“Thanks, guys!” called out Andy.
He waved goodbye to his two best friends as they crossed the street. They were on their way back to their own lives, but still, their help was much appreciated.
He still had his moving van to return to the rental place, but that could be done later. For now, he was just going to relax in his comfy chair and watch some TV. The last of the big furniture had been delivered and placed, so now it was time to sit back, watch the game, and down a cold one.
He walked to his new fridge, pulled out a beer, and twisted off the cap. His new I.T. job was still plaguing his mind, but that little problem would be remedied shortly with a few swigs and the start of the baseball game on his new flatscreen.
Andy was twenty-five and just starting out, but he knew he had a bright future. In fact, things were already going his way. By some miracle of amazing fortune, no one had rented the incredibly cheap bottom apartment in this little two story, and the only other occupant in the building was an ancient crone of a woman that supposedly lived in the upstairs apartment, but he didn’t know anything about her, nor did he need to.
“Don’t rent, don’t rent, they all said,” he scoffed as he parked his butt in his brown comfy chair. “What a load of crap. Why should I buy a house yet? The landlady can be in charge of all the repairs and stuff. I don’t need to add any more responsibility to my list of duties.”
He flipped on the TV and went straight to streaming on a sports channel. He was an avid baseball fan in the summer and a rabid football fan in the fall. Of course, there was always basketball or hockey, boxing when he could catch it, MMA whenever, and even volleyball if he felt like it. He had his priorities, but he could watch them all.
He would have continued with his mental love for sports, but he was interrupted. In fact, he had only taken one sip from his beer when the doorbell rang.
“Oh, come on…” he groaned as he set his beer down on his coffee table.
The doorbell rang again as if in urgent request, so he decided to hoof it. The faster he addressed whomever, the faster he could get back to the game.
“Coming!” he called out as he trotted to the door. “Hold your horses!”
He opened the door to reveal the intrusive presence of Mrs. Gorman, the landlady.
“Oh,” he said quickly. “Hello, Mrs. Gorman.”
The woman was in her early sixties, but she was pleasant enough, if not a terrible gossip at times. She liked to talk, but Andy wasn’t one to be rude, so he inevitably listened, even if he didn’t want to.
Mrs. Gorman stepped inside without being asked and closed the door behind her.
“Hello, Andy,” she said quickly. “I just stopped by to see how you were settling in.”
He had been settling in fine, at least until she had interrupted that settling process. Nevertheless, she had accepted him as an occupant, and he knew which side his bread was buttered, so he was not about to rile her in any way.
“I’m doing okay,” said Andy with a sheepish grin. “How are you?”
“Fine, fine,” said Mrs. Gorman. “Listen, I just came to go over a few things…”
He had expected this, of course. It made sense that she would want to warn him about parties and drugs and late-night noise and all of that crap. It was the standard runaround for any renter. Even so, he’d already gone over all of this with her.
“Okay…” said Andy warily.
“You should already know the rules here, so I won’t go over them again,” nodded Mrs. Gorman. “I don’t need any property damage, but I expect a nice young man such as yourself won’t have any problems with that.”
“No, no,” said Andy quickly. “Nothing will get damaged.”
“Also, I know you may want to have a woman over here,” said Mrs. Gorman, “but you should inform me first if anyone else moves in with you.”
“Of course,” nodded Andy.
His girlfriend lived in her own apartment. She was working on her doctorate at the local college, and her apartment was within walking distance of the school, so there was no point in her moving in with him, at least not yet…Yet another reason not to buy a house yet. They both needed to save their money.
“Also, there’s one more thing…” said Mrs. Gorman in a nervous tone.
“Yes?” asked Andy.
“You should…try not to disturb Mrs. Arkle,” said Mrs. Gorman.
“Is she the lady that lives upstairs?” asked Andy.
It was a valid question. He had no idea who Mrs. Arkle was.
“Y…Yes,” said Mrs. Gorman nervously.
“Oh, I won’t bother her,” said Andy. “If she asks for any help or anything, I’ll be sure to help her out.”
“That’s…not a good idea,” said Mrs. Gorman.
“What do you mean?” asked Andy.
He was curious now. His usually talkative landlady was being unusually guarded, and this was cause for both alarm and interest.
“Does she have some kind of infectious disease or something?” he asked. “Should I be worried?”
“Not exactly…” frowned Mrs. Gorman. “Let me ask you a question, young man.”
“Okay,” nodded Andy. “Shoot.”
“Are you religious, Andy?” asked the older woman.
He was not sure how to answer this. The truth was and always had been that he did not have a religious bone in his body. His parents were Methodist, but he’d ditched ever going to church a long time ago.
“Uhhh…not exactly,” he said cautiously.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find religion when you’re older,” said Mrs. Gorman. “In any case…I just wanted to say…I’m not sure how to put this…Do you know how old Mrs. Arkle is?”
“No idea,” shrugged Andy. “All I’ve heard from a few people around the neighborhood is that she’s really old. I didn’t even know her name until just now.”
“Okay,” nodded Mrs. Gorman. “She is…She will be…one hundred and four next week.”
Andy couldn’t even imagine living past thirty, much less past one hundred.
“Oh…” was all he could say.
“Some people…” began Mrs. Gorman.
She shuddered a little and held both of her arms for a second before continuing on.
Andy did not know what to make of that little affect, but he listened intently. Something strange was going on with his landlady, and he wanted to find out what that could possibly be.
