Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
Ralph sat in bed listening to the house talk. Ralph liked to listen to the house talk, it talked to him most nights; and when it did he always listened with equal parts excitement and reverential discomfort. Listening hard, Ralph leaned forwards; letting the bedclothes fall away from him he cocked his head trying to make sense of the groans and creaks and commit them to his memory. When the noises stopped Ralph grinned and nodded staring into the dark void of his bedroom. He lay back in his bed and hoped that the house would speak again to him before sleep overtook him. It did not.
That morning as Ralph thought of the noises he had heard last night and of all the times the house had communicated to him previously as he stared into his soggy cornflakes. Ralph and his parents had moved into the house six months ago and the house had been talking to him nearly every night over that time. At first he had been scared of the noises; he had run to his mother and father, waking them with his cries. They had sent him back to his room, their groggy moans had begun to spike to anger when he had tried to refuse, and he had sat there the whole night, peering at the dark, the quilt drawn to his chin, he had not fell asleep until dawn had slipped through the curtains and amber light illuminated the familiar shapes of his room. The noises had not stopped until then.
Over the days after his first night in the house Ralph had heard the noises intermittently every night. His parents had explained that the house was old and poorly tended; they had shown him that floorboards creaked and pipes shook. They had not listened when he tried to explain that the noises in his room were different, that they carried with them a different quality. After many fruitless discussions Ralph had sensed his parents growing annoyance and had stopped talking about the noises. Instead he had spent the nights listening and trying to work out what caused the sounds keeping him awake. Every night he leant against the cool walls and the bare wooden floors and listened trying to hear for one of the things that his parents had told him was the cause. He could not find one, but when he pressed his ear to the wall he had realised that the creaks and groans were not all he could hear.
With his ear pressed tight to the wall he heard scratching, a strange slithery sound that sounded like the panicked throes of something trapped; he would hear the scratching for a few minutes then it would change; sometimes it would turn into a series of little taps that he would follow and try to repeat against the wall. Sometimes he would hear a fluttering sound; similar to the sound of an envelope being torn open; and he would follow the sound across the walls surface with his fingertips for a few inches before it stopped. Sometimes it would return to the scratching sounds after Ralphs attempted copy cat sound…. sometimes it stopped completely for the night. After a few nights Ralph had awoke to the scratching sounds behind the wall that the headboard of his bed was against; this new, closer arrival of the noise scared Ralph but he didn’t run to his parents or cry out. Eventually, with the arrival of dawn the noise had stopped; as it always had. After that Ralph stopped leaning against the walls of his room and he stopped copying the noises; he had decided he didn’t like the scratching sounds at all.
Despite this scarier turn Ralph continued to listen for the noises the house made, though he never leant against the walls or seeked the scratching noise anymore he continued to hear noises in the night. The knocks and groans became commonplace to him and he found he was able to sleep through to the morning if he chose to; not that he did often. The noises; though scary at times, captivated him. After a while Ralph realised that the noises were not confined to his room or to the night time. During his solitary time, usually for a couple of hours after breakfast and just before his evening meal Ralph was able to wander the house listening.
Ralph would wander from the kitchen after his morning meal and usually take a left into the living room. Here he would lean his forehead against the brick chimney breast that stood in the middle of the far wall. After absorbing any sounds he could he would leave the room and then go to the stair case. He would walk halfway up them; counting the steps, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, stop……. here he would get to his knees and place his ear against the wooden horizontal part of the eighth step and listen. Over the time that he had studied the house noises he had noticed that these staircase sounds were different to the others in the house. Though he didn’t always hear them; these sounds echoed and clicked like the others, but they sounded……. shadowy. Ralph always frowned at the thought but couldn’t think of any other way to describe it.
