There once was a lonely black house on the top of a hill overlooking the rest of the neighborhood. It was a house that, for no logical reason, always seemed to exude a particular chill. The daggered iron fence that ran along the unkempt lawn cast a gloomy air, not aided in the slightest by the chipped paint or sagging shutters adorning the ancient house, reflecting years of neglect. Children would ride their bikes faster on this particular block, almost as if they lingered too close to the house they would be sucked inside, never to see the light and joy of the rest of the neighborhood again. Playground balls accidentally hit over the menacing guardian wall were left to wither into deflated plastic pools, for there was no approaching the brooding iron lions guarding the black double-doors and the reclusive neighbor within.
The man inside lived a hermit's life. He enjoyed his solitude, rarely venturing beyond his guardian lions and never imposing a word upon those living around him. After enduring many grueling years as a journalistic prisoner of war, he had grown mistrustful of strangers and preferred to keep a safe distance at all costs. Not a superstitious man, he was unbothered by the melancholy façade of this home, and found charm in the oddities that distinguished it from the other neatly manicured landscapes around. In fact, they played an instrumental role in his self-imposed isolation from the rest of society.
The decrepit house was his only inheritance from his mother, who passed away during his time in an underground cell. He returned to the house in its sorry state, and rather than waste his pension on its upkeep, he embraced its weathered character for his new life. An ambitious soldier turned hardened writer, he was able to work from the comfort of his overstuffed, wing-backed chair, basking in the warmth of the grand fireplace of his study more often than not, only venturing outside to deposit the occasional brown-paper parcel in the box on his fence containing his pseudonym works for his editor.
One night, after a glass of neat scotch and another chapter finished in his current project, the man ascended his winding staircase and retired to his bedroom for the night. As he lay in his bed, he was tormented by sleep that refused to last, tossing and turning between dreamy haze and frustrated consciousness. Rolling over once more, he heard a creak in the wooden floor coming from downstairs. He dismissed it quickly, and pulled the blankets up closer to his face.
He heard it again.
He rolled over to face the door, eyes open now, heart beating a little faster in breathless anxiety waiting for another sound. Silence lingered for what felt like an hour, and just as he started to close his eyes, a whining creak cut through the night as something from below was approaching up the staircase.
His heart began to pound in his chest as he rapidly contemplated his next move. He had no weapon in here, and although the hero in many of his works would have bravely thrown open the door to face whatever trespasser made the mistake of disturbing his sleep, the thought of this confrontation made his stomach churn. Another dull thud on the staircase below. It was climbing towards him, one agonizingly slow step at a time.
As quietly as he could, he slithered out of bed and crept towards his door. Firmly pressing one hand against it, the other gripped the lock and turned it slowly until the soft click cut through the silence like a discarded bullet casing. He held his breath, praying that somehow he was unheard. His heart thudded in his chest like it was trying to break free from his ribs. A soft thud emanated from the landing. It had reached his floor.
A scratching sound like nails riding along the wooden floor slowly got louder and louder as it approached his room. Behind his locked door he was paralyzed with fear, sweat beading from his forehead as his blood turned to ice. The scratching stopped just on the other side of his only protection from whatever was stalking him.
He heard a soft exhale almost as if the intruder was breathing against his door. And then silence. Was it just a breeze? Maybe his imagination was getting the better of him... the glass of scotch too generous, perhaps. He lived in an old house after all, there were bound to be loose floorboards with generations of mice beneath causing his hazy imagination to run wild. The present silence echoed loudly throughout the halls.
He shook his head and began to relax when he heard what sounded like claws scraping down his wooden door. The sound made his heart leap to his throat as it raced futilely away from the approaching evil. Turning around, he dove headfirst under his bed, desperately trying to escape his tormentor. From under the bed he could see black shadows beyond the small crack below the door. He closed his eyes, praying that whatever was about to happen, it would be over quickly and he could leave this nightmare behind for good.
