May 9, 2011

Nomads

When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it took whole neighborhoods with it. Empty houses, some abandoned by their owners, lined streets from Florida to California. Although the economic toll is, in some ways, invisible, the disintegration of communities is not. As the homes fell apart, opportunistic invaders such as weeds, rats, and other unwholesome things moved in.

Jim has lived in the same home outside of Phoenix, Arizona his whole life. After his parents emigrated from Korea in the 1940s, they bought the house that Jim now calls home.

In 2008 Jim’s neighborhood seemed to dry up and blow away under the hot Arizona sun. “It started out with the Sanchez house on the corner,” Jim tells me. “Then the Stephens and their neighbors on both sides moved out.”


In just a few months over half of the homes on Jim’s block stood empty. For-sale signs lined the street, but no one was looking to buy. ‘“Then the foreclosures really hit hard,” Jim recalls.

As the banks swallowed up the rest of Jim’s neighborhood, he wondered whether he wanted to stay. “This house was paid up,” Jim tells me, “and I didn’t think I could live anywhere else.”

Day after day, Jim watched his neighbors leave and his street change with new inhabitants: weeds choked the once-manicured lawns, mice scurried from cracked foundations, and swimming pools grew cities of algae. “It seemed like there were all these animals – all this life – just waiting to move in,” Jim remembers.

The empty neighborhood took on a new rhythm – a non-human rhythm – as bugs chirped throughout the day and rats scurried by night. One night, however, Jim heard a sound he hadn’t heard in a long time: a car idling outside.

Through the window blinds, Jim could see a van coasting slowly up the street. It stopped a few times in front of various houses, until coming to a stop. “It was in front of the Bennett’s house, or the house they used to live in,” Jim recalls.

The van sat dead at the curb. Then the door slid open and Jim watched as a quartet of strange figures tentatively approached the empty house. It appeared to be a family with two children. That wasn’t what struck Jim as strange, however; it was the clothing that they wore. “It was in the 80s at night,” Jim remembers, “and they were bundled up head to toe with hats and gloves and boots.”

The group slipped inside the house and the door silently shut. Jim watched for another ten minutes, but no lights ever came on inside the house.

“I was pretty sure they were squatters,” Jim tells me, “but I didn’t want to call the cops on a family down on their luck.”

Quiet returned for the next few days, and Jim almost forgot his new neighbors. Nothing seemed to indicate that anyone had taken up residence in the home; the forlorn house stood undisturbed.

One night as Jim was preparing for sleep, he heard something strange outside. It sounded like something heavy was being dragged down the street. From his window, Jim could only make out the silhouette of long-darkened houses.

The sound grew louder and Jim realized that it was getting closer. A few houses down the block, Jim could make out a small figure. It moved laboriously down the sidewalk and Jim could see why: behind it, it dragged a large, bulging garbage bag.

Step by step the figure came closer to Jim’s house before disappearing inside the old Bennett house, the same house that Jim had seen the squatters at. Jim thought the small figure looked just like one of the squatter family children, still swaddled in heavy cap and coat.

“It was a weird thing, but what really got me,” Jim tells me, “was when I saw what I swear was a dog’s paw sticking out of that bag.”

In the morning Jim looked out his window and stared for a long time at the long red streak on the sidewalk that retraced the figure’s path from the night before.

After that, Jim kept his guard up, even around his own home. “I was starting to get paranoid all the time,” Jim recalls. He never saw his new neighbors during the day, not even a sign that anyone beside him lived on the street.

At night, however, Jim heard strange sounds and sometimes saw furtive figures in the shadows. One night he watched a human-like figure quickly scale the side of a house with nothing but bare hands. “It moved like some animal – a lizard or a rat,” Jim remembers, “not like a person at all.”

The late nights were hard on Jim, but he still wasn’t sure what was happening to his block. He decided to dig up his old camcorder and set it to record all night, pointed out his window at the mysterious squatters’ house.

A good night’s rest failed to prepare Jim for what he saw on the videotape in the morning. After fast forwarding a few quiet hours, Jim noticed something weird. “It was across the street beside a house,” Jim recalls. “It was like a shadow in a shadow.”

What Jim saw was a human-shaped figure, a shadow that had slowly crept into position; indeed, even by rewinding and fast forwarding, Jim couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when the shadow appeared.

After ten minutes without moving, the figure broke into a furious sprint. It crossed the street – nearly leaping the entire span – and shot out of camera range, behind Jim’s house.

The figure’s strange animal-like movements gave Jim the chills, but not as much as when he got a closer look. For, outside the camera’s frame, the figure had mounted the porch and was creeping toward the window.

Suddenly Jim saw a dark blur appear on the screen. The camera struggled to focus and Jim could make out a sweatshirt zipper. The figure was too close to the camera to know for sure, but Jim was sure it was one of the people who had moved in down the block.

The figure stepped back and in the feeble  porch light’s glow, Jim could see he wore a dark sweatshirt and heavy pants, but his features were obscured by the sweatshirt’s hood. The figure suddenly froze as if it were hearing something.

It reached out toward the window where the camera sat and a strange hand touched the glass. “The skin was strange,” Jim remembers. “It was like a lizard’s, like it was scaly, and the nails were long.”

Jim gasped at the scene he was watching. “It wasn’t like he needed a manicure,” Jim tells me, “Damn it if he didn’t have claws!”

The figure quietly scratched at Jim’s window and then leaned over for a close-up. While the lack of lighting and the hood made it hard to discern his features, Jim got a good enough look. “It wasn’t a man at all,” Jim remembers, “It was some kind of creature, a thing.”

From under the sweatshirt hood, a set of bestial red eyes reflected the porch light, peering into the darkness where Jim’s camera silently watched. Jim could see the glistening scales that covered the face and, as the mouth opened, a row of small, sharp pointed teeth.

The last thing recorded, just before the tape ran out, was a long, foul tongue – forked at its tip – that rudely tasted the window glass.

Jim immediately called the police and told them his problem. “Of course, I didn’t tell them everything,” Jim recalls. “Just that there were these squatters.” When they arrived, the police didn’t find a van or a search of the home turned up nothing.

“But after they checked it all out,” Jim remembers, “they said there were a bunch of very big holes dug in the backyard.”

It seems that as that Jim’s neighbors moved out, something besides rats and mold moved in. Across the country, there may be more monstrous families on the move, never staying in one place for very long, always looking for their next meal. Are creatures like the ones Jim describes drawn to society’s in-between places, the gaps created when things start to fall apart? Or are they here to replace us?

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