23 May Between the Walls
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"Between the Walls"Written by Kenneth Kohl
Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
I had never been frightened by anything. Sure, I’ve always been fearful of things like terrorism, bankruptcy, drunk drivers… but nothing paranormal. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and the like. Not out of any misdirected bravery, but simply because of the fact that I didn’t believe they existed. How can one be afraid of something imaginary? Then I found out how wrong I had been. How very, very wrong.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to set the scene.
My family and I had recently moved to Indianapolis. We left our home of six years in Texas – the home where we had raised our two children – because of a new job opportunity. It was my job that had been the reason for moving from Ohio to Texas in the first place, but after six years we came to the conclusion that were Yankees through and through. We just weren’t suited to live in the desert of southwestern Texas.
Arriving in Indiana, we opted to rent a house temporarily. That would give us the time to complete the sale of our house in Texas and look around for a new home that our family would like – a forever home. My office was located in downtown Indianapolis, and there was a newly gentrified section of the city located within five miles. We found an old house – very old – that the owner had restored with the help of subsidies from the city council. That’s what he told us over the phone, anyway.
The first time that we arrived to meet the owner and look around, we were impressed. We had beat him to the house so my wife and I parked in the long gravel drive and exited our vehicle, our two young children in tow. We walked around the house in awe. It, like the neighboring homes, was practically a mansion. The entire avenue consisted of large, brick homes with slate roofs and scores of chimneys. Lots of limestone lintels and decorative filigrees, even a gargoyle here and there – none on the home we were looking at, unfortunately. As promised, the house was pristine. From the outside.
The landlord’s name was Lenny. He was a pretty cool guy. A bit cynical, but given the people he probably had to deal with on a daily basis, not too bad. He seemed to take to our children pretty well and didn’t mind that we had a large dog. He pointed out some of the outdoor renovations – repointing of the brick, new slate roof, and newly glazed windows. Then we went around back to enter through one of the rear doors.
When he swung open the door, it quickly became obvious that the exterior of the house was not indicative of the interior. Its beauty was indeed only skin deep. A musty odor wafted through the entryway and the interior hall was dimly lit. All of the sheer curtains had been drawn and only slivers of sunlight filtered through, motes of dust floating about. By the end of our tour, we had determined that the house was definitely in need of a lot of work, but it had a certain charm about it.
The rear entry hall was surfaced with a vintage hex pattern porcelain tile which extended into a small – very small – half bath immediately inside the entryway. At six foot four inches, I couldn’t stand fully upright in the washroom. The hallway extended forward toward the front doors, and at some point about halfway the flooring transitioned to hardwood. As the foyer opened up to the full three story height of the house, we noticed a huge stained glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was impressive.
Just to the left, a small – and when I say small, I mean normal-sized as the rest of the doorways in the house were almost nine feet in height – swinging door led into a tiny kitchen. The kitchen had absolutely no conveniences save for a sink. It was almost a surprise that there was running water. When we pointed out that our refrigerator would obviously not fit, Lenny offered to bring in a smaller one from another of his rentals. The kitchen had three more doors: one leading into a dining room, one leading out into the backyard, and one leading down into the cellar.
The cellar was a sight! The stairwell was steep. Just one flight leading down about twenty feet to the cellar floor. Bare bulbs lit each of the eight rooms it had been divided into. This basement was one of the creepiest places in the house complete with dripping pipes, chains hanging from the block walls for no apparent reason, and a huge gravity furnace in the farthest room from the stairs. It lurked there like a colossal monster with a multitude of steel arms reaching up into the house above. The floor back there was littered with papers and boxes, and the walls were lined with cabinets that we never did dare to open.
Aside from the kitchen and half bath, the first floor of the home contained a dining room and large living area, both separated from the main hall by pairs of huge arched doorways, and both with large limestone hearths set into the far walls. I supposed that the gravity furnace was either a newer addition or that – like most that I have had experience with – did not do an adequate job of heating a large house. The bedrooms occupied the second and third floors. A niche in the wall housed an old-fashioned servant bell system. Bells on springs attached to chains leading to each of the upstairs rooms. Lenny claimed that they still worked, and we were sure that the kids would test them out.
The upstairs bedrooms were unremarkable, save for the supersized doorways and fireplaces in all of them. The two bathrooms on each floor were also tiled in the hex pattern porcelain we had seen in the entryway and had genuine, honest-to-God claw footed bathtubs.
Lenny made sure to point out another unique feature of the house. At the back of each bedroom closet lay a narrow, almost undetectable doorway. He opened one of them to show us a system of slim passages that ran behind the lathe and plaster walls and connected most of the bedrooms to each other. Why were they there? Probably for no other reason than one would expect to find something like them in a house like that.
So, as I mentioned earlier, the house was perfectly creepy in every way.
