I sit here shivering with my back against the wall. The knife is still in my lap. I can’t even leave this room. I just don’t know what to do anymore.
It was all because I flunked school. Fuck school. Lock kids into a tiny and smelly room in the best time of their life. And then make sure every small mistake determines their future. A gray and brown building filled with incompetent teachers and kids so horribly raised that not just them but also their parents deserve a good spanking.
That’s why I flunked. I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t stand the incompetence and the boring, dull, dragging hours on broken chairs. I felt my heart clench whenever I just so much as looked at the front door. So I didn’t go. And look where that got me.
Rejections, one after the other. No matter what I did. My parents even paid a company to ‘fix’ my CV and cover letter. With all the vacant buzzwords that the company crammed into every second sentence I’m not even surprised that the ‘improvement’ only earned me more rejections.
The supermarket was the last resort. You know you are a failure when a man dressed in the cheap plastic-like material of a white and red company uniform says he doesn’t have use for “people like you.”
23 years and with nothing except internships or temp jobs on my CV. My parents said I had to “get my act together.” Move out or pay rent. I can’t even blame them – believe me, I tried.
A yellow sign outside a half-empty office building. “Now hiring.”
How the hell did I end there?
At least the manager was nice enough. Nice enough to say so himself.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Hy. You listen to what I say. Be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you. Get your shit done and I’ll stay out of your way. Understood?”
He didn’t wait for me to respond. He just walked down the barely lit hallway to the storage room that he calls his office. He didn’t even turn around to see whether I followed. I suppose if you fall low enough to apply for such a job no one feels the need to be polite to you.
I signed the contract. Hy shook my hand and then he led me to the maintenance room and sent me upstairs.
The first two days were fine. I can’t say I worked very fast but I didn’t work very slowly either. “Check all light bulbs on floors 3 to 8. Check all power plugs on floors 3 to 8. Check all AC units on floors 3 to 8. Write down if anything is broken and when you’re done we’ll figure out how to fix it.”
That was that. Two days. Somewhere after the 200th time of plugging a small LED light in a wall socket I lost my count.
I hated the boredom of the first two days. The loneliness. It didn’t feel much different than my previous routine of sitting in my childhood bedroom during most of the day and leaving the apartment only to buy food, go to the apartment block’s basement laundry room or meet a much more successful friend for a drink. The only differences were that turning the light switches on and off paid money, and of course that I couldn’t spend my time looking at funny pictures.
Occasionally Hy dropped by to check on me. Not often, just four or five times a day. Every time he came he told me to take a short break – until he came and I was in the middle of a break that he hadn’t told me to take. That was my third day, just before 10am.
Between 10am and 1pm Hy came six times. He entered the room, watched me wordlessly for a minute and left again. No more short breaks.
We took our lunch break together. He was as quiet as he had been when he checked on me. I told him that I was nearly done.
Hy nodded, smiled and said that he had a lot more for me to do.
“You’ll see,” he said. “It never gets boring.”
At 3:30pm I was done. With three filled sheets – mostly broken light bulbs – I marched back to his office. Hy was leaning over some sort of spreadsheet.
“Great,” he said. “Let’s go to the basement. I have a little test for you.”
A long corridor with six doors on each side. In the basement nobody seemed to care whether one or two or most of the light bulbs were dark. There were no windows and with the elevator as the only means of access, except for a blocked emergency door, the room felt like a crypt.
“The rooms are filled with old stuff,” Hy said. “We have a container outside, the big blue one, and I want you to bring everything from these rooms to the containers.”
“Everything,” Hy said. “Unless you want to keep something.”
He led me towards the first door to the left, the one labeled “U12.”
I felt cold.
Hy’s hand moved towards the handle, then he quickly pulled his arm away. Hy stumbled backwards until he bumped against the door labeled “U1.” His eyes were wide open.
“No,” he said. “I just remembered that I wanted to show you another one.
Quickly Hy turned around, pressed the key into the lock of door U1, turned the key and pushed the handle down.
The room was pitch black. It smelled like an old library book with an aftertaste of rubber.
Hy felt towards the left of the inside wall for the light switch. Two quick and blinding flashes, then the light stayed on.
The room was filled with old cardboard boxes. At the far wall was a stack of broken chairs.
