I ignored Jesse’s 15th text. “This is heavy, you jerk!” I was far less concerned about Jesse’s potential hernia than my position on the leaderboards. The stupid fourteen year old DRDRED43 refused to move away from the turret, and I was getting destroyed. The game stuttered for a moment, and my connection dropped. “Fucking Comcast,” I muttered, and shoved back from my desk. My phone buzzed again. “God dammit, Jesse.” I sighed, shoved my feet into some sandals, and walked out the door.
Jesse and Kenny were shoving and grunting at a truly massive couch that was wedged in the stairwell. “That thing’s gonna kill you both,” I said. Jesse flashed one of his trademark movie-star smiles at me, then flipped me off. Jesse was perfect: wealthy parents, perfect curly blonde hair, abs of a demigod, genius IQ, and a sweet Southern drawl that melted panties at ten yards. Most of the time, I hated him. We had been friends since high school.
“I think I shit myself,” Kenny grunted. “Come on, you lazy fuck. Help us!”
I kicked off my sandals so I’d have better grip on the old wood flooring, then wedged myself under part of the sofa and shoved. Slowly, with much sweat and profanity, the three of us got the sofa into the apartment. We kicked aside half-full boxes and the three metal folding chairs, and shoved the sofa against the wall opposite the huge flatscreen Jesse had bought on a whim one weekend. The sofa was long enough to stretch from one wall of the apartment to the other. It completely filled the space, like the Obelisk from “2001”, except horizontal. Its fabric was a deep red, whorled and mottled with darker red that was nearly black. Each of its eight thick legs were carved to resemble claws, clutching spheres atop pedestals. Along the back of the sofa, nearly obscured by the overstuffed cushions, was a solid length of dark oak, intricately carved in flowing geometric patterns.
“Dude, this is gonna be awesome!” Kenny said, scratching his beard. Kenny was, in a lot of ways, the physical opposite of Jesse. His hair, though curly, was an unruly mess. He was generally round, with a doughy face covered with more neglect than beard. Appearances aside, Kenny had an infectious, boylike charm that made him great fun to be around. “Come on, let’s try it out!” Kenny found The Motherfucker — an assortment of remote controls that he had taped to the outside of a huge Jack Daniels bottle — on my desk. Jesse grabbed us each beers from the beer fridge, and we all sat down on the sofa. Jesse’s flatscreen turned on, and Kenny’s PlayStation3 started playing the so-familiar DA! DADADA! strains of the intro to Star Wars: Episode IV through my AV unit’s speakers. The sofa really was comfy, a significant improvement over metal folding chairs, or the hardwood floors. The cushions were large and overstuffed, but not too soft. With the three of us sitting on it, there was still enough room for another two or three people.
“This is pretty nice, guys. Where’d this thing come from?” I asked.
“We totally snagged it off the curb!” Kenny said.
I jumped up. “Aww man, that’s gross! There could be lice or bed bugs or something!”
“No way,” Kenny said. “I checked it out. There’s no bugs or anything.” Kenny got down on the floor, and knocked on one of the sofa’s large wooden legs. “This is solid oak. Kiln-dried. You can’t get furniture like this any more. Well, you can, maybe, but you’ll pay twenty grand or more. This baby has eight-way hand-tied springs, and I don’t know what the fabric is, but it’s high-end stuff. I don’t know how old it is, but my guess is at least eighty, maybe a hundred years old.” As far as I knew, Kenny had never worked for a furniture store, or dealt with antiques, but he had an talent for research and a huge retention for random facts.
“And you guys just found this on the side of the road,” I said.
Kenny stood up. “Yeah. It was down on Planchard and Third, along with a bunch of other stuff. You know how they set stuff out when people get evicted. I saw it this morning when I was going to class, and had Jesse help me pick it up after.”
“It’s fine, man. If it had been out in the rain or something, we’d know by the smell,” Jesse said. “I did the sniff test all over it, and under the cushions. It smells like old perfume or something, but not anything bad.”
We sat back down on the sofa, drank our beer, and watched a movie that we’d all seen a hundred times. I noticed the smell then, faint, like tobacco and flowers, or perfume.
I didn’t sleep well that night. I had my first nightmare. Not the first nightmare of my life, but the first real one. The first one about the sofa. In my dream, it was somehow alive. The sofa’s mottled, red fabric glistened, like raw, wet muscle, stretched taut over bones that groaned and ground against one another. There was something unsettlingly sexual about the way the muscles flexed against each other. I saw my hand reach out to caress a cushion. It was warm, almost hot to the touch, and it felt very good — I snapped awake. My heart was racing. I felt an indescribable sense of dread. I looked at my phone. Five A.M. Way too early to wake up, but too late to get any rest before my alarm went off at six. I threw on a robe and shuffled to the kitchen. I nearly dropped my cereal bowl when I saw Kenny, sitting on one of our mismatched kitchen chairs.
