“The day I first saw you, I knew that my life was forever changed. It was love at first sight. Life was always so hard before that, and in that moment that I first saw your face, I knew that things were about to be different. It’s hard to explain. If I didn’t know you as well as I do now, I would never have admitted it at the time. It was like magnetism. I was drawn to you.”
We bought the house at a county auction, my husband and I. We saw potential there from the moment we passed by. It was old, falling apart. Abandoned for many years. On a hunch, I did a bit of research on it. The taxes hadn’t been paid in a long time. The county seized it and would be selling it off with a few others whose taxes were derelict on a Thursday morning. The weather predicted sun, but that didn’t happen often in winter. That Thursday, years ago now in December seems just like yesterday. The sky was overcast, looming, and gray. There was Frost on the ground but no snow and the sunshine that the weatherman promised sunshine never showed itself through the low-hanging clouds… But this was our first home and we were happy.
We won it for a good price. I was surprised that there weren’t many buyers interested at the auction on the steps of the courthouse. Bradenville seemed like a nice enough town and the two of us were just starting out. We were looking for something peaceful in the country. This little burb just spoke to us from the moment we drove past the welcome sign. We knew that this was where we belonged.
The house was a mess. Dusty and full of furniture that was slowly transforming from inanimate to living possessions alive with fungus and growths of mold. For that reason, we decided we couldn’t move in right away. It needed to be cleaned out. We needed to hire someone to help with the dampness of it and clear the air and we would do that in time, but the house needed to be emptied first and we thought it would be a good project to bond over. We booked a room in the bed and breakfast on Main Street downtown. It was called The Valiant Arms and the place was charming in its own weird way which didn’t bother us in the slightest. Kendrick and I are not put off by a little weirdness, but the choice of decor–a medieval castle motif–was a bit out of place in the heart of this small Kentucky town. The owners were a couple named Beau and Bambi Traverse; they had no other staff.
Bambi showed us to our room. It was small and held an oversized four-poster bed that nearly filled it. Hung above the headboard was a portrait. The brushstrokes were amateur and one of her lazy eyes seemed to be looking toward the closet while the other stared directly into my soul and dared me to laugh. Aware that Bambi might have been the artist herself, I didn’t. I thought the subject was meant to be Marie Antoinette or someone else historically important but with parts of her face appearing disproportionate and slightly melted it was hard to be certain. Kendrick and I shared a secret look that said “wait until she’s gone” without words and after she left the room, the two of us doubled over in quiet laughter. The Traverses were fine people, we found out, if a bit eccentric. They made a full continental breakfast for their guests each morning and it could be enjoyed in a regal dining room complete with faux bricks and battery operated torches. There, at the stately dining table one might enjoy their homemade Belgian Waffles under the watchful gaze of King Henry VIII, who’s poorly painted ears were two different sizes–but at least he didn’t bother to look in two places at once.
I found the diary behind the couch as we were carrying it out to the large dumpster we’d rented and they’d delivered into the front yard for the cleanup. The diary was a nice one once, with a leather cover. It was spotted with mildew in the damp air trapped inside and the pages were waterlogged but the spots on the leather wiped away with a brush of my hand.
We hadn’t been at it for long, but I was already growing tired with the cleanout at that point, and it was just the first day. I knew that 867 Webber Street could be nice if we gave it the love it was desperately craving…nice eventually, but for now, I couldn’t see it. The place looked like a dump and I wondered if we’d made a really horrible mistake with our savings. The thought of even starting the process of cleaning it up was overwhelming. The diary gave me a little hope. It was like finding buried treasure inside of a long sealed tomb. I thumbed through the pages and read those first lines…
“The day I first saw you, I knew that my life was forever changed…”
Something about it seemed hopeful. I needed a little bit of hope, even if it might be hidden in the pages of someone’s private thoughts. Who knew–the rest of this could read like some sort of hopeful romance novel.
I showed it to Kendrick and he rolled his eyes.
“It’s like buried treasure,” I told him.
“It’s probably garbage. Poorly written. Teenage girl shit.”
“No the handwriting is a little sloppy. I bet it’s a man’s,” I told him. “Besides, even if it’s corny or nonsensical, it might be fun to read.”
“Well, Will, I guess you’ll keep it then won’t you?” Ken said.
I placed it in the box I’d begun for things we might find during the cleanout. Things that might be worth selling. Things that might be worth keeping. “I think I will. I’ll let you know if he gets the girl at the end.”
“Girl?!” Ken exclaimed with shocked sarcasm.
“I can’t believe you of all people are assuming anyone in there’s gender–or species. Maybe it was written by a fairy–or a troll. Troll Shaman with enhancement spec. Maybe they fell in love and had to maul them to death.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. My husband. Ever the nerd.
We spent the rest of the day moving molding and crumbling pressboard desks and tables outside and tipping them overhead into the large dumpster which seemed to have known better days. It was an eyesore out front as it was, a sunruined blue, pitted with rust–but very soon as it began to slowly fill, I began to feel a bit more hopeful about the place.
When we returned to the bed and breakfast we discussed the plans for the rest of the week. We decided we might be about to finish clearing the place out in the next two or three days. Then the mold removal company could come in and set about their work. We weren’t sure how long that might take, but we figured on a week and we might be able to move in before they were finished entirely. Some of the walls on the lower floor would have to go. Be replaced and replastered. We could do that in time. We decided that neither of us minded living there at that point and the work would go faster if we did. Once everything was settled and a plan was in place, we enjoyed a quick dinner with the Traverse couple and retired to our room.
Kendrick has always been a sound sleeper since the day we first began to live together. Battling with insomnia for most of my adult life, I always envied him that. Before long he was out and snoring.
When sleep wouldn’t come for me, I turned on the light at my side of the bed and dug the diary out of the box we had brought back here with us. I picked up where I left off…
“… It was like magnetism. I was drawn to you.”
“I have a confession. I’m writing it here because I want you to know. I don’t know how things got to be the way they’ve gotten. I think you know what I mean. I’m talking about the escalation. I don’t know when it began. I don’t know when I lost control.”
