Safe (7315) (Justin Lo)
Joseph scaled the steps to his apartment, the pale city lights flickering in and out from the windows at every other platform. It was far past midnight again and he knew it, but there was no way of getting around it – his job was simply abominable, and he had to wander the streets and bars just to keep himself sane. At least he had friends there who were a world apart from his antisocial officemates, half of which he swore were psychopaths, and the rest being those who were eternally ill.
The apartment was rather dull, and it had been completely empty when he began renting it from the previous tenant, an elderly gentleman who had retired and decided to move to Florida – completely empty except for the safe in the coat closet. It was cubical, a little over a foot on each side, and locked with some sort of combination. It never was a disturbance or an obstacle, so Joe just left it alone. He had called the man but the latter steadfastedly denied its existence. Joe figured the man was probably just missing a few memories, but he supposed it wasn’t such a big deal if it were completely forgotten like that.
The safe had a slight metallic sheen, but you could barely tell that something was in the closet when you turned on that incandescent hallway light on the ceiling. Then, at best, you knew there was some square surface. But you had to stroke it to know just what its extent was and to know just how frigid it felt. It was unusually cold, even for sheltered metal.
But Joe didn’t care. He was tired, half-drunk, and angry at the entire world. Again. He didn’t bother to turn on the lights, instead just taking off his shirt and pants and flopping down onto his bed in his striped boxers.
In the middle of the night, he heard a clacking noise in the room over – his work-desk at home. He tried to investigate, walking over to see what the source of the noise was. But all he saw was the keyboard being depressed, slowly and methodically. Tip-toeing, he scuttled over to see what was on the screen, but the more he craned his neck, the more the screen seemed to turn, although every time he tried to orient himself, the screen always appeared to be in the same direction it had always been – facing the keyboard and the window. He attempted again and again to view the screen, but it was impossible. Exhausted, he gave up and felt a warmth around him that just hit the spot. It was …
… his blanket, and he opened his eyes lazily. Just a dream. He pulled open his blinds and let in a bit of light, stretching his hands as if grasping the entire world. Then, he rolled out of bed, dressing for work. On the way out, he stole a glance at his computer’s screen. It was off, just as he had left it the night before. He shrugged, adjusted his tie, and commenced his daily commute.
That evening, he went to the Shamrock Tavern for a drink, and he spotted a lonely-looking brunette staring into her glass. He figured they were sharing the same poison of the city routine that ate you down like acid rain.
“Hello,” he said, extending his hand.
She raised an eyebrow at him, and gave a crooked smile. She was half-pretty, her long face outlined by slightly wavy hair.
“Hi,” she said, without raising her own hand. Joe sat down, letting his arm fall awkwardly.
He ordered a beer and started contemplating his dream.
“An intellectual one, are you?” the woman asked, sipping her own drink. “Thinking too much’s what got everyone in here, I think.”
“Nah, not thinking,” replied Joe. “Just had a weird dream last night that bugs me. It was creepy as hell.”
The woman laughed roughly, a strange combination of a witch’s cackle and a schoolgirl’s giggle. “Were you alone?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Well, living alone in one of those buildings can do that to you. It did it for me, for sure.”
“You dream a lot?”
“No,” corrected the woman. “I just have nothing better to talk about than things like dreams and cauliflower and getting drunk.”
Joe winced lightly but decided he liked the woman’s sharp tongue. “My name’s Joe,” he offered.
“Flora,” she answered with robotic precision. “I have to be going now, but here’s my number. You’re the only one who has kept on checking me out after they found out how cynical I was. I like that.”
She casually handed him a slip of paper and headed out of the bar.
There were no dreams for a few nights, and Joe met the woman every night at the Shamrock. One day she couldn’t stand it anymore and just blurted out, “Let’s cut to the chase already. You think I’m hot. I have a thing for your ties. Let’s get out of this hellhole of a bar and go to your place.”
“Why not yours?” asked Joe keenly.
“I have a roommate. Unless you’re into that kind of thing.”
