Tom groped for the falling quarter, his finger glancing the side of it and sending it rolling across the cement floor, and then into the wall. Beside him sat his half filled basket of laundry, while in his hand he held the other two quarters.
He grudgingly got down on the floor to stare through the small crack in the wall in hopes that his quarter hadn’t rolled very far. Slowly he reached his fingers through the crack, only to prick his hand on a spike in the wood, and jerk his fingers right back out. They caught just a little on the wall, jarring it forward, he noticed, and revealing the clear outline of a door.
He gently nudged the door, and with a dry snap of old wood the door swung completely inward to reveal a rather large space in the wall. Tom glanced behind him at the empty laundry room before he stepped through the threshold and picked up his quarter.
But now he had more interesting things to see, eyes moving upwards, squinting through the dust swirling in the air, and fixing on the ladder built along the wall. He could see multiple small platforms up above him.
He grabbed hold of the ladder and pulled himself up a few rungs until he could make it to one of the platforms. The wall in front of him was entirely flat wood except for a small square at about eye level with a latch attached to it. Cautiously he pulled the square out to reveal thin wallpaper on the other side. Someone was humming, and leaning in closer, he could see a woman sitting at her kitchen table, papers strewn in front her.
He pulled back as silently as he could. Across from him was another platform with another little door, just as up above he could now see that each one of the platforms matched each of the apartments in his building.
He quickly slid down the ladder and closed the door behind him. He was careful to close it in just the right way to hide the fact that it was there.
Shortly before four Tom pushed back from the computer and logged out of the game he had been playing.
The library was only a few blocks from his apartment complex. Tom listened to his joints crack as he stretched out his shoulders before stepping out into the warm summer day. He ran a finger through his growing stubble. Stacy would complain eventually, but he had a few more days before that, and he’d get to it before she had a chance to. Tom found himself more and more willing each day to jump to her commands before she had a chance to utter them if at all possible.
And there she was as he walked up to the building, just getting out of her car; her blonde hair pulled back, skirt appropriately long yet short all the same it appeared to Tom. She stopped to let Tom reach her, her smile reserved, body language cautious.
“How was work,” Tom asked her. He reached in to quickly kiss her neck and smell what he knew was another man’s cologne.
“The usual. Get a lot of research done?” He didn’t like her smirk but couldn’t say if it were real or in his head.
They proceeded up the stairs, stiff and separate from each other. The day was Tuesday. They wouldn’t have their obligatory dinner out and quick sex for another two days.
Tom prepared dinner while Stacy sat at the kitchen table, her slender frame bent over a fashion magazine. He had always found it amusing that she spent all day sorting through legal documents, only to come home and read such trash. “How much longer do you think it’ll be before you finish up with your paper?” Stacy asked him without looking up.
“Who knows with these things? Can’t know when I’m going to stumble across something really useful, after all.” He forced a smile even though he had his back to her.
“Well, if you wouldn’t mind I’m going to need the apartment to myself tomorrow night,” Stacy said as Tom set down their plates.
“Greg coming over?”
“Yeah. We have some files we need to go through.”
Screwing him in our very home, he thought. “Sure. I’ll just be at the library.”
Of course she did, and had Tom not been so fearful of her leaving him he might’ve had a little more to say on the matter, but his eyes lowered instead.
He thought of his father then, as he often did in moments like this one. He could see the veins pulsing through a red face, and the bloody gash across the side of his mother’s cheek as Tom stared silently at the scene, hidden behind a partially closed closet door.
Tom had trouble making eye contact with Stacy, a woman who’s beauty far outshined Tom’s own meager appearance, just as her job outshined all of Tom’s failures that had led him to start up his ‘research project’ he currently labored through for as long as he could get away with. How long had it taken her to get through college compared to the nearly nine years Tom himself had taken? He had often mused to himself that the only reason she had even married him was so she would always have someone to feel superior to, or perhaps that was merely his own delusions. The only thing that mattered was that he would never be in control.
He glanced over at the wall.
Age made climbing the three-story ladder to reach the inner wall of his apartment harder than he would’ve preferred.
