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My name is China Westerson. China, like the country, not the dinnerware. I am nearly nineteen, and I am haunted. You might think it strange that I say that I am haunted, instead of saying, perhaps, I live in a haunted house, or I have seen a ghost. There’s a difference. When you’re haunted, it follows you.
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in my great-uncle John’s ancient Greek Revival, and it was a haunted house. Nothing too impressive; objects would move when you weren’t looking, doors that you had closed on the way out would be open upon returning home. We liked the ghosts of that house. They seemed like family, and according to my great-uncle, a few were. Old houses always have ghosts, he said. They have ghosts just like they have wood rot, plumbing problems, and bad wiring.
This is not to say that new places don’t have ghosts. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.
I moved to Florence, Alabama, to attend the University of North Alabama. My mother is a teacher, my father is a teacher, and I knew that I wanted to teach since I was six. Although UNA isn’t the best school in the state, it is a very good teaching college. Besides, my great-uncle, grandfather, and mother are all alumni, so it was practically required that I go there.
My first college apartment was at a newly-opened complex at Irvine and Pine street. Some member of my family had pulled strings, again, and I found myself in a beautiful one bedroom wonder, full of light and the scent of new paint. It was an easy walk to class, which meant I never had to fight for parking. As the first few weeks of college passed, I made new friends, and had them over, and each one professed jealousy of my fabulous new apartment.
My friend Marcia complained about the flies first. “Close the windows, girl. You’re letting flies in here,” she complained. I blinked. I honestly hadn’t noticed anything, but Marcia was right. There were several flies buzzing around. We checked the windows, but they were all closed. I checked for gaps in the sliding glass door, and around the front door, but they were new and looked fine.
“Maybe they got in during construction, like, as babies,” Marcia said.
“Flies don’t have babies. They have maggots.”
“Ew gross! Hey, maybe this is it,” Marcia pointed at the far corner of the living room, past the sliding glass door, behind a beat up old rocker I found at the thrift store for twenty bucks. (I call him Eddie Money, ha ha).
“What… the…” I shoved the rocking chair aside, and peered up at the corner of the living room wall. There was a gap.
“Well there’s your problem,” Marcia said, making a walrus mustache with her fingers. “If that leads to the outside, that’s where your bugs are coming from.”
“How the hell did this happen? This is a brand new apartment!” I growled. I dragged one of many of my unpacked heavy boxes of books over to the corner, and stood on top of it. The gap ran from the top of the corner to the bottom. It was barely visible at the bottom, near the floor, but was nearly an inch wide at the top.
“Gotta love Alabama building codes,” Marcia said. “Ew, don’t stick your fingers in there!”
“I think I see light coming from the other side. That sucks. It goes straight through the wall to outside. No wonder there’s bugs in here!”
I called Maintenance for the complex after Marcia left. Before I could get to sleep that night, I shoved some wadded-up paper towels into the gap.
When I got home from class the next day, there was a note from Maintenance on the door, saying they had fixed the defect and sorry for any inconvenience. I went inside to find the gap sealed up and painted over. I checked the rest of the apartment, and everything seemed fine. Even the flies were gone.
A few weeks later, Marcia and I were studying for an exam, and she looked over at the corner. “I thought you said they fixed that gap.” She was right. The gap was back, a small dark line zigzagging down the corner between the two walls. Marcia handed me her cellphone, which had a fancy light on it. I stood on the same box of unpacked books, and shined the light on the gap.
“Those lazy jerks from Maintenance didn’t fix anything,” I said. “They just squirted some caulk in here, smoothed it down, and painted over it.”
After the exam, I went back to my apartment to meet with Hector, the head of Maintenance for the complex. Hector was short, stocky, nut brown and had the largest teeth that I had ever seen. He seemed very concerned about the gap, and promised to fix it as fast as possible. He radioed another member of the Maintenance staff, and soon there were two other guys shoving my furniture around, walking in and out of the sliding glass door that led to the small back patio. I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. As I was eating, I heard several raised voices, arguing in Spanish.
I walked back to the living room. “Is there a problem?” I asked.
Hector turned away from his argument with the two other maintenance men, and smiled at me. “No ma’am. We’re just having a… technical discussion.” One of the men, looking unhappy, said something in Spanish.
“So there is a problem,” I said.
“The measurements… they don’t add up,” Hector said. He pulled out a tape measure, and walked to the corner. “On the outside, this is four feet, three inches, from the stud to the edge of the door.” He extended the tape, and ran it along the inside wall. “On the inside… it’s four feet, five inches.”
“Dos,” said one of the workmen, shaking his head.
“Two inches,” I said. “Two inches bigger on the inside than on the outside. Maybe the angles are off?”
“No ma’am. I’ve been checking with a plumb bob and a level,” Hector said, pointing at a pile of gear on a sawhorse table nearby, “and everything checks out. I even drilled two holes all the way through the wall and out the siding. One here by the door, and the other down at the end by the corner. It’s one and a quarter inches’ difference between those two holes, inside to outside. It’s the damndest thing.” Hector glanced up at me. “Pardon my language, miss. This thing, it worries me. I worry about some sort of foundation damage, or even a sinkhole, that might be causing the walls to lean, and that’s messing up my measurements.”
