Harper fidgets with her sister Sammy’s keys as she steps off the Chicago sidewalk and into the apartment building. She stands in the entryway for a moment taking in the musty smell as a calming breath but it doesn’t ease her nerves. The air is too thick and too tense. Harper still feels the intense pressure on her chest and the hollowness in her bones she’s had since that phone call. Her sister’s absence is impossible to ignore. She looks out beyond the small entryway down the first floor hallway. Faded, chipped, red paint pathetically clings to the walls while the lightbulb at the far end of the hall was out, making the corridor appear to fade into an endless pit of darkness. Harper could almost see Sammy bounding up the stairs talking animatedly about one day moving out of this “temporary setup” to a nicer apartment complex closer to the more exciting parts of Chicago. Harper could see this moment so clearly she had to turn away. She closed her eyes. No, I can’t go back now I promised myself I would do this today. Determined to keep her promise, she rubbed her hand across her face and turned back to the daunting staircase.
I remember it being a shorter flight of stairs. Harper grabs the folded cardboard boxes and slowly, ever so slowly, begins to climb the old wooden stairs. The first step lets out a high pitched shriek as she puts her full weight on foot, causing her to jump back towards the door.
“Oh my god!” Harper clutched at her heart as the folded boxes fell to the floor. I don’t remember the steps being that loud. She turns and sheepishly checks to see if anyone was around to witness her fall for the tamest jump scare in human history. As she bends down to grab her items, dark movement in the corner of her eye catches her attention. Her breath catches in her throat, hand hovering mid-action, as she scans the hallway for the dark figure. Harper’s eyes lock with the dark void at the end of the hallway. After a moment, Harper exhales and stands, her heart pounding in her chest as she started up the stairs again. I probably just thought I saw something. This place puts me on edge I just need to get in and get out.
Her feet grew heavier and heavier with each step she took. The dark wooden steps were warped from time. The cracks and curves in the wood almost looked liked letters or symbols from an ancient language no human could dream of cracking. But just as some men loose attractive points the moment they open their mouths, the steps lost all illusions of mystical wisdom as soon as the creaking and shrieking began. The steps seem to leer at her as they shriek and creak under her weight. Each step seemingly reminding her that she doesn’t belong here, that there is no one here for her. I don’t belong to anyone.
Between her footsteps and racing heart, Harper could hear the lives of the other tenants leaking through the walls and slithering down the stairs as if to mockingly greet her. She stretches her hand towards the railing to ground herself in reality, but as her fingers brush the slick, grimy surface, she yanks it back—the wooden stairs' creaks have a clear mockery tone. Harper wipes her hand on her jeans and turns half expecting to see Sammy laughing at her misfortune, only she wasn’t there. The memory of her sister’s presence was gone, replaced with a crushing emptiness. Sammys gone. The thought echos through her mind bouncing off every surface, hitting a nerve at her core. The pain knocks the wind out of Harper, and she gasps as she stumbles up the final step.
Swaying into the wall for balance, Harper tries to catch her breath as the mundane sounds and muffled voices of the people she will never meet and the lives she will never be apart of flood into the hallway. Despite the fact that she is only separated by a thin, cheap wall, Harper never felt more alone. She just wants someone to come out and tell her that it will be ok. She wants to scream and curse but her voice is gone. Her heart pounds faster and harder than she ever imagined possible. She presses her forehead into the cold wall and squeezed her eyes shut. In and out, in and out, come on, Harper! It’s just a few doors down; you can’t chicken out again! Taking one last deep breath, Harper’s eyes shoot open. She stares at the wall, and for a moment, the wall almost seems to stare back. Crisp, red streaks give way to a recent yet amateurish paint job. Bellowing over the tenants' sounds, a woman’s sobs cry out directly behind her. Harper turns around to stare at the wall that separates her and the woman. Belligerent pounding against a door makes Harper jump as a man begins to scream and hurl cruel insults at the sobbing woman. They hurl insults and profanity back and forth at each other, escalating as Harper stares closer at the runny streaks of red on the wall. The walls look like they’re covered in blood. Bits of memory rapidly flash through Harper’s mind. She answers the phone. It's the police. She drops her cup of coffee. Her sister. They are so sorry for her loss. Her knees buckle, she’s crying, she’s screaming. Sammy. There’s so much blood. Identifying her body. Sammy, her sister. The blood, the blood, the blood. Her stomach flips and she lurches forward from the force of her gut.
Desperately, Harper pushes off the wall and runs stumbling down the dimly lit hall. She looks at the number on the door to her left, 203. The sounds of the other tenants increases, matching the volume of the sobbing woman. She turns to the next door, 205. The blood rushes in her ears like a tidal wave in a storm, making the corridor sound like a city being swallowed up by the sea. 206. Her heart beats aggressively trying in vain to break free of its boney cage. 207. Tauntingly, the stairs shriek and creak at her. 208. The walls taint the beautiful memories of Sammy with blood. 209. A lightbulb flickers and goes out. 210. She was all I had. 211. The crescendo of love, fear, anguish, joy, and hate that permeates the lives of the people behind the walls vibrates through the corridor so hard the building shakes under the sheer force. Harper falls to her knees in front of her sister’s door. She gasps between the sobs. When did I start crying? Through her brimming tears, the walls look like they are crying tears of blood. Horrified, she fumbles for Sammy’s keys and screams out in pain when her hand makes contact. The keys are so cold they burn. Using her sleeve as a makeshift glove, Harper shakily brings the house key to the lock. Her hands shake so severely she misses the hole three times, jabbing the key at the space around the hole.
Harper can practically see Sammy laughing at her attempts, leaning lazily against the doorframe. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Oh, I bet Sammys’ laughing now.“What? Is that too complicated for ya? Why don’t you master the round holes square pegs game first, and then you can move onto more complicated tasks like opening a door. How does that sound, dumbass?” The lock clicks. Harper swings the door open, and the hallway calms, returning to the normal mumbles of life behind the walls. She grabs her folded boxes and stands in the doorway but hesitates before crossing the threshold. The last time she was here, Sammy led the way. The last time she was here, Sammy was still alive. This is the furthest I’ve gotten in months. I mean, I couldn’t even walk into the building, so this is pretty good. I could go home and try again tomorrow. It’s still progress!
210’s door opens, and Harper turns to see a shorter man in his twenties with curly blonde hair and a dark hoodie. Her heart swells at the possibility of having someone to lean on. Maybe he knew Sammy, and he’ll want to talk about her. Or maybe he can help me decide if I should go in or go home. Or maybe he didn’t know her, but we’ll have a friendly conversation about movies or the weather or something. Or maybe he’s lost someone too, and we’ll talk and share experiences and stories, and we’ll grab coffee and
“Hey,” Harper called out with a soft smile. The man turned to look at her briefly, then finished locking his door before walking away. And I won’t be alone. Harper looks down at her shoes. They’re well worn white and black sneakers with the left shoelace chewed up from her dog. She stares at them for a moment, touching the toes together before walking into the apartment.