After what felt like an eternity, he squinted open his eyes and looked out to the space beneath the door. The shadow was gone, and he could see a sliver of moonlight shining through the landing window beyond. His heartbeat slowed, and he climbed out from beneath his mattress to stare blankly at the door before him.
Was it too soon to check?
He decided it was, and buried himself under the covers of his four-poster bed. The intruder could steal whatever it wants, just so long as it left him alone. Wrapped tightly in a cocoon of blankets, he stared at the door wide awake, waiting until the safety of daylight to venture out into his home.
As fresh sunlight cascaded through his windows and filled his bedroom with a warm energy, a new sense of confidence arose in him. He got out of bed and unlocked his door, pausing at the handle to take a deep breath before flinging it open.
There was nothing there.
No scratch marks on the door. No trail on the floorboards in the foyer. He went downstairs to find all of his windows closed and locked as they normally were, his front door the same. There was no way someone could have entered his home without a key, and he knew this was impossible. Last night’s episode must have merely been an elaborate tangent his imagination concocted after a little too much scotch and not enough sleep. There was no other explanation.
His day passed like any other, and before he knew it the sun was slowly fading into twilight, leaving the sky a deep crimson with streaks of purple clouds like curtains about to unveil the evening’s show of twinkling lights. As he sat by his fire, a worn novel in his lap and petite glass of brandy on the table beside him, the exhaustion from his previous night’s episode started to set in, and he felt his mind drift as sleep cradled him in its arms.
There was a knock at the front door, and he jolted upright, very awake. He never had visitors. He got up and walked through the hall to the foyer, but hesitated. Maybe he was just hearing things again like last night.
The knock repeated. He pressed his face against the door, looking through the peephole to see a woman draped in a hooded black robe that extended the full length of her frame to lightly brush against the porch with the gentle breeze. He considered her for a moment, then turned back the padlock and pulled up the floor stopper to open the door and face his uninvited guest.
Upon first glance, what he could see of her face seemed slightly gaunt, with wispy strands of black hair lightly concealing her left eye and poking out around the sides of her neck. Her right eye was opened wide as if in a state of permanent surprise, the deep brown pupil dilated to a thin disk. Her nose was crooked as if it had been broken and not healed correctly, her lips the color of distressed mahogany. His gut told him to slam the door shut and just walk away, but there was an indescribable, strangely familiar aura about her that entranced him, keeping his feet glued to the worn wooden entryway.
“Can I help you?” His voice shaking slightly, betraying his attempt at confidence.
He looked past her and saw no car parked outside his gates. A dense fog hung over the dimly lit street, blanketing most of the neighboring homes. This woman was unfamiliar to him, but he was sure the Esthers lived in the house at the opposite end of the development.
“You want the house all the way down the street, the one with the willow tree out front.”
She stared at him blankly for a moment.
Although he rarely ventured outside the safety of his walls, he felt inexplicably reluctant about sending her on her way alone. Of course, she was only a stranger and just moments ago he wanted nothing more than to retreat into the safety of his home behind the thick wooden door and wait for whoever this was to pass on. But slowly replacing his dread, a sense of passive tranquility began coursing through his veins. He was helpless to its spell.
"I… I'll get my shoes."
He held open the door as she stepped inside, black cloak dragging across the welcome mat through the entrance way as he silently led her to the study. He left her by the fire as he walked to the foyer closet. He bent to pick up his loafers and turned back to the entrance of the study to find her silently staring at him.
She was standing on one foot, the other raised beneath her cloak with her knee protruding slightly. Her arms were extended high above her head, with her hands drooped so they formed two claws. The sagging black arms of her cloak had fallen below her elbows, revealing angry violet and black scars streaking across both of her forearms.
She met his gaze silently, as lightning outside flashed through the window, casting an elongated demonic shadow across the floor in her wake. His skin started to prickle, and he felt an uneasy quell in his stomach. His mouth fell open in shock as she slowly inched closer to him, her one foot still in the air beneath the cloak while the other dragged at the ground in a piercing screech, like iron nails grinding against the wood.
