There. Don't you hear it? Come now..there it is again.
Gustaff Reirdon sat up in bed, holding the sheet under his chin and looking into the dark. He'd been falling asleep, but was awake enough to be sure he'd heard a noise from the bathroom.
What could that be? The voice said. What could be in your attic, above your bathroom, with you all alone in the house.
He held his breath and waited again for the noise from the bathroom . Yes.this time he head it clearly, but he laid back down and put an arm over his forehead- it was only the furnace downstairs clicking as it shut off. An old wood beam cracked like a knuckle in the attic and, outside, a car drove down an empty street.
But there was nothing from Gustaff Reirdon's bathroom.
Still, the voice had warned him and he was sure he'd heard something else- a scraping /scratching on the drywall-slow and methodical, like a metronome. He imagined what he heard were talons, and he imagined they were attached to a beast hiding over his bathroom in the attic, picking away at the ceiling like a child stealing finger -fulls of icing when his mother's back was turned . It would stop working suddenly, cocking a furry bat's ear down when it heard his bedsprings squeak.
The voice in his head spoke again:
What if you have to get up? Hadn't you better go to the bathroom now, flick the lights quickly on'off-just to make sure- then quickly climb back under the covers and stretch out like a happy relaxed cat?
He looked over to the bathroom door and froze with his flannel sheet curled tightly in his fists- a silhouette , darker then the night around it , jumped silently down from a hole in the bathroom ceiling.
Gustaff pulled the sheet up over his head, holding it tight around his ears. It was nothing- he was absolutely sure it was all in his mind-but he burrowed his head under a pillow until morning.
It was early morning in April and the sun was shining cool and soothing on his blinds; Gustaff raised his legs up and over the side of the bed, flipped to the floor like a high jumper going over the bar, and marched into the bathroom.
He brushed his teeth without peeking at the ceiling, but when he closed his eyes and started to scrub his face, he felt a current of fear surge through him and he grabbed his towel, wiping the soap off and looking quickly up. The ceiling was smooth, white, and the drywall was unbroken- it had been smooth, white,and unbroken yesterday when he looked, and all the days before that. He stared at it until he was focusing on a dime-sized patch, wondering how it was the normal creaks and pops of his house became a tempo for a something diabolical scraping in the attic over his bathroom at night.
"Today," he said to the ceiling, "today will be different." But the words sounded like a challenge from an unfamiliar voice, and he felt panic rise up in his veins.
Five minutes before the number four Midtown bus was scheduled to stop in front of his house, Gustaff locked his front door and turned to walk down the street to the bus stop. Then, he turned around and checked the door again; the knob was loose but he couldn't remember if it'd been that way when he came home from work yesterday.
What if the lock falls off when you're gone?
He tightened his grip so his palm stung and turned left and right. When he was sure it was locked, when he was sure because his palm was red and sore, he started for the bus stop.
It was cool and overcast and the promise of spring made him forget about the silly ideas he'd had in bed the night before. What, exactly, did he think had squeezed itself into the tiny crawlspace that was his attic? Nothing, of course. Nothing.
But still.But still.. he heard the voice say, what if something had crawled up there and managed to replace the drywall?
Gustaff stopped on the sidewalk and stared down at the concrete that suddenly looked like the drywall in the bathroom ceiling at home.
Of course, if it was smart enough to replace the drywall, it would be certain to stay quiet while you were in the bathroom. He was standing still, running a hand through his combed-over bald spot. If it wanted you to go to work, then it could very well be ransacking your house right now.
He was about to turn around and run home when he heard the rumble of the number four Midtown turning onto his street and he forced himself to continue to the bus stop.
He felt foolish for listening to the silly voice in his head at all when he heard the familiar clang of his coins in the fare box. This was the real world-buses,work, and all these other people- they all had doors of their own to lock , and , most important of all, they all had their own bathrooms. Sure..sure, all these people had their own bathrooms and if they heard something on dark, lonely nights, it was off to the hardware store in the morning to buy a mousetrap or two.
It felt better to be on the bus, but he made sure to slide into a sear on the curb side- he wanted a last look at his house for the day. Gustaff pressed his forehead against the glass and craned his neck to look behind him as the bus lurched forward; he was reassured by the empty attic window that faced the street directly above his front door.
