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Number 401

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The street was mostly dark, bordered on both sides by lights that had burned out a long time ago. The cement was slightly sticky underneath his boots, and the rain continued to fall, drumming a quiet background beat to the far-off noise of the city. Raising his hand, he unclenched his fist from around the newspaper that he'd been carrying. He paused briefly in the street, only long enough to wipe some of the rain off of his dripping face, and checked the listing. 401 Despair. He was in the right spot. He looked up. The building loomed, slightly menacingly, up into the gray sky. The place looked like it had grown out of the cracked pavement. A sudden feeling, that the building might actually be alive, scared him worse than anything he had ever seen in the city. The building's old brick, stained by the incessant rain, was the color of dried blood.

He approached the door, warily. The building's front door was bordered by a twisted iron grate, that begun and ended where the steps met the asphalt on either side of the entrance. The only accoutrements were a rusty mailbox, and the building number, 401, engraved into the wall itself. He reached up for the door knocker. The door opened wide before he could touch it, and the sudden movement struck a chord of fear deep within his heart. Standing in the entrance was the oldest man that he'd ever seen.

The old man's face was coated in thick wrinkles, and his skin seemed to be melting off of his bones. The skin itself was the color of custard. His lips sagged, revealing the tips of gray teeth. He stood stooped over, leaning on a cane, his gaunt figure bent at the waist. He beckoned with one skeletal hand to the man in the doorway, and whispered, with a voice that sounded like wind rustling through dead trees, “Come in, please.”

The man at the door had no choice but to obey. He slid inside, slowly, still frightened, irrationally, by the old man's sudden appearance. Outside, the wind suddenly picked up, and the door slammed shut behind them, of its own accord.

He followed the old man through the building's foyer. It looked as if no one had done much cleaning in quite a while; cobwebs hung from the high rafters, and a thick layer of dust coated a long counter-top to the right of the doorway. As they walked, with him attempting to match the old man's slow, uneven gait, he attempted to placate his mind.

There's nothing to worry about, he's just an old guy- and besides, the apartment is beyond cheap- nothing even came close to it in the paper. I'm getting a good deal, and I can't let first impressions ruin that...

He was startled out of his reverie by the old man, who had turned around, peering at the apartment-seeker with rheumy eyes. “What are you waiting for?”, he said, his voice still as dry and raspy as before, “Come in, and take a seat.”

The old man pointed into a shadowy room to their left, the den. Dust covered everything here, too, and heavy drapes on the windows shut out all light and sound from outside, save the distant patter of rain on concrete. The only light in the room came from a small, cheerless fire, which burned slowly in the fireplace.

The old man pointed again, at a pair of hard wooden chairs, near the fire. The younger man, taking the hint, sat down quickly, his hands gripping the chair's arms tightly. Still standing, the old man shuffled closer to the fire. In the dim firelight, his figure seemed even less substantial than before.

“So”, the old man continued, “You must be the one who's interested in the apartment. Mr. Ryan Johnson, I presume?” He smiled horribly, his teeth like a series of tiny gravestones set in gray soil.

The younger man, Ryan, shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. He hadn't remembered calling the building, or even letting anyone know that he was going to look for an apartment. He closed his eyes briefly, and found his voice. “Yeah, that's me.”, he managed finally, his voice sounding slightly weak.

Did I tell him my name?

“Perfect.”, said the old man, still grinning. “Would you like to see the room?” He twisted his head around unnaturally, and indicated a set of stairs, leading up the far wall.

Ryan got up slowly, and headed up the stairs, the boards creaking softly underneath his feet. Each step sent a tiny cloud of dust particles into the increasingly musty air of the stairwell, which seemed to wind into the building. After what seemed to be an endless procession of stair-steps, he stepped out into the hall. The lights at the top seemed to be faulty, too, as the only light in the hallway was cast by a burnt-down candle set into a rusty candelabra on the far wall. The windows here were covered heavily, too.

“It's just down the hall, here.”, the old man whispered, directly behind him. Ryan looked to the left. A single door, massive and ornately-designed, dominated the end of the hallway. Rummaging briefly in his pocket, the old man produced an old, iron key. “Here you are.”, he said, almost excitedly, his beady eyes boring holes into the younger man. “Go ahead and unlock it.”

Ryan took the key. It was strangely cold to the touch, as if it had been left outside for a long time. He inserted the key into the lock. Suddenly, his mind started screaming at him.

Don't do it. Don't turn the damned thing, it doesn't matter how cheap the apartment is, you can always find another …!

Think it through! Something isn't right.

He silenced his thoughts, and swallowed hard. It's all just nerves. Everyone gets nervous when they're trying to find a new place.

He turned the key.

The old man whirled around, suddenly, and grabbed Ryan's wrist in a tight grip, his bony fingers pressing in painfully. “Yes. Yes. Someone's done it. It's been so long..”

Ryan cried out in pain, and attempted to wrench his hand away from the key. He couldn't let go.

“I've been here for so long. So long. Since the last one left me the building. I knew it was only a matter of time!”, the old man crowed horribly, his gray teeth exposed in a disgusting parody of a smile. “Now, I'm free. Look inside, inside, and see what you've won! It's yours now, my friend! Yours now!”

He cackled loudly, and his fingers loosened from around Ryan's wrist. The old man fell to his knees on the dirty carpet, and crumpled into a ball, still laughing maniacally. Deeply shaken, Ryan attempted to bolt for the stairs, bracing his feet against the door panel to sprint. He couldn't move. His hand, which was still clenched tightly around the old key, was held in place by some unknown force.

“It won't do you any good, ha!”, the old man spat out in between laughing fits, “The key's yours now! I've done my time, done my share, and now it's your turn! Ha! Open it!”

Ryan struggled, attempting to break free, to no avail. He looked down at his hand, and froze. With frightening clarity, he focused on the key, and noticed something horrible. The key was turning. He wasn't controlling it.

The ancient tumbler in the lock clicked once, loudly, and the impact resounded in the small space. The door was open.

It began to open slowly, by itself. Ryan, now free, stumbled backward and tripped on the carpet, sprawling out on his back.

“I've been waiting so long for this”, the old man whispered menacingly, his face now only a few feet from the younger man's. “I couldn't leave until I had passed it on. Passed on the Curse of 401 Despair. I was given it, just as it's being given to you, and now you'll be trapped here!”

The door continued to open, carried by its own weight out across its hinges.

“And now you're stuck here.”, the old man spat, his fetid breath hanging between them like a cloud in the dusty hallway, “Until you can break free.”

Just as the door reached its zenith, and the force within began its work, Ryan was halfway to the windows.

A force reached out, and grabbed him by the ankles. He screamed loudly, and fought back, but to no avail. Pulling hard on his legs, the force dragged him backwards towards the door. He scrabbled at the carpet for purchase, but found none.

His last conscious thought, before he reached the door, was “I should have known.”

Outside, the rain picked up. The last streetlight, the only one that wasn't broken, went out suddenly, with a jolt.

Inside, all that was left in the hallway was a bundle of old clothes, and a single, ornate key, both lying on the carpet. Just as the dying candle on the wall sputtered out, the final sight was that of the malevolent key, it's purpose complete.

Then, there was silence, and the Changing was done.




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