Apartment 401 by Andrew Johnston

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Apartment 401 by Andrew Johnston
Illustration by Sue Babcock

It was the racket from Mr. Sidon’s apartment that first caught my attention, and from that point I knew that I had to catch a glimpse of what was behind the door to apartment 401. Noise wasn’t unusual in our neighborhood, but these weren’t the typical aggravations of urban life – the stereo rattling the rafters with angry music, the drunken argument that only becomes louder as the hour grows late, the dull rumble of some ill-functioning appliance tumbling over onto the floor. No, these were the sounds of industry and invention, the sounds of science as I’d always imagined them. They were metallic noises, machine noises, energetic noises, and some that were beyond my youthful understanding. As soon as I heard those sounds, I knew that at all costs, I had to see what was going on inside that apartment.

I don’t remember seeing Mr. Sidon move into apartment 401, or when he made the move, or when or where I first saw him. The apartment had been vacant for some time and we had grown used to the relative silence when the sounds began. He appeared in some lost moment and yet he was settled in as though he’d been there for weeks, arriving during some smeary part of time. Father and Mother took notice, of course, as did the neighbors, as foreigners were a rarity in our building. I’m not sure where he was from – they tell me that he was a visitor from somewhere in Europe, but that was rumor and speculation as much as anything. He never spoke more than a few words to anyone, and I’m not sure that I heard his voice at all, not once in all the time he was there. Those sounds were his only companion, vanishing on those rare occasions when he left and resuming with predictable timing upon his returned. People tolerated the cacophony only because, when compared to the usual street noise, it was barely a whisper. Unless you walked directly past his door, and hesitated for longer than any honest man would, you scarcely heard anything at all.

I walked past that door several times a day, and often I would linger for a spare moment. If I didn’t have any duties – if there was no school and Mother didn’t need any errands run – I would devise some excuse to get out of the apartment just so I could hesitate in front of apartment 401. It was a silly game, but I had little else to occupy my time, living as I did within my own head.. My life was one of careful structure and planning, and what adventurers I found lay within the pages of a book or plastered across a screen. These were stories of strange places, of explorers scouting out distant planets or mad genius inventors carrying out strange experiments and changing the world. Of course, what work of fiction could compare to the strange tale happening in my very building? What need did I have for fictitious mad scientists when one lived next door?

At night, when Father put the lights out, I would stay awake and wonder what marvels or horrors might lie beyond that ordinary apartment door. Images of mutated beasts, dead flesh given life and fountains of infinite energy filled my head during these idle moments. The story was different every time. Some nights, Mr. Sidon would be a villain with a plot to terrorize a city, calling some superhuman crusader of justice to halt his plot for world domination. Other nights I would let him be the hero, a misunderstood genius trying to save the world even as some secret order tried to keep his wisdom under wraps. Such was my imagination at that age, but the truth – as I would eventually learn – was so much stranger and more awesome than I had pictured even in my moments of greatest reverie.

However curious I was, I never intended to go any farther than hesitating at Mr. Sidon’s door. Mother, perhaps sensing my interest, issued veiled warning to me in her usual fashion – Don’t I know that it’s rude to pry into the affairs of others, and hazardous to spend time in the company of strangers? It was an unnecessary warning, for I simply lacked the courage to do any more than ponder. What was I going to do, pick his lock? Follow him on an excursion? It was nothing more than a pastime for me, a way to occupy the hours between school and errands. This was the limit of my bravery, and the limit of my childhood world.

This changed one day when, while out on some errand, I noticed the fire escape outside of our building. It was a rickety thing, sorely lacking in upkeep, secured to the wall only by thirty years of rust. The thing was just a pretense, as the windows that faced it were in a similar state of disrepair and would barely open wide enough to put one’s hand through. It was low enough to the ground for a child to just touch the bottom rung. I used to see other kids challenging each other to climb it, but I couldn’t imagine having the nerve to do such a thing. On that day, though, I noticed that the one of the dust-fogged windows of apartment 401 looked out onto the fire escape. It was my chance, and much as I knew I shouldn’t, I decided it was high time I dispel those fantasies and discover the truth for myself. When I jumped for the ladder, I found that my fingers just brushed against the rung, knocking free a few rust flakes. There was enough debris in the alley to give me a height boost, but that only introduced a new problem – I simply wasn’t able to climb onto the ladder. Years as a bookworm hadn’t gifted me the strength necessary to pull myself up.

