Chirping electrical warning tones, the tram resumed its southbound journey into the night. Its departure lulled Dane Street into a soundless, slumbering state that would last until the lines reopened at dawn.
Anderson scuttered to the scanner beneath the arrival board and tapped his Arrow pass to its sensor. Once the machine’s double ding confirmed his return fare, he proceeded north along the deserted stretch of pavement.
Wind streamed through the stitches of his wool cap, battering his eardrums with cold air. Why hadn’t he taken a taxi? He would have been home by now—warm, asleep, work-thoughts on mute. A chill flushed from his pulse into his fingers; he retrieved the written warning from the front compartment of his backpack. Proceeding past the darkened storefronts, he studied the “26-minutes late” written in red permanent marker underneath the “reason” heading.
Having missed his tram, Anderson had called Lisa a half hour before his start time to warn her about his potentially late arrival; however, as soon as he entered the empty pub, Lisa swished him into the back to unload a lecture on laziness and responsibility. When finished, she issued the document with a schoolmarm glare leveled overtop her purple pair of cat eye glasses.
He shoved the paper inside his bag and crossed the empty asphalt to St. Ignatius. Hands plunged inside his bomber jacket, he turned left at the church’s illuminated arch onto Plymouth Lane.
Exhaustion prickled at the back of his skull by the time he reached his apartment building. After midnight, the blackened windows on its brick face resembled pockmarks; each blemish led to the home of a resident who had gone to bed at a reasonable hour.
Tomorrow, before work, he’d search online for new jobs—bartending ones, for the time being.
With his fingers numb to the brush of polyester lining, he jostled his keyring from his jacket pocket and unlocked the front door to Hamilton Hall. Sensing his presence, the automatic overheads whirred to life. Their light splattered a urinary hue onto the eggshell walls and porridge-colored carpet.
He climbed the stairs to the first floor and started up the second flight, beckoning bellows from the wood underneath the carpeted train. As he turned the u-shape landing, his focus floated upwards from his sneakers to something in his peripheral.
On the landing, just above the top step, a man lay facing the staircase in the broken battle stance of an action figure dropped in a parking lot—his left arm, stretched across the top tread, his right, folded to the breast pocket of his navy peacoat. Straggling strands of dirty blond hair, having escaped from their quiff, drooped from his widow’s peak onto his forehead. Saliva had left a visible wet blot on his royal blue collar.
His spritely smile of full, angular teeth had greeted him a week ago; it now hid behind an agape mouth that only the cuspate bulbs of his top canines could penetrate.
Anderson loosened his constriction on the banister and hobbled up a few more steps. Drawing nearer, he noticed his neighbor’s eyes—moss-green and unblinking—watching his approach.
The automatics clacked. Sudden darkness smothered the staircase.
Anderson woke from a dreamless sleep to the light of morning’s pearl glow bleeding through the blinds. The knock at the door that had stirred him crescendoed with a harder press of knuckles.
“Just a moment,” he croaked, his voice hoarse from questioning. He rose from his bed and slipped his beer-stained pants back on to answer the unrequested wake-up call.
Tim Dellucci stood at the doorframe wearing a neon orange windbreaker that offset the harsh yellow flares of hallway lighting. The superintendent appeared in times of crisis, like an omen of disaster summoned by property damage and potential lawsuits.
“Hey, buddy, I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, not at all,” said Anderson, clearing his throat. “I’m just getting ready for work.”
“Can I come in for a moment?” he asked, speaking in a hushed tone as though the hallway were bugged. “I just wanted to touch base with you . . . after last night.”
The memory roused from its drowsing state. Air railroaded into his lungs. Denying the request for the sake of sleep would be disrespectful, if not questionable.
“Yeah,” he said, exhaling.
“Thanks, bud,” the omen replied, ducking inside the entryway.
Anderson entered the main room ahead of him to collect the pile of unfolded laundry hogging the center of his two-seater.
“One second,” he mumbled, carrying the ball of clothing to the bathroom. He returned to find Tim seated, cross-armed, on the cleared suede cushion. “I’m sorry. I know it looks like hell in here,” said Anderson, lowering himself onto the base of the bed, perpendicular to his visitor.
