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Amy Miniter didn't want to live in her old home when she returned to Mt. Tabor, Connecticut, after an absence of four years, so she took an apartment in Brooksprite Gardens, a brand-new complex of two-story buildings, and furnished it with things from the house.
She sold the rest of the furniture for a tidy sum, donated all of the clothing, hers and her late mother's, to the Salvation Army, and cleaned the house from top to bottom in preparation for selling it. But the house had lain unoccupied in her absence, and it was in sorry shape. After pricing the services of carpenters and handymen, she went to work herself glazing broken windows, nailing down loose floorboards, and repairing leaks in the plumbing.
She had only just started on the wiring, planning to add a few outlets and replace the old fuse box with circuit-breakers, when she realized that it was time to return for her junior year at college; so she applied for a leave of absence and pushed ahead happily with her renovations. After painting the house inside and out, she sold it for $165,000. That was $30,000 more than a real estate broker, a colleague of her mother's, had assured her she could get for it in its original state, and she estimated her own investment, including her time, which she valued in accordance with the federal minimum wage law, at $5,000. Without even trying, she had found a career.
If she had stopped to think about it, it was a career she would have rejected. It had been her mother's, and she believed her mother had merely used it as an excuse to exercise her inclinations as a busybody and poke around in other people's houses. Amy had always thoughtof herself as artistically inclined, because her mother had always said she was, and had said it more often than not reproachfully. At college she had majored in dramatic arts, but it was soon obvious that she had no talent for acting. On stage, she felt nothing but an urgent desire to blend into the scenery; and any audience would have agreed that she succeeded in this brilliantly.
Other girls with her coloring were routinely described as blue-eyed blondes with fair complexions, but the only adjective that ever came to anyone's mind on first seeing her was pale. "You look pale this morning, dear," her mother had said to her almost every morning of her life (or so it seemed to Amy) and when teachers and friends concurred in that opinion, she accepted it as a condition of her existence. She began to dress, think, and act palely. Just as some inner pallor leeched the gold from her hair, the blue from her eyes, the bloom from her cheeks, so it sucked the color out of everything she wore. She could have bought the gaudiest dress in a bargain store run by color-blind West Indians and walked out looking like a librarian on her way to work.
To avoid going on stage at college, she had busied herself with jobs that nobody else wanted or could do. She became a pretty good carpenter and electrician, and she also unwittingly earned a reputation as a benign Phantom of the Opera, never directly seen, always flitting palely at the periphery of everyone's vision as she performed minor miracles to keep the show going on. She was sorely missed when she didn't return, although no one in the drama department could put a finger on exactly who or what was missing that year.
She had returned to Mt. Tabor with the idea of clearing up her mother's affairs, something she imagined could be done by spending a dull hour in a lawyer's office and signing a few papers. But she found that her mother's lawyer, George Spencer, had given up his practice and gone abroad -- no one knew exactly where -- leaving those affairs in a frightful mess. So Amy had hired another lawyer and taken the apartment, which lay within commuting distance of college, in order to be on top of things. It took her two months to learn that her mother had been holding four other houses and a large tract of undeveloped property as investments; and that a fifth house, because of George Spencer's inadequate instructions and a subsequent mix-up at the bank, had been sold at a staggering loss to satisfy the local tax collector. She began to realize that necessity, as much as inclination, was leading her into the real estate business, and that she could clear things up only by taking firm charge of them herself. As soon as her old home was sold, she began to make a detailed survey of the other houses with an eye to renovating them even more elaborately.
What surprised her most about her auspicious start in business was her previously hidden talent for selling. "You are psychologically incapable of saying no," her mother would say in the course of some dressing-down; or, "Why can't you develop a smidgin of self-confidence?" With the memory of such criticism still rankling, selling was the last career she would have chosen. But she found it came as naturally to her as had the other skills. In making her pitch, she was talking about a house she knew thoroughly and about work she had done with her own hands. She had the facts in her grasp, and the words followed easily. Her prospects, disarmed by her youth and her initial diffidence, found themselves cornered by a passionate adding machine.
