Ryan Everett Felton
So, my neighbor thinks I’m the reincarnation of the Son of God.
I’d never met the man – Randal, his name is – but he has a higher opinion of me than most people have of anyone, if his Christmas card is any indication. I found the thing just a few inches from the crack under my door, on my way to pour myself a cup of coffee in preparation for another late night. We live in this duplex, these conjoined apartments, above a dive bar in town. Thanks to the rowdiness inherent in the arrangement, on most nights sleep isn’t an option, which is perfect for a nocturnal creature such as myself and, I imagine, my true believer Randal.
It’s a perplexing little thing, his card. The first thing I noticed after picking it up was the gorgeous penmanship of my name on the envelope – CHELSEA – inscribed in what I immediately and ironically thought of as calligraphy more suited to a monk’s transcription of the Bible than a cordial, neighborly holiday greeting. Before opening it with a kitchen knife, I took a little peek into the hallway, as if I’d see my benefactor of Christmas cheer standing there, waiting with arms crossed for a thank you. But the hall, as always, was empty save for the vibrations of music and drunken laughter coming from downstairs, so I closed the door and took a chair to see who it was from, never dreaming it’d be Randal. He’s certainly not on my Christmas card list.
I smiled a little at the cheesy illustration on the front of the card: a snowman with his coal-lump smile arranged into a frown, his head tilted down at the dog lifting its leg at his base, about ready to let loose. The distasteful choice of cardstock confirmed it wasn’t from my mother, or from Philip. That wouldn’t be their style.
Inside, there’s more of that inhuman cursive, and the first time I read it I nearly fell over.
“Dearest Chelsea,” it says.
“Even if the world denies it I know who You are.” Yes, the pronoun’s capitalized. “‘Revelation’ says no man or woman would know the time or place, and you’ve passed among us undetected just as the Bible says you would. You are not alone, Chelsea. God loves you, and I love you. And I know you love me. That is enough.
“Praise His holy name! And I will praise yours, my savior.
“Your humble servant,
After reading this I actually yelped and clasped my hands over my mouth, something I don’t think I’d ever had cause to do up to that point. I bounded for the door and fastened both locks, stared out the peephole for a good while, and went back to my bedroom, locking that door, too. The landlord, Devin who runs the bar, had warned me about Randal the day I moved in. Said he wasn’t all there, a little off-kilter. But harmless. Harmless.
I kept telling myself, “harmless,” but even so I couldn’t concentrate on my homework, the TV, Facebook – anything. I kept feeling this presence on the other side of the wall, where Randal’s own bedroom is. This heat seeping through, searing my shoulders and neck, like the devil giving me a backrub. I was so terrified I couldn’t think of anything to do but break the promise I’d made to myself a month ago and, so far, upheld against all odds. I logged onto Skype and dialed up Phillip – almost certain he wouldn’t pick up.
But he did. Thank God, I thought.
“What is it, Chelse?” Not, “Hello.” Not, “How are you, babe?” Just, “What is it?”
“Are you busy?” I fought an obscene impulse to apologize to him, rejected the feeling I got while looking into the pixilated transmission of his eyes – the one that told me I shouldn’t have bothered him, shouldn’t have interrupted his evening. It dawned on me I had no idea what time it was across the ocean, whether he’d be getting ready for bed or on his way to work. I should take the time to learn how that all works.
The warmth I had imagined emanating from the other side of the wall and against my back rose, grew to a searing heat, as I thought about the purpose of my unwanted call. I drew my legs up, cradled my head in my knees. Philip must’ve seen that something was wrong, because I watched his pale, blue-eyed baby face contort into one of mild concern in between lagging video frames crossing thousands of miles of superhighway.
“Is something wrong? Really wrong this time?” The view into his hotel room, adorned with the trappings accumulated only during very long stays, swirled sickly behind him while he, I guess, picked up his computer and carried it to a spot where he could get a better look at me. To me it looked like the earth in Glasgow had upended, torn free from the shackles of his reality. But he remained firmly rooted to his far corner of the world, and only I wound up with motion sickness.
I rubbed my temples, clamped shut my eyelids. “Do you remember Randal? My neighbor here, Randal? Short, frumpy, smelly guy?”
“I don’t know,” Phillip said. “Why? What’s going on?” I hated – I hate – the way the video chat makes his voice sound. Like it’s not him, just some simulation manufactured for my placation, while he gads about and I’m nowhere near his mind.
