Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
I moved into my apartment complex two months ago.
I started hearing things a week later.
It was subtle at first. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake up to a faint scratching sound from somewhere behind the walls. I thought it could be mice. Or rats. I have lived through enough shitty one bedroom apartments in Manhattan to recognize the signs. Small little turds on the floor. Tiny holes in the plaster. An unending scratching that sounds like a thousand little feet marching to the beat of my headache.
My symptoms fit the bill.
It had to be a mouse.
And so I put out traps. I invested in a little steel wool. The Internet says the best way to catch a rat is peanut butter. I slathered spoonfuls of the stuff all over a fresh Tomcat trap. Amazon’s best. I went to bed with the expectation that a fat rodent would be dead in my living room by the following morning.
I laid awake eagerly awaiting their demise. But it rained a lot that night. After I turned off the TV, I tried to listen for the sounds of my furry friends falling for the bait. But the storm overtook almost every sound. Cracks of thunder shook the glassware on my kitchen counter. Water got inside through the cracks and spaces between the window’s framing. I had to put a towel down. The dripping started to annoy me more than the rats ever did in the first place.
But, somewhere, underneath it all; I heard something else. Something a lot more frightening than rats.
A voice whispering “Help me.“
I never really believed in the paranormal. I told people that a lot. I never saw signs, or spirits, like everybody else. Part of my subconscious felt like maybe this was my come-uppance. The ghosts on the street had heard me talking shit and now they were going to come for me. Maybe just to show me who is boss, so to speak. And I had nothing for protection. Nobody to verify my experiences. I lived alone in the middle of a lightly occupied sky-rise. A demon or poltergeist could fuck with me all they wanted.
And so I pulled the sheets up to my chin, while the scratching started to overtake the storm, along with my rationality. The constant repetition of ‘help me’ floated further through the walls. She started to get louder. More urgent. My fear paralyzed mind told me that she was getting closer. I knew that was impossible, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I got out of bed and marched out of my apartment, nearly stepping on the unoccupied rat trap myself. The building kept a guard on desk duty throughout the night. He needed to know about the voice.
I hopped in the elevator with sweatpants and no socks. When it opened on the ground level, a surprised security guard waited for me behind the desk.
“Sir? Are you okay?“
“Can you check if the apartment next to me is occupied?“
The tall Hispanic man furrowed his brow worriedly as he eyed my evening wear with distaste. He wore an official looking blue buttoned shirt with black slacks with a radio clipped to the belt.
“We really should not divulge…“
“Somebody has been screaming ‘Help me’ all night. I think they are in trouble. But I have never seen anyone go in there.“
The man looked worried as he pounded into the small laptop placed on the desk.
“Okay, what apartment number…“
“We haven’t rented many units up there since we took over…“
“That’s what I said.“
“Yup, 522 and 524 are empty. You have one other tenant at the other end of your floor. Maybe you heard his television. The walls here are very thin, sir, and we are actively working on the rodent issue.“
“I think we need to call the police.“
The man flashed a smile that made the goosebumps on my skin slide up like candy dots. Like he was prepared for the accusation. Like he knew something that I didn’t. His cool expression placated onto such ordinary features made my stomach turn uncomfortably.
“Like I said, the apartment is empty. Would you like to go and see for yourself?“
My willing response definitely took him aback. He punched again at the laptop nervously. I had no idea what he was typing. After a minute’s hesitation, he walked past me towards the elevator.
“Let’s go. 522 first. I’ve got the key.“
I followed the guard into the elevator. Something about his demeanor continued to make me cautious. He seemed confident. Excited, even. At the time I chalked up the oddity to over interest in the mystery before us.
“It’s possible some kids broke in. But I doubt it. These locks are pretty secure. I still think you heard a neighbor…“
I nodded wordlessly. When the doors opened again, we marched together down the hall towards apartment 522. I waited patiently while he opened the lock and beckoned me inside.
It was empty.
Our voices echoed across the recently finished floors and furniture-less void inside the studio apartment. I paced around and checked the nooks and crannies. I waited a couple minutes and listened for the voice. I even called out to it. But nobody answered. The only sound I heard were the steady ricochet of raindrops against the windowsills.