But the diffidence remained; and what really appealed to her about the work was the long hours she could spend alone in empty houses. Nothing was more congenial to her dreamy nature than mechanical, repetitive tasks like sanding a floor, or stripping wallpaper, or painting. While going through the hypnotic motions, she would people the house with friends and family she didn't have, even with the husband and children that, in cooler moments of reflection, she could never truly visualize for herself. She was glad that she had a talent for selling, but it wasn't a part of the job she looked forward to; it was more like a price she had to pay for the delicious pleasure of what her mother used to call, with high disdain for the mutability of slang, mooning.
Her dream husband was an older man, not entirely unlike Peter Jennings, big and confident and charming and handsome, whose business kept him out of her life most of the time. Most typically, he would be seated at the breakfast table, shaking his head in fond amazement at her latest triumph in real estate investment before going on to praise her eggs Benedict.
He never made an appearance in the bedroom. If she directed her full attention to the thought of touching and being touched by a naked man, it would make her sick. She would shake all over and break out in a cold sweat. "Boys are the nastiest, grubbiest creatures you could possibly imagine, Amy. It would make you ill to know what thought is constantly uppermost in their filthy little minds," her mother would say; or, when she she was a little older and her mother had thoroughly demoralized her with the vision of hell on earth that she called the Facts of Life: "Men simply don't think, Amy, all their actions are determined by the bestial appendage between their legs and the simple, brutal urge to stick it into something." Sometimes she would imagine her dream-husband as having been conveniently wounded in some war.
Amy's mother died when she was a sophomore in high school. Until then, she had never had a date, not a real one, and she managed to finish high school without ever going out with a boy. She'd had dates in college, mostly because her psychiatrist had seemed to expect it of her. She had wanted to prove to him, as well as to herself, that she could conform to a normal, acceptable standard of behavior. But the dates had been disasters. Everything her mother told her had been proved true. If you held a boy's hand he expected you to let him kiss you, and if you let him kiss you....
The agent who had steered her to Brooksprite Gardens had put forward as one of its virtues the high proportion of young, single, fun-loving people who lived there, and she had reflexively balked. But then she reminded herself that she was young -- at twenty, probably younger than most of the people in Brooksprite Gardens -- that she was single, and that even though her idea of fun (taking a long walk alone in the rain or staying up until three with an absorbing book) wasn't the same as most people's, she loved it. Because of her continuing desire to prove that she was just like everybody else, she had taken the apartment.
At first, living alone there scared her half to death. It wasn't like college, where you either knew everyone or could get to know them simply by saying hello. She was on her own among menacing strangers. The young man next door with the motorcycle had be be a Hell's Angel. The man across the way with the shaved head and mirror sunglasses was a black revolutionary, making bombs in his apartment. A slamming car door or a loud stereo meant that yet another sex-and-drug orgy was about to get under way. The walls were thin, and the first night she spent there, she shivered in the closet for an hour clutching a hammer with which she planned to defend her life or virtue. She at last convinced herself that the voices she heard in her living room were in fact coming from a television set in the next apartment.
She calmed down after a week or so and began to take a less biased survey of her neighbors. The windows of her bedroom overlooked the parking lot and, across it, one of the twenty cookie-cutter replicas of her building that comprised Brooksprite Gardens. She had hung heavy brocade drapes from her mother's house at the windows and, positioning a wing chair beside them, could peek at the comings and goings of her neighbors while she was at home.
At length she came to the conclusion that they were perfectly ordinary people. The black militant was a security guard at a shopping mall; the Hell's Angel was a history teacher at the regional high school. Nobody but girls ever came to the orgies in Apartment 220, and they sat around a table for hours playing -- she needed her binoculars for this -- hearts.
Brooksprite Gardens boasted tennis courts and a swimming pool. Again trying to be one of the gang, Amy bought herself a swimsuit and a tennis outfit, but she never managed to get beyond the stage of putting them on and wearing them while she watched television or read a book with the drapes drawn and all her brand new locks secured.
