Ambushed by M.E. McAndrews
My feet ache from a long night of bartending, and I stuff my car keys into the abyss of my purse as I walk up the twisting driveway from the garage toward the front door.
The booming voice coming from behind the house blends with rock and roll music in the air, sending a shiver down my spine. Here we go again. The summer twilight is a world on fire, burnt orange and hazy. The heavy humid air presses down on me like a thousand bricks crushing my chest. Not a single leaf rustles, the wind itself stifled by the heat. Evenings like this used to be quiet, but not anymore.
I take in a deep breath of the heavy air and scan the surrounding yard. This was supposed to become our dream, my childhood home and inheritance. We had so many plans for this place. Together, we were going to renovate it and start a family, filling the yard with laughing children and making it our own private sanctuary. The house is old, but it sits on a hundred fifteen acres near the peak of Springer Mountain. We would have painted over the drab beige walls in pastel colors, adding our own personal touches and turning it into something special, full of life, joy, and hope. We discussed and planned so many nights into the wee hours until the sun came up.
Instead, the wealthy jerkhole across the street bought up all the land on Springer Mountain and built a gaudy subdivision of gigantic mansions around us, starting with his own twenty-five thousand square foot, five-story behemoth. What was pristine wilderness all around our hundred acres at the top of the mountain is now a circus of spoiled rich kids on their fancy bicycles, and their more-spoiled parents racing their Lamborghinis up and down our mountain road.
Those dreams are now lost forever.
Our dull, two-story cottage at 559 Springer Mountain Road looms in front of me, mocking me. Taunting me with the promise of another argument with my husband. His raised shouts echo in anger, competing with the baritone voice of another.
Damn you, Austin Blackwater.
Friday nights are supposed to be our night, reserved for pasta and binging on shitty reality TV. Not this bullshit. I let out a heavy sigh as the dread builds inside me. I know what’s next and I don’t have the energy to deal with it.
The rose garden next to the sagging front porch is no longer home to rose bushes. It’s now a weed garden, taken over long ago by several other uninvited plants. It’s been overgrown and neglected for so long that I don’t even notice it as I walk past and climb the stairs up to the porch. The old pine boards creak in protest as I step up to the door beneath the single anemic lightbulb flickering above.
I hold my breath as I open the door and step inside to the drab but familiar space inside. The furniture is torn, stained, and mismatched, an ‘eclectic’ collection gathered over the years from garage sales and second-hand stores. But despite its shabbiness, it’s the last bit of my family that I have, and all I can afford.
The voices become louder, their shouts and slams carrying through the back windows. The shouting is so loud that it drowns out the creaking of my steps across the floor and the buzz of the refrigerator that groans from too many years of hard work. The sound of the argument even covers up the muffled roar of traffic from the distant Highway Seventy that passes through the valley at the base of the mountain below. I'm sure the surrounding neighbors are enjoying this live weekend entertainment. Who cares? Maybe they’ll move out and go back to where they came from.
I make out a few words through the shouts—property lines, taxes, screw you, you piece of shit.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’ve already dealt with enough creeps at the bar tonight, and unfortunately, this one I cannot ask the bouncers to toss out. I pass through the dingy beige living room with its cracked and splintered wood floor and threadbare couch. It's clear we can't afford to update anything. This is what our fresh start looks like in my childhood home. Pathetic.
I pause for a moment to check myself out in the mirror as I shuffle past the bathroom. The hair bundled on top of my head like raccoon roadkill, and the dark circles under my eyes resembling the black paint they use to make football quarterbacks look sexy for the television cameras. Not so sexy on me, though.
I reek of stale beer and vodka. A drunken idiot at the bar hit on me by pouring his beer down the front of my blouse. Smooth move, asshole. I’d have had one hell of a time explaining myself if I’d gotten pulled over on my way home. And now, if I need to call the cops here tonight, it will not be any better than if I’d gotten arrested smelling like a brewery in my car. No cop would ever believe me, the booze-smelling wife of the poor husband, over the word of the billionaire from next door.
My husband, Seth’s laptop sits open on the kitchen table. He must have gotten interrupted by something while he was trying to write. Writing consumes him, and he can’t stand being interrupted.
I take a deep breath and slide the door off of the living room open, stepping out onto the small rickety deck that overlooks the backyard.
The open area of the yard is the largest in the neighborhood, but it’s a complete mess. The lawn has become overgrown, and the garden beds are all overrun with weeds. The large swimming pool that I played in with my friends when I was growing up is now nothing more than an empty cement basin, with algae growing in the stagnant puddle at the bottom and mold covering its sides.
In the back corner of the yard, on the far side of the pool near the cul-de-sac, Seth stands with his arms crossed, tense and sweating, while the rich asshole from across the street appears cool and composed. The whole situation fills me with unease as I realize that my home, my sanctuary, is now being threatened by this wealthy, arrogant bastard.
“You're a real piece of work, Austin,” Seth sneers, standing tall in the middle of his side yard, where his property meets mine at the end of the cul-de-sac. Austin’s gaze flickers to mine from across the yard as he notices me standing inside the sliding glass door at the back.
