My people too were scared with eerie sounds,
A footstep, a low throbbing in the walls,
A noise of falling weights that never fell,
Weird whispers, bells that rang without a hand,
Door-handles turn'd when none was at the door,
And bolted doors that open'd of themselves;
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
My mother's new house, perched on the opposite side of the gentle rise that held our small town's school, reflected its age in the stone foundation and Oak trees that shaded it. I arrived months after she and my stepfather and brother settled into it, having lived with my father in the country since my parents' divorce several years earlier. As a 14-year-old that my grandparents might describe as "sensitive," I often suffered from depression, insomnia, and a general unpleasantness that makes it so difficult to tolerate teenagers.
The house dated from the 1920s, and I soon became familiar with its mix of wood and tile and carpeted flooring as I navigated its rooms in my sleepless wanderings. I learned where to step so that the floors would not creak in the night. Secretly I tracked the movement of my family around the house by the sounds they made so that I could more easily avoid revealing myself. Willfully isolated, at night I existed almost entirely separate from the others. As they slept, I read or walked or bent over my drawing board through the late hours. Sometimes I didn't sleep at all.
As the weeks passed by, I began to notice strange things. Even alone in the house, I often felt a sense of presence. At times, this would be so visceral I would automatically look up to see if someone stood in the hallway watching me. I learned to avoid the front room. Wooden floors, fireplace, a now silent grandfather clock, this room was attached to the formal front door that remained bolted and unused in favor of the more convenient door to our patio. Standing alone in its quietness, my neck hairs would electrify.
One day I came in to find my mother a little on edge. She often spent time in the kitchen cooking or talking on the phone. A door connected it to an adjoining formal dining room, and opposite the door to the kitchen, a second door connected the formal dining room to the living room we all avoided. It was possible to walk through the front door, turn left and pass through the formal dining room straight into the kitchen.
"What's up?" I queried, taking note of her concerned expression.
"Something weird just happened. I heard someone at the front door and just assumed it was one of you guys, the door opened and closed, I heard someone come in but when I looked no one was there. I could swear I heard footsteps in the living room."
The afternoon sunlight shining through the window above the sink could not stop the cold chill that crept down my spine. In a tremulous voice I asked hopefully, "Are you sure someone didn't step in and back out?"
"No, I don't know, maybe."
I passed through the dining room and checked the front door. Deadbolted. The lock on the door often stuck, and even my stepfather found it difficult to open with ease. Seeing that no one could have come in the way she described, my mother laughed nervously.
"I guess I'm just going crazy." The look in her eyes did not match her attempt to dismiss the incident lightly.
Each Wednesday my stepfather would pick up Evelyn and drop her off at our house for a few hours. An old friend and neighbor of his family, Evelyn had been forced to quit school early in life to work on her father's farm. Incapable of driving and now widowed, my stepdad paid her to wash our sheets and straighten up as a way to supplement her limited income. My mother would take her home after work. One day as she pulled into our driveway, my mother noticed that Evelyn sat on the patio steps instead of waiting inside as she usually did.
"Hey Evelyn, why are you waiting out here?"
"Haints! They's haints in that house! I'm not goin' back inta there!"
It took a little while for my mother to get the story out of the frightened older woman. While washing dishes in the kitchen earlier in the day, Evelyn heard someone at the front door. Stepping back from the sink, she moved towards the dining room door which always remained opened. Before she could step into the adjoining room, the door forcefully slammed in her face. Terrified, Evelyn fled the house and had been waiting on the steps for several hours. She refused to wait inside as my mother checked out the house and changed clothes, insisting that the house held 'haints'.
My stepfather's job had alternating schedules and every three weeks he worked 'midnights'. During these shifts he would be out of the house from supper to breakfast. At the same time, my brother often stayed with his friend. On these nights the house would be relatively quiet, my mother usually going to bed early, and there was less chance of someone discovering me awake after midnight. Located in a corner of the house, my bedroom had two doors: one opened onto a short hallway to the kitchen, the other opened to the back of the house where the remaining bedrooms were found. On these emptier nights I occasionally left the door to the kitchen open. The soft, dim glow of the oven lamp remained bright enough to be reassuring without being so bright that I could not sleep if I was lucky enough to be drowsy.
