STEPS IN THE NIGHT
Fiction by Alexander Kautz
I had moved into the little basement suite of the old house on Hanover street just over a year ago. The previous tenant's, of over six years, having left it within a state of utter chaos, had afforded me the luxury of not having to pay a damage deposit, but cost me endless hours of work. The landlord, Bruce Templeton, a middle aged, timid little fellow, had agreed to pay for all the necessary repairs, though contributed little to any actual, physical labor.
Leading a reclusive life and having few, if any friends at all, he spent the days sleeping and evenings watching his television. He had never concerned himself with upkeep of the wild and over-grown property, but instead, had appealed to my kind nature, wherein, due to his assumed health conditions, he was unable to manage physical tasks.
In the months that followed, through the spring of my arrival, all seemed well, until I brought to his attention, the concern of his hoarding and the dirt and resulting mold. The half of the basement that I occupied, was separated by a wall and adjoining door, which led into the area housing the washer and dryer, and of course, the furnace room. An area entirely filled and cluttered with moldering furniture, old automotive parts and assorted cans of cleaning and paint supplies, many of which were flammable liquids. In the beginning, he had promised and guaranteed to have this disaster area cleaned and sorted at the soonest possible opportunity. At one point, due to the stench of the mold, I had even attempted cleaning this mess, but soon lost heart as he refused to take any action. In the end, as winter approached and the months became colder, the true issue began, when the heat was turned on. For as the old furnace began drawing upon the air within that room, it forced filth and that ghastly stench through vents neglected for many years, blowing the mess into my suite...
Frustrated beyond words and at a complete loss as how to politely approach the matter, I appealed to his common sense, complaining of the health concerns and unpleasant odor. This of course bothered him little and within mere days of my appeal, he had unceremoniously dumped a box of things of which I had given him as gifts, at the top of steps. Refusing to answer his telephone or door when I attempted to inquire as to what this was all about, I soon realized that he now considered himself, admonished of all responsibility, within this simple act.
Once more, I sat and fell into utter despair. I had spent a great deal of time and energy within the repair and restoration of the place, and owning many heavy items, breakables and antiques, dreaded the thought of moving again. It was during this time of silence between the two of us, that I became aware of the fact, through the discovery of dirty boot prints and the disturbance of certain items within my home, that he had crept in through that adjoining door, while I was out... Angered, but refusing to pose accusations that would only worsen the matter, I decided to take the only action that remained to me. Sitting down, I wrote a polite letter, stating that it was quite obvious he had decided to break our friendship, and simply said that I would find another residence, rather than remain in a place where we would both be uncomfortable.
This I placed under his door, preferring not to force contact and create an even more volatile situation. As several weeks passed, he kept his blinds closed tight, peeking out and observing my movements from time to time, but never communicating. I had fancied myself becoming paranoid, as leaving the place to collect boxes of which to pack my belongings, I often put tape on that basement door, watching to see if he came in while I was gone. More often than not, it remained undisturbed, but on the occasions when it was broken loose, I became enraged! I now loathed the little man with a hate that was fueled by his ignorance, intrusions and my own dire straits within having to move again! Within a few weeks, I had managed to pack all of my belongings and now, being confined to the couch, struggled to sleep as he thumped upstairs, wandering about in the night. Having been an evening person myself, it had been hard enough, managing the details by day and searching for another place, but being kept awake all night as well, now wore heavily upon my shattered nerves. I had lay there, in the darkness, buried beneath my heavy covers, dreading to turn on the heat for fear of that moldering dust blowing into my place. I had been coughing up that filth. Choking up the dirty gray stuff for weeks and even now, felt the tightness within my chest. It angered me knowing that it had all been unnecessary, but for his greed and ignorance. Restless, wearied by stress and weak with fatigue, I had contemplated his suffering and slow death in so many twisted and terrible ways. Once, I had even smiled within the contemplation of cornering him in that dank, dark place, and beating him senseless... The very thought had left me feeling horrified by having even considered such a thing?
"I just need to get out of this godforsaken hole--," I had whispered over and over to myself,
"Not much longer, and I will be moved, and this will all be nothing more than a bad memory."
