In Residence by KaRylin Jennifer worked slowly but methodically at the task of pulling up

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

In Residence by KaRylin Jennifer worked slowly but methodically at the task of pulling up grass and weeds to create an area of bare dirt. A hundred square feet should be enough. Tall for a woman, with a heavy, muscular build, Jennifer was as strong as most men. The charts published in fitness magazines told her she was overweight for her height, but she did not let this concern her. She led an active life and was in pretty good shape. Her long, dark hair was pulled carelessly into a ponytail, and she wore a folded bandanna tied around her head to absorb the sweat produced by working in the still summer air. She heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway, and looked up. A boy on a bicycle, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, still half a head shorter than Jennifer but sturdily built. Freckles transformed his otherwise unextraordinary face into an interesting composition of light and darkness. "You must be the new neighbor." He extended his hand with a degree of confidence that made Jennifer raise her estimate of his age by a couple of years. "I'm Dave." "Jennifer Meyers." She took off one dirt-encrusted gardening glove and shook his hand. "I just moved in yesterday." "My folks have the farm just down the road." He indicated the direction with a jerk of his thumb. "Listen, if you need anything done around here, I work cheap." He glanced at the pile of discarded weeds, their roots still clotted with dirt, that had accumulated as Jennifer had tossed them carelessly to one side. "Putting in a vegetable garden?" "Well, I'm almost done here." Jennifer pulled her glove back on and smiled, pleasantly but not too encouragingly. "I'll keep you in mind, though, Dave. The place with the green barn, right?" "Yeah, that's it all right." He got back on his bike, taking the hint cheerfully enough. "Did they tell you this place is supposed to be haunted?" Jennifer's smile widened with amusement. The fact that she made her living as an artist did not mean that she was in the habit of letting her imagination run wild. She was a practical woman. "No, they neglected to mention that when they rented it to me." Dave rode off, with a friendly wave, and Jennifer went back to pulling weeds. She'd decided the first time she saw the old farmhouse that it was perfect for her. It was surrounded by acres of tall grass and young forest, which had sprung up when the farm was abandoned. The house was four times the size of her Chicago apartment, at a third the monthly rent. As for the peeling paint and overgrown yard, these details made her feel as if she was coming home after a long absence. Jennifer had left her parents' farm over twenty years ago, but she'd never really liked living in the city; now that she had established some financial security and standing in her profession, she'd decided it was time to move. She went inside and walked through the house, her footsteps echoing hollowly in the bare, high-ceilinged rooms. The atmosphere of the place was like that of a chapel, full of light and air. Luxuriating in all the space that was now available to her, she realized how cramped she had been in the tiny two-bedroom apartment. The farmhouse had a bigger kitchen, a dining room and a breakfast nook, three large bedrooms, bathrooms upstairs and down, and a front room with leaded glass windows--not to mention the basement and attic. Her bedroom, on the second story, had three large windows that gave her a two hundred and seventy degree view of the woods and prairie that surrounded the house. She went into the front room and sat down in her comfortable old recliner. Piles of boxes, containing nearly everything she owned, towered over her; she'd had the movers leave them for her to distribute throughout the house. She didn't like to put them to the trouble, and besides, she hadn't decided where she wanted everything yet. At that moment, the job of unpacking seemed overwhelming. The piles of boxes loomed impossibly high. Where had she gotten all that junk, and why had she bothered bringing it with her? And now that she was sitting quietly, the place had an intimidating stillness about it, an emptiness that seemed to resent her presence. Nonsense. She stood up and rubbed her hands together briskly. The only problem was that she had not yet begun to make the place hers, and she could begin to rectify that immediately. She would unpack her clothing first, then set up her studio in the basement, where the movers had already deposited her larger pieces of equipment--the drill press and band saw, the arc welder, the oxyacetylene cutting torch with its twin bottles of compressed gas. And then she could begin setting up her kitchen, and hang the old but utterly respectable curtains her mother had sewn. But that night as she lay in bed, the sense of unease returned. There were noises, and although as a recent dweller in a large and cheaply constructed apartment building she was not accustomed to silence, these noises were different. She told herself she ought to have expected this; she was. after all, out in the country. She had grown unaccustomed to animal sounds. And old houses were notorious for settling. She silently mocked herself for being so suggestible; the neighbor boy had made a chance remark about the place being haunted, and now she trembled in her bed every time