Through the Patio Door by Philip Roberts
Bradley Wolanski stepped out into the early afternoon and took in a mouthful of fresh air. Nine hours of work loomed ahead. Two years hadn’t allowed him to get fully acquainted with working evenings, and standing in the middle of a largely empty apartment complex accentuated his sense of isolation the hours produced. The lack of rush hour traffic was his only consolation.
Before walking towards his car he paused, feeling something off, and realized the patio blinds to his right were open. He’d lived above the much older Randolph Dease for years, but rarely saw the retired recluse. Now he stepped closer to the open blinds, a bit apprehensive about peering in the apartment yet unable to help himself all the same. He had to squint against the glare of the sunlight on the glass to see the old man lying back in a recliner, his eyes closed, mouth agape.
An early afternoon nap, Bradley thought, but the man’s skin looked too pale, and the longer he stared, the more he noticed the flies buzzing around the body. The man isn’t asleep, Bradley thought, and stepped back.
He primarily turned from the window and started across the parking lot towards the office in order to see if Randolph were truly dead or merely sick, but had to admit as well the determination already taking hold to call out of work for the night. He figured discovering the dead body of a neighbor to be a worthy enough excuse.
He hadn’t spoken to the complex’s owner at any great length since moving in. Other than a hello when dropping off the rent, they were strangers. Beatrice turned from her computer as soon as Bradley entered the office.
“There’s a problem,” he told her, and explained what he had seen.
The portly woman nodded and hefted herself from the seat. “Never really did speak with the man much,” she said as they walked back towards Bradley’s building with a ring of keys in Beatrice’s hand.
“I didn’t either,” Bradley said if only to contribute something.
They both paused in front of the patio for Beatrice to see Randolph reclined back before continuing on into the building.
He felt sorry for the older man. To be found by two strangers felt like a terrible way to end a life.
Even though Bradley had no legitimate reason to be there anymore, Beatrice made no complaints about him following her into the apartment. He nearly bumped into her when she stopped abruptly.
They both walked slowly inside, their own footsteps echoing lightly in the empty apartment, no carpet, wallpaper, furniture, or dead body to be seen. The place looked like no one had lived there for years, except no dust or dirt had piled up.
Beatrice marched in silence up to the closed patio door and reached for the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Bradley ignored her, studying the apartment, catching sight of a symbol carved into the wood on the inside of the door. He ran his fingers over the circular shape with lines and dots jutting out from it.
“It’s welded,” Beatrice said in astonishment, drawing Bradley up to the door and the melted metal permanently attaching it to the frame. She pulled herself up and turned to Bradley. “He welded the damn thing shut.”
But Bradley looked at the glass door itself, and staring hard enough, he could see the same symbol from the door scratched into the glass.
He broke away and started back for the front door with Beatrice behind him. “I’m looking outside again,” he said.
They left the apartment door open on their way out. They both stood before the glass door and the furnished apartment. More insects buzzed around the body, crawling in and out of the gaping mouth, over the closed eyelids. They looked beyond the body to the back of the apartment and the wall that had apparently been splashed in black paint. It didn’t even look like there was a back wall to the room; just empty space where the room ended.
“We should do something,” Bradley said, stunned.
They walked back into the building and stopped within the empty apartment. Bradley stood in the middle of the room and closed his eyes while Beatrice went through the other rooms. He tried to expand his senses, to hear or smell something wrong, but the room felt like any other, or he had no way of detecting whatever was different about it.
“The cops?” Beatrice said, standing in the door to the bedroom.
Bradley opened his eyes and glanced over at her. “Ok. What are you going to tell them?”
“An old man died. Seems good enough to me.”
“They won’t get here very fast though, will they? I mean, if you just tell them he died of old age.”
“Do we need them here fast?”
Bradley stared at the welded patio door, then back at the far wall where he’d seen nothing but darkness devouring the room. “I don’t know.”
