I’ve always adored the month of September, especially here in Michigan. The seasons begin to shift into Fall and the temperature is finally bearable again. September nights are my favorite. Or at least, they used to be. This year has been different. I only hope all of my future Septembers aren’t tainted with the memories of recent unfortunate events that my family and I were exposed to this year. I’m still trying to process everything. It all happened so fast.
Everything started on September 1. With the new month came a new school year. This was the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that my kids would be back in the classroom with their teachers instead of learning everything through a screen. They were ecstatic, and so was I. It took everything in me not to shove them out the door and lock it behind them the moment I saw the school bus pull up at the end of our street. I couldn’t wait to have some alone time after a year and a half of constantly being around them. I had lost my job due to the pandemic, and with their schools being closed, we were stuck at home with each other for the majority of that time. We all desperately needed a break from each other. Despite being stuck at home constantly, we never had any strange occurrences within our home. Matter of fact, we never had any issues during the entire 10 years that my family and I had lived here. Like I said, all of that changed on September 1.
It was the kid’s first day of school, and I was still adjusting to the peacefulness of an empty, quiet home during the day. On that particular morning, I had been sitting in the kitchen with my laptop, putting in applications for the jobs I’d had my eye on. My progress was rudely interrupted when I heard the side door open and close, as if someone had just come in. I checked the clock and it was only 11:30 in the morning. It was too early for either of the kids to be home.
“Hello?” I called while looking at the school calendar on the fridge to make sure I wasn’t mistaken and that it hadn’t been a half day.
“Hello?” I repeated after receiving no answer the first time.
Irritated, I walked to the staircase down the hall and glanced up to the second floor. I didn’t see anyone. I checked the side door and found it was locked, just as I had left it earlier that morning. I noticed three of the four sets of house keys were still hanging on the hook by the door, which meant that my husband was the only one who remembered to take his keys with him that morning. That meant, even if the kids did come home early and were dropped off by my husband, they still wouldn’t have been able to just walk into the house without me letting them in.
Confused, I opened the side door and looked out. My husband’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, so it wasn’t him coming home for lunch, either. It had been raining earlier that morning and puddles of water had accumulated on the lawn as well as the sidewalk leading to the door. My family had a bad habit of not wiping their feet, so if any of them were in the house, I definitely would have seen wet footprints of some kind within the entrance. I double checked the floor all around me, but still couldn’t find any.
“Maybe it was a neighbor’s door that I heard and thought it was mine,” I said aloud to the empty house. “I’m just hypersensitive to sound because I’m not used to the house being so quiet now,” I said to no one. Hearing my own voice was oddly comforting.
I stood in the hallway for a moment and listened, just to make sure I didn’t hear anything else. Then I went to the bathroom and washed my face. By the time I was done, I had successfully talked myself out of what I thought I had heard. I was feeling much better until I was about to leave the bathroom. As soon as I put my hand on the doorknob, I heard a loud crash in the kitchen.
I grabbed my phone out of my back pocket, dialed 911, and held my thumb over the call button, just in case I needed to use it. I panicked and grabbed the toilet plunger with my other hand. Not that I could do much damage to an imposter with it, but I found comfort in knowing that if they tried anything, I could at least rub the residual shit particles from the plunger onto their face before making a desperate run for it.
I tiptoed down the hallway, holding the plunger like a sword in front of me the entire time. I slowly made my way to the kitchen doorway and peered into the room. Of course, there was no one there. However, there was a new mess for me to clean up on the floor. The giant sunflower that my son had brought home for me the day before had fallen off the counter, taking its disproportionate vase with it.
“Oh, damn it!” I yelled as I threw the plunger back down the hallway toward the bathroom. “Mrs. Nelson gave me that, it was my favorite vase!”
After sweeping the kitchen floor three times, I was still finding tiny little shards of glass everywhere. Finally, I gave up and simply texted my family, warning them not to go into the kitchen without shoes on until I could properly clean the floors. I decided I didn’t want to be in the house alone anymore, so I drove to the library to continue filling out job applications in peace. I stayed there until it was time for the kids to come home from school.
I didn’t tell my husband about either of the occurrences that happened that morning, because at the time, I didn’t think very much of them. I also didn’t want my husband to make fun of me for having counted down the days until the kids went back to school and I could be alone, only to jump at every little thing when I finally was alone. I didn’t realize how these seemingly little things would eventually build up to something bigger than any of us could’ve ever imagined over the week that followed.
I slept poorly that night. The following morning was rough; it took all I had to drag myself out of bed and get the kids ready for school. Once the house was empty again, I resumed my position at the kitchen table with my laptop, applying for jobs in town.
I was on my third cup of coffee, but I still couldn’t focus. I kept zoning out and always found myself staring at the hallway, just outside of the kitchen door. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear I thought I kept seeing a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Eventually, I had to get up and close the kitchen door to prevent myself from being further distracted.
An hour and a half had passed since everyone had left the house and I still hadn’t finished my first job application of the day. I couldn’t figure out what the hell my problem was, so I finally gave up and turned off the computer.
“I think I need a nap,” I mumbled to myself before yawning and reaching for my now-empty coffee cup. “This is ridiculous. How am I still so exhausted after three cups of coffee?” I was in the middle of rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands when I heard a noise coming from the hallway on the other side of the kitchen door. It sounded like the floorboards were creaking, as if under the weight of cautious footsteps.
The three cups of coffee might not have done the trick, but hearing that sure did! I suddenly felt wide awake. Accompanied by an instant adrenaline rush, I ran over to the kitchen sink and grabbed a knife out of the drawer. The creaking continued and sounded as though the footsteps were receding down the hallway behind the closed door. Terrified, I grabbed my phone and called my husband. There was no way I was imagining these sounds today. Someone was definitely in the house this time, and I wasn’t going to go investigate the situation on my own.
“Hi, my baby!” John answered in his usual cheerful tone. “What’s up?”
“Is there any way you can take your lunch right now and come back to the house?”
“Woah.” He instantly picked up on the panic in my voice and I heard the sound of his car keys jingling in the background. “Yeah, I’m on my way right now. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know, I think there might be someone in the house,” I whispered as I quickly made my way to the side door and stepped out onto the driveway.
