Monday, March 7, 2011

Too Crowded

Everyone has a devil inside them. If you don’t think so, you’re either in denial or you just haven’t met yours yet.

Three years ago, I inherited a house from my childless uncle. The bricks of the building are now jagged, and its entirety has transformed from that of a white tower into a rusty hideout on the corner. The 6th Avenue Local runs right behind the building and the constant rumbling has taken a toll on the old construction. There is convenience store, as well as liquor stores right across the street, and it’s only a five-minute walk to the nearest bus stop. Living like a daydreamer, not having to work for the rest of my life, I couldn’t have asked for more. I sold my uncle’s old Benz and took out a forty grand loan from the Queens County Bank. I put in new floorboards, installed bathroom units for most rooms, purchased new bed mattresses and repainted the interior. There are two rooms on the second floor, two on the third and I occupied the top floor. First floor is the living room and kitchen, along with the washer and dryer unit in a corner closet. If I charged five hundred a month, that’s two thousand in my pocket, enough to live off of. The bricks on the outside of the building showed signs of legacy and their color eroded to a dark maroon. The fire escape needed paint as well but people just need to give the interior a little chance. Every week, I was forced to adjust the rate – from five hundred to four, from four to three fifty, but still no one came.

Installing hidden cameras used up a lot of the loan. In the hallways, above the stairs and in every bedroom. I wired the system so that I could monitor every minute habit of my tenants from the comfort of my bed. The private retreat of these people every night would be like my own reality television.

Not everyone who showed up for the tour matched my fascination. First was a hooker. Her thick lavender smell which attempted to mask her profession did not suppress my disgusted thoughts of witnessing overly-mechanical sex. I had a much more glorious scheme for my precious cams. I also rejected a university student with thick horn-rimmed glasses. He had a familiar smell on him that I hate. The smell of pages in an old book and of determinism – those motivational stories of poverty-stricken individuals making it to the White Office just seem too cliché. What interest could I possibly find in such a predictably mundane lifestyle? A junkie wouldn’t do either, sooner or later, troubles almost always ensue. If he died in one of my bedrooms, it wouldn’t do well for my reputation in the neighborhood and if cops decide to raid the place then my cams would definitely be discovered in the sweep. I could be locked up on some privacy violation charges, but most importantly, the damn addict would be a disturbance to other tenants, I couldn’t afford for him to disturb the performances of the others living here. My first tenant was an artist, Brandon; he lived on the second floor with his six-year-old daughter. He was willing to pay off half-year’s rent at once and so I took up his generous offer willingly and handed him a set of the house keys upon introduction. Amber was the second tenant. She’s in her mid-thirties and works nearby and her hourglass figure earned her a set of keys. My heart raced as I gave her the tour and I really looked forward to the day she brought home that special someone. She chose the bedroom across from Brandon’s, saying that it would be closer to the small common area on the first floor. I had spent the remaining renovation-budget to purchasing a large flat-screen television and some basic furniture for this so-called common area. The ‘softly’ girl lived on the third floor. The reason for the label is because she speaks softly, walks softly, and even smiles softly, leaving me a bland impression, almost as if she’s made up of water. She made me reevaluate not only my negotiation skills but also my impatience with Brandon when she offered to pay four hundred a month. Across from her was Benny, a sophomore at some SUNY college. He doesn’t seem like the studious type, overactive in fact. When I interviewed him, he made a summary of his life by rapping with his headphones on. I imagined that his life would still be dull, being an unaccomplished student and all, so I rejected him. He seemed as if he had just been insulted. He took off his headphones and started his protest about the conveniences in the apartment’s vicinity. I was tired of all the talent-seeking, the red curtains were waiting to be drawn apart, though, and in the end we agreed on five hundred a month.

“Hi,” I sat in the living room and waved goodbye to Brandon and his daughter as they headed out the door. Brandon nodded back with little Amy’s backpack over his shoulder. Only he and I knew the true meaning behind that faint smile of his. For over half a month now I’ve been tucking Amy to sleep, just like his father, but from behind the monitor. With dim nightlights, Brandon often caressed his daughter’s long hair with his right hand, while he toyed himself with his left underneath the blanket. At first I didn’t believe it but after zooming in, I could see the pain and hesitation on his long face. His eyes grew wider as his daughter remained steadfast asleep – I couldn’t tell if he was having a moment of moral struggle or if he was just about to cum. I couldn’t go to the police for obvious reasons but I grew fascinated by such turmoil.

