The Terror of Sweet Briar
One block off the main drag, on a street that dead-ends at the freeway, you wander past a weedy lot, shimmering sprays of broken glass, and a Victorian apartment building that’s sinking back into the earth. Most of the garden-level windows are boarded; it’s been empty for a while. You know trespassing is a bad idea. You could get arrested. You could fall through a rotted staircase or be stabbed by a squatter or break your skin on a dirty needle. But still, there’s no harm in getting a better look. Is there?
The Sweet Briar Flats are four stories high, made of red sandstone, and built in a Romanesque style that favors large, rounded archways. An iron fire escape spirals skyward, decorating the red-brick building like a twist of Christmas ribbon. The windows are massive. Years ago, these apartments were home to well-heeled newlyweds and heirs to railroad fortunes, but those people are dust, just like some of the mortar joints.
You take half a step into the red-stone archway that leads to a wrought-iron gate and a maze of rear-facing windows. The smell hits you right away: rot. Wet wood. The smell says: stay the fuck out of here. The air in the archway is cool, several degrees cooler than the pavement on the other side. You imagine that this might have been a nice place to escape the heat on a scorching summer day. But now, the blank, empty windows still make you feel like somebody’s watching.
Notice to Vacate
Dara couldn’t sleep. Her scalp ached and no matter which way she rested her head, she could feel that sharp tugging. Why did Titi always have to do her braids so tight? She heard someone staggering and cursing in the hallway, howling like the wolves in the nature show her class had watched when they had a substitute teacher. It was Eli who made people crash into walls and fall asleep on the steps. It was Eli’s fault.
She snuggled close to her dad until the thumping footsteps and the swearing faded away. Still asleep, Dad wound a muscular arm around her, hugging her small shoulders.
In the morning, she would watch out for needles in the hallway as she left for school. Daddy had stepped on one once and said a bad word. He called Titi to bring Dara to school but she couldn’t leave work, so instead, Dara went with Daddy to the hospital and spent hours squirming, bored, until a nurse brought her a coloring book and some waxy crayons. Finally, an old lady nurse in green pajamas gave Daddy a shot in his arm and they got to leave the chilly hospital and return to the warm, damp streets. Daddy let her run ahead of him as long as she stopped at the corner. When she reached the end of the block, she picked up a small pile of bright orange leaves and tossed them in the air. The color of the leaves reminded her of one of the colors in her box of crayons that she kept in her desk at school: Mango Tango.
While Daddy slept, Dara crept out of bed and put on her school uniform: khaki pants and a navy blue shirt. It was boring wearing the same clothes every day, but at least she could wear her pink sparkly shoes. She slipped her homework into her Princess Tiana backpack and zipped it up tight.
In the living room, Dara stood near the old fireplace with the pretty blue tiles around it and had a pretend fire. She was a witch, stirring a magic potion in her big pot. Dara wished she could be a real witch and make Eli go away. Daddy insisted that there was no Eli.
“That’s just your imagination,” Daddy said. “There’s nobody by that name in this building.”
But Dara knew different. Eli lived in the walls. Sometimes, late at night, Dara could hear Eli laughing. Other times, Eli made scratching sounds. Daddy said those sounds were just rats running around inside the walls, but Dara knew it was Eli and her long fingernails.
When an orange sheet of paper appeared on the door and declared that Daddy and Dara had to move out before the fifteenth of October, Dara was sure that Eli had put it there.
“It wasn’t Ellis. It was the city. The building is condemned.”
“What does ‘condemned’ mean?”
“It means the building is no good anymore.”
“Can’t they fix it?”
“Easier to make us move,” Daddy said.
“Will Eli come with us?”
“Only in your little head,” he said.
Dara heard Daddy’s shuffling footsteps as he emerged from the bedroom, rubbing his eyes. He went down the hall to the bathroom that they had to share with everyone else on the floor. Whenever Dara had to go, Daddy walked down the hall with her and waited outside and never let anyone go in until she was done. When he returned to the apartment, he got dressed and told her that Titi would pick her up from school.
