I’m hoping at least /x/ will enjoy this because it’s probably fucked me up for life. It’s seeming a lot more absurd as time passes (12 days since I moved my shit into my friends place), so I want to get this out there and have people call bullshit and pass judgement, because I think it’ll make me feel better.
I’ve moved out all my stuff, I’ve already called the cops, and informed my absentee landlord. I’ve done all the proper things, so there’s nothing left to do but share my little fucked up city living story.
About six months ago, my girlfriend and I moved into an apartment in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis. About two weeks after we move in, her grandfather, who raised her, has a fucking stroke, and she ends up going home to Twin Oaks to take care of him. She was living with him full time until we can find out how to afford a nurse or hospice.
Anyway, I’d been living in our one bedroom all alone for the last half a year. It’s beautiful, newly remodeled, double paned windows, great insulation. The best a couple of hicks turned yuppies could want. It’s got a couple of weird things about it, as you’ll see. There’s only four units in the building, on the second and third floors. We’re on the top floor.
The first weird thing about the place we noticed right when we moved in.
The walls and floors are paper thin. I could hear every word of my downstairs neighbors conversation at all times. I know when they take a shower, I know when they fuck. And I’m sure they know the same about us. It’s weird, the more info we had on each other, the less we wanted to actually know each other.
They moved out six weeks ago. Then the other two units went vacant a week later. It was kinda weird, but also kind of awesome. I could finally stomp around, watch porn and play rock band at full volume.
About four weeks ago, it got weird. It was about 1 am, and I was going to bed, and I started to hear this noise from the empty apartment downstairs. Really quiet at first, but sustained. It sounded halfway between a hushed conversation, with only one person talking, and small motor running. Just a babbling, not quite regular drone. Freaked me out at first, but I rationalized that it was some plumbing or the refrigerator downstairs. Something I’d never heard over my downstairs neighbors farting and snoring. I learned to live with it, as it rose and fell every evening. Pretty soon a steady tapping sound started in with mumbling. I know it sounds fucked up, but when you hear it every night for a while, you just make excuses for it.
Then I kept hearing boards creaking. It’s spring, my first in this building, so I assumed it was just the old boards under the new drywall settling. Then one night, as I was brushing my teeth, there was a mighty dry thump, right behind me. I just about stabbed myself with my toothbrush. I stayed really still till I was sure there wasn’t anyone in the house and then turned on all the lights in the house. This is when I noticed the peculiarity in the remodeling.
On the other side of the bathroom, where I heard the thump, is the hall closet. I open it up, and switch on the light, expecting a box to have fallen of the shelves, but it’s all gravy inside. I tap on the wall between the closet and the bathroom, and it sounds oddly hollow. And I start to realize that the closet isn’t as wide as I think it should be based on the bathroom. I pace it out with my feet, and then a tape measure just to confirm. Sure enough, there’s about 30″ of space in between the two walls that I thought were adjacent.
Again, rationalization time: Surely there’s extra insulation there to keep the bathroom warm, or maybe walls are thicker than I imagined, because fuck, I’ve never built a house. So in this one thick wall, some huge fucking rat must have taken a tumble and freaked me out. No big deal. I felt a lot better at the time; even better when it was the first night in a while without that weird noise below me.
So, everything is fine until last Friday night. It’s about two in the morning and I’m home late from the bar, not as drunk as I want and remembering that left all my clean laundry in the dryer before I went out. One thing sticks out as I climb the stairs: The door to the apartment below me is closed. It’s been open since the neighbors vacated. I got kind of used to seeing an empty mirror image of my place every day when I walked past. Maybe the landlord was showing it to people today.
Rationalize, rationalize, rationalize.
I bag up a small load of laundry and climb down the back porch steps to the laundry room, which is really just part of the garage, but the staircase in on the outside of the building and it gives each floor a little shared porch. I get down there, and into the little room, and I start bagging up all my clothes into this big black duffel bag.
Two things you should know about me at this point. I turn off every light when I leave a room. No matter what. My dad used to beat the shit out of me when the energy bill was a penny over the norm. And I also lock the door every time I go through it. Hell I even locked the back door when I went down to get my laundry.
I start back up the stairs and on the first flight I look up, straight to my bedroom window. The light is on. And there’s a silhouette against the closed blinds.
I pissed myself a little and every hair on my neck snapped to fucking attention.
