Reality: Stranger Than Fiction Part I

I want a mental break, I write as I slug down my fourth or fifth Monster Energy drink of this week. I haven’t had a single can of this tart, fizzy, heart-rate-pumping drink for a couple of years (I quit drinking them towards the end of my retail working years and switched to a desk job that didn’t require social energy which I lack) but this week I’ve been relying on each can I buy at the gas station on the corner. It’s a fatigue weighing on my head, in my muscles, back, and heavy eyelids, a combination of working overtime (been pulling 9.5 hour shifts each day) and a home cluttered with moving boxes, bubble wrap (which is surprisingly expensive, btw), tape dispensers, and piles of “to-be-sold” items that need to be priced. Our lives have become jumbled and as mixed as a bazaar shop, random things here and there, muddling up routines that have been built upon years of practice. My husband and I are exhausted but with no break to look forward to.

The Beatles’ song Yesterday has been playing on a loop inside my empty head as I catch myself staring into space at my work desk, involuntarily withdrawing from my focus to basically fall asleep with my eyes open. Mentally, I shake myself again and say, “Hey, we’ve got work to do. Quit moping and get to it! We can sleep when we’re dead.”

That might come sooner rather than later if we can’t get some rest, but I don’t want to dedicate this post to those moving woes. I have to face them plenty offline, so I thought I’d switch things up a bit and talk about a few things that are far more interesting.

A lot of people ask if I’ve ever experienced anything supernatural, frightening, or life changing to drive me into the genres of fantasy (sometimes the twisted and dark types of stories) and horror. I was able to write about a few of them in my creative non-fiction course, which felt amazing to do considering that each time I’ve written about true occurrences in my life I always change details to incorporate it into a fiction book or story I wrote. I hate to say that the occurrences I am about to entail are not anything truly elaborate but neither are they forgettable. I hope you agree.

The Neighbor

In Oklahoma City, years ago in my university days, my sister and I decided to join together in an apartment, an older building with two apartments in the upstairs (one of which was our two-bedroom) and two on the ground floor, one apartment stacked on the other. The space wasn’t bad but it was from the sixties with outlets installed upside down and the winters required space heaters and electric blankets while the summertime required us sleeping with the noisy air units on full blast. Still it wasn’t bad, but we had peculiar neighbors.

The one I’m talking of in this section was a scrawny, squat woman who acted as dodgy as a feral cat. My first encounter with her told me right away to avoid her, which was fine by me; I was carrying up my boxes up the back stairs that led from the parked cars. Her living space was in this fifth extra apartment that was a small building that sat up against the main apartment’s side. It wasn’t a house exactly, just a square little flat with a roof that I could step out on from my bedroom window upstairs (I only tried this once, fearful she would hear me and call the cops). She lived alone, as far as I could tell at first, and later realized no one in their sane mind would live with her. She probably preferred it that way, too.

As I was halfway up the staircase, I noticed her standing outside her front door, only about thirty feet away. She had her twiggy hands gripping the railing of the crumbling stone steps that led up to her torn screen door, her brow furrowed as she regarded me with a toned down annoyance through beady, dark eyes. She didn’t stare so much as glowered at me, like I was loading my things into her place and what right did I have to do it? I was caught off guard, especially since she never flinched or tried to hide her unwarranted anger or remove her protruding stare. She didn’t speak at all and her pinched, thin lips were barely noticeable in her sagging face. She had to have been in her sixties but her haggard appearance made this hard to tell.

I usually am fairly shy but I knew I’d be living there for at least a couple of years and wanted to make nice with the neighbors (I’d already had an odd encounter with the two brothers who lived below us who would continuously smoke skunk weed until my room stank with it for the next year). So I tried to smile, struggling with my grip on the large box in my arms, and said “Hello!” as cheery as I could.

Without a word or change of expression, she whirled around, whipped open her door, and slammed it behind her. I could hear the door lock loudly from where I stood and I stared bewildered at what I must have done to offend her.

Anything offended this woman: people, animals, and honestly things I think only she could see. Over the next year, I will have seen this woman walk out of her place wearing a sandwich board sign (one resting on her front, one on her back) painted with the words “John Baxter, Quit Following Me!” while dragging a basket cart behind her (I never saw what she’d wheel back with her). She did not own a car. I think I witnessed a son visiting her but never saw them stay for a long period of time. She once stood outside screaming into the air and slamming the lid of her trashcan down over and over before rushing back inside without another word. The word “unhinged” came to mind every time I saw her, as rare as that grew to be. My sister made the easy mistake of trying to talk to her one day, I think she just said ‘hello, how are you’ like any normal person would to a neighbor and the woman glared at her hotly and spat, “Why are you talking to me?”

We didn’t make that same mistake again. Eventually, no one would be able to. Ever.

I got a phone call at closing time at the store I worked at on weekends and throughout the summer. My sister told me to not come home, cops were all over the building and the street; the crazy lady next door committed suicide by the storage building where the cars are parked. I’m not sure why but I imagined her hanging herself in the storage building, from the wooden beams overhead, but no, my sister explained, it was with a gun.

