Posted to Reddit as “I found something while cleaning out a hoarder’s house”

I’d been working reclamation for a little over a year. We called it reclamation, but that’s a euphemism for ‘throwing away crazy people’s shit’. I work for CLK, one of the largest property owners in the Southeast. Chuck L “Chuckles” Langtry bought hundreds of distressed properties for pennies on the dollar during the recession, and built an empire renting them back to the same poor people the banks had just evicted.

I started working there after my sister kicked me out. Before she died, our mother had made me promise to make good grades in school, and made my sister, Carla, promise to let me stay with her so long as I did. College didn’t agree with me; I could pick up the facts just fine, but put a sheet of paper in front of me and call it a test, and my mind would become a complete blank. I made it through two years of community college, but I just couldn’t handle my Junior year. Carla seemed relieved, sitting there at Mom’s old, scarred kitchen table, telling me that I had to go. I couch-surfed for a few weeks, and found the reclamation job sheerly through luck. Trenton, a friend who was a part-time bartender, told me a tale of his cousin, who got bit by a rat at work.

“You seen ‘Hoarders’?” Trenton asked. “Barry goes into those hoarder houses, where they’s got like forty dead cats and jars of piss and shit, and he cleans it all out. It pays pretty big money. Except they was rats in the last one, and a rat bit him. So he had to get a bunch of shots, tetniss, friggin’ rabies, like twenty shots in his ass or sump’n. Worker’s Comp paid for it all, but when he got back to work the place chitchatted him, for ‘not wearing appropriate safety gear.’” A few careful questions later and I had the name of the company. Barry’s manager, now my manager, hired me on the spot. I had dressed in nice slacks and an Oxford shirt — the only nice clothes I owned. I think he smelled my desperation; the pay was truly lousy. “You’re gonna mess up them britches, boy,” he said. “You start today.”

People are filthy. I’m no neat-freak, but the way some of these people live is worse than animals in pens. Years worth of dishes stacked in sinks, counters, the floor. Junkie needles, rusted tips stuck everywhere, waiting to snag an arm or a hand. Toilets clogged months or even years past, covered in newspapers, shat upon, and re-covered in layer after layer of shit and newspaper until it made a kind of fecal papier-mâché. I’m dead serious about my safety gear. Trenton’s cousin was an idiot; you don’t go into these places without a lot of something between you and everything else.

Most of the houses I worked in weren’t disaster zones; they were just houses that, for some reason, usually foreclosure, had sat empty for a long time. Houses aren’t made to sit empty. A tiny problem that would be instantly noticed and repaired by an occupant, like a dripping faucet, a bit of missing weather-stripping around a door, or an animal scratching around in the attic, would turn into a full-blown disaster after six months of neglect. I would back up a dump truck to a house, and my partner and I would haul out broken furniture, cracked toilets, sodden carpet, ruined drywall. The people who lived in those houses usually left when they didn’t want to leave, and some left mad. I had seen entire plumbing stacks filled with concrete, wiring pulled from walls, and fixtures smashed with hammers. My partner on one job, Hank, opened a kitchen cabinet, only to discover it was full of baby raccoons. Mama Raccoon tried to eat Hank’s face. Some days were luckier than others, though. In one place, I realized the strange odor I had been smelling was kerosene, only a moment before I triggered a tripwire that some meth-head had strung across the hallway. The cops said the whole place was rigged — the tripwire, and several others, had been tied to crude nail-filled claymores, and pipe bombs were wired into the light switches. Since then, I always cut power to a place first thing, and I always smelled the air.

The air told me something was wrong with the Kelling house. At first glance, from the street, the house seemed small, a modest bungalow, shrouded by trees and overgrown shrubs. When we backed the truck down the cramped, curving drive, I could see the house was very large, verging towards mansion. It appeared to have three distinct wings. Three floors rose over the porch, the topmost crowned with a row of small windows. I had just forced my way through the large, heavy front door with a pry-bar, past no less than three deadbolts. The air was warm, and wet, like the exhalation from the mouth of a carnivore. “Fuck, that stinks!” cried Jacob, my partner for the job. He was nineteen, stood about six foot three, weighed about three hundred pounds, and had a rosy child’s face framed by ringlets of curly blonde hair. He looked like a giant, oversized baby, belly straining against his rip-proof environment suit. This was his first real job. I doubted I would see him after Friday.

“Put your respirator on,” I said, pulling mine into place. “Stinks like mold in there. You don’t want any of that shit in your lungs.” I pushed the front door open, and stepped into the hallway. The heat inside the house was oppressive. It was early October, cool outside, so the heater must have been running. Daylight from beyond the low-slung front porch showed a hallway packed floor to ceiling with stacks of papers, with only a narrow path between them. Grey dust, or mold, coated everything, piled into small drifts in the corners, and floated in the sunlight. “Great, a hoarder house.”

“Like on TV?” Jacob asked.

“Yeah, like on TV.” I flicked on my flashlight. “Be really careful near these stacks. If you bump into one, the whole pile can fall on you.” Jacob had been watching long-legged centipedes scurry for cover from the beam of his light. He gave a nervous laugh, and shrank back from the stacks of papers. Jacob reached for the old two-button style light switch near the front door. I blocked his hand. “No, use your light. There’s no telling how bad the wiring is in this place.” I motioned at the papers. “I don’t want to be stuck in here with a fire.” We made our way farther down the hallway, between the teetering stacks of dust-covered and cobwebbed papers. The light faded as the Kelling house swallowed us.

Jacob and I entered what once would have been a grand foyer off the front hallway. Our lights picked out beautiful woodwork, and glinted off an elaborate chandelier hanging three stories overhead. Dust-covered shelves lined the walls, floor to the ceilings high overhead, each crammed to overflowing with junk and papers. Galaxies of dust swirled in the thick air, disturbed by our intrusion. In the gloom, the room was dizzying; the mind recoiled from so many details, from having to track and account for so many things. Jacob’s respirator whistled faster and faster. I lay a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, man. Breathe.”

“Sorry. It’s just … so much.” His eyes were shocked huge behind his face mask.

“We need to find the main breaker panel and cut the power. We only have until Friday to haul all this shit out. From the looks of it, we’ll be living here until then.” Stepping over scattered papers, I walked through an archway into a new hallway opposite the entry hallway. This one was more narrow, and only had crudely-assembled wooden shelves on one side. I checked each door along the way. “These old houses, the panel’s in the kitchen half the time.”

The kitchen was as bad as I had feared. The food hadn’t simply rotted; it had disintegrated and merged into a sheet of decaying matter that glued the layers of plates and dishes into a near-solid mat. A mottled Amana refrigerator, once yellow, or even white, slumped in a corner like a murder victim, its door open to display ancient, furred food crushed beneath broken wire shelves. Every level surface had been stacked with dishes, as if whoever had brought them into the kitchen had dropped them off, expecting them to be cleaned by a servant who was no longer there, or who had never been. Jacob and I picked our way across and around the heaps that may have been tables or chairs, our lights aimed at the walls where we hoped to find a breaker panel. We found none. “And the other half of the time?” Jacob asked, though the resignation in his voice meant he knew the answer.

“Yeah, it’s in the basement.” The other door leading out of the kitchen was stuck firm. Even Jacob, who had nearly a hundred pounds on me, couldn’t get it to shift in its frame. We backtracked to the foyer. “Look, we have to split up. You take this hallway, and I’ll take the other one. You walk the right-side edge the whole time.” I punched his arm. “Hear me? Right side the whole time. I’m following the left side. I need to make sure you’re checking every wall in every single room. This is a big house, there’s trash all over, and it’s dark. We’ve already burned two hours, and we only have until the end of the week. We don’t have time to waste checking the same room twice. If you find it, text me. Got your phone on you? Turned up loud?” He nodded. “Got signal?”

“Yeah, man. I’m not an idiot.”

“I know,” I said, even though I was pretty sure he was an idiot. “Langtry doesn’t give a shit how big this house is. He wants it cleaned out by the end of the week. If we do a good job, haul a bunch of loads, he’ll give us a bonus.” He’d give me a bonus. Jacob would get a pat on the back, and he wouldn’t show up to work on Monday morning. “Let’s go. Keep that mask on.” As Jacob stumbled down his hallway, clumsy in his environmental suit, motes of grey dust sparkled in his flashlight beam, until the darkness closed upon him.

An hour later, I had to admit that I was lost. I was furious. It was a big house, and yes, there was trash everywhere, and yes, it was dark, but it was still just a house. I had spotted a promising doorway at the end of a hallway, but the hallway was blocked by an impenetrable stack of furniture and, oddly, garden implements. I backtracked to a narrow, spiral staircase, and climbed up. My plan was to go up one floor, go down the length of an upper hallway, and find a way down on the other side. At the top of the staircase was another long hallway, but this one was empty of both trash and doorways. Grey mold, or dust, lay thick across carpet that might have once been red. I walked the length of the hallway without finding another staircase. Instead, the hallway turned sharply left. The first door on the right was slightly open. I pushed the door open, and walked into a dusty, but otherwise clean bedroom. Large bay windows looked down upon the driveway. I could see the front of the truck. Except I was too high up. Somehow, instead of climbing up one floor, I had climbed to the topmost level of the house.

When my phone rang, I nearly wet myself. “Yeah?” I said.

“I… zzz … own … here,” Jacob said. The connection was terrible.

“I can’t hear you. Move towards a window.”

