Excerpt of With Neighbors Like This
Amelia Marsh halts mid-step, stricken by the laughter and squeals of a half-dozen children racing towards her.
“Incoming!” Grabbing her daughter and son, she wraps them in her arms, turning just in time to avoid the melee. One for the win column! Sure, those children appear to be sweet and innocent clad in their frilly dresses and formal ties, but she knows better. Amelia is a mom after all, and this is war—playground style. She’s got the superpower of keeping her children in check. Like the Hulk/Bruce Banner, those powers come and go. Some days, Amelia is a master, while other days … well, not so much.
The playground is surrounded by trees and lush green grass, its pretty setting is this parent’s nightmare. Kids of all ages shout, wrestle, and run like they’re all on one heck of a sugar high. While scoping a group of younger boys wrestling in the kiddie play mulch underneath the jungle gym, Amelia’s eldest tugs at her arm.
“Mom, can we play?” Her son, Jacob, asks, looking up at his mom with his signature bright smile. At ten years old, he is a charmer. What’s worse? He knows it. One flash of his megawatt smile, and he receives free cookies at his favorite bakery, or snags extra stickers at their local supermarket.
A little girl rushes past them, dressed in a pink tutu with a bunny tail that hangs haphazardly in the back. The child’s faux-tail bounces with every step she takes, and her bunny ears remind Amelia of their mission: today, they are attending their community Easter egg hunt and taking pictures with the Easter Bunny.
This is their first major outing since the big move back to Amelia’s hometown of Houston, since her divorce, since their lives drastically changed. The last thing she wants is her children running around in the sweltering Texas sun, then taking pictures with some costumed cotton tail while they sweat profusely with tangled hair or—worse yet—covered in mulch. She glances again at that same group of boys, who now have pieces of mulch stuck to their clothes, and in their hair. The chances of more than one shower needed: likely. Drain-clogging potential: high. Just what Amelia’s trying to avoid.
Crouching in front of her son, she ensures that her long skirt is covering her legs, then reaches for the hands of Jacob and his sister, Chloe. They’re twenty-two months apart, the best of friends on most days, and bicker like nobody’s business the rest of the time. “Why don’t we take pictures with the Easter Bunny first, then you can run around. Deal?”
Jacob wrinkles his brow, considering his mom’s offer. He’s not buying what she’s selling and Amelia’s glad that she didn’t go all out like some other parents. Contrasting the once pristine girls and boys wearing their best attire and ruining their special outfits, her kids are wearing clothes of their own choosing—cargo shorts and a polo shirt for Jacob, while Chloe wears leggings and her favorite ruffled shirt with a pink flamingo on it. No fancy shoes, either. Just socks and sneakers.
Picture taking Marsh style is practical by necessity, because their family is cursed when it comes to family photos. Without fail, the better dressed her children are, the worse the picture. There could be fifty photos taken, and not one included both of the kids smiling or looking at the camera at the same time. But, when they wear comfortable clothes—their favorite clothes—voila! It’s like a Harry Potter moment with magical smiles and happy memories.
At this community event, she seems to be the only parent with this mind set, seeing the abundance of children once dressed to impress now getting dirty, sweaty, and screaming louder than the audience at a Metallica concert.
“I promise you can play after—”
“They have cookies! Can we have cookies, Mom?” Chloe, her eight-year-old spitfire tomboy points to a little boy eating a large cookie, then sprints toward the clubhouse, followed close behind by Jacob. When all else fails, cookies will do the trick and, thanks to a little boy covered in grass stains, a trail of cookie crumbs is leading Amelia’s children away from the lure of a crowded playground.
“Save some for me!” She calls to them, walking close behind until they reach the pool clubhouse, also known as their community’s “aquatic center.” It’s a fancy name for a small in-ground pool, and a building with bathrooms.
