I squint up at the gigantic billboard looming over the intersection. It’s flashy, big block font advertising a new drug manufactured by a pharmaceutical company with a vaguely familiar name, but that isn’t the thing that catches my attention. The words are small, the typical text size of things worth concealing.
“- arasomnias and feelings of ambivalence. If any of these occur, please speak to a health prof –”
A car flies past me, and I narrowly avoid being drenched by the dank dredges of rainwater pooling by the curb. Senses reeling, I clumsily step back onto the sidewalk, the frantic sound of the car horn still ringing in my ears. I bite back an angry curse and pull my gaze from the diminishing view of the silver Lexus to the advertisement that drew my attention from the beginning.
It’s now a gigantic billboard advertising a new kind of pet food (‘for both dogs and cats!’). I blink at the goofy golden retriever and grumpy British short-hair. What was I looking at? Surely it was something different before. I shake off the nagging feeling and continue on my way home. One of those fancy billboards with the automatic changing panels, maybe.
I skilfully dodge pedestrians milling about, weaving my way through the streets back to my apartment on the fringes of the city. The day had gone on longer than normal, and the simple thought of sinking into the sofa with my cat and some reheated marinara pizza from the night before propels me forward. The further I walk, the less people I encounter. Carefully laid pavement becomes pothole-marked tar road, brightly lit bus shelters become dim public transport stops lit by a single streetlamp. Towering billboard advertisements become weathered flyers sloppily pasted on electricity poles.
A chill blows past. I pull my jacket tighter around my body, and wish I didn’t have to get off work so late, glancing nervously at the sky above so thick with rain clouds it’s almost red. It’s an old part of town that becomes kind of creepy when it gets dark, but besides the fact that it’s the only thing a minimum wage job gets me, the old, pre-war buildings and narrow alleys do have their charms. You know, besides the invisible rodents skittering around in the darkness and occasional street corner drug deal.
Right before I round the corner leading to the street where my apartment is, I walk past a brightly lit convenience store, and a familiar sight catches my eye. The polarised pets from before remind me that Miso’s food needs replenishing. Auspicious Trees. Cute name, but I don’t recognise it. Must be new. It’s on the ground floor of a dilapidated shophouse but from the outside the store looks clean. The floor above looks empty and abandoned, its windows stoically dark, further emphasised by the sterile glow of the store’s unwavering white fluorescent lights.
As I ponder whether Miso’s food situation is dire enough for me to make a short detour, a clap of thunder sounds and drops of rain begin to fall, the earlier shower coming back with a vengeance. My decision is made, considering I didn’t think to wear a jacket with a hood today. I push the door open, my entrance triggering a bell that tinkles from an unseen place. The sound of the rain falling outside abruptly softens as the door closes behind me. I find the pet food easily thanks to the cardboard cut-out I saw from outside and pick up a small bag, just in case my notoriously picky cat doesn’t take a liking to it.
The rain doesn’t show any sign of letting up, so I decide to wander the aisles for a bit, and I pick up a couple of cans of tuna on impulse, which are strangely enough, turned facing inwards on the shelf, instead of outwards as they would normally be. Looking around, I notice everything on the shelves, while arranged neatly with everything pulled forward, are turned facing inwards instead of outwards, from rows and rows of brightly coloured packs of instant noodles to the bottled drinks in the chilled section. Walking into the next aisle I startle myself, as I catch a sight of my own face reflected in the mirrored back wall of the chillers lining the walls. Weird.
The rain outside continues its relentless pouring. I glance at my phone - 8:07pm. It’s getting late, I should be getting home. I walk up to the counter to pay for my goods, but there’s no one there. Sweeping my gaze across the store, I will some part-timer to suddenly pop into view from somewhere among the shelves. I take out my phone and mindlessly scroll social media. Two minutes pass. I stare at the rows of cigarette boxes behind the counter, eyes darting from one grotesque warning to another. Another two minutes tick by. Still no one comes.
I notice a door at the back of the store that looks like it leads to a storage room. Maybe I should knock? The cashier might have been taking a break and fallen asleep inside. I hesitate for a moment, and knock once, twice. No answer. I turn the knob and the door opens with a squeak. Stale air rushes out, and the one thing I can make out from the light streaming in from the doorway is that there is a staircase leading up. Regardless of my awareness of proverbs about curiosity and what it does to cats, I ascend, making sure to leave the door open behind me.
The second floor is a world away from the convenience store downstairs. It looks like no one has been up here in years, with chipped paint and dust collecting in small piles on the floor. My foot catches on a haphazard heap of what looks to be incredibly faded Chinese New Year decorations in the corner. As my eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, I see three rooms on each side of the hall. Every cautious step echoes louder than normal in the silence.
