by Ska Rhodes
A 20-something moves to a secluded apartment to experience her first year on her own.
I moved into my first apartment on the first of the year. I figured it was going to be the best New Year resolution I could fathom: Being me, 100%. Everything about the situation seemed like pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly to put me exactly where I needed to be. I graduated college in May, with Honors and four referrals from professors to do with as I pleased, whether it was an apprenticeship, an employment position, or grad school. Everyone was in my corner, rooting for me.
It wasn't until I made the decision to do absolutely nothing for a year that everyone started to be bothered by me. My mom started with the, "You have so much potential, don't let it go to waste." My dad did the, "A hundred and ten thousand dollars spent so you can just hang a degree on the wall and get pregnant." My professors emailed me weekly asking if I had made up my mind yet. My friends were all off getting married, having kids, getting these high end jobs that sucked every ounce of happiness out of them by 5pm on Friday every week, if they even got the weekend off. I just wanted to explore.
My parents gave me an ultimatum and I took it. I used the last of my graduation gifts to pay for a life in a city I've never heard of for one full year. I decided to stay in the country so I could at least visit during the holidays, or when my washer broke, or my cupboards were empty but I made sure I was far enough away to the point that my parents would definitely need to call me if they wanted to visit.
So anyway, now I'm in Lida, Louisiana, and a little more secluded than I had originally wanted. Now, if anyone wants to visit (but only if they have four-wheel drive because there's a SWAMP outside) they need me to lower the bridge. Yes, lower. The bridge. Can't leave the bridge down or else the gators will swarm the whole island. Yes, island. I accidentally rented an apartment on an island, held up by ten foot cliffs, in the middle of a swamp that requires a bridge to access. That's if you can even make it to the bridge from the main road, which is such a small dirt path that most people with four-wheel drive are taking the tree limbs with them as they go. It's a mess. Sadly, that's not even the worst part.
The whole reason I'm writing all of this right now is because strange things are happening. When I say strange, I mean my theoretical physics degree was an absolute waste of my time and I've only been "on my own" for eight days.
The first day seemed fairly normal. The landlord has a long, stringy beard to match his long, stringy hair. His stomach is very round, while his hands seem so thin and frail. His clothes did seem to hang on him a bit, suggesting his arms and legs are just as frail as his hands. He seemed a little sketchier than my preferred taste, but I'm sure forty years on a swamp island will do a little something to you. He showed me the apartment, which is above an old garage behind the main house. All utilities included for a one bedroom with a large open space consisting of the living room, a dining table and a full kitchen with all appliances. Even a slow cooker. As he was showing me the storage closets and breaker box, he grumbled under his breath mostly. While we were down in the garage, I noticed a pile of boxes pushed up against a wooden door. He saw me analyzing the height and width of the door from across the room and spoke clearer than he had during our entire encounter, "We don't let the light in that room. We don't touch it." Just as I went to ask, he cut me off with a grumble about repeating himself and not answering questions.
The stern tone his voice had taken, speaking of that room, is giving me chills. Considering all of the occurrences since then in the past week that I believe are stemming from that room, I am convinced those words were a warning.
The second day seemed okay to me, until the night fell. The landlord left around noon, and called me down to draw up the bridge. He grumbled a few more things, and told me to expect him to honk around "supper time". Which I figured was between five and six so I set an alarm to turn off my music around 4:30.
My alarm went off and I decided to take my book to the enclosed patio to keep reading so I could hear him coming down the road with the intention of preventing him from waiting. I read a few chapters and realized the sun was setting around 5:30, so I grabbed a small lantern and brought it back out with me. I felt like I could hear silence for miles. I continued reading with my lantern until around 7, when I heard a rumble coming from far down the dirt path. I jumped up and grabbed the lantern, running down the enclosed stair case on the side of the building. I ran across the rocky dirt drive and stopped at the lever for the bridge. I felt like I had been standing there forever, but I could hear the rumbling slowly getting closer, so I continued to wait. I finally saw the headlights peeking through the trees and I breathed a sigh of relief. I lowered the bridge and his truck barreled across. I lifted it up and locked it back into place. He waved to me from his porch and stepped inside, turning off the light to the porch and encompassing me in complete blackness. I ran toward my apartment, feeling the cold dirt beneath my feet, and as I got to the door of the staircase, I noticed the slightest glint of light peeking from behind the wooden door barricaded with boxes.
