Driving too fast, there's still patches of snow on this road. But you're almost there.
Turn in the driveway. The house is dark. Crap.
Do not look at the upstairs windows.
Garage door opens. Empty. Park.
Still light out.
You have about 15 minutes.
He opened the door, reached in and turned on the light. The kitchen windows still let in plenty of light, but this was just in case.
He didn't step inside. He gripped his mobile phone. Breathe. Dial.
Ring. Ring. Ri
"Hi, baby," she said.
"Hi," he responded, locking the door behind him and wriggling it. The garage is done. He dropped the bag on the counter, not glancing at the window. "How are things there?" He reached into the living room and flicked on that light but did not look inside, then doubled back to the kitchen and headed for the whisky bottle. He took two small gulps, and then a third, then out of the kitchen towards the stairs. Another light, click.
"I'm so tired from being here, you cannot believe words words words words words words." At the top of the stairs he had to make a choice: right had more western windows but would take longer. Last. Go left.
"words words words," his wife said. The phone was in the hand that was turning on the light. The Checklist: windows, closets, cabinets, bed. Windows, closets, cabinets, bed. Bathroom had a shower.
Windows: feel them. locked, locked. He pulled the shades down. "Did you guys have dinner yet?" he inserted.
"No, my mother made words, so we're words words words words"
He opened the closet door. Nothing. It made an unexpectedly noticeable amount of noise as he closed it, and he reflexively looked over his shoulder. Come on, get a grip. No large cabinets in this room. He fell to the floor and looked under the bed. Nothing. He unplugged the phone. He left the light on, and hurried to the next room. Windows, closet, cabinet, bed. Leaving that light on as well, he left the room and went back down the hallway. That room is completely fine. That room is completely fine.
Next bedroom: light first. He scanned the windows. Both were clearly locked. These windows cannot be jimmied. He pulled the shades down. He slid the closet door open, peeked inside. Nothing. He closed it.
"What are you going to eat tonight?" he heard her say. "Words words words words words."
He lingered at the closet. He had just checked this closet, it was fine. But. But he hadn't really checked the back right wall behind the coats. But it was clearly empty. Don't be OCD, or be sure? No room for mistakes. He opened the closet again and moved the coats. Empty. He closed it. Cabinets, bed. All fine.
The bathroom was tricky to get into, but there was still enough daylight to make it inside. He placed his back against the hallway wall and reached behind him into the bathroom and felt for the light switch. Click. He rolled inside and looked at the floor and the walls. The shower curtain was pulled open already. Nothing. He shook the shower curtain to be sure.
Then: tap tap
Do not look up. It's a trap.
"Hey," he interrupted, "I was meaning to ask you. When is the baby's next immunization? What has she had already?"
"She has her 9 month well baby visit next week, and words words words words"
The medicine cabinet mirror was fine, of course it was fine. He tried to push his finger in through the glass, but couldn't. Too much light. He opened the medicine cabinet, listened to his wife say some words, braced himself, and closed it again. The mirror was fine. In some horror film a woman was washing her face in the bathroom, and when she bent down into the sink her reflection in the mirror didn't bend down with her, its stayed there and looked down at her. That was just a movie, but it reflected the deeper truth of it: mirrors were the most dangerous things in the house because they were the one place you could be tricked into looking at IT.
Stop. He stepped out and thought about anything else.
You have ten minutes left.
The last thing was the door to the attic stairs. He reached for the handle.
It was locked.
"Jane," he interrupted, "why is the attic door locked?"
"It's always locked. What are you doing up there?"
"Where is the key?"
"I have it with me. Why do you need to get in there?"
"You mean we have no other key?"
"No." Pause. "Honey? There's nothing in there."
The lock was unpickable. He shook it.
"Is it locked from the inside? If I went up there, would I get locked in?" He could suddenly feel the whisky taking effect, calming him, making reality more vivid.
"Well, no, because you'd have to have used the key to open it. If you magically appeared in the attic, yes, you'd be locked in."
He shook it but not so vigorously as to attract attention to himself. It would have to suffice. It was getting dark. Top floor is secure. There is nothing on the top floor.
Eyes widening, he forced himself to focus on his wife. "I feel bad for her that she needs more shots," he said.