I headed back upstairs, after having bacon and eggs, and Amber was brushing her teeth in her dimly-lit bathroom. She stood in front of the mirror with weary eyes and messy hair. Her boyfriend hugged her from behind and his morning wood poked at her naked torso. She cursed but the man swept her up and threw her onto the bed. Oblivious to her complaints of running late, he penetrated her in a rough ten-minute session. Amber grinned and sighed as she wiped herself off with a kleenex – only then was the man satisfied and willing to put on his suit. Amber led two lives, but in the most obvious sense. On weekdays a muscular man usually accompanied Amber home, but on the weekends she would spend time with a scrawny student. Even little Amy knew both their names. She’d probably thought that everyone else under this roof conducted themselves maturely, enough not to snoop or damage her personal affairs.

I turned the channel to the room of the futureless student. Benny didn’t sleep the entire night. He had been on a killing spree and his headphones finally came off as other players logged out. He only had school on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but he stayed in a lot of the time simply because he couldn’t wake up. Every night, he would parade through the virtual streets of some guerilla warfare, killing rivals with his automatic rifle. If he wasn’t moving his mouse in lieu of a semi-automatic then he was shifting it to fast-forward his porn. Boxes of leftover pizzas and packets of cum-tissues all over the floor – I always wondered why I’d agreed to having him as a tenant.

I switched to softly girl, she was still sleeping. I rubbed my eyes in front of the glaring screen. I checked my watch, she would probably still be asleep for another hour or so, ten-thirty is her usual hour of waking. Softly girl is named Shelly, a journalist of some kind, but I’m guessing her articles didn’t receive high merits or else she wouldn’t be living here. She usually worked on her laptop from her bed. Her nightstand was filled with magazines and books of sorts. Once she started tapping on the keyboard it would be for hours, only getting up when she needed to tread to the bathroom or to fill her green tea. After nine, she would cease all writing and start to dig into her pile of books, usually a book every two days. I still can’t tell if she highlighted all those pages for research or just to serve as a reminder. Either way, I was impressed by her habit but grew bored at the same time.

I yawned and turned off the screen. I didn’t know what to do as I laid on my bed. Maybe I should have new tenants every year, just to make things even more interesting. I thought about those living below me, perhaps it’s fate that brought us under the same roof, perhaps after a year or two we would all become some sort of family. I smiled. I’ve never been to another country, never held a real job before, didn’t finish college, and for damn sure it’s been awhile since I had a real Thanksgiving turkey. I stared blankly at the black monitor screen. Maybe these tenants will become my intimate family. Perhaps I thought of them as actors. This time, though, I won’t be part of the silent crowd, but the talented director.

Voyeurism has always been an interest of mine.

I think most crimes present themselves as some form of fascination. Laws seem to prohibit activities of such nature in order to protect others from harm. But, voyeurism is unique. It doesn’t cause any harm, as long as the subject is unaware. Privacy is actually a subjective value, so the one watching has the responsibility to protect the ones being watched – in order for the watched to never know what kind of spectacular performance they are putting on for another being. Privacy then becomes a cycle of sharing, never erosive on either side. Those who record secret affairs in motels, or install hidden cams in the women’s changing rooms, and then re-master the clips into a broadcasted production are real douchebags. They have no shame in slapping a price on the privacy of others, causing emotional trauma and distraught on the victims. The art of voyeurism remains that such realistic beauty is most pure when unaware subjects are watched live and the ethics of this occupation is to never let the videos exchange hands. The problem with setting boundaries is that people will always attempt to surmount limitations, but I say, rules are made not to be broken sometimes.

I will always remember the first day when the stairs started to creak. A man came in the front door, followed by Shelly, and they headed upstairs to her room. The whole time the stranger walked behind her, not uttering a word, but his smile was evident. I must admit, I was too quick to judge her water-like life. In fact, I didn’t know her a single bit – around the clock surveillance still did not suffice in characterizing this person, at least not the other-self.

“Quite a cozy room you got,” the man looked around and eyed her bed.