“He gave me this Christmas card,” I said, and held it up before the webcam, but my shaking hands wouldn’t allow the maneuver and let go, sending it swooping under my bed. I let it fall, let it disappear.
“And?” Philip rubbed his face. His catchall signal for “get to the point.”
“And, well,” I said, thinking of how to put it. But “My neighbor thinks I’m the second coming of Christ” didn’t roll off the tongue, not like you’d think it would. And Philip rubbing his face – on a different hemisphere, no less – didn’t quite instill me with divine powers of articulation. I just sort of stopped talking, and for what must’ve been a longer amount of time than I’d perceived. One more rough swoop of the palm across his bristly cheeks and he’d had enough of me.
“Chelse, no, I didn’t send you a Christmas card, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he said, the robotic amplification of his voice buzzing at the base of my skull. It made me want to puke. “I’m not going to, either. You agreed on distance. You shouldn’t even be calling me like this.”
“I know,” I said, inching away from the wall, putting some air between it and me. “I’m sorry.” And there, at last, was my apology.
“I’m going now,” he said. “Merry Christmas, I guess.”
“Yeah. Merry Christmas.”
And the screen went black.
I spun around on the bed, tangling the sheets around my ankles and thighs, caught up in a web of fabric. I struggled against it, only to succeed in halfway binding myself in a reverse-Houdini. I pressed my hand against the wall. It was cold. Closing my eyes, I imagined Randal on the other side, asleep or maybe at the foot of his bed, praying. To me.
The card peered out from the edge of the bed skirt, just visible enough to expose the upper half of its front image, a pattern of falling snowflakes. I bent over, still entwined with my bed dress, and hung upside down longer than necessary to pick it back up. When I started to see spots in my eyes, almost identical to the card’s falling snow, I jerked back up and fell onto my side. At arm’s length, held out before me, the card seemed so insignificant and unthreatening. A poor, lone snowman and the dog about to piss all over him.
“I know how you feel, buddy,” I said. Once the bar slowed and quieted downstairs, there were only a few more hours left of tossing, turning, and shallow breathing until I was asleep.
Next morning – or rather, afternoon – I woke up with Randal’s Christmas card still clutched in my hand, placed over my heart. Once I was awake enough to remember what it was, I sort-of tossed it to the side, where it landed on my bedside dresser among a stack of untouched magazines.
Starving, I took a quick shower and went out to find something for breakfast – or rather, lunch. As an afterthought I took my tiny mailbox key with me, stopping by the locked mail receptacle at the bottom of the stairwell, just outside the entrance door to the bar. Inside I found the same old bills, past due notices, and yet another magazine to add to my unread collection. But at the very bottom of the stack, a square envelope. For the briefest of moments my teeth clamped down on my tongue, me thinking somehow this was another devotional from Randal. It wasn’t. It was a Christmas card, yes, but this time from my mother.
I ripped it open, dreaming up all the delicious meals I could possibly treat myself to with the Christmas check that was sure to be inside. Prying the card open like I did, I’m sure there was a slight manic glint in my eye that would’ve put some passersby at unease, but that mad look quickly dimmed. The card was empty, for the first time in a string of lonely holidays.
The only thing the inner parchment of the card bore was a handwritten message from Mom, in script that was – no offense to my mother intended – far less graceful and artsy than my bipolar neighbor’s. The message contained within was far from the statement of unconditional love and respect in my earlier card, too. All it said was:
Sorry no check this year. Hope to have something for you when you come visit!
Which, of course, was her way of saying that unless I hitched a plane back to her and Dad’s neck of the woods, no handouts would be given. Where she thinks I’ll scrape up the cash for a plane ticket, I have no idea. After her card came up empty, I wasn’t even sure what I was going to use to pay for lunch.
I squeezed the partition in my winter coat tight with one hand and bunched my shoulders up, stepping outside despite having no idea what I was doing, or if leaving the apartment at all would do me any good. And it was at this moment, when I was hardly one foot out the door, that Randal came puttering along on his rusted jalopy of a moped. He parked it and put up the kickstand, removed his helmet to reveal his chapped, scruffy face and lizard-like eyes. He took a deep breath of cold winter air before going to work taking off his gloves.
There was no way I could speak to him, even say “hello.” The only thing I could picture was him, all four-feet-eleven-inches of him, somehow overpowering me so I could find myself waking up nailed to an inverted cross in a Satanic shrine in his apartment.
