It should have been a Good Day. It was, actually, until Christine called me.
“Hi…” I returned her cheerful greeting with a less enthusiastic one of my own. “I’m sorry, how did you get my number?”
“Oh Carly gave it to me. She’s so nice.”
I can hear wind in the background, voices, and screams. But not bad ones. Children playing, I think.
“Yes, she’s very nice.” My grip tightens a bit around my phone.
“So I wondered if you’d like to talk today. About Bob.”
“Right. The not-interview.”
She laughs. “Right.”
“Okay, you can come over…whenever.”
“Actually I thought it’s such a nice day, we could talk here at the playground. The one two blocks down the road. You must know it, since you’ve lived in the area so long.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about.
“Right,” I say. “I was really hoping not to have to leave my place today.”
She laughs again. “Don’t be a big baby. You do this practically everyday. Besides, I can’t come up. I have Kirin with me. You want to meet him don’t you? My son?”
Do I? I consider this. I’m indifferent the prospect, I believe. The most exposure I get to kids is listening to the ones that scream in the grocery store, an environment which does not bring out their best.
I sigh. “Christine.”
Logically, I should tell her to respect my Bob-less day, and possibly to lose my number. I should also remove Oreos from my list of legitimate food groups, move to another apartment building, and stop stealing the World Events page from my neighbours newspapers to line my zebra finches’ cage*.
But let’s be honest, none of those things are going to happen.
“Yes?” A note of concern appears in her voice.
“I’ll be there in thirty.”
*I’ve been doing this for years to see if any of them will notice/complain about it. No one ever has. I still think they’re the weird ones.
Today is just today. I woke up, left for work, and came home from work. I’m not planning on leaving my apartment again and I didn’t see Bob. Actually, in the last three days, I think I’ve only seen Bob once, and then only on the monitors. He’s been quiet lately.
I’m lying with my torso underneath my coffee table, and my calves and feet resting up on my couch. A few years ago I had back problems and found some relief doing this; now I just do it because I feel like it. My zebra finches sing merrily, and I play games on my phone.
Someone knocks at the door.
I panic and try to get up, but only succeed in banging my head on the coffee table.
“Ashley, are you home? It’s me, Christine.” Her voice comes muffled from the other side of the door.
I make unintelligible growly, complainy noises as I crawl out from under the coffee table and rub my head. Once out from under the table, I sit up and stare at the door. Maybe she didn’t hear me. Maybe she’ll go away.
She knocks again. “Could you open up before Bob comes and eats me, please?”
I scowl at the door. You can’t use Bob to get what you want. That’s worse than black-mail, it’s Bob-mail. But of course she would. I consider ignoring her anyway, after all Bob hasn’t been inclined to show himself lately, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that precedes something really unfortunate, so of course I can’t.
I don’t even have the luxury of talking to her through a gap in the door too small to get through, and then closing the door at the earliest excuse. You just have to let people in the door here, and it’s a lot harder to get them to leave. This is one of the more unexpected consequences of living with Bob, but up until now it hasn’t affected me much. Most people have more common sense than to just go around bothering the neighbors, you see.
So I let her in.
She scoots past me and I all but slam the door shut, just in case.
“What’s up?” I say with a tight smile.
Christine takes a deep breath and lets it out quickly. She’s excited. This makes me wary.
My zebra finches are quiet, as if waiting to hear her response. They’re not used to seeing people other than me in this apartment. Actually, I can’t remember the last time another human being came in here. Maybe when I needed to get my sink fixed, a few years ago?
“I want to interview you,” she says.
My brows furrow. “Interview me for what?”
“Well, my blog to start with. Plus I know a guy with a popular-ish YouTube channel, so who knows. And I think I’d like to write a book someday,” she babbles excitedly. “But you never know where it could go if it gets popular. Stranger things have happened. The world must know Bob!”
“No.” The word falls out of my mouth and lands with an awkward plop on the floor.
I’m being blunt. I’m not often blunt, but sometimes I am. After all, if I might get eaten by a giant bird tomorrow, who has time to mince words?
“No.” I confirm.
“Because you’re not one of us.” These words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them and then flap around the room shrieking.
I’m not even sure I mean it. Probably something like it. Mostly I think my life isn’t some sideshow, and I don’t want to talk about it with a bunch of random strangers.
“But I live here.”
“No you don’t.”
“Well I can’t live here all the time. I have a kid.”
“I lived here as a kid.”
“So you think I should just bring my four-year-old to live in a building with a giant bird monster?”
“Absolutely not. That would be idiotic.”
“So your parents moved here with you as a kid and didn’t leave when they found out about Bob?”
“No, I…I’m not answering questions.”
Especially not about my parents.
“Okay, then. Well could you give me tips on living with Bob? I will be here sometimes, quite a lot of the time, actually. Overnight, occasionally.”
Overnight occasionally. Lands a mercy, we should give her a medal.
“You don’t want me to get eaten by Bob, do you?” she says.
I know perfectly well this is a way to get more information about Bob, and see what little bits I might spill in the process. But on the other hand, she’s not wrong. If she’s spending time here, there are things she needs to know to stay safe. Or at least be less of a nuisance to the rest of us. And I don’t know what the others might tell her, well-meaning as they are. Still, I should say no. Just on principle.
Except now I’ve hesitated way too long on a question that should have been an immediate “no” and Christine is looking at me funny.
I sit on a decorative boulder in the landscaping in front of my building. Sitting with my back to the street would be weird, so I don’t, but I make sure to sit so that I can still see the building in my peripheral vision. Bob can’t get out, I know that. But this isn’t a place you turn your back on.
Carly shuffles up the path toward the building and incidentally also me. She wears a long patchwork coat and carries a Japanese-style parasol. “You coming in, honey?”
“Nah, don’t want to,” I say.
“You’ve got to come in sometime. Come on, let’s do it together,” she says.
I shake my head. “Don’t want to.”
She gives a little laugh. “But you have to.”
Do I though? Do I really have to? Every afternoon for the past couple of days I’ve considered just going to a hotel for the night. Maybe today I will.
“I might not. I might go to the Four Seasons, and sit in the hot tub.”
“I see,” says Carly. “And then what?”
“Stay? Maybe we should all do that.”
“We should all go to the Four Seasons and sit in the hot tub.”
There’s a big evergreen shrub growing near the sidewalk. I’ve noticed if you’re coming up the street, the shrub hides the rock I’m sitting on from view. It stands to reason, then, that for anyone coming up the street, it will look like Carly is talking to a shrub. Despite my pensive mood, I can’t help but smile a little at that.
“Yes we should,” I say. “Why don’t we? I mean people always ask that and I usually just think it’s a dumb question because reasons, but really. Why?”
