The Thing in the Loft
The Thing in the Loft
The Thing in the Loft
Vlad’s Cat Earth9
The Thing in the Loft
by Luke Walker
The Thing in the Loft
by Luke Walker
Adam paused the video when he heard his sister approaching his bedroom door. She didn’t knock, but then she never did. That was pretty unfair now that he thought about it. Mum had told him to always knock on Katie’s door.
“You okay?” Katie glanced at his TV. It was only a small portable Dad had brought down from the loft the week before to go with their old video player, but it was his alone. It didn’t get much cooler than being able to watch films in his bedroom. His sister frowned before he had chance to reply.
“What are you watching?” she asked.
Katie blew a breath out of her nose in a decent impression of their mother. “Dad rented a video for you?”
“Yeah. Don’t tell Mum.”
“I won’t as long as you stay in your room until they’re home later.”
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Just stay in here.”
She moved away, hand on the door.
“What if I need to go for a poo?” he asked.
“Do it out the window. Just stay in here.”
“I’ll do it in your room.”
She reached for the nearest object – a box for the blank tape in his little stereo – and threw it lightly at him. It landed on the bed near his knees. In the stereo, Parklife played with the volume at zero. He had until the next day before his mate Ben wanted the tape back, so he’d set it to record, oddly satisfied with taping it at the same time he watched a video in his room.
Katie saw the box for Ben’s copy of the album and held a fist over it. “Just don’t annoy me and I won’t break this.”
“Yeah, all right. Let me watch my video.” He fumbled with the remote, eager to re-start the film. It was only halfway through and he was desperate to see how the woman killed Freddy, again. Ben had told him the film was better than any of the sequels, but Adam didn’t think his friend had really seen it. If Ben’s mum wasn’t letting him round to see Adam tonight because Adam’s parents were out, then no way was Ben allowed to watch a film like this.
“Are your friends coming round?” he asked his sister.
Her amusement was obvious. He wished he’d found a cooler way of phrasing his question.
“Like who?” she replied.
“I don’t know. Anyone.”
“Fiona? Zoe?” Her grin, weighted with knowledge and mocking, grew wider. He felt the heat of his flaming cheeks and pretended he hadn’t asked. Zoe had barely spoken to him, but he thought about her a lot. Usually with images of them together in his room. Adam had little self-awareness, but he knew enough about the world to know that at eleven, he was nothing to his sister’s seventeen-year-old friend. Only six years and it was like a baby compared to a grandma.
Still, he could think about her.
“No. Just wondered how much noise you’re going to make.”
“None. They’re not coming, but you still need to stay out of my way. I’ll be on the phone.”
“In Mum and Dad’s room?”
“Yeah, in their room. Shut up and watch your shit film.”
“It’s not shit,” he protested and she strode to him in three quick steps. Her punch was more of a tap on his shoulder.
“Don’t swear,” she said.
“Adam. I mean it.”
“Bums. Farts. Boobs.”
“You’re such a dick.” She left, calling over her shoulder as she closed the door, “Stay in here, you little shit.”
“Tits,” he bellowed and heard Katie laugh as she walked down the hallway to her room or to their parents’ room to use their phone. She could just as easily have gone downstairs to use the phone in the kitchen like he did, but having a phone upstairs was actually pretty cool. Dad had got a mobile phone last month for his job and spent a lot of the time since swearing at it for not doing what he wanted. Mum didn’t like him having it; she said they were common and naff.
He played the film, comfortable against the walls and his pillows. The sunlight of the June evening played on his curtains; there’d be another hour or more until dark, which was a bit of a pain when it came to watching a horror film, but Mum and Dad would be home by ten-thirty at the latest and he needed to get the video back in the box and hidden to pass to Dad by then. Dad would return it to the shop tomorrow morning when he went out to the papershop for his pack of fags. A secret operation outside Mum; something special for him and Dad. Katie knew, but she would keep quiet as long as he didn’t annoy her tonight.
Warm air wafted between the curtains and brought the faint sounds of the outside world as his film went on, nearing its climax. The steady traffic on the parkway beyond the fence and the tightly packed trees; the occasional bark of a dog; birds singing before nightfall. And with the sounds, the pleasant scents of the early summer: cherry blossom, cut grass; the faint mix of his perspiration masked by deodorant, and the suggestion of Katie’s shampoo. Something fruity. Something behind the clean smell that wasn’t clean.
Adam wrinkled his nose. The smell was faint, but noticeable. Something dirty like an overflowing bin or a drain in October. Without pausing the film, he slid off the bed, crossed to the window and opened it further. The breeze played with the curtains. On the screen, Freddy phoned the woman to taunt her about her son. The dog outside barked, suddenly louder. An angry dog. Or maybe a scared dog with a higher-pitched bark uttered in rapid bursts.
