By Ken Olson
A door closed noisily. With a lazy start, Greg Norton woke up. Even in the dark, he squinted as he propped himself up on one elbow, listening. Had the door been one of those inside his apartment? Or even the front door?
It took him a moment to remember that he wasn’t home alone as he normally was. Tonight he was babysitting his best friend Gina’s son Adam. Maybe the kid had gotten up and gone to the bathroom. Only, it didn’t look like the living room light was on. If it were, he could see it under the bedroom door. Surely Adam would need to turn a light on in order to find his way to the bathroom. The layout of Gina and Adam’s apartment three floors above Greg’s, 602, was the same as his, so maybe not.
Greg listened for a minute or two, waiting to hear the toilet flush, or any other sound. But after a few minutes, there was still nothing.
He clicked his bedside lamp on, and the room was filled with a golden light, throwing deep, black shadows to all corners. He pushed the sheets behind him and got out of bed, picking up a T-shirt that he’d dropped onto a chair.
He leaned in and turned on the white light. Nobody there. He rushed into the living room and turned on the nearest lamp. The kid was gone.
“Shit,” Greg said aloud, throwing a glance at the front door. The bolt was unlocked, and the chain was hanging loose. He’d locked them both after he’d put Adam to bed.
He jogged to the front door and opened it. He called Adam’s name again, looking side to side down the pale green hall. He didn’t see anybody. “Fuck. Adam?” he called more loudly, stepping out and closing the door behind him.
Greg suddenly realized that he wasn’t wearing anything on his feet, and he didn’t want to leave the apartment unlocked if he left to go looking for the kid. With another curse he returned to the apartment and put his keys in the pocket of his sweat pants. He sat on the edge of the fold-out bed and put his shoes on.
While he tied them, he thought back to the previous day, Saturday, when Gina had first asked him to babysit Adam. When he’d hesitated to say yes, Gina had said, “Please? Come on, there’s no one else.”
“But I don’t like kids.” Out of range for Adam to hear it of course.
“It’s just for one night. I’m not leaving until seven, he goes to bed at eight, and I’ll be back the next morning to take him to school. Just watch TV with him or something. Find a kids’ show.”
Adam was only six (or was it five?) and Greg had never spent any amount of time in charge of anyone under fifteen since he was that age himself. Dealing with kids wasn’t his strong suit. But he and Gina had been best friends for almost eight years, since they’d met at a play that a mutual friend was acting in. She wasn’t married and hadn’t had a boyfriend since a year after her son’s birth, and there really was no one else in the building that she knew well enough to trust. But when Greg had given in and agreed to babysit, his first thought was, I just know this kid’s going to find my porn.
That was the least of his worries now. All he needed was to find the child.
Shoes sloppily tied, and with his keys, Greg hurried out the front door and locked it behind him. “Adam,” he called, jogging left down the hallway. When he reached the end of the hall, which came to a corner leading to the garbage chute, he stopped and saw that nobody was there. He turned and went the other way.
He decided that worrying about waking up the neighbors was probably silly, since losing a six-year-old at two in the morning or whenever it was, was kind of a big deal. Greg rushed to the right of his apartment. Around that corner was a longer hallway, one that had about ten apartments, as well as the elevator and stairs.
The elevator. Greg hurried to it and looked at the panel of buttons to see if it was moving. It wasn’t. He turned around and opened the door to the stairwell. Looking up and then down the stairs, he called out Adam’s name again.
Suddenly, something made him realize that he shouldn’t have locked his apartment. If for some reason Adam had left to go somewhere close, and then wanted to come back, he’d be locked out and might go around getting lost. Then again, if that’s what he was already doing, it would be a waste of time to go back and unlock the door.
While he was trying to decide whether to go back or not, Greg stopped. He heard footsteps. Light footsteps, tapping on the stairs. It was impossible to tell whether they were coming from above or below. He leaned over the edge of the stair railing and looked down the spiral of flights. He could see the door of the second floor easing itself shut.
