Day 4 – The 14th by Tony Sands

The 14th (from Castle Heights)

Tony Sands

“What you doin’? It’s about to start,” said Frank, munching on a crisp. On the TV, the opening bell rang to signal the start of the big fight, Nichols Vs Hammer. Frank had been very excited about it for days. Graham ‘Sledge’ Hammer was the overwhelming favourite, but Frank was a Nichols fan and, although he wasn’t the most optimistic of people, he had hope that Nichols would pull off an upset win. Finally, the night was here and he was nestled comfortably on a sofa in front of a 65 inch OLED TV.

“I thought I heard something,” said Fred, stepping back from the wall and joining Frank on the sofa. He plucked a crisp from the bowl on the table in front of them.

“You did, the opening bell,” smiled Frank.

“No, something else, like…I dunno, just something.” Fred ate his crisp and reached for another as they watched the fight.

“You’re always hearing things,” replied Frank.

On the TV Nichols and Hammer exchanged a couple of jabs.

“I have very acute hearing,” explained Fred.

“You have very bad nerves,” said Frank.

“Unlike you?”

“I have nerves of steel.”

“My arse,” muttered Fred, he sipped his bottle of beer and looked down at the table. “What happened to the pizza?”

“Gone.”

“Really? I had about two slices.”

“Three. Each. What a rip off. Lucky we bought so many crisps,” Frank said.

“Last time we get a pizza from a place named Dingo’s. You know the guy who delivered it was called Meryl? Meryl! ‘Don’t take my baby,’ I said to him. Nothing. Just looked at me blankly.”

A Cry in the Dark.”

“Exactly,” said Fred.

“Great film,” they stated in unison, then found themselves leaning forward as the round neared its nervy end. Suddenly, Nichols on the canvas having been caught by a fierce right.

“Told you he wouldn’t last long,” Fred pointed at the screen.

Frank sighed at the thought of listening to ‘I told you so’ all week, but Nichols got to his feet, the count stopped at eight and the bell signalling the end of the round came soon after.

“He’s finished,” chimed Fred, digging once more into the crisps. “Do we have any cheese and onion?”

“I just tipped everything into the bowl,” said Frank.

A dull thump resonated from the wall behind them, startling both.

“See, I told you I heard something!” Fred said as they looked at the wall.

“Noisy neighbours,” said Frank returning his attention to the fight. “Maybe they’re watching this too.”

“Maybe,” Fred wasn’t as convinced.

The second round soon took their mind off any worries though as Hammer almost went down under a barrage of blows from Nichols. Frank punched the air as Hammer walked unsteadily back to his corner.

“I think Tommy might actually have a chance here,” Frank said excitedly.

Fred stood up and walked to the wall. The bell for the next round rang and the fighters came out. Fred smiled to himself, “it’s just noisy neighbours.”

“Eh?”

“Oh, nothing,” said Fred. Frank was right, his nerves were bad, but then, all things considered, it was no real surprise. As much as he tried to forget what happened in ‘that house’ four years ago, it wasn’t easy. His mind drifted back to that awful night…

“Holy shit!” yelled Frank, leaping from his seat.

On the TV, Hammer dropped to the canvas.

“Oh my, I didn’t see that coming!” the commentator trilled.

“Hammer certainly didn’t,” came the pithy reply from his cohort who Fred assumed was some former fighter.

The referee started the count, “one!”

“Holy shit!’ Frank yelled again.

“Two!”

“Did ya see that?” called Frank.

“Three!”

And then everything went black.

Frank and Fred stood in silence for a couple of seconds before the accusation came.

“What did you do?” cried Frank.

“Nothin’, I didn’t do a thing. I was just stood here,” Fred said, his Liverpudlian accent crackling.

“What the fuck happened then?” Frank squeaked. “Was he counted out? Did he get up? And I hate the dark.”

“I thought you had nerves of steel.”

“Shut up, Freddy!” snapped Frank. He took his mobile phone out of his pocket and activated the flashlight. Fred did likewise.

“Don’t act like you’re okay with the dark,” Frank continued.

“I never said I was, but then I never claimed I had nerves of steel.”

A thump on the front door silenced them.

“Who do you think that is?” Frank aimed his light at the apartment entrance.

“Hopefully, an electrician.”

***

They opened the door to a tall, gangly man with wiry hair and dark rimmed spectacles. He was in his late forties, around the same age, perhaps a little younger than Frank and Fred and was clutching a small, windup torch. He was surprised to see them.

“Hello?” said Fred.

“I was looking for Brendan, or Marie,” said the man.

“Oh, yeah, they’re away for a few days, taken Theo to see his grandparents. We’re cat sitting,” Fred explained.

“Maxwell,” added Frank. “He’s the cat. Their cat, that we’re sitting.”

“Right, okay. Well, I’m Alex from next door. Have you lost your electricity?’ he asked, peeking over their shoulders to see they indeed had.

“We have,” said Frank, noting that there were no lights on the landing.

“It looks like the whole floor has,” Fred said, looking around.

“Yes, any ideas what happened?” Alex asked, eyes on Fred.

“No,” Fred stepped past Alex onto the landing. Another door opened, number 88, and an elderly West Indian lady poked her head out.

“Hi, Alice,” Alex nodded at her, though she didn’t see it.

“I’ve no electricity, what did you do?” Alice peered at Fred who was closest to her.

“Me? Why is everybody asking me?”

“Aren’t you a maintenance man? You maintenance men are always breaking more than you fix,” said Alice, stepping out of her apartment, pulling her bright purple dressing gown tighter.

 “I’m not a maintenance man,” Fred said.

 “He’s a cat sitter,” said Alex, “for Brendan and Marie.”

 “Ah, I’ve never been a cat person,” Alice said. “So, you gonna fix this or what?”

 “Fix it? Are you still talking to me?” Fred felt like he was being reprimanded in school.

 “I’m talking to anyone who will get my lights back on, I don’t want my Darius messing with electrics.”

 “You worry too much, Nan.” A light appeared behind her, followed by her grandson Darius who was a slim, boyish eighteen-year-old. He was in a t-shirt and jeans, his mobile phone providing the illumination. He had moved in with his nan when he was nine, due to his dad’s lack of interest and his mum’s ill health; he had been there ever since. This suited Alice just fine as she adored Darius and he was such a good boy.

 “I don’t want the risk of you getting electrocuted,” his nan said.

 “But it’s alright if I get electrocuted?” whined Fred.

 “I don’t know you,” she replied curtly.

***

Doors number 87 and 89 opened in perfect synchronisation, as if rehearsed. Mr. Hernandez, from number 87, a short, balding, Spanish man, rubbed his weary eyes, he looked like he’d slept in his suit, which he had done, on the sofa, having had a very long day at work. He held a rather clunky, but bright, flashlight. Gabi and Paul, number 89, had been enjoying a horror movie in front of the TV when everything went black and scared the shit out of them. They both had phones lighting their way.

“Before anyone asks,” declared Fred, “I didn’t do anything, and I am not an electrician.”

“Right,” said Gabi, blankly.

“He’s a cat sitter,” said Alex.

“What is going on?” Hernandez asked.

“Blackout. Looks like it’s affecting the whole block, lights have gone outside too,” Paul had looked out the window from his apartment and noticed the very dark streets.

“Wonderful,” said Frank, sarcastically.

“Who are you?” Paul shone his light at Frank accusingly, as if catching a perpetrator in the act of a crime, causing him to shield his eyes.

“Cat sitter,” replied Alex.

Paul relieved the light from Frank’s face.

“How many people does it take to look after a cat?” sneered Gabi.

“Guess it depends on the size of the cat,” grinned Darius.

“Does anyone have a signal?” Paul held his phone out to show he had none.

Everyone checked, nobody did.

“Wi-Fi is out too,” said Darius, his game having been cut disappointingly short.

“Where’s Martin?” Alice nodded toward apartment number 90.

“Probably sleeping, like I should be sleeping,” said Hernandez, looking back at his apartment longingly.

***

 Alex knocked on Martin’s door and it opened slightly.

 “Martin?” he called gently. Martin was an elderly gentleman, always friendly, chatty and polite.

There was no reply and Alex looked around at the others for ideas as to what to do next.

 “Martin?” he called again, a little louder. Still no reply. His torch started to dull and he gave it a wind, restoring the brightness.

 “Go in and check on him,” urged Alice, “he might be hurt.”

 “Or he might be okay and you’ll give him a heart attack when he finds you suddenly standing in his flat uninvited,” said Fred.

 “I don’t think you should go in,” Frank added.

 “For fuck’s sake,” Paul huffed and brushed Alex aside. He nudged the door open fully and peered in. “Martin, you alright?”

The silence was becoming heavier. Paul stepped inside, moving the beam of light from his phone around slowly. Light reflected from the glass casing pictures on the walls, but nothing stirred.

The others edged closer, trying to see in.

“Martin, it’s Paul from number 89. You there?” He stepped slowly further along the short corridor. He felt chills running up his spine, but he couldn’t lose face so carried on.

He reached the living room, his heart thumping hard in his chest and then he saw Martin, sitting in an old, high-backed armchair, unmoving. “Martin?” Paul moved quickly to him. Martin was still, his eyes staring into space.

“Shit,” Paul exhaled, “shit, shit, shit.”

Paul reached forward cautiously, intending to check the old man’s pulse, when Martin grabbed his hand and sprang toward him wide eyed. “It’s in the walls!” rasped Martin.

Paul, startled, fell backwards dropping his phone. “Fuck!”

Alex raced in, followed by Frank, Fred, Gabi and Darius. They found Paul scrambling to grab his phone and Martin leaning forward in his chair. He turned his head slowly to them and repeated the same words, “It’s in the walls.”

“Ah, Christ,” whimpered Frank. “Of course it is, of course it’s in the walls.”

“I told you I heard something,” said Fred.

“It’s in the walls,” Martin barked, glaring at them.

“What’s in the walls?” Alex asked calmly, stepping slowly to his neighbour, hands out, trying to ease him.

Martin met his eyes then slumped back into his chair, unconscious.

“Martin?” Alex checked for a pulse on his neck.

“Is he dead?’ asked Gabi.

“No, he has a pulse, but I think we’ll need an ambulance.”

“I’ll go down to the ground and call one, Trevor should be around.” Paul picked up his phone and stood up feeling rather sheepish.

“Trevor?” Fred said.

“The concierge,” Gabi informed him.

“Ooh, posh, a twenty-four-hour concierge,” said Fred. He hadn’t noticed a concierge, but Frank had been in such a tizz to not miss the start of the boxing they’d rushed through the lobby.

“You’ll have to walk, the lifts aren’t working,” Mr. Hernandez joined them.

“Fuck’s sake,” moaned Paul.

“I’ll go,” said Darius.

“Thanks, Darius, if you could,” Alex smiled, and Darius headed out.

“We should go,” whispered Frank to Fred.

“We can’t leave them like this,” Fred whispered back.

“Why not? It’s not like they’re on their own.”

“That’s true.”

“And I don’t like this.”

“I can’t say it’s filling me with joy, but what about the cat?”

“When did you last see that cat?”

Fred paused in thought, it was a good question, he hadn’t seen the cat since they’d arrived earlier that evening. “Do you think it’s Maxwell in the wall?”

“You think the cat is in the wall?”

“In the fuckin’ walls? The man’s demented.” Paul started to follow Darius when a thump-thump came from the wall, stopping him in his tracks.

“That doesn’t sound demented,” Fred sniped.

“Cat sitting pay well, does it?” Paul mocked.

“Come on, Paul, let’s get home and wait for the power to come back on.” Gabi pulled her partner away and out of Martin’s apartment.

“Is he okay?” Frank looked from the wall to Alex.

“I don’t know. He’s breathing, that’s good, right?”

“Is he diabetic?” Fred asked.

“I don’t know,” Alex felt helpless. “Mr. Hernandez?”

“I can’t help, sorry, I don’t know him very well.” Hernandez shrugged, “he’s a nice man, though.”

“He is,” Alex said.

“We’ll wait with you,” Fred said, reassuringly.

“I guess we will,” Frank planted himself on the small sofa.

“I’ll go and check on Alice,” Hernandez turned and left.

Fred peered at the wall. “That noise didn’t sound right.”

“It’s probably the plumbing, it’s an old building,” said Alex dismissively.

Fred took a seat, still unconvinced.

***

Alice watched Gabi and Paul storm past her into their apartment and was standing by the door to number 90 when Mr. Hernandez came out.

“Is Martin okay?” she asked with concern. She was very fond of her neighbour and seeing Darius race away to the stairwell gave her cause for worry.

“I couldn’t say. He’s breathing, but not awake.” Hernandez shook his head.

“Poor Martin,” she sighed.

“I’m sure Darius will get help.”

“He is a good boy. I just hope he doesn’t fall going down those stairs in the pitch black. ‘Don’t worry, Nan, I got this,’ he said, but how can I not worry?”

“He’s a smart and careful boy, not the usual teenager. He’ll be good.” Hernandez patted her arm reassuringly.

“Want to come into mine whilst we wait for either the lights to come back on or the sun to rise? Whichever comes first.”

“Okay, Alice, some company would be nice,” he said, though he wanted nothing more than sleep.

“Right then, come on in.”

***

“I hate this bloody place,” Paul paced the corridor in number 89.

Gabi nodded in agreement, “I know, I know, but what can we do? It’s a means to an end.”

Moving into Castle Heights was only ever intended as a short-term measure. Paul’s career in sales had been moving forwards rapidly and the business, a nail and beauty bar called ‘Oh G’s’, that he and Gabi had started up and which Gabi managed, was building a steady, if unspectacular, trade. Frustratingly for them, things weren’t progressing fast enough and they still weren’t in a position to buy the house both felt worthy of them.

“That fuckin’ bloke scared the shit out of me, I don’t mind telling ya,” Paul huffed.

“You did look stupid on the floor back there,” Gabi snorted a giggle.

“Thanks, I feel much better now,” Paul stomped into the living room.

“Chill out, babe, it would have freaked anyone out,” Gabi said soothingly.

“That’s twice I’ve nearly soiled myself tonight, first with the lights going out during that bloody film…”

“That scared me too.” Gabi rubbed goosebumps from her arms, it had been a pretty scary horror film without the added frights.

“Then that Martin bloke, I mean, for crying out loud. What was that all about?”

“He was acting strange.”

“He was acting like a nutter,” sneered Paul.

“If you ask me, this whole building is full of nutters,” Gabi reclaimed the glass of wine she’d been drinking before the blackout from the pristine, expensive, rather garish silver coffee table and sat down on the sofa.

“Amen to that,” said Paul.

Thump-thump came from the wall, dull and ominous.

“Are they fucking around with us?” Paul snarled.

“Why would they do that?” Gabi flopped back into the soft cushions.

“Because they’re all nutters, it’s what nutters do.”

Thump-thump, louder.

“Come and sit down, or even better, why don’t you find those nice candles your mum bought us?”

Paul studied the wall. “Did you not hear that?”

“It’s probably the pipes.”

“Pipes? They’ve never made that noise before.” He put a hand on the wall.

“Electrics? I don’t know, maybe we could ask those cat sitters,” she giggled to herself.

Paul pressed an ear to the wall.

“Fucking cat sitters,” she snorted.

Paul listened hard, he was sure he could hear something moving.

“This place gets weirder and weirder, sooner we get out of here the better.”

Paul thought he heard a whisper coming from behind the plaster, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, fear overwhelmed him and then the wall moved, as if it were alive, and sucked him into it. In a split second he was gone. The wall wobbled, like a ripple in water, then stilled.

“Do we have any more wine?” Gabi swilled the little wine that was left in her glass around the bottom of it.

She sat in the quietness of the night for a few moments before turning her torch light around the room to find she was alone.

“Babe?” She put her glass down and stood up.

Silence.

“Paul, you there?”

Silence.

“Paul, don’t fuck around.”

Thump-thump.

“Oh fuck off!” she snapped.

Silence.

She walked up to the wall along the corridor where the sound had come from, washing the torch light around the room, empty. She felt very alone.

Thump.

“Fuck!” She bashed the wall with the base of her clenched fist.

Thump!

“Right!” She bashed the wall again.

Thump!

“Off!” She bashed it once more, but this time the wall sucked her arm in and, as much as she tried to pull back, it started to drag her in, her feet sliding along the wooden floor as she tried to resist. The wall snaked out and spiralled around her arm, tightening and squeezing. It pulled her closer and closer until her face was brushing it. “HELP!” screamed Gabi and then she too disappeared, leaving a ripple behind her.

***

Fred jumped to his feet, “Did you guys hear that?”

“Not the wall again?” Frank sighed.

“I thought I heard a shout,” Fred looked toward the open front door.

“I didn’t hear anything, sorry,” said Alex.

Fred stood for a while longer then sat down, rubbing the back of his neck. “Maybe all this craziness is messing with my head.”

Alex’s flashlight dulled and he started winding it.

“Doesn’t that get frustrating?” Fred asked.

“Not if it helps save the planet,” Alex stated earnestly. “Humankind has done immense damage to the planet and I believe we should all do our bit to help save it.”

“Oh,” said Fred.

Alex finished winding as full light was restored to his planet-saving flashlight.

With that, they returned to sitting quietly in the dark until Frank finally found the silence was unbearable.

“Were you watching the boxing?”

“Not really a boxing fan.” Alex didn’t like violence, he had to switch the television news over on occasion and those soap operas were very angry shows, though his wife loved them.

“Oh,” Frank felt deflated, which was better than scared. “It was a cracking fight, wasn’t it Fred?”

“Great fight, you really missed something there,” agreed Fred.

Alex didn’t waste his time on nonsense, “I was watching a fascinating documentary on the indigenous plant life inhabiting the subterranean basin in…”

“That is fascinating,” interrupted Fred.

***

“Thank you for keeping me company, I don’t think I could go to sleep without knowing Darius is back safely.” Alice pushed her curtain back and looked out the window. “It’s very dark out there.”

“It’s very dark in here,” said Mr. Hernandez as he safely navigated his way to a chair.

“That it is,” Alice laughed. “I can’t offer you a cup of tea, but I have some cold drinks in the fridge. That’ll be defrosting before long.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Mr. Hernandez stifled a yawn.

“Long day?”

“The shop has been very busy this last two or three weeks.” He rubbed his eyes, tiring more just thinking about it all.

“You work yourself too hard, at your age you should be putting your feet up,” said Alice.

“That would be very nice, but my nephew has been unwell and my brother is on holiday, so we are short staffed. No rest for the wicked, eh?”

“I guess not,” smiled Alice.

Pepé Hernandez came to England with his younger brother, Raul, more years ago than he’d care to remember, and it wasn’t long before they had work in a warehouse and it was only a matter of months before they found, and took, the opportunity to buy a small grocer’s shop which they both worked day and night in. Two years passed and the small grocer’s became a bigger grocer’s and then by their third year it was a mini market, then a supermarket. In the following decades they fought off large chains, maintaining a loyal and happy customer base. They kept prices fair and reasonable, and the business remained a family one, which was great, but also a pain, as you couldn’t fire family.

Alice took a bottle of lemonade from the fridge and poured some into a glass. “You sure you don’t want some?”

“You know, it might help me wake up a little, so yes, that would be nice, thank you.” Hernandez sat up in the chair.

Alice filled up another glass and, helped by Mr. Hernandez’s bright torch, worked her way over to him.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Hernandez, taking the glass as Alice settled into her well-worn armchair.

“I wonder what caused all of this,” Alice sipped some lemonade, it was cold and refreshing.

“Hopefully, it won’t last for much longer.”

“If it does, we might need to find something stronger,” laughed Alice and they clinked glasses.

“I have some wine, really good. Saving it for a special occasion, I can go and get it,” Mr. Hernandez said.

“Aw, no, you wait for that special occasion,” smiled Alice.

“This is a special occasion,” he smiled back, “and you are a special lady.”

“Stop it, Pepé, you’re making me blush,” gushed Alice.

Thump-Thump! The wall-mounted TV shook.

“What’s this now?” scowled Alice.

Mr. Hernandez focused his torch on the offending wall and they both peered intently at it. Hernandez stepped up to it, listening.

Thump-Thump!!

“Blasted thing, my old heart can’t be taking frights like that,” said Alice. “It’ll be the end of me.”

Hernandez took a couple of steps closer.

“Be careful, Pepé.”

“It’s alright. Maybe it’s rats?”

“Rats? I’ve got a hammer, I’ll go get it.”

Thump-Thump!!! Thump-Thump!!!!

“Those are some big fuckin’ rats,” Alice gasped.

“Maybe not rats,” said Hernandez, moving closer to the wall.

Suddenly, the TV disappeared, right before their astonished eyes. Ripples spread across the white wall.

“What in the name of God just happened there?” Alice clutched the crucifix she’d worn around her neck for nearly forty-seven years.

“I don’t know…I’ve never…” Hernandez struggled for words, his English failing him in all the confusion.

“That TV ain’t cheap, you know? We paid good money for that.” She liked that telly.

Pepé Hernandez rubbed his tired eyes. He was sleep deprived, that was causing all of this. It was the only explanation. He touched the wall where the TV had been and his hand sank into it, like it was wet sand.

“Dios mío,” exhaled Hernandez. He tried to pull his hand back, but the wall had a tight hold of it and it was dragging him in. “No!”

“Pepé?” Alice was alarmed and helpless.

“Alice?” cried Pepé before he was lifted off his feet and sucked into the wall, taking his torch and the light with him.

***

Alex wound his torch again, the light brightening with each revolution of the small lever.

“Good exercise, eh?” smiled Fred and Frank laughed quietly to himself.

“I’m sorry?” Alex finished winding.

“You know, the winding, good exercise, strong wrists?” said Fred.

“Are you trying to be funny?” snapped Alex.

“Trying,” said Fred with a slightly apologetic tone.

“He can be very trying,” grinned Frank. “You know, a windup torch isn’t a bad idea, my phone battery is going down, it’s at forty-seven percent.”

Fred looked at his phone’s screen, “Mine’s not bad, seventy-six percent. Your battery drains far too quickly, you need a new phone.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the one I have,” Frank said defensively.

“Could either of you tell me the time, please?” Alex was becoming greatly agitated.

“Time he got a new phone,” Fred sniggered.

“It’s twenty past midnight,” said Frank.

“Thank you. And I don’t think now is really the time for humour. It makes everything feel darker,” grumbled Alex. He dealt with a lot of annoying people in his role at Veganistic, where he was now store manager.

