The Upstairs Neighbors
by erin lee damron
It started so slowly.
One night, in late summer, I was alone in my apartment when there was a thump followed by…nothing. I shook it off; I live in an old building, there are always noises I can’t account for.
A couple of weeks later, there was some sort of scrabbling noise that startled me out of a sound sleep. I called the super, Mr. Martin, and suggested he search for rodents. I didn’t hear back from him. The scrabbling didn’t wake me again. I forgot.
The next week I was watching Aliens late at night, and right at the most perfect moment, something upstairs crashed and broke. I screamed like a little girl and couldn’t fall asleep for hours.
A few days later, I swore I heard someone pacing back and forth in the room above mine. That’s when I realized someone must be living up there. It had been so long since anyone lived above me, I’d completely forgotten what it sounded like.
I don’t know when they moved in. I guess one day, they were just there. I might’ve seen a moving truck out in front of our building sometime, but never any actual people carrying boxes or furniture up the stairs.
I stopped by Mr. Martin’s apartment on my way to work to ask him about it. He confirmed that a young couple had moved in above me some weeks before. I frowned, thanked him and hurried off. If you give Mr. Martin a minute, he wants ten.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed. It was a well constructed building, sure, but it was still old. How had I missed them walking over creaky boards every day for over a month? I told myself they both must be really skinny and have night jobs and forgot all about it.
But that evening, I went to bed earlier than usual. I told myself I was just tired, but it was a lie. I lay in bed for two hours staring up at the ceiling and willing it to creak. Anything to show me there were people up there.
Nothing happened that night. No pacing, no scrabbling, no boom or crash.
• • •
Nothing woke me up until my alarm at six.
For days I didn’t hear anything else and began to seriously contemplate knocking on their door with a chipper hello just so I could get a glimpse of them. It was starting to distract me. Who were these people who were so quiet except at such inopportune moments?
I think the thing that was most troublesome, though, was that I never once heard music, which struck me as downright inhuman. There was no alarm clock radio, no stirring Star Wars theme or American Idol warbling. The lack of music unnerved me more than the scrabbling and ominous silence. I mean, who doesn’t listen to music?
I started making up stories about them in my head. They were Russian triple agents hiding out in a sleepy quarter of one of America’s largest cities. They were star-crossed lovers à la Romeo and Juliet, running away from their fractious fathers. They were bank robbers and murderers and those thieves who’d stolen The Scream. They were hiding from the mob. They were planning a terrorist attack.
My suppositions became wilder and wilder the longer I went without hearing anything. I’d just about settled on a CIA Artificial Intelligence experiment when they gave me what I’d been hoping for: an audible conversation.
I couldn’t understand the words or even the tone, but it was definitely a call and response between two people. It went on for maybe forty-five seconds and then stopped, conclusion reached or argument settled.
Somehow, after that, the silence didn’t seem so ominous.
Work picked up the next day, and I fell into the routine so fast and hard I barely noticed that nothing else happened upstairs. I had been lulled by the short conversation I’d overheard, and I was too busy to come up with anything more farfetched than a CIA experiment. They were very quiet, skinny, music-hating, night-working folks. That was good enough.
Life marched on, as it is wont to do, and suddenly the leaves were turning. That delicious bite was in the air, and as I rummaged around in my closet one evening, searching for my winter overcoats, I realized I hadn’t heard anything from the upstairs neighbors in months.
I shook it off. Fourteen-hour days followed by too few hours of exhausted sleep could definitely result in sense lapses. I’d just worked or slept through what small indications of life they offered.
But now that I’d realized, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
When I dropped off my rent check the following week, I casually asked about 3B and was assured that they were still with us.
“Why just the other day…”
“Thanks, Mr. Martin. You take care.”
I’d just been distracted, then.
My brain wouldn’t let it go and, over the next few days, it insisted on revisiting all my crazy ideas of months past. Occasionally, it added a new one to the mix, just to keep me on my toes. They were scientists working on calculations of life and death, parents to a post-modern Prometheus. They were mental patients on a community outreach gig.
Every idea seemed more ludicrous than the last. What was wrong with me that I spent so much time making up stories to explain away my neighbors’ silence? Why couldn’t I just enjoy it like any normal person would?
The fact that I couldn’t let it go should’ve made me nervous. The fact that I only stopped thinking about them when I was too busy or tired to remember my own name should’ve made me cautious. But it didn’t. It only made me more curious.
