In the Bowers
Most people she knows have left the city, but Marliese remains. As they left in quick, steady waves and pleaded with her to go, her excuse was that she’d sunk so much money into her downtown condo she refused to leave on principle. And now there were tanks in the streets. Cell service was gone, cable was gone, power was in and out. It seemed like every night there were fireworks over the river. The sound would help cover gunshots, Marliese thought, and whether that was absurdly paranoid or not hardly mattered—it was still true.
She’s on the balcony, sitting on the concrete, leaning against the railing. Fifteen floors below, on the street, there’s a party that spilled out from some nightclub. Everyone is glowing—glowsticks around their necks and wrists—and jumping and shouting along to music Marliese can’t hear. An amorphous mass of light and sound devoid of distinct faces and voices that makes the street writhe. It’ll turn to riot, inevitably.
And with a streak of red and a reverberating boom the fireworks begin. A certain promise of trouble then, but for now it just makes the revellers jump and scream with more urgency.
Two green fireworks loop into the sky, and immediately after their cracks pierce the night, Marliese hears something she hasn’t heard in a long time: the skidding glide of the neighbour’s balcony door. But they’re gone, they left months ago. Marliese twists around as another, larger firework lights up the sky and watches a narrow man step out onto the balcony. He doesn’t notice her. He moves to the railing and looks down. His hands are braced like he might jump, and Marliese’s soul can’t bear to watch that again.
“Hey there, neighbour,” she calls.
The man startles. He peels away from the railing and looks at her. The balconies are close enough that she can make out his arched shoulders, and count the moments where he considers a lie. “The door was unlocked,” he says.
Of course it was. Marliese had taught herself how to pick locks, not how to lock them again. “Can hardly blame you. What’s your name?”
He looks away before answering. “Charley. You?”
“You can call me Marley,” Marliese says, pulling herself to her feet and leaning against the railing. She presses a smile. “Charley and Marley, how about that? Are you alone, Charley?”
He laughs. She can see the fireworks reflected in his eyes. “Oh, yeah. You?”
She considers telling him she’s surprised her voice still works, but instead says, “Desperately. Were you thinking of heading down?” She inclines her head toward the crowd.
He doesn’t look, doesn’t even move his eyes. “Nah.”
“Well—” Marliese begins but she’s cut off by a monstrously loud firework, the kind that makes her aware of all the fillings in her teeth. She shakes her head. “Why don’t you come over, neighbour?”
Charley does look this time, down over the railing and then up the street, and she knows what he’s watching for, and they both know it’s coming. “You sure you want to invite a stranger?”
“All of it’s strangers these days,” Marliese says. “I’m not afraid of one man.” All of the fear Marliese has ever felt or ever could has leeched away and left her profoundly unafraid of many things that used to terrify her. Snakes, blackened fingernails, drowning— these thoughts have no effect anymore.
“I just came up here for a place to stay,” Charley says. “Not the other thing.”
Marliese has to put in an effort to keep her expression composed. She used to be good at this, but she’s been alone too long, not performing for anyone. “Of course. One door over, Charley. A break from the solitude.”
She doesn’t wait for an answer. She opens the balcony door and steps inside, shutting it behind her. She doesn’t go to her front door either, she stands by the kitchen island, biting her thumbnail. She doesn’t want to be out there if he does jump. The light in the kitchen flickers, as it tends to. She waits long enough that she’s certain it must have happened, and then there’s a hesitant knock.
When she opens it she finds Charley much as he initially seemed under the light from the city street and fireworks. But he’s younger, very early twenties probably. Now, in the light, she can see the fading bruise around his right eye and the series of scars on the dark skin of his left wrist. His eyes are searching behind her for other people, so she leaves the door open and walks away, giving him time to consider.
