02 Dec Slum
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"Slum"Written by Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
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Estimated reading time — 22 minutes
Publisher’s Note: If you enjoy this story, the author encourages you to read its companion piece, Sniff.
My first job was at a 24-hour restaurant called Flavi’s, on Third and Burlington in Westlake. It was a real hole-in-the-wall place, the type where patrons line up beneath the menu board; specializing in burgers, gyros, and all-day, grease-heavy breakfast.
I worked graveyard shifts. So did most of my customers – the medical crowd (there were two middle-sized hospitals nearby), cops, firefighters, and the assorted civil servants that filtered in and out of the neighborhood.
A middle-aged LAPD officer used to come by, sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone. Let’s call him Officer Carlos Nunez. Officer Nunez didn’t look like a cop. If I’d seen him at the grocery store, I’d have thought he were a professor or an attorney or a realtor. He had a square jaw and high forehead, curly brown hair, an endearing bald spot and the friendly, diplomatic face of a sitcom dad.
Officer Nunez had stories. On lazy nights he could entertain his audience for hours, that “audience” consisting of eagle scout-looking fire babies, bored security guards, and nursing students off clinical shifts. Thirty years with a badge and a car had given him plenty of material.
When there were no kiddies to impress he talked to me. Some of his stories were pretty dark. He saved those stories for the coldest, windiest nights when Flavi’s was empty, save for him and me and the cooks.
Though it was nearly a decade ago, what he told me on one of those nights still lingers in the back of my mind.
“There’s a building,” he’d started, “less than a mile from here. Near Sixth and Alvarado. It was abandoned, repossessed by the bank. They should have bulldozed the dump.”
It had been low-income housing. The Primrose Apartments. Originally office space, the building was bought at auction in 1999, gutted, and divided into cheap little white-walled units where the roofs leaked and the air conditioning never worked.
In the early 2000’s, Nunez was dispatched to The Primrose every couple weeks, for the reasons one would expect. Domestic disturbances. Possession with intent to sell. Drunken brawls in the parking lot, solicitation, truancy, noise complaints. Nothing out of the ordinary for a public housing complex lodged within the bowels of a major city. Yet somehow, embarrassingly, the building played on his nerves.
“I never liked the place,” he told me. “It was creepy. No building erected in the 70’s has the right to be as creepy as that one.”
If he’d been asked to put a finger on the epicenter of this innate creepiness, he’d have pointed to a little closet on the first floor. The way he described it was, coming from the back entrance (which only employees and cops ever used), a left turn would take you to a set of double doors, through which the elevator lobby and the leasing office were accessible. A right turn lead down a narrow hallway, past the janitor’s storage, to a dead end.
The little closet in question was opposite the janitor’s. The door was unlabeled, innocuous, and should have functioned as glorified wallpaper. But for Nunez, who’d stumbled upon the closet while looking for a restroom, even a glance towards it filled him with irrational dread. A funny smell lingered about the door; he’d catch a faint tendril of the stench every time he walked through the back door.
One night, Nunez and his partner, a lady cop who went by Rusty, were dispatched to The Primrose to investigate a domestic disturbance – a man threatening his girlfriend with a butcher knife. They found the woman locked in the bathroom and the boyfriend pounding on the door.
Let’s call the woman Marisol and the man Modesto.
Nunez and Rusty managed to cajole the pair into cooperating. Rusty stayed in the bathroom with Marisol, Nunez sat in the kitchen with Modesto. Modesto claimed that Marisol was cheating on him with her ex-husband. He’d seen the ex hanging around the elevator lobby.
When quizzed on the subject, Marisol insisted Modesto was crazy. Yes, she was still friendly with her ex-husband, but it was solely for the sake of their son. She had no desire to sleep with him. And besides, the ex-husband lived in Washington.
It was suggested that Modesto had seen a man who resembled Marisol’s ex. He got defensive. He strode into Marisol’s son’s room and came out with a framed picture – the son, with his arm around a (taller, better-looking) man.
“I gotta see this shit every day,” he ranted to Nunez. “You don’t think I’d recognize this asshole if I saw him?”
