The window of Albrecht’s bedroom looked out onto the stone wall of the abandoned building next door. The buildings were separated by an alley so narrow that Albrecht could reach out his window and by stretching hard touch the wall. Albrecht was bothered by how this other building intruded on his apartment. It’s not right, he thought. He told old Mrs. Lopez, who lived in the apartment beneath his, that the two buildings never should have been built so closely together. He was sure, he said, that it was a violation of some kind. Mrs. Lopez, who rarely left her apartment, listened but never spoke a word to him. Although she never invited him in, she seemed sympathetic. Once, she took his hands in hers and held them briefly. A long year later, she disappeared.
By the time Mrs. Lopez disappeared, Albrecht no longer cared about the view from his bedroom window. On the day he turned 40, he went to the hardware store and bought a Magic Blackout Blind. The shade was just black plastic on a roll and clung to the window by static electricity. He just cut the size needed and stuck it on, no tools necessary, just as the directions indicated. On the package, in bold black letters, it said Fits Any Window—Turns Day Into Night. Albrecht was pleased with his purchase.
At the beginning of the year before Mrs. Lopez disappeared, Albrecht’s girlfriend Cindy, who practiced abstinence, and had moved in with him just after Christmas, moved out and moved on. It was a surprise to Albrecht. When he asked her why she was leaving, she said, “Why do you think?” Albrecht told her he did not know. She just frowned and nodded.
In the middle of the year, he lost his job. His supervisor, Mr. Gleason, said they were letting him go. When Albrecht asked why, Mr. Gleason said, “You know why.” Albrecht said he did not know. “Well, that’s why,” Mr. Gleason said. A security guard watched Albrecht clean out his desk and then walked him out to the elevator. Albrecht filed for unemployment and got just enough to cover his rent, which was low, and, since his wants were few, pay for basic necessities, at least for a while.
In the fall, Albrecht’s mother Lily died. He had not seen her in several years, as she lived on the West Coast and he did not like to fly, nor did she. He did talk to her on the phone every few months however, though the calls were short and awkward. When Lily told him she was sick, he asked what was wrong with her. She said “Don’t you remember?” Albrecht felt that if something was wrong with his mother he should remember and was embarrassed. So, he said he wasn’t sure. “Call me when you remember,” she said. It was the last time he spoke to her alive.
She had made her own arrangements for cremation and her ashes were cast out over the Pacific, as she had requested, by a friend named John who lived in her apartment building. Albrecht received a copy of her will which left him $43,012.23 and her ornately framed wedding picture, which showed Lily and Albrecht’s father, Louis, who left them when Albrecht was four. He had never seen nor heard from Louis again.
And then, in the middle of February, Manny, the super of the building, came to Albrecht and asked him if he had seen Mrs. Lopez recently. Albrecht said he had not seen her and why did he ask? “I’ve seen you talk to her sometimes,” he said. Albrecht said he did not talk to her often and she never spoke to him, just listened.
“There’s something about her,” said Manny. “I mean not right, you know?”
Albrecht said he did not know.
“She never talks. Never says hello or nothing. She looks like, I don’t know, mad or something. The few times I seen her.”
Albrecht said she did not seem mad to him.
“Her mailbox is stuffed,” the super told him. “Maybe we should take a look.” Albrecht went with the super downstairs to Mrs. Lopez’s apartment. The super knocked and no one answered. “Mrs. Lopez?” he called. “Hello?” He took a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the apartment door. “Maybe you should take a look,” he said. Albrecht asked why he should be the one to take a look. “You’re the one who talks to her—sometimes,” the super said. He opened the door.
Albrecht walked cautiously into the apartment. There was a funny smell. He went back to Manny in the hall and told him about the smell. “What does it smell like?” asked Manny. Albrecht told him fruit or flowers. “Well, which is it? Fruit or flowers?” Manny asked. Maybe flowers, Albrecht said, but flowers at a funeral. “You better check it out,” said Manny. Why should I check it out? thought Albrecht but went in anyway.
