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We Know Ourselves Only

THE HORROR STORY

By Hari HaranPublished about a year ago 6 min read

“Mother taught me how to be quiet,” the young woman said.

Her voice came like air hissing from a tire, and the man in the bed wasn’t certain she’d spoken at all. She stood beside the bedroom door, skin milky with moonlight. The man fainted. He didn’t recall the strange nightmare for three days.

The young woman had a breathless voice, hollow from years of carefully practiced disuse. Her limbs stretched thin and pale like birch boughs. Her long fingers were strong, easily grasping the edge of the scuttle hole as she silently dropped into the house late at night.

It was an old house—split up many years ago and in many different ways. Forgotten corridors between flats and bricked-over closets hid a sprawling, invisible byway from floor to floor.

Silence was the earliest lesson the young woman could recall. She had no memory of the time before the house, when Mother kept her swaddled to her breast, shivering under cover of trees on beds of bent grasses, like doe and fawn.

As a baby, the young woman rarely cried, but Mother waited until she was nearly three years old to move into the attic of the house. Any sound she made was greeted with a sharp pinch to the back of her arm, while silence was rewarded with a finger dipped in sugar.

Whenever music floated up from the floors below, Mother whispered instructions that turned into mantras:

“We only leave the walls after dark.”

The young woman soon learned which planks groaned with the weight of a step, and when to use the sound to her advantage (such as when she’d spent every night for weeks tormenting the boy who lived in 2E after seeing him kick a cat out in the yard).

“We take only what won’t be missed.”

She learned which foods to knick from the pantries of the house’s tenants, and she learned their routines so she knew when to take them: wrinkled apples from the bottom of the green bowl in 1A when the man left for his Thursday evening AA meeting, a piece of

room-temperature pizza from the box on the stove in 3B when she heard snoring in the early morning hours, Friday night granola bars from a crumpled lunch sack in the backpack just inside the door of 2A.

Though she never entered through the door. “We know ourselves only.”

She learned how to read from a mildewed book about a boy who came out at night, wore a suit of bread, and bathed in milk. She read it over and over. She read every newspaper scrap and receipt littering the walls of the house before she began borrowing books from the flats at night, trying her best to place them back exactly where she’d found them.

Mother, never intending for the old house to be permanent, had left early one morning to see about a job. She tucked the young woman—just a girl at the time—into the nest of blankets in the corner of the attic to sleep through the day, intent to return by nightfall. Perhaps there had been an accident.

Years later, the young woman didn’t know where Mother had disappeared to, but she knew how to be quiet.

The strangers who lived in the house—coming and going in daylight, speaking, singing, laughing—never stayed for more than a year or two. They found the house odd, it seemed to make them forgetful.

“I swore I had a copy of Wuthering Heights…” they would mutter to themselves. “Did you eat the last peach?” They asked each other.

The young woman was curious about the strangers. She watched them through her attic windows and gap-bricked walls. She listened to their music, their yelling, their breathless sighs, their creaking beds.

Though she studied them, she knew herself only.

When the young man moved into 3B, the young woman felt an unfamiliar sensation low in her stomach. He was quieter than the others. Something about him reminded her of a line from an ad in one of her old magazines; it came to mind like a song whenever she saw him.

Natural mozzarella and salami on bread! Or on a cracker. Or in the fingers for nibbling all alone. Simple. And simply delicious.

The young woman knew the house like her own body. Acutely aware of each flat like an individual organ. Apartment 2B became her lungs, holding breath as the young man floated from room to room. The effort of breathing a distraction from the rest of the house.

The young man had been living in the house for a month before he noticed anything unusual. It’s easy to misplace things in the muddle of unpacking: a notebook with silly musings, his father’s university sweater, half a bag of licorice he didn’t recall having finished.

The young woman first watched him through the flat’s hallway ceiling. Crouched on the attic floor above, she peered through cracks in the exposed wooden planks as the young man moved from the kitchen to the back bedroom, flitting above in unison to glimpse him at every gap, like through the windows of two moving trains.

He was initially drawn to the apartment for its character. He’d always loved old houses—the way they seemed to exhale histories. Large windows poured light into each room, while the long hall bisecting the apartment was mostly dark, but for gaps in the ceiling that let in curtains of sunlight.

Dust danced through the streaks of gold light at dawn and dusk, seeming to glide in and out of shadow just ahead of him as he passed down the hall.

Soon the young woman wanted more.

Mother had taught her to only take what wouldn’t be missed.

She came across the notebook late one night when the man hadn’t returned home. Dropping into the dark hall from her attic door, she slinked along the wall and into his bedroom. A pane of moonlight jutted across the unmade bed, pooling on the nightstand where she noticed a leather-bound book.

She opened to the middle.

Hello to August. Hello to sultry summer sorrows and humming cars from open windows that almost sound like ocean waves. Hello to stretching out long on the floor and hello to five o’clock naps. Hello to feeling both old and young, to melancholy memories, to dreamy dazes, to wakeful twilights.

He had soft handwriting. Small and neat without any sharp edges. Simple. And simply delicious. She took the notebook.

The sweater had been an impulse she couldn’t resist. Her few pieces of clothing were old and worn. The young man was a bit untidy, dropping a sweater in the hall outside the bathroom after an evening walk.

She brushed against as she crept along the wall—soft on her ankle—and crouched to pick it up. Holding it to her face, she inhaled: moss, soap, something sweet. She slipped it over her head.

In the early hours one morning after the young man had stumbled in late and fallen into bed, breath sweet with wine, the young woman dropped into the hall, feeling reckless. It was nearly blue hour. She traced her known path along the wall, pausing outside his bedroom door. Usually closed, the door stood ajar.

She watched him first with one eye, her head barely visible in the doorframe.

Slowly, in sync with his breathing, she ducked into the room, back flat to the wall. Watching the sheet of moonlight inch along his sleeping body, across the nightstand, and up the wall where she stood, she lost track of time.

Suddenly, the man opened his eyes. She stared at him; he blinked. “Mother taught me how to be quiet,” she said.

He fell back, eyes closed, and she faded through the doorway, down the hall, and up the attic hatch like vapor.

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Hari Haran

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    Hari HaranWritten by Hari Haran

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