They called my mom, my mom called my sister, my sister called her neighbor, and her neighbor came to get me. I didn’t like phones. And I didn’t like it when too many people knew where I was either. Sometimes, I admit, it’d make things easier for people if they knew better how to get a hold of me. Like in this case. But how was I supposed to know this was gonna happen there and then?
Serene had been a girlfriend once. Not for very long. I didn’t have girlfriends for very long. (That’s not talking tough. It’s confessing to social and personal incapabilities.) We went out together for maybe two months. Then I went into hiding and we didn’t talk for half a year. Then we talked again (sometimes), and it was nice. And now she’d apparently gone crazy (again), and I was supposed to sort things out. Great.
I’d had to do this a couple of times before. She would fool around with a knife or a lighter (“fool around” – well, more accurately: hurt herself) and threaten to do herself in if anyone came close. She’d just sit there and slowly wound herself, more and more, and it could go on for hours. It was always in attics in multi-story houses where she would cut and burn her skin and flesh. Except for repeating her threats of slashing her wrists or jumping out the window if anyone came near her, she wouldn’t say a word to the people around and ignore whatever clever approach they employed to get her to stop. For some reason, the only one she would talk to was me. (By the way, if you’re asking yourself how one ends up going out with a girl like this: inspiration. That’s all I can say. But maybe you wouldn’t understand anyway. Most people don’t.)
Her neighbor arrived. Ryan was a nice guy. He was always there to help out when there were problems with Serene. I think he really liked her. He just had no clue.
“How did they find her?” We were on our way into the city.
“Some guy saw her in the attic. He saw blood on her and freaked out and called the cops. They tried to get her, but then she freaked out and threatened to slash her wrists if they didn’t leave the attic. Given all the blood already there, they didn’t take any risks and called the paramedics. The paramedics couldn’t get close either and had someone at the office check the data base. And since Serene has a history, they called her parents and ... you know the rest.”
The city looked uglier every time I drove into it. I stared at the SUV in front of us. Why did people drive such cars in the city?
“Why does she do that stuff?” Ryan glanced at me.
The Ford pulled into a side street.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She gets bored, I guess.”
We didn’t talk anymore till we got to our destination. A ten-story apartment block in the city center. Quite a long way from Serene’s home. I wondered how she had even found this place.
I saw an ambulance out front. We parked the car and ran up the stairs. I didn’t trust elevators.
In front of the door to what seemed like a large, yet neglected attic, the worrying crowd was assembled. Serene’s parents, her little brother, her grandma, a cop, and a bunch of curious bystanders hungry for sensation (tenants, I assumed, attracted by the cops and paramedics). Laurie and Brett, Serene’s parents, seemed relieved when I arrived. “Nathan, thanks so much…”
“Is she in there?”
“Yes. It’s really bad this time. She won’t even let anyone see her. Last look we had was a few minutes ago. It was bad. I’m so glad…”
“Where are the paramedics?”
“They just went downstairs to…”
“You know they gotta leave, right?”
There was hesitation. “But…”
“No. They gotta leave. I’m not gonna go in there if you don’t promise me to make them leave and stay away. Serene hates the hospital. One of the reasons she trusts me is because she knows I won’t put her there. I’m not gonna go into that attic trying to get her out just to see her being taken away in a straight jacket. If I get her out, I will stay with her for the rest of the day and then bring her home. Then you can do whatever you wanna do. But I won’t have any paramedics waiting here.”
“Sir, I’m afraid this is not up to you to decide.” Great. Now I had to talk to a cop as well. “We’ve got an armed, wounded, and possibly dangerous woman here. It’s the paramedics’ duty to remain on site, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to let Miss Troutsky just leave the premises without supervision.”
“Sir,” I said, as calmly as possible, “you don’t seem to understand. For some reason the only possible way to get ‘Miss Troutsky’ out of here relatively unharmed is for me to go in there and get her. But I might have to do that again, since I had to do it before, and if there are cops and paramedics waiting for her when she comes out with me, she’ll probably never come out with me again. So?”
