5 years ago
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
The yellow glow of the motel sign shown like a lighthouse on the shore.
"I don't know about this, Gail," he said through pursed lips and squinting eyes in order to affect as much discernment as possible.
"This is going to take forever," she said.
"There is a motel right over there. Why don't we get a room for the night and give them time to clear the roads a little."
She gave the yellow sign a perfunctory glance, flipped through her magazine a couple more cursory pages, and then lay her thin, pale hands across the glossy paper.
"No one else is getting off the highway," she said. "They are going to try it."
"They're probably going to get stuck. Besides, if its already moving this slow, traffic will probably come to a standstill before too long. Let's get over there now before we have to walk there."
"Come on, Alfred, its already taken us three days to get this far. At this rate we're never going to get there."
"Oh, we'll get there, Gail," he said and patted her gold and diamond-wrapped wrist.
"Don't patronize me, Alfred. If you want to chicken out and get off the road, then fine, but don't act like you are doing it for our own good. Just admit your scared. Hell, you're afraid of everything."
He began wheeling the car into the tracks laid out before him to make the next exit.
"I really do think its the best thing."
"I'm sure you do."
"You'll see tomorrow when we are passing abandoned vehicles all the way over the mountain."
"Whatever you say, dear."
"The radio said the storm would end tonight. They'll have the roads cleared by the time we are ready to travel in the morning."
She said nothing else until they pulled into the parking lot of the motel when she said, "Please, try to get a decent room," with very sarcastic emphasis on the 'try.'
Inside the office, there was already a pile of stomped-off snow tot he side of the door, and Alfred contributed a little more. Behind the desk, in oiled hair and oiled skin and a light blue oxford shirt two sizes too big, the clerk barely smiled.
Alfred filled the void with his own salesman of the year smile and pulled open the snaps of his brand-new parka and said in his Franklin City Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year Acceptance Speech voice, "Its a good one out there, huh?"
The clerk pulled back one corner of his smile just a bit and looked down at his computer screen and asked, "Do you have a reservation?"
"I don't," Alfred said, "but I do need a room for the wife and I. Don't think we're going to get any further in this mess."
That line he had been practicing ever since the Rockies were but a shadowy sliver on the horizon and the first flakes began to skitter across his windshield.
"Unfortunately," the clerk said, "we are all full tonight."
"Nothing at all? I mean, its just the missus and I. We just need one bed."
"I'm sorry, sir."
It happened that as the clerk drew back his lips and rolled them in against his teeth to offer an apologetic yet not wholly committed frown, that the outer door of the office swung open and Gail's voice huffed, "Alfred, I don't care what room you get as long as it has a bath and hot water. I need a soak," and then there was the slide and clunk of her suitcase's plastic wheels being drug across the threshold.
Alfred squeezed his eyes shut and lamented silently to himself.
The clerk looked back down to his computer screen.
"Surely you have something."
"I'm afraid not. The weather really brings them in, you know. And we have a convention."
A young lady, rosy-cheeked with strawberry blonde curls spilling over the shoulders of her black blazer, walked in from a side door with a thin sheaf of paper in her hands that she spread out across a table in the corner that read, WELCOME SHRINERS.
"Hello," she said in the most spirited, brightest of professional greetings. "How are you today? Welcome to the Piedmont Inn."
"Really need a room," Alfred said as he was joined by his wife.
"Wonderful," the lady said. "I'm sure Malcolm can help you with whatever you need."
"Unfortunately," Malcolm repeated, "we are all full tonight."
"What?" Gail hissed. "Great!"
"Oh, thats too bad," the young woman said. She didn't quite stick out her bottom lip. "Nothing?" she asked Malcolm.
The boy looked back to his computer screen and tapped a few buttons and scooted the mouse around and scrunched up one corner of his mouth and shook his head and said, "Afraid not." He emphasized the fact with lifted shoulders and lifted hands.
The lid was lifted on Gail's deep well of ire.
"Gaddamnit, Alfred. What are we going to do? We're never going to get back on the highway. Its already getting dark. We going to sleep in the car?"
Alfred didn't address his wife with eyes or words. He heard the clunk of her suitcase smacking the tile. He heard her breathe.
"We really don't care what kind of room it is," he said. "It doesn't even have to be clean. I'll clean it. A closet."
"Oh, stop it, Alfred," Gail said and pushed past him.
"Look," she said to Malcolm, "I know how it works. I know you have something."
The young lady joined them at the counter and tried to interject, but Gail only ignored her.
"We have cash and are right here ready to spend it."
"The rooms are all taken, ma'am. I couldn't-"
"Do you expect us to go out there-"
"Gail, please, there is no need-"
She threw up her hand and Alfred dutifully closed his mouth.
"You had your chance," she said, then returning her attention back to the clerk, "Do you expect us to go out there and sleep in our car? To freeze to death?"
"Gail, if they don't have a room, they-"
"Alfred! I have already pulled my suitcase out of the car. I walked all the way up here through the snow. A blizzard. We are getting (and then turning her attention first slowly across the still-beaming face of the young lady and settling deadly on Malcolm's eyes) a room!"
"I'm sorry," Alfred said. "Anything, really."
"One second," the young lady said.
She stepped back from the desk and went through the door through which she had appeared and then reappeared around the other side of the desk. She fiddled with the computer and then pulled Malcolm toward her and they turned from the couple and began whispering.
Gail gave her husband a very triumphant look, but he was watching the two in front of him. Watching as the young woman slid her slightly plump, red-tipped fingers lightly over Malcolm's hand and how he let then intertwine with his and how they squeezed together. And then he thought of his wife's pale, boney claws and the slight yellow tinge of her unpainted nails.
The two turned back to face Gail and Alfred. They both smiled, and then Malcolm walked away and the young lady said, "Here is what I can do."
"I thought so," Gail said.
"We have one room."
Her voice had lost its bubble and settled into business.
"We had an older woman who checked in three days ago. She paid for an entire week. Thing is, she dropped off her key yesterday morning and said she would be back to get it, but she hasn't shown back up. I will give you the key and you can stay in the room tonight, but only tonight, and you must leave early."
"You sure you won't get into trouble?" Alfred asked.
"As long as you vacate the room early, and you don't tell anyone."
"For a cheap rate, I assume," Gail said.
"It will cost you $200."
"Its fine," Alfred said, and plopped down his credit card.
Just then, Malcolm returned with a stack of sheets and dropped them on the counter.
"You'll want to change the bed."
The room was at the back end and at the far side of the motel and it took Alfred two trips through the now foot and a half of snow to retrieve all the luggage. Each time he took a pull from his flask at the car.
He nearly tripped over the small hill of snow that had gathered against the door.
"Please try not to break anything, Alfred. I wouldn't want to have to pay that bitch any more money."
He took a long slug before entering the room.
What bit of positivity Alfred had planned on holding onto to get through the night received a deathblow once he entered the room. The musty smell of the damp air clamped at his chest. He kept his head down and moved into the bedroom, his eyes tracking a dark arching stain running from the bathroom. It was a small room with a high ceiling. There was a single, uncovered bulb screwed into it. The only window was a small portal too far up the wall to see anything out of it. Beside the bed and a corner desk with a bulbless lamp, the only other furniture in the room was a tall sort of chifforobe that took up most of the wall opposite the bed. Alfred tried the knob to store the luggage in it, but it was locked and he could see no mechanism to unlock it.
And there was something else in the room. He thought maybe it was the lighting, or maybe the residual effects of his wife's little tirade back in the office. They always left him feeling a bit drained and frazzled. Of course it had to be the poor shape of the room, but something else had settled over him. A kind of darkness or a sadness that was like a real weight baring down in his legs, piled up on him as if it were trying to push him into the ground. There were plenty of reasons he may be feeling that way. There was the move. That was definitely to be considered The separation from home and business was a serious thing. There was also the stress of driving through a blizzard. There was the fact that they had been clearly, unequivocally ripped off by the motel. But still, there was something more he couldn't quite put his hand on, beside the emotion of it. Something that had hit him fast, but was deep in him as if it had been there all the time. The muscle, the tissue, the blood, it all felt weighted by it and coursing through him and he fought just to turn his thoughts from it.
"Good thing we got off the road," Gail said in THAT voice. "We may have really had to suffer."
"We'll be fine, dear. Its better than being stuck out in the snow."
"Ugh," she moaned. "Just being in this room, I feel depressed. Is it the lighting?"
"Its not the most optimal of settings, I agree, but surely we can make the most of it."