And then the light goes out. It happened in less than a second. Ten seconds later I’m still frozen in place, and trying to figure out if I just saw what I think I saw. Rationalization lost out, thank fucking god, and I snuck down the stairs and out through the garage. I called a cab and stood across the street from the building looking at my living room window. About five minutes before the cab showed up, the venetian blinds parted slightly for a few seconds, like someone was looking down on me. Then nothing.
I stayed at a hotel that weekend, then a couple of buddies of mine came back with me on Sunday to see how much stuff had been stolen.
It was all there. My laptop was still charging, my brand new plasma TV. The doors were locked. I moved it all out that afternoon. While my friends were with me, and I had the daylight on my side, I checked out the apartment below me.
The downstairs closet had the same abnormally thick wall.
Only someone had hammered through this wall, a big round jagged whole, exposing the tiny crawl space between.
And in this space flat against the wall, was a cheap hardware store ladder; leading up through the darkness, to the space behind the walls, in my apartment.
I don’t know how he got into my apartment from there, maybe through the heating vents in my ceiling. I really don’t give a shit. All I care about is never seeing that building again. I mailed my keys to the landlord, told the whole thing to a terminally disinterested cop. Done my part, moving on. Quit my shitty job, which might be the one good thing about this.
I’m typing this at a friends house on his wi-fi. I was going to take this convenient time to get the fuck out of dodge, and move in with my girlfriend and her grandpa, but he died two nights ago. Still think I’d like to head back into the country, but I guess this is like a clean slate for us.
I haven’t told her yet, and I’m not sure if I will. Told her our landlord went apeshit and kicked me out. She’s already got issues with security and I don’t want to add to them.. But I don’t ever want to live in an apartment, or hear people moving beneath my feet, or on the other side of a wall. Never again.
The Hole in the Wall (Revised)
It’s been 12 days since I saw the apartment last, but there are echoes of it in everywhere, here in my temporary home. Light streaming through window will remind me of the bright, spacious living room. The squeak of the floorboards recalls the creaking first step in the hallway. The smell of cracked drywall sets my teeth on edge.
I’ve severed all ties with the apartment; all my possessions are in storage or stacked in sagging boxes here in Leif’s squalid garage. I went through the vague motions of filing the police report, and leaving an explanatory message on my landlady’s machine. I’ve done all the right and proper things, so there seems little left to do but share the why, before I move out of the City, and every city, for good.
Last September, my fiancé and I moved into the apartment; the top floor of a stately little four unit building in the Benton Park neighborhood of St. Louis. We were still living out mostly out of boxes six weeks later when the county hospital called us in the middle of the night. Her grandfather, a seemingly invincible ox of a man, who had raised her since her parents passed during her sixth grade year, had collapsed in grocery store line, a blood clot lodged in his tree trunk neck.
She had no choice, yet resentment welled in me when she took our car back to Twin Oaks to care for him, to watch and bathe him as his frozen left side slowly thawed and his mighty body withered. We talked of hiring a full time nurse… but it was the sort of idle way a barren couple might discuss children. She went to watch him die. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lie awake at night, still on the right side of our half empty bed, praying wordlessly for death to hasten.
Despite her absence (a sensation not of pain but of emptiness, a tangible hole) I grew to enjoy in some small way, the luxury of a solitary existence. The apartment stirred feelings of contentment in me from the moment I saw it. It was adulthood, and reward for responsibility made solid and earthly. Newly remodeled, energy efficient, double paned windows on every wall casting beams of sunlight onto the cool and well worn wooden floors. It was the embodiment of our transition from sunburned country children into modern city and cubicle dwellers, rapidly paling beneath the fluorescents.
It was never perfect, but at first, the idiosyncrasies and nodes of strangeness in the apartment felt like pleasant affectations, Persian rug flaws of architecture and design that only increased our affection for the place. The bottom floor was all garages, laundry machines, and strangely irregular spaces with unfinished walls, filled with construction supplies gathering dust. The two upper floors each contain two mirrored units, one facing the street, and the other facing a sad little stone and weed garden that I preferred to ignore.
To my mild disappointment, the worst of the flaws were the walls, thin in a manner I would not have believed possible. The first night of unpacking I heard with sharp clarity the conversation of my downstairs neighbors, a heated discussion about a pair of off-season artichokes spoiling in the fridge. Over the next few weeks, we became intimately accustomed to their schedules; their alarm clocks, their love of forensic cop dramas, their histrionic arguing. I knew when they showered, I knew when they fucked. To be sure, they knew the same about us. I learned their names when we moved in and promptly forgot; the more we knew about each other from voyeuristic proximity, the less we actually wanted to deal with each other.
