Honorable Mention, Young Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest
For five years Jess had walked by the century-old apartment building on her way to and from work each day. It sat on the northeast corner of Monument Square, six stories of fine red brick, with tall windows framed in intricately carved stone. In the top center of each frame, a whimsical cherub looked out on the street below. She especially liked the way they looked in the snowy winters of Portland, when each little face was capped with a dusting of white. She rarely saw anyone come out of the building in the mornings as she dashed to work across the square, but at night when the sky was dark and the windows lit up, she would walk slower to get a look at the interiors of the apartments. The ceilings soared at least eight feet high, and the original glass of the windowpanes rippled so that the light seemed to dance in the panes. Occasionally Jess saw figures through the windows, residents going about their evening tasks. Jess could easily imagine herself on the other side of the glass, entertaining dinner guests or settling into a feather-filled armchair.
It was a cold Sunday morning in February. Jess sat with her boyfriend of sixteen months, Dan, at their regular table at the Blue Spoon coffee shop. She unfolded the Maine Sunday Telegram and handed Dan the front half of the paper. She took the rest. On the top half of the real estate section was a small photo of her favorite building, the one she had dreamed of living in, the one with the choir of cherubs.
Rarely Available! One-bedroom plus den corner condo in restored warehouse. Renovated kitchen and bath. High ceilings. Lots of light. Open Sunday 1-3.
“Look at this,” Jess cried, turning the page toward Dan and placing her index finger on top of the listing. “It’s the building I showed you, the one that I walk past every day! There’s one for sale. Please, let’s go look.” Dan peered down at the picture and looked up at the excitement in Jess’ face. They had been planning on moving in together, on buying a place, and maybe this was the apartment they had been looking for. Actually, they had been saving up for a place of their own for over a year. Later that afternoon, when they walked into the small entry hall of the fifth-floor apartment and looked across the wide living area with sunlight streaming through the tall windows and pooling on the floor, they both knew this was where they wanted to be.
On an unusually mild Saturday morning in April, Jess lifted the last box from the rental van and headed through the double mahogany and glass doors into the small lobby. Thirty-two brass mailboxes were polished to a fine shine. She walked slowly across the dappled grey marble, more content than she had been in a long time. Propping the box on one knee, Jess pushed the elevator button, and in no time she arrived on the fifth floor. Five other doors to five other apartments were on her floor; Jess noticed that although it was almost noon, the occupants of the apartment next door, apartment 503, had not yet picked up their newspaper. Perhaps they were traveling. Jess hoped she would meet them soon. It would be nice to have friends on her floor.
As Jess entered the apartment, she could hear Dan whistling as he stood in the kitchen unwrapping glassware and placed it in rows on the cabinet shelves.
“This is going to be great. We have so much space in here, Jess. Oh, and when I’m done here, do you want to give me a hand in arranging the furniture?”
They moved the two small couches into an L shape in front of the large windows. Dan collapsed onto one to rest. Jess sat down on the other.
“How about we work for a few more hours, then grab some dinner at…”
Suddenly, several large thumps sounded on the other side of the wall, and a raised male voice angrily shouted. The wall was too thick for them to hear exactly what he said, but whatever he was saying he was clearly furious. Jess and Dan looked at each other.
“Whoa, somebody’s mad,” Dan said lightly.
The voice became less audible as if the person was moving further away from the shared wall and into another room, but Jess and Dan could still hear the raised tone and several more thuds. Things quieted down next door after a few minutes, and Jess and Dan did not think anything more about the commotion. They continued their unpacking.
In the early evening, showered and changed into clean clothes, Jess and Dan headed out to David’s Restaurant a few blocks away. They had decided to splurge on their first night in their new neighborhood. They lingered over their plates of roasted lamb, sipping wine and espresso. It was nearly dark by the time they had paid their bill and headed back to their place.
Jess looked up at the fifth-floor windows, the cherubs’ faces glowing from the streetlights, smiling down on them. Their neighbor’s windows were dark. Whoever lived there had evidently left for the evening.
“Looks like our neighbor’s not home. Wonder what he was so angry about. I didn’t hear another voice. Did you?”
