“Just spotted our new neighbor getting in,” Felicia said in a low voice, as she passed me on the sofa and set our groceries on the kitchen counter.
I paused the show I was watching. “Did you get a good look this time? Is he…?”
“Attractive? Is that what you were going to say?” She pulled out a box of cereal and sighed. “What’s the point? Neither of us would ever do anything about it.”
I smiled and shook my head. “I was going to say, ‘is he human?’”
I laughed. “Need help?”
“Only with this.” Felicia grinned. From one of the grocery bags, she pulled out a bag of take-out from the new Mediterranean corner deli.
I set down the remote and rose from the couch. “You’re my hero.”
Felicia frowned suddenly and turned her head.
I walked toward her. “What?”
She turned back to me, still frowning. “Did you hear that?”
I shook my head, and at the same time, I heard a voice, a muffled voice. I glanced back. My show was still paused.
I heard it again.
“There!” Felicia said.
She pointed to the wall that connected to our neighbor’s unit, the neighbor we’d just been talking about. The mysterious man in the dark suit who’d moved in without anyone—except nosy Mr. Walker—noticing. And what Mr. Walker had noticed was that the man had brought no boxes and no furniture. He never seemed to get any deliveries. And it’s possible he didn’t own any other clothes, because he wore the same dark suit every time anyone happened to spot him.
We’d never heard any noise coming from his apartment since he moved in. But then, the lady who lived there before didn’t make much noise either. The only time we heard her was on her monthly deep cleaning day, when she put on headphones and sang along with her playlist. It came to be kind of comforting actually.
Felicia and I moved closer to the wall and turned our ears toward it. I heard a man’s voice, his raised voice.
“He’s arguing with someone,” Felicia said quietly.
“I don’t hear anyone else. Must be on the phone.”
“Can’t make out any words.”
He was quiet for a moment.
Then another sudden burst that I couldn’t make out, but this time…
Another voice. And I heard what it said.
We heard both voices now, going back and forth, overlapping sometimes.
The man suddenly cried out.
Felicia and I leaned back from the wall.
“Should we…do something?” she asked.
I held out my hands. “I heard the other person say ‘calm yourself,’ but I can’t tell what else they’ve been saying.”
“Maybe we could just go over and knock on the door to break it up and then run back in here.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think that’ll make a difference. This sounds intense. They’ll just get back to it. But intense doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous.”
“I’ve never seen anyone else go in, have you?”
I shook my head.
Felicia took a breath and exhaled. “What do we do?”
“If it dies down, let’s go over and check on it. If it escalates, we call for help.”
I started for the fridge, to get myself a glass of water, so I could sit and listen while Felicia put our groceries away.
We heard the man cry out again, and this time, we both heard what he said.
I banged on the door.
“I thought I heard a thud,” I said.
Felicia pulled out her phone. “Yeah. Hey, don’t stand right in front of the door. Just in case.”
I stepped aside and knocked again. “Sir! Sir, it’s your neighbors. Are you okay?”
“Tell him I’m calling for help.”
“Sir! We’re calling someone for help, okay?”
I reached for the doorknob and twisted. It turned easily. I glanced over at Felicia. She was frowning down at her phone.
“Door’s open,” I said. “I’m going to check inside.”
Felicia reached for me. “Wait.” She held up her phone. “No reception.”
I checked my phone and found the same. “Nice time for an outage, guys.” I pushed the door open.
“Wait!” Felicia grabbed my hand.
I turned to her. “Maybe he has a landline?”
“Maybe he has a gun.”
I turned to look through the open door. “What if he’s lying in there and he can’t breathe?”
“What about the other one—the other person?”
“Okay, you go knock on someone else’s door and get help. I’m just going to step in and check. I’ll be back in a min—“
“No…no, I’m not letting you go in there alone. We’ll both check. One quick minute and then we run back out here and get help.”
We took a step into the empty apartment and called out.
“Sir? Sir, we’re your neighbors,” I said. “Your door was open. We’re coming in just to check on you.”
Felicia was a step behind me. She muttered in my ear. “Don’t come at us with a butcher knife.”
“If you need help, we’ll call for help,” I said.
There was nothing in the apartment. No sofa. No chairs. No trash bins. No fridge. No appliances. No paintings on the walls. No folding table with takeout containers.
