Boys Next Door
a Ghost Hunt short story.
Mai danced around the coffee table, broom in hand and a more than a bit unbalanced. It would have been a disaster if she hadn't decided to leave the full dustpan on the floor while she attempted to move the heavy wood. Well, it was a disaster anyway — the damned thing! Wouldn't! Move! Her socked feet slid as she pushed and shoved but the table thwarted her.
"Who's idea was it to put you here in the first place?" she mumbled. Really, she could only blame herself. She's spent the last three hours dancing around her apartment, moving this and organizing that - all in the name of feng shui. Why were English apartments so... cluttered? She missed the simple necessity of her apartment in Japan where she left her old faithful kotatsu. At least she could have moved that. Mai breathed a few choice swear words, jumping at the sound of the knock at her door.
"Just a minute!" she called as she leaned the broom against the traitorous table and hopped over the piles of dirt and debris to the front door. On her tiptoes she could only just barely see through the peephole and still she didn't see anyone. Who...?
Mai stepped back and opened the door slowly, peeking around to see if her visitor was standing just out of view. "Hello?"
No one answered. After a minutes pause, Mai stepped back into her apartment, but wait- there was a package. There was a small brown box sitting on her equally brown doormat. No wonder she didn't see it, but when had she ordered something? She picked it up, turning it sideways to read the label in hopes of some type of recognition.
A package from Pratt Laboratory? Nope, no clue. Mai had only moved to London a month ago. She barely knew the name of the closest bakery let alone some laboratory. She scanned the label again. For Oliver Davis. Oh. That explains things. And the address beneath the name was for the apartment just beneath her own. Mai turned to walk back inside, resolving to take the package over later. Then she glanced back at the table — that good for nothing table — and changed her mind. Maybe she could ask her neighbor for some help in exchange for her delivery.
It was the perfect plan.
Mai slipped into her shoes and left the door unlocked behind her. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes, right? It would be fine. And one flight of stairs later, she was on the ground floor, package in hand, and knocking on an identical door to her own.
It was quiet inside, no music, no television. She strained her ears but she couldn't even hear anyone talking. Maybe they weren't home?
Then the door swung wide.
"Hey, hello." A guy not much older than herself, stood in the open door. He was tall and willowy and sloping as if his troubles often slid off his shoulders.
"Oh, um, hi" — Mai gestured the small box towards him — "Oliver Davis?"
"Gene, actually," he said but reached for the box anyway. "That damn postman always gets the address wrong." He offered her a toothy smile that Mai didn't return. At her questioning glance he added, "Noll is my brother."
"Noll?" She tried the unfamiliar word.
"Oliver." Gene affirmed.
"Those are not the same."
Gene laughed. "Noll is a nickname for Oliver. Dumb, I know," he said raising his hands, "but oddly fitting. You must be our neighbor then, Mrs...?"
"Taniyama Mai," she said, brightening. "I live upstairs."
"Upstairs, huh. That's a new one. But you're 100% an upgrade from dear old Mrs. Norris." He laughed, eyeing the door across the hall. "Well, hey, since you came all the way here, why don't you... come have a drink?"
Mai laughed, too. She couldn't help it. "I actually have to get back," she said, pointing to the ceiling, "but I was wondering if you wouldn't mind accompanying me? It is a long journey afterall."
Gene raised his eyebrows.
"I have a table that is in dire need of relocation," Mai quickly added. "If you wouldn't mind, of course." She felt a heat rising in her cheeks.
"Oh," he said and looked relieved. "I would love to—"
"Gene." Gene's voice barked from behind them. Gene turned quickly, revealing a very similar willowy figure in the apartment hallway. "Luella is asking about Lauren."
Mai gawked. How could two people look so similar.
"Tell her I'll call her back."
Not-Gene crossed the space, shaking his head. Into the phone he said, "Yes, Luella, he is right here."
Gene frowned, taking the proffered phone. "Hi Luella! Just one second." He turned to Mai, offering an apologetic smile. "Looks like I'll need a rain check."
"Oh, no worries!" Mai whispered, waving him off. "Whenever you're free—"
"Don't be silly," he said, pushing his brother into the doorway. "Noll can help you."
Noll whipped around. "No, I can't—"
"Yes, Lauren is great." Gene said loudly into the phone. He pushed Noll out with the door, closing it firmly behind him. Mai could still hear his exaggerated conversation on the other side.
Up close, she could see the differences. Where Gene was sloping, Noll was sharp. Efficient. If troubles slid off Gene they landed on Noll.
"You live upstairs?" It was startling, hearing Gene's voice accompany such a sullen expression.
"Oh," Mai forced a smile, backtracking to the stairs. "Yes. I have a table I need help moving—"
"I heard." He said, walking around her.
She watched him ascend the stairs. "If you heard that then why ask — hey!" He tried her handle and the unlocked door opened.
"You really shouldn't leave your door unlocked." He called, disappearing inside.
Mai raced up the stairs. "I was only going downstairs!"
Noll shrugged. "Anyone could have snuck in during the three minutes you were chatting up Gene."
"Chatting up?" she questioned, cheeks still hot. "I wasn't chatting anyone up... do you really think someone came in?" She glanced sheepishly around, eyeing the numerous hiding spots.
"Is this what you're trying to move?" Noll pointed down at the squat table, broom still keeping guard.
Mai nodded. "If you could just move it over there."
He leaned down, picking up one side and pausing. He looked expectant. "Aren't you going to help?"
Mai mocked him. "You mean you can't move it either?"
He didn't rise to her bait. Sighing, Mai trudged over and took up the other side. Together they moved it into the adjoining room where it was much better suited.
"Thanks," she said, catching her breath. "That would have taken me days."
Noll didn't say anything but headed for the door.
"Wait." she called and he paused halfway out the door. "Would you... mind staying while I check for burglars?"
To her surprise, Noll didn't mock her. He crossed his arms and stood sentry in the entryway. "Go on."
"You promise you won't leave?"
"I will not."
Relieved, Mai smiled. He might have looked tough, but the guy wasn't all that bad. "Thanks."