Dan gazed at the dark windows. “Nope. Who knows what his problem was.”
Several evenings later as Jess and Dan finished dinner at their kitchen table, the shouting began again next door. This time, Jess got up and put her ear against the wall.
“What’re you doing that for?” Dan asked.
“Shhhh. I want to hear what he’s saying.”
Dan just stared at her.
I’m sick and tired of you being here. Can’t you tell you’re just in my way? Don’t you realize I don’t want you here anymore, you fucking bitch? I don’t want you anymore, I don’t need you anymore. Get the message?
With her ear against the wall, Jess could hear what sounded like a female voice crying, and suddenly, what sounded like a slap, followed by another bang against the wall. Jess jumped back, surprised.
“Should we do something? What should we do? I mean, we can’t just listen to this!”
“I think we should just let them sort out their own problems, Jess. I really don’t want to get in the middle of this. You always think you have to sort out other people issues. You don’t.”
The door slammed next door, and all was quiet.
Over the next few weeks, Jess and Dan heard several more outbursts, and although Jess continued to ask Dan if they really shouldn’t do something, Dan always persuaded her that it was better that they stay out of it. They learned that if they turned on some music, they couldn’t hear the noise from next door.
Leaving for work one morning, Jess closed her apartment door and walked down the hall. For the first time, there were two other people waiting for the elevator. One of the men looked to be in his mid-forties, dressed neatly in a navy jacket and striped tie with khaki pants, a briefcase in hand. The other, at least ten years younger, read the morning paper and sipped coffee from an insulated cup. He was not as formally dressed—a polo shirt and jeans. “Morning,” Jess said to the two men. They nodded in response. Jess eyed the two people. Neither seemed too friendly. I wonder if one of these guys is the guy next door? I wish I had seen which door they had come out of. I mean, it has to be the older guy…the younger one doesn’t have it in him. Yeah, it must be. The elevator arrived, and both men exited quickly at the lobby without speaking.
That same day, Jess came home from work a little after six and headed to the mailboxes. As she pulled her keychain with the small brass key from her purse another woman turned from the mailboxes, and hurried past Jess towards the elevator. Although she kept her head down so that her dark brown hair covered most of her face, Jess thought she saw bruises around the eye. I bet that’s the woman next door. I swear she had bruises… Before Jess could get to the elevator, however, the door had already closed. Damn, I wish I had gotten to the elevator to see what floor she was going to. Maybe I could have talked to her and helped her.
Although Jess had not met as many people as she had hoped in her building during her first month, she and Dan had had a good time exploring their new block. There was an independent bookstore with faded but comfortable couches and a small coffee bar, a gourmet wine and cheese shop where she and Dan had purchased slim bottles of German Liebfraumilch and soft cheeses, and a glass front art studio called Greenhut Gallery. On a Friday spring evening walking home, Jess noticed that the lights blazed in the gallery; it appeared that an opening reception was about to begin. Long tables covered in white linen tablecloths held bottles of wine and soft drinks and bowls of pretzels. Jess peered in the open door and asked a worker, busy setting up the refreshments, if anyone could attend the show.
“Yes, please come. This is a very exciting new artist. It starts in an hour, so be sure to drop by.”
Good, this would give Jess time to cross the street to the apartment, change out of her work clothes, and bring Dan along. He would surely be home by seven.
A little after seven thirty, Jess and Dan entered the brightly lit white-walled gallery that was now full of stylish men and women holding glasses of wine and imported beer, examining the large and brightly colored canvasses. There were at least thirty abstract paintings lining the walls, almost all of them of women in contorted positions. Jess’ first impression was that the colors were vibrant and unusual, but as she gave more attention to the images, they became more disturbing, for they were not just paintings of women, but appeared to be images of dismembered bodies. The heads in some lay next to the rest of the figures, and in others, extremities were absent. The outlines of the bodies were not sensual and curvaceous, but angular and severe, and the faces seemed frightened. Jess looked for a brochure on the artist and his intentions, but she could not find one. She would have liked to find out why he painted the figures the way he did. A tall woman dressed in a narrow, black knit dress that covered the tops of her high-heeled suede boots approached Jess and Dan.
