19F

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic


A young woman moves into a rundown apartment only to find herself growing strangely attached to it, but there's more to be found here than meets the eye...

Submitted: June 28, 2018

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Submitted: June 28, 2018

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It’s like a prison cell.

That’s what I thought the first time I walked into the little flat.  It was sitting above a bakery, a single room, bare-floored, and with bars on the windows.  For safety – he told me.  He: a middle-aged future landlord who walked about stroking at his moustache and fiddling with the buckle on his belt.  I could feel his eyes on me far too often, caught him more than once shifting those eye – black-hazel – to take a sharp-angled glance down the front of my dress.

This.  What I’m driven to.

A single room; lounge and bedroom and laundry and kitchenette all rolled into one.  A little bathroom off at the edge – the door hanging a little bit crooked from its hinges.

The light coming in in patches, filtered through red leaves and hanging weeds.  At night - so I’d learn - neon signs and disco lights, headlights, street lights would come racing through the bars, a little haven of never-dark.

But I worked part-time at a bookstore.  I had limited options.  So, there you go.

“Thanks,” I told my new landlord, “I’ll take the place.”

#

Why would I fall in love?

Well, I did.  That’s the strange part.  In spite of its limitations the little flat had a strange charm about it.  There was something in the crookedness, in the kookiness, that made me feel as if I belonged.  Wasn’t I, after all, a bit crooked, a bit kooky?  Wasn’t I a little way out of reality and always trying so hard to find my way back in?

“It’s homey,” my friend Donna allowed.

“It’s a dump.” I was still a bit new to the place.  This was before my falling in love.  “But it’s what I can afford.”

“Things will get better,” she said, as she always did.

“Yeah,” and I never quite believed her.

“Let’s go get ice-cream, eh?” as she often added.

“Yeah, why not?”  There was a chance my credit card might let me get away with that.

#

I didn’t have much in the way of furniture. 

“Get out and stay out!”  Since my mother had said that to me last week, I was on my own with what I could carry on my back.

“I’m not having any more of your nasty little ways!”

I know it’s not her fault.  It’s the chemicals swilling around in her brain.  Then you add a few drinks to that, a few of the wrong pills.  Kaboom.  There you have it.  So, she gets like that sometimes.  She explodes, she lashes out.  She’s erratic for a month or two and then she settles down.

In between: I was homeless.  I didn’t even have knives and forks.

Me and Donna hit the op shops, hit the mega-stores and second-hand stores, piecing together enough dodgy bargains to get by: a blow-up mattress, a few blankets, a pillow, a cutlery set; a chipped bowl; two plates; a single saucepan and a can opener.  It all looked sparse and miserable, like an actual prison cell.  I had almost nothing to brighten it up.  Twenty-two going on twenty-three and that was all I had.

If Donna hadn’t been there that night I would have squatted down and just cried my eyes out.

Since she was we made pop-corn – in my only pot – and watched movies sprawled on my mattress, on her laptop – since I didn’t have a TV.  We laughed our heads off anyway, and didn’t fall asleep until dawn.

#

Two weeks into my tenure in that flat I was awoken in the middle of the night by noises downstairs.  I’m not sure I can put into words what I heard – if you crossbred boiling water with pelting hail with a washing machine in spin cycle you might have something approaching that sound.  Along with a kind of sucking-popping like you’d get from tramping through mud.

A soft vibration ran along the floorboards.

Me, being pretty damn close to the floor: sleeping just about on it: I could feel those same vibrations in my bones.  It was a quiet night, windless, and the nightclubs were dormant – this was Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

Puzzled, I crawled out on my hands and knees and knelt there, palms pressed against the splinters, feeling the pulse.  It was a strange sensation: not just something vibrating, not just the physical manifestation of the noise.  Something else.  Something… A physical - if not psychic presence - threaded through the boards.  Something that felt – even if it didn’t sound – somewhat like music.

Strong moonlight poured through the bars.

I felt light-headed, as if this part of the night wasn’t real.

#

“You can’t have expected not to have weird neighbours,” said Donna.  “You can’t have, right?”

“I… kinda…”

“You’re not paying for a nice neighbourhood.  You’re lucky you haven’t got mugged yet.”

“Actually, they seem all right.”