While it caught my eye, it didn't grab my attention until I was a halfway up the stairs. I stopped, and turned back to the bottom door. Walking back down the stairs, I leaned around the door frame, keeping both feet firmly on the last step. I peered through the dusty garage windows, directly toward the stack of boxes. At that moment, I could see nothing but darkness and convinced myself it was just the moon reflecting off of the metal hinges on the garage door. I locked the door behind me and bound back up the stairs to my apartment.
The third day here was incredibly boring. No weird noises or lights, or even an encounter with the landlord. I spent the entire day sipping soup from a mug, and streaming an entire season of the newest online original show.
The fourth day, the landlord asked me to lock up the bridge around noon, grumbled about "supper time" again, and I set my alarm. I set my laptop up on the small, round dining table that has just enough room to fit my laptop, and a small plate of snacks behind it. I can fit a mug next to my computer, if I let it hang off the edge a little. I figured I'd look for things in town to get involved in. Little league teams, reading club, anything to get me out of the house eventually, but for now I was enjoying the quiet space that was entirely mine for at least three hundred and fifty two more days.
Once my music cut off, I took my lantern and book with me to the patio. Around 7, I heard the rumbling of his truck, so I waited a couple more minutes before taking my walk down to the bridge. Once I arrived, I looked across the swamp and saw his truck already sitting on the other side, but his lights were off. I hurriedly dropped the bridge, and watched him closely in the driver's seat. I shifted my weight, beginning to feel uncomfortable. I heard the engine ticking in the distance. I glanced around in the darkness, wondering what was taking him so long. Finally, after a few moments, his lights cut back on and he barreled across the bridge as if he were in a hurry. He slid to a halt next to me, and jumped out. "Hurry, hurry!" He started pawing at the line while I was still holding it. I panicked and tugged as hard as I could, triggering the bridge to lift. "Faster!" He gasped. I pulled with all my might and locked the bridge into place.
"What's going on?" I sputtered.
He stared at me for a moment and shook his head, "I thought I saw somethin'. Maybe a gator." He turned back to his truck and pulled into his parking spot. I took a deep breath and headed back into my apartment. I sat in the patio in the light of his porch until he turned it out, then turned on my lantern and sat a little longer. While it was a little chilly out, it was nothing compared to the harsh winter I was used to up north. I pulled a light blanket over my shoulders and just peered out over the swamp. It was probably close to ten when I decided to go to bed. I stood up and turned off my lantern. While I was encompassed in darkness, the drive below me was flooded with a dim light. I frowned, and walked to the window, peering down. It seemed like a tiny flashlight was on in the garage below me. I suspected this wasn't normal, so I turned my lantern back on. I wasn't entirely sure what to do next, so I turned my lantern off again. This time I couldn't see any light, the drive below me was just as dark as the air around me. Suddenly, I got chills from the bottom of my spine to the top of my head. The goosebumps crawled across my entire scalp, causing me to become hyper-attentive to every strand of hair I had. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I convinced myself there hadn't been a light. Again. I locked all the doors and windows before climbing into bed, and turning up my music loud enough to drown out any inconvenient noises.
The fifth day, again, boring as could be. This time, I spent the majority of the day watching how-to videos. From crocheting to lock-picking, I accumulated a lot of knowledge that day.