It started to rain on his way to work.
Gustaff liked riding on the bus: having other people around kept the voice in his head quiet. The voice scared him and he'd been to many doctors; they'd prescribed yellow or blue pills, referred him to physiatrists and social workers, but nothing stopped the it from controlling him, making him do the strange things he did and he imagined it curling up and ricocheting around inside his head like an Indian Rubber Ball, giggling and pounding the inside of his skull until he did something to appease it.
He was staring at a rain drop on the foggy window when someone sat down beside him; he glanced at the woman and was shocked how much she looked like his neighbour, Irene Harrison.
Short. She was short, and she carried her tiny black purse close to her side, hanging from the strap over her forearm. She was wearing a silver broach on the lapel of her white jacket and she slid the purse to her lap when she sat down, holding her chin straight up, staring straight ahead at nothing. She wore her grey hair in a bun tied at the back;Gustaff looked back to the window , but the rain outside had fogged it over.
The woman reminded him of Irene, and Gustaff's shoulder blade twinged toward his neck with the memory of how his thoughts had fixed things so Irene was frightened by the sight of him, and how she raced from the front window to lock her door whenever he passed by on the sidewalk.
It had all happened on the first cold day of winter the year before, the first day where Gustaff could see his breath and he forgot what the summer and fall had been like.
He'd walked outside and almost slipped on a frosty deck plank , when he heard foot steps squelching in the light backyard snow next door. He'd grabbed the railing ,craned on his tiptoes, and peered over the hedges dividing their lots to see Irene in a blue bathrobe, walking toward her back fence. She'd been a dear friend to Gustaff back then, offering to collect his mail and turn on lights in his house at dusk when he explained the need for one of his hospital visits.
He'd been shocked to see her outside wearing only the robe but said nothing; he just watched the top half of her body bob like a buoy that had broken free from its moorings and was drifting further out to sea. She stopped in the middle of the yard and looked straight down; Gustaff tried to cheat a little extra height from his tiptoes, but he lost his balance and fell forward, catching his chest on the deck railing. Irene's head had jerked toward him; she was shocked someone was watching her.
He'd backed into his house through the sliding glass doors, shutting them gingerly, feeling ashamed. He rubbed his hands together although the heat was on and the house was warm; then, he dashed to the front room to look out the window, opening the blinds with a thumb and forefinger, expecting to see Irene coming up the walk, afraid he'd had another relapse like the one that had sent him to the hospital before.
"Why didn't I speak?" he'd whispered to himself, momentarily fogging over a patch of the window. "Why didn't I just say `hello'? Now look at this mess, making yourself out to be some kind of Peeping Tom." He grabbed the rod and twisted the blinds shut, then the ones that faced Irene's house at the side, then the ones in the kitchen.
He'd been sitting at the kitchen table with the slotted light from the cracks in the blinds making wedges on the floor when his voice spoke to him.
You know what the old lady next door was doing, don't you? Yes.yes you do. She was wandering. She was wandering out into the backyard with nothing on but her robe and you scared her...She probably thought: `Who's that man..that terrible man staring at me?'
Down in the basement, the stalwart furnace had pumped heat through the ducts, spreading it like an invisible fog around Gustaff's feet in the kitchen and melting the snow from the cuffs of his pants into dime-sized puddles on the linoleum floor.
She's doddering and senile. She could even be a menace.
His foot twitched, his sock squeaked on the wet spot, and the furnace clicked off in the basement. The voice had sensed his growing urgency and it started to talk quickly :
My God.A woman in her condition could burn her house down-leave the stove on or try to light the pilot in the furnace in the basement, thinking it'd gone out. A woman her age could fall, hit her head, and lie on the floor for days. You really should do something, Gustaff.
