I braked at the stoplight and rested my forehead against the steering wheel. What could I do? The three appointments I’d scheduled had been fruitless. My two impromptu tours likewise. This city was just too expensive, even for the—I’d thought at the time—generous salary from my new job.
But that salary was contingent on my relocation, and it was looking more and more like I wouldn’t be able to relocate.
The light turned green. Just before I pulled away from the intersection, I saw the flyer. It was taped to the stoplight pole and caught my eye because of four words: APARTMENTS FOR RENT CHEAP.
I slowed down to note the address, earning an impatient honk from the car behind me. I had time for one more tour. One more chance. Hopefully, “cheap” meant the same thing to the flyer’s owner as it did to my overstretched budget. If not…I shuddered at the thought of returning to my parents’ basement.
My hopes both rose and fell as I neared the address. Rose because even in this overpriced city, a bed in this part of town had to come cheap. Fell because it was, well, that part of town. Shining glass gave way to dark, jagged holes. Traffic disappeared. Stoplights swayed from their wires, lifeless. There were no trees showing off autumn colors, but there were enough discarded newspapers whispering through the streets like leaves that it felt like I was driving down a country road in a black and white photo.
By the time I parked in front of the address, my conflicted hopes had died. This building was abandoned. Dimming sunlight—what little made it this deep into the urban labyrinth—showed me a door fused to its casing by a smear of graffiti. Windows caked with dirt and soot. Rusted fire escapes that ended several stories too soon.
That was it, then. My last hope, a dead end. I shifted into reverse.
A gray form moved behind the spray paint and grime of one of the windows. A moment later, the graffitied door cracked open, and a slight, hunched form slipped out. It stopped when it saw my car, stared directly at me, and I almost didn’t hit the brakes. No, I didn’t want to share a building with that thing!
But my foot came down and halted my retreat. The old man—it was a man, not some imp—limped to my car and waited for me to roll down the window.
“Are you looking to rent?” he asked. His voice was surprisingly normal. Cultured, even.
He beckoned me out and led me back toward the door. His gait was at odds with his crisp voice. “You’ll find no place cheaper. One hundred dollars a month. No security deposit.” He opened the door and ushered me inside.
The smell was damp and earthy. And it was very dark. The obstructed windows blocked most of the sunlight.
There was a harsh click, and a single fluorescent bulb washed us in its sickly glow. Walls, mottled green with mold, enclosed us. The corners were filled with debris from outside, blown in by uncountable years of doors opening and shutting.
“Were you looking to move in tonight?”
“What? No, I’m just scoping places out.”
“Ah. My available units are on the fourth floor. They’re all empty up there, so you can choose whichever you like.” He opened another door onto a metal staircase. “No elevator, I fear.”
I started up, then noticed he wasn’t following.
“My presence is not required,” he said, “as long as you are just looking. I have other appointments to keep, so I must leave you. Take your time, and when you are finished, shut the front door behind you. There is no need to lock up.” He bowed to me, then left.
I wondered if the upper floors would be any more appealing than the neglected lobby. The dirt-crusted steps weren’t very promising. My feet echoed up the stairs in spite of my best efforts to move quietly. Hollow thuds rose above me and filled the building, announcing my ascent to everyone who lived up there. What kind of neighbors would I have? A place this squalid, this cheap, would attract a certain kind of tenant.
Yeah, I thought, the kind of upstanding young professional who had the misfortune of landing a job in the most expensive city in the country. Maybe they’re all just like me. Not drug addicts, unemployed squatters, grandparents forgotten by their descendants…
The stairway ended at the second floor and hurled me into a long, narrow corridor lined with six doors, three on each side. A second stairwell waited to receive me at the far end.
This floor was blanketed in carpet. It muffled my steps as I passed the doors, but I found it hard to feel grateful. There was a sponginess to the fibers; yes, I could even hear a faint squelch ever time I shifted my weight. Toward the end of the hall I found the reason. A pipe in the exposed ceiling dripped a regular beat against the carpet. How long had it been leaking, to thoroughly soak the entire floor?
The third level wasn’t much better. There was no leaky pipe, but the carpet here was worn bare, even torn up in some places, as if someone had dragged an unwilling cat down its entire length. Unlike the hall below, this one wasn’t straight. A ninety-degree bend hid half the doors—and the next stairwell—from view. Cats, I thought as I rounded the corner and crept past the closed doors. I wonder if pets are allowed? Not that I had one, but living in a place this depressing might require some emotional support.
The final staircase spiraled me up onto the fourth floor. Here, all the doors were open, the units within exposing their darkness, spilling it out into the corridor. I poked my head into the first one, flipping the reluctant light switch just inside the door. The unit was bare, dirty walls punctuated by even dirtier windows.
I continued down the hall, finally deciding to enter the last unit on my right. I didn’t even consider the ones on the left; any windows they might have would open on an alley at best.
The unit I’d chosen was much like the rest of the building. Crumbling, molding, rotting. Somehow, mud-splattered newspapers like the ones in the street had managed to find their way up here. The unit had four rooms: a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. I tried the tap at the kitchen sink. After much rattling, something plopped into the rusted metal basin.
Wonderful. I’d finally found an affordable apartment, and I was pretty sure third-world peasants had nicer living conditions.
I strolled to one of the windows and looked out. My car waited for me at the curb far below. It was a welcome sight, an escape. Already I could tell the decay of the building was getting to me. If I moved in, I’d be dead within a month, found hanging by my bruised neck from one of the pipes in the hallway.
If I was ever found at all.
The landlord had said only these units on the fourth floor were available, but I’d encountered no evidence that anyone lived here at all. No sounds. Not even other vehicles along the street outside. Perhaps the landlord meant that the fourth-floor units were the only habitable ones.
