When I moved in, Nelson Groves didn’t seem that weird.
He was a software engineer, which I guessed even before he told me. Shoulder-length greasy brunette hair twisted into a sloppy bun. Pink splotches of acne in the creases on his forehead from always looking surprised or frowning. He alternated between two fleece jackets—a red one and a light blue one—over various tee shirts with warped collars and cracked iron-on graphics for local IT companies, cargo shorts with pockets full of stuff, and flip-flops. He said he wasn’t allowed to be barefoot at work, so on weekdays he wore socks.
His voice had a goofy wobble in it that worsened when he thought something was funny. When he concentrated hard on something he rubbed the tip of his middle finger between his brows, which made me wonder if he used to wear glasses.
The house was a small three-bedroom, his childhood home. He told me he was a few years out of college, living in an apartment in the city, when someone broke into the house and his parents died trying to defend themselves. Never caught the killer.
Nelson later moved back into the house and used his meager inheritance to build a powerful gaming PC. I heard more minutiae about that computer than his parents’ murder. Maybe it was a defense mechanism; maybe he was trying to be honest without scaring me away.
He told me all of this over pizza after I finished moving in Tuesday night.
It was the first I’d heard of a break-in—let alone a double murder—in the house. The neighborhood was quiet, with decent schools nearby. I could see it as a potential target for someone looking to nab some heirloom jewelry or a small wad in a safe, but lacking the nerve to hit a rich house. An amateur who might panic and murder a couple in their late fifties over some pearl earrings.
I didn’t want Nelson to think the story creeped me out, but I didn’t know what to say about any of it, so I shook my head, finished my beer, and slowly crushed the can.
“Wow, I’m sorry,” I finally said.
“We should do this every week,” he said.
I put the hunched can on the table. “Sure.”
He pointed at me. “Tuesday’s our day, Chris. Mark it.”
Wednesday morning I set up my desk in my bedroom and got to work. Cold calling homeowners to offer them eco-friendly alternatives to spray foam insulation. I’ve got a headset, and I like to pace around when I’m calling, but with the bed and the desk my room is too small for that. So I sat jiggling my leg and staring out at the driveway and the identical house across the street.
Nelson spent almost all his at-home time in his bedroom—his parents’ old bedroom—and he said the third bedroom had been his parents’ office. Since he wasn’t using it, I wanted to find a way to make it my office.
But endearing myself was hard with Nelson’s erratic schedule.
The few times I saw him out of his room he was on the couch writing code on his laptop, with metal music loud in his headphones and the Game Show Network muted on TV.
He usually left early in the morning, and he’d come back in the afternoon, microwave a can of chili or a bowl of ramen, shut himself in his room for several hours, and leave again around eight at night.
I made a point of heading to the kitchen around that time to find out where he was going. Maybe to a bar; maybe he actually had friends and didn’t want to intrude on my time settling in, when on the contrary I was happy to buy him a few drinks.
But he said he was heading back to work. His company was in the middle of updating its server security, a round-the-clock operation.
“Amateurs,” he said shaking his head.
I didn’t mind having the place to myself. I hadn’t had such a big couch and TV in my apartment. So I indulged, thinking I’d see his headlights through the front window and politely head to my room when he got home.
When I woke up there was an infomercial playing, and I heard movement in the kitchen. I only had to move my head a little, and in the glow of the TV I saw Nelson behind the kitchen counter, shirtless, hair down and ratty, rummaging on a shelf.
He turned around. I squinted my eyes to look asleep, and watched his dim shape come around the counter—he was completely naked. There were scratches and bruises on his torso and legs. He cradled a box of crackers and a couple of cans in his arms. He crept. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I could tell he was watching me as he went, then disappeared into the hallway, and I heard him shut the door.
I waited a long time before I turned off the TV and went to my room.
The next morning I found a note under my door saying I should ask before taking his cans of chili, since he always bought a specific amount to last until his next shop.
To keep this from blossoming into resentment, I bought some more chili and met him in the kitchen that afternoon. I offered him the cans—a couple more than I’d seen him take the night before—but specified that I wasn’t the one who ate the chili.
“Maybe you were sleepwalking,” I said, thinking of the scratches and bruises. “Some people do that. Sleep eat, or even sleep cook.”
“I sleepwalked when I was really little. I don’t remember that, but my parents said I scratched up the walls and stuff a few times. I saw a sleep specialist when I was five, and it hasn’t happened since. But I never ate during it.”
I made a mental note to put a lock on my bedroom door. “Okay, well, I promise I didn’t take your food. But here’s some more chili anyway.”
He stared at me and his voice got wobbly. “I mean, I was hungry this morning. How could I be hungry if I apparently ate two cans of chili and a box of frickin’ crackers?”
