“ALL RIGHT FOLKS, let’s calm down.” Mayor Wullisworth looked like he was patting the air as he tried to get everybody to sit down in the crowded community center. Martin Blarty stood a few feet away, attempting to take a pulse on why this crowd was so agitated.
It was a soccer field, for pete’s sake. Sure, it was a little mysterious, but it wasn’t like it was a crop circle or anything. And they’d had their share of those, until 1984, when a farmer named Bill Dunn had confessed to the prank, though he claimed he’d been possessed by alien serum when he’d done it. Rumors flew when Bill disappeared one night, leaving an empty farmhouse and all his belongings behind.
Turned out he was in Vegas, but it did make for some good headlines for a while.
“Where did it come from?” The woman’s desperate and dramatic voice hushed the crowd and everyone looked at the mayor.
Martin bit his lip. The mayor was known for his inability to mock concern or compassion, especially for those he called EGRs, or Extra Grace Required. Martin had dealt with the town’s EGRs for years, decades, and sometimes even generations. Martin’s attempt to coach the mayor on how to respond to questions that lacked sensibility had finally taught him that it was really the mayor who lacked sensibility, so Martin just let it drop.
“Well,” the mayor began, “we’ve just learned that the government has a top secret military plan to take over the country via soccer fields.”
Martin slid up next to the mayor and turned the mike away from him. “What the mayor is trying to say is that though we don’t know why this soccer field has seemingly popped up in Skary overnight, we’re sure there is a reasonable explanation for it.”
“What could be a reasonable explanation?” a man asked. “We don’t even have a soccer team.”
True. “Listen, we’re going to find out why the soccer field is there, folks. It may just take some time. But rest assured, it’s nothing to panic about.”
He could remember one other occasion when the town got up in arms like this, when they decided to change a street name. A century ago, someone had mistakenly named two streets in Skary Maple Street. One was on the west end, one on the east. It never confused the residents of Skary because what you were talking about determined which Maple Street you meant. You never used West Maple if you were going to the grocery store. You never used East Maple if you needed your car repaired.
But back when they were a tourist town, some tourists would get confused. One man ranted, “This is worse than Atlanta and their Peachtree Street fiasco!” The man was also irritated that they didn’t give tours of Wolfe Boone’s home, so Martin had disregarded it as misplaced anger. But, he decided, there was no reason why they couldn’t give one of the Maple streets a new name.
No reason at all, except for the fact that the town nearly rioted over it, and nobody who lived near one of the Maple streets wanted it changed. So the two Maple streets remained, and everyone was happy.
“It came overnight,” Mr. Runderfeld said with a grunt, clacking his cane against the floor. “I drove by there the day before, and that soccer field wasn’t there. The next morning, it was. You got a fancy explanation for that?”
Martin stepped on the mayor’s foot, a sign he would be doing the rest of the answering. “I’m sure there is a good explanation, Mr. Runderfeld. Maybe the person who owns the land wanted a soccer field.”
“Who owns the land?” someone shouted.
“I’ll look that up in the records, and we’ll figure this out. But folks, let’s just rest assured that there is nothing strange going on, all right? It’s true we’ve never had a soccer complex or anything close to it in our town before, but there’s no reason for alarm. Now if a nuclear testing site popped up overnight, that would be cause for alarm.” Nobody else was laughing, and Martin’s chuckle faded. “Anyway, I’m sure there’s other business to address here today.” He looked into the crowd. “Anybody have any other concerns?”
Silent glaring answered. Then, at the back of the room, he saw someone raise a hand. “Yes?”
A teenaged boy with curly, greasy, unkempt hair mumbled something that nobody could understand.
“Could you speak up, please?” Martin asked.
The kid nodded, but went back to mumbling, this time adding gestures.
Martin waved him up front. “Why don’t you step behind the microphone so we can all hear you?”
With a slump worthy of osteoporosis, the kid padded his way up to the front of the room. Half an eye was showing when he faced the crowd. Martin recognized him as the kid that worked at the bookstore.