He'd kicked the chair from the table and raced to the living room to find his address book. H-Harrison. He flipped the pages,H-Harrison, almost dropping the book but catching it with both hands. Irene's daughter's number was in between pages, written on the back of a cigarette flap. Remembering Irene smoked occasionally made him dial the number quickly and the phone rang once; he wondered if the daughter worried about
something happening to her mother. The second ring started him pacing back and forth from the end table where he kept the telephone to the window. On the third ring, with him standing at the blind stretching the slats with a thumb and forefinger-looking out again- the answer machine clicked on:
"Hello, I can't come to the phone right now, but if you'll leave your name and number, I'll be sure to get back to you..Bye and thanks for calling."
In the short interval between the end of the daughter's message and the beep telling him to record his , Gustaff was sure he'd heard gas whooshing across the floor of Irene's house, curling around the table legs in the living room like a slender long cat. He listened through the walls as it made a languid climb up the stairs, sure of its inevitable conquest. When the machine beeped, he blurted out his message:
"It's Gustaf Reirdon,' he said drawing a half, panicked breath. "There's no time-your mother-the furnace-please come now!"
Three blocks way, Irene's daughter had been too busy putting her own daughter to bed when she heard the phone ring to answer it; when she'd heard her mother's neighbour on the answering machine-the quiet neat old man with the tick in one eye-when she'd heard his gasping voice on the line-she imagined the sweeping red lights of fire trucks strobing over the vinyl siding of her mother's house and the wet charcoal smell of black soggy wood that'd been doused by the engine's hoses. There'd been no time to wake her husband; her daughter watched through the spindles on the second floor
banister as she closed the front door, her white running shoes united with the laces ticking off the parquet floor and the hem of her red bath robe almost catching as the door slammed behind her.
While the daughter had been driving madly across town, Gustaff had been opening the blinds in the kitchen with his thumb and forefinger, looking for the first signs of smoke he was sure would be coming from Irene's house. He'd poised himself to make a heroic effort when he saw it- he would lunge across the frozen lawn and break down her door , appearing with Irene in his arms, his face blackened with smoke, just as her grateful daughter pulled into the driveway. Her living room drape fluttered-flames shooting up from the register- he'd been sure.
Hurry..Hurry, the voice told him, you'll get your picture in the paper, the key to the city, but only if you hurry.
He'd run to his front door, flinging it wide open so the knob cracked the louver door behind, and across the front lawn in his socks feeling the thin crusty snow sting the arches of his feet once he stepped on Irene's driveway. He'd grabbed the wrought iron railing of her porch and put one wet, cold foot on the first step of the concrete stairs, when she opened the screen door and her new cat slithered out from between her legs, just as her daughter pulled into the drive. The headlights from her car bent Gustaff's ,Irene's, and the cat's shadows up on the vinyl siding to the second floor.
"Mother!" the daughter shrieked, getting out from the driver's side ,tying up the belt on her robe. "Mother?" she said again, more subdued when she saw the house wasn't on fire. "Mother.you're fine."
"Of course I'm fine," Irene had said, looking down as the animal rubbed against her leg, "but this cat you gave me won't stay outside. I've just tried the backyard-she doesn't like it out there either." She'd looked up from the cat to Gustaff, still standing frozen with one foot on her step, then to her daughter standing in the driveway in her bathrobe.
"What the hell are you doing here looking like that?" she'd said, and they'd both turned and glared at Gustaff, who'd cupped one hand over his brow and was squinting into the headlights.
The next morning he had opened his blind in the living room and seen the daughter and Irene coming up the walk. When they knocked at the door, he had gone to his address book, taken the cigarette flap with Irene's phone number on it out, and with his face burning scarlet handed it to them without saying a word. That was the last time either had spoken to him.
Now he was sitting on the number four Midtown beside a woman who was making him nervous, reminding him so much of the neighbour he'd let his voice make a fool of him in front of. She was sitting straight, with a space between her back and te seat where the afternoon sun from the window across the aisle was shining through; it looked to him like she thought there might be something dirty on the seat behind her.
He tried to watch her from the corner of his eye, but he caught her looking back from the corner of her eye once too often, so, he spoke without wanting to, but not being able to help himself.
"It seems it always rains this time of year," he said, surprised how loud his voice was.
"Yes..Yes it does," she said, not haughty as he expected, and turning her head to stare at him. "They always come out in the rain."
