The evil from the apartment next door was bleeding through the wall, she was sure of it. It manifested in an ombre gray-black stain above the efficiency’s kitchenette sink, disguised as a leaky pipe. But Willa knew the mark for what it really was: the wall had absorbed the ugly words and actions hurled at them from the other side, in that other cramped unit; the evil created there now seeping through, like blood into a bandage from a wound that has split open, or never fully healed.
The moldy stain spread.
“I can treat it and repaint it,” the maintenance man said.
Willa didn’t hold out much hope that he would follow through. It had taken him almost the entire previous month to fix her toilet from constantly flowing, the unending gurgle contributing to the pattern of events that had resulted in Willa’s insomnia.
“What about the leak?”
“There is no leak. Those pipes are solid.”
“Then where—” she started.
“The sink. Maybe it’s something you did.”
“No, it’s something they did.” Willa tipped her chin toward the wall, indicating the landscape lurking behind her few cabinets, the too-small sink not big enough to accommodate a large frying pan flat, and the expanding stain, which seemed to solidify before her eyes.
His eyes, she sensed from the periphery, were trained elsewhere. On her.
“Just leave me the paint,” she snapped, folding her arms over her chest. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Whatever you want,” he said.
Willa opened the door, a clear indication for him to leave. He tracked her on the way out, his gaze tumbling down her body.
She painted over the stain and remembered.
Noises had breached the wall from the apartment next door, screams and the sound of breaking glass, furniture tipping over, enough to make the floor tremble and the wall shake.
Willa brushed over the stain and the vibrations from that terrible memory jumped up her arms, echoed through her bones. She pulled away on instinct, the sensation like a rush of current from touching the frayed cord of a lamp or appliance. Her stomach knotted. A sour taste broke on her tongue. Her gorge rose. Willa dropped the brush, not caring if the paint splattered the floor—it was a squishy laminate that had been poorly laid.
Doubled over, a foul burp clawed up her throat. Thick tears clotted in Willa’s eyes. A conversation from that time whispered in her ears.
All night long, screaming—like they were killing each other.
What do you expect me to do?
Since you’re in charge, why don’t you stop it? I’d like to get some sleep.
Call the cops the next time World War III breaks out next door.
What about the toilet?
What about it?
Keeps running, doesn’t flush properly. Like there’s something clogging the pipes.
I’ll take a look at it.
Only his gaze had been on her ass when he’d promised to.
Willa recovered, wiped her eyes, rose. A few swipes of cold water from the bathroom sink to clean her palate, two more splashed on her face, and she was again composed. Though only ropes of spit floated in the toilet bowl, Willa flushed. The toilet took an encore of its weeks-long malady. She jiggled the handle. A gout of red liquid gushed into the bowl; there one moment, gone the next down the drain.
A cold and colorless November day brooded beyond the efficiency’s two windows. Willa drew the curtains. The weatherman had promised a light snow, but what actually fell was a frozen rain. Tiny flecks of ice pinged off the pavement and rangy trees outside the apartment building. It was the kind of day that left her wanting to crawl back into bed, to curl up into a fetal pose. Only that would leave her vulnerable. Both sides of the bed faced a different half of the wall where the evil from the apartment next door was bleeding through.
So she paced and listened to the ice ricochet off the windows. A TV droned from somewhere else in the building. Morning television had become a wasteland of babbling heads, all of them talking about idiotic topics: how to accessorize from day looks to evening; tips for turning up the same old boring meals a notch; political vomit and lies. Willa paced.
She’d applied two coats of treated white primer, and could still see the stain.
Willa had only passed the woman once in the dark hallway connecting their apartments to the outside, past the security door. She was taking a bag of trash to the dumpster located at the back end of the parking lot. The woman hurried by with her head held low, making zero eye contact.
“Hi,” Willa had offered.
“Hello,” the woman said in a fractured whisper.
But that same voice had been in fine form soon after, an angry contralto hurled at the wall. Before the night when the screaming began, Willa had noticed a man living there too, or visiting frequently. Her boyfriend, she assumed. A tall man, wild at the edges, unshaved. A smoker. He drove a muscle car.
Something struck the floor. A breakable object shattered. Voices slammed into the wall. And then, the evil that took place over there oozed through into Willa’s apartment, like a scabbed-over wound cracking open, blood seeping through a bandage.
Willa worked thirty hours a week at a nowhere job, at a grocery store half a mile from the apartment complex on Height Street. She walked to the store, through the ice storm. By the time her shift ended, the sidewalks were treacherous underfoot.
She abandoned her umbrella after nearly spilling face-first twice across the pavement. Ice pelted her face, stuck in her hair. Some of it melted and ran in clammy trickles down her cheeks. The half mile on this night felt more like a hundred.
An approaching car’s headlights threw her shadow across the sidewalk and stretched it out into a garish effigy, connected at her feet. The car slowed. Willa’s heart galloped. She sensed the car drawing closer, from the corner of her eye. A muscle car, with lots of horsepower. Just like the one owned by the man who’d caused half the evil on the other side of the wall.
The car dropped to match her pace. Willa’s next breath came with difficulty. The one after that proved nearly impossible. Air burned in her lungs. Paralysis stopped her from turning around. Her feet skidded along the iced-over sidewalk, tentative, testing. A terrible thought rose fresh in her mind: what if she fell and her trajectory canted toward the road and the driver behind the wheel of that ugly car chose that precise moment to accelerate, and its wheels crushed her bones, snapped her spine, drove over her skull, caving it in?
There was blood in the pipes, screamed Willa’s inner voice. He killed that woman, carved her up. The toilet wouldn’t flush because—
The rest, she figured, had gone into the dumpster.
Right when she was sure she’d either go mad or throw herself in front of the car just to shatter the insanity’s holding pattern, its engine revved and the driver tore down the street. Willa’s ears rang and her legs’ rigid muscles ached, and when she finally made it back to the tiny efficiency unit she rented on Height Street, she could almost make out the shape of a head and shoulders on the wall above the sink; could almost hear the scream, still echoing as it breached through, feel the lingering sting of pain, smell the blood.
The evil that had taken place next door bled through, into Willa’s apartment.
Sleep became even more elusive, and she found it almost impossible to sit still, aware of darting flickers and shadows crawling around her, always there at the periphery, but absent when she tried to focus directly upon them. A nervous tick formed behind her right eyebrow. She stopped eating, because the evil had bled through the wall and, as a result, food had lost its taste. The colors in the apartment dulled. At night when Willa closed her eyes, they soon shot open again, and she couldn’t shake the certainty that there was someone else in the room, staring at her.
“He killed her,” she said.
The maintenance man cracked a cocky smile. “He did?”
“I’m sure he did. Flushed part of her down the toilet and sink, threw the rest into the dumpster.”
He laughed in response. “You’re nuts.”
“Nuts?” she parroted, though after days of not sleeping or eating, she worried if perhaps he was right. “That woman was murdered.”
“Funny, because for a corpse she’s looking pretty hot.”
“She just paid her rent two months ahead. Which reminds me. You’re late. You were late last month. If it happens again, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna be forced to start an eviction on you.”
He didn’t scan her body, but instead met her gaze directly, his eyes flashing meanness not previously there. The madness in the room had made her unattractive to him. Eviction? At the back of her mind, she’d always held that there would be a way out of her worst-case scenario, even if it meant going horizontal with him, repellent as the idea was. Now, that safety net no longer existed. He shot a sour face at her and walked away. A television droned from somewhere in the building.
The woman next door wasn’t dead.
Maybe, Willa worried, she was quite mad.
The stain on the wall spread. The evil dripped in runnels. Its microbes infected the air. Willa breathed it in. She felt it inside her, expanding.
She was tired, worse than she could remember. It was, she thought, like being sick with every cold, flu, and health affliction of her life, all stitched together into one super malady. Willa struggled to stay upright. She called out sick for two days in a row. A third, and she would need a doctor’s note or be terminated. Ten pounds lighter, her eyes possessed by a wide wildness, Willa plodded to work. Several long hours later, she started home, only it wasn’t really home, and she knew she had to get away, get out, because the evil had seeped through the walls and was inside of her now, killing her. She would move. Willa didn’t have the money or the strength, however; the notion of moving was more wishful thinking than instinct for survival.
She tromped toward Height Street, her legs miserable, her feet swollen and pulsing with agonizing notes. He hadn’t murdered the woman next door, the guy with the scruffy face who drove a muscle car. She’d paid ahead, while Willa had fallen behind after weeks of fractured sleep and visitations through the wall that connected both apartments. Willa wanted to cry, but was too tired for even that. Once the tears started, she worried they wouldn’t stop. And when she ran out of normal tears, she imagined her ducts crying blood.
She heard the familiar rumble of the muscle car’s engine before she spotted it, turning at the Height Street stop sign, moving toward her. It was the same car. His car. Willa froze. The force of all the painful steps she’d already taken slammed into her, and she wondered if it would be possible to move again.
The car approached. Willa rolled her eyes toward the driver’s window, an act that took Herculean effort. The window was halfway down. Despite her palsied state, Willa noticed the car was filled to the roof with boxes and bags and things. Willa wouldn’t be moving out just yet, but clearly someone else was.
And, briefly, she saw the driver of the car. Their eyes met, deflected. The maintenance man was right: he hadn’t killed her.
They’d only met once, in the hallway, but it was enough that Willa recognized the woman seated behind the wheel of the man’s car. The woman glanced away and drove off. Willa’s muscles unlocked and she continued forward.
She fell into her bed, unable to avoid facing the wall. It struck her that now how big, how male in shape, the stain had become.
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