Off-campus housing has its drawbacks.
|The dorms left much to be desired. In addition to being old, dilapidated, and in need of a serious cleaning, the idea of rooming with someone else inside what was essentially a ten-by-fifteen-foot box was about as unappealing as you could get. Not to mention the fact that their little box was arranged with ten other identical boxes around a single common bathroom, with two shower stalls, three sinks, and two toilets to share among them. Starting in the spring semester didn't help her room choices, either. Most of the good ones had already been assigned.
Antonia certainly wasn't one of those people who needed excessive amounts of time to get ready in the morning, but fighting over access to a shower, or even space to brush her teeth wasn't her idea of an acceptable living situation. Fortunately, her parents had provided her with a generous allowance while she was in school, so if she found a part-time job and managed her money effectively, she could afford a place off-campus. Of course, in this sleepy Midwest college town, finding a place was the tricky part.
When she first laid eyes on the guesthouse, she knew it would be perfect. Mr. Kearns, who owned the large Queen Anne to which it belonged, lamented having to convert one of the bedrooms, but times were tough and he explained that renting the room out to students was necessary to supplement to his monthly social security check.
The room had its own bathroom and tiny kitchenette, with an outer door so Antonia could come and go as she pleased. Mr. Kearns explained that she was more than welcome to join him in the main house for meals or a visit whenever she wanted, but if she preferred her privacy, the door leading from her room to the house had been equipped with a deadbolt, effectively cutting off the room from the rest of the house. The addition of the kitchenette made the room a little cramped, but Antonia didn't mind. It may be about the same size as the dorm... but at least it would be just her in the space... plus she had her own bathroom. And if she began to feel claustrophobic, she could always join Mr. Kearns in the house. Besides, she sensed the older man could use a little company every now and then.
Antonia signed the lease that afternoon, and wrote Mr. Kearns a check for the first month's rent, plus the security deposit. He was even nice enough to offer to store some of her belongings in the basement, since she didn't have room for them. Among them was a box of her grandfather's belongings. He had died in the war... and the only thing Antonia knew of him was in that box of war medals and personal effects. That box was her most treasured possession, but one she couldn't bring herself to have out on display, constantly reminding her of the grandfather she never knew.
Money was tight for that first month, but Antonia didn't mind. She convinced herself that ramen noodles and sequestering herself inside with textbooks was all part of the college experience. Although she did have to admit that it sometimes felt like the walls were closing in on her, at which point she would venture into the house and visit with Mr. Kearns for a few hours.
It was a simple life, but a welcome one for Antonia, who was finally out of her parents' house and headed toward a new life of unparalleled opportunity.
Antonia had always been the type of girl who had quality friends, rather than quantity friends. She cultivated close relationships with a few select people, rather than chatting up anybody who happened to be sitting near her. It was that fact that made her lonely for the first couple months of the semester, especially since they had all dispersed across the country to their various colleges of choice. It was a difficult adjustment for Antonia, which is why she was so happy to meet Hillary. After the shared experience of failing their economics midterm, they studied together, hung out together, and became fast friends.
To the outside observer, they couldn't be more different. Antonia was an exotic beauty... tall and tan, with dark brown hair and a voluptuous body. Hillary on the other hand, was about as all-American as you could get... blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slender, almost skinny build. But despite their outward appearances, the two could have been sisters. They liked the same music, the same movies, and had the same affinity for barbecue chicken and pizza with jalapeno.
Up until this point, they had always studied in the library. But as finals approached, available study areas became more and more scarce, resulting in their need to find alternative arrangements. Hillary lived in the dorms and the combination of cramped space and psychotic roommate made the environment prohibitive at best. So Antonia offered her apartment. And if they didn't have enough room, Mr. Kearns would surely let them use the dining room table or the living room to spread out.
Hillary had her things packed up and ready to go, when Antonia gave her the address, she stopped in her tracks. A small shudder ran through her body.
"Hill? You okay?"
"You didn't tell me that you lived there." Hillary said, nervously.
"Why don't we just study here?" Her friend replied. "We can sit on the grass in the quad."
"Are you crazy? It's like a hundred degrees outside. What's wrong with my apartment?"
Hillary looked at her in surprise.
"You don't know?"
Antonia was starting to get impatient.
"Antonia... people have died there. A lot of them."
"Come on. Knock it off."
"No, I'm totally serious," Hillary replied, fear in her eyes.
"I knew a girl who lived in that apartment and died last semester. Sasha."
"You knew her personally?"
"Well, it was, like, a friend of a friend."
"Right. So which was it? Did she disappear or die?"
