It was a time of cigarettes lit in subway cars, of armed robberies at every bodega in my neighborhood, of waste. Bars were drawn over every storefront. Lines stretched around the block of my grocery store all day, every day. Construction stopped and stalled. Gentrification crawled its way back to the suburbs and stewed there.
It was April 2020 and the world was quiet outside my window, except for the periodic drone of ambulances on Knickerbocker Avenue. At first it was an annoyance, a sleep piercer, a stark reminder of what we feared awaited us all. Then it became water torture. The sirens scratched at our sanity and frayed the edges of our patience. I purchased noise cancelling headphones and they almost did the trick, but also muffled everything external until my thoughts, my heartbeat, grew too loud. In that void, I could not help but imagine each inhabitant of those screaming vans: each one my grandmother, my mother, myself.
I lost myself in small projects. I reorganized my closet. I knit a scarf. I redid the grout on the shower walls, then suffered the passive aggressive sighs of my roommates when I belatedly informed them that no one could shower for the next 24 hours. But really, who did we have to shower for? Where did we have to go? Outside was all risk and no reward. There was no money to be made. There were no friends to be seen.
At first, each night was a party. We cooked lavishly with our stored food and ate sitting on the floor around the coffee table. We drank whole bottles from the case of wine bought the day before the city closed. We played board games, we watched movies, we talked and talked. The talking stopped when the rain started, with no one left in the streets to inconvenience.
Ellie knocked on my door. "Hey, can we talk?"
My room was so small that I could pull the door open without shifting at my desk. "What's up?"
She slid into the room, peering back into the dim living room before closing the door. "I'm a little worried about Tina."
"Why? She seems fine," I said, still pecking away at an email. She seemed to want A Discussion, something the two of us often had when things got tense with Tina. I wasn't in the mood.
"Like, have you actually seen her, though?" she pressed. "Because I haven't. Not for three days."
I stopped writing and looked at Ellie. She chewed on her lip, looking pale and anxious. "I'm sure it's fine," I reassured her. "We're all becoming little hermits now, aren't we?"
"Sure, sure." But she didn't seem convinced. She crossed the room to sit on my bed. I sighed and closed my laptop. Apparently, work would have to wait. "We had kind of a weird talk on Tuesday. She accused me of having someone over."
"What? Did you?" Even as I asked the question, I felt silly. Between the three of us, Ellie was the most evidently concerned about the virus. She constantly shared articles about its spread and introduced new house rules: we had to wipe down all groceries before putting them away, leave shoes on the welcome mat outside the apartment door, disinfect the shared bathroom every morning. She'd be the last one to sneak in an unapproved visitor with no warning. Besides, when Ellie entertained someone not even noise cancelling headphones could drown them out.
"Oh my god, no!" she insisted. "You know I wouldn't do that. Tina just kept saying she heard a voice and saw a shadow."
"Maybe she overheard you on Zoom or something and got worried. You know how she gets sometimes."
"Do I ever." She rolled her eyes. "But this was such a weird confrontation, even for her. She kept asking me how 'it' knew her name." An ambulance went by. We waited for its siren to fade in the distance.
"Ok, weird. But probably nothing, you know? We're all going stir crazy."
"And also, I don't think she's left her room since. Like she hasn't used the bathroom or the kitchen since that conversation." I thought back over my last three days. She was right - I had no memory of the sounds I usually associated with Tina and her routines. I hadn't heard her humming in the shower, or seen her preparing dinner, for at least three days. I hadn't even seen her favorite mug in the drying rack.
"Should we check in on her?" I asked, growing concerned. She shrugged.
"You know how we are. I don't really want to get involved."
"Ok, I'll go see what's up." I was surprised at my ignorance of the situation. The three of us shared barely 1,000 square feet. It was impossible to be unaware of each other's movements. We orbited uneasily in the small space, just as attracted by the lure of social connection as we were repelled in the manner of territorial cats.
Ellie retreated to her postage stamp bedroom. I checked my watch. It was 4:07, just late enough that I could log off if I finished my work later that night. What was the difference? It's not like I had any plans.
The hallway was dark. The central living space had no windows. I could see a glow through the frosted glass of Tina's door, a sickly greenish light that could only have come from some hideous LED bulb. A figure writhed across the glow. I stopped, inches from the door, hand clenched to knock but rigid at my side. There was something about the shadow that unsettled me. I didn't like it all.