He stood in the living room and looked around. The furniture was old and threadbare: a small sofa with stubby, rolled arms; a brown chair with a worn leather seat; a wood coffee table with ringed cup stains; all of it on a faded green floral rug. And all over there were birds, figurines made of plaster or plastic or glass, and stuffed toys of birds, on the couch, the chair, even the coffee table. Big birds, little birds; all shapes and colors. Albrecht recognized a few of them from books and TV: a robin, a seagull, a chicken, a parrot. But most were just birds to him. He counted forty-four birds. In the corner was an old-style console TV, more cabinet than screen. On top of the TV was a large statue of Jesus. Jesus’s heart was on his chest. It was surrounded by a crown of thorns and flames shot out the top. His arms were outstretched, as if he was trying to fly away.
“Is she there?” called Manny. Albrecht said no. “Check out the bedroom. And the bathroom.”
Albrecht sighed. He tiptoed to the bedroom and peeked in. No one was there. The bed was made. On the bed were more birds. Albrecht counted them: six, seven, eight. Nine. On the nightstand next to the bed was a framed photograph of Mrs. Lopez as a young woman standing with a dark mustachioed man who was shorter than she, and she was very short. Albrecht wondered if the man was a midget. His father Louis was very short in his wedding picture, although he was not a midget, as far as Albrecht knew.
“Is she there?” called Manny, still at the door in the hall.
Albrecht did not answer. He stood at the closed door to the bathroom and hesitated. There was a strong smell of flowers, or something like flowers. Finally, he knocked and took a few steps back.
“Is she there?” called Manny again.
Albrecht called back not yet.
“Not yet? What the fuck?” said Manny.
Albrecht did not know what to say to that. He opened the bathroom door slowly. The light was on. The room was very yellow. What a bad color for a bathroom, he thought. The toilet lid was up and the water in the toilet was yellow. The yellow sink was half-full of water. A stopper was in the drain. The shower curtain in the bathtub was drawn closed.
“Is everything all right?” yelled Manny.
Albrecht drew the shower curtain open. In the bathtub were six long-stem yellow roses and a brightly colored statue of an eagle with its wings spread. There was a little water in the tub and the roses looked soggy and smelled funny, but still like flowers. A small card was at the base of the eagle. Albrecht picked up the card. On the card written in smudged blue ink was El alma tiene alas. He put the card back down and drew the curtain closed.
Albrecht returned to Manny in the hall and told him there were roses in the bathtub.
“What are roses doing in the bathtub?” asked Manny.
Albrecht said they were just lying there.
Manny took a step back away from Albrecht. “Where’s Mrs. Lopez?”
Not there, Albrecht told him. He did not tell him about the birds.
“Something’s not right,” said Manny.
That’s true, thought Albrecht, but didn’t say anything.
“Maybe I should call the police.”
Albrecht asked why.
“That’s what you do when somebody disappears like this,” said Manny. “She’s a missing person now. I mean as far as we know. Her mail is piling up. And she’s missed her rent.”
Albrecht told Manny he had to go now.
Albrecht was not sure, so he just shook Manny’s hand, and started back upstairs.
“Wait a minute,” said Manny. “You can’t just walk away from this. Maybe the police will want to talk to you.”
But Albrecht went anyway.
A week past and the police did not come to talk to Albrecht. Albrecht did not think about the police or Manny or Mrs. Lopez. He called his former girlfriend Cindy and a recorded voice, not hers, informed him that the number he reached was not in service. He called his former boss Mr. Gleason and asked if they might consider taking him back someday, but Mr. Gleason told him no and not to call again. He thought of calling his mother, but then remembered she was dead.
He was lying in bed one morning and noticed a bit of light coming from the window. A corner of the Magic Blackout Blind had come lose and was peeling off. He got up and examined it. That’s not supposed to happen, he thought. He pulled the corner down and peeked through the window. On the brick wall was the faint outline of something he couldn’t make out, something that had not been there before. There were the dim beginnings of colors and lines: red and green, black and purple, hardly there, just ghosts of colors and shapes. Albrecht stuck the corner of the blackout blind against the glass and rubbed it hard until it stayed in place. I need to go now, he thought.
