As a police officer, most calls you respond to are a product of a varying combination of misunderstandings, paranoia and overzealousness. This is especially so in the more remote regions of the country, where you'll find a dwindling population density, as well as elderly loneliness as a frighteningly commonplace companion, amongst the vast stretches of vain property. While I'm sure most Hollywood-type “cops” would find such occurrences a boring deterrent to their explosion-filled daily lives, I see them as an important part of the mission of the Police force. People can't live comfortably in fear. Our mission is to contribute to and maintain the well-being of the population. That is what I work for.
The flash of light stabbed through the dark veil of night that covered the corners of the imposing outer wall. The beam danced nervously, barely stopping over any given spot, as if to catch an elusive target hidden ever barely outside the lit area. The frantic movement of the flashlight betrayed the hidden hopes of its bearer, though the limits of the beautiful mansion's gardens stubbornly revealed little more than overgrown foliage. The sturdy metal gate showed no signs of its age, even as he pointlessly tried to shake it. Around and around, his head turned and kept turning. Yet what wasn't there before didn't appear as wished for, and a hint of frustration knocked quietly on his mind. He forcefully ignored it, and promptly refused to even acknowledge its presence – as much was dictated by his set of principles.
He felt it. Burning on his back, he knew it to be there as if by instinct. He didn't need to turn to be aware of the heavy eyes focused on him, trailing his movements. He allowed himself the brief peace of a heavy sigh, before turning towards the mansion. Movement. By the window, a shadow was outlined clearly, though the eyes had hurried to cover. Oh, how much he wished to avoid that look, a look that pained him so, and would soon pain him even more, as it inevitably became colored by shades of disappointment. “Once more around the house couldn't hurt,” argued his cowardly side, easily emerging the victor, as his courageous one was seemingly not up to the fight. He walked once more. He saw the same, heard the same, ever the mad man expecting different results. As a last resort, he jumped up and down, peeking into the unused and clearly locked rooms of the back of the house. Only dust and sheets met his gaze, and he was soon back at the front porch as a defeated man.
A muster of courage later, and his hand met the door, as he knocked lightly no more than twice – once would've been fine, he knew, as there would be no difficulty in hearing it when one was standing barely two feet from the door. The door opened, and the look from earlier now stared at him directly. “It's no good, Mrs. Winters,” at each word he noted the onset of disappointment, closely trailed by fear, “I saw nothing suspicious or out of place.” He grasped at straws to try to sound reassuring and avoid silence, and found himself voicing mediocre explanations, “Maybe you mistook it for something, or some type of wild animal has been making its rounds around the garden.” At the sound of his words, even he felt frustrated, yet the obvious fear had at once been replaced by a facade of ease and joviality, an attempt at consolation by the kind old woman.
“Oh, don't look so dejected while saying it, Danny! You're right; it's probably just the ramblings of a crazy old woman. I'm sorry, I'm just getting used to living in this house again after so many years.” With exaggerated movements, she made light of the situation, and yet his pain only grew at the sight of her efforts. “She has always been strong,” he thought in admiration.
“I think you're putting words in my mouth!” He replied, trying to match her mood, “I'm pretty sure I didn't say you were crazy, not today at least! Still,” he shifted his body position to try to segue smoothly to what had to be said, “You did the right thing. Whenever you think something's up, call me. This house has gotten pretty isolated after the Warrens moved back to Arizona, so you shouldn't take any chances.”
At that, she laughed lightly, “You speak of this place as if it's ripe with crime! This town is so peaceful I'd think you should start worrying about your job!”
He couldn't help but chuckle, “You don't have to worry about that. Just today, in fact, we received worrying reports from Mr. Wilson. Apparently, he went out to his backyard to find that he's missing 4 heads of lettuce. You wouldn't believe the current size of the list of suspects, you can't trust anyone anymore!” He shook his head, jokingly dejected.
“My God! How tragic! But fear not, for I have planted no lettuce at all”, retorted the old woman.
After laughing, he felt the need to re-emphasize, “But seriously, you should just call when you hear anything. Pat's worried, you know? He keeps asking me to check on you and see if I can convince you to move in with him.”
