The Neighborhood Watch was four people. I was one of those four people. I, like you or your mom, get up every morning and pull on my pants. I sit on the toilet. I brush my teeth. They call me The Tamer, or Toni, the Tamer. The joke is not lost on me, friends, no. My favorite animal is the tiger and I have some issues with anger. I’ll admit it. And while I do not have superheroes, I do believe in superheroes. And that has made all the difference.
I say ‘was’ four people because only recently we lost our beloved Marlene.
Marlene went gray years ago, but every week dyed it pink–every shade of pink, even purples, of extremely deep or extremely light shades, sometimes even subtle blues, but never a combination.
We took bets on the color. When Ash and I arrived outside Marlene’s house (Neighborhood Watch Headquarters) on Queens Lane at about the same time, we conspired along the walkway before we knocked upon her door. Ash always bet on purple. I always bet on pink.
When we went to identify the body after Marlene’s alleged critical heart failure, her hair was a carnivalesque bubblegum pink.
Marlene was native Hawaiian. You might have called either of us fat, I don’t know. I don’t know your standards. I don’t know your tastes. But I can run up a fire escape and jump over walls. I do not have a thigh gap unless I’m kicking your ass. Are you a bad man? Would you like that?
Marlene never hid in a name. To us she was always ‘Marlene.’ And she took names just for fun, changing her names and super-identities as flippantly as she did her crazy old-lady hair colors. These are what she called them herself. “Yes, Tomi, and do you know why I have dyed my hair a new shade of periwinkle?” she was known to have said to me. “Because there is a bad man. Around every corner. Inside every shadow. There is a bad man in all of our hearts. Pull them all up like worms from the dirt. I am the Pink Peregrine. And I will uproot them like worms.”
She was a woman of limitless inspiration and care.
We met in her living room. The walls were full of small pictures of her generations of family. Marlene sat beside a Tiffany lamp, fanning herself with a wicker fan made of palm leaves, three of which were also provided for the three of us as well (although we seldom used them, as we lived in Detroit). It was a very small, compact living room, but it was perfectly cozy.
Ash and Gemini always sat on a small couch, and I sat in the armchair, compulsively eating from the plate of cheese squares on Ritz crackers on the coffee table between us. We sat and we talked. And we talked of The Neighborhood Watch.
Our powers weren’t particularly strong. The mean streets of Detroit would stab us, tie us up in a bundle, and leave us by the trash to bleed out. But in our strange little neighborhood, we could make a real difference.
Gemini could split into two people like the Wonder Twins. They could not take on different shapes or forms, but could operate independently as two people, a boy and a girl. Gemini was always at Marlene’s house before me and Incendiary. (We called her ‘Ash,’ though professionally she was ‘Incendiary.’) They were Marlene’s niece and nephew, but, if I will say
it honestly, I’ve never seen the two of them in the same room.
Marlene’s powers too were suspect. Maybe she had no powers at all. Maybe she was just really good at listening to people. But she never was wrong.
“You’ve got potential, kid,” she had said.
“What?” I said. I was forty and I was drunk in public before noon.
“You clean up your act. You come talk to me. There’s something special about you.”
I was hunched over a trash can looking up at her. Her lilac hair was spinning around like a pinwheel.
Marlene was my sponsor. She too had overcome that heavy beast of drinking, about fifteen years before. She told me I had something special inside me. I could not read the future, nor split into two people, nor burn houses down, nor fly like I wanted, but I was super nonetheless.
“I can see it,” she said.
“What?” I said.
She stared at me from her armchair by her Tiffany lamp. “The future. And I know that you never get any powers. But I know, and I know this perhaps more, that you belong in this group.”
It might have Marlene that brought us together, but it was really when Ash came in, that we finally developed our mission. Ash, or ‘Incendiary,’ was just starting high school when she joined The Neighborhood Watch.
We had made a name for ourselves as three already by exposing a perp who got off by poisoning dog biscuits: ‘The Cookie Monster.’
Marlene made the prediction and told us where to go. As a beautiful man and woman, Gemini could pluck confessions out of just about anyone. As Gemini met The Cookie Monster on a date in the park, I laid in wait in the bushes. When The Cookie Monster ran, I leapt out and detained him. Actually, I kicked his living shit out, and then I sat on his throat and
waited for the police.
The perp got off with two months in prison. He came back home and put a Christmas tree in his window. This is when Ash showed up.
Though the blackened evidence of a burned down house stood clearly only two blocks down from my own house, we could not believe Ash when she told us her powers. “A pyro without fire?” said Marlene, leaning into the light from her Tiffany lamp. “A burned down house without smoke?!”
