by Kait Heacock
Peter was an agoraphobic. He couldn’t tell you what that was a year ago, but he could describe to you now what it feels like to stand by the front door and feel the heat radiate off of the knob, so sure it could burn you if you touch it. He never would have guessed when he rented this one-bedroom basement apartment that it could become his waking coffin, that he would let her death bury him alive. It was the first place he found on Craigslist, the woman who owned the house was the first landlord to return his call, and he took it without inspecting the toilet or looking closer at the cracks in the ceiling.
Sylvia didn’t know she had rented the apartment in her basement to an agoraphobic. She thought they kept different hours. As a nurse who worked the graveyard shift three nights a week, she had grown used to keeping hours with truck drivers, ghosts, or the women working on Highway 99. She had become a ghost herself at some point. She lost track of when.
Sylvia didn’t sleep most nights. Working as a nurse gave her an excuse some nights; the others, she hadn’t noticed. She discovered she was an insomniac one night as she ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and saw that the clock on the microwave said four a.m.
Peter had walked into the apartment two weeks after the mugging. It wasn’t until he had finished unpacking and looked out the window at the wet snow and gray slush of January that he realized he never wanted to leave again. The therapist who visited him on Wednesdays stamped him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter’s father paid a lot of money for the therapist to make house calls. Peter’s father expected a quick turn around.
“Be a man, son,” Peter’s father told him after three months. “When your mother died…”
“You were already married to your new wife,” Peter reminded him.
After six months a check came in the mail every month; his father’s phone calls came less than that.
Sylvia looked for remedies to sleeplessness in warm milk, baths, and everything else posted on the Internet. She had Ambien pushed on her but didn’t want to need a medicine. The night after an orderly gave her a joint to relax her, she spent four hours sitting on the kitchen counter and ate an entire box of Cheerios.
The time she didn’t spend sleeping at night afforded her extra time for thinking. She thought about her divorce twenty years ago, whether she regretted never having children, and about how lonely the end of your life can become when there is nobody around at night.
The technicalities of agoraphobia were easy for Peter to work out. He ordered groceries online and when they arrived, called his friends over to bring them inside. His stepsister dropped in once or twice a month with bulk toilet paper and laundry detergent from Costco and weed. He insulated the windows to prevent any outside air from seeping through like poisonous gas. The dog door put in by the previous renters was rudimentarily sealed with duct tape. The outside world came in quick gusts when visitors opened the front door, but even then, he usually stood in his bedroom to avoid that wind touching his skin.
Realizing she had no way of overcoming her insomnia, Sylvia took up hobbies. She crocheted blankets, collected stamps, knit hats and scarves for her nephews, tried playing poker online, and wrote letters to the editors of The Seattle Times. No hobby had managed to hold her attention for more than a few weeks. She felt satisfied that she could accomplish so much in such a short amount of time and thought of all the other activities she had spent her life hoping to learn, like French cooking. But inevitably, somewhere around three a.m., she found herself pacing her living room.
While Peter rarely paid attention to the landlord upstairs, he was occasionally awakened by her alarm clock or startled in the middle of the night by the slamming of her front door. He had only met her twice, once to look at the place and the second time to exchange payment for the key. His rent checks went out the door with his visitors and he had no need to call her down into his apartment. After a while her face had faded from his memory. She was downgraded in his mind to footsteps.
He hadn’t noticed how much she was a part of his life because her noises had become ingrained in his routine. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (the nights she worked the graveyard shift), he awoke when she came home, flipped over onto his stomach as she set her keys onto the kitchen counter and turned on the faucet, and he fell back asleep knowing that the sun wouldn’t rise for a few more hours. On the nights she wasn’t working, he could hear her favorite television shows, the smoke detector beeping when she cooked, and occasionally her voice on the telephone. The sound of her voice comforted him, like a mother’s voice or your favorite teacher.
The nights became longer as he adapted to her schedule. During the day, when she worked, he could bask in the silence from above and feel guiltless about spending time alone, something he had suppressed most of his life. But at night, her footsteps became the ticking of the clock, the rhythm of a heartbeat, unrelenting—night after night. He caught her sleeplessness like a cold. He thought about pounding on his ceiling with a broom. It reminded him of his dorm room days, and he didn’t want to resort to that. He couldn’t ask the woman to stop walking in her own apartment. But why was she pacing? Why didn’t she sleep?