"Oh?" said Gustaff, realizing he was patronizing her. "What is it that comes out in the rain?" As soon as he finished, he realized he was afraid again, thinking about something that couldn't possibly be in his bathroom ceiling.
"Why, the things that cut holes in my plaster, right over my dining room table," she said, suddenly cocking her head to the aisle as if a voice only she heard had abruptly admonished her for talking about it at all. "They climb down and dance all night on my living room floor."
She straightened and looked ahead. In a matter of fact voice she said, "The funny thing is they never leave a mark on the plaster when they climb back into the roof."
Gustaff thought they must have started to dance right then for her on the bus because she smiled, lolling her head from side to side, holding her hands at shoulder
height, and waving her fingers to silent music. Then, she reached up and pulled the chord above her head. And, when the bus stopped, she got up and left down the aisle, not saying another word to him.
He sat in his seat mesmerized, listening to his echoing voice gaining momentum inside his head:
Not a mark on the plaster.Did you hear? Not a mark. And that's the same in your bathroom too.
Rain started to pound on the metal roof of the bus like pellets of buckshot and the noise made Gustaff think of all the mischief the sound could cover in his bathroom- he rubbed his palms together and squirmed in his seat, feeling panic take his heart first, then hurl the blood in his veins upward toward his skull.
Gustaff Reirdon was a cook as The Rainbow Diner in the squat grey center of the city where the tobacco shop and pool hall were dwarfed by the bank's commercial tower. The diner had four booths inside and six swivel stools sitting in front of the white vinyl counter top. He would cook the breakfast specials with his back to the customers at the dull silver grill, listening to the bacon spit at onto his white smock and the toast crunching while the waitress buttered it beside him. It had rained all the way to the diner and, even though he ran quickly from the bus stop to the door, he got wet watching the
closed sign swing on its string when he knocked and waited for the owner to open the door.
Look, the voice buzzed, look up now.
And he did , catching a glimpse of something on the roof.
It was only a glimpse because as soon as he saw the shoulder of the silhouette, it disappeared over the top of the building; it was a dark shoulder, darker then a hue from the rain- a round, bare shoulder-distinct-and he forced himself to look away.
"Enough of that," he said , shutting his eyes tight. "Enough! Enough of crazy old ladies and monsters on the roof.Enough of my crazy old mind and to hell with panic."
He opened his eyes and smiled at the door to the diner; he smiled and didn't look up to the roof again, and the owner, Niklous Stavro, opened the door getting the Saint Christopher medal that hung from his opened shirt tangled in the closed sign.
Back to the real world, Gustaff thought, happy and surprised to be in charge of the voice in his head again. He slid sideways through the door past Niklous, who was trying to untangle his medal and muttering at the door,the sign, and his medal in Greek.
The rain had just stopped when the breakfast rush ended; outside the sun was steaming the roads and sidewalks dry; inside, Gustaff was scrubbing the broilers and putting the dirty dishes into racks to be fed along a conveyor to the dishwasher that reminded him a minature car wash. Then, he changed back into his street clothes , throwing his white canvas apron and pants into the laundry and went to the front to tell Niklous they would need more bacon for tomorrow before he left.
Not seeing his boss, he sat down at the stool beside the cash register at the end of the counter closest to the doorand waited. He looked at the clock over the register, watching the silent red second hand glide smoothly around the face, and then out to the bright street through the window. The sun was arching down over the top of the building across the street; it sparkled on the raindrops abandoned on the window, making them kaleidoscopes of red and white light, and Gustaff began to drum his fingers playfully on the counter. He spun off the stool and walked to the front.
"Gargoyles in the attic indeed," he said, smiling.
Run off was splashing down the curb; he watched the tiny whitecaps it made as it arched down the sewer grate in front of the diner. He put his hand flat against the window and pressed: faint white fingerprints were left. He took a step back a watched the ghostly trail of his identity disappear, then looked at his palm.
"There's nothing really in the bathroom," he whispered at the glass. "It's really all just in my head."
