Keeping up with the Joneses was never an issue for Lana Jenkins. The Joneses were slobs. They parked rusted old clunkers on their lawn—an atrocity itself with more weeds than grass—and she was almost certain there were no discontinued use stickers anywhere on them. She had pled her case repeatedly before the board of the home owners’ association, but they seemed to have a higher tolerance for bylaw infractions than she ever would.
For Lana Jenkins, there was only one perfect house on the street, one she knew would always set the bar high for the entire neighborhood. She’d be the first to admit that, despite how well she and her husband kept up their own two-story brownstone (from its lush, well-groomed grass to the beaming sunflowers along their white picket fence—a cliché she kept in pristine condition with weekly touchup paint and an annual fresh coat whether it was necessary or not; she told her husband the paint should “shine”), it would never hold a candle to Henderson Manor.
On Landis Lane, Henderson Manor was the only bona fide mansion in a ten mile radius, complete with hedgerows eight feet tall, wrought iron fencing, an automatic gate, a four-car garage, and more square footage than Lana had ever seen in her life. Not that she had ever been inside—but she swore she would someday, and she told everyone on the street that sooner or later, the day would come.
Old Man Henderson was an old scrooge who kept to himself, and none of the neighbors had seen him in years. Everything came by special delivery, from groceries to doctors to, finally, a fancy new hearse from the local funeral home. Perhaps Lana Jenkins should have spent at least a moment or two mourning the loss of one of the neighborhood’s oldest residents, but instead she saw it as a golden opportunity.
The house would be put up for sale. And she would—at long last—have a chance to take a good look around inside, posing as a prospective buyer, of course.
Only she never got the chance. There was no FOR SALE sign, no open house, no realty company providing guided tours. Just a few days after the hearse took away Old Man Henderson’s remains, moving vans arrived en masse from local charities to take all of the old codger’s possessions. He must not have had any family; or perhaps he did, and he had been estranged from them for years. Regardless, it seemed that he had bequeathed everything he’d ever owned to the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, and AMVETS. In two days, they managed to cart all of it away.
Lana Jenkins watched from her kitchen window, busying herself washing the same dishes by hand the dishwasher had already pronounced sparkly clean only hours before.
If Mr. Jenkins noticed her peculiar behavior, he never mentioned it.
“Well, that’s the last of it,” she announced one evening.
“Oh?” He sat in his favorite armchair with the evening paper unfolded before him, blocking his wife’s compulsive obsessiveness from view.
“The place is just an empty shell now.” She choked back tears.
By the end of the week, moving vans had returned. But this time, they came bearing all-new furniture, and Lana Jenkins once again found a reason to hold her post at the kitchen window, oohing and aahing at virtually everything she saw. Whoever was moving in, they had great taste in furniture—and plenty of it.
“Oh Henry, it’s colonial! I simply adore it!”
“Oh?” Henry Jenkins manned his armchair, as per usual.
Lana Jenkins watched with growing anticipation as the days passed and fewer movers made deliveries. To date, she had yet to catch even a glimpse of the new owners, but she knew it had to be just a matter of time. Perhaps they came in under cloak of darkness, once the Jenkins’ had turned in for the night. Or perhaps they themselves hadn’t even physically moved in yet.
“Where are you going, Dear?” Mr. Jenkins glanced up from his paper early one evening.
Lana held up a pink, flowery envelope. “I’m going to invite them to dinner.”
“The new neighbors, silly. Who else?”
“The old Henderson place?”
“Of course!” She gave him a peck on his bald dome. “Be right back.”
She shut the front door behind her and nearly skipped down the driveway, but immediately she collected her composure as Mrs. McDonnell passed by, walking her prim poodle and spying on the neighbors (an evening ritual).
“Mrs. Jenkins,” the elderly woman greeted with a frown firmly ensconced for no apparent reason.
“Mrs. McDonnell.” Lana hoped the conversation would end there. The old busybody habitually had no concept of other people’s time.
“Have you spotted them yet?”
Lana forced herself to smile. “How’s that?”
“Our new additions. Word is they come from money. Have you seen how many moving trucks? They must own a museum! But have you seen them? Because nobody has, from what I can tell. Word is they’re both lawyers who work all day in the city. You’ve got yourself a good view from across the street. So tell me, have you met—?”
“Not yet.” Lana nonchalantly slipped the invitation into a skirt pocket. “But I plan to.”
“Still hoping to see the place, eh?”
Lana knew her aspirations regarding Henderson Manor were a secret to no one. “Well, perhaps one of these days.” She forced a cheery titter. “You never know!”
