STORIES TO READ ALONE AT NIGHT


The Duplex

The year before I was born, my parents bought an old victorian near the center of town. When it became clear that I was to be an only child, they added an exterior staircase and converted the upstairs to a small apartment.

From as far back as I can remember, Ms. Francis lived upstairs. She was a kindly old lady who taught English at the nearby middle school and spent much of her free time reading to patients at the local hospital. She was something of a fixture around town and could often be seen walking to and from school towing a small cart with her teaching supplies.

“They should pay her to deliver the mail while she's at it,” my Dad used to joke, “I swear you could set a watch to that woman.”

In the afternoons, when school was done, I'd often end up at her place in search of someone to play with. She'd serve me juice and those small animal cookies- the ones with the pink and white frosting- on a small tea plate. I'd sit on the floor in front of the television and watch afternoon cartoons while she graded papers in her easy chair.

“Well, that's enough for today, dear, you don't want to watch them all,” she'd say at around a quarter to five, when our afternoons had drawn to a close. I'd place my cup and plate by the sink and make my way downstairs to get ready for dinner. “Thanks for the company, dear, I'd get lonely if it weren't for you,” she'd say as I left.

One afternoon, after cartoons and cookies, Ms. Francis told me that she was going to be retiring soon and that she would be moving to be closer to her family. She told me that she would miss me very much and think of my often. “That's okay,” I remember saying, not understanding that our afternoon meetings were about to come to an end.

After she left, my folks rented the apartment to a recluse. I don't remember ever meeting him in person, but my parents said that he slept during the day and that I would have to be a lot quieter around the house. I never really understood what all the fuss was about, but anytime I would get too boisterous or play my afternoon cartoons too loudly, he would knock loudly on the floor - our ceiling - until I quieted down.

This went on until I was around nine. My dad got a job in the city, so my parents put the house up for sale and we began packing up our belongings in preparation for the big move.

When moving day came, a large truck pulled up outside. Three men in matching coveralls jumped out and began loading all of our belongings in the back. It was on odd sight for a kid, watching the contents of your house end up in the back of a truck, and I spent a majority of the day on our front yard watching intently as they loaded each piece like a jigsaw puzzle.

When the movers stopped for lunch, I happened to look up to see that the door to the upstairs apartment was open. Curious about our invisible neighbor, and emboldened by the fact that I would never have to see him again, I carefully made my way up the stairs and stood at the landing. Blinded by the warm afternoon sun, I couldn't see more than a few feet into the apartment.

“Hello,” I said apprehensively, giving the door a few gentle knocks. “It's me from downstairs, I just wanted to say goodbye and sorry about all the times I woke you up, I never meant to.”

I waited patiently, but the moments passed with no answer. I placed my palm across my forehead to act as a visor, but no matter how hard I squinted, it was too dark inside to make out much of anything. Figuring that our neighbor couldn't hear me from out on the landing, I took a half step into the darkened apartment.

As my eyes adjusted, I could see that the apartment was furnished. Then it hit me: the apartment was decorated exactly as it had been when Ms. Francis lived there, right down to the little tea plate resting comfortably at the kitchen table.

Confused, but comforted by the familiar sights of Ms. Francis' belongings, I took another step further inside.

“Ms. Francis, are you there?” I called, still unsure as to who the occupant of the apartment was. “If you're here, I just wanted to say goodbye, I won't bother you if you don't want me to.”

The door to the bedroom creaked. “I'm in here, dear, come help me down,” a voice called.

Only now, instead of being excited at reuniting with my old friend, my blood turned to ice and the room seemed to grow extremely cold even though it was a warm sunny day. Then the footsteps started, quiet at first, but growing louder with every step. Just as I was expecting to see someone round the corner from the hallway, a strong hand grabbed me by the nape of my neck and pulled me out onto the landing.

Scared out of my wits, I turned to see my dad. I don't know why, but the minute I saw him, I started bawling. He led me down the stairs and, in a stern voice, told me to sit in the car while he finished with the movers.

Later that day, after we had made what I deemed to be a safe distance between us and our old house, I perked up and asked my parents about the apartment- why it was still decorated the way it was? My parents grew serious and my dad turned off the radio.

“We didn't want to tell you this, at least not until you were older,” he said. “But Ms. Francis never moved out.”

“So she's still living there?” I asked.

My dad shook his head. “No, she's been gone a long time now. Back when you were younger, she'd gotten word that she was going to be forced into early retirement. She'd told us that her new pension was going to be a lot less than what she had planned and that she was going to have to move out. Only she never did, instead she hanged herself up there from one of those macrame planters she was so fond of making.”

My stomach sank at the news and an incredible sadness washed over me as I reflected on those afternoons sat watching TV and eating those delicious frosted cookies.

“But what about the neighbor, the one who was always banging on the ceiling?” I finally asked, trying to process the years of imposed quiet time.

After what happened up there, we were never able to rent the place,” My Dad said, so we just gave up on it. Not long after, the noises started. We soon noticed that they only seemed to get really bad when you were making noise, especially with the TV on. We even asked Father Deming to bless the place. I don't know what he saw up there, but he only made it half way through the blessing before hightailing it for the door. Whatever it was nearly spooked the dress off of him.”

The car fell silent. I turned my attention to the window and watched the landscape – mostly open fields dotted by the occasional farmhouse – fly by as I tried to process what had happened in our home. A faint rattling emanated from the boxes my parents had haphazardly stacked next to me in the backseat.

After a moment, Mom let out a sigh. “You're Dad's just trying to spook you,” she said. “Ms. Francis was a nice old lady - and she always talked about how much she adored you. Besides,” she added,” our new home is brand new- no one has ever lived there before, so you won't have to worry about any of this ever again.

“God dammit,” my Dad interrupted as the car jolted abruptly, achieving a temporary state of weightlessness. “Those bastards want to raise taxes to build a new bridge, well maybe they should start by fixing the potholes.”

As he regained control of the car and the boxes settled, I noticed something resting on the seat next to me- it was Ms. Francis' old tea plate.