When You See Them, They Can Hurt You
At my house, nothing is ever out of place. Things don’t sit idle on countertops. Clothes are never tossed haphazardly on the floor. Everything has its container. Everything stays out of sight. Towels are immediately sealed up in a laundry bin after a single use. Nothing is ever left out.
Everything is lit by recessed lights. There are no lamps. Nothing sits on the vanity. No pots and pans stay on the stove. I have no pets. I own no plants. I know exactly what I’m going to see when I walk into any room, with no variation.
No mess. No forgetfulness. No mistakes.
Because that’s how they get you. It starts slowly at first, a glimpse here, a double-take there. They hide in plain sight. You brush it off, but you shouldn’t. They’re always there. And most of the time, nothing happens, so you just keep on forgetting. But they’re always there. Because we all believe in them, even if only for a second… even if only in a fleeting instance.
That belief? That’s a mistake. And that gets you killed. Because when you see them… when you really see them… then they can hurt you. And they can hurt you so badly that even if you survive, you wish you were dead. Trust me, I know.
That’s why, at my house, nothing is ever out of place. Nothing sits idle on countertops. Nothing is ever discarded on the floor. Everything is enclosed where it belongs. Everything has a home. No mess, no forgetfulness, no mistakes.
Not a single mistake.
Of course it won’t happen that quickly for you. You don’t know about them, after all, not really, not yet. But you’re reading this, so you’ll know now. And they’ll know you know. Maybe this is your first mistake. So you better make sure everything is where it belongs. Make sure you know exactly where everything is. Your life depends on it.
Here’s how it happened to me.
Five years ago my wife Becca and I moved into a large old Victorian house in the suburbs of Chicago. The house was three stories with five bedrooms, counting the large room on the third floor that doubled as storage. The second floor had the other four bedrooms and one bathroom that were accessible from the landing (not counting the bathroom in the master suite). It was far more house than we needed, just the two of us, but after years of living in cramped and roach infested city apartments, the space breathed life back into us.
We had talked about getting one of those luxury condos with the brick facades, floor-to-ceiling black-trimmed windows, rooftop gardens, and courtyard grills. If you’ve ever shopped for apartments in Chicago or any major city, you know the ones (they all look the same), but the house had personality and we were so excited for something to make our own.
Its wood siding was straight and strong. It was old, but well maintained. The floors creaked but didn’t bend. The doors shut soundly. The property was spotted with tufts of evergreens and wandering shrubs and vines. It would have needed work, but we thought it was the kind of house that could be a paradise.
But this isn’t really about the house. It’s not like the house was haunted and I don’t want to give the impression that if we’d moved into the bougie apartment building that what happened never would have happened. This isn’t that kind of story.
Nothing was wrong with the house. Something is wrong with the world. And maybe it’s a little bit easier to see it in a stoic old Victorian. Or there are just more opportunities for them to be seen.
“How do we have this much stuff?” I remember saying to Becca as I hauled in yet another box of books, wiping the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand.
“How did this all fit in our old apartment?” She marveled back.
The fridge on the first floor was empty but for a six pack of Rolling Rock I’d so carefully unpacked first. I knew we’d need them cold later. I twisted the caps off two bottles and brought one to Becca.
“Yeah, it seems like stuff always expands to fill all the available space. We’ll look like hoarders in here in no time,” I said as we clinked the necks of our bottles. I dropped down on a box next to Becca and we chatted for hours about our life together and all the wonderful things we would do with the house.
I miss those days. I’d give anything just to chat like that again with her.
But all of our dreams had to get put on hold, which is pretty common with dreams sometimes.
Not a week after we moved in, Becca’s older sister announced her swift and difficult divorce. It happened so quickly, and Lori was devastated. The rest of us weren’t too broken up about it. We’d never much like Randall before all of this. Lori had been having health problems and couldn’t get out as much as she used to, so Randall sought his excitement elsewhere. When Lori found out and confronted him with her anger and disappointment, he gave her his rebuttal. So when she showed up at our house her right eye was swollen shut and she had seven stitches. Apparently that was finally enough.
She’d get the house and a decent amount of money (and a restraining order), but while all that wound through the courts she decided she couldn’t stay in the house any longer and Becca said she could stay with us. After all, we had more than enough space. We did put in a security system though. Randall was unpredictable and I wanted to be prepared.
We offered to convert one of the downstairs receiving rooms for Lori since she had some trouble with stairs, but she insisted she didn’t want to be a bother, so she took the bedroom just to the right of the stairs on the second floor. It was a burden for her to get up and down those stairs multiple times a day, but she said she could use the exercise and, well, it was her life. I wouldn’t tell her what to do.
