By D.W. Gillespie
Dan sat among the dolls and toys and games with his head drooping heavily in his hands. He wasn’t quite into a deep sleep before being summoned from his bed by his three-year-old daughter Kate, but he was close enough. Her voice drifted through the electronic monitor in a softly prodding tone, calling him to her bedside. He was used to being beckoned thusly, though not like this, not gentle and easy, but he was too tired to register how different this scene was.
Dan held firmly to the stance that Kate was too old for the baby monitor, but the truth was, the gadget wasn’t for Kate. It had been a long day at work, and an even longer evening at home, and Dan wanted nothing more than sleep. Overhead, an endless cycle of shadows danced on the ceiling, a parade of unicorns and shooting stars and clowns, dear God, why clowns. Of all the things to soothe a child to sleep, the thought of garish, smiling clowns was enough to give him nightmares.
It was, wasn’t it? The clowns did give you nightmares.
The voice in his head was his, of course, but it was a different brand of interior monologue, the kind that didn’t like to show itself in the light of day. This voice always spoke in whispers, always when the house was dark and still and full of secrets. Even Dan, as dense as he could be, knew exactly what that voice was. It was nothing more than the deepest part of his imagination, that tiny part of every person that holds sway over the tired, sleep starved mind. During the waking hours, this voice was brushed away as easily as wiping a strand of hair off your forehead. But in the dark, its influence grew and swelled until it drowned out all rational thought. When the sun was up, Dan heard only the clear, elegant voice of reason, but in the midnight hours, he heard the cracking death rattle of despair.
“I had another dream,” Kate said matter-of-factly.
Dan grimaced. He knew why he was there, knew that his duty involved smoothing the edges of nightmares down to dull, painless nubs and ensuring that all was still sound and sane in the world. This was the duty of all fathers in the late hours of the night, but it was never quite that simple with Kate. Ever since she was eighteen months old, she had what doctors called night terrors — a good name that, but not nearly enough to capture the essence of the moment. The first night was burned into his memory like a brand, and he doubted that it would ever fade.
It was the scream. Not the scream of a baby that’s suddenly aware of its wet diaper or empty belly, but the terrified yowl of an animal being eaten alive. That was his first thought as he sprang into consciousness already on his feet, that somehow a cat or a raccoon or a stray dog had crawled into the bed with them as something tore pieces of its flesh away in great, gory ribbons. As he darted into the bedroom, that’s exactly what he expected to find, because the simple fact was, he couldn’t imagine — couldn’t fathom — a child making such sounds. But she did, and he and his wife Shelly both stared at her for a solid ten seconds before waking her, such was their amazement and dread.
In the time since, Dan often thought back at that moment with striking clarity, realizing now what neither of them would have ever admitted to the other. That first glance at their darling girl writhing and shrieking was so awful, so very horrific, that neither wanted to be the first to touch her, as if that terror could somehow be passed from person to person as easily as the flu. It seemed just as silly now as it did then, but silliness didn’t change the truth.
These episodes continued throughout the next year in fits and starts. Sometimes weeks would pass without incident, then — boom — three in one week. Shelly immediately had appointments made with an increasing series of dead ends: the family practitioner, sleep specialists, neurologists. All gave more or less the same answer. No one understands night terrors, and there really is no way to prevent them. Some grow out of it, some never do, and what you’re left with is learning how to deal with it.
So, that’s what they did, they dealt with it. They all put on their happy faces and pretended that it was just part of the agreement parents made with the universe. You take the good with the bad and you make it work, and the rational, sane voice of the sunlit hours carried Dan and Shelly through their long days at work. But at night, that voice grew weaker and weaker, and as soon as Dan’s head hit the pillow, he felt his gut tighten and his heart race, and the whisper grew.
It’s going to happen again tonight…
That year, more so than any in Dan’s life, felt like a waking dream, so like a ghost among the living. There was no one to confide in; any talk with Shelly inevitably turned sour as she accused him of blaming Kate. Never before had he felt so isolated, and even now, after everything else that had happened, he wondered if the episode at work was inevitable.
They made you do it, the night voice whispered. They planned it … just think, after everything comes out, there’s nothing to stop them kicking you to the curb.
“No,” Dan muttered aloud. He wouldn’t hear this. He loved his family. He always had, and he knew that even good men make mistakes.
“Daddy?” she said.
“Sorry honey. I’m just talking to myself.”
