The Man Upstairs
By Hailey Piper
Annette was never the same after she and her mother moved across town. Same school, same friends, but when she and Erin used to lock eyes across the junior high cafeteria, both of them couldn’t help but smile. About a week after the move, Erin didn’t see the smile in return.
That smile had survived a hellish summer in her family, disappearances and breakdowns, moving and neglect. Through it all, Erin was there and so was Annette’s smile. And now the smile was gone.
Erin didn’t want to ask. Annette would open up, given time. On Friday, Erin noticed the bruising, a set of brown-purple stripes that ran along Annette’s upper left arm.
She couldn’t wait any longer. “What happened to you?”
Annette’s eyes became glassy. She had left the lunchroom, though her body still sat at the table beside Erin.
“You can tell me.”
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
Erin swore she wouldn’t.
Annette’s dampening eyes returned to something like themselves. “When’s the last time we had a sleepover?”
It was only a couple weeks ago, Erin knew. They had been sleeping over at each other’s houses since they were six and lived on the same street, kept each other’s clothes in their closets, each other’s toys, spare toothbrushes. Annette had spent half the summer at Erin’s house to give her mother a break and because Erin’s parents could afford another mouth to feed short-term.
That wasn’t what Annette meant. She was just tired. She meant, when was the last time Erin slept over? Not for a long while.
“I’ll ride over,” Erin said. “You’ll tell me what happened to you?”
“I’ll show you.”
When school let out, they rode their bikes to Annette’s new house. The town was bright today. They passed the library and the park, both bubbling with people. Even with autumn getting on, there was warmth to the air and Erin couldn’t help smiling. Annette rode apart from it. She was a piece of one photograph that had been clumsily cut out and pasted onto another.
Her father left this past May. That was the start of it. Erin hadn’t known what to say, but she was there for Annette and that seemed enough. Then Annette’s mother couldn’t afford to keep the house in their neighborhood. Selling it was more than enough to buy a place at the edge of town that, according to Annette, no one wanted, a grandiose fixer-upper.
Not much fixing or upping had been done to the outside yet. It was an ugly house, worn in the way of a broken down car left in the sun for years. Three floors, six bedrooms, and no love. A house that, despite its scale, beckoned only the desperate.
The nearest neighbors sat behind tracks of grass and dilapidated wooden fences to distance themselves from Annette’s house. Conifers and dense, red-leafed maple trees hid the horizon beyond. This was where the town gave way to the wilderness.
Erin and Annette left their bikes where the lawn met the end of the gravel driveway. No car, no mother’s permission to ask yet, but Erin wouldn’t be turned away. Inside, cardboard boxes were piled at the edges of the hardwood floor, most of them still taped shut, but the walls had been freshly painted a salmon pink, and pictures and posters decorated the living room.
“Don’t open the doors with blue tape,” Annette said. “We haven’t cleaned those and Mom will get embarrassed.”
“Does she know about the bruises?”
“I’m not dumb.” Annette showed off her discolored arm. “What’s happened to me? It might happen to you. Sure you want to stay?”
Erin wasn’t going anywhere. They had dinner with Annette’s mother, Marcy Pierce, and then went up to Annette’s room, on the second floor to the immediate right of the stairs. The rest of the second floor hallway curled around the shape of the house, past one bedroom after another, and at the other end of its horseshoe shape climbed the steps to the attic.
They watched a movie, listened to music, anything to pass the time. Annette grew fidgety after sunset. She looked to be listening for something and then dismissing whatever she thought she heard. After brushing teeth and getting into pajamas, they slid the second mattress out from beneath Annette’s bed, where Erin always slept at Annette’s old house. She could’ve had her own bedroom here, there were so many, but her place was at Annette’s side.
They turned out the light. Annette slept with only her pillow. Erin buried herself in a thick cotton blanket. They used to whisper in the dark during sleepovers, making stupid noises or telling dumb jokes, but tonight there was only silence and waiting. Erin wished she knew what to expect. Annette seemed too anxious to tell. Erin worried they would fall asleep before anything happened.
The footsteps began faint, even distant. Erin heard them in the attic, against the ceiling. They were easy to dismiss at first. Annette’s mother was home and the house was settling. They went on, one step at a time, and the attic’s floorboards creaked with each one, a slow, gentle moan. The steps paused where the second floor hall curled toward the attic’s stairway.
