It started when Frank's CD player tried to kill me on my way to work.
I had just come down the stairs from my second-floor apartment, and was already sweating. I could tell that the day would be hot and humid. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.
There was, however, a large compact disc player eclipsing the sun. For a second, my half-open eyes marveled at the sight of its descent. Then I jumped.
It landed about a foot behind me, and skidded across the sidewalk. Plastic shards were scattered everywhere.
"Frank!" I yelled up at the open third-floor window. "You could've killed me with your goddamned CD player!"
A shape slowly inched out his window.
"Fucking digital clarity!" he screamed from inside.
Frank's window was giving birth to a large stereo speaker.
"Too clear! Too loud!" he shouted. The speaker picked up speed, slid all the way out the window, and began to fall end-over-end toward the CD player that had almost done me in.
"Too fucking loud!" Frank shouted as it smashed into the sidewalk.
As I rounded the corner on my way to work, I heard another crash come from behind me. Frank's second speaker had joined its brethren in death, the third victim of some bizarre stereo component suicide pact.
My dear upstairs neighbor seems to be on some sort of quest. He's searching for the ultimate home entertainment device, and he's very temperamental.
When I moved into the apartment in March, everything seemed wonderful. Living on my own was great, especially after twenty years with my parents -- now I could have people over at all hours of the night, could listen to my music any time I wanted to, and I didn't have to worry about my parents walking in on me while a female guest and I were buck-naked on the couch.
Then I met Frank.
About three weeks after I had moved in, there was a knock at the door. It was Frank Cole, a 30-year-old man with an Electronics Emporium name-tag pinned to his plaid shirt.
"Hi," he said to me. "My name's Frank."
"I noticed," I said. "It's nice to meet you, Frank. My name's Jim."
"Hi, Jim. I live upstairs." Frank gave me a wide smile.
"I'm going to throw out my TV," he told me.
"Would you like to come and see?"
I was going to turn him down, but didn't really want to alienate the person who was living above me. If I made him angry, he could retaliate by jumping up and down on my ceiling any time he felt like it.
"Sure," I told him. "Why not?"
Frank led me upstairs to his apartment, stopped outside the door, and pointed into the dark room.
"You first," he said.
At first, I thought that I couldn't see any of Frank's furniture because it was so dark. Then I realized that Frank didn't really have much in the way of furniture. In the center of the room was an overstuffed chair. The chair faced a home entertainment system, including a wide-screen TV, that stood in the far corner. There was nothing else in the room except for me. And Frank.
"Nice TV," I told him. "Where'd you get it?"
"I got it at Electronics Emporium. And it's not a nice TV."
"It sure looks nice. Mine's a ten-inch black-and-white. This has got to be three times that size."
"Four times. It's a 41-inch diagonal rear projection TV with Digital Stereo Hi-Fi Surround Sound."
"It's not a nice TV. I'm going to throw it out."
"What's wrong with it, Frank?"
He pointed at the big chair. "Sit, and you'll see."
I have no idea where Frank got the thing, but it even had feet, like those old-fashioned claw-foot bathtubs. As I sank into it, Frank ran over and turned on the TV.
"You'll see. You'll see."
The TV warmed up. One of those awful game shows that tries to match up couples and send them on dream dates was on. I had auditioned for two of them, but they said I wasn't their type. I guess I wasn't dreamy enough.
"Stupid show," I said.
"Yes. Television is a waste of time -- the shows are terrible, the sound -- even if you've got a Wide-Screen Rear Projection TV with Digital Stereo Hi-Fi Surround Sound -- is incomprehensible, and..."
He raised his finger to his mouth. "Shh."
"I'm telling you, Chuck, I didn't want to spill the salad dressing all over Marcie's new dress..."
"Listen to that," Frank said. "Terrible. The sound's terrible. Even with Digital Stereo Hi-Fi Surround Sound. Even then."
"Is that all?"
"Of course not! You're in the chair. You can see. It's too bright!"
