Stop! Wait! Did you hear that?
Did you hear that creaking and a cracking above my bed? Did you hear the vibrations along the beams? The fluctuations within the walls? Did you?
The noise I speak of comes in the night, and only in the night, particularly during my precious hours of sleep. During the times I’m enjoying a hearty breakfast, reading the morning paper, writing my letters, washing behind my ears, shining my shoes, taking in a meal of whiskey, potatoes, and steak, I never hear the creaking and cracking rippling along those trusses. But as soon as I lay my head down on the cool side of that good pillow the noises about the home begin its taunting charade.
The home I resided in could best readily be described as a split-level Victorian with four cramped bedrooms, matted white walls, and newly stained wood floors. Because of the new staining, the floorboards rarely creaked. Instead, I could hear the lovely shuffling of dust-bunnies slip below my socks as I traipsed about the house. The home, itself, was not my own. The owner was an older gentleman of about 70 who lived on the far side of town. His name: Marlowe (and though he was my landlord, his first name has always escaped me). Mr. Marlowe had very old hands and very old skin, but fantastically young eyes. They were pale blue—almost gray—and painfully disconcerting. Marlowe had decided to move into a complex for the elderly three years previous, but never had the soul’s courage to part with the Victorian he called “home.” It was his intent to pass it on to his daughter, but his daughter, sadly enough, had passed away on Marlowe’s sixtieth birthday, and such a plan never came to fruition. Consequently, Marlowe decided to rent it.
I met him at his complex the day before my residence was said to take place. We had spoken on the phone, and his voice was so weak, so alarmingly fragile, I was sure that when my eyes would first lay upon him, I’d witness a shuffling old man carrying a wooden walking stick or flimsy aluminum walker. But when Marlowe descended the apartment staircase I found him to be quite spry, lithe even. He bounded down those steps at an uncommon pace, sometimes two at a time. At one point I was quite sure he’d topple over, that gravity would get the best of him, but Marlowe safely reached the landing and gracefully made his way toward me. It was around the time he reached the third step (or perhaps it had been the fourth—time has muddle a few things) when I first noticed those eyes. Those cold, grey eyes! We exchanged keys and deposit without many words—words, even to this day, I have no memory of—and I left with a frosty feeling in my heart.
I was not the first tenant of that Victorian, but I will most certainly be the last. I know this fact for a multitude of reasons, but such reasons would, at this particular juncture, do this story little justice, so I will promptly move on from them. The six previous tenants had departed without warning and without cause. Some had even abandoned their belongings, as if they had left in a discombobulating haste. Among those belongings were an old record player, half a dozen books by various authors (none of whom I’d ever heard of), and a picture frame displaying the face of a young woman. The woman was so bland looking I could never tell if it was an actual picture taken by the previous tenant or if the portrait had come with the purchase of the frame. She had blonde hair that was so bright, looked almost silver in the picture’s light. Her irises were blue, her nose was pointed, and her skin was wonderfully fair. I kept all of the tenant’s belongings as I had found them. I never altered the placement of the frame, never flipped a page of one of those books, but had been known, from time to time, to cast an album or two on that rickety player.
It was late when the creaking began. The record player had been properly stowed for the evening, a glass of water propped on my nightstand, and the curtains tightly drawn. But I awoke to the vibrations almost at once. I was roused from some dream, the content of which I can no longer remember. The house appeared to be leaning, tilting on its axis. I had the sensation of falling and grabbed onto my bed for support. The beams belched another shuddering vibration and I jumped from the comforts of my covers. There came another low, rumbling followed by several clicks. The clicks were quiet at first, but they soon amplified, as if somebody was pitter-pattering around in the attic.
I fastened up my robe and made my way into the hall. An eager breeze ran up from the stairs, the likes of which made my teeth chatter. Above me was the attic door, a frayed hemp string dangling from the latch. I pulled the string and the attic door fell open, a set of discolored wood steps slid down and clunked against the flooring. I shuddered to think about the scratch I’d find in the morning, but before I had a chance to dwell on the thought I found myself ascending the attic steps.
The house let out another moan.
