Later that evening was the first time that I met my next-door neighbor, Annie Kahlo. My first thought was that she must be some kind of a ghost. I don’t know why that idea jumped out at me. Maybe it was because of the way she moved, hardly seeming to touch the ground. In hindsight, it must have taken a lot of courage to cross the grass that separated my front steps from hers.
I had one hand on my front door knob, ready to go out to nowhere in particular. It was the kind of warm twilight that makes a person want to be outside. I was restless, and wanted crowds and noise, neon lights and the smells of good food. I was patting my pockets and thinking, as I pulled the door shut, that I had left my cigarettes inside.
She was in her forties, maybe, and slender. Her light hair was long, and her arms were tanned, copper-colored against her pale green sleeveless dress. She was graceful, and again I had the impression that she was floating as she walked toward me. She paused before she crossed onto my yard, as though she had to get over a barrier. At the bottom of my steps she looked up.
The remarkable stillness of her face is what marked her most. She gazed at me, and I wondered if she had been drinking. It wasn’t booze, though. It was something else. We stood and looked at each other for a long moment before she spoke.
“I have a birthday cake,” she said.
Her voice was light, a little breathy. She sounded like one of those film stars from a dozen or so years ago, when the talkies were brand new and the voices from the silver screen all seemed to be poured straight from expensive decanters.
“I can’t eat it by myself, and I wondered…”
She trailed off, looking miserable. I gave her what help I could.
“That's neighborly,” I smiled. “Throw in a cup of coffee and you've got a deal.”
A dark-colored sedan passed behind her, cruising slowly. A little further up the street its brake lights came on, and the driver tapped the horn. She looked over her shoulder, visibly startled; if she had been carrying the cake, she would have dropped it.
“I'm sorry. I should have come over and introduced myself before,” I said. “I'm Nathaniel Crowe. Nate will do fine.”
She tore her attention from the car and nodded.
“A birthday cake,” she said. “It’s on my kitchen table. I made it today.”
I was intrigued.
“Happy birthday, then,” I said.
The dark car blipped the horn again. Its tail lights were very bright in the gathering dusk. I supposed that it was picking someone up, but nothing stirred from the houses across the street. Annie was watching it, too. Her face was expressionless, but she twisted a bracelet on her left wrist, and I could sense her apprehension.
She turned back to me.
“It isn’t my birthday,” she said. “Today isn’t my birthday at all.”
“But you baked a cake?”
She stood and watched me, turning her bracelet around and around. Her eyes were velvet, liquid and impossibly dark. They moved across my face, reading me like a story.
“Yes,” she said. “It's my sister's birthday.”
“Wouldn't you rather eat it with her, then?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “She's dead. That's no reason to waste the cake, though.”