Now Is the Time to Worry
©2023 - All rights held by the author
I knew my neighbor died once the second box of food was delivered to his door. I knew without seeing police bust that same door down. I knew without seeing flies cover his windows. I knew without smelling death and trash that permeated our stairwell. I knew without hearing his mother wail after seeing the hoarder den of loneliness that defined his hidden life. I knew when no one else did. Though the tell-tale signs of his demise were present, I constantly tricked my mind into avoiding them. Without observation, they didn’t exist. Without observation, I hope the clear signs of my own demise can dissolve.
The meal kit service he subscribed to came once every two weeks with enough food to satiate his shut-in lifestyle. I never met him, never fully saw him either, but grew used to the sudden sounds of him lugging the heavy box into his dark space. The swift unlatching of the door followed by the rush of cabin pressure changing followed by strained grunts of atrophied muscles finally followed by a slam of his connection to the outside world. A necessary process spanning two seconds. A life dictated by when those two seconds would happen next. Like clockwork, this happened 2pm every other Monday. I’d stare out my peephole across the hall, a little game I would play to compile a full image from the small human parts I could recognize. An arm one day, an ear another, a bare foot peeking from shadow. In hindsight, I should have known the final time I played was the last. Before the door slammed signaling his process’ conclusion, there was a moment of hesitation. In that deep, endless black apartment, he stood just on the periphery of light. Completely engulfed by the shroud he made for himself, save for one part. The final piece needed to understand this recluse’s puzzle. Only his eye peeked out through the crack in the door, staring across the hall, through the peephole separating us, and into my own eye. He couldn’t have noticed me watching him, yet there we were. Sharing that moment. The single instance of human connection he might’ve had in years. Even in the murky half-gaze of memory I see that eye with perfect distinctness, yet nothing else of his face or person. As if thoughts were exchanged through ether unseen, one repeated phrase bore into my mind defining the glance we exchanged: “Help me. Help me. Help me. Help me. Help me.” I couldn’t see then, but I know now, that just behind him loomed an impossible figure. A specter taking control. His door slammed shut for the final time.
As bad situations are wont to do, torture grew beyond measure once his body was discovered. A distinct odor seeped through the walls whenever a summer draft flowed through. It infested my dreams. Some nights, my dear Anya, restless as she was, resorted to shoving whiskey-soaked cotton in her nostrils. Anything to keep the smell away. He was in our home. His death intertwined with our lives. Our sorrow for his loss couldn’t overshadow the discomfort felt when exposed to the thick air that finally escaped the dead man’s unit after weeks of fermenting. He was no longer a person; his apartment no longer a space to live. These definitions of identity were replaced with terms used for objects. An obstacle to overcome. A frustration to deal with.
When a corpse is discovered a month after decomposition, the stench is not the only thing spreading fast. Neighbors from the community peeked into stairwell to gossip. At night, teenagers snuck past the police tape, exploring the “creepy place”. It’s as if his death created even more distress throughout the building and manifested these unsavory characters. In the end, he got the connection he was always avoiding. Or always looking for? This kind of thing isn’t entirely uncommon. A solitary man drinking life away, unobserved by all. What is uncommon though, was what I alone noticed when the police arrived. A part of his puzzle I wish I couldn’t currently solve. Upon the stretcher lay his body, yet littering his flesh were unnaturally long claw marks. Deep and thick, covered in an inky ooze. His sunken face was hard to distinguish, yet these scars were clear. Once the two seconds of his exit passed, my eye was frozen by another point of fear, one I stared at against my will: despite the signs of attack, somehow his door was barricaded from the inside.
Anya and I hadn’t felt comfortable there for months, so to find some peace from vandals and restless nights, uprooting into a suburban townhome was the dream we made reality. It could have been a renewal on our relationship too. A place to reconnect in new ways. Sometimes all people need is a change of pace. But after our two-week honeymoon phase (often overshadowed by the process of rearranging furniture), we reverted to old ways. Silence. Distance. The invisible block I’ve so far omitted for good reason. Can the end of something be foretold long before it concludes? This splinter grew, overtaking every moment we had. She used to read stories to me, but in that house, I could only wonder about the world she was lost in. Her daily fixation being the entire catalogue of Edgar Allan Poe. Stories of death, paranoia, dark omens. Thoughts rang incessantly, “Is this a dark omen in itself? Am I the mad husband driven to murdering his wife in the Black Cat? Will we be consumed by the crumbling House of Usher? Does she watch me each night, plotting murder, waiting to bury me under the floorboards? I never even knew she had this collection. It wasn’t in our apartment. We haven’t visited a bookstore since the move. Did she steal them from our deceased neighbor? Was she a neighborhood punk rifling through someone else’s grief?” A deep swell unsettled me, growing heavier, nearing a point of becoming physical. A malignant tumor brought upon by my own overthinking. My own uncertainty. My own insecurity. “This is not me!” I tried to convince myself. But it was. A jealousy towards my neighbor boiled. Whatever clawed away chunks of his flesh also clawed away any problems he faced. Any obligations to this world. A solution that came so swiftly and easily. I called out for something to take this away, anything to release us from this grip we feigned as love.