But the house remained half unpacked, with boxes and furniture in odd places throughout all three floors as Becca took on the role of part-time caretaker.
The trouble started soon after. Lori was nervous and jittery, which naturally made sense. Now, I think that’s what made her susceptible and gave them the opening, but I certainly didn’t think much about it at the time.
I worked upstairs in my office most days. The big desk that came with the house was buried under boxes and had a cracked leg, so settled in on a folding table by the window between stacks of materials and equipment where at least I could look out on the small grove of evergreens.
I would hear Becca walking around downstairs cleaning up and putting away, as best as she could when time allowed. And I could always hear Lori’s slow walk down the steps from the second floor bedroom. They would often take tea in the kitchen and I could hear their muffled voices even through the thick wooden floor.
One day, as I sat pouring over a CAD drawing, I heard a loud crash from the kitchen below. I sprinted downstairs and saw Becca washing Lori’s bleeding hand over the sink. The floor by the arched door between the kitchen and the foyer was covered in food and broken glass.
“It’s okay honey, Lori dropped a plate and cut her hand trying to clean it up,” Becca explained. Lori was breathing heavily.
“Sorry to bother you,” she gasped. “I just startled myself. I thought I saw someone in the living room! But it was just that jacket on the coat rack by those boxes.”
I wandered over to the living room anyway and saw the offending jacket. It did kind of look like a man, I could see that. I walked back to the kitchen and got the broom to sweep up the broken glass. “Be careful, Lori,” I said, “you’ve been through a lot, you gotta take it easy.”
That was just the start, though. I saw it happen to her a number of times throughout the day. When I was downstairs making lunch, I’d see her jump when she walked into a room. I’d hear her drop things at night or yelp with alarm.
It seemed to make her even more agitated, and I don’t think she was sleeping well. Her eyes got bloodshot, she would get spacey and forgetful. Looking back, it should have seemed weirder. We’ve all had that feeling where you walk into a room and out of the corner of your eye you think you see something that’s not there. A towel or a coat becomes a person hiding in the corner. A shadow and a lamp at night becomes some sort of wild animal. Our brains play tricks on us from time to time. But it happened to Lori a lot.
I honestly thought she was unraveling due to her divorce and the strain of it all. I told Becca we should get her into therapy, and she said she’d recommend it. But the thing was, the more Lori saw things, and the more she pointed them out to me, the more Becca and I started to see things too. Not so much that we noticed at the start, it was that same feeling we all get sometimes, just a little more often.
I even joked to Becca one day, “We need to get all these boxes put away. I feel like I’m jumping every time I walk into a room! Give me another month of this and I’m gonna be like Lori.”
“Ssshh!” Becca smacked my arm playfully. “Be nice! You're right though, I keep thinking I’m seeing things, too. Lori has me all freaked out. But we do need to get this place cleaned up, right now we look like hoarders, just like you promised.” She gave a smile, but there was something… uncertain… about it.
“You okay, Becs? Is there something else?”
“It’s just…” she looked upstairs briefly, then back at me, “I know it’s silly, but Lori really does have me freaked out and I’m starting to jump at shadows too. You know that towel rack in our bathroom?”
“Yeah, of course.” She was talking about the towel bar in the second floor bathroom. You could see it from the doors to all the bedrooms on that floor, and it was a little higher up then a towel rack should be. If it had towels hanging on it, it looked a little startling at night sometimes.
“It keeps freaking me out. Do you think we could take that down and replace it with something else?”
“Sure, not a problem,” I walked over and wrapped my arms around her and she breathed a little easier. “I know it’s a lot having Lori here, especially when she’s as stressed as she is. It’s all gonna be okay, Becs.” She hugged me back tightly and we stood there for a moment and listened to Lori’s slow footsteps upstairs.
I never took down the towel rack. Things got busy at work over the next week, and then everything fell apart. Maybe it wouldn’t have if I had done what I said I would. I should have taken down the towel rack when Becca asked. That was a mistake.
The next week was incredibly busy at work for me, and I feel like I barely saw Becca and Lori, but I heard them. And when I did see Lori it was almost like she was sneaking around the first floor, still in her nightgown, moving things from place to place.
It gave me the jitters and I started trying to avoid Lori, and Becca by consequence of that. I would see her when she fell wearily into bed at the end of the night.
One night Becca collapsed next to me and let out an exhausted sigh.
“Becs, we can’t go on like this,” I said to her. “It’s getting to the point that Lori needs professional help. We can’t have her here anymore.”
