My dad built his dream cabin in the southern Ozarks back in 1991, a reward to himself for achieving early retirement. The damn thing took nearly a year to build, what with the county having to actually build the road to my family’s property at the top of a small mountain. I was 14 at the time, and yes, we were wealthy, but the cabin didn’t reflect that. It was simple, unlike most of the monstrosities you see in places like Aspen these days, and at that age I was ruined into thinking that I’d rather live in a city, where I’d have an easier time being spoiled rotten. I despised being there, to say the least.
We moved into the cabin in midwinter, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Everyone was excited, except me, to be moving in to enjoy Christmas morning in front of the big-ass fireplace my dad gloated over. Amelia, my little sister, was six at the time, and she was elated that Santa would have such an easy entry point- our old house didn’t even have a chimney. Looking back, the first day was an omen. But there was no way we could have known.
We pulled up to the cabin around noon on December 12th, my sister playing Kirby’s Dreamland on her Gameboy and me listening to Nirvana on my Walkman. Again, I was not excited. Mom and Dad were chipper, as usual, and it was grating on my nerves. My dad wouldn’t shut up about how he’d had the fireplace hooked into the central system so that all the heat would be distributed evenly throughout the house. We all began unloading what we had in the back of the Bronco, everything else having been moved in (at great expense) a few days before. My father’s annoyingly happy face drooped into a mild frown when he shouldered open the front door.
“Looks like the movers didn’t care too much about the new carpet.” He said sarcastically.
There in the living room, starting where the wood floors ended from the foyer, was a trail of footprints in the carpet, apparently made with soot, leading from just in front of the entry, to the fireplace, to the back door. I snorted at my father’s comment, which earned me a side-eye for the ages from my mom. We sat down what we were carrying in our respective rooms, and of course, I was tasked with cleaning up the mess while my dad called the moving company to complain.
Whilst I was scrubbing (and fuming), it occurred to me that if the footprints were in fact soot, that it would be hard to explain why the fireplace had already been used in a brand new cabin. At the time, I assumed that there had to have been a test run by the builder to ensure everything was in working order. It took me about an hour to bring the carpet to my parent’s satisfaction, and then I promptly went to my new room to continue wallowing in my teenage angst.
That night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched in the shower, that someone was standing just on the other side of the curtain. I tried to ignore it, but the feeling worsened when I closed my eyes to wash my hair and face. Finally, I pulled back the curtain, feeling foolish for being such a wimp. Of course, I found nothing unusual.
I wrote my paranoia off as just being pissed off from the move and didn’t think much of it. I didn’t have another strange encounter for several days, but about a week after I got the shower stalker vibe, Amelia let my mom and I know about her new friend at the breakfast table.
“How did everyone sleep last night?” my mother asked, trying to get through my solemn disdain.
“Fine.” I replied, through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
“I played with the man behind the curtains!” Amelia exclaimed, “I told him that he would be in big trouble if he kept getting the rug dirty.”
“Oh that’s wonderful, honey,” my mom said, “I’m glad you’ve made a friend. Tell them I said thank you for not getting any more stains on the carpet.”
It made me bitter, listening to my mom placate my sister while I was in social isolation. Mom just kept sipping her coffee, and reading the newspaper that Dad paid extra to have delivered out that far in the wilderness. There was no fear in my sister’s voice, and neither of us even remotely considered the possibility that her new friend was anything more than imaginary.
Later that day, I was taking some folded laundry to my sister’s room. I put it in her drawer, turned to walk out, and I saw them- two charcoal shoeprints under the window curtain, as if someone had been hiding there. Initially, I disregarded them as leftover from the moving crew, just like the others. I ignored them- “Let Mom clean them up.” I thought to myself. But it kept nagging at me- I’d helped Amelia get settled into her room, and I would have noticed them. They weren’t there before.
I still don’t know why, but I never told my parents about them. I ultimately did go back to clean them up, and carried on. Amelia surely had made them somehow as part of her “relationship” with her new friend.
