Sep 1, 2023

In the shell

A short winter's day, one of those days when it never brightens up properly, neither light nor dark, from morning till night only gray.
I go to work in the dark and come back in the dark. I don't mind. In a month the sun will beat on my window and wake me up before the alarm does. In two months, I'll wake up every day in a puddle of sweat choking with the heat. I don't mind dreary weather, I prefer it, as it leaves me alone. 
I reach home but before I drag myself inside, I take a look at my plants on the windowsill. They are dark green and have no flowers, at this point they look more like weeds, but I don't care. My apartment has the only bit of color in all this gray. Hmm, well that's not true, a few floors above someone is drying their undies and a handful of socks. Decolored rags flapping in the humid evening air. Feeling queasy, I get inside.
I go upstairs and turn the stove on to warm my bones a bit with the evening meal. I catch someone with the corner of my eye. A man is standing outside looking like a gopher with his neck stretched out. He's studying something, I can't figure out what. He stands in the shadows and stares intently at something then scurries away. This insignificant event would have floated away from my attention never to bother me again, but the next day while having dinner I saw him again. And the next day after that.
The sight of the curious man has become routine. Day after day, I get home, I peek out and he's there, standing in the dark, in front of the apartment building, looking at my window. He comes, takes a look and leaves. I don't know what he wants, I don't know what he's looking for, what he's inspecting, but day after day he's there, he takes his fancy and leaves.
When I come back from work, I hang around a bit to see what's so damn fascinating. Nothing. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong place.
He can't see anything inside, with the blinds drawn there's nothing to see. I give up and spend a few minutes admiring the plants on the windowsill. It's easier to get the big picture from the outside. One needs to be turned and another moved a bit to the left, but it's mostly fine. There might be room for one more.
For a moment I think, maybe that's what he's doing, coming and looking at the flowers. He could be a neighbor. Maybe he's looking at the plants and he's thinking about getting his own. He probably hates them. These thoughts pass quickly. Lonely people make up stories to keep from getting bored.
I get in the apartment, pull the blinds. I stand behind them with the light turned off and watch him through the slits as he stands there looking up. He's standing next to a lamppost that hasn't worked in the 9 years I've lived here. I can only see his outline, but he's standing there in front of my apartment in the dark looking at me. We just sit like a pair of nitwits looking at each other without seeing each other.
What does this man want from me? Should I just go downstairs, and see what he wants, what he's looking at? 
Do I sound like a crazy person? Isn't he allowed to look? It's not my street, is it? It's not like I own the building. I bet that's what he'd say to me, "Get the hell out of my face! A man can't just sit in the street for two minutes, he must be watching you?!".
Writing scenarios in your head is the ballad of the bored man. I suffer from "scenarioitis" at work and now I'm having fun with it at home, great. No point in thinking about it, I wouldn't have anything to say to the bastard anyway.
I spend some money on thicker curtains, I used to just pull the blinds, but that is not enough anymore. I bought a curtain with thick fabric to hide behind.
A morbid idea creeps into my head: "What if he’s trying to steal from me... or worse?". What if he comes around every day and checks up on me? He checks when I am home and when I'm not. Making little notes: he's late today, this is his day off.
I go to bed with that thought in my head. I wake up groggy like I heard something. I grope in the dark, reach for the door, pull the knob, but it's locked. I go back to bed, but I gotta get up again, to check if I left the window open. It's the second floor, but I still think someone could climb in. Isn’t that ridiculous?
If he follows me, I can follow him. As soon as I get home, I sit at the window and wait for him to come around.
He usually doesn't stay long, there are days when he just pauses a bit by the lamppost and moves on. To me, it looks like he's going to the main entrance. He could also go around the building, in the back towards the canal.
There's an encased river with putrid water in the back. He would have to swim it if he wanted to get across, the footbridge is a damn long way. People don't walk there because of the smell, but what do I know, maybe he does canal work.
If he comes into the building, he’s my neighbor. Problem is, I don't know any of them. I don't bother them, and they leave me alone, that’s fine with me. 9 years in this building and I only know the name of that finicky old lady that makes sure we all pay up the maintenance fee. Hmm, she would know him.
If he has a problem with me, he should just come and tell me! What? Do I turn on the washing machine at 5 am? Do I bang the chairs in the kitchen? Do I spill water over his windows when I water my plants? Anything? Just tell me! Eh, it doesn't matter, if he's from the building and just likes to sneer at my window, screw him. 
Ahh! But why doesn't he just come and tell me what the problem is?
Another day goes by, and I buy some drapes. They're thick, almost as thick as a blanket, the darkest ones I could find, a dark brown.
