The Apartment Complex

by Seth McCaslin

The Apartment Complex

Gage was standing in the small bathroom, his face frozen in a blank stare, gazing beyond himself in the mirror when the doorbell rang. His eyes quickly flashed in the direction of the sound but his face remained still. Slowly and methodically he refocused his eyes to the mirror and raised his cheeks to form a grin on his otherwise motionless face. He held the grin for several seconds while his eyes scanned from side to side, inspecting his image as if seeing it for the first time. He made his way to the front door. Outside the door stood an attractive blonde female in her twenties, hair pulled back in a pony-tail and wearing running gear. He opened the door, looked the woman up and down and then quickly produced the rehearsed grin, saying nothing. After a few seconds the girl cleared her throat, smiling nervously. "Well, are you ready for this?" she asked intently. He held the smile for a moment longer and then answered in a calm and confident voice, "Yes, I just need to put on my shoes and I'll be ready, come in." He stepped to the side, holding the door and gesturing for her to come in. The girl hesitated slightly but quickly dismissed her uncertainty and walked past him into the living room as he closed the door behind her.

. . .

I was dreaming about some rare moment of happiness that took place early in my life, perhaps when my mother was still single when the sound of Gage's whistling began to intrude slightly on my dream as if it were playing a character in my subconscious. As the vaguely familiar tune grew louder my thoughts were pulled back from the deepest recesses of my mind and reality quickly replaced fantasy. I was about to get up when I realized that it was my day off. Working for a cleaning company, I spent my days vacuuming floors and cleaning up messes left behind by careless tourists who had better things to do than clean up spills or knock the mud off their shoes before entering a house. It bothered me to waste my rare intellectual qualities on such a meaningless job, yet it suited me for many reasons. I enjoy cleaning. It makes me feel as though I am restoring some kind of logical order to the world. More importantly, my job involves almost no social interaction. The only human contact required is to pick up my paycheck - even that minor encounter would soon be remedied by direct deposit.

I lay there for several minutes trying to remember the dream that instilled such a profound feeling of significance on my waking mood. I wondered how something that seemed so important could escape my memory so quickly. My concentration was interrupted by the muffled sound of a female voice. It seems that my downstairs neighbors consciously choose to get into arguments when I am trying to sleep. As the present caused the dream to fade further, I abandoned my attempts to recall it. I rubbed my eyes, noticing that they didn't seem as dry as they usually did upon waking. After a few minutes I decided I could not put off my morning routine any longer. I am very meticulous about my personal hygiene. That, coupled with my urgent need for organization probably qualifies me for some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder. My feelings about my roommate are bitter-sweet. His outrageously sloppy tendencies annoy me to no end and test the limits of my patience, but at the same time I am curiously envious of him for being able to live so carefree. He is after all, my only friend.

As soon as I entered the bathroom I spotted a shirt I rarely wear lying in the middle of the floor. The rumpled sight of it lying there angered me more than usual and I scooped it up, noticing that not only had Gage borrowed my shirt, but added insult to injury by leaving what appeared to be a spaghetti stain spilled down the front of the buttonholes. I quickly grabbed the stain remover from the cupboard and frantically applied an excessive amount to the stain. There was no logic to my urgency, after all the shirt had probably been there most of the night and my swiftness would probably not improve my chances of removing the stain. I showered, brushed, flossed, shaved, neatly combed my hair and grabbed the rest of the laundry from the hamper to start a load. Then I remembered the girl, and was actually grateful to Gage for waking me up early on my day off.

During the four years I had worked for the cleaning company, my routine included sitting by the window to watch the girl leave for work. It was the highlight of my day to catch a glimpse of her walking to her plum colored Pontiac. I quickly dropped the defiled shirt and the rest of the load into the hamper and went to the window, grabbing my sketch pad from the coffee table. I sat for nearly twenty minutes sketching one of my newest comic book characters, glancing up every few seconds to check for the girl. My sketch was of a muscle bound hero standing confidently with his hands on his hips, one foot poised on a small planet earth. His stare was steadfast, further implying that he had just conquered the world. Above his head was a flaming banner that read "Mike the Master of Mayhem." I chuckled at the cheesiness of the image. It wasn't my best work but it was hard to imagine a cool hero named Mike.