But the search for another home had not been so simple. Limited by little money and even less opportunity, I now struggled within providing even a single meal a day for myself. I had to save enough money to pay for a damage deposit as well as rent, hydro, telephone... What had all once been so simple before, had now left me destitute. In the end, I could only blame myself. Due to over-confidence, having made several bad financial decisions and careless purchases, not expecting this sudden move, despair took me...
One morning, I had seen him leaving the house. He had gained considerable weight, growing fat on the money that he had saved by refusing basic upkeep and repairs. My own aching, grumbling stomach, forcing my bitterness further as while watching him waddle off, I cursed him unto his own death.
At the month's end, having not found anything, I was forced to contact his brother William, who living close by, payed him the rent and bill money, being kind enough to pass it on for me. The silence between us continued, though now, I had packed boxes against that adjoining basement door, so he could no longer gain access. This gave me little comfort as he still watched my departure each morning from between his closed blinds. I knew that he was too nervous to dare entering my place through the street main entrance, for fear of being caught, but it still bothered me... I worked at a warehouse during the day, sorting orders to be sold at antique auctions. It was something of a living, but not what it had once been. The entire time, my mind remained upon my empty place. Wondering, worrying what that little weasel might have been doing among my things?
It was during mid-November, as the snow piled high and I shivered in the cold, angry and yet unwilling to turn that old furnace on, that I received a call? The long anticipated acceptance of a landlord for an apartment that I had applied for several months prior! Words could never express the joy and relief that now filled my heart! Finally, I would escape this misery!
Quickly, I sat down with pen and paper and put to proper words, my thirty day notice of vacating the premises! I could not even wait for the morning's arrival! Getting dressed, I went upstairs and slipping the envelope addressed to him into the mail slot, chuckled, making my way back downstairs! I would be out within a month now and it would all finally come to an end!
In the following days, I thought little of the bitter wretch or his filthy place, occupying myself instead, with thoughts of a new home! I had sold several antique items from my collection, though the money had been far less than their worth, it would provide some comfort. I had sat down, one Friday evening after work, to the first, decent hot meal that I had enjoyed in weeks. Having come from a decent home and never having been resorted to the misery and poverty I had recently suffered, I fell into silent prayer of thanks.
It was as while, taking my evening tea in my favorite chair by the old fireplace, that I heard the telltale creaking of the floor boards above me. The fire had brought comfort, the reassurance of a secured home, and yet, his very presence brought something dark out of me. Something so despicable and chillingly evil, that I felt cold within my own embittered thoughts...
It had been all too silent the past week, but now, he moved restlessly, as though pacing back and forth. His steps were light, but the boards groaned, creaking beneath his weight. I sat and listened as his movements went toward the back of the room, then faded as he now, ever so slowly, crept down the basement stairs? Yes, that was it. He was making his way through that dark, filthy basement now, quietly pausing just behind the door that adjoined my suite. There he stood, silently, as though listening in the hopes of discovering whether I were home or not? I remained absolutely still, only the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the low flames, dancing upon the dark walls. My eyes focused upon the old brass door knob as, ever so slowly, a weight fell upon it and it began, inch by inch, to turn...
I watched, my eyes fixed upon that door handle as ever so slowly, the door began to open, stopping immediately as the stacked boxes halted the effort. Then, as slowly as before, it closed once more, the knob turning again as all movement ceased and the world became absolutely still.
"You little sneak-thief--, I thought to myself in little more than a whisper,
"Your days of creeping around in my place are over..."
I waited, listening as his movements became distinct, the creaking of his steps back up the basement stairs and into his suite. And then, he paced again, several times, back and forth, before the sudden sound of his weight, thumping back into that reclining chair.
"That's right you little creep--," I cursed under my breath, my eyes focused to where he rested on the ceiling above me,
"Not much longer and you will be alone here again with your filth and misery."
The days passed quickly, but the nights seemed an eternity as, each and every night, he paced, creeping down those basement stairs and attempting to gain access into my suite. It was upon the third weekend, less than a few days before I had planned to move out, that I had decided to shock him! Moving the boxes away from the basement door, I sat by the hearth, taking my tea within the comfort of the fire, awaiting his evening approach.
Eventually, it came again. That steady pacing, back and forth, from one end of the room to the other and then, he came down those stairs, ever so quietly...
This time, I would be ready for him and give the little monster the start of his life!