The week before Thanksgiving, coincidentally, also the week I moved from secretive humans to secretive aliens in my pondering, I finally realized I was being ridiculous. Not to mention being the kind of neighbor I regularly railed about. Their business was their business, and escaped mental patients, scientists, spies, or triffids, their business was none of mine.
I made up a batch of my special and extremely hard to resist cookies, tucked them into a nice basket and went upstairs. I should’ve done this the first time I heard them. Perhaps if I knew what they looked like, could put faces into each conjecture, I might be able to finally let it go.
I listened, for a moment, before I knocked on the door. Not for any conscious reason, just…because. I don’t know what I expected, when I finally knocked, but it wasn’t the ringing silence that answered.
I waited a minute and then knocked again. Still nothing, but I supposed I should’ve been ready for that. If any of my less crazy hypotheses were correct, they could be working right now, or asleep.
I left the basket of cookies outside their door and headed downstairs to jot a note to leave with it. No need to scare them with anonymous cookie deliveries.
My pen scratched across the paper as something huge crashed above me.
Crashed, but there were no breaking sounds. I was holding my breath, my pen leaking ink onto the paper. The next day I’d notice that it had leaked through the entire pad. I’d counted to one hundred and started to calm down when there was another noise.
This one was softer and unidentifiable. A sort of wet scratching? But not only was that impossible, it was also wrong. Not just wrong but wrong.
This was the moment, I think, where my two paths diverged. Sure, of course, every single moment is an infinite divergence, but this was poem-worthy.
Option after option rolled through my brain, all distractingly colored by my list of silly suppositions. Were they hurt? Should I call the police? What if I did, and they really were spies? I still hadn’t ever actually seen them. Not that I would be able to tell a spy from a regular Joe, but if I knew what they looked like, sounded like, I’d be able to tell something about them. Right?
I have no idea how long I stood there listening to that wrong noise, ideas rising and then popping like soap bubbles. It seemed like every choice was more wrong than the last, depending on which pair of binoculars I viewed it through.
The noise stopped, but I didn’t notice. I was still frozen, leaning over my counter, pen pressed into the paper, trying to figure out what I should be doing.
Then it happened again. They gave me exactly what I needed: another short, mumbling conversation. Breath left my body in a whoosh, and tiny black spots danced in front of my eyes. They were fine. They’d just dropped something. Maybe a huge fish tank. Or something.
It took me a few minutes to stop shaking. Then a few more minutes to stop laughing at myself. Then I pushed away from the counter and headed upstairs again. I could meet them, now that I knew they were home, and put all this nonsense to rest.
I stumbled as I took the last stair and saw their hallway. My basket of cookies was gone.
I stood there, staring at where my basket used to be for a moment, and before I even realized I’d made a decision, I was halfway back to my own apartment.
Our doors, you see. All the doors in the building always slam open and closed. Always. Theirs hadn’t even creaked.
Five minutes later, I had successfully sublimated all my fear and uncertainty and ended up dusting literally everything that wasn’t nailed down. All night.
The next morning, I didn’t need to sublimate. I avoided. I avoided until it became so fantastical even I didn’t believe it. I avoided until it became less plausible than my Day of the Triffids/Dr. Frankenstein theories.
By the end of my workday, I’d convinced myself that every thought my brain produced about them was really about me. That my escapist bent and need to be unusual had bled over and infected my interpretation of every single non-moment I had with my upstairs neighbors.
Until I stood outside my door staring down at the empty basket. I picked it up and took it inside with me. There was a little note in the bottom: Thank you for your kindness. Dick and Jane.
Dick and Jane? Were there two more normal names in the lower forty-eight? I didn’t think so, and I could only hope their last name was Jones or Smith. I laughed, but it sounded strained and almost hysterical.
Dick and Jane. So normal. Too normal?
I shook my head and popped a frozen pizza in the oven. I couldn’t be sure if I was losing it or not. On the one hand, insanity seemed like the only conclusion; it had been an emotionally and physically exhausting three months. On the other hand…well.
I turned on the television to keep me company while I ate dinner. Something I never do. I suppose subconsciously I just couldn’t handle the silence.
Later, I realized it wasn’t the silence I couldn’t handle, it was the waiting for whatever would come next.
I cleaned up the kitchen and headed to bed. I don’t remember throwing out the basket or the note that came with it, but they weren‘t there in the morning.
I curled up under my covers and was asleep in seconds.
I hadn’t set my alarm; my office was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I ended up sleeping much later than normal, and waking confused and uncertain of where I was. I wandered in to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast and to plan my day with the sun already shining.