It took awhile, but Modesto calmed down and admitted he may have been mistaken. Marisol didn’t want to press charges, and the couple was left in peace.
Two weeks later, Nunez and Rusty were called to the same apartment, for the same reason. This time, Marisol was barricaded in the master bedroom and Modesto was brandishing a tire iron, insisting he’d had an enraging conversation with her ex-husband in the lobby.
“You fucked him!” he screamed. “He told me! He said you fucked him on our fucking bed!”
Backup was called. Thirty minutes later, Modesto was cuffed, sobbing, to a chair, while Marisol tearfully paced, on the phone with the ex-husband, trying to prove he hadn’t been hanging out in the lobby of The Primrose.
“There!” She cried finally.
Triumphantly, she’d pulled up a picture on her phone and shoved it in Modesto’s face. She handed the phone to Nunez. It was of the man from the picture – her ex-husband – standing by a City of Wenatchee street sign, holding a copy of The Wenatchee World with the day’s date.
“No way he flew here, fucked me, then flew back to Washington in time to take this picture.”
Modesto was asked to elaborate. Maybe he was the butt of a cruel trick. He said he’d been alone in the elevator lobby, checking his mail. The ex-husband stealthily came up beside him, and had described – in graphic, excruciating detail – what he and Marisol had done while Modesto was at work.
This time, Modesto was more difficult to pacify. He’d been suspicious for months, he told the cops. He knew the ex-husband had attempted to reconcile with Marisol. He was uncomfortable with their amicable relationship. And it didn’t help that Marisol used her ex to stroke Modesto’s jealousy – she’d call him whenever the two of them got into a fight, and constantly talked about how good a father and provider he was.
Finally, they came to a resolution. Modesto went to stay with his brother, Marisol agreed to lock the doors, and a police car was dispatched to the neighborhood in case the ex-husband reappeared (or Modesto got cute).
Nunez didn’t know what to make of the two of them.
Modesto was obviously paranoid, but his fury and grief had been sincere. Marisol may have used her ex-husband to make her current beau jealous, but she’d seemed legitimately mystified by his accusations of infidelity. And Nunez highly doubted the ex-husband would have hopped a plane to Los Angeles just to fuck his ex-wife and stick it to her new boyfriend.
And then, there was the man in the elevator lobby. The man whom might have been in the elevator lobby.
Nunez and Rusty passed him on the way back to their squad car – a man, leaning against the wall, face buried in a newspaper. Nunez saw the man and registered what he was seeing, but it took his subconscious a minute to process the information.
Then realization of what he’d seen – and its implications – hit him like a ton of bricks and he’d ran, back through the back entrance, back through the double doors. But the man was gone, and Nunez was left to wonder whether or not it had all been his imagination.
Because he could swear the man had been reading a copy of The Wenatchee World.
Next, Nunez detailed an incident involving a middle-aged bible-thumper he called Dolores.
Dolores lived on the second floor of the Primrose Apartments. She was a sweet lady, but painfully high-strung. At least once a week the cops were summoned to her humble abode. She heard a noise after midnight? Call the cops. Two “suspicious looking” men talking in the parking lot? Call the cops. Her son’s out five minutes past curfew? Call the cops. It had gotten to the point where the dispatchers recognized her voice.
Nunez had been sent to calm her down more than once. He believed that, truly, Dolores just needed someone to talk to. And she talked a lot. She talked about her blackout-drunk past. About her husband who had fled, in the dead of night, with the shoebox full of cash she’d been saving for her kids to go to college, never to be seen or heard from again.
She told him about how she’d found Jesus, and how she wished her meth-addicted daughter would come home. The daughter had been in Bakersfield last she’d heard, shacking up with the boyfriend du jour and three months’ pregnant. But that had been two years ago, and now her number was disconnected and her mail got sent back, and all Dolores could do was pray for her grandchild.
She talked about her son, Michael. He was seventeen and a senior in high school. Michael was a good boy, she insisted. But she didn’t like his friends. They were a bad influence on him. And lately, he’d been avoiding her calls and coming home late. He was surlier, angrier, and his clothes smelled like marijuana. He swore the pot smell had come from his friend’s car. But Dolores was scared. She thought he was doing drugs.