After that, things begin to get a little blurry. I woke up with a migraine that immobilized me most of the morning, (probably from all that knowledge). After chugging two pots of coffee, a double dose of migraine medication, and a nap, I was finally able to remove my eye mask without immediately regretting it around 2 o'clock. I vaguely remembered a banging at the bottom door the last time I had medicated myself, but there wasn't a chance in all of Lida I was getting out of bed to answer it. After my third pot of coffee finished brewing, I made up my cup and moseyed down the stairs. I stepped outside, and noticed it was significantly colder than it had been previous days. I noticed a piece of paper folded and wedged into a crack in the garage. It was sticking out fairly far so I figured it was new, there's no way I could've missed it before.
Scrawled across the crinkled sheet was "Pull up the brig afor the gaters getchya".
I smirked to myself, left the note with my coffee on the last step, and headed to the bridge. As I was pulling it up, I heard a loud snap. The lead in my hand felt weak. I pulled harder, trying to make it to the lock before anything serious happened. Just as I laced the lead into the holster, I heard a second loud snap and the lead fell completely loose. The bridge fell with with a bounce, the boards rattling against the old nails holding them in place. The crack of the wood echoed through the swamp. My heart pounded from my chest. Without thinking, I bolted across the bridge, hoping to ward off any nearby alligators. Halfway across, I realized I had no idea how sturdy the bridge was anymore, and ran back to solid ground. Petrified of how this would go over with the landlord, I ran back into the apartment, hoping to hop into bed and pretend I just never saw the note.
Lying in the darkness, I could hear the creaking of the landlord's truck as it bounced down the dirt path. If I held my breath, I thought I could hear the branches snapping against the windshield, and the leaves being rushed through the wind. I heard him screech to a halt at the bridge and I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could. He boomed across the bridge, screeching to a halt again. I could hear him cursing over the rumble of the engine.
The truck door slammed shut and I watched as the headlights lit up my entire apartment, getting brighter as the roar of the engine grew closer. I heard the door slam, and then the rooms were filled with the sound of him feverishly pounding his fist against the door at the bottom of my staircase. I listened for a few moments, but the banging increased in speed and strength. I pulled myself out from under the covers and put my eye mask on top of my head, hoping to play it off that I had no idea.
I hurried down the stairs and put a panicked look on my face, "What? What!" I screamed, swinging the door open.
"Bombs! Bombs!" The landlord rushed past me, pulling the door closed and locking it. He pushed himself up the stairs, huffing and wheezing. I followed him into my bedroom where he made a beeline for the closet. I watched him nervously, wondering what it was that I was witnessing. He shoved my clothes to one side and forced a skeleton key into a small tear in the wallpaper covering the back wall of my closet. He struggled for a second, before I heard a loud clink. Gripping the key, he yanked, groaning as the paper gave in and tore along the edges, leaving strips of tacky paper hanging dangerously close to my garments. At that moment, being more occupied with my clothing, I missed him disappear into the room behind my wall.
"Hey! Where'd you go?" I followed after him, stopping only at the edge of the doorway. I looked around but there was nothing but black. "Hello?" I whispered into the void. I heard another, much smaller tink and the small room filled with dim light. I saw the landlord a few feet away, standing under a naked bulb, dangling and swinging gently from the ceiling. It was cold in here, and the floor was covered in thick, musty carpet. The walls were lined with different sized cabinets; made with different woods and finishes, shapes and designs. He stepped over to a cabinet that appeared to be made with a thick oak, and a deep cherry finish. Along the edge of the cabinet was an ornate pattern consisting of shamrocks, leaves and what appeared to be lilies. He procured a set of skeleton keys from the pocket on the inside of his filthy, army green jacket. After thumbing through a few keys, he unlocked the cabinet from the top, pulled a metal rod from the latch and opened the door revealing a large supply of metal cans, all the same size. The label looked like a safety hazard to me, with what used to be a bright blue wrap, now faded with time. Every can was facing outward, as if it were his pride-filled display. Tiny little cartoon alligator faces were beaming with big, toothy smiles and the words "GATOR GAS" were printed in bright green around the happy, over-sized reptile. He grabbed two cans and handed them to me. His fingerprints were quite visible against the dust layering the cans. He grabbed two himself and pushed past me again, back through my closet.
