Headhunter

By Z.Z Boone

awn never even sees them move in. When she and her parents return from their weekend in Albany, they’re apparently already settled, a black Dodge van parked in the driveway, a silver Chevy Volt at the curb. The house has been empty for almost four months, and both Dawn and her parents have mixed feelings now that people are actually inside.

“I just hope they’re respectful,” her mother says.

“And no fat-ass dogs leaving presents for me to slide in,” her dad adds.

Dawn’s fears go in the opposite direction. The last thing she needs is some arthritic old couple constantly in need of favors from “that sweet girl next-door.”

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Beverly says to her daughter.

It’s Sunday evening, late August, just over a week before school starts. Beverly suggests the three of them walk over and play welcome wagon, but Wayne choses to pass. “I’ll run into ‘em soon enough,” he says as he switches on the TV and falls into his recliner.

Beverly and Dawn bake two dozen chocolate chip cookies, change clothes, put the spaghetti pot on the stove and instruct Wayne to keep an eye on it, then walk over and knock on the door. The woman who answers looks ancient, grey-haired and creased and brown-spotted like an overly ripe banana. Her body is slender and she dresses—Dawn thinks—like somebody a quarter her age: snug jeans, black t-shirt, flip-flops.

“Hi. I’m Beverly Devino and this is my daughter, Dawn. Hope we’re not disturbing anything.”

The woman smiles, showing straight white teeth, invites them in and introduces herself as Lianne. They stand in the downstairs entryway and Dawn finds herself surprised there are no stacked cardboard boxes, no haphazardly placed furniture.

“We’re still waiting on some things,” Lianne says.

Dawn feels Lianne’s eyes on her, and they don’t move away until Beverly pushes the plate of cookies toward her.

“We thought you might be a little peckish,” Beverly says.

“Perfectly timed,” Lianne says. “I was just about to put on coffee if you have a minute.”

Dawn is just about to beg out, to find some excuse to return home, when she hears the voice from somewhere upstairs.

“Lianne?!”

“We have company!” Lianne calls back.

“I’ll be down as soon as I figure out this goddamn computer!”

“Shoot,” Beverly says. “If somebody’s having a computer problem, Dawn here’s an expert.”

“Ma…”

“Could you?” Lianne says. “Even if it’s just plugging the thing in.”

Dawn holds back. “Go,” Beverly says. “I’ll holler up when the coffee’s ready.”

Dawn slowly climbs the stairs, stops halfway, and turns to give her mother a hard look, but Lianne and Beverly have already moved on.

 

The house is the same size as theirs, the same model with the same floorplan, the same almost everything. She finds him in the master bedroom hunched over a wide wooden desk, a computer with its various components yet to be connected. He’s young—mid-twenties, she figures—the size of a college football player, dressed in tan chinos and a navy blue polo shirt.   Dawn notices a thin, toothpick-wide moustache that reminds her of an actor she saw on TV playing Zorro.

“Hey,” she says. “They thought you could use my help.”

The man looks up at her and smiles. “And you are…?”

“Dawn. From next door.”

“You know anything about hooking up a computer, Dawn-from-next-door?”

Dawn walks over to the desk and checks it out. The monitor, the printer, the keyboard and mouse—all color-coded. A . The man stands by an ornate king-sized bed and watches while she uncoils the nest of wires, then laughs when Dawn asks if Lianne is his mom.

“She’s my live-in,” he says.

Dawn looks up.

“Wow,” she says. “You must be rich.”

“I work as a headhunter,” the man says. “You know what that is?” Dawn shakes her head. “I look for people unhappy in their present positions and offer them something better.”

“You should talk to my father,” she says. “He’s a warehouse manager who thinks he should run the world.”

The man moves to an ebony dresser with a Bose Wave on top. He picks up a CD and holds it for Dawn to see.

“Like her?”

Dawn looks over and nods, and the man puts it on. Daya. One of her favorites.

“So where are you from?”

“Actually,” he says, “I’m what you’d call a southern boy.”  He moves toward the desk. “You at the high school?”

Dawn nods. “John Jay.”