“What? Did you see someone? Where are you in the house?”
“No, I heard something. Sounded like footsteps in the hallway outside of the kitchen. I’m not in the house anymore, I just snuck out the side door. Hold on—” I didn’t have my car keys with me, so I tucked my phone into my pocket and ran down the driveway toward the street. I then turned left and ran away from the house as fast as I could. I could hear my husband yelling to me through the phone.
“Okay, I’m sorry.” I gasped for air between my sentences, “I’m at the park at the end of our street. I just wanted to get out of there.”
“Oh, thank God! You scared the shit outta me! All I heard on your end was loud rustling and heavy breathing. I thought something happened to you!”
“No, I’m sorry. I put the phone in my hoodie pocket and made a run for it.”
“Okay… I’m glad you’re safe. I’m a few blocks away from the park, I’ll meet you there in two minutes and pick you up.”
“Okay. Do you think we should call the police?”
“I mean,” John hesitated, “I have Josh’s baseball bat in the back, with the rest of his gear. You didn’t actually see anything, you just heard something, right?”
“I mean, I guess, but—”
“I can go in and see what’s going on,” John interrupted. “It could be nothing. I don’t want to make a bigger scene than we have to.”
“Fine,” I looked down at the knife that I had forgotten was in my hand, “I have a knife with me, too, so I will come with you.”
I chuckled, “Yeah, I grabbed a huge knife from the kitchen as soon as I heard the footsteps in the hallway, then I ran out the door.”
“Oh, I bet that was a sight to see! You, sprinting down the street in your slippers, with a knife. What will the neighbors think?”
We both laughed. Of course he knew I would still be in my pajamas.
“Wait, you said you heard footsteps in the hallway, right?”
“Yeah, at least, it sounded like footsteps.” I was beginning to second guess myself.
“Okay, I’m here,” he said, before hanging up. I turned my head and watched him pull up to the curb by the picnic table where I was sitting. He laughed again at the sight of me in my pajamas with the kitchen knife.
“Thank you for getting here so fast,” I said, climbing into the passenger side of his truck.
“I gotta tell you, you are a sight for sore eyes,” he said, kissing my hand after taking the knife from it.
“How are you gonna flirt with me while we have a potential serial killer lurking in our home down the street?”
“Oh, right.” He laughed, “I forgot, I’m here to save the day.”
We drove back home, pulling right into our driveway. Before I could complain about my husband’s inability to even try to be discreet, he was already out of the truck and headed toward the house with our son’s baseball bat over his shoulder.
“Wait for me!” I hissed out the window while still struggling to get my seatbelt off. I reached for my kitchen knife that I had brought with me but couldn’t find it anywhere. That was when I realized John had taken it, as he didn’t want me to come into the house with him. He knew I wouldn’t go back in unarmed.
“Damn it, John,” I mumbled as I reached over and locked all the doors to the truck so no one could get in. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the call button, just like yesterday. I told myself that if I didn’t see him within the next two minutes, I was going to call the police.
John popped his head out of the side door about a minute later. “All clear!” he yelled while gesturing for me to come inside with the hand that wasn’t holding the baseball bat.
“Don’t ever do that to me again!” I yelled as I climbed out of the truck and ran over to him. “Are you sure? That was really quick, how could you have possibly checked the whole house?”
“Adrenaline is a hell of a thing,” he laughed. “I ran all through the house, ready to do some damage to the face of whoever shouldn’t be in here, but I found nothing. There was no one.”
I sighed. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed.
“Sorry, Jess. I know you were really scared, but I didn’t find any footsteps or anything else. I’m not saying there wasn’t someone here earlier, but—”
“There truly might not have been anyone here earlier,” I admitted, rubbing my eyes with the sleeves of my hoodie. “I’m exhausted. I couldn’t really sleep last night. I might have just made something out of nothing and assumed the worst. I’m not used to the house being so empty and quiet after the last year and a half of chaos. I guess I just—”
“You don’t have to explain, I completely understand.” He put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug I hadn’t realized I desperately needed. “Do you want me to stay home with you for the rest of the day, just to make sure?”
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” I mumbled into his shirt before finally pulling away from him. “I will be just fine. But I would appreciate it if you would walk around the house with me one more time, just to be safe, and maybe help me check all the windows and doors to make sure they’re locked before you head back.”
“Yeah, of course.”
We spent the next 10 minutes doing just that. It didn’t really come as a surprise to either of us when we discovered that everything was already locked and there was still no one to be found. I apologized to my husband for overreacting, kissed him goodbye, and locked the door behind him. I then went straight upstairs and collapsed into our bed for a much-needed nap. My eyes hadn’t been closed for more than 15 minutes when I was rudely awakened to a strange sound coming from down the hallway. It almost sounded like loud static coming from a TV in one of the kid’s rooms.
“Oh, what now?” I whined as I flung the blankets off me and dragged myself out of bed. This time, I was more irritated than I was scared. I knew John and I had just checked the entire house before he left, so I wasn’t in any danger.
I headed down the hallway, toward my daughter’s room to see what the sound was but realized it was actually coming from the bathroom around the corner. The same bathroom my husband and I had just checked 20 minutes earlier. Except now, the door was closed. We never closed the door to the bathroom unless it was in use. I reached for my phone to call my husband and double check to see if he had closed the door before leaving but realized my phone was still on the nightstand next to our bed all the way down the hall.
“Stop being a chicken shit,” I whispered to myself while cautiously reaching for the doorknob. I took a dramatically deep breath and held it before swinging the bathroom door open and peering inside. I was surprised to find that the shower was running, full blast, with no one inside. The shower curtain was wide open and the steam had already started filling up the room.
“What the hell?” I ran over to the shower and turned it off. It was only the hot water that had been turned on. The shower knob had been turned so tightly to the left that I had to use both hands to turn it off. I grabbed a towel from the cabinet by the sink to dry the water spillage off of the floor but froze as soon as I passed the bathroom mirror.