“Well, I suppose by now everyone who is going to leave already has,” says Carly.
“But can you remember anyone leaving? You’ve lived here longer than me,” I say.
“Not much longer. I think I’d only lived here two years before you were born.”
“Sure, but I don’t remember much of the first several years,” I say. “Do you remember?”
It occurs to me that, sitting on the rock, I might be tall enough to be seen over the evergreen bush. So it might look like Carly is talking to a bush with a head, or someone standing in the bush.
“Well sure, there have been some,” says Carly. “Did that investigator lady put you up to this? Is that what all the questions are about? She’s not going to live here, apparently, she’s got a little son. So at least you won’t have to worry about that.”
“No, she certainly did not,” I say. “But in a way, it is because of her. This is weird, isn’t it? That we all still stay here?”
“Everyone’s got their problems. And it really isn’t so bad. No one’s actually been attacked by Bob in a long while,” says Carly. “Plus, have you noticed? We never get rats. Or mice. Not a one.”
“And most people have to pretend their lives are interesting by going to the movies or those escape room whats-it-thingees. We face death on a daily basis.” Carly twirled her parasol. “And we do it with style. Bob is not a monster, he’s a way of life.”
The more rational side of me stands to the side with its arms crossed, and opines that this is dumb and that Carly has clearly eaten too many raisin bran muffins. But while I don’t think Carly’s opinion is correct, it does appeal to me, and in that sense I agree. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I do.
“Yeah,” I say.
I slide off the rock, and take Carly’s proffered arm. We stride up to the building where Bob awaits, somewhere.
Previously Published in Scare Street’s “Night Terrors” Anthology
Yes folks, I am very pleased to have noticed that the 6-year embargo in my publishing contract has run out, and so I am free to share my first published short story with you. This story will be posted here, and will also be available to read in the “Stories” section of my website, which I am currently working on.
So without further ado, please enjoy…
To my son,
Part of me hopes you never read this letter, but I suppose it’s only right you find out someday. Maybe you’ll read this after my death, or I’ll give you this letter when you’re eighteen. Or maybe someday someone will realize who you are, I’ll be arrested, and you’ll find this in my things.
If that’s the case, please come and see me. There are a few things I really should explain to you in person.
Anyway, I’ll begin at the beginning, when we met.
It was not in the hospital, a moment or two after you were born.
By the time we met, you were already walking, and you had two parents with every intention of raising you themselves.
I stood on the flagstone patio in my front yard, working on a painting of two birch trees, and you wandered over. Your dark hair fell over your big green eyes, and you were chewing thoughtfully on your finger.
I dropped my paintbrush. I still remember how it clattered on the flagstones. You could have been a clone of my little brother. You looked exactly like he did before he died, just before his second birthday. Sorry if that’s morbid.
You picked up the paintbrush and started to dab at the flagstones.
At first I wondered if your appearance was the proof I had been waiting for. I thought the house across the street had conjured you somehow. I had been watching it for almost two years without result and was considering giving up on the project, which so far proved an expensive waste of time. But the reports I dug up about the house were intriguing enough to keep me in the neighborhood for a little longer. Most of them dated from the mid-eighties, and suggested the house was haunted.
Besides, your Aunt Meghan and I both dropped out of college to pursue careers as online paranormal investigators, so we were both quite motivated.
Before long, my neighbor two doors down, Mrs. Clementine, walked past. She asked me, did the Jones’ let me look after their baby?
That’s not their real name. I’m not foolish enough to put it down in writing, but to be honest, I don’t remember either.
I said you had just showed up, and I kept you with me, thinking your parents were bound to show up.
“Really,” she said.
Mrs. Clementine looked at the house across the street. She said, she supposed under the circumstances…She never said what she supposed.
I snapped to attention like a cockapoo smelling a cronut. Something was wrong with that house, and Mrs. Clementine knew it.
The place stood empty the whole time I’d lived in the neighborhood, the previous owner having moved into a retirement home a few years before I arrived. When he eventually died, there was some fuss over the family that inherited it. Something about the wife.
And now I had to return you to that weird place, even though no one had bothered to come looking for you. What kind of parents would just let their child wander into some stranger’s yard? I never did.
I said I would take you back.
Mrs. Clementine nodded.
She watched me cross the street, her expression vaguely concerned. Maybe she didn’t think I should take you back either.
I pulled myself back to reality. No sense in getting carried away.
When I knocked on the door, Mr. Jones answered. His eyebrows rose when he saw you. He opened the door just enough to allow himself to slip out, and then closed it behind him.
I said I found you wandering outside.
He thanked me profusely and gushed over you.
Now he cared.
I offered to babysit sometime, if he wanted. The words burst out of my mouth before I could stop them. Part of me groaned inwardly. I was getting far too attached to you already. Meghan and I had already agreed never to get personally involved in our investigations.
He gave an awkward smile and thanked me for the offer. Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t be taking me up on it.
Mr. Jones went back inside the same way he’d left, without ever letting me see into the house.
I called your Aunt Meghan to report on the situation, and complain about the Jones’. She had been encouraging me to call it quits, and the new information I provided didn’t change her mind.
“We still have enough from the kickstarter campaign to fund three more months of rent,” I said. “Let’s stick it out. Maybe with new occupants, the house will finally do something.”
“Why would it do that?”
“Well, the neighbors didn’t seem to think the Jones’ moving in was a good idea. If they know about the house, maybe their opposition has something to do with whatever’s going on there?”
She reluctantly agreed, and I continued my surveillance with renewed interest. Sometimes I painted in the front yard, and sometimes I watched from my bedroom inside. One of the tricky things about being on stakeout was making sure I didn’t look like I was on stakeout.
A stranger’s car pulled up to the house in the morning, and a man in scrubs entered before Mr. Jones left for work. A nurse?
That afternoon I saw the nurse helping Mrs. Jones to her car. She seemed to be having trouble walking and she scratched obsessively at her arm.
I decided to look up the Jones’ on social media, using the community Facebook group. Most neighborhoods aren’t close-knit enough to have their own group, but this was exactly the kind of Stepford-creepy place that would.
The Jones’ had a joint account, and rarely posted. The few posts on the page were littered with sunsets and inspirational quotes about living each day to the fullest. Obviously not everyone whose Facebook page looks like this has a terminal disease, but in her case, I thought it was a possibility.
I saw Mrs. Jones outside a few times in the next two weeks. Sometimes she needed a cane to reach the mailbox, other times she could walk almost normally. Once she wandered aimlessly up and down the street. After a while I came outside, worried maybe you had gotten out again and she was looking for you. But according to the neighbors she’d just “gotten lost.”
That’s when things began to get weird.
