Sylvester had given in to his curiosity. The neighbor down the hall hadn’t made an appearance in over a week. It wasn’t like the old biddy to hide out for so long. Too often in the past she had asked him about his love life, about his diet. A grandmother he had never asked for, but a missing part of his life when he hadn’t seen her in so long.
He knocked three times on the middle of the door. The rhythm seemed odd to him in hindsight. And why three raps? Wouldn’t one have been enough to make an impression. The others could have come later. He thought about it for a few moments when no one had bothered to answer.
It wasn’t right. She should have come. The thoughts that raced through his head the longer the pause became. Had she fallen? Maybe after several days of a broken hip she lacked the strength to call out to him and tell him of her plight.
He knocked again. Three raps. Each one an unanswered question to the lady inside. Mrs. McGrath, her name flashed into his mind as he tried to picture her suffering in pain and misery on her kitchen floor. That settled it.
He twisted and yanked on the door knob and the door flung open into his knee. She hadn’t locked it. As the pain ripped through his leg all the way past his chest he couldn’t see much past the stars in his eyes. But when things settled and he could hobble around on his uninjured leg, he managed to get presence of mind enough to look into the now open apartment. The darkness inside gave him pause. He couldn’t even make out the glow of a nightlight. If she had gone, she had left her curtains closed tight and turned all the lights out to hide the fact that no one was home.
“Hello,” he called. No answer. The darkness inside had swallowed his words, a feeling like they didn’t pass further than his arm’s length. “Hello?”
He stepped into the apartment, unsure why he had wanted to go deeper inside. Mrs. McGrath clearly wasn’t home and now he was invading her privacy. The image of her dead on her kitchen floor pulled at him. He couldn’t let this be the end of her. Not that he would be able to do much about it if it were true.
Instead he searched for the light switch that should have been beside the door, something to see deeper into the place, something to cut away the cloying darkness around him. Even the light from the hall didn’t pass too deep into the rest of the apartment.
He could make out the shelves beside the door, old shoes and some boots, still caked with dried mud. He found a lamp on a side table next to the chair beside the shoe shelf. He twisted the switch on it, and noticed that he had been holding his breath. When the light burst into the room around him, he had let the pent up air from his lungs.
Her living room wasn’t much different from his own. The size and shape of it, matched his floor plan. She had accumulated years and years of her life in the furnishings and pictures along the wall behind the couch. All of it screamed old lady at him. No, it didn’t scream. It caressed its way into his mind with the promise of a butterscotch and oozed the perfume of yesterday’s lilacs.
He hadn’t caught his breath from before when the mood of the room plastered itself on his psyche. A dark presence filled the room; a shadow that passed through Sylvester, and left him with a chill. His body shook a moment in an uncontrolled wave of cold. It dissipated as fast as it had struck him. Eyes followed him as he spun around to see the source. The empty room stared back at him.
The urge to run, to leave the apartment grew stronger but he still hadn’t seen any evidence of the old woman. He didn’t want to leave without knowing anything and he wouldn’t know anything if he didn’t explore the whole place.
He found the light switch for the kitchen/dining room, the same spot on the wall as his apartment. The dining room table had been piled high with fabric. At the far end she had set up a small sewing table. The machine had also been covered with fabric swatches. The old woman hadn’t fallen in either the kitchen or the dining room. Other than the mess on the dining room table and sewing table, the two rooms were fairly clean. A thin layer of dust had settled on the kitchen counters.
The refrigerator was empty and clean. Nothing in the freezer either. His worst fears had faded with this realization. She must have gone on a trip and left the place clean so nothing could spoil, though the power was still on and the fridge was running normally.
His grandmother’s fridge had never been empty. Even when she had stopped buying as much food in the final progression of the cancer that had taken her, she kept her fridge stocked in case family stopped by.
Sylvester had been the one to clean out his grandmother’s fridge, and the rest of the apartment. The last living relative that had been close enough to do any of the work. He hated every minute of it. Grandma Shannon had disavowed him a few years before she finally kicked it. She had pushed him out of her life. And he hated himself more because he hadn’t fought her on it. He let her push everyone who had mattered to her away in the final years of her life. She had been found by a neighbor when the smell in her apartment went beyond the front door.
He flipped the switch in the hall and the light over the junction to the bedrooms flared into life. More pictures of family and happier times lined the hallway wall on the left side. All of them placed between waist level to a little bit above the top of his head. Little space had been left between them. Sylvester didn’t recognize most of the people present, though many of the pictures appeared to be much older than the more recent ones he had seen in the living room. Some of the older ones had been printed in black and white. Age and light damage had tarnished the original print quality.
The presence he had felt earlier had intensified this close to the bedrooms. A stale weight to the air pressed his shoulders and compressed his chest. The feeling to leave and not look back had returned. But he fought against it. The answers he sought had to be buried in one of the rooms at the end of the hall. Three doors, one to the bathroom, and the others to the bedrooms.
