Roselands, a promising new development of modern apartments located next to an idyllic river and close to city centre. It’s Gina’s new home, bought off the plan. Usually, it’s cheap fittings and fixtures you need to worry about when buying off the plan.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Roselands
I bought my apartment off the plan. It’s far from advised, I know. But I was moving from the other side of the country, had been saving up for over a decade, was eager to take advantage of the first dip in the housing market in ages… and I wanted something I could pick from a catalogue. I wouldn’t be able to go check any place out in person, coming from far away, anyway. And it was a good deal. That last bit swayed me quite a lot.
New builds bought off the plan have catches. I knew that when I bought it. I’d factored into what I wanted to spend my expectations about the apartment being constructed with materials cheaper than what was promised on the website, fittings that didn’t fit properly, and teething problems with things like plumbing.
I thought I was being realistic and clever. Because, of course, what could go really wrong with buying sight unseen? Worst case scenario, I figured, was that the apartment complex was built to be way too flammable.
I should have investigated the place more thoroughly before purchase.
But things were looking great as I readied to move from east to west. The apartment was ready for me at exactly the time my job wanted me to move to my new permanent location; I’d needed a new mattress anyway, so slept on the old one as the rest of my furniture shipped its way across the country – I even found a great price for my flight. It seemed… meant to be.
The only thing that was just a little out of the ordinary was what I saw when I took a virtual tour of my new neighbourhood, Roselands, on Google Street View.
I knew the whole area was new development, consisting of five apartment blocks, a section zoned for commercial use, and a park. I dropped the wiggly yellow dude on the road in front of my new home and was pleased to see the Google cars had been through the area already – and quite recently too. The images were from that very month.
Externally, the buildings were complete. My apartment building was tall, attractive, and modern, with underground parking and generous balconies. I moved around the streets, enjoying what looked like a spacious and serene park, the riverside gardens and the boardwalk, and the burgeoning shopping area; one pretty café already open with umbrellas out to shield patrons from the summer sun. That stuff made me feel vindicated in my purchase: the location was fantastic. And surprisingly close to city centre as well.
What was odd was how much of the panoramic images were blurred out. Usually it’s just license plates and people’s faces that are systematically blurred. Sometimes you see a single house on a street blurred on Google Street View, wonder why, and then just move on.
Roselands, however, had a lot of things blurred. Not whole buildings, just… boxes of blur scattered about seemingly at random. The garage driveway before an apartment building was part-blurred, a spot beside the café was blurred, sections of balconies blurred… here and there around the park: blurred. Even part of the roof of some shop was blurred, along with half a bus stop.
It could be some people asking to have themselves blurred out – all of their body, not just their faces. It was a logical answer, though, even so, it didn’t make much sense. The surrounding streets, outside Roselands, didn’t have the scattered blurring at all. It also begged the question: why was there someone on a roof? And… the biggest point: as far as I knew, my apartment complex wasn’t open yet. It would open the day before I arrived at my new home. So why were there already so many people on its balconies wanting themselves blurred out?
I decided it might just be a construction company logo that was blurred for some reason, or a glitch, and didn’t think more of it.
Two weeks later, I boarded my flight to my new life.
Far from being built more cheaply or looking worse than the computer-generated images had promised, my apartment was a dream. I walked through it with excited awe – even did a little dance – inspecting every immaculate fixture, the huge windows that let in so much light, my bathroom that managed to be both grand and modestly sized; came up with decoration ideas for the spare room (out of two) I’d make into my study and a vision for the balcony.
Nothing wrong with buying off the plan if it all works out, I thought, munching celebratory chips as I gazed out my window at stunning views of the river. There’d been nothing to be worried about!
My furniture, not delayed, arrived the same day I did. Feeling all was swell – feeling this was definitely meant to be – I used the weekend before starting at my new office to set my apartment up. It was sweaty, back-breaking work shifting furniture, but I did it with glee, loving every little step as I made my new home… well, home.
On Sunday night, I’d finished. I cracked open a bottle of wine and sprawled myself over my sofa, smiling around at the comforting beauty that was my apartment. All those years penny pinching around rent to save up the demanded deposit… paid off with what I’d been worried might prove an ill-considered impulsive purchase.
There was a knock on my door. Not willing to set down my wine, I sipped it as I went to answer.
My knocker was a woman, with short and stylish blonde hair and a big smile. She chuckled and nodded approvingly at my wine glass.
‘I’m Anouk,’ she said. She indicated a door just down the corridor from mine. ‘I live there – as of today! I wished to say hi!’
I said hi back and gave an offer of wine Anouk was more than pleased to take.
It was the cherry on top: Anouk, my next-door neighbour, turned out to be a woman at about the same place in her life I was, who was fun and kind, and we laughed like excited loons together over what became two bottles of wine and whatever snacks I could rustle up for us.
‘I thought,’ she said, ‘moving here from Quebec… I shouldn’t buy off the plan, you know? Not look at it first – but it’s good, isn’t it!’
I agreed wholeheartedly; told her all about my journey, as she told me hers.
‘Oh Gina, I’m glad I’ve found a neighbour I can be friends with,’ she said as the last of the second bottle was poured into our glasses, the night getting late. ‘I worried it would be all like Dr Robitussin…’ She pulled a grimace, giving me an indication what she thought of Dr Robitussin.
‘Dr Robitussin?’ I laughed, tipsy. ‘What does he specialise in? Treating coughs?’
Making the connection to the brand of cough medicine, Anouk laughed with me. She got around to describing the man once she’d calmed down a bit.
What he was a doctor of, Anouk didn’t know. But she knew he was a stare-y older man, in about his late fifties. As she described him, I remembered the guy I’d seen while I was helping the movers bring stuff up to the apartment. I’d smiled, greeted him, and got nothing back from the balding man with a narrow jaw and dark eyebrows over his glasses. He’d just stood there, evaluating me with what looked rather like a condescending glare. Apparently, he’d done the same to Anouk, and neither of us were too chuffed with him being our neighbour.
‘He gave me creepy vibes, you know?’ said Anouk, shivering in demonstration.
I hadn’t gotten quite the same sense from Dr Robitussin, but I supposed I might have if I’d paid him any more mind as I passed him in the corridor.
My new position in the company wasn’t quite as rosy as my new Roselands apartment, but I buckled down, motivated to learn all the ropes as quickly as possible. And there were a few co-workers I found a connection with.
Coming home that evening, I spotted Dr Robitussin on his balcony – the one right next to mine. I parked underground, then walked up to street side to help Anouk, who was carrying in the last of her boxes from the mover’s truck. Mr Robitussin was still there, I saw, looking up as I heaved a box onto my hip. He was sitting in a bathrobe, legs crossed, on a balcony chair, without a steaming drink; in the evening. Maybe it was Anouk’s view that he was creepy influencing me, but I did think sitting on the balcony like that was a bit weird.
All the same, I smiled and gave Dr Robitussin a wave. He didn’t wave back, so, chatting with Anouk, I went back to helping her carry her stuff up.
I met another neighbour a couple days later, and elderly man who was thankful for the elevator and lack of stairs in his apartment. He introduced himself as Mel, and showed his appreciation for my help carrying up some of his boxes with a treat of upside-down cake.
‘My sister lived here,’ he told me as we forked through cakes. ‘Many years ago… before these apartments. They’re new, you know?’