“It was a couple who used to live over there,” Marliese says, waving vaguely in the direction of the neighbouring unit as she steps over garbage and dirty laundry. Housekeeping was never her strength, even before. “Lydia and Wallace. She was a lawyer and he sold cars. They were one of the early ones. I think because of her job, it could sometimes get political and it would have…I don’t know, made her a target? Shit.” Marliese hisses as she steps on something. She pulls back to realize it’s her wedding ring. She kicks it away and as it skitters across the laminate the lights go out. “Shit.” She turns and looks at Charley’s shape in the doorway. “Sorry about that. It’s in and out. I’m just glad it isn’t winter, I’m not built for cold.” And she waits.
Charley says, “I didn’t think it’d be like this up in one of these towers.”
“People are messy everywhere, turns out.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
It’s only then that Charley inches inside, closing the door behind him. He’s a shadow, occasionally illuminated in pieces from the glow of a firework at the right angle in the sky. It’s enough to see that he’s skittish. He shuffles, doesn’t step. “That lawyer and her husband—they really leave in such a hurry they forget to lock their door?”
“When I was a kid I went all in on my Nancy Drew phase,” Marliese says. “I didn’t take anything, apart from a couple bottles of rum. Couch is to your right if you’d like to sit. I can get you something to drink.”
She hears Charley pause, shuffle toward the couch, and he says, “Tap water any good up here?”
“No, not this week. But I’ve got bottled.” Marliese knows her way to the fridge, and as she draws closer to the balcony and the windows again, she can hear the sound in the street, just faintly. She gets two bottles of water and picks her way back to the couch, sitting at the opposite end and rolling a bottle across the cushion to Charley.
“Just being neighbourly.” Marliese takes a long sip of water. “I don’t see people. Most of the building’s gone. My work got shut down. I pick up the rations package at off hours from men in masks. I thought I should take up talking to myself, but couldn’t form the habit.”
There’s quiet, then Charley says, “I was in the hospital. Then they sent all of us out and the place I lived was all locked up. My family’s not from around. And like you said. People are gone.” Charley takes a drink, then holds the bottle in his lap, the plastic shifting and creaking in his grip. “I’m supposed to be on some medication but they don’t put that in rations boxes.”
Charley shrugs and his eyes are briefly illuminated, glowing red. “I was hoping you had the key to that place. Seemed like a long shot, but sometimes I do this thing where I trick myself. Like because I saw you right when the fireworks started and because you said Marley and I said Charley and they rhyme… Like all those things were signs that this time I’d found something good.”
Marliese frowns to herself, safely in the darkness. Like when someone smiles at the same pauses or always steps on the cracks while you always step over them. She knows about making omens out of moments. “I wish I did.”
“You have to have special tools for picking locks or you do it with hair pins or something?”
Feeling awful, Marliese says, “I have picks.” She watches Charley’s head drop, and she says, “I don’t really need them these days. If the power comes back, I can teach you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to do it. I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t. Honestly, Charley, none of this has made me any nicer.”
There’s a series of sharp, sudden fireworks that startles both of them. And then the murmur of approaching police sirens. And then the shattering sound of the street-side sirens, wailing at the skies.
“Do they clear this building usually?” Charley asks.
“No. People usually can’t get through the entrance, it’s not a popular spot for hiding. How’d you manage it?”
“Wasn’t that hard,” Charley says. “Not anything on your building security, there were just distractions.”
“And why’d you pick this floor?”
“Started at the top, worked down until I found an open door.”
“You like heights, huh?”
Charley goes quiet, even his breathing, and Marliese’s eyes have adjusted enough that she can make out the way his shoulders have crept up, and his cheek twitches. He’s got the water bottle in his hand and he’s turning it slowly around and around. She wonders how he’d look if the lights were on. She thinks he’s just like her, just like any small creature that flees to the shadows at the edge of a room. They’re not comfortable being looked at anymore.
“I used to live here with my husband. But he’s been gone a long time now. Before everything else. So I guess I’ve had practice being alone.”
“I’m sorry about your husband.”
“He wouldn’t have been good at this.” Marliese drinks some more water, to combat the abrupt dryness in her throat. The sirens are wailing and she can hear screams outside now. And there are still fireworks. A shower of red in the distance. “I think I’ve forgotten how to talk to people. That’s not the greatest introduction.”
