Magda wondered how it had all gone so wrong.
She came to Warsaw with dreams! She came to get away from her village, to live in the big city, and to experience life outside the stifling walls of her bedroom. Now, she was afraid to leave her own apartment.
It had all started when she left for Warsaw.
She had found the most perfect of all apartments. She saw it online and- not a moment later- she had paid for it upfront. The first three months rent were taken from her hard earned savings and put into that damn landlord’s hand.
Some would call her idiotic and some would say she was barking mad. But they were not living her life. They didn’t have to live in a tiny bedroom, in a big house, afraid of the beings outside her room. Walking through the hallways and looking at her feet when their presence passed. Going to church and listening to the village priests. The same priests who got fat on wine and donated metals. Who screamed about damnation, about pregnant women, about immigrants. About the current government, the devil, and about everything in between. They screamed about everything and anything and- in the end- nothing.
Her life in the village was one reason to leave, but the apartment had a million more.
The Nazis had not bombed it and Warsaw’s history had not blemished it. A building clean and fresh from Stalin’s stain, and without another soul between its walls.. Also, the ceilings…They stretched so high…she could just float away…disperse into nothing…and lose whatever anxiety she had..
Her parents had only given her their doubts. They stabbed their food and stared at her.
“How can you afford that?”
“Warsaw is dangerous! Are you looking to get stabbed?!”
“You have a home right here…Are we not good enough?”
She ignored them. She answered politely, ate her pickle soup, and allowed their complaints to wash over her like water. They couldn’t understand, it was not about home, it wasn’t even about money.
She got money from her online editing work. She made twice the Polish average and was swimming in złoty. Her parents had no reason to be worried. Worse, they didn’t understand her in any way. Didn’t they realize that, in the heat of their proximity, she was just withering away? Didn’t they know? Didn’t they goddamn know?!
The train arrived in Warsaw when the sun set red.
She walked from the station, her luggage clunking along the cobblestone. The 24 hour pharmacy signs flash between the scenic sky. Strangers watched her. Cars slowed as they approached her. Her heart in her mouth until she got to her apartment and entered her home.
She felt as if somebody was waiting for her.
She searched the bedroom. She searched the kitchen. She found nothing at all. But…that feeling of being watched from the shadows… She looked underneath the couch. Nothing. The bed was cold and the shower absent of any figures.
She forced herself into bed. She had to, or she would be listening to her own heartbeat. The people moving upstairs, and the televisions blaring through the walls. Just a skin away. A thin membrane of paint and plaster…
Why couldn’t she go to sleep? Her eyelids were heavy with moisture, her neck creaked and her bones ached. She could almost fall asleep, but something always yanked her back.
Opening her eyes wide caused her to look in the corners then check under her bed.
Who in the world, she wondered, was making so much noise? Why was that television so loud? What in the world was going on?
Why did she imagine a man in the shadows?
After her first night, her editing work improved in leaps and bounds. She had such enthusiasm, such zest for life and love for work. She had something to look forward to and something to make her own. This is her property and nobody would take it from her even if she were to die.
Life was good for those first few months.
Well, except for one thing, and it wasn’t even a big thing, it was just…every now and again, at the exact same time, every day or so, she would hear a noise in her dream. The ding-rang of her doorbell rang. It echoed in her ears and dragged her from her dreams until she stumbled out of bed. Wondering.
But, when she looked through the peephole, nobody was there. The stairway empty and clean as freshly picked bones. With a noonday sun cold and desolate.
Besides that, life was good. She even started leaving her apartment! Walking through the park, visiting the library, buying some expensive ice cream. No longer was she going to bed with the sun up, and waking up with the sun down.
Work just kept coming in. She bought a coffee machine, a brand new television, and books so fresh that they bled black. Now what else should she do with her money? Should she go to Italy? France? Germany? Saudi Arabia? Well, maybe not Saudi Arabia, but there were other places. The world was endless and her future infinite.
Then, one of her clients failed to pay her.
At first, she did not worry. She just shrugged her shoulders and told herself that these things happened. But, as if part of a long laid plan, all her work just fell away. Her clients found other editors. Her emails went unnoticed, her work returned, and more and more clients ‘forgot’ to pay her. She spent all day checking her email. Hour after hour, clicking that link, until her vision glittered in blue and black.
