Hurt Me30 min read
(Originally published under the pseudonym M.L.N. Hanover)
There weren’t many three-bedroom houses that a single woman could afford. 1532 Lachmont Drive was an exception. Built in the 1930s from masonry block, it sat in the middle of a line of houses that had once been very similar to it. Decades of use and modification had added character: basement added in the 1950s called “finished” only because the floor was concrete rather than dirt; garage tacked onto the north side that pressed its outer wall almost to the property line; artificial pond in the back yard that had held nothing but silt since the 1980s. The air smelled close and musty, the kitchen vent cover banged in the wind, and the Air Force base three miles to the north meant occasional jet noise loud enough to shake the earth. But the floors were hardwood, the windows recently replaced, and the interiors a uniform white that made the most of the hazy autumn light.
The realtor watched the woman—Corrie Morales was her name—nervously. He didn’t like the way she homed in on the house’s subtle defects. Yes, there had been some water damage in the bathroom once. Yes, the plaster in the master bedroom was cracking, just a little. The washer-dryer in the basement seemed to please her, though. And the bathtub was an old iron claw-footed number, the enamel barely chipped, and she smiled at as soon as she saw it.
She wasn’t the sort of client he usually aimed for. He was better with new families, either just-marrieds or first-kid types. With them, he could talk about building a life, and how the house had room to grow in. A sewing room for the woman, an office for the man, though God knew these days it seemed to go the other direction as often as not. New families would come in, live for a few years, and trade up. Or traffic from the base; military people with enough money build up equity and flip the house when they got re-assigned rather than lose money paying rent. He had a different set or patter for those, but he could work with them. New families and military folks. Let the other realtors sell the big mansions in the foothills. Maybe he didn’t make as much on each sale, but there were places in his territory he’d sold three or four times in the last ten years.
This woman, though, was hard to read: in her late thirties and seeing the place by herself; no wedding ring. Her face had been pretty once, not too long ago. Might still be, if she wore her hair a little longer or pulled it back in a ponytail. Maybe she was a lesbian. Not that it mattered to him, as long as her money spent.
“It’s a good, solid house,” he said, nodding as a trick to make her nod along with him.
“It is,” she said. “The price seems low.”
“Motivated seller,” he said with a wink.
“By what?” She opened and closed the kitchen cabinets.
“Motivated by what?” she said.
“Well, you know how it is,” he said, grinning. “Kids grow up, move on. Families change. A place maybe fits in one part of your life, and then you move on.”
She smiled as if he’d said something funny.
“I don’t know, actually,” she said. “The seller moved out because she got tired of the place?”
The realtor shrugged expansively, his mental gears whirring. The question felt like a trap. He wondered how much the woman had heard about the house. He couldn’t afford to get caught in an outright lie.
“Well, they were young,” he said. “Just got hitched, and they had all these ideas and plans. I don’t like selling to newlyweds. Especially young ones. Too young to know what they’re getting into. Better to go rent a few places, move around. Find out what you like, what you don’t like.”
“Bought it and didn’t like it?”
“Didn’t know quite what they were getting into,” he said.
The sudden weariness around the woman’s eyes was like a tell at a poker table. The realtor felt himself relax. Divorced, this one. Maybe more than once. Alone now, and getting older. Maybe she was looking for someplace cheap, or maybe it was just the allure of new beginnings. That he was wrong in almost every detail didn’t keep him from playing that hand.
“My wife was just the same, God rest her,” he said. “When we were kids, she’d hop into any old project like she was killing snakes. Got in over her head. Hell, she probably wouldn’t have said yes to me if she’d thought it through. You get older, you know better. Don’t get in so many messes. They were good kids, just no judgment.”
She walked across the living room. It looked big, empty like this. A couch, a couple chairs, a coffee table, it gets cramped fast. But right now, the woman walked across it like it was a field. Like she was that twenty-year-old girl with her new husband outside getting the baggage or off to work on the base. Like the world hadn’t cut her down a couple times.
He could smell the sale. He could taste it.
“Lot of rentals in the neighborhood,” she said, looking out the front window. He knew from her voice that her heart wasn’t in the dickering. “Hard to build up much of a community when you’re getting new neighbors all the time.”
“You see that with anything near the base,” he said, like they were talking about the weather. “People don’t have the money for a down payment. Or some just prefer renting.”
“I can’t rent anymore.”
“I smoke,” she said.
“That’s a problem these days. Unless you’ve got your own house, of course.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The realtor had to fight himself not to grin. Here we go.