“I can’t lose him,” she’d sobbed to Nunez, as he’d tried to convince her that the car stalling in the parking lot wasn’t indicative of a drug deal. “Mikey is all I have left.”
One September day, Nunez and Rusty were, yet again, dispatched to Dolores’ apartment. He was more frustrated than concerned – they’d had a rough morning, and he wasn’t in the mood to take notes on the “explosion” (read: upstairs neighbor dropped a pot and lid) Dolores had heard, or nod and “uh-huh” through one of her long-winded tales of motherly woe.
But, according to the dispatcher, this time was different. Dolores, who usually took an assertive and condescending tone, had been screaming and crying. It was her son. He was hurt. The paramedics were fifteen minutes away.
Dolores answered the door howling.
Her prematurely-wrinkled face was streaked with tears. Her eyes were bloodshot, her hair stuck out where she’d pulled at it, and she was sobbing so violently she could barely speak.
“Michael…” she panted, pointing towards a closed door. “Michael he’s… he’s…”
She screamed. Primal, animalistic, she cried out to the sky and collapsed on the floor, burying her tear-stained face in her knees. Even thinking about it, Nunez told me, was enough to make him tear up. All the pain and despair in the world was captured in that scream.
Rusty tried to comfort Dolores. Nunez, hand on his gun, opened the door.
The smell hit him immediately. Musty, like a basement after a rainstorm, mixed with something sweeter – the potpourri his mother had kept in a bowl. He breathed through is mouth. He flipped the light switch.
A teen-aged boy’s room. In the far corner, a mattress with bedding kicked aside. On the mattress, a young man, no older than eighteen, was propped up against the wall. His head hung down, jaundiced blue eyes still open. Skinny, anorexic, purple blood pooling under waxen skin. Stringy red hair. Blotched, infected track marks, oozing pus. Joints stiff and contracted. Swollen tongue lolling.
Nunez buckled. He might have cried out.
Trembling like a dog, he knelt by the boy. Given the dullness of the sunken cheeks and the violet hue of the flaccid limbs, he hypothesized the kid had been dead for hours, if not a day. Overdose.
Slipping on a pair of latex gloves, holding his breath, he reached for the corpse’s face. The glassy doll’s eyes were too much to bear. If he closed them, his head would stop spinning and his hands would stop shaking and he could function like an officer of the law as opposed to a squeamish little…
A hand clasped his arm.
An icy, vice-strong claw grasped his arm.
It took him a twisting, maddening second to realize what was happening.
Michael’s – cold, dead, decomposing Michael’s – cyanotic fingers were wrapped around his wrist.
Nunez fell backwards. Michael sat up straight, folded, turned his torso. His stiff, angular joints jerked mechanically, grotesquely. His tarnished plastic eyes stared lifelessly ahead. Then the jaw moved, jostling the swollen, languid tongue. And, with no respect for mechanics or anatomy, he spoke.
“Officer Nunez.” A monotonous, alien mockery of a human voice. “This will all burn. You will burn with it.”
Nunez grunted, kicked, tugged, broke free of the creature’s grip. He twisted onto his hands and knees. He stumbled to the door, turned the knob, and fell into the living room, slamming the door behind him.
Dolores was curled on the couch, sobbing quietly. Rusty stood in the doorway, waving to the paramedics, who were making their way down the hallway with their gurney.
“The boy… he’s not…” Nunez stammered. Rusty turned to him, then snapped her head back towards the hallway.
“What the fuck?”
A paramedic pushed past her into the apartment. On his heels was a teen-aged boy with longish red hair and blue eyes, dressed in khakis and a NWA sweatshirt, looking quite confused.
It was Michael. Michael, very much alive.
Dolores screamed. In one movement she threw herself onto her son, collapsing with him to the dirty shag carpet, clutching him in a suffocating embrace. Rusty gave Nunez a look. The paramedic rolled his eyes.
“Dying boy found walking up stairs to his mother’s apartment,” he said sarcastically. “Please tell me he’s got an identical twin.”
It was a miracle Nunez held onto his shit. Looking at Michael – healthy, breathing Michael, cradled in his mother’s arms – he had never been so scared of a human being in his entire life.
