In the process of losing my mind, the rest of the world has fallen away. A cloud hangs over the monotone house, the grass growing longer, the litter outside caught in the wild blades of fading green, as the shadows inside play games with me. I used to resist them, tried to shine a light into the corners of the living room, the drapes—the long hallways that never seemed to end. I used to scream at them, crying as I fell to my knees, begging to be left alone. When I walk by the bedroom now, the door closed, a cold wave pushing out from under the gaps, nipping at my ankles, I moan quietly under my breath as a shadow flickers at the door frame. I do not open it, not now.
I grew up around this house, with its curving banister, the old grandfather clock that sat in the foyer, the secret passageways between bedrooms hundreds of years old. I loved to spend time here, to open the glass candy dish and see what Grandma had put out that day, to hide in the bedroom closets and wait for my brother to find me. Now, I only see death.
When my grandmother passed away I was sad, of course, the memories of so many holidays spent here, Christmas trees crowded by presents, the whole family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. That all changed. It changed so fast that I never saw it coming. I couldn’t fathom what lurked in the darkness, what waited for me to come home.
For a long time now I’ve stared at the ceiling, sleeping on the antique couch, covered in dust, afraid to go upstairs, but afraid to leave it as well. I know how it summons—I know how it pulls the light to it and snuffs it out. So I stay and ask myself what I did to bring this spirit to me, what actions and crimes I committed to lure the demon out. In the dark, no amount of blankets are able to stop my shivering. I hear it upstairs, heavy footsteps, the weight of lead boots, the mass of flesh a horrible density, the shadows always fading to cold air. I remember the abortion, the way my girlfriend cried—this selfish act that we hid from the world, drowned in our sorrows and a river of amber liquid. I remember the anxiety of a thump in the road, the radio blaring, the shape left behind as I drove on, turned away, vomiting in the bushes later, pretending that nothing had happened. I remember the heroin, the needles and the glossy cold skin she wore, the way we would pour into each other, our mouths hot for slick tongues, our fingers eager to grab, to clench, to slide inside. She deserved better—I know that now. The only sound left from that night, from the dense woods, from the dull panic that washed over me is the sound of the shovel blade piercing the earth, over and over again.
Nobody thought anything of the gray cat, the Maine Coon we called Quixotic, passing away in the middle of the night. He was fifteen years old, moving slow already, doomed to die in this house—we all knew that. And yet, as I fell asleep that night, his cries came to me from the basement, wrapped in an urgency that made me queasy, that made me hesitate, pull back the covers and sit up on the edge of the bed. I heard him make his way up the stairs, and heard him slump to the floor in the guest room, and assumed he was fine, when he finally went quiet.
Guest room. Yes, that’s accurate. Our guest.
We buried him in the backyard, the acre of old oaks a canopy arcing over our heads, the brick fireplace where we would barbeque and gather, the chipped fountain of a forlorn boy spouting water into its cracked base. I have a hard time saying their names now, my son, my wife—they have turned to smoke and drifted away. My son, Robert, he took the sticks, wound round with yarn, the simple placard reading Quicky, as we called the cat, and pushed into the earth with a sigh. That night as we fell asleep, my sadness a heavy weight on my chest, the place the cat used to sit and purr, a series of doors slammed shut, a groaning from the pipes in the basement, and we clung to each other, my Linda disappearing in my arms, tears and darkness and heavy sighs luring us to sleep. We were not afraid, not yet. We were sad, and tired, and ready to move on. Our guest was not.
I didn’t know much about electricity, so my brother William helped me with the ceiling fan. It seemed a simple task, the guest room always hot, except when it was cold, needing a false breeze to keep the stillness from growing. The circuit breakers, they were flipped. The light from the windows was barely enough, clouds drifting over the yard, but we did not hesitate. A ladder, the wires, screws and a drill, it was nothing to us, an easy job, a task to be done. There were cold beers and a back porch waiting for us later, the inevitability of it unquestioned. I slapped him on the back, and we hoisted the fan. And then he grabbed the wires.
There were no lights on in the room, the circuit had been flipped, and yet I stared at him as his body shook, as his eyes bulged and a darkness swept across, the ladder shaking, no voice in my chest, no words in my mouth, the smell of charred flesh, the urine pooling beneath the ladder, his body falling to the ground, the fan crashing down on us, as I muttered his name over and over, smoke drifting as tendrils to the ceiling where it pooled. The room now held an anxious weight.
There never would be a fan in that room, the broken blades and glass carted out to the garbage cans in the quiet of the next day, the wires sticking out of the hole, always pointing, always reaching out for more. And in the corners the shadows grew, the air thick with the stench of burnt flesh.