I did, seeing as I’d moved in the moment they opened. I asked him about his sister, and got a sad story. In my experience, you often do when you ask elderly people about their families. Never underestimate the trauma previous generations have faced.
‘Oh well…’ he said, answering my question. ‘She was always so full of life, Jill… But then she had her youngest – no problem… ‘ he trailed off, the sentence unfinished. ‘Well, I suppose there would have been a problem,’ he picked back up, nodding his head, his combed thin white hair bouncing, ‘we just didn’t see it, if you know… ‘ He trailed off again, forked up a bit of cake, and chewed thoughtfully before continuing, ‘After her youngest… it was depression, you see – she didn’t want to do the housework; began neglecting the children… And her man… he didn’t understand it. Had her committed, as we did in those days – hoping it would fix her.’
Mel gave me a beseeching look, like he was hoping for me to understand. I certainly didn’t condemn him. The past had been a different time.
‘She died, at the asylum,’ he went on. ‘And it was miserable – just miserable,’ he said emphatically, shaking his head. ‘I saw her once before she died… She was covered in this rash, and so broken…’ Mel squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. He finished on a, ‘In some ways, I envy your generation.’
I left Mel with his belongings, having helped him set urns and trinkets up on an antique cabinet before I went back to my home. There had been six urns in total, and placing them to be displayed made me sad. One of them was his sister Jill’s. Mel must be in his eighties. I doubted it was only six people he’d lost in his time.
Though, between Mel and Anouk, I had neighbours I really liked. I was sleeping soundly on my new mattress. And loving coffee from my new and fancy coffee maker. Things were good, despite a bit of drama.
The drama I refer to was between Mel and Dr Robitussin. Not that Dr Robitussin seemed to verbally involve himself in… well, anything at all – the man didn’t speak. He just hung about and watched. But precisely that seemed to be what put Mel off.
I arrived on the third floor one evening after work to see Mel’s cane fallen to the floor, and him leaning against the wall by the garbage chute, glaring at Dr Robitussin.
‘Couldn’t move yourself to help one bit?’ Mel called, irritated, to Dr Robitussin.
Dr Robitussin was standing in his doorway. I saw his chin lift as he considered Mel. It made his glasses briefly catch the light. He, unsurprisingly, didn’t say anything.
‘Just stand there and watch!’ Mel yelled at the doctor. ‘Condemn people with your gaze!’
I hurried to retrieve Mel’s cane and handed it to him. He huffed at Dr Robitussin, thanked me, and went back into his apartment. Being polite, I nodded to the doctor, wished him a cursory good evening, and carried on home.
It seemed to escalate from there, from what I saw. Though I doubt I saw all of it. Mel’s beef with Dr Robitussin was something I presumed I largely missed while I was at work.
A commotion in the corridor outside, on a Saturday afternoon, had me cracking open the door to check it out. Mel was at Dr Robitussin’s door. He pounded on it.
‘Can’t hear criticism of yourself?’ Mel shouted at the closed door. ‘Come face me, old coot!’
For a moment, I wondered whether Mel had dementia. This was a hop, skip, and a jump beyond him being irritated with Dr Robitussin over the doctor just staring at him, rather than helping with his cane.
‘Never want to talk, eh?’ Mel demanded of Dr Robitussin’s door. ‘Just want to stand back and judge others as lesser than you?’
I left my apartment, making a gentle noise of greeting as I approached Mel and put a hand on his shoulder.
‘I don’t think he’s coming out…’ I said softly. ‘Want an iced tea? I have some…’
Mel didn’t. He did give up on pounding on Dr Robitussin’s door, but he’d rather go back to his own apartment. I followed him in and, when he grunted agreement, made him a cup of regular tea.
‘You all right?’ I asked, sitting to Mel’s table with him. ‘Is there something I can help with?’
Mel shook his head. He seemed agitated – distracted and fidgety. His hands were trembling. I watched them with concern as his hand jumped to his shoulder, giving it a scratch though his cardigan, then to do the same to his chest. It reminded me of my grandmother, before we’d admitted she needed to be in a nursing home. Delirium, or… something like that.
I tried a different tack.
‘What’s… going on with Dr Robitussin?’ I asked.
Mel stared off, abstracted, at something behind me. He was ignoring his tea.
Mel met my eyes. He shook his head again.
‘The watching,’ he said. ‘The staring. Always assessing, assessing, assessing! That’s no way to be! There is something… not right about that man!’
I nodded slowly. It was an emotional reaction, but it wasn’t nonsensical. Why it bothered Mel so much, I didn’t know, and he didn’t seem too sure either. People developed their own sensitivities, I supposed.
‘Gina,’ he said, as I was getting up to leave him to his cooling tea.
I paused. Mel looked up at me, his gaze sad and almost… beseeching.
‘Never regret being silent,’ he said. ‘Only let yourself regret speaking up.’
I wasn’t too sure which way to interpret that. Was he advising me to stay silent, or speak up? But I just smiled, reminded him he could call on me any time if he needed anything, and wished him a good afternoon.
I didn’t see Mel attempt to pound down Dr Robitussin’s door again after that. I did start to see, more and more, why Dr Robitussin might have rubbed him the wrong way, though:
Anouk and I had started taking walks around the neighbourhood, initially exploring, then it just became something we’d do on Sundays to get some fresh air and stop at the café for lunch. Every single time, leaving the apartment and when we were coming back, Dr Robitussin would be watching. Either from his balcony, or, here and there, in the doorway of his apartment. I started to feel like I was under some very blatant surveillance.
‘There aren’t too many people here yet,’ Anouk observed as we left the café behind, heading home. ‘I thought it was to be expected, the first few weeks… But it’s been a month now, you know?’
I did know what she meant. The café hadn’t been doing a roaring trade, but it hadn’t been empty either. Yet, as we walked back between the apartment blocks, I’d have to admit the place was a bit… sparse. A lot of balconies were empty of any furniture; buildings that should contain hundreds or more people seemed to be at about a quarter capacity – or less. Beyond Mel, Dr Robitussin, Anouk, and me, our floor was empty.
‘Maybe they just haven’t moved in yet?’ I suggested. ‘Or a lot of them are investment properties? And the owners are sorting out rental agreements.’
There were only a few main “For Sale” signs up around the edges of the development. It wasn’t like there was one for every unpurchased apartment, so I had no idea how many were still left to be bought.
Anouk didn’t respond. We were rounding the front of our building now. Dr Robitussin, as ever, was standing on his balcony. He watched us as we walked up to the front doors.
I’d given up waving to him. I just sent him a short nod. Anouk averted her eyes, barely sparing Dr Robitussin a glance before turning her face away.
‘I hate that watching he does!’ she hissed to me in the elevator. ‘It reminds me of a teacher I had once – always wanting to get you in trouble for any little thing.’
I was starting to hate it myself. Particularly when I went out to enjoy my vision of a balcony, and Dr Robitussin was just there, watching me from his balcony.
It was the next night, as I was gazing out the window at the river, brushing my teeth for bed, that I realised I hadn’t seen much of Mel lately. He usually took a walk in the park every morning, keeping his legs strong and himself moving – as he’d once described it to me. I didn’t think I’d seen him do that for a few days now. In fact… either I wasn’t remembering correctly, or the last time I’d seen Mel had been about five days ago, when he was using the garbage chute in the corridor.
Resolving to check in on Mel the next day, I switched out the light and got into bed. I hadn’t pulled the blind in my bedroom. I’d stopped doing so after the first time I’d gotten a chance to look out at the night-time river from my bed.
