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My new apartment used to be a Santeria chapel. Before I moved in an older woman lived here and was known in my Dominican neighborhood of Brooklyn as a healer and spiritual guide. The man who lived downstairs told me that people would come to see her every day, bringing birds, chickens, mice or lizards with them. My neighbor told me he even saw a goat once. The woman would use the animals in her practices. I stupidly asked my neighbor what he meant when he said that. He drew his finger across his neck, and just said, "Rough stuff went on in there, man."
When I saw the apartment, the woman's stuff was still there. It was quietly furnished with lots of floral prints; the kind of kitschy stuff you remember from your grandmother's house. There were pictures of the Virgin Mary everywhere. And behind a curtain of the living room, there was a small room which held the remains of her altar. It was covered in pictures: pictures of Jesus, photos of the woman's family, but also crude drawings of a man in black with black eyes and too many fingers on each hand. All of the stuff, the landlord assured me, would be out once the previous tenant's family came to retrieve it. He also mentioned that the apartment would be carefully cleaned and inspected before anyone else could move in.
The woman, I learned later, had been hospitalized by her family after suffering a nervous breakdown. My neighbor told me later that she would climb the stairs over and over again, whispering in Spanish that a demon was inside her brain. She'd lived in the apartment so long that it was technically hers by New York law. The family hadn't wanted it, and had reverted title back to my current landlord for some sum of money. He was eager to get it off the market.
I told him I couldn't afford an expensive place. He said I could name my price. I did, and after surprisingly little haggling, he agreed. The apartment's past didn't bother me. In fact, I was amused by it - it would be cool to tell guests that the couch they were sitting on was the spot where a witch had summoned the forces of darkness for her unknown purposes. You know, as an icebreaker.
The apartment was centrally located not far from a cool, hip part of the city. I found myself going out a lot, meeting people in the neighborhood and getting sufficiently wasted. And since I didn’t have to go far, it only took a month to get used to the “stumbling home” routine. One thing I've always done as a way of keeping myself awake and grounded even when drunk is by counting everything.
It got to the point that I could predict the number of times I could tap the handrail on the train between local subway stops, I could snap my fingers a precise amount of times before the crosswalk signal at my intersection changed. I would always count out loud the 41 steps it took to get from the front door to my apartment door. And home felt like home, I never felt creeped out in there, no spirits or demons bothered me. The only person who ever felt unnerved by the place was my friend Jen, who said that sitting on my couch felt like sitting in a cold, drafty room. When she came over she stuck to the kitchen.
And then a week or so ago, I was drunk and was coming up the stairs when something immediately didn't feel right. I was struck by a panic, something primal that seized at my heart and made it beat faster. Because I was drunk I was disoriented so I didn't know right away what was wrong. The place was well lit. The door behind me had locked. I looked around to see if someone was above, behind or below me, but there was nobody there. I resumed walking up the stairs, counting out loud, when I realized that my counting was off somehow.
These didn't feel like the right numbers for these steps. And it turned out I was right. When I got to my door, I'd counted 42 steps, not 41. Somehow I'd added a step in there. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, but it did. It did so much, in fact, that I went back downstairs to the front door and did it again. I counted every step all the way up to my apartment, sobering up in the process, but when I got to my door I got the same thing again: 42 steps. I shrugged and went to bed.
The next day, after I'd gotten over my hangover, I tried it again. And I got 42 again. I didn't understand. I must have missed a step all those other times. Something about the way I was going up the stairs now had rediscovered it. I even had Jen come over and count the steps. She also came up with 42. She laughed at how perplexed and bothered I was by the whole thing. She made spooky noises and said the demon in my apartment was trying to fuck with me and drive me crazy like the old lady. I told her that if it was haunted, they were going to have to pull out the big guns to get me out of a two bedroom apartment in NYC for less than $1000 a month.
Still, the discrepancy continued to weigh on my mind. I found myself counting everything, even when I wasn't drunk. How many seconds it took to ride the elevator at work. The time my different co-workers took for their lunch. The average amount of people on my train car coming home from work. And of course, the steps up to my apartment. I'd never been OCD before, but I found myself paying attention to everything, unable to distinguish between what was important and what was mundane. When something out-of-the-ordinary happened, it jolted me, but not as much as the extra step in my staircase.
Over a few days, though, it began to bother me less. I realized that Jen was right, I was overreacting. I probably wasn't the keenest of observers while three-sheets-to-the-wind so I should forget it. And I would have until tonight.
Because I just came up the stairs to my apartment, and as I reached my door I was chilled to the bone. Because I didn't get 42 steps this time.
I got 44.