01

Oct

Creeper

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Creeper is back again. He’s in the studio behind her. Alex can feel his presence even before he opens his mouth to speak. His presence is singular, unique, different from the men in the carpenters union that rent space in the building. He brings a coldness to the room, discomfort, and has since the first time he stepped through her door and she’d started to think of him as Creeper. The others don’t know she calls him that, but they know he’s Creeper. She’s mentioned his behavior, and none of them likes a guy who acts that way.

Creeper sidles in and taps on her fish tank. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. She wants to yell, “Stop it!” But fears offending him. As of now, she’s managed to evade intimacy, turn down his invitations, and she’s always had excuses to save his pride. They exchange pleasantries when passing in the hall. She answers his questions without asking any of her own. But she worries what would happen if she ever has to reject him outright.

Two groups of three: tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap. What’s that? Obsessive compulsive? If so, it’s not his fault, and she lets him tap but keeps herself angled away until he speaks.

“Your fish had babies,” he says.

She puts on a flannel shirt to cover the tank top she’s wearing.

“Yeah, I saw that.”

Alex brought the fish tank to add some life to the room, which consists of bare concrete floors and two thick supporting pillars on which she’s tacked a calendar and flyers for a gig her husband’s band is playing next week. She’s hung a clock too, but otherwise, the cold metal ducts crisscross above her head, a mesh of wires and tubing running back and forth. It is a workshop after all, an old factory down in Kensington. And though she’d worried in adding the fish tank that her landlord would tell her they don’t allow pets, he hadn’t said a thing. No one had, until now. Does Creeper think she hadn’t noticed? That the fish had babies right when he walked in the room? He’s making small talk. But even his most innocuous comments test her patience.

“You should keep them separate when they’re born,” he says. “Or the mama eats the babies.” And there it is. What she’s expecting. Creeper crossing a line. She glances his way, and he’s smiling, standing with that unsettling gaze, as if he’s just made the most perplexing remark in the world.

*

The problem with Creeper is all feeling. He’s done nothing that warrants action. Plenty of guys have that vibe about them, an awkward gait, a strange way of delivering sentiments that implies neither irony nor sincerity, leaving the listener uncertain how to respond. She doesn’t like the way he looks at her, the way he feels in her space. He’s unpleasant, yet booting him out makes her feel bad, especially since she welcomes everyone else. Creeper has this patchy beard that runs along his jaw into a faint goatee that hides his lips. When he smiles, it’s not a smile but a grimace. He looks pained, unattractive. Yet, last time she checked, being unattractive wasn’t a crime. He also has strange gray eyes, beady with bags beneath. They’re too large and seem likely to tumble out any moment. Whenever he visits, he scans the room and blinks a lot. He blinks too much, and this makes her wonder if he’s got some kind of condition. Maybe Asperger’s. And what’s she supposed to do, ban the guy with Asperger’s? Still, it bothers her enough that she mentions it to her upstairs neighbor Bill.

“Want me to beat his ass?” Bill says.

“No,” she replies, “I think he’s got a condition. Some sort of social problem.”

*

Reichenbach Restorations. This is what she calls her company. Reichenbach. She likes the sound of the word. It evokes classicism, confidence, nostalgia. It evokes the old world and antiques. Reichenbach. She’s built this business herself. And she’s proud of that, finding a niche in a world with a skillset traditionally afforded men. She found the space and assembled a client list, and she’s delivered. She’s restored furniture—chairs, tables, wardrobes. She’s good at what she does, capable, and she can handle this, too. She can handle Creeper. He’s just a guy, a blip, a bump in the road. She’s here to work, and he can’t make her leave. She keeps telling herself she’s not going to move just for him.

*

The next day Creeper shows up with fish. In both hands, he hoists a plastic bag with one fish floating inside each. He doesn’t explain why he thinks she needs more fish when hers have had babies. He simply offers her the bags and she accepts. “Thanks,” she says. He doesn’t smile, just nods. He goes out and down the hall to his room, and she watches him go. She has lots to do, so she opens the tank and places the bags in the water. It feels strange accepting a gift from someone she doesn’t like. But she can’t refuse. They’re only fish. And once the water temp inside the bags matches the tank, she’ll tear them open and let the fish swim out. She’s no expert, but the ones he brought her look nice—sleek black bodies with elegant fins, a bluish hue on their bellies. They swim around in the bags, back and forth, back and forth, and Alex returns to what she’d been doing before.

