The Watchers in the Stairwell, by Emily Henry Burnham

It is Sunday afternoon, and Silvia is watching her husband from the corner of her eye while she tries to read a book in the lone armchair where he never sits. Her husband is standing at the door to the balcony, looking out at the city below with a frown on his face. She watches him, and wonders what part of the world he is deconstructing piece by piece, as if it were a toy. Tomorrow, he must go back to work after a week of stewing in silence and regret. The thin walls of their apartment have soaked up all his anger and self-righteousness, and tomorrow he must go back out into the world.

He sips a cup of coffee from the pot of stagnant dregs he has been siphoning for days. The stubble on his face is thick and soft, like the down of a baby duck. His clothes smell like vinegar and moss, the scent of his unwashed skin soaking through.

“Do you want me to make you a fresh cup?” she asks. But he merely frowns and sips. He is giving her the silent treatment for what she did, which must have been bad—and made even worse because she can’t remember what it was.

He will be here for a while, turning over those heavy, important thoughts of tomorrow and the machinery that keeps churning out all the tomorrows after that. To him, this day is already gone, and she is, as always, a ghost of what was.

Silvia watches him, her eyes flicking back and forth from her book filled with sentences she cannot comprehend. She keeps scanning the words, but like in a dream, they mean nothing.

It has been days now since she has been able to read a thing. She cannot focus.

“I’m going to get some air,” she tells him.

He doesn’t answer.

Silvia has started visiting the stairwell of their apartment complex as a way to take a break from the heavy silence that hangs in the air of her apartment like a looming storm. The stairwell is familiar now, part of her. It is the answer to a question she has stopped asking. The enclosed space is a cocoon, with stairs rising and falling between levels that open out to landings with doorways where people live. When she looks up, the high ceilings and metal beams twist up into infinity. She enjoys walking up and down a few floors when she feels restless, appreciates the way her steps echo and strangers come and go below and above. It is a place that isn’t supposed to exist except in passing, it is not a place in and of itself. But her presence there, her intention toward it, makes it so.

Today she decides to walk all the way up to the top and then halfway down again, to sit on a step overlooking a floor she has never experienced, other than as part of up or down. The light here is its own shade of white, stilled by the cold but cloudless sky beyond the small window above. She can see a faint moon high in the air, almost invisible, as if the daylight is trying to wash it away like a smudge. It clings to the sky, a breath away from fading out.

Silvia waits, and watches.

Soon the stairwell fills with the sound of the main doors whooshing open and a clanging of keys. A scent wafts through the air. The smell of oil and leather. The barber done with his afternoon shift and now ready to sleep. Weary with it. He trudges up the stairs, shoulders slumped, breathing hard. He stayed up too late and drank too much last night, and there is poison leaking from his veins. It smells like cinnamon, sweet and seasonal. It must have been a spiced bourbon. His liver is failing, and so his hangover will last days instead of hours. He will call off his shift tomorrow and visit his mother, who will make him soup and mop his brow with a cooled towel. He will tell his friends that he has a girl on the side, a married one, and the only way to see her is when her husband is at work. They will laugh and pat him on the back, and his insides will hurt less for that moment.

Silvia does not ask why she knows these things. She just does. Being a watcher has always made her aware of the details of peoples’ lives, but lately the gifts are heightened, like new levels added to a building until it touches the sky.

The barber disappears into his apartment, and the stairwell is silent again.

Silvia walks downstairs to another floor she has yet to create. This time she leans on the stair rail and watches the doors until one opens. There are six doors on each floor, and it is the sixth door that opens after a few minutes. An old lady with a small dog clutched in her arms shuffles past without a glance. Her face is cemented in a frown that will not wash off. She smells like soap. Inside her apartment there is a wooden box she has pushed into the shadows under the bed, and inside the box there is a button from a child’s cardigan, a single small sock, and a piece of ribbon with three baby teeth wrapped inside. The box is there so that the old woman can leave it behind, make it a separate part of her, but there is a scar in her womb and a pain in her hands that she cannot set aside. The old woman grips the handrail as she carefully steps down each stair, the dog yapping and shivering in her arms. “Quiet down, Henry,” she snaps, and her hand comes to the dog’s neck, then jerks away again. “You quiet down now,” she tries to say more softly, but her hands are trembling with longing.

