The writing’s going well for once, thank God. The writer’s block is gone; the words are flowing. Even better, my wife is staying at her sister’s house tonight; they’ll be having a private Hallowe’en party with her niece tomorrow, and maybe some social-distanced Trick-or-Treating.
Party time in the Age of COVID.
I love my wife; don’t get me wrong. But whenever she’s awake, she’s talking. And it’s impossible to both write and pretend to listen politely, responding at the proper pauses. I can’t just keep saying “Yes, dear” or she’ll get offended. Or worse, she’ll trick me into agreeing to go to one of these miserable family affairs. I don’t mind kids, but seven adults fawning over one child is more than enough, thanks.
So here I am, typing away feverishly. A while ago, someone was knocking on the door, but they went away; apart from that, all is silent. I even stopped the clock to get rid of that irritating tick. Most of the complex is asleep by now; must be near midnight. A lone car goes by out on the highway, and that’s all. It’s immeasurably satisfying to hear the engine fade into the distance.
You don’t know what a treasure true silence is until you don’t have it. We’ve been suffering for a year because of our downstairs neighbor; she played the drums in a condo, believe it or not. Badly. Of course she stopped at ten and never started before eight in the morning — there’s a noise ordinance — but there was something truly maddening about her inability to keep even the simplest rhythm. I took to writing at night, and I’d get to sleep before she started in the mornings. Sometimes it was enough sleep.
Shame what happened to her. I mean, sure I was grateful the drums had stopped, but nobody deserves to die like that. They figure it was an intruder, but they can’t explain how the killer got in (intruder windows, ha ha), much less back outside, bolting the doors behind him. Not to my satisfaction, anyway. Must have been someone she knew, someone with a key maybe. People can’t just walk through walls.
That was four weeks ago — the last full moon, now that I think about it. I’d been missing deadlines toward the end of things, and what with the wife’s constant chatter… well, let’s just say tonight’s flood of words is a welcome one indeed. Two more articles and I’m caught up; two more and I’ll have a bit of breathing room.
The neighbor’s door slams; I hear him going down the stairs. Janitor. His shift starts at half past twelve; he leaves at midnight every night. He’s quiet enough now; used to pound up and down the steps like a teenager until I had a word with him. I can still hear him, mind; that old metal staircase, there’s no way anyone could be perfectly silent on them, and they’re right on the other side of that wall. Shoddy construction, but what the hell — the rent’s cheap. I listen as his car too fades into the distance. Silence again.
The pages are just flying out now. It’s perfect; I’ve got the rhythm down cold. Five hundred words in ten minutes — and it’s great stuff; I’ll proof it later, but I bet there’s no typos, not the way this is going.
I still feel bad about the way that went. With the neighbor, that is. I mean, he’s… well, he’s not all there, not really. Nice enough; real happy sort of guy. Loves his job as a night janitor, and I guess that says it all. And… well. It wasn’t a quiet word I had with him. More like a screaming fit. He’s scared of me now; makes the sign of the Evil Eye when he goes past the door. At least he’s quieter now… Still, I should apologize.
What the hell? That’s the door, all right. But there’s been nobody on the steps; I’d have heard. Oh, well; I’ll just ignore it; they’ll go away again. Now, where was I… Ah, yes. Just getting to the good par—
knock knock knock
Dammit; maybe it’s one of the neighbors. There are a couple of others on my floor, but by now they ought to know not to interrupt me. I’ve… well, let’s just say I’ve got a temper. Not always, but sometimes. It’s not my fault, not really; I just need quiet in order to work, and people are always interrupting me—
knock knock DING DONG knock knock knock
Dammit; whoever it is, he’s persistent. Well, the words are gone again; might as well go see who it is. I’ll give them a piece of my mind… No, I’ll be calm. They already think I’m crazy, I bet; no need to make it worse.
I peer through the peephole; nothing. The passage is empty. Hm. Maybe they’ve gone away after all. Fair enough; there’s nobody I wanted to see. I turn back toward my office, and…
tap tap tap
It’s a quiet knock, but it’s definitely coming from the door. Metal door; sturdy locks. Can’t be too careful around here. Didn’t help the downstairs neighbor, comes the rogue thought, swiftly suppressed. The moment’s irrational fear is replaced by anger as I step back to the peephole. Still nothing, and the rage takes over. I tear at the locks and fling the door back.
I step out on the mat and look both ways. There’s nobody out here. Nobody on the stairs, nobody on the concrete landing, not a soul in sight. The quiet is oppressive now, somehow watchful. My rage drains away, and is replaced by an irrational terror, rising swiftly from out of nowhere. I fancy I hear a noise behind me; spin around and nothing, just my front door standing slightly open.
Something makes me look up. At first it makes no sense to me. Where normally I’d be seeing the rough surface of cast concrete, now for some reason it’s crazed, cracked and pitted all over, with deep gouges carved into it from… Is that a hand print? No, it can’t be… It can’t possibly…
It takes me only seconds to leap back inside, closing the door and bolting it, panting hard. My pulse is pounding, pounding… Can’t do this; the doctor says my heart is weak, that I need exercise and to stop smoking and drinking. As if I could write at all without a little stimulation. Damn fool; waste of time to even go.
The anger is back, and the fear subsides. Better. I gain control of my breath, and calm a bit more. Much, much better. There must be some rational explanation for the ceiling; maybe it’s always looked like that and I never noticed. Cheap place like this, who’d want to look? I nod to myself; that’s got to be the answer.
I head back down the dark hallway toward my office. The keyboard is waiting; I’ve had enough nonsense for one night. I step in and–
That’s not just a knock; that pounding’s so loud it’ll wake the whole building. Not that anyone will do anything about it, not around here. Call the cops, it’s half an hour before anyone bothers to come by.
I head back toward the door, light glinting from the peephole in the dim hall. I peer out; nothing again. Nothing at all. I curse under my breath.
Then, for no good reason, the hair stands straight on my arms and the back of my neck. The watchful silence is back; it’s oppressing me even here, inside. I want to run but I can’t move; my eye seems glued to the peephole. My heart is throbbing—
tap tap tap
With that shock I feel a sharp pain, a tightness in my chest; I can’t breathe, can’t… The world fades before my eyes; everything goes red, then black. My last conscious thought is the realization: You can knock on either side of a door.