As the footsteps crested the top of the stairs, the icy feeling melted away, and the dizziness that had filled my mind vanished. I suddenly realized I needed to hide—why or from what I had no idea. I threw myself behind a pile of crates, held my breath, and waited.
The footsteps paused for a moment, then resumed, clicking softly back and forth across the attic. Something bad seemed to fill the air, a nauseating sense of danger. Every shadow seemed to come alive in the wake of those footsteps, swirling around in search of me. I quietly clamped a hand over my mouth and held my breath even tighter. The moment I breathe, I thought, they will find me.
The footsteps continued, back and forth, and the shadows danced, around and around. My lungs felt ready to burst. At last, with a cold, frustrated sigh, the footsteps vanished, and with them the aura of badness. I dared to peek out of my hiding place. The attic was as empty as before.
Gasping to relieve my deprived lungs, I collapsed on the dusty floor, feeling—knowing—that I had just barely escaped some hideous fate. I lay there in the creaking attic until my nerves were calmed enough for me to stand.
I have to keep going, I told myself, for Anna.
I returned downstairs and retrieved an iron fire-stoker from the parlor. There was only one place left to check: the walled up room in the kitchen. Armed with my stoker, I attacked the bricks, slowly chipping away the mortar, tearing down the wall piece by piece until I had created a hole large enough for me to crawl through. There I paused, partly to wipe the sweat from my brow, for dismantling the wall had required a strenuous effort, but mainly because I was once more hit with it.
Out of that dismal hole oozed a noxious stench, one that made my stomach tighten and my fists clench their weapon more tightly. At any moment, I expected something nameless to come barreling out to devour me.
She has my wife, I reminded myself. Dropping my stoker with a metallic clatter, I squeezed myself into the darkness head-first.
It was foolish of me to go in blindly. With a thrilling shock, I realized I was falling. I tumbled through blackness, bouncing off of wooden steps, never quite sure which way was up until I landed solidly on a stone floor. A sharp bolt of pain penetrated my skull, and I fell unconscious.
When I came to, I thought I was in my own bed in my apartment in the city. Anna was under the blankets next to me, whispering something, and I rolled over to take her in my arms…
But my hands closed over empty air, and my head throbbed painfully as it moved against the unforgiving floor of a cellar. I opened my eyes and panicked. At first I thought I had gone blind, that my fall had inflicted irreparable damage to my brain, but then I scolded myself. You knew it would be dark.
The darkness was almost paralyzing. Staggering foolishly about with my hands outstretched, I tried to find my way back to the stairs. My feet scuffed along the damp floor, encountering little things that rattled dryly as they were kicked aside. The longer I wandered blindly through the oppressive blackness of the cellar, the more I began to worry that I would never find my way out. My heart leapt to my throat at the chilling thought, and I wondered if anybody outside would be able to hear me if I screamed.
There was a noise from somewhere in the darkness, a rustle of cloth and a soft tap on the floor. My heart raced, and I began groping about madly, trying to find my way. Behind me, I could hear feet scuffing against the stone, coming closer with each passing moment, and a bad feeling accompanied them, just like in the attic. I was terribly scared. The darkness tickled my back and made my skin prickle. Something was closing in around me, threatening to suffocate me, and I wanted to cry.
Suddenly, my hand touched something. It was not a rough cellar wall, nor was it the wooden surface of the stairs for which I so desperately sought. It was smooth, soft, and cold.
My scream was smothered as my throat constricted, silencing me. Tiny, invisible fingers wrapped around my own, clasping my hand in a caressing grip and carefully steering me through the dark. In a panic, I tried to pull away, but the soft fingers grasped hungrily at me, and I could not get free.
Without warning, I stumbled against something hard. Stairs. From the sound they made when my feet kicked against them, they were not the wooden steps that I had fallen down. These ones seemed to be made of the same stone as the floor. The phantom tugged gently, urging me to continue, and I had no choice but to oblige. The quiet footsteps still chased me. My hand was guided forward until it contacted the rotting wood of a door, and my invisible companion relinquished its grip.
The something behind me began climbing the dark stairs; the soft tap of shoes on stone came closer and closer. I eagerly sought the doorknob, twisted it roughly, and burst out into dim twilight. The sun was just disappearing behind the hills, and an icy rain was pummeling the earth. I did not bother to turn around, to try catching a glimpse of my pursuer or my phantom rescuer. I ran down the hill into town, my breath gasping and ragged from the frigid air, arriving at last at the door of Tom Richards. I pounded my fists against the wood, whimpering in a weak voice “Let me in, please let me in…”
I could feel the shadow of the mansion as it loomed over Hallowdale, spreading its dark fingers into every nook and cranny of the town as the sun slipped helplessly away. I could sense the empty windows staring down into the deserted streets, searching for me, angry that I had escaped its trap in the cellar, and I pounded harder on the Richardses’ door.
At last the lock clicked and Tom’s face appeared, wide eyed at my haggard state. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I was escorted into the kitchen, and Mrs. Richards began heating a pot of tea. “Now,” said Tom once I had calmed down a bit, “tell us what happened.”
I explained how I had searched the mansion and discovered the entrance to the cellar, described the sounds I heard, and shuddered as I recounted the feel of the phantom’s grip.
“I don’t think you should go in that house again,” Tom said once I had finished.
I nodded my head in agreement.
“You can stay here with us,” offered Mrs. Richards. “Sleep in Kyle’s old room.”
“I guess you didn’t find your wife,” said Tom.
I shook my head. “She’s not in there. I searched everywhere.”
“What about outside the house?”
“No,” gasped Mrs. Richards. “You can’t send him there!”
“Tell me!” I ordered. I did not care if it was dangerous. If Anna was there, I would endure anything.
“There’s a graveyard in the woods—” Tom began.
“I know,” I interrupted. “I’ve been there.”
The Richardses seemed mildly surprised at this, but Tom continued. “You want to find your wife, you should check there. It’s one of her favorite haunts.”
“But please,” added Mrs. Richards, stopping me as I stood to leave, “wait until morning.”
I could not argue with Mrs. Richards. I was soaked to the bone, and my head ached from its collision with the cellar floor. I warmed myself by the fire while Mrs. Richards prepared Kyle’s old room, and when she was done, I fell gratefully into the comfortable, clean blankets, and fell asleep.