Third Place Winner
Curtain Call by Kalem Murray
Well, it appears someone has finally taken over that unit next door.
Just some young couple in their early 20s trying out their first home together.
I remember it being pretty exciting the first time for me also, the unsurety of shared privacy and financial security
All the new junk they brought in matched my own overspending at the time, pots and pans, knife sets, fresh linen and so on.
All the junk that makes it tough to divvy up the moment one of you splits.
Still I think they will be fine based on how they look together, holding hands and sneaking kisses.
I’ll probably say hello tomorrow or something. Give them my number.
Probably shouldn’t ask if they know what happened there.
Ashley and Aubrey.
I gave him a look when he said it too.
He says that's kind of how they met, two circles of friends mingled into one at some picnic and one of their mates laughed at how their names would be cute to say together as a couple.
He seemed alright, fairly grounded I guess.
Aubrey was working today so it was just him finalising the move by putting away the nick knacks.
They have a lot of shit, I asked why they would need a brand new 100 piece cutlery set for a small 2 bedroom apartment and he asked the same question to her.
Ashley told me how he is working as a mechanics apprentice and only has a year left before being fully qualified.
Good for him I suppose. He can fix my piece of shit car when that happens.
I did end up asking him about the previous tenants. If he knew.
I shouldn’t have.
He said he would have a few words with his lady when she got back, since she was the one who spoke to the property manager.
I mean, whatever. The cleaner did a pretty good job.
They invited me over for dinner tonight.
I bought some beers and some dessert. Profiteroles.
I don’t know how these things are supposed to go, never been invited to a dinner party by a neighbour before.
Was going to shave but decided on running some clippers over my face.
That was pretty fucking intense.
I’m in the back smoking and finishing a beer now trying to recount what happened so I can write this down.
Ok, so the first thing I noticed when I went in was the new light blocking curtains they put over the front glass door.
It’s a good thing too since at sunset the light blinds everyone in the unit.
It also means I don’t have to look in by accident.
The architects of this cookie cutter shit box really didn’t think it through having a giant glass sliding door at the front facing the open like that, allowing anyone walking by see your whole life if the curtains aren’t drawn.
Anyway, I knock at around 7pm, pretty easy to be punctual if all you have to travel is 3 metres, and Aubrey lets me in.
She was wearing those stupid high cut denim shorts that had the pockets sticking out. She knew she could pull it off though.
Then there was that tube top which was tight enough to not leave anything to the imagination.
I managed to keep my eyes locked on hers but I have no idea how many times I let them slip down through out the night.
The lighting inside was just candles.
I haven’t been serenaded in a while but I usually don’t expect the neighbours to be the ones doing it.
Well we sat down at their table, me at the head while they sat either side and some crumby easy rock tracks played in the background.
They reckon this was their first dinner party ever and wanted it to go well and I said they didn’t have to go this far.
It felt like the ice was broken after that.
They didn’t even like the music they were playing and put on some chart hits radio station.
Then the small talk began.
Aubrey is a nurse.
She likes crime books and romantic movies and is basically a tom boy in how she talks. One of the blokes.
She moved to Deadmanning from one of those small towns down south when she was little.
The fucking weirdo hates profiteroles but thanked me for them anyway.
Ashley doesn’t actually likes cars even though he works on them all day. Says it's the smell of the oil that puts him off.
When he relaxes at home he listens to club music and watches whatever is on. Good looking guy.
As usual I try not to omit too much about myself. What's the point.
After dinner, some chops and salad, they finally broached the subject on the events which occurred in the unit previously.
I tried to be coy but their pleading and big puppy dog eyes won me over.
I asked them what they knew, what was given out by the real estate company.
Turns out they were told some newspaper headline crap that the cops say when they want the media to fuck off.
Said when they found him and his kid it was ruled as a murder suicide.
I really don’t like recounting what I saw personally, or writing it down a few hours later, but here we are.
I told them how after I heard the scream coming from the kid I went over to see if everything was alright.
They had those thin lace curtain that anyone could see through if you tried.
And I saw through all right.
The kid was laying halfway on the kitchen counter with blood flowing steadily to the floor.