Standing in front of the basement door, the breath caught tight within my breast, I watched, my eyes focused upon that door handle as it once more turned! Just like all the other nights, it slowly clicked the latch, the door drifting slowly open... Grabbing the handle, I tore it open and throwing it wide, shouted while finding myself, staring into the utter blackness of that cluttered, filthy darkness! Emptiness and nothing more...
This could not be? I peeked into the deep shadows, my eyes scanning for any sign of movement, finding, absolutely nothing... The hair on the nape of my neck stood on end, a cold chill causing me to tremble as, quickly closing the door, I hurriedly moved the boxes back in front of the opening. Within turning back toward the hearth, I caught a moment in the corner of my eye? A shadow, something darker than all others, moving swiftly along the wall, then vanishing into the ceiling? No, it was my imagination. Just a trick of the firelight on a strained mind. An imagination forced into fancy by stress and fatigue! Dropping back into my chair, I tossed another log onto the fire, my hands trembling as I struggled with my tea cup, sipping at the hot liquid.
"I am finally losing my mind in this damned place..." casting off the fearful thoughts, I placed down the cup, deciding to retire for the evening. Sleep came slowly and was by nightmares haunted, as cold sweats and terrifying images awakened me, shrieking into the dawn. I was grateful for the final weekend in that despicable place, as checking all things to be certain that boxes were secure and everything was properly packed, I sat down to a simple dinner.
It was that final night, as sitting by the hearth with my usual cup of tea, I once more listened, following the little man's steps across the creaking ceiling. Once again, he quietly made his way down those basement stairs, moving ever so slowly to the door where, testing the knob, he opened the door, bumping against the boxes and halting. But this time, something was different? The door did not close... But remained open, allowing that cold, putrid stench into my suite....
This brought me to anger and one part of me thought to shout, curse him on his way! And yet, something halted me? Never before had I felt so alone, so utterly helpless as staring into the blackness of that crack between the door and wall, I sensed without seeing, the presence of something sinister...
The skin crept upon my forearms, hair standing as I gazed into that blackness and but for a moment, I thought to have seen the form of a shadow, deeper than all others, gaze back...
"Damn you!" I forced out the words, tossing down and breaking my tea cup as I leapt from the chair, more out of terror than rage,
"Go back to your own little hell--leave me alone!"
There was a moment of stillness, then the door slammed shut with such fury that it shook the house! Enraged, I considered going after him, but on second thought, decided against it. I would simply move out and be done with the little scoundrel once and for all!
Sleep came slowly again as deeply troubled, I had awakened many times, assuming to have heard someone in my suite? I had gotten up several times to look, but ended up dropping into my chair by the hearth, as fatigue , having taken me, cast me deep into a swirling, nauseated haze.
The following day had gone much faster than anticipated, as aided by several friends from the warehouse and utilizing the company truck, I was soon moved into the new apartment. Surrounded in boxes and comforted by a warm, clean furnace, I sipped at my tea, looking out through a large window into the falling snow. I had just managed to avoid the worsening weather and as the darkness came early, smiled with the greatest of relief. There was a moment when, as someone in the apartment above me walked across the floor, the recollection of those steps in the night, haunted me once more. But brushing the thought and sounds aside, closed my eyes, sinking deep into my chair.
The phone startled me, as answering, I was shocked to hear from Bruce’s brother, William, as he said,
"I am terribly sorry to bother you--but needed to ask you something, if you don't mind"
Having always been on good terms, I politely agreed, asking as to what I could assist him with.
"Well--," he began rather hesitantly,
"I was wondering? When was the last time that you spoke to Bruce?"
Thinking briefly, I sipped at my tea, switching on a table lamp beside me, as I said,
“It would have been several months ago. When I had asked that you pay him the rent."
"I see..." His reply came quietly, sounding somewhat nervous.
"I did hear him pacing back and forth these past few weeks--," I put down my tea cup, sniffing at the air around me as I noticed the feint stench of the old place,
"Is there some kind of problem?"
"You--heard him upstairs?" William hesitated,
"But--that is simply not possible."
Catching a movement in the corner of my eye, I turned, imagining to have seen a shadow upon my wall? Asking,
"What do you mean -- not possible?"
"Well--" he swallowed hard, almost whispering,
"That was the reason that I am calling you. You see--the police found him this morning--in his chair. Apparently--he passed away several weeks ago..."