“What do you teach?”

It takes a moment for Dawn to realize he’s joking. “If only,” she says.

“Hey,” the man says. “Don’t wish it away. Close your eyes and the next thing you know you’re like me. An old man pushing twenty-three.”

She works away for a few minutes while he watches. Finally he says, “Hey. I haven’t even introduced myself. Tom Bergandorf.” He offers a hand and she shakes it. “Call me ‘Berg.’” He points at her feet. “Cool sneakers.”

“Really?”

He nods. “You into guys?”

“What?”

“You have a boyfriend?”

Dawn makes her eyes roll back. “Ben Steiger,” she says. “At least he thinks he is. Personally, I wouldn’t care if he fell off the edge of the earth.”

“Well that’s not good,” Berg says. “What you need is somebody who can really curl your toes.” Dawn feels her face going red, so she slips her hand from his, turns away, keeps working.            “So tell me about you,” he says.

“I’m an electronic genius,” she says, and when she pushes the round, illuminated button, the computer comes alive like Frankenstein.

“Coffee!” Beverly yells up.

“I don’t even drink coffee,” Dawn confesses.

“No problem,” Berg says. “I’ll find you something stronger.”

Dawn laughs as they head down. “I like your van,” she says.

 

“So who owns the tuna boat?”  Wayne asks shortly after they sit down to dinner. “In the driveway. The pimp mobile. The shaggin’ wagon.”

“If you mean the van,” Dawn says, “it belongs to Berg.”

“Excuse me?” Beverly says. “I believe it’s Mr. Bergandorf to you.”

“It’s what he told me to call him.”

“Well whoever it belongs to, stay out of it. The thing doesn’t even have cargo windows.”

“Da-ad…”

“Something like that comes down the street, the driver’s usually offering free candy.”

“Actually, he seems very nice,” Beverly says as she passes the garlic bread. “Him and the housekeeper both. I believe he’s from Canada someplace.”

“He’s from down south,” Dawn says.

“Just what the neighborhood needs, Wayne says. “A hillbilly.”

“For your information,” Dawn says, “he’s quite intelligent.”

“Hey,” her father says. “I was stationed in Texas for two years. None of them are ‘quite  intelligent.’”

“Would you want somebody jumping to conclusions about you?”

“No,” Wayne grins, “because I’m perfect.”

Dawn twirls her linguini. “You’re also hilarious,” she says straight-faced.

 

“I had no friggin’ idea,” Olive says. “Did you?”

Olive is Dawn’s best friend who lives fifteen minutes away by bike. She standing on her front porch waiting when Dawn peddles onto the lawn and stops by the tree a few feet away.

“What are you talking about?” Dawn asks as she sets the kickstand.

“Ben, dummy. I had no idea.”

“What about him?”

Dawn walks up the three wooden steps and takes a seat on the porch swing, and Olive sits right next to her.

“His father’s getting transferred to Chicago. They leave in two weeks. He’s probably not even coming back to school.”

The news stuns her. “Dude,” she says. “Are you serious?”

“Didn’t he tell you?”

In truth, Ben has been trying to get hold of Dawn for the past couple of days. She’s checked her phone, noticed the calls and the texts, figured she’d get back to him when she could.

“This is so weird,” she tells Olive.

“What is?”

Dawn sits back and so does Olive. They begin to swing.

“There’s this guy,” Dawn says.

 

All week she looks for any excuse to go next-door until finally she can’t help herself any longer. It’s already Wednesday morning, over two days since they met, and both the van and the Chevy Volt have remained parked.

When Dawn finally finds the nerve to walk over, Lianne—barefoot and wearing white shorts with a forest green tank top—opens the door.

She must do yoga, Dawn thinks to herself.

“Hi,” Dawn says. “I was wondering if I could borrow a stick of butter.”

Lianne smiles and invites her inside.

“Where’s Berg?” Dawn asks as Lianne leads her into the kitchen.

“He’s took the train into New York,” Lianne says, and as she opens the refrigerator door. “Just one stick?”

Dawn nods. “It’s for a cake I’m making. I can replace it tomorrow if that’s okay.”