“Some people live past their time,” nodded Mrs. Gorman. “I think…no, I believe…there are two reasons this can happen. Some people live past their time because of love. They love life, they love others, and they’re loved by others, and that’s fine. I think God allows this as a reward for good people…but some people…some people live past their time out of sheer hate…just sheer, unadulterated hate.”
“Oooh…uhhh…” said Andy.
Yeah, he had no idea where this was going.
“You see, some people just hate everything,” nodded Mrs. Gorman as she frowned at the same time. “They just hate the world and everything in it, but they’re also afraid of dying, so they use that hatred, that power, to just keep right on going.”
“I…see…” said Andy uncomfortably.
This was getting weird.
“That woman upstairs is the meanest ball of hate I have ever had the unfortunate occurrence to meet,” frowned Mrs. Gorman.
This, of course, didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Andy. Mrs. Gorman was the landlady, after all. She didn’t have to rent to Mrs. Arkle. She could just pick and choose her renters.
“So why do you rent to her?” asked Andy. “I don’t understand.”
“She came with the building,” shrugged the older woman. “It was in the contract when my late husband bought the place. Can’t kick her out, and she has nowhere else to go anyway, and even though she may be…ugh…I’m still Christian enough to take her money.”
“Oh…Okay,” said Andy uncertainly. “What does this have to do with me?”
“Just don’t interact with her at all,” warned Mrs. Gorman as she waved her hands flat, palms down, in front of herself. “Not at all.”
“Uhhh…noted,” nodded Andy.
“You see…” said the older woman in a cautious tone. “You…You have to understand. We have delivery people that come by and drop groceries and goods off for her, and she has a personal caretaker that comes by every day in the morning. Her caretakers switch out, and they leave around this time of day, but…I just…I would not interact with her at all. In fact, I feel sorry for those people that have to work with her. I, personally, wouldn’t deal with her at all if it weren’t necessary.”
“Got it,” nodded Andy again.
“Some people think they can outsmart death,” frowned Mrs. Gorman as she shook her head for visible emphasis. “We both know you can’t do that…but even worse…some people think they can outsmart Hell. That woman upstairs was married three times, and she lost all three husbands under suspicious circumstances. All of her kids are dead, too. All three of them died when they were little, also under strange circumstances. I’d say she’s cursed, but I don’t believe in curses. I believe in God Almighty, and I’ll tell you what…I don’t trust that woman as far as I can throw her.”
“Oof,” said Andy with wide eyes.
He didn’t like the sound of that. Of course, what could a one-hundred-and-four-year-old woman do to him? There was no reason to be scared of the old biddy.
“You just keep to yourself, and you’ll be fine,” nodded Mrs. Gorman.
“Will do,” nodded Andy in return.
“Well, I should be going,” said the older woman. “I’ll let you get back to settling in, but if you have any questions, you have my number. You’re paid up in full for six months, and I really appreciate the forward pay. There aren’t a lot of folks who can afford to do that in this economy.”
“Absolutely,” nodded Andy. “You are most welcome.”
He said his goodbyes to the older woman after that, and she left without further gossip. This was a good thing, of course, because it was time to get back to his beer, and more importantly, to the game.
He sat down in his recliner, grabbed his beer, and had taken one sip just before the doorbell rang again.
“What the…?” he said in exasperation.
He set down his beer, walked to the front door, and answered the door for whomever this new caller was going to be.
An older man with white hair, someone at least in his seventies, stood before Andy. This man was dressed in overalls and a brown T-shirt, though his presence here was a mystery.
“Andy?” asked the older man.
“Uhhhh…yeah,” replied Andy.
The old man held out his right hand, and Andy shook it out of courtesy.
“I’m Gerald,” nodded the old man. “I fix things around the building.”
“Oh…” said Andy in swift comprehension.
It made sense. This guy was the handyman or something.
“Can I help you?” asked Andy.
“I just need to go over a few things with you, and then I’ll be on my way,” nodded Gerald.
“Gotcha,” nodded Andy.
The old man walked in without being invited, just like Mrs. Gorman.
“I’ll be out of your hair in a jiffy,” said the old man. “Let me just explain a few things.”
“Okay,” replied Andy.
“Now this building is old, but it’s also unique,” said the handyman. “It has some features that other buildings don’t have. Here, let me show you.”
He walked past Andy and led them both toward the kitchen. They walked through the living room and into the kitchen, though Andy stared longingly at his game and his beer for a few seconds before entering the kitchen after the old man.
“Now this is a fairly big kitchen compared to other apartments,” explained Gerald. “That’s because this place was originally a two-story house, so what we have here is a converted lower floor.”
“Gotcha,” said Andy.
“Over by these cabinets…if you look here…” pointed the old man.
Andy looked over toward the east side of the kitchen where there were some cabinets and a countertop with a set of drawers underneath it. The old handyman directed Andy’s attention toward what looked like an old-fashioned intercom that rested upon the white wall in-between the countertop and the cabinets above.
The old intercom was a big brown block of painted metal with the waffled circle of a black speaker upon it, a large red push button underneath said speaker. It looked seriously dated, something out of the 40s or 50s maybe.
“We have this speaker in here because it’s part of the building ownership clause,” said Gerald matter-of-factly. “In other words, it came with the building, and we can’t remove it. All I can do is repair it.”
“Okay,” nodded Andy. “What’s it do?”
The old man’s wrinkled face darkened for a quick second, but then he continued speaking as if everything was fine, though Andy had caught the change in mood, short as it had been.
“It connects with the one upstairs,” said Gerald. “Mrs. Arkle has one, but I seriously doubt she’ll ever use hers, so you should never…ever…mess around with this. I’d like to get rid of it, but it’s part of the building’s ownership clause, so all I can do is fix it.”
