Every time I drive by, I wonder. I see curtains hanging in the windows, curtains that weren’t there before. A new car in the gravel driveway. I wonder about the boy—or girl—who must now occupy the rear bedroom. Have they opened that tiny closet? I wonder.
I wonder at the nature of such things; are they bound to a house, or are they free to wander? I’ve since learned that sometimes they latch on to an individual, and children are especially susceptible. Sometimes I fear…no. It must be the house. Otherwise…
It must be the house.
1013 Gethspar Road, the only dwelling for at least two miles in either direction along that wood-flanked track. I was twenty-six when I first laid eyes on it, a new father looking for a suitable place to raise a family. I’d always been an outdoorsman, and I immediately fell in love with the way the forest embraced the property. The trees parted just enough to form a small backyard, but otherwise kept their branches close against the walls. Their shadows reached in through the windows and splayed themselves across the hardwood floors.
Those floors I remember clearly. I remember the distinct effect they had on every footstep. No matter where you were in the house, you could hear everyone else, trace their exact location just by the clomp of their footsteps. It was impossible to sneak around in there. Even our son, Alex, with his lighter step, couldn’t help but make a ruckus whenever he moved from room to room.
The house had two bedrooms. The one in front was largest, with a window overlooking the road; that became the master bedroom. The other commanded a view of the backyard and was destined to be Alex’s room. This room had a curious feature: a door about eighteen inches square set in one corner. This opened into a low, narrow cavity that seemed to run the length of the room. There was no light, but I could tell it was unfinished; the floor was dusty plywood, and the cobwebbed space was enclosed by studs and rafters and nothing else. A few objects occupied this strange closet: first, a shelf laden with old blankets, and second, a pile of something at the far end. It was too dark for me to tell what it was.
I returned later with a flashlight while my wife was helping me move Alex’s things into the nursery (he was still a baby then). I showed her the closet and the blankets. They were all threadbare, and one in particular was covered in rusty stains. My wife made a face at them. “Throw them out!”
Before leaving to get a trash bag, I cast my light to the end of the cavity. The pile of things I’d noticed on my first inspection turned out to be a bunch of stuffed animals. Like the blankets, their once soft forms were matted and patchy.
I returned a couple minutes later with a trash bag and filled it with the blankets, as well as the mess of unpacking debris my wife had generated. As I stuffed in the blankets, I kept glancing toward the dark end of the closet. My flashlight rested on the plywood floor, and occasionally I’d bump it with my foot. This, combined with the movement of my own shadow, had a strange effect on the heap of stuffed animals. Every now and then I imagined some manner of activity—a bear convulsing atop the stack, a tiger rolling down the side. From the corner of my eye it seemed the entire pile was pulsing in the unreliable light, or, more accurately, that something underneath was struggling to rise.
At one point the effect was so dramatic that I paused and held my flashlight still. There was no movement from the far end of the closet.
In spite of the relative isolation of the house, a garbage truck still came by once a week. It was scheduled to come the next morning. Once we were done unpacking, I left our collected refuse in the trash can by the side of the road. So ended our first day at 1013 Gethspar Road.
The first night in our new house was marked by only one disturbance. I awoke to distant clattering, and quickly pinpointed its source to somewhere outside. I went to the bedroom window to investigate. On the far side of the road there was a lone streetlamp, and by its yellow light I could see the trash can wobbling back and forth. My immediate thought was that a raccoon had climbed inside. The last thing I wanted to find in the morning was our front yard strewn with garbage, so I hurried downstairs, wincing as the hardwood floors echoed regardless of my stealthiest efforts.
By the time I got outside, the trash can was tipped over. One of the bags inside had been ripped open, and although a few pieces of refuse were scattered over the ground, the damage wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I quickly cleaned up the mess, and at the end made certain I closed the can’s lid tightly.
Raccoons proved to be a recurring problem for us that first year. Raccoons and other pests. I was fairly certain we had an infestation of mice in the walls. On rare occasions I heard them scratching about, always at night. We set traps, but they never caught anything—except for Alex’s fingers one time when he was too curious.
