The rhythmic creak in the darkness above her sounded like a body swinging from a gallows' noose. The creaking was occasionally replaced by the sound of footsteps, pacing back and forth in the attic above the cracked plaster of her high ceiling.
Angela took a deep breath underneath the musty checkerboard quilt pulled over her head. Squirrels, she thought firmly. These old buildings have lots of squirrels thumping about in the attic, loose boards squeaking in the wind, and branches rubbing against the windows. I'd rather listen to squirrels than Scot's drunken taunts.
Investigating the Apartment for Rent classified, she had instantly liked the aged brick building. Where others may have seen only the crumbling masonry and peeling paint. she saw affordable character, integrity, and faded elegance.
But the strange sounds from the attic started the night Angela moved in. Maybe, she thought, she had made another in her string of mistakes. Tears trickled down her cheeks until enough of her fear and loneliness was released to allow sleep.
The newly risen sun shone through a hole in the curtain, forming a tiny spotlight on the old wind-up alarm clock on top of her suitcase. The alarm rang for several minutes before her groping hand managed to shut it off.
As she ran the lukewarm water in the cracked porcelain sink, remnants of the wonderful dream still lingered in her mind. She had been weeping in her room when a mysterious stranger entered and held her hand. He said nothing, but his compassion comforted her. When her tears no longer filled her eyes, she looked up to see his face. but he had vanished.
Her dream, the attic noises. even her former boyfriend were temporarily forgotten as she locked her apartment door behind her and hurried down the old oak staircase. The varnish was dark with age where it was not scratched or worn through. The stairs creaked and groaned with her every step.
The staircase bisected the large, dilapidated hallway. The top of the stairs faced a blank plaster wall coated with flaking, off-white paint—the bottom faced the building's front entrance. The tenants' mailboxes hung on a wall just inside the front door. Angela checked her box, the only one without a name under the number. It contained only "Current Resident" junk mail. However, she fondled the envelopes as if they had been addressed to her personally.
Beside the mailboxes was a large floor-length mirror enclosed by an intricately carved dark oak frame. Angela glanced at the mirror. She never cared to look at herself because her auburn hair, freckles, and short bowling-pin-shaped body made her feel like chopped liver when compared with the lithe beauties infesting the streets. Looking in the mirror this time, however, she focused her attention elsewhere. Behind her, on the second step of the staircase, stood a tall muscular young man in his late twenties, formally attired in a black tuxedo, white shirt, and black tie. His blond hair framed a rugged sad face. He looked directly at her with large, mournful brown eyes.
Surprised because she had heard nothing from the creaking steps, Angela turned around. But the staircase was empty.
She was alone.
* * *
The shadows had grown long by the time she returned to the building. All day her mind had not been on her work, yet she also had dreaded returning home.
Scrutinizing every dark corner, Angela cautiously climbed the stairs. Muffled noises from the top of the stairs grew louder with each step. White-knuckled from her death-grip on the smooth oak railing, she slowly peered over the edge of the second floor. The door of the apartment across from hers was open, and through the open doorway Angela saw a frail, white-haired lady fumbling with a trash bag. Angela's rigid body relaxed.
"Hello...I'm your new neighbor," Angela called. The old woman, wearing a threadbare sky-blue dress, looked at her.
"Well, hello," the old woman replied. "Would you like a nice cup of tea?"
Angela gladly accepted the invitation, and with the companionship, began feeling safer. Her eyes lingered over every antique and knickknack the woman displayed in the tiny living room.
Mrs. Shamayim put an old tea kettle on the stove. "Where are you from. dear?"
"I just moved out of a…friend's apartment, but I've been working here since graduating from K-State last May. Before that I lived in many places because my father was an Air Force officer."
"I bet all those moves were hard on a young girl."
"Yes. Everything was always temporary. Every time I made new friends we moved again."
"Well. at least you had your family."
"I did…" Angela's voice trembled. "But they all died in a car wreck my first semester in college."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, dear. It's hard to be alone."
"Yes. Sometimes I wish 1 had been in the car with them."
Angela sipped spice tea from a chipped antique china cup and listened to Mrs. Shamayim reminisce about her late husband, and then gossip about each of the other apartment dwellers.
Angela finally mustered the question she had been afraid to ask. "Are you aware of any strange things here…like noises at night?"
"You must mean Casper."
"Oh, that's just the name we call him here. We don't know what his real name was."
"He's the ghost."
Angela paled, and Mrs. Shamayim patted her wrist. "Oh, don't worry. There's no reason to be afraid of Casper. He's a nice ghost."
