Julian is used to drama, seeing ghosts tends to do that to a person's life, but when he falls for a man known as the neighborhood murderer--the dead help him uncover secrets no housewife could predict.
Moving into a suburban, middle class, stereotypical neighborhood was never on Julian's to do list. When his identical twin brother inherits their Aunt's house in such a place, then finds a good job, Julian reluctantly follows. He expected to feel isolated by being the only gay person on the block, okay, more likely the zip code, but a few nosy housewives eagerly inform him the neighbor across the street is gay, and punned, Mr. Creepersen, due to several murders that occurred in his basement five years ago.
The car came to a stop and the engine turned off. Julian considered pretending to still be asleep but he knew his brother would see through the façade. He took a deep breath and pulled the lever on the passenger seat to bring it back to an upright position. He slid his sunglasses to the tip of his nose and peered out the window at the one-story house they were parked in front of.
“We’re here,” Miles said from the driver’s seat. After two days of being on the road with his brother, taking turns driving and eating at grungy truck stops, Julian knew he should be more eager to bound from the car into their final destination, but the white stucco house loomed before him like a bad omen.
“I thought you said you’d, you know.” Julian waggled his hand in front of him. “Fixed it up.”
Miles frowned, his face a mirror image of Julian’s. “I did. Mostly on the inside. Come on, take a look before you judge it.”
Miles climbed out of the car. Julian did not follow. He never should have agreed to this. He surveyed the rest of the neighborhood. It was the last week of summer vacation for the school aged kids. They were not wasting a minute of it behind a computer, despite what the media tried to say about children of the current generation. The yards of their neighbors were littered with balls, bikes, water guns, and an array of toys Julian couldn’t identify.
Julian opened the car door and heard exactly what he expected—squeals and laughter from children. “This neighborhood could not be more white suburban,” Julian said. He shut the door and leaned against the side of the sedan. Their skin may have matched their neighbors’, but that was where the similarities ended, as far as Julian was concerned.
Miles pulled their suitcases from the trunk and stacked them on the curb. “This is a good neighborhood, better than anything else you and I could normally afford. You should be thanking Aunt Katie for leaving it to us.”
Julian swaggered to the rear of the car and extended the handle on his suitcase. “She left the house to you. She hated me.”
“No she didn’t. She was a devout Catholic and her belief system wasn’t open to… your lifestyle. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love you.”
“Uh, huh, I’m probably going to burst into flames when I walk across the threshold of the house,” Julian said, slightly jaded by the fact his brother couldn’t even say the word gay.
Miles smirked. “Don’t worry, I had all religious countermeasures removed when I had the house refurbished.”
“Oh good, so you had a priest come and welcome back all the evil spirits? I didn’t even know they could do that.”
“Ha-ha,” Miles said. He shouldered a bag and grabbed another by the handle. He led the way up the small walkway to the front door. The house was surrounded by a three-foot brick wall that had an opening for the sidewalk and driveway, making it a completely pointless fence. What good was a fence if it kept nothing in or out?
“At least it has a garage,” Julian said.
“Oh no, hands off. That is for my band.”
“Seriously? We can’t even use the garage for what it’s meant to be used for?” Julian asked.
Miles opened the screen door and fumbled with the lock. “My garage band needs a garage.”
Julian rolled his eyes. Miles may have been his identical twin in every physical way, but inside they were opposites—right down to Miles’ natural ability to play any instrument he picked up and Julian’s talent to drop and break them within thirty seconds. Miles pushed the door open and dragged his bag inside.
Julian followed, taking in the freshly painted empty rooms. Miles pointed to the various doorways. “Kitchen to the left, dining room to the right, living room directly ahead. Three bedrooms down the hall with one bathroom and the doorway to the garage is connected to the kitchen.”
“I have been here before,” Julian said.
“Yeah, when you were twelve,” Miles said.