“Okay…” said Andy uncertainly.
“If you have friends over, they shouldn’t mess with it, either,” warned Gerald.
“Got it,” nodded Andy.
“Now, this place is old and has its quirks, so you may have trouble with the heating and cooling,” explained the old handyman. “If that happens, you just call me. Don’t try and fix it yourself, and don’t hire someone else to do it. You’ll violate your lease.”
“Okay,” said Andy.
“Yeah, this building is definitely unique,” said the old man. “There are some interesting secrets here and there, but don’t go messing with anything. For example, there’s actually an old dumbwaiter that was sealed up here in this back wall.”
He led Andy through the back kitchen door into the tiny laundry area. The old handyman pointed toward a blank white wall, and Andy could make out the indented shape of a pseudo-door, a rectangle about half-the-size of a person, though that rectangle was painted over in said white.
“As long as you don’t try and do any renovations yourself, you’re fine,” explained the old man. “Just remember to call me if anything goes wrong. Mrs. Gorman can’t violate any of the building ownership clauses without a serious fine, and she could even lose the property over a violation.”
“Got it,” nodded Andy.
“My number’s on the fridge,” said Gerald. “You just give me a holler when you need me.”
“Will do,” said Andy.
They walked back through the kitchen and back out into the living room. The old man said his goodbyes and left, and Andy breathed out a long-overdue sigh of relief.
“Finally…” he muttered.
It was game time.
He sat down in his comfy chair, reached over for his remote, and turned up the volume on his TV. He took one sip of his beer and nearly spit it out as the doorbell rang yet again.
“Oh, come on!” he said angrily.
Okay, now he was getting mad.
He slammed the open palms of his hands down upon the arms of his chair, stood up, and stormed over to the front door.
“Do I even get to enjoy my own place!” he said angrily.
Andy opened the front door, but there was no one there. There was a cardboard box in a person’s place, a small package that had just arrived via the mail, though the timing on its delivery was impeccably terrible.
“I don’t remember ordering anything,” he muttered as he picked up the package and shut the door in an absent-minded fashion.
The package was indeed addressed to him, but try as he might, he could not remember ordering anything at all. Plus, he had just fully moved in today.
There was no return-to-sender label.
“Huh…” he said warily.
He took the small box into the kitchen, set the package down upon the kitchen sink counter, and opened up a drawer in which he had stashed a few pieces of silverware. He pulled out a kitchen knife and sawed through the tape that was holding shut the unexpected delivery. He opened up the box, stared down at its contents, and pulled forth the article of clothing contained within the small package.
At first he did not know what he was looking at.
“What is this?” breathed Andy.
He spread out the black cloth and studied it a bit before he understood what it was he had in his hands. He held out a black shawl made of knit wool, something he would have never ordered on his own.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” he laughed.
He took the article of clothing back into the living room and draped it over his shoulders. It smelled okay, and it was a little added comfort to his game time. Besides, he’d deal with it later. Someone had obviously sent this to him by mistake, but maybe his girlfriend would like it, so there was that.
“Game time,” he said to himself as he sat back down in his chair.
He sat back, adjusted the black shawl around his shoulders, picked up his beer, and smiled as he finally got to enjoy his game.
Andy snapped awake with a snort. He had a mild hangover, but he was used to that.
“Price you pay for a few beers,” he said to himself.
He sat up in his chair, let the black shawl around his shoulders slip off him, and stood up. His mouth was dry, his throat parched, so it was time for some water, maybe some soda.
He breathed out a wisp of steam as his breath crystallized in the cold air around him. It took him a moment to figure out that the whole place was freezing.
“What the…?” he muttered to himself.
He walked over to the east wall where the bathroom was located. That was also where the thermostat was, so he took a quick peek at it.
“Twenty-seven degrees?” said Andy in disbelief. “What in the blue blazes?”
The thermostat was clearly very old, a model he couldn’t even begin to recognize. It wasn’t even electronic, though he was sure that couldn’t affect the AC, not this much. The black needle on the number line already indicated that the thermostat was turned up to a comfortable seventy-two degrees, but the red needle, the one for the actual temperature, was on twenty-seven, so there wasn’t much he could do anyway.
“Of course,” he breathed out. “Time to call…uhhh…Gerald.”
He walked back to his comfy chair and picked up his phone. He picked up the large rectangle and hit the side button to bring up the screen, but nothing happened.
“Naturally!” he said angrily.
He walked into the kitchen in order to plug in his phone. That’s where he’d left his charger.
He placed his phone on the kitchen counter, plugged it in, and walked back out to the living room. It was too cold in here, so stepping outside for a moment would help. It was hot as heck out there right now. In fact, being the height of summer, it was in the nineties outside.
“I’ll just step out for a moment,” he said as he rubbed his arms for warmth.
He walked to the front door and turned the knob, but the metal was cold, so cold that he nearly let go of it. Not that it mattered…The door would not budge.
“What!” he hissed.
He rattled the door and pulled hard on it, but he had to let go of the knob due to the sheer lack of heat that was counterintuitively burning his hand.
Andy swore as he shook his right hand to put back some warmth into it.
His breath was coming out in large streams of steam now, the air crystalizing in a line as if he were smoking.
“This is some bull…” he muttered, but he did not finish that expletive.
He rubbed his arms for warmth, spied the black shawl upon his comfy chair, walked back to his chair, and immediately snatched up the article of clothing. He draped the shawl around the top of his sports shirt before rubbing his palms together to generate some friction. He breathed on his hands and then thought better about his situation.