After hearing the staircase, he would either go to the bathroom, though usually only if he actually needed to use it as he noticed the sounds were less prevalent there, probably because of the tiles. He would then go back to his room and “play”. Instead of really playing Ralph would take several of his toys and scatter them around the room; sitting near some in case his mother chose to look in on him, this had not been his own idea, but something that he had realised during one of the houses night time mutterings. After carefully constructing his ruse, Ralph would sit and absorb more of the houses sounds for as long as he could. This was usually for a few hours uninterrupted, until his mother called him for lunch, at which point he would traipse downstairs, bolt down his food as quick as possible, and run outside to the large back yard. The outdoor playtime had been at his mother’s request, who saw no reason why young children should spend so long indoors, especially with such abundant outdoor space available.
At first Ralph had fought this forced outdoor time; but one night, after listening to the houses nightly noises, Ralph had realised that the house wished him to go outside. After going out Ralph would run to the nearest grove trees at begin to search the fallen leaves and the twisted exposed roots. He would dig, muddying his hands and scratching his fingers, until he found what he was looking for. Flushed with joy at his prize he would sneak back through the back door, cross quietly through the hall; listening to the soft snores of his mother or the blaring of the soap opera tunes on the television; and tiptoe up the stairs. Upon reaching the eighth step he would stoop, using his free hand to pull at the wooden slats that make up the step. The second of the three slats was loose, and Ralph was able to pry it open slightly leaving a tiny, black void. Ralph would then push his other hand forward, offering his capture to the darkness. It was at this point whatever he had taken from the garden, this was usually a spider, a worm or a butterfly, sometimes; especially on a good days a baby mouse or tiny bird, and on a bad one an acorn or a pill bug, and drop it into the darkness. As soon as the offering disappeared from sight Ralph would be rewarded with a contented groan; and Ralph would smile.
When Ralph had first done this he had felt sick at his actions and he had to run to the bathroom where he had spent a scary few minutes dry heaving and shaking. But after a few sacrifices Ralph had become numb to the experience.
After washing his hands Ralph would return outside and wander through the garden for a while, before returning to the house. He would eat dinner, watch television with his parents, go to bed and listen to stories; first ones read from books by his parents and then later to the house. He would fall asleep, and the cycle would start all over again.
And then slowly Ralph noticed the house became less appreciative when he gave it the tiny animals. Its appreciation grew less apparent with each passing day’s feeding. And so Ralph decided he had to try harder. Soon the bird’s nest that sat in the nearby tree was emptied, and then Ralph’s parents noticed that the chicken they had purchased for dinner had disappeared from the freezer, then next doors cat went missing……
For the next few weeks Ralph was able to satisfy the house, he had become quite adept at finding and subduing the larger animals of the gardens, hedgehogs, rabbits and the like and he resorted to stealing only when he absolutely had to. Ralph, and more importantly, and the house were content with their life together.
And then things changed……..
Shortly after Ralphs eighth birthday, his mother went back to work. This meant Ralph would have had to spend the time when he was not at school alone. Ralph adored the hours he was able to spend alone in the house; he was able to take hours of uninterrupted house sounds. It also gave Ralph longer to gather his offerings now that his schedule was altered by school.
Soon though his parents decided they did not like the idea of Ralph being so alone for so long, they recognised that Ralph was a …… unusual child, and the missing food and lack of animals in their garden had become apparent. And while they could not prove Ralph had actually done anything wrong, they decided they would have to hire someone to look after him during the hours he would have been otherwise alone. They hired a young child carer called Miss Harris.
Miss Harris was a strict woman. She would be waiting for him when he returned home from school. Sat in the living room she would make him recite his times table before her, before letting him go out into the back garden for “ fresh air “. While he was outside she would sit in the kitchen and watch him from the window. He was never able to leave her field of view; or else she would come and force him back inside the house. And, consequently, he was unable to gather any offerings for the house. If Ralph was lucky he could find a spider or a worm and quickly stuff the into his trouser pocket, though the house was never pleased by such meager offerings and Ralph would spend the night trying to coo and console the groaning sounds. After a while though Ralph was unable to even acquire these sparse morsels. Miss Harris had caught sight of his muddy trouser pockets and had forced him to turn out his pockets. Upon seeing the squirming worm he had hidden there, she had shrieked, her shrieks becoming a tirade of “filthy boy” and “naughty, selfish child”, she sent him to his room and later he had been refused dessert while at dinner.