“Hey,” the kid said like he was waving to his surfer buddies. A couple of toastmaster sessions might do him some good. “I’m Dustin, and I’ve lost my pet.”
“Great!” Martin enthused. This was exactly the kind of thing community meetings were meant for, and a perfect distraction for the crowd, as the citizens of Skary were always suckers for lost pets. “Why don’t you tell us about your pet. Give us a description, and I’m sure somebody will be able to help.”
“Well, it’s sort of brown and black, I guess. A little yellow mixed in. With black eyes.” Martin glanced at the crowd. By the “oohs” and “aahs,” he could tell they were already starting to forget about the soccer field.
“What kind of breed is it, young lad?” Mr. Runderfeld asked.
Dustin’s sulky face lit up with pride. He scooted his hair out of his eyes. “It’s a rosy!”
“Is that a kind of Chihuahua?” someone asked.
“Boa,” Dustin said.
The room was so quiet, Martin could hear the water heater hissing behind the wall. “Dustin, I’m sorry. I think there’s some confusion here.
Are you saying you lost a…a…”
Someone screamed in the back of the room.
Dustin looked surprised. “Oh, please, don’t be afraid. Boa constrictors are not dangerous.”
Martin needed to get this situation under control quickly. He stretched a grin across his face and said, “Well, Dustin, we’d be more than happy to help you find your pet. What is your cute little pet’s name?”
“Bob. Okay. Bob.”
“Well, it’s kind of confusing. You can call him Bob, and that’s totally fine. But Bob is kind of special.”
Martin could hardly find the words to ask what made Bob the snake special, but he managed a weak, “Why?”
“Well, Bob has two heads.”
Martin felt himself grow pale along with the three already pasty looking old ladies sitting on the front row, but he kept the grin tight on his face. “Two heads?”
“Yeah. He’s a two-headed snake. A bicephalic. Pretty rare, actually. See, Bob is the more dominant of the twins. His brother’s name is Fred.”
“Yeah. They’re like Siamese twins. They share a body, and have separate necks, and two separate heads. I’ve had them since they were babies.”
A trickle of sweat rolling down Martin’s temple beckoned a subject change back to the soccer field. He looked out at the startled crowd. A woman on the third row had fainted.
“Okay,” Martin said in a shaky voice, “so what we’ve got here is a lost snake…snakes, I mean…well, one snake, two heads…anyway, a snake that goes by the names Bob and Fred. A harmless snake, I might add, right, Dustin?”
“Yeah. Totally harmless.”
“So, Dustin, I guess we should probably be…aware…when we take out the trash or move some brush, as that is probably where it’s going to turn up, right?”
“Well, you would think. But actually, Bob and Fred are really domesticated. Spoiled, if you ask me.” He snickered.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, you’re not going to find Bob and Fred out and about like other snakes, under a rock or something. They’ve gotten used to being inside, and they especially like carpet and things like comforters and pillows. I’m sure they’re going to turn up soon because they can’t stand to be outside much. The only tough thing is that they’re probably only going to appear at night because they’re nocturnal.”
Martin could actually hear someone crying. Dustin was completely oblivious. He addressed the crowd, suddenly very comfortable with the mike.
“And listen, if you do find Bob and Fred, they’re probably going to be very hungry. They really have very healthy appetites. So if you can’t get ahold of me, I’d go ahead and feed them. Any sort of rodent is fine. They’re not into gourmet mice or anything.” Dustin was amusing the daylights out of himself with his jokes. “Anyway, please, please, if you feed them, follow my instructions very carefully.”
The room grew still. Dustin relished the attention.
“When you feed them, you must place a piece of cardboard or something between them while they’re eating. Bob is the much more dominant of the two, and if you don’t put something between them when they eat, Bob ends up swallowing Fred’s head, and let me tell you, that is a nightmare to fix.”