“Wrap it up,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
* * *
Mr. And Mrs. Kleinfeld had lives at 1530 Lachmont Drive for eight years, making them the longest-standing residents of the block. To them, the U-Haul that pulled up on Sunday morning was almost unremarkable. They ate their toast and jam, listened to the preacher on the radio, and watched Corrie start unloading boxes. She wore a pair of old blue jeans, a dark T-shirt with the logo of a long-cancelled television show across the front, and a pale green bandana. When breakfast was over, Mrs. Kleinfeld turned off the radio and cleaned the plates while Mr. Kleinfeld ambled out to the front yard.
“Morning,” he said, as Corrie stepped down from the back of the truck, a box of under-packed drinking glasses jingling in her hand.
“Hi,” Corrie said with a grin.
“Moving day,” Mr. Kleinfeld said.
“It is,” she said.
“You need a hand with any of that?”
“I think I’m good. Thanks though. If it turns out I do…?”
“Me and the Missus are here all day,” he said. “Come over any time.”
He nodded amiably and went back inside. Mrs. Kleinfeld was sitting at the computer, entering the week’s expenses. A trapped housefly was beating itself to death against the window, angry buzz interrupted by hard taps.
“It’s happening again,” Mrs. Kleifeld said.
* * *
It took her the better part of the day to move in. Just putting the bed together had taken over an hour and left her wrist sore. The refrigerator wouldn’t be delivered until the next day. The back bedroom, now a staging area, was thigh-deep in packed one-thing-and-another. There was no phone service except her cell. The electricity wasn’t in her name yet. But by nightfall, there were clothes in the closet, towels in the bathroom, and her old leather couch in the living room by the television. She needed to take the U-Haul back, but it could wait for morning.
She walked briskly through the house—her house—and closed all the blinds. The slick white plastic was thick enough to kill all the light from the street. The new double-glazed windows cut out the sounds of traffic. It was like the walls had been suddenly, silently transported someplace else. Like it was a space capsule, a million miles from anything human, cut off from the world.
She turned on the water in the tub. It ran red for a moment, rust in the pipes, and then clear, and then scalding hot. She stripped as the steam rose. Naked in front of the full-length mirror, she watched the scars on her legs and elbows—the tiny circles no bigger than the tip of a lit cigarette; the longer, thinner ones where a blade had marred the skin—blur and fade and vanish. Her reflected body softened, and the glass began to weep. She turned off the water and eased herself into the bath slowly. The heat of it brought the blood to her skin like a slap, bright pink flesh. She lay her head against the iron tub’s sloping back, fidgeting to find the perfect angle. She had soap, a washcloth, shampoo, the almond-scented conditioner that her boyfriend David liked. She didn’t use any of them. After about ten minutes, she turned, leaning over the edge to reach for the puddle of blue cloth that was her jeans. A pack of cigarettes. A zippo lighter with its worn Pink Martini logo. The slick and hiss of the flame. The first long drag of smoke curling through the back of her throat. She tossed cigarettes and lighter onto the floor, and lay back again. The tension in her back and legs and belly started to lose its grip.
Around her, the house made small sounds: the ticking of the walls as they cooled, the hum of her computer’s cooling fan, the soft clinking of the water that lapped her knees and breasts. Smoke rose from her cigarette, lost almost instantly in the steam. The first stirrings of hunger had just touched her belly when the screaming started, jet engines ramping up from nothing to an inhuman shriek between one breath and the next. Something fluttered in her peripheral vision, and she scrambled around, dropping her cigarette in the tub and soaking the floor with water.
Something moved in the mirror. Something that wasn’t her. The condensation made him impossible to see him clearly. He might have had dark hair. He might have jeans of dark slacks. The shirt was white where it wasn’t red. The movement of balled fists was clearer than the hands themselves, and somewhere deep in the airplane’s roar, there were words. Angry ones. Corrie yelped, her feet slipping under her as she tried to jump clear.
The noise began to fade as suddenly as it had come. The rumbling echoes batting at the walls more and more weakly. The mirror was empty again, except for her. Corrie took a towel and wrapped herself quickly. Her blood felt bright and quick, her heart fluttering like a bird, her breath fast and panic-shallow. Her mouth tasted like metal.
“Hello?” she said. “Is someone in here?”
The floor creaked under her weight. She stood still, waiting for an answering footstep. The water puddled around her feet, and she began to shiver. The house had grown viciously cold.
“Is anyone here?” she said again, her voice small and shaking.
