Mar 21, 2011
Ed Ferguson, leaning at the counter in his apartment and downing a second, tall, cool glass of orange juice, didn't mind the slight hangover from the previous night's party. It was, after all, Sunday, and with no obligations other than a few personal errands such as laundry and a bit of grocery shopping, he was glad that he could move as slowly as he desired.
Move slowly, he was certain that he would due to the pain in his side – bruised ribs are never fun. He shook his head at the memory of the incident, swallowed some orange juice and grinned ruefully as he moved in a slightly wrong direction and the ribs scolded him accordingly.
“At least I remember what happened,” he commented out loud. He took a last gulp from the glass and then rinsed it in the sink.
“That's always best.”
He was certain that, had there been one, the YouTube video would have gone viral and given most of the world a good laugh. Even in the aftermath, no one had been quite certain of exactly how it happened.
The party was at his friend, Daphne's apartment. Ed had arrived with his girlfriend, Stefanie, as first guests at about 7:30. Daphne, always efficient, had promptly served them with large glasses of wine and put them to work which they did willingly. Ed had obliged by moving some chairs and making a little space while Daphne and Stefanie put out some scented candles and the quirky, 70's throw-back, mirror ball was turned on. Then with the living room adjusted and looking suitably festive, they had gone back to the kitchen for refills of wine and began heating up tasty appetisers and sampled the trays of lasagna that were in the oven and already emitting delicious aromas of cheese and spices. All in all, it was shaping up to be the kind of evening that would raise anyone's spirits in the deep, cold of winter. In fact, outside, the night was forbiddingly cold and with a wind that only augmented its bitterness.
Still running over the comical events of the previous night, Ed opened the cabinet under the sink and, fishing blindly with his hand, found the jug of laundry detergent and hauled it out. He set it by the apartment door and moved toward the bedroom to collect the sagging, canvas sack of laundry appended in the closet. After stripping the bed, he surveyed the bedroom for anything that he should add and, satisfied that there wasn't, he returned to the front door and, due to the discomfort in his side, awkwardly put on his shoes.
“Oh, damn,” he exclaimed, recalling missed items.
Regardless of his shoes already on, he returned to the kitchen and fetched the dish towel. Returning, he collected the necessary change for the washing machine from it's receptacle on top of a sound system speaker. Finally, he grabbed his towel and his girlfriend's from the rack in the bathroom.
“Got everything now, Ed?”
He shrugged his shoulders and left the apartment, descending by elevator, thirteen floors to the basement.
By the time the first appetisers emerged, piping hot and fragrant, the other guests began to arrive. Peter and Nancy arrived with some additional snacks and more wine which was roundly cheered. As is normal, everyone began to congregate in the kitchen to enjoy the warmth and closeness. Soon after, Eric and Natalia showed up also bearing additional festivity. Finally, and fashionably late, Stan and Emily knocked at the door and were greeted with hearty cheers as they produced several more bottles of wine for tasting as they decried, in turn, the traffic and the cold and appologised to the the ever-smiling and gracious hostess. The group settled into comfortable conversation about this-and-that, fairly spiced with amicable pokes and prods and good natured banter.
The elevator door rattled open and, still smiling, Ed looked out into the desolate, cement-walled and poorly lit hallway. He stepped from the elevator. The door closed with a bang and the device began to automatically ascend to the lobby.
He had never liked the basement of the building – the naked, cold cement and the uncovered, sagging, overhead duct-work reminded him of some post-apocalyptic refuge or, looking at the moisture which trickled to the floor drains, a lonely dungeon. He wondered if the subterranean environment affected others the way it did him. He was always surprised when he saw lone female tenants down there and apparently oblivious to the murky lighting of the hallway which, just beyond the laundry room, hooked right and, normally, faded into blackness due to one or more failed fluorescent tubes.
Turning to the right from in front of the elevator, he made his way to the end of the hall and then left to enter the laundry. The laundry room was scarcely a more heartening environment; while plastered and painted, these amenities had, long ago begun to crack, peel and cede to the dampness. Ed chose a washing machine that seemed recently cleaned and began to unceremoniously dump the laundry from the canvas sack into the drum of the machine. Above, the two, naked fluorescents buzzed loudly and one of them flickered stroboscopically creating disconcerting and changing shadow effects in the room. Ed measured out some detergent and versed it into the receptacle.