“Well, Patrick can say whatever he wants, but you shouldn't indulge his whims. You should know better than I do how that boy values his independence, you've seen it since you two were kids. How could he enjoy his life with me there? Besides, I'd rather go homeless than move back to Jersey, never liked that place. This is where I belong.” She had a nostalgic look, as she looked around her at the house. “Anyway, since your shift's done, come in, and have some tea. I made a carrot cake earlier, and it turned out pretty delicious, if I may say so myself.”
He accepted the invitation, and followed her into the house. The place held many memories for him as well, yet it seemed to pale in comparison to its former glory. What it lacked in warmth seemed to have been replaced by gloom, abundant in the poor lighting and the minimalist decoration. While it was now hosting life once again after many years, the mansion still looked very much like an old, abandoned house. “I thought she'd be further along in trying to make herself feel at home, it’s been nearly two weeks,” he thought as he followed the woman, seeing in her shoulders the grayness that went far deeper than her hair and facial features, a grayness accentuated by the shadows of memories that must creep up around every poorly-lit corner.
The kitchen, where he sat as she poured him a cup of tea, was much more cluttered than the rest of the house, betraying the fact that she was spending most of her time there, regardless of whether or not she was cooking. Several old books stood on the table with sheets of paper covered with notes.
“Are you working again?” he asked, as he checked the book on top.
“No, I wouldn't say I'm 'working' per se.” She had come around with a couple of mugs filled with tea. Upon his inquisitive look, she continued, “But I am translating. Robert had been keeping a part of his collection here, and I thought I should use them somehow.” Her look fell over the books mournfully, “I'm scanning them and translating as I go.” She was feeling the covers of a couple of the books, and seemed far more immersed in memories than in the conversation at hand, snapping out of it suddenly, and reaching for the cake, “I'll probably send it to acquaintances and ask them to add it to some universities' online databases. They're a bit... Hm... Eccentric, perhaps, but I'm sure there are people out there who'd love to read them. Besides, it'd be a pity if the books were just left out here to rot for the next hundred years. Some of these are people's lifeworks, and he did like them ever so much.”
“How old are these, anyway?” he asked, moving his eyes from the thinly veiled tears that threatened to fall, and hoping that his expression would portray curiosity where only an uncomfortable awkwardness existed.
“There are all sorts, I suppose. Most of them aren't properly dated, but I'd bet that some of these would fetch a small fortune from a bibliophile with an interest in genuine material from the middle ages. There’s quite an eclectic selection of languages, as well.”
The words flowed, and along returned her composure. As smoothly as he could, he steered the conversation towards lighter, tangential topics. This was a house of books, from a family tied to the fields of letters for generations on both sides. Conversations about the written word were thus fertile ground for planting the seeds of warmth back into the grays of the old woman's face. This collection of books, representing decades of collecting and hard work, travels and purchases now meant more than the simple sum of its parts to her.
She laughed – a rare sight, to be admired these days – at a comment he had made.
“No, these aren't just old works of fiction. It wasn't exactly the literary side that drove him to such extents to acquire these. These books are all unique, and yet not a single one of them is written as a story.”
“You laugh at my decades-old assumptions, and you're still not going to tell me what these are?” he picked one up in false exasperation.
“I can't describe them generally, because most of them have very little, if anything, in common. For example,” she reached across the table and spread the books a little more, pointing to a different one each time, “these two are eighteenth century herbals; this one is a grimoire of sorts; this one has observations on supernatural entities...”
She was going to continue her listing, but instead looked at his expression, and laughed.
“I, I honestly didn't know Mr. Robert had such an interest as...” at a lack of appropriate words, he merely pointed in the general direction of the books.
“Well, these books mattered to him as an amateur historian, rather than as an occultist of any sort. Hm… Maybe I'll explain with an example.” She picked up the last book she had mentioned, “This was written by a priest. He speaks of evil demons and their wicked deeds. Yet, with the help of retrospective, you can understand the meaning behind many of his descriptions. Behind the specter of the sexual demon, lies a note on the sexual deviation of men – even among those of faith. In the shadows of the possession lurked the social dangers of alcoholism, and so on.”