“We’re going to stay with Titi until I can find us a new place.”
Dara frowned. She didn’t like Titi’s house. Titi always made her eat salads and there was no fireplace for pretend potions. The green carpet in Titi’s living room made Dara itch.
“It’s better than a shelter,” is all Daddy would say.
As they left the apartment, Dara glanced over her shoulder at the fireplace and the mirror above it. A woman’s face stared back at her — an old-fashioned lady with a fancy hat — dark blue with a big black feather.
“That’s Eli!” Dara cried. She tugged on Daddy’s shirtsleeve, but when she looked at the mirror again, it reflected only an empty room, the metal kitchen cabinets with peeling paint, the slight sag in the ceiling.
“That’s enough now,” Daddy said. “It’s time to get out of here.”
The rear of the building is guarded by razor wire and two chain-link fences. In the yard, an old wooden door splits and peels and melts into the dead grass. All the windows back here are boarded. The yard seems much too small for such a large building.
There’s no way in -- not here, anyway. On the other side, there’s a narrow gap where the chain link has been shredded and pulled back. Bits of chain link on the ground suggest that the fence was cut recently; the metal looks new. There’s a way in, but if you go you won’t be alone. You know you don’t want to meet the person who wasn’t afraid to go inside.
Call for Service
The officer turned off the siren but left the lights on as he parked outside of the Sweet Briar Flats. He hated responding to calls here. What was the point in canvassing the neighbors if they never wanted to talk? Most of the tenants were involved in some kind of illegal shit. They wouldn’t snitch unless offered a plea deal.
The front door was open, so he stepped inside. The place reeked of cigarette smoke, vomit and cat piss. The hallways were narrow and some of the cheap wall sconces were burnt out. Sweet Briar was beautiful on the outside. It was a shame that the owners refused to take care of it, but what could you expect from landlords who took deposits from people and then didn’t let them move in?
The officer found the victim in one of the communal bathrooms, in the tub, face up with a knife protruding from his chest. The blood stain on his dirty shirt reminded the officer of a map of Argentina. The victim’s mouth gaped and the whites of his eyes showed, as if he died seeing a ghost.
“I need the bathroom,” the neighbor said.
“Did you see anything?” the officer asked. The man shook his head. “Hear anything?”
“I heard him yellin’ last night,” the neighbor replied. “But I didn’t think nothing of it. There’s always yellin’ around here.”
“What was he yelling about?”
The man just shrugged. “Can I use the bathroom now?” he asked.
“This is a crime scene,” the officer said incredulously.
“There’s only two bathrooms on this floor and someone’s in the other one.”
“Sorry, pal,” the officer said. Ninety-six apartments and only thirty-eight bathrooms between them. The suits down at city hall had to be out of their minds. Why didn’t they revoke that slumlord’s license?
Meanwhile, nobody in this roach-hole would ever talk. Nobody in town ever talked. The police chief could promise a better clearance rate all he wanted. The fact was, cases didn’t get solved because nobody wanted them solved.
You can see into the first-floor windows, which are high enough from the street that they don’t need to be boarded up. The apartment has white walls and a door that’s broken. A six-inch-wide section of the wooden door is gone like a cop kicked it in during a raid. Behind it: a dark hole.
Under the archway, the red sandstone bricks provided a cool refuge from the summer heat. Melody stood with her back to the windows that glowed with lamps and TV screens and lit a cigarette.
“Mel,” a familiar voice said. She looked up and saw Derek standing in front of her. His shaggy blonde hair was greasy and his jeans were flared at the bottom. “What are you doing down here?”
Derek lived in one of the apartments that faced the air shaft.
“Getting away from the fumes,” Mel said as she passed him her cigarette. “My mother is on one of her cleaning jags. Once a month she loses it and scrubs and polishes everything in the apartment. Between the oven cleaner and the silver polish and the Hi-Lex it’s like an H-bomb went off in there.”
