The Woman on the 13th Floor
This short story originally appeared on Medium
“I caught her staring at me again.”
“What?” Mary’s voice came through groggily. Tom realized the phone call must have woken her up.
“The Woman on the 13th Floor,” he clarified.
“She’s probably in love with you,” Mary added, as her typical sarcastic self crept back to life. She yawned, clearly stretching around to consult a clock, finally admonishing, “it’s almost one in the morning.”
Like that was late for her.
Mary was Tom’s ex-girlfriend. A “writer,” who didn’t write. For that matter, so was he. It wasn’t uncommon for them to be staring at their laptops until sunrise, for what good it did them. Neither had been published in years. Living together became a nightmare, as they turned their skills on each other, constantly attempting to edit what the other was saying, picking apart each word choice, endlessly questioning the motive of every statement.
Eventually, Mary rented an apartment across the courtyard. She had been watching a young couple move their things into boxes, and the day they left, she pounced, knowing the apartment wouldn’t stay empty for long. She wondered if they’d bought a house in the suburbs.
Living apart, the breakup was organic. Tom and Mary simply stopped seeing one another.
Five years later, though, they still couldn’t leave each other alone. The temptation to gaze out the window into the other’s apartment overwhelmed. Typically one of them would try to date someone new, only to get mocking texts from across the courtyard. They’d try to outdo each other with each text, and began bringing strangers home just to see what the other had to say about them. Their relationship had finally become manageable, and, apart, they were inseparable.
Now, accused of being in love with another woman in Mary’s building, Tom fired his retort into the mouthpiece, “How ‘bout you go upstairs and get her number for me?”
“Great idea,” Mary quipped, taking a deep breath to add “I’m going to go talk to her.”
The first time Tom had seen the woman was just a few weeks ago. Right before the lockdown. It was one of those nights where you can just feel every drop of moisture in the air. The humidity was making it so hard to breath, it seemed everyone on the courtyard was praying for a thunderstorm to break the oppressive heat.
Their collective wish was granted with a vengeance.
Not only did the rain come to wash out the smothering humidity, but it carried all the electrical power out with it. The lights fizzled and died, the air conditioner breathed its last breath, and when Tom lunged for his phone, he realized he stupidly hadn’t kept the damn thing charged.
With precious few percentage points of power to occupy his time, Tom estimated he had perhaps twenty minutes.
He made the most of it, pushing the screen with his thumb, as his eyes greedily gobbled up the light. Just more paranoid think pieces about the vague, incomprehensible virus, and the importance of avoiding all contact (“don’t even so much as look at each other,” cried one doctor in a video). No information made its way through to Tom’s brain, though. Instead, his mind was elsewhere, worrying about how stuffy his small apartment was about to become without the AC.
Moving to crack a window, he saw IT as soon as he opened the blinds.
“What the — ?”
With a flash of lightning, it was gone.
Maybe he was seeing things.
Tom bunched up some towels on the sill to block any in-bound rain, and pulled open the window. Cool air flooded into the room as if his apartment were a sealed tomb finally unearthed after thousands of years. He barely had a moment to enjoy it before another flash of lightning brought his attention back to the roof across the yard.
He wasn’t seeing things.
There she was.
She was silhouetted against the night sky, backlit by the moon. About the only thing Tom could make out was how tense she was. She held her arms out at her sides, like a bear reared up on its hind legs to intimidate. Like a professional wrestler sizing up their opponent. Like a child pretending to be The Incredible Hulk. The rain beat down on her.
He stood by the window staring at the woman for several minutes. She was so still, he wondered whether or not it was actually a person at all. Maybe it was some sort of cardboard cutout. Or a scarecrow.
Every New York City high rise needs a scarecrow.
Just then, his phone buzzed to life. He answered reflexively, hearing Mary’s playful voice.
“Scary night, isn’t it? With the rain and all it’s like right out of a horror movie or — ”
“Hey, there’s a woman on the roof of your building,” Tom interrupted, still staring without blinking.