“Though, in truth, his eyes as he read these were less those of a scholar and more those of a boy, delighted in the wild depictions of medieval imagination.”
“Alright, I guess I can understand the appeal when you put it that way.” He picked up a small brown book with little notes on top, “You should let me borrow your translations for one of these some time.” The note on top had only one underlined word “Ensomhet”.
“That would be quite okay, but I'd say that one in particular is a bad pick. Even I can't really make heads or tails out of most of it, honestly.”
“Well, I'll trust your judgment on that. Just pick something you think I'd like, and let me know.”
Their conversation continued for a while, curiosity being artificially extended on a number of topics until he could feel some sense of safety from the old woman. At the door on his way out, he noticed an open window. “I could've sworn I had closed that. I think some of these windows must be showing signs of their age, this keeps happening these days.” Her words spoke of old age, and he worried. He worried for this woman who had given him much of what his mother had omitted him, who had always had a bright smile to comfort him, when at home all he met with were frowns.
He went home. His steps were heavy and noisy. It all seemed so noisy at home. “No, maybe the silence that follows is what is truly upsetting,” but this thought was barely acknowledged, as if not recognizing one's own thoughts might make them any less true. The house was so familiar that he didn't even need to turn on the lights in most rooms. The dark embraced him, as he paced back and forth pointlessly. He sat down on the comfort of the couch, and felt the remote in the darkness. He raised it, yet did nothing more, there was nothing he wanted to watch, even less he wanted to do, yet drowsiness seemed a distant companion. What time was it? He wasn't sure, but it was probably late enough to call it a day. Lying on the comfort of the bed, he felt the bottle in the darkness. Opening it, some of its contained wonders fell on his palm. “I have to be sharp tomorrow, people are counting on me,” he thought, and returned one, swallowing the rest. The darkness that surrounded him was soon overtaken by the shadows of man-made sleep.
The leaves were falling from the trees, the cold was coming. Mrs. Winters called him in a panic a few more times as the leaves kept falling, and the cold kept coming. Her exasperation was outdoing her thoughtful consideration, and each time he saw her she looked more disheveled and tired.
“I could hear it all night”, she said as she sat on the kitchen, “the windows keep on opening, and I think there are more and more of them, whatever they are... I hear them crawling all around the house.”
He was too overwhelmed to interject, too lost to know what to say. She avoided looking at him, shame written all over her tired wrinkles of sleepless nights.
“Last night was even worse than usual. I looked out the window, and saw nothing as always. When I came back to the bedroom, the window was open. Ever since, I...” she sobbed, breaking down, “I, I keep seeing shadows moving around the house. Just at the edge of my vision, I see something.”
She paused, and sipped on the tea. Her eyes were still avoiding his, but he could see her trying to grasp back her calm demeanor.
“Mrs. Winters, don't worry about the sounds outside. I've checked around the house several times. I see no footprints but my own, so maybe it's just a small animal, or birds. I'll block the windows shut tomorrow as well. And the shadows, well,” his mind was looking for the right words, finding none, “it's an old house. Maybe the lights aren't that great. Just calm down, there's nothing that could harm you inside the house. Has Pat called you back?”
“No, he's in the middle of preparation for a committee. It sounded important”, their eyes finally met, “I'm sorry, Danny. I think this house is getting to me, more than I expected. I'll be okay, thank you.”
Each word stabbed at him far more than any cry of help could. He swallowed, his tongue slid across his lips, and his mind raced. Yet, the words that suggested themselves upon him sounded unconvincing.
“I’ll start coming by every day after work.”
“No, Danny. It’s alright, I’m fine.”
“Why can’t she just let me help her?” is a thought that crossed his mind, veiled in frustration that he chose to ignore.
The conversation lagged, back and forth, in a battle of stubbornness. He won. For the most part, that is.
He kept his and she kept hers. Come he did, as he had said, yet talk, she did not. The cold was still coming, the days were shorter, and the river froze over. He met with her every day, and she showed him nothing but a mask every single one of those days. Her break down from before was yet to repeat itself, and now revealed its lingering effects in subtler ways. She was jumpy, kept looking around and the wrinkles deepened.
