by Christine Autrand Mitchell
Thread is an original suspense short story by one of KRL’s own.
Our lives unraveled off a circular stairwell that spun upwards into eternity, made up of a large turquoise dome, like the heavens painted on ceilings in cloisters and monasteries across Europe, where I once fell in love with the color. It was encircled in a giant gold band, to protect it from the visceral. A polished wooden railing held up by fragile, narrow rungs accompanied you on the way, the corporeal matrix of our design cast below the heavens. I never looked up when traversing the stairway because I knew I didn’t have to, not there. I was safe there. But we each finished alone in the end, completing our journey in our own mysterious shells just as we started.
I lived at the twenty-seventh door. There were no étages to speak of, no numbered floors like in most buildings. That’s why I moved there. Anonymity was borne there. Each apartment was like a tentacle off the coiled stairwell, and was patterned much like a nautilus to keep my secrets within its stark chambers. It was my favorite object, that shell, and I displayed one sliced lengthwise on my wall. One of the few personal possessions I clung to. I had picked it up at a gallery near Santa Barbara on one of my trips years before.
It had been a wonder, my first trip to the edge of land. The sea stretched out forever and shone like gold at sunset, like something described in lost papers of Cortés, of a golden road to heaven. I decided then that when it was my time to go, I would return and take the golden road to my final home.
I believed then that I would be a different man someday. Not one to forget my past, because it was not something to be forgotten easily or ever forgiven. But just to be different one day when this life let go of me and released my spirit before I traveled into the afterlife, for there it would surely torture me for living such a monstrous existence and bring me back to do it again. And again. And again. But I held out hope it would happen before then.
Had I watched for the signs, I might have realized that I had wandered around in that testaceous existence before, peeked into the dead ends and circled around, in and out.
Ría moved in first. She was shy and beautiful. If there was an across the hall, she would have been it. Half a turn up the staircase would have brought you to door twenty-nine, an odd number like mine, which faced north and south, while the evens faced east and west. I felt luckier, since I faced south, getting more sun than the north facing apartments. Maybe if she’d faced south, things would have turned out better for her.
That is how things are. It happens for some, while for others it haunts them. Rarely does it change in one direction or the other, except in a case like mine that liked to come full circle, as did everything in my life. If I traveled clockwise, I returned counter-clockwise but on the same path. No one else’s life did that. I know. I watched them.
I came home from a trip to find the widowed Mrs. Gris replaced by a strong woman with sorrowful eyes. She was very tall, about my height at six feet, evident even from half a story down. Her shoulder length hair was brown and curled in natural, finger width springs that bounced happily with her steps, unlike her demeanor. Misery aside, though, she was what some referred to as striking. I could not help but stare.
One day our doorman was on break, or at lunch or something that took him away from his tedious task of staring at a door and opening it, one that would have sent me to the golden road long ago, and she didn’t have her key for the front entrance. I was coming home from a short trip and let her in, holding the door open for her so she could pass inside from the rain. I knew I made her feel uncomfortable. I scared her. That is what I do, I scare everyone, but some hide it better than others.
That’s why I held the occupation I did, because I could have never held down a normal day job working at some office next to the same faces day after day, or fixing home appliances in someone’s home. I would have frightened the customers to death. A company can only tolerate so many complaints from screaming housewives.
But I should explain, for I was never ugly; on the contrary, I was quite handsome. I’ve never pined for glances from the ladies when I was on my best behavior. But over me, like fog hangs over a less desirable part of the city to hide its unredeemable points, hung a cloak that was permanent and it made me monstrous. It is a chicken and egg scenario I long ago stopped pondering. Maybe my work made me who I am, or at least colored me the monster I appeared to be to others, but it seems I’ve always worn this terrible mask because I’ve always frightened people – even my mother. That is why I left so soon. Perhaps it was what drew me to my work. It’s why I can accomplish the terrible tasks I can that others cannot even fathom. I agree, however, it is not something to be proud of.
I walked ahead of her up the spinning stairwell, growing dizzy with my swiftness, but never out of breath. I trained long and hard to never lose my breath. And my footsteps were quiet, barely a shuffle on the stone steps, for which I had also trained. She felt safer behind me and when she passed my door, she gave me a hint of a smile on her perfect lips, like wax candy that could melt with a little passion. Her eyes would have been friendly and smiling had I been anyone else at the time, instead Ría’s eyes were pale brown and timid, looking out around the corner like a frightened child. At that instant, I felt as if she could see through my terrible disguise to the handsome man of forty-three beneath it. I felt she could see my green eyes and sculpted jaw, and found my neatly trimmed hair, still dark blond, handsome.
She gave me hope and it was my undoing. It was the thread laid bare that would soon be tugged on bit by bit, torn off and frayed so as not to alarm me at the great length of disentanglement. But I can no more blame her than I can blame Sara.
