When I bought the land, the only structure on it was this tiny stone shed. It was lashed to the ground by crooked saplings and overwhelmed by weeds. There were no windows, just a single square door all boarded up.
My plan was to knock the thing down so I could use the space for a proper house, but first I wanted to look inside. The boards were rotten, so they came off easily, but beneath them, the door was secured by several chains and a heavy padlock.
I was never given a key, so I had no choice but to force my way through. I banged on the lock with an ax until the rusted metal gave way. During the endeavor, my hand slipped and scraped against the rough wood of the door. I came away with an evil-looking splinter, and the door got a fresh coat of red “paint”.
The interior of the shed couldn’t have been more than six feet square. It was just an empty chamber, save for a single object in the center of the stone floor. A chair. Although, to call it simply a chair would do it an injustice. I’d never seen a piece of furniture so ornate. Sealing it up in the shed had protected it from the worst ravages of time; the pale gold finish was only slightly flaked, the crimson velvet cushions only slightly frayed. Its grandeur more than made up for these minor defects.
I was so caught up in the beauty of the thing that I didn’t notice the chains at first. One wrapped around the back; two wound themselves around the armrests; two more bound the legs. Like the ones on the door, these were secured by several padlocks, although these didn’t seem to accomplish much. I was able to slide the chains off without any trouble.
I kept the chair and continued with the demolition. After the shed was torn down, I stood on the edge of the field, staring at the emptiness. Overturned earth spread out from where the shed used to stand, a dark stain reaching across the grass.
The house went up quickly, and the only times I thought of the shed at all were when guests asked where I’d gotten that lovely chair. After everyone I knew had come and gone, and there was no one else to tell, I forgot about it entirely.
It was perhaps two months after I’d finished the house that he showed up. I was getting ready to leave for work that morning when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find an old man standing outside. He stared at me like he couldn’t believe someone had answered. After a few seconds, I prompted, “Can I help you?”
The man shook his head as if in a daze, and in an equally dazed voice said, “No. No, it’s too late for that.” Before I could stop him he came inside and went from room to room. He stopped at each window and looked out like he was searching for something. Each time he came away looking more distressed, muttering to himself, “No, no, no—”
He came to the living room and froze. I followed his wide gaze to the antique armchair.
“You didn’t,” he hissed.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What are you doing in my house?”
Instead of answering my question, he turned to me and shouted, “You’ve let it out! You’ve set it free!” The man grabbed my shirt and shook me. He struggled to spit more words in my face, but they got caught in his mouth and all he could do was snarl around them.
I was afraid. This stranger was mad, and his violence was escalating. I couldn’t let him continue or, or…well, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t going to find out. I made a fist and hit him in the temple. The first blow wasn’t hard, but it pushed him away from me. The second blow was harder, to the other side of the head, and it sent the old man reeling. He landed in the chair, stunned. A thin dribble of blood fell out his ear.
“Gone, gone, gone,” he moaned. “You’ve let it out, you’ve set it…”
His rambling annoyed me, and worse, his blood accused me. He’d go to the police for certain. They’d come arrest me. They’d take me from my nice new house and there would be trials and punishments, and it would be all his fault. Unless he didn’t go to the police. Unless he didn’t go anywhere at all.
“You’ve let it out, you’ve set it freaaukheehhghkhgkhg—”
I dragged the body into the fireplace and lit a match. Now that the chair was empty I pulled it up to the fireside and made myself comfortable. It had been a cold, damp week, and the warmth felt so nice—
I blinked and saw as if for the first time the shriveling, blackened form amidst the flames. I smelled the foul smoke. I, I…I was sick all over my feet. I had to get out of there. The old man’s flesh was now a part of the air, sucked into me with every breath. I scrambled out of the chair and ran outside. Even there, I thought I could smell the dead man as he escaped through the chimney. I gazed up at the column of smoke rising over my house. It seemed so innocent from out here; no one would suspect what it actually was. But I knew, and I ran from it. I ran until I reached the wooded edge of my property, and only then did I fall to my knees and look back.
Yes, it really did look innocent. The chimney spewed the old man into the sky where it spread and dissipated and was lost in the clouds. Gone without a trace.
What had come over me? I couldn’t remember the old man doing anything to arouse such wrath in me. No excuse for my actions. What would I do?
I stared at my home that I’d worked so hard to build. If anyone learned what had taken place within its walls, I’d lose it and more. I couldn’t go to the police, or anyone else for that matter. It would have to stay a secret.
I remained outside for the rest of the day. The smoke from the chimney thinned and vanished, and my house became a silhouette as the sun went down. Only then did I return.
The smell was powerful inside. I wanted to open the windows, but if the odor got out someone might get suspicious. Instead, I pulled my shirt collar over my nose and retreated upstairs, where the stink wasn’t quite as bad.
All night I lay in bed, wide awake. My stomach felt full of stones, and my lungs felt like they were coated with black sludge from breathing the house’s tainted air. The cold night made the house groan and creak as if it were laughing; deep, bestial laughter.
You’ve let it out. What did he mean?
The house laughed.
What had I let out?
My bedroom door took up the laughter. I felt the air in the room shift as it swung open.
What had I unleashed?
Now it was the floorboards that laughed, cackling deeply until their voices came from directly beside me.
What could I do?
The laughter moved to my bedroom window, and there it became shrill. I felt a cold breeze claw across my face.
Can’t open a window. Someone might smell it. I got out of bed and went to close it, but paused with my head out in the open air. I couldn’t live like this forever. Eventually, I’d be caught and punished. I had to escape. Had to escape.
There was one way to elude them forever. Only one. Very simple.
I leaned farther into the night, taking a deep breath of the clean air. Behind me, the house continued to laugh. Behind me, now above me. I felt light and free. Where I was going, the law could never find me.
But then I realized that where I was going, the old man would be there too, and his wrath might be worse than the apathetic judgment of the law. Terror, and a thrashing for something to hold on to. Nothing but rushing air, and the icy realization that I’d made my second mistake of the day. Second and last. The very last.
Above me, it continued laughing.