The stairwell was silent except for his keys, which jangled and clinked as he strode quickly down the stairs, taking them two-at-a-time. The hallway was different, humming with a vitality unexpected at such a late hour. Walking through the dimly-lit corridor, the dull thump of his footprints could only be faintly heard. They were eclipsed almost entirely by the sounds behind each door, which flowed out to him, as if by osmosis.

He found that many of the sounds were unintelligible, a mishmash of white noise. Passing each door made its respective din more acute, but only marginally. He couldn’t be sure of their exact character.

But he had no time to think about it. Every night shift he was required to do a final “check-in” on Eric, one of the company’s autistic clients. Young, big and burly, Eric had a intimidating physique, towering over most of the staff members. This veneer belied a quirky, harmless sensibility. The most dangerous part of Eric was his acerbic wit, a biting, sardonic personality that was  equally offensive and hilarious. This was augmented by his cadence and flat affect. Eric spoke slowly, often elongating his words, with a voice that sounded a bit like a lawn mower. His monotone also often gave off a disengaged air, regardless of the context.

Each night, Eric was required to complete a nightly chore, often as simple as changing his sheets or putting away his dirty dishes. He also was required to hand over his laptop to staff before 1 AM, something deemed necessary after it had been discovered that Eric wasn’t sleeping, and was staying up all night with his computer, even when he had work the next day. On these mornings, Eric had been found blurry-eyed and sweaty-browed, bent over his computer like a hunchback.

His personal interactions with Eric had been benign; the client had treated him with gentle indifference during their brief interactions. This conversation was destined to be more confrontational. It was likely that Eric thought he was going to get away with keeping his computer for the night.

Reaching the end of the hallway, he pushed open a heavy door and descended another flight of stairs, clearing the last few steps with an ungainly leap. Eric lived in a garden-level apartment in the building furthest from the company’s  office. Getting there felt like a journey, and not a pleasant one. All of the complex’s buildings were old, having been originally built in the 70s. Due to lack of reinvestment, they were clearly showing their age. The faded carpet, decrepit walls, and chipping paint were clear indicators of this. Far more troubling, however, were aspects of the complex’s infrastructure, such as its toilets, which seemed to backup and overflow far too easily.

His introduction to working at the complex had involved this very element. Halfway through his first shift, Teresa had rushed into the office with an uncharacteristically nervous energy.

“There’s something wrong with the toilet,” she said, rocking on the balls of her feet.

“What?”

The toilet had overflown, spewing a shiny, putrid mixture of water, toilet paper and feces onto the bathroom floor. He hadn’t known then what this implied, not even as he madly attempted to mop up the chunky excrement soup, only to have it slosh up onto his legs and stain the white of his socks green and brown. It didn’t occur to him later as he puked his guts out while Teresa patted his back while whispering “I’ll pray for you.” No, it would be months before it dawned on him that such problems weren’t freak occurrences, they were endemic to the complex.

The hallway leading to Eric’s apartment personified this neglected character. It was dark and damp, as if one had traveled below sea level. It was also a part of the building that had fallen off maintenance’s radar. A shopping cart with a broken wheel sat lodged at one end of the corridor, completely obstructing the entrance of an apartment. Near Eric’s door the floor was littered with debris, including a big gulp cup from the nearby 7-11 and a discarded watermelon rind.

Moving close to the rind, he was struck by what he saw. Ants teemed over its surface, plunging hungrily into what remained of the rind’s porous, red fruit. Shuddering, he moved to Eric’s apartment, announcing his presence with three sharp raps on the door.

“Goddamn it,” Eric groaned from inside the apartment. “Goddamn it!”

The door opened, but only a crack, revealing a large, chestnut-shaped eye with a dark brown iris.

“Oh, it’s you,” Eric droned.

He could hear the security chain clinking and scraping as it was removed. Then the door swung open, revealing Eric in his entirety. The client was dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of shorts made of blue nylon. Standing in such close proximity, he was struck once more by Eric’s appearance. The man loomed over him by nearly five inches, and his exposed arms were similarly massive, their pale color hidden under expansive tufts of reddish brown hair. Above his broad, barrel chest, Eric’s face was buried under a wild, unkempt, and similarly-colored beard and mustache, which enhanced his intensely dark eyes.

