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The World Next Door

Twenty houses lined the main street of town. Most of them were tiny white boxes, with a couple of larger two-stories jutting into the country skyline.

The one thing all the houses had in common was that none had changed a whit in Tammy’s whole life. Eighteen years spent walking and riding her bike through sleepy little Marigold Station, and the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her was that time Jimmy Stevens chased her down the sidewalk with a dead snake in his hand.

Tammy just knew there was adventure waiting beyond her sheltered corner of the world, and she couldn’t wait to get started.

First, though, she had to finish high school, and that meant a final project for the school newspaper — interviewing a community member.

Problem was, there was no one in Marigold Station interesting enough for the assignment … they’d all put Mrs. Foster to sleep, and then Tammy might not get a good grade, and then she might be stuck forever.

No, what she needed was a road trip to the city, where she might find a real story.

Her mother did not hold the same point of view. “Why, this town is full of great characters if you just dig a bit. In fact … I think you should go see Mrs. Garber.”

All Tammy knew about Mrs. Garber was that she lived at the far end of town in the last gray house, the one with the broken-down doghouse in the side yard. Oh, and the Mrs. Garber never handed out candy at Halloween.

“C’mon, Mom,” Tammy protested. “Can’t you just drive me into Harrisville? I could interview the librarian or the sheriff, and then we’d be done.

But Helen was already on the phone. “Yes, Mrs. Garber. Thank you. Yes. She’ll be there at 3 pm on Sunday.”

At ten minutes before three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, Tammy left her house just outside Marigold Station to walk the length of town for what must have been the ten thousandth time.

It was a late spring day, and the wind whipped around her as she walked. Shingles flapped on roofs in need of maintenance, a couple of dogs jangled their leashes as they trotted from smell to smell, and the muffled sound of TV voices rumbled through thin walls.

Mostly, though, the town was dead, like always.

Just before three, Tammy stepped onto Mrs. Garber’s front porch and rapped lightly on the wooden door. Less than a minute later, the door creaked open, and Mrs. Garber peeped a sheepish but hopeful face through the screen window.

She was older, more frail than Tammy remembered.

“Hello, Tammy, dear,” the old woman cooed. Tammy didn’t remember having spent much time with her, but Mrs. Garber seemed to recall her. “You’re so grown-up … and so pretty!”

Tammy blushed and slipped into the dark mahogany and warm, cookie-scented atmosphere inside as Mrs. Garber held the door open.

Their conversation flowed easy, one question spilling into the next, and each one washed down with a swig of warm tea or a morsel of ginger snap. Before long, Tammy had lost track of her original script, and she’d stopped taking notes.

These were stories she’d never forget, the kind that locked into your heart and mind the instant you heard them.

Mrs. Garber told her about growing up just on the outskirts of town, a couple of homesteads down from Tammy’s own house. Hendricks had been her maiden name, and Tammy knew from local lore that they were a founding family of the community.

Mrs. Garber had been the first in her family to graduate high school, the first to go to college.

She had studied archaeology at Creighton. Fell in love with a fellow student, and they were married after graduation.

From there, the young man — Arthur Garber — went to graduate school at UCLA and eventually became a professor. Mrs. Garber — please call me Martha, dear — completed her masters degree before the couple had their first child.

For the next forty years, the Garbers traveled the world, with Arthur leading expeditions to Mexico, Egypt, Australia, and other remote locales while Martha ran the day-to-day operations of the research team. And raised a family.

Arthur had died twenty years earlier, just before Tammy was born. Martha decided it was time to get back to her roots, so she retired and came back to Marigold Station.

These days, she spent most of her time volunteering there in the western part of the state.

“Oh, the stories I could tell you!” Martha said as she finished her third cup of tea. “But I’ve already talked your ear off, and I suspect your mother is expecting you home for dinner.”

She nodded toward a camel back clock on the fireplace mantel. It was five minutes ’til six.

Tammy was shocked that so much time had passed, and she was sorely disappointed … and slightly embarrassed she had lost herself in the old lady’s stories.

“Oh, my goodness, Mrs. Garber!” Her interviewee held up a finger. “I mean, Martha. I had no idea it was so late. I’m sorry to have kept you so long!”

Tammy stood and walked toward the door.

“It has been my pleasure, young lady. I just hope you will have enough material for your interview.”

Tammy nodded. She could write an entire book about Martha Garber.

“It will be wonderful. Thank you so much.”

She stepped onto the front porch, and Martha patted her gently on the shoulder.

Tammy turned to look at her neighbor. “Do you think it would be OK if I came back sometime, Martha? You know, for tea, and maybe to hear a few more stories?”

Martha smiled and hugged the girl. “You are welcome here any time my dear.”

Tammy beamed as she walked through town toward her place, sitting out there near the Hendricks homestead. Somehow the boring, rundown houses along main street seemed to sparkle, just a bit, and they suddenly had interesting juts and creases that distinguished them from each other in a way she’d never noticed before.

Tammy wondered what other stories lay hidden there in her sleepy little hometown.

She just might have to find out.

Published inFlash Fiction

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