Alex. He grew up in that house. Took his first step, said his first word. He was a light sleeper. We asked our friends when their children started sleeping through the night. Their answers varied, but it became apparent that Alex was a bit behind in that department. Not a morning dawned that my wife and I weren’t exhausted from catering to his nocturnal needs. It didn’t end until he was almost two years old. Even then, it didn’t stop completely. He woke us with his screaming at least once a month.
During one of these nighttime interruptions, as I tried to get him back to sleep, I found myself looking at the tiny closet. I remembered the pile of toys in the back. It had been my intention to sort through it, see if any of them were in good enough shape to keep or donate. Other things had always come up, however. The next morning was Saturday, so I decided I’d finally get it done.
I brought a high-powered lamp and set it up near the door before crawling inside. My wife had converted the first few feet into a fairly clean storage space, but the back half was as dusty and foreboding as I remembered. The stuffed animals were still there, but they were disarranged. I guessed that Alex had been through them.
I began sorting. Most of the toys were too far gone to be any good. Fur was pulled out, eyes were missing. A few had torn seams that bled cotton everywhere when I picked them up.
As I worked, I could hear my wife moving around in the kitchen downstairs. The clomp of her footsteps reverberated through the house. Alex was playing downstairs as well. I could tell from the echoes off the hardwood floors that he was moving back and forth between the living room and the front entryway. Should get some area rugs to dampen the noise, I thought, and then I felt it.
My first thought was that I’d backed into something, but no, the touch was too organic to be any of the hard edges inside the closet. My wife? Alex? They were still raising a ruckus downstairs.
Who knows what conclusion I would’ve come to if I’d been allowed to continue my train of thought. At that moment, however, something else arrested my attention. By this point I’d cleared away a good section of the toy pile, and there, obscured by the plush limbs and wayward stuffing, was a hole. It was situated in the corner of the floor and the wall. The plywood was splintered around its edges and bits of insulation were torn out, creating a narrow tunnel leading down between two studs.
I went back to retrieve my lamp and shone it down into the hole. It was large enough that I thought I could squeeze through, although I had no intention of doing so. I’d probably get stuck.
After finishing with the toys, I went downstairs and told my wife about my discovery. She was disgusted by my suggestion that it was the work of a large rodent. I was a bit unsettled too. We’d always assumed the scratching we heard at night was caused by mice, but that hole was far too big for a mouse. We agreed to call in an exterminator.
To keep things short, the exterminator was little help. He said there was no sign of pest life anywhere in the house, the hole and the noises notwithstanding.
That winter My wife and I were invited to a Christmas party by some friends. We hired a babysitter for Alex and headed out. We were introduced to some new faces and overall had a good time. At one point, a few of us had gathered by a fireplace and decided to revive the tradition of Christmas ghost stories. It was all very silly stuff, but then someone asked me, “Did you know your place has a bit of a reputation?” In an earlier conversation he’d ascertained our address.
“No,” I replied, “I was not aware.”
“It’s not necessarily a ghostly reputation,” my companion went on, “but many people think there should be a ghost, especially after what happened there.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You mean no one ever told you? Well, I guess that’s not too surprising. It was so long ago, and most of it exaggerated rumor anyway. I could tell you—or maybe you’d rather not know.”
I was in a pleasantly spooky mood at the moment, so I urged him to continue.
“Well,” he began, “there was a murd—”
“Oh no!” my wife interjected, having just joined the conversation. “I have to sleep in that house. Don’t go turning it into something sinister.”
“My apologies,” my companion conceded. “Don’t want to scare the ladies, do we?” Turning back to me, he added, “But perhaps I’ve given your imagination enough to work with. That’s all these stories are based on anyway, imagination.”
When the party was done we returned home and were met at the door by the babysitter.
“How was he?” my wife asked.
The babysitter’s response was an unintelligible grunt as she waited for me to hand over her payment. As soon as I’d deposited the cash in her hand, she fled, pushing past us and jogging to her car.
“Well,” my wife muttered, “we won’t be hiring her again.”
After shedding my coat and shoes, I headed upstairs to check on Alex. His bedroom door was open a crack, and I peeked inside.
