Lovecraft in Brooklyn

Our new neigh­bor­hood was a Brook­lyn dream: stately brown­stones, abun­dant bode­gas, a Korean taco joint, a farmer’s mar­ket on Sun­days. The New York Times described the area as “an undis­cov­ered gem,” an assess­ment we derided but secretly trea­sured. Our neigh­bors were less excited about their “dis­cov­ery,” and to be hon­est, we didn’t know what to do with them, either. The older black ladies tut­ted at us to clean up our dog’s poop as we were pick­ing it up. One of us almost got punched when we pushed onto the bus before more sea­soned com­muters. Mean­while, the crowds in suits and hats out­side church made us feel hor­ri­bly guilty for our Sun­day hang­overs.  The chil­dren play­ing with deflated balls out­side our build­ing stirred a com­bi­na­tion of pity and nos­tal­gia for the nice, un-deflated balls of our child­hood. Call it the gen­tri­fiers’ dilemma. We wore goofy glasses, ate Korean tacos instead of estab­lished neigh­bor­hood fare, and drove up the rent prices up on our crum­bling tenement.

If the neigh­bor­hood was a dream, our new apart­ment was all real­ity. The hall steps pulled away from the wall, not far, but enough that we could see the dirty smudge above where they’d once con­nected. The land­lord had re-fastened some with L-shaped brack­ets, but those had come loose, too. Gray water dripped from the ceil­ing; rodents scratched. But the apart­ment had five bed­rooms and two decks. We could see Man­hat­tan for only seven hun­dred dol­lars a month each.

The scratch­ing in the walls both­ered one room­mate in par­tic­u­lar: she heard skit­ter­ing up and down every night. After weeks of denial, she dis­cov­ered a moun­tain of rat shit hid­den behind her dog’s food, ema­nat­ing from a jagged, tennis-ball sized hole in the floor. The shit had no smell, but for pel­lets of such abnor­mal size to lack odor made them some­how more hor­rific. First, she tried sweep­ing the shit up, but it stuck to the broom’s bris­tles in stub­born clumps which she had no choice but to dis­lodge with her fin­gers. Over­come by dis­gust, she sprayed the entire area with 409 and scraped the melt­ing pel­lets up with paper towels.

She told us the rat shit saga while we mon­i­tored new leaks dur­ing a rain­storm. The dog’s food was now safe in a plas­tic tub, but she won­dered aloud passive-aggressively about break­ing the lease. Lately dur­ing the sad rit­ual of leak-watching, we’d been killing time read­ing to each other from a tat­tered Best of Love­craft, which I’d found in a box on the street. I sug­gested that since we had rats in the walls, we should name our foursquare check-in “Exham Pri­ory.” I had intended it as an off­hand joke, a way to dis­tract her from any thoughts of leav­ing. But our room­mate with the dog declared she would become mayor and started tex­ting the room­mate who spent most of his nights at his girlfriend’s about the Love­craft­ian hor­ror of our apart­ment. We read “The Rats in the Walls” aloud to each other three times, and a full-on mania was born.

Though we all pro­fessed to be too broke to pay the cable bill, we found money to buy Love­craft­ian kitch. Presents started arriv­ing at the door. A Miska­tonic Uni­ver­sity teeshirt, a Cthulhu hat. We took turns wear­ing these things as we trudged through the rain to work as baris­tas, temps, sec­re­taries. Dur­ing one night of storms, we built an albino pen­guin out of papier-mâché. Love­craft had been hor­ri­fied by Brook­lyn, and yet drawn by its lurid decrepi­tude. He became our guide to weath­er­ing the city, though we would pre­vail where he did not.

While the rats were no longer eat­ing the dog food, they were still skit­ter­ing in the walls. The solu­tion came, sur­pris­ingly, from our room­mate who we saw the least. He occu­pied the cen­ter room and paid less than us because he had no win­dow, just an air­shaft. He made video art and occa­sion­ally fucked a noisy girl whose face could not be made out beneath her bangs, like the mon­ster in The Ring. When he came home with a cat, an adult cat with ele­gant white socks, we were all surprised.

His name is Nigger-Man,” the cen­ter room room­mate said.

The albino pen­guin sat over his shoul­der in its place of honor. I was wear­ing the Cthulhu hat. We all knew the ref­er­ence: it was the name of the cat in “Rats in the Walls.” None of us said anything.

It’s ironic.”

Nigger-Man did save the nar­ra­tor from the rats,” the room­mate with the dog said.