Derek exhaled a stream of smoke and handed the cigarette back to Melody.
“She doesn’t make you help?” he asked.
“She doesn’t want help,” Melody replied. “It’s a private ritual for her. An exorcism.”
“Exorcism of what?” Derek asked.
Melody took another drag and crushed the cigarette with the toe of her sneaker. She shook her head. “Beats the hell out of me. My dad’s ghost? Hitler? The Big Bopper? Could be anybody.”
“Say, do you still work at the Hollywood?” Derek asked.
Mel shook her head. “My mom made me quit when they started showing pornos. Why?”
Derek shrugged. “I’m bored. I thought maybe you could sneak me in.”
An awkward silence passed between them. A window opened, releasing the strains of a Bing Crosby tune playing on a crackling radio. Derek grimaced.
“Now that apartment needs an exorcism,” he muttered.
Mel grinned. “That gives me an idea. One time, there was a bat in the apartment, and my mother screamed like she was in Psycho. If we could get one and let it loose in the apartment, she would scream louder than an air raid siren.”
Derek ran a hand through his greasy hair. “I know how to catch bats,” he said.
They hopped into Derek’s car and drove down to the river. The rushing water made a loud sound as they scooped bats out of the red sky with fishing nets. The bats hissed as Derek shook them into a cardboard box that Melody held open. Melody closed the box and could feel the bats’ wings beating against the sides.
“Let’s get home quick before they get out and tear us apart!” Melody said as they raced to the car.
Once they returned to the apartment, they crept up a spiral fire escape until they reached the fourth-floor window that opened to Mel’s mother’s bedroom. Quietly, Melody eased the window up while Derek gingerly opened the box. They heard the beating of bat wings and slammed the window shut, flattening themselves against the wall so they wouldn’t be seen. They gripped each other’s hands and laughed without sound. Seconds later, a full-throated scream filled up the night.
One of the first-floor windows has a parabolic crack that runs from one side to the other, a graph charting the building’s long, slow decline. Behind the dirty glass, you can see a radiator that’s covered in gold paint. On the wall, black slashes of permanent marker form the words YOU LIE ALL THE TIME.
Violet followed her fiance into the foyer and waited while he pressed the bell for his parents’ apartment down the hall. She glanced down at her feet. Her red leather shoes gleamed brightly against the cracked, grimy tiles. Harry’s parents were the caretakers of the Sweet Briar Flats which meant they got a break on the rent.
They must be paying next to nothing, Violet mused privately. $4.50 a week was too much for this place.
Harry’s mother appeared on the other side of the door and let them in. The apartment faced the air shaft so there was very little light. Violet sat in the parlor and glanced through the window but saw nothing other than the slight movement of curtains in the neighbors’ windows across the air shaft.
“Saw the notice in the paper,” Harry’s mother said. “Hope it didn’t cost too much. I hear they charge by the word for them things.”
“Did Dad get his car fixed?” Harry asked. Lightning had zapped one of the chimneys during an early summer storm, knocking bricks out of the place and sending them crashing down onto the cars parked below.
“He took it to the mechanic this morning. He said he’d be back by now,” said Harry’s mother. “You know, they still haven’t found anyone to fix that chimney. The landlord says everyone’s too expensive. Your father offered to get up there himself and put those bricks back in, but they said not to bother.”
As Harry and his mother went on talking about the car, the damage the bricks had done and how much it would cost to fix it all, Violet glanced out the window. Through the lace curtain that covered the window across the airshaft, Violet swore she saw the outline of a face. It wasn’t a real face, not flesh and blood, but the kind of shadow and light that you see in the negative of a photograph.
The face had no expression.
“Got your dress picked out?” Harry’s mother asked.
“My sister is going to sew one for me,” Violet said. She threw a quick glance at the window across the airshaft, but the face was gone.
An hour later, Harry and Violet thanked his mother for the coffee and lemon bars. As they got into Harry’s car, Violet glanced at the chimney and the charred crater where the missing bricks used to be.