One hour’s flight time away, a short trip, Sara had witnessed a murder. The problem was simple and never affected the outcome. My sponsor would never know of any details other than discovering the deed accomplished through a torn playing card among his belongings one morning. It was my flair for the dramatic, a joke to me only.
By this time, Ría’s belly was showing. She had moved into the spiraling staircase just after she had found out her dilemma, I’m convinced, because of the timing. But she was still beautiful, radiant and smiling at me now. I helped her with heavy groceries when she felt sick and lugging them up the narrow steps made her sicker. By the time her belly looked like half of a sphere, I had Sara living with me and she felt sorry for Ría and helped her out as well, perhaps in a deep sense of longing for something that amazing to happen to her. It was in her eyes when Ría turned away or she talked about visiting with her.
Let me go back to the day I met Sara. The story needs to be told since she was particularly good at tearing off the end of the thread after Ría tugged. It was on a wet day with a lemony sky so fresh and clear which can emerge only after a good, cool rain. I flew out in the morning among the rehearsing commuters and went to the diner Sara worked in, having completed my research ahead of time. I was nearly as good at discovery as I was at killing them. There was a market in that as well, I knew.
Sara waited on me in her pink and white uniform. She called me handsome in the way a fifty-something year old waitress at a donut shop might call you honey through bright, pink and shriveled lips with false eyelashes and dark eye shadow. But Sara was young and innocent, with only mascara and lip gloss, fancy bobby socks in simple, white sneakers and five earrings in one ear. She was not smart enough to know an evil person like me from another pretty face. But I never hurt her.
I took care of Sara. I never hit Sara; that was from her past, from her father who simply disliked her presence, reminding him of who her mother had once been with and how he had failed as a man. I never demeaned her; that was from her envious and miserable mother, who saw the hope she had squandered. I helped them reach retirement a little quicker than expected in an old car by a rusty bridge with tall cranes lit up like Christmas trees, until morning where they just stared unblinking and unforgiving until the police arrived.
I was kind to Sara. I rescued her from the alley she had been run into by that frightening killer who had shot her neighbor – the one who had blond hair too and looked just like her but deserved it. I took her away from the one who chased her toward the drug dealers in the light starved and fetid alleyway. I freed her from that uncaring killer who entered into a full blown shoot out like in a Western with white flashes of light illuminating shapeless monstrosities among the dumpsters and scruffy rats all moving in slow motion.
I am the man who came just a minute after the popping ended and the moans subsided to pull out the weeping Sara from the black masses that were once food and pots and plastic gadgets but were concreted into misshapen walls and floors. I pulled her out of the slippery blood and putrid grease from the restaurant up the alley. I consoled her in an indistinct hug under the streetlight that made the scary moment nearly disappear to illuminate the gray and cracked sidewalk, the dark gray squares that composed the building, and the banged-up and graffiti plagued metal doors. It all happened in a nearby block from which she had run after the first shots were fired. All of my bullets had missed her, as had the dealers’, before she had escaped me through the brick tenement.
Her eyes were like Ría’s, brown and sad, and she put her arms around me because I was her hero who had rescued her from certain death. She kissed me with tear stained lips and a slippery tongue. I realized I could have Sara, the survivor, if I so chose.
She could no longer be safe, I told her, after I questioned her carefully about what had happened and about things she could not grasp or see from the trail I had led her across, like a good wolf in the woods with encouraging words and soft paws.
I stole a car, passing it off as a rental, and we drove home, to my city, through the tranquil night. In the depleted light of the dash and the steady reflection of the halogen headlights, she told me it was fate that she had served my table earlier that day because I was her rescuer and it must have been planned that way by someone greater than ourselves.
Didn’t I believe in someone who was greater than us, mere mortals? I had met those that were superior – in the sense of advanced – and more powerful than most, but I could not tell her of that exclusive alliance of which I might have been a member.
Ironically, once Sara moved in, Ría began to smile at me. It made me less of a monster. If a pretty, innocent creature like Sara saw something redeemable in me, a man twice her age, I was surely safe to smile at. I had become safe enough to say a few words to on occasion as well.
Sara cooked. She kept house, although there was little to keep up in our sparse surroundings. She made coffee in the mornings and I liked the smell of it brewing before I rose, just like the smell of bacon that reminded me of a home life I could not substantiate ever having. She baked and brought Ría half of her goodies, a bribe for friendship. After several cakes and countless dozens of cookies, Ría invited us over for dinner. Sara was proud.