"Why not just use the brightness knob?"
Frank looked angry, as if I was insulting his intelligence -- which I was.
"Because then it would be too dark."
"Well, if you'll excuse me, Frank... I've got to get back to what I was doing before." I pulled myself out of the chair and walked toward the door.
The muscles at the corners of his mouth tightened. "Oh, sure," he said. "See you again sometime. Nice meeting you."
"Nice meeting you, too. Thanks for inviting me up."
Frank began to close the door, paused, and stared at me. His dark brown eyes were shining.
"I'm going to throw it out," he said again.
"Well, good luck," I said, and turned away.
I went downstairs, turned my stereo back on, sat down on my couch, and idly stared out the window. I was enjoying my freedom -- even if I did have do deal with quirky neighbors.
There was a scraping noise from upstairs. I could hear it over the sound of my stereo. Then there were two loud thumps, and silence for several minutes.
I sat staring out the window, entranced by the music. The wind blew. The trees moved. A Zenith dropped past my window.
I blinked. It must've been a dream, a fantasy, perhaps even a really big bat or bird or something.
Then I heard a loud crash echo up from the sidewalk.
During my dash to the window to see what had happened, two other objects dropped past. Later I'd discover that they were Frank's VCR and Hi-Fi Stereo Surround Sound Decoder.
As I opened the window, I heard Frank laughing and screaming.
"I threw it out!" he howled. "No more fucking static! No more fucking test patterns!"
I made a mental note to buy a deadbolt for my door and called it a night.
A week after Frank had tossed his CD player and speakers out his window, he knocked on my door.
"What is it, Frank?" I asked.
"I've got a new Living Room Thing," he told me. "You've got to see it!"
"It's better than the TV?"
"A lot better. No flicker, no reception problems."
"Better than the stereo?"
"Not as loud."
I opened the door, stepped out quickly, and shut it behind me.
"Okay, Frank," I told him. "Let's go see."
The big chair was still there, but now it faced a large, well-lit fish tank that sat in the corner. There were about 20 fish swimming in it, chasing each other and annoying the tiny lobsters, or crayfish, or whatever they're called, that were crawling along the bottom.
"Is this it?" I asked, pointing toward the tank.
"Yeah. No reception problems, no static. Quiet. Soothing. Fish."
"Where'd you get them? They don't sell fish at Electronics Emporium, do they?"
"Nope. But there's a pet store next door."
"What made you want to buy fish?"
"I have dreams," he said. "Fish are in them."
"What kind of dreams?"
"Fish dreams," he said. "In my dreams, the fish are always swimming. People are dying, but the fish keep swimming."
"What's killing the people?"
"It depends on the dream. Sometimes they're being tortured to death, other times they just get shot in the head. But no matter what the dream is, the fish keep swimming. That, and..."
Something caught in his throat.
"I can't hear any real sound in the dreams. People are dying, but I can't hear their screams. All I can hear is the muzak version of `Copacabana.'"
"You mean Barry Manilow's `Copacabana'?"
"That's the one."
I had to admit, Frank had stumped me on this one. I had absolutely no idea what to say.
"Could I take a look at the fish?"
"Sure," he said, and led me to the side of his tank. Frank began pointing at fish, though they moved so fast that I couldn't tell which ones he actually meant to single out.
"That one's Barry," he said. "And there's Rico, and Lola, and that one in the back is Mandy--"
I stepped away from Frank and took a look around the room. It was almost completely barren, except for a few posters, the chair, and the tank.
"You know, this place would be nicer if you moved the tank out of the corner," I told him.
"Yeah. Why not put it closer to the center of the room? Maybe by the--"
He squinted at me when I stopped in the middle of my sentence.
Maybe by the window.
Frank's window looked exactly like mine. But I couldn't help thinking of everything he had tossed out that window. Putting the fish near the window wouldn't help matters any -- especially if, on the day that Frank gets tired of hearing "Copacabana," you're one of the fish in the tank or you're taking a walk on the sidewalk under his window.