Then came the squeal of hinges long rusted. Whoever opened the attic door did so an inch at a time, as if they thought that would make the hinges quieter. When their screeching finally stopped, the steps resumed, a patient, uneasy creak that began at the top of the attic and led down its wooden steps.
Annette’s wakeful breathing in the bed told Erin she wasn’t alone. She climbed out of her blankets and approached the black bedroom doorway. The hall was near black, too, but on the far side, near the attic’s stairway, the windows gave off the faintest gloom from whatever little light they could find outside. Erin saw no one in the dark. No footsteps creaked through the hallway and no shape crossed the window squares.
“It won’t happen while you’re awake,” Annette whispered.
“What if we stay up all night?”
“We won’t. This isn’t like my old house. It’s not like your house.” Annette last words slurred into a yawn.
Erin settled back onto the mattress. She understood Annette’s meaning. The air hung heavy in this house, as if after two weeks it still hadn’t had a proper airing out. No one was going to suffocate, but the atmosphere was sleepy.
“Have you gone out there?” Erin asked. Annette didn’t answer and her breathing had slowed. Erin yawned. “I feel it coming.” She wasn’t sure if she meant sleep. Before it happened, she pressed Annette’s bedroom door shut. There was no lock, but its hinges cried a little. Erin hoped they would cry enough to wake her if the door opened.
She landed on the mattress and darkness took her.
She was awake, her breath shallow. The cotton blanket covered her face, but she couldn’t pull it away. Firm hands pinned her arms against the mattress, fingers so tight they squeezed through to the bone. The weight ran across her body. Annette sometimes fell out of the bed, but this was too heavy, and Annette wouldn’t hold her down. Erin’s legs poked through the bottom end of the blanket, bare beyond her pajama shorts, where foreign hair pricked her skin. Annette’s legs weren’t so hairy.
Erin had enough breath to scream once, a short, sudden squeal, but couldn’t inhale any deeper than her throat. The hairy heaviness weighed on her chest. Her lungs pressed against her ribcage, desperate to inflate, but he was smothering her. She couldn’t suck in breath. She could gasp and buck her hips, but only barely.
If she passed out, she wouldn’t wake up again.
Her head writhed back and forth, her chin and nose pressing at the blanket. See him, bite his face, anything. Her head dizzied.
The blanket curled to one side of her face, enough to see a little. The room was a coat of blackness, but a deeper shape hung over her, pressing the life out of her. One milky eye locked with hers and widened below wiry black hair. He thrust the blanket over her eyes again.
Her lungs popped wide open and sucked the warm air from under the blanket. She knocked it away and screamed. Annette shot up beside her and glanced every which way as if she could see in the dark. Erin heaved air in and out. Her head ached in the front with a drumming pulse. She clung to the edge of Annette’s bed not to fall over.
Annette finally turned the light on. The room turned too bright. Erin glanced at the door, left to hang half open. There was no one else in the room besides Annette and not a trace of footsteps in the hall, but someone had been in here with them. A dozen oil black hairs lay across the skin of Erin’s legs. Her hair was strawberry blond and Annette’s was copper red. There was not a black hair on either of their heads.
Erin’s vision blurred into tears and she began to sob. Annette slunk down from the bed and drew her close.
Fresh footsteps in the hallway made Erin jump, but these were too urgent to be that hairy thing that tried to crush her. Marcy appeared from the blackness. “Is she alright? Is it cramps or something? We need to call her parents?”
Annette hushed in Erin’s ear. “No, Mom. Just a bad dream. She’s fine.”
Erin trembled in Annette’s arms, too shaken to look at Marcy, let alone speak. She did need to call her parents, have them take her away. She just couldn’t.
When Marcy left them, Annette drew Erin up onto the bed. Her breath rattled in deep, and she held it, afraid to give it away in case she couldn’t have it back this time. Then at last she exhaled and the crying stopped.
Annette leaned over her. “Do you want to go downstairs?”
She did. Erin let Annette help her off the bed, over the mattress, and into the hallway. Her eyes turned to the faint windows, where any minute she expected a hairy silhouette to cross the squares of light on his way back to Annette’s bedroom to finish what he started. Then they were headed downstairs. In the kitchen, Annette turned on the light and started the coffee maker.