“All this needs to go,” Hy said. “And most of the other rooms are pretty much the same. You’ll see.”
Hy turned on his heel to walk back.
“Most are the same?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Really, nothing to worry about.”
With that he walked back to the small maintenance elevator. When the metal doors shut the corridor fell into silence. The door of room U1 was still open and invited me inside with bright neon light. I felt more alone than ever before.
And yet, for the fraction of a second, I thought I heard a scratching noise.
I found a small trolley that helped me bring the boxes to the elevator. With three trolley loads inside the doors closed and I was happy again to see the warm light and breathe the fresh air of the ground floor.
I would be lying if I said that I worked particularly fast. I worked fast downstairs, but upstairs, with the soothing sun on my back, I was slow.
Hy saw me a few times when I was throwing yellowed papers into the container. He waved to me and walked by without a word. Downstairs Hy never bothered to check on me. I figured he knew about the lack of internet and mobile phone connection and accordingly the lack of procrastination opportunity.
Back inside room U1 I felt less cold. For a while I thought it was the physical labor that made me feel warm. By the end of the evening, when I finally locked the door of U1 I realized that it was not the labor that made me feel warm. U1 was warm. It was the corridor that felt cold.
I didn’t consider door room U12 next. In that moment I told myself that I just wanted to go in order, U2 follows after U1 and after U2 it should be U3. I think the truth is that I felt something.
U2 was empty except for rolls of carpet and a few boxes with the name of a different company printed on top. I finished it just around the end of my shift.
With U2 locked there was less light in the corridor. It also felt more cold. Something compelled me to run towards the elevator.
I felt nervous until the heavy doors crunched shut. The stuttering movement of the elevator that usually would have made me feel nervous somehow calmed me down.
I stumbled home. I don’t remember boiling pasta. I fell asleep on the couch with half the bowl still in my lap.
The day was warm but if anything that made me feel worse. I knew I would likely be in the basement all day.
Hy had a look of pity and relief on his face. I figured he felt relief because he knew that he got around cleaning the basement out. Pity for me because I had to do it instead.
I walked out of his office. A moment later I felt him poke his head out to the corridor. I turned around. His frown quickly turned into a stretched smile.
“Be careful”, he said.
“Oh, just be careful. You know, that nothing falls on your foot or so. Or that none of the doors falls shut and locks you inside. I probably wouldn’t notice it until the next day.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Definitely sure. Don’t worry.”
The basement felt colder than the day before. When the elevator doors opened the light from the elevator made my shadow long and thin. For a moment I felt as if something moved at the end of the corridor. Then the main basement lights flickered on.
U3 was filled with old furniture, U4 and U5 were empty. I should have been happy about that. I was happy at the prospect of soon leaving the basement. But I was not happy to progress to the higher numbers.
Between rooms U6 and U7 the corridor felt warmer. Rolling the trolley from U6, the last room on the right side, I realized that only a certain part of the corridor felt cold.
I caught myself walking faster whenever I passed between U1 and U12.
Room U7 was filled to the brim with old office printers. The large machines had wheels and, despite their size, were surprisingly easy to roll.
I rolled the last one out of the room before lunch time. I knew Hy would wait for me with lunch. Still, to save time, I decided not to bring the machine outside. I left it half-way between U7 and the elevator. A pure accident that it stayed in front of U12. Not an accident that I pushed it closer against the door and secured the brakes.
The printer bumped against the door. The sound of plastic on metal. A second sound followed a second later, like something soft touching the metal. I couldn’t find what had produced the sound.
During lunch Hy and I sat quietly on the wooden chairs. Like the days before I looked out at the street to watch the people passing by. Hy didn’t realize that I saw his reflection in the bagel shop window. He stared at me whenever I looked outside.
I turned to him and he quickly lowered his eyes to his plate.
“Could you later give me a hand down in the basement? There’s a bit of stuff I don’t think I can do on my own.”
Hy looked back up.
“No, they weren’t a problem.”
“Then you’ll manage the rest. There’s nothing heavy down there. Nothing.”
“It’s just that some of the stuff seems difficult to …”
Hy interrupted me.
“Hopefully,” I said.
“Quite surely,” he said.
