The old milk factory had been there forever, though it had stopped pasteurizing, bottling, and shipping years ago. He saw it from his semi-basement front windows: three brick storeys atop a stubby urban hill, the building’s white exterior seeming as faded as its future.
He could recall, walking home from grade then high schools, seeing men in rumpled overalls exit the factory’s side door, getting into long cars parked around the plant or lining up for a nearby, now discontinued bus route: one memory in a life that had started and now returned him here. Why, exactly, had he chosen just weeks ago to rent this modest, cozy apartment in a neighbourhood, a city, similar yet changed? He had seldom been happy here.
He sighed, vaguely hungry. With little in the fridge and little to do, he should go out, stretch his legs and buy things. He had been indoors all day.
It was a brisk late afternoon in October. Where to shop? He knew of a small supermarket the other side of the hill. Why not go there.
His legs felt stiff as he ascended toward the factory’s utilitarian shape above a parking space then sidewalk facing his building. Halfway uphill, he saw the wooden back of a brown brick residence across the street, spiral stairs connecting porches from top to bottom floors. He dimly remembered this house, one of many neat brick, grey-stone, and frame dwellings in a quarter quieter than before.
He had, since returning here, wondered if the factory’s closing had depressed the area, though streets and houses looked well kept, few “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs about. Yet this area, with its small stores and tiny, triangular parks, seemed seldom used, passers-by infrequent day or night. Never having spoken to his neighbours, he heard their soundproofed sounds from other apartments; saw them enter and exit, mainly at night. People drove rather than walked by his windows, again after dark.
He now noticed that the factory actually enjoyed a fairly new paint job. The side door, once for exiting workmen, had become a smooth maroon portal without handle, stronger-looking than its worn predecessor.
Reaching the top of the hill, curiosity walked him to the building’s front entrance. It was still there: a sand-coloured sheet of stone above tall dark oak doors that had once intimidated him: “Majestic Milk.” He saw long clear windows along the second and third floors. Years ago, their glass had been smudged by production, and he imagined its once-busy interior: white-coated men on one floor checking vats crowned by temperature gauges, women in white on another minding machines that squirted milk into glass bottles on conveyor trays, the product to be sealed, crated, and delivered within the city and beyond.
People stayed here decades, from youth to retirement. If his young self had ventured inside he would have seen a working world weightier than his paper route: a world he had never truly inhabited, so often had he been unemployed. He was unemployed now.
He looked upward and saw potted plants behind panes on the two floors above. Tenants, a condo? Whatever. He had things to buy.
Returning from the supermarket two days later, he noticed a closed, curtain-less window in the middle of the side wall several steps above the upgraded exit. He didn’t remember this window from the other day. It must have slipped his sight.
He saw a movement, then a figure, inside it.
A young woman stood in daylight in a white room, a windowpane and mere footsteps away. She had a white bath towel around her, and was brushing her long blonde hair in a precise yet relaxed way, probably before a bathroom mirror. Her hair was bright yellow, her slender yet firm arms golden brown. Then she stopped and looked outside. Their eyes met.
She looked at him directly; few women did. He saw no disapproval or dismissal in her blue eyes, just surprise. Her lips opened, also in surprise.
He had caught her in a private moment; she had forgotten to draw blinds. He walked on self-consciously, a car passing behind him.
Had he embarrassed her? Maybe, but she was doubtless discarding him from her mind this second. With her looks, she would have more dashing males to dwell on.
Yet he might dwell on her. He had not, save television and films rented shyly from adult sections, seen a woman in any undress for some time. And those moments had rarely been in the flesh.
He had always been an onlooker: from windows, on streets, in cafés where he took his afternoon coffee and, recently, in his apartment, having bought an HD television and DVD player. He had spent years alone, though in poorer circumstances. Now, money was not such a
worry thanks to a legacy he’d returned here to collect from a deceased uncle he’d barely known.
“It seems you are the only member of the family left,” the notary’s registered letter had stated last spring. This had not really surprised him. Thus, his uncle’s bank account and modest investments were now his. Yet they did not make him much happier. They did not change his being alone.
That evening, watching television indifferently, he felt restless. He was by himself: nothing new, but the sight of that girl underscored his being so.
All this had roots: taciturn parents made more so by death; no siblings; few friends deceased or dispersed. Small talk didn’t interest him, socializing had never been easy, and permanent, pleasing work had rarely happened. Only books, television, afternoon coffee, and the odd film night sustained him.
But they weren’t enough, not tonight. There was something about her gaze, the easy way she had brushed her blond hair; her smooth arms, her youth. He had wasted years doing little and knowing few. Now, middle-aged, seeing that girl made him wonder if returning here might bring an appealing, uplifting female into his life. He knew he would venture up that hill again.
It was mild outside: barely windbreaker weather. He would ignore routine and go out after 10 p.m.: for a coffee, perhaps even company.
An hour later he was walking back along a block that had once had rooming houses and a snack bar on whose rotating padded stools he had sat gulping foamy cream sodas, now a hair salon, sleek restaurants, and café with an unseasonably open terrace on which he had drunk coffee while reading a newspaper by diluted light. He had spoken only, and briefly, to a waiter.
There was no one about: not unusual here, but tonight seemed especially still, with only a few lit lampshades between curtains suggesting others awake. A black cat ran past as he crossed the street to his own brown brick building. Then he saw a car on the hill, official lettering on its side, headlights on, parked where he had seen that girl: the police. He saw dark figures beside it, against the starry sky.
This was a quiet area. So why the police? Something connected to that girl? Now he really was thinking too much. Despite the silent night, he slept fitfully. It was the coffee, and something else.
She had finally seen someone, and that someone had seen her.
So there was hope! The few people who passed by looked straight ahead when going up or down hill. If they did turn their heads her way, their faces showed no reaction. It was as if they were looking at a brick wall.
Yet he had seen her. It was in his eyes, his face. But he had become shy and hurried past. If he had only stopped, she could have gestured to him; tried to establish contact, to somehow relieve her isolation.
If she must be punished, why make it so painful by reminding her of others who might want to speak to her, know her. Yet that was why she was here. She had known others intimately, something natural to her but perverse to her society. Those she had been private with her became her fiercest accusers. She had made them ashamed; they had all thus punished her.