"Don't worry about it," I told him. "Look, Frank, thanks for the tour. I've got to go."
"Sure," he said. "Come back sometime, and say `Hi' to the fish."
I turned and left as quickly as politeness would allow. I never wanted to come back to Frank's apartment, especially if I was going to have to make friends with his fish. The poor devils would be meeting Mr. Concrete pretty soon anyway.
I was sitting on my window ledge, looking out at the sky and peeling an orange -- my breakfast -- when I heard the argument. It was a couple of days after I had met Frank's fish.
At first, all I heard was thumping -- it seemed like Frank was stomping through his apartment. Then I realized that I was hearing two separate sets of footsteps. There were two people up there, running around.
Then, as I sat there stripping the skin from my orange, I started to hear the voices.
"What do you mean mrrm don't like mfff," was what I heard a deep voice, presumably Frank's, shout at the top of his lungs. I tore a round piece of peel from the orange and rubbed it between my fingers.
"I don't mrmff them there at all. They're weird. I ummmf mumm move them, Frank." It was a woman's voice. Frank had a woman in his apartment. And they were arguing.
"It's my Living Room Thing!" he screamed. I held my hand out the window and let go of the round piece of peel. It landed right on the edge of the sidewalk.
"I don't cmf. Either umffo um I go." Then I heard a door slam. I could hear the woman stomping down the stairs. A few seconds later, she stepped onto the sidewalk below and looked up at me. Her hair looked like it had been cut with a bowl, and she squinted behind what seemed to be extremely thick glasses.
"You hear me, Frank?" she said. "Them or me!"
"Don't do this to me, Emily!" Frank must've been standing at his window, right above mine.
"Do what to you?" I pulled off a strip of orange peel, and held it against my nose. It smelled more like orange than the actual fruit tasted like it.
"Make me get rid of my fish. My Copacabana."
"Them or me," she said. "Barry Manilow or me. Think about it, Frank."
She started walking away, down the street. I threw my orange peel at her, but it missed and landed in the gutter instead.
Frank slammed his window shut. When I went to work an hour later, I still hadn't heard anything else from upstairs.
When I returned from work, Frank was screaming.
"Fuck you, Barry Manilow!"
Maybe I should've been more wary about approaching my apartment building after the CD player tried to kill me. But I was concentrating on licking the ice cream cone I had bought along the way home, and so I didn't get to see the fish tank's championship-caliber dive.
But Frank's scream certainly got my attention. I looked up and saw the tank impact with the concrete sidewalk as fish and water rained down. Glass shattered and flew everywhere. I was lucky not to be lacerated by a flying glass shard.
"No more fucking air pumps! No more food flakes! No more Barry Manilow!"
The smell of fish mixed with the taste of Buttered Apple Pecan ice cream in my mouth as I leaped over large chunks of glass and two very annoyed mini-lobsters on my way to the safety of the stairwell.
Two weeks after he dropped the fish tank out the window, I went upstairs to say goodbye to Frank. My summer job was over and it was time to go off to college.
Frank smiled when he saw me at the door. In fact, I had never seen him seem so downright cheery.
"Come in, Jim! Come in!"
The big chair was gone from the center of his room. In its place was a large mat with polka-dotted sheets and pillows on it.
"Where's the chair?"
"Emily didn't like it. So she took it away. Now we sleep on the futon together."
"I see. Congratulations, Frank."
"But I don't see a Living Room Thing anywhere, Frank."
His eyes twitched for a second, as if he were scanning the room for a Living Room Thing that he couldn't find.
"No more of those things. Emily didn't like me spending time watching anything but her."
"She didn't like the fish?"
"No. She said I thought about them too much. And she said I dreamed about Barry Manilow too much. She wants to be the only person in my dreams."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?"
He hesitated for a second.
"Yeah, I guess."
