The Family Upstairs
ceiling was an off-white, popcorn-textured kind of ceiling. At certain angles
you could see cracks scrawled across it, like a haphazard pencil drawing by a
toddler. A dust bunny or two had somehow wedged themselves into the corners of
the ceiling and into its textured surface. It was a perfectly normal ceiling.
other night or so I studied what lay above me, awake and goddamn unhappy about
it. I could feel my eyes drying out in their sockets and my face sagging with
the lack of sleep. I’d always struggled with insomnia, racing thoughts, an
off-beat circadian rhythm, but this was something new. This was the fault of my
could they be doing? Moving furniture at three in the morning? Dropping burlap
sacks full of stones? There was always the banging of heavy objects meeting the
ground. Solemn thuds and sometimes the scraping sound of something being
dragged across the floor. On rarer (more chilling) occasions, there was the
small sound of scratching, like claws being dragged over splintered wood. I
didn’t want to think about the possibility of mice (or God forbid, rats) in my
I lay in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin, staring at the ceiling. The
darkness of my room swirled around me. I listened and listened, half asleep.
Then, something new happened. A low, guttural moan. Barely perceptible, perhaps
squeezing its way through a single crack. A lingering moan from deep in the chest,
pulled up from the depths of the lungs.
stared at the ceiling. I didn’t dare move.
moan rattled on, petering out into sighs. Puffs of breath. Silence.
sat still as a brick, waiting. More silence.
squirmed my way under the covers and closed my eyes, shut tight like triggered
coming home from work, I hesitated in the unkempt mail room after clearing ads
and other junk from my mailbox. My skin prickled as I anticipated the night
contacted my landlord several times, the building managers, anyone I could
think of, but no one had gotten back to me. No one seemed to care if I could
sleep or not. I let out a huffy sigh.
It was already dark outside, and a dull blue
seeped in from the one small window in the mailroom, casting sleepy hues over
the dusty linoleum floor. The dim electric light did little to lift the
night had left me with bloodshot eyes and deep dark creases beneath my lids. My
hands jittered with sugary caffeine and nerves. While fiddling with my mail and
stuffing it into my bag, I wandered out of the mailroom and down the hall
towards the elevator. I yawned, a well of desperation pooling in my gut. I eyed
the elevator doors and punched the up button, grinding my teeth together with
resolve. After a few still moments, the elevator arrived with a ding. Straightening
my bag on my shoulder, I entered and selected the floor above mine.
the ancient elevator I kept rubbing my hands together to stay warm. Or maybe
just to calm my nerves. The elevator dinged slowly as it passed each floor, the
buttons glowing yellow as we moved. Finally, the door squeaked open on the
fourth floor and I wandered out into the hallway. The whole apartment building
smelled of dust and wet paint. It always made me sneeze.
turned down the narrow, dark hallways, looking for the apartment above mine. The
lamps along the walls cast a faint yellow glow over the dark brown carpets and
gray walls. When I finally reached the door, the red paint seemed to be peeling
and the golden knocker was soiled and brassy. I reached up to the knocker, my
hands trembling softly, and knocked. The sound rang up and down the halls,
breaking the silence and stiffening my spine. I waited for a minute, staring
unblinkingly down at my shoes, and still no response. I gave the door another
curt knock and rocked back and forth on my heels.
the door creaked open, and a tiny old woman shuffled out.
dear,” she rasped, clutching her dark gray robe to her chest.
hi,” I mumbled, “I, um, just wanted to chat with you about something.” I
readjusted my hands on my bag and looked over the old woman. Her face seemed
soft and puffy, and her eyes were dark under heavy lids. A sudden rush of guilt
raced through me for having bothered her.
do you need?” she said, her voice coated in a thick layer of honey. A chill
crept across my skin, and I could feel my breathing halt. The memory of the
strange breathy moans coming from upstairs last night washed over me. I tried
to shrug them off.
well, it’s just…” I said to her, trying to stay steady. Calm down, I lectured
myself. No need to be so nervous.
it’s just that I keep hearing noises up here, above my apartment, well, your
apartment I guess.” I cleared my throat. “I was hoping to ask if you could try
to be a little quieter, well, I’m having trouble sleeping, you see…” I trailed
off, not sure what to say.
