Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I live in an attic, a small renovated space in a house that’s older than most.
I always pay my rent on time, keep quiet after 9 PM, and am unfailingly polite when I run into my neighbors, which isn’t often.
Every night now, I hear him at my window.
My bed is tucked away into an alcove, and it’s the only place in my studio apartment where you can’t see the single window in the room.
It used to make me feel secure, that there were so few entry points into my home. Childhood trauma had made me weary of large spaces, where not everything could be seen. After I first moved in, I used to comfort myself by thinking of escape routes.
If someone was at my door, I would grab the knife that I kept to the side of my bed, put on the shoes, coat, and purse that I always kept close by, and be out my window in an instant. The screen was easy to remove, and there was an old oak tree I could use to traverse the three stories to the ground, and my car.
In my mind, escape would be relatively simple if it came down to it. I wasn’t expecting it, exactly, but I liked to be prepared.
It never occurred to me that I should have been worried about someone coming from the outside. Stupid of me, really.
To preface and partly explain why it took me so long to realize what was happening, I should you give some backstory. I grew up with a severely mentally ill parent; my mother is not someone I demonize or blame, but I recognize that her rapid mood swings and moments of total dissonance, interspersed with periods of intense anger, gave me quite a few issues.
I am wary of loud noises, and am easily anxious. I’m in my mid-twenties now, but throughout my entire life, I have been prone to bouts of fear and paranoia. Feelings of being watched, and hunted. I could never explain the sometimes overwhelming fear that someone, or something was trying to kill me. Often I would experience very mild and nondescript hallucinations. The sound of footsteps in an empty room, or a vague shadow in the corner of my vision. Things I’m sure everyone notices from time to time, although without the intense fear that follows.
I had become so used to this fear that when it started, I just assumed it my own anxieties. I try to always be logical, and for most of my life, it has suited me well.
But not this time. I can hardly stand to let myself think about what happened.
My therapist said writing about what’s going on in my life might help– I don’t tell her much, and what I do tell her is throwaway stuff. Things that happened to me when I was younger that sound terrible, because it was, but they’re also things I internalized and dealt with a long time ago. I never talk about the current fears and worries I still struggle with. However I figured her advice couldn’t hurt in my situation. If anything, at least it leaves behind concrete evidence of what’s happening.
It’s why I ignored the tapping at first. It was never frequent, and often would only happen every week or so, at least that I noticed. I suffer from insomnia, and often wake up multiple times in the night. As I type, it’s 2:47 AM and once again, I am unable to sleep. Who knows how many nights I slept through the sound, unaware of what was happening only a few feet away from me.
On the nights when I was awake to hear the noise, I would become almost incoherent in my worry. In my head was the constant mantra of, “It’s not real, it’s in your head. It’s not real, it’s in your head.” I would put on the noise canceling headphones my best friend had given me, pull the covers over my head, and try to relax with the knowledge that it was just my anxiety acting up again.
The bad nights were the ones where I would change the channel on my TV that was constantly on– the background noise helped distract me. I knew if I put on something bright and loud, I wouldn’t have any hope of getting back to sleep, so I reserved doing this for the nights when the feeling of dread was so overwhelming I could hardly string a sentence together.
There were even a few times that I would text my friend in the middle of the night to tell him that I felt like something was watching me. I wanted to know that if I was murdered, or I disappeared, someone would be aware something was wrong. I don’t know what difference it would’ve made, really. But it was a comfort to me that someone else knew that I was scared, that I thought something was after me.
It went on like this for months, and in all that time I never actually checked the window.
I was so convinced that what was happening was in my head. I didn’t want to play into my delusions. There are so many excuses I could use; in the end though, I think I was simply afraid to know that I might be right.
At first, tapping seems pretty innocuous. It wouldn’t be too difficult to actually break into my apartment, the window latched, but as I said it’s an old house, and the latch wasn’t the most secure, although I always made sure it was locked. It was that thought, and the fact that I was on the third story, that kept me from actually looking around the small divider wall separating my bed from the window in order to confirm that I was just hearing things.
In retrospect, I blame myself for what I let happen, even though I know that my paranoia saved me in a sense.
I also know that it killed someone, and that’s something I’ll have to live with myself for the rest of my life, however short that may be.
My day-to-day life continued normally for quite awhile, with my nighttime worries were contained solely to those times when I would hear that strange noise.
