Arch lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His arm absent-mindedly stretched out, feeling the empty space on the mattress beside him. The sheets were cold. Arch felt so alone.
He closed his eyes and tried to ignore it, but it was impossible. He could feel it pressing down on him, slowly reaching, crushing. Like a coffin, he thought hopelessly. Then the noises began.
They said he imagined them—but never so bluntly, of course. It was poor form to call a grieving old man senile, but they found other, more polite ways of saying it. Gwen, if you were still here…you’d believe me, wouldn’t you?
There were a few horrifying moments when Arch wondered if they were right, if he was just imagining it all. He wondered if that would bring him comfort. It was hard to say which would be worse: knowing the creeping, scratching noises were real, or knowing he had lost his mind.
“Gwen,” Arch whimpered, reaching out to his nightstand to caress a small portrait of his late wife. His fingers fumbled in the darkness, then clumsily knocked the framed photograph onto the floor. Arch heard the faint clink of breaking glass, then succumbed to frightened tears.
“It’s the attic,” Arch growled, “that God-forsaken vault.”
Across the restaurant table, John replied, “You mean you’ve never been up there? How long have you lived in that house now, six years?”
“I know!” snapped Arch, sounding more irritated than he meant. Sighing, he added, “You know how it is. The door’s locked and there’s no key. Just wasn’t worth the trouble…until now.”
“And you want me to help?” John guessed.
Arch nodded. “Look at these arms. I doubt I have the strength to break the door down myself. I was hoping you’d come over this afternoon.”
“Can’t,” answered John apologetically. “Sorry, Dad, but we’re having Alice’s birthday party today. Mary scheduled it for a Saturday specifically so I could be there. You got an invitation, didn’t you?”
Arch scowled. “Yeah. Forgot about it until just now. Had other things on my mind, I guess.”
“Maybe we could tackle the attic tomorrow?” John suggested.
“No!” Arch shot back vehemently. “I can’t go through another night like that.”
John’s face underwent a subtle change, but he did not voice what Arch knew he was thinking. Instead, he said, “You sure you won’t come? It’ll do you good to get out of that house for a bit.”
Arch shook his head. “No, it’s alright. Go to your daughter’s party. I’ll just handle it by myself.” As they paid for their meal and parted ways, Arch added, “Tell Alice I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. I’ll send a card in the mail.”
Arch stared down the door, a crowbar clenched in one fist, a hammer in the other. “No more secrets,” he muttered before striding forward and putting his tools to work. He rammed the crowbar between the door and the frame and began banging on it. He winced as each blow sent jarring vibrations up his fragile arms.
Curse this old body, he thought as he worked. Curse this haunted attic! He thought of his granddaughter’s birthday party, of John and Mary and Alice having a grand time while he tortured himself over…over what? What if John and the others were right and Arch was just a senile old man? If he managed to break through the attic door and found nothing, what would that make him? The grumpy old coot who skipped his granddaughter’s birthday party over a stupid hallucination?
The wooden doorframe suddenly splintered, and Arch’s crowbar pried the lock out of place. The door squealed on hinges that hadn’t been used in years, and as Arch gazed for the first time on the other side his heart sped up. He didn’t know what he expected to find, but it certainly wasn’t this.
This is it, Gwen. I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.
The back side of the door was knotted, unpainted wood, and its surface was marred by a pair of uneven black streaks; one stretched vertically and the other horizontally so they intersected at a right angle. A cross. A cross burned into the wood.
Arch stared at the oddity for several seconds, his fingers cautiously tracing the burn marks, before looking up. The attic above him was pitch black, but a delicate, rusted chain hung on the wall to Arch’s left. He pulled it, and a weak glow struggled to life. “Come on,” he urged himself, “let’s get this done.”
The splintering stairs creaked as Arch climbed, echoing the groaning of his tired bones. Arch wasn’t made for stairs. Gwen was the reason he’d bought a two-story house; she seemed to think a proper home required more than one floor, and Arch had just wanted to make her happy.
And look what it got her: a nasty fall and a broken neck.
Arch reached the top of the stairs, his nostrils flaring against the stink of dust and rotting wood. A lonely lightbulb buzzed angrily in one corner, but it was caked in filth and did little to illuminate the attic. Why is it so dark? Arch wondered. Shouldn’t there be windows? He knew there should have been. They were visible from outside, a row of small dark portals that watched Arch’s comings and goings. Where are they?
Then he realized he was looking right at them. Several windows lined the far wall, but they were boarded up so heavily they were almost unrecognizable. And on each one…
Arch crept forward, flinching as an invisible cobweb brushed his balding scalp. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Each window’s barricade was emblazoned with a black, crooked cross. The workmanship was sloppy, like a child’s scribbled drawing, as if the artist had been in a hurry when he scorched the wood.
Arch did not like it at all. He felt hounded by the crosses. They were nothing like the Christian symbols he was familiar with; these were watchful, malevolent. And they had Arch surrounded.