The rippling reflection of city lights on the glossy river surface was like urban bustle made serene. It was something I’d found I loved to do – more peaceful than listening to Matthew McConaughey read a bedtime story: look out at that river with my head on my pillow and my body surrounded by soft bedding.
I was slipping into that world of serenity, my eyes sunk shut, when I was jolted back awake by a frenzied banging on my door. My eyes shot open and I leapt out of bed.
‘Gina – Gina!’ Anouk called out to me, panicked, as I hurried over to the door. ‘Gina – come!’
I swung open the door.
‘There’s a man on my balcony!’ Anouk whisper-screeched, her eyes huge, and grabbed my arm, dragging me to her apartment.
‘What?’ I asked again, startled. We were three floors up. But Anouk was showing me, not telling me. We scuttled into her dark apartment. Anouk hunched, eyes darting from window to window, and started tiptoeing. I followed her lead, sneaking through the living room toward the archway into the dining area. Anouk pressed herself against the wall, and indicated silently for me to have a look.
I took a breath, and peeked through the archway, my eyes landing on the windows.
There was no one there. I eased past Anouk and had a better look, scanning her entire balcony through the large panes of glass.
‘It’s empty,’ I whispered to Anouk. ‘There’s no one.’
Anouk peaked out, then, slowly, followed me into the dining area. She went right up to the balcony doors and stared out. Then she turned back to face me, her eyes even wider.
‘Has he gotten in?’
The balcony door was locked, the windows shut and the air con on, and we combed the entire apartment for anyone. It was empty but for us.
‘He was there, I swear!’ Anouk said, upset. ‘I went to get a drink of water – and he was just there, staring though the window at me! Looked like a zombie – and his eyes were weird!’
Anouk wasn’t able to describe the man much better than that. Uneasy being in her apartment alone, she came back to mine with me. I ribbed her gently about watching horror movies before bed, looking to lessen her fear.
‘I wasn’t!’ she insisted. ‘I didn’t imagine it, I swear!
‘How would he have gotten onto the balcony?’
That bit I had no answer for. We went out onto my balcony to see if it was possible to climb up. The zombie-man with “weird” eyes would have had to have some major parkour skill to climb up. Every balcony projected, independent of additional supports, directly above the one below it. There was little by way of handholds, and the ceilings in this apartment weren’t low.
‘There’s no way…’ Anouk breathed, peering over the handrail at the ground below.
I nodded and stepped back. In the dark, I noticed the slightest movement to my left. My head whipped round to see – despite my scepticism expecting a zombie man at midnight there to kill us.
It wasn’t a zombie man – well, it was in a way, but not the one Anouk had described. It was Dr Robitussin, staring at us from his unlit balcony. Just stood there, staring at us, in the fucking middle of the night.
My teeth grit, but I pulled a smile onto my face. After all, he was my neighbour. I didn’t believe in burning bridges with people I lived right next to.
‘Hi Dr Robitussin,’ I said.
Anouk startled. Unlike me, she didn’t care about not showing hostility.
‘I hope we didn’t wake you up,’ she said coldly. ‘We’re fine, though, thanks. We don’t need your help.’
Dr Robitussin didn’t react. As usual. I shuddered when Anouk and I were both safely out of his view, and shut the sliding balcony door. That had been really creepy.
‘How did you even know what his name was?’ I asked Anouk as she bunked down beside me for the night. ‘He never says anything.’
Anouk plumped up her pillow, then flopped down onto it.
‘It was on his case,’ she said.
‘No – like a leather case. It looked old-fashioned.’
There was no repeat visit from zombie men that night. But it was after that that things did start getting weird.
I was reminded of being concerned about Mel by seeing the man himself out for a walk in the park the next morning. Initially, though, I wasn’t too sure it was Mel.
It looked like Mel, but, I suppose, part of recognising someone at a bit of distance is their walk. Mel shuffled, leant on his cane. The man I was frowning at, driving slowly along an otherwise empty lane on my way to work, wasn’t doing that. Mel was standing straight, not shuffling, but walking as though bored: like his legs had the strength for it, he just hadn’t the energy to do anything but drag his feet.
I eyed him longer as I stopped at the stop sign. It was definitely Mel: I could see his face well enough now.
A car eventually drove up behind me. The apartment complex wasn’t so deserted that there were never cars on the streets that served it. I took my turn, driving away from the park, and just decided to be happy Mel seemed to be in good form.
He wasn’t out walking the next day as I headed in to work, or the day after that. But, on the third day, as I was getting worried, I did see him again. Past the hedgerows and a fountain, I saw the thin white hair and cardigan over his wizened back. He was walking towards where I was driving – and surprisingly quickly, too. For the first few moments, I put the speed I thought I was seeing him walk at down to morning brain. But it was undeniable: for an elderly man who walked with a cane, Mel was just about cantering through the park.
Only… As Mel emerged from behind the last hedgerow, he wasn’t using his cane. He was walking without it, at a decent clip free from limp.
I pulled up to the side of the road as he stepped onto the sidewalk and rolled down my window.
‘Hey Mel!’ I called to him. ‘Nice to see you walking without the cane! How’re you doing?’
It didn’t seem Mel had heard me. I called out again as he walked up the sidewalk. This time he heard. He looked around, saw me, and, strange for Mel, didn’t smile. He did come over, though.
‘Your sore leg doin’ bette…?’ I trailed off. Mel was close enough now for me to see his eyes. He’d stooped to look in the car window. I stared.
Mel’s eyes were shivering. It seemed set off by him changing what he was looking it: like eyeballs on springs, every time his gaze switched to look at something else, they shivered side to side in their sockets.
‘It is better,’ Mel said, his voice oddly monotone.
‘That’s great!’ I said, keeping my voice bright. ‘All that walking paid off then!’
Mel’s expression didn’t change. It was just… flat.
‘Yes,’ he responded, still in that monotone. ‘It did.’
Mel bobbed his head in a nod. It set his eyes shivering.
‘Have a good day,’ he said, stood back up, and returned to his walk.
I stared after him, confounded. It was like Mel had developed a weird robotic doppelganger. One that seemed too restless to stay still.
Each of the mornings after that, Mel went out for his walks. I’d see him when I was driving into work, or, on the weekends, see him come back later and later from my apartment windows. While the way he walked looked increasingly restless – agitated – his expression stayed flat. It was an unsettling clash.
‘You don’t know what is going on in his life,’ Anouk said fairly when I expressed my concern to her. ‘It could be anything. Maybe he has Parkinson’s, and is taking a new medication for it.’
Having heard a thump from her balcony, she’d come over to watch after-dinner TV away from any potential balcony zombies.
I conceded in a nod, starting to feel like the resident busy body. I didn’t know much about Parkinson’s. Maybe it was something like that.
‘Do you want to go check your balcony yet?’ I asked, changing the subject. It wasn’t the first time Anouk, who’d started keeping all her blinds down the moment it got dark, had heard a bump on her balcony. The past couple nights she’d been my regular evening companion, wary of her own apartment. Eventually, every time this happened, she got up the courage to follow me to her apartment and check the balcony. Every time it had been empty of people, zombie or otherwise.
Anouk, curled up around a cushion on the sofa, stuck her chin on top of it.
‘Nope,’ she answered.
I cracked a smile.
‘We can see your balcony from mine…’ I suggested.
Anouk cast me a sidelong look.
