Dominic sat in the coat closet amidst the bare bones of his new house, ripping up traces of threadbare carpet. It was the last closet left. He’d started upstairs, and he’d torn carpet out of twelve others. Since the house hadn’t been wired yet, he tried to do the darkest rooms while the sun still shone. If he had been honest with himself, he would’ve been forced to admit he didn’t want to be in the house after dark, regardless of the room or the project.
The first night Dominic had come to work on the house, he’d barely set up his shop light when a millipede scuttled out from the sink’s drain. Dominic stared in awe as it crawled carefully down the side of the pedestal before reducing its body to a sliver and slipping into an invisible slit in the lathe. He’d barely recovered from the sight of that when a velvety brown spider crawled across his hand. He reacted immediately by squashing it dead, but as he did, the dead spider seemed to transform itself into a multitude of miniature clones.
“Shit!” Dominic shouted, as he removed his shirt and used it to beat the tiny spiders from his arm. He shuddered and raked his hands over his bare chest, still feeling as though bugs crawled all over him, more than when it had actually happened.
Since the wolf spider incident, he merely swatted the smaller leggy creatures away, and with the large ones, he slid aside in retreat. Still, each time he encountered the millipedes, centipedes, spiders, or beetles, he was repulsed. It was the same with these closets. He’d swept the closets out with a broom, but seemingly overnight, new cobwebs were spun. The house had been abandoned more than twenty years earlier, and nature had reclaimed it. Every seam unsealed meant the opportunity for more bugs to emerge. Pulling out trim and replacing floor boards had taken Dominic more courage than strength. He was glad the floors were still viable, as when he imagined tearing up the floor, he could only envision a swath of swirling snakes covered in insects of every kind.
The house wasn’t infested with only bugs, but also with critters. He’d been plagued by strange noises of all sorts. Chattering rats seemed to play hide n’ seek with the possums and raccoons that shared the house. He didn’t know why the bats felt compelled to squeak. He’d always thought that they slept during the day, so his only conclusion was that they squeaked to drive him out of his mind. Dominic was a solo human, a minority. Once the sounds of howling coyotes and owls came after dark, Dominic felt like prey.
All this was made worse after his sister had driven out to see the property. The since-torn-down walls had still had a substantial amount of graffiti on them then, which Dominic assumed was the work of kids who’d used the house as a teenager hangout, but his sister told him the graffiti was a series of ritual symbols. She’d told Dominic to have a priest come out to bless the house before he started work. His sister always said things like that, to burn sage first, or to have a priest come out, but Dominic had never understood her flighty ways, and he’d long ago lost his faith.
A priest wasn’t necessary, but securing the house was, so replacing windows and doors was the first thing he’d done once the tear-out was complete. He’d carefully chosen larger windows to let in more light. He’d replaced all the wooden screen doors with full-length glass storm doors, again for the light, but also because they locked. Dominic often felt vulnerable with his back to doors and windows. The windows seemed to be the house’s eyes, as if the house itself hovered outside watching him. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up when the house watched. As a result, he often regretted giving the house bigger eyes, despite the light. He took comfort in the storm door lock.
Having crews in for repairs and drywall would be a relief. Maybe with other men around, he could shrug off bugs and laugh at snakes. Perhaps instead of losing his breath every time he heard those random footsteps which belonged to no living being, he could attribute them to his crew. That relief was a long way off. He’d called three plumbers, one who declined to come out, and one who came out, but then subsequently refused to enter the crawlspace. Finally, Plumber Number Three told Dominic that he wasn’t afraid of curses or spells, but he wasn’t keen on the vermin living under the house, so he’d want an exterminator to come out first. Then he told Dominic that the last owner had an exterminator come out, but all that had done was drive the spiders out of doors, resulting in fields covered in webs for months, until the chemicals wore off and the spiders went back inside. “Best to do it in the winter. Drive ‘em out into the cold so they die,” he’d said.
Every time he got into a closet, Dominic’s mind raced with all this information. He’d replay the words of his sister and Plumber Number Three. Combined with the real estate agent’s comment, “I can’t show you an old gothic house on Friday the thirteenth, now can I?” she laughed, “Let’s do it Monday,” he realized that the pittance he paid for the property was nothing compared to the price of fear. Yes, it was old, yes, it was gothic, maybe it had once been inhabited by crazy witches who liked to write and draw on every surface, and it might even be haunted. Ghosts couldn’t hurt anyone, even if you believed in them. The house had great bones on substantial acreage and he could make it beautiful. He took pride not only in restoration, but also in taking risks. So what if the fear grew greater each day? He was battling his own mind, not any real danger. He told himself that if he spent less and less time there each night, it was only because the sun set earlier and earlier each day.
He convinced himself that all the paintings hidden under the carpets were no more than silly talisman the crazy old witches used to make themselves feel better. He wanted to believe thirteen closets was coincidence. He pretended the noise level of the animals was not related to each drawing he revealed. With every carpet he pulled up, the animals immediately began their din. He covered his ears and told himself the noises were normal, animals going about their business, not meaning to scare him.
With the last carpet pulled up, another new drawing appeared, but this time, as Dominic went to cover his ears, he realized the animals were silent. Even the outside chatter, the sounds of birds and breezes, crickets and cicadas, all had stopped. He dropped his hands and looked at the ceiling, thinking maybe the last carpet was also the last of the clamor.
Footsteps started. The footsteps were never the same. He’d heard what he thought were children running barefoot, as well as heavily-shoed women walking quickly, and several times, he’d heard what could only be described as the sound of a dog chasing its ball, its claws scratching haphazardly as it ran and slid. The feet were heavy today, but not like shoes. The footsteps were familiar though, so Dominic listened until he could identify them. Dominic shook his head in amazement when he recognized them as the footsteps of a horse. The footsteps descended the back stairs, slowly.
Dominic went to investigate. He couldn’t stop himself from walking toward the sound. He was pulled by his curiosity and determination. He was desperate to discover the footsteps weren’t footsteps at all, but part of some earthly misunderstanding he could laugh off. As he trod slowly through the kitchen, a snake turned the corner, startling him. The footsteps continued. Dominic’s desperation grew with the realization that he could only hear the sound of the horse’s footsteps and the beating of his own heart. It was then that Dominic felt every single hair on his body stand erect. Terror seized his body. He raced to the back door. He could feel it, could see it lingering behind him, from the corner of his eye. He knew what it was without looking directly at it. He was determined to escape the house and never return. He fumbled, trying to turn the storm door lock, but no matter how he turned it, it wouldn’t open. The door would not unlock. It had caught up to him. Every inch of Dominic’s skin burned with fear. As he pressed his eyes shut, a single tear cooled his cheek. He turned to face the devil, and the devil politely said, “Thank you for summoning me.”
Jolene Mottern lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, primarily on the south side of a loveseat, where she reads everything and writes whatever people tell her to. In her spare time, she bangs cookware around, obsesses over things that don’t matter, and waves her loud Italian hands at her family. Jolene earned a BA in English Education from Ball State University. You can stalk her all over social media, on her blog jolenemottern.com , on Twitter @ joeyfullystated and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pages/Jolene-Mottern/