“I know, I know,” Becca replied, rubbing her eyes. “I’m going to take her to the doctor tomorrow, we’ll find her somewhere else.” She sounded a little choked up, and I could tell the stress was weighing on her. “I’m sorry all this happened,” she sobbed.
I rolled over and hugged her close, pulling her face into my shoulder, whispering that it would all be okay.
I woke up to the sound of footsteps and what sounded like rustling curtains. I pried my eyes open and found Becca already awake, staring at me, her eyes radiant circles in the darkness, full of light and panic. I shot up in bed and the corners of my vision crawled with motion, with creeping hands and staggered gaits as horrors and terrors scattered in the room.
No, it was just the curtains at the window overlooking the evergreen grove, and my coat carelessly caught on the TV stand. I shook the sleep from my eyes, but there was something happening. I heard the rustle in the guest room and the plodding, irregular footsteps. The house seemed filled with darkness and anxiety, it pressed down on me like a compression band on my chest. I found it hard to breathe. The air was dense and hot. I put my hand on Becca’s arm. She was still lying down but breathing quickly, and tightly, like she was gasping for air. The house had a tension and viciousness about it.
In a moment I was out of bed and at the door of the master suite. The lights were on in the hallway and the foyer. I saw a thin shape in a white nightgown dash from the unused third bedroom to the room by the stairs… Lori. I ran across the landing into the guest bedroom.
I burst into the guest room. Lori dashed across the room like some pale spider, faster than I thought she could move in her condition. She left bloody footprints behind her, as if at some points she’d run through broken glass, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
The bed was pushed up against one wall and the floor was bare. Lori grabbed a lamp off of the dresser and flung it into the open walk-in closet where it shattered, echoing across the barren wood. The room was empty, she’d shoved everything into the closet. She sprinted to the closet and slammed the door, then she looked over at me with cold and wild eyes.
“Don’t worry, I’ve trapped them,” she whispered.
My heart raced as I backed out of the room. She inched towards me.
“Becs!” I shouted, never taking my eyes off Lori. I saw my wife poke her head out of our room. “Call 911! Something is wrong with Lori!”
“Wha…?” Becca’s quiet voice eased into the hallway but was drowned out by another crash. Lori brushed past me on her way back to the third bedroom we’d been using as makeshift storage.
“Just call the police!” I shouted, and turned to chase Lori. I followed her into the bedroom. She had started to ransack the room, throwing everything towards the closet or under the bed. I ran up behind her and grabbed her wrists and tossed her onto the bed.
“Lori! It’s okay!” I yelled directly into her face, trying to shake off whatever madness had overcome her.
She raged against me, flinging herself against the bed, but just for a moment, then she went limp and stared into my eyes silently. I felt that weight again, a black dread and anxiety press down against me as shadows flickered at the corners of my vision.
“You know they’re here,” she whispered, “let me help you, or they’ll take us all.”
I opened my mouth to answer but had nothing to say. I gasped for air in the suffocating thickness of the room, and then I heard a scream from the master bedroom.
I jumped off Lori and ran back to my bedroom. Becca was pressed against the wall by the door, the phone sat on the floor with faint voices coming through the receiver. I think 911 was still on the line. Her gaze was fixed across the room at the armoire next to the TV stand. I grabbed her arm. It felt frozen. I followed her gaze and saw the shadows around the armoire shift in the darkness, full of wrath and hate, and for a moment I froze too. The weight of everything pressed down upon me. I gasped for air. Reality around me surged with loathing and violence. It was all coming undone.
Then there was a scream from the landing. It shook both Becca and me from the spell.
Lori was standing at the top of the stairs facing the bathroom. She screamed again and tried to run, but her right foot landed wrong. She was still hindered by her illness and her body couldn’t move as fast as her mind needed.
Her ankle snapped. I watched her slip and then she was gone. The crash of bone on wood echoed throughout the house and then there was silence. I sprinted to the top of the stairs. For a moment I thought I saw a shadow move in the bathroom, but the room was empty. I turned back to the foyer. Lori lay at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of seeping blood. Her cold hand stretched out, almost pointing to me at the top of the stairs, full of foreboding. Her jaw was broken in the fall and her gaping mouth hung open at an unnatural angle, haunting and grievous, full of exposed teeth, severed bone, and dread.
Whatever the weight was that pressed down upon the house that night, all that violence and loathing, was scattered by the arrival of the police and ambulance. The strobing red and blue lights bathed the neighborhood and shook away all thoughts of monsters and ghosts, replacing them with a horror more real and traditional. Curtains were pulled back. Men peeked out of their front doors in their t-shirts and boxers. Screams were replaced by whispers.
