By Jess Charle
In the fall of my ninth birthday, my family moved from a small two-bedroom apartment to a six-bedroom farmhouse. We hadn’t lived in a city necessarily, more like a big town, but compared to the country surrounding the farmhouse, it might as well have been New York City. The house wasn’t exactly in the best shape: shingles hung loosely from the roof like crooked teeth, the shutters were missing several grey – once black – slats, and the red paint on the vinyl siding was being eaten away by age and disrepair.
Despite my parents referring to the house as a farmhouse my whole life, I’ve realized as an adult that the building is surprisingly modern for the year it was built. Having stood at least through the seventies if not before, the house’s roof slanted at a gradual angle from the left, only a few feet above the ground, towards the right side of the house, which ended in a curved wall stretching high, probably fifty or so feet into the air. While the left side was made up of edges and planes, the curved right wall, laced with bay windows topped with abstract stained glass, softened the angles of the house. The curved wall ended in a steepled tower sticking out from the roof. A small window was recessed into the tower, and my heart fluttered with excitement the first time I saw it. I knew, before stepping foot into our new home, that that room would be mine.
Mom explained that we moved into the farmhouse for my dad because the house came with a large barn. Construction-site supervisor by day, woodworker by night, my dad’s dream had always been to have his own workshop and make woodworking his full-time job. When we didn’t have the space, woodworking was just a passion, a well-loved hobby that took my dad across the river to a mill-turned-studio-space a few nights a week. We had only lived in the farmhouse for a few months before the barn had been transformed into a woodworker’s paradise.
Compared to our apartment, the farmhouse was ginormous. The first floor consisted of a kitchen, pantry, living room, dining room, and a sun room off the back. I did not spend much time on that floor the first day. Instead, I spent the first hour drifting frantically from one bedroom to the next, searching for the room which was to become my own.
The second floor of the house was half open space, and half bedrooms. The hallway, instead of lined with two walls, was lined with doors to the rooms on one side, and a railing overlooking the living room on the other. Standing at the railing gave you an all encompassing view of the living room, while the slanted roof of the first and second floor hung low over your head.
I ran from room to room in glee, standing in the middle of each, inhaling the dusty air deeply, then running out in a burst of excitement to see the next. None of the four rooms on the second floor were satisfactory, so I ran up the creaking wooden steps to the third floor. The third floor was smaller than the second floor, the ceiling cutting into it so that it only took up half the width of the house. I explored the two large rooms set on opposite sides of the hall, identical to each other, both dirty with disuse. I left the twin rooms in haste, knowing that I had been prolonging the discovery of my bedroom, drawing out the inevitable exploration of the tower.
My expedition brought me to the far side of the thin hallway, which ended in a small white door. I opened it without caution, and was rewarded with a narrow staircase. Thick layers of cobwebs traced the corners of the stairs, worn from footfalls over the years which had created shallow divots in the middle of each step.
My enthusiasm waned as I looked up into the darkness, which was complete and suffocating. I searched the wall beside me for a light switch, but there was none. I steadied myself, and took one hesitant step up into the black.
The steps groaned beneath my weight as I took each with a deliberate determination. My vision began to fade into shadow, but as I crept to the top of the stairs, I noticed a slight light coming from my right. Soon, I lifted my foot and almost fell with surprise at the lack of another step: I was at the top.
I turned to the square source of light – a window – and walked towards it. As I approached I realized that there were small shutters blocking the light, locked in place by a small silver hook. I lifted the hook and threw the shutters back with a bang much louder than expected. The fourth floor of the farmhouse was suddenly bathed in muted sunlight coming from the grimey panes of the window.
I was standing in the interior of the tower. The room was small: about 10 feet across in either direction. The walls were entirely round, surrounding me in an almost perfect circle: on one side of the stairs the wall was cut short by about three feet of brick wall that jutted out into the space. The brick continued up past the ceiling – the chimney, I realized. I walked towards it and looked down the stairs from where I had come, now illuminated faintly. There was a small ledge, about three feet high, two feet wide, and two feet across cut into the wall between the outside and the stairs to the tower. The ledge was blocked partially by the wooden railing.
Small, dingy, and lacking light, my heart fluttered with the tickle of love at first sight. I ran down the stairs, skipping steps all together in my excitement to tell my mom and dad that I had found my new bedroom.
Within a week, my tower had been cleaned and my mom had painted the walls a dark blue. Small white circles dotted the ceiling, making up constellations of stars for me to look at every night and memorize. We hung white Christmas lights to give my dark room a warm glow. The back of my white metal bed frame rested against the brick chimney, which allowed my bed to be flat against the otherwise curved wall. I filled the nook in the staircase with stuffed animals and action figures. A tall bookcase and dresser along with a small desk and chair completed the room.
