The Man Who Had Lived Here
by David J. Rank
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
That afternoon Clery met the remaining tenants of the apartment building, a single mother with a toddler and the woman’s ancient and nearly lame mother. They invited him in for tea and cookies. Freshly baked, they both assured.
Awkward as the invitation was, Clery was too tired to think of an excuse not to and reluctantly entered their apartment. He perched nervously on the edge of a chair. They sank into a large flowered couch.
Their names were Lila and Dorothea. The child was asleep upstairs. Lila, about Clery’s age, was a registered nurse, a recent graduate of a local vocational school. She worked odd hours at the hospital just a few blocks away.
Pretty enough, Clery thought, in a used and faded sort of way, perhaps even likeable if he had a desire left for such things. There had been too many past disappointments, too many demands, too many angry partings. He surreptitiously glanced at his watch.
Fortunately, Lila and Dorothea were quite willing to converse, expecting nothing more from him than an occasional nod and a word or two indicating he was paying attention. That was easy to fake. Soon, Clery found he was able to relax just a bit while listening to time pass.
During a brief interlude when both women sipped tea, Clery felt obliged to fill the empty silence. “I’ve heard noises, at night, odd sounds. Have you?”
“Oh, yes. All the time,” said Dorothea, followed by a broad grin. Light from the windows glinted off her glasses obscuring her eyes, which annoyed Clery. “Every little breeze seems to make this house moan like some monster. It’s especially noticeable at night when everything else is quiet.”
“I think it’s the trees, branches rubbing together or something,” Lila said.
“Of course, yes, but I believe I’ve heard noises coming from the attic.” Clery leaned forward eager to hear their response.
“Oh, that,” Lila said, leaning toward Clery. “Bats, I think, or squirrels, birds perhaps. We’ve never mentioned it to Mrs. O’Donnell. It really doesn’t bother me. Does it bother you, mother?”
Dorothea shook her head, smiling benevolently. “Of course, it might be a ghost.”
The ease with which they conversed shocked Clery. His own mother — well, he had little in common with his mother.
“What makes you say that? I don’t believe in spirits,” Clery said. “I believe there is a natural explanation for all things. It just needs to be understood. We don’t need to hide behind superstition.”
“I wish I had your faith,” Dorothea said.
Lila cleared her throat. “Well, I’d hate to see some harmless little creature killed. Live and let live, that’s what I believe. More tea?”
“I see.” Clery declined the tea and waved off a second selection of cookies. He asked about his predecessor, of whom they knew less than Gil Othmar.
“Quiet. Cute,” Lila said with a giggle. “We had him over for supper once.”
“He drank too much,” Dorothea said.
Having heard all he wanted, Clery managed to excuse himself. He backed out the front door, politely saying he’d have to take up their offer of dinner another time. He had business to attend to.
“And what business is that, if I may ask?” Dorothea said.
Clery continued to smile even though he thought the question impertinent. “Personal business, bills to pay. Trivialities we all must deal with. Have a good evening.”
He hurried around the building until he could safely bury himself within the confines of his own apartment.
* * *
That night Clery brooded, seated in a parlor chair within a lamp’s pool of dingy yellow light. He carefully compiled the bits and pieces of information gathered during his first few weeks in Manitowoc, his Henry James open and unread in his lap.
The Man Who Had Lived Here had vanished. No one knew where or seemed to care. The latter fact did not surprise Clery. In his experience, few give a tinker’s dam about anyone other than themselves.
Then there were the sounds he was hearing nightly now from the attic. Footsteps, Clery was sure, no matter what his foolish neighbors thought. Maybe The Man Who Had Lived Here had not so much run away as chosen to escape. It was a conjecture Clery found pleasing to contemplate.
* * *
Days later, Clery cornered the police beat reporter alone in the paper’s tiny lunchroom where he managed, between spoonfuls of soup, to work into their otherwise monosyllabic conversation a question about missing person cases open in the city.
Chewing a meatloaf sandwich and gulping coffee from a thermos, young Eddie shook his head. “Not really. High school kids run away all the time. Sometimes an old fart forgets how to get back home. But they all turn up in a day or two. Nothing serious ever happens. There hasn’t even been a decent murder the past four years.”
Clery absorbed this and melded it into his coagulating conjecture.
“Why you ask?”
“Just curious. Nice to hear this is a safe community.”
“Nice for you, tough for me. I need big stories to write about before any metro looks at my clips.”
“It’s good to have goals.” Clery took his soup and left the lunchroom.
* * *
What must it be like, the attic, so dark and secluded? Clery imagined the colors of dusk, dust and heat; perhaps damp places here and there where rain managed to seep. He pictured a cathedral-like space, bars of light spearing the room from large, window-like vents at each end of the building, puffs of wind filtering into a self-contained world free of limitations.