"Me, too, the last time she had a fever words words words"
Within five minutes and during the recitation of the 9 month well baby visit he had performed the Checklist on every room in the house. He had lights on in every room and hallway. Out of the bag he removed a cheesesteak and broccoli, two beers, and with the whisky bottle headed for the living room couch. On the coffee table sat two flashlights and two of his wife's scented candles and a 4 gallon Poland Springs jug filled to the top. He lit one of the candles and placed it on the far end of the coffee table. He turned on the TV. The moment he saw the local news reporter talking about the real his entire body involuntarily relaxed. 12 hours to go. He could make it.
"All right, baby," he summarized. "You enjoy your dinner, I'll talk to you before I go to sleep."
"I love you." Pause. "Are you nervous in there? Did you take out the gun?"
No guns. "No, of course not. What would I need a gun for?" Guns proved you were afraid. "I'm fine, go have your dinner."
"Ok, I love you. Be safe. Don't burn the house down."
He had known about the Plan since he was 4 or 5. He did not know how he had learned it. The Plan had two parts, The Checklist and The Escape Hatch.
The Checklist had three rules for survival: Rule 1, Important: check all the rooms. Rule 2, Very important: leave the lights on in the rooms he couldn't see. Like with roaches. It prevented them from wanting to come out. Rule 3, Ultra-Important: make sure there was nothing in the rooms that could be turned on. So: batteries out of all toys. Alarm clocks double checked, or unplugged. Phones, especially the phones, had to be unplugged. Only the mobile phone with him was on.
The problem wasn't the unknown, but the lack. In a horror movie the woman would walk into the unknown house and of course there was something relentless and relentless waiting for her. In real life it was the opposite: you knew the house, knew there was nothing in the house. What was supposed to be there-- the kids, the wife, activity-- were absent. So your mind populated the empty spaces.
If you had a weak mind, your mind populated it with imaginary ghosts.
If you had a strong mind
The Plan could fail catastrophically in two ways.
One: blackout. All blackouts are attacks. If the power went out he had been detected. Using the flashlight to see where he was going would only make things worse, but that's not what it was for. It was for The Escape Hatch.
The other was his bladder.
He could drink himself into unconsciousness. But some point he would have to pee. That meant he had to walk to the bathroom.
The trick was to not see. He could only be seen if he saw, his gaze was what revealed him. On the couch he could divert all his attention to the TV, but if he walked to the bathroom he'd have to unsee the kitchen, the hallway, the bathroom mirror, and everything around him, all while calling attention to himself by his motions, his noise, his thoughts, his fear.
Fear of the dark wasn't that there would be something in the dark, but that you would see something in the dark, the terror was in the perception and not the reality, and even if it turned out to be an illusion or a hat or a shadow that brief moment of terror of what could become possible was too much.
That's what made the long trip to the bathroom so difficult. There were too many things that he had to unsee. He had once thought about getting a bedside urinal bottle, but it was too risky. It would be unusual, it was a physical representation of his fear which would lead to his awareness of what was inside the house. He had to act like everything was normal.
He stood up, took a long look at the TV and tried to empathize with the talk show host as he feigned interest in a movie's supporting actress. Amazing legs. His mind wandered towards her vagina-- then stopped. Not tonight.
There was a clear line of sight from the couch through the kitchen into the hallway and bathroom. Everything was lit. With the interview running in his head, he walked calmly and assertively to the bathroom. In his mind he was asking her if she did her own stunts. He passed into the hallway and didn't look up the stairs.
Facing the toilet, he started to pee. The mirror was behind him.
He flushed. He almost never washed his hands after he peed, but this time he had to-- everything had to be done correctly. No shortcuts. No outward display of fear. Another thought to the interview and he turned to face the mirror. Nothing. He didn't see what he knew would not be there now: his own reflection but turned completely around, facing away, its back to him. He had never seen this reflection yet. When he did, if he turned his head just slightly he would be able to catch a glimpse of the face, his face, proving that it was aware it was being looked at by not looking back. The glimpse would reveal a sad, terrified face. It had been crying. The mouth was gone. Someone had taken its mouth. For minutes it would stare away from him, its sobs barely audible through the ordinarily impenetrable glass of the mirror. Resigned to its fate, it would walk defeatedly away from him deeper into the reflection-bathroom that had been telescoped punishingly into a hallway, and at the end was a wooden door that he should not have in this house. His tiny reflection, trivialized by the distance, would open that door inwards, hang its head in surrender, and walk through. Not having a mouth ensured it would not scream.