He could probably tell her he knew she was cheating, hold it over her head to make sure she knew not to cross him. The mere prospect made his heart quicken, to feel like he knew his father surely must’ve felt when he swung his fist. Tom wasn’t as brutish as the man he had seen lowered into the ground six years before.
He paused, still on the ladder, and glanced between the platform next to him and the one across from him, not entirely sure which apartment was the right one, sense of direction limited in the enclosed structure. He chose the one closest to him.
Stacy sat on the other side of that thin wallpaper, watching TV as she waited for her lover to show up. Tom tried to keep his breathing shallow. Already beads of sweat broke out on his forehead in the hot confines of the walls, but his wait wasn’t long.
He had seen and spoke to Greg before. The man who walked into his apartment was nearly two inches taller than Tom himself, and probably five years younger.
Tom couldn’t say what exactly he had been expecting to see, but he certainly hadn’t imaged they would live up to his expectations so thoroughly.
Immediately Greg’s hands were moving over Stacy’s body, the two choosing the couch rather than the bedroom. Tom could only watch the first few minutes before he found his eyes pulling away. He knelt down on the platform and pressed his ear against the wall.
There was no feeling of empowerment. All he felt was a sense of deep impotence. His lips curled back in a snarl of rage as he envisioned himself returning to the apartment before the act was completed, and putting an end to the relationship right away. Cowardice kept him in place.
They were at it for ten minutes before the final cries, Tom’s own legs shaking from the strain of kneeling down for so long. He managed to pull himself upright enough to stare through the window at his wife’s nude form in the arms of another man.
And then the words came. “When are you going to leave him?” Greg asked.
“Tom would never let me divorce him. Not without a good reason, at least.”
“He’s practically stealing your money. Why wouldn’t you leave him?”
“I doubt Tom’s lies about his little project would be enough to keep him from any more of my money, Greg.”
“Then maybe we need to figure out another way to get rid of him.”
“I don’t want to talk about it now. We’ll…consider things later.”
Tom’s fingers shook as they slipped the wood panel back into place. He stared down into the darkness below him and imagined his shaking fingers slipping on the ladder. Luck saw him through the journey to the floor.
The numb shock didn’t change into confusion until after Tom had stepped out of the laundry room door into the stairwell leading up. The laundry room was on his right, along with the apartment he had been looking into. But now, standing in the stairwell, Tom could recall that his apartment was on the other side of the staircase.
He ran up the stairs. He nearly slammed open the door to his apartment. Stacy sat at the kitchen table, alone, papers and files strewn in front of her. “What the hell, Tom?” she asked.
“He hasn’t arrived yet. What’s wrong? What happened to you?”
Tom ignored her. He stared over at the wall. Even the furniture had been right, everything exactly as it should’ve been. “I don’t know,” Tom said. “Sorry for startling you.”
He turned and left before she could answer. For the next fifteen minutes he stood outside near the edge of his building until he saw the familiar car pull up and Greg Toller get out.
After that he went to a bar.
His drunken slumber left him thick headed, his back in pain from an awkward position on the couch, clothes still on from the night before. What had Stacy thought when Tom had returned? The idea made him laugh.
Something clicked lightly to his right. He stared at the far wall to the living room. Just briefly he thought he heard a soft shuffling, like feet shifting positions on the other side of the wall.
“Who the hell is there?” Tom asked, shaking, unable to shift his gaze from where he knew a section of the wall had been removed. He received no answer. “I know it’s there,” he said.
Nothing. Not a single thing for over fifteen minutes of tense waiting. There was no shuffling, no click of the panel being put back, just Tom’s own rapid breaths and pounding temple.
He wouldn’t have moved at all had the vomit not started to bubble up in the back of his throat. He welcomed the sensation to give him a reason to move from those eyes he knew were watching him. A few dry heaves later Tom managed to take a shower. His hand shook too much for him to shave.
As soon as he stepped back out into the living room he could feel the eyes again. Before he could reach the door to his apartment that soft click repeated as someone slipped the panel back in place.
He almost fell down the stairs. The laundry room was empty, the door along the wall properly hidden. Standing in the walls Tom stared up at all those platforms. He was alone. How the person had made it out so fast he couldn’t imagine. Maybe there was another way out.