‘And be stared at by Dr Robitussin as we do?’ she shot back. ‘No thank you!’
That was a good point. I pulled a face, making Anouk snicker.
‘You should probably stop watching so many scary movies…’ I said, sotto voce, returning my attention to the TV. I was ready for it, a second later, when Anouk chucked the cushion at my head.
I walked her back to her apartment about an hour later, and checked her balcony was clear. Then I returned to my apartment and got into bed.
I was woken, at about two in the morning, by my phone ringing. Groaning, I rolled over to pick it off the nightstand, expecting some scam call telling me my internet was going to be cut off unless I paid someone in ITunes vouchers.
Rather than a random number, however, my phone identified the caller as Anouk.
‘What’s up?’ I answered, groggy.
‘They are knocking!’ Anouk breathed on the other end. ‘Gina – someone’s knocking on my balcony door!’
‘I don’t know what to do – here –‘ I heard some shuffling, like Anouk was moving, then, her staying silent, I could just hear the sound of knocking against glass.
‘Do you hear it?’ she asked, even more quietly.
‘I – yeah… Erm…’ Fully awake now, I got out of bed and hurried on tip-toes to my own balcony door. ‘I’ll have a look!’
Anouk made a noise of frightened concern. Undeterred, I slid open the glass door as quietly as I could and stepped outside. The travertine tiles were cool underfoot as I eased further out to where I started to see the bannister of Anouk’s balcony.
Nothing… I took another step, then, cautiously, another. Nothing… just Anouk’s potted plants coming into view… then –
There was something grey, like a smock, visible around the edge of my balcony wall. Breathing silent and quick, I took the last step.
I pinched my lips against a squeak, my eyes going huge and watery with a sudden wash of chilled terror –
There was a woman standing at Anouk’s balcony door. I could see all the blinds were down over Anouk’s windows – the glass door shut. I could hear Anouk’s scared breathing over the phone. Could hear the knocking.
The woman on Anouk’s balcony wasn’t holding a phone. She wasn’t Anouk. Her hair was brown and stringy; unwashed. And she was just standing there, on Anouk’s balcony. Knocking as though asking to be let in – yet it wasn’t just a knock and wait. It was continuous. Again and again and again.
‘Gina?’ Anouk breathed over the phone. ‘You okay?’
I hadn’t words. I was just staring.
‘Gina?’ Anouk repeated, louder.
I didn’t want to talk. I really didn’t want this woman, standing in her grey smock on a balcony three storeys off the ground, to know I was there. But it seemed I didn’t need to say anything to alert her. I saw the woman start to turn. Slowly but deliberately, she revolved to look straight at me.
Her face, shadowed in only the residual light of streetlamps and lit windows above, was empty of expression – just flat. And her eyes… One was looking at me. Dead on. The other had been. But it drifted to the side as she stared back at me and started shivering in its socket.
Her expression unchanged, the woman’s head tilted to the side, as though considering me. Her cheek caught light from somewhere, revealing a rash – like eczema – creeping up her neck onto her face. Her eyes jumped back to focused on me, then drifted off again, shivering.
I backed away as Anouk whispered my name again. I don’t know why exactly I was backing away. There were several metres of empty space separating Anouk’s balcony from mine. No way the woman could leap over that to get at me.
Or, at least, I hoped she couldn’t.
I blinked hard a few times, trying to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was. The woman was still for another moment, lank hair so still it looked painted on, then, as though in slow motion, a smile grew on her face. It got bigger and bigger, filling into her cheeks as her eyes trembled, until it looked painfully huge and downright demonic.
The woman moved. All of a sudden – she was just there, then she was spinning away, moving so quickly I could have missed her in a blink – and then she was gone, lost to the shadows on the far side of the balcony.
My feet unstuck themselves from the tiles. I ran to my balustrade, searching for where she’d gone – how she could possibly get off that balcony without falling to her death.
‘Gina!’ Anouk cried in a whisper over the phone. ‘I’m coming over there!’
‘She’s gone!’ I hissed back, still searching the façade of the apartment building with my eyes. I couldn’t see the woman anywhere. The only way she could just disappear like that was if… she hopped balconies around the side or something.
‘She?’ Anouk just about screeched. ‘There was actually someone there?’
‘She…’ I uttered. ‘There… Yes.’
‘OH MY GOD!’ I could hear Anouk starting to hyperventilate over the phone. She’d begun whimpering, and I heard her bouncing around, her feet sticking and unsticking from her tiles. Her voice shaky, she muttered, ‘No… no – no no no!’
‘Come over!’ I said to her. ‘Just come over! I’ll make… ice cream.’
Sniffling and whimpering, Anouk made a panicked hum of agreement. I turned around, headed to go open the door for her, and stopped in my tracks.
One balcony over, in the opposite direction, there was another figure stood stock still, out in the small hours of the morning. I caught the glint of Dr Robitussin’s glasses, saw him raise his narrow chin as he watched me.
I hadn’t it in me to work out what to say to him – whether to shout at him for being creepy and making me not want to use my balcony, or to try to be polite. I just ran inside, slammed the sliding door, and hurried to let the knocking Anouk in.
She spent the night with me, and, for once, I pulled down all my blinds. Terrified of hearing the knocking start up again, we sat awake for hours, sharing looks of wide-eyed fear as we tried to focus on a rom com.
Part 2: Riverview
Anouk was over again the moment she got home from work the next day. I didn’t blame her. I didn’t want to be alone as it started getting dark, and I didn’t want to be over in her apartment either.
We put on another movie, curling up on my couch after dinner with wine and cheese – trying to pretend it was just a fun girls’ night in.
I don’t think I saw the end of the movie. Exhausted from next to no sleep the previous night, I drifted off around the time the main character, emerging from the lovemaking bed with her bra still on, started regretting sleeping with her boss.
I woke up sometime around midnight, the TV displaying a message asking me if I was still watching; the lamp beside the sofa still on, my neck sore and stiff from falling asleep against the armrest, and Anouk snoring quietly on the other side of the couch.
For what had woken me… I listened out for knocking on the balcony door. For thumps outside. Something had woken me up – I had a sense of that – but I heard nothing from the balcony or any of the windows.
I sat up, massaging my neck, but my focus was on listening hard. There were sounds. Quiet ones, and they weren’t coming from outside. Instead, it sounded like they were coming from inside another apartment. I thought I heard a bang, then… something like a yowl.
I poked Anouk, then again when she didn’t stir the first time. With a snort, she came awake, her head shooting up from the backrest of the sofa.
‘Huh?’ she uttered.
‘I’m hearing something…’ I whispered.
Anouk’s face went instantly to terrified. She shot a look at the windows, all of them shielded by blinds. Except for the small one in the bathroom – but that was just because I hadn’t gone in there yet.
‘Not out there,’ I told her, getting up. ‘Inside the building…’
Anouk followed me as I went to my apartment door. I cracked it open and peeked out. The noises were louder in the corridor. It sounded like someone was having some kind of fit inside their apartment: thumps and bangs, and, intermixed, cries of rage or misery.
‘Mel?’ Anouk whispered in my ear.
I was thinking that too. We left my apartment, heading in the direction of the noises, but only got about three steps into the corridor before Mel’s door banged open –
Anouk and I halted, stunned, as the elderly man just about flew out, swift on wizened legs, and gripping something tight to his chest. He didn’t seem to see us. Instead, he looked hell bent on racing down the corridor away from us – passing the elevators and slamming into and through the door to the emergency exit.