It must have been a knife I said, as he was gutted. A nice half truth.
And the father used that same knife to end himself.
Told them there was only two people in there, which I guess is mostly true.
This is some shocking stuff to handle when you move into a new house, a father going insane and killing his kid and then himself.
The look they gave me as I went to the corner of the bench and traced the outline of the kid would be tough to forget. Why the fuck did I even do that? Morbid thrills?
Aubrey wanted to know where the man died and I pointed to a random corner in the room.
They asked me how I dealt with it, being the person to find them and call for help.
Told them about how I saw a therapist after and how it was only the single time.
That reminds me, I have to change the session date with the doc next week.
We had more drinks and Ashley and I tucked into the dessert and I said good night.
Before I left I asked if knowing what happened would make them leave, but they didn’t know yet.
And now here I am with the third empty bottle and half a packet of smokes gone in the backyard.
Their lights have gone out and I’m finding excuses not to sleep.
Really wish I didn’t lie about what I saw, it’s made it so I have had to remember what happened specifically to change the out come for them.
Guess I’ll sleep with the lights on again.
I bumped into Ashley at the mailboxes and we exchanged pleasantries.
He said they decided to stay, but Aubrey has bought pot plants which now have taken up the space where I pointed out the man and the kid had died. It must make prepping dinner a little more difficult.
Shit, I don’t even remember their names.
On my way to the shops tonight for a booze run I waved at the couple in the parking lot. They were going to dinner or something as they were dressed pretty smartly.
When I got back I saw they left their lights on.
Something was a bit off though.
Under that curtain of theirs was what looked like the shadow of someone standing on the other side.
The bottom of two feet maybe?
I didn’t think too much of it until after I dropped one of my bottles while unlocking the front entrance and it rolled near their sliding door.
The shadow was gone.
Aubrey banged on my door loud enough to wake the dead.
I really wasn’t too thrilled that she barged her way in before I could put all the empty cans in the bin.
She had an old newspaper clipping.
I knew what it was about when I saw the picture. It was the kid on the counter.
The newspaper went under last year, basically a local tabloid that would print anything in this shit hole of a city if it was shocking enough.
What shut them down though was the extra details they’d give to their stories for more punch.
The headline read ‘Witness to double murder, Taylor gives horrific account that he and partner experienced!’.
Aubrey demanded an explanation as my story and the one in the paper were completely different.
So I lied.
Even though this was actually a well written and researched piece of investigative journalism I explained to her that sensational shit like that is why the paper company no longer exists.
She wanted to know where she could find Taylor to corroborate what was written and I nearly lost my temper.
Told her not to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.
She left in a big huff. How fucking dare she.
I don’t want to think about this shit and I don’t want to think about that arsehole.
Fucking left without talking or calling after one argument, piece of shit.
She doesn’t need to know that. My business belongs to me, not anyone else.
Docs going to read this and say its regression.
Its 3am and I don’t think I’ll be going back to bed.
I’m having the dreams again. The one where I relive that night. Doc said it is my mind coping with what I saw and trying to find an equilibrium with my emotions and my thoughts.
I don’t really believe that though.
It started in the usual way, I’m sitting in my lounge chair about 4 beers in and watching something I can’t really make out on TV.
Taylor is there and snoring lightly next to me.
Then there is the sound of what I thought was hammering, like a rubber mallet banging on the walls but only every minute or so.
I was buzzed and ready to start some commotion so went next door to get him to shut the fuck up.
There was a lace curtain that obscured my view so I could only see blobs and outlines, but in my dream the curtain does not exist.
I can see it all.
The kid’s jaw is split open and dangling to the side of the face, blood and bile flowing down the chest.
The father standing nearby watching, his mouth agape in stupor, eyes open wide and dripping tears.
I begin to hit the glass to get their attention, to get them to stop, but they don’t look away.
The kid run at the corner of the bench, head slouched low, and connects.
That sickening rubber mallet noise is clear now, like I am in the room with them. Like there is no glass anymore and I am a part this horrific ordeal.
The kid takes a little while to get off the corner, and I hear the scratching noise that the teeth make against the laminating.