There, written in the accumulated moisture on the glass, was an arrow. The arrow appeared to have been drawn by a clumsy fingertip, and it was pointing back in the direction of the shower. Water was dripping down the mirror from the arrow, as if it had been freshly drawn. Panicked, I dropped the towel and ran out of the bathroom. I ran down the hall, grabbed my phone off the nightstand, and was out of the house and in my car before I even had time to process what I had just seen. I drove back to the park at the end of the street, sat in my car, and cried until it was time for the kids to come home.
When the kids asked me why my eyes looked all puffy like I had been crying, I lied and told them that I was experiencing seasonal allergies extra hard this year. One blessing about having self-centered, young teenagers is that they don’t really ask too many questions about the things that don’t directly affect them. They shrugged at my explanation, grabbed some snacks from the kitchen, and planted themselves in their usual spots on the couch in front of Netflix. Normally, I would have asked them how their day was or if they had any homework, but I didn’t have the energy. Instead, I grabbed a cool rag, reclined in the chair next to the couch, and put it on my eyes to reduce the puffiness. My kids may have been easily fooled, but I knew my husband wouldn’t be.
I meant to tell John about my strange experience with the upstairs bathroom, but he came home in a bad mood from work that day. I didn’t want to add to his plate, especially since I had already stressed him out earlier by thinking someone had broken into our home. I didn’t want to tell him about the other things that happened, because saying them aloud would make them real. So, I spent the majority of the evening telling myself that I didn’t actually see what I saw. I convinced myself that I was still groggy from my interrupted attempt of a nap and was just exhausted and seeing things. That was an easier pill to swallow than the fact that I may have potentially been losing my mind.
Despite my recent sleep deprivation, I still couldn’t sleep that night. Not for a lack of trying. As I got comfortable and closed my eyes, I was beckoned to my bedroom window by a light that turned on outside. I removed my sleeping husband’s arm from around my waist and crossed the room to open the curtains and see what it was. As soon as I got to the window, the light turned off. Then back on, then off again. I realized it was the light by the side door. I needed to go take care of it before it woke Mrs. Nelson next door.
Annoyed, I tiptoed out of the room and down the stairs. I turned all of the lights on along the way, because I wasn’t taking any chances. I peered out the window by the side door and saw nothing more than a calm September night and a flickering lightbulb. I checked the light switch, but it was turned off. So, I flicked it on and off a few times to see if it would help. Of course, it did nothing, and I could only assume there was some kind of a wiring problem. I sighed, unlocked the side door, and opened it. I stared out the screen door for a moment before opening it and stepping outside. I grabbed a milkcrate from by the side of the house and stepped up on it so I could reach the light bulb. I tightened it the best I could, but it continued flickering. So, I just unscrewed it and decided I would let my husband figure it out later. As I moved the milk crate back by the side of the house, I was hit with a sudden wave of anxiety. I had this overwhelming sense of being watched.
I kept my back to the yard and hurried into the house. As soon as I stepped inside, I heard a strange noise coming from the other side of the fence in Mrs. Nelson’s yard behind me. It sounded like twigs snapping, followed by a groan, or a vocalization of some kind of animal. I didn’t turn around to see what it was. I simply shut the door and locked it behind me, then headed to the kitchen to throw away the lightbulb.
I grabbed a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table. I hated how jumpy I was becoming and how frightened I would become over every stupid little thing lately. After I finished my water, I went into the living room to lay on the couch and watch Netflix, because I didn’t think I would be able to sleep after that. I was wrong.
I fell asleep on the couch almost instantly and slept well through the next morning. When I finally woke up, it was past 11:30, and I was confused to find myself still in the living room. When I checked my phone, there was a text from my husband explaining how he was concerned to find me on the couch that morning, but didn’t want himself or the kids to wake me because he knew I had been stressed and sleep deprived lately.
While I did feel much better after finally getting some sleep, I felt instant dread when I realized I was alone in the house again. So, I got up, made myself a cup of coffee, and sat outside on the porch with it. For the first time that week, I was actually enjoying my alone time. It was a beautiful day, and the sun was shining at the perfect angle through the tree in our front yard, illuminating the one branch of leaves that was beginning to change colors. I couldn’t wait for Fall to make its full entrance.
Then a strong gust of wind blew in and my entire mood shifted. Along with the breeze, I was instantly hit with a horrid stench that was so strong I choked on my sip of coffee and had to spit it out over the railing.
“Oh my god, what is that?” I asked myself, covering my nose with the sleeve of my sweater. I glanced around the front yard, then out at the street. I noticed how all of the neighbor’s trash cans were neatly lined up along the curb—everyone’s except for ours. “Oh, damn it! We must have forgotten to take ours out last night!” I said, as I ran off the porch and around the side of the house to grab them.
I was greeted by the smell of rotten garbage as I approached the cans. It was awful. So, I wheeled them in front of the house and placed them against the curb. When I did, I realized Mrs. Nelson hadn’t taken her garbage out, either. I thought about doing it for her but realized I had gotten something on the front of my sweater as I was moving ours, so I ran in the house to change instead.
The rest of the day was uneventful, as I spent the majority of it running around town, grocery shopping and taking care of errands before everyone got home. The busyness of the day was a welcomed distraction from the strange things that had happened at home throughout the previous few days, and I was beginning to feel normal again. Unfortunately, the absurdity resumed later that night.
It was a little after midnight and I was lying in bed next to my husband, reading my phone. I was getting sleepy and about to close my eyes when I heard screams coming from down the hallway. I jumped out of bed and ran toward the noise. John followed me into our daughter’s room, where she was still screaming.
“What the hell?” he said, turning on the lights.
There in bed, our daughter was lying with her eyes still closed, on her back, screaming and shaking her head violently.
“What is it, Maya?” I yelled, running over to her bed and shaking her by the shoulders.
“Maya, wake up! You’re dreaming!” John said while clapping his hands in front of her face.
As soon as her eyes opened, Maya sat up in bed and held her chest, gasping for breath.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Our son, Josh, yelled from the hallway.
Once Maya could catch her breath, she started crying and leaned into me for a hug.
“Oh mom,” she sniffled, “it was horrible. I never had a dream like that!”
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, tightening my arms around her.
“It was so strange, I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was being crushed or suffocated.”
“By what?” John asked, sitting on the other side of the bed.