Albrecht put on his coat and gloves and red stocking cap and walked down the four flights of stairs, counting the steps, to the door of his apartment building. He stopped in the hallway and looked at the mailboxes. His box had no mail. Mrs. Lopez’s box, which had been stuffed to bursting, was now empty. He went out and stood on the stoop of the building. It was snowing and the steps of the stoop were covered with snow and the sidewalk at the bottom of the steps had even more snow. A car parked at the curb was half-buried in snow. Albrecht hesitated and nearly turned back. I do need to go now, he thought. He was about to go down the steps when two men walked up toward him.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Mr. Albrecht, would you?” asked the taller of the two men. The shorter man stood directly behind the tall man so it was hard to see his face. It was as if he were hiding behind him. Albrecht said yes, he was.
“I’m glad we caught you,” said the tall man.
Albrecht asked why they wanted to catch him.
“Do you mind if we come in?”
Albrecht looked around.
“I mean to your apartment.” The tall man took a wallet from his coat pocket and showed Albrecht a badge. “We’re police.”
Albrecht told the men he was just going out.
“But the snow’s piling up,” said the short man. He looked troubled.
“We won’t be long,” said the tall man.
“We’ll keep it short,” said the short man.
Albrecht felt he really needed to go, though he couldn’t say where. But the men were standing in his way and gave no sign of moving. He agreed to take them back to his apartment.
With the three of them in his living room, Albrecht suddenly realized how little seating he had. Cindy had noticed this and made him buy an armchair to supplement his sofa, but she had taken the armchair when she left. Albrecht had carried the chair down the four flights of stairs and tied it to the roof of her car. Where she took it, and where she took herself, he did not know.
Albrecht took off his coat and took the coats of the two men and put them in the bedroom on the bed. He looked at the window and was glad that the Magic Blackout Blind was still in place.
The three men sat on the sofa, Albrecht between the other two. It was a small sofa. He felt cramped between them. Their knees touched.
“I’m Detective Lee,” said the short man. “This is Detective Hobart. We’re Missing Persons.”
Albrecht looked at them.
“That is, we’re in Missing Persons,” said Hobart. “Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?”
Albrecht said he did not mind, although he actually did. He was bothered by having the two men in his apartment, especially since he had so little seating.
“Do you mind if we record this?” asked Lee. “We don’t take notes anymore. Just record. On our phones.” He took out his cell phone. He put it on his knee, the knee that was touching Albrecht. “Can you tell us about Mrs. Lopez?”
Albrecht bent his head down toward Lee’s knee and asked what about Mrs. Lopez?
“You don’t have to talk to my knee,” said Lee. “Just talk normally.”
“Anything you can tell us would be helpful,” said Hobart.
Albrecht said he did not know what to tell them.
“We think you were the last person to see Mrs. Lopez. Possibly,” said Lee. “Did she say anything about going anywhere?”
Albrecht told them she never said anything at all, just listened.
“You talked to her and she never said anything?” Lee moved the phone on his knee closer to Albrecht’s knee.
Albrecht didn’t know what to say. He had never thought about it.
“Did she make expressions?” asked Hobart. “I mean facial expressions? Any peculiar body language?”
Albrecht said he did not understand body language.
“Did you see the card? The one with the roses? In the bathtub?” Lee was so short he had to look up at Albrecht when he spoke to him. Albrecht thought about how short his father was in the wedding picture and how short Mrs. Lopez’s husband was in their picture. And now here was Lee, a detective, who was also very short. He had not noticed before how many short people there were. “Mr. Albrecht? The note?”
Albrecht said he could not read the note.
“It was in Spanish,” said Hobart.
Albrecht said he did not understand Spanish.
