Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I don’t remember the first time I heard the tapping. As far as I know, it’s been there all my life. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been stirred awake a couple of times a month, still hazy with sleep and delirious with dreams to an almost imperceptible sound. Quiet, so quiet I can almost convince myself that it’s imaginary. Tiny clicks that never fail to stir me from my sleep and keep me lying awake, listening.
It used to terrify me. When I was younger, young enough to see monsters in the shadows and demons in the dark, I’d lie completely still in my bed, paralyzed by what I was certain signalled my imminent death. I don’t know exactly what I thought was coming for me, but I was afraid. I guess I was smarter back then.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I heard the tapping, the tiny clicks, and it frightened me, but like most childhood terrors, my fear went largely unnoticed and ignored. Oh, sure, the first few times I screamed loud enough to wake my parents in the dead of night I got some sympathy. To be honest, I think my mother and father were confused as to why it was tapping and not monsters under the bed that seemed to scare me so much. Eventually, though, the patient searches of my room in the dead of night became a little less patient and a lot more exasperated, and I realized that my pleas for assistance were unwelcome. It didn’t matter, really. Whenever my parents were in the room the tapping stopped. Vanished completely. I could hardly blame them for their disbelief.
But it always came back. Louder, too, on the nights that I went for help. Not angry— not exactly, just, louder. Insistent. Another reason I stopped asking for help, I guess. No need to make things worse.
It wasn’t until long after I stopped calling for my parents that I thought to identify the sound. I don’t know why it never occurred to me— I suppose we have a way of dividing the logic of the day and the insanity of the night that makes it hard to reason about that which goes bump in the night. But one Saturday afternoon it occurred to me that a noise produced in my bedroom would probably be composed of something that was in my bedroom. I tried it all, clicked pens, rustling paper. It was almost evening when I finally found the sound. It was unmistakable. The sound of my own nails tapping on my closet door.
This chilled me. Of course it did. But what was I going to do? There was no monster in my closet, I took to checking religiously every night before turning in, and it didn’t seem to have any effect on the tapping. There was no possible way for the sound to exist.
So I got used to it. I know, it sounds insane, but like I said, there wasn’t much else I could do. Besides, it wasn’t like anything actually happened. The tapping only woke me up a couple of times a month, and even then I was usually able to fall asleep again after a couple of hours. It was, well, normal. Routine. And routine overrides almost every other base instinct, I think.
I don’t think I ever thought about it consciously, but I expected the noise to go away when I moved out to college. I must have expected it, because when I was awoken by the familiar click or nails on wood my first week in the dorms, I was shocked. I think I always just assumed that the noise was confined to my childhood bedroom, a strange quirk to be left behind as I entered my new life as an adult.
I was alone in my dorm room. I opted to pay a small amount extra in exchange for a private room at the end of the hall. I know what people say about a roommate experience being an essential part of college, but I have never liked the idea of sharing a bedroom, and I just couldn’t stomach the thought of my roommate being someone messy, or loud, or otherwise inconvenient. But I digress. I was alone. I remember the familiar confusion— the desperate gasping awake and grasping for the threads of dream-space. The pitch darkness, the racing thoughts. The peeling of aborted dream-film from the inside of my eyes. Slowly remembering where I was, grounded by the feeling of my bed and the sound I had grown to know so well.
Like I said, I was shocked. Even before, when I was a kid, I had never heard the tapping when I wasn’t in my bedroom. Any time my family had taken a vacation, or I stayed over at the house of a friend, the tapping was absent. But now, here I was, 1,000 miles from my childhood home and everything in it. Everything, except, it seemed, the tapping. In hindsight, I probably should have known then that there was something wrong. I mean, looking back it seems so obvious. A strange sound from the closet plaguing me well into adulthood? That’s a cause for concern. For psychiatric help, even. But I just— got used to it, I guess.
I mean, I still thought it was odd, of course, and on the couple of nights every month where I awoke to the sound, I always lay awake thinking that I should do something about it. Never did get too specific in my head about what I was to do. But for the most part, I was busy. I joined clubs, I went to classes, I indulged in some serious bouts of drinking and drug use that were certainly ill-advised. I had a typical freshman experience.