Ash led us to the woods where an old half-collapsed house lay abandoned in weeds. Green and yellow climbers had pushed into every window and broken down every door. The roof looked like cardboard left in the rain. Ash creaked open the rusted old gate and Marlene, Gemini (the girl Gemini) and I followed her up the walkway toward the front door.
Gemini asked Ash what we were doing here. Marlene closed her eyes and tensed her arthritic hands like she was hearing a message in the wind. I walked the perimeter and peered in the windows. There were two wooden chairs. One was knocked over. Both were missing pieces. I came to the back window which had still a little glass left. There was something carved in paneling under the window. It looked like two names but was so covered in dirt or in dust. I reached to scrape it off. When my fingers made contact, it was like touching a stove. The house was turning black. I looked in the sky and, though the sun was setting, that didn’t explain the seering pads of my fingers.
I ran around to the front. Gemini and Marlene were now staring at Ash. Ash, who had her hands on each side of the door frame, was pushing against the house with all her might, like she was going to push it over. With how intensely she pushed, it looked almost like someone was behind her, trying to force her to go in.
The house blackened like an expiring orange. It was like a fire in time lapse. The paneling blazed white gray like wood in a campfire. The roof began crinkling like tinfoil. We stepped back. It was intensely hot. It was like a nightmare of being unable to scoot back from a fireplace. The house before our eyes burned down, but there was no smoke, there was no fire, there was no severe damage to the forest around it except for the pale yellowing of the branches nearby or above it.
Ash began to look woozy. She was not up as right as she had been. I ran to her and, as she swooned, fireman-carried her away from the house. My lungs had no reaction. The air felt totally clear. But the way the heat plummeted down on me, it was like crawling into a pottery oven.
Now, as we sat mourning the death of Marlene, in the living room of the small house Gemini had inherited, Ash stared into her hands, perhaps mesmerized by all she had done, perhaps seeing now all the fire and smoke which had never been there, which even now only she could see.
I didn’t know how to start the meeting. Marlene always started the meetings. Marlene did nothing special to start the meetings, only began impulsively sharing some relatively unimportant event from her day. I tried to start the same way. “I-” I began, and then felt stunted, as Marlene had died only last night, and I, in my mind’s eye, had no recourse for steering out of the bad news and into the good. I was stuck at “I.” “I,” I said again.
“I wish Marlene was here,” I finally managed.
Gemini (the boy Gemini) nodded. They sat staring blankly at Marlene’s armchair and the Tiffany lamp. The lamp sat there glowing like Marlene. It was, in the silence, like those many moments when Marlene would suddenly be silent, receiving some transmission from the future.
“Seven houses,” Ash said.
It was true. Counting the first abandoned house in the woods she showed us and the two she’d done accidentally before she’d met us, Ash had been the cause of seven burned down houses.
I had a direct purpose now to speak and spoke easily. “Those houses were just. We had just cause,” I said.
“Seven,” Ash said. “Seven houses. Five for Marlene. And now Marlene-” She paused. She looked at Gemini, then at the Tiffany lamp.
Gemini sat up in their chair. “It was right,” they said. “We knew what those men would have done. We knew-”
“Marlene is dead,” said Ash. She widened her eyes and opened her hands. She stared at me now. “Marlene is dead, Toni. Marlene is dead.”
“Marlene is dead,” I said. “And we’ve got to carry her on. She built this. She trusted us.”
“Marlene,” said Ash. “Marlene could read the future.” Ash nodded up and down, reasoning to herself with the kind of burned out intensity I had seen years before in myself. “If Marlene knew she was gonna die,” and Ash rashly indicated the Ritz crackers still tightly Saran wrapped. “She died. She is dead.” Ash pointed at the kitchen behind us, which had a roast Marlene left cooking in a crockpot. “She didn’t know.”
“She didn’t want to upset us,” said Gemini.
Ash shook her head. “She didn’t know shit,” she said. “She didn’t know.
“Hey,” I said. “That’s not fair.”
The charred remains of our four target houses remained like big charred skeletons.
“Seven,” said Ash. “And we don’t really know why?”
“Bad men-” I began.
“We don’t know that,” Ash said. She pointed at me and herself. “We don’t know jack shit. But they,” she pointed at Gemini and the ether. “They told us what we needed to hear. And then I, I-” She curled like a bug and held her head in her hands. “Four deliberate attempts to hurt someone. And then what was next? What was tonight? Was tonight another hit? Did we have a new target tonight?”
