10 Jan “Tenement”
Written by Kristyn Mass
I moved into my new apartment nearly a month ago. The building’s exterior looked a little run down, but the rent was unbeatable for where it stood. The other tenants all seemed quiet enough and the hallways didn’t smell like piss and stale beer like the two buildings I’d checked out previously.
The apartment, a sprawling 700 square foot furnished unit, was warm and inviting with richly colored hardwood floors and accents, the rooms were lit with antiquated brass sconces that gave everything a soft yellowy glow and all the furniture seemed to be new.
I figured I was getting a “someone was murdered in your bedroom” discount, but I didn’t really care. The place was beautiful and I was going to be able to eat.
The landlady, Ms. Hall, was a sweet, frail-looking woman with a melodic accent, and the most pleasant person I’d encountered since moving away from the rural setting I was so used to.
“It’s so nice to have a lovely young lady here. Now, if any of the gentlemen give you any trouble, you just come find me and I’ll set them straight,” she said, gathering up my freshly-signed lease.
I thanked her and watched as she drifted back down the cheerfully wallpapered hallway disappearing around a corner.
Unpacking took the better part of the afternoon, only because my overly friendly and extremely single neighbor, Henry, had to make himself known to me. It’s not that I wasn’t flattered, but I really just wanted to unpack, make some tea and watch Netflix in my PJs. Henry was cute, though, and seemed harmless enough, so I told him I’d meet him for coffee after I’d settled in.
Around 7:30 things quieted down and I was able to relax. I pulled on some ragged flannel pajamas and sat contently on the plush sofa, letting some god-awful reality show melt my brain into a zombie-like trance.
I woke suddenly, the TV was off. I fumbled for my phone, then winced at the blinding light emanating from its screen.
“2:30?” I said, in groggy disbelief.
I was covered with a blanket, the worn patchwork quilt my grandmother made me when I was a child. I snuggled under it, though I was sure I had left it folded neatly at the foot of my bed after unpacking. Floorboards creaked in the darkness behind me then again to my left. I sat upright. I could see a shadow moving away from the small gap beneath my apartment door. I rushed to the door and checked the locks, everything was still secure.
I peered through the peephole, but couldn’t see anyone. I slipped through the pitch to grab a knife from the kitchen. I’d seen enough true crime shows to know the score. I cleared the apartment room by room until I was satisfied I was alone.
The next morning, I went down to the first floor and knocked on the landlady’s door.
“Oh, good morning, dear.” Ms. Hall was still in her housecoat with her hair up in curlers, all safely packed into a pink hairnet.
“Good morning. You said I could talk to you if I had any problems.”
Her smile faded, being replaced by a grave expression.
“Come in, dear. I’ll make some tea.”
She listened intently, nodding every so often while sipping at the steaming bergamot ichor as I told her about the creaking floor and shadow at my door.
When I’d finished, she sat silently studying me for a moment.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, but you must promise not to tell anyone.”
I nodded. She stood and motioned for me to follow.
Ms. Hall led me to the door of an unassuming utility closet tucked away at the bottom of a dank stairwell. She took a ring of keys from her housecoat pocket, unlocked the door, and pushed it open slowly.
Rows of small TV screens relayed images from CCTV cameras all over the building.
Every hallway, stairwell and darkened corner was monitored.
“This isn’t exactly what I expected,” I said, studying the screens.
“Well, to be completely truthful, dear, a few of the gentlemen I rent to have criminal records. I don’t want to leave anything to chance, especially, when some of my tenants are lovely young girls, such as yourself.”
“What kind of records?” I said, suddenly sure the unassuming Henry was a raging pervert.
“Oh, nothing overly violent.”
That didn’t sound as reassuring as I’d hoped.
“So, can you show me who was at my door last night?”
Ms. Hall nodded then sat in a rolling chair in front of the cluster of screens.
I took a seat, watching her hands fly over the controls as she scanned through the footage. She stopped and pointed to one of the TVs.