Now she was alone in a room in a space she might never leave, an insider looking out. Her only release was grooming herself in the mirror, remembering how longingly others had looked at her. She had glimpsed that same want in that man passing. She wished to see him, and that look, again.
Then she remembered the one who had brought her here: dark, powerful, borderline hostile. She had only experienced him that once. He had told her she might never leave here. If he reappeared again, it might be to inflict worse than here on her: something, someplace unthinkable.
Alan Vogt woke up annoyed, having gone to bed annoyed. Who wouldn’t after being stopped and questioned by the police solely on appearance, or lack of it, especially considering that his reason for being there had disappeared: no window, no female.
Two days ago, finished “work,” he was passing that refurbished building on the hill when he had looked into a clear closed window and seen a young blonde woman, the type he used to meet in upscale bars, restaurants, and suites. Then, not now. Now his once promising, popular self was broke and alone, avoided by former colleagues, even friends. Now he was someone who the police could bother at will. His only “witness” to this late night harassment was a figure crossing from the small park below the hill.
Still, what he had seen in daylight had merited a second sight. And she had looked at him, interest in her blue eyes. This encouraged, if only because otherwise women no longer noticed him: his mien reflected his shrunken self-image.
She had been standing in a bathroom mere feet from the street in a slight dress showing her slender but shapely arms and shoulders, hers the only window in a white wall whose exterior had a purple door without handle, probably an exit.
She had gestured to him; he wondered if they’d met before. He had smiled back; was about to speak to her through the windowpane when a sound interrupted him from behind. It was a blue and white police car cruising downhill, its driver’s bland face eyeing him. Annoyed, he turned back to the window.
She was gone, the bathroom vacant, its fresh white walls bare. Yet she had, so briefly, lifted him from his blank existence. He walked on, petulance at the police smoothed by her pleasing image.
The following night, restless in his pokey room, he thought of her, enough to get him outside and heading toward the building on the hill and lamplight visible in an upper window. Yet he now found no window where there had been, no girl, and was staring very puzzled at the blank wall when the police had stopped. An officer with a familiar bland face had asked him why he was there; had looked doubtfully at his I.D.
Then again, he doubted his own identity. Lounging in his barely furnished room, looking out a cracked window to a cool, comfortless blue sky with thin white clouds, he saw a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. He, Alan Vogt, had just spent Thanksgiving alone for the first time ever. Would he always?
He looked out the front window and blinked. Was the old factory really this big, the parking space this long? They hadn’t seemed so before. He then saw a blue and white police car cruise by.
That afternoon, noting his again ill-stocked fridge, he headed for the supermarket. Walking uphill, he thought of the police car at night, that girl in the window by day. He would pass the window and, hopefully, her any second.
He saw no window. There was only wall. He glanced to the renewed exit door: still there. He glanced back to where the window should be, and again was: closed, curtain-less. What was this? Seconds ago, there had been sheer brick there. Were his senses going, solitude finally unhinging him? Then he thought of that girl’s smooth blonde hair, her figure. She could not be an illusion.
And there she was, as if answering his wish, looking at him through a clear windowpane, the clearest pane ever. She was in a sleeveless dress with low neckline just above an attractively compact chest. Nonplussed by her sudden presence, he still noticed that V of softly tanned skin, and her smooth golden brown arms.
Yet it was her face that compelled. Before, she had been surprised. Now she was alarmed, her blue eyes wide in distress. Her mouth was open, speaking words he could not hear. Behind her was a wide male form, encroaching yet opaque.
He backed away, stumbling on the edge of the curb, almost falling onto the street and collection of leaves. Whatever was happening in that room was not his scene. He hastened downhill, shopping forgotten, a vehicle somewhere behind him. Fumbling the keys to his building’s glass front entrance, he looked up to see a police car stop at the intersection with the hill, and a driver’s bland pale face looking his way.
Alan Vogt exited a block-long building made of vertical, russet-coloured tin ducts. He thought of a similarly-tinged micro-brew he could so enjoy right now. But his bank balance was near nil, awaiting its tiny monthly supplement due to the “work” he had just quit for the day.
Not long ago he couldn’t have imagined doing what he did now to survive: 30 hours weekly in this recycling plant, wearing rough gloves as he and others stood beside a conveyer belt whose contents were to be crushed, scraped and reshaped to re-enter a world that had discarded them.
This extra “income “allowed him a small sipped coffee each afternoon. He otherwise lived on packaged soup, rice and veggies. Not eating out, he could barely afford two craft beers on “payday,” drinking them slowly in the small room he would never like. How had he come to this? Never mind. It was a short story, one that had unfolded so fast.
Approaching the corner and the plain brown brick apartment building below the old factory and a parking lot, he thought of that window and girl: neither visible from the corner if there at all. He did see someone walk past him: a past-prime man with ruffled grey-brown hair and an insular, pensive look accentuated by a crease between his eyebrows. He had seen this face before: someone probably from the brown apartment building right to his right. He saw the man’s back as it receded past the park with black iron fence and bushes denuded by deepening autumn. This figure had the sagged aspect of someone depleted. He, Alan Vogt, could tell. He saw the same look in his mirror.
She was out, escaped from her cage and captor. It still seemed unreal, as did her new surroundings: a world looking similar but with a very different feel. Even the air here was strange: sharp and cold, grudgingly sustaining the lungs. But this world also felt free, different from her realm. There, all she had was tedium and confinement.
Yes, this whole environment was singular. Skittish and sticking to a park below a hill, she had avoided the few men and women she saw. She remembered the interested reaction of those two men she had traded looks with. Were all men here so caught by a supple figure? She would have to discover.
Yet here was so chill, especially in her thin dress. She must find shelter, heat.
She thought of her captor’s dark bulk and scowling face. He symbolized those who had sentenced her, confining her to that space with one window. He had arrived unexpectedly, just as she had seen someone desired: the man who had noticed her first; a man she had appealed to as her captor loomed.
This nameless gaoler had come to take her somewhere else. He wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Panicked, she had scrambled through that usually confining pane as it inexplicably yielded. Her captor did not follow her, only stared hard at her as she escaped into this new world he did not, or couldn’t enter. Not yet, anyway.
