Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Alright, we all remember those cardboard castles of our youth, the ones that were better than any Fisher-Price playhouse precisely because they had been painstakingly cut out, taped together, and decorated with our own hands. And unlike the fancy plastic cottages your parents spent a fortune on, these ones could be altered and added on to endlessly with a little creativity on your part and a few cardboard boxes your neighbors were just going to throw out. If you were the kid lucky enough to fall into possession of a refrigerator box, your coolness status was set. At least for a few weeks, anyway.
Feeling nostalgic yet? Good. You’re in the same frame of mind I was before my happy childhood memories of cardboard and duct tape were forever marred.
So, my story. Three years ago, my parents decided we were going to move. My sisters and I took this with a grain of salt because my parents are notoriously disorganized and none of their plans come to fruition without some serious delays. But sure enough, they soon began the renovations the house needed in order to sell. I was working at a fairly well-known clothing store at the time, and it was common for us to receive 15-30 boxes of stock every weekday. They were big boxes which, after being emptied, just ended up in the dumpster.
I took some home and started stockpiling them in the basement, figuring they might be useful in case my parents were in earnest about this moving thing. One night after my sister had picked me up from work we were carrying down a few of the flattened boxes to the basement, and I started thinking about the really awesome box tunnel my cousins made when we were little. It stretched all through their basement with lots of nooks and crannies, and we were allowed to paint it however we liked. Naturally, we were occupied for months playing with this thing.
Remembering this, I looked at our growing pile of boxes and then at my sister and voiced an idea I’m sure we were both considering. “Casey,” I said, “we could make a really kickass box fort out of these.”
Now, before you start wondering about the mental capacity of my sisters and I (considering that we were able to amuse ourselves with a box fort), let me tell you it started out mostly as a joke, a “wouldn’t it be hilariously ridiculous if we did this?!” sort of thing. But, yeah, we ended up getting really into it… we’re a pretty creative family so it was mainly the building of it that was fun. It’s not like we spent hours in there playing “house” or anything.
We built it upstairs, our first 8 boxes serving as a tunnel between my two sister’s rooms, Taylor and Casey, with a little doorway into the bathroom and another tunnel branching off towards my room. We got out the Sharpies and vandalized it to our heart’s content. We put up funny pictures inside; Casey even hung some Christmas lights, which gave a nice effect. Any four-year-old would be proud to call this box fort his own.
I brought home more boxes. We elongated the tunnels, getting fancier and adding curves at the end so that, when inside, you could never see an entrance unless you crawled through to the very end. We even covered the whole thing with blankets to make it prettier and to keep out the light from all the little gaps and crevices throughout. Our dog, Juliet, was timid at first but joined the box fort club as soon as the three of us crawled inside to read ghost stories, because she didn’t want to be left out.
It was really dark in there – we usually brought in flashlights – and pretty much any time we crawled through we were prone to fits of giggles, mostly because we were three fully-grown girls crawling through a box fort. I mention this only to show that, despite the total darkness and claustrophobic size of it, there was none of that “palpable atmosphere of terror, foreboding, and ill-will” that often accompanies creepy places. At that point, it was still perfectly commonplace and funny, though you’d be hard-pressed to get one of us to crawl through it to get to the bathroom at night, when the house was quiet and everyone asleep.
My parents were understandably annoyed at the massive obstruction in their hallway which they had to hop over to get to their room, the linen closet, and our bathroom, but they are generally very accepting of our antics and only threatened to dismantle it once or twice. Nonetheless, we decided that we were unsatisfied with our box fort, because we wanted to make an epic box fort. However, having already taken up the space in our bedrooms, the only place left to extend was across the hall to my parent’s bedroom, something they would never agree to while living in the house.
Luckily, they were going to be leaving for a week. That’s when we filled all the free floor space in their bedroom and closet with box fort, and that’s when the weird stuff started to happen.
It was a progressive thing. We’d be in there hanging up goofy pictures or whatever, and then we’d hear a shuffling noise down one of the many branching tunnels. We assumed it was Juliet trying to find us, but after calling her and searching for her, it would turn out she’d been lying in the sunny patch on the couch for who knew how long. One time Casey and I were in there hanging up paper bats we cut out and we heard the shuffling from far off.
“Juliet! Jooooo-leeee-etta!” I called.
“What are you talking about?” I said, confused because her face looked scared all of a sudden.
