Space For Lease Or Rent
A little before two in the morning, Doug startled awake. His confused and groggy brain tried to ascertain why. A noise. Upstairs. Loud thumping on the ceiling. As if someone had dropped a bowling ball on the floor of the apartment above his.
He lay back down and tried to slow his galloping heart. God, he hated living in this complex. He'd moved here three months ago, after the divorce, and immediately regretted it. During the application process, it seemed like the perfect place with a pool, hiking trail and free heat. Once he'd moved in, however, he discovered the maintenance staff was slow, the residents all seemed to be drug dealers and the apartment walls were paper-thin.
Until now, no one had lived above him. He'd become used to the relative peace and quiet. When had they moved in? He met the occasional neighbor in passing—a polite nod or mumbled "Good morning"—but didn't recall seeing a moving van parked outside recently. Maybe they arrived while he'd been at work. They might be the kind of people who kept to themselves; this place seemed to have plenty of those people who scurried around secretively, hunched over like they had something to hide.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
There it was again, a deliberate pounding from above.
Well, maybe they were just getting situated, unpacking boxes. After midnight? They might work odd hours. Maybe this was the only time they had to move in.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Doug pulled his blanket up and buried his head in the pillow.
The next morning, he readied for work and barely remembered the noises from upstairs. He shaved, showered, dressed then headed out the door. As he jingled his keys on his way to the car, he got the distinct impression of being watched.
Acting as if he'd forgotten something, he casually turned back to see if anyone were spying on him. The building squatted, mute and blank-eyed with drawn blinds. No one peeked out their window or stood on their balcony. Yet, someone was there. He walked to his car and drove to work, unable to shake the feeling of eyes upon him.
A buddy invited him to lunch. He gladly accepted. The paperwork was mounting, and he needed some conversation.
"How's single life treating you?" Brad was an investment banker downtown with the perfect wife and two kids, both boys. His was the ideal life, and a thoroughly boring one. "Banging every chick in sight, I'll bet."
Doug tried not to laugh out loud. "Not exactly."
"Come on. You're young yet—"
"—plenty young, and there are a lot of single women in the city."
"It's only been three months." Doug shoved a forkful of lukewarm pasta in his mouth. He knew Brad meant well, but this was getting on his nerves. He hadn't even thought about dating anyone yet. The idea was about as appealing as this overpriced, underdone lunch.
"I'm just saying," Brad continued. "Patty and I know a couple nice girls, if you're interested."
"I'll keep it in mind."
They ate in blessed silence for a couple minutes, Brad wolfing down his burger as if the waiter might come back and yank it from his plate any second. Doug tried to eat a couple more bites of the linguini but it slid off his fork like a nest of dead worms. He pushed it away and grabbed a hard roll instead.
"I think I have new neighbors," he said.
Brad wiped his mouth. "Oh yeah? A trio of sorority girls who like tickle fights with older men, by any chance?"
"Doubtful. Sounded like they were moving in last night...or, I should say, this morning. Around two."
"Ouch. Hope they're not the 'late to bed, late to rise' kind of kids, for your sake."
Doug nodded. "Me too."
"If they keep it up, just report them. I know that complex. They give you three warnings and then—zoom!—you're out on the street." Brad grinned devilishly. "A guy I knew got tossed out of there after one too many nights of beer bongs and naked Twister."
"It didn't sound like that."
"I'm just saying! If it gets worse, report 'em."
They finished their lunch talking about other, smaller things, but those words stuck in Doug's mind. Report them.
Like clockwork, at 1:58 a.m. the pounding started again.
This time, Doug sprang awake instantly. He climbed out of bed and put on his robe. The noises sounded like they were coming from above his bathroom. His eyes recoiled when he turned on the light.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
He stared at himself in the mirror, disheveled and weary. Eyes puffed up. Crust at the corners of his mouth. He looked like every other divorced guy he'd known. His hands gripped the edge of the sink and he tried to swallow the emotion that threatened to rise from his hollow chest. What went wrong? What did he do to chase her away?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Part of him wanted to bang on the ceiling, give it back to them. Or rush upstairs and knock on their door, call them out. But he was scared. Frightened of confrontation, stirring things up any worse than they already were. That's why he signed the papers without a fight and gave his ex half of everything he owned.
Doug turned off the light and shuffled back to bed. By the time he undressed and slid beneath the cool sheets, he realized the pounding had stopped. He looked at the glowing red numbers on the alarm clock. 2:02 a.m. Sleep came soon thereafter.
"I need to file a noise complaint," he said. He took a long lunch just so he could stop into the apartment complex's office.
The lady behind the desk maintained her plastic smile.
"No problem, Mr. Piper." She tapped a few keys on her computer. "You're in 101, right?"
Doug nodded. "It's my new neighbors upstairs. I know they're probably just moving in, but it's been two nights now—"
"Sir," she interrupted, "There's no one in the unit above yours."
A momentary shock surged through him. No one lived above him? That wasn't possible. He'd heard them.
"Maybe they were moving out, then?" he asked.
The lady shook her head. "No...nobody's lived there for the last eight months. We're running at about sixty-five percent occupancy rate right now, with mortgage rates being so low."
An idea flashed in his mind.
"What about a homeless person? Maybe they're squatting in the apartment."
Her fake grin slipped a notch. "I guess that's possible. That certainly wouldn't be good, would it?"