“Good thing I made the bed,” he said as he shivered. “Just grab a blanket real fast…”
He walked to his bedroom door over on the west side of his new place, opened the door, and stepped into his bedroom. A quick glance at the clock told him it was only six, well before nightfall, so light was still streaming in through the windows.
“Yeah, I’ll get out through the window,” he said to himself.
He walked to the bedroom window in order to open it, but there was no latch or way to raise the thing. His bedroom window was simply a crossing of rectangular wood latticed over small panes of glass, the whole of it sealed into the foundation.
“What the fu—?” he started to swear.
He felt a cold presence behind him, a black omen of sorts, something he could not explain with mere words.
Andy turned and then stood as still as a statue as he viewed his bed. The dark-blue comforter upon the bed was raised up as if someone were beneath it, as if someone were kneeling upon his bed, draped by his bedspread so that they could not be seen.
He leaned against the window in startled surprise, but he did not cry out. He was no coward, but if there was a stranger in his place, he was going to deal with them right here and now.
He reached over to where he had his wooden baseball bat. He had leaned it against his oak dresser, so he picked up the makeshift weapon with the full intent of using it when necessary.
He edged closer to his bed in cautious steps, raising his bat, ready to deal with this threat the old-fashioned way. He reached forward toward the edge of his bedspread with his left hand, gripped the edge of his dark-blue comforter, and pulled hard on the spread. He whipped off the blanket from the bed and immediately gripped his bat with both hands, prepared to swing.
There was nothing underneath the blanket.
He breathed a sigh of relief. It occurred to him that his idiot friends had propped up the comforter somehow in order to scare him.
“Those jerks,” he chuckled. “Oh, it is on n—”
His sentence died in his throat as he heard a giggling behind him, a higher-pitched laughter as one would hear from a child. He whipped around to catch the image of that child, a little towheaded boy dressed in brown Sunday School clothes, that boy just outside the doorframe of his bedroom.
The boy disappeared as he darted away from the door and out of Andy’s field of vision.
“Hey!” yelled Andy.
He dropped his bat and gave chase by running out his bedroom door, but there was no sign of the kid in the living room, and even looking over into the kitchen revealed nothing.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end. Something very strange was going on, something very wrong, and he wanted no part of it.
He walked back into his bedroom, grabbed his comforter, and wrapped the dark-blue blanket around his shoulders to add to the protection the black shawl was already giving him. It was cold as heck in here, and for some ungodly reason, he was trapped within his own apartment.
His breath came out in large puffs of steam as he made his way over to his thermostat again. One check of the red needle revealed the little crimson arrow to be centered over the zero.
“Z…z…zero?” he said through chattering teeth. “I gotta get outta here!”
He walked to the front door, but he stopped as he studied the main entrance and exit to his new place of residence. The door was now coated over with ivory-white hoarfrost, like the back of a freezer that hadn’t been defrosted in ages.
“Un…b…b…believable,” he chattered out.
His phone had to have charged by now. It had to have some charge in it. He just needed enough juice to get Gerald over here to rescue him. Besides, that kid was still wandering around his place. That couldn’t have been his imagination. That little boy was still hiding in here somewhere.
He walked into the kitchen and went for his phone, but as he tried to pick it up, he realized it was stuck to the countertop. Correction…it was frozen to the countertop.
“You have got to be kidding me!” yelled Andy.
His phone was as cold as a slab of ice, and bending down revealed to him that the bottom edges were frosted over like the front door.
He hit the side button to bring up the screen, but once again, nothing happened.
“Come on!” he hissed.
He walked over to his silverware drawer, pulled it open, and took out the first knife his fingers made contact with. It was his good silver butterknife, the one his Aunt Margaret had given him way, way back when.
He really didn’t want to use his best piece of silverware to pry his phone from the countertop, but he also didn’t want to freeze to death in his new apartment when it was the hottest day of the year outside, a fate that would be an irony for the ages. Besides, he was all out of patience.
“Decisions, decisions,” he breathed out. “You know what?…Screw it.”
He turned around to get back to the task at hand, but he received yet another start, this one a lot more alarming than the previous two, much more alarming than the boy and the bedsheet.
There was a man standing in his kitchen.
There was a balding man in a brown smoking jacket and good brown slacks standing in the middle of his kitchen. This guy looked to be in his early thirties, and he was standing to where Andy could only see his right profile, the man staring off toward the laundry room, staring away as if at nothing. In his right hand was a half-consumed dirty martini, the olives on a stick still balanced on the side of the fanned glass.
“Umm…uhhh…Can I help you?” asked Andy.
He was truly at a loss for words over this one.
The stranger slowly turned to look at him, but Andy immediately regretted that he had. The left half of this man’s clothes were charred rags, but it was his neck and face that really showed the damage. The stranger’s neck and face were horribly burned, but not in an old, scarred way, but fresh, as if the fire had just been put out. His left hand was also charred and blackened, fresh blood seeping from the lines of burnt flesh upon it.
Andy’s mouth dropped open as he clutched the poor weapon that was his Aunt Margaret’s silver butterknife. He could do nothing but gasp out a stream of crystallized breath at the sight of this horror, for he was frozen at that moment, and not from the invasive cold around him.
The stranger turned and walked toward the laundry room, disappearing a moment later through the open doorway.
Andy cautiously followed him to the laundry room doorway and slowly peered through the opening and into the sliver of room that made up his laundry area.
There was no one there.
There was, however, the backdoor, the backdoor that led out into the tiny backyard of this property, the backdoor that he had clearly forgotten about until now.