It would only be a temporary setback, determined as I was to reach that window. Each day, I found more debris to make my little step stool higher, and each day I put more and more effort into the climb. After a few days, I made it to the second rung, and a day or two later I pulled myself to the third. Meanwhile, the sounds in apartment 401 only grew more alien, more intrusive, more frightening. This was a powerful incentive, the only one I would need to overcome this final obstacle. I ignored the ache in my arms and the ever suspicious glances from Mother and pushed myself on, ignoring my books and movies and even – at great risk – my schoolwork. When at last I made it all the way onto the fire escape, it was a true moment of victory, but I only gave myself a moment to celebrate before heading up to my goal.

The view into apartment 401 was hardly spectacular – the window was clouded by permanent dirt smudges and various boxes and crates inside the apartment cut the view to a narrow gap. My view into this secret laboratory would be no more than a sliver. As it turns out, that tiny sliver was all I’d need. The apartment was mostly open space, so much so that I’d assume that no one lived there if I didn’t know for certain of Mr. Sidon’s presence. In place of the expected furnishings were a handful of machines the likes of which I’d never seen – metal pillars set with transparent globes, some of which flashed with colored light at odd intervals. Thick cables connected the pillars to what looked like a pane of glass in the middle of the floor, and continued from there into a sealed room. It wasn’t what I’d expected – but then again, what did I expect? What mad scientist worth his salt works with common equipment easily comprehended by outsiders?

That should have been the end of my involvement with apartment 401, and for a time it pushed my thoughts away from our local scientist. I returned to my normal life with a sense of accomplishment and no more desire to look in on Mr. Sidon’s business. Then, a week later, the sounds in my building changed. The mechanical grumblings and electric melodies gave way to something more chaotic, a mingling of different noises, some which sounded like human voices. It was a more typical racket – most people assumed that he had the television and stereo and whatever other gadgets on at the same time. They were annoyed, certainly, but not enough to intrude into his business. I knew something that they didn’t – that he owned none of these devices, nothing to create these new sounds. These “normal” sounds were nothing of the kind.

At my first opportunity I returned to the alley, to my little makeshift stepladder and the fire escape and my little spy hole. What I saw through that little gap defied my ability to explain it. The machines were gone, or at least well-hidden behind the new furnishings and fixtures that now filled the room. I’d not seen him move these things in, though the presence of furniture was not nearly as strange as the nature of these things. These were not the usual cheap furnishings one saw in this are but ornate things out of another time – seats and tables hand-carved from exotic woods, curtains that had the look of high-quality silk, all of it in a style that I’d only ever seen in a museum display. They were antiques, but in pristine condition – things from centuries past that had never been used, that could have been made that very month. There were people too, many of them; not neighbors or the expected expatriate crowd, but aristocratic types dressed in clothing of the same vintage as the furniture. But the strangest part was a subtle change in the walls themselves, which appeared to have actually moved. The apartment had, somehow, grown larger.

What I saw was stunning, engrossing – so much so that I forgot my position and loosed my grip on the fire escape. It was a blessing that I didn’t cry in fear or do anything else to alert these strange new inhabitants to my presence, and a further blessing that I grabbed a rung and arrested my fall. Regaining my composure, I hurried back to the ground with as much speed as I dared muster and ran back to my own apartment, back to my own little nook where I could hide and ponder. Actually, for a solid month I did my best to avoid thinking, or at least thinking about apartment 401. I didn’t leave that room except for school and errands, and I avoided the books and movies that would normally occupy my time – my taste for the bizarre had muted somewhat. For the weeks that followed, I was a peerless student and a parent’s dream. And still the strange noises filled the halls of the building, day and night, digging into my head at night and sometimes rousing me from my sleep.

I wasn’t going to be able to stay away forever, not with the ever-evolving sounds of apartment 401 playing on my ears every time I stepped outside our door. There were still voices and new ones, but there were other sounds as well – noises neither human or mechanical. I forced down my curiosity for as long as I could, occupying myself with the tasks that any proper youth should, but time numbed my fear and I found myself drawn back to apartment 401. I was walking down the alley one afternoon when curiosity seized me again and I scrambled back to my perch outside of the apartment. I had to dare myself to look, and when I finally opened my eyes I saw something that far eclipsed what I’d seen the month before.