The smell of soap follows her down the stairwell until it drifts off, far below. The main door opens, and a swirl of noise empties into the lobby. A half-moon of daylight catches the glint of two upturned eyes. A man is standing at the bottom of the stairwell, looking up at her. Watching, too.

He is older than her, by perhaps a good ten years. His face is deep cut with wrinkles, his eyes round and dark with thick silver eyebrows. He is wearing a faded suit that seems slightly too small. The knot of the tie is pulled down at an angle, the top buttons of the shirt open, like he couldn’t stand it anymore.

She looks away, stares around at the gray stairwell, at the light shifting to dusk. She glances back at him, and he is still staring.

“Can I help you?” she calls down to him.

“Can I help you?” he replies. His voice sounds familiar.

“This is my stairwell,” she says. She realizes the strangeness of declaring such a thing, but doesn’t care.

“It’s also mine.”

“How come I’ve never seen you here before, then?”

“Perhaps you weren’t looking.” The man shrugs.

“I’m always looking.”

“You don’t look all the way down here. You don’t come down this far, either. You always sit on one of the upper floors.”

“I don’t like it down there.”

“Why not?”

She steps a little back from the railing and into the shadows.

“It’s too much,” she says in barely more than a whisper. She thinks about the sunlight coming through the glass of the main doors, how it pools in the lobby at dusk. She thinks she hears a crack, a crunch like treading on a pavement covered with snails after the rain, or eating an egg sandwich and biting down on a piece of stray eggshell. It is a terrible sound that she feels reverberate deep inside her. She quickly turns away from the memory.

There is silence below. Through the window above, the daytime moon still clings to the barren sky.

And then he is there. Standing in front of her. He raises a hand as if to scratch his nose, but lowers it again. She notices his tobacco-stained fingers, and how the yellow matches that of the whiskers around his mouth. The rest is a soft white, making the yellow stand out like tainted snow. The wrinkle between his eyebrows is deepest of all, as if he has spent his life carving a frown.

The suit is indeed too small. It rides up at the wrists and ankles. And he is not wearing any shoes or socks. His toes are wiry with gray fur.

She thinks, perhaps, he might be a crazy person who has wandered in off the street. But she is not afraid. It has been so long since anyone has talked to her that she cradles every word. Her husband would tell her not to talk to strangers. But he doesn’t get to tell her what to do anymore.

“I don’t usually come up this far,” he says. And she realizes why his voice is so familiar. It is the voice of the stairwell, a soothing slate gray with notes of cold air. If this place could talk, he is what it would sound like.

“Have you seen the moon?” she asks him. She points up to the window.

He shakes his head. “You don’t look down.” He gestures towards the bottom floor. “I don’t look up.” He nods to the floor above without taking his eyes off the waning sunlight far below.

“Why not?”

He steps forward to join the shadows beside her. They both look out into the stairwell.

“Too much,” he says.

“Is someone angry at you, too?” she asks, but doesn’t know why.

“Lots of people. But one, in particular, yes. My daughter.”

“Does she live here in the building?”

He nods.

“Do you live here?”

“I did. For a long time.”

“Which floor?”

“Used to be that one up there with the window.” He nods again to the floor above. “With my daughter. What about you? Where did you use to live?”

“I live a couple floors down.” She points into the darkness beyond the railing of her own floor.

“You live there?”

“Yes. I live there.”

The man turns down his mouth and lifts his eyebrows. “Interesting.”

“Want to move to a different floor?” she asks. “I feel like we’ve already made this one.”

He gestures for her to lead the way, and she walks down the steps to the floor below.

“This is where the grown-up boy lives,” she says.

“The grown-up boy?”

Silvia smiles and shrugs. “His apartment is chock-full of kids’ toys from the ’80s. He collects them. They’re all the ones he used to have in his childhood. A few of them are his actual toys, but the rest are replicas in pristine condition. He doesn’t even open the boxes. Just displays them on shelves that cover every wall.”

“What’s the point?” the man says. “If he doesn’t even use them?”

