The staircase winded up around the side of the old building, rusted metal steps rattling beneath them, taking them further up above the grungy alley below. In front of her the building owner pulled out a large, overloaded key chain and brought them to a stop in front of the wooden door.
The man reminded Sherri just a bit of her father. He had a similar blue-collar demeanor about him, the fingers he used to remove a padlock thick and callused from laboring in the shoe repair store below the apartment he opened up for her. He smiled and gestured for her to enter first, his teeth a bit yellowed from too many years smoking she suspected, just as his gut bulged a bit from just as many years drinking.
“Is that the only lock?” she asked, gesturing towards the padlock he’d pulled loose, only capable of being put in place if someone was already on the outside of the door.
He glanced down, frowned, and said, “No, just put it up when no one is renting. There’s a lock in the knob as well.”
She stepped into the furnished living room. The aged sofa and dining table looked old in a rather beaten down, dreary kind of way, lacking any sense of antique or elegance. The brown, shaggy carpet was frayed, nearly rubbed flat in certain places, the wooden floor beneath it all but visible. Water stains lined the once white walls, and up above the plaster slumped down.
The stove and refrigerator faired just a bit better than the living room, still marked with rust, but not overtaken by it. The entire kitchen consisted of a square corner of the living room.
“Bedroom is this way,” the owner said, gestured for her to follow. He turned on a light to a long, narrow hallway ending in two doors: one to the bathroom and one to the bedroom. The bathroom was all but a closet with a toilet, sink, and faucet built high up on the wall, a brown drain in the middle of the floor.
The bedroom matched the rest of the apartment, and Sherri was glad she didn’t suffer from any kind of claustrophobia, or else she figured she would’ve already run from the place.
The location was what brought her there, her new employer just up the street in the busy downtown district, so densely packed only the daring few bothered to drive down those streets. If she kept her current place uptown she had at least an hour and a half drive to get to work, if not longer, and as awful as the apartment looked, the promise of a five minute walk sounded too pleasant.
“I’ll take it,” she told him. The owner smiled, nodded, and led them back down the hall towards the living room.
Sherri paused halfway down it and tilted her head towards the patch of brighter white on the wall in the shape of a door. “What is this?” she asked.
The man stopped, glanced over. “Second bedroom, but I sealed it off. Use it for storage, and I’ve got a ladder in the main shop leading up to a hole I cut in the floor. Rarely ever use it these days, so you don’t have to worry about me stomping around.”
Sherri took a step closer to the patch, almost thought she heard the sound of movement on the other side, faint but clear, but when she turned to ask the owner he’d already continued on to the living room, had the contract in his hand. Sherri hurried up to him.
“Thought I heard something in there,” she said.
The man glanced up at her, then towards the hallway. “Shouldn’t be any mice. Place might not look the prettiest, but I keep things sanitary and spray when needed. I’ll have to check the storage. Like I said, been awhile since I’ve been in there. You need a pen?” He gestured towards her with the contract.
Had the man not resembled her father so much she might’ve let the apprehension overwhelm her. It wasn’t just the sounds, but the place itself, so old in an almost seedy kind of way, a dark, filthy alley her only view whenever she’d open the door.
But the owner’s smile seemed to reassure her. “I’ve got one,” she said. She took a pen out of her purse and signed on all the lines he told her to.
She had been afraid in the weeks before moving in that the noise of the city would be too much for her to take, but on her first night she understood how well the walls of that old building protected her. Stepping into the apartment seemed to seal her off from the rest of the world, for better or for worse. Though she appreciated the quiet when it came time to go to sleep for the night, in that first week she found herself staying out later and later to avoid too much time inside the apartment.
The new city acted as a convenient excuse to be out, offering her countless streets filled with something new to find. When she did force herself to return home she did her best to keep in touch with the friends and family she’d left behind to gain her new job. She had her laptop open, looking for any new details about her mother’s garden, when the scratching drew her eyes off the screen and towards the hallway.
She sat on the couch, sunken low, the springs ruined, eyes wide as she stared down the hallway. She’d heard light thumping during the day just once since moving, and assumed it was the owner checking out the storage area. She hadn’t seen him since, nor asked him about the mice.
She set the laptop down and walked towards the hallway and the patch of fresher paint marking the closed door. It wasn’t just scratching, she didn’t think, but more like rubbing, and the image popped into her head of a hand rubbing along the other side of the wall.
She pressed her own hand against the wall and the sound stopped. Leaning in closer, Sherri moved her ear towards the wall, blocking out all other sound, aware of the sound of her own heartbeat picking up in preparation.
Feet moved on the other side, shuffling along, the sound clear for just a few seconds before it ended and left her frozen.
Her own feet slid as silently as they could across the floor towards the front door. Not a single sound came from her until she had the front door open and stepped out into the balmy summer night. The stink of the trash from the alley below drifted up to her.
