The last beams of daylight leaned into the sides of the old, brick warehouses across the street. The buildings threw stark shadows on the ground creating clear divisions between dark and light, day and night. Emily surveyed this scene a final time as she prepared to do something she would have called unfathomable just two days earlier: to enter the world, to be outside. She had allowed another day to pass, another almost 24 hours to stew on what she had seen and what she had decided to do about it. She spent her day monitoring the window where she had watched a man die, in fact had watched him die twice, somehow. Emily had long ago left the behind any notion of certainty, but she was as sure as she could be that no one had gone to investigate. If there was anything going on there, she would be the first to discover it. That is, assuming she could conquer her fear and make it there in the first place.
If she failed, it would not be for a lack of planning. Emily prepared to leave her apartment for the first time in six years the way other people prepared to hike the Appalachian Trail. She stocked a backpack with granola bars and a large bottle of water, her binoculars, a digital camera, a backup battery pack for her cell phone, and a flashlight. There was also a small set of tools in case she needed to get creative in trying to access the top floor. The police had told her only the first three floors in the building were in use, and she did not know what that would mean for trying to get beyond them. They were computer tools, really, but they were what she had and that would have to do.
She set the backpack on her kitchen island and studied the insides for at least the fifth time, terrified she would forget something critical. There’s no way I can come back for something once I’ve gone. If I come back in here, I won’t get myself to go back out again. She hated how hard this was for her, but a bubbling of confidence had begun to grow in her belly as well. She had decided to take action, to find out once and for all if the things she saw were real or not. That was progress of a sort, and she gave herself some credit for it. She was beginning to believe there was a modicum of a chance that she could be vindicated. If she found the body of the man in that building, the one with the green eyes and brown goatee, it would prove that she was not crazy. She did not know who he was, wished he did not have to die to prove her sane, yet she saw no other way.
But her investigation also brought the possibility of confirming that she had lost touch with reality, had perhaps gone crazy all the way back in childhood when she saw swore she saw a woman drop dead in the supermarket but no one else did. If she found nothing it would confirm that all the things she had seen, from that first time as a child to the terrible events that set in motion her future as a shut-in, were all in her head.
Emily thought back to that night eight years earlier, the one that sealed her fate. She had been working as an IT contractor installing new technology in a research hospital when she saw it. Passing by a lab, she saw the ghastly faces of research staff, contorted into horrifying, unnatural shapes, dead from some unseen illness. There was some kind of breach, she figured, a mistake that released something deadly. Emily freaked out, ran for help and told the first staff member she could find. Her panic was taken seriously and triggered emergency protocols, but it was not long before the hospital declared there was no evidence for anything of the sort. Emily lost her job over that, and would go on to lose much more over the next two years before finally locking herself away from the world entirely.
I see them. I can still see their faces.
A weatherman on the TV behind her blathered on and snapped her out of her memories. He spoke in a tone only broadcasters seem to possess, dripping with such insincere enthusiasm that it made Emily’s skin crawl. Nevertheless, she turned to see if there was anything worth hearing.
“Just a spectacular day out there folks. Topped out at 72 degrees, about 15 above average for this time of year. Dropped back to a still pleasant 65. But a cold wind’s a-blowin’. Winds out of the southwest will knock that temperature down into the upper 30s, maybe even to freezing in the overnight hours…”
Listening to a weather report was a strange thing for Emily. She had done it many times during her isolation, but the information was of no real importance to her. It was background noise and nothing else, but today it mattered and she was not sure what to think about that. Upper 30s, freezing temperatures. What did those things even mean? She could scarcely recall what it felt like to be in a temperature outside the comfortable parameters to which she restricted her thermostat. Emily did not want the cold to be an excuse. She knew the moment she stepped outside her brain would be searching for any reason at all to abandon her half-baked plan. She went into her closet and dug out an old, musty coat. It was pinned to the back of her closet behind a bunch of other garments she had little reason to wear. Business attire and formal wear hung gathering dust. Even most of her casual clothes were of little use. The coat looked worn out and damaged, and Emily wondered if it had been that way when she first put it there years earlier. She could not recall. This will have to do, she thought as she slipped her arms into one sleeve and then the other.
