I read about the woman the next day. She had her own little segment on the front page; a tiny corner in the top right, squeezed up against the border next to a sports headline.
“Missing Woman Found Dead,” was captioned beneath a grainy black and white photo of the alley.
Her name was Amanda Rhodes, a teacher at an elementary school. She was reported missing by her husband two months ago, after complaining that someone was following her to her car at night. The police couldn’t provide a time of death.
I locked myself in my apartment the next couple days while a nervous bug ate away at my insides. Every sound outside my apartment door set me on edge. Was it the cops coming to arrest me? Or . . . something worse? Whenever I closed my eyes to try and sleep, I’d see that woman’s face on the back of my eyelids. Her skin stretched tight over her skull, showing every contour of the bone. Black, glassy orbs deep in her eye sockets.
By the third day I was exhausted and had deep bags under my eyes. I told myself I had to get out of this fucking mood, and alcohol was the only thing that was going to help. I didn’t have any money, though; I only sold a couple of those bootlegged DVDs. I spent a good hour scrounging up any change I could find–under the couch cushions, in my pants pockets, in every drawer I had–until I had enough for a forty.
Seeing my shitty apartment complex when I went out brought a tiny bit of relief. I stood outside my door for a good minute, taking in the peeling, yellowed walls around me while listening to an upstairs neighbor stomp around, saying “fuck” this and “fuck” that.
“Clarence! How you doing, son?”
I snapped myself out of my trance and saw my next door neighbor looking at me. He was a balding, old man, with wrinkles on every part of his skin; perched on his shoulder was his pet parrot, Biscuit.
I think I mumbled something about preferring Roach, since he said: “I know, I know. But Clarence is such a nice name, unlike Roach.”
“Squawk! Clarence is such a good name! Squawk!”
“It is, isn’t it?” my neighbor said to his bird. He pulled a cracker from his pocket and handed it to Biscuit.
“How’s it going, Matt?” I mumbled.
“I’m doing alright,” the old man replied. “You, though, look like you’ve seen better days.”
I scratched the stubble that had started growing along my neck and nodded. “Haven’t slept much lately.”
Matt suddenly looked concerned. “You gonna be okay to take care of Biscuit while I’m out of town?”
I had almost forgotten: Matt was going to see his brother on the other side of the country for the next month, and I’d promised to take care of his pet while he was gone. “Yeah, yeah. I got you.”
“Well, alright.” Matt turned back to his door. “Key’s under the doormat.”
“Mhm. You got all of Biscuit’s food in your fridge?”
Matt gave me a warm smile and nodded. “I’ll see you in a month, Clarence.”
Matt is one of the few people I allowed to call me by my real name. He refused to call me Roach. Coincidentally, he’s also one of the few people I ever get along with. He knew I made my money selling not-quite-legal goods, but he kept his mouth shut about it and never ratted me out. I don’t know, maybe he understood how shitty I had it. I didn’t have any family, and most of my friends were in jail.
I hurried down to the liquor store on the corner, got my booze, and wasted no time getting back.
The alcohol helped. I managed to get some sleep finally, though I had a nightmare about zombies eating me alive. It was surreal. I could literally feel their fucking nails scratching into me, breaking the skin and reaching inside. At one point I woke up, but it was like a half-conscious kind of thing. I could hear something knocking against the wall over my bed and I wanted to do something about it, but I just couldn’t force my body to wake up.
When I finally woke up the next morning, I realized it had to have been a part of my dream. The wall over my bed is shared with Matt’s apartment, and he was supposed to be gone already.
I got up to go feed Biscuit. The key was under the doormat, just like Matt said, and I let myself into his apartment. Matt’s main room was a little better than mine, mainly because he still had his couch. Biscuit’s cage was set up in the kitchen behind it, and past that was a hallway leading to Matt’s bedroom.
When I walked into the kitchen, Biscuit craned its head at me and squawked.
“Clarence! Clarence!” it said.
“Fucking hell. Now he’s got the bird doing it.” I ignored Biscuit and pulled a bag of fresh fruit, seeds, and nuts from the fridge. My stomach growled at me as I looked at the food, and I realized how long it had been since I last ate. I stole an apple for myself to eat. Matt would never notice.
After feeding the bird I locked myself back in my apartment. That night, I had another dream about the knocking on the walls, but this time I think I heard some voices. In my dreaming state I felt an overwhelming sense of dread.
I woke up sweating the next day and realized I had slept in until 1pm. I hurried next door to feed Biscuit.
“What are you doing? Squawk,” the bird said.
I swatted its greeting away and went to the fridge. Before feeding Biscuit, I helped myself to a couple hot dogs. God, I was so hungry, but I didn’t have any money for food. Somewhere in my thoughts, I realized I was going to miss rent for the second month in a row and probably get evicted. I pushed the worry out of my mind and fed the bird before going back to my apartment.
This routine went on for the next couple weeks. It was a repetitive cycle of feeding Biscuit, helping myself to Matt’s food, thinking about Amanda Rhodes, wanting to go out to make some money, then deciding it was too dangerous. And every night, my sleep got progressively worse and worse–I kept hearing things from Matt’s apartment. I started pretending it was Biscuit causing all the noises.
My body abruptly shot up in bed one night. I checked the clock on my nightstand, and the burning red numbers in the dark told me it was 3am. I lowered my head back to my pillow and shut my eyes.
I thought I imagined the sound at first. I squinted in the dark and strained my ears.
Matt’s apartment. Something was moving around in there. My heart hammered against my chest and I could hear it pounding on my eardrums.
I’m not a brave person, but that night I was–or maybe fucking out of my mind. I think I was just fed up with it all. I’d lost a lot of weight, I was exhausted, and my nerves were fried from all the restless nights. I needed it all to just stop.
I slowly opened my apartment door. Of all the lights in the hallway, only two were actually working. They were two little spheres of orange on either end of the hall, and they flickered like they were ready to give out any second. Me and Matt’s apartment doors were caught between them in the dark.
Using the wall as my guide, I took a step toward my neighbor’s apartment. The floorboards creaked under my foot, the sound a drawn out yawn. In my mind, I kept imaging Amanda Rhodes leaping out at me from the dark. That skull-face open, screaming my name while reaching for me with cold fingers.
I almost didn’t go through with it, but I cussed myself out for pussing out like this. I was a grown man letting my imagination run wild. Determined, I inched to Matt’s door and pressed my ear against it.
Biscuit’s muffled voice squawked behind the door. “Gate! Gate! What are you doing? Gate!”
Why the fuck was it saying “gate”?
As I opened the door, I heard the bird flapping wildly, rattling its cage like it was trying to escape. When I flipped the lights on, that seemed to calm the bird down, and it craned its head at me.
“Gate! Gate!” it said.
I looked around the main room and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The kitchen was empty, too, which left Matt’s bedroom. I stood in the doorway, clenching and unclenching my hands a few times before committing and going inside. As I passed Biscuit’s cage, it started freaking out again. Biscuit jumped frantically from one end to the other, ruffling its feathers at me.
I heard a low squeak behind me, and the apartment door clicked shut.
“You shouldn’t go back there, Roach. You don’t have the stomach for what you’ll see.”
I spun around and saw Matt at the door. “What did you call me?”
From where I stood, I could see dark bruises on the old man’s neck. His bloodshot eyes regarded me with something like curiosity. “You told me before to call you Roach.”
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