“It’s not Julie. Taylor just took her for a walk. They’re both gone.” I stared at her a moment, remembered Taylor shouting something about ‘walking the dog’ not too long ago, and then we both scrambled to the nearest exit. Once outside the fort we immediately lapsed into fits of giggles, feeling ridiculous now that we were “safe.”
“Do you think it’s mice or something?” Casey asked, crinkling her nose.
I said I didn’t think so, the store was pretty clean and the house never had mice, but there had to be another explanation. The noise came from the portion that stretched into my parent’s closet, a big walk-in with a window to the back yard.
“The window’s open in here, I bet it was just the breeze rustling the boxes.” A perfectly logical explanation which we were happy to believe.
That night while I was in bed I found my gaze drawn toward the entrance of the fort time and time again. It was really dark in there, and something about having that gaping black tunnel in my room made me feel very vulnerable. Eventually, I turned over and slept the other way, but I made a mental note to cover it up with a sheet the next day.
On day two of no parents I had used the grocery money to buy ingredients for a cookie-decorating extravaganza, so I was in the kitchen baking those with Casey. We had a movie on at the same time so it was a bit loud in there, and we didn’t hear Taylor until she was standing in the doorway yelling at us. If I remember correctly, the conversation went something like this.
“What the hell, Casey, what do you want?”
Case and I gave each other quizzical looks, and Taylor looked at us like we were stupid.
“Are you serious? You make me come all the way down here and you don’t even want anything?”
“Tay, we didn’t call you.”
“Casey did. I was on the laptop in my room and she told me to come in the box fort with her.”
“No, I didn’t. I’ve been here making cookies with Muse the whole time.”
“Oh, whatever, Casey, you totally did, I heard you. And then, when I went in, you left and came down here.”
At this point, seeing one sister was pissed and the other confused, I jumped in and got the whole story from Taylor. Apparently she was in her room when she heard Casey calling her name from inside the box fort. She asked her what she wanted and Casey insisted she come in the box fort, so exasperated, she finally did. She couldn’t see Casey inside though, and a moment later she heard her laughing with me, down in the kitchen.
Where she had always been.
Needless to say, the atmosphere in the room instantly went from warm and comfortable to super creeped out and I felt the need to step up as big sister to lay their fears to rest. We went through the “you’re lying,” bit for a while, but once both parties were satisfied the other was telling the truth it was time to do some investigating. Grabbing a kitchen knife more for courage than for any real fear for my life, I volunteered to check out the box fort while they waited outside and kept an eye on me.
I am a logical, reasonable person. I greet the supernatural and paranormal with, I think, a healthy degree of skepticism. I am open to the possibility of anything – ghosts, vampires, mermaids, whatever – but I will not believe it until I have solid scientific evidence proving its existence. At the time, in my mind, that had not been produced, which is why I had little trepidation in investigating the fort after that incident. If it happened to be an intruder, well, what could they do to me in a cramped little box fort with my sisters right there? Besides, someone had to do it.
With these thoughts, I entered the fort and found… nothing. No ghosties, ghoulies, or homeless wanderers, and no one in the house, either. Somehow I managed to convince Taylor that she’d heard the loud TV downstairs mixed with me and Casey’s voices, and we all settled down to eat cookies and watch movies together, comfortably mollified.
Maybe it was an after-effect of the incident during the day, but that night, Casey and Tay both had trouble sleeping. In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night to Casey’s scared voice calling “Muse, Muse!” I’m sure parents with small children probably get used to this, but when I woke up to that I was instantly terrified. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my knife, and ran to her room. For those of you weirded out by the fact that I keep a knife in my bedside table drawer, keep in mind that I’m a fairly petite woman with next to no chance of defending myself against an intruder without a weapon of some sort. Anyway, Casey’s room was dark and when I flipped on her light switch she was sitting up in bed with her eyes wide open, looking like she was going to cry.
Seeing nothing amiss, I demanded to know what was wrong. By this time, Tay had wandered into the room with Juliet in her arms. Casey told me that she had been sleeping when suddenly she woke up with the feeling that someone was in the room, watching her. She found herself staring at the entrance to the box fort. This chilled me a bit, having had a similar experience, but what she said next was even more strange. She kept her eyes on the entrance, willing herself to stop being creeped out, when suddenly the boxes started to shake like something inside was moving rapidly through them, away from her room. Apparently that’s when she started calling my name, waking up Taylor as well.
