By Bill Wilkinson
It had been a few days since my neighbor last messaged me to get stuff for him when the disturbance happened over at his place. A noise startled me awake. It was 2:22 in the morning according to the harsh red digits of my clock. I heard a shout; a thunk and a clunk; hurried steps; the front door slamming. Whispers preceded the swoosh of something substantial being dragged several minutes later. I crept towards the front door hoping not to be detected through the paper-thin wall.
I’ve never actually met my neighbor Bob. I doubt that’s his name, but it’s what I’ll use. No one ever visited Bob in the nine months we were neighbors. I also never once saw him leave or come back.
We’re up on the second floor of a four-story building of condos consisting of four identical units per floor. It’s an anonymous neighborhood. All the buildings look the same. No one knows anyone else. No one tries to know anyone else. This is my first home and I was initially pretty pumped about the place. I quickly learned that the developers slap these fuckers together and cut all kinds of corners to squeeze ever dang cent of profit from chumps like me. God bless America. They look nice on the exterior, but a month after I bought the place half the towel bars had fallen and the A/C pooped out. The walls are so damn thin you can hear your neighbor sighing in his sleep. And farting. The wooden staircases creak and are nearly rotten. Instead of “The Village at Bear Run Park” it should be called “Potemkin Place for Putzes.”
I’d been getting supplies for Bob for about six weeks until that night. He said he thought he was sick and needed to stay indoors. Whatever. I was happy to help. I’m a good neighbor.
About a week after he moved in, which I only knew about because one day the unit sharing a wall with mine was silent, and the next it wasn’t, I knocked on his door to say hi. Beats me why I wanted to meet the guy because that’s not something anyone does around here anymore. I guess I miss living on the small-town street I grew up on where you knew people and were friendly. I’m the sap that likes shoveling driveways for folks, quaint as that Beaver shit sounds. This trumpy age of common assholery has me pining for some common decency. Be the change you want to see and all that shit. So I knocked.
I knew he was there that day because I could hear his keyboards click-clacking and a chair rolling back-and-forth across the hardwood. I figured he had a whole set-up over there, multiple servers and keyboards and screens. I’d heard him pounding away all week and sliding to and fro.
I knocked a few times and stood there like a doofus but he didn’t answer. Whatever, he was either busy, had headphones on, or was a garden-variety douche like everyone else. It’s hard to be pissed anymore about the norm.
The night of the ruckus two men in dark suits emerged from Bob’s door. I spied them through the blinds. They struggled with something heavy and awkward wrapped in some blankets I’d picked up for Bob. Duct tape I’d also gotten him held the blankets in place. I suspected it was Bob they carried. Or maybe Bob was one of the men lugging and the body was someone else or perhaps it wasn’t a body and it was two-fucking-thirty and I should watch less TV and read better fiction. Who can say?
The two guys hurried down the creaking stairs. They heaved the bundle into the bed of a red pick-up and drove off. Bob asked me once in a message not to call any authorities about him no matter the circumstances. That seems like a red-flag now, but it didn’t seem weird then. I probably should have called the cops.
My first message from Bob came moments after he didn’t answer the door when I tried to meet him. The thing just appeared on my phone, not through e-mail or text message, but as its own window, in a format I’d never seen before, though I’m pretty lame with all the tech shit. I just barely make the cut as a millennial.
“Hi, Bernie,” the message began. “I’m Bob. Thank you for stopping over today. That was kind of you. It’s nice to know I have such a thoughtful neighbor. I’m sorry I didn’t answer, but I was very busy and could not come to the door. I hope you understand.”
When you read something like that, doesn’t it make you feel good? That’s just a nice little note. And so I didn’t really find it queer that he knew my name and phone number. Right then I guessed he was a shut-in or something. Maybe physically handicapped or disfigured or just not a people-person. Whatever, man, right? It takes all kinds. Let Bob be Bob and I’ll stay Bernie.
