There is no one here, no one but me. Out of ninety apartments—ten in each of the nine floors—only mine has someone inside, but most have already been sold. It’s an investment, the estate agent told me when I was signing the contract. An investment for life. Yet I had no interest in becoming a landlord: all I wanted was a clean, well-ventilated, spacious apartment, and my new house ticks all the boxes. The only “downside” is that nobody lives here.
At first, I thought it would be an excellent setup. Without tenants, I wouldn’t have to worry about the unwanted sounds that came from my last apartment, like loud music, student parties and insistent moans in the middle of the night. All my life, I have struggled with noise and chaotic environments, a combination that doesn’t fit my silent personality. Now, every hour is as quiet as I am, with only the distant sound of cars as my company, the mews of my cat, or an occasional bird chirping from outside the walls of this private condominium, beautiful, ample, and empty.
“Wish me luck,” I tell my sisters through the video call in the first evening, after removing all boxes from my brand new house. I have always disliked clutter, and could only rest after organizing everything. “This place is so peaceful that it will be hard to get up tomorrow morning.”
“Of course Sara’s house would be like that,” said Ana, laughing. I frowned, and Carla chuckled as well.
“You must be really happy in your empty shoebox!” she said, pointing at the background behind me. My cat moved her tail lazily, and Carla waved. “Hi, Kika!”
I wanted to say they had no right in criticizing me; it’s not like they would have their own house anytime soon. My sisters are often in my mind, and I worry that they will never cut ties with our parents or live in any other healthier, better way.Mind your own business, I remind myself with a smile. They are grown enough to choose what to do with their own lives.
“Well, I’m tired now. Talk to you guys later!”
I close my laptop and push it aside, exhausted after cleaning the house and talking to them. That was all I have here: a sofa, a desk, a table with a single chair, and a few clothes, as little as possible to fill this vacant beauty. Even my books are digital, to avoid occupying space, and I feel like I can finally breathe, about to fall asleep like never before.
No one . . .
When I close my eyes, I’m back to my childhood home. The stale smell hits me at once, and droplets of humidity drip down the walls. I force myself through the living room, and there is no space between the cardboard boxes, forcing me to push them aside, but what I find underneath is a vile dark nest. The cockroaches crawl between my feet, their antennae brushing against my toes, and the mere feeling of it is enough to make me throw up. I hate their wings, their hairy legs, their reddish bodies and the noise it makes when I crush it with the sole of my feet. Die, I think.
Die, die, disappear.
The sound of a cockroach’s cracking carcass brings me back, and I jump out of the sofa. Out of instinct, I scratch my arms, my face, my ears. I need to make sure there are no bugs in me.
“It was just a dream,” I tell myself. Kika meows, and I remember where I am. There are no insects in this building, and if one appears, she would kill them for me.
Yet the noise continues on, and I look around, trying to find the source of it. First, a slap against the wall; then another, and another, and another. My brain recognizes the sound immediately, too used to the act of finding and killing bugs. No one should be here, I remember, looking out of the window to find lights, but there are none.
I only sleep again after convincing myself that I’m alone.
There were always too many things in my parents’ house. The bathroom had piled magazines over the hamper, dirty laundry scattered around, towels thrown over the shower panels, old cosmetics bags, expired make up, and all kinds of pills stocked in the drawers. The same happened in the other rooms: clothes thrown on the floor, books that no one read, unwashed dishes, and food from today, yesterday and many years before.
My father, who was born in a recession, bought anything in triples, collected boxes of food—just in case, he used to say—and went on fits of rage if we threw something away. At first, my mother agreed to avoid a meltdown, but she started to believe that hoarding goods was for the best, keeping packets, used matches and empty lighters inside her purse. Ana and Carla obeyed them, and I did too, at least to their faces.
Many times I tried to wash clothes, scrub mildew from the walls, and wipe layers of grime from forks and knives when they were not around, but the dirt returned like a disease, and with it came the bugs. Cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes and larvae, and if I screeched in disgust, my parents made mocked me: how did Sara turned out so sensible, so scared of everything? We must have really spoiled her . . .
What was spoiled were the cartons of milk in the cupboard, but I said nothing; there was no use in answering back. When I did, they shouted, when I asked them to stop, they continued, and I learned how to keep only the space around myself organized and clean. And, after years—so many years—I found my new house.
In the second week, I decide that there are intruders living in the floor above or below. The state agent doesn’t believe me, but I insist to her that I’m not imagining things. Every night after ten, the noise begins: they talk to each other, listen to music, trash their houses and slam things against the walls. It’s deeply upsetting, even worse than my sisters when we still lived together, but I envision a plan to make it better.
My solution is simple. There is too little furniture and it causes their noise to echo in my house, so I went on a small shopping spree, and soon a dining table arrives with several matching chairs, together with an extra wardrobe for my bedroom and two armchairs. I plan to resell most of those after I get rid of the unwanted neighbors, but now I’m thankful to have the house a little more crowded, muffling their voices until everything is quiet again.
In the third week, the problem evolves.
“I’m fine, but the neighbors are killing me,” I tell my sisters with a fake smile.
“We thought you didn’t have neighbors.” Ana talks so loud that, if there are indeed others in my buildings, they would all hear her. Carla has the same bad habit, but I avoid asking them to tone down nowadays.
“I don’t,” I reply, then correct myself. “I think some of the owners allowed their kids to move in for a little while.”