The owner had given her his number in case anything broke down, and she dialed it then, phone pressed firmly against her ear, her front door still open so she could see if anything happened. Cool air drifted out through the open door while the phone rang endlessly. Thoughts of hotels and the potential costs added themselves up in her mind, nearly convinced she would have to eat the costs when the voice cut off the ringing.
“Sherri? It’s close to eleven. Something busted?”
“I heard a sound from the sealed bedroom. I heard something walking around in there.”
A pause on the other end as she heard what she assumed was the man sitting up in bed. “Walking around?”
“Couldn’t have been a person. Room is sealed aside from the trapdoor, and nothing worth stealing in there. Hell, if a homeless man broke into the shop, I doubt he’d trap himself in an old, sealed bedroom for some sleep. Besides, I’ve got an alarm system on my store. I’d know if someone broke in. Look, I found some droppings on the floor in there; don’t know how old they are, so there might be some mice. I’ll stay on top of it and get an exterminator if I have to. Don’t you worry.”
His tone sounded so certain, so calm in the face of her paranoia, and standing on the outer landing with the sounds of the city drifting towards her, and the empty apartment in front, she let her fear diminish.
“Must’ve just been mice,” she said, slumped back against the railing, her right hand running through her hair. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
“Think nothing of it. I’ll look into the pest problem tomorrow. I’m going to get off and get some sleep. Might want to do the same yourself.”
“I will, thank you.”
She stepped back into the well-lit apartment and closed the door behind her. She stood motionless, listening for anything, but nothing stirred. Slowly she returned to the closed doorway, pressing her ear completely against the wall, but still couldn’t hear a thing, and after a minute of trying, gave up and returned to her computer. She shut the machine down.
“You do need sleep,” she told herself, and followed the suggestion.
No sound or movement woke her just after three in the morning. She lifted herself up, eyes only half open, and saw the shining red numbers on the nightstand. The pillows welcomed her back, her eyes slipping closed again, but her bladder stopped the desired sleep from taking her away.
For a few minutes she sat with her eyes open, weighing whether she thought she would be able to ignore it, before finally deciding it would be best to just get it over with.
She didn’t bother with the lamp given how short the trip was. The bathroom light blinded her; eyes closed through the bulk of it until she had flushed and pulled herself back up. Only then did she let her eyes open a bit more, fixed on the ground, and saw the dirty footprint on the tiled floor.
For a second her mind didn’t react, too sluggish with sleep to grasp what she stared at, the information clawing its way into her consciousness. Her breath hitched when she understood what she stared at, half of another footprint visible at the edge of the open door leading to the carpeted hallway.
Sherri left the bathroom light on as she stepped out into the hallway to stare at the doorway torn open halfway down the hall. It had happened from the inside, the plaster covering the floor, bits of it still hanging loose, no light visible from within the opening the destruction had created.
All sounds ceased, not even her own breathing or heartbeat heard as she listened. From deep within that other room she could faintly her something, but the sound was too silent to distinguish what.
She slipped as silently as she could into her bedroom and pulled on a pair of pants and a shirt. She’d left her phone in the living room, thinking nothing of it at the time, and now she had no choice but to walk down the hallway to get out of the apartment. She didn’t even have her keys to potentially use as a makeshift weapon.
The light was still on in the bathroom, the only light, and Sherri left it on, but didn’t turn on the hallway light, not wanting to alert the intruder any more than she already had. Stopped outside her bedroom she listened again, but could still only hear that same, faint sound. Her mind offered her too many possibilities, too many things that could go wrong as she stared into the darkness, at the long stretch of black leading to the living room.
She worked up all the courage she had and ran. She resisted the urge to close her eyes as she hurried down the hallway, towards the exposed, open doorway, almost seeing a shape dart out from the darkness to grab hold of her. Nothing did, no attacker to stop her from reaching the front door and grabbing at the knob.
Her entire body thrust against the door, shoved it inward, but it resisted, held against her push and left her trapped inside. Panic crawled up her throat, squirmed in her stomach, and pricked the hairs on the back of her neck. She turned the knob and shoved as hard as she could. Something metal rattled on the other side, kept her from getting out, and she saw in her mind the padlock the owner had given to her.
Her cell phone and laptop had vanished from the coffee table. She let her eyes sweep across the dark living room, searching, but they were gone, taken by the same person who had sealed her in.
A terrible urge to scream almost erupted from her. No cries for help would matter, and that knowledge kept them at bay, left her body numb and her fingers trembling.
She turned on the lamp beside her. Alerting whoever lurked in the other bedroom didn’t seem to matter anymore. In the kitchen she grabbed an edged steak knife, the closet thing to a weapon she had in the place.