I followed him into the enclosed patio where he tossed the cans onto the wicker chair and pulled open the largest window. He removed the screen and set it down gently on the floor. He motioned to the cans so I handed him one I was holding and picked up the other two.
"You pull the tab, and throw like the dickens!" I watched as he buried his dirty thumbnail under the metal tab that looked suspiciously like the top of a soda can. Once the can cracked open, green smoke started pouring out. He leaned down and whipped the can through the screen-less window, but it only bounced a few feet away from his truck. He cursed to himself and stood up, "You gotta do it, come on, get in here." He waved toward the window, stepping out of the way.
I rushed over, setting the cans on the window sill. I cracked a can and tossed it, leaving a stream of gas as it bounced to the ground and rolled near the porch of the main house. "What are we doing this for? Are there alligators?" I started to panic a little more, wondering if I really screwed up this time, knowing that I definitely did.
"Not yet, but there'll be if we don't get that out there. They're already swarming the mainland tryin' ta get that bridge. We can't be goin' out there tonight, they're vicious in the dark."
After I cracked the two final cans and threw them, the fog was so thick, I could only barely make out the porch light on the house. However, I was pretty surprised he was speaking to me in such full sentences, and clearly, at that. "Can you put the screen back in? I don't think I know how."
"Well nows a best time as any to learn, ain't it? Pick it up."
I took a slow breath, knowing this was going to end badly, but picked up the screen anyway, "Okay, so I imagine I just pop it in there?"
"Just about. Gotta pull the tabs on the sides so as it don't fall out. Course, with the gators comin' it might be some good defense for this ol' place. Fallin' screens. Probably ain't even gon' notice it smackin' 'em on their big thick heads, them gators. Dumber than a mud puppy in the desert, I tell ya." He continued grumbling as he turned and walked into the apartment, headed for the kitchen. I watched him for a moment, as the gas started to seep into the patio. My eyes started burning and I did most of it blind, holding my breath, but once I heard it snap into place, I pushed the window shut and locked it. I locked the patio door, and rushed into the kitchen.
"Okay, so we threw those and you can't go home now? So I have to spend the night with you?"
He looked at me with a can of corn in his hand, "Well it ain't like I'm tryin' ta woo you now am I? I don't know what you kids do these days but it's past my bedtime. All that ruckus got me belly grumblin', can I have this?"
I stared at him for a few moments, frowning. "Um, sure. But why couldn't you have thrown them from your house if it's closer to the bridge and there aren't any gators out there yet?"
He grunted, and pulled the can opener out of the drawer next to him. I briefly considered rearranging the kitchen so he wouldn't just know where all of my things are. "My windas ain't sealed. That whole place is gassed right now." He reached into the next drawer and grabbed a spoon. He started shoveling corn in his mouth, dropping kernels and spilling water because he didn't even bother draining it.
At this point, I couldn't exactly wrap my mind around what was happening, why he was in such a hurry if they're not even close to us, and why I'm now spending the night with my creepy old landlord. "But, isn't your truck running right now?"
The engine rumbling had become part of the environment, drowned into the chaos. The landlord grumbled, "Eh, it's almost dry anyway. It'll stop running at some point. Maybe them dumb gators are thinkin' I'm still out there waitin' for 'em."
I sighed, and pulled blankets from the hall closet for him to sleep with. I asked him not to wake me up early, and locked the bedroom door behind me. I shut the closet door and figured I could have him patch up the hidden room once I didn't feel so awkward around him.
That night, I laid in bed and listened to the truck engine running until it finally sputtered to silence around a quarter after 3 in the morning. Now, it's shortly past 2 and I'm exhausted. I was hoping to get all of the details leading up to tonight out in the open, but I think I need to get some sleep, collect my thoughts, and hope I make it long enough tomorrow to get some real information down.