Black Petals Issue #98 Winter, 2022

Ally Schwam: The Family Upstairs

Home
Editor's Page
Artists' Page
BP Guidelines
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Worm Food-Fiction by Michael Dority
Bells in the Woods-Fiction by Richard Brown
The Smiling Dead-Fiction by Guido Eekhaut
Beneath-Fiction by Samantha Brooke
The Reality Engine-Fiction by M.T. Johnson
Bug-Fiction by David Starobin
The Family Upstairs-Fiction by Ally Schwam
Hoola-Fiction by Lamont A. Turner
The Barber Shop-Fiction by Roy Dorman
On the Corner of 15th and Jackson-Fiction by Kat Vatne
Prisoners-Fiction by Paul Lee
Twinkles-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Party-Time Trio-Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Shadowed Soul-Flash Fiction by Jess Boaden
5G Generation-Poem by Joseph Danoski
Creature of Habit-Poem by Joseph Danoski
Joe Schmoe & Jayne Doe-Poem by Joseph Danoski
The World-Poem by S. Wiseman-Rose
Exquisite Corpse-Villanelle-Poem by S. Wiseman-Rose
Edwardian-Poem by S. Wiseman-Rose
Bloody Fingers-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Pathway Down-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Another Red Nightmare-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Avenue of Pines (Re-visited)-Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Lover's Meadow-Poem by Brielle Amick
Scarecrow in Female-Poem by Meg Smith
Regards to Buzzards-Poem by Meg Smith
Failed Conjuring-Poem by Meg Smith
Missing Among Wildflowers-Poem by Meg Smith
Lords of Extinction-Poem by Meg Smith

98_bp_familyupstairs_mddavis.jpg
Art by Michael D. Davis 2022

The Family Upstairs

 

Ally Schwam

 

The 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.

Every 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 neighbors.

What 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 new apartment.

Tonight, 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.

I stared at the ceiling. I didn’t dare move.

The moan rattled on, petering out into sighs. Puffs of breath. Silence.

I sat still as a brick, waiting. More silence.

I squirmed my way under the covers and closed my eyes, shut tight like triggered steel traps.

 

*

 

Upon 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 ahead.

I’d 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 shadows.

Last 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.

In 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.

I 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.

Slowly, the door creaked open, and a tiny old woman shuffled out.

“Hello, dear,” she rasped, clutching her dark gray robe to her chest.

“Oh, 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.

“What 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.

“Oh, well, it’s just…” I said to her, trying to stay steady. Calm down, I lectured myself. No need to be so nervous.

“Well, 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.

The 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.”

So, 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.

“Thanks, ma’am. And, uh, I’m sorry I interrupted your day,” I sighed, staring awkwardly at her nose.

“Oh, 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 company.”

I 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—“

“You 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.

“I 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.

Instantly, 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.

There 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.

On 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.

I 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.

My 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 the doors.

A 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.

“Please, 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?”

“Oh, 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 nothing there.

“How long have you lived in this building, love?” Mrs. B’s eyes were pinned to me, like she was monitoring my every move.

“Um, 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.

“Ah, 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?”

“Yeah, 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, 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.”

For 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.”

The 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Mrs. 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.

Just 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.

I 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.

Mrs. 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.”

I 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.

“I’m so sorry. I really am, Charlie dear. But I have a whole family to feed.”

 

 

Bio

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.

Site Maintained by Fossil Publications