- 1 -
I come home, turn on the TV and forget for a few minutes. I allow myself to think that he didn't even come today, that it's all in my head, that I've imagined it. For a moment I believe it. I come to decide, that the man can't be down there anymore, he just can't. I peek out just a little to check, a little check can't hurt.
I reach behind the curtain, gently pull it aside and lift the slat of a blind with one finger. Slowly, imperceptibly, I lift it. I let my eyes adjust to the darkness and finally, I see him. He's dirty but his eyes shine with the low light. As I begin to see better, I realize something is wrong. He's looking at me, but he's lying on the ground. He tries to get up but can’t. He gives me a little nod and opens his mouth, I think he's trying to say something. Why is he lying on the ground? Did he faint, is he drunk? Something's wrong, something's happened, clearly, something's happened to him. Shit, this is all I needed.
Maybe he got dizzy, fell, and hurt himself. I should just let him lie there. He deserves it. I spin, I squirm, and I finally decide to get down, what if he needs an ambulance? 
- 2 -
I dress in a hurry and go down the two flights of stairs to check on the man. I feel like the steps are slipping out from under my feet. My heart beats like a drum in my ears, but I try to calm down.
I need to make a plan. First, I’ll ask him if he needs an ambulance. Maybe he had a heart attack? Well, come on, not everything requires an ambulance. Maybe he just tripped in the bloody dark. Did he twist his ankle? Maybe he just needs someone to pick him up. I can see it now, he's just some old guy from the building and I end up helping him get back to his apartment. I might even get him a glass of water. Okay, that's fine, and then I'll ask him what’s with all the rubbernecking.
Shit, he won't be in the mood for that. The man's lying on the ground, and I come in with the 3rd degree.
I get downstairs, I don't see anything. He's disappeared without a trace. It's too dark to see anything. Maybe he crawled off somewhere. I'm groping around, he can't have gone far. This is so stupid! I can't search the whole neighborhood like this.
I trip over a brick, pick it up from the ground, and casually glance toward my apartment. I freeze. Someone's in my house. He's looking through the blinds at me. The light is on, and I can make out the outline, I can see his eyes. It's the dying man. He's climbed up to my apartment and now he's staring down at me in crowning glory. This must be a joke. The scumbag tricked me, he only wanted to get me out, and I like a moron, like a dimwit, like an absolute cretin, left the door open.
I'm an idiot. A thief stalks me day after day, and I just walk out of the house and leave the door open? "But please, come in."
I should have figured it out. He knew I could see him, of course he did, and instead of busting my door like some yobo, he tried his little maneuver. And what do you know he just ran into the last imbecile on earth, and it all worked out.
- 3 -
I make a run for the apartment; in the dim light of the entrance, I can see the brick I grabbed from the ground better. It's a full brick, baked, red, and wet. It's old, you can tell it's been sitting in a sunny wall for years. Yeah, they don't make bricks like this anymore, I bet I could smash rocks with one of these. I decide to take it with me, so I'll have something to defend myself when I get upstairs.
I run up with bated breath, climbing 2-3 steps at a time just to catch the bastard.
I open the door and yell, "Get out!". Can you believe the scumbag doesn't even answer? I go in and get ready to hit him with the brick. Who the hell does he think he is, coming into my home!?
I search everywhere and again nothing, no trace. I take turns looking in the kitchen, the balcony, and the bathroom, he's gone. I look dubiously at the closets where he might be hiding, I pull them open. I open the drawer where I keep my money, it's okay. I walk around the apartment and I don't think anything's missing. If he's taken anything, it's nothing conspicuous.
Is this lunatic playing with me? Why did he come into my house? To show me he can get in? Unless...
I approach the window cautiously. I poke my head through a corner of the drape, snake-like, and as lightly as I can, I push aside a patch of curtain and fit my eye between two blades of the blind. Is he there?!
The asshole is downstairs, safe and sound. How on earth?! He sees me and raises a hand out of the gloom. The bastard! He waves at me to come down. Is he fucking kidding me?! He comes in and out of my house, and now this? Is he playing with me? Does he think I can't catch him?
How did he get past me? He didn't come up the front, that's how I got down. Either he went around and up the back stairs or climbed up the building. Ohh, he just climbed the wall to the second floor? I must be losing my mind.
The apartments are aligned along a hallway flanked at the ends by stairs. One leads to the front entrance and the other to the rear exit. I came down on the front stairs, he came up the back, that's what happened. That's okay, I can do that too. I will take the back stairs, if I catch him there, I'll smack him in the head, if I catch him outside, I'll smack him in the head. A win-win scenario. The son of a bitch won't get away.
- 4 -
Almost no one takes the back stairs. If you get out that way, you'll just find the metal carpet beater and the canal, that's it.