I know what Ana and Carla think of me—paranoid, neurotic, a control-freak—they have told me many times, so I don’t let them know that this is worrying me sick. Such words were thrown at me whenever they stuffed my bedroom with more garbage, especially after midnight, when I went to sleep. I tried to keep my bedroom as tidy as possible, but they cannibalized any empty space they found, filling it and using it until there was nothing left.
“It’s not a big deal, just a small nuisance.”
Something brushes against my arm, and I turn around.
“Sara?” Carla asks on the other side of the line. “Are you okay?”
It was a fly; I know it was. Heavier and slower than a mosquito, but smaller than a cockroach, accompanied by that maddening buzzing sound.
“We talk tomorrow, Kika broke something,” I say, and turn off the chat before they can answer back.
When I stick my head out of the window, I see it. A fly, no, two, three, four flies, flying out of the window of the apartment under mine, and then back inside. Black and metallic green, like the ones of my memories, alighted on the food left exposed in the table of the kitchen, or around the filth on the floor. More than ten, in fact, buzzing, searching for more trash. Die, I think, and I realize my hands are shaking. Die, die, die.
I close all the windows, turn on the air conditioner and sit on the sofa, hugging an insect killer spray. I have one for flies and spiders, another for cockroaches, and a bottle of ant poison. I’ll be fine.
It’s their problem, not mine.
“Your house is pristine,” the pest control team tells me. “We found nothing, ma’am, but if you’re seeing any bugs coming in, now they won’t anymore, at least not for the next six months.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
The living room looks pretty with the new cushions I found online, the rug and a brown TV stand. The cupboards are also filled with food, methodically organized by color and type. Nothing that might expire soon, of course, only to fill the empty space; most of the time, I ask take-outs to avoid attracting more bugs. I watch the team leave, eyes focused on the dirt left by their shoes on my stainless floor. One of the men stops, and looks at me.
“Oh, one more thing,” he says. “You might want to check the mold, now that the wet season started.”
“Behind the fridge and the sofa. Good luck with that.”
And there it is—little brown and green dots covering the lower part of the wall, almost invisible, ghost warnings of the furry patches and black blotches that I know too well. Once, I convinced my father to give away some portraits, but when we removed them, there was a thick dark substance glued to the wall like old grease. We had to call someone to remove the toxic mold, but I never forgot the drop of black water that ran from it, twirling until it left behind a gross spot.
I take a deep breath, wear my kitchen gloves, and begin to scrub them with vinegar. Die, die, die, the mantra returns to my head, and I blame the neighbors from the floor above. They must have done something to cause this; a seepage they didn’t fix, or even a structural problem of the building I have not been warned about.
Later, after the walls are nice and clean, more furniture arrives, and the house now shelters several new shelves, lamps, clocks, an ironing board, a television I’ll never use, and even a crib for the cat. Kika entered it once, then jumped back to the floor, preferring her usual place by my bed.
I’m wasting way too much money on this, but I can finally have a good night of sleep.
The neighbors in the floor below seem to have moved out, but there are noises coming from my floor now. I have never seen someone come or go in the corridors, but they bang their doors, and their security chains clank with the violence of it. I fasten mine and lock the door, once, twice, and another time, just out of safety, then go back to my own room. I’m not confident enough to take the garbage out, so I hide all the food packets inside trash bags and soak them with spray, but the memory of bugs and maggots always returns to my mind.
Kika curls by my side in the sofa. Around us, we have insect killer, a bottle of vinegar, another of alcohol, and an electric flyswatter. I’m only eating what’s in the cans: corn for lunch, peas for dinner, and biscuits whenever I need a snack.
“Everything will be fine,” I tell Kika, and she stares at me with a glassy look in her yellow eyes. “This is just a bad week.”
A strong acidic smell surrounds me. It may be too much vinegar, or it may be mold, growing on, under and behind the walls, forming bubbles in the white paint, spreading through the entire house. From the corridor, there are human voices, talking, whispering, animal screeches and growls, creaks and cracks, clacks and thuds. Someone tries to open my door, then bangs it, and I hide under the covers. It’s almost as bad as my old apartment, but at least I’m alone with my cat. When they reach my doorknob, I hide under the coves and pretend they’re not there.
Go away, go away, go away.
Nobody lives here. Nobody but me. The building is as empty as it should be—as I want it to be. Whenever I look through the peephole, the corridors are always dark, and I’m constantly watching for a proof that I’m not imagining things. A person, a shadow, a visitor, a neighbor. The clutter that I know is there. The furniture they pushed into the hallway, the piled chairs crowding the stairs. Anything that might explain the creaks and the sounds and the steps and the howls. It should be impossible, but I hear them when I wake up. I hear them at night. I hear them all through the day.
They sound like Ana and Carla when they laugh too loudly, like my father smashing the plates in a thousand pieces, like my mother complaining that I’m too annoying, too self-righteous, too sensible.
I don’t call my sisters anymore. I don’t know where Kika is. She might have been lost between the sofas and the chairs and the tables and the desks and the trash bags and the packages and the boxes and the lamps. She’s a smart cat, she can handle this.
After dawn, they come for me: whoever they are, wherever they hide, they push all the objects jumbled in the corridor and try to unlock my door, banging it when they can’t. They enter my house while I’m asleep, leaving trails of dirt on the panels of my floor, so I stop sleeping as well.
I don’t go to my bedroom; it’s too dirty in there. I don’t enter the kitchen; it’s full of flies and cockroaches and ants. I hide inside my bathroom, wiping the walls and the sink to remove the mold, and look through the hole I have made in the door. Here, there is nothing dirty. Nothing much. Just me.
So I look, and I wait.
And I will keep waiting.
Until all the sounds finally go away.