“There’s a corpse,” he managed to force out.
Eager to establish some context to the zombie-movie jump scare he’d just experienced, Nunez grasped the doorknob with his right hand to pull himself up. Searing pain tore down his arm. He fell to his knees, groaning.
The paramedic pushed past him, opened the door, looked in, and snorted.
“There’s nothing here.”
Nunez managed to rise to his feet. He and Rusty peered into Michael’s room. There was nothing. The mattress, save a bunched-up comforter and sheets, was unoccupied. No blood. No excrements. Just an empty teenager’s bedroom.
He did a lap of the room just to make sure. He shook out the comforter, dug through a hamper of dirty clothes, threw open the closet door. Nothing. No remnants of the atrophied, decomposing corpse that had threatened Nunez with fire. He sniffed the air. The musty, potpourri smell still hung in the air, but it was fainter now, dissipated, despite the tightly-closed window.
Dolores, giddily happy, concluded she must have imagined seeing her son’s dead body. She didn’t do any drugs – no, sir! Clean for twelve years! – but had been under a lot of psychological stress, and lay awake nights haunted by visions of her only remaining child repeating her youthful mistakes. That, with the heat, and the smog… it was enough to make anyone hallucinate.
“I saw the same thing she did,” Nunez remembered saying. “Michael, sprawled dead on his mattress.”
At that, Dolores had frowned.
“What are you talking about, sprawled? I found him hanging in his closet.”
Nunez couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
It was weird, Rusty said, but not completely inconceivable. Dolores was delusional. Nunez had been overly susceptible to the power of suggestion, and had imagined seeing a corpse because Dolores said there was a corpse – induced psychotic disorder.
“I don’t know,” she told him. “If you’re really seeing things, maybe you should take some time off. Go see the department shrink.”
Nunez had passed on the shrink – no use having someone else tell him he was crazy. But, as it turned out, the time off was involuntary. He woke up the next morning with his right wrist ballooning. Dislocation fracture.
“I must have fallen on it,” he lied.
No attention was paid to the five purple bruises around his wrist, so much like the prints of five strong, clutching fingers.
Nunez told his final tragic tale of the Primrose Apartments as though it had been a dream, testimony knotted together with conjecture and hearsay.
He was on medical leave for two months while his arm healed. When he returned to the station, he was greeted with whispers and pitying stares. Rusty – bless her heart – had stood up for him, telling their superiors the incident with Michael and Dolores was a non-issue, a side effect of overwork. But he guessed the paramedic team had told everyone he was losing it.
Luckily for him, he wasn’t the only guy on the force rubbed the wrong way by the Primrose Apartments. In fact, even the tenants of the Primrose Apartments seemed put off by the place. According to Officer Otanon, a desk cop that knew everything about everyone, families were jumping ship like rats before a storm.
“They can’t keep it filled,” he’d said to Nunez over the water cooler. “They’re at about half-capacity now, and that’s with subsidies from the county. No one can stay there for long, save the druggies who’ve already fried their brains. There’s a rumor the building’s haunted.”
Others sought him out as well, usually in secluded spaces, always requiring multiple assurances that, as far as top brass was concerned, the conversation did not happen. They’d been to the Primrose Apartments. They’d seen stuff.
“It’s always the users and the drunks,” Officer Anderson murmured excitedly. “Always the same thing. They call us flipping shit because they see some dead family member in the kitchen. Or the fucking elevator, or staring down at them from the ceiling. If it were one, I wouldn’t be too worried. But it’s one every week. Always at that god-forsaken dump.”
“I think I’m going crazy,” Officer Liu told him late one night, after everyone else had left. “Some old lady called us down there because she was convinced her neighbor was stealing from her. Total bullshit, we found her missing antique vase in the closet, right where she’d hid it from the home care nurse, who she also thought was stealing. You know the type.
“Anyways, I finished up with her, and my partner said she was going to the car. But when I stepped out into the hallway, she was waiting there. We took the elevator down. On the first floor I stepped out. She didn’t follow me. I looked back, and she wasn’t in the elevator at all. She’d just disappeared.