“I never doubted your happiness or my own–not at first. Then things began to change for us. Do you know when it happened for you? I think it might have happened to both of us at once. A line of dominoes we didn’t see that made everything fall apart…”
“I think it was that new job you took. It was too stressful and you became a shell of yourself. At first, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t try to. I resented seeing you less and less. I tried to remind myself that you were working more hours now; that you were preoccupied. I think I blamed you when things began to fall apart. I didn’t have it in me then to blame myself–wholly or even partially. I hadn’t done anything to spoil it. To spoil us…but I hungered for you in new ways.”
“Then I did do something…it– changed –me. It changed us. “
“I think I’m different now. I started to change when I began to put myself in your shoes. You weren’t here even when you were home. Always someplace else. I just wanted to be close to you again, like we were before. I felt like a part of you was gone and I wouldn’t be able to ever find it again and revive what we shared.”
“I guess I’m writing this more for myself than anything but I’m writing this for you too even though you won’t be able to read it. It’s too late for that now because you’re gone and I know that’s my fault. Even after you were all gone, I could still feel you. There’s a part of you inside me. I know you’re still with me… But now you’re gone. There’s a part of me that thinks we could have made this work if I chose my actions differently. I was impulsive. I couldn’t help myself. Every day, I felt like I was losing you more and more. It was love at first sight and you were blind to me and I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
This was a little obsessive, but I could definitely imagine worse. I left the room to get a drink and when I came back upstairs I nearly jolted out of my skin.
Someone was there in the darkness of our room, hovering over Kendrick while he slept. The black eyes stared through me like two dark marbles. It’s face was like a disproportionate bird with a long and crooked beak. It seemed to turn to me as it hovered over him in the dark…the black glare of the eyes seemed to bore into me as soon as I entered the dark room through the doorway. I flicked on the light.
At first I jumped and then began to laugh. It was that awful painting of Marie Antoinette. There was nothing hovering over Kendrick as he slept except that portrait on the wall. I began laughing and Ken began to stir but I was sure that neither my giggling or the light overhead would be enough to wake him. He was pretty much out cold.
I climbed into bed and the last thing I remember before drifting off to sleep was that Kendrick was probably right…he usually is. The diary was probably a waste of time. A melodrama that wasn’t worth the read…the thing is, I’ve always liked a good melodrama and I thought I’d keep going at it until I finished each and every page–but not tonight. There would be plenty of time while we stayed here at the Valiant Arms. Nights when sleep decided to evade me for longer hours. I marked the crinkled page where I ended with my finger while I searched the end table for something to place inside and hold my place among the smears of ink and water stains. There was a pad and paper there, and pulling off the top sheet, I slipped it between the fragile pages and quickly drifted off to sleep.
That night was built of strange dreams. Dreams that I’d somehow grown emaciated. Over a short span of time I became thin and wasted and frail. My arms and legs were spindly twigs with over-large knots of skin along the joints. Slowly I watched myself become a sort of flightless bird. I was strange and unidentifiable. Defying the order of nature. A blasphemy.
I watched as my nose grew long and my chin jutted out to meet it, forming a hard and fleshy beak. My fingers elongated, ending in talons. Feathers sprouted from my palms and along the bony joints of my hand. The rest of my body followed suit. The feathers I grew were blacker than any crow’s; so black that they absorbed all light that hit me and I became a flattened silhouette of shadow. I was a black so dark that I resembled a hole to another dimension–a bird-shaped void in reality.
The light burned me when it met with my downy skin. It felt like fire as the feathers sucked it in unrefracted and swallowed it entirely. I sought out the darkest place I could and built a nest where I could hide from the sun until the end of time. The last thing I remembered before I woke was removing my own eyes and placing them on the floor before me so that I could gaze up at myself…at the feathered shape of nothing I’d become. I saw myself one last time and squacked. From their place on the floor my eyes could make out the shadow of the snout but the pits of my empty sockets were nothing but shadows. Then, after a moment spent in consideration of my new form: expressionless, avian, and black, I pecked at them where they lay on the floor with my strange dark beak. I watched as a milky fluid spurted out in a concentrated spray, absorbing into the darkness of the feathers that sprouted on my birdy face. The fluid was swallowed up by them, just as those same feathers absorbed the light.
Then the world went dark…
I woke after only a few hours rest to the rising of the sun and the cheerful morning songs of less horrifying winter birds nesting in the barren trees outside the window of our rented room.
The following day went much the same as the first, cleaning and clearing out garbage from the house. The only difference from that first day was the light snow that began to fall in the early afternoon…still, we were moving much more quickly than we anticipated. The furniture from the bottom rooms was carried outside. Some of it we lifted as it was, molded and dusty, in one solid piece, to the dumpster outside. Some of it, the larger or heavier items, were dismantled and we did this either carefully with screwdrivers or with the aid of a sledgehammer. I quite enjoyed the latter. There’s something industrious and brute about destroying a dampruined china cabinet with a few violent and wild swings like a modern Thor welding Mjǫllnir. Before long, the entire first floor was cleared of the furniture there was no interest in keeping. There were a few items that survived our hasty destruction trashout. We found an antique sewing machine, the kind powered by a foot pedal and made of iron. The green-blue pattern of patina on the metal was strange and beautiful even if the finish on the wooden top was in desperate need of refinishing.
We went through most of the rooms on the second floor, lumbering clumsily with furniture down the stairs and dismantling some of the more abhorrent of the ugly furnishings, but most of the items on the second floor were in decent condition. We decided to keep a number of them.
In the excitement I hadn’t noticed the drop-down door to the attic at the end of the hallway.
“I bet there’s more stuff up there,” Kendrick said. His eyes were briefly alight with childlike wonder.
Noticing the missing pull string that would open the door and release the stairs that were surely waiting on its other side, I said: “Well I guess it will have to wait until we fix the catch on it. Unless you want to get a ladder up here and pull it down.”
“We have plenty of time. It can wait until another day.” He said.