After living in the house for a few months, I had an experience on one of these empty nights which haunted me for years to come. On this particular evening, somewhat out of character, I retired to my room before my mother readied for bed. Leaving the door to the kitchen open, I could hear her finishing up small tasks in the kitchen as I began to relax in my room. Sounds from the back bathroom told me that she was brushing her teeth, and not long after the heavy box fan she used to drown out noise began to whir. I knew that she had eased her door closed by the sound of the fan dropping from a roar to a soft drone. And then the house sat silent, save for this continuous droning, as I lay in the soft light and shadow of my bedroom.
It is hard to say how long I lay there in the semi-dark. The light from the oven lamp was enough for me to make out the features of my room. At some point I heard my mother enter the kitchen from the formal dining room. Slowly, however, as if weighed down by the drowsiness, my mind pieced together the facts that I never heard my mother's bedroom door open and the footsteps in the kitchen in no way sounded like her. Too deliberate, too careful, and to my immediately-awake-senses, too unnatural to be her, every hair on my body stood with almost painful attention. The feeling of presence I had often sensed before returned in force as I realized the footsteps were approaching my partially open door.
I doubt that as long as I breathe I will be able to forget the next few moments of that night. Panic-stricken, terror filled my electrified body. I could hear the steps approaching as they moved out of the kitchen and into the short hallway that led to my door. The steps paused. Barely able to control my fear enough to string coherent thoughts together, I tried to slide to the edge of my bed but could not move my arm. My heart pounded in my ears and my chest felt as if it would explode. I could not move any part of my body. Not 10 feet away, just around the corner, something waited and I was immobilized with horror. Unable to tear my eyes away from the doorway, my mind wanted to leap from the bed while screaming from the top of my lungs, but my body was powerless. I felt as if an oppressive weight completely pinned me from above.
The steps started again. The thing could be no more than than a foot or two from my doorway. At the crescendo of my panic, I realized in that moment I must act or lose myself to insanity, or something worse. I poured all of my will into moving my hand. Tingling as if someone had sat on it, only with the greatest effort was I able to move my fingers. In doing so, something critical loosened inside me and I knew that I could move again. But in this time the footsteps had reached doorway. I dare not look! A wail escaped from my now unfrozen mouth, half scream and half plea, and I ripped the sheets from the bed as I leapt into the air and raced for the opposing door. I moved with the speed of death at my heels and made the door to my mother's bedroom in three giant strides. I didn't pause, couldn't pause, but instead barreled through the barely cracked opening with a crash and, in a surge of superhuman adrenaline, jumped across the room into the far wall, clearing the bed and landing in a crumpled heap.
Scared awake, my mother shot up with cries of "What's wrong? What's wrong?" Shaking and without taking my eyes off of her door, I told her I had heard footsteps in the kitchen approaching my room. She listened to my story with much less incredulity than I would have expected, which unsettled me in its own way. After catching my breath, we walked back to my room together. Empty. We went room by room through the house, being louder than necessary, and turned all of the lights on while checking the doors and windows. While doing so my mother told me that one night recently she had been alone in the house preparing for bed when her television had turned on unexpectedly. She, too, sometimes felt as if she were being watched. Finally, we each returned to bed.
In the months that followed I constantly had trouble sleeping, but never heard the footsteps in the kitchen again. For years I told no one. I tried to rationalize it as only a dream. While browsing through an issue of Rue Morgue I found a short article about sleep paralysis that featured a picture of The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli. Was this my experience? While this explanation helped to allay my fears over time, a memory of the terror always remained. Even now, as my wife settles peacefully into the regular breathing of restful sleep, I cannot look at our bedroom door. I know that door leads to a hallway, and that hallway leads to the kitchen.