The complex management moved me to another apartment in a building on the opposite side of the neighborhood. It looked exactly the same as my old apartment, but the light was different, and it was closer to the football stadium, so game nights were pretty loud. As the nights got longer, classwork, exams and research papers loomed over me, and I buried myself in work, shunning my friends in favor of studying for exams and completing papers.
Just before Halloween, the college had a mid-semester break. Classes were dismissed on Thursday and Friday, giving us a four-day weekend. Of course, all my professors scheduled mid-term exams on the Monday and Tuesday before the break. When I stumbled out of the last exam, I was ready for some relaxation. Marcia picked me up at seven, and we went to the annual Halloween party at the Kappa Sigma frat house. The Kappa Sigs might be a bunch of nerds, but they have a certain affinity for alcohol.
Early the next morning, head still numb from Kappa Sigma booze, teeth chattering from the cold, I let myself into my apartment. I staggered to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and scared myself silly when I saw my reflection in the mirror. My zombie makeup had not held up very well over the night. I washed my face, twice, brushed my teeth, peed, then went to my room and collapsed into bed.
When I woke, it was still dark. I felt the somehow familiar creak of the bed as someone sat on the side of the bed behind me. I felt the pull and tug of the covers as someone slid into bed, and heard the faint whisper of breathing beside me. I slowly opened my eyes, and looked to my right. In the bed next to me lay a large man, or maybe a woman, although he seemed male to me. His lank black hair lay tangled on the pillow next to mine, and his pallid skin almost seemed to glow in the dim light of my bedroom. His mouth was a horror of metal and leather, shuttered by a bit of some sort, bolted or fastened to the skin. His jaw fluttered and twitched, and I could hear the faint noise of his teeth as they ground against the bit. His eyes were fixed straight ahead, on some undefined point above us.
I tensed, heart racing, and began to sit up and away from him. His arm shot out across my chest, and held me down. I opened my mouth to scream, but only a few whimpers emerged. He snapped his head towards mine, and fixed me with his terrible eyes. They were quite clear, even in the darkness of my room, and I can see them still, pale yellow, circles moving within circles. He raised his other hand to his face, extended a finger, and said “Shh.” He turned his eyes back toward the ceiling. I quit fighting, and made no more sounds. We lay like that for hours, or decades, and I finally fell back asleep.
When I awoke, he was gone. I vividly remembered the experience, but I was skeptical enough to dismiss it as a particularly horrific episode of sleep paralysis, perhaps brought about by too many tequila shots. I laughed at myself for checking under the bed and in the closet, then opened the bedroom door.
There were flies everywhere.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of dead flies littered the apartment floor. A few live ones buzzed lazily around the hallway, but most were dead. My slippers crunched on insect bodies as I dazedly walked to the living room. My heart had already confirmed what I would see, before I saw it. There was a gap between two walls, in the corner of the living room. It was wider then, at maybe an inch and a half. I walked slowly towards it, disturbing a few living flies such that each of my steps was accompanied by a slight buzzing noise. When I reached the wall, I stopped. I stared at the gap. With a deep sense of dread, I saw my arm raise, and saw my hand put my fingers into the gap. Why did I do that? My fingers brushed the broken plaster at the edge, and I felt, more than heard, a deep, growling roar. The wall shuddered as if struck by a massive blow. I jerked my hand back, and ran out of my apartment.
Maintenance never found any flies. That was the line the apartment complex management gave me each of the six times I called. I demanded they send an exterminator, and they agreed to send someone to look at it. I called back to check, and they told me the head of Maintenance had investigated and found no insects in the unit. I asked to speak to Hector, but they said Hector was no longer employed with them.
I refused to go back to that apartment. I waited in Marcia’s car as she went in to retrieve some of my essentials — clothing, toiletry, homework.
“There’s no flies in there, honey,” Marcia said, with a concerned look on her face. “I saw two dead ones in the bathroom sink, but not bunches all over.” She looked at me. “I bet that new maintenance guy came in and cleaned it all up, cos he’s new and it made him look bad.”
When I called Uncle John, he promised he would fix everything. He called me back later in the day to say that the apartment complex management agreed to let me break my lease. He had found another apartment, in a tower a few blocks away, and I could move in immediately. Later I found that my uncle had made some fairly severe threats, such that the complex management admitted there was a small crack in the wall due to “settling”, but refused to acknowledge any major structural anomalies, and flatly denied any insect infestation of any sort.
Marcia and a few other friends of mine put my few belongings into the bed of a pickup truck and moved me into my new apartment. It was on the fourteenth floor of a building in Florence’s downtown, and turned out to be a three-bedroom corner apartment. I love it. The light is great, and it has a beautiful view.
There are six cracks in the ceiling. Six.
There are two hairline cracks in the bedroom wall, one lateral, extending eight and three quarters inches from the window, and one vertical, extending twenty seven inches from the left-hand power outlet.
There are four small cracks in the long wall in the living room. 38 5/16. 42 1/2. 16 1/4. 33 9/16.
There is one long crack in the kitchen wall behind the refrigerator. 48 5/8.
There is a gap in the bathroom between the tub and the tiles. This is the one I am worried about. I didn’t measure it when I moved in because I have been very tired and have not slept very well. Which was stupid. I should have measured it. I know better. But the gap is very small. It is really too small to use U.S. customary measurements.
I may have to switch to metric.