The first time I visited the apartment, I didn’t like it.
It was the summer of 2003, and my friend Andrew and I were desperate to find a place. I’d seen an ad in a local weekly paper for a two-bedroom apartment in the hip Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood of Montreal for only $750 a month, and called the number right away to arrange a viewing.
Under the bright summer sun, I walked past the laid-back bistros and shops of the bustling Mont-Royal Avenue and turned onto rue De La Roche, a tree-lined street of two- and three-story walk-ups. As I counted past the addresses, I realized the apartment would be situated halfway between busy Mont-Royal and, at the end the street, the vast, tranquil Parc Lafontaine. Perfect, I thought, hoping our search for a home was about to end.
The apartment had a single window, overlooking a sidewalk one story below. There was a small living room with scuffed parquet floors and beige walls, connecting to a cramped kitchen with retro wood cabinets and blood-red melamine countertops. The place was vacant and clean, but right away I sensed the place had bad vibes; I brushed them aside, tried to stay positive and give it a chance.
The landlady, all business, stood off to one side as I made my way through the rooms. Heavily varnished wood trim gave the place a cottage feel, but walking down the tiny wood-paneled hallway felt claustrophobic, like being in a sauna. The doors to the bathroom and main bedroom had been replaced with sliding mirrors, which made the tight space feel confusing.
In the bathroom, I did a double take. Instead of the toilet-sink-shower setup you’d normally find in a two-bedroom flat, there was a ridiculously luxurious washroom more suited to a suite at the Trump Taj Mahal. A huge, faux-marble hot tub dominated the space, and double vanity sinks under gaudy brass lights ran along one wall, creating an atmosphere of stifling warmth. It was the strangest little apartment I’d ever seen.
Turned off, I thanked the landlady and walked back to the place Andrew and I were about to leave, a spacious but grungy two-bedroom on rue Papineau. I figured I’d take my chances elsewhere.
Over the next couple of days, though, the memory of the apartment seemed to shift in my mind. It was definitely weird, I thought, but also kind of cool. Like a cottage in the middle of the city. The price was right, and the hot tub was pretty awesome, I told Andrew. Maybe the place could work for us after all.
Whether out of increasing desperation, or something else, we signed a one-year lease. The apartment on rue De La Roche was ours. Or maybe it was the other way around.
The day we moved in, Andrew, his girlfriend Anna, and I showed up in a moving van and piled our boxes and garbage bags full of stuff on the sidewalk. I hauled the first bag up the stairs, and when I swung the door open, the apartment was just as I remembered it—except for one thing: a large, black feather lay in the middle of the living room floor. The three of us stared at it for a moment.
“What the hell?” I asked aloud.
Andrew came in, gingerly picked the feather up and stuck it in the soil of one of our big potted plants. It felt ominous, like a sign, but we shrugged it off and set about arranging our new home.
That first night, settled into my bed in the main bedroom, I drifted off to a patter of rain outside, feeling snug in our new place. And then came the nightmare.
I dreamed I was in an old house with flowered wallpaper and quaint furniture, standing with a little girl of about five. She looked up at me sadly, her dark hair in pigtails, and asked if I could stay. I crouched down to her level and gently said that I couldn’t, that I had to go.
When I said these words, her gaze fixed on me, full of anger.
“You’d better bring those people here,” she threatened, her voice twisting from that of a small child into something haggard and demonic. “Or….”
Then, with her mouth agape, both of her ink-black pupils cracked like egg yolks. Black liquid poured from her eyes down her face, the dark oil-blood coursing in rivulets around her mouth, paralyzed in a silent scream.
I woke up, drenched in sweat, to find a steady rain pelting the window. I was so disturbed I didn’t sleep again that night. For the next few weeks, I kept the light on and my door open after dark. I was 23 years old.
That was just the beginning.
Summer gave way to fall. The trees on our street changed to burning ochre and deep reds, the park was blanketed in dead leaves, and strange things kept happening at our place.
Andrew and I were hanging out one night playing guitar in the living room when our little stereo—a 90s-era CD-tape player combo, with a screen that showed a cheesy light display when it started up—suddenly switched itself on.
From having been completely shut off, the machine came to life. The light show danced and the five-disc CD changer rotated noisily. Andrew and I looked at each other, then stared at the stereo. After a long moment the machine stopped whirring and clicking, and a song started to play. Ray Charles’ smooth voice poured out of the speakers, but not from the beginning of a song; the music had queued up midway through a track. Over a gentle arrangement, he sang:
I’ll take her back again, one more time….
Then, just as abruptly as it had started, the music stopped. The dancing lights were still. It felt like the machine was smiling at us.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Andrew said. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t funny. We packed up the guitars and called it a night.
A few weeks later, I was walking home at three in the morning. Buzzing but not drunk as I walked up our quiet street, I could hear music in the distance. When I reached our place and climbed the stairs, I realized the loud rock n’ roll was coming from our apartment.
What the fuck? I thought. We hadn’t planned a party, and the music was cranked up far louder than any of us would play it at such an hour.