old woman closed her eyes for a minute and shifted her weight from one foot to
another. “I’m sorry it kept you up, dear. I have family here often, and they
can get quite loud. They’re always helping me clean and move the furniture,
doing my chores, bless them.” She let out a nasally chuckle. “I’ll ask them to
be a bit more mindful.”
it was furniture? I laughed hesitantly and gazed back down the hallway
towards the silver elevator doors. I hate talking to people in the first place,
but I hate asking for things even more. I ran my hand through my hair, feeling
each strand between my fingers.
ma’am. And, uh, I’m sorry I interrupted your day,” I sighed, staring awkwardly
at her nose.
no worries, love.” She began to shut the door, but then hesitated and looked
back up at me with her dark eyes. She smiled, her teeth small and shiny. “Actually,
would you like to come in for a cup of tea, dear? I could always use some
shifted my eyes to the floor, feeling the blood slowly drain out of my face. I just
wanted to go home. “I, well, I don’t want to bother you any more than I have and—“
won’t be a bother at all, hon. Come in, come in.” And she reached out and
grabbed my arm with a cold, dry hand and tugged me into her apartment with a
surprising amount of force. The door clunked loudly behind us and for a moment
it was pitch dark. Goosebumps puckered my skin as panic rose like bile in my
throat. Then a light flickered on and a dim green permeated the room.
like to keep my lights low, honey. Saves money on the bills. You can call me
Mrs. B, by the way.” I looked down and she was grinning up at me, the sickly
green light casting strange shadows over her face. “Don’t be shy,
now, it’s just us. Come. Sit
at the table while I get the kettle going.” And with that she shuffled off into
the dim apartment.
I swiveled around and tried the door handle, but it was locked. Locked from
the inside? My mind was screaming with white noise. I took a couple deep,
measured breaths, placing a hand over my mouth to hush the noise. It’s okay,
it’s okay, you’re okay. What can she do to you? I slowly turned back around
to face the room.
was a squat round table sitting in the center of the room with a couple
mismatched wooden chairs placed around it. Heaps and heaps of cardboard boxes
and books lay strewn around the floor. Maybe her family were just moving
around heavy boxes. Every night? This thought didn’t do much to calm me,
but how scary could an old lady be? Suck it up, I told myself.
the wall were dozens of black and white photographs, portraits of people I
couldn’t make out the faces of in the low light. Just washed-out ovals beneath
black and gray hair. Three lamps were scattered around the room haphazardly,
but only the one closest to the door was on. It had a dirty dark green shade
with long tassels drooping off the end. The light cast the lampshade’s green
tinge over the entire room.
inched my way in and sat on the one chair that had a cushion. I guess it
wouldn’t hurt to stay a minute. I ran a hand over my arm, feeling the puckered
bumps on my skin. The kitchen was right off the main room, and I could hear
Mrs. B humming and the sound of water splashing up against metal. Her shadow
was cast across a wall, distorted and long.
eyes roamed around the room, and I noticed two huge screen doors propped up on
another wall. They were opened up a crack in the middle, and I could see
another room behind it cast in shadow. I gazed off into the sliver of the dark
room, my eyes still adjusting to the darkness, when I saw a lump shift behind
high-pitched whine erupted from the kitchen, and I jumped in my seat. But it
was just the tea kettle. I was still shaking a little when Mrs. B came back in,
carrying a teapot and teacups that she set gingerly on the table. She poured
the steaming tea into the two cups and pushed one over to me. The smell of
lavender and honey wafted up towards me and warmed me. I hadn’t even realized I
had been cold.
have some dear,” Mrs. B cooed as she grabbed her own teacup and lifted it to
her lips. “Tell me hon, what’s your name?”
I’m Charlie,” I said, looking her briefly in the eye. I cradled the cup in my
hand and took a sip, the warmth spreading slowly through my body. For a second,
I inspected the intricate design on the side of the teacup, counting flowers
like I was counting sheep. There were little stars painted across the cup, and
when I squinted, they looked like beady eyes. I glanced back over at the screen
doors and the gaping darkness seeping in from behind them. But there was
long have you lived in this building, love?” Mrs. B’s eyes were pinned to me,
like she was monitoring my every move.
a couple months or so.” My mind usually glazed over at even the slightest bit
of small talk, but I sat still and focused, my spine rigid.