He hesitated at the bathroom door. To find her there, dead on the toilet, would be the worst. First the intrusion into her most private moment, and then the thought of what it would be like to remove her from there… he didn’t want to allow those thoughts deeper into his psyche. There wasn’t enough mental bleach to cleanse the outcome of those images.
She hadn’t died in her bathroom. She wasn’t there. Greeted by a closed toilet seat as well as a closed shower curtain he stared into the small room for a few moments as he steeled his courage. More recent pictures of what he assumed were family had been placed on shelves in front of the toilet. Towels and extra toilet paper lined a shelf unit in front of the toilet on the way to the tub.
Two rooms left and he didn’t like the thought of either one of them. She must have died in her sleep. Sure the better way to go, where she wouldn’t have known. Peaceful, quiet, gone without a hitch, that was the thought, the hope, but even then the idea gave Sylvester the willies. The thought struck him as he placed his hand on the door knob to the nearer room, he hadn’t heard anything from the old woman’s bird. He hadn’t heard a squawk or a chirp, nothing. She must have been gone longer than he originally thought, gone so long that the bird starved through lack of attention.
He turned away from the door to look back down the hall. The bird’s death hit him harder than the woman’s. Though either one would be tragic, the bird gone without anyone to care for it, anyone to give it a fighting chance. It hit him deeper than he had expected. He took a moment to catch his breath again before he turned the door handle.
The door opened to the partial light of a nightlight on the opposite side of the door. Blackout curtains covered the window and allowed little light into the room. The bird’s cage hung empty on the other side of a table that took up the center of the room. At one time the room had served several different functions. An old laptop sat on top of the desk, connected to a printer. It had been closed and its plug hung limp just over the edge of the table. The plug end had been chewed off, shortening the cord. He didn’t see the bird or the old woman in the room and they had left no evidence to suggest that they had been in the room recently.
One room left, her bedroom. The sense of invasion that had cast its shadow over his psyche filled him with dread. He knew what he would find beyond the door. All doubt of where the old lady could be culminated in this final moment. If he turned away now, she could still be alive. The thought was wrong, and the smile it brought to his lips heightened his sense of foreboding.
“No sense to it,” he said as he turned the door knob. The smell not so much drifted as it plummeted out of the room and ripped through his nasal passages. He couldn’t quite place his finger on the source or what the smell could be, but there was something within it. Something that he recognized though it plagued him without a clear reference to what it could be.
This was death, he was sure of that much. The old woman had died in the room some time ago and her rotted remains were all she had left of herself to be found. He couldn’t see into the room past the smell of death and rotting. The light switch beside the door flicked on the ceiling fan and the smell forced its way past him into the rest of the apartment.
The smell in the room hadn’t been enough to invoke his gag reflex. That had been reserved for what he found inside the room. Of the number of corpses piled upon the old woman’s bed, not a one looked like it could have been her. He stood in the doorway, lost to the moment of counting each body, each recognizable body. A number of them had broken down to the bone. Only a few had enough flesh to still qualify as corpses. Sylvester lost track of the individual sets when they skeletons began to meld together.
The smell of death and decay crept through his senses. His eyes blurred and his breathing had become erratic. His inner dialogue screamed for him to run, but he couldn’t take his eyes away from the bodies, from the death he hadn’t expected. And the old woman eluded him.
The nice old lady, she had smothered him like a grandmother. She had been the only one to question his life and his choices. Until now, she had been the closest thing to family he had known since his grandmother had passed on years ago. And now this. The full weight of what he saw in the bedroom crushed into his chest and shoulders. Sylvester fought with what strength he still had to stand up, to turn away.
She had been mauled. Claw marks littered her face and neck, the flesh shredded. She had fallen with the attack, her forearms held the same slashes as her face and neck. But her nightgown, the thick cotton had acted as armor against the attack. It remained intact, a symbol of her grandmotherly protections. Beside her lay her parrot. The bird hadn’t fared much better than she had. Decapitated, the body sprawled in the sticky blood pooled from its empty neck.
He never heard the footsteps; the soft pad of feet, that crept behind him. It had been the creek of a door, pushed aside that sent the chill up his spine. His heart hammered his chest as he turned to see a coal black kitten silhouetted in the doorway. It calmly licked a front paw. The creature focused on the outstretched toes, a scratchy tongue digging between each one.
Sylvester snapped a double take between the bodies on the floor and the kitten in the doorway. None of it added up, not in moments of sanity. Mrs. McGrath didn’t have a cat, let alone a kitten. Not in the time he had known her. Her parrot had been all the company she needed, aside from an occasional friend to talk to.
The kitten had stopped licking its toes and begun to stare at him. Though the light from the hall hit the kitten from behind, a strange green glow saturated the orbs. A glow that threatened to consume him.
If you enjoy these stories, consider leaving some coffee money in the jar or you could buy a book or two. Either way helps keep the stories flowing.