Her life turned to empty nights. Playing her computer loud enough to swallow her thoughts. She turned it louder as her neighbours began to crash against her walls. Smashing on her ceiling, and thumping on her floor.
She stayed awake all night. Trying, and failing, to find a way out of this situation. A way for her to keep this apartment. A way to stay in Warsaw. A safe place away from home. Night after night the question churned in her mind. As she bit her nails, and paced, until, finally, only one outcome remained.
The landlord just wouldn’t receive her money.
In Polish law, there is no easy way to get rid of a tenant who does not pay. You could tell them to get out and call them at all hours. You could even threaten to fine them, but, thankfully, you could not come to the apartment without consent.
The landlord would have to go to court and wait three months. Then, give the tenant a piece of paper that told they had to be out in a month.
It would give her a chance to save the money from the little work she had. A month of money inside Warsaw would last half a year outside the city. Yes, that would be the best idea. She could save it and not go back in shame. If the landlord did try anything, then, well, she would have the law on her side.
She took her money out of the bank, just in case, and kept it in an envelope by her bed and, whenever she awoke, her hand would land on her little homemade safe. Counting. Recounting. Worrying about whether she could trust her memory. Anxious when she left her home, fearful of the landlord’s stubby fingers on her door.
Counting, checking, counting, three times a day turning to twenty. The sweat from her hands turning the ink sticky and moist. Her hands raw from touching the harsh green paper, and her eyes seeing money falling through the air.
In the beginning of the second month, she began to hear the doorbell during the day. While she was trying to sleep. The ding-ling invading her dreams, so that she would wake up with her heart pounding. And slip back into sleep, to wake up again, and again, her mind going from velvet black, to white light.
Her stomach churned at every movement in the building. Every footstep now the police, every neighbour now her landlord, and every little creak a claw on her wall.
The nights were filled with the light of her laptop screen, and the sounds of neighbours. Like great beings scratching on the cardboard of her walls. Trying to find a spot to push. To needle in. To fill her sanctity with their essence, and invade her innermost safety.
Halfway through the second month, she saw her own lunacy. Nobody had emailed her. Nobody. Shouldn’t he be asking for her pound of flesh?
Did he have so much money that he could ignore a month’s rent? No, she was wrong, he most probably had compassion for her.
And, sensing the change in the air, was allowing her to leave with dignity. He probably even knew her troubles and did not address it out of Polish politeness. Yes, that must be true.
For the first time in months, she left the apartment.
To bite into a zapiekanki so fresh and well-cooked that they crunched. With a thin tomato sauce covered by mushrooms, topped with cheddar and mozzarella that turned to butter, mixing with the salami and black olives.
The burst of flavour awakened her, and the care of the serving ladies revived her. Gently asking about the bruises beneath her eyes, and the paleness of her skin. Asking her if she wanted more. Hell, how could she say no? It’s not as if she had any bills to pay. They prepared the three zapiekanki she ordered with such care and love. Patting it, and closing it, so as not to lose one ounce of the precious liquor.
God, she had been so stupid! Of course the landlord was not going to actually do anything. He was probably so rich that he did not even notice! He just had to grin and bear it.
So, she began to plan her evening. She might have a cup of coffee. Maybe even watch the grey sky go by. Crack open a book and feel the gentle smell of dusty pages wafting through the air. Just relax before going to bed and get some well deserved rest. She smiled for the first time in a long time, and, slowly, she looked at her apartment block.
To see her landlord glaring from her bedroom window.
His eyes were smoking with flame. His black clothes burning in the sheen of the glass, his hair like living light, his lips spitting fire. His fingers were so tight on the windowsill that she could see bits of blood dripping from his knuckles. He opened his mouth, filling the air with poison and putrid vileness.
She ran. Not thinking about her safety, only about her money. Bursting into the apartment. Checking every room. And finding…
Where had the man gone? Could he be in the corner of her eye? Hidden behind her? Or, even, underneath the bed? Maybe he was watching from the mirror or whispering from the corner?
She was afraid to blink lest she saw him in her eyes. She stared at the mirror, expecting him to twist from beneath her bathroom basket.
