You CAN go home again … FOREVER … in today’s story by Thomas Gaffney. Who doesn’t love an old dark house? The creaking floorboards, the musty smells, the cryptic messages carved into the floorboards, the fingernails lodged into the drywall ... I have to stop, I’m getting homesick!
by Thomas Gaffney
“It’s probably just the wind,” Alexis said.
Dan sighed. He hoped it didn’t show, but he’d never felt less like a man in his life. Here he was, on the wrong side of thirty and still afraid of being in this house—his house—in the dark. It was a weird combination; he wasn’t afraid of the dark itself, and he wasn’t afraid of the house alone. But he was afraid of being in the house in the dark. Always had been. “Yeah. You’re probably right. I don’t know what’s up with me tonight.”
“It’s okay, hun.” Alexis rolled over and kissed him. “I know sushi doesn’t sit well with you; maybe it’s keeping you up. But I appreciate you taking me out to celebrate my new job.”
“Of course, babe. Anything for you.”
“Now… try to get some sleep. You finally convinced me to get out of the city, after all these months, and it’s the first time we’re sleeping over at your place instead of mine. I should be the uncomfortable one, not you.”
Dan chuckled as Alexis rolled over, putting her back to him, and settled into her pillow. Within five minutes, Dan knew from her slowed breathing that she was asleep. He laid on his back and listened. The house was silent, which was both good and bad. While he heard nothing that terrified him, he also didn’t hear the usual sounds of the house settling—and that was worse. He slunk out of bed and tiptoed his way to the bathroom, looking back every few steps to make sure Alexis didn’t wake.
He clicked on the nightlight that was plugged beside the bathroom light switch.
Dan returned and eased himself back into bed without disturbing Alexis. He closed his eyes, and the familiar sounds of the wind buffeting the side of the house lulled him to sleep.
Alexis scooped up egg with her fork and held it over her plate. “Did you wake up during the night?”
“Uh. Maybe?” Dan didn’t know where this was going. He dished himself some eggs and sat. “I think so. Why?”
“You left the nightlight on in the bathroom.”
“Yeah. I thought you might need it if you got up during the night.”
Alexis shook her head and gave him that cute look that said she saw through his crap. Dan didn’t know where she got her superpowers, but she always saw through his crap. “You’re sweet, but I told you that wasn’t necessary.”
“Can I ask you something?” There was a question that gnawed at Alexis since last night.
Dan sighed and put his fork down. “Sure.”
Alexis reached across the small table and took his hand in hers. “Is there something about… about the house you’re not telling me?”
Dan squeezed her hand and lowered his head. He sat like that for a few moments before Alexis spoke again.
“Hey. It’s okay. There’s something up, but I can’t figure out what. I know you’re not afraid of the dark—we’ve gone walking on the beach at night, and you were fine when it was pitch black out. And you’ve stayed over at my place without any lights on. But last night, you kept the kitchen light on when we watched a movie, and you always enjoy watching scary movies in the dark. Plus, the nightlight…”
Dan thought about his answer. He knew he’d have to explain himself—it always came up and seemed to ruin his relationships—but not this soon. “I’ve mentioned inheriting the house after my mom passed away, right?”
“Yeah.” Alexis gave his hand a hard squeeze back. “You grew up here.”
“I did.” Dan nodded. “The house was old and run-down when my dad bought it, but he was handy and fixed up bits at a time until his heart attack. The last thing he was working on was the basement—which is why it’s not finished. It’s the newest part of the house and the only one I’m not afraid of.”
“I’ve always had a deep-seated fear of being in this house in the dark. This house and only this house. And only in the complete darkness. I’ve never been able to get over it.”
“Even with me right beside you?”
Dan shrugged and shoveled some egg into his mouth with his free hand. “With anyone. I felt like something was coming for me. Something that had lived in the house for ages and would snatch me one night, in the dark, and no one would ever see me again. Lights kept this secret inhabitant at bay, but in the darkness, my anxiety was sky-high. The worst might’ve been what my mom did to me.”
“Your mom? What did she do?”