“What do you mean? Like she’s going to jump?”
“More like the mothership just dropped her off.”
“It’s probably just The Wizard trying to get away from her nightmare child.”
Tom and Mary had given nicknames to each other’s neighbors. The Wizard was Mary’s upstairs neighbor, on the fifth floor. She spent all day chasing after some little creature that jumped around the apartment, thudding onto the floor with every landing. All Mary ever heard was The Wizard screaming “Magic, no… No, Magic!” Mary thought it was a dog until Tom told her it was actually what looked like a three-year-old boy.
The noise drove Mary insane.
Tom also knew from Mary’s descriptions that there was a bodybuilder she called “The Terminator” living just below him. He found it comforting to have a killer robot so close.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Tom and Mary came to refer to this mysterious figure as “The Woman on the 13th Floor,” since Mary’s building only went up to twelve. As horror devotees, they always wondered whether or not the original architects had been given the order to “STOP BUILDING” before they hit the dreaded number.
At first, they simply assumed The Woman on the 13th Floor was homeless. Tom had never seen her climb up there, but now that he’d noticed her, he realized she never seemed to climb down. During the day, he never saw her, but almost every night he’d catch her at some point. She was always doing the same thing: nothing. Just standing and staring down the side of the building. Tense and still.
“Maybe she has a tent up there or something.”
Mary just didn’t want to go check, herself.
Tom found himself finally writing again, imagining this woman’s life. Sometimes she was a superhero, listening in case someone might cry out for help. Other times she was a demon, staring down at the city with ravenous intent, scanning the ground for her next meal. His stories seldom got past the first three pages.
Over the weeks, Mary placated him, but it was clear she was becoming less interested than he was.
“I feel like if you could just see her you’d understand why I’m so obsessed,” he finally said one afternoon.
“Ew, stop trying to lure me into your apartment, creep.”
He smiled at the insult like it was the greatest compliment he’d ever received. It wasn’t what he’d meant to offer, but he also didn’t regret it. After a moment’s silence, Mary’s voice came back through the phone again.
“What time should I come over?”
That night they ordered pizza and watched The Woman on the 13th Floor. And, as predicted, Mary was hooked.
It became a ritual. Friday night, pizza, wine, and The Woman on the 13th Floor.
Their life together began to repair. They were functional. United in their absolute confusion over what The Woman could possibly be doing. What she could be looking for. What was she thinking?
And then it happened.
The evening before the lockdown, Tom came home from gathering supplies. Water, toilet paper, and enough food to ensure he wouldn’t need to leave for a while. People at the store wore masks and sunglasses, and dramatically avoiding looking at each other. He’d wanted to ask Mary if she would stay locked down with him, but he didn’t summon the courage to offer and she certainly didn’t ask.
As he set a dozen eggs on his kitchen counter, he saw, for the first time, someone else on the roof across the yard. Maybe the building’s manager? A tenant, perhaps? He had no idea, but he left the rest of his groceries unpacked to watch from the window. The sun was just setting, casting an orange glow. He supposed this stranger had propped the roof-access door open with a brick.
Where was The Woman? Tom found himself shocked at his disappointment that she wasn’t there. He wanted to see what she’d do now that someone else had set foot on her rooftop.
With his nose almost pressed against the window, Tom thought this new person might be a meter reader or some sort of utility worker. They were definitely inspecting…something… Every now and then they’d jot down some notes into a little tablet in their hand. It was several minutes before Tom realized how uninteresting it was to watch a public works employee do their job from five hundred feet away.
Just as he turned to go back to the kitchen, though, Tom saw her.
She had been there the whole time.
Barely visible, he could make out part of her form, partially obscured by the door back into the building. Tom watched as she glared at the man. He was too far away to see the expression on her face, but as the utility worker walked back and forth on the roof, her head bobbed to follow his every move. She seemed transfixed by him.
