Chapter 16: Upstairs

John careened around a corner at the end of the hall and found himself stumbling up a wide set of stairs. They groaned and flexed beneath him, but he didn’t dare stop. Below, he heard a door open, heard those footsteps approaching.

He realized his fist was clenched around something: a length of sharpened wood. Alexander had given it to him. A weapon. But what good would it do? Whatever was chasing him, he couldn’t fight it off with a stick!

What if it’s Anna? a small part of him wondered. But just a small part. Even without seeing his pursuer, he knew it wasn’t his wife. Anna had never scared him like this.

He tripped over the last step and lay on the floor dazed. An arched ceiling spun above him, bedecked with carved ornaments. The footsteps downstairs paused, and John prayed they wouldn’t continue.

Please please please—

When they resumed they were faster, and John peeked over the top step in time to see a shadow appear at the bottom.

He was back on his feet in a heartbeat and racing down the second floor hallway. Doors sped by. Wallpaper fell around him in brittle curls. He kept running until he could run no farther; he’d reached a closed door at the end of the corridor. He placed his hand on the knob, and froze. A paralyzing chill shot up his arm. He had the distinct impression that someone was about to scream, and fearing it would be him he withdrew his hand and clamped it over his mouth. The door remained quiet, its paneled surface mocking him.

Footsteps reverberated up the stairs, each one exploding through the air like a cannonball. John’s two fears struggled, and one was victorious. He wrenched the door open and darted inside.

He found himself in a dusty nursery. Old toys were strewn everywhere, furniture was knocked out of place. Most prominent of all was a toppled cradle, its blankets spilled out like entrails. The air was frigid and still, and in spite of his panic John moved gingerly. Each step created invisible ripples, threatening some disastrous calamity. He reached the cradle, and out of a sudden urge—morbid curiosity?—knelt to look inside.

A scream stabbed his ears. His head was engulfed in ice—no, not his entire head, just his face, and not engulfed, just a concentrated, hand-shaped patch of cold.

He fell back with an unmanly shriek, half-crawling, half-galloping out of the nursery. That coldness was at his back, pushing him out. Ahead, the hallway stretched. The stairs at the end were bleeding darkness, spewing it out, filling the corridor.

Trapped between two terrors, the cold and the dark, John took the only path he could: another door. This one opened onto another staircase, narrower than the first. He stampeded up. At the top was a small window letting in a few rays of weak sunlight. The light struggled to reach the farthest corners of the attic, and was ultimately defeated. Boxes and pieces of broken furniture fought for space in the light, providing ample hiding places. John dove behind one of the boxes, stuffing himself as deep into the clutter as he could, then waited with held breath.

As he sat there, shivering, John noticed the box in front of him was actually a flat-topped chest, and it was laden with a variety of objects: a porcelain doll, a plush bear, an assortment of smaller toys. These were arranged around a small portrait of a young girl. John recognized her face. It was the same girl whose painting hung in the main hall.

His shivers increased; the cold from the nursery had never left him, though thankfully that invisible hand seemed to have gone. He shifted in his hiding place, leaned back, his eyes fixed on the portrait atop the chest.

And something else leaned against him.

It was tiny, and terrifyingly familiar. It squirmed a little against John’s back, but he couldn’t bring himself to look over his shoulder. The child in the portrait transfixed him with her frozen gaze.

Sister will kill you.

John couldn’t speak. His throat had closed up at the not-sound of that voice. He didn’t hear it with his ears; it reverberated through his bones.

Sister will kill you, just like the others in the cellar.

A sound echoed up the stairs, the rhythmic thud of someone climbing.

Sister will kill you! Sister will kill you!

The icy feeling melted away as the footsteps crested the stairs. With them came it. John covered his mouth as something bad filled the air. Not a smell, not a sound, just a nauseating sense of danger. Every shadow came alive in the wake of those steps, swirling in search of him.

The moment I breath, they’ll find me.

The footsteps clicked back and forth across the attic. The shadows danced around and around. John’s lungs were ready to burst. At last, a frustrated sigh swelled through the room. The footsteps vanished, and with them the aura of badness. After a few more moments, John peeked out of his hiding place. The attic was empty.

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