“There, this is yours at 2 am.”
I stared at the screen; 2:30 came and passed. Nothing. Ms. Hall smiled kindly and gave my hand a sympathetic pat. “It was your first night in a new place, dear. Perhaps it was just a bad dream?”
I thanked her for her help and went back to my apartment.
I flopped on the couch and stared up at the decorative plaster ceiling, feeling sufficiently stupid for having bothered the landlady with a creaky floorboard and a dubious shadow.
I easily could have forgotten grabbing the quilt. Still, I planned to remain on guard.
That night, I slept lightly, listening to every creak and groan the old building made. I slept with a flashlight on my bed stand and kitchen knife under my pillow. Woe to the pervert who enters my bedroom, but nothing unexplainable happened. After several quiet nights, I began to relax. I was feeling more settled in and ready to socialize with the neighbors, whom I had yet to see.
I invited Ms. Hall up for tea. While I enjoyed her company, I really just wanted the skinny on the resident weirdos, who to avoid and who was safe to mingle with.
“Well, to be frank, dear, none are very social.”
“None? Isn’t the building full?”
“Most don’t stay around long enough to bother getting acquainted with. They’re usually just passing through. Not like you, dear.”
My brow furrowed.
“What about the guy I met the other day, he seemed nice. Henry from 2B.”
Ms. Hall shook her head. “Mr. Palmer no longer lives here.”
“Are you sure? I just talked to him a few days ago. We were going to have coffee.”
“He’s gone,” she said, more forcefully than I’d expected from her.
We finished our tea while chatting about the weather and how I liked city life.
“Let me help you with the dishes,” Ms. Hall said, already beginning to gather cups and saucers.
“No, it’s alright. I’ll get them after a bit,” I said, taking them from her and shuttling them to the kitchen sink.
“Well, alright, if you’re sure.” With that, she excused herself saying she needed to go take care of a few household chores.
After I was sure I wouldn’t run into Ms. Hall milling about in the corridor, I went out to greet my new neighbors. I started with 3A and 3C, the apartments on either side of me, but neither answered their door. Ms. Hall did say they weren’t a very social bunch.
I descended another floor. I knocked on each door down one side of the hall then up the other side. Sunday afternoon and no one in the building was home, save for the landlady and me. On my way back to the stairwell I passed by Henry’s apartment. I lingered for a moment before deciding to knock at the door, even though Ms. Hall insisted Henry had moved out. I raised my hand to tap the ornate knocker. I heard a thud, and then a scuffling sound coming from inside.
I stopped and placed my ear against the door. I stood there for several seconds listening to the silence, as I pulled away, I heard a whimper.
“Henry?” I knocked loudly. “Henry, are you in there?” I head the whimper again, then a muffled scream.
“Henry!” I grabbed the doorknob, but it was locked. I frantically slammed my shoulder against the wooden barrier. I could still hear the screams but they were fading away.
“What’s going here?!” Ms. Hall said, rushing to get between me and the door.
“There’s someone in there, I could hear screaming!”
Ms. Hall looked at me sternly before retrieving her key ring from her cardigan pocket. She lazily flipped through the keys, squinting at each one before finally sliding one into the lock.
She pushed the door open and I rushed in. The apartment was pitch black, I felt blindly along the wall until reaching the light switch. The apartment was about half the size of mine and stuffed with new looking furniture.
“Hello? Henry?” I headed for the narrow passage to the bedroom, while Ms. Hall just stood outside.
“Henry?” I eased the door open. The room was empty.
“Perhaps it was one of the other resident’s televisions, dear. I already told you Mr. Palmer moved out,” Ms. Hall said, stepping inside.
Maybe she was right, it was possible. Maybe living in the city is making me a paranoid nutcase, but that was the second time I’d questioned my sanity in almost a month, which made me just the tiniest bit suspicious.
I looked around the bedroom once more, and a dark shape on the floor caught my attention. It was barely poking out from beneath the bed skirt.