a board creaked. But there, that was no animal. It sounded like someone moving one of her still-unpacked boxes around. She grew first angry, then frightened. She crept to the dresser and removed her automatic, and clicked off the safety. She ought to go and investigate, she told herself. In a more familiar environment, she might have done so. Instead, she pushed a chair against the door and went back to her bed--or more accurately, to her mattress, which was still lying on the bare floor. She laid the automatic carefully beside it, within easy reach, without resetting the safety. She figured she could wake and reach it by the time an intruder could manage to dislodge the heavy chair and open the door. She turned off the light and closed her eyes, listening. Scrape. Click. Well, fine. She had nothing down there that was worth risking her life over. If anything was missing come morning, she would call the police. And if whoever was down there came upstairs, too bad for him. Early the next morning she descended the stairs, clutching the automatic. She looked around, but saw nothing missing, and no sign that anyone had been down there the night before. In the eerie rural quiet, she surveyed her things. hadn't she left that box in the other room? She couldn't be sure. But in any case, it was taped shut, and the tape had not been disturbed. No, surely it was where she had left it. Nerves. She exhaled loudly and replaced the safety. She started to set the automatic down, then thought better of it and put the gun in the pocket of her floral-patterned housecoat, another legacy from her mother. Later that afternoon, the uncharacteristic nervousness returned. She was working in her basement studio, cutting a piece of sheet metal with the oxyacetylene torch, which left an aesthetic discoloration along the edges of the brass and thus served a double purpose. Her work area was lighted by powerful fluorescent lamps, but it had a dim, underwater quality when viewed through her darkened protective goggles. And there were places, behind the furnace and underneath the stairs, where the sterile bluish light did not reach. She found herself glancing nervously over her shoulder and, as a result, ruined one of her brass leaves by holding the torch over the same spot for too long. What did she expect, she asked herself angrily--to be seized from behind by some clammy ghost? But she couldn't rid herself of the feeling that she was not alone in the house. She shut off the fuel supply to the torch and slid the goggles up onto her forehead. It would be different if she were working on something she were actually interested in, but she was forcing herself to spend the day making the same boring old tree-branch wall decorations. She'd done hundreds of these and was beginning to hate them, but she knew they were a sure bet commercially. The move had left her with a feeling of financial insecurity; she was farther now from her regular contacts and connections, and it would be harder to make new ones. But she'd wanted to get away from the city for as long as she could remember. . . although she was discovering now that she'd grown more accustomed to it that she had ever realized. The silence was beginning to grate on her nerves. She turned the torch back on, flicking flint against steel to ignite it. Since she had not yet lowered her safety glasses, she held it well away from her face as she made a circuit of the basement, pulling the wheeled cart that contained her fuel bottles. She found nothing but a few filthy rags sitting in a bucket between the furnace and the hot water heater. She turned back to the task at hand, somewhat disgusted with herself. So jumpy. It wasn't like her. Perhaps she ought to go outside and work. She had cleared that spot beside the house, near the concrete stairs that led directly from the basement to the yard, specifically so that she could do some of her work out-of-doors without danger of fire. She had gone to all the trouble of moving in order to enjoy the fresh country air; she should take advantage of it. A few hours in the sunshine might be just the thing to calm her nerves. But she didn't like the idea of moving outside just because of some nameless anxiety. Also, it would take quite a bit of her valuable work time to move her tools and materials out there. She'd have to set up some kind of a table, her work bench being too heavy to move, and the cart with the oxygen and acetylene bottles weighed better than seventy pounds; it would be a pain to drag it up the stairs, and across the rough terrain outdoors. And in the back of her mind were other, less rational objections, which she would not quite admit to herself: the same disquieting feeling might prevail out-of-doors, in the half-wild yard, with the edge of the woods only a hundred feet away. Perhaps the rural environment, which she had enjoyed as a child but had been away from for so long, had become alien to her. Altogether, the idea was impractical. She would have to do quite a bit of her work down in the cellar, so she had better learn to feel comfortable there. And if anyone bothered her now, she was not defenseless, although she had left the gun upstairs. The torch ought to discourage any potential assailant, human or ectoplasmic. That night, the noises returned. And the night after that, and every night for a week. They grew louder and harder to explain, but since Jennifer couldn't explain them, she was determined to ignore them. Finally, she