“It said ‘El alma tiene alas.’ That means ‘the soul has wings.’ In Spanish.”
“Did she seem depressed? Frightened? Angry, perhaps?” asked Lee.
“Did it make you angry, Mr. Albrecht? Her not saying anything?” asked Hobart.
Albrecht asked why he would be angry?
“That’s what we’d like to know,” said Lee.
Hobart said, “Manny, your super, told us you had been living with a woman until the beginning of the year. Then she left.”
Lee said, “We talked to your employer. Former employer, that is. Mr. Gleason.”
Hobart said, “We understand your mother passed away. In October.” He put his hand on Albrecht’s knee. “Please accept our condolences.”
“And the birds,” said Lee. “The fifty-one birds.” He paused. “Did you give her any of those birds, Mr. Albrecht?”
Albrecht stood up.
“Where are you going?” asked Hobart.
Albrecht said he had told them what he knew about Mrs. Lopez.
“But you’ve barely told us anything,” said Lee.
“Actually nothing,” Hobart pointed out.
Albrecht asked the men to leave.
“All right,” said Lee. “We didn’t mean to upset you.”
Albrecht said he was not upset.
“We may have to talk to you again,” said Hobart. “You understand.”
Albrecht said he did not understand. He went to get the men’s coats. They followed him to the bedroom.
“Is that a Magic Blackout Blind?” asked Lee, looking at the window.
Albrecht acknowledged that it was.
“Does it work?” asked Hobart. “It really keeps the light out, like it says on TV?”
Albrecht felt he should not answer any more questions, so he said nothing. He gave the men their coats and led them back to the door.
“We may be back, Mr. Albrecht,” said Hobart. “Or we may not.”
“It depends,” said Lee.
Albrecht asked them on what it depended.
“Developments,” said Hobart. And they left.
Albrecht stood for a while and stared at the closed door. Then he sat on the couch. The couch seemed bigger. It seemed much too big.
The next evening, as Albrecht sat on the couch watching a show called “Unsolved Mysteries” on TV, he heard a knock on his door. He opened the door and found Manny the super.
“Those guys yesterday,” said Manny, “they were cops, right?”
Albrecht said yes, they were.
“I didn’t say anything. I mean just that you went in her apartment. Just to see.”
Albrecht said all right.
“I told them you had a girl here and she left.”
Albrecht said nothing.
“They’re the cops, right? You got to tell them something.”
Albrecht said no, you don’t have to tell them something.
“Well,” said Manny. He seemed not to know what to say next. Finally, he said, “No hard feelings, right?”
Albrecht said no hard feelings and shut the door. Why should I have hard feelings? he thought.
Later that night, when Albrecht went to his bedroom, he noticed that the upper corner of the Magic Blackout Blind had peeled off the window more than the first time. A substantial part of the window was showing. Albrecht peeled the corner down enough to look out the window. Although it was night, enough moonlight fell between the scarcely separated buildings to faintly illuminate the opposite wall. Albrecht noticed that the lines and colors he had seen earlier in the day seemed more distinct, the lines merging into shape, the colors congealing. He went to the kitchen and from under the sink took a flashlight he kept there. He returned to the bedroom, peeled down the Magic Blackout Blind to expose more of the window, and shone the flashlight on the wall. He saw the faint but definite outline of a window and ledge, the window open, and leaning out of the window, with large hands on the ledge, someone, a woman, an old woman, an old woman in a mottled red top, her face purpled, her hair short and black, shadowy, her face shadowy but familiar, the woman leaning forward through the window, leaning forward through the flat stone wall and looking at him. Albrecht dropped the flashlight and hurriedly stuck the Magic Blackout Blind back in place, rubbing it frantically against the window. I should call the police, he thought. He sat on the edge of his bed. I can’t call the police. He stood up. Maybe she’ll go away, he thought. She won’t go away. He sat back down on the edge of his bed. I could buy a can of spray paint, he thought. White. He laid down on the bed and closed his eyes. Black.