Their subdivision of Castle Rock is a newer one, situated in the northern suburbs of Houston in a town named Timberland, Texas. Here, in what is known as the Lush and Livable Timberland, where natural pine trees that were once in abundance are rare thanks to the building boom, residents pride themselves on their thick green lawns and blooming flower beds.
Under the shade of the clubhouse and its covered patio, Amelia spies tables accentuated with spring-themed tablecloths whipping in the warm breeze, upon which plates of cookies with colored icing and cups of lemonade are arranged around stuffed-animal bunnies and Easter decorations.
She’s traded sweat and dirt for icing and lemonade. Given the fact that her kids used to hate any and all imaginary figures in costumes, from Santa to the Easter Bunny to their school mascot, Amelia will take whatever photos she can get. Cargo shorts? Sure. Flamingo shirt? Done. Icing turning their tongues blue like Smurfs? She’ll deal.
Such is the single mom in her. Always trying to please, to make the kids happy, and to find her own sense of satisfaction. Without her ex-husband, Daniel. It was his choice to start a new life with his mistress. Did it hurt? Yes. Because he walked out on their children and because he caused them pain. Though Daniel, may have wanted out, he also wanted everything that he valued … their house, their money, their investments. What he didn’t value are Amelia’s biggest blessings: Jacob and Chloe.
Granted, she’s no pushover. With the help of a brilliant attorney, Amelia fought for what her children and she deserved. When the divorce was finalized, it was time to remove her children from the situation and give them a chance to heal—near some of Amelia’s best friends.
Today, she’s on her own, with her children—who are scarfing down cookies like they haven’t eaten in days. “Slow down, sweeties. Let’s take a break from the cookies.”
Mom rule number one: never let your kids overeat and throw up. As a matter of fact, avoid vomit at all costs. Gross, but true.
“Hello there,” a saccharine sweet voice and a terse tap on Amelia’s shoulder grabs her attention. “I’m Carla, from the HOA Management Company. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Nope, not yet.” Amelia would remember Carla, who is a sight to behold with teased red hair, full make up, and a pristine pants suit. How is this woman not melting in today’s heat? In her light maxi dress and messy bun, Amelia is already perspiring, but Carla’s heavy makeup remains flawless. Is she human or is heat endurance her superpower?
“Hi, Carla. I’m Amelia Marsh. These are my children, Jacob and Chloe.” Her daughter waves while her son gulps more lemonade before flashing his signature grin.
Carla narrows her eyes, staring at Amelia’s children, seemingly immune to Jacob’s charms. In turn, Jacob smiles wider, arching his brow. With still no response from Carla, Jacob gives up and studies his feet, while Amelia gives him a reassuring pat on his back.
“Where’s the Bunny?” Chloe asks.
“He’s coming. How about you line up over there?” Carla points at the seating area where four carefully arranged lawn chairs remain empty, and a line has already formed, full of flushed and disheveled children. Parents are doing their best to right the damage done by playtime. Good luck with that.
Amelia’s children look to her for approval, and she gives them a thumbs up. Jacob smiles, his teeth blue from the icing. “That’s my boy!” Amelia encourages him with a thumbs up.
Mom rule number … who knows since there are so many mom rules that she’s lost count … but, this is one of the most important rules of all: you can only control so much. Amelia has traded the messy, sweaty, grass-stained debacle for blue teeth. The glass half-full theory is that the blue might not show up in the picture.
“Keep drinking, buddy.” She smiles as Jacob takes another sip of his lemonade, then she turns to Carla. “What’s the difference between the HOA and the Management Company?”
“The Home Owners Association has Castle Rock residents who preside on its Board of Directors. The Management Company, for which I work, handles the logistics, enforcing the bylaws—in other words the community rules, and—”
“Collecting the annual dues.” Amelia adds with a smile. Now she understands. “I know my dues are paid for the year. I took care of that at closing.”
Studying Carla, Amelia notes that the woman has a half smirk/half grin plastered on her face. Just like her make-up, it isn’t moving.
“I’m sorry about the letter arriving so soon after you moved in. But rules are rules, you know.”