Now she saw a man, distracted, mildly dishevelled, crossing toward the park from the corner and a brown brick building across the street. Not young, he walked slouched, his face difficult to see, not just because of a bared bush but because he looked downward.
The distracted man was being eyed by an ill-dressed man walking alongside the building. Despite the dim daylight, these two men reminded her of the two others. She tried to get a better look as the rumpled man, likely the younger, turned to glance at the downcast type as he passed the park and out of sight.
Could these really be them? The first to notice her had done so twice, outside looking in. He had fled her appeal the second time. Would others here flee her?
The second, younger one, presentable but for shabby clothes, had tried to speak to her. Then, suddenly distracted, he turned away. Returning his gaze to her, he seemed to lose sight of her, though she was right there, gesturing, waving to him.
She now saw the rumpled man cross to climb the hill topped by a building that looked oddly familiar. There were other odd things here. Still, she must adjust enough to find friends as she had before. Though disappointed by those men outside her window, she knew she could find other males able to provide her comfort in this grey new world.
She looked again at that brown brick building opposite the park. Why not start there.
Alan Vogt regarded the white wall of this renewed but prosaic building atop the hill. He had known better old buildings: brick or stone head offices and hotels, solid between glass and steel towers sheathing opulent apartments and office suites, along with bars with the plushest seats on earth. He had always liked those well-preserved relics rich in civic and corporate history, standing proud amidst hyper-modernity.
This building, while lacking like pedigree, seemed a divider against his side of the hill, with its shabby rooming house, its litter and small supermarket whose specials helped him survive. He worked on the hill’s far side, with its neat houses, clean streets and peculiar little parks deserted even on sunny days. It was odd how little-used those streets were, except by police cars.
He glanced around: no one behind, no window before him, and no girl. He knew he had seen the two latter. Where was that female in the frame? Had this square in the wall been filled up? Its brickwork looked even with the wall under the pale paint facelift. New masonry would have shown.
So why hadn’t she? Her face certainly stayed with him, at work, on the street, in cafés, or at home, where he could only brood and regret. He wanted to see, speak to her. She evoked a better life the memory of which was killing him.
Why not enter this building, try to find her? The sight of her was worth the effort, and he had little to lose.
The building’s entrance was steps away. If she were inside, he had enough of his old ways to get to see her, to speak then to know her. He used to know many women.
He tried the solid doors beneath that engraved sand-coloured stone evoking the building’s past: locked, no handle or knob. Yet this place indicated renovation, tenancy. Still, he saw no key-lock or code-box in the oak frame beside the doors; no bell or buzzer.
The windows above evidenced occupants who seemingly disdained uninvited visitors. He recalled lights up there the other night.
Should he knock loudly to summon someone, saying he was looking for a young blonde girl who probably lived there? He would have to be convincing.
He pushed one of the doors in frustration. Just then it opened abruptly, inwardly. He withdrew a surprised hand before being shoved aside by an exiting male form heading for then disappearing around the corner. Stumbling backward, shaken, his senses could only register a blurred bulk and a trail of heat.
Who had that been? An unexpected entity had fled this building, as much energy as man, now out on the streets, in the wind.
Where was she? He must find her. If she escaped for good, he would suffer for it. Like her, he would be made an example of.
He still had a chance. He was now out of that gloomy enclosure thanks to a door suddenly opening into a world he had never wanted to penetrate, but now must: a world where breathing was difficult, whose air stabbed his lungs, impeding him.
And it was so dim here, the sun so weak. In his world, all was bright, helping him uncover secret places where her and other aberrant types activated. Her actions had been rightly forbidden: She had seduced those who should have known better; had undermined society. She had been punished and would be punished further.
Yet first he had to find her in this grey world of ambiguous, transitory people. Structures here seemed inhabited but insular, hard to infiltrate.
No matter. He would return this dangerously alluring girl to their world for eternal confinement: an example to others. His determination always won.
The door was open, perhaps unlocked by that bolting figure. Who, perhaps what, had just exited: An intruder fleeing something inside? He felt unprepared to enter this unknown.
Yet Alan Vogt had always dared. His pluck had led to success then to failure that had doused his spirit. That spirit suddenly flared. The girl’s image motivated, and wasn’t trying better than never knowing?
He opened the door cautiously. Its solid wood was heavy, unwilling, and revealed a lobby with high ceiling, old white walls, and air cooler than outside. Incoming daylight from the main door helped visibility not much. But he felt history here: a residue of much coming and going.
Facing him were wide stairs leading upward, likely to refurbished apartments. To either side of him was a dark corridor even darker toward the end.
Thinking clearly despite the offbeat setting, he wondered how to reach the girl’s apartment. There must be a downstairs relative to the sloping exterior where their eyes had met.
The grey cold stone floor was faded but clean; there was no real mustiness about. Yet he sensed no human activity. This likely was a former office building, as the stone above the entrance indicated.
He could hear his own footsteps in the silence as he explored one corridor, feeling the stucco walls, his hands and eyes probing for details. This hall contained dark panelled wood doors with small stained brass plates on them, lettering unreadable in the meagre light: old office doors, their knobs tightly locked. He felt the chill here, and an atmosphere of workplaces long since cleared out. Was a caretaker around? Did anyone actually live upstairs? If so, why was it unheated inside? He was probably trespassing, but on whose property?
Yet he was here for the girl. He must find her vanished living space.
There was no girl in this wing. He tried the wing on the other side of the lobby. There were no doors here at all. Then, in a corner at the hall’s obscure end, he discovered a door-less opening leading down made detectable by an earthy smell coming from it.
He descended onto cold wooden steps, into cold air and no light. He could hear himself breathe; could hear his careful steps in the silence as he felt his way down concrete walls in complete darkness. He stopped, very uneasy: This place was otherworldly. Perhaps he should quit it. Who exactly owned, lived here?
Then the stairs ended in a flat stone floor.
His probing hand met cold wood. His fingers cautiously found the corner of smooth adjoining planes.
He felt the inlaid panel of a door, searched by touch for a handle: none. He pushed the door’s edge: closed tight. Then it began to open inwardly. He stepped back, anxious, thinking of that strange, overbearing form that had pushed past him above. The door opened fully, autonomously, to a brightness that pierced the corridor’s darkness. He blinked before a radiant white that hurt his eyes, and an intrinsic heat separate from any plumbing system.
