Fading sunlight jutted through a pair of boarded-up windows and into the cage, getting in its eyes. Why can’t I speak?
The bear tugged diligently against the restraints, but its efforts were for naught; the binds were expertly applied. The more it struggled, the smaller the cage seemed to get. Sorrowful echoes reverberated off the cold stone walls.
Why can’t I speak?!
At first there was nothing. But as his eyes adjusted to the wisps of morning pouring past the plain-painted windowpane, the world became much less fragmented. He felt around with his bony, shaking hands, desperately searching for his eyeglasses; it wasn’t the first time he’d woken up screaming... or had that dream.
She’d left him, a while ago. Couldn’t take the screaming. Couldn’t take the dreams.
The apartment was a disgrace. Cans of empty sodas were arranged with care on the rank kitchen linoleum in oblong spirals. The floors overflowed with filth, and the ceiling likewise with dried waffles. But he didn’t care. There was no point in cleaning now.
He’d managed to drive them all off: walking out on his job. Falling out with his friends. Then his sisters, and brother. Then her. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she’d stayed, made sense of it all. And she could have. Out of all of them, she’d known him the best.
Maybe that’s why she left.
As his pulse evened out, he placed the glasses back on his cracked end table and reached for the cup. It was getting painful, the way his heart would pound constantly after one of the dreams. When it started, he was healthy. He brushed it off. But now he needed half a bottle of alka seltzer to stop his rib cage from tearing itself apart. Sometimes he wished he could trust doctors.
He slowly pulled the dark green comforter from his torso and sat up. There was a paper at his door, at that very moment. There always was, whether he wanted it or not... though most of the time, he did.
It took great effort to reach the door, to turn the many locks. Comics... editorials... sports... no, no, a thousand times, no! He tore pages out, dropping them as he paced. He stopped.
For five minutes, he stared at the paper. Then he let it fall to the floor.
“I think today I shall portend Harold,” he said plainly. His upper lip curled, but it was never a smile.
There was an old blue bathrobe in the chair next to the sofa but he walked right past it, despite the chill in the air. He occasionally batted the growing cobwebs, but otherwise left the robe undisturbed. It was hers.
“Poor Harold!” he laughed, setting into the spindly wicker desk chair. From the top lefthand drawer he extracted a worn (but very expensive looking, mind you) fountain pen. On the desktop already was a stack of blank lined paper. Each page would, in turn, bring him fulfillment, if not pleasure.
“Harold Perlman,” he wrote, “born the twenty-fourth of April, nineteen seventy seven. Harold was not satisfied or interested with the simple things life had to offer. In school Harold used his friends to succeed, then discarded them like a snake does his skin. In adulthood Harold was brutal to those who worked with him; he lashed out at his superiors behind their backs, and berated his inferiors to their faces. Harold would fart in elevators and blame others for it. Harold was a coward.”
The old fluorescent lamp buzzed, jarring him from his work. Blasted lamp!
“But Harold had some redeeming qualities,” he continued, his calculating eyes fixing on some imaginary horizon. “In 1998, Harold walked past a desperate teenager who was about to jump off the Van Der Waals Bridge. Harold repeatedly shouted ‘Jump! Jump! Jump!’ because he honestly believed all teenagers were bound by the laws of reverse psychology. Also, Harold was in a commercial once. It was for some kind of spray, and Harold was the cashier.”
He paused to check the margins. Five minutes, and the page was almost full already. Soon he’d have to end it, to really drive it home.
“On December third of this year, Harold Perlman was walking to his car from the grocery store when a pickup truck going twenty miles over the speed limit clipped him. He never made it to the hospital.”
Afternoon? he thought as his gaze shifted from the paper to the window. He’d finished early today. Usually he wouldn’t get this far until late at night. Then again, Harold Perlman wasn’t a very complicated person!
Folding the page with the grace of a surgeon, he slipped it into an unassuming beige envelope and walked to the fireplace. If you want to get technical, it wasn’t really a fireplace. It was more of a... a metal basket in which he lit fires. Needless to say, the landlord, Saul Tarsis, was never a dinner guest.