It was one thing to be frightened by paranoia and dancing shadows, and quite another to watch Lori’s broken body loaded into the ambulance. She was dead long before the medics arrived.
I held Becca tight as she wept into the shoulder of my college sweatshirt. “This should never have happened,” I thought. “Things had been going so well until she moved in.”
The house loomed above us, empty but silent. And the evergreen trees swayed in the nighttime wind. For a moment I thought I saw something terrible dancing in the tips of the trees, hiding where vision couldn’t reach, just outside of rationality and reason, and then it was gone. But for a moment I believed. Maybe this house was haunted. Maybe we should go.
But then I felt Becca sob into my shoulder and I pressed my face against her neck. We could deal with all that tomorrow.
The wind whistled and shadows stood against the horizon, hiding at the edge of the world.
We spent the next three days at a hotel. It was mercifully sparse and empty. I tried to let Becca sleep as much as she could while I handled the probing questions from the police and hospital, but I don’t think she did. She mostly lay on the bed and stared at the wall through teary, grief-stricken eyes.
The police obviously thought there was some sort of malfeasance on our part, but ultimately they had no evidence of that, and plenty of people could vouch for Lori’s ragged mental state. Eventually they moved on and left the even more daunting task of closing out Lori’s estate ahead of us. I hired an executor for that who I thought could sort out the legal issues around the divorce and do what had to be done. Becca was in no state for it and I couldn’t bring myself to care.
But there was the matter of our house and what to do next. On our sixth night in the hotel, I came out of the bathroom after showering and found Becca sitting up on the bed in rigid silence.
“Hey Becs, how, uh… how are you doing?” I asked. What a stupid thing to say. I sat down beside her.
“We can’t go back to that house,” she whispered.
“It’s no problem, Becs. We can stay here as long as we want. Let’s just try to take your mind off of it.”
“No, we can never go back. I don’t trust it. We can never go back there again.”
“Look, Becs…” I started to say. This was gonna be our dream house, I would argue. And we just bought it, but then I stopped myself. I heard the brutal seriousness and conviction in her tone. Something bent inside of me. I sighed. “Well, maybe we’re bougie apartment people after all.”
She looked at me with the closest thing I’d seen to a smile since the incident. “Really?”
“Yeah, a rooftop grill seems kind of nice right now.”
She immediately wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me close, burying her face in my shoulder.
“I’ll make one last trip over tonight and then we never have to see that place again.”
She pushed away and stared at me in horror.
“What? I just told you, we can’t ever go back there, either of us.”
“Becs, I have some important work papers over there. There are some things I have to close out. I’ll do it tonight, I’ll be back in a couple hours.”
“I don’t like this,” she whispered, “please, just forget it.”
“It’s okay, Becs, I’ll do it right now and get it over with, I’ll be back soon.” Tears ran down her cheeks as I left the hotel room. I’ll never forgive myself for not trusting her.
I arrived back at the house at dusk. The sun darkened to a bloody auburn beneath low clouds on the horizon, casting odd shadows, strange and long. The whole vibe was eerie, but I convinced myself it was jitters that Becca had put in my head.
The house contained all our worldly possessions, and a number of expensive pieces of equipment along with their associated expensive materials that I used for work. I could send a white-glove moving company for all of that, though. I was concerned with a number of contracts and financial documents that could be sensitive and put me on the wrong side of some NDAs if I lost them. They were in a lockbox in my office on the second floor.
I entered the house and headed straight for the stairs, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched. It was like the grandfather clock had eyes, and the coat racks reached out to pull at me as I passed with gnarled, grasping hands.
I took the steps two at a time.
I opened the door to my office and immediately jumped back. Someone was at my desk, looming over it, tall and hunched. As I stared, it bent slowly up, like it was turning to look at me. I slapped the switch and bright white lights flooded the room, and I let out an uneasy sigh. It was one of my pieces of equipment, a rack on a pivot that has twisted over my desk. I collected myself, walked to my desk, shoved the rack out of the way, and raided my lockbox.
“Alright, I’m out of here,” I muttered to myself, when I heard what sounded like some sort of shuffling footsteps out on the landing. My breath turned to ice. I crept to the door and looked out. The landing was empty. I thought I’d just make a run for it. I half jogged to the top of the stairs, and for whatever reason, I turned and looked in the bathroom. I saw it there, tall and gangly, misshapen, with stringy black hair hanging down long in front of its face.
I tensed so hard my nails dug into the palms of my hands. “Okay, it’s just the towel rack,” I told myself, without nearly enough conviction. “Come on, we don’t believe in ghosts. I just forgot to take down the damn towel rack.” My breath slowed slightly.
