Hero - Stefano Pastor - ebook
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It came to Vito as an unexpected blessing. Looking for a new house after the dissolution of his marriage, he just found the perfect flat. It was big, furnished, and at such a ridiculous price. The only blemish was the old landlady. She was nice but nosey. When a thief murders the old lady, life seems to go on. Always the same, monotonous life. The same deeds, the same actions. The same obsessions he shared with his neighbours. Until it’s too late. Until they realize they are part of that house and they can’t escape anymore. Living gears of an enormous machine whose purpose they can’t fathom. Only a delivery guy, who came to deliver Vito’s dinner, can see what eludes them. Perhaps he could do more, and he could save them if it isn’t too late.

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Illusion Novella # 11

Original title: Eroe

Translated by Chiara Perfetti

© 2018 Illusion

© 2017 Stefano Pastor

Graphics: Angela M.

All rights reserved

1

The fridge was truly monumental.

It was more than seven feet tall, had double doors and it looked like a cupboard. It was utterly black, an odd choice of colour.

“Can you defrost it?” asked the old lady.

She was almost eighty and had an unusual vitality. In her younger days, she must have been a beauty, and she was still elegant and classy. She had a full head of dark hair, which, albeit looking a bit odd, made her look young. I was ready to bet that it was a wig.

I did not know she was saying. “Uh?”

“Removing the unnecessary ice, make it melt.”

“Sure,” I lied.

She didn’t buy it. “You don’t even know what I mean.”

“I’ll learn. It’s no big deal.”

It was to her. “This is a very delicate appliance. If it breaks, it is impossible to replace it.”

It was all going wrong. The mistake had been to get a furnished house have my landlady as a neighbour. That house specifically. The concierge warned me that it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t expect her interferences to be so frequent.

It was the tenth time in just four days that she showed up at my door. At first, I found her charming and quirky, but now she was turning into a nightmare.

“I’ll be careful.”

“It’s why I’m here. To teach you.”

I figured out what was about to happen. “Now?”

“It’s best to be ready, don’t you think?”

I opened the fridge’s big doors to look inside. As massive as it was, the food was a lot that there was very little space left. I hadn’t bought any of that; the landlady did before I moved in. I regarded that as an act of kindness to welcome her new neighbour. I still couldn’t imagine it would turn me into a slave.

There was a bit of ice on the back wall of the fridge, but it didn’t look worrying to me.

“If the ice builds up, the engine might break. They don’t make these things as they used to back then, so it needs careful handling”, she insisted once again.

The house was amazing; it was rented out at a derisory price and was too big for me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I’d been. Also, the furniture - all excellent quality - looked as good as new. No one warned me, however, that I wasn’t supposed to move even an ashtray to a different place. Everything had to stay in the place she had left it. She had already bashed me about it a couple of times.

“I’ll be careful,” I reassured her.

“I’ll show you how.”

“Right now?” I repeated. “Isn’t it better to postpone this?”

“The sooner, the better. I may not have a lot of time.”

She didn’t seem at death’s door at all. On the contrary, there was a chance she would outlive me. Soon Anna would have bled me out completely. I couldn’t picture a future for me.

I had nothing to do, so why oppose her? I still hadn’t been suspended, but I’d been warmly advised to rest for a few days. I had accumulated over two months of unused vacation time. It was the perfect way to wait for the internal affairs to emit the verdict.

My surrender was complete. “Show me, then.”

“You have to listen carefully, though. Otherwise, it would be pointless.”

“I’m listening.” I even tried to look interested. “How often should I do this? Three months, six months?”

“Every time it’s necessary.”

“Can’t you be a bit more specific?”

“When you’ll see the ice growing, you’ll know. You’ll notice by yourself when the time comes.”

“Ok. Go on.”

She showed me. “You see this handle? You must turn it to the right. It will turn off the engine.”

“Won’t it ruin the food?”

“Not if you work fast enough.”

I was very skeptical about that. “Are you sure?”

“Watch me.”

The old lady started emptying the fridge, moving its content to the kitchen counter which was huge too. It occupied half the room and doubled as a dinner table. It had impressed me since my first visit to the house, even though it was a waste on me. I couldn't even cook an egg.