The morning after the second week, I saw her out in the front yard. Mrs. Jones ran after you without any weakness or signs of physical tics, the twitching and scratching at her arms. The next day she went to get groceries. I’d never seen her drive the car before. The nurse stopped coming.
At first, I assumed she’d just found a good doctor. But then the house started acting strangely. One evening, only the upstairs lights came on. Another day, I saw Mr. Jones leave for work from the back door, and then used the same door to get in again that evening. Later that night, the blinds on one side of the house were…twitching. I don’t know how else to explain it.
Still, I tried not to make too much of these oddities. Maybe the downstairs lights didn’t work. And the front door had a busted lock. And you were playing with the blinds.
I checked Facebook again. There were some status updates that spoke vaguely of being “blessed”, and some new family pictures. Nothing out of the ordinary, until I realized that a door in the living room led upstairs in some photos, and downstairs in others.
Photoshop, you’ll say. And so did I. But why would they do that? Even when I zoomed in, I couldn’t see any evidence the photo had been tampered with.
I should have been excited. But instead, this whole thing was starting to make me feel twitchy. Children and haunted houses generally don’t mix well. You see, I wasn’t just watching the house, or your parents. I was also watching you. Delighting over the little successes and discoveries in your life. How you figured out what a sprinkler was for, and learned to throw a ball, and went toddling after it as it rolled away. I watched enviously when your mother brought you inside at the end of the day.
If the Joneses would let me babysit, at least I could have reassured myself that you were okay. I scowled every time I thought of the tight smile Mr. Jones put on when he’d given me his unspoken refusal. As if I had done something wrong, and not just returned something precious to him when he had let it slip away.
I called Meghan again to update her. I may have gone on something of a rant about the strange things going on and how it was irresponsible to have a baby living in those conditions.
“So, what do you want to do?” Meghan said.
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t kidnap a baby, Christine.”
“I know that. I just don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to like it. Just keep watching. Do you think you could get invited to their house?”
“No. They don’t ever have people over. Which is weird, especially for a place like this. There has got to be something seriously wrong with that place. But maybe I could–”
“Could what? We don’t break the law, remember? We have rules.”
“No, I know. Never mind. I’ll call you later.”
The next afternoon I walked down the street to the mailbox and saw you in Mrs. Clementine’s front yard. You played in the sandbox, while Mrs. Clementine observed the progress of your miniature construction zone.
She stood and watched for a while, then sat down on a lawn chair and pulled out her phone, with only an occasional glance in your direction.
“So they let you babysit, huh?” I said.
She nodded. “Yeah, they went to a matinee. I guess Mr. Jones took the day off.”
I nodded, walked into the yard, and crouched down beside you. You smiled at me and showed me your favorite truck, babbling cheerfully in baby-speak. I wanted to offer to take over for Mrs. Clementine, but even if she was silly enough to agree to that, your parents wouldn’t like it.
Besides, I’d had a much worse idea. I had to find out what was going on in that house. Meghan would forgive me, she always does.
So I went back to my house and dug a casserole out of the freezer, so if necessary I could claim to be neighborly and not spying, and then headed over to the Jones’ house as inconspicuously as possible. In this neighborhood, most people didn’t bother to lock their doors, but the Jones’ did. I cursed under my breath and hunted around under their welcome mat and potted plants for a key. I finally found it beneath a ceramic frog.
I quickly ducked inside and shut the door.
The place seemed normal, at first glance, but after a few seconds it struck me that the house looked a bit dishevelled. The walls were at odd angles from each other. The tops of the windows were all at different heights. I could see how they’d tried to disguise the irregularities with furniture and art placement, arranging the furniture to invent perpendicular angles, or hanging paintings at a height between windows so the differences were less noticeable.
I heard a peculiar, thumping sound coming from deeper into the house.
“Hello?” I said. “The door was open, and I brought a casserole.”
Possibly the most idiotic thing I’ve ever said, or at least in the top ten.
I didn’t know whether I wanted someone to answer or not, but no one did.
Tentatively, I approached the sound and found myself in the kitchen. A cupboard door opened and slammed itself closed. It paused for a while, then banged open and shut several times, followed by another pause, and a few more slams. Then a shorter pause and several more.
It seemed almost frustrated. Or, as I recalled Mrs. Jones scratching at her arm, itchy. Adding to this effect, the floor tiles bunched up just before each of the slam sessions, though it wasn’t clear whether they were causing or reacting to the irritation.
Footsteps creaked behind me.
I whirled but saw no one.
Regardless, the footsteps walked into the kitchen. A cupboard door opened, revealing a set of glasses. The footsteps walked over to the sink, and the facet turned on and then shut off again.
And then the pattern repeated.
Footsteps came in, the cupboard opened, closed, and then the tap turned on, and off.
I watched this for several minutes. Not interfering, and not daring to move. I didn’t know whether I was going crazy, or the house was.
Eventually I walked over to the glasses cupboard and closed it when it opened.
I looked around nervously. Birds twittered from outside.
Having seen enough, I walked back into the living room. But the windows were gone and in the place of the front door, I saw an interior doorway leading to an exact copy of the room I stood in, though the colors of the walls and furniture were less saturated, dimmer. My stomach tightened. What if I couldn’t get out?
But to my relief, the faded living room was complete with windows, and the door I hurried to escape through. As I scooted away with my casserole, my heart slowly started to return to its normal rhythm. I hardly believed I’d gotten away with it. But now what?
I had to find out more. Whatever afflicted the house clearly had something to do with the illness Mrs. Jones had when she first moved in. What was it?
All evening I combed through the neighborhood Facebook group for clues, looking at posts from a few months ago when the Jones’ arrival was the hottest bone of contention. Most people in the group were annoyingly discrete, but finally I saw a word that snagged my attention: Creutzfeldt.
A quick Google search yielded the information I sought. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is the human variant of spongiform encephalopathy. It’s caused by prions, sneaky little misfolded proteins that cause other proteins in brain tissue to misfold also, leading to sponge-like holes. Not good for brain function, as you might imagine. The disease manifests differently in different species. In sheep, it’s commonly called scrapie, because they rub themselves raw against fences.
In humans, it causes memory loss, impaired coordination, hallucinations, involuntary movements, and eventually, coma and death. It matched both Mrs. Jones’ symptoms, and what I had observed earlier that day.
I felt sorry for the house. Which is bizarre to write, but it’s true. Even so, this was not a safe place for a little boy to live.
My fingers shook as I dialed Meghan’s number. She was no help. I told her what I’d seen and my theories about what was going on. She thought it was cool, of all things. I got mad at her and hung up.
Clearly, I was on my own.
Calling child services was the obvious solution. Not good enough. You might get placed in some group home or foster family. But the house obviously wasn’t safe. I couldn’t leave you there and wait for something terrible to happen and prove I should have acted.