“It was like I was in this massive landfill. There was just garbage and clutter everywhere, and then there was this avalanche of waste, and it all just fell on top of me and was crushing me,” she sobbed. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe! I—”
Josh covered his mouth to muffle his laughter.
“It’s not funny!” Maya grabbed her pillow and chucked it at him as he was standing in the doorway.
“Alright Josh, there’s nothing to see here. Let’s get you back to bed before your sister finds heavier objects within her reach to aim at you.” John got up and ushered our son out of the room, closing the door behind him.
“I know it sounds so dumb when said out loud, but I swear, it was horrifying, Mom!” Maya wiped her eyes with her hands. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. I tried to scream but nothing would come out—”
“Oh, your screams came out, alright! That’s what made your dad and I practically trip over each other as we ran to you from down the hall.”
Maya smiled as she wiped her tears. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, we all have nightmares.” I kissed her forehead. “I’ve never seen you react to one like that before, though. Especially while still asleep. That sounded more like a night terror.”
Maya shrugged. “Maybe. I’m sorry I scared you and woke everyone up.”
“Don’t be sorry. Do you think you will be able to get back to sleep?”
“Yeah,” Maya pulled away from me and got out of bed, “I think I’m gonna go to the kitchen and grab a snack first, though. If that’s okay?”
I nodded. I said good night and reminded her that I would only be down the hall if she needed me again. Then, we parted ways and I went back to bed. The rest of the night passed without any disturbances.
That weekend, I took the kids out of town for a family get together in celebration of their cousin’s birthday. I was eager to get away for a couple of nights and be surrounded by loved ones we hadn’t seen in months. We were all really excited. Unfortunately, John had injured his back while lifting something at work, so he was forced to stay home and rest.
John hadn’t really been in contact much over that weekend, aside from routine good morning and good night texts. I figured he was just relaxing and catching up on some much-needed rest. I didn’t really think much of it. However, when we got home that Sunday evening, John seemed a little distant. He wasn’t very talkative in person, either. He had several golden opportunities to crack jokes and put his well-known humor on display, but he didn’t take any of them. I knew something was off, but I didn’t want to bring it up in front of the kids, so I waited until after they went to bed.
“Hey, John?” I asked, while sitting on the coffee table in front of him, still sprawled out on the couch.
“Is everything okay? You seem kind of distant. I mean, I know you don’t feel good, but we’ve been away for two days and you’ve hardly said a word.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m sorry. I’m just tired. Been taking these meds the doctor prescribed and they’re making me feel weird.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess that would make sense.” I laughed. “I remember when I broke my arm and took some meds, I slept for like three days straight. I hated the way they made me feel.”
John smiled but looked away.
“I don’t mean to nag, but are you sure that’s all that’s bothering you?”
John closed his eyes and sighed. He was silent for a minute, I thought maybe that was supposed to be my cue to just leave him alone for the night, but then he said, “No, you’re right. There is something else.”
I took his hand and held it, encouraging him to go on.
“I didn’t want to bring it up in front of the kids, either. It might be nothing.”
“Go on,” I urged him.
“I mean, I am on these heavy painkillers, they could also be messing with me.”
“What happened, John?”
“Okay. Well, the whole time you guys were gone, I had bad anxiety. I thought maybe it was just a side effect of the meds, but it felt like someone was constantly watching me. Maybe I’m just not used to being in an empty house.”
“Okay? That all sounds pretty normal given your situation and the circumstances.”
“I mean, yeah, but then…” John sighed. “I don’t know. I was lying on this couch 90% of this weekend—I couldn’t climb up the stairs to go to bed because my back hurt too bad. As I’m lying here, trying to sleep, I kept hearing footsteps upstairs. It creeped me out. I knew I was home alone, and it was probably just in my head, so I just turned the TV on loud to distract myself.”
“Just like the footsteps I heard in the hallway on that day I called you at work?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Except these were upstairs. But then, the damn TV kept turning off by itself. Even when I took the batteries out of the remote and hobbled over to turn it on manually, it kept doing it.”
“That’s weird.” I looked over at the screen, which was on, playing Netflix. “It was working fine tonight.”
“I know!” John snapped, then caught himself. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to snap at you. It’s just, I thought I was going crazy because it gave me a hard time while you were gone, but then the moment you all get back, it’s perfectly fine. But then, during the periods when the TV would shut itself off, I would hear this weird tapping. At first, I thought it was hail hitting the windows. But then I realized it wasn’t even storming outside, and the tapping was only happening on one side of the house.”
“Maybe it was a tree branch?”
John laughed. “Yeah, that’s what I told myself, too. But it would happen in this weird pattern. In sets of two or three. There was a rhythm to it. It was really weird.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t know. I was in too much pain to care enough to get up and go investigate. Anyway, at one point yesterday, I got sick of fighting with the TV and I was sick of hearing the weird tapping, so I put in my headphones and played some music at a low volume to fall asleep.”
“I’m glad you were able to get some sleep, despite all of that.”
“Yeah, but then I was awakened about a half hour later to this loud-ass bang on the side of the house. Like, it was so loud that I heard it over my headphones.”
“What was it?”
John shrugged. “I got up off the couch and hobbled over to the side door, where the loud noise and the earlier tapping had come from. I looked around and I realized that the window by that door had been broken.”
“What?” I got up to go look for myself, but my husband gently pulled me back to him.
“It’s broken, the glass is cracked all over the window, but it didn’t shatter. There was no mess. We need to fix it, but it isn’t an immediate danger.”
I pulled out of his grasp and went to investigate. John was right. The entire window was cracked, to the point where you could no longer see clearly through the glass. All of the cracks seemed to branch out from the center of the window, where whatever force had initially hit it. I put my hand on the doorknob to open it and investigate the window from the outside, but then I remembered the strange sound and feeling I had experienced out there in the dark on the night when I tried to fix the outside light, so I decided against it. Instead, I just made sure that the door was locked and walked back over to my husband, who was trying to sit up on the couch.
“It’s fine, don’t get up. I saw it,” I assured him, putting my hand on his shoulder to encourage him to lay back down.
“Isn’t it weird?”
“Yeah, whatever broke it must have taken a lot of force when it hit it.” I already knew the answer, but had to ask anyway, “Did you get a chance to look outside at all when it happened?”