As the number four Midtown drove past the diner; its wheel sent a spray of water against the window with a loud boom. Gustaff pressed his cheek against the window to look down the road but the bus was gone. The number four would turn left on Gibbons, down three lights, then left onto his street. He looked at the clock over the cash register- five minutes and it would pass his house. He pressed both palms against the window and his breathing quickened leaving a pie shaped mist flaring on the glass. He stood listening to his breath roaring in his ears, and the voice started to chirp inside his mind:
The bus, Gustaff. You should've been on the bus. If only you'd been on that bus, you might have gotten home in time to stop them, but now it's too late.
He was standing with his temple pressed against the the hot glass, still thinking how the rumbling engine made the window frame vibrate against his leg, and he pulled one palm downward on the glass, longing for the bus, longing for his house.
The voice was quiet now but it had done its work: he could see himself walking up the stairs. He could hear the floor boards creak and pop under his feet, and even though he was still at The Rainbow Diner with his palms on the window he could feel the smooth drywall in the hallway toward his bathroom.
He stopped in the doorway, bracing himself against the frame. The voice, sensing it had lost momentum, flung itself hard against the inside of his skull.
Go inside.Go inside and look up..up at the ceiling.
He did and there it was-he'd expected it..that jagged hole in the ceiling. His heart fluttered and he leaned against the window at The Rainbow Diner, his breath had quickly eclipsed his vision of the road and its mist had become constant and milky white like the drywall in his bathroom ceiling.
He'd taken two steps into the bathroom when he heard the noise and flung himself toward the shower door, remembering it was glass with a shock and barely having time to get his palms up to soften the impact before his cheek came to rest against it.
Downstairs.. Under his feet. It was a determined precise ticking like a clock passing seconds or a furnace turning off and on and it came up the inside of the wall, like a clicking mechanical mouse or an old support beam in the attic. A piece of drywall fell from the hole and landed by his shoe; the thing in the wall was moving now, crawling closer to the hole, drumming its talons in the ceiling like it was unsatisfied with its mischief and impatient for more.
"There..There it is again!" Gustaff yelled at the window in The Rainbow Diner, his face still pressed against the glass facing the street.
"What?" Niklous said, hanging the sign back on the door with `open' facing in, "What is there?..What the hell is this there?"
But Gustaff wasn't listening. He had cocked his ear to the diner's ceiling when he heard the familiar voice, and he stood wide-eyed, like a dog listening for his master's whistle.
Somethings-in-the-roof-of-the-diner,somethings-in-the-roof-I-knooooow.Somethings- in- the- roof- of-THIS- diner, C'mon- its- time- to- put- on- a-show.
And something was running inside the roof, he heard it. It was skittering on crab-claw talons, one foot forward, two feet back- the length of the ceiling over to the broilers , then back on another angle to a point right above the clock where it stopped.
Gustaff ran to the cash register, grabbing the spike used for keeping the day's receipts and pulling the stool over the counter to a place right under the clock, never taking his eyes off the ceiling.
"What the hell are you doing?".You crazy now or what?" Niklous said, nervously amused at first, but his brow furrowing when Gustaff cleared the paper off the spike.
He ignored him, climbing up on the seat of the stool, raising the spike with one hand to hold it at chest level with both once he had both feet balanced.
"Hey, crazy man." Niklous was yelling now, putting both hands on the counter and leaning forward so the Saint Christopher medal swung forward and away from his open, white silk shirt and chest. "You come down now,Okay?.C'mon, right now."
Gustaff couldn't hear him- he was listening to the voice:
Talons...surely, by now, you know that noise-the same as in your bathroom, the very ones the bus lady must hear in her living room They're above you..above you right now.
"They must be everywhere," he affirmed to the voice, driving the spike up through the drywall.
He yanked it down and jabbed four more holes before a single white chip the size of a dime fell and he instinctively jerked back a hand to protect his eyes, dropping the spike and losing his balance.
Gustaff flailed as he fell off the stool and one of his hands ripped the medal from Niklous' neck. The other grabbed at the cash register, trying to break his fall, and knocked it off the counter-coins and the medal spilled onto the floor, some rolling under the booths and falling into the heat register by the door with a series of clinks and clunks
And that's how he found himself standing in front of The Rainbow Diner, out on the dark moist sidewalk in the muggy air, watching the closed sign rock back and forth in the window of the door that'd been slammed in his face.