I had never liked my name. To me it was generic, a knock off of the real me that existed in some alternate reality. It made me feel like a pair of sunglasses they sell at booths along the highway advertised "3 for $10". Of course I have my mother to thank for this. Just shortly after my sixteenth birthday I was driving her home from a drunken binge at her favorite bar. She had progressed to the emotional stage of her drunkenness, and was rambling on about all of the misfortunes of her life when she casually mentioned naming me Michael because she couldn't think of anything better at the time. Apparently even that effort was so taxing that she didn't have the energy for a middle name, just the letter "G".

When I completed the sketch I closed the book and checked the clock. The girl was late. She had weekends off and today was Monday. I knew she worked at the mall from the tell-tale green food court apron. I had seen many people come by to visit or pick her up on a regular basis, so I surmised that perhaps she had been out late partying with her friends and called in sick. She always seemed so full of life, so confident, so happy and excited when she met her friends in front of the building. I often wondered if she ever spent a day alone. I couldn't imagine ever having the courage to talk to her, at least not in this lifetime.

Reluctantly giving up hope for a glimpse of the girl, I returned to my laundry and was shutting the washer lid when the doorbell rang. The semi-calm demeanor I had been enjoying instantly mutated to anxiety over who I might encounter at the door. I was hoping that Gage would answer it but his door was shut and I figured he didn't want to be bothered. I relaxed a little when I remembered I had ordered a package online. On the way to the door I practiced my required discourse with the expected delivery man "Hi, thank you." I peeked through the hole. Recognizing the face of the UPS driver sent a flood of relief through my veins. I mechanically set a smile on my face, unlocked and opened the door. "Hi there" he said. I attempted to deliver the rehearsed lines but he handed me the box with a "thank you," turned on his heel and was gone before I had a chance. It was for the best, verbal exchanges were never my strong suit. When I was young the anxiety only appeared when I had to converse with a group of people. Now I had to rehearse even a brief conversation with a single delivery man. While my job all but eliminated the need for conversation, the isolation seemed to be causing the condition to worsen. At any rate, it is infinitely easier to avoid fear than to confront it.

The phone rang - the phone that I never answer. The only calls during the business day are pests trying to sell something or conduct some annoying survey. After six rings it was answered by the machine. I heard the beep and was surprised to hear the familiar voice of my uncle. He also happens to be my landlord. "Hi Michael it's Tom ...I was just calling to see if you might possibly be interested in changing apartments...I know you are renting a two bedroom and I have a tenant moving out of a one bedroom...I thought I would tell you in case you were interested...it's a lot cheaper...anyway give me a call back or come down and see me in the office, thanks...talk to you soon. My uncle had never shown any enthusiasm towards Gage, he was always hinting that I should move on and learn to be on my own but he didn't understand how lonely I would be without him. I returned to the couch to open the package. It was a special kind of eye drops I used to relieve the morning dryness. After resting and squeezing a few drops into my eyes my aggravation began to subside. My panic at the sound of the doorbell all but gone, I sought to further comfort myself by trying on my black leather jacket. The masculine feel and smell of it seemed to sooth my insecurities, but only in private. Although purchased months before, I had not yet brought myself to wear it outside the apartment. I was sure that wearing it in public would cause me to be too conspicuous and uncomfortable. When I went to retrieve it, the jacket was not in its usual place on the padded wooden hanger and its plastic dust cover was lying on the closet floor. I realized instantly that Gage had borrowed my jacket again. Oddly, it really didn't bother me that much, perhaps because I knew I would never actually wear it out and he looked so handsome in it. When I stooped to pick up the dust cover I was overcome by an unmistakable odor.