That didn’t matter now. What he had done, what he was doing, that was all secondary to this moment. While it was true that the episode at work — and that was how he thought of it now, the episode at work — threatened to dissolve the very foundation his family had built upon, that didn’t matter, not at eleven o’clock on a Thursday, not crouched sleepy and shirtless at the end of his daughter’s tiny bed. Now, the only thing that mattered was her, was to listen and soothe and give comfort and sanity to a dream that had none.
Several times over the past few months, Kate had spoken of her dreams in the daytime with shocking clarity and vividness. These quiet moments with his daughter disturbed Dan more than he cared to admit, but not because of what it revealed about her. Her words flung him back into his own past with a desperate suddenness as violent as a head on collision, and all at once, there he was, sitting bolt up in his own bed, the warmth of his own urine soaking through the Ninja Turtle sheets, darkening the cotton, making him feel guilty and scared and helpless despite the fact that he was too old to wet his bed, too old to be afraid of the darkness.
There were clowns … you remember that don’t you?
He remembered, and even though Kate never mentioned clowns, she still spoke of things that made his skin crawl. Once she told him she saw a baby with a towel over its face, but the towel was moving and she knew the baby was suffocating, and she reached forward to help just as spiders — dozens of them — began crawling over the sides of the fabric. She spoke of dark things, places that didn’t exist, that couldn’t be real, but that had distinct geography and precise details. There was a man that worked at a grinder, his back to her as he hunched over a table, grinding away at something metallic and blood slicked, and as she approached, he turned and showed her the hole that was his face, charred around the edges but full of webbed cocoons within. She told of this, and other things on the way to daycare or in front of the TV, never with the wondrous voice of a child who has invented something hidden and magical, but with the distant monotone of someone who survived an atrocity.
Dan was glad these conversations happened during the day when his own voice of reason was at its peak, and he never hesitated to explain them away as easily as fanning a moth out the door. But tonight had gone off the track from the beginning, and only now as he began to shake the dust from his own mind was he realizing that. For the first time, she had not awoken screaming, and she was explaining what she had seen, and no matter how he tried to interject, she would not stop.
“There was a man,” she started after Dan walked in, “a very old man. I can’t remember his face, just his voice.”
“How do you know he was old?” Dan asked, aware that his wife was probably listening on the monitor.
“His voice,” she answered as if her answer needed no further explanation. “He was sitting on my bed when I woke up.”
“You just had a dream honey. You didn’t wake up until it was over.”
She continued, ignoring what he said. “He said he wanted to talk to me. He said he needed to tell me something important. He said that something bad was going to happen. He said a monster was coming…”
“Katey, baby, there are no monsters.”
She turned and looked at him. “I said the same thing, and he said that monsters are everywhere. They hide in drainpipes and under bridges and at the bottom of lakes, but they usually can’t hurt you. The only way they can hurt you is if you do something bad. Doing bad things calls them. He said it was like throwing fish into the ocean for sharks.”
“Listen to me Kate,” Dan said as he set his hand on top of hers. “You didn’t do anything bad, so even if there were monsters…”
“He didn’t say I did anything bad.”
The silence between them grew and swelled and filled the room. He didn’t know how long he stared at his daughter, but he was filled with the sudden feeling that this night’s episode wasn’t real at all. Somehow, Kate had heard him and Shelly arguing and created whatever this was. He felt heat rising in his face, and he turned away from his daughter’s unbroken gaze.
“There are no monsters.”
He left the room without kissing her forehead, something he never did, and stepped back into the blackness of the hallway. By touch and memory, he glided down the hallway, passing through the sliver of moonlight thrown through the sidelights that flanked the front door. As he did, the moonlight flickered once as if something had passed in front of the moon. He stopped and peered at the slitted windows for a moment, gazing at the front porch and listening to his heartbeat in his own ears.
“She okay?” his wife asked as he rolled back into bed. Her voice was groggy from sleep, and Dan realized she had not been listening in on the conversation.
“Fine,” he said with a curt voice, still clinging to the remnants of the argument from before bedtime.
That’s a fine way to be, a voice within whispered. She all but catches you in the act, and you get to act all huffy…
Dan forced the voice to silence and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep, wanted to be free from thought, free from this endless day. There were things to take care of, but they would wait. There was a way out of all this, and he knew his onetime mistake with a certain co-worker of the opposite sex could be fixed.
