I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, but I was obsessed with it. There was something in the way the grout cradled the salmon-colored tile—something that made it look like a door. When I was in the shower, I would drag my finger across its roughoutline and use the water spray to try and rub it smooth.
The tile looked as if it could pop open, or slide off, if only I could manipulate it just right. Like a puzzle.
I would apply light pressure and chip my manicure.
Every time I was near it, I would touch it. Because it looked like that one tile wanted to move.
And one day, it did.
It was a Sunday morning and I had slept far too late. The sun was in an odd spot and it cast its rays in unfamiliar patterns. It skittered across the ultra-shiny black and pink of the bathroom. It hid in rarely explored corners. I was washing my face when I noticed. Reflected at me backwards, almost unrecognizably inverted, was my shower wall. The fleshy pink porcelain had a nauseating hue, but that wasn’t what caught my attention—made me look twice. It was the tile, the one that looked like it wanted to escape; it had. No longer was it clinging to the perpetually damp wall. Instead, it sat in two perfectly symmetrical pieces at the bottom of the tub. I bent to pick it up, my face much too close to the wall with the hole in it.
There should’ve been something behind the missing tile: more grout or drywall or other things that made up a bathroom wall. But there wasn’t. The tile had leapt to its death leaving only a tile-shaped hole. I edged closer and climbed into the tub,pretending not to notice the gooseflesh that covered my body. It was only a bathroom, and only a tile. But the hole? Even a hole was never just a hole. Holes are the absence. Holes have thingsinside.
And this hole did. Have something inside, that is.
My tiles were an odd shape. I know tiles can be a lot of shapes, but these were akin to the harsh, unforgiving rectangles of the ‘50s, except bigger. Stranger. They were uncommon, as things in old places tended to be. Ancient apartments werealways bursting with the detritus of those that came before. And this place was no different: impractical built-in shelves, multiple landline hook ups, and a putrid pink and black bathroom.
Not to mention the perpetually loose tile that was now a missing tile. And a hole. A hole with something in it, I noticed as I pressed my face uncomfortably close to the opening. It was, bizarrely, the perfect size for the hole—long, thin, rectangular. I reached in with the tips of my fingers and dug out a piece of black plastic.
In my hands I held a VHS tape. It was an unlabeled mystery aching to be witnessed.
To my shock and dismay, there were no VCRs at theGoodwill down the street. As I lurked, I noticed a hulking camcorder behind the glass counter. It was more than I wanted to pay, but the woman assured me it worked as she handed me a bundle of cables.
The tape was waiting on my kitchen table when I got back home, and my sense of urgency increased as I fumbled with cords and adapters. The screen of my not-that-new TV buzzed and turned an unsaturated black. It was alive.
Adrenaline made my fingers unreliable as I forced the dusty black tape into the camcorder. I clicked it shut and pressed play. The screen erupted into a violent storm of static and noise. Cringing, I groped for the remote, but the flurry subsided, and a small, tinny voice oozed out of the speakers.
“Swing it around this way,” it ordered. The screen flickered and rolled a few times before clearing enough for me to see her.
“Rod,” she said. “Put it down and come over here.”
The woman had on an oversized denim shirt that hung almost to her knees. Her hair was icy and stiff, teased to the sky. I tilted my head to let her burrow deeper into my eyes. She was so casual, standing in the middle of the living room, tapping her foot while she bobbed in and out of view.
“Am I in frame?” she finally asked as the picture steadied.
“Looks good,” came a voice from off camera.
He moved into frame with her, light colored jeans and a sleeveless shirt. He wrapped one meaty arm around her waist and pulled her to him. She squealed.
“Okay,” she said, straightening her shirt and standing tall. “I am Claudia Grace. This is my boyfriend Rod, and this apartment is haunted.”
She offered a meek, half-smile, but my vision started swimming, so I missed it the first time. I rewound the tape, gutschurning helplessly, and hit play.
“I am Claudia Grace,” she repeated. “This is my boyfriend Rod, and this apartment is haunted.” She motioned to the space around her, and only then did I realize she was standing in my apartment.
Or rather, I was sitting in hers.
The blood left my head so fast I nearly passed out. But I didn’t; I was too scared to look away.