Frank walked over to his open window, the one he had used to send thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment -- not to mention several fish -- to their deaths.
"Emily's my Living Room Thing now," he said.
I could deal with Frank's own special brand of insanity to a point, idly watching the precipitation of electronic equipment (and marine life) that fell from his third-floor window. But the prospect that a human being might become the next object for Frank to drop filled me with fear.
"Emily? I need to talk to you about Frank."
I had caught her in the stairwell, on her way up to Frank's apartment.
"What do you mean?"
"Frank's not what you think he is," I told her.
"Of course he's not. Frank scares me sometimes, you know?"
"You know about him?"
"Sure I do. I'm surprised you know how scary Frank is. I mean, I'm his girlfriend. It scares me a lot more than you, I can tell you."
"I'm sure it does."
"He's always so distant," she said. "He never came over when I wanted him to. He said he was always too busy... you know."
"Too busy watching the new big-screen TV, too busy listening to the stereo, too fucking busy with his little fish! God, I hated those fish! He should've been spending time with me. I'm his fucking girlfriend."
"You were jealous of his fish?"
"No, silly! But I was afraid that he'd lose himself in them, like he did with the TV and the stereo. It isn't right for a man to spend so much time away from his girlfriend, sitting alone in that terrible chair. I should be his only diversion!"
My voice grew louder as I tried to make her understand what Frank undoubtedly had in store for her.
"Now he doesn't have any of those things, Emily! You're the center of his living room now."
"Center of his life, that's what I should be. It's my rightful place."
"You don't understand, do you? Remember what Frank did to all those other things when he got tired of them? He threw them out the window! And you're next!"
She paused for a second, as if she had finally understood what I'd been trying to explain to her.
Then she began to laugh.
"Oh, don't worry," she told me, and began rummaging around in her purse. "Frank would never think of doing anything to hurt me. And even if he thought of it, I'd never let him try anything."
Her hand emerged from the purse holding a small handgun.
"So don't be afraid for my sake. Frank and I will be fine, as long as he makes sure I'm the only one he thinks about." She slipped the gun back into her purse, and began walking up the stairs.
"Thanks for your help," she said.
I swallowed hard and silently watched her ascend, until even her ugly wooden clogs disappeared from sight.
"Don't mention it," I whispered to myself.
The next day was supposed to be my last day in the apartment. But instead of packing, I spent most of the morning staring out my window at the sidewalk, waiting for Emily and finishing my supply of oranges. I wasn't sure if I'd be seeing her as she walked down the street after leaving Frank's by way of the stairs, or seeing her fall to her death after leaving by way of the window.
After a few hours -- and long after the last piece of orange peel had fallen onto that sidewalk, Emily appeared down below. Because I knew she had a gun, I was careful not to move until she was around the corner, out of sight. Then I bolted for the door and ran upstairs.
"Frank!" I yelled as I pounded on his door. "Let me in, Frank!"
Frank opened the door after a few seconds, and smiled at me in a good-natured sort of way. Several clumps of his hair were standing on end, and he was wearing a plain white T-shirt and boxer shorts.
"Hi, Jim," he said. "What's wrong?"
He opened his eyes all the way, as if he were finally waking up.
"What? Did something happen to her?"
"No, nothing like that. But Frank, I talked with her yesterday, and I've got to tell you, something's really wrong."
He turned around and began walking toward the window.
"I knew it!" he said. "I knew this would happen. I've screwed up again, haven't I?"
"No, nothing like that, Frank. But I've got to tell you, she's not the woman you think she is. She's no good for you, Frank. She's crazy."
"What do you mean? She's just as sane as I am."
"Not quite. Look, Emily wants you to be her slave. She can't stand to think that there's any point to your life except to please her and think about her."
"She's my girlfriend. I'm supposed to think about her all the time."
"Frank, being someone's boyfriend isn't supposed to mean that you're her slave."
"She took away my chair."
"I loved that chair," he said. "She wanted me to throw it out the window, like I did with everything else. I told her that I only throw things I didn't like out the window."
