copyright: psychox (it's not worth stealing, anyway)
My ex-landlord came back a month after Siam left. In my mind, his imprint still lingered.
I had been the one to drive him to the Greyhound bus station. Siam could fit everything he owned into a small backpack, and he did. He huddled in one of my old jackets, tried not to look cold, but couldn’t help looking small because I wore everything at least a size larger than he did.
He was from warmer climates, he had told me. He was heading for someplace warmer now. I only knew that it involved a new job.
He said “thank you” when I dropped him off. I didn’t need to worry, he added. His English was near perfect, even though the accent was noticeable.
“Wait.” I couldn’t help it. There had to be something more I could do. I reached across his lap into the glove compartment. Fumbled with a couple papers until I noticed it—pale, perky pink on top of last year’s registration card.
“Take this with you.”
He took it and laughed. “I didn’t know Hello Kitty makes knives.”
“They don’t,” I said. “It’s probably an imitation. The logo isn’t exactly the same.”
He pushed out the blade a little just for a look.
“It looks flimsy,” I said awkwardly, noticing finally that it was a pretty shitty gift. “And it’s small, but that makes it concealable. The handle is plastic, but the blade is strong. It’s barely used. If you need a sharpener, I might have one…”
“No, I’m fine.” He retracted the blade, put it in a pocket. “Thank you.”
He leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. Then he turned, pushed open the door, and stepped out.
We had been completely platonic until then.
He waved at me once before he walked away. He wore his black backpack on one shoulder. The jacket was still too big, but the t-shirt, jeans and sneakers looked fine.
I watched him leave. Siam had a funny way of walking, one foot stepping down right in front of the other. Either life was a tightrope, or he was a cat.
I forgot to tell him one basic rule about weapons that day. They make almost any situation more dangerous. Any weapon you pull out has the potential to be used against you.
I went back to the apartment and drank until I fell asleep. Siam had not been old enough to drink, but I used to let him have a couple of my beers once in a while. He didn’t get loud or crazy, only sleepy enough to pass out on the edge of my bed. If I got close enough to lay a blanket on him, he’d crack open an eye just to let me know not to get any stupid ideas.
I slept for twelve hours the day he left. Woke up tracing patterns with my finger in the shape of his eyes. Larger than mine, rounder than common for the Far East, but slightly more slanted than most of the Southeast.
We had only disagreed once. And it was over a story I had told him about the dog that bit off a piece of my face when I was six.
“So what happen to the dog?” he had asked, even before he asked about my face, or my six year old emotionally damaged psyche.
“It’s dead. They killed it.”
He had looked away. We were silent as he turned back to lightly touch the scar on the side of my face.
“This one, right?”
“It’s fine now, right?”
“Yeah. It was bad when I was a kid. But you can barely see it anymore. A little scar reduction surgery could probably get rid of it completely.”
“Then they didn’t have to kill it.”
I shrugged. “It’s the law.”
“Doesn’t matter. Laws can be wrong.”
“Well, think of it like this. They can’t have violent animals running around. It’s dangerous.”
“They let violent people running around.”
“Yeah, and even those people get punished.”
“Not death penalty, most the time. And even so, they get lawyers to fight for them.”
“Well, it’s not like a dog can go to prison. What’s it gonna learn?”
He had paused for a bit. “The same thing people learn inside there,” he said. “There is not justice in the world.”
Siam had taken the last of my instant ramen packets with him. I made a trip across the parking lot to the 24-hour liquor store on the street.
It was the usual bald white guy glaring at me over a porno mag as I paid for a bag of Cup O’ Noodles.
I slurped them down on top of my unmade bed. My laptop sat on the corner, nestled between the wall and a pillow. I flipped up the screen, as if I were on autopilot.
The same Word document flickered alive, as it always did. I only really had one document on there.
There was one story I had never told Siam.
Four years ago, I was eighteen, same as he was now, renting a room in a house. One day, the landlord said he would be gone for a while. Didn’t ask me to look after anything, just said that he would be gone. I couldn’t recall most of that conversation because I had been pretty lit at the time. I rarely saw him anyway. My room had its own entrance. I didn’t need to go into the rest of the house except to cook or do my laundry. And I rarely did those things, unless I was really hungry or tired of wearing dirty clothes.
My job had scheduled me to work six days a week for three weeks, with at least one day of back-to-back shifts a week. At the end of it, I collapsed onto my bed and slept for 17 hours straight. I woke up in the middle of the day and managed to stagger into the bathroom.
My skin was stretched tightly across my hipbones. It surprised me how much they stood out. I hadn’t eaten for a day, which wasn’t too long, was it? Burned it off working, probably.
I showered first. After I stepped out and dressed, I dug around the trash in my room for my keys. The belt I wore to keep my pants up bit painfully into my hips.
I found my keys on top of the rent check. For the first time in weeks, I remembered that the landlord was gone and hadn’t come back.
I opened the door to the main house. Figured I could leave the check in the master bedroom where he usually slept.
There was a strange odor to the place, as if it had been shut up for too long. I found an old dried-up microwave dinner sitting half-eaten on the kitchen table. I threw it out to keep the entire house from stinking. The trash was piled high. I bagged it all up and took it outside.
The living room had no furniture. It looked the same as it did the day I moved in. The room next to the kitchen had only a small TV, a couple of chairs, an old couch covered in a white sheet to hide the grease stains underneath. The sheet was crumpled up now, but I didn’t bother to fix it.
