaled sharply. Two men, one short, one tall, both bald, had joined the slow march. They wore dark clothing and were hard to distinguish in the fog-choked neighborhood. It couldn’t be her ex-husbands, logically; Beverly herself had ensured that neither would ever walk this street again. But the primal part of her brain still itched with a worry that wouldn’t disintegrate.
This has to be one of my awful neighbors playing a cruel joke, Beverly reasoned. If no one else was willing to crush this behavior, that was just fine. She’d do it herself. She dressed in her black coat, buttoned to her chin. She put on mauve lipstick and her most authoritative attitude. She dialed HOA as she walked to the end of the driveway.
“Hello. This is the resident at 245 Cluster Lane. I am here to report Millie Robertson in violation of neighborhood policy. She is walking around with a small gang of horrible people, terrorizing the neighbors.” She smiled feverishly as Millie steadily scraped her way around the cul-de-sac.
“Um, I am so sorry to tell you this, but Millie no longer lives in the neighborhood.”
Beverly sniffed, triumphant. “Well then. All the more reason to come arrest her for trespassing. I can wait here until the cops arrive.”
The receptionist cleared her throat. “I am so sorry to tell you this, but Millie Robertson passed away last week. If another resident is a problem, we can send out an officer . . .”
Beverly didn’t hear the rest. She dropped the phone to her side. A breeze blew through her as the group approached. Millie’s eyes sagged, lids heavy, but her posture betrayed no fatigue.
Beverly stiffened her spine, pulled her shoulders back and prepared herself. The receptionist must have been mistaken. That was the trouble with people, Beverly thought, no attention to detail. Just look at this group, with their sour attitudes, doing nothing but walk all day long. The walkers moved closer. Beverly always got things done, and she wasn’t going to stop now.
The Bobby look-alike stared straight ahead, eyes on a cloud-smudged horizon. The bald men kept their heads down. Beverly cleared her throat.
“You’re Millie, correct?” Millie didn’t answer, didn’t bat an eye. She walked at the same pace. A few meters until she was in front of Beverly’s house. Beverly ignored goosebumps.
How dare this woman torment her with her incessant walking, and then ignore her!
“You look awful. Are you scouting the houses, staging a break-in?” Beverly let a trace of anger temper her voice. People were like dogs; you couldn’t show fear. You had to prove you were in charge. Still, Millie walked.
Beverly pursed her lips, anger simmering. Did this woman really think she could ignore Beverly? Beverly, who had been here all these years, who understood all the rules and made sure everyone around her understood them as well.
“Really, to carry on like this in public! I called the HOA and I’m going to have them send police if you don’t answer me,” Beverly shrieked. At the moment that Millie stepped in front of her, the black cat whom Beverly had been waiting for all along skittered out of the bushes. It ran straight at her ankles, devilment in its eyes. Beverly jumped forward, directly in the group’s path.
Millie stopped walking. A sob billowed out of her like smoke into the winter air. “Follow the leader,” she whispered. Then she smiled so wide that Beverly’s lunch soured in her stomach.
Beverly stepped back. “You stay off my property, hear me? And if I see you causing any trouble I will be reporting you.” Beverly tried to run back into her house, but her thoughts and her actions were disconnected. She willed herself to drag the curtains shut and lock the door, to let someone else deal with these people, but her legs disobeyed.
There was only one thing to do; she would take control of this parade of horrors. Beverly did not look at her ex-husbands, their sickly skin a reminder of the medications that had deteriorated their health and helped Beverly steal their futures and fortunes. She ignored the road rash marring Bobby’s face, though she now remembered the motorcycle accident that took him from Mark, and the subsequent funeral she refused to attend. The small dog emerged from the dead hydrangea. He joined the pack, nipping at her heels.
As long as she kept moving, as long as she remained in control, nothing could hurt her. She took her last deep breath, stepped in front of Millie, and began walking.