"And you liked the chair."
"It was a good chair. It wasn't too hard or too small or anything. It was perfect."
"What happened when you told her you liked the chair?"
"She told me that I should only like her, and nothing else. And then she took it away."
His voice was raised. Here was more emotion in it than I'd ever heard before. I idly noticed that only one of his eyes was brown, and the other one was hazel.
"Frank, she's got a gun."
"A gun. I think she's afraid you're going to throw her out the window."
He opened his mouth, sputtered a few times, and shut his mouth again. I'd never really seen anyone totally dumbfounded before. Frank turned and stared out the window for a while, and finally managed to say something.
"Why would I throw her out the window?"
Gosh, Frank, could it be because you've thrown every damned thing you've ever owned out that fucking window? Might it be possible that all the little fragments of glass that glitter when I walk along the sidewalk are there because of your penchant for demolishing CD players? At least Newton gave it up after the apple -- if you had been there, Isaac would've probably been killed by a rogue soup kettle.
"Well, it's not like you've never tossed things out before," was all I said.
"But I wouldn't throw her out. I love her!" He hit the wall with his open palm. "She doesn't trust me. I can't believe it. She doesn't trust me. She doesn't trust me."
He whirled around and glared at me. Both his eyes were open wide, but the eyelid over the hazel eye was twitching a little.
"Thanks, Jim," he told me. "I appreciate your help. I'd like to be alone now."
"Are you sure?"
I closed my apartment door for the final time and began to descend the steps with my last box of stuff. I figured I wasn't going to do any more about my upstairs neighbor's personal life -- if I made him angry, he might toss me out a window, and if I made his girlfriend angry, she could just shoot me on the spot. Or they could act in tandem, with her shooting me and then him disposing of my body out the window.
But I wouldn't have to deal with them ever again. I was going to be out of the building for good. Whatever happened, I would have nothing to do with it.
When I was halfway down the steps, Emily passed me, heading up. She smiled as she went past. I managed to swallow and blink.
I concentrated on keeping my feet moving as a slowly paced out to my car. I opened the trunk and dropped the box in. As I slammed the trunk door closed, I began to hear the shouting coming from upstairs.
I fingered my key, thinking that I should just get in the car and drive away. It wasn't my problem. I didn't know these people very well. If they ended up killing each other, it would have no effect.
But instead of driving away, I stood there and tried to make out the yelling. My car was parked a few spaces down from the Frank Cole target zone, so I figured I was safe from any falling bodies that might be heading down.
The yelling intensified for a second, and then cut off. I swallowed again, and began moving toward my car as soon as I saw a shadow in Frank's window. The window slowly slid open, as I hid behind my car and watched. If Frank had managed to open the window, I figured that Emily'd probably be taking part in Frank's first human-powered flight experiment.
But what came out of the window was far too small to be Emily. It was smaller than anything else I'd seen come out of that window.
I dropped to the pavement when I realized that it was Emily's gun.
On impact, the gun fired off a shot. Great. I just knew I was going to be hit by a random bullet, like in the movies.
I realized I was fine when I heard the sound of shattering glass. I peeked my head past the edge of my car in time to see the last pieces of my old second-floor window raining onto the pavement, where so many objects had landed before. Somebody should paint a bull's eye there.
"Frank! Emily!" I yelled. "You could have killed me with that fucking gun! And you broke my goddamned window! Jesus, I just moved out! I'm not paying for this!"
"Sorry," came a soft reply from above.
They paid for the window.
Jason Snell (email@example.com) is the editor of InterText and TeeVee. He's the Features editor at Macworld magazine.
InterText stories written by Jason Snell: "Mr. Wilt" (v1n1), "Haircuts $20" (v1n2), "Peoplesurfing" (v1n3), "Gravity" (v2n1), "The Tired Man and The Hoop" (v2n6), "The Watcher" (v4n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Jason Snell.