I slid the check under the door to his room. Walking back, I passed a door in the hall. It was slightly ajar. I hadn’t noticed it coming the other way, but approaching it from this angle, I realized that the stench came from inside here, not the kitchen.
An image flashed in my head, for some reason, of the framed pictures the guy had on the mantel above the fake fireplace—his wife, his two kids, daughter and son, his mother and father. He told me he lived with his family when he wasn’t at the house. They were supposed to move in with him, but his wife had protested, so they had ended up staying at their old place. He only kept the house to have a place to stay when he was in the area for business, as he routinely was.
I hadn’t checked, but I wondered if the pictures were still there above the fireplace.
I opened the door.
He had explained it to me before that this room was the storage room.
It was empty. I hit the lights, stepped onto the bare, concrete floor. The walls were white. It smelled a little bit like fresh paint, mixed in with something else, something stronger. I looked around. There was something wrong. I stepped close to one of the walls. Maybe it was crazy to think that the room was smaller than it was supposed to be. What did I know? I had only seen it a couple of times.
The floor was uneven.
It occurred to me then what was wrong. There had been steps going down when I had moved in. Now the steps were gone. The floor was leveled with the rest of the house.
Something caught my eye in the upper corner of the wall, close to the ceiling. It looked like a crack, a black curving line. But then, cracks weren’t supposed to curl so smoothly like that.
I reached up. It turned 3-D, stuck out of the wall. I pulled it away.
Not a piece of wire, I realized, when I held it in my hand.
When I went out into the family room, I found the pictures turned away, facing the wall.
I spent the next few years in a fatalistic, nervous daze. When it got really bad, I only wanted someone around, something warm to hold, so I could stop dreaming about cuddling next to corpses in my bed.
After I moved out, I horded any news story following the police investigation that ensued like an obsession. They interviewed me no less than fifty times. I had nothing to tell them that they didn’t already know. I didn’t really know anything about the guy. He didn’t look creepy. He had a steady job and everything. Just…a guy.
The final body count went above thirty. I stopped eating for a couple days when the news came out. I found it impossible to digest anything while I was sober. So the only solution was to stay drunk, which I did for a good long time, until Siam knocked on the apartment door in response to my ad for a roommate.
I hid all the papers about the investigation under my bed. I kept all the saved copies of almost every newspaper article published in English on the man who had been my landlord on a flash drive in a drawer, with every file duplicated on my hard drive itself. I knew more about him than I knew of myself. His childhood in a quiet suburban neighborhood of million-dollar homes would have been mine if my family had had more money. His reservation in the classroom though—that was exactly me. His failure with women, yes, that too. And that time he had responded to an ad and adopted four kittens so he could relive his first sexual experience as he strangled each one with red rope…
A contortion of fantasies I never admitted to anyone.
Occasionally I checked in on my obsession, but I was starting to get a little more sober. Some part of me refused to look like a crazy in front of someone I was living with, even someone I barely knew. With Siam around, I only once considered putting out an ad offering free kittens to a good home. Dismissed it because it was ridiculous.
Obsessions don’t die, however. They either fade or change course. And if they fade, it’s only to sink into the back of your mind. But they’re still there. And they don’t leave.
He passed me by as I came out of the liquor store, about a month after Siam left. He called me by name. I had been checking my receipt, hadn’t noticed him.
Looking at him now—middle-aged white man, grey hair cropped close to his head, lean body with well-toned arms from playing tennis, grey shirt and blue jeans—the smell of the house from four summers ago came back to me.
We sat in the parking lot, between a car and the dumpster, and drank beers. I didn’t tell him that I lived at the apartment complex behind us. I listened while he talked about nothing and the sun started to set.
“Seen any good movies lately?” he asked.
“I don’t really like movies.”
“Most writers don’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard you were writing a book.”
“Just get it right, when you do it. It should be something like, The House that Harvey Built. Have you seen the shit they have out now? All those books, they give them the dumbest names: House of Horrors, or, The House that Dahmer Could Have Built. Excuse me, I’m nothing like Dahmer. I don’t know what those dumb hacks are talking about. But you…you’ll get it right, I’m sure of it.”
I exhaled. “Okay.”
“Anyway, I gotta go. Nice to see you. I’m heading someplace warmer. A sunnier locale. Maybe I’ll find me a cute little thing with a pretty face; maybe get a tan, take some swing lessons. Maybe I’ll even get a cat, like one I used to have when I was a kid. I raised it from a kitten. Loved that thing for a year. You won't know love like that unless you ever love a cat, you know what I mean? Well, maybe you don’t, but you might someday. Who knows. Life begins when you're forty-five, sometimes.”
He waved and walked off. I went to the liquor store and called the police.
Didn’t hear anything more about him until spring became summer, and summer cooled into fall. A friend from school called me.
“They got your guy,” he said.
It took me a moment to clue in. “They arrested him?”
“No. They found him.”
Turned out Harvey had tangled with the wrong victim. When I had run into him, he was already in the midst of a killing spree in another city. The story was still being pieced together. For the final act, it looked like he had taken a young prostitute home. But this kid had apparently fought back, slit Harvey’s throat from ear to ear.
Normally, at this point, you’re supposed to ask if they found the one that did him in. Instead, I said, “Did they find the murder weapon?”
“Yeah, but they weren’t able to get prints from it.”
“Was it a Hello Kitty box cutter?”