Nothing answered her but the smell of her spent cigarette.
“All right, then,” she said, hugging her arms tightly around herself. “Okay.”
* * *
“Mom. Listen to me. Everything’s fine. We’re not breaking up,” Corrie said.
“Well, you move out like this,” her mother said, voice pressed small and tinny by the cell connection. “And that house? I think it’s perfectly reasonable of me to be concerned.”
Corrie lay back on the couch, pressing the tips of her fingers to her eyes. Sleeplessness left her skin waxy and pale, her movements slow. She had taken the day off work, thinking she would finish unpacking. The boxes were still where they had been the day before. Afternoon sun spilled in through the windows, making the small living room glow. The refrigerator had arrived an hour before and hummed to itself from the kitchen, empty.
“It’s just something I need to do. I’ll explain later,” Corrie said.
“Is he beating you?”
“Who? David? My David?”
“People have habits,” her mother said. She raised her voice when she lectured. “They imprint. I did the same thing when I was young. All my husbands were alcoholics, just like my father was. I like David very much. He’s always been very pleasant. But you have a type, dear.”
“I haven’t dated anyone seriously since Nash. I don’t have a type.”
“What about that Hebrew boy? Nathaniel?”
“I saw him a total of eight times. He got drunk, broke a window, and I never talked to him again.”
“Don’t turn into a lawyer with me. You know exactly what I mean. There’s a kind of man that excites you, and so of course you might find yourself involved with that kind of man. If David’s another one like Nash, I think I have a right to—”
Corrie sat up, pressing her hand at the empty air as if her mother could see the gesture for stop. The distant music of an ice cream truck came from a different world, the jaunty electronic tune insincere and ominous.
“Mother. I don’t feel comfortable talking about the kind of man that does or doesn’t excite me, all right? David is absolutely unlike Nash in every possible way. He wouldn’t hurt me if I asked him to.”
“Did you?” her mother snapped.
“Did I what?”
“Did you ask him to hurt you?”
The pause hung in the air, equal parts storm and silence.
“Okay, we’re done,” Corrie said. “I love you, Mom, and I’m really appreciate that you’re concerned, but I am not talking about—”
“You are!” her mother shouted. “You are talking about everything with me. I have spent too much time and money making sure you are all right to pretend that there are boundaries. Maybe for other people, but not for us, little girl. Never for us.”
Corrie groaned. The quiet on the end of her cellphone managed to be hurt and accusing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I understand that you’re scared about this. And really, I understand why you’re scared. But you have to trust that I know what I’m doing. I’m not twenty anymore.”
“Did you or did you not ask David to hurt you?”
“My sex life with David has been very respectful and loving,” Corrie said through gritted teeth. “He is always a perfect gentleman. The few times that we’ve talked—just talked—about anything even a little kinky, he’s been very uncomfortable with including even simulated violence in our relationship. Okay? Now can we please drop—”
“Is that why you left him?”
“We’re not breaking up.”
“Because that’s the other side, isn’t it?” her mother said, talking fast. “You find someone who isn’t your type, and you put yourself with him because he’s good and clean and healthy, and then there you are being good and clean and healthy. Like eating wheat germ every meal when you really want a steak.”
“All right, I’m lost now,” she said, her voice taking on a dangerous buzz. “Are you saying that David’s an abusive shit, or that he’s too good for me? What’s your argument?”
She could hear her mother crying now. Not sobs. Nothing more than the little waver in tone that meant tears were in her eyes.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” her mother said. “Why you moved out of David’s apartment. Why you’re in that house. I’m afraid you’ve gone to a very dark place.” The last words were so thin and airless, Corrie had to take a deep breath.
“Maybe I have,” she said, drawing the words out. “But it’s all right. I’m not scared anymore.”
“Shouldn’t you be? Is there nothing to be frightened of?”
Corrie stood. It was only four steps to the bathroom door. With the lights off, the full length mirror showed her in silhouette, the brightness of day behind her, and her features lost in shadow. There was no other shape, no man with balled fists or knives. No promises that the damage was a sign of love. No cigarette burns or dislocated fingers or weekends of sex to convince herself she wanted because she feared to refuse. It was just a mirror. She was the only thing in it.
Is there nothing to be frightened of?
“Don’t know,” Corrie said. “I’m finding out.”
* * *
“Oh,” Mr. Kleinfeld said. “You knew it was…I mean…”
“Haunted?” the new neighbor—Corrie her name was—said. “Sure. I mean, just in general terms.”