I’d started after him barely a second before there was a mighty smash! from the emergency exit. It rang out into the night-time quiet of the apartment building as I picked up speed.
Mel came back into the corridor and I skidded to a halt, stopping myself against the wall before the heavy metal door. He was shaking, from head to toe, walking blindly into the corridor, his breathing fast and irregular.
‘Mel?’ Anouk said, hurrying to his side. ‘You okay?’
Anouk helping to support Mel, I pushed the emergency stair door open and looked into it. It was the same as it ever had been: a concrete stairwell, square spiral stairs leading both up to the floors above and down to the ground floor below.
I saw what had caused the smashing noise over the handrail. Down below, between switch-backing stairs, on the ground floor three storeys down… were the shattered remains of what looked like one of Mel’s urns.
I let the stairwell door ease itself shut behind me. Mel was bent over, gripping the frame of the elevator doors for support, Anouk rubbing his back. Ignoring the opening of Dr Robitussin’s door up the corridor, I trotted over to join them.
Between rapid gasping breaths, Mel was whining out like he was in pain. No longer flat, his expression was screwed up into miserable lines; his entire body shaking badly. His eyes, when he opened them briefly here and there, were still shivering – and it looked like it was getting worse.
‘What happened, Mel?’ I asked, patting his arm. ‘You okay?’
It was a stupid question. And not just because Mel was obviously not okay. He didn’t seem to be in a state where he could answer – like he was lost in his own world of horror. His whines, between deep gasps, had become cries: like every breath was just there to replenish repeated yells of distress that got louder and louder. He was sinking, even as Anouk and I tried to support him – slipping down against the metal frame of the elevator doors as his limbs jumped and shook.
I ended up getting down on hands and knees to stay level with him, rubbing his shoulder as, on his other side, Anouk squatted. She and I shared a worried look over Mel’s back.
‘I think…’ Anouk murmured, ‘we should call an ambulance…’
On his knees on the shiny tiles of the corridor, the side of Mel’s head was pressed up against the wall. His hands couldn’t stay still, tugging randomly at his trousers; scratching his chest through his cardigan. I watched the elderly man’s eyes shake side to side as he yelled out a panicked scream, his body jumping uncontrollably, and thought Anouk was right. I had no idea what was going on, but it was bad.
I nodded to Anouk. Neither of us had our phones on us. Anouk muttered about going to get hers and gave Mel’s shoulder another pat before getting up. I know she noticed Dr Robitussin as she passed him on her way back to my apartment. She didn’t look at him, but I saw her back stiffen as he eyed her going past.
‘Shhh, Mel,’ I said, soothing, to the elderly man. ‘Shh… It’s okay – we’re getting help!’
Mel’s face screwed up, his eyes squeezing shut again. He shook his head against the wall.
‘It’s – h-her!’
I blinked, my hand rubbing Mel’s back compulsively. He’d shouted that out between gasping breaths. It was the first thing he’d said so far.
‘Who, Mel?’ I asked, trying to make my tone soothing.
‘H-her!’ he cried. ‘J-Jill!’
Anouk was hurrying back, her phone pressed to her ear.
Jill… I recognised the name – thought I recognised the urn, now, too.
‘Your sister?’ I asked gently. ‘What do you mean it’s her?’
Mel gasped and yelled, gasped and yelled. His face screwed up even tighter, tears slipping out of his closed eyes.
‘Seen – her!’ he managed, and shuddered from head to toe. His hand, scratching his side, jumped to scratch his neck. My eyes landed on a patch of pink dry skin on the side of it – like his collar had given him eczema.
Hanging up her phone now, Anouk gave me a nod, letting me know the ambulance was on its way. She lowered to her knees beside Mel and patted his fidgeting hand.
‘Help’s on its way,’ I told Mel. ‘Not long now!’
‘No!’ Mel cried. ‘No – help! Never – help-ped! She’s – here!’
I met Anouk’s frown.
‘You’ve… seen Jill?’ I asked.
Jill was dead. Her remains were in the urn at the bottom of the stairs. I stared at Anouk. She was starting to think what I was. I could see it in her eyes. I shoved to my feet, Anouk shuffling to be closer to Mel.
The elderly man’s apartment door was still partially open. I pushed through it and ran into his apartment. Mel’s blinds were all up, outside visible through large panes of glass. My eyes landed on each window in the living room in turn. All empty.
The light in the dining area was out. I swung into the room, braced to see a woman on the balcony. But the balcony too was empty.
I knew I hadn’t imagined what I’d seen on Anouk’s balcony only last night. But I knew how fast… if it was the same woman, she could run.
I hurried right up to the balcony door and peered around. The balcony was clear. I couldn’t see anything – at least, not until my eyes switched focus, going from looking out the window to seeing something on the window.
There were oily smudges on it. Around the middle of the door. And, my eyes trailing up the pane of glass: there was a handprint, a little smaller than mine would be, just visible as a greasy mark on the glass.
I raised a finger and, hesitant, traced over the handprint at the point the thumb met the palm. I felt nothing but clean glass – it wasn’t greasy. Pulling my finger back, I could see a faint sign of where I’d touched the window. It had done nothing to distort the handprint.
The marks were on the other side of the glass. And I was seeing more of them. As though my eyes had become trained to pick them out, I saw more and more smudges, all around the sliding door, at different heights, and spanning out to the windows on either side of the door too.
I shuddered. Anouk, as far as we knew, had had one night caller knocking on her balcony door. To me, it looked like Mel had had dozens.
My hand had started to tremble. I dropped it, turned on my heel, and hurried back out of Mel’s apartment, following the sounds of his continued gasps and yells.
Anouk was still trying to sooth Mel. He didn’t look to have calmed one bit.
‘Mel,’ I said, wary, kneeling down beside him. ‘Mel… How long has she – Jill… been knocking?’
Anouk’s huge eyes met mine over Mel’s back. I saw her swallow.
Mel shook harder. He was plucking at his skin now, through his cardigan. His eyes popped open, offering us a sight of them shivering back and forth, then he squeezed them shut again and shook his head. It took him another couple moments to say anything at all.
‘Never – r-regret – st-staying – s-silent!’ he cried between huge inhales of air. ‘Only – l-let – your-self – re-regret – speak-ing – up!’
It was the same thing he’d said to me months ago, and this time like the last, I didn’t know which way to take that.
‘He is not of sane mind.’
Anouk spun around. I stared past her. It wasn’t either of us who’d said that. For the first time ever, Dr Robitussin had decided to speak. And it made my blood boil. Kneeling there, trying to comfort Mel in the middle of the night, my dedication to neighbourly politeness crumbled.
‘If that’s what you have to say, then I wish you’d stayed silent!’ I shouted at the supercilious man at the same time Anouk cried, ‘You horrible little man! How is that helping?’
Stood just outside his doorway, watching us knelt beside the distressed Mel, Dr Robitussin’s chin lifted, his glasses catching the overhead lights. I stared back at him as, slowly, a small, pleased smile grew on his face. It didn’t warm his eyes. They were as cold and judgemental as ever, the smile looking like one of glee at another’s’ misery.
Panic attack, the paramedics said. Mel was having a panic attack. Unable to get him to follow their breathing exercises or calm him by explaining what was going on, they took him to hospital where, they said, the doctors could give him Valium and that would help him calm down. For why Mel’s eyes were shivering like that, the paramedic’s answer was simply ‘Nystagmus’. When I pressed, asking what would make it happen, their answer was that a lot of different things could cause it.
