My first neighbour was an older gentleman who had recently been widowed. Even though his wife was a long-time baker, he had still found the time and energy to bake me a welcoming cake. The icing was leaky, and the cake was dry, but the kind thought made my day. He really made me feel at home and part of the neighbourhood, even if he was the only one to welcome me to the apartment complex.
He’d invite me over for coffee often, especially in the first month. On weekends he’d pour in a little Bailey’s, and a little more for himself. He had many stories to share and it was easy to see how he just missed having someone around.
I’d do my best to cook double, bringing him tuppers filled with hot stews and stir-fried dishes. He loved it, probably missing the homecooked meals. He’d always invite me into his home and set me a plate so we could eat together. As a young adult I’d never thought I’d hang out so much with someone so old. Whatever gray hairs he had left were clinging to his scalp, though he always avoided telling me his real age.
“I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” He’d always say, taking out his dentures and giving me a cheeky gummy smile. Though based on the photographs and knick-knacks he had around his apartment, I could tell he was definitely past his seventies.
I’d rarely see him leave his apartment and would often pick up his grocery list so that I could do his shopping along with mine. He’d always give me more money than needed, folding my hand over the bills and ignoring my protests.
Over time we became quite close and I realized that I was probably the only person ever visiting him. I don’t know what caused us to bond so easily, but I found myself asking for his sage advice quite often. He loved to hear about my work drama, and I loved to hear about his past adventures. He was a great storyteller, weaving humour and exaggeration into every turn of the tale. Sometimes I didn’t know if I should really believe him or not, but at the end of the day what mattered was our quality time.
I started to spend more time at his apartment than mine, seeking comfort in his company. The more time I spent, the more I began to pay attention to his surroundings. I began to ask about his photographs that were filled with different people. I wondered where the rest of his family was, and when I inquired, he’d always say he had none. This was hard for me to believe, considering the frames filled with smiling faces of family. The more I asked about them though, the more he seemed to avoid the topic.
It didn’t take long for me to take notice of the ever-growing collection of “little treasures” as my neighbour called them. It seemed peculiar to me, especially considering I had rarely seen him leave the apartment.
“I have an arrangement with a pal, you see.” He explained one day, as he slowly bent down and reached for something under the kitchen sink. Careful not to hurt his back, he straightened up with a bag of bird seeds in his hand. “Follow me.”
He led me to his terrace where a few plants sun-bathed and sprinkled a handful of seeds across the railing. “My pal likes to come for visits. We’ve reached a sort of understanding, a barter so to speak,” He led me back into the living room and sat down in his cushiony armchair, perfectly angled to face the terrace. It only dawned on me then that it faced the outdoors rather than his old television set. “Pal likes to bring me things in return for some seed, we just need to wait patiently now, you’ll see.”
I sunk into his couch and turned towards the terrace, unsure of how long we’d be waiting. As we sat silently, my mind began to drift. I had been spending more time here than in my own place, and I realized I hadn’t chatted with anyone else in a while. Would I turn into my neighbour? Awaiting a stranger in the window, or a new neighbour next door? Was this what true loneliness looked like?
And just as I began to settle into my half-baked thoughts, a flitter of coal-colour wings landed on the terrace railing.
A big, twitchy crow, cocking its head before starting to peck at the seeds. My neighbour just smiled. An old man’s simple smile. I supposed I wasn’t the only one he talked to then.
As the crow cleaned up the seeds, we remained still. It was only once it took off again, that my neighbour spoke. “Pal’ll be back, probably with another gift for me. They do that, you know, crows and ravens and such. You treat them with respect, and they’ll do the same. They don’t forget faces either.”
I just nodded my head, feeling a tad uneasy about it all. “So… the photographs and all the little knick-knacks… the crow brings ‘em?”
He just hummed a response, once again avoiding the subject. Then he perked right up with a twinkle in his eyes and a goofy smile on his face. “Look, Pal’s returning! Let’s have a look at what we got today.”
We returned to the terrace to see what the crow had brought, causing it to flee from our presence. Not that it should matter. But right there, perfectly placed on the railing was a gold wedding band.
“It’s a really goodie today! Yippee!”
I was stunned. I picked up the gold band, inspecting it cautiously. I noticed what look like rust on the inside and used the bottom hem of my shirt to try to clean it off. The air felt different, and I heard a loud caw reverberating across the walls. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and I tried to shake off that feeling of being watching by the damn crow.
“I guess you could really cash this in for something.” Turning to my neighbour, I placed the gold band in his opened palm.
“Oh, never. I would never just sell Pal’s gifts like that. That would be very disrespectful.” He turned away from me and walked indoors towards his bookshelf covered in ‘gifts’ of bones, feathers, coins, and more. He carefully reached towards a small bejewelled box sitting on the top shelf and placed the gold band inside with a clink. Perhaps there were many more rings in there.
I began to feel strange in the suddenly cluttered apartment. Maybe it was the scent of mildew, or the outdated wallpaper, but I no longer felt that this was my place. The more I processed my surroundings, the more I realized that so much of what was in the apartment was just junk brought by some crow. Maybe my neighbour really didn’t have any family, and all those photographs were just strangers; memories dropped off by a crow for some seeds.
So many photographs. So many strange eyes, staring at me, faking smiles that cry for help to be returned to their real homes.
I tried to clear my throat which suddenly felt parched. How had I not noticed how weird this old man was. “Aren’t you worried about fleas or anything? From that crow?”
“What ever do you mean?” His tone sounded serious, and I felt a shiver go up my spine. Something was definitely not right. How did I get here?
“I mean, it’s a pest carrier, and who even knows where all this junk has been?”
“I don’t think that’s a very respectful thing to say about Pal. Pal is a good crow, an honest crow, a respectable crow.” Why did he keep pushing the respect thing?
I nodded my head awkwardly and started to mumble an excuse as I made my way toward the exit. I’d be sleeping with my windows shut that’s for sure. Maybe I’d also go call up one of my coworkers and go for a drink somewhere.
I grabbed my jacket off the hook by the door, realizing it had probably been here for a while as the season had already changed. How long had I been sucked into this place? It was then that I saw the rust stain on my finger. I definitely needed to wash my hands properly when I would get home.
“I’ll see ya soon!” I called out without even looking and exited the apartment hastily. Maybe that wasn’t so polite.
When I returned to my own apartment, I quickly locked and bolted the front door and leaned back against it, trying to calm my heart. Closing my eyes, I tried to take a few deep breaths. Why had everything changed so suddenly?
A clatter led to my eyes fluttering open, and a shadow flew along my living room wall.
The sun was reaching its horizon line, sending hues of orange and yellows across the apartment. It should have been beautiful. But my eyes had spotted a kitchen knife on the floor by my own terrace first.
I should have remembered that the terrace door was open.
I should have been more respectful.
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