Prudence Merriweather wasn’t a busybody. The forty-something mother of four just took her responsibilities very seriously. She was the president of her neighborhood’s home owners association. It was her civic duty to keep her neighbors apprised of any unusual behavior. And the nocturnal activities of the new occupants of 108 Cherry Tree Lane fell under the definition of “unusual.”
One Wednesday mornings, Pru conducted her weekly neighborhood landscaping assessment. Armed with her clipboard, she marched around the subdivision and diligently marked down any houses that violated the “aesthetics” clause of the association code. Those people on Apple Tree Lane still hadn’t trimmed their overgrown hedges or weeded the front of their house. And that other house on Peach Blossom Road still had a broken mail box and rotting wood in the upstairs windows. The list went on and on. The whole neighborhood had gone to hell during her absence.
Pru pursed her lips in frustration. She should have stayed home. But her husband Bill had been so excited by the notion of surprising her on their 25th wedding anniversary. For once in his dull life, Bill wanted to be romantic. He was captured by the notion of whisking his wife away to some godforsaken country in Europe for two weeks. At the sight of his shining blue eyes and dopey smile, Pru had no choice but to graciously accept his gift. Buoyed by his exuberance, Bill hadn’t noticed the fleeting look of dismay on her face.
Two weeks. She had been gone for two entire weeks. Pru had never left her home, let alone her country, for two entire weeks. And if debacles like this one happened in her absence, she would never leave again. When she returned home, Pru was appalled to discover that the neighborhood had new residents. And by all accounts, they were the strangest new residents that anyone had ever witnessed.
As Pru stormed around the subdivision, writing down infractions, her irritation grew. It still galled her that the other ladies of the association had more information about the new residents than she did. That old biddy Tillie Gardner had gloated when they dropped the bombshell. It was the first time Pru Merriweather hadn’t scooped them on neighborhood news. Although she carefully maintained a neutral expression on her face, Pru writhed inside as they gleefully recounted what had happened.
One day, the house was empty. The next day, as if by magic, there were people inside. But, how could that be? No one had actually seen people moving into the manor. Not a single lady of the association had spotted a moving truck or van in sight. Who were these people? Were they living like squatters without furniture? And why did the house appear completely empty by day even though the nearest neighbors swore that they heard things in the middle of the night? It was all very perplexing.
After an hour of collecting meticulous notes, Pru finished her route in front of the last house on her list. 108 Cherry Tree Lane. She surveyed the house perched at the top of the hill. Well, it wasn’t a house, exactly. It was more like a manor. In fact, the residents of the small town of Whispering Knolls still called it the O’Neil manor, even though no one had spotted an O’Neil for several decades. The perimeter of the large estate was surrounded by a black iron fence. Pru paused for a moment, before pushing the front gates open. Although there were no cameras in sight, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.
There was a long driveway that led to the front of the house. Pru surveyed the landscaping with reluctant satisfaction. The grounds were immaculate. She could have turned around and left, but as the HOA President, it was her job to welcome the new people to the neighborhood. Maybe they would invite her in. Imagine telling the others that she had seen the inside of the O’Neill manor. Pru pictured the look on Tillie’s face and grinned.
She rang the doorbell and waited. And waited. Her brow furrowed. Maybe they hadn’t heard her. Well, she had time. Perhaps she could take a stroll through the gardens in the back if they weren’t home. Just as she was about to back away from the front door, she heard something. The thick heavy door swung open and a woman stood in front of her. “May I help you?”
Pru couldn’t help but do a double take. The woman wasn’t Asian, but she was wearing some sort of Eastern looking outfit. It was a bright orange tunic with matching loose pants and sandals. Her red hair was tied back into a knot at the nape of her neck. The woman didn’t wear a trace of makeup, but her face didn’t need it. She was one of those naturally striking women who didn’t need to work for anything.
Although something about the woman bothered her, Pru pasted a pleasant smile on her face. “Hi, I’m Pru Merriweather. I’m the president of the home owner’s association,” She extended her hand. “I just stopped by to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
Pru detected a hint of amusement in the large grayish green eyes that surveyed her with patience. “Well, that’s very kind of you, Ms. Merriweather. My name is Margaret Doyle,” the woman took her hand and shook it gently. “Would you like to come in?”
Pru looked past the woman’s shoulder into the darkened home. Candles. There were dozens of candles scattered throughout the home. And what was that smell? Was that incense? Didn’t people use incense to hide things? What if they were doing drugs? And Pru swore she could hear other people mumbling something repetitively.
Wait until she told the others. The new occupants were hippies. And not any hippies, but some sort of New Age hippies. With their chanting, mood music and crystals. They could even be doing drugs. Maybe they were actually a cult. Pru stood nervously in the doorway, suddenly reassessing her desire to enter the home. What if they tried to brainwash her? What if they tried to brainwash everyone in the neighborhood?
Pru’s brow creased. This wouldn’t do at all. Not at all. It was a nice Midwestern neighborhood with nice Midwestern values. If word got out that New Age hippies were living in the subdivision, all of their property values would drop. No, this wouldn’t do at all.