And all the while, as Mel sweated with the exertion of his panic and seemed more and more distressed – barely responding to the paramedics’ questions – Dr Robitussin stood and watched from up the corridor. He didn’t speak again. Just viewed us with that, as Mel had previously described it, assessing gaze, levelled on all of us.
Being wheeled out on the stretcher, the last thing Mel said that I heard was ‘D-don’t – lock – me –aw-ay!’
‘Nah!’ the paramedic beside him said, cheerful. ‘Don’t worry! Just to the local hospital – have a chat with a psychologist and maybe get some Valium! It feels like the end of the world, but it’s just a panic attack, bud!’
But I wondered, Anouk and I heading back up to my apartment, whether what was really on Mel’s mind was his sister. If he felt she was haunting him… I could guess why he’d want to smash her urn.
And there was something haunting us.
Anouk and I passed the silent and watching Dr Robitussin without saying a word to him. I shut the door behind me, not looking back to see him assessing us from the corridor.
‘Jill?’ Anouk asked the moment I’d locked the door.
So I explained what I knew about Mel’s sister to her. About how Jill had experienced post-natal depression, from the sounds of it, and ended up committed in an era where that was the thing to do for women who were depressed and wouldn’t clean the house. I told her, too, about the marks on the glass around Mel’s balcony door.
‘So he’s been seeing them as well?’ she breathed. ‘What’s wrong with this place? What are they? Where are they coming from?’
We had no answer for any of it. I’d been thinking there was only one night caller – that woman I’d seen on Anouk’s balcony. But when I said that to her she insisted the first one she’d seen had been a man.
And the more we debated it, into the early hours of the morning, the more freaked out Anouk became. She paced around my apartment, shaking her hands by her sides in restless shivers.
‘Did you ever see this place on Google Maps?’ Anouk asked me, stopping only momentarily in the archway to my dining area before restarting her pacing. ‘Where you can go through the streets?’
It stirred what felt now like an old memory.
‘The blurred spots?’ I asked.
Anouk had disappeared into my kitchen. She appeared a second later, and, watching me with wide eyes, nodded.
‘What,’ she said, her tone hushed, ‘if that’s them?’
We filed into my study and I opened my laptop. Anouk brought in a chair from my dining table as I navigated to Google Maps. I dropped the wiggly yellow dude on the road outside our apartment building and both me and Anouk leant in close.
The Street View image was the same as the one I’d seen two months before. Everywhere along the near-deserted roads of Roselands, photographed a few weeks before the development had opened, were those rectangles of blur. We panned around, skimming along streets, seeing blurred rectangle after blurred rectangle. Every rectangle did seem about large enough to conceal a human-sized figure.
‘But these were taken during the day…’ Anouk said.
I knew what she was getting at. We’d only noticed the balcony callers at night. Maybe it was that it was very late at night, but right then it didn’t feel too ridiculous to think that just because we couldn’t see them during the day, didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Having done a circuit of our neighbourhood, we’d arrived back before our apartment building.
‘Pan up…’ Anouk suggested quietly.
I shot a look at her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. She met my look with a serious one, as though she’d steeled herself to see it too.
I panned up, making use of the camera’s ability to photograph not only street level, but the floors above. In one shift of the image, we were looking at the third floor of our apartment building. Anouk sucked in a breath.
I could pick where my apartment balcony was on the image. And on its balcony was a human-sized, blurred out rectangle.
I could feel scared tears prickle my eyes. Anouk shuffled her hand over my arm, trying to reassure me. Her balcony, in the image, was clear. But the one a floor above it was not, and nor was Dr Robitussin’s.
Seeking to get away from that image, I picked an earlier street capture to view. It was the earliest one available on Google Maps, from only two years ago. We explored what was then a construction site. And it wasn’t free from the blurred rectangles either. They dotted the construction area, atop diggers and wandering the passages that allowed access for oversize vehicles.
‘I wonder…’ I said, looking at a blurred rectangle stood right beside a construction worker, only the worker’s face blurred out. ‘I wonder if we can get the blurs removed? See what’s behind it?’
With Anouk fetching us ice cream, I found a page to contact Google and composed a message, asking for the blurs to be removed, or, if they couldn’t do that, to just un-blur the image of my balcony. Tense, Anouk encouraged me all the same, and I sent the message.
‘You know his eyes…’ Anouk said. ‘Mel’s…? That’s what the man on my balcony’s eyes looked like.’
I had a response waiting for me when, having finally found sleep, I woke up after only two hours of rest. Google had wished me well, but, regrettably, removing blurs from images was against their policy. Once it was blurred, it stayed blurred. And they didn’t say why it had been blurred in the first place.
In the light of the morning, Anouk could face going back to her apartment. I got ready for work, and made the solitary trek down to my car in the elevator. It weighed more heavily on me, that morning, how sparsely populated this huge development was. I passed only a few vehicles in the underground parking lot, and no one else was walking around as I headed to my car.
Maybe it was tiredness. Likely it was the experience of the night. But the apartment complex looked that morning like something straight out of an end-of-the-world movie: next to no one around, only me on the roads for now. Even Mel, probably still in the hospital, wasn’t around to be seen walking in the manicured park.
I found it oppressive as tall, nearly empty apartment buildings loomed around me. And it made me grip my steering wheel harder, my insides churning, uneasy, at the sight of the deserted road. It felt like doomsday was coming.
But the rest of the city was abustle; patently normal in the people clogging up the roads with traffic, waiting for a bus packed to the brim, and hauling out their rubbish. My workday was a reprieve in normalcy.
‘Hey Gina!’ Jane, one of my co-workers, said, joining me on a park bench outside for lunch. ‘We’re all going out after work – have a couple drinks for Shona’s birthday. Want to come?’
No was my first impulse. Because I didn’t want to leave Anouk alone to face whatever was going on. And because I was a small-group-of-friends person, not a large party at a bar person. But…
For once I did actually have a desire for the large party at a bar. Thinking of heading home that evening to the near-desolate apartment complex I called home… Being able to delay that with the hubbub of human activity was like an offer of a holiday.
So I accepted the invitation. Doing so was like admitting to myself just how much the past few days – past several weeks – had started weighing me down.
‘No – don’t worry!’ Anouk said when I called her in a free moment that afternoon. ‘You go! Enjoy it!’
‘Do you want to come?’
‘To your co-worker’s birthday party?’ Anouk said, doubtful.
She had a point.
‘Don’t worry about me,’ Anouk said. ‘I’ll shut all my blinds and not look out.’
I felt bad leaving her to that, but I agreed, promised I wouldn’t stay long, and told her to call me if anything happened.
As it turned out, my colleagues could drink hard and fast. The booze flowed in vats and sweet cocktails, and after two hours, when I was thinking I should get home, they chose that moment to start the actual birthday wishes, called out in tipsy toasts.
‘No no…’ I said, smiling and trying to ease myself away once that had died down. ‘I should probably go! I’ve… er… got a neighbour who’s been in a bit of a bad spot lately.’
A chorus of “Aww”s met this pronouncement. Following it was another co-worker announcing he was going to take off too.
‘Want to share a taxi?’ he said to me, getting up from his stool. ‘We’re you staying?’
He was swigging down the last of his sangria. It was Jane who’d responded first.