“What is it you have there?” Ms. Hall said from just behind my left shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I quickly composed myself and plucked the object from the carpet.
Ms. Hall crowed closer as I flipped it open. Henry’s face stared back at me from his driver’s license photo.
“Oh dear, it looks like Mr. Palmer left his wallet, I’m not surprised, he left in such a rush.”
I was having a serious case of the creeps and the lady I was rubbing shoulders with was giving them to me. Ms. Hall snatched the wallet from my hand.
“Don’t worry. I’ll see this returned to Mr. Palmer.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, fully convinced Henry was going to be chopped into little pieces and thrown out with the trash.
I sprinted back to my apartment and locked the door behind me. That should have been my cue to go to the police, but I didn’t. After all, what did I see? Nothing. I would have sounded like a “Rear Window” nutcase. I went to the kitchen and rummaged through the fridge looking for something to stress eat. I froze when I saw the sink in my peripheral. It was empty. The dishes I’d put there barely an hour ago were washed, dried and back in the cupboard. I wasn’t crazy or paranoid, there was something very wrong with my landlady and I needed to know what it was.
I waited until nearly three in the morning to sneak down to the surveillance room.
I figured the door would be locked and a hastily assembled lock picking kit jingled lightly in my pocket as I jogged down the hallway. I clung to the wall when I saw the door was cracked open slightly so a thin beam of light flowed out into the otherwise dark stairwell. I opened the door gently, cringing at the chorus of squeaky hinges.
“Ms. Hall?” I said, straining to see in the dim light. The room was empty.
I slipped over to the glowing monitors and began searching the screens for anything out of the ordinary. It was all the same angles I’d seen before, every inch of the hallways and stairwells. I scanned back on the screen showing my apartment door, but the only person entering or leaving was me. I leaned back in the chair and let out a sigh, letting my head fall back.
I squinted in the dark. A faint red glow illuminated a small area on top of the towering stack of monitors. I stood on my tiptoes, there was a red button labeled ‘sub feed’, I pushed it and the monitors shifted. The screens displayed interior shots of each apartment. I felt a chill ripple across my skin, one monitor held the familiar image of my living room, the wide-angle picking up my kitchen and open bedroom door behind it.
I shifted my gaze, checking the other screens. Each showed a similar interior shot of the other apartments. All were darkened. I was only able to make out the faint outline of furniture draped with sheets. There were no other tenants.
Movement caught my eye on a separate monitor sitting cattywampus to the others. Ms. Hall was busily hovering around her kitchen table, pouring a thick red liquid into a bowl from a glass decanter. She carefully set the bowl on a small stone hearth in front of an immense fireplace I had somehow failed to notice during my previous visit. She seemed to be talking to herself as she left the camera’s view. The apartment was still, all except for the flames licking at the masonry of the fireplace. I glanced briefly at the clock, then back to the screen.
There it stood, slurping up the contents of the bowl. For a moment, I thought it was a man wearing tattered rags, but looking closer I could see it was hair. It hung down in filthy matted clumps, obscuring its face and covering its body.
“Jesus,” I exhaled sharply.
The thing’s head snapped up as though it heard me. I could see grotesque features picking out from beneath the stringy, tangled mess. Its small black eyes stared back at me through the screen. There was no air, the room was suffocating, it’s intense gaze bored into me and I had to look away to draw a breath. I steadied myself and looked back. It was gone.
I jumped to my feet, my hand flew to the sub-feed button, I hesitated a moment. The right uppermost screen showed a cellar-like room, filled with boxes and crates on heavy-duty wood shelving and the edge of what looked like a cage could be seen through an open doorway. I quickly hit the button and changed the screens over. Ms. Hall stood at the top of the stairwell, peering down into the darkness where I stood.
I didn’t move, I didn’t even blink. I just stared silently at the monitor trying to will her away. She placed one foot on the first descending step.