“I’ve said some things too.”
“Did you have a chance to contact your family?”
“Nah.” Charley tips back some water, and doesn’t say anything more.
Marliese pulls her legs up onto the couch, curling into the arm. Now, in the dark, she’s reminded how tired she is. It’s late and she hasn’t been sleeping. It’s exhausting and invigorating all at once to share space with another person. She has an immediate, lunatic desire to grab hold of him, cling to him and tell him everything about herself. She doesn’t even know his real name but she wants to twist her body around his—not sexually, more like a cat curling against a warm body, seeking affection. Longing for something that has become so alien.
“I spend a lot of time out there,” she says, nodding at the balcony, even though he can’t see her. “Seems like most people travel in packs.”
“Nah,” Charley says. He pauses, then, “I’m not meant to be around people, I don’t think. Not good at it.” He shakes his head and laughs, softly. “And what’s the point of it these days? Can’t trust anyone anyway.”
“Fair enough,” Marliese says.
“Do you not have a car? Is that why you’re still here?”
“No, I have car.” No good now, since the streets are locked down.
Marliese ducks her head slightly. It’s reaching the point where she can’t tell if the sirens are still going or if it’s all in her head, echoing endlessly. “It seemed like everyone was going to hide where the nights were dark and quiet. I never liked that. Even if it’s all like that.” She gestures at the window. “I guess that’s short-sighted and shallow, when it comes to it. But you sort of find out who you are in an emergency.”
Charley nods, his face angled away. “I guess I found out I was right about myself the whole time.”
Marliese rubs a hand along her face. The fireworks don’t work when the action is so close—she can tell the difference. “Are you hungry? I have food, I could get you something?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? I have—”
“You don’t need to take care of me.”
“Of course not.” Marliese smiles, as insincerely as she ever has, but he can’t see it there in the dark. He’s not even looking at her. “You can stay, if you want to.”
Charley shakes his head, just once at first and then over and over again, like he can’t stop suddenly. And when he does, finally, he says, “No, I don’t think I can do that.” His head starts shaking again and he’s squeezing and twisting the plastic bottle so it pops in and out of shape. His face is better in line with the window, illuminated in fits and starts by fireworks and the roving spotlights now training themselves on the chaos on the street. It reveals him as afraid and sad and awkward. His eyes are so wide, they shimmer in the light. “But,” he says, “I’d learn to pick locks. If the lights came on.”
Marliese’s smile settles. She goes to take a sip of her water but it’s empty—she hadn’t realized she’d been overcompensating that much. She drops the bottle and loose cap to the floor. They both bounce and roll, probably lodging in other debris. “Are you a fast learner?”
Charley cracks a smile, she can see it in the latest burst of fireworks, the light on his teeth. “I’m anything when I have to be.”
“Motto of the month.”
They lapse into silence, which Marliese immediately regrets but it feels natural and necessary, like in such short a time they’ve run out of things to say, or at least the energy to say them. It’s past three and they listen as the fireworks peter out, as the trucks and tanks clear the street, as the sirens stop, as the projected, disembodied voice urges quiet and calm, as the city returns to its holding pattern. Marliese needs sleep, her body is screaming for it, has been for a while now, but that same instinctive language of survival won’t allow her to close her eyes with another person breathing nearby. She’s become a purely solitary creature in so little time. But it feels longer.
They’ve both sunk into the couch, both faded, both not letting their eyes shut for more than a quarter of a second at a time, and two hours have passed when the power flickers on again. Marliese blinks rapidly against the light. She looks at Charley and he’s looking at her. She saw him before at the door but he looks different now.
“Still got those lock picks?” he says, and his voice cracks.
“Yeah,” Marliese says. “I’ll go get them.” She rises from the couch and toes her way through the mess to her bedroom. She shuts the door and feels a swell of relief at having no one there to look at her.
She goes to the dresser, pulls out the second drawer, folds down the false back and retrieves her lock picks. She reaches her bedroom door and stops for a second. Her hands are shaking. That hasn’t happened in a while.
