“He wears a Hello My Name Is name tag, with an empty space where his name should be.”
She keeps having dreams about her grandmother—that she arrives uninvited to a dinner party—that she finds her, rifling through the apple bins in the produce aisle—that her grandmother turns up at her own funeral with a bouquet of white lilies and potato salad in a store bought container. She understands that none of these can happen because her grandmother’s funeral took place two weeks ago, and the lilies have already been laid in front of the head stone. Besides, Plum knows her grandmother would never bring anything to a funeral that was store bought.
As she reaches into her purse for her keys, she feels her phone vibrate in the back pocket of her jeans. When the phone is in her hand, her screen shows an unknown number and location. Before her grandmother died, she would have ignored a call like this, but she worries about missing calls from relatives whose numbers she doesn’t recognize or whose names she doesn’t know. She’s already had strangers arriving on her doorstep expecting shelter and comfort after the loss of her grandmother and guardian. Plum presses Accept Call and lifts the phone to her ear.
At first, there’s only silence; then Plum hears a growing, crackling static. She waits a few more moments, rummaging through her purse with her free hand, and then tries again with a different intonation.
The static drifts in and out of Plum’s hearing until she finally presses End Call. She knows she needs a new phone; the device is ancient and overheats when she keeps it in her pocket for too long. She holds the phone in her hand, pushes her house key into the lock with the other, then moves through the doorway. Her landline begins to ring as she closes the door behind her.
The townhouse has been in the family for 87 years with the occasional non-family member occupant in the ’40s. Plum’s grandmother, Delilah, lived there for 67 years. Plum has lived there with her for the past 20 of those. Her grandmother kept the house in “guest ready” condition, cleaning once a week, having the furnace checked once a year, and never letting water sit around the taps. A few years back, Plum’s grandmother noticed a thumping sound when she turned off the taps in the kitchen and bathrooms. The house had always made noise, creaking and the like, but this was different. If Plum stood in the basement when her grandmother shut off a tap on the third floor, she felt the walls rattle and heard the sounds of pipes shifting on every level until the sound reached her. When she was younger, Plum ran down the stairs to the basement to do whatever needed to be done as quickly as possible. She twitched every time she felt something brush against her arm, as if stringy fingers were reaching out to grab at her. It was usually insulation that had loosened from the wall, but Plum ran regardless.
She twitched every time she felt something brush against her arm, as if stringy fingers were reaching out to grab at her.
Her grandmother tried turning all of the taps on at once to let air out of the pipes, but the rattling and thumping continued. The sound didn’t bother Plum much, but Delilah called a plumber from the yellow pages. He arrived with a stethoscope in his bag and he instructed Plum to turn each tap in the house off and on. He pressed the stethoscope against the walls, listening for possible leaks or damage. This lasted for hours while her grandmother observed from the living room. Finally, when he’d pressed his stethoscope against each section of wall, he sat down in the living room, looking a little too large for Delilah’s armchair. Plum and her grandmother sat on the couch. He took a deep breath before he began.
I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. The house is inoperable—you have water hammer.
Both Plum and her grandmother wanted to laugh at the gravity of the plumber’s prognosis, but they had to feign genuineness to avoid offending him.
Are you sure?
They already knew they’d be seeking a second opinion.
I’m afraid so, ma’am.
With that, the house groaned, as it occasionally did, and the plumber packed up his tools. He shook their hands and apologized, again, as he walked out the door.
Plum returns home with her arms full of grocery bags. The plastic handles dig into her wrists, leaving pink grooves against her skin. She wrestles with the grocery bags and her purse to get to her keys when she hears the sound of creaking wheels behind her.
Are you new here?
Plum turns around, bags in hand, to see her neighbour from the townhouse opposite and one over from hers. He rides out to meet her on an electric scooter, the same brand and model her grandmother had owned. Plum knows by now that the man never wears shirts, and she is already too well acquainted with the curves and crevasses of his midsection.
No, I’ve lived here for 20 years. You’d probably remember my grandmother, Delilah. She lived here for longer than I have.
Plum’s grocery bags are cutting into her wrists, chafing off layers of skin as she sweats in the summer heat.
Are you sure? I could have sworn this unit had been empty for years.
Plum’s phone begins to vibrate in her back pocket.
I guess I don’t go out very much.
Plum chuckles, proving to herself as much as him that she’s only joking. He wears a Hello My Name Is name tag, with an empty space where his name should be. Regardless, she knows his name is Alfred.
Well, welcome to the neighbourhood anyway.
Alfred puts his chair in reverse and backs into the darkness of his garage. Plum knows they will have the same exchange next week. She doesn’t tell him that there is, as he remembered, a unit that’s been empty for years, but it’s beside his and not across. He housed his aging mother there before she passed away. The unit has remained furnished, but uninhabited for 18 years. With the right lighting, Plum can usually see portions of the kitchen from her dining room and bedroom windows.
Plum’s phone has stopped vibrating; she missed the call. She hoists her grocery bags up higher and glides her key into the lock. Pressing the door with the bottom of her shoe, she enters her empty home.
In the winter that Plum was ten years old, she was woken one night by a long, screaming string of words uttered outside her bedroom window. She sat up in bed, blood rushing to her ears, and tried to piece the words into a coherent sentence. She was fairly certain she’d heard them spoken out loud, but as her eyes adjusted to the dark and her ears to the silence, she wondered if she’d dreamt them.
Don’t let him get away. Please. Don’t let him take her away.