“Marlene created The Neighborhood Watch,” I said. “Marlene gave us all a place to do good.”
Ash sniggered. “All you did was assault. I destroyed four men’s homes.”
“They were bad men,” I said.
I tried to make it as clear as possible. “You’ve done a lot of good in this neighborhood. You’ve stopped a lot of bad people.”
Ash put her fingers at her temples and furrowed her brow. She was mocking Marlene, one of Marlene’s frequent visions. She began shaking and speaking in a deep, breathless voice like a possessed woman in a seance. “MAN ON BIRCH STREET. MAN. MID-THIRTIES. THIRD HOUSE ON BIRCH.” She squeezed the fingers of her armchair. “VICTIM. SARA
WHITE.” Then she let go of her armchair and slumped down in it like a teenager. “Fuck,” she said. “It’s horseshit.” She went silent, and stared ahead like she was watching something else.
In the silence, I thought more about Marlene.
Many weeks would go by without any houses, until a week would come where the Tiffany lamp flickered and Marlene death-squeezed the arms of her chair. MAN ON BIRCH STREET. MAN. MID-THIRTIES. BIRCH. THIRD HOUSE. Her eyes would roll back in her head. She would foam at the mouth. And then we’d suit up, wait for nightfall, and sneak into our
Gemini, as a man or a woman, would get themselves invited into the bad man’s house for a drink. Ash and I would wait outside the man’s house in the bushes. Ash would just rub her hands together while we sat in the cold looking in the man’s window. I would eat a little creatine, and sit with my bag and my rope. Any sign of danger, any word of go-ahead from Gemini, and we’d break the door down and get started.
It was my job to incapcitate the fucker physically and then stuff him in the bag. I wouldn’t kick him, but I would roll him around a little bit and then sit on the bag, so there was no way he could get out. After the first couple times, it only took Ash ten minutes tops to burn the whole thing down to the ground. I’d whisper to the man in the bag: “You may not know who you were gonna hurt yet. But now you’ve got no chance of hurting anyone here. When I let you out, it’s gonna be a whole new
world. For you.”
When I’d finally let the man out of the bag, it would still take him half a minute to orient himself to the right end, uncinch it and crawl out. In that half-minute, all three of us would dive back into the bushes. And then we’d see it. A fireless, smokeless tragedy: a man seeing his own home. Maybe it was the house he’d grown up in. Maybe it was a house he’d swooped in and bought. Whatever the man’s house had once meant to him, now it was a big heap of ash and black boards.
“The Neighborhood Watch,” said Ash, who was so sullen now it was as if she had entirely given up hope. “There is never any Neighborhood Watch. ‘The Neighborhood Watch’ is an arbitrary sign on an arbitrary street corner. No one ever makes a neighborhood watch. It’s a sign. It’s a yellow sign jutting out of someone’s juniper bushes. Who really, who really takes the Neighborhood Watch seriously besides children?”
“I do,” I said. I was very proud of this. Ash met my eyes. “I believe in The Neighborhood Watch.”
After moments of great tension, Gemini tied their hair back and started the meeting. “Tonight as The Neighborhood Watch, though as we admittedly carry on with no leader, we carry on with Duty, with Honor, with Justice. Anyone, who is to these terms opposed, must speak now, or hold their peace.” Without checking Ash or me for reaction, they carried about, as Marlene always would, to peel the Saran wrap off the cheese and Ritz crackers, and then held the plate out to each remaining member of The Neighborhood Watch.
I took one.
Gemini took one.
And not without some great hesitation, Ash finally took one.
“We immediately report all suspicious activities,” said Gemini, before taking her first bite of cracker. “For we are The Neighborhood Watch.”
Ash and I also bit into our crackers. But I immediately frowned. There was something like a paper wrapper left in my cracker. I noticed the others frowned too. I held my cracker up to my eyes and stared at it. There was a small white corner under the cheese.
I lifted up the cheese. It was a small folded white paper. Without the weight of the cheese, it began to expand out of its fold. I took it and unfolded it completely. There was a small message inside.
Gemini read it out first: “MAN ON QUEENS. MAN. MIDDLE FIFTIES. VICTIM. THE BUBBLEGUM BEACON.”
Dr. Maev Barba attended the Puget Sound Writer’s Conference in 2018. She is a PNW native and a great lover of books. She used to sell books door-to-door. A doctor of astronomy, Barba looks into space and considers neither the small as too little, nor the large as too great, for the lover of stars knows there is no limit to dimension.