“We’re not going to live here after we’re married,” Violet said. “I don’t care how cheap it is, or that there’s an empty apartment across from your mother’s.”
Harry laughed. “Just get in the car, Vi.” The red brick building filled the sideview mirror as they drove away. Then Harry turned onto Hennepin Avenue and the building suddenly vanished. Violet sighed and sank into the Chevy’s vinyl upholstery.
Under the archway that leads to the iron gate in front of the maze of windows, you notice things that weren’t there before. In front of the gate, there is a pair of spiral-bound notebooks like the kind high school kids use, the handwriting on the pages ruined by rain. Next to the notebooks: a used condom. There’s a pile of sweatshirts on the ground.
Beyond the iron gate, a white, graffiti-covered door is open. The squares of plywood that were meant to hold it shut have failed. That door wasn’t open before. There is someone inside. There’s someone inside right now. You notice that the door has holes in the top of it. Are they from bullets? Cold, moldy air winds around you like toxic vines. A shiver rattles your spine.
“Devil cat,” Clara thought as she passed her neighbor Suzy’s window and saw the cat sunning itself on the sill, its jet-black fur glittering in the light. How could Suzy bring that animal into the building? He brought messages from Satan. Clara heard them when he mewled on the other side of the thin wall that divided the apartments. Thirty years ago, it had been one apartment. Back then it was a nice place to live. Now it was a bargain and full of witches like Suzy and their demonic cats.
Clara had complained to the landlord, but he wouldn’t do anything. All he would say is “Cats are allowed.” Plus, Suzy kept the place nice and she paid rent on time. He wasn’t going to ask her to part with her pet.
Realizing that she would have to take matters into her own hands, Clara shoved her bed away from the wall and took a paring knife from the kitchen drawer. With the tip of the knife, she etched a cross into the white paint and wove a climbing rose around it. When the symbol didn’t stop the cat’s cries, Clara went to visit her priest at the cathedral and asked him to come and bless it.
He put his hand on her shoulder and told her that a cat was just a cat. Perhaps there was something else troubling her?
Clara shook her head. Why didn’t he understand? If there was anyone who should be concerned about Lucifer’s emissaries…
Behind the priest, sunlight burned through the stained glass and stretched the blue robes of Saint Denis across the hardwood floor. Clara looked up at the beheaded saint, clutching his own head in his hands. “Nothing terrifies the devil more than lips that don’t open,” she thought.
Back at the Sweet Briar Flats, Clara waited. She knew what time Suzy came home each day. The cat would be waiting by the apartment door. (Only a cat possessed by demons would do something so contrary to its own nature.) Clara put a piece of raw fish on a plate and waited, watching through the tiny peephole.
At quarter after five, Suzy appeared in the peephole’s lens. Clara opened her door and set the fish on the floor in the hall. Suzy unlocked her door and the cat darted out. As it nibbled the fish, Clara grabbed it by the scruff and slammed the door.
Suzy called the cat’s name. Midnight? Midnight? She knocked on Clara’s door. Clara ignored the knocking. The paring knife, still flecked with white paint, was on the floor next to the charm she’d made. The cat squirmed and hissed as she brought the knife close to its neck. With its paw, it swiped at her arm and left a long scratch that started to bleed.
Clara heard the doorknob turn.
“What the hell are you doing?” Suzy shouted. She glanced around Clara’s bare apartment and then ran back to her own, where she snatched up the telephone receiver and asked the operator to connect her with the police. The cat hissed and batted at air with his paws as if he were trying to run.
Clara opened the window and threw the cat out. A gust of cold wind hit Clara in the face as she looked down on the animal, motionless on the pavement save for a flick of his tail. When the policeman arrived, Clara told him the cat had jumped of his own accord.
“She’s lying,” Clara overheard Suzy tell the cop. “She lies all the time.”
