September 12, 2010

The Sentinel II: A Little to the South and East


About six weeks after I moved into this building, a strange and pudgy man moved into the apartment above mine. I would’ve said “attic,” but saying a strange man moved into the attic sounds overdramatic and contrived. It’s true, though—he was odd and it was an attic. So let’s just lay it out that way. Six weeks after I moved in here, a weird guy moved into the attic.

            Over the next twenty years, he got married and had three kids, all five of them living up there in that attic. He dragged the garbage cans out on Tuesdays and Fridays, and shoveled the sidewalk when it snowed. He also dropped any packages I received outside my door, which was a nice gesture that saved me a lot of blind fumbling about downstairs.

We only spoke at length a few times, and sadly I’m obligated to keep those conversations to myself. The day-to-day, passing-on-the-stairs chit-chat usually concerned two things: his promises to pay his half of the electric bill “in a couple of days,” and his plans to move out “at the end of the month.”

            There was never anything behind these promises of his. A few days would come and go, as would the end of the month, and everything would be as it ever was. In time, I was no longer surprised. That’s why I paid little mind when my landlord mentioned in passing that the family in the attic was moving out on Saturday. “I’ll believe it when someone’s carrying a couch downstairs,” I said.

            Sure enough, Saturday arrived, but that was all. There was no moving van, no one hauling boxes of dishes down to the sidewalk. That evening I went to Morgan’s, and we ducked into the bar. When I headed home the following afternoon I was no longer thinking about my upstairs neighbor’s threatened move. He still owed me for the electric bill, and I figured he wouldn’t dare scamper off without settling that up.

            I didn’t even notice the big moving truck parked in front of the building, nor all the boxes sitting at the bottom of the steps. Just someone else having a stoop sale.

            But as I hauled my bulbous knee up the stairs, I heard an unfamiliar voice above me say, “Watch your step.” I squinted toward the door and saw two strangers hauling a couch toward me.

            “Oh,” I said, stepping off to the side to let them pass.

            The entry hall was full of boxes. I listened carefully and heard no more heavy steps descending towards me. I picked my way up to my apartment door where I found two chairs parked on the landing. I nudged myself some room, unlocked the door, and stepped inside.

            “I’ll be damned,” I said. Either a team of very thorough thieves was robbing his place, or he really was moving.

            For the next hour the hallways and the stairs were full of clompings and thumpings and dragging sounds. Then, come five o’clock sharp, there was silence. And in that silence I knew I was alone in the building for the first time in twenty years. In a flash it occurred to me that I was suddenly able to play the music as loud as need be without having to worry about disturbing the kids, and I could haul my clanking bags of empties downstairs without having to feel self-conscious about it. Hell, why stop there? I’d be able to walk around the building naked if I wanted!

            (Not that anyone needs that—I’m just saying it was suddenly within the realm of possibility.)

            Then something else began sneaking in around the edges—the inevitable creeping sense of horror that comes from having seen far too many haunted house movies.

            I brushed them aside. There hadn’t been any murders here, after all (a few attempted murders, maybe, but no actual homicides), and the house wasn’t built on an ancient Indian burial ground, so far as I’m aware. Nor was this ever the site of dark Satanic rituals performed by an evil libertine who was later burned alive by the townsfolk. In fact the only ghost I’ve ever been aware of in here belonged to a cat, and I didn’t mind that. I was in fine shape.

            At about nine that night, after getting enough beers in me to clear up the hangover from the night before, I got an idea. I decided that it might be interesting to sneak up to the attic and have a look around. Maybe the door was still open, right? All these years, I’d never really seen how the place was laid out. Now that I was the only one here, what could be the harm? It was the most brilliant idea ever.

            I put on my shoes and buttoned my shirt. But just as I was about to open my door and step into the hall, I heard the footsteps above me.

            It had been absolutely silent in there since the movers left. The front door to the building had neither opened nor closed. No one had come up the stairs. If they had, I would’ve heard them. But now suddenly there were definite footsteps leaking down through the ceiling from the attic, the way they had almost constantly up until that afternoon. It had been so common that I could actually identify the small, scampering feet I was hearing now—they belonged to the young boy and the older of his two sisters. Then I heard their giggling voices. I froze.

            What the hell was this? Had they been up there all the time? Had they slept through the movers, and just awakened now? And where were their parents? I sure didn’t hear anyone else up there. And if their parents were up there, where the hell was my money?

            Or maybe there was a different story. Maybe they’d been abandoned up there. Or maybe they were dead. Which would of course explain why they didn’t move with the others.

            In the 1976 Michael Winner film The Sentinel (based on the novel by Jeffrey Knovitz), a young woman rents an apartment in a beautiful old building in Brooklyn Heights. Her first night there, she’s kept awake by the heavy footsteps pacing the apartment above hers. When she complains about this to the realtor, she learns that the only other tenant in the building is a blind priest who lives in the attic.

Well, everything goes to hell after that.

            I’ll tell you, the stomping and giggling of ghostly children has always struck me as a hell of a lot creepier than the pacing of some adult in work boots.

            I stepped away from the door, deciding that maybe I’d take a shower or something instead. My explorations could wait.

            The following morning, everything was silent again. There were no daylight footsteps and no giggles. No one had entered or left the building—if they had I would have heard them. Maybe the kids were just asleep again. Or maybe their bodies were plastered behind the wall. I guess I’d find out after the sun went down. In the meantime I’m going to try not to wonder if that “blind priest in the attic” business might help explain why my landlord seemed to be gently encouraging me to move upstairs.


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