Tim removed his paperboy cap and stuffed it inside his windbreaker’s center pouch; the sallow shine of the overhead flush lamp exposed the thinning salt-and-pepper hair on the top of his head. “You should’ve seen my place when I was your age. Relax. You’re fine. Just take a breath.”
“What time does work start?” Tim asked, gesturing to his shirt with a single nod.
Anderson glanced down at the turquoise Tillington’s polo he’d slept in and replied, “1 pm.” The uniform, supporting the lie, could drive the super out sooner.
“Perfect. It’s only 10 am now. You’ve got time.”
He did. Too much of it. With hours left until 5 pm, he would have to wait within the cramped confines of his studio apartment, fewer than 15 feet from where the body with wild, forest eyes had waited in the darkness.
“How’ve you been holding up?” Tim asked.
His focus snapped back to his guest. “Sorry, could you say that again?”
“Are you doing alright after last night?”
“Oh . . . I—yeah—I’m fine,” mumbled Anderson, too preoccupied to monitor his tone. “How about you?”
“Well, I’m currently running on a hearty combination of stress and coffee,” said Tim, leaning forward on his knees with interlocked fingers. “By the way, sorry we missed each other earlier. The cop with the bobbed haircut—the one who brought you back to your apartment—told me to let you rest. Was she the one who interviewed you in my office?”
He nodded in the affirmative. By the time he returned to the second floor with Officer Lloyd, the body had been removed from the taped off area.
“Do they know what happened yet?” Anderson probed.
“I have some, uh, updates, but I’m not sure if I’m supposed to share.”
“Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have asked.” Then why had he?
“Listen,” Tim said, interrupting the thought. “It’s probably best to get the word out so rumors don’t spread—I don’t need people speculating that we’re running a crack den or something like that. First things first, there were no signs of foul play, thank God; that would have been a different monster entirely.”
A murder hadn’t seemed likely. Lloyd’s questions had never pointed to that possibility, and the emergency operator wouldn’t have allowed him to wait in the lobby if he believed a killer was lurking nearby. No. Something about his state—collapsed, yearner position, slack-jawed and bloodless—had always suggested a natural, internal assailant.
“They’ll have to wait for an autopsy report to confirm it officially, but they think it was some sort of seizure,” said Tim.
“How do they know?” he asked with increased awareness of his motoring heart rate.
“They found epilepsy medication—either on him or in his apartment. I’m not sure why someone with that severe of a condition would live on their own, but that’s just me.”
Anderson swallowed the poison his curiosity had milked; his neighbor’s position hadn’t been an accident. It had been prepared—practiced. He clamped his hands underneath his armpits to conceal their shivering.
Tim continued, “Before I came up here to see you, I was on the phone to a buddy of mine who oversees a property on the east side. He was telling me a story about this one older lady he had years ago—most of his tenants are retirees, and this one lived alone. Well, the poor thing died in her apartment one day. They didn’t find her until the smell started seeping through the vents several weeks later. So, in a way, we’re fortunate it happened where it did.” If Anderson hadn’t found the body, then who would have? It probably would have remained there until morning. If it had occurred inside his apartment, when would people have noticed? “The point I’m trying to make is this: when your tenants are young professionals, college graduates, folks around your age—you’re what, 24?”
“I just turned 25.”
“Yeah, about the same—you just don’t expect them to die, especially when they’re young.” Tim, seeming to reflect on his admission, buried his chin to his chest.
Rain drummed against the window with swelling tempo and a question marched forth from Anderson’s mental haze. “Tim, can I just—can I ask you . . . his name?” He’d been unable to provide Lloyd with it earlier.
The super looked up from his jeans’ faded knees. “Oh. I, uh—shit—I assumed you guys knew each other a little.”
“No. We passed each other in the hallway from time to time, but that was the extent of it.”
Anderson had last seen him in the laundry room. He’d been putting the last of his clean clothes in his hamper when his neighbor entered wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants in place of his business attire. With a well-structured smile that showcased his distinct canines, he extended a rhetorical “Hey, how’s it going?” and proceeded to the second washer-dryer to load it with French blue button-downs.
“Carter Winterbee. Really good guy. He used to play lacrosse for Robinson—moved to the city after graduation to take a job at one of the tech companies downtown. Not the kind of kid you’d expect to—you know—just drop.”
