[Author's note: Precedes "Special Education" (story ID: 274249) by about six months, but different narrator and no particular thematic connection.]
It's never this quiet in suburbia, where there's always a car going by, or a gaggle of kids on the sidewalk, or the hum of someone else's television drifting through the window. Out here, in the depth of summer, there's no sound but the wind in the trees and the incessant drone of insects in the grass. The silence is surreal. So is the darkness, when I get home late. I think I understand now why my nearest neighbors, the Johansens and the Grants, all have more kids than they know what to do with. On a still day, you start to think you're the only person left alive, except perhaps a stray serial killer or something.
This afternoon it's worse than usual. The flood of August sunlight embalms the world like amber. On my way outside I let the back door swing shut with a bang, just to break the silence.
Someone gasps. My heart stops.
It's only the kid, what's his name, who was over here a couple of times while I was moving in, and I've scared him at least as badly as he did me. He jumps to his feet, or rather tries to; he stumbles, and has to catch himself on the porch rail. We stare at each other blankly for a moment.
"You okay?" I ask, when he doesn't move, or even seem to breathe, and he backs away a step.
"I'm goin'. I wasn't doin' anything."
"Didn't say you were. I said are you okay."
He stares. After a perceptible pause, he says, "Yeah."
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry." The kid backs up again, tensed, ready to flee. "I wasn't doin' nothin'. I just--"
"It's okay. Just what?"
He looks at the ground. "Nothin'."
"Kid. It's okay." I sit down on the crumbling steps, to prove I'm harmless. "I'm just asking. Didn't know this was the local hot spot." He steals a glance upward, as though he doesn't know whether to take me seriously.
"Wasn't thinkin'," he says finally. "Forgot there was somebody here."
"Fair enough." I've only been here a month, after all. "You come up here a lot before I showed up?"
The boy shrugs. What the hell is his name? One of Mary Grant's lot, they all have that look, dark and angular and skittish like her. The skittishness is particularly in evidence just now.
"Look, it's all right. If you want the truth, I could use some company up here, sometimes. Gets pretty quiet. If you want to come hang out for a while-- or if you just need someplace to go--"
He flashes dark eyes at me, astonished. That's why he's here; I should have figured that out. A family that size, in a place too small to hold them all and miles from anywhere, would get on anyone's nerves; for an adolescent it must be hell. If I say I understand, it will only convince him that I don't; so I just shrug. "You're welcome to, anyway."
"Thanks," he mutters. And then abruptly, "I gotta go."
"Okay. See you."
He backs away a couple more steps before turning swiftly to head homeward. I watch him cross the overgrown yard, moving not with grace, but with that peculiarly appealing awkwardness that young things have. It doesn't look pretty, but it gets them where they want to go. I'll have to get his name, the next time I see him.