But the thing is, I do believe in ghosts. We all do, somehow or another. Or we wouldn’t have that feeling when you wake in the night and the moonlight streams through your window casting foul, grasping shadows and you gasp for air and your blood flows like broken glass in your veins. We’ve all felt it even for a moment. We all believe.
And belief is what makes the veil thinner. It’s what gives them the chance.
“It's just the towel rack,” I said again. Then a bony arm reached up from the towel rack and parted the nightmarish black hair. It’s sloughing, pallid skin shone in the moonlight. It’s fanged, unhinged maw gaped open with a sickening smile, uneven and broken, just like Lori that night she plummeted to her death. It’s eye pits were black as coal and glowed with a ghastly terror, as piercing as the stars but with none of their light.
It lurched towards me with two bumbling steps as if it was just remembering how to walk after years trapped on the other side of the veil. I stumbled backwards onto the landing and my back dug into the banister as the creature fell flat then twisted and crawled towards me like a spider. I closed my eyes and shook my head as if to banish it, like it was the same as seeing a man in the shadow of a hanging jacket. When I opened my eyes again it was gone.
But so was the towel rack.
I turned to the stairs to make a run for it, but saw the specter at the bottom of the stairs, it began climbing up, faster than I thought it could move, grinning all the while with that empty, devouring maw. I turned and bolted to the master bedroom, slamming the door and locking it behind me. I fell backwards onto the bed as the shadow smashed the door open like balsa wood. It loomed above me now, toying with me, I had nowhere else to run. That jaw gaped as it bent over me and my heart felt like it would burst. It was prying into my mind and flooding it with horror. I felt frozen in place.
Then I heard the front door, and Becca’s voice.
“Babe? I couldn’t leave you here alone! Babe, let’s go!”
The creature stood up straight and looked to the landing, then back at me with a grotesque smile, and then it was gone.
“Oh no,” I muttered, “Becs get out of here!”
I jumped to my feet and ran for the landing as fast as I could. I heard Becca’s scream before I even made it to the top of the stairs. I half fell, half jumped down the stairs and turned towards the living room and there was the demon, bent over her in front of the fireplace. It was holding her down by her shoulders and those black eyes were drilling into her. Her eyes held a look of terror I’ve never seen on another living creature, save in Lori’s that night at the bottom of the stairs. Becca’s body was frozen in a defensive posture, as if there was anything she could do against such horror.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did the first thing that came to mind. I hit the panic button on the alarm system. The alarm blared from the house. I saw lights turn on up and down the street. The creature unfolded itself and looked over at me, and then it was gone. The aura of despair lifted away from the house. Just like with Lori, maybe it could only exist in the quiet, frantic places. The world again became too real, and the veil thickened. I heard the sirens and I rushed to Becca’s side, but her face was frozen in that scream, and her limbs were locked up in that unnatural pose like she was carved of ice. I held her and sobbed into her shoulder until the police came.
I told them it was an intruder. Naturally I was the primary suspect, but the police could never show how I shattered a thick wooden door like it was kindling, or how in the world I could have caused those sorts of injuries to Becca, so eventually I was free.
Becca survived, of sorts. I still visit her at the hospital. Her hands are clenched in permanent fists. Her mouth stays open in a horrifying grimace. Her eyes are foggy like old, dirty ice. You would think she was dead to look at her, but she’s very much not, the doctors tell me. Her brain is full of activity. I hope dearly that she dreams pleasant dreams, peaceful, kind, and gentle. But I think and dread that I’m wrong, and that what rages in that frozen mind is worse than anything I can imagine.
I look around her room in the hospital and see hooks for jackets, medical monitors attached to rolling stands and covered with flowing cords and cables, and tables full of pills and charts and gloves and whatever castaway supplies the hospital accumulates, and I hope for Becca’s sake that until she is free from this place, she stays blind. There’s too much in this room to see. And too many places for them to hide.
Not at all like my place now. I’ve learned my lesson. I know how it happens. I know how they get in. It’s in a glimpse, where you see something terrible, and yet you believe it, even if only for a second. They wait at the edges of the world, and they wait, and wait, and wait. They wait for you to see, because then they can hurt you.
So you don’t give them places to hide. You don’t leave things out. You take down the towel bar.
You keep things clean. That’s how my house is now. At my house, nothing is ever out of place. Things don’t sit idle on countertops. Clothes are never tossed haphazardly on the floor. Everything has its container. Everything stays out of sight.
No mess. No forgetfulness.