The Apartment

Aaron Burch


The sky is solid dark gray. Overcast, dreary, it bleeds down from the sky, covering everything. It would seem depressing but it's been like this so many days in a row, it doesn't really feel like anything anymore. Every day, I wake up and it's the same: already nearly as dark as I left it the night before, already pushing day into night before it even had a chance to get started. I fall asleep, wake up, it's overcast and dreary grey. It feels more nothing than depressing, every day the same as before.

The parking garage is underground, below my apartment building. I circle around, down one floor, then another.  I've never before parked in the garage instead of in the outside lot. I don't know why today. Five months ago, I moved in, parked outside two days in a row, and two days became every day. Five months of parking in one of the three closest-to-the-stairwell-exit parking spaces, five months of not so much cloudy days as solid-smudge-of-charcoal days, a constant threat of rain but only ever an empty threat. Maybe today will be different. Maybe today I'll park in the garage, maybe today the sky will finally spill itself out on us, rain at least a change from nothing, from the ever-present possibility of rain. I park, follow the signs to the elevator, take it up to the 3rd floor.

When I moved in—carrying from moving van to elevator to room, my mattress, and TV, and bookshelves, and boxes and boxes and boxes of I-don't-know-what, most of which I still haven't yet unpacked—I had the thought that the hallway reminded me of The Shining. But that isn't true. This hallway is shorter, more clinical. I'd confused blandness with creepiness, wanting it to remind me of something. Creepy seems at least more interesting than bland, forgettable, nothing.

I count off the apartment numbers as I walk by—320, 318, 316—before realizing I am counting down, not up toward my 342. I look one way down the hallway, then the other. I turn around, go back toward, and then past, the elevator. I realize my apartment is to the left when I come up the stairwell, as I always do, but the elevator is on the other side of the hall. I should have turned right. Curse all left turners, she used to say.

At the end of the hallway, I stand in front 342, shaking my head at myself, my confusion. I take out my keys, do a double take at my neighbor's. There's a welcome mat where I'm sure I've never seen one before. But it's dirty, age-worn, not new. My key stops halfway into the lock and won't go in further. I take it out, turn it over, but it won't fit in the lock at all that direction. I turn it back to its original position; again, it stops half-in.

I look down at the welcome mat, back at my door. The copper hamsa that a co-worker gave me as a gift upon returning from her trip to India is missing. I turn, look around. I pinch the bridge of my nose, where the beginnings of a headache are starting to crawl from my temples to somewhere below and behind my eyes.

I walk the hallway back the other direction, past the elevator again, continuing in the direction I'd first started. At this end of the hallway, my neighbor doesn't have any welcome mat, but there is a home sweet apartment door-hanging. My door here doesn't have the hamsa either, but now I'm wondering if I didn't take down the palm-shaped amulet at some point and forget. Or somebody could have taken it? When was the last time I remember seeing it on my door? I try my key and it surprises me by sliding all the way in. But the key doesn't turn, the door doesn't unlock.

I take a couple steps back, try to think it through. I'm glad nobody in either apartment opened the door, hearing me try to let myself in. Glad no one has been in the hallway at all for me to have to explain myself to. Are the hallways always this empty, this quiet? Have I ever seen someone else walking to or from their apartment, ever given a neighborly nod or wave? Ever seen anyone going up or down the stairs, had to maneuver around other cars in the parking lot, arriving or leaving home sweet apartment? I can barely remember ever previously walking these halls, being in this building; can barely think of anything other than the droning pain in my head.

A sharp ding! echoes down the hallway, then the slight sound of the elevator doors opening. I walk toward them, prepare to wave, get ready to ask how's it going? Prepare to act as casual as possible, like I'm not confused, lost in my own apartment building. The elevator is still open when I get there, no one having exited or still inside. I again look down toward one end of the hallway, then the other. 432, I think, repeating it in my head. 432, 432, 4—. I look up at the numbers above the open elevator. I'm on the third floor.

I've never before lived in an apartment complex. I lived with my parents, then a dorm, then a house with college friends, then another house with different friends, a duplex with a girl, with my parents again, briefly, then a small house with one of the college friends from my first house, then a different duplex with a different girl, then the basement of a married friend, and now this, my first apartment. There are two towers, each nine stories, the tallest building for miles in any direction in this small town. A river runs nearby, with a nice trail to a park. There's a small convenience store in the building, and a cafeteria-like restaurant open for breakfast and lunch. Actually, what it reminds me of, if anything, is my dorm, the first place I lived, before all the others. That building has been used in a couple movies, as a European hotel where Olympic athletes stayed and an empty warehouse that nobody can escape from in a B-horror movie I saw the trailers for but never the movie itself. Sometimes, I lie on the couch in my room and imagine I'm in one of those movies. Any movie. Sometimes I lie there and don't imagine or think of anything at all.