He shouted Adam’s name and ran down the stairs to the second floor. Once there, he looked both ways down the hall, first to the left where there was no one, and then to the right, where he looked just in time to see someone short disappearing around the corner.
“Adam, what are you doing?” Greg said sternly, and jogged to the corner.
He came around the corner and looked. But there was nobody there. The hallway came to a dead end, and there was nobody there.
What the hell? Greg would’ve heard a door close if Adam had gone into one of the apartments in the hall.
But that was the only explanation he could think of. There were only four doors in this shorter hall. It wouldn’t take much time to knock and see if Adam had gone into one of them. But who knew who lived there, and if Adam had gone inside of his own free will or not?
Greg started at 201, the closest door on the left. He tapped the knocker four times, wincing at the notion of waking up some groggy neighbor if the kid wasn’t there. After a surprisingly short amount of time, the door opened and a portly man who Greg recognized opened the door. It was Mr. Peck, who he’d seen going in and out on many occasions. He’d never known which apartment Mr. Peck lived in however.
“Yes?” said the man, eyeing Greg suspiciously. He was dressed.
“I’m really sorry to bother you. A little kid didn’t just go into your apartment, did he?”
“A kid? No. What’s going on?”
“I’m babysitting this kid and I woke up and he’s gone. I thought maybe…” he decided not to go into the full story. “I thought he might be in there.”
“Why did you assume that?” Mr. Peck’s brow furrowed.
Greg shook his head.
“Call the police then. He could be anywhere.”
This suddenly seemed like the best thing to do. “Yeah … ” Greg stepped back from the door. “Yeah okay, I will … thanks.” And he turned and went back down the hallway toward the stairs. He no longer felt that knocking on doors would produce results.
As he hurried back up the stairs to his floor, he remembered something Gina had said to him the day she’d asked him to babysit. “You want to hear something really creepy?” She had mentioned the apartment next door to she and Adam’s, 604. “When the old woman used to live there, you know that lady I told you about?” (Greg didn’t actually recall hearing about any old lady next door, but said that he did so that Gina would get on with her story.) “When she lived there, every night I would hear her making the same sounds, doing the same routine. I’d hear the sink running, then some shuffling around in the bedroom, and then the same door opening and closing. Every night it was the same, and it always kind of bugged me, you know, that she was making so much noise when Adam was in bed.”
As Greg got back to his floor and hurried toward the door to his apartment, he remembered with an unexplained chill what she had said next: “Well, you know how she died two weeks ago? The night after that, I heard the same noises…the sink, the shuffling, that door closing. The exact same noises after she died…you know what that means, don’t you?” Gina was into karma and chi and holistic medicines, mumbo-jumbo that Greg never bought into, but things he always went along with for the sake of their friendship. “It means there’s a ghost in that apartment.”
Greg stepped up to his door and unlocked it with his key. He turned the knob and pushed the door open–but it caught on the locked chain. His heart skipped. He looked incredulously at the chain stretching between the inner wall and the door and pushed the door forward a few times, as if it would jar the lock loose.
“Hello?” he called, sticking his face into the small gap. “Adam?”
How could it have been Adam? He didn’t have a key to Greg’s apartment. It was too dark inside the apartment to see anything. For a brief instant he felt like an idiot standing there in the doorway, looking inside and demanding to know who was in there. But that feeling quickly passed when he considered that this was his own apartment after all.
He heard a rustle inside, something dragging swiftly across the floor. Then he heard one of the doors inside shutting.
He stood frozen, with his face wedged inside the opening. He listened. Finally he said, “Who’s in there?” trying to sound as manly and threatening as possible. Luckily, his voice did sound rather convincing to his own ears.
A white hand jetted out from inside the darkness of the doorway. Its ragged, browned fingernails latched onto Greg’s left ear and tore harshly downward, digging a deep gash into the entire side of his face, all the way down to his chin.
Greg shouted out in pain and reeled backward, slamming against the opposite wall. “God damn it!” he growled, pressing his fingertips against the slashes that ran from his ear to his chin.
The door to his apartment swung all the way shut and clicked quietly into place.
