Welcome to The Madison Review's new series The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not a good fit for the fall spring editions of our journal. The second piece we are sharing is "The Girl Next Door" by Laurie Shiers, a work that explores friendship, betrayal, and self-acceptance through this coming-of-age story.
Laurie Shiers is a late bloomer who, for fifteen years, hid her literary ambitions beneath a successful copywriting career. She is now her own kind of writer and creative development coach. Laurie lives in Los Angeles where she works with artists to connect with the passion and purpose behind their projects. Her work can be found in Corvus Literary and Adoptive Families Magazine.
The Girl Next Door
You don’t get to choose your family, and you don’t get to choose your neighbors. If Eloise had been given the option, she would have picked a different sort of girl to live right next door. Ideally one who liked tap dancing, making potions, and who also felt a kinship with Tabitha from Bewitched. Instead, she got Noni Martinez. Noni was one month older, eight inches taller, and at age 10, already mad at the world. Her family had lived next door to Eloise’s since forever, but no one ever said much beyond an empty hello. “Different,” is how Eloise’s mom Marilyn described the Martinez family in a tone that made Eloise curious about exactly what she meant. Different how?
It was a Sunday afternoon in May and the San Fernando Valley had not yet begun to feel like the surface of the sun. The end of the school year was near, and the neighborhood kids were playing t-ball in the middle of Lemona Avenue. You might have heard them for miles, if the 405 weren’t close enough to drown out the loudest of hollers. Eloise, who had a front row seat from her porch, wasn’t asked to play. Sitting on the steps reading Sweet Valley High #14, she pretended not to hear Big Robert yelling “Hey batter, batter, batter!” every fifteen seconds, but Eloise was keeping score. Brooke, the block’s blonde pig faced ringleader, managed a home-run and squealed as she ran round the makeshift bases. That’s when Eloise noticed Noni in a striped tube top and dolphin shorts speed walking up the asphalt driveway. She was holding something suspicious. Squirmy.
“Do you like guinea pigs?” Noni said, as she approached Eloise, pronouncing it ‘gwinnie’. The dogs keep trying to eat this one, and plus, my allergies.” Noni sniffed hard and shifted her red, watery eyes back and forth before settling them on Eloise. Her gaze was unnerving. Noni’s movements seemed impossible to predict, like a one of those prank peanut cans where a snake would pop out when you least expected it. Before Eloise could answer, Noni shoved the furball into her next-door neighbor’s tiny hands. “Meet Oscar,” she shouted, and left to join the t-ball game.
Could Noni have heard the begging—no, pleading—for some sort of dog or cat or rabbit—anything cuddly, really, from inside Eloise’s house next door? Impossible. Maybe Noni could see into her heart. The idea beyond thrilled Eloise. She held her answered prayer close and went inside to find her mother.
“That shade makes you look like death warmed over,” Eloise heard Marilyn declare with conviction from the backyard. The sliding glass doors had been left wide open, giving a trio of flies in and out privileges as Barry Manilow’s Copacabana played on the 8-track. On the patio, Marilyn was providing in-depth color analysis to her best friend Marsha when Eloise interrupted. (Marilyn was a spring, which meant she had the good fortune of being able to pull off a Kelly green blazer. Marsha thought she might be a winter but was looking for a second opinion.) Startled by the aliveness in Eloise’s arms and ever-so-slightly tipsy, Marilyn jumped, spilling her wine spritzer across the concrete patio slab. “Where did you get that filthy thing?”
Eloise explained, and it was quickly decided that Oscar would not be allowed to stay. Marilyn handed her daughter a paper towel and ordered her to take that overgrown rat back to the Martinez house where it belonged.
Eloise did not take that overgrown rat right back. Instead, she stopped by her room where it occurred to her that she might be able to secretly keep Oscar under her bed in the shiny rose-colored shoebox usually reserved for her tap shoes. Grabbing the box with one hand, she removed her scuffed black Capezios, and gently lowered Oscar into his new home. The tissue at the bottom would make a cozy bed, Eloise thought, but the guinea pig was spooked. He began snorting and circling as his tiny claws decimated the thin paper into shreds. Within seconds, he upended the box and scampered under Eloise’s bed. “Fuck a duck,” she accidentally said out loud, slamming her door hard enough to shake the wall between her room and her five-year-old brother Nathan’s. She feared Oscar might make a run for the kitchen. If that happened, she’d be grounded until high school. Eloise dove under her bed, somehow managing to catch Oscar in her hands without squishing the life out of him, just as her door creaked open.