“They remind him of his dad. Worked a lot. When he was home, they’d put together a Lego set. He’d never take it apart again, just put it up on a shelf and stare at it as he fell asleep at night when his dad was away on work trips, which was always.” She sighs and stares at the grown-up boy’s door. “As long as there is an unopened Lego set, there’s a chance.”

The man nods. He turns and leans back against the railing, facing her. “You like to watch people, don’t you?”

Silvia shifts on her feet and looks up into the waning light.

“I never did much watching,” the man sighs. “Wasn’t very good at seeing beyond the end of my own nose.”

They stand in silence for a moment. Silvia feels a light breeze ruffle the fabric around her calves. She doesn’t know what she is wearing. Doesn’t remember getting dressed. Doesn’t look down to see.

“I should have watched my daughter more,” the man says into the empty stairwell. “Paid attention. Wondered. Had a bit more curiosity about who she was and what kind of a person she was becoming. And because I wasn’t watching, she got hurt. Hurt pretty badly. Took what they offered her one night at a party and overdosed. Ended up with nerve damage in her leg from lying there so long, cutting off the circulation. Can you imagine? Just lying there, almost dead and no one noticing. She wanted to be a dancer. Not that I ever coughed up the money for lessons or even took her to the free ones at the community center. Just too focused on my own problems, I guess. But she had to give up dancing after that.”

“What’s she doing now?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“But she lives in the same building. Don’t you ever visit? Or see her in the stairwell?”

“I can’t go up there. Not after what I did. I hide when I see her coming.”

“What did you do?”

The man turns his back to her and stares down into the darkness.

“Something terrible. Right in front of her. Something that scarred her for life.” He grips the stair rail so hard that his knuckles blossom with bone. “I can’t believe I didn’t think about what it would do to her to see something like that.”

“I did something bad, too,” Silvia says. If only she could remember what.

The stairwell is growing dark, so Silvia bids farewell to the barefoot man in the suit and goes back to her own apartment.

She watches her husband eat chili out of a bowl and leave it on the table among the others, watches him drink five beers while staring at football on the TV with not a spark of joy in his eyes, only resigned determination. Watches him get into bed without brushing his teeth. Sees him lying there with his eyes fixed on the ceiling to avoid looking at the vacant side of the bed where she should be sleeping.

Has he ever watched her? She wonders. She has never caught him watching, and he has always been somewhere in her vast and magnanimous peripheral vision. She would have seen him staring, even glancing when he thought she was distracted. That’s how you watch people, when they aren’t looking at you. That’s how you see them, when they aren’t expecting to be seen, when they’re looking the other way or too deep in thought to remember you’re there. The only time people are really themselves is when they aren’t aware of an audience. But he’s never tried to glimpse her this way.

Perhaps some people are more difficult to see. They don’t shine as bright or for as long. They have to fight for a light that sits high and delicate in a vast sky, mingled with clouds like a daytime moon.

Silvia goes back to the stairwell and finds the man in the same spot she left him, staring down into the shadows.

“It’s not too late,” she says to him. “We could visit her.”

“I can’t.” He shakes his head sadly.

“Or maybe we could just watch her. Maybe she’s doing okay and you could see that. Learn a little about her life.”

“But what if she’s not doing okay?” He turns to her. “That would be too much.”

“At least you’d know. You’d be there to know. And maybe that could be some comfort. To both of you.”

He steps back from the stair rail, and she feels relief, as if she had been worried he might launch himself over and fall down into the empty air of the stairwell to land in the sunlight at the bottom. That awful sunlight, where things are not just seen, but exposed, in every blistering detail. She hears the crack again. That reverberating crunch of something deep within. Something wrong, and bad.

“How?” he asks.

“It’s almost midnight. That’s when she goes out for her last cigarette of the night.”

She usually smokes in her apartment, except for that last cigarette. She likes to let the place air out a bit before she goes to bed. She hates sleeping with the smell of tobacco in her nose. It reminds her of her dad and gives her bad dreams.

The stairwell is black with night, all but for the dim wall lamps. The shadows of the stair railings are fuzzy in the sickly orange glow, which casts faint stripes along the walls like bars on a cage.