“… all … go … me …”

I looked at my phone. “Call feature: Call Failed.” I’m not sure how that’s a feature. I sent him a text. “Meet at truck.”

I was hot, thirsty, and I really had to pee, so I was ready to kick down a door and climb out a window just to get to the truck. I left the bedroom, thinking to retrace my steps. After that, I’m not sure what happened. I’d always felt like I had a good sense of direction, especially inside a building, but the Kelling house was different. I know I went left out of the bedroom, then right down the long, empty hallway, and down the spiral staircase. But when I reached the bottom, the pile of rakes and garden shears shoved through decaying chests of drawers was missing. It seemed to be the same hallway, at first. I hurried down to the end of the hallway, towards what I had earlier thought must be the door to the basement. I hauled the door open, but instead, the room was stuffed nearly full of dolls. I backtracked again, opening doors. Another was piled high with books. A brief look revealed them all to be molded, water-swollen paperback romance novels. Not one had a breaker panel on the wall. Worse, the windows in each room had been boarded up, then painted. After the third room, I noticed the carpet pattern in the hallway, only sparsely visible beneath mouldering papers and dust, had changed from a red grid to green with yellow flowers. I checked my phone again: no signal, and no texts. I tried calling Jacob anyway, but of course the call didn’t go through.

I started walking back to find the spiral staircase. Preoccupied as I was, I nearly missed the door to the basement. It was made to look like the walls of the hallway in which I stood, with dark wood trim and covered in yellowing plaster lathe. As I walked past, I noticed something near the floor — a light? The door opened easily, to reveal a short set of wooden stairs, dimly lit by an ancient, naked incandescent bulb. The steps ended at another door. This door was not wood, but metal, and was much larger. A wheel was set in the center of the door. I turned the wheel, and pulled open the hatch. Hot air, hot enough to feel through the Tyvek of my suit, rushed past me. Brilliant white-blue light spilled around the edges of the doorway, blinding my gloom-accustomed eyes. I hissed involuntarily, shading my eyes from the harshness of the glare. After my eyes adjusted, I stepped through the doorway onto a white-painted metal landing. A long series of white metal steps descended from the platform. The walls, also white, were spotlessly clean, as were the floor and steps. My phone dinged, and vibrated. It claimed it had a bar’s worth of signal. Three missed calls, all from Jacob. Several texts.

“Where r u?” “Not funny” “I QUIT” “jk u at truck?”

I called Jacob. The call connected, but it went to voicemail. I texted him, “Found basement. Meet you at truck” and hit Send. In the dry stillness of the stairwell, I could have sworn I heard the text tone sound off in the distance. Floodlights glared overhead as I climbed down the steps to the sterile white basement floor. There was no dirt, no dust. Row upon row of steel shelves silently receded into the brightly lit, immaculate distance. The shelves gleamed under the lights, and on each shelf lay dozens of white cardboard boxes.

I picked a box near me. A small, elegantly hand-printed label was affixed to the front. “623,” I read aloud. The box was light, but something was inside. I removed the lid. Inside the box lay a woman’s dress, a pink fabric that was polyester, or maybe acrylic. Under it were a pair of buckled pink shoes, and a purse. “Maybe someone really likes to play dress-up,” I said to myself, as I replaced the box upon the shelf. Deep down, I didn’t believe it. Deep down, I needed to leave. Right then. But I didn’t.

I heard a ping, loud and echoing against the concrete and steel. Jacob’s phone, reminding him of my text. I looked around, but did not see him in the bright, cavernous room. I walked towards where I thought I had heard the sound, and picked up another box. “898”. Mens white dress slacks, pink shirt, white sport coat, loafers. Black Ray-Ban glasses. A wallet. I flipped open the wallet, but it was empty. In the corner of the box, I noticed a gold ring. A wedding band. Though the room was swelteringly hot, I was suddenly cold. I put the lid back on the box, and the box back on the shelf. The humming was louder here, more of a throb, so I continued my way down the corridor of shelves towards its source.

At a certain point, the shelves emptied of boxes, their steel racks gleaming in the floods. At the far corner of the room, taking up nearly the entire wall, crouched an enormous furnace. No, it was an oven. Its surface, vast and black iron, was studded with rivets. Across its dark face were five large doors, and in those doors were portholes, and in those portholes fire danced and played. Next to the oven was a cart. It was small, and steel, and very clean. On the cart was a single white box. Its label read “1248”. The box pinged, loudly. I opened its lid. Inside, it held a respirator, a Tyvek environment suit, and Jacob’s phone.

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The Battery Room

“Lowest man on the totem pole.” That’s how my boss described it. That’s how I got stuck on night shift. That made me “The New Guy”. Or “TFNG”, as my coworkers said during the two weeks of day shift training I got at the start of the job. I’m a junior network administrator, right out of college, riding on a friend of a friend’s recommendation. I was responsible for making sure everything stayed the same over night — all the little red lights stayed red, and the green lights stayed green. I had very little idea what I was doing, but in government work, the one thing you can count on is that the task is documented somewhere. Usually on paper, in a binder. I’d done PC tech support for a few years during college, but had never worked with network gear before. If my résumé isn’t outright false, it definitely stinks of cheese.

The office is thirty miles inside the gates of a military base. The speed limit is thirty miles per hour, and the MPs will write tickets for one mile over. It’s a straight road, no hills or curves, only scrub pine for thirty miles. The gates are only five minutes from my apartment, which makes the hour-and-five drive even more infuriating. The building itself is bland in a way only 1970s-era government buildings can be: a long, low building, brick walls pierced by narrow, energy-efficient windows.

My shift is Sunday through Wednesday, 1800 until 0800 Sundays and Mondays, 2000 until 0800 Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mandatory overtime. I only work four days a week, but when you work nights, or long shifts, you’re wrecked the next day. I have no social life to speak of, excluding League of Legends. My roommates all work day shift, and are usually gone to work when I get home, and out partying when I wake up.

Did I mention I worked completely alone? That’s not entirely true; my shift overlaps with a co-worker’s for an hour. In the short time Dan and I see each other, we spend the time going over activity logs and any issues he thought might crop up overnight. Other than work, Dan and I had nothing in common. He was in his fifties, with a bushy beard, thick glasses, and a penchant for plaid shirts and overalls. He’d worked in the Network Operations Center since he was eighteen, and would likely work there until he retired.

Sunday nights are the hardest. After the long drive in, I badge through four sets of security doors into the dark cave of the NOC. Drag up a chair next to Dan. Half pay attention while he mumbles over a few things, since he had been there for twelve hours and wants to leave as much as I do. Just like that, he’s gone.

I couldn’t blame Dan for not wanting to be there. The NOC is lit only by its screens — three large projector displays and dozens of monitors. The room is in the middle of the building, with no windows. Three rows of low, carpeted cubicles fill the room, with a bank of monitors just below the projector displays. The rest of the building is on low power overnight, which means only one out of every four banks of lights were on, the rest off, or sometimes flickering and buzzing. The MPs patrol the building once a night, around 0200. They can’t get into my area, or at least they don’t. I learned their schedule the hard way when they went into the restroom I was using one night. They laughed when I screamed, so I stayed in the stall until they left. The restrooms were, of course, at the other end of a very long hallway, past dozens of dark, open doors. I have considered peeing in a soda bottle instead of making that walk.

The day shift people have decorated the halls with all manner of pumpkins and scarecrows and zombie heads. Earlier this week I made my way to the restroom. Only every fourth light was on in the hallway, the dim fluorescents revealing a stale, institutional green. I walked past all those dark doorways, steps echoing off the hard tiles. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a life-sized glowing green skeleton. Its eyes lit up, and it shouted “TRICK OR TREAT” at me. I hate this place during Halloween.

The base is located in an area that is prone to get massive thunderstorms, including tornadoes, nearly every week during autumn. A big storm hit a few nights ago. I had the Weather Channel pulled up on one of the overhead projectors. With the sound off, I watched the weather alerts crawl by. In the NOC, the storm was a slight increase in the ambient noise — something new, apart from the whirring of the ventilation system and the hum of computers. Then, at 0245, an alarm went off.

“Well, shit,” I said. The alarm was old, an actual light on the wall, with a buzzer, not part of our automated systems. I grabbed my white Protocol Binder. Found nothing. Went to my manager’s desk, and looked through his stack of PBs. Nothing.

“The UPS has a fault,” my boss, Mike, said, when I called him. “Go down to the battery room and check the board. It probably caught a surge from this storm. There’s a reset button on the board. Mash it, and it’ll turn the alarm off.” Mike was another lifer, a short man with short cropped red hair who flew a Dixie flag on his leather jacket when he rode his Harley into work.

“Ok,” I said.

“And kid, don’t touch anything. I mean it. All that shit’s on DC power. If you get zapped, you’ll fry to jerky before anyone gets to you. Just reset it and call me when you’re done.”

The battery room is about the size of the first floor of suburban house, filled with row upon row of what are essentially car batteries. Each battery was open on top, and the cases were clear so as to show the level of the acid in them. The room stank of ozone, and aside from a few dim lights down the central corridor, pitch black. The huge copper bars connecting the rows of batteries hummed in the darkness. At intervals, long wooden poles were hung from hooks on support beams. Wood is a poor conductor: the poles are used to pry off anyone unlucky enough to touch one of those copper bars.