That night, December 23rd, I had trouble sleeping. The feeling that I was being watched had returned shortly after the discovery in Amelia’s room, and I hadn’t been able to shake it. I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet, but a microscopic part of my imagination had begun to suspect something amiss. At 14, I still hadn’t quite squashed my fear of ghosts.
I kept looking across the room, into the back of my open closet, half expecting someone to be standing there, their shoes covered in black dust. I felt shame for being scared. But finally, I drifted off sometime around midnight.
I still can’t remember what woke me, I just know that my sheets were damp with sweat when I came to. I felt again that I was being watched, and I began scanning the dark room through my blurry, just-waking-up vision. I followed my curtains down to the floor, and saw them- soiled, black feet poking out from beneath them.
I jumped a bit, then rubbed my eyes and looked back. There were no shoes, but the curtain was moving ever so slightly. I looked at my closet door, which had been shut without a sound. Cowering, I pulled my blankets over my head, knowing that if I pulled them down, something would be there, sitting at the end of my bed. After a while, I tried to sleep, but couldn’t.
Of course, I was blamed the next day for the dirty tracks to and from my room. They began and ended in front of our fireplace, just like the first time, but they clearly led to my bedroom closet and back. My parents gave me a big speech about how I needed to accept my new circumstances and start treating everyone and everything with a lot more respect. I didn’t have the energy to fight with them. All I could think about were the footprints and the thing that had spent the night with me. I just rolled my eyes, and accepted my punishment- clean up the prints and then no Walkman until I straightened up. It wasn’t like they’d believe me, so why say anything?
I scrubbed the carpets that day in a daze, remembering what Amelia had said a few days before at breakfast. My thoughts raced for rational explanations, but I kept arriving at this strange amalgamation of ghosts and Santa Claus. Despite everything going on, I still had Christmas morning on my mind, just like anyone that age. Yet, by the time I had finished cleaning, I had resigned myself to try and sort out what was going on. I would start with my sister.
That night, after an almost silent dinner, I went to Amelia’s room to do some gentle prying. As I rounded the doorframe, I found her staring up at the ceiling vent. The floor around her bed was covered in that morning’s newspaper.
“What’s all this for?” I asked, trying to remain calm despite already knowing the answer.
“For the man that likes to hide in the curtains.” she almost whispered, “I told him I would keep the floor clean…he doesn’t like leaving tracks because he’s afraid I’ll have to leave if Mommy and Daddy find out about him. He said that if I did that for him, he’d take me to visit his house- he says that there are lots of other kids there I could play with!”
All of this she said as a matter of fact, as if she and the “man” had been friends for years and I should know these things. I almost lost what little cool I had left, my eyes widening and my mouth opening to scorn her for being so naive, but I caught myself, resolving to try and solve the mystery on my own, without shaming a six year old. As appalling as it was, I decided to use my sister as bait, to catch whoever (whatever?) was leaving the damned footprints in the carpet, and possibly planning a kidnapping.
“Okay,”, I began, “just make sure you tell Mom and Dad that all the newspaper is for watercolors or something, that way they don’t get suspicious.”
“I will!” she replied, enthusiastically.
Thank God Amelia was six and didn’t need a lot of explanation. I left her room with terrified curiosity, wondering what Christmas Eve would have in store.
For what seemed to be the hundredth time, I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep. I watched my clock tick for seconds, minutes, hours. I knew that should anything actually arrive in Amelia’s room, I’d hear the crumpling of paper. I also knew that Amelia would be awake, desperate not only for her new friend to come out but also for the sound of sleigh bells. Just as I began to drift, sometime around one in the morning, I heard it- the sound of rustling newspaper.
I hoisted myself out of the sleeping-awake twilight I was in and ejected myself from bed, too stricken with urgency to consider being quiet. I landed on my floor with a thud, and immediately I heard my sister whine from across the hall.
“Please, don’t go! No! Come back!” she cried.
I raced out of my bedroom, older sibling protective instincts at full tilt, and into the hallway just in time to be stopped in my tracks.