The only thing left to do was talk to your parents. In the end it wasn’t the only thing, but I couldn’t consider taking more drastic action, not yet.
The next morning, I waited in my front yard until I caught Mrs. Jones outside, carrying a package back from the mailbox. I pounced, walking swiftly across the street to confront her.
“Look,” I said. “I know what’s going on in that house.”
Mrs. Jones turned and cast a nervous look over her shoulder. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know it’s not safe in there.”
“You stay away from us.” She hurried up the steps to the front door.
I followed. “Your condition, it was terminal, wasn’t it? And now the house has it instead of you. That’s why you moved here, right?”
She scowled over her shoulder, and tried to open the door, but it stuck.
“What do you think happens when a house goes into a coma and dies? At least get Stec out of there.”
Yes, they called you Stec. I don’t know why I remember that. It’s always seemed like such a stupid name to me. As if someone began to say a name like Steven, hiccupped, and then was stuck with the result. As I write this, you’re still only four years old, so I don’t know what you’ll make of the name I chose for you. But I’m sure you’ll agree, anything is better than Stec.
With a sharp jerk she got the door open. “This is none of your business. Leave us alone.” She slammed the door shut.
I was frustrated, and disappointed. Maybe if I had offered to help instead of acting accusatory, things would have been different, but I was too angry to be diplomatic.
A couple neighbors standing in their front yards stared at me. Without acknowledging them I stomped back to my house and slammed the front door.
I spent the next several days trying to convince myself that perhaps it wasn’t so dangerous after all, and the Jones’ had things under control. After all, they weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who knew about the house. If it was truly dangerous, someone would have done something. Maybe this would pass.
But I could see it getting worse. The roof began to slump on one side. The lights flickered at night or didn’t come on at all. The doors seemed to be getting increasingly unreliable. Mr. Jones stopped leaving for work in the mornings. Maybe he had arranged to work from home. They started having groceries delivered. Sometimes one of the Jones’ would be waiting outside to bring them in, having exited from the garage or even a window. Other times, the delivery worker would leave the bags on the front stoop, and it would be hours, or the next day before someone came to get the groceries.
What did happen when a house went into a coma and died?
I couldn’t imagine it would be anything good. What were the Jones’ thinking, keeping you in that place? I suppose it seemed like a miracle when Mrs. Jones got better. The house had become their savior. Perhaps if Mrs. Jones tried to leave, her sickness would return. They had to make the house work. That, I think, is why they kept you there. Because they wanted to believe she was going to be okay.
This is all just conjecture on my part. As you’ve seen, the Jones’ and I were never on speaking terms. But I can’t explain their otherwise aberrant behavior any other way.
At some point, I suppose they must have realized they were wrong to stay in the house. By then it was too late.
One night, I awoke to the sound of a car alarm. My normal procedure when this happens is to silently curse the owner of the car and grit my teeth until it stops.
The alarm was close. Flashing lights came through my blinds and made striped patterns on the wall. I scrambled to the window and saw it was the Jones’ car.
There was a chance the car alarm had gone off for any of the myriad stupid reasons car alarms go off, but I couldn’t afford to believe that. No, someone inside the house had set it off, calling for help the only way they could. I grabbed my headlamp, and ran across the street.
Getting in was a lot harder the second time. Though the key was in the same place, I couldn’t unlock the door. The lock wouldn’t move, as if it had fused solid on the inside. The knob wouldn’t even twist. I had to break a window, but the first few seemed to have rotted drywall behind them. Finally I found a real window, shattered it, and clambered inside.
I couldn’t believe it was the same living room. It looked like a haunted fun-house fever-dream. The walls leaned at drunken angles, the ceiling sloped down oddly to one corner, and the floors and walls were rotting and full of holes. And it was far, far larger than it should have been.
Shadows ran through the rooms. The shapes of humans going about their daily business. Kids running, someone vacuuming. The house was hallucinating.
It was like the horror movies Meghan occasionally convinces me to watch, and yet it felt very different. Nothing evil lurked in this place. It was just sick. I don’t know whether that made me feel better or worse. The house didn’t want to hurt me or you, or anyone else for that matter. But there was nothing I could defeat, either. No way to fix this. Nothing to do but find you and get out of here.
I called out, but the only answer was the scraps of murmured conversation coming from the shadows.
Being careful to avoid the rotted floorboards, I headed across the living room to the doorway where the upstairs staircase should have been. Instead, I found a hallway that hadn’t been there before, and I decided to explore it in hopes of finding the stairs. The floor sloped upwards, and the ceiling sloped downwards as I crept along. By the time I got to the staircase at the end of the hall I felt like an adult in a child’s playhouse.
I’ve never liked stairs, and these were not helping. They were steep, and narrow, and I worried the house might forget whether they were supposed to go up or down. Nevertheless, I climbed, holding tight to the banister.
When I reached the upstairs hallway, I called out. Again no one answered, but I could hear you crying, almost obscured by the sounds of water rushing and pipes rattling. I made my way down the hall. The weird angles made strange optical illusions, forcing me to feel my way along the gritty, decaying walls to your room.
The floor tilted so much, your crib was nearly on its side. You looked up at me, blinking in the light of my headlamp. Your tears stuck your long eyelashes together in clumps and made tracks in the dust on your cheeks. I picked you up and vowed I would never let go.
I made my way out into the hall, still calling out. There was only one other door, at the far end of the hallway. Water seeped out from within. A bathroom, perhaps. Muffled splashing rose above the creaks and murmuring voices, and someone called out for help.
I opened the door, still holding you tight.
My brows furrowed. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. It was as if the toilet bowl had fused with the bathtub and become an enormous, filthy pit in one corner of the bathroom.
The water swirled, gurgling and bubbling. I saw hands, grasping at nothing, and a mop of hair. Not a shadow, this time, but a person. I couldn’t reach them without slipping into the water.
I ran back outside, searching for something to use to help the victim escape. I grabbed the curtain rod from your room, but by the time I got back, the water had mostly drained away. It was murky and still, slowly rising.
I called out again, with no answer.
Someone had gotten sucked into the pipes. But were they dead, or would they come out somewhere? I still couldn’t see any other rooms, but there had to be more. Maybe the basement?
The floor became increasingly spongy under my feet, and I wasn’t sure how much longer it would support my weight. Getting you out had to be my first priority.
I decided against meddling with doors and broke open the first window I came to with my elbow, turning my back to shield you from the shattered glass. By a stroke of luck, because of the slumping house, it was significantly closer to the ground than it should have been. I jumped out the window backwards to avoid landing on you, crashed through a shrub, and struck the ground hard.