I shook myself. I didn't like Tina, that's what it was. She was tolerable enough when we ran into one another in the kitchen, but I didn't usually go out of my way to interact with her. Finally, I worked up the courage to knock.
"Hey, Tina? You in there?"
"Mhmmmm," a muffled voice replied. "Yeaaah."
"Can I come in? Just wanted to see how you're doing."
"Uh uh," she said.
"Sure, yeah. Ok. Well, I mean, I just feel like I haven't seen a lot of you lately. Everything ok?"
"Sweet, sweet Alyssa," another voice hissed. "So nice to check." The shadow loomed tall behind the glass. Taller than me. Taller than Tina. I jumped back.
"What the fuck was that?" I shouted. "Tina, do you have someone in there with you?"
"Noooo," she moaned. I was stumbling backwards, feet suddenly numb and clumsy beneath me.
"Hey Ellie? Ellie! Get out here!" I struck my hand out for the light switches, bathing the familiar room in light. Still, the greenish glow seemed to ooze out from the french doors, under the cracks, through the seams of our reality. It was like the sky just before a tornado. Ellie came running.
"What happened?" she asked, catching hold of me as I nearly stumbled on our area rug. Frantically, I shushed her.
"There's something else in there with her!" I whispered, not caring if I sounded crazy. "Something is not right. Something is really, really wrong." Tears were pouring down my cheeks but I couldn't bring myself to blink. I was certain that if I closed my eyes the door would open. I was certain that if the door opened I would die, or become nothing more than a muffled voice from the other side.
Ellie huffed. "Someone's in there with her? Ok, that is SO not ok." She marched to the door. I was babbling, begging her to stop. She wouldn't. "Hey Tina, super cool of you to accuse me of putting us all at risk, you fucking hypocrite. Who's in there with you?"
She yanked open the door. I screamed and covered my face, not wanting to see the source of that light, not wanting to know what would shoot through the open door. But nothing happened.
"Are you kidding me, Alyssa?" she asked. I lowered my hands. The door was open, the light was gone. The room was empty. "She's not even here. But oh, fantastic, she's left the window open in the rain." Ellie walked into the room and pressed her hand into the mattress. There was an audible squelch. "Nasty," she shuddered. "That's gonna mold." She slammed the window shut.
I crept into the room. She was right. No one was there. "But... I saw someone. I heard someone. It said my name."
"Oh, ha ha, is this a joke? You sound just like her," Ellie laughed. "Well done. Did you guys plan this together or something? That's one way to liven things up around here." She started walking back to her room, chuckling to herself. "'It said my name,' so stupid. Wanna make pasta and watch Tiger King tonight?" She didn't wait for an answer before closing her door.
I stared around the room. Nothing was amiss. Tina wasn't there. I looked at the puddle around the window, large enough that she must have indeed been gone for days. But where had she gone? When had she left? Just as I made up my mind to leave the room, I saw something on her bedside table that made my blood run cold: her cell phone.
Tina never came back. We called the police, who did nothing but give us her mother's contact information. She told us to keep or toss the stuff and rent out the room again. "She's a runner, that one," she said over the phone in a smoker's rasp. "Doesn't stay in one place for long. And don't you come looking for any money, you hear? There isn't any. Just move on."
So we did, Ellie and I. But on rainy nights I still don't like to sleep, because my dreams are all washed in that unripe light, and strange shadows follow me through them.
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Hi Suze. Absolutely love this. Can visualise the green light, great vibe. If I send you a tip would you allow me to read this on my horror podcast please? I'll include a link to your Vocal :)
The tone of this is like a smell you can't get off your skin; I love it so much. Awesome way to capture a seedy suspiciousness surrounding the city and the early days of the pandemic. Really well done!
I have to say, this was a fantastic read! The way you built up the suspense and created such a chilling atmosphere had me on the edge of my seat. Your descriptions were so vivid, I felt like I was right there in the haunted house with the characters. And that twist ending? Brilliant! It left me wanting more. Keep up the great work, and I can't wait to read more of your stories!
This was sooooo creepy! I've subscribed to you!
This was a little too real 😮 The wiping down groceries and disinfecting the bathroom... Well done 😁
Spooooky I love this type of story! Very Cold Air or Colour Out of Space vibes