Lilly’s apartment building was an ungodly shithole. Named Pacific Palm Suites, it was built long ago in Tavish’s glory days, geared towards socialites and the young, up and coming tortured artists of the day. It sat now in horrible disrepair, a U-shaped four-floor monstrosity nestled in near Veteran’s Park like the rotting corpse of some majestic beast. It was a wonder to Darren, Lindsay, and Hack that it hadn’t been shut down long ago on even one of the million code violations this place must’ve had. This place having security cameras seemed like a stretch. This was the type of building where countless atrocities must be perpetrated on any given day.
Two bums were wrestling near the dumpsters as Hack parked the Range Rover in the superintendant’s space near the main entrance. They didn’t appear to be on the Grey Shit, just the garden-variety clearance rack wine found at your local supermarket.
"Glad to see someone’s keeping the classics alive", said Hack as he exited the driver’s door. Lindsay and Darren got out and came around to join him. Hack locked the door with his key fob, the horn beeping once in response. The bums took no notice. The battle of the homeless raged on.
Lindsay had her thumbs looped around her pack straps as she followed behind Darren and Hack to the front door of the building, the glass paneling of which had been smashed out long ago.
"That’s gotta be a pain in the ass whenever it rains", Lindsay remarked, "You’d think they’d go full white trash and just put a tarp up over it."
As they approached the set of double doors, Darren walked ahead, depressing the push bar and holding the door open for Lindsay and Hack. The door gave a grotesque sounding creak as it swung inward. Sure enough, the floor displayed evidence of years worth of water damage. In California, this may have amounted to less than a dozen storms, but it was apparently enough to leave a massive grey slime, hardened and trailing off towards the back of the lobby. On the east wall was a door marked "Superintendent", which had a small transom window at the top. No light came from inside. Two elevators were at the back of the lobby on the north wall, and on either side were doors with placards indicating twin staircases. The fluorescent lights cast the room in a glow far too similar to a morgue for comfort, made all the more unsettling by their rapid-fire flickering. Visually, it was sickening standing in there too long, and that wasn’t accounting for the ancient wet stench of wood rot.
The air felt thick in here. Oppressive somehow. Darren felt the skin at the base of his skull begin to twitch. He tried desperately to ignore it, immediately regretting that he had not taken a pill before entering.
"Anyone else feel, like, really really gross?" asked Lindsay, who was rubbing both of her arms. Darren could see the goosebumps on her skin.
"Let’s just do this," said Hack, "Come on."
They opened the door to the east stairwell, not even wanting to chance either of the elevators. The stairwell also relied on fluorescent lights, however, these were more stable. They provided an excellent view of a figure, hunched over on the floor beside the staircase. His head was hidden by wildly long, graying hair and he was facing the wall. A syringe lay at his feet. His actions were hidden, but his arm was working furiously.
"Oh Christ, tell me he’s not doing what I think he’s doing" Lindsay groaned.
The man ceased movement immediately, and as he turned, it was clear Lindsay’s assumption was incorrect. His face was obscured by his hair, but the edges of his jaw were visible, and locked in what appeared to be a tight, wide grin. In his hand was an icepick, covered in chalky residue from the drywall.
Hack’s hand shot under his coat and rested on the butt of the Smith & Wesson.
"Up" he ordered them in a low voice. Darren gave Lindsay a gentle nudge towards the stairs and she hurried up to the second floor, Darren close behind. Hack followed once they reached the first landing.
The trio climbed to the third floor, exiting the stairwell. Up here, the condition of the building was no better. Every other light in the hallway appeared to be out. It almost seemed deliberate. Hack shouldered past Lindsay and Darren.
"Come on, it’s just down here," he said.
Lindsay and Darren followed. As they moved swiftly down the corridor, the uncomfortable, crawling sensation returned to his brain. Something wasn’t right here. It wasn’t just the ugly state of this building. There was just an unshakeable sense of wrongness. Darren almost felt like voicing it to the other two, but could not find the words. He remained silent and hoped they’d be quick. It would be time for another pill soon.
Hack stopped abruptly in front of a door marked "315" and gave it three quick knocks. Clearly, he was just as eager to get out of here.
After a brief period of silence, Hack knocked again. After another pause, the sound of something crashing to the floor emanated from the apartment. The sound of feet shuffling to the other side of the door. A series of clicks, and then the door slowly creaked open. Darren couldn’t see through the crack at his angle but heard a whisper through the doorway. Hack leaned in and whispered back.
Silence again, and then the door opened all the way. Hack turned to them and motioned for them to step inside.
