by T. E. Cowell
I was having a smoke out on my balcony when I heard someone knocking so loudly, with such force that I nearly dropped my cigarette in alarm. The knocking stopped just as abruptly as it started, and I rested my cigarette on the side of my ashtray. I was about to go inside to see who was there when the knocking started up again, and I realized now that it wasn’t my door being knocked on but my neighbor’s. Then I heard, “Police! Open the door!”
The alarming sound of glass breaking was what I heard next, and I frantically directed my eyes over toward my neighbor’s balcony, which seemed to be the source of the sound. And, sure enough, I watched shards of glass fall before breaking on the sidewalk into a group of many smaller pieces. A wooden chair hit the sidewalk as well and on impact its legs broke and flung every which way. The next thing I saw was my neighbor in mid-air, a blur of blue sweater, khaki pants, and sandy-blond hair. After jumping out of his living room window he grabbed hold of a sturdy branch of this tree planted on the sidewalk and, spectacularly, gracefully, swung himself like a monkey down to the ground. He landed on his feet and took off running fast, really fast, down the sidewalk until I could no longer see him.
Amazed by what I’d just witnessed, never having witnessed anything quite like it before, I looked from where my neighbor had disappeared back to the glass and the broken chair on the sidewalk, then at the tree that had worked so well in his escape––a white-trunked tree with slashes and carvings in it from, I imagined, kids. I discovered I was trembling. You hear about crazy stuff happening all the time in L.A., from hour-long car chases to shootings to fistfights alongside freeways, but I’d never, in all my years of living in this city, seen any of these spectacles firsthand.
“Hey!” I heard, “did you see which way he went?”
I turned my head and looked toward my neighbor’s balcony again and saw the cop, or to be more precise, the head of the cop who’d presumably shouted at my neighbor to open his door. The cop’s head was sticking out of my neighbor’s shattered living room window and he was looking right at me.
I didn’t say anything though, not a word. Instead I did something that would cause me much distress in the days to come, and this was point in the direction of the hill that dropped down to the beach––the opposite way from that which I had watched my neighbor running.
“Thanks,” the cop said, and his head disappeared from my neighbor’s living room window and I soon heard what sounded like two pairs of feet running out of my neighbor’s apartment, then on down the hallway.
I didn’t know my neighbor one bit, so it wasn’t like I was consciously doing him a favor by sending the cop in the wrong direction. It was more of a split-second decision, or not even a decision, but an involuntary reaction. I’m still not sure why I did it, exactly. It might’ve had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t liked something about the cop, his looks or tone of voice. It might’ve had something to do with my neighbor’s escape, too, how bold it had been, how impressive, how unreal. Another possible reason why I had sent that cop in the wrong direction was that back in the day I used to skateboard, and I could still clearly remember running from the cops plenty of times to avoid getting ticketed. I hadn’t liked cops then and maybe a part of me still didn’t. Maybe it was a subconscious act of rebellion, what I did.
I had enough common sense though after pointing the cop in the wrong direction to think: you idiot––what did you do? I thought about actions and consequences, how every action has an equal and opposite reaction, at least according to physics. I picked up the cigarette I’d left on the ashtray and, looking out over Santa Monica, the smog, started smoking what was left of it. Words like “key witness” and “court obligations” popped into my head. If my neighbor was caught, which I figured he would be sooner or later, I might be charged with aiding a suspect, or with supplying false information to a cop, or both. And who knew what else? I sure as hell didn’t. I was no lawyer, not even close. I was ignorant on so many areas of life that sometimes I was surprised I was able to get by in the world as well as I did.
When the cigarette was sufficiently smoked I went back inside my apartment and pulled another from the pack near my computer. Normally I only smoke two cigarettes a day, one in the morning, the other before dinner, but today was turning out to be anything but ordinary. Cigarette and lighter in pocket, I went to the front door, put on my shoes, and started walking toward Main St., for this bar I knew.