She couldn’t sleep. The man could be there by her bed if she closed her eyes. She couldn’t shower! He could be waiting for her. She kept checking her money and finding it short. Of five zloty. Of two zloty. Of even hundreds of zloty!. More than she had ever had. Odd numbers in her money, strange marks, inhuman tears and bits of grease that stuck to her skin.
Two weeks until the third month and her doorbell went Ding-ling.
She froze in the hallway. Staring.
She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t blink.
She just couldn’t bear it! Each of those goddamn ding-lings tearing into her. Filling her whole body with agony. Forcing her into the corner, expecting something to open her door.
Coming in and seeing her rotten self. The rubbish bags in the corners, the smell in the air, and the unwashed dishes in the sink.
They would take her money and give it to the landlord. She would have nothing. Nothing! No way to buy a train ticket home. They would just kick her out onto the empty streets. Like a dog.
And, then, the landlord would come for her. He and her neighbours. Suddenly surrounding her in the night, their eyes so bright, reaching towards her with eager hands. Calloused fingers covering the sounds of her scream so nobody would hear her.
Or care if they did.
Her thoughts had swept her along, and filled her with so much horror, that she had not noticed the sounds had stopped.
No longer did that dang ding-ling fill the air. It was quiet, so quiet that she could feel it in the air. Adding weight to the door. Pulling on her eyes like stones falling to the floor.
She couldn’t turn away. The door so black that it seemed like a puddle of oil. the glittering keyhole the only blink of light.
She watched that handle. With the same kind of fascination she would a corpse. Noticing the detail of the lock. How it was so smooth, and strong, and almost seeming to wink. Twisting in the air. Shivering.
As a key turned it from the other side.
She was on her feet before she knew it. Grasping the handle, half expecting her hands to sink in muck, but finding it shaking in its socket. She stopped it from turning. Barely. Great blows rocking her. Shouts cursing her. Threats making her blood run cold. The handle tearing the ligaments of her wrist.
The landlord’s power finally flung her like a ragdoll. Ripping the handle from her hand. Tossing her to the far wall and smashing the back of her head into concrete. Forcing her to watch.
As the door began to open, to show one bone pale hand. Reaching through. Pushing…pushing….
Before, finally, hitting the second lock that could only be opened from the inside. Just a thin bit of metal that one kick would break. Just a bit of steel from the earth. Stopping the thing that came from the Warsaw cold.
The thing beyond the door sighed. Feeling the contours of the lock. Testing it with a gentle, slow, almost sensuous, pressure, before pulling it’s weight from the door. Closing it millimeter by millimeter and sucking all the fetid air that had bled into her home.
After that, she thought it would be best to get the hell out of here.
Where were her clothes!? Where was her money!? She ran around, tears running down her face, and feeling as if every second would be a second too many. Flinging things that she didn’t even see into her luggage.
The walls were watching her. The neighbours sliding up against it, their pale, sticky eyes following her. As if they would come out of the shadows around her. And their hands would be as sharp as blades…
She opened the door and, a second later, realized she had forgotten her money. She paused. Looking out at that empty stairway, with the moonlight shining in, and the trees shining softly beyond the window.
Her money would only take a second to get…
She searched her apartment from top to bottom. Throwing things all willy nilly. Until, finally, finding it amidst the rubbish in the corner. How did it end there? She had sworn that she had put it in her pocket. Hadn’t she? Hadn’t she?! Was she losing her mind?!
She cried out. Imagining the landlord back. But thankfully, it was only the ringtone of her mobile phone. Not the landlord. Not death. Nothing but a message from somewhere in this city. She opened her phone and, only half paying attention, scanned the message from her email:
I have been on holiday for the past three months and I still have not received a rent payment.
Please contact me as soon as possible.
All the best,
She paused. Reading. Remembering the ad that had stated that the rest of the apartment was empty, She slowly turned to look behind her as the air thickened. The hallway darkened. Her phone falling. Moving as if through water. To shatter into a million pieces, each as sharp as a blade of grass that spun and filled the air before her.
To show the thing that closed the door behind her.
-This story was originally published in Write the City by Timothy Connolly.