The nar­ra­tor was eat­ing that cap­tain guy alive,” our room­mate who was usu­ally at his girlfriend’s said.

Nigger-Man tried…”

Stop fuck­ing say­ing that. We have black neigh­bors,” I said.

NM. Can we call him NM?”

Hey cat,” our room­mate obsessed with his Playsta­tion said, pick­ing him up. “Do you believe in eugenics?”

The cat – the cen­ter room­mate refused to change his name, so we refused to call him by it — was a rat expert. He brought us five in the first week. They were squirrel-sized and ele­gant in death, lit­tle sleep­ing princes in their dis­turbingly clean fur coats. We dis­posed of their bod­ies with wads of paper tow­els and washed our hands five times in hot water after. We started to wish the cat would leave us alone.

***

The raini­est win­ter on record, the weather report said. Water fell in wet, slush­ing down­pours. Greasy rain slid down our walls and bled into the buck­ets which had become per­ma­nent fea­tures. The hole in the kitchen dripped rain or shine. The water com­ing out of it was rusty brown, like the wound was infected.

In April, we had a break-in. It was a lazy break-in. They took the lap­tops that were out in the kitchen, but not the ones hid­den under com­forters like hun­gover lovers. They scooped a hand­ful of one room­mates’ change out of the jar where he’d been sav­ing it. Took the beloved Playstation.

We were in a tizzy, of course. A break in! Only half of us had renter’s insur­ance; the other half now regret­ted this bit­terly. The police came, and we described our old-model Mac­books, our hand­ful of quar­ters. They asked how the thieves might have got­ten in. Our front door had been locked. We weren’t so sure about the doors out to the bal­cony. It was easy to just walk across the roof and enter. But we were pretty sure we had locked them.

A win­dow, maybe?” the police said.

We had found one small win­dow unlocked.

A the­ory began form­ing our minds, but it was not con­firmed until the Playstation-less room­mate marched into the kitchen with his lap­top (hid­den under his smelly sheets dur­ing the break-in) and pointed at the list of wire­less net­works and con­nected devices. “There’s my Playsta­tion,” he said. It was called The White Ship. “Some­one in this build­ing still has it.”

The kids,” the cen­ter room­mate said. “Who else would be dumb enough to turn it on?”

And they could have fit through the win­dow,” our room­mate with the dog said.

The chil­dren who lived in our row of dock­worker ten­e­ments were all black and had ambigu­ous par­ent sit­u­a­tions. Our rela­tion­ship to them up until now had been to kick their deflated soc­cer ball back to them as we unlocked our bikes, or to answer their strange ques­tions about our room­mates’ dog like, “Why is it spot­ted?” Now we watched them with new eyes. I tried to be sym­pa­thetic. My renters’ insur­ance had also bought me a brand-new MacBook.

NM,” the Playstation-less room­mate said. “Should we sic you on those kids?”

He took care of the rats,” the cen­ter room­mate said.

I can’t believe you’re com­par­ing those kids to rats,” I said. “Love­craft isn’t about this shit. I don’t get why you think it’s funny.”

Racism that ridicu­lous is always funny,” the Playstation-less room­mate said.

His work is about alien­ation. About feel­ing like the world is against you. The other stuff is just… unfortunate.”

Where was the dog dur­ing the break-in?” the Playstation-less room­mate said, ignor­ing my protests.

I take her to dog­gie day­care once a week.”

NM doesn’t need day­care,” the cen­ter room­mate said. “NM is a killer.”

No one laughed. But no one objected, either.

***

The true threat was not the slushy win­ter, or the rainy spring. It was sum­mer storms. The first crash of thun­der rever­ber­ated one evening in early June. Leaks split open like sores. Over the toi­let: con­ve­nient. Over the stove: less so.

As the hot sum­mer roasted us in our beds and drowned us in its storms, I started to hate New York City. The stink of human sweat in the sub­way. Men star­ing at me on the street. The labrinthine death maze of the super­mar­ket. The hor­ri­ble, per­va­sive smell of garbage, lux­u­rat­ing in its own filth. I longed for the sum­mers of my child­hood, air-conditioned houses, back­yard pools, fresh-cut lawns, even though I’d sworn never to go back to the sub­urbs again.

There were talks of try­ing to find a place all five of us could move to. But any­where else in the city charged twice, three times the rent. Craigslist offered to exile us to the far­thest reaches of the bor­ough, or cram us into shared rooms. Exile, or liv­ing in war­rens, seemed worse than a few leaks. We watched each other in case any­one should for­get that we could only afford this apart­ment together.