The apartment complex hadn't been here when she was growing up. It had been built during her absence on the site of the former Mt. Tabor landfill, the town dump. An ominous desert of smoking piles and bad smells, the dump had suggested the surface of a hostile planet or a World War I battlefield to her active and somewhat morbid childhood fancies. It had provided a landscape for some of her more unforgettable nightmares. Through it had oozed a greasy, sluggish vein of liquid sludge that had undoubtedly given the apartments their name, and she shuddered to contemplate the sort of sprite that might disport itself in such a brook.
But the dump had been bulldozed and planted and sanitized. The horrid brook had been squeezed underground. The malodorous mountains of debris had been reduced to knolls swathed with lawns like putting greens. Silver beeches swayed among blacktop lanes meandering coyly among identical cedar-shingled barracks. She didn't even recognize the place for what it once had been until she'd signed her lease, and then it had been too late to change her mind. Child molesters, ax-murderers, and cannibals were only pranksters (her mother had impressed upon her) compared to the sort of people who broke leases.
But the apartment itself was neat and bright and logically laid out. Sliding glass doors in the living room led to a balcony where, one of these days, she might sunbathe in her new swimsuit. By peeking through the purple curtains she hung over this door, she often saw singularly hectic and refulgent sunsets above the wood that bordered the complex. It seemed that the scruffy little wood must hide the entrance to another and more glorious world, and sometimes the feeling that it really did became so strong that she would walk there after dinner on the chance of finding it; but beyond the wood lay only the unreclaimed section of the landfill.
She tried to make her apartment homey by selecting only those items from her mother's house that dragged no unpleasant associations along with them. Books and bookcases, her childhood escape routes, were acceptable, and so were the anonymous kitchen appliances. She'd also brought her bed, a familiar refuge, from home. Most of the chairs and sofas from her old living room brought back memories of her mother, enthroned for some stern lecture, so she'd sold them. She'd furnished the living room mostly with things from the attic that were rather old fashioned and mouldy, but with the drapes drawn, no one would notice. Taking the dining room table where her mother had nightly reconvened the Bloody Assizes would have been the equivalent of an escaped prisoner's taking his rack with him, so she'd bought a new one.
The only real memento of her mother that she'd brought to Brooksprite Gardens was the statue of Bozo. It wasn't really Bozo (one of their many dogs, a combination boxer and golden retriever) but they'd always called it that because its lion's head resembled him. It was made of highly polished black stone, about two feet high, and it represented a heroic but sexually ambiguous figure standing on an egg with a crack in it. An endless serpent without head or tail was twined about its legs and lower torso, and from its shoulder blades sprouted angelic wings that reached to its ankles. In each hand it brandished menacingly a tightly rolled scroll.
Amy's mother, who had thought it was in bad taste but kept it on display for its comic value, said it was a gift from a former boyfriend, but she knew nothing of its meaning or history. The theriomorphic aspect suggested Egypt to Amy, but the style was definitely Greek, at least in inspiration: the wings were just like those of the Winged Victory, which she'd always admired in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
She had often imagined being borne through the air in the strong arms of Bozo, whose lion's mouth hadn't been designed for kissing, to some better place. Her mother might try to stop them, but those strong jaws would -- but that was a thought she didn't dare think, not anymore. Her mother had been a fine woman, an inspiration, she had loved her, and she grieved deeply for her; that was what her mother would have wanted her to think now, and that was what she thought.
She enshrined Bozo in the living room of her apartment, on top of a case containing her very favorite books, with thick, drippy candles rising from ornate holders on either side of him. Only when she had put him there, the perfect place for him, did she realize that the pier glass behind him revealed his strong and unquestionably masculine buttocks to all the world. Should she remove the mirror? But she wanted the mirror there. Should she move Bozo? But that was the only place for him. Should she put something behind him? But she had wanted to reflect his wings and his strong back, to give him depth and presence with the mirror.
