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Authors: Tim Waggoner

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BOOK: The Men Upstairs
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“We’ll try to keep the noise down for you,” he says.

I frown, not understanding. He hooks a thumb over his shoulder by way of explanation. I still don’t get it until I see that he’s angled his thumb to point toward the apartment over mine.

“We’re moving in above you.”

* * *

When I get inside, I can’t find Liana. I fear that she was so ashamed about what happened last night that she decided to leave while I was away. The thought fills me with sorrow, and more than a bit of panic. She’s only been in my life a short time, and we haven’t grown especially close. How could we, since she hasn’t really opened up to me? Still, I’ve gotten used to her being around. More, in some indefinable way, I’ve come to need her, and the thought of living without her makes me sick.

I call her name several times—each louder and more desperate than the last—but she doesn’t reply. I conduct a quick search. My apartment is small and it doesn’t take long.

I find her in the bedroom closet. It’s a walk-in, and I don’t have a lot of stuff to store, so there’s plenty of room in there. She’s sitting on the floor, knees drawn to her chest, arms wrapped around them, just like she was when I first saw her. She’s not crying this time, though. She’s trembling.

I’m about to ask her what’s wrong, when I hear the sound of heavy footsteps overhead, floorboards creaking beneath the weight.

Not long after Pam and I got married, we got a cat we named Monty. He was usually laidback, but whenever anyone came to the door, he’d scurry off to the bathroom, paw open one of the cabinet doors beneath the sink, slip inside, and hide until whoever it was had gone away. Old Monty died a number of years ago, but seeing Liana hiding like this brings his memory back full force.

The closet light is off, so I turn it on. Liana winces at the sudden illumination, but she doesn’t close her eyes. She doesn’t look at me, either.

“Are you all right?”

I know it’s a stupid thing to ask. People don’t hide in a closet and sit shaking in the dark if they’re all right. But sometimes you just have to say the stupid things, because that’s all there is to say.

When she doesn’t answer, I say, “It’s just some guys moving in upstairs. One of them told me it’s only temporary, that they’re in town to do some work and they’ll move out when they’re finished.”

I hope this will reassure her, but she keeps staring straight ahead and trembling.

Not knowing what else to do, I enter the closet, sit down next to her, and put my arms around her. I rock her gently, as if she’s a child. She leans into me and after a while her trembling lessens, though it doesn’t go away entirely.

The whole time we sit there, the thump-thump of work boots continues above us. They’re so damned loud up there, it’s like they’ve moving in a ton of stuff, but all they have is their white van—not a moving truck full of furniture and boxed-up possessions. Part of me wonders if they’re not really bringing in anything, just stomping around and around above us simply to make noise.

Liana says something then, so softly I can barely make it out, especially over the thump-thump-thumping. But I can guess what she says.

“They’ve found me.”

* * *

It takes me fifteen minutes to coax Liana out of the closet, and while she remains out, she’s nervous, casting glances up at the ceiling and wincing whenever a foot-stomp is particularly loud.

Liana tells me she doesn’t have any appetite, but I make dinner anyway. A simple stir fry with rice noodles and curry sauce. I do my best to ignore the stomping while I cook, and Liana stays in the kitchen to be near me, leaning against a counter, arms crossed defensively in front of her chest. She glances up at the ceiling from time to time, but doesn’t comment.

I’m plating the food when a thunderous noise erupts upstairs. It sounds like a dozen men pounding sledgehammers against the walls while another dozen fire up chainsaws. It’s so loud that I can feel the vibrations in the floor beneath my feet, and the dishes in the sink rattle against each other.

I say, “What the
fuck?
” but I can’t hear my own words. Liana claps her hands over her ears and grimaces, as if the sound hurts her.

I go over to her and take hold of her shoulders, as if somehow this will allow her to hear me better. I lean close to her face and exaggerate my mouth movements so she can make out what I say—I hope.