The control board was at the other end of the battery room. I walked past racks of humming batteries, my skin prickling from ambient currents in the room. “Great,” I said. “Let’s walk through a billion volts of electricity in the middle of a crazy thunderstorm.” I had been talking to myself within weeks of starting night shift. They say that talking to oneself is an early indicator of insanity. If so, at least I’ll have myself for company.

Like most equipment in the building, I had never seen the UPS control board. As my coworker told me once during one of our overlaps, “We’re mushrooms. They keep us in the dark and feed us shit.” Amongst multiple dials and gauges, I spotted a red RESET button and pushed it. A red light on the board went out. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

I turned to leave. There was a WHAM! CLANG! from next door. Then a slowly building roar, which meant we were on generator power. I picked up the phone near the control board and called my boss. “I reset the alarm but we just switched over to generator power.”

“Yeah, the wind outside’s a real bitch. We lost power about a minute ago here,” Mike said. “You should have plenty of fuel, enough for five days.” He laughed. “Don’t worry; we’re essential services, so they’ll get our power on sooner than that. Four hours, tops. We We still gotta follow procedures though, so I need you to go check the generator. None of that shit is automated, so go look at all the lights and check the fuel. Go in the door, turn right and go straight back. And wear some damn ear muffs!”

I hung up the phone, and sighed. Even with ear protection, when the generator was running, it was like standing next to a jet engine. I grabbed the ear muffs off the hook next to the door to the generator room. “This sucks. I need a new job,” I told myself, for the hundredth time that night.

The generator room was lit only with dim red lights. The generators were two tractor trailer-sized diesel engines crammed into the room, leaving only narrow maintenance aisles on either side. The room stank of grease and poorly-exhausted diesel smoke, and was very hot. Sweat beaded around my hairline as I walked down the aisle. The sound covered me like lead blanket, hammering against my chest and back, vibrating my eyeballs in their sockets. I made my way through the thickened air to the control panel at the of the room. “Fuel gauge looks good. All lights green,” I said, as I scribbled the readings in my notebook.

Something touched my neck.

I may have screamed, but it was impossible to tell in that room.

I’ll confess: I’m scared of spiders. Well, not so much scared of as utterly revolted by. When I felt the first touch, I instantly visualized a huge black spider crawling on my neck. I flipped. Did the Spider Dance — brushed the back of my neck a dozen times, shook my clothes, spun around in circles. Nearly knocked my ear muffs loose. Said a lot of bad words. After a few seconds of this, I realized there was no spider. “Shit!” I said, and bent to pick up my notebook. Something pushed me. I stumbled forward, away from the control panel. I spun around. There was nothing. “What the fuck?” I frantically looked around me. I was alone. Still trying to see both in front and behind me, I stooped and grabbed my notebook.

I decided there that no matter what, I wasn’t going to run. This was a prank, and my coworkers were watching it on video. It would probably get a million hits on Youtube. “It’s great to be the new guy, you assholes!” I shouted, even though I couldn’t hear myself over the din of the generator, and I knew nobody else could either. I walked down the tight corridor beside the generator, toward the door. The whole way, I felt little pluckings at my clothes, like something pinching and pulling but only for a second at a time. I yanked the door open, stepped through, and slammed it shut. I pulled the ear muffs off and threw them on the floor next to the control board. I was covered in sweat, and my ears were ringing, despite the ear protection.

I wiped my face with my sleeve, and started walking past racks of batteries. Then stopped. Something moved down one of the side aisle. I squinted into the murk. Batteries hummed around me. My scalp prickled and itched. At the end of the aisle, a slumped, dark shape rearranged itself, and slouched towards me. I staggered back, then recoiled as my arm brushed against one of the battery racks. I stood still in the center of the main corridor, and the shape edged closer to me. My nose filled with the sickly-sweet stench of burned pork. It reached the edge of the aisle, I could see its shape. It was a man, staggering towards me, flesh charred dark. Cables writhed across his body, and trailed back into the dark. I heard the coils scrub and squeak against each other. The man had no eyes. They had burst and cooked onto his cheeks. He shuffled closer. A cable wormed out of one socked, crossed the ruined bridge of his nose, and pushed itself into the other socket. For a moment, I realized I could read the print on the cable. His withered mouth gaped open, revealing teeth that had cracked and burst from heat. He stretched a sticklike, charred arm out to me, and the cables twisted upon it. I glanced down, and saw cables on the floor, snaking closer to me.

I ran.

I don’t recall badging out of the battery room, or badging through the multiple security doors to get into the NOC. I remember sitting in one position for long enough that my leg went to sleep. I remember watching the doors, and listening to the quiet noise of the NOC, listening for any change, or perhaps for a muffled, choked scream. I heard nothing, but I sat very still.

Mike came in early that morning. “Good job last night,” he said. “I double-checked everything this morning. Looks good.” He handed me my notebook. “You dropped this in the battery room.”


He looked at me, eyebrows furrowed. “You didn’t … see anything in there last night, did you?”

I looked at him, at his orange flat-top shot through with white, at the tobacco stain around the corner of his mouth, burst veins in his nose, at his eyes, pale blue and watery.


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Curb Furniture

I ignored Jesse’s 15th text. “This is heavy, you jerk!” I was far less concerned about Jesse’s potential hernia than my position on the leaderboards. The stupid fourteen year old DRDRED43 refused to move away from the turret, and I was getting destroyed. The game stuttered for a moment, and my connection dropped. “Fucking Comcast,” I muttered, and shoved back from my desk. My phone buzzed again. “God dammit, Jesse.” I sighed, shoved my feet into some sandals, and walked out the door.

Jesse and Kenny were shoving and grunting at a truly massive couch that was wedged in the stairwell. “That thing’s gonna kill you both,” I said. Jesse flashed one of his trademark movie-star smiles at me, then flipped me off. Jesse was perfect: wealthy parents, perfect curly blonde hair, abs of a demigod, genius IQ, and a sweet Southern drawl that melted panties at ten yards. Most of the time, I hated him. We had been friends since high school.

“I think I shit myself,” Kenny grunted. “Come on, you lazy fuck. Help us!”

I kicked off my sandals so I’d have better grip on the old wood flooring, then wedged myself under part of the sofa and shoved. Slowly, with much sweat and profanity, the three of us got the sofa into the apartment. We kicked aside half-full boxes and the three metal folding chairs, and shoved the sofa against the wall opposite the huge flatscreen Jesse had bought on a whim one weekend. The sofa was long enough to stretch from one wall of the apartment to the other. It completely filled the space, like the Obelisk from “2001”, except horizontal. Its fabric was a deep red, whorled and mottled with darker red that was nearly black. Each of its eight thick legs were carved to resemble claws, clutching spheres atop pedestals. Along the back of the sofa, nearly obscured by the overstuffed cushions, was a solid length of dark oak, intricately carved in flowing geometric patterns.

“Dude, this is gonna be awesome!” Kenny said, scratching his beard. Kenny was, in a lot of ways, the physical opposite of Jesse. His hair, though curly, was an unruly mess. He was generally round, with a doughy face covered with more neglect than beard. Appearances aside, Kenny had an infectious, boylike charm that made him great fun to be around. “Come on, let’s try it out!” Kenny found The Motherfucker — an assortment of remote controls that he had taped to the outside of a huge Jack Daniels bottle — on my desk. Jesse grabbed us each beers from the beer fridge, and we all sat down on the sofa. Jesse’s flatscreen turned on, and Kenny’s PlayStation3 started playing the so-familiar DA! DADADA! strains of the intro to Star Wars: Episode IV through my AV unit’s speakers. The sofa really was comfy, a significant improvement over metal folding chairs, or the hardwood floors. The cushions were large and overstuffed, but not too soft. With the three of us sitting on it, there was still enough room for another two or three people.

“This is pretty nice, guys. Where’d this thing come from?” I asked.

“We totally snagged it off the curb!” Kenny said.

I jumped up. “Aww man, that’s gross! There could be lice or bed bugs or something!”

“No way,” Kenny said. “I checked it out. There’s no bugs or anything.” Kenny got down on the floor, and knocked on one of the sofa’s large wooden legs. “This is solid oak. Kiln-dried. You can’t get furniture like this any more. Well, you can, maybe, but you’ll pay twenty grand or more. This baby has eight-way hand-tied springs, and I don’t know what the fabric is, but it’s high-end stuff. I don’t know how old it is, but my guess is at least eighty, maybe a hundred years old.” As far as I knew, Kenny had never worked for a furniture store, or dealt with antiques, but he had an talent for research and a huge retention for random facts.

“And you guys just found this on the side of the road,” I said.

Kenny stood up. “Yeah. It was down on Planchard and Third, along with a bunch of other stuff. You know how they set stuff out when people get evicted. I saw it this morning when I was going to class, and had Jesse help me pick it up after.”

“It’s fine, man. If it had been out in the rain or something, we’d know by the smell,” Jesse said. “I did the sniff test all over it, and under the cushions. It smells like old perfume or something, but not anything bad.”

We sat back down on the sofa, drank our beer, and watched a movie that we’d all seen a hundred times. I noticed the smell then, faint, like tobacco and flowers, or perfume.


I didn’t sleep well that night. I had my first nightmare. Not the first nightmare of my life, but the first real one. The first one about the sofa. In my dream, it was somehow alive. The sofa’s mottled, red fabric glistened, like raw, wet muscle, stretched taut over bones that groaned and ground against one another. There was something unsettlingly sexual about the way the muscles flexed against each other. I saw my hand reach out to caress a cushion. It was warm, almost hot to the touch, and it felt very good — I snapped awake. My heart was racing. I felt an indescribable sense of dread. I looked at my phone. Five A.M. Way too early to wake up, but too late to get any rest before my alarm went off at six. I threw on a robe and shuffled to the kitchen. I nearly dropped my cereal bowl when I saw Kenny, sitting on one of our mismatched kitchen chairs.