Felicia muttered again. “What is this guy? A spy?”
But there was no evidence of that either—at least according to every spy show and movie I’d seen. No maps. No surveillance equipment. No passports of various countries and wads of cash in various denominations. No wigs. No hats.
And no one.
The further we stepped into the apartment, the easier it was to see that no one was there. The bedroom door was open, and the bathroom door. We checked inside both rooms. The closet door was open. The shower had no door or curtain.
“Did they both jump off the balcony?” Felicia wondered.
The only built-in cabinets were in the kitchen. I pulled the cuff of my sleeve over my hand, so I could open those cabinets without leaving fingerprints. Then I realized what I was doing.
“Okay, maybe we should get back out into the hallway and figure out what to do next,” I said.
I took a quick peak at the kitchen area, past the counter that blocked the view from the rest of the apartment.
I glanced down.
The only object in the entire apartment was lying on the tiled kitchen floor. Broken into several pieces. A mug. I could make out a design on one of the larger shards. An eye. A wide open eye, just staring. I felt the hairs on my neck rise.
A liquid that looked like pink-orange milk was spattered across the tile, as if it spilled from the mug as the mug fell.
We got out of there.
My face felt hot, and my heart was beating fast enough for me to be aware of its thumping in my chest.
Had we just walked into a crime scene?
I hoped we hadn’t disturbed anything. I hoped we didn’t pick up any threads or particles or anything on our shoes as we stupidly walked through our neighbor’s apartment uninvited.
“Still no reception,” Felicia said, holding her phone up. Her face was as flush as mine felt.
“Stay out here,” I said. “I’m going to get out on the balcony. See if that helps.”
My computer didn’t have a network connection. And getting out on the balcony didn’t help. My phone still couldn’t get any signal. Even the emergency call button wasn’t working. I glanced down at the street below. A fog was rolling in. The sky above was full of clouds, and a wind was picking up. That was strange. Maybe it had something to do with the outage. I turned to go inside, and glanced over at our neighbor’s balcony. I thought I glimpsed something, a pink-orange puddle.
I went back out into the hallway and updated Felicia.
“Mister Walker has a land line,” I said. He was two floors down, but he was one of only a few neighbors we knew well enough to have been inside their units.
Even if I hadn’t seen the phone mounted on his wall, I would have known about it. Mr. Walker was always bragging about maintaining a hard land line, not trusting to the “invisible messages that fly through the air.”
We decided to both go since we couldn’t keep in contact through our phones. We took the stairs down and walked down the hall to Mr. Walker’s unit. I knocked. We’d never done that before, visiting him uninvited. But then again, it was an emergency. Mr. Walker didn’t answer. I knocked again, insistently, and called out to him.
“He’s definitely home,” Felicia said, glaring at the door.
“How do you know?”
“I know. Always getting into people’s business, except when something serious and real is happening.”
We had a short exchange about whether or not we should try knocking on more doors to see if anyone else might have a signal, or a connection, or a landline phone. We decided the less disruptive thing, and probably the fastest thing, would be to go downstairs, and walk to the nearest store or restaurant, and ask to use their phone. We headed back to the stairwell.
“Maybe we should go back upstairs to get our wallets,” Felicia said. “For identification, and in case they want us to buy something to make the call.”
“Buy something? That would be wild of them to ask us to do that.” I shook my head and held up my hand. “It’s fine. We’ll just ask them to call on our behalf. They can’t refuse to help us make an emergency call.”
“Yeah, but we know there’s no one hurt in the apartment, so we’re just making a report, right?”
Felicia opened the door to the stairwell and I stopped. “Whoa.” I reached out and grabbed her arm.
A puddle of pink-orange liquid had pooled on the landing. It looked like the same stuff I’d seen in our neighbor’s apartment. It was dripping down, trickling down the stairs.
“It was on his balcony too,” I said. I tilted my head to look up the stairs. “What is it? Paint?”
Felicia said nothing.
I tugged at her sleeve. “Come on, let’s just take the elevator.”
The elevator was coming down to us. It opened and before we stepped in, I spotted the pink-orange puddle on the floor. It spilled into the hallway. We backed away.
I heard Felicia gasp. The liquid started to seep toward us, so we skirted around its edge and backed away. But a trickle broke off and snaked toward us.