He dropped the envelope, and poked it until it was perfectly aligned with the center of the canister. Then he dropped the match and watched, captivated, until there was nothing left but ash and embers. Another job well done.
The bear jerked against the chains, but still couldn’t break them. Can anyone hear me?
Inside the cage, the bear stopped struggling and looked dumbfounded for a second. Then it licked its lips happily; today, the room was different.
Now there was a door.
On unlucky mornings, he would be disturbed. Though she’d left long ago, her scent still lingered on the shadowed drapes and in the corners of the stained and threadbare sheets. It would creep up on him slowly, tauntingly, washing over his face... soap and lavender. For one instant, she was with him, until he remembered that he was alone.
He struggled out of bed, joints stiff and swollen, grasping for the spectacles on the bedside table. Shuffled to the bathroom, fumbled for the pills. The mirror above his sink was spattered with fluids, but he could see his face. The jaundice was even more apparent; his skin had yellowed and if it continued to worsen the abrasions would return. He shuddered as he choked down pill after pill.
“Tiller,” he murmured, “Maria Tiller.”
The ink in his pen was blotting today. “Damn the humidity,” he wanted to say, but he was uncomfortable with breaking the silence of the moldering apartment. The heat was truly stifling, and the faded cardigan draped over his limp shoulders was drenched with sweat. He looked over the account he had composed, its writing smudged and shaky.
“Maria Tiller, birthdate undocumented. Maria was just a small-town girl trying to make her fortune in an increasingly internationalized economy. Maria held her friends close to her heart, but was an inexcusable gossip. Maria ruined the reputations of her closest friends and deliberately turned them against one another. In her frenzy to be accepted, Maria lost those who truly cared for her.”
“Maria degenerated into a bitter, petty person... she’d take pennies from the trays in gas stations and, if nobody was looking, would spit on the side view mirrors of expensive cars. At one point, Maria tried to strike out at her surroundings with voodoo, but only managed to give her victims slight wedgies.”
He gritted his teeth. The precognitions were getting harder to follow, day by day. Less and less made sense. He continued to scribble away, filling in the occasions on which Maria’s negativity would manifest itself, be it in public or in secret. The sun glared at him through the dusty panes of the bay-styled window as he concluded the sordid story.
“Maria Tiller suffered a stroke in her office on December the fourth of this year. Not one attendant noticed, and it was generally considered to be an above average day. Maria was left to suffer repeated blackouts over the weekend, too weakened by the hemorrhaging to crawl more than a foot from her desk. Maria was to be discovered that Tuesday, in a pool of her own cranial emissions.”
He smiled, his work for the day completed, and emptied the manuscript into the fireplace, licking his lips as the letter slowly transformed into a wisp of smoke. The acrid, burnt smell filled his nostrils like water filling the lungs of a drowning man, the sweet embrace of fatality. He headed for the door, eyes half-open, mouth agape; he reflexively felt for the paper.
Jonathan, Sarah, James and Dane. Patrick, Jessie and Keith. Katherine, Robert, Dennis, Lee, Annabell, Henry, Horace and Dave. Sky and Nora, Ricardo and Clark, Steven, Perry, Spencer and Ben. This week alone was Laura, Harold and Maria... and there were others from way back he couldn’t remember. Every day brought him another name, another story. He wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, but neither was he unhappy. He was performing an important function but wasn’t really a part of it.
Something was wrong.
His certainty flickered. So absorbed in the portending, so burdened was he, that it took him a second to register what had happened.
The paper isn’t here.
For the first time in ages, something twitched inside him. His stomach did somersaults as he fell to the ground and grasped like an animal at the doormat, searching for the paper with Harold’s portending in it. What does this mean?!
A sharp pain in the base of his skull brought him to his feet, contorting back and forth as if under demonic possession. Things were becoming unglued, chaotic... but he couldn’t leave, there was still more portending to do! His work was very important. Those doctors and their filthy lies! He couldn’t trust any of them.