That evening while he was at work, I went down the hall past his room into the closed office. It was the same size as my bedroom, but with only a desk in it there was much more space. Enough to pace around. Or I could even get a treadmill like I’d wanted in my old place.
There was a framed photo face-down on the desk. Teenage Nelson and his parents in front of a forest backdrop, the gilded signature of a mall photographer stamped in the corner. Young Nelson looked the same only less developed, his forehead wrinkles just beginning. His dad was thick and bald, with suspenders and a big smile. His mom was lanky and beaky, had a page boy haircut and warm eyes.
I put the photo back face-down.
He hadn’t mentioned how much time had passed between the murder and his move into the house, but some boxes labeled with his spindly handwriting were stacked against the wall. I wondered if his boxes could go in the wall cabinet, out of the way.
Three of the cupboards were full of binders marked with addresses and logos for Green Groves Landscaping.
The furthest cupboard was empty except for scraps of pink fiberglass insulation and dust bunnies. I bent down to look, and noticed that a messy hole was broken through the wall into a dark crawl space. The air from the hole was cool with a faint stink of feces.
Keys ratcheted in the front door. There wasn’t time to get back to my room so I closed the cupboards, shut the office door, and turned off the light.
His keys jingled, the door closed, and the deadbolt slid.
I wondered why I’d reacted that way. It was technically my house too; I paid rent. But now I had to commit to the choice to hide.
Footsteps went into the kitchen. Metal peeled, a spoon scraped, the microwave beeped and whirred.
I heard him go to my bedroom door and knock. I don’t know why I’d thought to close it, but I’m glad I had. My neck went cold trying to remember if my light was off.
“Chris. You wanna beer?”
I didn’t want a beer, I wanted to ask him about the hole in the wall. I wasn’t about to set my office up next to a nest of rabid raccoons. But I also couldn’t ask him then, when it was obvious I’d been sneaking around behind his back.
The microwave sounded five loud beeps and he walked back into the kitchen, took the bowl from the microwave, and came down the hall.
I ducked behind the desk.
His bedroom door closed, his knob lock clicked, and I heard the beep of his computer starting up.
I waited by the door, ready to lunge behind the desk if his door opened. His spoon clinked in his bowl through the wall.
When I heard typing and clicking, I pulled the office door open slowly, stepped into the hallway hearing the soft sound of carpet pile under my socks, and pulled the door closed behind me.
But I hadn’t pulled enough, and the latch slid past the metal plate on the jamb, striking loudly as it sprang into place.
The typing stopped.
I took lunging steps on my toes down the hall, ready to hear Nelson’s door open behind me.
But I made it into the living room, and by the time I reached my bedroom door I heard typing again.
In the night I awoke without knowing why. No light, no sound. Just a feeling that made my eyes open, and I stared at the dark streetlight-orange ceiling. Then my eyes moved further down and saw my door was open.
Barely visible in the doorway stood Nelson’s naked shape. His face was hard to see, but I could tell he was staring at me.
I stared back, waiting, my fists clenched the comforter with the childish idea that I was safe as long as I stayed under the sheets. But the rest of me knew that trick only worked against imaginary monsters.
In the vague shape of his face, Nelson’s mouth opened—another dark hole in the dark doorway—and a shriek rushed into the room, felt like the sound reached under the covers to grab me.
And he moved. Fast. On top of me.
I jerked the covers over my head, contorting myself under his weight.
“Nelson!” I shouted into the mattress, “Nelson, you’re sleepwalking!”
He clawed wildly at the comforter. I heard it ripping.
I curled up to fold my knees under my chest.
The stuffing of the comforter was thin, and I felt his nails scratch through the last layer of fabric over my back.
I extended my legs and thrust upward.
He screeched and flew from the bed, thumped loudly against the wall.
I jumped off the bed and flipped on the light.
“Nelson, wake up!”
I saw the scratches and bruises all over his body, his angry eyes through dirty hair, dried chili smeared around his mouth. He sprang up and clawed at me. I tried to kick him in the groin and grabbed his neck and squeezed.
The back of his head exploded and sprayed the walls. His body fell onto me, heavy, and we toppled back onto the bed.
I threw him onto the floor where he fell splayed, and I saw a gnawed plastic band on his wrist.
The light in the living room turned on. Nelson appeared in a tee shirt and briefs, with a smoking pistol balled in his hands, pointed at the body on the floor. His splotched forehead wrinkled, eyes wide through hanging strands of greasy hair.
“Who is that?”
I grabbed the shredded comforter and jumped behind the bed.
“Chris, who the fuck is that?”