Doug shook his head.
"Okay," she said. "We'll get maintenance to take a look later this afternoon. I'll let you know what we find out."
"Thank you," he said, feeling simultaneously relieved and disappointed. It was over. Mystery solved.
He got her call just before quitting time.
"It's empty," she said.
Doug switched the phone to his other ear, just in case he wasn't hearing properly. "Excuse me?"
"It's empty," she repeated. "No homeless person, no tenants. Nobody."
He sat unmoving in his chair, staring at his desk. The papers looked like they belonged to someone else. The stapler seemed like an alien artifact designed for some unknown purpose. The computer, a hunk of plastic and glass writ with otherworldly symbols he couldn't hope to understand. I don't belong here, I'm not wanted.
That same thought surfaced in his mind when his ex kicked him out of the house.
"Mr. Piper?" The lady's voice came from far away. "Maybe you heard a noise from the third floor, or maybe next door on your same level?"
"No," he said. "Never mind."
"Okay. If you hear it again, please don't hesitate to—"
Doug dropped the receiver into its cradle.
That night, he stayed up. He drank coffee to keep alert. Earlier, he'd called in sick to work. No sense trying to get sleep now. He sat on a kitchen chair just outside the bathroom, crowbar in his lap. Waiting for the noises to begin.
Inevitably, his mind turned to his failed marriage.
"You're crazy," she'd said. This simple statement, boiled down from years of miscommunication and antagonism, stung the most. True, he'd undergone therapy for some anger issues about his father but he'd made progress. There was light at the end of the tunnel, after decades of gritting his teeth. And she gave up on him.
"I'm sick of being married to a guy with no guts." She had been shouting into his face, spittle flecking his cheek. He wanted so badly to punch her in the mouth, and keep punching until nothing remained except a sunken, bloody, silent hole. But she was right; he had no guts at all. Just a hollow sensation where his heart should be and an ingrained inability to act.
So, instead of walking out on him, she took the house and gave him the boot. He went willingly, without a fight. Signed all the papers. Moved to this shithole because he could afford little else.
He looked down at his lap. His knuckles strained as he gripped the crowbar too tightly. Relax, he thought, using the mantra learned from therapy. This anger does not belong to you. This anger is not real.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
It was two minutes before two in the morning.
Doug leapt from his chair, crowbar clenched by his side. He went out his front door and padded silently up the stairs to the second floor. Breathing a little hard, he stood outside the entrance to apartment 201. He leaned forward, pressing his ear to the door.
thump. thump. thump.
Faint, but definitely there. He tried the handle. It turned and the door opened quietly. Guess I didn't need the crowbar after all, he thought. Before any neighbors could see him, he slipped inside and closed the door behind him.
He would show them. The inept maintenance staff. The lady at the office. His ex-wife. Whoever was pounding on the floor up here. He would show them all that he wasn't a coward, and wouldn't take this shit anymore.
Stealthily, he crept through the darkness, one hand trailing on a wall. He didn't need to turn on the light. This would be the same floor plan as his apartment and he'd grown very familiar with the small layout. Besides, he had the pounding to guide him. He moved toward it.
As he suspected, the noise came from the bathroom. The door was closed. He opened it, expecting to see someone jumping up and down on the floor but instead a darker rectangle of blackness faced him.
The pounding stopped.
From inside, a dry, withered voice said, "Oh thank God."
Doug raised the crowbar to defend himself from whatever was rushing out of the bathroom, but it was too quick. Something struck him and he fell unconscious.
Some time later, he woke up, the side of his head throbbing painfully. His eyes were open but he couldn't see anything. Am I blind? He brought his hand up to his nose and still couldn't make out any outline. He was in a lightless world.
Carefully, he got to his feet. He stumbled a little and leaned against the wall for support. Vertigo washed over him. It subsided momentarily, though he had the sensation of floating in space.
He walked the perimeter of the room. It was small, about ten by ten, with no door. He checked again to be sure. The floor was empty. No toilet, no shower, no sink. This wasn't the bathroom, then. He jumped up and tried to touch the ceiling but felt empty air.
Trapped in a box, he thought.
"Hello?" he called out. Flat echoes bounced back to him. "Hello!"
Just then, a pinhole of light sprang from the center of the floor. Sweet, blessed light. Doug felt relieved. He could see. He scrambled onto his belly and put his eye to the tiny hole.
Below, a man lay in bed reading a book.
"Hey, can you hear me?" Doug yelled. The man didn't move. Doug knocked his fist against the floor. "Up here. I need help." Still no response. Doug banged on the floor as loud as he could.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The man looked up. It was his dead father.
"Fucking kids," the old man mumbled.
Doug's father reached over to the nightstand and turned the alarm clock to check the time.
Doug got unsteadily to his feet.
Another pinhole of light opened on his left, in the wall. Then another on his right. Two more erupted from the floor. All around, more portals opened into other worlds.
"Please...," he whispered as he backed into a corner. "This is not real. This does not belong to me." But the words didn't work this time. The light persisted.
He had only one chance.
Steadily, with purpose, he started to pound on the walls.
Hopefully, someone would come soon.
# # #
Daddy issues abound in this tale I penned some time ago, along with barely-concealed thoughts about toxic masculinity. I've lived in too many cookie-cutter apartment complexes where the walls are paper thin and neighbors too close for comfort, so those real-life experiences bleed into these words quite easily.