"Suspicion is a heavy armor and with its weight it impedes more than it protects."
“Martin Goldman report to class!” came Marty’s teacher’s voice over the comm system. He stood at his locker, unsure of what he was supposed to bring to class. The inside of his locker was a mess. There was a column of textbooks that rose from the floor to about where Marty’s chest was. On top of the books there were rows of pens, pencils, rulers and protractors.
“What do I need?” he called out. Students rushed past him, some short like little kids, others looked like high school students. He thought he saw a few familiar faces from university. “Any of you know? What do we bring?”
It was too late. The locker was far behind him. He was sitting in class. The teacher was his father. He wore a bright green sports jacket with an orange tie, walking about the aisles of students at their tiny desks, giving out the tests. He slammed a piece of paper in front of Marty. Marty panicked as he realized that he hadn't studied for this.
“Ah shit, this is the test,” he thought as he looked over the questions. They didn’t make sense. He was not quite able to make out the words themselves, only able to tell that the questions were loaded with long, complicated words. He managed to make out one of them: Where are the tense muscles?
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“Quiet! Do your test!” the teacher, now a middle-aged female, yelled at him. It was his grade one teacher. He was a child again.
He wrote a scribbly answer with his crayon. “No, write better!” he scolded himself. “I can write better.” He continued scribbling out nonsense, trying to slow it down, carving into the paper, ripping it apart. There was only the desk in front of him now.
“My test is gone. I need a new one!” he called. The person in front of him, a dark haired girl in her early twenties, turned her head back and scowled at him. He looked down at his desk. The test was back. He started filling in an answer bubble with a mechanical pencil.
“If you pass the test we can go play at recess,” Richard said, suddenly standing over his shoulder.
A hand rubbed Marty’s back. It belonged to Nicky, the spindly boy now at his other side, smiling down at him. “We can hang out if you don’t,” he said in his usual light tone.
Marty returned him only a half-smile and went back to his test, reading the next question out loud: “Is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?”
“Sorry teacher!” he called back and starting writing his answer. Marty knew this was the type of question that would require a long, thought-out answer. When he started to write it only scribbling came out. He tried again, this time slowing down his crayon. At first it just made more scribbling, but then he curved his hand downward, making a big circle on the yellow construction paper. The crayon became a pair of scissors. He cut out a square, and then painted a door on it and two windows on above it.
“My house!” he called to the teacher. Loud footfalls started shaking the classroom. The other students seem to be able to ignore it. They just answered the questions with their pens, completely ignoring Marty, who now sat at the back of the room, the only child in a lecture hall full of university-aged students. The teacher, now a white, blurry dot with arms and legs grabbed hold of Marty’s collar, forcing him along an enormous hallway, his feet slowly flailing as he was pulled. The teacher brought him to a door and knocked on it. Behind it Marty heard a loud thundering noise, sounding like the other side was full of mechanical cogs and conveyer belts.
The teacher then pulled out Marty’s construction paper house and shoved it at Marty’s face. For a second he felt like he was drowning, the water pouring down his throat and bloating his lungs. The balloons in his chest deflated as he took in his new surroundings. He was in the kitchen. Just before he breathed out in relief he noticed the person who was hunched over the sink to his side.
It looked like a person at first, just a black outline of someone who was washing dishes. Green water splashed at his sides. When he stepped back Marty noticed he had six arms. He held something in each of them; dishes, a sandwich, a martini and a whole frozen chicken. With one free hairy leg he held a Cuban cigar with a red star on it.
“You’re not a person!” Marty yelled at it. The giant cockroach turned around, staring at Marty with bulbous eyes, parting it’s mandibles like the claw of a crab as it’s piercing shriek caused the room to start shaking.
The room continued shaking, even as he woke up from the dream.
He cried out loud to the dusty room. As he leaned up he heard the now distant sound of the train engine chugging down the line. The room's rumbling faded with the sounds. He glanced at the his alarm clock. It was five in the morning.
"Not like I got a job to be at," he said, wiping beads of sweat from his brow. "Damn," he shook his head. "I hate those back in school dreams." The anxiety that had tied his innards in knots started to unwind, his muscles going back to normal.