He could only see brilliance, no objects, walls, or details. Then, squinting, he saw a gap in intensity several feet before him: a painted white room with a clear window showing blue outside, and a view to the street where he and the girl had met eyes.
Then he did hear something: A door closing firmly behind him. But he had been looking into the room from its doorway. He swung around; saw the outline of the door within the intense white, shut against the dark corridor and stairs leading here. He was now inside, surrounded by energy much brighter than any future he might have had.
VIt was November: days short and dull, trees leafless. Damp cold dug in. Even fewer people or cars passed by. He rarely heard, never saw his neighbours. That building on the hill, of course, was ever there, along with memories of that girl: enticing, exciting his imagination. Then he recalled the presence behind her, making her a woman in danger needing his help. He had never had that to give and, chagrined by it all, now took a different route to the supermarket.
Yet he felt different: restless, dissatisfied, uninterested in television, books, newspapers. That building, the lovely girl inside it, represented a crux. The box he had lived his life in was contracting. Past and present were taking from him in this neighbourhood fixed in time. As such, he had made one of his rare decisions.
He would move downtown, to where people mingled. Money was no longer a problem. He would sub-let this apartment. Someone would want a quiet area like this one.
His landlady’s dry, youth-less voice had then told him he would, as legally required, have to find a replacement tenant.
He advertised in the paper: no replies. Why, he wondered one noon-hour, forehead against the front window frame, did his few efforts never succeed? He looked up to a police car cruising by, a pale officious face scanning his apartment. Was he suspected of something? Had that girl been killed? He had studied the paper, watched TV, for related happenings on the hill: Nothing.
That night, awakening from a cascade of dreams, he raised himself from his bed in his crammed bedroom and saw a shadowy shoulder of someone on the sidewalk just outside his window. Who was it: Another tenant, a passerby? Why stand before his window?
He lay still, then got up to check. The shadow had gone. There was only a police car slowly passing by.
Someone had responded: a man sounding his age wanting a quiet place and who would visit tomorrow morning.
He was lying on the couch facing the window, the blinds raised to weak sun. Moving here had been strange, upsetting even, but it had decided him to change, catch up on life. If only someone would take his apartment. He would then find a livelier place to live.
He heard a soft but definite knock on the door. He started. So few visited him.
He looked through the spy hole: No one. Was this caller tiny or invisible? It couldn’t be that possible, momentarily premature tenant. The knock sounded again.
He opened the door to someone he didn’t quickly recognize. Then he did. It was those young blue eyes. He had last seen them wide in alarm behind that window on the hill. Here they were as bright as her blonde hair, along with a smile no woman had ever given him before.
Alan Vogt sat inside the bathroom doorway on a new cool white tile floor contemplating the unnatural warmth from the room leading to this one. He sat beside a bathtub of white glazed clay, a sea-blue shower curtain drawn around it. He did not want to wash, bathe, or relieve himself in the toilet bowl below that now hateful window.
He wanted immediate out: back to his pokey room, that cracked window held together by duct tape. He even wanted back to his workplace: dreary, but of this world.
If only he had never seen her. If only he had not been in a vulnerable state, with a desirable woman in a window filling his head with imaginings, possibilities. If only.
Who, where was she? Couldn’t she do right by him: return to set him free? He had tried to find, perhaps help her. Now he needed help. The door to the corridor, in that weirdly warm room, was sealed, pounding on it useless. It appeared a normal panelled portal, but was as thick as steel.
Then there was that light. He hated that unnatural brilliance that flowed and ebbed, especially at dusk.
He could see everything outside, as she must have. Few walked by. When they did, he banged on the window, shouted at them. It was as if he weren’t there. How could this unreality be?
There was day and night outside, but his stressed senses couldn’t register chronology. How long had he been here? Was he going mad?
He finally rose, pressed his face against the window. Feeling like a glass windowpane, it was something impenetrable that resisted his pounding fists. He had, standing on the toilet seat, tried to thrust his foot through it. His foot had bounced off the pane.
A car idled by. The few that passed drove a bit faster. This one, blue and white with large official lettering on its side, stopped directly across from the apartment window. He saw a bland officious face looking at him from its side window. That face assumed a peculiar grin..
So someone did know he was there; no one else did.
She looked at his sleeping face beside her: middle-aged, with dark-grey stubble and grey-brown hair, yet at peace, the crease between his eyebrows softened because she was there. But not for long.
It had taken little to possess this man, to fulfill his decades-long need for a female to enter and shape his life, revive his spirit in this small, welcomingly warm apartment. She made his solitude a memory; they had even gone shopping together in this neighbourhood of shy residents. But they’d always circled the hill with the old building on top. Why? He would only imply some negative knowledge of it that, he hinted, she somehow shared. Yet she didn’t; nor did she question. She did feel strange when looking upward at it from the front window. It somehow made her uneasy.
Being so close to a source of malaise was a reason to leave, as was the cold and the white flakes from the sky she had never seen before. They presaged an insular, undesirable period. She had watched his television; saw that warmer climes existed southward. She would venture there, find friends. This world was freer than hers. She could do much here.
She got up from the small bed in the small, furniture-cluttered room, a single window with worn cloth curtain looking out to the stark park she had first sought refuge in.
She gave him a departing look. Since knocking on his door, she had seen his downcast demeanour brighten. Yet ultimately he was just too sad, too old to stay with. And there was a new world to explore. She was going to do so, now.
She quietly began dressing for outdoors: new denims and a sweater; a sand-brown overcoat that matched her natural light tan. He had bought these for her, and she was grateful. He had even given her spending money. She would need that now.
She softly stepped out of the bedroom, away from his sleeping self under a tartan blanket.
He stirred and mumbled, his usual way of waking. She must go. Her hand on the bolt, she froze. She felt strange heat from corridor outside, reminding her of a world she had fled.
He was there, the man who had confined her somewhere close that she could not remember. But she remembered him and had, her first days here, fretted about his following her. Now he had found her. She felt his silent strength on the other side of the door; felt her old and new life ending.
He looked once more out the front window. There was thinly iced snow outside. The old white factory building was still there. How long would he be?
She was gone. Had it been a dream: a lovely girl framed by a window actually entering his life, transforming it not for the better but the best? Then she had left, leaving him alone, empty. Why did he always end up this way?
