These events took place when I was five years old, in the rural south. You see, back then, my family was always moving from town to town because of my stepfather’s work. Among the memories I have of this time include some family secrets that we still don’t really talk about. What I’m about to relate to you is one such untold secret we would rather forget.
The modest white house we had recently moved into was surrounded by two large willow trees that blocked out the sun, leaving our backyard shadowed and apart from the rest of the world. My two older sisters and I would often swing from their branches and climb their thick trunks while our mother and stepfather would sit on the porch and contentedly watch us play in the late afternoon.
We would ride bikes, swim in the inflatable pool, fly kites and run on the slip and slide, you name it. We were very active children and never left a beautiful day unfulfilled. Across the street were a few other homes, and the sweet old couple directly across from us would often sit on their own porch and wave and smile at us as they drank lemonade from a large pitched and sat in old wooden rocking chairs. Our mother often waved cheerfully to them when we were brought outside, and their smiles and sweetness always made the day more pleasant.
Until, that is, a few months after moving into the old white home our mother got the three of us together, telling us there was something we needed to talk about as a family. She told us sternly that we were no longer to wave at the sweet, elderly couple across the street. She went so far as to tell us not to even look at them, and if we saw them waving at us we were to come inside and tell her.
This was an odd request to us. Nothing about the elderly couple seemed threatening or off in any way. Hell, our mother was the one who was always talking about how sweet they were to be so friendly. So this request baffled us and continued to baffle us for the rest of our stay in this particular home, but we minded, and no longer responded to the couple across the street. Soon they had been easily forgotten as we got on with our lives in other homes in other towns.
That is, until I was sixteen years old, having a pleasant dinner out with my sisters and mothers, a rare occurrence for sure during this time of our lives. For whatever reason, over our evening meal the conversation turned to that quiet old white house and the elderly couple across the street.
As soon as the subject had been brought up, my mother’s joyful face had darkened. Her eyes fell to her lap and it took her a moment before actually addressing us. She told us that she had been afraid to talk about the subject all these years, especially while we were still living in the home, afraid of needlessly making us afraid of staying in the quiet house in the shade of the willow trees.
At that time, our stepfather had been working at the local Pepsi Company, a well paying job that allowed my mother to stay at home with the three of us while still making a modest living for our family. Apparently, one of his coworkers had actually lived in the house beside the willow home for nearly six years and had only moved out the year before.
My stepfather and the man were talking about the neighborhood and the house, when at some point my stepfather mentioned the sweet, elderly couple across the street that liked to sit on their porch in the evening and watch us kids laugh and play. The man looked genuinely puzzled. He said that my stepfather must be joking, just pulling his leg. My stepfather replied just as perplexed.
With a sober face, the coworker told my stepfather that there was no elderly couple living across the street. Sure, there had once been such occupants in the small home, but they had both died horribly nearly three years before from carbon monoxide poisoning. The couple’s stove had leaked gas for days before they finally succumbed to the poisoning, and it took longer than that for anyone to find the dead couple. The man knew because he was the one who crossed the street to check on them, only to find the ghastly scene.
He recommended we leave the house in the shade.
Credit: Frank Wagers