She pulled out her cell phone but didn’t dial, holding it and biting her lower lip. Beatrice started for the front door and Bradley followed for no reason other than he didn’t know what else to do. They stood before the patio door, the afternoon sunlight on the back of their necks, birds calling out to each other in the trees, and the faint roar of city traffic just beyond the parking lot. In front of them they watched the mass of insects swarming around Randolph’s decaying body and the abyss stretching closer. If he stared long enough Bradley could see the bulges in Randolph’s flesh, like something moving beneath the surface, trying to find a way to get out.
“I don’t think we have time,” Bradley said.
“What do you think happens when the darkness reaches the window?” Beatrice asked.
He didn’t need to answer. He wanted to tell her to call the police now, to tell them a madman was there, to get over as fast as possible, but something else in him thought it wouldn’t do any good. He just wanted the responsibility to be on someone else’s shoulders. Let them try to figure out what felt like something far beyond him, but he suspected calling the police would only waste time they didn’t have.
You’re a manager, he thought, so figure out what you need to do. Beatrice did before he had a chance to.
“I have an axe in the tool shed,” she said to him. “I think we need to break the glass.”
“Okay, you get it and I’ll break this thing open,” he said, a tinge of envy that she had come up with a course of action before him, while feeling foolish that he even cared.
She left him alone to lean in closer to the glass. The insects came from the darkness, thousands of them now, the walls crawling with them, the air a mist of moving specs. Randolph was covered, only a few patches of raw flesh visible, but none of the insects touched the glass itself.
He jumped as the axe was shoved towards him, Beatrice’s gaze locked on the growing chaos inside the apartment. “Are you going to or am I?” she asked when Bradley hesitated to take the weapon.
His left eye twitched as he grabbed it from her. He rather liked the pettiness of the anger, something concrete and sane for him to latch onto, dispelling most self-doubt and allowing him to pull the heavy blade back and slam it into the glass.
Cracks crawled outward from the point of impact, and he swore he saw a rush of movement from Randolph’s corpse, as if whatever was trapped within it understood the assault.
The next swing sent more cracks spider webbing outward, made the glass tremble, and the third swing shattered a giant hole inward.
The oppressive sound of buzzing insects filled the air as all of them flew towards the hole, towards Bradley, and made him bring up his hands to protect his face, but as soon as they passed through the hole they evaporated in a haze of smoke. A swift inhale doubled Bradley over with a fit of coughs, his eyes wet and stinging from the acrid remains of the bugs.
From within the apartment he heard the thick sound of the darkness crawling forward, swarming across the corpse, as if trying to pull it away before Bradley could reach it. He let go of any concept of reality and stepped through into the apartment, hands up to protect him from the smoke. Once inside he felt the insects crawling across his flesh, felt pinpricks of pain everywhere, and the first hint of true fear and madness clawed at his mind.
Rather than flee from it he delved forward and brought up the axe. The blade struck Randolph’s body with a wet thud, and he felt more than heard what seemed like a roar of disappointment, of anger.
The darkness pulled back to the far wall and took all of the insects with it, until it pulled into a dark circle, and then vanished completely. All that remained was a familiar symbol painted in black along the wall.
In front of him Bradley stared down at Randolph’s remains, the skin all but eaten off the body, revealing glistening muscle and patches of bone. Starting at just below the neck the chest had split partially open, allowing Bradley to see the hollow cavity inside where organs should’ve been. The blade of the axe was still embedded in the mid-section.
To his right the apartment door cracked opened and Beatrice stepped inside, the keys clenched tightly in her hand. Bradley glanced behind him at the shattered patio door and saw the welded metal frame along the edge.
“It’s over?” Beatrice asked.
Bradley looked at his exposed arms and the sores swelling up, but they weren’t as bad as he’d feared, though something in him grasped that he couldn’t even fathom how bad they might get. He took up a seat along the wall and stared at Randolph’s remains.
“There’s books over here,” Beatrice said, knelt down along the far wall beneath the painted symbol. “I wonder what he was doing.”
“I have no idea.”
She stood up and walked over to him, eyeing Randolph’s remains. “Guess we stopped him.”
“Looks like it.”
“Call the cops?”
Bradley shrugged. “Why not?”
While Beatrice stepped back out into the day and called the police Bradley brought up his own phone and told his boss he wasn’t going to be into work that night.