I was so excited, small-child-with-first-bicycle excited. At last I felt like a grown-up as I stood by the front door, looked around and up and down the valley, and finally took the key out of my pocket.

I enjoy living in the country. One doesn't need to lock the door, there's little (if any) traffic. I had always maintained that the best neighbour, well you could see the smoke from their chimney, but couldn't see the chimney itself. The closest house to me now, if I stood on tiptoe on the back porch, I would see Lucia's roof. That's fine with me. I like neighbours, I enjoy them visiting from time to time, and I don't mind popping round to theirs occasionally. But now I'm retired, I want my peace and quiet and books and my solitude. If I want loud, I have Saint-Saen's Organ Symphony, if I don't I have Chopin.

I spent a couple of weeks puttering around, you know the thing with a new home. Settling the cats in (they were sulky and morose for a few days) and replacing the mailbox (mail had been going missing), mend that guttering, lop that tree branch and fix that squeaky door (I do hate a squeak). Then once I'd got the garden sorted out, my tomatoes and peppers and squash in, it was mornings weeding in the garden, make lunch, read and loll in the afternoons. I settled into a rural routine. Into town once a week for groceries, coffee with my urban friends then back to my bucolic idyll.

And for months, all was idyllic. And then the well pump failed. Now whilst I'm pretty handy, I know my limitations and this was one. I called a local company who came out to check everything out, and sure enough, the pump had failed. They pulled it up one morning and replaced it, checked the well lining, screen and so on, and the new one worked perfectly. I came out to write them a cheque, and the boss asked if I'd had any trouble with gophers or such. Well of course I had. Pocket gophers and ground squirrels were fairly abundant but I wouldn't have called them a major problem. The cats took care of many of them, and there were apparently some wild ferrets that kept numbers down. Then he showed me the pump. It was a mangled mess of metal, plastic and what appeared to be a mash of blood and bone fragments. Had he ever seen anything like this? No, he hadn't. There's no way a critter would burrow that deep and falling in wouldn't cause this. So we shrugged, he assured me that he'd cleaned everything and recommended flushing the house system, which he did. Then he was on his way and all was well.

Soon afterward I had a visit from Adam, my neighbour to the south. He was very polite, but insistent on me keeping my dogs in check. "Dogs? I have no dogs, only cats!" Well, apparently Something canine had been in his orchard and killed a few of his chickens and mauled a piglet. I showed him around the house to demonstrate the absence of dogs, and it might have been suggested coyotes or bobcats, both of which occasionally came down into the valley. No, this was dogs. He'd seen them the previous evening. Large, like mastiffs. I shook my head. No-one around has dogs like that, and he agreed. Of course we parted amicably on my promise that I'd keep an eye out.

The very next morning, something had got into my chickens. Two had vanished. No feathers, no blood, no footprints, just a hole torn in the fence and three chickens left. I repaired the run and planned up reinforcing the whole thing the following week. Meanwhile I had a plan. When I'd moved in I built a home surveillance setup with a few wifi cameras connected to a small computer. I still had a spare camera, and with a little messing about, got it set up on a pole between the house and the chicken run. Every morning I'd go out to collect eggs and count chickens, and of course check the video footage.There were no more attacks. For three weeks.

The moon was only just past new that night. And it was dark. I was on the porch with a glass of wine, watching the last of the sunset when I heard the noise of poultry panic. Without hesitation I ran inside, grabbed the shotgun and then ran out to the chickens. By the time I got there, I was too late. Same MO, fence torn apart and two chickens gone. I quickly patched the hole and checked for footprints but found none again.

Of course the first thing I did when I got back was check the footage. All the cameras have infrared sensors and lights, so I knew I'd have something, and sure enough there were Adam's suspects. Two bloody enormous dogs, heads like tank turrets, eyes bright in the IR. I set myself the task of going to town the following day to get some serious welded mesh panels and beef up the enclosure, and see if I couldn't get some new chicks because one chicken just wouldn't do. And then I decided to call Adam. He came straight round and we watched the video together. Yes, that was what he'd seen. Clever bastards, he said, they even checked out the camera. And sure enough, he was right. Both dogs had stopped in front of it and looked right into the lens. Where had they come from? The fence line to the east. He promised to come in daylight and we'd check it out. Meanwhile, he would provide me a couple of eggs each day and he was sure he had a roll of stouter fencing.

Well we found nothing. No hole in the fence, no tracks, no feathers. Adam helped me fix up the coop and we drank a beer over lunch. And all was quiet.

Until I was woken up a month later by the bed shaking. Earthquake! I'd lived in the area long enough that I knew it was only a little one, and it only lasted a moment. But still, it's unnerving to be reminded that Nature has a power we are helpless against. On a whim, I got up and went outside. In the grey twilight everything was perfectly silent and there was nothing to see other than some flashes of light from the east. This was my closest neighbour, Lucia's property, and she was out in the paddock checking on the horses. I made my way over and hailed her. Was everything okay? Yes, thank you, she and the horses were fine. Did you feel the earthquake? No, she hadn't, but she had heard the horses making spooked noises. We talked about it for a while and decided it was nothing and we should go back to our beds.

