I was terrified of the dark as a child. I’d lie awake for hours, my entire body sore from being curled tightly under the covers. The blankets were far too warm for the season, but I’d endure the heat and sweat in exchange for the illusion of security they provided. I remember watching the darkest corners of my room, trying to pierce the shadows and see what the bristling hairs on my neck told me was staring back at me. I recall the sudden intake of breath and how I would shudder whenever I imagined a dark shape stirring or flitting across the floor to my bed. My eyes hurt from the strain of staying open, but at least I could see something by the dim glow of my nightlight, and I knew once my eyes were closed, that’s when the shadows would come for me.
So it was an unpleasant revelation twenty years later when I drove up to my new apartment and found it was the darkest building in a row of otherwise inviting homes. It was also the most ancient-looking, with its rough wood siding and Victorian style tower, all painted a dark, faded gray. Whether age had drained it of its color or it was originally painted that way I couldn’t tell.
The flyer I’d received from the landlord explained that the building was originally a mansion and had been bought and renovated nearly eighty years ago. Now the house was split into three suites; one belonged to the landlord, and another was rented to a small family.
The wide porch groaned ominously as I ascended its uneven steps. I was faced with a bank of three doorbells, each one labeled. Durgussy was the leftmost name, and in parentheses beneath it, “Landlord”. My name was next, and then Mortison. I rang Durgussy’s bell and waited in silence. After nearly half a minute, I sighed and rang again.
“In his tower.”
I jumped at the voice. It reminded me of crunching leaves or crumpled paper. An ancient woman sat in a rocking chair at the far end of the porch, her pale, wrinkled skin blending perfectly with the knotted wood of the house. She might’ve been dead except for the dim light in her heavily lidded eyes.
“E-excuse me?” I replied to her strange remark.
“He’s up in the tower. Will take him a while to come down. Has to turn on all the lights, after all.”
There was a commotion on the other side of the door, which opened a moment later to reveal an old man with gray hair and a face full of scruff and brown spots. “Sorry for the wait,” he said. “Please, come in.” Poking his head out into the chilly air, he added, “You should come in too, Meredith.”
The old woman, frighteningly corpse-like as she slumped in her chair, shook her head. A few scraggly white hairs quivered in front of her face. “Not into the dark.”
“Suit yourself,” said Durgussy as he held the door for me.
Upon entering the house, I was overwhelmed with the inadequacy of the single lamp hanging from the ceiling. Its transcribed a pale circle of light on the hardwood floor of the entryway, but the corners remained black.
“That’s Meredith Mortison,” explained the landlord as the door clicked shut behind us. “She and her niece rent the other apartment. If you’ll wait here just a moment I’ll get your keys.” He disappeared into a small office while I continued to examine my surroundings. Dark wood paneling covered the lower half of the walls before giving way to a gray-striped, hideous wallpaper. No doubt it was the dreariness of the decor that accounted for the lamp’s inability to effect proper illumination.
A frustrated sigh came from the office. Durgussy called out, “It’ll just be a minute. Where did I put those things…”
The light above my head flickered, and I heard a soft giggle come from one of the darkened corners. I turned to spot the source, and found a little girl crouched in the shadows, watching me with a playful grin.
“Do you live here now?” she asked.
“Maybe we can play together.”
Before I could answer, Durgussy emerged from his office. “Found them. Here.”
I took the keys from his outstretched hand and followed him to another door. I glanced back at the corner one last time, but from my new angle the shadows were too deep to penetrate.
“Sorry about the poor lighting,” said the landlord as we marched up a narrow staircase. “It’s the only way I can afford to rent this place out so cheap.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon moving into my apartment. There was a bedroom mostly occupied by a bulging canopied bed, a small bathroom, and a modestly equipped kitchen.
The first thing I did was turn on all the lights, but that did little to dispel the shadows lurking in every corner. The kitchen and bedroom each had a single window, but the dreary walls prevented the sunlight from accomplishing much. As afternoon turned to evening, my suite was slowly consumed by the dark.
I made a quick supper when I was done unpacking and ate it just as quickly before slipping outside for some fresh air—and to escape the oppressive dimness of the house. Meredith Mortison was still there, rocking back and forth in her rickety old chair. She stared at me with sleepy eyes. I shifted awkwardly to the other end of the porch.
“Did he tell you about the house?”
Even though I knew she was there, her dry voice still startled me. From across the porch, it was barely more than a whisper.
“I got a flyer when I—”
“He didn’t tell you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There are noises.”
“Every house makes noises. Especially old ones like this.”
“Dragging, shifting, scratching. Sometimes other things.”
“It’s probably just Durgussy moving around. Where do these noises come from?”
“In the basement, in the attic, all the dark places we don’t go.”
“Well, I’m sure—”
I was interrupted when the front door swung open. “I thought I’d find you out here.” An older woman, though not nearly as old as Meredith, stepped outside. “It’s time to come in, Auntie.”
“No,” answered Meredith. “Not into the dark.”