Angela had always been skeptical of the paranormal, yet now she felt her stomach tighten and her palms begin to sweat. "How do you know he's a…nice ghost?"
"Well, he never does any scary movie things like knock pictures off walls. In fact, he often protects us—like a guardian angel. The time Mrs. Jackson had a heart attack alone in the laundry room, for instance. Casper knocked repeatedly on apartment doors until Mr. Gabrielli came out to investigate."
Angela thought it would be nice having someone protect her instead of harming her. Even her own father had emotionally abused her. As tragic as the accident had been, his death at least saved her from further wounding. "Casper's never hurt anyone then?"
"No." Mrs. Shamayim took another sip of tea. "Well. there was that burglar years ago. Late one night there was a terrible commotion, and we found the thief at the bottom of the staircase with a broken leg, screaming his lungs out. He told the police a hideous skeleton with rotting flesh chased him around the second floor until he fell down the stairs.
"Well," she continued, "I think people with guilty consciences will run from their own reflections. The pure in heart can see beauty, love, and truth. But those with evil hearts can see only corruption. Although seeing Casper for the first time is startling, he's hardly a monster. He's a nice young man and a sharp dresser."
"Does he always look so sad?"
"Yes, it tears my heart all up to see the expression on his face." "Why is he haunting this building?" "The story's told he was a tenant here about fifty years ago. He still wears the tuxedo he was married in. After the wedding ceremony, unfortunately, his bride left her wedding gown at the church and ran off with his best man. He came home overwhelmed with grief and shame. He tied one end of a rope around his neck, the other end to the second-floor banister, and then he jumped into the stairwell. The coroner said he died of a broken neck, but he really died of a broken heart."
"I guess the poor lonely boy's parents were dead-or perhaps they just couldn't stand the scandal—because no one claimed the body or his possessions. He was buried in a pauper's grave, and his things were boxed and put up in the attic of this building. There's lots of junk up there, though, so it's impossible to tell exactly what was his."
"Where do people usually see Casper?"
"Generally near the stairs."
"Because he hung himself there?"
"I suppose that's the logical answer. but I like to think it's because stairs are special. Stairs lift you up above the level of this evil world and take you just a little closer to heaven. My favorite Bible story is Jacob's dream of a ladder or staircase reaching from earth to heaven with angels climbing that stairway up to God's presence.
"You've heard of people who were clinically dead and then revived. They usually describe themselves floating above their bodies and then entering a long tunnel. That tunnel surely goes up, and therefore, it's a form of staircase. I think Casper would like to climb that heavenly staircase, but he's still bound by some undone deed or unrequited love. If only he had found a nicer girl, his story could have had a happy ending.”
Angela smilled at Mrs. Shamayim’s romantic mysticism, but then, as Angela asked one last question, her smile faded. "Do you know which apartment was Casper's before he died?" Mrs. Shamayim's eyes widened, and she got up abruptly. "Oh, that was too long ago to matter. You certainly need not worry about that. Would you like some more tea?" Her old leather shoes clicked hurriedly out to the kitchen." I think I'll make some more for myself."
But Angela intuitively knew the answer to her own question. "He lived in my apartment."
* * *
That night, in spite of her uneasiness, Angela finished unpacking. She felt both a little frightened and deeply moved by Casper's story. Her tears returned as she thought of his heartbreak. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she wrapped her arms around herself. Silently, so her neighbors would not hear, she sobbed for both Casper and herself.
After a few minutes she felt a gentle firmness brush across her right cheek. Opening her eyes, she looked around. Had she imagined the odd sensation? Going to the mirror above the bureau, she brushed back her auburn hair and looked closely at her face. Tears still glistened on her freckled left cheek, but her right cheek was dry, as if an invisible hand had wiped away the tears.
No, no. It couldn't be. I've got to get myself together. I've got to stop feeling sorry for myself, and I can't let ghost stories play tricks on my mind.
From the last box she took out the very last item, a slender flower vase. What a useless item. Who will ever give me flowers? she thought as she placed the empty vase on top of the old bureau and got ready for bed.
* * *
She had the dream again. This time, however, she saw the mysterious stranger's face through her tears. He was the blond tuxedoed young man from the staircase. He came slowly toward her and, with a gentle brush of his hand, wiped away the tears from her cheeks. He, too, was crying. When she put out her hand and touched his tears, the melancholy in his eyes crept away. Taking the crimson rose from his lapel, he offered it to her. She took it, smelled its sweet fragrance, and smiled. He leaned over to kiss her—
* * *
The clang of the alarm clock jolted Angela awake. Oh, just a few minutes more! She pressed the lever in, stumbled out of bed, and opened the curtain a few inches to let in the morning's light. Walking over to the bureau, she placed her hands on the handles of the top drawer and froze. Her yawn choked into a gasp. The previously empty vase now contained a single red rose.