His heart pounding painfully, Arch made his escape. Forget the investigation. There was nothing up there anyway, aside from an old rotting crate and those awful markings. As he tore his gaze from the boarded windows and rushed for the stairs, he again felt the tickle of cobwebs on his head. Instinctively, he reached up to sweep them aside—
—and froze when his hand encountered something solid. Something with long, bony fingers.
John was smiling when the phone rang. Alice’s party had been a success—so Alice herself had claimed based on the number of presents and the quality of the cake. Most of the kids were gone now, but a few of Alice’s best friends were spending the night. They were currently gathered in Alice’s room playing games or telling stories. It was well past their bedtime, but John and Mary had agreed they could make an exception this one time.
“Hello?” said John as he picked up the phone.
“John! It’s me!”
“Dad?” John clarified. The voice on the other end was a barely controlled whisper. “Dad, is that you?”
“That’s what I just said, isn’t—” Arch was interrupted by a clatter like running footsteps and carelessly shifted furniture.
“Dad, what’s going on?” John asked, growing confused.
For a second there was nothing but heavy breathing on the other end, then Arch hissed, “I did it, John, I did it! I broke into the attic, and—” More movement, the sound of drawers rapidly opening and closing. “I saw it, John! Oh, Heaven save me, I saw it!”
“Saw what, Dad? You’re not making sense. And what’s all that noise?”
The noise, however, seemed to be quieting down. Arch must have been holding the phone very close; his strained whisper was severely distorted by digital static. “John, it was nailed to the ceiling!”
“Uh…” stammered John, “what?”
“Railroad spike through its chest,” Arch went on, a whimper creeping into his voice, “skin all rotted and peeling—”
“Wait,” John interjected, “you found a body?”
“It saw me, John.” Arch’s voice was barely audible. “It didn’t have eyes, but it saw me, I know it.”
John ignored that last statement. “Dad, if you found a body you should tell the police.”
“I did. They took it away.” Arch suddenly fell silent. Even his breath seemed to have stopped.
After a few moments, John prompted, “Dad? You still there?”
His answer came in the form of a loud, mechanical click.
John had seen enough movies to recognize the sound immediately. “Dad, what are you doing? What’s going on?” he asked frantically.
The noise ripped through John’s eardrum and ricocheted inside his skull, whipping his brain into gray, bloody soup. Startled, he dropped the phone and clamped his hands over his ears. He stood there for several moments recovering, then, with shaking fingers, bent down and retrieved the phone.
Nothing. Everything was quiet on the other end, except…
Drip. Drip. Drip.
John’s stomach turned. He stayed on the line for a handful of seconds, hoping to hear something else—a breath, movement, anything—but when nothing happened he forced down his bile, hung up, and dialed the police.
John stood on the threshold of Arch’s house, trying to make himself take the next step.
It was the smell that held him back. As soon as he opened the door, it hit him: Dad’s scent. Mom’s scent. John had never lived in this particular house—Arch and Gwen had moved in long after John graduated from college—but it still smelled like home. The problem was, the people who made it smell like home were gone.
And another smell had replaced them.
A gentle hand came to rest on John’s shoulder. “You okay?” asked Mary.
John took a deep breath. “Yeah.” He stepped inside.
Mary turned over her shoulder and called softly, “Come on, Alice.”
The young girl ran up and seized her mother’s hand. “If Grandpa’s gone,” she asked, “why are we here?”
We have to sort through Grandpa’s old stuff,” Mary explained, “and decide what we want to keep.”
John had come to a pause again. He was looking into the kitchen, but refusing to go inside. That was where they had found Arch, his neck blown apart by the shotgun at his side. From where he stood, John could see the phone on the kitchen wall. It was just the cradle; the handset had been ruined by all the blood that had dripped onto it.
“I can’t go in there,” John muttered to his wife. Already he could feel his stomach churning.
“That’s alright,” Mary whispered. “We don’t need any kitchen stuff anyway. Why don’t we start with the living room?”
“Alice, you can go play.”
As their daughter ran off, John gave his wife a worried look. “You sure that’s a good idea?”
Mary shrugged it off. “The police have already been through the place. She can’t get into any trouble.”
They spent the rest of the morning sorting through knick-knacks, books, papers—most of it ended up in garbage bags. John worked without talking. He steadfastly refused to look back at the kitchen, which grasped for his attention with ghostly echoes of drip, drip, drip. At ten minutes to noon, He’d had enough.
“Let’s get lunch.” John’s voice was dry and cracked from disuse.
Mary called for Alice, and a second later the little girl came scampering down the stairs. All three of them piled into the car and soon they were off. As they drove, putting more and more distance between them and Arch’s house, a weight lifted off John’s chest. It was like a hand that tried to keep a firm grip, but the car carried them far beyond its reach.