He glanced at the couch back in the living room. Just get back there.
He started towards the living room but made it only as far as the kitchen when he heard it.
tap tap tap tap
He froze. Think. It was too clear and too obvious to be a danger. It had to be something real.
He took a few steps to the right to get away from the hallway.
Yes. Now he was sure he had heard it, it was definitely real so it was defintely nothing. A squirrell on the roof, the heating system, mice, elephants, it didn't matter.
Relieved, he took another step towards the living room and then froze. Oh no.
Because of the steps he had taken to the right, he was approaching the living room obliquely which meant that he could no longer see the couch. The couch was hidden from his view.
He had lost his line of sight. He had been tricked.
He thought about the phone, but that was on the couch. If he ran outside he'd never be able to get back in. Upstairs was madness.
He tried to concentrate on the actress. Great legs. Implants, too. Had to be implants. Had to be. He took a step forward but his concentration was momentarily interrupted.
tap tap tap tap tap tap ta
He wasn't sure if he had heard this, which meant he had heard it.
His back muscles tensed so suddenly that his posture straightened. He knew something was behind him.
He had almost no time. He squeezed all his focus into thinking about the actress curling her toes and walked arrogantly into the room. He unsaw the couch, looked at the TV and went right for the Poland Springs jug. In his peripheral vision and in the safety of the TV's talking he noticed the couch was empty.
He could salvage this, maybe. Sit on the couch. He sat, his foot by the Poland Springs jug.
Do not look up.
Look at the TV, the TV, the TV.
It is above you.
"We'll be right back," the late night host said and it went to a commercial, and in the millisecond it took to fade to black he realized that TV would become the worst kind of mirror, a dark mirror, and he was going to be able to see a reflection in that mirror.
In the instant of blackness on the TV he saw it move to the left
And it said: shhhhhhhhhh
The TV never went to commercial, it stayed black. Everything was still. Now he could not help but see what was there all along.
It was peeking around the doorway into the living room. A charcoal grey shape. It is a broomstick. No, it was a blanket draped over a broomstick, like a huge puppet, and the broomstick emerged from the corner of the doorway, creeping slowly, until it was standing fully in the doorway. The handle of the broom poked out from beneath the blanket tapping on the wooden floor.
The blanket was staring at him, because it had two black ovals painted on it, like eyes, and the broom turned so it was facing him.
tap tap tap on the wooden floor
He couldn't move, or else he didn't try to move, nothing moved, nothing did anything except the broom and the blanket which glared at him with big black oval eyes.
"H-h-hi," he whispered to appease it.
Suddenly it withdrew back into the kitchen and the house rebelled against him, from the upstairs he heard the angry, heavy, stomping sound of the worst thing he could imagine, and finally heard the voice he had always unheard
There was no time to get out, and getting out no longer mattered. The Escape Hatch. He bent towards Poland Springs jug but he was in slow motion, the stomping was coming downstairs much faster than he was moooovviiiinnngggggggggg
Get to it get to it get to it
The whole house was shaking from the rage of the footsteps
just before IT came around into the kitchen his foot cooonnnneeecccttteeeeddddddddd with the jug
enough gasoline splashed out of it to reach the candle
fire is real
The explosion blinded and deafened him. It would be surprised. It had never noticed he had a weapon.
get to the door
Slow motion again, going too slowly, being sucked back in. And his back was on fire but he knew IT had made it into the living room.
He pulled the front door open, so very slowly but as fast as he could, and just as he felt something brush at his flaming back he was out of the house and suddenly time resumed.
He collapsed in the snow, arm, back, face still on fire. He looked back at the flaming house. There IT was, the blanket on the broom standing in the doorway staring at him, enraged and confused and trapped in a house that would soon be obliterated.
His whole body was in pain but the pain was real and the broom heard him screaming at IT in his mind