Niklous gave him a final, quizzical look from the other side , two eyes peering over the sign, then he dismissed him wit a quick flick of the hand, turning his back to look for his medallion among the coins that had stayed on the floor.
Gustaff peered into the window, cupping a hand over his brow and angling his face so he could see the clock over the counter. It was twenty-nine minutes past one; the number four Midtown had circled on its route and would be back downtown to pick him up straight away. Gustaff saw Niklous down on his haunches sifting through handfuls of coins like sand, looking for Saint Christopher. He stopped suddenly, tensed and stood up, turning around to face Gustaff with one finger pointing at him through the door.
"Go away now..go..don't come back," Niklous said with the door muffling his voice so it sounded like he was yelling to someone inside. Gustaff backed away just as a growling engine turned the corner.
He barely noticed the driver's face or the clink of his money falling into the fare box when he boarded the number four for the ride home-the air, suddenly, was muggy and still and he anticipated rain . He walked down the aisle swaying as the bus lurched ahead, holding the railings on the seats and looking at the floor; he stopped at the back and slipped into the bench seat, sliding toward the window. Then, he heard a familiar voice: "I thought you might be back."
She was sitting across from him in her white jacket with the silver broach on the lapel; she was holding her back up of the seat again and her black purse tightly with both hands in her lap.
"Its going to rain again," she said, facing the window on her side so he could only see the back of her white head and the neat round bun she'd tied her hair in. "Now, they'll all see."
Gustaff rubbed his palm on the foggy window at his side; he let a deep breath out and his shoulders slump, relaxing in her company.
"Yes," he said, more to Niklous and Irene Harrison than to the other believer across from him. "Now they'll all see."
The rain started to patter then pound on the metal roof of the bus: it sounded to Gustaff like hundreds of razor- sharp- pointed talons, goading to come inside where it was dry. It was just after one- thirty and the number four Midtown had just started the top end of its route; Gustaff and the old lady were the only people on the workday afternoon run except for the driver, who kept stealing glances at them in the oversized rear view mirror over the fare box.
He could feel the vibration of the engine under the wheel cover he was resting his foot on, and he listened to the exact clicking of the turn signal as the bus turned into traffic; he heard the squeak of the windshield wipers until the rain made the glass wet, After, he only heard the wipers when they bumped the window frame at the end of their arcs. Then the voice started to speak- it moved from left to right inside his head and he twitched his eyes back and forth with it, as if he was watching a tennis match from center court.
Yes, now they would all see..Yes. they'll line up to make their apologies to you, and you'll line them up in neat rows and take them upstairs.Yes.. upstairs to the
bathroom. Oh Yes. To show them al the hole in the ceiling. To show them where you found the beast before the privately grateful police with their chattering radios led it away.
Gustaff leaned back against the seat and relaxed, letting his back mould against the cushion. Now they would all see; now he felt as though the bus was carrying him upward too, upward and beyond The Rainbow Diner, short order cooking and, yes, Gustaff, yes, especially above cowering-ashamed- before any boss, or neighbour, or anyone, anywhere.
"Look!" said the only other rightful heir, a smooth white back with white hair pulled into a round bun, "Look!" she said, facing away from him with both hands on the window frame and one knew up on the seat so the bottom half of her leg hung in the air, "There's one there!"
And Gustaff got up and moved to the seat in front of her and rubbed a circle in the foggy window with his palm; the number four had turned onto Gibbons, in five minutes he would be home to his vindication- he closed one eye and put the other to the clean circle on the glass.
He saw a row of red brick bungalows, all with the same white doors shut tight against the storm and water running down the slippery, black asphalt driveways like cooking oil sliding down a Teflon pan. A black Corgi trotted down the sidewalk on stumpy legs, seemingly obvilious to the rain, only breaking the trot to run up one of the driveways to disappear behind a house.
Gustaff's excited breathing had clouded over the peephole; he rubbed again and looked out at the sheets of grey rain on the roof tops.
"There..there's one right over there!" She'd stuck one hand under her tucked leg and was pointing out her window with the other. The voice growled to him:
Wipe the window now-wipe it hard!