When I looked back out of the window I saw Hy’s reflection wiping sweat off its forehead. I kept my eyes towards the outside.
“It’s really warm today, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said.
I turned to him.
“Do you know why it’s so cold down in the basement?”
“It’s a basement.”
“Is there maybe some AC unit or air vent down there?”
“I doubt that.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Haven’t been down there for a while. I’m not so good in the dark.”
“It’s just, it feels to me as if the temperature is not always the same, you know? At the ends it’s warmer than in the middle.”
Hy just stared at me.
“And I keep hearing noises.”
“That’s just in your head! There’s nothing down there!”
His voice was louder than necessary.
“But you said you haven’t been …”
“There is nothing down there!”
“Okay,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just really don’t like the basement.”
“Me neither,” I said.
Hy looked away.
“Sure you don’t want to help me?”
“No time,” Hy said. “Really, no time.”
When the elevator doors opened the head of my shadow fell right on the printer. In the moment before the lights flickered back on I had the impression that the machine was vibrating.
U8 was empty.
U9 held only a few small boxes. I still made sure to distribute the load on two trolley tours.
U10 was stuffed with old tables. I’m sure the elevator could have held more but I brought one upstairs at a time.
Each time the doors opened back in the basement my heart seemed to skip a beat. Each time I felt as if something was waiting.
Sometimes, when I passed U12, I heard the soft knocking sound again. Quiet enough to be just my imagination, but loud enough to give me goosebumps.
Shortly after 4pm I brought the last table upstairs. I took a break. I texted my father to say “Thank you!” for pulling the blanket over me and the sofa. Then I sat and stared at my phone, unsure what to do next.
The sun built my confidence. I clenched my fists.
“Just in your head,” I said to myself.
I opened the door to U11. For the first time the smell was different. It was almost sweet.
Carefully I felt my way on the inside wall. The cold plastic of the light switch. The light jumped on.
There were two stacks of glasses. The glasses on one stack, probably about a hundred, were empty except for a thin but dried layer of mold. The others, about fifty in a stack leaning against the wall, contained a reddish mass that reminded me of sauce bolognaise.
I went upstairs to ask Hy about the glasses.
“Throw them out,” he said. “Definitely throw them out.”
I took plastic gloves from the maintenance room.
The empty stack went first on the trolley. While rolling them towards the elevator I felt a strong feeling of unease creep up my spine. The feeling only disappeared when the elevator started moving. It instantly came back when the empty trolley and I arrived back in the basement.
For a moment I considered opening one of the unlabeled glasses to inspect the contents. Then, looking at the slightly lumpy red liquid, I changed my mind.
Each time I took a glass off the stack somehow the whole stack moved. Each time the remaining glasses seemed to make a faint scratching noise.
Even when I took the last glass the noise was still there.
Back in the basement I stared at the large printer that still blocked the door.
“Just your imagination,” I whispered to myself.
I only moved the printer slightly. The printer still blocked most of the entrance. The space was just enough to access the keyhole. Then I pressed my foot on the wheel brakes again.
My fingers shivered when I stuck the key in the lock. My mind made me believe that something rubbed against the door.
I turned the key and ran towards the elevator. When I reached the open metal doors I stopped.
No noise. The door was still closed.
I waited. My whole body was tense. Nothing.
Just my imagination.
Quietly I made my way back to the door. Hidden behind the safety of the printer I listened.
Not the faintest noise.
Just my imagination.
I walked slowly around the printer to access the door handle.
The key was still in the lock, the lock on the ‘open’ position. I stared at the handle.
My hand moved towards the handle.
My finger touched the cold metal.
I felt it shaking.
I pulled my hand quickly away. Something slowly pressed the door handle down.
I heard the door being opened abruptly.
A high-pitched scream.
Looking back I saw something bright white slamming against the printer.
I jumped inside the elevator. My fingers hammered on the ‘close’ button.
The doors began to close.
The printer was pushed over.
Thin white arms. That’s the last thing I saw before the doors closed.
The elevator stuttered back to the ground floor.
Something slammed against the metal doors downstairs.
I have never run that fast in my life. Straight home.
That was yesterday.
I’ve been up all night with the doors locked and a knife in my lap.
And this morning Hy texted me.
“Just saw you finished. Great job.”