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When I first moved in, there was an odd panel in the bathroom.
It was there along with all the other tiles, but... it didn't match. The tiny tub/shower mix was covered in off-white squares, each no wider than two fingers. However, toward the back, just left of center, there was this larger panel that took up a larger amount of wall space.
The panel itself had this freaky little design on it. I don't know how to describe it, but it reminded me of the "Spiro-Graph" artwork I used to make as a kid.
I moved into the place only after I'd been kicked out of my last apartment. My roommate, an old friend from school, had invited me to stay as long as I paid my fair share. However, as soon as his girlfriend moved in - there was real trouble. I couldn't stand the bitch, she couldn't stand me, and you already know the result.
The place I switched to was a major step down, but at least I could afford it on my own. Waiting on tables is the cliché occupation for people like me who are barely scraping by. If I wanted better, I'd have to actually get the work I'd come to the city for. Dancing... Singing... If they gave me a chance, I knew things would turn around.
The first time I heard the strange "CLONG" from the bathroom, I thought a homeless person had broken in when I wasn't looking. That, or there was a rat loose in there. I couldn't decide which would be worse.
Slowly, carefully, I stepped into the bathroom. I was careful not to make a squeak, hockey stick in hand.
There, in the bath tub, was a piece of paper. The thing was rolled into a tube and a rubber band held it that way.
I raced to the bathroom window and went to lock it. Imagine my surprise when I found it had been locked all along!
Retrieving the paper from the tub, I sat myself on the toilet cover and tried to come down off the adrenaline high of facing an imaginary intruder... two legs or four. I unrolled the thing and studied the strange text.
"IGNORE THE SCREAMING"
That was creepy enough, believe me, but just to make it even creepier, a red phrase appeared just below that.
No sooner had I read that line, than a horrific, gut-wrenching scream echoed from the apartment next door! I shot up from the improvised chair and ran out of the room. Stopping in the living room, I picked up my cell phone and started to dial 911.
Before I could input the numbers, both the cell and my land line rang in unison. The sound of the old phone on table ringing alongside the pop music chorus in my hand immediately told me something was wrong.
"Hello?" I answered the cell first.
"Hello?" My own voice came bouncing back at me.
"I have to call-"
"I have to call-"
"I'm sorry, I think the line is messed up!"
"I'm sorry, I think the line is messed up!"
I quickly hung up and moved to the other phone. As I did, they both rang again. Lifting the receiver to my ear, I was greeted with familiar nonsense.
"Oh, for God's sake!"
"Oh, for God's sake!"
I had no idea why, but both phones were useless. I raced to the front door, intent on finding out if anyone else was able to call for help. When I reached it, however, the knob refused to turn. All I could do was frantically and fruitlessly bang on my own door as if I was the unwelcome guest.
Another scream... weaker this time.
It was an unmistakable sound of death.
Exhausted, I thrust myself into a bean bag chair with a huff. All I could do, it seemed, was wait for the sound of sirens. I felt really bad and embarrassed when I thought about begging the EMTs or Police to let me out of my own place while they were busy with whatever just happened.
Moments later, the front door gave a quiet click and creaked open as if a mild breeze had blown through.
Out in the hallway, I was met only with fleeting glances and furrowed brows before the other tenants ducked back into their own doorways. Finding the neighbor's door open just like mine had been, I cautiously poked my head in to see what horrible carnage had been left behind.
The apartment was much like mine... skuzzy, outdated... but I saw now obvious signs of anything wrong.
Then, my eyes fixed on the panel. It was identical to the one on my bathroom, though it was located here on the living room wall. Whoever lived here had propped a wooden board against that panel, specifically the tiny circle at its center. I hadn't yet met this person, and seeing this odd behavior made me glad I hadn't... though I was still concerned about his condition...
Returning to my place, I once again lifted the phone receiver and found the expected dial tone. I wasn't sure now if I should call 911, but someone on the "Emergency Numbers" list written on the phone would be getting a call.