#

My neighbours: okay, they were a bit of mixed bunch.  There were a few full-on junkies and drunks, whose lives had hit real, hard rock bottom.  They were people who just existed on a dark current, who were disconnected from everything about the normal world, and had given up on life and on themselves.  There were half a dozen of these, seen here and there; and they were the lost.  Living amongst us functioning people, but dust: there was nothing really there.

There were a couple of older men who came home late and kept their heads down. A beautiful girl with goth-black dreadlocks and two missing teeth.  She was head-to-toe in black lace, sparkly ribbons tangled up in her hair.  Below her was a young man with red hair.  Three doors down a girl who kept rabbits.  At least one drug dealer.  A boy with a limp, and a woman who I think was his mother.

I didn’t really get to know them very much.  Not to begin with.  We were just passing each other in hallways, giving a cursory nod, a half smile, moving on. 

They seemed more or less harmless though, not the sorts who would attack me in a stairwell.  Right?

#

The street.  It deserves a mention as well.  It was nothing fancy.  There were broken paving stones aplenty.  And street lights that may or may not work on any given night.  Certainly, they liked to flicker.  The one outside my window had a penchant for that sort of thing.  And there were often bottles littering the streets come Saturday or Sunday morning.  But there was life out there.  There were nights when I didn’t have to work in the morning when I’d just sit huddled against my window and watch the crowds go past.

The came through like a river.  There were always so many colours, such a plethora of patterns, fashions, hairstyles, varieties of shoe.  I could rest my forehead against the bars and observe the way they walked; maybe dream up identities for them or imagine the conversations that might be going on between them.  Like I said – I didn’t have a TV.

You got everybody, walking down the road.  Young and old; wild and tame, the respectable and the disreputable.  You got businessmen going to the office; young mothers with prams just taking a walk; old men with their dogs.  There might be herds of children – usually boys or girls, rarely mixed – come running along after school.  You might hear them calling something out; or see them gathering beneath one of those red-leafed trees to play clapping games no different to what I would have played twelve or fifteen years ago.

In the mornings I’d go down to the bakery, buy an almond cake and a latte.  Recognise a few regular customers.  Recognise the curly-blond man who worked Mondays to Thursdays, and the girl, who could almost have been his sister, who covered Friday to Sunday.  Within a couple of months, they knew what I’d come in for and were reaching for it with tongs as I came in the door.

#

The flat, I slowly beautified.

It doesn’t take as much as you might think.  A carpet found at a second-hand store, a few cheap paintings, a wall-hanging and bean bags given to me by Donna, and suddenly the prison cell started feeling a little bit like home.  As I lived there longer I began to see a kind of beauty in the morning light, reddened by a dangerous horizon, reddened deeper as it was filtered through the leaves outside.  It was misty out there sometimes, and the leaves silhouetted against the mist were eerie, almost like tiny hands.

An investment in a decent wall heater and things started feeling nice.

I woke twice more to those noises directly under me in the first three months.  Each time it felt like a dream, each time it perplexed and attracted me.  I felt almost hypnotised.  I’d find myself, knees and elbows, face pressed against the boards, soaking up the vibrations – some sort of vibra-fitness health and wellness routine.

In the morning, no trace of any of it.

“Weird,” Donna said, “But you can’t afford to move.”

“I don’t want to.”

She looked around herself, unconvinced.  “Okay then.”

But I didn’t.  The stained walls and saggy ceiling had a charm about them that I couldn’t explain.  Just… warmth… permanence.  Home.

#

Mum called.

I took a deep breath before answering that call.

“How are you, love?”  So, she was back to that mothering, nothing-ever-happened mode. 

I could work with that.  “Hey.”  A small word, and big.

“You haven’t called in a while.”

“Yeah.  Sorry.  Busy.”  Yeah, right.

“So, um, where are you living right now?”

There was never going to be an apology: I’m sorry baby, I can’t help it sometimes, even with the meds it gets out of control.  I’m always there, on the end of the phone, ready to forgive about that, ready and willing to be understanding.  Give me half a chance.  I can do that.  But she doesn’t give me the dignity of magnanimity.  It’s all just to be forgotten about.  In her mind she didn’t even kick me out.  And I’ll always have to play along.  So: “Yeah, I’ve got a place on Ardogan Road now.  It’s a bit rough and it’s not big, but I like it.  It’s got character.”

“Is character what they’re calling it now?”