Amelia’s catches the woman’s exaggerated grimace. “Letter? I’m lost. Why would I receive a letter when I paid my dues?”
“Oh, no. You haven’t read it yet.” Carla gasps, her hot pink nails matching her lipstick as she covers her mouth with her hands.
“Nope, I haven’t received it yet. What’s in this letter? It sounds ominous.” Amelia’s sarcastic humor falls flat on the stoic-faced Carla.
“There are rules.”
“Right. You’ve repeated that. Three times, I believe. Possibly four.” Shoving her sunglasses on top of her head, Amelia refuses to break eye contact with Carla, whose expression remains serious. “Rules like what, exactly?”
Carla shifts, then whispers, “Your gnome.”
“My what?” Is “gnome” some sort of code word for one of her children? Amelia’s head snaps immediately to her kids. Jacob laughs while Chloe chats with him, probably reciting one of her famous knock-knock jokes. The kids are safe, so her attention returns to Carla. “Did you say my ‘gnome’?”
“Your garden gnome. The one in your front yard.” Carla counters.
Amelia laughs. She can’t help it. Carla’s mock horror that this new resident finds her comment amusing quickly fades into impatience, her eyes emanating frustration and disapproval, the lines around them deepening.
Clearing her throat allows Amelia time to keep her expression neutral, her tone calm, and her snark to a minimum. “Do you mean my tiny, hand painted garden gnome hidden within the bushes, flowers, and mulch that comprise a small portion of my front yard? You can barely see it.”
Carla scoffs. “I see everything. It’s my job to inspect the front yards. I drive by once or twice a week.”
Of course, she does. The fact that Carla sees everything is a bit alarming.
Sticking to the topic at hand, Amelia explains, “My children made me that gnome for Mother’s Day last year.” Before the divorce. Before their move. It was displayed prominently in the front yard of their old home. That gnome represents her children’s only request when moving to Houston: that she’d place it in their new front yard. It helps them feel at home.
“You must remove it, I’m afraid. Rules are rules, and some people’s trash is others’ treasure, so to speak.” Carla grins, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she just insulted Amelia and her beloved gnome.
“Trash?” Carla. Did. Not. Just. Say. That.
Carla nods. “Not that I find your troll trashy, of course. Playing Devil’s advocate, the truth is that you may like it but, your neighbors may find it tacky. Besides, the ban is in the bylaws.”
So, this woman has called her kids’ gnome trash, tacky, and a troll. For any mom, especially Amelia, those are fighting words. “Who bans garden gnomes that you can barely see in their bylaws?”
“Your HOA. If you don’t like it, I invite you to attend your next quarterly Homeowners’ Association meeting. You just missed the last one, but I’ll send out an email blast to all residents, signs will be posted at the entrances to the neighborhood, and an announcement will go up on the community website approximately ten days in advance of the next meeting.” Applause drowns out Carla, and Amelia turns to see the Easter Bunny waving at the kids.
“Time for pictures! Have a good day.” And just like that, Carla dismisses Amelia, sauntering away to schmooze with other residents.
Amelia blinks. What the heck? Gnomes are off limits, but bunnies are okay? She scans her surroundings which, like most front yards in her subdivision, are decorated with colored ribbons, bunny cut outs, and enlarged egg décor. Yeah, bunnies on full display are fine, yet one tiny, beautiful gnome—the gnome that her kids made for her—must go? This gnome makes their new house a home.
The Easter Bunny high fives Jacob and Chloe, and Amelia makes a beeline to them, just as her daughter begins hiding behind her brother. Apparently, Chloe hasn’t gotten over her fear of fake bunnies after all. This one is cute, though, sporting a purple suit jacket, a yellow vest, and a rainbow-colored bow tie. Though this event is held weeks before Easter, beads of perspiration trickle down Amelia’s spine, causing her to pity the poor soul who drew the short straw and must wear a furry costume in this heat and sticky humidity. Hopefully, his or her costume has a fan.