Joe shook his head. He was desperate, but not quite that insane as of yet. He walked her in the pale moonlight over to his building, which was drab gray with dribbles of unknown material down the sides. The only presentable portion was a flower bed some four feet by one that housed daffodils and golden tulips.
“You certainly live in style,” said Flora, clinging to Joe’s arm more out of security on the streets than out of love. She hadn’t felt love for years, and she didn’t expect to feel it any time soon.
“Oh,” she said, stopping Joe as he was about to slide the key into place. She slid a slim cigarette out of her purse. “I don’t want to stink up your place, but I’m really craving a drag right now. Could you wait a few minutes?”
He nodded and cupped the tip of the cigarette with his hand. Flora gazed indifferently out at the expanse of buildings and sighed, exhaling the smoke that had a slightly intoxicating effect on Joe. He used to smoke, too, but he couldn’t afford it anymore after the last pay cut, so he had to make do without them.
“Oh, this was inconsiderate of me,” she said suddenly, holding a smoke out to Joe. “Do you smoke?”
“Used to,” he said. “I could use one right now, for sure.” She smiled and laid it within his lips.
“Fifty years from now we’ll still be standing here, staring at this damn buildings, but I won’t have a mouth to be witty anymore since it’ll shrink to a prune from these cancer sticks.” She lit his cigarette with a touch of hesitation. “I don’t want to drag you back down. The factories and the cigarettes are all the same. All evil things meant to keep us doing the same things over and over again ad infinitum.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit out of this.” They leaned against the wall, watching a few cars pass by, their radio basses the only things penetrating the stillness of a wretched conglomeration of people who no longer had nothing to say.
Flora took one last drag and stamped out her lipstick-tinged cigarette with her heel. Joe followed suit, and the two moved into the apartment. She didn’t notice the safe as she hung up her coat in the closet, and the two disappeared into his room.
The clacking was furious. Flora disentangled herself from Joe’s nude body and threw on her shirt before trying to figure out what it was. She realized that it was his computer, and she looked back to realize that Joe was no longer there on the bed.
“The hell?” she thought. She cautiously put on the rest of her clothes, grabbing some shoes as projectiles just in case something went wrong.
She moved into the other room and saw the keyboard moving. But despite her fright, she could not help but try to see what was on the screen. In a flash, she suddenly was right in front of the monitor, as if she were sitting in front of the computer, and she saw an e-mail client open.
And then the mouse clicked “send,” sending a chill through Flora’s body for a reason she could not comprehend.
When Joe woke up, there was no sign of Flora, though her pants were still lying on his chair. He called out her name, but got no response.
Lazily, he got out of bed and found her sitting on the window sill, staring out the window, a cigarette in hand.
“Something on your mind or something?” he asked. She nodded.
“Sorry, needed to calm down. That dream really freaked me out.”
Joe froze and stared at her. “Tell him where it is?” he quoted.
Flora’s eyes widened and she quickly sucked on her cigarette. “Shit!” she finally exclaimed. “We have to check your mailbox, Joe. What if that were really sent?”
“Did you see who it was sent to?”
“No,” said Flora, shaking her head, snubbing her cigarette out on a small, dusty glass ashtray Joe had brought out for her. “But we might be able to trace it and find out what’s going on.”
“You’re acting as if this really happened. But we’re not disillusioned with reality enough to believe that keyboards can type themselves, right?”
Flora put her hands around her head, as if she wanted to squeeze her head in until it imploded. Joe sat down at his computer and checked his mailbox’s sent messages folder.
“There’s nothing here,” he said with a sigh of relief. Flora, though, was far more tense. She shifted around uncomfortably, jumping off the window sill and then perching herself back on it again. After a minute or so, she relaxed and asked a question that she thought could lead them to answers.
“Joe, where was I in your dream?”
“You were there, and then you were … not.”
“But you saw the e-mail as if you had been typing it, right?” Flora said, trying to confirm that the symmetry, and therefore nonsense, of their dreams.
But Joe couldn’t reassure her. “No,” he whispered. “Someone was in front of me, typing it, but he was a silhouette, even with the light from the screen.”