He got up, for once not wanting to sleep in. Marty knew he should be looking for work. After seeing nothing new on the websites he checked daily, he decided to shower and shave. As he made his way to the washroom he noticed Richard's former room, the door wide open, nothing inside save it's original furniture. He wondered where his friend was. He had texted him a bunch of times but got no response, probably due to Richard being behind on payments on his cellphone bill.
Marty felt relieved, thankful that he still had enough money to keep his cellphone up and running. He had no idea how Richard would get a call back from a resume or a job interview without a phone.
After showering and getting changed into some nice clothes Marty put on his jacket, grabbed a small joint, and headed outside. Ivan's pick-up truck was nowhere to be seen.
Marty stood in front of the house a moment, thinking back to Richard. It had been a week since Ivan had kicked him out. No one new had moved in. Nicky, who Marty had run into the day before, seemed pretty happy about it. Nicky confronted Marty on the cat food tin that Richard had left in one of the cupboards. Richard had told Marty one time that he picked it up from his former job as a prank.
"I presume that there's a cat in here!" he had demanded of Marty.
"You presume wrong," Marty snickered, thinking of the times when Richard and him had made kitten noises and pretended a cat was in the kitchen when Nicky was in his room. Marty wondered if he was channeling some of Richard's Nicky-hating energy. The kid was pretty annoying, he found. In the past he had always been polite to Marty and Marty was nice to him in turn, but Marty found him annoying and his superficiality made him not want to spend any of his spare time with him.
He sighed, looking over the road. Down the cul de sac, towards Maria street, he saw everything; the road, the sidewalk, the roofs of the houses and the trees, were all covered in very thin frost. Winter would be on Toronto in no time. Marty saw his own breath too. He needed better winter gear, some gloves or winter boots maybe, but until he started a new job he figured it was best to put those things off. At the moment the only important things were rent, food and the more occasional beer and joint. Paying for transit was taking a big chunk of his money too. If his dad had not written that handsome cheque he knew that he would be in the same predicament as Richard.
Marty hoped that Richard wasn't on the streets. He couldn't recall if Richard had said his ex-wife was in Toronto still. At the same time though, even if she was, Marty had no idea if they were on good enough terms for her to let him crash at her place. She might, he figured, have a new husband or boyfriend who wouldn't appreciate his presence.
Marty lit up the joint. It was early, no neighbours, even the ones with kids, were out yet. He usually never smoked in the morning, but at the moment he just wanted some. It would help him get through the day.
He smiled slightly at the sight of Marty's back. Wisps of smoke floated away from the younger man on both sides. He wanted to surprise him so he tip-toed over behind the younger man, looking at the ground to check if his shadow was projecting in Marty's field of vision.
Marty spit out the joint and spun around. "Richard! You shit! What are you doing here?"
Richard put a finger to his lips. "Not so loud."
Marty grinned, clasping Richard's free hand tightly. "What are you doing here? Where have you been?"
Richard laughed quietly. "I've been up there," he said, turning sideways and pointing up to a window on the top floor. "There's a storage room up there that no one uses. It's got an old cot, full of bedbugs, but it's free rent so I can't be picky."
"Wait up, you're telling me you've been living in the house this whole time?"
"Dude, if you get caught you can be arrested for squatting!"
"Again, not so loud," Richard said, patting Marty's shoulder. "Here, come in and see."
Richard led Marty to the side door (after Marty finished his joint). The stairs going up were just as dusty and stained as the main stairs to the kitchen on the middle floor. They were nearly fifteen steps in all. Richard opened a door to a hallway area and switched on a light, a single dusty bulb that hung just ahead. There were four doors, not unlike the middle floor, although the common space was just the four foot wide, ten foot long hallway. Down on the other end of it was a single window that’s glass was fogged over. Beneath it was an old side table with an antique-looking rusted lamp on it.
“These are all bedrooms?” Marty asked, looking at the closed doors.
Richard shook his head, going to the first door on the left, pushing it open. Marty stepped over to his side and looked in. There was a small sink next to a toilet, an old bath-tub at the far wall. Marty had never seen a tub like this. It was porcelain, but not part of the room like most modern bath-tubs. Ivan must have purchased it from an antique store, or found it on the side of the road more likely. It reminded Marty of a bath-tub he would see in an old Western or a Victorian era based film.
“How old is this house?” he asked Richard.