“Tell ‘em babe,” Rod encouraged.
“Okay,” she exhaled. She seemed nervous, and I liked her all the more for it. “So, Rod borrowed this camcorder from his brother, because we want to film some of the gnarly stuff that’s been happening.”
“Like the lights.”
“Like the lights,” she agreed, nodding.
“They turn off and on,” Rod interjected again. “But, like, not in a way that says ‘yo, dude, change the lightbulb.’”
“It’s like morse code,” Claudia continued. “These little bursts.”
“Like strobes. In the bathroom.”
My spine straightened and I involuntarily leaned closer to the screen, silently urging Claudia on.
“There’s this light in the bathroom, right over the medicine cabinet, and sometimes…” She trailed off, eyes darting nervously. “Sometimes it’ll flicker—when I’m getting ready or something. And it’ll look like there’s someone behind me.” It rushed out of her in one single breath, and afterwards, she looked embarrassed. Or at least I thought she did. The video was grainy, and I was leaning in so close the shapes occasionally stopped making sense.
I surveyed the room she stood in again, picking out familiar landmarks: bay window, built-in shelves, popcorn ceiling. It was the same living room that I was sitting in, but there was no light above my mirror. I knew that for a fact because I’d complained multiple times to my landlord. She never seemed to care. “It’s an old bathroom,” she said, like that was enough of a reason.
Claudia went on. “Rod had the idea of recording the apartment, to see if we can get some proof.”
“There’s other stuff, too. Shuffling noises, creaking, doors moving.”
“Yeah, but those I can explain. And those don’t scare me,” she said.
“They scare me!”
“I’m more concerned about the bathroom…”
“What else about it?” Rod asked. “What scares you?”
Claudia chewed on her fingernail and it reminded me to stop biting at mine. I put my hands flat on my thighs. “It’s hard to explain. It makes me uneasy, like I’m being watched. The colors and pattern of the tiles gives me vertigo. And the shower never seems to dry—not completely anyway. It smells mildewy, and that tile. You know the one?” She turned to Rod.
“The one that keeps falling off?”
I gasped and Claudia nodded sheepishly.
“I don’t like it,” she said with a shake of her head. “Why won’t it stay in place? Who put a gross hole there? Shouldn’t there be something else behind it? Like, more wall?”
“Okay, well that’s why we’re going to record some stuff.” He faced the camera and took on a faux-professional tone. “My brother gave me some blank tapes, so we can set up the camcorder in different rooms and see what happens. Deal?”
“All right. Rad,” he said seriously. “Let’s go get some pizza or something, and let this tape run out. Want to put it in the bathroom?”
“Yes!” she replied too fast. I nodded in solemn agreement.
Rod slipped back behind the camera and they maneuvered it through the apartment. It was strange to see my place through someone else’s eyes, and I fought the urge to walk with them.There was a big Kate Bush poster in the hallway, in a place I’d never thought to hang anything. It was just a blank, white wall under my care. I wanted to see what else they’d done with the place.
But the camera swung around a corner, static rolling over Claudia’s back as she tiptoed into the pink and black bathroom.
There was a light above the medicine cabinet mirror, one I’d certainly never seen before, and it gave the room a hazy glow. I didn’t like it, and Claudia shivered.
“Here it is,” she said over her shoulder. “I hate this room. If I could shower in the back alley I would.”
“It’s not the most welcoming,” Rod agreed from off screen. “Give a quick tour.”
Claudia pointed to the bathtub. “It’s that wall,” she said.
“And what tile?”
I swallowed hard but already knew.
“This one,” she pointed, edging closer. I knew it well; it looked like a door.
“What else?” Rod asked.
“Over here.” Claudia motioned to where I knew the mirror was and Rod’s camera followed. I could see him reflected in the medicine cabinet, the monstrous camcorder on his shoulder. It looked like mine. I leaned in for a closer look, but Claudia popped into frame. “This is the mirror I see things in.”
“What kind of things?”
She shot Rod a dirty look but answered anyway. “A person. When the light starts to flicker, I see someone standing behind me. When I turn, there’s no one there.”
“I’ve seen it, too,” Rod confirmed. “Not as much as she has. But I’ve seen it.”
