The January Featured Writer is Serena Johe
Please feel free to email Serena at email@example.com
My apartment is a ramshackle, two bedroom thirty miles from the nearest city. The walls in the living room are a peculiar olive color, the bathroom a sky blue, the kitchen shelving a mishmash of woods ranging from bone white to sepia. It used to be that everything here was tinged in beige and tan, but I think my parents disliked the uniformity of it when we moved in. I imagine they were jaded and trying to pretend this borrowed space was their own.
When I was a kid, they used to say we’d moved here because the air in the city was too stagnant to raise children. I was born in a hospital just west of New York City and taken home to a two-story house in the suburbs. They described the air in New York as stifling, the smog and humidity as unbearable, the people conniving and wicked. The country, they said, had much more character to it, and their choice to move had nothing to do with my father’s discharge from the military and his subsequent unemployment.
I’m not bitter about it. I’ve never known anything else. My first memories are of this place: my mother slicing onions and slabs of cold meat on our big wooden cutting board, my father sipping Bud Lights in the hot afternoon sun, and me lying flat in the dirt behind the building, blanketed by stars. Once in a while, before he hurt his back, dad would drive us down the highway and park his truck in the shoulder, lead me off into the badly manicured grass and the thin forests to teach me survival tricks and how to climb trees.
I can’t find it in me to be angry at my parents’ choice to move here, though I did tell them.
I told them many times about the sounds: the trumpeting, the thick noise of confusion, and even the shrieks of panic.
They left when they finally understood it. They left because they knew I would stay behind, that I would keep the racket where it belongs, above.
I accepted that responsibility, but it wasn’t a choice.
You see, the thing upstairs has no regard for a proper time or place. It moves in padded thuds, floorboards whining with each step, ragged whispers at all hours of the day. If you strain your ears, press your head into the walls or the mirrors hard—so much that you can feel the insides of your skull compressing tight-wound and sharp like the high wine of perfect quiet—you might hear its stilted breath beyond the plastered ceiling.
It has two feet, sometimes four. Mostly two, though it moves in triplets. It travels like a pendulum, in constant purposeless motion, its strides long and heavy like a straight-legged march. Once in a while it will pause and quickly skitter, vaulting itself into a frenzied three-count of staggered steps. But it never moves when you’re asleep. Not like the way you might think a monster would do, to frighten you from half wakefulness and leave you pitching and paranoid in the darkness.
Six months ago, Adam knocked on my door to complain about the sound. He didn’t know about the monster, and I wasn’t sure that I should tell him.
“You doing jumping jacks up here or something?” He asked in good humor. He’s quiet, easygoing, and never appears irritated. He might take the news well, I thought, but Adam is naïve in some ways, particularly so to the habits of the thing that lives above. I knew I shouldn’t tell him.
“Sorry about that,” I said, trying to shoo him away before the monster came back.
He chatted with me about his workout routine and local news. At last he left, and before he could even hit the bottom step the sounds returned, this time jumbling and clumsy through the debris of the space above, a sinkhole of refuse, but he didn’t ask again for at least a week.
When I was eight, I found a dead lizard in the doorjamb of my parents’ closet.
I had gone to fetch the power drill. My father wanted to install new blinds, he said, because my mother simply couldn’t stand the white on white on white of the dining room wall and the curtains and the carpet. I’m not sure why I thought to look, like some sixth sense, but the lizard was there, its neck ripped along with its tail in three uneven parts.
What I knew was not the story I told at first. I brought the lizard to my mother, who wrinkled her nose in disgust and thanked me for ridding the house of this pest.
I didn’t argue with her, but I had been listening, and she had not. I listened during the day while my mother was working and my father sat on the balcony, when the sun was high and the Thing scampered like a playful child. I knew it liked to move things. I knew it liked to push and yank and shove and generally make a mess. I knew it had killed the lizard, but I didn’t know what it looked like, and a thing you’ve never seen is hard to explain.
But sounds are telling. Feet, hands, when it slept and woke, when it raged—I knew them all by ear. I understood it like a part of me, and I grew confident in a way that only a child could, believing in her interpretation, in her five senses and the way things appear before her.
I told my parents, and I told them again, and they did not believe me, not even after I showed them the scratches on the wooden floor of their closet or the decaying mouse shoved into the metal piping under the kitchen sink.
I told them over and over, but they didn’t listen—not my mother, not my father, not the psychiatrist they decided I needed to mediate my understanding of the world around me, and certainly not the thing above.
