The porcelain shards accused me. Their jagged edges were pointing fingers, all directed at me, saying, He did it. He’s the one who broke me.
Mom would be livid. She’d inherited the doll from my grandma after she died, and my grandma had inherited it from her mom before that. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but my thoughts on the matter didn’t count for much. I was in big trouble.
So big, in fact, I decided it was time to make myself scarce. I could only imagine the kind of punishment I’d be in for when Mom found out, and imagination is where I planned to keep that punishment. I packed a few clothes and some snacks. I didn’t know where I’d go, but Mom would be home soon, so I didn’t have time to plan. I barely had time to escape out the back door before she pulled into the driveway.
I stuck to the woods surrounding our backyard at first. She’d be looking for me. The doll was displayed prominently in the living room, so she’d definitely have found it by now. The last thing I needed was for her to glance out the window and see me trying to sneak off.
When I was far enough away, I emerged from the woods onto the road where walking was easier. She’ll be furious by now, I thought. I imagined Mom tearing through the house in search of me. It wouldn’t take her long to realize I wasn’t there. Then she’d come chasing. Maybe she was already on her way; was that her voice screaming on the wind?
It was getting close to supper time, and I was hungry. I couldn’t stop though, not yet. Mom had a car, and if I stopped for even a moment she’d catch up. I kept walking. With the trees following the road, it got dark quickly. Soon I felt a cold drop on my face. Then a few more. As the downpour increased, I picked up my pace. There was an abandoned house on this road, and that’s where I was headed. It wouldn’t do long-term, but it would suffice for one night.
It wasn’t a large house. Amidst the rain and trees, however, it looked bigger than it was. The paint was all worn away, exposing naked planks of wood. There weren’t very many windows; in fact only one faced the road, up on the second floor.
The door opened without too much trouble, and I gratefully ducked inside, shaking my head to get the rain out of my hair. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I stood in an empty room—well, empty save for a sagging sofa covered with a white sheet. The walls were water-stained and full of holes offering glimpses of the rest of the house. I wasn’t in a mood to explore, though. My stomach hurt and my legs were tired. After dipping into my ration of snacks, I curled up on the sofa and fell asleep.
A thumping noise woke me up. I opened my eyes and looked around, slowly remembering where I was. Why I’d come here. That’s right. The doll. Rain continued to fall; I could hear it rattling against the windows. Was Mom still looking for me out in the rain? I had no idea what time it was. Maybe she’d given up. I’d broken her grandmother’s doll; what did she care if I was missing?
The thumping which had woken me continued. It came from above, moving across the ceiling. My eyes followed it, eventually coming to rest on a staircase across the hall.
I bit back a whimper and burrowed under the sheet. What was I thinking, coming here? My sofa was scratchy and full of holes, and it stank like pond scum. I lay there waiting for the thumping noise to come down the stairs, but it didn’t. I listened. Nothing. Just quiet darkness, air so still I could feel it squeezing me, so quiet it hurt my ears. Don’t be such a baby. It’s just an empty house. It was probably just an animal trying to get out of the rain. Oh, why did I run away? I kept listening and wondering until my eyes grew heavy, and I remembered how sleepy I was…
I woke up again because the rain had become a storm; a clap of thunder jolted me from my dreams. Cold had seeped into the blanket with me, along with something else. A feeling. I imagined Mom’s face, but couldn’t attach an emotion to it. Was she angry? Scared? Sad? The couch creaked beneath me, its stinking fibers grinding against my elbows. I missed my bed, but Mom’s face kept me from going back. If it was anger I saw there, I couldn’t take her wrath.
I was still buried under the sheet, so when a flash of lightning illuminated the house, all I could see was a field of white and strange silhouettes. The image was seared onto my vision, refusing to vanish no matter how I blinked or rubbed my eyes. Even if I squeezed them shut, a negative of the lightning’s aftermath swam before me. I could almost make out the window, the stairs…there at the bottom something tall and slender moved—
My eyes snapped open, but all I could see was vague paleness of my blanket. That was nothing, I thought. It’s impossible, I mean, my eyes were closed. It was just a trick. Yeah, a trick. But I couldn’t be sure. The only way to be sure was to poke my head out from under the sheet, and I wasn’t about to do that. Instead I pressed myself deeper into the couch, praying I was invisible.
Another bolt of lightning, announced by a thunderclap so enormous it made the house rattle. I heard wood groaning, pipes rattling, footsteps.
I shut my eyes again. A noise came from the spot where I’d left my suitcase, a rummaging sound. I heard my shirts and underwear being thrown about. The crinkle of plastic bags that held my food. Footsteps again. They were moving away from me, getting softer, then disappearing altogether. The storm went on, though with less fury than before. Wind and water slapped against the side of the house. Trees whispered.