After all of the fun in the cozy warm kitchen and, with plates weighty with lasagna and a rich Caesar salad, the party had moved to the living room. Ed sat in a chair and, more content barefoot and close to the floor, Stefanie sat, inclined against his leg while seated on a large cushion. Peter and Nancy, both of them of thin build, occupied a single wing-chair and cooed at each other while dispensing with their portions. Stan and Emily, the more open couple, sat at opposite ends of a sofa, leaving space for anyone who wanted to join in. Daphne seemed never to stop until Ed called her on it and, finally, she sat and, smiling at her beloved guests, enjoyed her own dinner. Someone changed the CD and upped the beat to something danceable.
Ed fished in his pocket and withdrew the change there. He selected several quarters and then cursed.
The elevator door crashed open and Ed started, dropping a quarter. It dallied this way and that, rolling unpredictably and disappeared under the machine.
He studied his palm and picked out another quarter. When he looked up, a pale woman was staring at him from the entrance.
“Nasty out there,” she intoned and drew her fingers across her lower face. Ed listened and could hear the sound of the wind howling up the elevator shafts.
“Yeah,” he said, responding but thoroughly disquieted. He plopped a quarter into the slot and, pushing a button, the machine began to fill.
“Not a great day to be out and about,” he rejoined pleasantly but, when he looked up, she was gone.
Standing alone in the laundry room, Ed was entirely uncertain how he felt about strange, pale women speaking to him and then disappearing. Above him, one of the fluorescents – the one that had been flickering before – finally gave up the ghost and the light faded to an ethereal blue at either end of the tube. The other tube was scant help and the half-light made the room close in, heavily shadowed. Ed quickly gathered up the jug of detergent and canvas sack, wanting to be back in his comfortable and sunlit apartment. He paused and looked at the items in his hands, relieved.
“She probably just came down to see if there was a machine available,” he cajoled.
Reasonably satisfied with his explanation, from the door, he looked out into the hallway. He could see no one although, to the left, the darkness was complete. He exited and turned toward the elevator and repeatedly pressed the call button. Many floors above, he heard the device clank and begin to descend. Ed fidgeted.
Ed was aware from the few times that he had seen it lit that, down the dark corridor, there were several side doors. While he had never explored since he had no motive to be there other than to do laundry, he suspected that the closed rooms housed the equipment to keep the aging building running; electrical panels, boilers, water pumps and the like. On a few occasions, while waiting as he was currently doing, he had heard sounds – little mechanical noises - that supported his suspicion. He also knew that, just beyond the corner, on the inner side of the hallway, there was a staircase which ascended to the top floor.
At lobby level, the elevator bumped open and Ed jumped. Impatient, he pushed the button again even though it remained lit. Ed froze, startled, with his hand withdrawing from the button.
A sound had wafted from the darkness of the corridor and impinged on his eardrum. His head snapped sharply to the left attempting to locate it. It came again and, although he could tell where it was coming from, more disconcerting was that he could not identify it.
“What was that?” he whispered, thoroughly unnerved. “A sigh?”
Grating metal on metal pierced his attuned hearing and the elevator door opened. Ed made a final glance toward the darkness and, shivering, got in and pushed the button for his floor. He realised that his headache was not getting any better.
“Maybe that's why I'm so jumpy,” he tried to reason to the empty elevator cabin. “But, what the heck was that anyway?”
Moments later, he was relieved to enter his apartment and see the bright sunlight across the front windows and balcony. He kicked off his shoes just as the phone rang. Startled again, he dropped the jug of laundry detergent on his toe.
“Oh, crap,” he cursed and limped to the kitchen to pick up.
“Hi, tiger,” said Stefanie, brightly. “How are you feeling?”
Ed immediately forgot his previous discomfort and unease.
“I'm a little sore, baby.” He began to laugh, careful not to incite his ribs. “How are you?”
“I think I coulda used a bit more sleep,” she answered and yawned for effect. Ed agreed.
“Maybe if we weren't all falling about, we coulda got home sooner.” Stefanie giggled.
“Do you have any idea how that happened?” Stefanie sounded awed.
“No. I think it will go down in the annals of parties as the 'inexplicable domino incident'. I was sure glad Daph had that ice pack, let me tell you - I'm better for it today.”
“I can't imagine any guy objecting to Daphne's gentle and caring ministrations,” poked Stefanie.
“Like, no!” They were both laughing.
“Say,” continued Ed, “are you still coming over to 'watch a movie' tonight?” He placed the appropriate emphasis, grinning mischievously. Stefanie paused and then shot him down.
“I've got a better idea, tiger. Why don't you come over and we'll actually watch a movie.” Ed sighed dramatically.
“To tell you the truth, that's not a bad idea.” Ed poked at his tender ribs. “5'ish and we'll order some pizza?”
“Sounds perfect. I'll see you later.”