Before I reached the darkness of the attic the clicking footsteps stopped. The suddenness of it was so jarring I quite nearly spilled over. Thankfully, I managed to catch myself by the last sole of my slipper. I craned my neck toward the dark rectangle that was the attic’s opening and listened, waiting for the trusses to crack again, but the sound was no more. Instead, all I could hear was a shallow, restless breathing. But that breathing mussing the silence surely must have been the wind or the trees or the darkness…
I cinched tighter my robe and stepped through the opening, smelling the dusty air, thick with asbestos and mildew. There was another light in the attic, this much I knew, but I fumbled to find its cord. By the time I did find the little bastard I half expected to flip the switch and see a rotting corpse resting before me. But when I pulled the cord and the attic became apparent, there was nothing but empty light and two forlorn boxes resting in the corner, both sadly marked in bold block letters: Winter Clothes. I stepped toward the boxes, positive these flimsy cardboard constructs were the source of the creaking and cracking, but when I flipped open their tops I found nothing but poorly knitted sweaters and several women’s cardigans. It was so odd to feel such a sense of relief and disappointment all at once. I scanned the empty attic one last time and switched off its light. Another howl of wind happened outside and I convinced myself the house was just my imagination. I descended the steps feeling wonderful fogginess wash over me. I hit the pillow, relieved to find the sheet had become cool again, and waited for sleep to take me, my last memory being: I was glad that that insubordinate night was over.
But the next night was still to come…
I awoke at dawn. I showered, dressed, went to work, ate dinner, listened to a record, drank a whiskey, listened to another, and traveled off to bed. The entire affair had been calm and easy. But when I put on my pajamas and untucked my sheets the vibrations came again. The house moaned, begging me to help it. Only this time the moaning was within the walls, not the ceiling.
I jumped from my bed and ran to the window, flipping the blinds so hard they snapped. I looked out on a quiet street. Lampposts rested easily at the corners, pulsating their yellow light. The neighborhood was magnificently still.
Another creak resonated from the depths of the home and I dove back into my bed. I think I may have screamed, though there was no way of telling. Mr. Marlowe’s house was ready to topple over! I was sure of it! But just as I convinced myself the thought was fact, the house settled and the vibrations tapered. I lifted my head from the covers and swear I felt the house sigh.
The next morning I did not wait for the sun to show its wicked face before I showered, shaved, and dressed. I ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and jam and covered the platter in a hollandaise I had cut with double butter. I proceeded to drink three cups of coffee and slap four handfuls of aftershave upon my weary cheeks. But even after I did I found my skin was still bleak and sallow. My eyes were grotesquely sunken and frightfully dark, and though the scale would not corroborate my sentiments, I felt as if I had shed a dozen pounds after those two fretful nights.
Work was mundane and I struggled to keep sleep at bay. I returned home just after five, ate beans and biscuits, drank a whiskey, and read a book of no implication by candlelight. As soon as the sun went down I carried myself upstairs with a restlessness my body had never felt before. I took quite some time to dress for bed, delaying the inevitable. But when I slipped open those sheets and slid myself into their comforts, I heard no creaking and I heard no cracking. The house was spectacularly quiet. Nay! It was spectacularly still!
I waited one agonizing moment, sure the home’s final breath would result in one last moan, but neither came and I shut my eyes, convinced the previous two nights had been but a dream.
Alas, some wishes are not meant to be true, and just as I readied to extinguish the candle I heard faint signing echoing within the walls. The home, to my horror, was no longer creaking, and it was no longer cracking, the damn thing was singing! It was this horrible, dangerous melody that I wished would stop as soon as it started. The song was pleading and unrelenting. It was a wailing mess that droned on and on like a person’s cries in the blackness of a sea. No note carried even though every note screamed.
I grabbed hold of the bed frame just as it began to shake, the singing reverberating around me, harassing my eardrums with its torturous notes. I cried to the heavens, begging it to stop! But no such luck found its way to my bed.
It came time for me to jump from my covers; I nearly toppled over the nearby nightstand as I did. The cool night air met me and I realized my pajamas were soaked in sweat, my brow exceptionally wet. I crashed into the wall and felt its vibrations, they were violent and heavy, glaringly palpable. I pulled away from the wall with such a force I fell over, crashing against the slick wood floor with this splendid thud.