I go out the back, around the building, and what do you know, our man is indeed downstairs. The stinking asshole stands guarding the main exit. I can't believe it; he's waiting for me. I approach him gingerly, feeling a rush of blood go to my head. He can't hear me, at least I don't think he can, and I can only hear my heartbeat thumping in my ears. I'm 20 paces away, I swallow dryly. To get closer, I step onto the grass. Creeping, 10 steps, he's almost motionless, looking up, offering me the top of his head on a platter. He wants me to hit him on that bald spot! There's a breeze blowing from his side, and I can smell something awful, this incredible stench coming from him. Something sappy seems to ooze down his body. I feel a vein pulsing frantically on my temple. This is the moment I've been waiting for. I squeeze the brick so hard that my fingers turn white. I'm so close I can see a muscle quivering on his throat. He's about to turn!
I can't get any closer. This is it! I throw the brick at my stalker's head, and that's enough. A terrible sound. He doesn't get to turn around. He falls face down. I take a step back and feel a sort of relaxation, a softness, pass over me. I did it. The angst I felt for days is gone.
The tightness has disappeared, it’s been replaced by torpor, I feel hot, I breathe heavily, I'm suffocating. I begin to realize the enormity of what I've done. Tension gives way to trembling, I get cold and hot. I can't sit still, I'm shivering. What's next?
What if someone saw me? I am so fucked. I can't stay here. Someone will definitely see me if I stay! I back up slowly and go back the way I came, after all, no one uses the back stairs.
- 5 -
I hide in the stairwell and listen. The whole city block is dead at this hour, it's perfectly quiet. It's so quiet I can hear my breath like a blizzard coming from inside my chest. I must calm down. Strange echoes come up the unlit stairs. Each breath sticks and multiplies on the walls. I cut my breath in half and listen. No, there's no one there, I only hear myself. 
It's stupid to wait any longer, I either run back to the apartment and pray some old hag doesn't notice me, or I go back and somehow deal with the body.
One plus one makes two, I can't leave him on the street. How stupid can you be, the cops will come, idiot! Did I leave a track? Fingerprints on the brick? Shoe prints in the grass? If I leave him there, they'll come, they'll interview all the tenants, they'll investigate. They'll see what state I'm in and they'll figure it out. Even if nobody saw me, even if they have no proof, they'll still sit with me, in a dark little room, until I tell them something, and then ... everything. But if I get him out of there, no one will come, no one will call the police.
I need to get rid of the body, at least move him from the front of the building; buy myself some time.
I gather up my courage and turn back. I go out the back, creep around the building, careful to stick to the shadows. I step timidly on the ground; I can’t leave a trace. Shit, they will find something no matter what I do. I can't give them any reason to look for evidence here.
I find him face up. I foolishly think maybe he's okay, maybe I didn't hit him so hard. He looks like he's sleeping, his eyes are closed, and his face is dirty. His nose is broken, and blood is coming out of it. It takes me a moment to recognize him. In the dark, lying on the ground is a man who looks exactly like me. If I get past his general dirtiness, he could be my brother, he could be my twin. Even the clothes on his back are identical to mine. What the hell?
I try to take his head in my hands, I feel it soft where it should be hard. I feel his hair wet and greasy. His skull is crushed. The twin, the clone, whatever he is, must be dead. I don't have time to think about all this. I must get him out of here before someone sees us. I grab him by the arm as I would a drunk friend and drag him to the back of the apartment complex.
The eminent danger has passed, no one walks next to this stinking canal, but I can't leave him here. The canal is the only solution. I'll dump him in the canal and the water will do the rest.
I take him down to the river and dump him. What a surprise! The corpse drops and sits neatly on the concrete bank, with no intention of rolling down to the water. I jump after him on the slanted concrete and carry him in my arms. I carry him into the stinking water, just to be sure. I drop him down into the sludge. I hope he finds another place to rot.
I can only pray for rain. If it rains the river will swell up and take him away, if it rains it will wash away any footprints. This miserable weather will help, the important thing is that I got rid of the body. If they don't find him here, they'll have no reason to look all the way to my building. The river runs through the whole town, who would figure it came from here?
I'm in the clear. My God, did I just kill a man and drop him in the canal? Was he even a man? What a night.
- 6 -
I use the back stairs. I'm careful not to let anyone see me. I try not to attract attention. If anyone sees me like this, they'll get suspicious. It's better if no one sees me. And there's not a soul in sight, not even someone casually taking out the garbage. What a life.
I get back inside the apartment and a curious feeling comes over me. I look at the drawn curtain and head toward it. I slowly pull it closed. But I also want to check. I want to make sure I haven't accidentally left something behind, that there isn't something on the ground that could get me in trouble.