“Whenever she forgot something in the car, she sent me out to fetch whatever it was.” Dan wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I made her stand at the kitchen window and watch me run out to the car and back.”
“Awwwww, that’s so sweet. I don’t get what—”
“She would wait until I was halfway between the car and the house, and then she would turn the lights off on me.”
“No!” Alexis laughed without meaning to. “I can’t believe Mindy would do something like that!”
“But she did! I mean… she quickly turned the lights back on and never left the window, but she still terrified me for those few seconds.”
“That’s… I hate to say something bad about your mom, but that’s cruel.”
“Yeah.” Dan’s smile faltered, and he pushed breakfast around on his plate. He thought about saying more. About how his mother always provoked these things with her pranks after he diligently kept them at bay. But he didn’t want Alexis to feel guilty about leaving the nightlight off, so he didn’t. “How do you like your eggs?”
Later that night, they laid in Dan’s bed and talked about plans for the coming week. Dan fell asleep as Alexis was going on about a crochet-date she had with some of her coworkers. “You jerk,” she whispered.
She settled into bed and thought she’d drift right off, but she had to pee. Alexis got up and made her way to the bathroom. Afterward, she turned off the lights on her way back. She was half-asleep and thought nothing of it.
It was some late hour, after three in the morning, when something woke Dan from a deep sleep. He reached over, felt Alexis’ sleeping form beside him, and was content. Dan rolled back onto his side and hoped he could quickly fall back asleep as his eyes glanced over the door.
No light appeared through the cracks in the doorframe.
Dan froze and listened. The house was silent, and he heard nothing outside. This was now two nights in a row, and he--
Something heavy skittered across the floor below the bedroom in the living room. He heard it again. Dan tried to shake the bed and wake Alexis up, but she slept through his attempts. He laid on his back, his mind racing, and his ears picked up every scritch and thud below them.
They sounded like footsteps climbing the staircase. Dan promised he wouldn’t turn on any lights tonight, but he needed to do something. So he shifted his legs and put his cold feet against Alexis’s bare skin.
“HEY!” Alexis woke and kicked her legs away from Dan. “Your feet are freezing!”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
It was clear he’d been up. “Have you been… watching me sleep?”
“You’re gorgeous when you’re sleeping.” It wasn’t a lie.
“You’re full of shit. Sweet, but full of shit. Have you been awake long?”
“Nope.” That wasn’t a lie either.
“Good. I don’t want you too tired for work.” Alexis threw back the sheets. “But now I need to pee again.”
She got up and ran to the bathroom. As she did her business, Dan noticed the footsteps were gone. A car drove down his block. He could hear the trees rustling on the other side of his street. When Alexis was finished, Dan heard the toilet flush and noticed she flipped the nightlight on when she exited the bathroom. A smile spread across his face and remained there the entire night. The light in the bathroom allowed Dan to relax and sleep peacefully.
When he woke the next morning, Alexis was already up. “Hey, I got a question.”
“Is it about breakfast?” Dan sat up.
“No. Have you ever considered a therapist?”
Dan was a few minutes late to his therapy session when Tuesday arrived. He’d been up all night—a heavy storm had knocked down some tree limbs and power lines—and he didn’t sleep a wink in the suffocating darkness. Not with the thuds, scratches, and steps getting closer all night long.
He apologized for being late. One hand held a large latte while he ran the other through his hair and looked around the office, not sure what to do. “Please, have a seat.” Dr. Pearce indicated a leather couch, Dan sat, and they began.
The doctor asked him about his sleeping habits, and Dan spent almost twenty minutes talking about his situation. “And you don’t know how this started?” Dr. Pearce asked.
“None. I’ve just been afraid of the house in the dark for as long as I can remember.”
“And you’re only paralyzed by this fear at your childhood home that you still live in?”
Dan cringed and shifted on the long couch. “When you put it like that, I sound like a crazy person.”
“I don’t like to use that term,” Dr. Pearce explained. “Everyone has issues that they have to tackle, but that doesn’t make them crazy. Now, this aversion to the dark only occurs at your house?”