Ría’s apartment wound its way to its center, cochleated just like mine. From the narrow gray entryway on which hung three hooks for her cream colored overcoat that she wore every day, her yellow umbrella and her purse, we moved along the dark corridor that curved around to doorways on the right that would have opened to a closet, a small bedroom, a larger bedroom, dining room, kitchen, and finally the circular living room without benefit of windows or a direct access from the front door. I had torn a doorway through my wall shared with the entry for an uncomplicated escape. She had no such needs or fortune and her invisible doorway held a bookshelf with a few delicate trinkets on it and two shelves of hardback books that I had already read.
We ate in her dining room. The table and chairs were like something out of a mansion: large, heavy, intricately carved backs and armrests, and velvety cushions. It had come from her former life, as did her linens. She made us feel at ease in her elegant room, as she toasted our welcome with shiny, manicured nails, and we had tea in her living room afterward on her imitation leather couch, which might have been there before she arrived. Ría sat in a stiff wingback, covered in a red, fancy embroidered fabric Sara proudly called brocade that had been tied together smartly below the short armrests to fit snugly on the chair. The room had an imprint of elegance from her presence, like a perfume lingers after its wearer has moved on.
Ría liked Sara. They were each other’s exclusive friend, which worked for them both, at least for a while. Ría worked in an office from eight to five and Sara had started waiting tables around the corner because she could not just sit in our shell anymore while I went on my trips and worked on my research. Sara did not understand what I did for a living and I would have never told her. She liked the cash I left her for necessities and a little extra which I never asked for in return. I lied and explained I was an adjuster for corporate clients; after all I worked on my laptop at home and could have easily been investigating claims in other cities – wherever my employer needed me. It was satisfactory.
But the unraveling had begun. Something snagged as I walked away and tugged gently. The lies grew more complicated and I had to close the door to my office so she couldn’t see my real work. My travels never called for a bag larger than my carry on because my trips never lasted more than two nights. I had no friends to bring home or mingle with, so I had to leave on occasion to meet an invisible buddy at the bar, which led me to walk the streets, catch a movie alone, or find a real bar to knock back a drink. The invisibility cloak, the monster of my disguise, began to fail me, employed too often to grow cliché.
Sara helped Ría put together the crib after I carried the box upstairs. They laughed. It was the only time I heard either of them laugh. I could make Sara smile, especially when we made love, but I did not have enough goodness to grow a laugh, just like I could not grow house plants or cook a nourishing meal. I lacked the secret ingredient.
My thread was pulled taut the day Ría came home crying. I was leaving and Sara was at work for a late shift. Her big, round belly was almost too heavy to carry up the many stairs, and her arm was wrapped underneath it as if she could alleviate the strain. She was sobbing so deeply that her breath got away from her.
I had heard that sound before, between begging for your life or after finding your loved one unidentifiable in a heap. Because it was Ría, though, I couldn’t walk away. I was drawn to her like a bullet to its target. I picked up her keys from the floor in silence and unlocked her door as she hid her face from me embarrassed at her state. Her cheeks were rosy from the exertion and shimmering with tears. Her dress was dark and elegant and her feet were perched upon clean, black heels. Her lips were red, but not from lipstick, and the only thing I could picture was kissing them gently and touching their softness with my fingertips.
Ría virtually fell inside, against the gentle curve of the blue-gray wall, like a giant whale wrapped around her homey abode. She tried to thank me – politely telling me to go – but I could not. I was nearly unwrapped by then. Her belly was tight and hard and she did not push my hands away. She folded into me, her face burying itself against my shoulder, her round belly taut against me. I nearly carried her through the long, dark curvature until I reached the third door, but it was the baby’s room. Why didn’t I remember that? I took her back one door and brought her inside the darkness and the eerie quiet. I fumbled for the light switch, holding her heavy and shaking body against mine. A small lamp, so small it should have belonged in a doll’s house, breathed to life with flowers at sunset. A scarf hung over it like a girl’s room should be, not like Sara’s sentence to my submarine bunk and colorless blinds.
Her bed was made and closed with a beautiful white quilt of red, orange and yellow flowers, surrounded in blue and purple rings that were hemmed in by each square. The walls were pale yellow and the iron bed’s ornate castings were white and clean, like her long, wide dresser that displayed her collection of all things feminine: tiny ornate perfume bottles, an open jewelry box with fine chains that caught the light and baubles strung among them and flowing out, a pile of delicate scarves, and a grouping of candles never before lit.
The room was soothing and I understood her a little better. I helped her to the bed and propped the ruffled pillows behind her, as she had started to arrange through her sniffles and sobs. She wiped at her eyes and nose with the tissues from her nightstand and then took out several more to finish the job in her refined manner. All the while I stood near the door in silence examining her room, studying the picture of an elegant woman in a black and white portrait with eyes as melancholy as Ría’s. You can learn a lot by a person’s bedroom. Hers spoke volumes. It told me she was not the cold and distant person she had so eagerly presented upon meeting me, or the lady who had lost everything but a dining room set with its fine linens, or the poor office girl who could afford nothing better than a shoddy apartment in a substandard neighborhood of a large city. Instead, it told me she was soft and warm hiding from her past, the one that impregnated her and then abandoned them. She was lonely and pleased to have me present because she had seen through the cloak. Not even Sara had looked at me as if she had seen what Ría had uncovered so long ago.