The pacing started out as a tactic to tire her, but after a month it developed into something else. It was a mild workout (she thought her clothes were fitting better than usual), it was a stress reliever, it was something to pass the time. One night she paced her living room for three hours. Then she started to count her steps, and with the repetition of the numbers in her head and the sound of her feet hitting the hardwood floor, she managed to quiet her restless mind. She couldn’t sleep, but for the first time, she began to enjoy the silence of night.
Sometimes it seemed like the footsteps were getting louder. Was she jumping rope? Was she tap dancing? Didn’t she know he could hear the floorboards lurching with every step? And then one night, he finished the last of his beer and opened the bottle of whiskey that his friend Jordan brought over last month (“Don’t drink it when you feel sad,” he advised, “but drink it when you’re feeling happy.”) He sat on the couch in his boxers, clinked the ice in his glass, and listened.
After he was fairly drunk, he felt convinced that this woman was trying to tell him something. This woman upstairs somehow held the secret of what he was supposed to do with his life now, but he couldn’t get to her. So he listened. He thought perhaps her footsteps were sending a message, like Morse code. He looked it up online and tried to follow the dots and dashes of her walking with the chart he pulled up on his screen. He abandoned this plan when he realized he couldn’t hear dashes, all dots.
When his therapist came that week and he told her about the woman upstairs, she nodded rigorously, almost enthusiastically, as if his new obsession were a healthy step forward.
“Maybe you could try talking to her, call her on the phone, perhaps,” she suggested.
“And tell her what? That I haven’t left the house in over nine months, that I am scared to go outside again because every time I even think of it, I picture my dead girlfriend’s face. Do you think she’ll let me sign the lease for another year if I tell her that?”
Sylvia counted one thousand steps one night and she felt like she had accomplished something. Next time she’d try for fifteen hundred.
It happened during the day, when the apartment was quiet and he felt especially lonely. Instead of passively listening—to her footsteps, to her muffled phone calls, or to her teakettle whistling—Peter finally realized he wanted to talk back. After months of his family, his friends, and his therapist prodding for answers to everything from how he felt to what he planned to do next, it dawned on him that the only person he cared to talk to knew him only through a check in her mailbox. There was no guarantee she could hear him. People above rarely listen to those below, and it was not like she would ever put her ear to the ground. The best he could do was write to her.
He had been raised Catholic; a confession felt the most appropriate. He wasn’t ready to talk about it, the thing everyone wanted to hear. He wanted to start small, someplace far back, a secret he had never told anyone before.
When Jordan stopped by with a bag of groceries, Peter handed him an envelope with his rent check and another, blank save for his landlord’s name, Sylvia Petersen.
“What’s the blank one for?” Jordan asked.
“Just put it in her mailbox behind the check. It’s a note to her. She’s been keeping me up at night. It’s just a neighborly comment on noise level,” he lied.
He felt right just knowing that his secret had entered the world. He pictured it growing wings. He pictured his landlord holding it and plucking its feathers.
Sylvia came home from work feeling exhausted. It was flu season and she had spent most of the day giving shots to people who sneezed on her. The stack of mail she threw on the table looked average. She saw her cable bill and a reminder from her dentist of her approaching six-month checkup. She opened the envelope from her tenant and put the folded rent check into her wallet. Then she saw the plain white envelope with her name on it.
When she opened the envelope and looked at the scribbled note, she assumed it to be some kind of dirty joke. When I was twelve, I masturbated thinking about my stepsister. She looked around her to make sure nobody was peaking in her window, laughing. She threw the paper in the recycling bin, stopped for a moment, pulled it back out and ripped it in half before throwing it in the trash.
Whether his landlord knew the notes came from him or not wasn’t the point. The point was getting it all out. I cheated on the SATs appeared three weeks later. I never once attended my micro economics class sophomore year came after another month. I was the one who puked all over my friend’s car was dropped off after six weeks. He had his friends put them in the mailbox faster, without even the pretense of accompanying the rent check. I cheated on my junior year girlfriend when I studied abroad was followed in a week by I’ve never forgiven my father for leaving my mother.
Sylvia had found her comfort. The letters appeared in her mail like tiny Christmas gifts. When they started coming more frequently, she began to anticipate them daily, like when she used to anticipate sleep. She thought she knew where they were coming from, considered setting up surveillance on her front porch, and finally gave up and let them be tokens from a friendly ghost.
I am afraid to leave my apartment. I haven’t left since I moved in. I am trapped.