decided they were rats, and set out traps and poison. These items, however, never showed any signs of having been touched. She continued sleeping with the chair pushed against the door and her gun nearby. She resigned herself to living with the noises, and began to get used to them. Then one night she awoke to the the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairway. it sounded, in fact, as though someone were deliberately stamping their feet with the idea of making as much noise as possible. Her heart pounding to rival the noise on the stairs, she grabbed her gun. She heard the doorknob turn. With numb fingers, she turned on the light. "Who's there?" she shouted. Silence. The doorknob was still. Had she imagined the sounds? Perhaps. Perhaps it had all been a dream which, upon awakening, she had imagined to be real. She shouted something obscene in the language of her Germanic foremothers and turned out the light. Without replacing the safety, she set the gun beside her pillow; then, deciding this presented a real and physical hazard, she moved the automatic to her bedside table. Her fingers strayed to it to make sure she could locate it in the dark. It was not the next morning, but the morning after that, that she found her housecoat pinned to the kitchen door with one of her fine Swedish paring knives. The discovery of this vandalism left her feeling furious, but vindicated. This was proof. The slash in the collar of her housecoat was no dream; the matching hole the knife had left in the door was not nerves or imagination. She collected her knives, and found none missing. Then she bundled them up in a dishtowel and hid them underneath the sink. No sense leaving potential weapons lying around for the convenience of some lunatic, since it appeared that one had the run of her house. The next thing she did was to repair the collar of her housecoat. After that, she drove to a hardware store in Wixton, the nearest town, five miles distant. There she was able to buy a number of items that she believed would prove useful. Back at the house, she changed the locks on both doors. Anyone might have the keys to the old ones, for all she knew. She would provide the owner with copies of the new ones. . . when she moved out. In the meantime, she saw no reason why he would need them. She also put chains on the doors. She checked all the windows, upstairs and down, locking those where the latches seemed secure and nailing shut the others. Once she was done, she sat in the living room (or at any rate the room where she'd put her ratty old couch and recliner) and relaxed. The thought that someone had gotten into the house actually reassured her. It explained the noises and helped dispel the uneasy feeling she'd had since moving there. No doubt it was some eccentric with a strange sense of humor that was responsible, or even a gang of school children. Whoever it was, they hadn't actually stolen anything, and the damage they'd done had been minor. They were probably harmless, although Jennifer was not about to take any chances. And at any rate, they would not have such an easy time getting into her house in the future. The next morning, there was a dead squirrel in the kitchen sink. There was no question of it having died naturally or from her rat poison; the animal had been torn into several bloody pieces. Jennifer looked at it, feeling sick, then glanced around the room nervously. This was more than a prank; this showed signs of a violent mentality. She went upstairs to get her gun, walking quietly. When she reached the bedroom, she sighed with relief as she slipped the weapon into the pocket of her repaired housecoat. She then proceeded to clean up the dead animal, handling it gingerly with the gloves she used for dishwashing. At least it had not been ripped apart in her kitchen; she took some consolation in that. She had butchered small animals on her parents' farm, and knew that there would have been quite a bit more blood in and around the sink if the squirrel had been killed there. Perhaps it had been found by the roadside. Perhaps her housebreaker was relatively harmless after all. But how had he, or they, gotten into the house? She went from room to room, trying to discover what method of entry had been used. The windows were still all latched or nailed from the inside, and the chains on the doors were fastened. She didn't see how anyone could have gotten in, or for that matter, how they could have left. . . . A chilling possibility began to grow in her mind. She took the gun out of her pocket and began to search more carefully, checking closets, bedrooms, the upstairs bath that she never used because it was not as nice as the one on the first floor. Then she ascended the narrow attic stairs. She took a flashlight, because she knew the attic had no electric lights. As she climbed the stairs, she shone the light between them; like the ones leading to the basement, they were only horizontal slats, similar to a stepladder but of sturdier materials. She could see a space underneath the stairway, inaccessible because it was only as wide as the stairs themselves. She bent to look between two of the steps and shone the light around. There was a door there, she realized; barely visible because it was at an oblique angle to her, being on one of the long sides of the narrow area of dead space, and because it was constructed of the same wood as the surrounding wall. She trained her flashlight on the door. She had a good