“No, I barely made it to the window before I had to turn around and lay back down on the couch. I told myself some dumbass bird must have flown into the damn thing and left it at that.”
I laughed. “John, you know a bird couldn’t have done that much damage to the entire window. It would have to be a huge bird. Usually when a bird hits a window, the damage is concentrated in one area. Whatever did that messed up the entire pane of glass.”
“I know!” John snapped again. “I know that, Jess! I just told myself it was a bird so I could lay back down and go back to sleep. I wasn’t in the position to deal with it being anything else at that moment!”
“Okay, I understand!” I whispered sharply. “Lower your voice, I don’t want you to wake the kids.”
He apologized. “It was just a really stressful weekend, and I’m glad you guys are home again. I know it isn’t very manly of me to admit, but I don’t think I like being here by myself.”
I laughed. “How do you think I’ve felt all week?”
His expression changed, realizing the weight of truth behind my statement. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Jess! You’re right. I thought you were just overly stressed and tired this week. I admit, I didn’t really put much weight behind the things you had been telling me were happening. I was listening, but I wasn’t really hearing you. I’m sorry I didn’t take you more seriously.”
“It’s okay, you were still pretty supportive.” I shrugged. “You never made me feel stupid for coming to you with the things that were bothering me, and that’s what mattered most to me.”
John reached out his arm for a hug and I obliged. “I’m sorry to be needy,” he whispered, “but would you mind maybe sleeping down here with me tonight? I don’t want to sleep in here with whatever that was by myself again.”
The way he said this gave me chills. The vulnerability in his voice caught me off guard. It was then that I realized he was genuinely scared, which forced me to admit to myself that I was, too. I went upstairs, grabbed extra blankets and pillows out of our room, checked on the kids, and went back into the living room with my husband. I moved the coffee table out of the way and made myself comfortable on the floor beside the couch. We fell asleep with Netflix playing in the background.
A few hours later, I was awakened by my husband shaking my shoulder.
“Jess, damn it! Wake up!”
“Hmm?” I sat up slowly, my back stiff from having fallen asleep on the floor.
“Jess,” he whispered, “I think I just heard the door open, it woke me up.”
“The side door. I’ll come with you to check it out, but I’m not sure how much I can do. Maybe we should just call the police.”
“Um, where’s the baseball bat you used the other day? Did you put it back in your truck?”
“No, actually. I had put it in the hall closet, but grabbed it a couple days ago when I thought I heard footsteps upstairs. It’s right here with me.” He grabbed it out from under the couch and handed it to me.
“Well, that’s convenient.” I took the bat and stood up, waiting for my husband to drag himself off the couch and follow me.
We tiptoed through the house toward the side door. Sure enough, the damn thing was wide open.
“This is bullshit,” I whispered, turning on the light. “If someone’s gonna murder us, I would at least like to see their face when they do.”
There was nobody in the room, but that didn’t mean they weren’t in the house. I moved forward to shut the door and lock it, then intended to go upstairs and check on the kids while my husband called the cops, but I saw something outside.
“Oh my god, Josh. Is that you?” I called to the figure that I saw standing outside. I immediately recognized his bright yellow Batman hoodie that he had been wearing earlier that night. “Josh! What the hell are you doing over there?”
He was standing in Mrs. Nelson’s yard, facing her house. He didn’t respond, so I stepped out into our yard and hit the chain link fence between us with the baseball bat to get his attention. He flinched, then turned to me, as if noticing me for the first time.
“Mom?” He called back in a tone of confusion. “Mom?” He repeated, not moving. “Where am I?”
“What the hell?” John slowly made his way out into the yard behind me. “Josh, you better get your ass back over here right now!” he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing out here at this time of night?”
“I—I don’t know. I don’t even know how I got out here!” And with that, he began to cry.
“Okay, well, climb back over the fence and get back inside right now!” I demanded.
Josh obliged. He hopped the fence and ran back into the house. I caught some movement from within Mrs. Nelson’s home out of the corner of my eye, her shadow against the backdrop of what I assumed to be her bedroom light.
“Oh, great. We woke Mrs. Nelson.” I mumbled, walking back up the driveway toward her house. On my way, I got another strong whiff of our trash cans, reminding me that garbage night couldn’t come soon enough. “I need to rinse those out with the hose after they empty them this time, because that is awful,” I whispered aloud to myself.
My intentions were to go knock on Mrs. Nelson’s door and apologize for waking her and explain the situation, but before I could get all the way up the driveway to turn onto her property, the light inside her home turned off. I hesitated there in the driveway for a moment but decided it would probably be best to just turn around and go back inside for the night. I didn’t want to disturb Mrs. Nelson twice in one night. I figured she had probably just gone back to bed.
When I got back inside our house, I locked the door behind me. John was sitting with Josh in the living room and Josh was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He was still crying.
“Do you want to tell me what the hell that was about?” I said, louder than I meant to.
“Shhh!” John waved me over, closer to him and Josh. “Maya is still sleeping. Don’t need to wake her up too.”
“Well?” I whispered sharply to Josh, who was now staring down at the floor.
“I—I don’t know what you want me to say,” Josh mumbled. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how I ended up over there in her yard, I swear!”
“Oh,” I scoffed, “Are you trying to tell me you were sleepwalking and managed to climb over our fence into her yard?”
“I mean, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happened this week,” John pointed out.
Josh looked up at me with new tears in his eyes and shrugged. The desperation on his face made the anger leave mine.
“Fine,” I sighed. “I’m not gonna give you a hard time about it tonight. You look exhausted. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
At that, Josh unexpectedly leaned forward and hugged me from where he was sitting, wrapping his arms around my waist. He was shaking.
“I swear, Mom,” he said in a small voice, “I don’t know what just happened. That has never happened to me before. I don’t know how I got over there.”
After Josh went back to bed, John and I just sat up all night talking. It was actually kind of nice to be able to talk openly about all of my recent experiences in the house and know that he genuinely wasn’t going to judge me or deflect with his humor this time. By the time the sun had risen the following morning, I felt so much lighter. I felt validated and knew for certain that something was going on in our home, but I also knew that I didn’t have to deal with it alone anymore.
