Matilda sat alone in her ground floor apartment. Her eyes followed the lines of the book, but her mind followed the footsteps of large and loud Mrs. Flintman upstairs. She heard that woman everywhere and was beginning to think Mrs. Flintman was loud on purpose, although one look at the woman would change the mind of others. Mrs. Flintman was a rotund woman, with a voice reminiscent of crows cawing at passersby; things that would be very hard for someone to change at the drop of a hat. Right now she was dragging her feet across the floor and Matilda was sure she saw dust fall from her ceiling. It was distracting and disruptive, but there was no way around it. Rent was only four hundred a month with full utilities and they were close to downtown Portland. Matilda couldn’t afford anything else at the moment, and, on the rare occasion when Mrs. Flintman was sleeping or out, it was quite peaceful.
It didn’t help that Mrs. Flintman owned the building either, or Matilda would have complained. She tried not to let it bother her and would do things out as much as possible. She never brought people over though, for the sake they don’t ask why the hall staircase had orange shag carpet and smelled of cat pee. No one was ever really in the building but the two of them. There were only three apartments and the basement apartment had been empty ever since Matilda moved in. Mrs. Flintman’s son would come over sometimes. He was an average 30 something business man with a nice car. When they saw each other, which was rare, he would be pleasant with her. But she never got his name; he mostly came over to check on his mother. She asked him for money a lot, Matilda heard their conversations through the fan in her bathroom. He always suggested that she rent the basement apartment if she needed more money, which would upset her, and she would start to cry, which was his cue to promise to deposit money into her account as soon as he got to the bank.
Matilda was never sure what Mrs. Flintman used the money for. Groceries and things, for sure, but those were all delivered and never more than a few hundred dollars a month. Matilda had the working theory that the money went to online shopping and cats. There were so many cats and unopened packages in the building. Matilda had never minded cats, but now it was at a point where she struggled to get out the front door in the morning.
She came home from a busy day at work one day to the sounds of shouting. She recognized Mrs. Flintman’s, her son’s, and a second female voice she didn’t know. They were shouting about the basement apartment. Matilda had stopped in the hall to listen, her key in the lock. A great, white, and fluffy cat pressed itself up to her calves and purred. A slamming door upstairs made her jump and she quickly unlocked her door and stepped in, just in time for the unidentified voice to gain a face.
“We’re renting out the damn apartment.” The woman mumbled harshly, kicking the cat out of her way. The cat yowled and bolted through Matilda’s open door. The woman slammed the front door so hard that the dirty window cracked. Mrs. Flintman’s son rushed down the stairs after her. Matilda heard the whaling moan of Mrs. Flintman upstairs, and shut her apartment door.
Over the next few days, cleaning men and builders were in and out of the basement apartment. The carpet on the stairs and in the hall got pulled up and a new beige commercial carpet was laid down in it’s place. A week later, a moving truck showed up. Matilda had mulled over who her new neighbor would be in her mind so many times that she decided to be absent during their move in. She didn’t want to disappoint herself. A neighbor other than Mrs. Flintman, it was like a dream come true. She had imagined a woman her age and they could watch movies in the basement with popcorn and talk about how much they wish they could afford a better place. A whole apartment to buffer the sounds of Mrs. Flintman.
When Matilda did come home again, there was no new car in front of the building. The basement windows had acquired curtains though, a sliver of light passed through the part of a pair. She decided that she would let whoever it was get settled before she went down with a bottle of wine to welcome them to the building.
Mrs. Flintman must have been asleep, Matilda didn’t hear the television upstairs or the woman herself. She sighed happily and dropped her bag on the chair next to the door. The cat that was laying there protested and jumped down. The white cat hadn’t left the apartment after the woman stormed out, and Matilda hadn’t bothered to get rid of it. Instead she gave it a name, Yonkers.
“Sorry.” Matilda muttered to the cat, falling onto her dark couch and kicking her shoes at the door. She stared up at the ceiling, her eyes heavy from a long day. That’s when she heard it.
Knock three times, on the ceiling if you want me…
It was very faint, almost a whisper. She turned and saw the source of the noise was the old furnace grate in the wall. Meaning the sound was coming from under her.
Twice on the pipe if the answer is no…
She continued to stare at the grate and grimaced. Her hopes of having a younger neighbor had been dashed. The song was so old, that they were probably old too. Matilda picked up a pillow and faux screamed into it. She went to bed that night with headphones in.
Her dreams were terrible. She was trapped in her building, the doors and windows were nailed shut and snow pushed against the outside. The lights were dim and she was filled with a sense of dread. Her last memory of the dream was sitting in the corner of the hall watching the door to the basement, hoping that it wouldn’t open. The door was opening and she was hit with a fantastic and terrible smell.
Matilda jolted awake in bed. Sweat poured down her neck and face, her heart thumping in her throat. Yonkers jumped up on the bed and meowed at her. She looked quickly around her room and registered no threat. Her clock read three.
She kicked off her blankets and hung her legs over the bed; Yonkers waddling through the mountain of discarded warmth. He laid down and purred. Matilda got up out of bed and walked to her front door. None of the locks looked out of place, but a raw nerve in the back of her brain wasn’t satisfied. She held her breath as she slowly turned the handle, the sound of the latch disengaging seemed to echo in the quiet of the building.
She pulled the door open and glanced back and forth down the hallway. No one was there and Matilda let her breath out slowly. She shut the door and re-locked it. She pressed her back up against it and realized how cold her apartment was.
Matilda checked her thermostat. It read the room at about forty -two degrees. She turned up the dial and pulled a blanket from the back of her couch. She turned on her kettle and pulled a mug from her shelf. The small window above the sink started to fog as the kettle grew hot and started to boil.
The furnace kicked on and Matilda felt the warm air flow over her toes. She looked at the clock and it read three thirty. Plucking a tea bag from the box, she poured the water into the mug, and steeped the bag.
The tendrils of the nightmare hadn’t dissipated by the time the sun rose, but Matilda pushed it as far back into her mind as she could. She did her best to distract herself, but by the time she should have heard Mrs. Flintman roaming from her bedroom to the kitchen, Matilda sat in silence with her thoughts.
She made a silent list of things she was going to do with her day; groceries at the farmer’s market, maybe stop by the book stall, grab a cup of coffee with a friend. And not go in the basement, the small voice in her head said. Yonkers was curled up in a loaf on the ottoman, his head raised as he watched out the window.
Matilda was restless the entire day. She felt as if something was watching her where ever she went and she caught herself looking over her shoulder more than once. She felt as if the world was pressed in around her and rushed home. Once she had the front door of the building close, she felt a tiny bit of relief.
The building was eerily quiet. Matilda couldn’t place what was missing until she realized in was Mrs. Flintman. Or the lack of her, really. Matilda didn’t think the absence of noise would be off putting, but it made her uncomfortable. It had been almost a full day since Matilda had heard anything from upstairs; and considered checking on the old woman just to be safe. She recalled how upset Mrs. Flintman had been after her fight with her son.
Matilda sighed and walked up the stairs, her conscious telling her to do the right thing and go check in on the old woman. Matilda had never been on the upper level of the building and the smell was the first thing to reach her. Rotting trash and cat smell, among other things, made their presence known to her nostrils and she shuddered. The door to Mrs. Flintman’s apartment was down a narrow hallway that was even smaller due to the amount of trash. Matilda kneed a table in the hallway and swore under her breath. She heard a shifting sound from further down the hall.
“Mrs. Flintman?” Matilda asked loudly, she moved the table out of her way and continued her way down the hall. Matilda finally got to the door, which she only could assume was one color at some point, and knocked. “, Mrs. Flintman?”
There was no response. Matilda knocked again, this time holding her ear to the door. Still, no noise. The smell in the hallway was getting intense, the bevy of smells changing steadily. Matilda pounded on the door now and it budged open, just the slightest. Matilda tried to situate herself to see through the gap, but Mrs. Flintman’s apartment was dark. She thought she heard the faint crinkle of plastic and a shadow move across the floor. Something about it made Matilda’s blood run cold, the shadow kept moving along the floor.
“Mrs. Flintman?” Matilda whispered urgently. “, Mrs. Flintman, are you there?”
The feeling of dread got worse, Matilda started to feel sick. She swear she heard a soft tearing noise followed by an even softer chewing sound. Her ears were flooded with a static noise and her breathing quickened.
“Mrs. Flintman?” She whispered even more urgently. Nothing, but the shadow on the floor, moving back and forth. Matilda felt the need to get off the top floor, her heart raced. She stumbled to her feet and tried to turn around. She lost her balance and caught the wall to steady herself. She didn’t take her eyes off of the gap in the door. The gap grew darker and she tried to walk away from it. She maneuvered out of the trashed hallway, catching her breath once she had room. She crouched slightly and tucked her head between her knees, taking deep breaths. A hand landed on her shoulder.
Matilda screamed and thrashed out to what ever was behind her.
“Woah. Woah.” A male voice shouted, grabbing one of her thrashing wrists. She realized it was a person and gasped in shock.
“Who,” She breathed deep. “,Who are you? What are you doing here?”
She pulled her wrist away sharply, looking at a man she didn’t know. He laughed.
“Don’t laugh.” She said harshly, rubbing her wrist where he had caught it.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I just, I didn’t think we’d meet like this.” His laughter subsided and he held out his hand. “, I’m Jason, I just moved in to the basement apartment.”
She stared at him and then his hand. She took it cautiously and they shook. Matilda looked him up and down. He was rather attractive; dark hair and tall, with piercing green eyes. She lingered on his eyes, there was something almost unnatural about them. They had been standing in an awkward silence when Matilda broke it.
“I was looking for Mrs. Flintman, I haven’t heard her for a while and I was worried. Do you know where she is?” She asked him, speaking quickly. The feeling of dread hadn’t left her and she glanced down the stairs nervously. He looked over Matilda’s shoulder.
“Oh, didn’t she tell you? She went on vacation.” He continued to stare over her shoulder and she glanced behind her.
“Vacation? Mrs. Flintman?” She asked skeptically and then said quietly. “,That sounds impossible.”
She chuckled nervously.
“Yea, I spoke with her yesterday on her way out. She said she’ll be gone for a while.” His eyes moved from behind her to down the stairs. “Anyway, maybe we can get together one night and get dinner. Like a neighborly thing?”
Matilda’s brain was still swirling with information and she didn’t fully hear or understand his question.
“What?” She asked.
“Dinner? Get to know each other? We’re the only two that live here, it might be nice to have a buddy.”
“You mean, other than Mrs. Flintman?” Matilda continued to stare at his face.
“What? Of course. But I’d rather have dinner with you.” He chuckled again. He pointed down the stairs. “,I’ve, uh, I’m gonna go, I’ve got pasta on. But I’ll see you later right? Neighbor?”
“Yea, sure. I’m just gonna go close her door. It opened when I knocked. See you later.” Matilda turned back towards the hallway and began the adventure back towards the door. Her heart was still racing, as she moved between the towering piles of trash bags. The journey back down the hall wasn’t as bad as the first one, the air didn’t feel as heavy. She felt freer in the claustrophobic hallway.
As she reached the door, she noticed that it was closed. Puzzled, she reached for the knob and tried to jiggle it. The door knob held fast. The metal was warm under her fingers. She let go and told herself it must have been the wind that closed the door, that Mrs. Flintman must have left a window open. Probably so the cats could go in and out of her apartment while she was gone. She hadn’t fully convinced herself of that, but she decided it was the only thing that made sense. She worked her way back out to the stairs, descended them, and inhaled the fresher air at the bottom of the stairs. She slid her key into the lock on her door and entered her apartment. She went to her bathroom and took an aspirin, the stench up stairs had given her a headache. She felt gross, stepped out of the clothes that had brushed up against so many unknown substances, and stepped into her shower. With the curtain drawn she felt a sense of safety. With the new feeling of security, she allowed herself to cry, the water rushing over her; they weren’t tears of sadness, but tears of relief.
Matilda stepped out of shower, wrapped herself in her bathrobe, and laid down in bed. Yonkers curled up on her feet, and she closed her eyes against the world.