The Palmers died three years ago. But they still live in our neighborhood.
We understand why. Splendor is one of the few places where real American families can thrive. Here, there are almost no shades of ugliness, violence, or poverty because our Homeowners Association forbids them. Our rules bind the symmetry of our flags, our yards, our two-car garages. Without rules, we wouldn’t have quiet hours or designated areas for our dogs to pee. Without rules, we’d unravel completely.
What the Palmers failed to understand is that Splendor isn’t like other neighborhoods — those neighborhoods Out There. Out There is where our country’s rights and traditions are under attack. Out There is where They want to revise our history, which means They want to revise who we are. That is not an act of reconciliation; it is an act of spiritual terrorism. That’s why neighborhoods like Splendor are sacred. Here, we do not disturb our nation’s equilibrium. We work hard to preserve it, like a red heart under glass, beating without sound.
We know the cost of ordinary comforts.
“Stay away from the Palmers.”
This is how we warn our children, as though we are beginning a fairy tale.
Christine, their daughter, likes to play tricks. She was always like that. Before Christine, we were able to leave our back doors unlocked. Now if we’re making lunch, it isn’t unusual for a handprint of batter or barbecue sauce to appear on a hallway mirror. We tell our children not to talk to her. Even when she appears at the edge of their playground, sticky with the snacks she stole, twisting a braid that is longer than her waist. Of all three Palmers, she is the most intact. The house fire only burned out her eyes, her skull gaping like a small, dark cave.
The Palmers’ house lies at the end of a drive, still as a headstone.
Even though the fire claimed most of it, the smell of ash couldn’t be erased. It is the only blight in Splendor that our Homeowners Association cannot get rid of. For now, we wrap it in talismans: yellow tape that says caution and a wooden sign that says condemned. But the carcass of their house remains, the first-floor walls torn away to reveal its charred and crispy innards. There is the dining room with the recessed lighting we all once envied. There is the family room with the library, the place where the fire likely began.
We’ve had many meetings about their house. The Homeowners Association would send in men to take it apart, brick by brick, beam by beam. Then the ruins would reassemble themselves the next morning. Instead of allowing their house to be restored to code, the Palmers let their rot return. Of all the Palmers’ spectral overtures, this is the most profane. It defies the rules. Then again, the Palmers have always been defiant.
You have to understand: that was not our first impression of them. Will had been a doctor in the city and his wife, Laura, a schoolteacher. They looked like respectable people who would understand our values. Their credit scores were high, and they were college-educated, but not too educated (no double minors in Classics or Theoretical Philosophy). We were a little skeptical about Laura’s extended family, who emigrated from Beyond the Borders. Though it’s been a long while since we met new people, and maybe the novelty led us to excuse them for being modern.
Unlike the rest of us, the Palmers moved in from Out There. Our roots in Splendor run as deep as veins in a body. For us, there is no difference between our addresses and our heritage. Our families have lived here since they pushed off the tribes. But Splendor is meant to be a refuge, and we accepted Will, Laura, and Christine as our own. Because that’s what good neighbors do: we look out for one another.
A total collapse begins with the smallest of fractures. This is why we must always be vigilant. Laura would forget to return a piece of Tupperware. Will would forget to move his car to let the street cleaners through. Christine would refuse to cut her hair. They played loud, foreign music and allowed our children to watch movies that were clearly propaganda.
They would not listen. Even worse, they tried to leave . . . only to realize they couldn’t. Once Splendor opens its embrace, it will not let go. That is the first law of our Homeowners Association. Even if the Palmers were imperfect, we were willing to repair their faults. We wanted to cleanse them from the ideas they still held onto from Out There.
We witnessed their desperation. They would pack all their things one night and try to drive off, only to circle back no matter how much gas they spent (which we would replace, to show that we care). They would try to make calls to Laura’s extended family (which we blocked). But Splendor kept them close for their own good because we believe in redemption. The Palmers received many warnings from the Homeowners Association, and we were still so patient with them.
Then, the fire.
Who started it? Will, Laura, or Christine? To this day, we are unclear if it was an accident. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The Palmers are still with us. Our rules still hold.
At night, we see them turn on their lights, though there is no electricity. First, the dining room, then the family room, then upstairs where the roof had burned away, as obscene as a blown scalp. The Palmers would move like smoke, their tendrils reaching through our windows. We can feel their limbs in the darkness of our bedrooms, their fingers on our throats, hot as a brand as they steal our breaths.