Tom dialed for Mary, but she didn’t answer. His eyes shifted from The Woman, down nine floors to Mary’s apartment window. Didn’t look like she was home. Probably getting supplies of her own.
Stupid. They should be pooling resources. They should be together.
When Tom looked back to the roof, he found the spot behind the door where The Woman had been…but she was gone. He couldn’t understand why, but a sick feeling developed in his stomach as he searched for the utility worker. Finally, Tom located him. He was bent double, examining some sort of vent.
And there was The Woman, approaching him from behind.
Tom had never seen her in motion before. She moved unnaturally, as if she wasn’t stable on her own feet. There was a wobble to the way she walked, like a newly born deer, learning to use its body for the first time.
An animal instinct reared up inside Tom, he felt like a mouse trapped in a pen with a snake. Tom couldn’t have put it into words, but he knew the man was in danger.
His hands flew to the latch and he yanked open the window, calling out in vain.
The utility worker clearly didn’t hear the warning, he continued his examination of the roof as The Woman hobbled nearer.
“HEY! HEY! LOOK OUT!”
It was impossible.
Her arms reached out, twitching uncomfortably. Desperately. She was starting to move faster now, she was nearly there.
Tom opened his mouth as wide as possible and bellowed. This time, he made no attempt to form words, he tried only to battle the ambient sound of New York City. He could think of no other option.
Maybe it came through sounding like nonsense, maybe it was barely louder than a whisper by the time it hit the utility worker’s ears…But the man looked up.
He seemed confused, searching around for the source of the noise. Tom waved his arms madly, trying to get the man’s attention.
Finally he did.
He got someone else’s attention, too.
The Woman froze in place. She no longer seemed interested in the utility worker, who punched some numbers into his small iPad, and gradually headed back to the exit, pulling open the door and disappearing down into the building. Clearly he decided that Tom was some lunatic, unworthy of his attention. Tom could see the man through the windows into the stairwell, heading back downstairs to safety.
He didn’t matter anymore.
The W oman’s blank expression and hollow eyes were pointed only at that strange little thing in the distance.
That thing that yelled at her, and stolen away her victim.
He could almost hear its thoughts,
“I SEE YOU.”
His blood ran cold.
She was staring at him now. She had noticed him. And she wouldn’t look away.
They remained locked, as if connected from her roof to his apartment. A connection stretching across the courtyard, broken only by the sudden buzzing of his phone.
With some effort, Tom broke the connection, shut the blinds, and answered the phone, relating the frantic story to Mary, who was walking back home from the grocery store.
“Whoa whoa whoa, slow down. Slow down,” Mary urged him.
“So you’re telling me…What you’re telling me,” She sounded as nervous as he was.
“…Is that nothing happened?”
She was making fun of him.
The next morning felt different instantly. Waking up with the knowledge that leaving isn’t an option has a way of shrinking even the largest living space.
Tom found himself drawn to the window like a moth to a flame.
Poking through the blinds, he opened a small gap to peek out.
She was still there. Watching him.
He couldn’t tell if she had moved at all. It felt likely that she hadn’t moved an inch since they first locked eyes with each other. She may have stood there watching his window, just waiting for his inevitable reemergence.
He backed away, letting the blinds flop into place.
Tom felt exposed. Unsafe. Each time he peeked through the window, there she was.
When it stretched late into the night, that’s when Tom couldn’t bear it anymore. He dialed Mary, needing to talk to someone outside.
“I caught her staring at me again.”
It took some time to truly activate Mary. She didn’t usually sleep deeply, but once she did, it was impossible to get her full attention.
“I’m going to go talk to her,” came her eventual solution.
Sometimes it was hard for Tom to realize when Mary was joking, but now he felt relieved to laugh at the situation.
Except she wasn’t kidding.
Through the phone, Tom listened as Mary slid out of bed, and flicked the light switch. He could see her floor lamp blink to life across the yard, and he wandered to the window as he muttered through the phone, “you’re joking.”
