I moved into my new apartment complex in October. I started hearing things a week later.
The sound was subtle at first. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake up to a faint scratching sound from somewhere behind the walls. I originally thought the cause could be mice. I have lived through enough shitty one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan to recognize the signs. Disgusting little turds on the floor. Tiny holes in the plaster. An unending scratching that resembled a thousand little feet marching to the beat of a pounding headache.
My symptoms fit the bill. It had to be a mouse.
So, I put out all the traps. I researched steel wool placement. The internet claimed the best way to catch one of these suckers was with a little peanut butter, so I slathered a spoonful over a snap-back, kill-on-contact type from the hardware store down the block. I went to bed with the expectation that my intruder would be dead by morning. I still didn’t know how to get rid of the thing. I didn’t want to have to sacrifice my dustpan in the process. But the sweet mercy of a varmint-less existence would be well worth the loss.
It rained in buckets that night. After an hour of Dexter, I turned off the TV and laid awake, anxiously awaiting the familiar scuffle of feverish little feet to fall for my trap. Nothing happened, so I waited some more. Soon, the storm overtook all other sound. Cracks of thunder shook the glassware in the kitchen. Water seeped and pooled through the spaces between my bedroom window’s framing. I even had to put a towel down by the door. The damn dripping started to annoy me more than the rats ever did in the first place. Then somewhere, underneath it all, another tone pitched in through the din.
A voice whispering, “Help me.”
I never really believed in the paranormal. I tell people that a lot. I never saw signs, or spirits, or shadows, like everybody else. Part of my subconscious felt like this might be my comeuppance. The ghosts on the street had heard me talking shit, and now they were going to settle the score. Maybe just to show me who’s boss. And I had nothing to use for protection. Nobody to verify my experiences. What would people believe? I lived alone in the middle of a lightly occupied skyrise. A demon could kill me six different ways if he (it?) wanted and make all of it look like a suicide.
I pulled the sheets up to my chin and tried to dream it away. But the constant refrain of “help me” persisted through the rain like a horrible melody. She started to get louder. More urgent. My fear-paralyzed mind whispered that she was getting closer. I knew that was impossible, but I couldn’t take it anymore; I would never get to sleep in this state. I got out of bed and marched down the hall, nearly stepping on the unoccupied rat trap along the way. The building kept a guard on desk duty throughout the night. I wanted to talk to him. Somebody smarter than me needed to investigate this sound.
I hopped in the elevator barefoot. When it opened on the ground level, the doors led out into the lobby, and a surprised concierge waited behind the desk. I recognized him as the night-shift guy. John was a tall man, in his late forties, with dark features and a warm smile for anybody who walked by. I grew to like him during my short time in the building. But we didn’t really know each other.
“Sir? Are you okay?”
“Can you check if the apartment next to me is occupied?”
John furrowed his brow worriedly as he eyed my evening wear with distaste. He wore black slacks with an official-looking blue buttoned shirt. He had a radio clipped to his belt. Not sure why. But the damn thing crackled constantly.
“We really should not divulge…”
I changed my tone.
“Somebody has been screaming, ‘Help me,’ all night. I think they’re in trouble. But I’ve never seen anyone go in there. Have you? Can you check?”
John pounded into the small laptop placed on the desk.
“Okay, what apartment number?”
“We haven’t rented many units up top since we took over.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Yup, 522 and 524 are empty. You have one other tenant at the other end of your floor. Maybe you heard his television. The walls here are very thin, sir, and we are actively working on the rodent issue, so it’s possible you could have heard…”
“I think we need to call the police.”
John flashed a smile that made the goose bumps on my skin stick up like candy dots. Like he was prepared for the accusation. Like he welcomed it.
“Like I said, the apartment is empty. Would you like to go and see for yourself?”
My willingness definitely took him aback. He punched again at the laptop. I couldn’t figure out what he was typing. But I wasn’t going to leave without a fight. After a minute’s hesitation, he stopped and gestured toward the elevator.
“Let’s go. Five-twenty-two first. I’ve got the key.”
I followed. Something about his demeanor continued to make me uncomfortable. The man radiated nervous energy, but he also seemed excited, too. At the time, I chalked it up to over-interest in the mystery before us. When he spoke, it sounded like the most sensational thing that happened to him all night. That made sense, given the occupation.
“It’s possible some kids broke in. But I doubt it. These locks are pretty secure. I still think you heard a neighbor. Did you leave a window open?”
I nodded wordlessly. He shrugged back, as if to say, “Well?” When the elevator doors opened again, we marched together down the hall toward apartment 522. I waited patiently while he opened up and beckoned inside.
It was empty. A single surge protector sat in the center of spotless wall-to-wall wood flooring.
I still wanted to check anyway.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?”