“Yes.” Dan nodded. “When I’m alone, or the only one awake, and it’s dark both outside and inside the house. Or I could be in the driveway and still be terrified of something getting me.”
“I see.” Dr. Pearce jotted something down in her notebook when the lights went out. “Oh, my! Excuse me, Mr. Bischoff.”
She left the office, and Dan could hear her asking someone—husband? partner?—if they were doing any work. The house’s den was converted into her office with an outside door.
He leaned back on the couch and sipped the latte he brought. Dan looked around the office and took in the diplomas and certificates hanging on the wall. He was relieved they agreed on a therapist that seemed well regarded. He tried to read the one certificate, but it was too dark to make out the finer print.
In fact, the office was way darker than it should have been.
Dan put his drink on the coffee table and eased himself off the couch. He walked over to the only window and pushed aside the curtain to let in some light. Rows of bricks were all he could see. The window was fake. Then he remembered not seeing any windows on the side of the house where the office entrance was located.
Dan chuckled but didn’t feel amused. He didn’t know why he was so fidgety—this wasn’t his house, and it was daylight outside—but he decided to try the door leading into the house and see where the doctor was. He didn’t want to just walk out. Dan groped for the knob until he found it and jiggled it—but the door wouldn’t open. He fumbled with the handle, trying to see if there was a lock on it, but there wasn’t any on this side. A terrible thought ran through his head, but he reminded himself he was in the doctor’s office and not at home.
Dan took a breath to make sure he was under control and hoped he sounded like he was joking. “Are you trying to shortchange my hour, doc?”
He turned and headed over to the door leading outside. When he first arrived, it was a heavy door to open—possibly even steel-core, Dan guessed, to prevent anyone from breaking in. He tried to leave, but the door wouldn’t budge. Dan took a few deep breaths to still his racing heart.
He walked back to the couch and reached for his latte when drawn-out scratching sounds came from over by the doctor’s desk. Dan moved back to the entrance to the house and pounded on the door. “Hey! What’s in here? You got a cat? Hey!”
The noises got louder, and he was afraid to look into the shadows pooling around the desk. Hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end. This can’t be happening, he thought. This can NOT be happening. Not here.
Dan wondered if there was enough room to take a run at this door and bust it open. The door leading outside was probably too hefty. He took a few steps back and tensed his upper body when the clawing noises stopped. The lights came back on, and Dan’s knees almost buckled. He let out a sigh and wobbled back over to the couch, picking up his latte with shaking hands.
The door from the house opened, and Dr. Pearce returned with a smile. “Sorry about that. My husband tripped the circuit breaker.”
Dan was lucky enough to take a drink without spilling it down the front of his shirt before speaking. “Did you… Did you lock me in here?”
“I’m sorry, did I what?”
“Lock me in here. In the dark. Is this what I’m paying you for? To humiliate me like my mother used to?”
“Mr. Bischoff, I can assure you—not only would I never consider something like that, but the door into the house doesn’t lock. It prevents any patients from barricading themselves in here and doing anything dangerous to me or themselves.”
She turned the handle to show him and stepped aside. Dan investigated the knob, and there was no lock on it. Nor any deadbolt on either side of the door. “But…”
He stomped over to the outer door and opened it easily with a simple twist of the handle. “Is everything okay?” Dr. Pearce asked.
Dan returned to his seat on the couch and took another jittery sip of his latte. “I think I have a serious problem.”
Dan was still shaken up after the session was over. He sat in his car and called Alexis, but it went to voicemail, and he assumed she was still at work. Her hours were later than his. He shot her a text but didn’t know what to do next—he just didn’t want to go home yet. A drink would be nice.
Dan sat on his favorite side of the bar at Applebee’s and waited for Alexis to get back to him. He wondered what his younger self would think of drinking alone in a chain restaurant, but screw it. His partying days were over. Dan downed two twenty-ounce glasses of Blue Moon and a plate of mozzarella sticks before Alexis rang. “Hey, babe,” Dan said. “Did you get my text? I’m at the restaurant.”
