Size / / /

’Seven floors. It might not be happiness, but at least it is survival’ he says and starts quarrying in his pockets. Eventually, with awkward clumsiness he pulls out a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. There is a howl coming from behind my back. It gets louder and louder and more and more frightened. It makes my nape go numb. I realise it cannot be coming from anywhere else, but the corridor. The squealing sound of a buzz saw interrupts, the howl is cut abruptly. Silence. It does not bother him, he is busy with the pack, pattering it, spinning it between his fingers. Lights up with a shy smile.

He has a big head, like a horse, pale, it looks like a rubber mask. His cheeks go wide, flashing his yellow teeth. He has a tender face, eyes green like absinth; a longish, unexpectedly pointy nose. He starts waving his arms around, he almost flips over in his camping chair on the narrow balcony. ‘Moths. They practically swarm all year long. Their presence is an anomaly. One of many.’

He suddenly remembers and picks up a plastic cup from the table. He snaps it with expertise over the fire alarm wedged in the corner, flickering weakly next to the frosted glass band of the side wall.

‘Just in case. As a matter of fact, we haven’t had the fire alarm going off in months. The machinery is aging at a pace that leaves no space for hope, and the property management people venture less and less to these premises. But smoking and naked flames are forbidden. Strictly forbidden. I’m stealing the air puff by puff.’

I feel uneasy next to him, as he is smoking away. Shortness of breath comes upon me, as if he was choking me. It’s most probably caused by this environment I am not used to. He sees the sweat bedewing my forehead. He has a few more drags of the cigarette, puts it out in a can, then pushes the can under the table with one foot. We spend some more time on the balcony. He offers coffee and salty snacks in a friendly manner. The coffee is exquisite, the snack a real jackpot. He’s humming a song softly, rocking his disproportionately big head to the rhythm.

His presence confuses me, I cannot come up with the next question. I lean out, elbows on the balcony bars, watching the area in front of the building, the solid peace and the glass wall that separates us from it all. He notices.

 ‘I am often sipping cognac here. I have a beautiful round glass for it. It is as well-formed as a woman,’ he says, with eagerness in his voice and looks me up and down with a hungry gaze. I might be his first lady visitor, ever. Or maybe, his first visitor since he has been living here. The summit between Angela Simmons, journalist, and Lucio Giallo, the outcast. Now I feel him very close to me. I am not scared. Not of him. He is a good guy, with a strange, unhealthy figure, like that of a hourglass. I don’t think he had much to do with women. Most probably he is just as confused as I am for me having announced my visit. ‘Sometimes I watch the scenery through my cognac glass. The one thing that I miss the most about home is the light of the setting sun. The neon lights are on day and night, flickering with bright whiteness constantly. The only time we have darkness is during power outages. And lights are also switched off during major cleanings. A massive vacuum cleaner cart goes around, floor by floor, sucking up the dead moths, tons and tons of them.’

It seems to me that he is obsessed with this moth thing. He must be a maniac, no doubt about that. I cannot even see any moths anywhere. He’s not bothered, and continues the story.

‘It is not advisable being in the corridor at that time. We have a few dangerous fellows living here. I mean, real dangerous ones. As we are all somewhat dangerous. I burrow myself into my flat, ponder, dictate to the Bricked-in Lady. She is my next-door neighbour. She lives on one side of my flat, I dictate to her every evening. Sensual, beautiful, silly stories of erotic adventures, sometimes a knife-crime fiction. She is very grateful; in the morning she slips the fair copy through a crack on the wall. There is no need for proofreading. On the other side I have Bert Bubble, composer and serial killer as it reads on his nameplate. He rarely shows himself; he is no trouble. Lucky for me, my hearing is bad, so the cacophony coming from his apartment doesn't get on my nerves.’ Maybe it wasn’t howling that I had heard. Maybe it was a symphony.