What malevolent spirit lives here? Haunting each of the ninety-six apartments in its turn? Breaking doors and writing YOU LIE ALL THE TIME on the wall? Throwing open the doors to empty cabinets to search for abandoned sacks of sugar or forgotten knives? Who shatters windows and etches the word “exploit” into the red sandstone? Who sleeps here, letting that mold stench soak into their clothes?
Ireland never felt so far away. Nora knew she should be grateful to Father Reid for helping her get this job, but as she glanced up at the red-brick building, she felt a tug of homesickness. Nora stepped out of the carriage and rubbed the gray Percheron’s crest while the driver unloaded her small steamer trunk. Above the entrance, golden letters spelled out the name of the building on a glass transom: Sweet Briar Flats.
Sweet Briar? In the language of flowers, sweet briar meant “wounded.” A bouquet of briar roses meant your beau was in an infirmary somewhere.
A young man came out to help the driver with Nora’s trunk. She followed them into the building. Inside, gas flames flickered inside cranberry glass sconces, making the corridors glow like the inside of a ruby. A gas lamp affixed to the staircase’s newel post was in the shape of a woman, cast in bronze.
With each step, Nora noticed the scent of a different flower. Roses: love and passion. Irises: royalty and wisdom. Amaryllis: success and pride.
A matronly woman not much older than Nora herself answered the apartment door. She wore her hair in a beaded snood and a dress made out of brown silk. Everything in the apartment gleamed: the ornate fretwork made from cherrywood, the oak floors, the brass chandelier with its white, tulip-shaped hobnail shades. A glare of sunlight reflected off of the black-lacquered surface of the grand Steinway in the parlor. The cobalt-blue tiles around the fireplace shimmered. The brass wall sconces were adorned with little winged cherubs.
On a table, a crystal vase held a bouquet of orange lilies: hubris and disdain. Nora cringed and then immediately changed her expression so that Mrs. Ellis wouldn’t notice. Mrs. Ellis led Nora to a small room at the far end of the flat. The room had only one plain gas sconce on the wall and was only slightly larger than her room back in Dublin, but the window was tall and let in a lot of light.
“Rest up after your journey,” Mrs. Ellis said. “You can start work in the morning.”
Nora’s life with Mr. and Mrs. Ellis did not vary much from day to day. First thing in the morning, she woke up and lit a fire in the parlor. She cooked breakfast and helped Mrs. Ellis get dressed. She gathered the linens and clothing to take to the laundress and served drinks to guests. She made lunches and dinners in between hours of sweeping, scrubbing, folding and sewing. After the couple went to bed, she tended the fire until it went out and made sure all of the gas burners were turned off.
On one unseasonably hot afternoon -- Mrs. Ellis called it Indian Summer but didn’t explain why -- Nora noticed the janitress on the staircase, struggling with a scrubbing pail. Nora grasped one side of the handle and together they carried it to the landing.
“Thank you,” the janitress said. Her wrinkled face was red and sweaty. “I’m getting too old for this work,” she said, between gasps for breath. She looked Nora over and asked, “You work for that Ellis woman?”
The janitress lowered her voice. “You be careful, now. That one goes through girls faster’n anybody I ever seen. She’s runned three girls off already.”
Nora’s stomach tightened, pushing bile into her throat. She swallowed hard, and remembered the look Mrs. Ellis had given her earlier that day. Nora had been washing the dishes, and Mrs. Ellis came into the kitchen and glared at her, her eyes almost completely black and her eyebrows meeting in the middle in a sharp V. Then she walked away. Nora had no idea what she’d done wrong.
Nora tried to forget the janitress’ words. Then Mrs. Ellis accused her of stealing.
“Where’s my brooch with the enamel daffodils? I know you took it.” Firelight reflected in Mrs. Ellis’s gray eyes as she glowered at Nora.
“I did not take it. It must be in your jewelry box. That is where I saw it last.”
Mrs. Ellis grabbed Nora’s wrist. “So you did go through my jewelry box.”
