The four of them, my neighbors, the Dahlquists, read books. Day in and day out. Ultrasonic Transrhythms. The Theory of Syrup. Pluto’s Troposphere. Ender’s Game. Little House on the Prairie, my favorite and the only book I own. I read the spines of their books with my binoculars, the family reading in an all-weather glassed-in swayback porch on their house next to mine. Son. Daughter. Mother and father. Each have spots of their own to read, and tremendous bookcases line the back wall of the porch. At night, lights come on in three different rooms on the second floor, then go out simultaneously as if they put down their nighttime books at the same identical time and extinguished lights on the count of three.
The family was, by my count as their neighbor, into thirty years of reading when one morning I noticed the father was not among them. I scanned the house and yard with my binoculars. Then I looked again at his empty chair and at his stack of books for the day, yet untouched. Three lights went off simultaneously at night on the second floor for another year or so. Then the wife disappeared. The son and daughter were in their forties by then, and they read all day without seeming to notice their parents were missing. Then one overcast morning, the daughter read studiously, without notice that she was alone. One light burned all night on the second floor.
When I fit binoculars to my eyes the next morning, I see the daughter is not on the porch. It’s empty. The yard and house of the Dahlquists become overgrown and tumbled down, an eyesore like my own, which someone must have reported, for three county welfare agents come by a year after the Dahlquists go missing. I talk about the Dahlquists. The agents in their straitlaced clothes, them holding clipboards, them sitting ramrod on the edge of chairs in my living room, listen. I go on talking. I say I never knew them, the Dahlquists. I only observed them. They tell me this family does not exist. That the house next to mine has been deserted, fallen down and in a state of disrepair like my own, for a number of decades, according to their records, and that state of disrepair is why they’re here doing a welfare check. They slide their clipboards into briefcases. The next afternoon they come back for me and a few of my possessions.
Mornings, I take out my book, Little House on the Prairie. Across the ward, I see the Dahlquists. Reading their copies. They look up. We raise our books in a salute, one that smacks of, as they would say in here, a crazy connection.
AJ Atwater’s fiction has been published in 100 Word Story, Litro-NY, American Literary Review, Roanoke Review, Blood Tree Literature, Green Mountains Review, PANK, and elsewhere.