It was still early, and I was the only one in the place besides the bartender and maybe a cook in back. I ordered a beer and sat by the windows. Cars zoomed past, people walked by. My stomach felt awful, and though I didn’t want to think anymore about what had just happened I couldn’t stop thinking about it all the same. I tried to convince myself that things weren’t as bad as they seemed, that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I tried convincing myself that I’d been in shock. I remembered that I’d been trembling. Maybe I had been in shock. Either way, it would be my alibi if I were to need one. Being in shock: it was why I’d pointed the cop in the wrong direction. I hadn’t been able to think straight. Was that a sound alibi?
I had another drink after the beer, something stronger, and felt better about everything, if only a little, once I’d finished it. I paid and left the bar, started back up the hill in the direction of my apartment. At the top of the hill I crossed the street, opened the gate, went up the stairs and started down the hallway. As I was passing by my neighbor’s door––or, rather, space where he used to have a door before the cops kicked it down––I stole a glance inside and caught sight of a tall skinny guy wearing a light brown suit with a matching felt hat standing in my neighbor’s living room. I knew not just from his clothes but also by the way he was standing that he was a detective. He had his head tilted toward the ground and a hand on his chin, and for a split-second I wondered if he’d learned to stand that way while he’d been trained as a detective, or if he’d maybe adopted the look from a Dick Tracy movie.
I unlocked my apartment door, then locked it behind me and thought: geez, these guys are working fast on this. Then I thought, for the first time that day, somehow: what did my neighbor do exactly? What made the cops tear down his door? What made him jump out his living room window? Who was he, exactly? How did he fill his days?
The thought left me feeling more vulnerable than before. Until now I had only been concerned with what I had done, but now I wondered what he, my neighbor, had done. What if he’d, say, raped, or even killed someone? What if he was a complete mental-case? I didn’t know––I had no idea what kind of person he was. All I knew about him was that he was an unusually quiet guy. From the few rare times I ran into him in the hallway, by the way he’d sort of avoid making eye contact with me and wouldn’t reply back to me the one time I said hi to him, I thought maybe he suffered from social anxiety or something. My heart sank at the thought of him as a raging psychopath, because if he was a raging psychopath, then what had I done by pointing that cop in the wrong direction? What if now, because of me and me alone, my neighbor were to victimize more presumably innocent people?
I was trembling now, again. I had to pee and so I went into the bathroom. Some of the pee missed the toilet, landed on the seat. I dabbed the drops with a square or two of toilet paper, dropped it in the toilet, flushed. Back in my bedroom I decided I needed another smoke and then I remembered the cigarette I’d put in my pocket earlier, that I’d meant to smoke outside of the bar but hadn’t because I’d forgotten I’d brought it with me.
I went back out onto the balcony. Looking down at the sidewalk, burning cigarette now in hand, I saw that yellow tape had been drawn around the slice of sidewalk where the chair and glass had fallen, inhibiting pedestrian use. The glass and what remained of the chair were still on the sidewalk.
I’d only had a few drags when I heard a knock, softer than earlier, but still firm, and this time I knew, because my neighbor’s apartment no longer had a functioning door, that it was my door being knocked on.
I set the cigarette on the corner of the ashtray and headed for the front door. With a fast-beating heart I looked through the peephole and saw the detective, or, more accurately, because he was so tall, his brown suit minus a neck or head. I took a deep breath in a pathetic attempt to calm my nerves, then unlocked and opened the door, because what else could I do? He’d seen me walk past in the hallway. He’d probably heard me enter my apartment. By ignoring him I figured I’d just be calling more attention to myself.
I opened the door. The detective stood before me. He seemed even taller than I’d originally pegged him as. He was skinny as a beanpole but, skinny or not, his angular, lined face had a gravity to it that I found intimidating.
He nodded before speaking, then said, “Good afternoon” in a very low, gravelly voice.