mental picture of the layout of the house, and it seemed to her at first that the door was set into an outside wall, a dozen feet above ground level. Exceedingly strange. Then she remembered the sun porch in front of the house; of course, the door must lead to a crawl space beneath its roof. She shook her head at the quirk of design that had provided such a door but made it impossible to use it without removing half the attic stairs. She shook each of the steps to be sure they were solid. It seemed unlikely that anyone was hiding in there. She continued up the stairs to the attic itself. It was big and unfinished, and empty except for a few boxes stacked against one wall. They were too small to have hidden even a child, but she searched them anyway. Nothing but some old clothing that looked and smelled as if it had not been touched in decades. She descended the stairs and headed for the basement. Damp and dirt-floored, festooned with sooty cobwebs, and the only conceivable hiding place would have been inside the furnace or the hot-water heater. She looked inside the furnace and, not much to her surprise, found no one in there. She was willing to discount the hot-water heater as a possibility, since there was an ample supply of hot water in the house. The door that led to the outside stairwell was secured from the inside with a heavy padlock. She tapped the walls, searching for a hidden door, although it was difficult to believe that the solid concrete could hide such a thing. Nonetheless, when she went upstairs, she slid shut the bolt that secured the basement door. Then she went upstairs and put on her nightgown. She wasn't particularly tired and it was getting too hot to sleep comfortably, but she planned to stay up late that night. She made herself stay in bed until suppertime, although she slept only fitfully; then she got up, went downstairs, and fixed herself some canned soup. She spent the rest of the evening unenthusiastically dusting and vacuuming. At about the time she would normally have gone to bed, she went upstairs, and a few minutes later turned out the light. Then she crept downstairs in the dark, a blanket wrapped around her, carrying a pillow in one hand and her automatic in the other. She slid back the bolt to the basement stairs and then settled herself on her pillow in one corner of the kitchen. She'd chosen that room because that was where her uninvited visitor had left his calling-cards. She positioned herself so that she could see all three entrances to the room, cradling the automatic between her knees. The position was not a comfortable one. She had to shift her weight periodically, which she did as quietly as she could manage. Listening for noises that might indicate someone moving about, she heard a board creak and raised the gun a few inches, but the noise was not repeated. It had not sounded much like a footfall anyway, more like a board that she'd stepped on returning to its original position. The only other sounds she heard were insect buzzes and chirps. Jennifer had always been prone to lapsing into long reveries. For once this was to her advantage, as she was able to stave off boredom by mentally diagramming various sculpting projects. She would have been quite content if only her legs hadn't been so uncomfortable. She stretched out her feet and heard a slick rustling as they brushed against a garbage bag. The one that contained the dead squirrel. She had meant to carry it outside, but had forgotten. She moved her feet away from the bag. She began brooding about the dismembered squirrel, with the morbid obsessiveness that often takes hold when one is awake and alone in the dark hours before morning. She imagined that she might begin to hear something scratching at the plastic from inside the bag. Eventually, she noticed that things in the kitchen were becoming more visible, and after while it registered with her that it was distinctly lighter outside than it had been throughout the night. She stood, joints complaining stridently. Looking out the window at the greyish horizon, she felt very old and tired. All the nervous tension had left her. Walking with exaggerated care, she carried the bag containing the squirrel outside. She looked at the edge of the woods and shivered. It was not a large forest, and in full daylight it seemed tame and idyllic. But in the grey predawn, she felt that the tameness was only superficial, and that the woods held dark secrets. The house, although constructed by human hands, also seemed faintly menacing. She felt no sense of relief or safety as she closed and locked the kitchen door; the house did not in any sense belong to her, nor would it while an unseen intruder had the run of the place. The kitchen seemed gloomy after a few moments under the open sky. She switched on the light and then, without her usual regard for the conservation of electricity, went from room to room turning on every light in the house. Leaving them on, she went upstairs and to bed. She woke around noon, feeling parched and lethargic. She went downstairs and began turning off the lights, which seemed to her in her somewhat fogged mental state to illuminate a profound, insubstantial blackness. She went into the kitchen, half expecting to find some new token of affection, and realized she had a pounding headache. It was not that she had acquired it at that moment; she realized she'd had it ever since she woke up. How, she wondered, could she have not noticed the painful throbbing in her temples? She took some aspirin, then put some coffee in the electric coffee-grinder. Then she put the fresh-ground beans into the percolator and poured in some water. She turned it on and the ancient machine began making its familiar noises. Listening to it, she wished she had thought to buy some instant coffee on her last trip into town. While the percolator was working, she went out and sat on the porch. The afternoon was hot and still. She was reminded of the farm where she'd grown up, and the magic she had felt in the woods and those sun-lit fields. It was the smells that brought it back to her most of all, more than what she could see or here. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose. She could almost believe that when she opened them she would be back there, a skinny girl-child always looking for something new to explore. She opened her eyes and sighed. She was older now than her mother had been in those days. She had not thought about the farm, really remembered what it had been like, in years. Now, however, the memories were as vivid as the bright sunlight. She felt as though her parents and adored older brother were close by, that if she called out to them they would answer. She shivered at the thought, for all three of the others who had lived on the farm in those long-ago days were dead now. She gazed up at the sky, remembering all the hours she had watched it as a girl. Why was she thinking about her childhood now, and about death? Those were thoughts for an old woman. Looking up, she recalled that directly over her head was the crawl space, the one part of the house that she had been unable to search. Of course there was nothing up there but dust and spiderwebs. But maybe, just to be sure, she should check the upstairs rooms that faced the front of the house. Just to be sure there was no other way to get into it. Her coffee ought to be ready by now. She went inside and discovered that it was. After drinking a couple of cups, she felt restored. Forget about that instant stuff; she was convinced it could never have had the same effect. She felt a sudden need to work, to tackle something she could understand and accomplish. She carried her tools outside and began to cut and solder, pausing occasionally to sip from a pitcher of lemonade she'd brought out with her or to wipe the sweat from her brow with a large handkerchief. She emptied the pitcher and went inside to use the bathroom and to fill it again--with water this time, for the lemonade was making her feel sticky and a little ill. She stopped working when she realized it was getting too dark to see. She shut off her torch and looked around the yard, amazed. The ground near where she'd been working was littered with pieces, useful and discarded, completed and in progress; despite sleeping until noon, she'd put in at least a full day's work. Although not lazy, Jennifer was not a compulsive worker, especially not when doing all these repetitious birds and leaves and flowers. Usually, when doing this sort of work, she had to keep a sharp eye on her own tendency to take numerous, lengthy breaks. Or to get caught up in welding together bits of scrap in interesting configurations. Today, although she had exercised no particular self-discipline, there had been none of that. She began carrying her tools and supplies back into the basement. It took her several trips to do this, and she began to wish there were an outside light. It was getting quite dark. Once she'd gotten everything indoors, she got her gun and went through the house, turning on all the lights and letting them blaze forth into the night, doublechecking all the locks. She felt as if she were drunk, although she'd touched no alcohol all day. Nothing but coffee and lemonade. It occurred to her that she'd had nothing to eat, either. She fixed herself dinner, then looked speculatively at the bottle of whisky at the back of one of her cupboards. Perhaps that would not be such a bad idea. . . but no, God only knew what was going to happen during the night. She had better keep alert. But she slept undisturbed that night. Whether this was because there were no noises, or because she had worked herself to the point of exhaustion, she could not have said. Over the next several days, she threw herself into her work with a desperate frenzy. She rarely rested, except when she was actually sleeping, and she was not aware of any odd noises during the night. Her dreams, however, were troubled. Often she would dream of being chased, or of pursuing some person who could not be found. A couple of times, she dreamt that the sculpture she was working on began to resemble a dead body, and that she could do nothing to change this resemblance. She also dreamt of the door under the attic stairs. She did not see anyone come out of the door in her dreams, only its stark and suggestive presence. There were no more signs of an uninvited visitor in the house, but Jennifer did not find this reassuring. She was certain, without knowing why she felt that way, that the mysterious occurrences had ceased only to set the stage for something worse. She was determined that this something, whatever it might be, would not catch her unawares. She carried her gun with her at all times and aimed it into dark corners and at the doors of unused rooms. The door to the attic stairs seemed particularly likely to burst open unexpectedly. She began to dread passing it on her way downstairs in the morning, and