The cop looked uncertain. The others assembled look anxiously at him and me.
“Look,” I added, “if it’s your – and the paramedics’ – ‘duty’ to stay on site, I guess there’s nothing I can do. But for the sake of Serene’s … ‘Miss Troutsky’s’ life, you gotta be discrete and stay out of sight. This is no joke, sir. I wanna help this woman, and you gotta help me do it right. If I get her out, she will be at her parents’ tonight, and you’ll be able to get all the information you need then. But if I do come out of this attic with her, you and the paramedics need to hide, and you need to let us go. I need you to promise me that.”
The cop still looked uncertain, the others a anxious as before. Finally, the cop said “okay”.
“I can rely on you?” I stretched out my hand.
It took a moment, but then he shook it, cautiously nodding and uttering a “ya – but now go in there!”
Meanwhile, the paramedics had come back. I made them give me some alcohol, an antiseptic cream, scissors, and a couple of sterilized bandages. I looked at the cop again. “Will you talk to them?” He nodded. “And now go, man!” I quickly looked at Serene’s parents and felt her mom’s hand on my hair. Then I cautiously pushed the attic door open, just enough so I could take a step inside.
The attic was indeed neglected. There was nothing in there but a few blocks of old wood. Half the windows were missing. It was big. At least 30 feet wide and a 100 long. Serene was sitting about half way into it by one of the missing windows. She sat in her extreme lotus seat that made my knees hurt just from looking at it, and was surrounded by books, garments, and unlit candles. She was carefully cutting her arm with a kitchen knife, with the expression of a carpenter doing a routine task. She glanced at me coming in, then continued to carve red lines into her arm. I quietly shut the door and leaned against the rotting wall. Serene ignored me – or pretended to. But she obviously tolerated my presence. This was a start. I felt confident.
“Hey,” I started.
“Hey.” I got another glance.
“Nothing much, ha? … What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
Serene laughed quietly. “It doesn’t hurt that bad.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look healthy.”
Serene laughed again. “Healthy? … Well, whatever.”
“Why don’t you cut it out?”
Serene stopped carving another long red line into her left forearm and gave me a proper look for the first time. “That’s a pretty interesting choice of words, don’t you think?”
Now it was my turn to laugh. In fact, we both laughed. Things were looking good. She even lowered her knife.
“Where have you been, dude? I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Ah, come on, like, three weeks.”
“Well, three weeks then. Still, where’ve you been?”
“Nowhere. I mean, nowhere special. Just around.”
“So, just around. You should have called.”
“I should have?”
“Ya, you should have. We should have watched a couple of movies or something.”
“Oh, ya, like what?”
“Donnie Darko. And Requiem for a Dream. And The Devil’s Backbone.”
“Ya, we could have watched that. … What about Dream with the Fishes?”
“Ya, we could have watched that, too.”
There was a moment of silence. We looked at each other. Serene’s eyes were kind.
“You should have that fixed up,” I said, looking and nodding towards her arms.
She lifted them up and inspected her cuts while twisting them. “You think so?”
“I definitely think so.” Her arms looked nasty. Lines of blood of all lengths and angles covered her soft pale skin. There was quite a lot of blood on her long white skirt and on the floor.
“Would you mind if I came over to take care of it?”
She looked at her arms again. “No, I think that’d be okay.”
“Good.” I got off the wall and made my way over to the garments and books and candles, getting the stuff the paramedics had given me out of my pockets. I kneeled down in front of her.
“Hey,” I said again looking into a pair of kind, yet tired green eyes.
“Hey,” Serene said again, smiling. I guess it was what they call ‘a moment’.
I cleaned out the cuts with the alcohol, put the cream on and carefully covered her arms with the bandages. Once we were done she inspected everything as if we had just had an amateurish attempt at body art. She seemed pleased. Then she lay her arms in her lap and looked at me again with the kind green eyes.
“Why?” I said.
The kind eyes still looked at me. “I don’t know.”
I nodded softly. “Why me?”
The kind eyes looked very beautiful. “I don’t know that either.”