I see, I see.” For a second, I thought Mrs. B wasn’t looking at me, but through
me. Dissecting me. Her dark eyes refocused on my face again. “Do you like
living here, Charlie dear?”
sure,” I mumbled, gripping the teacup tightly and regretting I’d told her my
name. I could feel my fingertips turning white from the pressure. “I, I should
really be leaving soon,” I muttered. My eyes stuttered across the room,
checking for movement. I gazed at the screen doors for a second—nothing.
no, no, please stay.” Mrs. B reached out her scaley hands and clasped them on
mine, coiling my hands around the teacup. “You don’t know how lonely I am,” her
eyes locked on me, boring into me, “and you haven’t even finished your tea.”
a stiff second I stared down into the cup, afraid to lift my eyes. “Come on,
sweetheart.” Mrs. B raised my hands and the teacup with them, the dark liquid
pool rising towards me. “Show an old grandma like me a little love.”
brownish drink spun slowly around, flakes of black tea leaves drifting
throughout. It was mesmerizing, arresting. I took a small, hesitant sip, the
cup trembling in my hand. The world was starting to sound muffled, like I’d
stuck two large cotton balls in my ears. But just then I heard a scratching
sound behind me. The sound of rough nails on skin.
slowly turned my head and gazed into the corner from where the sound had come.
Everything was covered in deep, green shadow. The longer I stared, the larger
the shadow grew, crawling out of the corner and devouring the walls around it.
Mrs. B coughed behind me, a dry hacking cough.
looked back towards her and yawned, lifting a hand to my mouth. I was starting
to feel drowsy, like the darkness in the room was willing me to take a nap,
slip into sleep. I pinched my skin, urged my eyes open. I took another sip of
tea, swishing it around in my mouth before swallowing. Bits of honey stuck to
my teeth. I attempted a rough smile at Mrs. B, trying to convince her, maybe
myself, that I was relaxed and happy.
B sighed, her eyebrows scrunching together. I could barely see her eyes in this
light, just shades of darkness and a grayish spark where they should’ve been. But
then that spark started to blur, and suddenly Mrs. B’s whole face. The world
began to look like a strange watercolor, or like I had taken out my contacts
and was fumbling my way to bed.
then I heard that scratching sound coming from the screen doors, and I glanced
over. I still couldn’t make out anything in the darkness behind the crack in
the doors. The darkness was everywhere, seeping into my veins. I was starting to
feel sleepy and numb, my whole body heavy. The screen doors seemed to be blurring
together. Then they opened slowly with a creak and a hand thudded on the floor.
Dirty nails dug into the floorboards. Blotchy red and brown skin that looked
like it was peeling away.
tried to scream, but my mouth didn’t move. In fact, I couldn’t feel my body at
all. I attempted to stand and slipped off the chair and landed on the floor
with a loud thud. The teacup crashed to the floor and broke, splattering warm
liquid over my face. My eyelids felt like heavy curtains being drawn over my
eyes. I was screaming at my body to move, but nothing happened. All I
could do was watch as the hand dug its nails into the floorboards and dragged
the rest of its body out and into the dim light. In between heavy blinks I
could see the tatters of a forearm, thick locks of hair, a wide-open yellow
eye, a gaping mouth with small, shiny teeth.
B’s voice was coming in and out of my ears like a fuzzy radio. “I’m only doing
this out of love, sweetie. I hope you can forgive me. You do seem so very kind.”
moaned, trying to get my arms to move, anything to move. Through the numbness I
felt something heavy and warm land on my arm before a sharp pain rang up
through my shoulder and neck. Big, wet tears slipped down my face as I watched grimy
teeth piercing skin.
so sorry. I really am, Charlie dear. But I have a whole family to feed.”
Ally Schwam is a
writer of both fiction and poetry. Her poetry has previously appeared in Levee
Magazine, SurVision Magazine, Dream Noir, and others. She lives in the Greater
Boston Area and works as a user experience designer.