The kid turns to look at me.
I see eyes filled with fear and pain, the split in the throat reaching the kids sternum, and the top teeth and part of the lips gone, now bits of gore covering the bench.
The kid’s eyes plead to me to make it stop, but I do nothing.
It turns to the counter again and runs full speed.
The thud is heard again and I see innards spill to the sides. Intestines and stomach dangle in a shower of blood.
The kid spasms for a moment and then stops.
My heart is exploding in my chest and I begin to hyperventilate.
I feel the helplessness of the situation and the acidic burn as I bend over to dry retch.
I look up again and see the father is inches away from me, his expression exactly the same, that noiseless scream.
We lock eyes as he walks backwards toward the door of the master bedroom.
It was open the whole time by just a crack.
It then widens by itself and he backs into the room.
And that's when I see it.
A single eye and bared teeth surrounded by a black void.
Bigger than any person could ever be.
The eye as round as a tyre.
The teeth clean and straight, thick as legs.
I can hear a choked sobbing noise.
Taylor comes up to me and shakes me.
He screams when he looks at the bench and runs to call the police.
That's where I usually wake up.
And it surprises me every time that the sobbing is coming from me.
Woke at 4am to the sound of shouting and what was probably pots and pans being thrown.
Went back to bed because not my problem.
Ashley invited me over for a drink.
Was worried it was going to be about what I said when Aubrey came over and how I lost my cool, but if she told him he hid it well.
He said his lady was working late and he just wanted a few glasses of tequila and orange juice to ease himself down for the day.
As if I wasn’t going to say yes.
It didn’t take long before he started blabbing about what happened the last night.
The booze was clearly the lubricant he needed to feel comfortable to get it all off his chest.
I felt very uneasy through the whole explanation.
I’m going to write it as close as I remember, because fuck this “he said she said” stuff.
“Sorry for the noise we must have made. I was just sick of her shit you know? I’m in bed sleeping and she gets home and fucking throws a frying pan at my leg and then slamming the door. You know what it’s like waking up to some crazy bitch throwing cooking ware at you? Now I’m freaking out screaming and she isn’t even in the room. Had the nerve to just be sitting there watching the bedroom from the couch. I think she must have been leaving as she had one shoe on. So I scream at her, what the fucks your problem and where the fuck are you going and she isn’t even looking at me. Just stares behind me at the bedroom door like the guilty bitch she is, not even looking me in the eye once. I got so mad at this and lost my shit. Started throwing pots at the floor. They were expensive and now they all have dents, fuck.
The whole time she’s just sitting there not saying a word or looking away from the room. Told her to sleep on the couch and went to bed.”
He apologised more times than necessary after that and I had to give him some sort of solace.
Told him that sometimes it’s better to explode and then apologise than to slowly start disliking each other.
I don't even believe that is true at all.
I’m personally more surprised how comfortable I am in their house.
I’m going to blame the drinks though, I was 4 down before I even came over.
Aubrey’s car hasn’t left the parking lot for the last few days.
Grabbed their mail on the way in to see how they were and Ashley greeted me.
He said they were all good again, but Aubrey caught the flu and has been bed ridden.
He was sleeping in the lounge room and had some blankets and pillows thrown about.
Told him to say hi for me, but when he replied it was very weird.
Said ‘If I ever see her again I’ll try to remember it”, fine whatever, but he said it with a lost look in his face, like he was trying to remember something forgotten, or he couldn't remember the last time he saw her.
I left and he leaned back into his couch, has eyes looking toward the bedroom door.
Our bedrooms are connected by a single concrete wall, so if they are screaming at each other it’s hard to hear and comes across very muffled.
If say a headboard starts to tap against the wall it’s awkwardly distracting at the later hours of the night.
But last night there was something else, another noise in which I had trouble picturing the source.
Starting from the top near the ceiling was a scratching, like someone slowly grinding a brick from the ceiling to the floor.
Then it would pause for a few seconds and repeat.
The strange part was the squeak it would sometimes make, like it slipped or something.
2 hours straight.
I just laid there counting the seconds from start to finish.
I have to write this now while it’s still fresh.