Yes, he had been happy. Though saying little to each other, she had fulfilled him as only fantasies once had. Then, one morning, he woke to find her departed, her clothes and some money gone. He did not blame her for that. She had shown up with an unseasonal dress and nothing else, seeking a warm niche. They had both needed warmth of some sort. She had given him that. Thinking about it now, there had been a strange residue of heat around the door just after she’d left.
He remembered, prior to her arrival, planning to leave this area, its near mortal stillness. But potential tenants had never arrived, though a young man seeking lodgings had phoned this morning, saying he might pass by later.
Looking at that building on the hill that had revealed her presence to him, he felt the bittersweet loss of her, and of things he’d never even had. He wondered about the future.
He heard a knock on the door.
The Suburbs of Memory
A cool breeze from the dormer window touched his face, his hairline, his hair with its undeniably greying front locks. They were still thick though; still needed the sure stroke of a brush every morning. He was in boxer shorts on a bed with white sheet in the long dark attic of the home his parents had willed him: a two-storied house he had grown up in, left, then returned to when the outside world fell short of its promise. A house he inhabited alone.
It was past midnight. He had just awoken from a fitful sleep on a sticky, unrestful Monday night. He could guess the time by the quiet suburban crescent below. Friday and Saturday nights were different, with younger residents driving back from parties and clubs, pulsing music and brash, sometimes ribald conversation audible above. Young men brought young women back with them, or vice versa. He remembered being less forward with the opposite sex at that age. Besides, his parents had been a bit strict.
Now, in bed on a silent night years after their demise, he felt a subtle, palpable shift in the room’s ambience, its dimensions. Maybe it was the heat; maybe it was being alone so often in the wee hours, but this very familiar space felt suddenly alien. He looked beyond his bed to the shadow under the ceiling’s sloping boards just above the squat wicker chair, there since forever, abutting the plank wall: a deep shade holding a previously unsuspected life of its own.
He was not alone. A piece of his past had chosen to re-emerge within that darkness at the foot of his bed. He could discern it now, an opaque form hunched forward on the chair: humanoid, motionless. Then it spoke, distinctly, within the silence of the house, the hour, and the quiet crescent outside.
“You haven’t changed that much.” The ageless male voice had no accent. A car drove by below, smoothly turning the crescent.
His weight on one elbow, his skin hot, he had no reply, only a memory of where that voice came from: his youth, with its promise of adventure bearing reward, a yield that had somehow proved elusive, his potential never fulfilled, satisfaction never attained. Did it exist at all?
Still, those few words did recall another image: of himself as a presentable young man, respected for his composure and brains without being really popular. It was his surface indifference to others, he realized, his aloofness that had kept him single and finally alone, past friends scattered to greener pastures. Some had died rather young, their memory ebbing into his brain’s back waters.
Yet it was by water decades ago when, under a blanched seaside sky over a thin highway beside an ocean touching the horizon, he had first sighted someone linked eternally with this speaking shadow before him.
Campbell was driving, his right hand easy on the wheel, his thick dark hair solid against a breeze tapping the windshield of the red Mustang convertible. Campbell was wearing a blue tee-shirt with a logo once popular, now passé.
They were alongside a ruffled grey ocean, its beaches strewn from last night’s storm: wavy black seaweed, snapped logs and displaced black clumps. Lighting had flashed for hours as the sky detonated. This was an unseasonably wet July.
Today, however, was mild though sunless. Campbell gripped the wheel with both hands as an overbearing truck made an illegal pass. They were passing sand that, right there, became a thin peninsula into the ocean behind a stunted white tree with bare crooked branches facing the highway. He had, until visiting these parts, never seen such trees. Some feet away from the tree was a white clapboard house with a sloping roof of green-black tiles, a light-blue door on its side.
A young woman stood beside the highway between tree and house. She wore a blue denim jacket and pants. Her hair, bright blonde on a grey day, fell freely on her shoulders. He looked at her as they approached. She looked at him directly, a contact only broken by the car’s progress. Normally, he would shy from such frankness. Now, he looked back and kept looking at her as she kept looking at him until they grew distant.
“Know her?” asked Campbell, smirking slightly. “Like to?”
Perhaps. He seldom saw young women this striking. He seldom saw, or met, anyone impressive. Even Campbell could be annoyingly immature, though they were the same age. He was often reticent with his parents, about his feelings, about his stable but somehow unsatisfying academic career. His life lacked something.
That night, his parents upstairs in bed, he sat on a rocking chair sipping red wine as embers crumbled into grey ash in the fireplace. His parents had rented this two-story vacation cottage for a month.
He was thinking of the stunted tree, the tongue of beach, and that blonde girl, her yellow hair in the breeze.
The next day he borrowed his father’s light grey de Ville to drive not so aimlessly down the coast. The sky was a soft blue with long thin clouds. He felt latent humidity in the late morning air.
He drove slowly, barely above the minimum speed limit, cresting a rise.
He saw the stunted tree. Then he saw her, as yesterday, beside the highway. His foot rode the brake as the road levelled and she looked his way. He looked at her, saw that she was tallish, about twenty-three, dressed in a white cotton shirt and faded blue jeans. Her skin was lightly tanned, her honey-coloured hair more golden than corn yellow.
Her eyes could be blue, he thought. He wanted to make sure, foot on the brake as he drove close to her, trying nonetheless to seem casual.
A dark-clothed, dark-haired male came out of the white house’s light blue door, gazing beyond her back, at him. That stare unnerved him; his vehicle veered over the white line. He steered sharply to his right, tires grasping the thin shoulder of the road as a car in the opposite lane appeared before him. Flustered, he increased speed, trying to distance himself from his discomfort. Later, driving home carefully along the highway, he saw no one by the road: just a tree, a house, and an ocean behind it.
She had him. She knew it as their eyes met. She now had to enrapture him.
Others who drove by also looked. Some stared. But this one was different. He was more than interested or aroused; he was fascinated.
She knew he was a visitor, here only to holiday. Better that way. When he left, he would take her with him, away from this beach, this house, that tree. She was not strong enough to leave by herself. This visitor would revitalize her.