even more so at night when she went to bed. After a few days she moved her bed and dresser and clothing to a downstairs room. The room had not originally been intended as a bedroom and had no closet, and although this was inconvenient, Jennifer found it comforting. But now that she was on the ground floor, she began to suffer from the conviction that something was looking in her window at night. The one evening as she was on her way to bed, she saw something move as she passed the kitchen. The kitchen light was not on, so she could see only an indistinct white shape, apparently hovering in midair. She jerked the gun up and fired, then reached cautiously into the kitchen and turned the light switch. One of the cupboards, which had a tendency to swing open if not properly latched, now had a neat hole in the lower panel. "Good shot. Nailed the damn thing." She began to laugh, and continued to do so for several minutes, leaning helplessly against the doorframe. The next day, she decided to make a trip back to the city. She had enough completed work to nearly fill the back of her truck, and she needed to buy materials that could not be found it the small town where she bought her food and household supplies. It would not have been absolutely necessary for her to go into the city for another week or so, but she had to get out of the house for awhile. She needed to be with other people. She spent two days at the home of a friend in the city. Another friend, who owned a gallery, had good news; one of her larger abstract pieces had sold for over a thousand dollars. Her mood was ebullient for the rest of the day, which she spent prowling junkyards for odd items that might be capable of firing her imagination--bits of bulky machinery that she sometimes could not even identify, but which would serve splendidly as the starting point for new projects. She drove home with the bed of her truck as full as it had been when she'd left, fantasizing about exclusive showings and her name on the covers of certain magazines. And never again having to make another spray of leaves to hang on the wall of any of the gift shops that now provided the bulk of her income. When she pulled into the driveway, however, she was subjected to a rude awakening. All of her belongings were stacked on and around the front porch. Her things had not been arranged with any great care, but nothing seemed damaged. But she was acutely aware of how easy it would have been for some of her valuable equipment to have been stolen, or ruined by rain. Not to mention her personal belongings. She unlocked the door, only to find that the chain was fastened. Furious, she went back to the truck and got out the tire iron. She held the door open with her foot and struck the chain as hard as she could. Two blows were sufficient to rip it from its mounting on the frame of the door. "A lot of protection that would have been," she muttered. Still carrying the tire iron, she once again searched the house from top to bottom. The only thing of any interest that she found was the package of knives she had hidden underneath the sink. It pleased her that they were still there. At least her antagonist wasn't infallible. She spent the rest of the day bringing her belongings back inside. It had been a long drive home, and she was tired, but the sky looked as if it might let loose with a thunderstorm at any minute. A couple of things were so large and bulky that she had to go down the road and hire Dave to help her carry them inside. Naturally, he was curious to know what had happened, but she did not feel like discussing the matter. She met his questions with glowering silence, then made it up to him by paying more than they'd agreed on. He seemed to take her odd behavior in stride. The situation was becoming intolerable. She had done everything she could think of, and none of it had worked. She could call the police, but what would she tell them? They'd think she was insane. She decided to think about it in the morning. A good night's rest would make her a lot more capable of dealing with the whole mess. Her mind had a way of coming up with inventive solutions to almost any problem if she gave it time, and didn't think about it too much on a conscious level. Sleeping on it had also been known to generate an answer. It seemed to her that she had no sooner gotten to sleep than she was awakened by a low rumbling noise, almost like a dog growling. It sounded as if it were coming from inside the room. She reached for her gun. Once it was firmly in her grasp, she turned on the bedside lamp. A pale, unhealthy-looking individual was standing at the far end of the room, near the door to the hall. Her first impression of the intruder was that he strongly resembled the sort of juvenile punk that hung around on street corners back in the city, looking for someone to intimidate. Then he snarled at her. His face had such a look of inhuman savagery that it did not even register on her at first that his eyeteeth were considerably longer and sharper than those of any normal person. He took a step toward her, teeth bared and a low, almost subsonic growl reverberating from his throat. Jennifer fired the gun almost reflexively. The bullet hit her intended target, stitching a small dimple into his oversized sweatshirt, but he did not appear to notice. Jennifer fired again. The stranger, apparently unaffected by the two bullets that had struck him in the chest, picked up the chair Jennifer had pushed against