“OK!” Ed was already looking forward to it. “Love you, Stef. See ya.”
“I love you, Edward G. Ferguson. Bye!”
Ed hung up the phone, smiling contentedly.
A half hour later, having finished cleaning up and ready to go out shopping, Ed descended again to the basement to retrieve his laundry.
He stepped nervously from the elevator and, after the departure of the noisy mechanism, he glanced up and down the murky hallway, ensuring that he was alone and listening intently for sounds of any sort. Of course, there were always sounds – they were the background noise of an old building. Ed picked them out, one by one, as he stepped quietly down the hall toward the laundry and the oppressive darkness that oozed from the angled corridor. He could hear the water, in pulses, pushed by pumps to maintain pressure to the top floor. There was the hiss of the heating, driven by boilers somewhere in one of those rooms. He could also hear the drains – the effluent of morning showers and breakfast dishes being washed. Nothing more unusual reached his ears but, in its own way, the failure to have a second chance to lock onto that sound and be able to confidently identify it, was just as disturbing as the sound itself had been. Ed shook his head, quickly collected his laundry and returned above ground.
Despite the cold, wind and threat of snow, Ed was glad, after the strangeness and unease of his previous sensations, to get out of the building, clear his head, and get his Sunday morning grocery shopping done. The sun, though bright, did nothing to warm against the bite of the wind and ice in the upper atmosphere gave it a blurred, haloed effect. Ed walked carefully, over-compensating for the soreness in his side and avoiding the slick frozen puddles on the sidewalk although, he was certain that, bundled as he was beneath a heavy coat and several sweaters, if he fell, he would simply bounce back to his feet like a puffy ball. Just the same, he was cautious. As he moved automatically through his routine – first, a coffee at a small café and then purchasing the Sunday edition at a tiny, crowded shop – his mind returned to the entertaining events of the previous night and their unexpected results. Walking slowly, he smiled and shook his head in disbelief. He took a sip from his coffee and entered through the sliding door of the grocery store.
“Come dance with us, Ed!” Emily raised her voice above the level of the music.
Stefanie and Emily were dancing provocatively in the space that had previously been created while reflections from the mirror ball crawled over the walls and their bodies. They were clearly enjoying the movement after the delicious meal. Ed nodded and smiled but, instead, went to the kitchen for more wine. The song, called 'Let's Play', was a new one and, Ed reflected, the S&M tone of it was, to say the least, interesting. He entered the kitchen to find Daphne attempting to do some cleaning up.
“Daphne!” exclaimed Ed. “What the heck are you doing?”
Daphne looked at him with guilt showing in her eyes, as though caught in the act.
“I was... um... nothing.” She beamed her gorgeous smile at him, attempting to hypnotise him but Ed would have none of it. He forcefully took the dish towel from her hands and then gently patted them dry.
“Daphne,” he said with mock severity and forcing himself to look cross.
“This is a party, right? Your party.”
“Yes, Ed.” He tossed the towel on the counter and then put his hands on her shoulders.
“At parties, we eat, drink, dance and enjoy the company of our friends,” observed Ed about the essential order of the universe. “Where is your glass?”
“It's on top of the 'fridge. But, you're not dancing, Ed.” She attempted to trump him.
Ed refilled the two glasses and passing one to her, took her hand and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
“Then you'll dance with me,” pronounced Ed with finality and proceeded to drag his, not unwilling, hostess back to join the others who cheered and clapped when he emerged with Daphne in tow. By then, the music had changed and almost everyone was on their feet. Depositing their glasses on a side table, Ed and Daphne joined the fray.
Ed hefted the canvas bag of groceries, held on his good side, and carefully picked his way back, across the parking lot toward his building. When it came into view, Ed was brought up short. He blinked, confused by the unusual activity.
At least four police cruisers were parked haphazardly around the front of the building while, directly in front of the main entrance was the oppressive, black presence of a coroner's van. Ed approached slowly, watchfully, not really wanting to encounter the gurney that would, at some point, be wheeled out bearing its grim burden closed within a black, zippered body bag. Ed was a firm believer in keeping death at arm's length, as it were. Two burly officers were in the lobby when he entered, conversing quietly while their radios emitted a stream of beeps, clicks and unintelligible police jargon. They eyed him, as police will do, as he crossed the lobby and entered a waiting elevator. He pushed the button and the door rattled shut.
“My God. I wonder what's going on here,” he said to the empty cabin, implicitly disliking the situation, whatever it was.