How many people knew the name? How long would they remember it?
Carter Winternbee. He’d likely been one of the lucky few to avoid the post-graduation professional limbo. Anderson imagined him pitching fresh ideas to saggy suits seated around a boardroom table. Earlier, loose papers—business plans, perhaps—had flooded onto the top step from the unhitched satchel strewn across his left hip. The bag’s strap had been twisted across his unbreathing chest like a DNA helix.
“I should probably get going,” Tim said, glancing at his phone screen. He stood up and unzipped his neon pouch to recover his hat. “I’ve got a call with the owner in a minute, but I thought I’d drop in to make sure you were doing alright.”
“Thanks for that. I’ll be okay.” He followed the super to the front door.
“The cross tape should be removed by now, so I doubt anyone will ask questions. Were there a lot of folks in the hallway last night?”
“I’m not really sure; I was downstairs for most of it.”
“Just making sure. I was busy with the responders, so I didn’t get a good look—not many people contacted me besides yourself. If anyone comes to you asking questions, just send them to me,” he said, extending his hand. Anderson accepted the clammy palm.
“You’re freezing, bud. The heat working in here okay?”
Anderson broke from the handshake. “Sorry, yeah. Just bad circulation.”
“Well, get in touch if it gives you any issues.” The super fixed his hat in place, wished him well, and exited the studio apartment.
Standing in the entryway, Anderson listened to the hall lights drone behind the front door. They shut off after a few minutes, and Hamilton Hall fell silent again.
Thoughts popped like cinders from a mental fire.
The name—Carter Winterbee—precluded an obituary that summarized his short life and unfulfilled aspirations; Carter’s mother confirmed her son’s name before falling to her knees, phone in hand; Carter’s legacy, represented by one stone in an infinite stretch of earth.
He imagined the contorted body from the staircase put on display for its mourners—hair, gelled and parted, like the plastic crown of a ventriloquist dummy, cheeks painted in funeral foundation. He paced towards the kitchen. An older memory rampaged through the gates left open by the recent.
Camera flashes infiltrated the glass coffin, adding shine to the waxy, incorrupt face of the former pope whose body lay in a never-ending wake. The corpse adjacent had eluded divine preservation; his decomposing, verdant skin had ripped at the neck and knuckles to reveal murky bulbs of yellowed bone. The body had surrendered to nature and nature had reclaimed it.
Anderson found himself hurrying to the bathroom. He leaped over the pile of clothing and dipped his head inside the toilet.
“It’s just like he’s sleeping,” his mother’s voice echoed in memory. She had repeated the line while rubbing the heel of his hand with her thumb. His parents were forced to remove him from St. Peter’s Basilica once his cries grew too loud for the marble hall to hold.
He waited for the turbulence constricting his chest and throat to eject contents from his empty stomach. The memory of Carter’s gaping mouth, sharp canines, and murky swamp water eyes seemed to permeate the walls from down the hall like a heavy odor.
Gripping the seat with his icy fingers, he heaved clear liquid into the bowl. Once he was sure nothing else would come up, he retreated to his bedside table to check his phone for the time.
The remaining hours of silent isolation would worsen the mental sting. Where could he go? The barrage of rain and wind would prevent him from wandering the city without a destination. Despite its limited prospects, and his manager’s inevitable lingering frustrations, work would have kept his mind busy enough to evade unwanted thoughts.
An idea spawned. He acted on it without hesitation: showering, changing, and exiting apartment 27. Counting back from 100, he made his way towards the elevator, keeping his eyes to the ground as he passed the staircase.
“You won’t be paid. You know that, right?” asked Lisa from the other side of the counter.
“I know,” he panted. “I just thought I’d lend a hand—to make up for yesterday.”
“I’m not expecting it to be busy today.” She pointed her pen at the desolate, waterlogged street just beyond the glass door. “At least not until happy hour.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
She braced her freckly arms against the cash register. “Fine,” she huffed. “You can help Mindy take orders and run food until your shift starts. But don’t expect her to share tips.”
“That’s alright—she can keep them.”
“If you say so,” she said, cracking a roll of quarters over the counter. “I’m going to open in a second. Go get your apron on.”