“What the hell are you doing up?” I asked.
He looked up at me, as if surprised that I was standing there. “Insomnia. Happens sometimes. I just couldn’t get comfortable on my bed, so I thought maybe I’d go sleep on the sofa.” He pointed into the gloom of the living room. “Looks like Jesse beat me to it.” He sighed, stood up, and walked to his room, leaving me to eat cereal to the sounds of Jesse snoring in the dark.
I was a wreck that day, and the next, and the next. Earlier and earlier every night, I would wake up to the same dream. The sofa would somehow beckon to me, some nights like a lover, and other nights like my mother, who passed away when I was twelve. Every time I woke, sweating, breathing as if I’d run a marathon, I felt the same sense of dread. After the first night, I refused to get up. Instead, I stayed in my bed, willing myself to go back to sleep. Some nights I heard Kenny walking around.
On the other hand, Jesse seemed positively manic. He was upbeat, chipper even, in contrast to his usual surfer-Zen attitude. “Been sleeping on the sofa, man,” he said. “Best sleep I’ve ever had. Never felt better.” But at night, through the thin wall separating the living room from my bedroom, I heard him whimpering in his sleep.
Jesse brought a new girl, Jenny, over that Friday night. Jenny was thin, blonde, and insecure — another of Jesse’s future ex-girlfriends. She laughed at everything he said, and I don’t believe she broke body contact with him the whole evening. We all sat on the sofa, drinking, smoking, and playing video games. As the night wore on, Jesse began to give us significant looks, so we staggered off to our rooms, leaving him with an increasingly affectionate Jenny.
“He better not stain the sofa,” Kenny grumbled to me, before closing the door to his room.
I woke from another dream about the sofa. Something thumped against my wall. “Ugh,” I groaned. Another thump, and a moan. Thump thump. “Dammit,” I said, and rolled off my bed. I threw on a shirt and shorts, and stumbled blearily out of my room, down the hall and into the living room. I tried not to look at Jesse humping some girl, but I did want to get his attention. “Jesse, keep it down, it’s late –” THUMP! In the dim blue glow of the flatscreen, I saw Jesse straddling Jenny, arms locked around her throat. His swim-team shoulders bunched, and the tendons in his arms stood out like cables. Jenny’s face was black, her eyes open and bulging, her tongue thick and bloated, protruding from her mouth. One arm thumped, weakly, against the wall.
“Holy fuck, Jesse! Get off her!” I ran to the sofa, and shoved him as hard as I could. He didn’t move. “Kenny! Wake up! Help!” Jesse turned to me, eyes wide open but blank as the flatscreen. He turned back to Jenny, and gave a final, wrenching squeeze. Her leg twitched and kicked once. I hooked an arm around Jesse’s neck and pulled as hard as I could. “HELP! GET UP NOW!” He let go, and I fell back against the floor, with his weight on me. I kicked and shoved him off of me and onto the floor, and scrambled away.
The lights came on. Kenny stood in the hallway, mouth agape. Jesse lay on the floor, naked, staring up at the ceiling. Jenny’s nude body sprawled on the couch, head tilted at an awkward angle, face a horrible purple-black.
Jenny was listed as dead on the scene. Her neck had been totally crushed. A friend of a friend was interning at the coroner’s office, and suggested that the coroner himself was impressed that Jesse had been able to shatter two neck vertebrae with his bare hands. The cops wouldn’t tell us much, other than that Jesse was under psychiatric evaluation. Jesse hadn’t spoken since that night, and was completely unresponsive to questioning.
Kenny began acting strangely. Stranger than normal, for Kenny. He spent most of his time at home sitting in a bean bag chair, staring at the sofa, writing notes in a battered old notebook. When he wasn’t at home, he was gone, sometimes for days at a time. Two guys from his study group showed up looking for him after he missed class for the third session in a row. They had heard about Jesse — the whole town had — and wrote off Kenny’s behavior to a coping mechanism.
I began to dread returning home from class. The dreams were getting worse. The sight of the sofa, hunched redly in the dimness of early morning, was often enough to rush me out of my apartment without breakfast. I told myself it was PhD stress. I told myself that it had nothing to do with a piece of furniture in my living room.
Kenny showed up at the Bio lab one evening, clutching a thick notebook. I was staying late, working on my thesis. I was behind on my research, and the lack of sleep was getting to me.
“Jesse’s dead,” he said.