*

When she leaves that night, she hears the door to Creeper’s studio creak. At least, she thinks she hears it. She imagines him peering out. The hall is dingy, lit by fluorescents. She locks up and looks at his door and strains to see if it’s open. A closed door in the building generally means the occupant isn’t there. The carpenters, when they’re in, keep the doors open, and this fosters an air of affability. They stop by each other’s spaces to chat. But Creeper never opens his, even when it’s summer and they need the doors open to create a cross draft.

Alex considers knocking, saying thanks for the fish, but worries that this might be invading his space. Although he visits her workshop frequently, he’s never invited her to his. He’s invited her for coffee and dinner, but never to visit. Maybe he’s living there, sleeping in his studio, which she knows is a lease violation. She thinks she sees a lighted space at the edge of his door, someone peeking out. Before leaving, she raises a hand. “Good night,” she says. But the words echo back and the sound of her voice frightens her.

*

“Maybe you should get a Taser,” her husband suggests.

They’ve met up at El Bar, and they’re outside at one of the picnic tables. Alex’s best friend Amanda sits beside her shaking her head.

“They’re illegal,” she says.

She hasn’t seen much of Amanda recently. She’s been so focused on building her business she hasn’t had time to socialize. They talk on the phone and instant messenger, which means Amanda’s up to speed on Creeper. But it’s good to get out for an evening, socialize.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t get one,” her husband says, “My sister has one. I can ask where she picked it up.”

“I’m not sure I’d want one,” Alex says. “I’d end up Tasing myself.”

Steven isn’t tough. If Creeper attacked her, she doesn’t think her husband could help, even if he was there. But there’s something in this type of situation that elicits the same reaction from men—defensiveness, violence.

“It’s a screwed up situation,” Amanda says. “But he sounds like a punk. I bet you could take him.”

Alex laughs. She’s stronger than she looks. She used to beat guys at arm wrestling. She discovered the talent back in her barhopping days. She’d challenge them. They’d look at her thin arms and think she was joking. They’d give a cocky smile and take the whole thing lightly and then start to lose. They’d exert some force, but by then, it was too late. She’d have their hands hovering near the table, and it’s hard to come back from that. Come to think of it, this was another thing that worried her about Creeper. She wasn’t sure how seriously to take him. What if he had her down before she realized, if he surprised her the way she’d surprised these guys? Still, Steven’s suggestion seemed extreme. A Taser? What if she inadvertently hit him with four hundred volts? Those things gave people heart attacks. If she read the situation wrong, she could kill him.

*

When Alex arrives at her studio the next morning, she’s hung over and her fish are dead.

As they’d moved on to other subjects the previous evening, she found herself ordering beer after beer. This was partially due to seeing Amanda for the first time in ages, but she’d also hoped to bury the anxiety all that talk of Creeper had caused. When it was just, “He needs his ass kicked,” she wasn’t as worried as when her husband had brought up Tasers. It seemed to enhance Creeper’s menace, to make the threat of his presence palpable. A weird guy might need to be threatened to make him back off. But Tasers were needed to put down a rapist. And she’d never coupled Creeper with that until now. To her mind, rapists were masked men lurking in parks at night, though she knew this flew in the face of statistics. Most victims were raped by someone they knew. She’d even been acquainted with a few girls, tangentially, who’d been raped in college. Or, she’d heard they’d been raped. It was rumored. They hadn’t told her themselves. It was more, “Do you know what happened to so-and-so…” She’d never heard of charges levied or arrests. It seemed that so-and-so kept it to herself, told her friends, but not the authorities, and Alex had sworn when she heard this that she’d never let it happen to her.

But wrong place, wrong time, and who knew?

Still, she could prevent it now. She insisted on this. She drank more and more and talked of her time arm wrestling, and as she bragged, this one guy had challenged her.

“Let’s see what you got,” he said.

They locked hands over the table.

“You ready?” she said. “On three.”

As she strained, she couldn’t stop thinking, If I beat him, I’ll be safe. If I beat him, I’ll be safe. She had him, too. Not quite pinned, but close to the table. The problem was that this guy took her seriously and hadn’t fooled about. She had leverage and swung his fist to the side. But he was stronger and put up enough resistance to push it back. He was trembling. Their arms shook. She saw it coming, but still, it surprised her when it happened. Her hand hit the table.

“You’re good,” he said. “You have this thing where your wrist locks. You sort of bend it like this.”

“Is that illegal?”

“No, it’s a decent technique. Smart.”

This made her smile. She was smart. She could get by using her head, though she didn’t know what it meant that she’d lost. Did it mean her concerns over Creeper were founded? She’d had another and another and got drunk and now this: dead fish.

