The grandfather clock chimed. It announced the arrival of three o’clock in the morning with twinkling tones. John woke from his very light sleep and cursed the grandfather clock. He hated the clock. He didn’t even like it in the antique store. It had strange curled footings and a menacing face. It always looked like it was angry about something. The wood was dark in a way John couldn’t explain. As if it was painted with wood varnish mixed with blood. Meredith loved it though. She thought it looked like the perfect way to fill out the downstairs front room. She felt the wood accent to the white and light blues fit the Connecticut aesthetic she was going for. The clock was noisy though and for the last 17 years it had kept John from getting a good night sleep. Every single night for 17 years.
The creaking of the house and the floorboards under the carpet had only recently started. John started hearing them a week ago, just after sealing up the house for autumn. He’d put all the storm windows in, cleaned the gutters, covered the garden plants that wouldn’t make it through a quick freeze if fall decided to thrust one on them. He was ready. The weather didn’t really cooperate though and after a few days in the high fifties, it’s been nearly eighty degrees every day. John has had to turn the air conditioner on twice just to get the humidity level down in the house. Meredith didn’t notice though. She was always cold. She’d wear a sweater on a ninety-five degree while clutching a hot cup of tea after eating a bowl of hot soup and still ask if there’s a chill. He hated that about her. Even on vacation in Cancun she was wrapped up in some ridiculous shawl or something. She wouldn’t even make love above the covers because she got too cold. John started to feel warm in bed just thinking about all the times he thought he was going to have heat stroke from making love to his wife under the covers.
He flipped the heavy comforter off and sighed. Meredith was sleeping soundly with her ear plugs in and eye mask on. John couldn’t remember when she started wearing those devices for sleep. He sat up and flipped his legs to the side of the bed and rubbed his aching knees. They’d started to hurt more these days than they used to. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ran anyplace. He grabbed his water glass from the night stand and took a sip. The house creaked. It was loud enough that John froze with the water glass up to his lips. He was in full sentry, listen mode. The creak had been loud, as if it was coming from the foot of the bed. John slowly turned his head as if moving quickly would somehow be too noisy. He seemed to think that his skin would be too loud if he moved fast.
There was nothing but the usual darkness that followed an errant house creak noise. It was just shadow, cut by thin lines of light flaring in from the street lights outside through the closed blinds. John put his water glass down and rubbed a hand through his hair. He picked at this ear and remembered that he needed to get more Q-Tips. He sighed just as another loud creak seemed to emanate from the stairs outside the bedroom. John stood up and arched his neck and head forward to hear better. He heard a second creak and a third followed by a fourth as they rippled down the stairs.
John moved to the foot of the bed and toed his slipped on. He felt along the bed frame and toward the dark bedroom door. He thought it odd that Meredith still closed their bedroom door even though the kids had moved out years ago. There was no need for such privacy and longer. It’s odd those habits people get into after so many years. John looked back toward the completely oblivious Meredith and shook his head. She never heard anything. The clock never bothered her. Then John thought that’s why she probably wore the ear plugs now.
“Did she ever suggest that to me”, wondered John.
He turned his attention back toward the bedroom door and opened it slowly. He poked his head out into the hallway and listened in the darkness. He could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in the front room. He heard the sound of the refrigerator kicking on but there was no more creaking. He relaxed and stepped out into the hall. His own footfalls didn’t make any creaking noises on the floorboards. John didn’t even notice. He decided he might as well head down to the kitchen and maybe have a snack, maybe a little milk to help him get back to sleep. He went down the dark stairs, carefully holding onto the handrail. The stairs were quiet as he descended.
John made it to the bottom of the stairs and turned toward the left, toward the den and through to the kitchen when he heard a horrendous crackling. A repeating and thundering banging as if a sack of potatoes had been thrown down the wooden cellar staircase. John turned to his right and moved through the dark house toward the cellar. He pulled open the cellar door and flicked on the stair lights. The hot white of the naked bulb blinded John for a moment. He squinted past the light into the illuminated cellar and saw nothing out of place. There was nothing on the stairs. John cursed a little. “If only that damn clock didn’t wake me up every night I wouldn’t be so paranoid,” he said.
He reached out to turn the cellar light off, still squinting at the bright bulb. He felt an ache in his knees and he suddenly got dizzy. He couldn’t reach the switch. It seemed so far away. The cellar stairs seemed to pitch and yaw in front of him and John tried to steady himself against the door frame. He started to turn away from the stairs to steady himself. He turned slightly and he felt something against his chest. His eyes cleared and he was standing in front of the grandfather clock. It was at the top of the stairs, blocking him from turning all they was around. His reflection in the clock’s glass face started him. The clock chimed the four o’clock hour and John felt the clock push him. John started to fall backwards down the cellar stairs. He bounced and slammed into each wooden step until his broken and crumpled body hit the hard cement floor of the cellar. The cellar door had closed behind him as he had fallen.
Meredith poured herself a cup of coffee and went to the kitchen table. She sat down and spread the newspaper out in front of her. Her phone rang and she answered.
“Hi sweetie,” she said, “I was thinking I’d come by after lunch if that’s okay. Yes, dear. Well, I am your mother so I can sort of do what I want. What’s that? Oh, you know, I had to get ear plugs and an eye mask. This house has just got so old and creaky ever since your father died. Of course I know it’s the anniversary dear. Yes, it’s hard to believe it’s been seventeen years. Thank you dear. Okay, I’ll talk to you when I’m on the way over. Good-bye dear."
The Grandfather clock in the front room chimed eleven.