The app he used to send the message was curious, though. The return address consisted of a series of twenty-five letters and numbers. I replied, “No worries. Welcome to the neighborhood. Let me know if I can do anything for you.” He replied with a smiley-face emoji, and then the whole thread just disappeared. Every conversation we ever had vanished like that.
The evening after the two guys in the red truck drove off with whatever the hell was wrapped in those blankets, a tan sedan pulled up by the stairs and two men wearing fancy dark suits got out. They looked around, one consulted a notepad, and then they argued whether they were at the right address. The one without the notepad said they were at the wrong building. I watched him point a few times but I knew this was all a show because these were the same guys from last night. They decided to climb the stairs as I knew they would.
“Mr. Robinson?” a voice called through my door after knocking. “Police. We have a few questions?”
I cracked the door. They flashed badges and sheepish grins. I opened the door against my better judgment. I should have asked for a closer look at their credentials. I should have written down their badge numbers. Who knows what would have happened if I had.
They were Detective Jones and Detective Smith and they wanted to know the last time I’d seen my neighbor.
Bob told me a few weeks ago in a message that if anyone should come by asking about him, just tell the truth. I guess I missed some signs about Bob. Or, I don’t know. It’s all confusing. His messages always had such nice things in them that the occasional strange line didn’t register the way it would in isolation.
“Bernie, thank you so much for all you’ve done,” I think I recall that message beginning. “It’s so nice to know that people like you still exist, what with the divisiveness these days. You seem so very selfless and willing to help out a neighbor in his time of need, and I value that. If anyone ever comes by looking for me, you can tell them all you know. Anyhow, thanks for getting my groceries and I’ll Venmo you what I owe in just a second. Have a wonderful night, Bernie.” Like most of his messages, it ended with a smiley-face.
At that point I was under the impression Bob worked from home doing computer stuff, though he never said and I never asked. Maybe a customer-service rep, like the guy you can online-chat with to help you do whatever. Something boring. Maybe he wrote code or managed a website. Some nights when he’d really hammer away at the keys, I imagined him to be an internet troll or someone orchestrating a misinformation campaign in collusion with Russian bots. But then he’d send me a message apologizing for any noise and thanking me for being a good neighbor. I guess I knew he was manipulating me. Maybe “cultivating” fits better.
I told the detectives I didn’t believe to be detectives that I’d never actually seen or met Bob, but I’d last communicated with him a few days before.
“Well that’s odd, huh?” Detective Jones said.
“Indeed,” agreed Detective Smith.
“Do you often run errands for strangers?” Jones asked. “We know you ran errands for Bob.”
“No,” I answered. “But he said he was ill, so that’s what you do, right?”
“Hmm,” said Smith.
“Ill?” asked Jones.
“He thought maybe he’d contracted the coronavirus,” I said, realizing the stupidity of saying this. “I don’t know that he did. I think he just doesn’t like going out.”
“Coronavirus?” scoffed Jones.
“Didn’t you say he never goes out?” asked Smith. “Seems hard to get a thing like that locked inside all day.”
“It wasn’t my place to argue. I just helped him out. That’s what you do for neighbors, right?”
“Quite the Brother Teresa, huh?” joked Smith.
“You didn’t think to call anyone?” wondered Jones.
“Maybe the authorities?”
“Or perhaps you sniffed bullshit?”
“Man, I just did what he asked. He said he’d be okay. I thought he just needed help with his errands, that’s all.”
“Anyone ever come by to see him?” asked Jones.
“He ever have any parties?” Smith asked.
“You hear any arguments or fights?” Jones asked.
“No. Like I said, no one ever came here, and he never seemed to leave. I don’t know.”
“No late-night disturbances?” Jones asked.
“Walls tend to be thin in places like this,” Smith observed.
“All I ever heard was typing,” I said. I suspected they were sussing me out, determining if I’d heard or seen them last night. Maybe uncover if I’d witnessed them removing a suspicious body-shaped blanketed bundle. I was freaking out inside, but outside I stayed cool enough for deception.
“Bob ever discuss his work with you?”