And suddenly he found himself wiping the whole window with the flat part of his hand, so driven he stubbed his flesh on the upper part of the frame.
There was a shoulder in the corner of his eye- no more than a silhouette, no more than the one he'd seen in his bathroom, but it was proof enough. It was darker by a hue than the grey sheets of rain, and it jerked away from sight over the apex of a roof. He pressed his palm against the glass so it suctioned there and angled his face back to see the spot, but the bus changed lanes to turn at the last stoplight before his house and the dark silhouette was gone behind him.
It doesn't matter, the voice reassured him, that's just the one that got away. There's plenty more. Lots more.
So he sat, brave and peaceful, feeling doubt slip away-released from its grasp like a kite jerked away from a tight grip by a beneficent wind, and he sat thinking about not much at all. That's when the police car whooped behind them and the bus driver, startled, had to pump the brakes twice while he pulled over to the curb.
The seal on the door broke and opened; the rain was splattering behind him as the first policeman got on the bus. Gustaff could only see his yellow shoulder under the rain slicker at first and the rain glistening off the plastic covering his hat. The policeman gave the bus driver a picture he pulled from the breast pocket of his coat: the driver looked at it , then turned in his seat to point to the old lady, who had turned around completely to kneel in her dress on the bench seat facing the back window of the bus.
The policeman started to walk down the aisle toward them, looking back and forth from the snapshot in his hands to the old lady behind Gustaff ; a second officer had boarded the bus and was following his partner. When the first reached his seat, he put the picture back in his coat and took Gustaff by the arm.
"Please, come with me," he said, never taking his eyes off the back of the bus. The other slid past them and walked toward the bench seat slowly, rolling his shoes from heel to toe for silence and surprise. As soon as he touched her, she screamed and squirmed so Gustaff''s officer let his arm go to help his partner.
"Lemme go, you assholes," she shrieked, her voice losing the dignity and fragile tweet of an old lady and gaining a low, raspy, two-pack-a-day drawl like a snarled warning from a cornered animal. "Ahhh," she growled from her chest, flinging one arm out to grab the railing on the seat in front of her. She twisted her forearm around the rail hooking her elbow through it and both the police grabbed a leg each, pulling her parallel with the floor and knocking the bun in her hair loose. Half her head of white hair flipped
into her eyes, covering the side of her face , and she bit the hand that tried to pry her grip loose from the railing.
"Look Dorothy," one of the officers said with an exasperated familiarity that shocked Gustaff, "you know this is what happens when you miss your treatments." He was trying to be calm and diplomatic, but Dorothy was squirming like a eel on dry pavement. She flung an elbow up, keeping a tight grip on the rail; the resulting blow knocked the bitten officer's hat off and he looked over at his partner.
"Radio in," he said to the other cop. "Find out where the damned ambulance from the institution is."
"Hey you," the younger one said, looking at Gustaff and not hiding his impatience and reaching behind his back for his handcuffs. "You know this lady?"
"No," Gustaff said looking down , suddenly ashamed he'd lost his job at the diner and afraid the officer might want to know why he sitting close to Dorothy. He turned without looking at her and started down the aisle.
No, he thought, No, I don't know that woman..I don't know her full name or where she lives, but if we sat together in a dark room with only two chairs so we could only talk we'd leave not seeing each other but knowing how alike we really were.
No, he thought , still looking down , afraid and in a rush to get off the bus, I don't know her, but I know what she's seeing and hearing, and she gets treatment at an institution.
He was standing again on the hot sidewalk in the heavy air after a rain; he turned around and looked at the window where both police were escorting Dorothy down the aisle. Her hair had come completely loose, it hung forward into her bowed face and up from her scalp; like her head had been smashed from the inside, Gustaff thought, smashed with an Indian-Rubber-Ball- voice.
She was blowing a lock from the side of her mouth and she'd stopped resisting the police after the mention of her missed treatment, but they'd gathered her white summer coat in their fists so it bunched lopsided on her shoulders. The pin on her broach had popped open; it hung forward on her lapel, ready to fall. The bitten cop was carrying her neat black purse far away from his body, like he was waiting for it to expode.
