It was a perfect day; a perfect day for a new beginning. Sunshine streamed through the windows; it's rays, softened by net curtains, danced with dust mots floating on invisible currents of air. The stairs creaked happily under Jenny's sneakers. She glanced over her shoulder at me and her eyes sparkled with delight. A foot of blonde hair bounced in a no-nonsense ponytail, my sweatshirt hung like a tent on her tiny frame and her jeans were smeared with grime. I'd never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. She took my breath away. I couldn't believe we were moving in together.
She reached the top landing and paused to adjust her grip on the box before bumping the door with her bum. It swung open and revealed a garret apartment any struggling writer would be delighted to call home. Our few possessions made a meagre mound inside the door. After all, this was the first time either of us had lived anywhere but with our parents. Now we had a spacious living-room-come-dining-room, a bathroom, with a gloriously deep roll top bath and most importantly, our very own bedroom. As I followed her inside and healed the door closed, I knew which room I was going to explore first.
We had been there a week when we got our first knock on the door. It was Friday evening and we were both off work for the weekend. Jenny was busy in the kitchen and I was picking out songs on iTunes. We glanced at each other and I guess we simultaneously realised it was our door so nobody else was going to answer it. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head in a way that said, Well? I unfolded my legs and jogged the few feet to the door. Whatever I had expected to find, it wasn't an elderly man in a polka dot cravat, cradling an expensive looking bottle of red wine.
“Hello," I said, in greeting and query.
"Greetings neighbor and welcome to the palace," the man said rather theatrically, waving his hand in an all-encompassing ark. I had to bite down on the giggle trying to escape my throat but I felt my smile spreading considerably.
"It's lovely to be here," I said honestly and rested my shoulder against the door-frame.
"For you," he said, offering the bottle of wine, which I accepted and admired. The label was double Dutch to me, I was more your pint of larger kind of lad.
"Thank you so much, you shouldn't have," I said, but deep inside I felt very grown up.
The man offered his hand and said, "Trevor," in a serious tone. "Sean," I replied, mimicking his tone, and shaking has hand in a very manly way.
"I hope you're not those, party-all-weekend kind of people, Sean," he said seriously.
"God, no," I stammered, worrying that I'd gotten the wrong measure of the man in front of me.
"Good, good," he said, letting a few seconds pass before smiling wickedly and saying, "That's my department in this building, Dearie," before winking and turning back toward his own open apartment. He had only taken a step when Jenny cried out, "Who is it?"
"It's Trevor from across the hall, he brought us a bottle of wine," I shouted back.
"Bring him in. Does he eat pasta?"
I didn't get to answer that because Trevor mumbled, "Do I what?" as he brushed past me with hips rolling and lips pouted for an air kiss. It looked like it would be dinner for three tonight.
We had been at 14 Astor Street for about a month when something strange happened. Our little flat was cosy but not the most well insulated. When we would cook, or when we had a bath, nearly all the windows would fog up. On this particular night, we were just sitting down to dinner when Jenny pointed to the big feature window and said, "I wish you wouldn't do that."
"Do what?" I asked, while taking a large forkful of spinach.
"Put marks on the glass," she said, tilting her head in the direction of the window. She was right, there were two very clear hand marks.
"That wasn't me."
"Oh, come on?"
"No, it couldn't be, look." I walked over and held up my hands beside the marks. They were clearly made by much smaller hands that mine.
"I'm waiting," I said.
"For what?" she asked, grumpily.
"A sorry of course.It must have been you not me."
"I never did that, and look how low down they are. Don't you think I would have remembered if I had."
"Well, it wasn't me, who else could it have been."
The silence was deafening. Her glare sent shivers up my back, an atmosphere that lasted for the rest of the night. I think we'd just had our first fight.
The next morning I woke up to find Jenny's side of the bed empty. When I went into the living room I found her scrubbing the windows. I snuck up behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist, nusling her neck.
"I'm sorry honey," I said.
"For pawing the windows?" she asked without conviction.
"For everything. Have I told you today that I don't deserve you?"
"Now you mention it, you haven't." she said with a giggle, swiveling in my embrace to face me.
"Well, I don't. How about coming back to bed and letting me set the record straight."
My Dad used to say that the best part of arguing with Mom was the making up. I can definitely say, that he is right, not that I want to think about it again...like ever.
Funny thing, a week later the hand prints reappeared.
"Look at that." I said, pointing them out.
"How can that be?" Jenny said, going over and wiping her hand across the prints streaking them into nonexistence.
"We might be doing it subconsciously, or sleepwalking or something."
"Whatever it is it's giving me the creeps," she said, going to the kitchen and returning with window spray and a cloth. When the glass was spotless, she pushed the coffee table in front of the window so we wouldn't be able to mark the window accidentally.
The next evening, we were sitting watching TV while a pot of rice bubbled on the cooker. My eye drifted to the window and noticed the beginnings of water-droplets forming on the cold glass, but no hand marks. I couldn't help it, my eye kept flicking to that same spot again and again. Then it started to happen.
"Jenny," I said quietly, not taking my eyes off the glass.
"Humm?" she mumbled.