He turned ghostly sallow as he recognized the sound from the night before. His shoes dropped to the floor from his trembling hand. Turning away from her, he bolted across the foyer to his back kitchen, scrambling up the narrow service staircase at its rear to the second floor. He took refuge in his bedroom and locked the door shut behind him without hesitation. He grabbed the telephone and after a brief ring, he was connected to the local police station.
“I live at 315 2nd Avenue, there’s a woman in my house that broke in last night. She’s trying to hurt me, get here as fast as you can.”
He slammed the phone onto its receiver and turned back to the door straining to hear any sounds of movement. He heard the same familiar scratching noise against the wooden floor, and soft thud as she reached the first rise on the staircase. Heart beating out of his chest, he dove underneath the bed for lack of a better plan.
Creaking footsteps approached toward his bedroom up the stairs and finally reaching the landing. He heard again the familiar dragging scratch across the wood floor leading toward his hideout, until she reached the door. Reliving the horror of the previous night amplified by a thousand, he jerked his gaze away from the door as he heard her softly exhale before scratching her nails down his door.
Suddenly, the scratching stopped and there was a deafening silence. He glanced to the space under the door, and saw no shadow waiting behind his wooden shield. He heard no footsteps or any movement from the hallway. Crawling on his hands and knees toward the door, he pressed his face against the crack below to gain a better view of the suspiciously deserted hallway.
Carefully he rolled back the lock and opened his bedroom door. The landing was clear as he walked slowly towards the master staircase, peering over the railing to gaze at the entranceway below. His home appeared abandoned again. He walked down the stairs, and approached his front windows in time to see a cloaked figure gliding down his street. Suddenly filled with an unfamiliar courage, he opened the door and lightly jogged out after her.
He had to stop her from getting to the Esther home. Not that he knew these people at all, but no one deserved the fright she had given him now twice. Whatever her motive, he wouldn’t be pushed around anymore. As he moved through the fog-laden street, he saw her approach the house at the far opposite of his own, ascend the porch stairs and let herself in through the unlocked front door. He followed across the front lawn of the Esther house, and approached the living room window to peer inside. All he saw was darkness, save for a light coming from the second floor.
He glanced to the ajar front door and thought for a moment before slowly entering. The cops would be right behind him, he reassured himself, as he stepped into a stranger’s home to chase after the specter that terrorized him the past two days. He inched toward the staircase and the light emanating from the floor above.
“Hello? Anybody up there?”
No answer. He carefully climbed the stairs and glanced across the upper hallway to the light coming behind another door left ajar.
“Hello? Mr. Esther?”
Still no answer. He walked to the door and lightly pushed it open. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greeted him as he stepped through the doorway.
Lying on a blood-soaked bed was the body of a woman-the woman that visited his home on two separate occasions. She was naked and there were deep slashes across her chest, her arms tied to the bedposts behind her head, hands dropped downward to form crude claws. Her right foot was twisted grotesquely, as if she had tried and failed to escape prior to the horrors that followed.
He became lightheaded and felt bile rise in the back of his throat. Pale and sweating, he ran down the stairs and out the open front door to land sprawling on the neatly kept lawn. He retched uncontrollably, tears streaming down his face, in complete shock of what he had just seen. A high-pitched ringing filled his ears and blocked out the sound of everything around him. Red and blue lights flashed on the ground before him as two police cars pulled up in front of the sinful house.
Shivering and feeling trapped in some distant nightmare, he felt himself being pulled to his feet as a blanket draped across his shoulders. A uniformed man walked him away from the house and the horror within towards the cruiser, speaking inaudibly to him over the persistent ringing in his ears. He climbed numbly in the back seat, and watched the Esther house steadily fade to black as he was ushered away into the foggy darkness.