It was September when the idea came to me. It struck me all at once, and once it occurred to me, I was embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of it before. It was just so obvious.
See, we were watching a documentary in class— some kind of anteater thing? Lives in the rainforest. Anyways, this anteater was nocturnal, so the scientists studying its diet had to set up special cameras to catch it during feeding times. Night vision cameras.
Night vision is actually quite strange when you think about it. It’s incredible, really, that the inky, empty darkness can be so completely transformed into a picture. The picture is dark and distorted sometimes, sure, but it’s infinitely clearer than the void it replaces. Eyes are so bright in night vision. Luminous and queer, flashing across the screen like shooting stars or torches. The anteater had bright eyes. There are nights when I dream of it— those eyes and those claws. Claws tearing savagely at the ground. In my dreams, though, the ground is different— no longer the packed earth of the rainforest floor. No, in my dreams it’s wet, sticky. It glistens in that unnatural shade of green, and the only thought I have before I wake is that it looks almost like meat.
But I digress. The video of the anteater lodged itself in my brain, and now that I had the idea, I wasn’t about to let it go. Night vision was a convenient solution to all my problems— a simple way for me to assure myself that the tapping was just a figment of my imagination once and for all.
So I bought the camera. The tech store didn’t present any real issues— I paid an exorbitant amount for the first camera thrust into my hands, and opted for the extra memory cartridge so that I could store a full 8-12 hours of footage. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. Setting it up in my dorm took a little bit of creativity, and by the time I was done I was pretty sure that I had lost my security deposit, but I figured it would be worth it if I could finally put my mind to rest.
I didn’t wake up that night. Even so, I spent the following morning reviewing the footage and looking for anything off. There was nothing, just my sleeping form in the darkness, shifting every once and awhile, and finally coming to rise long after the sun was high. The next few days were the same. Nothing. I was starting to get discouraged— it was possible this would be like it was when my parents came in— when something else was watching the tapping just couldn’t appear.
I needn’t have worried. It was late October when it finally happened. I spent the evening cramming for some midterm and then performing my now-normal bedtime ritual. I set the camera up, turned it on, and began recording. I didn’t feel anything different that night as I drifted off to sleep, which seems wrong. I have always had the assumption in the back of my mind, I suppose, that a part of you knows right before something bad happens. Call it ESP, call it your subconscious, but there’s a part of you that can smell the shit in the air right before it hits the fan. I don’t think that way anymore. There was nothing different about that night— nothing to set it apart from every other night that month where I slept peacefully through till morning.
I don’t know exactly what time I woke. It must have been just past three in the morning— that’s when the noise always started at home, and I couldn’t see any reason why that night should have been anything else. I heard the tapping. Quiet, almost unnoticeable. But unmistakable. The same sound I’d been hearing for years. I looked in the direction of my closet door. So late at night I wouldn’t have been able to make out my hand if it was in front of my face, let alone the closet across my room, but still I stared. My heart pounded, though in fear or excitement I can’t quite say now. I remember thinking to myself, this is it. Tomorrow you’ll know. In all this time I still hadn’t decided what it was I would kow after looking through that footage. Would I know that there was nothing in the dark? That I needed counseling? Perhaps I hoped that when I could finally see my empty room, the tapping would go away, once and for all.
I don’t remember falling back asleep, but I must have because the next thing I recall is waking to my incredibly abrasive phone alarm and the cool fog of an October morning.
I was out of bed instantly. I didn’t even take the time to get dressed before grabbing the camera and plugging it in to my computer. I started to scan through the footage, speeding up the run time until my gentle turns in sleep looked like frantic writhing upon my bed. I watched the time stamp. Sure enough, at just after three o’clock in the morning, I saw motion.
I pushed play.
At first, I thought I had imagined it. Thought that my eyes had played a trick on me at the speed of the film. But as I watched, I saw it. The closet door, which I had closed firmly before going to bed, and which, I confirmed with a glance, was latched shut now, was open. Not all the way, but enough that I could see a sliver of black in between the pale wood. Slowly, so slowly, the crack widened. I couldn’t see into the closet— it was far too dark, but I watched in rapt attention the door swinging outward.
