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,