I lay among the tattered remains of the shrub for a while, with you held tight to my chest. You were shrieking but unhurt. I wasn’t so lucky. My ankles and my knees ached, but especially my rear, which had taken the brunt of the impact. I sat up, and sang to you until you quieted. Slowly, I stood up. A sharp pain stabbed my ankle, but it was manageable.
I called 911, and said the house was collapsing. Which it was, in a way.
We sat on my front step and waited. You cried yourself to sleep in my arms.
Relief washed over me when the fire truck pulled up to the Jones’ house. Then I watched, dumbstruck, as the president of the homeowner’s association came out and argued with the fire fighters. Her raucous voice carried enough for me to get the gist of what she was saying. The house was fine, it just looked like that, and certain neighbors were prone to making prank calls. The firefighters knocked on the door, but when no one answered, they prepared to leave.
It was unbelievable. But then, the house only looked wonky from the outside, not broken-down. If they’d just gone in…
Most normal people wouldn’t have reacted by running off with you. They would have made a scene about the people still possibly trapped alive in the house. They might even have pointed out the broken glass. But I have never claimed to be normal. I just wanted to get out of that horrible situation, and I wanted you with me.
I went inside my house, and packed a bag. Before leaving, I peeked out my front door to check for possible witnesses.
Mrs. Clementine walked up and down the street, calling your name. It was hard to see in the light of the street lamps, but she seemed rumpled and dirty. Had she gone inside the house to look for you? Well, she was too late.
I crept out to my car, and placed your sleeping form in the footwell before leaving that ridiculous place forever.
We stopped at a supermarket on the way to a hotel; I bought a car seat and other things you’d need. It wasn’t a simple procedure, but I managed it somehow. I had no choice. Once we were finally tucked away in the hotel room I put you to bed. The room was safe and quiet, but I knew this wasn’t over yet. I downloaded Tor onto my laptop, and started looking up how to buy a fake birth certificate on the dark web.
“Don’t tell me I can’t kidnap a baby,” I muttered.
The following months were some of the hardest of my life. After barely escaping the neighborhood without anyone noticing I had taken you, I couldn’t risk coming back. So Meghan had to deal with the landlord and oversee the movers. She had some choice words about my decision, especially since we couldn’t share our discoveries with all the subscribers, followers, and Patreon patrons who made this investigation possible. Just in case anyone from the neighborhood saw what we posted and came after you.
Even so, she supported me through all of it. I’ve heard some people say their friends would kill for them. Sometimes I think your Aunt Meghan really would.
The stress of rebuilding my life while coping with single motherhood would have done me in if not for her. Even with all our precautions, I was terrified someone would take you away, and your cries for the Jones’ nearly broke my heart. But the first time you called me Mama, I knew I did the right thing.
Today is a Good Day. It’s a Saturday, and I have no intention of leaving my apartment. On days like these I like to curl up on my sofa with a cup of tea and a good book, and pretend that the whole world outside my apartment has ceased to exist, never existed at all, in fact. Not only does my apartment building* not exist, but the world beyond it as well. No reason to ever leave my apartment and nowhere go even if there was. My apartment floats in a void, or is embedded in solid rock, or is lodged in a crevasse at the bottom of a sterile, bottomless sea.
Those images in the windows and noises from beyond my living space? Hallucinations, all of them, my mind trying to make sense of nothing.
Some noises, though, you just can’t ignore.
A woman’s scream; a loud, raucous squawk; a wet crunch; pounding feet getting louder, someone running towards my apartment.
I just react, too terrified to think about anything other than how much I want this to not be happening. I rip my door open as the footsteps get close, and grab hold of a green sweater. The sweater-wearer yelps as I pull her into my apartment, and then I slam my door shut. I lock it, instinctively, though Bob doesn’t know how to use doorknobs, except as something shiny to peck at.
Me and Bob’s would-be lunch stare at each other, panting and shaking. I don’t recognize her. She must be the new tenant. She’s my age, with shoulder-length brown hair. The rips in her jeans appear to be a fashion statement rather than a Bob casualty, but there is a smear of blood on the sleeve of her sweater.
“Are you okay?” I say.
“That thing ate–” she doubles over, trying to catch her breath.
She stands up again. “My chicken. I threw the chicken at it, and now it’s gone.”
“I was going to make a roast chicken. You know, as a special house-warming thing. I don’t know what to do now.”
“You could get another one.”
“In this economy?”
“Meatloaf? With fancy ketchup.”
“If it was homemade, maybe with heirloom tomatoes or something.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess I could do that.”
The new tenant and I stop nervously blathering and stare at each other for a bit longer.
“I’m Ashley,” I say.
“Christine,” she says.
“You want some Near-Death Experience Oreos?”
A short laugh escapes her mouth. “Is that a new flavor?”
I’m about to say they taste like adrenaline and soiled underwear, but I clamp my mouth shut just in time and giggle instead.
The hollow clacking of Bob’s beak sounds outside my apartment, followed by a weird low rumble.
“It can’t get in, can it?” says Christine.
“Nah,” I say. “If he could, we’d all be dead already.”
“You’ve lived here a while, haven’t you?” she says.
My smile is a little tight as I beckon her down my hallway. “Come on, the Oreos are over here.”
She glances back at my door, and then follows me.
“You keep them in your closet?” she says as I emerge with the well-over-half-eaten box.
“Don’t ask,” I say.
We munch on the Oreos, and get crumbs all over my bed, but I don’t mind. It’s nice not being treated like a weirdo by an outsider for once. I’m sure she’ll start looking for another apartment as soon as we can safely get her to her current one, but I’ll enjoy this while it lasts.
“I guess you got a lot more than you bargained for,” I say.
“I’ll say…although, kind of not. But yes.”
“I’ve been looking for a place like this for ages. I mean, not to live in, but to study, kind of. I’m what you might call a paranormal investigator.”
I pop the last bite of my Oreo into my mouth and chew it slowly, trying to come up with something appropriate to say. Bob isn’t a zoo animal or a tourist attraction. He’s the nightmare that’s plagued my whole life. What does this lady think she’s doing?
*Obviously, Bob does not exist either. In fact, the entire concept of Bob does not exist, so I don’t even know what I’m talking about.
It was a half-day at work. I’m on my way home, and looking forward to binge-watching the back-catalogue of a youtuber I discovered late last night. On top of all that, I’m giddy from the fancy decaf coffee that was definitely not decaf I downed on the bus.
In fact, I’m almost okay with the possibility of running across Bob on my way up to my apartment. After all, he was nowhere to be found this morning, maybe he’ll leave me alone now too.
However, as I approach the building I can see Bob standing just inside the door to the east stairwell. At least I don’t have to wonder where he is. On most days I would just sigh and walk over to the west stairwell. But today is a weird day, and at least up until now it has been pretty good.