Mrs. McDonnell’s frown remained intact. “You have such a beautiful home yourself. Be thankful for what God has given you. Every breath! I tell you, when you get to be my age—”
“Oh yes, we must always count our blessings!” Lana made a pretense of checking the empty mailbox and flipping the little flag up and down. “Well, good evening, Mrs. McDonnell!” She returned to her own house.
“Good evening.” The old woman plodded on, but the poodle looked back at Lana, seeming somehow to divine her intentions.
Lana waited until Mrs. McDonnell was halfway down the street before she emerged from the shadowed corner of her front porch and hustled to the end of the driveway, retrieving the envelope from her pocket as she crossed the silent street.
It was nothing fancy, just a friendly invitation to have dinner with Mr. Jenkins and herself, just a thoughtful gesture, the kind she was known for. But it was also a hopeful gesture. Usually, when one has company over for dinner, the event is reciprocated at a later date. Old Man Henderson would never have replied to such an invitation. But these people, whoever they were, had to recognize hospitality when they saw it, and they would appreciate the chance to meet the fine, upstanding citizens who lived across the street from them. Honestly, everybody in the neighborhood simply adored Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins!
But as the days passed, turning into a long week, Lana started to believe the new additions to Landis Lane were more like Old Man Henderson than she ever would have thought. Surely people with such fine taste in furniture could not be rude enough to ignore four dinner invitations?
“I’m sorry to have to say this, but it must be said.” Lana threw down her dish rag, and it thumped into the bottom of her empty kitchen sink. “They’re as bad as that awful old man!”
“Oh?” Mr. Jenkins said from his armchair.
“I’ll never see inside that beautiful home!” There would be no stopping the tears this time.
Then, as if on cue, the doorbell rang.
“Who on earth could that be?” Mr. Jenkins folded his paper and glanced at his wristwatch. “Eight-thirty on a weeknight?”
“I’ll get it, Darling.” Lana brushed past him, dabbing at her eyes quickly with a silk pocket handkerchief. Composing herself, she came to the front door and glanced through the side window, drawing back the pink floral curtains for just a moment—
A pair of the most beautiful people she’d ever seen in her life stood outside. They looked like movie stars or fashion models or gods—Aryan beauties chiseled from marble—Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich’s doppelgängers, right there on her very doorstep!
“Dear?” Henry’s footsteps approached her from behind.
Lana realized she hadn’t replaced the curtain and was staring at the couple who smiled stiffly in return.
“Oh my…” Lana pulled open the door. “Welcome—”
“Good evening,” said the man with a thick European accent. “Are you the Jenkins?”
“Yes!” Lana nearly squeaked with delight. The goddess outside seemed to find her reception amusing. “I’m Lana and this—” She pulled her husband to her side. “This is Henry.”
“A pleasure to meet you both.” The suave god bowed slightly at the waist. “We must apologize. We did not intend to be rude, you see, but we have just moved in across the street and only checked our mail minutes ago. We found your invitations—”
“Dear?” Henry turned a quizzical frown upon his wife.
“Yes?” Lana leaned out the door expectantly.
“It was so kind and generous of you to ask,” the man continued.
“But we will be leaving on business tomorrow, and we could not think to impose on you with this short notice,” the woman spoke up, her voice as sweet as a Strauss composition.
“No imposition, none at all! We haven’t even eaten dinner ourselves yet!” Lana knew she sounded overeager, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Uh…” Henry began—probably about to spill the beans that they’d had meatloaf two hours ago.
“Come inside, won’t you?” Lana elbowed her beloved husband of thirty years out of the way.
“We couldn’t possibly—” began the goddess.
“Oh, I insist!” Lana beamed.
Yet the gorgeous couple remained outside, immoveable. “We had hoped you would join us,” the man said, “for drinks, perhaps?”
Lana blinked. “Join you…at your house?”
“Much remains to be unpacked and such, but if you do not mind a bit of clutter…” the woman said.
Without a word to Henry, Lana replied, “We’ll get our coats.”
Henderson Manor was even more amazing inside than Lana had ever imagined—and this she knew after just seeing the entryway: marble tiled floors, alabaster pillars, a vaulted ceiling with windows to the stars. She had to remind herself to breathe.
The Schmidts, as the very attractive Austrian couple were called—Mr. and Mrs. Rolf and Greta Schmidt—escorted them to the lounge where Rolf acted as their bartender, mixing cocktails to order with all the pizzazz of a Las Vegas nightclub attendant. Henry, who seldom warmed up to people right off, seemed almost as taken with the couple as Lana had been at first sight, and she had to pinch herself to stay in the moment. She was here, finally; this was really happening, every moment of it.
