Something is wrong with the third floor. I have nightmares about it. Sometimes I am walking home, feet trudging up a rotten, begrudging hill. Twilight is overhead, shedding a grievous blue-grey over my surroundings that I never remember from reality. Other times I simply fly, my sneakers lifting off from tarmac, my head tilted up as I soar toward a silver-lined balcony. The lights are always off on the third floor. The doors are all closed. The windows all shuttered. I fly and the dread builds in my stomach. I walk home and know, instinctively, that I have to avoid the third floor.
I never tell anyone.
In life the third floor is harmless. It, as a floor, is perfectly functional. It’s uncovered, unpainted concrete. My sneakers squeak on the stairs up as I play hide-and-seek or tag with my friends. We press our fingers to doorbells and run, laughing, and the third floor echoes the laughter back to us. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking about how harmless it is, how it doesn’t belong in my nightmares.
But it always comes back, in a week, in two, caught between threads of dispersed reality. I wake from dreaming, the sheets wet beneath me, shame and disgust pooling in the base of my stomach.
Something is wrong with the third floor. I have nightmares about it.
It takes years for me to understand what it means to be a girl. I never fill out like my friends do, but I grow upwards and adults make comments I don’t understand, about how I’m “all legs”, as if that’s good. As if I don’t need a head, a brain, a smile, a torso, waving and awkward arms. I grow proud of my legs. My identity is tied to my legs. I can kick and run. I can pull my knees in and protect myself. I can become an impenetrable shield, all legs, all legs, all legs.
My nightmares shape and adapt. Legs run me down hallways, a plastered smile hovering above them that seems more pained than malicious. I never know what happens when they catch me. Sometimes they run me up to the third floor.
Once I dream that the third floor is full of a long line of girls: tall, short, thin, fat. They line up, vacantly, all legs or arms or head or smile. When I reach the third floor, all I want to do is turn back and run. The dream ends there. I start to think about girls more. Tall, short, thin, fat. I watch their smiles and I learn to see if the smile meets their eyes, like a highway running up to the horizon. I learn to tell pain from malice. The adults keep making comments, but they don’t interest me half as much.
They always make comments about girls. About their physical attributes, how leggy she is, how bright her smile is, her shape, her commitment to her shape. The boys will be boys, but the girls are their legs, their busts, their tangible everything. Boys aren’t half so interesting. Boys don’t get talked about half so much. Girls must be incredible, if they’re always the talk of the town.
I must be incredible.
Every night he comes back to show me how incredible I am.
Something is wrong with the third floor.
“Do you think dreams are scapegoats?”
My friends are always older, everything is always older than me. False intellectual conversations under electric lights and hazy summer air, and the lazy noughties’ promise of something magical yet to come. The future painted brighter and deeper by fantastic realisations than actual reality. I live with the expectation that everything will be better when I am older. Life will unfold before me like a red carpet. The clock will hit midnight and I will bloom, unshackled.
“Scapegoats?” I am a teenager trying to act indifferent. Teenagers are never indifferent. Teenagers are always thinking. Everything is a careful, conscious choice. Everything is a self-defence mechanism.
“Yeah,” she says, older and more indifferent because time gave her a reason to be. Hardened, steel. Cool. I wanna be cool like her. “You dream of people without faces, people who change depending on the faces they wear. Maybe you’re making scapegoats because you’re afraid of real people being like that.”
I think about it some more. Something is wrong with the third floor, but maybe the third floor is a scapegoat.
Maybe something is wrong with all the rest of the floors.
I go abroad. I’m not a teenager anymore. I stopped growing upwards, only outwards and inwards. I sit by the emergency door and the stewardess looks at me, looks into me, through me, around me.
“Boys will like you,” she says with confidence. “Boys will like you because you are exotic.”
I don’t dream about the third floor, but many floors. All distinct and different – stripped concrete, wood, grass, bed sheets. Phantom hand prints on my body, pressing me down, muting me, stripping me too. The boys like me because I am exotic. A girl does too. Layers and layers peeled back from me like I’m a tangerine, round and ripe and plump and sweet – but every fruit goes off. Fruit that is a little off gets thrown out.
I am not legs but brains, a head, a hole. The hole is filled with nightmares and scapegoats and monsters. Maybe I was the third floor, dark, no lights on. Girls lined up tall, short, thin, fat. Scapegoat after scapegoat lined up to be prosecuted, analysed, judged, declared. The boys like me for my skin, but not for the sweet rot underneath. I am too soft. If they press inwards too hard, I bruise.
Something is wrong with the third floor. I am the third floor. I am the scapegoat. I am not the one who gave me nightmares. I am not the one who asked for this. I did not ask for it. I didn’t ask for any of it.
Something is wrong with the third floor. It’s in my nightmares again, after so many years. This time I don’t run. This time I walk up to a door and knock. A chill runs down my spine. The darkness covets me, surrounds me, tells me to run.
I don’t. The door opens.
There is a boy.
It’s a boy.
The whole time it was just a boy.Emma Wilson-Kanamori is a writer, artist, and dancer who grew up in Japan and currently resides in Scotland. Her short story “The Fireflies Have Come Out to Play” appeared in the 24th issue of Ginosko Literary Journal.