I tossed my keys down on the kitchen table after nearly losing a wrestling match with the door and sighed. What an exhausting week it’d been. I don’t exactly know what my dream first apartment looked like but it sure wasn’t this. I graduated from the University of Delaware last Spring and moved into the new apartment only weeks ago. It was a long search but certainly not because my options were overwhelming. In fact, I thought I’d be homeless until I found this place – the only one in my price range.
The model apartment they first showed me was a studio just under 400 square feet, but I thought, “Finally, something I can afford,” and took it without a second’s hesitation. But the place I ended up getting was far worse. I thought the landlord had accidentally mixed my keys up with the basement storage closet. But no – this was the right one. My apartment was about one hundred square feet smaller than the model and the appliances were at least forty years older. It was dark and gloomy with no built-in overhead lights and no matter how many twelve-dollar standing lamps I put in, the place never seemed to get brighter. And then there was that half-hearted paint job that looked like someone filled the room with an off-white paint and then drained it. That cheap paint, probably filled with lead, was caked into every electrical outlet and light switch in the place. I could swear they even painted the toilet seat.
The first day I was moving into my exceedingly humble abode, I met my neighbor in passing – the only other tenant on that bottom floor. He looked like he was born on that floor and had never left. His skin was silky and pale and he had dark patches under his eye that made me wonder if he was wearing mascara. I could tell he was tall, but he had a hunch that greatly negated his stature. His name was Jason, he’d said. After introductions, he didn’t have much to say and started going on about the water pressure. He said it was no use complaining to the landlord because he’d just refuse to hire a plumber to fix the thing anyway. I thanked him for the warning, but I couldn’t fathom how bad it truly was. Let’s just say the first time I took a shower made me regret not listening to my parents about the futility of a Fine Arts degree. The water dribbled out of the showerhead like it was being poured out of a watering can. How was I ever going to get shampoo out of my hair like this?
But the worst of all was that damn dripping noise. I figured I’d get used to it eventually, but I hardly got a wink of sleep for a full week listening to it. It was coming from my upstairs neighbor’s apartment. I’d lay awake with bloodshot eyes, staring at the ceiling and listening to that thwacking drip.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
I could only fall asleep when my mind was too tired to hear it anymore.
And by the end of that week, just when I thought I’d experienced the whole gauntlet of apartment nightmares, the ceiling started to droop. “Great,” I thought. “Water damage already.” It was probably from that damn dripping. The landlord refused to even come take a look at it. He said it wasn’t his problem until it caused ‘burdensome living conditions’. If only I wasn’t so young and naïve to believe that was the norm.
Then that fateful night after a long day at work when I tossed my keys on the table, it all somehow got worse. All I wanted to do was take a shower and curl up with a good book. I stripped down, relieving my body of that tight blouse and lumbered on into the shower. I looked up at the rusted showerhead, suspended from an equally ancient exposed metal pipe which made it look like I was showering in a prison. I turned the knob, but this time nothing came out. I shook my head and groaned. “Come on,” I pleaded with it. I turned the knob back and forth, with its ear-piercing squeaks the only response. “Damn it,” I yelled as if reprimanding the shower would do the trick. I took one step back and kicked the pipe with my barefoot. It rang and wobbled, but finally I saw a drip. Apparently, violence was the answer. I grabbed the pipe with a half smile, thinking of myself as something of a plumber. I shook it at first gently, then violently when my first option didn’t work. With the other hand, I turned the nozzle back and forth. Little by little the water dripped out more as if I was shaking something loose. Then came a spurt and another soon after that. The water pattered out and flowed out with the most pressure I’d gotten since I moved in. I closed my eyes and let it run over my face. I even giggled with delight. I then opened my eyes and looked down at my chest where the water ran off. I involuntarily held my breath at the sight. I blinked a few times, trying to process whatever was running over my body – but it sure wasn’t water. I screamed and swatted at it like I was fighting a bee’s nest. I jumped, kicked at the air, then hopped out of the shower, wiping myself down in horror. Panting, I looked back at the water spraying over the tub, still not believing my own eyes.