Had Creeper known it would happen? Had he bought these fish as retribution for turning down his invitations for coffee? No, that was crazy. She’s married, and he knows that.

She looks into the water. Bubbles come up off the filter. The sleek black bodies of the fish Creeper gave her float on the surface and the baby fish are gone. Then she sees the others, the parents of those babies, her original fish. They’re swimming at the bottom of the tank, moving among the rocks and plastic plants embedded in gravel. Had they killed the black fish? There wasn’t any way to tell. Still, it seemed better than the possibility Creeper had knowingly brought her a breed that ate babies and killed themselves.

She’s almost in tears but holds back. Right then Bill walks in. She forgot she’d left the door open. But then, she always leaves it open. Maybe she should close it, lock herself in when she’s here. She’d be safer.

“Hey,” he says, “What happened to your fish?”

He takes a closer look and says, “I see.”

“What?” she says. “What do you see?”

“They’re Japanese fighting fish. Haven’t you seen From Russia with Love?”

“What?”

From Russia With Love. James Bond. In close quarters, they fight to the death. Didn’t you know?”

“Do you think I’d put them in there if I knew?”

Bill steps back and holds up his hands.

“Sorry.”

Alex runs her fingers through her hair.

“No, it’s been a rough night. I got together with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, and we were out late. I had a bit too much to drink, and now this.”

She gestures at the tank.

“No, I get it. It’s messed up. I just thought they might have told you at the store.”

Did they tell Creeper? If they did, he must have known, but why wouldn’t he mention it? Was it a prank? Did they assume that since he was buying the fish, he’d done his research? Maybe the salesman didn’t know either. It’s not like everyone watches James Bond.

“They might have,” she says. “But I didn’t buy them. It was Creep…”

Right then, she feels guilty. She hadn’t meant to use this name. It just sort of fell from her lips. But Bill catches on.

“He did this?” He stares at the tank in disbelief. “Shit! You want me to talk to him?”

He means it, but she’s worried. Does he mean talk or intimidate? Bill’s a big guy. Setting him off on Creeper could prove just as bad as using a Taser. And if Creeper’s been bullied his whole life, it might make things worse. She doesn’t want this to get any worse. She wants damage control, a friendly way to turn his attentions elsewhere. She knows that something’s wrong with him, but she’s not sure what.

“No,” she says. “I can handle it. I doubt he knew. He doesn’t seem the James Bond type.”

But she doesn’t talk to him. Over the next few days, she doesn’t see him. She hasn’t started to lock her door, but she leaves it open only a crack, so people have to knock, and Creeper doesn’t. She doesn’t pursue him either. A couple of times, she hears footsteps in the hall, but they pass by. Maybe it’s not even him. Maybe he’s moved. Maybe he’s cleared out. But that’s wishful thinking. She trusts her instincts, and somehow she’s certain he hasn’t left.

*

One night as she’s leaving, she thinks she sees him. The El train runs right above the studio, and when she walks to her car, she goes beneath the pillars and shadows of the rail line. Every once in a while, a train runs past and makes a deafening clatter, but right then, it’s quiet. A car passes, then another. It’s six-thirty, but the street’s not heavily trafficked, and that’s all she sees—two cars, and then she’s alone. The sound of her footfalls echo. She feels someone’s following her. Is it him? She stops and turns, and the sound stops. She sees her shadow move and jumps. It’s not that late, but it’s dark. If it happens now, she can run. She has sneakers on and avoids the blind spots—alleys and doorways, the spaces between the cars. The street is composed of businesses, and the businesses are closed, so there’s no one around. She needs a jump, a head start. If he comes at her, she needs to see him first. She can fight if she has to, but it’s best to run. She hears footsteps, and this time they’re not hers. She looks for the source, but doesn’t see one. She hears a car door slam and an engine start, and not far off, a car pulls out. It passes, and in the glint of the streetlight, she sees a man sitting inside, but can’t tell from the glare who it is. It could be him. But she can’t say for sure.

*

As a teen, she’d been bullied in school. She can’t remember the names of the girls, just the feeling they gave her when she passed them in the hall, the way she’d wanted to shrink from sight, how she’d longed to become invisible. Dealing with Creeper feels like that. She hears footsteps in the corridor, and whether they’re his or not, she wants to dissolve. She doesn’t know what he’s planning to do, but she refuses to become a victim. She takes inventory of the items in her shop, tools she could use as weapons—hammers and hacksaws, screwdrivers, box cutters, a nail gun, a drill. She knows that anything she can use against him, he can use against her, so she keeps them concealed in drawers close at hand. She wears her tool belt everywhere, and sometimes, when she’s alone, she practices swinging her hammer. She’s had enough of the fear and paranoia. She hopes he’ll leave her alone. That’s all she wants. She hates that it has to be cruel, but it can’t be helped.

