A few years ago, I had finally managed to move away from home. This was something of a victory for me, since I was in my mid-20s and still living in my moms' apartment and, later when she got a house, her basement. There are a lot of reasons for this, but primarily among them was the long term undiagnosed depression that seemed to plague my every attempt at going forward with my life. After I finally got the help (and medication) I needed, the major step of moving out and being my own person, with my own place, was a giant boost to my self-esteem and mental health.
The place itself wasn't much to write about. It was a small house in Verdun (a burrough of Montreal) that was transformed into a pair of apartment, side by side. The large front and back porches were still connected, but it was split down the middle into a mirrored layout inside. Each place had a den, a bedroom, a kitchenette and a bathroom. It was not huge, but it was comfortable, the heating was included in the pretty fair rent (which if you've ever lived through a rough Montreal winter you'd be every so thankful for), the landlord wasn't an asshole and actually seemed to give a shit about his tenants (when I had informed him about a problem with the back door windows, for example, he got on it within a couple of days and redid the caulking on all of the windows in the place, just to be doubly sure). All told, I liked it.
My neighbour was a young woman that mostly kept to herself. We crossed paths every couple of days or so on the front porch, and I generally nodded or said hi. She didn't speak much, but when she did I did detect a faint eastern-European sounding accent. She was polite and courteous, if a bit closed off, and being something of a loner myself I respected her privacy and didn't pry or ask questions. I rarely heard music or television from her place, considering the walls were pretty thin (sound insulation in this city seems to be primarily of the "stick a couple of pieces of drywall and call it a day" variety) and I decided to not be a dick back and listened to my music, movies and TV using headphones.
I'd been there about seven months, and it the weather was finally starting to turn into pleasant spring. The days were getting longer, the snow was melting, dog shit was thawing on the sidewalks and the birds were singing. I'd moved from night shift to day shift at work, so my sleep cycle was still adjusting and I'd find myself waking up at odd hours until my circadian rhythm settled down to something resembling human normal when I first heard the crying.
It was the easily recognisable hitching cries of a newborn. It started suddenly around 2 AM with a sharp wail that slowly rose in pitch and volume, cut off by the ragged drawing of a breath and the rough cough of a young throat and set of lungs unused to violent outbursts. I groaned to myself, knowing from experience that this could last for a while and trying to block it out of my mind. I couldn't quite do it, since the child seemed to be in the room right across the wall from mine. I resigned myself to a sleepless night, wondering when my neighbour got herself a child (I think I would have noticed pregnancy in that slight frame), and finally decided it was probably family and friends visiting her and staying the night. Finally, a little before five, the cries faded out and I managed to catch a couple more hours of sleep before I had to get up for work.
I was, needless to say, pretty groggy that morning. I grabbed a couple extra red bulls from my fridge to power me through the day and left for work. My neighbour was leaving her place at the same time, and I smiled at her and made a remark about the crying. I don't remember quite what I said, but it was something about family coming over with a baby. I'd had experience with that kind of thing, as my brother and his wife had four kids and they were often at my moms house for the holidays. When I worked nights, it was hell as I was surrounded by screaming and crying kids during the day when I desperately needed to sleep. I think I was trying to make a sympathetic joke to her, but her reaction managed to pierce through the fog over my brain and shock me half awake.
She looked at me alarmed, her eyes growing shockingly wide, and she grabbed the little crucifix she wore. She shook her head violently and rushed off without locking her door, leaving me standing on the porch with a pretty befuddled look on my face. Confused, I just shrugged and locked my door and trundled off to work, hoping I would be able to last the day without killing myself with heart-palpitations from the caffeine.
I somehow survived without fucking up too much at work, and decided to call it a day early and slip into bed. I even managed to sleep for a while, until 2 AM rolled around and I was jerked out of sleep by the same howling cries of a newborn from next door. I swore (possibly loudly enough for whoever was in the room next to mine to head) and tried to curl my pillow over my ears to block out the worst of it. It didn't work quite well, and I made a mental note to pick up some earplugs from the pharmacy the next day after work.
Like the night before, the crying finally petered around between four and five, and I dozed restlessly until it was time for my pre-work prep. I stumbled out the door and half-wondered if I would encounter her on the porch again. I didn't, and tried to concentrate on making it through another day on bad sleep. Anyone who's ever had any trouble sleeping would understand how hard this can be; your brain is in slow motion, it feels like your moving through thick syrup, and your emotions get frayed and snap very easily. I even remembered to pick up the earplugs that evening, and settled into bed early again.
They did help some when the crying started that night. It felt distant enough for me to integrate it into my dreams instead of just bolting awake as previous, but it didn't help in the long run. I was running through a hedge maze filled with children stuck in the brambles, all of them looking at me curiously as I was desperately trying to find the one crying. I don't quite remember the logic of the dream, but it was important that I did find the child, before all the other ones started to cry too, and if they cried it would draw the minotaur to me.
I floated out of sleep at some point, confused about where I was for a few moments until reality reasserted itself. I groaned and stumbled to the kitchen for a drink of water, wondering if I should pair the earplugs with my Mp3 player to drown out the sound entirely and actually get some sleep. While I was fiddling with my playlist, looking for something to listen too, I heard something else weaving itself into the sobbing of the baby.
It sounded like a grown person crying.