I’d just lifted the cup to my lips when they ended up shocking me again. That, I guessed, was the strongest argument against insanity.
It started as a conversation, soft mumble followed by softly mumbled reply, but it didn’t last forty-five seconds, and it didn’t stay softly mumbled. After about a minute, it got louder. It kept getting louder until they were shouting at each other, but even with their voices raised, I couldn’t understand the words or get a handle on which was Dick and which Jane.
The argument lasted maybe five, five and a half minutes and ended with a wet, smacking sound anyone would recognize.
I hurried into the living room to turn on a morning show as the smacking noises moved toward the bedroom. No question about it now, they had to be humans.
I’d be spending Thanksgiving day with a group of friends that couldn’t make it home for the holiday either, and besides making a pie for our get-together, I liked to have the traditional leftovers in my fridge. Today, I would be making my own mini-thanksgiving and storing it like a squirrel.
I didn’t hear Dick or Jane the rest of the day. Not surprising, as I like a little classic rock with my cooking, and I didn’t think about them at all until I was back in my bedroom getting ready to fall asleep.
Staring up at the ceiling, I couldn’t help my wandering brain. If their make-up sex had been anything like their fighting, I wasn’t sure what to make of them. I blushed, but decided next time I’d follow them into the bedroom, for informational purposes only, of course. A person’s sex life says a lot about them.
Something woke me in the middle of the night, but it was either too soft to be recognizable or I hovered in that sleep/awake grey area too long to actually hear it.
Thanksgiving Day was lovely. I spent it laughing with friends and not thinking about Dick and Jane even once. Well, that’s a lie. I thought about them once. My friend’s upstairs neighbors had a child, and I couldn‘t believe the amount of noise it created. I began to fully appreciate my own, somewhat odd, but mostly quiet upstairs neighbors.
Nothing happened that night, that I know of.
Nor the next.
By the weekend, I’d only thought about them a handful of times, and I patted myself on the back for recognizing and dealing with a minor obsession in a healthy, adult manner.
But Sunday night, they fought in their bedroom, as if they knew where I was and that I was listening.
It lasted approximately the exact same length of time as their first fight. It also ended with a wet smacking sound that gradually moved into the living area. Mildly adventurous sex life, good to know.
I briefly considered following them for my information gathering, but it was too warm in my bed, and I was ready to sleep. Besides, it would happen again.
And it did. At least once a day for the next three weeks.
The fight always lasted between five and five and a half minutes, started slowly and ended with a kiss drifting off to some other part of their apartment.
My obsession with who they were morphed into a desperate need to find out what they were fighting about literally once a day without killing each other.
I still hadn’t had a chance to follow them through the apartment and listen in on their (hopefully) kinky sex. They seemed to always time it to where I couldn’t get away from what I happened to be doing. Taking a bath, drifting off to sleep, heading to work. My earlier thought that they were night people seemed to get blown out of the water. They were all-the-time people.
It got to the point that I didn’t even notice it any more. Until I went home for a few days at Christmas.
I had trouble falling asleep. I figured it was the unfamiliarity of my old bedroom, but it wasn’t really unfamiliar. I’d spent eighteen years sleeping there. Approximately 6570 nights. It wasn’t unfamiliar, but the silence was.
My company gave us the full week off until the New Year as a gift for working so hard. I spent most of it with my family, and only returned to my apartment in the city on New Year’s Eve. All of my friends were going to some huge party that I wasn’t interested in, so I could’ve just stayed with my parents for another day, but I was afraid if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep soon, I’d fall over.
The ball had just finished dropping when Dick and Jane started going at it again. I felt my shoulders relax instantly, and I grinned like an idiot at my ceiling. This was what I’d been missing. I laughed at little to myself at the idea that upstairs neighbors fighting and then making up had come to epitomize the idea of ‘home’ to me, but I felt no need to examine my feelings.
In the weeks after the New Year, their fighting/making up cycles seemed to intensify. Both in frequency and in length.
Their fights now came at least twice a day, oftentimes more, and the yelling lasted between eight and ten minutes. And that was only what I was home to hear. The volume also seemed to increase, though I still couldn’t understand a single word.
Dick and Jane’s tension seemed to ratchet up my own, and I found myself only breathing easily when they were fighting or making up.
In early February, I finally caught a word in all their screaming. ‘Love‘. My hyperactive brain took off. One of them must think the other didn’t love them anymore. I thought that was ridiculous and told the ceiling so. I supposed I could’ve been wrong, but usually when someone’s shouting the word ‘love’, their voice is full of hate.
