Ira closed the gate to the white picket fence and turned to get a good look at the dark brown two-story house he had grown up in. The normally green grass of the large front lawn was covered in fresh snow, marred only by a single pair of footprints that stopped at the mailbox and then turned back on itself. In front of the house was a wide wooden porch under a snow-covered roof. A variety of bird feeders, wind chimes and brightly colored Christmas lights were hung from the eaves. On the front door, as was the tradition in the Hughes household, was a Christmas wreath that his mother made each year from fresh pine bows.
He stood staring at the door, dreading going inside, and for an instant wondering if he would ever come out again. It had been fifteen years since he had been back in his hometown. The day he had boarded the train to New York, bound for college, had been the happiest of his life. And now at 33 years old, he was back. He had left his beautiful New York apartment, given away most everything he owned, packed what was left into a few large suitcases, and now he was moving back in with his parents.
“Just for a few months,” he told himself. “Until Dad gets well and I get back on my feet.”
With a large suitcase in each hand and a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, he made his way up the snowy pathway, climbed the steps and, not allowing himself to hesitate, pushed the doorbell. Almost instantly the door opened and an older lady wrapped in a long, perfectly knitted red and gold holiday shawl stood silhouetted in the doorway.
The woman, only two inches shorter than her six foot tall son, looked him over carefully. The corner of her mouth twitched as if for a second she might actually smile, then decided against it.
“You’ve put on weight,” she said matter-of-factly.
The chill of his walk from the bus station had already turned his cheeks red, so the flush of heat warming his face went unnoticed.
She moved aside and motioned him in. “I prepared the guest room—your old room.” She closed the door, then pointed at his feet, indicating for him to leave his shoes in the entryway.
“The same. Best let him sleep until dinner.” With that, she went into her sewing room.
Ira climbed the stairs, trying to make sure his suitcases didn’t touch the pristine wallpaper lining the walls, or that he didn’t knock down one of the many perfectly framed family photos that stretched the entire length of the climb. When he was finally behind the closed door of his old room, he let out a sigh of relief. The idea of never going back through that door momentarily appealed to him. Maybe he could get a ladder and just climb in and out of the window when he needed to go out.
He turned the light on and surveyed the room. Aside from the closet door being in the same place, there was nothing he recognized from his youth. The paint was now a chocolate mocha color with cream trim, all the furniture was different and the hardwood floors had been relaid. There was a small, decorated Christmas tree on the higher of the two dressers and fresh towels on a chair next to the bed. It looked like a room at a bed and breakfast inn.
He quickly unpacked, which meant hastily shoving things into dresser drawers and placing his empty suitcases into the closet, which was almost completely full of neatly stacked storage boxes. He began to change out of his wet clothes, taking the time to pick out something warm and comfortable but that might not draw his mother’s scrutiny. Which meant his fuzzy Spider-Man pajamas were not an option. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants, almost falling over trying to get into them, and a long-sleeve flannel shirt.
Dressed, he tossed his dirty clothes into the hamper and turned to sit on the side of the bed. As he did, he looked out the window, which looked directly at the house next door. It took him a few moments to register the other house… then the window directly opposite his… then the man standing in the window, looking at him.
He stood straight up off the bed, his heart racing quickly. “Oh, my God!” He had just flashed the neighbor! He stepped up closer to the glass, about to try to make gestures of an apology to the man before he thought he was some sort of pervert. But closer to the glass, he realized this wasn’t just any man… it was Colton McCabe! A cold shiver ran up his spine, and his embarrassment turned to anger as he grabbed the curtains and pulled them closed.
The house next door once belonged to his parents’ best friends, the McCabes, who had moved there when Ira was 12 years old. They were a nice couple, hard-working, kind, and well liked by everyone who knew them. Both families had expected Ira and the McCabes’ son, Colton, who was only a few months older than Ira, to become best friends just as their parents had. But this had not been the case, and the blame fell mostly on Ira, who, as he entered his teen years, was labeled as “odd” and “a loner.” It didn’t help that the only socializing he did at school was with the pothead kids, though he didn’t smoke it.
The reality, however, was that Colton, the golden boy next door, the son every parent wished for, the hottest and most popular guy at school, was a relentless bully. By the time they entered high school, Ira became his main target. Living next door made the situation even worse, as they waited at the same bus stop, were dropped off in the same place, and shared at least three of the same classes each year.
If being bullied by the boy next door wasn’t bad enough, one warm summer day Ira was sitting by the same window, looking out at the McCabes’ backyard pool and wishing his family had their own. There were several guys horsing around in the water, and then Colton walked out of his house, stripped down to a Speedo like the professional swimmers wore, and began rubbing suntan lotion all over himself. Ira could have sworn it happened in slow motion.
Not only was he relentless bullied by Colton, but his bully had also become the focus of almost every high school masturbatory fantasy he had ever had. One of his later therapists had assured him it was not uncommon.
Two years after Ira left for college in New York, the McCabe parents had been killed while driving through Europe. Not having any other family, Ira’s parents took Colton under their wings. That included his mother hiring him to work in her curio and gift shop as her assistant, learning the business from the ground up. Then when Ira’s mother decided she wanted to spend more time at home with her husband, who had begun having health problems, Colton had taken out a mortgage on his house and bought into the business as her partner.
The boy who had been his greatest nemesis was now business partners with his mother. And he had just flashed him his naked butt. Thanks, universe! Thanks for making this one more entry in craptastic adventures of this last year!