High Anxiety: Mystery Short Story

Sep 9, 2017 | 2017 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by John M. Floyd

This story was first published in the Winter 2007 issue of Mouth Full of Bullets.

Joe McClellan led a simple life. He had a wife, two kids, a mortgage, a respectable job, and very few complications. No excitement, no mystery, no oddities. At least until now.

Joe wondered, on his drive home from the airport, what could have happened in their quiet little neighborhood. His wife had left him a disturbing voicemail message before her commute to work this morning; last night in the wee hours she’d seen two police cars and an ambulance in the street in front of the Hickams’s house, next door.ambulance

The only thing in front of it now was Bill Hickam, raking the leaves in his yard. Joe parked the car, plopped his luggage down on his driveway, and strolled over.

“Everything okay, Bill? Peggy said you had some excitement last night.”

Bill Hickam stopped raking. He was a big man, blond and red-faced. Thanks to a recent downsizing he was unemployed, but his wife Mary—some kind of computer guru, Joe had heard—apparently kept their heads above water. “The police cars, you mean?”

“And she mentioned an ambulance,” Joe said.

“Long story.” Bill pointed his rake at the ground. “It’s these dern leaves, caused it all.”leaves

Joe blinked. “The leaves?”

“Let me ask you something, McClellan. How do you keep leaves out of your rain gutters? You climb up there and clean ’em out yourself?”

“When they need it. Why?”

“Well, it’s a little harder, for me.” Bill nodded toward his roof. “The front’s not that bad, but the back of the house—well, because of my basement, and the way our land slopes off, the edge of my back roof’s a good three stories off the ground. I go up there and slip off, I’d kill myself.”

Joe looked back and forth between Bill and the house, picturing his neighbor doing a nosedive onto the back patio. “Bill, what’s this got to do with-—”toasting brown house

“So what I decided was, I need to rig up a rope and harness of some kind, like mountain climbers use. All I’d have to do then is secure the rope to something solid here in front of the house, tie myself real good to the other end, and climb up onto the garage and over the peak of the roof. Then, if I slipped somewhere on the other side, the rope’d keep me from falling off. You with me so far?”

“No,” Joe said.

“So that’s what I did, yesterday. I backed Mary’s car up close to the house, set the parking brake, tied one end of the rope to her back bumper, tied the other end real tight around my waist, and I was all set. I used the car to get up onto the garage roof, climbed over the top of the house to the back, and scooped the leaves out of my gutters there, safe and sound.” Bill leaned on his rake and smiled. “How about that?”

Joe just stared at him. “What the hell are you talking about, Bill? I asked you about the ambulance.”

“That’s why I’m telling you this.”

Suddenly Joe understood. His eyes widened. “You mean you fell off the house?”

“No, no, I didn’t fall off. Just think for a second. Considering what I just told you, about the situation with the rope and the gutters, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“While you’re up on the roof, you mean?”


“I don’t know…” Joe pondered a moment. “The rope breaks?”


“It comes untied?”


“What, then?”

“You give up?”

“Yes, I give up.”

“Mary drives off in her car,” Bill said.


Bill nodded, obviously delighted with his neighbor’s reaction. “Let’s say you’re up there roped to her bumper, dumb and happy on the far side of the roof, and let’s say Mary comes out and gets in her car, which is aimed out toward the road. She doesn’t see the rope, starts the car, releases the brake, and drives off. What happens is,” he pointed to the house, “you get dragged up and over the peak, down this side of the roof, over the edge and SPLAT onto the driveway, and then she hauls you down the street a ways while you scream like a stuck hog.”

“Good God, Bill,” Joe said, in a hushed voice. “That actually happened to you?”

“Not to me. To the burglar.”

Joe stood there a moment, his mouth hanging open. “The burglar?”

“I figure he must’ve seen me yesterday, on the roof. Then last night we went to bed early, and since all the lights were off and my sister had come over after supper to borrow my truck, the guy must’ve thought nobody was home. There’s a little balcony, you know, off that top-floor window in the back, and I guess he thought he could use my rope idea to get back there and break in. It was still hooked up and everything. What happened, though, is Mary had to go in to work at three a.m. to install some software—that’s why we went to bed so early—and when she did, her car pulled his sorry ass right up off that balcony and up over the rooftop and down this side onto the driveway. I heard all the commotion, ran out the front door, tripped over my bicycle on the porch, and almost broke my neck.”rope

Stunned, Joe asked, “What happened to the burglar?”

“He’ll probably be okay, the ambulance crew said. Mary dragged him all the way to the corner, though, before she realized what happened.”

Dragged him?”

“To the corner.”

“Unbelievable,” Joe murmured. “How bad were the injuries, do you think?”

Bill looked thoughtful. “Not too bad, really.” He stretched, held up one arm, winced a little. “Right shoulder, mostly. My own fault, leaving that bike in my way, on the porch.”

As Joe watched his neighbor resume the raking, as he turned and walked back to his own house and his suitcase sitting in the driveway, he realized he had been wrong, on the way home a while ago. There were a few oddities in his life, after all.

One lived right next door…

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John M. Floyd’s short fiction has appeared in The Strand Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Mississippi Noir, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner, an Edgar finalist, and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His sixth book, Dreamland, was released in 2016.


  1. Loved it, John. A funny story, but it could actually happen.

  2. Cute story. Love the rambling unfolding of the unforeseen events. Thanks!

  3. Terrific story! Great last line, too.

  4. Oh, that’s funny! Loved it! (And you know there are people just stupid enough to have tried what the burglar did!)


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