Photo courtesy of the ever-excellent Bill Draheim
Russell Bryant stepped out of his apartment in the Hillside Downs housing project at a little after 6pm on a Wednesday in 1992. Intending to check for the mail, on return he found the door to his apartment would not open, even with his key, and was forced to solicit help from the building superintendent. After an interval of approximately half an hour, the super accompanied Russell to his apartment. By their combined efforts, the door was finally forced open. Drawn by a foul smell, the two men entered to find the interior abandoned as if for weeks and not hours. Bryant’s cat lay dead on the windowsill where it had unsuccessfully tried to claw the screen open.
Hillside Downs, like other government-subsidized housing, began construction shortly after WWII. The architect was a polish man, Andrzej Budny, who had studied in the secessionist school before emigrating. He drew up an innovative “cloverleaf” design for the grounds, including a small park and pond situated in the middle of the four buildings. Budny himself never lived to see the building finished. One night he told his secretary he was going for a walk of the construction site and never returned. He was presumed dead.
A police car dispatched to the Laurel building of Hillside Downs around 7pm. The super accused Bryant of neglect and demanded he turn over the keys to the apartment. Bryant protested that he had only been gone a matter of hours, and had an alibi to back his statement up.
Tiffani Marivich was a single mother who worked night shifts at a nearby hospice. Bryant claimed he often babysat her daughter Candace “Candy” Marivich. That very morning, Tiffani had come by to borrow toilet paper, giving ample time to examine the apartment.
Marivich’s door was also difficult to open. With the aid of the policemen, the door was forced open to reveal a scene not dissimilar to Bryant’s apartment. The sole occupant of the garbage-strewn flat was an elderly woman watching a television that displayed nothing but static. The woman showed signs of longterm neglect and had visible sores. She appeared aware of the officer’s presence, but afraid to leave her chair.
On entering the apartment, Bryant fell to his knees. When asked if he knew the occupant, he said yes. It was Candy.
The park that lay between the four buildings of Hillside Downs was eventually demolished in an attempt to reduce crime rates. The pond was cemented over twenty years before Bryant rented an apartment in the Laurels, the building showing the least decay. The four buildings were named in turn: the Laurels, the Cedars, the Pines, and the Hollies. Budny had named them after evergreens in keeping with his intended theme of renewal. He envisioned buildings that could change easily to accommodate the shifting demographics of future residents, immigrants like himself. Many of his changes remained unimplemented because of his untimely disappearance.
Russell pointed to a discoloration in the older woman’s right eye and a scar on her elbow. The scar was from a roller skating accident. The discoloration was a harmless birth defect. It was Candy, he was sure of it.
Attempts to reach Tiffani at her place of work proved fruitless. The elderly woman appeared senile and could not properly answer questions. When removed from the apartment, she became distressed. Only Bryant could calm her.
The super informed the policemen that the apartment did indeed belong to a Tiffani Marivich, he had been in only three days before on a plumbing call. There was no old woman, and the apartment had been clean. He could provide no answer as to what had happened in the interim.
The policemen inquired if there was another resident who could verify Russell’s story. Russell volunteered Samuel Beech, who lived on the top floor. One of the officers stayed with the superintendent and Bryant, who refused to leave the old woman. The other boarded the elevator.
After an interlude of three minutes, the officer in the elevator contacted his partner through the walky-talky. He asked what floor, exactly, did Beech live on? He was on the forty-third and rising.
The super replied that building only had thirty floors.
Hillside Downs decayed over the decades, though it never reached the infamous heights of the Cabrini-Green projects. Tenants would often disappear owing several month’s rent. The elevators would malfunction frequently, stopping in-between floors or skipping them entirely. The stairs were prone to blackouts. But however poor its condition, the housing project had never been subject to investigation of any kind. Its tenants were low-income families and recent emigres to the US, and the frequent disappearances were written off as rent evasion.
The officer on the ground instructed his partner to exit the elevator as soon as possible. He solicited the emergency shutdown key from the super, who left to collect it. The elderly woman had another fit and Bryant attempted to comfort her. Over the walky-talky, the officer in the elevator counted into the fifties. The super had not yet returned. When the number reached sixty, the officer on the ground left to find the super, taking Bryant and the old woman with him. The super’s basement apartment sat beside the incinerator. The door was closed. It took the combined efforts of Bryant and the officer to open it.
The super lay fully reclined in his easy chair. It appeared he had shot himself some months before, the body having had time to dessicate. The apartment was in disarray; there were deep scratch marks created by a crowbar in the windowsill and the inner doorknob had been smashed. On the walky-talky, the other officer exclaimed that he had finally exited the elevator.
