Troy was doodling with his headphones on when his roommate stomped into the living room and shouted: “WILL YOU PLEASE. STOP. MAKING. THAT. NOISE?”
Stephen had been a craigslist find, but for all that he wasn’t bad. First impression had read kinda fussy, but he was the first non-methhead of the day, so Troy had no trouble saying yes to him. Three months of quiet passing conversation, no passive-aggressive arguments about when the rent was due. And suddenly, this.
Troy swept the headphones from his ears. “I have it turned down, dude.”
“Not that,” Stephen said, exasperated. “That stupid…there! That!” he pointed, as if the sound had a physical body.
Troy looked around. It was a saturday morning calm. The Bellinis next door were out for the day, so no loud television. The Kellers across the courtyard had their pitbull trussed up, so it wasn’t that.
The refrigerator kicked on. Troy pointed. “That?”
Stephen ground his teeth. His eyes were mad little flames. “You know what it is. It’s coming from you. I’m not playing this game.”
Troy sat up, notebook sliding off his lap. “What games, what…I really don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Stephen was nodding, though, not agreeably but a reflexive jerk of the head. “I see how it is. You know, I pay my rent on time. I don’t deserve this.”
“Dude, you’re being weird.” Troy went to replace the headphones. Stephen knocked them away.
Troy leapt to his feet. “What the fuck?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I disrupt you?” Stephen asked acidly. “That’s what you’re doing to me right now. The fact that you can’t even own up to it—”
“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” Troy shouted, getting right in his face. He was a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than Stephen, who finally shrank back.
“Fine,” he muttered after a time. “I’ve said my piece. It’s on you now.”
He stalked back to his room.
Troy capped the pen, shaking his head. The skull lay half-finished on the paper. He threw the notebook and a few supplies in his satchel and sat at a coffee house for a few hours as a peace offering. When he got back, Stephen was out like a light on the couch, drooling excessively. Troy shook his head and called it a night.
Stephen was already up at the table when Troy stumbled out of bed. He had his robe on over his pajamas, the french press sat half-full of coffee next to marmalade toast. It looked and smelled like a trap. Troy groaned.
“When I signed on to live here,” Stephen said without so much as a ‘good morning,’ “I entered into a verbal contract. And though it may not be as binding as a written contract, I expect certain rights—”
“Jesus Christ, it’s too early for this.”
“—let me finish—rights that should be basic. I feel like my money not only buys me a space in this apartment, it buys me a certain amount of consideration. Would you agree?”
“Dude, I’m not making the noise, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Would you agree?” Stephen repeated.
Troy wiped a hand down his face. “Sure, pal.”
“Good.” Stephen’s face was rigid. “I should think a right not to be harassed would be basic—”
“I’m not harassing you!”
“—let me finish—I would think the right not to be harassed would be basic stuff, but let’s just clarify it now, shall we? Harassment, as I define it, would be repeated and excessive actions designed to get a rise out of me. Would you agree?”
Troy stood and stared at his roommate for a bit.
“Fuck it,” he said, “I’m going for a bike ride.”
“Don’t you walk away from me!” Stephen rose from the table as Troy went to the front hall and donned his sneakers.
“We’re done here,” Troy said.
“We’re not done—”
“I’m not arguing with you anymore. I’m not making any noise, and if you can’t believe me when I say that then maybe you shouldn’t be living here.”
The last thing he saw before the door shut was Stephen’s face, drawn and white. It set off alarms in his head, but he couldn’t go back. Not just then. He saddled up the Raleigh and just pedaled aimlessly for awhile. Families were out walking their dogs, flying kites and generally being pleasant.
Troy wondered if he really was making a noise he was unaware of. That would make him an asshole, if he never even considered the possibility.
He braked for a jogger cutting across the bike path.
Of course, if he was unaware of it, that didn’t automatically make him an asshole, didn’t it? And Stephen was awfully quick to jump to the conclusion that he was doing it on purpose.
Troy wondered about him. He’d never mentioned family, he’d never brought a girl (or guy) back to the apartment. He was generally neat and self-contained.
Troy freewheeled past a pond as he tried to think back over the three months of his tenancy. Had Stephen given any clues, any motion that seemed innocuous at the time but was suddenly significant?
He drew blank after blank.