Plum was suddenly cold, realizing that she’d forgotten to close her window before falling asleep. She reached her hand to the curtains and saw small patches of ice against the wooden sill in crystalline clusters. She scraped them with her nails, carving patterns and spirals into the thin layer of ice. The sheer portion of her blind had blown out from behind her bedframe and was strewn across the room, as if the force of the woman’s voice had driven it from the wall. She pushed a button on her watch, which told her it was 2:37 a.m. Plum reached under her bed for her journal and her pen. Illuminated by the light of her watch, she wrote the time and copied down the words she’d heard outside.
The flash was too brief to be able to see who was in the apartment, but Plum could distinguish the outline of a figure standing at the kitchen window.
It only occurred to her while she wrote that she should tell her grandmother. As she got to her feet, a light snapped on in the hallway. Plum could see the shadows of her grandmother’s slippers in the crack below her door and she could hear her grandmother’s voice relaying over the telephone the words Plum had heard outside. She couldn’t hear a responding voice on the other end of the line like she normally could. Plum lifted her blind and looked out at the drive below. The scream must have come from a long ways away. She didn’t see anyone moving in the light from the streetlamps. As she shifted her gaze upward, she saw the briefest flash of light in the empty townhouse across from hers, as quick as an extinguishing bulb. The flash was too brief to be able to see who was in the apartment, but Plum could distinguish the outline of a figure standing at the kitchen window.
The telephone call was short and there were no more screams outside the window that night. In the morning, her grandmother made hot cocoa with breakfast and asked her how she’d slept. She said just fine as she looked out the kitchen window to the townhouse across. The blinds were as they’d always been, hanging slightly crooked on the left side, streaming light against the kitchen table where no one sat for 18 years. Plum inspected the front of the house again when she left for school, but could find no trace of a figure in the window.
Plum removes last week’s apples from her fruit bowl, taking the brown, bruised ones to throw away and leaving only those that are spotless. She’d gone to the grocery store since her fruit had begun to rot overnight. Plum assumes some sort of fruit fly or pesticide must have turned them brown quicker than usual. Untying the plastic bags, she washes each apple by hand and lays them out in her fruit bowl to dry. At the very bottom of the bowl, she finds a sweet potato she’d forgotten to use, propped beneath her new batch of bananas and her oranges. Lifting it to inspect the damage, she sees the potato has grown, sprouting stems through the skin that look like tentacles to Plum. She uses the bag from the apples to wrap up the potato and throws it into the bin before its disturbance can turn the air in the kitchen rancid.
… and most mornings, the phone rings around five even though it’s been disconnected from the wall.
Once the groceries are put away, Plum sets about cleaning. She tries to tidy without disturbing the books, photo frames and papers strewn throughout the townhouse. Her grandmother’s obituary still sits, cut from the newspaper, on the table between cups of cold coffee and books with dog-eared corners. Her grandmother’s copy of As I Lay Dying is still on the table, with a bookmark at page 169. Plum would also like to read this book, but cannot fathom moving the bookmark or disturbing the pages her grandmother’s fingers last touched. Plum feels drained as she lowers herself into her grandmother’s armchair and closes her eyes. She has not slept soundly since the funeral and most mornings, the phone rings around five even though it’s been disconnected from the wall.
A crackling static fills Plum’s ears, pushing out into the sides of her head in waves of vibrations. She wakes disoriented to find herself in the armchair and not in her bed. Stretching and trying to work the static from her brain, she stands and opens the window, but the blood rushes to her head and blocks her vision for a few moments. She’s not sure how long she’s been asleep, but the sun has gone down and all seems to be quiet outside. Rubbing the heel of her palm into her forehead, Plum closes her eyes. The static in her ears feels like helium, pushing out and lifting her in all directions. Her phone vibrates again in her back pocket, but she makes no motion to pick it up. This vibration feels the same as the others coursing through her body. She hears thuds in the walls and the sound of trickling water from the upper floors. She must have left the tap running upstairs, but she doesn’t remember turning it on. The LED light on the landline blinks to tell Plum that there’s a voicemail, but she doesn’t want to listen to it. She needs fresh air and to get away from the house.
The static suddenly clears and a blanket of silence surrounds her, with only the crackling sound of a fireplace she didn’t light. She sees a flicker of brightness in her peripheral vision. As she turns, she realizes that the brightness emanates from the upper floor of the townhouse across the street. She watches as it lights and distinguishes three more times. On the fourth, it flickers and stays lit to illuminate a kitchen table from above. This time, Plum does not see a figure at the window, but instead, three figures sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner. She doesn’t recognize two of them, but she recognizes the third, carving a leg of lamb, as her grandmother. Plum takes her overheating phone and runs to the door as the crackling in the fireplace and the pounding in the walls begin again. Her heart clatters in her chest as she runs down the stairs. She tries to reconcile the familiar image of her grandmother in the kitchen with what she knows to be true. Her grandmother has been buried. Her grandmother is underground in a casket and she is also across the street carving lamb. As soon as Plum opens the door, her head clears. She closes the door behind her, but when she turns back to the townhouse, the light in the kitchen flickers and dims again. She can no longer discern kitchen fixtures, just the dirty window frame the same as her own. Plum can see nothing in the blackened window. She stands alone in the light of a street lamp. Alfred’s Hello My Name Is name tag drifts across the pavement to land at her feet.
Amy LeBlanc has recently completed an honours BA in English Literature and creative writing at the University of Calgary where she is Editor-in-Chief of NōD Magazine. Her work has appeared in Prairie Fire, (Parenthetical), Untethered, and Canthius among others, and she received second place in the 2016 Blodwyn Memorial Prize for fiction. Amy also has work forthcoming in The Antigonish Review, the White Wall Review and Plenitude Magazine. She hopes to pursue a career in fiction and poetry, and has recently completed her first novella. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Education and plans to complete her MA in English Literature.