He sat next to his wife on the bed and ran his hand across her back. It was no mystery to him why he adored her so much. Even after all the years they had spent together, and even for all her quirks, her incessant moods, he still thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. One touch, and the tantrum from only a few moments before was forgot.
"I'm usually not seasonally affected, Alfred, but its like the very gloom of the storm out there is sinking into my bones."
"Don't be gloomy," Alfred said, and kissed the bare length of her neck. He let his hand slide down her back and cup her waist and then kissed lightly the spot behind her ear where she liked to be kissed.
"Do you not feel it too?"
"I only feel you," he said. He brought his fingers up gently over her ribs because that always tickled her and he wanted to hear her laugh.
She pushed his hand away.
"I really feel lousy."
But lousy wasn't the right word. It didn't touch on the feeling well enough. Indeed she felt as if the dimness of the outside, the murky haze of the cold and the snow, had penetrated her somehow. As if the storm itself had an emotion, and like a drop of venom in the blood, its cold peril coursed slowly through her. Gail Richtoff was a confident woman. A resolute woman. Sadness was not an emotion she suffered to be a part of her countenance. Life had taught her at least that strength. Her emotions were hers. Subjects of her will. She prided herself on the fact that she was not one of those wishy-washy little girls thrown about by her whims and her hormones She did not wallow in self-pity precisely because she did not let herself fall victim to the faults of others. Others, that is, besides her husband. He was, as the present situation showed, an oaf and supremely spineless. But he was loving and dedicated and a smart business man and not one of those gregarious, fraternal machismos who sat around the office all day soaking up the mysogeny of his partners. Fools who feel they must dominate their wives. She knew, because she had met them all. Gail Evangeline Carter Richtoff was not to be dominated. Not by a man and certainly not by these emotions impinging on her serenity and comfort.
"I'm going to take my bath, Alfred," she said as he only slightly cowered form her rejection. "I'm sure I'll feel fine after."
He tipped her chin toward him and smiled and kissed her and said, "I'm sure you will," and let his hand fall away purposefully so that it glanced across her breast.
She smiled because it was what she was supposed to do and hated that it was so.
The bathroom was lit the same as the bedroom. A single bulb. This one was screwed into a socket above a mirrorless medicine cabinet, and, because of the cracked and peeling paint, cast a spiderweb of shadows across the walls. They were yellowed only slightly more than the tiled floor. Where there was grout at all, it had grown black with mold and dirt. Through each inch-wide square ran a blackened crack in some form or other.
Typical, she thought. Shiny and new on the outside. Absolutely disgusting on the inside.
She pulled a towel from the rack and laid it across the floor by the tub and sat on its edge and started the water.
It disheartened Gail that she had to turn down Alfred's advances. She had watched her mother, every but as forthright as Gail had turned out to be, turn cold toward her father and she did not want to be THAT kind of woman either. The cold fish that treated her sexuality as an economy. As if sex were gold. Her affections the capitol. Her body a bank account. She thought it was a foolish sort of control. A last resort for a weak mind. Besides, she had no reason to fend him off. He was actually very good in bed. Respectfully lecherous. Poetic and debased at the same time. But there was nothing in her that would have allowed her to be with him tonight. Her body itself rejected the affection. His touch was not the soft, tender effort it had always been, but a grading, clinical prodding that only promised further discomfort. Perhaps pain. It was this thing inside her. This unexplainable sadness. She knew it. But where usually will alone was enough to assuage the dimming of her light, the old way proved ineffective.
As steam began to rise from the running water, she pushed the plug into the drain, stood, and slid out of her clothes. She noticed the tone of her skin had changed. She was a pale girl, the Irish in her, and aged, but there was always a healthy, rosy calm to her skin. A warmth that kept the pallid flesh from being unsightly. It has to be this horrid light, she thought. Her skin was grey. As if her skin were a thin pellicle sheathing a pillar of ash beneath. And she felt as noxious as her skin looked. A general unhealthiness. A sloth run through her like a slow swallow of something warm.
As the years ran away from her, so did her beauty. And this is what she was left with. A pale, greying, beanpole of a body trapped in a decaying motel on the way, an exodus really, to California where everything and everyone is measured in length by beauty.
She lined her toiletries along the edge of the tub and lowered herself into the scalding water.
Ragged old woman.
She held the thought in her head and stared at the flaky white skin of her big toe as it traced along the edges of the porcelain soap dish attached to the wall.
For the most part, Alfred was glad his wife had gone off to the tub. This trip had really tested the limits of what he could take from her. He loved her dearly, of that there was no doubt, but she could be a supreme bitch and needed a break.
The room was warm enough, but he wanted it to be nice and toasty when Gail got out of the bath. That, and he wanted to strip down. He had been in his winter things all day and seriously needed for his body to breathe. Searching along the walls, he could not find a thermostat. He couldn't even find a heating unit.
$200, he thought to himself.
He had to admit, many of the things Gail complained about him were true. He indeed had a soft heart. He wouldn't go so far as to describe himself as spineless like she preferred, but he was indeed soft. It wasn't that he was simple. Simple men were not as successful as he had been in business, present situation not withstanding. But he definitely lacked the bloodthirsty ruthlessness many of his colleagues had. That his wife had. Still, he would not let himself be to blame for being forced out of $200 for this shabby, barely-adequate room. It was simple supply and demand. They needed the room, and the Piedmont Inn was the only motel in sight. Plus he was certain had Gail not been so rude and demanding they probably would not have charged them so much. He was sure it was an even greater thrill to take the money from the likes of her.
He stripped down to his undershirt and pants. The room was warm, but not that warm. He lay out a sweater and warm socks for later. He laid his shaving kit out on the desk. He pulled the flask from his coat pocket and took a draw and held up his hand and watched the shake in it lesson as the scotch enriched his blood. He took a deep breath & pushed out the lump in his throat. Two more pulls and the shake was gone altogether. One more and he stashed the flask in his shaving kit.
He tried to say to himself, I am a drunk. Wasn't that the first step? He tried to say it, but he could only say, You were a drunk. He tried to say it, but he got lost in the memory of his father tumbling into his bedroom at night. A wobbly, wide shadow in the hallway light, he would stand in the middle of the room mumbling some indiscernible, thick tongued dreck. Something like a story, something with a lesson to be learned, but in a long string of crescendoes like a pointed complaint. A complaint that would wear him out and he would have to take a seat on the rug in the middle of the room, and then finally lay down. Alfred tried to say, I am a drunk, but he could only think of how loud his father snored, passed out in the middle of the room, and the hours spent trying to wake the old man up so that he could get some sleep. He tried to say, I am a drunk, but all he could say is, I am just like you.
Down to his taste in scotch. Expensive scotch and cheap beer. First the smoke then douse the flames.
He tried to say it, but couldn't, and then he couldn't stop the thoughts. The embarrassment that occupied so much of his time with his father. The frustration of trying to wake him or trying to get him to the car. The thoughts of being called, "The Boy Hen," in front of all those men when his mother sent him to collect her husband before he drank up the rent.
"Ah," he would say when the young Alfred came through the door. "The boy hen has come pecking around again. Let's raise a toast to the boy hen, fellas," and all those thick, hairy arms up in the air. He would try to quietly, discreetly ask his father to come home with him. That his MOTHER wanted him to come home. Lord knows Alfred could care less if the old man came home or not. But his father, rosycheeked and grinning ear to ear and stinking, would put his face to the boy's as he tried to talk so quietly, and then erupt, to the laughter and applause of the crowd, GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE... and Alfred had to stand there and take it. To wait until the laughter died down. Until he tried to ask again. Please - GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE...
Invariably, the boy would just have to go wait in the car until the old man decided to leave, or got thrown out, and then there was the protracted ordeal of wrangling the beast into the car. He would gobble all the way home.
Alfred lay back on the stiff mattress (200) to stretch out his cramping back and try to rid himself of the sound of it. The gobble. But it could only be replaced by another memory. He wished he had never started. He wished he could learn to just drink. To enjoy at least that.
From where he lay, the light overhead beamed down into his face. He decided that when it was time to sleep, he would toss a shoe and shatter the bulb. At least Gail would get a kick out of that. He would love hear her laugh. It always got her in the mood.
He went back to the shaving kit and pulled out the flask and took another drunk for his sore bones and then another and then another purely for the drunk.
He wondered how much of the soreness wasn't just from being uptight. It was impossible for Alfredo Manzo Baptiste III to relax. A real stick in the mud, Gail liked to say. A stick in the mud until he had his drinks, her her pill, and then...