In the back seat, Alice sat quietly and stared out the window. Mary kept glancing in the rearview mirror, examining the little girl’s face. Her brow was wrinkled and her mouth bunched into a knot.
“What’re you thinking about, sweetie?”
“Grandpa’s gone, right? For good?”
Mary shot John a concerned look before answering, “I’m afraid so.”
Alice thought for a moment, then replied, “Then who was the sick old man?”
“W-what?” stammered Mary.
“Upstairs,” Alice clarified. “He was staring at me from the end of the hallway.”
After lunch the family returned to Arch’s house. Mary and Alice stayed to finish the downstairs rooms while John went up to start on the bedroom. He paused at the top of the stairs, looking down the hall.
…sick old man…staring at me from the end of the hallway.
But all John saw was his own reflection peering in the window at the far side. The old glass was warped, so John’s face appeared distorted. Nothing but a child’s fancy, he decided.
On his way to the bedroom, he passed the attic door. The frame was dented and splintered—evidence of Arch’s work just a few days ago. Just a few days? wondered John incredulously. It felt like a lifetime since his father’s cremation. Just a few days ago we were sitting over breakfast, and he was asking for…for help.
The attic door was now shut, and would remain so for quite some time, judging by the number of nails securing it in place. John could imagine his father, caught in the throes of panic after his gruesome discovery, hammering away like a madman.
Madman…was that his problem?
…sick old man…
John wrenched his eyes from the attic and took the last few steps to the bedroom. The room was dark; the blinds were closed and the bedside lamp didn’t seem to work. John stumbled his way through the gloom to open the window, and instinctively glanced at the ceiling.
What did he see, or hear?
And now he never will again.
John returned to work the next day exhausted. He hadn’t slept well, owing to a nightmare. He and Arch had been sitting in a restaurant over breakfast—the same breakfast over which Arch had asked John to help investigate the attic. The conversation from that day repeated itself verbatim, up until the point when Arch posed the question: “I was hoping you’d come over this afternoon.”
This time, however, John opened his mouth to say yes. Of course he’d help his old dad. What kind of awful son wouldn’t?
John panicked as Arch’s face fell. His dream self raised a disbelieving hand to his throat. Hoping to mend the collapsing situation, he blurted out Yes, yes yes! I’ll come over right away. We’ll knock down that door together and lay your fears to rest. Except that’s not what he said.
As once more John uttered that dreadful word—“No”—Arch’s crestfallen expression continued to sag. Literally. The skin on his skull dangled loosely, melting until John could hardly recognize his father’s face. Arch’s mouth gaped mournfully as the metamorphosis spread through the rest of his body.
John leapt to his feet, practically screaming, “No, no, no!” He bit down on the tongue that insisted on betraying him, filling his mouth with a sharp pain and the coppery taste of blood. By this point Arch was just a vague lump of clothes and skin-colored matter spread across the seat. The restaurant’s other patrons were staring, and John saw, with horror, that they all had his face. But it wasn’t John’s regular face; it was the distorted reflection from the window. They began to echo a condemning mantra of “No. No. No.” Beneath the din, someone was crying. John suspected it was the shapeless mass that used to be his father.
No, Dad, I don’t want you to die!
“No. No. No.”
And that’s when he woke up, feeling as though he hadn’t slept a wink. He trudged downstairs, guided by the aroma of bacon and eggs, to the kitchen where he was greeted by his wife. “Alice isn’t going to school today,” she explained when she caught John glancing curiously at their daughter’s usual seat. “She’s sick.”
Work dragged by, and John didn’t start feeling refreshed until he returned home to the smell of Mary’s baked chicken. Mary greeted him from the kitchen and asked, “Will you go bring Alice down for supper?”
John obeyed, and found Alice in her room drawing something on a scrap of paper. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.
“A little better,” Alice replied.
“Okay,” she said, hastily finishing her drawing and tucking it away before John could see what it was.
“What were you working on?” he asked her as they returned downstairs, as much to drag himself out of the day’s stupor as to placate his curiosity.
“Nothing special,” was her cryptic answer as she glanced over her shoulder. She kept repeating the gesture as she and John made their way to the kitchen where Mary was waiting.
After dinner, Alice wasted no time scampering back to her room. As Mary began clearing away dishes, she commented to John, “She’s been up there all day working on something. I wonder what it is.”
“Drawing,” provided John. “Must be a serious project,” he added with a thin smile.
Later that night, John stopped by Alice’s room to say goodnight. “Feel better in the morning,” he ordered playfully as he kissed her forehead.
Her little hand reached out from beneath the covers. “Will you hang this in my window?”
It was a wrinkled piece of paper covered in scribbles. The chaotic strokes formed two thick, black lines that intersected each other at right angles. “What’s this?” said John as he took the paper from his daughter.
“I drew it today.” She beckoned her father closer, and as he leaned in she whispered, “I’m scared, Daddy. If you hang it in the window, I thought maybe I wouldn’t be.”