“What do you want?” Eric said, eyes rooted to the floor.

“Hi Eric. How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Do you know why I’m here?”

“Yes.”

“Well, can I come in?”

“Ok.”

Eric moved aside, but only slightly, forcing him to squeeze between the wood paneling of the door frame and the client’s bulk. Once inside, he surveyed the area: a simple if drab living room with grey walls and greyer carpet. The room was also unbelievably messy, and Eric’s couch seemed to be the source. Like a great abscess that had built up and burst, an array of material possessions looked as if they exploded from the piece of furniture. Books and movies, cutlery and dishes sat either on or adjacent to the couch; a dirty plate was even wedged between two cushions.

“Wow,” he said, feeling exhaustion creep into his bones, “look at this.”

“I know,” Eric replied, eyes fixed on the ceiling.

“So what was your chore for the evening Eric?”

“I don’t know.”

He knew that Eric was giving him crap; the client had an impeccably crafted schedule of his responsibilities pinned to his refrigerator.

“Let’s go look at your calendar,” he said to the man, who let out a large, exasperated sigh.

“Finne,” Eric groaned, elongating the word considerably.

___________

30 minutes later he was preparing to leave, which he was more than happy about. Working with Eric had gone downhill after they had gone to look at his calendar of responsibilities. Eric’s nightly chore had been to change the bedsheets, which should have taken all of 10 minutes.

This minor task had turned into a grating struggle, with Eric and himself becoming opposing belligerents, hopelessly at odds. Despite much prodding, Eric refused to put in the effort necessary to make his bed. His attempts to tuck in clean sheets were empty gestures, indicative of an unwillingness to exert himself. After a third or fourth attempt to lift up his mattress and pull the sheet underneath, he had backed away, complaining, “I can’t do it!”

Then there was the issue of the grape stems, which littered the floor surrounding Eric’s bed. When he had asked Eric about them, the response was curt and outrageous.

“Sometimes I get hungry in the niggght!”

“So why don’t you throw them away?” he responded, exasperated.

“The trash is too far awayyy!”

_________

Looking at Eric now he saw no evidence that their verbal sparring was still bothering him. The client was back on the couch, computer on lap, looking like a king. Watching him, he noticed that Eric’s eyes were locked squarely on the computer screen. He was enraptured and at ease, unlike their conversations together, where Eric had clearly been unwilling or incapable of meeting his eyeline. Additionally, his overall expression, which had been rigid and unenthused throughout their exchanges, was now bright, loose and ecstatic. Eric was happy. The aspect of the world that the client had found so overwhelming was no longer an issue. Eric was there in the room, but he was also not there.

His heart sank, for reasons related and unrelated to his client’s current state. Once again, he thought of her, and, inexplicably, found himself staring out towards the west: the highly-generalized direction where she now lived.

Breaking the silence, he addressed Eric.

“Eric,”

“What fresh hell is this?” Eric whispered, barely audible over the sounds of his computer.

“Look, I have to take your computer.”

“Fifteen more minutes,” Eric pleaded, not looking up from his screen.

He considered this for a moment. It was not a big deal to let Eric have the computer for a little longer. But he also felt tired and weak, as if he was sinking in a slimy morass. And within that mindset there was something lurking, angry and awful. An energy welled up within him. His head swam and his body tingled. He suddenly felt good, maybe even great.

“Now Eric!”

“Ten more minutes?”

“I’m going to let Amanda know that you made this really difficult. And she’ll tell your mom.”

Amanda was his supervisor, the person responsible for all the clients who lived in the complex. Evoking her name would occasionally be enough to motivate some of them.

“Fineee,” Eric groaned, clearly annoyed.

Unplugging his computer’s power cord, Eric picked up his computer and walked towards him, shoving the computer roughly into his outstretched hands.

“Here…”

He opened his mouth to start saying the words “thank you,” but, before he could, Eric spoke again.

“…asshole.”

As Eric walked back towards the couch, he tried to formulate a proper response, and chastise the client for his disrespect. Yet, he couldn’t do it. Instead, he stood quietly for a moment and then turned and left the apartment. He began to walk back the way he had come, stepping gingerly over the ant-infested rind.