Erin sat at the small table. A faded pink phone clung to the wall where it dangled a curling vine of cord. She remembered there were hairs on her legs, hairs of a hairy man from the attic, and swiped at them with a napkin until she was clean. If that could be done. She looked at Annette, who stared at her. “Is this what happened to you?”
Erin pulled up one leg from under the table, and then the other. They looked clean. “How are you alive?”
“I sleep light now. Sleep little. I keep the blankets off my bed so he can’t cover my face. He doesn’t like when you see him, or maybe he doesn’t like faces. I think that’s why he waits until you’re asleep.”
Not Erin. She couldn’t sleep here again. “What he wanted to do to me.” She was about to start sobbing again. The weight of him, the hairiness, even that smell, like a musty old room that hadn’t been opened in years, raw and fuming around her. She couldn’t tell where the smell of the house ended and where he began.
Annette took two coffee mugs with cow patterns from the cupboard. “I don’t think that’s what he wants. It doesn’t feel like that, to me.” She began to fill the mugs. “But I don’t know what he wants.”
They stayed up the next few hours, until the sun brightened the sky a little. Then Annette slept a couple hours. Erin wondered how long she should wait to call her parents, how early they would be willing to come and get her. She didn’t want to make them angry. If she considered that they would want to protect her more than finish their night’s sleep, it was only a trace of a thought.
When Annette woke up, they sat in silence a while.
Shame burrowed into Erin’s heart. Go home? Easy for her. Annette was already home. There was nowhere else to go.
“What is he?” Erin asked.
Annette shook her head.
“Have you gone up there?”
“We can’t. It’s his.”
Erin stepped out of bed. The air felt lighter in the morning. She could move a little more freely. She started through the hallway, around the bend where the bedrooms lingered.
Annette hurried after her. “We can’t.”
A set of wooden steps, some warped in the middle after too much use, ascended to the attic. At the top, a thick wooden door stood shut. This time of morning, the sun should break through the stale attic. There wouldn’t be any dark places for him to hide.
Erin climbed the first step. He wasn’t going to be up there. Annette would’ve found him before, but Erin had to see. At the next step, she realized this was stupid. It had probably been a nightmare, except that smell was part of her senses, even now. Another step and her stomach rumbled. She had an idea what was going on.
At the fourth step, she crumpled onto the steps. It would take hours at the rate her mind and body found new reasons not to go. Marcy had probably planned to clean the attic a dozen times, but always found a distraction, another chore, anything. Was he alive up there? A ghost? No one could know.
“I told you,” Annette said. “We can’t.”
Erin lifted her head to start back down when she noticed the marks beneath the fifth step. Someone had held a knife in their little balled-up fist and carved crude letters along the underside of the wood, probably as high as they could go before they were dissuaded.
beware beware the man upstairs
Erin retreated to the second floor, where she regarded the many closed doors, most marked forbidden by a strip of blue tape. “What was this place?”
Annette didn’t know. They stood puzzled for what felt like a long time before Annette asked, “What do we do?”
They got dressed and left on their bikes. Erin had expected to feel better the moment she led Annette through the door, but despite the sunshine there was a pall on the sky. Then certainly getting outside the sight of the house had to make things better. No, Erin discovered. The torment that had been eating at Annette since her mother moved her into that house now ate at Erin. The feel of him on her skin.
“Where are we going?” Annette asked when they stopped to cross a street.
“My house. My parents have to let you stay.”
Annette nodded, but her smile remained absent. They crossed the street and pedaled faster.
There was something hateful in the atmosphere, like the world was a little worse than yesterday. Everything had rusted overnight. They weren’t the same people as during the summer. Now they were fragile creatures venturing into a dangerous universe in search of something. Erin didn’t know what they hoped to find, but they had to keep looking. The world had no interest in handing it to them.
She almost wasn’t surprised when her parents turned Annette away.
“We kept her half the summer,” her father said. “That’s her home now and she has to get used to it.” He smiled over his newspaper at Annette. “Not that it isn’t nice to see you, Annie, but you know what they say about familiarity. I’m sorry you biked all the way out here to get turned back. If you give me a few minutes, I’ll drive you home.”
Erin insisted on taking her.
As they picked up their bikes again, Annette said, “I don’t know what they say about familiarity.”