“Y…Y…Yes!” said Andy through chattering teeth.
It was time to get out of this horror show and time to get out of this lease. Whatever was going on here was beyond his understanding, so it was better to just cut and run now.
He walked past the washer and dryer to reach for the brass knob, but that knob was frosted over just like the front door. Andy braved the absolute chill of the metal, but try as he might, he could not open the door. It was stuck shut, frozen shut, just like the front door.
He let off a string of expletives that would have made a sailor proud.
He pulled his comforter closer to him and shivered beneath it. Something had to be done, and it had to be done now, because this was getting ridiculous.
He walked back into the kitchen and spied the old intercom out of his right peripheral. He wasn’t supposed to use it, but it occurred to him that the old woman upstairs might be able to contact someone. She probably had one of those alert systems that old people needed in case they fell or something.
He walked over to the intercom, and thankfully, it wasn’t frosted over. He pushed the big red button on it, held it in, and leaned in to speak into the archaic device.
“H…Hello?” he stammered. “Is anybody there? Mrs. Arkle?”
He released the button and waited, but there was no reply, just a mild static noise of the old intercom working to its, what he assumed, full capacity.
“Hello?” he asked again. “Mrs. Arkle? Are you there? I need help.”
He released the button again, but this time a voice floated through over the speaker.
“Yes?” came an old woman’s voice.
Andy grinned in spite of himself. Now he could get some help. He could get out of this freakshow of an apartment.
He pushed in the button in order to talk.
“This is Andy Warnell,” he replied. “I’m your downstairs neighbor.”
“I know who you are, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman in return.
Mrs. Arkle’s voice was raspy but understandable. Even so, there was a touch of irritation in her tone, a spark of something Andy did not like. Nevertheless, he decided to play it safe and just ask for help.
“There’s something wrong with the AC down here,” he said. “Everything’s frozen over, and I can’t get out the doors. They’re frozen shut. Even my phone won’t work.”
“And?” asked the old woman.
That was not the response Andy was expecting to hear.
“And I need help,” he continued. “Please, call someone…uhhh…Gerald to come over and let me out. I don’t want to have to smash a window or something.”
“Damaging the property will violate your lease, Mr. Warnell,” replied Mrs. Arkle.
“I’m leaving anyway,” said Andy. “I don’t think this place is right for me…Could you please contact Gerald?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman.
“Wait, what?” asked Andy.
He wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“It’s quite warm up here,” continued the old woman. “It’s exactly the temperature I need. I don’t want you fooling around with the heating and cooling. If you’re too cold, cover up with something. I’m sure there’s something lying around that you can wear.”
“I…No, wait. You don’t under—” began Andy.
“Good day, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman. “Don’t contact me again.”
“Wait…I…” started Andy, but then he stepped back out of frustration.
He let out another long string of curses. It took him a few seconds to calm down after that, but he managed it.
“That woman is mean,” he grimaced. “Okay, okay. Think…”
He remembered watching a movie about a guy who had messed around with an old thermostat and had gotten it to work. That guy had taken off the thermostat’s cover and had messed around with a small vial of mercury set within the guts of the thing.
“That’s what I’ll d…do…” said Andy through chattering teeth.
He switched his butterknife to his left hand, pulled his comforter tightly to him, and walked back into the living room, intent on fixing the thermostat. He walked to the east wall where the thermostat was located and gingerly reached up for it.
The paneled dark wood of the wall beneath the thermostat broke open, and Andy cried out as he stepped backwards in alarm. Something had popped out of the wall as if shoved through it, and it took Andy a moment to figure out what he was looking at.
It was a little girl, or at least, what was left of one.
The little girl before him was half-in and half-out of the wall, and she looked to have been around five or six. She wore a blue dress with red-flower print, but she had been dead for many, many years, a withered mummy of a thing with wisps of strawberry-blonde hair upon her shriveled skull.
“Oh…Oh…Oh, sh…shi…” stammered out Andy.
He just had fear in him. No thoughts, no answers, no anything but fear.
In the little girl’s withered right arm was a tattered teddy bear, and in her left hand, the arm dangling down as if weighted in place, was some kind of black book, what looked to be an old album of sorts, but Andy couldn’t tell for sure.
“What?…What is…is going on?” he asked himself.
He was still in shock, but necessity overrode that little issue. He still needed to fix the thermostat. He could call the police about the body once he’d escaped from this nightmare prison he’d somehow been roped into, and the only way he was going to escape was to thaw the place out.
He reached up to fix the thermostat, intent on removing the casing. He had shut off part of his brain in order to do this, because just below him was the body of the little girl, and he did not want to look at it, much less think about it.
His fingers touched the plastic casing of the thermostat, but he did not get to remove the protective cover.
The girl beneath him turned her shriveled skull of a face up toward him, her jaws creaking open, and she hissed out a dry screech that pierced Andy’s hearing.
That was it for him. He backed away and ran toward the kitchen. There was no going out the front door anyway.
Andy ran into the kitchen and immediately jammed his thumb into the red button on the old intercom.
“Mrs. Arkle! Mrs. Arkle!” he called out.
There was a moment of static, and then he received his reply.
“Mr. Warnell, I thought I told you not to contact me again,” came the old woman’s raspy voice.
“Th…There’s a body in the wall!” stammered Andy.
“Excuse me?” asked Mrs. Arkle.
“A b…body in the wall!” repeated Andy. “I saw it! It was a little girl with a teddy bear…”
“Is that so?” asked the old woman. “You are unhinged, Mr. Warnell. I will have to take this up with Mrs. Gorman as soon as possible.”