She backed away from the flower. Was this someone's practical joke? She examined the bolted door. The chain lock still stretched across the jamb. She examined all the windows, and they also, were securely locked. No one could have entered in the night No one could have put the rose there.
The dream. She received a flower in the dream.
Angela felt confused, but not frightened. Somehow she felt comforted and warmed. She touched the feather-soft petals of the rose and whispered, "Thank you, Casper."
She left for work late that morning. Yet, in spite of all that had happened, she felt a sense of tranquillity that she had not felt in many months. She also looked forward to coming home that night and dreaming.
* * *
But the dream did not come again. Instead, a nightmare about Scot gurgled up from the depths of her pain. Scot was in her apartment, acting like the gentleman who had originally charmed her. But then he pulled a flask from his pocket, and soon his smile changed to the familiar leer. Scot opened the apartment's door and roughly pushed her out into the hallway. A brunette in a tight dress and heavy makeup stepped around her and embraced Scot. Together they began tossing all of Angela’s belongings down the stairs. Angela begged them to stop, but they only laughed, and when they were done, they slammed the in her face.
* * *
Since it was Saturday, the alarm never rang. Angela lingered in bed, clutching the comers of her pillow, filled with anger. She hated Scot. He had used her and cast her out. She pressed her face into the pillow to keep from crying again.
As she lay there the pillow seemed to transform. The pillow she clutched seemed to change into a large, warm human hand. Angela imagined it gently squeezing her hand to comfort her.
She almost opened her eyes, but then changed her mind. Angela didn't want to open her eyes and see just a pillow. She wanted to feel Casper's hand.
* * *
After breakfast Angela carried her empty boxes to a large storage closet in the hallway. A clutter of boxes and old suitcases filled all the shelves except for one shelf near the ceiling.
Using the shelves as ladder steps. Angela climbed to the top and shoved her boxes in place. While there, she noticed a trapdoor access to the attic. Mrs. Shamayim's words tumbled through her mind. Casper's things were stored in the attic.
She jumped from the shelves, landing on the floor with a wooden thud, and rushed out of the closet. Then she felt silly. She had nothing to fear.
Angela went back to her apartment but somehow could not get the attic door out of her mind. It can't hurt to see what's up there.
Armed with a flashlight, she again climbed the shelves and pulled the trap door open. An odor of dust and cobwebs drifted downward. Cautiously, she poked her head above the ceiling. In the pitch darkness, her flashlight's beam found an old rotary light switch. She turned it, and a single unfrosted bulb partially drove back the shadows.
Dodging cobwebs. Angela explored the abandoned articles of junk, clothing, and boxes. An ancient, yellowed wedding dress hung from a nail on a rafter. She lifted the protective paper draped over the dress and slid her fingers along the stiff, once-beautiful lace.
An unframed photograph lay on top of an old trunk near the dress. Angela carefully wiped the dust from its faded surface. A dark-haired woman wearing the dress stood beside a man in a tuxedo. The woman, Angela thought, bears a startling resemblance to Scot's new girlfriend. The groom, as she suspected, was the man from both the stairs and her dream.
Oh. Carper, I'm sorry she left you. I don't understand how any bride could run off with the best man on her wedding day. But the best man was also partly to blame. He must have been a lot like Scot. If I had been your bride, I'd have stayed with you forever. I wish it had been me.
Angela rummaged through the trunks and boxes looking for a clue to Casper's real name. She thought she had found it—several times—but the belongings of at least a dozen people were jumbled up together. Frustrated by the impossibility of finding any certain facts about Casper, Angela turned off the light and climbed back down the ladder. She wanted to take a shower, to wash the dust, the cobwebs, and the sorrow away.
* * *
Dark shadows of the evening had enveloped the building once again when the knock came to her door. Angela put the vase containing the red rose down on the coffee table. "Who is it?"
"It's me, babe."
Scot! Surprise and anger surged through her. "What do you want?"
"I want to apologize. I want you back."
"What happened to your bimbo girlfriend?"
"She was a mistake. She was no good. I told her to leave."
"And that's exactly what I'll tell you, too, Scot. You were a mistake. You are absolutely no good, and I never want to see you again."
"Oh, come on, Angela. I'm sorry things worked out the way they did. I the bedroom. I brought something you left behind."
"If I take it, will you leave?"
"If that's what you really want."
Reluctantly, she opened the door. “I’ll take my things, but that's all I want from you.”