When we returned to the rented room that evening, I found myself too exhausted for not so much as dinner, let alone to continue reading from the pages. I wanted to continue, but I felt my mind flagging. I closed my eyes and drifted off before I knew it was happening. I never have found sleep as easily as I found it that night and in the days that have followed, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m fairly certain I will never experience that sort of exhaustive calm–that instant restful sort of slumber again.
On the third day we moved quickly enough to feel like we made a dent in removing the unsalvageable furnishings from the house and there was hope of completion ahead. That day, we met with the mold restoration company. They told us that the house wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d imagined. The dampness was coming mostly from a main wall near the center of the house. It was the main one that made up most of the living room. Given time, it led to rot and the excessive damp was in the air long enough to cause the ruin of the upholstery we’d carried out to the dumpster. The hardwood floors sustained minor damage near the walls, but it was nothing that couldn’t be replaced. We asked if we could stay in the house and they asked us to give them a day to start the process of dehumidifying before we did. There was some mold, but it tested negative for that dreaded bane of homeowners…it wasn’t Black Mold. Just regular old mildew. Short term exposure wouldn’t cause much risk for us, but it wasn’t recommended none-the-less.
“What if we took the wall out?” Kendrick asked.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the man replied. “It looks like it might be foundational. There’s a wall above this also. It’s a bedroom. I’m not an architect or anything, but I’m pretty sure it’s load-bearing. You won’t be able to take it out without a lot of trouble. I don’t think that’s really a good option.”
I thought that was more than a little frustrating. If it was just that single wall, the easiest thing would be to knock it down…and that could possibly take down the entire house.
“I can cut a few holes in the drywall and air it out with a machine. It’s sort of a dehumidifier-slash-blower. You’ll probably want to gut the wall out and replace the insulation after, but you might not need to. I’ll be able to tell you more about it when I’ve started the work.”
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” the man continued, “from the reports y’all gave me over the phone I was expecting this to be a lot worse than it is. I’m actually surprised that so much of the furniture was ruined like it was. The mold hasn’t gone much further than this here wall.”
That night when we returned to our room, we took turns commiserating our sore muscles. Kendrick fell asleep quickly and finding little else to do while waiting to find sleep myself, I kept reading…
“As I said, I knew that in order to understand you better I needed to put myself into your shoes and really consider what you were going through–to put your needs above my own. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how…”
“The answer was simple. It was staring me in the face the entire time…”
“One day while you were at work, I went to your closet and stood in the doorway. I closed my eyes and hummed, hoping that bearing myself so nakedly before your things I might be able to attune my own frequency to yours. It didn’t work. Something was missing. I opened my eyes and looked into your closet. It was organized. The items maintained meticulously by color and style.”
“ ‘Walk in her shoes,’ I told myself. Walk in her shoes and understand. “
“I looked down and waited, anticipating that a pair on the rack would reach out to me on its own. My eyes flitted across them until finally one spoke to me. The perfect pair. I felt they were the essence of who you must be deep down. Their black toes sparkled in the darkness of the closet. When I put them on I was six inches taller and a sense of confidence–of power–washed over me.”
“When I looked in the mirror, that feeling fled from me just as quickly as it rose. It wasn’t enough. A walk in the shoes wouldn’t be enough to understand you. I needed something more…”
My eyes grew wide as I laid next to Kendrick in bed at The Valiant Arms. A smile fell from my lips as I realized I was reading this without really processing it. I’d been reading it as though it was some sort of poorly written novel. A fantasy book taking a slight turn towards the strange. I’d been quietly laughing as I read the last few paragraphs, forgetting entirely that this was an account of something that happened at some point. These were a stranger’s private thoughts… And I’d been vaguely amused by them.
I’d been smiling.
I shuddered at the ominous nature of the last line I’d read:
“A walk in the shoes wouldn’t be enough to understand you.”
“It would never be enough to truly understand you just to wear your shoes on my feet in your room.”
“It was painfully obvious as I stood exposed–naked in your bedroom mirror–that I needed something more…”
“I didn’t feel enough like you felt in these shoes. Not yet.”
I felt the urge to laugh again and stifled it with a snort. The last thing I needed was to disturb the grouch beside me while he slept. He was a wonderful husband, Kendrick, but woe to the man that disturbs his rest. The Kenny who is awoken suddenly is a vengeful and snarling shadow of the man I married.
The journal was amusing when I thought of it in the right light and people were entitled to their quirks and kinks.
“The underwear you so neatly folded in the dresser smelled like fabric softener. It wasn’t right. It didn’t smell like you and it wouldn’t do, but I did find a pair that you left for me at the bottom of your hamper…and it turned out that that pair was perfect.”
My mouth fell open again and I decided that was enough…at least for tonight. I put the slip of paper between the pages and shut off the bedside light and hoped in the dark that her partner’s claim that she would never read this thing played out exactly as he’d intended.
People and their kinks, I thought to myself, but something about the tone didn’t sit with me and my stomach churned so loudly that Kendrick chided me in his sleep with an irritated grunt.
The next few days were busy. The snow that began to fall on the second day seemed to come from the moment we began to clear out the house and never seemed to let up. Still we worked until every piece of furniture that wasn’t worth keeping found a place in the rusty dumpster and slowly began to disappear beneath the white powder. Before the end of the last day, if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought the bin was a dumpster filled to the brink and overflowing with snow and nothing else.
The man from the restoration company stopped by each morning to empty out the water from the machines as they noisily removed the damp from our walls. After the second day, he assured us that we were safe to move our things in if we could stand the sound of the industrial dehumidifier in our living room. It was a better option than paying for another night at that faux suburban castle, The Valiant Arms. Since the night I read that bit about the panties, everything about the place where I’d been reading began to give me the creeps: the suits of armor that flanked the base of the staircase, the cockeyed portrait of Marie Antoinette, King Henry and his mismatched ears; I began to dislike the way that all of their lifeless eyes seemed to stare into me.
You read that man’s thoughts. They said.
We know his secrets as you know his secrets. They said.
You’re disgusting because you read it and felt a tickle of fascination about it. They said.
And they said all of these things with a glare…without making a single sound.