She fretted about these and similar questions for a week. Her heart stopped whenever the doorbell rang. It would be someone -- some man -- who would come in, take one look at Bozo's behind, and read her naughtiest thoughts. But the bell never rang for anyone but the mailman, salesmen, and Jehovah's Witnesses; people she could deal with through the security of her newly installed chain lock. At last she came to terms with it. This was her apartment, her very own home, and she could display whatever she damned well pleased in it. Her mother wasn't around to confiscate it, as she had sometimes confiscated unsuitable books and pictures (The Catcher in the Rye, a poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono -- "He was a dope fiend, she's a Jap, and they're both naked," she had fumed) from her bedroom.
Besides, her sophisticated friends -- the writers and artists and musicians she would surely meet one of these days -- would laugh at her obsession with bourgeois decorum. Having made up her mind to keep Bozo where he was, she began to feel worldly and bohemian. She toyed with the idea of drinking apricot brandy and smoking cigarettes.
For the first few months, while she was exhausting herself each day on renovating the house, she slept soundly in her new home. She would often be roused by slamming car doors and late goodnights in the parking area beneath her window, but she could always roll over and go back to sleep after a few dark thoughts about drug-and-sex orgies and the decline of common consideration for people who went to bed at the reasonable hour of ten o'clock.
But in June, when the house had been sold and she was only at the point of planning her next project -- which would mean evicting current tenants, a task she had no stomach for, so she was in no hurry -- she began to be troubled by strange dreams. The dreams were timeless, they had no specific locale, they had no real people in them: only voices, but less than voices, they were like overheard thoughts. She seemed to be eavesdropping telepathically on an endless and incredibly boring dialogue between two creatures who had little in common with the human race.
Amy thought about them a lot when she was awake. The voices had a reality, an individual flavor, a tone that seemed to remain consistent from night to night. One of the characters was hopelessly uninformed about the simplest aspects of everyday life; the other one, trying to educate him, didn't know very much, either, and her -- almost definitely her -- information was outdated and confused. She couldn't have cited examples, because it was only the tone of the conversations that she remembered, never the exact content.
In themselves, the dreams weren't frightening, not at first. They were merely irritating, extremely so. It was as if she were being forced every night to attend a lecture in some subject she didn't understand. What was frightening, to a person who had spent so much time under psychiatric care and whose confidence in her own sanity was none too secure, was that she should have a recurrent dream at all, regardless of its content.
Going to bed became a dreaded chore. She pushed back the time of her retirement to eleven, and then to midnight, but all she succeeded in doing was falling asleep on the couch, where she would have the same dream and wake up with assorted aches from her cramped position. She tried hot baths and warm milk. She tried re-reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in the hope of provoking comfortably familiar nightmares as counterirritants. Nothing worked.
Then the dreams got scary. One night she heard the droning voices and woke up. The voices droned on. She tried to open her eyes, but she couldn't. She was fully conscious, but she was paralyzed. She knew that she was lying in her bed and wearing her blue cotton nightgown, the one with the little red roses. Her left foot was tucked somewhat uncomfortably under her right leg. She tried to move it. She couldn't. And still the voices droned on.
Think ofit... pictures....
When I spread them all out on the table like this, you can see all the pictures at the same time. Amy on a pony. Amy on her fourth birthday. Amy's mother and father with their mechanical conveyance. The table is now covered with pictures; you can see them all at once. Now I put them in a pack and show them one by one. Try to think of each picture as a separate event.
How can one event be separate from all other events?
The horror intensified as she heard a car engine start outside and the darkness of her eyelids lightened. She knew that headlights were sweeping the ceiling, but she couldn't open her eyes to see them. The engine stopped and the car door slammed.
"Hey, Todd?" That was Toni, the woman in the apartment beneath her, calling to her husband, but Amy suspected that they weren't really married. "Did you remember the coffee?"
"You want to get it? Leiber's is still open."
"No, I don't want to get it, I just got here."
"Fuck it, I'll go."
The car door slammed. The engine started. The car drove away. Amy had tried as hard as she could, but she hadn't been able to squeeze out a scream for help.