He wished she would get out of the tub.
One more swig and he stashed the flask again and put himself back across the bed. The light beaming down into his face, he realized that was where the heat was coming from. A warmth not unlike the warmth of the sun. He wished it was her that was warming him, though. Her thin body pressed against his. The delicate tremble of her heart no matter where he lay his hand. The feel of her breathing. Life filling her up. The taste of her tongue. Her fingers. Her flesh.
When he awoke, the light overhead was out. He shivered, as a chill had begun to settle into him, and he assumed that was what awoke him. What really woke him was that when, in his sleep, he reached out as he often did to feel the warm body that had slept beside him for 23 years, the body wasn't there, and he awoke in fright.
He stood and pulled on his sweater and said, "Lil' Bit?" (His name for her) "I'm freezing."
She did not answer.
He walked back to the bed to make sure she was covered up and that was when he realized she was not in the bed.
He sat on the edge of the mattress and wiped the sleep from his eyes an called out, "Lil?"
She did not answer.
The light in the bathroom was still on. A cold, pale light cutting a thin frame around the closed door. It gave the thin, musty Colorado air a faint, silvery cast. Made the room seem infinite.
"Lil, you alright in there."
Surely she's not still in the tub, he thought.
He walked to the door and pressed his cheek against the wood and knocked lightly and asked lightly, "Bit? You in there?"
She did not answer.
The door knob turned and the door gave and he let it fall open slowly. There was a smell coming from inside. Something like rust and sweat and the way a body smells in the morning that he did not like. It scared him.
The first thing he saw was the blood pooled under her dangling arm like a red, glinting shadow of it, and in the middle, the jagged hunk of porcelain that had been the soapdish attached to the wall at the foot of the tub.
Alfred could only whimper like all the breath had gone out of him. Whimper and move into the room and avoid the blood across the tile as if it were vital and could be put back into her.
The water in the tub was brown, an oily sheen formed along the surface in which swirled pockets of blood and soap and substances not immediately recognizable. The flesh had slipped and bunched into watery wrinkles. The red beneath her eye lids shown as if the flesh had been slit. Her lips were thin and blue and pulled into an off-kilter frown. A long strand of spittle streamed from the lowest corner and down her slack chin where it formed its own fluid pocket on the water's oleaginous skin.
Alfred wrapped her arm in one of the towels from the rack and gripped tight around her wrist and pulled her from the tub. His foot slipped in the blood and thumped against the base of the tub. He pulled her against him and whispered her name and wrapped his arm around her. Her cold, waxy skin seeped through the spaces between his fingers, the bulk of her body sliding toward the floor. He redoubled his hold on her, pulled the last towel form the rack and walked her into the bedroom, her heels sliding through the blood and doubling the tracks smeared into the carpet. He lay her on the bed and wrapped her other lacerated wrist with the towel and covered her with the blanket from the bed.
He whispered her name again and tried to open her eyes. The waterlogged lids, puffy and blue, bunched up around his fingers revealing red, could eyes. The depths of their green had gone. She wasn't breathing. Her heart was not beating.
Even with the bathroom door open, the light was scant. Still, he looked, but could not find a phone. He went to the front door and opened it and stood in amazement at what was before him. A wall of snow clear past the top of the jamb, thick enough that only a trickle of blue light came through the top.
He jumped at the wall, ready to dig through, but it was frozen solid. He pounded his fists into it. At the top, along the bottom, the entire thing a solid block of ice. Not a fleck gave way, though he pounded and pounded until the skin over his knuckles split and left across the face of the block small dapples of blood.
He pulled the desk from the wall and bashed it against the locked chifforobe until one of the legs came free.
"Hold on, Lil Bit," he said, and returned to the ice wall.
He batted at it, but it wouldn't give. He plunged the sharp, split end of it fruitlessly into the slick block of ice. Not a thing he could find in the room would produce the slightest blemish in the frozen barricade, but he exhausted himself int eh effort anyway.
He through himself back into the room and pounded the walls and begged the cement for help. He tried to climb up to the small window but could only get close enough to see that it too was covered in a sheet of ice and no further. Next he began to work at the locked door of the chifforobe, if for no other reason than it was the last thing left in the room to conquer. He bashed one side loose and tore it open and found it full of empty suitcases of varying sizes and colors. On the top shelf he found only a single sheet of brittle, yellowing paper with a string of faded, illegible words written across it. He dropped the paper and fell to the floor and sobbed until his throat felt like it was coated in broken glass.
Sent off into that frayed, grievous netherworld, Alfred again whispered her name. Gail, like a dare to the darkness, to death itself, to prove its finality.
It did not answer.
He wiped his eyes with the yellowed paper and fished his flask out of the shaving kit toppled onto the floor. He faced the wall. He was unable to face her corpse. He took two long pulls and coughed, almost choked, and wiped at his chin with the paper still in hand. That was when he noticed it. On the back of the page, along one side, a long list of type written letters. Some three, some four, and some five letters long, but they formed no words he recognized. What he noticed though, across one of the haphazard creases where he had crumpled it in his hands were the letters GECR. They were her initials. It could have been dismissed as nothing if, when he uncrumpled the paper, he hadn't seen just below those letters, the letters of his own name, AMR.
"What the fuck is going on."
He said it out loud.
The list of letters, of names, took up the entire length of the lefthand side of the paper, and their's were a little more than two thirds down. One right after the other. There was nothing to explain the paper. Nothing typed on it but the letters. And on the reverse side the fading script of three nonsense words. He tried to sound them out.
"Klaatu. Barada. Nikto."
The light above flickered and Alfred gasped. He spoke the three words again. "Klaatu. Barada. Nikto."
The light surged to life.
The blanket slid away from Gail, exposing her naked, bloodless body to the warm light streaming down. It grew in its brilliance and its heat. The very light itself seemed to swirl, streaming from the center where it was too bright to look anymore, down to the body where the dead flash began to blister and bubble.
"No," Alfred called out, and he threw himself over his wife's corpse, but the light burned him too. Burned him so severely that he had to withdraw. All he could do was watch as the skin boiled, liquified, and a evaporated. The viscera exposed, it too succumbed to the heat. The organs and the veins and the muscles overlapping, until she was reduced to only bones, and they too succumbed, falling to brittle ash and then was swept up in the swirling light so that it formed a columnar helix that disappeared into the ceiling.
Alfred was overcome. Insane. For only the truly mad, the madness of love and the loss of it, could afford a man to offer his body to the fire such as he did. He stood square in the middle of it as it swirled down from the emblazoned, incalculable ether. And in it, as it liquified his flesh, seared the long, fibrous roots of his nervous system, he made not a sound. His muscles remained unflinching until they were sent up into the pyre, and then he too disappeared into an ashen minaret, swirling gracefully to nothingness, absolute and eternal.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Part One: The Neighbors
I'm not sure anyone much liked her. No one really knew her, that's for sure. Even Mr. Harcourt, who has lived here as long as she has, will admit that he didn't know very much about her. I think that was a major factor in how people felt about her: not knowing her. All they got were the eccentricities. That was all they had to paint the picture of Agnes Schulz, and that is too bad. I hate to think of the loneliness she must have felt in her little apartment.
The only person that came to see her was the nice little girl from the meals on wheels the First Centenary does. Ms. Schulz had hired her to do her grocery shopping too, so she was her only visitor. Mr. Harcourt says she had a son that used to visit, but those visits stopped about fifteen years ago. Nobody knows why. I think they assume he died or got married or they had some kind of falling out.
I couldn't say exactly why I started bring her mail in. She hadn't asked me to. As far as I know, getting her mail was never an issue, but I know I never saw her get her mail. I remember thinking one day that she must come out at night to get it. Then I pictured her slipping and falling and hurting herself and it being too late at night for anyone to help her. But also, I kind of hoped she would peak out the door. You know, say thank you or something. But it never happened. For two years I slipped her mail through the little slot in her door, and I never heard a thing from her. I just had to settle for being yelled at for leaving the hall light on. I even took to saying, in a really obvious voice, "Mail time, Ms Schulz," but she never responded. Its a shame, really. I like old people. And I work at home, so I feel we could have been really good friends, had she just opened up to me.