“Was that an earthquake?” Nathan asked, knowing it was not.
“Shut it,” Eloise whisper-yelled from under the bed, hoping he’d do just that. Her brother was practically a genius, but he never managed to catch on that a closed door meant Privacy Please. Nathan closed the door behind him and went to his sister, who sat at the edge of her bed holding something in a paper towel that looked like a live burrito. “Meet Oscar,” Eloise said just like Noni, and then softened when she saw her baby brother’s delight. She revealed only his tiny ears and snout, still holding him close for safety. Nathan reached out to pet Oscar’s furry head. The guinea pig slowly shut its eyes. As Eloise cradled his tiny body, a sticky warmth spread across her chest. Oscar had managed to soak through the 2-ply and onto Eloise’s favorite rainbow tank top. The squealing started up again when she held him at arm’s length.
“Are we keeping him?” Nathan asked.
There was a bright side. Eloise had technically been granted permission to go over to Noni’s. This was possibly even more exciting than hiding a filthy rodent under her bed. She wondered why her mother wanted her to stay away in the first place. And why the Martinez’s have a security screen door but no flowers in the front yard. Without even bothering to change her shirt, Eloise ran next door to find out.
The t-ball game had ended and the street was empty again. Eloise headed next door with Oscar, crossing her fingers that the neighborhood kids were gathered elsewhere. Before she could even knock, Noni flung the screen open. She was holding a compress on her eye. “Knew you couldn’t keep it,” Noni blurted, grabbing the wet burrito from Eloise with her free hand.
“I wanted to,” Eloise said, hoping this might matter. That’s when she saw the rusty cage in the center of the overstuffed kitchen, with two other guinea pigs squeaking and chortling on top of wet newspaper scraps. From the porch, Eloise watched Noni throw Oscar back in with the others: just another goldfish in the tank. Then she quickly tossed the paper towel and the compress into the trash before rinsing her hands for two seconds in the avocado-colored sink. After wiping wet palms on her jeans, she slammed a disobedient cupboard shut with her calloused heel. When it flung back open, she kicked again, hard.
“What?” Noni asked defensively, zeroing in on Eloise’s surprised look. “Rudy does that stuff all the time,” she said, tattling on her 15-year-old brother. Eloise looked from the battered cabinet doors to the cardboard square covering a broken pane of glass in the kitchen window. The sound of a muffled bass guitar thumped through the back of the Martinez house: Rudy’s room. Still lingering in the doorway and unsure of what to say, Eloise shrugged.
“Come in if you want,” Noni said like she couldn’t care less. “My mom is at the market.” Eloise’s own mother never left her alone, not even for five minutes. She debated, leaning awkwardly against the open door frame and biting a ragged cuticle before remembering she had been holding Oscar. Then she shoved her hands in her pockets and passed through the security screen.
As Eloise entered the kitchen, the smell overwhelmed her. Jalapeños and wet animals and bleach. El inhaled the sharp scent as she tried memorizing every detail: shiny wood cabinets with black pine knots that looked like eyes. Mismatched handles up top and scratches down below, probably from the dogs (there were always different dogs). The pattern on the worn linoleum floor that reminded Eloise of the curly cues she had been trying to perfect in her handwriting which made her want to reach down and trace her fingers over the pattern. (She didn’t.) Jesus figurines and Lladro-inspired knickknacks in every corner, along with piles of scribbled notes. Milk. Eggs. Church key. Tortillas. Call Marti. An ornate Mi Casa es su Casa plaque adorned one kitchen wall, with “Home is where the Heart is” handwritten on paper and taped up right beneath it. And under that, a quote ripped from a bible magazine: Children, obey your parents in everything for this pleases the LORD. Different.
“Have a Coke,” Noni said, handing Eloise her very first. It was already opened, bubbles writhing, plotting their escape. Noni tilted her head back and drank right from the bottle, just like in the commercials. Eloise did the same and then whipped her hair around like Farrah Fawcett, just because. The scent in the room seemed to fade and Eloise felt her shoulders relax. Then Noni sat on the curly cue linoleum and belched the entire alphabet for Eloise until she laughed so hard the Coke came out of her nose. None of this would ever happen at Eloise’s. Her father only drank Pepsi.
