Esme laid on her bed the next morning, looking up to the ceiling trying to imagine what was happening at her parent’s house. Today was her mother’s birthday. She checked her phone on the off chance that it had a signal, but it was still on null. Esme felt guilty for not being able to contact her, for not being able to say happy birthday, and for not being able to give her one of those half-hearted hugs that made them both wince. Would her mother be missing her right now? Would she even remember? Would she even care?
Esme got out of bed and walked into the kitchen. Her sleepy eyes shot open when she noticed a box of tea on the kitchen top that she hadn’t seen before. It had a recurring design on all panels of blue sky, green grass and a photograph of tea bags on the front, yet no brand name nor text. She picked up the box, opened it and smelled it curiously. It had a spell-binding aroma of citrus fruits and spices, cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg perhaps, and it reminded her of the tea she had drunk during a family holiday in Scotland soon after she had become a teenager. She had played endless games of Monopoly and Ludo with her mother and father during a week of inclement weather where many times they had gotten caught in a rain shower. Her father would light the log fire and her mother would prepare mugs of tea that filled the room with the smell of citrus fruits and spices to replace the warmth inside of them.
“Perhaps Chloe left them,” said Esme out loud, then realised that she was alone and looked around the apartment. She remembered what Darren had told her, still finding it hard to believe that the friendship that she had thought about so much over the last few days had never really existed. She started looking through the cupboards to see if there was anything else that Chloe may have left and she was greeted with an array of non-perishable products. She had oats, canned veg, long life milk, rice, tins of ready-meals like chili-con-carne and coronation chicken, all in fancy packaging with bright designs and photographs of the products, yet all still bereft of logo or text. Almost like products you’d buy in the gift shop of a theme park. She stuck her tongue out at the thought of the tinned meals, but she smiled and gently whispered, “Thank you, whoever left these here.”
She heated some of the milk and made some porridge and a cup of tea, then sat on the sofa. She normally listened to music when she had breakfast, but her speakers were also back at her mother’s house, so she ate her breakfast whilst humming Haydn’s Cello Concert Number One. As she ate, she scanned the walls of the apartment, dreaming of expensive artworks scattered around pristine white walls. A tiny sparkle of light on the far wall caught her attention as if a ray of sunshine had bounced off a gemstone. She put her breakfast down and got up out of her seat, walked towards the sparkle and ran her finger over what looked like a tiny glass nipple that was integrated into the wall. She looked up close at it, what seemed like the lens of a camera, out of place against the dirty wall of the apartment. She brought her eye right up towards the nipple and although she could not see anything on the other side, there was a blur of coloured light from the empty apartment on the other side which made Esme’s feet feel like she’d just stood on nettles.
She wanted to tell Darren immediately, so she wrote a note and asked for another urgent chat on the balcony, perhaps to break into next door and see if there was anything that proved that she was being spied on. She opened the door to her apartment by slowly turning the door handle, jammed a shoe in the doorway, tiptoed to Darren’s apartment and slipped the note underneath the door. It might have been easier to have just knocked, but she didn’t want Sally to know they were in touch with each other.
As she turned back round to her apartment, her face and body bumped into something. Something muscular, tall and tree like. It was Sally.
Esme felt like she was back at school facing the headmaster, but quickly played up to the situation, knowing this was her only way to keep to the original plan.
“Oh, crikey, it’s you. Morning, Sally. Just out, err, stretching my legs.”
“Where are you going?” asked Sally.
“I wanted to go to the park this morning, but the front door is locked again. Don’t suppose you know anything about that, do you?”
“Locked? I think you’ll find the front door is never locked.”
“Perhaps that’s my mistake, magnetically sealed or something, but it still doesn’t open for some reason.”
Esme started back towards her front door.
“Just a moment.” Sally approached Esme with strong and controlled movements. “Have you met any of the other residents yet?”
“No,” lied Esme and as soon as she did, she wondered if she had been too blunt. “But I do like to walk about. You know, up and down the stairs. Keeps me fit.”
Sally continued to walk around Esme. They both kept eyes locked throughout, Esme smiling her morning smile, Sally’s face spiritless except for a glimmer of moisture in her eyes.
“There’s no law from doing that, is there?”
“Not at all,” replied Sally.
“Better than being stuck all day in my apartment.”
Sally moved her neck to retract her head backwards. “You do like living here, do you not? Everything you want. Everything cared for. The building will always take care of you.”
“I don’t need anyone taking care of me.”
“Are you sure of that?” Sally lifted a hand towards Esme’s face, but stopped when she saw Esme frown.
“You came here to get away from your mother. You must be lonely here in the city, a young energetic girl like you.”
“I never told you that.”
“But it is what you think. I know these things.” Sally started to walk around Esme again, looking up and down each end of the corridor.
“Exactly how long have you been here?” asked Esme, her eyes watching Sally’s bare feet tap around her.
“From the beginning of course. You do not understand, do you?” smiled Sally. “I erected this building. I created this place for people like you.”
“You’re the one keeping me here against my will.”
“No Esme, I am your landlady, your carer, your provider, in case you had not realised yet. I’m here to keep an eye on you.
“I never agreed to this,” said Esme as she folded her arms. She could feel the uncontrollable rush of blood to her face.
“You signed a contract. And right now, your presence is nourishing for the building, helping it grow.”
“Actually, no I didn’t. I never signed anything”
“Verbally, you agreed.”
“Bullshit,” barked Esme.
Sally looked towards the ceiling and moved a pointed finger towards Esme’s mouth. It was her and Chloe’s voices talking as if they were coming from a hidden speaker somewhere.
Do you think you could live here forever, then?
Say ‘Yes’. Tell the apartment that you want to live here, and it will accept you.
Yes, oh yes!
Good. I think you’re gonna fit in here just fine.
Esme looked up at Sally who was attempting a smile, but all Esme saw was Sally’s robotic face that she imagined was being controlled by elastic bands inside her jaw.
“You can’t keep me here.” Esme felt a shiver as if someone was gently caressing a knife’s blade against parts of her skin. She dug her fingernails into her palms.
“Can I not?” replied Sally, her head cocked to one side.
“I have family who are looking for me.”
“No, you do not,” Sally nodded. “You told me that, remember? Besides, the building likes you. It likes your energy.” Sally stretched her hand out in front of Esme’s, her long and bony fingers suddenly clasped together as if she were grabbing a butterfly out of thin air.
“I’ve seen your dirty little peep hole,” said Esme as she folded her arms.
Sally laughed, a wooden and repetitive laugh that echoed off the walls. She shook her head from side to side and said, “There are no peep holes here, Esme.”
Without saying anything more, Esme pushed past Sally, barging her shoulder into Sally’s chest, squashing breast flesh that was packed into her bikini. Esme moved towards her apartment, slowly yet confidently. She swung inside, went to close the door and about an inch from closing put her foot behind it, just enough for her eye to peer through the gap for a bulky tree-like figure in a grey bikini. She then closed the door and went straight to inspect the peep hole on the wall and how best to cover it up. She scoured the wall for five minutes, inspecting every inch before giving up and wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.