“Joe,” said Flora. “What if … what if I were the one who typed that?”
Unable to stand it anymore, Flora hopped into the chair and quickly logged into her mailbox. And there it was, with no subject and just those five words.
“Oh, God!” she screamed. “Please, let’s get out of here. Please. But not to work, not after this.”
Joe nodded and told her to finish getting dressed. The two phoned in sick and promptly rushed out of the apartment, taking the train far, far away.
The fun and escape of their impromptu honeymoon of sorts at a hotel near the beach wore down much more quickly than it should have. Perhaps it was because they were scarcely strangers a few weeks prior, or because they were going broke, or because they were somehow attached to the inner city, even if they couldn’t stand it. But most likely, it was this nagging voice that admittedly affected Flora more than her boyfriend.
All day and all night – even when she was eating or strolling or making love – she wondered if her recipient would ever reply. She did not know why she had sent that message in the middle of the night, but the more she pondered it, the more she started to wonder if, perhaps, Joe was hiding something from her. Something within the apartment. Maybe even something proving his guilt for a crime.
She briefly bashed herself over the head for not running a background check on Joe before becoming intimate. She knew it was dumb, but she was also desperate. It had been at least a year since her fiancé abruptly broke things off for another woman, who was a complete bitch who only knew how to dance and buy distasteful clothing.
She turned her mind away from those thoughts out of anger and remorse. But what if Joe were the same? She didn’t care to marry him or to even settle down with him, but she sure didn’t want to be involved with a criminal, in any capacity.
So on the third day of their outing, while Joe was in the shower, she gathered her scattered belongings, leaving, out of respect, the towels and toiletries that she had been borrowing from Joe, and hopped on the train back home, writing only a short note explaining that she had some thinking to do, and that she would call him soon.
Back in her apartment, she first frantically checked her e-mail. There was no reply, but a strange wave overcame her.
“I have to know.”
She wrote e-mail after e-mail to the recipient, about whom she knew nothing but the address that went to a Yahoo account. It could have been a defunct account for all she knew. But something told her that there was more to it than that. It wouldn’t hurt. She had a right to know.
After the tenth e-mail, her burning desire subsided, and she undressed for bed, not noticing that she had accumulated several messages on her voicemail. For once, she looked forward to working again. Anything was preferable to that sorry excuse for a vacation. Joe always came too quickly in bed, she noted with disdain.
Joe called Flora at two in the morning, but she was hardly in the mood for a conversation.
“Ugh, don’t call so frickin’ late,” she moaned. “I’ll meet you for lunch tomorrow okay? Brightsford Square, one o’clock sharp. … Yes, I won’t forget. … Nono, you have nothing to be sorry about. I just felt like we were moving too quickly. … I’m glad you understand. … Uh-huh, bye.”
She hung up the phone with a lazy drop of the hand and fell fast asleep.
She arrived at work fifteen minutes early the next morning. She was a secretary of sorts at the headquarters of a local financial services company. And there was someone sitting at her desk.
“Excuse me,” Flora said. “I believe this is my desk.”
“Oh,” said the girl apathetically, adjusting her tailored suit that sharply contrasted with Flora’s own half-formal garb. “Sorry, didn’t you get the message?”
“On your voicemail.”
“What was it about?” asked Flora. “Re-location?”
“No, you’re fired for taking three days off for a sickness that we all know isn’t real. Sorry, babe, you have to go somewhere else.”
Flora was beside herself with fury. “I worked so damn hard every single day this year! Aren’t I allowed to take time off for a honeymoon?!”
“Newlywed or not, doesn’t matter. And plus you look so sloppy every day. I bet you got fired for having hangovers at work and taking too many smoking breaks.” The new girl gave a toothy smile, adjusting her spiffy glasses.
“The fuck,” muttered Flora as she moved to talk to her former boss. For all she knew, this stupid girl could be lying her ass off. But the way the boss glared at Flora, she realized it would be best to back away and never come back.
“I hate men,” she concluded, storming out of the building and flicking off Joe at long distance.