And in a way, they weren’t entirely wrong.
“Will, you’re being silly. Just throw that thing away,” was all that Kendrick said to me when I brought it up. I know that I should have, but my curiosity wouldn’t let me bring myself to do it…
I didn’t pick up the diary again during our stay, but on the last night we spent in the World’s Strangest Bed and Breakfast, I dreamt I left the bed to visit the bathroom and one of the knights at the bottom of the stairs appeared to have borrowed my favorite loafers. I promptly awoke, having to actually use the bathroom. My loafers were where I’d left them by the bedroom door, and it was ridiculous but I’ll admit I went downstairs to make sure that their feet were still made of metal and that neither of them stole any of our shoes.
I didn’t think about it again really as we began to move in. I admit I was curious about other strange compulsions its author might have confessed, but unpacking the truck and making the house on Webber Street our own took priority. I tucked the creepy thing onto the bookshelf of the guest room and mostly forgot about it. Our priority now was unpacking and making necessary repairs.
About a week passed before I decided to take another look at it. The house was dark, but the drone of Kendrick’s chainsaw snores in competition with the endless hum of the machine whirring the water out of the walls in the first floor was too much to stand. I headed to the guest room to quiet the din. This room became the lair of those monsters that were the remainder of our yet-to-be-unpacked moving boxes. Before I realized what I was doing the worn leather cover of the diary was bent open on my fingertips and I was thumbing my way through the flimsy brown pages once more.
“That day you came home early. I was startled. It was a close one. You almost caught me that day, naked in your bedroom mirror except for an old pair of your panties and those sparkling black pumps. Of course I couldn’t let something like that happen. What would you think if you’d found me in your room? What would you think if you’d found me playing dress-up in your things? What would you think if you’d found me in your house? I could never let you see me. What would you think if you saw me here? Like THIS? Oh but wouldn’t that be nice? Our love only just began and it burned inside of me like a raging coalfire in secret. You didn’t know. It wasn’t something you could see. I wasn’t something you could see. Do you understand? My love was a fire burning for you underground and you were the moon and stars. You shone bright and I smoldered in secret dark below. One scream from you would have ruined it all. After all, you lived all by yourself. I loved you and you didn’t know.”
“Wait,” I muttered. It dawned on me that this wasn’t her husband or boyfriend acting oddly in her absence.
“What the fuck?” The words came out in a chilled whisper.
“So I did what I always did when I meant not to be seen. I crept down the hall to your guest room as you made your way up the stairs. I was surprised at the graceful quiet of my steps as I crept around, and here I was, still in your shoes. I’ll admit I was giddy at the fear of being found. You didn’t know that I was so in love with you before…and now! The rush of feeling you so close to me! I began to understand you so much clearer than I knew you just moments ago, and things grew different that afternoon. Things changed for you when I tried on your clothes.”
“Hiding in that guest room closet a smile crept its way across my face. The feeling was of splendid rapture. This was better than I dreamed it might be. Here was I, your secret lover who admired you so cautiously before: hiding just beneath your bed or watching you from darkened corners just out of sight, standing in your garments just feet away and flooded with both the hope of remaining hidden and the hope of being found out.”
“But you didn’t find me did you!? Oh no! Not that day and not the next. I took your precious gifts back with me to my hidden little place like a magpie to its nest and slept with them awash in bliss, clutching these pieces of you against my chest.”
“When I woke, the boldness I felt was gone and left, and I crept through the house as I’d always crept. Climbing up and down from floor to floor just beyond your sight, slinking in the darkest rooms, ever watchful over you, ever cautious of the light.”
“Then one day while you were out once more, I felt compelled again to explore and get to know better than before. I did something I was ashamed of that day. That was the day that things began to change. I did something very naughty that I very much regret and that began the spiral that led me to the day you were gone. Nothing of you left.”
To say I felt a chill rush over me as I read would be inaccurate. I sat motionless in the guest room armchair from the moment I began to read. My breath hitched and caught in my throat. There was no chill rushing over me, I was completely and utterly frozen in that chair. As my ears perked against the droning snores and the white noise whur of the machine downstairs suddenly the noise of our new home fell away–background noises that filtered themselves out as I heard them–and our new house felt dangerously, unsettlingly quiet.
“I found a lipstick in your bathroom. I was mesmerized by its shade and shape. It looked quite lovely accentuating the shadows of my face. Caution gave way to curiosity and I extended the makeup fully from its round case. The sharp blackness of my teeth sank in and–oh my dear–the taste! Incredible. It was like taking a piece of you with me deep inside in another secret hiding place where I might keep things of yours I might like to better hide. I rummaged my way through the the trash beside the toilet and found a number of other glorious things of yours to swallow down. A discarded razor blade that once you used to shave your legs. A bandage. A bobbypin. A clump of hair. I shouldn’t have swallowed all of these tiny pieces you discarded there but I did it. The most glorious of them was the hair, I admit.”
“There was a part of you that I consumed that afternoon and now that part of you is part of me too. You were inside me and I could feel that tangled knotted node of you inside. It was growing. I could feel you growing inside me and that was when I understood fully… I must find more. My hunger wasn’t quelled even as my heart swelled at the feeling of swallowing the discarded tiny scraps of you down and down and down. The tiny blade and bandaid and all the rest of the things of yours I’d found. I felt the bliss as they slowly crept along my esophagus and found their way into the pit of me. Once so empty…but not now.”
“It was a harmless thing really and you threw it all out of proportion. We had a love that might have lasted. Don’t you think you overreacted? I’ll admit that it must have been a surprise to find me there, at your bedside, scissors in my hand, snip, snip, snip, snipping at your hair, at the strands and greedily swallowing them in the dark. You must have known before that I’d been feeding that way for days. How could you not have noticed it the day that it began to start? What did you think was happening before when you woke to find your curls were missing more and more? And to scream and swat at me, that wasn’t good. Why would you act in such a way? The way no lover ever should?”