John fell asleep on the couch, but I didn’t even try. As soon as the sun came up, I made myself a cup of coffee, then went out and sat on the porch with it. I sat out there for hours, even when the kids got up and ready for school. I was half expecting Josh to stay home and catch up on his rest after the strange happenings from the night before, but he didn’t even ask. He just flew out the door the moment the bus pulled up and never even looked back. I was relieved. I didn’t really have the energy in me to talk to him about the events of the night before or to try to make sense of them anyway.
I stayed on that porch for the majority of the morning, to the point where the smell of our putrid garbage cans blowing in the breeze didn’t even bother me anymore. I had become desensitized to it. Then, around 10:30, our mail lady came by and handed me the usual handful of bills and advertisements with our names on them.
“Good Morning,” I said, standing up to meet her halfway up the sidewalk, hoping she wouldn’t have to smell the stench of our trash cans that I had grown accustomed to.
“Hello, Ma’am. How are you this morning?”
“I’m alright. Little tired, but that will pass. How are you?”
The mail lady hesitated. “Well, I’m good. But I just really wanted to ask you a question.”
“Of course, is everything okay?” I could see the discomfort on the woman’s face.
“I believe so, it’s just, well,” The woman paused, and searched for the right words before continuing, “I couldn’t help but notice that your neighbor in this house right here,” she pointed to Mrs. Nelson’s home, “hasn’t been emptying her mailbox recently. I used to enjoy greeting her in the morning, she was always so sweet, but I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Oh, yes. Mrs. Nelson is very sweet, she is my favorite neighbor. She always gives the kindest Christmas gifts.” I immediately remembered the beautiful vase that had been shattered on the kitchen floor earlier that week.
The mail lady smiled and nodded before adding, “I don’t mean to be rude, but her yard or her house smells awful. I don’t know if it’s her garbage cans or what, but I have to hold my breath every time I deliver her mail.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so embarrassed.” I covered my face with my hands. “You know what? I think that smell is actually our garbage cans. I’ve been meaning to hose them out after they got emptied this week.”
“Oh,” the mail lady shook her head and said, “no, Ma’am. I really believe the smell is coming from Mrs. Nelson’s yard, not yours. I can hardly smell it from over here.”
“I mean, maybe Mrs. Nelson and I both need to hose out our trash cans,” I laughed nervously and shrugged.
The mail lady laughed politely. “Well, have you seen her lately?”
“Yeah, actually, I just saw her last night. Her bedroom light was on and I saw her shadow moving around the room.”
“Oh, good!” The lady let out a sigh of relief and put her hand on her chest. “Anyway, next time you see her, please tell her I said hello, and ask her to please empty her mailbox because I might have to start holding onto her mail at the post office soon, because I’m running out of room to put things in there.”
“Oh, of course! I will let her know.”
The woman thanked me before continuing on her route to the next house.
Perplexed, I went inside our house and woke my husband, who was still sleeping on the couch.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” I said while gently flicking him on the forehead. “Wake up. I gotta ask you something.”
“I’m sorry, I know you’re still tired, but it’s important.”
“What’s up?” He yawned obnoxiously before I could speak.
“Okay, so I just had a conversation with the mail lady, and it sounded like she was a little concerned about Mrs. Nelson. I guess she hadn’t been emptying her mailbox this week, which is very unlike her. The woman also said that Mrs. Nelson’s yard smelled terrible, like she hadn’t been taking out her trash either.”
“So?” John rubbed his eyes and rolled over to see me better.
“So, when is the last time you saw her leave her house?”
“Um, I don’t know, not too long ago.”
“Isn’t she normally on the porch in the morning as you are leaving for work?”
“I mean, yeah, usually.” John sat up a little, more easily than he had been over the last few days. His back must have been getting better. “I guess I haven’t seen her out there lately, but maybe it’s because the weather is changing. You know how old people get really cold easily.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point.”
“Hey, didn’t you just see her last night moving around in her room after we made all that noise in the backyard trying to get Josh to come back inside?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“And isn’t her car in her driveway? I know she’s home. I’ve seen it.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, so, problem solved. She’s fine, just lazy.” He laid back down and covered his face with his pillow. I laughed and grabbed it from him.
“You need to get up. It’s getting late.”
“So? I’m a cripple. I can’t move off this couch.”
“I don’t know, I saw you sit up just now. You seemed to be doing a little better. Maybe you should get up and move around.”
He wined dramatically, “I don’t wanna!”
I laughed again, then hit him with his pillow. “Come on, it’ll be good for you. Maybe you can come with me next door to check on Mrs. Nelson.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“I don’t know, I just feel funny about the situation, that’s all. And the mail lady asked me to let her know that they were going to have to start holding her mail at the post office if she didn’t collect her mail soon because it was getting too full.”
“Oh, wow. She really hasn’t gotten her mail in that long?”
I shrugged. “I’m sure Mrs. Nelson is fine, but I just need to make sure. I’m sure she has a good explanation for it.”
“Okay, okay, let me get some coffee in me, then I’ll come with you to check on her.”
“Thank you.” I kissed him on the forehead. “Do you want me to make you a cup?”
“No,” he grunted, pulling himself up into a sitting position. “You’re right, it is getting better, and I need to try to move around more. I think I can do it myself.”
So, he did. About a half hour later, he and I found ourselves walking onto Mrs. Nelson’s property. As we approached the porch, we were suddenly hit with the overwhelming stench that the mail lady had referenced earlier.
“OH MY GOD!” John gagged. “I’m about to see my coffee again.”
And sure enough, he vomited on Mrs. Nelson’s sidewalk 10 seconds later.
“I guess it wasn’t our garbage cans, after all.”
“I’m sorry, Jess, I gotta go,” John said, backing away and gagging again.
I wasn’t even mad. I couldn’t blame him one bit. I was tempted to follow his lead back home, but then I heard something from inside the house.
“Hello?” I yelled, still standing on the sidewalk. “Mrs. Nelson, are you home?”
Of course, there was no answer. So, I forced myself to cover my nose with my shirt and go knock on the door.
“Mrs. Nelson, are you awake?” I yelled, trying my hardest not to gag. I knocked again and said, “I see your car in the driveway. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s really important.”
Still, no answer.