Her bag packed and quintuple checked, she went through the information once more. The building would take at most ten minutes to walk to and was three city blocks away. The ten minutes was only if she was delayed by each of the three stoplights she would have to cross to get there. Her building was on a corner, and so she had to cross the street at an intersection right away. Then, she could turn right and walk one block. Next, she would turn left and walk two more blocks to get to the building. From there, it appeared that the building had one main entrance that led to a hallway with doors for two different shops — a hair salon and some kind of advertising company. That was as much as she could see from pictures online. Her goal was to stride confidently past both businesses toward the back of the building and try to find either an elevator or a stairwell, but that was the extent of her reconnaissance and intel gathering. As soon as she got there, she was pretty much winging it.
Emily glanced out the window and saw the sun had retreated further. She wanted to be outside before full dark fell on the city. I can’t put this off any longer, she thought, half scolding herself. If I’m doing this, it’s now.
Easier said than done. Emily stood in front of the door to her hallway in her old coat with her backpack on for five minutes doing nothing but breathing. She stared at the wood and studied the whorls in its grain. She looked at the domed glass of the peephole, feeling as though there must be someone on the other side looking at her. Emily felt like a goldfish planning to jump out of its bowl, about to discover it could not breathe on the outside. She took another deep breath, and reached for the door knob. Three quick motions. That was the plan. Slide open the chain guard, twist the deadbolt, and open the door. She needed a tight script to execute, like a computer program executing a precisely written bit of code.
Emily closed her eyes and went for it, opening the door without having to look at it. A few seconds later, the door clicked closed and Emily found herself on the other side of it with only the faintest sense of what she had done. The realization that she was outside her apartment sent a rush of panic over her, and she spun to reopen the door as the whole of the earth began to twist around her. Her hands were jittery and useless, both sweating and cold at the same time. She dropped her keys and fell to the floor in pursuit of them but clung to the doorknob like a lifesaver. It grounded her, stabilized her. It gave her a moment to catch her breath, and she found that the crushing desire to get back in her apartment subsided a little.
After a respite on the ground, Emily managed to collect both herself and her keys from the floor. She steadied herself and began to walk down the hallway, moving at a snail’s pace and always with one hand on the wall. She said a silent prayer in hopes she could make it all the way out the door without seeing anyone. She kept her eyes down and looking at the wall. The less she saw, the better. After the longest minute in the last six years, she made it to the elevator. The door opened right as she hit the button, and Emily began to think maybe some measure of luck was on her side. She scuttled into the elevator car, slapped the first floor button, and retreated to a corner to hide.
She knew the next part was the real challenge. Arriving on the ground floor would bring her so much closer to the outdoors than the dim and narrow hallway she had traversed to that point. The elevator began its descent, and with each passing floor Emily felt her heart rate increase and her fear rise.
I can’t do this. I have to go back. Her stomach churned, her mouth and throat went dry. Just forget about it. Accept that it wasn’t real. Don’t do it. You can’t. Don’t. Don’t…
The chime of the elevator door snapped her to attention. Her feet proceeded out into the lobby as if on autopilot. Emily marveled at the way her brain could execute functions like these despite her attempts to send a ‘terminate’ command. She stood a few feet from the elevator staring out the glass doors that led to the street, much as she had stared at her own apartment door a few minutes earlier. Realizing her folly, standing in open space in the middle of the lobby, she rushed to the nearest wall for safety and made it just before the darkness of her fading consciousness collapsed on her. She took a few hesitant steps toward the exit before her motor functions ground to a halt fewer than five feet from the door. She felt trapped, like she was stuck in one of the mazes of her game.
Out in the falling night, a pretty young woman bounded up the steps to Emily’s apartment building. She opened the unlocked first door before pausing near the intercom and digging into her purse for her keys. Emily studied her from the other side of the glass, mesmerized by how simple it all was when your brain worked the way it was supposed to. This should not be difficult. Why did her own mind not seem to get that?
The woman found her keys and opened the secured door. Noticing Emily for the first time, she held the door and said “heading out?”
Emily stared at her, still leaning against the wall with eyes wide and mandible hanging in stunned silence.
“Ma’am?” she asked, unsure Emily had heard her.
“N-n-no. Um, thanks,” Emily managed to say. The woman shrugged and made her way past Emily to the elevators. Emily did not turn to look, but the sound of the chime told her the elevator doors had opened then shut, and Emily was relieved to be alone once more.
Now! Before anyone else shows up. If you’re going to do this, do it NOW!
With a surge of courage, Emily pushed through the secure door and into the waiting area with the intercom. She paused to brace herself, to consider once more whether she could go through with this. She allowed her eyes to open no more than necessary to see where she was going. Steeling herself one last time, she shoved the main door that led out into the world and emerged into the evening.