Richard shrugged, stepping out from the bathroom. “I don’t know. I thought these houses were more modern than a lot of the ones over at Dundas and Annette. Maybe it’s older. From what I knew this place was industries before houses.”
“So weird,” said Marty, following Richard back into the stuffy hallway. “So, who lives in these rooms?”
“No one, not recently,” said the older man, leading Marty to the next door. “This one,” he said, opening it and revealing a room that was shaped almost exactly like Marty’s. “Had someone in it who moved out a few weeks ago. The one across the same; had a guy and a girl who just moved out.” Richard led Marty back to the front of the hallway and opened up the first door on the right. “Here’s mine.”
The room was small, almost like a tiny hallway itself, long and thin like Richard’s former room. Marty could barely see the far wall. There were wooden chairs piled up on both sides, two desks and a hutch along one wall and what looked like an old cabinet along the other. On top of the cabinet were a set of stools lined up beside each other.
“You can’t see it from here,” said Richard, taking a step inside, pulling in both his arms so he could squeeze between the furniture. “But there is a small mattress on the far side on a cot. I got all my stuff in a big bag beside it.”
“Jesus Christ,” gasped Marty. “You’re living in Guantanamo Bay. How does Ivan not find you?”
Richard shrugged. “Since I’ve been here he hasn’t come up once. I look out the window at the wall there and I know when he leaves and when he comes back. That, and there's another way I can see him. This is the thing, Marty, this used to be his room.”
Richard nodded. “I know he lived here before Jordan moved out.”
“Damn, look, Rich, you can’t go on living here, he’ll catch you eventually and call the police for squatting,” Marty said. “There’s got to be somewhere you can go?”
“Nowhere,” replied the Brit, motioning for Marty to follow him through the maze of furnishings. Marty held his breath, feeling the dust sting his eyes as he made his way through. “My ex can’t help me and all my family is back home.”
“Move back home then?”
“Go to a shelter?”
He laughed again. “Yeah, imagine that, me fighting bums in a shelter!”
“Okay, well, what? You’re just going to stay here then?”
“For now,” said Richard. “I guess until I get my first paycheque, or save enough for a new place.”
“I don’t know,” said Marty with a sigh, feeling defeated. “I wish there was something I could do.”
“There isn’t,” Richard said, turning about to face him again. Marty knew it was true. He was in a rough spot himself and could spare nothing to his friend. They had made it to his tiny cot. It was tucked away beside a coffee table. Marty saw Richard’s bulging backpack at the foot of the cot, concealed from the front door by a hutch that towered over it. “It isn’t your problem. Don’t worry about me.”
Marty sighed again. “If Ivan catches you anywhere else in the house, tell him you are visiting me, okay?” Richard nodded. “There is no way you can go to a church or anything, Rich?”
“No damn way,” he replied. “Never going to some religious place for shelter, ever!”
“I guess,” said Marty, feeling a sudden cold chill. He noticed in the corner of the room near the mattress there was a large crack along the wall, starting from the bottom and snaking it's way up halfway to the ceiling. Marty pressed his hands against it, feeling cold wind coming in from outside. “You’re going to get sick staying here.”
Richard shrugged. “I already am,” he said and Marty could hear it in his voice now. He sounded like his nose was plugged up and his throat more raspy than usual. “But, about Ivan, if he catches me, I know shit about him. He is a terrible landlord. Everyone is moving out. He’s panicking now, that’s why he is acting weirder than usual. I see him drinking all the time when he’s here.”
“How?” asked Marty.
Richard sat down on the cot, smiled at Marty for a second and then pointed to the floor under the window sill. “Look,” he said, motioning his head. “Right under the window, look straight down.”
“What?” Marty asked, moving over toward it, getting down on his knees and looking at the floor. The wooden floorboards looked old, somewhat rotted, creaking a bit under his weight. Then Marty saw what Richard was referring to. There was a tiny hole in the floor, right between where two boards met. He leaned over more, bringing his face to it, peering down with his left eye while shutting his right.
“That hole is perfect, not just a crack or anything. It was drilled,” he heard Richard say quietly as he took in the sight before him. There was limited light coming in from the window down in the room below, but Marty saw it, the bed with the now-closed suitcase, the one Marty had seen a week before with money filled in it. It was Ivan’s bedroom, where Jordan had lived before.
“Oh my God,” he gulped.
“Ivan spies on his tenants.”