Hung over as he was the trip up was considerably harder than the night before. The panel to his apartment was gone. Tom stepped across to the platform and stared at his empty apartment on the other side. The square block of wood was at his feet. He spun around, squinting through the haze of dust and dim lighting as if a person would suddenly appear.
His eyes settled on the wall across from him. He stepped over onto the other platform. Trying to move as silently as he could he pulled the square loose. The lights were off on the other side. He moved in a little closer, trying to peer through the darkness.
His face was up against the wallpaper when the light clicked on, when he saw Stacy’s face pressed against the other side directly in front of him, eyes staring directly into his, face pushing so hard into the wallpaper it stretched it closer to Tom, and distorted her features. “You’re never going to change, are you, Tom?” she laughed.
Tom nearly plunged to his death right there. The sturdiness of the platform was the only thing that saved him.
The opening was dark. There was no face anymore, nor any sound of movement.
He stumbled down the ladder. He didn’t bother to close the door behind him, and was out of the laundry room when he realized he hadn’t closed it the night before, either.
A minute later and he stood in front of the apartment next to his, hand poised over the door, ready to knock. He couldn’t make himself do it. Instead he leaned in close enough to hear the shuffling on the other side.
He had put his cell phone in his pocket without thought. Standing in front of the door he called Stacy.
“Are you…you’re at work right now, right?”
“God damn, Tom, you know I don’t have time to talk during work. I’m on the other line. Is this an emergency, because if it isn’t I’m hanging up right now.”
“No emergency, I just…I don’t know what. Something…I don’t know.”
“I’m hanging up now. We’ll talk about whatever this is when I get home.”
He hadn’t heard her voice coming from the other side of the door, not that he seriously thought his wife was there. Besides, she could’ve left. So who was moving on the other side?
Suddenly he thought he could hear voices. He leaned in closer. There were two voices, soft but there, a man and a woman—Stacy and Greg, something in him said.
He pulled away from the door without trying to hear anything else.
“What’s going on with you? I’m not even sure I know you anymore, Tom.”
He sat on the edge of the couch, face still unshaven, hands practically shaking as they rested on his knees. Stacy seemed to tower over him, staring down as she would at a spoiled child, and Tom once again saw his father’s red face and his mother’s gashed cheek through the thin slit of a door.
“There’s, uh, in the walls, there’s this space, and you can, well, each apartment has a little hole you can see through. Right through the wallpaper.”
“Where is this?”
“I’ll show you.”
Her reluctance was clear, but she did follow him as he led her out of the apartment and to the laundry room. The door was once again well hidden. Stacy didn’t say a word as he pushed it open and led her inside.
“Come on,” he said, and started climbing, Stacy behind him, until they had reached the third floor platforms. Both panels were in place. She moved to their apartment and lifted the block of wood enough to allow her to see inside. As she did so Tom took out the one on the other side and stared into the darkness. He couldn’t see anything.
“When did you find out about this?” He could hear the slight tremble in her voice, though he couldn’t place what specifically was causing it.
“Just a few days ago.”
He could see the shift in her body language. She turned swiftly back towards Tom; cheeks flush with visible red even in the dim lighting, augmented by the light red of her lipstick. “That was you last night, wasn’t it then?”
“Watching us. Greg said he thought he heard something.”
Tom saw the two of them intertwined, saw the sweat on their bodies and heard a kind of moan she had never uttered with him. “That…really happened?” he whispered.
“What really happened? Did you think you dreamt up spying on us? My God, Tom, is this really what we’ve come to? You aren’t working on anything anymore, are you? Are you even going to the library?”
There were too many things mixing together for Tom to absorb it all. Buried beneath it was that feeling of impotence, made worse by the sense of being watched in this moment of humiliation from the darkness behind him. Why did he remove the panel?
But one thought did break through all the others. If she were cheating on him, he had an advantage in the divorce, and he felt the small smile creep through the tension. “Yes, I’m going to the library but I haven’t been researching anything in a long time. What does it really matter? You’re the one screwing around on me.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not sleeping with Greg. And who the hell are you to accuse me of such a thing when you’ve been lying to me all this time? I’m going back down.”
