Ceiling Man by Courtney Gustafson
It was lunchtime at a place with live music, the banjos loud enough to make conversation hard. Jana was having lunch with her father. They had both ordered sandwiches and now he was carefully dissecting his, pulling off the tomato, the lettuce, the onion. He scraped at the mustard soaked into the bread. They were sitting at a wooden table and when their conversation lulled, Jana’s father returned to examining the woodwork, kicking at the table legs and nodding his approval at their sturdiness. He rapped on the side of the tabletop. Oak, he said.
Jana’s father was facing the musicians and he watched them with mild interest, like they were a species he had seen before at a zoo. Jana had her back to them. Behind her father there was an older man with a hearing aid, head inclined toward the music. He was wearing shorts belted high on his waist. His shin was bleeding.
The musicians paused between songs and Jana’s father made attempts at conversation: how was her job, how was her new place, how was she sleeping. He was pinching off pieces of bread now, removing the excess around the edges of the sandwich and piling it carefully next to the lettuce. He didn’t seem to realize he was doing it.
Jana mostly didn’t answer. She was watching the man behind her father, watching the blood accumulate on his shin. She had thought at first that it was a recent injury just healing, the scab still a little liquid, but it was dripping now, catching on the sparse hair of his leg and moving toward his sock. He was still watching the band, the music started up again now, tapping his hand on his table. He turned his leg a little and Jana realized that the gash reached nearly all the way around it, a bright liquid line just under his knee. The blood had reached his sock and was moving like capillaries through the cotton.
The night before, Jana had had a dream about a man who lived in her ceiling, who watched her through the cracks and could lift up the tiles to ferret people away. In the dream, her mother visited and went to the bathroom to take a shower and never came back out. All that was left was a hole in the ceiling.
Jana had prepared for her father’s visit by taking out all the trash—the can under the sink and the two bags that had accumulated around it when she hadn’t gotten around to emptying it. She got rid of a few of the moldiest things in the fridge. She made the bed and picked up all the underwear from the floor and she vacuumed. Once, she hadn’t vacuumed and her father had arrived, looked straight at the floor, and taken out the vacuum himself.
It occurred to her as she cleaned that her ceiling wasn’t tiled. There was some sort of opening in the ceiling in one of her closets, but it was covered with plywood, and Jana checked it now to make sure it was nailed in place. It was solid, unmovable. She knocked on it like a neighbor’s door and waited a few seconds. No one answered.
Jana’s father was offering her the pickle spear that had come with his sandwich, and she took it without speaking. He was fixated on the band now, staring at them with a look of defeat, like they had trumped all his efforts at speaking. Jana was still watching the older man. He had not yet noticed his own bleeding.
The blood had reached the floor now and looked dark against the wood. It was getting thick on his leg, heavy against the whiteness of his skin. Jana had stopped eating entirely, was wholly focused on the path of the blood from shin to sock, across the ankle bone and onto the floor. No one else seemed to have noticed. The band was still playing. Her father was absently sucking at the ice left in his soda.
In the dream, Jana realized as she showered, the man in the ceiling had been someone she knew, someone she recognized and was surprised to find living in her ceiling. She was pretty sure there was no real space up there, no actual attic, just a foot or two of insulation. In the dream the man had moved horizontally, like a snake.
She had become afraid of a lot of things. As a child, she hadn’t been allowed to watch scary movies or hear ghost stories because they kept her up late at night, crying in her parents’ bed, sure that everything was out to get her. Her father had been her best comfort, then. He had rational explanations for every noise, every sense that something else was in the room. Now, alone in a one bedroom apartment, she spent a lot of time double-checking the locks on the doors, peeking behind the shower curtain for intruders. She kept a knife next to her bed.
The weird thing, she thought, was her feelings for the ceiling man. She imagined him watching her sleep. For all her fears, she worried that he was just lonely.
Twenty minutes passed before a waitress noticed the blood moving down the man’s shin. She whispered in his ear and he looked down at himself, at the blood pooling below him, and smiled knowingly, chuckled a little, like he wasn’t at all surprised. Like this was everyday for him, for his skin to spontaneously cease holding in all his blood.
The band kept playing but was distracted now, hands on their banjos but eyes on the blood. The waitress had brought over a stack of napkins and a first aid kit and now it was hard to ignore, this dark red spectacle in the middle of the lunchtime rush. Jana’s father was rummaging through a bag of potato chips, setting aside any he deemed too dark. He glanced back at the bleeding man and then looked again at Jana, popping a chip in his mouth. He raised his eyebrows. They didn’t say anything.
The man was standing by now, napkin pressed to his leg, making his way to a bathroom. The waitress looked helplessly at the trail of blood he had left. Jana had not finished her sandwich. Her father was getting up to leave.
That night, the ceiling man was the man from lunch, bleeding from both legs above her bed. Jana had never seen that much blood before, enough for it to look dark and clumpy, to look both liquid and not. In her dream, the man’s skin fell off in sheets and he chuckled like this was no big deal, moving snake-like above her rooms, his blood seeping through the tiles in dark patches that threatened to fall.
She was hungry. Her father had told her she wasn’t eating enough and had left a twenty dollar bill by the door when he left. There was half a sandwich in the fridge and Jana considered it for a long time, the walk from her bed to the kitchen.
She finally fell back asleep without eating. When she woke again it was morning, the sunrise lighting the windows blood red. She stayed horizontal, the ceiling blankly parallel above her.
Courtney Gustafson writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Dirty Chai, Synaesthesia Magazine, and elsewhere.