The medications carried me through my fits of despondency and lifted me from the pit of madness, but my doctor had still advised I take time from the pressures of business and family and book time alone as a final precaution against relapse. With my wife’s blessing, I retained a weekend at Chateau Fide–Fidelitate bed and breakfast in Biloxi where I hoped to complete my recovery. From the outside it appeared my life was blessed, and it was. I had an unbelievable wife who loved and supported me, two beautiful teenage daughters who tolerated me, and a business that made more money than I had ever dreamed of making. Nonetheless, my life had unraveled around me. For no apparent reason, I became entombed by long periods of depression that robbed me of my self-worth. If my thirteen year old daughter had not risen in the middle of the night to get a drink of water and found me wiping my tear shredded face with the barrel of a revolver, I most likely would not be here to tell this story.
The drive from Memphis to the Gulf Coast was long and monotonous, so I had hoped to stop for an hour or so in Hattiesburg and visit with an old friend over a cup of coffee. When I called and spoke to him before leaving Memphis, he jumped at the invitation, and offered his couch as a place to crash if I was interested. He reasoned there would be more time to visit if I stayed the night, and besides, he offered, what could be more therapeutic than toasting old times and conquests with a friend. Not being in a great hurry or excited if the truth were known about spending the weekend alone, I accepted his offer.
My friend, Malcolm, and I went to high school together and were roommates in college until he dropped out our sophomore year. He had an aversion to work and an acute indifference to making good decisions, which was a major reason he lived alone after three failed marriages and numerous failed business opportunities. Most who knew him would agree, he had in him a singular element of pride coupled with a touch of sentimentality for daring incursions into the realm of the consummate opportunist. He possessed a smile that could win him residence with the most cautionary and a demeanor that commanded attention from the gullible. To say he was a scoundrel would be putting it mildly, but he had always made me laugh in spite of his many flaws, and I, at that point in my life, I needed laughter in my life in the worst way.
I started my journey much later than I had anticipated, but after over five hours on the road, I finally arrived in Hattiesburg a few minutes before midnight. Pulling into a dimly lit parking lot of a Motel 6, I stopped to stretch my legs and call my friend. My telephone rang before I could get it out of my pocket. Thinking it was Malcolm calling to check on my whereabouts, I answered. Crackling white noise sputtered from the phone speaker quickly replaced by the barely audible sound of heavy breathing. “Hello,” I said. A deep sigh and then silence. “Hello!” I repeated. Silence. “Who is this?” I asked. A voice whispered, “Get out,” and the phone went dead.
Unnerved, I leaned heavily against the car staring at the now black face of the phone. I clicked the phone on and looked for a traceable number, but “unknown” appeared on the screen. Suddenly, the phone rang again. Instinctively my finger reached for the talk button and froze. “Unknown” flashed on the screen. The phone rang several more times before I answered. “Hey!” Malcolm said. “Where are you?” If Malcolm detected how shaken I was as I apologized for the late hour, he didn’t let on. “Look,” he said, “there has been a slight change in plans. My Granny is feeling under the weather, so I need to stay at the cabin with her tonight, but I told her you were in town and she insisted you come also.” I tried to protest, but my friend would have none of it, so with the hour being late and not wanting to be alone at the moment, I agreed.
On occasion while in high school, Malcolm had taken me to his grandmother’s house, but it would have been no small feat for me to find her place after so many years, so I was thankful for the directions he gave. Her house was actually an old five room log cabin built by her first husband in the 1920’s and then modernized by Malcolm’s grandfather with electricity and running water in the 1950’s. A telephone was added around 1970. I recalled the cabin sat on a prickly piece of dismal ground amid a grove of splintering water oaks with twisted limbs that moaned throughout the night with the slightest breeze. The place had always given me the creeps, and I must admit without the confidence that Malcolm and his grandmother would be there with me, I would not have gone near the place.
The cabin was exactly as I remembered, but Malcolm’s grandmother was far older than I remembered. Her skin was chalky gray the same as her hair, and she had acquired a pronounced stoop. Her face drooped in folds without a touch of color giving her complexion an unnatural dead-white appearance, but yet, her eyes glowed with an uncanny fire that I attributed to a defiant spirit. Smelling of smoke with a tinge of sulfur, she hugged and welcomed me at the door where I observed a long thin line of ants moving steadily from the cabin toward me. With cold weather, I would have expected them to flow in from the cold rather than out to the cold, but for whatever reason that was not the case. As the old woman led me into the cabin, she paused briefly to grind her heel into the thin line momentarily disrupting the exodus.
