I lived in apartment 515. It doesn’t matter what building. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood, what town, what country … none of that matters. You can make it up for yourself, if you like. It just … it just doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I lived in apartment 515, and above me was apartment 615. That’s the apartment that matters. You probably already guessed why, but you don’t know everything – not yet. You’ll know a little bit more by the end, but still … probably not everything. Even now, I don’t know everything.
In any case, I lived in apartment 515, and I lived alone. Not much mattered to me then, and it was a squalid, destitute place when I moved in. I don’t remember moving in, come to think of it, but I know I did at some point, and it was an unpleasant thing in an unpleasant tenement. The ceiling dripped. The walls dripped. The lights dripped, even – perhaps not water, but they dripped light as if there was a drought of illumination, and not enough to go around.
There was one window, and it looked out onto a blank brick wall. No matter how you strained your eyes, it stretched enough to block sight of anything beyond. It was like … like looking outside, inside. The window gave no more light than the faint bulb in the ceiling.
I slept in a bed of some kind, and I sat in a chair of another kind, and sometimes I stood and paced the cramped space from wall to wall, hammering my fists against the drywall in anguish, dull thuds accompaniment to my silent screams of pain and agony.
It wasn’t a good place; not in person, and not in mind.
I slept, and I ate, and sometimes I left and did other things, but I don’t remember that anymore.
I don’t remember much anymore.
I do remember her, though. She remains vivid in my thoughts, kind face and broken soul, the sort of person you could tell everything to, and might get nothing in return – but it didn’t matter, because you knew she heard you. A black hole of desperation, she took in everything around her – the screams, the pain, the blistering torture of people who would shed their fears on her and never look back – and gave back nothing into the world: no pain, no joy, no tears of triumph or fear. She just took it and took it, and asked for nothing back.
She never asked for anything, really.
It hurt me; it really did, to see her like that, but I was not the kind of person to dig deep, to find out, to ask. I was the kind of person who took for granted, because of course she was always just … there. Always there, and always just out of reach. Within earshot, and out of reach.
Just a heartbeat away, in the apartment upstairs.
There was just a moment, lost in time. Ephemeral, a glance in the dark, when your eyes catch and the clocks stop ticking; there was this one moment that I think really, truly mattered. It lasted forever, and it was gone in the blink of an eye.
It was that moment, a dark evening when the rain turned black and the drips turned red, that I knew she and I were destined, somehow, for each other. To know each other. To see each other – truly see.
Those crimson drips haunt me; they really do. They were almost black in the gloom, thick rivulets down the peeling wallpaper, joining in their slow patterns, pooling at the baseboards, and disappearing on through the cracks in the floorboards. At first there was just one; then two; then gradually so many the walls glistened with their sheen.
Somehow, it was beautiful.
Somehow, it was a turning point.
I remember idly watching the drips for a time, a kind of fading curiosity at their intricate patterns, almost writing on the wall, if only I could decipher their meaning. After a while, I dozed.
Sleep was always around the corner for me, back then; a shimmering escape from the dismal realities of life, a way of floating into moodscapes that churned and fell always away from me, tantalizingly out of reach as the horizon danced with promise. I could sleep anywhere, any time. The vaguest of recollections: sleeping on the bus, the dark cityscape flashing neon across closed eyes, as I went from one place to another. Sleeping on a low couch, someone nearby asking questions that I didn’t have the answers to. Sleeping; always, sleeping away the days and nights into fevered dreams.
Oh, how I loved to sleep. Sometimes I would wake, and sometimes I would drift in and out of consciousness, unable to open my eyes, the strangest images flitting away from me. These sleep states, the ones just before waking that seemed to last an eternity, were my favorite.
It was one like that, one that lasted and lasted and lasted, that I found myself in as the drips closed in around me. As the pools gathered. As the clouds grew close and dark, and the air became heavy and unbreathable.
It was a dream like that, that I roused from to see her standing at the foot of my bed. No fear, no surprise; she was simply there. It was a calm moment, and as we looked at each other, I thought perhaps she needed something, that she was going to – for once – ask.