It hadn’t been real. Whatever Greg had heard, it hadn’t been Tom, and all Tom could do was stand there and watch Stacy climb down the ladder, and ignore the overwhelming urge he suddenly had to shove her off of it and watch her fall.
A minute passed of isolation before he heard it. “You know what you are, Tom,” Stacy’s soft voice said from within the darkness of the apartment. “You’re a wife beater who doesn’t have the guts to beat his wife.”
His journey down the ladder was just as fast and risky as it had been earlier in the day, but now the thing that drove him was anger, not fear. He didn’t knock on the door to the apartment next to his. The door opened and let him into the middle of a dark, empty room. There was no furniture like there had been the night before, certainly no couch for his wife to have sex on with Greg.
He squinted in the darkness of the apartment in an effort to make out whatever he could see moving through the hallway in front of him.
“What the hell are you?” he screamed.
The hand reached out from behind him. Tom spun around to see Stacy’s smiling face, eyes hidden by shadows, dressed in the same outfit the real Stacy had been wearing. “You’ve never really been in control, have you? From the moment you first set eyes on me two years ago you’ve been mine to do with as I please. You had one moment in your entire life to take a stand and do something right, and you chose that moment to show who you really are.”
Her words were snide and cut through him. Right then, standing in the middle of the darkness with this image of his wife in front of him, Tom couldn’t stop himself anymore. His fist caught her across the cheek, and he felt the flesh against his fist, and saw the surprise turn to fear when the second blow came.
She stumbled back, but his third punch threw her off balance, dropped her to the floor, and Tom was falling down on top of her, letting his fist swing again. She tried to say please, tried to bring up her hands to stop him, but Tom wouldn’t relent, wouldn’t stop his body from following through.
Some part of him stood in the middle of a thin crowd of false mourners as his father was being lowered into the ground, Tom’s own mother already dead from his father’s hands, and while everyone standing around that grave suspected the truth, only Tom and his dead father knew there hadn’t really been any man who broke into their house that night, and Tom had never spoken a word of the truth. He could still see the look on the officer’s face as Tom’s father gave his story. Their town was small, the violence low, and even the police didn’t throw around the accusation of murder too often if they had any way to believe otherwise.
The light clicked on. Tom stared down at the pulpy remains of Stacy’s face, at the blood spattered out from where her head repeatedly collided with the floor. The room was filled with the furniture from his apartment, everything exactly as it should be, and Tom could only stare dumbly around the room until his eyes settled on the wall and he heard the muted sound of Stacy gasping in fear followed by the creaking of her descending down the ladder.
The fear of a little boy that gripped him then was momentary but so powerful he felt his heart freeze for just a second, but almost immediately it was being replaced with something else. Beneath him he stared at the large splash of blood on the wood flooring where his fist had repeatedly struck, his knuckles raw and slick with red. There was no furniture and there was no corpse. Tom sat alone in the bright living room.
He didn’t bother to turn off the light when he left the apartment.
He pushed open the door in the laundry room and stepped into the walls. He climbed up the ladder with clawed, stiff fingers.
The panel was gone from the apartment next to his. He listened to the sound of his father shouting. Inside he saw his father throwing Tom’s mother to the floor. He stared through that small window just as he had stared through the thin crack of an open door, knowing this time was going to be worse than the others, and understanding when that final blow came and his mother’s eyes went blank, that the end had finally come. When the officer’s eyes would eventually shift towards Tom, to ask him in an almost pleading tone if he had seen what had happened, Tom could only look away and shake his head and never say a word just as he hadn’t left the safety of the closet to save his mother.
Somewhere Stacy was screaming. Tom turned around towards his apartment. He reached forward with indifference and removed the panel. Inside he could see her pretty face contorted in fear. He leaned in and watched himself grab her shoulder and throw her into the wall. He watched himself pull his fist back for the first time and repeat an act his father had perfected.
Tom was aware of the tears streaming down his cheeks, and remembered for the first time in his life he had been crying on that night as well twenty years ago.
Once again he stood back and didn’t say a word or try to stop the violence right in front of him. He only leaned in a little closer and watched another life come to an end.