Weird lady. Mean as a snake. All she did was yell at people. She'd yell about dumb shit too. Yell about the hall lights being on. I mean, its not like she has to pay for it. They aren't her lightbulbs or nothing. She used to catch me when I was leaving for work in the morning, saying, "What are you doing in there?" Hissing at me like a snake or something. She'd open the door enough for her mouth to stick out. It was pretty creepy. I'd say something like I'm just going to work, you know, or that I wasn't doing anything. She stopped me all the time. Two or three times a week. I didn't get mad at her or anything. I just thought it was weird. I tried to find out what it was the bothered her, but she would never talk to me. If I asked her a question, she'd just slam the door. I never could figure it out. Eventually I just didn't bother any more. The last few weeks, I didn't even say anything to her.
I would hear her come out at night, sometimes. I'd hear her door open and I'd hear the floor creaking. I know it was her because we were the only two people that lived on the first floor. All the other apartments the landlord keeps as storage. I try to catch a glimpse of her, but I never saw her. Except for once. I mean, I'd hear the door and the squeak of the floor and I'd be at the peephole looking out in just a second or two, but she was never out there. I didn't hear the door close again. She just wasn't there.
The one time I did see her, and it could hardly be called seeing her, I guess I just got lucky. It was the same as before. A door opening. I could her the floor creaking like she was walking around and I got up to see what I could see. I almost pissed my pants. It was her. She was heading into her apartment. I saw the back of her. She had on a white nightgown or housecoat. She's a short lady. Has one of those old person humpbacks, you know. Yeah, she's short and got long grey hair and she didn't have any shoes on. I only saw her for half a second. Like this white flash going into her apartment. It really did scare the shit out of me. It was like seeing Bigfoot or something. Other than that, it was just her purple old lips sticking out the space between her door telling me to turn out the light or what am I doing in the hall, or whatever. I never complained about her or nothing to Mr Naubach. She was just strange, you know. She never hurt nobody.
Whenever my sister and I get home from school, we always run from front door to the stairs and hurry to get up to our floor to get away from her. I just made up all the stories I told my sister about her because she gets scared pretty easy and I like messing with her. Then my sister started telling stories about her and I got scared too. Not really scared, but pretend because it was like a game to see who could get away from the monster. It was like a race to get to the grey carpet on the stairs and then up to the where the blue carpet started up top. The blue carpet was base.
My sister had to wait for me when we got home for me to get the mail since it was my job to bring the mail up. Hilda always got impatient because she had to wait for me to but the mail in my bookbag. She wouldn't even open up the inside door until I had it put away and we were ready to race. I was just pretend scared, but she was scared for real. When I was ready I put my hand on the knob and Hilda got right beside me. On the count of three, we went. On one, we both sent a kiss up to heaven and made sure our feet were ready to run. On two, I turned the doorknob. Thats when Hilda's eyes always got real big. Thats when she got real scared. I always watched for her eyes and I'd say "two" real scary and sometimes I'd turn the knob extra slow so it would creak. That always made her mad. We usually had to start over counting when I made the doorknob squeak. But then, on three, I pushed the door open and we both ran for it. We didn't scream or nothing because we got in trouble for making noise in the hall. Plus, the whole point was to get away from the witch, so you had to be sneaky. So we ran quiet, like walking really quick trying to not make our shoes squeak on the tile. I think us breathing was the loudest thing. And my heartbeat, but no one can hear my heartbeat but me. We stayed real quiet all the way down the hall, but when we got to the stairs, we knew our feet wouldn't squeak any more, so we ran for real, trying to see who could get to the blue carpet first. I pretty much won every time, but I'd let Hilda win some times.
She was a private woman, and I understand the desire to be a private woman. She should not be faulted for that. It is true of our society that if a woman keeps to herself, does not readily offer every aspect of herself up to public ridicule, then there is something wrong with her. There is something unladylike about her. More often than not, it is mental illness that keeps her unwilling to be the object of everyone else's lust for judgement and appraisal. Mental illness or guilt. Like she is hiding in shame. And isn't it telling that nine times out of ten that guilt has to be of a sexual nature.
It is a shame that a woman cannot make the choice to live a life of solitude and contemplation without being derided by the community around her without being labeled a kook. A witch? Were it a man, he'd simply be eccentric, or thoughtful. There would be intelligence assigned to his decision, an elegant sadness, as if each one of them are Ralph Waldo Fucking Emerson.
I've heard all the rumors floating around this building about Agnes Schulz and I've found none of them to be true. All anyone knows about her is that she spent all her time alone. Everything else is supposition. And the most generic sort of supposition at that. She was only a woman who enjoyed her solitude. That had learned to embrace, or at least come to terms with, that loneliness that comes bound in such decisions, and all her neighbors can say about her is that she was strange. That she was crazy. She was mean. She was scary. Anything and everything but a woman who deserves the respect to be the woman who makes her own decisions, no matter how odd or antithetical to the status quo.
All this fuss over some old lady. What did she ever do? She never did no wrong. She wasn't running up and down these stairs making all that racket like those fucking kids. If anybody around here is crazy its that bitch down the hall if she thinks I'm going to put up with that shit much longer.
I was the second tenant to move into this building after Joseph Naubach bought it in 1964. Agnes Schulz was the first. She had the place to herself for a whole week until I moved into 3C. Joe let us pick which apartment we wanted, those of us who were the first to move in. I couldn't say why Agnes picker 1A. I, myself, thought the top floor would be quieter. No one running around above you. And also, after many years of apartment living, I learned that heat rises. If you live upstairs in an apartment building, your heating bill is significantly lower. And I learned to like the view. I never had children of my own. I never wanted them. I learned early in life that children are sweetest from a distance. Somewhat like an impressionist painting. From my apartment window I watch the children play over in Jefferson Park. It brings a smile to my face to watch them lose themselves to abandon. How they interact and all the cutesy little things they do. Makes my heart glad, but that is about as much as I could ever enjoy of them.
My tastes never really lay within the bounds most people consider, shall we say, kosher. Its a simple idea, that you just aren't like other people, but it indeed took a long time for me to come to terms with that simple idea. I have a sneaking idea that Ms Schulz must have been the same way. Out of bounds, as far as most people are concerned. We all have to find our safe areas in our lives. Our own bounds. Perhaps that poor lady's wasn't as wide as the rest of us.
I believe she moved in when her husband died. The process seemed quick, like there wasn't much she wanted to bring with her, and shrouded in a certain melancholy that was never explained. I could feel it, though. It was a quiet sadness that felt like death to me. How it wears on people, seems to rise from them like a smoke. Like a dark cloud following. Either the storm will gather or it will blow over. I think for her, it just remained grim for too long. I assume these things of her. I have had very little contact with her. Contact that has consisted of me saying hello to her when I used to sporadically see her in the hall. Her reply was never much more than a sort of grunt in varying tones of repugnance.
The only visitors I knew her to have were her son, which is another reason I am assuming her husband died, and the girl who did her shopping for her and brought her meals from the church down the street on Sundays. Her son was nice enough, but I never felt so rude as to coerce him into revealing things about his mother. I said hello to him when I saw him. He didn't offer much more than that. He had a thing about him too. I introduced myself the first time I saw him and he said his name was Frederick Schulz and he had just helped his mother, Agnes Schulz, move in. After that day, there were only greetings. When I asked how his mother was doing, he always replied, "getting along," and nothing more. And then he stopped coming around. I assume he died.
I tried to check on Ms Schulz when I realized her son had stopped visiting, as I believe a few people in the building have, but I never got a response, which I believe is also the case for others. I caught Joe one day as he was moving in another load of his extravagant traveling souvenirs into one of the first floor apartments, some tall chifforobe or shelf of some kind, and I asked if he knew about the boy. He said he did not. When I asked him what he knew about Ms Schulz, he said, "I don't know a damn thing about her. She pays her rent every month, and on time, and I don't get complaints from or about her. Thats about all I care to know about any of my tenants. Its all I care to know."
Joseph Naubach has one concern in his life and it begins and ends at the tip of his nose.
Not too long after the boy stopped coming around, Lily Carson began bringing meals from the church. Its a thing they do each Sunday. Their version of feeding the poor, I suppose. No matter, they seemed to hit it off right away. It was a warm day and the Feldmans, young Julia Cross, and I were sunning out in front of the building the first time she came by. She pulled to the curb and fished out one of the covered trays from the back seat and, as she passed us, just as sweet as could be, asked where apartment 1A was located. I told her and the other three laughed.
"What's so funny," she asked, but I could only shake my head.
Delores wished her luck, but I took pity on her. I told her that she probably wouldn't even answer the door. You can imagine our surprise when the young girl came back without the tray and a smile on her face.