Then another, she stopped when something from further upstairs caught her attention. She retreated back up the stairs and on to a different screen showing her heading back toward her apartment.
I quickly pushed the chair back in as I found it, then padded from the room and out the door. I was back in my apartment and on my couch before I began breathing again.
What the hell did I see!?
The part of my brain trained to lie to me to make me feel better told me the hideous creature I saw was just a homeless man and I should be ashamed of myself for judging.
Nice try, brain, but I’m not stupid. That wasn’t human, whatever it was.
I sat up until daylight with a kitchen knife in my hand.
A knock at my door roused me from my half-sleeping state. I crept cautiously over to the peephole. Ms. Hall was in a pink polka dot swing dress, straight out of the 1950s.
“Yes?” I said, still clutching my knife, feeling ridiculous for being afraid of the June Cleaver clone outside my door.
“Hello, dear, it’s just me. I’m going to do some shopping today, would you like to come with me?”
I carefully fed the knife into my hoodie pocket, then opened the door. Ms. Hall’s sweet smile disappeared when she got a look at my sleep-deprived face.
“I’m not feeling well today, but thank you for asking,” I said, then feigned a cough.
“Oh my goodness, dear, you get right back into bed, and when I get home I’ll bring you a nice, hot cup of tea and some tasty soup.”
I shuttered inwardly, thinking of that thing slurping from Ms. Hall’s crockery, then forced a smile. She turned to leave, but stopped as I began to close the door.
“And you really shouldn’t carry a knife around in your pocket like that, dear, it’s quite dangerous.”
I trembled as the door fell shut and latched.
I watched her leave the building from my living room window; she hailed a cab and drove away. I waited until the cab was out of view, then a bit longer to make sure it didn’t return.
I sprinted downstairs, knife in hand, realizing I was alone with that thing I saw on the CCTV and I knew I needed to get out and to the police. I reached the large metal security doors at the front entrance, I tried to fling them open, but they didn’t budge. I slammed against the push bar; I could hear the rattling of chains on the other side.
“That bitch locked me in!”
A few feet away, Ms. Hall’s apartment door clicked softly and began to open.
I flew down the hallway which ran perpendicular to the main corridor. The florescent lights flickered rapidly overhead, then began to turn off one by one.
“Oh, come on!”
I slammed into a door, around a blind corner, marked ‘Boiler’, and then ducked inside, locking it behind me.
A narrow stairway led down into a murkiness punctuated by dim bulk head-style lamps.
The dark descent opened up into the storage room I’d seen on the monitor screen. The mixed scent of pine, cedar and loam was overwhelming. It was some kind of root cellar.
Thick wooden beams made the structure for the shelving which ringed the room. In the dim, bluish light, I could make out wooden crates, marked with black block letters and nailed shut. One of the crates was yet to be fastened. I leaned in close, the crate read, “2B”. Inside, Henry’s wallet lay atop a pile of keys, pocketbooks and cell phones.
Trophies, I thought.
To my right, there was a place among the shelving where more blue light flooded in. Dust particles swirled and parted as I stepped through into another smaller room. The only furnishings were a crude metal cage, a heavily stained low pallet table and a few cast-iron lanterns holding an azure glow.
In the corner, part of the packed dirt floor was cut away, and several jugs were stored in the pit. I grabbed one of the jugs, and held it up to the light. Inside a viscous, deep magenta substance coated the glass sides. I removed the cork and the room filled with the smell of iron.
The strange blue lights of the lanterns grew dim, shrinking away, as though they were afraid. I bristled at the feeling of eyes on me.
There was a change in sound or air pressure. I turned; a hulking black shape filled the doorway. It stood at least seven feet tall, its girth comprised of stinking, matted clumps of hair hanging all over its body. I backed away as far as the small room would allow.