In the meantime, Alex throws herself into refurbishing an old woman’s dollhouse. It’s a passion project for her. It helps her forget that Creeper is down the hall. Most of her jobs involve restoring furniture, reupholstering chairs, refinishing tables and desks. And while that requires skill and finesse, the intricate work she’s doing on the dollhouse takes a deeper focus. The world falls away as she replaces the green and white striped wallpaper above the wainscoting in the kitchen. She forgets herself as she fashions lace curtains for the windows. She sands down the dining room chairs and table and stains the wood and adds polish.

She wasn’t planning to take the project at first, since it falls outside the spectrum of what she usually does. But the woman had been referred by another customer, and Alex tries to do all she can to keep her clients happy. Then too, the woman approached her with such hope. This was her dollhouse from youth. It had been stored in an attic and subject to wear, and she had asked Alex to restore it so she could hand it down to a granddaughter. What could Alex say? She took it on, and it’s only now, as she’s putting the finishing touches on, a week since she last saw Creeper, that she notices the smell. She wonders at first if a rat crawled behind the wall and died. But as she moves about, searching for its source, she follows the scent to the door. The smell grows more pungent toward the hall. She follows it to Creeper’s studio and considers knocking, but doesn’t.

It’s only a bit after five o’clock, so Bill should be around. He’s usually here until six, just a flight of stairs above, so she turns and goes. She isn’t sure what’s behind the door, but she doesn’t want to face it alone. She’s forgotten all her plans, the tool belt, those weapons that aren’t weapons. She’s scared and knows that anyone would be. Does he have a body stuffed in there? Has he killed someone? Or is it him? God, she’d feel bad if it was. All her suspicions, then this. She climbs the concrete stairs. Her footfalls echo.

“Bill!” she calls out.

He’ll know what to do, though she has to admit, she hates this, hates that she can’t handle it herself. After all, she knows how to pick up a phone and call the cops. She just doesn’t want to. She’s done this before, gone to see Bill. But it’s usually him that comes to her. What’s the difference, she wonders, between Bill and Creeper? She’s never considered this before. They both come and stand at her door and talk, but the one’s okay and the other is…

Dead? Could he be dead?

Sad to say, she feels some relief at this, and it’s horrid. Horrid to hope someone’s dead just so they’ll leave you alone. And yet, she hates him. She can’t deny it. She hates him. Hates him for killing her fish. Hates him for making her feel small and scared. Does this make her a terrible person? She judged him and wrote him off and can’t even say she’s sorry about it. She hurries and reaches the top of the stairs and knocks at Bill’s door, though it’s wide open.

“Bill,” she says, “It’s Creeper. There’s a smell. It’s coming from his room.”

Bill doesn’t hesitate but comes right away, and as they rush along, she thinks, he’s got someone stashed in there. There’s someone beneath the floorboards. This is ridiculous though. They don’t even have floorboards. Just a thick slab of concrete. Yet, something is rotting in there. Once they reach the first floor, there’s no doubting it. Bill turns and nods. “Go call the cops,” he says. But there’s no way she’s leaving now. She’s going to see it through. She’s going to stay at Bill’s side.

He knocks, and when Creeper doesn’t respond, he jiggles the knob. “Hey! Hey! Is anyone in there!”

He waves Alex to the side.

“I’m going to break it down.”

“Are you sure you should do that?”

Still, she steps away. She wants to see.

Bill backs up and lowers his shoulder. With all his weight, he slams into the door and it gives way. They stand, framed by the door, silent, staring. It’s dark, but the hallway light seeps in, and they see a figure, dangling, quiet. Alex hears a few flies buzzing about, but she can’t see them. And once the smell hits full on, both she and Bill take a step back. She’ll never know what he meant by the fish, whether or not he’d intended to scare her, if they served as a warning sign or some kind of sick goodbye. But her instincts had been right. There’d been something wrong. She and Bill stand, staring in. Alex puts a hand to her mouth, and holds it there, cupping the animal sounds of shock and fury that are coming out.

Creeper, she thinks, Creeper, what have you done?


The story above originally appeared in Clackamas Literary Review’s 2016 issue.

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