01 Feb My Neighbor Started Sending Me Creepy WhatsApp Messages
I met Tony three weeks after my mum died.
I was leaving for work at the time. I’d just locked the door to my flat when I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and there he was: a short, tired-looking man with glasses and messy brown hair. Pale, as though he hadn’t seen the sun in weeks.
The phrase “you look like I feel” is a cliché, but in this case it made sense. At that time I was a ghost. I’d had two weeks off work after mum’s funeral, but it wasn’t enough. Nowhere near. Looking back I guess I was depressed, although I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that then. Mainly I just felt numb. I’d go between not giving a shit about anything to feeling like I was about to cry for no reason at all. Often I did cry for no reason at all.
I’d sit in my flat in the evenings, staring at the TV without taking anything in. I drank most nights. Not so much that I was wasted or anything, but enough. Enough to take the worst of the pain away.
Since the funeral I’d mainly been avoiding calls from friends, and — aside from some awkward exchanges at work — Tony was the first person I’d spoken with in a while. My first conversation.
If you could call it conversation, anyway.
“I’ve seen you around.” Tony walked along the corridor towards me. He wore jeans and a dark blue jumper. The glasses on his face glinted with the reflection of the corridor’s fluorescents.
“Oh yeah?” I turned and locked the door to my flat. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have. Speaking to people I knew was hard enough at that time, let alone strangers. And small talk was the last thing on my mind.
“That’s right,” said Tony. “On the way to work, coming back home. I live just down the hall. I waved to you once or twice, but I don’t think you noticed. You seemed to be off in your own little world.”
I froze with my key in the lock. Off in your own little world. It was an expression my mum used to use all the time. We’d be chatting, and she’d catch me staring out the window or gazing into the distance, and she’d say it. Uh oh, we’ve lost Matt. He’s off in his own little world again. My face suddenly felt hot. This was how it happened back then. The grief was always there. It hung beneath me like some vast, freezing ocean. And no matter how careful I was walking along the ice, the cracks still showed.
Tony must have seen it in my face. The next thing I knew he was standing beside me, asking if I was okay. And a second after that my eyes were welling up.
I don’t remember much about our conversation. I guess he must have comforted me. Asked me what was wrong. I think he told me that he felt sad sometimes too, and it was important to have people to talk to. He asked me to give him my number so he could check in with me. I guess because I was feeling vulnerable, I did. The only other thing I remember about the conversation is what he told me at the end: that about a year ago, his dad had died. Tony said he didn’t know exactly how I was feeling — no-one could — but he understood it. At least in part. And the last thing he gave me before I finally left for work was some advice.
“Talk to her out loud,” he said. “When you’re on your own. Just pretend you’re chatting on the phone with her, if that makes it easier.” He paused and adjusted the glasses on his face. “I can’t promise it’ll make you feel better, but it might. It was the only thing that helped me.”
I forgot about the conversation with Tony.
The next few days were the usual blur of tears in the shower, just about making it through work, and then beer in front of TV. It was like I was living the same 24 hours on loop. Cry, drink, sleep. Wake up. Repeat. The worst fucking Groundhog Day you can imagine. People told me it’d get easier with time; I counted at least four people who said that exact sentence to me at mum’s funeral. It didn’t. In those endless weeks after her death, the pain never went away.
Morning Matt! It’d say whenever my eyes creaked open. Maybe you were thinking that today life might be a little better, but guess what? It’s not! And it won’t be for a long, long time.
I suppose a part of me knew I needed to get help. Somewhere far back in my mind an alarm was going off — the faintest SOS call — but it was impossibly distant. I ignored it. The thought of phoning up the GP and booking an appointment just made me feel tired.
It was during one of these endless, blurry days that I heard from Tony again. I’d just finished watching a documentary about cancer. I know — great choice of viewing material, right? Normally I sit in front of a Netflix series and switch off my brain, but this one caught me just as I turned on the TV. The programme was all about how scientists are trying to determine the extent to which cancer — or at least the likelihood of getting cancer — can be hereditary. How much of it is in the genes. My mind immediately went to mum, of course.