“This… chill came over me, and I ran like a rabbit. I ran back to the car. And guess who I found sitting shotgun, talking on the phone to dispatch? My partner. I asked her how she got there so fast. She looked at me weird. She said she’d never gone back into the building. Dispatch had requested a landline. She’d been in the car, on the phone, the whole time.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Nunez said, “what did the two of you talk about on the elevator?”
“That’s the thing,” Officer Liu replied. “On the elevator, she’d asked me what I thought the point of life was. We’re never really fulfilled, and then we die and it’s like we never existed. It was the most depressing conversation I’ve ever had. I swear, it messed me up for weeks. And I noticed this weird smell…”
“Like a wet basement mixed with potpourri?”
“Yeah,” Officer Liu said. “I’d say weed and mold, but that works too.”
Then Nunez learned about little Thaddeus Wheeler.
Thad was twelve years old. He lived on the fourth floor of The Primrose Apartments with his mom, two little brothers, half-sister, and niece. Sad story. His mother worked as a CNA at St. Vincent, nights. Thad’s father had been in the ground for three years, shot in the driveway of the house where the family had once lived. Likely the victim of a gang initiation. There were photos of him with the kids all over the apartment.
Little Thad had been a good student. A good kid. A talented artist – talented enough to make a difference. Had been. Lately, his teacher had reported that Thad was falling asleep in class and falling behind on his work. He ignored his friends and family; while his brothers played video games or rode bikes in the parking lot, Thad would lock himself in his room. His drawings, once of animals and fantasy creatures, had become much darker; scary things with sharp claws and teeth.
Once, a month before, Lydia Wheeler – the mother – called 911 in a panic. When she’d arrived home at 5:30am, Thad was missing. Three sets of cops were dispatched to search the premises. They found the boy an hour later, fast asleep in a little closet.
“Right across from the janitor’s closet?” Nunez asked, dreading the answer.
“Yeah,” the other officer said, frowning. “How’d you know?”
When asked why he did it, Thad responded that he simply liked it there. Sleep-walking, everyone thought. But the police had been called to Lydia Wheeler’s apartment twice more since then. Once, by Lydia, because Thad was hitting his head against the wall and wouldn’t stop. And once, by a neighbor, because Thad was wandering aimlessly through the halls, clutching a serrated steak knife.
Lydia told the cops that Thad’s nighttime sojourns to the little closet on the first floor had become a recurring incident. Three times a week, she would find him there, asleep on the dirty linoleum floor. She was looking for a therapist.
The next time Thaddeus Wheeler inspired a 911 call – by the sister, Rochelle, this time – Nunez and Rusty were one of the two pairs sent.
“Twelve-year-old African-American male,” the dispatcher had said. “Locked in a bedroom. Armed with a knife. Possibly a second person with him.”
Nunez and Rusty met Rochelle, a chubby girl of about nineteen, in the hallway outside of the apartment. A toddler and two school-aged boys huddled at her feet.
“There’s a man in there!” Rochelle cried. “I went to the door to call Thad for dinner, and I heard him talking to someone. This deep, man’s voice responded. Then Thad started screaming NO! NO! NO! and something slammed against the wall! I tried to force the door, but it’s locked and I think there’s something pushed against it.”
“Did you hear what the man said to Thad?” Rusty asked calmly.
Rochelle shook her head. “I think I’m going crazy. I couldn’t make out what he said, but it sounded like… I don’t know. It’s bullshit.”
“What?” Rusty asked.
“I thought he sounded like my stepfather. But my stepfather’s been dead for years.”
Rusty herded Rochelle and the children towards the elevator. Guns drawn, Nunez and the other two officers entered the apartment.
From one of the rooms, they heard a child crying.
Coming up on the closed door, Nunez and the second cop positioned themselves. The burliest of the three turned his shoulder, took a running start, and rammed the door.
The door slid open; a nightstand had been placed against it. Nunez nearly dropped his gun in shock. The must-and-potpourri smell hit him in the face like a wave.
Little Thad sat on the floor between two sets of bunkbeds, clad in a wife-beater and boxer shorts, holding a steak knife. Up and down his arms and legs were deep, jagged, self-inflicted cuts. His face was swollen and snotty.