Then he stopped. There was a maintenance closet adjacent to Eric’s apartment, which he hadn’t noticed before. Its door stood strangely ajar, and inside he could hear something scraping across the floor. After a moment this was joined by another sound that made his blood run cold. An animal was shrieking inside the closet. He pushed open the door and began looking around for a light switch. He couldn’t find one, even after pushing aside a number of mops and brooms, and scraping his hand against a course pegboard attached to the wall. Finally, he set down Eric’s computer and pulled out his phone.

The “flashlight” feature of his phone shot a light out across the darkness, illuminating several yellow “Wet Floor” safety signs and a large bundle of electrical twine. He moved his hand up and down, directing the light throughout the room, searching for the source of the distressed sound. Too soon he found what he was looking for: a large, brown mouse sat against the far wall, its leg clamped firmly in the hungry jaws of a mouse trap.

He focused the light, attempting to assess the extent of the damage. Right away he could see that the mouse’s leg was probably beyond saving. The trap had bit directly into the upper portion of one of its lower legs, slicing horrifically through fur, flesh and muscle. The animal had then made the initial damage worse. It’s frantic, instinctual movements had shredded the leg further, severing more ropey, red muscles, and leaving chalky surface of its femur exposed.

“Why?”

The word slipped from his mouth. Lightheaded, he tried to think about options. He had read somewhere once that a humane way to kill mice was through suffocation, but he hardly had the resources to carry such a thing out, especially at such an early-morning hour.

He knew that he needed to something, and fast. The mouse was suffering. Its small body was trembling and its eyes were wet and glassy, as if it was crying. He tried to lower the light and make it less abrasive. Then he snapped it off, plunging the room into darkness. It was then he realized he had only one option, he had only ever had one option.

Leaving the mouse and computer behind, he ran outside of the building, barely noticed the precipitous drop in temperature. Walking as quickly as he could, he made a beeline for the rock gardens that flanked each building of the complex. He plunged his hands into the snow upon reaching them, digging furiously through the powder and ice that had been burying the rocks for months. The cold took his breath away, but eventually he pulled a rock free that was as big as his two fists pushed together, and carried it inside like a precious jewel.

Back in the closet, the wounded mouse had started moving again, shrieking in fright as he turned on his phone’s light. He bent down low and angled the light away from the animal, cloaking the small rodent in partial darkness. Looking at the small creature, which was now breathing heavily, he felt his throat tighten. He wanted to stroke the animal’s head, offer some form of comfort. He had to forcibly remind himself that it wasn’t domesticated; he would only frighten it more, and perhaps even risk getting bitten.

Grasping the rock with one hand, he raised it directly over the animal. It lay there silently. Its leg destroyed. Its body shivering. For a moment all he could think about was how stupid life is, how it could end without meaning or purpose. He also thought about how this could happen anywhere, without warning, even in an anonymous complex buried under the Minneosta snow.

But mostly, he thought of the mouse. He knew that he was anthropomorphizing the rodent. The tears in his eyes were due to him filtering what was happening to the mouse through his own experience in the world. The mouse couldn’t understand loneliness. It couldn’t communicate a fear of death or a hope that it had been loved. Yet, the animal exuded an unmistakable sense of pain and despair; it was all over its eyes, which were growing blacker by the second.

Then a raised voice rang out, ripping into his thoughts.

“OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

He recognized the source immediately: Eric was screaming inside his apartment.

“OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

He felt his chest seize, and the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Eric’s screams didn’t sound like silly histrionics. Instead, they seemed to indicate something greater, as if the client had discovered a terrible truth about the world that only he could see. Fainter sounds then joined the client’s bellows: the unmistakable sounds of human laughter. These muted peals came from the surrounding apartments, one on top of another, until it seemed as if the entire hallway was cracking up.

“OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

The watermelon rind was still sitting on the maroon carpet of the hallway floor. Despite being barely visible from where he was crouched, it was no longer a simple piece of discarded fruit, but a vision of the apocalypse. The feasting ants had seemingly multiplied, their pinchers tirelessly eroding the fruit’s flesh, tearing out chunks and becoming slathered in its juices. All around him the laughter continued.

“OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

The mouse squeaked softly, and he turned back to it, meeting the two shiny black pebbles that were its eyes. He tried to hold his feelings in check, but meaningless words tumbled out of him.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” he choked, the rock shaking his hand.

“OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!”

And with that, he brought the rock down.

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