“Or if he was into anything shady?”
“Seeing as you’re such a good neighbor.”
“A helpful kinda guy.”
“He might say if he was in trouble?”
“No clue,” I said. “Is he in any trouble?”
“Why would you think that?” Jones asked.
“Because you just brought it up. And a couple detectives are asking me questions about him.”
“We can’t discuss details of ongoing investigations,” said Smith.
“So there is an investigation?”
“That’s classified,” said Jones.
“You’ve been a great help,” Smith said with a smile.
“Do you have a card or something?” I asked. I’ve watched a police procedural or two. “If I think of anything or if Bob comes back?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Jones answered.
“He won’t be back,” Smith said. The two mysterious detectives turned and left.
That perplexing exchange, my first interaction like that with the law, had me wishing I’d written down Bob’s messages. I worried I’d been mixed up in some shit just by agreeing to give Bob some neighborly assistance. I tried remembering the first message he sent asking for help.
“Howdy, neighbor,” I’m pretty sure it started. “I may have been exposed to this coronavirus everyone’s antsy about. I’m going to just self-quarantine. No cause for alarm. I alerted my doctor and this is what he suggested. Don’t worry! I’m a healthy young man, so even if I have it, I should be okay. Can you maybe pick a few things up for me? I’ll compensate you for your time and expenses. You are such a kind neighbor and I hate to ask, but I’m in a tough spot. Do you use Venmo?”
I replied that I’d be glad to help. Obviously. But I had to ask where he thought he’d been exposed. I asked because I was under the impression he never left, but I didn’t write that. Instead I just said I was curious if it was somewhere I may have been. At that point I hadn’t heard of any cases outside China, though that’s not the case anymore.
“Oh, just in my travels,” he replied. “Nowhere around here. You shouldn’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried because his keyboard had been clacking day and night since he moved in, so I was certain he couldn’t have the coronavirus. He seemed like a guy that just needed a buddy, even if he couldn’t bring himself to meet me in person. I felt sorry for him, isolated in there all the time, forced to make up wild fibs just to have someone listen. So I never brought any of that crap up with him. Sure, I’ll help you. Anything you need, Bob.
“There need to be more people like you out there, Bernie,” he replied with a smiley-face.
The first list he sent me was simple. He wanted fresh fruit and some cans of soup; some cases of Gatorade and water; a few OTC medicines and hand sanitizer. When I went to knock on his door with the stuff, I noticed there was a drawer now installed in his door. It looked like an after-hours bank drop. I had no idea when he had had that done. I hadn’t heard men working and was only gone an hour. A message popped up on my phone. “Just put the things in the drawer with the receipt, that way we won’t swap germs face-to-face!”
He Venmoed me what I’d spent plus an extra fifty bucks. The next time he messaged, I told him he didn’t need to pay me extra, and certainly not that much, for just helping a sick neighbor.
“That’s mighty decent of you, Bernie,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t feel right not compensating you, though.”
So we agreed on twenty bucks per trip. In all honesty, I was happy for the extra cash and a little peeved at myself for negotiating down my price. But I would have felt shitty taking so much from Bob.
Bob said he was feeling cold and feverish, but not to worry, he just needed some blankets. And some duct tape and cardboard to seal up the windows and vents. I worried he was growing paranoid. Maybe all the time spent indoors was messing with his noggin. But I got him what he asked for. I quit worrying when his next requests were for books, magazines, and Twizzlers.
Then I stopped hearing Bob’s keyboard and chair and the messages ceased. I guessed he was reading or sleeping or actually sick, but then the two men showed up at two in the morning and lugged out what I believed to be Bob and then they visited me asking about him and frightening the holy hell out of me.
Not long after Jones and Smith drove off, I got a smiley-face message from Bob. Before I could reply and alert him of the visitors and ask him what the fuck, it vanished. But I guess Bob didn’t die, so that’s something.
The next afternoon a cop car parked outside and two cops emerged, hiking their belts over their donut-paunches before ambling up the stairs. They pounded on Bob’s door.