The thing upstairs never listens, but eventually, my parents learned at least to accept it, if not to listen.
I understood that I had to get them to listen to it, not because it speaks a language interpretable by syllables and pieces of meaning strung together into something cohesive, but because sounds are universal.
You hear a dog growl and you know it’s angry. You hear it bark and you know it’s excited, and you hear it scratch at the floor and know it’s anxious. The same with the thing upstairs.
At thirteen, I knew that I couldn’t leave. I understood with a firmness of being that the thing upstairs had grown attached to me, that I had made the mistake of listening. Hearing it is it hearing you. Listening is a promise. Leaving would be letting it go, letting it out, and my parents grew to understand that too.
So they kept me inside.
I told Adam about my childhood, in parts and pieces. He wandered up here sometimes in the very early morning when he couldn’t sleep, back when he’d first moved in three months ago. We stood not too far from the door, leaning against the railing, and exchanged stories and traumas, though not whole ones. He’s a good listener, in some ways.
I imagine that it’s only a matter of time before its pacing wears through the carpet, but it’s boxed, and re-boxed, inside and out. I think it moves to the metronome of heavy weight, of gravity, because the matter inside it is so dense. Its limbs revolve around the iron in its head.
Part of me wants to tell him, and if I’m honest with myself, the thought is electrifying. Maybe if I talked about it, it would disappear, diffusing from the walls in thick fingers of smoke. I could tell him, and then he would know. I’d been living with this thing so long that I wanted to spread the secret into him, but I still wasn’t sure. I didn’t know if I should yet.
I wanted to though, more and more as days went by. I wanted to explain to him that real horror is unpredictable. It doesn’t jump at you from the bushes, not usually. It slides and tangles itself in your arteries. It creeps and lags and halts and jitters— it roots itself so deep in you that you don’t know it’s there until you’re a part of it, and you can’t talk about it. Saying it out loud demeans it, gives you time to justify it, to list off the faulty air conditioner and the lack of sleep, and I hated to use the word. “Monster” is a discredit to your trustworthiness, to your sanity. So I waited.
In the meantime, I endured it as I always had: in quiet asphyxiation. The grinding of its teeth lasted so long sometimes that it began to morph into another noise entirely, like a scratching record or the hum of a fan. It was the steps that got Adam, though. Sometimes they’d reverberate through the air vents, quaking the walls.
Two weeks later he knocked on my door again. His statements were more forceful that time, but he left again without an accusation.
I think the thing above has always been there; upstairs, wandering in confinement but confused by it like a man chasing a mirage.
When my parents finally accepted it, when they stopped allowing me to stray very far from the apartment, the Thing and I grew accustomed to each other. I wouldn’t say “used to,” because that implies some kind of complicity, a sort of habitual ignorance. I never got used to it, to its noises and impulses, but I grew to expect them.
My only wish at the time was that I could name it, describe it…show it off. I wish I could have given it pointed teeth and serrated claws, imagined its drooling muzzle, but it lived upstairs and I would never, never go there. And it would not come down here, not then, at least.
That’s why my parents left. I’m not angry at them for it, not angry for the presumptions they made, and not angry at the responsibility they left me, guarding it here. Nobody else could do it but me. Nobody else had listened—not yet, and not really.
The third time he came to my door, I knew he’d had enough. I invited Adam inside, and he skirted his way around the piles of books in the hallway and the dirty pans edging out from the kitchen and into the living room. He didn’t mention the mess.
We made it as far as far as the dining room, as far as me boiling water and offering him tea before he finally spilled it. Adam really is a laid back guy.
“Hey, um,” he lifted and dropped the tea bag several times, losing his nerves and regaining them with each movement, “I don’t mean to be an ass about it,” he said.
“You’re not an ass,” I said, and meant it.
He smiled into his mug, the only clean one in the house. “I just—I work night shifts, you know? And I can’t help but hear….”
My nerves shuddered preemptively. Nobody had been here to listen to it for many years.
“What do you hear?” I asked.
He tried to catch my eye, tried to be stern. “You,” he said. “It sounds like you’re doing construction work up here, and I mean, I understand—you know—having a routine, doing what you need to do, but, um, it’s keeping me awake, and…”
He lost his nerve again. Mine grew. I slid my shaking hands underneath my legs.
“It’s not me,” I told him before I could stop myself.
A wave of confusion and false realization came over him one after the other. He grew noticeably uncomfortable.
