After struggling to find a new home to replace their tiny apartment, Charlotte and Tim settle on a gorgeous old property on the edge of an expanding subdivision. The place seems almost too good to be true. As the couple prepare to close the deal we also learn that Tim is hiding something from his wife.
It didn’t take long for the two of them to settle in to the house at the end of Third Avenue. With a flourish that can only be attained by those purchasing their first house, Tim and Charlotte quickly made the spot their own.
The wall of boxes piled on the main floor, camouflaging with the colour of the wall perfectly, quickly disappeared as each was opened and the contents given a new home. Pictures, unceremoniously yanked from the wall of their old apartment, were measured and hung with precision.
Kitchen implements were put in drawers, shirts and dresses were hung in closets, books were shelved, DVDs sorted, electronics were arranged and plugged in, and toiletries were arranged behind the mirror of the master bath.
Then came the time. It was a Sunday morning, three weeks less a day from their move in, that Tim and Charlotte stood arm in arm on the porch of their new home, and watched as the last few bundles of boxes were loaded into the recycle truck. Charlotte squeezed Tim’s hip and rested her head on his shoulder.
“That’s it,” she said.
“That’s it,” Tim repeated, squeezing her close and resting his cheek against her head. The flowery smell of her shampoo drifted up to him as he did.
For the two of them it was a perfect moment, few of which had been had in the last few months of living in the apartment. Charlotte had started to worry that Tim was having an affair. It wasn’t possible, she knew that, but the silent looks and one-way conversations with him had really started to worry her.
In the last three weeks though, everything had been different. Tim had been smiling, Tim had been laughing, Tim and been talking. That fact, more than anything else, had reassured her that everything was going to be okay. With Tim, you usually couldn’t get two words in when he started going. This didn’t bother Charlotte though, she liked to hear him speak and watch the small twitches of his lips as he formulated the words in his head.
When things had gotten really bad, Charlotte told herself that the move would fix it. The two of them could leave the old apartment and the old troubles behind.
As she stood in his arms, feeling the wood of the porch, rounded by the passing of thousand of steps against her bare feet and admiring the way the afternoon sun seemed to glaze everything with gold, she realized Tim had probably been hoping for the same thing.
And she was right, for the most part. The move did aid in releasing some of the old stresses, almost like they hit some sort of invisible wall as he stepped into the new house, barred entry into the place he was going to start a new life with Charlotte.
His little trouble was still there though, it had somehow managed to slip through. It was leaving him pretty much alone though, allowing him to enjoy the move with his wife. But, like a spider crouched in the high corner of a bedroom, one that you spot just as you lay down to sleep, it is bothersome. You know something must be done, but you’re comfortable and getting up to squash it with a broom handle just seems like too much work. So, you ignore it, hoping it minds its own business.
This was Tim’s attitude. His little trouble was minding its own, so why bother it? It would only cause more trouble and hurt than it was worth. Besides, he didn’t want to hurt Charlotte, certainly not after the whole thing had blown over.
The truck had worked its way half-way down the street before the two of them returned from their thoughts. Tim squeezed Charlotte close again.
“Back in the house?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “back in our house.” Tim smiled at her.
“That’s got a nice ring to it,” he said. “I like that.”
“I like you,” she said, opening the door and stepping through.
“Let’s see how much,” Tim said, following her through the door and reaching for her jean-clad rear with pinching fingers.
The door clicked shut behind him, and the decision to tell Charlotte about Stacy closed with it.
Tim was in the fateful bed, and his eyes were closed, making him blind to the spider’s slow, creeping descent.
The first incident of what Tim and Charlotte came to call the “mystery noise” occurred just two nights after that lovely evening on the porch, while the two of them lay in bed.
Charlotte had just closed the book she was reading and flicked off her bedside lamp, when the first noise came. Tim, always the late reader of the two, froze in the act of turning the page of the book propped open on his bare chest. The raised page cast a shadow over Charlotte’s face beside him.
“What was that?” Charlotte asked, propping herself on an elbow and flicking her lamp back on. The glow of her lamp immediately banished the shadow from her face; pushing them to the space between her and Tim on the bed where neither lamp could reach.
“I’m not sure,” Tim said. He finished turning his page and slid his bookmark, an old wooden ruler, into the book’s open mouth. The clunk as he returned the book to the bedside table echoed through the silence hanging in the house. Their open bedroom door stood directly across the room; a black rectangle cut into the cream coloured wall. With the ceiling lights off the lamps only managed a feeble distance into the hall; laying on the floor there like a welcome mat made of light. The noise came again and both of them stiffened.