“N…No!” chattered Andy. “There’s a dead little girl in the wall, and she…she screamed at me…”
He realized right then that he was sounding like a crazy person, a real loon, and he needed to get a grip, if only to convince this pernicious old bat to help him.
“This conversation is over, Mr. Warnell,” said Mrs. Arkle.
“L…Look, just c…call Mrs. Gorman and get Gerald t…t…to come over here,” said Andy through chattering teeth.
“I’ll inform them tomorrow,” said Mrs. Arkle. “I’ll be sure to raise a serious complaint over this.”
“N…No, it’s too cold!” hissed Andy. “Get them now! I’m t…trapped in here!”
“The temperature is just fine up here, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman. “There are no dead bodies here either, but I’ll be sure and inform the police about yours tomorrow. Right now, I’m going to enjoy some chamomile. Good day, Mr. Warnell.”
“Y…You old bat!” yelled Andy.
He gave up on that for now. Maybe if he enraged her enough, she’d call the police, and that would actually be a good thing, but for now, he needed heat.
“Th…The stove…” he said to himself.
He hadn’t tried turning on the oven. Even the burners up top would help.
He walked over to the stove but was supremely disappointed at what he saw. The burners on top were electric, so that meant no immediate heat, but he could always turn on the actual oven.
There were no dials on the oven…It was all electronic. The clock on the stove was not working, either. There was just a blank black bar where the time should have been.
He jammed his thumb into the flat buttons for the temperature, but nothing happened. It was clear that the power was dead.
“No, no, no, no, NO!” yelled Andy.
This was way past ridiculous. He needed to get out of this frozen hellhole, and fast.
“No wonder this place was s…so ch…cheap,” he said as he shivered uncontrollably.
He turned around and stopped as yet another stranger walked through his kitchen. This time it was a young man, a young black-haired man in his late twenties, that man wearing a simple brown overcoat with black pants.
Andy realized he was still clutching his silver butterknife. He switched it to his right hand, ready to bring it up just in case.
The man walking through his kitchen had his left profile facing Andy, as if the intruder had come from out of the laundry room. This young man stopped and turned to give a brief stare at Andy, but once again, Andy severely wished that this new stranger had not done so, just like the last intruder in his kitchen.
Half the stranger’s head was missing, the right half, just a chunk gone, like he’d been the victim of a shotgun blast, probably, but Andy was no forensics expert.
The macabre intruder turned his head back to stare at nothing, walked out of the kitchen, and entered Andy’s bedroom.
“Y…Yep,” chattered Andy. “Yep. Yep, yep. Another one. Another one f…for crazy town.”
There was no point in explaining it. He was just taking this crap as fact now.
He pulled his comforter closer to him. It had to be way below zero in here now. One glance around the kitchen told him that anyway; almost everything was coated over with white hoarfrost, some of it forming into thick chunks of snow-covered ice.
He heard the crying of a baby a second later, a loud wailing as if an infant were in pain or danger.
“Oh…Oh, crap…” he said to himself.
This one he could not ignore.
He walked out into the living room and looked around for the source of the crying, but his ears were a better cue than any visual one. That wailing was coming from his bathroom.
He walked into the bathroom and searched for the source of his distress. The wailing was intense upon entering, and it was coming from the bathtub, so he pulled back the ugly green shower curtain that had come with the place and stared down into the contents of the tub.
He could see the baby under the ice. The tub was half-filled with water, that water frozen solid, and he could see the bluish skin and little blue onesie of a baby in that block of death, but he backed away from that terrible vision. This one he couldn’t really handle.
He sucked in his breath as he backed out of the bathroom. He reached forward and pulled the door closed, but not all the way. The doorknob was frozen solid, a cold chunk of metal, and it burned to the touch. Nevertheless, he wanted the terrible image from the tub out of his field of vision.
The little girl was one thing, but the frozen baby was entirely another. Either he was going crazy because of the cold, or this place…this place was…
“Th…This place is haunted as fu—” he began to swear, but he didn’t get the chance to finish that sentence.
He could see through the open slat of the bathroom door, and a man, a big man, a man that looked to be in his late thirties, came crawling into Andy’s field of vision, right from the area Andy had just left.
This guy was dressed in light-blue work overalls, the kind a mechanic might have. He had shaggy brown hair, a full brown beard and mustache, and his face was wracked with pain. Andy could see the guy dragging a pair of crushed legs behind him, leaving a trail of blood upon the white of the bathroom tiles, that trail coming out and over the lip of the tub, as if he’d just crawled out of it. The man’s tortured expression was further enhanced by the blood seeping from his lips, a sure sign that he had internal injuries as well.
Andy shut the bathroom door all the way. He wasn’t going to deal with that.
He turned and let out a small cry of surprise at the sight of the little boy standing in front of him, the little blonde boy he’d seen earlier.
This kid held up a cardboard box of what looked like chocolates and asked Andy a simple question.
“Want some candy?” asked the boy.
“Uhhh…” began Andy.
The boy smiled, and blood immediately spilled in a river from his thin lips, running down his chin and onto his good Sunday clothes.
Enough was enough. Andy was way past his limit.
He walked past the kid and into the kitchen. Things were way out of control now. Whatever was going on here was way out of his paygrade, and he needed some answers.
He switched his silver butterknife to his left hand and jammed his right thumb into the big red button of the intercom.
“What’s going on…d…down here, Mrs. Arkle?” he asked.
He waited a bit, and sure enough, the old bat answered.
“Whatever could you mean, Mr. Warnell?” asked Mrs. Arkle.