Yeah, that sounded about right. Twelve was when Julian had taken the biggest step in dividing himself from his brother and had proclaimed to his parents that he was gay. Their mother had cried and their father had laughed. He remembered his father’s words quite well. “At least we’ll be able to tell them apart now.” As if Julian having sex with men would somehow alter his appearance. It wasn’t like he wore makeup or anything. Aunt Katie’s invites to visit had stopped being extended to him shortly thereafter—he hadn’t been involved in the decision but he’d heard of plenty of “you need to do more to save Julian’s soul” conversations to put it together.
Julian sniffed the air. “You sure Aunt Katie’s been dead for two months? ’Cause this place still smells like cat piss and Avon perfume.”
“I had the walls repainted and new carpet put in,” Miles said. “You’re imagining things.”
Miles put his hands to his hips and surveyed the room as if doubting his own proclamation and now needed to nonchalantly search the room for one of Aunt Katie’s ten spinster cats.
Julian watched him. They both wore their hair short in a crew cut with the tips spiked. Their naturally chestnut hair was slightly lighter at the tips—Julian’s usually a bit more due to his desire to spend more time outdoors than Miles. Every freckle and mole was in the same place on their bodies, so much so, even their mother had trouble telling them apart unless they agreed to wear different clothes. As kids, they often refused, finding joy in confusing people into thinking they were the same person.
Miles’ bright blue eyes met Julian’s and Julian realized Miles was waiting for his final assessment on the place. “It looks great,” Julian said. “I cannot possibly think of a better place for two twenty-five-year-old bachelors to live.”
“Oh, just give it a chance,” Miles said. “The schools here are great and Ernie even got you that great job.”
“Pest control, another dream come true,” Julian said.
Miles rubbed his forehead. “You can pick which room you want.”
“Really, oh yay,” Julian said in his best teenage girl imitation. “Does the place have a basement?”
“An unfinished one,” Miles said. “There’s still some of Aunt Katie’s stuff down there, holiday decorations and stuff. I wasn’t sure if you’d want to… you know, use them.”
Julian paused halfway down the hall. “Oh how did you know? The interior decorator in me is simply ecstatic right now.”
“You’re such an ass,” Miles said. “Aunt Katie really went all out for Christmas. I thought we could keep the tradition alive.”
Julian opened the first bedroom door. It was tiny, maybe passable for a kid room or office. “Why would I want to waste my time decorating for a holiday that celebrates a savior who has damned me to eternal suffering for having sex with the wrong gender?”
“I just thought it would be a nice—never mind,” Miles said.
Julian settled on the last bedroom that had two windows facing the front of the house. “I’m taking this one.”
“Are you sure? That one shares a wall with the garage. It might be noisy when we’re practicing,” Miles said.
“You’re a schoolteacher, Miles,” Julian said, poking his head back into the hall. “I’m pretty sure you won’t be keeping me up that late.”
Julian didn’t have all that many things and he was accustomed to letting Miles run the show. He grabbed a lawn chair from the moving truck and set up camp in the front yard, next to the sidewalk leading to the house. He watched Miles direct the movers and tell them which rooms to put which boxes—even though they were all clearly labeled.
He put his earbuds in and pulled his tablet out, scrolling through the news of the day. Sleeping on the floor last night had been brutal. He couldn’t wait for the movers to leave so he could set up his bed and get some real sleep.
He realized a brown-haired woman was waving her hand in front of his chair. Julian pulled his earbuds out and looked up at her. Everything about her screamed middle class housewife—too bright lipstick, curled hair, geez she even wore leotards with high-heels.
“Hi there,” she said. She extended a hand. “I’m Lucy, your neighbor two houses down.”
“Julian,” he said, taking her offered hand. Miles was shouting at one of the movers to be careful with the box he was carrying into the garage. “And that’s my brother, Miles.”
“Katie’s nephews,” Lucy said. “She mentioned you.” She frowned slightly and Julian could only imagine the stories Katie had told of her doomed gay nephew.
“I’m sure,” Julian said.
“All good,” Lucy added quickly. “Anyway, I’m Lucy,” she repeated, “and my boys are the teens you’ll see playing street hockey. I have three of them and my husband is Karl. Will there be anyone else joining the two of you?”
Her eyes roved the moving boxes, perhaps looking for signs of a woman. It suddenly occurred to Julian that perhaps Aunt Katie hadn’t found it prudent to brag about her nephew being gay. It was a small town. The closest gay bar was a two-hour drive away. No one in quant little Newton may know about his sexual preferences.