He must have heard me coming—how could he not in that house?—for as soon as I’d put my face to the door he whispered, “Daddy.”
I stepped inside. “Hey there, little man.”
“Daddy, he’s watching me.”
“Who?” I asked, feeling a sudden tightness in my chest. I went to his window and looked out, half expecting to see a figure standing in the snow.
“No,” Alex hissed. I glanced back and saw him staring at the wall, and I understood.
“It’s just the moonlight,” I explained, gesturing toward the crisscrossed shadows from the tree branches. They interlaced across the wall, and I could easily see how Alex’s young mind could form a face from the pattern.
“No,” he insisted, pulling his bed sheets close. “Down there.”
My eyes slid down the wall and rested on the little square door. It was open just the tiniest amount. “There’s nothing in there,” I assured him. “Just some boxes.”
“And a blanket,” Alex added.
“A blanket?” I walked over and opened the door the rest of the way. It’s hinges squealed softly. I couldn’t see anything, but I stuck my hand in and waved it around. Nothing. Wait…
I reached in deeper, pursuing the softness I thought I’d felt. I couldn’t find it, however, and finally gave up, crediting it to my imagination. “There’s nothing in there,” I reiterated. “Just the dark, and there’s nothing to be scared of in the dark.”
I quickly forgot about that night. Although I was unsettled at first, come morning there was nothing strange enough to survive the purge of daylight. Our lives went on. We finally got some area rugs to muffle our footsteps, Alex turned five. He developed an imaginary friend. Said friend lasted almost a year, then got replaced by real ones. On his sixth birthday, Alex had them all over for a slumber party. One of the boys brought a special flashlight with a UV light bulb, and the next day Alex announced that he wanted one. We took him to the store, and although we couldn’t find a flashlight, we did find a regular black bulb, which I told him he could swap with one of the ones in his room. We also picked up some glow-in-the-dark stars to decorate his ceiling, which he was very excited about. He made me put them up the moment we got home.
Once the last star was in place, I switched the bulbs in his bedside lamp.
Alex was ecstatic. He tilted his head back and spun around, delighting in the little green lights scattered across the ceiling. I, however, was looking at something else. The light had turned the walls a dim blue, but there were splashes of lighter color everywhere. It was like someone had thrown buckets of paint, smeared it around, tracked it across the floor. A good deal of it was concentrated on the little closet door around the handle.
I wasn’t an expert on UV-reactive substances, but I knew enough. My thoughts flew back a year and a half to a Christmas party I’d nearly forgotten, a conversation with a man whose name I couldn’t recall. I didn’t tell my wife, although she’d probably discover the stains herself soon enough. That weekend I started doing research. Through old newspaper clippings and a few internet searches, I was able to piece together some facts about 1013 Gethspar Road.
The only notable residents of 1013 Gethspar Road were a family of three: Mr. and Mrs. Narrow, and their son Caleb. One day, Caleb had two friends over. They were playing in his room when Caleb used a butter knife taken from the kitchen to stab them. Both boys died of multiple wounds.
Caleb was very young when this happened—seven years old, to be precise. Additionally, during the trial, it came to light that he was mentally unstable. Mr. and Mrs. Narrow somehow convinced the authorities to let Caleb continue living with them in their home at 1013 Gethspar, where he remained for the next twenty-eight years.
The Narrow family made headlines again when Mr. Narrow’s employer reported that Mr. Narrow hadn’t shown up for work in over a week. Police investigated, and found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Narrow in Caleb’s bedroom. Both had died from multiple lacerations and bite wounds. Caleb was nowhere to be found. A search was made of the house and the surrounding grounds, but Caleb was never seen again.
I can’t honestly say what my state of mind was upon completion of my research. On the one hand, I’d just learned such a dark secret about my home, and about my son’s room in particular, that a part of me wanted nothing more than to leave. The image of those stains splattered across the wall in their innocent blue tones kept flashing through my mind, and with each repetition I saw not the blue of UV light, but the red of violence and tragedy. On the other hand, those stains were just chemical remnants, nothing harmful, and the events they played evidence to were so long forgotten. Even some of the “facts” I presented above were closer to speculations on the part of journalists who’d been unable to get official reports from the police. What harm was there, aside from the torments of my own imagination?