Upon seeing the two guns pointed at him, he dropped the knife and let out a small cry.
“We’re not going to hurt you, kid,” Nunez heard himself say.
The room was completely trashed. There were pictures on the walls. Horrible demons, mutilated humans and animals, flames, torture implements. Upon closer inspection, the drawings were determined to have been completed with both marker and Thad’s blood.
The paramedics and the Department of Mental Health were called. The apartment was thoroughly searched for the esoteric second party – the man with the deep voice. No one was found.
Nunez and Rusty approached little Thad as he sat, shivering, on a gurney, the paramedic bandaging his arms.
“Hey, buddy,” Nunez said amicably. “I’m Officer Carlos. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?”
“Okay. Your sister told us she heard you talking to someone in your room. Can you tell us who?”
“You’re not going to get them in trouble, buddy. We just want to talk to them, make sure they’re okay. We’re not going to arrest them or anything.”
“You can’t arrest him,” Thad said. “He’s not human.”
“Oh?” Nunez responded. “Is he a ghost?”
“He’s my dad. He’s dead. He died, and the angels sent him to Hell. He comes and sees me at night. He tells me what to do so me and my family don’t have to go to Hell with him when we die.”
“Oh. What does he tell you to do?”
Thad shook his head. “He says I have to draw demons every day. And, whenever I have a bad thought, I have to hurt myself.”
The DMH lady came back then, handing a 5585 detainment form to the paramedics. The paramedics lifted the gurney into the ambulance. Rusty stayed back to talk to them; Nunez, brain buzzing, went to start his report.
The druggies see their dead family members. That’s what Officer Anderson had said. Officer Liu had spoken to his partner, while his partner was in the squad car talking to dispatch. He’d seen Michael’s corpse reanimate and assault him, Dolores had seen Michael’s corpse hanging in the closet, Michael was alive. Modesto had seen Marisol’s ex-husband, the ex-husband was in Washington. Rochelle had heard Thad’s father’s voice. Thad said his dead father came and visited him.
What the heck was going on in that apartment building?
The next time Nunez was dispatched to The Primrose was the last.
It was some old neighbor lady. He couldn’t have said which one; there weren’t many tenants left. Of the seventeen units that comprised The Primrose, only ten were filled. This lady had heard yelling coming from the apartment across the hall, a man with a deep voice and either a woman or a young child. The dispatchers immediately recognized the apartment number. Thaddeus Wheeler.
Nunez and Rusty used the back entrance. Immediately, Nunez was overtaken by the smell – musty basement and potpourri. Rusty didn’t notice; she headed straight for the elevators. Nunez looked to his right.
Thaddeus Wheeler stood in the hallway, between the janitor’s storage and the underused little closet where he liked to sleep.
Rusty had already disappeared through the double-doors. Nunez knew he should have gone after her, but he didn’t want to give the kid the opportunity to sneak away. Thaddeus Wheeler was a very troubled little boy. He needed to be institutionalized. Not for 72 hours under 5585 hold. Long-term. Until his bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or whatever drove him to argue with himself and paint in his own blood, was sufficiently tamed by medication.
Slowly, outstretched hands in full view of the boy, Nunez started down the hallway.
Thaddeus smiled at him when he got close.
“Hi, Officer Carlos,” Thad said. “Have you figured it out yet?”
“Figured what out?” Nunez asked conversationally.
“What I am.”
Thad’s smile grew wider, toothed and maniacal. The musty-sweet stench was suffocating.
“Lemme give you a hint,” Thad said.
Then his voice changed. It became monotonous, an alien mockery of a human voice.
“This will all burn,” Thad said, in red-headed corpse Michael’s voice. “You will burn with it.”
Nunez backpedaled. The smell was intoxicating him, drowning him. Then he noticed Thad’s bare arms – the arms that had been violently slashed up, several weeks before, with a serrated steak knife.
There were no scars on those arms.
“Wha…what…” Nunez sputtered.
Thaddeus Wheeler – the thing that looked like Thaddeus Wheeler – laughed.