Neither did Erin. She had hoped that, for tonight at least, Annette could feel like a kid again, and maybe she would, too. Riding away from her parents’ house, that feeling seemed lost forever.
Annette’s mother was a non-starter. Whatever Annette had said before, Marcy likely swept it away as a nightmare. And why wouldn’t she? The man upstairs vanished into thin air, leaving only hair behind.
Erin had overheard her parents discuss Marcy. “That poor woman. She must be so tired.”
Her husband’s disappearance, the move, being a single working mother, it had all taken a toll. There wasn’t anything left for Annette’s ordeal. Given a month to process and then unwind, Marcy might have been ready to hear her daughter out, even fight for her. But life had eroded the best of who she was, and the time she needed was time Annette didn’t have.
The man upstairs would descend again tonight if there was someone there to find. Somehow Erin knew he wouldn’t come looking for Marcy. He wanted someone younger.
They must have traveled the entire town, past the library, the park, the mall, anywhere that wasn’t Annette’s house, until the setting sun cast a maroon hue upon half the sky. Without meaning to, they were heading back. Annette was leading them. It wasn’t as if she could run away.
Erin tilted her handlebars and nudged Annette with her elbow. She scowled, confused, so Erin did it again. Then she pedaled a little harder. Annette pedaled to keep up. They dogged back and forth, a race like they used to have, until the conifers and maples gave way to that dark house.
The bikes slowed immediately. Erin began to walk hers, every step hesitant. Annette followed, and at the edge of the driveway they sat, their bikes lain to rest in the grass, in silence. Annette stared at the face of the house, its gently glowing windows, as one doomed.
When the sky was nearly darkened, Erin broke the silence. “Do you know where your dad went? Could you live with him?”
Annette’s gaze never left the ground.
Erin watched the house with her. She half-expected a light to flicker on in the attic’s round window, where a hairy silhouette might watch them back. There was no light in the attic. That only made it worse.
Small wonder Marcy could sell a three-bedroom home in the suburbs for a house twice its size on the edge of town. It was cheap. No one wanted it. Like everyone knew something was wrong but Marcy only noticed the low monthly payments.
In the shadow of the house, Annette couldn’t bring herself to approach the door. Marcy had to open up and shout at them to come inside, like they were seven-year-olds at dusk again who couldn’t stop goofing around on scooters in their old neighborhood. Erin’s neighborhood.
Annette surrendered herself to the front door. Her fingers clung to the doorframe.
Don’t go, Erin wanted to say. Just run away. We’ll ride off on our bikes and chase the sun. You don’t have to go back in there.
But she did. Annette stepped inside and then glanced over her shoulder. Erin trudged after her. The air grew heavier at every step, itchy and warm and hard to suck into her lungs. That itch grew worse by the time she reached the door, a step behind Annette, and she had to stop to scratch at her neck. Something clung to her fingers.
A hair. An oil black, wiry hair. She thrashed the air until it flew off her hand. She’d heard hair keeps growing after death. And she had also heard that was a myth. She was only certain that if that hair was tested, it would be his. Whoever he was.
She turned again to the door, to Annette’s eyes. The air drew over her like fingers about to pull a heavy cloth across her face.
“I have to go home.”
She pounded down the gravel driveway, whisked her bike out of the grass to standing, and rode onto the street without looking back. Even if she had, she doubted she could see through the darkness and tears.
She was a monster. She was garbage. She was much like the hairy man who lived in Annette’s attic. If no one ever loved her again, she deserved it.
That wasn’t fair. The way he pressed down on her, the musty smell of him folding her into his cloud, that wiry hair that lingered on her legs—it wasn’t right to ask her to stay where he would come for her again. Annette didn’t have a choice, but that wasn’t Erin’s fault.
Every time she thought to turn back, he draped his black shape upon her back, an unwelcome passenger on her bicycle for one. Why did he come after her last night instead of Annette? Because she was new? Closer to the door?
A worming, alien idea, like one of his hairs brushing her mind, wondered that Annette had invited Erin over hoping he would choose her. No, never. Annette wouldn’t do that. She’d even given warning. But Erin had thought she would never abandon Annette, and here she was, nearly home already. Her sore legs told her she had pedaled harder than ever before. So what might Annette do if she was scared enough? Desperate enough?