A tall, willowy silhouette stood at the living room end of the hallway. The thing (man?) stood so tall that it stooped, bending at the ceiling, using its long, spindly arms to brace against the walls. The lunar glow coming in through the skylight was just enough to show me that it was uniformly pale, almost paper white, and without clothes. I stared up at what I though should be its face, its lack of features slightly disorienting. It had two indentations where there should have been eyes, as if there once were sockets but skin had been stretched over them. I thought I saw a small slit that must have been a mouth. I began to notice that its body seemed thin, almost two dimensional, and then it moved.
I gasped, as it moved with unnatural motion, as if its joints were the result of being creased and folded into a box, using its abnormally gangly arms to balance on the floor and lurch to the living room. For a moment, I considered just going back to my room, but I’d come too far. I summoned what little courage I had and edged towards the living room, peaking around the corner of the hallway’s end.
In the moonlight, I followed the trail of greyish footprints with my eyes up to the fireplace, where the twin doors into the hearth stood open. I caught a glimpse of a limb being retracted into the chimney. I just stared, not daring to move, not daring to breathe too loudly or deeply, lest it come back for me. Amelia broke me from the trance.
“Don’t hurt him.” She whispered meekly from behind me.
I spun around, startled, my heart thumping in my chest. We locked eyes for a moment, me not believing what I’d seen, Amelia not comprehending why I seemed so disheveled. Finally, I found words.
“Go back to bed, Amelia.” I stammered.
“No! He won’t hurt you! He won’t!” she started to tear up.
I kept finding myself unable to speak, as if this thing in our fireplace had stolen my vocabulary. I just kept standing there, watching Amelia weep as if I was taking way a new puppy. In my head, I was sprinting, trying to weigh out the options.
I took Amelia by the hand and went to the hallway closet for my dad’s Mag-light. I crept back to the fireplace, Amelia mercifully not fighting my grip. I sat for a moment.
“Amelia, if anything happens when I look up the chimney, you run and wake up Mom and Dad, do you understand?”
I took a deep breath and I leaned back into the fireplace as I turned on the flashlight and looked up.
A sheet white face met mine, the creature hanging upside down and craning its neck to face me. There were no eyes, but a round black hole for a mouth, gaping to reveal a seemingly bottomless oblivion.
I scrambled out of the hearth, and collapsed there in the floor, waiting for it to come out after me as my chest heaved, but it never did. At some point, I got up, ignoring my sister’s questions and pleading, as a numb, thoughtless state came over me. I took the fireplace matches, doused the carpet in lighter fluid from a kitchen cabinet, and set the carpet ablaze. That place be damned.
Amelia and I never told our parents what happened, and I can’t remember much of what happened in the immediate aftermath. After hundreds of hours of therapy, the only solid thing I can retrieve after looking up the chimney that horrifying Christmas morning is sitting out in the snow with my family, pulling my knees to my chest as we waited for the fire department from a distant town, Amelia wailing about her friend burning alive. By the time the fire trucks got there, the cabin had burned to the ground. None of the firemen even bothered turning on their hoses.
The therapists tell my parents that I’ve got repressed memories as a result of being so miserably sequestered from society at time when social development is paramount. What a bunch of bullshit.
Amelia wouldn’t talk to me for a long time because from her perspective, I’d murdered her friend. A few years later, she began to comprehend. We talked, we reconciled, and we agreed never to speak of it.
The fire was attributed to a likely electrical problem within the system that distributed the heat from the fireplace. I guess small town forensic scientists don’t know what accelerants look like. My parents never quite understood why Amelia was convinced that I had caused the fire when the fire department said otherwise. It strained us for a while but eventually I guess they just let it go as Amelia’s vivid imagination.
The day after, we were allowed to sift through the smoldering rubble to try and salvage anything we could. All that we found were a set of footprints that led into the woods and didn’t return to the house. We followed them but eventually they disappeared abruptly. My parents don’t know who they could have possibly belonged to, but…
Amelia and I do.
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