“Oh. You have a boyfriend? I mean—I’m not—I’m sorry, I mean, if you guys are making noise, I don’t want to interrupt, but, you know, I have to sleep during the day.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
He sipped his tea to hide his sudden disorientation. “You have a friend or something? Making all that noise?”
“No.” I said. “I don’t.”
I didn’t offer another explanation. I couldn’t. I waited instead until he grew uncomfortable, until he gulped his tea down politely and made an excuse, gave an apology and left.
Reality the way I understand it takes a kind of finessed construction. I have to be patient, but I had been patient for six years, and I knew from experience that you can only internalize so much of the stress from the monster upstairs, and that like my parents, I would crack eventually. But I had to wait. I had to convince him like you have to convince anyone of something they can’t see in front of them.
But he could hear it, and he had listened, and that was more than halfway there.
My hands were shaking when I took his cup to the sink.
I only saw the psychiatrist for six weeks. I was nine-years-old, but suspicious enough as I’d learned to be, taking hints from pitches and vibrations that sounds take when they’re unsteady, I understood a lie when I heard one. Dr. Carter would tell my parents everything I said, despite his promises, and I took hope in that. Maybe he could convince them where I had failed.
But it’s like I said, it’s like I always said. Nobody but children believe in things they can’t see. Not unless they listen, and “monster” may be a discredit to your sanity when you’re older, but when you’re a child, “monster” is a discredit to your character. Monsters are boogeymen and euphemisms for fear, for lack of discipline, for attention.
But what other word do children have?
The thing upstairs ran in abundance. It knocked the beams askew and it knocked its head into the walls and it gnashed its teeth against my ear drums and it banged and bumped and busted itself against the floor, constant and unyielding.
I had to share the burden. I needed somebody to listen to it too, to hear it and say that it was real, to speak it out loud somehow without knowing its name or its shape and depressurize the seething space of where it lived upstairs.
I don’t know why I felt so sure that would work to finally rid myself of the maddening noise, and it didn’t matter, and it still doesn’t. Nobody would hear it, not me, not the thing upstairs, and especially not without all the money in the world that it took, it felt like, to borrow the ears of a stranger.
I think I’ve been fooling myself. I think I’ve lied to you. I think my parents left not because they finally listened, not because they accepted the clank clank clanking of it, and not because they understood, but because they got tired of trying.
Knock step knock, pause, step step step.
Growl, step, step step, hiss, step, step, step, onomatopoeia, onomatopoeia…
Really, what else is new?
It’s about time, I think.
I haven’t seen my parents in six years.
Adam has been a good neighbor and a good friend.
I think saying it will burst me in the process. I think I will get caught in the backlash of the splintering ceiling, in the rain of its bowels, and maybe in the splash of it, I’ll finally see what it looks like.
It’s a risky thing, though. The same way you dismantle a monster and expose it is the same way you dismantle yourself. It’s up to whoever hears to decide what it is that you’re saying.
Are you a loon? Have you lost your mind?
That depends, how hard are you listening?
This time when Adam knocks on the door I pull on my boots and coat. It’s not cold enough to need one, but it’s windy enough in the early evening that I can get away with wearing it. Before he can withdraw his fist I open the door, startled.
He looks equally as surprised. He takes in my outfit and leans sideways, trying to peek inside the door.
“Hey,” he half smiles. “Are you on your way out?”
“No, I actually just got home five minutes ago. Is something wrong?”
Is there? Adam looks unnerved for the first time since I’ve met him, but I’ve mentioned horror. It’s a leech, a test of tolerance. That’s how it works.
“I heard those noises again,” he finally says.
I open the door wider, looking bewildered, and gesture him inside.
“I haven’t heard anything since I’ve been home.”
“Yeah, I mean, it stopped like ten minutes ago, but, I—do you have a pet or something?”
“No.” I pull off my boots and hang my dusty coat back in the closet.
“No friends over?”
“I told you, I don’t really have anyone here very often.”
Adam doesn’t look like he believes me, but he’s too polite to say so. Instead he asks for coffee and I oblige him.
He calls to me as I put the kettle on the stove. “How long have you lived here?”
I answer honestly. “My whole life.”
“Mhmm. I thought I’d told you that.”
“I don’t think so,” Adam crosses and uncrosses his legs. “You told me a little about your parents. They moved out, right?”
“And you stayed?”
“That’s sort of in reverse,” he chuckles. “Why’d you stay?”
“I had to. And sorry, by the way, I’m making you tea. I don’t have coffee.”
“You don’t drink it?”
“No. It keeps me awake.”
“Oh, wow. I think I’d collapse without it.”