The river had been frozen solid for a while when he stood at her door for an unusual amount of time. She wasn’t opening the door. He could hear something from the inside, but the door wasn’t opening. He walked around the house looking through the windows, worry rising in him. Inside, the shadows of the place danced around his gaze. At the side of the house he could’ve sworn he saw a figure, a shadow darker than the rest stumbling through.
The window was open. He could’ve sworn he had nailed it shut a while ago. He peeked and wondered about the implications of coming in through the window, opting out of such a decision thanks to his common sense. He heard the noise clearer now. It was weeping. Uncontrollable sobbing could be heard. It sounded frenetic, desperate. He called out, “Mrs. Winters, what’s wrong?” He repeated the shout, and eventually heard the front door unlocking. Standing on the porch, covering her shoulders with a blanket, stood the old woman.
“Sorry Danny. I fell asleep on the couch, so I didn’t hear you knock.”
“Why’s she pretending?” he asked himself. Had this farce not been going on for a while he would’ve kept it to himself, but he couldn’t let it go at this point. They walked in, and started talking as usual. He prodded more forcefully, and seemed to be able to lead the woman to her breaking point.
“Danny,” she said, as her eyes were fixated on an empty point in space, “I think I’m,” she hesitated, and licked her lips, steeling her resolution, “I’m not okay. I think I’m losing it.” Her voice shook as she spoke, and her hands didn’t cease moving for a second, while her eyes kept focusing on different pieces of furniture to avoid clashing with his.
He sat down, and tried to collect his thoughts before talking, “You can talk to me. Tell me what happened.”
“Every single day it seems to get worse. The sounds, the shadows; everything around the house seems wrong.” She paused in thought, or mere remembrance, her eyes paralyzed, her lips quivering. “I hear shuffling noises around the house all night. At some points, I think hear voices. I can’t understand them, it doesn’t even sound like speech to me, but I can hear people. It sounds like groaning, or moaning or something like that, I’m not sure.” Another pause, as the woman wiped what could’ve become a tear from her eyes. “These past two nights, I couldn’t take it anymore, and decided I’d try to find the source. But there was nothing, no one at all. I could still hear the noises, but they kept changing places as I walked around the house.”
The lone tear that could’ve been was no more, but the droplets of despair that now slowly traced the contours of her tired face told a tale of anguish.
“I’m afraid…” The words at first sounded like a statement in and of themselves, but their object showed in the eyes of the old woman, a terror that was not common within a healthy individual’s mind, and she concluded, “I’m afraid of how close it is coming.”
Calls were made, and resolution swept through the garden of the impressive mansion, as the winds of winter blew to a freezing epitome of desolated grayness. Off to Jersey she went, and appointments with a professional were taken care of. When she left, the last remnants of resistant leaves were falling from their places of safety; when she came back, those leaves had probably not even been washed away by the pouring rain.
A strong impression was left upon the residents of the nearby area, as they saw her walk back into the mansion. It was perhaps striking that the old mansion showing signs of abandonment stood in odd reflection of the tired, skeletal woman that would once more inhabit it. Rumors flew about, “She was demented,” they said, “the doctor had told the son that there was nothing to be done about it, that her wishes should be respected.” “Why,” they asked, “would she want to come back to this old mansion, overpowering in its grandeur, was she not going to be buried under the emptiness of its rooms?” Words whispered amidst cold winds showed signs of the need for the warmth of another’s misfortune, yet none truly knew what the doctor’s indications had been.
He visited her the day after the move. She looked a pale shadow of her bright, former self. There were also fewer attempts at pretense. All the same, he was invited in. The halls of the house seemed darker and heavier than before.
The conversation lagged amidst empty topics. He asked about the doctor, fearful though he was of the reply. It was unexpectedly unreserved, though, as she willingly told him of the medication that had been prescribed and the periodicity of her consultations. No comment had been added about her mind’s actual state, though. Curiously enough, she geared the conversation towards complicated issues of her own volition.
“I left because I thought it was the house. I really thought it was this place.” She looked around her, taking in the enormity of the shadows that crept around the house. “I thought it was because of these massive walls, these long, empty hallways. But everywhere else was just as massive, just as long and just as empty. I thought it wouldn’t come with me. But it cares not for distance. It’s always there, a dark so blinding that your closed eyelids pose no threat to its shimmer.”
