Listen to this story, narrated by Hollis Beck:
This story deals with themes of domestic abuse.
When Maribel woke up, the furniture in her apartment had been rearranged. She was sure of it. Someone must have come in, perhaps when she was sleeping, and turned the sofa ten degrees counterclockwise. When she opened the kitchen cabinet for a mug, she found bowls; and when she opened another for the coffee, she found salt, pepper, and spices. Nothing was exactly where it should be.
She asked her husband, Jarret, if he noticed anything different. He looked up from his breakfast, scrutinizing. Shrugged. Returned to his cereal. “Did you get a haircut?”
“Never mind,” she said, going to sit by the living room window — her favorite spot in the mornings when the sun rose over the lake glittering fifteen stories below, the city just waking up. Ten years they had lived here — happily married for six — and, in all that time, Maribel had never woken up with the furniture and dishes moved around. Was it the landlord, perhaps?
She took one train to work, and Jarret took another. He spent his days in an accounting office on the ninth floor of a thirty-story building; Maribel spent hers as a university librarian, surrounded by the quiet lives of unread books. Her day was typically shorter than his, but today when she arrived home, he was already there.
“Everything all right?” she asked, hanging up her purse and toeing off her heels.
“We’re out of beer,” he said, feet on the ottoman. Newspapers were piled on the floor with want ads circled in fading blue ink. Jarret was in his boxers. His face was stubbled, though he had shaved this morning, she was sure of it.
“I mean with work,” she corrected herself.
He laughed; it was a mean sound. “Think you’re funny?”
“Not at all.”
He picked up an empty bottle from the floor, swished the remnants around. “Well, no one’s hiring a high school diploma.”
“What about the accounting firm?” She almost reminded him that he had an advanced degree, but stopped herself. Did she know that? Had she ever seen it?
He laughed again, and she didn’t like it. “You are funny.”
She couldn’t find the lamb she had been defrosting, so instead she threw together some spaghetti with canned tomato sauce. They ate in front of the television. Glowing windows peppered the dark outside, scattered the city with pixels of light.
“You’ll find something soon,” she said, and wasn’t sure why she’d said it. It seemed like the thing to say.
Though there were stairs, Maribel always took the elevator in their building. Fifteen stories was too much to walk, at least for someone who enjoyed a sedentary life at reference desks. Sometimes she had to walk around to put books back in their spots on the shelves, though it was not a very large library. She liked the feel of returned books in her hand. Though they were the same books that had been checked out, in some metaphysical way they were transformed by virtue of their having been read. In observation, a change is made. She liked to think the change was physical in some sense, that she might open one of the returned books and a word would be different on page ninety-three, something no one could possibly notice. And each time it was checked out, read, and returned, something else would have changed — a footnote in chapter six, or an allusion to Waverly instead of Castle Rackrent. Maybe an equation in one of those impenetrable physics textbooks would have a different answer — an answer that quantum tunneled its way into our world.
She opened one of the returned books, flipped idly through it. A student needed research help. A new professor needed her library card laminated. She sent out for a few new books through interlibrary loan. When she remembered the book she had yet to return to its shelf, the one she had left open at her desk, she couldn’t find it anywhere. Someone else must have picked it up. She hoped it would find its way home.
When she got home, her boyfriend Jarret wasn’t there. He must be out drinking. She washed up at the kitchen sink and opened the refrigerator to pull out some leftovers, but all that was there was a nearly-expired quart of milk, a carton with three remaining eggs, some cheese, and a mysterious lump of meat.
She nearly walked into the old moth-eaten armchair on her way into the living room. The sofa was gone. In its place was a corduroy loveseat covered in plastic, just like her parents used to have. When she sat, it crinkled beneath her. The sound it made was awful, like the suffering of ghosts. She didn’t want to move and have it make that sound again, so she sat very still for a long time. Eventually, Jarret came home, banging around the front hall as he made his way to her. He smelled of whiskey, and his eyes were red.
“There wasn’t anything to make,” she said, still keeping quite still.
“So go grocery shopping.”
“We don’t have any money.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Yours,” she said before she could stop herself. “If you stopped spending it all at the bar, if you got a job—”
He loomed over her. “My fault?” he growled, and Maribel found she was afraid. This man she loved was like a stranger to her. “Are you sure about that?”
“No,” she said quietly, looking down at her hands in her lap. She wanted to get away from him, but she still could not move or the seat would shriek out its plastic agitation like claws scratching against the drums of her ears.
But finally she had to get up, and she went to the bathroom and shut herself in with the glaring light. In the mirror, her eyes were haunted. One was bruised black. She touched it gently. One of these days, she would leave him.
Jarret was snoring when Maribel got up the next morning. She tiptoed quietly around the apartment — around the piles of strewn laundry, the empty beer cans, and the folding chairs that served as dining furniture — applied makeup to her shiner, and took the train to work.
When she arrived, someone was sitting at her desk — a woman with dark hair and round glasses. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I work here.”
“Yes, I can see that.” The woman frowned. “Are you sure you’re on shift this early? Someone’s already in. I thought you were here evenings?”
Maribel looked down at herself, at where the woman had been looking — not her face but her body. She realized she was wearing a gray uniform with a nametag.
A custodian rolled over with a mop, looked at her. “Someone spilled soda near the periodicals. I thought your shift started at three?” When she didn’t respond, he shrugged. “You want to take care of it?”
