Call me a misanthrope, an introvert, whatever. The fact is, I always thought I preferred being alone.
I had a couple of friends. Well, mainly acquaintances. People I worked with. People I lived near. Family.
But I had tried doing the companionship thing, and it never seemed to be for me. I had a girlfriend for two years, but she left me because I rarely wanted to go out with her friends, preferring to stay home, just the two of us. The feeling that was most prominent after she left was relief.
I also tried hanging out with a group of people I met online. As in, hanging out with them in the real world. I did this because my ex-girlfriend told me I needed to get out more, to meet people, to come out of my shell.
I realized after hanging out with them that I liked my shell better. Again, it’s not that I didn’t like them. I’m just not a hang-out kind of person. I’m not an Asperger’s patient or anything. I can have conversations, I can be friendly. I’ve stopped to help strangers on the side of the road who were having car trouble. I’ve helped people move who I barely knew. I’ve donated blood just because I could. I’ve volunteered at a homeless shelter. It’s just a matter of preferring to stay in on a Friday night with a good book, when having a group of friends would mean I’d feel obligated to go out instead.
I say all that to say that the loneliest I’d ever felt was when I was in a crowd of people, and I truly believed that the best feeling ever was the feeling of being alone.
That is, until this morning.
I woke up, and the first thing I noticed was that the power was out. I live in an older building just south of downtown. The kind of place where the carpet in the halls is stained all over with god-knows-what, the paint on the walls is chipped and peeling, in many places the ceiling is just a collection of exposed pipes, the elevators make odd noises like they’re straining on even the lightest load, and the whole place carries the heady bouquet of booze, cigarettes and weed. The power’s gone out before. The last time it happened, it didn’t come back on for two days. I had just gone grocery shopping the day before. Sucks having to throw out stuff you just bought.
So, when I woke, my first feeling was irritation. “They had better not take forever getting it back on this time,” I muttered. Now, where you live, the power probably mostly goes out only after a storm, fire or heavy snowfall. In my building, with wiring that was probably installed during the Ford administration and hadn’t really been upgraded since, the power could go out at any time of the year, and needed no outside catalyst to do so. So it never crossed my mind to wonder why, on a wet-but-not-stormy day in April, the power would go out like this.
I opened all my windows for light, but it didn’t help much, as it was pretty grey outside. The weather had been cloudy all week, with a few light showers, and even with my largest window open, I still couldn’t see much in my house, and my bathroom, which had no windows, was darker than a crypt.
My alarm clock was dead, of course, so I checked the time on my phone. I swore and leaped into the shower, not caring that the water was ice cold, and that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Even if I walked out the door this very minute, I was going to be an hour late for work. I hate being late. I usually try to be at least fifteen minutes early. It’s a weird side-effect of introverts that we’re usually pretty anal retentive about being on time.
Throwing on some clothes, I bolted out the door, headed for the elevator. Mid-stride, I turned for the stairs, remembering almost too late that no power of course meant no elevator.
Now, this is probably when I first felt it; that sense of unease. I did my best to ignore it, because I wasn’t a child anymore, and feelings like that are just your mind running away on you. But it was hard to ignore, and not just because of the total darkness of the stairwell. It was because I realized at that point that I had not seen another human being that entire morning.
This, by itself, was not an alarming thing. I had often made it to the elevator before without seeing another person. However, while descending into the dark, holding my phone before me, LED light shining, I realized a couple of things that seemed out of place. First, I heard no noise coming from behind any of the other apartments’ doors, which I should have considering the air was off. Second, I was late. I usually left for work before the rush, but today I was leaving at the same time that a lot of other people should be. On an ordinary day, maybe some of them took the elevator and few took the stairs, but today, they all should be on the stairs with me.
When I got to the ground floor, things got even stranger. When I had first opened my windows, I had failed to notice just how still the morning was. But I noticed now.
The only cars on the street were parked. Not another soul was in sight. The businesses at street level didn’t appear open or closed; they were just dark and empty. I swallowed the lump of fear that was rising in my throat and told myself that there had to be a good reason for this. But my mind was refusing to accept that. It was 8:30 AM on a Tuesday. The streets should be deluged with cars, the sidewalks filled up with people. There should be noise, there should be life. But the only sound was the light wind that wailed between buildings.
The power was out on the block. That had to be it. Everyone was inside still, waiting for the power to come back on.
Well, I thought. If they can all wait inside, so can I. I went back into the building and stood in the dim gloom of the lobby as I called work.
One ring. Two. Three. Several more. Then voice mail. My boss’s bored voice saying “please leave a message” was the first voice other than my own that I had heard all morning.
I opened up a browser and started checking local news. But there wasn’t anything new since yesterday. In fact, my connection was sluggish and eventually dropped out completely. I tried calling a co-worker, the only co-worker whose number I had. He had been the one to offer it to me. Others were always trying to reach out. That wasn’t something I did.
He didn’t answer either. I began to wonder if the power outage was affecting the cell towers in the area. Could the power really be out for that wide an area?
I went back to the stairs, phone LED light on again, and began climbing. My apartment was on the eighth floor. I’m not in the best of shape, and my legs were starting to ache by the third flight. It was the fourth flight, though, when the light on my phone began to fade and then went out completely.