Two months ago, they moved out without giving a word or reason. One morning I awoke to the sound of dragging furniture, and watched with bemusement from my father’s worn recliner as they loaded a rented moving van. The next morning, the apartment door was open, revealing a swept clean doppelganger of my own living space.
Within a week the other tenant on the lower floor vacated, the door now permanently open on another blank canvas of a home. I can’t even recall his face, an anonymous gray visage that simply stopped appearing in the hallways. The other top unit, opposite my own, had been vacant since I moved in; this left me alone in the building, king of a tiny rented castle.
The youngest of five children, I knew how to appreciate solitude. I relished in the carefree freedom of heavy footfalls late at night, the loud retort of video game gunfire and explosions, the echoing moans of pornography, and the long weekend mornings spent entirely naked and stoned. I occasionally would wander into the empty other units, drifting through the uninhabited, sterile cleanliness with a mild shapeless guilt intertwined with curiosity.
It was a few weeks later that it started. The first of the strange signifiers of something wrong; signposts in a language that I am only now fluent in.
In the small hours of one Thursday morning I began to hear sounds again from downstairs. Delicate and tiny at first, but sustained and insistent. I strained in the dark to hear it, but it was slippery and would not stay in my grasp. When I could isolate it from the wind, I heard something between a hushed conversation with only one voice, or a small motor spinning in the dark, it was a babbling and inconsistent drone. It set my heart pumping as I lay perfectly still, mesmerized by the sounds. I desperately wanted to identify it, but it remained inscrutable.
I collected shifting rationalizations for it as I vainly attempted to sleep that night. A refrigerator motor going south, a failing heating or cooling duct, air in the water pipes. Hours later, I was able to drift to sleep, and despite the return of the noise each following night, I began to accept it. Even when the drone was augmented with a steady, delicate tapping noise, I had learned to live with it, to allow it to become part of the background white noise of urban life.
The sound of creaking boards began to permeate my space, not beneath my own feet but floating up from all around me. It was a warm spring, and I simply associated the sound with the dry expansion of the warming timbers. Although the sounds of a building stretching and contracting have always unsettled me, I never once doubted that these sounds could be anything but benign.
The vague stirrings of unease became solid the night I discovered the great peculiarity of the closet.
I am crouching over the sink, brushing my teeth with a fraying brush when from behind me comes a sudden, dry thud. I freeze in position, the brush protruding from my pursed lips, desperately waiting for some further sign of an intruder, or an explanation to the sound, but it is dead silent. Even the regular drone from downstairs has stopped. I walk the house with silent steps, turning every light on in turn and searching each room, but I am alone.
I check the hall closet last.
The closet lies directly behind the bathroom, exactly where I heard the sound. I open it up, flicking the light on and feverishly hoping to see a rational excuse, one of the last unpacked boxes toppled on the floor. But the closet is immaculate and the sound still hangs unexplained in the air.
Unwilling to accept the sound without explanation, I reach out and tap on the wall between closet and bathroom. The sound is oddly hollow. It slowly dawns on me that the closet is… more narrow than it should be in relation to the bathroom. The certainty grows as I pace out the distance using my bare feet, and then with the tape measure from the tool kit my fiancé’s grandfather gave us. Sure enough, there are 40 extra inches between the bathroom wall and the closet.
My capacity for rationalization is slightly strained. Surely there’s extra insulation to keep the bathroom warmer, or maybe all walls are thicker than I imagine. I’ve never built a house; I have no frame of reference for judging. I imagine a hammer left inside the wall by a careless contractor finally slipping after months of teetering. Once the adrenalin flood dissipates, I am able to forget the incident and drift quickly to sleep, relishing the absence of the babbling sounds from beneath.
The drone returns the next night.
The next few weeks pass in a haze of my rising discomfort in the apartment, until that warm Friday night. It’s two in the morning, and I am returning home late from a perfunctory office trip to the bar, not nearly as drunk as I would like. I am thinking with a grimace of self loathing about the clean laundry I’ve left to wrinkle in the dryer the night before, and I almost miss noticing that the door to the flat beneath mine is shut. I’ve become used to seeing the empty mirror image every day. Maybe the landlady finally started showing the units, I think,
Rationalize, rationalize, rationalize.