But all he did was smile, nod, and wave at me. I did not return the gesture, opting instead to shuffle my winter boots as fast as they could carry me to the nearest diner, where – like a queen – I feasted on the finest tap water and buttered toast the county has to offer. I chose the diner for the pair of police officers kicking back in the corner, chugging on coffee. Once inside I sat away from the window, every so often glancing over my shoulder to make sure Randal hadn’t followed me. He already worshiped me, having freely admitted that, so was it very hard to believe he was stalking me, too?
“Hon, will that be all?” The waitress had crept up behind me when my back was turned. She even put her hand on my shoulder. I jumped, squealed, made a general fool of myself in public. My waitress, who could’ve been cast in a film as “the waitress,” with her bunned-up red hair and throaty voice, looked at me like I was a box of abandoned puppies. Was I wearing my troubles that plainly?
“You sure I can’t get you some coffee or something?” she asked. I held up my hand, shook my head.
“It’d be on the house,” she said, sighing so hard the hair on her upper lip fluttered.
“Oh,” I said, tapping my chin. I gave another nervous look over my shoulder, breathed, and said, “Would a plate of onion rings be on the house, too?”
She smiled, my fairy-godwaitress, and nodded, off to whatever wonders her kitchen held to prepare for me the latest in a long line of pity giveaways.
A few minutes later, no less miserable save for my palate’s satisfaction, so focused was I on munching my free onion rings that I didn’t instinctively whip my head around at the sound of the bell above the door jingling. My own salacious hunger distracted me from my surroundings long enough for Randal to enter, approach me, and take a seat opposite me in my booth.
“H-hello,” he said, “Chelsea.” His voice, a low mumble, hardly registered beyond the pulsating thumps of adrenaline in my head. He repeated himself, the “Chelsea” part of it anyway, a few more times, like a chant. Like a mantra: “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.” Each repetition screwed up his mouth, his whole face, like it was physical work getting it out. Once finished, he grinned at me – put his hands on the table palms-up, and just grinned.
“Did you get my card?” he asked and wiggled his fingers. All I could focus on, between deep gasping breaths, were those nubby digits, dancing around with expectation. I thought for a second about accepting that invitation, taking his hands in mine, and in the process scared myself more than he had done on his own.
“Uh, officers?” I said. The cops enjoying their break at the far table either ignored me or didn’t hear me. I said it again, this time louder: “Officers!”
One of them heaved a sigh as the other pointed at him, as if saying, “This one’s all yours.” The sighing officer pushed his chair back and stood, stomping over to me and Randal, but focusing his dirty look squarely on me, the interruption to his placid coffee break. There came a surreal feeling that no one else in the diner could even see little, haggard Randal. A feeling that I was in a bad episode of The Outer Limits or something, and all of this was in my head. But when the cop finally spoke, he said, “Is this guy bothering you, ma’am?” My hands found a nice spot on either side of my head to rest, pulling my face back into a twisted smile I wouldn’t have cared to see for myself.
But Randal wasn’t smiling. Instead, he sat there in the booth, pulled his hands away from me and hugged himself, looking mortified – back and forth, from me to the officer, in utter confusion. The idea that maybe I’m a horrible bitch did, for a second, cross my mind when it hit me that I thought his face looked sort of funny, all puffed up and red with his eyes bugging out. “I-I just needed to ask her something,” he said. “Chelsea,” he locked his eyes at last on me, “can I please just ask you something?”
Part of me wanted to say “yes,” because telling him “no” felt like denying Oliver Twist his second bowl of gruel, but I didn’t need to say anything. The policeman put a hand around Randal’s chunky arm and pulled him from the booth.
“Sir,” he said, “I need to ask you to leave.”
I thought Randal might cry. Certainly he was on the verge. Having no desire to see a grown, albeit damaged man break down into tears – and having even less desire to stick around and see what lengths my new stalker might go to in order to ask me whatever he wanted to ask, I stood up instead. I shook my head, little bobs that made me feel my brain rattle, and sucked on my lip.
“No, no,” I said. “That’s— that’s okay, that’s fine. I was just leaving anyway.” And I did leave, abandoning a half-eaten plate of complimentary snacks and the lone member of the Cult of Chelsea to whatever fate might find them.