Mr. Kleinfeld’s smiled, but his eyebrows were crawling up his forehead. Across the table, his wife poured out cups of tea for the three of them; her smile might have meant anything.
“Is that how you heard about it?” Mrs. Kleinfeld asked. “You’re one of those ‘ghost hunters?’ “
Sunlight pressed through the still air along with the distant chop of a helicopter formation. The new neighbor took the proffered cup and sipped at it. His wife put two small silver spoonfuls of sugar into his, stirred it twice neatly, and handed him his cup.
“Not really,” the new neighbor said. “It was just one of those things you hear about, you know? In the air. I don’t even know where I stumbled onto it the first time, but the realtor was pretty up front.”
“Was he?” Mr. Kleinfeld said. That had never happened before either.
“Sure. I mean, there weren’t a lot of gory details. I asked about why the price was low, and he said something about ghost stories and the old tenants getting freaked out and leaving.”
“The women,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “It doesn’t seem to care about men, but it hates women.”
“It?” the new neighbor said, and Mr. Kleinfeld watched his wife settle back into her chair. The first part of the meeting might not have gone along its usual path, but they were back in familiar territory now.
“There is a restless spirit in that house,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “Has been since before we came. It never bothers the men.”
“The girls, though,” Mr. Kleinfeld said, shaking his head the way he always did. “I could make a list of the young women we’ve had banging on our door in the middle of the night, scared out of their wits. It’s not a fit house for a girl to live in. Especially alone.”
He sipped his tea, but it was still scalding. He blew across its surface.
“But them men don’t see it?” the new neighbor said. “Weird. Any particular reason anyone knows about? Ancient Indian burial ground?”
His wife nodded slowly, the steam rising from her teacup swirling around her face. The chop of the helicopters grew gradually louder. Mr. Kleinfeld shifted back a degree in his chair. His part was done for now, and just as well. The Missus was better at getting through to people than he was. She always had been.
“There’s a story,” she said. “I don’t know how much it’s true and how much it’s fancied up, but I’ve never heard or seen anything to contradict it. Twenty years ago, there was a couple of young people moved into that house you’re in today. Young man and his wife. Well, it wasn’t long before the wife started showing up at the grocery store in big sunglasses. Wearing long sleeves in the middle of the summer. That sort of thing.”
“Lots of domestic abuse in the world,” the new neighbor said. “Doesn’t make for a million haunted houses.” Her tone was light, but Mr. Kleinfeld heard something strong under it. Maybe skepticism. Maybe something else.
“He was an evil man,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said. “People used to hear them fighting. They say he used to try to hide the worst of the screaming under the jet noise, but the whole neighborhood knew. One fellow who lived the other side, where that nice colored family is now, tried to make an issue of it, and the man threatened to cut his nose off. And then one night they were gone. Man and wife both, vanished from the face of the earth like they’d never been. A few months later, her people came and packed up all the furniture, and put the place up for sale. Rumor was that the wife was in some sort of asylum out west with her mind all gone to putty, talking about demons and Satan. Never did get out of that place.”
The new neighbor was caught now, her expression sharp as a pencil point. Mrs. Kleinfeld had to stop for a moment while the helicopters passed overhead, the blades cutting through the high air with enough violence to drown out their words. Or their screams, for that matter.
“Next people moved in were an older couple with a girl just in high school,” she said, her voice loud enough to carry over the falling racket as the copters flew on. “Six months, they were there. Not more. The mother said she’d have tried to stand it, but the spirit started coming after the daughter too, and that was that. Sold the place at a loss and moved across to the other side of the base. Only time the place has had the same owner for more than a year since then was five years back when there were four young men sharing the place, and even then, I saw their girlfriends leaving in the middle of the night crying too hard to stop.”
“What does it do to them?” the new neighbor asked. The hardness was still there, but it wasn’t skepticism. Something more immediate, more demanding. Something like hunger.
“It comes for them,” Mrs. Kleinfeld said, “and thank God they can feel it. No one’s ever stayed long enough to know what it would do if it caught them, but there are nights I can feel it hating all the way over here. I’m in my bed at night saying my prayers, and it’s like someone put ice against the wall. You couldn’t pay me to stay a night in that place. Not for a million dollars. Something lives in that house, and it hates women.”
The new neighbor nodded, Mr. Kleinfeld thought, more to herself than to him or his wife. There was a brightness in her eyes. Not fear. Maybe even pleasure. The new neighbor’s smile disturbed him more than his wife’s story ever had. He cleared his throat, and she seemed to wake up a little. Her smile widened and became less authentic.