I pictured her in the hospital bed, the poisonous cells raging through her body. Then I found myself imaging similar cells in my own organs. Buried deep down in the tissue. Maybe not doing anything just yet, at least… but biding their time. Waiting. I can still remember that thought process going through my head, and the worst part wasn’t the idea that I might one day die too young like mum had. No. The worst part was that the thought didn’t scare me. Not even a bit. Right then, it actually filled me with relief. Because at least a terminal illness would mean I’d know when the pain was going to stop, right? At least then there’d be an end in sight.
It was at that point that my phone buzzed. The vibration nearly made me jump. There’d been a steady stream of messages after the funeral, but they’d started to dry up over the past week. My fault, of course. I wasn’t replying to any of them. Support only goes so far.
I pulled my phone from the pocket of my jeans. Glanced at the screen and saw the WhatsApp logo. I was about to chuck the phone down onto the sofa when something made me pause. There was no name on the message; just a number. The photo was nothing I recognised, either: just a blurry picture taken in a forest. Then my eyes flicked to the message itself, and a tiny icepick pierced the numbness of my brain.
You told me you’re not religious, read the message. But do you believe in ghosts?
What the fuck was this? I looked at it again, carefully, to make sure I hadn’t misread it. Nope. The message was as clear as anything. And I didn’t recognise the mobile number it had come from.
I stared around my lounge, thinking. I’d obviously lost track of time while watching TV, because it was now completely dark outside. I peered into the blackness beyond the glass doors that led onto my tiny balcony. Aside from a few lights from neighbouring flats, all I could see was my own reflection. Not a pretty sight. I looked tired and ill. The bags under my eyes were deep bruises. A frown of confusion creased my forehead.
Who the fuck would send me a message like this? My mind cycled through a list of possibilities. Someone at work, doing it for a joke? No chance. Nobody I worked with was that cruel, I didn’t think. Plus I hadn’t given any of them my mobile number. Could it be spam, then? Just some random troll, firing off weird messages to random numbers? This seemed more likely, but I still doubted it. Maybe if the message had come via email I would have believed it, but I’d never experienced anything like that on WhatsApp before.
Then my mind went to Tony. He was the only new person I’d met recently, wasn’t he? The only one I’d given my number to. I pictured his glasses, and his messy brown hair. The faint look of concern as he’d comforted me in the hallway. The guy hadn’t seemed off at the time. But then you never really knew, did you? Not with someone you’d only just met. And it wasn’t as if I’d been in a fit state of mind to judge.
I stared at the phone in my hand. For a moment I considered just ignoring the message and going to bed. But something got the better of me. I think it was the wording of the message itself: You told me you’re not religious. But do you believe in ghosts? There was just something about those two sentences that I couldn’t let go of. Despite how tired and numb I felt, they gave me the creeps. Only a little bit, but the feeling was definitely there.
I picked up the phone and typed a response: Is this Tony?
The reply came back less than a minute later. Yes.
For a minute I considered a blunt response. Something short, asking him why he was messaging me stuff like this at all. Reminding him we’d only just met. But in the end, I decided to play the game. Part of it was curiosity, I suppose; maybe the other part was that I wanted the distraction.
Hi Tony, I wrote. I don’t really know what I think about ghosts, to be honest. I know I’ve never seen one. I suppose I wouldn’t rule it out, though. Why?
The message sent. A moment later two little grey ticks told me it had been delivered. And a second after that, the ticks turned blue. Tony had read my reply. His own came a couple of minutes later.
Have you never thought about what happens after we die? I read something about violent deaths leaving an imprint. Murder. Suicide. They said the spirits of the victims can struggle to move on, after. They enter people’s dreams.