Being in the house for nearly a month, they had become pretty familiar with the normal groans, cracks and creaks the house usually made. This wasn’t one of them. It was faint, coming from one of the lower floors. Tim thought it was most likely the basement. It was a low, steady vibration, like the sound of someone moving a chair across a hardwood floor heard from three floors below.
“Is it the pipes?” Charlotte asked. She was sitting up with the sheets pooled in her lap. Her eyes moved anxiously between the open door and her husband. The noise came again and she pulled the sheet up to her chest and moved closer to Tim.
“Scared?” he asked, sounding a little bemused
“Of course I’m scared,” she said, turning her wide eyes on him. “Don’t you hear that?” Tim laughed, pushing himself into a sitting position.
“Yes,” he replied, “it’s just the house, Charlotte.” He rubbed her knee through the sheets. “Relax.”
She studied his face and saw no worry in his eyes, the place where he generally tried to hide such emotions. After a few deep breaths she started to relax.
“See,” Tim began, “just an old house settling in for the night.” Charlotte got as far as opening her mouth to reply when the noise came again, cutting her off.
It had the same echoey quality as the times before, this time around though the noise was broken down into a stuttering tap. The footsteps of a wet rat in a drainpipe, amplified over a megaphone. Charlotte’s fear wanted her to pull her knees to her chest and encircle them in her arms. She pushed the idea away though because she knew Tim would make fun of her for it. Instead, she took a deep breath and turned to Tim.
“I don’t think that’s the house, Tim,” she said. She tried to keep the anger she was feeling from leaking into her words, but failed. Like a drop of red dye into a cup of water, it was clearly there. Tim, who had begun to open his book again, shot her an annoyed glance.
Such a short temper lately, Charlotte thought, looking at her usually calm and collected husband.
“What do you think it is then, Charlotte?” he asked, the frustration inside him coating his words like slime. The grin on his face was almost predatory, that of a cat that has finally managed to trap the mouse in a corner.
I don’t care what it is, Charlotte wanted to scream at him. I just want you to go down and check! Like the man of the house is supposed to.
She knew how cowardly and sexist her thoughts were, but she was scared, and Charlotte thought a scared woman could be forgiven such thoughts.
“The ghost of the house’s previous owner? Murdered in a grizzly way in the basement,” Tim said. “Or a poltergeist perhaps? Or-” he pointed a finger at her, his eyes wide like he had just made some amazing discovery. “It’s Freddy Kreuger himself on his way up to kill us in some ridiculous way and we’re both actually dreaming right now.”
“Shut up, Tim,” Charlotte said in a weak voice. Thankfully he did, and in the silence that followed the noise came again. A low groaning, something being pushed along the floor, something heavy. “Why do you do that, Tim?” Charlotte asked, starting to run the edge of the sheet between each of her fingers.
“Do what?” Tim asked.
“Mock me like that, make me feel stupid.”
“I didn’t mean to make you feel stupid.”
“But you did,” Charlotte said. Tim sighed. Charlotte couldn’t tell if it was an upset sigh, or a frustrated one; which gave her an uneasy feeling in her stomach because usually she could tell. Tim was an easy man to read.
Used to be, Charlotte thought.
The creeping realization that she was perhaps losing touch with the man she loved for the past ten years filled her with a wave of sadness so cold it seemed to freeze her insides. Tim look another deep breath.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” he said. “I was only trying to show you how ridiculous those thoughts are. So you wouldn’t be scared.” She looked at him and his eyes told her he was sincere. When he smiled at her it melted those cold feelings in her stomach. “Okay?” he asked. After a moment, she nodded.
“Will you do something for me?”she asked.
“Of course,” Tim replied. Now it was Charlotte’s turn for a deep breath.
“Will you just go down and look, make sure everything is okay?” Tim smiled and nodded, as if he had been expecting this very request.
“Done,” he answered, shifting his feet to the floor and flipping the sheet back onto the bed. “Back in a jiff.”
He crossed the room in three quick strides, his posture suggesting he should have been wearing a three piece suit instead of only a pair of white boxer-briefs. As he stepped into the hall, the darkness consumed him.
The architect of this house certainly never dealt with insomnia, Tim thought as he made it to the main floor and flicked the switch which illuminated the upstairs hall behind him. This did little to help him with the black cave that was the main floor, and the next switch was located across the room, a treacherous landscape filled with table legs ready to break toes, corners for bruising shins and those potted plants Charlotte liked to place all over the house. He took a deep breath, consulting his mental map as he stepped from the rectangle of light splayed on the floor from the upstairs hall light, then froze.