“I’m sorry, hun, but I don’t think I’m going to make it. It’s been a long day, and I don’t think I can drive out there. I just want to go home and sleep.”
“Are you mad?”
“No, of course not. I just had a rough session with Dr. Pearce and needed a drink and to talk about it.”
“You didn’t piss her off, did you?”
Dan laughed. Alexis could always make him laugh, even in the worst times. “No, I didn’t. It was… well, it wasn’t easy.”
“I’m sorry, babe. I know this is important, but look… you have a drink—not too many—and relax. And we can talk about this tomorrow. I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
They spoke longer before hanging up, and Dan ordered a third beer. He was glad he’d eaten, but this was still going to be his last one of the night. It was cold running down his throat, and he thought about his afternoon. It HAD to have been his imagination. This never happened outside his house before, but whatever had been tormenting him had now been loose three nights in a row. It always got worse over multiple nights. Despite Dr. Pearce’s suggestions, Dan could only see one option.
He wouldn’t have his medication until tomorrow, so he needed a night with the lights on. All the lights.
After finishing his round, he went home. When he turned onto his street, lost in thought, Dan didn’t realize the streetlights were off. He pulled into his driveway and stared at the front of his house as he headed up the walk. Something was odd, but he couldn’t put his tipsy finger on it.
As he struggled to get the key into the lock, he realized the porch light that hung beside the door was off. “Huh. That’s weird.”
He unlocked the door—feeling more sober, more alert, and scared. The living room was dark, and Dan left the front door open, so moonlight oozed across the floor like spilled paint. He hoped it would be enough light, but his heart was racing, and he didn’t want to take another step. He flicked the switch up and down, but no lights came on. “Shit.”
Dan remained by the door and called Alexis. It went to voicemail, so he fired off a text. He stood in the soft glow of moonlight for what felt like an eternity. When it became clear Alexis was asleep, Dan turned the flashlight on his cell to maximum brightness. He strode into the house, intending to make his way to the basement and find the circuit breaker. But as he maneuvered through the first floor of the house, strange sounds seemed to follow him from room to room. Each time he swung his phone light in one direction, the noises stopped—but started up again in another spot. He made his way through the kitchen to the stairs that led into the basement.
His footsteps on the creaky, old wooden staircase echoed throughout the barren, unfinished basement, and they were the first non-sinister sounds he’d heard since entering the darkened house. Dan felt at ease down here, and as he moved toward the wall that held the circuit breaker box, he noticed that the normal sounds of the house had returned. It was as if whatever was hunting him avoided the basement like he avoided the dark. He reached the box.
Dan used the light from his phone to open the panel and check out the switches. All the fuses appeared to be flipped to the ON position, but he wouldn’t take any chances. Starting with the master switch, he flicked it off and back on with a loud CLACK. He then went down the various circuits for each room in the house and did the same, clacking them off and on until he had reset them all. Dan wasn’t sure if any of the lights came back on, but he still heard normal house noises from where he stood, and that must be a good thing. He kept his phone flashlight on and retraced his steps back up to the kitchen.
There was a lamp in the living room—it had a smart bulb set to go on at a certain time every day—and Dan could see the light from it stretching into the kitchen like a thirsty person straining for a drop of water. The sounds of that loose shutter creaking in the wind filled the kitchen. Other sounds of the house, the ones he knew like the back of his hand from living there most of his life, were audible over the sound of his heartbeat drumming in his ears.
Dan went up to his bedroom. He didn’t want to reset his alarm clock, now that the power was back on, so he set an alarm on his phone. The tiny lamp on his nightstand remained on all night as Dan collapsed onto the bed without undressing or climbing under the covers. He never saw the word SOON scratched into floorboards by the front door. He slept peacefully.
The alarm was grating and bore into Dan’s throbbing head. He slid one eyelid open, and the light from his lamp stung while burning through the fog of a hangover. The events of last night came back, and he breathed a sigh of relief that he had electricity throughout the night.