Francis could not be there. It was Francis who stopped her from leaving; who watched her increasingly. If only he didn’t: fleeing would be easier. Now, she had the right person. With his help, she would never have to see that twisted tree again.
His mother was looking at him with muted concern. His father, next to her at the plain plank table, was engrossed in a white filet glazed with butter and sprinkled with dark green parsley, a slice of lemon to the side.
They were in a simply furnished, quality sea food restaurant. The plump pink shrimps on his plate were going cold. He was eating slowly. He had been abstracted all day. He could only think of her.
It wasn’t just her face, her youth, her trim full figure. It was elemental. He had never felt such an instant, intense attraction to a girl. Of course, he hadn’t known many. Perhaps here was his chance to change that.
She seemed to live in that house by the jutting beach, by the strange tree. So, maybe, did that man with the memorable stare.
He could ask some locals about them. No. Doing so might reveal his interest. The brief look he and she had shared was theirs alone. He would find out about her himself, perhaps tomorrow. The weather was predicted sunny. He would borrow the car again, and stay within the white line, if only to see her even better.
He was driving slowly down that highway, ascending then descending that rise that dipped to the white frame house.
She was beside the road, wearing light pale blue clothes, her face toward him. That square-set man was also there, behind her. His black clothes and straight coal-black cut highlighted her fairness while still paling behind her flowing yellow locks.
The sight of those locks gave him an unusual feeling of confidence, independence. Slowing to a cruise, almost abreast of her, he dared to stop to ask directions, to hear her voice; to establish contact despite her companion.
The man in black stepped decisively before her to the very edge of the highway: a stony, thirtyish blue-jawed face, brows a black bar over eyes like shiny, chocolate-brown marbles, looking hard at him through the side window as if at a trespasser on very private property. Intimidated, he pressed the gas and drove on. When he drove back, they were not there.
He did not drive down that road the next day. That girl, though intriguing, was obviously spoken for. She might be unhappy about this, but his inexperienced self knew enough not to take this further. That man’s dark-clothed figure was strong and menacing: a possessive boyfriend or hyper-protective brother. He was over his neck here, and should forget her.
He slept badly that night. Beset by jagged dreams, he woke up gasping, as if he had stopped breathing while asleep, his body instinctively pulling itself back to consciousness to survive.
It was pitch black, silent inside and out. He felt disoriented, having awoken so abruptly. Then, his reviving brain sensed the a shadow within the darkness at the foot of his bed: a presence, somehow male. Impossible. His mind must be playing tricks.
He heard a creak just outside his door. An aging plank? His mother or father visiting the washroom? They might peek in as they did when he was a boy to see if he were asleep and alright. No, they wouldn’t do that at his age, though right now he did feel very young and vulnerable.
Something slipped past the closed door, obscure but for long blonde hair visible in the darkness; something feminine.
“She” appeared behind the male presence, causing some type of reaction, causing her form and hair to retreat to the door.
Then she was gone, soundlessly, somehow disappearing through the wooden door without turning its handle. The next instant, he noticed that the other presence was also gone, empty darkness where he, it had seemed to be.
Was this a waking dream? He did not know. He knew only that he was unnerved and alert, and would be so for hours.
She was losing him. It was because of Francis. Francis had dismayed her admirer on the road, made him lose nerve.
Trying to reactivate the young man’s interest, she had entered his room, expecting him to be alone, asleep, thus allowing her to whisper a promise into his ear that would overcome any qualms about her black-browed keeper.
Yet Francis was there. He had anticipated her plans for this visitor. He had never gone this far before.
She must try again to elude Francis and seize this opportunity, this person, to escape. Then she thought of someone else with a surely receptive ear.
His mother, smiling, was extending the corded white phone to him.
She was worried about her son’s distraction this summer in a place rented to enjoy together: to review general plans; his scholastic and other expectations. He seemed ambiguous about school. Why? She did not quite know how to ask him.
“Hi, it’s me. We’re going somewhere later on.” You had to forgive Campbell’s brashness. It basically meant well.
Campbell spoke of a beach party tonight, off the highway, perfect for young people like themselves.
He quickly thought of that white house, that tree and that girl. Would she be there, with her “guardian?” Not likely, though both resided nearby. That man in black probably kept her cloistered, away from other men.
Campbell sounded unclear about how he knew of this party: perhaps a notice in town. No matter: “I’ll drop by about nine.”
He agreed. It could do him good to get out; meet people, talk, drink, eat, relax; to sleep well and dreamlessly afterward. Calmer now, he reasoned that the other night’s nocturnal visitors were, hopefully, just his rattled nerves.
Campbell, normally talkative, said little as he started the car on the quiet street with quaint boarded houses, many rented to vacationers like both their parents. Sitting beside Campbell, he asked about beer. Campbell, pensive, seemed to hardly hear him, only mentioning a case of twelve on the back seat, bought on his way here.
They drove brief streets to the thin highway leading from town. The sky was streaks of purple and yellow as a declining sun met dusk on this warm evening on the cusp of August.
They were near the rise descending to the white frame house and twisted white tree, both solitary against the sky. He wondered about that girl, her hostile companion, and did not immediately notice Campbell decelerating, driving off the highway onto the rough ground just beyond the house and tree: the tree near to where she’d stood. Campbell killed the engine.
“We’re here.” Campbell looked at him with an odd smile, making him wonder about his friend’s disposition tonight. As they sat in silence, he wondered if Campbell was also recalling this spot and that girl.
He stepped out into warm air. A breeze with briny tang came from the dark ocean, along with the intrinsic murmur of sea.
“Where exactly is this party,” he asked. “Not …?” He looked to the house.
Campbell shook his head. “No, further on, that way.” Campbell indicated the spit of sand to the rear of the house.
He saw a fire there, people around it.
He studied the tree briefly in the waning daylight as Campbell fetched the beer from the back seat. The tree had a white trunk and several white, smooth, bare, yet hardy jagged branches at eye level. He did not touch it. Its timeless wood seemed cold to the touch, despite the near- humid evening.
He saw no light in the house. Where were its inhabitants? Where was she?
“Coming?” Campbell began walking, his arm around the red and white case, bottles jiggling lightly as they approached the beach on ground still upset by that storm.