Weeks later Miss Harris had caught him clutching a rabbit he had found grazing in the long grass of his garden. She had forced him to release the animal immediately, even ignoring his protests, and after he had begrudgingly let the animal hop away she had spanked him and sent him to bed early.
That night Ralph came to a realisation. If life was to return to the way he desired, he would have to get rid of Miss Harris. He leant against the cool wall, and for the first time since that night long ago, he listened for the slithery, wet scratching sounds again. He found them quickly and listened intently. A look of approval showed on his face that night as he slept content in his dreams of his coming plans.
The next day Ralph left early from school and rushed home before Miss Harris could arrive. When he got home he flew up the stairs and eagerly began prying the slats of the eighth stair up. It took a tremendous effort, but Ralph was able to pull the middle slat free. Coughing from the cloud of ancient dust that he had disturbed he placed the slat carefully to one side, he then began working the other two slats loose. A little while later Ralph was dripping with sweat and panting heavily, but he was pleased. Before him was a open void in the staircase, which to Ralph looked like an open, toothless mouth.
Ralph leaned over the edge, and immediately was hit by the foul smell that wafted up from the hole. Ralph reeled, and was forced to steady himself quickly as he was in danger of falling headfirst into the hole he had created. Only when he was sure he was steady again in his perch did he dare to lean forward again, he was again peering into the darkness so he took out a torch from his pocket and paused. This had not been part of the plan. He had taken the torch on an impulse that morning and it had rested in his pocket heavily all day, feeling like a guilty secret.
Ralph grimaced and then turned on the torch light. He shone the beam of light slowly down the supports of the stairs and the ancient brickwork of the house wall, barely illuminating them. Ralph watched as the torch light showed on the last of the brick and wood supports before illuminating nothing…….. Pure blackness existed beneath. The brickwork continued down but was completely obscured by the blackness, the wooden supports instead ended abruptly. Ralph frowned at the impossibility of the stairs he knelt upon. He could now see that physically nothing held the stairs up, and yet here they were. Ralph couldn’t help but lean into the hole as he strained to light up more of the dark. He could now see that beneath the last of the wood beams and red house bricks that the wall changed into a darker brown bricks that could not be seen on the outside of the hose. Here and there random indentations and small ledges had been carved into this brown brick.
Ralph swung the cone of light his torch produced across the shaft, trying to find a ledge that was close enough for him to look at properly. On the front side he found one, it was narrow and he could not see to the back of it. Its bottom was covered in a fine dust and grit, and as he pushed forward he saw the first gleam of ivory break the dark. Ralph flinched backwards as his torch showed the bones of a small rabbit lying there. Randomly scattered around it like weird macabre satellites were the shriveled remains of spiders, worms and other bugs. Behind the bulge of the rabbit, Ralph could see other dim flashes of ivory. Ralph reeled away; but not before the torch shone on several objects further down the wall, each deposited on their own shelf, here there lay the skeleton of a fox, its paws pulled forward as if it were digging, on the next shelf there was an old nest with broken egg shells strewn inside, and most sickeningly on the lowest shelf that Ralph could see their lay an old shoe on its side. Ralph couldn’t see what was coming out of the shoe and he was immensely glad.
Ralph pulled away, breathing hard so as not to vomit. The skeletons he had seen on the lower shelves were not from him……. he felt immediately paranoid. Tears ran down his face; he would stop now, run away from the house if he had to, just to be free from it.
A sudden creak from beneath him caused Ralph to whimper. He knew immediately that if he tried to leave the house would swallow him whole, pull him into the darkness and deposit his bones on a shelf of his own to be flanked by the bones of birds and the fossilized grubs forever.
