A year ago, I went to visit an old friend of mine from college named Chris. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Susan and their son Todd. The plan was for us to hang out for a few days, so they had promised to prepare a guest room for me.
When I arrived, Chris took me aside.
“I know we promised you the guest room,” he said quietly, “but something’s come up. Susan’s Uncle John just got divorced and she offered him a place to stay until he can find an apartment. He won’t be in our way, but I had to let him have the guest room.”
“No problem,” I said, “where am I sleeping then?”
“It’s going to sound creepy, but I’ve set you up in the attic. There’s a small room up there which we’re planning to turn into a playroom for when Todd’s older. It’s got a futon that turns into a bed. You just have to watch your step coming down the stairs at night if you do that.”
I shrugged. “That sounds fine with me.”
That night I woke up to the sounds of the house settling. There was a creaking coming from just outside my bedroom door like someone pacing slowly back and forth. I lay there with my blankets pulled up to my chin, staring out into the darkness of the attic and feeling very vulnerable. The only way out was through that door and down the stairs.
As is often the case when one wakes up in the middle of the night, I felt the sudden need to use the bathroom. I tried holding it for what seemed like an hour, but eventually my fear of that strange creaking noise was overpowered by my bladder’s need to empty itself.
“I wish I’d brought a flashlight.” I mumbled to myself, stepping carefully to the door. I put my ear to the wood to listen to that creaking sound, but as I approached the door, it stopped. I halted a moment, my ears prickling trying to hear the slightest sound above the silence that had suddenly enveloped me. Finally, desperately needing to pee, I stepped back and opened the door.
Feeling foolish, I crept along the attic to where the stairs down were, trying to make sure not to fall down them. I made it down the stairs, found my way to the bathroom thanks to a nightlight, then headed back up the stairs to the attic.
As I got up into the darkened landing, I realized the creaking sound had returned. With it, I could hear some sort of swishing sound, like someone dragging their feet and a muffled sort of sobbing. I held my breath, frightened but not wanting to show it, in case it was just Chris playing a prank on me.
“Hello?” I said in my bravest voice.
The shuffling and sobbing stopped.
“Who is that?” Came back a very quiet voice.
“It’s Wil. Who is that that’s ‘who is that’ing?”
“Oh, you’re Chris’ friend.” Someone moved forward. I couldn’t quite see him in the dark, but I could make out a white shirt covered with dark stains and striped pajama pants.
“I’m John, Susan’s Uncle. I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“You didn’t,” I lied, “I just had to use the bathroom.”
“Why are you up here?” he asked.
“They’ve set me up in the attic room.”
He sniffed. “Oh, I see. I’m in the way again.”
“No, nonono.” I wasn’t sure if he meant he was in the way at that moment, or in the way by claiming the guest room, but it didn’t matter. Really I just wanted to get back to bed. I felt a strange sense of unease and dread standing there in the dark with this vague form of a man.
“I’m sorry, I thought this would be a good place to…contemplate things.”
“It’s fine,” I lied again, “I’m just heading back to bed. Sorry to have interrupted you.”
And with that said, I crept past him, praying that he wasn’t so completely out of sorts that he couldn’t tell when someone was just being polite. If he stays up here doing that sobbing and pacing, I’ll never get to sleep, I thought.
And I was right. As soon as I closed the door, Uncle John started up his pacing again. From inside the room, all I could hear was the swishing of his slippered feet on the floor and the creak of the floorboards.
Three nights of this. Every night, I’d wake up and it’d be pitch dark and I’d hear the floorboards creaking and Uncle John shuffling back and forth. Sometimes he’d break out sobbing again and I’d have to cover my head with a pillow to try to muffle him out.
I barely saw him during the day. He never ate with us, never sat around the house. He just hid in the guest room and then shuffled past to go out to his car and drive away without even a hello.
By the third morning, I was exhausted. Chris and Susan noticed.
“Are you sleeping okay?” Chris asked me as I dangled my chin over a bowl of cereal.