“Good afternoon,” I repeated in a very high, nervous voice.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “but would you mind if I asked you a few questions regarding your neighbor.”
“Shoot,” I said, perhaps too quickly, before adding, again nervously, “I don’t know anything about the guy. He always keeps to himself. What did he do?”
The detective looked at me for what felt like a long time before he spoke again, before he said, “Sorry, sir, but that information’s strictly confidential at this time. Do you know or have any idea as to where your neighbor might’ve gone? A friend’s place, or a relative’s, perhaps?”
I shook my head. “Sorry. I have no idea. I don’t even know if he has any friends. If he does, I’ve never seen any of them. In all honesty, I don’t even know the guy’s name. Do you know his name?”
The detective gave me another long-seeming look, then repeated what he’d already said: “That information’s strictly confidential at this time.” He lowered his head and stroked his chin some more with his fingers, which, I now noticed, were very long and looked impressively well formed in comparison to his skinny frame.
When he looked back up at me, or rather back down at me, being so tall, he said, “Thanks for your time” and then he turned and walked off.
Feeling immensely relieved that I hadn’t been found out, that I hadn’t been interrogated to the extent I’d feared, I closed my front door and locked it once more before returning to my balcony to finish the rest of my cigarette in peace.
I followed the news day after day, both on the TV, online, and in the paper, hoping to find out something about my neighbor, anything about who he was and what he’d done. But I found nothing. Not a thing. The weeks passed, then the months, and all the while I learned nothing. I had to guess that it meant my neighbor was still at large.
New tenants moved into my neighbor’s apartment, a youngish couple who were both polite though they struck me as a little dull. Then again, maybe they weren’t dull at all. I’d thought my previous neighbor was dull until he’d jumped out his living room window. Maybe I was the dull one.
The detective kept returning to my mind. Actually, the entire thing did from the moment I heard the glass shatter, or the cop say, “Police! Open the door!” But the interaction I’d had with the detective seemed more prominent to me than the rest of it, more meaningful. The mere fact that the detective had been present at all made me think that whatever my neighbor had done to get the cops on him had to have been a fairly big deal, which meant in turn that what I had done by pointing that cop in the wrong direction had also been a fairly big deal. I was, now, I realized, linked to my neighbor in a way that I’d never been linked to him before. I was guilty like he was––no, am guilty like he was, or is if he’s still alive––though guilty of what I’m afraid I’ll never know.
It is the mystery, the not knowing, that haunts me. I would give anything for some answers, but who to ask? The cops? The detective if I could somehow track him down? No, no. That would just arouse suspicion, I’m afraid. That would probably lead to my arrest, or if not my arrest than to some very awkward, troubling moments for me. I would ask my neighbor just what the hell he did if he ever came back, but I know that this, like his escape, is highly unlikely.
Sometimes before I fall asleep at night I can’t help thinking about the whole troubling thing. I’ve even had dreams in which my neighbor makes an appearance. The dreams are always the same, more or less. I see my neighbor in the hallway, and I say, “What did you do?” and he looks at me and then grins like a demented character in a horror movie, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
“What did I do?” he says. “What did you do?”
Then he throws his head back and laughs and laughs before slipping into his apartment and shutting the door behind him. I try to open the door but it’s locked. I pound on the door with my fists but the door won’t budge. I pound on the door and I kick at it until I’m breathing hard. Then I slump down to the hallway’s threadbare carpet in exhaustion and peer through the narrow slit at the bottom of my neighbor’s door. There’s a light on inside the apartment, and I can see movement, the interplay of shadows against the light. My neighbor’s obviously pacing around in there. He’s up to something, this I can tell, but what that something is I can’t begin to even guess.
T. E. Cowell lives in Washington State. He’s been writing for a decade, and has had short stories published in a variety of different literary journals, such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Across the Margin, and Eunoia Revew, to name a few. He was a Pushcart Prize nominee in 2017.