“Introduce yourself please, you want coffee or water?” her dimpled smile approved of him sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Coffee will do. Didn’t I already make my introduction online? It’s your turn now, you’re the host.”

“More though. I want to know more about you, you know, really open up. Here you go,” her soft voice had a seductive charm to it.

“Well, what do you want me to say? Frankly, I think I’m pretty special myself haha, maybe you felt it too when we were chatting but I don’t mean special in that kind of way, I don’t usually do stuff like this...”

Shelly listened and nodded, but did not seem to exhibit the slightest hint of interest or boredom.

“This coffee tastes great though.”

In a matter of seconds, the man collapsed onto the ground. Amber surely must’ve heard the noise from downstairs, but I had no time to switch the channel. Shelly walked to the bathroom and got out a large plastic bag and thick ropes out from the drawer. She placed the plastic bag underneath the chair and placed it against the wall next to her bookshelf. She walked over his body and tucked her arms under her shoulder. “She must be glad that’s not Amber’s boyfriend that she’s dragging.” The man’s weight and legs were adjusted for a proper posture and she began tying a complex knot behind his hands. The knot seemed unfamiliar but there was no slack even for an attempted escape. In less than ten minutes, she was laying on her stomach and very much immersed in the book she was reading. The helpless prey would never have thought that by nightfall he would have become someone else’s silent companion. I sunk back into my seat and wondered if she had a history of kidnapping, or even homicide; why were there were no signs? She sat up on the bed, and faced him.

Shelly, Shelly, what the hell are you going to do? I squeezed the remote controller in my sweaty palm, and my foot tapped a fierce beat.

She finally moved. She got down to the floor and dragged out a wooden crate from underneath her bed. I drew my nose closer to the screen as if my eyes could pierce beyond the camera’s zoom capabilities. There were bottles of drugs, she took out two white pills, threw them in a mug and poured water in it. Her left hand squeezed on his cheeks like a toppling sandwich as she forced the drugs down his throat. She stood there briefly then retrieved another book, from the top of her bedpost stake, and started to read to him. She treaded slowly to the other side of her bed, next to her bathroom door and closed it. The man remained unconscious, but I couldn’t call the police. What would be my maximum sentence if I were to be caught? What if there was a homicide in progress right underneath my own two feet? Would I be convicted of co-conspiring? The adrenaline from watching had subsided but I continued to pace back and forth in my room for the following hours, but Shelly snored comfortably in her sleep.

The second afternoon, the man’s head started to sway like a pendulum, he was slowly coming back into focus but Shelly woke up soon after and got out the same blue bottle from under her bed and repeated what she’d done earlier. She touched his Adam’s apple, confirming that he swallowed, and left the house soon after. Should I go in? I had to see what was in that crate. Shelly had now become unpredictable, but I had to check on the poor fellow. I closed the door softly behind me, sweat formed on my nose. The man looked pale but luckily still alive. I held a finger out under his nose and checked for his breath. I couldn’t risk contaminating the evidence with my prints. “Bad luck man.” I felt glad though, knowing that I never had to drink a cup of coffee in her room. I squatted and dragged out that wooden crate. I held my breath, and opened it. Gasoline, rubbing alcohol, habanero sauce, soy-sauce, rat poison, sulfuric acid, sleeping pills and vials of unidentifiable liquid, one of which had a dead beetle floating about. There were several smaller insects in the others but I located the bottle that Shelly had fed from repeatedly – Ambien, 20mg each. At least she didn’t use some elephant tranquilizer. I wiped the handles of the crate with my shirt and pushed it gently back under her bed.

I remained with one knee still on the ground and I looked up at this stranger. Just before I was about to utter a few words of reassurance, I heard soft footsteps coming up the stairs. I turned towards the door and froze. Why so fast? She never came home that quick. I scanned the room for a knife or a blade. “Not even a pair of scissors? What the fuck!” The footsteps got closer. Knock her out! I thought to myself as I scrambled and held my breath behind the door. My right fist was clenched so hard my entire right arm started to shake. Where should I hit? The top of her head, or near the bottom? Or should I just chop her in the back of her neck like in those movies? My mind drew a blank. The footsteps stopped outside the door. She inserted the key softly into the metallic lock and turned. The door opened slightly and she paused. The door closed softly and the latch finally found the strike plate. I pressed my ear to the door and heard her soft footsteps go up the stairs. Where you going? The building turned quiet. I heard knockings on the door but it echoed. What the fuck? What’s she doing upstairs? Rent isn’t due for another week. I crept out the room and hopped downstairs on the tip of my toes. I heard more knocks as Shelly’s knuckles continued to question my door. Should I go upstairs? She never asked for anything from me before, why now? “Just escape,” I said to myself and I ran down to the front door and shut it behind me.