“Take all the time in the world,” Lianne says, and as she closes the refrigerator Dawn notices a gold band on the woman’s left hand.

“Are you married?”

Lianne’s right hand goes to the ring and she begins to twist it around her finger.

“Not actually,” she says.

A widow, Dawn figures, and decides not to push it.

“Well tell Berg I said hello,” she says.

“You should tell him yourself,” Lianne says. “He’s been hoping you’d come over.”

“Really?”

Lianne nods.

“We both have.”

“Ben Steiger came by looking for you,” Beverly tells Dawn when she walks back into the house.

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth. That I didn’t know where you were.”

“Good,” Dawn says.

Beverly points to Dawn’s right hand which hangs down by her side. “What’s with the butter?” she says.

 

“You’ve got to be crazy,” her mother says, the canister vacuum following her into the kitchen like a dog on a leash. “You’ll burn like toast.”

It’s Friday, the beginning of the final weekend of summer vacation.

“I just want a little color before school starts,” Dawn says. “Look at me.”

She has a point. Dawn’s skin is as white as her mother’s—translucent almost—but with enough SPF 30 smeared all over, she’s hopeful. She’s pouring herself a tall glass of iced tea, and adding a wedge of lime. She’s selected a book to read—her mother’s copy of Keith Richard’s Life—man-bait, she hopes.

Dawn isn’t quite developed enough to “rock a bikini,” but her body is trim and tight, free of unwanted hair and embarrassing pimples. She wheels the plastic chaise from the patio onto the grass, close to the chain-link fence that separates the properties, but far enough away to appear disinterested. She’s not lying there ten minutes when her phone goes off.

It’s an email from her school.

“Shit!” she says, as soon as she reads it.

“What’s wrong?”

She turns her head, pushes her sunglasses up, squints toward his voice. Berg is standing next to the van, his hand on the door handle.

Dawn smiles, softens. “Nothing,” she says. “Just that I found out my schedule’s changed.”

“At school?”

She nods. “I was supposed to have Barnett for AP Lit, now I’m switched to Scalza.”

“Sounds bad.”

“Scalza’s all Shakespeare and Beowulf. Barnett’s more like Harry Potter and ‘Matinee Mondays.’”

“So c’mon,” he says. “We’ll buzz by the place and make it right.”

She laughs. “Like this?”

“Why not?”

“Because I think this breaks the dress code.”

“You ask me,” he says, “I think you look delicious.”

Dawn forces a second laugh, but the comment—perhaps coupled with her father’s warning—makes her uncomfortable.

“Maybe another time,” she says.

“You’re the boss.”

She watches as he gets into the van and backs it out of the driveway. It’s equipped with some kind of truck horn—Dawn actually watches as he pulls on a cord like some train engineer—and the blast sets off every dog in the neighborhood.

“What was that?!” her mother calls out the screened back door.

“Nothing,” Dawn says. “It was nothing.”

“It sounded like the coming of the apocalypse!”

“Mom, please. Just go back to what you were doing.”

Dawn wonders how far he’s gotten. If it’s too late to jump up, run down her own driveway, flag the van down and slide inside.

 

“There’s nothing weird about a woman dating a man a few years older than she is,” Dawn tells Olive as they stand inside the open bus shelter on the first day of their junior year. “In fact, it’s preferable.”

Rain has been sprinkling down throughout the night, creating a dark, unseasonably chilly morning. The girls are dressed for it, Olive with a red plastic slicker, Dawn in a lightweight yellow hoodie.

“I don’t know,” Olive says. “A guy that old?” She does a high-pitched voice like some cyborg on TV. “Stranger danger,” she says.

Ben Steiger, under an umbrella picturing cats and dogs pouring from the sky, comes walking over from his house half-a-street down.

“Where have you been?” he says to Dawn as he collapses his umbrella. “You didn’t even get back to me.”

“I dropped my phone in the toilet,” she lies.

“No offense,” Olive says, “but I thought we saw the last of you.”

“I just need to pick up a few things up from the art room.”

