3,400 square feet, marble counters, Brazilian walnut hardwood floors, and the strangest stipulation I’ve ever seen on a real-estate listing.
“The previous occupant will continue to live on the top floor. He will never be evicted, and never be charged rent. His room shall never be entered, and under no condition should he ever be spoken to. If the inhabitants are unable or unwilling to follow any of these terms, they will be considered in violation of the sales contract and held liable.”
“It’s a joke. It has to be,” my wife told me when I read her the fine print. “Anyway it’s not like we can afford this place. I just want to take a peek, okay?”
We’d spent the last month attending every open house in a ten mile radius around my new job, and everything had started to blur together into one big gray building. My wife just wanted to see something different, even if it was way out of our league. I couldn’t believe it when the real-estate agent told us this mansion was well within our budget.
“What’s the deal with the hermit though?” was the first question I asked the listing broker, a sweaty bear of a man.
“Oh you won’t even notice him,” the agent said, nodding vigorously as though agreeing with himself. “If you’re worried about your space, I’m going to stop you right there. The downstairs has two beautiful full-sized bedrooms, so your daughter can have a room of her own. Wouldn’t you like that, honey?” The giant man had to crouch to be level with Nila, my eleven year old daughter. “Wouldn’t you like your own room where you can play music as loud as you want without it bothering anyone?”
“Yeah!” I winced as Nila glided across the hardwood floors in her socks. “I’d live here!”
“Have you seen this kitchen?” my wife shouted from around the corner. “Brand new Viking appliances. It’s even got a built-in espresso machine!”
I felt the decision slipping away from me. “It’s not the space. You have to admit that it’s a weird situation, right?”
The agent shrugged. “Wouldn’t bother me,” he said. “What would bother me is knowing I could have given my family the house of their dreams, but didn’t just because I felt weird about an eccentric old man that I’d never even see. And just between the two of us,” he bodily pulled me under his arm where I could distinctly feel the sweat soaking through, “the guy up there is about a hundred years old. Couple years and he’ll be gone for good, and all that space will be yours.”
We met the generously low asking price, and within a month my family had moved into the house. It seemed impossible to me that we’d never see Makao (the old man), but it was actually true. He had his own bathroom, and every week there would be a delivery man who left a bag of groceries at the top of the stairs. The groceries would sit there the entire day — eggs, milk, meat, and all — not disappearing until the following morning. Every once in awhile we’d hear someone shuffling around, or a radio would splutter to life and play songs that were old before I was born. That was it though. Most of the time we forgot that Makao even existed.
Most of the time. Then there was this one night around 11 PM when the lights were already off. I heard muffled, heaving sobs echo through the house. My first instinct was to check on Nila, but she was just quietly sitting up in her bed.
“You heard it too?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s nothing, go back to sleep,” I told her.
“Why is Makao crying?”
“I don’t know, but it’s none of our business. We made a promise not to disturb him. Can you promise that too, Nila?”
She nodded, gaping at the ceiling. I turned on some soft music to drown out the sound, but that wasn’t the end of it. When I got back to my bedroom, my wife was gone. Not in the bathroom either. I was beginning to entertain a fantastical paranoia about some misshapen ghoul crawling down to snatch her when I heard her voice on the stairs.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Makao. Is everything alright?”
I pounded up the steps. Nila had come out of her bedroom too, and we both watched as my wife knocked on the forbidden door again.
“Stop that! Come back to bed!” I shouted in a hoarse whisper.
“He might need help -” Her words cut short as the door opened a crack, not even wide enough to see who was peering out.
“This will be your only warning.” Makao’s growl was so low that I inadvertently found myself climbing closer to hear.
“I was worried that -” my wife began.
“Whatever you see. Whatever you hear. Whatever you think might be going on up here: it’ll be the death of you.”
The door snapped shut, and I wasted no time in ushering everyone back to bed.
The crying never really went away after that. For the next two weeks we’d hear him whimpering and moaning as he battled some unknown illness, or perhaps it was just the deterioration of his ancient body finally giving out. Sometimes there would even be feeble calls for help, but I was quick to remind my family of our promise. They both argued at first, but eventually we just got used to having music playing all the time and didn’t hear it anymore.
At least until it got worse. Grunting, moaning, even screaming – wild, vicious yelps like an animal in the throes of death. It was late at night again after Nila had gone to bed. My wife jumped toward the door in an instant and I had to physically pin her arms to keep her there.
“He’s in pain! We can’t just leave him!” she insisted.
“You heard what he said. It’s his right to be alone.”
“What about 911? Even if he doesn’t want our help, he can’t say no to someone trying to save his life.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want that either.” She wasn’t resisting anymore. I steered her back onto the bed, caressing her shoulders, speaking softly in the vain fight against waves of tension rippling across her face and body. “Maybe it’s just his time to go, and that’s what will be best for all of us.”
“For all of us?” Suspicion crept into her voice. She was back on her feet again before I knew what was happening. “You want him to die, don’t you? A living, breathing human being, and you want him dead just so we have a little more space.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just said -”
“Listen to him! He’s in agony! We can’t just sit here and -”
We both shut up at the sound of the knocking. One, two, three, hesitant but insistent knocks.
“Hello? Mr. Makao?”
My wife and I exchanged a panicked glance. A door swung open somewhere above us.