Inside a nearby McDonalds, I shoved chocolate sundae into my mouth, still trying to steady my breath. Shelly was really something. Seemingly weak but unpredictable and ruthless; she must have done this in another city with another victim. The sundae soothed my blood temperature. You challenging me Shelly? I cannot have you pose as an obstacle. All right then, I will make you all my ultimate actors, stage bombs that belong exclusively to me. “Dance and blow up for me.”

I stapled a new announcement on the bulletin board near the front door. It said, “Hi everyone, I lost a set of keys today, they’re the spare keys to every bedroom, please put it on the dining table or bring it to my room.” I smirked. Even if Shelly started suspecting, the heat would not be on me. Who would play the role of the intruder?

“I knew you would be of some use.” I slipped a set of keys underneath Benny’s shoes by his door. I left part of the golden metal sticking out from under. I didn’t think Benny deserved this power, this privilege of being omnipresent, this divine authority, which I was the only one to possess. I hesitated and contemplated in McDonalds, but for some reason I was sure I could draw out his inner devil. I watched the hallway monitor and Benny found this mystery present when he was putting on his shoes. “You want it, don’t give it back.” I mumbled to myself as I switched the channel to the inside of Benny’s room. I saw the corner of his mouth lift, in a villainous manner, and he closed the door behind him. I smiled back at Benny but the disturbing situation in Shelly’s room continued to infect my mind.

He’s been force-fed for three days now. Every three to four hours Shelly would give him another dose, each time increasing the quantity. The last time he wet himself was twenty-seven hours ago and other than the water that’s going down with the pills, she didn’t give him anything to eat or drink. If she had forced a liquid concoction in him then the fluids would eventually flow to his other organs, causing him to die faster, and she knew better than that apparently. She took out a fat syringe from her closet and she walked over to her mini-fridge and took out a milk carton. She twisted off the cap and lowered her nose to the rim. She turned her head away suddenly, and the foul smell was written across her face. Just as I thought she was going to retrieve something else from the fridge, she started to draw out the sour milk into the syringe. “What kind of sick woman are you?” She located the artery on his arm and slowly pushed the yellow milk into his bloodstream. I wanted to puke. Shelly took her time and, meanwhile, she stroked the hair of her trophy with her empty hand. Later that night, he wet himself again. She started to measure his temperature that night because he seemed to be having a fever. His white blood cells were losing the battle against yellow curds of bacteria. She laid in bed, typed on her laptop, read, fed him more drugs, mopped the floor and slept – all the time she looked like a nurse tending a patient. A self-created patient.

Benny spent the next few days snooping in Amber’s room. He examined her belongings with surprising care. He took out her clothes and felt the inside of the empty drawer, and finally replaced the stack of clothes with caution. The process was repeated with every other drawer and the closets as well. It was as if he was looking for some proof. Something that would bring her closer to him, perhaps even something scandalous so he could extort his way into becoming her third man. I started to appreciate the exhilarated look on his face after each adventure. He would venture in as many as three times a day. I learned my lesson – nobody is predictable; but Benny’s ignorant smiles filled the air with anxiety.

Amber came home a little after eight and her businessman boyfriend followed her in with what appeared to be take-out dinners. They chuckled at something by the front door and headed straight for her room. She came out from her bathroom soon after and they fucked once before having dinner. I noticed Benny stopping in the hallway during the intercourse. He looked around and gently leaned in on her door. The testosterone of a twenty-year-old got working and he carried on downstairs with his half-erection.