Habitable to a rat, maybe.
I turned away from the window, and found myself staring into utter darkness.
You’ve got to be kidding me. I felt my way along the wall to the light switch. Clicked it twice. Nothing. I thought of all those stairs. Maybe I won’t be found hanging from the pipes. Instead they’ll find me at the bottom of a stairwell, my brains strewn behind me in a pink trail down the steps.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my camera. I’d intended to compare photos of the many apartments I’d toured today, although the rent in this city would render such decision-making unnecessary. The screen blinked at me. Low battery warning. Great. But it was the only light source I had. The screen itself was too dim, but I turned on the flash, raised the camera, pointed it toward the door, and snapped a photo.
For a half-second, the unit was revealed in all its grimy nakedness. Stark walls. Shadows banished to peek around corners. Edges made razor sharp. There was nothing as unflattering as a camera flash. The image was seared into my retinas, and I was able to escape the unit without bumping into anything. Hopefully, the battery would last long enough for me to reach the ground floor. I pointed the camera down the hall and clicked it again. The flash burned my eyes, but allowed me to stagger down the lightless hall with moderate confidence. When I reached the stairwell, I took another picture.
Here I went slowly. The afterimage of the spiraling stairs glowed in my memory, but it was an imperfect memory. Metal steps swam through my mind, the entire stairway stretching and shrinking with each second. My hand clung to the rusted railing. Flakes of it broke off under my palm.
At the bottom, I hesitated, the camera held in front of me, pointing down the first stretch of the crooked third-floor hall. Something stank. I adjusted my breathing to minimize how much I could smell—a blend of spoiled milk and rotten eggs—before snapping another photo.
The hall bent ninety degrees. Three of the units were visible from where I stood. One of them was open.
I remained rooted to my spot at the bottom of the stairwell. Every door I’d passed on my way up to the fourth floor had been closed. If this one was open, that meant someone was wandering the halls with me—
I stopped that train of thought. Of course someone else was here. That’s why I’d had to climb all the way to the fourth floor. All the other units were occupied.
Why did I dread the thought of meeting whoever lived here?
The afterimage had faded from my memory, so I took another photo before starting forward. But once more I had to stop. Wait. The door. It was closed now.
I hadn’t heard it shut. Hadn’t heard anything.
It was a waste of battery power, but I had to know. I switched my camera to review mode and flipped back to the previous photo.
An empty hallway. Three doors. All closed.
How? I could have sworn I saw…
Never mind. I hurried forward, my neck prickling as I passed those doors. I reached the bend in the hall and paused just long enough to snap a picture before rushing to the next stairwell.
Something knocked behind me.
I spun, nearly slipping on the top step. I saw nothing in the blackness, save for the phantom half-shapes my brain invented, drifting back and forth, billowing and shrinking as if testing the distance between us. I banished them with another flash from my camera. Emptiness. Bare walls, moldy floors. The knocking sound, whatever it was, had come from around the corner, beyond the reach of the flash.
I realized I was breathing heavily and put a hand over my mouth to silence myself.
The breathing continued. Not my own.
It came from a point to my left. From where I remembered seeing a heavy door. It had a distinctive rhythm to it: IN-out, IN-out.
I started down the stairs, forgetting to illuminate them first, and almost tripped. I steadied myself against the railing and started again, slower.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. One of the tenants investigating the power outage. That’s all.
And yet, when I reached the second floor and those thundering footsteps echoed down the stairwell after me, I ran. I snapped a quick photo—a crooked one, the flash hitting walls at odd angles and leaving crisp shadows in wrong places—and sprinted down the squishing carpet.
Ran, trying not to think about the fact that every single door I passed was open.
I reached the final stairwell and pressed the button on my camera.
No flash. No light. No way to forge a path through the darkness. The battery was dead.
I lingered there on the precipice of the stairwell, hanging over an abyss, terrified of plunging into that unmapped darkness, terrified of waiting for—
A long squelching sound came faintly from the darkness behind me. A drawn-out pause. Another squeeelllch. Like something heavy being dragged across soaked carpet fibers.
I lowered my foot onto the first step. My hand found the rusted railing. Another step. Another. I sped up as I grew accustomed to the rhythm of the stairs. My footsteps echoed up and down the cavernous stairwell. It felt like I’d been climbing forever when I finally reached solid, flat ground.
Dim light washed over me as I stepped out of the stairwell and into the lobby. Moonlight, filtered through the grimy, graffiti-masked windows. I ran to the door and flung myself into the night. I stood there on the front step, breathing in the cold air. My car waited for me by the curb like a friend.
I laughed at myself. Then, remembering the landlord’s instructions, I shut the door behind me.
Something banged against the other side.
I bolted. My tires screeched as I pulled away from the derelict building, and ancient newspapers scattered in my wake.
When I got home, I put the camera’s memory card into my laptop. It was mostly filled with snapshots of the apartments I’d visited that day. I deleted them all. Too expensive. What would I do? I needed this job. Maybe they’d let me work from home—
My eye was drawn to one of the thumbnails I hadn’t yet deleted. One of the crazed, nearly black-and-white photos of my retreat from that final apartment. I clicked on it, blowing it up to fill my monitor.
It was the second-floor hall, crooked, taken in a panic. Six units lined the hall. Six portals into the most desolate rooms I’d ever seen. Six doors flung open, exposing their inner blackness.
And six gray faces grinning out at me.
I closed the image and deleted it, along with every other picture on the memory card. Then I called my future employer and left a message saying that, due to relocation difficulties, I would not be taking the job.