See? I deal from the pack: Amy on her pony. Amy at the beach. Amy on the swing. If you saw events this way, one at a time, one following the other, you would believe that Amy was on the swing because she had been on the beach, that she was on the beach because she had been riding her pony.
I would not believe this.
If you lived in time....
I am in time. Amy is on the beach. Amy is on her pony. Amy is lying on her bed in the next room.
At these words -- for the second voice, the male voice, was filled with a cruelty and arrogance that might not have been heard on earth since Attila the Hun last spoke -- she struggled with maniacal intensity to scream, to get out of bed, to open her eyes, but she lay still.
This looks like a spider.
It is a hand.
The voices -- not really voices, but thoughts -- each had a distinctive, unmistakable character, and they were doing their thinking beside her bed. Her right hand shot up sharply into the air. The fingers clenched and unclenched. Hand and arm dropped to the bed, lifeless once more.
Independent of her will, her hands pushed down the sheet and blanket. She sat bolt upright. Her eyes opened. She saw the windows outlined dimly behind the drapes, she saw a murky gleam in the mirror above her dresser, but she could move her eyes neither to the right nor to the left. Her treacherous hands pulled her nightdress over her head and cast it aside. She lay back naked and stared at the ceiling, listening.
Amy is different from the creature in the pictures.
They grow larger and change as they grow older. This organ develops for the nourishment of their offspring.
Amy's hand clutched her breast.
Hair grows, here and here. This is a female, you see.
Amy's legs jerked abruptly apart.
Where are the offspring?
Todd Farmer's headlights swept across the ceiling. This time she could see them. They were extinguished. His engine stopped, his car door slammed. The front door of his apartment slammed, and she heard laughter.
She has no offspring. She has never known a male.
Amy's fingers probed her vagina painfully.
Bring a man to her, and show me what you mean.
I will show you at another time. It is time to go.
Time is not.
The droning voices argued this abstruse point as they receded. Released from paralysis, Amy screamed and screamed again. Remembering her neighbors, she pulled the pillow over her face and jammed it into her mouth before she screamed a third time, long and loud.
She pulled the covers over her head and lay curled in a tight ball, sobbing and shuddering uncontrollably for a long time. She wanted to call the police, but what on earth could she tell them? That she had been hearing voices, and that she had been sexually assaulted by her own hand? No matter how carefully or cleverly she worded her appeal, they would think she was crazy, and they might very possibly be right.
After a long time, she convinced herself that she had only been dreaming. She crept out of bed and tiptoed to the window, less terrified now by the creatures of her imagination than by the thought that the neighbors might have heard her screams. The dim lights in the entryways shone on a herd of glittering. empty cars. Everyone was home. Only a couple of lights burned in the building across the way, and no one was peering out anxiously or reproachfully for the author of the screams. Maybe she had screamed only as part of her nightmare.
She slipped into her nightgown and turned on the light. Sleep was out of the question. She would make a cup of cocoa and read until morning Dream or not, it took all her courage to walk out into the kitchen, and she turned on as many lights as she could on the way.
Carrying a tray of cocoa and pecan shortbread cookies, she entered the living room, snapped on the light, and screamed again. Her hands jerked convulsively; the tray flew against the bookcase. The cup shattered against the mirror and broke it. The statue of Bozo teetered. She lunged to save it, but it fell and shattered on the floor. Her left wrist stung where a shard of the cup or mirror had grazed her. Bright drops of blood dripped to the snarling mouth of the statue's severed head.
In the living room, a chest of her most treasured possessions had been forced open, its contents strewn about the Anatolian carpet. Her mother's photo album had been taken from the chest and all of its pictures pulled with destructive clumsiness from their plasticene sleeves. They lay beside the coffee table in a ragged pack.
She paused only to make certain that all the locks were locked, the bar drawn, the chain in place befdore dashing back to bed and hiding under the covers, leaving all the lights burning. But she knew it didn't make a bit of difference.
Copyright © 2000 by Brian McNaughton