“Bzzzt! Wrong answer!” he boomed, in a grown man’s voice. “I am whatever the fuck I want to be.”
Then, lightning-fast, he pulled open the closet door and vanished within. Burning adrenaline, Nunez followed.
He found himself alone in an empty storage closet.
The closet was… well, it wasn’t what he’d been expecting. He didn’t know what he had been expecting. It was a little room, maybe ten feet by twelve, with exposed concrete walls and two rickety shelves. A rusted lawnmower sat in one corner, and a pile of molding boxes filled with fluorescent light bulbs rested beside one of the shelves. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and the stained linoleum floor was curling. He held his breath. He couldn’t bear the smell.
Where had Thaddeus gotten to? There was nowhere to hide.
Behind him, he heard the door slam shut. He whirled, right hand instinctively reaching for his gun.
Standing in front of him, between him and the door, was his grinning doppelganger.
The man wore his uniform. Nunez recognized his own pointed nose, unshaven cheeks, and receding hairline. His deep brown eyes and untamed brows. He even stood the same way – feet apart, shoulders hunching forward, leaning on his right leg. The man was Officer Carlos Nunez. And he, like the real Nunez, was reaching for his gun.
Not thinking, not feeling, operating solely on instinct, Nunez shot. Three times. He heard the bullets hit. POP! POP! POP! Then ringing in his ears, and then silence.
He stood frozen, sweat-drenched hands threatening to drop his loaded weapon, trembling and drawing deep, ragged breaths, as the dust settled.
He’d blown three holes through the flimsy wooden door. But again, he found himself alone. He was a middle-aged officer of the law with years of experience, abandoning his partner and hiding in closets, shooting at figments of his imagination.
Then there was a mighty CRACK! Then a BANG! Then a scream. Then more screams.
He exited the room to the hallway, and immediately found himself swept up in a minor exodus. Wild-eyed residents – scantily-clad moms with kids, old couples in sweats – piled out of the stairways, fleeing for the exits. Nostrils now clear of the musty, sweet closet stench, Nunez smelled smoke. Then the alarms began blaring.
“FIRE!” screamed an emaciated middle-aged man, running from the stairwell.
Nunez screamed into his radio, insisting that dispatch send every available fire unit to The Primrose Apartments, now. He ran up the stairs, crying the alarm, assisting old women with walkers, scooping up toddlers, herding the residents towards the safety of the evening air.
When the last stragglers had been evacuated, Nunez surveyed the scene. In the distance, he heard sirens. Then he noticed the residents were all clustered around he same spot in the parking lot, too close to the burning building. A woman screamed. Nunez pushed his way through the throng.
A body lay there, sprawled facedown, blood pooling around what had been its head. The small, dark form was obviously dead – spongy grey tissue had been splattered across the asphalt. He fell, someone said. Or he jumped. Poor little boy.
His broken arms were extended, as though he’d embraced the sky. Then Nunez saw the scars on the shattered extremities, and he knew.
It took until the early hours of the morning to extinguish the flames, and weeks to even begin cleaning up the mess. Ambulances came and left. Fourteen injuries in all; the burn unit at the county hospital must have had an interesting night. The uninjured residents, barred from returning to their apartments by the police and fire barricade, trudged to the bus stop or the waiting cars of sympathetic friends. Those with nowhere else to go milled around for hours; finally, a church down the street agreed to take them in. Nunez saw Marisol and her sobbing son; shaking Dolores and stone-faced Michael. Then came the coroner’s vans.
When the ash had dissipated and the ruined building finally cooled, nine bodies were recovered. One of them was Rusty. Another, Lydia Wheeler. Lydia had died of smoke inhalation in her room. It was never confirmed or denied, but whispered amongst the firefighters that she’d been locked in.
A gas explosion had occurred in the kitchen of Lydia Wheeler’s apartment. Little Thaddeus lit a match. He set his mother’s couch on fire. He turned on the stove. And before the entire floor was engulfed in flames, he jumped out a window. Motives were thrown around; finally, it was decided that the little boy was a paranoid schizophrenic, and the entire tragedy was a catastrophic side effect of his psychosis.