“Shit.” He hissed it. No more than forty minutes left on the film. Annoyed, he paused it and listened to the dog, waiting for the owner to shout at it to stop.
Above, the ceiling creaked. The dog was silent. The ceiling creaked again, directly above his bed.
Adam craned his neck, staring straight up.
Pipes and wood. Pipes and wood. Pipes and wood.
The sounds continued.
Someone was walking around in the loft.
* * *
It’s a bird.
Adam had been standing on his bed for a few seconds or minutes or hours. He wasn’t sure. He’d been scared before. There was that time last summer he, Ben, Ansar, and Sean were on the school field one Saturday evening and some of the kids from St John’s had cycled through the grounds. They’d stopped on their bikes and stared over the grass at Adam and his friends. Ansar was the first to jog for his bike and say they needed to go right now. Seeing his friends scared of the older kids – the bigger kids – was bad enough; having his back to the St John’s boys as he ran for his bike was worse, and then when Sean shouted they were coming, Adam couldn’t have told anyone his name. He knew terror and nothing but.
This was that fear returned, stronger and hot like a fire in his bedroom, paradoxically chilling him as it brought childish tears close.
It’s a bird.
The steps ran back and forth, pounding the width of the loft. Whoever was up there was moving in a random, jerking movement instead of methodically pacing. He tried to picture a pigeon jumping and flapping in the confined pace. Or maybe a cat. Somehow. They didn’t have any pets and there were no windows higher than his. It was something, though. Something alive.
It continued its senseless movement, skittering and thudding. They kept a few bits and pieces in the loft: old boxes; the Christmas decorations, a couple of sleeping bags, and some stuff from Nan’s house now she was in a home. Posts and beams criss-crossed low down. The area smelled of wood and heat and fresh air creeping in through cracks and holes in the bricks. And now someone was up there.
This is stupid. There can’t be anyone up there.
The steps ceased. Adam held his breath, ears thudding in time with his heart.
Someone up there, listening to him as he listened to it.
Him, not it. Him. There’s a man up there.
It was a fierce protest that he wanted to scream, to give it flesh and blood. At the same time, him was worse than a nameless it. A man up in the loft – a man who couldn’t be his dad – was rich with awful possibilities not only for him but for Katie. Especially for Katie.
Him or it, there was no difference. Something or someone up in the loft, walking around and listening to him while he listened and wanted to cry.
It knows you’re listening. The video’s paused. You’re not making any sounds.
Adam crouched abruptly, sure the ceiling would open like a mouth and arms would reach down for him – because he was right. It knew he was listening.
His mouth opened. He had no say in the movement.
“Stupid TV not working,” he said too loudly and cringed at the invading sound of his voice that was far too high and wavering to sound like him. He could have been a little girl.
“I told Dad it wasn’t working properly,” he said in the same fake tone and hoped with equal strength that his voice did and didn’t carry to Katie. If she heard him like this, she would come to his door, which meant she would pass directly under the entrance to the loft.
Movement, again. Steps. Lumbering steps as if the walker had a sprained ankle. Moving closer to the join of Adam’s room and the hallway. To the loft entrance.
He dropped to the floor with the smooth ease of a nimble cat, swept up the remote and hit Play. The film – shockingly loud after minutes or hours of nothing – bloomed back into life and he cried out over the volume.
“Yes, TV working again.”
The steps ceased. It was listening. It was breathing as he breathed.
Adam slapped his forearm over his mouth and tasted sweat. It kept the cry inside. He heard the breathing. A wet inhalation; rasping and laboured. Through the brick and plaster, he heard it, which meant it had to be right down on the floor of the loft, mouth to the boards as if kissing them.
I have to get out. Out of my room. Out of the house. Call Dad. Call his mobile phone.
Each thought was separate and part of the same family. Getting out and calling Dad was impossible, but he would do it.
The Walking Thing was now the Breathing Thing. Also the Listening Thing.
Move quickly and carefully. Don’t think. Just walk and step lightly.
It was Dad in his head. Mum and Dad were a few miles away at Uncle Brian’s and Aunt Jenny’s; they’d come home a bit drunk and silly and maybe let him stay up another hour while Dad drank something from the cabinet, and Adam would wish in a secret space that he was still small enough to sit between them on the sofa. Katie would perch on the arm of the chair so she didn’t have to commit to being in the room with her family and they’d talk and laugh and things would be okay.
But first, out.
Adam slid around the edge of his bed, jeans whispering on the duvet cover, his body turned into a hot, tight wire. The film was still playing. Everything normal was on the screen while nothing normal was in his house.