The second "CLONG" jarred me from my would-be call.
Racing to the bathroom this time, I once again found the window locked and a fresh note lying in the tub.
"REMOVE THE BOARD."
My blood went cold, and I couldn't feel my heart beating... Forget how this person was getting insane notes into my apartment - how did they know I'd seen the board?
I crumpled the note up and threw it into the wicker wastebasket next to the toilet.
The next "CLONG" nearly made me jump out of my skin. I watched with utter shock as the tiny circle at the center of that strange panel slid to the side, spat out yet another tube-note, and slammed shut within a half second.
Someone, I realized, had been watching me shower.
Someone who somehow had another peephole in the apartment next door.
I retrieved the note and once again proceeded to the telephone. After I called the Police, I would leave the place and stay at the café downstairs until they arrived. I'm no moron.
The next note was even more disturbing than the last.
"DO NOT DESTROY FURTHER COMMUNICATIONS BEFORE COMPLETING REQUESTS"
Three things struck me as odd at this point. First, how had this person SEEN me crumple the note when their peep hole was closed? Second, how had they written all of that out in the seconds between the offending action and the note's arrival?
Lastly, it's not much of a "request" if you're going to end with a vague threat.
I picked up the phone once again and finally dialed the authorities.
"Police Department, who may I ask is calling?"
I gave my name.
"What is your purpose for this call?"
"Well, this is going to sound really weird, but, like..."
"I should inform you that prank calls are a serious offence."
"What? I'm not-"
"Klingons? Wow, that's a new one."
"I didn't say-"
"I don't care WHAT they're doing. The Planet Klingon is outside our jurisdiction."
Before he hung up the phone, I heard the Officer talking to someone else in the background.
"Jeff, you'll never believe this crank!"
Somehow, he'd heard things I wasn't saying. It was as if an entirely different conversation had taken place, exactly when I had called him.
Suddenly, there was a crash. I turned to see one of my cow figurines broken into shards on the floor. The table it had been sitting on was now standing at a ninety degree angle, supported by floorboards that had risen up as if specifically to dump it over.
Frozen in fear, I turned my glance to the entertainment center as it slowly rose... well, the back of it rose, at least... dumping the flat screen and my entire DVD collection onto the ground. The television broke with a resounding crack as the DVD cases rained down around it.
Both pieces of furniture, or the floor boards under them, slowly settled back to their normal positions. Then, the boards beneath my feet moved ever-so-slightly, rising at my heels. I took a few forced, awkward steps forward and nearly fell to the floor.
Then, the quivering started. I couldn't be sure if it was just my apartment, or if the entire building was about to be shaken to the ground!
Taking a deep breath of piercing cold air, I uneasily sprinted to the apartment next door and kicked the board to the floor. The panel was freed once more.
When I looked back into my apartment, at the broken and displaced items therein, the phone rang once again.
I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to answer it... I took one hesitant step into the place, and the front door took that opportunity to slam behind me. The phone fell silent. It was no longer needed. I was trapped once again.
Over the next couple days, I tried to leave. I don't just mean trying to open the door. I tried to leave the apartment behind and couldn't do it. Every attempt ended in some sort of disaster.
The phone would call people... people I knew... and somehow it would imitate my voice. Friends, family, they couldn't tell the difference, and I could only listen on the line as the phone - or whatever was - said terrible, horrible things to them.
It became clear to me that as long as I abided by the "requests" made of me, I would be allowed to come and go as I pleased. If I ignored the messages or made any sort of attempt at permanently leaving... somehow... it could tell.
I don't think I can refer to "it" as anything other than "it", now.
Someone new moved into the empty apartment, and I never found out what happened to the previous resident. I didn't even try to meet the new guy. I wanted nothing to do with anyone else in the building, since I was sure one of them was behind this whole crazy ordeal.