“The place has…has t…t…turned into Antarctica,” chattered Andy. “Oh…Oh, yeah, and…and one more thing…There are dead people wandering around in…in here.”
“Is that right, Mr. Warnell?” asked the old woman. “Are you finished?”
“N…Not by a longshot,” replied Andy. “G…Get the police over here.”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Warnell,” said Mrs. Arkle. “My suggestion is to stop drinking or doing the drugs you young people like to do. I’m doing you a favor by not calling anyone. That way, you can’t be taken to jail.”
“A f…f…favor, huh?” asked Andy. “You w…want to do me a favor, then c…call somebody over here to let me out! I’m freezing to death in my own home!”
“It’s not your home, Mr. Warnell,” stated Mrs. Arkle. “It’s mine. You are fortunate to be renting here. As for freezing to death, perhaps it’s just your time. You know, this must mean you’re not a Christian man, Mr. Warnell. Most people think Hell is a place of fire and brimstone, but I know it to be cold.”
“What?” asked Andy in confusion.
“It looks like your time is running out, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman. “My guess is that the Devil has come for you.”
“Y…You old bat!” yelled Andy.
“It’s the chill of death, Mr. Warnell,” said Mrs. Arkle, a hint of amusement in her raspy voice. “It looks like your fate has already been decided. Where you’re going, there is no light. There’s only darkness, darkness and cold. That’s right, Mr. Warnell. It’s just bitter, bitter cold you’re heading for.”
“You…so help me…I’ll…I will…” stammered Andy.
“Farewell, Mr. Warnell,” said the old woman. “I doubt we shall speak again, in this life or the next. I’m afraid we’ll be a great distance apart. Where I’m going is warm.”
The intercom went dead as Andy watched a coating of frost spread across it, spreading across the archaic device in real time, something unbelievable if he hadn’t been staring straight at it.
“You p…p…piece of…” he half-cursed.
He shook his head in disgust and marched back into the living room. He was truly angry now, so some dead people were not going to stop him from getting out of this frozen Hell, and Hell it was, the one and only thing the old bat upstairs had been correct about.
Andy turned and stared at the supposedly dead girl still hanging half-out of his wall underneath the thermostat. He stared at the black book in her withered, dangling left hand, the book that looked like a photo album, and he decided then and there to get it. Maybe it held some answers, at least, these things always held answers in the movies. Some kind of unfinished business or some such crap.
He walked up to the small corpse and reached for the book, but the girl’s shriveled skull of a head peered up at him with empty sockets and hissed at him through grinning teeth.
“Oh, shut up,” said Andy.
He was still holding his Aunt Margaret’s silver butterknife in his left hand. He really didn’t want to touch this thing residing in his wall, so he placed the flat of the blade against the dead leathery skin of her forehead, ready to push her head back so those teeth could not bite him.
It did not work as intended. The dead girl’s skull sizzled and popped under the touch of the knife, and she shrieked in terrible anguish as Andy yanked the black photo album from her withered, skeletal left hand.
“Y…Yeah, how do you like that!” he yelled, but then he stopped as he realized the insanity of his action.
He was yelling at a corpse, an animated one, true, but still. He thought better about his situation now anyway.
“S…Silver,” he said. “At…At least that works.”
The shriveled and withered corpse of the little girl slumped over and went back to playing dead.
Good enough for him.
He shook his head and backed away with his new prize. He opened the old photo album and flipped through it one page at a time.
There were a lot of black and white photos within the book, but the age of the pictures was not what stoked his interest. It was the people in the photos that held his focus.
He saw the faces of the dead within this album, the boy, the girl, all three men, even the baby…but one of those faces he had not seen before. The same woman was in each and every picture, that woman with light hair, probably blonde, a woman whose presence had not shown as of yet in his apartment.
There was cursive writing penned under a few of the photos, a rare occurrence, three to be exact, but he studied those words with new gusto.
“Peter F…Feldman and family, 1945,” he whispered under chilled breath.
There was a picture of the young man who he’d seen with half a head missing. There was also the unknown blonde woman and the baby, the woman holding the baby in both arms. The man in the picture, this Peter Feldman, held a shotgun in his right hand, the firearm leaning against his right shoulder. He had a dead turkey held up by the legs in his left hand.
“Looks like you w…were on the wrong end of th…that shot, bud,” said Andy.
He flipped to the next photo with writing and studied that picture’s caption.
“D…Doctor Eric Edelman and family, 1951,” he whispered again.
This picture was of the balding man in the smoking jacket. Next to him was the unknown blonde and the little blonde boy. Andy could clearly see a barbecue grill to their right, and the woman in the picture held a small metal can of what looked like charcoal lighter fluid.
“I c…can only guess what happened th…there,” he chattered out.
Andy flipped through until he found the last picture with a caption.
“J…Jack Glover and family, 1957,” he said.
It was the big man he’d seen with the crushed legs. This man was standing in front of an old car, the little girl next to him, her right arm clutching her teddy bear tightly to her. The unknown blonde woman stood on the left side of the little girl, the right side from Andy’s point of view. The man was dressed in the same overalls that had been showcased during his grisly appearance, only this time with a toolbelt around his waist. Andy could see that the car behind the family was lifted up on a large metal pump jack, the tires missing from the vehicle itself.
The next few photos held no captions, but they did hold something of extreme interest. They were of the unknown blonde woman, singular, just still images of her by her lonesome, but that was not interesting. It was the black shawl around the woman’s shoulders that caught his eye, the very shawl he was wearing right now, right now around his own shoulders underneath his comforter.