“Have you seen anything yet,” he asked. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Me? No,” she said. “Not a thing.”
* * *
The storm came a week later; vicious winds blasting down from a cloudless sky. Gritty air ripped at the trees, stripping off leaves still turning from green to yellow and red and gold; the glories of autumn cut short and shredded. The low Western sun turned bloody as it fell, and Corrie wheeled her car into the undersized garage like a child pulling up a blanket. The thin walls were less protection than the idea of it. With every new gust battering against the house made the garage creak. Dust settled from the frame roof. She scurried from car to kitchen, hunched against the sound of the wind.
Once she got into the house itself, she unfurled. The wind still threw handfuls of dirt against the windows, the thick plastic blinds shuffled and clicked in the drafts, but the masonry walls seemed beyond any violence nature could contrive, solid and sober as a prison. Corrie turned on every light as she walked through the house. She examined each room in turn; the broken-down boxes in the spare bedroom, the legal pads and laptop docking station in her makeshift office, the sheets and blankets in the linen closet. In the kitchen, she counted the knives on the magnetic rack and checked the oven. In her bedroom, she squatted, her eye on a level with the unmarked bedspread. She took her shotgun from its place under the bed, counting out the shells under her breath as she unloaded it and loaded it again. In the bathroom, she lingered in front of the mirror for over a minute, her fingertips on the glass, eyes unfocused and attention turned inward. Nothing had moved. Nothing was missing. Even the raging wind hadn’t so much as rolled a pencil.
She microwaved a plate of lasagna, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat down on the couch. A few bites, and she was up again, pacing. Restless. Frustrated. Outside, the sun slipped lower.
“I know you’re here,” she said to the empty air. “I know you can hear me.”
The wind shrieked and murmured. The window blinds shuddered. The air smelled of tomato sauce, but a little burned at the edges; acid with a touch of smoke. She stood in the middle of the room, jaw clenched. Silent.
The moment lasted years before the hint of a smile touched her mouth and a mad, reckless light came into her eyes. She walked back to the couch, picked up her plate, and took it to the kitchen. She ate two more bites standing at the sink, and then dropped the plate onto the brushed steel with a clatter. The faucet swung easily, cold water downing the food. Reddened bits of meat and pale sheets of pasta swam in a cold, ugly soup and then settled, clogging the drain. She looked at the mess and deliberately stepped back, leaving it there. Her chin rose, daring the emptiness around her.
Something within the house shifted. Walls that had been only block and plaster and paint turned their attention to her. The windows hid behind their blinds like closed eyes. She kicked off her shoes, chuckling to herself. The floor felt colder than it should have. The glass of wine still rested on the coffee table; she scooped it up, taking her purse in the other hand. The furnace kicked on, blowers roaring a thousand miles away.
In the kitchen, she leaned against the counter beside the sink. Goosebumps covered her arms and thighs. Her breath was coming fast and shallow and shaking a little. She lit a cigarette and then sipped the cool, astringent wine, rolling it in her mouth, feeling the alcohol pressing through the soft, permeable membranes of her flesh. When she swallowed, her throat went a degree warmer. She set the cigarette between her lips and stretched out a hand, lifting the half-full glass. Red trembled for a moment, as she slowly, deliberately poured it out, the wine spilling over the floor and staining the tiles. She dropped the glass into the sink with her ruined dinner and stepped forward, grinding the soles of her feet into the puddle.
The storm outside sounded like a warning. She shifted her hips, twisted at the waist, dancing in the mess. She rolled her weight back and forth, humming to herself, raised her arms over her head. Her joints loosened, her belly grew warm and heavy. Her nipples hardened and her breath became visible and feather-white in the sudden arctic chill. Voices came from somewhere nearby, raised in anger, but distant.
Still dancing, she pressed one hand to her belly, took the cigarette between her fingers and drew the smoke back into her. The taste of it was like drinking smoke. She flicked the ash, watching the soft grey fall down, down, down into the wide, red puddle at her feet.
He stood framed by the basement door. A young man, and ageless. His shoulders were broad as a bull, his pale hair cut close to the skull. The dark slacks she’d seen in the mirror were tight and strained across the hip, as if designed to point out the thing’s barely-restrained erection. With every deep, heaving breath, blood sheeted down his body from the hole where his heart should have been. She had the impression of corrupted meat beneath that pale skin. His lips curled back in wordless rage, bearing teeth too sharp to be human.