Returning to the building with a bagful of chocolate croissants as a peace offering, Troy found the front door on a chain.
He sighed, set down the bag, and knocked.
Stephen appeared at the sliver of open door. “You’ll be happy to know I’ve called the landlord.”
“Dude. Seriously. What?” Troy put his face in his hands.
“If you hadn’t been so unreasonable, we might have settled this amicably.”
“Okay, look.” Troy held out open hands. “Are you going through something personal right now? Is it something at work? You can talk to me.”
“I tried, remember?”
Mr. Dimitriou came shuffling up the stairs. Stephen pressed himself to the gap in the door and yelled, “Sir? I’m the one who called you, right here!”
“Hello, Mr. Dimitriou,” Troy said.
“Don’t you dare try to preempt me, you bastard,” Stephen snapped. “Sir, it’s very urgent. I have to speak with you.
Dimitriou’s tired eyes looked from one man to the other. “Hello, Troy. It’s not the heater?”
“No, Mr. Dimitriou, it’s working fine.”
“Why are you talking to him? I’m the one who called you.” Stephen’s eyes were alight with unhealthy fire. “I would like to report an unlawful harassment. The man who rents this apartment from you has been repeatedly and insistently harassing—”
“It’s been a day, how are you even—”
“—harassing me. I would hate to bring litigation into it,” Stephen’s tone implied that he very much would like to, actually, “but I have shopped around and have several promising lawyers who might take my case.”
Dimitriou took a long, solemn moment to absorb facts. Then he turned to Troy.
“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou.”
“You charge him rent?”
“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou, we split the rent right down the middle. I show him the statement.”
“Your problem, then.” Dimitriou gave a shrug of his heavy shoulders and turned to go.
“Wait! He’s making the noise right now, listen! He hasn’t even stopped in your presence, that’s how blatant he’s being. Listen!”
Dimitriou looked at Troy, his grey eyes emotionless. Understanding fluttered between them.
“I hear nothing,” the old man said, and continued shuffling down the hall.
Stephen’s face was bloodless as he unhitched the chain. Troy tried to hand him the bag of croissants, but Stephen’s hands were limp.
“Look, I do believe you’re hearing something,” Troy said, “but I honestly don’t hear it. I’m sorry, have you considered seeing a doctor?”
“Don’t patronize me,” Stephen said. He went to his room and wedged towels beneath the door.
Troy heard little from him all week. It was the next weekend when he came into the kitchen, setting down a prescription page.
“There you go,” Stephen said icily, “a headache medication. Probably wanted to draw a middle finger, too.”
“So he couldn’t find anything physically wrong with you?”
Stephen nodded, smug.
“Did he recommend a mental health specialist?”
“I’m not going to—”
“Did he recommend a mental health specialist?” Troy asked more forcefully.
Stephen wilted a little. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Which meant, to Troy, that the doctor probably had recommended one.
“Look,” he said as gently as he could, “I feel for you. I really do. But, if this is a mental health problem, you need to deal with it the same way you would an illness.”
Stephen folded his arms. “I know it’s not me.”
Troy said, “well it sure as shit ain’t me.” And left.
Sympathy lingered for about a week. Then it became annoyance. Whenever Troy would invite friends over, Stephen would make a point to make himself known. He would rush out of his room and do the most pointless, bizarre things he could. Trying to make as much noise as possible, Troy knew this. But it wasn’t until the mousetrap in the cupboard that Troy decided he’d had enough.
Troy had opened the cupboard above the sink looking for his box of granola bars. He pushed aside Stephen’s little baggies of quinoa and flaxseed jar and as he was feeling along the cupboard paper he heard something snap before he felt white-hot agony rush to his fingers. He could only grunt in surprise pain as he lifted the spring from his hand. There was a throbbing bar across his fingers from where the trap had hit. He sank them knuckle deep into a bowl of hastily crushed ice.
Stephen didn’t even bother looking innocent. He sat sprawled on his futon, watching a house flipping reality show. Troy stood in front of the TV set and turned it off.
“You need to leave,” he said, “I want you out now.”
Stephen looked shocked. As if he hadn’t considered this was a possible outcome of his actions. “You can’t throw me out for a mistake,” he said, standing.
Troy said gently, “look, this is getting ridiculous. You can’t talk to me, you won’t go to a doctor, and you can’t deal.”