“What? How?” I asked.
“His mom called me a few minutes ago. She said he killed himself.”
“I thought he was in a psych ward?”
“The cops say he strangled himself.”
“How is that even possible?”
“I dunno, man. They told his mom that they found him in his cell with his hands around his throat. But listen, that’s not all I want to talk to you about. We need to get rid of the sofa,” Kenny said.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Kenny?”
“I’m serious, man. I … I’ve been doing some research. On the sofa.” I laughed and shook my head. Kenny waved his notebook at me. It was thicker now, ragged with newspaper clippings. “It’s all in there. Take a look.”
I took the notebook and began leafing through it. Kenny sat at a workstation next to me. “I got to thinking, where did that sofa come from? Like, originally? And why was it just sitting out on the curb like that? It’s a really nice piece of furniture. So I went back to where I found it. The apartment was vacant, so I called and told the landlady I wanted to rent it. Some Phi Delta girls had been renting it before. The landlady told me that … dude, bad shit happened to the three girls who had that place before. The first one drove head-first into a tree. No alcohol or drugs or anything. The second one went nuts. Like, clawed her own eyes out nuts. She’s still locked up. The last one though –” Kenny shuddered. “She was a babysitter. She locked herself and three kids in the family car, and took a long drive inside the family garage. No note, nothing.” Kenny pointed out some newspaper clippings. “There’s the obits, there, and some newspaper articles about the deaths.”
“It gets worse,” Kenny said, and wiped a slightly shaky hand across his forehead. “I asked around, and it turns out one of the frat guys in my Cal III class dated girl number two. The one who hit the tree?” I nodded. “Yeah, well, before they started dating, when he was still trying to get into her pants, he helped her pick up some furniture off the curb.”
“A red sofa,” I said.
“Yeah. He said it was a fantastic find. I had him tell me where they found it. That place was a nice old house. It was up for sale, so I called the owner. Had him meet me for a showing. He said he’d inherited the place from his father, who’d passed away about two years ago. Said he’d sold all the original furniture, but he put some of the stuff out on the curb. I laughed and told him I’d just found an awesome old red sofa on the curb just a few weeks ago. He laughed too, and said it was probably his dad’s, and that he remembered how heavy it was when he picked it up off the curb the first time. He figured since he found the sofa on the curb, it was only fitting to put it back there, as a way to ‘give back’. He was all jovial and shit, until I asked him how his dad died. Then he got all cold, and said it was a family matter. Pretty much shoved me out the door.” Kenny looked at me. “Bet you can’t guess who his dad was.”
“Oh.. fuck.” Munsen had abducted, raped, and killed six young college girls over the course of three years. It was a town scandal, and an embarrassment for both the local cops and the FBI. Munsen was 63 years old, far older than the normal profile for a serial killer. He’d never had any priors, and didn’t appear to have any tendencies before he started killing. “I thought they blamed that on a brain tumor?”
“Yeah, a brain tumor,” Kenny said, “Or fucking evil demon sofa.” We both laughed, for a moment, then stopped. I realized that both of us had glanced toward the door. Toward our apartment. As if it might be listening.
“Anyway, before he kicked me out, I got Munsen Jr. tell me where he picked up the sofa. He said a lot of mean things about my mom, but he eventually told me he picked it up on Laurel Avenue. The building is gone now, but it was the site of a brothel. It was a “nail salon” for years, but everyone knew what really happened there. It got busted about four years ago, as part of an international human trafficking sting. They found a bunch of bodies buried in the sub-basement. Apparently the managers would “retire” employees who didn’t perform up to standards.” Kenny flipped a few pages in the notebook. “Take a look at that,” he said, pointing to a newspaper photo.
The grainy newsprint showed the brothel manager’s office, posh with expensive furniture, exotic plants, and a large, overstuffed sofa.
“It got hard to track after that. Obviously I couldn’t talk to the brothel manager, or any of the employees. The manager’s in federal prison, and most of the workers were deported. Then I thought, what if I just looked for the worst things that happened in this town, then looked for the sofa?” Kenny pulled out a yellowed, glossy photo.
“No fucking way, man. This is too much.” Every schoolkid in town can tell you who W. C. Malone was. He was our town’s Al Capone, a small town gangster who ruled the whole county with a bloody fist, from 1922-1928. Capone might have been wealthier, and more high profile, but rumor had it that Capone himself was appalled at Malone’s tactics. According to some sources, Malone invented the “Columbian necktie”, in which a victim’s throat was slashed, and his tongue pulled through the cut, leaving the victim to slowly drown in his own blood. Historical estimates put Malone’s personal body count in the hundreds, and his gang’s count approaching a thousand. Malone’s reign of terror ended abruptly in 1928, when his girlfriend stabbed him to death with an icepick. She went to trial for murder, but not a single juror voted against her.