“I have to be honest, I’m not.” I looked up at him from above the dark circles under my eyes. “Uncle John comes up to the attic every night and paces back and forth and cries. I ran into him the first night and I didn’t say anything, but honestly, he keeps waking me up and then keeping me up for hours with it.”
“I’m so sorry,” Susan said, her face turning red, “He’s been really depressed lately, as you can imagine. I’ll talk to him about it.”
“I don’t want to upset him or cause a problem. He’s staying for who knows how long. I’m just here a couple more days.”
When Susan left the kitchen, Chris grumbled, “I’d rather have you here than him. I hope he’s not staying ‘who knows how long’. That guy gives me the creeps.”
I understood him completely. There was something unsettling about Uncle John. I didn’t want to say it aloud, but I nodded at Chris and he nodded back at me then rolled his eyes.
That evening as we were all saying our good nights, Susan approached me. “I talked to my uncle this afternoon. He said he won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Did he say it like that?” I asked, feeling slightly guilty.
“Yeah, basically. You have to understand… my uncle really loved my aunt. He’s devastated by this divorce.”
“I shouldn’t ask, but…” I paused, making sure we weren’t being listened in on, “do you know what lead to it?”
“The divorce? No. They always seemed happy together.” Susan whispered. She seemed to dwell on something for a moment. “Uncle John was in Vietnam, and he’s suffered from PTSD for years. Aunt Ellie told me once that he used to wake up in the middle of the night crying because of it, but he’d been getting better. She said at his worst, he mistook her for someone trying to kill him one night when he woke up. Almost strangled her. Maybe it just got to be too much for her to deal with.”
“Aren’t you worried he might attack you or Chris… or Todd?” I whispered.
“Not really. He keeps to himself in his room almost all the time, as you’ve seen. He’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to be here, but he’s got nowhere else to go just now. He’s got too much pride to leech off our good will for too long.”
At that point, we said goodnight and I went to bed wishing I hadn’t asked any questions or complained to begin with.
I woke up a few hours later when something loud fell over.
“What the F!” I yelled, sitting bolt upright in bed.
Creak, creak, creak outside my door.
“You have to be kidding me.” I mumbled to myself. I pulled the blanket over my head, but it was no good; I was awake and now I needed to pee. I climbed out of bed and trudged across the dark room.
Creak, creak, creak
“Uncle John, I’m just passing through to the bathroom.” I said in a loud whisper as I opened the door. I felt around in the dark attic, not wanting to bump into him.
Creak, creak, creak in the dark.
He was somewhere to my left. I remembered seeing lots of packed boxes over there during the day. He must have knocked something over during his pacing. I figured that was the best he could do for “not bothering” me. As I descended the stairs, I heard him sobbing quietly behind me. I had to stick my fist in my mouth to stifle a groan.
When I came back up a few minutes later, he had stopped pacing, but there was a strange thumping every couple of seconds like he was sitting there punching a box. Yep, that’s normal, I thought, Just a grown man, sitting in a dark attic, punching a box and sobbing to himself.
I crawled back into bed and lay there, staring up into the dark ceiling rafters, listening to the quiet thumping outside my room. He stopped making the sound a few minutes later, and I fell back to sleep.
I woke up to screaming. It was Susan. All I could think was, Uncle John has flipped his lid and is killing them! I leaped to my feet, stumbling over my suitcase and tore out of the room to help.
It was a casual thing, glancing to the left as I ran out of the room. Kind of a “I wonder what it was Uncle John knocked over last night?” glance.
The answer was a chair. Uncle John had knocked over a chair in the dark. And honestly, it made sense to knock over the chair, because how else was he going to hang himself from the rafters without finding a chair to stand on and then kicking the chair out?
That’s what he had done. Uncle John was hanging there, right in front of me, an orange extension cord taut around his neck. His face was swollen and purple and his tongue was sticking out of his mouth like he was making an expression of pure disgust. His eyes were bulging out of their sockets, staring blankly into space.