She gestures for him to follow and walks up the stairs to his daughter’s floor. They stand in the darkness beside her door. The wall sconce flickers gently, like a candle in a breeze, dipping them in and out of blackness.

Sure enough, as midnight strikes, the daughter’s door opens, and a woman with short-cropped hair wearing a faded set of pajamas and large boots steps into the hallway. She fiddles around with her keys, locking the door even though she will be gone for only a few minutes. She walks over to the window and cracks it open, settles herself on the ledge, and lights a cigarette.

They watch her in silence as she smokes it, carefully flicking the ashes out the crack and blowing her smoke into the night air. When she is done, she reaches around the outside of the window and stubs it out on the brick wall, then pulls a tissue from her pocket and folds the cigarette butt inside. She carries it carefully back to her apartment and disappears inside.

“What did you see?” she asks the man.

“She shouldn’t be smoking.” He frowns. “Her mother died of lung cancer.”

“What else?”

He turns to her, pulling himself away from staring at his daughter’s closed front door.

“What do you mean, what else? She came out and had a cigarette. That was it.”

She shakes her head. “There’s more than that. Look at the small things. The pieces of her.”

The man frowned. He lifted a hand as if to scratch his nose again, then dropped it.

“She never used to have short hair,” he says. “She always kept it so long. It was like silk down her back. She loved it. After her mother died, I wanted her to get it cut because it was so hard to brush in the mornings before school, but she begged and pleaded with me, saying that she’d take care of it, wake up earlier to brush it herself. Which she did. Why would she cut it all off?”

She waits, watches the man’s face, his eyes skimming through thoughts and memories and realizations.

“I recognize the pajamas. She’s had those since her twelfth birthday, when they were too big but she loved them anyway. I used to tuck her in at night and tell her she was safe, that I’d keep her safe. Then she’d ask me if I remembered to lock all the doors, and I would laugh and say, ‘Honey, I always do.’ And I always did. Sometimes she’d check them in the morning and give me a thumbs-up. She’d thank me for keeping us safe.”

He bows his head. “But then I stopped keeping her safe. Things got busy at work, and I was so tired all the time. I kept forgetting to lock the doors, and one night someone came in and stole her mother’s jewelry box. It was all she had left of her. We’d been a happy family until her mom got sick. I just couldn’t do it on my own. Without her there to keep me in check, remind me that life is made up of the little things and not just the big ones, I just drifted off into the world and got further and further from home. Even when I was there, I wasn’t really there. You know?”

She knew. What was the point in working so hard and worrying so much if you couldn’t ever switch it off and see the miracles all around you? A pair of well-loved pajamas. A slat of light through the window landing on tumbled bedsheets. A warm ceramic mug cupped in cold hands.

“Those boots,” he says quietly. “They were far too big for her. Like clown shoes.” He looks down at his own bare feet. His voice catches in his throat as he says, “They were mine.”

Suddenly he snaps his head up to face Silvia, the curated wrinkle between his brows deepened with anger.

“What is she still doing here? Why hasn’t she left this place? Gone somewhere else, somewhere new?”

“She never leaves this apartment,” Silvia says. “No more parties. Doesn’t have any friends. She is afraid.”

The man softens, although his fists are still clenched. “What makes you think that?”

“She locks her door even though she’s only going a few feet away. She wears your boots.”

“What do the boots have to do with it?”

“You once told her they have steel toes. That if you kicked someone really hard while wearing them, you might kill them. She remembered that.”

The man nods slowly. He frowns at his daughter’s front door.

“She is afraid,” he says. “Even now, even though she’s all grown up. She’s still afraid.”

“Even more than before, now that you’re not there to protect her.”

He stands upright, straightens his tie. “I’m here now,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay here and guard her door every night for eternity, if I have to. Or until she feels safe enough again to leave.”

“I think that is what she wants,” Silvia says with a smile.

The man turns to her, releases his folded arms to his sides, and regards her with a look of concern.

“And what do you want?”

Silvia cannot remember the last time she actually wanted something. To want has become a memory.

She trembles with forgotten pain and sees herself reflected in his eyes, a murky shadow.

What does she look like? She cannot remember the last time she saw herself. She had been too busy watching everyone else.