She steps back out into the apartment and Charley is still sitting on the couch, still holding the empty water bottle, slightly crumpled in his hands. He looks up at her. She holds out the little leather case. “No one’s left upstairs. We can try there.”
Charley takes the picks, holds them in one hand and the empty water bottle in the other. His mouth opens, moves around the shape of so many different words before he finally says, “Okay.” Still, he doesn’t stand right away. He looks at his hands.
“You can just throw the bottle anywhere,” Marliese says. “It doesn’t matter.”
He shakes his head. “I’d like to keep it.”
“Then keep it. Come on.”
Marliese does lock her door when they leave, and then she and Charley slip up the stairs to the sixteenth floor. As they go, Marliese finds herself saying, “There was an older woman who lived above me. She didn’t like taking her shoes off. I mean, not as just a preference. She had this thing about her feet. So you could always hear her pacing, and it drove my husband crazy. She left just before they locked the streets off, with a couple other people from the building. I’d gotten so used to the footsteps, you know?”
They start at that door, right above Marliese’s. She goes first, on her knees in front of the lock. She talks through it as she goes through the motions. He stands a little too far back to see properly, but she’s not going to urge him closer—everyone’s right to be skittish. “Just like that,” she says. “You do the next one.”
They shuffle over to the next door down. She gives him the space that he gave her, and her advice is more predictive than grounded in the exact movements of his fingers. He tries for a while, then stops, folds forward. The water bottle is on the floor beside his knee, and his hand twitches in that direction. “Who lived here?” he asks.
“A man, a little younger than me. I didn’t know him really, but I always saw him with his dog in the elevator.”
Charley nods, and sighs. “Maybe not fast enough.” He rubs his forehead with the back of his wrist, still holding the picks.
“I can help you,” Marliese says. She hesitates. “Will you let me?”
Charley twists back to look at her. He looks at her face and then at her hands, held out straight in front of her, palms up. “Let me try again first,” he says, resuming the position at the lock.
He tries. And when he fails and stops neither of them moves right away. Marliese is standing on the balls of her feet, and she feels like she can’t catch her breath. It’s so bad she’s getting light-headed. And then Charley says, “All right.”
Marliese moves forward in hesitations. She begins crouching as she moves, so when she reaches him she’s at his height, no taller or wider, two small, quiet people on the hallway floor. As she shuffles into place she bumps the water bottle and both their hands shoot out to steady it, and this is the first moment of contact between them, jarring and accidental, knuckles jamming fingertips, and they both pull back just as suddenly as the bottle topples over. Marliese looks at Charley’s face but he’s looking at the door, biting the insides of his cheek. She looks away, at the bottle, and stands it up again.
They both wait, and then Charley says, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know how to do this anymore,” Marliese says.
“Me neither. If I ever did.”
And slowly, slowly, Charley raises his hands, never looking away from the door. “Okay,” he says. “I’m ready.”
Just as slowly, Marliese leans into his space, eases her hands up over his. Her heart is racing and she bites her lip because it feels like if she doesn’t her teeth will start chattering. And they both hold that pose a moment. And then they begin. She shows him the way to move his hands, and then releases him, pulls her hands back to her own lap, and tells him what to listen to, what to feel for. And then she goes quiet and listens with him. Then corrects, then listens. Then corrects, then listens.
It’s a miracle when the lock clicks. Marliese inhales sharply, falling back onto her heels, and Charley doesn’t move at all, his hands frozen until Marliese interrupts the silence, saying, “You did it.”
It still takes Charley a while to move. First, he puts the picks back in the case, fumbling slightly. Then he picks up the water bottle. And finally, he reaches for the door, and Marliese holds her breath, in case they both fell so deeply into the moment that they imagined the success. But it wasn’t a hallucination, the door opens. Marliese is ready with a congratulations and a suggestion he try the next door but then the smell reaches her, the same time it reaches Charley. He gags slightly, stumbles to his feet.