***

Our death knell was not the rush of rain, but a ter­ri­ble crack, like brit­tle bone giv­ing way. The ceil­ing col­lapsed on top of my bed, plas­ter so heavy it could have killed me if I hadn’t been at work. Under­neath the plas­ter was not wood but a furry, thick cov­er­ing of black mold. It seemed to move if I stared at it too long. I imag­ined the scratch­ing in the walls hadn’t been rats at all, but the spread of the fungus.

The cat kept far clear of the place.

Our absen­tee land­lord, to our shock, actu­ally sent some­one to spray the ceil­ing down with “fungi­cide” and fix the plas­ter. I was will­ing to stay because my only other option was mov­ing home with my par­ents, but our room­mate with the dog moaned about mold aller­gies. We posted a few fake ads on Craigslist that would draw her atten­tion and buy us some time. The only solu­tion we could think of was a party. The strength of our apart­ment was its par­ties. We had two grills, miles of strung Christ­mas lights, and a makeshift bar. A party would lift everyone’s spir­its. Make us appre­ci­ate our home again.

The evening air was fresh, as if the breeze were blow­ing in from some sweeter world. Con­necti­cut, maybe, where we all went to school. We made burg­ers and mar­gar­i­tas, suc­co­tash and beer brats. Friends came, friends of friends, strangers too. We got drunk, we got high, we stuffed our­selves with meat.

At the height of the party, the cen­ter room­mate emerged with a can­vas bag. He’d found it in a hidden-away trunk while look­ing for a cock­tail shaker. It was fire­works. Not the kind that shoot up into the sky; ground fire­works that spray col­ored sparks.

We’re going to set them off on the roof,” he said.

Our roof?” I said.

Nah, next door. The tar won’t catch.”

Kids live in that building.”

Kids who took our shit.”

So you’ll burn them down?”

His fuckbuddy-girlfriend swept aside her bangs and looked me in the eye for the first time. “It’s per­fectly safe. Trust me, I’m Chinese.”

I wanted to protest more. But I was drunk and high and sun­burnt. The fire­work was a font of light and color, holy and child­ish in its plea­sure. The roof shook off the sparks bet­ter than it did rain.

What are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?”

I knew the man yelling at us. He was the land­lord next door, a Jamaican guy with a pot­belly who, the last time I was on this roof, called me a cracker. Or, at least, I think he said cracker.

The fire­work was still shoot­ing and spout­ing, mak­ing his face hard to see. His mouth was twisted into a ric­tus, his eyes tiny and hard with a prim­i­tive anger.

It’s cool, man,” the cen­ter room­mate said.

It’s cool? Set­ting off a fire­work on my roof is cool?”

I had gone from fret­ting about the fire­work to being repulsed by his froth­ing – he was over­re­act­ing just like I had. “Don’t worry. We just have to wait for the fire­work to finish.”

You need to put that thing out! There’s kids in this building.”

The build­ing is fine,” the cen­ter room­mate said. “And any­way, we don’t know how.”

Green and pink light flashed across his face. I was miss­ing some­thing really awesome.

I’m call­ing the cops.”

The fire­work sput­tered out. We relented and shouted at every­one to get off the roof. The land­lord stood there, glow­er­ing at us like an ancient idol, a venge­ful god we’d long ago over­thrown. Would it be ter­ri­ble if I said it was a mon­key god? What if I knew it was racist, but felt it was true?

Just as we got every­one off the roof, the cat leapt over the edge, run­ning at the landlord.

Nigger-Man!” I shouted, and then slapped a hand over my mouth.

What did you just say?”

The cat,” I said, my voice small.

You called your cat that?” he said. “That’s dis­gust­ing. What is wrong with you?”

Twenty min­utes later, our door shook with the author­i­ta­tive thump­ing that only came from cops. With no more fire­works, I set the albino pen­guin on the hot grill; the fire swarmed up his body and set him alight. The burn­ing pen­guin was an even bet­ter spec­ta­cle: not an empty show but real destruc­tion, turn­ing his ter­ri­ble white­ness to ash. I hated every­one who had joined us on this roof, those stu­pid fuck­ing hip­sters. I hated the land­lord. I hated the cops. My apart­ment was a corpse only half-embalmed, its skin about to be split by mag­gots. I would hap­pily watch it burn.

Meghan McCar­ron’s sto­ries have recently appeared in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and Strange Hori­zons. An assis­tant edi­tor at Unstuck, she is at work on a novel about how going to a magic world as a kid would really fuck you up. She lives with her girl­friend in Austin, TX.