the thing in the attic

Here’s a little something I wrote for the spooky month of Halloween 2019.

Une petite lecture pour le terrifiant mois d’Octobre 2019. (En anglais)

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

I grew up in South of France. In a town so small, so remote, there was not even a general store. Food and everything came by truck on specific days of the week. Forget to buy something and you’ve had to take the car. 

The land is old. People living among medieval and antique walls old. Digging up actual skeletons in your cellar old. 

My grandparents owned a place there and since my mother was away most of the day working her ass off to feed us both, that was where I stayed most of the time. It was by all means an odd building. Partially burned bakery turned vacation house turned family home in my grandpa’s hometown. It was never renovated so to this day if you raise your head toward the ceiling in the back you can see where the fire left its mark. It’s not nice. It’s decrepit and more than a little creepy. I loved it. I still do. Whatever darkness it holds, it will always be my home. 

Like I said before the village was ancient. It has been there for more or less than a thousand years and we have learned to live with that. Whoever build the house might have been too comfortable with the notion. They picked a spot half-buried in the hill that was over both a well and the former medieval cemetery. Maybe this explains the rest.

I was a fussy baby. Prone to sickness and night terrors. My mother got almost no sleep whatsoever in the first two years I was around. I grew up to be a weird kid with the overactive imagination you might expect, being raised with old people in a house that most would consider a fitting candidate for some kind of horror movie. Some would tell you it’s haunted. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong.

Things started when I was very young. Like I mentioned I was having nightmares. Problem was mine always featured the same thing. It was human, more or less. With the elongated limbs of a corpse, and the white milky eyes. Thin. Emaciated like it had been starved forever. It was lurking, hunting. And it always ended up chasing me. I knew from the start, it was living upstairs in my grandparents “house. Two rooms terrified me beyond reason. First one was a closet. The other was the attic. 

The closet was deep and narrow, stuck between my grandmother’s room—where I mostly felt safe—and a windowless space turned storage area we called the black room. It was by all means just a wardrobe. White walls, shoe boxes, coats, everything standard. Everything except the feel of the room. Something in there is staring down at you, crouched on the shelf. Something that doesn’t care you cannot see it because it knows you can sense it. It doesn’t even care that the door is shut or not. It waits for the right moment. And in your guts, an instinct that remembers standing vigil during dark nights in the wild, cannot help but shudder.

The attic was a whole different kind of animal. Its door was—and still is—in the black room which I was never able to picture as other than a neutral ground despite its name. An antechamber of sort. 

The door to the attic never closed very well. Unless you were inside. In this case, it could not slam fast enough. Just like if someone wanted to trap you in there. Approaching it from the outside is hard. The thing in your guts just knows. Even as you close your hand on the door handle, it begs to turn around and flee. You’re almost surprised to find a room and not a portal to Hell on the other side.

The attic has windows on the roof so there is light during the day. A good amount if you come by in the summer. But somehow it always seems gray in here. As if the simple fact of setting foot in this place was enough to drain all color from the world. It’s silence and waiting and dust. It’s like a tomb except not everything is dead. Everything is very much awake and very much aware. You don’t walk. You tiptoe.

The house was a moody creature. Sleeping most of the time, its darkness there just muted. I used to observe the cats to know what was happening. We’ve always had them. They had various tempers, various backgrounds but they all had one thing in common. No matter how many of them would be napping upstairs (sometimes in different rooms) at some point they would all wake up at the same time and dart to the ground floor. From the youngest age, I knew I had to follow them.

Growing up, I got more attuned to the rhythms of the building until I could sense the nuances. It would spike like a ripple in a pond, visible but not enough. Other, it was a tidal wave flowing from the depths and rushing. This would wake up the cats and this meant running. I stayed once. Teenager drunk on fear and her own rebellion. I fled down the stairs when I heard the attic door open. It was still ajar when we came to bed the same evening and I got scolded for not closing it. I kept my mouth shut.

Another night, I come to in complete darkness. As if someone has shaken me conscious. My whole being alert. I was laying on my side but a notion was painfully clear in my mind. The bedroom door was wide open. At the time, I was sleeping in an extra single bed in my grandmother’s room. It was on the far end aligned with three doors. The bedroom’s, the black room’s, the attic’s. All of them were open. At least two should have been shut. I shifted to my back and had a moment of vertigo, maybe five seconds before closing my eyes. Whatever was out there, I did not want to see it Hearing it walking around was enough. I told myself it was just creaking. Just an old house where wood work at night. Back and forth in the hallway. On two distinct feet.

It got better after that. I finished high school and went to college, hundreds of kilometers away. I never forgot about the thing in the attic though. It was still visiting my nightmares from time to time as if to say, “I’m still here.”

Every summer, I came back to my mother’s house. I was not as present at my grandparents’ as I used to be and I was less afraid. This is probably what set it off because one night the nightmare became worse. The usual frightening hide and seek in dark places turned crisp and clear. For once, I was in an unknown location. Not my grandparents” house, not my schools, not the countryside around the village. 

It was a ruined train station. I was traveling a lot at the time so maybe my brain just put something vaguely familiar on top of something it couldn’t understand. Or maybe the thing in the attic wanted to tell me it could reach me wherever.

Everything was blue and white. Steel and broken glass. Day rather than night. It should have been shining. Except everything seemed gray. Everything was silence and waiting and dust. Like a tomb but very awake and awake. I didn’t walk. I tiptoed.

For some reason, I had to cross that space and reach the other side of the hall.

I was midway when it happened. It jumped from the ruined wagon overturned on the rails, scattered by a crash an eternity ago. I saw it, shadow against the gray skies right before it landed on me and slit my throat. 

I awoke startled and wheezing, neck aching. There were three nasty-looking claw marks on my skin this morning. My mother took me to someone the same day. We don’t talk about this.

