Horrors of Valentines Past

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” I said to the creepy neighbor across the street.

Ian Olson / 2.14.23

Nine years ago today, in an effort to drive home the importance of knowing and serving our neighbors, my wife helped our son Owen, aged two at the time, make some valentines to deliver around our neighborhood. My part in the project was to accompany him to each of the homes on our block. I particularly wanted him to extend some kindness to our neighbor across the street, a lady who struck most of us as a little … well, eccentric. She would come by our house sometimes to inform us what other neighbors were saying about her and what to watch out for.

“How do you know what they’re saying about you?” I asked once. She looked up toward some power lines, quickly cupped her ear, and whispered in her hoarse, South American accent, “I hear them.” Sometimes she would seem to teleport into our backyard while my wife was watching the kids play to impart folk wisdom or distribute consecrated bits of the Host and yeah, that was kind of weird. I never feared her doing any harm, but yes, we sometimes picked up creepy vibes from her.

Well, nevertheless — we’re Christians! Let’s not let her odd mannerisms and behavior deter us from neighborliness and kindness. So Owen and I got to work, and as dusk was beginning to set in we crossed the street to her house. Now, I had made it that far several times before as I would sometimes drop off prescriptions for her in her mailbox by her front door, but I had never actually peered inside. She was reclusive, so I thought little of how I had no idea what the interior was like. No big deal.

But this time was different.

I knocked on her door and heard it unlock suspiciously swiftly. There she was, in her diminutive, frazzled hair glory. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I said. “Owen just wanted to bring you this card he made.”

“Oh! How wonderful!” she said, clutching her heart. “Come in! Come in!”

Well … okay. Why not?

I led Owen inside her home and immediately had to turn right as the front hallway coursed that direction towards the living room. I noticed there was a large afghan or something hanging from the entrance to the living room over the doorway. It looked as thick as the curtain in the Temple. She led us through it, and when she parted it I saw that there was inky darkness enveloping the room we were entering. Only a votive cast a pinpoint of lit relief amidst the black. “Well, crap,” I thought, bracing myself for things to get weird.

I held onto Owen’s left shoulder as I negotiated my way through the entrance ahead of him, thinking that if a trap was being sprung I better go first and bring the pain. When we had both made it in, she let the curtain fall back into place. For a breathless moment, all was pure darkness. But when she flipped on the light switch, it didn’t get any better.

Half a foot to my right stood a mannequin angled to face the opposite wall. I somehow managed to suppress the grunt of fright spontaneously arising in me, then repeated the process when I looked over to find two mannequins sitting on the couch, a foot to its side, one facing its partner, the other facing the first mannequin, all of them gesticulating as if carrying on a conversation. A fourth one stood kitty corner from me, facing me with an arm extended as if it were leaning back and taking in all that was being said.

But then it got worse. Scanning the room for other insane things I should never have to see I noticed three very alive people standing silently in the kitchen area on our left. They said nothing, just kept staring at me and Owen. It occurred to me, They were just standing in the dark this whole time before we came? (I could tell when her living room lights were on, and they absolutely had not been before Owen and I arrived.) “These are my friends,” our neighbor said, as if there was anything remotely normal about what was transpiring.

Um. What do I do here…? “Hi,” I said, trying to stifle my steadily growing panic. “Hi,” one of them mumbled back.

“Well! We wanted to give you this,” I said, attempting to speed this up and get the heck out of there. She opened the card and was delighted. “What a sweet boy!” she exclaimed. “Let me give you something as well!”


She left us with the family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and made her way to … the catacombs? The dungeon? I don’t know. I nervously made a foray into small talk, but no one reciprocated. I clutched Owen’s little shoulders a little tighter and formulated my plan. When our neighbor returned and made her attack, I’d go all Rick Grimes and break her neck, throw her towards the other three creeps, grab Owen, and get out of Dodge. I rehearsed it in my mind, confident they were going to try to eat us.

She returned from wherever it was in her lair, with a pull-along wiener dog toy. From France.

From France? Yep, it sure was. The unopened packaging was in French and had a date on it from ten years prior. This did little to reassure me nothing insidious was afoot as this seemed to fit a child-eating witch’s M.O.

Owen, of course, was delighted. I hadn’t counted on having to disentangle his heart strings from the uncanniness of what was transpiring, so I had to shut this down, stat. “Well! We should get going — we’re going out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Nice to meet you all and thanks for inviting us in! Have a good night!” I’m sure I said it all in a focused, steady stream but inside it felt like my words were breathlessly tumbling out of my mouth, betraying how uncool I was with everything.

I pivoted hard right with Owen ahead of me and inelegantly made it out of the house and back across the street, never looking back. Once inside I locked all the doors and closed the curtains, occasionally peeking out to check if any interlopers were making their way out of her house to invade ours.

Nothing happened, though. I remained vigilant throughout the night to make dang sure nothing did, and felt some relief when the sun rose the following morning and we were all alive, undevoured. We were in the clear.

“Maybe that was a bad idea?” some people ask when I recount this story. But I see no way I could’ve reasonably predicted such a nightmarish turn of events. Not only that, I don’t think that what transpired falsified the impulse that sent me and Owen over there in the first place. Love only ever involves risk. I don’t think many people risked loving this lady, and as spooky as it was undergoing this ordeal I think the love of God penetrated the darkness of that living took all the same.

But this incident also illuminated a tension insofar as that commitment to loving the Other jostles uncomfortably with my love for my son. Because you’d better believe that if push comes to shove some galoots are gonna get shoved. I was, and hope I still am, prepared to love those others overlook, but there’s a threshold at which my love for kids wins out. And that line, I gotta say, is trying to eat them. And I’ll be cold in the ground before you lay a finger on my kids.

It didn’t come to that, obviously. We walked away with a memorable experience and a toy Owen loved. We risked and the good guys won. And then a thought crossed my wife’s mind. “Do you think the toy’s cursed?” she asked.


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2 responses to “Horrors of Valentines Past”

  1. Kristin Olson says:

    I miss her. She would always ring our doorbell way too many times in rapid succession. One time I answered the door, and she gasped and did the sign of the cross over my pregnant belly and announced, “it’s a boy!” She was right, and I didn’t even know it yet.

  2. […] Yeah. I have a bit of a problem with mannequins […]

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