“Yo, Mr. Gagarin,” one of them hollered. “You in there? Mr. Gagarin? Police. Welfare check, Mr. Gagarin.”
I cracked my door and poked my head out. Their haircuts, tan-lines, and dopey arrogance gave them away as city cops.
“You seen him?” one grumbled at me while the other pounded on the door again.
“Family’s worried about him,” the one said. “You know him much?”
“Figures. Yeah, family hasn’t been able to reach this guy for months. Said he upped and left and they finally tracked him here but no one’s seen him. When’s the last time you seen Alexei? Goes by Alex, maybe.”
Alexei? “I’ve never seen him.”
“Never? Right next door?”
“I don’t know any of my neighbors.”
“I know someone lives there, though. The walls are thin.”
“He ain’t answering,” the door-knocking cop said.
“Two detectives were by yesterday,” I offered out of the total fucking blue.
“Nobody tells us shit,” the knocker whined, wheezing from his effort. Definitely cops, these two.
“They asked me some questions about him.”
“Shit, we just took the call this damn morning.”
“Didn’t hear about no detectives being out here.”
“You sure?” the first one asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“They don’t send detectives for welfare checks,” the knocker said after pounding a few more times.
“They leave you a card?” asked the first.
“No. Jones and Smith were their names, though.”
“Fucked if I know,” the first cop said with a shrug. “Better pry the door since they sent us. Don’t know jack shit about no Jones or Smith. You know a Jones or Smith?” he asked his comrade who merely shrugged before cranking the door open with a black crowbar.
They entered and I peeked inside. The unit was completely empty. The cops walked through the whole apartment bitching and moaning about being sent on bullshit prank calls to empty-ass apartments. I spent the time wondering who the hell Alexei Gagarin is. The cranky cops left after a few minutes and I went back inside and promptly received another of Bob’s smiley-faces.
Not ten goddamned minutes later I heard more fucking feet slapping up the rickety-ass stairs. Whoever it was paced around Bob’s unit and I heard a grumbled “motherfuck” from over there before my door was yet again knocked upon. I opened it half expecting a gun to be shoved in my face or Jones and Smith again, but two different men in suits stood there looking pissed.
“You the one helped out Bob?” one of them snarled.
“I guess,” I stammered. These dudes seemed dangerous and they hadn’t bothered showing ID though I guessed they were officials of some nefarious variety that I had no interest in fucking with.
“Anyone asking about Bob?” he demanded.
“Two cops just now,” I said.
“Besides those assclowns. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, two guys in suits.”
“I can count.”
“We sent three,” the other said to his partner.
“Not a fucking word,” the first one ordered, stabbing a finger in my chest. “To anyone. Got it?” I nodded and they left and that was all I heard about Bob until today. That was all about a month ago and I’ve been pretty worried all this time. Bob’s door is still busted but no one’s been back. No cops, no Jones and Smith, no pissed off thugs to tie me up as a loose end. I haven’t gotten any messages or smileys from Bob. No nothing.
But today I got a letter in my mailbox. It wasn’t addressed and there wasn’t any postage. How it got into my box, which is one of the big metal communal ones for all the units where the postman is the only one with the key to put things in, is beyond me.
“Bernie,” it began. “Thanks for all you did for me. It’s so very nice to know a person can still count on a neighbor for help in America. I know you were helping because you wanted to and because you’re decent, but please accept this cash. I’m grateful.” There was a crisp c-note in the envelope and I’m not sure what to think of it. Had it been more, I couldn’t have spent it. But only a hundred?
“I’ll never be able to thank you properly, but just know I’ll always think fondly of the help you provided. You won’t be troubled by anyone. I was in a tight spot and you helped me, no questions asked.”
It was signed, “Bob,” but there wasn’t a smiley-face. I honestly can’t say if any of this was real. The only thing I know for certain is my mind’s been seriously fucked with. It’s probably just best to forget it, but I miss Bob.