It’s nothing special – another old horse barn, in another hay field, at the end of another dirt road. I could send you a picture of the view from my window, and you wouldn’t know if I were in Ohio or Oregon. (Slayton, 1992)
I put the letter back in my notebook with a nod. Shades of brown striped the unevenly worn structure, clashing with the purple sky above and golden field below in a way that seemed so… generic. It was like stepping into the painting of everywhere and nowhere that hung in any great-aunt’s living room. Perhaps that was what drove everyone who lived in this barn insane. Or, perhaps, there was something far more sinister lurking around the property. The families of the many previous tenants had hired me to uncover the truth, and after reading the letters that they had provided, even my rational mind was starting to suspect the latter option.
With a mix of curiosity and apprehension, I trudged over to the adjacent farmhouse. An elderly woman built like a fillet knife answered the door before I even had a chance to knock. Deep lines rippled through her powder-white face, and her pin-curled red hair leant her an almost Elizabethan sternness. “Are you the one who called earlier? About the hayloft apartment?” she asked in a dry alto.
“Yes, I’m Burke! I didn’t catch your name, though.”
“Let’s start with Ma’am. I-”
A groan drew my attention through the entryway and to an equally aged woman with a pudgy yet sunken face. She was hunched over in a wheelchair, her stringy white hair dangling limply around her shoulders, her arms resting on the kitchen table to reveal a patchwork of burns and scars. ‘Ma’am’ slammed the door behind her before I could take in any more.
“Don’t mind the invalid. You won’t see much of her.”
“Are you two… sisters?”
A grunt was all I got in response as she beckoned me off of the porch. “I’ll give you a little tour. If you like the place, you can have it today, but I need two months up front. And the security deposit. That’s another month and a half.”
The old woman flung open a side entrance to the barn, leading me up a staircase and into a surprisingly well-maintained apartment. Even with furnishings that hadn’t been updated since the 70s, it was hard not to find appeal in the completely open floor plan and cathedral ceiling. I wandered over to the twin bed in the corner and pulled another letter from my notebook.
Once is a bad dream. Twice is a recurring nightmare. But three times? That’s real. It has to be. I wake up every night with the shadow person standing over me. That’s it, just a shadow. It’s got no features. I can see it, though, because it’s somehow darker than the loft. I can feel it, too. It’s got nails. It runs them up and down my face just hard enough to hurt without leaving marks. (Quinn, 1992)
I next turned my attention to the window by the kitchen table; it had been referenced by several of the former residents.
You sit there, eyes stinging and head heavy, trying to down your third cup of coffee. Everything around you is snapping in and out of vivid focus. Breezes become whirlwinds, creaking boards sound like shrill squeals, and raindrops remind you of cannonballs launching against the tin roof. Then a crow lands on the windowsill, and you see the intent to kill glinting in its eye. It wants to dig its talons into your flesh and drive its beak into your eardrum. It wants to recruit a shrieking army to overwhelm you, to drain the blood from your body until you’re a dried-up carcass on the floor. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just a bird, and you’re paranoid from the lack of sleep. Of course, there’s also the possibility that the shadow woman planted those horrible images in your mind. It’s hard to know what’s real anymore. (Lane, 1993)
Eventually, I circled back to the front door and examined the knob, asking the same question I’m sure any sane person would: Why not leave?
I already told you that I can’t come home. She won’t let me. Last time I tried, the doorknob got so hot in my hand that you can still see bits of my fingertips seared to the brass. I guess I could jump out a window. What’s a broken leg if it means getting away from her? But whenever I get near one, a set of nails digs into the back of my neck as she blows a quick, raspy sigh into my ear. That must be her way of saying, “I go where you go.” And I can’t bring her back to you. (Hayward, 1994)
I then looked to the only other door in the apartment. It led to a cottagey, brown-paneled bathroom and adjoining closet.
I do everything I can to avoid the bathroom, but… well, the kitchen sink can only take so much. Eventually, I have to go in and bathe. That’s her favorite time to catch me – when I’m wet and naked in front of the mirror. She’ll turn the glass into some sort of… television… that plays the worst moments of my life on a constant repeat. All the beatings from Dad. All the Thanksgivings Uncle Gil took me into the back bedroom. Even the day Grandpa died. It’s like she grows from my misery. Each time I see her, she’s just… a little bit more formed. She’s actually starting to look like a child’s clay sculpture at this point. Her blue, naked body is womanly in all the right places while still androgynous enough to not be obscene. Her face, the part you can see through the veil of white hair, has only nondescript craters where the eyes, nose, and mouth should be. And her breathing… it’s so labored. (Martin, 1994)
There was a clear view of the bed from the bathroom doorway, and a shiver ran up my spine as I realized I was standing where she had stood.
I can feel that little gremlin of a woman staring at me every night through the crack in the door. At least in the dark, I don’t have to stare at her liver spotted folds in all of their nude glory. Too bad there’s nothing that can disguise her breath. She’s got lungs like a damn exhaust fan. Every gasp sends a gust of rotting meat whipping around the apartment. In and out, in and out. It’s almost hypnotic to watch all of the bodies hanging from the rafters as they sway with the rhythm. I know it won’t be long before I throw a rope around my neck and join them. (Hyde, 1995)
Notes tugged snuggly under my arm, I began to examine some unusual scratch marks on the far wall. “Have you had… many renters?”
‘Ma’am’ arched an eyebrow. “A few here and there.”
“And do they tend to stay long?”
I was about to ask if there’d been any unusual deaths on the premises when a single page fell from behind my elbow. The old woman’s expression morphed from curiosity over my letterhead to disgust at all of the names written down beneath.
“You have no idea what you’ve walked into,” she sneered. “No hack with a PI license could understand the kind of force at play in a place like this!”
I picked up the piece of paper, waving it in front of her face. “Twelve young men and women! All missing. All lived here. And yet, not a single death reported on the grounds! You mean to tell me that every single one of them packed up and disappeared without a trace?”
“Wherever they went, they went willingly.” She pulled out a handgun and trained it on my forehead. “I suggest you put those notes over in the fireplace and forget you were ever here.”
I pulled out my own gun, yet her only response was a low, throaty laugh. Loud footsteps began to encircle us. “Mother,” she called, “you have a new guest!” Seconds later, I felt the trigger jam up behind my finger. The footsteps grew louder, as did the laughter. But it was no longer coming from the woman before me.
Bill Presley is a graduate student in human genetics who spends his free time outside of the lab desperately hocking his fiction at anyone who will have it. His work has been featured by Strange Musings Press, Sirens Call, The Last Girls Club, and the Creepy Podcast. His debut novella, Aniela, will be released on July 6th by Little Demon Books.