Greg felt dizzy. He didn’t know what to think anymore. The strange nature of the intruder in his apartment had made him almost forget that he was after a missing little kid whose safety he’d been entrusted with. The scratches on his cheek started to sting a few seconds later, as the shocking, numb tingling wore off. Blood was starting to wet his hand and his T-shirt.
The thing to do – now he was certain – was to go to the landlord’s apartment, 310, just down the hall from his own. He could use Martin, the landlord’s phone to call the police and report both Adam and the pale intruder.
On his way down the hall, he rehearsed in his head what he might say to the police. He looked down and saw that the blood from his wound was dripping onto the dark carpet, making a little black trail like coins dropped onto the bottom of a fountain. The sight made his more dizzy and faint. The sight of his blood was more upsetting to him than the pain of the injury. Because nobody was around, he allowed himself an audible whimper.
He reached 310 and knocked loudly on the door. “Martin,” he called. “Let me in. I’m hurt and I need to call the police. I need to use your phone.” He knocked again when there was no response. “Martin … I need to use your phone … please …”
After a few more moments there was still no answer. He must not have been home.
Greg let his forehead fall against the door. “Fuck,” he whined, starting to cry.
Running footsteps made him jerk his head to the side. For a moment, the terrifying notion struck him that the dangerous intruder in his apartment may be running after him to attack him again, but what he saw when he turned was – Adam rushing into the stairwell.
“Adam!” Greg cried and ran after him, determined not to let him disappear again.
He bolted into the stairwell and sprinted up the stairs after the sound of the footsteps. He ran past the fourth and fifth floors, still hearing Adam’s footsteps running ahead of him. When he reached the flight below the sixth floor, where Adam and Gina’s apartment was, he saw the door swinging shut.
Panting, Greg made it up to the sixth floor and entered the hallway. The only logical destination for Adam would be he and Gina’s apartment, 602. But logic hadn’t reared its reassuring head all night.
Again, there was no response.
From 604, the apartment next to Gina’s, the one she had told Greg about, he could hear a sink running. The sink running first … that’s what she said … then shuffling around … a door opening and closing. Whatever was in there was connected to Adam … something … that old woman … there was a ghost or something … it had Adam …
Greg reached for 604’s doorknob and to his surprise, it turned in his hand and he was able to push the door open. Without hesitation he rushed into the entryway and called Adam’s name once more.
The place was emptied out, no furniture. The walls looked dark gray in the darkness, their only decorations were shafts of pale blue light coming in from the windows. Greg shut the door behind him and took a few steps inside. He shuffled across the carpet to the living room around the corner and peered in.
Looking for Adam seemed useless now. Every time the child went around a corner, he would disappear. It became more clear to him that something was luring him here. It had lured Adam somewhere and was now using his image to do the same to Greg.
As he had these thoughts, the hands of the entity which had been tormenting Greg curled around the sides of his face and clutched his head from behind. The icy fingertips seemed to affect an immediate paralysis, since all Greg was able to do was let the hands tilt his head backward. He wasn’t able to close his eyes, but he was able to move them.
The creature behind him was a full head or more taller than he was, and with its head tilted straight downward, it was pulling Greg’s head back so that they would be face-to-face.
Greg used all his remaining strength to keep his eyes fixed on the ceiling and not look into the entity’s face which floated only inches above him.
He heard himself wheezing raggedly but couldn’t feel it.
His eyes began to float upward, closer to the face above him. He tried to shift them back to the ceiling but he was losing control of them rapidly. Eventually, his eyes met the eyes of the beast that had trapped him.
“Open up, it’s the police,” Gina called in an exaggerated grumpy voice. She knocked again on the door to Greg’s apartment. “Come on, Greg, open up. Adam has to be at school in fifteen minutes.” She tried the doorknob, which to her frustration, wouldn’t turn in her hand. “Damn it,” she mumbled. Where were they?
She noticed the dark stain on the carpet at the foot of the door and knelt to touch it. It was still wet. A black dread gripped her chest.
Gina turned her head just in time to see Greg disappear around the corner at the end of the hall.
“Greg!” she called, standing and rushing after him.