“We’ll take it!”
I figured that if I would ever experience anything spine-chilling or uncanny in any way in my lifetime, it would happen in that house. I wasn’t disappointed.
It was late fall and the apple tree in the back yard had started shedding its fruit. There were half rotting apples all over the lawn, so I was raking them up and scooping them into bags for the trash. I stopped to rest for a moment and my eyes fell to rest on the garage. Like the house, it was brick with a slate roof. It had two large carriage-house type doors. Since the drive was large enough and there was a turnaround at the rear of the house, we generally left our vehicles outside. The only time that we had even been inside the garage was when we had moved in. We had instructed the movers to store some things out there – things that we would not be needing for a while until we found our forever home. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to give the garage a closer inspection.
About forty feet to a side, it – like everything else about the property – was a rather large structure. There were no doors other than the carriage doors, so I eased open one leaf just wide enough to step inside. I felt around and my fingers eventually brushed up against a chain hanging from the ceiling rafters. I yanked and a single bare bulb cast a small pool of light around me. I made my way through the garage pulling more chains and managed to illuminate most of the garage floor. All of our belongings – garden tools, lawnmower, my large shop tools, and boxes of things that we hadn’t planned to use for a while – lay against a wall along one edge of the floor. The only other thing in the garage was a four foot high pile of slate shingles in a back corner. I walked over and took one of the tiles in my hands. Heavy. The garage roof alone probably held tons of weight. I couldn’t imagine roofing the entire house in slate.
I heard a ticking, scratching sound from overhead. The ceiling of the garage was mostly open, with bare rafters through which you could see the underside of the roof sheathing. About one quarter of the rafters had been covered over with wooden planks forming a sort of floor. Probably for extra storage space. I imagined that a house and garage as old as this had been must have mice, at the very least. From the intensity of the sound, though, I could tell that it was something much bigger than a mouse – even bigger than a rat. I groaned at the prospect of having to evict a raccoon or some larger animal from the attic. I considered leaving it alone. We were just temporary visitors anyway. It was probably a more permanent resident than us. My conscience ruled against that thought. With two children who were bound to end up playing out in the garage someday, I couldn’t chance them encountering a wild, possibly rabid, animal.
I peered up into the darkness, allowing my eyes to adjust, looking for some sign of movement. There! I saw it. Quick. Fleeting. It startled me so that I dropped the slate tile I had been holding and it shattered at my feet. I had only caught a short glimpse in my peripheral vision, but it didn’t look like any animal I had ever seen before. An icy chill ran down my spine but I chalked it up to the darkness, an unfamiliar place, and a general feeling of anxiety. We had recently completed our move and moving had always stressed me out. I used a shovel to scoop up the tile shards and took them around the back of the garage, throwing them into a pile of stones and bricks that a previous tenant had heaped back there. Then I went back into the garage, turned out the lights, and closed up the door.
Later that evening, after dinner, after the kids were asleep, my wife and I sat in the living room huddled close to a fire that I had built in the hearth. We had learned that the old house got extremely cold at night, despite running the furnace at full-tilt.
“Hey, Hun. I think we might have an animal problem out in the garage.”
My wife looked up in surprise. “Rats?”
“No, no. Probably a raccoon or something. I really only got a glimpse of it, but it seemed pretty big.”
“What are we going to do? The boys… What if it’s rabid?” She looked alarmed.
“I’ll call an exterminator tomorrow. I’m not going to mess with it. Who knows what might be out there? I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
My wife smiled, and I felt more at ease. I had decided to put the problem in someone else’s capable hands. Whatever it was out there, it would soon be gone. We began to talk about how relieved we were that the move was over. The conversation turned to our next step – finding a forever home – and then led to talk of making the creepy house more livable until such time as we could move out. Painting, maybe? Replacing the carpet runner on the staircase, definitely. Just then, one of the bells in the niche jingled.
“Huh?” I got up and walked over to the front hall. The bell jingled again, and I could see that it was the one labeled “Master bedroom.” I yelled up the staircase. “Boys! Get back to bed, and stay out of Mommy and Daddy’s room!” No answer, but the bell was silent. I assumed that they got the message. When we climbed the staircase a half hour later, we looked in and saw that both boys were tucked in and sawing logs. I imagine that they were excited, but I didn’t want them exploring the house until I could check it out thoroughly. If there was a raccoon (or something) in the garage, there just may have been mice, rats, or worse in the house.
I started a fire in the smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, and we fell asleep as it waned. I was in a sort of twilight when I heard the bell jingle again. “What the..?” I crossed our bedroom and tiptoed down the stairs to the second floor. Looking in their rooms, I discovered that both boys were still tucked in. Jingling again. Now I ran down to the first floor hall just in time to see the “Master Bedroom” bell shake again. Bewildered, I headed back upstairs.