"Look," I whispered, although I don't know why I was whispering.
"Oh God," she gasped and both hands flew to her mouth, her eyes widening. On the window, very faintly, the outlines of fingers were starting to appear, where moments ago there was nothing. As the seconds ticked by the outline became clearer and clearer. Jenny jumped off the couch and hurried to the door.
"Where are you going?" I called, feeling like running right out after her.
"To get Trevor and make sure we are not imaging things."
Trevor listened to our story without saying anything. He was far more grave than normal, no funny quips, no over-the-top camping. When it had all been told, he asked, "And you actually saw them appear?"
"Totally, there was nothing there, I had checked only seconds before and then...well...it started to appear."
"Are they always in the same place?"
"Yes, I think so," said Jenny. Trevor walked over to the window and pulled back the coffee table, then like Jenny had done he wiped his hand across the imprints and smeared them out. He crouched there for a few minutes, not doing anything, not saying anything. Finally, Jenny asked, "What do you think?"
"Could be lots of reasons for it, a fault in the glass making the moisture gather in a particular way, some form of grease that cleaning is not taking off. Anything really. But I know a man who might be able to help. Do you think it would be OK to bring him over tomorrow."
"If you think he can tell us what is going on, sure," I said.
"And what will we do in the meantime?" asked Jenny, clearly frightened.
"Well, I don't think anything dangerous is happening so I guess just carry on as normal."
"But it's creepy," she said.
"That it is," agreed Trevor, sagely. "That it is."
The next evening Trevor appeared with a man just like he promised. Brian Gardener was his name and he was much younger than I'd expected. Late twenties at the most but his skin had a very pail touch. Perhaps he spent all his time studying. His eyes were heavily bagged and had dark circles underneath them. We started to tell him our story but rather than listen he walked straight to the window without being told which one we were talking about.
"Perhaps we should just show him," said Trevor, pointing at the cooker. Jenny turned on kettle to boil and put several pans of water on the hob. Soon, the apartment was full of steam and all the windows were fogging up. No sign of the hand prints. The minutes ticked by and we all held our breath. Still nothing. Trevor, Jenny and myself were standing as a group in the middle of the room, Brian was down on his haunches a few inches from the windows. Then it happened. The hand prints didn't slowly appear like before, they exploded into existence, so suddenly, I saw the glass vibrate. Two, three, four, five...the prints kept coming. Brian fell backward, his jaw hung slack and whatever colour had tinged his skin, vanished. Shaking hands slowly reached for the glass but his fingers hovered a fraction from making contact. I was about to say something when he suddenly began to cry. Not tears of fear or suprise: huge heartbreaking sobs.
"What's going on?" I asked, turning to Trevor. He drew us outside to the landing, leaving the crying man alone in the apartment.
"Brian and his wife Susan used to live in your apartment. They had a little boy, Ben, he was. One night, nobody knows why, but Ben just stopped breathing in his cot. I can tell you, I still have nightmares. Susan's screams..." Trevor's voice just trailed off, lost in the memory of it. After a few moments, he said, "They stayed on for a little while afterward, but everything reminded them of Ben. All the trouble he caused, all the hours of laughter. He loved drawing squiggles on the windows, it drove Susan mad cleaning them off them. Brian and Susan loved each other, like really loved, but loosing Ben broke them to the core. A year ago, they moved out and went in separate directions. Susan moved to New Zealand but I kept in touch with Brian. I knew the minute I saw those hand prints what was happening but I had to be sure."
At that moment Brian appeared at the door. "It's him, Trevor, its Ben," he said, tears still running down his cheeks. Trevor just nodded and smiled.
"I have to be with him, I just have to," Brian said.
Trevor frowned, "Are you sure that's wise?"
"He's there, Trevor. Just there," he cried, pointing at the window and the all-too-clear hand marks. The atmosphere inside the apartment, and outside on the landing, was charged with expectation.
Jenny and I looked at each other, no idea what we should do. It was our flat but to be honest, I didn't really feel good about the place anymore and I knew by looking at Jenny she was scared too. It was Trevor that broached the subject for us all. "What about Jenny and Sean, they live here. It’s their home."
"Here," Brian said frantically digging in his pockets and pulling out a set of keys. "I have a place not far from here. Its small but it’s nice. Take it. Stay as long as you want. Rent free. I'll take over your lease and straighten it out with the landlord but I can’t lose my boy again. Please." He pushed the keys into my hand and stood there with his hands clasped in front of him.
I was shocked, by this, by everything. I turned to Jenny and it only took her a second to answer everything. "I'm not sleeping in there one more night."
We quickly packed a few things and Trevor was going to drive us over to Brian's house. As we were leaving, Brian was sitting on the floor in front of the window, pans still bubbled on the cooker. He turned and said, "Thank you for finding my boy." I didn't say anything, what could I say. It's not like we did anything. But over his shoulder I saw the fog on the window shift as the shape of two tiny lips, pursed in a kiss, marked the window. I didn't know if it was for us or for Brian but right then I knew nobody should stand between a man and his baby, in this life or the next. I closed the door on our little flat and looked at the world around me in a whole new way, a way I never expected to believe.