I approach the building cautiously, though to my knowledge Bob has never attempted an assault on any of the doors. It’s not often I get a chance to get a really good look at this thing, this blight on my existence.
We like to say Bob is nine feet tall, but since the ceilings are under seven, it’s really more of an estimate. Right now his neck is bent in an exaggerated J-shape, putting his head a bit below his shoulders so he can stare at me at eye-level. Which isn’t creepy at all. From what I can see of the length of his neck, he could easily make nine feet if he stood up straight.
His over-sized beak is at least three feet long, black, and flaking at the edges. The bare wrinkly skin on his head and neck is black too, with a purplish tint to it. His claws come out underneath the longest flight feathers on his wings and protrude beyond the black plume of his tail. When his wings are folded, they almost look like they could be oddly thick, stiff feathers. Bob croaks, tilts his head to the side and spreads his wings (as much as they can be spread in the narrow stairwell), and I can see exactly how long and sharp the claws are.
I glance over my shoulder. A woman is out walking her dog on the other side of the street. Part of me wants to bring her over here to see what she makes of Bob, assuming she makes anything at all.
The building residents are fond of saying we can’t all be crazy, but I don’t see why. After all, either Bob (and the occasional physical evidence of his existence) are a shared delusion, or we are all more or less willing to keep sharing a building with this thing. Neither option speaks well of our mental-health.
I have a stupid idea. I don’t know why it entered my head and I don’t know why I don’t dismiss it immediately. I blame the caffeine.
But I reach for my keys. One way or another, Bob isn’t going to be my problem anymore.
I unlock the door and open it, moving aside as I do so. Part of my body is hidden behind the door, but mostly I want to make sure Bob has plenty of room to get out.
Bob growls and fluffs up his feathers, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He waves his beak around where the door was. Bob takes a step forward-
My head is within striking distance of his beak.
I jump behind the door and slam the door in Bob’s face. Bob hisses in annoyance, and I run to the west stairwell, up the stairs, and down my hallway. My hands are shaking so badly I drop my keys and let out a squeak of terror, before snatching them up and successfully opening my door.
I slam my door shut, run down my hallway, and dive into my bedroom closet. Grasping about in the darkness, I retrieve the box of Near Death-Experience Oreos I keep stashed there and start listing all the ways what I just did was idiotic, one for each new cookie. Thankfully I cut this exercise short after the first row, otherwise I easily could have consumed the whole box. But I do not leave the closet. My zebra finches chirp in worried tones outside.
“Alright, alright,” Terry waved his hands, drawing everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand and away from me and my long-awaited muffin. “This is getting out of hand. I suggest we table these suggestions until another-“
Don interrupted him “–well we could vote on it at least.”
Terry scowled at him. “Another day. When we’ve all had a chance to think on it. Alright?”
Don frowned and crossed his arms.
“Right then,” said Terry. “I just have one more announcement. Next week we have a new tenant moving into room 312. We’ll be keeping Bob occupied in the east stairwell during the move, so use the west stairwell or the elevator if you see a moving truck out front on the 25th.”
I nearly spat out a chunk of muffin. “A new tenant? Do they know?”
“Of course she knows,” Terry frowned. “It’s in the lease. She signed it.”
There’s a clause in all of our leases that say we won’t sue anyone for damages associated with Bob. I seriously doubt it would hold up in court, but to challenge it you’d also have to prove that Bob exists. Given his inconvenient disappearing acts whenever the police or animal control show up, I’m not holding my breath.
“But does she know?” I say.
“What do you mean, does she know?” says Terry.
“What living with Bob means. That it’s real. How to stay safe.”
“Well, she soon will. And I trust those living here already will give whatever help they can.”
“This is totally irresponsible.”
Terry huffed. “We have to find renters, Ashley. We’re sitting at 60% occupancy as it is. What do you want me to do?”
“Show her,” I say. “You said Bob is going to be in the east stairwell. Show her. Make sure she knows what she’s getting into.”
“Well, that would be irresponsible. Knowingly putting someone in close proximity to such a creature.”
“Oh, but it’s just fine if you set her up to unknowingly wander into close proximity with Bob dozens of times a year?”
I’m about to give Terry another piece of my mind when a quavering screech from somewhere nearby derails my train of thought. It does nothing to quell my frustration however. Even as I’ve been saying these things, I don’t know what’s come over me. I practically never say anything at these meetings.
Maybe I’m still mad that I had to risk my life to attend, Terry couldn’t even be bothered to get decent snacks, and then started the meeting before I had a chance to get my hands on one crummy muffin.
“Shut up, Bob,” I say.
“I don’t think that was Bob,” says Old Roger.
An uneasy hush falls over the group for about the third time this evening. No one needs to ask the question we’ve all been forced to consider.
I stagger out of the elevator, my heart still bouncing around my chest like a demented pogo stick from the miniature heart attack Bob so kindly bestowed on me moments earlier. All this could have been avoided if we just did the strata meeting over Zoom, but as you might suspect, the same factors preventing people from moving out of an apartment building with a giant man-eating bird in it also tend to prevent them from owning computers and an internet connection. Not everyone, of course, but enough.
The only space in the building large enough to accommodate all of us is the lobby, so naturally we all cram ourselves behind the solid door of the optimistically-named “games room.” These meetings are humans-only, you see. Of course it’s not fair to Bob, after all he lives here too. But he refuses to respect the difference between the renters and the snacks, so we are forced to exclude him.
Speaking of snacks…
I enter the stuffy games room, making sure to close the door behind me, and make a beeline for the snack table. It’s really the pool table with a plastic sheet over top, but it may as well always be a snack table since there’s only one pool cue and half the balls are missing. I suspect they’ve been absconded with as Bob-repellent devices. There are a couple plastic trays of muffins on the table, and they are just as uninspiring as I expected. But there is also a knot of people clustered in front of the table, and suddenly I find myself irritated that they would deny me something I didn’t want much in the first place. I risked my life to attend this meeting, is a mediocre store-bought muffin really too much to ask?
Terry, the superintendent, barks at everyone to sit down so the meeting can get underway. As the knot of people disperse, I scoot towards the table. Terry catches my eye and scowls at me. I sit down.
“Alright, let’s get this started. We’ve got quite a few items to get through.” Terry frowns at the rumpled piece of paper in his hands. “Don has a proposal he’d like to make about the fire doors.”
“Yes,” Don stands and addresses the room. “The fire doors exist for a reasons. They are for our safety.”
Carly crosses her arms and sighs audibly.
“Please hold all comments until after I’m done,” says Don.