John stared at the image. “I don’t have anything to hang it with,” he muttered apologetically. “But I’ll tell you what, just hold on to it for tonight. In the morning we can can hang it wherever you like.”
Alice frowned, but nodded her head obediently as she took back the paper.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” John reassured. “Sweet dreams, and feel better in the morning.”
John woke up feeling like he was forgetting something important. For a couple minutes he lay there racking his brain. Something…the windows? He started to sit up so he could get a clear look at the window across the bedroom, thinking maybe he’d left it open, but then stopped himself—something stopped him, at any rate. He lay back down cautiously, a weight on his chest. The heaviness seemed to push out everything else, until couldn’t remember why he’d woken up. There was only a childlike chant circling in his head over and over and over: Stay in bed, stay still, don’t make a sound, don’t even breathe…
The shadows in the room were moving. It wasn’t a motion John could track, more an impression of activity, an invisible current. He could hear it more than he could see it, and he pictured the darkness rushing through the hall outside the bedroom door. He imagined the darkness had eyes, and a shape began to form in his mind, something great and spreading that caused his skin to break out in sweat. More than ever now he needed to remain quiet. Don’t let it know—
Mary stirred, rolled over, and sleepily climbed out of bed. John wanted to stop her. His head was screaming, No, don’t go out there! but he couldn’t make his jaw move. His muscles turning to ice, he watched his wife amble towards the door, put her hand on the knob, and open…
There was nothing out there. The hall was black and silent. The rushing that filled John’s head was banished as Mary crossed the corridor to the bathroom, and immediately he felt silly.
Nothing, he thought while his nerves calmed down. Nothing at all.
John had a meeting at work the next morning. His boss seemed to drone on forever, and John absentmindedly began doodling in his notes. He didn’t pay any atention to the way his pen meandered over the paper. As the meeting dragged into its second hour, he found himself nodding off.
When will he shut up, he wondered, shaking himself awake for the umpteenth time. He glanced down at his pen, which hadn’t ceased its aimless track during his brief stint of unconsciousness. It had formed a shapeless black blob on the lined notebook paper, solid except for two small points, like eyes, in the center. John stared as his hand continued to work, gradually spreading the ink closer to the edges of the paper until the entire surface was covered. Spreading, spreading, spreading—
“Did you need something, John?”
With a start John looked up to find himself alone in the conference room with his boss. The meeting was over; everyone else had left. “No,” he answered too quickly, closing his notebook and hoping his boss hadn’t seen. “Just…a little tired, is all.”
“Alice had to miss school again today,” Mary announced when John got home. “If she’s still sick tomorrow, I think she should see a doctor.”
John nodded in agreement as he sat down at the kitchen table.
“Are you all right?” Mary asked as she caught his tired expression.
“Yeah,” he assured her. “Didn’t sleep well last night. Insomnia. Bad dreams. Something.”
Mary looked at him sympathetically, then said, “You go ahead and start eating. I’ve got to take Alice up her supper.”
John began scooping food onto his plate while Mary disappeared upstairs. The warm meal seemed to wake him up a bit, make him more alert. By the time Mary returned, he was feeling better. His wife, on the other hand, looked concerned.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is Alice okay?”
“Same as the last time I checked on her, but…” She paused in thought, like she was trying to make sense of something. “You’ll have to see it for yourself when you’re done eating. Apparently she was a busy girl this afternoon.”
When he was done with supper, John headed upstairs to look in on Alice. Her bedroom lay at the end of the hall with the door open, and right away John could tell something was off. The light was strange, dimmed, like a forest at the peak of autumn. “How’re you feeling, kid—”
He came to a stop just outside the door when he realized why the light was so strange. All three of the windows in Alice’s room were layered with thin sheets of paper. There wasn’t an inch of glass left uncovered, and each sheet bore the same scribbled drawing: a messy cross done in black crayon. But it didn’t stop there. There were enough drawings to overflow the windows, and the entire room was plastered in a bizarre wallpaper.
“What’s this?” asked John in a bewilderment.
From her place at the edge of her bed, Alice replied, “To keep the nightmare away.”
“Nightmare?” he sighed. Inwardly, he thought, She really does look sick. Her face was pale and there were light bruises under her eyes. She looked thinner than usual. “Sweetie, you can’t keep all these up.”
“But I have to, Daddy. The nightmare—”
“These pictures aren’t going to stop you from having nightmares, honey. They’re just paper and crayon wax. You’re the only one who can keep yourself from being scared.”
“But they help,” Alice whimpered.
“Then how about this,” John suggested, smiling, “we’ll leave one drawing on each window for tonight. Then, tomorrow night, we’ll take one down. We’ll do that each night until all the drawings are gone, and then you won’t be scared anymore.”
Alice looked unconvinced, but she nodded sheepishly.