‘Getting back to the major cleanings, those times I keep the windows shut. Outside the window cleaner is doing his job. Sometimes he squeezes his bat-like face against the glass, spying, sticking his tongue out with despise. At times his sticky saliva leaves a stain on the window. Even amongst these circumstances he is one of the most unpleasant guys here. But at least he is normal,’ he adds, and by the word ‘normal’ he waves his hand with a sneer.

Again, I glance out the window, keep watching the scenery that is abruptly cut off by the crater. He follows my gaze, guiding the conversation towards the crater.

‘Legend says that one of the first residents was a poet. A young, skinny, reserved man, with a soul as white as the snowcap on Earth. His desire was to return home. He kept thinking of his love, waiting for her; he wrote poems about the dust that was stirred up by her footsteps, saying prayers to her. One day a shooting star fell right next to the house. The man was dead by the next morning.’

Silly little story, I say to myself; the crater is older by a few millennia than this house. I crack a permissive smile.

This makes him annoyed, he jumps up, walks up to his bookshelf, pulls out a thin volume. A prince-like boy features on the cover, his face lit up by a shooting star. He shows it as evidence, and I attempt a serious nod. He relents. Offers seat inside the room.

I notice a tea candle in the middle of the table.

‘As I have mentioned before, it’s prohibited to use any kind of naked flame within the house. But anyone longing for warm, homelike, yellow light, burns candles. This is how the days go by: unexciting, only these minor sins bring a little joy. That’s our way of cutting our suffering shorter. We are all by ourselves, with our tales. Tales, stories–those are more important than anything else. They are our meal tickets. Books and typing paper are sacred. In the books there are ideas hiding, on the typing paper we come up with new ones. This is how we survive.’

I look around; there's no sign of any high-tech, no screens, no tablets. The noise of a hammering typewriter echoes from an apartment on the other side. There are many things I do not understand and maybe I never will. Maybe it is for the best. 

He is talking about the utility services, a power outage that has wiped out the entire fourth floor; the area was locked down, now it is only referred to as the corridor of blood. Then he chatters about some time outage, objects that disappeared and were never found again. He notices my shock, tries to sooth and comfort me.

‘There are a few anomalies in the house. But we put up with them. Most people in the residential community are very good people. Very good.’

I start asking him about his past. Next thing I know, I am shouting at him and he is also raising his voice. If anyone is eavesdropping from the corridor–a daunting thought–they might think we are quarrelling. That’s not the case. This person is somewhat deaf. He used to be a doctor, studied to become a forensic surgeon, but he only spent a few years in his field. He became ill and spent months in a hospital due to an infection. That’s when his hearing deteriorated. He lived in the suburbs, started publishing in the local paper. He drew attention to himself with slightly more erotica in his stories than allowed.

‘This is the Noah’s ark of deviants,’ he says with a stubbornly proud wave, obviously referring to the house. ‘There are never more than five hundred of us at a time. Not crowded. Neither is it back at home. Strategic population control, genetic engineering. Humanity has entered the era of normality. Evil neighbours had been expatriated over here,’ he says and bursts into laughter. ‘They all ended up here: the curious, lonely old ladies, the eavesdroppers, the doormat thieves, the ones who make love too loudly, ones who do all the drilling too early in the morning, the odd ones, the perverts.’ He keeps on listing them with a joy that is easy to spot.

‘The hoarders, the catatonics, they are all here. And those who walk bare feet. Also, the secret drunks, science fiction fans, devotees of the freedom of speech. Everyone who has been found unpleasant for their environment, now fits in this one and only apartment building.’

‘Serial killers and also sadistic people.’ I am trying to drag him down.

‘Decision of the government. Who is harmless, it all depends on the situation, the commissioner said. We are all paying the price of that. Forced marriages between gentle souls and monsters. The loneliest union ever. But sometimes we are in dire need of monsters and the insane. Horror and fantasy are best-selling. Those stories are worth a fortune,’ he adds, as an insider.