What is that?
Tim stared into the opposite corner of the room where, in the glow of the moon coming in from the sliding glass doors a tall hunched…something, stood. His heart thumped against his ribs, feeling as big as a basketball, and his throat felt as if it were filled with cotton as he tried to suck air through it. Not taking his eyes from it, Tim watched the thing shuffle its shoulders, like a person shaking off a chill. Its head was small with a wide triangular grin, all above a body as wide as a fridge, and as Tim’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he also saw it was the patio umbrella from the back deck.
Tim let out a relieved breath, his jumping nerves creating a jittery laughter along with it. It was an eerie sound in the dark of the main floor and he cut it off almost as soon as it started. In the silence that followed, as Tim cursed himself for forgetting he’d brought in the umbrella himself the night before, the noise came again.
It was that stuttering, broken version of the sound. As he listened to the noise groan its way through the house, Tim realized he’d head a noise similar to this before, but why his house was making this noise now was beyond him.
Years before, when Tim was still in high school and living with his parents, a severe ice storm had struck Southern Ontario. Everything beneath the storm became coated in a thick layer of ice, like an apocalyptic vision, in this version though it was ice instead of ash. This coating of frozen fluid caused particular problems for the power lines and the towers designed to keep them up. More than once, Tim heard the groan of one of these monstrosities collapsing under the weight of the built up ice. That sound, a low metallic groan, and the stuttering screech of metal on metal, which Tim heard echoing over the snow blanketed fields in that long ago winter had come back. Now it was in the walls of his house.
But how? Tim thought. There sure aren’t any ice-coated power lines in there, that’s for sure.
It was louder now too, but Tim still thought the source was in the basement. Without another thought, Tim made his way across the living room.
The basement door was directly across the room from the small kitchen. Tim passed the sliding door on his right, affording it and the leaning umbrella in the corner a short glance. He chuffed laughter to himself as he did. Reaching the other side of the room, he felt along the wall for the light switch, his hands running over the rough, peeling wallpaper as he did until his fingers finally found it and pushed it up. The curving iron light fixture above the coffee table in the center of the room splashed light across the entire main floor, showing Tim that no intruder had been lurking in the darkness and there was definitely nobody down here pushing furniture around.
He took another deep breath and stepped into the short hallway, which led to the basement door on his right, and further down the main floor bathroom and eventually the laundry room at the hall’s end.
Thankfully, the light switch for the basement was right at the top of the stairs, saving Tim more creeping in the dark and a potentially dangerous trip down the stairs. The door opened with a screech of rusty hinges, the noise penetrating Tim’s heart and sending it into another beating frenzy.
“Tim? Tim, everything okay?” Charlotte called to him. From the sound of her voice she was probably standing directly at the top of the stairs. For a brief minute Tim debated not answering her.
Let her wonder for a little, stew a little bit, a part of Tim’s mind sneered. He immediately shook the thought away, even giving his head a small little shake. Where had that come from?
“Everything’s fine dear,” he called back. “Just going to check out the basement.”
“Be careful,” Charlotte cried, “please.” Tim shook his head, rolling his eyes.
“Yes dear,” he returned. Pushing the switch, the single bulb that hung in the center of the ceiling in the basement flickered to life. The basement was an unfinished mess. Concrete floors met walls of fiberglass insulation sandwiched between wood struts. Piles of old junk littered the space under the stairs. Old newspapers, tin cans filled with who knows what, boxes marked fragile and kitchen, and bathroom in long swirly handwriting that belonged to neither him or Charlotte. Finally, laying beneath the entire mess, like a foundation, were fish tanks. It was hard to tell how many because looking into the smudged glass you could see that other tanks were placed inside the larger ones like some sort of aquatic themed matryoshka doll set. The largest of these tanks looked big enough to hold a small shark and spanned the entire length of the space beneath the stairs. Tim had been down there once before, and that had been when he first saw the place with the realtor.
“Just imagine what it could be,” he had said, holding his small pudgy fingers in the air forming a picture frame with both thumbs and forefingers. “Your own personal man cave, eh? What do you say?” Tim actually had nothing to say, and only nodded his head, trying to get the man to shut up. He knew Charlotte’s mind was already made up on the place, and what other choice did they have. Tim knew he couldn’t stand another year in that apartment.
This time around, the basement was even less inviting. If that was possible. The stairs each gave their own creaking tone as he stepped down them, and as if in anger at being contested for the night’s most annoying noise, the sound came again. Tim knew for sure that he had found the source. As his eyes spanned the dirty concrete floors and looked into each of the unfinished rooms, seeing through the unfinished walls, he saw nothing out of place; nothing which could be making the horrible, metallic groan.