the door and hurled it at the window. He missed, and it hit the wall with a thunderous crash. Then he vanished. It did not happen all at once; first her grew translucent, and the growling became fainter, before he disappeared altogether from sight and sound. Jennifer sat pointing her gun at the closed door, her hands shaking uncontrollably. She would not have thought that her mind was capable of functioning at all, but by sunrise she had come up with a theory that might explain what she had seen. It was not an idea she would have taken seriously even as recently as twelve hours earlier, but what she'd seen had shaken her modern, unsuperstitious world-view to the core. When the sun was fully up, she got her crowbar and pried three steps from their places on the narrow attic stairway. It took considerable courage for her to crawl through the gap she had created, into the space beneath the stairs. She sat there with the beam of her flashlight illuminating the waist-high door, terrified to open it. There was something in there. She could feel it. She looked at the door for what seemed like a long time, half- expecting it to open. She felt dizzy with fear, heart and lungs laboring as if she were running at top speed. But at last, she reached for the door and pushed it open. The space inside was long and narrow. The roof, highest along the wall that contained the door, slanted downwards until it met the floor at an oblique angle along the other long side of the crawl space. Once she'd crawled inside Jennifer found that the roof was too low, even at its highest point, for her to rise to her feet. She could detect a peculiar odor, one she was sure she had never encountered before. There were dozens of mildewed draperies and curtains stuffed under the low part of the roof, like the nest-lining of some giant rodent. The rest of the floor was cluttered with an odd assortment of things; faded letters, silverware, a clock, a broken porcelain chamberpot, assorted clothing. Jennifer found that she could not really see the half of the crawl space that lay to her left without closing the door. Once she had done so, she felt trapped and claustrophobic. The air seemed to hold a damp electric charge. She jerked the flashlight around the room, feeling as if something were watching her from the shadows. Then she froze, training the beam of light on the far end of the crawl space. There was a body there, curled loosely into a sleeping position. She recognized it as her uninvited visitor from the night before. He showed no signs of life. After watching his chest for a few minutes Jennifer concluded that he was not breathing. The vampire, for that was what Jennifer had decided she was dealing with, did not look particularly intimidating at the moment. She was at somewhat of a loss as to what she ought to do next. The traditional method of dealing with a vampire, she knew, was to kill it by driving a wooden stake through its heart. But she didn't think she could do it. The vampire looked like a sleeping child. He didn't even have any shoes on; in fact, he was wearing a pair of pajamas. No, that was out of the question. But she did not mean to let the vampire continue disturbing her sleep and her possessions. She had the upper hand now, and she intended to use it. She slept most of the day, but made sure to set her alarm clock for well before sundown. When it rang, she had some dinner and a shower. She was not looking forward to going back up there. It would still be light for an hour or so, but what if the vampire woke up a little early? He might not take kindly to having his secret room invaded. She lit her acetylene torch, which she'd dragged up two flights of stairs, before opening the door under the attic stairway. She had left the gun behind, since it had already proved ineffective. The vampire did not appear to have moved since she'd found him some hours earlier. She sat with her back against the door, torch in one hand and her flashlight clamped clumsily between her knees and pointed in the vampire's general direction. With her other hand, she reached into her shirt and pulled out her mother's silver crucifix. She had felt rather silly putting it on; she'd suspected the vampire would see it and laugh. Now that she was in the tiny room with him, though, being laughed at was low on her list of concerns. It happened very suddenly. The vampire's eyes opened and he sat up, and it seemed to Jennifer that he had done this in less time than it would have taken her to blink. Her hand flew to the fuel valve and the flame coming from the torch surged out, becoming longer and brighter. The vampire started back and hit the wall behind him with a thud and a low snarl. To Jennifer, the room seemed as hot as an oven, although she had not noticed the temperature before. The vampire, who had covered his face with his hands, peered out from between his fingers. "Turn that thing off before you set the place on fire!" Jennifer, a little startled at being addressed in this peremptory tone, responded by saying the first thing that came to mind. "You have caused me a great deal of trouble. I am tired of having my things moved around and finding disgusting messes in the sink. I want you to stop doing these things." There was a long moment of silence. "You have no right to be here in the first place," the vampire said indignantly, "much less to tell me how I ought to behave in my own house." "I have a lease." She wondered if she ought to show it to