Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for mature content.
AN: Hi friends! Many of you know I am working on a short film. I've written four short essays relating to each lead character, and I would like to publish them and send them out to people before I do. In theory, these are essays each of the narrators would have written for publication in newspapers/magazines etc after the crimes of the lead characters become known to the world, so they're not supposed to be all encompassing and aspects of the characters of the narrators themselves left vague. The biggest thing I need help on is making each voice distinct and ensuring that the essays (which can't really get to be in any longer than they are) make you want to know more about each character. I also previously published a different perspective on these same events, so check it out if you haven't: https://www.youngwriterssociety.com/work/Elinor/Ha...
Jay and Sarah became our next door neighbors in 1956. The day they moved in, it was a cool afternoon in early summer. I was working in the garden when I saw their car, a rusted navy 1949 Ford, pull up. A thin brunette got out of the car, and the first thing I noticed was that she seemed tired.
Our eyes met, and I waved. “I’m Victoria,” I said.
“Sarah,” she responded, barely audibly.
Just then, he got out too. He looked at me intensely, and let the silence hang out for an uncomfortably long amount of time. “Jay.” I wasn’t sure what it was, but something was off about him, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
“Victoria,” I repeated. “My husband’s at work. He’ll be back later though. We’re your neighbors.”
I’d heard someone would be moving in, but it seemed like a light load for a young couple buying what I presumed was their first house. Suitcases in the trunk and a few boxes in the back. “You don’t have a lot,” I said.
“We’re just starting out,” he responded curtly. He continued to stare at me, and I wasn’t sure what to do or say.
“We’ll have to have you over for dinner tonight,” I offered. “Welcome you to the neighborhood.”
“Sure,” he said, ushering Sarah towards their car. He whispered something in her ear, and I knew my role in the conversation was over. I continued gardening, trying to think much of it.
Don came home a few hours later, and he asked me about it as I was in the living room, folding laundry as I listened to the radio.
“They moved in this afternoon,” I said.
“I saw them outside just now,” he responded with a laugh. “Do you know how old they are?”
“I don’t know.” I hadn’t thought about it. I was twenty-six that summer, and Don was twenty-eight. We’d only married the year before, late comparatively. I didn’t think about the fact that people often married much younger in those days. I tended to assume that every young couple starting out was our age, but I didn’t know what it mattered.
“I saw them necking like a couple of teenagers on their front porch.”
This made me laugh, partly, I thought, because they were going to turn out to be interesting neighbors.
“We should invite them over for dinner,” he said.
“The husband doesn’t seem so friendly.”
“Vicky. Let’s give them a chance.” The previous tenant of the house had been an elderly retired man named Milton who had decided he didn’t like me the moment he met me and I could never figure out why. One time, Don and I were headed out to a black tie party for his work. He’d bought me a gorgeous sleeveless periwinkle gown for the occasion, and Milton was sitting out on the porch.
“When I was your age,” he shouted to me. “Women covered themselves.”
After that I avoided him, and Don once accused me of not being hospitable enough. Then he’d moved to be closer to his daughter in Denver.
I resolved that Jay and Sarah were probably nice people, just stressed and overwhelmed from moving to a new place. It was getting to be about the time I would have to put dinner on, so I put on a sweater and went outside.
I knocked on their door and heard indistinct conversation before Jay answered. Before I had a chance to say anything, I realized what it was that made me feel off about him before. His eyes, despite being very blue, lacked a certain light that existed in most people.
“I’m about to put dinner on,” I said. “Would you and your wife like to join us?” When he didn’t respond, I added, “I make a great roast.”
Sounds great,” he said, to my partial surprise. “What time?”
I lingered for a moment. “How’s unpacking going?”
“Just fine.” His clipped responses told me that this conversation wasn’t going to go very far, but still I tried. Maybe I wasn’t as natural at talking to new people as my husband, but I was going to try.
“Where did you move from?”
“Jackson,” he said.
“That’s a long trip.”
He smiled, and then I told him that I was going to go start dinner before it got even more awkward.
When they came over, the men instantly bonded over their mutual love of nature and of various other things. Once we sat down, our conversation was lively and covered many topics. I did notice that Jay did most of the talking and barely let Sarah get in a word edgewise. So, during a lull in the conversation, I turned to her.
“Sarah,” I said. “How did you and Jay meet?”
“My father ran a hotel in Jackson,” she said. “Jay stayed there for a while. That was four years ago.”
Jay turned to her. “Four years that I’ve been the luckiest man alive,” he said. He then kissed her right in front of us, for a longer time then was comfortable.
“We just got married last month,” she said. Once Don and I had been like them. Completely in love with each other and we wanted the world to know. And we still were, but a year of marriage had made at least physical affection far less common. Still, by the time they left I had a good impression of them, as did my husband. I ignored whatever misgivings I might have had about Jay, attributing them to still being guarded from the way Milton had treated me. And yet, as I would come to realize, Jay was excellent at making us feel like we were close without actually attempting to build any sort of genuine friendship. That fall, we’d managed to acquire two extra tickets to a local play. I saw Sarah in the yard and asked her about it.
“We’d love to,” she said. “I’ll tell Jay later.”
I noticed, talking to her then, she seemed to be a completely different person when Jay was not around. With him, she was meek and cold. Without him, she was talkative and outgoing.
“Victoria,” she said, a smile breaking on her face. “We’re going to have a baby.”
“Congratulations,” I said, giving her a hug.
We continued to talk, and I realized that I wanted to spend more time getting to know her. I told her when the men were at work we’d have to visit. She told me she’d think about it.
Later that night, I received a phone call from Jay, telling me that they were not going to be able to attend the play with us. He didn’t explain why and his tone was so accusatory that I did not press because I wanted to get off as quickly as possible.
Over the next nine months, we barely or spoke to them at all. Occasionally I’d see Sarah leave the house, always on foot, sometimes coming back with heavy loads of groceries, which concerned me as she was pregnant. Jay always seemed to be around, which confused me, and once I got Sarah to simply tell me that he was between jobs.
Their son, Adam, was born in June, and once they introduced us when we were both in the yard, but cut the conversation short. I didn’t think much of it. As we didn’t have children of our own, there wasn’t a way that I could conceptualize the work it would take to raise a child. I wanted to have them eventually, but I didn’t yet feel as though I was ready.
For the most part, we simply continued to live our lives. Sometimes I thought about them, but it seemed to me that if they wanted to maintain more of a friendship with us, they would have done so. I had no idea anything was wrong, although maybe I should have, until the night Sarah came over that fall.
We’d been in the middle of a cold snap, and that night the ground had frosted over that night. It was late. I was washing the dishes after dinner and Don was in the living room, reading the paper.
“I’ll get it,” he called to me. I saw her from down the hallway, shivering. It was so cold that her breath was visible. I saw her usher him in.
“I can’t stay,” Sarah said. “Adam’s asleep and I want to be there when he wakes up.”
She then noticed me, and we said hello. “Do you need anything?” I asked. “Tea?”
She hesitated before telling me that tea sounded wonderful.
“Is Jay at home?”
Sarah snorted. “He just called me drunk from Melvin’s.” Melvin’s was the bar downtown. “He’s been going there after work.”
“He’s working again?” I asked, remembering the last conversation we’d had.
She nodded. When she didn’t say anything further, I asked if he’d hit her, trying to piece together where this visit was going.
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “No. He’d never lay a finger on me.” The tea finished and I served her a cup. I sat down beside her at the table, as did Don and we gave her our full attention. “Most of the time, he’s wonderful. But then the smallest thing will set him off and he becomes this scary person that I don’t recognize.” We let her continue. “I don’t know to drive, and he doesn’t want me to learn.”
“Why is that?” Don asked.“He told me I don’t need to know,” she responded. “But I’m an adult and I feel like I should learn. If I knew, I could go get him from the bar.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll call him a cab. I just... I wanted to talk to you two first.” She was clearly overwhelmed, and I didn’t know how to help her or what to say. “I’d also wish he’d do a little bit more for our son. It feels like I’m the only one who ever takes care of him.”
“You know,” Don said. “Marriage is work. If you’re the only one ever doing anything than maybe it’s not a good marriage.”
“He loves me. He really does,” she responded.