But imagination is a powerful thing.
Of course we stayed at 1013 Gethspar Road. I tried to forget. When my wife saw the stains for herself, in the surreal glow of the black light, she didn’t understand what they were. I didn’t enlighten her. Alex didn’t seem to mind them. If they could live with it, I figured, it would be alright.
Then one night, during supper, we all heard footsteps. Not from outside. Not even from the living room or the entryway. Upstairs. We froze with forks held aloft, our eyes searching the kitchen ceiling as we tried to determine the source. My wife identified it first. “Alex’s room?”
She was right. The clomp of clumsy feet, amplified by the cursed hardwood floor, was coming from the rear portion of the house. It moved toward the front, stopped, moved back.
“Daddy,” Alex whimpered, “what is it?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I tried, but I don’t think anyone believed me. I knew I’d have to investigate. I didn’t want to, though. Even now, I can’t recall anything that caused me quite as much anxiety as the thought of leaving the dinner table, climbing the stairs, entering Alex’s room with its invisible stains. But Alex stared at the ceiling, his eyes showing something that made me ache inside. My wife eyed me with fear and expectation. As I stood, she whispered to me, “Take a knife.”
I did, and a chill ran down my arm as I closed my fingers round the wooden handle of a steak knife. …knife taken from the kitchen…
The trek from the kitchen to the living room was bad enough on its own. Turning to face the stairs, I felt like a hand was pressed against my cheek, preventing me from looking up into the darkness. I flipped a light switch. I put my foot on the first step. The noise upstairs, did it hesitate? I froze for a moment listening, and then it started up again, pacing back and forth. Was it faster now?
Somehow I made it up the stairs. The door to Alex’s room was partly shut, obscuring my view. Even as I approached, the footsteps continued. They were so fast now. Whatever was making them, it must have been running—but it didn’t sound like running. More like…scuttling.
I stood facing the door, still unable to see inside. I clenched my knife, holding it out like a talisman. What next? Open the door, of course. But I couldn’t. Just open it. No. Do it.
Finally, I kicked it. The door flew open with so much force that it hit the inside wall and bounced back. I had a second, and in that second I saw a flash of dim cold light, neon blue splashes, a shrouded figure standing in the middle of it all—
And the door was shut again. Panicked, I lashed out a second time, striking the door with the steak knife. It opened once more, and this time there was only Alex’s bedroom, dark and silent. I shot a hand through the doorway and sought out the light switch. The overhead bulb came on bright and warm. Nothing was out of place. Alex’s bed was neatly made, the curtains were shut against the night.
I left all the lights on when I returned downstairs.
“What was it?” my wife asked as I sat down to a cold plate of food.
“Nothing,” I answered. “Just a branch against the window.” Somehow, I think they understood what I really meant.
Alex slept in our room that night and the next. On the third night I made him go back to his own room. My wife was willing to let him stay with us a little longer, but I convinced her that if there had been anything to worry about, it would’ve reared its head by now. We’d gone two days without a disturbance, and Alex had to learn to face his fears.
“But what about you?” she asked. “You were just as scared as he was.”
“No I wasn’t,” I insisted. “Just confused. It’s this house, the way the trees grow in so close. Their shadows at night—” I stopped myself abruptly. These were the things I’d been telling myself ever since I opened Alex’s door, and if I kept going I’d let loose things my wife didn’t need to hear.
Fortunately, the long days of summer helped to divert my mind from morbid subjects. Sunlight and warmth. Birds singing in the trees. Picnics and beaches. We spent a lot of time out of the house, and by the time September rolled in, new memories had pushed out the old. Then the days grew short again. The leafy shadows that danced across the walls gave way to gnarled fingers. The bird songs were replaced by groaning timbers. Alex started waking every night.
“Daddy,” he called to me. I got out of bed and crossed the hall. As I placed my hand on his doorknob my arm went cold. “Daddy, he’s there again. He’s watching me.”