Jesus Christ. I read the reply a couple of times, unable to make much sense of it. I pictured Tony’s face again. The glasses. The concerned expression. It didn’t make sense to me, but there was really only one conclusion: Tony was a fucking weirdo. Had to be. I wanted to laugh the message off and, had I been with a friend — or more inclined to pick up the phone and call one — I almost certainly would have. But I was alone. Sitting in my empty lounge, staring down at the phone in my hand. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but that sense of unease I’d felt earlier was growing. Part of it was being in the dark flat without company, I suppose, but that wasn’t all of it.
What if Tony was genuinely disturbed? You heard about it all the time on the news, didn’t you? Someone strikes up a casual conversation in a coffee shop, and the person they’re talking to gets the wrong idea. Ends up following them home, showing up outside their house at night. Stalking them.
My eyes flicked from the dark balcony to the door leading out from my lounge. My hallway lay beyond it, and beyond that was the front door of my flat. And just along the corridor outside…
Was Tony sat in his own flat even now, less than 20 metres away, as he sent these messages? The thought made me shiver. I tried to remember if I’d locked the front door or not, but couldn’t. I was about to get up when my phone pinged again.
If you’re interested in hearing ghost stories, we can talk in person some time. I’m not far.
My skin felt cold. It was time to nip this in the bud. I typed my reply and sent it quickly: Thanks for the offer. I’m going to head to bed now, but maybe another time.
Two blue ticks. Straight away. Tony was in his flat, phone in hand. Waiting for my replies. I got up from the sofa and pulled the blinds, shutting out some of the darkness. Then I picked up the remote and switched the TV off. As I walked across the lounge in the direction of my little kitchen, I was aware of just how quiet the flat was. With the TV off, silence filled the room. I could hear the hum of the refrigerator, and the distant sound of cars on the road outside. Nothing else.
As I reached the kitchen and pulled a glass from the cupboard, I heard a door slam. I froze. My grip on the glass tightened as I stood still, listening. The sound had been close. There were a lot of flats in my building, sure, and sounds often carried down the halls. But still… that slam had sounded nearby. Like the noise had come from one of the other flats on my corridor.
You’re being paranoid, I told myself. Tony’s just a lonely guy who lost a parent. Just like you. He probably watched a documentary about ghosts or something and it freaked him out. That’s all.
I had a bad taste in my mouth. Too much beer. My tongue felt dry and tacky, like cotton. I filled the glass at the sink, tipped it to my mouth, and downed the contents. As I was going back for a refill, my phone pinged again.
Are you sure you don’t want me to come over? I’m worried about you.
In any other context, the message would have been fine. Maybe even reassuring. But standing in the silence of my flat at what must have been gone 11 at night, it was the exact opposite. Cold pinpricks ran their way up the skin of my back. I left the glass on the side and started towards the hallway of my flat, intending to make sure the front door was locked. I was halfway across the lounge when my phone buzzed again.
I think I can help you.
I picked up my pace. My hands were sweating now, and the skin on the back of my neck itched. I strained my ears for a sound from the corridor beyond my front door, but couldn’t hear anything. Silence. The only noise was the soft rustle of my socks on the wood flooring. I passed the bathroom on my right, then the bedroom on my left. Rounded the corner of the hallway. In front of me, only three metres away, stood my front door. I could see the direction the latch was twisted: off to the left. Something clenched in my stomach. I’d forgotten to lock it.
I started towards the door. My phone was still clenched in my sweaty right hand, and I was so focussed on getting to the door that I barely noticed it buzz again. I fumbled it into my left hand, reaching for the lock.
Someone knocked on the door.
I froze. Thump, thump, thump. Three knocks. Loud and heavy in the silence of my flat. I stood completely still, my hand hanging in midair just in front of the latch. I wanted to move forward and twist it, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Fear prickled my skin.
Helplessly, I felt my eyes flick away from the latch. Slightly off to the left. My gaze was drawn to a beady black eye in the middle of my front door: the peep hole. I hadn’t used the peep hole much during my time in the flat, but there were a couple of occasions I remembered pressing my eye to it. Once when some kids who lived in the building were kicking a football down the corridor; another time when a charity worker had come to the door. The peep hole was one of those that gave you a fish eye view of the corridor outside — a magnified lens that distorted shapes and messed with perspective. If someone was standing on the other side of the door and you peaked through it, their face would appear giant and stretched.