An animal, my brain insisted. Just an animal. A big animal. That did little to relax my arms and legs, which felt like they were made of aching stone.
My thoughts were interrupted when the sofa started shaking. Something moved beneath the cushions, pushing up against my weight, prodding me with little lumps. There was a sound of ripping cloth.
I jumped off the sofa, forgetting I was trapped beneath the sheet. I fell and rolled across the floor, struggling against my cocoon for several seconds before finally emerging, and then—
The room was empty, save for the couch. The ripping noises had stopped. There was no sign of the thing that had rummaged through my suitcase. Regardless, I decided I wasn’t spending another minute in this house. Angry Mom or no angry Mom, I was going home.
I started gathering my scattered belongings. Clothes were thrown all over the place. I reached for one of my shirts, but quickly withdrew my hand; it was covered in something dark and wet. I held my hand up to examine it better. It smelled metallic.
Forget the clothes. I’m getting out of here. Leaving my suitcase where it was, I started for the door.
A towering, slender shape blocked the way. It was tall as a man, but way too skinny, and it was draped in a white sheet.
I didn’t move until it did. It started to drift forward, its footsteps pounding in my ears—but it wasn’t walking. It didn’t bob up and down with each step, the cloth didn’t ripple with the motion of legs underneath. The pounding was only a mockery of footsteps.
I turned the other way and ran. There had to be another way out. A back door. A window. Yes, a window! There was one up ahead. I ran into what looked like a kitchen, only all the appliances were missing. There were only bare counters and a tangle of pipes bursting out of one wall. The pipes were spewing muddy water all over the floor. The puddle spread between me and the window, but that didn’t slow me down.
What did slow me down was the thing that started climbing out of the puddle. At first I thought it was just a stick growing out of the mud, but then it began contorting and I realized what I thought were twigs were actually fingers. Two of them were shorter than they should’ve been, and one was missing entirely. The mangled appendage slapped down on the floor and began to drag itself toward me. A larger mass threatened to break the puddle’s surface, but I didn’t stay to look.
I remembered seeing a window from the outside on the second floor. I turned back to find the stairs, but there was that shrouded shape again, still gliding forward, still drumming the floor with its impossible footsteps. I was trapped between two horrors. One I could see, the other I could hear as it pulled itself free of the mud, dripping, sliding across the floor.
Left with no other option, I tried darting past the slender, shrouded thing in front of me. Its skinniness left enough room for me to slip by, but my arm caught the sheet that covered it and tugged it loose. I heard the blanket falling, but didn’t look back. My hand was wet where it had touched the thing; I didn’t look at that either. My eyes were glued on the stairs. I reached them and went thundering up. How I’d get back to the ground was only a passing concern as I ran. The trees around the house grew close; maybe I could reach their branches and climb down that way.
When I reached the top I took a moment to catch my breath. It didn’t sound like anything was following me. The footsteps had stopped, and, as I listened, it seemed the rain had too. A quick search led me down a hallway to a room at the front of the house. There was the window overlooking the road. I ran to it and peered outside.
The rain had stopped, and was replaced by thick fog that obscured the ground. There was a tree close enough to the house that its branches scraped against the side, so I reached for it.
Something on the branch moved. It was near the trunk, mostly hidden in the tree’s shadow. I only caught hints of moist reflections as it began moving down the branch, making an awful sound like slime and gravel. As it got closer I could make out arms and legs, but something wasn’t right. The legs dangled too far beneath the branch, and the way the arms reached forward to pull the rest of the body along—
I screamed and stumbled away from the window. The thing had gotten very close now, and I could see the branch was protruding from its stomach. It reached the windowsill and pulled itself off the limb, flopping into the room with a soft thud. Arms and legs twitched, scrabbling for purchase on the floor. Slowly, it made its way toward me.
I fled the room. An unfortunate glance at the stairs revealed that tall, skinny thing. It was too dark in the hall to make out any details, but without its sheet it seemed like little more than a post.
There was no sound of pursuit as I headed the other way. I checked each room as I passed, but none of them had windows. By the time I reached the end, I was sobbing. No way out, no way out! The stairs were blocked, as was the only window on the second floor. I tried to make myself turn and face the thing behind me, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face my doom.
Then I noticed some of the floorboards at my feet had rotted away. I’d missed it at first because of the darkness, but there was a gaping hole in the floor. Through it I could see the sofa that had been my bed for the first few hours of the night. My throat tightened when I saw a ragged tear in one of the cushions. That wasn’t there before.
A dry thumping sound spurred me into action. The pillar-like figure at the far end of the hall was moving—I wasn’t sure how, since I still couldn’t make myself look back. The drop through the hole was intimidating, but my pursuer was worse, so I jumped.