The room was completely dark aside from the pale light drifting in from the window at the back wall, between the halfway-drawn curtains. Lindsay and Darren stood awkwardly at the front door as a small, feminine shadow crossed in front of the light. It stumbled over an object on the floor and disappeared behind the corner. Hack stepped between them and gestured to an old sofa. They sat down, unsure of what exactly was going to happen here.
Slowly, Hack crossed to the window and started to open the curtains
"No," came a half sob from around the corner.
Hack faced the source of the voice.
"Just a little, honey. So we don’t knock over anything."
No response. Hack opened the curtains a little more, and the room was now just visible. It hadn’t been that long since the three entered the building, but it must have clouded over outside in that time.
Across from the sofa were two chairs, and Hack sat down in one of these. They waited in silence. Darren looked over at Lindsay. She hadn’t said anything since they had started up the stairs. Her arms were folded as if she were cold, and she was bouncing one of her knees up and down unconsciously. Hack was still, head turned towards the back wall, waiting. Darren wondered if the other two were aware of how uneasy he was.
After a long time of total silence, the shadow returned from around the corner and stood still for a few moments before settling into the unoccupied chair. The room was light enough for them to see the massive bruises and cuts on her face. It hit a little close to home for Lindsay, who almost winced, but she managed to keep quiet.
Hack spoke to her.
"These are some friends of mine. Guys, this is Lilly."
"Hi," said Lindsay.
Darren nodded his head at Lilly.
She didn’t respond.
"First of all and most importantly I wanted to check on you, see how you’re holding up," said Hack.
Lilly did not speak but gave a small shrug. She didn’t take her eyes off the floor.
"How’s the eye?"
Silence for a moment.
"Open. Swelling’s down. Hurts." Lilly mumbled.
"Tasha’s bringing you everything you need?"
"Yes. Got pills. Makes me sleep. I sleep a lot. Almost all the time."
"Good," said Hack. "Good."
Hack reached over and clasped one of her hands in both of his.
"Plenty of rest. You’ll be up and running in no time, don’t you worry about anything."
Lilly’s shoulders began to shake. She was beginning to sob lightly.
"Hack," Lilly choked out.
"What is it, sweetheart?"
Lily sobbed on for a minute. Darren and Lindsay looked at the floor. Darren wondered if they should leave for this part, but that meant stepping back out in that hall. There wasn’t anywhere else to go in this apartment.
"Hack", said Lilly, "I don’t wanna dance anymore."
"The thought of having all those eyes on me," she said, "The thought of having guys touching me, I just...I just can’t..."
She started to really cry hard now.
Hack got up from his chair, kneeling down in front of her and folding her into his arms.
"Don’t worry about that. It’s a non-issue. For now, you’re gonna get some rest, heal up, and take it easy. I’ll find something else for you. Whenever you’re ready to come back to work. And take your time. No rush."
They stayed like that for a long time.
Lindsay tapped Darren’s shoulder and motioned towards the door. They stood up, and Darren followed her out into the hall. He carefully set the door against the frame so the latch wouldn’t fully engage. The nearest working light was at the next door down, so they moved close enough to it to where they could see each other.
"Got a cigarette?" asked Lindsay,
"Yeah." Darren removed his pack, shaking one out for her, and then one for himself. He passed her his lighter before lighting his own.
They leaned against the wall, smoking silently.
"You know," said Lindsay after a few moments, "I used to be a dancer too. Worked for a lot of shitheads. Real slimy fuckers. Hack ain’t one of them."
"Yeah," said Darren.
"He’s a rare one. I know he’s in the business just for appearances, but at heart, he’s a good guy. Doesn’t have to be."
"I know. Lot of guys wouldn’t be, in his position."
Lindsay took a drag off of her cigarette and exhaled.
"You know he’s gay, right?" she asked.
"It never really came up, but I figured he was."
"That bother you?"
"Don’t care. Friends are friends."
Another silence. Their cigarettes were halfway smoked. The hallway was dead quiet and still made Darren uneasy. That crawling feeling in his skull had diminished for now, but he still reached behind his back and touched the grip of the Browning, just to make sure it was still there.
Lindsay looked at her smoke.
"Hope the super doesn’t find us. He’d be pissed."
Darren saw the largest cockroach he’d ever seen scuttling across the floor, making a beeline towards the toe of Lindsay’s boot. He pointed at it.
"I think he’s got bigger problems than us right now."
"Ugh," exclaimed Lindsay in disgust. She lifted her boot and crushed it, grinding the floor with a twisting motion. She lifted her boot and a string of insect guts came up with it.
"Jesus," she groaned, wiping it off on the carpet.
"Welcome to Tavish," Darren smirked.
The door to Lilly’s apartment creaked open, and Hack poked his head out.