It stopped after it had opened about a quarter of the way. I sat for a moment, waiting. Nothing happened. I started to justify to myself— well, that’s weird, but this room is drafty and the cabinet is old. I hadn’t even begun to try and fator the tapping into my brand new theory when my eyes were once again drawn to motion in the corner of the screen.
When I say there was a hand, I need you to understand that I don’t mean a hand like you would think of it. It was handlike. Close enough the familiar shape that when I was searching for what to call it, “hand” was the first thing to come into my head. But it wasn’t a real hand. Not like a person would have.
It was pale, and long. The fingers— if you could call them that— stretched half the length of my closet door. They were wrong, though, off. It took me a second to realize that there were no bulges at all where the knuckles should have been. Instead, the were five smooth appendages branching from a completely smooth square of a palm.
Then there were the nails. I didn’t see them at first, because unlike the shining brightness of the hand, the nails were completely black. I was disgusted when I finally made them out— easily as long as the fingers and warped so that they curved down in a sinister arc. They began to tap.
The night vision camera didn’t capture audio, but I didn’t need it. I already knew what sound those wicked nails made. It was the same sound I heard as a child, lying awake in my bed and thinking of the bogeyman. It was the sound I heard after a long night of drinking, stirring me to a kind of half-consciousness in the middle of the night and leaving me with nightmares and confusion. It was the sound I heard the night before, as I lay in my bed unaware of the thing inside my closet.
I jumped at a flash of light on the screen. My own eyes, I found, opening in the darkness. I stared at myself waking up. It’s weird, you know, watching yourself come out of a sleep. It’s not something you think about, but I’d bet very few people have ever actually seen what they look like when they’re shaking off the vestiges of a dream. Or a nightmare. I looked on as my past self blinked a couple of times, and then turned her head to look at the closet door.
I was staring directly at the hand. Watching it back, I can’t believe I didn’t know it was there. My eyes were locked on what seemed to be the exact center of mass, and I just blinked slowly at the darkness. The fingers on the closet door ceased tapping for a pregnant moment, then separated and came together twice. My stomach sank when I realized this was a mockery of a wave.
The fingers returned to tapping, once again unbothered by my still body. The figure attached to the hand, though, did respond to my silent watch. From deep in the closet, something moved. I don’t know how I know it was moving, because even with the nightvision I couldn’t see inside of the closet, but I just knew. There was something inside shifting. When I finally saw it, it didn’t move like any person or animal I had ever seen. It didn’t even move really, just kind of skipped. It was like watching an old tape on a broken VCR, flicking back and forth between frames and never looking quite natural.
It emerged. Like the hand, it was long and pale. Spindly legs dropped from the cabinet to the floor, though there didn’t seem to be any feet, and the figure never seemed to touch the ground. The legs were so thin it didn’t seem possible for them to hold up any kind of weight, and they, like the hands, were completely smooth. No knees, no ankles, nothing but thin white legs stretching into darkness. There were no hips to differentiate the legs from the torso, but the body was long too. The thing was so thin that I should have been able to see its ribs protruding from its body, but instead the chest seemed almost concave, as though there was a massive cavity just above where its stomach should have been. The shoulders tapered into a neck, stretching tall— far taller than anyone I’d ever met. The thing must have stood about eight feet tall when it finally stood at full height. There was no way that it should have been able to fit in my tiny dorm room closet, but then, there was no way that any of this was possible at all.
And then there was the face. The head was huge. Jarring. Unlike the rest of the body, it was all sharp angles. I could make out every feature, and each was distinct, but they were all just the slightest but off. The cheekbones were too low. The jaw was too long. There was no nose or ears as far as I could tell, but I might have just missed them because when it opened its mouth, I couldn’t look away, When it opened its mouth, I could see rows upon rows of teeth, descending down it’s throat like some kind of demented staircase.
I didn’t want to look at its eyes. I felt a kind of sickness overtake me every time I tried to force myself to look above that shark’s mouth, so overpowering that I had to force down nausea. When I finally tore myself away and looked, I froze. There were no eyes. Not where they should have been. Instead, there were twin chasms, voids, taking up at least half of the face. They were pitch black and endless, and when I looked into those eyes I knew, in my heart, that I was damned. I don’t know how else to put it. It was like all at once this vice of despair had me in its grasp, a weighted blanket thrown on a person drowning in the sea.