Erin cried herself to sleep that night. Sometimes she woke up in a fit, thinking she heard footsteps overheard, or out in the hallway, but then remembered she was safe in her own room, her own house, and there was no man upstairs. And then she remembered Annette couldn’t say any of those things and cried herself to sleep again.
Annette wasn’t at school on Monday. Erin called, but Marcy wouldn’t put her through, said Annette wasn’t feeling well.
At least she was alive.
Tuesday, no Annette, and Erin found a reason not to bike over there that she couldn’t even remember by night. It was as if the route to Annette’s house had become those attic steps, dissuading her from approach and warning her of the hairy man who wanted to lie on her while she slept.
He was making Annette sick and Erin had left her to him.
As the days distanced her from that evil weekend, she could barely see past her shame. It so distracted her thoughts that she almost missed Annette in the lunchroom a week later.
She sat at the corner of a lunch table, and she wasn’t alone. A few other girls, Megan, Brittney, Latoya, sat with her. Erin never sat with them, barely spoke to them, and the same was true for Annette until today.
Erin didn’t ask to join. She didn’t have the right after what happened on Saturday. She sat alone on the far side of the cafeteria from Annette and her new friends, and now and then glanced their way. Annette looked warmer, her hands animated.
That smile was back.
Over the next week, Erin spotted them around school together. She didn’t try to apologize, though she wanted to, badly. Annette was busy carving paths to new friendships. She eyed Erin, but never talked to her. Even with her new friends, she seemed only to share a few words and spoke only in whispers.
To watch them was an incidental thing. To follow them, though, Erin couldn’t help it. Annette seemed different, and much as Erin wanted to throw the blame for that on herself and what she did, she couldn’t shake the idea that it had to with him. She followed them to the park one time, the mall another. When the other girls laughed, Annette smiled. She had taken to wearing a blue beanie for autumn, and her new friends wore them, too.
Erin told herself it wasn’t envy, that she was suspicious why Annette was suddenly okay. Then she felt guilty. Shouldn’t she have been happy to see Annette alive and smiling? That should have been enough.
After a couple weeks, Erin understood their friendship rooted in first grade was dying. She wanted to say something before the end.
“I’m glad you’re okay.” If she could walk up to Annette and say that, she wouldn’t need them to be friends again. That would be enough.
One gray day after school, she spotted Annette on her bike, headed for the woods that hugged the school’s backside. Erin pedaled after from a distance. Brown and orange leaves crunched beneath her bike tires and flew up into the gears. The world felt a little less mean for the first time since that Saturday, but the mix of green conifers and red maples here reminded her of the dense trees behind Annette’s house.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Erin muttered to herself. She said it a few times, to make sure it could come out of her mouth.
She paused between two narrow maples. Annette’s bike lay derelict against another bike, surrounded by a scattering of dead leaves. Erin thought it might be Megan’s. The trees grew denser ahead, where a bike could not easily follow, so Erin left hers with the others and treaded through the leaves. There was more crunching ahead, beyond a thicket of green underbrush.
“Annette?” She stepped close to the noise. “It’s okay if Megan’s here. I just wanted to tell you, I’m glad you’re—” The last word dried up inside Erin’s mouth.
Megan struggled on the ground, hands splayed in the leaves. Annette lay across her, where her chest dug into Megan’s back, as if her torso was concave. One hand pinned one of Megan’s arms down, the other forced her head into the soil, the fingers clutched around Megan’s auburn hair. Annette’s beanie had fallen off in the tussle. If Erin hadn’t known better, she would’ve thought the new friends were only fighting.
But with the beanie on the ground, Annette’s hair flew free. It was no longer copper red. A nest of black, wiry hair now covered her head, the locks spiny as a briar patch.
The same hair sprouted across Megan’s scalp and a contagious smile spread along her lips. Annette smiled the same. They both turned to Erin, their eyes black dots in milky white pools.
Erin charged back through the underbrush. The world had filled with falling red leaves, its atmosphere hateful. All directions looked the same. Needed a way out. Needed to put together what she’d seen, but she couldn’t grasp it. It was slipping through her fingers, slender as a hair. She wondered whether the black hair she found on her neck outside Annette’s door that Saturday night had really been left by the man upstairs, or if it had sprouted from her own head.
It was her last thought before Annette and Megan dragged her back into the dead leaves.