I entered the room. “There’s no one in here,” I explained. Going to the window I threw the curtains wide. “There’s no one out there.” Lastly, I went to that little closet and opened it. “And no one in here, either. See?” I turned to Alex to observe his reaction, and he seemed to accept my conclusion. No one was watching him. We were alone in this house.
Then I caught motion in the corner of my eye. I turned back to the closet and peered in. “Alex, do you have a flashlight?” He did, and with it I studied the narrow confines of the closet. It seemed even smaller than it had when last I’d examined it, owing to all the boxes and junk that had accumulated since then. The back half was almost completely obscured behind crates of old books, but there was a gap. Through it, I could see the hole.
The hole. I’d completely forgotten about it. Everything came rushing back, and then I noticed something else: a small scrap of something white. I set about shifting the crates and boxes until I could squeeze through, and soon I was close enough to see. A piece of torn fabric. It had been caught on one of the splinters at the hole’s edge. I thought back madly. In any of the times I’d been back there, had I caught my shirt? What about those stuffed toys; could it have been from them? No. I remembered clearly. This torn scrap had not been there before.
I crept closer and shone my light down. What could fit down there? I wondered. An animal? A…a man? “Alex,” I ordered, “stay in bed.” I stuck my head into the jagged opening. There was a crawlspace, definitely large enough for me to navigate. I pulled my head out and entered again, this time feet-first, and found myself crouched in a low tunnel. I’d have been blind without my flashlight.
The “floor”, composed of thick, wooden joists separated by expanses of cobwebs, seemed sturdy enough, so I crawled forward. The beam from my flashlight jostled about, sending long, cramped shadows dancing before me. The air was hot and dusty. I felt a sneeze building, but I held it back.
Eventually I reached a turn, and here I discovered the first shock. There, between two of the joists and cradled in a bundle of wiring and plumbing, was a stuffed dog—not a real dog, but a toy. It’s belly was split open, and the surrounding cobwebs were choked with stuffing. If I’d discovered it closer to the tunnel’s entrance, it wouldn’t have been quite so shocking, but here? I shone my light around the corner and saw that the tunnel came to an abrupt end after about ten feet. I might have turned back, but I thought I saw something.
It was a bed. At least, that was the word my brain provided. “Nest” might have been more fitting, since it was just a tangle of dirty old sheets. There were more toys, also. They all showed signs of extreme age (abuse, my mind whispered). Here was a tail, there a body; where the head was was anyone’s guess.
A pressure seemed to build in my skull as I studied the scene. This was wrong! I could barely comprehend it, but the only conclusion I could come to was that someone lived here!
Daddy, he’s watching me.
But there was no one. The bed was empty. The only sound was my own dust-choked breathing. I turned to leave.
And the bed came alive.
I swung my light back as I screamed. One of the blankets was rising out of the nest, sitting up. It turned toward me, began to crawl. I retreated, but my foot slipped and fell between the joists, getting tangled in the wires and spider webs. The thing before me was close enough to touch, and it was reaching forward.
I struck out at it. Instantly, whatever substance there was behind the shroud vanished, and I was left with a blanket in my hand—a white blanket covered in rust-colored stains. I recognized it immediately.
Alex slept in our room until that winter, when we moved out. In the intervening months, we kept his bedroom door locked. Every night, we heard scratching at the door, and sometimes I couldn’t be sure if it was Alex I heard whimpering in the dark, or something else.
Of course we had to reopen the room when it came time to move. All of Alex’s furniture was in there, and most of his clothes. I remember noting that the little closet door, which I’d left shut that night in autumn, was wide open.
Since then I’ve wondered. What was that thing under the blanket? Why, years and years ago, had the police never been able to find Caleb Narrow? I had dreams of being trapped in a dark space, hungry and lonely; of hearing the voices of children and wishing I had a friend that I could play with. I always wonder. Are such things as I’ve come to believe in bound to a house, or are they free to wander, to pursue what—or who—they want? I lie awake at night, wondering, and when I hear Alex cry out in his sleep, I’m sick with worry.