Authors: Tim Waggoner
But another part of me—a darker, less charitable part—wants to call the police for an entirely different reason. Liana hasn’t come out and told me that these three men are the ones she escaped, but I’ve seen how she’s reacted to their presence, watched her talking to Gray-Hair, heard Mr. Mustache say that he and his Spindlekin are upset over losing something important to them. I’ve watched, and I’ve
All three of them can’t be the same men Liana told me about tonight. The older two, maybe, but the third would’ve been too young when Liana was a teenager. Maybe over the years she’s gone from one abusive relationship to another. Once someone is conditioned to accept sexual abuse, it can begin to seem normal to them. Maybe these three are just the latest bastards that Liana’s had to endure, and somehow they found out where she’s staying, and they’re stalking her. All the more reason to call the cops.
Except I don’t have any proof.
Liana could provide it, although it would be her word against theirs. And so far she’s been guarded about revealing details of her abuse to me. How would she react when I tell her I called the cops in the middle of the night and I want her to tell them everything? Not well, I expect. So no cops talking to Liana. But that doesn’t mean I can’t call them to come deal with a drunk who’s in danger of seriously hurting himself. Maybe the cops won’t take the three fuckers to jail, but it’s a start.
But if something else is going on upstairs—though I can’t imagine what else it might be—if I summon the police, I could end up just pissing off our new neighbors. And that could be bad, especially is they
the men Liana is trying to get away from.
An idea comes to me then. It’s crazy, not like anything I’ve ever done before, but then things haven’t exactly been normal lately, have they?
I check to make sure Liana is still sleeping, then I slip on my tennis shoes and grab a hoodie from the front hall closet. I put it on and go to the patio door, unlock it, slide it open, step outside, then slide it shut behind me. The November night air is cool on my skin. It’s bracing, like a splash of cold water in the face, and my senses feel sharper, heightened. My heart’s pounding, and I realize that while I’m scared of what I’m about to do, I’m also excited.
A small wooden fence encloses my patio, and I walk to the gate and open it. A wooden set of stairs leads to the deck of the apartment above mine, and I start toward them. It’s a clear moonless night, but the sky is filled with starglitter, and I can see well enough. As I mount the first step, I hear a skittering noise close by, and I feel a jolt of fear. The trashcans for the apartments at this end of the building are located beneath the stairs. It’s one of the reasons I chose to rent here, actually. I liked the idea of not having to schlep my trash out to a dumpster, especially in winter. I imagine that one of the men somehow anticipated what I would do and came down to hide beneath the stairs and wait for me. Maybe what I’ve taken for a drunk crashing to the floor over and over is really just a ruse to lure me outside, and now that I’m here one of them is going to come rushing out of the dark toward me. I wish I’d grabbed hold of a weapon before coming outside. A knife, a hammer, anything.
The skittering comes closer and I ball my hands into fists, ready to fight, although I’ve never thrown a punch at anyone in my life. Something moves past me, small, like a dog or cat, and I realize that I’ve startled a raccoon that was trying to scrounge a free meal from the trash. I almost laugh in relief, but I manage to hold it in, and I start climbing the stairs.
They’re old and creak beneath my weight, and I imagine I can even feel them sway a little, as if they might collapse any second. But I reach the deck without any problem, and I stand there for a moment, looking at my new neighbors’ patio door. It’s the same size as mine, and the vertical blinds are drawn, though they aren’t closed all the way, and cracks of light shine through. I may be a photographer, but I don’t have any voyeuristic tendencies—at least, no more than the average person—and I’ve never peeped through a window before. If I get too close, will they able to see me? The blinds are mostly closed, and there’s no light outside to illuminate me. I tell myself I should be safe enough, but I really don’t know.