“You could come check it out.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I… in that sort of area.  Is it safe?”

I’m living there.  “Yeah, it’s safe.”

“I don’t know, love.  I just don’t know if I-”

“It’s okay, Mum.  You don’t have to come.  I’m all good.”

“Well, you should come to us.  For dinner.  Do you have time?”

All the time in the world.  I was barely getting twenty hours at the shop.  “Yeah, I can make it sometime.”

“Thursday?”

“Sure.  Thursday.”

#

And then came the day I met Jeffrey.

Jeffrey.  I might have mentioned him earlier.  He began as just the ‘man with red hair’ but after a while of just passing him in hallways and nodding, I one day on impulse stopped in front of him and held out my hand: “Hi, I’m Trudy.  We’re neighbours, I think.”

“Hi.”  He looked as if he thought I might bite.

“I’m just down the hall.”

“Oh.  Gotcha.  Sorry.” He remembered to extend his hand.  “I’m Jeffrey.”

“Been here long?”

“Two years.”

“Three months.”

“Sorry, which…?”  He gestured backwards.

“29B.”

“Oh.  Yeah, the last girl…”

A raised eyebrow.

“Oh.  Nothing.  She had some… difficulties…”

“Just don’t tell me she was murdered up there.”

“Oh.  No.  Nothing like that.”

I started walking slowly, trying to steer him into falling into step with me.  He was very awkward, at a loss at how to read the cues I was giving him.  Truth is I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.  I like my men all nerdy and gawky and not sure what to do next.

“You work around here?”  I asked him.

“Office, three blocks away.”

“Lawyer?”

“Um.  No.  Way off, actually.  My primary position is in filing, with an occasional foray into photocopying.  Every bit as much fun as it sounds.  You?”

“Just around the corner.  Bumper Books.”

“Your bestselling novel can be found there?”

“No just me.  Selling other people’s best-selling novels.”

“Oh.”

“I guess we both suck then?”

He gave me a stutter of a smile and decided to be what I think he thought was bold: “Something in common then.”

#

In spite of that first meeting – because of it? – I’m not really sure – the two of us ending up sorta, kinda dating.  It was a casual thing, marked by late night pizza and movies in one of our places, a few coffees out, a few walks along the street after dark.  A kiss or two under the oak at the corner, but we played it coy, played it slow.  Neither one of us quite sure how far we wanted to take whatever we had.

One day we were walking along the hallway and a door caught my eye.  Had there always been a door there? I didn’t think so.  And yet… doors don’t just appear.  19F.  And I realised it must be right beneath my flat.

“Hey,” I tugged at his arm to draw his attention to it, “who lives here?”

He bit his lip, puzzled.  “Um.  I don’t… I don’t know.  I’m not sure anyone does.”

“Who did?”

“I… I’ve never noticed it.”

“Me either.”

“That’s weird.”

The door, it looked old, battered, faded.  It wasn’t a door anyone had just put in – like that happens overnight!  Weathered and old-fashioned.  How do you walk past it every day in oblivion and one day just: oh, look at that?

I asked Jeffrey: “Hey, do you ever hear anything?”

“Hear anything?”

“This is going to sound a bit crazy, but sometimes I hear things coming through my floorboards, weird things – kind of rumbling and whirling and stuff.  Like someone’s mixing concrete down there.  Right under my place.  Where that flat would be.”

“Sometimes… it’s noisy.  Kinda like you just said.  But I don’t live directly above it.”

“So, it’s not just me?”

“No.  I don’t think so.”

“Bizarre.”  And on impulse I tried the door.  It was locked.

“The mystery endures.”

“For now.”

“For now?”

“Don’t you want to know?”

He said, “Sure.  But it might be someone’s place, or… someone’s squat or something.  And what?  You’re planning on breaking in there?”

“I’m considering my options.”

“Seriously?”

I gave it a few seconds.  I liked to shock him sometimes, just because it was so cutely easy to do.  It made me adore him a little bit extra every time I succeeded.  Although my curiosity…  “Probably not,” I conceded, “But you have to admit…”

“Oh, I admit.”

“Maybe we should stake it out.”

“Yeah, that wouldn’t look at all suspicious.”