No, he thought. Not fixed.
The voice was close, right next to his ear in fact, but it seemed to travel miles in the few inches between. There was a surge of panic in his gut as he rolled over.
“Daddy,” Kate said again, more insistent this time. Why had he panicked before? There was something off, but he couldn’t put his finger on precisely what.
“Katey?” he moaned. “What is it?”
“There’s something in our house.”
The words echoed passed through his mind almost completely unheeded. All of it was so unreal, too much like a dream to possibly be real. But why?
She never gets out of bed, some slightly more rational and awake part of his mind said. She figured out early on that you and Shelly could hear her through the monitor, so she never got out of bed.
This realization pried his heavy eyelids open, and his daughter’s face came into focus. Beams of moonlight through the blinds patterned her tiny face with the kind of minute details that never seemed to show up in dreams.
Not a dream.
“What did you say?”
She leaned closer, peering slightly over one shoulder toward the yawning blackness of the open bedroom door. Most nights, Dan locked the door, though he could never say why. There was always a twinge of guilt when he spun the latch, a feeling of leaving his daughter to her fate, but he did it all the same. Tonight, however, after the first trip into Kate’s room, he must have forgotten.
“There’s something in our house,” she repeated, this time in a whisper barely loud enough to hear. All at once, the world came into focus and he threw the covers off and leapt from the bed.
“Who?” Even in the center of the rush of panic he felt, he knew in some small way that she must have been dreaming. He felt like a sleepwalker who suddenly snaps into consciousness in his front yard. His normal, boring world had somehow tipped off its axis, and he felt himself spinning. “Who’s in our house?”
“Not a who,” Kate answered back flatly.
By now, Shelly was awake and sitting up.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Kate heard something,” he said as he crossed toward the open door. Shelly scooped her daughter up just as he passed into the hallway, which was thick with blackness. He flipped on the light, still more annoyed than afraid, but committed to the task of setting things right as quickly as possible. As a dull yellow light filled the hallway, he rubbed his eyes and stepped blearily toward her room. Inside, he found nothing, so he carried his search into the next room, then the next, flipping on lights and searching for something he knew he would never find. After checking the hall bathroom, he was beginning to feel a slightly silly, even annoyed, when he felt a sting in his foot.
“Ow,” he yelped as he pulled his foot up and grabbed it. He was sure he had stepped on a shard of glass, some long forgotten remnant of a shattered cup, but as he peered at the high arch of his foot, he saw it was an ant.
He flicked it off impatiently and inspected the tiny bite, which was no bigger than a pinhead. Just then, his still blurry eyes noticed more movement on the baseboard. Kneeling for a closer look, he was shocked to see a line of ants working their way slowly down the hall. He traced the perfect line back to the source, shuddering at the sheer number of them. Never in the six years of living here had they seen much more than a random spider or roach here or there, but there were hundreds of them, tiny and black invaders marching like soldiers. He felt oddly violated at this sudden and inexplicable intrusion.
“My God,” he said in disgust. The path led back toward the foyer, and as he turned the corner, he remembered the shape that seemed to pass in front of the moon earlier that night. His hand shook feebly as he reached for the porch light, and he realized that for the first time since laying his daughter down, he was completely awake.
Part of him — the whispering night voice — expected to see something standing just outside the thin panes of the sidelights, but he refused to let this voice control him, and when the bulb lit, he felt vindicated to see nothing but the same empty porch he expected to see. He glanced down and saw that the path of ants led to the bottom pane of glass just six inches above the polished oak floors. A crack had formed there, just large enough for an army of ants to find their way in.
In seconds, he had fetched a broom and a roll of duct tape from the utility room. Using his teeth, he bit off a small strip of duct tape and covered the hole, fairly certain that it would hold until the morning. Then, he wasted no time in sweeping the silent army up into a pile and pushing them all helplessly toward the front door. He clicked the deadbolt and swung the door wide, sure that this odd episode was over, when he gazed down at the welcome mat. There was a patch of mud there, nothing extremely out of the ordinary, but noticeably out of place. It hadn’t rained all week, but this looked fresh, as if the family had trudged in during a storm. Just past the mat was a small, barely visible trail that petered out after a few steps.
“No,” he said aloud. Just a smudge of old dirt.