After that fight, it seemed like that’s all they did. I would come home to the distant rumble of their yelling, I would fall asleep and wake up to it. It was my constant breakfast companion and even took showers with me.
On Valentine’s Day, I finally did it. I followed them from room to room, my gift to myself. If I wasn’t having wild and crazy sex, I could at least enjoy another couple’s.
And wild and crazy it was. They must’ve broken half of the junk in their apartment on that one night. I wondered how they could keep it up for so long. It seemed to me that they were taking much longer to resolve their biological urges this time than they ever had before. It seemed to me this last fight must have been about life and death. It seemed to me it was awfully hot in my apartment.
Before the euphemistic death occurred, I left them alone and returned to my sappy romantic comedy like a good little girl. My own voyeurism embarrassed me, but it didn’t stop me from following them around all night, haunting each room and scurrying away just before completion.
I told myself it was just my Valentine’s Day gift, but I was lying. I did it again on February 15th. And again on the 16th. And, well, you get the picture.
From then on, every waking moment in my apartment was spent following them around and listening to them swing from hate to love, fight to make-up, and back again. I stopped bringing work home, I even missed meals, and I was finding it more and more difficult to leave every morning. How many fights did they have while I was cooped up in my cubicle?
I started to hear them even at work. I don’t mean that I actually heard them; just that, like a softly playing radio in my brain, their fighting and making up was the soundtrack to my days.
I believe that a few of my coworkers commented on my appearance around this time, but I didn’t hear them or their obvious worry.
Toward the end of February, something else changed.
Always before, the fighting occurred in whatever room I happened to be in, and the lovemaking moved away from me. But on this February 28th, I sat in my living room waiting for a cycle to begin and almost missed it when it did.
They were fighting in the bedroom.
I didn’t notice at first, my ears were tuned only to the room directly above me. But when their make-up started to move toward me instead of away, something inside of me flipped over, and I hurried into another room.
They kept chasing me throughout the night. Those wet, smacking sounds that were so soothing to me at first now brought goose bumps and shivers.
That’s how it was from then on. Their fight would start in another room so I didn’t notice, and I would spend the next half an hour hurrying from room to room trying to escape the inevitable end.
I don’t know why I was so resistant to hearing either or both of them orgasm. I wasn’t raised with puritanical sensibilities, but every time I thought they were close, I could barely control my own terror.
I missed more meals, and my clothes began to hang loosely on my frame.
I started losing sleep and gaining dark circles. Not because I couldn’t get to sleep but because five minutes into a much needed REM-cycle, I would be awoken by my stalkers and have to drag myself around the apartment until I was sure they were done. And then twenty minutes later it would happen all over again.
I can’t say why I didn’t leave my apartment, stay with a friend, all I can say is I didn’t even think of it. But it was ok; I was able to keep escaping them.
It was April that really killed me. The tension in the atmosphere of half a planet awaiting spring usually sets my teeth on delicious edge. With spring on its way, I usually turn into the very best version of myself that has ever been. But this year, I was already tense enough.
I couldn’t remember the last night I’d had more than an hour of sleep. Total. If you asked me what was the last thing I’d eaten, I would’ve stared at you with my mouth hanging open. And work…? I have absolutely no idea how I didn’t get fired. I didn’t remember completing a single task, and I’m pretty sure I was caught napping at my desk several times.
Friday, April 20th was when it all happened. In retrospect, I know I should’ve seen it coming. But in my defense, I wasn’t seeing much of anything then.
I got called into my boss’s office at 4:45 pm that Friday. I didn’t lose my job, lucky bitch that I am, but I did leave my boss’s office in tears. ‘Disappointed in you’ has always been the harshest criticism in my book.
I don’t remember how I got home; train, cab, feet, I don’t know. It was completely dark by the time I unlocked my door, though, so I must’ve taken a detour somewhere. Maybe to a bar? If people could still smoke in bars, I would’ve known for sure.
I was exhausted. I decided on a bath.
The scalding water seemed to simultaneously wake me up and completely drain the last of my reserves. My brain started speaking to me in some sort of chipmunk pig Latin, while my body spasmed out its fear of relaxation. They both finally settled into a happy medium. Or, more accurately, a limbo.
I sat and listened to the drip from the tap for what could’ve been hours. My eyelids got heavy, but I didn’t notice.
I like to think I fell asleep. I like to think that’s the only way they could’ve snuck up on me. I like to think it wasn’t some sick yearning that allowed it to happen. But I can’t be sure.