#

I pictured myself in dark glasses, a long trench coat, using a mirror to peer around corners.  Not at all suspicious.  But luckily, I could stake things out from home.  I could do it face down on an air bed, with a blanket over my shoulders, checking Facebook and munching cookies.  I imagined there might be a drug den or something down there, some sort of illegal fight club, or maybe a coven all gathered there to practice witchcraft.  Maybe some secret government lab.  Nothing seemed to put the puzzle together quite right.

Until that night, a week after our conversation, when I woke up to bright, white-blue light streaming up through my floorboards.  This was bright enough that for the first few seconds it hurt my eyes too much and I had to shield them and blink the scene into reality.  These streams of light glared from beneath my floor - moonlight on steroids - sheets of it.  And the vibrations were kicking in now, and that roiling, gobbling, sucking sound waxing and waning beneath my feet.

I was out of the door in my pyjamas and thumping on Jeffrey’s door.

“What the-?”

“Can’t you hear that?”

With the door open: you bet he could.  He pressed his lips together: “What’s going on?”

“Let’s take a look,” I started to drag him out.

“Trudy…”

“Come on.”

“Wait.  It could actually be dangerous.”

He was right.  But I was too caught up in what was going on to let that sink in.  “Something’s down there.  We have to find out.”

“It might not be nice.  I mean, really not nice…”

I didn’t know – and I don’t know – what he must have pictured in his head when those words came out.  Maybe I was a bully at that moment: “Come on.  I’ll go by myself if I have to.  If it’s bad, we can run.”

We can run.

Well, there’s more than one way for something to be bad.

We got down to the end of the hall, and saw that the door – previously so locked, so unbreachable – was now ajar.  The same bright ashen light was beaming out of the narrow gap.  I felt Jeffrey’s hand on mine tighten.  “You sure?”

If this were a horror movie… And nothing good is likely to come from what you decide to do following that opening.  But it was right in front of us.  I reached into the gap and hooked my fingers around the door – opened it the way a cat would – and stepped in.

I don’t know if I can describe what we saw.  At first glance – no, at first glance we didn’t see anything nameable.  There was just this chaos in the middle of the room – all lights and shapes and movement and noise.  It took handfuls of seconds to even start thinking what it could be: industrial accident; some kind of light show; a portal into another world.  The whole air vibrated with it.  It felt and touched and tasted… unknown.  Not quite metallic, not quite salty, sandy, sweet, rich, sharp.  When you encounter something like that the words don’t flow.  Words don’t have enough syllables, enough sounds, to paint this picture.

At first, we were just assaulted by brightness.  But as our eyes adjusted Jeffrey’s mouth fell open – mine probably did too, but I was too stunned to notice.

Jeffrey, the first to react, stepped forward, whispering: “Hello?”

“Is there someone…?”

He had eyes nearly full circle, taking one slow step at a time towards the twisting light at the centre of it all.  His hand extended slowly, fingers trembling.

Belatedly: “Be careful.”

“It’s all right, I think…”

I sensed it too.  Whatever this was, there was life in it.  There was a presence here, an awareness.  There was something here that knew us, that’d heard and felt me above it just as surely as I’d heard and felt it below me.  I sense it reaching out, trying to understand us in much the same way we were trying to understand it.

“Hello,” Jeffrey’s hand reached closer.

The change came all at once, whip-snap sudden.  The tapestry of sounds billowing out from the centre of the room changed.  They rose an octave or so, taking on a shrieking quality, and the light itself reddened, purpled, it seemed to pulse in on itself, deepening and thickening, dimming for a moment and then spewing painful brightness.  Jeffrey yelped in shock and pain, pulling his hand back.  There were red burns and blisters all along his fingers, along the left side of his wrist.

The walls shook.

We started stepping back.

“What’s it doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“It hurt you.”

“It’s like acid.  Nothing’s ever hurt like this.”

When the walls buckled, when they bounced the tainted light back off back into the centre, we made a decision between us without words or even eyes.  We scrambled back enough steps to reach the doorway, then we turned and ran out into the street.

#

What happened, happened over just a minute or so.  There was no panic outside, and the glow could barely be seen out there, the noise was quickly muffled, half drowned by a nightclub just off to our right.  People coming and going as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

But we had just seen

Hadn’t we?