For the second time that day, I did a full search of the box fort and the entire house, finding nothing. I would have chalked it up to a dream if it hadn’t been for another strange occurrence the next day. Casey woke up an hour late for work because her alarm didn’t go off. Her alarm didn’t go off because her cell phone was missing, which she claimed she had placed beside her pillow before she went to sleep. Taylor and I made an effort to help her find it before she left, checking her bed and floor and calling it from the home phone, but neither of us was surprised or too concerned about it because she was notorious for misplacing things. When Case came home that evening I asked if it had been there when she woke us up in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t remember seeing it. But she had been texting her friend in bed and made sure to set the alarm and put it beside her. In the end, we decided there was nothing to do but wait for it to show up.
At around three in the morning I was woken, yet again, by some sort of commotion outside my room. Again I grabbed my knife and was alarmed by the noise, but mostly what I felt was anger and annoyance: I’d had enough of all the drama and wanted to put an end to it.
Juliet was in my parent’s closet, barking her head off at the box fort, and Casey and Taylor were already up, wondering, like me, what was going on. Taylor picked up the dog and carried her out of the room, and she instantly shut up, leaving Casey and I standing in the closet with bewildered looks on our faces. It was silent for a moment, and then suddenly Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” song rang out loud and clear, making us jump.
“What the fuck?” I said, still trying to get my half-asleep head around this. Normally my sisters make fun of me when I swear; apparently, I don’t do it right. But this time they seemed to find it appropriate.
“That’s my ringtone,” said Casey, looking at me strangely but making no move to get her phone.
“Well, answer it!” I said, exasperated.
Casey lifted the blanket that covered the opening of the box fort, and there was her missing cell phone lying in the center of the first box, still blaring that song from an inadequate speaker. She flipped it open and put it to her ear.
I waited for a moment, and then asked, “Well, who is it?”
Casey made a noise of disgust and closed the phone. “It’s nothing. It was just our voices echoing in the background. They must have hung up.” She folded her arms. “Did you do this?”
“Why the hell would I steal your phone and wake us all up at three in the morning?!” I asked incredulously, and Casey turned to Taylor next.
“I didn’t touch your phone!” she said, with a note of fear in her face.
“Are you guys joking? This isn’t funny!” Casey said, agitated. “You’re scaring me.”
At this point I could see the situation was turning from weird to can’t-sleep-anymore scary, so I sighed and said I would check the whole house over, again, and proposed that Juliet had used the phone as a chew toy and left it in the box fort. It was the only thing I could think of at the time, and though it seemed to reassure my sisters, it really wasn’t that plausible… Juliet was missing most of her teeth, and the only things I’d ever seen her play with were soft plush toys, slippers, and dirty underwear (I know, ew). I doubted she’d ever want a cell phone in her mouth.
There was nothing amiss in the house, and I made sure to double-check all the doors and windows this time, too. Everything was locked, and we were safe. This had just turned into one of those weeks where a lot of small occurrences were adding up to a big headache. Before I went to bed, I asked Casey if her phone had shown the caller ID for that call.
“No, it just said, ‘Unknown.’ I don’t get why we didn’t hear it, though – it was so loud.”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “and change your ring tone.” It was too late to figure things out.
By day everything seemed fine. The three of us hung out at the beach by our house and we all felt pretty good afterwards, laughing and joking about how freaked we all get at the slightest sign of oddness. Casey was going to a party that night so it was just Tay and I at home; I got the sense that Tay was still feeling weird about the box fort, so I decided I’d do my best to make it fun again. I didn’t want another late-night wake-up call. I grabbed a pile of old magazines, some scissors, and glue, and suggested we make a collage on one of the inside walls. We had some upbeat music playing and were discussing an upcoming family trip when Tay suddenly leans over and turns the music down, as though she’s listening for something.
“What?” I ask.
“Did you put Juliet outside?” she said, looking confused.
“No, she’s probably downstairs. Why?”
“I didn’t put her out either, but I can hear her barking.”
“Well, maybe Case did before she left,” I said cheerfully. “Let’s go check.” For the record, I couldn’t hear anything, but Taylor’s always been more aware of Juliet than I am.
When we checked the backyard we couldn’t find her, and we didn’t hear any barking. I could tell Taylor was getting a bit anxious – she loves that dog – while I was starting to be frustrated. Juliet won’t come when we call her, so we had to search the house yet again. We checked all her favorite hiding spots but there was no sign of her until we got upstairs and were hopping over the box fort to check closets and bedrooms. Taylor straightened up suddenly and shushed me.
“I hear her again,” she said, making me pause so I too could listen.
“I don’t hear anything,” I said after a few moments.