“El? Do I hear you over there?” Marilyn’s voice sailed through her laundry room window, less than 200 feet away, and landed in Eloise’s lap. She had heard her daughter, and probably saw her too. The laundry room’s carefully positioned allowed for a generous view of the Martinez’s daily lives, Eloise knew, because once she’d caught her mom accidentally pouring detergent into the dryer as she spied hard on the neighbors. That time, her face was practically pressed up against the window. From Noni’s kitchen, Eloise waved in her mother’s direction, dying to know what would happen next.
“Dinnertime,” her mother sang out, the tension in her voice just barely perceptible. El hesitated, and then stood up to leave.
That afternoon marked the beginning of what would become a daily event: after school at Noni’s. Being inside that house felt dangerous, like you might step on a nail, and chances were excellent that it’d be rusty. But the bigger thrill was the game that Noni always wanted to play: Confession. Sharing secrets was the best way to get to know each other, she explained, and insisted that Eloise go first. Aside from her Raggedy Ann doll and her diary with the miniature heart shaped lock, Eloise had never told anyone anything. Still, she barely paused. Revealing her private thoughts was a need Eloise didn’t know she had, and once she started, she didn’t want to stop.
“I think I might be adopted,” she began. There were five reasons why, starting with her palate which was distinctly Asian to their eastern European, and Eloise was revving up to explain them all. Before she could elaborate, Noni interrupted. “Well you look nothing like those people. Next topic.” To keep Noni’s interest, Eloise told her about the time she sleepwalked to the fridge, opened the crisper and sat down on it to pee. That got an approving laugh. So Eloise kept going, filling Noni up with details about how she wanted to be famous and adored by the world and that her dead grandma visited in her dreams and that she was sometimes jealous of Nathan. It felt good to empty those places inside that had built up from being quiet for so long. The feeling reminded her of the hall closet in her house that kept getting stuffed with old jackets and wrapping paper and umbrellas that only sometimes worked. The closet got so stuffed that one day, when Eloise tried to pull out her roller skates, an avalanche of orphaned items came tumbling to her feet. Seeing the naked back of the wood inside the closet gave her an odd sense of relief. There was an end to how much a space could hold.
It took Noni longer to open up. Her toughness cracked slowly, tentatively, like an egg at the end of its boil. During the following weeks, Eloise learned that Noni once stole a pack of gum and some L’Eggs pantyhose from Dale’s Jr. and got caught, that she wished she could fit into a size S and had thrown up trying, and that she had a mole on her stomach that looked like a third nipple. Last, she admitted how much she hated that her friends thought Rudy was cute.
“Why?” asked Eloise, not yet sure how she felt about Noni’s mysterious brother.
“He’s an animal,” Noni said, but then stopped before adding anything more.
“What kind of animal?” is what Eloise wanted to ask, but she knew that wasn’t the right question. So she went with, “What does your mom say?”
“Nothing, “ Noni said bitterly. “He’s the favorite.”
“I have a new game for us to play,” said Noni as Eloise approached the Martinez’s house the following afternoon. The girl next door sat on her porch with a ream of colored markers and paper scraps from her mom’s old shopping lists. “Let’s write our private thoughts instead of talking them.” A thousand tissues lay beside Noni and one was stuck up her nose. We can use this to stash them,” she said, sniffling and handing Eloise the empty Kleenex box. “ Eloise loved that Noni always came up with some creative way to pass the time. The rules of her new game were:
Whatever you write has to be true
No reading each other’s secrets without permission
The box had to be kept somewhere safe
“I know where,” Eloise said, already picking up a pen to write. “Oscar’s almost bedroom.”
“Deal,” said Noni, as she picked up a green marker with her left hand even though she was a righty. Moments later, she dropped her first secret into the box. Eloise followed. An hour passed, at least, and Eloise was running out of secrets. Plus, she was craving a Coke.
“Let’s go inside.”
“Can’t,” said Noni, still spilling her guts on the back of the paper scrap that had Church key written on it. “Rudy.”
Just as summer vacation started, Noni’s mother took a new job and changed the house rules. Instead of being allowed to stay home as usual, Noni would have play outside every day until her mom returned from work. Rudy got the run of the house. “Apparently it’s for my own good,” Noni said mocking her mother as she, broke the news to Eloise. Then under her breath added, “My mom treats me like one of the dogs.”
Eloise wanted to put her arm around Noni, but hesitated. “Even they get to come and go through their little door,” she said, feeling bad for Noni and worried about what this meant for her too.
