A hundred years old, this house!
What in the hell was a single, middle-aged man of modest means doing, buying such a house? Such a monstrosity?
I must be out of my mind.
Self-doubt notwithstanding, Eddie had his reasons.
For one thing, his girlfriend had a thing for retro art and architecture.
When she actually sees this behemoth ¾ this castle ¾ she’ll throw herself into my arms, forever. I’m sure of it.
For another, he needed the space. Eddie had endured life in a miserable, one-bedroom apartment on the other side of town for twenty-five years. Over that time, he had seen one neighbor after another move on and up to roomier digs, and his cramped, dingy flat had turned into a prison.
I swear that pad had steadily shrunk since the day I moved in. Enough! Don’t I deserve a studio, after all these years? I’m sick of stacking my paintings like trash. And can’t I have a real kitchen before I die? I make a decent living. Don’t single guys get to have TV rooms, home gyms, and the rest? What am I waiting for? To be carted away in a box?
Decent living or no, appearances would have suggested the ancient neighborhood was out of his range. But the charming two-story residence came up as an insane bargain on zillow.com.
The old lady’s relatives should’ve done their homework. Did they think the outdated wiring and water stains lowered the value that much? Dummies. Their problem, not to know the market. Totally their problem.
It was Sunday ¾ moving-in day. The sky was densely overcast, the interior of the house cavernous and gloomy. Eddie’s own furniture barely made a dent in the house’s bare ambiance, and he brought only a single lamp of his own, powered by a forty-watt bulb.
Reading glasses teetering on the bridge of his nose, Eddie labored to identify and sort books and bottles, cables and earphones, weird gizmos, and framed photos. He organized the stuff into piles on the splotchy, wooden floor. Minutes stretched to hours.
I can’t see a thing. Christ. Put lamps at the top of the shopping list, Eddie. Lots of lamps.
Before the move, Eddie had discarded almost everything useless, broken, obsolete, or ugly. Still, here was a residual mound of repulsive and embarrassing items to which he just couldn’t say goodbye.
For example, a fuzzy old knit blanket that was a gift from his mother, God rest her soul. It smelled of lavender.
I’d be struck dead to lose it, much less chuck it.
Attic-bait for sure.
And then there were his childhood drawing books. He had found them at the bottom of the hallway closet in his apartment, and would never consider parting with them.
The archivists five hundred years from now will want to see those! Haha.
He sat now with his back against the window and held the books aloft to catch the dim light, smiling wistfully. After a long while, he buried them all in a box beneath a heap of weather-beaten rock concert t-shirts, then deposited that box atop four others, similarly laden with all sorts of precious junk, in the upstairs hallway below the trapdoor to the attic.
Eddie clicked the attic light switch, and lowered the door with the pull rope.
Perfect darkness greeted him.
He padded back downstairs. After rummaging without luck for a new bulb, he found his way to the kitchen for a flashlight. The kitchen, sizeable and modern, was a major attraction of the home.
Though recent history offset that appeal to a considerable extent.
It is a little creepy thinking of that old woman lying on this very floor, dying over the course of three days. Must’ve made for quite a clean-up. Guess I’ll skip that bit when I give Sally the tour! Lol.
Flashlight in hand, Eddie trudged back up to the second-floor hallway. After schlepping all five boxes up the ladder and depositing them by the trapdoor opening, he turned the flashlight on, climbed into the sub-roof space — watching his head — and swung the light in a circle.
There was more room than he had imagined. But, as with all attics, the space was constrained by the slope of the roof. Unfinished 4x4s provided the framing, and slabs of plywood served as a floor. Thick dust floated all around. Eddie sneezed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
There’s mold up here for sure. You can feel it ¾ more than a smell. Disgusting.
He poked about. A profusion of old newspapers, luggage, and old paintings was stuffed in the westward corner.
Paintings! Waddaya know.
“A hidden talent, perhaps?” he murmured with a smirk.
In reality, Eddie anticipated mediocrity, and was unbothered. He had learned long ago to enjoy the ego boost of a real stinker ¾ the satisfaction of finding yet another fool he could better.
It’s amazing how bad most people’s basic drawing skills are. Hmm. To be fair, these ones on top aren’t terrible.
He bent over in the corner to avoid banging his noggin and rooted through the rest of the compositions. Landscapes, still lifes, portraits — all acrylics on store-bought canvases. Some indisputably horrible, some arguably better than mediocre.
All by the same hand, even if the signatures are illegible. Dates easy to read, though, and all within the last three decades. I believe they said she lived here her whole adult life. Could all of these be presents from some artist friend? How likely is that? Nope. All hers, for sure. I should look for supplies up here. Acrylic keeps if it’s stored tight. Any brushes would be useless, but who knows what else I might find? Maybe even a decent palette.