The room was sparsely decorated with a gossip bench with an old rotary telephone to the left of the entrance, a single wicker rocker against the far wall in front of me and to my immediate right sat a worn walnut framed sofa with what appeared to be deep scratches gouged into the wood frame. Three interior doors led from the room. I remembered the door to my left led to the kitchen while the other two doors led to two of the three bedrooms. The bedroom door to my right gave passage to Malcolm’s grandmother’s bedroom while the door I faced led to the back two bedrooms where Malcolm and I would be staying. I asked about Malcolm. She smiled and said unexpected business had called him away, which I thought strange considering the time of night.
She led me into the kitchen where the warmth of a wood burning stove cut the chill of the October night. On the window sill above the sink, a roach clawed at the small crack between the casing and the window frame trying frantically to escape to the outside world, but to no avail. We sat at a small breakfast table near a door that led to the middle bedroom where for some time we engaged in unimportant conversation. Throughout our talk I was struck by her melancholy as if a prescience of death, but her attentiveness to perception was counter to any such premonition as she took my hand and stroked gently. “It is good we are not as we once were,” she said.
Her head began to nod after another fifteen minutes of idle chatter at which time I suggested we continue the conversation with the morning. She agreed, pointed to the middle bedroom as mine and without another word shuffled off to the far end of the cabin to her bedroom. My bedroom was small with a single bed crammed under a window that for some reason was boarded from the outside. Fresh bed linen was stacked neatly at the foot of the bed along with a candle and a box of matches. A standard Victor rat trap with the dried gnawed remains of a rat’s leg compressed under the corroded jaws of the spring lay in the corner to my right.
There were also two other doors in the room. The door directly across from the kitchen led to the corner bedroom where I had assumed Malcolm would be staying the night. Strangely, it was barricaded with an old wrought iron headboard jammed under the knob making the door unusable without some effort. The second door directly across from the bed led to the living room where I had first entered the house, but it too was blocked. A large cedar wardrobe had been shoved against the door making the only access to my bedroom through the kitchen. I could not imagine why the doors and the single window were barricaded, but I suddenly had the feeling I needed to be elsewhere – that I needed to get out. The only thing that separated me from the resurrection of the undesirable madness of the past year was the open kitchen door, but even that slim connection to sanity came under suspicion when I detected a gentle tapping from the bedroom next door. The tap, tap, tap was insistent and in my awakening despair, it did not strike me as the tapping of a human hand seeking admittance, but rather the tapping of an agreed signal that all was in place.
I called out, hoping to hear Malcolm or maybe his grandmother answer from the other side. I received no response other than the scrapping of water oak branches across the tin roof of the cabin. Fighting back my growing anxiety, I determined to go to the old woman’s bedroom and inquire about the tapping when she suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway causing me some degree of fright. The aged crevices in her face danced wickedly in the interaction of the dull incandescent light from the bedroom and the faint red light emitted by the glowing wood burner. I struggled out of respect for my friend to see something earthly in her face, but sadly I could not. “I neglected to tell you,” she said, “for the safety of my guests and the sanctity of my rest, I do not allow anyone moving about outside their bedroom during the night.”
“I was coming to see you about the tapping,” I said.
“Field mice or their cousin the rat,” she said. “Sometimes there is almost a degree of intelligence to the noises they make, but as long as you stay put, they will most likely do their bidding elsewhere. Good night.” The door closed and clicked. I stepped to the door and turned the knob, but to my horror the door was locked. The tap, tap, tap resumed with the same slow steady persistence.
Field mice or rats may have been the logical explanation, but I had never heard of an animal acting so mechanical. Due to my ebb in lucidity, I found myself dignifying the incident with more significance and importance than I in a more rational state would have believed it deserved, but I could not recuse myself from the mystery. I was strangely impressed and drawn to the tap, tap, tap. The reassurance of my host as well as the silence associated with my growing inquiries as to who was there should have been sufficient to prove I was alone, but my curiosity would not entertain such explanations, so the tapping followed by rhythmical spaces of silence needled my resentment to the point of bringing me to the edge of insanity.
“Who is there?” I asked. Tap, tap, tap. “Please stop!” Tap, tap, tap. “No manner of animal could be so diabolically cruel!” I cried. Tap, tap, tap. I could feel myself slipping deeper into the shadowy recesses of my mind – deeper than man was ever intended to go, but I could not break free. Panic swelled as the walls began to pulse and close in about me. I collapsed on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands as I struggled to fight back my mounting despair. With deep breaths, I struggled to calm myself. Tap, tap, tap. “Why do you play with my sanity?” I asked. Tap, tap, tap. “Why do you harass me?” I shouted and sprang to my feet. I grabbed the iron headboard to jerk it aside so I could face my tormentor. The tapping stopped, and the doorknob turned.