It wasn’t a tap on the glass, you understand, but an odd little clack. I would convince myself that it must be one of those strange sounds that old houses make when they settle. Maybe a squirrel from the tree that was feeling curious and had jumped onto the some-two feet of slanted roof that was in front of the window, or perhaps a leak in the gutter above.
Curiosity was certainly involved, but it wasn’t a squirrel making the sounds.
One night, the tapping happened to coincide with when I needed to use the bathroom. Usually the nights where I heard the repetitive noise were ones where I was content to stay in bed under my covers. My apartment gets very cold at night.
As I finished washing my hands and started to leave the room I froze when I began to hear that very faint, but distinct tap. It was always very rhythmic, in a way that would be soothing if it wasn’t so out of place. For every second that passed, there would be a quiet little tap that accompanied it.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
You might think the noise would’ve driven me crazy, but it was almost indistinguishable from the hum of my refrigerator, and the soft sound of my television with the volume turned low. The noise would only ever last for a few minutes at most, another reason why I never bothered to investigate it.
However much I could justify not leaning over the three feet it would take to discover the source of the noise, it seemed silly to stay trapped in my bathroom when it was the middle of the night, and I had to work early in the morning. At that point I had convinced myself thoroughly that nothing was actually happening.
Those moments before I learned the truth of what it was are bitter to me now. I was comforted by my own ignorance.
One thing you should know is that when I get up at night to use the restroom, I don’t bother to turn the light on, it’s connected to my room, so the light of the TV is usually enough to navigate by. And as I mentioned earlier, my bed is completely hidden from view of the window.
So after a minute of psyching myself up to leave my bathroom, years of ingrained habit led me to cautiously peer around the edge of the doorjamb.
What I saw, I will never forget.
Instead of the clear view of the night sky that I was expecting, there was a man crouched outside my window, perched on the slanted bit of roof.
As I watched, he repeatedly opened and closed his mouth, his eyes locked on the blank space of wall that I would be behind if I was in bed. The rhythmic motion caused a slight sound as his teeth clashed together, his face a rictus of ecstasy.
Through the pane of glass, the sound was muffled enough that it could be mistaken for a very faint tap.
I think I went into shock in that moment, I certainly froze. I still don’t know if I should be grateful for that, or regretful after the events that followed.
You see, the man never actually saw me as I remained still as a statue, just beyond the door of my bathroom. He must have thought I was still in bed, as I always am.
I think what disturbed me most, beyond the obvious, was his expression of hunger. It was so rapt that I felt a pang of empathy. Something was very wrong with his expression; it reminded me of when my mother would ‘go away’ so to say, and her normal personality would disappear for awhile, in her place would be someone who knew her thoughts and emotions, but it was as if everything positive and sane had left the building. She would twist you up until you felt as bad as she did. She was almost absent-minded in her cruelty, her desire to bring you down to her level.
It was that association that gave me pause, because I had really only gotten a glimpse of his face. I was too scared to look again, and beyond the shadows of his expression, and that terrible chewing motion, his figure had been indistinct in the darkness. I had seen figures in the shadows of my fear before, and I wanted to be absolutely certain that was I saw was real before I made a fuss about it.
I had never liked to draw attention to myself, and after all, if it really was happening, he had never actually made a move to harm me.
My therapist says I normalize things that aren’t healthy or necessarily safe due to my upbringing. Dealing with my mother also made me extremely open-minded when faced with people who seem to suffer from mental illness, including those that came across as disturbing. All my explanations of why I made the decisions I did feel like excuses; it’s a sour taste in my mouth.
One thing was certainly true of his expression; whoever this man was, if he was even real, he wasn’t all there.
So I waited until the tapping, which I now knew to be clacking, stopped. I waited an additional ten minutes before peering around the frame of the door, although I felt little relief when I saw he was gone.
I ran to my bed and immediately texted my best friend, the only one I ever confided in about the noises I would hear, and settled in to wait out the remaining four hours until sunrise. I felt safety in the pattern that had been established, and indeed nothing happened to me that night.
Writing it all down like this makes me feel like an idiot as I think of my choices. At the time though, I knew the police wouldn’t be able to do anything without actual evidence, and I still wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t in my head.
Still, I should have gotten out, found a place to stay for a few days at least while I figured it all out.