Hillary looked around, as if afraid the mere mention of it would somehow put her in danger.
"All I know," Hillary continued, "Is that her boyfriend dropped her off at that apartment, and nobody ever heard from her again."
Antonia shook her head.
"You must think I'm stupid to believe a story like that. Besides, how do you know she died?"
"Kristen Perry was the girl who lived in the apartment before Sasha. She disappeared the semester before."
"And?" Antonia prompted, getting impatient.
"And they found her dead last semester. A little while after Sasha moved in." Hillary shuddered as she said the words. "She was all cut up and mangled... and violated."
Antonia shook her head, dismissing Hillary.
"You know what? I've heard enough. Go ahead and study in the quad. I'm going home."
"I'll see you in class," Antonia snapped back, walking away.
The night was uncharacteristically hot. A sweltering humidity hung in the air, one that Antonia's tiny personal fan couldn't dispel, even at its high setting. Her cotton tank top and boy shorts clung to her sweaty body as she tossed and turned in bed, waiting for sleep to take her. She had already cast off all of the sheets and blankets, and lay sprawled out on the bed, her chest heaving with her labored breathing, attempting to draw the room's stifling air into her lungs.
Was it entirely the heat? Or was it the conviction and fear with which her friend Hillary had told the tale of her apartment's former tenants?
More than anything, Antonia felt uncomfortable... almost self-conscious about herself. She felt like the walls were closing in on her... as if she were being stared down by a thousand unseen observers, making her feel more tiny and helpless with every passing second.
Suddenly, Antonia realized she had stopped breathing, and gasped loudly, sucking in a breath of air.
A sudden scraping noise made her jump. It came from the side of her room that was shared with the house. Antonia now felt incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin. She was ill at ease, and looked around the room suspiciously, trying to locate the source of her discomfort. She slid out of bed and slowly crept toward the wall that had made the scraping sound. Putting her ear to the wall she listened.
She carefully crept into the bathroom and put her ear against that wall too. She practically leapt back from the wall when she head something exhale behind it. She gripped the counter to keep her balance, steadying herself before easing back out into her room.
The hot sweat that clung to her body turned cold with fear. She shivered as she grabbed a paring knife from the kitchenette and crept toward the door. She eased the deadbolt until it unlocked with a faint click, and slowly opened the door, looking out into the darkened kitchen of the main house.
Turning to the right, Antonia drew in a deep breath and steeled herself as she faced the door to the utility room that shared the wall with her apartment. Grasping the doorknob firmly with a clammy hand, she swung it open and raised the knife, ready for anything.
The room was empty, save for the water heater, which let out an exhausted sigh, and rattled and scraped against the floor as it worked.
Exhaling audibly, Antonia closed the door and returned to her own apartment, securing the deadbolt and checking it twice, just to make sure.
Antonia moved into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She felt gross, and she needed to settle her nerves. She adjusted the temperature to a soothing mixture of warm comfort and cool refreshment. Stripping off her tank top and shorts, she slipped behind the curtain and into the shower, letting the water cascade down her body. She savored the feel of the water for a long moment, before soaping down her body and washing off the lingering sweat.
As she showered, she thought she heard a groan. It was difficult to hear with the water running, but a moment later she heard it again. It was muffled... and came from the direction of the utility room. Apprehensive, Antonia turned off the water and listened, but whatever it was stopped. The only sound in the bathroom was the drip-drip-drip of the water as the last of it fell from her body.
It's just that damn water heater again.
Despite her brain trying to reassure her, Antonia wrapped herself with a towel and hurried out of the bathroom.
"Damn it, Hillary," Antonia grumbled, downing her fourth latte of the day.
"What'd I do?" Hillary asked.
"You and your stupid story. I was up all night, worried that every little sound in the house was something coming after me."
"It's not my fault you live in a cursed apartment."
"Whatever. Look, I really need to study these economic models and I left my textbook at home. Will you just come over so I don't have to come all the way back here?"
"I'm sorry," Hillary says, "I just can't bring myself to go over there."
Antonia sighs. "Fine. But with all the gas money I'm wasting, you're buying dinner."
"Deal," Hillary grins.
Antonia gets her keys out of her bag.
"I'll be back in an hour."
"I'll be here."
Thirty minutes later, Hillary was waiting in the cafeteria when she saw people start to swarm around one of the televisions in the corner of the room. She stops another student as they hurry by.
"Hey! What's going on?"
"It's Sasha," the student replied. "They found her body."
Hillary followed the student and joined the others, gathered under one of the television screens.