Makes more sense.

At home, my sister lets me in through the front door, assuring one of the cops, who at that point looked bored and forced to stay to fill out paperwork, that I lived there and was coming home from work. Up in my bedroom, at the back window that overlooked the back lot, I could see her. She was still there, laid out on the cracked driveway in a plain cotton shirt and shorts. I can’t recall whether she was barefoot but she may have been wearing dollar store flip flops. Maybe.

Beneath her head, her hair wrapped up in a tight bun, a dark stain spread in a wide, lopsided circle. Her head was laid back, her mouth wide open so I could see the dark roof of her mouth, the top row of her teeth. On the ground, a handgun that was finally being collected and tagged in a plastic bag. The cops didn’t seem deterred or shocked by this scenario, which made me wonder how many times they’ve all been at a scene like this one or even worse. This woman’s hostile presence and death were equally shocking and I wondered if I was a terrible person for not feeling truly sad; yes, she was obviously lonely but there was some crazy pride she used as a guarded yet scary shield to keep everyone away. Undoubtedly she was sick in the head, possibly suffering from paranoia and maybe even schizophrenia. There’s very little help to those who don’t have family or friends to guide them to the sources that can help them and sometimes it’s a fight alone to get them there. I wasn’t sure if that woman even had anyone who could tolerate her enough for a simple conversation.

I wondered aloud why she would do this in the parking lot and not in the privacy of her own home. It wasn’t the first time she pulled a stunt outside but the display of her ending everything was shocking.

“She probably knew no one would find her if she stayed inside,” my sister said rationally. “At least, not until we could smell her.”

I was very thankful that she had chosen outside. Being so close to her home, in the dead heat of an Oklahoma summer drought, it wouldn’t have been too long before I would have smelt her. But how disturbing to put so much rational thought into such a desperate act.

It was a long while before the police and paramedics took away the body. Like, it really felt like hours before they collected her and left, like a certain amount of five hours had to pass before it was legal. I can’t imagine she stayed warm for that long. I was surprised at how the stain on the ground didn’t get bigger. It was maybe a couple of feet in diameter but it didn’t get large. In the movies, it’s like the blood never stops, like we can never be empty of it.

They left without cleaning up the stain. In the next day, the brothers below our place would take bleach to the spot and scrub it clean though I don’t believe I ever walked over that spot again. Halfway through the night, around past two AM when I was skyping with John (we were dating long-distance at that point) I peeked out the blinds of my window, as if I could still see her there. Her bloodstain was still there of course but when I checked that last time, I saw something more.

Four cats I had never seen before were seated right by the spot. Strays with dirty fur sitting placidly like little garden statues taking post where her body had been. None of them looked wary or out of sorts; each sat quietly, calmly, as if this was a usual night for them to seat themselves upon a space where Death strolled by.

I didn’t look outside again, as if I was intruding on some sort of funeral service. Where had those felines come from? Was it the smell of the blood? An instinct? I only could thank God they weren’t lapping the blood up but I wasn’t going to look again to see if they would. It sent chills through my bones and stayed even as I finally got into bed. I pitied our neighbor but her oddness kept her distant enough that I felt withdrawn from actually feeling sad. She growled at us and glared as if she wanted to hurt us. She was a pitiful soul, yes, but self-preservation wins out in the end, you know? After all, how long had she had that gun? Did she carry it on her? Was it a recent purchase?

Days later, perhaps a week, I had parked my car at this parking area by the school across the street. Our building only allowed one spot per apartment so I generally parked farther away since my sister was home first during the week, and I was walking to the back stairs after finishing a day of classes. I noticed a skiff brought onto the street. A few men were pulling furniture, boxes, and house items out of the late lady’s open door. I could tell from their uniform gray t-shirts that they were hired and not her relatives, if she really had any at all. That did tug on my heart then, to think how people had to be paid to move her stuff and how it was all going to go into the trash.

Huh, I thought. I like those curtains in her window. I wonder if they’d let me…nope, nope, they’ve been touched by death! Nope!

I was walking by the open door, my curious eyes unable to look straight ahead, and immediately I regretted it. Something cold dripped into my stomach and I felt my breath falter as I took in the black paint brushed in huge letters across her living room wall, like she had taken the biggest brush she could find at the hardware store and dipped the whole bristles in toxic black, scrawling in loopy-letters over the cream-colored space:

I’M FREE

I still wonder what she had freed herself from, what was so horrible that she chose such a permanent escape. Voices that she screamed back at that no one else could hear? Free from people who knew followed her but were probably only figments? From the poverty she probably lived in? No one will ever know but her, and she took it clear to the grave.

It’s a bit of a morbid story, I know, but it’s one of those bizarre moments in life that will stay with me, remind me to feel compassion even to those who seem completely void of such an emotion. I’m thankful to not be alone, to have a likely future of not ending up like that, alone in the world with only the voices in my head as company.

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