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.
“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.
“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.