“Hi, Bunny!” She smiles and high fives the faux fur paw of whoever is in the costume.
Nodding and swaying to the beat of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off, which is blasting through the pool speakers, this rabbit is in character. Amelia needs to shake Carla off since her blood pressure is still high from the woman’s lack of tact and accompanying ban notice. Over a gnome? Really? So, Amelia takes Taylor’s advice, singing and dancing with her children in line. The Easter Bunny must be a Swiftie, too, because the person in the costume dances over to the chairs, before taking a seat.
When it’s their turn for picture time, Amelia hands her cell to a man standing next to Carla, who will take the picture for them. Carla … ugh. The sight of her after that catty “tacky” comment makes Amelia’s heartbeat pound like an anvil.
Normally, Amelia would have let Carla’s comments about the letter go. Who knows? She might have even removed her gnome. But Carla insulted Jacob and Chloe’s art, even after Amelia explained the importance of it.
One simple, passive aggressive comment is all it takes for her to decide that she can’t let it go. Instead, Amelia may drive the kids to Target, Walmart, or both after they spend time at the playground and buy out their entire garden gnome department. If she’s lucky, maybe they’ll be on sale, and she’ll display an extended gnome family on her front lawn. If the HOA wants to send her a letter, she might as well earn it.
As they approach the Bunny for their picture, Chloe hides behind Amelia’s skirt while Jacob charms the Bunny immediately with a knock-knock joke. No matter which way Amelia turns, her daughter won’t come out from hiding. Amelia half expects Chloe to hide under her skirt any minute. Every time Amelia moves, so does Chloe, taking her mom’s dress with her. “Sit on my lap, Chloe. Let’s take the picture together.”
With Jacob on one side, and Amelia and Chloe on the other, they pose with the Bunny.
When the man holding her cell prompts them to smile, Amelia instructs her kiddos to smile, adding, “Say ‘garden gnome!’”
It’s official. The Bunny must think I’ve completely lost my mind.
On the bright side, the kids smiled, laughed, and took a great picture. Add to that the fact that Amelia’s got a plan.
The HOA better look out because this mom protects her gnomes at all costs.
Thanks to a broken fan in Kyle Sander’s costume, he’s about to suffer heat stroke by rodent impersonation. It’s not exactly the way he expected to go, but hey, if you’re going to sweat to death why not do so wearing a goofy Easter Bunny costume? Go big or go home, right? Sure, it’ll be humiliating, especially when it hits the local news. And it would traumatize a lot of children.
Oh, man! The kids…
In an effort to hide his demise from the neighborhood children, Kyle darts into the cleaning closet of the Castle Rock community’s pool house, desperate to cool off. Struggling with the top of the costume, a muffled curse word escapes his lips, as one of his pawed feet lands beside a bucket, and a mop slams against his bunny forehead. It’s Kyle against a cottontail costume, in a cage match, or in this case a closet match. His opponent—a bulky, furry rabbit costume—is a modern-day torture device that’s currently winning.
Why did I ever volunteer for this?
Taking a step to the side, his oversized furry foot lands in the empty bucket. Still, Kyle manages to use his floppy tail to leverage himself against a wall. “The things I do for this community. Come on!”
Managing to free his face from the bunny head, Kyle tosses the thing onto a small table taking up too much space. He then rips the Velcro at his back and frees both arms, sliding the costume down to his waist. Drenched with sweat, he grabs his sports drink and takes several desperate gulps from the large bottle.
Though his foot may remain stuck, at least he won’t die of dehydration. Kyle mutters under his breath while placing the recycled bottle on the table before attempting to yank his enlarged rabbit’s foot from the yellow bucket. It still won’t budge. Kyle once considered a rabbit’s foot to be good luck, but in this cleaning closet of horrors, it’s anything but.
Blood curdling, high pitched screams cause him to jump, as his eyes dart to the closet door, which is now open. Standing in the doorway is the cute mom wearing the casual dress who has covered her daughter’s eyes, gaping at Kyle as her son yells, “The Easter Bunny isn’t real! He isn’t real!”