We turned and ran, trying to make it to the other end of the hallway, the other stairwell. Felicia cried out and I turned to see her trip over her foot and tumble to the ground. That deliberate trickle had caught up with her. The trickle recoiled from Felicia. I heard something, a wailing, faint but getting louder. It sounded familiar, but the sound faded.
The liquid seemed to be retracting. I helped Felicia to her feet. She cried out in pain.
“It’s burning,” she said, her face contorted in pain. The trickle had touched her right foot. She couldn’t put any pressure on it without stumbling again.
She put her arm over my shoulder and I wrapped mine around her waist. We stumbled through the hallway. But we didn’t get far.
“Wait, stop! I can’t,” Felicia said.
We stopped before one of two snack machines in the building that no one ever got any snacks from. The occasional visitor would try, only to discover that the snacks inside were stale to the point of petrification.
“Go without me,” Felicia said. “Go get help.”
I let myself catch my breath. I glanced over at the pink-orange puddle. It was advancing toward us again. Maybe touching Felicia had hurt it in some way, just like it hurt Felicia. But it had obviously recovered. The trickle was coming for us again. It came straight down the center of the hallway, until it reached the shadow of a recycling bin. With one of the overhead lights out, the shadow angled toward us. There was just a sliver of floor where the shadow didn’t fall.
The liquid trickle moved along the border of the shadow, carefully, as if it were feeling its way past.
“Felicia, come here,” I said. I pulled her into the shadow of the snack machine.
“What are you doing? You should go. It’s almost—“
The trickle reached us. It crawled along the edge of the snack machine’s shadow. The shadow was big enough for both us to stand inside.
“What’s it waiting for?” Felicia asked.
“I think it’s avoiding the shadow,” I said. “Or else it can’t move into the shadow for some reason.”
We watched the trickle of pink-orange liquid retract again, and extend again, trying to penetrate the shadow.
But it seemed that it couldn’t.
“Okay,” Felicia said, hugging the wall, her right foot just touching the floor. “What now?”
Now…we were trapped. We called out for help, but no one answered. I didn’t hear anything from the nearby units. No sounds of people talking or moving around. No cooking sounds, even though it was early evening. (No smells either). No sounds of music or shows. No dogs barking. No babies crying.
“Maybe it got them all,” Felicia said.
“That doesn’t make sense. We would hear them screaming, calling out just like we are. This is like…it’s like the building is empty.”
“How are we the only two idiots who didn’t know to get out?”
“I’ll need to make a break for it,” I said, staring at the door to the nearest stairwell. I could time it when the trickle retracted just a bit. “I’ll try to get out of the building. Then run to the nearest store or restaurant, just like we originally planned.”
“I’m coming with you.”
I glanced over at her. “You’d only slow me down.” I glanced down at her foot. “You should be safe in this shadow.”
Felicia bit her lip. She looked at the liquid trickle. She hadn’t been able to outrun it. She knew I couldn’t either. But she also knew that I was right. If I had even a chance of getting lucky and outrunning it, I had to go alone. “I’ll keep checking my phone,” she said, reaching for the phone in her pocket. “As soon as I get any kind of signal, I’ll call for help too.”
I nodded, and the next time the liquid trickle retracted from the shadow of the snack machine, I leapt out of that shadow and dashed toward the stairwell.
I made it to the stairwell and flung open the door. I stepped onto the landing.
And splashed right through a puddle of pink-orange liquid.
I felt the blaze of heat in my foot. It flashed up my legs. I gasped. I dropped to my knees, into the puddle. My body seized.
I’ve burned myself before. The roof of my tongue on a scalding drink. My fingertip on a burst of steam. But I’ve never been burned by pure fire.
I couldn’t even scream.
The liquid drew back from me. When it did, enough of the pain receded for me to start sobbing and shivering. And gasping for breath.
There was a shadow in the stairwell. I pulled myself toward it. Spasms seized my whole body. I sat against the wall, drew my knees up, and tried to hold them close, to keep my legs from popping out of the shadow.
I had to catch my breath, so I could run again. But the liquid flowed back down the stairs and past the shadow I was sheltering in.
I couldn’t let the liquid touch me again. I’d never be able to bear it. I rested in the shadow. I tried to brace myself to make a dash down the stairs, preferably without falling and breaking my neck.
But the liquid was everywhere now. It was unavoidable.