The ground became ridged sand crumbling under his running shoes. He could see a fire there as they approached, but no people. He was sure he had seen people. Then he saw someone: tallish with long bright blonde hair, wearing a denim jacket and dark pants against the firelight in now full nightfall. The blonde head turned toward them. It was the girl he had seen beside the highway.
She could, at last, see him in full: nice height and build, neat casual dress, thick, smooth longish brown hair, his eyes dark green by firelight. In terms of looks, she could have, and had, done worse. And she had regained him. It was in his eyes, his amazed yet pleased reaction to her.
His friend was also looking at her, longing to be part of her plans, her life. He couldn’t. His passion for her was a spent necessity. It had been awakened before daybreak, with her whispering hastily in his ear, Francis not anticipating her movements last night.
Campbell had done her bidding; had delivered her target here on a rare night when Francis was away. Francis could not stop her leaving with this young man whose green eyes, hungry for her, displayed the energy she needed to survive, to flourish.
He was very close to her, no car or highway between them; no man in black about: Only him and her on that beach. Campbell seemed hardly there.
She looked lovely as firelight played on her full long golden hair, perfect cheekbones, seductively-shaped lips and dark blue eyes looking directly into his: a look for him only.
A gasp pierced this frieze. Campbell was shaking, his upper body vibrating. Campbell seemed to be losing control of his muscles, eyes glazed, struggling against this invasion, only to surrender and drop onto the ground, beer bottles clinking as the case landed on sand.
What was happening to his friend? He looked to the girl.
She looked at him, unfazed. Concern overrode her allure, and he squatted on the cool sand to examine and, remembering a television program, feel Campbell’s neck for a pulse.
“He’s alright.” He heard her voice for the first time: knowing, nuanced, sensual. It thrilled him despite this upsetting, unexpected scene. “Give him space. He’ll get up, soon.”
Campbell blinked, shook his head, then his arms and legs to see if he could still move.
“What . . . happened?” Campbell sounded weak, dazed.
“You had a spell,” she said calmly. “You’ll be okay. Just don’t stand up for a while.”
Campbell nodded, open to her words as, like warm milk, they flowed downward, from ears to veins, into muscles, everywhere.
Campbell’s now-soothed state evidenced how she could so beautifully authorize, encouraging one to do anything she said.
“It’s time we went.” She turned and simply left the scene, knowing he would follow despite his stricken friend.
He did, almost hurrying after her as she strolled toward the highway, leaving the dazed Campbell sitting on the beach.
She was standing by the dull red Mustang, looking at him, a smile on the corners of her lips. There was a silver crescent of moon above.
He felt small before her control: “But . . . Campbell has the keys.”
She extended one arm, keys on ring dangling from one finger. How had she got them? He wasn’t so surprised that she had.
He unlocked the front doors, started the engine, activated the headlights. She slid into the passenger side.
“Let’s go,” she said. Starting the car, driving it from that house and tree, he saw her glance at both with private satisfaction.
He drove the lonely highway, steering as smoothly as he could in pitch night. He wanted to drive well, to do other things well – for her.
He parked beside the house he and Campbell had left not long before dark, his parents asleep upstairs. The whole street was dormant, only one streetlight on. Campbell’s parents were staying two blocks away, secure knowing their impulsive son was with his steadier friend.
“So this is where we’re staying,” she said. “Tonight.”
He did not question her. He felt excited beside her.
“What are we waiting for?” Her voice provoked deliciously.
He led her to the house’s solid brown door with glinting brass knocker, unlocked it. Standing in the lobby at the foot of the stairs, he asked if she wanted water: “Yes.” When he returned from the kitchen with a full cool glass, she wasn’t there.
He stepped carefully upstairs. His parents were two doors away; he wanted them to stay there. His bedroom door was ajar, as he had not left it. He opened it slowly.
His room was dark but for a strip of moonlight falling on the pillow on the four-posted bed, on bright blonde hair belonging to a body under the padded cover. He closed the door softly, leaving the glass on a chair.
“There you are.” Her soft voice drew him closer. He touched her welcoming skin for the first time as her fingertips caressed his palm. Her bare arms were soft and cool as they encouraged him to her. She deftly drew a corner of cover aside for him to enter more than his bed.
Time didn’t matter right now; neither did his parents; neither did any sounds they made. All that mattered was the ecstasy she was regaling him with through her supple, shapely figure with medium breasts firm to touch and tongue, her own tongue providing incredible pleasure. His inexperience meant nothing; everything came naturally. Afterward, he slept soundly, her perfect self in his arms.
Then he was awake, cool sheet on his skin, her voice soft in his ear.
“It’s time.” He was roused instantly. She was sitting clothed on one corner of the bed, dawn entering a window above. Birds were chirping outside.
He dressed, feeling rather spent. Last night had been intense, and he hadn’t eaten for hours. Yet he wasn’t hungry.
They left quietly, a stair creaking as they descended. He recalled a creak nights ago outside this room, and a blond spirit: her trying to reach him. Well, she had finally reached him, and he had loved it.
About to open the front door, he heard stirring from his parents’ room: his mother, perhaps, sleepily noticing movement below. Right now, the only female he cared about was beside him.
He unlocked the red car belonging to Campbell’s parents. The dawn air was sharp, moist, sky grey and cloudy: rain would return. As she settled into the vinyl seat, looking straight ahead, he saw satisfaction, expectation in her face.
He had never driven this far before, taking the car along the highway away from their vacation home, from her house and that tree. Raindrops from a sombre sky began dropping on the windshield.
They did not speak as the highway left the beach to pass farmland, then towns and flat, treeless ground leading to malls, factory outlets and fast food places, electric signs glistening in the wet air.
They were hungry not for food, but for fulfillment further on, in the two-story, neat suburban house he had been brought to from the maternity ward, later walked to classes from, eaten and watched television in; a house he would, it was agreed, soon move out of.
But not yet. He would open his home to and enjoy her in it, with no parents down the hall, September and school forgotten. All he wanted was her, her face with a smile that kept delicious secrets. He felt her cool fingers touch his thigh.
The dark-haired young man stood by the highway, clutching his ribs, his light jacket and tee-shirt slim protection against a bullying wind. It was daylight.
There were no cars, no people on the highway. There was only a twisted white tree and a white boarded house that had not responded when he had knocked on its light blue door, hoping for a phone and a call home to come fetch him.