“I’m sorry!” It’s all Kyle can manage. Repeating it louder, over the screams, doesn’t do much.
I’ve traumatized this woman’s children! I’ve destroyed their innocence. It’s all he can think as his neighbor—Kyle doesn’t know her name because they’ve never met—leads her kids into the closet and slams the door shut, in an attempt not to traumatize anyone else’s children, he supposes.
“Jacob, Chloe, it’s okay,” she says in a soothing voice, caressing her kids’ shoulders. “This is the Easter Bunny’s helper. Think about it. EB can’t be everywhere at once, right?”
She wipes her little girl’s tears, as her son surveys Kyle with a skeptical expression. “You’re the Bunny’s helper?”
Sure, why not? Right now, Kyle would agree to anything that will calm the kids. “Yes, I am.” He glances to their mom who nods at him, as if encouraging Kyle to elaborate. “Your mom is right. The Bunny is busy painting eggs, making baskets, buying candy—”
“He buys candy? From where?” This little boy asks a lot of questions.
Kyle shrugs. “A candy store.”
“What does he pay you?” the kid asks him.
“Not enough.” It’s the first thing that comes to mind. In truth, Kyle doesn’t make a dime for this. He’s a volunteer, donating his time so the community can save money as opposed to hiring a professional hare. He’s also the Community’s Santa. Multitasking is his thing. Along with running his own business, he is the acting HOA board president, also on a volunteer basis, which means residents yell at him about the cost of their annual dues (in spite of the fact that the cost of dues hasn’t risen once in Kyle’s four years as President), letters they receive from the Management Company prohibiting decorations in their front yards and criticizing the height of their lawns, and all other concerns. Meanwhile, he sweats in a rodent costume on an eighty-plus degree day for kids who don’t belong to him. It’s a thankless task. One he was reelected for, because no one was willing to run against him. There’s only one poor sap in Castle Rock willing to torture himself, and he is currently being interrogated by a kid.
The boy scratches his head. “I want to drive a Ford F-250 when I grow up, have a Mercedes transit van, and a Tesla. My mom says I need to make a lot of money to pay for all of it.”
Talk about a change of subject. “That’s ambitious. You’ll figure it out, though. You’ve got time.” Kyle winks at him, hoping he’s appeased the little boy’s curiosity.
All he wanted was to cool off in a cleaning closet. Now Kyle is giving advice on a kid’s future career path and vehicle ownership. This is way too much. Especially as it’s cramped with the four of them in the tiny space, and the walls seem to be closing in. Or it could be Kyle’s claustrophobia. Fun times.
“What’s your name?” The boy asks Kyle, jerking him from his concerns regarding the confined quarters and heavy costume still covering the lower half of his body.
“My name?” That’s an easy one. “Kyle Sanders. What’s yours?”
“I’m Jacob Marsh and this is my mom, Amelia Marsh. My sister Chloe Marsh is there,” he points at the little girl, whose red cheeks are tear-streaked.
She nods. “Yeah, I’m Chloe Marsh and this is my mom and brother.”
“Got it.” Chloe, Jacob, and Amelia. Amelia Marsh. A brunette with a killer smile, Amelia is luminescent, wearing minimal makeup and exuding a natural glow. Her dress is sleeveless and floor length, but when the breeze blows in the right direction, sandals that lace around her ankles attract Kyle’s attention. She’s left him breathless, or maybe it’s the lack of oxygen in the cramped closet.
“Mom, I’ve still gotta pee.” Jacob doesn’t hold anything back.
Amelia steps forward. “We were looking for the restrooms. I’m sorry—um…”
“Kyle.” He reminds her. “The men’s room is one door down; the ladies’ room is two doors down that way.” Pointing to his left, Kyle stands stock still. With his annoying costume foot still stuck in the bucket, he isn’t going anywhere.