As for the old lady’s paintings themselves ¾ nothing worth hanging, nor anything her next of kin would be interested in, by Eddie’s estimation.
A garage sale, perhaps? Someone always shows up to shell out cash for the worst tripe at those things — depend on it.
But despite his low opinion of the compositions, Eddie didn’t move on in search of paints and palettes. Instead, he lingered — over second-rate, even childish canvases he was ready to dispose of at a rummage sale. Why?
I’ve got to admit, some of these are interesting. I mean, not much talent on display, but these few here, these are pretty wild!
It was then he heard, for the first time, the terrible creaking.
He swung his flashlight around, to be greeted only by the bare wood of the inner roof and an empty plywood floor.
Then he heard it again ¾ in the opposite direction.
Flashlight beam duly swung. Again, nothing.
And then, finally ¾ a sound like a twig being extracted from a bucket of sap, in yet a third direction.
He jerked the flashlight once more. And there, in the opposite corner against the inside of the roof, sat a pulsing, gelatinous mass of slime. It was half as high as Eddie but two meters or more across.
There was a “head,” there were “arms,” but there weren’t anything remotely resembling legs. The main body of the thing emerged broadly from the plywood. Zig-zagging, woody branches ran out of it at random intervals, adhering to the roof’s wooden beams. Its glutinous body sparkled gray and brown and green in the flashlight’s LED rays. Eddie’s clear impression was that its back was turned, its ‘face’ just inches from the roof frame. It was busy with something. With its hands.
Some half-dead animal that got in through a hole in the roof? What else?
Eddie’s heart skipped a beat, and he lowered the flashlight. He inched toward the ladder. But his every step was answered by an oily slithering in the darkness.
He froze. It froze.
What now? Despite his terror, he dared to turn his head and lift the flashlight at the creature for another look.
It faced him.
A hole parted the middle of its’ ‘head,’ as if a ‘mouth’ opening to speak.
Eddie flew to the ladder and half climbed, half tumbled to the hallway floor. He flicked the trapdoor rope, the ladder and door snapping back up with a thud. Then he shot down the stairs and out the front door.
With trembling hands, he fished out his phone and called the cops.
“Mr. Frieder, there’s nobody in the attic or anywhere else in that house.”
“It’s not a person! I told you it was some kind of….”
The officer removed his cap and wiped his bald head. “Yes, of course. You told us. ‘Something disgusting, frightening’ you said, ‘decaying’ or something. Well, when I say ‘nobody,’ I mean anything like that, too. Nothing in the house, nothing in the attic, monstrous or otherwise. No animals. No people. No gas leaks. No explosive devices. Nothing. And no sign of anyone or anything having been in there anytime recent, either.”
The cop waited for Eddie to say something.
“She must be hiding,” Eddie finally blurted.
“Oh. I don’t really know. But it could be, I think….”
“Mr. Frieder, there’s no one in your house. Take a nap. Take a vacation. Don’t call us again unless….” The cop got word on his radio and turned to answer briefly. His partner emerged from around a corner of the house, signaling all clear. “Like I say, Mr. Frieder, you should certainly call us if something alarming turns up, but try to be pretty sure about it. ‘kay?”
“Sure officer. Thanks.”
Eddie wore a sour expression as the police drove away. A few neighbors who had been watching from their yards avoided eye contact as they returned to their lives. Show over.
A meticulous investigation of his own was called for. Eddie reentered the premises with a sigh and explored every corner, closet, and cabinet. His head swiveling like an owl’s, his eyes darting left and right, he took in every nook and cranny on the first floor. Then, timorously, laboriously, every crevice, every potential hiding spot, on the second.
The attic he put off.
It’s getting dark. The flashlight helps only so much. It’ll have to wait.
He knew he’d have to head up there again eventually — just to prove to himself he wasn’t crazy. But he’d have to work up the nerve.
There’s nothing up there. It was a trick of the light. Or maybe something I ate.
And to give himself time to lose the jitters, he’d take care of it after the sun was up high in the morning and his head was cleared by a good night’s sleep and a ginormous, sunrise coffee.
For now, the sun was close to setting in the still heavily overcast sky, and the house was enmeshed in a deepening miasma of shadows. Eddie searched out the large, south-facing window where he sat earlier in the day. There — where he could still catch some light — he opened a folding chair, cracked open a beer, and pulled up one packing carton for a side table and another for an ottoman.
He chuckled nervously.
It could have been a decomposing animal like I thought to begin with. Cops could have missed something like that. Squirrels and raccoons get into attics all the time. Or maybe a pile of the old lady’s painting materials leaked and deteriorated. It was super dark! And it’s an attic. So disorienting! All those roof angles and stuff. And on top of that, look how tired I am! This moving business. It drains the shit out of you. That can’t help, either, can it?
He gulped some beer and closed his eyes.
