It had been a long, tiring week full of traipsing up and down streets looking for HELP WANTED signs and even checking businesses that didn’t advertise their need for help. Sara, new to the area, was willing to do almost anything at this point just to have an income; her savings was declining rapidly. The last thing she wanted was to be forced to turn tail and run back to Iowa in defeat. Just the thought of having to admit her failure and move back in with her parents made her shudder.
She trudged up the five flights of stairs methodically. The smells that drifted from the other apartments as she climbed assailed her nostrils – cabbage, garlic, fish, onions, bacon… and other odors that, not only couldn’t she identify, but she had no desire to know. Shifting her small bag of groceries to her hip, she reached for the multitude of jangling keys that lived in her purse and sighed, shaking her head at the locks that stacked top to bottom on her door.
The previous tenant, evidently fearful of the less-than-upscale neighborhood, had installed no less than six deadbolts – in addition to the one that came with a standard door. Sara’s challenge was to recall which of her seven keys fit into which lock. Of course, she could elect not to engage every lock, she realized, but… if there was a break-in and she had failed to lock every deadbolt, she would always wonder if she could have prevented it.
Her friendly, elderly neighbor across the hall, Marvin, was convinced that the multiple locks were because the previous tenant who “disappeared suddenly with nary a word to anyone” was involved in “unsavory deeds” and, therefore, needed all the backup locks. Maybe, Sara thought, probably. Feeling a little foolish, she nevertheless religiously engaged every… single… lock.
The last bolt disengaged and she pushed open the door. Moving inside, ever mindful that “an unlocked door is an unsafe door” as her mother constantly reminded her, she faithfully rotated the thumbturn of every lock securing herself inside. Security check complete, she unceremoniously dropped the bag with the makings of tonight’s dinner on the counter on her way to her bedroom to hang up her coat then stopped, confused. In the short path from the living room to the bedroom, her half-filled trashcan stood in the center of the hall. She wrinkled her brow in concentration automatically backing up and retracing her steps to the front door, heart pounding.
At the door, Sara unlocked all but one of the deadbolts preparing to escape from the apartment at the first sign of another person. She stood rooted in place, her eyes darting around the small apartment for any other signs of disturbance. From her vantage point she could see into her bedroom and, at least from where she stood, nothing appeared out of place. She had heard of break-ins happening in the area, of course, but those reports carried with them tales of much destruction of property.
As her heartrate slowed, she tried to focus on the details. Nothing except the trashcan seemed to be out of place – cupboards and drawers weren’t open, clothes weren’t strewn about, the throw pillows were still neatly arranged on the couch, her bed was still made… and… she turned her head looking at her fortressed door… all the deadbolts had been engaged when she got home. A window? Could someone have climbed through a window from the fire escape?
She tiptoed around the kitchen counter and carefully pulled a butcher knife from the knife block. Now armed, she crossed the small living room to the window confirming that it was locked. Fortifying herself with a deep breath, she moved slowly down the short hall to the small bathroom. Knife at the ready, she reached forward throwing back the shower curtain. Empty.
Satisfied that the bathroom was intruder-free, she advanced to her bedroom pausing at the threshold to scan the room before committing entrance. It was a small room, barely big enough for a double bed, night table, and a small dresser so she had little trouble confirming that the room was empty. Holding the knife at an angle meant to do bodily harm to anyone she encountered, she grabbed hold of the closet doorknob. Stepping aside so as not to be in the direct line of attack, she threw open the door. The small closet, packed full of everything that she couldn’t cram into the dresser drawers, was thankfully free of an intruder as well although, for good measure, she dutifully moved clothes aside verifying that… some very small…skinny… nearly invisible person… wasn’t lurking inside. Closing the closet door, she inspected the window near her bed. Locked. No one lurking on the fire escape.
Sara lowered her weapon in confusion, looking to the hallway where the tall trashcan stood mocking her. She glanced again around the small living space… and saw it. The roller brush and the plastic guard belonging to her robovac (which she had quite cleverly, she thought, named “Count Vacula”) were lying at the edge of the area rug. Curious, she bent to retrieve the brush and guard then walked to where the Count was sitting innocently on his docking station.