“Right. Let’s go, you two.” Amelia opens the door a crack and ushers her kids out, before adding, “I’ll be right back.”
As she closes the door behind her, Kyle is left to stand in silence for what feels like forever. Just when he begins to think she’s abandoned him, Amelia returns wearing a sweet, yet slightly sarcastic grin. “Sorry, I had to make sure the bathrooms were single stalls, and that my children were safe behind locked doors. You look like you could use some help.”
“Nope. Just chilling.” Kyle places his hands casually on his hips, ignoring the fact that the rough interior fabric of his costume is causing him to itch. “This is how the Bunny’s helper rolls.”
Shaking her head, she laughs. “You’re not rolling. You’re trapped from the looks of it. Here I thought rabbit’s feet were good luck.”
Kyle shifts his weight to his free foot. “I know! That’s what I’ve been told.”
“They lied to us. Unless…” Amelia smirks, tilting her head to the side. “The truth is that messing with a rabbit’s foot is bad luck. I don’t need any more of that. Perhaps I should pass?”
“No, please!” Kyle’s plea is urgent. “It’s not bad luck if the rabbit’s foot is stuck in a snare, and still attached to the rabbit. Besides, I didn’t break a mirror.”
“Duly noted,” Amelia bends down, shoving a stray lock of hair from her face as she studies the bucket. “I was kidding, you know. I wouldn’t leave you here, stuck like this.”
“Good to know,” Kyle exhales, watching her lips upturn into a wry grin. “You’ve got a sense of humor.”
“So I’ve been told.” Amelia reaches for the bucket and struggles to free Kyle’s foot. “I’ve almost got it.” She gives it another hard yank and Kyle’s foot is free, though Amelia lands with a hard thump beside him.
Kyle offers his hand, and helps her to her feet. Face to face, their eyes lock and he notices the gold flecks in her deep brown eyes. They’re mesmerizing. He inhales, overcome by her intoxicating scent … a floral perfume with hints of musk. Those traits alone would make her attractive but, add the fact that Amelia just saved him from the ultimate humiliation … being forced to ask Carla for help…
Chills travel up his spine. He would never have lived that down.
“Thanks for coming to my rescue. Freeing me from a pail and convincing two traumatized children that I’m the Easter Bunny’s helper takes skill.”
She averts her gaze from Kyle’s. “I did what anyone would have. Except a lot less gracefully.”
“You’re speaking to the guy who got his foot stuck in a mop bucket.” Kyle raises his brow.
“I’m not one to judge.” Her eyes shine with amusement and something more. Is she flirting with me? Before Kyle can fully ponder that thought, Amelia turns towards the closed door.
“In spite of your humility, I do owe you a debt of thanks.” He offers her his hand, and she shakes it. Her skin is soft.
“Anything for the Easter Bunny’s helper.” She extracts her hand from his then opens the door. “You okay?”
“I feel great.” It’s true. Kyle can’t stop smiling. “Thanks again for the save.”
“You’re welcome. Now, I’ve got to find my children before they do something not approved by Mom. Bye, Kyle.” Amelia darts out the door, and Kyle peers around it in time to see her peek over her shoulder—long enough for him to note that her cheeks are bright pink as she studies his chest.
She just checked him out. One could argue that he’s her man candy, and he wouldn’t mind one bit, which is a first. Truth be told, Kyle checked her out, too—her ring finger, that is. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring. Normally, Kyle would ask her out in a heartbeat. There’s one problem, though—he doesn’t date women who have children.
That one rule of his has never been so inconvenient, but it’s a rule Kyle never breaks. At least not since its inception. Then again, he never thought he’d be wearing a bunny costume. Funny how life throws you a curveball.
A child cries outside the door and the jarring sound jolts Kyle back to his senses. Don’t go there. Some rules aren’t meant to be broken. For Kyle, this is a nonstarter, and for good reason.
August 2, 2022 Pub
Trade Paperback / $15.99
With Neighbors Like This