The warmth within her was gone. Her face was pale, and the electric shock of fear turned her dance to stillness. The man shook his head at her once, slow back and forth. When he opened his mouth and howled, she took two involuntary steps back, the countertop digging at the small of her back. Hatred radiated from him. Hatred and malice and the promise of violence. The tiles between them were the slick red of fresh slaughter.
When she spoke, her voice trembled. It sounded very small, even to her.
“Don’t like it, huh?”
The ghost shifted his head side-to-side, neither nod nor shake, but stretching. Like an athlete preparing for some terrible effort. A clearer threat than balled fists.
“W-what,” she tried to say, then crossed her arms and took a fast, nervous drag on the cigarette. She lifted her chin in defiance. “What’re you gonna do about it?”
His eyes moved across her body like she was something he owned. The hissing sound of his breath came from everywhere.
“So, what? You want to hurt me? Come on then,” she said, her voice taking a little strength. “If you’re gonna do it, do it.”
He stepped into the room, filling the doorway. The death-blood, slick on his belly, glittered. He bared his teeth, growling like a dog.
“You want to hurt me? Then hurt me,” she yelled. “Hurt me!“
The ghost screamed and rushed across the room toward her. She felt its rage and hatred surrounding her, swallowing her. She saw its hand rising to slap her down, and she flinched back, her eyes closed, and braced for the blow. Every scar on her skin tingled like someone had touched them with ice. Filthy water poured into her mouth, her nose, corrupted and sour with decay. She felt the spirit pressing against her, pushing into her skin. Its rage lifted her like a wave.
And then it was gone.
She stood in the kitchen, her body shaking and her ragged breaths coming in sobs. She was terribly cold. The wine on her toes—only wine—was half-dried and sticky. Storm wind batted at the windows, the walls. The furnace rumbled, fighting against the frigid air. She sank slowly, her back against the cabinet, and hugged her knees. A stray tear fell down her cheek and she shuddered uncontrollably twice.
Then between one breath and the next, her mouth relaxed. Her body released. The breaking tension was more than sexual.
She started laughing: a deep, satisfied sound like the aftermath of orgasm.
* * *
Sunday morning brought the first snow of the season. The thick, wet flakes appeared just before dawn; dark against the bright city backsplash of the clouds and transformed to a prefect white once they had fallen. After the morning’s toast and tea and sermon, Mr. Kleinfeld, wrapped in his good wool overcoat, lumbered out after breakfast, snow shovel over his shoulder. He cleared his walkway and his drive, then the stretch of sidewalk in front of his house. The trees all around were black-barked and frosted with snow, and very few cars passed, the tracks of their tires leaving white furrows and never digging so deep as the asphalt.
Finished with his own house, he made his way through the ankle-high snow to his neighbor’s. No lights glowed in the house, no tracks marked her walk. Her driveway hadn’t been used. He hesitated, not wanting to wake her, but it was almost midday. He rang the bell, and when no answer came, mittened manfully on the door. No one came. He shook his head and put himself to work. The clouds above were bright as the snow when he finished, the air not yet above the freezing point, but warmer all the same.
Mrs. Kleinfeld met him at the door with a cup of hot cocoa, just as he’d known she would. He leaned the snow shovel by the door, took the warm mug, and kissed his wife’s dry cheek.
“I don’t think our new neighbor made it home last night,” he said. He sat in his chair. “I figure she’s seen it. Won’t be long now before she moves on.”
It was a conversation they’d had before, and he waited now for his wife’s agreement, her prediction: two more months, another month, a week. The Missus was better at judging these things than he was. So he was surprised when she stood silent for a long moment, shaking her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just do not know…”
* * *
The apartment still showed the gaps where she had been. David’s clothes still hung in only half of the bedroom closet, the hangers moving into the emptiness she had left only slowly, as if hoping her blouses and slacks and dresses might come back. The corner where her desk had once been was still vacant, the four hard circles that the legs had pressed into the carpet relaxed out a little, but not gone. The kid upstairs was practicing his guitar again, working on power chords that had driven her half-crazy when she’d lived there. They seemed sort of cute now.
“He’s getting better,” David said.
She rolled over, stuffing the pillow under her head and neck as she did. A thin line of snow ran along the window sill; the first of the season. David, beside her, nodded toward the ceiling.
“He made it all the way through Jesus of Suburbia last week,” he said.
“All five parts?”
“Kid’s going places,” she said.