Dark clouds were moving inland from the ocean; grey foamy waves slapped the distant beach. Especially ominous nebula seemed to hover above that white house.
A thunderclap boomed behind him. Ground shook and, alarmed, he jumped. He ran across the highway, fleeing agitated nature. Then he saw, so close to where he had just stood, that the twisted white tree stood split into two, thin smoke visible.
It began to rain: hard, compelling drops, as if the sky were purging itself.
She stood beside the bed, looking at him fast asleep under a rumpled white sheet. Dull light filtered through new white laced curtains above his head. She was fully dressed.
He had been good for a beginner. But there would be others as good and better in this city. A city was diverse, active; full of men and women. Having finally escaped that hated house by the highway, she could roam free. That roaming excluded him.
Desire, intense passion, sustained her, kept her young, fit: desire rather than the climax it led to. She did not need food; she fed on appetite for her. Without that, she would shrivel. She had begun to wilt at that house behind the tree. Confinement there would have imperilled potential escape, and her plan to capture this young man she could here awaken instantly with a whisper.
But she would say nothing; she would simply leave. He had helped her get what and where she wanted; she no longer needed him.
Still, rather a pity she must quit. He was more presentable, considerate, than others who had nourished her. She could, as a parting gesture, murmur in his ear, tell him she was only a love of one night, to forget her, get on with his life, study hard, mate with tamer females and have children.
She bent toward him, then hesitated: Wait. He had more fire than other conquests. If she said just enough to embed her in his memory, both could benefit. His subconscious would keep her image as a sexual prototype: she was gifted as few females were. An essential part of him would remain hers, there to be plumbed if their paths re-crossed.
So she said soft words in one ear.
Then she left, without opening the closed bedroom door, strong enough again for the world outside.
He was alone in bed in a darkened room, grey daylight filtered by curtains covering a window above. His mind was muddy; he was not sure he was fully awake. He had been flitting from sleep to consciousness, images from both realms still fresh in his head.
How long had he been asleep? Hours, maybe longer. And he felt so depleted, his muscles flaccid, limbs limp. What had he done last night? He wasn’t even sure whose bed he was in, only that it was chilly here, the window open.
And those recurring images: an angry man in black with straight black hair over a pale, blue-jawed face, standing before him; a young woman with dark blue eyes, pristine skin and long blonde hair flowing onto her shoulders. She was as vivid as that man in black, but leaving a sensation of intimacy, pleasure, as if he had touched her skin, felt her lips on his, and more. She seemed no mere dream, and no phantom, unlike that black-clad male.
An aggressive wind hit the windows, pushing the curtains upward, their white threads clutching the curtain rod. It wasn’t going to rain; it was going to storm.
He had been given the name Francis by his elders because, they said, when among humanity one must have a name. The faded man on the bed before him knew him only as an uninvited memento of an unfulfilled past.
That was when Francis had intimidated him on the highway; scared him in that cottage bedroom. Francis had thought he’d driven him away. But he hadn’t counted on her extreme determination, or her duplicity, all which made his guardianship of her very difficult.
But she was just so seductive. Even he, Francis, one of her extended family and knowing her well, had felt urges in that house by the highway. He had, very seldom, been duped into lowering his guard, almost letting her escape, stopping her at the last moment. Then she saw a young man in a convertible that rare day he had been away.
Now Francis sat in shadow on a sticky late summer night to warn a long-empty man of an entity who had left an eternal, internal calling card through a whisper in one ear.
And what happened to mortals was happening to her.
She was aging, albeit more slowly than humans did, making her less able to travel, to draw from others. Even he, Francis, was faltering, finding it harder to enter, exit, and activate. Only a conscience relative to an inherited, unwanted power had brought him here tonight.
She had little such conscience, and would take from someone again. She was, after roaming the globe, somewhere near by, seeking satiation. Studying the middle-aged man before him, he reasoned that what little spirit he possessed might briefly refresh her.
And she still had allure, could still attract, though her prey was increasingly of this man’s vintage; a man who, but for flowing blonde hair beside a highway, might have been spared tonight’s visit.
A sleek black car rounded the crescent on a humid August night, stopping close to a two-story, brick and wood house with peaked roof, the only one such among its neighbours. The buzzing of night animals was the only sound around
The driver stayed behind the wheel. She had been driving a long time. Now she was here, after so long and so far, so many men and women. Yet the man in this house on a suburban crescent was worth revisiting: someone who had once unknowingly set her free.
She sighed slightly. She must be patient. Her former keeper would soon part, needing to return home to replenish energy. She knew that, though aging, she was now stronger than Francis and able to recapture that man in the attic.
Soft sunlight and a warm breeze came through the curtains, a gift from his parents whose white weave had slackened and stained from age, the elements and neglect. Their owner lay below them, a pillow under his thick greying locks.
He knew it was day, but so what. Every day was a day of some sort. Still, when he awoke just a short time ago, he had found himself barely able to raise his head or rise from under the crumpled sheet. He felt strangely depleted, as if he had lost much blood while sleeping.
Yet he felt neither ill nor anxious. He actually felt languorous, if only because he had dreamt his most pleasant dream ever. Whatever sickness had invaded him during the night was of the sweetest, and he did not want a doctor. Instead, he wanted to slide back to the world he had awakened from.
While there, he had felt her skin on his, smelt her scent, been thrilled by her subtle smile and blue eyes as they drew very close. And she was so familiar. He had seen her before; her face must have once buried itself into his memory to now resurface.
Then his pacific mood soured as different features gate crashed his brain: dark, male, and discontented. He saw hard chocolate-brown eyes in a grim pale face that wanted to evict her allure and beauty; to keep her from him. He had also seen that face before and had at that time probably disliked its look as much as he liked that young blonde and her promise of pleasure.
Pleasure: something unknown for so long. There had, instead, been years in a house of mundane memories, his to enjoy alone. Friendless, his parents gone, his not-old life was already spoken for. So why get out of bed to live it. He liked this limp cocoon free of care.
He felt sleep caress his brain. If he drifted off, would he return to the tactile realm he had just visited? Then why not join her there? He was sure she was awaiting him. If this was how it felt at the end of days, then perhaps it justified an unlived life, with better, beautiful things beyond. He closed his eyes and slept like never before.