“So you see, that’s the reason why you’ve left. I lost control. I should have been content to walk that mile, but the hungry hunger began to grow. I should have kept some sanity…reserved it for the love of you…but once I spiral down, I almost always never do. That’s something that you know.”
That was the last of it. There was nothing else on the page. I slowly flipped through the pages that followed expecting to find more, but the rest of the diary was blank and there were so many questions I decided I’d rather not have answers to.
What happened to her?
The room and the boxes that crowded it suddenly felt so oppressive. There were shadows all around me and they each seemed to glare with the multifaceted compound eyes of a thousand spiders. Watching. Waiting.
We are alone in this house. I reminded myself. We cleared out every room. There was no killer lurking in any shadow. The previous owner left or–no I wouldn’t wonder if she’d died. She found a stalker in her house and fled. The locks were all changed.
This was our house now–and this deranged memoir was a disgusting fiction penned by the hand of some creep who was gone… maybe even left behind that moldy couch on purpose as some sort of sick joke.
I felt bile ride up my throat like an elevator slowly ascending from my stomach anyway.
As I left the room, I threw the diary in the garbage bin beside the desk and made my way back to bed. I’d take it to the curb the next morning.
But I was too disgusted and too disturbed to sleep.
It wasn’t easy to forget what I’d read. It was always hovering on the periphery of my thoughts. I took the trash to the curb the next morning and buried the book at the bottom of the bin.
A week went by and things returned to normal but I often got the feeling that someone was here with us, hiding in the dark corners of empty rooms. Staying away from the light where it might be spotted. I never spoke to Kendrick about it because deep down I knew it was a silly thought to have. I was being completely irrational.
Things changed a few days later.
“They can’t get all the water out.” He said after spitting a mouthful of toothpaste into the bathroom sink. He’d been getting ready to go into work. He’d taken a job at a veterinarian’s office as an assistant. He’d always loved animals and the job was a perfect fit. I don’t remember ever seeing him happier as he got ready for work in the mornings and every night when he came home he was still floating on it, unpacking and rediscovering our possessions in our new place with childlike energy and wonder.
“They’re coming today to take down the drywall and pull the insulation. It’s all getting replaced. We’ll just chalk it up to wasted time and move on.” He said.
His most awful habit was repeating himself. We’d already discussed this and there was no way that he’d forgotten that we’d been talking about the work on the stupid wall for days. It was one of his annoying ticks, going over plans over and over again like reciting a list. It was a thing that never bothered me. I liked it even. It was an endearing quality. Sometimes I wondered if he did it because he loved to talk to me but he’d run out of things to say.
I smiled at him and rolled my eyes.
“They’ll be here at 11. I start work at 2. I’m not worried about the noise.”
I was worried about the noise, but more because I disliked a racket and not because of the distraction. I handled social media for several companies from home. “I’m so sorry that you’ve had this experience. We would love to make this up to you. Can you DM me with more details so I can make this right?” My job was pretty mindless when it came right down to it. Frustrating at times. The noise would probably add to that, but at least we could finally get rid of that constant whirring sound downstairs.
I sat on the bed and turned on the news.
“Hey, Will? Have you seen my comb?” Kendrick called out to me from the bathroom doorway.
“It’s in that cup by the sink. Where it always is.”
He poked his head through the door, “That’s where I left it, but not where it is. Did you borrow it?” he asked.
“No. My hair’s too short to comb. Why would I borrow it?” I asked.
A thought struck me and I shuddered.
“Are you okay?” He asked.
I insisted I was fine. The last place I saw it was in that cup in the bathroom.. The place where he kept it and I told him so. “Maybe you put it somewhere else and forgot. I’ll keep an eye out for it.”
“Are you sure you feel okay? Because you don’t look okay.”
“I just feel a bit woozy. I’m just gonna lie down for a bit. Watch the news. Then maybe a talk show. Then work.” I said.
I was shaking a little and even though I knew I was being silly, I couldn’t shake the idea that I was missing something. Nobody broke in and stole his fucking comb. Not to borrow it–not to steal it–and they certainly didn’t eat it. I closed my eyes as the room began to spin and lay down. I passed out as soon as my head met with the pillow: a faint that progressed into a fitful sleep filled with corridors, and around every corner: nightmares.
When I woke again, Ken was gone. He’d left for work. Downstairs someone was ringing the doorbell. I let the workers inside and climbed back up the stairs to let them begin their noisy work.
I went into the guest room with the hope of unpacking some of the boxes before I began working that afternoon.
The diary sat on the desk.
I picked it up in shock.
It was covered in a thin layer of dark mildew. Hadn’t I wiped this clean when I found it? A slip of paper fell from it as I cracked open the cover. It toppled end over end as it slowly made its way to the floor where it landed face down. I recognized it by its shape. The same slip of paper I’d torn from the pad in the Valiant Arms. The one I’d used as an impromptu bookmark from the first day I’d opened this diary.
It was marking a page. The last page I’d read. The page where the spidery scrawl of the diary ended, leaving half of that sheet blank.
But that half wasn’t blank. Not anymore.
The new words were written in that same handwriting as the rest…
“not for you. not for YOU. mine. Mine. MINE! it shouldn’t touch what’s mine. mine is mine. not for YOU. what’s inside is mine. Not YOURS. for ME. IT WAS MINE. mine. MINE. minE. MiNe. NoT FoR YOU tO look or SeE. MiNe. MinE. MINE!”
It went on like this for page after page as I frantically turned through them it was the same over and over.
I heard the stairs creak as cautious footsteps crept slowly towards me and crouched behind a stack of the unpacked boxes. In my squat, my hand grazed the scrap of paper that fell out from the book. The creaking of the footsteps on the stairs drew closer. They moved slowly on the hardwood. Closer. Closer. I held my breath.
Then the worker called out to me from the doorway I let out a startled scream and I knew why he’d come upstairs before he explained why he and his partner stopped working, I knew.
On the other side of that scrap of paper, just beneath the logo of the bed and breakfast, scrawled in that same spider’s hand were the words:
“shE’s StiLL iNsiDe. InSIde oF ME. Parts of hEr…the reSt…iN thE WaLLs.”