The photo showed W. C. Malone, in his trademark white hat, grinning around a cigar. He was leaning against the overstuffed back of a sofa. If the photo had been in color, instead of grainy newsprint, I would have bet the sofa would have been a deep, deep red.
Kenny rubbed a hand across his unshaved face. “What really gets me, man, is where did Malone find that sofa? Did he find it on a curb too? What if that thing has always been curb furniture — getting passed along, owner to owner, for nearly a hundred years?”
“We need to get the thing out of our apartment,” I said.
We stood at the door to our apartment. Neither of us wanted to touch the knob. “Just open it already,” I hissed.
“Fine!” Kenny muttered, and twisted the knob. The door swung open, into the short hallway that led to the living room. I flicked on the lights. The sofa sat against the wall. “No demons flying out of the cushions. No witches. Just a big dumb piece of furniture,” he said, and chuckled nervously. I wedged the door open. Kenny grabbed one end of the sofa, and I the other. We both lifted. The sofa was very, very heavy. Kenny took the lead, walking backwards toward the door. By the time we got to the door, we were both exhausted, and dripping with sweat. We set the sofa down for a moment.
“Turn it like this,” I said, gesturing with my hand. “We’ll have to angle it to get it into the hallway.” Kenny grunted agreement. As I picked my end of the sofa up, something snagged my thumb. “Ahh, fuck!” I yelled, and dropped my end. Kenny staggered back from his end.
“What, man, what?” he shouted, eyes panicky white.
“Nothing,” I said, “There’s tacks under the edge. One of them must have got my thumb.” I held my thumb up to the light. The wound was superficial, but bleeding. I watched as the drops splattered onto the sofa’s mottled red surface. The fabric seemed to absorb the blood greedily. I pressed my thumb against the padded arm. My blood didn’t seem to smear into the fabric. It felt cool, and very nice.
“Snap out of it, man,” Kenny said. He was shaking my arm. “You’ve been staring at the sofa for a few minutes.”
I shuddered, suddenly repulsed by the thing. “Let’s get this bitch out of here. Angle it up and out.”
“Right. Then it’s a few feet to the stairway, then a straight shot out the door.” Kenny grimaced, and grabbed his side of the sofa again. We twisted, and shoved, and moments later had the sofa filling the length of the hallway. “I’ll go down first. Just follow my lead,” he said.
The cut should have been a warning. I should have known what was going to happen. We both should have. I’ve gone over this part a hundred times, a million times, and this is what I still remember happening: I had the sofa by the end, arms braced around the heavy oak legs. Kenny had a similar hold. He called out the steps. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five.” At six, the sofa twisted. It rippled like a living thing, bucking in one wild thrash, ripping itself from my hands. Kenny fell backwards, skidding down the remaining stairs. The sofa fell after him. No. I must be honest. The sofa leaped after him. Its narrow edge crushed his skull like an eggshell. I saw this all as I fell. Forward, to land on the upturned sofa.
Cops. EMTs. Neighbors. Nobody saw the sofa. I suffered a severe concussion, a fractured ankle, and a broken wrist. The nurses, and eventually, the cops, told me the stairs collapsed. They said the property management company was accepting full responsibility. They offered me condolences. Condolences for what? The only thing I could think of was the sofa. I didn’t even think about Kenny until later.
I kept having migraines. The doctors said they were from the concussion. The nightmares got worse. Every night, I dreamed about the sofa. The cops quit talking to me. The migraines made concentrating difficult. I could barely walk. I had no place to go; my apartment building was still under investigation, so I slept in a closet in the Bio lab. Finally, after a particularly bad night, I realized one morning that I was standing in the lobby of the police station, screaming about a sofa. One of the police officers recommended psychiatric care. I agreed, and checked myself into a facility.
Therapy helped. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was just being away from my situation. After a month or so, I felt better. Or at least, well enough to leave. As per facility policy, I had to meet with the Director before I left the facility. Dr. Mahmood met me at the door to his office. He was shorter than me, but had a kind face that somehow matched his voice.
“I hear you feel it’s time to leave us?” he said.
“Yes sir,” I smiled. “I’m really feeling a lot better now.”
“In that case, let’s do our exit interview,” he said, and walked around to his desk chair. He gestured behind me. “Please, have a seat.” I turned, and my smile slipped from my face. “This is my new sofa. It’s a beautiful antique. I found it on the curb just last week. How could someone just leave something so beautiful on the curb? I can assure you, it is very comfortable.”