I knocked one more time, to no avail. Finally, I gave up and left the property. I had been holding my breath, and by the time I reached the end of the driveway, my lungs were screaming for air. So, I took another shallow breath and ran home.
“Are you okay?” John greeted me at the door. “You look pale as hell. Are you gonna be sick too?”
“I don’t know.” I ran into the kitchen and hovered over the sink for a moment, just to be sure.
“How in the hell did you stay over there for so long? I had to get out of there. I couldn’t take the smell.”
“I thought I heard a sound from inside of the house. I assumed Mrs. Nelson was coming to open the door, but she never did.”
“What kind of sound?”
“I don’t know, it sounded like her voice off in the distance. Or maybe it was the TV.”
“So, she never answered, and you never saw her?”
“That’s what I just said, John!” I didn’t mean to snap at him, I was just disoriented from holding my breath and frustrated because I still couldn’t get the smell of Mrs. Nelson’s house out of my nose.
John, who understood without me having to say any of this, patiently put his hand on my back. “I know I’m gonna sound like a broken record here, but I think maybe we should call the police.”
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Have them do a wellness check on Mrs. Nelson, because something feels very wrong.”
“And that smell,” John shook his head in disgust before continuing, “There’s just something unnatural about it.”
So, we made the phone call. The events that followed are going to be seared into my memory for the rest of my life.
The police officers arrived about 10 minutes after we got off the phone with them. My husband and I sat on our porch in case they needed to speak to us further, but we refused to get any closer to the smell of Mrs. Nelson’s house than that. We had previously tried to warn the officers of the smell, but I guess our words of warning didn’t do the reality of the stench justice. John and I covered our faces and attempted to stifle our laughter as one of the officers lost his lunch on the front lawn near where John had lost his coffee earlier.
The officers knocked politely, just as I had, and received no answer. They tried a couple times before deciding to take further action. I heard one of the officers proudly announce, “I always wanted to do this,” before running toward the door and dramatically kicking it open.
That was when the smell became unbearable.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, we need to go in the house!” I yelled to the officers who were still outside. “Please let us know what you find or if you need anything from us!”
The officers nodded as we ran into our house.
Fifteen minutes later, we saw a firetruck pull up in front of Mrs. Nelson’s house, followed by an ambulance.
“Holy shit,” John said, face pressed to the glass of our front window, “It must be really bad!”
My eyes began to sting and the tears couldn’t help but fall. “Poor Mrs. Nelson. I hope she’s okay. I just saw her moving around inside last night. It can’t be that bad.”
As usual, I was wrong.
About an hour later, John called me back over to the window. “Jess! Oh god, Jess, it’s bad. Come here!”
Reluctantly, I stepped beside him and peered out through the curtains just in time to see two men carrying out a stretcher with a body bag. Mrs. Nelson was inside.
John and I ran out onto the front porch and watched them load her into the back of the ambulance. Two firefighters ran out of her house, took off their masks, and gasped for air in the streets.
“Holy shit!” said the first firefighter. “That was awful! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Oh my god, man! You got some on your leg! What the hell is that!” The second firefighter yelled, stepping back and pointing.
“It’s like yellow slime. It looks like gravy.” The first firefighter said, inspecting his leg.
“That ain’t no gravy! Man, you better stop, drop, and roll, you got some of the nasty on you!” Both firefighters started laughing.
“Oh man,” said one of the officers as she approached the two men, “you better use that hose to get that off your leg, God only knows what it could be.”
“Good idea,” said the first firefighter as he ran toward the truck, leaving the second firefighter behind, who was still laughing in the middle of the street.
“Sorry about that,” said another officer as he approached us on the front porch. “Some people are just extremely unprofessional.” He glared over his shoulder at the two firefighters who were still carrying on in the street.
I wiped my tears with the sleeve of my sweater and nodded in agreement. “Yes, they are.”
“So, what happened here?” John asked the officer, putting his arm around me.
“Well, I’ve never seen anything like it in my 12 years on the force,” he said, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but would it be okay if I came inside and maybe got a glass of water? That smell is just too much.”
“Oh, of course!” I turned around and opened the door for him, inviting him inside.
“Thank you so much,” he said, following us to the kitchen table and sitting down. John handed him a bottle of water from the refrigerator. “Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it. As it turns out, your neighbor, Mrs…”
“Nelson,” I said.
“Yes, Mrs. Nelson,” he said, before taking a long gulp of water. “I’m sorry to inform you that your neighbor, Mrs. Nelson, was a hoarder. Unfortunately, she appeared to have fallen inside her home, and an avalanche of clutter piled up on top of her, making it impossible for her to move or get back up.”
“Oh, how awful!” John exclaimed for the both of us, as I was speechless.
“By the looks of it, she had been in there for about a week,” the officer said, taking another drink of water. “That’s what that smell was.”
“H—How is that possible?” I burst into tears and John quickly sat in the chair next to me, trying to console me. “I just—I just saw her moving around inside of her house last night!”
The officer, perplexed, took my hand. “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but that’s impossible. The condition she was found in indicated that she had been there for quite some time. The fact that she had her furnace on so high didn’t help her situation, either.”
“Wait, why was her heat on?” John asked. “The weather hasn’t been cold enough to turn the heat on yet. We still have to turn on the AC sometimes because it will get so warm during the day.”
“That is true,” the officer nodded. “However, there were a few chilly nights last week. You know how older people tend to get cold easier? Maybe she turned the heat on during one of those colder nights we had, and then she had her accident and was never able to get back up and turn it off again, which contributed to the decomposition—”
“Okay, okay. We get it,” John interrupted.
“But, I saw her last night,” I repeated. “I saw her shadow, at least. In the back bedroom.”
“Yes,” the officer said. “That is where we found her body, but she had been there, buried beneath the mountain of clutter for quite some time. There was too much junk in that room for anyone to have been moving around inside. I’m sorry, I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t Mrs. Nelson.”
“Maybe it was… her spirit,” I whispered, so only John could hear.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am? I didn’t catch that,” the officer said, leaning forward from across the table, as if to hear better.
“I’m sorry,” John said, standing up but keeping his hand on my shoulder. “She’s in a bit of shock. We both are. Thank you for informing us about the situation, we really appreciate it.”