“I hate it,” she whined.
“I know, baby. Anything else you want to add before we leave this thing to record?”
“Oh! Show the initials carved into the tile!”
I was literally on the edge of my seat as Rod positioned the camcorder on the toilet seat. It faced the sink and mirror, but I could still see the corner of the bathtub, and I watched as he climbed in. There was some rustling, and I admired their embroidered hand towels as I waited.
“Here,” Rod said as he burst back into frame. “Who knows if they’re all like this, but Claudia thinks it’s weird.”
“It is weird,” she insisted in the background.
Rod held the tile up, glazed side away from the camera, and I screamed. My initials were scratched into the back. Mine.
“Who knows if it means anything,” Rod’s voice echoed as he slipped off camera once more.
I was shaking as they adjusted the camcorder, checking the angle. “What if this is a waste of your brother’s tapes?” Claudia asked as the device recorded her knees.
“Nah, see, you can record over these things.”
“No way. How?”
Rod laughed and calves moved closer to Claudia. “Whaddaya mean ‘how’? These are just like cassette tapes, and you can record over those.”
“Cassettes don’t take pictures,” she argued.
“So? What difference does that make?”
Claudia started to edge out of the room. “I just think it’s weird. It’s like we put our lives on these things. How could someone just record over it? What happens to the things that were there first?” she asked from the hallway.
“I guess they get erased,” Rod replied as he followed behind.
Alone and vibrating with an implacable feeling, I felt their absence as I settled in to watch footage of my mirror.
They’d left the light on, and I waited for it to flicker, but in the back of my mind those initials shone with a disquieting brightness. They had to still be there, in my version of the bathroom. I wanted to run and check the broken tile, but I was frozen in place, eyes on the TV screen. The bathroom light trembled, and I squinted, trying to see if there was anyone reflected there.
It could’ve been a shadow. Or the fact that I was watching an ancient VHS, but I thought I saw…someone.
My hands were numb, but I managed to yank the camcorder free. I sat with it in my lap, its peaks and valleys digging into my flesh.
The bathroom was down the hall. My bathroom. Claudia’s. The apartment smelled like ozone or burnt bread and I kept clenching and unclenching my fists. I had to go look—to check, but I didn’t want to go alone.
I hoisted the cumbersome camera onto my shoulder and pressed my face to the gummy viewfinder.
Everything went gray.
I stumbled out of the living room with it still perched on my shoulder. I eased down the hall, smashing my eye socket closer to the lens. Everything slid in and out of focus, and as I neared my destination, I could no longer resist the urge to press record. With a click, I heard the gears whir against my ear, droning like an angry wasp. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sepia stained poster tacked up in the hall. And then, I was in the bathroom.
Reflected in the mirror, I could see myself, an ancient documentarian unearthing universal mysteries. The light above the medicine cabinet flared, made me pull the camera back. I caught my reflection again, now reduced to a splotch in the unlitspace. With the camcorder resecured to my face, I searched the room for the broken tile. It wasn’t on the floor, the sink basin, the tub. I swept the camera up the wall, and there it was: a single rectangular tile, pulling away from the rest just enough to stand out.
I yelped, sounding like a frightened animal as I whipped around to look for the door. Instead, I saw myself once more, reflected back, crude but legible under the single bulb that hung above the mirror. Through the camera lens I watched the bulb flicker and strobe. It fluttered like moth’s wings, or morse code,and I had the uncanny feeling that the awfulness I was witnessing had happened before.
I don’t know how long she was there before I noticed, but the mirror showed a woman behind me. I could see her in the light’s heartbeat. She looked familiar. She looked like me. Sadly, the thought was fleeting and dissolved amongst the waves of nausea that overtook me. The ground became unsteady, and the camera was dropping before I understood why. I watchedthrough the viewfinder as it careened toward the unforgiving tile. All I could see was what the little window on the camcorder allowed: the fall, aging tiles, and then static. An eternity ofstatic.
The tape lives in the hole in the bathroom and I live with it.
Christine Makepeace is a film essayist and weird fiction writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Links to her work can be found at christinemakepeace.com. Find her on twitter at @Xtine_makepeace
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