Joe knew he was done for the moment he came out of the shower at the hotel. Groaning at his ill fortune, and wondering what went wrong with Flora, he gathered up his belongings and returned to his apartment, which was exactly how he had left it. Nothing creepy, just home.
But it was so empty without Flora. Even if she wasn’t a stellar woman, even if she had abandoned him, he still had some residual feeling for her. He had long given up hopes of a longlasting marriage, and he just wanted someone to be there with him.
He called Flora that evening but she was cold, if not bitter. About what, he could not fathom. But he soon forgot about his grievances with Flora because the next day, he received some spam that had a bit of an eerie touch to it.
I have lied and my conscience has destroyed me for it. There is money in that apartment. Money that I should not have had. Scratch the wall next to the kitchen. Scratch it! Scratch it! I just called to turn myself over to the police. I take responsibility for that safe, all of it, even though I know there were more involved. And you must know that, too. But the others must be with you, to destroy me. I will die a noble man! I will die noble and absolved!!!
And that was the end of it. Joe went to Brightford Square looking visibly disturbed. Not that the sight of Flora sitting next to a pile of cigarette butts was any improvement.
“Flora, what’s going on? Do you smoke proportionally to your level of stress?” he joked.
“Shut up,” she spat. She gestured for him to sit down. “Sit down, Joe.
“I lost my job.”
“Do you need me to repeat it so that I can feel twice as bad, you son of a bitch?!” she exclaimed, her voice breaking and fingers shaking so hard that she dropped her cigarette. “Damn it, why do men always do this to me!”
“Listen, Flora, I’m so sorry. I will give you all I can, please. I’ll pay your rent.”
“With what, your money in the bank? I’m sure you save up a bunch by living in that abominable building,” Flora said sarcastically.
“I do save it up,” replied Joe evenly, “But I don’t believe in banks – I know how corrupt they are. I keep it all hidden in my house. That’s why I know I can get it to you right away.”
“Haha, why would I want to be dependent on you, Mister ‘I live in a haunted apartment. Let’s have sex and then type freaky e-mails to strangers.’” Flora lit another cigarette, but Joe knocked it out of her mouth.
“Cut it out. Giving yourself lung cancer isn’t going to help at all.”
In response, she chucked the open box at him, showering him with the little rolls of tobacco. “Fine! I quit that as well! I quit life! You do nothing but take and take and take.”
“Flora, I know this isn’t an opportune time, but I got an e-mail.”
“Feh,” said Flora, smoking an imaginary cigarette and smoothing out her sweater.
“I know where the combination is.”
“For the safe.”
“What safe?” Flora asked. Then it dawned on her that that was what she had been after the entire time. The exact thing that he had been hiding from her. “Why did you hide this … safe from me?”
“Because it isn’t mine.”
“Then whose is it?”
“Some old geezer who lived in the apartment before me,” explained Joe. “Do you want to find out what’s in it or not?”
Flora considered it for awhile and then lowered her head. “Shit, just bring me to the Shamrock. I need a few drinks. Treat me to some if you’re a real man.”
Flora and Joe staggered over to his apartment. Joe passed out right in front of his door, so Flora reached into his pocket and took out his key. She laid him gently into his bed, tucking him in and kissing him on the head. In all her drunken stupor, she revealed a small side of her heart that had never completely gone. She used to be one of those little girls who wanted to be a noble princess, who wanted to grow up sweet and well-liked.
Sighing, she moved over to his computer and saw the e-mail, recognizing the sender’s address as the one she had been e-mailing incessantly. Finally broke him down, she decided.
She stumbled into the kitchen and began clawing at the paint, then chipping at it with some utensils. She had intelligently let Joe drink far more than her, because she sure didn’t want to ever be taken advantage of again. The paint fell bit by bit by bit, until finally a large sheet crashed down. And there it was.
5. 24. 19. 35.
Making sure that Joe was still out cold, she searched the house obsessively until she found the safe in its corner in the closet. There was money in it. Money she could use desperately, with her job gone and her finances very much in debt, which had driven her to the tavern in the first place.