“Can’t you hear her barking? It sounds like she’s far away.”
“Are you sure it’s not another dog? We didn’t let her out…”
“No, it’s definitely her,” she said, walking into my parents’ closet to listen at the window. “Come here, it’s louder in here. She’s got to be outside.”
When I said, once again, that I couldn’t hear anything, she rolled her eyes and replied, “You’re deaf, then,” and headed downstairs for her shoes.
We searched for our dog for four hours that night, on foot and in a car, calling Casey home to help later on. My heart was in my throat the entire time, thinking we’d come across something awful at the side of the road, and wondering how I was going to console two girls who loved Juliet like a baby and had never had anything bad happen all their lives. There was also an unsettling feeling at the back of my mind to do with that far-off dog barking, but I pushed that away for the time being.
The next day was spent in anxious endeavor, making posters and putting them up, canvassing the neighborhood. My poor sisters were close to tears, and I was wondering why this had to happen when my parents were gone. At the end of the night they had settled in to watching a movie half-heartedly, while they waited for a call, and I went upstairs to discreetly call my Mom and ask her to come home early. I didn’t know what was going to happen with our dog but I knew I needed some help consoling my sisters.
When I finally went to bed, the house was quiet. My sisters had locked up the house, turned out the lights, and were sleeping, and I was bored with my book. I couldn’t sleep, and like a few nights previous, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off the entrance to the box fort. I had covered it up with a blanket as I’d intended to earlier, and while that seemed to help somewhat I was still feeling weird about it. At some point, I chastised myself in my head (“this is stupid, I’m going to sleep”) and prepared to roll over to the other side, when movement caught the corner of my eye. The blanket cover over the entrance had fluttered a bit, as though a breeze had blown through. This was odd, as all the windows had been closed when we turned on the air conditioning the previous day. I watched intently now, trying to determine in the dim light if the blanket was actually moving in and out as though someone were breathing under it, or if this was just my imagination.
My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. As I watched, something touched the blanket from inside with a single, slender finger, and traced a vertical path all the way to the bottom.
I’m not a particularly brave person, but something happens to you when you’re in charge of the protection of others – suddenly scary things don’t cripple you with fear because you know you have to be brave for the people you love. I did the only thing, at this moment, that my brain would allow me to do after reasoning with itself and coming to the most logical explanation. I turned on my light, quietly got out of bed, and softly called, “Juliet?”
When my call received no answer I made to step forward, and suddenly the boxes shook as though something were passing through them. I admit, I jumped and my heart started beating a mile a minute, but I also remembered we hadn’t actually checked inside the box fort in all the commotion. Picking up the flashlight that lay on the floor near the entrance, I knelt down and lifted the cover, shining my light inside.
There was nothing in the small tunnel leading out of my bedroom, but I couldn’t see around the corners.
“Juliet,” I called, trying to keep my voice down so as not to wake my sisters. Then again, “Juliet!” but in that stern come-here-this-moment voice. Finally, I heard a quiet whimper, like she used to do when she was a puppy, and that shuffling noise moving further away from me.
I cursed under my breath. Aside from all the “creepy fucking box fort in the middle of the night” associations going through my mind, all I could think of was my little dog hurt and afraid, and how I wanted to get to her before my sisters to see what damage had been done. Things could get hysterical with them real fast if Juliet was in bad shape. So, hero winning out over coward, I got on my hands and knees with the flashlight and went inside.
It was eerily quiet in there, that kind of absence-of-sound quiet that makes you feel like your ears are plugged with cotton, only you can hear your own breath just fine. When I got to the end of the tunnel I looked right first, towards my sisters’ rooms, but there was nothing there. When I looked left, I heard a shuffling and my flashlight beam caught the tail end of something black turning the corner. Juliet.
“Juliet!” I hissed. “Juliet, come here, girl.” I made my voice more sweet and inviting, but that dog never comes when she’s called. I sighed and pushed on further, passing by our aborted attempt at a collage on my way. When I got to the end, I turned my flashlight down the long tunnel leading to the closet. The cheap light wasn’t strong enough to see to the very end – it simply stopped at a wall of blackness.
My resolve wavered here. I must have stayed there on my hands and knees for a full minute before that whimpering noise came to me again and something shuffled further on in the tunnel. It urged me onward. I determinedly made my way towards the closet, each moment expecting my weak flashlight beam to illuminate the red fleece blanket with penguins on it that we had used to cover up the closet entrance to the fort. But I found nothing.
Not even an opening.