But she didn’t. Not at first, anyway. At first, she just stood, her arms before her and hands together, and she seemed at peace. She wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t frowning, and if there was a word I would have used to describe it, it would be ‘serenity.’
So I spoke, and it was strange to hear words aloud in the quiet little room, the rain pattering against the window and the drips silently cascading down the walls. “Hello.”
She spoke back to me; she said, “Hi.”
It was a pleasant introduction; unassuming, and polite. I continued it: “How are you?”
Was there a little sigh? I couldn’t tell. She said, “I’m well, thank you. How are you?”
I told the truth: “I’m tired.”
“So am I,” she told me. “May I sit?”
She moved forward gracefully, sat gently at the foot of the bed. For a moment, there was more silence. It wasn’t awkward at all; the kind of comfortable silence between old friends who know each other better than words can tell.
After a while, I had to ask: “Why are you here?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
I propped up a pillow and sat up in the bed. “I sleep too much.”
She glanced over at me. “That’s okay. Sleep is beautiful.”
I thought her words were, too, but I didn’t want to say it. Instead, I said, “Can I help?”
“There’s no help to be had,” she told me.
I frowned a little, because I didn’t think that was true. Not always. “I’d like to anyway,” I said.
She smiled, then; somehow it wasn’t an obvious, outward smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. “You’re nice.”
I rolled an eye. “That’s not what I’ve been told.”
I thought about that for a moment. “I’m not sure, really. People, I think.”
“I’m not very fond of people.”
I smiled myself at this. “I don’t think I am, either.”
She leaned forward, then, and back: a gentle rocking. “Are you fond of me?”
It was a strange question, asked strangely, and somewhere in her soothing voice was a tiny, hidden note: desperation. I thought that I really didn’t know her well enough to say, but I also thought that if I told her that, it might just shatter her heart. So instead, I simply said, “I think I am – yes.”
She stopped rocking, and looked at me clearly. “That’s very nice of you to say, but I don’t believe you.”
“Why?” I asked, and I was concerned – genuinely.
“Because nobody’s fond of me.”
“That can’t be true,” I said. “Has no one ever told you they liked you?”
She shook her head, a delicate little motion.
“No one has ever said ‘I love you’?”
Again, she shook her head.
A deep pity stole my heart then. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be – I’m used to it.”
What an awful thing to be used to, I thought to myself. Yet somehow … I knew how it felt. I really did. “Can … can I love you?” I asked cautiously.
She laughed a little. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know me.”
This was true; somehow, it also wasn’t. “I’d like to,” I said eventually.
“No,” she said. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would,” I insisted. “Really.”
But she shook her head again. “No one wants to know me. And you … you seem so nice, you especially don’t want to know me.”
“I feel like there’s something I should know about that right there,” I said. “Why on earth wouldn’t I want to know you?”
She bit her lip. “I do terrible things.”
She nodded silently.
I wagged a finger. “And that is exactly why I want to know you. You’re sad, aren’t you.”
She nodded again.
“You’re … ” I paused for a moment, choosing my words carefully. “You’re lonely,” I said. “People … they don’t listen.”
She shook her head.
“May I listen?”
“I’m afraid,” she said.
“Of having nothing to say.”
I knew this thought intimately. “May I ask you a question, then?”
“I may not have an answer.”
“That’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure her. “Not every question has an answer. I’d like to try, anyway.”
“Then go ahead.”
“What were you like?”
“As a child.”
She laughed a little at this. “What is this, therapy?”
I shrugged. “If it helps.”
“Still – what were you like?”
After a long, heavy pause, she said, “I’m not sure. I don’t … I don’t really remember.” She looked down at the floor, the wooden boards, with the drips caught between the cracks. “I’m not entirely certain I ever was one.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
She was strange, this girl who’d never been a child. “Close your eyes with me,” I said. She did. “Try to imagine a child,” I said. “Who is she?”
I nodded with my own eyes closed. “And?”
“She’s … she’s happy.” I could hear the smile on her lips.
“What is she doing?”
I smiled myself. “Are there friends?”