“Sarah,” I said. “How can we help you?” While it wasn’t a shock to learn that Jay wasn’t a good husband, it validated my initial bad impression of him, and I didn’t know what to make of that.
“Teach me to drive,” she said. “Jay works weekends. We can do it then.”
“If he doesn’t want you to learn, what are you going to do when he finds out?” I asked. I wasn’t opposed or even going to take his side, but I wanted her to feel she was making a good decision.
“Please,” she said. “I need this.”
Don and I shared a look. We were on her side, and we wanted to help her however we could. So we resolved that Don would take her out while I watched Adam.
For the next month, we got to know Sarah more for the person that she was. At the beginning and end of their lessons, we would talk about various things and she would tell me more and more about various things Jay had said or done, which only deepened my dislike of him. There was a part of me that felt a thrill in helping her disobey him, and Don and I both told her that we would have her back if he did find out. We both thought he was bad news and told her she could do better, but Sarah was always quick to make excuses for him. She would tell us about how he would bring home a dozen red roses on random days or dance with her to Frank Sinatra in their living room, or tell her how beautiful she was and how lucky he was to be with her. He’d had a difficult childhood, she’d say, so he was still learning what it really meant to have a family.
“She’s young,” Don said to me once. “If she leaves him she’s going to have to make that decision herself.”
It was the following week that he caught us. He pulled up in his car just as Don and Sarah were getting out of ours and I’d gone to meet them, holding Adam my arms. Sarah was in the middle of telling a joke about I Love Lucy when we saw him, and I saw an instant shift in her demeanor.
He got out and stormed toward us and for the first time I saw him become truly scary. He demanded to know what was going on and yelled at Don to stay away from his wife.
“Don’t talk to my husband that way,” I said. His anger immediately shifted towards me, and for a moment I was truly terrified.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he yelled. “And get your hands off of my son.” He then forcibly pried him from my arms, which caused him to begin to cry.
Sarah began pleading for him to stop too. He yelled nonsense at us that I don’t fully remember before leading Sarah back to their house and ushering her inside. Don and I stayed there for a moment, dumbfounded at what just happened. Then, we went inside.
“We should call the police,” I said as I made dinner later that night.
“He’s never hit her,” Don said. “She said so.”
“What does that matter? I think he’s certainly capable of it.” Then, I added, “I’m afraid for her. And her son.”
“There’s only so much we can do,” he replied.
Maybe that was true. But maybe there was more that we could have done. Don continued by saying that we’d told her many times what we thought of Jay, and she was going to leave him, she had to make that decision herself. But I thought that we didn’t know if she had anyone else she could go to. She’d mentioned a father back in Jackson, but if that wasn’t an option I thought to tell my sister in Sacramento, where she’d be far enough away. Over the next few days I desperately wanted a chance or opportunity to talk to her and see if she was all right, and tell her she could always come to us. But I never got that option.
One day, we found that they’d begun packing boxes into their car and the day after that, they were gone. I caught Sarah’s attention briefly, and she told us they were moving to Livingston, to a house that had a second bedroom for their son. And just like that, they were gone, out of our lives as quickly as they’d come into them.
We tried our best to move on. Another young couple bought the house a short time later, and soon after, I became pregnant myself. Our daughter, Donna, was born in 1959 and by then the memory of Jay and Sarah began to fade. Still, I would wonder about her sometimes, and wonder if she was safe.
I am not surprised to learn what he turned out to be capable of. I was glad to learn that Sarah had finally left him and married someone else who seemed to be a nice man, but that paled in comparison to the horror of the murders he had led three young, impressionable people to commit.
I’ve since thought about the time that they were our neighbors often and if there was any way, if we’d known, that we could have done things differently. Sarah would give an interview on TV shortly after the sentencing, and she spoke of how he wrote to her often after the end of their marriage and told her of how much he loved her and how she was the only woman for him and he was always very charming. And from what I had seen, it seemed like did love her, but the way he treated her was not how you should treat someone that you love. Maybe, like the news had said, he didn’t really love anyone because he couldn’t. Maybe he was that sick. The only thing I know for certain is that, because he is now in prison, he won’t be able to hurt anyone else.