I shake my head, going over what has been said again and again. I hardly believe that there are only five hundred of them. Or have we become so normal?

Lucio steps over to the record player. ‘My favourite,’ he says and plops into the comfy-looking armchair situated in the corner.

“Time is a monster that lives in our clocks

It’s heartless and shows no remorse

Consuming our future as we fight

That hundred year war

Time is a soldier steady and true

Relentlessly trudging along

And time takes no prisoners

Nothing but time marches on”

…sings Ray Price. It’s a little too loud for me, perfect for him.

After a little while we walk to the corridor. This is the first time I see him. After all, I have entered via the balcony, like a ghost. He is not as frightful as I had imagined. But he is certainly filthier and more stinking than I thought he would be. There is a lounge at the end of the corridor, with no people in it at the moment. Abandoned domino tiles on the floor. The wall is decorated with a painting of flowers, nothing sinister about it. Lucio is talking about the demon children, who are every now and then let out to play by Lamberto on the fifth floor. ‘He shuttles our dreams back and forth,’ he adds. 

Suddenly I find myself laughing along with Lucio. We reach the end of the corridor. ‘Out of the three elevators, only two are working. One of them is closed. ‘Permanently closed,’ emphasises Lucio. ‘That one is the ghost elevator. No one knows who is using it. Sometimes you can see a strange figure through the tinted glass.’

We reach the ground floor, I look up dazed, the stairways inside resemble a snail shell. Spoons are rattling somewhere. 

’The only thing we can lose are our spoons.’ My new friend is getting philosophical. He guides me to the hall, then outside through one of the seven gates, into the sandy area that goes by the nickname 'garden', straight through to the airlock, from where I have arrived. He shows me a big, round iron gate.

’This is where Giovanni and David arrive on the first Monday of every month,’ he explains. ’They stick the huge hose through the hole and the air starts flowing. Whichever day they come, that one is festive. When the two figures in space suits appear, I wave at them from the far distance. David has wiry hair, a hooked nose and he is constantly joking. Giovanni is also a great prankster. Funny people with vivid imaginations. No surprise that their fate expelled them to this borderland.’

’The community of the building is tight knit. Well, the mild tempered ones are.’ He squints at me. ’I collect their writings and hand them over to Giovanni and David. Anyone who doesn’t write, dies. The ones who write are immortal. Giovanni and David take an inventory of the finished papers and give us our food supply.’

’Well, I have a secret little deal with Giovanni. Every now and again a short pornographic story emerges.’ He gives me a wicked wink. ’And I find a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches amongst the canned beans and packets of dry pasta. 

Gloom comes upon him and he looks at me with sadness in his eyes.

’If I have not explained it clearly so far: it is not insanity that is common in all the residents, but the fact that they are all writers.’

He was my guide. And now I have the fear that this interview is never going to be concluded. I look up to the sky; the blue planet Earth has become a grey ball of dust. On the third floor a resident is beating their carpet. What a colourful patch this house is on the Moon. A patchwork of flesh and dreams. The fear ceases inside me and pride triumphs: at the end of the day, we are the ones creating world literature. And something tells me, this is the way it has always been: we are the past, too.

Quirks of time come to my mind–and the abundance of amateur pieces of poetry written about the Moon. I am not hoping to break free one day anymore: I am free just as I am right now.

I visit them, door by door, collecting the life story interviews. I come across miracles, I come across horrors.

I hand in the chapters monthly. I am trying to fit in with the odd ones out. A moth is circling around the neon light.

Gábor Képes (Budapest, 1980-) is a Hungarian poet and science-fiction writer. He is a collaborator for the science-fiction magazine Galaktika, publishing short stories and reviews for two decades now. His short story ”House on the edge of the crater” was first published in 2014 and was later adapted into a comic. His other interests include the history of IT and old Italian giallo and horror movies. You can find out more about him here.