Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month’s prompt: Where have you always wanted to vacation? Pick a country and set your story there—only in this story, the dream location sadly is a setting for disaster. This week’s story comes to us from Val Muller, author of The Girl Who Flew Away, a young adult tale that tackles adoption, addiction, and loyalty wrapped up in a dangerous wilderness journey.
By Val Muller
Mortimer Harris loved rules. As a child, he was always in bed by nine, just like his mother insisted. There was something satisfying about lying in bed, pulling the covers up to his chin, and watching the minute hand sweep across the “12” at such a clean, precise right angle with the hour hand on the “9.” He watched the perfect alignment for a full minute, enjoying the peace of his room before turning out his light. He always shook his head at his brother, John, whose bedtime shenanigans kept their parents busy well past nine. Shook his head metaphorically, of course. He couldn’t have shaken it for real. His head was—literally—nicely resting on his pillow at 9 p.m. and would stay there until at least 6 a.m., the earliest he or his brother was allowed to wake. There would be no literal head-shaking until at least then.
He looked forward to each heavily-regulated day in grade school and high school and took pride in having perfect attendance, and no tardies, and no infractions of any sort. He loved the precision of it all: keep your locker clean and tidy, get to class in the six minutes allotted for traveling, be on the bus no later than seven minutes after the dismissal bell. The comfort of rules was like a warm blanket wrapped around his soul (but only between the hours of nine and six; even his soul had to be awake when protocol dictated it).
When he grew up, he was glad to find a home in a heavily-regulated HOA. The homeowner’s association he found was one with the most rules in all of Arbor County. Grass was to be cut to six inches in height or less (Mortimer preferred an even three). Rooftops and siding were to be power-washed in the spring. Halloween decorations could be put up starting on October 1; Christmas décor could go up the day after Thanksgiving. Decorations had to be put away three days after each holiday’s completion, though Christmas décor could be up until the sixth of January.
The list went on and on: rules regulating shrubbery and bushes, stone walkways, shutter color, front door embellishments, types of trees and flowers. Cars had to be parked a minimum of two feet from the edge of the driveway, but Mortimer preferred leaving at least four.
With his love for regulation, Mortimer preferred stay-cations to vacations. Stay-cations allowed him the pleasure of taking care of his house without having to worry about work getting in the way. (Once, when he was really busy, he let his grass grow to an average of 4.5 inches before he had a chance to cut it—there would be none of that this week!) Vacations were the total opposite. There were very few rules on vacations, and some of his coworkers even tried to argue that that was the point. But who would want to go somewhere with no rules, where people just acted on a whim and flew by the seat of their pants?
Not Mortimer, that was for sure.
At 6:59 on the first day of his stay-cation, the neighbor, Ed, was out mowing the lawn. Mortimer looked at his watch. 6:59 meant that Ed was mowing two minutes earlier than the county—and the HOA—allowed. Mortimer shook his head—literally this time—while sipping his coffee.
Ed looked over, sneered, and cut the engine. “Give me a break, Morty,” said Ed. “I’m taking the family to the beach this morning. We were supposed to leave already, only I forgot about the damn lawn. Got to mow it now, or by the time we get back from vacation, the HOA will have fined us. Damn HOA.”
Mortimer smiled inside. Ed often deserved fines. The last time his house had been power-washed was seventeen months ago. And Ed often took the trash can to the curb several hours before the 5 p.m. regulation allowed. Sometimes he even left the empty cans out for a day afterwards. He was a rulebreaker and a scofflaw.
Mortimer looked in the driveway. Ed’s SUV was parked almost at the edge of the driveway—a clear violation—and was packed with bags. His wife watched impatiently from the kitchen window, and his kids were running around in the open garage with inflatable rafts, their screams a violation of quiet hours by a whole minute and a half.
Too bad the HOA mandated that anyone mowing the lawn other than the homeowner him- or herself had to be properly licensed and contracted. Mortimer was neither, and so he didn’t bother offering to mow for his neighbor, even though he had nothing else to do that day.
“Well,” Mortimer said, “you did start a few minutes earlier than—”
But Ed simply shot him a look. “Mortimer, don’t start up again.” He started up the mower and continued his work. Mortimer watched him mow while he finished his coffee. At first, he enjoyed Ed’s straight, precise lines. But then he noticed that Ed left a long strip between the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. HOA regulations were very strict about that: if a clean line couldn’t be made with the mower, the homeowner was required to use a weed eater or edger.
“Ed,” Mortimer called, walking to the fence.
This time, Ed left the mower engine idling and trudged to the fenceline.
“You missed a spot,” Mortimer said.
Ed flashed him a look, but he said nothing. He pulled the mower back to the missed spot and re-mowed, leaving a clean line. Mortimer sighed relief. Then Ed picked up his pace and flashed Mortimer a look. He mowed several clean passes before his lips curled into a devilish smile. On one of the passes, he sporadically twisted the mower a bit, leaving a line of two to three inches of long grass between the neat, even rows.
Surely an oversight. Mortimer wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. Surely Ed had simply slipped. He’d see the mistake and re-mow it on his way back. But then Ed did it again. And a third time.
Finally, he cut the mower engine and wheeled it into the garage. His kids cheered and hopped into the SUV. “Can we go? Can we go?” they shouted.
Mortimer tried to stop the family as they pulled away, but Ed would not roll down the window or even slow his car. Mortimer was stuck, alone, on his staycation, looking at the lawn directly next to his and the three horrid stripes of tall grass Ed had left.
Mortimer hurried to his highlighted and dog-eared copy of the HOA regulations. Surely there was some provision in there, something he would be allowed to do, some action he could take. But he was stuck. He was not allowed to hire someone to mow a neighbor’s lawn, and he himself could not mow, given that he was not licensed or contracted.
He logged onto his computer and composed a strongly-worded email to the board. Surely they’d fine Ed.
But what good would that do?
At nine p.m. that night, Mortimer tossed and turned in bed. He shook his head—quite literally, for it was not resting on the pillow—and then did the unthinkable. He actually got out of bed and glanced out at the neighbor’s lawn through the window. The nice, even lines flowed together like smooth waves in the ocean—until they broke with the choppy unevenness of the three spots Ed had neglected.
Ed shook his head again and returned to bed. It was going to be a long staycation.
The Spot Writers—Our Members:
Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/
Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/
Dorothy Colinco: www.dorothycolinco.com
CaraMarie Christy: https://calamariwriting.wordpress.com/