“You’re single?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But hopefully not for too long.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Not that I mind, you know. But women smell too much.”
“Oh, I always thought men are more dirty.”
“Well, he said. “It all depends on your sense of smell.”
The apartment was large and sunny, solid wooden floors, a lift and large windows that I would soon grow to hate. In every respect a bargain.
“The only thing,” he said. “Is that you can’t use the stairs. They were too dangerous and we had to block them. So you have to take the lift and in case of a fire there is an emergency ladder that goes right to your bedroom window.”
“Five floors on a ladder?”
“Well,” he said. “You look pretty strong. I’m sure you can handle that.”
“Apartment. 3 Bedrooms. Furnished kitchen. Fifth floor of a seven floor building.”
That was the ad and the conditions that I signed.
I was surprised that all of my possessions did fit so easily in the lift. For half a year I lived comfortably. There was never a need for the stairs.
It was just a drunk thought. I tried them out of curiosity.
The metal door opened easily. The light jumped on. The stairs led two floors up but only a few steps down. The stairs and handrail disappeared in a solid cement floor.
I took the lift to the fourth floor. The metal door there opened as easily as on my floor, but only half the distance. There was a solid wall right behind the door and only a small area to squeeze past the wall and downstairs.
The rest of the walk downstairs was easy. It seemed as if just the fourth floor stairwell was blocked and my drunk self was confused but accepted that fact.
It was a month later. I was walking home from the supermarket. There was no specific reason why I counted the number of windows.
Four windows per floor per side. Seven floors. Each side, except the one with the balconies, should have had 28 windows.
I counted 32.
That day, after seven months in my apartment, it suddenly made click.
The elevator buttons and door bells had been removed. Even the “landlord” mailbox that never received mail suddenly made sense.
Mine wasn’t floor 5. Mine was floor 6.
Floor 5 was cemented shut.
From that day on my fingers and toes were tickling all day.
Outside the building I just stared. The reddish walls semed to laugh at me. No matter from which side I looked at the building – the windows of floor 5 were always just black.
Even a flashlight didn’t help. Neither did binoculars.
The man living on floor 4 was never home. The man on floor 3 never noticed anything amiss.
“Why is the fifth floor closed?”
“Oh,” said the landlord. “There was some accident. Chemicals.”
“Yeah,” he said. “The last tenant tried some stuff. But you don’t need to worry. It’s nothing that can harm you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure,” he said.
Maybe it was just my paranoia. I had never heard them before I noticed that the floor was walled shut. Maybe there really were no scratching sounds. Maybe nothing was scraping on wood.
I found myself again and again drawn to the stairwell. To look down at the cement, as if it held a secret that I could look through. Sometimes I took a breathing mask, just in case. Later I always took a knife, too. I don’t know why.
For three weeks I lived like that. With every day the questions seemed to grow. With every day I seemed to hear more. Once I even went through my apartment, pressing my ear on the floor at different spots.
The thougth of it consumed me. The thought that something was there and I didn’t know.
The idea came spontaneously. Another drunken thought.
When I swung my feet out of the window I realized how high six floors are. I was too drunk to make my idea true, but luckily sober enough to realize that.
The next day I was trying to pep talk myself into climbing down the ladder. I sat on my bed, the window open and a knife and a flashlight at my side and told myself that I had to go, that it would be safe, that all would be fine.
Then the scratching came. Louder than before. I wasn’t sure whether from above or below, but it was enough to shatter the last of my courage.
“Are you sure there’s nothing down there?” I asked the landlord.
He held his breath.
“Sure,” he said.
“And it was just chemicals?”
“Definitely,” he said.
“And it’s not dangerous anymore?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, you shouldn’t get close. That’s why we walled it off. But there certainly is no danger.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It really is safe,” he said. “But if you want to move out, I understand.”
That didn’t make me feel better.
It was another two days later. There was just one beer in my bloodstream, or maybe one and a half. Enough to be safe. Enough to dare.
Before my rational mind could kick in I climbed out of the window. The ladder made a loud, creaking sound when my weight shifted on it. The creaking returned with every step.
With just seven rungs my legs reached the window of floor 5. Three steps further I realized why the windows were all black. They were painted black. From outside.
Another two steps. I listened. The wind blew cold into my ears. The ladder shook lightly with my every movement.
I carefully scratched the paint with my knife. Fingertips-sized flakes jumped off the glass.
There was something gray behind it. Wrinkled like a badly placed wallpaper.
I scratched more flakes off. I got bolder; the knife squeaked on the glass.
Suddenly the gray was gone. Black instead.
A dried out face; gray skin hanging frmo the skull; the mouth wide open.
Something smashed against the window from inside.
My left hand slipped from the ladder. My right hand grasped for the metal bars. The knife fell. I slid down two rungs.
A loud thus. I saw the glass crack.
I screamed; frantically climbed down the ladder.
The high-pitched cracking; splintered glass rained on my head. My eyes closed instinctively.
I climbed on even as the glass dug into my palms.
When I looked up I was already two floors deeper. A frail gray arm, not much more than bones, reached out through the shattered window.
My hands were sweating. I climbed so fast that my left hand missed. I slipped down four rungs before I caught another metal bar.
Above me the ladder began shaking.
I was at the seconf floor level, when I looked up again. The figure was just placing its second foot on the ladder.
A human, without a doubt. But bare naked; thin like a skeleton with limp gray skin. Blond-gray hair.
The ladder shook rapidly as the figure climbed.
I climbed another two rungs, then jumped on the ground. My scream of fear turned into a scream of pain.
The figure looked down at me. A man’s face but hollow and dry. The eyes pure gray.
He climbed up.
I scrambled away.
He climbed into my bedroom window.
I called the landlord while I ran; screamed and cried what I had seen into the phone.
I heard the sirens. At least half a dozen cars.
Then there were ambulances too.
The landlord called me. He told me that I would not be able to go back. He transferred me money for my lost possesions.
All my life is still in that apartment. My degree certificates, my photos, my laptop.
The door now only has four bells to ring. The windows of my old apartment are all black. So are those on floor 7 to 8. At least they added boards on the windows.
I saw the obituary in the newspaper. The woman that lived on floor 7. Closed casket.
Someone told me that, when they carried the casket to the grave, it seemed too light. As if it was empty.
I still shiver when I walk past that house on my way to work.
Shiver when I see the family that lives in the second floor.
Shiver when I see their fifteen year old daughter sitting on the ladder.