The water was…black. It ran dark and thick like oil plastering to the tub’s plastic siding. My eyes stayed wide and mouth agape.
A knock at the door. I dried myself off as quickly as I could, got dressed and headed over to the door, passing that drooping ceiling on the way. I looked through the peephole – it was Jason. I unlocked the door, lifted it and pulled with all my might. “Hi,” I said with exasperation.
There he stood in his lanky form like a pale alien. He brushed his jet-black hair from his eyes and said in his meek, sad voice, “Is…is something wrong?”
“No, why?” I said, still startled by his visit.
“It’s just…well I thought I heard you scream.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, realizing I was shivering with terror as I explained what had happened. Even my voice shook. “I was taking a shower and the water came out…black. It was gooey and dark and – oh I don’t know. I don’t know what I saw. Yours isn’t doing that, is it?”
He shook his head. “No. No black water over here.” He paused and scratched the back of his neck. I could hardly see his eyes through the combination of the poor hallway lighting and his shadowy features. “Do you…never mind.”
“What is it?”
“I was going to offer for you to take a shower at my place and maybe stay the night…on the couch of course. But it sounds creepy so…never mind.”
I considered his proposal maybe more than I should have for such a new neighbor. I didn’t know this guy at all. I’d met him once or twice in passing and hadn’t exchanged more than a short conversation about the water pressure. But I was terrified – terrified of what next great catastrophe that apartment would offer. So I agreed and stayed with him for just the night. While I was there he told me stories about a woman he used to know well – the one who was living above me. He told me she was a lovely young blonde who he was dating for a short while. Then one day she ‘ghosted’ him as he put it. He’d knocked on her door, he told me, but she never answered anymore.
The next morning, I texted our landlord to tell him the water was black. When I typed out the message, I still couldn’t believe I was about to send such a claim. And naturally, fifteen minutes later he responded asking for pictures. I groaned. The last thing I wanted was to go back into that apartment and see whatever had come out of that shower again.
But I did as he said. I thanked Jason for his hospitality, then hesitantly returned to the horror scene that was my apartment. I fumbled in my pockets for my keys. My hands were shaking. I could hardly breathe. It felt like I was voluntarily walking into a serial killer’s lair. I pushed the heavy door open and was greeted by something new – a sound I hadn’t heard before…at least not inside anywhere I’d lived. Was it…flies? What I heard was an excited buzzing that came in the form of a monotone drone.
I flicked on a lamp which dimly lit the massive bubble growing in my ceiling. My mouth dropped again. It had grown exponentially overnight. The bubble in that ceiling was nearly low enough to graze my hair if I walked right under it. It was damp and blackened now. And even though that lamp was on, I still couldn’t see the flies. “Where the…” I scanned around the tiny apartment. There weren’t many places they could be. It was a studio after all: when you walked in you could see almost the whole thing. I turned on another light. Then another. Still nothing, but the buzzing was much louder. And while I had my back turned, the ceiling creaked and moaned as the bubble dipped even further down. It was as if something was filling it like a pool, trying to break through into my apartment. And I still heard that dripping. But it wasn’t just that sound of thwacking against tile floors anymore; it was the plop of droplets falling into a filled pot.
I stepped foot over foot in a circular motion around the perimeter of that mass stretching the ceiling plaster. Sweat beat over my brow. My breath stuttered. As I looked at it more closely now, I realized the bubble wasn’t perfectly round. There were jagged shapes poking at a couple of points in the mass, further testing the strained ceiling’s resistance. I raised my phone and took a picture, then sent it to my landlord with no accompanying description – it didn’t need one. He had to fix this…right?
Then I made my way to the shower to snap the pictures I was originally after. I turned on the bathroom lights. One of the three bulbs flickered, then zapped out. “Great,” I said. And for some reason, that light going out felt more like the apartment’s final straw for me than any of the prior water damage.