I stopped my mad dash for the stairs and forgot all about the screaming for a minute. I stood there, staring at John’s corpse, reliving those moments in the darkness when I thought I had heard the creak of floorboards as he paced. It was the sound of the cord shifting against the wooden beam with each swing of his body. The thumping must have been when his feet bumped into the nearby boxes.
The screaming continued downstairs, and it took me a moment to realize they couldn’t possibly be screaming for the same reason I wanted to scream. I descended the staircase slowly, watching Uncle John disappear from view as I went. I don’t know why, but I had come to the irrational idea that if I turned my back he’d come down from the rafter and grab me. Maybe stick me up there in his place.
When I got downstairs, Susan was in hysterics. Chris was alternating between trying to talk to somebody on his phone and yelling at her.
“Just take Todd and go!” he was shouting, occasionally accentuating the point by shaking her like a rag doll. When he saw me, he let go of Susan and hurried over.
“132 Burgess Lane!” he yelled at the phone. “I don’t know, send anybody! I don’t think paramedics will be effective though!”
“Uncle John…” I stammered.
Chris stuffed the phone in a pocket of his bathrobe. “Yes.” he said, gripping my shoulders. We stared at each other. Chris looked determined and focused. I’m sure I looked horrified and pale. “I need you to help me. Take Susan and Todd and get them out of here. I can’t have Todd seeing this.”
I nodded dumbly and walked past Chris. Taking Susan by the arm, I guided her crying downstairs, then went back up and got Todd who was sitting in his bed looking confused and worried. I bundled us all up, and with Todd in my arms I lead Susan to my car. She sat there in the passenger seat, gasping for breath as I buckled Todd in in the back. I could hear sirens in the distance getting closer.
I climbed into the car and looked at Susan. “Susan, I’m so sorry.”
She looked at me through tear-filled eyes. “There was so much blood,” she whispered.
“I’ve never seen so much blood.”
“Wait right here.” I told them both as I unbuckled myself and got out of the car. I ran back inside and took the stairs three steps at a time to the second floor.
Chris was slumped against the frame of the door to the guest room, looking in. I went up to him and looked into the room.
There was a body in the bed, curled on its side in a ruined nightgown, arms and legs stretched out like it was welcoming a hug. The head was on a dresser across the room. It was an elderly woman. Her hair was long and silver, her eyes dark and empty. Her mouth hung open slightly. The sheets and pillows were brown with days old dried blood and the otherwise green carpeting was brown around the bed and dresser.
“Aunt Ellie.” Chris looked up at me. “That fucking psycho killed her and brought her into my house. God knows when. He cut her head off. He cut her fucking head off! When they find him–”
“They won’t have to look very far,” I said, the image of that room of death burning into my brain. “He’s up in the attic.”
“He hanged himself.” I held his shoulder and he squeezed my hand.
We stayed the next night in a hotel. Chris needed help calming Susan down while taking care of Todd. She was in severe shock. I took Todd out to a movie so Chris and Susan could be alone for a few hours. We had told Todd that his Mommy had found an infestation of ants and the house had to be fumigated. Uncle John had found a new place to live. Terrible, terrible lies, but he was only six and he believed every word.
I left for home two days later. They spent another week and a half in the hotel while police documented everything and then cleaners came and tidied up. Chris told me Susan insisted on throwing out all the furniture in the guest room. She redecorated it to look completely different. She never wanted to see it the way it had been again.
I’ve been back to their house only once since then. Chris gave me a sideways glance when I requested the attic room over the guest room. Susan developed a bit of a nervous twitch at the request, but said nothing.
I only spent the one night. Hours after everyone else was asleep, when the world seemed darkest, I woke up with a chill under my skin. I was covered head to toe in blankets, but there was a distinct frigid cold that seemed to settle over me. I lay there, looking up into the infinite shadows, I swear I heard sobbing outside my door.