KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 8: August 2017
Flash Fiction: 981 words

Under the Ceiling

by Kathryn Kulpa

In a movie I saw as a kid someone asked a girl what she wanted to see on her honeymoon—like, Paris or Rome or something, you’d expect her to say—but instead she said, lots and lots of beautiful ceilings.

And like so many things I half understood as a kid I vaguely sensed that this was “dirty,” that it meant something risqué and adultish. When I asked my mother, she pretended a bland ignorance and said the girl was just “being silly.” Later, I asked my cousin Beth, but she had no insight to share. I hadn’t expected she would. She was not just my cousin but my best friend. Our mothers, two sisters, had been pregnant together, and so we were twins, of a sort, born one month apart, sharing clothes and books and chicken pox. We found things out together, not apart.

But ceilings meant something, I knew, because of that song “Hotel California,” where you could check out any time you liked but you could never leave, and how it had mirrors on the ceiling, and so I took to watching ceilings, noticing them, and it’s a funny thing, but most people never do. Maybe they try not to. Sometimes looking up is scarier than looking down. A crack in the ceiling might look like a goblin king’s head or an alien’s beckoning claw. There might be furry things growing in the corners, and spider webs, and sometimes even spiders that dangle.

Spiders that dangle could scare anybody.

When I was thirteen years old we took a family vacation to Maine. Beth came along, my surrogate sister, and that year, for the first time, we were allowed a motel room of our own, without parents. The year before, sleeping in the double bed only a few feet away from my father, I’d gotten my period. I wondered if that was why. I remembered cringing in embarrassment, waiting until my dad was in the shower to tell my mom, worrying about the housekeeper seeing the sheets, even whispering to my mother that we should throw them out, buy a new set and switch them. She insisted that motel housekeepers saw “all kinds of things.” Still, that year, we were growing up and “needed some privacy.”

To celebrate, we planned a party for that first night. We wouldn’t sleep at all; we’d stay up all night, making mix tapes out of radio songs on my boom box, telling ghost stories, playing truth or dare, and sharing vending-machine junk food. Earlier that day we walked to a fruit stand down the road, bought black-red cherries, and practiced spitting the pits across the room, aiming for but seldom reaching the wastebasket. We popped a tape into the boom box and recorded ourselves singing. Beth produced a squashed cigarette pack from her backpack—she’d found it in her brother’s room, she said—and we took turns smoking, trying not to cough, waving the smoke out the window. What if it set off the fire alarm, Beth said, and we looked up to the ceiling, where the smoke detector’s single red eye didn’t blink.

We watched that red eye, lazy twists of smoke drifting past our heads, and saw two odd dangling wires next to the smoke detector. At first I thought of a spider, but they were bigger than a spider’s legs—at least we hoped so—and we speculated on what they could be, red and black wires for a ticking time bomb that would blow us up if we didn’t guess right about which wire to cut to disable it, or some kind of evil, spindly-legged creature that lived in the ceiling. One of the stories we liked to tell was about a tiny demon called Enoch that lived in a man’s brain and made him kill people, and when a lawyer tried to trick him and asked the man to give him Enoch, the man agreed. Then the lawyer felt something crawling inside his own brain, and screamed...

But there wasn’t an Enoch. Not really. The man in the story was just crazy. And the wires dangling from the ceiling were just wires, not Enoch’s legs, not the spindly legs of a tiny demon crouching behind the smoke detector just above our bed, staring, watching us, getting ready to pounce and crawl inside our heads to eat away our brains. We heard, or thought we heard, a scraping, shifting noise.

“It’s Enoch,” I whispered. “He could be up there right now. Waiting for us to fall asleep.”

And in the silence that followed, we heard a noise. A sneeze.

We screamed, and scrambled off the bed, ran to my parents’ room next door, to tell them about the red light, the sneezing demon in the ceiling, its legs dangling over our heads. We were so scared we didn’t stop to worry they’d find out we’d been smoking. As it turned out, in all the uproar, they never did.


The man who worked at the motel was arrested. He had many more videos he’d made of people in bed. I wondered if ours ever made it to court. If people saw us, two girls in nightgowns in a half-dark room, singing along to the radio and telling ghost stories about little creatures in the ceiling. If it made them wonder how many other scary stories came true.

Years later, discussing the aftermath, we both confess to a vague uneasiness in public spaces, a tendency to look for and avoid cameras, a nagging sense that our bodies are not wholly our own but things separate from ourselves, objects that could be captured and consumed without our knowledge or consent.

Sometimes even now, under a bright and open sky, I catch myself looking up, waiting to feel the brush of those wiry legs against my skin.


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