I approach the window and... I see him down there. He's looking right at me. I recognize him immediately, he's another me, another copy, but this one is fine. He lifts his head and looks at me defiantly. I back away. Nothing surprises me anymore tonight.
Of course, there are more of them, if there was one, why not more? Every person on Earth is “me” and they're all coming for a visit tonight.
I take the stairs calmly. Try to sort out my thoughts. Formulate a plan. What do I say? What do I do? Fuck the plan, I'll just talk to him. I’ll ask him nicely: What the hell do you want from me?
- 7 -
I poke my head out the building's front door but stop before the rusty hinges start their song. I poke my head out a little expecting to see the third or fourth “me” around there, but he's evaporated. They come and go like flies.
I look left and right, I see nothing. I wonder if the copy in the river has vanished as well? They don't seem to last.
I look up, at my apartment window and I see the fourth, or whatever number he is. He looks at me fearfully. I move as slowly as I can, as not to startle him. I smile and wave him down. He suddenly disappears from the window.
Okay, well, I'll wait for him, maybe he'll come down.
- 8 -
I wait and wait, and he doesn't show up. He must have disappeared up the stairs. Or maybe he went back to whatever place he came from. Either way, I'm not leaving. If I stay put, one of them will show up next to me and all this will have an explanation.
Or maybe not, why would there be an explanation? Maybe he'll come snapping his fingers and then “I” will disappear. I must at least try and talk to one of them. They're probably just as confused as I am.
I thought it was some asshole who kept coming and looking at my apartment. Was it just one guy? Was it a different guy every night? Did he vanish after he got out of my sight?
I lift my head and scan the window. If I could only ... I hear footsteps behind me; something hits me in the back of the head.
- 9 -
I fall flat on my face. I think I broke my nose. The pain wakes me up. I try to get up, but it's impossible, I've lost all strength in my arms and legs. I manage to turn over on my back. Nothing hurts, but I have a sickening feeling of vertigo. When I raise my head, I lose my sight. With every inch of altitude, my vision narrows until it disappears altogether.
I give up trying to lift my head. I'll just sit here quietly. Someone will eventually come to help me. I turn my head, and lo and behold, the brick he hit me with is sitting right next to me.
I look at it stupidly. A nauseating impulse passes over me, I feel like vomiting. Is that the same brick I hit him with? What the hell is happening? I was perfectly content with my life, with my routine. All I wanted was to be left alone.
If it's the same brick… Did I somehow manage to hit myself in the head with it? What if there are no clones, aliens, or twins, what if there’s just me? What if all those people I've been chasing were me?
Up at the window, I see one of the blinds moving. That's how it started. That idiot will see me lying down and he'll try to help. I must move. If he doesn't see me everything will be all right, none of this will matter. I try to move my legs, but it's no use, my legs don't work anymore. A paralytic numbness runs through my body. If all of this is on repeat, then the guy that finds me... will find me dead...
Oh my God, what if he wasn't dead? What if he wasn't dead when I tossed him in the river? Did I drown him?
I look up again; I see myself peeking behind the blinds. He's definitely seen me now. There's only one chance to stop all this. I suck in a breath and try to yell, but something snaps in the back of my head. Only a whisper escapes my lips, "Don't come down". The lights go out.

This mystery takes place in a time loop. The story unfolds circularly as in a seashell. I have numbered the parts of the story to make it easier to follow. The story only has one character, and I will identify him by the part of the story he is in.
1 - the protagonist sees 9 lying on the ground in front of the building.
2 - the protagonist comes down the front stairs, the stranger has disappeared, but he sees 6 at the window.
3 - the protagonist finds the brick and climbs up the back stairs, he sees 7 downstairs. 7 beckons him to come down.
4 - the protagonist comes down and hits 8 in the head, then hides in the stairwell in the back.
5 - the protagonist is hiding in the stairwell at the back of the building (this is when 1 sees 9). He decides to grab 10 from in front of the building and throws him into the canal.
6 - the protagonist wet and dirty from the canal climbs back up using the back stairs. He sees 2 downstairs.
7 - the protagonist comes down the front stairs convinced he needs to talk to one of the copies. He sees 3 at the window and beckons him to come down.
8 - the protagonist waits for one of the clones to come out of the front entrance, but he is hit on the head from behind by 4. 
9 - the protagonist turns around facing upwards. He sees 1 at the window and tries to convince him not to come down.
10 - the protagonist has lost consciousness; he is carried by 5 and thrown into the canal.
PS: I adapted this mystery from an older story I wrote in high school called "The Scarlet Brick". That story ended without any explanation, so I came up with the most convoluted explanation possible for this one.

Photo by Jan Steiner
Versiunea în română: În cochilie

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