“It’s alright. I brought your light, see?” The woman produced a small flashlight, which Meredith snatched up as quickly as her frail hands could manage. Turning to me, the woman introduced herself. “Eileen Mortison. I see you’ve already met my aunt. Sorry if she bothered you.”
“No,” I lied, ignoring the knot that had formed in my stomach while listening to Meredith’s raspy voice.
It had grown quite dark outside. I wanted to get to bed early so I’d be ready for my first day on the job that had brought me to this dismal apartment, so I followed the Mortisons back inside.
It became apparent very fast that I would need a flashlight like Meredith’s if I was to survive living here. I tripped on every other step, ran into walls in the hallway, and stubbed my toe on doorframes as I struggled to turn on the lights. I finally gave up and felt my way to the bed, collapsing gratefully into the soft mattress. I fell asleep easily, though my night was far from restful. My dreams were full of scraping whispers, shadows pacing the hallways, scratching at my bedroom door.
My alarm rang far too soon. It was with great difficulty that I dragged myself out from under the heavy black covers to meet the still-dark morning.
I teetered about the bedroom, trying once more to find the light switch, before heading to the small bathroom down the hall. I was shocked to see my face in the dim mirror. With my sunken, bruised eyes it seemed like I hadn’t gotten any sleep at all.
I’d never felt so uneasy performing the simple act of shaving. Perhaps it was the perpetual darkness of the house, or maybe the way the feeble light faded quickly into nothing, making the scene reflected in my mirror vignette like an old photograph. Or perhaps it was the way the quiet of the early morning made the shadows in the corners seem to creep forward as my razor blade scraped across my cheek.
I bent down for a moment to rinse off, and as the water ran over my skin I heard a soft giggle. I glanced up into the mirror to find the reflection of a little girl peeking through the bathroom door—the same girl I’d seen the day before in the corner of the entry. She opened her mouth as though to speak, but nothing came out.
“How did you get in—” I began, turning around to face her properly, but by the time I did she was gone.
My first day of work went as well as could be hoped for. In truth it was a very boring day, but it was also a bright reprieve from the oppressive darkness of my apartment. In fact, as I drove home, I could feel a sense of paranoia growing until I pulled into the driveway and found myself pinned to my seat with dread at the thought of walking through that front door. Eventually, though, my growling stomach demanded sustenance, so I got out of the car.
Eileen and Meredith Mortison were sitting on the porch, Meredith looking even more cadaverous than yesterday. They hardly stirred when I greeted them. Before stepping inside, I paused and said, “Eileen, I believe I met your daughter this morning.”
“My…daughter?” she replied. Meredith’s drooping eyelids fluttered, and her dark eyes rolled in their sockets to look at me. The visual effect was appalling.
I was shocked to find the house even darker than I remembered, and I soon realized none of the lights were on. Durgussy was in his office, looking through some papers by the dimming sunlight streaming through the window. “Power’s out,” he commented when he heard me walk by. “Here.” He beckoned me into his office and pointed to a stack of candles. “Take a few of those to light your suite.”
After assuaging my hungry belly I went about making my rooms as bright as possible with my limited supply of candles. I wondered about asking the landlord if he knew when the power company would get things fixed, but I dreaded the prospect of wandering back through the darkened halls to find him.
The candlelight was sadly ineffective at dispelling the darkness; although I’d scattered several of the little wax pillars around my bedroom, they only managed to created tiny pinpoints of light that shuddered against the blackness. Nowhere near enough illumination to do anything by, so I spent the evening sitting on my soft, black bed, wondering if it really was black, or if there’d just never been enough light for me to notice its true color.
With my eyes handicapped by the dimness, my other senses seemed enhanced. I could feel every fiber of my bed sheets, smell the dust floating invisibly through the air. Perhaps that’s why I heard it at first, although it was no more than a hint of a noise. It started as a rhythmic thumping, like someone overhead pacing back and forth, dragging their feet as they walked. Then it paused. Directly above my head it turned into a persistent scratching. It reminded me of a dog trying to dig through the floor. The scratching grew faster and more vigorous, until suddenly it morphed into a constant banging, like whatever was trying to get through the ceiling was becoming frustrated.
All the while, I tried to make myself small, sinking into my mattress as I stared up at the canopy, trying not to imagine what could be causing all the racket. The banging grew louder and faster, louder and faster still, and then it stopped.
I slowly sat up from where I’d been cowering, breathing slowly in the silence. Then came a soft creaking from the hallway.
I leapt from the bed and moved away from the door, trying to hide in the shadows where my candles couldn’t reach. Then a light appeared, and I sighed in relief as Durgussy came in.
“Just checking to see if you needed anything,” he said.
I shook my head, but then called to him as he turned to leave. “Wait, there is something I want to ask.”
“What’s directly above this suite?”
The landlord looked up at the ceiling as he answered, “The attic, why?”
“Well, I thought I heard something.”
“Is that so?”
I sighed, trying to come up with a way to explain myself without sounding like a terrified child. “Meredith told me there are noises,” I began. “I mean, they’re just noises, but she seemed to think you’d have told me. What’s in the attic?”
