This Offbeat Ghost Story Will Get Under Your Skin
Over the course of four books—two story collections and two novels—Laura van den Berg has all but perfected the art of making outlandish occurrences appear as natural as air. image Click here to read more short stories and original fiction.
Imagine a ménage à trois between Nikolai Gogol, Banana Yoshimoto, and Flannery O'Connor and you'll have some sense of her uncanny abilities. In "The Upstairs People," much as she did in 2018's The Third Hotel, van den Berg wonderfully renders the weirdness of grief.
A writer whose father has just died begins to suspect the newly-vacated apartment above her might be haunted. Could it be, or is she simply experiencing a cruel trick of bereavement?
Read on to find out.
"The Upstairs People"
My father has been dead for a year and I have had exactly one dream about him. It happened the night after he died, in my sister's guest room in Florida. I dreamt that my father was speaking to me through my sister's dog, a brown-and-white shorthair mutt, and then I woke to the mutt sitting upright on my bed, staring down at me with my father's same wearied disdain, his jaws opening and closing as though controlled by a ventriloquist's strings. Before then, I had never put much stock in notions like the transmigration of souls, but that moment, strange as it was, made me start wondering about all kinds of things.
I wish I could tell you that, through my sister's pet, my father had imparted profound wisdom, the kind that could only be gleaned from having entered into the Great Beyond, but all he said was Don't answer the phone, don't answer the phone, don't answer the phone.
Two weeks after the dream, my phone rang at a strange hour. Early morning, the sky still violet. By then I had returned to the northern city that was, by now, my home. My sister was very busy raising a family in Florida and rarely called, and it was far too early for one of my freelance clients to be checking in. Still, I answered because I rarely took my father's advice when he was living and I didn't see why I should start now that he was dead. Also, it turned out that my neighbor was calling and I usually answered the phone when my neighbor called, even if the hour was strange.
How to explain my relationship with my neighbor? We lived across the hall from one another. We both worked from home (I was a writer who was not writing much at the time, my neighbor an online accountant). We weren't exactly friends. We didn't share leisure activities or meals. We didn't confide. In fact, we didn't even see each other all that much, as we'd sooner call than cross the hall and knock on a door. (After returning from my father's funeral, I opened my door one evening to find a peace lily on my mat, a handwritten condolence note nested in the green leaves, delivered with the stealth of a thief).
Yet, somehow, our lives had become intermeshed. In fact, I couldn't imagine living in this apartment building without her. Also, my neighbor was exactly ten years older than me and so the relationship doubled as an anthropological investigation into what my own future might hold. A decade from now would I too have everything—groceries, cleaning supplies, vitamins, plants, new clothes, weed—delivered to my door and dispense with going outside entirely?
"It's the upstairs people," my neighbor said when I answered. "They've moved out."
"I know. I saw the truck."
Read the full story here: This Offbeat Ghost Story by Award-Winning Author Laura Van Den Berg Will Get Under Your Skin