My flu-ridden voice carried across the furniture-less void inside the studio. I paced around and investigated the nooks and crannies. I looked for false doors. I shouted into the vents. But nobody answered. The only sounds were the steady ricochet of raindrops against the windowsills and John’s goddamn radio. He followed me everywhere, like a hawk, with his hands comfortably clasped behind his back.
“We still have 524.”
My new friend sneered.
“Look, it’s late, and somebody has to watch the desk. Do we need to do this now?”
“I know what I heard.”
John studied me for a moment. I could tell that he was sizing me up. He was a lot bigger than me, but I wasn’t going to be intimidated. After a moment of this, he repainted his smile and gestured out into the hallway.
We passed my apartment on the way to the next one. A fleeting feeling urged me to rush me inside and lock the door, but I didn’t. Onward we went to 522.
“What’s your name again?” he asked. “I forget.”
“Well, Matt, this might be the longest we talked.”
I nodded and waited. John didn’t press the conversation. He opened the door. I tried to hold back my gasp. Five-twenty-four wasn’t empty.
Boxes upon boxes covered the floor and filled the apartment like building columns, with neat little labels attached to the sides of each one. The clutter made it tough to move around. John waited by the door while I steered around the junk and searched the two attached rooms.
The small corner kitchen contained the usual boilerplate electronics. The oven was greasy. The sink looked unused. The cabinets were open and empty, and a thin line of dust formed over one of the countertops, but not the other.
“We evicted the tenants,” John murmured. “Weeks ago. They left their shit. Cleaning crew coming this week.”
I moved on to the bathroom and found a recently renovated showerhead sparkling against a fresh paint job. My mind wandered. My guard slipped. I thought about how they must be re-renting the place. I thought about the potential noise from the new neighbors. I thought maybe, at the least, they would be able to get rid of the rats, or mice, or whatever the hell kept me up at night. I was just about ready to write the entire thing off as an odd experience, filed away for a time after sleep, when a voice spoke to me from inside the walls.
It was closer this time. In the same room. Had to be. Half of me wanted to run. Half wanted to break down the paneling. I knew John would be listening. I didn’t care. The voice whispered again, and there was a closet in the bathroom, so I opened it.
Sitting inside was a teenage girl.
She wasn’t wearing any clothes. Her hands were chained. She pushed her knees up to her shoulders and linked her feet together in a heartbreaking attempt at modesty. Sweat mixed in with makeup and blood on her brow to twist her long brown hair into weaved tangles and knots, which stuck in clumps to her forehead. She looked like she wanted to scream but couldn’t. I didn’t want to know why. I already knew why. She told me anyway.
“It’s him. John. John did this.”
Footsteps approached from the hallway. I raised a finger, as if to tell her to wait, and closed the door on the poor girl’s face. I rushed over to the toilet and flushed the handle. The footsteps stopped.
“Everything all right in there?”
I opened the door.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. Just had to piss. This remodel is nice. When are you guys gonna do it to my apartment?”
John smiled. I knew he was testing me. I could feel him undressing my skin.
“You know, I’ve got a leaky window frame. I see you replaced one in here. Who can I talk to about that?”
John stared at me for about thirty seconds. At first, he looked angry. Then he looked confused. Finally, the suspicion faded from his wrinkled brow. I would have gasped if he weren’t watching.
“Property owner. Not me.”
I laughed awkwardly and pushed past him.
I shuffled out into the hallway in a rush, not wanting to prolong the conversation any further. Eventually, John followed. I could hear him locking the door to 524 as I jetted toward my own apartment.
“You don’t want to check anywhere else?”
I shouted something back. I don’t remember what. The adrenaline coursed through my veins so powerfully that my futile attempts at being casual dissipated immediately at my front door. I fumbled for my keys. I clanked them awkwardly against the lock. Finally, the metal found a groove, and just as the door handle turned, a hand wrapped firmly onto mine.
“Anything else I can do for you tonight?”
“Nah. Sorry, man, that last trip to the bathroom didn’t cut it. Too much chili. Gotta go.”
He laughed heartily over my shoulder. The door shut. I waited for his retreating footsteps before applying the chain. I didn’t want to spook him. I was about four seconds away from faking fart noises. After it finally felt safe, I let go and embraced the incoming panic attack. Then I crawled to my cell phone.
“Hello. I would like to report an abduction.”
The first responders arrived about ten minutes later. Thank God. Part of me worried that John would try to run. Part of me worried he would go back for the kid. A lot of me worried he might come back for me. But he didn’t.
Police rescued the girl from the bathroom closet. Her name was Molly. She was sixteen years old. She wasn’t the only one.
Seven other victims were found in empty apartments throughout the complex. Six of them survived. The last one tried to escape. She almost made it, too. But her clothing got caught on a grate, and she suffocated there, inches from freedom.
Right behind my bedroom wall.