I sat in the shadow, shivering and thinking.
The door to the stairwell opened. Felicia stood in the doorway, casting a shadow onto the landing that made the liquid split up and trickle around.
I squinted against the sudden brightness from the hallway.
“You need to go back upstairs,” Felicia said. “To the man’s room.”
I held my hand up against the light. “What?”
I looked down to let my eyes adjust. I looked down at Felicia’s feet. She had her right foot raised on tiptoe. There was no pink-orange liquid in the hallway anymore.
“That’s how you’ll get out,” Felicia said.
My eyes adjusted and I lowered my hand. “Why did you leave the shadow?”
“I’m not in danger.”
I met her gaze. Her eyes. They were familiar but…
This was not Felicia. It couldn’t be. The pink-orange liquid must have gotten to her somehow. It must have been possessing her or manipulating her, or…or it had taken her shape to manipulate me.
“You’re not Felicia,” I said. I wasn’t good at mind games. But even if was, my mind was too scared and scattered to play them.
“No, I’m not,” she said.
I tilted my head, trying to see past the figure in the doorway. “What did you do to her? Is she…?”
“She’s alive, as far as I know. But you won’t be, if you stay here any longer. Please, heal me, and I’ll get you out.”
I frowned. “Who are you?”
“I’m the one inside.”
I pushed against the wall, careful to stay in the shadow. I rose to my feet. “What does that mean?”
The figure who looked like Felicia held out her hand. “Please, no. Don’t go further down. It’s dangerous.”
“To me or to you?” I glanced down and saw a shadow I could enter a few steps down. I hopped for it and made it. I glanced back and the figure who looked like Felicia was standing on the landing now.
“Both,” she said. “We are linked. Our lives. Our fates.”
“What’s your real name?” I hopped again.
The figure who looked like Felicia creased her brow and dropped her gaze. She closed her eyes tight, opened them again, and looked at me. “Inside. I’m the one inside.”
“Inside what?” I glanced down, searching for a shadow, and glanced back up again, to make sure she hadn’t gotten any closer to me.
“Inside the outside. But the outside is broken.”
I stared at her. “Right.” I turned and hopped down again, right into another shadow.
There was a portion of the stair on the next landing that had very little shadow, not enough to cover me. The rest of the landing was flooded with the pink-orange liquid.
“That’s not death reaching for you,” the figure said. “It’s life.”
I turned to look at her. “I guess that means the shadows, where I feel safe, are actually death?”
“No. Nothing inside this building is death.”
“What if I just stand here in this shadow forever then?”
“You know you can’t do that.”
“Why not? Because of hunger? Thirst? What happens to you when the sun rises? Or is it because something else is going on?” I felt a surge in my mind, as if it was trying to think of something, or remember something. But it was too distracted by the current crisis.
The figure stepped down from the landing. The pink-orange liquid trickled around her feet (she didn’t pretend to limp anymore). The liquid seemed to be avoiding her, like it avoided the shadows. “There must be some way that I can convince you to trust me,” she said.
I pointed to the flowing stream of pink-orange liquid. “Stop trying to kill me.”
“I’m not. And that’s not me.”
“Then what is it?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“How you got here? What you did? What you are doing?”
I did remember. And it was strange. It seemed like it’d been several hours since everything happened, but it must have been no more than ten or fifteen minutes.
The memory of the empty apartment appeared in my mind. The memory of seeing the broken mug, the spattered liquid. The eye gaping at me.
But what happened to the man? I never saw him. Maybe this figure who’d taken Felicia’s shape was the man. Or maybe it had taken the man, like it was trying to take me. The mug had something to do with it. The man argued with someone. Maybe he’d been arguing with the figure, just like I was. The mug broke.
Then everyone else disappeared. Everyone except me and Felicia. And now Felicia was gone. Or maybe they were all still there, isolated, stranded in shadow like I was. Now the figure was trying to get me to trust it, so I would step out into that pool of pink-orange and be consumed by it.
“You don’t have to trust me,” the figure said. “Trust yourself. Stop for a moment, and think.”
“I would, wouldn’t I? I would stop and think, if I had time. But I don’t. You’re stalling until you can get me.”
“I am stalling, because you in shadow isn’t good. But it’s better than you leaving. Once you leave, it’s too late.”
“Too late for you to get me.”