Now that I’m this close, I can hear the muffled clomp-clomp-clomp
Not as loud as downstairs, but still loud enough. It pulls me forward, and when I reach the patio door, I crouch down to hopefully make myself harder to see, and I peer through the cracks in the blinds. As I expected, their apartment is laid out exactly like mine, the only difference being that they don’t have a stick of furniture, at least none I can see.
I don’t see anyone at first, and for a disorienting moment I wonder if I just imagined the noise. And that thought leads immediately to an even more disturbing one: what if I’ve been imagining all the strange events of the last few days? What if the entire last several months haven’t happened, and I’m still married to Pam, still sleeping in the bed beside her, only dreaming I’m crouching on a deck in the middle of the night like a peeping Tom?
But then he comes into view.
He enters from the kitchen, which is on my left. It’s the man around my age, the one with the mustache, who came to apologize for “the sound” earlier. He doesn’t drunk stagger-step, though. He hops like a kangaroo, one, two, three times and then he leaps into the air, spreads his arms wide as if he’s a competitive swimmer launching into a dive, and slams face-first onto the floor. It looks painful as hell, but he immediately gets back up on his feet, grinning like a madman.
I expect him to repeat the bizarre routine, but he just stands there, and then another one enters from the kitchen, the youngest one, Metal-Face. Like his companion, he kangaroo hops three times then springs into the air. He executes a somersault, his feet almost brushing the ceiling, before landing on his ass. He hits so hard I can’t believe he doesn’t shatter his spine, but he gets up easily, apparently uninjured, and like his friend, he grins.
I’m expecting Gray-Hair to appear next, and I’m not disappointed. He performs his three hops and launches himself into the air with the same ease as his younger companions. At the apex of his short flight, his body goes rigid and he presses his arms tight against his sides. He comes down and lands on the crown of his head with the loudest crash yet. He remains balanced like that, body completely rigid, for several seconds before rolling forward and coming up on his feet with an acrobat’s grace.
Then, one by one, they turn in my direction. Their grins widen and their set-too-far-apart eyes roll over white, like those of a shark just before it sinks its teeth into you.
Panic grips me, and I want nothing more than to leap to my feet, run down the stairs, go back inside my apartment, get Liana, grab my car keys and get the hell as far away from this place and these men as I can. But I force myself to look at them a moment more, as if to let them know they can’t scare me, even though they absolutely have. Then I slowly stand and calmly walk down the stairs, enter my patio, shut the gate gently behind me, and go back inside my place. I close and lock the patio door, then I go into the kitchen, get a glass of water, and take my time drinking it. I put the empty glass in the sink, then I go into the living room and sit on the couch. I sit there wide awake, as if I’m standing guard. But whatever strange game the men are playing upstairs is over now, and the silence remains unbroken for the rest of the night. But I don’t sleep. I wonder if I ever will again.
* * *
The next morning I don’t say anything to Liana about what I saw, and she says nothing to me about the noise last night, so I assume she really did sleep through it. I’m glad. She’s been stressed enough by the men’s presence. No need to make it worse for her.
She’s watching a morning news program when I hear the men moving upstairs. She seems unfazed by the sounds today, almost as if she doesn’t even hear them. When I hear the door above open and slam shut, followed by the footsteps of the men as they clomp down the stairs in their boots, I head into the bedroom. I hope Liana thinks I’m going to the bathroom and doesn’t follow me. She stays on the couch, and I close the bedroom door behind me. I hurry over to the window and peer through the blinds. I watch the men go down the front steps and climb into the van. Gray-Hair takes the driver’s seat, starts the vehicle up. The engine makes an odd noise, a kind of ratcheta-clank, ratcheta-clank, like a jalopy from an old black-and-white cartoon, the kind where every inanimate object has a face and is likely to break into song at any moment. A thick purplish exhaust curls forth from the tailpipe, and though I shouldn’t be able to smell it from here, especially with a window blocking the way, I catch a whiff of something that smells like sulfur laced with dirty diapers. They back out of the parking spot, then drive off. Where they’re heading, I can’t guess. Off to whatever work they do, I suppose. I’m just relieved they’re gone. Too bad it’s not for good.