“Oh my God,” Marliese says, standing and pushing inside. The smell inside is of excrement and death. The lights are all off and she hits the switch as she passes. There’s shit on the floor, and then, in the kitchen, the dog’s body—starved, swollen with decay. “Damn it.”
She’s a little startled when Charley appears beside her. “What the fuck,” Charley mutters. Then, “What the fuck? Who the hell leaves a dog? You don’t leave a dog, you take the dog.”
“This is awful,” Marliese says. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—” but she can’t find an ending.
They stand together in the smell, looking at the remains of the dog. Marliese wracks her memory for a name but she can’t find it. Maybe she never asked, which feels callous, but she’s been cutting back on asking for names for years now. Heartless, maybe. And all this time there was the dog, needing someone. If she’d known she could have saved him. His owner could have told anyone else in the building, anyone like her, who was staying. Why didn’t he? Who the hell leaves a dog.
Charley leaves first, but Marliese can’t right away. She goes into the bedroom and pulls a sheet off the bed, bringing it back to the kitchen to cover the dog, whatever his name was. It’s stupid. As if it’ll be easier living under a corpse if it’s covered.
When she finds Charley again in the hall, after turning off the lights and shutting the door, he’s standing with his forehead pressed against the opposite wall. He’s still holding the water bottle and the lockpicks.
“Charley,” she says, and he doesn’t react, but why should he to a made-up name. “Hey,” she says, and his shoulders jump. “You should try another one.”
He drops the lock picks. “No, I shouldn’t have done that. I should never have come up here.” He stays where he is against the wall.
“It’s all right.”
“I know, but…sometimes it has to be anyway.” Marliese leans back against the closed door, looking at Charley. “That’s it. Isn’t it?”
Charley pulls the water bottle up between him and the wall, where Marliese can’t see it. He must be cradling it in both hands, she thinks. The plastic pops and crackles under his shifting grip. “Is it? You know, it’s not all that outside stuff. I could take it, I think. But everybody’s face doesn’t look like a person anymore, and that’s just me, I know that’s me. Even you, you’re a nice lady, but your eyes aren’t right, I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t be sorry.”
He laughs. “I don’t know how else to be. I want to be. You know? I want to be.”
“I know,” Marliese says, and she thinks of the world from her balcony, a world without faces. And further back. She hugged no friends goodbye, she stood back and waved. Charley is the first person she’s touched in more than two years. “I want to be, too.”
Slowly, agonizingly, Charley turns. His eyes are watery, even more than before. He holds the empty water bottle like it’s a life preserver she threw into the sea. When he speaks it’s a whisper. “Is my face—” and his voice cracks.
Marliese shakes her head, over and over, but she moves no closer to him. “You look right. Your eyes, everything. You look just fine. You just look sad.”
He blinks. “Maybe that’s what it is.” He drops his gaze. “I liked the company, Marley. But I think I…I’ve gotta be alone again.”
Marliese tries to smile, but she’s exhausted the muscles in this time they’ve shared together. “I liked the company too. Keep the picks. Find somewhere safe. Maybe closer to the ground.” She manages to curl one corner of her mouth, and then she steps away from the door and heads for the stairs, tense and waiting for him to say something. But he doesn’t. She’s going down the stairs, noodle-legged, thrumming.
She doesn’t get a full, clean breath until she’s at home, inside, and it takes her to the floor for a moment, but she brings herself up again. She leaves the door unlocked, but she knows Charley isn’t coming.
She goes straight to the balcony doors, opens them, steps outside and shuts her eyes for a moment. She breathes. And she opens her eyes, takes in the faint spectre of sunrise in the distance, the debris on the road. She goes to the railing and looks straight down, the nauseating, spiralling distance to the ground. She will wait just a while, she tells herself, until she sees the distant form of Charley stepping back out into the world, and then she’ll finally sleep. She winds her fingers around and through the slim metal bars of the railing. She’ll wait just a while longer. She can wait a while longer.
Photo by Tobias Wilden from Unsplash.