Beth looked around the tiny apartment. The landlady moved her through the rooms in quick succession. Kitchen. Bedroom. Bathroom.
“It’s not meant to be a long term thing.” She pulled the bathroom door closed. “The neighborhood’s quiet. Tenants upstairs are Baptists. They keep to themselves, I only see them when they’re going to church. The main house has wifi, so you can get the password.” She paused, making up her mind. “You’ll love it here, so long as you don’t have pets.”
Beth wrinkled her nose. The apartment reeked of bleach and cheap air freshener. Under the fake lavender smell, something smelled bad. Like meat spoiling in a forgotten dish at the back of the refrigerator. Her nostrils twitched and she felt a sneeze building.
It’s so tiny.
“Mrs. Gacy, -”
“It’s Joan Wynona Gacy, but you can call me Joni.” The landlady smiled widely. She’d put too much lipstick on. It ran a smudged red line across her teeth.
“Ok, Joni. It’s awfully small. I’m not sure I’ll be comfortable…”.
“Comfortable? Sweetie, all you really need is a place to eat, sleep and poop. Maybe take a bath. It’s just for a little while isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but where are all the windows?” Beth looked around. “An apartment this small feels like a tomb without windows. So dark and gloomy. And another thing. What’s with all the bleach?”
Joni dismissed the overpowering scent of chlorine with a heavily ringed hand.
“ I just had the placed cleaned. Bleach kills 99% of all household germs you know.”
Beth nodded. “It’s a bit much for me. I can’t breathe. Annnnd, I can’t open a window.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey love. By the time you move in, it’ll be ok.”
The rent was affordable. Better than living with her mother and the stepcreature, even if their home was bigger. For a moment, his fat scraggly face floated into her thoughts.
“Marybeth, you know I love you right?” The double roll of fat under his chin wobbled. “But you can’t just stay here in my house and expect me to pay your way. Get a job for chrissakes. Get an education. Get a boyfriend. Something. You just lay about in the back room watching youtube videos all day. Grow up will ya?”
The hardest part was her mom. She didn’t, couldn’t, say a word.
Joni bustled towards the lanai in the back. Once she opened the sliding doors, the smell improved considerably.
“You’re such a pretty young thing — how old are you anyway?.”
“Nineteen. Didn’t I put my age down on the application?”
Joni paused. “You did say you were working too, right?”
“I am. I am. I do part time at the community center during the week. Weekends I work at at Starbucks. It’s not much but it’s enough.”
“Well, you’re pretty. You’re bound to find a nice fella and move on with your life. Why, I’d be surprised if you lasted two months.” Joni took her elbow. “Let’s go see outside.”
Beth looked at half a dozen different varieties of roses. Palms were potted and placed along the wooden fence behind the house. The sandy soil didn’t seem willing to grow much more than patches of lawn, and a surprising number of anthills. Joni droned on. The last tenant had a baby, but there was an accident. Time before, something about a man separated from his wife. Beth barely listened.
One year should be enough right?
By then she would have been promoted at least once. Then she could look for something bigger.
Joni smiled. They were back at the front door. “Just don’t go digging up my roses and we’ll be best friends.”
“Sure Mrs. Gacy.”
“Joni,” she corrected. “I’ll need two months rent up front. One for security and the other is what’s due. I’ll expect you to have my check ready, first of the month, every month. Ok dear?”
“What if I have problems. Leaks? Roaches? Do you have a handyman?”
“Handyman?” Joni grinned from ear to ear. Beth noticed the red line of smudged lipstick doubled across her lower teeth as well.
“Why would you need a handyman? Nothing breaks around here.” She walked off toward the main house. “Remember, no pets, that’s a violation of your lease. Ok?”
Beth stood in the doorway of her new apartment with keys, a short term lease and a look of surprise. She still couldn’t rightly say when she’d agreed to sign the thing. But there it was. And it was strange. Lucy insisted she wanted it month to month, as if no one ever stayed longer.
She had a place to come to, and that’s all that mattered.
Moving in was easier than she expected. She didn’t have that much. Some decent clothes, maybe too many shoes and a few books. Accumulating things in the house that jerkoff built was almost impossible.
“We don’t have money for useless things,” the stepcreature said. “How much clothing can you wear? How many books can you read?” In the end, he said what he really meant. “How many parasites must I support?”
Her mother looked the other way on that one too.
It was easier to move out. Everything she owned fit into three big boxes, one suitcase and a backpack. Funny how all her possessions could be hauled around in a beat up old car and unloaded in the time it took to make a sandwich.
As she lay down for the first night, she snuggled into Mr. Beary. The one thing she cherished from her childhood. Mr. Beary stayed with her until his fur fell out in patches and his eyes glazed over from too many years watching over her. He felt warm and comfortable; wherever he was, she could call home. Sleep came easily.
Until someone touched her.
A single finger stroked her cheek.
There was no middle ground. No gradual awakening. She was asleep, and then she wasn’t. Heart slamming in her chest, eyes open and staring. Darkness swallowed her whole. The room felt full. Heavy. Shadows piled against shadows. Black press of dark. Silence underscored with the hum of old central air conditioning.
What was that smell?
Something rotting. Like old garbage sitting in a trash bin in the hot summer sun. When she turned on the bedside lamp, the light made it worse somehow. She didn’t recognize anything. Only Mr. Beary snuggling comfortingly against her.
She couldn’t fall asleep, not that night. Not by a long stretch.
Mrs. Gacy came round to check on her, bright and early the next morning. Her cheeks red with rouge, eye makeup neatly done. She floated up the driveway in an Arabian-looking pair of shiny black pants and low heels.“Oh darling you look wonderful. How are you sweetie?
Beth’s eyes felt like they were full of gravel. Her body hurt. Her head felt fuzzy. “Mrs. Gacy, Joni — I felt — I didn’t sleep last night.”
“Oh come child, cheer up. It’s just the moving. They say after death and divorce, moving is the next most stressful thing you can do.”
“Other than that, how is the place? Finding your way around the neighborhood?”
“It’s not bad, I get everything I need from Wallyworld on Howland.”
“That’s what I want to hear. Remember dear, no pets. You and I will get along famously.”
“No pets.” Beth echoed.
She had a Mr. Beary. But he didn’t count.
One week passed without incident.
She awoke to the sound of sobbing.
She woke gradually, the room thick with night. She couldn’t see her hand in front of her face if she tried. A man. Crying. As if his heart were broken. As if he could not carry the burden, the suffering on his shoulders. A broken man. In pain.
Her body froze as if ice had formed inside her. Stilling her heart, her lungs. Filling her with cold. With emptiness. With dread.
She could feel him. The side of the bed next to her sank under his weight. Shook with the force of his tears.
Her heart stopped mid beat. She dared not turn. Dared not breathe.
A putrid smell filled the tiny bedrooms. Something old and fleshy and rotting. Melting into foul black water, bitter and vile. Bile trickled into her throat. Somehow, she moved her hand. The lamp was so far. Impossible to find in the dark. She fumbled, desperate to keep quiet. Desperate to turn on the lamp.
Somehow her fingers found the switch.
Cold fluorescent light flooded the room. She turned, holding the blanket with both hands. Eyes staring. Body trembling, burning with dread. Breath frozen inside her, locked in miles of ice.
The bed next to her was empty.
Mr. Beary lay on the floor next to the door. Flung there. His empty eyes looked at her accusingly.
Sleep did not come. She lay in a cold sweat, afraid to leave the bed, and afraid to stay in it.
Only the smell lingered.
“Come now child, you don’t expect me to believe that cockamamie story do you? A man? Crying in your bed?” Joni came as soon as Beth texted her, her face lined and set hard.
“I promise you, Mrs. Gacy, I heard him. He was there. As real as you and me. The bed was shaking.”
The older woman frowned. Triple lines furrowed her forehead, clearly showing cracks in her makeup. “Well I don’t believe a word of it. You young people. Always smoking something or popping some pill. What are you on? Don’t tell me you’re a methhead.”
Beth realized she didn’t really like Joan Wynona Gacy. Not at all.
Autumn’s last leaves fell that night. The trees in the backyard stood long and lean, waiting for winter to pile dirty snow up to their necks. Beth cranked the thermostat to 80. That and a comforter would keep her from turning into an icicle.
Sleep came slowly. Mr. Beary lay quietly beside her.
I should pray.
The thought drifted slowly away. She prayed every night now. The familiar words reassured her. Made her feel less alone. Less vulnerable. Her breathing deepened.
She felt weight on her bosom before she understood what was happening. A press. A slow heaviness across her chest. A tiny body wriggled on top of her.
Automatically she lifted her arms to cradle the child. She felt its little body curl along the crook of her arm. Its mouth nuzzled at her breast.
“You poor thing. Are you hungry?”
The child gurgled. Cooed softly.
“Oh where’s your mommy huh? Where’s your mommy?”
Tiny lips searched for her breast. Found her nipple.
“Poor baby. I’m not your mommy. I don’t have any milk.”
The baby latched onto her breast and began to suck in earnest. Beth felt liquid pleasure trickle into her body.
Tiny teeth bit deep into her puckered nipple. Her eyes shot open. Her arms felt full. In the dark, she felt something, something child shaped, bite deeper into her flesh.
She screamed. Her heart slammed in her chest. Her skin crawled with gooseflesh.
Arms thrashed. Legs flailed on the cold clean sheets. She tumbled off the bed. Hit her shoulder on the floor, dragging the pillow, the blanket and Mr. Beary with her.
She couldn’t stop screaming. Even after she switched on the lights. Nothing there. The room was empty. There was no child. She brushed her t-shirt violently. She could still feel the warmth. The sensation of tiny lips on her skin.
When she finally dragged the cotton away to look, tiny teeth marks ringed her nipple. And single drop of blood trickled down leaving a glistening red trail along the curve of her breast.
Moving out didn’t take long. One car load. Two boxes. Mr. Beary, her laptop. Kindle. Some clothes. Most of the shoes. What stayed, stayed. Fuck it.
Mrs. Gacy flew up the driveway. Her fat round face serious.
“You know, the deposit is non-refundable right?”
Beth nodded tiredly. She felt as if she hadn’t slept in a month. She hadn’t.
“Keep the deposit. Fuck, keep everything I left in there. I’m not coming back to this shithole.”
Gacy drew back. Her mouth a thin red line. Eyes snapping.
“Well I never. Try to help a woman in need-”
“You damn well know why no one stays longer than a month. Fuckin’ place is haunted!. That’s why you don’t give tenants longer leases. You know.”
Gacy’s face reddened. It started in her cheeks and drifted down her neck.
“Don’t ever come back here beggin’. Ain’t nuthin here for your kind.’
Beth. started her car. Anywhere would be better than this.
She pulled out, tires screeching.
In the apartment, under the bed. Mr. Beary lay looking up at the mattress. His fur shifted slightly, as if someone held him close.
As if. they were snuggling.
A little skin crawler for the ladies living alone. Grinning.
Sleep well now.