"Yes? Hi. I'd like to complain about the noise coming from the apartment upstairs."
He paused, his fingers tapping against his leg in irritation at the delay while the lady on the other end of the line went to find her supervisor.
"Yes? Hello. This is Gabriel from Apartment 1212. I just wanted to file a complaint against the tenants living above me. You see they...."
He fell silent as he listened to the man, Bruce, the apartment manager, speak, the voice sounding bemused and sightly condescending to his ears.
"What do you mean the apartment above me is empty? It can't be. It sounds like a dance troop up there, constantly thudding and moving around at all hours. Not to mention the child's loud....I don't understand. How can it be empty? Have you checked? Maybe someone has an old key to the....I see."
He listened to Bruce, the explanation long.
"It's been empty for how long? That can't be right." He paced the kitchen, the phone pressed to his ear. "I'm telling you, there is someone living up there. If you don't believe me come over here and I'll prove it to you."
He rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation. "No. I don't care. I just want to have it quiet at night so I can sleep. I write in the mornings and can't concentrate if the noise keeps me from my sleep. Yes! Yes it is that loud!"
He stopped pacing, a scowl blooming across his face. "No! No, I have not been drinking, not that that is any of your concern! Look! Are you going to...? Fine. I'll just deal with them myself. I'll call the police if I have to."
He simply nodded his head as he passed his free hand over his face. "No. It isn't an animal. Yes. I'm positive the sounds are coming from someone." He paused as he listened. "How the hell should I know who they would be? I just moved in here! Are you...? I see. Fine. Yeah, thanks. You have a great day too." He punched the button on the phone and disconnected the call. "Moron," he growled out loud to no one.
Suddenly, overhead, the sounds of footsteps thudded across the ceiling. A child's voice giggled. He waved his hand at the ceiling. 'Right! My imagination!' he thought to himself as he shook his head.
Gabriel had lived in the apartment for only a few weeks. Freshly moved out of his parents' old above the garage guest room, he thought he could strike out on his own and start up his much delayed writing career (he'd finally landed a job as a cub reporter with the Trinity Post, the town's only newspaper). To meet all of his deadlines he had to spend his time from sun up to well into the late hours of the evening conjuring words from thin air and chasing down elusive sources, leaving him very little time to work on his novel.
Another loud thud sounded above his head, breaking into Gabriel's thoughts. That was it! He was going up there and confront whoever was making all the racket.
He quickly gathered his coat and his key and marched up the old rickety wooden stairs that hugged the side of the complex. He stomped across the floorboards, each one creaking under foot, as he approached the dark wooden door marked with a faded black outline where numbers used to hang. The faint outline of 1213 could still be made out, but just barely.
He tried to peer in through the sole window that faced the door's deck area but the glass was either tinted or so coated with dust as to be almost opaque. Gabriel lifted his hand, balled angrily into a fist, and reached out, intent on banging on the door as loudly as he could until someone, anyone, came to the door.
"You won't find anyone in there, dearie," came a voice from behind him.
Gabriel had been so intent and his anger so focused that he hadn't heard the shuffling form of the old woman from 1214 coming up behind him. With a start he called out and whirled around, his fists up before him.
"Oh, it's you Mrs. Callumbaum." He stared at the diminutive gray haired woman and dropped his fists to his side.
"Oh, I'm so sorry to have scared you, young man. I was just coming back from getting my mail and saw you on the landing and thought to myself "Gertrude, this young man must be lost" but I didn't know it was you." She shuffled closer to him and placed a gentle hand on his arm. "And how do you like the place? Peaceful isn't it? Why, I was just telling Monte the other day....Oh, you don't know Monte, do you? He's my pet schnauzer. Such a small thing but he's the best company that an old bitty like me can have."
Gabriel had tuned the woman out, focusing instead on trying to look in through the window again.
"But, like I said, there's no one living in there."
"There must be, Mrs. Callumbaum. I keep hearing things coming from the apartment over me nearly all day long."
"Well that's strange, isn't it? There hasn't been anyone in there for years. Well, not since the accident of course, but I'm sure you know all about that."
"Accident? What accident?"
"Oh, my word! You never heard? They didn't tell you?" She placed a gnarled hand up to her face and stroked her chin, the wrinkles moving as if her skin was barely attached. "Well why on earth...? I guess it's not really important. It happened so long ago, after all." She shook her head, her wispy hair shaking with her effort. "It's sad really. They were so young."
"Mrs. Callumbaum, what are you talking about?"
"Oh." The old woman's eyes refocused on Gabriel and she frowned. "I'm sorry. I lost my train of thought. What were you asking about?"
"You said there was an accident? That it was long ago," Gabriel reminded, trying to jump start the woman's stalled memory.
"Oh! Land's sake. I swear I'd forget my head if it weren't attached," she admitted laughing and patting Gabriel's arm. "Oh, but the accident was so tragic. The fire gutted the place so quickly."
"There was a fire? Here?"
"Yes. I remember it like it was yesterday. They called out, you know? They just wanted to be saved." She shook her head, the memory overwhelming her for a moment.
"Who called out? who wanted to be saved?"
"The children." She shook her head again. "Three of them. All trapped and knowing the end was near." She gripped Gabriel's arm, her fingers digging into his skin even through his coat. "Can you imagine what they must have been feeling? Knowing that they couldn't get away and that no one was coming to save them?" She looked through the darkened window. "I imagine it would have been a last few moments filled with horror, don't you?"
He didn't answer but asked a question of his own. "How did the fire start?"
"No one could quite figure it out. There had been a fight between the mother and her lover but the police chief didn't think it was anything but an accident."
"So the mother survived?"
The woman stared at the window and paused before answering. "She lives still, yes. Though if I were her I'd be in torment everyday I was separated from my little ones."
"How old were they?"
"The children. How old were they?"
"Oh, they were just little ones. None of them could have been older than ten." She shook her head again, the lines of her face deepening the sadness around her eyes. "So so sad." She sighed and patted his arm again. "And that's why, there can't be anyone living above you."
"Didn't they ever try to rebuild the place?"
"Oh my yes. They caused a commotion for weeks. Scared Monte every time they thudded a hammer against the wall. He's a nervous little one, he is."
"Well, if they rebuilt the place why isn't it ever rented out?"
"Well, they tried. They certainly did. But for one reason or another, I'm not sure why, the walls would slowly turn from white to gray to black, as if they were freshly burnt. And then there was the smell."
"Smell? What smell?"
"Well, at first I just assumed it was from a neighbor's chimney but every time anyone would walk by the door they could swear they smelt the faintest hint of...."
"Of what?" Gabriel prodded.
"Well, they still thought they could smell the smoke from that terrible day."
"Well, maybe the wood paneling retained the smell and as it heated up through out the day the smoke smell wafted out on to the landing?"
"I guess that could explain it." She nodded her head. "But that still doesn't explain the other smell."
"What other smell?"
The woman looked up at the window. "The smell of burning meat."
Gabriel just stared at the woman as she smiled and wished him a good day. She turned, calling out to her pet, and shuffled back to her own door, leaving a stunned Gabriel wondering what else he didn't know about his new home.