"She answered?" Delores asked, and I could tell by the look that overtook her pretty young face when she saw the incredulity that took over ours, that we must have looked like the crazed spectacles we had just tried to warn her about.
"Oh, yes," she said. "She is a very sweet lady."
"Bullshit," Delores said, which obviously offended the church in the girl.
Cedric patted her hand in mock-reprimand. They are such heathens.
"No," the girl said. "She was very gracious."
"Did you go inside her apartment?" Julia asked.
"Of course," she said. "She invited me in and I set out her meal."
Oh, that poor girl was bombarded with questions. Delores on my left and Julia on my right, firing off like pistols. What did the apartment look like? What did the old lady look like? What did she wear? What did she say? One right after the other. I was proud of Lily, though. She stood her ground. She flushed a little at first. I thought she might give in to this intimidation. I thought she might cry. But then she pulled herself out of it and said, "Ladies, I understand that you are vary curious about Ms Schulz, so I suggest you pay her a visit. Find these things out for yourself. I am not an informant. I am delivering a gift to her, not spying for those of you who wish to gossip. I am sure she would enjoy the company. Goodness! She is your neighbor!"
That shut them up.
"Good for you, young lady," I said.
The four of us watched her leave in utter surprise. From that day on, Lily visited Ms Schulz twice a week. Sundays with the church's meals and Wednesday with a load of groceries.
Part Two: A History of the Shadow
He used to come to her at night, in her bedroom. He used to slips through the space between the floor and the bottom of the door where the light from the hall came through. He came in and gathered up strength from his father-darkness that filled the room, filled the corners and the darkness across the ceiling. Gathered strength to open the door. He came from the light. Like smoke, he could always find his way in. He didn't speak. He didn't even have a face. His entire murky body was made of pain. He smelled like her daddy's clove cigarettes.
It looked just like a man, the form and the sound of it, but it had a power she would never see in another person. It could be right on top of her while still standing across the room. It slithered on the floor like a snake. It could be as heavy as a mountain, or it could weigh nothing at all.
It was a thing she was going to have to be saved from, and it made her the tiniest thing in the world.
Everyone had a name for it, but no one believed it existed.
No one, that is, but Bernadette Leroux. The fact that Bernadette believed young Agnes was one of the three secrets they had to keep. Another of the secrets was that Agnes loved Bernadette very much. The third secret was that Bernadette loved her back.
Once she was free of the house he haunted, Agnes did not see the shadow for many years. She and Bernadette lived in their secrecy far away from the town where they were born, and they did not care to return. They also did not care that they had such secrets to keep. No matter what others may have thought, they had each other, and that was all they wanted. Anything that could have possibly gotten in the way of that was of no interest to them. They did not intend to spend their time embattled They had friends, but the sort that did not care about their secrets. Not even enough to ask what those secrets might be. For 53 years, the two women lived a very happy life together. Not to say that everything that happened to them was happy of sorts, but their togetherness, and in such a life, the things outside of it did not effect very much the happiness inside it.
Say, for instance, the night somewhere in their 28th year together when he returned. As they left a diner together, making their may to their car, he came to them from beneath a tree where one shadow could not be told apart from another. He was still as maniacal as he had ever been. He was still made all over in pain. But this time, it was not just Agnes who had to suffer his wrath. And on that night, Freddy, her second love, began to grow in her belly.
She knew all too well the horror from which her son came. At first, she found it very hard to love the boy. Whenever she saw him, she saw his dark progenitor. She saw the scars that now marked her true love's face. The way that night changed the way she walked. It was only through the persistence and trust of Bernadette that she was able to see past the shadowy mark on her heart, to see the boy as totally hers, as theirs to love, and they had many short years to know it was true.
Many short years until the shadow returned and took Bernadette for good.
This time he came from above. Slowly, with an agonizing hiss, through the ceiling of the hospital. Over the course of three days, he oozed his way to her, despite everything she did to try and stop him. Once again, no one believed he existed, though they all, again, had a name for what he was. In utter horror, paralyzed terror, she watched as he entered her love, like a deep breath, through her mouth, and forced out of her the breath of life, never for it to return again.
The pain of it threatened to destroy her. She felt as if the shadow had been unable to complete his evil torment of her that he had begun all those years ago. The only way to truly destroy her was this, the very life of her love. It started a long battle that would yet claim her life, and the life of her son, and every day in between.
Part Three: The Last Letter
Life is not a horrible thing. It is the most just thing in the world. Completely equal. As horrible as it is wonderful with every derivation you could imagine. If I had my choice, I would not live a day of it. But since I never had a choice, as none of us ever had a choice, I am not surprised by the amount of regret and fear and love and shame and hatred and joy and peace I feel swirl around in my heart every minute of every day. I have lived long enough that the joys that have been in my life are reduced to memories and pictures on the shelf, but the savagery continues to lurk in shadows. The thoughts and feelings hidden behind the mundane apparatus of day to day life are all I have left of my loves. A necklace she once wore. A birthday card you once gave me. But the beasts that strive to undue me, they still breathe and they still whisper in the dark. They move slowly toward me salivating for that last laugh, that last bite of meat, the feast of death, and once my light is extinguished, to sit around the roasting fire sucking at the fatty marrow of my bones. No, life is not a horrible thing, but it wears a deadly, horrid flesh.
So what is this thing that wear no flesh? That has haunted me all my life? That now slowly makes its way to me, to my prison, watching me waste away here? It cannot be stricken. It has no flesh to cleave. It cannot be burned. What of it could be turned to ash? It is of the darkness itself, of that wayward end that rejects all and threatens the very bones that hold me up to the world. It waits, endlessly patient, cruel, stretching its death-hand across the languid yawn of day like the creeping footsteps of the hangman. Is it but fate? Surely fate is not such that it can only be set forth through utter cruelty. Surely that is not its essence. Is it only my fate? In all my inner examination, and its far-reaching digressions, I cannot make sense of that possibility either. But now, in these late years where I can see myself wither from day to day, I have decided that the substance of that particular darkness, and its reasons, are of no more importance. The time for that has passed.
Luckily, so far, he is continually swallowed up by his father-night. And there, while the world around me sleeps and slips into the dreamy ignorance, I can gain a moment of respite to write to you, and to dote on you, and to reassure you that all is not yet lost. How ironic that we both count our days in a prison, finding relief when we are locked away in the safety of night, and both, so far from each other, living in the fear of day.
I will take this opportunity to tell you that I love you. You are my son and I love you with every ounce of breath I can give forth. One thing that I have learned in this life is that you should take advantage of every opportunity to give love to those who deserve it, and to never waste it on those that don't. And you, no matter what any judge or jury may lead you to believe, deserve every ounce of love you can get, and every ounce of love I have to give. You and I are both well-versed in the insidious nature of the shadow of man. It is inside us, and it is without. It that means that we have only ourselves to offer unto each other the life-sustaining fruits of love, then so be it. I do not believe that is true. I can bare witness that even the most ragged, mangy dog has someone out there for them. I am living proof. There is someone out there for you too, if you decide that is what you want. But you will always have me to come to and lean on as long as my bones will hold me up.
Something I feel I should tell you, my son, is that you do not have to confess to me. It seems that telling me the things you have done brings you so much pain. You seem embarrassed by them. I'll say again, it is not necessary for me to know these things, but if I am wrong and it is something that alleviates your pain - if I am misreading your last few letters - feel free to tell me everything. I just want to say that I love you no matter what. That I forgive you for everything. Even the things that I may not know about.
No matter what your decision, please understand that I know a bit about what you are going through. Sometimes I feel the need to talk about my imprisonment here. I want to tell of the things that have gotten me here, where I came from, yet there is a silence in me, that seems to be a part of the darkness in both of us that we talk about so much. I find it nearly impossible to speak at all to most people but you. Even to Lily, who is so sweet and so willing. We do talk quite a bit, but about the darkness I can say not a thing. It is as if there is some kind of presence in my chest, some beast, that listens and waits and when I begin to let some of those secrets out, to be secrets no more, this creature reaches up and steals the words. Injects a fear I cannot overcome. And I evince that it is quite a feat, as you could surely attest, to not only defeating my natural will to foam at the mouth, but to also present a sort of fear which we have not seen before. That we cannot overcome. It is a fear as great as the shadow itself. Even in conversation, it remains an unbelievable secret.