Get to Katie and get out. Everything will be normal again.
He’d have to pass the stairs to get to either his sister’s room or their parents’. The stairs and out before his sister.
Outrage shoved up a wall between him and the thought.
He crossed from the bed to the door, finger wet as he reached for the handle. He’d open it inch by inch and creep out. Let the listening, breathing thing hear the film. Let it walk around if it wanted to. He would get his sister and get out of the house.
Or go for the stairs and straight down.
No. No. NO.
A new sound from above. He tilted his head back, mouth wide open, his eyes two roasting holes in his face.
It was growling up there. But worse than the idea of an animal somehow up in the loft was the strange and familiar cast to the growl. A rise and fall to the pitch instead of a simple animal warning or threat. He stared, aware he hadn’t blinked in long moments.
The Listening Thing, then the Breathing Thing and now the Growling Thing. And now the Stinking Thing.
The smell of waste and dirt returned. He imagined it bleeding through the floor of the loft and his bedroom ceiling, dripping to his face and nose. He gagged, shoved a hand over his mouth and nose to keep the sound inside, and swayed on the spot. It growled again; the sound still familiar. It was like hearing a dog learning to speak. Not in a gruff bark way that made him laugh, but in a this is a dog trying to be human way that made him want to drop to his knees and cover his ears until all the sounds of the universe were lost.
Without a single conscious thought – certainly without any planning or consideration of the consequences—Adam grabbed the nearest object and threw it at the curtains shielding his bedroom from the fading sunshine.
His hardback copy of Salem’s Lot punched the curtains and hit the carpet with a heavy thud. At once, the Growling Thing ran across the loft, chasing the sound from below. Adam opened his bedroom door and took five rapid steps into the hallway before forcing himself to stop. He panted like a tired dog and tried to breathe quietly. It seemed impossible he could sweat so much. But then, this whole thing was impossible.
“I get out and I’m okay.” Adam cringed. He hadn’t realised he was about to speak. There was silence above. Hopefully, the Growling Thing was still level with his window, listening for another thud.
Adam moved, horribly sure that if he didn’t, he’d never do so. Roots would grow through the lower floor, up the stairs and entwine through his feet, and he’d become a permanent part of the hallway. If he didn’t move.
He crouched when he drew level with the loft opening in the ceiling, then skittered before long, spindly arms descended like claws and yanked him into the dark mouth.
He was going to piss himself like a baby.
I won’t, I won’t, I fucking won’t.
Mum would scream at him for using that word. Even Dad would have a go. Katie would laugh but make sure she wasn’t seen doing so.
She was straight ahead in their parents’ room. Between him and his sister, the stairs and out.
He could run straight down. Nobody would know.
He could leave his sister to the Growling Thing.
He was on the third stair down before he could stop himself and splayed his palm on the wall to halt his movement. The wall was strangely cold. He was cold. This was like winter had set up home in his heart and lungs and he was exhaling January wind as his hot blood crunched and snapped into chunks of ice.
He went down another step, mouth shivering, arms trembling.
I can’t leave her there.
He couldn’t shout or get her attention in any way other than going right through the bedroom door.
Down another step. Two more and he’d be halfway to the ground floor. To the door. To out.
His sister. His big sister. His family in the house and no help anywhere. This was all on him.
Adam wheezed like his granddad and tried to whisper Katie’s name. Nothing emerged from his mouth but that winter breeze. His insides were as dead as the fields and the trees were around Christmas. Dead as Katie would be if he descended any further.
Keeping to the edges of the stairs to reduce any creaking, he returned to the hallway. As insane as it was true, the film played on in his bedroom and evening light spread its goodness over what he could see of his bed and the carpet. Not long to go before that light sank into the purple, then the black. And then. And then.
“Katie.” He breathed his sister’s name as if it were a magic spell.
Adam skittered again, bent double and running against a terrible wind battering his resolve. He didn’t hear the hiss of his socks on the carpet or the fading sound of the film playing in his bedroom. He listened solely for the running creature above to come for him.
A few feet from the closed door to his parents’ bedroom, he stopped and blinked rapidly to clear the black spots dancing in front of his eyes. All the spit in his mouth had dried up; his breath stank but couldn’t compete with the reek from above. Rotten things. Mouldy things. Dead things.
He’d get Katie off the phone and they’d run downstairs. They could be under the loft and to the stairs before anything opened the little door in the ceiling. Before any arms came down.
Adam wiped his hot forearm over his mouth, sure his lips were dry enough to crack and bleed, and reached for the door handle.
He couldn’t hear Katie on the phone.
No, please. She’s okay. Please.