“What the hell are you doing up?” I asked.

He looked up at me, as if surprised that I was standing there. “Insomnia. Happens sometimes. I just couldn’t get comfortable on my bed, so I thought maybe I’d go sleep on the sofa.” He pointed into the gloom of the living room. “Looks like Jesse beat me to it.” He sighed, stood up, and walked to his room, leaving me to eat cereal to the sounds of Jesse snoring in the dark.

I was a wreck that day, and the next, and the next. Earlier and earlier every night, I would wake up to the same dream. The sofa would somehow beckon to me, some nights like a lover, and other nights like my mother, who passed away when I was twelve. Every time I woke, sweating, breathing as if I’d run a marathon, I felt the same sense of dread. After the first night, I refused to get up. Instead, I stayed in my bed, willing myself to go back to sleep. Some nights I heard Kenny walking around.

On the other hand, Jesse seemed positively manic. He was upbeat, chipper even, in contrast to his usual surfer-Zen attitude. “Been sleeping on the sofa, man,” he said. “Best sleep I’ve ever had. Never felt better.” But at night, through the thin wall separating the living room from my bedroom, I heard him whimpering in his sleep.

Jesse brought a new girl, Jenny, over that Friday night. Jenny was thin, blonde, and insecure — another of Jesse’s future ex-girlfriends. She laughed at everything he said, and I don’t believe she broke body contact with him the whole evening. We all sat on the sofa, drinking, smoking, and playing video games. As the night wore on, Jesse began to give us significant looks, so we staggered off to our rooms, leaving him with an increasingly affectionate Jenny.

“He better not stain the sofa,” Kenny grumbled to me, before closing the door to his room.


I woke from another dream about the sofa. Something thumped against my wall. “Ugh,” I groaned. Another thump, and a moan. Thump thump. “Dammit,” I said, and rolled off my bed. I threw on a shirt and shorts, and stumbled blearily out of my room, down the hall and into the living room. I tried not to look at Jesse humping some girl, but I did want to get his attention. “Jesse, keep it down, it’s late –” THUMP! In the dim blue glow of the flatscreen, I saw Jesse straddling Jenny, arms locked around her throat. His swim-team shoulders bunched, and the tendons in his arms stood out like cables. Jenny’s face was black, her eyes open and bulging, her tongue thick and bloated, protruding from her mouth. One arm thumped, weakly, against the wall.

“Holy fuck, Jesse! Get off her!” I ran to the sofa, and shoved him as hard as I could. He didn’t move. “Kenny! Wake up! Help!” Jesse turned to me, eyes wide open but blank as the flatscreen. He turned back to Jenny, and gave a final, wrenching squeeze. Her leg twitched and kicked once. I hooked an arm around Jesse’s neck and pulled as hard as I could. “HELP! GET UP NOW!” He let go, and I fell back against the floor, with his weight on me. I kicked and shoved him off of me and onto the floor, and scrambled away.

The lights came on. Kenny stood in the hallway, mouth agape. Jesse lay on the floor, naked, staring up at the ceiling. Jenny’s nude body sprawled on the couch, head tilted at an awkward angle, face a horrible purple-black.


Jenny was listed as dead on the scene. Her neck had been totally crushed. A friend of a friend was interning at the coroner’s office, and suggested that the coroner himself was impressed that Jesse had been able to shatter two neck vertebrae with his bare hands. The cops wouldn’t tell us much, other than that Jesse was under psychiatric evaluation. Jesse hadn’t spoken since that night, and was completely unresponsive to questioning.

Kenny began acting strangely. Stranger than normal, for Kenny. He spent most of his time at home sitting in a bean bag chair, staring at the sofa, writing notes in a battered old notebook. When he wasn’t at home, he was gone, sometimes for days at a time. Two guys from his study group showed up looking for him after he missed class for the third session in a row. They had heard about Jesse — the whole town had — and wrote off Kenny’s behavior to a coping mechanism.

I began to dread returning home from class. The dreams were getting worse. The sight of the sofa, hunched redly in the dimness of early morning, was often enough to rush me out of my apartment without breakfast. I told myself it was PhD stress. I told myself that it had nothing to do with a piece of furniture in my living room.

Kenny showed up at the Bio lab one evening, clutching a thick notebook. I was staying late, working on my thesis. I was behind on my research, and the lack of sleep was getting to me.

“Jesse’s dead,” he said.

“What? How?” I asked.

“His mom called me a few minutes ago. She said he killed himself.”

“I thought he was in a psych ward?”

“The cops say he strangled himself.”

“How is that even possible?”

“I dunno, man. They told his mom that they found him in his cell with his hands around his throat. But listen, that’s not all I want to talk to you about. We need to get rid of the sofa,” Kenny said.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Kenny?”

“I’m serious, man. I … I’ve been doing some research. On the sofa.” I laughed and shook my head. Kenny waved his notebook at me. It was thicker now, ragged with newspaper clippings. “It’s all in there. Take a look.”

I took the notebook and began leafing through it. Kenny sat at a workstation next to me. “I got to thinking, where did that sofa come from? Like, originally? And why was it just sitting out on the curb like that? It’s a really nice piece of furniture. So I went back to where I found it. The apartment was vacant, so I called and told the landlady I wanted to rent it. Some Phi Delta girls had been renting it before. The landlady told me that … dude, bad shit happened to the three girls who had that place before. The first one drove head-first into a tree. No alcohol or drugs or anything. The second one went nuts. Like, clawed her own eyes out nuts. She’s still locked up. The last one though –” Kenny shuddered. “She was a babysitter. She locked herself and three kids in the family car, and took a long drive inside the family garage. No note, nothing.” Kenny pointed out some newspaper clippings. “There’s the obits, there, and some newspaper articles about the deaths.”
“It gets worse,” Kenny said, and wiped a slightly shaky hand across his forehead. “I asked around, and it turns out one of the frat guys in my Cal III class dated girl number two. The one who hit the tree?” I nodded. “Yeah, well, before they started dating, when he was still trying to get into her pants, he helped her pick up some furniture off the curb.”

“A red sofa,” I said.

“Yeah. He said it was a fantastic find. I had him tell me where they found it. That place was a nice old house. It was up for sale, so I called the owner. Had him meet me for a showing. He said he’d inherited the place from his father, who’d passed away about two years ago. Said he’d sold all the original furniture, but he put some of the stuff out on the curb. I laughed and told him I’d just found an awesome old red sofa on the curb just a few weeks ago. He laughed too, and said it was probably his dad’s, and that he remembered how heavy it was when he picked it up off the curb the first time. He figured since he found the sofa on the curb, it was only fitting to put it back there, as a way to ‘give back’. He was all jovial and shit, until I asked him how his dad died. Then he got all cold, and said it was a family matter. Pretty much shoved me out the door.” Kenny looked at me. “Bet you can’t guess who his dad was.”

“No clue.”

“Larry Munsen.”

“Oh.. fuck.” Munsen had abducted, raped, and killed six young college girls over the course of three years. It was a town scandal, and an embarrassment for both the local cops and the FBI. Munsen was 63 years old, far older than the normal profile for a serial killer. He’d never had any priors, and didn’t appear to have any tendencies before he started killing. “I thought they blamed that on a brain tumor?”
“Yeah, a brain tumor,” Kenny said, “Or fucking evil demon sofa.” We both laughed, for a moment, then stopped. I realized that both of us had glanced toward the door. Toward our apartment. As if it might be listening.

“Anyway, before he kicked me out, I got Munsen Jr. tell me where he picked up the sofa. He said a lot of mean things about my mom, but he eventually told me he picked it up on Laurel Avenue. The building is gone now, but it was the site of a brothel. It was a “nail salon” for years, but everyone knew what really happened there. It got busted about four years ago, as part of an international human trafficking sting. They found a bunch of bodies buried in the sub-basement. Apparently the managers would “retire” employees who didn’t perform up to standards.” Kenny flipped a few pages in the notebook. “Take a look at that,” he said, pointing to a newspaper photo.

The grainy newsprint showed the brothel manager’s office, posh with expensive furniture, exotic plants, and a large, overstuffed sofa.

“It got hard to track after that. Obviously I couldn’t talk to the brothel manager, or any of the employees. The manager’s in federal prison, and most of the workers were deported. Then I thought, what if I just looked for the worst things that happened in this town, then looked for the sofa?” Kenny pulled out a yellowed, glossy photo.

“No fucking way, man. This is too much.” Every schoolkid in town can tell you who W. C. Malone was. He was our town’s Al Capone, a small town gangster who ruled the whole county with a bloody fist, from 1922-1928. Capone might have been wealthier, and more high profile, but rumor had it that Capone himself was appalled at Malone’s tactics. According to some sources, Malone invented the “Columbian necktie”, in which a victim’s throat was slashed, and his tongue pulled through the cut, leaving the victim to slowly drown in his own blood. Historical estimates put Malone’s personal body count in the hundreds, and his gang’s count approaching a thousand. Malone’s reign of terror ended abruptly in 1928, when his girlfriend stabbed him to death with an icepick. She went to trial for murder, but not a single juror voted against her.
The photo showed W. C. Malone, in his trademark white hat, grinning around a cigar. He was leaning against the overstuffed back of a sofa. If the photo had been in color, instead of grainy newsprint, I would have bet the sofa would have been a deep, deep red.

