From the streets cracked with weeds and neglect, Andy counts thirteen strips of skull-socket windows. Above all those missing eyes in the fourteenth row of the apartment tower, one pane blinks with light. In a city sapped of its electric lifeblood, the Morse Os wail like a ghost. Andy knows no one is there. Everyone is gone. A solar-charged lamp fell. This is a sadistic trick of nature or god, nothing more
But Andy recounts the floors and inks “14” on the back of his hand.
The entrance is unlocked. Inside, a dead houseplant lurks in the corner. The breeze behind Andy wiggles the dust on the mailboxes like desiccated cilia. A bagless trashcan asks for more than its faded grocery store ads. It’s the same scene he’s seen hundreds of times. He doesn’t even need to axe through the stairwell access to climb up to the fourteenth floor. Maybe not the fourteenth floor. In all his climbing, Andy came to the conclusion that architects in the city had gone to war over when to start counting floors. Ground was Zero here, but One there. Or they called it the Lobby. Adding Mezzanine floors, numbered or unnumbered, was a new chaotic tactic in their professional warfare. Hence the “14” in ink. Fourteen sets of stairs to climb, and forget this architect’s allegiances. Or hell, just let these made-up stories muffle the scraps of hope he fosters deep in his belly, decomposing under all the dead butterflies, that he will find a person taking refuge in the apartment with the blinking lights.
The floor looks normal. The door is ordinary at first, but under his headlamp, the color pops. A blue-green that could be called seafoam, or tropical Kool-Aid vomit. Apartment doors are always locked, but Andy always tries before axing his way through. He has demolished doorways all over the city, coughing his way through former lives. Can he still call this place a city? When he’s the only one there? Urban landscape doesn’t depend on people, but a city is inhabited. Call the city by its name, he tells himself, it’s name’s not null because no one’s here. But he doesn’t dare whisper the name. Like a survivor grieving in his family’s tomb, the namesake becomes sacred now the essence has gone.
Andy turns the doorknob. Locked. Soon after he cracks the door open, he sees the flash from next door cast a dim white-green light over the couches and coffee table. This isn’t the right apartment. He sets his axe on the bureau among the fuzzy keys and picture frames, and searches each room. No people. No bodies. No sign of any disturbance whatsoever, just like every other home in the city Andy has broken into. He throws open all the windows to pump out the stale air, to let the rain and humidity in, to allow the rooms the dignity to rot with mold and new life. A flurry of particles stirs and slithers. The air currents conjure writhing dust clouds that glint in the staccato glow from the light next door.
With a heavy hand, Andy swoops up his axe to leave, but it slips and clatters on the floor. As he bends to recover his only constant companion, his hand wipes the grey from the mahogany bureau. The itch seizes his lungs, and he coughs out the odor of abandon, of a city emptied of its souls, and stares at the shine of the lacquered wood. The dust is thick as lichen. Where the hell could it all come from? Not like there could be any dust mites left. They must have finished eating all the human detritus years ago, right? Did they evolve to thrive in their own filth, eating their own recycled shit over and over again, reproducing and eating their own graveyards until their shit makes mountains and valleys, a new veritable city of shit in this old city of people?
He goes to the kitchen, puts his axe in the sink and forages for rags and cleaning products. Andy brushes ceramic clowns and appliances smooth and wipes surfaces and cabinets and crevices, shakes the sheets and blanket and pillows and cushions out the windows, Windexes all the glass he can find, empties the petrified remains of the refrigerator, pilfers the closet for a broom and prays his thanks for the parquet and sweeps up the dust rats, and fills trash bags with their massed corpses.
For the multiple mop buckets, he uses their stash of off-brand bottled water, and mixes in Pinesol and soaks up what’s left. The sludge he dumps down fourteen floors stains the building like running mascara. There aren’t enough sheets to cover the furniture, so he uses towels too, making a clownish haunted manor out of this three-room apartment. Andy closes the windows, but regrets he can’t fix the doors. This shortfall in preparing the home for the never-return of its long-gone occupants isn’t a snap back to reality, but a slow crumble.
The light from next door shines. Andy can almost pretend, for a moment, this is normal. That even a stranger coming into this vacuous hell would be happy to see him.
The door is ordinary. Of course, he knows no one is inside the apartment next door. There can’t be anyone. Everyone is gone. If someone was there, wouldn’t they have rushed over to talk to another human being? The only one in this no city?
Andy turns the knob.
Chris Airiau is a SF writer and game designer living in France, forever obsessed with the speculative. Find him on twitter @ChrisAiriau or online at chrisair.itch.io.