Even from a distance, I feel the weight of his stare, as if his gaze is a laser drill boring into my soul. He’s a tall and imposing figure dressed in an impeccably tailored suit that hugs his broad shoulders and trim waist. His hair is dark and styled, with a touch of gray at the temples and a hint of sideburns that accentuate his firm square jawline. He is clean-shaven, with piercing blue eyes that bore directly into me every time they meet mine, his determination etched clearly into his face.
I’m sure there are a thousand women who would find this tall, dull rock attractive, but all I see is a snake in an overpriced suit. He disgusts me.
Austin leans casually against the fence, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. “I'm just a businessman, Seth. And that property of yours is worth a lot of money. It's a smart investment, whether you like it or not.”
“Smart investment? You're just a greedy, entitled rich prick. You don't give a damn about anyone else.”
Austin's smirk turns into a full-blown grin.
“And you're just a delusional, struggling writer. You’ll never make it in this world with that attitude.”
“I'll make it just fine without the likes of you. And you can take that property and shove it up your entitled ass.” Seth's face twists red with anger.
I'm standing there in the doorway, watching these two men shout at each other like a couple of cranky old codgers. I've had enough of this whole damn situation. I push my way through the sliding glass door, my feet pounding against the worn deck as I rush to defuse the escalating argument.
“Seth, stop it!” I shout, my voice barely audible over the loud music blasting from Austin's backyard. Some obnoxious rock ‘n' roll.
Seth, red-faced and wild-eyed, turns toward me, spittle flying from his lips as he rages, the veins in his neck bulging, threatening to burst.
“This fucking guy, Liv. He won't leave us alone. He's a bully and a fucking criminal!”
I understand Seth’s frustration. He and our new neighbor, Austin Blackwater, who Seth refers to as “Loud Man”, have been arguing ever since the first day Blackwater moved in. Before Blackwater’s development company built the new road-Springer Trace-behind our house, the only sounds were the mating calls of wild turkeys and hooting owls. Our once quiet and private mountaintop property is now surrounded by dozens of new gargantuan super mansions built and owned by the ultra rich. And the worst of them decided to build his almost directly next to us.
My father used to brag to his friends how he could ‘mow my lawn naked, it’s so isolated up here.’ Not anymore. We’re now surrounded by the dozens of oppressive eyes of wealthy and judgmental neighbors peering down at our tiny house, sipping their aperitifs, laughing at us.
At the moment, though, Blackwater specifically is the problem. All imposing in his tailored suit, he steps forward, crossing the boundary into our yard.
“You’re delusional, buddy. I’m just a businessman trying to make a deal. But you… you’re just a washed-up hack. You can’t even write a book, let alone stand up for your wife,” he shouts at my husband.
My gut churns as Seth thrusts himself at Austin, fists swinging wildly. Austin lunges back at him, falling onto our property in the process. I try to intervene, to stop him before this escalates into an episode of Jerry Springer. We can't afford a lawsuit. Not against this guy. But Seth only grows more agitated, pushing me aside as he and Austin clash in a fury of fists and grunts.
“Get the fuck off my property,” Seth bellows, his voice raw with fury.
Austin, his expression cold and calculating, pushes Seth back with ease. This has always been a game to him.
“Gladly,” he says, straightening his suit jacket. My hand latches onto my husband’s wrist, keeping him beside me.
My gaze finds Austin's. His blue eyes glint coldly, his expression a carefully schooled mask that reveals nothing of what he might be feeling beneath the surface. His jaw clenches, his lips a thin line of disapproval, but I don't dare look away.
“Austin,” I say, my voice firm, “I want you to leave. Just leave us alone.”
His eyes fill with amusement. Bastard.
“You think I'm just going to walk away from this? You think I'm going to let some broke writer and his struggling wife stand in the way of my plans?”
“You don't get to decide what we do with our lives. You don't get to bully us and threaten us and try to force us out of our home with your money.” My voice grows louder as my anger escalates.
Seth tugs half-heartedly, still trying to go toe to toe with this billionaire. But I can see the fear in his eyes, the fear that we're going to lose everything.
“You won’t win this,” I tell Austin, my voice steady and firm. “You will not take our home, and you will not break us.”
He laughs, but his arrogance fades when he notices the defiance in my eyes. He's unaccustomed to anyone questioning him—especially someone like me.
My chest tightens as the ghost of several words form on his lips.
What the hell is he going to do? He stops himself, eyeing me up and down like a hungry wolf stalking a piece of meat.
“We'll see about that,” he says, his voice low.
After staring at me silently for an eternally long thirty seconds, he turns away, and I can breathe again. I glance over at Seth, and he's staring at me like he's seeing me for the first time.
“Let's go inside,” I whisper.
I glance back to see Austin standing at the end of the cul-de-sac near the edge of our yard with that cold, hard stare. I know this isn't over. He won’t leave us alone until he gets what he wants. And we are in for a long, hard fight.