Across from what used to be the Kingston Shopping Centre and is now a bus terminal, is a house on Helen St, tucked in behind a shut-down gas station and the bunkerish remains of an old veterinary clinic.
Nothing very special about the house itself, and in fact I have almost no recollection of its exterior. I could drive up and down all morning and still not point out the right place. The ground floor was well-maintained and had a pretty blue kitchen in the back right corner. Owner-occupied was what it said on the listing, and that made sense. But what had brought me here with my client (did I ever see that client again? I don’t think so) was the apartment in the basement, the two-bedroom unit that rented for $1000 per month and allowed the owner to live for free. The numbers on the place were quite handsome and it seemed likely the house would sell quickly. I remember saying as much, with one hand on the spotless counter, and with the other pointing out the new windows, the spotless hardwood. My client, let’s call him Frank, wondered if I could smell anything unusual. No, I said, I don’t think so. And we headed downstairs.
A man met us at the bottom. Very white and very fat, as well as shirtless and short of breath. He was frightened of us, that much was clear. He seemed a three-year-old boy in the body of a giant, and he backed away clumsily, eventually finding refuge in a tiny bathroom with a soft-looking linoleum floor. He hadn’t said a word.
I was all for leaving immediately. The place unsettled me. It was dark down there and now I could smell it too—something sour and thin, something that needled through the air and into my lungs. Something that I wouldn’t be able to cough away. I had spied mould along the top of the baseboards and was sure the apartment took on serious water in the spring. It was a lousy rental and now someone else was lumbering towards us. This man the opposite of the first, emaciated and too tall, hunched over slightly to avoid the ductwork in the ceiling. A long neck rigged with numerous tendons and at the centre a sharp bobbing adam’s apple. Also—I’ve forgotten to mention—shirtless.
Panic best describes what I felt then. As well as a tamped-down morbid curiosity. And the urge to swear. A lot. But still Frank wanted to see more. Perhaps he was as bemused as I was, and perhaps he’s in another room right now, scribbling his own version of the place and the morning. At any rate, we pushed forward a few steps. A perfunctory kitchen seethed in the halflight at the back wall. A sink mountainous and unstable with filthy dishes. Full but open garbage bags slumped and stretched against the cupboards, and two red cats moving disdainfully among it all like hellish showroom models. The tall man pointed east towards a decrepit sofa set in front of a flatscreen television that reached nearly from one wall to the other. A blue cartoon bear twirled a parasol and gamboled before a twinkling waterfall. On a table between smeared screen and sofa was a 2 litre bottle of Pepsi. The man flopped onto the sofa.
“You mind if we take a quick look at the bedrooms?” I said.
“I wouldn’t,” he said. “But hey.”
And so I opened the door of the first bedroom, expecting nothing more than grey sheets, and a routine sort of squalor. But then everything changed. Out of the fetid dark something nightmarish flew at me. A ghoul. I felt the air buffet my face and then made out a blur of wing and feather, black eye and black beak. I staggered back, and pulled the door with me. “For Christ’s sake,” I shouted. “What the hell…?” I could still hear the bird thrashing about in there, as if caught in a net.
Frank, I noticed, was instantly amused. He thought my reaction somehow hilarious. I thought I was backstage at a circus sideshow. Or dead, and on my way down to hell. I was sweating, wide-eyed.
“That’s Barry’s crow,” said the tall man casually, waving his remote at the television. The bear vanished and it was CNN I was watching. An ad for that night’s Larry King. “One of them, anyways. I did tell you.”
“His fucking crow? Are you serious?” I turned belligerently to Frank. “Seen enough?”
I remember him smirking at me slightly, then nodding. I followed him up the stairs and out onto the front porch. I don’t remember if I even locked the door.