Not quite, the night voice whispered. Oh, you want it to be a smudge of dirt, but you and I both know you’re looking at footsteps that belong to … something. The same something that your daughter dreamed about, and the same something that put that crack in the window…
Dan slammed the door, silencing whatever else his awful imagination wanted to show him. Back in the bedroom, he heard his wife’s slow, calming breaths, and he knew she had nodded back off. Kate, whom he assumed was asleep next to her mother, rolled over and stared at him. He lay down on the bed next to her as she began to whisper.
“Did you see it?” she asked.
“I saw … ants,” he answered. “Is that what was in the house?”
She rolled back over. “No. Not ants.”
For a moment, he considered taking her back to bed. Instead, he leaned back into his pillow feeling itchy and restless, like something was crawling all over his bare skin. He didn’t think he would ever be able to sleep, but a short time later, he did.
Dan awoke sweating. The room was hot, and Kate had drifted over to his side of the bed. Now, in a mass of sheets and pillows, the pair of them felt sticky with sweat. He threw back the covers and stumbled into the bathroom, tripping on toys and cursing as he went. Sliding the door closed behind him, Dan leaned over the sink and began drinking deep handfuls of water from the tap before taking his cupped hands to his face. The cool water ran down his back and sides, and he leaned back, stretching and taking in deep breaths. Moments later, he stood over the toilet, emptying his bladder and swaying back and forth like an old man suddenly deprived of his cane.
Damn, he was tired, and in that moment he couldn’t even remember why it had been so hard to drift back off. Something had happened — one of Kate’s dreams maybe — but he couldn’t figure out what it was. He was just reaching down to flush the toilet when he heard the first footstep over his head.
He froze, his hand still on the mirrored handle of the toilet, and after a few seconds, he was certain he had imagined it. The house, like all houses, breathed at night, settling and cooling, emitting noises that would make a jumpy man sit up in bed. But Dan wasn’t a jumpy man, and he knew the sounds of a settling house. This wasn’t settling; this was a footstep, and that meant one thing. Something was in the attic. Seconds ticked away, and still he stood motionless for who knows how long, and still, the only thing that broke the silence was his own pounding heart.
Dan had just begun to ease his grip on the handle when he heard it again, this time farther away. It was followed by another step, and another.
“Jesus,” he said. “This is really happening.”
His eyes focused on the vent above the toilet and stared transfixed on the source of the sounds. The vent led straight to the attic through an exhaust fan. As he watched, something began to press through one of the tiny, plastic slats of the fan cover, something black and awful that he couldn’t quite place until it forced its way out. It wriggled halfway out and hung there for a second, trapped between the ceiling and the floor as if caught in zero gravity. Finally, it worked free and dropped to the floor. Dan recoiled as the centipede righted itself and began crawling across the tiles looking for a safe haven. It went for the toilet immediately, and edged around the bowl and out of sight.
The footsteps had stopped once again, and Dan began to backpedal into the bedroom, moving instinctively away from the source of the sounds. He turned and glared at the bedroom, barely lit by the bathroom light, and he wasn’t surprised to see Kate was sitting up again.
“Do you hear it?” she asked.
“Did you?” he replied.
She nodded her head. For the first time this night, he could see she was afraid, and it jolted him back into his rightful role as a father. Despite how scared he was, he wouldn’t be pushed around his own house. Deep down, he hoped there was still some explanation for all this, though it seemed less likely by the minute. Still, he wasn’t ready to give in to panic, not yet at least, not while his daughter sat shivering in the bed next to him.
“Shelly,” he said as he nudged his wife into consciousness.
She turned, fear immediately rising in her eyes. “Wha?”
“There’s something in the attic,” he said matter-of-factly, his tone hiding his own aching fear. “Probably a bird or something. Maybe even a raccoon fell onto the roof from a tree.”
The confusion on her face was as clear as the weariness. “Just leave it.”
“It might be tearing something up. I’m just going to check it out.” Upon realizing that she didn’t need to be awake for any of this to occur, he added, “Kate’s scared.”
That did it. Shelly sat up and leaned toward her daughter, concern shining in her tired eyes. “It’s okay,” she said, soothing as she pulled her daughter down into her embrace. Kate’s tiny blue eyes still cut through the dark of the room, as she leaned backward, never letting her gaze break from her father’s. The words of his wife chased him from the room as those eyes smoldered in his mind.
“Daddy won’t let anything bad happen.”