Martin dismissed Dustin with a feeble thank you as he ushered him off the stage. There was no use trying to get everyone under control.
Martin turned to find the mayor. Mayor Wullisworth would surely be able to come up with some creative idea. But when he looked at him, the mayor’s eyes were wide, and his mouth was gaping open. The fact that he was pulling at strands of his own hair wasn’t helping Martin’s confidence. “Mayor! Are you okay?”
“I-I-I hate snakes. I hate them. I hate them,” he whispered.
Martin pulled the mayor out the back door and into the cold outside. Under enormous stress, Martin had found out, the mayor had a tendency to want to go tropical on him.
“Sir,” Martin said, grasping his arm. “Sir, get ahold of yourself.”
The mayor looked around his ankles, then at Martin. “What are you going to do?”
“You’re the mayor, sir. I thought you might have some ideas.”
“Let’s pull up the protocol for evacuating the town.”
Martin directed the mayor to his car. “Why don’t you let me handle this? This is no big deal. I’m sure by the end of the day, we will have found this cute and, um, unique little critter.”
“Critters have fur. This is a bloodsucking, slimy reptile.”
“Reptiles aren’t actually slimy.”
“Handle this, Martin. And quickly.” The mayor ducked into his car and drove off. Martin turned to find an ambulance loading an elderly woman inside.
Katelyn Downey watched out the back window as her son Willem threw the baseball to her husband, Michael. Ever the athlete, Michael caught it and pitched it back while cradling his cell phone between his shoulder and chin. He glanced at the window and gave Katelyn a short wave.
She went to the kitchen and pulled out casserole number seven. She was going to miss all those cooking days with the neighborhood ladies. It was a day well spent making large batches of casseroles, then dividing them and taking them home to freeze. On the days that soccer games, Spanish class, T-ball practice, or gymnastics meets ran late, she could just pull out a casserole and add a packaged salad.
Out the kitchen window, she saw Annette across the street edging her yard for the fourth time this month. Once, Willem had kicked his soccer ball across the street and into her grass. After he retrieved the ball, she witnessed Annette walk out and actually comb the blades of grass back into place. She painted her window shutters yearly, hid all her garden hoses after each use, measured the height of her bushes with a yardstick, and actually parked her car in the garage.
Katelyn was going to miss this dreamy street with the white picket fences, but she had a higher calling. And Annette’s web wasn’t long enough to reach where she was going.
Rubbing her hands raw at the kitchen sink, she didn’t flinch when Annette looked up and into the kitchen window that perfectly framed Katelyn’s scowl. With her designer gardening gloves, Annette’s fingers rolled a wave in the air like she was strumming a harp. Her radioactive teeth glowed against her sunless tan.
Katelyn waved back. Annette’s two twin girls, Madee and Megynn, provided a thorn for each of her sides. She’d been deceived by their yellow ringlet hair and saucerlike eyes. They’d been playing soccer since they were two and could run circles around Willem and all the other boys on the team. They also had a knack for snotty one-liners that evoked visions of plotting their curls’ demise with a pair of safety scissors. They only had coed teams until eight. Three more years of this kind of torture and little Willem might go into the arts.
Which would be fine with Katelyn, except she’d never hear the end of it from Michael. The back door opened, and Willem trotted in, dusty and sweaty, his cheeks flushed and red. “Hi baby!”
He hugged her and ran upstairs after a toy car. Michael came in, shut his cell phone, and said, “It’s official. The loan went through, and we can break ground on our dream house!” He stretched his arms out toward her, but Katelyn whirled around and grabbed the For Sale sign that was propped against the wall by the front door. She took a hammer from the kitchen and marched outside and down the front steps.
Annette had her back turned as she rolled the edger along the sidewalk. That was fine. Katelyn was willing to wait. She stood there for five yards worth of sod. As Annette turned the edger off, Katelyn banged her hammer on the top edge of the sign, driving one leg into the patchy ground beneath it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Annette crossing the street, blotting her brow with her designer garden gloves. This was going to be fun.