This topic isn’t new to me. Don, and a few others, think we should leave the fire doors completely closed to make sure they function correctly. Others point out that this will leave Bob stuck on one side of the building, which isn’t fair to the people who live on that side of building. I tune out Don’s speech on fire safety and glance over my shoulder at the snack table.
The chairs are arranged in a tight horseshoe. The opening of the horseshoe is four chairs down from me, and I know there is no way I can get up and walk that distance without incurring the wrath of both Terry and Don. However, I could slip between my chair and the next one and stealthily duck over to the snack table without being too obvious. It’s not like no one would see me, but it might work depending on how heated the fire door debate gets.
“So, in conclusion, we have no choice but to–“
Carly cut Don off. “Are you volunteering to have Bob on your side of the building then?”
Numerous grumbles of dissent arose from others who also lived on the west side. Incidentally, I also live on the west side of the building, but I believe too strongly in the power of controversy to stifle decision-making to get worked up about this.
I examine the space between my chair and its neighbors. Could I fit through? Yes. Without drawing the ire of those sitting next to me? Assuredly not. But, if I scooched my chair to the left, the gap on the right could become large enough to reasonably slip through. Fortunately, Carly is to the left of me, and she won’t mind me sitting a bit closer for the remainder of the meeting, especially if I bring her a muffin too.
“Now just wait a minute.” Don raises his hands to quell the rising arguments. “We can still share the burden of Bob equally, as we have always done. Periodically, we can transfer Bob from one side of the building to the other.”
“And who’s going to do that?” said Carly.
“Well now, as it’s a matter of building safety I think the superintendent–“
Terry let out gruff snort of laughter, which served more to dampen Don’s suggestion than any verbal refusal could have.
“Well how about Don just closes the fire door on his floor?” says the skinny guy who lives on the first floor.
“Oh sure,” says Don. “It won’t matter if I’m baked from a fire from below because nobody else wants to put in the effort.”
I shuffle my chair an inch to the left. Carly glances at me, but I pretend nothing has happened.
“I don’t think we should be closing doors at all,” says Molly, anxiously clacking her knitting needles. “Bob is used to having them open. Suppose he finds one closed, and bangs on it until he breaks it down. We can’t have Bob trying to break down doors.”
The room is quiet for a minute. We all rely on the sanctity of our closed apartment doors for our survival; the thought that these barriers could be breached seems profane.
“We don’t know that Bob is strong enough to do that,” says Don.
“Well, if he is, we sure as heck don’t want him knowing that,” says Carly.
“Or…” says Todd.
“Oh good grief,” says Don.
“Now, hold on, Todd. We’ll get to your suggestion in a minute,” says Terry.
“It’s pertinent to Don’s agenda item,” Todd says.
“Like heck it is,” says Don.
“It is, because if we do it we won’t have to worry about Bob anymore,” says Terry. “We feed Bob.”
A cacophony of protest arises from the room. Amid the hubbub, I scooch my chair another inch to the left, and slip out of my seat and over to the snack table.
“Now, now. Come on. This would solve everything. If we feed Bob, he won’t be hungry. Then we won’t have to worry about him eating us,” says Tod’.
I quickly scan the offerings on the table. One muffin coquettishly suggests it is a chocolate chip muffin, even though I know perfectly well it must be raisin bran.
Despite Todd’s assurances, objections to his idea flood the room. Old Roger, who’s lived here longer than anyone else, shakes his head. I think I hear him say, “that would only bring more.” I shove that thought out of my head and pick up the raisin bran muffin.
“No, you can’t feed him, Todd, because someone else already does that,” Molly somehow manages to make herself heard above the commotion.
The room falls silent again, and everyone notices me standing at the muffin table. Obviously, I have not been feeding muffins to Bob, and I stare haughtily back at them. I snatch up a lemon-cranberry poppy seed muffin, return to my seat, and hand the raisin bran muffin to Carly.
“Thank you, honey,” she says.
She likes raisin bran, mind you. I can’t fathom why, but she does.
Today is a Bad Day, because I have to leave my apartment for a second time after work. I’m an incurable homebody; it’s one of the side effects of living in a situation like this. You’d think it would be the opposite, that I would spend as much time as possible anywhere but here. Believe me, I’d like to. But leaving the apartment means coming back, and that means dealing with Bob twice when I could just stay home and try to pretend he doesn’t exist. Staying out longer after work isn’t a great option either, because I’ve learned the only thing worse than dealing with Bob during the day is dealing with Bob at night.
But today is the building’s AGM, and there’s no avoiding it. Well, I could skip it technically, but if I’m absent everyone is going to think I’ve been eaten and send someone up to check on me. Then I’ll have to fake a cold, which no one will believe because no one ever wants to go to these things. Besides, if we’re not coming we’re suppose to let the super know by email, so no one has to risk their lives to check on anyone, and I’ve completely missed the boat on that.
No, I am going. I sit up on the couch, preparing myself to stand and brave the corridors of this cursed building. The clock on the wall reads 6:37. I still have over twenty minutes. I flop back down again.
The super, Terry, said he would provide muffins at the meeting. I will try to think about muffins for the next twenty minutes, a muffin meditation, if you will.
The muffins will be the grocery store bakery kind. Possibly baked on-site, but this makes little difference to the overall quality. Either way, they will be monstrous things, two or possibly three times the size of a single homemade muffin. They will have a soft, spongy interior with a not-terribly appealing moist and slightly sticky exterior. There will most likely be Things in the muffins, inclusions which can either propel the muffins to near-cupcake levels of culinary delight or render them inedible.
Odds are, we will have a mix of Tolerable to Inedible inclusions. Nuts, blueberries, raisins, the carrot/coconut/candied fruit mix of Morning Glory muffins. But perhaps…just perhaps, we may have chocolate chips, or even a pool of jam hidden in the center of some muffins. Knowing Terry, though, this is fairly unlikely.
Most if not all muffins can be improved by heat, and the application of butter, but this is not likely to be possible either. The best I can hope for is a napkin to keep crumbs off my lap.
It is nearing 6:55. Now I am both hungry and depressed, but I suppose this is better than the state of existential dread I would be in had I spent the last eighteen minutes considering the possibility of being eaten on the way to the meeting. Needless to say, I am not a muffin and I don’t appreciate being treated like one.
I sigh, and go check the peephole in my door. The coast is clear. Of course I knew it would be, because no ruminations on muffins is capable of preventing me from hearing Bob lurch his way down the hallway. But not checking would be a pointless risk and I refuse to engage in pointless risk-taking, even on principle.
There are others in this building who pride themselves on using deductive reasoning and logic to intuit where Bob is likely to be, and don’t check their peephole or the monitors unless they feel they really need to. I suppose they think the smug feeling they get from being right most of the time makes up for getting the living daylights scared out of them every so often. I think it’s idiotic.