Early the next morning Albrecht put on his coat and gloves and red stocking cap and left to go to the hardware store around the corner where he had bought the Magic Blackout Blind. Two boys across the street, boys who often bothered him, threw snowballs. One hit his red stocking cap. Albrecht thought of chasing them, but he did not know what he was supposed to do if he caught them. As he was thinking about this, Cindy, his former girlfriend, walked up to him. She was angry.
“Don’t get me involved,” she said. She was wearing a black ski mask, but Albrecht could tell it was her. The ski mask had a pattern of little yellow flowers. Roses.
Albrecht asked involved in what?
“The police came and asked me questions about you. It was freaky. It creeped me out.”
Albrecht said he was sorry.
“You’re always sorry,” said Cindy. “That doesn’t help. It doesn’t keep the police from asking me questions.” Little puffs of smoke came from the mouth hole in the ski mask. It’s really cold, thought Albrecht.
“Hello?” said Cindy tapping on Albrecht’s head. “Anybody home?”
Albrecht again said he was sorry.
Cindy groaned. “Do not get me involved, understand? Just keep me out of it.”
Albrecht said he would not get her involved, even though he did not know what it was.
“You better not. Or I’ll tell the police something.”
Albrecht asked what she would tell them.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said and walked off, muttering to herself.
At the hardware store, Albrecht did not know where to look for the spray paint. He asked Buddy, the man who had sold him the Magic Blackout Blind, where the spray paint was.
“By the paint,” said Buddy. “But we keep it locked up.” Buddy took Albrecht to where the paint was and over to a mesh metal wall cabinet that had several shelves of spray paint cans. He unlocked it. “You got to be eighteen to buy it,” said Buddy.
Albrecht asked why he had to be eighteen?
“These goddamn kids,” said Buddy. “They deface things, you know? With the spray paint. Like walls and shit. So, they made a law. But they get it anyway. They get adults to buy it for them.” He frowned. “This is for your own personal use, right?”
Albrecht said it was and he wanted one can of black.
“We got lots of colors,” said Buddy. “Red, green, blue. Silver even. Yellow’s really popular.”
Albrecht said he just wanted black.
“Most people get two colors. At least.”
Albrecht said he just wanted black.
“Can’t do much with black. Seems a shame. But suit yourself. Got some proof of age, pal?”
Albrecht took out his wallet.
“Just kidding. I’m a kidder,” said Buddy. “You’re okay by me. I don’t care what people say.”
Albrecht asked what did people say?
“Oh, you know,” said Buddy and smiled.
When Albrecht got back to his apartment, he found a woman waiting for him at the door. She was about his age and his height, but was heavier. Her coat was also heavy, long and blue, and she wore a yellow scarf around her neck. She had on black boots. She looked very serious.
“Mr. Albrecht?” she asked.
Yes, he was said Albrecht.
“I am Isabella. The daughter. From Miami.”
Albrecht asked whose daughter she was?
Albrecht stared at her.
“I need to talk to you,” said Isabella.
Albrecht opened the door to his apartment and Isabella walked in before him. She did not take off her coat or scarf. She sat on the sofa. Albrecht kept his coat and cap on and sat next to her. He put the bag containing the can of spray paint carefully on the floor.
“Where is my mother?” asked Isabella.
Albrecht asked who was her mother?
Albrecht told Isabella that he did not know where Mrs. Lopez was.
“Did she say anything to you?” asked Isabella.
Albrecht said no, she never said anything to him.
Isabella nodded. “She never said anything to me either. Not for years. She used to talk, then stopped.”
Albrecht was sweating in his coat and hat.
“When I would call her from Miami she would not say anything. I knew she was listening, so I would talk to her. But it was hard, so I did not call often.”
Albrecht said he did not call his mother often either and now she was dead.
“Do you know why she did not talk to anyone?” asked Isabella.
Albrecht said he did not know.
“Because when she talked to people, she frightened them.”
Albrecht said she did not frighten him.
