A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en: Milverton's Eyes
A couple relocates to a new town and a new apartment. They love the history of their old neighborhood, though their downstairs neighbor tends to give them the chills with his long, speechless stares. After people begin disappearing from the building, they become suspicious that he may be involved, but it is the naked, crawling thing in their stairwell that really tips them off.
M I L V E R T O N ' S E Y E S
THOSE of you who know me personally – who know me well – know that my wife and I lived together for a year and a half before our marriage in a town that neither of us had been to before, or had any connection to whatsoever. It is true that I later learned that an aunt of my father’s had lived there – not three blocks from our apartment – for years, and that my grandparents had visited them there often, but I wasn’t aware of this until I had been installed in the area for several months. To us it was a strange place: a quaint port town on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, snuggly slumbering between Louisville to the west and Cincinnati to the east, with dozens of miles of green hills and shaggy woodlands between them. The River spilled its way westward towards the Mississippi – and hence to the Gulf and the Atlantic – all beneath our watch. And we had a lovely vantage point to view it. But before I get to the apartment at 512 East Main Street, or to our neighbor below and what we suspected of him, I had better begin at an early point in these memories.
My wife and I drove down to the town – a four hour trek from the area we were then living in – on a rainy afternoon in either March or April. The drive was a disappointingly unremarkable one, crossing through featureless soy bean fields and towns whose gas stations and boarded-up Main Streets were the only memorable features. Three or four times we drove into hilly terrain where the highway wove dangerously around flinty hillocks and under moss-drenched overpasses, but for the most part we filled our time straining the radio’s tenuous grip on NPR stations which would perennially fall out of reach to be lost in a sea of gospel, country, and hissing static. The rain grew heavier as we drove further south, until we were surrounded on all sides by a flashing white halo that blocked our sight, leaving only the walls of water that passed by us like a series of large white veils being pulled back and forth and up and down.
Out of that floating water we could dimly see two grey towers that pulled into focus as we neared them, and then we were between them; between two massive walls of stone and earth as the road cut between them and dove downwards. The highway spun in loose tendrils, weaving around piles of stone and walls of brown rock, curving delicately as if trying not to be noticed by the great formations that peered at this new and unwanted innovation. The car seemed small and I felt as though it was now of little protection should a rock overhead suddenly give way as the road signs warned they did. We sped out of the cliffs’ shadows, past broad, weedy hillsides that swelled up like the backs of great whales encrusted with barnacles and slimy with algae. And then there were houses: unlit trailers from the eighties, small single-storied shacks from the fifties, and unpainted farmsteads from before the First World War. A Catholic graveyard loomed to the right, fenced in by stone walls and overshadowed by the jaw of a thorn-infested peak. It was in plain view with its grass clipped diligently and an whole acre untenanted by the dead, but even now I remember how old the stones were, how forgotten they seemed, almost as if someone had begun the project and suddenly thought better of it, leaving a relic of ambition and futility ironically uncompleted.
We drove over a bridge which spanned one of the black, silent tongue of Crooked Creek, which slithered its way out of the Ohio River’s embrace and disappeared in the shadows of the woodlands and flintrock. We entered the town just as the clouds seemed to float off across the river into Kentucky, and for a moment we saw the sun glint boastfully between two shifting piles of vapor. It cast a brassy glow over a Main Street which surely looked little different now than it had at the beginning of the previous century. To the west the businesses had taken up camp in two or three story Victorian-era flat-tops, whose bricks were bleached by decades of sun, snow, and rain. At the center was the city hall, a Federal Era building, boasting a discolored Civil War monument clawing defiantly at the shifting fog, with a cannonball from the Siege of Vicksburg nestled proudly at its base. To the east were a long series of houses, duplexes, churches, and apartment complexes. Here and there were some modern innovations, but most of them were the product of the Victorian and Antebellum Eras. Fresh reports from Custer’s defeat in Montana had been read on these porches. The looming ramifications of Lincoln’s assassination had been discussed in these shuttered rooms. Slaves had dragged themselves from the water and pressed their wet bodies against these dry bricks as they evaded bounty hunters.