When I return to the living room, the TV is muted and I find Liana writing in a notebook. I figure she got it from the computer desk while I was spying on our strange neighbors. Before I can ask, she says, “I saw a program yesterday. A woman talked about how therapeutic it was to write your thoughts and feelings down in a journal. I’ve never done anything like that before.” She’s continued writing the whole time she spoke, but now she pauses and looks up at me. “Do you think it’s a good idea?”
“Sure,” I say.
She smiles wide, as if I’ve just given her major encouragement instead of a knee-jerk answer, and she returns to writing. It takes an effort of will for me not to sit down next to her and try to catch a glimpse of what she’s putting on the page.
* * *
Later, she takes a shower. I’m tempted to see if she’ll let me join her, but the notebook is sitting on the coffee table where she put it when she was finished writing, and it calls to me.
I sit down on the couch and pick it up, though I don’t open it right away. I can hear the shower running, so I know I have time. I’m uncomfortable at the thought of invading Liana’s privacy, but she’s such a mystery to me. We’ve become so intimate so quickly. I want to know her more deeply, but she tells me so little. Still, this is no reason for me to sneak a look at what she’s written. It’s just that this whole situation has become so confusing, so damned bizarre, that I don’t know what to do. I want to help Liana, protect her, but how can I do that if I don’t understand what the hell is going on?
And there’s something more. As drawn as I am to Liana, as much as there seems to be a strong connection between us, if I don’t know who she really is and what, if any, connection she has to the men upstairs, how do I know I can trust her? How can I know I’m safe with her? How do I know that some night I won’t find her kangaroo hopping through the apartment and performing aerobatics like a madwoman?
I open the notebook. Her handwriting is inconsistent, sometimes a smooth, elegant cursive, sometimes plain printing, sometimes oversized blocky letters like a child might make. It’s as if she’s trying out different styles of handwriting to see which she likes best.
The hum of blood surging through veins calls to me as it always has, through all the long years. Times of denial, followed by inevitable surrender, then days of lust and submission. Self-negation. Self-annihilation. I must fulfill the ancient compact, be who I was born to be. Yet I long to be more, to have something that’s mine alone. I think I’ve found him. A man. He sees me not as a means to an end. He sees me not only for what I am, but what I could become. To him I am Desiderata in its purest form, and it is a wonder to behold myself in his eyes.
That’s all she’s written so far, and I read it over several times before I hear Liana turn off the shower. I put the notebook back on the coffee table, careful to make sure it rests at the same angle it did before I touched it. Even with this precaution, I fear Liana will somehow know I touched it, will intuit it in that uncanny way of hers. But when she eventually comes into the living room, towel wrapped around her head, dressed in another of my T-shirts and a pair of panties, she doesn’t look at the notebook. She settles on the couch next to me, turns on the History Channel, and she cuddles next to me as we watch a program about the origins of human agriculture.
I think about what I read in the notebook, and while I puzzle over the more enigmatic parts, I feel good about what she wrote regarding her feelings for me. But I wonder what
* * *
When the program’s over, Liana gets up to go to the bathroom, and I take the opportunity to hit the Net and look up
. I expect it to be a name of some sort, especially since she capitalized the D, but it turns out to be a Latin word meaning “desired things.” Multiple, not singular.
To him I am desired things in its purest form?
It doesn’t make sense. By this point, though, it would surprise me if it did.
I log off my laptop before Liana returns. She snuggles up with me again, I change the channel, and we watch a
Law and Order
rerun. During the program I stroke her hair, lean my mouth close to her ear and almost whisper it.
. But I know if I do, she’ll realize I read her writing. So I content myself with silently mouthing it instead, and Liana stiffens for a moment, as if she’s heard me anyway, but then she relaxes her body against mine and lets out a contented sigh.