When he returned from the kitchen, somebody had already responded to the neon open sign.
“Mindy’s just parking,” said Lisa, looking up from the smartphone she’d been glaring at underneath the counter. She tucked the device inside her rear pocket. “Take number 6 until she gets here.”
He approached the corner booth and asked the customer—a young professor-type with wavy brown hair and a tweed jacket—what he would like to drink. The man smiled and opened his mouth to speak. Dagger-like canines accentuated his perfect row of teeth.
Raindrops ticked against the front windows like out-of-sync metronomes. “I’m sorry. Can—could you repeat that?” Anderson stammered, having missed the order.
Memories clawed their way forward throughout the day in vivid images. Carter’s sage-green eyes staring, unfocused, in his direction; his mouth, gasping for breath that would never come; his pointed, bulging teeth framing the dark tunnel of his esophagus.
Exhaustion worsened with each hour of his voluntary shift. By close, thoughts of the dead had relocated to a dreamy mental space cut off from cognition.
He exited Tillington’s at 12:05 AM with the tips Mindy had forced upon him in his bag. Enduring the assault of rainfall on his jacket, he took the same route home as the night before. Torpid, he passed underneath the window to the now-vacant apartment and entered Hamilton Hall. The foyer’s lights clicked on with a static snap. Crossing the parallel trails that the gurney had left indented into the carpet, he approached the elevator, deaf to the mental noise elicited by his surroundings.
Anderson struggled to fall asleep once in bed. His mind, suppressing his body’s plea for rest, evoked speculative imagery of Carter’s funeral—the mourners, the corkboard of baby photographs, the casket. Drafting the details led him backwards into a memory.
“It’s just like he’s sleeping.”
His mother had whispered the line as they approached his grandfather’s casket together. First recited in the Basilica, it had been repeated in his adolescent years.
The man that had been displayed bore little resemblance to his grandfather. Mortician makeup had smoothed the creases on his forehead and buffed the smile lines from the sides of his mouth.
In a final goodbye, his mother had held one of the pale appendages that rested on top of her father’s unmoving chest. He imagined his mother reaching for his own hand—wrapping her freezing fingers around his wrist, needling a ring into his skin with exposed thumb bone.
Anderson, noticing the toll of his heartbeat through the mattress, rolled onto his back. His eyes opened to the darkness sprawled across the ceiling. It seemed to vibrate, gritty and shapeless, as though composed of swarming insects.
Something surfaced from the umbra.
Earthy, grainy shades curved and cut lips, cheeks, and a jawline into existence. It had appeared against the shadow in an instant—a sleeping face without a body.
Pressure weighed on Anderson’s chest like an invisible boulder, pinning him to the mattress, stifling his breath, stripping him of the ability to move any part of his body.
Its eyelids opened and spilled two green embers onto the bed below. He stared into the cavernous sockets above, smelling fetid rot smoldering on his sheets. The face’s angular features began to sink inwards to the bones that had defined them. Decomposing, its lips coiled to expose a grimace with arrowhead fangs. The surrounding darkness dissipated like flies fleeing a meatless bone until all that remained above was the deteriorated death mask of Carter Winterbee.
Anderson’s arm swung outwards from his bed, knocking his bedside lamp onto the floor. With bodily control restored, he latched his eyes shut and reached downwards with trembling, frozen fingers to turn the knob of the toppled light source.
He glanced up at the ceiling. Nothing occupied it bar his own shadow.
He fumbled for his phone on the nightstand, dialed his parents’ house number, and pressed the receiver close to his ear so that he would hear his mother’s voice over the dense pushes of rain rattling the windows.
Although originally from Boca Raton, Florida, Scotty Sarafian grew up in Dublin, Ireland and Wilmington, Delaware. He draws inspiration from the atmosphere, culture, and legends of each of his three hometowns. His interests in supernatural horror, Gothic fiction, and vampire lore can also be found sneaking their way into his writing. Scotty graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL with a Bachelor’s in English and a minor study in creative writing. During his time at Rollins, he served as one of the student writers for the annual “Winter with the Writers” literary festival. He is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin’s M. Phil program in popular literature. He currently resides in Dublin, Ireland.