Owing to a late start, it was late before he found the address the lawyer gave him. The mover parked his trailer on the street and got out on foot to look for the exact house. A footpath, covered in scarlet and copper leaves, led into a courtyard facing a quadrangle of dwellings. The one bearing his number was nearest to the entrance, and was reminiscent of a mirthless fairytale cottage bound together with gingerbread shingles and glaucous vines. Aloysius felt himself drawn into the ambience stepping to the door with key in hand. A small wood plaque greeted him: Spyglass Darkly House.
A folded note wedged between the knob and doorframe was left him:
Electricity in the house is off until sometime tomorrow. Sorry for the inconvenience. Here are some things to aid you. If you need to call me, a payphone is down the block at the sandwich shop. Welcome, Caretaker, Andrew Tommen
A box of assorted candles lay inside the entryway, along with a matchbook; Aloysius was too excited by his new prospect to be inconvenienced by a lack of power.
The rooms were spacious, and exposed wooden beams wove throughout the house like dark-hued veins. The furnishings were vintage Fifties, including molded furniture, synthetic wool upholstery, burlap lampshades, and an old tube-bearing television in the living room. The décor was incongruous with the craftsman architecture, although the furniture was too well preserved to be castoffs from student renters.
Upon completing a cursory inspection of the property, the tenant settled on the huge attic with its skylight as the best room to set up his studio. Lumber and art supplies comprised the bulk of what he brought from Chicago, and taken together his belongings barely made an impression on the house. Due to the lack of electricity, he was eager to move his materials up the two flights of stairs before it got dark.
Twilight was almost immediately on the steps, and halfway through the unpacking the diminished visibility required stopping to light several candles. He placed them along the treads and resumed his effort.
Taloned flames flicked at the cuffs of his pants on each trip up and down the creaking staircases, and with the onset of dusk, they grew bolder in throwing his shadow high against the well walls. When a quitting place was reached, the house was completely dark. The resident walked back down from the top and blew out each candle in turn. He took the remaining stick into the kitchen to contemplate the still early hour. Aloysius was not tired, though the darkness gave him few options. A thorough examination of the residence would have to wait on daylight.
After turning in his rental trailer, the new citizen parked his car downtown to stroll. Purcell College, a large private school, was Stonesthrow’s primary reason for being, and accounted for half its population of sixty thousand. As a result, the local economy was mostly an artificial one due to the students’ infusion of cash. There were a number of ethnic restaurants and stylish boutiques, but little else. Like most college towns, Stonesthrow had a pedestrian-friendly layout, and the main drag would be an easy hike by foot from his house. Broadway was the principle street and ran parallel to the campus. Several blocks of small storefronts made up the town side, including a copier place, a vintage clothing store, and—thankfully—a coffeehouse.
The name of the establishment was Bean and Nothingness, and it possessed a bohemian patina that Aloysius adored. He stepped into what would become his home away from home and sighed with relief. Coffeehouses by night, he thought, were more alluring than their daytime counterpart. Darkness pressing against the bright windows put one in mind of ancient campfires buried deep in the memory of skin.
On receiving his latte, the patron moved to the condiment bar to doctor his drink. Unfamiliar locations (where unfamiliar people were bound to be) made him self-conscious; yet the practically housebound man was eager to push through this awkward initiation by learning where everything was—bathroom, waste can, aspartame, etc.—so he would appear at ease. He naturally wished to minimized his profile, and kept his mannerisms staid and close to his body, and never took big or hurried steps. Similarly, he avoided eye contact until, shielded by the blind of a “regular table,” he deemed it safe to peek out at others. His journal was a reliable companion on these outings, and the routine of working in it gave him cover to justify being alone. This activity also gave his eyes and hands something to do, and such activity would likely strike onlookers as nothing out of the ordinary.
Aloysius gravitated to a window seat and envied young couples moving in and out of the shadows on the sidewalk. All were wrapped arm-in-arm with unuttered destinies tugging at their bodies. The form of them so close to the panes was enough to have him anticipating his own hopeful fate. In caffeine-induced moments, he longed to close distances, or at least entertain the thought it was the most desirable of things. He jotted down a few first impressions in his journal.
A poster of Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Ophelia occupied the wall across from him. In the painting, Shakespeare’s doomed heroine floats face up in mossy water, suspended halfway between a living reddish-green Earth and one brown, desiccated, and dead. Her wrists break the water’s surface in Christ-like attitude. Wildflowers, mimicking blood, trickle from one hand and down her front of the gold-threaded gown. Elizabeth Siddal was the model for the work, and was reported to have posed in a bathtub kept warm by placing a lamp beneath it.
Before leaving the coffeehouse, a scribbled advertisement soliciting for an artist’s model was left on the community bulletin board. The painter was turning over more than one new leaf.