Sara shook her head in bemusement picking up the Count and reinstalling the missing roller brush and cover. Her “intruder” appeared to be the silly robot vacuum. Relieved and chiding herself for her nervousness, she re-secured the remaining six deadbolts.
Her weekend was spent unpacking and placing the various pictures and knick-knacks she had brought with her from Iowa. She held six blocks of varying heights in her hand looking for a place where they could be arranged. Each colorful block had a different letter; when arranged, the blocks spelled, ‘FAMILY’. It was a gift from her younger sister, Carly. “Every time you look at these you’re going to think of me,” Carly had said.
“Just because you’re moving to the big city, don’t forget where you really belong,” Carly had said, hugging her for the umpteenth time. Then Sara had backed her reliable, if old, Subaru out of her parent’s driveway, watching in the rearview mirror as Carly waved and waved until she was out of sight.
Looking around at her meager furnishings, she decided that the top of the refrigerator would be a great place for the blocks. She wet a dishcloth and pulled a small step stool over to the fridge intent on removing any dust or grime before placing the precious blocks. The top of the refrigerator now cleaned and dried, Sara carefully arranged the blocks then stepped down to look at her handiwork.
With a satisfied grin, she put away the step stool deciding to treat herself to some Chinese food; the little restaurant down the street had some of the best noodles she had ever tasted. They would deliver, but Sara felt the need to escape her small space for an hour or so. She grabbed her coat and locked up, already imagining the taste of the noodles.
She returned a couple of hours later stopping at Marvin’s door and knocking. He greeted her warmly, “Sara! What are you doing here?”
Sara held out a small bag to him, smiling. “It’s noodles and chicken from Wong’s. I thought you’d like some.”
“Oh, my!” Marvin smiled. “What a treat! Thank you! Would you like to come in?”
“You are most welcome, but not tonight” Sara replied. She liked Marvin. He was a bit of a talker though. When she had first moved in and accepted his invitation for a cup of tea, he had regaled her with tales of his boyhood, Big City experiences, and advice for over an hour before she could politely excuse herself. Today, she wanted to read for a while before she needed to prepare for the week ahead. Promising to stop by soon for “a chat”, she walked across the hall to her own apartment and began the process of entering her fortress.
The first thing she noticed was the trashcan. It was again out of place although this time it was in the middle of the living room. She set her leftovers and purse on the counter and walked over to the Count. “Have you been a bad boy again?” she chided the inanimate device. Then she remembered that she had turned off the robovac the previous evening since there was no need to vacuum her small apartment every day.
She made a quick circuit around the apartment confirming that no one had entered, if the locked windows were any indication, then returned the trashcan to its rightful place in the kitchen glancing uneasily around the apartment. That’s when she noticed the ‘L’.
The letter ‘L’ block was no longer neatly in line with the other blocks but was forward from where she’d placed it earlier. She walked to the refrigerator and placed her hands on its sides. No vibration. She stood on tiptoes to feel the top of the unit. Still no vibration.
Placing the step stool in front of the refrigerator, Sara lifted the ‘L’ block and checked the bottom looking for an uneven surface or something stuck on it that could explain why it had walked forward. Not finding anything on the block’s bottom surface, she put the ‘L’ back in place then returned the step stool to its corner.
She wrinkled her brow at the oddity of the trashcan and the block. and wondered, are there earthquakes here? She’d have to ask Marvin the next time she saw him.
The ever-increasing sound of the alarm she’d set the night before jolted her out of a sound sleep. Desperately, she grabbed for her phone to quiet it. Ugh, she thought, thinking of the day, the week, ahead. More job searching. She untangled her legs from the bedsheet and climbed wearily out of bed. A brief flash of the dream she’d had last night came to mind. Blocks. She’d dreamed of the blocks. They had been floating in the air turning this way and that… Weird.