"Sad news today," the television reporter said stoically, "As the body of college sophomore Sasha Hart was found in this ravine earlier today. Her body shows signs of extreme torture, abuse, and sexual violation, making her the fourth girl in as many semesters. Police are encouraging anyone who may have any information about these girls to please come forward."
Hillary instantly paled. Her knees gave out and she had to grab onto another student for support.
"Oh my God," she stammered. "Antonia!"
She rushed back to her table and fumbled with her cell phone.
Antonia is just stuffing her economics textbook into her bag when her phone rings. She smiles when she sees Hillary's name on the Caller ID.
"I'm leaving right now," Antonia laughs.
Then, listening to Hillary's voice on the other end of the phone, she suddenly looks like she's going to be sick.
"Okay, okay. I'm leaving now. I just have to get my grandfather's things from the basement. I can't just run away without them... I know, I know! ... Listen, if I'm not there in thirty minutes, call the police and have them come to the house, okay? ... I'll see you soon."
Antonia hangs up the phone and rushes for the door, unlocking the deadbolt and hurrying into the house. She makes her way down to the basement and rummages through her boxes, hurrying to find her grandfather's belongings. With relief, she finds them at the bottom of one of the boxes, pulls it out and turns to leave.
She rushes up the stairs, then screams and falls back as Mr. Kearns suddenly appears in the doorway. Antonia falls back down the stairs and lands in the basement with a thud. Her head is swimming, and she barely registers the sound of a key turning in a lock, before Mr. Kearns descends the stairs toward her.
Her body is too dazed and helpless to respond as he drags her, with surprising strength, toward the corner of the basement, where he pushes a loose cinderblock on the wall. A faint click is heard, and a secret door swings open. Antonia screams and struggles as Mr. Kearns drags her through the small doorway and muscles her into a chair.
With a surprising burst of strength, Antonia makes a break for the door. But Mr. Kearns, with lightning reflexes, grabs her hair and holds fast. She fights against him, until he delivers a swift, strong punch to the side of her face. She crumples to the ground, allowing Mr. Kearns enough time to securely tie her to the chair and force a gag into her mouth. Once he's satisfied that she's not going anywhere, he pulls up another chair and sits beside her, waiting for her to regain her senses.
When Antonia comes around, she blinks a few times until Mr. Kearns' face comes into focus. She thrashes around wildly, trying to escape from her bonds. Mr. Kearns just waits until she's tired herself out.
"Now now, Antonia. Fighting isn't going to do you any good. It'll be better if you just accept the fact that you're going to be here for a while."
Antonia looks around the room frantically. It's a small, square room with cinderblock walls. There are all kinds of gruesome instruments on the wall – surgical implements, power tools, and everything in between. She begins to whimper, but suddenly stops and stares in disbelief at a small, narrow staircase in the corner of the room, leading up to a narrow walkway.
Mr. Kearns follows her glance.
"Oh, that. That's a little nook I had installed between the guesthouse and the utility room. As you can see from those tiny holes, it affords me quite a view of my tenants."
He leers at her, moving closer until she can smell his fetid breath.
"And I must say... the view of you was spectacular."
Antonia shuddered as his words chilled her to the core.
"I find it's also an excellent reminder," Mr. Kearns continued, "Of your place in this house. In the last few weeks, Sasha became quite eager to please me as she saw my interest in her wane with every passing minute I stared through the wall at you."
The doorbell rang upstairs, and relief flooded through Antonia's body. The police! Hillary had called the police and they were here to save her!
Mr. Kearns made sure the gag was secure in Antonia's mouth before heading out of the room.
"I'll be back in a jiff, sweetness."
Antonia heard footsteps upstairs, moving from room to room. They were searching the house! When she heard footsteps on the basement steps, she began to scream at the top of her lungs, desperate for them to hear her. But after a moment, the footsteps went back upstairs. The secret passage leading to Mr. Kearns' morbid hobby remained undiscovered.
When the door opened, she looked up, hoping against hope to see the face of her rescuer. But instead, it was Mr. Kearns, alone.
"What nice officers," he commented. "I helped them as best I could... but they searched the house top to bottom, and I just don't know where that tenant of mine could have run away to. She seemed like such a nice girl. Ran out of here in such a hurry, though..."
Mr. Kearns chuckled to himself as he moved to the far wall and selected a large knife and approached Antonia, who shook her head and struggled to recoil away from him.
"Don't worry, sweetness," he reassured her. "We'll have plenty of time before you have to worry about a new tenant upstairs. In fact, we'll have the whole summer together."
He used the knife to slowly begin cutting away her T-shirt.