The noise was much louder down here, and the metallic element in it was more pronounced, like an out of tune radio that has finally been dialed in, the noise was crisp and clear.
It was coming from the walls.
Tim shook his head and swore under his breath, fearing that Charlotte may have been right on the first guess.
“The God damn pipes,” Tim murmured to himself. It came again. Tim whipped around, staring at the place where his shadow bent ninety degrees and started to climb the wall. It came from right there. Stepping across the concrete, turning to move between two standing beams of an unfinished wall, he reached the drywall and pressed his ear to it, and waited.
The only sound he heard was the hammering of his own heartbeat. Do I actually hear that? Or is it just in my head? He thought.
Then it came again, but not from the place he was leaning, this time it was a little further down the wall. He took a few steps, dodging around another standing strut and froze again near the place he thought the sound had originated. His bare feet were starting to complain about the cold concrete they were being subjected to, but Tim ignored them.
It came from right here, Tim thought. It must be a clog in the pipes or something. Could a clogged pipe make that noise? If water was failing to run though it?
Tim didn’t think so, but he didn’t know enough about home plumbing to say for sure.
It came again, but not from the place on the other side of the wall from Tim’s ear, but a few feet further down the wall again, as if whatever was making that noise was retreating from Tim’s presence.
Tim took another deep breath and moved further down the wall, rounding the only corner in the basement and entered the small alcove that would have served as the bathroom, if the place had been finished. He also came face to face with the only piece of furniture currently calling their basement home, a plain white porcelain toilet. The builders had put all of the struts in for the wall that would separate this area from the rest of the room, but had apparently given up when it came to the drywall. Moving away from the wall, Tim passed through the space where the door would have hung. He faced the toilet, staring at it like a man contemplating a stray dog that has approached him on the street and sat down, blocking his path.
At least the toilet isn’t going to bite you, Tim thought. The lid was currently down, and the entire toilet stood out starkly from the rest of the room, which was dirty grey, and covered in a thin layer of dust and dirt.
The noise had completely stopped now.
Because you found the source, his mind told him. You found it. Tim shook his head. There was no “it”, there was nothing alive about the noise, it was just the noise of a broken pipe, probably cracked this past winter when the ground turned as hard as this concrete floor.
Open the lid then, that contradictory part of his mind told him. Open it right now and tell me you believe what you just said.
Hesitation. Tim’s face was curled into a mask of anger and frustration, like a man who realized the stray dog who approached him on the street, just ate his wedding ring, and the finger it was attached to.
Tim threw open the lid. It struck the back of the toilet tank with a loud clonk! It was as empty as the rest of the basement. There wasn’t even any water sitting in the bottom. A long breath wheezed from Tim’s lungs, and as the laughter started to bubble from his throat, the noise came again, cutting him off.
He had found the source alright.
The noise was not only louder, but it had changed. Tim stared into the dirty black eye of the toilet, his own eyes growing wider and wider. The curved bowl of the toilet seemed to grin back at him.
The metallic groan continued, but it was in the background compared with the wet sloshing that was happening now. The noise was like someone drinking a thick milkshake through a straw, a seeping slither of a sound. Something was down there.
“Tim?” Charlotte called. Tim responded with a scream.
This was followed by the quick machine gun fire of Charlotte’s steps as she ran down the stairs. All the while yelling for Tim, asking if he was okay, and what was going on.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Tim called back. He realized the toilet bowl was still open and that the noise was still flowing out of it like a loudspeaker. Without another thought, he gripped the cool porcelain lid and placed it down on the bowl. He didn’t want to slam it because he knew Charlotte was close and would most likely hear the clatter. Seconds later, Charlotte rounded the corner, running like a greyhound coming into the final stretch. Tim held up his arm to slow her progress.
“Tim,” she gasped, her eyes flying around the dark basement, “what the heck is going on? Why are you down here?” Tim stared at her with a small grin.
“You told me to check out the noise remember?” he said.
“Yes, I remember,” she said, “but I didn’t think you’d come all the way down here!” Charlotte always spoke of the basement as if it were the threshold of hell. Tim laughed.
“Well, everything is fine,” he told her, placing a hand on her shoulder and leading her away from the toilet. He could still hear the sloshing coming from beneath the toilet lid and he didn’t want Charlotte to hear it.
Do you really hear it? Or is that just in your head?
Tim ignored this thought and made his way back upstairs with Charlotte.