Since Alexis had a shorter commute, she probably wasn’t awake yet, so Dan didn’t bother to check in. He got ready and left the house for the train station and his hour-long ride. There was nothing etched into the floor in the foyer. Throughout the morning, he and Alexis vented to each other via texts. And just before lunch, Dr. Pearce called him and informed him she sent a prescription to the CVS near his office. “Looks like a new me starts today,” he said after hanging up.
Dan took a late lunch to give the pharmacy time to fill his prescription. After picking up his pills, he took one right away and called Alexis on his walk back to the office. “Hey, babe. I just started my medication.”
“Really? That’s great! Did the doctor say how long before you can expect it to work?”
“Nothing specific, but I asked the pharmacist, and she told me it takes about two to three weeks to start to feel normal, and then a little longer to make sure it’s working fine.”
“That’s not long at all.” Dan could hear genuine excitement in her voice. “I’m so happy for you, hun. Pretty soon, you’ll be back to sleeping like a baby in no time.”
Dan chuckled. “You know… babies don’t actually sleep that well. They’re up all night crying and—”
“Thanks for ruining my compliment with baby facts, Mr. Literal.”
They spoke until Dan got back to his office and promised to talk more after work. Before hanging up, Alexis asked if Dan wanted to hang out for appetizers and alcohol—or A & A, as she called it.
“Tempting, babe. But I’m not supposed to drink on this medicine, and I’d rather not mess with it on the first night.”
“Oh, my god,” Alexis said. “I’m so sorry! I should have thought of that. You go home and relax and call me when you’re off the train.”
Dan took the R5 after work, and he was starving. He drove home and made a sandwich, eating it as he watched Netflix. When he was finished, he texted Alexis that he was home. She had gone out with some coworkers and promised to call him when she got home. Dan texted her to have fun.
He settled down on the couch and caught up on the shows that Alexis didn’t like, skipping the ones they watched together. He dozed for a bit, and Dan wasn’t sure if the meds made him sleepy or if he just felt more at ease from the psychological effect of taking the first dose. Either way, when he woke up it was late. He checked his phone and had a few missed calls and texts from Alexis.
Dan called her back and told her about his therapy appointment. That the doctor had suggested Alexis inadvertently turning off lights triggered an old resentment toward his mother. He told Alexis that Dr. Pearce suggested he continue sleeping with the lights off and that his new medication would help with the anxiety caused by the darkness. Once his mind was conditioned to being alone in the dark, he should be able to wean himself off the medicine.
Alexis thought that was wonderful. She filled him in on girls’ night out, and at the end, Dan thanked her for suggesting therapy. They exchanged I Love Yous and Goodnights, and they hung up. Dan felt more relaxed than at any other time alone in this house—in the dark. He was still on the couch, and the only light on at the moment was the television.
So Dan took a deep breath and shut it off.
The house was quiet but not soundless. Despite this being the fifth night where he was in the house in the dark, the kitchen shutter still creaked and slammed. A draft still entered the roof gutter through that crack he never fixed and sounded like a wind tunnel outside the second bedroom that doubled as his office. A car drove down the street, and Dan could hear it splash the puddle that always hung around outside the Stein place after storms. He sat and waited. Minutes went by, and nothing happened. Dan smiled to himself in the dark and wished Alexis were there to see him.
Noises sounded outside the house, and nothing inside terrified him. Dan wasn’t sure of the time, but it must have been a half-hour since he turned the TV off. Content, he turned on the light beside the couch so he could clean up from dinner. After loading the dishwasher, Dan went up to bed. He changed and readied himself for the big test.
Dan got comfortable, set his phone alarm, and turned off the lights. The house was dark, and he was alone. He laid in his bed, eyes open, and listened. Nothing was abnormal, and he could still hear all the outside noises and the settling of the old house. He knew a single text message wouldn’t wake Alexis, so he fired off: First nite was a success. Couldn’t have done it without you. Love you!
Dan closed his eyes and slept.