Dan slipped on a pair of tennis shoes over his bare feet as he crossed the utility room and into the garage. He completed this simple task like a young boy who is told to get dressed before going somewhere he doesn’t want to go — school or church or grandma’s. It was deliberate and slow, clearly a man trying to run down the clock.
Run down the clock on what?
The night, of course. Whatever was happening here would never happen under the sane gaze of the sun. Still, that was a long way from here, and there was no denying the simple fact that he was the man of the house. It was his job to check out suspicious noises, just as it was his job to fish dead mice from the crawl spaces or wade ankle deep in the collective slurry of the family’s shit when the septic tank pump died. These were the hallmarks of the man of the house, feminist theory be damned.
Now, as he often had in his life, Dan found himself questioning the unquestionable. “Why are things the way they are?” or some such. Usually, these questions — driven by three or four beers — were just enough to make Shelly smile and roll her eyes in that, “Oh, you men,” sort of way. But Dan knew there was a deeper truth there, just hidden under the layers of Stainmaster carpet and satin finish avocado paint, and he knew it was a truth that Shelly would never dare talk about.
Why are we still together?
“Not now,” he said, desperately trying to silence the voice in his head. “I don’t have time for this now. This has nothing to do with all that.”
Really? I think this might be exactly what this is all about. I think you’ve convinced her. It wasn’t a very persuasive case, certainly nothing that would hold up in court. It worked, just the same, and I think we both know why. She believed you because she wanted to believe.
“There’s something in the house. What the hell does that have to do with…”
I don’t know any more than you do … but she does.
That’s right. She knows something’s eating you, and if you don’t get it out and deal with it … well, before your precious sun comes up, it will eat you up, every single bite…
He slammed the door to the garage, shutting the awful, whispering voice inside his head. Now, with a sudden sick clarity, he realized where he was. The garage was just as he left it, with one very noticeable difference. The ladder to the attic was down.
Dan’s mind clawed at the thousands of threads that swirled in the span of a second, desperately fighting to find an explanation as to why it would be down.
Only, there wasn’t one.
He was the only member of the family that ever went into the attic, and it had been months since he had climbed the ladder himself. When was it? Christmas, maybe longer.
Dan couldn’t answer that question, but when he reached to the tool rack lining the wall and snatched the claw hammer from its perch, he squeezed until his fingers threatened to burst at the seams. The attic light was off. Above him, the opening of the attic was a yawning black mouth as still and empty as a dead man’s.
Just close it. Close it now, and whatever is up there will have to stay up there. There’s no other way out, and in the morning, it will be gone; you know it will because it’s not real — it can’t be.
Dan agreed that this was the first good thing his internal voice had said all night. He reached down to grab the folding staircase, and the lights went out. There was no sound, no pop of a light bulb overhead, no scream of fear, just a feeling so incredible, so impossible, that his mind could barely even grasp what had just occurred.
In the second or two it took him to readjust, he stood there, grabbing the bottom step like a statue. But when he heard the shuffling overhead, a burst of fear and adrenaline snapped him back with an almost painful suddenness. He threw the step upward with all his strength, forcing the staircase to fold like an accordion. A rush of relief was cut miserably short when the staircase stopped dead in its tracks three feet from the ceiling.
He scrambled, grabbing with both hands and readjusting his angle, sure that all of this was just user error, the simple, understandable mistake of a man working in total darkness. He was wrong, and this fact became painfully aware as the step began to force itself slowly downward, bending his arms as easily as folding paper. The stranger in the attic was pushing the stairs down from above, and there appeared to be nothing he could do to stop it.
There was no time to formulate a plan, no chance to abandon his attempt and run for it. The stairs lurched forward, breaking his grip and sending him stumbling backward onto the concrete floor. He heard the thump of the bottom step hit the ground, then he heard something else hit near his feet. Something heavy and unmistakably wet. The air was suddenly hot and close, and a stench filled his nostrils and burned his eyes. It smelled like the bottom of a dumpster in the middle of July, and he gagged.
There was movement, something quick dashing toward the door, bolting into the house. Slivers of moonlight shone through living room windows, and in the dim light he saw something tall and slumped shamble off in an unknown direction.
Not unknown … to the bedroom. It’s going for the easy targets first.
Even with such an awful thought in mind, he found himself slowly rising to his feet. Shuffling like a blind man, he groped for the switch on the wall and flipped it. Nothing. His hands traced toward the left, for the breaker box on the wall. He found it, and flung it open. He could hear something deeper in the house now, footsteps heavy and thudding.