“Nope. Not joking. If it’ll get you to chill out, once and for all, I’m going to find out what the deal is.”
Tom felt numb, knowing it was impossible to change Mary’s mind. He could only blurt out “don’t go up there.”
Mary was standing in her kitchen, looking exasperated.
“What do you think she’s doing up there, Tom? Really? What could she possibly be up to?”
Far away in her kitchen, Tom saw Mary staring back at him. Unlike the way The Woman on the 13th Floor looked at him, Mary’s attention felt alive, albeit concerned.
There was no answer. No good, clean, rational answer. So instead, he said nothing.
Tom turned his attention up nine stories, to the top of the building, and was unsurprised to see The Woman still watching him. A death stare. Hungry and bottomless. He connected with her briefly and regretted it as a chill tore through his spine.
Mary must have already been in the hall. By the time Tom looked back at her apartment, he couldn’t see her. Through the phone he heard elevator doors opening.
“Mary, please. Please. I’m begging you. I know it’s crazy, just please don’t go up there. I have a bad feeling — ”
Her voice came out of the phone, crackling and glitching, as the elevator doors closed. “I can’t think of any other way to get this out of your head,” was the last thing he heard before the line went dead.
Tom stared at the brick exterior of the building, imagining Mary inside the elevator, rising, rising up to the twelfth floor. She’d have to take the stairs from there.
He shifted his gaze to the windows along the stairwell, finally catching as Mary came in through a heavy metal door. She walked straight to the window, gesturing to Tom, far away, that her phone stopped working.
Powerless, he watched as Mary climbed the staircase, finally reaching the roof. The 13th floor. The Woman didn’t move a muscle as Mary approached.
Tom yanked open his window again, staring intently as Mary seemed to question The Woman from six feet away.
He tried to call Mary’s phone again, but it wouldn’t go through. So instead he dialed 911, kicking himself for not doing it earlier.
Mary wasn’t making any progress. Tom saw her gesturing as she spoke to The Woman, who still hadn’t taken her sunken eyes off Tom.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“Uh, hi, I’m, uh…”
Mary theatrically shrugged in Tom’s direction, signaling some message of “who knows?” With that, she turned to leave, heading back to the door.
“…I’m calling to report that…”
He gave Mary’s address instinctively, not even aware he was doing it. Staring up at the roof, Mary was almost to the door before The Woman shambled toward her. Her limbs jostled loosely in their sockets as if they were barely connected, and her blank face finally turned away from Tom to focus on her new prey.
It was hopeless.
Mary heard nothing, but The Woman’s head reacted to the call, turning abruptly to gaze at Tom as her arms wrapped around Mary from behind.
The phone fell from Tom’s hand, forgotten, as he watched in horror.
The Woman was staring at him, possibly attempting to understand his reaction. It wrenched Mary violently, pulverizing. Its arms moved wildly, sometimes clutching Mary’s shoulders, other times worming their way up to Mary’s neck and head.
He felt his sanity bending. The movement was sickening. It made no sense. The Woman seemed to enjoy the struggle, but her deadened face stared only at Tom. Not even her mouth registered any movement. No sneer, no smile.
He could see Mary struggling, screaming, though he couldn’t hear a thing but his own blood pounding in his ears.
That’s when he broke, along with every bone in Mary’s body.
Tom’s knees gave out from under him, and he collapsed to the ground. Somewhere in the distance he could hear the 911 operator calling for him. Somewhere closer he sensed The Woman’s eyes drilling a hole into him.
She knew how to get his attention now.
As he lost consciousness he thought of Mary. Her twisted body on the roof, robbed of its life. Drained and mummified. He was able to see it clearly, somehow. The Woman on the 13th Floor was enjoying her distant connection with Tom while she wrenched, snapped and crunched. It was as if she saw the event through his eyes, enjoying the feeling of being seen somehow violently feeding off of Mary.