Though she loathed the thought of walking into that bedroom, she hated even more the tension of waiting, the sense of helplessness it filled her with.
The hallway light brightened the apartment even more, emphasized the darkness in the open doorway littered with the remains of the wall. She stepped up to the threshold and stared in at the bare, aged room on the other end, the walls brick, and a form hunched low on the floor.
Nothing lunged at her as she stepped over the debris into the bedroom, her knife up. A nude, emaciated man sat against the wall, his legs pulled up, arms wrapped around them, face buried in the knees. He had long hair, probably once blonde, but now brown with dirt, the hair draped over the knees. Thin cuts and bruises covered the bulk of the body, and the man rocked gently back and forth, a soft almost sobbing coming from him as he moved.
No part of Sherri could grasp what she witnessed, her knife still raised, but less certain about using it, trying to understand what had happened.
She had to struggle to get any words to form in her dry mouth, forced to swallow twice before she could utter anything. “Hello?” she said, and at the sound of her voice the man’s rocking stopped.
His head lifted up, hair parting to let her see his face, the eyes he locked on her so bloodshot they appeared almost entirely red. He lifted his face further up from his knees, and Sherri saw the bottom half. His jaw and tongue were gone, nothing below his nose but ragged, scarred tissue dipping into his neck. She jolted back at the sight, the knife firmly back up as the man pulled himself from the floor.
The warped flesh around where the jaw had been stretched further down, like a cut twisting through his chest, and where his heart was she saw a much deeper wound.
Something rattled in the living room, drew Sherri’s attention, and as soon as she looked away the emaciated man charged towards her.
He uttered a low, wailing cry as he moved, a string of red-tinged saliva flowing from the hole where his mouth had once been. He crashed into her, his dirty fingers groping for her face, trying to reach into her mouth, and she tasted the foul skin just briefly as she jerked her head back.
The knife raked across his exposed stomach and he jerked back from the pain, gave her a chance to squirm out from under him. When he lunged against she thrust the tip of the blade into his right palm, splashed his blood on the dusty wood flooring.
His hands tried to latch onto her legs as she pulled herself up and ran for the door. She managed to jerk her legs free, but her feet caught against a larger chunk of plaster, sent her face first into the floor, dazed her momentarily. Before she could begin to rise she saw the man lunge for her again, this time crawling on top of her, deformed face leaning in closer to hers. She could hear the sickening sound of air sucking in and out of the hole in the throat.
She brought the knife back up, swung it towards him, but he grabbed her wrist before she could cut into him. He wrenched the blade from her hand and pulled himself up. Closer to the hallway, Sherri had a better view of the deformed man, aware he was older than she’d first thought, deep wrinkles around his eyes, and she saw as well he was crying as he stared down at her.
Before she could move he lifted the knife to his own throat and tore through the skin, moaning loudly as he twisted it. He stumbled back from her onto the floor, the knife slipping from his hand, but his fist tightened, brought up the blade again, and dug it into himself.
Sherri pulled herself up and watched the red gush out of the body, stream across the floor, the body jerking with spasms, but before it slumped dead she saw the man’s hand move towards the blood running from him. He smeared his fingers through the red, forming disjointed letters, his hand slowing with each one, struggling to finish the message, and going limp before the final word could be written, but Sherri recognized the Thank You he had been attempting to say.
The door in the living room thumped open. She fell to her knees to grab the knife out of the dead man’s fingers.
She turned, trapped in the bedroom, and watched the owner’s face appear from the hallway, still so much like her father, adding some additional perversion to the grin he gave her.
“Don’t come near me,” she screamed.
He winced noticeably at her words, left eye twitching. “I hate a raised voice,” he said. “Voice like that should be earned, not taken for granted.” He spoke in a low tone, the grin more in his eyes than his mouth.
“You kept him here?” she said, disbelieving, the confidence in the man’s face taking away her own.
“His time has passed.” He moved towards her, ignored the knife she had raised. She lunged forward, aimed for his chest, but he grabbed her hand before she could hope to get him, crushed down on the fingers so hard the knife fell from them, clattered on the floor at her feet.
She screamed in pain, her back pressed against the wall, and before the cry could even end his hand was somehow already grabbing hold of her mouth, the owner’s body too fast, jerking forward, mouth grinning wide again.
Behind him the lights clicked off, left the two in total darkness, yet Sherri could swear she saw some faint glow, letting her barely see the outline of the owner’s face as something came over it. In the darkness she couldn’t say if the face truly changed, if it warped into something else, something other than human, because she understood she wanted to believe he wasn’t human, to believe no person could do his as his fingers crawled further into her and held her mouth opened wide.
“No screams,” he said.
She offered him the only act of defiance she knew and screamed as loud as she could into the darkness as his hand jerked downward, and took her jaw with it.
By Philip M. Roberts