My wife successfully interviewed for the job that she had been offered, and in a month we drove back into town and selected our first shared home. The sky was white with heat, and steam saturated the air and buildings and pavement. The sun loomed triumphantly over the courthouse as we pulled into the city’s chief intersection and turned east. The apartment we had selected was only three blocks away: the penthouse of 512 East Main Street. There are times when I wake up in the middle night and I momentarily forget all the history that has marched on since then; times when I am back at Apartment Six, when I look up and see the old, warped windows letting in the orange glimmer of the old streetlamps, and expect to feel the old, bowing floorboards on my bare feet. But I don’t set foot out of my bed, not until I remember that we live four hours away and that I will never have to dream in that building again. But the impression is a strong one, and my wife complains that I wake her up every now and then with a stifled gasp. I rarely remember these episodes, but when I do, the emotional impact is galvanizing.
Apartment Six occupied the entire fourth floor of a four floor Victorian building. It was constructed in a year when France was at war with Prussia and President Grant was serving his first term. The floors below us were carved up into smaller apartments that were tenanted by affluent, middle-aged couples including an Egyptian surgeon, a banker, and several retirees with multiple properties who lived in the building seasonally. We didn’t have trouble bidding for the residence, and I remember thinking that although the condominium was popular with wealthy professionals, we must have had an advantage because the climb – some forty-six steps in total – had frightened away prospective tenants. This is what I believed, for the apartment that we took was the crown jewel of the complex: a studio apartment of over 1,900 square feet surrounded on all sides by double casement windows that brought in air during the summer and light during the winter. The bedroom – which featured a vast, built in wardrobe and an en-suite – was easily made private by closing two ten-foot tall French doors. Hardwood floors spanned the entire apartment, a comfortable laundry room doubled as guest quarters and a library, and one of the casements opened out onto a section of roof which afforded one of the most remarkable landscapes of hills, spires, and river. During the summer months I used to climb through that window with a folding chair and some small means of entertainment – a book, a cigar, a chilled porter – and enjoy what felt like the apex of my life.
The third floor was split into two apartments which shared a landing with us. Walking up the first seventeen steps brought you to the six by six platform, and turning around to the right brought you to a locked, glass-panelled door which opened into our stairwell, which – upon turning once more to the right – brought you to another flight which led to our living room. If, however, you stopped before turning right, there were two other doors which opened into two other apartments. To the left was Apartment Four. This was where Susan lived. We saw little of her, but much of her cleaning lady, a middle-aged woman named Ellen. When Ellen would mount the stairs our cat would discontinue whatever he was currently occupied with, scuttle down the steps, and watch her through the glass door. Although Susan seemed to be homebound, Ellen was chipper and friendly, and we knew more about her than the woman who actually owned the apartment. This was, as I said, the door to the left. Apartment Five was the door straight ahead which was visible from the foot of the stairs. This is where the person we called Milverton lived.
I say called because we never learned what he called himself. He never said and we never cared. Milverton’s apartment stretched out below our bedroom and bathroom, and his living space appeared to be directly below our bed. We named Milverton after the Sherlock Holmes character of the same name: a greedy, socially awkward parasite who resembled our Milverton in personality and appearance alike. Our neighbor was a short, squat man advancing past middle age. His head was round and soft-looking, with flabby cheeks and bulging grey eyes set wide apart from a pug nose. These eyes were the dominant feature of his face: two colorless irises set in two yellowed eyeballs like black marbles pressed into animal fat. He was horrendously farsighted, I am sure, for his round glasses seemed to double their natural size, which was awful to see for they leered constantly. I never seem to remember looking at him without seeing that his eyes had first been levelled at me. They pried and wondered in a way that I found indescribably off putting for a man of his age.
Milverton’s apartment, by the nature of its location, always loomed over me when I came home from work and began the ascent up our antique stairway, and even before I knew him I felt that something about it was off – not quite right. It didn’t matter if you had measured the door jambs or taken a picture of it to compare with our corresponding door, his always seemed – not quite larger, but incorrect, out of alignment with the general mood and symmetry of the rest of the apartments. It was externally identical to Apartment Four. It featured a white wooden door some seven feet tall with ornate Victorian trim; the brass door handle and plate that had been blackened by use, with just the faintest smears of yellow in the untouched corners and crevasses. Overhead was a rectangular transom that would have admitted a view inside his rooms had it not been patched over on the inside by purple construction paper (which I suspected of having originally been black before it was faded by time). Outside the door was a shaggy welcome mat scored by two grey streaks that almost certainly matched his toddling gait; in floral, grandmotherly script it announced “Welcome In!” to passersby. It seemed that very few people accepted the offer, for the floor boards were thin, and while I could hear him watching television, blowing his nose, coughing, and cooking, I never seemed to hear another human voice – not even him talking into a telephone.