As if in answer, these untethered thoughts were quickly assuaged by the sudden din of lawn work. Hedge trimmer, lawn mower, leaf blower; deafening noises reverberating through the walls. This is what the suburban dream gives you. For a moment Anya and I reconnected in frustration to identify the annoying neighbor we would scold. To much surprise, the source of cacophony was our own plot of land. A strange man hunched himself over our grass, pushing a mower border to border, following the perfectly manicured lines he already created.
“We… didn’t hire anyone for this, right?”
“Of course not,” Anya replied.
Outside, I approached this unwelcome guest with a fury the man of the house ought to have. Fists clinched, I prepared to show him my might, yet a dull detached voice halted my path. “Not to worry sir, I’ll be done soon.” His accent stood out simply because I couldn’t place it. Polish? Croatian? Russian? I was taken aback by his quiet demeanor in direct contrast to mine.
“Look,” I began, “we didn’t request this service and won’t pay for it.”
The strange man replied, “not to worry sir, it’s completely free of charge.”
“Free of charge? Why is that?”
“It just is. I will be done shortly sir. No harm, no foul.”
His appearance should have startled me. A drab red jumpsuit, leather driving gloves, shiny black Doc Martens boots (each a different size), tan ascot, and gray army cap covering his face. From a distance it seemed a uniform for lawn service. But closer inspection proved a complete mismatch of apparel. As if he collected each piece from someone else and approximated what would be normal. In that instance, I was not distracted by his clothes, but by the fact he never locked eyes with me. Nor did I ever see his eyes.
I recounted the brief conversation with Anya who quickly became even more irate than me. It was then in her interest to finish the task I was too passive to do. Before she could reach the door, the unrelenting sounds suddenly ceased. Our ears popped as if rising in altitude. Silence is almost deafening once you’re actually deafened. We tried to spot the strange man but could only see the pristine grass left behind. Better than we could have ever done ourselves. Our moment of awe was again interrupted by the sudden hammering from our roof. “It couldn’t have been that man again,” you might think to yourself. “How did he climb up there so fast?” Outside, we shouted up for his return to stable ground, hindsight now revealing there was somehow no ladder in sight. Despite his low, quiet voice, we could clearly hear him speak in that direct manner, “Saw some loose shingles when trimming grass. Will cause water damage if not fixed. Not to worry, I’ll be done soon.”
What could we have done? Call the cops? Is that what you would have done? Tell them a man was fixing your house? A service probably included in HOA fees? We did what any new homeowner would do: we waited. While biding time with mindless TV entertainment, we were so adjusted to the elevated volume we didn’t realize his banging stopped. Instead, another sense activated first as a familiar foul smell returned. The unmistakable stench that filled our apartment. The putrid odor we thought was our neighbor decomposing. Hundreds of miles away yet here in our home again. I didn’t notice when talking by the lawn, the smell of soil must have overpowered it, but in the confines of winding narrow halls, I knew where the smell came from. Then the source walked down our stairs.
The loud, mismatched boots shook the walls with uneven steps as he descended towards us. “When fixing roof, I noticed a crack in your window. There’s a storm coming soon and it’s not up to code. One big gust of wind will be a face full of glass. Now we wouldn’t want that would we? Not to worry sir and madam, I will be done soon.”
We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. Only a meager “okay” emerged from us simultaneously. Partly out of fear, partly out of awkwardness, partly because the work he did was what we always wanted. As if our innate desires were answered automatically. His stench was unbearable, but a small price to pay for a new window. Or new roof. Or new lawn. Or new dinner recipe. Or new stove. Or new house entirely. His work never seemed to end and for some reason, we never seemed to stop him. Days would pass yet still he was there. Every morning, a new breakfast meal. A new way to mend our home. My home. The home Anya and I poured ourselves into. With every task came his repeated phrase, “Not to worry, I’ll be done soon.” Soon. The time destined to come yet never arriving.
Every task completed meant less for us to do around the house. Less to be distracted by. Less to connect over. And just like the days following our move, the silence crept back in. So too did her Poe collection. And I noticed this time a previously unseen splotch of inky ooze appeared on the cover.