You’re still the man of this house, a voice said, but its tone was not nearly as confident as the words, and they’re still your family.
Hands trembling, he ran his fingers down the line of switches, at first too fast to catch any breakers that might have tripped. Willing himself to slow down, he tried again, this time finding the one he needed. With a flick, the light returned.
Scanning the room, his mouth dropped as he spied the unmistakable tracks of mud and filth that must have landed inches from where he had laid sprawled on the concrete. The trail led up the stairs and into the house, and he followed, hammer held in front of him like a priest clutching a rosary. The footsteps were sporadic and uneven, but the trail was easy enough to follow. A cloud of fetid air seemed to cling to his face, as if her were wearing a used body bag around his head. The grimy tracks led directly into Kate’s room, running underneath the closed door.
It’s in there. It’s waiting for you.
Gently, he swung the door in and gasped. Her room, which seconds before had been as tidy and neat as a three-year-old’s room could be, was in shambles. The tiny table where he and his daughter held tea parties was overturned. Dolls were scattered, toy boxes tipped, but the worst was the pair of teddy bears that rested at the end of her bed. She had picked them out herself at a store where you could customize the doll however you wanted and give them names. One of them, the pink one, was officially named Mommy. The other, a darker green hue, was Daddy. Now, the pink one still sat in its usual place, but the green one rested on its side near the edge of the bed. It sat in the center of a pool of black muck that he could neither name nor place. It looked like mud, but there were pieces of mulch and sticks, and even as he watched, it jumped and writhed with bugs. There were beetles, large black ones, and cockroaches. At one end, a centipede crawled out blindly, its antennae fanning out in smooth arcs. The awful mound of filth shifted a bit, tilting the bear onto its side, and he realized in a grotesque moment of clarity that there was something bigger near the bottom.
However, he didn’t have time to speculate on what it could be. Whatever had done this, it was inside his daughter’s closet, rooting around and breathing heavily. Dan stepped back in retreat, and the floor creaked under his foot. Then he saw it, a hand … no. Not a hand. Not exactly. It was the suggestion of a hand, something that wanted to be a hand, but it was wrong, so very wrong.
Dan ran, and in an instant, he knew it was chasing him. He never glanced back, but he knew it had him. The stench filled his mouth and nose, invading his lungs, firing his taste buds with the horrible tang of rotten buttermilk and old, dead things, and when he flung open the bedroom door and slammed it shut behind him, he was certain it would splinter around him as the beast crashed into it. No crash came. No splinters. Nothing. Just his beating heart and the slow, gentle breathing of his wife. Then, a thin, weak laugh on the other side of the door as it shambled back down the hallway.
Shelly was asleep. My God, he thought. People still sleep. There are people in this world who are still able to sleep. I’ll never be one of them again. Movement from the corner of his eye turned his head. He knew what he would see before he looked.
“Daddy,” Kate said. She was already standing next to the bed. For some reason, she looked much older than she had several hours ago.
“Kate,” he said, his voice much more desperate than he meant for it to be. “Come here.”
He was tired, unbearably so, and from the way she fell into his arms, he could see she was too. Her head fell instinctively onto his shoulder as he slumped to the floor, his back still toward the door. In moments, he knew she would be asleep, and despite all that had happened, he wondered if he would as well.
“Kate,” he said softly. “I need you to listen to me.”
“I’m so sleepy,” she said.
“I know honey, but I need you to help me figure something out. Your dream, the one we talked about earlier … you said that bad things happened when people hurt each other.”
“That’s what the man in the dream said.”
“But it doesn’t make sense … people hurt each other all the time. Strangers rob and shoot each other…”
“No,” she said. “Not just strangers. When people hurt the ones they love the most. When they know how much it will hurt, and they do it anyway. That’s what calls the bad things. That’s what let them in.”
A tear forced its way out of Dan’s clenched eyes.
“Is there any way to stop it?” he asked.
“I don’t know Daddy.” She leaned forward rested her head on his shoulder. “It was just a dream.”
When he awoke, Kate’s head was still on his shoulder, but he was laying flat on his back with her sprawled on top of him. He reached, groping across the carpet, trying to find some sense of where he was, who he was, why he felt such a sick, empty dread in his stomach.
Something happened, he thought. Something bad.