“Please God that it’s places out of earshot.”
She brushed her fingertips across his chest. His skin was several tones darker than hers, and the contrast made her hand seem paler than it was, and her scars as white as the snow. He had his first grey hair in among the black, just over his ear. His dark eyes shifted over to her, his smile riding the line between post-coital exhaustion and melancholy. Quick as the impulse, she rolled the few more inches toward him and kissed his shoulder. He raised his eyebrows the way he always did when she was nervous.
“What’s your plan for the day?” he asked.
“Housework,” she said. “You?”
“Get up early and hit the Laundromat,” he said.
“And since that didn’t work?”
“Do an emergency load in the sink to get through work tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got to meet up with Gemma at three to get back my scanner.”
“You’ll need to get hopping. It’s past noon now.”
“Another few minutes won’t make a difference,” he said, putting his hand over hers. He wasn’t pretty; his face too wide, his nose bent where it had broken as a child and never been put right, his jawline touched by the presentiment of jowls. Handsome, maybe, in an off-putting way. “Is there something to talk about?”
“Is,” she said.
He took a long, slow breath and let it out slowly. Not a sigh so much as the preparatory breath of a high diver. Or a man prepared for bad news.
“I think you should come over tonight,” she said. “Take a look at the place. Bring your laundry, too.”
He sat up. The blankets puddled in his lap. She looked at him, unable to read his expression.
“You’re changing the rules?” he said. Each word was gentle as picking up eggs.
“No, I’m not. I always said that the not-coming-over part was temporary. It’s just….time. That’s all.”
“So. You really aren’t breaking up with me?”
“Jesus,” she said. She took the pillow from under her head and hit him with it lightly. Then she did it again.
“It is traditional,” he said. “Girl gets a house without consulting her boyfriend, moves all her stuff out, tells him he can’t come over. Says she’s ‘working through something’ but won’t say what exactly it is? It’s hard not to connect those dots.”
“And the part where I tell you in simple declarative sentences that I’m not breaking up with you?”
“Goes under mixed signals,” he said.
She took a deep breath. On the street, a siren rose and fell.
“Sorry?” she said. She got up from the bed, pulling one of the sheets with her and wrapping it around her hips. “Look, I understand this has been hard. I’ve asked for a lot of faith.”
“You really have.”
“And given that I don’t have an entirely uncheckered past, and all,” she said. “I see why you would freak. You and my mother both.”
“She’s been reading me the riot act ever since she heard about it. She really likes you.”
He leaned back, surprise and pleasure in his expression.
“Your mother like me?”
“Focus, sweetheart. I’m apologizing here.”
“And I don’t mean to interrupt,” he said.
Relief had left him giddy. Between his brave face and her attention being elsewhere, she’d managed to ignore the sadness and dread that had been seeping into him. Now that it was lifting a little, she saw how far it had gone. She found her pants in a heap on the floor, sat down at the dressing table and lit a cigarette. The taste of the smoke helped her to think. When she spoke, her voice was lower.
“I’ve had a rough ride. I used to be ashamed of that. I used to think that after Nash I was… Broken. Damaged goods. Like that. And feeling that has…”
She stopped, shook herself, laughed at something and took another drag.
“That feeling has haunted me,” she said with an odd smile.
“And this house is part of not feeling that way?”
“Then I already like it,” he said. “Sight unseen. If it helps you see yourself the way I see you, I will count it an ally.”
Corrie chuckled and shook her head.
“That might be going a little far,” she said. “But I want you to come over. I want you to see it. You should bring a sweater. It gets kind of cold sometimes.”
“I’d be delighted.”
“I want you to think about whether you’d like to move in.”
“There’s enough room. The neighborhood’s a little sketchy, and the jet noise sucks, but not worse than the juke box hero practicing all the time.”
“Corrie, are you saying you want to live with me?”
Her smile was tight and nervous.
“Not asking for a decision,” she said. “But I’m opening negotiations.”
He slipped to the side of the bed, slid to the floor at her feet, and laid his head in her lap. For a long moment, neither moved nor spoke, then Corrie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Come on, silly,” she said. “You’ve got to get ready for Gemma. Go get that scanner back.”
“I do,” he said with a sigh. “Come shower with me?”
“Not today,” she said. And when he raised his eyebrows, “I want to smell like you when I get home.”
* * *
1532 Lachmont Drive seethed around her. Every noise—the hum of the refrigerator, the distant roar of the furnace, the ticking of the wooden floors as the push-pull of heat and cold adjusted the boards—had voices behind them, screaming. The faintest smell of hair and skin burning touched the air. She knew they were meant to be hers.