Once outside, my coat unbuttoned, the chill of the winter air struck me and set something loose inside of me. Devin might’ve said Randal was harmless – and hell, he could have every reason to believe that – but the matter remained that this guy had a clear obsession with me. Like, a try-to-assassinate-the-president-in-my-honor obsession. How could I stay safe with this very lunatic sleeping on the other side of my own bedroom wall?
I thought I should call someone, maybe see if I could find somewhere to shack up for a night or two, or until things cooled down. But as I scrolled through the contacts list on my phone, I saw what my options were: precisely zero. My mother, halfway across the country. Philip, halfway across the world. Some erstwhile co-workers from my last job, who I hadn’t bothered to delete since I was let go. A strong desire to chuck my phone into the street reared its head, and even though I fought against that, I still had this new realization to contend with. I hadn’t a single disciple to watch over me. No one would even know, not for days, if Randal crept into my room in the dead of night and strangled me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
But not far.
I made it back to the bar, only half-intending to go up to my room and lock the door, maybe lean a chair against it, but instead ended up in the tavern proper. I took a seat at the front counter, where Devin – all shoulders and shiny bald spot – stood wiping a glass and emptying ashtrays. Except for the two of us, the bar was empty.
Loose strands of hair stuck to my mouth, threatened to tickle my eyeballs, and in pulling back my locks I must’ve exposed the distress broadcast by my face. I don’t know if I was crying, but I imagine I must’ve looked a lot like Randal had back in the diner, that cop yanking him up by the arm, and me – his savior, turning him away, throwing him like a lamb to the wolves, and running off.
“Somethin’ the matter, sweetheart?” Devin asked me. But I knew it wasn’t real concern for me that sparked the question. No, I was his tenant, and at the moment a potential barfly to boot, so tips and rent were at stake. And if Devin was lucky, something would be the matter. Nothing cures an addled mind quite like a few rounds of drinks. And for him, that means dollar signs.
“Just get me a whiskey sour,” I said. No thought went into the order. I’d never even had a whiskey sour. “Start a tab.”
He said, “You got it, babe,” and in seconds my hand had seemingly produced a glass full of amber liquid, as if I’d made a wish and Devin were my gin djinn.
So I drank, alone, what must have been six or seven whiskey sours. Toward the end there I think I dropped the “sour” and just started ordering whiskey straight, which I’m aware isn’t very ladylike. With each order, there came an increasing pang of guilt as I wondered what Philip might think of me, had he been there. But Philip wasn’t there; he was in damn Glasgow, in damn Scotland, where there was no Chelsea and that was the appeal. So I kept the drinks coming, knowing full well they’d be added to next month’s rent, which I had no idea how I was going to pay without Mom’s annual Christmas check.
Almost every new thought in my stream of consciousness made another drink sound really good.
“Is Randal really harmless?” I said. Devin didn’t hear me. I shouted the question back to him, and he turned around, washrag in hand, leaning on the bar.
“Randal?” he said. “Yeah, I don’t think he’d hurt a fly.”
I made my cheeks and lips into Silly Putty, tugging their muscles up and down. The whiskeys made it feel funny, almost entertaining. A deep breath, and I said, “Tell me about him.”
Devin scratched his goatee, gave me a weird look. “Well,” he said, emphasizing the ell, “he’s divorced. Had a wife and a boy, I think. Got into a motorcycle accident a few years back that left him sort of brain damaged. He walked away from the wreck with his body intact, but not his mind, as you can see.” He started to wipe down the countertop, though it was already pristine from what I could tell. “I don’t think he sees much of his boy, or the ex, not these days. He’s lived here since I started subletting the duplex upstairs. I haven’t talked to him much, always felt like maybe I should. I see ‘im walkin’ the halls, talkin’ to himself a lot. Don’t guess he’s got much more company than that. The voices in his head.”
I nodded, pretended my face was a Stretch Armstrong some more.
“Why?” Devin asked. “He botherin’ you, Chelsea?”
I thought about it over the last sip of my drink and decided now was the worst time to stir the pot. “No,” I said. “No. Just wondering.”
That was all either of us said until Devin politely asked me to leave when he started to close up. Normally, the place would be hopping and stay open until the wee hours, but with the holidays, nobody was really around to fill seats. I left without argument, fiddled with my keys and stumbled off the barstool. Home was as close as I could’ve prayed for; I took the stairs one step at a time, each one its own mini-challenge, until I reached my apartment door and let myself in.
While I hummed a carol, I flipped the light switch and threw my coat on the floor, waddled to my bedroom and the impending embrace of my bedsheets.
