My little sister and I are twelve years apart. This trivial fact occupies an exaggerated space in my mind because it is attached not just to the birth of my only sibling, but also to the single most terrifying experience of my life.
For twelve years I lived in that house as an only child, and I never imagined living anywhere else. So it was a double shock when my parents informed me of my sister’s impending arrival, and of the concomitant need to find a new, larger home. And yet, after the initial shock wore off, I couldn’t say I was altogether displeased. Yes, our current house hoarded all manner of nostalgic memories, but I couldn’t honestly say that I liked the place. There were other feelings less pleasant than nostalgia, feelings I could never satisfactorily explain.
My bedroom lay at the very end of a short hallway. Mother often told me that, in my youngest days, I was a restless sleeper—if I even slept at all—and I never truly outgrew that restlessness. I would often have trouble falling asleep at first, and when I finally did, it was only to awaken some time during the night for no reason I could identify. If put to it, I’d have said there was some noise, or some sensation of movement, from out in the darkened hall. But if ever I held my breath to listen or strained my eyes to look, there would be nothing. As I aged, I learned to ignore these uncomfortable moments. As Mother said, I was simply a light sleeper; a warping timber, a soft snore from the next room were all it took to wake me.
This I told myself. This I believed. Yet even this explanation, so rational, could not banish the semi-conscious dislike I had for our house.
As my sister’s due date neared, my parents decided that it would be all right if I stayed home alone while they were at the hospital. The kitchen was stocked, we had friendly neighbors, and at twelve years old I was capable of caring for myself. It would be my first time left alone without adult supervision. This promise of newfound freedom made me all the more excited for my sister’s arrival, and I counted down the days with eager anticipation.
It was two days before her due date that I awoke one night in the manner I have earlier described. My eyes snapped open, took in my surroundings by the feeble emanation of my nightlight. First the pale expanse of ceiling above me. Then the walls, punctuated by a curtained window through which no moon shone. My nightstand and dresser stood like black monoliths. All seemed as right or as wrong as it ever did during these nocturnal stirrings. At this point in the routine, I would normally roll over to a more comfortable position so that I might once again fall into the realm of dreams. But something tonight prevented me: a notion, stubborn, that it had been no imagined noise which had disturbed me this time. Surely, no creaking framework or rustling bedding could have left so powerful an impression upon my mind? Had it not been, I asked myself with a shiver, a stealthy footstep in the hall?
No, it never had been such a thing in all my twelve years of life, and tonight could be no exception. Yet still I shivered. Why was I so cold?
The answer to that came quickly, for as I went to wrap the blankets tighter about myself, I realized they weren’t there.
Confused, I cast about for my sheets. They hadn’t simply been kicked off to the foot of the bed; they were entirely gone. I looked over one edge of my mattress to the floor below. Nothing. Then I rolled across to check the other side. No, not there either. Now I sat up fully, strained my eyes in the darkness, and—there, glowing faintly by my bedroom door, a disheveled pile of crumpled cloth.
How my blankets got there I couldn’t imagine. Had I thrashed so violently in my sleep as to hurl them that far? Regardless, I rose from my bed and went to retrieve them. As I bent down and grasped the sheets in my hand, I froze. There, did I hear it again? That noise which had first awoken me, repeated from the darkness of the hall?
No, it had to be nothing. Nothing, unless, perhaps, one of my parents was walking about?
This was easy enough to confirm, as I was already at my own door and therefore so much closer to theirs. Just a few short steps down the hall. Just a peek into their bedroom, to see if one of them was missing.
I shivered again as I stepped out of my room. My nightlight’s glow could not reach out here; my eyes struggled to adjust as I made my way by memory rather than sight. I reached my parents’ room and poked my head around the doorframe.
Their bed was empty. Both of them, gone.
My heart stumbled for a moment, then my brain caught up. Of course. The baby. Two days early, but that was not unusual. And that also explained my waking: in spite of their best efforts to leave quietly, their footsteps must have disturbed my fragile slumber.
Satisfied, I took my bundled sheets back to my bed, wrapped myself in them, and fell asleep.
Morning found me less groggy than might be imagined. The prospect of independence energized me on this, my first day alone! A note left on the kitchen table confirmed my suspicions from the previous night: Mother had gone into labor, and both of my parents were at the hospital. It was Friday, so I still had school, which would cut short my freedom. But as I packed my lunch, I felt a swell of grownup pride. This was a rite of passage; I had come of age, and could now consider myself, in practical terms, an adult.
That feeling only intensified when the school bus dropped me off later that afternoon and I let myself into the empty house with the key that was hidden under the porch. The truth of my age, however, could not remain hidden. I whiled away the afternoon with video games and movies, stopping only to heat a lazy and unhealthy supper in the microwave. Father called once to check in on me. I assured him I was fine, and carried on with my frivolities late into the night.
When finally I felt too tired to go on, I shut everything off and got ready for bed. It was only as I stepped out of the bathroom after brushing my teeth that I felt—truly felt, for the first time—just how empty the house was. There was only me, alone, with just the bathroom light at my back. Everything else was dark. I don’t think I was quite afraid, but I did linger there on the bathroom threshold, not quite willing—not quite yet—to turn off the light. It was only a brisk few steps from there to my bedroom, yet I somehow felt that…
No, I would not allow one moment of childish imaginings to spoil an entire day of glorious, mature independence. I switched off the bathroom light and strode to my room with what I hoped appeared as cool indifference. From there I undressed, tucked myself under the covers, and surrendered to oblivion.