“Get out! Get out you stupid girl!”
“Nila don’t!” I shouted. Out of the bedroom, up the stairs – just in time to see my daughter disappear and the door close behind her. My wife was right behind me as we raced up the stairs. We were still a few feet away when we heard the distinct rattle of a chain, then a bolt sliding into place.
“Makao? Open the door Makao. We’re here to help,” I tried.
“Go away. I warned you, didn’t I? I warned you both. She’s mine now.”
“Nila? Can you hear me?” my wife shouted. “What’s going on in there?”
“I don’t know, it’s weird here,” Nila replied through the door, but her voice reverberated as though it came from a tunnel a long way off. “It’s all mirrors. On and on forever.”
“Is the old man trying to stop you from leaving?”
I held my breath during the long pause.
“Nope,” Nila said. All the air came pouring back out of my lungs. “There isn’t anyone here.”
Another glance between my wife and I. Her face was drawn and white. She stepped forward uneasily, trying to look through the crack under the door.
“Can you unlock the door, sweety? Can you come back out?” my wife asked.
Another long pause. I crouched down too, catching a dark flash of movement across the doorway.
“Nila? Are you still there?” I prompted.
“Uh huh.” Another pause. “I’ll be right there.”
“Nila the door!” my wife insisted. She started rattling the handle.
“Don’t! Don’t come in!” Nila shrieked. “You won’t like it!”
It was more than I could take. I started slamming into the door with my shoulder.
BAM – the door rattled in its frame. Nila was becoming hysterical. There weren’t words anymore, just varying pitches and whimpers.
BAM – dust raining down around me. My wife joined in the effort, crashing into the door together –
BAM – the old hinges buckled and twisted. We couldn’t hear anything anymore, but that just made us slam harder until –
The door flew open. A brilliant flash of disorienting light – mirrors everywhere. Everywhere. A whole world of mirrors, stretched to the vanishing point of the distant horizon. Great hillsides were carved with thousand-faced pinnacles of light, trees ruptured from the ground to shine in every direction, and even soaring clouds fractalized countless insults to geometry with their smooth sides. And from them all shone a dazzling array of faces and eyes all peering back at me…
…Although none of them were mine. Old men, young men, women and children, all mirroring my movements from an unfathomable myriad of sources of and angles, all staring at me. That’s when I realized that Makao hadn’t been the one crying all this time. It was the figures in the mirrors, untold anguish causing tears to run down their face even while matching my movements otherwise.
“Where’s Makao?” my wife asked.
Nila shrugged. She was kneeling on the ground, making faces at an old lady peering back. Her wizened face contorted into a variety of sneers which seemed preposterously absurd on someone of her age.
“We need to get out of here. Now.” They weren’t listening to me though. My wife was turning in slow circles, utterly bewitched. Numerous pitiful forms turned in of echo her.
“How does it do that?” she asked. “Is this a screen? Are they plugged in somewhere?”
“If Makao isn’t here, then who locked the door after Nila?” I asked. That finally got their attention. That, and the rattle of the chain as the solitary standing door locked once more behind us.
“She’s mine now. You’re all mine.” It was Makao’s voice, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I surged toward the door, slamming into an invisible barrier like a wall of glass. My wife and daughter were in the same situation, helplessly pounding the empty air – no, they were pounding the insides of their mirror, just like I was.
“Two weeks,” came the voice, everywhere and nowhere, far away yet emanating from within. “Two weeks is a long time to listen to someone suffer.”
“But you told us -” I protested.
“I’ve listened to them for years though,” Makao replied. There! Standing by the door, a dark and huddled shape. Only a few feet tall, and so bent that its back extended several inches higher than the pit of darkness that was its head. Red eyes gleaming from somewhere deep inside the tortured mass, watching me with hawkish intensity. “They never stop, you know. You’d think they would have given up on giving up by now.”
“Who are you? What is this place?”
The red eyes blinked. “This is your home. Your one, true home. And no matter how comfortable you make yourself out there, no matter how loudly you turn up your music and play pretend, you will always be a visitor. And wherever you go, and whoever you love there, it will only last until you come home to me again.”
Nila was crying, but I couldn’t look at her. My wife – I don’t know where she is. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the creature that taunted me. He felt so tangible, so real – the only real thing in this place of mirrors.
“I don’t want to be here. Let us out! Let us go -”
“You won’t bother me again?”
“Never. We promise -”
“Not never, that would be a lie.” The dark figure was right on the other side of the invisible barrier now. He lifted one hand – little more than a claw, really – and I was horrified to watch my own hand mirror the movement until my finger touched the gnarled terminal of his hand. “But not soon, I hope. Not until you’re ready to come home.”
The invisible glass shattered as our fingers touched. His image, the image of this impossible place, everything shattered and fell away. I was left standing with my finger touching the back of an empty mirror frame, ground littered with broken shards. I gently but urgently guided my wife and daughter out of the room, carefully picking our way through the carpet of glass, then closed the door firmly behind me.
The bag of groceries is still left on the top of the stairs each week, and sometimes there’s laughter to go with the crying. My family and I still haven’t agreed on exactly what happened up there, but no-one has made the suggestion to make a second trip.
I think Death is the stranger living upstairs, but I suppose that’s true of everyone. At least ours is close enough to keep an eye on.