“No, no, no!” I whispered. I thumbed the home button. I then remembered that the phone had not charged during the night as it normally would have. There would have been just enough power left for the one phone call and momentary surfing, plus these trips with the light on. I must have ignored the low power warning, and now it was too late. The phone was a paperweight. “Piece of shit,” I muttered. Somehow I already knew to keep my voice to a whisper. I put the phone back in its clip and stood on the stairs for a moment, calming down.
That’s when I heard it. The sound of another set of footsteps, coming up the stairs behind me.
You’d think I would be glad to know that another person was still around. You’d think that after noticing how empty my world was all of a sudden, that I’d be relieved to know that I was not alone. And for a moment, I tried to tell myself that I was.
The footsteps were slow, inexorable. They echoed through the darkness like the slow drumbeat before a death march. They were somewhat soft, at first, though I could tell the feet that made their tread was heavy. But they were getting nearer. From their sound, they were less than two flights below me.
I didn’t think. I bolted up the stairs. I paused at the top of every flight to listen. They kept coming. I thought of calling out, but every instinct said that would be foolish. I tried telling myself it was just my misanthropy rearing its ugly head again, but this feeling wasn’t a mere wish to be by myself for a while.
Every sense I had told me that in this unnatural stillness, this unthinkable emptiness, that nothing should be moving. I had not heard so much as the bark of a dog from within this building. But something else was here besides me. I knew, at the core of my being, that it wasn’t supposed to be there.
I reached my floor and headed out into the hallway. I paused at the door after pulling it closed and listened. Those footsteps continued, not even having increased their pace. They sounded much closer.
The hallway was empty, as I knew it would be. I pulled myself away from the door and listened. My own heartbeat, hammering in my ears, and my heavy breathing were the only sounds I heard. There was a window at the end of the hallway, letting in dim grey light, but it was still hard to see. I began walking left. The hallway had an intersection up ahead. I turned right, the direction of my apartment, and kept walking.
Behind me, I heard the door to the stairwell open. The footsteps, still slow but unrelenting, started down the hallway. I waited. Maybe they had turned in the other direction. But no, they were getting louder. Coming toward me. I turned and walked quickly in the direction of my apartment. I didn’t run. If I ran, I would make more noise. I tried to keep my breathing quiet as well.
I reached my apartment, but still heard those footsteps behind me. At any moment their owner would turn the corner. I reached for my keys, but a new thought struck me.
The footsteps sounded close enough that this…person…could turn the corner just as I was closing the door. Then my one safe hiding place would be exposed. Thinking quickly, I turned and ran as quietly as I could in the same direction as before, heading for the other stairwell on this floor.
I made it there, and felt a moment’s elation as I realized that the sound of the footprints had receded somewhat. I could still hear them, but they were fainter, as though whoever this person was had become confused in their pursuit, or had headed in the wrong direction.
I quietly opened the stairwell door and pelted down the first flight, heading out into the hallway of the seventh floor. My plan was to circle around, head back up the other flight, and make it to my apartment while the owner of those footsteps was looking for me in the wrong place.
And then I began to feel a little silly. After all, why was I so convinced that this person was pursuing me? I was the only person I had seen today, but that was the unnatural thing, not the sudden appearance of another person. Somehow, some incident, a disaster or abduction or rapture, or whatever, had emptied my neighborhood, but left me behind, and if I was still here, why would I assume that no one else was? This person could just be someone else who lived on the eighth floor, likely just as confused and terrified as I was.
I shook my head and laughed at myself, but I stuck with my plan. I circled around the building, headed for the other stairwell. Reaching it, I began to climb up…
And I heard those steps again, coming down. They had found me.
I instantly flew back down the stairs and back into the hallway, running full tilt for the very stairs I had just come down, bolting back up them. I cautiously opened the door back on my floor, listening. No steps as of yet. All thoughts of the footsteps belonging to another confused, frightened person had left my mind. Those heavy treads did not belong to a person who was in the same situation as me. They did not sound frightened, or confused. They were purposeful. A purpose that I knew could not be good.
This time, I reached my apartment and managed to get inside. I locked the door, the deadbolt, and secured the chain on the door. I stood there for a second, feeling like that wasn’t enough, and finally put a chair under the knob. Then I went into the living room and huddled against the large window.
For a very long time, nothing happened. And then I heard them again. There was no doubt in my mind now that the footsteps were coming for me. They trod, persistently, inescapably closer, starting to slow further as they reached my apartment door.
They stopped. Just on the other side of my door, something waited, possibly listening for me, but knowing beyond a doubt that I was inside. I thought I could smell something from the hall. Something that smelled…hot. That’s the only way I can describe it. It smelled hot.
I waited. It waited. The silence was palpable. I felt that the air between us had solidified, waiting, as the world did, for the inevitable.
My doorknob rattled. First a little, then vigorously. I sat there, numb, my breath coming in short gasps, my heart beating so fast it felt like a continuous pressure in my chest.
Finally the rattling stopped. I slowly pulled myself away from the window and fired up my laptop. Unlike my phone, it had not been on all night and the battery was still fully charged.
As I have written this, the rattling at the door has returned three times. The last time was the most insistent, and was accompanied by a loud banging.
I don’t know if anyone is still out there to read this. I don’t even know how long the internet will continue to work. I never needed people before today, but I sure need them now. Being a misanthrope has its oddities, but no situation I’ve been in has been more odd than this.
I was alone, and did not want to be.
Now I’m not alone, and I desperately wish I was.