“We still have 524.“
My new friend started to look a little less confident.
“Look, it’s late, and somebody has to watch the desk. Do we need to do this now?“
“I know what I heard.“
He stared at me and studied my demeanor for a moment. I shifted awkwardly and tried to appear intimidating.
The guard once again flashed a friendly smile as he gestured me out into the hallway and locked up behind us. We passed my own apartment on the way towards 524. I thought about going back inside and locking the door. Something about the situation made me squirm. But I didn’t.
“My name is Michael, by the way, what is your name?“
“Well, Matt, I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances.“
I nodded and waited while Michael opened up the door. His casual attitude continued to make me uncomfortable.
524 wasn’t empty. Boxes upon boxes were stacked on the floor with neat little labels on each. Spare kitchen chairs made the studio tough to navigate. Once again, Michael waited by the door, while I navigated the junk and tried to investigated the other rooms.
The small corner kitchen contained the usual boiler plate electronics. The drawers appeared untouched and empty. A thin line of dust formed over the counter tops.
I moved onto the bathroom and found a recently renovated shower head sparkling against a fresh paint job. I started to get jealous, and let my guard down a bit. This place looked nicer than my own. I bet they would be renting it out soon. I was prepared to write the entire thing off as an odd experience, before a voice spoke to me inside the bathroom.
It was closer this time. In the same room. I nearly jumped out of my skin, but tried to keep my cool around Michael, who was still outside creeping in the hallway. There was a closet in the bathroom. I opened it.
Sitting inside was a teenage girl.
She wasn’t wearing any clothes. She pushed her knees up to her shoulders and linked her feet together in a sad attempt to remain modest. Sweat poured down her brow. It caused her pretty brown hair to become matted and tangled on her forehead.
I covered her mouth and mine after she whispered again.
“It’s him. He did this.“
Footsteps approached from the hallway. I raised a finger, as if to tell her to wait, and closed the door in the poor girl’s face. Then I rushed over to the toilet and flushed the handle.
The footsteps stopped.
“Everything alright in there?“
“Yeah, yeah, sorry. Just had to tinkle. This remodel is nice. Gotta get you guys to update my apartment.“
I opened the door and was immediately greeted by a very suspicious looking security guard.
“You know, I’ve got a leaky window frame. Who can I talk to about that?“
Michael stared at me for about thirty seconds. At first he looked angry. Then he looked confused. Finally the suspicion faded from his wrinkled features.
“Property owner. Not me.“
I laughed awkwardly and pushed past him. I walked out into the hallway in a rush, never bothering to look behind my shoulder as Michael followed anxiously after. I could hear him locking the door to 524 as I jetted towards my own apartment.
“You don’t want to check anywhere else?“
I called out something back. I don’t remember what. The adrenaline coursed through my veins so quickly that my futile attempts at being casual dissipated the moment I got to my door. I fumbled for the keys in my sweatpants pocket. I clacked them awkwardly against the metal lock. Finally they found a groove and the door handle turned willingly against my hand.
“Anything else I can do for you tonight?“
Michael had caught up to me. He looked suspicious again. I could sense that he might try to stop me. I had to come up with something.
“Sorry, man, that last trip to the bathroom didn’t cut it. Too much chili last night. Gotta go.“
Michael guffawed over my shoulder as I opened the door and slammed it in his face. I tried to wait a few seconds before applying the chain lock. I waited for his footsteps to fade away first. I didn’t want to spook him. Only then I released my hand from the handle and collapsed to the floor.
* * * * * *
The first responders arrived about ten minutes later. I have to commend them for the speed. Part of me worried that Michael would try to run. Part of me worried he would go back for the girl. Part of me worried he might try to come after me.
Police rescued the girl from the bathroom closet. Her name was Molly. She was sixteen years old.
And she wasn’t the only one.
Seven other women were rescued from empty apartments throughout the complex. Each identified Michael as their abductor. Apparently, he kept them drugged and locked inside various rooms inside the building. He returned to visit them every night. Some were tortured. Some abused.
One was already dead.