The notes stopped for a while, and I was as happy about that as you could be under the circumstances. Except for an inability to move out of the place, you could almost say I lived a regular life.
A knock at the door took away that small shred of normalcy.
"Who is it?" I asked meekly.
The knock persisted.
"Who IS it??" I was getting scared.
"Your new neighbor, I know what you've been doing." He sounded gruff. Maybe even drunk. Then again, maybe he was suffering the same problems I had seen.
I opened the door a crack, letting the chain catch it so he'd know it was there. He was bedraggled... dirty... unshaven like the surly alcoholic I half-expected. He was easily a few feet taller than I was, and could easily overtake me even without the advantage of being male.
"What?" I wasn't sure if he actually knew what I knew.
"The panel," he smiled, "I know what you're doing with the panel, and the phones, and the lights... and I'm pretty sure the Police are going to want to know, too."
The words hit me like a wrecking ball. He thought I was the one behind it all... just as I had suspected everyone else!
I turned the problem over in my head. Should I tell him it's not me? Then he'd know I knew something, and that might be enough to implicate me anyway.
"You're insane." the words left my lips like an unexpected cough, after which I abruptly slammed the door shut.
Through the peephole, I saw him standing there like a statue. A grinning, smart-assed statue who thought he'd figured it all out.
With a sudden movement, the man threw his weight on the door and sent me reeling. In the surprise and horror of that moment, a realization of every bad "home invasion" exploitation movie in history, I was barely able to keep my wits.
Less than a second later, he was on top of me.
"Uh-uh, nice try."
I tried to get him off of me, tried to reach him with my knees and claw at his face, but he'd found the perfect position to keep me helpless.
"What do you want? Please, take anything... just don't..." I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
"Relax. I just want to know who's passing the notes through. If it's not you, then tell me who it is. Which room is he in? I'm only going to talk to him."
"There's nobody here!"
He checked. He went into every room, knocked over my things, all the while twisting my arm so hard I knew he was doing permanent damage. I could hear something crack. When he searched the bathroom, he managed to whip back the shower curtain just enough to conceal that horrible panel.
"So it's you, then," he got in my face with a cold, hard stare and a smarmy smirk, "Okay, now tell me how you did everything."
"I don't know what you're talking about!!"
"Right. Why is the phone still ringing?"
"My phone. Stop ringing it, that's enough."
"I'm not calling you, my phone's right over there!"
"You have something... a cell phone or..."
He groped me. His hands moved to my pockets, into them, around personal spaces that brought me to near vomit-inducing levels of personal terror.
"Don't touch me!!! NO."
He wouldn't stop talking about the panel, and it was all nonsense. He talked about hurting his hand while moving an air conditioner... or moving it and trying to cut off his hand, or... none of it made sense, and all I could do was to continue insisting I was innocent. I must've said I knew nothing about it at least a hundred times.
Dragging me through the hall, he continued to gibber on, talking in circles. He pulled me kicking and screaming into the apartment next door, pried my fingers from the door frame after I'd gone completely horizontal, and slammed the door behind us.
His phone was ringing, just as he'd mentioned. A bloodied kitchen knife had been left aside, probably used to cut his own hand.
"THERE," he pointed the panel I had noticed days before, "See? Now you can't deny it."
I looked at the panel, then to this strange, violent man. Above all else, I feared that he was going to do something cruel to me until I admitted I had one on my own place... then he'd get even crueler until I told him more, though there would BE nothing more to say.
This silent dread was interrupted by the CLONG I had become accustomed to. The panel... HIS panel... had opened, and now a familiar-looking not laid at his feet.
"How are you doing this?!" he shook me by the shoulder, spittle stinging my already tear-soaked eyes, "HOW??"
Before I could answer, he had thrown me to the floor. Feeling several more injuries taking root in my flesh, I seized the moment of freedom and made off for the door.
No matter how I turned the knob, no matter how much I cried and raged at it, the door would not open.