“No, neither of us are married,” Julian said. “No kids.”
“Oh,” Lucy said. She recovered the frown on her face quickly. “Well, you won’t be in any shortage of women on this block. A woman lives in every house, except…” She glanced at the pale-yellow house directly across the street. “Mr. Petersen’s house.”
Julian imagined some old miser living in the house, perhaps the type that shouted at kids who played in his yard. A deserted, deflated football resting on the lawn added validity to his assessment.
“Do you like kids?” Lucy asked.
“Let me guess,” Julian said, “There’s a few single mothers on the block?”
Lucy blushed and twisted her fingers in knots. “Guilty. What can I say? Matchmaking is a skill of mine.”
“I’m sure. My brother is going to be the new history and music teacher at the high school. Tell all your friends,” Julian said with a wink. He put the earbuds back in and looked at the screen of his tablet, effectively telling Lucy to move on.
It wasn’t long before he was cast into shadow again. He glanced up at the glaring face of his brother.
“Yes?” Julian asked as he removed the earbuds.
“Are you planning to do anything helpful today?”
“I unloaded this chair from the moving truck,” Julian said. Miles narrowed his eyes and Julian prepared himself for the speech his brother had likely been rehearsing in his head all afternoon.
“Excuse me,” a man’s deep voice said. They both directed their attention to the slender man standing on the front sidewalk, opposite side of the fence from them. His skin and hair were so light Julian wanted to ask him if he’d put on sunblock—just the walk to their house was likely to leave the guy with a pink sunburn.
“Yes?” Miles asked.
The man looked between the two of them, like most people did when they first met them. He was probably trying to figure out if he was seeing double or if there really was two of them. The man’s long hair hid his expression and Julian was unable to ascertain the conclusion the man reached. He had his hair short around his ears and in the back, but the front was straightened and draped forward.
“The mailman put your mail in my box by accident,” the man said. He held out an envelope, flashing his black painted fingernails. “I imagine this will happen quite frequently so I’d appreciate it if you’d return any of my mail you receive.”
“And why would you think the mailman is so incompetent?” Miles asked.
The man tucked the hair covering the left side of his face behind his ear so his gaze could more adequately match Miles’. Julian chomped down on his tongue to keep the rest of his body from reacting to the black eyeliner that made the man’s dark blue eyes pop.
“I live across the street, our house numbers are one digit different,” the man said. Mr. Petersen—who looked to be in his early thirties, not an old miser as Julian had assumed. Julian hadn’t told Miles that he’d learned the man’s name so Miles had no idea that—
“All of our houses are one digit different. If that confused the mail carrier then we’d never get the right mail. What you mean is you and my brother are the only gays on the block so of course the mailman is going to get the two houses confused,” Miles said. He took the envelope from Mr. Petersen and waved it frantically in the air. “I’m confident the mailmen go around saying, ‘I’m sure all the gays get the same mail and know each other so I’ll just guess at which mailbox to put it in.”
Julian was used to Miles rushing in for the defense, but the outburst still caught Julian off guard. Mr. Petersen, however seemed unfazed. His composure never faltered.
“Actually, I would think it much more likely to be due to the fact my name is Niles Petersen and one of you is Miles Peterson,” Mr. Petersen said. He held up an article of his own mail to show them the difference in spelling.
Miles’ face went slack. So Aunt Katie had complained about her fag neighbor to Miles but never mentioned his name? Julian figured she’d likely come up with a nickname and kept with it, hell she may have never bothered to learn his real name.
“I am so sorry,” Miles said. “Aunt Katie always called you Mr. Creepersen and I had no idea—”
“That wasn’t his real name?” Julian asked. “You’re sorta making the situation worse, bro.”
“I know what they call me,” Mr. Petersen said with a quick glare at a few of the surrounding houses. “Just return my mail if you get any.” He spun on his heel and stalked his lanky—kinda hot—self across the street and into his house.
“You didn’t tell me we had a gay neighbor,” Julian said.