He fell asleep by the window and awoke with a cottonmouth two hours later, the sky black. Not fully alert, he wobbled into the kitchen and shoveled a can of tuna down his gullet before heading upstairs to change. His plan for the evening was to read an old magazine in bed until he conked out. Eddie figured that wouldn’t take long, and he could use the extra couple of hours of sleep.
Before he could climb into bed, his phone jingled.
The text read: “how’d it go with move?” It was Sally.
He texted back: “no prob. boxes mostly empty. house gr8.”
“wall space for my pic?”
She loves that little portrait I did of her. It is great. But what she’s really reminding me to do is paint another, since she gained back the weight and her hair grew back in. Always a hidden message. Like everyone else, I guess.
“sorry cldn’t be there. u still need help? shld I come now?”
I’d love to bounce this stuff off her. After all, I don’t really believe there’s a monster up there, do I? I’m pretty much as sensible as she is, ain’t I? Actually, right now, I guess not.
Eddie imagined various ways to tell his girlfriend what had happened that crazy day, but in the end, decided to wait. It wasn’t so much concern that something awful really lived in his attic, as that he still couldn’t be sure he wasn’t nuts.
I gotta search up there first before she comes over. Girl doesn’t deserve to be burdened with my ridiculous shit here after what she just went through. She doesn’t need me for that.
Afterward. When they could both have a good laugh over a late dinner. He could get it done before he drove in for the day shift at the department.
Funny how when I met her, she was the one getting the MRI. And now, look at me. I’m the one who needs his brain examined. Go figure.
“nn. let’s hook up tomw for dinner. hitting the sack early. :)”
“ok. tpm. text me. h&k.”
OK, so not Sally, let her be. But it would have been nice to talk to someone. Mom and Dad would’ve been nice. Really miss ’em. Louis? Forget him. That sonuvabitch brother of mine is like he’s on another planet. Who do I have right now to turn to? Not a soul.
Eddie sighed, placed the phone on the pillow beside him, and crawled into bed. He stared at the ceiling.
The plan’s supposed to start with a good night’s sleep. This isn’t good.
The incessant serenade of millions of crickets bore through his skull. The snapping and sputtering of pipes in the walls filled out the ensemble. Wide awake, Eddie obsessed over every single pop or bang of the plumbing.
Just pipes. Old house, hot water pipes. Right?
Then a bang of a different order.
Eddie sat bolt upright. Directly overhead, something loud and sudden, slammed.
His heart pounded like a locomotive in overdrive.
No way I’m going up there again. Not now. Not at night!
But the bang was followed by the weirdest gurgling. In the very same spot.
Gotta be the pipes! Pipes, pipes, pipes! Old, fucking houses. Calm down Eddie!
Every muscle tense, Eddie drew his feet up to his butt and wrapped his fists tight around the edge of the bedcover. His eyes tracked the alternating thumping and slurping as something that was no hot water pipe slithered around above the ceiling until, finally, it moved to the intersection of ceiling and wall.
A shadow formed there, opposite the bed.
The apparition then dripped down the wall ¾ a black blob against the grays of the windows and other angles in the half-moon-lit, mostly unfurnished bedroom. Eddie pushed himself back in the bed as far as he could go.
“What the fuck are you?” He said shakily, opening his eyes wide but afraid to turn on the light.
The blob reached the floor, out of sight. Seconds later, it reappeared at the foot of the mattress.
It oozed like tar and overspread his lower legs, which went numb. Twisting from the hip, Eddie strained over his shoulder for the light switch, flipping it just as the umbral phenomenon flowed to his groin.
He turned. He cried out.
A half-decomposed face hovered above his crotch, empty orbs staring straight at him.
Eddie found himself quite alone ¾ in a brightly lit bedroom, soaked with sweat, cold as ice, and sprawled sideways. The comforter was bunched up over his legs and belly.
He sat at the edge of the bed. Dropped his face in his hands. Sobbed a bit. Eventually, with some deep breathing, he gathered himself together. Went to the bathroom to blow his nose and wipe his eyes. Changed into a new t-shirt and shorts.
A nightmare. That’s all. Use your brain, Eddie. You work at a hospital. You’ve read about stuff like this. Be clinical. Night terrors, they call it. Really bad nightmares, something like that. Obviously, a reaction to the attic. Normal anxiety response. Anxiety, night terrors ¾ happens to people all the time.
But Eddie didn’t want nightmares ‘all the time.’
If I don’t flush out the attic and nail down, not nothing, but something that explains what I saw, I’ll go completely batshit bonkers. But I will nail it. I will. Just like they do in the department. It’s mysterious, scary, only until the MR gets done. Then, whatever it is, is there, and it’s something everyone has seen before and knows all about. Like it was with Sally. Tomorrow, I’ll figure it out. It’ll be like doing an MRI on the attic. And that’ll be the end of it.