She emptied the fridge by following a specific order. It looked like an autopsy. Every single piece was placed with care, almost as if she were assembling a geometric pattern.

“Are you following me?”

“I am.” I allowed myself to spit a cutting remark, “Didn’t you say this had to be fast?”

“This is the right pace.”

I left her to her precise task and looked at the appliance. Something wasn’t adding up; I couldn’t understand how to open the freezer. Up to that point, I had never needed to use it. I would have never admitted it to her, but I had been eating nothing but premade meals and delivery pizza for days now.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I wanted to help. The freezer…”

“There is no freezer. It’s not needed.”

I never heard of anything like that. Still, the fridge didn’t look a thousand-year-old. “There’s no freezer? Then what’s in here?”

“The engine is. Leave it alone, don’t try to open it.”

I obeyed and waited for her to finish. When the fridge was empty, I noticed that the ice had taken over many compartments. Maybe she was right.

“Should I leave it open? Won’t it wet the floor? Do we need some rags?”

“So many questions. We just got started, let’s go step by step.”

We just got started? My patience wouldn’t last much longer. “What else do we have to do?”

“Bring some water to boil. Use those two pans. You must fill them by three-quarters and no more. Put the lids on.”

That wasn’t enough, because she added, “Put them on the largest stoves. Only use those.”

I allowed myself another question, “What’s the water for?”

“To melt the ice. To do it quicker, you see?”

There was a slight logic to it. “So, then I’ll have to put those in, I guess.”

“I’ll show you how to do that.”

Make it quicker? Those big pots would take very long to boil. We had some free time.

I tried to put it to good use. “Rosa said you own the building. Is it true?”

She giggled. “She’s such a gossip. But yes, I do.”

“Everyone is paying rent, like I do, then?”

“You want to know if I stress them out as I’m doing with you.” She prevented me from replying with a gesture. “It depends. Some need it; some don’t.”

I frowned. “Do I need it?”

“Very much. You have never lived alone, before.”

She was right. I had lived with my parents until I married Anna. We were young, back then.

“I’ll learn.”

“You could always use some help.”

I could do just fine without her help. “She also said you built this place. Was your husband an architect?”

“Something like that, yes. We built this place fifty years ago. We were young; we believed we had found our heaven.”

She tickled my policeman’s instincts. I had a hunch. “You don’t come from around here?”

There was something exotic about her. Perhaps some Asian ancestry. Or she was just French.

“We don’t come from here,” she simply said. “My husband loved this place. He wanted to stay here forever.”

“What about you?”

“I adapted. I just wanted to be with him. Any place would be ok.”

“This is a nice city.”

“It is.”

“But it doesn’t feel like home.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“You think you’ll go back there, sooner or later?”

“I would love to, but I don’t think I’d be welcome. It’s been many years; everything must have changed.”

I nodded. She enjoyed acting mysterious, and that intensified my interest in her. “When did your husband die?”

“Two years ago. It seemed to be just flu, but less than twenty-four hours later he was dead. It caught us off guard; we couldn’t believe it.”

It was a strange choice of words. “Is that why you decided to rent this place?”

“It has nothing to do with that. We always did it. The house has been built to be inhabited.”

“Are the other apartments furnished too?”

“You don’t know?” she asked, looking surprised. “You haven’t met your neighbours yet?”

It wasn’t a merit - I had tried my best to stay away from them. I didn’t wish to talk to anyone. She was the only exception, even though not by my choice.

“I’ll meet them. What are they like?”

“They are the right ones, all of them. Don’t think it was easy to find them.”

She realized she had stunned me, so she added, “Are you surprised I’d want to select my tenants? You are a policeman, you should understand me.”

It made sense, even if it didn’t quite ring true. “What do you mean by saying they are ‘right’?”

“Everyone on this earth has a purpose. There is no such thing as useless individuals. They are the right ones to live in this house.”

She wasn’t very normal; I had already realized that much. “It sounds like you and your husband were very close. What did you do?”

She found a way to skirt the issue once more. “Careful, the water is boiling. Turn off the stoves.”