I remember snuggling between the fresh sheets, perfectly at peace with my new home. As I drifted to sleep, I heard a small rustling noise coming from the chimney behind me.
As November descended on the farmhouse, a cold draft began to manifest against the thin walls, tendrils of the wintry chill outside sneaky soundlessly towards the warm insides of the house. On the first frigid night, Dad tried to light a fire in the living room fireplace. The flames grew quickly, reaching high into the chimney as the downstairs quickly filled with a noxious black cloud. Mom threw every window open wide as my dad took me out onto the front yard and then ran back in. The image of black smoke pouring from the windows of the farmhouse – slowly being repaired and repainted, but still looking old and worn – was terrifying yet beautiful. The black smoke looked evil and dangerous, but the contrast of it against the red and flaking walls of the house was striking, leaving a lasting impression on my young mind.
My parents soon got the fire and smoke under control and I was lead back into the house, which now smelled like burnt toast.
“Chimney must be blocked.” My dad said matter-of-factly. “I’ll have to clean it out.”
“Or pay an expert to do it.” My mom suggested. My dad shrugged at her.
The next day small electric heaters appeared around the house.
But the fire had stirred something inside the chimney. The small rustling I heard at night grew louder, almost as if distressed. I was unnerved by the sound, but I restrained myself from running to my parents’ room. My dad had warned me that I was getting too old to sleep with them. I wanted to prove to him that I was a big boy, that I could sleep in my own room. But the noise was chilling, like the rustling of paper. Chittering and skittering, the sound of a muffled maraca. It was simultaneously comforting and disturbing. On one hand, it sounded like the rainstick Mrs. Paxon, my teacher, had brought into class once. She turned it one way and then the other, the cooling hiss of sand running over nails and wood, creating ghostly tingles at the back of my neck. But it was also menacing, like a stampede in the distance, the combined force of hundreds of animals, unaware of the damage caused by the combined power of their hooved feet.
One Saturday morning, over pancakes with maple syrup and thick strips of fatty bacon, I told my father that there was a ghost living in the chimney and I could hear him moving at night.
His laugh was hearty and warm, “It’s probably just mice,” he said over mouthfuls of sticky pancake, “I bet their nest is what’s blocking the damn chimney.”
I shook my head stubbornly. When we had first moved in, there were mice in the barn. Dad bought traps and I cried because he was going to kill them. He ended up buying non-lethal mouse traps and releasing the ones he caught far from the house. But in the process, I had learned what mice sound like, and whatever was in the chimney was not mice.
“There’s no squeaking. And it sounds like a lot of something. If it is mice, there must be hundreds!” I exclaimed dramatically.
My father laughed again. “Alright, alright. Calm yourself, Jacob. I’ll check after breakfast.”
Once the pancakes and bacon had been eaten and the coffee and orange juice finished, my dad and I went to the fireplace. Dad knelt down on his knees, and shone a flashlight up towards the top of the chimney. He moved the beam of light this way and that, his eyes squinting.
“There’s definitely something up there.” He craned his neck further. “What the…” he said as his light caught the culprit.
Suddenly, my father jumped backwards, banging his head hard against the brick opening. “Ah, fuck!” He cried, falling onto the living room floor. I stepped back in surprise: my father never swore. “Jesus fucking Christ!” He yelled, scooting away from the fireplace in absolute horror.
My mom ran in from the kitchen, “what is it? What’s wrong?” She asked, her face strained with worry.
Dad stood up, roughly wiping at his sleeves and front, as if rubbing burning embers from his shirt. “What the fucking fuck!”
“Mark!” My mother scolded, worry turning into displeasure.
He looked up at her, his teeth bared. “Goddamn spiders!” He seethed, “the bloody chimney is full of them!”
They stared at each other, my mom’s mouth slightly agape, my father’s body rising and falling with his angry breath.
The silence was broken with my mother’s warm laughter.
“Dammit Margaret! This isn’t funny!” My dad said, which made my mother laugh even harder. She bent over herself, clutching her stomach. Wiping tears from her eyes, her laughter finally settled, and she looked up at my dad. Two hundred and twenty pounds of muscle and bone, hard work and calluses. Brine, vinegar, and salt.
That was the day I discovered the only things my father feared were losing me and my mother, and spiders.
“Want me to squash them for you?” My mother chided.
“It’s not funny,” my father said, a small tone of embarrassment in his voice, “these bastards are huge. Wolf spiders probably.” He shivered and my mom smiled at him as she rubbed him arm tenderly.
