I pull the truck into park outside Mr. Slate’s house, unbuckle my seatbelt and clamber into the back, where several packages rest neatly on the floor. It’s easy to spot what I’m looking for — it’s nearly the end of my shift, and only a few boxes are left. I swipe Mr. Slate’s package and double check the special instructions. Signature required. The person receiving it must be over twenty-one. Perhaps Mr. Slate was a wine connoisseur. Seemed like that kind of guy. I weigh the package in my hands and check for a vineyard label but find none.
Sometimes I deliver packages around my neighborhood, although I’ve never delivered anything to Slate’s home. He lives around the corner from me, a middle-aged man with gray at his temples. A businessman of sorts. I don’t know him too well.
I look around his yard. I always pass by this house while walking the dog, but never been inside. The house sits between two larger ones, simple and plain compared to its companions. The lawn is green, cut, well-cared for — not a weed in sight. Two strict lines of boxwood separate him from the neighboring lawns, and aside from the grass and hedges, the yard remains unadorned of color. The house is a pale yellow, with white fencing in both the yard and the porch. Ever since moving to this neighborhood I have not once seen the white curtains open. I walk up the porch — its light never on during Halloween — and stand in front of the door.
The little window in the wooden door also had curtains to match the windows. I stare at them for a moment before ringing the doorbell. I wait, wondering if he’s even home. It’s noon, after all. Sometimes people put in special instructions and forget they’re not home to accept the package. Happens all the time.
As I wait I inspect the curtains. The material appears a little outdated. Made of a thick, plastic-like material, like the kind of curtains you buy at a secondhand store. Threadbare, the subtle whorls in the cloth faded with time. Ugly as hell, now that I think about it. Warmth radiates from the wooden deck, having soaked up the heat all day. I check my tablet and search for a phone number on the account, wondering if I should call Slate to tell him his package’s here. Before I could find one the door opens.
A young man stands there. A teenager, with dark hair and an impassive expression. He wears a long-sleeved shirt and jeans despite the heat. He looks up at me before eying the package. I peer into the room behind him. None of the lights are on, and with the curtains drawn the house is shrouded in darkness.
“Is your dad home?” I ask. I gesture at the package. “Sorry, pal, but I don’t think you’re twenty-one. He needs to sign for it.”
His expression doesn’t change. “I’ll get Slate.”
I blink as he shuts the door. Sweat trickles into the collar of my work shirt. Why haven’t I seen this kid around before? Maybe I shouldn’t have assumed Slate’s his father. I can hear my coworkers now, telling me to have the kid sign it and be done with it. But Slate is my neighbor, and I don’t want to cause trouble.
The porch creaks as I rock in my work boots. Special deliveries are a pain, and I wish I could just leave it on the porch. Looking at the doorknob I begin to wonder if the kid left it unlocked. Maybe I could just leave it inside the house…
“He didn’t let you inside in this heat? I’ll have to have a talk.”
I nearly drop the package as I spin around. Slate’s walking across his lawn, and as I shift my weight to my other foot I realize he’s coming from the backyard. He wears slacks and a collared shirt, a pleasant smile on his face.
“Hey, I know you. You walk the flat-coated retriever, don’t you?” Slate asks. “You’re Steve, right?”
I glance at the curtains before returning my gaze to him. “Yeah.”
Slate walks onto the porch, and I hand him my tablet. “Sign here, please.”
He signs, and an angry buzzing follows. Slate takes his phone out of his pocket and glances at it. “Look at that. The app just told me my package was delivered. Amazing what technology can do these days, right?”
“Yeah.” I look at the windows again, an unease spreading through me. Whoever that kid was, he wasn’t Slate’s kid. A stepfather, maybe? Or uncle?
“You know, Steve,” Slate says, putting his hands in his pockets. “This heat’s a bitch. Do you want some water or anything before you go?”
“I have a few more packages to deliver,” I reply, jabbing a thumb back to the truck. “I should go.” I turn around to leave.
“It’s the end of your shift, isn’t it? I’m sure someone else can pick up the slack.”
I pause, wondering when I told him my shift is almost over. Slate opens the door, his package tucked under one arm. “Besides, Steve, do you have time for one last delivery?”
“I don’t usually take — ” I begin.
Slate reaches into his pocket and tosses an envelope at me. “You take tips?”
Several hundred-dollar bills greet me.
“It’s just around the corner. Mrs. Johnson bought my old washer. Online deal kind of thing and my car isn’t big enough to drop it off.”
“Sorry, Mr. Slate, but I don’t do that.”
“Well, then, why don’t you come inside for a cold one?”
I try to conjure up the image of the kid again, now realizing that the local high schools weren’t yet closed for the summer. I begin to wonder. “Ok. Sure.”
“It’ll only take a few.”
Slate gestures for me to follow him inside. A blast of cool air greets me as I walk in. Compared to the outside, the inside of the house looks much more lived-in. Leather couches surround a TV hanging on the wall. A balled-up blanket thrown across an armrest. The other end of the room gives way to a kitchen, bathed in light from two skylights.
The kid sits on a bar stool next to the counter, his back to the front door and his arms held out in front of him. As Slate shuts the door the kid yanks his sleeves back to his wrists to hide ugly, purple contusions.
“Hey, Jim,” Slate says, causing the kid to turn around. “Apologize to Mr. Edwards. You don’t slam doors in front of people.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Edwards.”
When Jim speaks he looks at a point beyond my shoulder. He taps his fingers against the counter and bounce his knee, causing the bar stool to shake.
“Stop it,” Slate says.
Jim’s hands clench into fists, though they tremble.
“Get him a beer for me, won’t you?”
Slate puts the package on the kitchen counter and pulls out a box cutter from a kitchen drawer as Jim slinks towards the fridge. The bottle hisses as Jim pops off the cap, the foam sliding over my fingers as I take the bottle from him.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been very neighborly since you and your wife moved here,” Slate says, cutting through the packaging tape. “I’m away for work a lot, and I just haven’t had the time for block parties.”
He opens the box. Uninteresting cleaning supplies — Clorox, bleach, rubber gloves — are nestled in the bubble wrap.
“You know, I’ve been getting to know our neighbors lately,” Slate says. “Overdue conversation. Get some things straight between us.”
“What kind of things?”
“Oh, the usual…Mrs. Smith’s gardener sheared my boxwood, arguments about where to place the trash cans, dogs barking at night…” Slate sweeps the discarded packaging tape into a trash can. “Setting up a neighborhood watch program.”
Slate’s still holding box cutter.
“I should get going,” I say again. “I need to clock out.”
“You should come over sometime. You and your wife. I’d like to get to know you better.”
I take one last look at them before turning to leave, leaving the beer on the counter. I shut the front door behind me, the heat once again assaulting me. I listen for something, anything through the door, but all I hear are the neighbor’s spluttering sprinklers. As I take a step forward, back towards my truck, I hear something else, so faint it could be my imagination. Jim’s voice a mere whisper.
“Please, don’t kill him.”