It would be a quiet place, peaceful as a mausoleum, shadows swallowing the edges of the floor where the slope of the roof flowed past. There would be signs of creatures, mice perhaps, and likely other things, insects of all sorts. One would never really be alone.
Clery dawdled at work that afternoon and dined at an inexpensive restaurant downtown in the evening. It was dark when he returned to his apartment. Thankfully his neighbors were all shuttered in for the night. He felt blissfully alone and unshackled.
* * *
He lay in bed thinking, too energized to let sleep interrupt daydreams. Above him, silence.
What must it be like, there in the attic? Alone. He imagined sheltered solitude. Clery supposed water could be found, always at night: dribbles from the roof, the apartments, or safer yet, from the river below. Food? Much the same could be said for that. It was just a matter of how much scrounging one was willing to put up with, to what extent one was willing to stomach whatever was found. Yes, it could be done.
Clery had to admit it was an audacious and brilliant plan. His admiration grew for The Man Who Had Lived Here, the simplicity he must have obtained. Deep into the night Clery finally drifted off to sleep, a smile on his lips when dawn tinted his room.
* * *
Clery called in sick that morning, much to the chagrin of his managing editor. Clery did not care. He spent the morning seated in his kitchen, drinking coffee, gazing out the window with its view of the unappealing car shed.
“What to do? What to do?”
The police would not believe him, wouldn’t bother to investigate his absurd claim. His shrill-voiced landlady would be notified and he would look foolish, and likely get himself evicted. Besides, surely The Man Who Had Lived Here had contingency plans, a way to disappear if the attic was stormed. He would.
No, it would be best to deal with this himself. Clery sipped coffee and ignored the tightening knot that was his stomach.
It was late afternoon before he had the courage to climb the staircase and face the closet door. Legs rubbery, Clery had to grip the railing with both hands, almost pulling himself up the stairs.
In the hallway it took several minutes before Clery could reach out and open the door. The gloom within the tiny space unnerved him and he backed away. He felt darkness reach for his soul. Clery took a deep breath and a giddy sense of expectation swept through him. Finally, he stepped into the gloom.
Clery studied the unbalanced door. His breathe tasted stale, his mouth dry. Clery pressed a hand against the door and felt it give slightly, so much so, he thought he might just be able to manually shove the door back against its hinges and release the lock’s bolt from the frame. He tried and failed.
The palm of his hand fell against the seam between door and frame. Clery felt the attic’s hot wind singe his flesh. He closed his eyes and leaned against the door, his cheek pressed tight to the wood. Both hands gripped the knob, but all he accomplished was a useless rattle. He stepped back.
With a large knife, he thought, he could dig out the latch. He had no other tool in the house. On a whim, Clery stood on tiptoes and with fingertips searched the dust that littered the top of the doorframe. His fingers touched something hard and smooth and cold. Clery smiled and he tapped the key until it fell to his feet with a single thud.
Clery picked up the old-fashioned key and slid it into the keyhole. He tried to turn it, tried again. On the third attempt he felt the lock give with a dry, reluctant thump. Hand trembling, Clery pulled open the door, letting the darkness sweep over him carrying smells of dust and rot and something else.
Clery could see nothing but the first three steps. Above was a black square, within it the tiniest hint of gray light flickering from somewhere in the expanse of the attic itself. Clery gripped the doorframe with both hands and pulled himself through. He reached back for the key then pulled the door closed behind him. Clery inserted the key and locked it.
He faced the dark above, forcing a numb foot to rise and position itself on the first step. He climbed until his head cleared the attic floor. Clery paused, afraid to turn and look for the source of the tiny light. He heard things behind him, whispers and breaths. They had waited for him. He continued upward, bowing his head to fit beneath the sloping roof, a penitent supplicating.
Sweat dripped from his face. He stepped upon the floor still unwilling to turn and face the cavernous attic and all it held. Things scratched and scurried, the grim light flickered. He felt the gaze of many eyes on his back.
An impulse to flee rushed through him but Clery did not. Instead, he filled his lungs with darkness and turned to face those waiting for him, eager to know the truth about The Man Who Had Lived Here, the truth about the universe he would find in the attic.
Clery lost his way in the dark, above all others, above the river.
* * *
The landlady escorted a young couple through the apartment pointing out the generous kitchen, the cozy living room and comfortable bathroom. Upstairs, they were impressed with the bedrooms and the landlady made sure to mention the place was available immediately. They could move in that very afternoon if they wanted.
“Now then,” she continued, clearing her throat. “What do you think? I do have others waiting to see the place.”
Before the couple could speak, they all heard a single, slow creak overhead.
“Well, it is windy — and this is an old building,” the landlady said with a short and brittle chuckle, which Clery, if he were there, would have considered much too forced and insincere.
Copyright © 2012 by David J. Rank