The room was nice; bare but nice. Four white walls looked back at her as she stood in the doorway. There was a small bathroom off to the right and one square window that showed a triangle of blue sky and a tuft of yellow corn stalks that went on farther than she could see.
This was a place where she didn't need to think or plan, or judge her life. All she wanted to do was wake up, work outside in the sun and go to bed without wondering where it was all going to lead. She had worried every day of her young life thus far and it lead to nothing.
“Yeah? I’m in my room Pop Pop.”
Artemis’ Grandfather entered the room silently and looked at her with resignation in his eyes. He looked at her like he had already given up on her. He had long since given up on himself. His wife had been dead for close to thirty years at that point and the drinking began shortly after she passed.
His son, Artemis’ Dad, had passed away that month in Philadelphia. Artemis had never known her Mother. At the time of her father’s fatal car accident, Artemis was in school in Los Angeles. She had always wanted to be an actress, but after the accident, she decided to move out to central Pennsylvania to live with her Grandfather and take a break from the grind. She wouldn’t move back to LA. Becoming an actress seemed like a silly dream to her once she had removed herself from Hollywood.
“Why don’t you put your stuff down and I’ll show you around the farm,” he said with a heavy sigh.
He left her and she could hear his thick boots slowly descending the stairs to the kitchen. Everything in the house creaked. She had only met her grandfather a few times and he never seemed pleased to see her. At a certain point, her father decided he wanted his only daughter and his only father to have a relationship, so they saw him on some holidays. He had begrudgingly agreed to let her stay with him if she agreed to do some work around the farm.
She sat on her twin bed and looked out the window for a moment. It was a beautiful view and very quiet. It frightened her to imagine sleeping in that heavy silence and yet she felt more at peace than she had in a long time. She could hear the wind and the sound of wind chimes, swaying in the strong sunlight. It was summer.
That night, lying in bed, she thought about the apartment in Philadelphia in which she had grown up. She missed the sound of the cars and how she could hear her dad’s TV through her bedroom wall at night. Warm, soft memories they were. The difference between that small, happy room from her childhood and the stark, white place she found herself in at that moment was monumental. But change is what she needed.
Her bed was placed right up against the window and she could see the moon hanging above the house, so bright she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. She had the window open and was enjoying the fresh, Pennsylvania air. The wind rattling through the corn fields was almost hypnotic. Her eyes started to get heavy and she finally fell asleep.
Silence. She woke up three hours later sweating and her eyes opened wide to take in the unfamiliar place. She couldn’t move. Her chest felt heavy like someone was pressing down on it and she couldn’t move her legs or arms. She heard something outside her window. Heavy, dry, breathing. She started to scream but no sound came out. Finally, the paralysis broke and she sat up in her bed, realizing the breathing must have been her own. She tried to steady her breath, but still, the silence. She couldn’t hear anything. Had she gone deaf? Was it really that quiet?
She leaned her head out of the window and breathed in the cool air. Then she saw something, something standing there watching her. At the edge of the corn, completely illuminated by the moon, was a man. The man wore black dress pants, a white dress shirt and black suspenders. His clothes looked big on him as they flapped in the soundless wind.
There were dark holes where his eyes should have been and there was some kind of light burning deep in his eye-sockets. He was grinning and looking at her window, looking right at her. He stepped out from the corn field into the road and she could see that he had no lips or nose and her stomach twisted as she realized that the grin was a permanent one. She stared at him with her mouth open for what felt like hours until she blacked out.
The next morning she woke up from a very heavy sleep and almost forgot about what had happened the night before. She sat up, rubbed her head and felt a lump there. Suddenly the memory of the man in the corn fields came back to her.
She looked out her window at the spot where the nightmare had been that night. Nothing. She shut the window with an effort and noticed a spot of blood on frame. She must have hit her head and knocked herself out.
Artemis quickly pulled some boots on and ran down the steps looking for her grandfather. He was already working out in the barn. She halted at the door, just as intimidated of him as she was as a child.
“Pop-pop, can I talk to you please?”
“Well, look who’s up. Listen girl, if you want to live here then you need to do as I say. You need to get up early, like I told you and learn about what I do here. I won’t have you living off me and hanging around like a slug all day.”
He turned toward her on the last sentence and she could see the disgust on his face. He looked her up and down and spit on the ground, waiting for her to say something.
“I…Pop-pop, I….saw something…last night. Outside of my window, there was a…a…” she stammered.
The tears were beginning to well up as she realized that this hardened old man was the only family she had left and he seemed to deeply despise her.
“You what? You what? What story do you have for me? What excuse, huh? You saw something? What did you see little girl? Your own shadow?”
“I…I don’t know. I thought…”
“You thought…you’re as ridiculous as your mother, running away from your problems and always blaming somebody else. Always the victim she was, and your father, well he was weak for letting her walk all over him. I guess you got the best of both worlds didn’t you?
Artemis turned away before he could see her tears. She walked straight out and back to the house, hating him and hating her bad fortune to end up at his mercy.
That evening, Artemis found something to eat in the pantry after her Grandfather had gone out on the porch to drink bourbon and smoke his pipe. He fell asleep on his chair out there by 9pm and she wondered how often he slept out there the whole night.
She was still scared about what happened the night before but it seemed so far away after the terrible day she had or didn't have with her grandfather and she was starting to convince herself that it had been a dream. She went up and locked her door, and turned on the two lamps in her room. She closed her window and the curtains and moved her bed to the other wall so that she wouldn't have to sleep near the window.
She was determined to wake up early, and shadow her grandfather the next day. He was a grumpy, spiteful man, but she had a desire to win him over. He was all she had and she had nowhere else to go. Not yet, anyway.
She took a quick glance out the window and saw nothing out of the ordinary and walked back over to her bed to try to sleep. One of the floorboards in the center of the room creaked when she stepped on it and she felt it shift. She bent down and pushed on one corner of the old wooden plank and felt it wiggle a bit. She was able to lift up one corner and the whole board lifted up. There was a shallow whole underneath with some dusty old comic books and a bound leather notebook sitting inside. She pulled them out and dusted them off.
The comic books were corny, short, horror story compilations. They must have been her Dad’s. This would have been his room when he was a kid and he always loved scary stories. When Artemis was a kid, He would let her stay up late on the weekends and watch Tales from the Crypt or whatever creepy movies they could find. They would each take a blanket and bundle up on the couch, with only their eyes peeking out. He would feign being afraid and she would giggle and snuggle closer to him. It was one of their favorite things to do together.
She looked through the old books and started to cry. She thought she might find comfort in living with her father’s father, but she realized that day why her dad had run away from home at sixteen. His dad was a very angry man, mostly because he was so desperately unhappy himself. She missed her father, who was the only person who ever seemed to understand her. In that moment, she felt very deeply that she was alone.
She opened the notebook then. It was a journal her father kept. It had his name scribbled in the big, jagged letters of a 1st grader on the first page. She flipped through the pages and saw that the writing went from mostly stick figures and bad grammar to the long, angst-ridden rants of a teenager. She smiled and wrapped herself in her blanket on the floor and decided she would read through it. It was like being with him again.
Most of what was written was just about day to day events that happen to most kids. Her dad always did have a flair for the dramatic and it even showed up in his adolescent writing. There was a passage that he wrote as a fifth grader, describing the injustice of getting sent to the principal’s office for throwing rocks off the roof of the school building that was particularly flowery.
She then noticed a pattern in his writing. Every couple of pages or so, there was an entry written in tiny, precise, letters describing some rather dark dreams he had. They seemed to start when he was about ten. They were each only a few sentences long, but the way they were written gave Artemis a sick feeling in her stomach. One went something like this;
I was late again for school today. The teacher made me sit at the front of the classroom facing everyone. It was the third time this week. I can’t sleep. I have bad dreams and then I can’t sleep until I see the sun and I miss the bus. It keeps happening. I wish he would leave me alone.
A few of these entries were accompanied by stick- figure drawings that normally she would have giggled at, but on that night they only made her uneasy. They showed a tall man with big dark circles for eyes, standing next to a young boy. One had a moon and stars drawn overhead and all of them had a stick figure person lying horizontally on the ground somewhere nearby the man and the boy. The one lying on the ground never had a face.
Artemis felt uneasy. She wondered if somehow her father and she had seen or dreamed of a similar…thing. She kept on reading, hoping to find some kind of explanation. She read until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore and fell asleep there on the floor holding her dead father’s journal.
She woke up to a gunshot. It ripped through her dreamless sleep and jolted her awake. She ran to open her door to see if her grandfather was okay, when another shot fired, this one coming from inside the house. She clasped her hands over her ears and backed away from the door. Her first thought was that maybe some animal had gotten into the house. This was the country and she knew he kept a shotgun just inside the door.
Then she thought of the face. She thought of the skinless face from her dream, from the cornfield. She thought of its grinning face, slowly walking through the corn stalks in the moonlight, walking up to the house. It was an insane thought, but somehow she was sure it was true.
Dread filled her body like lead and when she heard her grandfather scream and go silent she crumpled to the floor. It was silent for a few moments and then she heard something moving down there. Her paralysis broke and she grabbed her father’s journal and her phone and shut herself in her closet, not knowing what else to do.
She called 911 and told the operator that someone was in the house and that it had killed her grandfather. The operator said they would send someone over and to stay on the phone. Then, to Artemis’ terror, she heard footsteps ascending the stairs. They were soft and shoe-less footsteps and she told the operator to hurry and hung up, afraid it would hear the woman speaking through the phone and find her.
Artemis started to pray. She prayed for her father to hear her and to keep her safe. Warm tears fell down her cheeks as she heard the footsteps stop outside her door. The doorknob shook furiously and she put her hand over her mouth, knowing it wouldn't do any good. She opened her father’s journal, wanting to read his words before the thing got to her. She opened to the last page and in the bit of light coming from under the closet door, she read his words:
I’m leaving this place. If you find this journal, dad, you’ll know why I had to go. How many times did I try to tell you what was going on and how many times did you tell me to be a man and stop reading my fantasy books? You never believed me, or maybe you did and you couldn’t face it. There’s something bad here. There’s a thing out there that watches us and it gets closer every night. Last night it came to our door and tried to get in. Some nights it just circles the house. It took Mom and now it wants me. I know that now. I know her death wasn’t an accident. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t stay here another night. I just want you to know that all I ever wanted was for you to be proud of me and you never were and never will be. I will never do that to my kids. I will always believe in them and keep them safe. You let that thing get her and I’m next. I’ll never come back to this place again.
Artemis stared at the words and opened the closet door. She could hear the thing slamming its decrepit body against the door, scratching and growling to get in, to finish her off, the girl that was stupid enough to think that this place could be her salvation.
She sat down on the ground in the middle of the floor and faced the door. She wrapped her big, fluffy, comforter around her body and over her head so that only her eyes were peeking out. She held her father’s journal tight against her chest.
“This looks like a scary one, Dad. Let’s see what happens,“ she said to no one and waited for her fate to bust through the door and show its ugly face.