Scot's black hair and eyebrows matched the jacket he wore. He swaggered past her clutching a nearly bottle of whiskey. The smell of alcohol trailed behind him. "Not too bad for a dump."
"You said you brought me something."
He sat down on the sofa, smirking. "Oh, I did." He touched his crotch. "Right here. Something I knew you must be missing terribly."
"That's over forever. I can't believe I stayed with you a single day. I will never accept abuse from anyone again—especially you!"
"Oh, babe, don't talk like that. I came to give you some sweet comfort."
"You never gave me anything. You only took."
"Not true. I gave you more ecstasy than any mortal woman deserves. " Scot picked up the vase from the coffee table. "I see you give your flowers no better care than you give your men."
Angela looked at the rose, seeing it as Scot saw it. Astonished, she saw that her beautiful rose now appeared as an ugly brown husk that had dropped its petals.
"Leave that vase alone and get out! Get out now!"
"Okay, okay, I'll leave." Scot walked to the door and closed it. He turned the deadbolt and secured the chain. "But first I want a goodbye to remember." He grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the bedroom.
"No! I'd rather die! Let me go!" She twisted free from his grasp, but tripped over his foot. Falling, she hit her head against the edge of the coffee table.
Blackness closed in around her. She could not move or see anything. She seemed to be floating in a black, empty void. From far away she heard Scot's voice. "Hey, babe, are you okay?" She tried to answer but could not.
She vaguely felt arms slide under her, lift her still form from the floor, and place her on the sofa. "You'll be fine after a while. Just a bump on the noggin." Then a hardness returned to his voice."Might as well get what I came for." Angela felt clumsy fingers unbuttoning her blouse. "You won't know the difference anyway."
Inside her mind she screamed for help, but she couldn't move her silent lips.
Rapid loud knocks on the door made Scot jump, but he ignored them. The bursts of knocking repeated. Finally, Scot replied, "We're busy. Come back later."
The rapping continued. "Go away!"
The darkness seemed to clear. Angela still could not move, but she perceived the hazy features of Scot's angry face above her. His head turned and his face contorted as he yelled, "Mind your own business!"
Angela could see clearly now. She couldn't move, but she felt as if she was floating off the couch.
The knocking never ceased. She saw Scot finally bound off the sofa and stalk to the entrance door. As he turned the lock, the banging ceased. He flung open the door, shouting, "I told you—"
The hallway was empty.
Scot's head turned back and forth. There was only one place anyone could have disappeared so quickly. He bounded to the staircase, descended two steps, bent over, and peered down onto the first floor.
He straightened up. Angela could see through the doorway that the look on his face had changed from anger to bewilderment.
He turned around to come back up the steps but stopped abruptly. Angela could see his expression now change from bewilderment to horror. He was staring at something beyond Angela's field of vision. Then she saw it. A hand was reaching for Scot. A skeletal arm in a cobweb-covered, rotted tuxedo sleeve was reaching for Scot's throat.
Scot screamed and stepped backward into empty space. Angela heard him tumbling downward, repeatedly slamming into the hard steps, until he finally reached the bottom.
The skeletal hand vanished. Angela could hear low moaning, neighbors' doors opening, muffled voices speaking to each other.
The floating sensation became more vivid, and Angela discovered she could now move. A deep sense of peace filled her being. Her tranquility was not disturbed, even when she turned over and saw her silent, unbreathing body. She saw the bump and gash on the back of her own head as her spirit hovered several feet above the sofa.
She heard a short knock on the door. Casper was standing in the doorway in his neatly pressed tux. He was offering her his velvety red rose.
Angela floated toward him until her gossamer feet brushed the floor by the door. She took the rose, and his sad frown transformed into a smile. Then he leaned over, and they kissed. He offered her his arm, and as she put her hand up to the crook of his elbow, Angela saw that she was wearing a beautiful white, lace-trimmed wedding gown.
Casper and Angela walked to the top of the stairwell. Down on the first floor they saw several people gathering around Scot. Scot's limbs were sticking out at odd angles, and he was moaning. They could hear the distant wail of a siren. Angela no longer felt hatred toward Scot as she saw him there, only pity.
Then Angela noticed the stairs had changed. They no longer stopped at the second floor landing but continued on. The spectral stairs went up through the blank plaster wall into the sky beyond.
Angela took a last look at her apartment and her still body lying peacefully on the sofa Then she snuggled against Casper's arm, and they floated up through the darkness toward the light at the top of the stairs.
Copyright 1994, 2022 Mark D. Stucky.
Originally published in the Summer 1994 issue of Random Realities.