I slip out of my apartment and scurry to the monitors beside the elevator. I’m used to feeling like a rabbit caught out in the open whenever I leave my apartment, but that doesn’t make the sensation any more pleasant. Bob is coming up the west stairwell. More to the point, he is not on the ground floor where I intend to exit the elevator, so the coast is clear.
As I enter the elevator, I hear the stairwell door open at the end of the hall, and the familiar rustle of Bob’s feathers as he pushes through.
I frantically stab at the Close Door button, and after a pause that seems to last for an eternity, the elevator door closes and I begin to descend, away from the creature lurking in the same hallway I occupied only moments before.
I double over and release an aggravated sigh.
It’s been ten seconds since the last Bob-related incident. Congratulations everybody. Get back to work.
I sit at my desk, staring at the little clock in the left-hand corner of my computer screen. It reads 4:58. It’s quitting time, and I hear my coworkers joyfully gathering their keys in anticipation of a relaxing evening at home. I sigh, wishing it was possible to teleport myself onto my couch at home.
This, I think, is the part I hate the most. I can’t look forward to going home. Because I never know what’s going to be waiting for me when I get there. Bob might be off sleeping somewhere, or as I approach the door, looking down as I fumble with my keys, I might look up to find Bob standing on the other side of the glass door, staring at me. I’ve never met a horror movie jump scare that can compete with that particular sensation.
We don’t have the CCTV monitors on the outside of the building, you see. It’s been tried, but they kept getting stolen or damaged, and people had privacy concerns. The front doors sort of provide a view of the monitors outside the first floor elevator, but if you go in a side door there’s no way to see where Bob is until you’re actually in the building. I usually just open the door a crack and listen for his footsteps, but this isn’t foolproof.
Once I thought I was safe, but I opened the door just as Bob was walking down the stairs into view. I slammed the door shut only moments before the mass of claws and black feathers plowed into it. He walks slow but he can move fast when he wants to. I almost died that day.
That day could be any day. And one day I might not shut the door fast enough.
I can’t help but mull over these things on the way home. Sometimes it seems like useless self-torture, but today I think of it as practice. A way of preparing myself for battle. I can make it to my apartment; I have done so every other time I’ve ever left. I just need to be alert.
I get off the bus and sigh again. My building is just out of sight beyond the curve in the road. What would happen if I just walked the other way? I could go to a hotel and find somewhere else to live. Be a hobo. Anything. But then my pet zebra finches would starve, and I’d never see my favourite mug again. Nope, like it or not, I’m going home.
As I round the corner, I see police cars in the parking lot outside the building. Two feelings war inside me. Dread, because we might have lost someone, and hope, because maybe this time they will find Bob and then this will all be over.
People have called the police or animal control numerous times about Bob. Somehow, none of them ever find him. I’m surprised they still come, frankly. But we have the CCTV footage, and numerous photos, even if both of those can be faked. There seem to be a few people in both departments who have seen enough to believe that something is here, even if they can’t find him.
This is the second mystery, other than what Bob survives on in between unfortunate incidents with residents’ pets, or heaven forbid, a resident. That’s really rare, though. Most often its a visitor who thinks it’s all a joke. Or somebody’s crazy ex-something. Or a burglar.
Carly, the lady from 218, is standing outside watching. She wears thick blue eye shadow and a coat that looks like it might have been a floral print couch in another life. I can see she’s been experimenting with cutting her own hair again. She turns to me as I approach. “Bob got stuck in the laundry room.”
Real hope bubbles up within me. I struggle to keep it down. “Really? Did they find him? They must have, right?”
“You’d think. But I haven’t heard anything from inside. By now there should have been gunshots or something.”
I cross my arms.”Maybe they want to keep him trapped in there. They’re being cautious, or they want scientists to see what it is.”
“He can’t walk through walls. We’d all be dead if he could.”
Two officers emerge from the building: Joel, and another officer I don’t recognize. Joel is a bit of a skeptic when it comes to Bob, but I can tell he’s convinced something is going on here, even if he doubts a nine-foot bird is involved.
“Well?” says Carly.
Joel shrugs and shakes his head.
“How?” I say. “How in the actual pancake-flipping heck.”
“Forget it Ashley, it’s chinatown,” says Carly.
“I’m going to have to get a statement from both of you,” says Joel.
“I just got here,” I say.
“Alright then. You’re free to go,” says Joel. “Would you like an escort up to your unit?”
“That would be great actually,” I say.
I’m pretty sure Joel meant it as a joke, but thankfully he’s the honorable type.
Joel and I head into the building while the new guy takes Carly’s statement.
“Hey, do you want to carpool to the laundromat later, honey?” Carly calls to me.
“Sure, sounds good,” I say.
“I told you there’s nothing in there,” says Joel as we enter the elevator.
“So if there’s this monster in here that ya’ll are so afraid of, why don’t you just leave?” says Joel.
“I like to live dangerously,” I say. “Plus, if a resident is physically injured by Bob we get 10% off our rent permanently.”
“Last one was eleven years ago. Mrs McGraw from the second floor. Lost her thumb.”
Joel smiles, thinking I’m joking. And I am, sort of. Except about Mrs McGraw, that actually happened.
I also often wonder why I don’t just leave. I have two opinions on the matter, and I wobble between them like a pendulum on a metronome:
I was born here* and I’m going to die here. This is my home and I’m not going to let some dumb bird chase me out. Who else can still say they spend less than 25% of their income on housing? Nobody. And I’ll never have to worry about my apartment getting broken into. Besides, how do I know the next apartment building I move to won’t have something worse?
I have to leave. I will leave. As soon as possible. Right after the economy becomes rational again and I can afford to.
When we arrive on the third floor, part of me actually hopes Bob is standing outside when the doors open. I know he won’t be; he wasn’t anywhere on the CCTV monitors on the first floor. But what if he was? For the price of a brief moment of terror and some temporary hearing loss from gunshots in a small space, it could all be over.
He’s not, of course. We step out into a perfectly ordinary hallway, except for the paint color, a kind of queasy avocado that screams “serial killer residence.” I suppose in a sense, this is true.
Joel sees me the last few feet to my apartment door and we bid each other a good evening. I grab a pint of Ben and Jerry’s from my freezer and deflate onto my couch, trying to forget that in about 14 hours I have to do all this all over again.
“I have to get out of here,” I say, and my zebra finches chirp agreement from their cage in the corner.
*Literally. When my mom went into labor Bob decided to park himself outside our door and wouldn’t leave for a full 48 hours. So I was ushered into the world on our couch, attended by my father and the building superintendent. And by Bob, who clacked his beak in ominous congratulations in the hallway outside.