In the morning, Amber was awakened by the sound of her boyfriend’s fidgeting. “What’s the matter?” She rubbed her eyes. “I can’t find my other cufflinks.” “Didn’t you put it in the second drawer?” “Yeah I thought so too.” I could see that Amber’s mind must’ve been racing. Would she think that her other partner has stolen it? Did she suspect someone in this building already? The man got dressed in a hurry and told Amber about some important morning meeting. He opened the door abruptly and turned to close the door as he jerked his left arm into the suit jacket. Benny, who was standing in the hallway again, was startled, and pretended to walk towards the stairway. The timing was coincidentally perfect. They had missed each other but Amber must’ve caught a glimpse through the crack. She went down to the kitchen and found Benny pouring cereal into his bowl. She walked over and turned on the coffee machine but Benny hurried upstairs taking his cereal with no milk. Amber checked the bulletin board and there were no further comments or notes about the missing keys. She knocked on my door but I didn’t answer. She then walked to Benny’s room and pounded on the door.

Just when I was about to switch the channel, knocks came from outside my door. “What the fuck?” It couldn’t possibly be Amber again, so I checked the hallway monitor. Shelly stood outside my door and persisted her knocking. I turned off the screens and quickly shut the door behind me as I greeted her. “Hi, can I help you?” I couldn’t tell if she got a peek of my room. “Yeah, actually do you have a pair of scissors I can borrow? One that’s not too small?” “Hm, let me check.” I shut the door behind me once again and retrieve a pair of scissors from my desk drawer. I got a tissue and wiped the handles. “Here you go, is that okay?” She turned it over in her hand, “yeah, perfect!”

I stared at the monitor. This was the fifth day of the kidnap and the man on her chair continued to die slowly, not a notion of struggle prevailed. Shelly decreased the dosage dramatically, probably because she didn’t want it to end that fast. Death is perhaps this man’s only wish now. She returned to her room and locked her door. She walked over to the man and tossed the scissors on her bed. She untied him delicately from the chair but the knot behind his hands and around his torso remained. With the spare slack, she swung the rope over the shoulder and started to drag him into her bathroom. I switched to the camera inside her bathroom and she carried him from under his armpits and threw him into the bathtub. She returned to her room and before picking up the scissors, she got out of her robe. Her pink nipples protruded and the under-curve of her breasts seemed perfectly fitting for any man’s cupped palm. Nobody would ever have perceived her as being evil; rather, she seemed like someone who would enjoy an entire afternoon’s worth of cuddling. She locked the bathroom door and started to take off his clothes. She peeled away at his clothing, unbuttoned his shirt and unzipped his pants with care. His naked torso was still unconscious and pale like that of a corpse. She grabbed the scissors from her toilet cover and held up his right hand by the wrist with her left. She pulled down the other four fingers and dismembered his pinkie without the slightest hesitation. “No! Don’t!” The blood squirted on her slender neck and she bent his ring finger upwards. Then it was the middle finger, the index finger, and the thumb. The man’s neck twitched but Shelly’s eyes glistened with fascination and concentration. “Stop, just stop.” My murmurs could not stop her from further dismemberment. She picked up his left hand and continued. I felt an electrifying discomfort in my fingers, as if a light-speed of pain travelled through my nerve endings to my brain, and my heart pounded with a thousand needles in it. I held my chest but I couldn’t take my eyes off the bloody razors. She picked up the ten fingers from the tub and threw them in the toilet. Flush. The man remained silent, an expression written across his face as if he’d already signed his affidavit; or perhaps his nerve endings have been destroyed by his previous fever. His penis and sacks were all removed and he twitched now and then. Shelly did not recognize his indication of forfeit, instead, she continued to sit in the puddle of his blood and awed over his lost possessions. A small teardrop landed on my arm. “Fuck this.” I got my things together and packed them in my Goyard trunk. I removed all the connected cables behind the monitor and got rid of most of the equipment from my room. After it was all done, I sat on my bed and thought about the beginning. “Coffee or water?” Being unpredictable wasn’t sad or pathetic; instead, it provoked excitement and curiosity. But I have already seen too much. Too much milk and soy sauce. I didn’t want to wave the white flag. Of all, I’ve definitely seen more than she has. I wanted to learn how she was going to dispose the bodies – maybe with sulfuric acid in a PVC container? I opened my eyes and stared at the unfinished ceiling of mine. “Fuck it.” I picked up the phone receiver and dialed the police.

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