Our Red Death invaded this home too long. Weeks passed and still the same, “Not to worry, I’ll be done soon.” He would join us for dinner, seasoning our plates as he saw fit, removing any obstacle while removing any autonomy. It was not our home. We were not ourselves.
“Well,” I began one night. “You’ve been here for some time, it’s best for you to leave.”
The man replied “there’s still more work to be done. The house is unfinished. Not to worry, I will be done soon.”
“No… no. We can’t stay like this any longer. I demand you to leave! You’ve come here uninvited and — you’ve made everything better — but you’ve stripped away all the memories we put in here as a couple!”
“You still have your memories.”
“But we don’t recognize this place anymore! We don’t even know how the oven works!”
“Not to worry, the oven works. I cook for you.”
“No! You must leave goddammit! You gotta get out or… or… I’ll force you out!”
The strange man slammed his big fist on the table and scraped the chair back on the new flooring with a deafening sound. He stood tall and seemed to grow as he towered over us with menace.
“After all I’ve done, you treat me this way? With hostility? Is your home not better? Is your life not better? You show wrath, but you have not experienced wrath! Very well. Now is the time to worry.” It was here that the true fear began, for in his clenched fist I saw for the first time unnaturally long claws covered in an inky ooze.
Though we watched Him leave, the deep thudding of boots and a pungent odor were incessant. He was still in our home, walking unseen through the halls while we slept. Nothing could be done to cease His torment. What was once bliss devolved to a living hell. Pipes clanged in the walls. The shower boiled. The toilet clogged. The fridge leaked. Mice ran along every corner. Just as He had given so much, He now destroyed. Coagula et solve. In this chaos, Anya and I turned our anger towards each other. The external trials becoming internal tribulations, warping our vision, destroying our memories, seeing an enemy in the relationship. This skewed perspective questioned the eyes staring back at me in the mirror. If at one point I saw her as a beacon in my life, how could I change so much to now see her as nothing more than a foe?
The storm He foretold finally arrived. In Shakespearean fashion, a tremendously terrible tempest reflected the vitriol spewed in our simple seclusion. Against a thunderous roar of whipping winds, an argument struck with fury. One I reacted to in haste. A moment of weakness now a moment of regret. My biting words: “you are the worst part of my life.” I threatened to leave before, but actions speak louder.
A part of me knows that as I left our driveway, a familiar shadow appeared behind her in the doorway. In that moment, I could have turned back to make amends. To undo all the hate we forced upon each other. But in those two seconds, the two seconds that determined someone else’s life, the two seconds I felt would be the last connection we had, I ignored the shadow and convinced myself He wasn’t there. Her Poe fixation came true as our House of Usher finally fell.
Police tried convincing me a branch through the window killed her. A stroke of bad luck mixed with poor home maintenance. “A face full of glass,” one described it. Something which could have easily been avoided with more care. Yet when I viewed her body, I saw something I recognized. Something I regrettably witnessed back in our apartment before vagrants combed through our neighbor’s belongings. Before they shared tall tales of demise. Lacerations made by unnaturally long claws with traces of an inky ooze. This was no tree. This was not glass. This was His doing.
Anguish destroyed every part of me defined by her. A life interwoven now unspun. With her decay, I am no longer here. I’d rather nonexistence than her absence. Yet cowardice prevails.
In every shadow, in every dark corner, in every room where lights suddenly burn out, I see Him waiting. Waiting for the moment I break. Waiting to take something else away from me. Waiting for when I unwillingly call Him back into my life, manifesting destruction. It’s only a matter of time until there’s one bad day or one moment of impatience or one fleeting thought of self-loathing. Then He’ll return. And when that day comes, there’s no escape.
I think of all you, sitting in your comfy chairs, experiencing the warmth of another; you have this as well. This spirit of your home. This specter of yourself. This manifestation of your life resentments. I wish this only affected me, but this is in each of you. All the hate, the misery, the frustrations, building one on top of another, soon becoming a reality, then becoming your death. I must confess, one might think I shared this unfathomable tale as a warning to inspire change. No. I share this to spread the plague of an idea. To transfer my torment onto you. Just as I saw signs of my decline, you will see those signs in yourself. You will see your life torn apart. Now that you are aware of this pain living inside you, He approaches. Stalking. Lurking over your shoulder in every dark room. In the void of your eyelids every time you sleep. You are acutely aware your life is amiss. But for most, you won’t fully realize until it’s too late. Aren’t we all just frogs in pots? Blind to the reality of our lives while danger burns below? I’ve learned there’s only one way to boil a frog. Increase the heat slowly. Patiently. By one degree. It won’t even notice the change in temperature. Just one degree after another. Until…