She approaches the blackened window at the end of the floor. What she sees in the dark glass is a woman with a sad face, bags under her eyes, her cheeks hollow, her skin sallow. The woman’s hair hangs limply down to her shoulders in stringy strands. Her lips are thin and pale. Even her eyebrows are thinning at the edges. She looks washed out, like someone has tried to scrub old chalk off a chalkboard, left with a dusty stain instead of a clean, black slate.

And her eyes. Watery gray with pinpricks for pupils, like a nocturnal creature dragged into day, wincing at the light.

She is wearing a sundress. She recognizes it as the dress she wore on her first date with her husband. He had told her she looked like a flower in spring, and she had felt herself opening to him, wanting to always be seen that way.

The dress floats around her in a breeze she cannot feel.

And there, around her throat, is a necklace of black and purple bruises.

She looks at herself, and sees.

Hanging above her head is the moon. Not a daytime moon, sulking away in the light, but a nighttime moon, made brighter by the darkness. She steps forward so it shines down on her face and bathes her in its light, colors her in. The gray shadows recede. Her cheeks flush a rose pink, her eyes shine green like unearthed spring buds, her dress turns lilac, her favorite color.

The cement gray of the walls around her, the shadows lurking in every corner, the stairwell itself, takes a step back to let her shine.

She says goodbye to the man outside his daughter’s apartment, staring at the door, beginning his eternal vigil. He looks as if he has always been there, watching for when his daughter comes and goes, wondering what might be going through her mind, keeping her safe, from a distance. He seems at peace now. No more wandering the stairwell, lost and angry, a bullet hole barely visible under a dark patch of matted hair at the back of his head.

She remembers now.

Inside her apartment, she climbs into bed without the sheets moving, curls up beside her husband, and watches his eyes, wide in the darkness.

She leans closer, almost close enough to nuzzle her husband’s neck, but she is careful not to touch him with her cold skin. He smells like tree bark after a summer rain. He smells like the color green, like muddy hands about to be washed under cool water in a ceramic basin.

His eyes shimmer with tears and regret and unseen cataracts that are melting away in salt and shame with every new day alone.

Tomorrow he will have to leave the apartment for the first time in many days and go into the stairwell, into the gray where she left him. He will keep his eyes on the door to the outside world. He will not see the daytime moon, only the sun as it kisses his skin. He will open and close his hands as he walks, feeling the calluses on his palms where he tried to grip the rope, only for it to slip through his fingers, scraping off the skin of his palms. He had seen her then—watched her fall into the darkness of the stairwell and land in the light.

As she hit the bottom, she heard her neck crack. Everything went white. Too white. Too bright. Too much.

Her body lay there in the sunlight, her soul gone to the world beyond for a brief moment, like a toe touched in a cold river. She had turned back and come home to him.

Now she realizes his silences aren’t the same as before. They aren’t the silences of anger and frustration and worry, but of regret.

“I’m sorry,” she tells him. They were always the hardest words to say, always the ones that stuck in her throat because things had been so hard for her. She always felt as if life and everything in it should have been the one saying sorry. For the disappointment. The mess. The lost hope. For not seeing her.

“I’m sorry, too,” her husband whispers into the empty air around her and within her.

It isn’t the release she thought it would be. It doesn’t suddenly make her feel real. To be seen by him was all she thought she ever needed. That if he only he would look at her, see her, then she would feel real. Made. Filled in at last.

She watches him until he falls asleep, then gently closes the door behind her so as not to wake him as she leaves the apartment for the last time. The stairwell is dim with the bulbs of night-light sconces. She looks up at the window, and it is black as death.

She descends the stairwell, floor after floor going deeper down than she has been in a long time. She reaches the bottom floor, opens the doors, and moonlight cascades into the lobby in a gentle crescent. She steps outside and looks up at the moon, wide and bright, shining right above her. The brightest thing in a sky full of darkness.


Emily Henry Burnham is a writer living in Oregon, but originally from England. A former journalist, Emily turned from realism to magical realism, dark fantasy and horror to explore themes of trauma, beauty, identity and mortality. Her fiction has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and adapted to audio format for the Tales to Terrify podcast. Find her on Twitter @emilyhburnham.

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