He slammed the door and hobbled to his desk, hands shaking. The pen was heavy, but he set to work. Outside the window, cars honked and sped by. Old men had conversations on public benches, and children played under the setting sun.
It was the first time he portended silently; and, it was the first time he didn’t burn it.
The bear had never been clearer; the color of its fur, the creases on its nose. The fiery glow behind its eyes. Each leather strap around its thick neck seemed more gray and gravelly than ever.
Were they even real? Were any of them real?
It was night now. Sunlight no longer came in through the peeling shutters, and the windows themselves had vanished. The door remained, though. Like the bear, it had gained definition. Unlike the bear, it was not constrained and sometimes even opened slightly.
You mock me. You offend me. You degrade the purpose of my existence.
The door swung open fiercely, crashing loudly against the wall. The sound of snapping oak could be heard, but the door and its brass hinges survived with nary a scratch or distortion. There was something moving behind the door...
I’m starting to remember.
Though it was bright behind the door, the figure in the doorway was blotted out. Silhouette? Fugue? Shadow? The bear let out a fierce roar.
A scuffed shoe slowly touched down. He reached out and knocked the door’s wooden frame; how many times had he been here? As the bear’s eyes met his own, an electric shock streaked through his nervous system, illuminating long-neglected synapses: every love and sin, every epiphany and condescension, the times he cheated and lied and hated, the times he held doors open and the times he let them slam behind him. Every moment of his life, laid out threadbare for him to finger through simultaneously.
He wondered if this was how they felt when he wrote about them.
Drawn in by the haunting gaze of the tethered ursine, he walked numbly to the cage. In his pocket, he knew there was a key.
My work is complete now.
And he thought of her.
Saul could only nod. The poor landlord shook as the flash bulb of the crime scene camera took another shot of the battered, blood-stained desk.
A few nights ago, some of Saul’s tenants had complained about strange noises emanating from the apartment. But the man was usually quiet and always paid his rent, so Saul had just let it go; it was the complaints about the odor that finally made him use the master key.
“Lieutenant Rédempteur,” one of the junior officers called from the window, “windows’s nailed shut, from the inside. Nobody could’ve-”
“That’s a violation of his lease,” Saul yelled, his fear suddenly replaced by moral outrage. “He’s made a mockery of the free market! Ronald Reagan is crying in his castle up in heaven right now.”
“Sir, are you positive the door was locked?”
Saul scratched his graying beard.
“Yeah, it was locked. I had to break the door to get in here, there were so many locks! The door only came with one, and he did not have my permission as the owner of this property to install more locks.” He frowned, thinking over the terms of the lease. “Also, this apartment was pre-furnished. Who’s going to compensate me for the property that was destroyed? This is America, and the constitution protects my right to own property.”
“Kate, are you sure the window is nailed shut completely? That nobody could’ve gotten out through there?” Lieutenant Rédempteur hammered back across the room.
“Yes, sir. And we haven’t found any prints on the pane except the victim’s.”
Saul looked over at the deep gashes on the corpse’s face and arms; underwear had been pulled up clean over his head, stretching the elastic band to its limit. “You think some kind of animal did that? I used to work in a butcher shop, and those don’t look like a knife did ’em.”
To be honest, Rédempteur had no idea what did this. It was, without a doubt, the most inexplicable case he’d ever been involved in during his fourteen year tenure as a lieutenant. He was about to usher the landlord out with a standard “you shouldn’t be involved in police business” line, when he saw a small beige corner sticking out from under the body.
He bent down and went for it with his gloved fingers, giving a few quick tugs until the whole envelope came free from the corpse. Rédempteur held it up to the light.
“What’s in it?” Saul asked, trying to steal a look at the contents of the paper sheath. He smelled a scandal!
Detective Rédempteur opened the flap with care, prying a single creased sheet of paper from the envelope. He unfolded it and scanned it quickly, then turned the page over in his hands.