Kenny rubbed a hand across his unshaved face. “What really gets me, man, is where did Malone find that sofa? Did he find it on a curb too? What if that thing has always been curb furniture — getting passed along, owner to owner, for nearly a hundred years?”

“We need to get the thing out of our apartment,” I said.


We stood at the door to our apartment. Neither of us wanted to touch the knob. “Just open it already,” I hissed.

“Fine!” Kenny muttered, and twisted the knob. The door swung open, into the short hallway that led to the living room. I flicked on the lights. The sofa sat against the wall. “No demons flying out of the cushions. No witches. Just a big dumb piece of furniture,” he said, and chuckled nervously. I wedged the door open. Kenny grabbed one end of the sofa, and I the other. We both lifted. The sofa was very, very heavy. Kenny took the lead, walking backwards toward the door. By the time we got to the door, we were both exhausted, and dripping with sweat. We set the sofa down for a moment.

“Turn it like this,” I said, gesturing with my hand. “We’ll have to angle it to get it into the hallway.” Kenny grunted agreement. As I picked my end of the sofa up, something snagged my thumb. “Ahh, fuck!” I yelled, and dropped my end. Kenny staggered back from his end.

“What, man, what?” he shouted, eyes panicky white.

“Nothing,” I said, “There’s tacks under the edge. One of them must have got my thumb.” I held my thumb up to the light. The wound was superficial, but bleeding. I watched as the drops splattered onto the sofa’s mottled red surface. The fabric seemed to absorb the blood greedily. I pressed my thumb against the padded arm. My blood didn’t seem to smear into the fabric. It felt cool, and very nice.

“Snap out of it, man,” Kenny said. He was shaking my arm. “You’ve been staring at the sofa for a few minutes.”

I shuddered, suddenly repulsed by the thing. “Let’s get this bitch out of here. Angle it up and out.”

“Right. Then it’s a few feet to the stairway, then a straight shot out the door.” Kenny grimaced, and grabbed his side of the sofa again. We twisted, and shoved, and moments later had the sofa filling the length of the hallway. “I’ll go down first. Just follow my lead,” he said.
The cut should have been a warning. I should have known what was going to happen. We both should have. I’ve gone over this part a hundred times, a million times, and this is what I still remember happening: I had the sofa by the end, arms braced around the heavy oak legs. Kenny had a similar hold. He called out the steps. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five.” At six, the sofa twisted. It rippled like a living thing, bucking in one wild thrash, ripping itself from my hands. Kenny fell backwards, skidding down the remaining stairs. The sofa fell after him. No. I must be honest. The sofa leaped after him. Its narrow edge crushed his skull like an eggshell. I saw this all as I fell. Forward, to land on the upturned sofa.


Cops. EMTs. Neighbors. Nobody saw the sofa. I suffered a severe concussion, a fractured ankle, and a broken wrist. The nurses, and eventually, the cops, told me the stairs collapsed. They said the property management company was accepting full responsibility. They offered me condolences. Condolences for what? The only thing I could think of was the sofa. I didn’t even think about Kenny until later.
I kept having migraines. The doctors said they were from the concussion. The nightmares got worse. Every night, I dreamed about the sofa. The cops quit talking to me. The migraines made concentrating difficult. I could barely walk. I had no place to go; my apartment building was still under investigation, so I slept in a closet in the Bio lab. Finally, after a particularly bad night, I realized one morning that I was standing in the lobby of the police station, screaming about a sofa. One of the police officers recommended psychiatric care. I agreed, and checked myself into a facility.

Therapy helped. Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was just being away from my situation. After a month or so, I felt better. Or at least, well enough to leave. As per facility policy, I had to meet with the Director before I left the facility. Dr. Mahmood met me at the door to his office. He was shorter than me, but had a kind face that somehow matched his voice.

“I hear you feel it’s time to leave us?” he said.

“Yes sir,” I smiled. “I’m really feeling a lot better now.”

“In that case, let’s do our exit interview,” he said, and walked around to his desk chair. He gestured behind me. “Please, have a seat.” I turned, and my smile slipped from my face. “This is my new sofa. It’s a beautiful antique. I found it on the curb just last week. How could someone just leave something so beautiful on the curb? I can assure you, it is very comfortable.”


Audra forgot to lock her laptop that morning. We had been dating for about four years, and living together for three. I was happy, had been happy, and I truly thought everything was fine. She left for her Saturday run in the park, and I stayed behind, content to play video games on my lazy weekend morning. When I went to the kitchen, my cat, which had been sleeping on the laptop keyboard, got up and meowed at me. I noticed then that the screen was unlocked. I pushed the cat out of the way, and sat down, thinking I would ensure the cat hadn’t made a mess of anything. Then I noticed an instant message window. “I love you too!”

That was strange. She would say that to me, but I had not used my computer that morning. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Maybe it was her mother? A cousin? As I scrolled through the chat history, my world fell apart. Audra had been cheating, secretly dating a coworker, a married coworker, for over three months. Sometimes they met at work, in the parking garage, but they always saw each other on Saturdays, when she went for a run. They laughed together, at me, in their instant messages, at how easy it was for her to slip away.

I stood, in shock. I felt like someone close to me had died. In a sense, it was a death: the death of our relationship. I had to get out of that house. Suddenly, I felt her everywhere. No, I felt him, smelled his lousy cologne, saw his tie in her car two weekends ago, that she said must have been mine even though I knew it wasn’t, saw the red mark on her neck that she claimed was from her messenger back, saw the bruise on her pale thigh and the line in her chat message “you were too rough last time. you left a mark. he cant find out.” Moaning, or screaming, or crying, I staggered to my car, and I drove.

I may never know how I ended up in that cemetery. I remember driving out of the city, past the suburbs, through desolate country back roads, turning again and again, onto roads that hardly deserved the term. I saw the cemetery gates by the light of the dying sun, the high metal fence glinting through dense hedge like a hidden jewel. I had stopped at a disused railroad crossing in some place that may have once been a town, but had since become overgrown by vines and weeds as to nearly merge with the scrubby forest it inhabited. I parked the car in the dense weeds by the roadside, got out and walked to the gate. Thick vines had woven through the metal bars, but the gate opened readily enough when I pushed.

The cemetery was beautiful, those last red rays of sunlight splashing upon the mausoleums and statues and stones in a watercolor wash. Row upon row of tombstones spread before me. For all the overgrowth outside, the grounds were well-kept, ornamental shrubbery sculpted and lawn trimmed. In that moment, I forgot about Audra, about her infidelity, about my pain. I was in a place of beauty, and I enjoyed it. I walked down the central pathway, stepping over buckled cobblestones pushed up by hundred year old oaks. I knew a bit about architecture, from my college years. Here was a many-columned mausoleum in the Greek Revival style, and there was Egyptian Revival, with its wings and sphinxes. The stones bore the names from a hundred other cemeteries: Smith, Hardy, Robertson.

As I continued down the path, the stones and mausoleums became less grand, more crude, and their dates grew older. Instead of 1920s and 1900s, there were 1880s and 1860s. There was a stone marked 1843, its top half crumbled away, and its inscription worn away. The statues were smoothed and hunched, covered in moss. I noticed another mausoleum, this time a stack of rude brick, set with the massive metal door that appeared to be mostly rust. Its only marking was the date: 1775. I thought this was passing strange, as I did not think this part of the country to be settled that long ago, but entranced as I was by the scenery, I dismissed the thought with a shrug.

The many paths of the cemetery converged ahead of me, against a tall hillside bluff at the back of the place. The sun had truly set and night was upon me, yet I was still able to see in that dim dusk light. I reached the end of the path and gasped. Before me, set into the raw rock of the bluff was a statue of a woman, a beautiful woman, her stone arms slightly reaching out as if to console or comfort. The pain came back at once, crippling, suffocating. In my grief I collapsed there in the path, wracking sobs echoing against the still stones. It began to rain as I wept, softly. After some time, I stood, wiped my face, and looked at the statue.

“No, it can’t be.” I walked closer to the statue, straining my eyes in the dim light.

“Audra?” The statue’s face was clearly hers. I noticed then how still the cemetery was, and how dark. I turned and looked behind me, up the path. It was black as pitch. A low, sliding sound came from behind me. I turned. The statue was clearly looking at me. It was looking at me with Audra’s face. Audra’s lips turned up slightly, knowingly.

I ran. I ran mindlessly through the dark, hands outstretched, without thought. My shins met the top of a crumbled gravestone with a blinding crunch. Momentum carried me forward and over the low stone, and down I fell, face first into the mud at the bottom of an open grave. I lay in the muck with the fetid earth pushing into my nostrils. The rain tapped softly on my back. I could see nothing in that pit, but I could hear the grating slide of stone against stone.

Her cold hard fingers found my legs first, grasping them in a short, sharp shock. I screamed and kicked, flipping onto my back. I kicked again with all my might. She lunged forward and seized me in an impossibly strong embrace. Her harsh stone lips pressed against mine. Her tongue forced my jaws open, grinding sharp against my teeth. Sand, or dust, trickled down my throat, gagging me. I thrashed for a last breath of air, but she held firm. After a time, I relaxed, and let go. The rain pooled in my open eyes, and I was still.