“Mrs. Winters, it’s okay now. You just have to do as the doctor told you, it’ll get better with time, and the pills will help.” He tried to sound reassuring, yet the vacant despair of the old eyes before him told of failure. He felt what she wanted him to ask, but feared doing so. It felt as though she needed to revel in the madness to compensate for even trying to hold it in.
“The doctor and the pills provide little company in the face of the mantle of night. They’re not going to help me. I don’t know if anything would. It keeps coming.”
Once more he felt it, and knew he had to take it, “What is? What are you talking about?”
“I, I’m not sure what ‘it’ is. I just know that it is my end.”
“Whatever ‘it’ is, Mrs. Winters, I’m here for you. You’re safe here, nothing will get you. You just have to focus on feeling better.” “You, you don’t get it. You just don’t get it.” She was way past her breaking point, and had abandoned all composure. She faced him with eyes wide open, and a clear picture of horror was painted across her stare. “‘It’ is such that I can still see it when I close my eyes. I can still hear it when I put music on. You’re doomed once you notice it, it never leaves, there’s no one there for you but ‘it’. After you notice it for long enough, you’ll see it everywhere, fear it at any corner and feel it even in the middle of a crowd.”
She looked out of breath. His mind raced, processing the words of the fragile woman in stark contrast to the image he had once held of her. A mixture of pity and fear started to well up in the deepest, most genuine part of his conscience. Yet he didn’t break away from the shaking glare that now stood before him. He did not have the answers, but he hoped that listening and being here would help.
“Is that why you came back? You didn’t feel safe there either, is that it?” He asked upon nothing but a continuous silent stare from her part.
“Yes. Things got worse a lot faster there. I, I saw ‘it’ there for the first time.” The pronoun was said with doubt and hesitation, as if speaking of it could somehow summon whatever was haunting her mind. “It was like I wasn’t supposed to have left here, like I was being punished.”
“And did you talk to the doctor about that?” He saw disappointment and a light nod as a reply, and realized that it had not been the question she was hoping for. “Should I indulge her” he asked himself, “should I prod into this when I have no idea of the impact it could have on her?”
“Leave the counseling to the professionals,” was the conclusion he came to. He proceeded to lead the conversation to lighter topics, leaving when he thought he could see shades of calmness dawning on the woman’s eyes. As he left, he made sure she promised to call him directly at any time in case she felt unsafe.
On the drive home, he stopped the car next to the bridge and took a few moments to look over the frozen river. He walked on the bridge and lit a cigarette, the tip of it burning brightly. The frozen river looked ominous under the mantle of darkness, strange shadows a constant trick of the mind. He feared for the future. “She shouldn’t have come back in this state, she should be in a mental institution.” Immediately after the thought materialized in his mind, he felt guilty and ashamed for it, regardless of how much he actually meant it. When it came to protecting someone from one’s own mind, there was little he could do.
He didn’t visit her daily, as before. He expected her to call, but the call wasn’t coming. After four days without hearing from her, he went there uninvited. He knocked and waited. He waited and knocked once more. He called the landline a couple times, but no one answered. Right at the point where he was considering breaking the door down, the door unlocked and opened. Mrs. Winters, wearing a robe, stood by the door using it for support. She looked deadly pale, and was obviously finding it hard to keep her balance.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“No,” she replied weakly, “I took some sleeping pills not too long ago. They’re quite strong, so I’m not really feeling very lively. I’m sorry, Danny, but I really need to get some sleep, or else I might just pass out.”
“O, okay. I’ll come by later, then.”
The woman apologized once more, and he left. He checked the clock in the car, and it read 1:24 pm.
As he said, he came by once more in the late afternoon. She looked more stable, but still weak, as a flower withering away, gray and slumped.
“Lately, I’ve been finding sleep very comforting.” She replied to his inquiries. “Those pills the doctor gave me knock me right out, it’s a miracle I heard you earlier.”
“How many are you taking a day?”
“I don’t know. I don’t keep count, honestly. It’s the only way he doesn’t come closer.”
“‘He’? Who is ‘he’?” The change in pronoun startled him, since it didn’t appear accidental.
“I think it’s a ‘he’, at least. Now that I’ve seen him so clearly, he’s so human-like I can’t keep calling him a thing. Then again, from the way he crawls so awkwardly, pulling himself forward with his arms, touching every surface frenetically as he weeps, you could easily mistake him for a beast.”
“You’re still seeing these things? When is your next consultation?”
“I think it’s next week. Well, I hope it’s next week. I’m almost out of pills.” The latter comments sounded out in a low voice, as if she was talking to herself. “I’ll keep seeing him, Danny. I think I know what he is, and if I’m right, he’ll keep coming. He’ll never fade away. I’m tired of seeing him so often after turning corners in the house. I’m tired of hearing it echo throughout these halls. I tried other ways before resorting to the pills. But they were just painful, they just made him look and sound even more apparent. If I go to sleep normally, I’ll wake up to his clawing. I never want to wake up with him that close to me ever again.”
He didn’t know what to say. In her eyes, despair danced with resignation, as the poor woman seemed to possess enough of herself to realize how far gone she truly was. It wasn’t fear that moved her lips, but tiredness. Except there was no rest to be found, for even dreamless sleep was nothing but an interregnum, an in-between period of time surrounded by shades of nothing short of torture. Her eyes had long stopped seeking help, for it was not help she wanted, just peace.
He felt out of his depth. “There is nothing I can do”, he told himself continuously, as he reassured the old woman of the safety of her home. His words fell in a deep lake of exhaustion, tipping it slightly over the edge, as a drop escaped her eyelids. He walked out, and went home.
The next time he returned was on official duty, a few days later. Unreturned phone calls had driven Pat to ask the police to check on her. He knocked several times, and waited for around 15 minutes, before forcing the door open. He found her in what had once upon a time been her husband’s office. The walls of that room were lined with books. The smell still reminded him of scenes lived in that house decades before, simpler times. The countless hours the husband had spent in that chair researching always surprised him. He remembered how many times he had wondered why the man kept reading, as he assumed that he already knew everything there was to know.
The chair stood in the middle of the room, strings of red descending from it. Above it hung Mrs. Winters, white as a body could become. Her bony face was now motionless, blots of a darkened shade running across the cheeks to match her neck. The white sleep gown had become stained, its gentle sway sickening to behold.
He reported in, and let others handle the cleanup. She had apparently stood there for around two days. The case was determined to be self-inflicted. Besides the blunt damage to her neck, she displayed lacerations all over her body. The difference between wounds indicated that they had not all been inflicted at the same time. Due to his insistence, the case would end up being investigated, but a coroner came to the conclusion that there was no foul play involved. “His investigation had been too quick,” he thought, “He had taken his conclusion the moment he received the report from her psychiatrist”. He went back to the house after the body had been taken. There was nothing to find.
The room seemed odd. Her wounds had seemed odd. There was nothing here, though. He stood in the emptiness of the house for hours. He hadn’t been able to face Pat, not even on the phone. In the office there stood a single book on top of the desk. “Ensomhet” was written roughly on the cover. He took it home with him. The moment he walked inside his house, he felt the heaviness of the dark emptiness. Now, he would only have Ensomhet to fill the space.
The book was written in a language he did not understand. Still, he flipped through every page. In a page, there was a single translated note from Mrs. Winters. It was a poem, a fragment of the translation had been left there.
Beware the shadows so familiar.
Come, pray for silence in your homes.
Where are those who hold you dear?
It comes, it comes.
It has no eyes yet watches all,
Cries from deep, but sheds no tears.
Is there no one you can call?
It comes, it comes.
Knocking closer day by day,
It alone won’t disappear,
Open windows will make its way.
It’s here! It’s here!
It feels its way, as it weeps and crawls.
Nothing left, now, only fear,
There is no warmth inside these walls.
It’s here! It’s here!
There was nothing else written in English. He put the book down, and looked around. The window of the kitchen was open. He didn’t usually open it, couldn’t remember when or for what reason he had done so.