“We’ll call someone in to take care of them.”
“We don’t have the money.” My father said in a hushed tone.
“Well,” my mother said, her voice loud as if to compensate for his whisper “in the meantime, they haven’t done anything to us yet other than block our chimney, so I think we’ll survive for another week or so until we’ve got the funds.” She wrapped an arm around my father, his pride wounded. “And please stop swearing in front of Jacob.”
Dad grunted at her as he stared threateningly at a floorboard, as if it had personally affronted him.
A few weeks later and the spiders remained in our chimney. Dad didn’t seem to be selling his woodwork as much as he thought he would, and because all the construction sites were closed until the snow cleared, he couldn’t get another job in the meantime. Mom was working extra shifts at the hospital, but still the spiders stayed. Unwanted roommates we couldn’t kick out. But I guess it had been their house first.
At night, I’d hear their hairy paws scuttering across the bare bricks by my head and I’d hug my teddy bear tight. Dad had gone from the first floor to my tower, filling any holes in the bricks with foam insulation to keep them contained.
We’d often forget about our creepy housemates however, and in those moments the place felt warm and loving. Dad had gotten the oil heater in the basement running again and so dry heat emanated from the radiators throughout the house. Mom fixed up two of the rooms as guest rooms for when family and friends visited, one as a playroom for me, and the last room as a computer room. The old and forgotten house quickly morphed into an inviting home.
Our first Christmas in the farmhouse was an exciting one. Mom had gone all out decorating the house: lighted pine garlands hung from every railing and mantle, lined with candy canes, red and green striped stockings hung above the fireplace, candles sat in every one of the many windows, and our Christmas tree towered in the open living room, only a foot away from the ceiling that stretched over the first and second floors.
I curled up into bed on Christmas Eve, my skin crackling with the excitement of the coming day.
I awoke suddenly. The room was dark, but moonlight streamed through the small window across from me, illuminating everything with a silver glow. My heart was racing and I could hear my blood flowing through my veins, filling my ears with a low rumble.
Something had woken me up. Something wrong.
My body was stiff with fear as I strained my ears, trying to hear what had waken me.
“Ho… ho… ho….” A voice creaked.
I no longer believed in Santa, but even if I did, I knew that voice was wrong. It was not the voice of a friend. It was the voice of an intruder, dry and cracked. A voice echoing through forgotten crevices, etched with time and hate.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The voice creaked again, this time louder, closer to my face.
My heart stopped, the breath I had been taking catching in my throat.
“Ho… ho… ho…” With a boom, my heart pounded, once, loudly and I had to stifle a cry. The voice was coming from inside the chimney. I hugged my bear to my chest, pursing my lips tight together to prevent my whimpering from escaping my mouth.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The voice said again, this time below my bed. Whatever it was, it was moving downwards.
I sat up slowly, still clinging my teddy bear, and softly placed my feet beside my bed. I stood.
“Ho… ho… ho…” It was even fainter now.
As quietly as I could, I padded down the stairs. I was beginning to know those steps. To know where the sensitive spots were that would scream if you stepped on them. My socked feet traced the edges, making only the softest murmur against the wood.
At the third floor, I stood in the doorway of the computer room below my tower and listened.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The voice was getting louder. Not closer, but louder, as if the one emitting it was getting more invested in the holiday spirit.
I followed it down to the first floor. The door to my parent’s bedroom opened with a small creak and I jumped. My father’s concerned face appeared. He looked down, saw me, and stepped out, placing a protective hand on my shoulder. In his other hand was his shotgun.
I had seen the shotgun for the first time a few months beforehand, during fall when my father set out to hunt our Thanksgiving turkey. It was a yearly tradition, but before the farmhouse, the gun would remain locked in dad’s studio. Now it lived in a locked box at the top of my parents’ bedroom closet.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The raspy voice grated through the air sending chills down my spine.
Dad looked down and placed a finger to his lip in a gesture of silence. I nodded. He turned away from me and we both traced the stairs to the ground floor, my confidence rising with the presence of my father and his gun to protect me.
We followed the voice down to the living room, which glowed with the soft lights hanging from the Christmas tree.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The voice trickled through the opening of the fireplace, echoing along the brick walls, magnifying till it reached out towards us, grasping for us, my father towering in the middle of the room and I cowering behind the couch, peeking over the back.
A black shape slowly emerged from the fireplace. My dad raised the shotgun to his shoulder. The shape came forward, reaching out, and then landed on the wooden floor with a soft click.