No one would know that she had taken it, as long as she was careful. So she took Joe’s oven mitts and entered in the combination. The door swung open, releasing a cloud of faintly sparkling dust that seemed to converge on her body. And Flora gave a bloodcurdling scream.
When Joe woke up, he realized how neatly he had been tucked in bed. But his hangover was way too strong, and he quickly fell back into a deep sleep.
Meanwhile, Flora was breathing heavily as she reentered her home, confused and fuming. Her thoughts leapt from one supposition to the next: Joe had implicated the old man in front of her, and had hidden the rest of the message from her. He had been hiding it all.
He had done it, then he ganged up with all the other accomplices. He had done it. And he was trying to hide it from her by pretending like it was all new. But if it were truly new, he would have checked the wall first before calling her. How could he have known it wasn’t a hoax? How could he have known?
No! He knew all along. And he wanted to show it to her. Before. Before he did it to her. And then the old man would take the blame for everything in the safe! He was going to do it, but she had outsmarted him.
Flora changed from her pastel sweater and striped skirt into a red turtleneck and black jeans and hurried over to tell Joe that she was sorry.
The doorbell rang, and Joe clamored out of bed, dressing himself. He was shocked that Flora had come back, and he quickly welcomed her and told her to take a seat because she looked so tired.
She had on thick, black mascara and bright red lipstick, and her shirt and pants clung tightly to her body; sleek leather gloves teased her hands. As expected, he was completely distracted by her blatant sexuality to be any threat to her. But just in case, she looked at him with a sad, deferent glance, handing a lone rose to him.
“I’m so sorry for how I’ve treated you these past few days. Let’s move on.”
“How …,” trailed off Joseph, still fixated on Flora’s body. She slid towards him and pressed her body against his, pretending to embrace him while making sure that he could not reach for anything.
“Using the money in the safe. It’s just money, right?”
Joe froze, realizing that something was amiss. “We shouldn’t touch that safe,” he said. “There’s something weird about it.”
“Oh, is there really?” asked Flora innocently. “And why shouldn’t we touch it? It’s just that old man’s right?”
“Yes, but it isn’t ours.”
Flora made a cute pout outwardly, but was wearing a maniacal grin inside. Of course it wasn’t “ours.” It was only “his.” And he wanted it to stay that way.
“Well, at least let’s see what’s inside.”
“No!” cried Joe. He knew that he didn’t want to see what was inside. That’s why he let the subject drop in the first place, months ago. “No, we can’t.”
Flora pouted. “Please? If you do, we can finish what we were going to do after you showered.”
Joe conceded, like any weak and brainless man. Flora whistled happily, skipping over to the safe but always holding both of Joe’s wrists.
“You can do it,” said Flora, handing the job over to Joe when they knelt down at the safe. Joe backed off.
“No …,” he said, his breaths quickening.
“Why, are you afraid?” asked Flora. “It goes like this.”
Joe didn’t know what to do, but he realized that Flora had him pinned. And yet, the pleasure of the ways she was discretely touching him made his body reluctant to wholeheartedly resist.
“Flora, please stop. Don’t. I’ll give you all my savings. Just don’t do this. Please.”
“Thirty-five. There! Isn’t it a feast for the eyes?”
… Mr. Nathaniel Stephens turned himself in early last week, admitting to being an accomplice in premeditated murder by decapitation. He gave the location of the body and claimed that the motive was for money …
Flora smiled as he counted the bills in her hand.
… Although every detail matches Stephens’s description, investigators believe that Stephens did not carry out the actual murder. They have searched the apartment and found an ashtray full of cigarette butts with fingerprints and lipstick smears that are believed to belong to the victim’s girlfriend. Stephens admits to extensive correspondance with an online identity believed to be the same person as the victim’s girlfriend …
She sighed, frowning slightly.
“I guess I’ve gotten myself addicted to yet another bad habit,” she mused. She stared out her window at the gray city that did not shed a single tear, and then took a deep drag from her cigarette.
~ End ~