I grew up with my mother in a two-story townhouse, my father having left her for another woman shortly after my birth. When I was four she met Dan, who immediately moved in with us. He was the typical alcoholic, perfectly suited for a barmaid willing to spend her paychecks on cases of Black Velvet and beer. He liked to sit in his recliner downstairs drinking beer and watching the Penthouse channel while she worked well into the morning hours. To reach the bathroom in the night I had to risk passing directly in front of him. Abusing me was his favorite game, he would see me coming, grab me and slap me around. Depending on his mood, he would often force me to sit next to him and watch. His violence was so frightening that I began to pee in my closet rather than risk trying to sneak past him to the bathroom.

One night when I was about seven I woke up with a horrific case of diarrhea. Terrified to make that kind of mess in my closet, I tried to sneak to the bathroom. I could hear the TV and was hoping desperately that he was asleep in his chair. While creeping silently through the kitchen, I stubbed my toe on one of the wooden chairs huddled around the small table by the fridge. Frozen with fear, I held my breath and listened intently, hearing only the sound of a girlish whimpering coming from the TV. I tiptoed around the corner and spotted Dan. His head was resting on the back of the chair, his eyes closed and mouth open emitting a loud snoring rhythm. I crept through the living room trying to place my tiptoes directly in the spots that I knew wouldn't creak. Just when I thought I might make it past, he sprung forward and grabbed me. In hindsight, I probably should have suspected the fake exaggerated snoring. I vividly remember the terrifying stench of alcohol, cigarettes and Old Spice cologne as he grabbed me by the back of the neck and yanked me into his recliner. He was drunker than ever, his words all slurred together as if his tongue was glued to the back of his throat. He wasn't watching the Penthouse channel, but what looked like a homemade video. Three men were standing in a room over a girl tied to a chair. I averted my eyes and tried to wriggle free but he grabbed me and forced me to sit staring straight at the TV by squeezing the back of my neck with his oversized paw. He slobbered out a guttural "this is the good stuff right here."

During the four years Dan lived with us I made such a habit out of peeing in my closet that I continued to do it without even remembering it the next day. Even into adulthood, the habit continued occasionally when I was sleep walking at night, but it had been awhile since it happened and I thought perhaps I was over it. The smell from the dust cover proved me wrong. I donned rubber gloves and spent the next half hour on my knees scrubbing urine out of the carpet in my closet. By the time I finished it was almost lunch time.

I decided to order lunch from a pizza delivery service over the phone. I had a generic script written on a pad of legal paper that I regularly used to place orders, with a blank space to write my current order information. I erased the medium pepperoni pizza penciled in days before and replaced it with my new order for wings and salad. My heart rate quickened as I waited for the phone to be answered. The male voice that answered sounded like a very busy teenager. "Thank you for calling Dominos can I get your name and phone number?" This was the expected question so I answered him and waited for the question to follow, either did I want to try the special or perhaps straight to checking my address against his computer record, followed by "ok great what can I get for you?" As soon as he started to speak I sensed something was wrong. "Is this Mike, as in Sherri's friend Mike?" he asked. I glanced at my script, my heart began to race. I tried to speak, uttering instead something unintelligible. After a second or two of awkward silence I pressed the red cancel button, dropping the phone onto the coffee table. I convinced myself that it was a silly mistake, after all Michael is a common name and the guy was probably just confused with someone else in my apartment complex. I didn't feel like trying to place another order over the phone but I was so hungry, I began to wonder if perhaps Gage had left some of that spaghetti in the fridge. Anything would be better than having to attempt another phone order.