‘Roselands?’ she just about shouted. It made people who weren’t listen in.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I got one of the new apartments by the river.’
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a bit of a congrats that I’d managed to enter into the housing market. Maybe I was half-expecting something more sinister than that.
It was the latter I got. Along with a lot of stares and an ‘Oh shit!’ laughed by one drunk guy I didn’t know.
‘The old asylum place?’ Shona cried. ‘Riverview? You live there?’
‘No one lives there!’ Jane said, horrified.
‘You know it’s haunted?’ another woman, Marcy, told me in what constituted an undertone in the loud bar. She gave me a serious nod when I looked over at her. ‘It’s why construction took so long – workers kept leaving cuz they were seeing the ghosts of dead patients!’
Someone behind Marcy made a ghostly noise, which had half my work mates laughing aloud.
‘Oh come on,’ the guy who’d offered to share a taxi said, dismissive. ‘I’m not scared of any ghosts!’ he added to me, flashing me a smile. ‘Anyway, my place isn’t far from there – ready to go?’
My head was running through thought after thought, processing what I’d just heard. But I nodded and grabbed my bag.
“Nothing’s happened yet!” Anouk replied to the text I sent her in the taxi. “Want some dinner? I can bring it over when I’m done!”
I barely heard what my taxi buddy was saying as we wound through the streets towards Roselands. If I remembered rightly, Mel had said his sister had lived there – died there – at Roselands, a long time ago. Said she’d been committed.
An old asylum made sense, actually. Roselands was built on a large plot of land surprisingly close to the city centre. Right next to an idyllic river. Why else would that land be free for development but because it was the location of a demolished asylum?
I itched to Google it. The moment I was out of the taxi, calling a distracted goodbye to the co-worker left in it, I was on my phone. I didn’t even notice the uncomfortable desertion of the complex. I was looking up “Riverview” even before I’d swiped through into the apartment building.
Riverview… built in 1856, initially as a poorhouse; changed names multiple times… steadily became an asylum with a bad reputation – as most do.
I was scanning though a webpage, written by a group called the Riverview Survivors – people who’d been there themselves, decades ago, or had friends or family committed to the asylum and been impacted by their experiences as patients.
The expected keywords jumped out at me: inhumane treatment, lobotomies, insulin shock therapy, overcrowding, derelict, abysmal conditions… I was still scanning the article when the elevator pinged on the third floor. I glanced up to navigate out of the elevator and saw, standing right there in the corridor – as though waiting to judge me – Dr Robitussin.
My jaw clenched, but I said nothing, hurrying past him and shutting myself in my apartment as quickly as I could.
Anouk’s latest text gave me a half hour before she was done cooking. I shut myself in my bathroom, flipped down the toilet lid, and sat on it. I’d been planning to shower – or at least wash my makeup off and change into something more comfortable. Instead, I read and read on my phone, like a person in a panic trying to cram for an exam they hadn’t realised was tomorrow: flitting, without system, between points that jumped out at me.
Riverview had been demolished seven years before, in part at the loud demand of the Riverview Survivors. It had taken a while to find a company willing to develop the land. Five years ago, a foreign company had signed on to the development now called Roselands. It had taken them four years of construction to create what was here now.
And that made me look up Marcy’s claim that construction workers had checked out of the project, fleeing the ghosts of old patients. There were a few tabloid or blog articles about that. Those ones called the land “unbelievably haunted”, the titles clickbait gems.
My phone buzzed: Anouk texting me that she’d be over in five minutes. I put my phone down, decided on a morning shower instead, and bent over the sink to wash the makeup off my face.
My face dripping, I turned off the tap and reached for a towel. For the first couple seconds, hearing a tapping behind me, I just told myself I didn’t believe it. Some kind of protective instinct, I suppose. Because I knew what it likely was.
I’d developed a habit of not pulling the blind down over the bathroom window. I did if I thought of it, but the window was small, about a metre from my balcony, and people couldn’t easily see in from outside. Or, I hadn’t thought they could.
I lowered the towel from my face. The breath was filling my lungs in shallow pants. My hands balled into fists, scrunching the towel between them – and I turned around.
There was a face in my bathroom window. Male. Lined with deep wrinkles. Hair past needing a cut. And eyes shivering in their sockets.
The breath whooshed out of my lungs. The man outside my window, three storeys off the ground, stared back at me with eyes that couldn’t possibly be able to focus on me. His mouth quirked into a smile. And then his eyes squeezed shut.
With a loud THUMP he slammed his forehead into my window. He drew back, eyes not opening, and did it again – and again – and again.
I shook where I stood, watching, horrified, as the man pounded his head against the glass. From what seemed like far away, there was a knock on my apartment door. Not the balcony one, but the one Anouk would knock on to be let in.
I shot into action, racing to the window, my gaze averted – not wanting to see the man up close – and yanked the blind shut. Then I was out of the bathroom, racing to the door.
Anouk heard it all, and didn’t sit down to the dinner she’d brought over. She paced, restless, between bites, shaking her hands at her sides as though they tingled.
‘I didn’t see anything about it being an asylum!’ she cried when I told her that. ‘I didn’t know!’
‘It changed its name,’ I said. I was still trembling from my earlier encounter. From what I could hear, the man had stopped slamming his head into my bathroom window. I hadn’t heard the window break either.
Anouk shuddered, stuffed a new forkful in her mouth, and started pacing again.
It was that, and the way Anouk shook her hands – repeatedly clenched them – that made me start to think agitated was a better way to describe her demeanour. She wasn’t a wholly sedate person, but this level of movement – of being unable to stay still – wasn’t usual for Anouk. It had gone beyond even the level of jumpiness she’d been at last night.
‘I’m just…’ she said, bouncing on the spot and staring around the living room. ‘Just restless – freaked out, you know? Oh – this is awful!’
I suggested we attempt to get the energy out by following some dancercise video. It seemed, in another place, at another time, like something that would be fun. Right there and then, it wasn’t so much, and, even when, panting, Anouk fell onto the sofa to recuperate from the intense workout, she wasn’t able to stay completely still. Both her knees started bouncing.
Anouk groaned, burying her head in her hands. She bounced up and down with her legs.
‘I feel horrible!’ she moaned. ‘Why this? Why is this happening?’
And that was when the knocking started up on my balcony door. Anouk and I had pulled all the blinds down. We didn’t go to see what was there – who was knocking. We tried to ignore it, switching on all the lights and retreating to my bedroom. There we stayed when we heard a second set of knuckles join the first in their incessant knocking.
For hours we tried to just distract each other, as the knocking continued without pause. We told each other the night callers couldn’t get in. That we were safe inside. We didn’t know how true that was, but it was what we wanted to believe.
At about three in the morning, Anouk’s restless energy just seemed to dissolve – disappearing all on its own, without reason or cause. Exhausted, she slumped down onto the bed, and started to weep into a pillow.
I soothed her until she finally fell asleep, then, quietly, crept out of the bedroom to grab my laptop. I shut myself back in with it, sitting on my bed beside Anouk, my laptop balanced on my knees.
I’d be more systematic about it, this time, I told myself, opening up a web browser. Really look to find… whatever answers the internet had.
But the first result, when I typed “Riverview” into the search, was Google Maps. That was where all this had started: those blurred rectangles on Street View. I clicked on it.