They’d stopped their work because when they’d first began to remove the ruined sheetrock, they’d found what appeared to be a human jawbone. And a what might have been a rib. And what was undeniably a pelvis. I called Kendrick at work and by the time he’d gotten home, some men sent by the local police were carefully removing the drywall that remained and sifting their way through what was left of the fluffy pink of the insulation between the studs with thick gloves on their hands.
I say “what was left” because there wasn’t much of it in the wall. Not really. It was like it was removed and the way it was removed was apparent. If not to anyone else, it was apparent at least to me. At the ceiling, between two of the studs, was a hole. The wall was only a few inches thick, but the top of the wall’s framing beam was gnawed away. My eyes traced it up into the house to where it ended in a thin sliver of light. The hole seemed to go up through the walls of the house and all the way up to the sky. Of course there was water damage here and no place else in the house. The snow must have fallen down this tiny shaft for months and pooled here on the bottom floor to melt with the bones hidden between the studs. There would be the same damage to the bedroom wall upstairs in time if the hole wasn’t repaired. That’s all I could manage to think at the time. I didn’t think of the woman or her bones in the wall not the knot of her hair living in some man–her stalker’s–stomach like a clump clogging up a bathtub drain. I didn’t think of how much of her skin he must have swallowed down, not of her organs gnawed up between his teeth or how he slurped down her tongue like a stretch of taffy.
I only thought: well, that explains the water damage. There’s a hole up there we’ll have to patch. Probably the weight of all the snow we’ve had this season. Caved the roof in there. Falls down the hole and melts at the bottom.
“Sir are you okay?” Someone asked.
“I think he’s in shock.” Another voice replied.
“I’m going to have to ask you to back away from there, please.” The first voice muttered as I looked and I nodded and took an obedient step backwards. “This is a crime seen.” It said and I nodded again.
A woman came to me then and asked me if I could answer a few questions for her. I wasn’t in any trouble of course. Neither was Kendrick. We’d just bought the place. The body waited inside the wall to be discovered for years probably. There was nothing left to even cause a smell.
We spent the next few nights back at the Arms with the Traverses. Bradenville is a small town and word travels fast. They were overly sympathetic and even let us stay the first night free. Kendrick and I spent most of each day in our room beneath the cockeyed portrait of the guillotined queen. I spent equal time staring up at the ceiling as I did sitting up on the edge of the bed gazing into her eyes.
“Maybe it’s intentional.” I said.
“What?” Ken asked me, “the body–?”
“No. I’m trying not to think about that. I’m talking about her eyes. Maybe she’s meant to be looking left and right at once. Like it’s the moment they cut off her head. Like she went all haywire.”
“What are you fucking talking about?”
“Marie Antoinette.” I replied, gesturing up at the portrait with my chin. “They say your head is still alive for a few seconds when it’s removed. Maybe she’s looking for her body.”
Kendrick sighed irritably, “her body’s in the picture.”
“Yea but if that’s the moment of her death she might not know that.”
“I think Bambi’s just not a very good painter.” He said, “Listen, we have to talk about the house.”
“Sure. What do you want to do?”
“What can we do?” He asked.
“Not much. We could just leave it. Cut our losses and get the hell out of here.” I said.
“You know we can’t just do that.”
I nodded sadly. I’d hoped he would go for my first option.
“We fix it then. Fix the hole. Fix the wall. Fix the house. Do it ourselves and not spend another penny on it. Then we sell it.” I said. “Because I won’t live there. Flat out refuse to.”
I’d already told him about the diary and he didn’t argue. I told the police about the diary too. I told them I threw it away a few days earlier. I didn’t tell them I’d found it again the same day the workers found that woman in our walls. I went back up to get it after the handyman showed me what he’d found…before I’d made the call to the police in the first place.
It was no longer in the guest room and even before I looked for it, I knew it wouldn’t be. It wasn’t mine and I shouldn’t have touched it to begin with.
It was gone.
It was gone like it was never there at all and that was days ago now and I was staring at a sad excuse for a painting of a queen trying to block it all out but I couldn’t.
“Okay. I guess we’re on the same page then.” Kendrick said.
“I suppose we are,” I replied and quietly added “so let them eat cake” as I slipped away from the house again and back to thinking about Marie on the wall…except she wasn’t Marie on the wall. She was Marie in the wall and she was a ghost now and her eyes were looking both left and right at once as she looked around what was once her house–now our house–looking left and right and up and down and into me and into every corner: searching for her pelvis and the man who’d eaten the rest of her.
When you buy a house at county auction, you have to pay in cash–well, not cash–but you have to have the money in the bank. We’d gotten the house more cheaply than we had any right to buy a property. People didn’t seem to be much interested in this town. It was easier than it should have been. If hindsight is 20/20 we should have seen such low attendance for a county auction as the omen that it was. It was like the people here and the surrounding area knew something that I hadn’t learned, even with all of my research. There was no way, of course, to have predicted the woman in the wall but we should have known that buying a home like this for pennies on the dollar was too good to be true.
When we discussed the best way to unload the place, Ken put together a plan to get as much money out of it as we could. We were going to keep to our plan of updating it. We had originally meant to do this over the course of years as we continued to live in the property. That was not an option anymore. I managed to talk my mother into letting us borrow $20,000 from her retirement account the next morning. When I told her everything that happened, it was an easy convincing.
She didn’t think we should keep it either.
The place was over 90 years old and ideally, I thought we should cut and go, but Kendrick insisted that if the place was fully updated and remodeled, we might be able to double the money spent and I reluctantly agreed. We could pay back my mother with interest, and actually come out very far ahead of where we’d been before all of this.
“We’ve done stuff like this before,” Ken said, “I helped my dad doing cabinets on the job site for years. Your dad’s an actual carpenter. He taught you how to do a lot of this stuff already. You know how to do a countertop. You know how to remodel a bathroom. We can still do all of this ourselves.”
“Fuck. No.” I told him.
“Aww l, comeon…think of what we’d save.” Ken insisted.
“No. Absolutely not, Honey. Fuck that. Fuck this shit and fuck this fucking house,” I said, “you didn’t read that thing. We’re not doing anything else to this place ourselves. I flat out refuse. A handyman can do all of the updates you want and we’ll pay them to do it. I’m not going back there.”
In the end, I won that argument–at least part of it. We wouldn’t do the remodel ourselves…but we did have to go back there. All of our stuff was still there. We needed to go back and retrieve it and find another place to live while the house was repaired for sale.
That morning, I reached out to Sheriff Downs hoping that we would still be prevented from re-entering the property. It was a crime scene after all.
“Hello, this is William Canter,” I began, “you probably don’t remember me, but–“
But of course she remembered me.
“Oh, Mr. Canter I remember you. Bradenville’s a weird town, but it’s not every day we find someone’s skeleton inside a wall–well part of a skeleton.” Sheriff Tawnie Downs said. She laughed a genuine, full laugh. I found that incredibly unsettling because for me, there was really nothing funny about any of this.
“I was just about to give you a call.” She said.
“Yes. The two of you are all clear to return to the property. There wasn’t much evidence there to collect. The previous owner has been missing for about six years. I can’t say much on the subject because our investigation is still ongoing, and I haven’t received the results yet, but I think we both know how the DNA is going to turn out.” She said.
“And the diary?” I asked.
“The one you threw away?” She asked and I felt a tinge of guilt. “Yes. I’ve got someone on that at the landfill but I’m not sure if that will turn up.”
I shouldn’t have lied about it. I was too scared to think clearly at the time and the man was still able to come and go as he pleased in our house. I only told the lie because if I’d told them I’d read the diary again just moments before the body was discovered and before I made the call to bring them out, found it missing again along with the note, they’d want some sort of explanation that I didn’t have to give.
“Oh yes officers, you see, I threw it away a few days ago, not thinking much of it and then suddenly there it was again on my desk this morning…only now Jack Nicholson has had his way with it–you know: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a cannibal boy’ was written in it over and over again.” It would have gone over like blaming your farts on the dog when you didn’t actually have a dog.
I couldn’t have told them about the way it reappeared or the newly penned words. I couldn’t produce the thing. It was just gone. I’d look like a crackpot. Like there was something to hide. Besides, I’d buried it in the bottom of the trashcan and it was picked up by the dumptruck that same day. There was no way for it to have been on my desk that morning and finding it there was so surreal that I wasn’t even sure it was there at all. Not really. I had to lie. What other choice did I have?
The new words on the pages flashed briefly through my mind then…
“It’s miNe. mine. Mine. MINe. WhAt’s MiNe iS MINE. ShouLDn’T TouCh wHaTs MiNe. MiNe is minE. NoT yOuRS. ItS mINe.”
It was written like that over and over and over, filling the last 20 pages or so where nothing was written before
“Mr. Canter?” A small voice asked from far away.
“Yes I’m still here. Sorry, I think I lost signal for a second.” I lied to the Sheriff. I seemed to be making quite a habit of that these days.
“What I was saying was that we went through the house very carefully looking for any other evidence. There wasn’t anything. Unfortunately the extent of your cleanout and then your clean up has kind of rendered anything else we might have found moot. Of course there was no way for you to have known that when the two of you were cleaning up. If you’d known there was a lady in the walls when you bought the place, well, you’d be a suspect and we’d be having an entirely different conversation entirely.” She said and shared another inappropriately timed laugh.
“So are we free to go back there then?” I asked.
“Yes that’s why I was about to call you. I meant to do it yesterday when we were finished but it slipped my mind. If some new information turns up and we need to contact you again, we’ll be in touch.”
I thanked her and told Kendrick we’d better go rent a moving truck because we were free to go back to the house and that meant we would be moving all of our things out.
Somehow moving out took less time than moving in. Whether that could be credited to the majority of our things still sitting in boxes or the number of times that Ken began to carefully pack some meaningless tchotchke only to be interrupted by me asking: “do we really fucking need that? What for? Just leave it.”
He believed me about the diary, at least he said he did, but there was something about the place that he was still attached to and unwilling to let go.
More than once I reminded him that the last woman who lived here was just found as a partial skeleton in the walls. We need to only pack what’s necessary and get the fuck out of here before he comes back.
He only tried to counter my argument with his insistence that there was no reason for the killer to come back here again one time. I wondered if he worried that the icy glare I returned to him would freeze him solid.
He didn’t broach the subject again for almost two hours…
“I guess what I don’t understand is what happened to the rest of her?” He said suddenly.
“What do you mean? Why are we still talking about this? I told you what I read in that fucking book. He ate her. Started with her hair. Band-Aids. Her trash.” I demanded.
“But how did part of her get into the wall?”
“The fucking hole, Ken!” I was starting to really loose my patience with him, “I told you it goes all the way up through the goddamn roof. He probably just dropped her in.”
“I want you to come look at this again.” He said with a bit of hesitancy.
Reluctantly, I went to the living room wall with him and we looked in through the beams. The part of the wall above that was clearly gnawed away was the way it was on the day the bones of the woman were found. I could see clearly as the shaft between the beams continued to the second floor and the gnawed struts above that… But the slit of light revealing the hole in the roof was gone. For a moment I imagined I saw a glint of yellow firelight, but that moment passed quickly. A trick of the darkness. There was nothing above the gaps in the framework. Only blackness.
“I thought you said there was a hole that went all the way through the roof?” Ken asked.
We hadn’t ever been up in the attic and now Kendrick was insisting that we find a way.
“I’ve had enough of this place.” I demanded, “and I don’t care what’s up there. It doesn’t matter. We need to get the hell out of here. That’s what I think.”
“But you said there was a hole all the way up?” He said. “It’s not that I’m questioning you, but aren’t you curious? The hole in the roof is gone.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. You don’t spend seven years of your life with someone without beginning to learn to read their mind.
“I don’t want to go up there.” I said…but in the end I lost the argument, as I knew I would from the onset.
Kendrick found our painter’s ladder in the garage and together we carried it up the staircase to the opening to the attic. With the draw cord gone, I found myself hopeful that he wouldn’t be able to open the doorway at all. I just knew deep down that it would be locked somehow from the inside. Ken stuck the flat end of a screwdriver into the seam and pulled it open easily. As the door came down into the upstairs hallway, the ladder behind it began to slide out on its own and we needed to move our painter’s ladder out of the way so that it could extend fully. I didn’t want to follow him up into that dark space above the second floor hallway, but I didn’t feel like there was any other choice. Ominous feelings hung over me like storm clouds and I knew I couldn’t let him venture into that darkness alone.
The unfinished attic room was empty. Beams extended out from the opening with not so much as plywood flooring attached. The spaces between were filled with rolled-out layers of insulation. Mounds and mounds of cotton candy fiberglass waiting to dig microscopic cuts into your skin and leave you itching for hours. I breathed in a dark, damp smell. The pungent rot of mildew and mold. The air in the attic felt oppressive and wet.
The hole in the roof was small but easy to spot by the light that filtered through it and the small errant drifts of snow that were gathering between the beams beneath.
“That’s strange,” Kendrick remarked to himself.
It was strange, but not unexpected…at least not by me. I knew the hole was there. I saw it days ago, reaching up and out between the beams of the walls downstairs… What was strange was that when we’d looked today from the ground floor, there was no hole in the roof at all… And yet here it was as plain as ever, with snowflakes drifting down from it one by one and down through the walls of the house to the bottom floor. Then for a moment something moved across it and blocked out the sun. It happened so quickly that if I’d blinked I might have missed it. Kendrick didn’t seem to notice.
He moved closer to the opening and I felt a knot in my throat. Had I imagined that moment when the sunlight disappeared? Had something blocked the opening for that moment? Had someone blocked the opening when we’d looked up through the hole from the bottom floor? I got a strange feeling that we were not alone in that darkness. Something was there with us. Something was there watching us. It was the stalker. I could feel him there in the dark and I found myself shuddering but not against the cold of the snow as it drifted in.
Kendrick moved near the opening in the roof and toward a large mound of the insulation. It seemed to be piled there in incongruence with the rest of the neatly laid and packed fiberglass that sat between the other beams. He lifted something up from it. I couldn’t see what he held. I was too far behind and the attic crawlspace was nothing more than ubiquitous darkness to me. He might have been holding anything in his hand.
“This is my fucking slipper.” He said finally, “how the fuck did my slipper–“
Something moved then against the ceiling, a quiet scampering sound that both of us heard against the light wind that breathed snow in through the opening of the roof and we both grew quiet at the sound. I stopped breathing in order to hear it more clearly, but it stopped as abruptly as it began.
Kendrick turned to me in the dark. I could only see his silhouette against the dim winter light that filtered through the hole in the roof, but I could feel his eyes on me and the fear they seemed to convey without words.
“Did you hear that?” He asked quietly.
I hissed at him in a whispered “Shhhhhh.”
But whatever it was that lingered in the darkness, occupying the attic with us knew it was discovered and decided during this brief exchange it no longer cared that we knew it was there.
It moved along the struts of the roof in a rapid scramble and began to rasp in harsh breathy tones.
“Ruined it. Ruined it all, William Canter. Eater of shit. Hateful meddling cocksucker. Ruined it all.” It muttered this as it scampered along the ceiling from some corner behind me.
I saw it then in the harsh winter light that filtered down through the opening. A dark shape that clung to the rafters of the ceiling as the snow continued to lightly fall through and into the dark attic. It was as thin as a shadow and as agile and as cunning in its movement as a spider. It appeared to be covered in a thin layer of dark fur that glistened in the dim light. I realized then it must have watched us the entire time we’d lived there. I wondered if it touched us while we slept or what other missing things of ours it stole from us and ate. Our toenail clippings? Things from our garbage? I wanted to scream but found I couldn’t.
“Mine is mine!” It rasped, glaring at me with yellow fire glowing behind its eyes. “Susannah was mine! Kendrick was meant to be mine! Mine is mine!” It screamed and its voice seemed to bellow out from it like a legion of voices speaking at once. A thousand voices all rasping angrily and staring at me–through me. The dark spider that spoke angrily at me from the attic ceiling moved towards me then. I expected it to come straight for me and attack, to rip me limb from limb, but instead it scampered between the beams and then up through the hole in the roof. Nothing the size of that thing should have fit through the small gap, but it slid through the slot with ease, fitting as though it were as thin as shadow.
When it was gone, I breathed a sigh of relief, but perhaps a moment too soon. Its hand reached back through the hole as the snow continued to swirl around it from the opening and something flew at me through the darkness, fluttering on dark wings like a bat and striking me squarely in the forehead.
I knelt to pick it up from between the rows of insulation. Even in the dark, I recognized the diary by the feel of its worn leather cover. Once again, it was covered in splotchy growths of mold, clear to me now as a set of handprints left by the creature to whom the diary belonged.
Once the house was cleared of our belongings, we hired a handyman to close the gap in the roof and rebuild the living room wall. We paid to update and remodel the bathrooms and kitchen. We put the house on the market and sold it quickly. The new owner was a single father and his daughter. We felt bad, but not bad enough to reject their offer. We just wanted to be rid of the place.
The final straw for us was the return of the diary. When it was flung at me another loose page fluttered out…
In the attic nest, we found that both Kendrick’s comb and the missing slipper were gnawed at, pieces missing and swallowed away by the thing that stole them.
The loose slip of paper held an ominous message:
“She used to be in there, but now she’s not. I think she’s gone away. I can’t feel her there anymore. I’m empty like I was before… But there’s hope. Oh there’s hope. I licked the stubble of his beard away from the bathroom sink. I ate the strands he left behind in his comb and lapped at the piss at the sides of the bowl he left for me to drink. I took it all inside, like hungry little scraps he’d left for me to find. I could taste his essence inside of every shadow in our home and I felt so much less alone. I can feel the fullness growing like before. Soon I’ll consume him like I consumed her and…at least for a little while, I won’t be quite so lonely anymore.”