The singing morphed into harsh, broken screams and I covered my sensitive ears as I lie on that brittle Victorian floor. And then, just as suddenly as the screams began, they ceased. An echo of them disappeared down the hall and out one of the open windows. My breathing was thick, but painfully disconnected.
All at once, the home turned exceptionally frigid. I turned to look at my bedroom window, and though we were in the midst of a heat wave that summer, frost began to line the window’s frame. At first it was slight, as if my eyes were deceiving me, but then the ice crystals expanded, little distorted mirrors weaving their way across the window. I exhaled and saw my breath accentuated by the candle’s light. It wafted into the air the way the first drag of a cigarette might look.
And then came the tapping…
The taps were intermittent, but calculated, sounding a bit like morse code coming from the soul of the home. Tap, silence, tap tap tap, silence, tap tap, long silence, tap tap tap tap tap.
I curled up on the floor, bringing my knees to my chest. I was an animal in a kennel of hell.
Tap tap tap.
My head was swimming. My body was shaking.
I turned my neck at an odd angle and felt a twinge run along my jawline. I looked back up at the window and saw the frost was gone. I no longer could see my breath. And that’s when I realized the tapping had stopped.
But my body was still shaking…
It would shake until morning came, but the house would remain still. After that, I have no idea how long I slept, or if I slept at all, but I never once removed myself from that perfectly polished, perfectly stained pine flooring. I was too afraid at what might happen if I did.
I couldn’t bear the thought of work the next morning. As I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror it appeared as though I’d aged seven centuries in three days. There was a hollowness to me. I was a fragment of what I once was.
I didn’t dare bathe. I didn’t dare make a breakfast. I didn’t dare dress. I sat in the comforts of my tautly upholstered chair until the morning paper came. Though, I didn’t dare go fetch it. I stared out the window, watching the day come to fruition, and when my neighbors began milling about, gathering their own papers, disposing their own garbage, heading off to their own jobs, I snatched up the phone and dialed Mr. Marlowe.
He answered on the first ring and I was momentarily paralyzed by my relief as well as my foolishness. In a second I ran the entire story and events through my head and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream about what had happened. Was I to be deemed insane? Would Marlowe declare me a nut and have me committed? What could I have said that he could possibly respond to?
“Mr. Marlowe?” I asked carefully.
“Yes,” his weak voice responded.
“This is John Hedge.” Marlowe didn’t respond so I offered a further nugget of information. “I rent the Victorian from you.”
“Yes?” he said without any sort of pleasantness.
“Well, you see…the thing is…”
“Yes?” he said with the same colorless tone.
“I think there’s something wrong with the house,” I said abruptly, the words escaping my lips before I could snatch them back.
“Yes. I’m quite certain of it.”
“Is that so?”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, what do you intend to do about it?”
“I’m sorry, dear boy, but what ever could be wrong with the home?”
“There’s…I don’t know…there’s something strange about it. It’s making noises.”
“Yes, sir, noises!”
“My dear boy, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Mr. Marlowe, the house is shaking at night. It’s creaking and cracking and driving me mad!”
There came a low laughter on the other end of the receiver. “Oh…Oh my dear boy!” I could picture Marlowe wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “It’s a very old home. You yourself referred to it as the Victorian! Surely you know old homes such as those are bound to have a tad bit of creaking.”
“But this isn’t a tad bit, Mr. Marlowe, it’s incessant! And then there’s the…” But my voice trailed away.
“There’s the what?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“There’s moaning…or something.”
“Or singing. Or both! Mr. Marlowe, I think there’s something genuinely wrong with your house.”
“Now you listen here,” he said with a sudden rage. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with my house! If this is some scheme to get your deposit back you can take it up with my lawyer. We made a deal Mr. Hedge, a deal you agreed to in writing. And for you to call and try and weasel a few hundred bucks out of me…well, I simply won’t have it!”
“Mr. Marlowe, I haven’t slept!”
“I suggest you get to bed then!”
“But the house is screaming at me!”