The fridge contained week-old Chinese and a jar of pickles. There was no evidence of spaghetti in the sink either, so perhaps Gage had gone out to eat. I wondered if Gage had been with a girl named Sherri, but that didn't explain why the pizza guy would have asked about Mike. I started to feel overwhelmed, attributing it to lack of food. I grabbed the jar of pickles out of the fridge and collapsed into the couch to watch TV. While I sat flipping through day time TV programs a loud thump came from Gage's room. I quickly pressed the mute button on the remote and listened intently. Another thumb followed by a violent bang caused me to jump in my skin. I assumed Gage was either re-arranging furniture or in a one of his angry moods. I was feeling worse than before and decided to go to my room to lie on my bed. As I passed Gage's room, the door was still shut. Being upright made me feel so weak I couldn't stand. I stumbled into my room, tunnel vision tightening in on my twin-size bed in the corner. The ringing in my ears was that of a short range shotgun blast. I collapsed into bed, my head throbbing as my mind went numb. I could hear the same muffled female voice from this morning, barely considering the urgency in her tone as I drifted into unconsciousness.

. . .

Gage sauntered out of the bathroom wearing grey colored slacks, an un-tucked blue button-up shirt and a black leather jacket. He strolled into the kitchen, grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with tap water. He gulped it down and slammed the glass down next to the sink. His light brown hair was gelled into a punk rock sort of do that resembled an MTV host, and his posture confirmed his unwavering self confidence. After standing in the kitchen for several minutes staring at the wall in a trance-like state, he walked to the front door, grabbed a set of car keys from the hook on the wall and grasped the extension handle of the large black suitcase sitting next to the door. The wheels on the suitcase enabled it to follow him out the door as he left the apartment.

. . .

I was running for my life and had just escaped capture for the umpteenth time when I began to sense that I was dreaming. I forced my eyes open and stared briefly at the ceiling. I was lying on the couch in just my underwear, wrapped in the quilt from my bed. It wasn't unusual for me to sleep walk. Sometimes I would wake to find that I had dressed myself for work during the night or cleaned my entire bathroom. It was very unusual waking up on the couch though, in that I almost always sleep walk back to my bed. In spite of my confusion, I felt much better. With a calm head and resting heart rate I felt an overall sense of tranquility, reminiscent only of those few precious moments following sexual release. I got up, immediately checking to see if Gage's door was still shut. It was slightly ajar, and from where I was standing I could see a water glass on the counter by the sink. I figured that I must have slept right through his exit. I wondered if he saw me sleepwalking. They say you should never wake a person in that state of mind.

I thought about going to Gage's room to investigate whether he had been out with a girl or not, but I knew better than to go in there; he had a temper and I knew that he could return at any time. I remembered that I hadn't eaten lunch but I wasn't feeling especially hungry. The doorbell rang and glancing at the clock I saw that it was two-thirty. Startled once again, my heart began its usual rapid firing. I slowly shuffled towards the door, hoping that the person might leave before I got there. My hopes were dashed by loud insistent knocking. I could feel my face getting hot. I peered through the hole and saw part of what looked like a uniform. I began to tremble violently. It took both hands and all of my will to open the door. There stood two police officers, one a Hispanic male and the other a dark haired female. The man stood planted in front of the door with the female to his side. He spoke quickly in a loud professional tone. "Hello, my name is Sgt. Hernandez and this is Deputy Ladd. How are you doing today sir?" I could feel the tunnel vision closing in and tried to focus on the officer's nose, a tactic I had developed for speaking to people face to face without making eye contact. I squeaked out an unconvincing "fine." "We are canvassing the neighborhood today trying to get information on a missing person," he informed me, holding out a photograph. As I immediately recognized the girl, my legs threatened to buckle so I reached out to brace myself against the door jamb. "Do you recognize this women sir?" he asked, attempting to hand me the picture for a closer look. I quickly answered "yes" without accepting the picture from him. "She lives in this complex" I said as calmly as possible. "Yes sir that is correct, her name is Sherri Dowel - she has been missing since yesterday " have you seen her by any chance?" he asked. By now my head was throbbing and I could barely make out even the tip of the officer's nose through my tunnel vision. Everything else had turned white and there was a roaring sound in my ears. I couldn't hear the "no sir" that barely escaped my lips. The officer looked at me for a few moments as if he was expecting me to elaborate, realized that I was finished speaking and turned towards his partner as if to extend the courtesy of allowing her to add anything. With a quick "thank you" the two continued down the hall to the next door.

