As a cover for my disquiet, I pretended to be annoyed that her family had stuck us with the worst room in the house. Coming up the stairs behind me, my girlfriend urged me to persevere. It was just for the week, and then we’d be free of the drama for another year.
To say that I got along poorly with her family would be an understatement.
Her young cousins and her aunts and uncles weren’t the problem. It really came down to her incredibly old-fashioned grandparents, who disapproved of our living together and our avoidance of marriage. This was their house… their creaky, dim, old house… and I knew I would have to put up with their comments and disrespect all week.
“At least they’ve given us our own room this year,” she offered.
Shivering against the drafts, I clenched my jaw. “Right. Great.”
The first evening - Christmas Eve - went about as I expected. The aunts and uncles lined the couches as the kids ran around and played. Everyone plied my girlfriend with questions about her coming graduation and expected career; a few questions went my way, but those were quickly silenced by her grandfather’s stern frown.
Unhappy, but enduring, I returned to our attic room without complaint. The night had been called early on account of the Christmas presents to be opened the next morning, so the house quickly fell quiet. Wrapped in multiple blankets, my girlfriend slept soundly, while I sat awake, dwelling on the week ahead.
High wooden posts, four in all, flanked each corner of the wide antique bed. As I sat in the creaking, shifting darkness, those guardian posts seemed to stand solid against the drafts, marking out a scant area of calm.
Outside the bed’s space, the entire attic seemed alive - I could see very little by the faint moonlight filtering in through the solitary window, but I felt like I was sitting outside, bare, on an open plain. The walls seemed laughably incapable of resisting the biting winds, almost appearing to move back and forth with each gust.
I felt uncomfortably vulnerable.
Vulnerable to who, or what - I couldn’t say - but the unease I’d first felt had now risen to a wary anticipation. Antique furniture lined the attic’s extremities, and I had the oddest notion that someone could easily hide among those dusty relics. Against the whistling winter wind, I wouldn’t even hear them breathing… keeping my eyes wide open, I scanned the creaking shadows, straining to see by the barest moonlight…
Something caught my attention between an old armoire and a plastic-shrouded sofa. Staring at it, I tried to comprehend what I was seeing… I moved my sight a little over, using the edges of my vision… and the two little circles blinked.
I pushed back into the headboard with a guttural shout.
My girlfriend rolled awake, wide-eyed, as a silhouette quickly pattered across the floor.
“Haha, got you!” the youngest of her cousins squealed. “Got you so bad!”
“Get out of here!” my girlfriend complained. “Santa doesn’t give presents to bad little girls. Go back to bed.”
“No fair! I’ll be good now,” the little girl promised, skipping down the steps with one more bout of laughter at having scared me.
My girlfriend rolled over, returning to sleep with a grumble.
Annoyed, I decided to sleep as well. Embarrassment easily trumped any vague apprehensions I had about the room. As my senses dulled, I heard a louder creak above the shifting winds - something I attributed to her little cousin. “Go back to sleep,” I muttered.
The creaking immediately stopped - and did not return again that night.
Christmas day turned out to be rather fun, occupying my thoughts right up through dinner. It was only afterward, while the kids lay in food comas and the adults chatted lazily over wine, that my apprehensions returned.
“You know, the attic’s really creaky,” I said. “Lots of drafts.”
“We don’t normally have this many people over,” her grandmother replied, her tone pointed. “Otherwise everyone unmarried would have their own rooms.”
After a sip of her wine, one of the aunts chimed in. “Yep, we haven’t had anyone stay in the attic in almost thirty years, not since… hmm, well, actually, I think it was -”
“- a long time ago,” her grandmother interrupted, her manner suddenly - strangely - diplomatic.
“Wasn’t that when dad’s war buddy visited, and then after two nights he -”
“- stress disorders are a terrible thing. That’s all it was.”
That line of conversation died abruptly as a discomfort fell over the room.
They changed topics and resumed the merriment, but I couldn’t let it go.
At the end of the night, sitting up in the bed’s scant rectangle of safety, I turned to my girlfriend. “After two nights he what?”
“Who, the war buddy? I dunno, never heard that story.” She yawned drunkenly, clicked the nightstand lamp off, and rolled over into her cocoon of blankets.
I sat awake again, listening to the darkness, creaks, and wind. The clouds obscured the moon that night, and my eyes strained for even a hint of dim light - but found none.
As I sat motionless in the pitch black, the drafts on my face and the subtle motions of the house against the wind stirred up an uncomfortable disorientation. I had the strangest notion - so immersive, so physical, without any senses but touch and hearing - that the vast, open plain I’d imagined sitting out on the night before had returned… but fuller this time, more real.
Still straining my eyes, I peered around the windy darkness for perceived hours, perhaps hoping vainly to ward off some imagined creature stalking the open landscape around the bed’s pitiful rectangle of safety.
Feeling a bit cornered by my strange fears, knowing that I would never sleep while these abstract terrors gripped me, I decided to indulge them a bit. Slowly, so as to make no noise or disruption, I slipped the blankets off and took the cell phone my girlfriend had left between our pillows.
I crawled forward on the bed carefully, slid my hand out, and found the corner bedpost. The chilly wind flowed by exactly as I imagined it might in a wide, empty expanse… I tentatively raised a hand upward, feeling icy void and breezes flowing slightly faster above, but I couldn’t be sure…
Crouched at the end of the bed, eyes wide in a futile attempt to see something, anything at all - a warm breeze ran down my face. Confused, I froze. Had I found the invisible flow from a vent, dispensing heat from the furnace three stories below? I moved my face forward, stopping an inch from the imaginary wall of safety between the two bedposts.
The warm breeze came again, at a definite downward angle, brushing across the lower half of my face, as if…
Electricity ran through every muscle, and I held my breath.
I’d imagined something stalking the open surreal landscape out in the pitch black. I’d stared out, trying to detect it… what if it lurked right beyond the bedposts, trying to see me in return? Was it arched there, fully the height of the bed and my crouched body, its face an inch from mine?
My right hand moved up ever so slowly, bringing the cell phone up next to my face. All I had to do was click a button, and it would light up… I hesitated, terrified by the notion that I would illuminate something horrifying staring back at me. My finger trembled above the buttons…
The chilly drafts seemed to change shape around me, and the warm breathing vanished. I listened intently, unable to hear any sound of movement… but the physical presence of something directly opposite me in the darkness had gone.
I clicked the phone’s light on.
Nothing horrible leapt at me from the darkness. I shook my head with a sigh. The bedposts stood faintly illuminated by the screen’s light, and the only thing I could see was my own ridiculous behavior. Shining the phone around, I found nothing disturbing in any direction. In fact, I found nothing at all…
Curious, shivering against the breezes, I shined the phone down.
The bed’s heavy feet seemed to rest on open void. Moving closer, but not daring to cross past the bedposts, I tried to make out the floorboards… but there was just… nothing…
The phone slipped from my fingers, then, and bounced from the edge of the mattress and over.
Breathless, I watched in anticipation as the spinning dim rectangle of light dropped away. It vanished almost immediately. I hesitated only a moment; and then turned hastily toward the opposite end of the bed, crawling for the headboard. The phone had seemed to drop away at an angle…
Peering over the headboard, I sighted the spinning light again, now far, far behind the bed - and moving away. It fell for another two or three interminable seconds, hitting something hard with an audible clatter, its light spilling across… rock? Rocks? What the hell was I looking at?
Even as the confusing image receded into the distance, my racing thoughts finally placed it all: I wasn’t on an open plain… I was in a cave, I was moving through a cave… and something huge and mobile had moved in front of the phone’s distant light, blotting it out.
But not near the phone, no…
The shadow blocking the phone’s light was immediate and close - its warm breath on my face now unmistakable. Frozen again, I watched as the enormous shadow passed, crawling above… quite literally crawling on top of the rectangular space marked by the bed’s four posts.
I could feel the warm gusts from directly above - it was aware of me now, aware of our unfamiliar block of space, aware of something alive inside that space - something it couldn’t seem to reach, but something it most certainly wanted…
I cowered down, listening to intermittent scratching noises that belied its attempts to reach us. I felt like an animal cowering in a cage, with no recourse except to hide and hope…
A blast of sunlight sliced along my eyes, and the attic’s furniture and familiar wooden walls instantly melted into form across my vision. I hadn’t blinked - that’s all I kept telling myself - I hadn’t even blinked. There was no way I’d fallen asleep. It couldn’t have been a dream.
I reached for the phone between the pillows, but it was gone.
Deeply disturbed, I spent the day in a daze, internally debating what I’d experienced. I couldn’t tell anyone - I couldn’t give her grandparents another reason to dislike me, or her family cause for thinking me insane… but this had to be what her grandfather’s veteran friend had experienced.
Sneaking away before dinner - all lights on - I examined every single inch of that attic, a rising note of panic pushing me faster the closer night approached. I carefully pried back a loose board in the wall - nothing of note back there. I opened all the dusty furniture, but found nothing out of the ordinary.
The moment came when there was nothing left, save the one space I feared the most. I watched it at an angle in a propped up mirror, wondering if something might betray itself… but the dark space under the bed lay silent and still, emanating inexplicable menace.
“What are you doing?” my girlfriend asked, interrupting.
“Um, nothing, just thinking…”
“Weirdo. Everyone’s wondering where you are! It’s dinner time.”
I gulped. “Okay…”
Dinner was a blur. I considered asking someone to switch rooms, but I doubted anyone would - and, even so, I couldn’t justify sending my girlfriend’s family into that strange nightmare world without warning. And, otherwise, there was no place to sleep, and no excuse that wouldn’t make me seem strange…
I took a flashlight and knife with me to bed, hiding them under my pillow.
As my girlfriend slept, I waited.
This time, sitting in the breezy void, I could almost tell the exact moment that things changed. The creaks and drafts blurred together into a constant, cool flow - and I knew we were back in that otherworldly cave… how it was happening, or where it was, I had no idea, but it had seemed, on the night prior, that we were safe as long as we stayed in the bed.
It occurred to me that I might have focused my search in the wrong place. Maybe it wasn’t the attic or the furniture at all - maybe it was the bed… something I resolved to investigate in the morning.
Using my own cellphone, I dialed hers, on the off chance that it would somehow still work…
A moment later, the tiniest dot of light appeared in the distance ahead. A moving shadow almost immediately blotted it out, falling for my distraction.
Turning on my flashlight, I aimed it up, intent on proving I was moving through a cave.
The attic ceiling greeted my light… the wooden rafters vague, washy, and partially transparent. I could see the flashlight’s beam grow weaker beyond it, where the light continued up to a wide, distant circle on uneven stone. Stalactites and protrusions raced by at a dizzying speed that immediately prompted me to click my light off and fall back on the pillows.
So we were in both places at once, then…
Feeling strangely assured by my increased understanding of the situation, I lay back, almost untroubled. Everything would be fine… I’d just lie here and make sure neither of us left the bed during the strange intersection of realities. It hadn’t lasted very long the night before…
I smiled as I lay there, fancying myself quite the master of the supernatural.
I even continued to smile as I heard the scraping sounds start up - the creature, or creatures had noticed our intrusion. The scraping sounds were joined by a strange creaking somewhere out in the distance, but I figured that must just have been the house itself in the wind.
My idiot smile dropped as I felt a tug on the blankets from the end of the bed. The creatures might not be able to get inside, for whatever reason - but apparently that didn’t mean they couldn’t pull things out.
Terrified, I tugged back. A harder response pulled me up from the sheets, and I set my feet hard and hauled with all my might. Beside me, my girlfriend stirred in response to the struggle, and tore free from the blankets as something heavy hit the bed’s frame, shaking us. A strange groaning and growling sound matched it.
Too intent on the increasing pull to explain, I just shouted with absolute panic. She screamed, and pulled back with me, resisting whatever was trying to drag the blankets, sheets, and mattress away. The strength of our invisible enemy seemed incredible.
She screamed again, and I abandoned the struggle to dive for my knife. The blankets tore away, and the pull focused on the mattress.
Holding onto the bedpost in the total darkness, I stabbed out with the knife - but there was nothing there, at least not at my height. Feeling the bed shake with a heavy impact again, I stabbed down - and felt the blade sink into boney flesh.
Panicked, I stabbed and sliced again and again. The thing clawing after us in the darkness seemed to finally give up, and a pained groan emanated in the dark.
Shaking, I grabbed my girlfriend, holding her close as she alternately screamed and cried - too shocked to even ask what was happening.
I didn’t know how to explain it even if she did ask. All I could do was wait out the otherworldly intersection, knowing that we were safe, that my efforts had actually succeeded against… whatever the hell that thing had been.
The morning sun soon sliced the nightmare away again.
Her jaw still trembling, my girlfriend stared at the light streaming in the window.
Not me - I’d expected the different flow of time in that other place. I had a more disturbing interest. I crept to the end of the bed, peering down…
Her grandfather lay on the floor, mouth agape, curled up in our bloody sheets and blankets. Horrible wounds covered his chest and neck, and my knife lay jutting from his arm. The floor around him was clean, the blood having fallen into that other place rather than the attic.
Filled with horror, I suddenly understood a certain part of the night’s experience… the creaking had been her grandfather coming up the stairs, perhaps to say something, perhaps to check on us… and then he’d had a heart attack, crawled over, grabbed at the sheets and groaned for help, and I’d… I’d stabbed him…
“What is it?” my girlfriend asked, finally able to form coherent words. Shivering, she stared at me, unwilling to come look.
I couldn’t breathe. I suddenly imagined a life in prison for murder, unable to explain the accident, unable to explain what had happened - and we had a bitter history already, her grandfather and I… there was no way they’d believe me… or even believe that I was insane, if I tried to go that route…
An immense force suddenly jerked the roll of bloody sheets and blankets, dragging the entire mess under the bed.
“Are you alright?” she asked, growing worried. “Hey, what is it? What’s there?”
My mouth moved for a moment before I was finally able to form words.
“Nothing… there’s nothing…”
My eyes frozen wide, I could only stare dumbly at the spot where I’d seen the wickedly bladed claw reach out from the darkness under the bed and take her grandfather’s body.