I didn't think anything more of it until I went out after breakfast to dig up the last of the squash plants and bring in what few tomatoes and such there were. At the bottom of the garden, the almond trees didn't look right. Slanted, skew-whiff, both leaning toward one another. Must have happened last night. I walked over and saw a faint ridge running east. I followed it out to the fence line, and saw that it continued perhaps ten or twenty feet onto Lucia's land. Curious. I finished up and returned to the house. Firing up a web browser I checked the USGS website for 'quakes, and found nothing. Puzzled, I called Lucia and we both walked the length of the rise. It was perfectly straight and stopped quite abruptly. The whole thing was about seventy feet by our best estimate. I made us lunch. We ate it in almost silence, which was also unusual.

Two days later, she called me. Her horses weren't moving from the north corner of the paddock. I walked around to find Adam already there. The horses, all four of them, were indeed crowded together against the fence. Lucia had found them like that in the morning, and they were twitchy, stamping feet and wild-eyed. They'd both tried to cajole the animals into the middle of the field, to no avail. After a short discussion, we removed to Lucia's for wine and shelter from the rain, which was just starting. We discussed all the events of the past few weeks, and as is common after wine, we found there were more unusual events that we'd all not really thought unusual. My cats had been reluctant to go out of the back door, Adam's dog spent more time sleeping in his bedroom than normal. Lucia told us her water had an unusual smell and taste, and that she'd taken to filtering it.

Eventually we finished the bottle and Adam and I returned to our houses. I started to look around and seek out anything that were different or odd in the house and the garden. From walking the perimeter to checking irrigation in the orchard, I found things that I otherwise wouldn't have thought of. The almond trees weren't the only things that had moved. A couple of the fence posts were askew, a corner of the chicken shack seemed to be out of plumb, I found a leak in one of the irrigation lines. I called Adam, who had also checked around his property but found nothing. I finally cracked a new bottle of whisky and sat with my cats until it got dark, and I went to bed.

It was still pitch-dark when I woke. It had started raining again, nothing too unusual there. The odd thing is that there was thunder, and that must have woken me. I looked out of the window. Perhaps it was my imagination, perhaps not, but I saw figures moving about near the orchard. It was raining hard enough that I wasn't about to go out, so I went to the study to watch the camera feeds, making certain that my shotgun was ready to hand. The cameras around the house were all working, but the henhouse camera was blank, showing nothing. Whilst there may have been a technical reason for that, I was taking no chances and I made myself a mug of coffee and went into the lounge. It was at this point that I noticed the cats. All sitting in the middle of the rug, all looking toward the window. Looking out of the window and seeing nothing, I tried to convince myself that I was worrying about nothing. The cats are upset that I'm up and invading their space. The camera wasn't showing anything because I'd not protected it from the rain, or there wasn't sufficient power or one of a hundred other explanations. Then I heard the footsteps at the front door. The cats fled, there was a cliché flash of lightning, and I jumped. Gun in hand, I crept back to the study to watch the camera feed. Just as I rounded the door I saw a figure at the window. Short, possibly five feet. And on the monitor, the front porch camera showed the cliché silhouette of an unclear figure. Scared out of my wits by this point, I ran back to the door and peered through the glass. Seeing nothing but dark, I ran back to my bedroom, shut the door and pushed my dresser against it. Then I closed the curtains and sat in a corner.

I woke at daybreak. The rain had stopped. I looked around the room, nothing had apparently changed. The dresser was still against the door. I realised I didn't have my gun, looked around for it but didn't find it. Idiot, I thought, I'd left it in the lounge. I pushed the dresser back, peeked out. The cats heard this, began meowing. It was feeding time at the ranch, I thought, so I walked into the hallway to the kitchen, warily checking around me. Ah, there was my gun, propped against the front door. I must have left it there when I locked the door. I was certain I must have locked the door. I checked, I had. The cats were at least behaving normally, so I fed them, put the kettle on for tea and was about to go to look outside when the phone rang. It was Adam. Had I been outside this morning? No, I hadn't. I should, he said.

So out I went. Adam was already walking over, I could see him coming up the road. He waved at me, and I waited until he got close. "You've had visitors", he said. And indeed I had. The ridge had raised by a foot, there were holes in the ground just this side of the now-toppled chicken shack, which was demolished. There were fence posts lying on the wet grass, there were coils of wire. I was completely puzzled. I walked over, kicked at them, they were real enough. I felt down in the holes, they were real holes. Real holes, but the sides were bone-dry. Adam and I walked back to my house. The cats, fed, were yowling to be let out, so I walked to the front door and opened it. I was almost ready to close it when I saw the envelope, taped to the jamb. I pulled it off, came back inside, opened it up. It read:

To: Mr. Joaquin Nagy, 664 County Road 82, Lammer, CA 92664

From: The Superior Court of Lammer County

Summary Judgment: In the case brought by Mr. Luc Fire in re the boundary between dispute Mr. Fire and the previous owner of your property, and absent any representation by you in this matter, it is decreed that Mr. Fire's case to extend the property line of 666 County Road 82 in the County of Lammer, is decided in his favor, this October 29, 2021. The surveyor's report is attached with the new property line drawn.

There was more, but the notice fell from my hand. I felt a mild rumble and ran outside to see a chimney emerging from the ground where the chickens had been.

I would have my nightmare, a neighbour whose smoke I could see.

2023 Horrorquest

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