Stephen said, “this is ridiculous. I have my rights.”
Troy said, “my rights include not being attacked in my own apartment. The subletting laws—”
“The subletting laws say you can’t kick me out for prejudice against my mental state,” Stephen said excitedly.
“Well, then, you would have to have an official diagnosis, wouldn’t you?” Troy asked.
Stephen shut his mouth. He really did look desperate. Troy almost felt sorry for him and then he moved his fingers. The twinge brought him back to reality.
“I’ll give you a week,” he said, “and then I want you out. I don’t care where you go, I don’t care who you hook up with, I don’t care what you take, I want you to leave because this is just unbearable.”
“ … If you’d only just stop,” Stephen whispered.
Troy slammed his good hand down on the television set. “I’m. Not. Doing. Anything!”
Stephen looked at the ground and said nothing.
If Stephen was looking for a new apartment, Troy could not see it. Stephen spent the time he was visible to Troy scribbling furiously in a series of notebooks. Troy called the landlord and the building owner just to make sure his corners were all squared. He learned he wasn’t really supposed to be subletting this apartment, but he could be grandfathered in due to an earlier lease. He also learned he could not use excessive force to take Stephen out, but the rules were vague on what that constituted. Just great. All he needed. More vaguery.
The day Stephen killed himself, Troy was at work. He’d given Julie his keys because she needed to pick something up from the apartment, so rather than leave work he simply handed her the ring. Stephen must have been waiting in his room, the ET said. He heard the jingle of keys in the door. He must have been waiting for Troy to come home.
Julie heard someone say, “no Troy, no!” And then a second later she heard a sickening crash as something hit the pavement. Stephen’s door swung open at a touch, and inside was a hurricane of disorder. When Troy arrived home later that day to take stock of the situation, he noticed he was missing a few things. Some furniture, some keepsakes, and an old vase his grandmother had given him. Stephen’s idea was probably to lure Troy into a conflict, they told him. There were signs of upturned furniture in the room, holes punched in the wall, and the window screen had been bent violently outward. He had apparently intended to frame Troy. There were no sign of the missing items in his room, and no sign of abuse on Stephen’s body.
Troy sat water-kneed on the couch with a cold beer as they broke this all to him gently as they could. Yes, he replied, Stephen was not in a right mental state. Yes, they had quarreled. No, he had no idea any of this was going on.
They cleaned up the scene as best they could, and gave him the number of a crisis helpline. Julie went home to cry on her boyfriend. Troy sat with his arms encircling his knees.
He did not have contact information for anyone close to Stephen. His roommate remained just as enigmatic in death as he had been in life. That left Stephen’s few worldly possessions, still in his room because Troy could not bring himself to open the door again, in flux. It also meant that Troy would probably never see his things again.
Since he could not get up the energy to go to his room, Troy passed out on the couch after a few beers. As he slept he dreamed, and as he dreamed he came back to the apartment.
In the dream, he woke on his bed. It was night outside. The moon made unusually crisp shadows with the things on his nightstand. Stephen was calling him softly from the next room. In typical dream logic, Troy knew that Stephen only wanted to bother him about the noise. He kept silent and still on his bed. He was sleeping fully clothed above the covers, not even his shoes were off.
Stephen’s calling became more insistent. He had to talk to Troy. If he wanted his stuff back, he would have to come and talk like a human being.
Troy sat up. It did not seem at all unusual to him that his things were missing and yet Stephen was still alive. He walked slowly, oh so slowly, to the next room. Stephen was not in his room.
Stephen’s room was different in the dream. Where the window had been now there was an alcove that opened up into a greater hall. Stephens voice called from the end of the hall. Now it was gentler, insisting that Troy come and get his things, and Stephen would never bother him again. Stephen’s voice had an odd buzz to it, one that lingered like a tongue on a battery. It was irritating, yet oddly compelling. Troy had his foot on the first step when the honking of a car alarm started him awake.
He stood with his foot on the windowsill. He really was in Stephen’s room.
Troy step down from the sill, shaken. The wind blew through the open window. It had been closed when the EMTs left. He could see below, in the street where the car alarm was going off. A vase, Troy’s vase that had wilted daylilies in it, was shattered on the hood of the car.