“Brave girl,” John commended softly. He then went around the room, pulling down swaths of taped-up drawings until there were only three left: one on each window. The sun had gone down, but the room still seemed significantly brighter. “There,” John said. “Now get lots of rest, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
“What do you think sparked it?” John asked his wife as she settled into the bed next to him.
“She told you it was because of her nightmares,” Mary replied.
“I mean why a cross?” John clarified. What made her think that would help?”
Mary was quiet for a moment before venturing, “The birthday card your dad sent her.”
“You remember how religious he was,” Mary explained. “The card he sent her was a religious one; it had a cross on it. Maybe it reminds her of him.”
“You think his death is what caused her nightmares?” John asked.
“It’s very possible. And the crosses comfort her because they make him feel close again. A bit silly, but you know kids.”
John had the dream about Arch again. It was the same as before: the restaurant, the question, John’s perverse response. Just like before, the other patrons stared accusingly at John, chanting ominously, “No. No. No.” Arch began to crumble, his jaw drooping and falling off onto the floor at his feet. His skin caved in, and this time—different from before—something rose in Arch’s place. The restaurant faded away, consumed by blackness, and then John was awake in his own bed.
Mary was breathing fitfully beside him, but in his freshly woken state John could hardly ascertain exactly where she was. The room was spinning, but he was perfectly still, held in place by…by…
His senses slowly buzzed to life, and as his awareness grew keener, John realized it wasn’t Mary’s breathing he was hearing. Hers was regular, long and drawn out, just like anyone else in the midst of a healthy slumber. No. The other sound was coming from somewhere else…outside the room…not breathing at all…footsteps.
John went to place a hand on Mary’s shoulder to shake her awake, but his arm wouldn’t move. It was pinned by the same invisible weight as the rest of him, like the darkness itself was crushing down on him.
A soft cry came from Alice’s room, and John’s heart jolted. I should go to her, he thought. I made her take the pictures down. But his legs would not move. Worse, his mind couldn’t even wrap itself around the idea of getting out of bed. He simply didn’t want to do it; he was scared.
What kind of father am I? he berated himself. Something’s going after my daughter, and I’m just lying here like a frightened child! But he didn’t actually know that anything else was in the house aside from his family. He hadn’t seen anything, and he couldn’t even be sure that those were footsteps he heard passing outside his own door and making their way towards Alice’s end of the hall. Maybe I don’t have to get out of bed. Maybe I can just call to her, ask if she’s alright. He managed to make his mouth open. Getting the words out of his head and onto his tongue was harder, but—
The force of that thought hit John like a physical blow, snapping his jaw shut before any sound could pass his lips. He lay there with goose bumps clawing their way up his arms and across his shoulders, down his back and into his stomach where they gathered into a heavy, rotten tumor of fear. The voice in his head had not been his own; it was harsh, hissing, cold. Its command was irresistable, and John could do nothing but listen, paralyzed, as the shadows rushed through the house, blossoming, spreading, bleeding into every corner. As the dark minutes marched slowly by, John thought he heard crying. A remnant of his dream—or was he the one doing it? Was it Alice? Was John being a monster, listening to his daughter cry out against some nameless night terror and doing nothing?
But I’m scared, he whimpered to himself, hugging the blankets tighter about his shoulders, I’m scared…
Dawn’s light was subdued, but it was enough to banish the pall that had rendered John helpless during the night. As soon as it was light enough to see, he got up and went to Alice’s room. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. His daughter was there, a lump under the covers. He noticed that, already, one of the cross drawings was missing, the one in the window closest to her bed. Did she take it down herself last night? he wondered.
Now that the sun was rising, John felt silly. His mind worked swiftly, providing perfectly normal explanations for everything that had happened during the dark hours. The noises…Alice tossing in her sleep. The voice…a remnant of my own nightmare. Everything else was just fear. He shook his head in disbelief. I’m just a coward, plain and simple. A cowardly excuse for a man who never outgrew his fear of the dark.
When he got to work, there was an email waiting for him from Mary:
I checked on Alice after you left. She looks worse than she did yesterday, so I’m taking her to the doctor this morning.
On his desk sat the notebook from the day before, filled with its doodles from the meeting. John stared at the great black ink stain reaching towards the edges of the paper, and his gaze was continuously drawn to the two white specks he’d left in the center. Nothing but the result of sleep deprivation and boredom, he insisted, grabbing his pen and filling in the specks to alleviate the feeling that he was being watched. That and nothing more.
The day passed uneventfully, and at five John deposited the notebook in the trash can. Dinner wasn’t ready when he got home; the kitchen was dark. When Mary heard him come in the front door, she called from upstairs, “I’m in Alice’s room.” John went up to join her, and found his wife kneeling by their daughter’s bed, a worried expression wrinkling her brow.
“What did the doctor say?” he asked.