Corrie hung her coat in the closet. A shape flickered in the basement doorway, dark eyes and inhuman teeth. She set a kettle on the stovetop and smoked a cigarette while it heated. When the clouds outside broke, the doubled light of sky and snow pressed in at the blinds. The kettle whistled. She took a mug out of the cupboard, put in a bag of chamomile tea, and poured the steaming water in. When she sat down, there was blood on the floor. A bright puddle, almost too red to be real, and then a trail wide as a man’s hips where the still-living man had been dragged across to the basement door. When she looked up, the air had a layer of smoke haze a foot below the ceiling. It might have been her cigarette. It might have been gun smoke. She sipped her tea, savoring the heat and the faint sweetness.
“Fine,” she said.
She stood up slowly, stretching. The stairs down to the basement were planks of wood painted a dark, chipping green. The years had softened the edges. The basement had none of the brightness of the day above it. Even with the single bare bulb glowing, the shadows were thick. The furnace roar was louder here, and the voice behind it spat rage and hatred. She followed the trail of blood to the corner of the room where washer and dryer sat sullen in the gloom. She leaned down, put her shoulder to the corner of the dryer, and shifted it. The metal feet shrieked against the concrete. The scar under it was almost three feet wide, a lighter place where the floor had been broken, taken up, and then filled in with a patch of almost-matching cement. She sat down on the dusty floor. There was blood on her hands now, black and sticky and copper-smelling. A spot of white appeared on the odd concrete and began to spread: frost. She put her hand on it like she was caressing a pet.
“We should probably talk,” she said. “And when I say that, I mean I should talk, and you for once should listen.”
Something growled from the corner by the furnace. A shadow detached from the gloom and began pacing like a tiger in its cage. She sipped her tea and looked around the darkness, her gaze calm and proprietary.
“It’s funny the things they get wrong, you know? They remember you threatened Joe Arrison, but instead of his cock, now you were going to cut off his nose. They know I went to the Laughing Academy, but they don’t think I got out. And apparently I was going on about Satan or something.”
She stroked the concrete. The frost was spreading. A dot of red smeared it at the center, blood welling up from the artificial stone.
“And you did, you know?” she said. “You haunted me. Killing you really was worse than I thought it would be. I was so scared that someone would find you. I even tried to kill myself once. Didn’t do a very good job of it. I was one messed up chica. Every couple weeks, I’d do a search online. I just knew that there was going to be something. Bones found at 1532 Lachmont Drive. So what do I find instead? Ghost stories. There was one that even had a drawing of you. And so, I knew, right?”
The shadow shrieked at her, its mouth glowing like there was something burning inside it. The blood at the center of the frost became a trickle. Corrie let the icy flow stain her fingers.
“I was so freaked out,” she said, laughing. “I spent years putting myself back together, and here you still were. I don’t think I slept right for a month. And then one day, something just clicked, you know? I knew what I needed to do.”
She sipped at her tea, but it had gone cold. She was sitting in a spreading pool of gore now, the blood spilling out to the corners of the room. More blood than a real body could contain. It soaked her pants and wicked up her shirt, chilling her, but not badly. The shadow hunched forward, ready to leap.
“David’s coming over tonight,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let him until I was sure it was safe. But tonight, I’m going to make him dinner, and we’re probably going to get a little high, take in a movie, something like that. And then I’m going to fuck him in your bedroom. And you? You’re going to watch.”
The blood rushed. It was almost ankle deep now, tiny waves of red rising up through the basement. Corrie smiled.
“You’ll really hate him,” she said. “He is everything you could never be, and he really, really loves me. And you know what? I love him too. And we’re going to be here, maybe for years. Maybe forever. And we’re going to do everything you couldn’t. We’re going to do it all right. So seriously. How’s that for revenge?”
The shadow screamed, rising up above her, blotting out the light. She could almost feet its teeth at her neck. She scratched.
“You’re dead, fucker,” she said whispered to the darkness. “You can’t hurt me.”
Blood-soaked, she picked up her teacup and walked to the stairs. The ghost whipped at her with cold, insubstantial fingers. It screamed in her ears, battering her with anger and hatred. Corrie grinned, a sense of peace and calm radiating from her. The voices grew thinner, more distant, richer with despair. With each step she took, the visions of blood faded a little more, and by the time she stepped into the winter light, she was clean.