At the top of the stairs, I peered in our living room window; I saw only black inside. The hairs on the back of my neck tingling, I unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The room was pitch black – except for the stereo, blasting rock music at full volume, the light show dancing maniacally. My skin crawled as if I were in a nest of writhing snakes.
I flicked on the light. In the kitchen, opposite the living room, every single one of the cabinets and drawers was yanked wide open: the large pantry, the storage above the stove, the double doors under the sink, the cutlery drawers. Everything.
Terrified, I moved through the apartment madly switching off the stereo, slamming the cabinets and drawers shut, feeling again as if something was laughing at me. As I raced to close everything, I glanced at the door to Andrew’s room, directly off the kitchen. It was shut tight. I got hold of myself and went to bed.
The next morning, I was sitting with a cup of tea when Andrew and Anna emerged from their room, blithely smiling and chatting.
“Did you hear the music last night?” I demanded.
“No, what music?”
“You didn’t hear it? At three in the morning?”
They said they hadn’t. How could they have slept through that noise?
Whatever the cause, my friends could tell I was deeply disturbed. We sat quietly together, drinking tea, discussing our situation.
Back then, in our early 20s, Andrew, Anna and I were leading wild lifestyles; I was a punk rocker, and they were night owls in the restaurant industry. A big poster of the anarchy symbol on our fridge summed up the general vibe at our place, which was being stoked harder, perhaps, by the chaotic energy of the apartment itself. The strange, pimp-cottage atmosphere seemed to encourage darkness and debauchery.
Not only did the stereo keep turning itself on—the same thing happened on two other occasions, each time Ray Charles, each time playing the same line from the same song—all of us continued to suffer bad dreams. We began to feel like we were in a vortex of dark energy, attracting trouble and discord. Unfortunate events unrelated to the haunting seemed to be piling up: I lost my job at a dépanneur, leaving me in dire financial straits, and the girl I’d been seeing broke it off.
Home alone one night, I heard a thumping from outside. On edge, I quickly stepped to the front door and swung it open. But it was no ghost: it was Andrew, balled up in a dusting of snow at the bottom of the stairs. He’d been mugged on his way home from work.
I helped him up the stairs and when we got inside, I couldn’t believe his state: face covered in blood, his cheeks and jaw swollen. He staggered to the sink and ran cold water over his bruised hands, spitting blood into the swirling stream. At that moment, with winter closing in, everything about our lives seemed to be on a highway to Hell. Looking around the apartment, with its bloody counters and funhouse mirrors, all I wanted was to get out.
After a quick house meeting, we decided to rid ourselves of the apartment as soon as possible. The fastest way would be to sublet it. Selfishly, and out of a sense of desperation, we agreed we wouldn’t mention anything about the haunting to prospective renters.
On a spring day a tall, bespectacled guy, gregarious and a bit strange himself, came to see the place. Kurt was in his early 30s, and had just moved to Montreal from Washington D.C.
We made small talk as we toured the apartment, him frowning, me silently praying he would take the place. He stood in the living room with his hands on his hips. “It’s really small, and too expensive for the size,” he said, concluding that he’d pass on it. We shook hands and said goodbye.
But two days later, Kurt called back. “Is the place still available?” he asked, sounding rushed. I said it was and he said he’d be over straight away.
When he arrived, his mind was already made up. “I definitely want it,” he said, as we chilled on the couch, me rolling a joint. I was quietly ecstatic as he raved about the place. “It’s just so cool, that hot tub. And such a great location!”
Just as I had, he’d dismissed the place at first; slowly we’d changed our minds, as if succumbing to some seductive power. I said nothing to discourage his enthusiasm as we got stoned.
Kurt and I visited the landlady—a woman whose last name, coincidentally, is the French word for ‘cockroach’. Together we agreed Kurt would sublet the place until the end of our lease, at which point he would become the new leaseholder.
In the days that followed, Andrew and I celebrated with beers and started packing our things, thrilled that it was time to get the fuck out of Dodge. But the apartment wasn’t quite finished with us yet.
I was alone in the apartment on the day before Kurt moved in. Andrew and I had already moved most of our stuff out, leaving just a few last boxes. As I scrubbed the counters and swept the floors in a final cleanup, I called a taxi to come pick me up.
As I passed the bathroom, I paused for a second, interrupted by a thought: When would I ever have access to a hot tub again? Probably never, I figured. On a whim, I canceled the taxi and decided to have one last soak before leaving the place forever.
I filled the tub with warm water and stripped down. I turned to the control panel on the wall to start the jets of the tub, which we’d used dozens of times during our months there, and switched them on. The motor, like a heart deep in the floor of the bathroom, started rumbling.
As I turned around and looked at the water, instead of bubbles rising from the tiny holes inside of the tub, black liquid suddenly burst from every one of them. Thick, streaming tendrils as black as the cracked eyes of the girl from my nightmare quickly clouded the water like ink.
Shocked, I spun around and shut off the motor. By the time I looked back at the tub, no more than two seconds later, the water had turned to a deep, murky black.