“Too late for both of us.”
The figure wasn’t the only one stalling. The pink-orange liquid retreated a little, and I jumped down several steps, wheeling my arms, and jumping again until I reached the next landing. And I jumped and jumped again, praying I didn’t land in the liquid and slip. I didn’t. I reached the bottom of the stairs. I hopped over a puddle and pushed through the door, bursting into the lobby. The liquid had just reached the lobby, but it was sluggish.
I inhaled and ran for the lobby door. Through the glass, all I could see was fog.
I peered through the door’s glass panel. I didn’t see any lights through the fog. No hazy headlights or streetlights. Just fog. I hesitated.
I just realized I didn’t feel any pain anymore. I didn’t feel burned. I was out of breath. But I wasn’t having any more spasms.
I turned around and the figure who looked like Felicia was standing in the doorway to the stairwell.
She was staring out at the fog too. But then she looked at me.
“You came into my apartment to help me,” she said. “So help me.”
So…I’d been right. The figure who looked like Felicia was the figure who looked like my mysterious neighbor.
You came into my apartment to help me.
The figure’s words triggered my memory again. We walked into the apartment together—no, wait…I walked in alone. There was no last-minute decision to go together. I walked in alone, and told Felicia to stay ready to call for help. The apartment was empty. No furniture. No fridge. No clothes. Completely empty, except—
The broken mug.
No…the breaking mug. I saw it break. I saw it spin in the air and drop to the tiled floor, shattering into several pieces. There was no liquid. The mug was empty. There was a design on one of the larger shards. A recognizable shape. Part of an eye.
The eye moved. It shifted toward me and grew wide.
I stumbled back, and Felicia caught my arm and dragged me out of the apartment. She’d gotten worried just waiting outside.
But no…no, that’s not what happened.
I must have stumbled out on my own. And then gotten back to Felicia to get help together.
Only…that’s not what happened.
I frowned and rewound my memory again.
“What happened after the mug broke?” I muttered.
I couldn’t remember.
I’d stumbled out of our neighbor’s apartment. But Felicia was not outside. I went into our apartment. I checked my phone to see if she’d left a message, but there were no messages. There was no reception. I thought she must have gone out to the balcony to get reception, but Felicia wasn’t there. The only thing I saw was the clouds above, and a fog forming below.
The streets were empty. The hallways were empty. The apartments were all empty.
Everyone was gone. Or…
I stared at the figure that looked like Felicia. “You…you brought me here.”
…I was the one who was gone.
“I tried to warn you to stay back,” the figure said, “but my voice wouldn’t work.”
“Seems to be working fine now.”
“No, I’m…disjointed, broken.”
The pink-orange liquid started to seep toward me, trickling toward the lobby door. But I was already at the door. All I had to do was open it and step out. But I needed to make sure I was doing the right thing. I had to make sure I remembered everything I had to remember. I didn’t trust the figure. But I did trust myself. There was something else I knew in specific detail, something that had slipped away, the way the details in dreams slip away when a person wakes up. They go abruptly, leaving only an afterimage. An intense afterimage sometimes.
That’s what I was getting. An intense impression.
“If you want to return,” the figure said, “the only way back is the way you came. But you have to heal me first.”
“I am broken.”
The intense impression I had suddenly came into focus. I gaped. “The mug?”
It surged through me.
Or something else.
It was hazy. My vision. And my hearing was hollow.
But my senses started coming into focus.
And when they did, there was commotion around me. A crackle of static and voices. People moving around in the periphery. The glow of street lights coming in from a window without curtains.
Felicia was standing above me.
I was on the ground, sitting up. And two strangers holding me up.
They had gloves on. They had uniforms on.
They were taking my pulse, checking my respiration. One of them rose and nodded to Felicia. She knelt next to me, clutching her phone. The case…her new case, it was a pastel pink-orange color.
She smiled softly, but her eyes were wide. “They said your heart stopped. Scared me.”
I couldn’t say anything at first, and her eyes got a little wider. I glanced around and realized we weren’t in our apartment.
We were next door. I was lying at the threshold to the kitchen. I glanced over.
There was a mug sitting on the tile. It was whole, but cracks were visible along its surface, as if it had broken and someone had glued it back together. I recognized the design along the side that was visible to me. An eye.
It was an eye.
But the eye was closed.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel