By Daniel Carpenter
The Corridor, First Floor
The building wakes.
There is a dinner party. The house smells of cooked meats and dead grapes. Lights are dimmed low. The table in the dining room is so full that people are perched on the edges, stretching forward to take a bite from their food. Occasionally someone laughs, but the building doesn't understand the joke, or it misses it, having concentrated too much on something someone else was saying. One of the woman is engrossed in her phone and when she hits send on a message the building spies ( ) and it thinks that it might have found something, but it is fleeting.
'How would you want to go then Mike?' It’s a man speaking. He’s got both hands held out and he’s louder than the others. When he speaks, the rest go quiet and listen. 'We were talking the other day,' he continues, 'about how, if we were in a soap, we’d like to die, and Mike, you never answered.'
'What was yours then?' Someone from the end of the table. The head? The building has always confused ends.
'Simple. Bathtub. Radio. Evil twin brother.'
Everyone finds that very funny.
'He’d have a goatee then?' Head.
Everyone finds that very funny.
'So what would yours be then Mike?' Someone else.
Mike is sat in the middle of a cluster of people. He is sipping a beer. Everyone else has wine and he looks embarrassed. Stares down at his beer as though, if he concentrated enough, the liquid inside would expand and spill out of the glass and engulf the room, drowning everyone. Somewhere in the building, there is a excited flurry of air. The building cannot tell whether Mike would want to sink with the rest, or float.
Mike, the building determines, might be the candidate.
'Yeah,' someone else, 'how would you want to die?'
Mike looks up, 'Stabbed in the neck by Dot Cotton.'
Everyone finds that very funny.
The building, as most things are allowed to do, changes its mind about Mike. He is perhaps not ideal. Its eye drifts.
There are two of them here. A man and a woman. They are drinking. No, they are drinkers. Constant and repetitive. Drinking implies a stopping point, that at once they will have drunk and it will end. This, the building knows, will not happen. They are a figure-eight loop of boozing. Like a still photo. Here, the building feels ruined and isolated.
It moves on.
The children play with the ghost of a boy. He tells them how he went underneath the machines one day to fix a loose bolt and was caught and dragged in and killed. The children laugh, and don’t quite understand. The boy doesn't mind. He has friends now. They play hide and seek in the tiny flat; the boy flinging open cupboards and throwing cutlery around when he can’t find them. He picks up their toys and dolls and they glide through the air. The children hide under the sofa. They always hide under the sofa. Sometimes they wonder why the boy doesn’t just come straight to the sofa, because it’s where they always are. Sometimes they think the boy likes to throw things, to break plates and clatter pans. Once, when they had rolled themselves up inside the living room curtains, he threw all of the clocks out of the bathroom window.
They worry what might happen if they made him angry. They don’t want to know what he might try and break. The building remembers when the ghost of the boy was alive. The building liked it more back then, when children broke.
These ones are too young for the building and so he lets them be.
He can hear the party through the wall. The walls are too thin here. In the mornings, he can hear her shower and he presses his ear against the wall. She sings Billie Holiday sometimes, and those are his favourite days. His view from the only window in his flat is out on to the alleyway that runs alongside the building. It’s where the bins are and so, sometimes, when they are overflowing, foxes come and tear them open. He doesn't mind the smell so much. He enjoys watching them play in the litter. The litter in the litter, he says to himself. The building likes that. Sometimes the man forgets things; his mind just goes completely blank
( ) and he snaps back and doesn’t remember it. There are spaces within him.
He might be the one. The building is almost sure of it.
The Corridor, First Floor
It is the space that was once an office. The building remembers where the desk was, where the papers were filed. It was a mill, once upon a time; spinning cotton and stinking of oil and sweat, floorboards creaking beneath the weary feet of workers. The smoke billowing across the floor, never escaping, collecting at windows, tapping on them. Let me out. The shadows of the afternoon creeping underneath machines like children. There were children then too, as there are children now, but they did not last long. There was disease, and accidents. Things were lost. It remembers the window that looked out on to the rest of the mill. Remembers a man standing there, watching. How he hated them all. Why had he been so angry? It was a contagious anger; a thing that seeped through the man and dripped from him, and found cracks in the floorboards and the wall. Soaked itself into the building, until the building became hateful too; wires began to fray and disconnect, machines worked so infrequently that it became a running joke, until it became dangerous. The walls felt so much higher and darker then, as though they were closing in, forcing themselves upon the workers. The building at that time masked people’s senses, frustrated them, cooked them in the heat from the mill floor. It found ( ) there too, and it liked them. All of this, it powered the building and that power spilled from it, and it became the centre of something. And things were built around it, and they didn’t know it, but the people worshipped it. Became its brethren.
How hard would it be to do that again?
How difficult to devolve these people?
The party is quieting down now. There are just a handful of people left, and they have retreated now to the sofas and comfy chairs. Wine is still poured, but talk now is softer, more relaxed.
'Must be nice,' the instigator of all conversations says, 'to not have to work all day.'
'I do work,' Mike replies. 'It’s maybe not quite the same as you, but I do work.'
'No, no, mate. I’m not trying to have a go or anything. It’s fine. You can tell us, we’re all friends here. I mean, come on, you what, own a few properties and fleece students on rent, not much more to do now is there?'
'There’s a bit more to it than that.'
Other people are now visibly uncomfortable. At least one person leaves the room and heads to the kitchen to pretend to pour themselves another drink.
'I’m sure there is.'
Mike stands, leaves a half full glass of beer on the table next to him. 'Cath, where did you put the coats? I’m going to head if you don’t mind.'
'I’m just messing with you. It’s fine. I didn't mean anything by it.'
They have stopped playing with the boy. The children are in bed now, pretending to be asleep, their eyes tight shut. The building watches the boy, who stands between the two beds, wondering if they really are just pretending.
He will find out soon.
More and more the building is sure of him. The lights are off in the flat, and the television is on, dancing strobe across the room. He is watching ( ) but it’s going in one ear, out the other. He has a blanket over his legs. His room is colder than everyone else's in the building. Heat rises and he is at the bottom. He doesn't switch his heating on. Not even during the winter. How could he when all the other people would benefit. He’s not paying their bills. Not a chance. He thinks about his daughter, about phoning her. Even picks up the handset before changing his mind. She can call him. Why hasn't she? Why hasn't she been bothered to pick up her own phone and dial his number? It’s not even a case of dialling anymore is it? Now now everyone’s got mobiles. She just has to find his name on a list and touch it. How difficult is that? Much, much harder for him. He has to remember the number, or find it in his book. Handwriting’s terrible anyway so he probably wouldn't even be able to read it. Eyes aren’t what they used to be neither.
This is how the building has to do it now. Seep in through the cracks and darkness. Infect. Find the broken people, the ones who have gaps, and fill those gaps. Become a small part of them. Take it from there.
The building finds a gap. ( ) There are plenty here to choose from.
The boy looks from one bed to the other. Eeney meeney miney moe.
His coat is under all of the rest. Mike looks at the pile as though they’ve done this on purpose. Just something that they knew would piss him off. He tears through the pile and throws the other coats and bags on the floor. Leaves them there. Fuck you.
He doesn't turn the light off.
Leaves the door wide open in case the dog decides it wants to piss all over their silk bedsheets.
Piss probably doesn't come off silk. Does it?
. . . miney moe.
The Corridor, First Floor
The building teases out the gaps. Finds them in the party, where animosity already grows. It sees the shape of a boy, filling out the gap between two children, the way that billows of smoke did all those years ago. How it misses the smoke and the fumes. It misses industry and oil; machinery and labour. It can still feed now, it would never have stood this long if it hadn't been able to, but it is so hard. These people are not tired and angry, not in the same way. They do not feed their hate into the building willingly.
It has to take.
He considers not saying goodbye to anyone but it’s not quite easy enough. The guests are all sitting in the living room, which blocks the door. The building can feel him now. The building is in his head. Mike wants some sort of commotion after he’s gone. He imagines people searching for him. What could have possibly happened to him? But that fantasy is unlikely.
He steps into the room, coat on.
'I’m off now.'
Someone holds their hand up to say goodbye. The rest don’t seem to have heard him.
Should he repeat himself? Could sound really stupid if he does. Like he wants the attention.
The building so rarely notices the finer details of people. It knows the boy. The boy only has one hand. The children haven’t noticed this. The building does not know if the children understand that the boy is not alive. Do they see how he drifts in and out of their lives? How, when he opens his mouth to speak, no sound comes out?
He is up and out of his chair. The blanket lies on the floor, trailing along the cold wooden boards. There is a bowl of crisps. Crumbs scattered across the table. He can hear them now in the flat next door. Muffled goodbyes. Someone is leaving.
He feels the (building fills the gap and helps him understand what to do) and he heads to the kitchen. There is (just ignore me it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay this is what you are supposed to do) and so he doesn't question it any further.
They finally look up at him. He’s been standing there for a few minutes, coat on. The way they look at him, he cannot tell whether they are surprised that he is leaving, or shocked to find him still there, standing like an idiot in the hallway. He holds his hand up, considers saying goodbye again, doesn’t, and steps forwards towards the door. The instigator places his bottle of beer on the table next to him, stands and walks towards Mike.
'Going.' That’s all he manages before above them
The boy wakes the children. He couldn't pick just one, no matter where the rhyme landed. He couldn’t. He just wants to play. Always just wants to play. They wouldn't wake up at first. He tried to pull the blankets, but they wriggled and turned and fell back asleep. He tried to whisper in their ears but, as always, they couldn't hear him, couldn't quite understand him. In the end, he picked up a handful of their toys: little trucks and cars, some dolls, a large book about space; and threw them straight at the pillows.
The children woke,
screaming. From the flat upstairs?
'Poor kids,' one of them says, 'Nightmares I suppose.'
'I used to get the night terrors too when I was their age. Might even still have a book somewhere on the shelf. American written, but it’s still good. My parents used the techniques to help me, and according to them, two weeks into the programme, I was good as gold. Sleep like a baby now.' She looks around, no-one has gotten the joke so she laughs out loud herself. 'Like a baby!' Mike watches her from the doorway. The instigator has opened it.
The corridor outside looks cold.
'Well then,' the instigator says, 'pleasure as always. Drive safe.'
Never have five words been said with less accuracy.
Mike nods and leaves. As the door closes, the last thing he hears is that
they don’t want to play, but the boy knows something is coming. There is a rumbling and he can feel it. It shakes the pipes and rattles the bed frames. In the kitchen right now the plates are shaking and shattering in the cupboards, he promises. He just wants one last game before it all changes. Just one last game. Hopscotch? Tic Tac Toe? That new one that the children taught him: British Bulldog. He imagines running from one side of the room to the other. He imagines the children trying to catch him. Oh how he’d run and run. Press his hands against the wall. Hand.
The building sees him. He sees the building.
The building is nearly done.
The Corridor, First Floor
one of the women is saying, 'I used to piss the bed until I was seven, but then we all had our problems growing up, didn’t we?'
Then the door closes and it’s just him in the corridor. The lights – on a timer – flicker on and he makes his way down towards the door. Above, he can hear the stamping of feet. The children from upstairs, he assumes. There is a crashing and he laughs to himself.
This is the kind of stupid place where it would happen, isn't it? He’d just turn around and there she’d be. Dot Cotton, brandishing a knife. Would she say anything? Why would she do it? In the soap opera he’s created in his head he imagines that he slighted her in some awful way. Insulted her in the pub. Cheated on her in some pre-watershed bedroom antics. The fans would hate him, of course. They couldn’t wait for him to leave the show. When the newspapers reveal that he was going to be killed off – oh how they would celebrate.
And this, he thinks, is exactly how it would be done.
The lights flicker again. They dim. They go off.
A door, just next to the flat he left, unlocks and swings open.
The lights flicker on.
Daniel Carpenter is an author with work online at Metazen and The Irish Literary Review. His short fiction has appeared in the Boo Books anthology After the Fall, and has been shortlisted for the Manchester Climate Change Short Story Competition. His non-fiction has been published on Tor Dot Com and The Real Story. @DanCarpenter85
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