The best way I can describe it is by comparing it to that game we played as children, where you close your eyes, lay on your back on the floor, and raise your arms and legs in the air. Two friends take hold of your hands and feet, and as slowly as possible, lower them to the ground. It feels normal at first, but at some point your brain expects your body to hit the floor, and when it doesn’t, when you keep moving more and more downward, you feel as though you’re impossibly passing through the floor.
That was what it was like being in the tunnel. I kept crawling through, shining my little flashlight on ahead, slowly growing more and more disturbed when I didn’t reach the ending, or see any sign of it. And there was something else nagging me, something about the way the boxes had shaken when whatever was inside moved away from me. Juliet is a little dog, a miniature schnauzer. When she walked through the tunnels she didn’t even have to duck; all you could hear was the soft padding of her feet and her nails scratching against the cardboard. The boxes only shook and moved when something big crawled through them, like me.
I don’t know how far I went or how long I was in there, but at some point, I actually stopped with a definite “this isn’t right” feeling. I visualized the fort in my head: by my estimation, I should have been somewhere in the back yard by then, suspended two stories into the air. It had finally dawned on me that I was currently located in a space that couldn’t possibly exist, chasing something that was obviously bigger than Juliet… I freaked out and got the fuck out of there.
When crawling in the opposite direction didn’t seem to lead anywhere but a black, endless tunnel, I really lost it and started pulling apart the boxes at the seams, punching my way through and finally finding myself in a tangled mess of blankets and cardboard in the middle of my parents closet.
It must have looked silly, me in a heap on the floor like that, but when I looked up at the walls of that five-by-ten-foot walk-in closet, goosebumps prickled up my back and arms. It was like stepping outside for a jog, then turning around after ten minutes of running to find you hadn’t even left your front steps. It just didn’t make sense that I had crawled so far in that tunnel but gone nowhere, and followed something that was somehow still inside. To this day I can’t explain it and I don’t even like to think about it. Even worse, I don’t like to remember that insistent whimpering that followed me all the way back.
Shaking with residual terror, I began dismantling the box fort right then and there. When my sisters emerged from their rooms, bleary-eyed and confused, I just mumbled something about having to take it down before mom got home, and continued on with my work.
I left just one box. I figured if I was going crazy, I might as well go full out… thinking of our dog, I left a single box standing in the closet by itself and carried all the rest of them out to the fire pit in our back yard.
The next morning I burned them, and my Mom was home by the afternoon.
That’s not quite the end of the story because there was a bit of happiness in store for us later, but I almost wish it was the end. It wasn’t much “closure” for me, what happened afterwards. We ended up finding Juliet a few days later. She was okay – a little erratic and jumpy for a bit, but happy to see us. My family was so overjoyed that nothing could really dampen their spirits, even a little thing like where I found her. It seemed like for everyone but me, all thoughts of the box fort had been completely washed away.
The day she came home, I was the only one in the house, washing dishes from a pancake breakfast and letting my mind wander. Suddenly I became aware of a muffled scratching and yelping sound coming from somewhere nearby. My heart lifting, I checked the back door, the garage door, and the front door, all to no avail, before I realized the noise was coming from above me. Slowly I made my way upstairs, following the noise all the way to my parents’ room, and finally to their closed closet door. I opened the door, and my little dog bounded out to me, jumping and barking for my attention.
I got rid of the last box after that, but it may have been too late. Mom came into my room that night, carrying a bundle of socks and underwear and asking me which ones were mine. She still did our laundry sometimes and couldn’t tell what belonged to whom. I picked out my things, and as she was leaving she turned around with a grin, chuckling and shaking her head. “Whose Halloween costume is that hanging in my closet? It scared me half to death!”
I put down my book. “What costume?”
“You know, the tall black one with the long arms and the white eyes. It’s very life-like. Is it from a movie or something?”
I only stared at her blankly for a second. “Oh, uh, yeah, it’s mine. I’ll move it downstairs.”
I waited until I heard my Mom’s footsteps move downstairs, and then noiselessly made my way to her room. My fear had an almost hypnotic effect on me that drove me towards the closet: all I knew was that I had to see. The closet door was open, but the light was off. Holding my breath, I flicked it on, and surveyed my surroundings. Clothing, boxes, belts, ties, suitcases, blankets – all were hanging or shelved with some order. Then, at the back, an empty space about half-a-foot wide, where the clothes had been pushed aside. A single plastic hanger was swinging back and forth, quickly losing momentum. The window beside me was open.
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