It was still the same images, from the month the complex had opened. I clicked through the streets, not really looking for anything, just drawn by morbid fixation as the knocking continued and continued, a constant refrain from the balcony door. I clicked my way around the apartment complex, my eyes jumping from blurred spot to blurred spot; then, having exhausted my interest in that area, out towards the café Anouk and I ate Sunday lunches at.
That was where, even before the apartment buildings had opened, I’d seen people caught on Google camera. I paused outside the café, gazing longingly at the image of what looked to me like a simpler time: before I’d encountered any balcony knocker.
My eyes homed in on something I hadn’t noticed before. All faces on Google Maps, as far as I knew, were automatically blurred out. In a neighbourhood of so many unexplained blurs, there was one face, among the patrons of the café, that wasn’t blurred.
I zoomed in, to be sure. But I already knew who it was. I could see the glasses glinting in the summer sun, the narrow jaw, and, on the floor beside him, there was the old leather case Anouk had described. On it, in letters fuzzy from the zoom, was written “Dr Robitussin”.
I stared at the man – at the only visible face on Google Maps. The image of Dr Robitussin stared right back at me. Assessing. A small smile of schadenfreude on his face.
It made me exit right out of Maps. Had me trying to make my jumpy hands be still on the mousepad. I went back to my search. Found bits and pieces. Dug deeper. Then deeper still.
Someone had written their graduate thesis on Riverview. It focused on the years between 1880 and 1900. I skimmed it, phrases jumping out at me: ”known for cruelty to its patients”… “the inexact science that was psychiatry in the late 19th Century”… “trial of a new psychiatric drug, known only as “Rin. Sed.” in patient documents”… “spearheaded by then esteemed Dr Buckley…”
I skimmed the entire thesis, then switched to the next tab, where I’d left open a page of photographs compiled on a wiki devoted to old asylums. It was picture after picture of how Roselands had looked, back when it was Riverview Asylum. The photos stretched back into the late 1800s. I clicked through them, seeing patients in grey smocks, crowded wards, workrooms that used patient labour… And then I landed on one of staff, dated 1902.
They, doctors, administrators, and matrons, were stood formally before a fountain, the men in pressed suits, the women in aproned frocks. Below the photo were their names, listed from left to right. It was the man second from the left I wanted to know the name of. A man who stared back at me with that assessing gaze I knew all too well – who’d done the same thing from a far more recent Google photograph.
Dr Buckley, the caption named him. A bit hysterically, I wondered whether Dr Robitussin – as I knew him – had a sense of humour after all, or whether he was just unimaginative, and the only pseudonym he could come up with was one that was also a cough syrup.
Because, though the photograph was over a century old, I recognised the good Dr Robitussin, and he hadn’t aged a day. He even had the same glasses.
Blinking freaked out tears from my eyes, I opened another tab, and typed into a new search the terms “Rin. Sed. Dr Buckley Riverview”. By the time I found what I was searching for, the knocking from the balcony had finally stopped, dawn not far away.
Rin. Sed. was the shorthand name of an unknown medication trialled at Riverview to sedate and suppress patients – make them more compliant – from the turn of the 20th century into, one scholar postulated, the 1950s and perhaps beyond. No scholar I read had any idea which drug it was exactly. Rin. Sed. didn’t adequately match the effects, intended and adverse, of any known drug. Researchers suggested it might be a mixture or rare formulation, never written down where historians could read it.
What scholars had been able to learn from Asylum files, though, was that Rin. Sed. had the benefit of being tasteless when added to water. That made it significantly easier to administer to patients: attendants could just spike the patient’s water with it. And if the patient was refusing to drink water, it was added to their bathwater, which seemed to work almost as well.
Researchers had been able to tell that, and some of the side effects, from analysis of patient notes. The side effects rang in my head as I read through them, my mind churning and churning through information: “a unique form of nystagmus” – that eye-movement problem the paramedics had said Mel had… “…had certain physical benefits, most notably, as Dr Buckley recorded it, among the elderly”… “akathisia” – which the internet told me was a movement disorder in which patients suffer extreme restlessness… “eczematous rash” was the last one on the list, seen particularly in patients treated with Rin. Sed. in their bathwater.
And it seemed Rin. Sed., whatever it was, wasn’t perfect as a sedative. It worked a lot of the time. But it could wear off. Or it could leave permanent brain damage.
I searched on and on, but with no new revelations and the knocking ceased, the graininess of my eyes started to win out against fear. I dozed off where I sat, my head lolling over my laptop.
I woke up to that bright sunlight of morning glowing around my blinds. Yet again, my neck was stiff and my computer had gone off to sleep too. I put it aside, tried to crack my back, and then checked on Anouk. She was still out of it, face-down on the bed and snoring into the pillow.
I took a quick and trepidatious journey to the bathroom. There was no one in the window now. How could there be? To look in through my bathroom window like that, someone would have to be perched dangerously on the handrail of my balcony, leant a metre out over thin air.
The window wasn’t cracked… But there was a smudge on it that covered the entire centre of the window. On the outside of the glass.
The balcony door and windows, me pulling up each blind one by one, had the same. It was a jarring juxtaposition: that refreshing light of morning, contrasting with the signs, spread in marks all over the panes of glass, of the knuckles of night callers.
I tried to breathe long and deep, staring out at the scenery outside: that river I loved so much… the boardwalk.
It was too clear to me now, though, that Roselands was far from adequately populated. It was a Saturday morning. I could see no one out taking a walk, not even Mel. Couldn’t see anyone driving around. It seemed, if possible, the complex was even less full than it had been the week I’d moved in.
A horrible thought found me. One that returned from a couple nights before:
What if the night callers, though only visible by night, were still there during the day? What if they could only be seen by camera?
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. My heart started to pick up, drumming into an anxious rush as I lifted the phone and opened up the camera. My eyes squeezed shut for a second, then, determined, I opened them, aimed the camera at my balcony, and snapped the shot.
My fingers trembled as I swiped to view it.
I needn’t have worried about that one. It was just my balcony, empty of any night callers.
I wasn’t wholly convinced, though.
The balcony door slid open with a quiet, well-lubricated shush. The travertine tiles were, as ever, cool under my feet. I held up my phone, treading carefully toward the handrail, and started snapping pictures. One after another after another. I became manic about it: not wanting to check any of them until I’d captured the panorama.
I only realised I was scratching the inside of my elbow when I was trying to steel myself to view the pics. I shoved up my sleeve.
I’d never experienced eczema. But there it was, on the inside of my elbow. Pink, dry, and itchy.
I pulled my eyes away. What was I waiting for?
The pictures I’d taken flashed before my eyes, flicking from one to the next on my phone.
And my lower lip trembled. My breathing came rapid and shallow through my nose.
The apartment complex before me, seen with my eyes, was empty of people – deserted, like a ghost town.
Because that’s what it was. A ghost town. Because on my phone, the place wasn’t deserted. Far from it. It was full of grey-clad person after grey-clad person. They swarmed the road below me. They were there on the balconies in the building across from mine. And there was even that woman, with the stringy brown hair, grinning back at me from Anouk’s balcony.
I dropped my phone. The bright world around me had suddenly become treacherous. And I caught sight of it, out the corner of my eye: the glint of Dr Robitussin’s glasses from his balcony. Watching and assessing. As always. As he had done, for well over a century.
“Never regret being silent. Only let yourself regret speaking up.”
I still didn’t know what Mel’s advice meant. Was I supposed to speak up? Or was it not being silent, speaking up against Dr Robitussin, that was the danger?