The fourth floor is the same as the third. I again turn left outside the elevator, but take fewer steps before again realizing my error. Turning around, the numbers climb: 418, 420, 422. I put my key in my door and it slides all the way in, and I pause, surprised, though unsure why I should be. I can feel the door respond to me opening it, but then it stops. I've never once locked that deadbolt when leaving the apartment. Sometimes I lock it when home, inside the apartment, though just as often I don't. The door itself locks automatically when I leave, and the apartment building is locked as well, so I've never stopped and taken the time nor precaution for the extra lock of the deadbolt. I try my same key in the second lock—it fits, but won't turn. It won't unlock, but I knew it wouldn't. I stand still and silent, listening, wondering again if someone inside heard me trying to let myself in. I try to think of as simple an explanation as possible, should someone open the door, though who might that be? Who else would be in my apartment, why would they open the door?

What if the person who opens the door is me, some alternate version? Would the alternate look just like me, or be slightly, subtly different? Would each of us recognize the other as ourselves, or only one of us? Would we not look alike but still recognize ourselves, some dream logic version of it making perfect sense?

No one opens the door.

I'm unsure what to do now. I'm sure I haven't transposed my numbers again. This neighbor's door is free of welcome mat and door decoration, as is my actual neighbor's, as is this door in front of me, my door, as are more doors than not, I see, looking up and down the hallway. The decorated is the exception not the rule. The door in front of me, room 432, doesn't have a hamsa hanging on the hook below the apartment number, but hadn't I remembered having taken that down? Or having noticed it missing in the previous week? I'm suddenly overcome with the feeling that, by hanging the amulet that was supposed to ward off evil, I've accidentally invited some kind of evil into my life. A dull pain pulses somewhere deep in my head that I can't quite place—the headache from before returned, or there all along but newly noticed.

I sigh. Close my eyes, thinking I might reopen them to find this has all been a dream.

I return to the elevator, take it down to the garage. I'll go eat and come back, and this will be like it never happened. Or I'll go stay with a friend, or I'll just drive around the block and return to normality and it'll all be just a funny story. The longer I'm in these hallways, the more confused I get, the less sure I am of which apartment's mine, the worse my headache gets.

The dark of the garage is as dreary as outside, the concrete bland and claustrophobic as the sky, the forever looming weather, the hallways inside. Everything is ugly grey.

I see the sign that had previously directed me from car to elevator, but I also see another, under it. north tower. I roll it over, wondering if I'm misremembering, same as transposing apartment numbers. My apartment is in the south tower, I'm sure of it. I walk back toward my car, confused, head drumming, and see another sign around the corner. It directs me outside, down a short, covered walkway, into the lobby. I follow the path, a worn foot traffic trail in the carpet from door to elevator. Inside, the elevator looks and feels identical to the north tower's, but also more familiar. More right.

I push the button for the third floor, then also the fourth. I smile, feel a little relieved. At the third floor, the doors open, wait, close. I start putting the story together to tell friends—describing the weather, my headache, how I'd never parked in the garage before. How I'd been staying up late, all night some nights, watching the kinds of movies that, looking back, this all felt like. Turning left, then right; forgetting my apartment number. The hamsa on my door, the crazy alternate versions of myself I'd conjured. I smile again, then let myself actually laugh at the complete ridiculousness of it all.

The button for the fourth floor lights up.

The elevator doors will open, and I'll turn left on purpose, stop myself, laugh, turn right, and go home.

The elevator doors will open and it'll be all wrong—the carpet, the paint color, the length of the halls. It won't be my floor, maybe not my tower, perhaps not even my apartment complex.

The doors will open and I'll be staring at myself.

The doors will open and it will be my childhood home.

The doors will open and it'll be every house and dorm and duplex and basement I've ever lived in.

The doors won't open—stuck between floors, or the door itself stuck.

The doors will open to outside. It'll be night, raining, a storm of rain like I've never before seen.

The doors will open to pitch black, pure nothing, the complete absence of light that eyes can't adjust to.

The doors open.