“Yeah, well, that’s not what he’s known for. I had no idea my name was so close to his. I may go legally change it.”
“What’s he known for? Stealing kids’ balls?”
“No,” Miles said. He kept his eyes on the neighbor’s house. “Five years ago, there was a scandal and some…murders.” Miles mumbled the last word so by the time Julian had figured out what he’d said, he was already back to barking orders at the movers.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Julian asked. He sat on the edge of the ledge fence—at least it was good for doubling as a seat since it sucked as a fence. He took a sip of beer from the plastic cup. Miles’ drummer had brought two kegs of beer. “This isn’t like our old neighborhood.”
The band of four finished setting up their equipment in the garage. Denny, the base guitarist, put a metal barrel, like the kind Julian had seen bums burning trash in for warmth, in the center of the driveway. He threw a match inside and started a bonfire.
Loud music, bonfire, and kegs of beer—yeah this was going to end badly.
“It’s our first night here. Do we really want to—” Julian started.
“Second night,” Miles said. “And what better way to meet all of the neighbors?”
Julian could think of several better ways, but he kept his mouth shut. Keith started pounding out the beat on the drums and Miles tapped his foot in rhythm with it. Julian rolled his eyes. The sun was setting, but there were still kids playing in their yards. Julian hoped his brother at least kept the lyrics kid friendly.
The music was like a siren’s call, coaxing their neighbors from their homes and into Julian’s yard. Hands were shaken, niceties exchanged. Julian tried to put faces to houses even if he was failing epically at remembering their names.
Drunk housewives were especially gossipy when talking to a cute twenty-five-year-old. Julian was no fool and he batted his eyelashes with the best of them, luring out the trade secrets to surviving in the neighborhood as Miles serenaded them with music.
Julian learned that Lucy’s three boys were likely to be the culprits if anything went missing—so lock the garage at night. The Miller’s teenage boy was always offering to rake leaves or shovel snow—he resided in the green square house two houses down. Elderly couples lived in the corner lots on their side of the street and a single elderly woman, Mrs. Abbott, lived in the white house next to Mr. Petersen’s yellow house.
“Her husband died five years ago in that tragedy,” Trudy explained, a talkative brunette from four houses down.
“Tragedy?” Julian coaxed.
“Yup. In Mr. Creepersen’s basement,” Trudy said. Despite the warm August weather, Julian felt a chill in the air.
“What do you mean? Was there a fire?”
“Oh no,” Trudy said. Her eyes went wide. “Katie never told you?”
“Never came up,” Julian said. He aimed his best eye daggers at his brother—she had probably told her favorite nephew all about it.
Trudy moved closer and lowered her voice in that way a person does when they have juicy gossip. “So, seven years ago, Mr. Creepersen and his husband bought that house. It was no secret that their relationship was abusive. We’d see Creepersen with black eyes and his husband—well just looking at him made you want to run and hide. He was the big, overbearing type, we all wondered if he was a bounty hunter or something. Mr. Abbott took pity on Creepersen and would talk to him. So this one time, after they’d lived there for two years or so, Mr. Abbott got worried when we hadn’t seen Creepersen for days. Mr. Abbott decided to break into the house to make sure he was okay. I can only imagine what Mr. Abbott found.
“The husband came home while Mr. Abbott was still inside and killed him cold. I guess that was the final straw and Creepersen finally turned on him and killed his husband. The cops showed up and found both of them dead, with Creepersen a distraught mess in the basement. By the looks of it, he’d been tied up in that basement for days.”
The story was outlandish, like a movie from Hollywood, but as Trudy’s eyelashes blinked around her large eyes, Julian knew she believed every word of it.
“Why would he stay here? After all that?” Julian asked.
Trudy shrugged. “Who knows. He never talks to any of us.”
“Huh,” Julian said. He managed to slip into the house shortly after his conversation with Trudy. The party was kept strictly outdoors, the house was a mess of unpacked boxes. As Julian had expected, the band performance stopped promptly at nine and the neighbors retreated to their own homes. No noise complaints or upset parents. Miles was a savvy ass—who should have told him they were living across the street from the scene of such a horrific crime.