Toothbrush in mouth, Sara headed for the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. And stopped, staring, toothbrush falling from her mouth. The blocks. All of the blocks were tipped over face-down. Except the ‘L’… which stood exactly where Sara had placed it. Sara glanced nervously around the room half expecting to see that the trashcan had joined in the fun. But no. The trashcan stood where it was supposed to be. Good trashcan, Sara randomly thought.
She raised her right foot and stomped down once, twice, three times – a move that would probably prompt a complaint from the tenant below her. The ‘L’ didn’t move.
She dragged the step stool to the refrigerator and, climbing up, repositioned the blocks. Moving the step stool out of the way, she grabbed hold of the refrigerator and tried to shake it. The blocks did not move.
Next, she opened the refrigerator and freezer doors and slammed them closed over and over (probably a second complaint from the people below her). Nothing. None of the blocks moved.
Coffee forgotten, Sara pulled the refrigerator out from the wall. Perhaps the neighbors on the other side hit the wall and… caused… a vibration… that made… the blocks shift…? She moved behind the refrigerator and pounded her fists on the back of the unit as hard as she could. Then, stepping to the front of the fridge she looked up… the blocks had not moved. Puzzled, she pushed the refrigerator back against the wall and bent to retrieve her toothbrush. She made her way back to the bathroom glancing over her shoulder at the quiet blocks.
Returning home later that day, Sara came across Marvin moving slowly upwards towards the third floor; he made it a point to climb the stairs several times a week, “Gotta keep up my strength,” he’d told Sara. “Hey Marvin. How’s it going?”
“Fine, fine. Just getting my old man exercise,” he quipped cheerfully.
She started to go around then remembered what she wanted to ask him. “Say, Marvin. Are there earthquakes around here?”
“Earthquakes?” He paused in his climb looking puzzled.
“Yeah. You know, a little movin’ and shakin’ once in a while?”
“No, not that I know of. Why do you ask?”
Sara shrugged. “I’ve had a couple of things shift around in my apartment, that’s all. So, I wondered if maybe this area is prone to earthquakes.”
A look overcame Marvin’s features but was gone before Sara could be sure she’d seen it. For a second she thought he looked, what? Excited? He offered her a shrug then resumed his slow ascent.
Sara remained where she was for several seconds before continuing upward. “See ya,” she called out as she carefully moved around her aged neighbor.
“Yes. See ya,” he murmured.
The locks clicked back one by one against the invasion of Sara’s keys. She was looking forward to taking a long hot shower; it had been another discouraging day. She flipped on the overhead light and gasped.
The floor was littered with trash, the trashcan lay on its side in the hall. Her throw pillows were stacked haphazardly on top of the refrigerator, the blocks were nowhere to be seen. Her two barstools, normally pushed under the counter when not in use, were stacked seat to seat in the middle of the kitchen. The book she had been reading was lying open on the crate she used as a coffee table, its pages ripped and scattered. The window shade was up revealing the darkening sky; the exposed buildings loomed like long black shadows.
Sara started to shake uncontrollably. The blocks were neatly arranged on the windowsill spelling FAMILY. Movement caught her eye. She looked on in horror, trying to comprehend what she was seeing. Slowly, out of the condensation spreading across the bare window, a messy script emerged:
wE aRE heRE
Forcing her feet to move but afraid to turn her back on… whoever… whatever… it was, Sara backed up, bumping against something solid at the threshold. With a quick turn of her head, she saw she had bumped into Marvin. Marvin was at her door.
Confused at his presence, but greatly relieved, Sara tried to turn to him. His bony hands clasped her shoulders preventing her from turning. Desperate and with rising terror she breathed, “Marvin, what’s going on? Someone’s in my apartment…” She struggled against his hold but gone was the frail stumbling old man she had come to know over the last week.
He chuckled. His fetid breath spilled over her as he forced her into her apartment. “Yes,” he sighed, “we’ve been waiting for you.”
Sara screamed hearing for the last time the sound of the seven deadbolts sliding home.