It was dawn when I climbed from that grave. The statue was gone. I did not look for her, as I knew she was back in her shrine, watching over her domain. The pain was gone. She had taken it away, and filled me with stone. I closed the cemetery gate with a smile. I knew what I had to do.

I needed to pay Audra a visit.

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The Witches and The Circle

My great-aunt had died the year before. Her house was locked up in probate until issues of inheritance were settled. My father was acting as caretaker of the property, which meant I took care of the place while my old man bought booze with my great-aunt’s money. I didn’t mind; it got me out of my place, away from my old man, and it made a nice place to have parties and hang out with my friends. My friend Chris loved the place. I think he also needed a place to hide, somewhere away from his own house with all of his dead mother’s things lying around, right where she left them, before a sleep-deprived truck driver snuffed out her life like a candle on a store-bought birthday cake.

Our big plan was to host a Halloween party, just for our small group of friends. Chris quickly latched onto the idea of having a seance, and spent a lot of his time at the library, or at some of the local used book stores, researching. I told him it was no big deal, that it was just a stupid party trick, but he insisted on getting it ‘right’. I guess Chris was messed up about his mother’s death. I should have thought about that, about why he was so concerned with contacting the dead, but he didn’t talk about her very much, and as I’ve said before, I was stupid. There are things that happen when you are nineteen that stay with you. You don’t think they will, but they do. If that’s not the definition of haunted, I don’t know what is.

I met Chris as he was walking back from the dollar store that evening. He was carrying several bags of Halloween candy, some chips and a few bottles of soda. He climbed into my car, and I drove us on to the house. He dumped the candy into a large plastic bowl, and smacked my hand when I tried to filch some. “That’s for the trick-or-treaters, jerk,” he said. As the afternoon faded into evening, the trick-or-treaters did show up, giggling in their Spiderman and Incredible Hulk masks. I doled out candy, while Chris ordered pizza and set up the food on the kitchen table.

Pete, Liz, and Sophia arrived by eight. I was excited that Sophia had shown up; I had been crushing on her for months, but at six four, one forty, and bright red, curly hair, I looked like a scarecrow that tried to dress up like Ronald McDonald. Sophia was tiny, cool, beautiful, with jet black hair and skin that may have never seen sunlight. She was my secret reason for having the party. I didn’t stand a chance, but a guy could hope. Liz was Pete’s longtime girlfriend. She was almost as tall as me, with a shaved head, several piercings, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. I’m pretty smart, but Liz was a genius. She aced every exam without trying, and was taking college level classes in ninth grade. We had been friends for several years, and had shared several classes at high school until she dropped out halfway through twelfth grade. The vice principal told her in no uncertain terms that she would not allow a “tattooed freak” like Liz to represent the school as the Valedictorian. Liz broke the woman’s jaw in two places, and that was pretty much it for Liz’s public education.

Pete was wrecked when he walked through the door. I had been friends with Pete since we were toddlers; his mother had worked with mine at the same hospital, before my mother left town. I loved Pete like he was a brother, but he had several bad habits, self-destruction being high on the list. He nodded his hello, then staggered to the cabinet where my great-aunt kept her liquor, and liberated a bottle of peach schnapps. By nine Pete had retired to the monstrous old red couch in the living room, cold cloth over his eyes and a bucket by his side.

“Why’s he over-indulging?” I asked Liz, as we shoved the furniture out of the way. Chris and Sophia rolled up the large area rug, exposing the hardwood floor beneath.

“Failed his driver’s license exam,” Liz said, rolling her eyes.

“Again?” Chris said, brushing his thick brown hair out of his eyes. “This is what, his fifth time to take it? I thought they just gave it to you out of pity after five tries.”

“At least he didn’t vomit blueberry pancakes on the instructor’s shoes, like he did last time,” Sophia said.

The heavy old grandfather clock in the living room bonged ten times. Chris stood up. “OK everybody, let’s get started.” Liz tried to get Pete to join us, but he was fast asleep. Chris returned to the room carrying a large wooden box. He opened the box, and removed a small jar of salt, and several candles. He motioned for us to sit in a circle, and he poured the salt in a double ring around us. He poured another, smaller double ring a few feet away, in front of the fireplace. He then carefully taped down several pieces of paper, onto which he had previously drawn strange geometric symbols. I took the candles and positioned them at points around the circles, then lit them with my Zippo.

Chris motioned for us all to sit within the larger circle. He dimmed the lights and joined us. We took our positions around a small wooden tool box. The circle was small. When Sophia sat next to me, her knee touched mine. I tried to concentrate on something other than her perfume. Chris folded open the top, and removed a metal bowl, which he placed onto a metal stand. He pulled some pieces of wood from the box, put them in the bowl, and lit them. He pulled a fabric-shrouded object from the box, and placed it in front of him. The dark cloth revealed a book bound in black leather, and when Chris opened the yellowed pages, instead of being brittle, they turned with an odd ease. Chris flipped through the pages, and when he stopped, the sallow pages lay slackly open, without a hint of curling. He began a low chant, in a singsong rhythm. While chanting, Chris dropped wads of dried herbs into the metal bowl. Heavy, acrid yellow smoke billowed up, stinging our eyes.

“Ancient spirits,” Chris said, as we stared at him with rapt attention, “Ancient spirits, hear us. We beseech you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us. Ancient spirits, come to us. Ancient spirits, the way is open. Ancient spirits, take this offering, and come to us.” Chris ran a scalpel, a scalpel that none of us had seen, across the palm of his hand. Liza recoiled in shock. The blood sizzled as it met the flames in the bowl.

“Jesus, Chris!” Sophia said. He shushed her with a glare.

“Ancient spirits!” Chris called. “Hear us! The way is open! Answer our–”

The doorbell chimed.

We all jumped, including Chris. The doorbell chimed again. Through the door, we heard muffled voices. “Trick or treat!”

Sophia huffed and rolled her eyes. “The ancient spirits are here, and they want candy. I thought you turned off the porch light?” She stood up, and walked to the door. She flipped on the porch light, and opened the door. Two little kids were standing there, both dressed like witches, with pointy hats and green masks. They giggled, shoved their widespread pillowcase sacks towards Sophia, and yelled “Trick or treat!” at the tops of their lungs. Sophia looked around for the candy dish, then saw it on the kitchen table. It was empty, save for some wrappers.

“Sorry kids. We’re all out. That’s what it means when the porch light’s off.”

The kids looked at each other for a moment. “Can we come inside for a minute, ma’am? My sister really has to go to the bathroom.” Sophia nodded, and stood aside as two little pointy witch hats bobbed past. As the shorter of the pair went to the bathroom, the taller stood near the couch, next to Pete. She said nothing, and was very still. I found myself sneaking glances at her mask. It seemed far too elaborate for a child’s mask, and the black pits that hid her eyes seemed to drink in the light.

There was a crash from the hallway leading to the bathroom. Chris and I jumped to our feet, and ran to see what had happened. The smaller of the two children kneeling at the entrance to the hallway. “I’m really sorry. I broke the mirror on the wall. My hat is too big and it must have caught the frame. I tripped. I can’t see where I’m going.” She tilted her head down, and began to cry, softly.

“It’s just a cheap old mirror,” Chris said. He extended a hand — his cut hand, I thought to myself, without knowing why — and pulled her up. “It’s getting late. Your parents must be worried.”

“Yes, it’s almost midnight. Sister, we should be going.” We turned to see the sister leaning over Pete’s sleeping form, green mask pressed close to his ear.

“Hey, what are you doing to Pete?” Liza said. She stood and walked towards the taller child.

“He was sleeping,” the taller witch said, shrugging. Her rubbery, pointed green nose bobbled. “I was telling him to have sweet dreams.”

The two children left, clutching their pillowcase sacks and jostling each other as they walked down the sidewalk. I watched them go, and as I saw them turn the corner, I think that I may have seen them both take turns licking at the smaller one’s hand.

We shut off the lights, bolted the front door, and re-lit a few candles that had gone out. Chris picked up his book again as we rejoined him inside the salt circle. “Ancient spirits, hear us!” he cried. “Ancient spirits, we call you. Ancient spirits, hear our call. Ancient spirits, answer us!” The old grandfather clock began to toll, the first of twelve. Chris sprinkled more sage into the redly-glowing metal bowl. “Ancient spirits, we beseech you!”

A candle went out.

Sophia snorted, and put her hand on mine. My heart slammed to a stop — then I realized that she was only trying to pull the Zippo I had been fidgeting with out of my hand. She winked, then reached over to light the candle. Another candle went out. And another. The room was plunged into a murky darkness, only lit from the flickers of the coals in the metal bowl. “O-ok,” said Chris, with only a slight tremor to his voice. “The ancient spirits have heard our call and have responded.” He shifted slightly, and closed the box. On the top of the box was an ornate inlay of letters and numbers, in the style of an Ouija board. Chris drew a small white planchette from his shirt pocket, and beckoned for us to place our hands upon it. We moved the planchette on the board in small, slow circles. “Ancient spirits, are you here with us?”

Something crashed in the kitchen.

I made as if to get up, and Chris motioned for me to stop. “Don’t leave the circle,” he said. “Stay inside the circle. Never break it. Nothing can harm you if you don’t cross the boundary.” We placed our hands back on the planchette.

“Ancient spirits, are you here with us?” Chris asked again. The planchette slowly moved to a corner. YES. Boards creaked in the darkened room around us.