The Jenkins made the Schmidts roar with laughter and the Schmidts returned the favor without pause. After three or four drinks, it became a bit unclear as to who had invited whom in the first place. They all got along together so nicely—like old friends who had some serious catching up to do. Henry regaled them with stories of snafu’s from his years in the navy, and Rolf shared hilarious tales about eccentric clients with no grasp on reality—one of them being Old Man Henderson himself.
“He gave it to you?” Lana inquired wide-eyed.
Rolf shrugged up one shoulder as he explained. “His children, a son and a daughter, took every cent he ever had over the years, but he gave it to them gladly. When it came to this house, however, he knew there would be no way to split it evenly between them.”
“So he left it to us,” Greta said with a broad smile. “In return for our years of service.”
Lana could not believe they had served the old man for very long. The couple appeared to be no older than twenty-five, if even that. But also ageless, in a way she couldn’t put her finger on.
“And besides, he could not let them know about his basement.” Rolf winked at Henry. “Children never forgive their parents for such things, no matter how much they spoil them.”
“Oh?” He had Henry’s attention.
“How much did you know about the old fellow?”
Henry deferred to his wife. “We seldom saw hide nor hair,” she said.
Greta appeared confused by the idiom, but Rolf replied, “Suffice it to say that Mr. Henderson had certain rare . . . appetites. And he used the basement to satisfy them with great gratuitousness.”
Lana could not help cringing. Just the thought of the old scrooge being a sexual deviant almost caused her to toss up her martini. But she would never have done such a thing on the gorgeous crimson upholstery.
An hour or so later, though no one appeared to be keeping track of the time, Lana and Greta were discussing the finer points of colonial style home decorating when Rolf announced all of a sudden, “I know you Americans prefer to eat your dinner well before midnight, but for us Europeans, we can only begin to digest a meal properly once the moon is high.” He gestured to the vaulted glass ceiling where the lunar sphere had risen to its peak.
Greta leaned forward to touch Lana’s hand. “His way of asking you to stay for dinner.”
“Dinner?” Henry scoffed loudly. He’d had more to drink than was good for him.
“Oh, we couldn’t possibly impose,” Lana began.
“We insist!” Rolf bellowed with a hearty laugh.
Henry shrugged, glancing at his wife. “I’ve got nowhere to be tomorrow. How about you?”
One of the many benefits to their retired stage of life: a flexible schedule. Lana shook her head with a bright smile. Her cheeks were beginning to grow sore from all the gaiety over the past few hours.
“We would be honored.”
Rolf clapped his hands together as loud as a sudden gunshot. “Then it’s settled.”
Greta touched Lana’s hand again and Lana blinked, fought to stay in the moment, struggled to see Greta clearly, found her eyes clouding, her vision unfocused. Then the vaulted ceiling capsized, and a martini glass shattered.
Lana Jenkins awoke in a cold, dark, unfinished basement. She sat in a slat-backed chair bound hand and foot with unyielding duct tape. Beside her with his head lolling onto his chest, Henry sat in the same condition.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jenkins.” Rolf bent low to grin at her. The glow of a single light bulb dangling from above glanced off his stark white teeth. They appeared to have grown sharp—
“Morning?” Her voice came thickly.
“A few minutes past midnight already,” Greta said from shadows in a corner of the room.
“What—why are we—?” Lana couldn’t put her thoughts together. What were they doing? How had they gotten here? What was this place?
“It has been a pleasure getting to know you,” said Rolf, stepping out of her line of sight. “Mr. Henderson always taught us to be respectful to guests. But now we must say goodbye.”
“Good…bye!” Greta mimicked a scene from the Sound of Music, her sing-song echoing off cold, rust-stained concrete.
“What do you mean?” Lana licked her sour lips.
“It is time for dinner now,” Rolf said, reappearing with what looked to be a hacksaw.
“Already ate,” Henry mumbled, nearly incoherent. “Meatloaf…”
“Henry, wake up!” Lana stared at the saw in Rolf’s grip. “Wake up now Dear, you must wake up.”
“Oh let him be.” Rolf came alongside Mr. Jenkins and laid the jagged blade flat against his neck.
Lana screamed, fully alert as everything about this moment came into crystal clarity. “You can’t do this! People will find out! We know all of our neighbors very well and they’ll notice if we’re missing—!”
“And who did you tell you would be coming here?” Rolf raised an eyebrow.
Lana swallowed. “You—you came unannounced…”
“Death often does,” Greta said with a laugh as Rolf started in with the saw.
Bio: Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities. He is an active SFWA member, and his work has appeared in more than 70 publications, including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and Shimmer. His novel Captain Bartholomew Quasar and the Space-Time Displacement Conundrum is forthcoming from Every Day Publishing. www.milojamesfowler.com