Cringing at the click of the handle and the faint creak of the hinge that sounded to him as loud as a cannon blast, Adam inched open the bedroom door.
Fresh air hit him first. The window was wide open and the balm of the evening warmth brought the scents of cherry blossom and grass. The breeze made the open curtains flap. It was only after staring for another moment that Adam realised one of the curtains hung from the pole at a disjointed angle. It had come close to being yanked free. Halfway down, it was torn. Shredded.
His breaking mind flashed on the video Dad had rented for him, and imagining a fictional demon had broken into his home was a fierce comfort because it was as ridiculous as it was impossible. Which meant none of this was happening.
The duvet was on the floor. The phone, secure on the bedside table, was beside it in a tangle of wires and snapped plastic. There was a book Mum had been reading. A paperback. He didn’t know what it was. The cover and first few pages were as ripped as the curtains. The remains of the book rested on an overturned vase.
Katie was on the bed, facing him.
In one splayed hand, she held a second vase. Its flowers were spilled beside her leg. She couldn’t stare at him because her eyes were missing.
Adam felt a soft tug in his centre, a welcome snap in his mind before he drifted and faced his sister. There was enough left of him to see it as if it was happening right now. It came through the window and came for Katie. She’d grabbed the vase as a makeshift weapon and it changed nothing.
It reached her before she screamed or made it off the bed. It reached his sister and it and it and it and it and—
In the bedroom, Katie was a ruined mess and he couldn’t look away from his sister. The holes in her head; the blood splattered on her clothes and the bed; the obvious speed of whatever had done this to her.
Adam’s thought was as soft and warm as the twilight sunshine on a pleasant June evening.
How fast was it to do that before she could scream? How could it run so fast from here to the loft?
A new sound echoed through the house. Something high and constant. It was the phone ringing. Mum calling to check on them. Mum with Dad in the background, probably laughing and a bit drunk; a quick call to make sure he was behaving himself and Katie didn’t have any boys round.
Mum, no, please. Hang up. Don’t call. Don’t make the phone ring.
The phone rang and rang, the shrill noise piercing into the numb meat of his brain while soft thuds from above answered it.
Wood scraped behind him. Gently. Carefully. Wood shifting between him and the stairs. Something clicked and snapped. Perhaps it was a crab’s claws. Perhaps he should turn around and see it so it could come for his eyes as it came for Katie’s.
The noise of the phone echoed and danced, gleefully mocking him because it was safety if he answered it. If he was downstairs already; if he hadn’t come for his sister.
dead sister adam dead already you should have run you should have run from me you won’t see me you won’t you won’t know me dead sister saw me dead sister soft eyes in my hands my hands should have run away
The phone cut out; Mum probably thinking he couldn’t hear it over his film and maybe Katie was in the shower. Maybe thinking she and Dad should come home to make sure everything was all right
No, please don’t. Stay away.
Adam smelled the nasty stink of a choked drain or a pile of tiny bones with the scraps of skin still attached, blackening in the damp and the quiet. It was the smell of the Listening Thing and he breathed that reek in because it was in the stone and brick of the house, wiping out the scents he’d never considered as home: Katie’s shampoo, Dad’s aftershave, Mum’s baking. All corrupted by the stink of the Listening Thing peering at him from its place at the top of the house. Staring out of the darkness in the loft with what he knew were too many eyes, as it had too many legs.
Croaking laughter dropped from the loft. It knew his thoughts, saw what capered in terror through his head. And it welcomed that terror even more than it welcomed his helplessness. It thrived on both. Ate both as it had eaten Katie’s eyes. And when it was finished with his terror, there were neighbours and streets and towns. There were fields and woods in which to hide; long roads linking the homes and families safe and warm in the night.
should have run away little boy not come to the dead sister should have left already dead already dead run away turn to me turn to me see me in the dark where I live my home out there in the secret place the low place should run from it little boy
It was gleeful, but there was no humour or light in that joy. It was one of the older kids at school beating someone smaller; a PE teacher delighting in making kids without the ability run long-distance; a man who liked to do things to little girls and then dump their bodies in the secret places. The thing up there knew he would come for Katie; it wanted him to regret that, to wish he had left her in her blood and her ruin.
He wouldn’t smell it or hear its mocking laughter. He would not turn. He would not see it. He would stay with his sister and not be sad that he had risked coming for her instead of fleeing. He had tried to be brave for Katie, and he would not be sorry for that even as he cried. He would smell her shampoo, not his fright or the salt of his tears. And he would hope that the thing that came through the window to sneak into the loft was gone by the time Mum and Dad came home. Or that it would leave his neighbours and the streets and the towns alone.
Legs crossing the carpet.
The reek of it.