“Are you enjoying the show?” She asked.
“ I like the colors, and the large size of the canvasses, but I wish I knew what the artist was trying to achieve,” Jess replied.
“Well, you’re in luck, then. The artist is right over in the back. You see? In the black jeans and red collared shirt. I’m sure he would be glad to answer any questions.”
Jess looked in the direction the woman had pointed to where a man in his fifties with salt-and-pepper hair stood surrounded by six or seven guests.
“I’m going to go hear what he’s saying,” Jess told Dan. She approached the group and stood a bit on the periphery, waiting for a break in the conversation.
“I paint for myself. Not for what sells. Quite frankly I don’t give a damn what sells.”
Jess could not see how that could be. Of course he cares what sells. He has to support himself, after all. She didn’t really like him at first glance. He seemed to be quite full of himself, really, self-centered and cocky. The people around him listened carefully, nodding their heads slightly as if in agreement. Jess eased into the circle and introduced herself.
“So, I’m intrigued by your work. Is there a reason that the figures seem dismembered and scared?”
“I don’t tell people what to think when they look at my art. Whatever interpretation you have is yours.”
Their conversation ended as the lady in black raised her voice and called for everyone to gather for the artist’s speech. Dan came up behind Jess. “Wanna get out of here? I’ve seen enough.”
“Yes please. I really don’t like this guy. He’s too high and mighty for me.”
Just past nine thirty, Jess and Dan finally escaped from the exceedingly crowded gallery. It was dark as they walked home from the showing. Nearing their building, Jess admired the comforting stone cherubs that perched on the side of their unlit windows.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m worn out,” Jess noted.
“Thank god, I’m exhausted. Want to just get some sleep?”
Woken by shouts from the hallway, Jess rolled over and peered at the clock beside her bed. Three thirty. Jess groaned, nudged Dan, got up from the bed and went into the living room. Dan shuffled to the doorway and gaped after her.
“What is wrong with you Jess? Can’t we just ignore it and get back to sleep? We both have to get up early for work tomorrow, just leave it.”
Jess stood for a minute before the front door, disgraced and sickened. Ignoring Dan’s protests, Jess leaned her eye against the peephole. Defeated, Dan went into the living room and switched on the radio—a gentle melody sifted through the dark room. Jess turned to frown at Dan as more thumps sounded against the side of the wall, and more screams filled the hallway.
“Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t,” the woman cried. “Please, Scott, really, just stop it.”
“Don’t argue with me. Just do what I told you, and get the fuck out of here! I’m done with you, with everything! You…. you be sure I never, never see you again around here. If I do, well… I’ll just make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“For Christ’s sake, Scott, you’re being unreasonable.”
“What’s that now?” Gripping the woman’s neck, he heaved the dark haired woman against the wall. The woman trembled with grief, smeared the stream of tears down her face with the heel of her palm.
This is getting out of control, I can’t just watch this.
Jess removed her eye from the peephole and lowered her heels back onto the carpet. Her heart beat quickly in her chest and her throat was tight. Her suspicions had been right. It all made sense now—the frequent slamming of the neighbor’s door, the nightly shouting she had heard through her apartment wall, the newspaper that sat on her neighbor’s doormat until four or five every evening—it was him. Jess dashed into her living room and whispered loudly to Dan,
“It’s him! The artist from the gallery. You know, with the salt-and-pepper hair? I knew there was something shady about him. He’s going to kill her if she doesn’t get out of here, I heard him. We’ve got to do something.”
“That guy? Oh come on Jess, I think we should just stay out of this. Just let them work things out.”
Another series of loud thumps sounded against the shared wall. Jess walked briskly into the kitchen. Her hands shook as she grabbed the phone from the wall. She tapped in the three numbers and waited a few seconds.
“Come quickly,” she said, and twice she repeated the address. “Hurry.”
Elizabeth Margaret Lyford lives in Chevy Chase and is a graduate of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. She is attending Denison University in Granville, Ohio.