That morning I finally decided to do something about it, if only to quiet my curiosity. I called in sick to work, and was debating whether or not to knock on my neighbours door to confront her directly about what I was hearing. The debate mostly revolved around if it would be creepy to block her in her house and demand answers when I heard her leaving her apartment. In a rush, I put on my coat and boots and ran off to try and follow her. I still wasn't sure if I would buttonhole her somewhere on the street, so I settled to keeping sight of her as she walked to one of the major streets in the burrough, and then into a church. I paused for a couple of minutes, still debating with myself, then I finally just mentally said "fuck it" and followed her in.
The church was dimly lit, and almost entirely empty. The only person I saw was my neighbour, near one of the front pews, kneeling down facing the giant garish crucifix and praying. I stayed near the entrance, feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic and was about to just leave when I saw the priest exit the confessional booth and walk towards her. She didn't notice him until he was right next to her and touched her shoulder lightly. She recoiled violently and got to her feet, shaking her head. The priest said something and took another step towards her and she answered by spitting at him, turning around, and running from the church. I stared in confusion and shock as she ran past on the other side of the pews from me, and I could tell she was crying again. The priest watched her leave, his face grey.
Feeling even more like a voyeur, I turned and left myself. My neighbour wasn't in sight and I just headed home feeling... Strange. I even knocked on her door and rang the bell, half-hoping she wouldn't be there. She wasn't. I knew there was something going on, but I couldn't decide what it was. My stomach was tight and my throat was dry, no matter how much water I downed, and I turned on the TV to dry and keep my mind from dwelling on things.
It didn't help.
My thoughts keep turning over and over, wondering where the child came from, and who's child it was. I didn't think it was my neighbours, which had to mean it belonged to someone else. But I was also fairly sure that there was no one else living in her apartment, since I didn't hear anyone but her during the day, or night, except for the child. So, if it wasn't hers, and no one else was there, then she was babysitting... But if she was babysitting, why haven't I heard anything while I was there during the day? And why would she leave without the child, leaving what sounded like a newborn all alone without supervision? And, if she was just babysitting, why did she look so horrified when I asked about it that first day? What was up with that confrontation in the church? As far as I saw and knew, my neighbour was a Catholic, and they don't generally spit on priests without a reason... right?
Round and round it went, going from nothing to nowhere in a hurry.
I must have dozed off on the chair at some point, because I woke up with a start and realised it was past midnight, and the baby was crying again, accompanied by the adults sobbing again. I swallowed, my throat feeling dry and swollen again, and I could feel the creeping bile and shriveling testicles of fear start to grip me. I got out of my chair, trying to make up my mind about knocking at her door, when the pitch of the grown-up sobbing changed to out and out screaming.
I couldn't quite make out the words, since they weren't in english or french. The tone, however, was unmistakable. It was full of fear, and pain... and grief. The child stopped crying, but the adult continued to scream, her voice turning ragged and torn. There was something in it, something that terrified me more than the sobbing...
I rushed to my front door and threw on my boots, then raced to my neighbours door. I pounded on it, yelling, and repeatedly rang her bell. There was no answer except her continued yelling, which was starting to fade. My terror suddenly increased, and I had a lead ball in the pit of my stomach. I pounded on the door harder, still yelling at her to let me in, asking what was going on. I even started to hit it with my shoulder, but the solid oak barely budged. The noise inside has subsided to weak mewlings and soft crying from my neighbour.
I banged on the door some more, only succeeding in hurting myself, when I remembered that my back door was a lot thinner and weaker than the front. Realising that hers would be the same, I rushed through my apartment, threw my back door open, and kicked at my neighbours back door. I could hear the frame begin to split, so I kicked it a few more times until it finally ripped free and swung open. I ran in, dread mounting.
I found her in the bedroom, collapsed on the floor. Her forearms were split open from wrist to elbow and there was blood everywhere. Shocked, I got down next to her and supported her, checking for a pulse. It was weak, but present. Shivering, I slapped her cheeks lightly, trying to bring her back to consciousness and looking around for something to wrap her arms with.
She looked up at me, her face pale and her eyes half-closed over the dark pockets. She smiled wanely and whispered something. I could barely make it out, so I leaned in closer.
"He won't bother you again," she whispered again, then went still. I could feel her body just... drop, and become dead weight in my arms. I choked, and checked for her pulse again.
It was gone.
I didn't realise I had started to cry, and I slowly layed her out on the floor. My pants and shirt were soaked with blood, and the puddle under her was growing slowly. I wish it had run faster, because then I wouldn't have noticed what was near the door. It looked almost like a pair of tiny footprints, tracked in blood, turning to head out of the room.
I managed to call the police and paramedics, and they got on the scene about ten minutes later. I was waiting for them on the front porch, head in my hands. They took my account, and I told them about hearing her sob at night for the past few days, and how I heard what seemed to be a loud breakdown that evening. I never mentioned the baby crying, or the footprints. They'd been covered by the flood of blood by the time they got there anyway.
I moved out of my place a few weeks later. Not because of anything more happening, my neighbour was right about that. I just didn't feel like I could stay there... There were days when I walked up the front steps and got flashbacks of that night. Of sitting on that porch, covered in tacky drying blood, the coppery smell of it coating my nose and throat, my ears ringing with the echos of my neighbours final screams... and her low, apologetic whisper. I told my landlord, and he let be break my lease without penalties. Like I said, he was a pretty good guy.
I still get full body shivers when I hear a baby crying in public, but that's about the extend of my trauma. I still remember, and though I'm not religious I do have family and friends who are. So whenever I accompany them to a church for something, I always light two candles.
Because I still remember.