My nerves are tingling all over, adrenaline is making it hard keeping the pen making coherent words. Every hair on my body is standing on end.
That noise had woken me up and I decided to be polite and ask them nicely to keep it down, or at least I could find out what it was.
Their curtains were pulled aside and I could see into the whole room.
Looking back now I realised that I shouldn’t have panicked and fled but I was afraid.
It was irrational fear, the kind where a dread rises from deep inside your chest and spreads like ice to each nerve, sending you on edge.
I had run to my door, my hands shaking and not daring to look back.
I’m surprised I even managed to get the latch down to lock it behind me.
Just thinking about it sends doubt on my vision and memory, if any of it was even real.
Standing outside in the light of the moon I had found the noise was louder.
That grind now always ended in a squeak.
Ashley was laying on the couch, his body limp and limbs splayed in an uncomfortable looking position.
His mouth was open and slack with dried spittle matting the side of his cheek that flecked and swayed with each breath.
His eyes were wide and red, the blood vessels had burst at some point and the trail of dried tears streaked down.
I don’t think he’d been blinking at all, just staring at Aubrey in her room.
When I finally followed his gaze I couldn’t see properly into the room itself.
There was an unnatural darkness from there, and I imagined it to be in the process of covering the whole apartment in a thick black ichor.
From where I stood I could only make out a silhouette in the room of what I thought was Aubrey.
The noise, it's terrifying reverberation finally stopped.
The darkness moved further out at that point, creeping like fingers, reaching out to touch Ashley, to touch me.
And I ran.
The police came after I called. I was shaken and half a bottle down.
The constable said the door was unlocked and they found what might be foul play.
There are blood stains against an etched line down the wall that connects our bedroom.
Besides that, the apartment is in a normal state, though the couple has disappeared.
They’d put out a notice of their description and in a few days will upgrade it to a missing person case.
I’m supposed to keep an eye out for them.
The other neighbours were asked the same thing.
I’ve booked myself in a hotel for a few nights.
Probably going to stop writing for a bit.
I’ve reached a minor milestone and decided to put it to paper.
30 days dry.
Taken up cigarettes again instead.
One poison for another.
A moving company came next door to pack all the stuff up.
When I questioned, one of the guys said they were sending it all to next of kin, some family a state over.
They left the place barren and put up a thick light-blocking curtain over the front glass door.
The light they accidentally left on is reflected on the tiles underneath it.
Doc said I’m going back to a state of safety, whatever that means.
Alcohol’s to blame we reckon, that mixed with depression makes you project thoughts or interpret things in a fantastical way.
He didn’t say it, but I’m basically close to normal again. They don’t like the word ‘normal’.
Have been asked to take up writing in the journal a second time.
So here we are. I’ve gone over what I’ve written and it does come across as strange.
I’ve been at least sleeping in my room again. The bed’s not against that wall though.
The local university hosts a film snobs night where they play a video of some old classic and then there is a discussion afterwards.
While I am very aware I might be older than most of the kids there, it’s a free movie.
We watched Citizen Kane and the amount of time I heard whispers of “this is my favourite movie” was comical.
During the talk a guy named Ethan leaned over to make the hand-wank motion over what they were saying.
Everyone turned to look at me when I snickered.
Before I left I introduced myself awkwardly and got his name.
I’m still a mess.
Some self help magazines suggested a new look to get out of a rut, if that's what I am really in.
Went and bought some new clothes and spent around $500.
I’m close to the end of my tether financially and hopefully the outfit will land me the desk job of my dreams. Nothing like typing in numbers on outdated hardware in some backward government sector to get you excited for the day.
First day wasn’t too bad.
Some nice people work there and are all very aware of how mundane the task is.
Only just realised when I was walking to my door that the light still hasn’t been turned off.
No updates from anyone on what happened to Ashley and Aubrey but I am not going out of my way to ask.
The movie was Solaris this time. Weird sci-fi from Russia or something. When it ended I went to get a can of coke and met Ethan again.
We talked about the film and then about normal things like who what when where.
He’s about 7 years younger than I, goes to Uni for art and film and is pretty down to earth.