I complied like a robot, while she kept giving orders. “Take those cups on the second shelf. Eight, they must be eight. Fill them. The water has to be enough for all of them, don’t leave any of it in the pots.”

It was such a weird ritual; it fascinated me. “What else?”

“Now put them inside. One at a time. Two on every shelf. In the middle. Stack them with care; they must be one on top of the other. That’s right.”

It amused me. “Won’t it be a little too…?”

“Fussy? I’ve always done it like this. If something works, why change it?”

What did it matter, in the end? I might as well oblige. “Now what? We close it and wait for the ice to melt?”

“Now comes the trickiest part.” She pointed. “The chisels are in that drawer. Bring two; I’ll show you how to use them.”

I was perplexed. “If we must scrape off the ice manually, then what’s the use of the hot water?”

“It makes it easier, my boy. It makes it much easier.”

I would never do this again, but I wouldn’t tell her. “Is there a proven system to do this, too?” I asked.

She giggled. “Of course, there is! Give me one of the chisels. I’ll show you, but then you’ll have to continue. I want to make sure you learned.”

I watched her work without much interest. “What do you think of me, then? Shall I pass?”

When she looked at me, she wasn’t giggling anymore. “I do hope so. I’m truly counting on it.”

2

Two months earlier, my life was over. I wanted to have too much, and I lost everything. I lost my family and maybe even my job. I lost the respect of my colleagues.

“You’re not listening,” Mario complained.

He was right. I couldn’t care less about the divorce. Let Anna take everything; she deserved it. In fact, I deserved all that.

It was sad to remember you have a son only to realize you lost him. At that moment, it becomes the most critical issue. You can even forget that you spent your life ignoring him. Now it was too late. Of course, I would see him again - at well-defined times, a few days a week. Anna wanted to take this from me, too, but I wouldn’t let her.

“Anna’s demands are excessive,” continued Mario. He knew what he was talking about since he was a lawyer.

I had been lucky to go to school with a guy like that. At least he didn’t turn his back on me. He didn’t care who I fucked. It just meant more money earned, to him. “Are you afraid I won’t have enough left to pay you?” I asked him.

He didn’t take it as a joke, but he also didn’t get offended by it. “At the current rate, that’s what’s going to happen,” he confirmed. “You can’t let her have everything she wants. Feeling remorseful is all well and good, but you also have to reason.”

I wasn’t doing that; I was behaving like a kid. I had given up everything for an affair. I didn’t do it for love, either.

Sandra was my partner. Beautiful, smart, efficient. One step away from getting promoted. Everyone adored her. She was in love, but with the wrong person. So, we decided to be partners, even when not at work.

We were bound to be discovered by Anna, sooner or later. What we were doing was wrong, it wasn’t supposed to happen. That kind of relationships between colleagues was wrong. You could get transferred somewhere else. Anna showing up at the station and confronting Sandra in front of everyone had been our undoing. There was nothing left to hide.

They hated me. Everyone hated me. Because of Anna, but mostly because of Sandra. I had ruined her career. She could wave goodbye to her promotion. They would transfer her who knows where. All that for a shag, and nothing else.

This is what they couldn’t forgive me: that I didn’t do it for love. I loved Anna and no one else. Now I had lost her. She wasn’t the type of woman who forgives.

She had always given me all her trust, and I betrayed her. Even worse, Anna trusted in her role as a wife; she was sure I would’ve never felt the need to have another woman. I had destroyed that certainty, too.

“Are you even listening to me?”

I couldn’t do it, not that day. Sandra wouldn’t let go, she was still calling me, even after all the hurt I had caused her. Up until that moment, I had never answered, but sooner or later I would’ve had to face her. How could I explain to her that I never truly loved Sandra, that it had been just sex for me?

“Do you know someone named Olga Valle?” I asked him.

“What does that have to do with it?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so, who is she?”

“My landlady.”

He recalled I had moved recently and that surprised him even more. “Why would I know her?”

It was just a feeling; it wasn’t easy to put it into words. “It’s a dream apartment. Huge, perfect for a large family. Furnished, too. Expansive furniture.”