I carefully wrapped my fingers around the shower knob, then gritted my teeth in fearful anticipation. I turned the knob and out came…nothing. Referring to my newly discovered plumbing skills, I shook the rusted pipe with my free hand, making sure to stand clear of the showerhead this time. I shook it with progressive violence, but still, no water came out. What did come was a creaking and banging emanating from inside the ceiling. It was like the water was getting backed up and pushing against something – something large enough to block any alternate routes the water might take. With another few hard shakes of the pipe, the spurting started again and so returned the black liquid. Despite not splashing on me this time, it was still unsettling to witness. This time I noticed the gelatinous flow had a sort of smell to it – like that unpleasant waft you get from walking by roadkill. I scrunched my nose and took out my phone again, readying the camera for that much-needed photo. I lined up the framing so you could see the blackened tub and showerhead at the same time. And once it was lined up I –
I shrieked and spun around, my fingers turning white as I held onto the phone for dear life. I looked up to the ceiling and saw the empty gaping hole where that drooping plaster once was. Water dripped from it now on all sides at varying speeds. I could see the bent rusted pipes through the opened ceiling. And as I got closer to the hole, I could see past the pipes too. Above the hole were the sagging corners of a drooping rug. I could tell it was once gray and fuzzy, but now it looked like nothing prettier than an animal carcass. Along with the carpet was a shattered glass. The shards mixed into the rug along with the glossy pages of a LIFE magazine, now merging with the saturated disaster. It took me a moment to realize, but what I was looking at was the apartment above mine – the one where that woman Jason had told me about lived. In many ways, it reminded me of my own – or at least a desolate, further-damaged version of it.
And then…I looked down. I looked at exactly what had fallen through the floor; what had been poking at the plaster minutes before. There was a lumpy mass with the same blackened coloring as the shower’s water with hundreds if not thousands of flies surrounding it. There were bright white jagged shapes sticking out from portions of the lump. On certain parts of it, there were wavy pointed shapes like cloth pulled out of the wash. The flies were taking turns diving at the figure the same way they would to a dead…
My stomach flipped. I gagged and covered my mouth, racing out of the apartment. When I got to the hall, I collapsed and took a deep breath of the fresher air. I coughed violently and began to sob. That putrid odor soon followed me out the door to the point where I could hardly breathe. And who but Jason was standing over me – my convenient ‘knight in shining armor’. “Call the police,” I croaked to him. “Call the police.”
But he didn’t move. He didn’t as much as blink. Instead he looked past me, almost admiring that decomposing woman like it was his own; like it was a work of art.
The police arrived about thirty minutes later and took a short while to assess the situation. They said my upstairs neighbor had been dead for at least three months based on the pattern of her decomposition. Since she had automated rent payments, nobody ever bothered to check the apartment. Through the bloated mess of flesh, the police found seventeen stab wounds in her gut. Seventeen. They guessed that when she collapsed, she broke through the already termite-infested floor and broke a pipe, with her rotting bodily fluids then mixing into my water supply. I had to hold back a strong gag when they told me this.
When the police finished collecting my testimony, they asked if I knew anyone else who lived in the building who might know her. “Jason,” I told them. “He lives right over there, next door.”
Hours later, my phone rang. “Hello?”
“Yes, is this Ms. Nikki Darwin?”
“Yes,” I replied. It was the detective.
“Yeah, so we wanted to follow up with you on the murder investigation…about that neighbor you had.” He said that word ‘neighbor’ with such sarcasm.
“Yeah. Jason? What about him?”
“Ma’am…” the officer paused. “There is no Jason in your building.”
I didn’t say anything, shaking my head on the other end of the line.
“That apartment next to you has been vacant for a very long time. It was officially condemned…let’s see here…seven years ago.”
I dropped the phone, my whole body shaking. I remembered his pale skin and those dark eyes. I remembered his hunch and his lanky figure. I remembered the way he gazed at that fly-ridden woman. That satisfied, haunting gaze.