“Nothing for sure,” she answered. “He prescribed some medication, but she refuses to take it. I tried hiding it in her lunch, but she wouldn’t eat that, either.”
John gazed down on Alice’s sleeping form. The blankets were piled thickly around her, and only the top of her head was showing.
“I’m sorry supper isn’t ready yet,” Mary apologized suddenly. “I’ve been too worried all day.”
“It’s alright,” John consoled her. “I can fend for myself tonight. You don’t have to do any cooking.”
“Also,” John added as an afterthought, “I think I’ll spend the night in here. Keep an eye on her.”
“Really? That’s thoughtful of you.”
John nodded, indicating it was nothing. It’s really nothing, he thought as he returned downstairs to get some food. Nothing but the usual nocturnal sounds, nothing but my own nerves getting the better of me. But I have to be sure. I have to be sure.
The first hour passed without incident. The sun set, Mary said goodnight, darkness stole over the house. The seconds died away, their funeral march tolled by the ticking of Alice’s bedside clock. As John sat by the far window, he fancied the tick, tick, tick was steadily getting slower. Just a trick, he knew, the result of listening too hard. He turned his attention to the window and found himself staring at one of Alice’s cross drawings. Guess it’s time to take this down, he said to himself, peeling back the tape that held it in place. With his view unobstructed, he could look down the street, lit erratically by sentinel lampposts. Their shadows lanced out in wild directions, and John puzzled over what was causing the nearest ones to point, not directly away from the road like all the others, but towards his house. It was like a vision from a surreal painting, one where the artist had spared no thought to the angle of the light.
Around midnight, John abandoned his post for a couple minutes to use the bathroom. As he relieved himself, he thought, Nothing strange so far. It’s just as I suspected. Nothing but my own imagination. Then he realized, with a sense of grim humor, I’m turning into Dad. How much longer until I snap and put a shotgun to my neck?—
He was interrupted by the unmistakable patter of footsteps running around downstairs.
John’s body shut down as all his senses zeroed in on the noise. It was moving through the kitchen…now the first floor hallway. I have to get back to Alice! John ordered himself, zipping up his pants and reaching for the bathroom door. His fingers froze around the knob, however, when the footsteps started up the stairs.
If I go out now, I’ll meet it. It’ll be right there, waiting for me.
So he stood there with his ear pressed against the wood as it shuffled closer and closer. It drew even with the bathroom and paused. John clenched a hand over his mouth to silence his breathing. But what does it matter? It can see the light under the door. It knows I’m in here.
There were small caressing sounds on the other side of the wood—hands testing the edges of the door? John had always thought it silly to lock the bathroom door in the middle of the night, when no one was likely to walk in on him, but now it didn’t seem like such a bad habit. His eyes tracked the progress of the probing sounds to the doorknob, and waited, tight-throated and breathless, for the shiny metal fixture to turn…
Instead there was silence, and after a few moments the shuffling footsteps started up again, leaving the bathroom behind and moving down towards Alice’s room. Now, John thought. Now’s my chance, while its back is turned. Jump out and take it by surprise. He fumbled with the doorknob, his hand slick with sweat. Have to stop it before its gets to Alice—
The door flew open and John rushed out. He turned to face down the hallway and froze.
A small shadow stood in front of Alice’s bedroom, just a silhouette to John’s light-accustomed eyes. It turned when John burst out of the bathroom, and for a second John was face to face with…something—
John rubbed a hand over his eyes and blinked into the darkness. It was his daughter. She stared at him with a slight, curious smile. It could have just been the dim light, but John was certain she looked healthier than she had the past few days. It wasn’t just her appearance. Her voice, too, was more chipper.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I was thirsty,” she replied innocently. “I got a drink.” Her smile widened, and with a small giggle she returned to her room.
John followed hesitantly, his heart still racing. Everything’s alright. It was just Alice. Alice and my imagination. Nothing more. He stepped into the bedroom where, rather than climbing into her bed, Alice was swaying gently on her feet. “Are you feeling better?” he asked her.
“What do you mean? Better than what?”
“You’re not feeling sick?”
Her little brow wrinkled and her smile turned to a befuddled frown. “Sick?” Her eyes went wide, her pupils shrank to tiny black dots, and in a trembling whisper she muttered, “Sick old man…”
John rushed forward as his daughter fainted, catching her just before she collapsed. Carefully, he placed her in bed and pulled the covers up around her pale, thin neck. Whatever illusion had caused her to look so healthy just moments before had passed. Now John could easily make out the sunken cheeks, the bruised eye sockets, the diseased complexion. “My poor little girl,” he whispered.
He returned to his vigil by the far window, staring out at the orange glow of the street lamps. The odd shadow patterns from before were gone, each bar of darkness pointing in the proper direction. My poor little girl, with a paranoid madman for a father.
A stirring caused John to turn, and he saw the lump that was Alice in her cocoon of blankets tossing in bed, and all at once John’s mouth went dry. The window over his daughter’s head was utterly black—not just the void of night; something was out there, pressing against the glass.