The apartment had grown larger again, the far wall vanishing into a vast, open azure sky dotted with clouds. A field of rough grass filled the space that had once been a room, mice and deer and animals I couldn’t recognize creeping through the dew-covered blades. Beyond the grass I could spot well-kept fields of grain with small cottages beyond, tiny figures that resembled the peasants from my books harvesting the crops and bringing their goods to market. The fields gave way to a gentle hill and just on the other side, peeking over the crest, I could make out a city crowned by the battlements of a crumbling castle. Here I had looked into an apartment, and looking back at me was a vision of Europe as it had been a hundred generations ago.

This sight was more than my brain could tolerate, and for my sanity I had to dismiss it as some manner of electronic illusion. Granted, it looked better than any hologram I’d ever seen, but surely the grime and crates obstructing my view were simply hiding the imperfections in Mr. Sidon’s light show. That’s what I told myself, anyway, and I was so convincing that I was not paralyzed by shock this time. I returned to the ground with a placid smile on my face and made my way back home, satisfied by the sensible, rational explanation I had dreamed up. I was able to return to my usual routine unbothered by thoughts of apartment 401. I wasn’t bothered by the sounds in the hall – they were just the ambiance of the city. Everything was normal, at least for another month.

That was when the dreams started, a fresh one every night. Each dream began the same way – I was standing at the door to apartment 401, reaching out for the doorknob, my hand moving as though another was commanding it. As soon as my fingers brushed the aging metal, the door floated open of its own accord, revealing the wonders that lay beyond. The contents of the apartment varied from night to night. Sometimes I beheld an ancient battlefield with masses of horsemen exchanging blows and falling to the earth in heaps, their blood tainting the soil. Sometimes there was a mountain peak rising up from the floor, and I shivered as a sudden wind issued forth from the door blowing wisps of ice and snow into the hall. Those were among the normal sights. Other nights, what I saw was far more abstract and strange – geometric shapes floating through the void and crashing against each other, or rivers of color that rolled out of the door and blinded me. None of it made sense, but I understood the meaning. What my conscious mind had blocked out, my subconscious continued to explore.

It took two weeks of dreams to send me back up that fire escape. This time, I didn’t hesitate for a moment as I scaled that fire escape. I had no fear, or even true curiosity – I had a need to see what was there, to quiet my mind once and for all. When I peered through the gap this time, I saw nothing and everything. There were no walls visible through the window at all, nor a floor or ceiling. There were no machines, no furniture, no fields, only a vast space suspended above a tiny mossy rock. It took me a moment to recognize this as a planet, not Earth but something decidedly Earth-like. The castle, the fields, the people, the animals – they were down there, somewhere.

There was more, though, so much more. The interior of apartment 401 stretched out infinitely across every axis. What I saw in that boundless room was a universe in miniature. There were countless stars, tiny lights flaring into existence and then quietly flickering into oblivion. Minute rocks, barely visible, danced in mathematically perfect circles around those lights, while others chose their own trajectories as they flew alone through the endless black. It was the kind of view normally reserved for the darkest of nights in the darkest of places, the majesty of nature – but this was not nature. This was existence in all its splendor contained within one otherwise unexceptional apartment. This was the dream of a god, captured within a few bare walls. Illusion or not, it was bigger than anything I had reckoned, even in my grandest dreams.

Mr. Sidon moved out shortly after that. There were no vehicles to help him move and no bags or crates outside his door – he’d appeared from nowhere, and now he was going to return to nowhere, to cease to exist except in memory. I saw him just once more, the last day before he moved out. He looked like a mad old sage, face hidden behind an impressive gray beard that permitted me to glimpse nothing but a pare of intense eyes. He carried only one thing, an inconspicuous gray cylinder that emitted a hum so faint that the sound was almost lost to the sound of the light bulbs in the hall. The only remarkable feature on the cylinder was a tiny etching at the base – SIDON CUSTOM MICROCOSM.

I’ll never know what I really saw when I peeked through the window of apartment 401. I’ve studied the sciences and I know it must have been a trick, some clever technological means of fooling my senses. Even so, the child in me wonders if it was real, at least in part. Maybe we’re all living in some cylinder assembled by a madman in some cosmic apartment. Maybe that simply explains too much.


BIO: Born in rural western Kansas, ANDREW JOHNSTON discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, the Arcanist and Mythic and will be featured in the upcoming Bad Dream Entertainment Horror/Humor Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.