She just wanted to prove to him that there was nothing to worry about.
He wished he’d asked her to stay with him during the lockdown.
Tom didn’t even see as the red and blue lights appeared, and a young police officer investigated the call.
The next day there was no one on the roof. More police had come to investigate. Evidently, they couldn’t locate the responding officer from last night.
Tom sat, catatonic, staring out his rear window, scanning the 13th floor for The Woman.
He was looking too high.
She was one floor down in a man’s apartment. Some guy Tom had never bothered to pay attention to. As soon as he found her in the man’s kitchen, as soon as she saw him watching, The Woman pounced on this stranger, doing to him what she had done to poor Mary. The whole way through, she remained connected to Tom, enjoying the act through his eyes.
With Tom as a witness, The Woman worked her way through the entire building. Each night, a new victim. He didn’t move, feeling rooted to the ground, helplessly staring through the window.
It turned into a game. Sometimes he’d have to find her in the apartment windows, other times he was able to pick the next victim himself, just by casting a glance in their direction. She’d wander to the person he selected, growing steadier on her feet with each new kill.
She took men, women, and children. The Wizard and her son Magic put up a good fight, but even their frantic energy could do nothing to stave off The Woman.
Every now and then a new officer would appear, but they never stood a chance. By the week’s end, rumors had become facts, and Tom could see more and more people leave their homes. They knew. They knew they had to move out before the monster arrived at their door. No one knew, of course, that a man across the courtyard was involved, sometimes as a director, but mostly as a witness. He stopped eating. Once, he’d covered his windows to avoid watching, but now he felt powerless to stop staring. It became something of a game. Part of him even enjoyed it.
Eventually, Tom stopped imagining ways for anyone to stop the killing.
They’d have to condemn the entire building to end this.
As The Woman from the 13th Floor continued her death march to the ground level, Tom dimly noticed that the bricks seemed to be losing their color, leeched and dried, becoming increasingly covered in rot. One day, his electricity shut off, but Tom didn’t notice. The air grew stale around him, and his apartment was like an oven. A kiln. He didn’t feel it as his skin dried, clinging tighter to his bones.
The Woman across the street stayed connected at all times, he could feel her watching him even when the diseased brick came between them.
He felt comforted by the connection. It was his only nourishment.
As The Woman finally reached the bottom floor one day, Tom became aware of his own body again. He had no idea when he had last moved. His mouth was dry, his arms were heavy.
The Woman stepped outside, for the first time on the ground floor. Tom attempted to stand to see her better. She looked accomplished. Healthy. Possibly even thankful. The effort to stand knocked the wind out of Tom, though, and he nearly fell over, breaking his eye contact with The Woman as he tried to catch himself.
Unsteadily returning to his feet, Tom desperately flung himself to the window to try and find The Woman again, but he had lost her. Down on the ground, he could only make out the shapes of people milling about aimlessly. He couldn’t feel her eyes anymore. The connection was lost.
That night, the sky opened again, and rain came pouring down to crush the awful heat. Hearing the the water droplets ping off the window sill, Tom suddenly realized how thirsty he was, and shambled to the door, struggling to pull it open. His body was ruined and drained. He steadied himself against the wall to make his way to the stairs.
As Tom climbed to the roof his mind was a maelstrom. He only remembered being lonely, as an image of a woman floated in and out of focus. Somebody familiar. He saw her face frozen in a painful scream.
Tom felt disconnected.
The only person who could help him reconnect was somewhere outside, down on the ground.
He needed to find her.
He needed to reconnect. To feed off the physical embrace of another.
Rain bounced off the tin door to the roof, and Tom found himself outside for the first time in weeks or months, enjoying the rain as it washed down on his sallow cheeks.
He spread out his arms and enjoyed what he could. His hunger was everything, his loneliness had devoured him.
In a flash of lightning, the rest of his mind was gone.
And out in the night, someone saw him.