My eyes popped open when I heard their thick and heavy breaths and I recognized the moment instantly. I had about 30 seconds to escape the bathroom.
I stood, had time to congratulate myself on keeping it together, and then the rush of blood to my head had me reeling. I managed to get one foot out of the tub before I wobbled. I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood and breathed slowly while I dripped everywhere. My vision cleared just long enough for me to pull my other leg out of the tub and set it down right in the middle of the puddle I’d made.
For just an instant, everything was all right. I still had about 15 seconds to flee, and until I put my full weight on my foot, I was almost positive I was going to make it.
But of course, I didn’t. That’s not how these things work out, is it?
My weight shifted. Then it shifted more, and one leg was going out from under me, while the other was about to be trapped under me.
I know that my fall took 2 seconds, tops, but that’s not what it felt like. I listened to Dick and Jane the entire time my head was on a collision course with the side of the tub, and I could swear they got more excited the closer I got to a concussion.
I felt the hit, a sort of dull, echoing thud and everything went black.
My eyes fluttered open to a distressing amount of sunlight and aches everywhere. Someone was banging on my front door and yelling my name. I stood slowly and the banging continued. I leaned on my walls as I wandered to the front door. I had to stop several times when my vision went funny, it took me about 5 minutes to unchain and open the door.
“Ms. Washburn? I’m — oh my god.”
I didn’t even glance down at myself; I’d forgotten I was naked. “I’m…sorry. I’ll go put on some clothes. Please — ”
“Ms. Washburn…what happened to you?”
“I’m. Sorry?” I took a step back and almost fell again. The man at my door leaned his head into his shoulder and mumbled a string of numbers and some words I couldn’t understand. After I blinked a few hundred times I realized he was a cop. I was standing naked in my doorway with one of the city’s finest in front of me.
He finished his chatter and stepped into my apartment, hands going instantly to my shoulders.
“There’s an ambulance on the way, Ms. Washburn. Can you stay with me? Can you tell me who did this to you?” He pushed me down to my couch.
“Who — ? Who are you?”
“I apologize ma‘am. My name is Officer Shepard. Your work called, they were worried about you. I was sent to see if you were all right. Are you all right?”
I was trying to focus on his eyes, but it just wasn’t happening.
“Yes, your, uh…” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and came up with a tiny notebook. “Your boss, a Mr. — ”
“Why did work call you?”
He was quiet for a moment, and I heard my breaths, too quick and shallow.
“Ms. Washburn, do you know what day it is?”
I was shaking my head, not to say ‘no’, I knew it was Saturday, I guess I was trying to shake some sense into myself. It didn’t help, my breathing just got faster and less rewarding.
I glanced down at my hands sitting in my still-naked lap and I realized why the blood had drained from his face. I managed a weak, “Oh my god,” of my own before I thankfully passed out again.
I came to for a brief moment in the ambulance, but once I realized it was real and not a nightmare, I allowed myself to pass out again.
It took two weeks in the hospital for me to convince them that I was neither a danger to myself, nor was I insane. My emergency room doctor was a great help, pointing out that most of my injuries could not have been self-inflicted, which of course led to more personal questions, but at least got them to stop looking at me like I might go off at any moment.
In the end, I was told I had 694 bite marks on my body. None of them broke the surface, but they were hard enough to leave impressions in my skin and bruises underneath it. The police tried to take casts of them, but to my knowledge never got anywhere with them.
The rest of my injuries were congruent with falling and hitting my head on the side of my bathtub. What nobody could answer for me was why I’d been passed out on my bathroom floor for five whole days. They ran a tox-screen, sent me for an MRI, more tests with more letters, but they still couldn’t figure it out.
I decided it really didn’t matter.
Officer Shepard came to visit me several times, asking the same questions in subtly different ways. Who did you last see before you hurt yourself, what did you last hear? I didn’t tell him anything.
When they finally released me, with as clean a bill of health as they could, I found myself strangely excited to be back home.
Mr. Martin had been waiting for me. He rushed out to tell me the news, but not before asking how I was feeling, sweet man.
Turns out 3B moved while I was gone. What a surprise.
I don’t know what I expected as I walked up the stairs to my apartment, but it sure as hell wasn’t a vaguely familiar basket with a dozen roses sitting outside my door.
I carted it inside with me and set it on the counter before pulling out the slightly rumpled card and reading it.
Thank you for your kindness. Dick and Jane.
Copyright © 2011 by erin lee damron