It was not much of a turn, and in of itself it manifested little alarm. “If human,” I said, “say your name and I will pull the iron from under the knob you so delicately turn, and embrace you as my brother.” There was no name forthcoming, only the return of the heckling tap, tap, tap. “Do you not have a name?” I asked. The tapping stopped, and the doorknob turned once more. “Do you not know I am a sick man in need of calm and rest?” The sudden splatter of rain against the tin roof deadened the resurgence of the tap, tap, tap. The whine of the wind caught along the upturned corners of the rusting tin and whistled a hollow tune that turned into a howl as the breath of night prowled along, under, and around the eaves and corners of the cabin.
The lights flickered with the growing intensity of the rain railing against the tin roof. The tap, tap, tap continued at the bedroom door. The lights sputtered a second time, and the tap, tap, tap was given accompaniment from behind the wardrobe. In unison the tapping played at the two doors shoving me closer to madness. Black! The lights failed. I floundered around the bed feeling for the candle and matches I had seen earlier. The tap, tap, tap kept time at the two doors, the rain chimed against the tin roof, the wind sang its melancholy song through the overhead rafters and gradually I became aware of a continuous susurration, not unlike the limited canon of childhood musical rounds. In the darkness, I dropped to my knees, “Please God get me out!” I prayed. The tapping played on in rounds with one voice ending when another began until the tapping from the bedroom door, the tapping at the living room door behind the wardrobe, and the tapping at the locked kitchen door fit harmoniously together. My mind began to flail in the most insidious directions as it struggled to make sense of things that made no sense. “Please God, get me out,” I begged. The lights flashed on, hissed, and exploded the room back into black.
From this point all that I say may not be entirely clear; madness has a way of playing with the mind. At some point after the lights went out, I must have dragged the bed away from the window for I found myself lying on the floor in front of the window where the bed had once stood. I lay there in the darkness with my eyes wide open, and my hands pressed against my ears trying to filter out the never ending rounds of tap, tap, tap. I longed for relief. I longed to escape the nightmare that was slowly and surely devouring my soul, but my condition was irresoluble. The evil that waited behind the tap, tap, tap of each door had reduced me to shameless fatuity effectively retiring any effort to escape. I found myself laughing hysterically at my circumstances, resigning myself to whatever fate lay in store for me. Maybe seeking a better position in which to die, I rolled onto my side and in doing so felt an object beneath my shoulder – the candle, and when I reached to retrieve it, the box of matches was at hand as well. Gripping the candle between my teeth, I scratched a match across the scratch pad on the box. The room burst into the half-light of the flame, and in that moment I saw the bed shoved tightly against the kitchen door and next to me a box that had been hidden under the edge of the bed.
By candlelight I opened the box, and there lay my salvation. The box contained a single hammer and saw that I knew instantly fate had provided for my escape, but death does not take defiance kindly. With the first blow of the hammer against the boarded window, the outcry of hell let loose around me. The tap, tap, tap erupted into the fists of the devil himself pounding at each door. I slammed the hammer harder against the boarded window sending wood splintering to the floor. The three interior doors began to bulge and split under the weight of Satan’s knuckles. My hammer sent the first board end over end to the ground beneath the window outside. Rain pelted my face. The doorknobs behind me began to rattle and shake violently as I freed the final board from the window. I glanced over my shoulder as the iron headboard sizzled and melted as the wardrobe and bed were pushed inwards by the hordes of hell. As I climbed into the window opening, the three doors exploded into the room.
The old woman rushed me from each door, her lips rolled back exposing black teeth rotting at the gums. I had all but one leg outside the window when the three sisters of Dante descended upon me, grabbing hold of my leg and pulling me back into the cabin. I fought with every fiber of my being, but I could not shake the demons from their hold. Then fate once again intervened on my behalf; in the corner of the room I spotted the rat trap with the gnawed leg, and my resolve to live grew stronger. I began to struggle with renewed vigor. I was determined not to lose my soul on that night. I intended to escape, and the witches of Satan were not going to stand in my way. Maintaining hold of the window with one hand, I reached for the saw with the other.
Until now I have never revealed what actually happened that night at the cabin. It was not until much later that I learned that Malcolm’s grandmother died his sophomore year in college, and that Malcolm was killed in a late night car crash on a business trip ten years prior to inviting me to stay the night with him and his grandmother. Other than weekly therapy for insomnia and occasional depression, my life is pretty much back to normal. My daughters still don’t know how to take me, but my wife and I are closer than ever. This past year, I even took up running 5K’s with her. I do pretty well for a man with one leg.
©Jack Linton, October 5, 2014