Surely someone must have heard the phone. It sat ringing in the kitchen with its knotted chord hanging over the edge of the marble counter. The room was well furnished for such a bland house. Gray, wooden floorboards gave way to yellow, peeling wallpaper, and in the corner burned a portly parlor stove. A pile of broken sticks lay nearby, once piled high in an organized stack, but collapsed at present in a careless heap. The doorframe was low and narrow, space enough for only one to stand in the entrance. The room itself was surprisingly open—matching yellow curtains sheathed the windows on the far walls, letting in only a sliver of the fading light reflected off the frozen snow outside. The phone just continued to ring—it had been ringing all evening. A fire burned in the stove and heated the kitchen. Thin wisps of smoke drifted out of the chimney and over the house, dissipating into the wintry musk. A small bird was perched high in a cage suspended by the entranceway – it sang often. The inside was comfortable enough, the outside, plain and unexpectedly familiar.
The man who owned the house often rose early. His street was straight and still. The blinds on every house were always drawn and the doors were always closed. Every house had a garden out front—daffodils in the spring, Blackeyed Susans in the summer, desolate and dead in the winter. Encircling each house was a low, chain link fence which separated the identical properties from one another. On each doorstep the mat read “Welcome Neighbors.”
The family in the home across the road routinely woke at the sound of the man’s screen door swinging closed. The sun was usually still hidden at that point in the morning, especially during the winter months. In the dimness, the drowsy girl, woken from her dreamless sleep by the clatter outside, could barely make out any figure at all, as she squinted at the shadow of the man latching the gate behind him.
He walked to his work; it was usually not that far. He generally liked the commute except for the silence, so he whistled and sang. There were no street lamps or traffic lights, and no glow from any of the whitewashed, square houses. It was the man and his tool kit, counting his steps as he shuffled along the pavement. It was easy to get lost between the rows and rows of identical streets, but the man was well versed in the subtleties of the individual avenues and could maneuver them, for the most part, without error. To him, the cracks in the pavement, the angles of the brick chimneys, and the chips in the painted “YIELD” signs made all the difference.
The man would stop at a different house each day. He’d pull a square paper envelope from his jacket pocket and check the address written on the Official Repair Form. When he had found the house, he would stand in the shadows until he had determined a part that distinguished it from the others. The man liked looking for the differences. When dawn broke, the fleeting darkness pushed him timidly from his shadow and out toward the white, square house with the garden in front, encircled by the low chain fence. At the gate, the man would pause, as was convention. Only after the resident had unlatched it for him and was back in his house with the door locked, was the man with the toolbox allowed to cross into the lawn. He always smiled courteously at his client. It was rare that his smile was returned.
At this point the man would check his paper a second time to find what part of the fence he was called to fix. Usually it was out back. The job itself took little time. After locating a tear in the metal or a scab of rust on a link, the man busied himself with his pliers, bending, sculpting and filing. In the winter he worked with leather gloves that somehow didn’t impede his astonishing dexterity. When the fence was finished, he packed up his tools and left the way he had come. The man had often wondered why the houses were always built whitewashed and square like that. It couldn’t have been because the people liked them that way; that was just the way things were, whitewashed and square. Every lawn was the same, every window standard, the walls and gates and roofs and fence uniform. A man stepping in his own lawn, although divided by fence and distance, was stepping into his neighbors’. Interaction was infrequent and unnecessary; every family was interchangeable with the one next door.
The phone in the man’s house kept ringing, but he couldn’t hear it. He was squatting in the yard outside, hard at work. The man’s leather gloves moved diligently, clipping, snipping and unwinding. He had already managed to dismantle the fence around the entire front of his house when the neighbors arrived. The novelty of the project drew them in.
They swarmed out from all of the houses, each family huddled together in small groups. They formed a crowd around the man and his work, but made little noise. It remained quiet enough that even the people in the farthest reaches of the pack could hear the shearing of metal and the whistling of the man with the toolbox. It was the first time they had ever gathered, all of them at once, and they were reluctant to be so close to one another. The neighbors stood along the outline of where now only the base of the fence remained. Still there was quiet. The man finished cutting down the last post and neatly put his tools back. He glanced around at the people surrounding him and his home. After smiling politely he stood, gathered his box and stepped over where the line of his property had once been. The crowd parted instantly, forming a pathway through the center of the mass. No one wanted to risk touching him.
Then the cry broke out and there was chaos. The man slipped away into the shadows and never returned. A woman from the back was pushing her way to the front with a torch, and there was the tinkling of a breaking window. They kept back, though. No one dared cross the line where the fence had been. Then there was a girl—the dreamless one from across the street; she pushed her way through to where the gate had stood, and crossed it. She crashed past the front door and ran to where she knew his kitchen was. She knew because it was her kitchen too. The bird sat on its perch in its cage by the doorway and sang. She had heard it at night, as she lay in bed, dreading sleep.
She grasped for the handle, but only a child, she couldn’t reach the string that attached the cage to the ceiling. Instead, her fingers found the latch and slid the tiny door open. The bird sat and didn’t move. She whistled and sang but the bird still sat on his perch. She called to it, begged, hit the cage with her hand, but still the bird would not fly out. She crossed to the curtains and threw them aside. Feeling for the window’s edges, she pushed the heavy panes open. Before she could turn to face the room, she felt the bird go past and knew it had followed the man into the darkness.
The kitchen was growing hot, and sweat droplets were forming on the glass windows. The house was beginning to tremble as if there were something caged it needed to release. The girl fled the kitchen. It was just a house now, the same as the thousands of others. Something fragile in the pantry fell from a high shelf and splintered on the floor as the first flame curled around the wooden molding of the doorframe. Fire snaked its way along the floorboards and when it licked the edge of the trailing yellow fabric, the curtains billowed up. The feral fire engulfed the protected flare in the metal stove. Amidst the clatter of the demolition, the sound of the ringing phone was drowned out altogether.
The neighbors outside had grown silent again, their excitement sedated. Now they formed a ring, shoulder to shoulder, watching the house burn down. In the wintry night the clouds of their icy breath drifted skyward with the smoke, and the neighbors warmed their hands around the fire.
Age 15, Grade 10