Instead, I begged my friend to stay the night. I figured we could stay up and keep out of sight in my little alcove and play tabletop games until the noise started. By this point the noise of his gnashing teeth was happening so frequently that I knew there was a good chance that if it really was a stranger climbing up to my window, it would happen again that night. If it was in my head, I would finally know for sure. If not, knowing how calm my friend was, I thought that maybe he could snap a picture of the man and we could at least get some proof that I wasn’t losing my mind.
By this point, my friend thought I was just hearing things, given my past paranoia, and agreed to stay the night in order to assuage my fears.
He was my best friend, my family. That was the last night I ever saw him.
We played games late into the night, but he was unused to being up at odd hours, and ended up falling asleep at around midnight.
I stayed up and waited, and finally at 3:03 AM I heard it. I had never felt so tense as I shook my friend awake and indicated he should keep quiet.
I knew the moment he heard the tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. The faint sound of teeth clicking together through my closed window.
His face went through a series of expressions– disbelief, worry, and then finally determination. He grabbed his phone and stood up, stepping around the small wall that partitioned off my bed without any sign of hesitation.
I’ll never forget the sound that the man outside the window made. It was a shriek; of agony or excitement I don’t know. It certainly took my friend aback, and before he could bring up his phone to take a picture, the sound abruptly cut off. I rushed over to the window and saw that the man was gone—he must have cut across the side of the house, because I couldn’t see a sign of him, and although it was a long fall, he could’ve easily jumped down to the porch awning below and from there dropped the ten odd feet to the ground.
I would know, I had thought about getting out that way a million times before.
I could tell how shook up my friend was, he never thought this was real. Something about his expression was off, and no matter how many times I questioned him, he refused to tell me what he saw, other than confirming that he had seen a man on the other side of the glass.
We decided to wait it out until daylight seeing as we didn’t have a lot to go on, and in the morning, we would go to the police and tell them what we knew, which was not a lot. Honestly I didn’t even know if what was occurring could be considered a crime.
Once the sun had risen and the stranger had remained out of sight, seemingly gone for the day, my friend declared he was going to go home to change and let his work know he would be late, then he would head back over and pick me up and we would go down to the station.
He lived close, so he said that it would be thirty minutes at most.
He was never the punctual type, so after thirty-five minutes I wasn’t too concerned. After forty with no word, I began to call, and after an hour with no response I had dialed 911.
I must have seemed hysterical on the phone, but the tired operator still tried to treat me with sympathy. She told me that unfortunately there was nothing they could do until my friend had been gone at least twenty-four hours, and that without any evidence of actually being stalked, they wouldn’t be able to do anything for me. She did ask for my address, and told me that she would have patrol cars pass by more frequently for the next few nights.
It was a cold comfort.
At that point, I knew the man must have somehow gotten to my friend. His car had been broken into before, it was one of those older models, and I knew that if I was really being watched, it would have been easy to see my friend pull up at the start of the night. A lot of people, especially guys, don’t tend to look in their backseat every time they get into their car.
We all think we’re safe, until we aren’t.
I called out from work and spent the day driving around the city, going to my friend’s apartment, his job, anywhere I thought he might be. I ended up circling around the city for hours in search of his car, but I couldn’t find anything.
And once the sun started setting, I headed back home.
I don’t know if you could tell, but I don’t have the best relationship with my mother. As soon as I could, I moved away. I never kept many close friends, and after dealing with some medical bills, I don’t have a lot of money to my name. I’m sure I could have figured something out, maybe found a quiet spot to sleep in my car, or even reach out to one of the countless Facebook friends I saw around but never really got close to.
He was the only real family I had left though, and I am angry. I don’t have much else to live for, and I just get so tired of being so afraid. It’s exhausting, to live your life mistrustful of the darkness that lingers in the corner, to feel as if at any moment, something seeks to do you harm.
He disappeared yesterday, and as I wait here in my dark apartment, the TV playing softly in the background, I try not to think of what happened to my friend and the part I played in it. Or of the pained hunger in the man’s face as he stared at where he knew I would be asleep. Most of all, I try not to think of the horrible, distorted quality that his jaw had. I thought it was just my paranoia, but I could’ve sworn that in the darkness I saw his mouth stretch wider and wider with each clack of his teeth, a grotesque maw set against a shadowed face.
Finally, after hours of waiting, I can hear it. It’s a very faint metronomic sound, and if I didn’t know what it was, I would almost think it was soothing.
I left my window unlatched.
Credit: Collette Akile