He shortly returned to the house, and on relighting the candle on the kitchen table, proceeded upstairs to the bedroom. The substantial bed imposed with its four flanking posts; the candleholder was placed on the dresser beside it. Aloysius hoped, given his exhaustion, he would fall asleep without difficulty, yet worried about his new environment in view of his occasional sleepwalking. It was always easy enough to lock himself in his small, one-room apartment in Chicago, but this bedroom door had no lock. The idea of tumbling down dark stairs would be an unfortunate beginning to his occupancy here, so it was advisable to block the door with a piece of furniture.
When he went into the hallway to retrieve a chair, he noticed a painting passed in haste while hauling boxes upstairs. He brought the candle out for a closer look. The image was of a black box on white drapery. It resembled an antique phone, with a rotary dial and sprouting funnel for an earpiece. The humorous work reminded the painter of French surrealist Rene Magritte, though the brushwork was more old master than modern. With his eye for reverse-engineering art, Aloysius deduced that the silky texture of the cloth was achieved by a meticulous overlaying of flake white scumblings. Two complementary tints, likely chrome yellow and ultramarine blue, were blended into these using thickened stand oil to produce a warm grey, which completed the milky agate effect; a transparent glaze of Prussian blue finished the opaque Mars black box. All told, it was a well-crafted oil painting, though dulled by dirty glass and a dreary frame. The title on the brass engraving added to its enigma: The Ghost in the Machine by Daedalus Monet.
Between this work and the poster at the coffeehouse, the artist was too exhilarated to sleep. Still, he was ready to retire, so wedged the chair under the doorknob to secure the door.
The view out his bedroom window was unusually dark. Even allowing for the rural character of the town, it seemed strange only one lit window was visible over the roofs of Willis Quadrangle. It shone from the top floor of a Victorian house and revealed, through parted curtains, a half-dressed woman pacing nervously with a phone pressed to her ear.
The resident had already set about unpacking a few essential toiletries when he stumbled over his own telephone. There was no hurry to do so, but seeing a wall jack conveniently by the nightstand, he plugged in the power cord. It was rare when he got a phone call, and even rarer when he made one; yet he was embarking on a new adventure that might imaginably require a telephone.
The candle at his back was impatient and snapped with annoyance, so after brushing his teeth he crawled into bed and blew out this last vestige of his daylong journey.
No sooner did his head sink into the pillow than cracks and moans of the unfamiliar house reminded him of one crucial detail: His fan—he did not load it into the trailer.
Aloysius turned on the bed, stirring up thoughts like dander: Did the evil neighbor steal it when he was not looking? Though no electricity was in the house, he would need to buy a new fan at his earliest opportunity. He turned again, following what must have been the scampering feet of mice in the attic.
At his earliest opportunity, he thought…
The quietude threw up no additional fences that needed tending, and it was akin to free fall. Aloysius occasionally twisted in the sheets, but eased back into the placid picture.
Peep! Peep! Peep! The phone on the nightstand chirruped. Peep! Peep! Peep!
He struggled to move his arm, and then to find a hand at the end of it. The bedpost dropped away like a gangplank and sent him flying off the bed.
The high-pitched ping emanated from the ceiling. Peep! Peep! Peep!
Covering his ears, he leapt up to his feet and yelled, “Goddamn it!”
Being directly under the screeching smoke alarm, he ripped it off its screws and hurled it to the floor in a rage. It struck the leg of the nightstand and shot under the bed.
“Goddamn it!” he again screamed.
Peep! Peep! Peep!
He was quickly on all fours groping under the bed skirt for the hateful item, but could not lay a finger on it. When he rose with another curse, the battery-operated device ceased its racket, and the sobering moment allowed him to catch up with his rash act.
Aloysius was easily upset by sudden sharp sounds, yet could not think what triggered the sensor. He followed the glowing threads of floorboards over to the window and threw open the sash. His olfactory sense was almost as sensitive as his hearing, but nothing in the air merited alarm.
Closing the window, he spied something dark slumping against the exterior clapboards below. It might have been a rat or rabbit, but its crouched posture suggested something almost human. A breeze pinched at its mangy fur like dandelion tufts. Was it sickly or dead? The full brunt of his fear sank in when the creature, with eyes closed, rose to slink away along the wall. He watched its flat shadow climb higher on the outside of the house like scorching smoke. The form was as big as a bear by the time it disappeared around the corner.
Unnerved, Aloysius latched the window and turned to the blocked door. He wanted to check the hall and make sure none of the candles on the stairs had rekindled, yet could not trust he was awake—could not rule out he was sleepwalking. He retraced his steps to the bed, resolved, reluctantly, to leave his monster on the other side of the door.
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Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.