The covers over Alice’s body slowly pulled back. One sleepy arm reached up and found the window, feeling along its cool panes until it encountered the latch. John wanted to stop her, but already he could feel an icy draft slipping in, making its way straight across the room to where he leaned against the wall, transfixing him.
Get out, get out before she opens it and lets it in—
No sooner had the latch been thrown than the room underwent a subtle transformation. John blinked, trying to clear his eyes as blindness threatened to overcome the edges of his sight. The window never opened, but John had the impression of something bleeding in around the casing, spreading great arms of shadow like wings to envelop Alice’s bed and plunge the entire room into ebony.
John’s elbows were knocking against the wall in a hollow, irregular rhythm. Tears welled up in his eyes, causing his vision to swim and distort the already-hazy scene before him. He was only aware of Alice’s rising to her feet in an distant sense; all his thoughts were consumed with imminent danger to his own self. Go away go away leave me alone please go away…
Alice’s arms were hanging limply, her knees slack in a way that should never have been able to support her weight. Her head was thrown back suddenly, violently, and her eyes—wide and empty with terror—met John’s.
John’s skull felt like a cavernous chamber that the voice filled, shaped, consumed. Alice’s little mouth stretched open, but, obedient to the command, no sound emerged. An indistinct shade loomed over the girl, descended on her, latched itself on her exposed neck.
John watched helplessly as the throbbing wraith clutched his daughter. I can’t be seeing this! he railed against his own senses. This can’t be happening! The thing, the figure cloaked in gloom, grew as it…sucked? chewed?…on Alice’s throat. Its form expanded in waves, spreading, spreading, spreading. All the while Alice fixed John with dimming eyes. No! I won’t let it happen!
He wished he had a weapon as he forced himself to lunge forward—a gun, anything—but he’d make do. He’d wrestle the thing with his bare hands if he had to. Something had been pricked, something deep down, smothered in rotten layers of mindless dread, and it broke free like a glorious sunburst through the clouds—
—Only to be extinguished as a pair of infernal eyes turned to regard him out of the darkness. Under their glare, John’s legs failed and he collapsed on the carpet. With a savage twist and an awful ripping sound, the thing tore itself from Alice, and something splashed against the ceiling. The shadows retreated, melting into the corners and slipping out through unseen cracks. Alice fell, landing headfirst on the floor with a snap.
Everything was quiet at first, then John heard the clock ticking. It started slow, then gradually regained its regular pace. Birds started to sing, timidly at first, but with more enthusiasm as the night sky gave way to dawn’s grayness. As sunlight began to make its way cautiously into the room, John recovered himself enough to crawl to where Alice lay.
In the fresh daylight, her face was colorless. John could see all the tiny blood vessels crisscrossing beneath her skin, but they too were void of hue, just a ghostly web. Her eyes bulged uncannily in their sockets, frozen forever in that look of hopeless panic. Beyond her face, Alice’s neck was a crimson mess, the flesh wrenched away and the empty veins mangled. A sluggish dribble of blood trickled from the open wound and fell to the carpet: Drip. Drip. Drip.
A short time later, Mary came into the room, and the house was filled with screams.
John stood before Arch’s old house, still dressed in his funeral suit. Mary was back at home, crying herself to sleep. Alice was in the ground.
John raised his finger to the doorbell and pushed. He didn’t know who lived here now; after Arch’s death they’d relinquished all claims on the place and let someone else deal with the hassle of selling it. Now he waited for a stranger to open his father’s front door. What would he say? Hello, I’m here to search your home for—for what? John still couldn’t bring himself to utter, even in the privacy of his own mind, what he thought he saw that night.
A minute passed with no reply. John cast a weary-eyed glance at the driveway where two cars sat. They must be home. He rang again. The sun set while he waited; the majority of the day had been devoted to Alice’s interment. It was a day of grieving, and now John wanted answers. It all started here, he knew, with his father’s opening of the attic; maybe there John would find the proof he needed to calm his soul.
There was still no movement from inside, and, frustrated, John tried the doorknob. It turned easily, and the door swung open.
“Hello?” John called weakly. The entryway light was off, as were all the other lights as far as he could tell. He took a step inside, not worrying about the consequences of his intrusion. The thought of being caught never even crossed his grief-numbed mind.
The first floor was empty. He looked in every room, even the kitchen, which he had avoided so adamantly during his last visit. There were signs of habitation: dirty dishes left on the counter, a half-read newspaper draped over an unfamiliar sofa in the living room—but no people. John went upstairs, and as he climbed an offensive odor reached him. He paused at the top of the steps, looking down the second floor corridor—
Sick old man. This was where Alice had first seen it. But what I saw in her bedroom that night, it wasn’t sick. It wasn’t a man at all. Then he reminded himself, But they get stronger when they feed. They change.