The lights blinked sequentially over the top of the door, clicking noisily and counting off the floors. The elevator rattled and squeaked. Ed transferred the sack of groceries to his tender side and his freed hand fished for the apartment keys in the pocket of his jeans. The elevator heaved to a stop and the door clanked open. Still trying to extract the keys, Ed stepped blindly into the hall and collided with an officer.
Ed faltered, withdrawing his keys, and took two steps backward.
“Sorry about that,” said the officer but, he was as impassive as a block of stone. He scrutinised Ed's face.
“Just what the heck is going on here?” Ed queried the large policeman that blocked the hallway.
“We're investigating a mysterious death, sir. Are you a tenant here?”
“Yeah,” answered Ed. With his hand, he indicated the door with its affixed, metal, number plaque just beyond the cop's right shoulder.
“A death? Christ!” The officer nodded in response.
“Are you the sole occupant, sir?”
“Yeah, I am ... my girlfriend is over often enough but it's my place until we get one together.”
The officer nodded again, noncommittally. He scribbled some notes in his book and noted the apartment number.
“Thank you for your time, sir. Have a good day.” He stood aside and, not wanting to press for more information from the imposing fellow, Ed passed and quickly entered his apartment, bolting the door after entry. He already knew what he wanted to do.
Daphne and Ed had been dancing for about twenty minutes when they decided to take a break. They stepped away from the lively group to reclaim their wine glasses. Ed caught Stefanie's eye - she smiled and waved, still gyrating and bouncing to some other recent but, otherwise unrecognisable, hit. Ed smiled back and, also inwardly, knowing what a fine girl she was and the depth of his own affection for her – but, if he blushed slightly at the thought, he would have blamed it on the wine. Daphne and Ed, having been friends for many years, fell into easy conversation, sipping wine and, quite simply, enjoying one another's company. After a short break for cooling down, they resumed dancing with the group.
The 'incident' happened about five minutes later and, Ed, to his chagrin, became more intimate with a coffee table than he had ever imagined possible or, realistically, intended.
Inside the apartment, Ed, fresh from the surprise encounter with the imposing police officer, kicked of his boots on the mat by the door and, leaving the bulging canvas bag of groceries on the floor, he unceremoniously dumped his coat in a bulky lump on the couch. He went into the kitchen and, picking up the phone, dialed the numbers that, over the years of living in the same apartment, he had subconsciously committed to memory.
The line clicked several times and then rang repeatedly.
“C'mon, pick up,” Edward coaxed, despite the futility. Finally, it was answered by a sleepy voice.
“Daniel? Good morning, it's Ed Ferguson up on 12.”
“What? Oh, yeah. Hi.”
Daniel was, to Ed, a relatively unknown quantity because he seemed to be endowed with an astounding quality of absence which left one wondering if he understood what was going on or, truly, was even listening. He was a sprig of a dark-skinned man whose slight build suggested, perhaps, an Eastern African origin – Ethiopia or Somalia. When encountered around the building doing maintenance jobs, he was normally covered from head to toe in plaster dust even when the current job had nothing whatsoever to do with plastering or sanding. He was normally wearing baggy coveralls with a striped, brown and sand, heavy sweater that had been liberally dashed with paint and had a battered, red metal, tool chest as a constant companion. Ed considered the guy to be a little eccentric but, even so, they frequently stopped in the building for a few minutes to exchange news and pleasantries.
“Hey, Daniel. I was wondering what's going on with all the cops in the building. Should I be worried?”
“Oh, yeah. You know, that's sad.”
“What's sad, Daniel?”
There was a pause and the line buzzed. Ed wondered if Daniel had simply wandered off to fix something.
“What? Oh, the woman. It's sad about her.”
“What woman, Daniel?”
“They don't know who she is.” There was another long pause. Ed waited patiently for Daniel to collect his thoughts which he did and continued.
“She hung herself from the stairway in the basement.”
Ed's eyes went wide and his jaw dropped.
By a quarter after one, Daphne's party was in full swing and everyone was having a splendid time dancing, shouting, laughing and generally burning off steam. Daphne joked she was surprised the neighbours hadn't all come over to join in. Daphne and Ed finished their chat and began dancing again.
The incident which resulted in Ed's bruised ribs, probably only took about five seconds to happen but, while the whole chain reaction played itself out, it seemed more like five minutes.
Ed insisted that, in the press of happily dancing friends, it had been an arm flung extravagantly by Stan that, ducking the appendage, had caused Eric to lose balance and tip against Natalia. Stan had refuted that by simply asserting that he was never extravagant. Everyone guffawed.
Natalia, however, who was dancing with her boyfriend, suggested that her foot had got entangled with Stefanie's causing Stefanie to topple back against Emily.