"Guys, come on back."
Lindsay and Darren crushed their cigarettes out and went back inside.
They settled back down on the sofa, across from Lilly.
"Just a few questions and we’ll be on our way," said Hack.
Lilly nodded slowly but stared at the floor.
"Do you remember anything else about the other night? The women that attacked you?"
It took Lilly a long time to respond. Darren wondered just what sort of pills she was taking. Right when it seemed like she wasn’t going to answer, she finally did.
"Ruby?" Hack asked.
"Ruby. One of them called the other Ruby. After, when they ran."
"Ok. Anything else? Doesn’t matter if it seems unimportant. Anything helps."
"They smelled...woodsy. Smokey. Like, a campfire."
"That’s great honey. Thank you. We don’t wanna take up any more of your time, but give me a call if any..."
Lilly cut Hack off. Even in the low light, Darren could see her wide glassy eyes as they shot up from the floor and fixed themselves on him.
Darren opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Lindsay looked at Lilly uneasily.
"You’re him. You’re Darren Barlow. I know."
Lilly’s voice was strangely flat.
"Yeah, this is Darren," said Hack, " He came to..."
"They miss you." Lilly continued.
The crawling feeling was back in full force. Darren shifted uncomfortably but kept eye contact with Lilly.
Who was not blinking.
The air felt heavier in here than before.
"You shot two of them."
"Yes," said Darren.
"And the other. You took a hammer and bashed his brains in."
"And then you went away."
"I got him out of town," Hack cut in, " after they let him out of the hospital. It took awhile, but he was cleared of all charges. Even still, it seemed like a better idea to..."
"That’s NOT what I meant!" Lilly shouted.
Everyone was silent. Lindsay looked between Lilly and Darren, bewildered.
"You went away," Lilly continued, eyes drilling a hole into Darren. Tears were forming again, but she took no notice.
"Something happened to me," Darren said, "I don’t know how to explain it."
"And it’s still happening, isn’t it?"
"It won’t stop. It won’t ever stop."
Lindsay looked at Hack. He looked back, confused, and something resembling nervous.
"It won’t stop," said Lilly, "until you go to them."
It felt like something was alive in Darren’s skull. Alive and desperate to get out.
"Lilly, honey," said Hack, "just relax. We’re gonna head out, but I’ll be checking up on you again soon."
Darren, Lindsay, and Hack stood.
They started for the door.
"She looked like Ashley"
Darren wheeled around, meeting Lilly’s gaze.
Lilly still hadn’t blinked. Tears were streaming down her face. Not from pain and fear this time, but from the strain of keeping her eyes open.
And she was grinning.
"She looked like Ashley. The woman who left you. The woman you were in love with. The woman who’s fucking somebody else now."
"What’s happening?" said Lindsay.
"Lilly, that’s enough," said Hack.
"How do you know?" asked Darren.
"The Mother. She looked like Ashley when She came to you. She’ll always look like someone you care about. Because that’s what She is. She’s love. A perfect love. You’ll see. Stop taking the pills. Don’t shut her out. Listen to Her. Let Her whisper in your ear at night and you’ll see."
Darren began to feel sick. He needed to get out of here.
"Lilly, we’re leaving," said Hack.
"She looks like my sister. When I see Her. When I dream..."
Lilly rolled up her sleeve and held her pale arm up to the light. Her flesh was pockmarked with vicious-looking scabs. They were beginning to look infected.
"Jesus Christ" Hack groaned.
Lindsay took Darren by the arm and led him towards the door. The three exited, and even as Hack closed the door, Lilly stared. And smiled.
They rushed back towards the stairwell, Lindsay still leading Darren by the arm.
"What the fuck just happened?"
They reached the first floor. The transient they’d encountered on the way up was nowhere in sight.
"She was clean. She was fucking clean and she was doing so good. FUCK!" shouted Hack as he kicked open the door to the lobby. The door slammed against the outside wall and sent a loud BANG echoing up the stairwell. Hack stormed out towards the front doors. Lindsay stayed with Darren.
"You ok?" Lindsay asked, rubbing his arm.
Normally Darren took a long time to be comfortable with people getting that close, but the gesture was strangely welcome. He’d been very close to passing out up there. The dizziness was beginning to wear off. He looked into Lindsay’s eyes, which were full of genuine concern, and the shifting sensation inside his skull began to dissipate.
"I’m alright. Just need some air."
"I hear that. Let’s get out of this shithole."
Darren nodded and headed out into the lobby.
Lindsay followed, but as she did, she glanced at the wall next to the stairs, where they’d seen the creep with the ice pick. Something was scratched into the wall, a word that didn’t make sense to Lindsay.