“Katelyn?” Annette said in her practiced anchorwoman voice.
Katelyn let the hammer fall one more time before turning and greeting Annette with her own version of a smile. “Hello there, Annette.” Katelyn stepped aside just enough so she could see the sign.
But Annette’s attention went elsewhere as she said, “This grass! I still don’t understand why it won’t grow!” She began shaking her head and staring at the dirt that showed between the measly blades that made up their front yard. “It reminds me of my mother-in-law’s hair before she started Rogaine.” She looked at Katelyn. “And I’ve seen Michael out here fertilizing it to death. It must be these sweet gum trees. The shade is nice in the summer, but no good for a vital lawn.”
Katelyn turned and hammered in the other side of the sign, with enough force that one slam pounded it straight into the ground.
“Oh.” Annette scowled at the sign like it was a knockoff designer handbag. “You’re moving.”
“Yes,” Katelyn said and, after a precise and practiced pause, added, “We’re building.”
Annette’s eyebrows shot to the top of her forehead, but Katelyn kept her smile steady. “We’re building” needed no further explanation. In those two small words, it was pretty much implied that your husband was making more money, you were planning on expanding your family, and you’d outgrown the current suburban perks that your particular neighborhood had to offer.
“Well,” said Annette, quickly recovering her facial expression, “how interesting. So Michael’s real-estate business must be going well.” Her eyebrows gently floated down to their proper position.
“Tudor. Three thousand square feet. With a bay window.”
The superiority literally melted off Annette’s face. She rubbed each cheek, stared at the sign, stiffened her back, and pulled her hat down a notch. “We will certainly be missing little Willem on our soccer team.”
“Where we’re going, there’s soccer, a spa, a charming little coffee shop, and a great church with an up-and-coming children’s ministry.”
A smile sprang and retreated from Annette’s berry colored lips. “And where would this perfect piece of paradise be?”
This was going to be the tricky part. And it was all in the delivery.
Annette’s eyelids lowered halfway over her eyes. “Skary? Isn’t that the little town that all the hoopla was about?”
“Hoopla?” Katelyn asked innocently.
“That famous horror writer lives there, and I hear they’ve got the most horrendous shops and restaurants. It’s like a den for the devil!”
Katelyn paused, smiled, then said, “He no longer writes horror, and the town is no longer a tourist town. It’s actually quite lovely, quaint even. Like something you would see in a painting.”
Annette didn’t look convinced. So Katelyn added, “And as the city spreads, Skary will soon become a suburb, and the real estate will skyrocket. Luckily for me, I’m married to a man with a great sense of vision. He can look into the future and see what’s going to be hot.”
This was a particularly stabbing line, since Annette’s husband was a history professor.
Annette scratched her ear. “I guess it will take some time to getting used to a name like Skary.”
“It makes it that much more charming. Irony is in, you know.”
Indeed, it had taken her time to get used to the name too. But when she saw the potential of this town, and all it would eventually offer herself and her family, Katelyn decided a weird name would soon fade into oblivion. And there was always the chance it could be changed.
Annette, never one to be obvious, stretched an eager grin across her face that smothered any hint of jealousy. “I’m happy for you, Katelyn. I know you and Michael and little Willem will do well.”
“Thank you, Annette. I’ll miss our neighborly talks, but we’re very excited.”
Annette nodded and then walked back over to her side of the street, which probably didn’t seem so worthy of such outrageous landscaping efforts.
Katelyn secured the sign and went back inside. Michael was standing by the kitchen sink. “You have the most self-satisfied grin on your face,” he said.
She shrugged and turned on the oven. “It was just a friendly chat.”
“Right,” Michael said. He leaned against the sink and crossed his arms. “Katelyn, are you sure this is what you want? Because once we break ground, there’s no turning back.”
“The more time I spend in Skary, the more I like it.”
“Why is that?”
“Because so far, my ideas have been easily sold for a few crisp, green dollar bills.”