Daphne, always content with her own train of thought, had a more existential explanation: she proposed that the universe had shifted causing them all to be thrown off balance simultaneously. Who collided with whom, she asserted with conviction, was simply an after-effect. No one was quite certain how to receive her explanation.
Peter and Nancy were convinced of a conspiracy. They were dancing a little apart from the group but insisted they had been assaulted from the rear. They eyed the others suspiciously before breaking into playful grins.
The ultimate fact was that, in less than a moment, the whole lot of them became a mass of tumbling bodies and squeals of surprise.
Ed recovered from his initial surprise and looked at the phone before replacing it to his ear.
“Daniel?” He whispered. “I saw a woman downstairs when I was doing my laundry. I had never seen her before. Was it her?”
Ed's mouth seemed to have gone exceptionally dry. He pawed at the counter, recovering a glass and filled it with water.
“Oh. Yeah. No,” answered Daniel ambiguously.
“What do you mean, Daniel?”
The strange, unidentified sound that he had heard in the basement - still stored in his short-term memory - returned to him and he shivered at the recollection. Even with it restored to his consciousness, he could not put his finger on what might have caused it. It was possible, he reasoned, attempting to liberate his conscience from the alternative, that it had been a completely normal noise which he had just not heard well enough to identify.
The alternative, to him, was more horrendous than he wanted to consider – that he had heard some poor woman's last rattle and gasp and, by simply leaving on the elevator, condemned her to the fate which she had chosen. Daniel, in his absent way, came to Ed's rescue.
“What? I mean, 'no'. They said it happened in the night – not this morning. She was already dead this morning.
Relieved, Ed thanked Daniel and wished him a pleasant Sunday but, the words that the strange, pale woman had spoken returned to him - 'It's nasty out there'. In retrospect, he was uncertain what was being referred to.
Emily landed on top of Stan with a thump and quite seriously winded him. Stan, nevertheless, managed to grin from ear to ear, coughing to regain his breath, with his girlfriend sprawled awkwardly across his chest. Peter and Nancy, true to their conspiracy theory, finished prone on the floorboards, nursing bruised knees but no worse. The real jumble was formed of the squirming limbs and torsos of Eric, Natalia, Stefanie and Daphne. Eventually, they managed to extricate themselves from the human spaghetti and sat laughing on the floor.
Ed just moaned until someone noticed.
In another circumstance, Ed's actions might have been deemed athletic or, even, heroic. Though his balance was gone, he saw Emily land heavily on Stan and, falling in the same direction, he didn't want to add insult to injury. With one leg already flailing in the air for balance, he twisted slightly to the left and fell sideways. Had the coffee table not been there, he would have fallen, unharmed, against a couch. Unfortunately, the coffee table was there and Ed, no longer able to alter his course and with his arms splayed out and a silly expression of surprise on his face, crashed into the edge of the table which tipped over, digging further into his ribs.
'Damn,' thought Ed. 'That's going to hurt'.
By a week later, the majority of these incidents had been relegated to the past. Ed returned to work on Monday and, for the best part of a week, continued to move carefully while the swelling and pain in his side gradually subsided and an enormous, purple bruise appeared.
'That's so sad', commented Stefanie, looking wistful and frowning when, together on Sunday night for pizza and a movie, Ed had recounted the strange events of the day.
The elevator door clanked mechanically and opened. Ed looked out into the dingy hallway and then emerged with the heavy, canvas sack of laundry appended to his shoulder. Nothing had changed – it still made him uncomfortable.
The lights, if anything, were in a worse state than before and, wanting to just be finished, Ed moved quickly down the hall, flinching visibly as he passed a large, black cockroach clinging, immobile, to the wall.
“At least, it's just standing there,” Ed convinced himself and vowed to call his Superintendent to get the pest control in. “It's worse when they move.”
Standing in front of the washing machine, the silence in the basement seemed oppressive but for the buzzing and flickering of the fluorescent tubes in the hall. Ed reflected that some Sunday's are just more quiet than others. The heat had probably been turned down for the warmer weather in the past week. Ed prepared the machine and dropped in the money. When he pushed the button, the mechanical pump engaged and Ed jumped because, suddenly, everything seemed so loud; his senses, subconsciously, were at peak attention. Ed collected the jug of detergent and sack, returning to the hallway.
“It's nothing,” Ed reassured himself, frantically pushing the call button. His knees were rubbery and he felt a flush of panic on his face.
In the quiet, there could be no mistaking the sound which emerged from the dark hallway where the lights always failed. It came with the clarity and volume of a gasp; a mucous-occluded expulsion of air through a strangled trachea. A final sigh.