We stared at the shape, unable to recognize it. It was thick and long, jointed and knobby like a stick, but the surface was smooth and shiney and black. It stretched out into the living room, but the other end was still unseen, hidden deep inside the chimney. Whatever we were seeing was only part of it.
“Ho… ho… ho…” The voice was almost upon us, hanging heavy in the air like a thick fog. I shuddered with the cold that emanated from the fireplace. From the thing inside.
Another black shape, identical to the first, slithered out. My father took a step back, his gun swinging from one to the other.
A black mass lowered down from the chimney, so large it completely filled the fireplace. It was a dark so black, so deep that it seemed like we were staring at nothing at all.
The first shiny black shape rose into the air and landed a foot in front of where it had been, the other following, the black mass growing, as if being pulled forward. Another two of the shapes emerged from the fireplace to join their brother.
Legs. They were legs, I realized. A scream caught in my throat.
My father seemed to realize as well, for he ran to the couch, grabbed me, and pushed me to the stairs.
“Run. Go to your mother.” He said. He turned without checking that I obeyed his orders, and lifted the gun again.
I ran up the stairs, looking behind me as I did. The black mass flowed from the fireplace like thick molten lavas, growing slowly but containing the power to destroy anything in its path. I turned the corner of the stairs, reached the top, and ran to the railing overlooking the living room.
The mass slid out completely, followed by another large shadow being vomited forth from our hearth. Two more legs appeared, and then the rest of the beast fell and rose, no longer constrained by its brick prison.
A giant monster, deformed into a grotesque mimicry of a spider, towered over my father. It’s abdomen the size of a large dog, covered in coarse hair, red like old rust. Two pointed needles stuck out from the bottom, snow white strings coming out from between them. The spider’s spinnerets pulsed as the string slackened slightly. The threads of silk gooey, like a melted marshmallow pulled apart, stretching and sticking to everything as the creature stepped forward.
The front section, the cephalothorax, hung in front of the large round abdomen, like it does for a black widow. But it was not the rounded square of a normal spider. Instead, the flat body was replaced with the torso of a very obese man. Shirtless, it’s thick gut hung over the top of its abdomen. What I could see of the chest was covered in rough white hair, thick and curly, coiled tightly against the pale skin, which was littered with brown moles. Two pink nipples, chapped and turning white around the edges, stuck out from the fur. The bulging chest was framed by thick arms, bulking with muscle and fat, the skin hanging loosely, thin and puckered like crepe paper.
At the top of the torso was the head of a man. Or, at least something man-like. The skin was moist and dewy, it’s rounded cheeks blotchy with red stains. Around its nose were the red and purple lines of broken blood vessels, intersecting with each other like the highways on a map. A heavy long beard fell from its chin, a mix of white hair greyed with age and unwash, stained on the edges with black soot. It landed on the floor, twisting around itself.
White matted hair flowed from the top of its head and hung loosely around its shoulders. Clay, mud, and dirt caked around the edges. Two large pupil-less eyes sat in the center of its round face, staring down at my father. Four smaller eyes rested beneath those like still pools of dark water. Two more were inlaid into its temples, one of which, I realized, my bladder emptying itself in utter horror, was looking right a me. All eight eyes were pitch black and glistening with wetness, the reflections of the Christmas tree lights making them glint viciously. Warm liquid ran down my inner thigh, the stream finding its way into the band of my wool socks. I could smell the hot scent of urine rising around me.
Drool fell from two large pinchers set into the massive jaw of the beast. The fangs were inverted triangles, coming to a thin point like a tiger’s claw. They were surrounded at the base with the same coarse hair that covered the abdomen, but this hair was shorter and thicker. The muscles at the base of each fang convulsed and twitched separately from each other, the pinchers moving out of sync. Large clear droplets formed and fell.
The creature straightened its legs, raising into the air, it’s head brushing against the top of the ceiling.
“Ho… ho… ho…” It cried, its humanesque voice filling the large space. It’s head was level with mine as I stood in shock on the first floor landing.
There was a high pitched scream, and I looked to see my mother standing in the doorway of the bedroom she shared with my father.
It turned its head and looked at her. I could smell decay and blood heavy on its breath.
She screamed again.
Its face came towards her, and I heard a shot. The room illuminated with a sharp flash of light, and the beast erupted in a scream, the noise, like the bow of a violin being dragged roughly the wrong way against the waxed strings. It whipped its head towards dad, lowering its shoulders so that its eyes were in line with his. A black leg struck out with lightning speed and my father hit the wall behind him with a crack and a thud. He fell limply to the floor, his gun hitting the wood with a hollow thunk beside him.