“I need to sleep,” I explain preemptively, too fast. I can’t help it. “The noises stop at night.”
Adam pauses with the tea halfway to his mouth. I think he’d been expecting me to brush it off again.
“The noises,” he acknowledges. “Yeah. I don’t hear them as often when I’m leaving for work.”
“They don’t happen at night.”
“What do you think they are?”
Adam doesn’t look me in the eye. He’s stroking the back of his hand against his knee, a nervous habit, I think. I keep mine unmoving at my sides.
I can still remember the firm grip of my father’s last handshake, the worried look on my mother’s face when she hugged me goodbye. They were afraid for me, but they still left.
I can feel the walls above quaking in anticipation.
“What does it sound like to you?” I ask.
Adam clears his throat. “Someone jumping, I guess. Or walking around, banging on things. I’m not sure.”
“Like something is walking, then running.”
“There’s scraping against the wall sometimes.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard that.”
“It growls, too.”
Adam catches the words. He’s listening for now. “It?”
“Yes,” I say again. “It.”
“I thought you said you didn’t have any pets.”
“Then what are you saying?”
Confusion makes people angry. It’s the voice of desperation, I think, from somewhere inside, and it’s a normal part of learning fear.
“Something lives here, in this building,” I explain. My fingers tremble. “That’s why it’s so loud.”
“What are you saying?”
He would know if he’d been listening.
“Look!” I stand. I walk to the living room wall. I thump my fist into it, one, two, three then my head, one, two, three, and back again. “Does that sound familiar?”
Adam clenches the handle of the mug, his eyes narrowing then widening. He puts the cup down and braces his hands on his knees.
“Hey,” he says, “cut it out.”
“Is that the noise?” I press.
“I mean, yes, but…”
There’s only one knife in the house. I haven’t cooked in years, and I hold it up so he can see, and I scrape it against the cheap paint, and then again, and then again. It screeches and slides. Adam covers his ears.
“Is this what you’re hearing?”
He gets up, but he doesn’t move from his place by the couch. “Yes! All right? Yes!”
“So you’re listening?”
“Good!” I snap. I can’t help it. “Now maybe you’ll believe me when I tell you.”
“Tell me?” Adam sounds disoriented and distraught. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one. “Tell me about what?”
“Not what, It. There’s something that lives here.”
“Where? Where does it live?”
“There is no upstairs!” He shouts at me, his face red and turning redder. “You live on the top floor!”
He’s not listening.
“Adam, you’ve heard it.”
“But it’s impossible. There’s nothing above us.”
“It is above!” I yell, half from frustration and half from excitement. “I just showed you. You’ve heard the sounds.”
“But you made them!”
“You’re not listening,” I jab my finger in his direction. “Do you remember what I told you? What I said about my parents?”
“I do.” Adam begins to wander from his place by the couch.
“I told them about it, you know, but they didn’t listen either.”
“I am listening—”
“They didn’t listen!” I interrupt him. “I kept telling them. I kept telling them where it came from, what was happening, but they didn’t believe me.”
“Because it’s impossible!”
“You’re not listening!” I shriek.
“I am! I’m telling you, there is nothing upstairs. You live on the top floor!”
I quiet myself. I quiet my indignation. Suddenly I’m very tired.
“I know that,” I say.
“Then what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense!”
Adam has strayed far enough from the couch, edging towards the door. He’s in the hallway now.
I rub a hand against the bruise on my forehead. I’m not sure it’s ever healed. “That’s because. You’re. Not. Listening.”
“I’ve told you a dozen times that I am listening!”
The knife’s entry is labored when I push it between his ribs, straining against layers of disbelief and unwillingness.
I watch the liquids spread about his shirt. His hands reach to grip around mine, the muscles in his forearms flexing and relaxing in throes and fits. The noises start again. It murmurs and grumbles discontentedly, humming and crowing, grunting and moaning. In a gap between sounds, though not from guilt, I remind him.
“I warned you,” I say. “I needed to get your attention. I couldn’t let you just walk out on me like my parents did.”
I can see that he’s finally listening, that at last he’s heard what I’m saying.
Adam crumples around his wound and I drop the knife.
Serena Johe is a recent graduate of University of Maryland. She has been writing in one format or another for most of her life but has only recently begun the process of turning her lifelong hobby into a career.
With social issues as her biggest motivator, she tends to read and write stories that question social norms. She appreciates magical realism, horror, and other types of speculative fiction as unique platforms from which to convey those messages.