“This is too spooky, Chris,” Sophia said. “It feels like something’s watching us. It — oh.” Sophia looked down. In the twitching, red glow of the flames, a shadow seemed to spread across Sophia’s chest. She looked up at us and opened her mouth to speak. A flood of blackness flowed out of her mouth and down her chin. She slumped forward, knocking over the metal bowl. The burning coals scattered.

“Sophia!” I lunged toward her. A smoldering coal burned my hand, but I didn’t feel it. I could only think about Sophia’s beautiful hair. It was on fire. “Get the lights!” Chris yelled, standing. He shoved me off Sophia, out of the circle. I scrambled to my feet. I could see nothing in the inky blackness. Liz was screaming, over and over. A wall should have been inches away, but I felt nothing. I reached out frantically. My fingertips caught something, the sleeve of a shirt? It jerked away. There was a blinding, burning pain on my arm. I fell flat and away, clutching the wound. Blood soaked through the sleeve of my shirt. I crouched low, trying to see something, anything. I turned back to the circle. Liz’s face, mouth an O of suprise, jerked backward. Her slashed throat sprayed blood across the room. It smelled like copper.

I turned to the right, arm out. I ran. My hand slammed into a doorway with force. A fingernail peeled back. I dropped to my knees, then crawled forward. My fingers met the cold steel of the refrigerator. I flung the door open. Light flooded the kitchen. I huddled in the corner, shaking. I heard a racking scream from the other room. Chris! I snatched a heavy, cast iron frying pan from the stove. Heavy pan raised high, I stood to the side of the doorway. Blood trickled into a pool in the elbow of my shirt. I heard the slow slide of footsteps. There was a low whispering breath. I was paralyzed. What if it was Chris? Or Sophia? Light glinted off of the butcher knife.

I swung as hard as I could. My lips peeled back in a rictus grin, I grunted an involuntary “HAA!” The edge of the cast iron pan caved in Pete’s face as if it were a Sunday morning egg. He went down in an untidy heap. I swung and swung, bashing his head until it was a lumpy mess. Until his body stopped twitching. Still clutching the pan, I ran for the front door.

It took me an hour to reach the front door. The front door could not have been farther than fifteen feet away. It felt like miles. As I stumbled and crawled to the door, terrible things whispered to me, laughed at me, mocked me. I saw the dim shapes scuttle away as I looked, eyes straining to see my attackers. They darted in and gouged my flesh with claws and hot, grasping hands. I flailed blindly in the dark with the frying pan, but they only laughed. When I did reach the door, it was locked. I smashed the antique stained glass with a blow, then climbed through it, lacerating my hands and arms more in the process.

The official police report states that Peter McCaulty, 19 y.o. Caucasian Male, several priors including vandalism and possession, was under the influence of a large amount of controlled substances (traces of Adderal, Effexor, PCP, psilocybin, and certain other unidentified), experienced a psychotic break, and killed several people. Initially I was suspect number one. A police officer found me walking down the middle of the street, covered in blood and bleeding from dozens of cuts, fist clenched tightly around a cast iron pan. The police took a dim view of my story, and once it was determined that drugs had been involved, they ignored it completely. As far as the cops were concerned, a bunch of kids took some acid on Halloween. They played at a ‘Satanic’ ritual, then one went off his rocker and killed a few of the others. It happens every Halloween.

I was remanded into psychiatric custody for two weeks. It was only after I was released that I found out that the police had only recovered three bodies, not four. They never found Chris, or any trace of him.

I have never gone back to that house. I think about going back, every night. I take my meds, meds that make me forget, mostly, and suppress the whispers that I hear in those long black hours before dawn. But sometimes, I still hear them. Every year, as Halloween approaches, the voices get louder, even if I up my dose. They tell me terrible things. They tell me it was my fault. They tell me I was the one with the knife.

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The Gap In The Wall

My name is China Westerson. China, like the country, not the dinnerware. I am nearly nineteen, and I am haunted. You might think it strange that I say that I am haunted, instead of saying, perhaps, I live in a haunted house, or I have seen a ghost. There’s a difference. When you’re haunted, it follows you.

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, in my great-uncle John’s ancient Greek Revival, and it was a haunted house. Nothing too impressive; objects would move when you weren’t looking, doors that you had closed on the way out would be open upon returning home. We liked the ghosts of that house. They seemed like family, and according to my great-uncle, a few were. Old houses always have ghosts, he said. They have ghosts just like they have wood rot, plumbing problems, and bad wiring.

This is not to say that new places don’t have ghosts. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

I moved to Florence, Alabama, to attend the University of North Alabama. My mother is a teacher, my father is a teacher, and I knew that I wanted to teach since I was six. Although UNA isn’t the best school in the state, it is a very good teaching college. Besides, my great-uncle, grandfather, and mother are all alumni, so it was practically required that I go there.

My first college apartment was at a newly-opened complex at Irvine and Pine street. Some member of my family had pulled strings, again, and I found myself in a beautiful one bedroom wonder, full of light and the scent of new paint. It was an easy walk to class, which meant I never had to fight for parking. As the first few weeks of college passed, I made new friends, and had them over, and each one professed jealousy of my fabulous new apartment.

My friend Marcia complained about the flies first. “Close the windows, girl. You’re letting flies in here,” she complained. I blinked. I honestly hadn’t noticed anything, but Marcia was right. There were several flies buzzing around. We checked the windows, but they were all closed. I checked for gaps in the sliding glass door, and around the front door, but they were new and looked fine.

“Maybe they got in during construction, like, as babies,” Marcia said.

“Flies don’t have babies. They have maggots.”

“Ew gross! Hey, maybe this is it,” Marcia pointed at the far corner of the living room, past the sliding glass door, behind a beat up old rocker I found at the thrift store for twenty bucks. (I call him Eddie Money, ha ha).

“What … the …” I shoved the rocking chair aside, and peered up at the corner of the living room wall. There was a gap.

“Well there’s you’re problem,” Marcia said, making a walrus mustache with her fingers. “If that leads to the outside, that’s where your bugs are coming from.”

“How the hell did this happen? This is a brand new apartment!” I growled. I dragged one of many of my unpacked heavy boxes of books over to the corner, and stood on top of it. The gap ran from the top of the corner to the bottom. It was barely visible at the bottom, near the floor, but was nearly an inch wide at the top.

“Gotta love Alabama building codes,” Marcia said. “Ew, don’t stick your fingers in there!”

“I think I see light coming from the other side. That sucks. It goes straight through the wall to outside. No wonder there’s bugs in here!”

I called Maintenance for the complex after Marcia left. Before I could get to sleep that night, I shoved some wadded-up paper towels into the gap.

When I got home from class the next day, there was a note from Maintenance on the door, saying they had fixed the defect and sorry for any inconvenience. I went inside to find the gap sealed up and painted over. I checked the rest of the apartment, and everything seemed fine. Even the flies were gone.

A few weeks later, Marcia and I were studying for an exam, and she looked over at the corner. “I thought you said they fixed that gap.” She was right. The gap was back, a small dark line zigzagging down the corner between the two walls. Marcia handed me her cellphone, which had a fancy light on it. I stood on the same box of unpacked books, and shined the light on the gap.

“Those lazy jerks from Maintenance didn’t fix anything,” I said. “They just squirted some caulk in here, smoothed it down, and painted over it.”

After the exam, I went back to my apartment to meet with Hector, the head of Maintenance for the complex. Hector was short, stocky, nut brown and had the largest teeth that I had ever seen. He seemed very concerned about the gap, and promised to fix it as fast as possible. He radioed another member of the Maintenance staff, and soon there were two other guys shoving my furniture around, walking in and out of the sliding glass door that led to the small back patio. I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. As I was eating, I heard several raised voices, arguing in Spanish.

I walked back to the living room. “Is there a problem?” I asked.

Hector turned away from his argument with the two other maintenance men, and smiled at me. “No ma’am. We’re just having a … technical discussion.” One of the men, looking unhappy, said something in Spanish.

“So there is a problem,” I said.

“The measurements… they don’t add up,” Hector said. He pulled out a tape measure, and walked to the corner. “On the outside, this is four feet, three inches, from the stud to the edge of the door.” He extended the tape, and ran it along the inside wall. “On the inside… it’s four feet, five inches.”

“Dos,” said one of the workmen, shaking his head.

“Two inches,” I said. “Two inches bigger on the inside than on the outside. Maybe the angles are off?”

“No ma’am. I’ve been checking with a plumb bob and a level,” Hector said, pointing at a pile of gear on a sawhorse table nearby, “and everything checks out. I even drilled two holes all the way through the wall and out the siding. One here by the door, and the other down at the end by the corner. It’s one and a quarter inches’ difference between those two holes, inside to outside. It’s the damndest thing.” Hector glanced up at me. “Pardon my language, miss. This thing, it worries me. I worry about some sort of foundation damage, or even a sinkhole, that might be causing the walls to lean, and that’s messing up my measurements.”

The complex management moved me to another apartment in a building on the opposite side of the neighborhood. It looked exactly the same as my old apartment, but the light was different, and it was closer to the football stadium, so game nights were pretty loud. As the nights got longer, classwork, exams and research papers loomed over me, and I buried myself in work, shunning my friends in favor of studying for exams and completing papers.