The sixty-eighth floor of the building appeared to be under construction. Raw wood and tarps littered the area. Wind blew through the open walls. The floor seemed solid enough so he walked out, abandoning the elevator.
On the ground, the officer instructed his partner to remain within sight of the elevator. He then attempted to use the super’s phone to call for backup. The phone did not work.
The officer on the unfinished floor described steps echoing his own. Twice he went silent for a period of five minutes, claiming he had heard someone calling. His own calls garnered no response. Either disobeying or forgetting his partner’s request, the officer eventually found the edge of the building and a half-finished fire escape. It was at this point that the ground officer’s transmitter ceased to function: though he pleaded with his partner not to board the stairs, the other officer kept up a running commentary of his descent as if oblivious. After the top floor, the construction became sturdier. He descended three floors without incident until he came to a dead end. The platform he stood on had no stairs leading to the next platform. There was also no next platform.
Shawnda Barber, a waitress who lived in the Hollies, had propped a fire door so that she could smoke a cigarette without entering and exiting the building through the front gate. The bucket she used to prop the door fell away, and the door closed before she could catch it. She was forced to use the fire escape to descend down the side of the building. Antoine James was disposing of rubbish in the Pines’ incinerator chute when he saw someone clip the padlock on his bike and steal it. He gave chase, but gave up after three blocks. Harold Kim turned the keys to unlock his apartment in the Cedars building, but found himself stepping out the delivery entrance of the Laurels.
Besides Russell Bryant, the officer, and the old woman found in Tiffani Marivich’s apartment, these three people were the only known survivors of the Hillside Downs incident.
The officer on the ground had lost contact with his partner and was shepherding the two left in his care to the police cruiser. Observers described a strange blur, as if the building itself was vibrating, before Hillside Downs disappeared completely. In its place were four excavation holes and the puzzled survivors. After a brief investigation, the city labeled it a structural collapse despite the absence of any debris. The holes were backfilled with filler dirt and paved over. Besides a small concrete memorial, no further construction was attempted on the site. The displaced occupants were re-homed elsewhere.
It was when the sun and moon shared the sky, linked briefly in the solitude of where they had been, that the priest had his vision. No stigmata, nor speaking-in-tongues, just that rare jewel of sight: when the darkness lifted, he would be the only one left.
The sun rose like a brand. Fire was what they had been given generations before, but for the decade they had been cast in darkness, they had forgotten its light. Children had grown up in the gloaming the way others grew up in war. They cried, as did the old people. But the latter did so from relief, and not fear as did the mewling newborns and their older siblings for whom this sad night was all they had ever known.
Of them all, only he saw in it something terrible. He lifted the flap of the stone home his ancestors had built and looked out. Life had been happening somewhere else. Now it had returned, but with it a rigor—he could feel it in his bones, chilling, just as the sun’s heat lit and warmed his face for the first time since…
Though she had died in spring, the Lord’s daughter did not transition to the world beyond until the advent of winter. She hung around all that time, with her rasping breath and paper skin, empty eyes open but unseeing. She had gotten lost in the moors. When they found her, she was already dead, her chest rising and falling slightly, her face slack. The rigor had claimed her. The wise woman said the girl would leave them soon, but it had been months before her spirit departed, and with it the sun. The morning she departed, it did not appear.
So why was he now so afraid as it climbed from the black and silver hills of water that stretched to the horizon? Life may be elsewhere, but so was death. He had heard tales of the pustulant men and women, with their bursting skin and blackened organs to the South, of the thaumaturgists who strode amongst them on wooden sandals and in ridiculous masks. No one knew whether this pestilence came on the wind or in the water, through the dark humors or the touch of vermin. But it came, bringing buboes that wept red as the wrath of God. And now it was coming North to them. He could feel it.
A woman bearing a staff hobbled towards him. She had a bad foot. She saw him looking at it, “I hurt it running to the sun. I’m not used to the light.”
“You aren’t the only I’d wager.”
She laughed. She was missing more than a few teeth, “When you wager, you lose. Be careful or you’ll end up paying me with that dangler of yours.” She pointed the staff at his groin.
She had lost her husband to the sea the year before. Without the sun, what food they ate came from the shores and nearby waters. The husband had been out looking for winkles when the waves had grabbed him. So the priest took care of her needs. No one had cared, when they lived in the dark. It was one of the few comforts. But now that the sun had returned, he knew that self-righteous gossip and its attendant humiliation would be hot on its heels. He looked at her again. How ugly they all must look.
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