“She did not talk to you.”
That’s true, thought Albrecht.
“She did not like to frighten people, but she could not help it. It made people stay away from her or get too close. When she was still talking, she told me she did not belong here.”
Albrecht asked where did she think she belonged?
“Someplace else. She said she had to go. Someplace else.”
Albrecht did not know what to say.
“Listen to me. I want to tell you something.” She took Albrecht’s hands in hers, just as Mrs. Lopez had once done. “Are you listening?”
Albrecht said he was listening. He could feel the sweat on his forehead beneath his stocking cap.
“I think my mother was different. Different because she had powers. Powers that she did not want to have.”
Albrecht asked what kind of powers.
“The kind that made people afraid of her. Mr. Albrecht, sometimes I was afraid of her.”
Albrecht said he was not afraid of her.
Isabella made the sign of the cross.
Albrecht stood up. He told Isabella he needed to go now.
“Go where, Mr. Albrecht?”
Albrecht did no answer her.
Albrecht said nothing.
“Mr. Albrecht, I know you did not do anything to my mother. But the police, they think you did. They told me your girlfriend thinks you did. And the super of this building, Mr. Manny, he thinks you did. And someone named Mr. Gleason thinks you did. I think when people see you, they all think you did something, even if they don’t know what it was. That’s how it was with my mother.”
Albrecht swallowed hard.
Isabella stood up. “Will you do something for me?”
Albrecht said yes, he would.
“When you see my mother, tell her I am glad she is gone and I hope she is happy.”
Isabella left and Albrecht continued to sit on the sofa. This just isn’t right, he thought. He picked up the bag on the floor and took out the can of spray paint. In his bedroom, he peeled down the Magic Blackout Blind. He opened the window. On the wall opposite the window, the wall he could nearly touch, was the stone window with its ledge, and the old woman, the old woman in the mottled red top, leaning forward on the ledge, leaning out of the stone window but still one with it, the old woman more definite now and not just familiar, the old woman Albrecht knew without any doubt. He shook the can of spray paint. It made a rattling noise, as if there was something hard inside, hard and broken. He leaned out the window and held the can upright on the level of the old woman’s eyes. His hand was shaking. He held the can up for more than a minute. Then he lowered his hand. He closed the window. He took off his coat and his red stocking cap. He was drenched in sweat. It’s not right, he thought. He laid down on his bed and cried. He fell asleep.
A sharp knocking on the door awoke him. It was dark. Albrecht sat up.
“Mr. Albrecht, open up. It’s the police. Detective Lee.”
“And Detective Hobart. We have your girlfriend Cindy with us. Would you like to talk to her?”
“Albrecht open the door,” shouted Cindy. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Please,” said Lee.
“Mr. Albrecht,” said Manny. He sounded very excited. “Can I open the door? With my key?”
“We just need to talk to you,” said Hobart. “No one is going to harm you.”
“You need to open the door now,” shouted Cindy.
Albrecht got up and looked out his window that looked onto the street. There were two police cars in front of the building. Their lights were turning everything red and blue, red and blue, then red and blue. People were standing in front of the building and were looking up at his window. Their faces were also turning red and blue.
“Stand back from the door, Mr. Albrecht, and lie down on the floor on your stomach,” said Hobart. “We’re not going to harm you.”
Albrecht went to the window facing the wall next door. He opened the window wide. The stone window and the old woman were glowing in reds and blues and yellows, and the old woman was leaning far forward but was still one with the wall, the wall still solid, but moving closer. Albrecht leaned out his window toward it.
“Mrs. Lopez,” said Albrecht. “I need to go now.”
Mrs. Lopez stretched her stone arm out from the wall. Albrecht took her hand. The stone fingers closed around his. Overhead he heard a fluttering of many wings. He took a deep, deep breath and held it. Then he went.
Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Vestal Review, Pif Magazine, Gemini Magazine, Jellyfish Review and many other publications. He lives and writes in Clifton, New Jersey.