Up until this point, the creature had been staring at my blinking form, still lying in the darkness. Now, it turned its head to face the camera in the corner of the room.
I know I said that it had no eyes, and that’s true, but I need you to understand that it was looking at me. Not the camera, me. The me that was watching the video. It opened its mouth and its body did a kind of spasm— sort of like when a dog jumps back after you’ve accidentally kicked it. I could have sworn that it was laughing at me.
I don’;t know why the laughter is what finally snapped me out of whatever trance I had been in, but I threw the camera away from me at full force. It shattered instantly, and my room was showered in a storm of plastic, metal, and glass. I didn’t even notice that my feet were cut and bloody, or that I was still in my pajamas before I got to my friend’s room and asked to stay there.
She was kind enough to agree. I guess it would have been a hard case to turn away, cut up, sobbing, and raving about a monster in the closet. My friend, Emma, made it very clear that she considered this a kind of nervous break— maybe brought about by the coming midterms? I met her with far more hostility than was probably due, given the circumstances, and quickly realized that regardless of what I now knew to be true, my story would be a hard sell to everyone else who didn’t see the actual monster living in my closet. Her own roommate, who had gone home for the latter half of the semester due to unprecedented stress, had left her with a double room to herself— a fact that worked out exceedingly well for me.
I don’t know exactly what my long-term plan was, but for the time being I figured the best thing to do would be to stay around others. After all, the tapping never came around when other people were in the room with me, so maybe that meant that the creature wouldn’t be able to come out? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stomach going back to my dorm room. Late at night, I would think about that room. I knew that I had left the shattered remains of the camera on the floor, and all I could imagine was that creature scrabbling its way out of the closet and finding me missing from my bed, wondering where I was, and searching.
A few nights into my extended stay with Emma, I woke to the unfamiliar. Not the typical disorientation of waking up in a room that was not my own, but a feeling, deep inside, that something was wrong. It took me a moment to fully shake myself from sleep, but when I did, I realized that I was out of my bed, standing in the center of the room. I had never sleepwalked, even as a child, so this was distressing, to say the least. When I brought it up to Emma the next day, she once again attributed the odd happenings in my life to stress. I wasn’t so sure.
I was even less sure when the same thing happened two days later, and then the day after that. Each night, I would wake just after three o’clock in the morning, standing in the dead center of the room. I always woke up hard, with a start and a shake, and I was always incredibly cold. Even more concerning: I always woke facing my closet.
Paranoid, I started marking the places that I woke each night, and much to my sinking dismay, I found that, indeed, every night I was roughly one step closer to the dreaded closet. Half-jokingly, I asked my friend Emma to tie me to the bed, which seemed to be her breaking point. I can’t really blame her. I don’t know what I would do if I felt that my friend had gone off the deep end. Regardless, she told me that she was sorry, but that she didn’t feel like she could have me stay with her anymore. She told me that she hoped I found help, but that she couldn’t do this anymore.
I left, almost numb. I wasn’t angry. I wouldn’t believe me either, I don’t think. I checked myself into a motel, and that night, when before I went to bed, I tied my hand to the headboard in a knot from my days in Scouts— complicated enough that my sleeping body wouldn’t just be able to tug myself free. I wish I could say I was surprised when I woke that night at just past three in the morning, the ropes slashed to pieces on my bed, and my own feet resting less than a foot away from the motel closet.
I haven’t left that motel. I can’t bring myself to. If you find this, please know that I did everything I could. I’m not crazy. I’m terrified. I can’t imagine what that creature wants with me, but I know that it can’t be good. I will try to stay awake now. Try to stay away. Even now, even in the waking world, I can’t deny that I’m pulled toward that dark abyss. A part of me knows that I am not strong enough to fight, wants to go to those doors, open them, and curl up inside. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll give in to that urge and just wait there, never sleeping and always watchful, so that the monster cannot consume my soul. All I have to do is keep myself from falling asleep.
The only sound that can keep me awake is my fingernails tapping wood.
Credit : Victoria Tonelli
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