I step through the door-less threshold of the first room on my left, and immediately jump at my reflection. A mirror and wooden barre span the entire left wall of the room. The timber floor is buffed and polished to perfection, reflecting the moonlight streaming in from the open window. I run my hand along the smooth wood of the barre, memories of trilling piano melodies and old ballet shoes tugging at my heart. BANG! A sudden gust of wind causes the open shutters to collide with the wall, startling me out of my reverie. I scurry over to push the window firmly closed.
I exit the first room and enter the room directly opposite, which appears to be a small kitchenette. A streetlamp right outside the window gilds everything orange. Like the first room it’s clean, but it’s cluttered with pots and pans and various kitchen appliances. A small table with a couple of matching stools take up most of the space in the centre of the small room. The only thing on the table is a yellow ceramic mug. When I peer inside, I see the dregs of a brown liquid at the bottom. I close the door carefully behind me, a feeling I can’t quite put my finger on brewing in my mind.
The third room’s door is ajar, and I push it open soundlessly. It’s pitch black inside, save for an old-fashioned turn-dial telephone perched on a pedestal in the middle of the room, illuminated by a single spotlight. I shuffle my way towards it cautiously, and as I move closer to the telephone, I realise something smells. It’s very faint, but it almost smells coppery, like the sharp scent of old coins. I pick up the receiver, expecting a dial tone, but my ears are met with a faint crackling sound, as if the receiver on the other end has been left off and then abandoned. I listen for a few moments longer, waiting for something to happen, but nothing does.
The fourth room’s door is closed but I turn the knob and it opens easily, dislodging a good amount of fine dust into the air, sending me into a coughing fit. Once the air clears, I realise why it’s so dusty in here. It’s a bedroom, or what remains of it. Everything is burnt to a crisp, the air is thick with what isn’t dust, but ash. I can make out what used to be a canopy bed and a dressing table, both with their frames intact but smothered with a dense layer of ash and debris.
I walk over to the dresser, careful not to touch anything. The middle part of the dressing table mirror is completely shattered, with the only intact pieces around the edge. Curiously, unlike its surroundings, the mirror is completely clean. Somehow, despite the arrangement of the mirror pieces, my entire body manages to be reflected, with every piece of intact glass a warped distortion of a different body part. To my surprise, I notice a crucifix also reflected in the mirror and sure enough, a simple wooden crucifix hangs above the bed, apparently untouched by the flames. I stare at it until my vision blurs.
The fifth room’s door is stuck shut, and it takes a couple good shoves for it to finally open with a squeak and a groan. Surprisingly, a dim hallway stretches out before me. Perplexed, I follow the path - surely this building’s layout doesn’t allow for this - and eventually, after too many turns to keep track of, the labyrinth spits me out into a bleak concrete room. I wrap my arms around myself in a bid for warmth, suddenly noticing how cold it’s gotten. The room’s ceiling is cavernous, extending into darkness above. Everything about this room feels hollow, from the stark lighting to the standing lamp in the corner, like everything is just props on a movie set. There’s an upright piano against the far wall, with a few framed photographs arranged on top of it, and I walk towards it, pulled by an unseen force.
The photos are faded yellow by time. The first one I pick up is of a cheerful woman in a dress carrying a toddler in her arms, standing in a backyard with part of a weathered picnic table visible in the background. The next one is of the same child, not looking at the camera, sitting on a sofa intently reading a book bigger than his face. All the photographs feature the same kid in different ways, painted in such a loving light they can only be taken by family. Dark hair, bright eyes - I don’t recognise him, yet somehow a lump has found its way into my throat. The decisive thought never comes, so I turn to leave. I walk back down the hallway, but the tightness behind my eyes doesn’t ease until the door is securely closed behind me.
As I near the final door, an inexplicable sense of dread begins to spread throughout my body, and my feet feel slow and heavy. As soon as I touch my trembling hand to the scuffed gold doorknob, a sharp ringing sound pierces my skull, making me cry out, but as abruptly as it occurred, the noise subsides, leaving behind a dull throb in its wake. Instinctively, I still try to turn the knob to open the door, but the lock catches. My heart in my throat, I turn away and dash down the stairs, barely able to stop myself from taking the steps two at a time.
Thankfully, the door is open, as I left it. The intensely bright lighting causes me to squint as I barrel back into the convenience store. I close my eyes and force myself to take deep breaths, focusing on the quiet hum of the refrigerators, an oddly comforting sound now. As I near the front of the store, I see my groceries sitting in a white plastic bag on the counter. Picking it up, I glance outside. The sun is rising.