“Screw you, El,” Noni spat, like she’d thought it a thousand times before. Eloise picked up the Kleenex box and went home for the night.
“Can we come in?” Noni called into Brooke’s open garage, her voice an octave higher than usual. Eloise stood beside her, anxiously pointing and flexing her bare feet. She had never been this close to the other kids or the places they played. After Noni forgave Eloise from the night before, she came up with the idea to bring Eloise along. “They don’t hate you,” she said. “They just don’t know you.” Eloise was not convinced. In the background, atop old metal bunk beds, she could see the kids playing Baby. Brooke, of course, was the Mommy. Each of her ‘babies’ sucked candy pacifiers and even the 11-year olds were in diapers. One of them was pretending to cry softly.
“Just you,” said Brooke, who stopped mothering long enough to come out of the garage, put her arm around Noni, and led her inside. After a moment, Eloise called after them.
“If you want borrow some of my brother’s old baby bottles….” she trailed off, aching for approval. Brooke turned slowly to look at Eloise from top to bottom.
“How about hurry up and get them, then?” She barked in a way that made it sound like she ruled the universe. As Eloise left to follow Brooke’s orders, she heard Noni laugh.
That day, after Eloise returned with the old bottles, the unraveling began. As the kids sat down in Brooke’s garage for peanut butter and honey sandwiches, Noni said, “You guys, Eloise here pisses in her fridge. Isn’t that gross?” That got a laugh, but it didn’t feel good to Eloise this time. She started to tell the real story, but Noni cut her off. “Guess we won’t be eating at her house.”
Eloise was confused at first, but it didn’t take long for Noni’s intent to become clear.
“Little El talks to ghosts,” Noni teased the next day, just when Eloise was starting to trust her again. Brooke cackled at that one.
“Not what I said,” Eloise muttered, this time only to herself. Later that weekend, after a game of tag in the hot summer sun followed by belly flops on the Slip n’ Slide, she was blindsided again. Brooke brought out her mom’s Ouija board, with Noni at her side. “Granny wants to say hi!” Noni joked, before Brooke pretended to channel Grandma Rose.
Like the drive to Disneyland or Pi or the Energizer Bunny, the teasing kept going and going, at least that’s how it felt to Eloise who regretted ever opening her mouth at all. Soon after the Ouija board, Big Robert made her sit still on the sidewalk as he inspected her head using a stick. “She’s super Jew-y, you know,” Noni had said, encouraging Robert to get a closer look at her horns.
“What are you guys doing?” called Nathan from the porch, wearing only his tightie whities. He watched his sister hug her own knees as Big Robert stood over her ominously. “Go inside, Nathan,” El said in her best everything’s fine voice, not wanting to alert her parents. If they knew, they’d never let her out of the house.
She had nowhere else to go. Her school friends had summer camp, family vacations, picnics, beach parties, and actual lives, Eloise not included. It was as though from June through September, she didn’t even exist. There were only two options that Eloise could see: stay home and do nothing or play in the neighborhood. So the next morning after breakfast, Eloise headed back down the block, determined to make the best of it. If Noni came after her again, she’d take it in stride. Be easy breezy. She can’t get me, Eloise convinced herself, if I’m expecting it. So it was less shocking when, after a day of running through sprinklers, cartwheeling until dizzy, and spacing out on the itchy green grass, Noni announced, “Guess what, guys? Little Eloise is still afraid of the dark!” Instead of being swallowed by shame, Eloise laughed with the rest of the kids like she wasn’t the butt of their joke. It felt good to lift her head up and smile, even if she didn’t mean it.
Her reaction did not go unnoticed. There were whispers, followed by a secret meeting behind the old olive tree, during which Eloise practiced her handstands on the grass, alone. After the meeting, the kids regrouped in Brooke’s room with the double bed and the BeeGees poster.
“Who wants leftover Halloween candy?” Brooke sang out. She just happened to remember there was some inside her old toy chest, which had been moved to the closet on account of Brooke being practically a teen. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she said, and pulled the heavy chest into the middle of the room.
“Bet there are Abba Zabbas,” Noni added, and winked. (El had told Noni about when she was 8 and broke her tooth while trying to suck the peanut butter filling out of the taffy of her beloved candy and how she regretted not being able to finish it. Her mother never let her have another.) As Eloise opened the chest expectantly, Big Robert pushed her off balance and she toppled inside. Except for the cobweb in the corner, the chest had been empty. The kids laughed hysterically, then Noni sat on the lid and latched it shut.