“Wait here! I’m going to go upstairs and tell them to knock it the hell off!”

I have no idea if she understands me, but she nods, and I leave her in the kitchen and head for the front door. I unlock it and step out into the hall. The sound is so much louder out here that it feels like a solid wall of vibration trying to push me back into my apartment. I lean into the sound as if preparing to forge my way though high wind. I pull the door shut behind me to block the worst of the sound for Liana, and then I walk past the row of mailboxes set into the wall to the carpeted stairs that lead to the unit’s upper level. I grip the thin metal handrail as I go up, and it virtually hums against my flesh. My anger builds with each step I take, and although I’m normally not a confrontational person, definitely more of a beta male than an alpha, right now I’m ready to beat the holy living shit out of whichever Son of Babel is unlucky enough to answer the door.

I reach the second floor and turn toward their door—Apartment C—and I make a fist and pound hard several times. No way a simple knock is going to do the job. Besides, it feels satisfying to hit their door as hard as I can. So much so, in fact, that I do it again, even harder this time, striking until my hand hurts.

This close, the sound from the apartment makes my teeth vibrate down to their roots, and it feels like burning-hot knitting needles are being plunged into my ears. I grit my teeth against the pain and keep pounding on the door.

I wonder what Pam would think if she could see me like this. Boldly confrontational, ready to kick some serious ass. Would she be impressed by my testosterone-fueled rage, or would she think that I’d finally lost it? I decide I don’t give a flying fuck what she would think, and I pound on the door one last time, shouting for them to open up, though I doubt anyone can hear me.

The noise cuts off then, so abruptly that the resultant silence hits me almost like a solid blow. Nothing happens for a moment, but the door opens a crack, and the shaved-head, tattooed kid peers out at me through the narrow opening.

“Yes?”

I find the question so ridiculous, that for a moment I can’t answer. How can he not know why I’m here?

But now that he’s here, looking at me, my beta nature reasserts itself. I smile and try not to sound pissed off when I speak.

“Could you guys please keep it down? The…” I have idea what to call the noise, so I say “
music
was so loud, it made my apartment shake.”

A strange odor drifts out of the apartment. It’s a musty, metallic smell, one I can’t immediately place, but then it hits me. It’s like the stink of a zoo’s reptile house.

Metal-Face doesn’t open the door any wider as he replies, “Sorry. I’ll tell him.” He gazes at me with eyes that might as well be made of glass for all the emotion they convey.

He starts to close the door, and I get the sense that’s he’s trying to keep me from seeing inside. I crane my neck to get a better view of the apartment through the slowly closing crack, and all I see is nothing. What I mean is that I see walls and carpet, but nothing else. I don’t see any furniture—no chairs, no couch, no coffee table, no TV—and no cardboard boxes stacked and waiting to be unpacked. From my admittedly limited vantage point, the apartment appears just as empty as it was before the men arrived.

The door closes then, and I expect to hear the sound of the lock engaging, but I don’t. I listen for the sound of the kid’s boots as he walks away from the door, but I hear nothing. I imagine the kid standing behind the closed door, one eye at the Judas hole, watching to see what I’ll do next.

The “music” doesn’t come back on, so after a moment I turn and go back down the stairs. I should feel a sense of victory. I confronted one of my strange new neighbors and got him to stop that maddening noise. But somehow it feels as if I just lost whatever small battle we fought, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.

* * *

Liana and I are sitting at the table eating. Well, I’m eating. She’s just moving food from one side of her plate to the other, when there’s a knock on the glass of the patio door.

When I moved in, I put the table in front of the patio door because I like to look out the window while I eat. Not that there’s much to see, but at least I get to look at a bit of sky. I’m sitting facing the patio, while Liana sits opposite me, her back to the door. So she doesn’t see one of our neighbors standing behind the glass, grinning as he looks in on us. It’s one of the new neighbors, the skinny middle-aged one with the bushy black mustache. He sees me looking at him, grins wider, and motions for me to come to the door.