I closed the door, locked it and blindly staggered to the couch. When I felt steady enough to stand I decided to take a shower. The shower curtains were closed but the water on the floor and wadded up towel next to the toilet were sure signs that Gage had used the bathroom. I glanced in the mirror and noticed a small patch of dried blood where the hair was parted on my forehead. I must have bumped into something when I was sleepwalking again. When I picked up the towel to throw it in the hamper something very small fell to the floor between the toilet and shower. Nausea overwhelmed me as I picked it up, flipped it over in my hand and realized it was about two-thirds of a clear polished acrylic finger nail with blood on it. Hearing the gurgle of the tub struggling to drain, I jerked the curtains back to reveal a puddle of partially clotted blood surrounding the drain. Lying in the center of the puddle was a black handled hacksaw.

As I grasped for the shower curtain my knees went out from under me. The curtain rod came crashing down and I struck the toilet with my right side as I landed on the floor. My heart began thumping so hard I could hear it as it threatened to break right through my chest wall. I fought to remain conscious as the terror swept through me like a million needles emanating from my very core. I started to imagine what Gage might have done. I wondered where he was at that moment. I thought about going to his room, calling the police, even calling my uncle, but my mind soon gave way to the ringing in my ears and the fire raging up my neck to my face and the violent pulsating of every last blood vessel in my body. My last thought ran through my mind "my uncle was right." I escaped into the darkness of my mind, hearing only a fainter and fainter beat of my heart until that too was gone. It was a darkness from which I felt I might never return.

. . .

Gage stood in the bathroom completely naked, his face inches from the mirror, staring directly into his own gaze. His forehead was damp with sweat and his hair neatly parted in the middle. He reached into the drawer and removed a small tin labeled "Bedhead." He removed the cap, swiped his fingers across the surface of the thick wax-like product and rubbed it between his hands. Seconds later his hair was transformed into the trendy MTV style he preferred. He rinsed his hands in the sink, blotted his face with a towel and strolled out of the bathroom leaving the tin on the counter and the shower curtain lying on the floor next to a pile of clothes. He strutted through the living room and down the hall whistling a loud and unrecognizable tune, kicking open the slightly ajar door mid-stride.

Inside the room there was an array of dress shirts, slacks and imported leather shoes strewn about the floor. The only furniture in the room was a small dresser with an attached mirror against the wall and a queen-size mattress sitting atop a box spring on the floor. On the dresser was a bottle of Old Spice Cologne, a Polaroid Camera, a half used roll of Duct tape and a thick black photo album with a clear window on the cover intended for a photograph. Instead of a picture, the clear window held a three by five index card with the lined side facing down. On the blank side of the card were three words written in black felt pen, "The Good Stuff." Gage barreled through the room towards the closet, stepping all over the clothing and shoes lying about the floor. He leaned around the side of the bed and grabbed the handle of the tri-fold closet door. The door accordioned slightly outward before it stopped, caught on something. Gage paused for a second, reached down, removed the pink and white running shoe from the track and tossed it aside. He slipped the black leather jacket from its hanger and pulled his arms through the sleeves as he made his way to the dresser. He proudly faced the mirror wearing nothing but the black leather jacket and a slowly forming grin on his face. The tiny trickle of blood escaped his notice as it made its way down his forehead. He flipped open his phone and dialed. "Hi Tom ... it's Mike" he said, his voice radiating confidence. "I just wanted to let you know that I will take that one bedroom apartment you called about."

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