"What's going on?" I demanded, fearing what might be written on the page he now held in his trembling hands, "What the fuck are you looking at?!"
The room was hot. Too hot. It seemed as if the both of us were standing inside of a large oven. Sweat poured under my arms, from my chest, everywhere. My sheer pajamas were clinging to me in a manner that was anything but comfortable, now.
A crazed look appeared on the man's face as he moved toward me at great speed. Fearing I had little time left to live, I turned my attention to something... ANYTHING... that I could use to defend myself.
Inexplicably, there on the table next to me, was the knife.
In seconds, that knife was between his ribs.
I could only hold my hands over my mouth as a shriek unlike any I'd ever heard before burst forth from my gut. The man, my neighbor, stumbled backward in surprise. With a wince, he dislodged the metal blade from his heart and collapsed to the floor with a wheeze.
The temperature began to decrease, and despite the pooling blood before me, despite the corpse, the cooling of that room brought back my sense of calm.
I tried the door again. No luck.
The note he had been reading now lay before me, and even from standing distance, I could see the diagram upon it. It was a drawing of a woman, cut up and reassembled with limbs mismatched.
Was that me?
The panel opened to spit out another request, and I wasted no time in retrieving it. If I knew anything at all in that moment, it was that this was no time to ignore whatever caused this chain of events. Without so much as a thought, my hand caught the small circle before it closed. I immediately picture the thing slicing my digits clean off, but to my surprise the peephole simply remained open as I held it.
"PLACE CADAVER IN BATH TUB"
I looked at the body, then to the note again. There was no way I could move him. It wasn't just a matter of physical strength, but emotional strength as well. I knew that if I saw his face again... if I lifted it from the floor... I'd completely lose it.
With one hand holding the panel open, I placed the note on the floor in front of me and turned it over. The opposite side was blank.
My free hand shook with fear and revulsion as I dipped my pinky into the warm, metallic-smelling blood I had spilled.
I wrote a series of off-kilter, messy letters on the paper.
"OR ELSE WHAT"
Seeing this mad act of defiance before me should have given me the jolt I needed to realize this was a bad decision. However, in looking at the crimson reply, I felt only a strange sense of justification. I had every right to ask this.
I rolled the note up again and jammed it into the dark opening, through which I could see nothing. After, I allowed the panel to close once more.
The sound was like that of a classroom full of children, anticipating the punishment of a disobedient student.
As it grew lounder, these "children" sounded very angry and very large.
The entire wall moved. Not just the panel. The WALL. It shifted slightly upward, sending a wall clock to the floor with a crash.
I could hear other sounds mingling with the strange, inhuman drone. It was a series of growls... not like an animal, but rather someone or something almost human, very aggravated at being slighted.
"GRR!" - "GRRRRR!" - "GRR!!"
The wall began to slowly raise itself in place. It was like some great sliding window, rising vertically into an unseen slot in the ceiling.
I got to my feet and backed away from the wall as it raised further and further. The steady nature of this impossible scene was driving me insane with dread.
In the darkness behind the wall... where my apartment SHOULD have been... I could see a dark metal floor. It was covered in spans of thick, black grime, and was illuminated only by the light of the apartment I stood in.
When the wall was about a foot off the ground, it stopped. All was silent for a moment, and I tried for the life of me to figure out what had just happened. The voices had stopped, and I considered the fact that might be a good thing.
That is, until I saw the hand.
A great, hairy, two-fingered hand shot out from under the wall like that of someone searching for change beneath furniture. It wasn't unlike a human hand, save for the reduced number of digits and its massive size. The wrist was easily the size of my waist.
A thin layer of translucent yellow slime clung to the furry limb as it darted back and forth, feeling its way across the floor at a high speed. When it reached a wall, it felt the molding, then rebounded back to attempt its search again.
Or else. Or else what?
Or else this.
The wall began to rise again.
Companion story of Or Else