James Renner is the author of two books of nonfiction that detail his adventures in investigative journalism (much of which took place in the trenches of the Cleveland Scene): Amy: My Search for Her Killer and The Serial Killer's Apprentice. His work has been featured in Best American Crime Reporting and Best Creative Nonfiction. His novel The Man from Primrose Lane, was published by an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2012. He was also one of the co-founders of local sketch-masters Last Call Cleveland.
Alan's father told him there was some- thing wrong with the house. He said the price was too low. Even in the post-bubble Akron economy, it just didn't make any sense. Not for the size of the home, or for the location- drop-center inside the tony Merriman Hills subdivision, not for the rich-kid school system their would-be kids would someday attend. A four-bedroom Tudor with original windows and a refinished bathroom? For $85,000?
"Something's got to be wrong with it," his father insisted.
Alan waved his warnings off as paternal paranoia. Nothing he ever did was quite up to his old man's specs. This wasn't the same world his father had known at thirty. Men today frequently changed jobs, changed careers, moved from Cleveland to Akron to work for a competing dealership. Adapt to survive. Companies didn't reward loyalty anymore. This wasn't TTR Steel. TTR Steel didn't even exist anymore. That was his point. In this world, this new real world, people sometimes unloaded a home for pennies on the dollar just to chase an opportunity. So Alan almost didn't hear him at all when his father warned him about the house. He'd heard it before.
Trish at least considered it for a moment. "What if he's right?" she asked, bending down to peer under the kitchen sink, again. "What if there is something wrong, like a leak we can't see or a foundation issue and they don't want to tell us and then we buy it and it's too late and we're stuck?" When Trish didn't pause for punctuation it prickled the backs of Alan's eyeballs and gave him headaches. For a teacher, Trish talked an awful lot like a kid sometimes.
"There's nothing wrong with the house," Alan said for the twenty-fifth time.
If there was anything that did give Alan pause, it was the lengths to which the seller maintained a distance from them during closing. Alan and Trish only knew the man by a name on the deed: Gregory Heslop. When they asked for a tour, and then a second-look, they had to give 48-hours notice through the realtor so that Heslop wouldn't be there. When it came time to sign the papers, Heslop used a lawyer as an intermediary even though there was no haggling over the price. The keys were left in the mailbox. All signs of Gregory and the Heslop family, if there had ever been more Heslops than Gregory, had been erased from the property long before Alan and Trish peeked through the windows one winter afternoon after spotting the 'For Sale' sign in the front yard.
Sometimes Alan caught himself wondering where Gregory Heslop was now, why he'd moved away from this adorable Tudor in West Akron. But mostly he wondered why Heslop had never cared to correspond with the home's new owners in any way, even if only to wish them well and to thank them for their money.
But Alan didn't really think there was anything wrong with the house. Not for a while.
The house was not without a few problems. For one, the house did not have central air. It was too hot in the summer, even with ceiling fans spinning, and too cold in the winter, even with the radiators chirping and a boiler growling away in the basement. It was drafty— the windows seemed to suck heat from rooms like angry ghosts. And after heavy rains, the house shifted, floor boards popping as if beneath little feet, especially in their bedroom.
Also, the living room had been designed in a time before television, and so there was really no decent place to hang the plasma TV. The best the nerd squad from Best Buy could do was to mount it on a swivel in the corner by the mantel. But something about that spot tended to make the picture static-y at inopportune times.
One of the things that Trish loved about the house was the woods that wrapped around the back yard. Giant trees. Bigger than any he'd seen elsewhere in Akron. Almost old-growth big. But that couldn't be. There were no old-growth forests in Ohio anymore, right? The woods were beautiful, especially in the fall, when they came alive in brilliant reds and burnt oranges. There was an owl that lived somewhere back there. Late at night it screamed at the house and it sounded like a girl crying.
Occasionally something knocked loudly from behind the wall in Alan and Trish's bedroom, from the place where the wall abutted the bathroom. Somewhere behind that wall was an old pipe that called out for attention.
There was nothing wrong with the house but there was definitely something wrong with the neighbors.
A pair of doctors, Brooke and Erin Seiberling, lived in the colonial to one side, a great white thing with red awnings that had belonged to a former mayor. Brooke and Erin worked odd hours at Akron General and drove matching Mini Coopers. Two months after moving into the neighborhood, Trish had baked an ironic bundt cake and they had walked it over to the Seiberlings' one day when both the Minis were in the driveway. Brooke and Erin had invited them in, sure. They had cut up the cake and served it with coffee. But neither Brooke nor Erin would make eye contact with them and they sat on the edge of the sofa as if ready to jump up and run out of the room. When Alan thought to ask after Gregory Heslop and whether he'd had any family, Erin had choked on a piece of cake. Then Brooke had remembered a supper they were supposed to have with his folks that evening and so they'd said goodbye and walked home. A half-hour later both Mini Coopers pulled out of the driveway next door and did not return for four days.
On the other side were the Kormuschoffs. Barb and Tony. When Alan and Trish had walked over one evening with a bottle of wine and knocked loudly on the front door, no one answered. even though they could clearly hear a television somewhere inside, the sound drifting through the mail slot in the brick wall. Tony stopped mowing his own lawn after that. He hired a kid from a landscaping company to come out to the house once a week to take care of the strip of lawn out front. Trish was convinced he'd hired the kid just so he wouldn't be caught outside one day and be forced into a conversation with them.
"That's crazy," Alan said. "Crazy paranoid."