The house had changed for us now, and we stayed away from the guest room, closing the door, which always reopened. We stayed on the north side of the house, leaving that hallway alone. And yet, we went on. It was still weeks before I’d start killing myself, there was still an air of hope.
In a daze, we snapped at each other, my wife and I, over every small thing, over every task not done a certain way. We spit our angry words at each other over garbage cans and their liners, over bills that had not been paid, over loose handrails and crooked pictures and dinners that we brought home in greasy paper bags. Maybe we could have run then, maybe it was still forming, still weak. I don’t know.
The sounds that came to us as we fought in the kitchen, they did not make any sense, they had no context in our memories. We stomped and pointed, we clenched our fists and spewed obscenities, faces flushed, as the house around us creaked and moaned, the doors opening and closing, the boy running from room to room, a game he was playing, certainly, a laugh on his lips as he amused himself, certainly not terrified, not running from something, not trying to escape, just playing as boys are known to do. My fist banged on the table, a tall thin water glass breaking in the kitchen sink as Linda turned her back to me, cursing into the hot water that flowed over the dirty dishes. Our heads turned with a snap at the pounding, the dull thuds as they repeated down the curving staircase, over and over until we were met with the eventual silence of the boy hitting the hardwood floor. No words, just a gasp, eyes widening, and we ran out of the room, muttering to our absent God, and found him bent and broken, lying still on the floor.
There was not much left after that, I think. There was no color, or light, only darkness. People came and left, the house was full and then empty, things were done, paperwork, I imagine, nothing that stays with me, nothing that matters. I often found myself wandering the hallways, cold and yet sweating, standing in the guest room, arms at my side, a cloak of black wrapping around me as I cursed the shadows, begged it to take me. I was done. A dirty teddy bear sat in the corner, a long line of Matchbox cards leading from it to the edge of my shoes, and my head filled with swarming bees, my eyes rolled up into the back of my head, and I collapsed.
Linda is at our bedside, her hands on my wrist, her voice a whisper, and she’s telling me something, that we have to leave, that she’s leaving, that it’s all gone now, nothing left—I can’t decipher what she’s saying. I cannot move. She tells me it is too much and I can barely nod. Go, I tell her, there’s nothing here for you. I have nothing left to offer. Run. I close my eyes and she is gone.
I open them and there is a pounding at the front door, lights flashing and I cannot speak to the men in uniform as they pour past me into the house, as the smell of something burning fills the hallway and my mouth. They are in the kitchen shouting and there is a wave of smoke, the sound of water, the cursing and grunting of men. They ask for my wife, they mention the boy, my brother—they have been here before. I am mute. There is water on the floor, a puddle in which I stand, and as I look above my head there is an irregular shape on the ceiling above, the guest bathroom, the drip, drip, dripping filling the air with a metronome, a repetition, that wants to add up to something.
There is more noise upstairs, men yelling and I still cannot move. I am pushed out of the way, as a stretcher flies past me, the man in charge, his hand on my arm, yelling at me from underwater, pushing me into a chair, a flashlight in my eyes, and there are doctors, paramedics, policemen, firemen, a flurry of action, and I am slipping into a comatose skin, my flesh gone alabaster, my heart freezing into stone. The last thing I remember is the slashes of red on the white, white sheet—and she is gone from me forever.
I told her to run. He didn’t let her get away.
Time has abandoned me, I am no longer alive—I am no longer human. I get in the car and drive and drive, out onto the highway into the darkness, the world around me lacking clarity, and I find myself back in the driveway, the engine running, the car door open wide. I pick up the telephone and call anybody who will answer, beg them to come get me, to get me away from this unholy presence, and then I wait downstairs for the doorbell to ring, but they never show up.
There is a vague memory of a hammer and nails, of boards. There is the smell of gasoline leaking from under the door and the matches in my hand will not strike. There is a pinching at my wrists and a feeling of great release and I awake in my bed, naked, claw marks up and down my skin, bite marks on my shoulders and the torn flesh on my arms is stitched together with long pieces of dark, sinewy hair.
When there is nothing left, when I have finally surrendered, no longer seeking absolution, no longer praying to any God, anywhere, no longer ignoring the price I now must pay, not at my hands, but at his, I take the hammer and I claw at the wood, I pull away the barrier to the closed off room, this abyss, this dark sanctuary, and I place my hands on the cold metal knob—I turn it slowly and breathe frost into the air. I give myself over to the darkness inside, and finally, he swallows me whole.
(Originally published in The Booked Anthology)
Richard Thomas is the author of six books—Disintegration, The Breaker, Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots, Staring Into the Abyss, and The Soul Standard. His over 100 stories in print include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.