The problem, I think, in talking about these horrors to those who have not experienced their like, or who are not open to hearing these sorts of things that are outside the prescribed events of their day to day habit, is that they are taken as lies right off the bat. In telling, we would have to break through that assumption of insanity, of lying, psychological abstraction: where it is assumed that what we are speaking about is merely some sort of coping mechanism for horrors we cannot face. It is virtually impossible for someone to hear our stories and take them on face value - to accept outright that we are speaking in actuality. So, rather than really trying to explain my experience in some way that another can hear it, I try to work on a sort of pity for others, which is hard, but essential, don't you think? It takes stepping back a bit and trying to see it from their side. With most people it would be impossible to believe that a shadow could claim Bernadette, and not a cancer. Who could believe that it came down right from the ceiling and settled on her and took the life from her? And who would believe what it had done to me? That night so long ago. Your origins. And not to speak of my life in that awful house as a little girl. Who, not already aware that such things exist, could believe us when we speak? And that is why, even now, surrounded by people, a few of which have offered to be my friend, offered me help, I can still only be silent. I can only watch him come for me.
He is getting closer and closer to me every day. I can only imagine the joy he is getting in taking so long.
I am almost certain it is the man down the hall that has brought him to me. I am not sure how he found me, but I am certain he is here. The man, who goes by the name Franklin, has a very ominous air about him, as if their is a cold air that follows him around. I can actually feel a temperature change in his presence. His dark skin, his beard, oily and bound in dark curls, he actually looks like the devil. Son, if you could see him, I know you would not be surprised by my thoughts.Where no one else believes, I know you do. He snarls at me when I see him outside my door. He flashes those impossibly white teeth, fangs ever, and grunts like an animal. Sometimes I think he is going to launch at me claws out and rip me apart. But he is only a minion. Only a vehicle for the true horror that comes for me.
As the days wain, he stretches across the floor. Inch by inch, that snake. His long, horrid hands always outstretched. I watch him throughout the day, and my only respite in the setting sun. Oh, my sweet sun, he makes a dash for it when the light changes, as it weakens, and that slippery, spectral serpent can feel himself fading into the darkness. But he is getting closer every day. The cold is setting in. He must thrive on that, because before too long he will be at my door and then inside it and who knows what he will do once he has me in private. That is when the real battle begins. I am not a child anymore. I can fight. And I am not to be surprised. This apartment is my embattlement, my castle. He will be facing a true foe, this time. It is not long now, my son. I suspect my next letter will be the tale of my triumph.
Your loving mother,
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
It didn't take long, in my convalescence, to find the café on the Rue Recherché. It was situated between two bars and across the street from the moviehouse where, once I could not intake any more of the madam's coffee or my damaged muscles began to sing, I would venture in one combination or other to exhaust what was left of the day. Peter Conway found me there, resting the week-old bulletwound off the edge of the same wooden seat I occupied each morning.
"The million-dollar wound," he said by way of greeting.
Peter was from New Jersey and I could see the East Orange in his swagger.
I didn't stand to greet him but I shook his hand when he offered it.
"How ya, private?"
"Bored. And sore."
He sat and laid his garrison cap on the table and scooted himself into the table with his usual clumsiness. He had a razorthin, lopsided grin cut across his face that I imagined some woman somewhere had once told him was very charming.
"They got booze in this place?"
He padded out his uniform and leaned back with one elbow on the back of the chair and said, "I could use a drink."
"No," I said, and, "they don't."
He forgot his grin, then recut it.
"Awe, your still sore with me, aintcha."
"I said I was sorry, Saff. Hell, I came to visitcha, didn I? Anybody else been around?"
It was true, he had been the only one, but I hadn't wanted visitors in the first place. He had conveniently forgotten that I had told him that the first time he had come to the hospital.
"Look, I'm sorry," he said. "I really am. Its not like I done it on purpose. I was scared. That shit was too much in that house. What the hell was it anyway? I mean, you saw it. You were scared too. We both hightailed it out of there."
The fear rekindling in him made his voice raise up and we, the two already-conspicuous Americans, became even more so. He noticed the eyes turning toward him and leaned in and whispered.
"I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm sorry."
"I know," I said, looking down at his folded body, my eyes sliding down the bulb of my pink nose.
"I never seen anything like that."
"I know. My neither."
"They eyes. And that fire. All those people up on the walls."
"I know," I said, getting frustrated with him. His voice raising again.
"The way it took out Selby and Wilson, I --"
"Conway," I said with a halting hand almost against his face. I looked around the café to accentuate my point. "I was there. I know what you are saying."
He straightened himself in his chair. He lost the grin. He de-wrinkled his uniform again.
"Why you got to be so pissed at me then."
"Because you sold me under the bus with that report of yours."
"What the hell was I supposed to say? I tell them all that, their gonna want an explanation. Their gonna think I am crazy. I get a court martial, I get booted out, they send me back home in a fucking straightjacket. What is that going home? What is my family gonna think then?"
"I would have corroborated your story."
"Hell, Saff, I didn't think you were gonna tell them all the... the..."
He reclined and replaced his elbow over the back of the chair. He sat silent, looking at me like there was a disappointment that was obvious and if he only waited a second, I would realize it too.
He motioned to the young boy servicing the tables and ordered a coffee for the both of us.
"You know as well as I do those knuckleheads at command would never have believed the truth no matter how it got told. Situation like that, you just cover your ass."
I could only look away because I didn't like that Peter Conway was right.
"Speaking of ass," he said through his regained smirk, "how you healin' up? You're up and around quick."
"They got me shacked up with some obnoxious Brit in a boardinghouse down the way. I don't stay there any more than I got to."
The boy brought us our coffee and said something in French we both just nodded to. He stood for a second and then walked away.
"You understand anything these frogs say?"
"Not really," I said. "Just enough, I reckon."
"So when you coming back to the unit?"
"I've got three more weeks, then a review."
He looked around for sugar and cream and then threw up his hands and took a sip of the pitchblack coffee, then said, "Jeez. Three weeks in this place. I'd go crazy."
"I'm not in any hurry to get a rifle back in my hands."
"Krauts ain't gonna last long anyway," he said. "Pappy says we already have boys in Belgium. Thinks we'll have France by winter."
And that is when I saw her for the first time. Second time. She wasn't dressed in the same brown smock she had been in sitting on the stairs when we got the the house that day. Now she was wearing a red sweater with thin black stripes. And her hair wasn't all knotted up, but I was certain it was her. Conway must have seen the look in my eye when I spotted her passing by the window, but I didn't tell him what I saw. He even denied her in his report. I pushed away from the table, a stab of pain shooting deep into the meat of my leg and back when I stood too fast, but I limped out to the road anyway.
"What is it?" he asked.
I ignored him.
In the crowd of people passing along the Rue Recherché, I watched the red sweater bob along. She was not in any hurry. She seemed to just wander, stopping along the way to peer through windows, and just as she went out of sight it seemed she had stopped a man in a suit and held out her hands for change.
For some reason, the war, the things I had seen there, did not effect me like it did many of the soldiers I fought with. A lot of boys never got right from it. I reckon I never did either, but it wasn't necessarily the war that had done it to me. It was her. It was the house on Hadditch Hill - what we saw inside it - which was a war all its own. A war of another kind. In Bastogne, while we were held in our foxhole, imprisoned by the winter and the German's relentless bombing, Father Carlson said to me that the war was not only one of bullets and bombs, but a war of the soul. The war did not effect me that way. I did not think of bullets and bombs being a counter to the morality of what we were doing. I saw it that we were all just trying to stay alive. But after that day in the house, after what we saw, I understood a war of the soul, and that was the war I fought the rest of my life. Its just as bloody and devastating as the bullets and as the bombs.
What we saw, there was no way to measure it. There was nothing you could see in your life to make sense of it. War was easy to make sense of. It was insanity, but a human insanity. It was land and lives and who controlled it. For me, I was just so impressed that I made it through it alive, I didn't see any reason to carry it with me afterwards. It held nothing for me once the bombs had stopped and I got rid of that damned rifle. But in that house, out in the middle of nowhere country France, it wasn't war. It was something altogether worse. A whole other universe entirely.