Ben takes Dawn’s hand in his, and she allows it like a child being led across an empty street. “We’ll keep in touch, though. Right?”

“Oh. My. God,” Dawn says as she slips free from Ben’s grasp.

Burg is pulled over on the other side of the street, his van window rolled down. “Dawn!” he calls.

Olive and Ben stare over as if a spaceship just landed. “Watch my backpack,” Dawn tells them as she flips her hood up.

“You need a ride?” he asks when she stops maybe a-foot-or-so away.

Dawn tries to look inside the van without getting too close, but there’s a partition separating the cab from the cargo area, and all she can see is black.

“I’m going in the other direction,” she says.

“I can turn around.”

“Dawnie!” Ben calls. “C’mon! Bus!”

“Is that Ben?” he asks.

Dawn nods.

“Looks like a nice lad.” He pats the passenger seat. “Hey. Nice and dry in here.”

Dawn can already hear the rumors. How she showed up at school chauffeured by this older guy, how he carried her backpack right up to the front of the school, how he maybe even kissed her before she went inside.

“DAWNIE!”

Her head pivots like it’s on a swivel. “OKAY! JESUS!” She turns back just before the bus stops and its red warning lights begin to flash.

“I’ll see you later,” she says.

On the bus, Ben sits behind Dawn and Olive. “Who was the humanoid?” he asks leaning forward, his head between them.

“Quiet, lad,” Dawn says.

 

When she gets into school, Dawn hears her name announced over the loud speaker. She’s told to report to the registrar’s office which is almost never good, but when she gets there she’s informed of another change. She’s been given an override and now she’s back with Barnett. Dawn stares at the registrar, her mouth the shape of an egg rolled on its side.

“Are you all right?” the registrar asks.

“Sure,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

*     *     *     *     *

Dawn, in cut-off sweatpants and a bra, lies across her bed and checks her phone. Ben has called twice and left three texts, all of which she ignores. From the bathroom, she can hear her father rummaging around like a crazy man. Cabinet door opening and slamming shut, bottles on the counter around the two sinks being pushed around. She tries to ignore it, hopes that whatever’s stuck up his ass is out by dinner. She hears hurried male footsteps, and then a pounding on her door.

“Do you have the hydrogen peroxide in there!?” Wayne yells.

She does. It’s on her dresser along with her make-up.

“I’ll bring it out in a minute!”

Her father throws the door open and Dawn sits straight up, covers the upper half of her body with her arm, and demands to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Wayne sees the brown plastic bottle and grabs it.

“I want a lock on my door!” she says, getting up and grabbing her t-shirt at the foot of the bed.

“For your information,” Wayne says, “your mother is downstairs practically bleeding to death!”

“Then call 911 and stop being so dramatic!”

He’s near enough that he doesn’t need to step any closer, and when he swats at her the flat of his hand hits her flush on the ear. Dawn screams—it’s loud and piercing—but underneath it she can still hear her mother hurrying up the stairs.

“I hope I’m making myself clear,” he says in a spookily calm voice.

This scares her more than the slap. She’s taken an abnormal psychology course and this is how a person acts just before they totally lose it.

Beverly’s head appears in the doorway. “Is everything all right?” she says.

Dawn rushes past her mother, not even stopping to comment on the bloody paper towel Beverly holds wrapped around her finger. Down the stairs and out the front door. It’s not even five, still light out. She’ll get her bike from the garage, ride over to Olive’s and stay there for a while. But when she reaches down and attempts to roll up the garage door, it doesn’t budge.

“GODDAMN IT!”

“Dawn?”

Dawn sees her the second she straightens up. Lianne. Standing on the other side of the fence, holding a bag of groceries like it’s a baby. She also notices, for the first time, that the silver Volt has taken the place of the black van.

“Anything the matter?”

Dawn feels the sting on the side of her face and her ear throbs as if her heart has just entered it.

“Why don’t you come over,” Lianne says. “Keep me company for a few minutes.”

 

“He should just die,” Dawn says.

She’s sitting at the kitchen table with a bag of frozen peas held against her already swollen ear, while Lianne pours them each some herbal tea.