The creature vanished from the opening, then reappeared bent down, inches from my face. Its lips peeled away, revealing a mouth of jagged stained teeth; its hot, wet breath reeked of old blood and rot. Its eyes. I could barely breathe. I’d never seen such an absolute void. Even in my terror, I couldn’t keep that Nietzsche quote out of my head.
The abyss was sure as hell gazing back. The creature’s mottled brown hand shot out, spider leg fingers wrapped around my body pulling me into its filthy tendrils.
I woke up in my bed, relief washed over me when I realized it must have been a nightmare.
“Good morning, dear.” Ms. Hall sat at my bedside. I tried to jerk away, but found my wrists and ankles were fastened to the bedposts with twine bindings.
“He really doesn’t mean any harm.”
“He?” I said, noticing the creature standing silently in a darkened corner of my room, folding a basket of towels, I’d yet to get around to. Ms. Hall smiled her sickeningly sweet smile.
“Have you heard of Broonies, dear?”
I ignored the question, trying to keep an eye on the creature slipping in and out of sight as it tidied up the room.
“They’re a type of spirit folk and this one’s been in my family for generations. When I moved here from Scotland, I brought the hearthstones from my family’s home with me to ensure he’d follow.”
My right wrist seemed to be tided more loosely than the left.
“I understand you found the storage room downstairs and before you think ill of me, you must understand, keeping a Broonie requires certain offerings to be made.”
A little more slack.
“Offering?” I said, trying to keep Ms. Hall’s attention away from the loosening ties.
“Well, that’s what the blood is for, dear.”
The skin on my wrist burned like hellfire, but I was making progress.
“Broonies are loyal servants, but it’s important to show your appreciation for everything they do. I’d never be able to care for such a large building without him.”
“So, let me summarize, you murdered Henry and all your other tenants to feed their blood to your troll so he’d clean?”
Ms. Hall leaned in close; her slender fingers grabbed my chin, forcing me to look in her eyes.
“Broonie,” she said, pronouncing it as you would for a child.
“And he has become very fond of you.”
I jerked my head away from her grasp.
“And you will be an offering for him, one way or another.”
With one final tug, my hand was free. I buried it beneath my pillow, grasping the hidden kitchen knife, I’d prayed was still there, and plunged the blade into the side of Ms. Hall’s dainty neck.
She crumpled to the floor, gagging and pawing at the knife handle protruding from her throat. I fumbled at the ropes binding my left wrist, kicking myself for losing my grip on the knife. The creature appeared in the hallway outside my bedroom door, its vacuous pin-point eyes moving from Ms. Hall’s body to where I lay lashed to the bed.
The thing took one immense stride, bending low to pass through the doorway. Frantic, I looked for anything close at hand to either cut through my ropes or to throw at the looming figure.
The only item within reach was a balled-up jacket at the head of the bed. I grabbed it and chucked it with all the destructive force a windbreaker can muster. The creature caught the projectile, then examined it as though he were department store shopping, scrutinizing its quality. He nodded in approval and draped the garment over one filthy arm.
The creature’s face, behind a veil of stringy hair, contorted into something like a wry smile, before it spoke.
“Cloak to me ye have gave, no longer will I be a slave.”
The thing vanished. I sat motionless for a moment, unable to fathom that the creature was capable of speech much less metered rhyme. I was able to free myself after a few trembling minutes and flee from the apartment building that seemed to deteriorate around me. No one believed me, not that I blamed them. They thought the trauma of being held hostage warped my recollection of the events, making Ms. Hall’s accomplice into some kind of monster in my faulty memory. I didn’t care, I just wanted to move back home, never to step foot in the city again. Ms. Hall was dead and that thing slipped back into whatever dimension it came from.
I was exhausted when I finally reached the safety of my childhood home. I left the contents of my suitcase and few packing boxes strew across my bedroom and collapsed upon the gathered mass of sheets and blankets. I slept deeply for the first time in weeks.
When I woke, my room was clean and I lay tucked beneath a carefully made bed with a few strands of long, filthy hair clutched in my hand.