And there, sitting on my own bed, was Randal, alert and in waiting. With only my knock-off Tiffany lamp to light the room, he looked sinister, nefarious – the whole thing was like the cover art to a terrible serial killer movie.
“Hi,” he said.
My response was, “Shit!” or something like it, followed immediately by a clumsy maneuver to tear off one of my snow boots. Randal simply sat there and watched, observing like a museum patron as I fell over myself, drunk and stupid, struggling to pull myself up with a hefty shoe in one hand.
For his part, Randal didn’t struggle, not even when I flung myself at him, raising the boot above my head and bearing it down on his squat, vulnerable body. I wailed on him, striking him wherever the boot in my furious hand landed. Over and over, I whacked him across the ribs, the face, the back, with the sole of my boot. Screaming, crying out for help, I grew bloodthirsty in my drunken fervor. No matter how many times I felt the impact resound from his person to the shoe to my arm, it wasn’t enough. For a moment there, it wouldn’t be enough until I saw his lifeless little pervert body sprawled out on the hardwood floor.
All he did was cower, crumple, melt into my bed, slide off, and fall to the floor, whimpering. The poor bastard didn’t raise a hand against me, didn’t even lift an arm to shield himself from my rage. It felt like hours, but it was probably only seconds later that I did finally let up, let myself follow his lead and concede an upright position. I, too, hit the floor, thumping my knees against wood, the world swirling around me like the backdrop in Philip’s roving webcam.
The two of us were probably a sight, holding ourselves up by the palms, panting and coughing at the foot of my bed. At some point I heard Randal, through struggling breaths, murmuring an apology. “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, stinging my ears with some acid, disgusting twinge in his reedy, addled voice. I slapped him, and he broke down, sobbing and curling up in a fetal position.
“I’m sorry, Chelsea,” he said. “Oh, God forgive me, I’m so sorry.”
I dropped the boot, kicked it away. Its temptation was too great. “What the hell are you doing in here, Randal?” I said. The anger in my voice shocked even me. I must have put the fear of God in that man.
“I have to ask you something.” I couldn’t tell, looking at him, what was tears, snot, or sweat dripping off in beads from his face. I looked away.
“What?” I said to the floor. “What do you want?”
“I prayed,” said Randal, taking sharp breaths, choosing his words carefully. “I prayed for God to show me a sign. I begged and pleaded with the Almighty to show me the way, to point me in the right direction. And he showed me you, Chelsea.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I let him. “I know nobody else can see it. I know you might not even see it. But I know who you are. I know what you are, and what it means. Do you know how that feels?”
I shook my head. “What do you want to ask me, Randal?”
“Can you—” he stopped, only for a second, and found whatever it was inside himself he needed to trudge on. “Can you fix me?”
I pried my eyes from the easy view of the hardwood to face him again. He was leaning against the side of the bed, hands folded in his lap. Bleeding from the nose, hair sticking out on all sides. A wreck of a man. “Can you fix me?” he asked.
In my mind’s eye, I wiped the sweat, the blood, the tears away, smoothed his hair back. Really got a good look at him, a nice long glimpse at who he had been in a previous life. What his wife must’ve seen at one time. Or his ex-wife. I wondered what he would think if he found out his own personal Jesus was just as much of an aimless mess. Would he be here now if he’d had a chat about me with Philip? With my mother, or even with Devin, who knew I was four weeks behind on the rent?
I didn’t lie to him. The room seemed to swallow me whole, my perception distorted by the drink. I fell and fell as I answered him, quite honestly, “No. I can’t. No.”
He nodded. “I understand,” he said. “And I’m sorry. I just had to know for sure.”
“I can’t do anything for you,” I said. “Nothing that’ll matter. I’m sorry.” The walls continued to shrink around me. In all likelihood I would be on the floor in the bathroom, hurling up my profuse drink orders in just about ten minutes. I honed everything on Randal, every sense I had. Used him as an anchor to keep my head from swimming. “This is all I can do,” I said.
And I put my arms around him, drew him tight. Cradled his head, gently and with my boot’s bruises in mind. We sat on the floor, rocking in synch. He said, “Thank you,” only once, and then shook me with outbursts that felt as though they’d been struggling to break free for a long, long time.
I shushed him, told him it would be okay. We rocked, we swayed, and the room slowly fell still. And all I could think was: all over the world, there are people praying to their God, but tonight, only Randal gets to be held by his.