“Then the house and I have something in common! Good day, sir!” Marlowe slammed the receiver down and my ears adopted a heavy ringing.
I sat back down in my armchair and looked out the living room window. Across the street a wife kissed her husband goodbye and he headed off to work. She sauntered back inside, ready to enjoy the comforts and serenity of her home. A woman who wasn’t destined to be tortured by the screams and insensibilities within the walls of Marlowe’s Victorian.
My knees jumped, I chewed my fingernails down to their nubs, I would shiver, then clam, and then shiver all over again. When I felt my eyelids becoming heavy I would hop up from the armchair and dance about, feeling insanity sink in. I couldn’t take the sleep anymore, but the thought of facing the world’s reality with my two frightened eyes was even more debilitating. Being mortified to shut your eyes is one thing, being mortified to open them is another thing altogether.
I poured a whiskey and drank it down, feeling myself go mad. I poured another and a dreariness hovered over me. I drank down the last of the whiskey resulting in this terrible knot in my stomach.
The morning light slipped away with little grandeur and the afternoon shadows crept across the drive. The concrete sizzled in the summer sun and I longed for the light to stay. The moon and the stars were my enemy and I would have given eight fingers to keep them at bay. But such fates are not meant for men such as me and the afternoon evaporated into a blackness that was darker than anything I had ever seen before. At one point, through a sleepiness I can describe only as haze, while gazing out my living room window, I noticed the street was perfectly black save for one streetlight stationed along the far curb. When first lit, the light was blindingly white, abrasive and harsh. But after it had been illuminated for some time the streetlight turned a soft shade of amber. I stared out at that black street and saw a figure standing below that amber hue. The figure’s silhouette was staring at me! Staring through me! I thought perhaps he was smoking, but that couldn’t be, for shadows do not smoke and never intend to smoke; shadows are lifeless, aloof.
I drew the blinds and escaped up to my room with legs that had no business carrying me. My body was shot. And my mind (I believed because of that cartoonish shadow) was beginning to play tricks on me. The entire affair was atrocious. But with such a fragile exterior and deteriorating interior, I couldn’t help but let the weariness consume me.
Through nonsensical dreams of fantasy and myth I managed to find a pocket of unattested sleep. In my subconscious I waited for the dreams to end and the screaming to begin, but I was far too exhausted to be roused by such a trivial thing as a woman’s screams. Then in the caverns of those dreams I became lost, and during this abduction I convinced myself morning would come and the Victorian would settle.
But luxuries never last as long as you wish, and at half past four in the morning I woke suddenly. I was sure there would be screams, reverberations, cracks, creaks, anything and everything. But as I turned my ear to the home I heard no such disturbances. And I was foolish enough to let a cautious optimism seep into me.
It was around this time—the time when my heart swelled with relief—I heard a beating heart. At least I think it was a heart. It was hard to tell against the pounding of my own pulse.
I threw the covers to the floor and lit the candle next to my bed. A long shadow cast over the room as the flame flickered, licking its surroundings with insatiable thirst.
I jumped from the mattress with an energy I didn’t think existed.
Then the moaning came…
It was that abhorrent, incessant moaning I had heard the nights previous, but now it was mixed with that deranged heartbeat, making it all the more unbearable.
I cried my protest to the walls, but my protests were met with soft knocks within the sheetrock. Something was calling to me, and for a brief moment I thought of the shadow in the street, the smoking man who stared at me from the incandescence with a startling patience.
Tap tap tap, said the wall.
I grabbed hold of a nearby lamp and thrust its base into the wall. Sheetrock flew, a fine mist of white powder dissipating into the air. I coughed, momentarily seized by the effects of the crumbling wall. But I refused to stop. With each strike a bit more sheetrock fell away and the wall’s mysteries became more evident.
The candle flickered again.
My strokes became fiercer and fiercer. Finally, the base of the lamp broke off with this dull clink and fell to the floor. I promptly flipped it around and used the shade end to gorge the rest of the wall.
The candle continued to glow its gentle glow and my violent tearing never knew its end.
The moaning raged! The heartbeat pounded! The singing was a chorus of hell! But, still, I waged war on that wall. And by the time a four foot section of the sheetrock fell away, I felt almost guilty. My motives were astonishingly unclear. Was the only thing driving me my own madness?