There were curtains there now. The glass was hidden, the night kept out by a dainty floral pattern. He reached the bedroom, where Arch had spent his last nights in terror. The rude odor was strongest there, and John put a hand over his nose before peeking inside.
Mary stretched out across Alice’s bed, her face buried in her daughter’s tear-soaked pillow. Her sobs had ended a while ago, her body too worn out to cry anymore. She looked up when she heard a knock on the front door, and was surprised to see that night had fallen. John’s home, she realized, relieved and guilty at the same time, and I haven’t made supper yet. With that ridiculous thought coursing through her head, she stumbled down the stairs. “It’s unlocked,” she called. “Come in.”
She went straight to the kitchen, not bothering to greet her husband at the door. I can’t believe I forgot to make supper. How could I…how could I… She fumbled the pots and pans as her hands shook and the tears threatened to come again. She tried to fight it—Can’t let him see, have to be strong for him—but it was too much and it finally burst out. Ashamed, she turned to face him.
Alice looked at her quizzically.
John was nowhere to be seen. Not home, after all. The front door hung open, swaying back and forth in the night breeze, and there was only Alice standing in the kitchen entrance. She looked as sick as before, but her neck was healed. The kitchen light cast a long shadow behind her, and the silhouette seemed to spread and consume the hallway.
“Mommy…” The girl’s voice was hushed, no more than a breath, and it cut straight to Mary’s ravaged heart. The mother fell to her knees and enveloped her daughter in a trembling embrace. She couldn’t speak; she could only hold her child close and relish in the feel of her. Alice, in turn, buried her head beneath her mother’s chin, burrowing like a frightened animal—
Mary suddenly cried out and pulled away. Alice stared up at her innocently, a bright stain dripping around her colorless lips, and smiled a big, toothy grin. Mommy…
Mary tried to scream again, but couldn’t. It died in her throat as she gently took Alice’s head in her hands and pressed it towards the fresh bite on her throat.
There they were: a husband and wife lying side by side on the bed. They’d been lying there for quite some time.
John pulled his head away quickly, shutting the bedroom door behind him as he turned his attention on the attic. Its door was no longer nailed shut. Instead, it hung open, a black mouth gaping. What will I find up there?
…it was nailed to the ceiling…railroad spike through its chest, skin all rotted and peeling…
But the police took it. They took out the spike and carried it away. And that’s how it was set free. The events of the past month flashed through John’s mind, ending with the image of Alice’s mutilated throat. Just like Dad. The police said he committed suicide. The shotgun. But that’s not what happened at all. He replayed his last phone conversation with Arch. He wasn’t crazy; he was defending himself.
The attic was too dark for John to see, so he tugged the rusted chain to his left. An angry buzz accompanied a pathetic, flickering glow, and he began his ascent. The wood creaked threateningly beneath him, the smell of old timber mingled with dust invaded his sinuses. Soon he was at the top, and the attic spread before him like an old photograph, faded, darkened at the edges. Boarded-up windows lined the walls, the barricades smeared and pitted with large burn marks, as if someone had tried to cover something up.
In one corner of the attic, tucked just out of reach of the dying light bulb’s influence, sat a long wooden box. Its lid perched crookedly on top, revealing a shallow bed of moldy dirt inside. This is it, John thought, its lair. But the coffin is empty. He turned away from the box—
—and found himself staring into deep shadow. More than just the absence of light, this was a solid shape. It fixed John with its familiar, burning eyes, like a pair of dying embers, and around them John could make out the barest hints of a deathly visage hidden in the gloom: pale skin stretched tight over a savage skull, no lips to hide the discolored, pointed teeth. The entire face was upside-down, and John realized the thing was hanging by its toes from the rafters. He stumbled backwards in surprise, tripping over his own feet and landing painfully in the dirt-filled box. The soil was surprisingly soggy and smelled of meat and metal. If only I had a stake, he mourned as he banged his knees and elbows against the splintering wood. Then I could nail it back to the ceiling and end it. But unarmed as he was, he had no choice but to flee.
John scrambled free of the coffin and darted around the thing leering at him, wondering that it made no move to stop him. He made it as far as the top of the stairs before he was brought to a halt by noise: a door opening and closing below.
There’s no one down there! he thought frantically. No one except—
Then they came into view: husband and wife, clothes hanging saggily over their emaciated bodies, the darkness clinging to them like a shroud.
John retreated shakily as they advanced up the steps, cowed by the hungry fire in their empty sockets. They glided up like smoke, and John began casting about for something he could use as a weapon. It was then, finally, that the great shadow hanging from the rafters intervened: BE STILL!
John froze, his limbs becoming like stone. His gaze was unwillingly held to the thing in front of him, and he could swear it was smiling beneath its gloomy veil. Cold hands seized his shoulders from behind; there was a prelude of dry, rattling breath, and then they struck.