But then, I heard the pleasantry fade from her voice. “No.”
A pause. “Yes … but that’s okay. She doesn’t need them.”
I opened my eyes to look at her. She was very still, eyes tight. “Are you certain?” I asked.
“She never needed them,” she continued.
I heard the pain in her words. “Why is that?”
“They … they always left.”
“I’m sorry,” I said; I meant it.
She smiled and opened her eyes to look at me; false calm. “Don’t be.”
“Who was she?” I asked. “The girl you saw.”
“I … I don’t know,” she answered. “Not me. Someone else.”
“Can I tell you something?” I said.
She tilted her head at me.
“I think the child was-”
“Don’t say that,” she cut me off, suddenly stern.
“She can’t be.”
“Because she’s gone.”
She looked away, to the walls, the windows; anything but me. “She’s dead.”
My heart fell. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-”
But she shook her head. “No one does. It’s okay.” Still staring at the floor: “This is why I don’t talk.”
I reached out, then; I let my fingers touch hers, and she wrapped her hand around mine. “It hurts, doesn’t it,” I said softly.
For a while, we held hands in that dismal apartment, the walls now flooded with dull ochre, the brick wall through the window almost invisible in the darkest of night. I listened and heard her breath; I heard the soft whooshing of steam through pipes; I heard the drips from the ceiling.
Finally, I spoke again. “What do you do upstairs all day?”
She pursed her lips. “I don’t sleep.”
“I know. What do you do?”
She sighed. “I listen, mostly.”
“To voices; to people, outside and around. Sometimes, to music.”
“Do you ever listen to me?”
Her lips trembled, and a hint of a smile graced them. “Always.”
“What do you hear?”
“I hear your hurt. I hear your anguish, and your loneliness. I hear your happiness, when something good happens; I hear your voice, mostly.”
I was confused. “But I don’t often speak; I live alone.”
She tightened her grip on my hand. “You don’t need to. I hear you anyway.”
This might have been terrifying; instead, I found it deeply reassuring – almost soothing. “Why are you here?” I asked, repeating myself from earlier. I thought perhaps now she would have a different answer.
She did: “I was lonely.”
I took a moment to think about this. “You’re always lonely, aren’t you?”
“What’s different now? What’s different tonight?”
She took a deep breath, held it for a moment. “I’m not sure, really. Something … something became too much. It was just … unbearable.”
I felt my heart grow, reach out to her in silence. “I’m so sorry,” I said for what felt like the fiftieth time. “And … I’m glad.”
She glanced at me. “Glad I’m lonely?”
I shook my head. “Glad you came.”
“You don’t think I’m strange?”
“I think you’re very strange.” I squeezed her hand. “I like it.”
For some time after that, we sat together in the bed, fingers intertwined, and let the soft sounds wash over us. It was gloomy and dark, but it was also calm and satisfying, and sometimes soundless lightning would flash through the window, lighting up the walls with rain shadows before fading into oblivion again. I thought, perhaps, I could love this strange, mysterious girl; I wondered if she could love me back. I wanted to ask, but I was afraid.
I thought, maybe, she was too.
As the midnight hour passed and the night progressed, I felt the desire to sleep creep over me again, and I leaned my head against her shoulder. She didn’t resist, and rested her own head on mine. It was thrilling, to feel so close to someone with so beautiful and broken a soul, and I felt myself wanting to reach in and mend it, mend her heart and her feelings and make her whole again. I wanted to reunite her with the child, to see her face aglow in the understanding that you do need friends, you need to love, and to be loved, and that to live a life so lonely is wholly against human nature.
But I couldn’t bring myself to say any of that, so instead I just sat with her as we cuddled in silence, and the rain kept going and the drips kept dripping, draining the life from the walls and the room until all was faded and gone.
Eventually, she stirred, and said: “Will you come with me?”
I was half asleep by then, and roused groggily at her words. “Come with you where?”
But she just smiled. “You’ll see.”
And strangely, she didn’t stand up, but instead lay down in the bed, and pulled me with her. Side by side we lay, and after a time we closed our eyes, and drifted away.