Reckons he wants to be the next Kubrick in the film world but needs to start from the bottom. When I said that space movie of his was terrible he laughed and said he agreed, but I think he was just trying to stay friendly.
I said I liked bowling and he did too.
We’re meeting up in a few days.
I came home this morning a little groggy from lack of sleep and I just had to fucking look.
At first I thought it was a weird reflection on the tiles.
When I walked passed the glass door to mine it looked like my shadow was causing a dark area under that curtain.
It was just a little strange at first as I slowed down to have a better look at it.
Then the shadowed steps stopped while I kept walking.
The strangled yelp that escaped my mouth startled me as I made it to my home and slammed the door closed.
Is someone in there?
Ethan was over and we were barely paying attention to some movie when he asked if I was expecting company.
He pointed out the shadow of feet standing on the other side of the back door.
When I told him that door leads to a balcony and we are on the second floor we called the police of an attempted break in and grabbed some knives to protect ourselves.
Our shouts and bravado lead to nothing as we threatened harm to whoever it was.
When the police finally came they opened the door to a pair of my sandshoes leaning against the railing, casting their outline against a low streetlight.
The cops weren’t impressed and neither was Ethan.
I came clean, told him about what happened to the last neighbours and how I freaked out about seeing the shadow under the curtain.
And he was good, said that it would have been understandable if I didn't share.
He then asked how the new neighbours are considering he saw one peeking behind a curtain when he knocked here this afternoon.
I’m calling the real estate company in the morning.
They said the place is still vacant and if I could recommend people looking for a place to call.
Said there was a locksmith that changed all the locks last week and he reported nothing unusual, just a completely empty apartment.
Why did he leave the light on then?
I am not too sure what to do at this point.
There has to be someone next door but I can’t just call the cops to bust in. What if it's just an empty apartment? What if I’m just imagining it?
Mary on the right side said she’s never seen anyone, but then again she’s rarely home anyway.
There was what sounded like someone pacing coming through the bedroom wall.
I asked Ethan if I could stay at his for a few days, hopefully it’ll calm me down a bit.
He’s going to pick me up tomorrow morning.
I just came back from putting out the rubbish.
Tried to walk past the next door unit to the stairs but the glass sliding door was open.
I didn’t look in, and went the other way.
Ethan called to say he was out front.
I told him to give me a few moments to find the house keys.
My heart filled with dread when I heard the neighbours sliding door close.
A few moments ago I was standing on the front balcony, staring at his sedan idling on the street.
He was supposed to wait in the car.
I've spent the last 10 hours in guilty anguish.
I am afraid. Afraid to leave the house and afraid for Ethan.
Liquid courage is a bullshit term as I've emptied a bottle I had hidden and still don't think I can do much. Just sit in the lounge and listen to his car finally run out of petrol, listen to the scraping noise I've heard before coming from the bedroom wall.
I had pins and needles when I saw him.
Like a black sheet hanging in the sun to dry with rays of light piercing through a little hole, Ethan was the only thing I could observe in the whole apartment.
Everything was dark, and I barely saw the outlines of the corners and cabinets.
My stomach was in knots as I watched him in his pathetic form.
He laid on the floor of the bedroom doorway, bare chested and breathing slowly.
His head resting on his one outstretched arm, his fingers slowly dragged against the floor leaving bloody trails.
The waist down was obscured by misty blackness, like a thick fog on a moonless night, and it held him in place as a snake would, constricting the life from him before it finished its meal.
His eyes stared into mine, unblinking and full of sadness, and he mouthed sorrowful words I could not hear.
Ethan wants me to save him.
I am scared shitless and I know every second I waste means another second towards his death.
I found another bottle and basically finished it in one breathe, but I am stone sober.
Ethan is there in the abyss of the apartment, my only light in the void and I have to help him.
His life is dangling there for me to reach out and take him back.
I've got a kitchen knife and methylated spirits with a lighter so that whatever has him can feel the pain it is causing me.
When we get back I'll write out everything I remember, every little detail.
And the docs, the police, who the fuck ever else can have a harder time disbelieving me when Ethan can be a second witness.
Here I go.