And then I saw her again. After Conway had visited, after we got our drunk, and after the sickness of it passed. Because she was sitting there on the the side of the street just like we had seen her sitting on the stairs in front of the house, I thought it was another one of the memories. It was common (for me) to see, as I wandered the streets of Rienne, the things I had seen in the house on Hadditch Hill. It wasn't like I was hallucinating. They were memories. Flashes like I was being shown a picture. Just a flash of memory as the thoughts tumbled recklessly through me tired, achy brain. When I saw her, she looked the same. Face streaked in the black ash of the fire, and splotched in blood, and the dark halos of her eyes that saw too much. But as I walked along, my slow, tired mind catching up to my eyes; I realized that it wasn't a flash of memory. I had really just seen her. She wasn't sitting on the stairs in front of the house, but on the curb in front of the bakery. She was wearing the red sweater with thin black lines and not the dingy brown smock crusty with drying, oily blood. The cuts on her cheeks were healed with not even scars left behind. I had traveled at least three blocks before I had let the truth of what I had seen be the truth that I could think, and I began to backtrack. By the time I got back to the bakery's storefront, the curb was empty and there was no red sweater with thin black stripes up or down the Rue Recherché.
What I would do when I found her had never crossed my mind. There was only to seek her out. Perhaps it was true, for I certainly relieved my doubt with the thought, that I needed her to prove what had happened to me that day in Hadditch Hill was true. She was the only other person left alive that could corroborate my story. The idea carried me along for the next week, that I was prying out from the world a truth I had been denied. The fact of the matter is that it would have done no good. I could march that girl in front of any member of command I wanted and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. One thing I had learned in my overwrought tenure in the army was that the truth is of no consequence. No matter what, they were going to put a rifle back in my hand and point me at a target. The bombs were still going to fall. Bastogne would still be a place I would find myself no matter who believed the events on Hadditch Hill. I still watched for her. In the milling crowd passing by the windows of the cafe, in the darklight of the movie theatre, in the dreamy, amber candlelight of the bar, I watched. If there was something I needed to say to her, to ask her, I still hadn't figured it out by the time I saw her again, about a week later, passing by in that same red sweater.
I jumped out of my chair, a bolt of pain driving deep into my back side, up my back and down my leg. I nearly collapsed right there in the cafe, but I adopted a long, stiff-legged, swinging limp that kept me upright and I galloped out into the street without paying for my coffee.
I almost overtook her. I was on autopilot, swinging my leg out long in front of me and coming over it like a polevaulter, lungeing myself down the street. I watched the red sweater bobbing back and forth trying desperately to keep it in sight. Once I was upon her, almost within arms reach of her, I realized I had no idea what I would do once I had her attention. My thoughts battered the questions I could have for her; my breath sucked them all up. All I could see was that house. How small and plain it was on top of the hill. I could see those red eyes and the fire all around it. The thick, sludgy smoke that conspired to bring us there. The thoughts stopped me mid-gait. I withdrew on instinct as if I had caught myself falling toward the fire itself. I stood in the middle of the street, the red sweater wandering away from me, my frightened breath and impotent mind singeing from the close call.
I let her get away. I was too frightened to follow her any longer. But it didn't take long to see her again. From then on, I saw her every day, and always the red sweater.
I didn't attempt to talk to her. I was sure to keep my distance. I only followed. I watched. For what reason, I am not really sure. There were many, but none that made sense. None that were not devoured in the memories of that house. I reckon I expected a good reason to appear as I followed her, as if something she did would validate my need. My sense of urgency.
She never seemed to go anywhere. I quickly decided she was living on the streets. She wandered, taking her time in leisured, slow steps like the mink-wrapped ladies who spent their afternoons window-shopping along the Rue Bénéfice. Occasionally she stopped one of the suited business men and held out her hand and they would drop in a couple of coins, which she used to buy what seemed like the only thing she ever ate. Soup and bread from the bakery. And always in her eyes, in the way she wandered in no direction, there seemed the look like she was being followed. I wondered if it was a sixth sense of my ogling figure winding purposefully in faux-nonchalance among the crowd. Or perhaps it was that razorsharp piece of the past that followed her just like it followed me.
And that was when the visions came. They always came eventually as my mind delved into the mystery of this girl. The eyes. The fire. The bodies on the wall. The blood and that smell. It pulled me into some realm that wasn't here and it wasn't there, but some non-location in between. A place as much deep as it was other. As much inward as out. It had a dizzying effect on me. The thoughts like a spell. As if that time and place had come back to somehow co-exist in my mind, to grow hands and pick me up and spin me around... and then she was gone. It happened every time. The intoxication of that past horror like the black instant of a good drunk, and then there I was left out in the street among the crowd and she was gone and I had to gather up my frayed sanity. I always had to ask myself, "What the hell are you doing?"
I made my way back around to the Rue Recherché, to the package store for a bottle of the British scotch I had fallen in love with since being trapped in Europe. I refilled my flask in the alleyway. Some days I would sit in the movie house and drink and watch His Girl Friday, which was the only movie it ever showed that wasn't propaganda. Some days I would mill through the bookstore run by a nice gentleman named Gabriel, who had set up an English section once the Allies made it out of Normandy. You would have thought we were Joan of Arc herself the way he lit up whenever one of us servicemen walked through the door.
But these were only steps. They were mindless actions while waiting for the sun to go down, for the scotch to put me to sleep, for the morning to come when I saw her again and I could regain my cautious pursuit.
This war. Visions of exploded and decimated bodies strewn across the battlefield. The heat and the roar of artillery. The sound of bullets flying by so close you could reach out for them. It had effectively destroyed my curiosity. It kept my head down when I wasn't on the lookout for the next thing trying to kill me. It kept me in the foxhole until there was no other choice. I did not search out an enemy. I did not rage into battle. I survived. But somehow this mystery, this horror on Hadditch Hill, this girl, it rekindled my since of curiosity, though it looked a bit more like obsession. Desperation. Indeed this curiosity was born of desperation, but my desperation to live was much stronger. So much so that the night I followed the girl out to the wall, and we were nearly alone in the dark, and I could have reached out to her and said anything, asked for anything, perhaps it was my will to live that held me back.
Perhaps it was the drinking. I had been doing plenty of that. I was in the cafe pouring coffee with scotch splashes down my throat trying to burn away the sludge of the night before when I saw her. I lunged from the cafe in a sweaty wobble as if hangover could be left behind. As if she were my ticket out of the repercussion.
The sun was twice as bright and explicitly hotter than usual. I had trouble keeping the sweat out of my eyes. The smell rolling off of me was very nearly suffocating and there was a trembling in the muscles of my body and a chill in them that threatened to let the whole thing fall slack. Everything inside of me wanted to come out. But I was used to the entropy of the mornings after, and I persevered. If anything, the affect of my hangover trampled doubt. Through it, there was only the following, the movement, and that red sweater in my eyes.
We made the usual circuitous route of the city, and though I had long before lost track of the exact time, the dim light of dusk took me by surprise. The number of people on the street thinned out to only a few retreating into homes and alleyways, and I had to be careful to keep distance between us. By the time she reached the wall, the outer marker of the town proper, we were alone with an old man carrying a bulky sack over his shoulder.
The wall was built of the crumbling remains of something much older. It was no more than a shoulder-high pile of rocks now, interrupted by a footworn path leading out into the country side that lay just beyond the crest of a small rise. I rested myself there. I was tired and my body ached, for I had taken from it much more than I had given. The girl continued on out into the open grassland beyond the wall. The old man walked behind her on the opposite side of the path and at a respectable distance.
There was no way I could have followed and not been conspicuous. She wandered just as slow and aimless as she had in town. Her feet barely rose from the ground, the tips of her ratty shoes pulling up fleeting clouds of dust from the path as if the gravity of the earth were a bit too much for her. Her hands flopped lazily at her sides. Her eyes kept to the ground, her head rolling up here and there as if she had heard a noise. I supposed she had nowhere to go. I pictured her wandering until she was too tired for another step and then finding some hayloft to bed down in.
Beyond the stone where I leaned was a wall of darkness, the night faintly aglow in moonlight, no more than a silvery mottle over the ground. Where the path rose up the slight hill, a field of black and stars with only the most necessary of ground to tread upon.
And then she disappeared.
It was as if she were a pillar of ash and a stiff wind had come upon her. She dispersed into the dark - not consumed or trampled, but accepted in her own will to discorporate. At first I thought it was only a trick of my eyes. My weariness or my drunkenness, but then there was the old man who had been walking behind her. He reached the same point where the girl had disappeared, and beyond it, and he could still be seen. He was vague in the scant moon, but there nonetheless. He crested the rise and dipped beyond it, his hulking bundle visible until the horizon eclipsed it.