I nodded again. Then both of us smiled.
“Do you wanna go?” I asked.
Serene suddenly looked worried. “Are they gonna put me in hospital again?”
“I don’t know,” I had to say in order not to lie. “I don’t know. But not now. Now we’re just gonna go. I promised your parents you’ll be home tonight. Then I don’t know what they will do. You gotta sort it out with them.”
Serene nodded softly. “But now we’re just gonna go?”
“Ya, now we’re just gonna go.”
“Just you and me?”
“If you want to.”
“Ya, I’d like that.”
“Okay, then,” I smiled.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know. The park?”
“Watch the swans?”
“Sure, watch the swans. Haven’t done that in a long time.”
Serene looked content. I was happy.
We got up and packed the books, garments and candles into Serene’s backpack. Then she asked me to wait for a second and got a skirt out of the bag so she could change real quick. I cleaned the knife with a rug, and when Serene rolled up her blood-splattered skirt, I wiped little traces of blood from her face and bigger ones from her hands. Then we were ready to go.
We slowly made our way to the door and I pulled it open carefully. At the sound of it, everyone outside fell quiet and people parted to make way for us. I could feel the stares. Serene just kept her head down. I looked for cops or paramedics, but didn’t see any. All I saw was Laurie Troutsky with tears in her eyes. However, for some reason her face was none of relief, rather one of panic. But it took me too long to understand. And when I saw them, it was too late.
They had hidden behind the corner to the elevator shaft, and just as we passed, they jumped out, two cops towards me, three paramedics, straight jacket in hand, towards Serene. All I remember is yelling: “No!”, pushing Serene aside, throwing myself into the paramedics, while kicking the cops. I could hear Laurie Troutsky scream frantically, I could hear Serene struggle and cry, I could hear people in commotion yelling: “grab her!”, “watch out!”, or: “don’t let her get away!”, while I was throwing elbows at the paramedics underneath and kicks at the cops above, calling everyone “fucking bastards, you fucking bastards!” I lost sight of Serene, but I could feel the straight jacket underneath me, so I knew she wasn’t in there, which made me feel good.
Then I heard the most dreadful cry of “Nooooo!” I had ever heard in my life. It sounded like Laurie Troutsky. It was. I saw her jumping over me and the paramedics, followed by everyone else. Even the cops let go and followed, and then there was another bone-shattering dreadful “Nooooo!” and then there was uncontrolled weeping. The paramedics and I wrestled to our feet and saw the others gathered around an open window at the end of the corridor. More and more tenants trickled in from the stairways. Serene had obviously freed herself. However, in a very tragic manner.
Her death was a shock and instantly broke my heart. Like, I could feel it break. Right there, on that corridor of some ten-story low-income city apartment block, surrounded by three gasping paramedics looking at a group of people leaning out a window or comforting a bitterly distressed woman who had just lost her daughter.
Yet, if you want me to be honest, I did believe at that very same moment that I had saved Serene from what was evil, and that I had protected her freedom. Even if it all had ended tragically. And maybe that was the only way not to feel responsible for her death that day, and I don’t even wanna deny that, but that’s what I believed. And, in a way, that’s all that matters to me ‘cause when do we ever really know why we believe what we believe anyhow?
Instead of leaving the street of that apartment block arm in arm with Serene, I left it handcuffed in the back of a police car. I got indeed charged with assault on a police officer, and even manslaughter in the second degree, but in the end the charges were dropped. Also ‘cause Brett and Laurie Troutsky never supported the prosecutor’s case. They were in fact really nice to me. I felt grateful.
Justin, Serene’s little brother, also got me the blood-stained skirt and the knife a couple of days after the funeral. He had always liked me and was a good 15-year old kid. He had loved his older sister dearly and obviously suffered a great deal. We hang out every now and again.
And every now and again I sneak into the attic of that city center apartment block and sit by the window I had found Serene that day, and I hold and smell the skirt. And hunt for a last moment, I suppose.
The window at the end of the corridor, though, I haven’t gone close to even once. And I’d like to keep it that way.