Stop! Wait! Did you hear that?
I looked into the sheetrock’s gaping hole and saw her.
She stared back at me with hollow black eyes. Her hair was still intact, brilliantly blonde, almost silver. But apart from the hair, it was only her skeleton my eyes could perceive. Her bones were grey and cracked, little bits of decayed skin still stuck to her cheekbones. Her mouth was slightly ajar and I could see one of her teeth was gold, the result of some accident or cavity. The corpse buried within the Victorian’s walls stared back at me with a potent and deadly friendliness. It did not take much inspection to realize the corpse was that of the woman in the picture frame I had found. I could never forget that face. I could never forget her.
I remembered the clothes I had discovered in the attic and wondered if those might have belonged to her. But such a thought was cast away as I turned toward my bedroom door, realizing it had been unlatched. Standing before me, a hunter’s knife glistening in the candlelight, was Mr. Marlowe. His eyes gleamed with rage, furious at his tenant’s insubordination.
“Mr. Marlowe?” I croaked.
His mouth slipped open and he seemed to smile at me. It was a perfectly queer sight seeing that reckless smile next to the serrated hunter’s knife. There was an aura of darkness behind him, following like a forlorn raincloud, unable to keep up.
“Mr. Marlowe…” I said again, this time pointing at the decomposed body within the wall. Though something told me Marlowe was all too aware of the woman from the picture. He barely glanced at her as he advanced on me. “Mr. Marlowe, what are you doing?”
“You shouldn’t have been meddling, Mr. Hedge,” Marlowe said. “That woman was a meddler and she found the inside of my walls. You shouldn’t have been meddling!”
“Did you find the others, Mr. Hedge?”
“Did you find the others? What have you done with them? What have you done with my corpses?” Marlowe was screaming. A bit of spittle shot from his mouth and caught me in the chest. “You’ve found one, Mr. Hedge! Surely you have found the others!” Marlowe raised the blade above his head and swung it down in one furious motion. It breezed past my pajama tops, slicing through the fabric, but missing my skin. I jumped back, crashing into my nightstand. The candle tipped over onto my bedding, a bit of hot wax landing on the back of my neck.
Marlowe swung again, this time catching me across the forearm. I let out a horrific squeal and saw Marlowe recoil against the noise. It gave me just enough time to scramble to my feet.
Flames rose up from the bed sheets, engulfing the comforter in a matter of seconds. But Marlowe was hardly concerned with the fire raging in the room; there was a fire in his belly that was a far greater inferno.
I clutched my arm and felt the warm rush of blood seep between my fingers. My eyes flitted toward the wound, but were quickly kidnapped again by the hunting knife slicing through the air. I leaned back, falling against the sheetrock, and the knife buried into the corpse’s skull. There was this shuddering crack as the knife broke through the woman’s cheekbone and her gold tooth rattled in her mouth.
Marlowe struggled to dislodge the weapon, but I was on top of him before he could manage. I thought one swift tackle to the ground would disarm the man of 70, but he barely lost a breath as we fell to the floor. The slickness of it caused us to slide into the doorframe.
I felt heat lick my back and I turned to find the flames had spilled off the bed and onto the floor. The recent staining swallowed up those flames and raced across the shimmering wood, ready to gobble up whatever it could.
I rolled to my right just as the flames reached Marlowe’s heavy work boots. He shrieked, swatting at them.
I reached for the knife still dangling from the corpse’s cheek. Mercifully, the knife dislodged and I turned back toward Marlowe, the weapon raised and ready. But when my eyes found Marlowe he, too, was ready, back on his feet, the fire extinguished, his work boots a smoldering mess. The heavy scent of burnt rubber filled the air as the rest of the flames in the room began to work their way up the walls. Heat radiated all around us as the Victorian began to cede to the fire’s angry inquiry.
“Stay out of my walls!” Marlowe screamed, diving for me.
I brought the knife down, but Marlowe knocked it away in one stilted motion. It fell onto the bed, which was now engulfed.
Flames reached the ceiling, burning away the Spackle with a rusty, coppery finish.