Nunez had expected an ass-chewing, if not a suspension, for chasing specters while his partner was trapped in an inferno. So he was much surprised to be greeted as a hero. Some of the people he’d helped out of the building credited him with saving their lives.
The “human face” of the tragedy, as presented by local newscasters, was Rochelle Crane, Thaddeus’s older sister. She was lucky; she’d been out of the apartment with her daughter and little brothers at the time, getting ice cream. Rochelle spoke kindly of Nunez, saying he and Rusty had been the only officers who’d cared about her poor, doomed sibling and mother.
They fixed up the building, but – not surprisingly – no one wanted to live there. The stubborn residents who remained until the fire had come to their senses. So The Primrose Apartments were abandoned. Repossessed by the bank. For years the building remained empty, serving only as a temporary camp for transients and junkies.
“But they sold it now,” Nunez told me, weathered eyes flashing. “They sold it to some healthcare corporation, it’s going to be a convalescent home.”
“Did you tell anyone what you saw?” I asked him.
He nodded. “The cops I worked with, they said they believed me. There was something weird about that place. Everyone knew it. But the thing with unexplainable crap is, no one wants to officially believe you. Because that would mean they’re crazy.”
He chuckled humorlessly and shook his head.
“Fuck it, I’d think I was crazy. Maybe I should show them the tapes.”
He’d stolen the security tapes from evidence storage, months and months of footage. They’d been collected by the detective in charge of investigating the fire, per procedure, but were assumed to be worth little. There had only been three security cameras installed at the Primrose Apartments – one at each entrance and one in the elevator lobby – and, of the three, only two had been functional.
The tapes monitoring the front entrance were useless. The tapes monitoring the elevator lobby left him with more questions than answers.
“I wanted to see the man with the copy of the Wenatchee World – Marisol’s ex-husband,” he told me. “The one that was, supposedly, in Washington. I thought… I thought that if I saw him in the tapes, it would prove that I wasn’t delusional.”
He shuddered. His tired eyes watered.
“But he wasn’t there. I found the tape from that day. I saw Rusty and me, coming out of the elevator. I saw myself run back into frame. I rewound the tape and saw Modesto.
“I saw a ghostly figure. A… a cloud of smoke, it looked like. Grey and translucent, like a three-dimensional shadow, roughly the shape of a human being.
“I saw this shadow-person accost Modesto. I saw Modesto try and punch it, and I saw it float away. I saw it standing there, leaning against the wall by the elevator. I stayed up all night, looking through the rest of the tapes. The shadow figure was there, again and again, with people all around. And the people interacted with it as though it were another human being. When no one was around it… it faded. Disappeared into thin air.
“Then I saw little Thad. He was in several of the tapes, always in pajamas, always at night. Always the same. He’d emerge from the elevator, half asleep, with the shadowy, grey thing… guiding him. Draped around him. Leading him, like a parent. They’d walk across the lobby and out of the frame, towards that closet. I think that’s where it lives.”
Nunez snuck the tapes out of the station and took them to a friend who tested the authenticity of such footage. The friend concluded the tapes had not been tampered with, and Nunez showed the tapes to his superiors. They’d lectured him about mishandling evidence, told him they’d look into it, and let him off with a warning. It was suggested he see a therapist – Rusty’s death had obviously hit him hard.
It was getting late. Or, more correctly, getting early. Nunez looked at his watch, sighed, and crumpled his coffee cup in his hand. He had to go to work, and so did I. The black sky had blanched to periwinkle-blue, and the first of the morning customers were filtering in.
“It’s sick, evil,” Nunez said in conclusion. “The shadow-figure. It can change shape, become anyone it wants, disappear into thin air. It screws with people, makes their nightmares real. Modesto was jealous. Dolores was obsessed. And little Thad was devastated – missing his father, trying to make sense of the afterlife. It… turned itself into Marisol’s ex-husband, Michael, Thad’s father. It tortured them, emotionally. It drove Thad crazy.”
“And you?” I asked him.
He smiled at me, like I’d stumbled over an inside joke.
“I’m the guy who tells these stories,” he said. “What’s the fun of being an evil spirit if nobody talks about you?”
Credit: Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
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