Peter didn’t want to be coy anymore. This time he slipped the note inside the envelope with his rent check. He stopped licking the adhesive on the envelope halfway through and pulled the note out. He scribbled help me along the bottom of it.
Sylvia’s lack of sleep finally caught up with her at work. She fell asleep beside her patient’s bed and missed administering medicine. It wasn’t fatal, but it was enough to earn her a month’s suspension of her license for negligence and the suggestion of early retirement.
“Now you’ll have all the free time you could want to pick up a new hobby or catch up on your reading. You’ll have nothing but time,” she was told.
She accepted this assumption of her senility because she didn’t want her coworkers to know the truth that she had been living many years in a waking dream state. She tried to remember if there were other times she had nodded off at work and realized that for as lucid as she thought she had been during the day, she was only really awake at night. The rest of her life she had sleepwalked through.
Sylvia needed a letter that evening if for the very least as a distraction. She opened her mailbox eagerly and sifted through credit card offers and grocery store coupons until she found it. This envelope felt heavier. It had puffed like a little pillow. She ran inside, threw the rest of her mail on the counter, and sat down to open it. She pulled at one corner and when it loosened, slid the tip of her finger from one side to the other. She unfolded the letter and had to read the first sentence a few times to make sure she had read it right. It’s my fault my girlfriend died.
Peter and his girlfriend had been out at a bar on Capitol Hill that night. They drank too much in celebration of his acceptance into the MFA in Creative Writing at UW. Neither could drive. They took a taxi and made a pact that they would wake up early enough the next morning to retrieve his car before it was ticketed.
They lived in an apartment close to Aurora. One of these days, when they made more money, they would move somewhere better, away from the noise and the half-lit neon signs. At first when they saw the man hovering on the sidewalk they thought he was homeless. He stood between them and their front door. Peter turned and watched the taxi pull away.
When he turned back, he saw the man holding a gun. Peter’s girlfriend tensed up beside him. The man breathed booze in their faces and yelled at them to hand over their wallets. They did, but he still didn’t leave. He moved closer, coughed in Peter’s face. An ambulance passed in the distance; its sirens distracted the man.
Peter shoved his girlfriend forward, towards the apartment building. “Just run.” He didn’t know why he had said it. He didn’t know then and he hadn’t figured it out yet.
The man turned and shot her. When she dropped to her knees, he ran. He had shot her in the back so that the last thing she saw before she died was her home.
Sylvia didn’t receive any more letters after that. She knew the ghost downstairs was done talking. Now it was time for him to leave. It was in the middle of the night when it occurred to her how best to exorcise him. She sat down in her living room, finished a glass of red wine, and lit a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked in years, probably not since she was going through her divorce. The cigarette tasted like an old memory.
A yawn slipped out of her mouth and she giggled at the surprise of it. Her mouth stretched wide to let out another. She thought of the old saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and felt relieved. She dropped the cigarette onto the carpet and closed her eyes.
The smell of smoke did not wake Peter. It was the smoke detector’s incessant whine that pulled him from bed. He reached over and swatted at his alarm. When he knocked it on the ground and the noise still didn’t stop, he sat up in bed. Then he smelled the smoke. He threw on his bathrobe and ran for the kitchen. Peter checked the microwave, checked the stove, and realized the smoke came from upstairs. He walked through his kitchen to the front door. He had not passed through it since he moved in and he wasn’t sure he wanted to now. The smoke filled the room, filled his lungs, and he coughed so hard it felt like his chest was ripping apart. He thought he could hear sirens, but he wasn’t sure they would make it to him in time.
He bent down on his knees and ripped the duct tape off the dog door. He threw the tape in little balls onto the kitchen floor. He put one hand on the ground and the other on the little door. He pushed it open and felt the cool air. The smoke detector in the kitchen buzzed in his ear. He reached for the door handle, but pulled back. He pushed the dog door open again and moved his face towards the opening. He breathed deeply the outside, breathed until his lungs were full.
Like her literary idol Raymond Carver, Kait Heacock is a short story writer originating from Central Washington. She currently lives and attends graduate school in Portland, Oregon. She has work appearing or forthcoming in Soundings Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Portland Review, Tin House’s Open Bar blog, and Port Cities Review. Later this year, her short story “Mom and the Bear” will appear in an anthology of writing by Portland writers about Portland, aptly titled Between Two Rivers. She also writes a weekly sex and sexuality column for the PDXX Collective, a website featuring fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and interviews by female authors.