Marlowe pushed me into the bed frame but I managed to avoid the fire. He went to strike again, but I was too quick, jumping toward the wall next to the decaying woman. Her gold tooth flashed in my vision as I heard Marlowe scream. I looked back and saw his hands had collided with the fiery comforter. He screamed again as the flames peeled away his skin, his palms breaking out in crude formations of puss and blisters.
Marlowe turned on me, his eyes filled with blinding rage. He had had enough. He reached into the fire and carefully removed the hunter’s knife. The blade was practically glowing. He rushed at me a final time, a roar emanating from the depths of his diaphragm, knife raised, mouth open, tongue flapping against his cheek like a deranged woodland predator.
I grabbed for the broken bedside lamp and swung it around, connecting with the side of his temple. The eyes rolled back in Marlowe’s head and the knife fell from his hand. He stumbled backward and fell onto the bed, instantly consumed by the flames. Screams tore through the room, but were quickly stifled by the flames scorching Marlowe’s esophagus. His body snapped up from the bed, as if pulled by a string. The flames seemed to race down his clothes, but I realized Marlowe had inadvertently wrapped himself in one of the burning sheets and couldn’t procure a way out. The flames ran down to his feet and those smoldering work boots turned, once again, into burning work boots.
But, still, Marlowe would not quit. He cried through his anguish and made a blitz for me. The flames, however, were too great, and Marlowe could no longer see. He fell into the woman’s smiling corpse and her head tilted, as if inspecting us. Marlowe spun in the sheet, struggling mightily to shed himself of the fire. But it was of no use. There came a low, howling groan—a groan I couldn’t tell came from Marlowe or the house—as he tipped toward the bedroom window and crashed through the glass. His cries echoed away as he fell three stories to the street below. And then there was nothing.
The sudden rush of outdoor oxygen fueled the flames, bewitching the rest of the room. I offered the woman in the wall one last somber glance before rushing into the hall. I looked back a final time to see the flames crawling across that beautifully stained wood floor. In a matter of minutes, that floor would be ash, and its beauty would be nothing but a vacant memory I thought I might have had once.
I raced down the stairs and out the door. By the time I made it outside, the Victorian was consumed by a blaze so great it was a wonder how we had lasted so long inside. I saw the body of Marlowe lying on the concrete, the sheet smoldering pockets of flame.
As the flames tore away at the beautiful construct I wondered how many others were in those walls and in those ceilings begging me to get them out.
The fire fighters arrived some time later, but their attempts were pointless. Before the first hose rained its brilliant shower the home shook, emitted one final creak, one final crack, and collapsed in.
By morning the authorities would remove six bodies from inside that Victorian, all had been buried behind the walls, somehow preserved. When I asked the coroner if I could see the body of Mr. Marlowe, he looked at me with this devastatingly quizzical expression I could only describe as dumbfounded, and he told me, “Son, the bodies we found were all women. There were no men.”
“No,” I said helplessly. “The man…the man who was lying just outside the bedroom window. The man who had been wrapped in the sheet. Mr. Marlowe! Surely you must have found Mr. Marlowe!” I was beginning to sound deranged, even in my own ears.
“I’m sorry,” said the coroner, his voice bordering between sympathy and antipathy. “But there was no such man anywhere near this crime scene. Like I said, only women.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “I watched him die. I watched Marlowe die!” My knees became weak and I had to grab hold of the corner’s van for support. “I’m just telling you what we found.” The coroner slammed the van door and he, along with the bodies of those six poor souls, sped away.
I sat there until midday, eyes fixed on the remnants of the place I once called home, and waited for Marlowe to return.
But Marlowe never showed.
“Mr. Hedge,” a woman’s voice came from behind me. It was my neighbor. Her husband stood behind her, hands cupping her shoulders. “Mr. Hedge, are you all right?”
I ignored her and turned back to the Victorian’s black ashes, tipping my ear toward its wreckage. “Stop! Wait!” I said. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what Mr. Hedge?”
“The creaking and the cracking…” I rocked back and forth, hugging my knees. “The creaking and the cracking…the creaking and the creaking…the creaking and the cracking…”