This was too much. Swearing in disbelief, I reached into the dark pool and yanked the plug. The black water ran out steadily, leaving a light trail of what appeared to be ash in the bottom of the tub. I touched the black substance, rubbed it between my fingers. It could have been residue from the pipes, and probably was. But why had the tub suddenly expunged the filth in that precise moment? After dozens of times using the tub over the past eight months—the jets running without a problem every time—why then?
I didn’t ponder the question. I already knew the answer. This was a final fuck you from whatever energy was trapped in that place, its way of saying You don’t like it here? Good riddance. I hastily got dressed, called the cab company, and stood by the front door, my back to the apartment, anxious to leave the nightmare behind for good.
I reached out to Andrew and Anna to hear what they remembered about the apartment. Twenty years hadn’t dimmed the intensity of our memories at all, though we did remember some things differently.
“De La Roche,” Andrew texted me back after I wrote to him. “Fuuuuuuck.”
“I dreamt about the little girl three times,” he told me during a phone call. “The first time, she was standing on a rooftop and her eyes were bleeding. I don’t remember the others.”
He recalled that a friend of ours had slept on the couch and woke up in tears after dreaming about a little girl, too. He remembered the episode with the CD changer and Ray Charles clearly.
Andrew also told me things I hadn’t known. “I almost died twice there,” he said, both times from falling asleep with lit cigarettes. He blamed himself, not any unquiet spirit, for waking up to find his pillow on fire. But he told me he had never drifted off while smoking any time before or after our time at De La Roche.
“Something bad happened in that place,” he speculated. “That was a long time ago, and I can still see that little girl.”
“That place was so fucking creepy,” Anna told me over the phone. “My two clearest memories are the Ray Charles thing and the kitchen cupboards.”
In her recollection, she had been home alone napping and awoke to find all the cabinets and drawers open, as I had.
“But wait,” I stopped her. “The way I remember it, I came home late one night to find the stereo blasting, with all the lights off. When I turned the lights on, all the kitchen cabinets were open.”
“Hmm. I was sure I was alone,” she said. “Maybe it happened twice?”
It’s well known that people can create false memories based on suggestions from others. It’s possible I heard the story from Anna, and my mind combined it with the late-night music episode. Or maybe my story, told to her and Andrew 20 years ago, snuck its way into her memories. Or maybe it did happen twice.
Anna agreed that many bad things unrelated to the haunting happened while we were living there: by the time we moved out, she recounted, she’d lost both her jobs, and she and Andrew had broken up.
After Kurt took over the apartment, Andrew and I headed our separate ways. I got a job and moved into a crash pad with a couple dudes I had met. The place had broken glass on the floor and puke in the toilet, but it felt like a meditation retreat after the hellish experience of De La Roche.
In the months that followed, Kurt would call me up now and then to score weed. I visited the apartment a few times, smoking with Kurt, keeping my eyes on the cabinets.
One time, after he’d been there a couple months, as we were passing a joint back and forth, he suddenly asked me: “Has anything weird ever happened to you in this place?”
Cautiously, I replied that some odd things may have happened when we were there, without getting specific. I asked him what he had experienced.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” he said. “Last week, the lights started turning themselves on and off. It went on for a while.” I listened and nodded, but kept my mouth shut.
A few weeks after that, he called and told me the puppy he bought would often sit facing into the living room corner, barking at the ceiling. Kurt also told me his girlfriend—who, he said, had hated the apartment from the moment he got it—now refused to sleep there. “She says she felt someone touch her on her shoulder,” he said.
I never heard from him again after that.
A couple years later, I got a call from Andrew telling me we had been summoned to court.
“What? What for?”
“The landlady from De La Roche is suing us.”
It turned out Kurt had pulled a midnight move, illegally abandoning the apartment a couple months before the end of the sublet period. It had taken years for the case to wind its way through the court system. The day of the hearing, we were found liable for the unpaid rent and had to pay the landlady on the spot, draining our meager accounts. Just like Andrew, Anna and me, Kurt had evidently decided he’d had enough of the apartment and escaped just months after moving in, consequences be damned.
I was at home one day recently with my two kids at our house in a Montreal suburb. After spending some time writing this story while they watched TV, I called them into the kitchen and we sat down for a snack. Suddenly we heard a shrill yowl from our normally quiet cat, as if he was in pain.
The three of us raced down to the basement to find our black-and-white cat staring into a corner, no longer making a sound. “Snowflake?” I asked gently. The cat turned to us, looking spooked. “He’s never made a sound like that before,” my seven-year-old daughter said.
“Maybe he saw a mouse,” I suggested.
Slightly uneasy, I told my kids it was time to head back upstairs when I noticed my three-year-old son was drawing on a whiteboard.
“What are you drawing there, bud?” I asked.
“Dis is an apartment,” he said, mesmerized by his work as he carefully dragged an orange marker across the board. “And dis is a map to it.”
I hadn’t told him what I’d been writing about.