“I don’t think you mean that,” Lianne says.

“Why can’t I be you?”

Lianne laughs as she takes the chair across from Dawn. “Now why would you want that?”

“Live here with a guy like Berg? Are you kidding? That’d be so awesome.”

Lianne has already called next door. She’s sat patiently and listened while the girl let it all pour out. Now Dawn feels at ease for the first time today. When she gets up to go home, Lianne comes around the table and they share a hug.

“You’re very cool for someone your age,” Dawn says.

“Hey. I’m only nineteen,” Lianne says.

The two women look at one another, their faces inches apart. Lianne is the first to break out in a wide grin.

“Sure you are,” Dawn says, returning Lianne’s smile.

“And do me a favor. Don’t wish death on anyone.”

“Talking about anybody I know?” Berg says, and when Dawn looks toward the archway, there he is.

*     *     *     *     *

At first Dawn thinks it’s lightning. A silent, late-summer heat storm illuminating the sky outside her window. The bedside clock says it’s a few minutes past midnight, and when she gets up and looks out she sees that the flashes are actually coming from next-door, that the house itself is glowing from within. Dawn is about to scream for her parents, ready to yell for help, when the flares of light brighten, then slowly flicker and die out like an extinguished campfire.

The next day, halfway through Statistics II, Dawn is called from of the classroom and sent to Mr. Gerosa, the vice-principal. He’s a kind man, bald and brown-suited, and his office is decorated as if it’s the cabin on-board a ship. When she goes inside, she sees Lianne sitting in front of the vice principal’s desk.

“What’s going on?” Dawn asks

Gerosa stands up. “There’s been an accident,” he says. “It’s your father. Your neighbor here was kind enough to come by.”

“Is he all right?”

“All I know is what I just told you.”

Lianne stands and walks over to Dawn. “We should go,” she says.

In the Volt, Lianne tells her what happened. Wayne was operating a forklift when it tipped over and the load he was carrying came down on top of him. Beverly rushed over to the hospital, and called her from there.

“How bad is he?” Dawn asks.

“He’s in intensive care.”

“Take me to Berg.”

“But your mother’s waiting for you at the hospital.”

“Right now.”

Lianne nods.  “If you’re sure,” she says.

At the curb, Dawn gets out, starts up the flagstone path, and walks in without even knocking. She calls for Berg and gets no answer, but then she hears it. The Daya CD. Coming from upstairs.

She finds him sitting at his desk in front of the computer, and when she walks in he looks up as if he’s been expecting her.

“I heard about your dad,” he says.

“Let him live.”

“What makes you think I—?”

“Please.”

Berg pushes away from the desk and gets to his feet. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll do what I can. But you should be over there with him. Come on. I’ll run you by.”

They leave the house and Dawn sees that Lianne hasn’t moved. Berg raises a hand to her  and she waves back, and Dawn, even with all she has on her mind, thinks the woman looks different from this distance.

Younger.

She hesitates only a second before climbing up inside the van. It’s warm in there, pleasantly so, and there’s the odor of new car leather and mint. It makes her suddenly sleepy, the same way nighttime cold medicines do.

“Your mother’ll be glad to see you,” Berg tells her. “She’ll be elated. Her husband’s just regained consciousness and the doctors think he may be over the worst of it.”

“Who are you?” Dawn says, and her own voice suddenly sounds foreign to her.

Berg backs the van out of the driveway and Dawn notices that neither Lianne nor the Chevy Volt are still there. When he maneuvers onto the street, she doesn’t even bother telling him that he’s heading south, away from the hospital. He has on a light windbreaker, and he takes an envelope from the inside pocket and hands it to Dawn.

“What is this?”

“It’s for you.”

Dawn tears a slot open, turns the envelope over, and shakes something out. A ring. She slips it on the fourth finger of her left hand and isn’t at all surprised that it’s a perfect fit.

___

Z.Z. Boone‘s fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The MacGuffin, 2 Bridges Review, and other terrific places. His collection of short stories, Off Somewhere, was a finalist for the 2015 Indie Award.


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