Just before Halloween, the college had a mid-semester break. Classes were dismissed on Thursday and Friday, giving us a four-day weekend. Of course, all my professors scheduled mid-term exams on the Monday and Tuesday before the break. When I stumbled out of the last exam, I was ready for some relaxation. Marcia picked me up at seven, and we went to the annual Halloween party at the Kappa Sigma frat house. The Kappa Sigs might be a bunch of nerds, but they have a certain affinity for alcohol.

Early the next morning, head still numb from Kappa Sigma booze, teeth chattering from the cold, I let myself into my apartment. I staggered to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and scared myself silly when I saw my reflection in the mirror. My zombie makeup had not held up very well over the night. I washed my face, twice, brushed my teeth, peed, then went to my room and collapsed into bed.

When I woke, it was still dark. I felt the somehow familiar creak of the bed as someone sat on the side of the bed behind me. I felt the pull and tug of the covers as someone slid into bed, and heard the faint whisper of breathing beside me. I slowly opened my eyes, and looked to my right. In the bed next to me lay a large man, or maybe a woman, although he seemed male to me. His lank black hair lay tangled on the pillow next to mine, and his pallid skin almost seemed to glow in the dim light of my bedroom. His mouth was a horror of metal and leather, shuttered by a bit of some sort, bolted or fastened to the skin. His jaw fluttered and twitched, and I could hear the faint noise of his teeth as they ground against the bit. His eyes were fixed straight ahead, on some undefined point above us.

I tensed, heart racing, and began to sit up and away from him. His arm shot out across my chest, and held me down. I opened my mouth to scream, but only a few whimpers emerged. He snapped his head towards mine, and fixed me with his terrible eyes. They were quite clear, even in the darkness of my room, and I can see them still, pale yellow, circles moving within circles. He raised his other hand to his face, extended a finger, and said “Shh.” He turned his eyes back toward the ceiling. I quit fighting, and made no more sounds. We lay like that for hours, or decades, and I finally fell back asleep.

When I awoke, he was gone. I vividly remembered the experience, but I was skeptical enough to dismiss it as a particularly horrific episode of sleep paralysis, perhaps brought about by too many tequila shots. I laughed at myself for checking under the bed and in the closet, then opened the bedroom door.

There were flies everywhere.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of dead flies littered the apartment floor. A few live ones buzzed lazily around the hallway, but most were dead. My slippers crunched on insect bodies as I dazedly walked to the living room. My heart had already confirmed what I would see, before I saw it. There was a gap between two walls, in the corner of the living room. It was wider then, at maybe an inch and a half. I walked slowly towards it, disturbing a few living flies such that each of my steps was accompanied by a slight buzzing noise. When I reached the wall, I stopped. I stared at the gap. With a deep sense of dread, I saw my arm raise, and saw my hand put my fingers into the gap. Why did I do that? My fingers brushed the broken plaster at the edge, and I felt, more than heard, a deep, growling roar. The wall shuddered as if struck by a massive blow. I jerked my hand back, and ran out of my apartment.

Maintenance never found any flies. That was the line the apartment complex management gave me each of the six times I called. I demanded they send an exterminator, and they agreed to send someone to look at it. I called back to check, and they told me the head of Maintenance had investigated and found no insects in the unit. I asked to speak to Hector, but they said Hector was no longer employed with them.

I refused to go back to that apartment. I waited in Marcia’s car as she went in to retrieve some of my essentials — clothing, toiletry, homework.

“There’s no flies in there, honey,” Marcia said, with a concerned look on her face. “I saw two dead ones in the bathroom sink, but not bunches all over.” She looked at me. “I bet that new maintenance guy came in and cleaned it all up, cos he’s new and it made him look bad.”

When I called Uncle John, he promised he would fix everything. He called me back later in the day to say that the apartment complex management agreed to let me break my lease. He had found another apartment, in a tower a few blocks away, and I could move in immediately. Later I found that my uncle had made some fairly severe threats, such that the complex management admitted there was a small crack in the wall due to “settling”, but refused to acknowledge any major structural anomalies, and flatly denied any insect infestation of any sort.

Marcia and a few other friends of mine put my few belongings into the bed of a pickup truck and moved me into my new apartment. It was on the fourteenth floor of a building in Florence’s downtown, and turned out to be a three-bedroom corner apartment. I love it. The light is great, and it has a beautiful view.


There are six cracks in the ceiling. Six.

There are two hairline cracks in the bedroom wall, one lateral, extending eight and three quarters inches from the window, and one vertical, extending twenty seven inches from the left-hand power outlet.

There are four small cracks in the long wall in the living room. 38 5/16. 42 1/2. 16 1/4. 33 9/16.

There is one long crack in the kitchen wall behind the refrigerator. 48 5/8.

There is a gap in the bathroom between the tub and the tiles. This is the one I am worried about. I didn’t measure it when I moved in because I have been very tired and have not slept very well. Which was stupid. I should have measured it. I know better. But the gap is very small. It is really too small to use U.S. customary measurements.

I may have to switch to metric.

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The Thing On The TV

When I was about thirteen, I stayed at my uncle’s house over the summer. I didn’t know it, but my parents were getting divorced and they wanted me to have a fun summer without dealing with the stress of moving. I loved my uncle’s place, so I was thrilled to find out that I would get to stay there all summer.

My uncle’s house was not very pretty, a big old farmhouse with peeling yellow paint, but the farm was amazing. I was from the city, and my house barely had a yard, much less twenty acres of fields and forest, and a creek that ran through it all. At first, my favorite thing to do was to simply run through those fields, as hard as I could, until I was so hot and exhausted I thought I might pass out, then jump into the cool waters of the forest-shaded creek.

In the evenings, my uncle would go out. He was divorced, and preferred to spend a few hours across the county line at his favorite watering hole. Neither of us felt unsafe about me staying alone. It was a small community of neighbors, and there were quite a few loaded guns around the old farmhouse. As dusk fell on those long summer days, I would climb into my uncle’s beat-up old recliner, and watch his old TV until I fell asleep.

Late one evening, I started having problems keeping the TV tuned to the right station. I crouched in front of it, slowly turning the fine-tuning ring. The TV was built into a huge wooden cabinet, but had a relatively small screen. This was long before the days of digital tuning, so picking up broadcasts from far away was often an exercise of patience and of amateur radio skills. I was desperate to see an old re-run of ‘Lost in Space’, so I kept fiddling with the tuning dials in the hopes of picking up audio, and more video than a fuzzy, rolling outline. In a fit of frustration, I spun the knob far to the left, and stomped off to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

While I was making my sandwich, I heard a sound from the living room that made me pause. There is a sound that a person makes in a room, an absence of absence, rather than any real noise. I spun around, butter knife clutched tightly in my hand. There was nothing there. I cautiously walked back into the living room, where the TV sat showing snow and hissing quietly. Nobody. Weird. I went back to the kitchen and finished my sandwich. As I opened the refrigerator for a can of soda, I heard another sound. “Aaaahhh,” it sighed.

I was alone in the house, but I refused to be a chicken. I thought the TV must have finally started to pick up some channel. “Oh, yeah,” I said, as I remembered. Old TV’s, like my uncle’s, could sometimes receive radio stations, or even shortwave. My uncle showed me that trick last year. “Maybe that’s what it is.” I took my sandwich and cola back into the living room, and put them on top of the TV. As I reached for the tuning knob, I saw something on the screen. I blinked, and moved back away from the screen.

The white and black dots of electronic snow danced on the screen, accompanied by a low whispering hiss. I stared at the screen for a second, two, three. Nothing. I laughed. “Now you’re seeing stuff. And talking to yourself.” I looked away for a moment, and something caught my eye. I looked back at the screen. There, in the bright swirl of dots, was a shape. I don’t know if the shape had been there all along, or if it had simply taken my mind a few moments to see it, like those dot-pictures at the mall. I stared, eyes riveted to the screen, as an image resolved. In the static, I began to see the sweep of a brow, the slope of a nose, the curve of a mouth and chin. The screen rolled once, black bars slipping down, and the static faded away.

I was looking at the face of a girl, dark eyes, black hair curly and cropped at the shoulders. Her face briefly filled the screen, and then grew smaller as she stepped away. I realized with a shock that I was looking at my uncle’s living room, at my uncle’s chair. I saw myself on the screen, and I saw the girl walk towards me. I looked around wildly, but there was nobody in the room. I looked back at the TV. She was standing right next to me. She looked directly at the screen. I watched, on the TV, as she took my hand. My hand began to burn with cold, and I saw her smile the most terrible smile.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

I ran, as fast as I could, through the nearest doorway, into my uncle’s bedroom. I slammed the door and flipped on the lights, then jumped onto his bed. I sat there, on his bed, watching the occasional headlights splash through the large windows, until he came home. I tried to tell him what I saw, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it. He was mostly drunk and just wanted to go to bed. The next morning, he had me nearly convinced it was just a dream; that perhaps I had fallen asleep in his chair, and had a nightmare.

I went home the next weekend, to a house that I’d never seen before, and to a father who had moved to a different town. I mostly forgot about the thing I saw on my uncle’s TV. I thought about it when I overheard my mother and my aunt talking in hushed tones about a terrible thing that happened at my uncle’s place — a tenant family had died, in bad circumstance. I thought about it more recently when my mother told me the house had burned down after a car came off the curve and crashed into the side of the place.

I think about that summer a lot now. We don’t have analog TVs any more, and I never listen to the radio, so I never hear static. But sometimes, in the white noise of a thunderstorm, or even in the stillness of my own room at night, I hear her voice.

“I’m still waiting.”

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