I lost my grandfather in 2010. It was not a good time. I was working too much in college and not being able to attend his funeral because I was moving to a new apartment made me feel horrible. Guilt and overwork swallowed the nightmares. It’s difficult to experience night terrors when you’re not sleeping.

I got better in time and the nightmares didn’t come back. I felt lucky at first, before I realized something else. My grandmother started to develop Alzheimer and we had to eventually put her in a home. It’s the events that led to it that I will tell you about now. Things became worrying in 2015. She’d forgotten to eat, lose time, be constantly disoriented. It was not what unsettled my mother the most though. Like me, she confessed at the time, she’d always feel weird in the house but with my grandmother’s decline, darkness was seeping through the entire building. Actual cracks appeared on the ceilings and walls, only getting worse now that the only person left there was losing it. My mother ended up opening all the windows upstairs and yelling at the attic.

I came back there once. To see my grandmother during Christmas 2017 after moving to Canada the year before. I discovered my childhood home in the worst state ever. Walls peeling, breaking. Spiders, that I hate, invading the space. The grayness from the attic eating at the colors on the ground floor. 

I had a book to get from my grandmother’s bedroom. I had to go upstairs so I went. First, killing the monstrous-sized spider that had moved in the corner of the room leading upstairs. Climbing up, up, up the almost rotten stair until the hallway came into view only lighted by a flickering bulb.

There are five doors on that level when you came from the first floor of the house. The closet directly facing you. On the left, my grandfather’s and grandmother’s bedrooms. On the right, my uncle’s ex-bedroom turned storage and the black room. Standing there at this very moment was like walking into the closet in the past. Whatever was previously limiting itself to this small room was now expanding. And every door was closed.

I pushed. Entered my grandfather’s room first. Dark because of the shutters but still less than the rest of the house. Something of him remained there. Fading but still present. Him and our long-gone cats now replaced by a skittish creature that came from the street and went back to it after my grandmother was forced to leave. No one could approach her. They were cracks on the ceiling but I still felt safe.

My grandmother’s was the same, more or less. I took the book and stayed a few minutes because the sun entered here. I needed a breather for what I was about to do next.

The hallway was still dark outside. The light still flickering. And I still felt like something was staring me down. I just didn’t care anymore. I had happy memories of this house. I wasn’t about to let shadows, noises and doors take that away. It was and still is my home. One of them anyway. So, I inhaled and opened this fucking closet first. Turned on the light. And stared at the top shelf for a few minutes. Nothing happened. I turned off the light, closed the door.

I tried to remember all the time, the cats came with, escorted me, stayed to nap or went on in the attic to catch mice and spiders. Sometimes, the thing in the attic was out for blood but it was not all my childhood.

I entered the black room. Its name had never fitted it better. The light was on but veiled. Objects were silhouetted but sharp. The room had teeth. It wanted to bite. I didn’t care. I advanced and entered the attic, silence, waiting and dust and I stood my ground. I told it to back the fuck off or I would fight it. And when I felt my point was made, I turned and left.

I had just closed the door of the black room behind me when things clattered to the floor.

I yelped. Took a few minutes to catch my breath and dare to try the door again. It was stuck.

Somehow, my grandfather’s crutches previously settled against the wall had been thrown in a crazy position that was locking the door. That is not what made my blood run cold. Next to them, something was squirming on the floor.

It was not the biggest spider I saw there. Not even close. It was big enough for me to feel disgusted and angry though. I do feel sorry for it now. That poor thing didn’t deserve to have me shoving the door open and then repeatedly stomping on it, yelling. I left upstairs after putting the crutches back in their place and for months, none of my nightmares featured the thing from the attic.

My grandmother kept on getting worse. She started to say that there was someone else in the group and that person or that group were scaring the shit out of her. I only learned that later.

One year later when things were getting terrible for my grandma while I was doing fine, ignoring every bit of her ordeal, I had the nightmare one last time.

It started on the ground floor in the room we call the garage even if it is not really one. 

The house was dark. Not the dark at night when the moon is new. A dark dull gray of a world without moon or stars or suns. Downstairs was dead. The room with the well and the graveyard pitch black. Nothing interesting there. Upstairs. I had to go upstairs.

There was nothing living. No spiders, no shadows of past cats and dogs, not any traces of whoever live in the house. It was a dead land and there was no direction but up. So, I climbed to the darkened hallway. There were still five doors. The black room was open and, at the end, the attic was waiting…

Instead of the room I came to expect there was a bridge and some stairs going down into a pit. I should probably have mentioned this earlier but most of the attic is above the well. In my dream that is what it had turned into. The inside of a gigantic well lighted by candles and oil lamps.

The thing was waiting for me on the bridge. As thin and ghoulish as it always was. The milky eyes and gray skin. The long nails and the teeth. It has been waiting there because it wanted me to come to its lair. It had a message to send.

It showed my grandmother sick and brittle. It showed me the house falling to pieces. There were no words but intent. Evil, murdery intents. And it lunged.

Usually I fled. Usually I was terrified and crying. Not this time. Maybe I grew up or maybe it had underestimated my will to protect the people I love. I pushed it away and it collapsed on itself. And for the first time I saw it for what it was. 

An old thing. A forgotten one who thrived on childish terrors and antique instincts of fright. A parasite allowed to keep on living by the refusal of changing things and letting the lights on. There was no fear left in my guts. Just pity. I let it scurry away. Back to the dark and the waters. And I woke up feeling the best.

My grandmother is in a house now. My mother is cleaning the house, little by little. One of the walls partially collapsed. It’s dark and silence but no more waiting. It’s empty she tells me. No one lives there anymore save for the spiders and the mice. I won’t go back there. It was my home once and somehow it still is.