I awoke with a sharp gasp, and an involuntary clutching at the edge of my blankets, only to find that they were not there. Trembling with the nocturnal chill, I reached about, memories of the previous night trickling to the forefront of my consciousness. Once again, I looked in ever-widening circles about my bed until my gaze came to rest on the carpet near my bedroom door.
How? How on earth could I have thrown them so far in my sleep?
With a groan of tired irritation, I rose from my bed and shambled to where my blankets lay in a tangled heap. One of them, a thin white sheet, was twisted into a long, flung-out shape, the farther end of which was lost in the darkness of the hall. One by one, I gathered up the blankets and tossed them back onto my bed. Last of all I reached for that oddly twisted one. It was strangely cold to the touch as I picked up the nearer end, pulled it toward me.
It didn’t come. I tugged, but it resisted, like it was caught on something out there in the darkness. But what? There was nothing in the hall, and no one else in the house.
I let the sheet go slack as I pondered this. The obvious solution was to go look, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to do that. In fact, as a fresh wave of cold washed over me, I wanted nothing more than to retreat to my bed. But I could name no rational source for this inclination, so instead I tried giving the sheet one last, powerful tug.
And then I felt an answering tug from the other direction.
My fingers loosed of their own accord. My end of the sheet fell to the floor, and I staggered back to my bed to stare in wide-eyed, breathless terror as that dimly glowing twist of fabric twitched across the carpet. My eyes then flew along its writhing length to where it vanished beyond the reach of my nightlight.
There was no conscious process of logic to my actions. Only half-formed knowledge, acted upon before I even recognized it as such. My hand went to my nightstand, grabbed the first object it encountered—a bell purchased as a souvenir from some vacation long ago—and hurled it into the void.
Whether my missile struck anything except the carpet I could not tell. I only heard its soft ringing as its flight ended. But it seemed to have worked, for now my twisted sheet lay as still as an inanimate object had any right to be.
Dare I try to take it now?
I felt the echo of that solitary sound deep in my chest. Its cold metallic note seemed to encase my body in ice.
Almost like a chuckle it sounded, as, slowly, the hidden end of the sheet began to rise.
Ring ring ring.
Higher and higher it rose, to the level of the doorknob…
…and higher, to the head of the casing…
…and even higher still, until I was sure it must be brushing the hallway ceiling.
Ring ring ring ring ring ring—
The sheet fell, and with it, silence.
As before, I acted without thinking, only perceiving, somehow, that this was my chance. I leaned out from the foot of my bed, just far enough to snatch the sheet and pull it in. This time it came without resistance. I coiled it up. The long-hidden end now emerged from the darkness, and though I did not stop gathering it toward myself, my heart locked up at the sight of fabric torn and frayed.
I clutched that ice-cold bundle to my chest and retreated to my pillow, as far from the accursed darkness as I could get. I could not tear my eyes from it. I could hardly breathe. I felt with trembling fingers the frayed edge of the sheet, wondered what silent thing could have done this. Wondered if it was still out there in the hall, or—did I dare to hope?—if it had gone away for the night.
How long I sat there, a tight knot of rigid muscle and icy sweat, I know not. I know only that, gradually, my breath came easier, my limbs relaxed, and from somewhere close beside my left ear—
My flight from my bed and the room it occupied was very nearly literal. The one thread of sanity left to me in that moment had the good sense to pull the door shut as I shot into the hall. I spent the rest of that sleepless night curled on the sofa in the living room.
The next morning was, blessedly, Saturday, which meant I had no obligation to be awake and alert. Sunlight brought with it a large enough portion of comfort that I finally felt safe in closing my eyes and giving in to sleep. A couple of hours later, I awoke to the wonderfully, solidly corporeal sound of the front door opening. Father stepped in. He told me the news: my sister had arrived, she and Mother were doing well, and they would all be home on Sunday. He asked how I was holding up.
What could I tell him? Even had my twelve-year-old pride allowed me to admit fear, he would never have believed me. I told him that everything was fine. Father stayed just long enough to take a shower and grab a few things to take back to the hospital. Then I was alone again.
I spent most of the day outside, relishing in the free air and the warm sunlight. Late in the afternoon, I finally worked up the courage to investigate my bedroom. The first thing I noticed was the bell, right on the nightstand where it normally sat. For a moment I doubted—but no, I could not have dreamed it all. For confirmation, I looked to my bed, to the tangled bundle of sheets, to that one sheet twisted and tattered at the end. I left the room, shut the door.
How would I make it through another night?
The answer, I decided, was in the living room. I piled some spare blankets on the sofa, kept the lights on. It was harder than usual to fall asleep, owing to my nerves, but sleep I did. I woke several times throughout the night, each time grateful for the warm glow of the living room lamp. Each time shrinking from the noise that must have woken me, the noise that drifted down the pitch-black hall from my bedroom: the rustle of bed sheets and an occasional, soft ringing.
When my parents—and my new baby sister—returned home the next day, I knew I would have to return to my dreaded room. To continue sleeping on the living room sofa would require explanations I could never give. But I had a hope, and, thankfully, that hope turned out to be correct: with the house once again full, there was no repetition of the previous nights’ terrors.
My sister was not a sound sleeper. She shared my room, and not a night went by those next few weeks that she didn’t at least once wake up screaming. I didn’t mind, as it meant that Mother or Father would come in to calm her—and, although they didn’t realize it, me as well. Was it their protective presence that kept further manifestations at bay? Perhaps. I would never know for sure. Shortly after, we moved to a bigger house. My sister and I had our own rooms, and we both began sleeping through the night for the first time in each of our lives.