Eloise could have been in the chest for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, but it felt like a hundred years. She sucked in air, gulp after gulp, until her breathing became so jagged she could no longer control it. Eloise was underwater, flailing and gasping, smashing the sides of the chest with her fists and feet. Her whimpers turned to screams, guttural, raw and determined to be set free. She wasn’t going to let them kill her. She wasn’t going to go down like this.
There was no call to 911, no dramatic rescue. Brooke’s mother eventually heard screaming coming from her daughter’s bedroom, peeked around the corner, and calmly insisted the kids open the chest. Once she saw Big Robert unlock the latch, Brooke’s mother went back to her gardening project outside.
It’s not that Noni wanted Eloise to die. It’s just that she wanted someone besides her to feel pain. Like a boomerang or a too-loyal dog, Eloise kept coming back for more, hoping for better. Not unlike Noni telling her mother again and again about Rudy and hoping to be heard. But after the Abba Zabba incident, Eloise was broken. She peeled herself from the inside of the chest and stood in the middle of Brooke’s room, soaking wet and shaking as the kids looked on. “Like an animal” rang through Eloise’s head, but she said nothing. Nobody else did either.
Eloise walked back home alone, stepping on every crack in the pavement and trying to catch her breath. “Was Lemona Avenue always this quiet?” she wondered, unlocking her front door using the hide-a-key even though everybody was home. As she walked in, the smell of rotisserie chicken and raisins permeated the air. Shabbat, Eloise remembered.
Marilyn was in the foyer. “Honey…?” she said trying to decode her daughter’s distant expression. “How are you feeling?”
“Different,” is what Eloise said before curling up on the color swatches in the den and falling asleep. She woke up in the same position the next morning, covered by Nathan’s blankie.
Eloise spent the rest of the summer mostly by herself. She watched Bewitched, and invented a new potion called Popular, pouring it into a tiny Tupperware jar as she watched the neighborhood kids from her parent’s bathroom window. Sometimes she spied on Noni’s house from the laundry room, but most of the time, the blinds were kept all the way shut. No amount of soundproofing could drown out the yelling, though. And what scared Eloise most was not the yelling, but the silence that came after.
Eloise waited weeks before reaching under her bed, past the Capezio box to the Kleenex one. She sat down in her doorway with the box in her lap before reaching in to grab a single folded note. Noni’s. I lied about wanting to give Oscar away just to come over and meet you, she had scrawled. Eloise shook her head. Then, even though El promised herself she’d only read one, she reached in for another. This one was hers. I wish I could be more like you, it read. Eloise remembered wishing that, but on the back of the note it said Church key.
The sting of tears came first. The pain of the betrayal and the gulf of loneliness that felt endless, like she was swimming in a bottomless pool, came after. Eloise could not make sense out of why Noni would try to destroy someone she wanted to be like. Did she hate Eloise that much, or did she just hate herself? Maybe both, she thought, and shivered. A longing for something soft and furry and unconditionally loving consumed her. She wanted to be a little baby again, to be held and adored, but it was too late for all that.
Nathan broke the spell. As Eloise closed her eyes, he plopped himself down into her lap and pushed his warm little body closer to hers. She held her answered prayer close. Eloise wrapped her arms around her nuzzly little brother, opened her mouth and sobbed. Nathan reached toward the Kleenex box for a tissue, but she took his hand and put it around her neck instead. “There’s nothing left,” she said, and held him tight.
The thing was, Eloise no longer wanted to be anything like Noni or Brooke or even her mother (nothing against Marilyn). I just want to be like myself, whoever that is, she wrote in her journal and then tore the entry into pieces so no one could ever read it. She stayed afraid of the dark. She dreamed about deep conversations with Grandma Rose. And though it seemed impossible, Eloise believed that someday, the scars from the summer of 1981 would fade, and she would learn to trust again.
On the day before school started, Eloise watched Noni walk out her kitchen door, looking determined. Her right arm was in a sling. A bruise, deep purple, spread across her thigh, visible from the edges of her long Bermuda shorts. She pulled them down as best she could and walked across her driveway. Before Noni could even knock, Eloise had opened the front door.
“I’m sorry,” Noni said. Eloise waited to see if there was more, but ‘sorry’ was it.
“Me too,” said Eloise, after a moment. Then she shut the door. This time, she bolted it.