Chapter 3

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"Nikolaos," I hissed, trying to be loud and quiet at the same time and stumbling away from the door. "Get the fuck back down here, right now!"

He must have heard something in my voice, because seconds later his head poked over the edge, and he slid down the ladder and dropped the last few feet onto the concrete. I could see him, I could suddenly even smell him, and that tangible realness felt overwhelmingly reassuring. I grabbed his arm and even his awful not-cashmere sweater was comforting.

"What's up?"

"I thought..." The noise had gone; I felt foolish. "I thought I heard someone out there."

He walked to the door, pulling away from me. "No don't!" I hissed, but his hand was already on the knob, he was already turning it, pushing the door open, stepping out into the hallway. Shining his light left, back the way we'd come. He turned, to shine it to the right.

And for an instant I was sure

something

around the corner was going to grab him and in the same instant with nightmarelogic certainty I knew it was my fault for imagining it, for possibling it

for making it real

but nothing happened. He shrugged.

"I don't hear anything, man."

Neither did I.

"Let's get back anyway," he said. "I'm not even sure how long we've been down here. Your boyfriend's going to kill me."

As we walked back up the hall through the zone without doors, I glanced behind me. I noticed with a frown we'd left the door to the pool room open.

It felt wrong, somehow. A bad omen.

But no way in hell was I walking back to shut it.

We lay on my closed-again bed and stared up at the ceiling, giggling. We couldn't help ourselves. It felt good to be out of there, to have the whole ridiculous mystery literally at our backs. Even an old mattress felt like shield enough.

I'd felt better with each upward step. The earlier rooms were familiar as we hit them in reverse: the octagon with its stairs down, the bright yellow light of the upstairs halls, Niko's coffee stain ("so typical," I told him, "you've marked this place with your distinctive musk") and the big empty room with its couches and piles of everyone's junk. By the time we'd climbed the final stairs up to my room and swung the bed shut, we were giddy, flushed with excitement, brimming with explanations and theories.

"It must run under the whole neighborhood," Niko was saying. "Connect to other houses, or maybe it only used to. Maybe no one knows about it any more." He grinned. "Except us."

"It doesn't make sense," I was still protesting, but it felt more ridiculous than sinister. I shook my head, embarrassed at my freak-out earlier. I was spooking myself for no reason. If someone else was down there, wouldn't they have come to say hi?

Maybe they did.

I shook my head again. It was cool, and nothing was going to get in the way of that.

Niko jumped off the bed up to his feet, then swayed and put out a hand to touch the wall. I frowned, sitting up. "Okay?" Sometimes he blacked out if he stood up too fast. I worried.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, waving a hand. "Just need some more coffee. Or booze. Maybe both."

I did some legit research in the next few days. Our landlord stopped by to see how we were settling in and reassure us he'd fix the things he said he'd fix before we moved in, which he clearly wasn't going to fix. He was a younger guy with kind of a stoner vibe, on the whole not very plausible as a landlord. When I casually asked how he'd come to acquire a hundred-year-old house in a rather nice college town, he said he was trying to make a living off rental properties and we were the first students to move into this one. He mentioned he'd gotten a good deal on the house because of the maintenance it needed (embarrassed cough) and because the city sold it at auction and they "weren't allowed to play bidding games and shit" with it.

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