His hand brushed the door, the same he had been leaning against. It was open wide, the cool air of the hall rushing in to meet him. None of it had been real. It was a shared dream, a collective mania brought on by one too many horror stories, too many bad dreams. He cradled her as he shuffled to his feet to lay her in the bed. Shelly was there, still breathing deeply, still asleep. Carefully, he set his daughter down next to her and curled in behind them, pulling them both close.
Guilt, a voice inside him said. He waited for more to follow, but that was all, a single echoing word.
He glanced over Shelly, looking for the digital clock to check the time, but the familiar red glow was missing, no doubt turned the wrong way. Leaning back toward his side of the bed, he looked for Kate’s monitor, which was always plugged in there, a glowing blue beacon of sanity in the darkest hours of the night. The light was out. There was only blackness.
Power … out?
The stench of death began to fill his nose, instantly causing his eyes to well. It was the smell of every dead thing that had ever existed, the opposite of life, the herald of evil, the monster that carried children away in the night and left them mangled and forgotten in ditches and landfills. Through the weak moonlight shining through the blinds, he saw it rise up from under the bed, stretching high above them and practically filling the ceiling, and the laughter that droned from it was the voice of madness. Dan gripped his wife and child, pulling them toward himself with all his might.
You can end this, a voice inside screamed. It wants you.
Dan didn’t need to be told this. He knew all too well, but all he could do was clutch them tighter.
“Dan,” Shelly said. “You’re … hurting me.”
Dan didn’t hear a word they said, just that laugh, an endless nightmare that would forever ring in his ears, and as he continued to squeeze, the nameless thing leaned down and began to do its work.
The bodies were found by Shelly’s friend Barbara. The two often met early to get a mile of walking in before starting the day. When her knocks went unanswered, she let herself in with the key hidden behind one of the shutters on the front porch. Kate and Shelly were in the bed, both blue and still clutching each other, an embrace that would never end. At once, Barbara clapped a hand over her mouth, certain that carbon monoxide was to blame. When she turned and saw Dan hanging from the rod in the closet by a necktie, she knew better.
Now, nearly twelve hours after the final moments of the family, no one had many questions about what happened. The ‘why,’ as the detectives on site knew, might never be answered, but the ‘what’ was clear to anyone. Barbara knew as soon as she saw him hanging there; a husband goes crazy and strangles his wife and daughter before hanging himself up in the closet. Open and shut. And now, the pictures had been taken, evidence placed in bags, and everyone was ready to call it a day.
A young detective — still shaken from the scene — ducked into the bathroom as the bodies were finally carried out, not because he couldn’t handle it, but because he didn’t want to. There was a sense of emptiness to all of this, and he knew it would take a while to get out of his system. In other murders, there was usually a bad guy to get, a lead to follow, justice still left to serve, but this … this just felt so pointless. As he pondered this, his cell phone rang.
“We got the records from his cell phone,” the voice on the line said.
“Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Nothing that would explain all this. At least not on the surface. There were an awful lot of calls to a Holly Baxter.”
“We know her yet?” the detective asked.
“Yeah, they worked together. They went back and forth quite a bit … maybe 20 calls over two weeks and twice as many texts. The last text he sent her said, ‘Can’t wait to see you.’ That was about a week ago.”
“So it just dropped off after that?”
“Yep. Not a single thing.”
“We’ll be talking to her very soon.”
“My thoughts exactly. Any ideas on the mud all over the place?”
“We found a pair of his boots caked in the stuff out in the garage.”
“So, he just decided to make a mess of the place before he got down to business.”
“I honestly don’t know.” The detective’s voice was heavy and exhausted. “Maybe the lab will tell us something, but I doubt it. Crazy don’t work in the lab. Crazy just is.”
As he hung up the phone, he took a deep breath and let it out slow. It still didn’t feel right, but he suspected it never would. It wasn’t neat or poetic or logical. It was just tragic. File it as such and move on.
The detective turned on his heel to leave the bathroom, and walked away. Soon, others followed suit, and before nightfall, the house was empty and as silent as a grave. No one was there to see it, but a centipede — larger than most — crawled silently out from behind the toilet in the master bathroom. Slow and searching, it began to explore.
D.W. Gillespie is a long time horror writer and fan who lives in Middle Tennessee with his wife and two kids. He’s been featured in Disturbed Digest, Daylight Dims Anthology, Dark Moon Digest, and several others.