“I disagree, it helps us cope with the darkness. It gives us light, and light gives us hope,” countered Fred.

“And with hope comes pain,” said Alex.

“Nah, that pain was already there. Hope doesn’t bring pain, it brings the promise of better things to come. Hope is dreams, hope is aspirations. Without those things, we wouldn’t cure diseases, we wouldn’t travel, we wouldn’t have learning. Without hope, we have nothing.” Fred left his argument there.

“You didn’t strike me as a philosopher,” Alex felt embarrassed.

“You didn’t strike me as a pessimist,” said Fred.

“I apologise for my manner,” said Alex. “Barbara, my wife, is out tonight. I’m not expecting her home anytime soon, it’s usually a very late one when she’s out with the girls. Which is a good thing, hopefully she’ll be spared all of this.”

“Hopefully,” Fred smiled. “Look, that lad has probably called an ambulance by now and the power will most likely click back on any second. We’ll be laughing about this in the morning.”

“How are you not freaking out?”

“I’m shitting bricks on the inside,” said Fred. “But Frank and me, we’ve been through worse.”

Frank nodded, thinking back…

“There was this house…” Fred started.

“Was it a haunted house? Don’t tell me a haunted house story, not now, I’m on edge as it is,” Alex wound his torch.

 “If you keep playing with it, it’ll fall off,” said Frank.

 “It’s so quiet,” observed Alex.

And it was, incredibly quiet. Now that they were aware of it, Frank and Fred felt chills.

 “Do you think the others are alright?” Alex wondered.

 “I’ll go and see,” Fred stood up.

 “I’ll come with you, stretch my legs,” said Frank.

 “What about me?” Alex didn’t like the idea of being alone with a catatonic Martin and the silence.

 “We won’t be long,” Fred assured him. “Besides, someone needs to stay with that poor fella.”

 “Better that it’s someone he knows,” said Frank, getting to his feet and heading for the door.

 “Exactly. We’ll be back in no time,” Fred followed Frank out.

Alex breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth, deep breaths. He read somewhere that helped nerves. Or was it nausea? Either way, it wasn’t working. He slowed his breathing down, closed his eyes and sat back in the chair. “It’s going to be okay, Al,” he told himself. He didn’t see Martin’s eyes flick open.

***

Fred knocked gently on number 88, the door was slightly ajar. He poked his head in and called quietly, “coo-ee.”

“Coo-ee?” Frank mocked.

“What should I use instead? Oi?”

“What about ‘hello’?”

“What does it matter?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Why are you making a thing of it, then?”

“Alright, alright. I’d say keep your hair on, if you had any.”

“You’re one to talk,” mocked Fred.

They both smiled, humour proving a solid distraction from the unease they were feeling.

“Hello?” Frank called. “It’s very quiet. Maybe they’re not here.”

“Maybe she and Mr. Hernandez are…you know?” Fred winked.

“I don’t think that’s what they’re doing.”

“Older people do ‘do it’, you know? My nan was like a rabbit…”

“Hello, Alice? Mr. Hernandez?” Frank called loudly, cutting Fred off.

They waited for a reply, but none came.

“Hello?” Frank called again,

Fred pushed the door all the way open, it tapped gently on the wall. The silence was eerie and swelled around them.

“Alice? It’s the cat sitters,” Frank raised his voice a notch.

“This is silly, it’s only a blackout.” Fred illuminated number 88’s corridor and entered. Frank followed, feeling stupid now for being scared.

***

They found Alice passed out on the floor, at first they thought she was dead – it had been that kind of night – but she roused when they went to her.

“Take it easy,” said Fred as she tried to sit up.

“What happened?” Frank asked.

“Pepé,” Alice pointed weakly at the wall that had absorbed her neighbour.

“Pepé?”

“Mr. Hernandez, I’m guessing,” said Fred.

“It took him,” her voice was low, devoid of energy and she was in shock which had caused her to faint in the first place.

“What took him?” Fred helped her into a chair.

She pointed at the wall, Frank and Fred looked from that to each other thinking ‘not again’.

***

“It’s in the wall,” said a distant voice. Alex tried to wave it off, he was too busy floating…he snapped his eyes open, adjusted his spectacles, raised his dimming flashlight and found Martin’s face up close to his, noses almost touching. Martin’s eyes were wide and wild. Alex yelped like a dog whose paw had been stamped on. Then his torch went out and darkness engulfed him, “FUUUUUUUUCK!!”

He desperately wound his torch.

“Martin, sorry if I alarmed you,” Alex stammered. “We found you in a bad way, thought you needed help.”

The flashlight emitted a dull glow, then it strengthened and Alex could see the room again, but there was no sign of Martin.

“Martin?” He stood and swooped the beam of light around. “Martin?”

Something grabbed his shoulder and he yelped again.

“It’s me,” came a voice.

Alex turned the light on the voice, stepping backwards into a chair and almost losing his balance.

“Fred, the cat sitter…” Fred put a hand up, as if to show he was unarmed.

“You scared the life out of me,” said Alex.

“From the screams of ya, that was already happening,” smirked Fred. “You okay?”

“I think so, Martin woke up, gave me a fright.”

“Right.” Fred scanned the room. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know, one second he was in my face – like, literally, in my face. The next, he was gone.”

“Well, he can’t have gone far.” Fred shone his torch down a second corridor that led to the bathroom and bedroom. “Coo-ee, Martin?”

They, cautiously, checked the bathroom and bedroom and there was no sign of Martin.

“He’s not much for decoration, is he?” Fred observed.

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t have anything on the walls; no paintings, no photos, no anything.”

“I hadn’t noticed, but now that you mention it, it is rather sparse.” Alex looked at the blank, empty walls.

“Maybe he’s wandered out,” offered Fred.

“Wouldn’t you have seen him?”

“In all of this carry on, who knows?” smiled Fred.

***

Martin wasn’t on the landing and he wasn’t in with Alice and Frank, who were very relieved to see them. Alice was still weak but regaining her senses.

“She said the wall sucked Mr. Hernandez in, along with her TV,” Frank explained.

“It can’t have,” said Fred.

“I know what I saw,” Alice retorted, her voice hoarse.

“Martin kept saying, ‘it’s in the wall’,” Alex said.

“Where is Martin?” asked Frank.

“Not a clue,” said Fred, “maybe Brendan’s? We left the door open, so there’s a chance he went in there.”

“This might sound weird, Alice,” Alex was studying the apartment. “But do you have pictures up on your walls?”

“Full of them, just take a look. My kids, my grandkids. You know, I even have a great grand kid?”

Alex looked at Fred and shone the light over the bare walls. Frank was puzzled.

“I’m going to look in Brendan’s, I’ll be quick,” said Fred.

“Stay away from the walls,” warned Alice.

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Fred said.

“Freddy,” Frank stood and joined him, “you’re not going on your own. Something’s not right here, we need to stick together.”

“I’m fine with Alice,” said Alex.

“I’ll protect you, son,” she said.

“Let’s go then,” Fred nodded at Frank and they left.

***

Brendan and Marie’s flat felt cold, perhaps it was the temperature or perhaps it was fear, whatever the reason, it wasn’t inviting.

“What was all that stuff about pictures on the wall?” Frank entered the living room just ahead of Fred.

“There are none,” said Fred.

“So?”

“There should be, you heard Alice, she said she had loads of photos up of her family, but there were none to be seen.” Fred shone his light on the walls of apartment 91, they were plain, white, bare. “There are none here either.”

“Not everyone has pictures on their walls, Freddy,” Frank said, more in an attempt to reassure himself than Fred.

“No, that’s true. But, where’s the telly?”

Frank’s heart dropped at the sight of the blank space where the TV once hung. “We’ve been robbed. Brendan’ll go barmy!”

“When was it stolen and how? You telling me someone came in, filched it off the wall and scarpered down Christ knows how many flights of stairs?” Fred led the way into the bathroom, no Martin. The kid’s bedroom, Theo’s, was empty too. They opened the door to Brendan and Marie’s bedroom and saw a suitcase and a rucksack, sat by the bed.

“That can’t be right. Are they back?” Frank felt extremely unsettled.

“I’m not sure they ever left,” Fred said.

***

Alex finished refilling Alice’s glass and put the bottle of lemonade down on the table.

“I know what I saw,” Alice snapped.

“I’m not saying you didn’t see it, I can’t understand how, that’s all. It doesn’t make sense.” Alex scratched his head anxiously.

A dull thump-thump seemed to sound all around them.

“We need to go,” whispered Alice. “Now!”

“Yeah,” Alex took her arm and began to slowly edge them toward the front door, “I think we do.”

They were halfway along the corridor, almost at the front door when Alex’s flashlight began to fade, quickly losing light. He slowed to wind it, light bloomed, and he found himself standing alone. The wall to his right appeared to ripple, then still. His heart rammed hard in his chest, “What the Jesus?”

Instinctively he stepped away from it and into the parallel wall which latched onto him, wrapping itself around his body and pulling him into it.

“Oh, God, no!! Please, no!!” he yelled, tears spilling from his eyes.

The wall pulled harder, oozing around his arms, legs and torso like liquid tentacles of some starved, devilish milk monster, which seemed unfair to Alex as he had been vegan for a number of years.

“Help, please, please, help!! Help me!! HELP ME!!” The tentacles wrapped around his face, knocking his glasses to the floor, smothering his cries. They were hard, cold and relentless yet Alex still fought, determined not to be taken. The wall opened up like the jaws of a great beast, Alex’s torch dropped from his hand, holding its light, and he was pulled into the nothingness. The wall rippled for a few seconds, then it settled and stilled into its usual form.

“Alex?” Fred charged in, flashlight waving wildly.

Frank was close behind.

“Alex? Alice?” Fred couldn’t see either of them.

Frank looked down at the windup flashlight and broken spectacles, “Freddy.”

Fred picked them up and looked at his best friend.

***

Hours later, when they recounted their tale to an army officer, they unashamedly explained that if racing down flights of stairs had been an Olympic event, they’d have shared Gold and claimed a World Record.

Sergeant Drake looked over her notes. “The walls took everyone on the 14th floor, that’s what you’re saying?”

“We never actually saw it, but yes. Martin, he was going on about something being in the walls,” Frank said.

“Now, we think he’s in one. Though it’s hard to say which one,” Fred added. “Then Alice said the wall took Pepé…”

“Mr. Hernandez,” said Frank, helpfully.

“…then it took Alice. And Alex,” Fred continued.

“There were those two from 89, we never saw them again. We think it got Brendan, Marie and Theo,” Frank said.

“Okay, I understand, the walls took all the residents,” Sgt Drake was already feeling weary from these two.

“And a cat,” Frank looked at the notepad, waiting for her to add that point.

“And at least two tellies and loads of pictures,” Fred said.

“The ones you put on the walls,” Frank said.

“And not everyone, Darius went for help, so he got out,” said Fred.

“Darius?” The Sergeant raised an eyebrow.

“Alice’s grandson, he’s around eighteen or nineteen. He’s the one that called for help.”

“Isn’t he?” said Frank when Sgt Drake failed to reply.

“I’ll have to check,” she said.

“You’re here because of the walls, right?” said Fred.

“Nope, that’s news to me. But it’s not the weirdest thing I’ve heard tonight,” Sgt Drake said, donning her cap and peering through the tent flap. “Or rather, this morning.”

“You’re not here about what happened on the 14th floor?” Fred asked.

“Why are you here, then?” Frank asked.

“If you’d just wait here, gentlemen.” Drake nodded at Private Harris and stepped out.

***

She looked up at Castle Heights which loomed high above them.

Army personnel went about their duties, the building’s car park was now a functioning mobile army base of operations, a number of tents lined one side of the area, on the other were several military vehicles. Barriers were set around the block, sealing it off whilst the army dealt with the situation at hand and a lone helicopter scoped out things from above, its searchlight beaming down. Back on the ground, Sgt Major Wilkes waved to Drake as he approached.

“Anything?” He nodded to the tent behind her.

“Walls,” she said. “Apparently the walls swallowed up all the residents on the 14th floor, though they think a young man called Darius made it out, late teens. Do we know if he did?”

“I’ll check,” said Wilkes.

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Did they mention ‘The Items’?” the Sgt Major asked, furrowing his brow.

“No, Sir.”

“We have people on nearly every floor and no sign of them, though there is something very wrong with this place.”

“I think that’s putting it mildly, Sir,” said Drake.

***

Back in the tent, Frank and Fred sat tired and confused.

“You wouldn’t have any idea what’s going on, would you?” Fred looked at Harris.

The soldier shook his head, “Sorry, mate, haven’t a scooby.”

“Our phones died, you see,” Fred said.

“Even though his phone is newer, battery was flat as a pancake,” Frank couldn’t resist having a dig.

“Never happened before,” Fred said defensively.

“And our van, completely dead.”

“That has happened before.”

“Do you know who won the boxing last night?” Frank asked.

“Nichols knocked Hammer sparko in the third,” said Harris, he’d put a tenner on Nichols to win by stoppage so was pretty pleased with the result.

“Great!” Frank exclaimed happily. “We were watching when everything blacked out.”

“And it all went to shit,” Fred sighed.

“Didn’t it just?” agreed Frank.

“What a night,” Fred said sadly.

“Don’t worry, lads, it’ll be okay,” Harris said with an encouraging smile.

“Yeah,” said Fred, “we’ve been through this kinda thing before. Without the army, though.”

“And it wasn’t a tower block,” added Frank.

“What happened?” Harris loved a good story.

“Well,” began Fred, “there was this house…”

Castle Heights is available from Amazon for Kindle and in paperback here.

Find out more about Tony Sands on his website.

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