“You rang?” I asked my wife as I walked back into our room.
“Why did you pull the bell chain? Are you trying to freak me out? Or did you just miss me?”
She looked puzzled. “Um, I didn’t pull the chain.”
I could tell that she was telling the truth. I had gotten good at reading her over the ten years of our marriage. With irritation and perhaps a bit of denial, I resolved that we did, in fact, have a rodent problem in the house. That was the only explanation, right? I pictured a mouse (or worse) scampering across the bell chain as it ran behind the walls through one of the house’s heating ducts or pipe chases. Lenny would certainly be getting an angry call in the morning. We eventually managed to fall asleep, even though we could hear one or another of the bells ring a few more times during the night.
Lenny grumbled a bit about “No damn mice…
The “terminator,” as my boys called him, agreed to set some bait stations instead. He said that Lenny wouldn’t be happy about the extra cost but I could see that he was pleased to be upping his sale. He said that the bait stations just held poison – out of reach of children and pets – which the pests would eat and then leave. They would bleed out somewhere within a couple of days. He promised that we would never have to see or smell the dead mice (or whatever they were). Still sounded pretty nasty, but at least we could just leave them and forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind.
We gave it about a week or so, but nothing ever showed up in the cage trap outside, and the bells still jingled all night. Sometimes in our room, other times in the boys’, yet other times in the unoccupied rooms. I called the terminator again, and he said that Lenny had instructed him to “Just put out the damn glue traps,” which he did. He also rearmed the trap in the garage with what he called “special bait,” and warned us to stay away from it.
Another few days passed with no changes. I checked hourly at first, then daily, but nothing appeared in the traps. I was determined to get rid of the varmints myself. So I got on the internet and began looking up homemade solutions. I found a really simple one that involved rubber-banding some paper over a five gallon bucket and cutting a cross in the top. I set the bait, a peanut butter and cheese cracker, carefully near the center of the cross and pushed it to the back of our master bedroom closet. The concept was that when the rodent went for the bait, he would fall through the paper and get stuck in the bucket. Sounded slow – catching them one at a time like that – but at least it would be making some progress.
Nothing happened the first night. The bells still jingled. Midway through the following evening though, I was startled awake by the sound of something falling into the bucket. Something big! Oh God, it must have been a rat! I jumped out of bed, still in my boxers and bare feet, and whipped open the closet door.
“Now I’ve got you, you little fu…”
I’ll never forget what I saw. Thinking back, I still get a chill running down my spine. Tiny hands gripped the lip of the bucket and it pulled itself up over the rim. It was not a mouse. It was not a rat. It was not a raccoon. When it had fully extracted itself from the pail, I could see that it stood about a foot high when erect. It was humanoid in form. Humanoid, but definitely not human. Pale skin hanging over a bony frame. Although it was naked, I could see no genetalia to speak of, yet I got the feeling that it was a “he.” Huge eyes that were black through and through – no irises. Its ears and nose were simply holes in its head. It had no hair, and when it turned toward me it flashed a big toothy smile. Crazy – they looked like human teeth, not enlarged canines or front teeth as one would expect a rodent or small animal to have. For some reason that made it seem even more disturbing. It waved the peanut butter cracker in one tiny hand and ran off. Ran off into the passageway between the walls, the panel snapping shut after it went through.
In a cold sweat, I ran to the bedroom door and switched on the lights.
“Holy mother of God! Shit! Fuck me!”
My wife sat up, scared by my reaction. If only she had seen it… I immediately ran to the kids’ rooms and switched their lights on. In fact, within the next five minutes the entire house was alight. Except the cellar, though. That place gave me the creeps on a good day.
The four of us had gathered in the living room. Still shirtless and shaking from the cold or the shock, I said, “That’s it. We’re not spending the night in this house. Get dressed. We’ll find a hotel.”
“Nonsense,” said my wife. “We’re not going anywhere. What the hell happened?”
I pulled her aside, out of earshot of the boys, and told her what I had seen. “Come on,” she pleaded, “think about this rationally. Nothing like that exists. It had to be a rat or something. It was dark. You were half asleep. I mean seriously, honey…”
Once again, I wanted it to be true. Even a rat seemed like a better alternative than what I had seen. What I thought I had seen. I calmed down a bit. My wife got the boys back to sleep while a made a cup of tea and settled into one of the tubs for a hot bath. After a bit, I was calmed down enough to go back to bed. As I fell into sleep, a bell jingled.
Every night after got progressively worse. The bells continued ringing throughout the days and night. I kept hearing bumps in the dark. Panels slamming shut. At times, I heard the closet door creak open – the proverbial “monster-in-the-closet.” I could even swear that a few times I saw it watching me from the darkness beyond the cracked door. The final straw was when I awoke one night, roused by a sound near my bed, and came face to face with it as it stared at me over the edge of the mattress. Once again, I jumped out of bed and flipped the lights on.