I took a step forward. I brought my right foot down just in front of the door, as softly as I could. Desperate not to make a sound. My skin crawled with fear. My heart pounded the inside of my chest, a relentless fist. I stretched my right hand out and closed it around the latch.
THUMP, THUMP, THUMP. The knocks were louder this time. They punched through the air like drumbeats. I felt the door tremble beneath my hand and I bit down on my lip, hard, to stop from screaming. I tensed my body and flicked the latch to the right. It clicked into place.
Something banged against the outside of the door, hard. Thud, THUD. The whole thing rattled on its hinges. I kept my grip on the latch and screwed my eyes shut. The taste of copper filled my mouth where I’d bitten my lip. I held my breath.
Silence. It stretched on and on. I strained my ear for any noise from the corridor — the slightest sound — but there was nothing. Just the faint hum of my refrigerator in the kitchen and the noise of my pulse, pounding its relentless drumbeat.
I don’t know how long I stayed like that. All I remember is that at some point — some unknown length of time later — I worked up the courage to look through the peep hole.
There was nobody there. The corridor stretched off to the right and left, completely empty. Whoever had knocked on the door was gone.
I only remembered my phone, which was still clutched in my left hand, when I was safely back in my bedroom. There was one new WhatsApp notification on the screen. From Tony. Just two words.
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night. And when I did sleep, I dreamed.
Tony was in them. He slipped in and out of my mind like a shadow. Some of the dreams were real memories; others were scenes my subconscious must have conjured up. First I was back in the corridor, wiping my eyes as he comforted me; next I could see his stretched face, glasses glinting in the light from the overhead fluorescents, as I stared at him through the peep hole. Later he was in my bedroom.
That was the part of the dream I remember most. The bit that stayed with me after I woke up. Tony, sat in a chair beside my bed. His face shrouded in darkness as he spoke.
“You need help, Matt. I can help you.”
I tried to tell him to go away — tried to say I didn’t want his help — but I couldn’t talk. My mouth wouldn’t work.
“I know, I know.” Tony’s voice was soft in the darkness. “You don’t want it, do you? Talking’s too tiring.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I just lay in the darkness, watching the shape beside my bed.
“Speaking out loud to her’s the first step,” Tony continued. “That’s what helped me, with dad. But it wasn’t enough. You need to talk to other people, too.”
I tried to tell him I couldn’t talk — my mouth still wouldn’t open — but the next thing I knew I was breathing in sharply, pulling air into my lungs like a drowning man, and then the moment after that I was sitting straight up in bed in the darkness of my room.
I looked to my left. The chair beside me stood empty.
Tony was gone.
I never saw him again.
As quickly as he’d come into my life, Tony left. There were no more meetings in the corridor; no more WhatsApp messages. After a couple of days I began to wonder if the whole thing had even happened. If maybe it was nothing more than a hallucination: the product of too much alcohol and grief.
It wasn’t, though. I know it wasn’t. Because every time I’d start to think that, I’d just open up WhatsApp. The whole conversation with Tony was still there. Plain as day. And even though I have a new phone number now, I’ve kept the screengrabs. All of them. They’re a reminder.
A few days after that strange night, I had cause to be reminded. I had a reason to keep checking WhatsApp — a reason to keep the whole thing on record. A reason to prove to myself it was real.
It happened when I saw a man coming out of Tony’s flat. I was coming back from work at the time. Unlocking my door when I heard Tony’s open. I glanced to the right, my pulse quickening, but it wasn’t him. The man in front of me was large, with a full belly and shaved head. A bag of tools in his right hand. Pencil tucked behind one ear. Someone I’d never seen before.
There was no reason for me to talk to him. No reason at all. The guy could have been an electrician or a plumber, anything. I still don’t know why I asked the question I asked.
“Did Tony move out?”