him. "That means nothing to me, madam. This is my home, I have been living here since before you were born, and no sheet of paper is going to convince me you have any legitimate claim. Now turn that damn thing off." Jennifer redirected the flashlight so that it spotlighted the vampire's face. "You have no call to be rude. I don't--" "If you don't get out of this house," he said sweetly, "I will rip your throat out. How is that for rude?" "Don't you threaten me! I've got half a mind to set you on fire, and your precious house with you!" The vampire, his face buried in his arms, blindly threw a sock at her. She jerked the torch to one side a few inches to avoid igniting it. He groped around for something more substantial to throw, and said, "Turn off that light, it hurts my eyes." "If you knock the torch out of my hand, all this junk in here will catch fire." His tone became more reasonable. "At least point the flashlight somewhere else. You're hurting my eyes just terribly. And be careful, the wood in here is very dry." Jennifer lowered the flashlight, and the vampire raised his head. Then he moved. Before she could react, he had vanished through the wall. She glanced around, feeling trapped and helpless. For all she knew, he could reappear through any wall he chose, or possibly even the floor or ceiling. There was a brisk series of knocks, coming from the attic stairs from the sound of it. Not footsteps, but knuckles on wood, as if to catch her attention. With some trepidation, she backed away from the door so that she could open it, and turned awkwardly around. The vampire was leaning on the stairs, smirking at her. "Perhaps I should just nail these steps back into place and leave you here." Fear gave way to a flare of temper. He sounded like some spoiled little boy. "I'm sure I'd manage to get out." The vampire sighed. "Yes, I suppose you would. What am I going to do with you?" "Why don't you just leave me alone? I've done nothing to you, yet you have been harassing me since I moved in here." "I did not invite you to come here. You are not welcome, and I suggest that you pack your things and go." "I told you, I have a lease. If I moved out, I wouldn't get my money back. But I think the house is big enough for both of us. I'm mostly up during the day, anyway." The vampire gave her a look of disbelief. "I do not especially enjoy the idea of sharing my house with a complete stranger. And now that you know about my hiding place, how do I know you won't murder me in my sleep? Why should I trust you?" "If I had wanted to do that, I would have done it this morning, when I first found you." The vampire sat down on the steps and regarded her thoughtfully. "The idea does have a certain merit, I suppose. . . having you here would discourage other squatters from moving in. I've had quite a bit of trouble with that, over the years. And you are less offensive than some of the others I've had to deal with. At least you do not have children. "You might even prove useful. I have quite a bit of mending that needs to be done. Do you sew?" "No, I don't." "Ah, well. Still, I suppose it would be more trouble than it's really worth to get rid of you. You may remain, under certain conditions. The first among these is that you are never again to come up here while I am sleeping. Is that clear?" "Fine by me. Listen, you stay the hell out of my bedroom too, you hear me?" He was being relatively civil now, but she vividly recalled his bared teeth, the savagery in his expression. The vampire looked at her disdainfully. "Not to worry." "Can I get out of here now?" "By all means. But shut that damnable thing off before you set something afire." Jennifer did so--it would have been difficult to move the cart while the torch was burning, anyway--and climbed through the aperture in the stairs. She lifted the cart out behind her, and to do so she had to turn her back on the vampire, not an easy thing to do. She supposed that trust would have to begin somewhere, if they were really going to coexist in the same house. "I trust you will repair the steps. You can do that, can't you?" "Yes." Her stomach filled with ice as she walked past the vampire, who was leaning indolently against the wall. She remembered his casual comment about ripping her throat out, and also how quickly he had moved. But the vampire merely said, "Well, at least you are good for something. Perhaps you can do other minor repairs around the place. For instance, some of the trim has fallen off the front of the house, in case you hadn't noticed. And once it has been replaced, it will need to be painted." "Call the landlord about it." Now that she was out in the hall, Jennifer's courage was returning. She turned back to face the vampire. "I'm Jennifer Meyers, by the way. What should I call you?" The vampire, whose mother had named him Theophile, said "Call me anything you like." "Don't you have a name?" He began examining his fingernails. She noticed that they were long and rather sharp-looking. She waited, but he remained obstinately silent. "If you won't tell me, I think I'll call you Roger. That seems like a good name for you. I used to have a neighbor with a son named Roger, and you remind me of him. He used to stay out all night and--" "I don't wish to hear about it." The vampire, Roger, slammed the door to the attic stairs between them. "Rude," Jennifer muttered. She went downstairs to get a hammer and some nails.


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank