For two weeks my dog wouldn’t stop barking at the ceiling, but I only decided to check on the upstairs neighbour when the apartment above mine started to smell.
I should have gone up sooner. I should have known something was wrong. But we’re all so used to keeping to ourselves, minding our own business, that I just didn’t think to.
Not at first.
My rescue pitbull, Marko, had never been much of a barker, being aloof and generally reserved. He’d straight-up ignore other dogs and pigeons in the street, and could sleep through thunderstorms and fireworks without so much as twitching an ear. For years I remembered thinking maybe he couldn’t bark, having heard no vocalisation above a sigh from him since the day I brought him home from the shelter.
But one afternoon he came in from our second walk of the day and stopped dead in the hallway, head tilted up towards the ceiling and tipping quizzically from side to side. Slowly every single hair on his thick head rippled upwards, one after the other, like a Mexican wave, and he started to growl under his breath.
“Shut up, Marko,” I said, sharply.
The landlord was already pretty cagey about me keeping a ‘dangerous breed’ on the property, and he’d like it even less if any of the neighbours filed a noise complaint. But although Marko’s eyes rolled guiltily towards me he didn’t let up growling, and after a minute or so he began coughing out sharp, uncertain barks, head still angled up towards the ceiling. No sound drifted down from the upstairs apartment, so I assumed it was merely rats or mice that Marko was hearing and resolved to put a set of humane traps around the flat.
But the traps came up empty and the barking didn’t stop, continuing on and off for the rest of that day and well into the next. I tried everything from mild discipline to distracting Marko with toys or treats, but there was no breaking his concentration, at least not for more than a minute or so. Seeing a sixty-five pound dog reduced to white-eyed terror over apparently nothing was enough for me to schedule a trip to the dreaded V-E-T. That, like the traps, came to nothing, the medication the nurse recommended barely putting a dent in Marko’s anxiety.
My next move was to have the apartment assessed for a carbon monoxide leak, taking Marko to stay with a friend until it was complete. Almost immediately the barking stopped, far too quickly for it to be put down to the hallucinations or moods swings associated with gas poisoning. Besides, I’d had no symptoms myself and ultimately the check came back clear, no leak of any kind to speak of. Yet when when we returned to the flat Marko immediately stared up at the ceiling and resumed barking again, this time with a hysterical, gibbering note that made me feel strangely nervous.
It was only when I ushered Marko into the bedroom to put him in his crate that I noticed the smell. It was pungent, immediate, like opening a can of turned meat. Gagging, I shoved my jacket sleeve against my nose and poked around the room, wondering if there was a lingering box of old takeout food somewhere that I’d somehow forgotten to throw away. Yet as strong as the smell was it quickly became obvious that it didn’t originate from the room itself but was permeating downwards from the room above, the sweaty, fleshy odour sticking to the fabric of my bedroom curtains.
Stepping out onto the balcony the smell was even worse, barely even stirred by the sharp April breeze. I leaned back against the balcony railing, trying to see up to the one above with little success. It was only by chance that I glanced across the street and realised I could see the upstairs flat reflected in the windows of the office building standing opposite. The lights were all switched off, blinds drawn, and for the first time I wondered when I’d last seen my upstairs neighbour in person, or even heard him move within the flat.
He was a quiet, eccentric older guy, was Ron- or was it Roy? I never could quite recall. I’d met him on the stairwell a few times on the way out to walk Marko, and we’d always nodded politely to one another, never exchanging more than a few words. Those few words had been more than enough for me. The man was downright scary looking, almost seven foot tall and covered in tiny, raised scars- obviously self-inflicted -all over his body from his eyelids to the backs of his vast, spindly hands.
One of the other tenants claimed to have gotten into a conversation with him once and said that he was very religious, part of some obscure, pagan sect I’ve long forgotten the name of. It was the reason he didn’t get out much, self-isolating to meditate and worship, much like a Catholic monk. Sure enough I did occasionally hear strains of weird music or throaty mutterings that could have been prayer, but other than the odd footsteps or squeak of moving furniture the room above was silent, the perfect neighbourly experience.
In fact, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t heard anything above for about a month, the last occurrence being a day I’d knocked on Roy’s door to hand over a sack of cat food that had been mistakenly delivered to my apartment. Roy had come out, blinking in the tungsten yellow hall light in obvious discomfort, looking even more beaten-up than usual, his bony knuckles swaddled in bandages. Grudgingly I offered to carry the sack into the flat for him and he, equally reluctant, had accepted, hovering to one side and clenching his plastered fingers as I bumbled about the gloomy interior of his apartment.
I remember struggling to find a clear surface to put the cat food down, everywhere from the countertops to the carpet piled with what looked like old, moldy books. For the sake of conversation I asked if it was all religious reading, unsure if the question was insensitive, and he nodded slowly, his eyes sliding off to one side.
There were five or six cats milling around in the semi-dark, all watching me balefully from a distance. I got the oppressive sense of being unwelcome, whether by the cats or Roy I wasn’t certain. Either way I muttered my goodbyes and left, hoping I wouldn’t have any reason to return.
Yet reason there was, no more than a handful of weeks later.
Was Roy still in the flat, sick or worse, or had he left it completely, abandoning his hoarde of cats to starve to death? There was little in that barren den for them to feed on, after all, and with the balcony doors closed there was no way from them to slip out and forage for themselves. Imagining their flesh folding to pulp on their delicate bones and soaking through the floorboards made me shudder, but the former options were more awful still.
I allowed myself to suck in another rotten mouthful of air and coughed. Whether I liked it or not I had to perform a wellness check; none of the other neighbours seemed to have noticed Roy’s absence, nor the smell, of if they had they were ignoring it as obstinately as I might have, if the dog hadn’t forced me to pay attention.
Leaving Marko still bellowing away in his crate I left my flat and headed up the fourth floor stairwell, trying to comfort myself with the possibility that there might have been some kind of sewage block, a fault in the pipes, anything but the dread thing I was expecting to find. Roy was at least in his late sixties, in the bracket of bad falls, flu death and heart attacks. If the foul odour did turn out to be no more serious than faulty plumbing I could add ‘losing sense of smell’ to that list as well.
Standing outside Roy’s apartment I could barely breathe without retching. I tried to inhale through my mouth alone but that was worse for then I could taste it, like gargling a clot of menstrual matter.
Clearing my throat I leaned towards the door and called, “Roy, it’s Lou from downstairs. I’ve come up to see if you’re alright. If you are, please say something as I’m gonna let myself in.”
For a moment I thought I heard scuttling sounds from within, a distant cry, but no returning voice, nothing discernable as human. Sighing, I braced myself against the door and shoved. The apartments were all old and poorly maintained, the cause of many annual break-ins the landlord apparently ignored. The door gave easily, swinging inwards with a soft, rusty groan.
Again the foul air struck me, belching from the exposed room in a moist wave. I stared into the gloom beyond, almost awed. I’d come up here out of a sense of duty, and that was the only thing keeping me from turning around and heading right back down where I’d come from. Stepping over the threshold I slid my hand along the clammy wallpaper, hunting for a lightswitch. The bulb overhead flickered into a weak and listless life, perhaps for the first time in years.
The room around me certainly gave that impression. Cat piss and shit had been trodden into the carpet, and the dirty old books I’d seen a month ago were torn into pieces, gutted spines and shredded pages strewn about in a senseless flurry. There was no furniture to speak of, and in the centre of the living room a hole had rotted right through the floorboards, the edges stained as if from water damage
No wonder the smell had leaked down to my apartment so quickly.
Calling out to Roy again I circled the room, prodding under the piles of books with the toe of my shoe in case anything was trapped underneath. Despite its delapidation the flat didn’t feel empty to me, somehow. It was like the breath before someone speaks, quiet, weighted, and I knew that the further I probed the more likely I was find something alive.
As I approached the bathroom there was a quick darting of motion and a thin tabby cat fled past me into the hallway, its back a high, petrified arch. It glanced at me with eyes as flat and cold as silver coins, and before it turned the corner into the living room I saw that its fur was matted into spikes with blood.
“Jesus christ,” I muttered. “Have you guys been eating each other?”
I’d heard of such things, cats left alone too long alone after an owner’s death turning on their fellows, or even devouring the owner themselves. For a moment I considered leaving the apartment and simply calling the police to do the dirty work, but morbid curiosity compelled me onwards, towards the bedroom. It was as bare and stale as the other parts of the flat, the bed stained and unmade, mattress naked. I could hear Marko’s muffled barking from beneath the floorboards, my own hollow footsteps; that was all.
There were scratched-up runnels on the floorboards- clawmarks, I realised, as if an animal had been dragged, unwilling, every which way, and had desperately tried to prevent it. More of them covered the doors of a large wardrobe at the opposite side of the room, the only piece of furniture apart from the mattress left in the flat. The stench here was strongest, so overpowering that my eyes streamed with tears. This was where the cats had crawled to die, I thought, seeking shelter in their last moments.
Again I considered walking away, again I edged forward, wanting to see, needing to see with my own eyes what had caused the past two week’s disturbance. Pushing my jacket sleeve over my hand to protect it I reached out and tugged the wardrobe door open.
What I saw I can’t properly describe- not in any way that will truly recreate the horror of it, but I’ll try. I’d expected to see a tangle of feline corpses, famished to agonising thinness and stinking to high heaven. They were there, alright, blood and offal and hair coating the inside of the wardrobe like some kind of nightmarish wallpaper. But it was what was folded on top of them that really got to me.
I couldn’t make out what it was, at first, whether I was seeing disembodied human arms or legs folded up like grisly umbrellas amongst the mess. After a few seconds I realised that it was both, somehow twisted together and outward from the naked torso so what was left resembled more insect than man. The head, directed downwards, I knew at once for Roy’s, recognising the thick scarring I’d stared at so many times on the stairwell. I stood, staring, wondering who had killed him, how his body had become so broken, so unlike anything human.
Then it moved.
It moved, and the head snapped upwards, gaunt cheeks bulging around the oozing flesh of one of the cats flattened at the bottom of the wardrobe. The thin mouth opened, and kept opening, the jaw falling further than any human jaw should. Its eyes weren’t eyes at all but wet, gelatinous pools of black, and whether they truly saw me or knew who I was I couldn’t say.
“Roy,” I heard myself saying. “Roy. What have you done?”
WRITING PROMPT BY ARYANNE FINNIE