Within a few minutes there was only Jeffrey’s hand to show us that the whole thing’d been any more than a dream.  And it was bad.  The burn was nasty, and his skin still radiated heat.  The two of us didn’t speak a word, we just went back up to his flat – avoiding the corridor where 19F had lured us in and then driven us out – and held his hand under cold water.  He sat at his kitchen table while I bandaged it, and still there was nothing to say.  There was a hum in the air and a soft vibration in the walls and floors – in every surface.  A sulphurous thickness to the air that didn’t come with a ready explanation.

All of that faded.

Eventually there was just the night, and the silence, punctuated by late night revellers and the occasional passing car. 

Eventually there was just the next morning’s sunrise.

#

We didn’t make it, me and Jeffrey.

Maybe it was what happened on that night. I don’t exactly understand it myself.  We found it hard to talk about.  We discovered only a locked and blackened door the next day, and a lack of interest in it by everybody else in the world.  We discovered we could touch it and feel a cold, drilling rhythm that went straight for the bone marrow.

Even that faded.

And the door went.  A featureless wall along the ordinary corridor replaced it.

When we tried to talk about it we just ended up tongue-tied.  There just weren’t the right words – and more: as if something were actually pushing them down inside us.  Words that didn’t want to be spoken.  And the other words died with them, dying more slowly, but dying all the same.  Jeffrey’s hand healed poorly.  It scarred.  And he lost almost all feeling it.  Our kisses lost that too.  And his touch lost its intensity for me: neither hot nor cold, without the tingle or the comfort.

We lasted only another month.

The building began to feel different too.  And my flat.  The flat that’d once felt homey and reassuring, now began to take on a sinister feel.  The shabbiness began to show through in dozens of little ways. I began to feel the cold. 

I moved back home with Mum a few months after.

#

I saw Jeffrey the other day.

It was weird.  He’s all grown-up, with a wife and an army of little children.  He’s filled out and softened and faded a little, but it all seems to suit him.  And he seems more sure of himself now.  He was out in the park with his little tribe and he waved to me as soon as he saw me.

Now, I don’t know what happened back in that room on that night.  I speculate sometimes.  Was it a honey-trap – sweet music and promises played to the depth of our brains, luring us in, then leaping to attack?  Was it something we did?  Trying to touch it maybe, something that flipped a switch inside it?  Or was it not living at all, just some grand cycle of supernature beyond what any human could or should understand?

I sometimes think maybe we killed it.  By going in there?  Or was it dying already, so weakened that the door was visible, and the lock failed?  These are thoughts that can eat you up inside.  The guilt is too complex to measure.

“You look well,” he said to me, leaving his family for a few minutes.

“You too.  Look at them.”

“Daniella.  The brats.”

“You.  You with a family.”

“I’m not sure I saw it coming either.”

He told me that he’d heard they were going to demolish the building.  And no wonder, really, given it’d gotten so rundown.  The rooms had been hard to fill.  Nobody staying long – even with cheap rents.  Tenants lasted weeks or months before getting out of there.

“And who’d blame them?” I said, “It was never the same, was it?”

“No.  The whole building, it had a whole other aura.  You felt it too?”

“I think everyone felt it.  Even if they didn’t know what they felt.”

“No longer welcoming.  That was it. No longer… kind.”

“Did you ever tell anyone?” I asked him.

“No.”

“Not even…?” I gestured back at his family.

“Not even Dani.”

“What do you say about your hand?”

“Boiling water.”

“Makes sense.”

There was hesitation before this next bit, and then the old Jeffrey, the guy I’d fallen in love with – because I think I did, way back then – asking me: “Are you okay these days?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“I’m sorry, you know, that we lost each other.”

“That was beyond either of us.  We both know it.”

“Still…”

“It’s okay.  I really am okay.”  There are times when a lie is the right thing.

“I should get back.”  He gestured in their rough direction.

“Nice to see you again.”

“You too.  Hey, look after yourself.”

“You too.  And them.”

Watching him walk away: there could have been something there. If things had been different.  But perhaps our budding romance was the least of what was lost that night.  I’ll never know.  I’ll never know what we found in 19F, what we lost again, or what it gave us.  But you can’t go back in time; I walked away, humming to myself, a lightness inside me that’d been missing for years.  A feeling inside my head as if I could break into a full-tilt, child-hearted run, all the way to the massive iron gates at the end of the path.


© Copyright 2018 Rosalie Kempthorne. All rights reserved.

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