When I was fifteen years old, my family moved out of our small flat, and into a spacious interior, on the third floor of a new apartment complex. The complex was five storeys high, and stood adjacent to its twin. Our family was the third to move into the complex, and as years went by, we watched families, students and pensioners fill the empty apartment. In less than three years’ time, all but one apartment had been taken.
In our new home, as I spent hours and days studying in my bedroom, I often observed the forever shut, curtained window of an apartment in the twin building which, as it would turn out, all buyers avoided. A few people were seen coming to inspect the apartment, and some neighbours wondered if it had finally found an owner, but no one ever closed a deal with the real-state agency which managed the complex.
Sometimes, I imagined that, if one entered the apartment, one would be overwhelmed with a saturated smell of mould, dust and time; and as one would look around, one would see particles of dust swivelling through the air. By then, the paint, never re-done, would have started to peel off, revealing layers of the wall beneath, grey and aged.
Over the years, the vacant apartment attracted many rumours. Old Mrs Greenwell postulated that someone must have laid a curse on the apartment. That was the only thing that could explain the fact no one ever bought it, she insisted. Very few, naturally, gave any relevance to the woman’s two cents.
Ms Ludwick, a young art student, said she heard someone had indeed bought it, but fell ill and passed away before they could move in.
My mother claimed “I spoke once with a realtor about it. She said that a couple of people had considered buying it, but each time they came to see the flat, some strange noise kept sounding from the pipes. The realtor could not find the cause of the problem in spite of several plumbers inspecting the pipes, and so no contract was ever signed.”
I overheard my mother talk about this with a few women who had come over for a cup of tea. Among them was Ms Ludwick who, upon careful consideration, said that it was likely true as she sometimes heard odd noises from the walls. “I don’t mean to spark theories, but to me,” Ms Ludwick said, “it always sounds like crying.”
“I know, it’s silly, but, when it wakes me up at two or three in the morning I cannot stop my brain from reaching supernatural conclusions.”
Ever since I’d overheard their conversation, every time I sat relaxing in my room, I would, at some point, look at that curtained window and wonder if there really was something odd inside it?
A week later, while cleaning the window of my room I saw something which caused a strange spark of excitement. It was an incredible sight — behind the beige curtain, there was a shadow moving. I stopped my chore and stared, in unreasonable awe, at the shadow walking left and right. One would imagine that there was only that much that a person might have to do around the window-side, but the shadow’s work appeared endless for the pacing showed no signs of stopping. It hurried to-and-fro, moved its arms around as though it was feeling through the air for something, and then bent down several times. The arms moved in searching motions, and as the search remained fruitless, the shadow’s despair grew. It grabbed its face, it twisted its body, and then, finally, it stopped, as if someone had pressed a pause button on it. Then, it turned towards the window and I worried that it may open the curtains and see me spying on them, but before I could look away, the shadow was gone.
Later that evening, I told my parents about what I had seen, but no one believed me. If someone had been moving in, then a moving company’s truck would have been spotted, my parents retorted, but I knew what I had seen. And so, I was determined to prove it.
The next day, after returning home from my internship, around the same time as when I had been cleaning, I was lucky enough to spot the shadow again. I watched it stand by the window and pace. I opened my mouth to call for my mother, but then realised that the shadow had been doing the exact same thing as the day before. Each action was a carefully followed sequence. I watched, incredulous and somewhat filled with fear.
The next day, the one after that and so on, I rushed back home to make it in time for the show. The shadow never let me down. Each time, the performance was a reprise, and I stood or leaned out of my own window, observing. I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone any more about it. Neighbours came and went, people lived their lives as they always did, and no one ever gossiped about hearing or noticing anyone in or around that apartment. After an unknown number of days, though I never got tired of it, I was surprised to notice the performance changed a little.
While the shadow turned towards the window, it moved as if to pull the curtains aside and at that moment, I held my breath, in anticipation; however, something drew my attention away and this happened every time from that day. The distraction would either be someone in our household calling out to me, the phone ringing or email notifications popping up and I would look away. Within those few seconds of diverted attention, the shadow would be gone.
After the performance changed, I started having strange dreams, every few nights. I’d be lingering by my bedroom window and waiting for the shadow to open the curtains. I would hold my breath until they did but, although it was clear the shadow presented itself to me in my dreams the memory of it never lasted long enough for me to remember it after I wake up. Each time I woke from the dreams, I felt terror creeping under my bed sheets and into my heart. Simultaneously, I was frustrated I could not recall the shadow’s face, as it felt important, but the frustration, unlike the terror, would subside within an hour.
The nightmares never inspired me to cease my voyeurism. There were many times when I wanted to call out to that person while I observed them. I had no idea whether they were a man or a woman, young or old, for the outline of this human-esque figure provided me no sufficient information, but the more I watched them the more I pitied them. I wondered if they would ever find what they were looking for. Would the search be any more fruitful if they had a pair of helping hands, and a second wit to discover it?
One day, I decided to find out.
It was an almost spontaneous decision. I had, indeed, mulled over the possibility of going there and knocking on the door a few days earlier, but I could not bring myself to do it all until, one Thursday, on my way home from work I looked up at the window and saw the show had already begun. I glanced at my wristwatch and saw it began earlier than usual. Having correlated the premature start with a cosmic prompt, I walked into the building and headed upstairs. I replayed the scene of the shadow inside my head. I’d, of course, seen it so many times that by then I knew every second of it by heart. As I neared the apartment, my heart palpitations increased, and by the time I was in the third floor hallway, my heart was so upset that I nearly gave up on the notion of meeting this strange, nervous inhabitant.
I stood in front of the apartment for several minutes, with my head close to the door, as I tried to listen to any movement inside. Hearing nothing, I wondered if disturbing the relative peace of it was a great idea, but I had gone out of my way, nearly literally, so why not pursue it to the end, I asked myself? I finally knocked on the door but, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no response. As I had seen the shadow by the window earlier, I knew that there was someone inside, but the fact no one responded to my knocking re-introduced the same worrisome weight over my chest as I had felt it the first time I saw the performance on the window.
Eventually, something alien took over me as I suddenly grabbed the door handle and turned it. If the door were locked, I would leave but if it were open, I might feign ignorance as I impose their household. These were the thoughts I had as I, slowly, succeeded in opening the door.
Although I’d been watching this person inside it for weeks, I saw that they had not furnished the place at all. There was not as much as a coat hanger. There were no doors installed, no furniture, and the floor had not ever been polished. The place was dusty all over, and as I explored the kitchen, the bathroom and the living room area, I wondered who would come here every day, or worse yet, live here without…anything?
“Hello? I’m sorry to just come in. I’m your neighbour. I saw you through the window, and decided to say hello finally,” I spoke again, listening to my voice echoing, as oddly as voices knew how to echo in an empty interior. The sound of it bounced off the walls but never reached too far.
This is a bad idea, something told me. You should leave.
But, I was yet to go to the bedroom where I knew the window overlooked mine, and where I knew the shadow still had to be. Whoever this person was, they couldn’t have left; otherwise, I would have seen them in the hallways.
“Hello?” I said, as I walked towards the bedroom with small, but brave steps. I’d calmed my heart and gathered my thoughts by the time I reached the room and discovered that there was no one inside. My stomach sank at that moment, and as I advanced into the room, I stared at the curtain and thought: Did they go to visit a neighbour? Did they, God forbid, jump out by now? But the window was closed, so the latter option was impossible.
My heart resumed its anxious pounding as I finally approached the window. I looked around the room and saw nothing but an old, dusty floor, not cleaned for over a decade. There was nothing there that one could fancy as a hiding place for anything big, small or important. Nothing in the corners, nothing on the ceiling. I bent down a few times, just to make sure, but, as one would expect, an empty room had nothing to hide.
“What on Earth,” I thought out loud, annoyed at myself that I was beginning to feel frustrated at the nothingness of the apartment. What could they have possibly been looking for?
As a final part of my charade, I dared to open the curtains. I did not want to disturb them at first but something once again came over me so I pushed the dirty cloth aside and looked towards my bedroom.
From the other side, behind my window, I caught a scene performed by a strikingly familiar figure. As I watched it stop its staring and quickly turn around to go back into its room, I nearly choked out in terror. The person who’d been spying from the other side was none other than me.
Sara Kosmajac studied the Faculty of Philosophy where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree at the English Department in 2014, after presenting a thesis in the field of the English 19th century novel. In September 2017, she finally obtained a Master of Arts degree in the field of sociolinguistics. So far, she has had one short story published in the third issue of ‘Kreativni magazin’ in 2014.
Photo: Mirko Olandese