Gustaff started to walk down the sidewalk to his house; at first, he watched the ambulance on Gibbons street approaching the bus with its red lights strobing the grey sky, but then he turned around, afraid the police , the bus driver , or even Dorothy might see him watching and notice his affinity.
"I have to go home now, " he said to the sidewalk, sure there had never been a thing in the bathroom attic, or on the roof top, or even in the ceiling in the diner. He was sure now, sure it was all in his head- all spurred on by his own Indian Rubber Ball talking and talking to him, slamming playfully against the inside of his skull like a bad child on the bumper cars at the midway, and he was especially sure now of what it was he had to do to silence the voice permanently.
"Treatment," he whispered to the concrete."Treatment," he said again, slowly enjoying the sound of each consonant and vowel, and it started to rain again- black drops splashed like ink spots at his feet.
Gustaff didn't look at the ceiling once that night as he brushed his teeth.
"Treatment," he mumbled around the bush merrily; he took a mouthful of water from the plastic cup on the counter, swished it around inside his mouth, and spit into the basin.
"Treatment," he said again quickly, proud like a child whose mastered a long word. He sauntered to his bedroom and climbed under the covers; he locked his fingers behind his head and stretched his legs right out, bending his toes backward. He'd looked through the phone book and found the name of the facility where he thought Dorothy might get her treatments and he'd written the number down on a piece of paper and left it on the kitchen table.
"Tomorrow," he whispered to the quiet comfortable night around him," tomorrow will be different." And he closed his eyes and listened- he held a breath and watched the pinpricks of coloured light dance their strange geometry toward the inside of his eyelids, and he listened for the voice. He listened for the Indian Rubber Ball voice, for the naughty boy on the bumper car, but he only heard his breathing like waves on the shore in his ears. Gustaff fell asleep imagining the midway attendant grabbing the boy under his arms , lifting him from his seat, and returning him to his angry parents.
He woke in the middle of the night-something had made a noise in the bathroom.
"Treatment?" He asked the dark, like he was calling for a comforting pet to jump on the bed beside him. An old knuckle cracked in the attic and the furnace clicked off under the vent by the kitchen table. Reassured and unafraid, he decided a glass of juice would help him to fall back to sleep and he went downstairs where he noticed Irene's light was on.
She was bust sweeping the living room floor , hunched over in her blue terry-clot robe, the butt of the broom handle sticking up between her elbow and her side. She stopped and, leaning the broom in the grooved back rest of a chair, bent over to pick something up so Gustaff could only see the small of her back above the table. He finished his apple juice and put the glass in the sink, noticing the white flecks on the back of her robe- a nice design- and he made a mental not to compliment her once he'd started treatment, after the improvement he'd planned for became noticeable.
He was on his way back to bed when he thought he saw something- something darker than the night around it- in the bathroom when he passed, but he rubbed his eyes and continued down the hall. He went into his room and climbed under the covers, thinking how pleasant it was to have a nice neighbour like Irene.
What good taste, he thought, what a pleasant bath robe with tasteful flecks of white on the back.
Gustaff suddenly grabbed the sheets in both hands involuntarily
Only on the back, the voice said, like it had fallen from something digging out from her living room ceiling, just like Dorothy
"Treatment?" Gustaff pleaded to the dark night- a child calling this time for his parents to come from the other end of a cavernous hall. He thought he saw a shoulder in the door frame to the bathroom- a silhouette darker than a shade from the night around it- and he heard something too. Talons.Slow,methodical talons.
They've always been there, my friend. Talons waiting for nights just like this. Talons that know nothing of treatments.
He pulled the flannel tight around his ears, jerking fistfuls down under his chin and laying with his face into his pillow. He'd made his mind up not to listen to anything he might hear, not to look up to see anything that was only in his mind. The flannel comforted him eventually; his breathing slowed, and he started to fall asleep.
A familiar voice woke him in the middle of the night, bouncing from one side to the other inside his head:
There..don't you hear it? Come now..there it is again.
Bio:Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's.After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.
His previous contributions to Aphelion include Little Ed which appeared in April.
Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.
Return to the Aphelion main page.