No. Ralph knew he would go through with the plan. He got up quickly, keeping as far away from the hole as he could. He began to walk down the stairs, but stopped suddenly; he turned and threw the torch down into the hole. Its light making cartwheels as it fell. Ralph wondered if it would fall forever but after a minute he heard the faint crash of it hitting something hard and knew that the torch had reached a bottom that nothing living would ever see. Ralph sighed and went down the stairs.
A little while later the front door of the house was flung open. Miss Harris stepped through into the hall, furious. The school had phoned her and informed her of Ralph’s absence. She intended to be there when he turned up and planned to punish him accordingly. She was stopped in her thoughts of reprimanding Ralph by the sight of a hole in the stairs. She started forward slowly.
As she got nearer she became aware of the sound of faint sobbing coming from the hole. She mounted the stairs and climbed them, listening to the creak of the wood and the continued cries.
“Ralph? “She asked as she stared into the dark eye of the stairs.
The crying continued, though she thought it had quietened a little. She leaned forward slightly.
“Ralph? Is that you? Did you fall? “She spoke to the dark circle.
The crying stopped. She breathed in sharply through her teeth. Her knees were trembling unconsciously. Should she go back and phone someone she wondered. She was wondering if she had really heard any crying in the first place when a sudden moan echoed up.
“Ralph! “She breathed, falling to her knees before the hole, like someone beginning to worship.
“Ralph “she moaned. Her eyes searched the dark, where was he?
Silently Ralph emerged from the shadow of the Living room; he went quickly to the staircase and climbed. When he was behind the kneeling Miss Harris he stopped. He took a deep breath, reached out and pushed the unsuspecting woman before him.
Miss Harris saw the shadow of Ralph behind her at the last moment, and from the corner of her eye as she began to turn she saw him reach out and push her. Then her world was turn upside down as she fell headfirst into the hole. The last thing she saw before the dark was Ralph’s face. He was smiling, and his eyes were full of tears.
Ralph sat on the bottom step of the stairs. The house was silent now but in his ears he heard Miss Harris’s scream as she fell into the darkness below the stairs. Unlike the torch he never heard her hit the bottom. Her scream had just continued for a while, slowly quietening until it was no longer audible. Ralph wondered if that meant she was gone and had stopped screaming forever, or if she had just fell so far that he could no longer hear her.
After Ralph could no longer hear Miss Harris anymore he had ventured up again and returned the boards. Keeping his eyes shut, because he did not wish to see the houses grim trophies again. He did not expect to see Miss Harris though, he was sure that she was gone. Ralph knew he would only see her again in his nightmares. After nailing the boards back again with a hammer he had found in the garage Ralph went back to the bottom step and waited.
The evening passed slowly. Ralph was quiet during dinner with his parents, he did not watch the television or listen to the stories his mother read him. He was waiting.
The night passed slower. And silently…… Ralph sat in bed waiting for dawn. And eventually dawn did come and Ralph felt slightly better.
Time passed. No one missed the absent Miss Harris for a long time, eventually it was decided by Ralph’s parents that she had decided to leave her role looking after Ralph without giving notice, and they decided not to pursue it. They hired another woman to take over; a kind elderly widow called Mrs Marvell, who Ralph enjoyed the company of.
Ralph was happier than anyone could ever remember. Since Miss Harris “leaving” the house had been silent all the time. He enjoyed the freedom and the peace the silence brought. He slept each night through; save for the occasional nightmare, but even these had diminished over time.
One night Ralph was woken by a nightmare. In it Miss Harris had been trying to climb out of the hole he had pushed her into and drag him into the dark. Ralph shivered under the covers as his breath slowed and his pulse steadied. He relaxed as his eyes found the normality of his room in the moonlight. He sighed; closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Scccrrriiiittchhh. Scccrrriiiittchhh. The silence was broken by a low scratching sound.
Ralphs eyes flew open. Scccrrriiiittchhh. Scccrrriiiittchhh. It continued, louder than before. A low moan escaped his lips.
“Not again, never…….” Ralph cried. He flung the covers over his head.
The stairs creaked…….
The End ?
Credit To – pdfletcher