The Vaccum of His Gaze
I first saw Milverton while we were moving in. Her parents had travelled with us and we had formed a human chain in order to swiftly move boxes from the truck into our third story apartment. A box left from the trailer, met me at the foot of the first flight, where I would carry it up to the second, where my wife would collect and deposit it. In spite of the great load of boxes I found that the chore was curiously lonely. A box would be thrust into my hands every three minutes without a word or glance, and I would walk it up the stairs and return to my post in the same manner. We had possibly gone through six boxes of cookware and knick-knacks before I noticed that the door at the top of the stairs had opened. Behind it was a red wall which successfully obscured any view of the interior. There was nothing hanging from it – pictures, key-catchers, coat hooks – and indeed this was the only feature that I could see: a wall painted dark crimson, like an overripe strawberry. In front of the wall but behind the door was the little man with his round, bald head and his unblinking eyes. My first impression was one of embarrassment: clearly we were upsetting our neighbors before we had even met them. But then I looked closer at him. The expression I had taken for annoyance was actually entirely neutral – blank, like the face of a lethargic toad watching something that had the potential to upset his stupor but had so far proven nothing other than a vapid curiosity. And if Milverton had any emotion whatsoever, that emotion was curiosity. But not like an imaginative child or an excitable puppy or even a prowling cat. It was like the curiosity of a man who watches two people converse in a foreign language that he has never heard and never wishes to learn. The distinct impression was that he saw me as a quaint curiosity; not a young, noisy threat to his comfortable retirement; not a potential friend; not a nice young man with a pretty girlfriend who would bring some life into the elderly population; but a strange and inconceivable oddity. I made eye contact with him in the first moment that I realized he was standing in the doorway, but broke off without a word, because there was no question or salutation in his expression.
This is a strange thing to describe because usually it is an unspoken code of human beings that our glances speak for us: they say “Can I help?” and “Oh, hi there! I’m kind of shy but it’s nice to see new neighbors” or “Great… another young brat to make a lot of ruckus. I’d thank you to keep the noise down, and no parties after eight; I have my stories at seven and then it’s off to bed.” But his face made no such declaration: those glassy black balls just sat in his fat head without blinking or breaking their aim at me.
Suddenly there was a box. I took it and turned. Now in most stories like this that I have heard of or read about this is the point where he would have vanished and shut the door. But I looked up and realized that I had the excessively distasteful task of climbing the stairs towards the unblinking toad on the landing. I smiled thinly once or twice at him to make sure that the awkward energy between us was as one-sided as I could manage, but for the most part I kept my eyes down and trudged up the steps, watching the worn and warped brown steps and the off-white, scuff-mottled rises that separated them. I was half way there. Look up. Still standing. Watching. Look down. Step. Step. Step. I will sigh exasperatedly as if the load is heavy to fill the silence. Step. Step. Step. Three quarters. Look up. With five steps to go I had hoped that he would either walk in front of the door or walk behind it – either announce himself or retire inside. But as I climbed onto the penultimate step, I felt my pulse palpably thud in my ear drum when I saw him step aside and open his door wider, never breaking his googling stare. Had I been more dazed by the action, I might have accepted his mute invitation and walked straight off of the landing and into the waiting apartment. But no, surely not. It was the lunacy of the gesture – that by simply holding open a door and stepping back you could coax a complete stranger to change their intended course and make themselves at home. It was an outrageous offer, but it stunned me, and a small part of my mind wanted to obey the expressionless command to leave my wife and her parents and to enter his territory, but I denied the existence of such a daft impulse and turned the corner sharply. Entering our apartment and turning once again to mount the stairs on our landing, I occaisioned to see him once again: black eyes made wet and bubbly behind his glasses, still fixed on me.
By the time I had deposited the box and descended onto the shared landing, the story seemed over: the door was shut and nothing except for the “Welcome In!” mat was left to remind me of the encounter. And indeed we saw nothing of Milverton for the remainder of the month. My wife had still yet to meet him, and as much as I dreaded walking up the steps when I came home from teaching night classes, I rarely thought of him outside of those lonely ascents. We didn’t see a thing of him until one Saturday morning during that same blistering summer on the Ohio River. The steam clung to everything, and the heat bled through walls and leaked through the roof so that our air conditioning had given out the previous afternoon leaving us to suffer through the night. I couldn’t sleep because of the humidity, so at four in the morning I decided to take a cold shower. The water stung in my face and hair, but it felt delicious on my skin, and I drank from it until I felt full of cool water. Turning the tap off I toweled the water from my feet and legs, but let the m