Down the stairs on the small shared back balcony, I carry an oversized duffle bag to the laundry room, sleep weighing down my ankles and eyelids. I stuff cold, wrinkled shirts into the bag, missing the usual warmth of the process; my mind drifts away to the thought of clean sheets and a morning without an alarm clock.
There are two things you should know about me at this point: I turn every light off when I leave a room. No matter what. My dad used to beat the shit out of me when the power bill spiked higher than he felt it should. Due to the same Pavlovian conditioning, I lock every door as I pass through it. I’ve even locked the back door on the way down the steps.
As I start back up the steps, the nylon cord of the duffel cutting into my shoulder; I happen to glance up at my bedroom window.
The light is on.
And there’s a silhouette against the closed blinds.
I feel a warm trickle on my thigh, as the hair on the back of my neck snaps to fucking attention.
And then the light goes out.
It happens in less than a second. Thirty seconds later I’m still frozen in place, trying to parse impossible data and decide whether I’ve actually seen what I know I’ve seen. Rationalization finally fails me and I softly retrace my steps down the stairs and out through the garage, fighting the animal urge in my thighs and heart and feet to run at full speed away from the apartment.
Across the street, I stand beneath in the streetlight shadow of a dying elm, and call first the police and then a cab. After five minutes of silence, moments after I begin to chastise myself for overreacting, the venetian blinds on the living room window part slightly, and I feel the electric tingle of connecting with invisible eyes. And then it is gone.
The cab comes 20 minutes later, and the police never show up. I stay at a hotel the next night and on Sunday morning; my co-worker Leif accompanies me back to the apartment, to see how much has been stolen.
It’s all there. My laptop is still charging next to the bed, the brand new flatscreen TV stands monolith like and untouched in the living room. My stomach is twisted into knots. With Leif, a few other friends, and a pickup truck I move everything out the next day.
When we are almost finished I invite them to help themselves to the last beers in the fridge, and they squat in the empty living room, allowing sweat to evaporate off dripping brows. Emboldened by daylight and company I slip downstairs to examine the downstairs apartment, hoping to make a little sense of the unconnected puzzle pieces I have.
I go straight to the hall closet.
It has the same abnormally thick wall.
Only in this wall, someone has hammered a large, jagged hole, exposing the tiny crawl space between.
And in the dusty cavity, flat against the wall, is a cheap hardware store ladder; running up through the darkness, to the space behind the walls, in my apartment. As I stand, staring in dawning horror at the brushed aluminum and orange paint of the ladder, it moves. It bounces once against the wall and goes still. Dust drifts down in the motionless air.
Then, it creaks, slightly, shifting under invisible weight.
I can’t breathe. My lungs are clawing for oxygen and the edge of my vision goes dark, but I can’t breathe. My limbs feel cold and dead.
The next thing I know, I am outside beneath the elm tree again. I am calling Leif on his mobile phone and asking him to meet me downstairs with the last load of boxes. I don’t mention the hole, or the ladder. I just want to be away from there.
I don’t know how he got into my apartment from that space. I don’t want to know. All I care about is never seeing that building again. I mailed the keys to my landlord, and told her to keep the deposit; filled out an obligatory report with a terminally disinterested cop.
I’m burning through my last vacation days, and ignoring the insistent texts and emails from my boss. I can’t bring myself to go back to work. My chest constricts slightly, thinking about the dense hive of the downtown office building, people surrounding me at all times.
Leif has been letting me sleep on his sagging couch in his filthy one bedroom house, but I can tell I am wearing my welcome thin, and I am leaving in the morning. It’s just as well, I haven’t slept well since I abandoned the apartment; I lie awake, acutely aware of his presence in the next room, hearing him snoring, hearing the sheets shifting every time he moves. It’s time to leave.
Two days ago, my fiancé’s grandfather got a hold of his shotgun, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger with his toe. Brave old bastard. I’ll be moving with her into his weathered farmhouse, with acres of barren and rocky fields surrounding it. It’s quiet out there.
It sounds like heaven.
I haven’t told her yet, and I don’t think I will. I told her simply that I quit my job and moved out. She’s devastated, wounded, and it would be cruel to add to it now. I may have to tell her someday if it ever comes up, because I don’t want to live in the city anymore. I don’t ever want to hear people moving beneath my feet, or on the other side of a wall.