He flipped to the back of the book and felt his blood boil at the name penned upon the last white page. It was actually this name at the back of the book that set him off and really got his goat.
“Property of Maxine Arkle, huh!” he spat.
It hit him like a bolt of lightning, all of it, all at once.
He knew what was going on now. He knew what was going on, and he had an idea of how to stop it. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the bases were loaded…He just needed that grand slam.
“Th…Think you can…can outsmart Hell, do you?” he asked. “Using me as a…as a patsy, huh?”
Andy walked into his bedroom and grabbed his baseball bat. It was time to hit that grand slam.
“You are d…done, Grandma!” he spat. “Murder your own family and want me to…to t…take the fall! No, no…N…Not today, you old bat. Not any day!”
He walked out of his bedroom and stopped to view the empty hole in his wall. The little dead girl was gone, a vacant space where she had just been.
“W…Wonderful,” he said unhappily.
He walked into his kitchen in order to head to the laundry room, but he was stopped yet again by the crowd before him.
They were all there, the faces of the dead from the album, all of them in their own grisly glory, even the withered little wall girl holding the frozen baby, all of them waiting to bar his way.
He had his bat, and he had his knife, and he could possibly fight his way through, but he had a better idea, something he had not tried as of yet.
Andy slowly placed his silver knife on the east wall countertop, reached up inside his comforter, and pulled off the black shawl. He held up the cursed article of clothing and showed it off as if it were the grand prize of a gameshow.
“It’s n…not me,” he chattered out. “It’s not me y…you want. You just s…step aside, and I’ll lead the way. I’ll t…take you to her.”
He held up the black shawl and marched forward, the ghosts of the past parting for him as he made his way through them. He stepped into the laundry room, let his comforter slide from his shoulders, gripped his wooden bat, and swung hard at the east wall.
The plaster came apart, the thin wooden panel behind it breaking as he smashed into it, knocking forth a hole to reveal the rectangular space he was looking for. He pulled chunks of frozen plaster from the wall until there was just enough space to crawl into the old, unused dumbwaiter.
He climbed into the old service device and pulled hard on the cold, thick rope that pulled this thing up. It was a tough pull to get his own weight moving, but he would smash through the top of the dumbwaiter and climb that rope if need be.
“I’m c…coming for you, you old bat,” he said angrily.
There was no light in here, just pitch black, but he knew he was going up. He was going up and out of this cold darkness, and he was going to make sure that evil old woman took his place.
He pulled his way up to the second floor, pulling hard until the dumbwaiter could no longer move. He pulled on the rope with all of his weight to hold the device in place, and then he kicked forth at the plaster he instinctively knew was in front of him. His tennis shoes blasted through that weak wall, and then light spilled in.
He burst from the hole and into heat, wonderful and glorious heat.
Andy stood up in a small laundry area reminiscent of his own. Light was spilling into this room from the open archway that led into the kitchen area, no door to shut for this particular covey.
He walked into this new kitchen and dropped his wooden bat to have it clatter across the kitchen floor. He didn’t need it anymore, not for this.
He walked into the living room and spied her there, the old woman sitting in a wheelchair, the old bat just sitting there as if nothing were wrong.
She was older than dirt, a wrinkled thing of frowns and hate dressed in black, a monochrome of evil that he had the cure for.
She looked up and saw him walk in, the light in her once bright-blue eyes flashing a silent fury, a recognition that her time was finally up. She lifted her wrinkled, liver-spotted right hand, lifted it a mere inch as if under great strain, and pointed at him with one accusing finger.
“You…aren’t…welcome…here…Mister…Warnell…” she said in raspy, measured breaths.
How in the heck she had operated the intercom so quickly was beyond Andy, because this woman could barely move or talk at all, but that was beside the point, because none of this had been right from the get go. He just took it all as fact now. If it was hate that was keeping her going, then it didn’t surprise him at all that she had somehow used that intercom, had somehow brought forth some evil power to use against him.
But that was irrelevant. Her time was up.
“I just stopped by for a little “wellness check,” smirked Andy. “Just being neighborly.”
“Go…to…He—” started Mrs. Arkle, but Andy cut her short.
“Oh, I won’t be the one going there,” he said firmly.
He held up the black shawl, the black shawl he knew to be hers, the fetter that brought in the cold of Hell and the ghosts from the past, and she visibly recoiled from it. That was all the proof he needed to seal her fate. She couldn’t outsmart death this time, and he was going to make damned sure she didn’t outsmart Hell.
“You see, there’s a draft in your laundry room,” he smiled. “It’s going to get chilly, so I came up to return this to you. We don’t want you to get cold now, do we?”
He draped the heavy shawl around the old woman’s shoulders and walked to her front door, but not before giving her one last backwards glance.
He could already feel the chill settling in here. It was a blanket of cold coming down, a Shakespearian revenge that was best served as such.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Arkle,” he said firmly. “I doubt we’ll meet again in this lifetime or the next. You’ve got a cold front coming in, but I’m actually going somewhere warm. Oh, but I wouldn’t worry, because you won’t be lonely. You have family stopping by. I imagine they’ll be here sooner than later.”
“This…isn’t…over…” rasped out Mrs. Arkle.
“Oh, it is for me, Mrs. Arkle,” replied Andy. “It is for me…Say hi to the kids for me.”
Andy opened the front door and stepped out into the summer heat. Yeah, it was sweltering outside, but he breathed in that heat with gusto, reveling in that hot air as he stood for a moment on the second-floor stairs.
He smiled, reached back, and shut the door behind him.
Cold Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott