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FICTION / 4H / Giovanni Diaz

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There wasn't a night we didn’t wonder what was going on in apartment 4H.

The block thrived that summer. Old vendors sang as they pushed shaved ice carts. Ice cream trucks jingled. The corners buzzed with the laughter of weed dealers, the tack and smack of men and women slapping dominoes onto wooden tables, and the vibrant blare of music pulsing through budget speakers. Little girls and boys ran, played, and reveled in another night free from the looming specter of school. The world was alive, streetlights painting the sidewalks in vivid hues.

I spent most of the time in my building’s courtyard with my friends Jonathan and Herman. We talked, fantasized epic alien battles with hand-me down water guns, competed in the World Series with wiffle ball bats, and ogled pretty girls who came from other buildings. We were bordering adolescence, and it was our first real taste of the outside world after dark. I savored the feel of warm bricks beneath my fingers as we sat against the courtyard fence, enjoying the sweet ache in my limbs from a day filled with adventure. 

But as the evenings neared their end, as the night air stilled, our eyes crept to the blackened windows of the apartment above mine.

4H.

The tenant moved in a few months before. I saw him once, a young man wearing a heavy black hood on a damp spring day, standing in the middle of the courtyard and scanning the surrounding windows. I was all curiosity, watching from behind the security gate that barred my room from the fire escape. His pale blue eyes found mine and locked on. I saw within them a hollow thing, emptiness that seethed against the gentle features of his baby face. He smiled at me. I looked away, but when I dared another glance I found him still watching. 

Still smiling. 

His presence was at first a curiosity. People from around the way talked about how he never seemed to leave his apartment. Maybe he was afraid, a white boy in a Latino neighborhood. Others thought he was acting like he was too good for everyone, a snob. Whatever it was, his absence was noted. During the day his windows were closed and covered with white blinds. At night the blinds were open, but the windows were lightless, black, empty. Neither my parents nor I heard him walk across his floor, flush a toilet, open his door, or come down the stairs. I’d press my ear against the walls at night, straining to hear anything from his apartment. Silence always greeted me. 

As summer bloomed, Jonathan, Herman, and I stared at those windows and exchanged theories and rumor. 

“Maybe he left?” Herman said. “Like he just needs the place for his stuff?”

“My dad said the day he came, he didn’t bring anything with him,” Jonathan replied.

“The fuck?”

“I know.”

“Does Albert’s dad know anything?” Jonathan said.

“He told my ma that he paid for a year’s worth of rent in cash,” I replied. “Plus he never needs anything fixed.”

“Damn. He’s not freaked out that he never sees him?”

“He’s getting paid, he doesn’t care.”

One night we crept up the gray metallic steps of my building and stopped before 4H. We held our breaths, listening beyond the buzzing of fluorescent lights for any hint of life beyond the door. 

All was silent. We looked at each other and shrugged. There were better things to do, adventures to be had.

As we turned to go, Herman seized my arm. A sliver of light erupted beneath the door. Jonathan crashed down the steps. He was always skittish, always quick to flee from the slightest hint of danger. But this time he was right. There was something harsh about the glow, something eerily tangible, as if it wasn’t light at all but a tongue of broken glass seeping towards us, hungry. Herman hesitated for a moment, giving my arm a feeble pull before he fled. I stayed. I can’t tell you why. But the light locked me in place, seeping into my mind with the weight of dead voices, each one urging me to wait, to see.  

The light thickened into blood that pooled at my feet in a methodical flood, and there were things in the blood, nameless shapes that bobbed just beneath the surface. I stumbled backwards, slipped, fell three steps, and grasped onto the banister. Then I turned and hobbled after my friends, my own panicked breath not loud enough to diminish the sound of blood dripping behind me.

We told no one. We didn’t believe it ourselves. Later on, I checked on the steps above my landing, but saw no blood, no sign that anything had spilled. 

But that didn’t matter, because 4H was no longer silent.

I was sitting in the living room with my dad, trying to understand a pretty anchorwoman as she fired off news in rapid Spanish, when a hollow whine seeped through the ceiling. Both of us looked up, my dad lowering the television’s volume. Three soft steps whispered above us. We heard the crack of 4H’s lock turning. The door sang open with rusty vocals. Whispers echoed, strange sounds like incantations. Then the door crashed shut. Three more steps hissed above us. And then silence. 

My father and I looked at each other for a long time.

“Don’t tell your-” he began to say, but then dropped it. To acknowledge it would be to give it power, and something on his face told me that was the last thing he wanted. He turned back to the TV and raised the volume. But neither of us watched. 

The thing about nightmares is that they seem real. When you’re trapped in a bad dream, you don’t realize you’re dreaming. There’s a cruel certainty to the horrors of your sleeping mind, so when you wake, and the dread leaves you, you’re left in a state of relief. I think nightmares are a way to remind you that reality ain’t so bad. 

It’s the opposite in waking life. When something strange happens, it leaves you in a daze, leaves you questioning yourself and everything around you. You make excuses. You find rational explanations. You comfort yourself so life can go on, because people don’t want anything to do with the abnormal. Not really.

But sometimes you encounter something that reaches out from the black spaces of existence and tears down your notions of reality. Abominable teeth rip apart your faith in an orderly universe. And then you know deep down in that guarded place of your heart, that those black spaces are teeming with awful awareness, an awareness that is focused on you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.  

Three steps, door opens. They whisper, they sing, they chant. The door closes, three steps, silence. That became ritual. My parents made the dreadful ascent one night and knocked on 4H to ask the tenant to stop. He never answered, and they did not linger.

I first heard them in the middle of the night. A musical sound awoke me. Scuffling came from above, followed by rapid footsteps. The musical sound came again, as if a broken wind chime was caught in a gale. It was the sound of children laughing. Not just one, or two, but many. My bed sheet clung to me, soaked despite the chill of the air conditioner, and I fought to fall back asleep. But my mind was racing, aware. Their giggling went on and on, mingled with thuds and a wet sound, like a knife slicing through meat. And there was something else. I don’t know what. Or maybe I just don’t want to know. Maybe some things are best left to the confines of a boy’s imagination. But that night I was certain I heard muffled screams.

No one believed me. My friends shook their heads and accused me of fucking with them. My father yelled, not wanting me to scare my mother. But I saw the way all of their eyes caught the shaded windows of 4H whenever we passed through the courtyard. In kinder moods, my parents promised me I was having bad dreams. That’s a parent’s job. Comfort your child against what you hope isn’t happening. 

Three steps, door opens, those strange voices…door closes, three steps. A glance would pass between mom and dad whenever it happened, and in those moments they knew I was not having nightmares.

Two weeks after I heard those children laughing, my stomach tore me from bed and urged me to one of those biblical dumps that you brag to your friends about. The urgency of it made me forget my growing fear of the late night hours. I made it to the bathroom, did my business, wiped, washed, and felt the sweet need for sleep caress me as I shuffled back to my room.

I froze by my bed. 

Three small figures stood before the curtained window, their silhouettes jagged and ghastly.

“We know you’re in there,” they said, speaking as one, their voices sweet.

From 4H came the sound of a harsh voice uttering some incomprehensible language. My heart heaved. One silhouette turned and jumped off of the fire escape. Another darted up the steps. The last stood, staring into the window, waiting. It giggled, sprang to the left, and was gone.

Quiet took hold. A siren yowled in the distance. A drunkard’s voice carried from half-a-block over, and the courtyard’s lamps hummed electric.

I sighed with cautious relief. 

And then a voice spoke to me from by my feet. “Thanks for not telling on me.”

I knew where it came from. I knew I shouldn’t look. But I did. I had to. A face, pale and smiling, became a blur as it ducked beneath my bed. There was a skittering sound like the sprinting of centipedes. The wall to my left gave off a harsh cracking noise, and the skittering went on behind it, joining with giggles rising up into 4H. 

Everything went black. 

When I awoke I was on the floor, the light was on, and my father was shaking me. My mother’s frantic and tired face hovered over his shoulder. It had been a nightmare, they said. I could see their exhaustion, could see work looming for both of them in a few hours. It had been a nightmare. I had been screaming, they said. I had been screaming in my sleep. But it was okay. It had only been a nightmare.

There were cracks running up and down the left beside my bed.

I slept on the couch for the next week.

It stopped with the same suddenness with which it had begun. One day there were no more footsteps, no more whispers, no more shadow children at play by my window. 4H returned to a malignant nothing. I was content to leave it if it left me. The end of summer loomed, and with it that strange excitement the coming of school brings. The girls I’d be meeting, the friends from other neighborhoods I would reunite with, the new experiences that would further shape me into whoever I was supposed to be. Normalcy returned with the passing weeks, and I was happier for it.

One night I awoke seized by blind panic, as if a current of electricity was searing the blood in my veins. The numbers on the digital clock were upside down. I shivered against the weight of oppressive cold. Silence stretched, total, complete. Screeching pierced the stillness. I looked towards the window, covering my ears, watching with perfect dread as the curtains slowly parted. 

The tenant stood behind the window, faceless, draped in his hood. The lights of the courtyard flashed off and on, each beat of darkness growing longer and longer. The tenant’s arms stretched at his sides, and I saw what should have been hands. But they were too long, too narrow, too curved. He moved in stuttering motions, as if he were skipping in an out of time. Something whipped the air behind him like a tail, and attached to the tail was a thing that looked like a leering face.

But all of those things were nothing compared to his eyes.

They were blue, sharp and deep and cold and empty. And they were staring right at me, no different from when they had first found mine.

The window flew open, its latch breaking free and landing with a clang against the sill. The security gate was ripped to the side, screaming with a hollow whine. The tenant came inside with ease, moving like water, a malformed thing mocking the laws of reality with his very existence. 

I screamed.

I awoke on the floor, streetlight pouring over me, my mother crying, my father staring at the open window, the damaged gate, and the broken latch on the sill. The reaction was swift. My mother called the cops, but the men of my neighborhood would not wait. Here was something to pin on 4H. Here was a reason to storm the door, break it down, and pull the monster from his cave.

Our courtyard filled with people. My father and his friends charged up the stairs, bats and knives in hands, their rage fed by righteous indignation. Others stormed up the fire escape, ready to capture the tenant if and when he tried to escape. But the window was closed, a gate was drawn, and the shade was down. Albert’s father screamed at them from below not to break the window. They didn’t have to. When my father and his men crashed against 4H, the door came open with ease. No one moved for a time, but finally my father stepped inside. The others followed.

No one screamed. No one gasped. There was only my father’s voice.

“Oh my god.”

The police brought box after box of blood-caked children’s toys from 4H. Men in HAZMAT suits brought down the body bag with the tenant’s remains inside. Suicide, they said, at least a few months done. Another body bag was carried out, bearing the remains of a local drug addict who had vanished some weeks before. The stench filled the building for days after. How it never escaped 4H until that point, I’ll never know.

A brief news blurb came later. The police were able to connect some of the toys to a few missing children cases. Some were recent, from that summer. Some were decades old. No one ever followed up, because no one ever wanted to know what really happened. Some things were best left alone. It took a week for authorities to collect and catalogue everything, and longer for the Albert’s father to clean up the filth that coated the walls, stained the ceilings, and filled the tub.

And then it was over. Something had been lifted from the neighborhood. The air seemed cleaner, lighter. 4H waited for its next occupants, but they wouldn’t come for some time. I had been unhurt, despite it all, and, slowly, I learned to forget. Life became girls, homework, new friends, and a fading childhood. Water guns were replaced by basketballs. Playing make believe was forgotten in a haze of new sneakers, the latest hair gel, and hip hop music. My parents were begrudgingly satisfied to return to their usual routine of laughing over dinner and fighting over drinks.

I developed an interest in knives, and I suddenly loved watching gory movies. My insides would go cold, and I would imagine myself as the monsters in them. But that was natural for a boy my age. 

Right?

All was right. All was sane. 

I was let out from school early one afternoon. The holiday break had begun, promising family get-togethers, gifts, and good food. My spirits were high, so I thought nothing of coming home to find the apartment freezing. My father left a window open. He had done it before. I would hunt it down and close it after I dropped my book bag in my bedroom. But I didn’t have to look far. I found my bedroom window open, along with the new gate my parents installed at summer’s end. Hanging from the top of the gate was a black hood. Beyond, a ragged doll sat the bottom step of the fire escape, staring at me, trembling in the wind, dark faced and smiling a stitched smile. It had blue eyes. A knife was stabbed into its stomach, its handle black and spattered with dried blood. Misshapen handprints stained the window and the surrounding walls within.

A parting message was written on my blanket in the chaotic hand of a child:

“You’re it.”


Giovanni Diaz is a writer from New York City, who is in love with dark and surreal stories. He has recently completed his first novel, These Bright and Lovely Nightmares, and is shopping it to agents. He has begun work on his second novel, The Sons of a Rebel God.