He went back to bed. Though the sounds above the ceiling had gone, sleep was fleeting. He managed a few minutes, here and there, before his alarm rang at eight.
He cleaned up, ate breakfast and bathed in the shimmering sunlight filling the house. There’d never be a better time, but his fear was difficult to surmount. He cast his eyes up the stairs, to the attic door, wondering what precautions he had failed to take.
A weapon. I know it’s no ghost. But still, could be an animal, and skunks and raccoons can be rabid.
He didn’t trust himself with a knife and ended up latching onto a heavy wrench from his box of tools. Then, after retrieving the flashlight, he found his way to the attic door and pulled it open. The door and ladder dropped with a woeful groan.
He climbed only high enough to stick his head through the ingang and tentatively peered about with the flashlight.
First, the east corner, where last he saw the thing.
Shadows of the roof framing. Nothing alive, or even vaguely humanoid. Eddie took another couple of steps up, bringing his waist to trapdoor level, and searched in an expanded arc. Everything was otherwise as he had left it, other than some overturned canvases. Eddie guessed the cops had messed with them.
He relaxed a smidgen. Then he climbed all the way up and continued his inspection. Morning light diffused up through the trap door, brightening the attic considerably compared to the prior, dreary afternoon. Eddie walked over to that east corner and examined it up close. He ran his fingers over the rough roof framing. There was no residue, no liquid, no stain.
At his feet lay a scattered set of oil paints and brushes. The brushes were frayed and dusty, thick with cobwebs. He picked one up, lifted his head, and was taken by surprise.
Isn’t that crazy, to almost miss something like that. Blends right in with the wood.
Crammed flat in the corner between roof and floorboards lay a folded, wooden easel.
“Huh. Pretty decent, really,” Eddie quietly said to himself, as he set the easel upright where there was room up top and locked it into place. “Maybe I’ll bring this down and use it.” He grabbed it by the lower, front horizontal member and gave it a gentle shake, establishing its stability. “Absolutely. Better than mine. Would not lose this.”
He sighed, drew a finger along the beams of the easel. Dust floated in the diffracted sunbeams from below.
Relaxing up here. Quiet. Maybe I should convert this to a studio. I could install a skylight.
His paramount concern had been that he’d find nothing at all up here, and remain plagued by an terrifying mystery. So when the creaking reoccurred behind him, before he turned, he was more hopeful than scared.
Melting paints? A big old raccoon and its pile of stinking garbage?
But then he looked. And there it was. The being.
Next to the old canvases, a shadow, gaining substance, sprouting from the plywood floor. Again, the singular, bulbous mass, budding something like a head, followed by an arm at either side. Cut off at the waist. Facing away from him.
Browsing the canvases.
Eddie sidled as quietly as he could toward the trapdoor opening, wrench at the ready. He got halfway there. But a floorboard creaked underfoot.
The thing twisted ’round. Its face pulsated. It moaned.
The tone was wavering, alien, nauseating. Weakened by the sound, Eddie let go the wrench — but the tool flew straight through the monster’s midriff.
Get me out of here!
Eddie reached toward the exit. Strained. Ever more frantically.
But he couldn’t move.
The being suddenly stopped its screaming. Its head extended toward Eddie in pseudopodial fashion, within three feet of his face.
Damn thing is angry. God. What does it want?
The smell of acetone was overwhelming. Eddie’s head swam.
He cowered for a minute. When he finally braved a look up, he found the thing was back in the corner, combing through the pictures again. Its jelly body sparkled colorfully in the refracted light.
Not angry anymore. Why doesn’t it just let me go, then?
The specter lifted one of the paintings and turned. It held the painting close to its body.
Distinct from the moaning, its voice was a high-pitched whine, like a siren on ancient seas, filtered through madness. The hole in its face widened as the wailing poured forth, and Eddie understood. He understood everything.
The being held a full-length portrait of a young girl in a straightforward, impressionist style. The paint was fresh, the image new. Eddie did not need to be told who the girl was, but the creature told him anyway.
Then Eddie melted.
The hard borders of his body softened. Features disappeared. He tried to shout out, to protest, but instead, an unsteady, dying tone issued from his throat. No actual words could rise anymore to his vanishing lips. Yet, still, vestigial thoughts.
I must get out!
Alas, impossible without legs. And struggle only brought pain.
So he relented.
In what remained of his hands rested a brush and palette. Upon the easel before him sat a new canvas. He drew breath. He could see. No longer human, he was still alive.
Wind whistled behind him — the being had fled. He was alone. The trapdoor closed of its own accord. No matter; before him sat an empty canvas, clear as day, glowing, in the dark. Time for a self-portrait.
Evan Kaiser is a retired physician who practiced primary care medicine in southeastern New England for over twenty-five years. He currently lives with his wife in the Providence, RI area and enjoys painting, reading, cooking, and birding.