The officer picked up on his cue and stood up to leave. “Of course. I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for your hospitality,” he said, picking up his water and walking toward the front door. “I’ll just let myself out.”
We had hoped that the ambulance and firetruck would be gone before the kids got home, but the kids saw them pulling away from Mrs. Nelson’s house as their bus dropped them off. John and I meant to meet them when they got off their bus and take them to the picnic tables at the park down the street to tell them about everything that had happened, but we lost track of time. We were both still sitting at the kitchen table, in shock, when Josh and Maya came in the front door.
“What’s up with the ambulance and stuff next door?” Josh asked, heading straight for the refrigerator for a snack.
“And what’s that awful smell?” Maya called as she took off her shoes by the door.
“Um, can you kids come here for a minute and sit down with us?”
“Is everything okay?” Maya asked as she set her backpack on the kitchen floor.
“No, not exactly,” I said as I pulled out the chair next to me for Josh, whose hands were full of food.
“It’s about Mrs. Nelson,” John said.
“Is she dead?” Maya asked nonchalantly. “She was really old.”
“Actually, yes,” I said. “They just found her.”
“Oh man,” Josh sighed after swallowing a giant mouthful of food. “She was so nice. What happened?”
“Well, that part is a little disturbing,” John admitted. “Do you remember that show we used to watch about all those people who were mentally ill and lived in super messy houses?”
“Yeah, Hoarders. That show was really sad,” Maya chimed in.
“Well, as it turns out, Mrs. Nelson actually suffered from the same mental illness. She was a hoarder.”
“Oh, wow! I had no idea! Her yard was always so pretty and tidy.” Maya shook her head.
“Well,” I added, “Mrs. Nelson actually tripped and fell in her bedroom, and a bunch of the clutter that she had accumulated ended up falling on top of her. She… was never able to get back up again,” I said, attempting to put the situation delicately.
“Are you serious? Did that just happen today?” Josh asked. “I know you saw her just last night, after…” his voice trailed off.
“After what?” Maya asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” Josh said. “I know it sounds weird, but I think I was sleepwalking last night. I ended up in Mrs. Nelson’s backyard somehow.”
“What? You did not! Stop lying!” Maya laughed.
“No, really. We found him in her backyard last night,” John said. “He was really out of it and upset. He couldn’t remember how he got there.”
“Why didn’t anyone wake me up?” Maya asked, offended.
“Wake you up for what?” I laughed. “We took care of the situation, and Josh went back to bed. It was nothing worth waking you up over.”
“Actually, Josh, the officer who talked to us said that it looked like Mrs. Nelson had passed away about a week ago. Unfortunately, nobody found her until today.”
“How is that possible?” Josh said, pointing at me, “Mom saw her last night and almost knocked on her door to apologize for waking her up when you guys found me sleepwalking in her yard. Remember?”
“Wait a minute,” Maya pushed herself away from the table, and stood up. “Mrs. Nelson was buried by her own junk and couldn’t get up. Right? That sounds just like my dream from the other night! Do you remember, Mom?”
We all looked at each other but didn’t say a word.
“I woke up screaming and crying because I felt like I was being crushed,” Maya continued. “I couldn’t breathe. I dreamt that I was buried by a bunch of random trash, like in a landfill! And you—” she pointed at Josh, “You laughed at me!”
At that moment, we were all thinking the same thing, but Maya was the one who said it: “What if my dream wasn’t a dream? What if it was, like, a premonition, or Mrs. Nelson trying to reach out to me?”
“Yeah!” Josh exclaimed. “And what if, when I was sleepwalking last night, and ended up in her yard, Mrs. Nelson was trying to lead me there to find her?”
“Mom, what if what you thought you saw in her house really was Mrs. Nelson, only it was her after she was dead?” Maya asked, still standing.
“Okay, wait a minute.” John put both of his hands up, as if to silence us. “Do you realize how you all sound?”
“But think about it, John,” I said. “Think about all of the weird stuff that has been happening in our home over the last week! It makes sense! Even from the very beginning… Oh my god!”
“What?” John asked.
“Even the very first day that these things started happening. I heard the side door open and close, but nobody was home, and that vase! The vase Mrs. Nelson had given me for Christmas was the one that had fallen on the kitchen floor and broke!”
“And all of the weird stuff that was happening by the side door and window, both of which are in the closest proximity to Mrs. Nelson’s house.” John added, while covering his face with his hands. “Maybe she wanted us to come outside, hoping we would notice the smell!”
“The shower! When it came on by itself that day, and I saw the arrow drawn in the steam, I thought it was pointing back to the shower, but it was actually pointing—”
“In the direction of Mrs. Nelson’s house,” John finished the sentence for me.
“Wait, what? Why didn’t you tell us all this weird stuff was happening?” Maya demanded.
“We didn’t know what to think of it,” I explained.
“We didn’t want to scare you,” John added.
“What else happened?” Josh asked.
“Well, your mother and I both heard footsteps…” John’s voice trailed off.
As if on cue, we all heard a noise coming from the hallway.
“What was that?” Maya whispered, running around the kitchen table to stand behind John.
Then we heard another noise in the hallway, and another, and then three more.
“Footsteps,” I whispered. “They’re going down the hall, toward the staircase.”
Together, the four of us tiptoed out into the hallway, which was empty. We made our way to the staircase and saw nothing. Then we heard the footsteps resume above our heads on the second floor. We tried to tell the kids to stay downstairs, but they didn’t want to be alone, so they followed us up the staircase. When we got to the second floor, I heard a familiar noise.
“What is that, static?” John whispered. “Did someone leave a T.V. on up here?”
“No,” I sighed. “I know what that is.” I took my husband’s hand and led him to the bathroom at the end of the hall. The door, once again, was closed.
“What is it?” John asked.
“It’s the shower,” I said, smiling gently.
I opened the door and stepped inside the bathroom. John followed me inside and ran over to turn off the water. It was only the hot water that was turned on, just like last time.
“Oh,” I choked out, “John, look!” I started crying as I pointed to the mirror.
There, in the steam that had accumulated on the glass, was a finger-drawn heart.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered to the mirror. “Goodbye, Mrs. Nelson.”