The man stopped mid-stride and stared at me. I saw a handful of expressions cross his face in less than a second. First his eyes widened with surprise, then his brow creased up. He opened his mouth slightly and darted a tongue across his lips.
Looking at his face I had the sudden, horrible idea that he was about to tell me there was no Tony. Don’t know who you’re talking about, mate, he’d say. That flat’s been empty for months.
He didn’t, though. He said something worse.
“Tony?” The man scratched a hand across his scalp. “Was he a friend of yours?”
“No, not really, I… we bumped into each other in the hallway once or twice. Are you… related to him, or–“
“No, no, I’m the landlord. I own the flat.” The man adjusted the pencil behind his ear and cleared his throat. He looked at me, then looked away again. “Look, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but… well, Tony…”
He trailed off. The corridor around me suddenly felt too hot. I had an urge to reach out and shake him. “What happened?”
“Well…” The man stared at his shoes a moment longer, then sighed. He looked up at me. “He died. Tony did. He’s dead, I’m afraid.”
I felt the corridor swim around me. My mouth felt dry. “When?”
“A couple of months ago I think. I couldn’t believe it either when I heard.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Pretty fucking tragic, eh?”
I didn’t say anything. I was too busy thinking about what Tony’s landlord had just told me. He died. A couple of months ago I think. My mind went to the phone in my pocket. The messages I’d received on it only three days before. The meeting in the corridor, only a few days before that.
“Are you sure it was a couple of months?”
“When Tony died. Are you sure it wasn’t more recent?”
The landlord frowned. “Positive. More than that, maybe. I’ve got the date on a form somewhere I think, something from his next of kin…”
He kept talking, but his voice suddenly sounded far away. Like it was reaching me from the opposite end of a pipe. An image of Tony as I’d first seen him in the corridor, pale in his dark blue jumper, swam into my mind. I felt faint.
I don’t remember much else about what the landlord said. I know we spoke a while longer — him doing most of the talking, me asking occasional, stunted questions — but most of the conversation is a blur.
There’s only one other thing I do remember, and that’s what the man told me when I asked him how Tony died.
He said he’d killed himself.
The end of this story can be told quickly. It’s really more of a beginning than an end.
It started with me talking out loud to mum. This was the morning after my meeting with the landlord. I was sat in my flat at the time, having breakfast. Coffee and toast. And in between mouthfuls, I told her about Tony.
Meeting him in the corridor. The WhastApp messages. The landlord. All of it.
I pretended we were on the phone.
I didn’t expect it to do much, if I’m honest. I had no big hopes. But as I dumped my dirty plate into the dishwasher and left the flat for work that morning, I felt… well, something.
I’m not going to tell you talking out loud cured me. The black cloud that had sat in my head ever since mum got sick didn’t dissipate over coffee and toast. But I guess it was a start.
Over the coming days I found myself talking to mum more and more. When I was at home on my own, making dinner. In bed at night. Before I left for work.
At some point in that process, I got another WhatsApp message. Not from Tony this time. From a friend. One of the many I’d been doing my best to ignore since the funeral. But this time, I answered it.
Friends on the phone. Family. Friends in person. Then, eventually, the GP.
I don’t remember all the details from the months after mum’s death. Just certain moments.
I remember turning up to the doctor’s, and crying when they diagnosed me with depression. I remember going into the pharmacy to pick up my Citalopram prescription. And I remember my first counselling session.
I spoke about mum in it. I spoke about the final days I’d spent with her at the hospital. Over the following weeks and sessions, I spoke about her more and more.
It’s been months now since I attended that first session, but I still go every week. I’m a work in progress.
And on the days when I’m really struggling? On the days when the ground beneath my feet feels numb, and I can sense the cracks starting to show through the ice?
On those days I think of Tony.
Not so much about his death and the conversation I had with his landlord — that mystery no longer seems as important, somehow — but more about the stuff he said to me. In the corridor, and over WhatsApp that night. In my dream. The warning he gave me.
Mostly, though, I think about how lucky I am to still be here. I think about how I owe Tony for that.
And I think of the opportunities I have that he never did.