The next day, as I followed her, I tried to remember what she looked like that day on the hill. All I could remember was brown as if she were covered in dirt. As if she had just risen from the ground. My mind kept trying to place that sweater on her in my memory, but I refused it. I remember the smoke and I remember Sergeant Jones demanding we investigate, though none of us wanted to. We circled the house to find an entrance and there she was, sitting on the stairs cloaked in that earthen drab. Comford tried to talk to her, but she wouldn't speak. She only wore that sadness, that heart given to loss that kept her in my mind despite the fear and the horror that made itself available to overtake it. It was that sadness that urged us to go on, to enter the house despite our own instinct to leave the place to its own fate. It urged us past the dank, rotted smell that encountered us as soon as we crossed the threshold. It urged us past the trail of blood down the hallway - even as it slid up the wall and onto the ceiling, dripping in slow time between our thunderous heartbeat. It even urged us past the grueling, inhuman sound rolling from the back of the house like an agonizing fog of misery. Conway was the first to see the arm on the floor, sticking out from the door from which the smoke billowed, but we all saw it slide back in, out of sight, and we all heard the wet gnashing and saw the slick of blood that replaced it. It was then that, only by orders of the sergeant, did we continue. And it was by fear alone and that desperation for living that two of us escaped.
With the horror and the pain and the sorrow brought fresh to mind, I wanted to grab her. I wanted to berate her. "Why didn't you stop us? Why didn't you warn us? I almost bled to death! Four more people were killed!" I even took a few steps to do just that, but then I noticed something. Her hands. As they were held out for change from one of the suited men, I saw the dirt that encrusted her. But it was thin, almost like it painted her skin the way red clay back home can stain your hands for days. It was the brown. It coated her hands and ran up the sleeves of her sweater. From the neck it ran up just an inch or two, but then the flesh turned a slight, unnatural pink as if the earth stain had been painted over.
And then she looked at me. Our eyes locked and I heard somewhere in the distance, in the depth of my own mind, that low, grueling rumble that we heard in the house, and I flinched as if I were being swung at. I could feel a most definite invasion of the space around me. As the girl's eyes were on me, mine were on hers, for that felt like the only defense I had. That was when I noticed the stain retreat, or the tender pink overtake it. As the man in the suit dropped two coins into her hands, the pink bled out into them like a slow liquid just beneath the surface.
The word run had been dangling in the back of my mind, and once she took the first step toward me, I was in full retreat. I took refuge back in the cafe. I ordered a coffee and slugged down the first half and fortified it from my flask and waited for her, but she never came. Once I summoned the courage to step out of the supposed protection of the cafe's crowd, I did not seek her out but left cautiously for the boardinghouse and remained there for days.
It was mostly out of boredom and frustration with my housemates that I went into town again. I'm afraid my mind is much too simple, perhaps feeble, to really understand what had happened to me - to come up with any reason other than foolishness to pursue the matter of the girl in the red sweater any further. It seemed that whatever she was, was beyond my realm. The reckoning of it was beyond my ability. The look in her eyes, the way her flesh changed - I saw there only doom. A doom that far outweighed my lingering curiosities.
As my flask grew light and my ability to withstand the frog-tongued banality of my hosts evaporated, I decided to confine myself to the cafe and perhaps a movie after a trip to the package store.
She passed, pink-skinned, by the cafe. I only caught her out of the corner of my eye, over the rim of a coffee cup, but it did not seem that she noticed me. Her step was brisk, but not rushed. Her head did not loll around, but kept forward, eyes targeted as of on the ignorances of prey. Refusing the impulse was easy. I kept my seat, but felt too exposed. She had travelled in the direction of the liquor store, so I ducked into the movie house across the street. I would put off my purchase of scotch until after my fill of Ingmar Bergman.
I had seen the movie a half dozen times, but it did not matter. The place was dark, the bright lights ahead, and there was always a blonde about to keep you distracted from the ridiculousness of the story. There in that manmade darkness, bound in its walls and its false light, the world without disappears. The memories of it and the horrors, it fades into the false light and the only world left is the one man has created and has let be created for him without the lasting effects of his ignorance. In the movie house there is only the joy and the fleeting safety of human left to human. Of course there is a price. Of course it is over too soon.
Coming out into the light of the street, I was blinded by the brightness of the day. I felt immediately vulnerable. I tried to keep my eyes open, but what vision the sun did not rob from me, a stream of tears did. I moved in the direction of the liquor store as memory had taught it to me, for the only thing that felt more vulnerable than the near-blindness was standing, fidgeting with my eyes. I bumped into backs and shoulders all the way down the Rue Recherché. I mumbled my apologies. I tried to make myself as small as possible, but then one body would not move. I wiped away the fresh stream of tears from my tortured eyes, and through the cleaved, aqueous curtain came a blob of red and a meek, mousy voice asking something in the french I did not understand.
She stood before me in a fresh coat of pink flesh, her eyes, large and a deep violet, turned up to me so that their color was nearly all I could see of them. Her hands were held up to me as if she aimed to catch the tears I could not keep from clouding my eyes. I didn't say a thing. My voice was stolen. She gave no indication that she recognized me. I expected to be utterly devoured, taken over, invaded in some way, but we only stood - me wiping at my eyes and silent like some dullard and she asking in mystic French without even opening her mouth.
Once my eyes cleared, the blast of the sun settling into its usual aureate calm, I stared into hers. The words came from me, without any effort, though the answer I did not want to hear.
"Who are you?" I asked.
Her response was to raise her head, to shed the meek, childish upward demure and give me the full force of those violet eyes, blazing gems set into the veinless white like a medallion set into marble, the inhuman color of them billowing like a flame. The flame. The same spectral fire that consumed the house. There was an entire history in those eyes. One that stopped at that house on the hill. One that mirrored my own life right up to that point, but then there was a gulf lost into a particular darkness that was not just in her eyes, that endless dim sea of ruddy fire, but all about her culminating in the space between us. She lay her hands away, letting her fingers fall over my wrists. They felt like raindrops.
"Come with me," she said, mouthless, sweet like a whisper "I can show you."
I wasn't helpless to go with her, but there wasn't much resistance in me. It seemed like we moved without walking. She did not turn away from me. Her eyes still locked into mine. The purple fire. The space between us. None of it disbanded in our movement. The world went on around us, but somehow oblivious to such a strange sight.
"I will show you who I am," she said.
Whether we were moving slow or the world spinning faster, I could not say. In what seemed like only a few minutes the day faded into dusk.
"I can explain. I can show you."
Night descended and there was no moon. Still, the aura of her eyes lit up the only world I was allowed. My flesh where her fingers lay now seemed to burn, but not from heat. More like a solvent left on the skin too long. Like I was burning away beneath her touch.
"I can show you why they had to die."
We arrived at the wall at the edge of town where the footpath led through a break and into the dark country. In the break, she stood on one side of the wall and I on the other. She raised her fingers from my wrist and the burning stopped. From it rose the smell of whiskey, but the sweetness of it was so much more intense and wonderfully false. And there was the smell of rain, of the ground pushing out its prizes - of flowers in bloom and the powdery flesh of a woman.
"Come with me," she said, and again, "Come with me."
The euphoric slack of giving up overtook me. The light at the end of the black hall of mystery filled up my mind. It was a rosy light. In it the burgeoning form of realization - the lost faces and the bodies that held them.
"Come with me," she said.
But there was something else. There was the world I knew was behind me. There was the real memory. There was the shadow of horror, the blood spilled and the moaning pain. There was every drink I ever took. There was every man and woman that was no longer in my life. And more than this chimeric glimmering, back there behind me was the long stream of just how I had gotten to this point. The only thing I knew for sure. Though it was coated in blood, soaked in tears, consumed by that strange fire, I was not ready to leave it behind. Despite the wordless promise of relief and truth ahead, I could not so willingly step into that dark country. I pulled back from her - from the eyes and from the light. The darkness began to dissolve.
"Come with me." Her voice ever more sweet. An understanding of what she offered flooding over me.
But I took another step back.
The light grew.
A soft sledgehammer to the inside of my skull. That strange universe out in the darkness came at me like a gunshot. Every pleasure washed over me. Every body I had touched or imagined to touch. Every welcome drink. Every silence. Every swift word that had crossed my ears and my eyes. Mysteries unveiled and fears shattered. The war was over. Every sorrowful death exterminated. A welling in my chest - a feeling too powerful to explain, but I could imagine being the whole purpose of life, should there be one.
"Come," she said.
And then it was gone.
It was midday. I stood at the wall, looking out onto the horizon sparsely populated with people. I looked down at my hands and there were small lines like old bruises where her fingers had lay, but she was nowhere in sight. I stood there in shock until an old man pushing a packed wheelbarrow asked for my pardon in passing through the wall.
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