I hit my knee when I landed. The fire shooting through my leg told me I’d scraped the skin pretty badly, but I could walk. Thank goodness. I’d nearly forgotten about the kitchen and its puddle, the thing I’d seen rising out of it, but now I was reminded. A hand reached into view around the corner, gripped the floor, and pulled. A dark mass slid behind it, barely recognizable. It entered the room slowly, but when it saw me (how did it see me? I couldn’t identify a head, much less eyes) it sped up. That arm—its only arm, as far as I could tell—lunged forward and propelled its body across the floor with horrifying swiftness. I scrambled to put the sofa between it and me.
A twisted, sharp-looking object shot up from the couch, bursting from the tear I’d observed earlier. It writhed, flinging pieces of damp fabric everywhere. I thought I identified teeth, impossibly long and pointed, gnashing at the air. I fell back in surprise, and just then something else fell from the ceiling.
I recognized it as the thing that had pulled itself off the tree branch upstairs. That made three monsters, and a fourth somewhere—
It appeared on the stairs. At first it stood motionless on the top step, then it slowly slid forward and dropped to the next one. Then the next. The next. Its impossible motion was stately compared with the wounded thrashing of the other three. Masterful. It reached the bottom and turned to face me.
The other three things had formed a loose ring around me and were closing in. My back was to the wall. No where else to run.
Maybe realizing it was hopeless gave me the courage I’d lacked until now. I saw the claws and teeth of those monsters and decided I wasn’t going to die in that house. I rushed forward and managed to slip between the one from the couch and the one from the kitchen. I brushed against something cold and slimy. Something else bit into my arm, but I managed to tear free. Warmth poured down the arm, but I’d broken out and now nothing stood between me and the door except it.
I got a good look at it for the first time: a tall piece of carved wood, chiseled patterns spiraling down from a frozen, emotionless face. I made to push by it, like I’d done earlier.
An immense weight hit me. My head spun, my vision blurred. It took me a few seconds to realized I was lying on the floor, and another second to realize I couldn’t get up. Something had pinned my legs.
My vision cleared. It was that wooden pillar. It had fallen on me, and at such an angle that I lay face-to-face with it. That expressionless face stared into me. I could smell the wood it was made of, and the scent made me dizzy. A tingling feeling rushed from my head, from my fingers, from me toes, rushing to the spot where the pillar touched my legs. Cold enveloped me. All the while, it just stared, unmoving, uncaring. My legs went numb, then my waist. I could feel it creeping up my body. When the numbness reached my head, I blacked out.
I felt terrible when I woke up. My legs were still numb below the knees, but everything above hurt. It was like I’d been crumpled up into a ball and tossed aside to land in a small, dark hole. I couldn’t see a thing, and whenever I tried to move I bumped into something hard and wooden.
I heard footsteps above me, followed by voices.
“Move it, you chickens!”
“What’s the matter, scared?”
“Like you’re not! You know they say every kid who spent the night here’s gone missing.”
“Yep. Four of them. Think it’ll become five tonight?”
“Knock it off!”
I began squirming in my tiny space. I had to get out, had to get to those other kids. I pushed to either side. No give. The barrier above me creaked, however, so I attacked it, banging and scratching until something snapped. I heard startled shouts and panicked scrambling.
I burst up through the floor. Splinters sliced through my skin, and I couldn’t seem to move my legs at all, but I was free. Three other boys, about my age, cowered across from me. One of them looked like he’d wet his pants.
“Run!” one of them screamed, and they scattered. Two of them made it to the door, but the third tripped and fell. I pulled myself toward him and reached—
“No, no! Stay away! HELP!”
I froze. For the first time I saw my arm: black and twisted like a rotten tree branch, hints of bone poking through. I twisted my neck around, noticing how my skin pulled in unnatural ways as I did, and looked at the rest of my body. Then I understood why the other boys were scared.
“No, wait—” I tried to say, but nothing came out. I felt something wet work its way up through my throat, and instead of words my mouth ejected a pile of black sludge.
The boy found his feet and took off after his friends. I tried to go after him, but I couldn’t move fast enough. I could feel pieces of me tearing off as I dragged myself across the floor.
And then came that awful thump.
It appeared from the direction of the kitchen: that tall, slender post. It had recovered its shroud and moved with horrifying speed. The other boy was almost out the door, but it was too late.
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. As I watched the master of the house perform its work, the others joined me. They didn’t frighten me anymore. I felt sorry for them. For myself. For the newest addition to our group who thrashed helplessly under the weight of our master. When it was done we stuffed him into his own hiding place, then we waited for the next one to show up.