Liana doesn’t turn around, but her shoulders stiffen, and a wild look of panic comes into her eyes, like an animal that’s suddenly found itself cornered. She stands and walks, trembling, into the kitchen. She doesn’t look at me, and she doesn’t look back at our visitor. I expect the man’s eyes to track Liana as she leaves the room, but his gaze remains fixed on me the entire time. He motions again, and I stand, walk over to the patio door, unlock it, and slide it open.

The man steps back several feet, a clear invitation for me to come outside and join him on the patio. I’d rather stay inside and talk to him through the open door. It would feel safer, even though I know that safety would be illusory. But I step out anyway, although I close the door behind me to protect Liana.

Before I can say anything, the man thrusts his hand toward me with exaggerated enthusiasm. The motion’s awkward and unnatural, as if shaking hands is something he’s only heard about but never witnessed. I don’t want to touch this man’s flesh, but I do, and for some reason I’m not surprised to discover his grip is as soft and moist as Gray-Hair’s was earlier. He pumps my hand once and then releases it, his gaze never leaving mine.

“I want to apologize,” Mr. Mustache says. “For the sound.”

His voice is higher-pitched than I expect, his words slightly slurred. His breath reeks of alcohol, and the stink of it nearly brings tears to my eyes.

“I don’t want to be a bad neighbor,” he adds. “You know?”

Unsure how to reply, I settle for nodding.

He goes on. “It’s just that I lost something recently. Something important to me and my Spindlekin. In fact, you can say that it was stolen from us.” His tone takes on a sharper edge, but I hardly notice. I’m fixated on that strange word he used.

“Spindlekin?” I ask.

He frowns, as if trying to come up with a way to explain.

“Brothers,” he says. He nods once, satisfied with his answer. Then he continues. “Have you ever had anything so precious to you that when you lose it, it’s like losing a part of yourself? It hurts
so bad
, you know?”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I don’t want to prolong this strange conversation any longer than I have to, so I say, “Sure.”

“So I turned up the sound, tried to get some of those feelings out. Guess I got carried away, though.” He grins and shakes his head, as if he can’t believe he was so foolish.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Really.”

“Good. Have a night.” Then he turns, leaves my patio, and heads up the wooden stairs that lead to the small balcony outside the upstairs apartment.
His
apartment—his and his
Spindlekin’s
.

Once I’m back inside, the patio door locked and the blinds closed, I go in search in Liana. She’s not in the kitchen anymore—not unless she’s somehow managed to squeeze herself into one of the cupboards. I quickly check the rest of the apartment, even the bedroom closet, but I can’t find her. A cold fluttery feeling takes up residence in my chest, and I think the other two men came for her while the third had me distracted outside. I recognize how absurd the thought is. I have no reason to believe our new neighbors are connected to Liana in any way—except that they possess wide-set eyes similar to hers, and they also have a strange manner to them. But then again, Liana
has
been on edge since they arrived.

It’s just that I lost something recently. Something important to me and my Spindlekin. In fact, you could say it was stolen from us.

The fluttering blossoms into full-fledged panic, and I race out of the bedroom, down the hall, to the front door. It’s not locked. I know I locked it when I got home. I
always
lock it.

I open the door, run into the hallway, and I’m about to head up the stairs to the second floor when I catch a glimpse of Liana through the windowpanes set into the building’s main door. She’s standing outside. And she’s not alone. Gray-Hair is with her.

I walk up to the door, but not too close. I don’t want them to see me. Why I feel this sudden need for secrecy when only a moment before I was fearful for Liana’s safety, I’m not sure. Instinct, I guess. There’s something about Liana’s body language—a strength and confidence—that tells me that not only isn’t she afraid, she’s in charge of the situation. Or at least is pretending to be.

BOOK: The Men Upstairs
2.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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