Mrs. Ellis tightened her grip and pulled Nora closer. “Liar.”
“No, ma’am.” Nora shook her head. “I never lie, not ever.”
Mrs. Ellis’s eyes narrowed. Through gritted teeth, she said, “You lie all the time.”
She released Nora’s hand and walked away, leaving Nora to wonder what it was she had supposedly lied about. Later, Nora saw the brooch sitting on the window sill in her room and felt cold all over.
Mrs. Ellis’ accusation was only the beginning. She pulled Nora’s hair, hit her with kitchen spoons, threw books at her. She threatened to drive Nora out into the woods and leave her there or drop her off outside of one of the squalid brothels at the edge of town. Once, she drew an iron poker out of the fire and seared the skin on Nora’s arm with the hot end.
On the day Nora broke free, she was standing outside, underneath the archway. She was hot from the morning’s work and the air there cooled her. She closed her eyes and imagined herself on the sun-warmed deck of a ship, breathing in the briny sea air, on her way home to Galway.
Suddenly, a window opened and Mrs. Ellis leaned out of it.
“Nora, get up here now,” she commanded.
Reluctantly, Nora returned to the apartment. She found Mrs. Ellis standing in the parlor, pointing at her crystal vase.
“It’s chipped. I told you to be careful when you washed it. It was a wedding present. But you’ve ruined it.”
“I don’t see a chip,” Nora replied.
Mrs. Ellis eyes widened. “What is this? Insolence?” Mrs. Ellis slapped Nora’s face. As she put her hand on the hot, stinging welt on her cheek, Nora felt rage surge through her body. With her free hand, she struck Mrs. Ellis, who staggered backward in surprise.
Mrs. Ellis reached for one of the fire irons, but Nora snatched the crystal vase and brought it down hard against the other woman’s skull. Nora bashed the woman’s head until she heard the hard bone crack, until every crevice of the cut crystal was covered in blood. Mrs. Ellis slumped to the floor.
Nora’s heart raced. She quickly undressed and tossed her bloodied clothes into the fire. She went into Mrs. Ellis’ closet and fastened herself into a dress of dark blue silk, her fingers trembling violently and slipping as she forced each button into place. She stopped to look at her reflection in Mrs. Ellis’ long, gilt-framed mirror. A black velvet hat, amethyst hat pin and lavender gloves made her look like a real lady for once in her life. Nora walked quickly out of the building. She locked eyes with the janitress as she stepped onto the gleaming tiles in the entryway. The janitress nodded and said nothing.
Once she was outside of the Sweet Briar Flats, Nora ran. A young man driving a carriage offered her a ride and she asked him to drop her at the train station. As she waited in line to buy a ticket on the first train going East, she planned her getaway. From New York, she’d sail to Belfast. New York was a three-day trip away by train, but no one would notice her. They’d be looking for a pale servant girl in drab clothes, not a lady. A fine lady.
Every window slides open at once, sucking in air with a loud yawn. The iron gate shakes, straining against the steel padlock. The gale yanks you off your feet, slamming you against the iron gate and holds you there, flailing your limbs like a turtle on its back. The force of the wind knocks all the air out of your lungs. When you try to inhale, you can’t. The part of the gate that is angled to keep people out is bashing the top of your head. Drops of blood speckle your shoulders.
The yawning seems to get louder and louder until it roars like a jet engine and your whole body vibrates like you’re in the front row at a Metallica concert.
Through the open door, you catch a glimpse of something glowing red in the dark. A flame, maybe, or the eyes of an owl, or a flickering exit sign. The red light grows brighter, filling the negative space, turning everything scarlet: the narrow hall, the dented walls, the cracked, dirty floor tiles.
The door slams shut and the yawning stops. The wind dies down and drops you onto the trash-strewn concrete. You land hard, but you scramble to your feet, not caring that there’s blood on your shirt and a used condom stuck to your back. You gulp in the noxious air; your lungs feel raw, burned.
You turn your back on the Sweet Briar Flats. You run.
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