Durgussy sighed heavily. “Yeah, there are noises. Didn’t want to scare you away, though.”
“Scare me?” I laughed, trying to maintain a façade of bravery. “But they’re just—”
“Well, I suppose you should know,” interrupted Durgussy. “We all live here because it’s cheap, but don’t think that if we could afford it we wouldn’t move away in a heartbeat.”
“Why, what’s wrong with this place?”
“I don’t know what it is, but…let me just give you some advice. When the little girl wants to play, we don’t follow. When she cries, we don’t listen. There’s no joy in this house. There’s no sadness. Only the dark. Now, you sure you don’t need anything?”
I shook my head again.
“Alright. Goodnight then.”
I decided the best course of action was to go straight to sleep so I wouldn’t have to listen to any more strange noises, but that proved easier said than done. As I lay in my dark, heavy bed, I was bombarded with a host of familiar sensations. No matter how tightly I wrapped my curled form in the blankets, I always felt exposed. Although my knees and elbows were sore, I dared not stretch them and risk bursting that invisible bubble of safety—safety from what, I had no idea—that was ever-shrinking. I elected to risk leaving the candles lit during the night, hoping their feeble light would banish some of that inexplicable dread, but now as I stared wide-eyed into the deepest gloom of the farthest corners, they only served to cast more dancing shadows on the black walls of my bedroom.
A shout echoed from somewhere else in the house, and although it made me jump at first, it was a great relief to hear some other sign of human life, to know I wasn’t alone in this dismal house. That changed as soon as I could make out words.
“Stay away from us! Stay away!”
There was a chilling edge of panic to the woman’s voice, and inside I felt that something terrible was about to happen. Yet even as I contemplated getting up to find out what was going on, my body curled itself even tighter in its smothering cocoon. The mere thought of leaving my bed sent goose bumps down my spine, and a small voice in my head warned me there were things between the pitifully weak lights of my candles, things that were waiting for me to leave my bubble of protection so they could pounce. I was paralyzed, able to do nothing but listen to those disturbing cries.
I looked terrible the next morning; in fact I would’ve looked right at home in a rickety old rocking chair next to Meredith Mortison. Work didn’t go very well, owing to my sleep deprivation, and the drive home was a suspenseful ordeal with my eyes forcing themselves shut every couple of minutes. On top of it all, there was something growing in my stomach, a stone that swelled at the thought of returning to that dark apartment. Has the power come back on? I wondered.
I wasn’t hungry at all when I pulled into the driveway; rather, my stomach was downright opposed to the thought of supper. I caught my hand trembling as I reached for the car door handle and stepped out into the chilly air. Meredith wasn’t sitting on the porch that evening, although her chair still rocked back and forth, creaking rhythmically as I unlocked the front door.
Immediately I knew the electricity was still out. As I passed Durgussy’s office, I peeked in to ask if he knew when it would be fixed, but he wasn’t there.
I’d stopped at a convenience store on the way home and picked up a small flashlight. I now pulled it out to illuminate my path, parting the shadows in front of me only to feel them close in again behind me. As I reached the turn at the top of the stairs, an overwhelming sense of dread seized me, like I would turn that corner and find something waiting. I thrust my light into the hallway. There was nothing.
I made straight for my bedroom and locked myself in. I have to get out of this house, I thought. But I couldn’t. Durgussy had been right when he said we all lived there because it was cheap. I couldn’t afford anyplace else.
A scratching at my door made me jump. The knob rattled, then the scratching continued, like an animal begging to be let in. I shivered on my bed as I stared at the door until a soft cry interrupted the strange noise.
“Please, can I come in?”
It was a little girl’s voice, and I was immediately moved with pity by her sad, frightened tone. Poor thing, I thought. She must be scared of the dark.
I got up and unlocked the door to find her standing there looking up at me—the same girl I’d seen twice before. Eileen Mortison’s daughter.
“Everyone else is gone,” she said. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “But you can stay here until they turn up.”
The little girl shook her head. “Let’s go to my room instead. We can play with my toys.”
She took off down the hall, down the stairs, and I felt I had no choice but to follow. I trailed her obediently until she opened a door and began scampering down into what must have been the basement.
“You really live down there?” I asked.
“Mm-hm,” she nodded. “It’s far away from the attic.”
We were halfway down the stairs when I tripped on an uneven step. With a jolt of panic, I realized I was going to tumble into the girl and take her down with me. I flailed my arms, tossing my flashlight into the air just before the sickening rush of falling cleansed me of all coherent thought.
With a series of painful drops, I rolled down the stairs, hearing my flashlight crash against the cement beneath me. Everything went completely black, and I landed hard on the basement floor.
I lay there for a moment, feeling pain in every joint of my body, and then I became aware of heavy breathing, not my own, all around me, chilling my flesh.
“We warned you,” muttered Durgussy’s voice. “Don’t follow.”
“It finally got to us,” sobbed Eileen.
“The dark,” added Meredith.
There was a soft giggle, and I felt cold, little fingers pinching my face, pulling at my hair, poking every sore spot on my body as she sang, “Now I have you too.”