But I had made discoveries of my own in the months since I learned of my new neighbor. I had learned much more since Sara arrived. I would have never told her of my finds although there seemed no other secret I could keep from her. They ebbed forth like waves upon the beach.
I did not feel desperate to leave as I thought I would if anyone truly cared for me and saw me for who I had always wanted to be. Ría did not yell at me to leave. She made no demands. In fact, she did not utter a word. In the peacefulness that reflected her secrets all around the room, I took off her shoes without protest and went to the other side of the bed where she, already calming, watched me remove my shoes and lay down next to her. The sheer curtains, pulled back elegantly, revealed the gray and concrete light of a misty city and eventually led her to fall asleep against me.
Everything slowed to the pace of her serenity. Her head lay on my chest so I could carry her with every breath, my arm held her around her shoulders so I could not let go, and she respired slowly and deeply without worries, without lines upon her face.
The reason for her tears no longer mattered and, after a time, neither did the words we had shared. Time slipped away unaffected as it does in cities, where eleven at night is no different than three in the morning and a laugh is as easy to ignore as a scream. I had been unraveled to the core and I knew I could no longer hide – not from Sara, not from my job, not from those who could inflict harm. I could no longer pretend I knew who I was.
Sara said nothing as I closed Ría’s door behind me, with my black carry-on in my hand, disheveled and tired after having told Ría all I needed to ever say to anyone. I had heard her entire story, and she heard mine, avoiding all mention of those around us who did not know who or what we were. I looked to Sara for a moment, waiting, making my face confident and plain, as she stood petrified with her thoughts slowly catching up with her – a race not often won.
There was nothing to be said to Sara. She could never understand the complexities of someone like me or someone like Ría, in our cloaks. So, I turned and left on my trip, hoping that the evening had not destroyed my career as I feared it had, knowing in the deepest well of my soul that I was doomed. I descended the steps, gliding like a dark-winged creature, and Sara went inside without a sound as I passed.
When I returned, I felt lost within my spiraled chambers. They were no longer logical and simple, but complex and meaningful.
* * *
I heard them flirting and giggling before I saw them, as lovers do just after completing the act. It was the first time I had looked up through the helix. They were on their way out to satisfy another kind of bite. She wanted to look embarrassed but couldn’t, and so revealed only her malice for me. There was very little left of the naïve girl in the alley who could not identify her stalker.
Sara had much to tell me after my weeks away, but the two most important issues were clearly written in left and right eye, in the quiver of one and the tear of the other. So, I forged first, molding my words before she could form them in an acrid tone I had not heard her use before: she didn’t need to worry because I reassured her that I would be the one to leave. And, most painfully, I knew what I would find once I reached door twenty-nine. She pulled on the young man who looked to be of a similar level, walking away, and I heard him ask if I was her father. She laughed as if I had been the punch line to a hilarious joke. It would have been easy to rectify.
Sadly, I was right as I usually was. It was an aptitude that once strengthened my cloak and created secret chambers in my shell, but there was little of either left. As I looked across the chasm, I found the door to be wide open. The hall held three empty hooks as dust and small papers swirled around on the wooden floor as I passed. Ría’s room looked like a hospital room in which the patient had just died, with an empty mattress folded between stark, white ornamental wrought iron and blank windows staring in emotionless. The dresser was empty.
The baby’s room only held one picture, a gift from us for the child. It was of a girl in the moon, for there were no limits for a child. Otherwise, it was completely empty. The dining room looked untouched, as stoic as ever, reminiscing of a lady who once lived there. The living room had its couch and shelf, now devoid of all human presence. I sat on it, as if she would return if I waited long enough. And I waited a long time. But I knew.
As I walked out, with an absolute wretchedness spreading to my limbs, I traced the thread that had been wound around her shell as if it had been a maze, turning in and out of rooms and piled messily around the foot of the bed that stood askew a distance from the wall.
Ría had seen the man beneath the mask and Sara saw the monster’s reflection. I had to choose if I could continue the trips because the last one nearly killed me, quite literally, for all the reasons I had expected when I left the coiled stair. I would have to move to another city and begin anew, if I could muster anything.
I knew where Ría and her baby could be found, but I could choose to follow only one road. The golden road beckoned me more harshly for it would seek me out if I did not elect to find it first. But I still had to choose.