She cleaned the spilled soda, then drifted backward down the aisles of books. She found the one that had gone missing yesterday, the returned book she had been flipping through. She slid it from the shelf, felt its pages in her fingers. It fell open to the middle, where the binding was creased.
The page didn’t have a number, and it only had one repeating phrase across its entirety. It said:
get out get out get out get out get out
She snapped it shut and shelved it, then went to empty the trash cans.
Her finger hesitated over the button marked “15” in the elevator. When she pressed it, the button lit up red, and the old elevator started rumbling. It was late and dark already when she stepped into the apartment — dark outside and inside. She flipped on the light, but the whole place was empty. She didn’t know why, but she was expecting someone to be there; she even felt the impression of someone hesitating on the air. Of course no one was there. It was just her. She wondered how her life might have been different if she had gone to school for library science, like she had wanted to, instead of falling in with a series of bad boyfriends, getting pregnant, dropping out, miscarrying.
All was dark out the window. The moon hung crooked over the lake, but she could not see the lights of other buildings. Was it a power outage, or was it just so late that everyone was asleep, their lights turned off?
Still there was that feeling, that ghost, of another presence in the air, as of someone watching her through an unseen window. Or perhaps observing her in another sense, listening to a story about her life. That hardly seemed fair, though. Stories were always about trouble, and she didn’t want any trouble. Then again, it would be rather a dull story if she were just a happily married librarian. Perhaps she would sneak in some reading tomorrow night while she emptied the trashcans, when the library was quiet and its only inhabitants were those rapacious students who researched into the early hours of the morning. Perhaps she would pull a book from the shelf and find that it was about her.
She wasn’t able to read at work. The books were impenetrable, unreadable, in a language she did not understand. They were filled with gibberish, every last one.
The elevator with its slew of buttons trembled when she stepped inside. She pressed “15” but it had a little minus sign in front of it, as if it were negative fifteen, the inversion of fifteen. The fluorescent light flickered as the elevator rumbled to life and started its slow creep down. It kept going, falling slowly, the button lit up red like a demon’s eye. She waited.
After a long while, she sat down on the floor. Her legs were tired from walking all over campus, pushing her mop through the student union and her large trash can down the hall of faculty offices. The elevator kept going down.
She had nearly fallen asleep when it ground to a halt, dinging and laboriously sliding its doors open. Rubbing her eyes, she scrambled to her feet and hurried out of the elevator, down the dim hallway to her apartment. She was so tired. She kicked off her worn-out sneakers as she stepped inside, feeling her way in the dark, collapsing onto the loveseat with its choir of plastic moans.
Reaching up, she switched on the lamp, thinking she might read for a while before she went to bed. But when she opened a book, it was blank inside. She closed it, hesitated a moment, then opened it again, thinking it might have briefly forgotten it was a book, thinking if she opened it again it would reassemble itself into pages of words. No luck. The blank white pages made a dry susurration as she thumbed through them.
At least she could pass the time looking out the window to the lake below — but when she pulled back the curtains, all was black. Outside of the window, pressed to the glass, stood a wall of dirt, threaded with a few spidery plant roots.
I’ve been buried alive, she thought, nausea rising up her throat. How far down into the earth had she come?
She ran out of her apartment to the elevator, but it was out of order. At the far end of the hall, past the doors of other apartments — but no, there were no doors, just a blank tiled wall, hers was the only one down on this floor — was a door marked “Exit” and she threw her shoulder into it, starting up the staircase. Her footsteps clanged on the metal steps as she went up, made a turn, up again, made another turn.
She lost count of how many flights she had ascended somewhere after thirty-two. Panting, her legs screaming, Maribel had to sit down on a step. The fluorescent lights, a sort of sickly green, flickered. There were no doorways onto other floors, and the staircase kept going up and up, as far as she could tell.
There was nothing to do but go back down. Back to her lonely apartment with its sensation of some unseen figure observing her. When she finally made her way back, she opened a bottle of wine, drank it, and passed out.
She did not know what time it was when she awoke. There was no clock beside her bed, and the windows were packed dirt, showing no sun, no indication of day. How was she to know when she had to go to work? She wondered if the elevator was working now, or if she would have to take the stairs forever. She wished whoever was watching her would stop.
When she went to leave, she realized there was no door. She went around and around, searching for where it might have gone off to, thinking if she could only find a door then everything would be all right, but after a while she had to concede that there was no way out. She did, however, find a stairway down to what might perhaps be a cellar — a square opening in the floor she had never noticed before. If she could not get out, then at least she could still go down.
The old ladder’s wood rungs creaked beneath her feet as she descended backward, armed with a silver lighter she had found with a J etched onto it. When her feet found solid ground, she flicked her thumb and a flame burst to vivid life — but a rush of air from above nipped it out, and then the door slammed down over the square opening, closing her in darkness.
She tried the lighter again. It sparked impotently, as if it’d had only one good flame in it, one life to burn, and she’d just snuffed it out.
Her hands told her the walls were close, soft. Moist earth. When she tried to find the ladder in the dark, it wasn’t there. A dirt wall found her back and pressed against her, and she knew with a feeling like worms in her throat: she couldn’t go up anymore. Now the earth had claimed her. She raked her bony fingers through it and wondered if there was anything after all on the other side of this hole she’d dug for herself.
She wasn’t sure she had eyes anymore, it was so dark, and she couldn’t find her own tongue.
But the ground was soft and peaty, and she could keep digging.