“That’s it you little bastard!” I couldn’t see it, but I heard it scampering toward the closet. I gave chase and saw it just as it slipped through the panel at the back of the closet and into the hidden passage. Determined to put an end to the insanity, I grabbed a flashlight from my nightstand drawer. By that time, my wife was looking at me as if I was crazy – and I considered that she may have been right. I threw on a T-shirt and ducked through the panel at the back of the closet. It was the first time I had been back in those passages. Maybe, as a younger man, my curiosity would have made me check them out the first day we had moved in; but over time, the thirst for adventures like that had been quenched by a “too-much-effort” attitude.
The passages had hardwood floors, unfinished planks widely set – not carefully like in the livable areas of the house. I saw only the backs of the walls. Lathes with plaster that had oozed between the seams before hardening. To my surprise, there were no cobwebs, as if someone had been using the passageways; but the floor had a layer of dust and little crumbs of plaster coating it. There were footprints in the dust. Not just one set running away. Not even a set coming toward the bedroom and then away. There were hundreds of footprints running this way and that. Either my little friend had buddies or he had been a busy guy.
I was so fascinated that I had about forgotten why I entered the passage when I heard another bump down the hall. My flashlight only cast its beam a short distance, but I shone it ahead and slowly walked down the hall. I had to hunch over at times, as it seemed to have been built for a man smaller than myself. I supposed that people were shorter back when the house had been built. Of course, I don’t imagine that the passages were built for comfort. I could see that they were built out of some necessity. I was a bit surprised to find that a set of narrow stairs led down to the second floor, another down to the first, and another that must have gone all of the way to the cellar.
I was constantly propelled ahead by a series of bumping noises. Whatever he was, he clearly was not afraid of me. The noises weren’t moving away from me very quickly. It was almost as if he were waiting for me to follow. As much as I wanted to avoid the cellar, I was a man on a mission. I plunged ahead until the passage at last came to an end. It wasn’t closed off at the end, but apparently opened into one of the cellar’s rooms. I noticed an iron flap-type door set high into the wall and realized that I must have ended up in one of the coal bins, built before the gravity furnace had been converted to burn heating oil instead of coal. Lenny had assured us that the door had been permanently sealed, but now I doubted it.
A dim light filled the room – moonlight filtering through the smudged and dirty glass of a high set window – but not enough to see by. I spun slowly around, shining my flashlight ahead as I turned. I was surrounded by dozens of the little creatures. They did not appear to be afraid of me, nor did they appear to be aggressive. I felt safe, even somewhat calm. Relieved to know what it was that I had been pursuing for the past weeks. Calm, that is, until one of them – the bold one that had been in my closet, I believe – “spoke.” In a gravelly, high-pitched voice it raised the peanut butter cracker and questioned, “More?”
That was all it took to send me bolting out of the room and up the cellar stairs. I slammed the door shut behind me and threw the bolt. Pouring myself a glass of water from the kitchen tap, I walked to the living room and sat down on the couch. I was breathing heavy, almost hyperventilating. Even though I knew in the back of my mind that nothing had really changed, and they apparently had the run of the house, I calmed down after a while. I never did fall back asleep that night. Not entirely. I must had nodded off occasionally, but I woke every time I heard something stir. After a fitful night, I returned to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee once the dawn sunlight began sifting through the house’s windows.
I called the exterminator at precisely 8:05am. I wanted to be the first to get a hold of him, but I didn’t want to leave a message. I needed to talk to him immediately. I was in luck, and he promised to make our house the first stop of the day. While I waited for him to arrive, I drank some coffee. As the caffeine started to kick in, I began to understand the ridiculousness of what I thought that I had experienced during the night. I convinced myself that I had merely dozed off on the couch and had a horrible dream. Yes, that’s what it had been: a dream. Nevertheless, I would have the exterminator check out the basement, as well as the rest of the traps.
I met him out back as he was getting out of his truck. I tried to speak lightheartedly as I related my nightmare. It all sounded so silly when I told the story out loud. He smiled a little, but didn’t seem as amused as I thought he would be. Perhaps the normally jovial man was having a rough start to the day.
He headed for the garage first. He opened the door just a crack and, turning on his flashlight, poked his head inside. Then he turned back to face me – a serious look on his face.
“You had better wait here. Looks like the little buggers are back.”
“What is it?” I asked with excitement. “Raccoons? Rats? Oh, please tell me it’s not rats.”
“No, not that bad.” He shook his head. “You may want to stock up on peanut butter and cheese crackers, though.”
Credit: Kenneth Kohl