It wasn’t until sometime after three in the morning when he woke. He had some terrible nightmare about falling off a building when his heart did a tap dance in his chest, and he sat upright. Dan wiped his eyes and felt a line of sweat across his forehead. He kicked off the sheets, reached for the glass of water he kept on his bedside table, and downed half the glass. He finished the rest of the water, felt cooler, and placed the empty glass on the bedside table.
It didn’t make a sound.
Dan froze without taking his hand off the cup. He sat still and listened for surrounding sounds, even as he didn’t expect many at this hour. There was a whistle of the wind. Or at least, he thought he heard the trill of the air passing through his gutters. He wasn’t certain, so he waited. Sitting upright, hand still on his empty glass, Dan waited.
He heard nothing. But at least he heard nothing suspicious or terrifying. The wait continued. Dan didn’t know how long he’d have to stay awake before he heard something, but he knew he wouldn’t fall back asleep unless he was sure everything was fine. He picked up the glass and put it back down on the table, but it still made no noise.
A roving stripe of light traveled across his ceiling—from a car driving down his street—then was gone. Dan didn’t hear the roar of the engine or the rumble of the tires against the asphalt. He shivered, and the glass slipped from his hand. It shattered against his floor without a sound emanating.
A low moan escaped his throat, and it sounded immense in his quiet bedroom. He couldn’t remember what time he took his first pill that afternoon, but he thought taking another one might help. When he swung his legs off the bed, Dan heard scratches across the floor that reminded him of scurrying rats. He grabbed his cell and pointed the screen down, using the device’s light to illuminate the floor. Thin lines were etched into the hardwood.
Dan tried to turn on the lamp beside him, but it didn’t work. He glanced at the window, and the lights outside were alight up and down the street but didn’t penetrate the darkness of his bedroom. He needed to get out. Using his cell for light, Dan jumped from his bed and ran for the steps. Halfway down, he could see the front door. He shined the light from his phone as far as it would reach, and the word TONITE was carved into floorboards. But nothing appeared between him and the exit to stop him from leaving.
When Alexis came by the next day—she’d been unable to reach Dan by phone and called out of work—the house was all locked up, and the lights were off. She pounded on the door, but there was no answer from inside. Alexis used her key and entered. “Hello?”
The house was quiet. Sunlight streamed in through the dining-room windows, but the front of the house was still buttoned up. “Daniel! Where are you?”
Alexis went upstairs. The master bedroom, bathroom, and spare bedroom were all empty. She opened all the blinds and curtains, so the second floor was awash in light. “Maybe he’s on the way to work?” she guessed. Cell phone reception was terrible along many parts of the train route.
She returned to the living room and flicked on the light beside the front door for a better view. There were tons of scuff marks on the back of the door. But what made her scream was near the steps. Carved into the floor, at the base of the stairs, were the words: HE IS OURS.
Alexis never saw Dan again.
A tearful end to our story, dead readers … But fear not! If Alexis decides to keep the old place she just might be joining Dan soon!
Until next time, fright fans!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas Gaffney (he/him) grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He started writing as a kid, making his own comic books and Choose Your Own Adventure® stories for the neighbors. But then he fell in love with all things horror while reading a beat-up copy of Stephen King’s IT that his mother brought home in a grab bag of used books. After surviving twelve years of Catholic school, Gaffney embarked on several careers—computer programmer, barista, account manager—that allowed him to explore the Philly suburbs and meet an eclectic array of people and personalities that have made their way into his stories. Much like Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” Gaffney considers himself “a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page” and has been reading, writing, and annoying his Facebook friends with Goodreads updates in his spare time. His collection of short stories, Stranger Things Have Happened, was a 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist for e-Book Fiction, a 2019 New Apple Literary Official Selection for Short Stories, a 2020 Book Excellence Award Winner for Horror, a 2020 Elite Choice Award Winner for Horror, and a 2020 International Book Award Finalist for Horror. Gaffney currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his ever-patient wife and spends too much time and money in random coffee shops. He is taking classes toward a Creative Writing degree at SNHU and has recently joined the Horror Writers Association. Visit his website, Twitter, and Facebook.