I looked at my mother, who stood there in shock, shaking.
“Run!” I screamed, moving towards her. I grabbed her arm as I passed, and she followed me easily as if she had lost all agency. We ran up the stairs. My shoulder slammed hard into a wall as I turned sharply around the corner, pushing myself and my mother forward onto the third floor.
Hot pain radiated through my arm as I heard the procession of spindly legs on the landing below us. We raced towards my open bedroom door. As we approached, I turned to look behind me and saw the creature’s head emerge from the other stairway. I hesitated, drawn by the hideousness and monstrosity of the thing pulling its body – something that shouldn’t exist in this world – towards us.
My mom had regained her senses and began pulling me up. I followed, tears clouding my sight, and ran into my mother’s side as she stopped. I looked up at her and she picked me up, shoving me against something soft. I blinked tears away and was faced with a stuffed elephant. I was being pushed into the nook between the wall and the stairs. I understood and began to climb over my toys. When I reached the wall, cold from the winter night beyond it, I turned and, with my mom’s help, arranged the toys so they covered me as much as possible.
I saw her run up the remaining stairs, and heard metal hitting wood with a loud bang.
To my right was the noise of struggling and wood snapping. I held my breath. My view was soon eclipsed by something large and black. I strained to keep from screaming as I saw the white flesh of its humanoid shoulders only inches from my face.
My mom screamed and I heard something bounce off the beast with a bodily thud and land on my floor with a crash.
The creature screamed and I saw its abdomen lunged forward past my hiding spot, a red blur.
Suddenly, the room was illuminated with a flash and my ears rang. I was dazed. The world around me had grown silent, my hearing muted as if with cotton. I saw a white t-shirt emerge, cut off by the railing in front of my face. I soon recognized the shape as my father.
I waited, but the room was still. My hearing slowly came back, like a lens coming into focus, and I could hear my mother crying softly. My father’s heavy footsteps rang out as he walked the rest of the way up to my room.
“Where’s Jacob?” He asked, his voice flat.
I scooted out from my nook, animals and toys falling to the stairs clumsily.
“Dad?” My voice was small, smaller than I had ever heard it.
My father turned towards me, his face and shirt wet with a viscous blue liquid. My mother stepped out from behind my overturned bed. I climbed the remaining stairs to the tower floor and my father picked me up into a sticky hug. My mom walked to us and encircled both of us in an embrace. We shook where we stood, heavy blood covering every surface, my mom’s soft crying filling the empty silence.
I took a warm bath while my father and mother cleaned up the mess. I don’t know what they did with that thing’s body. Knowing my father, he probably took an axe to it and brought it, piece by piece, into the woods.
After my bath, my mother, now wearing jeans and a t-shirt, her hair tied loosely into a ponytail high on her head as if in the middle of spring cleaning, tucked me into her and my father’s queen bed, still clean and dry, and kissed me on the forehead.
We never talked about that night again. For most of my life, I had thought it had been a horrible nightmare.
Life in the farmhouse after that was uneventful. Every year, dad called an exterminator to come to the house and spray, paying careful attention to the chimney. My dad tried to get the chimney cleaned out so we could use the fireplace, but no matter what we did or how many professionals we called, fires would turn to black smoke, filling the house once again with the scent of burnt toast.
I’m in college now. Last year, like most of my peers, I went back home for Christmas. My childhood bed has since been replaced with a more comfortable full-size bed, but otherwise the room is pretty much how it was when I was a child, plus a few band posters and minus a lot of toys. I still keep my teddy bear however, in a special spot on my bookcase, and I still fall asleep staring up at the painted stars I have long since memorized.
The rest of the house, however, has been upgraded. With the fad of artisan crafted furniture, my dad’s woodworking has become a hot commodity. He’s even had a few celebrity clients. My parents have completely replaced all the old appliances with fancy high-tech gadgets. Both the roof and the red vinyl siding have been taken apart and completely replaced. The only thing that remains untouched is the old brick chimney.
The first night I was back, I woke up suddenly, as if from a nightmare. The red numbers on the clock beside my face read 3:00 AM.
My blood went cold as I heard a rustling beside my head and a soft echo of “ho… ho… ho…”
I closed my eyes tight, and waited. But nothing happened. Eventually I fell back asleep.
This year, I’m a sophomore, living in an apartment off campus with some friends. I invited my parents to spend Christmas with me here, since my roommates will be away. I’ve cleaned up all the empties and thrown away the old pizza boxes, and while it might not be the flashiest of Christmases – my decorating skills pale compared to my mother’s – at least we’ll be safe.